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Top Ten

The Year in Film

Posted 12/15/2004

Cheer up: 2004 was a good year—at least for film. While the past 12 months didn’t produce a film as universally lauded as City of God, Lost in Translation, or the Lord of the Rings trilogy, a few (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, for instance) came close. More importantly, nearly all film enthusiasts could find something to love. Various City Paper critics took solace this year in offbeat, effective romances (Eternal Sunshine); mainstream, dark teen comedies (Mean Girls); low-budget horror flicks (Saw); ineffably subtle foreign art films (Crimson Gold); animation (The Incredibles); and a separate top 10 list’s worth of documentaries. Indeed, that last genre’s ballooning begs the question: With Bush still in office, will the post-Fahrenheit 9/11 documentary boom fizzle, continue, or dip momentarily, only to recrudesce nearer the 2008 election? Regardless, the doc explosion has obscured another, less-discussed trend: The quality of both American and foreign narrative cinema has been on the rebound of late, so maybe there’s something to be said for storytelling after all. (Eric Allen Hatch)

1

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, United States) *

In just four films, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman has invented a whole new cinema genre: the metaphysical romantic comedy. You can tell it’s a genre by the way other filmmakers—most notably David O. Russell with I Huckabees—are jumping on the bandwagon. In Kaufman’s lesser efforts, Human Nature and Adaptation, there are more metaphysics than romance or comedy, but in his best work—and Eternal Sunshine is every bit as good as Being John Malkovich—the mind games are just a means to an end. In this case, that payoff comes in an examination of what we choose to remember and what we choose to forget about love affairs as painful as the one between Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet. (Geoffrey Himes)

2

Vera Drake (Mike Leigh, United kingdom)

After surprising viewers with his Gilbert and Sullivan homage Topsy-Turvy and then returning to the urban present (his usual province) with All Or Nothing, British master filmmaker Mike Leigh dipped into the more recent past for Vera Drake, a domestic drama set just after World War II. Ostensibly about abortion—the titular character, the middle-aged matron of a small, tightly knit working-class family, quietly helps neighborhood girls rid themselves of unwanted pregnancies—Leigh’s film actually has more to say about familial communication, secret-keeping, and forgiveness. To Leigh’s credit, he’s made not an issue film, but a humanist film—and an outstanding one at that. (EAH)

3

Crimson Gold (Jafar Panahi, Iran) *

Think of Crimson Gold as the Iranian Taxi Driver: Hussein (Hossain Emadeddin) is a hypnotically taciturn pizza-delivery man in Tehran who just wants to marry his friend Ali’s sister. And when Ali gives him a broken ring from a purse he found, it’s a desire inching closer to happening. But when Hussein visits a froufrou jeweler to inquire about repairing the ring, everything roiling just under his expressionless surface comes boiling out. Shot with a surgically invasive hand-held camera and told in a gut-punching flashback, Crimson Gold looks at class in Iran as if staring down the barrel of a loaded gun—and as guns in movies do, it eventually goes off. (Bret McCabe)

4

Mean Girls (Mark Waters, United States) *

Tween queen Lindsay Lohan follows up her deft turn in Freaky Friday with a way non-generic geeks vs. cliques comedy. Co-scripted and starring Saturday Night Live-er Tina Fey, its conceit of Lohan as a home-schooled misfit viewing the heartland school milieu as weird primate rite is a hoot. Its contention that adults and youth are flawed, interdependent versions of one another is truthfully sweet, while its acceptance/embrace of the weird, fab, lousy, and fine in people plays as nearly transgressive here as in the neo-’50s. And like former mere screamer Jamie Lee Curtis before her, Lohan could become America’s next top comedic actress. (Ian Grey)

5

Saw (James Wan, United States)

While the awful Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake and wrong-headed Wrong Turn demonstrated filmmakers pining to re-mine ‘70s grunge horror a la Wes Craven, James Wan’s Saw is the real deal, filtered through a post-Seven visual sense. It reminds us that films like Massacre and Last House on the Left were not fun in their day, but rather rude, raw back-shots about American pathology gone grisly visceral. In this tradition, Saw wears its themes of class war, racial/social isolation and even health-care outrage on its bloody sleeve. Like those classic forebears, it’s a film one endures as much as viewsand never forgets. (IG)

