As we entered December, I had a shortlist of candidates for my choice of the best films of the year, but no obvious first-place entry. "Kill Bill, Volume 2" came close, and "Vera Drake" had a somber perfection and a great performance, but I hadn't seen a film that simply stepped forward and announced itself as, clearly, the year's best.
Then I saw Clint Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby." I don't know what I expected. Actually, I expected nothing, as I'd heard so little about the film in advance. But as it played, I realized it never steps wrong. Never a false note. It has a purity of narrative line and a strength of performance that is classical in its perfection. I had my winner.
The best films of 2004:
1. "Million Dollar Baby"
Classical filmmaking by Clint Eastwood, pure, simple and true. Great because of what it puts in, and great because of what it leaves out: No flash, nothing much in the way of special effects, no pandering to the audience, but a story that gains in power with every scene, about characters we believe in and care for.
Hilary Swank stars as Maggie, a waitress who dreams of becoming a boxer. She's 31, too old to start professional training. That's what Frankie (Eastwood) tells her. Besides, he doesn't approve of women boxers. He owns a rundown gym and runs it with the help of his oldest friend, Eddie (Morgan Freeman). Maggie will not listen to discouragement. She comes back every day, and finally Eddie takes mercy and shows her a few moves, and finally Frankie breaks down and agrees to train her.
So now you think you know where the movie is going, but you are wrong. It's not a boxing movie; it's the story of these people and what happens to them, and it goes deeper and deeper, never taking a wrong step, never hitting a false note. It touched me like no other film this year.
2. "Kill Bill, Volume 2"
The second half of Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill" is not only better than Vol. 1, but makes the earlier movie better by providing it with a context; now we can see the entire story, and it has exuberance and passion, comedy and violence, bold self-satire and action scenes with the precision of ballet. Tarantino is the most idiosyncratic and influential director of the decade, taking the materials of pop art and transforming them into audacious epic fantasies.
Uma Thurman stars as The Bride, whose groom and entire wedding party are massacred by Bill; seeking revenge, she did battle with the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad in Vol. 1. Now we see her early training under a legendary warrior master, and her deadly conflicts with Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah), one-eyed expert of martial arts, and Bill's beer-swilling brother Budd (Michael Madsen), who buries her alive. Her final confrontation with the legendary Bill (David Carradine) is great filmmaking, illustrating how Tarantino's dialogue uses graphic description to set up scenes so that the action isn't the point, but the payoff.
3. "Vera Drake"
Along with Hilary Swank and Uma Thurman, here's another brilliant performance by a woman, in a role that could not be more different from the other two. Imelda Staunton plays a cleaning lady in early 1950s London, where wartime rationing is still in effect and poverty is the general reality. Vera Drake has a another, secret existence, "helping out girls who get in trouble." She is an abortionist, but doesn't think of it that way, accepts no payment, is a melodious plum pudding of a woman whose thoughts are entirely pragmatic.
Abortion is illegal at this time, although Mike Leigh's film shows how easily one can be obtained by the wealthy, whose doctors sign them into private clinics. For poor and desperate women, there is Vera. Leigh creates the woman and her family with gentle perception and an eye for small details that build up the larger reality; the scene where the police come to call has an urgency in which silence, shame, grief and love struggle for space in the small lives of these people.
4. "Spider-Man 2"
Here's the best superhero movie ever made. The genre does not lend itself to greatness, although the first "Superman" movie had considerable artistry and "Blade II" and "The Hulk" had their qualities. Director Sam Raimi's first Spider-Man movie was thin and the special effects too cartoony, but the sequel is a transformation. Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst bring unusual emotional complexity to comic book characters, Alfred Molina's Doc Ock is one of the great movie villains, and the special effects, while understandably not "realistic," bring a presence and a sense of (literal) gravity to the film; Spider-Man now seems like a human and not a drawing as he swings from the skyscrapers, and his personal problems -- always the strong point of the Marvel comics -- are given full weight and importance. A great entertainment.
From Senegal, the story of a strong woman who stands up to the men in her tribe when four girls come to her for protection. The custom in the land from time immemorial has required women to be circumcised, their genitals mutilated so they feel no sexual sensation. Men will not marry them otherwise. But Colle (Fatoumata Coulibaly) has refused to let her own daughter be cut, and now she evokes the tribal rule of moolaade, or "protection," to shield the other four.
