The Passion of the Movies

The year in film 2004

The film year started off with a biblical smash to the puss, followed by a political shot to the nards. Mel Gibson wielded a giant Bible, assumed a William Wallace battle stance and swung away with the ferocity of a man who loves his god … perhaps a little too much. The Holy Scripture made cranial contact, ratcheted heads 180 degrees and rendered viewers either appalled or enraptured after their melons snapped back into place.

I’m one of the people, despite not being particularly religious, who applauds Gibson’s insane bravery and undeniable artistry, while others feel as though Sgt. Riggs violated their ass. Truth be told, The Passion of the Christ was one of the more disturbing film experiences of recent years, but it also proved that something can be beautiful and disturbing at the same time.

I liked it, but The Passion didn’t make me feel too good. Neither did other megahits like Michael Moore’s sometimes semi-admirable Fahrenheit 9/11, which left me feeling all disenchanted and alone inside. OK movie, just not my idea of a good time. It was often like spending a night at the pub with a political extremist spouting off in your face through a mouth of pretzels.

At around the seven-month mark of this past year, I submitted a list of the year’s best films to that point, and The Passion topped that list. As you are about to see, Jesus, while posting a respectable finish, didn’t win the race in the end. Some tremendous film work occurred in the last couple of months, good enough to pass the Almighty and perch atop the year’s best list.

1. The Aviator: Here’s a big, fat Hollywood movie with one of the year’s best performances at its core. Leonardo DiCaprio (I say this with much sincerity: I am sick and tired of Leo bashing!) astounds as Howard Hughes, aviating pioneer and enemy to dirty doorknobs everywhere. This is director Martin Scorsese’s best work since Goodfellas, and he’s definitely a frontrunner for the Oscar.

2. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou: Bill Murray is quintessential Bill as a disillusioned oceanographer hunting the shark that killed his friend. Lots of strange sea creatures, pirate attacks, a wonderfully nuts Willem Dafoe, and cinema’s best-ever use of David Bowie amount to yet another great film from Wes Anderson.

3. The Incredibles: There’s no better way to explain it other than this movie just made me really, really happy. Director Brad Bird has quickly established himself as a master of the animated medium, be it old school (his already classic Iron Giant) or this CGI gem. Watching Mr. Incredible (voiced by Craig T. Nelson) battle the evil Syndrome (Kevin Smith fave Jason Lee) was pure fun.

4. Shaun of the Dead: I love zombie movies, British humor and incredible performances. This strange combo of George Romero and The Young Ones is an A-plus example of all of these things and often super gross to boot. When a character is torn apart by zombies while being pulled through a tavern window, it’s a thing of beauty. I want a postcard of that.

5. The Passion of the Christ: A nice Christian bloodletting to get the year started on a particularly frightening note. Jesus bleeding profusely has never looked this good, and the actor playing him (James Caviezel) screams with the best of them. Seriously, his screams are right up there with Fay Wray’s in King Kong and Janet Leigh’s shower demise in Psycho. Yes, this film made me cry. It made me cry for Jesus, for Buddha, for Jim Jones, for Willem Dafoe (who was surpassed on the Killer Jesus Performance list) and especially for Mel Gibson, who has serious Daddy issues.

6. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: Jim Carrey will probably get snubbed by Oscar again, even though this is his most powerful, best modulated performance. As a busted-up guy trying to have Kate Winslet erased from his brain, his pain is apparent. His pain is also justified, because Winslet is astonishing in this film. Her performance legitimizes her stake as an industry best.

7. Team America: Hey, how about an Art Direction Oscar for this movie? Did anybody really notice how terrific the sets and puppets were in this one? Probably not, because they were too busy laughing their asses off at Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s good-natured (well, actually pretty nasty) jab at American pride and arrogant actors. Academy, please nominate “I’m So Ronery” for year’s best song. I must see the Kim Jong Il puppet on stage crooning for the likes of Sean Penn, Alec Baldwin and Tim Robbins, the very people this film mocked. That would be the most surreal thing ever on American television.

8. The Sea Inside: Javier Bardem is heartbreaking as real-life fisherman Ramón Sampedro, who fought a long battle to legally take his own life after a diving accident left him paralyzed from the waist down. Director Alejandro Amenábar (The Others) has fashioned a film of great sorrow, rapturous joy and just about every other emotion that can be found in between.

9. Finding Neverland: Little Freddie Highmore, as author J. M. Barrie’s inspiration for Peter Pan, delivers a performance that should garner him an Oscar nomination. His rapport with Johnny Depp (as Barrie) is priceless, and their final scene on a park bench is an eye flooder. Highmore, Depp and Kate Winslet all deserve recognition for this one.

10. The Ladykillers: And this year’s “Why do I seem to be the only one who likes this?” award goes to the Coen brothers’ latest, a film in which Tom Hanks delivers his funniest performance to date. Funnier than his guest stint as a karate nut on Happy Days. Funnier than his “Sonny, Sonny, Sonny …” routine on Bosom Buddies. Hell, it’s even funnier than the orgasm face he made in Forrest Gump.

That’s the Top 10, but doing 10 is just too predictable and lazy. Make way, for this sucker is a Top 20.

11. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: The first Harry Potter left me feeling empty, sad and deflated after all the hype. True, I have never read the books, but deep down I just thought things could be a whole lot better. The second showed major promise and a creeping darkness trying to take over the franchise. With semi-shallow director Chris Columbus off the command deck, Alfonso Cuarón stepped in and took the Potter story to one of surprising depth, quality and the appropriate level of darkness.

