The Best 10 Films 2004

1. Dogville (Lars Von Trier)
A condemnation of the hypocrisy of the New Testament by way of Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals. One needs a certain amount of pop culture history to understand this chthonic purging, as if no cinema after D.W. Griffith exists. Lillian Gish turned out to be Jesus in disguise, and after all her frenzied prayers didn’t save her virgin honor, she decided to burn the world down. It’s Frances Farmer having her revenge on Seattle, as Kurt Cobain once prayed for. Nicole Kidman here represents all the vengeful icons ever idolized to the point where their unwashed fans ripped their clothes. I left the theater feeling like a century’s worth of crud had been laser-surgically removed from my eyes.
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2. William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (Michael Radford)
In Shakespeare’s time, a play had to span many genres at once, to satisfy the whole family for the bulk of a day. This adaptation, steeped in location fog and circumstance, does the same, led by a passionate, riveting Al Pacino, all but unrecognizable as the money-lending Jew Shylock. The rest of the cast matches him, particularly Joseph Fiennes and Lynn Collins as the romantic leads, so intensely in love, you practically swoon in your chair watching them. The controversial anti-Semitic aspects are included in full, making this an extraordinarily complex comedic drama. We sympathize with and hate Shylock, and by the end, we’re basically tricked into catharsis with the destruction of a broken man, making us question whether theater isn’t just another way of bonding people together via torturing an outsider, whether it be the villain of a play, the new kid in school, or an entire race of people.

3. Hotel Rwanda (Terry George)
Don Cheadle is amazing as real life hotelier Paul Rusesabagina, who fought to keep his five star Belgian hotel open as a safe haven for refugees during the Rwandan genocide of 1994. This timely film shows how misperceptions of other cultures leads to disaster, and how moral duties can be escaped simply by switching the channel. That the film’s genocide occurs in Africa rather than Europe all but guarantees it will be passed over at Oscar time, further proof of how little we learn such lessons. Nonetheless, Cheadle should win Best Actor for his amazing performance as a man too scared and busy keeping others alive to second-guess his decisions.

4. The Saddest Music in the World (Guy Maddin)
Guy Maddin’s films are all runaway trains of postmodern genius, but they sometimes run out of narrative steam before they’re halfway up the tracks. With this tale of a beer baroness (Isabella Rosellini) driving up alcohol consumption by holding a sad music contest up in the frozen north, Maddin finds the perfect vehicle for his experimental, recreated madness. It bends reality all the way through and even, for the first time in a Maddin film, touches the heart.
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5. I Heart Huckabees (David O. Russell)
It’s sad that so many viewers dismissed this film as sloppy and unfocused, as it just proves it’s right and they’re all stupid. If it was released in 1969 or 1970, David O. Russell’s movie would have been an instant counter-culture hit. In 10 years, the same people now deriding this work of genius will be praising it to death.
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6. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry)
Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman is already revered in France, so his every word is like manna to intellectually insecure American critics. Also, the loopy narrative focuses on dysfunctional love instead of social critique, so it’s “safer” to praise. All that aside, the film is a work of genius. Kate Winslet is beautiful and Jim Carrey shows he can be restrained and touching once he’s working for a real director and writer rather than being expected to carry the show on his rubber shoulders.
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7. Birth (Jonathan Glazer)
One day this will be studied as the “reincarnated” Kubrick film that Eyes Wide Shut or AI never was. The story about a kid who shows up at Anna’s (Nicole Kidman) high-rise apartment claiming to be her long-dead husband is full of odd synchronicities. It seems at times to move backwards in time, the story moving forward only after you’ve left the theater. The highlight is a very long close up of Anna’s face, as she muses over the idea that her husband may in fact be reborn. Seen on the big screen, this giant face seems a visitation from Space Mommy, beaming down on us.
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8. Sideways (Alexander Payne)
The aptly named Alexander Payne still hasn’t lost his misanthropic streak; not a single humiliation is spared our balding hero Miles (Paul Giamatti) as he takes a friend on a wine-and-girl-tasting tour before his wedding. Uncomfortable as it is, the devil is in the details. The soul-crushing mundanity of American life has seldom been more unflinchingly examined. I have no doubt this and About Schmidt will be as canonized. For now, they just hurt.
:. original PopMatters review

9. Since Otar Left (Depuis qu’Otar est parti…) (Julie Bertucelli)
Everyone was too busy admiring the more obvious, flatly shot Goodbye Lenin to appreciate this little gem. Shot by Krzytof Kieslowski’s former DP, Christophe Pollock, each drab setting looks intensely beautiful. In telling the story of three generations of women, all waiting around in a post-communist Nowheresville (of former USSR province Georgia) for their long-gone brother to return from Paris, this becomes the sort of Kafka-esque reverie that Jim Jarmusch seems to be trying to make.

10. Being Julia (István Szabó)
A superb, old-fashioned Third Wave romantic drama about a West End theater diva dealing with the onset of her 40s, this film turns Annette Bening’s weaknesses into strengths. In calling to question her persona, it becomes a triumphant float carrying all once-bombshell, now “glamorous” actresses through the parade of middle age. Here the focus is never on the young man who seduces her, or the young woman who, Eve Harrington-like, covets her role. It’s about learning to see that these things don’t matter, compared to the pursuit of self-knowledge. Not since Jackie Brown (1997) has there been a film so generous with tips about keeping cool as your hotness fades.