This story no doubt sounds grim and will not prepare you for the life, humor and energy of the film by the African master director Ousmane Sembene. He creates a sure sense of the village life, of local characters, of men and women using tribal law like the pieces in a chess game. An important film, since ritual circumcision is common in Muslim lands, although most Islamic teaching forbids it.
6. "The Aviator"
Martin Scorsese's hugely enjoyable biopic tells the story of a man whose risks, victories and losses were all outsize. Howard Hughes was a golden boy with a Texas tool-making fortune who conquered Hollywood, made spectacular epics, loved spectacular women, built airplanes including the largest in history, bought an airline and went bankrupt several times in the process of becoming the world's richest man. Leonardo DiCaprio embodies this mercurial legend, and Scorsese re-creates a lavish Hollywood world of glamor and power. At the same time, they show Hughes battling obsessions that finally overcome him; the king of the world becomes the captive of his own fears.
DiCaprio doesn't look much like Hughes, but we forget that as he embodies the character's obsessions. He leads a lonely life, playing a public role as a successful winner while knowing, deep inside, that he is going mad. There is a scene at the height of his glory when he stands inside the door of a men's room, afraid to touch the doorknob because of a phobia about germs. Against this dark side, Scorsese balances a glorious portrait of a fabled era, and Cate Blanchett does an impersonation of Katharine Hepburn that's just a smile this side of wicked.
7. "Baadasssss!" (2004)
Not your usual movie about the making of a movie, but history remembered with humor, passion and a blunt regard for the truth. Mario Van Peebles' film tells the story of how his father, Melvin, all but created modern independent black filmmaking with "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song," a 1971 exploitation film that won critical praise and unexpectedly grossed millions. Made by, for and about African Americans, it contained harsh truth and gritty irony that hadn't been seen on the screen before.
The production was fly by night on a shoestring, and Mario, who was present for most of the original film and played Sweetback as a boy, doesn't sugarcoat his memories. Melvin did what was necessary to get the film made and never has there been such a knowledgeable portrayal of how money, personalities, compromise, idealism and harsh reality are all part of any movie -- but especially those that cost the least.8. "Sideways"
A joy from beginning to end, with occasional side trips into sadness, slapstick and truth. Paul Giamatti stars as a 40-ish sad-sack loser, an alcoholic whose best friend (Thomas Haden Church) is getting married in a week. As best man, he treats him to a vacation in California wine country, where they meet two friends (Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh) and many delightful bottles of wine. Church shamelessly cheats on his fiancee and deceives Oh; Giamatti and Madsen find a gentle, tender, tentative romance, describing grapes in the way they might describe themselves. Alexander Payne's film moves easily from broad to subtle comedy, from emotional upheaval to small moments of romance. It's the kind of movie you want to go see again, taking along some friends.9. "Hotel Rwanda"
In 1994 in Rwanda, a million members of the Tutsi tribe were massacred by members of the Hutus, in an insane upheaval of their ancient rivalry. Based on a true story, Terry George's film shows how the manager of a luxury hotel (Don Cheadle) saved the lives of his family and 1,200 guests, essentially by using all of his management skills, including bribery, flattery, apology, deception, blackmail, freebies and calling in favors. His character intuitively understands that only by continuing to act as a hotel manager can he achieve anything.
As the nation descends into anarchy, he puts on his suit and tie every morning and fakes business as usual, dealing with a murderous Hutu general not as a criminal, but as a valued client; a man who yesterday orchestrated mass murder might today want to show that he knows how to behave appropriately in the hotel lobby. With Nick Nolte as a U.N. peacekeeper who ignores his orders to help Cheadle and the lives that have come into their care.10. "Undertow"
The third film by David Gordon Green, at 29 the most poetically gifted director of his generation. Jamie Bell and Devon Alan play two brothers in rural Georgia, one a rebel, one a sweet, odd loner. Their father mourns for their dead mother and chooses for them to live in virtual isolation; then their ex-con uncle arrives, and everything changes. There is a family legend about gold coins that leads to jealousy and bloodshed, and the boys escape the uncle and try to survive during a journey both harrowing and strangely romantic; the film has the form of an action picture but the feel of a lyrical fable, and Green's eye for his backwoods locations and rusty urban hideaways creates a world immediately distinctive as his own.
His style has been categorized as "Southern Gothic," but that's too narrow. There is a poetic merging of realism and surrealism; every detail is founded on accurate observation, but the effect is somehow mythological. Listen to his dialogue; his characters say things that sound exactly like the sort of things they would really say, and yet are like nothing anyone has ever said before.
