Winnowing out the year's 10 Best films usually entails lots of soul-searching and weighing of apples against oranges among a field of 25 or 30 variously satisfying movies. I found 25 or 30 films to esteem in 2004, but somehow the best of show were never in doubt. I'm not sure what that means or why it was so; I merely mention it. Here they are:
1. MILLION DOLLAR BABY Clint Eastwood
2. SIDEWAYS Alexander Payne
Alexander Payne made my top film of 2002, About Schmidt; Clint Eastwood crafted the best of 2003, Mystic River. Although not as radically original as Schmidt, Sideways has looked like the probable-best film of 2004 for several months: a wondrously uncategorizable movie that is often funny but not strictly a comedy; that's filled with sadness without itself being sad; that forthrightly shows its two hapless, echt-Californian males doing some reprehensible things over a protracted bachelor-party road trip to wine country, yet does not set itself or us either to judge or to forgive them.
As the failed-novelist oenophile who's never got past a divorce that was final two years ago, Paul Giamatti locates the pained integrity of the nebbish-as-Don-Quixote, while Thomas Haden Church is totally, hilariously, appallingly "in the zone" like no other screen performer I can recall just now. With Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh as two good ladies these characters do not begin to deserve, they form a tone-perfect ensemble.
Yet at the 11th hour and then some, here's Clint Eastwood again to snatch the prize. Million Dollar Baby (a 2004 film that didn't hit Seattle screens till Jan. 7) is the second consecutive masterpiece by the artist formerly known as Dirty Harry. The principal location is a rundown boxing gym in a slum; there's an old trainer (Eastwood), his de facto partner (Morgan Freeman) and a 30something woman from the Ozarks (Hilary Swank) who wants to be a boxer.
In autumn 2003, I wrote my way around reviewing Mystic River; similarly, I'd prefer to say as little as possible about this movie's plot or characters or the journey they take. You will be, should be, devastated, and it's an experience to cherish.
Since seeing Million Dollar Baby, I have been haunted by the theme song of Honkytonk Man, a small, bleak, long-forgotten Depression-era fable Eastwood made 22 years ago. That movie was all heartache and honorable, unrealized intention; he wasn't ready to direct it. Now he's the most assured filmmaker in America.
3. KILL BILL Vol. 2 Quentin Tarantino
4. COLLATERAL Michael Mann
In the six months before Sideways appeared, the best film of the year looked to be the second half of a movie that began in 2003. I loved Kill Bill Vol. 1, which may have had more audacious/ecstatic high points than Kill Bill Vol. 2, but I can appreciate the point of view of those who warmed to QT's cockamamie kung-fu/samurai revenge epic only after they knew for sure that it had a heart - which is to say, among other things, when Uma Thurman's The Bride stopped killing (so many) people. Most beautiful screen moment of 2004: the camera - beckoned by a flute, and a 39-year-old melody of Ennio Morricone - tracking out the door of a Texas chapel into a black-and-white desert to discover, at long last, Bill (David Carradine in excelsis).
Which still leaves Collateral, another thriller with a killer, to claim the title as most gorgeous film of the year. Nobody sees a city at night the way Michael Mann does, and there are shimmering textures in this video-shot movie like nothing onscreen before. Its killer-at-large lacks The Bride's cue for passion - he just has a contract that calls for several people to get dead in one busy Los Angeles dusk-to-dawn, and countless others who are inescapably in the way.
Tom Cruise is always best when bad, and his laptop-toting hired gun is as bad as they come. The revelation is Jamie Foxx as the cab driver who unwillingly becomes his chauffeur, his secret sharer and his life-and-death adversary. There are also unforgettable encounters with Barry Shabaka Henley, an unrecognizable Mark Ruffalo and the unbilled Javier Bardem. The term "breathtaking" gets bandied about. Collateral is one movie it fits, again and again and again.
5. BIRTH Jonathan Glazer
6. BEFORE SUNSET Richard Linklater
7. ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND Michel Gondry
Three movies about people trying to put together the pieces of their lives, often without knowing what they were to begin with.
Birth came as a complete surprise, something far richer and more provocative than expected from its Nicole-Kidman-in-a-bathtub-with-a-little-kid-who-says-he's-her-husband tease. In his second feature outing, Jonathan (Sexy Beast) Glazer has made a rivetingly composed psychological/metaphysical mystery whose various interpretations are overlapping, mutually exclusive yet simultaneously true. Kidman's performance could be her best; character actor Danny Huston (as her adult suitor) looks more and more worthy of his exalted father; Harris Savides' cinematography evokes Velázquez. And, oh yes, the thing gets even more fascinating when you realize it's Un Chien andalou revisited at feature length.
Director Richard Linklater and costars Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke's return to the meta-whimsical love affair of their Before Sunrise (1995) sounds perilously like a three-way vanity production. Nevertheless, Before Sunset's real-time playing out of the lovers' sudden reencounter nine years later supplies a lucid and moving lexicon of how people talk themselves in circles fleeing and pursuing their deepest desires. Full props for that gorgeously fluid camera walking with the couple through Paris in the late afternoon, but really, all that's needed is to keep the shot on Julie Delpy as she sings a private song.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is another essay in whirlwind fragmentation by screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation.), but with a romantic desperation that finally has the courage of its convictions. Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet are terrific as the lovers who seek to erase their memories of each other, and almost come up empty.
8. VERA DRAKE Mike Leigh
Imelda Staunton has been cornering the best-actress citations for her doggedly miniaturist portrayal of a simpleminded charwoman who supplied unfortunate young ladies with abortions as matter-of-factly as she scrubbed floors and brought a cuppa to an ailing neighbor. The glorious truth is that there must be 20 or more faithfully drawn lives on view in Vera Drake, a Fifties drama, realized with tender particularity by the director of High Hopes, Secrets and Lies et al. To consider only one: Phil Davis as Reg, the good-hearted, pole-axed gavoon who pays court to Vera's all-but-silent daughter. Smashing.
9. I'LL SLEEP WHEN I'M DEAD Mike Hodges
Between his mossy King Arthur and the demon-driven dermatologist in Closer, Clive Owen glowed like a black diamond in this chill British gangster drama from the director of Get Carter and Croupier. I'll Sleep When I'm Dead makes reticence eloquent, looks only at what it needs to look at it and underscores absolutely nothing for our benefit, least of all why its enigmatic, lethal hero does what he does the way he does it.
10. SINCE OTAR LEFT... Julie Bertucelli
I missed a number of foreign films this year. But I'm glad I didn't miss Since Otar Left..., a comedy-drama of three generations of Georgian women that is as surprising in its unfolding as its characters are sharply limned and unpredictable. It begins with quiet auspiciousness, as Grandmother Eka (Esther Gorintin) declines to eat a slice of cake her middle-aged daughter has bought for her, then glares with hilarious resentment as the daughter eats it herself. This is a movie that is going to respect truth in character, while contemplating the mysterious ways distance and the passage of time both create and ease heartbreak.
Written for and published in Queen Anne & Magnolia News
Copyright © 2004 by Richard T. Jameson