The Top Ten
1) Before Sunset
An 80-minute slice of cinematic perfection. I’ve seen the film twice now and I’m still dazzled by the lovely script, Richard Linklater’s sure-handed direction and the terrific performances from Ethan Hawke and, especially, Julie Delpy. There’s not a single false moment in the entire picture?every conversation, every awkward pause, every sideways glance feels completely natural. If Before Sunrise captured the adrenaline rush that comes with being young and in love, Before Sunset delves into the uncertainty and self-doubt that can accompany adulthood. Jesse and Celine have aged, but in a way they haven’t really grown up since that one night in Vienna almost a decade ago. I can understand why some critics have found these two characters insufferable (I’m not entirely certain that I would want to be around them in real life), but their fears, hopes and dreams resonated with me very deeply. It’s a very simple, quiet film, yet it speaks volumes about life, the universe and everything.

2) Sideways
Speaking of simple movies, Alexander Payne’s fourth feature contains his most straightforward storyline to date: two guys travel to California’s wine country and stumble in and out of various comic situations. The secret to the film’s success lies in the performances, which add gravity and nuance to what would otherwise be a routine (though very funny) buddy comedy. Paul Giamatti finally gets the movie star role his career has been building towards and knocks it out of the park (Thomas Haden Church, Sandra Oh and Virginia Madsen are excellent as well). His Miles is a wonderful creation?a sad-sack fortysomething who is just now realizing that his dream of being a best-selling novelist is never going to come true. The film is really about him coming to terms with this fact and deciding what to do next. Sideways hit theaters with a chorus of raves (mine included), but in the past month several reviews have come out of the woodwork labeling it “overrated” and claiming that other critics only like it because they see themselves reflected in Miles. To which I say, so what? Yes, there are aspects of Miles’ personality that complement my own (although I’d like to think I’m not as perpetually depressed as he is), but that’s not the only reason the film works. Sideways has been embraced because it represents the kind of small-scale, character-driven comedy that you don’t see much anymore. For lack of a better description, it’s just a good movie.

3) Moolaad?
As much as I admire Before Sunset and Sideways, I do have to admit that neither one is likely to change the world. That’s not the case with Ousmane Sembene’s Moolaad?, which accomplishes the difficult feat of combining entertainment with a potent political message. In a small village in rural Africa, a group of young girls takes refuge with an older woman to avoid the required circumcision ritual. Their protector invokes the code of Moolad? to keep the girls safe and refuses to back down even when threatened by the rest of the tribe. Sembene paints a rich portrait of a culture in transition?as the modern world keeps creeping in, the men cling fast to tradition while the women realize that they can take charge of their own lives. The final scene of the film, when the women band together and declare an end to the circumcision ceremony, is both a wonderful movie moment and a stirring expression of personal freedom.

4) The Incredibles
To quote Comic Book Guy: “Best comic book movie…ever!” The Incredibles is a joy to watch, full of fantastic action, laugh-out-loud gags and a strong emotional center. Pixar’s first “grown-up” movie isn’t as perfectly constructed as their previous classics (I still wish that the villain Syndrome were a bit more fleshed out), but it depicts a world I could revisit again and again without growing tired of. Take note: this is what the upcoming Fantastic Four move should have looked like.

5) Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
By now, everyone agrees that screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s mind works in unique ways. What people can’t agree upon is whether his movies carry any emotional weight. I’ve always been of the opinion that Being John Malkovich and Adaptation are filled with feeling, but I think it’s still fair to call Eternal Sunshine Kaufman’s most overtly emotional film to date. As a pair of ex-lovers who can’t wait to literally forget each other, Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet are the second-most memorable screen couple of the year (after Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy). Director Michel Gondry does an excellent job leaping between fantasy and reality and devises some truly beautiful images (like the scene where the beach house where Joel first met Clementine collapses on itself). The movie also features the most hopeful ending Kaufman has written yet, a moment of tentative reconciliation after so much pain.

