It is with a double load of guilt that I present my list of top-10 films of 2004, not just because I believe that there were no real masterpieces but there were enough solid films to make two serviceable top-10 lists of equal value, but also because of egregious gaps in my movie-watching habits. Which brings us to the first category:
I'm a loser for having missed: The Passion of the Christ, The Incredibles, Team America: World Police, Closer, Hero and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. (That's why God invented Shala Carlson.)
This list is meaningless without yet having screened: A Very Long Engagement, The Aviator, Million Dollar Baby, The Sea Inside, The Assassination of Richard Nixon.
Honorable mention: Bad Education, Collateral, Fahrenheit 9/11, Garden State, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, Shrek 2, Super Size Me.
And for the real top 10:
10. Hotel Rwanda: Terry George's wrenching look at the 1994 genocide by Hutus of Tutsis and their Hutu sympathizers through the eyes of hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina resonates in the modesty of George's camera, the power of the story itself, and Don Cheadle's measured performance as a man who saved 1,200 lives by his wit, intelligence and soul. Cheadle, perhaps the most underrated actor in Hollywood, should earn an easy Oscar nod with this performance.
9. Spider-Man 2: Sam Raimi brings us a superhero as Hamlet, with the sometimes annoying Tobey Maguire delivering a believably conflicted Peter Parker and underappreciated Alfred Molina exploring the back-story of why a mad scientist becomes mad.
8. Before Sunset: A sentimental pick, I'll grant you, but Richard Linklater hit on just about every sweet, perfect note in reuniting slacker lovers Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy to help answer two 10-year-old questions ("Did they do it?" and "Are they destined for each other?"). Talky and charming all at once, Before Sunset shows Linklater's Gen-Xers looking up from their navels and ready to stare the other person squarely in the eye.
7. The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou: A comparative hiccup by Wes Anderson's standards, but still a witty, visually precocious ensemble work with Bill Murray leading the way in what is now becoming a familiar, mugging wrestling match with middle age.
6. Sideways: Funny how the further away I got from Alexander Payne's look at two aimless thirtysomethings (Paul Giamatti, Thomas Hayden Church), the less I liked it. But it remains a rare funny and adult look at searching for focus, and one of the best uses of wine as a metaphor for life without sounding pretentious. Giamatti's aspiring author must ponder Virginia Madsen's warning that some wines don't always continue improving with age; they must be enjoyed before fading. Cheers.
5. Kinsey: Pardon the pun, but Bill Condon's biopic of sex researcher Alfred Kinsey (Liam Neeson) is a delicious "screw you" to the moralists who seem to dispute the need to appreciate the natural tendencies of human sexuality, without being a polemic on the subject. Featuring Oscar-worthy turns by Neeson and Laura Linney, Condon's work also shows just complicated sex can be, whether in practice or in study.
4. Ray: The opposite of Sideways, Ray grows on you the further you get away from it, thanks to Taylor Hackford's insistence not only on authenticity from Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles but also Hackford's love of music in particular and American pop culture in general. This is also the movie that will be credited for putting New Orleans on the film-production map. Watch this movie again and look at how exuberant Charles' music, so familiar after all these years, sounds so fresh.
3. I &127; Huckabees: Dismissed by some as pretentious, David O. Russell's long-awaited follow-up to Three Kings is that rare bird, an existential slapstick comedy that honestly ponders our philosophical struggle between existentialism and nihilism. The ensemble cast, highlighted by Jason Schwartzman, Mark Wahlberg, Lilly Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman, is top-notch. At a time when we're constantly wondering what it's all about -- and when many of us are too scared to even ask -- Russell jumps in feet first without losing that silly edge.
2. Napoleon Dynamite: Consider this really a toss-up with the actual No. 1 pick, but writer-directed Jared Hess' debut is one of the most blissfully abstract comedies in recent memory. Napoleon Dynamite is one part comic-book hero and one part blaxploitation action figure, saving his Idaho high school from the ravages of Summer (Haley) so that we can all vote for Pedro, and make our wildest dreams come true. The best opening credits in awhile didn't hurt. 1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: What the hell prepared us for video director Michael Gondry to collaborate with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation) and deliver one of the most heartfelt and intelligent love stories in awhile? Kaufman's always had the brains but finally showed some heart with this script, and showed how love (and our perception of love) can become so imbedded in our souls. Just goes to show that breaking up is hard, very hard, to do, indeed.
- It's a hat trick: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, featuring Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, was the top pick of 2004 for all three of our critics.