The 10 best movies of 2004

Salon's critics pick the year's finest films -- from the modest "Before Sunset" to the operatic "House of Flying Daggers" to the magical "A Very Long Engagement" to the triumphantly weird "Incredibles" and "SpongeBob."

Published December 24, 2004 9:00PM (EST)

Stephanie Zacharek's 10 Best Films

The compilation of the 10-best list is the hardest chore of the year, not because it isn't a pleasure to look back on the movies that were the most delightful or affecting but because the final list never feels as definitive as it should. The things we love about movies are far too slippery for lists. Javier Bardem's face, so beautifully chiseled and yet a thorny argument against the tyranny of joie de vivre, in "The Sea Inside," for example: It's a face that could constitute a whole category in itself.

No character made me laugh harder than Edna Mode, the dictatorial fashion designer in "The Incredibles" -- as actors, cartoon characters get no respect. And a picture like Catherine Breillat's "Anatomy of Hell," flawed and difficult, has lingered with me longer than other movies I've seen that I love and admire more. How do you explain that? You don't. You simply make a list, which is, at best, a valiant attempt to fold the greatest number of intangibles into a measly handful of discrete, numbered items.

1) "Before Sunset" -- Director Richard Linklater and actors Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke reconnect nine years later to show us what kind of lives Celine and Jesse went on to lead after their one-night love affair in "Before Sunrise." "Before Sunset" is so beautifully written, and so simply constructed, that it could easily fool you into thinking it's inconsequential. But this evocative, haunting romance (in addition to being very funny) is adult enough to recognize that disappointment is not only a fact of adult life but also, sometimes, a component of love. There have been bigger movies made about smaller things. This one is modest, fine-grained and close to perfect.

2) "House of Flying Daggers" -- Zhang Yimou's lush adventure-romance is a martial-arts movie that owes more to Bizet or Puccini than to Bruce Lee: It's operatic and blissfully enveloping. And the lead actors -- Zhang Ziyi, Takeshi Kaneshiro and Andy Lau -- all have the charisma of old-fashioned movie stars. "House of Flying Daggers" seduces with color, sound and movement. No movie this year made such effective and wide-ranging use of the sensual vocabulary of moviemaking.

3) "Hotel Rwanda" -- There are certain movies that, with equal parts skill and, yes, manipulation, get you thinking about what kind of a person you are, and ways in which you might have failed people around you. Based on the true story of Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel manager who sheltered more than 1,200 Hutus and Tutsis during the 1994 Rwandan massacre, Terry George's "Hotel Rwanda" -- beautifully constructed and directed, with a career-defining performance by Don Cheadle -- is one of those pictures. "The Passion of the Christ" was the movie most alleged Christians were hyped up about this year, probably because it allowed them to feel self-congratulatory about their willingness to wallow in their savior's suffering. But "Hotel Rwanda" is the picture that really captures the essence of Judeo-Christian values: It takes the measure of our compassion for our fellow human beings, and demands that we hold ourselves accountable for the things we might have done and didn't.

4) "Last Life in the Universe" -- Thai director Pen-ek Ratanaruang's spun-sideways love story has the element of surprise working for it. A handsome librarian (Asano Tadanobu) falls for a young mystery woman, but it's that woman's sister (Sinitta Boonyasak) who ultimately holds the most mystery of all. "Last Life in the Universe" is stunning to look at, evocative and passionate in its abstract beauty. And it reminds us that gangsters are people too.

5) "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead" -- Mike Hodges' movies -- "Get Carter," "Croupier" and this chilly, superbly constructed little noir -- are among the coldest ever made. But no other director can make you feel so much for characters who are essentially unlikable.

6) "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" -- The first true Harry Potter movie -- in other words, the first to capture not only the books' sense of longing but their understanding of the way magic underlies the mundane, instead of just prancing fancifully at a far remove from it. Alfonso Cuarón has made one of the most masterfully conceived and shot fantasy films of all time, precisely because it looks so un-fantastical. Cuarón -- who was born in Mexico City -- is highly attuned to that quintessentially English characteristic: understatement. The colors of "The Prisoner of Azkaban" are muted and intense: smoky grays, misty browns and brilliant greens. These are the types of colors that don't reach out to us -- we need to come to them. And that's how "The Prisoner of Azkaban" works its most powerful magic.