6

Control Room (Jehaine Noujaim, United States) *

Somewhat overlooked during its theatrical release, Control Room now stands out among the left-leaning political documentaries of 2004, the year in which that subgenre exploded. In discussing Arabic news network Al-Jazeera, Control Room fleshes out a beleaguered, imperfect organization nonetheless passionately dedicated to presenting different perspectives than its American counterparts. Some unforgettable footage revolves around an American military press liaison clearly wrestling with the disconnect between the optimistic picture he’s hired to paint and the grim reality engulfing him. Most gripping of all, however, is the footage of a reporter just before being gunned down—some allege intentionally—during an American attack. (EAH)

7

The Incredibles (Brad Bird, United States)

A superhero story ostensibly for kids, but with a sly adult wit at the core, The Incredibles delivers the thrills while smirking in “damn-I’m-good” delight at the bar it just raised. Mr. Incredible, Elastigirl, Violet, and Dash (looking collectively like the offspring of a Gummi Bear and a Hirshfeld caricature) are the superhero foursome and nuclear family who, after having been forced out of the superhero racket for litigious reasons, are pressed back into service to save the universe. Pixar’s visionaries, led by animation auteur Brad Bird (whose previous not-just-for-kids-movie The Iron Giant became a cult classic) operate by the creed that it’s fine and good to have scads of terabytes at your rendering disposal, but you’ve got nothing but a screen saver unless there’s an artist’s vision inside. The Incredibles picks up where Tex Avery’s elastic hallucinations left off, moving caricature into three springy, swingy, wobbly dimensions and creating a world as rich and moody as any golden era Warner Bros. cartoon—but with the snap and plasticity of digital flesh. (Violet Carberry)

8

Tarnation (Jonathan Caouette, United States) **

When Jonathan Caouette began filming himself at age 11, he had no intention of detonating a genre of American film. But that’s what he did with Tarnation, a feature-length, digitally produced autobiography that begins with that day some 20 years ago to create a celluloid self-portrait unlike any other in documentary film. Caouette’s life has been shaped by his mentally ill mother, whose rape he witnessed as a toddler, and whom he has taken into his home as an adult. But in cataloging his life, Caouette seeks no sympathy. Rather, he views his camera as a refuge, using it to chronicle at some moments and confess at others; as a result, Tarnation is less a story than a found object. But it is one of unremitting emotional clarity, offering moments so vivid that their very lucidity will clatter your nerves. (Blake de Pastino)

9

Napoleon Dynamite (Jared Hess, United States)

God bless you, Napoleon Dynamite. You are all of us, all who before channeling our obsessions into acceptable hipster outlets were once monomaniacal about mythical creatures, nunchucks, and dancing up a storm. First-time feature director Jared Hess pulls off the tricky nesting-doll task of creating a film with a detached ironic sheen and a generous, unironic heart. His Everygeek Napoleon Dynamite (made unforgettably incarnate by John Heder) pursues glory with an undeterred, near-autistic intensity and brilliantly comes out on top. A quick, deadpan wit permeates the proceedings—and how often do you see films where the accuracy of the art direction provokes as many chuckles as the script? As precious a find as an i believe in unicorns T-shirt at the Goodwill, in your size. (VC)

10

Osama (Siddiq Barmak, Afghanistan) *

An Afghan mother disguises her 12-year-old daughter as a boy so that she can work and her all-female family can move about without being hassled by the Taliban, who require all women to have a male escort in public. But when the renamed Osama (Marina Golbahari) is rounded up with the rest of the young boys to enter Taliban training, director Siddiq Barmak excruciatingly pushes you along the slow path to the inevitable. Think whatever you want about the West’s complicated current bias toward Islam to which the choir-preaching slant of Osama appeals, but if you emerge from this and don’t feel like you’ve been stabbed in the chest, please, check yourself for a pulse. (BM)

 

* available on DVD and video

** opens in Baltimore in January

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