Monday, January 04, 2010

Years in Review: 2004

Low Resolution celebrates the end of the Double-Ohs Decade with a year-by-year retrospective of the movies I watched and (sometimes) loved. All due apologies to Nick Davis and Nathaniel Rogers for co-opting portions of their own decade-end features. I crib with love!

[Previously: 2000; 2001; 2002; 2003]

I guess it shouldn't be so surprising that, after the crashing disappointments of 2003, 2004 would be a rebound year. But more than just that, 2004 proved to be one of the richest years in this, or any, decade in terms of quality film output. In almost every conceivable genre, there were fresh and thrilling movies that represented artists at the peak of their creativity. From summer action blockbusters (The Bourne Supremacy; Spider-Man 2) to animation (The Incredibles) to mainstream comedy (Mean Girls) to indie comedy (I Heart Huckabees) to documentary (Tarnation; Super-Size Me) to horror (Dawn of the Dead) to sci-fi (Primer), the year embarked upon a startling hot streak. Even if you consider Clint Eastwood Oscar Grab a genre, you got his best work of the decade in Million Dollar Baby.

I've actually gone and sought out backup on my glowing opinion of the 2004 film year because I was worried my good mood at the time was coloring my point of view. At the very beginning of '04, I had just quit a job I really hated and returned to an old one. Say what you will about regressing, but it did wonders for my state of mind, and it seemed the universe decided synergy was a good thing since all the movies I started seeing soon thereafter turned out to be winners.

As is sadly the case when movie years are this strong, the Oscar nominations turned out to be depressingly pedestrian. Aviator v. Million Dollar Baby (and thus Scorsese v. Eastwood) was a fine angle for the horse race, but while I liked both movies, as the centerpiece of a raging debate over the best of such a strong year, it feels more like a letdown every time I think back on it. The less said about Finding Neverland the better; and among a better field of nominees, Ray would have simply been an understandable middlebrow entry rather than, like, Part of the Problem.

Click below for the best movies of 2004...

Weirdest to recall was the tempest in a teapot that was the awards-season run of Sideways. Looking back, you'd figure it was just repping for the indies. You forget what a crushing juggernaut it seemed like as it swept through all the critical awards, to the exclusion of pretty much all the other really exciting product that year (the Eternal Sunshine contingent certainly took a hit). And then came this unexpectedly fierce backlash that went like this: "The only reason critics liked Sideways so much is because it was about a depressed, shlubby wine snob who scores a hot woman, and film critics are all depressed, shlubby film snobs who can only dream of fucking Virginia Madsen, so they saw it as an aspirational fairy tale." No, seriously. This is why people hate the Oscar season.

On a personal note, this was the year I got on the Netflix wagon. It ranks up with moving to New York for developments that most helped enable my movie obsession.

The Year in Matt Damon: Another big year for Matt, as The Bourne Supremacy launched the series higher as both a commercial and critically-admired property. This was the year he went A-List again. Meanwhile, Ocean's Twelve was a dismal attempt to harness the freewheeling magic of the first movie and then shove it into the body of a French film, but Damon was unquestionably the film's standout performer. Also, and this is probably just me, but I was thoroughly tickled by his out-of-nowhere cameo in the otherwise useless Eurotrip. Another sign of the self-aware sense of humor that served him so well all decade.

The Year in Tilda Swinton: Zero appearances in 2004 films. Let's all imagine she spent those twelve months in suspended animation or some other kind of sensory deprivation apparatus. And I'll take this opportunity, then, to discuss...

The Year in Brevity: It's probably due to the "rising tide lifts all ships" effect, but '04 was a banner year for tiny, tiny performances on film. The aforementioned Matt Damon cameo in Eurotrip may have been just for me, but I can't imagine anyone who saw I Heart Huckabees and didn't flip for Richard Jenkins and Jean Smart in that screamer of a dinner-table scene. (Jean also delivered great, brief work in Garden State.) Neil Patrick Harris pretty much established the current incarnation of his career (the non-Broadway parts, at least) with a brilliantly over-the-top parody of himself (or, "himself") in Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle. Speaking of affably dumb mainstream comedies, Jason Bateman was the best thing in Dodgeball for all his six minutes of screen time. Lynn Redgrave won raves for her single scene in Kinsey, and rounding out this whiplash through high and lowbrow cinema, Amy Poehler and Tina Fey presaged their dominance of the rest of the decade with their bit parts in Mean Girls.

