The movies of 2004

It was a good year in theaters and an even better one in DVDs

The Saddest Music in the World

The Saddest Music in the World

Movie-wise, 2004 was not a bad year, and for film buffs of a certain stripe it may have been an unusually good one. But it was an unusual year in more ways than one, just the same—and whether that’s good or bad, happy or sad is much harder to say.

There were lots of interesting things turning up in local theaters, and once again an impressive array of films that didn’t make it into those theaters got here anyway on video, which increasingly meant “DVD” rather than “VHS.” Amid all that, however, there were a couple of noteworthy shifts of direction: There may have been lots of interesting films in the theaters, but very few of them seemed truly impressive; and on a week-by-week basis there was more to savor in the new DVD releases (of old films and new) than in the various theatrical premieres.

Indeed, it was quite possible that a person could have had a very good movie year in 2004 without ever setting foot in a movie theater.

Even more than usual this year, the films deemed prestigious and awards-worthy have been bunched for release at the end of the year. Nearly 70 percent of the Golden Globe nominations, for example, went to December releases, only a handful of which have reached Chico as of this writing—a circumstance that once again magnifies the somewhat provincial perspective our annual mid-December attempts to sum up the movie year are forced to accept.

I’m Not Scared

Putting aside awards hype and holiday marketing, however, just might increase the chances that the highlights of this moviegoer’s year, and its assorted ups and occasional downs, can also be addressed through a not entirely orthodox approach to the customary Top 10 lists at, or near, year’s end:

The passion of Melvin: The films of the year, alas, were The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11. Particularly in the case of the former, the critical discussions were more interesting than the films themselves, but both pictures were, in their very separate ways, exercises in demagoguery, with the sledgehammer crudity of the one and the devious rhetoric of the other fitting all too neatly into the brutalizing pop culture of an often brutal year.

The fog of war: David O. Russell made a special documentary for inclusion on the DVD re-release of his sardonic Gulf War movie, Three Kings. Warner Bros. backed out on including the documentary on the DVD, and when Russell bought it back for separate distribution, the studio cancelled the DVD and the re-release. Russell comments on the politics of commercial filmmaking in the age of Bush in the current issue of The Believer.

To be and to have: It was an extraordinary year for documentaries: Derrida, Capturing the Friedmans, My Voyage to Italy, How To Draw a Bunny and To Be and to Have on video and The Fog of War, The Corporation, Control Room, Festival Express, Touching the Void, Metallica and—what the heck—Fahrenheit 9/11 in the theaters.

Toons: The Incredibles, The Polar Express, The Spongebob Squarepants Movie, The Triplets of Belleville. Has there ever been a year that could match that line-up of quality animated features?

Maria Full of Grace

Jean Renoir: Restored versions of five of the old master’s best films (Rules of the Game, The Golden Coach, French Can Can, etc.) came out on Criterion Collection DVDs, and a sixth (A Day in the Country) came out in the UK’s equally impressive British Film Institute series.

Homemade: I haven’t yet seen the no-budget Tarnation, which made a hit at the Sundance Film Festival, but the feature-length home-movie version of Neil Young’s Greendale is a homely little miracle in its own right and ought to give similar kinds of hope to industrious would-be filmmakers who have the cinematic will but neither the hope nor the inclination to sell themselves to the corporate film industry.

Guy Maddin: There were books and videos of and/or by the Winnipeg experimentalist turning up all over the place in 2004. His The Saddest Music in the World just might be the most original and imaginatively inspired film of the year. It never got to Chico theaters, but the DVD is already out and its ample extras (Maddin short films and two short making-of documentaries) make it one of the best discs of the year as well.

French connections: With or without freedom fries, the French continued to serve as the single greatest source of first-rate filmmaking. The campy Bon Voyage was the only French production to make it into a Chico theater this year, but there were a good many noteworthy new arrivals on video: Safe Conduct, La Captive, The Son, Strayed, Carnages, Flower of Evil, Seaside, Chaos, La Vie Promise, Demonlover (director’s cut), To Be and to Have and Intimate Strangers, along with a couple of more-problematical items, Twentynine Palms and the treacherous Irreversible. Meanwhile film festivals yielded up new films by old New Wave masters—Rohmer’s Triple Agent, Rivette’s Story of Marie and Julien and Raul Ruiz’s That Day (Cet Jour-la)—and we can only hope it’s not too long before we get to see those films closer to home, and provocative year-end releases by Manoel de Oliveira (A Talking Picture) and Jean-Luc Godard (Notre Musique) as well.

