Before getting to the best and worst and in-between of 2004, let me take a glimpse back into last year’s personal filmgoing activities. As I migrate my postings to filmthreat, my older reviews and articles from nitrateonline.com can be found indexed at Rotten Tomatoes. I apologize to my readers (yes, both of you) with my slightly depressed review count; my business—a rather obscure profession known as copyright research—has blossomed in its 25-somethingth year and my hopes in balancing the client workload with my creative output has more often been dashed than fulfilled. As a simple economic model, it’s impossible for me to put aside the hundreds of paying customers for the pittance (if that much) I earn as a film critic. Let’s hope I can better manage my time in 2005. So far, so good.

Both sides of my diverse lifestyle have their benefits, of course. I have producers, directors, film/tv/dvd distributors that request information on anything from 1950s television shows, 60-year-old movie serials, obscure films up the wazoo, dozens of trailers, nursery rhymes, folk tales, and songs, etc. Each day is different and each project subject to its own distinct challenges. When I wasn’t researching any of the hundreds of technical reports I wrote last year, I was generally in the dark. A darkened theater or screening room, that is. I started out 2004 with a screening of the exceptional documentary My Architect: A Son’s Journey, and ended up 360 days later catching Kevin Bacon’s award-worthy role as a pedophile on parole in The Woodsman. In between I caught 294 other features (okay, a handful were well deserved repeats, including some of my year’s favorites: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Fahrenheit 9/11, Super Size Me, and Shaun of the Dead.). Added to the mix was my annual extended-weekend dose of half-silent/half-early talking films played to hundreds of cinephiles in bitterly cold Syracuse NY. This early-March, generally snowbound event, officially called Cinefest but which I like to call “old films for old farts,” will celebrate its 25th year this coming spring (a season better known in upstate New York as extended winter). It’s a wonderful gathering of fans (including Leonard Maltin), film collectors, and vendors (books, dvds, posters, etc.).

Of the newer film product I caught during 2004. I paid out a mere $35 in ticket costs, more in parking fees. Time consumed? Not including trailers, infomercials, advertisements, and other pre-feature annoyances, I sat through almost 539 hours of film or video (omitting any commercial dvds watched at home, but including a few press screeners). Basically, if I started viewing all the films at midnight on New Year’s Day, I emerged into sunlight on January 22nd at 10:30 A.M. That’s an additional five days of movies than I caught in all of 2003, two days over 2002, six days over 2001. If I ever hit a full month, I’ll probably have to reconsider my life priorities.

Okay, now on to the winners and losers. Let me state that this is an agonizing process. Trying to figure out the best film of the year as akin to figuring out which pig gives the best milk. I’d much rather just group these all together and say to you: See Them All. Unfortunately, it seems that it is a burden I must carry that I select the fine, finer, and finest of the bunch.

Selecting the worst films of the year is much easier. My only limitation is that there are probably maybe a half-dozen titles in this category that I decided were not worth my viewing time during the year. Like “You Got Served” and “Without a Paddle.” Other titles that I suffered through will make up the difference.

Based on how I nominated and voted in the two critics’ organizations to which I belong (The Online Film Critics Society and the Washington Area Film Critics Association), and with further thought and deliberation, I conclude these to be my favorite eleven films of the year, in increasing order of preference.

11. Fahrenheit 9/11 Technically (in my world), this should be in its own category, much like the Academy Awards, where Moore has instead opted to push for best “picture” instead of documentary. Without breaking it into its non-fictional genre grouping, it landed on the edge with the other fictional pieces. The most successful documentary ever released has it attractors and detractors, generally dependant on what color (red/blue) state a viewer resides. The film probably worked best for those of you who live in the more enlightened Canada. Without his omnipresent rotund figure stealing every film frame (as he did with Bowling for Columbine), Michael Moore obliges us with a vision of our now second-term president that is not terribly flattering. Let me digress for a moment to suggest you also spend time catching up on these other, very worthy, documentaries released last year: Super Size Me, The Corporation, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, Touching the Void, and “Paper Clips.”