Best Theater Experience:On the bright side were two sides of one delightful coin: I doubt I laughed harder at a movie all year than Anchorman, and I still get a charge out of being in a backed theater with everybody cracking up. And then there was I Heart Huckabees, where I sat in the middle of an almost-empty matinee screening, howling with laughter , completely alone in my inability to control myself. Sorry, random old ladies who were trying to enjoy a genteel afternoon.
[Runner-Up: I don't know why I relish these kinds of experiences, but feeling a whole room turn on an opening-weekend screening of The Village was pretty cool. One of those movies where the credits rolled and the first sound was someone yelping "What the FUCK was that??" That person may or may not have been me.]

My Top 10
1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
2. Closer
3. I Heart Huckabees
4. Sideways
5. Kill Bill, Vol. 2
6. The Aviator
7. Bad Education
8. Mean Girls
9. The Door in the Floor
10. Maria, Full of Grace

I probably end up jostling this list much more than the other ones, because with so many great movies, it gets really tough to prioritize. But those top three movies haven't budged. I'm happy that Huckabees found a loyal cult audience, but part of me is still disappointed that it gets misrepresented as being confusing or impenetrable or smug. It's none of those things, truly. Closer has its detractors too, but I found every scene to be absolutely crackling, and in particular the Clive Owen and Natalie Portman face-off is thrilling in how far they're taking it. As for Eternal Sunshine, stay tuned for my favorite movies of the '00s feature for plenty more on how much I love that absolute treasure of a movie.

Best Director:
Michel Gondry – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Mike Nichols – Closer
David O. Russell - I Heart Huckabees
Quentin Tarantino – Kill Bill, Vol. 2
Zhang Yimou – Hero

Best Actor:
Gael Garcia Bernal – Bad Education
Jeff Bridges – The Door in the Floor
Jim Carrey – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Billy Crudup – Stage Beauty
Paul Giamatti – Sideways

Best Actress:
Nicole Kidman - Dogville
Catalina Sandino Moreno – Maria, Full of Grace
Imelda Staunton – Vera Drake
Uma Thurman – Kill Bill, Vol. 2
Kate Winslet – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Best Supporting Actor:
David Carradine – Kill Bill, Vol. 2
Thomas Haden Church – Sideways
Jude Law - I Heart Huckabees
Clive Owen – Closer
Mark Wahlberg - I Heart Huckabees

Best Supporting Actress:
Cate Blanchett – The Aviator
Laura Dern – We Don’t Live Here Anymore
Daryl Hannah – Kill Bill, Vol. 2
Virginia Madsen – Sideways
Natalie Portman – Closer / Garden State

Ten Films That Have Endured (outside my Top 10)
Dawn of the Dead
Shaun of the Dead
The Life Aquatic
The Bourne Supremacy
Million Dollar Baby
Enduring Love

Seriously, how can you not love this crop of movies? Even something like The Life Aquatic, which has plenty of problems, is still delightful to look at, and Bill Murray's performance always shows me something new. Saved! and Undertow are similarly flawed movies that have so much to recommend them that it hardly seems worth dwelling. Shaun became the defining horror comedy of the decade, and in a more inclusive film climate, a movie like Primer would've spawned a trend of its own. My personal favorite on this list, and my strongest recommendation, is Tarnation, a documentary that's as much about Jonathan Caouette documenting his mother's struggle with mental illness as it is about documenting Jonathan himself. I suppose your patience for this kind of self-examination may vary, but even when my tolerance for Jonathan waned, his story remained compelling.

Five Films I Should See Again
The Ladykillers
13 Going on 30
House of Flying Daggers

The universal panning that The Ladykillers took makes me question how I pretty much laughed the whole way through it. I'd also like to see if 13 Going on 30 was as charming as I recall or if it just cleared some very low expectations. The rest of this list is full of acclaimed movies I never quite took to. I don't exactly expect to like Collateral much more, but the digital photography does merit a second look. As for Flying Daggers, I can see where less drowsy viewing conditions might enhance the viewing experience some. And then there's Birth, the movie I've felt most hectored about not loving this whole decade. Will I be peer-pressured into warming up to this icicle? Let's see...



NicksFlickPicks said...

Rest assured that you are totally, totally right about 13 Going on 30. And I'm not just saying that to butter you up re: Birth.

Rinaldo said...

I started following this blog only recently, but I recall the enthusiasm for I Heart Huckabees coming up before -- so much so, in fact, that I rented it to check it out for myself. And it did nothing for me. Which is fine, different strokes and all that, happens all the time. But I'm wondering if there's a post from early in the blog's history where you go into detail about the film and why it means so much to you. I'd like to understand better.

Joe Reid said...

Rinaldo, I couldn't find anything here (Huckabees predates the blog by a smidge), but you'll get something when I finally get to my favorite movies of the decade feature. (Soon, I hope!)