Cripes! What a difference a year makes! In 2003, I could barely scrape together 10 worthy flicks to celebrate...and now, one short annum later, I'm barely scratching the surface of the impressive movie year that was 2004. There were a lot of diverse, well-made films and a galaxy of top-10 variations for a change (including at least a top-10's worth of movies I wanted to see and just never had time for)...but the following list is based on emotional response: the movies I'll remember, the ones that hit me where I lived, the ones that reminded me why I put up with all the rest of Hollywood's crap.
And speaking of crap, history teaches that a great movie year is usually followed by a big pile of stink...so until then, cue the nostalgic year-end wrap-up music ("Mr. Blue Sky" by E.L.O. comes to mind) and let the listing begin!
1. THE INCREDIBLES
A kid's movie by people who actually seem to like movies and kids, The Incredibles was also a nice reminder to adults (especially the aging hipsters among us) that growing up doesn't necessarily mean hanging up the tights (so to speak). Packed with memorable characters, stunning visuals, killer dialogue, better action than nearly all the big summer "action" films, great in-jokes for the geeks (my favorite being the Jedi forest chase gag) and a sweet gig for Sarah Vowell, this is the kind of big-hearted pop culture gizmo that reminds us purple-staters what people used to like about America.
ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND
Charlie Kaufman may not be your cup of fur, and sometimes he definitely gets a little too obscure and convoluted for his own good, but when he's firing on all cylinders, the results can be as fascinating, unique and heartfelt as this surrealistic Mobius strip of memory, longing and regret starring Jim Carrey (channeling Nate Fisher) and Kate Winslet (in her best role since Heavenly Creatures). Not only are the visuals and plot structure fresh and imaginative, but Eternal Sunshine actually manages to find new things to say about the old familiar subject of love (and new ways to say them), leaving an indelible impression long after most romantic comedies fade from memory.
COFFEE AND CIGARETTES
This movie was a visceral reminder of the pre-Miramax days when "independent film" meant iconoclastic, underground, genre-busting stuff like Repo Man, Blue Velvet or Down By Law (rather than just low-budget versions of mainstream Hollywood product). Jim Jarmusch's years-in-the-making feature (really a series of absurdist, existential short subjects pairing a variety of cynics and cock-eyed optimists with the eponymous vices) is uneven and frivolous...but those are its strengths as well, celebrating as it does the ephemeral nature of life, the deeper meaning of meaningless moments, the ways we kill time and the way time fights back.
By contrast, Sideways is more of a new-style indie, the kind of bittersweet shaggy-dog adult fare that Hollywood has pretty much relegated to their art house divisions. Has-been actor Thomas Haden Church plays a has-been, womanizing actor on the verge of matrimony who goes on a wine-tasting, skirt-chasing, soul-searching vacation to Northern California with his schlumpy best friend, played by uber-schlump Paul Giamatti (in another flawless performance). Alexander Payne, the current poet laureate of middle-aged miasma (and startling nudity), creates a sweet, funny love story with just enough darkness to save it from sentimentality.
I'm a sucka for movies about (1) a band of misfits coming together in the name of a common goal, (2) Hollywood weasels and/or anyone crazy enough to buck the system and make their own film, (3) the sixties and seventies social revolution in general and (4) gettin' the man's foot outta your ass. Baadasssss! (a.k.a. How To Get the Man's Foot Outta Your Ass) delivers on all counts with Mario Van Peebles' biopic of father Melvin's great labor of love, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (the black answer to Easy Rider and a frequently overlooked milestone of independent cinema).
Another exclamation point in the title, another disappointingly low box office tally and a LOT less melatonin, Saved! tells the remarkably charming story of a bunch of very nice young people at a Christian fundamentalist high school trying to be as moral and decent as possible while grappling with questions of faith and the harsh realities of life. Naturally, Christian fundamentalists hated it, but the cast is the most charming bunch of adolescents this side of Freaks and Geeks (including a great comedic performance by Mandy Moore, of all people) and the story is both highly respectful of religious belief and hilariously perceptive about the frequent disconnect between piety and common decency.