Even limiting the choices to films that played in local theaters over the past 11-plus months, a pretty respectable Top 10 is within reach: Maria Full of Grace, Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, The Dreamers, 21 Grams, I’m Not Scared, In America, Monster, Triplets of Belleville, Story of a Weeping Camel, Birth, The Polar Express and Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring. (That’s 12 films in all, admittedly, but two of them—21 Grams and In America—are carryovers from 2003.)

The Fog of War

And the runners-up to that list have quite a bit to offer as well: Closer, Goodbye Lenin, Being Julia, Before Sunset, Coffee & Cigarettes, Ray, The Corporation, The Fog of War, Festival Express, Control Room, Girl With a Pearl Earring, Bright Young Things, Monsieur Ibrahim.

And, once again, this was another year in which you could put together a pretty substantial Top 10 just out of the impressive array of new films that got here only on video: The Saddest Music in the World, Ten, Safe Conduct, La Captive, The Son, Northfork, Dogville, Facing Windows, La Vie Promise, Chaos (France), Strayed, Crimson Gold, Greendale, My Voyage to Italy, How to Draw a Bunny, Ripley’s Game.

The flavor of this moviegoer’s year, and its assorted pleasures, might be further evoked through a few categories of the miscellaneous:

Favorite Documentaries: My Voyage to Italy, How to Draw a Bunny, Festival Express.

Second annual unofficial Thurber Award for “…fighting them with angels": Maria Full of Grace, I’m Not Scared, Chaos (French), The Saddest Music in the World, Neil Young’s Greendale (film version).

The Dreamers

Best Mexican Film: Cornfield in the Oscar Shorts compilation.

Best westerns (a favored genre that refuses to die out): Hidalgo and The Alamo. The jury is still out on the Euro-western Blueberry with Vincent Cassel (dumped straight-to-video here as The Renegade), but inside word is that the French DVD will reveal the version that got unjustly lost on the cutting room floor.

Best bootleg of the year: the six-hour double-DVD of Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World.

Best director’s commentary on DVD: Abbas Kiarostami’s feature-length Ten on Ten, an extra on the DVD for his remarkable feature Ten.

Best short films among DVD extras: Alain Resnais shorts on the European DVD for Hiroshima Mon Amour; short films by Godard, Truffaut, Rohmer, Rivette, Pialat, Resnais and Melville on the Region-3 DVD Their First Films.

The Triplets of Belleville

Stray cats on DVD: This Is the Sound: A Mother Hips Retrospective and The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus, with extras.

Hailed and neglected: Dogville, Northfork, Morvern Callar, My Life Without Me.

All you need is fun: Dodgeball, Napoleon Dynamite, Shaolin Soccer, The Spongebob Squarepants Movie, The Incredibles, Shaun of the Dead, Garden State.

My generation: Festival Express, The Dreamers, Calendar Girls and, one more time, Festival Express.

Great Moments: a solitary cross-country jaunt by bicycle in wartime in Safe Conduct; Tom Hanks’ encounter with a surveillance camera in The Terminal; Nicole Kidman’s very long, marvelously expressive close-up in Birth; a very bright little boy’s analyses of his taxi-driver mother’s character in Ten; the long take of an empty movie theater in Tsai Ming Liang’s Goodbye “Dragon Inn” (especially when viewed with a full house at the Pacific Film Archive); Cate Blanchett doing double duty in Coffee & Cigarettes; the solo “skit” and the after-the-credits wedding celebration in Napoleon Dynamite; the miraculous journey of the “lost” train ticket in The Polar Express.

The year’s best (regardless of venue): Maria Full of Grace, I’m Not Scared, The Saddest Music in the World, Ten, Goodbye “Dragon Inn, Safe Conduct, The Story of Marie and Julien.