"The Five Obstructions"
"Million Dollar Baby"
The best film of 2004 is a perfect snapshot of the arrested-development generation, but may get its recognition only in retrospect
You won't see my No. 1 movie of 2004 on many other top 10 lists. But give it 20 years to ferment in the public consciousness, and you'll understand: "Garden State" will be the defining film of the arrested-development generation.
Affectionately wry yet disarmingly poignant, hilariously insightful yet accessibly awkward, infinitely quotable yet organic and unassuming, this merrily ironic movie nails the psychological complexity and raised-on-MTV coercion that has people in their 20s trying to push the pause button on coming to grips with adulthood.
Writer-director-star Zach Braff (from TV's "Scrubs") is vulnerably acerbic as a droll, aimless Everymensch taking two simultaneous big steps in his life: returning home to New Jersey after nine years to attend his mother's funeral, and emerging from a long haze of sense-dulling prescription psychotropics -- which has him seeing eccentricity everywhere he looks, including in the derailed lives of old friends.
Abstract absurdity abounds, but every laugh and every creative cinematic choice helps the character's un-muddying mind coalesce, especially once he meets a luminous, magnetically madcap chatterbox and instant (if tentative) soul-mate, played by Natalie Portman in an ingenuous, dulcet performance that finally delivers on the promise she has always shown in lesser films.
The structure may be familiar, and there are moments in which Braff is a tad too on-the-nose with his message. But his brilliantly off-kilter tone as a director and his ability to tap into the psyche of his entire age group as a writer will make "Garden State" the same thematic touchstone for 1970s babies as "The Graduate" was for their Boomer parents.
THE REST OF THE BEST OF 2004
#2 "THE FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS"
An eccentric and intrepid testament to the pure joy of cinema, this semi-documentary is a duel of intellect and imagination between two of the world's most audacious filmmakers. Lars von Trier (founder of the minimalist Dogme95 movement and director of "Breaking the Waves," "Dancer in the Dark" and "Dogville") challenges his artistic mentor (prolific Danish writer-director Jorgan Leth) to create five remakes of his avant-garde 1967 short "The Perfect Human," each time under a set of arbitrary, often torturous creative restrictions imposed by the childish, egotistical von Trier. But much to von Trier's unmistakable frustration, the resulting films are riveting, remarkable, resourceful wonders to behold.
A Chinese historical epic with a martial-arts twist, this politically complex, structurally sparse, stunningly gorgeous masterpiece of action and drama makes "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" look ham-handed by comparison. Director Zhang Yimou ("The Road Home," "Raise the Red Lantern") bathes each chapter of the film in vibrant single colors -- each representing a different version of its tale about an assassin (Jet Li) sent to kill the king who united China in the third century B.C. Supernatural swordplay abounds (the wire-work effects and choreography are breathtaking), and Li fights martial artists like Donnie Yen and holds his own against great actors like Maggie Cheung, Zhang Ziyi and Leung Chiu-Wai. That "Hero" is arguably one of the best martial arts films ever made is ironic since Zhang Yimou went on to direct "House of Flying Daggers," an insufferable kung-fu soap opera that made my Worst of 2004 list.
#4 "THE AVIATOR"
Eschewing every pitfall of the biopic genre and delving deeply into the essence of both Howard Hughes' genius and his slow burn into madness, Martin Scorsese's "The Aviator" is a film of grand scope and masterfully intimate nuance, portraying a wild young mustang of a man who lived a fast life on an epic scale. Focusing on Hughes' late 20s and early 30s, when he was a major force in American industry and a growing force in show business, "The Aviator" is pulsating with its subject's restless spirit (along with a subtle undercurrent of encroaching insanity), and at the heart of it is Leonardo DiCaprio, giving the most imposing -- and first entirely adult -- performance of his career. Bringing the film even more punch -- and a lot of smiles -- is Cate Blanchett, who plays Katherine Hepburn, Hughes' first Hollywood love, as an unforgettably wry, upper-crust force of nature.
#5 "MILLION DOLLAR BABY"
Director Clint Eastwood pulls no punches in this devastating and gritty film-noir boxing drama that gets at the callused heart of the sport ("Boxin' is about respect -- gettin' it for yourself, taking it away from the other guy") while spiraling into an emotional tour de force. Narrated with gravelly gravitas by Morgan Freeman, playing a washed-up fighter now mopping floors at a gym, the film stars Eastwood as a fatigued former cut man who reluctantly agrees to coach a novice woman boxer (Hilary Swank) running as hard and fast as she can from a white-trash upbringing that's still tethered to her with a psychological bungee cord -- the more she pulls away, the harder her past snaps back and hits her from behind. As a sports film, "Million Dollar Baby" is among the best, but in the later rounds Eastwood delivers a stunning left hook that takes the picture into the depths of the human soul. Easily Eastwood's best film since "Unforgiven."
#6 "OUTFOXED: RUPERT MURDOCH'S WAR ON JOURNALISM"
The most scrupulous, most focused and most thorough of this year's wave of activist documentaries, "Outfoxed" exposes, in detail, the relentless partisanship and repetitive propaganda at Rupert Murdoch's Fox News by using the network's own program footage (and former employees) to corroborate its every assertion. Far more unimpeachable than "Fahrenheit 9/11," the Karl Rove exposé "Bush's Brain" and even Greenwald's own "Uncovered: The War On Iraq," this film lacks anything that could be dismissed as supposition, hyperbole or liberal slant. "Outfoxed" simply makes it clear as a bell how Fox viewers have become the most misinformed in the nation.