7) "The Incredibles" and "The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie" -- Of course, it's cheating to squeeze two movies into one category. But SpongeBob, the undersea hedonist who wants to soak up every pleasure life has to offer, wouldn't force himself to choose, so why should I? Weirdly, some critics have taken "The Incredibles" to task, calling it an Ayn Rand-y fable that extols the superiority of the megatalented over the merely ordinary. Oddly enough -- or not, given how cracked I think the Ayn Rand reading is -- I saw "The Incredibles" as a rallying cry for the cultivation and preservation of individuality in an overhomogenized society. (And not just so you can lord your superpowers over the hoi polloi, either. How do the anti-"Incredibles" types explain the way Dash throws the race at the end of the movie? Also: Director Brad Bird knew he'd found the voice for the character of Violet when he heard Sarah Vowell on that bastion of objectivist propaganda, NPR's "This American Life.") And then there's SpongeBob: Are we supposed to see him as an aggressive capitalist who wants it all -- the great job, the walk-in closet full of cardboard pants, the precariously tall ice-cream sundaes? The real lesson he imparts, if there has to be one (and there doesn't, unless you're a killjoy), is that it takes more than a seaweed mustache to make you a man.

8) "Hellboy" -- Like most stories based on comic books, "Hellboy," in which Ron Perlman plays a hulking, beer-guzzling, butt-kicking, red-skinned demon with the tenderest of hearts, has a deeply moral underpinning. But director Guillermo del Toro is less interested in your standard-issue battle between good and evil than he is in exploring the nooks and crannies of human vulnerability. Having superpowers doesn't mean you can escape pain -- in fact, it may mean you're destined to suffer some things more acutely. "Hellboy" is a superhero movie with soul.

9) "The Aviator" -- Like Eeyore with his empty hunny pot and his busted birthday balloon, I kept taking this off the list, then putting it back on, then taking it off. But ultimately, it felt wrong to put it anywhere else. Martin Scorsese's Paul Bunyan-style tall tale about the shadowy mythological beast known as Howard Hughes -- those mere mortals who glimpsed him describe him as a fearless flying creature with the talons of an eagle -- is superior Hollywood entertainment. It's also a three-hour movie that doesn't even pretend to be an epic, and how rare is that these days?

10) "Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle" -- Ecstatically silly entertainment, made by a director (Danny Leiner) who recognizes the durability of the road movie (as well as the inherent charm of observant Jewish stoners). And from now on, whenever you see a teen comedy, you'll have a new game to play: "Spot the Nonwhite Sidekick Tucked In to Show How Progressive a Filmmaker Is." Leiner has changed the rules, so deftly that people almost didn't notice.

Honorable mentions: And now, with the toughest part of list making behind us, the fun begins. Here are the also-rans, many of which might easily have found their way onto the list above. These are pictures that, taken together, reflect the sheer damned variety that the movies still give us, year in and year out, even when we start to wonder if maybe we've seen it all: Tsai Ming-Liang's "Goodbye, Dragon Inn," Alejandro Amenábar's "The Sea Inside," Catherine Breillat's "Anatomy of Hell," Jim Fields and Michael Gramaglia's "End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones," George Hickenlooper's "Mayor of the Sunset Strip," Taylor Hackford's "Ray," John Waters' "A Dirty Shame," Vincent Gallo's "The Brown Bunny," Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill, Vol. 2," Jean-Paul Rappeneau's "Bon Voyage," Charles Stone III's "Mr. 3000," Richard Loncraine's "Wimbledon," Ondi Timoner's "DiG!" Andrew Lau and Alan Mak's "Infernal Affairs," Byambasuren Davaa and Luigi Falorni's "The Story of the Weeping Camel," Nickolas Perry and Harry Thomason's "The Hunting of the President," Richard Eyre's "Stage Beauty," István Szabó's "Being Julia," Joshua Marston's "Maria Full of Grace."