12. Kill Bill: Volume 2: Tarantino finished off his epic with a film that answered a lot of questions, fleshed out the characters and offered David Carradine the best work of his career. Uma Thurman should get an Oscar nomination this time around. If not, she should put her Hattori Hanzo sword to good use on clueless Academy members.

13. Sideways: All I knew about wine before I watched this film was that it came in red or white and had names like merlot, cabernet sauvignon and whatnot that made it sound real fancy. Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church’s trek through wine country is hilarious and informative.

14. Before Sunset: Richard Linklater’s sequel to his low-budget strangers-on-a-train charmer. Two people walk and talk, and that’s about it. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy provided their own dialogue: intelligent, insightful and pretty damned romantic.

15. A Very Long Engagement: Audrey Tautou reunites with her Amèlie director for a World War I love story that is a visual triumph full of grand emotions and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s amusing quirks.

16. We Don’t Live Here Anymore/Closer: I’m listing these two films together because they both made me equally miserable in an impressive sort of way. Bad relationships, interpersonal cruelty and shameless cheating are the highlights in both of these well made movies. Mark Ruffalo, Laura Dern and Naomi Watts made marriage look like total hell in Anymore, while director Mike Nichols and company put the spotlight on adultery, lying, stripping and getting hit by taxis whilst ogling somebody.

17. Spider-Man 2: Remember how Superman III tried to mix comic book comedy into the Man of Steel mythos and failed miserably? Director Sam Raimi got it right here, mixing in comic book comedy that works with the sympathetic story of Peter Parker’s (Tobey Maguire’s) struggles.

18. Ray: The much ballyhooed performance by Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles is as good as the hype. He manages to capture all of the Charles mannerisms (including the keyboard playing) while avoiding the parody type work of his In Living Color years. The film has its flaws, but Foxx makes it a mandatory viewing.

19. Collateral: Tom Cruise continues to get flak from a good chunk of the population for some of his past choices. Forgive him for Top Gun already! That was in the 1980s! The guy can act, and he plays his nastiest character since sex guru Frank T.J. Mackie in Magnolia. Here, he’s a cold-hearted hit man forcing a cabbie (Jamie Foxx, having a great year) on a death tour. Michael Mann at his atmospheric best.

20. Supersize Me: I liked Fahrenheit, but as documentaries go, this one impressed me more. Watching poor Morgan Spurlock overstuff himself with Quarter Pounders was shocking and funny. Michael Moore couldn’t get Bush out of office, but Spurlock got McDonald’s to ban the Super Size meals. Now that’s a great documentary.

In this very strange year, I found myself giving the highest rating to quite the bunch of movies. I also trashed more than in any of my previous years reviewing films. Here’s just a sample of the nearly 30 movies that received the lowest mark.

1. She Hate Me: When Spike Lee blows it, he blows it with a force that could uproot the Empire State Building and have it land somewhere in Jersey. His tale of lesbians seeking impregnation from a male stud is so horrid it must be seen to be believed—not to mention abhorred.

2. The Village: Hitting aliens with baseball bats and splashes of aqua was a good idea for director M. Night Shyamalan, but this stupid Twilight Zone rip-off was not. To ape the maddening way characters speak in this film: “Thou shalt not go to or rent the movie of which M. Night made. M. Night’s film is the film that Oscar shall forsake, and this critic shall not praise. It has the mark of the bad movie, the movie that should not be seen. Fetch the chamber pot, for I am stricken with fear and stomach troubles.”

3. The Terminal: I watched Close Encounters of the Third Kind the other night, and now I have questions. Just what the hell is Spielberg’s latest movie supposed to be, and why am I supposed to like it? Spielberg made Close Encounters, man. Close Encounters! Now we get Tom Hanks shaving and performing unsanctioned masonry in airports. What gives?

4. The Polar Express: This was the most frightening movie of the year, and somehow I don’t think that was director Robert Zemeckis’ intentions for this magical-train flick. With all the money that went into this, that stupid TV train show that had a shrunken George Carlin scaring kids looked better than this.

5. Catwoman: As soon as “the suit” made its appearance on the Net, well before the film’s release, it was all over.

6. Alexander: A blond-haired, world-conquering Irishman hangs with his bug-eyed, snake-licking mother and blathers on and on about victory, wiping out inferior countries and the like. Good director Oliver Stone has officially left the planet and has been replaced by bad director Oliver Stone, who thinks shouting amounts to good acting.

7. Saw: I’ve never had more people stop me on the street about a movie. What is the deal with this thing? It’s one of the worst-acted films I’ve ever witnessed, it’s not scary, and it’s not even funny in a bad-movie way. It’s good out of the gate, but by the time Cary Elwes is trying to act like a man suffering from severe blood loss, something very terrible and startlingly bad has happened.

8. The Chronicles of Riddick: Other than his fine voiceover work in The Iron Giant, I see no real reason to keep Vin Diesel around. When Riddick escaped death in Pitch Black, I thought it was cool. Now I wish the winged creatures had feasted on his fat, shaven head.

9. Envy: I love Jack Black, and I love Ben Stiller, but I don’t love them in this clunker from director Barry Levinson, who should never direct a comedy again. A shitty film about dog shit.

10. Connie and Carla: By giving My Big Fat Greek Wedding a semi-positive review, I feel perhaps I have contributed to the popularity train that rode creator Nia Vardolos into favor with producers. That popularity allowed for this cinematic thing to happen. I want you to know that I am sorry. From the bottom of my heart, I am sorry.

In last year’s wrap-up article, I stated that Peter Jackson’s release of King Kong in 2005 was the film I most looked forward to. That hasn’t changed. I expect next December to be filled with rampaging, jealous gorilla goodness. With Jack Black as its star, it can’t miss. Or maybe it can? That’s truly bizarre casting.