Special Jury Prize
At every film festival, the jury creates a special prize for a film that did not win the first award, and yet is somehow too good for second place. As a jury of one, I usually award my Special Prize to 10 splendid films, but this year I have chosen 15, because there is not a one I can do without. Alphabetically:
"The Assassination of Richard Nixon," which opens wide in January, stars Sean Penn as a man whose demons have destroyed his marriage and now threaten his job as an office supplies salesman. Whatever his problem, his symptom is to decide what is absolutely right, and then to absolutely insist upon it; he doesn't know when to shut up and has little idea of his effect on other people. Under unbearable psychological pressure, he marches steadfastly toward madness.
"Closer" is Mike Nichols' story, based on Patrick Marber's play, about four characters who fall in and out of love and betrayal in various combinations, complicated by their tendency to tell the truth when it doesn't exactly help anyone to know it. Natalie Portman is luminous in her first grown-up role, as a New York stripper who comes to London and falls in love with Jude Law, a journalist who writes a novel about their affair and then falls in love with Julia Roberts, his publicity photographer. She in turn meets Clive Owen, a doctor who, in his turn, meets Portman. These four people richly deserve one another. Seduced by seduction itself, they play at relationships which are lies in almost every respect, except their desire to sleep with each other.
"The Dreamers" is Bernardo Bertolucci's love song to a vanished era, the film-worshipping, politically radical, sexually liberated Paris of the late 1960s. A naive American student (Michael Pitt) meets a brother and sister (Eva Green and Louis Garrel) and is absorbed into their world of obsession with movies, politics and sex. It all seems wonderful, for a time, in a movie that places their story against a backdrop of a brief season when it did seem as if cinema could change the world.
"House of Flying Daggers" by Zhang Yimou is an audaciously beautiful, improbable, exuberant martial arts romance set in Chinese medieval times, as an undercover cop falls in love with a beautiful woman who leads a band of revolutionaries. There are extraordinary feats of combat and marksmanship, in a film not so much about action as about transcending the laws of physics. There are passages of remarkable beauty and grace, including a battle in a bamboo forest that combines conflict, choreography and syncopation. With Zhang Ziyi (from "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"), Takeshi Kaneshiro and Andy Lau.
"Kinsey" stars Liam Neeson in a bravura performance as a scientist who studies human sexuality while discovering almost nothing about human nature. Kinsey's best-selling books revised conventional thinking about what people do sexually, how they do it, how often they do it and with whom. Under Bill Condon's direction, Neeson plays Kinsey as a man who takes pure logic perhaps further than it needs to go in personal relationships; Laura Linney is wonderful as perhaps the only woman in the world who could both understand and love this impossible man.
"The Merchant of Venice" is yet another reminder of what a versatile and powerful actor Al Pacino is, and how he continues to grow. Shakespeare's play is classified as a "comedy," and indeed the farce of Portia's courtship is funny, but the story of Shylock is a tragedy. The film, directed by Michael Radford, creates a Shylock who is strangely, perversely sympathetic; Pacino's readings of the famous speeches vibrate with fierce wounded pride, and the cinematography creates a Venice of night, shadow, decadence and deceit to set beside Portia's sunny world.
"The Passion of the Christ" is accurately titled; Mel Gibson's movie is not about the teachings of Jesus, not about theology, miracles or parables, but about how he suffered and died. One of the most violent films I have ever seen, but what would be the purpose of softening the anguish? Christians believe Christ died for our sins; this is above all the story of what happens to the man, to the physical body. The film was divisive and controversial. How you related to it depended on what you brought into the theater, on your own beliefs and background. Some found it anti-Semitic. I did not and tried to explain that in my review.
"The Polar Express" was decisively defeated at the box office by "The Incredibles" when the two films opened almost simultaneously, but it didn't fold up and go away. Instead, week by week, it has been discovering its audience, and its 3-D screenings at IMAX theaters are usually sold out. Tom Hanks voices five of the characters and provides a model for their body movement, in the story of a boy who boards a train to the North Pole and witnesses great wonderments along the way. Creepy in that teasing way that lets you know eerie things could happen; it has a shivery tone, instead of the mindless jolliness of the usual Christmas movie.
"Ray" stars Jamie Foxx in a virtuoso performance as Ray Charles, the blind musical legend who largely created soul music and embraced all the pop genres. The movie doesn't sugarcoat his womanizing and drug usage, but shows him emerging from addiction to become a supremely creative force; Foxx is uncanny in his ability to evoke Charles' body language, which seemed to reflect and even conduct the music.