Forget Denzel Washington racing the clock to prevent a presidential assassination in The Manchurian Candidate. For my money, the most suspenseful movie this year was Before Sunset, Richard Linklater's continuation of the unfinished, barely consummated love affair between Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy that began with 1995's Before Sunrise. In that movie, a visiting American spends one devastatingly romantic night with a beautiful French woman before returning home. Now, almost a decade later, the question that haunts the movie is...will they get back together, despite the complications of their adult lives (marriage, children, etc.)? The wordplay is fast, furious and uncomfortably close to the bone, the locations are beautiful, and the last two lines of dialogue amount to one of the all-time perfect movie moments.
SHAUN OF THE DEAD
And speaking of perfect final scenes...the best (and...well...only) zom-rom-com (i.e., zombie romantic comedy) of the year, Shaun of the Dead is at once smart horror parody and perceptive social satire. Yet, despite the raunchy, grisly humor, this cleverly scripted, well-acted movie takes its plot and characters seriously enough to provide some good scares, along with a few surprisingly genuine moments of emotion (plus, it's nice to see that cute blonde from The Office kicking zombie ass).
MAYOR OF THE SUNSET STRIP
Rodney Bingenheimer (a.k.a. Rodney on the Rock) is a strange, toad-like L.A. scenester who discovered and/or partied with most of the major pop culture figures of the past 40 years. But, as this fascinating, unnerving documentary reveals, he's also a painfully shy and lonely man just barely hanging onto an apartment stuffed with show biz memorabilia and a crappy graveyard shift at corporate "alternative" bastion KROQ. Packed with celebrity cameos, Mayor of The Sunset Strip is a fast-paced history of the Hollywood music scene, an intriguing character study and a poignant cautionary tale about the power and perils of fame.
I HEART HUCKABEES
So, as much as I love Wes Anderson (and The Royal Tennenbaums in particular) I'm afraid this year's peculiar indie auteur stoner movie award, junior division (see #3 for the senior varsity) goes to David O. Russell's philosophical gabfest, hands down. While The Life Aquatic (which I expected to finish Top 10 until I saw it just now) seems eccentric for the sake of eccentricity, I Heart Huckabees is weird and wordy in part because the subject of the movie is nothing less than the meaning (or meaninglessness) of life (or possibly both). Uneven and goofy (kind of a theme for 2004), this story of rival existential and nihilist detectives helping an inept environmentalist and a morose fireman is nevertheless one of the most interesting and original films of the year.
SECOND OPINIONS: Amy, Senator Von Doviak & Other Top 10 Lists
CARDS (potentially worthy movies unseen by moi in 2004):
Ocean's Twelve, Spanglish, House of Flying Daggers, The Aviator, Bright Leaves, Team America: World Police, Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle
HONORABLE MENTION: Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, Overnight, Dawn of the Dead, I'm Not Scared, Kill Bill Vol. 2, SuperSize Me, Mean Girls, Fahrenheit 9/11, I Robot, Anchorman, Garden State and Jack Lemmon & Shirley Maclaine in The Apartment, which I finally got around to seeing this year. I love you, Ms. Kubelik!
COMEDY PHRASE OF THE YEAR: "I am quiet and yet...ah...ah...NOT quiet..."
NOTABLE MOMENTS/PERFORMANCES: My favorite Tom Hanks performance of all time in the otherwise lackluster Ladykillers, a blistering Laura Dern in We Don't Live Here Anymore, most of the celebrity cameos in Coffee and Cigarettes, the Portuguese Bowie enthusiast and the raid on the old hotel sequence in The Life Aquatic, the Garden State mood and soundtrack, Jamie Foxx in Ray, Clive Owen in Closer, Angelina Jolie in Sky Captain, the Sweeney Todd sequence in Jersey Girl, the movies The Village and The Life Aquatic COULD have been, any random 20 minutes of A Dirty Shame.
BETTER THAN IT HAD TO BE: JERSEY GIRL
Ben & J. Lo and a cute little waif...egad! But you know what? It was actually kind of sweet. Affleck turns the smarm down a few notches and delivers a winning, genuine performance as a depressed, widowed father attempting to raise a daughter in his New Jersey home (and Kevin Smith's version of the typical baby movie "diaper" scene is more of a jaw-dropping shocker than any gross-out in Dawn of the Dead or the last half dozen Farrelly Brothers comedies).