10. Sideways Now many of my fellow critics and their associated groups put this at the head of their top ten. Alexander Payne is a marvelous American visionary. His first three features (“Citizen Ruth,” Election, and About Schmidt) are high in darkly comic story concept and eccentric human character development, even if grounded in Omaha. Moving west to California has not dulled Payne’s sensibilities. His ensemble piece highlights the wine country road trip of an intelligent, failed writer (Paul Giamatti) in the extended throes of post-divorce stress and his old college buddy, a couldabeen actor (Thomas Haden Church) about to be married, yet whose wandering eye quickly brands him a philandering fool. A delightful toast of a film.

9. Million Dollar Baby Clint Eastwood can make my day anytime if he continues to ripen well into his AARP years with films like this. Sure it seems like an prizefighting cliché at start, but his direction, acting, and music (yes, he wrote the score) create an incredible arena in which Hilary Swank spreads her wings as a resolute boxer with blue collar roots. Her heart is filled with a ton of determination that the reluctant Eastwood finally shapes in a dream-come-true destiny. Swank’s knockout performance will garner her an obvious Oscar nomination. Stir in veteran Morgan Freeman as under-ticket/narrator and you’ve got a morality tale with a bit of a twist that steers this baby toward a totally surprising end.

8. Ray Boy oh boy. What a performance Jamie Foxx gives as the late Ray Charles in Taylor Hackford’s especially strong biopic of an American treasure. Foxx is swiftly moving up the talent rankings. There’s a definite bullet by his name. with his work here and earlier in the year as the smart-thinking taxi driver in Collateral, wherein hit man Tom Cruise hijacks the cabbie for a wild and deadly night in Los Angeles. The best thing about “Ray” is the perfect blend of soundtrack and visuals, with the former pushing the story rather than being pasted in as an afterthought. Great film. Great soundtrack. And quite a powerful feat by Foxx.

7. Napoleon Dynamite Without doubt one of the most original and outlandish films of last year. This hilarious look at high school life in Preston, Idaho, from director and co-writer Jared Hess offers up a new titular loser anti-hero whose every ounce of screen time squeezes out tons of side-splitting laughter. This Sundance darling (with a unique opening credit sequence added post-festival) blossomed into a cult favorite and celebration of awesome geekdom. Try not to spill your guts. The dvd release (on the full screen version side) has the black-and-white short Peluca on which the feature is based. Do you know Napoleon Dynamite’s birth name?

6. Shaun of the Dead The only horror film in the bunch, this British import is a slackers’ delight that offers a extremely deadpan ensemble cast (the year’s best such grouping) in a rip-off of George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead.” Oddly enough, Romero just announced that he wants to make another “Dead” film using the cast from “Shaun.” Dry, witty, well scored, finely choreographed, this is a bona fide breakthrough film from director Edgar Wright and actor Simon Pegg. Oodles of dumb pluck make this a winner.

5. Vera Drake Featuring British film and television actress Imelda Staunton, another obvious Academy Award contender, as a dowdy, simple-minded, warm-hearted mother of grown children who juggles an assortment of daily family tasks while also helping friends and neighbors more unfortunate than herself. She occasionally comes to the assistance of poor, unlucky women who finds themselves illegitimately pregnant. Mike Leigh (“Secrets & Lies,” “Topsy-Turvy”), directing from his own script, makes his entire cast seem ordinarily real, just as if he was plucking them out of the drab post-WWII era in which he places his story.

