Now that 2004 has come and gone in a virtual blink of an eye, it is not unreasonable to say that it felt like a repeat performance of 2003unspectacular, bordering on dismal. To be sure, there were a handful of great picturesevery year has thoseand rapidly developing new technology laid the foundation for a number of eye-opening visual experiences unlike any put to film in the past. With that said, acting was of a higher quality than most of the movies those fine performances found themselves in. To offer up an example, only one of my four choices for best performances of the year was in a film that found its way into my Top 10. Of the other three thespians, one was in a three-star movie, and the remaining two ranked as the best things in flawed efforts.
In terms of the year's best and worst, my 10-best list was difficult to assemble for two reasons. Number one: There were quite a few films that I wish could have made it, but didn't. Number two: Not many of my three-and-half-star choices jumped out as being more worthy than those that didn't make the cut, mainly because few knocked my socks off and stood apart from the rest. As for my lowly bottom 10, the thing that struck me most was that five of them were sequels. Just think about this: if studios weren't so in search of cashing in on successful films with continuations, Iand all of uswould have been spared a large portion of the major turkeys released. The number of truly bad pictures (those rating one-star and lower) alarmingly increased once more in 2004. This year's count was 16, whereas last year's was 14, 2002's was 13, and 2001's was 9. Since the number of releases reviewed has not gone up, there can only be one conclusion drawn: movies are getting worse. Because of my unflagging love for the cinema, even some terrible movies have a certain enjoyability about them, or, at least, can be briefly diverting. It takes a special kind of badnessthe type involving sheer agonyto fall onto my worst list.
The format is the same as in years past. I give special recognition to those performances that stood out (there is no maximum number of nominees I set for myself), followed by the year's most overrated and underrated features, and end things with a rundown of the 10 best and worst motion pictures of the entire calendar year. The walk down memory lane, for better and worse, begins now.
The Best Performances of 2004 (my pick for the absolute best is indicated in red)
Most Overrated Film of 2004:
"Ray," directed by Taylor Hackford, featured a standout performance by Jamie Foxx, so eerily uncanny as late music legend Ray Charles that his Oscar-bound work seemed to cloud most audience's judgment on the picture itself. Take away Foxx and take away the sterling soundtrack, and what one finds is strictly paint-by-numbers filmmaking, a parade of cliches and made-for-TV-level dramatic histrionics. "Ray" is a disappointingly unoriginal and one-note biography of a man and his life that were anything but.
Most Underrated Film of 2004:
"The Girl Next Door," directed by Luke Greenfield, received many raves upon its release, but almost as much diversion from critics. The reason? I am at a loss for words. Some called it smarmy and repugnant in its messages, a declaration I could not relate to, as the picture's heart and soul are about as pure as any other film of 2004. Others couldn't get past the whole teenage-boy-falling-in-love-with-a-porn-starlet plot angle, which is a lamentable shame. What so many critics failed to see and understand by letting their personal hang-ups get in the way was a teenage film as accurate, urgent, and real about first love and those delicate high school years as any feature film this decade. "The Girl Next Door" is multilayered, refreshingly non-stereotypical, deliciously unpredictable, and gloriously romantic. It symbolizes everything I love about the cinema.
Resident Evil: Apocalypse - Creatively bankrupt trash made by a committee of hacksnamely, first-time director Alexander Witt and screenwriter Paul W.S. Anderson (director of the equally stinky original and also responsible for the failure that is "Alien vs. Predator")who don't know the first thing about generating suspense, frights, cohesive storytelling, and a reason to care. As impossible as it may seem, "Resident Evil: Apocalypse" might just derive from a lower-common-denominator of zombie-centered filmmaking than 2003's "House of the Dead." Now that is scary.
Alexander - "Alexander" is a bloated, embarrassing miscalculation on the part of director Oliver Stone, a laughable biopic of Alexander the Great that is not so much mind-numbingly boring as it is intriguingly nonsensical. There is a train-wreck quality to the proceedings that cannot be denied; even when the film seems like it can't get any worse, it does. Seemingly pieced together with all of the outtakes intact and all of the real footage on the cutting room floor, "Alexander" is an enormous, 173-minute cinematic mess.
