Film: The Year of Men in Tights

CityBeat critics sum up 2004 movies and offer their top film choices

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Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey provide on of 2004's true surprise in Charlie Kaufman's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

How to sum up a year's worth of watching and reviewing movies? CityBeat critics TT Clinkscales, Rodger Pille, Steve Ramos and Steven Rosen break it down into four manageable chunks.

Here We Go Again (January-March)
As K-Mart has its Blue Light Special and furniture stores their banged-up-merchandise clearance sales, Hollywood has its first quarter. That's traditionally when studios unload the worst and most forgettable of its dross — usually movies aimed at bored teens and the most undiscerning of pre-teens and adults. Just look at this list of 2004 first-quarter releases and try to imagine why they were made: Along Came Polly, Chasing Liberty, The Butterfly Effect, 50 First Dates, Welcome to Mooseport, Twisted, Starsky & Hutch, Jersey Girl and Scooby-Doo 2.

The beginning of the year has been where Hollywood dumps the lousy films by recognizable names who, for whatever reason, just aren't serious movie stars. The reason, of course, is because the best movies of the past year are making most of their money — and capitalizing on all the pre-Oscar publicity — during the first quarter. It's hopeless to compete.

But that might be changing since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences moved up its Oscar schedule by a month — to late February from late March or even April. (The ceremony this year is Feb. 27.)

Last year, Mel Gibson opened his controversial The Passion of the Christ in late February — meant by him as a major statement by an A-list director/actor. And another major artistic statement, writer Charlie Kaufman's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind with Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, opened in March. This trend of early, quality releases is good news, and we'll see if it continues. Because if Hollywood is just going to give us Scooby-Doo, better it Scooby-Don't. (Steven Rosen)

Here Comes the Sun (April-June)
In the wake of the post-screener debacle that honestly had little effect on the usual pre- and post-Oscar doldrums, the spring season presented itself as a pre-summer explosion of studio firepower. Fresh off his ADD-inspired short film for BMW's The Hire series, Tony Scott used righteous avenger Denzel Washington to spark the Mexico City-set kidnapping drama, Man on Fire. Quentin Tarantino offered up the second half of his own revenge fantasy, Kill Bill Vol. 2, which someday soon audiences will get the chance to see partnered with Vol. 1 as a complete experience. The enhanced animated crew from Shrek returned for more box office and slightly diminished laughs. Wolfgang Petersen attempted to downplay the gods behind the myth while sticking to the epic nature of Troy with assistance from the Hollywood pantheon. But, the season's true surprise, a late one in my case, was the unforgettable treat from the pen of Charlie Kaufman, the surreal vision of Michel Gondry, and the performances of Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. No amount of pyrotechnics, digital derring-do, or scheduling shenanigans can erase their inspired collaboration, which just might be the brightest light of 2004.

(TT Clinkscales)

Summer Lovin' (July-September)
It started with a spider. Not just any spider, though. I'm talking your friendly neighborhood spider, man.

Every year, the weekend adjacent to the Fourth of July holiday represents the pinnacle of the summer movie season. Rival movie studios jockey for that release date, sometimes years in advance. This year, the privileged movie was Spider-Man 2, Sam Raimi's fantastic sequel to the 2002 hit. It's perfectly clear now: Spider-Man is this century's Batman. Actually it's better than that, because Raimi didn't trip over his own feet making a sequel; rather, he stayed true to the original characters and fashioned a smarter, better movie.

After the Fourth of July behemoth blockbuster, the rest of the summer films look like other studios' trashy attempts at box office gold. It's not about quality, of course. It's about what half-baked flick can draw the most vacationing students.

There are busts like King Arthur and Catwoman. But the second half of summer 2004 also saw high profile projects like the surprising I, Robot with Will Smith, Matt Damon's solid The Bourne Supremacy (vying for the worst title of the year) and the highly anticipated but lame M. Night Shyamalan horror tale, The Village. But none of these films could hold a candle to the web-slinging hero.

A couple of coiffeur-challenged men helped take Peter Parker off our collective brain: Will Ferrell as a misogynist TV newsman in the '70s-set comedy Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and Tom Cruise as a remorseless assassin in the L.A. crime drama, Collateral. Jonathan Demme's remake of The Manchurian Candidate also made some waves this summer, but its love seemed to come mostly from critics, not ticket-buyers.

