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Best Movies 2004

This past year's films are at once peculiarly individual expressions and easy to group by genre: studio comedies were funnier than usual; horror films were intriguing in concept but disappointing in execution; science fiction was undercooked.

1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry)
What if you could erase memories of a relationship gone sour? The question at the film's core is a simple one, and while director Michel Gondry and writer Charlie Kaufman don't offer an equally simple answer, their film is the most likely of 2004 to become a classic. Kaufman's emotionally wrenching script meets music video's most accomplished surrealist, to chronicle love and loss together, not as sequence but symbiosis. The ensemble -- Kirsten Dunst, Mark Ruffalo, Elijah Wood, and especially the strangely believable couple of Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet -- juggles comedy and pathos with career-best dexterity.
   :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

2. Kill Bill Vol. 2 (Quentin Tarantino)
In the end, the split in two makes sense; the first volume of Tarantino's epic B-movie is heavy on kung-fu and swordsmanship, while the second is a spaghetti Western piled high with sauce. Occasionally as long-winded as David Carradine's Bill but always possessing the steely resolve of Uma Thurman's Bride, Kill Bill the second has an inevitable ending that it reaches via an unpredictable road. The detours and details are both hypnotic and funny, but the film is anchored by Thurman's stunning performance, shifting from the physicality of Volume 1 to the maternal conflicts of Volume 2. In this negotiation, she becomes a movie star and a great actress at the same time.
   :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

3. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (Wes Anderson)
Wes Anderson's deadpan style collides with a grand seafaring adventure featuring Bill Murray as Zissou, the hilariously unscientific oceanographer who sets out to track and kill the shark that "ate [his] best friend," and Owen Wilson may or may not be his previously unknown son. Their adventures are rougher and more dangerous than those in Anderson's other films, including bizarre sea creatures, hurricane-ravaged islands, and pirate hideaways. No other comedic director surrounds his jokes with such beauty.
   :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

4. The Incredibles (Brad Bird)
Pixar makes it look easy: pick an animation-friendly milieu (communities of bugs, monsters, toys, fish), add a pair of mismatched buddies, and make a jillion dollars. And yet, this new film is something different. Relying on human characters without sidekicks and a more focused creative vision than usually adopted for animation (one writer, one director -- and they're the same guy), this saga of a family of superheroes dazzles visually and emotionally.
   :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

5. Spider-man 2 (Sam Raimi)
The most accomplished sequel since Pixar's Toy Story 2, Sam Raimi's follow-up to his 2002 megahit is bigger, faster, and funnier. Its impeccable craft actually improves on the formidable original. Tobey Maguire (Spidey), Kirsten Dunst (the girl), and Alfred Molina (the bad guy) are all aces, but the real star here is Raimi's willingness to extend his takes, letting moments linger. Both the comic and tragic notes resonate.
   :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

6. Napoleon Dynamite (Jared Hess)
Moving awkwardly, with the simplicity of an underground comic strip, the titular character (Jon Heder) and his fellow outcasts Pedro (Efren Ramirez) and Deb (Tina Majorino) wander through semi-rural Idaho. We laugh at Napoleon's square-peg existence, but he's oddly cool, too. And don't forget the disarmingly sweet final tetherball scene.
   :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

7. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (Adam McKay)
In a banner year for broad comedies, none features as many big laughs as this one. Will Ferrell, who co-wrote with director Adam McKay, immerses himself in the role he was born to play: Ron Burgundy, brazenly clueless and sexist newsman in 1970s San Diego. One key to great silly comedy is pushing a bit to its limits and committing to its lunacy without turning back (here, the Gangs of New York-style anchorman brawl). The promise of a super-extended DVD makes me finally empathize with Lord of the Rings fans.
   :. original PopMatters review | buy in the PopShop

8. Garden State (Zach Braff)
A warm and very funny little movie about coming of age a little late, Zach Braff's debut as a writer-director-leading man shows potential for a triply exciting career. His compositions are beautiful, and he gives his co-stars Natalie Portman and Peter Sarsgaard plenty of room to sparkle.
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9. Undertow (David Gordon Green)
This startling, poetic shard of Southern Gothic is brought to us by writer-director David Gordon Green. His tendency to wander here comes into productive tension with a traditional story structure: two farm boys (Jamie Bell and Devon Alan) are pursued by their crazy uncle (Josh Lucas), who seeks a family treasure. Through cinematographer Tim Orr's lens, Georgia's backwoods take on the atmosphere of a dark fairy tale without quite crossing over into magical realism. Although this is Green's most gripping film, his patience never flags. Neither does mine.
   :. original PopMatters review

10. Million Dollar Baby (Clint Eastwood)
Rarely does a movie with so many wonderful digressions feel so lean. Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, and Hilary Swank all deliver rich, affecting performances, elegant in their simplicity, in Eastwood's drama about the relationship between a grizzled trainer (Eastwood) and a determined female boxer (Swank). Stripped of Mystic River's sprawl and symbolism, Eastwood -- 20 some films into a distinguished directorial career -- produces his best character work to date.
   :. original PopMatters review

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