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Best of 2004

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind


Spider-Man 2

Shaun of the Dead

Thursday, December 30, 2004
Copyright © Las Vegas Mercury

Best of 2004: Film

Spotless minds and high-flying dreamers claim year's best flicks

Jeannette Catsoulis

In film, as in politics, it's been a divisive year. While Christian groups rallied behind The Passion of the Christ and against Kinsey, devastating movies about abortion (Vera Drake), pedophilia (The Woodsman), euthanasia (Million Dollar Baby) and female circumcision (Moolaadé) slipped quietly into theaters and onto Top 10 lists across the country. Politics was also a dominant theme of the year's nonfiction films, competing for audiences with an unprecedented number of excellent music documentaries. The best of both camps--Fahrenheit 9/11 and Metallica: Some Kind of Monster--reached for and found truths greater than the sum of their facts.

So many of the year's best films have yet to open in Las Vegas that I've decided to restrict myself to those Mercury readers have had a chance to sample for themselves. They're not necessarily the most accomplished or successful examples of filmmaking, but each in its own way exhibits a humanity more potent than the psychoses of Mel Gibson or the angst of Alexander Payne--no matter how much pinot noir you consume.

1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. An intoxicating stew of surreal love story and grungy science fiction, Michael Gondry's gloriously disoriented film warns us against letting go of even the most painful memories. As Jim Carrey fights to hang on to Kate Winslet--his darling Clementine--the heart of writer Charlie Kaufman beats through every scene. Possibly the most hopeful film of the year.

2. The Aviator. Leonardo DiCaprio gets Howard Hughes--his hunger for life, his restlessness--in a way an older actor might not, effortlessly revealing the genius beneath the dementia. Masterfully juggling love affairs and plane crashes, passion and tragedy, Scorsese rediscovers his own genius to give us almost three hours of breathless, voyeuristic pleasure.

3. Kinsey. Bill Condon's sympathetic and provocative account of the infamous sex researcher is easily the most purposeful--and political--of this year's biopics. Liam Neeson plays the charismatic scientist with a riveting blend of zealotry and compassion, a man rapturously gripped by grand ideas. Quite probably the least clinical, most tender movie about sex ever made.

4. Maria Full of Grace. This unflinching look at the life of a young Colombian girl working as a drug "mule" isn't a documentary, but is based on real stories and driven by real outrage. Catalina Sandino Moreno, in her first film role, displays a quiet radiance and a gravitas far beyond her 23 years. At times difficult to watch but impossible to forget.

5. Hero and The Twilight Samurai. From opposite ends of the martial arts spectrum come two of the year's best Asian films. Hero, a ravishing fable on trust and self-sacrifice, harnesses Chinese folklore and bloodless, balletic action to tell the story of three assassins and a mysterious young warrior. In stark contrast, The Twilight Samurai is a beautiful meditation on the end of an ancient way of life, viewed through the eyes of an aging warrior to whom love and family mean more than battles and bravery.

6. Before Sunset. Nine years after Before Sunrise, Richard Linklater takes us to Paris to conclude his walking, talking love affair between Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. More sensual and more mature than its predecessor--whose mood of breathless infatuation has mellowed to a wistful nostalgia--the movie plays like a celebration of the erotic power of conversation. And Linklater has given us one of the sweetest, most perfect endings ever filmed.

7. The Story of the Weeping Camel. Paced to the rhythm of Mongolia's Gobi desert, this "narrative documentary" follows a family of camel herders in birthing season as they cope with a female's rejection of her newborn calf. Magical and emotionally wrenching, the movie beautifully illuminates the ancient bond between man and animals and our fragile stewardship of the earth itself.

8. Spider-Man 2. Sam Raimi's soulful and reverent film rises beyond its stunning graphics and flawless action sequences to tackle questions of identity and self-acceptance. As Spidey denies love to pursue a tentacled villain, Raimi subversively presents the superhero life as antithetical to the demands of American ambition, and in so doing takes the fantastic and makes it believably, achingly human.

