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.

2005 Ten Best Movies

It used to be easier to determine the vintage of a movie; it came out, and had a date of release. Now, a movie peeks out at the Cannes or Toronto film festival one year, but doesn’t actually get a bona fide release until the following calendar year. So what year does it belong to — the year a few hundred people saw it in a specialized setting, or the year it actually hit theaters? It’s easy enough to do a ten-best list at the end of a given year if you go by the rules of the New York/L.A. opening run rather than isolated film fest one-offs. But try doing a list for 2005. The IMDb has many of that year’s best films as 2004 pictures. So I’m going with the NY/LA thing. But really, it’s a mess.

kings4

Mathieu Amalric: call him Ismael.

Arnaud Desplechin makes sprawling, unpredictable movies that somehow exert a hypnotic spell, and Kings and Queen has the movement of a roller-coaster ride, if a roller-coaster ride can be smart and tender and pitiless. The characters brilliantly played by Mathieu Amalric and Emmanuelle Devos operate in seemingly different movies, yet you never doubt Desplechin’s purpose in guiding us along these parallel lines, or his crazy mix of comedy and tragedy. Almost every movie’s ending can be guessed from the first five minutes; this one doesn’t give you a clue about what might happen next. Which is why it leads the ten best movies of 2005:

1. Kings and Queen (Arnaud Desplechin)

2. Nobody Knows (Hirokazu Kore-eda)

3. Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee)

4. Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog)

5. Cache (Michael Haneke)

6. Hustle & Flow (Craig Brewer)

7. The Beat That My Heart Skipped (Jacques Audiard)

8. A History of Violence (David Cronenberg) and Batman Begins (Christopher Nolan)

9. 2046 (Wong Kar-Wai)

10. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (Tommy Lee Jones)

I note how many of the year’s best movies have to do with music as a transformative force: Brewer’s seethingly alive film, Audiard’s remake of Fingers, Martin Scorsese’s Dylan documentary No Direction Home, and a lovely German film you’ve almost certainly never heard of, Michael Schorr’s Schultze Gets the Blues. Brokeback Mountain is at least as much a film in the American tradition of Westerns and lost paradises as it is a landmark in gay cinema, although it is certainly that. Grizzly Man is in those American traditions, too, and a perfect subject dropped into Herzog’s ready grasp.

2005 also gave us Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale and Neil Jordan’s Breakfast on Pluto, which found their way onto my ten-best at the time but haven’t quite stuck around. Spielberg’s Munich, and George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck., were exceptionally good takes on recent history, while George Romero’s Land of the Dead and George Lucas’s Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith ably criticized current events through science fiction (seriously — the Lucas film is bracingly anti-Bush). Of course, some of these movies came out in 2004, so tread carefully, compulsive listmakers. Nobody knows.

Next week: 1955.