Instead of picking a top 10 list this year, I’ve decided to simply select the films that have impressed me the most this year. So instead of 10 we have 12. Why exclude or include films just to get a neat 10? Also, a quick note for overseas readers – I’m based in the UK so the list refers to films that were released here in 2004.
Anyway, here are my top 12 films of 2004:
21 Grams (Dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2003): This raw and boldly original drama gave us three of the best performances of the year. Sean Penn, Naomi Watts and Benicio Del Toro all gave excellent turns in this drama revolving around three strangers affected by a car crash. It bore some similarities to Iñárritu’s last film (Amores Perros) with its themes of death and loss but stylistically went further with a daring and fragmented narrative.
American Splendor (Dir. Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini, 2003): In recent years comic book adaptations have dominated the multiplexes but none were like this inventive and moving film of Harvey Pekar’s “American Splendor” books. Using a range of different styles and featuring some wonderful performances Paul Giamatti as Pakar and Hope Davis as his wife Joyce this was a triumphant endorsement of the everyday over the soulless heroes offered up by mainstream films.
Bad Education (Dir. Pedro Almodóvar, 2004): Whilst not quite up to the standards of his previous film (2002’s masterful Talk To Her) Almodóvar’s latest was still a dark and brilliant achievement. It’s tale of two childhood friends reuniting up after many years contained many twists and surprises and bore more than a few nods to Alfred Hitchcock.
Before Sunset (Dir. Richard Linklater, 2004): In a year that saw big budget sequels such as Shrek 2 and Spider-Man 2 rule the box office, the award for the best has to go to Richard Linklater’s marvellous follow up to Before Sunrise. Ethan Hawke and Julie Deply are just as engaging as they were 9 years ago, whilst the use of Steadicam and long takes is so clever you hardly ever notice it.
Capturing The Friedmans (Dir. Andrew Jarecki, 2003): There can be few more powerful or demanding films released in recent memory than Andrew Jarecki’s absorbing and disturbing documentary. An examination of a family ripped apart by allegations of sex abuse, it offers a startling glimpse into the American legal system and the meltdown of a family (much of it captured on home video footage). A truly brilliant documentary as riveting as it is haunting.
Elephant (Dir. Gus Van Sant, 2003): Whilst Gus Van Sant’s recent work has veered uneasily between ill advised remakes (Psycho) and baffling esoterica (Gerry) his latest was a strong return to form. Although on paper a fictional recreation of the 1999 Columbine high school massacre might seem like an exercise in bad taste, Elephant was a chilling take on the dark underbelly of US gun culture.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004): For sheer invention and exuberance this has to be one of the most dazzling films of this or any other year. Charlie Kaufman’s surreal script saw Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet (both outstanding) as two lovers trying to get their memories erased after a painful break-up. Whilst it bore the hallmarks of Kaufman’s collaborations with Spike Jonze and his previous film with Gondry (Human Nature) this was his richest and most moving work to date.
Hero (Zhang Yimou, 2002): There is simply no question about the most visually spectacular film of the year. Zhang Yimou’s martial arts epic was a feast for the eyes and Christopher Doyle’s cinematography was breathtaking to behold. The tale of a Chinese Emperor being hunted by a group of assassins unfolded in flashback like the best work of Kurosawa whilst the visual design of many sequences was remarkable. Why on earth US distributor and co-financier Miramax were so timid about releasing this (it came out in Asia over 2 years ago) can only be guessed at as it went straight to number 1 at the US Box Office.
Infernal Affairs (Dir. Wai Keung Lau & Siu Fai Mak, 2002): Another Asian gem that took a while to reach these shores, this Hong Kong thriller was as gripping and stylish as anything Hollywood had to offer this year. Andy Lau and Tony Leung give fine turns as cops (one corrupt, the other undercover) engaged in a deadly game of cat and mouse. It will be very interesting to see how Martin Scorsese remakes this with Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon in the lead roles next year.
Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003): Perhaps the unlikely breakthrough film of the year was Sofia Coppola’s wonderfully bitter-sweet second film. Bill Murray gave a terrific performance as a lonely actor who finds an unlikely soul mate amidst the neon sprawl of Tokyo. Beautifully observed and featuring a memorable soundtrack, this was a real antidote to the vacuous emotions offered up by many recent romantic comedies.
The Barbarian Invasions (Denys Arcand, 2003): Another unlikely sequel, Denys Arcand’s follow up to his 1986 film The Decline of the American Empire, was a smart and moving reunion of the characters from that film. Centring around a history professor (Rémy Girard), his assorted friends and estranged son, it examines them as they reflect on their hopes, failures and Remy’s impending death from cancer. On paper it doesn’t sound especially exciting but it is a heartfelt and moving drama shot through with some hilarious black humour.
The Fog of War (Errol Morris, 2003): Errol Morris has long been one of the best documentary filmmakers working in America (The Thin Blue Line remains one of the finest documentaries of the 1980s) so his take on former US Secretary of Defence Robert S. McNamara was always going to be interesting. Based on a series of interviews with the 87 year old it covered his life and his role in the fire bombing of Tokyo, the Cuban missile crisis and the Vietnam War. The visuals and editing are superb and the film’s eerie relevance to current world events were a chilling reminder of how little has been learnt since the Cold War.
The Incredibles (Brad Bird, 2004): Pixar managed to continue their remarkable run of form with a witty and engaging tale of about a family of superheroes. In contrast to outings like Monsters Inc and Finding Nemo, the company finally put humans centre stage but shrewdly opted for a more stylised design than super realism. As usual the writing was better than most dramatic films this year and it was heartening to see writer/director Brad Bird given such a big film after his wonderful The Iron Giant was overlooked back in 1999.
Happy New Year.