This is part of my continuing series looking back on films from the years before I began this blog. The ten films below are unranked and listed in no particular order. Enjoy.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind - The best Michel Gondry film to date, and one of the highlights of Charlie Kaufman's screenwriting career. They take us on a journey into a man's mind and the heart of a broken relationship that is both grand scale and warmly intimate at the same time. It's also endlessly inventive, always coming up with some kind of interesting visual to represent different parts of the hero's psyche. Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey's performances, however, are vital in giving the film its emotional heft.
The Incredibles - We've been so inundated by self-aware superhero media that it's easy to forget how sharp "The Incredibles" is as a commentary on the genre, while pushing the limits of what a PIXAR movie could be. In the midst of all the fun there are some sobering moments of reality, that give it some unmistakable edge. And while it got some flak for conforming to old stereotypes, the dynamics of the Parr family felt remarkably true to life. I cared about them in a way I've never cared about any other PIXAR heroes.
Shaun of the Dead - Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost mashed a rom-com together with a zombie movie, creating the rom-zom-com. It's the best of both worlds, allowing our loser hero, Shaun, to undergo some serious soul-searching while he and his friends flee and fend off the shambling undead. And like the best zombie movies, it also takes every opportunity to satirize the state of the modern man. The supporting cast is key to this one, with a lot of great character actors gamely becoming zombie fodder.
Collateral - Michael Mann's love affair with the nocturnal Los Angeles cityscape and gun-toting psychopaths continues. He's got some great performances to work with here too - Tom Cruise in a rare villainous role, Jamie Foxx as our reluctant everyman, and Mark Ruffalo struggling to catch up to the plot. However, as with most Mann films, it's all about the style and the atmosphere and what he can get a camera to do. I don't think it's the best of his films, but it's the last one to date that I can recommend unreservedly.
Kung Fu Hustle - This was my introduction to Stephen Chow, Hong Kong martial arts star and funnyman, who has made a career out of outrageous slapstick comedies. It's a loving tribute to cinema of every stripe, including older martial arts film, Golden Age Hollywood, and even Looney Tunes cartoons. And it's absolutely hysterical, joyous fun from start to finish. I especially enjoyed seeing so many combatants who looked like the older members of my extended family, settling old grudges with over-the-top brawling.
Super Size Me - Many of the claims of this documentary have since been challenged and criticized, but the onscreen depiction of Morgan Spurlock's horribly damaging McDonalds diet speaks for itself. And in the process, he manages to start a conversation about the state of American nutrition, food marketing, and the whole fast food industry in a remarkably accessible and entertaining way. Of all the films of 2004, I suspect that this is the one that had the greatest real-world impact, changing menus across the world forever.
Mysterious Skin - An achingly sad, unsettling film about two boys who were victims of a terrible trauma, and then grew up, but never really recovered from it. Director Gregg Araki approaches a delicate topic from a stranger, more personal angle than most media on the subject. Disturbing as some of the themes are, the storytelling is sensitive, the images are mesmerizing, and the characters are impossible to forget. Joseph Gordon-Levitt dominates much of the film, in what may be his best screen performance.
Nobody Knows - Director Hirokazu Koreeda gives us a window into a special, private world created by four young siblings who have been abandoned in a Tokyo apartment. At times unbearably tense, funny, uplifting, and tragic, the film wisely focuses on the kids' resilience even as it acknowledges the unfolding tragedy. Much of its effectiveness comes from how well Koreeda is able to capture the relationships and the behavior of the children. The young actors, especially Yuya Yagira as the oldest boy, are excellent.
Millions - A very weird, but very charming children's film about family, money, crime, and religion. Danny Boyle never lets the story's dream sequences and fantasy elements get in the way of the gentle comedy and the frank discussion of real moral and social issues. It's also a nice snapshot of the time it was made, portraying the concerns of a working class British family. And while the kids are great, my favorite performance comes from James Nesbitt, as a father who slowly comes to learn exactly who his children are.
Primer - Made for next to nothing, this is one of the most impressive takes on time travel ever filmed. The timeline may be impossibly convoluted, but the narrative is perfectly clear. The visuals are sparse and utilitarian, but they convey terrific tension and dread. And it's hard to believe that Shane Carruth and David Sullivan had never acted in anything before this, considering where the story takes their characters. Grounded, intelligent science fiction films like this come along far too rarely.
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