A staple of every summer season in modern Hollywood is counter-programming. These are films for those folks who don't care to see pretty-boy Cruise running around L.A. in designer suits or Doc Ock scaling skyscrapers in New York City. The alternative summer offerings of 2004 included Open Water and Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle and the break out independent Garden State, writer-director-star Zach Braff's quirky romance which proved that post-Star Wars, pre-Closer Natalie Portman could carry a film with just her smile.

September, technically the last month of the summer movie season, also brought a handful of studio and independent releases. If you're fortunate, you missed them. Films like The Cookout, Paparazzi and National Lampoon's Gold Diggers signified the last faint breaths of brainless summer entertainment. When Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow opened toward the end of September, it was clear that the next movie season was beginning. A stopgap season that leads directly into end-of-the-year "award" movies, a season without spiders. (Rodger Pille)

That's How It Ends (October-December)
A pessimistic film critic — one of the many on the verge of film burnout — will tell you that by October he can tell if the movie-going year has been a complete disaster or not. After all, nine months of reviewing have passed. The summer blockbusters are history. If there hasn't been a standout release by October, whether Hollywood release, foreign-language drama or fringe independent, there's little hope for redemption in the next 90 days.

Meanwhile, the seasoned film optimist remains convinced that the best is yet to come. The final three months of the year are heaven for adults interested in serious adult dramas. The strategy for studios and art-house film distributors to release their award-worthy films around key fall film festivals like Telluride, Toronto and Venice and at the start of the annual awards season means that the best movies are always saved for last.

Summer belongs to Spider-Man, while October, November and December belong to a variety of films: Mike Leigh's absorbing period drama about a backroom abortionist, Vera Drake; Brazilian director Walter Salles' Che Guevara drama, The Motorcycle Diaries; and Mike Nichols' scathing relationship drama, Closer.

The end of the year is when critics are revitalized, regaining the energy needed to head into a new year of watching and reviewing movies. Remember, the New Year begins with the family road trip comedy, Are We There Yet? and the talking animals movie Racing Stripes, proving that critics need all the extra energy they can muster.

It's also the key time of year when critics are reminded of the interest gap between many readers and themselves. The critic — someone who craves films that are different and daring — will rave about the latest Hou Hsiao-Hsien drama, Café Lumière, and French maverick Catherine Breillat's female sexuality drama, Anatomy of Hell — two esoteric films seen by few readers. At the same time, many people flock to escapist entertainment like the Nicolas Cage treasure hunt drama National Treasure — a film most critics, myself include, consider watching as the low point of the job.

The holiday miracles I aspire to experience are those extraordinary films when critics and the masses come together and embrace equally. Without a new Lord of the Rings movie this December — or any family-friendly adventure for that matter — it's hard to say what film will excite critics and Joe Public equally. Critics have already turned against director Joel Schumacher's adaptation of the Broadway musical The Phantom of the Opera.

Maybe Martin Scorsese's Howard Hughes bio-drama The Aviator will bridge the gap between critics and audiences? Maybe the big screen Fat Albert? Time and ticket sales will tell. (Steve Ramos)

Top 10 Lists

Steve Ramos:
1. The Brown Bunny

Damnation from some and praise from others is the price an avant-garde filmmaker like Vincent Gallo pays for making challenging work at a conservative time for American film. Gallo plays Bud Clay, a brooding biker haunted by memories of an ex-girlfriend who undertakes a cross-country odyssey through the United States. With its shaky footage of speedway racing, buzzing static and matter-of-fact sex, Gallo has made a masterpiece.

2. House of Flying Daggers

House of Flying Daggers, the latest epic adventure film from director Zhang Yimou, is ornate and colorful with luxurious costumes and spectacular landscapes equal to its adventure, romance and excitement. In 859 A.D. China, two government soldiers (Asian superstars Takeshi Kaneshiro and Andy Lau) battle for the heart of a blind dancer, Mei (Zhang Ziyi), while chasing a group of rebel terrorists.

3. Dogville

Lars von Trier, the great provocateur of world cinema, draws inspiration from Thornton Wilder's Our Town for a cinematic stage play that's daring and new. Nicole Kidman stars as Grace, a fugitive who seeks shelter in the Depression-era mining town of Dogville. Kidman is a force on the film's stage equal to von Trier's boldness, setting the action on a stage where chalk lines stand in for buildings.

4. Sideways

Veteran character actor Paul Giamatti receives the role of a lifetime in filmmaker Alexander Payne's rich comic drama Sideways, as an aspiring writer and wine expert unhappy with his life. Giamatti is believably morose as Miles Raymond, the most fascinating film anti-hero in recent memory.