Charles Taylor's 10 Best Films

1) "House of Flying Daggers" and "Hero" -- The delayed release of Zhang Yimou's 2002 "Hero" meant we got two martial-arts dreamscapes from him in the same year and watched in astonishment as "House of Flying Daggers" made the earlier "Hero" seem like a warm-up. Thrilling adventures, mournful and rapturous, ravishing to look at, they are also, taken together, a testament to the power of movie stars to bewitch us. The greatest movie stars in the world right now come from Asia, and at times these films play as an ode to the charisma of Tony Leung, Andy Lau, Jet Li, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Maggie Cheung (whose close-ups contain as much mystery as any screen presence since Garbo) and especially Zhang Ziyi. A sprite who commands the camera (and the director's real-life love) Ziyi is regarded by Yimou here with the tenderness and awe and yearning directors reserve for their most cherished muses. Not only is Yimou the filmmaker putting wonders on the screen in these films, he's a spectator watching in rapt amazement with us.

2) "The Dreamers" -- In 2004, one movie spoke to the true believers in the audience, reaffirming their passionate devotion to the Holy Trinity. Of course I mean Bernardo Bertolucci's voluptuous celebration of sex, movies and politics. Working from Gilbert Adair's novel, which updated Jean Cocteau's "Les enfants terribles" to May 1968 Paris, Bertolucci, in his most playful film, captured both the expansive freedom and the insulation of a moment that proclaimed "All power to the imagination." Bertolucci isn't out to mourn a generation's lost revolutionary fervor but, rather, to proffer a valentine to his comrades on the barricades. And he is graceful and generous enough to disdain the "you had to have been there" elitism with which subsequent generations have been belittled by '60s veterans. He sees the beauty and reckless daring of his long-ago colleagues in his trio of young leads (Michael Pitt, Louis Garrel and the fabulous Eva Green). You have to wonder if the critics from that era who dismissed the film recognized in it the cinephilia they once possessed but have since decided will no longer get them anywhere. As one friend of mine put it, if you don't love "The Dreamers," you don't deserve movies.

3) "Before Sunset" -- Richard Linklater and stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy risk a sequel to the 1995 "Before Sunrise," one of the most exquisite romantic films ever made. What they get is a note-perfect 80-minute conversation from the two once-and-future lovers that acknowledges adult disappointment without giving in to cynicism or bitterness. If movie acting is measured by how open actors are to each other and how they exist in the moment, then what Hawke and Delpy achieve here is perfection.

4) "Last Life in the Universe"-- Working in various countries, Asian directors are delivering something approaching the excitement and sense of discovery that the nouvelle vague filmmakers gave French film in the '60s. One of two contemporary Thai directors on this list, Pen-ek Ratanaruang made what is perhaps the year's most dreamlike picture. Shot by master cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who also shot "Hero," "Last Life" is a sort of deadpan screwball comedy in which a lost man (Asano Tadanobu) is brought back to life by a kooky young girl (Sinitta Boonyasak). Only he's not really lost and she's not really a kook. Pen-ek doesn't use the conventions of screwball comedy here as much as he evokes its melancholy ghost. The tone is one of retreat from the messiness of life and finally acceptance of that messiness as the very essence of life. Seemingly light as air, the film achieves real emotional weight, and leaves an aura that stays with you.

5) "Goodbye, Dragon Inn" -- A rainy night in Taipei, Taiwan, a closing movie house showing its final feature, a few scattered customers watching (or not watching) King Hu's 1966 martial-arts classic "Dragon Gate Inn." Those are the elements of Tsai Ming-Liang's aching, lovely elegy to moviegoing itself. Tsai sees movie theaters as haunted houses, where the ghosts of all who have graced the screen are more real than the transitory audience, the clubfooted ticket taker, the projectionist she is silently in love with, the unlucky young man cruising the theater's Byzantine byways. The images may even be more real than the two aged stars of the King Hu film who sit among the sparse patrons, watching their younger selves on the screen. Their presence is a poetic and painful demonstration of the glory and tyranny of the movies: their ability to outlive us all.

