There were 293 films released in Salt Lake City this year. I reviewed 245 of them. Of the 48 I missed, only one was a major release — “Vanity Fair,” for which I missed the press screening due to illness and never got around to watching thereafter — while the rest were arthouse/independent films.
I cite these statistics as a frame of reference, I suppose. Stephen King gave his top 10 movies in Entertainment Weekly a few weeks ago, prefaced by the disclosure that he only saw 60 of 2004’s releases anyway. This means the odds were 1 in 6 that if he saw a film, it made his top 10 list. I don’t see the point in compiling a top 10 list if you only saw 60 possible entries, but then, I don’t see the point in Stephen King writing a column for Entertainment Weekly anyway, regardless of the subject. But I digress.
I saw 245 movies that were in the running for this list. If a film you admire is not here, you need not wonder, “Well, did Eric even SEE it?” If it was a major release, and if it was not “Vanity Fair,” then yes, I did. Even if it was a minor release, I probably saw it. Heck, I reviewed 20 films that only played at Sundance and were never released at all! (They were not, therefore, eligible for the top 10 list. I have very strict rules about this sort of thing.)
As always, I have tried to find a common thread among the films on this list. What I see is that, with the exception of “The Passion of the Christ,” each of the movies here is fun. Some are serious, too, or dramatic or action-packed or whatever else. But there are noteworthy moments of levity and lightness even in the tearjerking “Million Dollar Baby,” and in the comic book melodrama “Spider-Man 2,” and in the bizarrely moody “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” The movies on this list, except for that one very somber one, recall that people go to the cinema to be entertained: uplifted, amused, thrilled, and entertained.
(Note: Sharp-eyed readers may notice that, in my initial reviews of these films, I gave some of them A’s and others A-‘s, and that some of the A- movies have been ranked higher than some of the A ones. Do not despair. The line between A and A- is very fine, and often violated. For me to give a film an A, I have to believe it’s an instant classic, being defined in my book as a film that will bear repeat viewings without losing its luster. Obviously, it’s hard to know that after seeing a film only once. If I have any doubt, I tend to give the movie an A-, to avoid giving out A’s that, upon later reflection, cause me to exclaim, “What was I THINKING?!” Now that some time has passed and I’ve been able to see many of these films a second time, and to ponder them all for many long hours while taking contemplative walks through meadows and forests, I can conclude that they all belong on the list.)
The Best Movies of 2004:
1. “Spider-Man 2” The best comic book movie ever made is also the year’s best film of any kind. Sam Raimi’s direction is masterful, combining stunning action, sly comedy, honest emotions and over-the-top comic book characters in a way that is stylized but that still feels believable. The sequence that begins with Spider-Man and Dr. Octopus fighting atop a building, follows them onto an elevated train, and ends with an unmasked Spidey being protected by the passengers is the best single scene of any movie this year. Who knew you could go from being thrilled by state-of-the-art action to crying at the humanity of the characters, all in a matter of moments? Raimi and company put a human face on the man behind the mask, and deliver a humdinger of a superhero flick in the process.
2. “Kill Bill Vol. 2” Quentin Tarantino’s second act is different in tone from the first, more focused on character than on violence. The change is remarkable and effective, providing context for the mayhem of the first movie as it expands the characters and deepens the plot. Even the revelation of the protagonist’s name is a giddy delight.
3. “The Incredibles” Here’s how brilliant Pixar is: Even when one of their products isn’t quite as funny, beautiful and enthralling as some of the previous ones, it still manages to be more funny, beautiful and enthralling than almost every other film that year.
4. “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” Nothing made me laugh harder, longer or louder than this movie. My response was the same upon my second viewing, so it wasn’t just the medication the first time. I freely admit that if you are not generally a Will Ferrell fan, you probably will not be as richly entertained by “Anchorman” as I was, though there are several very good supporting roles, too (notably Steve Carell as the semi-retarded weatherman who ate a big red candle and loves lamp). I think “Anchorman” is destined for inclusion in the annals of classic film comedies, next to “Blazing Saddles” and “Airplane!” An afternoon delight indeed.
5. “Garden State” Zach Braff’s writing and directing debut does for his generation what “The Graduate” did for a previous one. Few films have so astutely depicted the angst and cluelessness of post-college/pre-career 20-somethings, and “Garden State” does it with humor and tenderness.
6. “Super Size Me” Great documentaries are a blend of an interesting subject and a smart approach, and “Super Size Me” is a perfect 10 in both areas. Filmmaker Morgan Spurlock — who throws himself into his films in an approach similar to Michael Moore’s except Spurlock is likable and non-combative — ate McDonald’s food three meals a day for 30 days, no exceptions, and no non-McDonald’s food allowed. The results amazed even his doctors (who by week three were begging him to stop before he did permanent damage), and the facts he digs up in the meantime about American consuming habits are startling. He presents it all in an entertaining way, too, not at all like a stuffy health class lecture. All over the country, people watched this film and subsequently gave up fast food. Most of them fell off the wagon again, too, but the fact that the movie had the power to change them at all is a testament to its quality.
7. “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” By far the most creative and visually stimulating film of the year, this is also an emotionally sensitive examination of love, filtered through a bizarre premise about a company that erases parts of people’s memories and a man who is heartbroken to discover his ex-girlfriend has erased him from hers. In the end we realize that even painful memories have their purpose, and we had a wild, funny trip along the way.
