After a great deal of thinking, a long, cold shower (singing the Garden State soundtrack), and a long stare in the mirror, tugging at the edges of my face, I realized that maybe, just maybe, this wasn't the best year for films. A quick glance at the annual release calendar pretty much confirmed my suspicions; despite a strong slate of independent films and some incredible foreign titles, the movies that populated the general consciousness and the multiplexes of America were the same ol' same ol'. So much so, that after numerous attempts to write this article, I, much like Virgil and Dante approaching the gates of Hell, was tempted to abandon all hope before entering here. So, instead of the annual list of gripes and complaints (I know, I know), here are some thoughts on some of the trends that dominated 2004.
The Year of The Political Documentary
No trend-- not the superhero film, not the overblown Greek epic--nothing had more of an impact on the film community this year than the emergence of political documentary. From the blockbuster business done by Fahrenheit 911 to the overwhelming slate of powerful political biography and critiques (The Control Room, OutFoxed, A Solider's Pay, Chisholm '72, Orwell Rolls In His Grave, Weapons of Mass Deception, etc etc.), political activism dominated documentary film. But without broad-based distribution and a broad cultural embrace, did this films merely preach to the converted, or can films actively change opinions and minds? Time will tell.
God Makes A Comeback Despite, in my humble opinion, being the absolute worst movie of 2004, Mel Gibson's The Passion Of The Christ did overwhelming business at the box-office and may turn out to be the most influential film of the year. Of course, the same thing could have been said about Titanic a few years ago, so you never know. Indies Go Bigtime Now that most of the major studios have launched so-called "specialty" divisions (Fox Searchlight, Paramount Classics, Sony Pictures Classics, Focus Features, Warner Independent) and they have begun to hit their stride in the marketplace, it was a banner year for these companies. But while the studio-backed indies dominated the independent film box-office (and released many of my favorite films of the year), the smaller independents (Wellspring, ThinkFilm, Koch Lorber) continued to push the envelope and deliver some of the most important, truly independent works on screen this year. Independent film has been revolutionized, but will the market continue to support the little guys? Miramax What will become of the former Heavyweight Champion of the Independent Film World. As the world waits to see how the chips will fall as the granddaddy of indie film companies winds up its contract with Disney, you'd be hard pressed to find the company's traditional results in the market place and at Oscar time. The winds of change are blowing, and we're all eager to see where everything lands. Look for this to be the story of the year in 2005. The Top Ten Films Of 2004 Sideways Alexander Payne's Sideways is the best movie of the year. The film is more than just a humane road film, it is a simple revolt against big Hollywood and a welcome reminder that the best thing a story can do is to show us the truth about who we are and who we might aspire to become. If only more of us were looking. Tarnation There are very few films that still have the power to revolutionize my thinking about film, but Jonathan Caouette's Tarnation did just that. An experimental diary of a boy and his family walking the line between tragedy and reconciliation, Tarnation changed the way I relate to films. Its personal integrity and intensity made for the best documentary of the year. Before Sunset Richard Linklater's Before Sunset is the stuff of real life and real feeling, and the palpably delicious tension between Jessie and Celine (played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) is made up of small moments of incredible intimacy and romance. The best love story in years, Sunset proves that romance is hidden in the spaces between people, from an abandoned touch of the hand to a perfect impression of Nina Simone. Dogville I like Lars von Trier's work in general, so consider me an apologist, but Dogville is a film that I believe will stand the test of time. With the recent spate of laws banning gay marriage and a punitive electorate mobilizing to restrict the rights of their fellow citizens, von Trier's story of small town punishment and the vengeance it sows rings truer by the day. Undertow David Gordon Green can create a mood like no other director working today and Undertow, with its gauntlet of junkyards, rusty alleyways, and dilapidated houses filled with broken families, is the most atmospheric film of the year. Great characters, amazing performances; What more could you ask for? Fahrenheit 911 No film garnered more attention than Fahrenheit 911, and despite the energy it infused into the electorate, the film's true legacy may be the ascendancy of political action and documentary filmmaking into the multiplexes of the nation. 2004 was a great year for documentaries, and none was bigger or more important than this one. Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind Charlie Kaufman is the rarest of talents; A screenwriter who has his own following and who consistently delivers compelling work. Eternal Sunshine is my favorite film of a Kaufman script, blending the sweet melancholy of a broken heart with a belief in fate and the power of people to change their own lives. The sequence at the beach house, as Joel's (Jim Carrey) memory begins to peel away the walls, is one for the ages; a perfect representation of love and loss. Primer Shane Carruth's Primer is a stylistic marvel. The story of two small time inventors who accidentally stumble upon the ability to clone themselves, Primer's ultra-stylized approach to naturalism signaled the arrival of a great director from whom much is to be expected. The visual intelligence behind this movie is extraordinary, and Primer is one of the most beautiful films of the year. Spartan Criminally overlooked. As politically charged as any of the myriad of documentaries that crowded the campaign year, Spartan is a classic thriller with maybe a little too much resemblance to the dirty politics of the day. I imagine the story of how this film got totally buried in the marketplace is probably as interesting as David Mamet's excellent script. Napoleon Dynamite The surprise hit of 2004 was no surprise at all. Napoleon Dynamite has all the makings of a classic; an underground gem that rode the wave of word of mouth and one of the best marketing campaigns for an indie film since The Blair Witch Project. The film features a star-making performance by Jon Heder as the titular character whose antics had me laughing so hard, I actually head-butted the seat in front of me. Hovering just outside the Top 10: Garden State, The Incredibles, Kill Bill vol. 2, Bad Education, Enduring Love, The Motorcycle Diaries, Bright Leaves, The Five Obstructions, Moolaade. Happy New Year and see you at the movies in 2005!