6) "Ray" -- Taylor Hackford's beautifully directed biopic didn't make the conventions of the genre seem fresh, but he showed the conviction and emotional punch that they can still have in the right hands. Like the art of the man it pays tribute to, Hackford's movie aims for the biggest audience it can. That's where it finds its voice, its expansiveness, its faith in popular art as democracy in action. Hackford does superb work with the actors. Jamie Foxx's incarnation of Ray gets the familiar gestures so right you can miss that Foxx works from the inside out. And since black actresses still continue to be underrepresented in Hollywood, there's a special joy in the great quartet this movie gives us -- Kerry Washington, Aunjanue Ellis, Regina King and, as Ray's mother, fierce, heartbreaking newcomer Sharon Warren. In a year when many of us felt alienated from our own country, "Ray" let us feel the omnivorous inclusiveness that is America at its best. No mainstream movie was as emotionally satisfying.

7) "A Very Long Engagement" -- Jean-Pierre Jeunet's insanely, wonderfully complicated World War I tale (superior to Sebastien Japrisot's novel) has the intricacy and homemade charm of a mechanical toy from the turn of the 20th century. The film is a mystery of what happened to a group of French soldiers tried for treason, a love story about a woman's refusal to believe that her fiancé is dead, an antiwar melodrama and, more than anything, a demonstration of a narrative's power to wrap us in its clutches. The fine cast includes Audrey Tautou (leaving the adorable shtick behind), Ticky Holgado, Tchéky Karyo, Denis Lavant, Elina Lowensohn and Jodie Foster. The film is like a tunnel back to a fully realized world, and Jeunet is the magician who takes us there.

8) "Hotel Rwanda" -- Terry George's shattering film of the 1994 genocide, the West's cowardly indifference and the hotel manager who saved more than 1,200 of his countrymen from execution is an example of what can be accomplished by a principled filmmaker using real events as raw material. The movie has a blunt, outraged immediacy that harks back to the muckraking Warner Bros. melodramas of the '30s. In his first starring role, Don Cheadle is superb as a man who holds onto this sense of decency amid the derangement of everyday life.

9) "Blissfully Yours" -- Thirty-four-year-old Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul is one of the truest sensualists to emerge in movies in recent years. This 2002 film, released theatrically in the United States this year, makes you feel as if life itself is unfolding on the screen, each moment indefinably precious. As its two lovers escape into the forest setting, prosaic, dreary everyday life is transformed by the promise of freedom. All through the film the happiness of those moments when the world is held at bay coalesces, dissolves and is found again. As an expression of the fragility of perfect moments, this is the closest movies may ever get to Manet's painting "Le déjeuner sur l'herbe."

10) "13 Going on 30" -- As an awkward teenage girl whose birthday wish turns her into the sophisticated career woman she longs to be (at least on the outside) Jennifer Garner gives the kind of performance that made earlier movie audiences fall in love with Carole Lombard, Margaret Sullavan and, before that, Marion Davies. The script's conventional ending eventually lets Garner down, but director Gary Winick does everything he can to provide some luster. And it's Garner's show, anyway. Executing one deft bit of physical comedy after another, she manages to embody the movie's sweet-spiritedness, poke gentle fun at her heroine's teenage enthusiasms and evoke some real pathos for the moment when we suspect we're leaving those enthusiasms behind. Garner's performance is a charmer, a long-sustained expression of wide-eyed aplomb.

Honorable mentions: Jean-Claude Brisseau's "Secret Things," Mike Hodges' "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead," George Hickenlooper's "Mayor of the Sunset Strip," Andrew Lau and Alan Mak's "Infernal Affairs," Alfonso Cuarón's "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," Vincent Gallo's "The Brown Bunny," Catherine Breillat's "Sex Is Comedy" and "Anatomy of Hell," Charles Stone III's "Mr. 3000," Guillermo del Toro's "Hellboy," Jean-Paul Rappeneau's "Bon Voyage," Byambasuren Davaa and Luigi Falorni's "The Story of the Weeping Camel," Alejandro Amenábar's "The Sea Inside," Nickolas Perry and Harry Thomason's "The Hunting of the President," Jim Fields and Michael Gramaglia's "End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones," Danny Leiner's "Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle," Richard Eyre's "Stage Beauty," Ondi Timoner's "DiG!"

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

MORE FROM Charles Taylor

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

MORE FROM Stephanie Zacharek

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