1. Brokeback Mountain: So the "gay cowboys eating pudding" (cf. South Park) movie turned out pretty well. A set of expert performances from a group of actors no one had too much respect for (save jake) carried a film with a controversial topic that depicted the love that dare not speak its name without camp or exploitation. Some brilliantly compsoed shots (ledger standing before a backdrop of fireworks, gyllenhaal lassoing ledger in the wyoming noon light) help moved a movie that was at time langorously paced. There is little doubt that the movie is a frontrunner at the Oscars and it deservedly should be.
2. Good Night and Good Luck: George Clooney has shaken the yoke of tv stardom this year with what julia roberts called his annum mirabilis (year of miracles). His brilliantly done ode to edward murrow succeeded with brilliant directorial moves and an amazing performance from david straithairn. Though if an actor had been cast as McCarthy, he would surely have a strong chance as Best Supporting Actor, but by using only documentary footage, the film took a risk that paid off handsomely.
3. Match Point: Woody Allen has returned to the top of his game after a string of ridiculously bad movies (deconstructing harry, hollywood ending, curse of the jade scorpion) and some decent but ignored films (melinda and melinda, small time crooks). Match Point returns Allen to his Crime and Misdemeanor days with the morality tale of a man who marrys rich but then finds passion with a poor American actress. Jonathan Rhys Myers, who seems to always have a sneer on his face, carries the film with disdain and opportunistic motive. Though Scarlett Johansson become shrill at the end (apparently Allen cannot make a film without a taste of misogyny), her seductress injects raw chemistry. (Supposedly the part was supposed to be Kate Winslet's and I would love to see that).
4. Mrs. Henderson Presents: Yes, Eddie, it is in my top five, so there. This film is not simply the mildly amusing story of a wealthy British widow who opens a titty bar in the West End of London shortly before WWII, but rather a musing on the meaning of war, emotion, and love. Judi Dench contributed three great performances this year to three very good films: Ladies in Lavender, Pride and Prejudice and Mrs. Henderson. This film with its strong script by Martin Sherman (Bent) and some heartbreaking moments with Bob Hoskin's career best performance should be seen by more people than have currently seen it.
5. Memoirs of a Geisha: A devastatingly beautiful (if problematic) adaptation of Arthur Golden's novel. The assesmbled cast is amazing: probably the greatest cast of asian actors since 1961's Flower Drum Song. Gong Li, Michelle Yeoh, Ken WATanabe, and the frighteningly gorgeous Ziyi Zhang comprise the megastars of Asian cinema (But wait couldnt they find a part for chow Yun Fat or Margaret Cho???). I will agree with Carina Chocano who felt that the rich historical background of the novel gets lost in the adaptation but I don't think it detracts horribly from this film that is worth seeing for its wondrous cinematography by Dion Beebe (collateral).
6. Rent--Yes, only those who know the soundtrack by heart loved this movie, but goddamnit we loved this movie. Rarely have the original broadway casts been retained for the film version of a film (Audrey Hepburn replacing Julie Andrews in mY Fair Lady; Vanessa Redgrave replacing Julie Andrews in Camelot), but here all but Daphne Rubin Vega are playing th eparts they played in the first production off Broadway (Daphne declined to be in the film). Chris Columbus has not made an imaginatively brilliant film by any stretch of the imagination, but damnit it is faithful and cut out none of the music. Though when I left the movie, I will admit to humming the words of the famous parody of Rent contained in Team America: "Everyone has AIDS." But still for us die hards, it was good...
7. March of the Penguins: Awww look at the cuddly little babies. And the outtakes at the end... Aww look at the little penguins looking at the cameramen. Awww. Morgan Freeman and James Earl Jones should duke it out for best voice over narration of all time.
8. Munich: Spielberg ain't my favorite director of all time, but he crafted a remarkably tense thriller about global terrorism. The almost Hitchcockian pace of the film is buoyed by a strong sense of postmodern relativity. As Gandhi once said: If you take an eye for an eye, everyone will be blind. A morally ambiguous film like this should be screened for our current administration who sees only black and white, but the problem is by the single act of killing, someone will replace whom you have killed and will now want to enact revenge. The circles are constantly perpetuated. I credit the script by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth's script for expunging much of the trademark Spielberg sentimentality from this film.
9. Pride and Prejudice: When I firs theard Keira Knightley was making her own Pride and Prejudice, I said to myself: Why??? The BBC version is so excellent, why try to improve upon it. THOUgh this film does not improve upon the Colin Firth-Jennifer Ehle version, this film is as EQUALLY good. Certain changes made to this one, including making the Bennet family more attuned to class difference and the final romantic ending were excellent additions that though not quite present in the novel are perfectly apt. The supporting cast of Brenda Blethyn and Donald Sutherland also displayed these two actors abundant talents.
10. Walk the Line: Though I dont want to see Reese Witherspoon win Best Actress, this film's strength came from its two very powerful performances. Though it closely paralleled last year's Ray, the two films had much different feels and the love story of June and Johnny helped this film feel more unified. But why oh why did they not include "IF I Were a carpenter" in the soundtrack? It would have been the perfect ending!
11. Capote: Last year was the year of the biopic and this year was the year of gayness. This is the transitional film between the two: a biopic of a super gay man. Playing Capote is notoriously difficult. The man's high-pitched nasal voice was so bizarre that is hard not to turn into a campy send-up (much like Robert Morse's one-man show Tru). The film's strength (and maybe also its weakness) came from its focus on the writing of Capote's masterpiece In Cold Blood. The moral center of the film is found not in Capote's self-righteous indulgence but in Catherine Keener's richly subtle Harper Lee (who also never wrote another book after Mockingbird; Capote later claimed he wrote it). A bravura peroformance from a man who should be recognized. (Did anyone else read in the LA TImes that someone else is going to do a Capote movie? sounds ridiculous to me).
12. Syriana: The CIA is now considering a ban on former CIA members writing meoirs after the release fo this film. Much like the Quiet American or the Tailor of Panama, the roots of American terrorism are not bombs but ridiculous diplomacy and corporate espionage. It is hard to think that the new American Empire is not in full force.
13. Star Wars Episode III: Lucas finally showed us where he was going with this trilogy. This last film was dark and heartwrenching. Finally, the transformation from Anakin to Darth was complete and we all gasped and fought back some tears.
14. The Constant Gardener: Ralph Fiennes has usually been a fairly cold actor, relishing evil characters that are not fully human (Schindler's List, English Patient, Red Dragon, Harry Potter ["I don't like Harry Potter but when you play Voldemort, you don't have to"], and Maid in Manhattan), but his performances in this film and the White Countess showed that maybe he has feelings after all. Rachel Weisz who is curiously hot gave a performance that shows that she can act.
15. A history of violence: A strange but powerful little film, probably David Cronenberg's best. Viggo Mortensen will forever be Aragorn but there was a strange vulnerability present in this seemingly invulnerable character that shows Viggo will find life after LOTR. Maria Bello who proved her acting chops in the Cooler once again shows her raw sexuality. Strange sex scenes but also a little hot.
16. In her Shoes: It flopped, but this chick flick showed some of the best performances of Cameron Diaz, Toni Collette and the indominantable Shirley MacLaine. It was cute and silly but actually packed an emoitonal wallop.
And here is my top Ten of 2004 as well... 1. A Very Long Engagement 2. Sideways 3. Hotel Rwanda 4. Phantom of the Opera 5. Bad Education 6. Million Dollar Baby 7. The Sea Inside 8. Fahrenheit 9/11 9. The Incredibles 10. Ray