6) Million Dollar Baby
Clint Eastwood’s latest no-frills directorial effort is also his best in a long while, far better than the overrated Mystic River and as good, if not superior, to Unforgiven. The plot sounds ludicrous (or at least excessively clich?d) when described yet it works on the screen in large part because Eastwood doesn’t drown the narrative in excessive sentiment. Like Sideways, this is a very simple story that is expertly told and acted. I didn’t expect to be touched by this movie, but the skill with which it was made won me over completely.

7) Los Angeles Plays Itself
Now in this case, I was guaranteed to love the film going in as it combines two of my favorite obsessions: movies and the history of big cities. Thom Andersen’s terrific documentary was even better than I hoped, delving into the myriad ways Los Angeles has been depicted on film over the past century. Andersen has assembled a stellar collection of movie clips and the dry, witty narration is a pleasure to listen to. Los Angeles Plays Itself is little more than an essay on film, but I enjoyed every single minute of it.

8) Hero/House of Flying Daggers
I can’t decide which of Zhang Yimou’s wuxia epics I like more, so I’m going to cheat and go with both of them. I still think Hero is a marvelous picture, a big, bold pageant of incredible action and dazzling colors. I also feel that it’s been unfairly knocked around for its politics. Watching it again, I don’t at all agree that it endorses the Communist government in China. At the end of the movie, Jet Li is clearly delivering a challenge to the Emperor?unite the country, but make sure you take care of it. House of Flying Daggers, meanwhile, is a pure pulp adventure that features Zhang Ziyi giving her first real performance and a series of fantastic battles. Some critics have faulted Yimou for “selling out” by making two spectacles back-to-back, but these movies are directed with such care and intelligence, I honestly can’t see why they’re complaining. If only all action films were this good.

9) The Aviator
Of the numerous biopics that hit theaters last fall, Martin Scorsese’s hugely entertaining movie about Howard Hughes came out on top. Actually, this isn’t about the real Hughes as much as it is an approximation of the legendary eccentric. Scorsese and screenwriter John Logan have distilled the character to his most basic personality traits (the extreme obsessive-compulsive behavior and his love of flying) and fashioned a sweeping epic around him. It’s Hughes’ life story as the billionaire would have told it himself. Shot in three-strip Technicolor, this is the second-best looking movie of the year (after Hero) and it contains two excellent performances, the first from Leonardo DiCaprio (finally delivering on the promise he showed way back in Gilbert Grape) and the second from Cate Blanchett, who risked ridicule by playing Katherine Hepburn but pulls it off wonderfully. And while it’s almost three hours long, the movie never drags. If Scorsese finally wins the Oscar for this film, I for one won’t consider it a pity award.

10) I Heart Huckabees
It took two viewings, but David O. Russell’s weird, wacky existential comedy has me in its clutches and won’t let go. At least once a day, a line or scene from the film will pop into my mind and I’ll find myself laughing all over again. I can’t wait to buy the DVD just so I can see Mark Wahlberg curse out that old Italian woman one more time.

The Next Ten
Shaun of the Dead
Most horror comedies are neither funny nor scary, but this British rom-zom-com (romantic zombie comedy) is both hilarious and, by the bloody finale, kind of frightening. The genius of the film lies in the way co-writers Simon Pegg (who stars) and Edgar Wright (who directs) treat their source material with respect. Only people who truly loved the genre could have produced a movie that so effectively spoofs it.

Bad Education
It was a difficult choice to leave Pedro Almodovar’s darkly brilliant film noir out of the top ten, but ultimately his latest just didn’t pack the punch of Talk to Her or All About My Mother. It’s still a fantastic movie though, filled with fun plot twists and a go-for-broke performance from Gael Garc?a Bernal.

Spider-Man 2 made more money, but this was easily the best live-action comic book movie released last year. Guillermo Del Toro actually improved on the source material and Ron Perlman simply ruled as the titular crime-fighting demon. More fun than any movie with Selma Blair deserves to be.