5. Maria Full of Grace

Matter-of-fact storytelling, an extraordinary, lifelike performance from lead actress Catalina Sandino Moreno and beautiful photography courtesy of cameraman Jim Denault, come together brilliantly in first-time feature filmmaker Joshua Marston's taut, Spanish-language drama. Maria Alvarez (Moreno) is a 17-year-old, small-town Colombian girl who risks her life for the financial payoff as a "mule," someone who swallows pellets of heroin and travels to the United States where she will release the pellets to waiting drug dealers. Moments of extreme tension boost the real-life drama, but Martson never loses sight of the intimate nature of Maria's story.

6. I'll Sleep When I'm Dead

Veteran British filmmaker Mike Hodges' atmospheric, gangster drama is equal to his landmark 1970 gangster film, Get Carter. The film is a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards, slowly revealing loner Will Graham's (Clive Owen) attempts to find out why his brother Davy (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) committed suicide. Hodges' challenging film is steeped in atmosphere and psychology, one that rewards audiences who stick with the crosscutting story.

7. The Motorcycle Diaries

Brazilian director Walter Salles adapts the journals of Ernesto "Che" Guevara (Gael Garcia Bernal) and his friend, Dr. Alberto Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna), into a visually rich, emotional and thoroughly engaging road story. Everything in the film — its stunning photography, lead and supporting performances and heartfelt finale — comes together brilliantly.

8. The Saddest Music in the World

Visionary filmmaker Guy Maddin delivers his best film to date, The Saddest Music of the World, an expressionistic adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's story about the legless owner of a Winnipeg brewer (Isabella Rossellini) who stages a contest to determine the saddest music in the Great Depression. The entire history of golden age cinema, from Lon Chaney dramas to Busby Berkeley musicals, flashes before your eyes while Maddin makes his homage dazzling, unique and original.

9. Code 46

Director Michael Winterbottom continues to be a filmmaker of diversity with this large-scale, engrossing sci-fi drama. Set in an Asian metropolis in the near future, Tim Robbins' perfectly subtle performance as a corporate detective out to find a company employee who's smuggling identity cards (Samantha Morton). Winterbottom makes clever use of present-day Dubai and Shanghai, creating an eerie world where the haves reside in luxurious cities and the have-nots are forced to desert wastelands.

10. The Return

Two young brothers (Ivan Dobronravov and Vladimir Garin) embark on a reunion trip with their estranged father (Konstantin Lavronenko) in Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev's intense, dark, humanistic drama. The Return is a timeless story, and the vast Russian landscape, its spectacle and power, is as much a character as its lead actors.

Rodger Pille
1. The Aviator

Big, bold and brash, much like the personality of Howard Hughes, The Aviator is Martin Scorsese's best work since Raging Bull. Great direction and performances. Cate Blanchett should start dress-shopping.

2. Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind

Super-scribe Charlie Kaufman keeps topping himself. This film about how it feels to break up is wildly inventive, endlessly engrossing and visually stunning. Jim Carrey shows he can play down.

3. Garden State

A little film, to be sure, with big impact. Writer-director-star Zach Braff has arrived. And Natalie Portman shows she still has "it." Call it this year's Swingers. Its cult following will watch and love it every time it pops up on cable.

4. The Passion of the Christ

A film so politicized that it sadly won't get its due. Brave and gloriously shot, Mel Gibson's labor of love is a technical masterwork. The fact that Gibson's source material is also the greatest story ever told, well, helps too.

5. Ray

In a year chock full of biopics, this was the least garish. And yet it was the most profound. Jamie Foxx deserves all the props he gets for his mature performance, but the film is every bit as good as he is.

6. Sideways

Male midlife crisis has never been explored so fully nor mined for such poignant moments of drama. But that the film is also very funny speaks directly to writer-director Alexander Payne's unique ability.

7. Open Water

Bar none, the scariest film this year, if not this century. Simple and low-tech, shot documentary-like and based on actual events, Open Water is perfectly told. The Blair Witch Project wishes it were half as good.

8. Closer

This is the rare high-profile film that succeeds, and not because of its star wattage. Director Mike Nichols deftly handles those ugly moments in relationships that most people turn away from. He zooms in on them.

9. What The #$*! (Bleep) Do We (K)now!?

While several documentaries got their due this year, it was this heady film about quantum physics that burrowed into our movie conscious. A well-done and insightful look into the power of the mind.

10. Finding Neverland

Deeply touching without trying too hard, Marc Forster's film about author J.M. Barrie and his muse for Peter Pan is heartfelt and rings true. Johnny Depp continues his Midas touch.

