Best Movies 2004

:: BEST MOVIES 2004 By Cynthia Fuchs

Looking Back

And I feel like I’m just writing my life away.
I never thought shit could end up quite this way.
There’s a war going on outside no man is safe from.
I’m here for the good fight, only the fakes run.
— Jay-Z, “Ballad for the Fallen Soldier”

This annual ritual of looking back has rarely seemed so apt. As it turns out, a majority of the year’s worthy films take up precisely this theme, treating the messy processes of memory and/or history as exercises in creativity, anxiety, and futility. Too many current events — from the recent U.S. presidential election to the genocide in Sudan and the imperialism of the world’s reigning superpower — are making the past alarmingly relevant, even as it also seems elusive, incomprehensible, and so subject to revision.

The following list takes an alphabetical, unranked order.

1. The Agronomist (Jonathan Demme, 2003)
Tracing the passions and devotions of Haiti’s beloved radio journalist, Jean Léopold Dominique, Jonathan Demme’s documentary features interviews with the man, conducted during his exile in New York. And though it closes with his 2001 assassination, it remains a stubbornly optimistic film, a call for resistance against injustices both general and devastatingly specific.
   :. original PopMatters review

2. The Assassination of Richard Nixon (Niels Mueller)
For much of Niels Mueller’s stunning debut feature, would-be office furniture salesman Sam Bicke (Sean Penn) struggles to understand the necessary deceptions of his profession. Based on true events of 1974, the film begins and ends with his decision to hijack a plane and fly it into the White House (so much for 2001’s terrorists imagining the unimaginable), but spends most of its energy exploring his circumstances, certainly dire in his own, increasingly fearful mind.
   :. buy in the PopShop

3. Baadasssss! (Mario Van Peebles)
The potential potency of multiracial collaboration is the point of Mario Van Peebles’ incredible breakdown of his own past as layered into his father Melvin’s. The autobiographical-fictional biography recounts the making of Sweetback, as personal travail and political revolution.
   :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

4. Code 46 (Michael Winterbottom)
A complicated meditation on desire, will, and responsibility, the film reveals the costs of overstepping bounds. William (Tim Robbins) and Maria (Samantha Morton) engage in a subtly painful and forbidden romance that he will be able to forget and she must live with, owing to a choice he makes. Winterbottom’s notorious seeming indirection only underlines the inevitability of a future here restaged as past.
   :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

5. Control Room (Jehane Noujaim)
Jehane Noujaim’s documentary reconsiders the material, nationalistic interests of the international press covering the U.S. invasion of Iraq. It’s less about its seeming subject, Al-Jazeera, than about the ways that wars (and most peace) are premised on media, propaganda, and lies.
   :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

6. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry)
Nestled among trendy-and-talented performers Kate Winslet, Mark Ruffalo, and Elijah Wood, with Jim Carrey gives what seems likely to be the performance of his life. But even for its popularity, the film rethinks remembrance as a process of identity and self-determination: Carrey’s passive hero only turns active when facing the loss of himself as he is best reflected in the eyes of Winslet’s blue-orange-pink haired dynamo, the perfectly named Clementine (she gets points as well for her work in another movie about forgetting as a route to enduring fantasy, Finding Neverland).
   :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

7. Hero/The House of Flying Daggers (Zhang Yimou)
Released this same year by Miramax (who withheld Hero in seeming ignorance of its box office potential), Zhang Yimou’s two films make very different use of Chinese history, politics, and wuxia conventions, from wireworky martial arts to cascading weaponry. Not to mention Zhang Ziyi, whose face pretty much overwhelms all the sensational excess.
   :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

8. Maria Full of Grace (Joshua Marston, 2003)
Joshua Marston claims he was moved to make his first film when he heard the story of a drug mule he heard at home in Brooklyn. That the remarkable result feels so immediate has to do with his decisions to emulate documentary camerawork and trust in his underplaying actors, including the wondrous Catalina Sandino Moreno.
   :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

9. The Motorcycle Diaries (Walter Salles)
Charting Che Guevara’s youthful introduction to poverty and need, Walter Salles’ film is at once enchanting and muscular, a political paean to hope.
   :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

10. Tarnation (Jonathan Caouette, 2003)
Jonathan Caouette pieces together his schizophrenic mother’s history in order to find out his own, as well as to chart a particularly small-minded culture that makes difference into deviance that must be “treated.” The result is an astonishing first film, inventive and quite brilliant.

It’s worth mentioning as well the extraordinary documentaries that did not garner the attention of Michael Moore’s or Morgan Spurlock’s splashier films. These include Robert Stone’s Guerilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst (reconsidering the story not so much through the SLA or even Hearst’s experience, as through the ludicrous behaviors of the press and the police and federal agents); Nick Broomfield’s powerful indictment of U.S. legal and media collusion, in particular the death penalty system, in Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer; Patrick Paulson and Michael John Warren’s Fade to Black, a smart concert film, about Jay-Z’s historic MSG performance in 2003; and Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman’s revelation of the ways that children might see their world, as they become documentary photographers in Born into Brothels.