Johnson Family Vacation - A chintzy, plagiaristic redux of 1983's Chevy Chase classic, "National Lampoon's Vacation," "Johnson Family Vacation" is an appallingly unfunny comedy starring Cedric the Entertainer as the head of a bickering family on their way to a reunion. Shoddily directed by Christopher Erskin, egregiously written, and edited without any idea how to adequately set up a joke through the rhythmic buildup of shots, this film has nary an original, witty, or genuine moment to be found in its 96 minutes. "Johnson Family Vacation" sputters along, nonetheless, about as stimulating as an actual 300-mile drive across the desert wastelands of Arizona and New Mexico.
Christmas with the Kranks - One of the worst, most disingenuous Christmas movies in memory, "Christmas with the Kranks" is an amateurish, irredeemably hateful picture posing recklessly as a good-natured, harmless comedy for the whole family. That there isn't a laugh in sight, and that Jamie Lee Curtis is made to look like a weak actress for the first time in her 25-year career, are the least of its problems. Director Joe Roth sinks this John Grisham adaptation to the sub-level of a DOA cinematic dud by offensively embracing materialism, narrow-mindedness, conformity, disrespect for humans, and even animal cruelty, and then expects to turn its woeful mean-spiritedness into gold for a last-minute, would-be upbeat conclusion. All he actually accomplishes is mounting vehement disdain for everything "Christmas with the Kranks" symbolizes and fraudulently passes off as holiday cheer.
National Lampoon's Gold Diggers - A crass, despicable product of loathsome characters and an even uglier story, "National Lampoon's Gold Diggers" appears to be the nadir of films containing the National Lampoon brand-name. A comedy built on greed and immorality, that only one laugh is earned in its interminable 87 minutes isn't surprising. What is shocking, however, is that such a cesspool of nothingness was judged competent enough to be released in theaters at all.
Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid - 1997's "Anaconda," featuring a pre-J. Lo Jennifer Lopez, may not have been great, but it sometimes takes a truly awful motion picture to uncover another film's qualities. With no apparent connection to its predecessor, a cast made up mostly of talentless unknowns, low-rent special effects that try to hide the shoddy reptilian villains as much as possible, and an out-of-place tone far too serious for its wholly ludicrous plot, "Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid" is both excessively unnecessary and thoroughly worthless. It also happens to be a chore to sit through, as unscary, threadbare, and downright dull as these kinds of movies come.
Thunderbirds - As the minutes ever so slowly ticked by, the same thing kept entering my mind: "Thunderbirds," a "Spy Kids" wannabe based loosely on an all-marionette television series, is just about as close to one of those ultra-cheesy, ultra-bad Ed Wood-style sci-fi pictures of the '50s and '60s as any modern movie ever has gotten outside of paying direct homage. This is terminal family faresloppy, excruciating, dumbed-down, and heinous. The acting is terrible, and the effects aren't any better. Each ticket stub should have come with a guarantee of shriveling the viewer's brain cells.
Agent Cody Banks 2: Destination London - The second "Spy Kids" rip-off on the list and the third of five sequels, "Agent Cody Banks 2: Destination London" is a junky, creatively bankrupt rush job that offers no connection to the original outside of the title character. Boring with a capital "B," so low-budget that action set-pieces couldn't be afforded, aiming for the lowest-common-denominator with dim-witted fart and urine jokes, and capping it all off with the mother of all desperate movie scenesyep, a food fightthis is shamefully pedestrian garbage passing itself off as a quality family film. In fact, a full day of chores would be preferable to having to sit through this monstrosity again.
Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights - How do you write a review for a movie that unashamedly craps on the memory of its deservedly famed and beloved 1987 predecessor? The answer: with venom. The first of two films with the dubious distinction of receiving zero stars from me in 2004, "Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights" is a shallow, condescending waste of celluloid, a prequel set just before the 1958 Cuban Revolution. The heinously miscast Romola Garai and wimpy, physically slight Diego Luna are no match for the steamy, charismatic pair-up of Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze; the instantly forgettable salsa and out-of-place rap music are like bad jokes next to the Oscar-nominated music of the original; and the climax is bewildering and borderline-offensive as the dance competitionwhich should be the centerpieceis cut short by the Revolution beginning outside. Attempting to add watered-down political intrigue and historical resonance to what is a frothy dance flick is, perhaps, the second worst idea found in any movie this year.