9. Open Water and Shaun of the Dead. As different as a shark and a zombie, these two low-budget gems nevertheless share a clarity of vision and an elemental understanding of what we fear and why. Open Water's coarse, stripped-down style and inventive camerawork punch up the panic as a tensely married, scuba-diving couple are stranded in the middle of a shark-infested ocean. And Shaun of the Dead is much more than just a stunningly executed spoof. As Shaun and his friends battle the undead on the streets of London, director Edgar Wright delivers a not-so-subtle warning of what can happen if we continue to ignore the swelling ranks of the unemployed. A lovingly hilarious tribute to everyone who ever had fun with rotting flesh.

10. Vanity Fair. Indian director Mira Nair's dazzling film has an earthy, electrifying sensuality that James Ivory's genteel dramas have never achieved. Bristling with the entwined histories of Britain and India, the movie overflows with parakeets and peacocks and exuberant female flesh. As the resilient Becky Sharp, Reese Witherspoon pursues love and money with the gusto of the best bodice-ripping heroines, anchoring a movie more thoroughly alive than anything this stuffy genre has produced in years.

Anthony Del Valle

Yeah, in some ways, Top 10 lists are silly and the exact rankings are often arbitrary, but they're fun to write, so here is mine:

10. Spider Man 2. Director Sam Raimi's sequel is cleverly plotted, expertly humored and full of characterizations that make us care. Raimi reminds us you can still make highly commercial films and keep your self-respect.

9. Mean Creek. Director Jacob Aaron Estes breathes life into this familiar tale of adolescent self-discovery by his genuine understanding of young people's behavior.

8. The Incredibles. Pixar's brilliant new take on the world of superheroes finds the good guys outlawed and forced to work ordinary jobs. It's painful to watch the former Mr. Incredible Bob Parr (voiced by Craig T. Nelson) try to squeeze his muscles into a tiny insurance office cubicle. Writer/director Brad Bird goes beyond the pretty visuals and the slam-bam action to get us under the skin of a family trying hard to be something they're not.

7. Kinsey. A surprisingly thorough and exciting biography of the man who shocked America by studying the sexual habits of ordinary adults. Writer-director Bill Condon shows us the heroic and troubling sides of Alfred Kinsey, and his quest is greatly aided by the three-dimensional performance of Liam Neeson, who brings out the one-note determination in his character without ever losing sight of his self-doubt.

6. Sideways. Quirky, perceptive and strangely moving, director/co-writer Alexander Payne's tale about two men who take a road trip through California wine country while confronting the disappointments of their middle-aged lives is startlingly alive. You couldn't ask for a better disappointed middle-aged man than Paul Giamatti.

5. Zelary. Director Ondrej Trojan gives us World War II though the eyes of a small, isolated Czech village. We get occasional glimpses of Nazi atrocities peering through mundane village life, but in a gorgeous bit of irony, bloodbaths don't intrude until after the war's end, and their origins are from within the village. The film reminds us that the emotional struggles in our own back yard are often the most lethal.

4. A Very Long Engagement. Amelie director Jean-Pierre Jeunet cloaks his themes about the capacity of the heart to overcome the brutalities of war in a tale about a woman trying to track down her World War I soldier fiance. His ability to give us equally well the realities of life in the trenches and the allures of love and family make this anti-war film explode with power.

3. Bright Young Things. Writer/first-time director Stephen Fry creates a sometimes-brilliant update of those spoiled, young British slackers in-between World Wars. Fry's visceral understanding of the lure of decadence, and the people who suffer under it while smiling, dancing and drinking, makes this a great little film.

2. Red Lights. Director/co-writer Cedric Kahn's French thriller involving a quarreling married couple, a car crash, a fugitive and a series of red lights makes for an ominous tale that never lets up.

1. The Aviator. Martin Scorsese's bio of Howard Hughes may be the first film in which the director puts his talents solely in the service of his story. All the ingenious, trademark camera angles are there, as is the skillfully neurotic pacing, but this time every eccentric moment feels right. John Logan's story covers the early Hughes years, from the late 1920s to mid-'40s, but under Scorsese's hand, it's enough to give us a well-rounded portrait of this complicated man. Leonardo DiCaprio becomes here the major actor we suspected he was all along. He still comes off as a boy in man's clothing. But somehow even that seems to fit. He helps us never lose track of the vulnerable side of this ruthless tycoon.

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