2004 Ten Best Movies

Totaling up the list in December 2004, there was no question about my favorite film of the year (“best” being left aside in times of dire necessity): Jared Hess’s Napoleon Dynamite, a pitch-perfect comedy that – the more you watched it – seemed beautifully sad and accurate along with being hilariously funny. Capturing human absurdity so exactly yet maintaining complete sympathy with such characters is a difficult trick. I hope Hess can do it again.

moolaade4It took a couple of years for my now-for-the-ages-#1 to actually come into view, foreign distribution being what it is these days. But what a marvel. Ousmane Sembene’s Moolaade shares qualities with many great films: it’s utterly light on its feet, comic where you expect it to be somber, devastating in a completely sure-handed way. It was Sembene’s last film, and like many Old Master offerings, it is seamless, beyond any kind of showing-off, and wise. The subject matter (the women of a present-day African village band together against the practice of female genital mutilation) might have been a set-up for a simple social-issue picture, but Sembene’s hand keeps it from becoming a lecture.

The ten best of 2004:

1. Moolaade (Ousmane Sembene)

2. Napoleon Dynamite (Jared Hess)

3. Birth (Jonathan Glazer)

4. Head-On (Fatih Akin)

5. Sideways (Alexander Payne)

6. Million Dollar Baby (Clint Eastwood)

7. Before Sunset (Richard Linklater)

8. I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead (Mike Hodges)

9. Collateral (Michael Mann)

10. Kill Bill, Vol. 2 (Quentin Tarantino)

Interesting how just five years can switch consensus around. In critical circles at least, both Sideways and Million Dollar Baby now seem to be considered somehow middlebrow examples of entertainment for squares, as though they were hackwork. Look again: along with the sheer joy of its theme, Sideways is a film of astounding tonal variation, moving from melancholy to slapstick without breaking a sweat; and Million Dollar Baby works an elegant classical variation on an old etude.

It is good to see that people have caught up with Birth, a film lately getting its due, because it came and went in one week when it was originally released. A strange, special film, haunted by Nicole Kidman’s utter commitment to a role that will probably horrify or bewilder many, and an uncanny study of the plain fact that people will believe what they need to believe.

Only those strong entries keep Linklater’s sequel down on the list, a film that has one of the most enchanting endings in recent memory, and I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead is a challenging, rewarding new kind of crime picture. I’m not sure why, but Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind just missed the list, as did Vera Drake and two French noir things, Red Lights and Intimate Strangers, both fine exercises. And I actually find Shyamalan’s The Village more accomplished than The Aviator and Spider-Man 2, overrated 2004 success stories. (The strangeness and hysteria of The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson’s anti-authority movie, make it more than a cultural punching bag, too.) And if we’re comparing things, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle is funnier and sharper than The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.

Next week: 1956.