MOST DISAPPOINTING: THE LIFE AQUATIC
If you're a Wes Anderson fan (and I am), you spend a lot of time defending his movies against critics who deride them as meandering, pointless, detached, self-consciously eccentric and condescending to their characters. Well, this time the critics are right. I'm guessing a lot of primo doobage was consumed and a bitchen time was had by cast and crew alike during production...but now, seriously, guys...back to work.
MOST OVERRATED: HARRY POTTER & THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN
yes, Alfonso Cuarón is a REAL director and he's all dark
and edgy and Latino and we all LOVED Y tu mamá también
(well, except me, because I still haven't quite gotten around to seeing
it yet)...but, c'mon, guys. It's a frickin' Harry Potter movie, and
not even a particularly good one, and all Harry Potter movies fall apart
in the third act anyway (even if you ARE dark and edgy and Latino).
WORST MOVIE I SAW: SPARTAN
Whenever I spend any length of time in the Lone Star State with esteemed movie critic, Scott Von Doviak, I usually wind up tagging along to free screenings of some of the worst crap Hollywood can scrape from the bottom of its bottomless barrel. This year, however, I didn't attend a single critic's screening and thus missed a lot of the crappiest crap of 2004...which means I actually had to PAY to see Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (it was a sequel, nothing else was playing, I knew what I was in for, but still...) and Spartan. I can't possibly imagine what the usually entertaining (or at least interesting) David Mamet thought he was doing with this pretentious, humorless, predictable mess of "hard-boiled" cliches from Tom Clancy's reject pile (and that's a pretty stinky pile)...but I sure hope he's gotten it out of his system, whatever it was.
WORST MOVIE I DIDN'T SEE: THE PASSION
Okay, seriously...what's the deal with "Christians" and gruesome, sadistic violence? I'm not the most religious guy in the world, but somehow I don't think watching pornographic close ups of bloody lacerations is what Jesus had in mind when he said all that stuff about love, forgiveness, charity and peace. And telling everyone in your congregation (including children) to go watch a graphic, R-rated, allegedly anti-semitic Mel Gibson movie or risk God's displeasure is just gross. Moral values my ass.
It's not TV...it's not even HBO anymore, unless the low-rated show gets renewed. But whatever the future holds, the three seasons of The Wire to date serve as a near perfect eulogy for the American empire. Even the best of televised drama can barely compete with the epic sweep of this show about drug dealers, the cops who chase them and the politicians who profit from the carnage of their endless, hopeless, pointless war: more suspense, action, moral ambiguity and operatic plotting than recent seasons of The Sopranos, smarter dialogue and more realpolitik complexity than The West Wing in its heydey and more gallows humor, memorable characters and steamy sex than Six Feet Under, this is one of the all-time greats...but trust me, you're gonna wanna start from the beginning.
2. SURVIVOR: You're either on the Survivor bus or you're not, but for me, Survivor: All-Stars was television crack at its finest (and even a weak season like Survivor: Vanuatu was still better and more addictive than just about anything else on the dial).
3. SEX IN THE CITY: This was always the show I had to sit through while waiting for something else to come on, but by the last season, Carrie and the gang had totally won me over, and I'm sorry to see them go.
4. CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM: Never a bad episode, always makes me laugh, even if I'm having a Larry David kind of day.
5. DEADWOOD: This is a show with a weird, foul-mouthed rhythm all its own and some of the most distinctive, original characters in any medium.
6. SIX FEET UNDER: It's getting a bit long in the tooth, but still one of the most enjoyable hours on t.v. (and the whole "That's My Dog" episode was a truly shocking, gripping pop culture curveball).
7. DINNER FOR FIVE: When it's good, it's a funny, off-the-cuff, behind-the-scenes look at the American filmmaking scene. When it's great, you get weird show biz curveballs like Dom Deluise sitting on Charles Nelson Reilly's lap like a big bearded ventriloquist's dummy. And when it's bad, it's probably because Jon Favreau made the mistake of inviting Andy Dick or Marilyn Manson to dinner.