The Whole Ten Yards - The worst idea of 2004 was making a sequel to 2000's "The Whole Nine Yards," a mediocre mob comedy that, four years later, had been safely forgotten about by everyone. Courtesy of director Howard Deutchthe once-promising filmmaker behind such '80s favorites as "Some Kind of Wonderful" and "The Great Outdoors"the dim memory was resurrected and then tarnished to an even greater degree by "The Whole Ten Yards." Reuniting the ensemble cast, "The Whole Ten Yards" is deplorable filmmaking from its first frame to its last, a laugh-free comedy overcome by an unintelligible plot and a needlessly unpleasant mean streak running straight through its carcass. Bruce Willis humiliates himself by wearing an apron, bunny slippers, or nothing at all in half his scenes. Matthew Perry fares just as ruinously as he frantically overacts and performs endless cheap pratfalls to the clear sound of a pin dropping. Natasha Henstridge basically sits around and, in one distasteful scene, gets slapped. Not holding a single rewarding moment in its painful 99-minute running time, a series of random slapstick moments held together by an often incoherent and always amateurishly developed plot, "The Whole Ten Yards" deserves nothing more than to be buried deep within the rubble of trash it eked out of.
The United States of Leland - A runner-up for the most underrated release of the year, "The United States of Leland" is astonishingly written and directed by Matthew Ryan Hoge (in his feature debut), a meticulously crafted, thought-provoking, shattering glimpse of the way a community reacts when the erratic killing of an innocent suddenly hits close to home. The victim is a mentally challenged boy, and the killer is a soft-spoken teenager (an excellent Ryan Gosling) who would never have seemed capable to anyone around him of murder. The film interweaves the past and present with depth and poeticism, documenting the central characters' lives before the incident, while simultaneously showing how the murder transforms their attitudes, emotions, and even outlook on the future in the week following. "The United States of Leland" is lyrical in its cumulative beauty, understandable in its lack of solid answers, and, ultimately, devastating.
The Phantom of the Opera - Directed with baronial elegance by Joel Schumacher, this cinematic adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's famed musical is superior in its every aspect. From the painstakingly designed narrative, to the arresting performances by Emmy Rossum and Gerard Butler (as opera singer Christine and the title character), to the note-perfect singing, to the powerfully stirring music arrangement, to the sweeping production design and cinematography, to even the story's amassed emotional impact, the haunting love story at the center of "The Phantom of the Opera" has been spatially opened up and cinematically invigorated in a way that the limits of the stage are unable to. Whereas the stage production's human element sunk under the weight of its all-consuming technical attributes, this filmed version finds a way to marry its grandiose surroundings with a tale of quietly stunning intimacy.
Dogville - The audacious first part in his planned "America" trilogy, Danish writer-director Lars Von Trier's "Dogville" is a one-of-a-kind film, a gutsy experimental exercise that divided audiences with its vehement anti-Americanism but pays off with its bold style and spellbinding plot developments and narrative twists. Starring Nicole Kidman in a brave performance and filmed on a barren stage with black and white backdrops, the houses and other landmarks laid out with chalk marks on the floor, "Dogville" achieves the impossible by never coming off as stagy. In fact, the finished product is simply luminous, allowing for the viewer's imagination to take hold even as its surprisingly dynamic aesthetics never drown out its thematic significance. Like it or not (and I most certainly did), "Dogville" is unapologetically cynical, miraculously inventive, and a spectacular conversation piece.
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow - Filmed entirely in front of a bluescreen, all but the actors vibrating to life via post-production CGI effects, "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" is an absolutely mesmerizing, boundlessly imaginative achievement, perhapsand I do not use such terms lightlythe most visually astounding motion picture ever made. From the opening moments, in which the Hindenburg makes its way across the New York City nighttime skyline amidst the gentle fall of snow, it is instantly clear that the viewer is in the hands of a true, honest-to-goodness artist. That artist is debuting filmmaker Kerry Conran, who, in making this grand-scale ode to the rousing '30s serials and old-fashioned, adventuresome epics, has envisioned a remarkable feast for the eyes, its accomplished indelibility matched shot for shot by its sheer creativity. "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" has to be seen to be believed, and likely will be studied in-depth for years and years to come as an example of transfixing visual artistry and how far one's creativity can take them in the world of cinema.
Mean Girls - "Mean Girls" is a motion picture infinitely more adept, savvy, and intoxicating than its by-the-book marketing campaign would have you believe. Director Mark S. Waters and screenwriter Tina Fey have keyed into the memory of their own teenage years to create a movie that digs deeply and with precision into the inner workings of a typical high school experience, and they do it all with a good-hearted, non-condescending message and remarkably biting comic zingers. This quirky mix of oppositeslight and black comedy, zaniness and touching authenticity, broad topics and bewitching satirecome together to make "Mean Girls" one of the most truthful, painfully funny high school comedies of the decade.