4. Hotel Rwanda Don Cheadle gives his best ever performance as posh hotel manager turned savior Paul Rusesabagina. It is perhaps the performance of the year among his peers in this powerful examination of one man’s struggle to save his family, co-workers, friends, and strangers in the genocide that would steal the lives of nearly a million Rwandans in the civil unrest between the Tutsi and Hutu a mere ten years ago. Most of the world sat idly by as black killed black, with the United Nations (focusing on a hands-tied puppet Canadian colonel played by Nick Nolte) proving especially ineffective. Sophie Okonedo also delivers a tender, moving performance

3. The Incredibles The folks at Pixar are such extraordinarily amazing visionaries, the title of their latest release would be an apt name for the company’s corporate history. While Dreamworks may score well with its “Shrek” franchise, what makes Pixar’s always successful efforts is that each starts with a perfectly tight story and extraordinary characters, heretofore centering on table lamps, bugs, fish, toys, and monsters. Always, the creations have been layered with outstanding animation technique, marvelous attention to comic detail, and a boatload of fun. Director Brad Bird has made Pixar’s first feature dealing with a select group of humans. Misunderstood action superheroes. Terrific vocalizations by Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Samuel L. Jackson, and others are surrounded by Michael Giacchino’s outstanding score. Incredibly perfect.

2. Finding Neverland Set a hundred years ago in England, director Marc Forster’s sweetly magical vision of a playwright’s creative process focuses on J.M. Barrie’s search for inspiration and personal success. Yes, it plays fast and loose with some of the biographical facts, but that doesn’t change the well deserved No. 2 spot in my listings. Johnny Depp is the Man who was Peter Pan (the name of Allan Knee’s play on which David Magee’s lovely debut screenplay is based), with his Barrie being a man child who discovers that the dreams of four young boys, children of a young widow (Kate Winslet), can come true in a whimsical world blending fantasy with reality, helped along by an effective score by Jan A.P. Kaczmarek. Julie Christie puts in a star turn as an ice queen who ultimately, like all of us, succumb to Depp’s subtly charming performance. Bring your hankies.

1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind This incredibly complex fantasy born from the amazing mind of Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich and Adaptation) was unleashed early in 2004. Despite the flurry of year-end competition, it takes honors as the best film of the year. Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet star as free-spirit lovers whose troubled relationship ultimately forces her, then him, to opt for a novel surgical procedure to remove the memories of each other. Frenchman Michel Gondry’s clever direction saturates the mind-bending screenplay with a weird blend of organic energy as it follows a man bravely racing against machine to prevent the loss of his loved one’s memories. Incredibly intricate scenes intermingle editing, set design, photography, and music in a rapturous roller coaster adventure that also makes mincemeat of medical ethics in a questionable, perhaps unsavory field. Carrey is at his finest subtly funny since “The Truman Show,” while Winslet managed to appear in my top two favorites. Further kudos to Kirsten Dunst, Elijah Wood, Mark Ruffalo, and Tom Wilkinson for their therapeutic shenanigans.

A few more comments on the better side of 2004 movies.

Michel Gondry, Brad Bird, Alexander Payne, Marc Forster all earn director brownie points this year. I also admired Michael Mann’s direction of Collateral, filmed in the dead of night on high definition digital. A great ride.

I think the Best Actor Oscar will go to either Don Cheadle or Jamie Foxx (assuming both are nominated). Javier Bardem was stunning as a paraplegic in the overlooked Spanish feature “The Sea Inside.” Kevin Bacon (The Woodsman), Johnny Depp, and long shot Christian Bale (as the emaciated star in The Machinist) all deserve your attention.

Handicapping Best Actress, I’d opt for Staunton or Swank. Annette Bening kept Being Julia from falling apart and no doubt will earn a nomination. Uma Thurman for Kill Bill Vol. 2 may get a mention. The breakthrough performance of Catalina Sandrino Morengo as a drug mule in “Maria Full of Grace” is my 50-1 pick.

And for every good film there are 2 or 3 that are just god awful. Here are the 20 most excruciating films of last year, in the order that I survived them.

Against the Ropes

The Big Bounce


Starsky & Hutch

Broken Lizard’s Club Dread


The Whole Ten Yards


Around the World in 80 Days




Little Black Book

Exorcist: The Beginning

First Daughter

Raise Your Voice


Surviving Christmas

Christmas with the Kranks


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