8. THE DAILY SHOW: A staple. You certainly don't need me to tell you about the fine work Mr. Stewart is doing. Viva la revolucion!
9. SIGNIFICANT OTHERS: A funny show about relationships that was wittier and smarter about messing with sitcom dynamics than certain other slightly overrated critics' darlings I could mention.
10. COLONIAL HOUSE: The PBS version of Survivor...what's not to love?
(Oh, and was The Office Christmas Special released this year? Man, that freakin' RULED!)
MOST DISAPPOINTING: THE SOPRANOS
Sure, it's still compulsively watchable and better than most everything on t.v. and yadda-badda-bing, but I just didn't buy Steve Buscemi's central character arc this season, Adriana's fate was a foregone conclusion that dragged on way too long and the whole show feels like it's spinning in circles and repeating itself now. With the end in sight, I hope at least one character on the show will be able to go somewhere new and surprise us in the final season.
T.V. I SAW: Yeesh...don't get me started.
HICK FLICKS, THE RISE AND FALL OF REDNECK CINEMA by Scott Von Doviak: Great concept, hilarious writing, buy it now!
THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHTTIME by Mark Haddon: Everyone I know who read this tale of an autistic teen detective tore through it in a matter of days (or hours) because they just couldn't put it down. Compulsively readable.
COMANCHE MOON by Larry McMurtry: The second book in the Lonesome Dove tetralogy, but the last one I read, and a fitting send-off to Captain Call and friends. I just wish there were a dozen more books in the series.
DOWN AND DIRTY PICTURES by Peter Biskind: A depressing, engrossing chronicle of the recent history of independent film, with lots of nasty stories about Harvey Weinstein.
A READER'S MANIFESTO by B. R. Myers: Who knew literary criticism could be so much fun? A damn-the-torpedos attack on pretentious writing that I wish I'd had on hand back in my undergrad days.
SCREENING PARTY by Dennis Hensley: Like hanging out and watching movies with your funniest friends (and Kathy Griffin!), and what could be more rockin' than that?
Not a big theater year here at the Bait Shop, but Urinetown: The Musical was a gas and ASSSSCAT 3000, the Upright Citizens Brigade's freestyle improv night starring Amy Poehler, Seth Meyers and Horatio Sanz, among others, was twice as funny as an average night of SNL.
2004 theme song: "Mr. Blue Sky" by ELO.
Lyric of the year: "Our friends say it's darkest before the sun rises/We're pretty sure they're all wrong...I am drowning, there is no sign of land/You are coming down with me/Hand in unlovable hand..." (The most excellent "No Children" by The Mountain Goats)
Annoyingly catchy song of the year: "Let's Get It Started" by the Black-Eyed Peas.
Albums of the year: Real Gone (Tom Waits) and Van Lear Rose (Loretta Lynn)
AMY'S 2004 TOP 10
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Vera Drake (I haven't seen it yet, but I bet it's good)
America: The Book. A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction - Jon Stewart and the writers of The Daily Show
Magical Thinking: True Stories - Augusten Burroughs
Another Bullshit Night in Suck City: A Memoir - Nick Flynn
Alias Grace - Margaret Atwood (I know, it came out in 1997, but I read it THIS year)
My Life -Bill Clinton (I haven't read it all but I will. oh, you just wait and see....)
Bjork - Medulla
Tom Waits - Real Gone
Loretta Lynn - Van Lear Rose
Garden State Soundtrack
Elliot Smith - From a Basement on the Hill
The Daily Show
Ultimate Makeover: Home Edition
Outstanding Peeps of 2004:
Oprah (say what you will, I don't care, I love the gal...)
Paul Giamatti (he's an entertainer, but an outstanding one)
Wlliam Spitzer (Environmental warrior)
Paris Hilton (that bitch be talentless, overexposed and needs to eat a friggin' hoagie!)
William Donahue (President of Catholic League)
Restaurant: Tu Y Yo/Evoo
Bar: Zuzu/Thirsty Scholar (kickin' jukebox)
Clothing Store: Second Time around
Music: CD Spins
Used Books: Brattle Bookstore
Movie Theatre: Coolidge Corner/Somerville Theatre
Okay, NO MORE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!