#7 "ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND"
A melancholy metaphysical romance about how human beings are the sum of their experiences, this distinctively surreal, meditative fable takes place largely inside the rapidly dissolving memories of a dejected sad sack, played by Jim Carrey, who hopes to end a crippling case of heartbreak by having his ex-girlfriend (Kate Winslet) electronically expunged from his cerebellum in a makeshift CAT-scan procedure performed by a dubious back-alley doctor. Written by the ingeniously idiosyncratic Charlie Kaufman ("Being John Malkovich," "Adaptation"), the sublimely disorienting, cunningly intricate, yet completely accessible narrative hits the Freudian jackpot of lucid dreaming.
THE SUBLIME SEQUELS OF 2004
#8 "BEFORE SUNSET"
A little 80-minute gem of walky-talky romance, this sequel to "Before Sunrise" takes place nine years after that film's single night of intellectual and spiritual magic between two backpacking Eurorail summer-break tourists (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy). These sharp-witted, contemplative and agreeably captivating characters pick up right where they left off -- except with nearly a decade's worth of worldly wisdom, and with their memories of each other having become emotional ripples that never subsided. A modest masterpiece of modern romantic temperament and trepidation, culminating in a moment of wondrous warmth and anticipation so ingenuous, stirring and memorable that it wipes away any doubt about fooling with the rewardingly open-ended finale of its predecessor.
#9 "KILL BILL: VOLUME 2"
Everything the kinetic, colorful, superficially violent "Kill Bill: Volume 1" lacked in depth and character is remedied tenfold in Quentin Tarantino's stunning, cunning conclusion to his epic revenge fantasy. Still punctuated by spectacularly stylish swordplay, "Volume 2" seamlessly blends a vivid backstory into the continuing rampage of left-for-dead former assassin The Bride (Uma Thurman) as she beats a corpse-littered path to the door of the ex-boss who ordered her killed. Tarantino takes this movie up a notch, however, with a startling sharp turn toward thorny emotional complexity.
#10 "SPIDER-MAN 2"
Toby Maguire so completely embodies the joyous, daredevil confidence of Spider-Man and the sweet, self-doubting chump-iness of Peter Parker that in just two movies he has become the most engrossingly human superhero in movie history. Even with its exhilarating action and a compelling villain in Doc Ock (Alfred Molina) -- a gone-mad nuclear scientist fused to a Medusa-like quartet of evil robotic arms -- this sequel is genuinely driven by Parker's inner clash between what he's driven to do (fight crime in a Spandex suit) and his secret love Mary Jane (the talented, irresistible Kirsten Dunst). Returning director Sam Raimi breaks more rules than he follows and the result is a kind of depth -- along with ante-upping, wildly imaginative, white-knuckled web-slinging -- that no superhero flick has ever managed before.
#11 "HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN"
Harry Potter is growing up, and so is his movie franchise. Under the tutelage of a new director -- Alfonso Cuarón, known for both children's fare ("A Little Princess") and the edgy, soulful, sex-charged coming-of-ager "Y Tu Mama, También" -- the boy wizard has graduated from the world of kiddie movie spectacles with refreshing depth of character, cunning humor and hair-raising chills that come shining through the visual blitzkrieg of astonishingly improved special effects. Older, bolder and more pro-active, Harry has grown into a real hero with the strong, if seething and bewildered, heart of a lion, and this is easily the best "Potter" picture yet.
"BRIGHT YOUNG THINGS"
This witty romp through 1930s pre-war London follows a pack of idle young swells who live scrumptious but superficial lives of joyous gossip-page decadence and complacent scandal. But director Stephen Fry also hints furtively at shades of compunction and misfortune under the carefree surface, which bubble up as world events encroach on these lives of leisure, eventually taking the film to an unexpected level of empathy, nuance and humanity.
The most comprehensive or exhilarating surfing documentary I've ever seen, "Riding Giants" revels in the sport's thrills and perils, and its history and minutia (from Polynesia to Gidget), with the same wit, insight, enthusiasm and cinematic acumen that director Stacy Peralta brought his ingenious 2002 skateboarding doc "Dogtown and Z-Boys." The almost symphonic arrangement of rare archival footage is so spellbinding that when "Riding Giants" visits milestones -- like the first time anyone braved the daunting waves of Waimea Bay in October 1957 -- the movie doesn't just make you understand their significance, it gives you goosebumps.
"THE YES MEN"
This hilarious and eye-opening do-it-yourself documentary follows the exploits of an infamous team of merry pranksters who travel the globe posing as spokesmen for the World Trade Organization, hoping to expose what they see as the exploitation of Third World labor to increase the profits of First World corporations. The film scores its political points completely in context (no narration, no exposition, no graphics), but what makes "The Yes Men" amusingly spellbinding is that it's just astonishing to see how little scrutiny these guys receive from their targets.
"SHAUN OF THE DEAD"
A shoe-in for instant cult-classic status, this hysterical spoof of zombie flicks and romantic comedies delights in taking wickedly funny potshots at all the clichés that inspired it. An enjoyably low-budget endeavor, packed with hilarious homages, well-delivered one-liners and slack-jawed double-takes from its comedically gifted cast.