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Best Movies 2004

Daniel Mudie Cunningham

A highlight of 2004 was the way documentary reclaimed a place on the big screen.

:: BEST MOVIES 2004 By Daniel Mudie Cunningham

I viewed approximately 45 films at the cinema in 2004, and here list the best 10 alphabetically. Due to the year's pervasive mediocrity, two re-released films are included: Donnie Darko (2001) was treated to a Director's Cut and Todd Haynes' Safe (1995) finally made it to Australian cinemas. Another highlight of 2004 was the way documentary reclaimed a place on the big screen. Following in the wake of Michael Moore's propaganda cash cow Fahrenheit 9/11, docos like Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, Super Size Me, The Corporation, and My Architect, to name a few, were among the year's more intelligent and engaging films.

1. Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill)
Following a special Sydney screening of Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, Broomfield answered questions via phone. One audience member, a disgruntled ex-con, abused Broomfield for "mishandling" his final interview with Aileen Wuornos, just days before she was executed on 9 October 2002. In this interview, Broomfield relays how Wuornos' estranged birth mother wants her forgiveness, to which Wuornos spits out one of her final, bug-eyed rages, "Tell that damn whore I couldn't give a fuck whether she had me or not... I never knew her." If Broomfield's 1992 Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer, focused on her exploitation, his follow-up appropriately humanizes her, showing Wuornos to be a more complex figure than the one famously depicted by Charlize Theron in Patty Jenkins' Monster (2003). And when asked by another audience member about his thoughts on Monster, Broomfield replied that Theron's performance transcended a film that otherwise met the mere standards of a telemovie.
   :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

2. Donnie Darko - Director's Cut (Richard Kelly)
Three years after it first hit cinemas, Richard Kelly has restored to Donnie Darko a number of deleted scenes and re-jigged the soundtrack. The best song addition is Til Tuesday's spooky 1985 hit "Voices Carry" during a restored scene where Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) is warring with his mother (Mary McDonnell) about his fragile state of mind. Heard through Donnie's Walkman is Aimee Mann's lyric: "I'm in the dark, I'd like to read his mind." In a sense, mind reading is key to deciphering the divergent strands of Donnie Darko, because much of it takes place in Donnie's head.
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3. The Finished People (Khoa Do)
In the last Australian financial year, only 15 features were made and a majority of them duds. The Australian Film Institute Awards only recognized one film, by bestowing 13 awards on Cate Shortland's grossly overrated Somersault. A much better choice is the debut DV feature by 20something filmmaker Khoa Do. Recalling Mike Leigh's method of workshopping much of the dialogue, Do collaborated with the teens at a western Sydney welfare center, all with zero filmmaking and acting experience. The result is a disturbing snapshot of suburban malaise where drug abuse, unemployment, and racism are harsh everyday realities.

4. Garden State (Zach Braff)
With his first feature, writer-director Zach Braff proves he's more than a one-trick sitcom pony by casting himself as the lithium-addicted lead, whose New Jersey homecoming allows some pill-free space to wrestle with family demons and get into the Shins with Sam (Natalie Portman). No stranger to playing support, Peter Sarsgaard injects what could have otherwise been a best-friend-by-numbers role with a compelling mix of intensity and restraint. Episodic and meandering, the film rescues its titular state from Kevin Smith's adolescent rantics and the gritty connotations of The Sopranos.
   :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

5. I Heart Huckabees (David O. Russell)
Spoken by the central character Albert (Jason Schwartzman), the film's first line contains the expletives "motherfucker," "cocksucker," and "fuckshit." Immediately the tone is set for this playfully postmodern rumination on contemporary philosophy. Included in the large mix of characters are Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman as Existential Detectives who push a "blanket" theory that champions "interconnectedness." In contrast, Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert) is a French therapist whose "ball" theory blocks out unnecessary thought. Caterine also likes to fuck in mud, which got me thinking that Huppert's character may have been modeled on French theorist of the Abject, Julia Kristeva. David O. Russell may have also taken some surreal pointers from Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, and Charlie Kaufman here, because as dry as such lofty concerns may sound, his movie is easily the year's wittiest and most original.
   :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

6. Io non ho paura (I'm Not Scared) (Gabriele Salvatores)
Not since my own childhood have I enjoyed films where kids inhabit the central roles. The precocious, cutesy wiseness, and forced complexity of child stars like Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning contradict the usual behavior of real kids. Gabriele Salvatores (of Cinema Paradiso fame) resists treating children as if they are apprentice adults. Set in the golden wheat fields and semi-ruins of a southern Italian village, Io non ho paura beautifully contrasts childhood innocence against an ugly, morally bankrupt adult world.
   :. original PopMatters review

7. The Mother (Roger Michell)
May (Anne Reid) finds herself widowed after her husband suffers a heart attack just after their reunion with their estranged adult children. Rather than taking the expected grief-stricken route, Hanif Kureishi's brilliant screenplay focuses on May's sexual and emotional awakening, helped along by buff young tradesman Darren (Daniel Craig), who pays her more manhandling attention than she's ever known. "If you asked me to describe my life and what I've done," says May, "I'd have to say nothing much; I just wasn't there." Sketched out with stark cinematography and compelling performances, The Mother reinvigorates coming of (old) age narratives.
   :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

8. Safe (Todd Haynes)
If I had made a Top 10 list in 1995, this would have been on it. If I ever get around to making a "Best Films of All Time" list, it will be in the Top 5. Nine years after Haynes's dystopic masterpiece was released, it was finally distributed in Australia with a new 35mm print (apparently some legal reason had kept it from being screened down under). Julianne Moore's quiet disintegration from the toxins of her late 20th century environment is all the more devastating on the big screen.

9. Shrek 2 (Andrew Adamson, Kelly Asbury, Conrad Vernon)
In a year when gay men like the "Fab 5" have taken credit for cultivating straight male vanity under the guise of "metrosexuality," we have Rupert Everett giving gay voice to a prissy, self-obsessed, and supposedly straight Prince Charming. Jennifer Saunders breathes queeny life into Fairy Godmother, more or less reprising her bitchy role from Absolutely Fabulous. For maximum camp value, Antonio Banderas licks his own asshole as Puss in Boots. Gay cinema has made no steps forward this year, so it takes a film like Shrek 2 to put the fairy back into fairytale.
   :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

10. Team America: World Police (Trey Parker)
Having trademarked their politicized potty mouths via the now rather tired South Park franchise, Trey Parker and Matt Stone here satirize "current events." Seeking to avoid the occurrence of "9/11 times a thousand," a team of patriotic puppets use their special expertise (acting, plastic surgery, clairvoyance) to serve and protect a world seized by terrorism-related fears. Contrasting a joyfully clunky form of animation with Bruckheimer-styled special effects, Team America lets loose a biting tirade on an America where actors are political and politicians are actors.
   :. original PopMatters review

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