Touching the Void
Is it a documentary or a fiction film with documentary elements? Either way, Touching the Void is a gripping film that keeps you on the edge of your seat the whole way through?even though you already know the ending.

Infernal Affairs Trilogy
I never got around to writing a full review of the Infernal Affairs movies, but one of my favorite moviegoing experiences of 2004 was seeing all three of these Hong Kong actioners back-to-back at the New York Film Festival. The first installment is a lean, mean thriller that is single-handedly responsible for lifting the HK film industry out of its doldrums. The second movie is even better, a sprawling gangland epic in the style of The Godfather set against the backdrop of the 1997 handover. The third film?which goes the psychological drama route?is very uneven, but it wraps up all the loose ends neatly enough. Apparently, Miramax has already snapped up the remake rights and enlisted Scorsese to direct the American version. It might prove interesting, but in the meantime watch the originals.

The Bourne Supremacy
Irish director Paul Greengrass enters the big leagues with his superior update to the overratred 2002 thriller, The Bourne Identity. The plot is sketchy, but Greengrass’s kinetic camerawork keeps the movie cruising along. This was the summer’s best big-budget popcorn flick.

A small comic gem from Ireland, Intermission features hilarious turns from Colin Farrell, Colm Meaney and Cillian Murphy and a twist-filled narrative that somehow makes sense in the end. Do yourself a favor and rent this underappreciated film on video.

Bright Leaves
Ross McElwee returns with his patented brand of autobiographical documentaries. This one is ostensibly about the tobacco industry, but it winds up touching on a variety of subjects, from McElwee’s tangled family history to his feelings of estrangement from his teenage son. It’s a meandering film, but McElwee’s personality keeps you hooked all they way through.

Vera Drake
Mike Leigh’s latest isn’t an easy film, but it is an essential one, depicting in stark, uncompromising detail a time and place in the not-too-distant past when abortion was still illegal. Every Supreme Court justice should be forced to watch this movie so they can see why it is so important that Roe v. Wade is never overturned.

Shane Carruth wins 2004’s Best First Film Award with this twisty sci-fi film that tells the story of two engineers who invent a device that somehow allows them to travel through time. The movie’s pretzel logic ultimately wraps back on itself one too many times, but I love the way Carruth refuses to simplify his vision for the audience. Many viewers will probably find this movie impossible to watch and I understand their frustration, but I was hooked by the film’s weird spell.

Honor Roll (in alphabetical order)
The first two-thirds of this thriller features Michael Mann working at the height of his powers. The last act is…something of a letdown. Still, it deserves a mention for the gorgeous visuals alone.

Control Room
A fascinating look at the way the Iraq War was reported from the “other” side. Of all the political documentaries released last year, this was the most subtle and successful.

The Dreamers
Bernardo Bertolucci’s ode to cinephilia is a messy, but compelling story about three young adults (and movie fans) in a society on the brink of revolution. Come for the sex scenes, stay for the rich mood and atmosphere.

Friday Night Lights
I’m generally not a big fan of sports movies, but Peter Berg got my pulse racing with this high-school football picture that also contains a none-too-positive depiction of the Texas gridiron scene.

Garden State
Zach Braff’s directorial debut contains some classic first time filmmaker blunders (the forced happy ending, some really pretentious symbolism), but this quirky comedy also had some memorable moments. Braff’s eye for composition and expert use of music hint at great things to come.

Goodbye Dragon Inn
Another movie about the movies, this one from Taiwan. It’s a largely static film, yet it possesses a real magic. It lingered in my mind for weeks after I saw it.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
The first Harry Potter adaptation that didn’t feel like a book-on-film. Too bad Alfonso Cuar?n isn’t doing Goblet of Fire.

