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The Top Films of 2004

It’s been an odd year for movies. Disappointments have arrived from 70s superstars (Gene Hackman “Welcome to Mooseport” and Robert DeNiro “Godsend”), 80s superstars (Pierce Brosnan “Laws of Attraction”) and 90s superstars (Brad Pitt “ Troy”). So who would have ever expected glory from two superhero sequels, dramatic vehicles for two “In Living Color” comedians, an expensive epic in a dead genre from the over-indulgent director of “Batman and Robin” or a Leo DiCaprio film sans a big boat? Every film in the below list surpasses expectation or predictions, but after all, Hollywood adores a sleeper hit.

10. “Maria Full of Grace” – A small film about a grave subject (young women smuggling heroin into the US through their stomachs) could have easily sunken into a maudlin mood. Though it offers no false hope or Hollywood contrivances, the strength and dignity of our heroine (and the blessed performance of newcomer Catalina Sandino Moreno) keeps the film from being depressing.

9. “Super Size Me” – A modern horror film where the beasts take over earth’s inhabitants, murdering them from the inside. These hideous dripping monsters are so devious, so defiant; an anthem has been composed about them (“Two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, all put together on a sesame seed bun.”) The death-defying filmmaker Morgan Spurlock unleashed the deadly threat upon his own person to save an ignorant public. Unfortunately, he suffered in vain. I personally have had seventeen Quarter Pounders with Cheese SINCE this film, one as I write this review.

8. “Phantom of the Opera” – One of Broadway’s longest running hits (only one year away from becoming the longest) has arrived on the silver screen, heightening both the plays strengths and weaknesses. As the deformed monster, I probably would have not cast a man who makes Brad Pitt look like Tony Randall, yet Gerard Butler proves his worth in the role with pathos and a powerful voice. Newcomer Emmy Rossum brings a lilting elegance to the role of the beauty who slays the beast. Though romance is inherent in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s score, the players in this love-triangle (which includes Broadway star Patrick Wilson) exhibit a profound love that elevates this musical to a grand level.

7. “Harry Potter” – The kids are growing up and so is the series. Through the imaginatives eye of storyteller Alfonso Cuarón, the filmic “Harry Potter” finally captures the inventive essence of the novels that Chris Columbus sorely missed in the first two. Once again Emma Watson steals the film as the bossy but intuitive Hermione.

6. “Spider Man 2” - Summer nights are meant for sequels -- rehashed, hack jobs that takes the best elements of the first films and regurgitates to any audience’s dismay (Does anyone remember when the word Matrix evoked astonishment?) So this year, Sony brought out its biggest warhorse, “Spider-Man,” but they broke the rules. Not only is “Spider-Man 2” vastly cleverer than the original, but it touches the heart and soul with complex relationships and layered meanings.

5. “Ray” - Last year Charlize Theron embodied the unglamorous serial killer Aileen Wuornos leading her to an Oscar win. Now Jamie Foxx, the comedian best known as the hideously ugly Wanda on “In Living Color,” sings, plays piano and acts like a celebrity to whom we’re accustomed. Many have not spend hours of their lives with Wuornos, but most have seen Ray Charles perform in concerts, variety shows and “Designing Women” opening credits. Foxx took an extreme risk imitating someone we almost know intimately. His transformation is all the more fascinating. However, even if Foxx has portrayed a fictitious character, his depiction would still have been remarkable.

4. “Imaginary Heroes” - It peeks inside the fabric of the American Quilt and discovers holes from moths. Though the rancid crust under the American Pie has been revealed already in “Ordinary People,” “Blue Velvet” and David E Kelley’s “Picket Fences,” “Imaginary Heroes” sheds fresh light thanks to insightful writing and direction by 24-year-old Dan Harris and Oscar caliber performances by Emile Hirsch and Sigourney Weaver.

3. “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” –Someone forgot to tell Jim Carrey he cannot act. That temporary amnesia granted us a rare delicate performance from the actor who speaks out his rear. As a lonely-heart who one day discovers a kook on a train (Kate Winslet), Carrey plays everyman with vulnerability, humor and insight. Carrey and Winslet play lovers who argue and argue and argue. At first, their hostility towards each other makes it clear they’re doomed but as the film progresses, the two express tenderness and seem made for each other. Inside the web of jealousy and pettiness and frustration hides warmth and understanding. Charlie Kaufman’s jigsaw script and Michel Gondry’s direction contribute, but it’s Carrey and Winslet’s performances in the end that draw the audience in, confronting us with the reality that true love can exist.

2. “Shaun of the Dead” - The most intentionally hilarious horror film ever. Imagine “Absolutely Fabulous” directed by George Romero or “28 Days Later” directed by Mel Brooks and you’ll have this loopy comedy in your head. A crew of British slacker barflies must save the world from an inexplicable wave of zombie-ism and never has death and violence been handled so riotously.

1. “The Aviator” – Armed with his cinematographer Robert Richardson and production designer Dante Ferretti, Martin Scorsese has re-visualized the awe-striking beauty of Hollywood in the 30s, including the flashing bulbs of the photographers, the giddiness of alcohol and dance at the Coconut Grove and the deco shrines of the Gods of the Silver Screen. Whether recreating the aerial fetes of Howard Hughes’s classic “Hell’s Angels,” of regenerating the great Kate Hepburn in the guise of Cate Blanchett, Scorsese has not merely documented the times; he has transported us to this time period. Leonardo DiCaprio’s comeback shows a layered portrayal of a complicated legend, one who lived his life with marvel, ego, and insanity.

Runner Ups: “ Wimbledon,” “Touching The Void,” “Saved!” “Miracle,” “Mean Girls,” ”The Notebook,” The Incredibles,” “ Garden State.”

 

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