"The Saddest Music in the World" is a film beyond strange, by the quirky Canadian genius Guy Maddin. Isabella Rossellini plays a glass-legged brewery heiress who summons entries for a Depression-era contest to find the saddest song. Not silent and not entirely in black and white, but it looks like a long-lost classic from decades ago, grainy and sometimes faded; Maddin shoots on 8mm film and video and creates images that look like a memory from cinema's distant past. The effect is peculiar and delightful.
"Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" stars Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie in a tour de force by Kerry Conran, who uses real actors and creates almost everything else on the screen with digital effects that look like Flash Gordon's daydreams. If Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, had gone to film school, this would have been his first movie.
"The Terminal" by Steven Spielberg stars Tom Hanks as a man without a country -- or at least, without a visa. His nation ceases to exist just as he lands in America, and a customs and immigration officer (Stanley Tucci) tells him he's free to remain in the terminal but forbidden to step outside. Hanks creates a man of boundless optimism and great lovability, who makes friends, fashions a life and even begins a romance in the terminal; inspired by the French comedies of Jacques Tati, Spielberg and Hanks find comedy not only in characters but in places and things and the oddness with which they fit together.
"Touching the Void" was as unsettling and disturbing a film as I saw all year, telling the story of two men who set out to climb a mountain. One falls and shatters his leg, the other tries to help him down, they find themselves in an impossible situation, the rope must be cut, and the injured man falls into a deep crevice and incredibly, agonizingly, despairingly, fights for his survival.
"Twilight Samurai" stars Hiroyuki Sanada as a samurai in the dying days of the samurai era, who works as a bookkeeper and then is assigned to perform a murder, to his immense reluctance. Intercut with a poignant love story, and involving an extraordinary conversation between the samurai and his intended victim, it is a bittersweet masterpiece.
"When Will I Be Loved," perhaps the best film yet by the mercurial James Toback, stars Neve Campbell as a rich girl with a scruffy boyfriend who essentially tries to sell her favors to an Italian millionaire. The catch is, she doesn't need the money -- something not known by the Italian (Dominic Chianese) as they enter into a financial and psychological negotiation involving some of the smartest and most agile dialogue of the year.
It was a year when political documentaries made news, and Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" made headlines, both with its political controversy and by setting a box-office record for docs. These I especially admired, alphabetically (with one tie):
"The Agronomist" by Jonathan Demme is about the life and death of Jean Dominique, a courageous Haitian reformer who continued to broadcast attacks on corruption over his radio station, despite death threats that eventually came true.
"Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer" by Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill is a painful, unblinking portrait of the real Aileen Wuornos, bringing depth and context to the fictional version of her life in "Monster" and illuminating how brilliantly on target Charlize Theron's performance was in that movie.
"Fahrenheit 9/11" is, apart from everything else that has been said about it (and a lot has been said), surprisingly entertaining; Michael Moore is a reformer with the soul of a stand-up comic. The movie became a rallying point for pro-Kerry forces and a lightning rod for anti-Kerry critics, and will be remembered for a sequence in which Bush, told of the attack on the World Trade Center, remains immobile in a primary school classroom for long, strange minutes.
"My Architect" by Nathaniel Kahn is about his relationship (or lack of one) with his father, the architect Louis I. Kahn, who built wonderful buildings while leading an untidy and deceptive private life; he secretly supported three families at the same time.
"Riding Giants" is Stacy Peralta's extraordinary doc about the world of obsessive championship surfing, with archival footage showing each generation of surfers out-daring the last in their quest for near-suicidal challenges. Unlike the inane "surf's up" docs of the past, this one suggests the sport's dark and deadly undertow.
And "Tarnation" is Jonathan Caouette's autobiographical memory of a boy growing up gay and dealing with a mother whose mental health was destroyed by shock treatments. The film was excellent on any terms, and all the more remarkable since it was made for $218 on a borrowed Macintosh and won an invitation to Cannes.
EBERT'S WORST FILMS OF 2004
1. (tie) "Troy" 1. (tie) "Alexander" 2. "Christmas With the Kranks" 3. "The Girl Next Door" 4. "Dogville" 5. "New York Minute" 6. "The Grudge" 7. "White Chicks" 8. "Resident Evil: Apocalypse" 9. "The Whole Ten Yards" 10. "The Village"