TT Clinkscales
1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Charlie Kaufman digs into the pain of rejection and the fear of loss and unearths the roots of love and attraction. Michel Gondry crafts a heady mix of dark drama and smart wit that, above all else, is deeply human.

2. The Sea Inside

Director Alejandro Amenabar has explored the mysteries of life in his past works with an eye towards the surreal (Open Your Eyes) and the supernatural (The Others), but here with a dynamic, sensual performance from Javier Bardem, he discovers what it means to die and live with dignity.

3. Before Sunset

Richard Linklater enjoyed mainstream success with last year's School of Rock and then returned to more familiar ground along with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in this follow-up to Before Sunrise. Nine years later, audiences get reintroduced to a couple of old friends and things pick up exactly as they should. How often do we get such a wonderful second chance?

4. Collateral

For all the deserved buzz about Jamie Foxx's career defining role as Ray Charles, his quiet supporting work in Michael Mann's gritty digital two-man study might actually be the better performance. It is without a doubt strong enough to match the star power of Tom Cruise note for note.

5. Vera Drake

A beautiful performance from a relative unknown (Imelda Staunton) very nearly steals the spotlight from director Mike Leigh. But Vera Drake is Mike Leigh doing what he does best — guiding his performers to perfectly natural explorations into complex characters in the most human of dramas.

6. We Don't Live Here Anymore

It starts with what must be strong source material and then sinks into the messiness of life and love going to hell in a hand basket. Each character has a moment to shine and bleed right before our eyes. And how could audiences not relish watching Laura Dern, Peter Krause, Mark Ruffalo and Naomi Watts?

7. House of Flying Daggers

Zhang Yimou has a banner year from a critical standpoint. Hero, while never quite released in the U.S. as it should have been, attracted a devout following and served as a colorfully stylish appetizer for Daggers' emotionally sumptuous main course. By the end of Daggers, the fighting exchanges grace for primal passion. That's how all films should live and die.

8. She Hate Me

Why do we now hate Spike Lee so much? His recent work (from Bamboozled to The 25th Hour) hasn't even registered on the cultural radar or the local cineplex's. She Hate Me proves Lee is still willing to take aim at race and class in American society. Now he's adding naked commerce, corporate scandal and sexual orientation to the mix. His vision might not be perfect, but the man and his films remain fearless.

9. Sideways

Alexander Payne finally knocks me off my feet. His films have always been smart and worthy of respect, but here, thanks to Paul Giamatti, Thomas Hayden Church, Sandra Oh and the lovely Virginia Madsen, Sideways exposed a sad, dark beating heart.

10. Closer

Along with We Don't Live Here Anymore and Sideways, Closer might define 2004 as the Year of Disastrous Indiscretions. Although if we must watch relationships sour, we would be hard-pressed to find a more stunning cast. Mike Nichols recaptures some of his past acidic glory, but everyone needs to remember the feral work of Clive Owen and Natalie Portman.

Steven Rosen
1. Sideways

In this bittersweet comedy about wine, women and angst, Alexander Payne sets his characters free from romantic-movie clichés and the great actors respond.

2. Kill Bill Vol. 2

Unlike the bad Vol. 1, this had a transfixing meditative quality — and David Carradine — to go with Uma Thurman and Quentin Tarantino's exciting action sequences and fabulous cinematography.

3. Osama

Afghan director Siddiq Barmak artfully dramatizes the horrors of the medieval-like Taliban by concentrating on a 12-year-old girl's plight. Heartbreaking.

4. My Architect

Nathaniel Kahn's documentary about his mysterious father, architect Louis Kahn, investigates how a man can change the world yet neglect his family.

5. The Aviator

Martin Scorsese's biopic of Howard Hughes soars, thanks to Leonardo DiCaprio, as it re-creates the glamorous worlds of pre-World War II Hollywood and aviation.

6. Million Dollar Baby

Carefully building in emotional impact, Clint Eastwood's tale of a female boxer (Hilary Swank) is masterfully mature filmmaking.

7. Kinsey

Liam Neeson brings Indiana University sex researcher Alfred Kinsey to life in all his fascinating complexity in Bill Condon's film.

8. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ... and Spring

Set at a shrine on a lake, Korean director Kim Ki-Duk's Buddhist parable about change in life is astonishingly beautiful.

9. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

Bill Murray's melancholy humor helps give heart to Wes Anderson's absurdist comedy of an oceanographer facing financial woes.

10. Hotel Rwanda

Terry George's inspirational, exciting film features a triumphant Don Cheadle as a Rwandan hotelier trying to save countrymen from genocide.

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