Million Dollar Baby - "Million Dollar Baby" may be the most complete and compelling motion picture of director Clint Eastwood's filmmaking career, a wrenching, exquisitely written and acted drama set in the world of boxing that, thematically, has nothing to do with the sport. Deceptively set up in the first two-thirds as a standard, albeit superior, sports tale, the film eclipses all possible expectations with a stunner of a plot development that goes the way of unconventionality and deepens what has come before. Like a finely tuned novel you can't bear to put down, this is an absolutely riveting entertainment, as well as a quiet, rich character study of insightful, nod-inducing observations. If the eyes are the window to the soul, then "Million Dollar Baby," specializing in crucial close-ups that speak louder than words, is one of the more humane and thoughtful movies of the year, a picture that takes a formulaic blueprint, tramples it to the floor, and comes up with something altogether more penetrating, touching, and real.
Mean Creek - If not underrated than certainly overlooked, "Mean Creek," superlatively written and directed by Jacob Aaron Estes, puts a grim twist on the coming-of-age genre and musters up one of the most harrowing and accurate cinematic experiences of the year. Emotionally piercing and pretty close to faultless, the film takes an unblinking look at the human conditionits respective diversity and parallelismas six friends are faced with an unexpected downward spiral of tragic events. There are no easy answers offered, no directorial pretensions, no false melodramatic crises, and no neatly-packaged ending. Without even a speck of obvious sentimentality or forced humor to relieve its unmitigated candidness, "Mean Creek" is a frightening journey into the heart of human darkness and morality.
Garden State - A markedly auspicious writing and directing debut by "Scrubs" star Zach Braff, "Garden State" won a passionate, acclaimed response at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, and for understandable reason. Braff astonishingly juggles many different tones and genresthe film is, among other things, an intuitive character study, a zany comedy, a drama of deep-seated wounds and past regrets, a rumination on finding oneself after years of aimless confusion, and one of the most heartbreakingly believable romances of the year. Creatively alive and emotionally intimate at the same time, Braff seems to be speaking to an entire generation of twenty-somethings who do not yet know what they want out of their life, and comparisons to "The Graduate," while superficial, are deserved. With special note also going to Natalie Portman for one of the most joyful, tender, and touching performances of the year, "Garden State" is a beaming, unforgettable masterpiece.
The Girl Next Door - I raved about it over ten months ago and I'll do it again. "The Girl Next Door" is the best motion picture about teenage life since 2001's "Donnie Darko," a treasure of a film that, like John Hughes' oeuvre and "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" did for the 1980s and "Clueless" did for the 1990s, transcends its high school setting and hits the nail squarely on the head of what it is like to be 17-years-old, unsure about the future, and open to any possibilities that come your way. The filmmaking prowess of Luke Greenfield oozes a passion largely missing from most movies nowadays; he is a real find, a fresh, extraordinary talent who flawlessly makes his way through broad comedy, slice-of-life drama, beautiful romance, wish-fulfillment fantasy, and taut suspense in a 109-minute space without taking one misguided step. Honest and encompassing enough to become the defining picture of Generation Y (even the classy, perfectly chosen soundtrack is worth cheering), "The Girl Next Door" is an entrancing joy to behold with the ability to touch you deeply, make you roll with laughter, smile with elation, and feel. It was the first brilliant film of 2004, and nearly a year later it remains a close #2 on my Top 10.
The Polar Express - There comes a time in every child's life when a certain amount of innocence is stolen from them. The thief isn't necessarily another person so much as it is the cruel hands of time, experience, and acquired cynicism. When this occurs, the world suddenly seems colder, more painful, and less a place where anything seems possible. This very time is captured with stunning, resplendent simplicity in "The Polar Express," directed by Robert Zemeckis and based on the beloved children's book by Chris Van Allsburg. A magical, one-of-a-kind experience and a timeless motion picture so close to perfection that, yes, it ranks alongside 1939's "The Wizard of Oz" and 1971's "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" as one of the very best family films I have had the fortune of seeing, "The Polar Express" is destined to become a perennial Christmas classic in the years to come. A watermark in animation and computer wizardry, the picture is, at once, vastly entertaining, joyfully imaginative, visually awe-inspiring, emotionally resonant, and genuinely poignant. The movie speaks with such a raw truth and innocence about the frailty of childhood and the natural progression of life and one's own being that, directly after having seen it, my opinion was decided. No film in 2004 opened up my mind, eyes, and heart, touching me deep down inside where it counts, quite like "The Polar Express" did.