Kill Bill, Volume 2
If only for that fabulous conversation between The Bride and Bill at the end of the picture. Quentin Tarantino still has a great ear for the way people talk and his action sequences aren’t too shabby either.

Maria Full of Grace
Joshua Marston positions himself as the next John Sayles with this extremely well-made film about a young Colombian girl who volunteers to become a drug mule. Featuring a star-making performance from Catalina Sandino Moreno.

The Sea Inside
Alejandro Amenabar’s latest film isn’t his best, but it manages to tell its melodramatic story without descending into mawkishness. Javier Bardem’s performance should not be overlooked come Oscar time.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
After a rough start, this throwback to ’30s adventure serials found its footing and turned out to be very entertaining. Not a home run certainly, but a solid double.

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter….and Spring
A lovely Korean film told in a series of five vignettes. Beautiful camerawork and an involving story.

Spider-Man 2
Sam Raimi produces a sequel that’s every bit as good?and a little bit better?than the original. I’m looking forward to the third adventure.

Super Size Me
There’s more to Morgan Spurlock’s documentary than just the central stunt. This movie is really about making us more aware of what we eat, a message we probably all should pay attention to.

The Twilight Samurai
Not to be confused with that dumb Tom Cruise flick from 2003, this terrific drama is about an actual samurai who is forced to abide by his warrior’s code, even if it means his death.

Also Worth Your Time:
Festival Express
Ghost in the Shell: Innocence
Goodbye, Lenin!
Hotel Rwanda
Mean Girls
Metallica: Some Kind of Monster
Riding Giants
Shaolin Soccer
Tae Guik Gi: The Brotherhood of War
13 Going on 30

Guilty Pleasures
This B-movie thriller is pretty dumb, but it has a light touch that keeps it entertaining even at its most preposterous.

Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story
Filled with more holes than swiss cheese, but it does deliver some major laughs.

50 First Dates
I’m still vaguely ashamed of myself for liking this romantic comedy, but there’s a real sweetness to it that won me over?even if it is an Adam Sandler movie.

Starsky and Hutch
Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson elevate every project they appear in, even this slapped together remake of the ’70s TV show.

Team America: World Police
As long as you look at it as an action movie spoof instead of a political satire, Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s puppet epic is really funny.

A Very Long Engagement
On a certain level I realize that this World War I “comedy” really doesn’t work and is actually borderline offensive. But this was a rare case where the director’s whimsy won me over despite my better judgment.

The Ten Worst Movies of 2004
1) The United States of Leland
The kind of indie film that give independent filmmaking a bad name. Writer/director Matthew Ryan Hoge should have his filmmaker’s card revoked for this deeply stupid, clich?-ridden angstfest about an obnoxious kid who winds up in prison for reasons to laborious to explain. I saw a lot of bad movies in 2004, but this was the only one that actually imagined it was “art”.

2) The Exorcist: The Beginning
One of the shoddiest films I have ever seen released by a major studio. Warner Brothers dumped Paul Scharder’s original cut and hired Renny Harlin to direct an entirely new version. Apparently, they didn’t give him any more money though because everything in this movie looked terrible, from the CGI hyenas to the blue-screened backgrounds. As for the story?wait, there was a story?

3) Agent Cody Banks 2: Destination London
Speaking of shoddy, this Spy Kids rip-off also looked like it was made for a total budget of $2.50. Even Frankie Muniz, who is not without talent, couldn’t save this terrible franchise.

4) The Stepford Wives
Paramount Pictures spent $90 million and secured a stellar ensemble for the remake of the ’70s camp classic. And believe it or not, they managed to make a movie that was even worse than the original. Another instructive lesson in how throwing money at a dubious script won’t help make it better.

5) Close Your Eyes
One of the worst horror movies I have ever seen. Not only does it not make any sense, it’s not even remotely scary.

6) She Hate Me
With this would-be sex comedy, Spike Lee has officially reached the nadir of his career. It’s so bad that it’s almost good?except that it’s not.

