Combustible Celluloid

What Happened to Me in the Dark: 2004

Choosing the Year's Best Films

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Looking at the year's best films, my tastes fall somewhere between Francois Truffaut's "films that pulse" and critic Manny Farber's "termite art," which is another way to describe scrappy, brutal little projects with a nervy life force. I'm drawn to filmmakers that, despite the trials and tribulations of the movie business, can still deliver a film with their own personal signature. But most of all I love films that capture truth in a cinematic way. Not "based-on-a-true-story" truth, but a real, emotional truth that, sitting in the dark, we can recognize and call our own.

1. Goodbye Dragon Inn
In this haunting Taiwanese film, director Tsai Ming-liang (What Time Is It There?) gives us the last day in the life of a dilapidated movie theater, screening King Hu's "Dragon Inn" (1967). While the camera barely moves or records a whisper of dialogue, the lost souls who inhabit the theater search in the dark for some kind of human connection, be it celluloid or flesh.

2. Before Sunset
Richard Linklater's small miracle of a sequel reunites the two characters (played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) from Before Sunrise, now more mature, more intelligent and more wounded. Everything is at stake now: the beauty of hope and the sadness of nothing left to lose.

3. Kill Bill - Vol. 2
Quentin Tarantino's extraordinary Western kung-fu epic unfolds itself at last, and proves far more exciting -- and more shockingly human -- than even the excellent "Vol. 1" could have foretold. It's "Once Upon a Time in the West" for the new millennium.

4. Millennium Mambo
Though he has made many masterworks over the past two decades, Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien has never seen one of his films commercially distributed in the United States until now. Three years old and stepping delicately into Won Kar-wai territory, "Millennium Mambo" opened and closed in one week last May, but told us more about longing and disconnected love than any other movie this year. The achingly gorgeous Shu Qi stars as the drifting, ethereal girl whose reach exceeds her grasp.

5. Hero
Cutting his teeth on stately Chinese costume dramas, director Zhang Yimou has now delivered the largest, most glamorous martial arts film since Tsui Hark's "Swordsman II" or Wong Kar-wai's "Ashes of Time." Its awesome use of color, scale and movement make Zhang's disappointing follow-up "House of Flying Daggers" look positively grungy.

6. Million Dollar Baby
Clint Eastwood could have retired after a triumph like "Mystic River," but has instead done one better. Taking his cues from the romantic, pulpy boxing movies of old, he has combined this story of a rising girl boxer (Hilary Swank) with an old-fashioned melodrama straight out of "The Bridges of Madison County." Morgan Freeman romanticizes the proceedings further with his dreamy narration.

7. The Saddest Music in the World
A gorgeous, utterly bizarre German expressionist-inspired gem from Canada's Guy Maddin, celebrating glass legs filled with beer, American gung-ho-ism and sad music everywhere. Isabella Rossellini has her best role since "Blue Velvet."

8. Crimson Gold
Abbas Kiarostami's protégé Jafar Panahi moves ever closer to the inner workings of Iran, exploring class differences through the eyes of an overweight, perpetually outcast, pizza deliveryman. As with Panahi's "The White Balloon," Kiarostami provided the film's brilliant original screenplay.

9. The Aviator
Howard Hughes as seen through the eyes of Martin Scorsese, who lays bare the millionaire's tormented soul with the same raw beauty as seen in Travis Bickle and Jake LaMotta.

10. Dogville
On my Examiner list, I chose Sideways for my number ten spot, but later reflection made me change my mind. It's a very good film, but severely overrated at this point, probably to its detriment. In its stead, I chose this intelligent, aggravating and innovative Lars von Trier film that deserves to be discussed long after the Sideways furor has faded. Plus, the sublime Nicole Kidman has yet another opportunity to show off her superb chops.

5 Runners-Up

Honorable Mentions:

  • The Company (Robert Altman)
  • Deserted Station (Ali Reza Raisian)
  • Dolls (Takeshi Kitano)
  • Fahrenheit 9/11 (Michael Moore)
  • The Five Obstructions (Joregen Leth/Lars von Trier)
  • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Alfonso Cuaron)
  • Hotel Rwanda (Terry George)
  • The Incredibles (Brad Bird)
  • Last Life in the Universe (Pen-ek Ratanaruang)
  • Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (Joe Berlinger/Bruce Sinofsky)
  • Moolaadé (Ousmane Sembene)
  • Notre Musique (Jean-Luc Godard)
  • Tarnation (Jonathan Caouette)
  • To Be & To Have (Nicholas Philibert)
  • Vera Drake (Mike Leigh)

5 Best Revivals

  • The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo)
  • The Big Red One: The Reconstruction (Samuel Fuller)
  • Burn! (Gillo Pontecorvo)
  • Godzilla (Ishiro Honda)
  • One from the Heart (Francis Ford Coppola)

12 Best Documentaries

  • Bright Leaves (Ross McElwee)
  • Control Room (Jehane Noujaim)
  • The Corporation (Mark Achbar/Jennifer Abbott/Joel Bakan)
  • Fahrenheit 9/11 (Michael Moore)
  • The Five Obstructions (Lars von Trier/Jorgen Leth)
  • Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (Joe Berlinger/Bruce Sinofsky)
  • Super Size Me (Morgan Spurlock)
  • Tarnation (Jonathan Caouette)
  • This So-Called Disaster (Michael Almereyda)
  • To Be & To Have (Nicholas Philibert)
  • Touching the Void (Kevin Macdonald)
  • Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession (Xan Cassavetes)

Guilty Pleasures

Movies I liked that no one else did...

  • Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (Adam McKay)
  • The Big Bounce (George Armitage)
  • Birth (Jonathan Glazer)
  • Catwoman (Pitof)
  • Ella Enchanted (Tommy O'Haver)
  • Gozu (Takashi Miike)
  • Hellboy (Guillermo Del Toro)
  • I'll Sleep When I'm Dead (Mike Hodges)
  • Mean Girls (Mark S. Waters)
  • Saw (James Wan)
  • Secret Window (David Koepp)
  • Silver City (John Sayles)
  • Torque (Joseph Kahn)
  • Twisted (Philip Kaufman)
  • When Will I Be Loved (James Toback)
  • Wimbledon (Richard Loncraine)

The Best of 1955

These ten movies will be celebrating their 50th anniversary in 2005. With luck, some of them will be shown in revivals or on new DVDs.

  1. The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton)
  2. Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray)
  3. Ordet (Carl Theodor Dreyer)
  4. Confidential Report (Orson Welles)
  5. Land of the Pharaohs (Howard Hawks)
  6. The Trouble with Harry (Alfred Hitchcock)
  7. The Naked Dawn (Edgar G. Ulmer)
  8. Bad Day at Black Rock (John Sturges)
  9. All That Heaven Allows (Douglas Sirk)
  10. Lola Montes (Max Ophuls)

See also the year's worst.

This list also appeared in a slightly different version in the San Francisco Examiner.

December 30, 2004

Movies Unlimtied