8. “The Passion of the Christ” One of the few films on the list that I did not see twice, and I have little intention of re-viewing it any time soon. You heard a lot about this movie from both sides of it; you’ll even find it on some critics’ 10 Worst lists. More than any film I’ve ever seen, it is subject to so much of the viewer’s personal baggage that reviewing it is nearly impossible. All I can do is say what it did to me, which is that it horrified, uplifted and compelled me — compelled me to keep watching (even when it was difficult), compelled me to think about my own beliefs in God, compelled me to ponder the film long after I’d seen it. Oh, and the filmmaking is pretty fantastic, too.
9. “Million Dollar Baby” The height at which Clint Eastwood wears his pants in this film reminds us of his advancing age, but the man is far from slowing down, and as mentally spry as a genius half his age. “Million Dollar Baby” is a vibrant, compelling and thoroughly engaging boxing drama that bumps up against every cliche in the book without ever actually using them. Only a director with years of experience and decades of wisdom behind him would be able to walk that line so carefully, and Eastwood gives an Oscar-caliber performance to boot, as does Hilary Swank as the 32-year-old lady boxer he trains.
10. “Dawn of the Dead” and “Shaun of the Dead” I’m including these as one entry because I’m afraid I would lose what little credibility I have if I included two zombie movies on my Top 10 list. They make a nice pair of graphic, outrageously funny horror flicks, though. “Dawn” is a remake of the 1978 cult classic, and it has energy, humor and terror that the original only dreamed of. “Shaun of the Dead,” meanwhile, is a loving spoof of zombie films that is also, in its own right, a pretty good zombie film. To be scary and hilarious in one film is an impressive accomplishment, and both of these films do it well.
11. “The Saddest Music in the World”
13. “Finding Neverland”
15. “Touching the Void”
16. “Mean Girls”
17. “Napoleon Dynamite”
18. “Riding Giants”
19. “Saints and Soldiers”
20. “A Very Long Engagement”
The Worst Movies of 2004:
1. “White Chicks” I am usually tolerant of people who like movies I think are bad, because we all have different life experiences that make up our senses of humor and hence might find different things enjoyable. But I draw the line at “White Chicks.” The fact is, if you liked “White Chicks,” you are stupid and you don’t know what comedy is. Now, please do not write to me to explain why that is false, and please do not try to explain why the movie is funny, because you are wrong on both counts and your very existence upsets me.
2. “Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2” This is a true achievement. The first “Baby Geniuses” was one of the worst films of 1999, and now here’s the sequel, making the same accomplishment. The people behind these movies must be proud. Evil and incompetent, but proud.
3. “The Brown Bunny” A deconstructionist rumination on one man’s journey to find reality in his delusion? Or a pretentious, self-important pile of poo that becomes more boring the longer you watch it? You be the judge! Or better yet, take my word for it. It’s the latter.
4. “National Lampoon’s Gold Diggers” If you cobble together a movie you shot in your backyard that features crass, obvious jokes and irritating characters, National Lampoon will put its name on it. All you have to do is ask. They’re like the Make-a-Wish Foundation for untalented filmmakers.
5. “New York Minute” Watching this movie, I could just tell one of the Olsen twins would wind up in rehab for an eating disorder. OK, maybe I couldn’t tell it would happen, but I sure wanted it to. When it did, it was like an early Christmas present.
6. “Johnson Family Vacation” Either Bernie Mac or Cedric the Entertainer is in this movie. Or possibly Steve Harvey. Or possibly all three. The point is, it sucks.
7. “Surviving Christmas” Ben Affleck is determined to be the most loathed celebrity on the planet. Why would you have that as your goal? Why would you keep making bad movies, one after the other? What could possibly be the point? Why, Ben? Tell us. We want to know. (Just kidding, we don’t.)
8. “Fat Albert” This film came out Christmas Day, right at the end of the year, just in time for consideration on everyone’s “Worst of the Year” lists. Surely the Bill Cosby who was funny is spinning in his grave.
9. “Without a Paddle” Without a laugh.
10. “Christmas with the Kranks” John Grisham should stick to writing legal potboilers, and Tim Allen should stick to doing cocaine and making that grunty “manly man” noise he makes. That always cracks me up.
Movies whose titles I get mixed up: “Mean Girls” and “White Chicks”; “White Chicks” and “Two Brothers”; “Open Water” and “Mean Creek”; “Before Sunset” and “After the Sunset”; “Code 46” and “Ladder 49”; “Collateral” and “Cellular”; “Bright Young Things” and “Dirty Pretty Things”
Least enjoyable good movie: “The Passion of the Christ”
Most enjoyable bad movie: “Cellular”
Worst performance in a good movie: Julia Roberts in “Closer”
Best performance in a bad movie: Christopher Walken in “Envy”
Longest movie: “Alexander” (175 minutes)
Shortest movie: “Teacher’s Pet” (68 minutes)
Movies I at least SORTA liked that other critics (judging by RottenTomatoes.com) and audiences (judging by box office gross) did not: “Eurotrip,” “The Girl Next Door,” “King Arthur,” “Home on the Range,” “Troy,” “Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!,” “Along Came Polly,” “Little Black Book,” “I Am David,” “Soul Plane”