7) Thunderbirds
This update of the cult ’60s series was doomed the minute they decided to make it with real actors instead of puppets.

8) Suspect Zero
I’m trying to remember the exact details of this convoluted thriller, but to be honest it was so boring that it put me to sleep.

9) Catwoman/Van Helsing
These two big-budget disasters were easily the worst of the summer blockbusters (although Day After Tomorrow was pretty bad too). There’s really not much left to say about Catwoman except that Halle Berry is probably clutching her Oscar a bit tighter these days. And of Van Helsing‘s many crimes, perhaps the worst was almost ruining the career of the charismatic Hugh Jackman. Bet he’s taking those Bond rumors a little more seriously now, huh?

10) Scooby-Doo: Monsters Unleashed/Fat Albert
I managed to miss Garfield otherwise that probably would have been on here as well. Hollywood, I’m begging you?stop remaking old cartoons from my childhood.

Also Not Worth Your Time
Beyond the Sea
The Final Cut
I, Robot
King Arthur
Man on Fire
The Punisher
Shark Tale
Stage Beauty
Surviving Christmas
When Will I Be Loved

Most Overrated Films
The Door in the Floor
The Motorcycle Diaries
Napoleon Dynamite
Open Water
Shrek 2

Biggest Disappointments

Best Ending
Before Sunset: That final fade-out is just wonderful.
Runners-Up: Dogville, The Chronicles of Riddick

Best Individual Scene
Coffee and Cigarettes: Jim Jarmusch’s latest is hit-or-miss, but it contains the best single best scene I saw last year?an encounter between Alfred Molina and Steven Coogan in a Los Angeles cafe. A marvel of writing and acting, this should be studied in film schools and theater workshops everywhere.

Best Performance
Don Cheadle (Hotel Rwanda): Cheadle has always been one of my favorite actors, but this performance elevates him to a whole new level. He is the movie’s burning heart and soul.
Runners-Up (in order of preference): Imelda Staunton (Vera Drake), Javier Bardem (The Sea Inside), Kate Winslet (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), Uma Thurman (Kill Bill, Vol. 2), Jamie Foxx (Ray/Collateral), Julie Delpy (Before Sunset), Jim Carrey (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), Clint Eastwood (Million Dollar Baby), Hilary Swank (Million Dollar Baby), Craig T. Nelson (The Incredibles).

Best Supporting Performance Cate Blanchett (The Aviator/Coffee and Cigarettes): After some time away from the industry, Blanchett returned with two fantastic performances. Few other actresses would have had the guts to play Katherine Hepburn, but she made it look easy in The Aviator. And in Coffee and Cigarettes, she performed a brauva scene playing herself having lunch with a disgruntled cousin…also played by herself. Why doesn’t she have an Oscar already?
Runners-Up (in order of preference): Clive Owen (Closer), Holly Hunter (The Incredibles), Peter Sarsgaard (Garden State/Kinsey), Mark Wahlberg (I Heart Huckabees), Naomi Watts (I Heart Huckabees), Topher Grace (P.S.), Tom Cruise (Collateral), Ben Stiller (Dodgeball), James Caan (Dogville).

Movie I Might Change My Mind About Someday
The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou: I was decidedly mixed about Wes Andesrson’s latest film after my first viewing, but I have to admit that the damn thing is growing on me the more I think about it. I still don’t think it’s as good as Rushmore or The Royal Tennenbaums, but it strikes me as a picture that will get better with repeat viewings. Check back with me at the end of 2005.

And in a Category of Their Own
No two films garnered more press this year than The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11. They actually make very good companion pieces?both are ego trips from directors with strong (and annoying) personalities, both get their point across with a sledgehammer and both are also deeply, deeply flawed. Of the two, I’d watch Fahrenheit multiple times before sitting through Passion again, but it’s only a marginally better movie. In each case, the hype surrounding the movie proved far more interesting than the film itself.