2004: One Nation, Divided
by Scott Mantz

It goes without saying that from a historical standpoint, 2004 was one for the books.  Just how those books are going to be written remains to be seen, but there’s no doubt that historians will certainly have a lot to write about.

For starters, 2004 will surely be defined as the year that the ill-advised War in Iraq spiraled out of control, forcing the powers-that-be to insist that the growing body count was worth the sacrifice.  It was the year that a tall, lanky Democratic Senator from Massachusetts named John F. Kerry heeded the call of war-weary blue-state Americans by nearly booting red-state President George W. Bush out of the Oval Office.  It was also the year that Mother Nature showed her mighty force by unleashing four successive hurricanes on the state of Florida before pounding the unsuspecting civilians of South Asia with a devastating tsunami.

From a cinematic perspective, one might readily assume that moviegoers were more than ready to forget about events like these by flocking to the local cineplex for the latest in Hollywood eye candy.  After all, movies are about entertainment, escapism and embracing distractions from the sort of gloomy events that dominate the evening news.  There’s no way that moviegoers could possibly be drawn to the sort of films that actually reflected what was happening in the rest of the world, right?  Well, not exactly.

The fact that “The Passion of the Christ” – director Mel Gibson’s unrelenting film about the last 12 hours in the life of Jesus – wound up being the third-highest grossing movie of the year ($370 million) speaks volumes about how many moviegoers rely on their faith during these difficult times.  At the other end of the controversial spectrum was another button-pusher – a truth-seeking documentary about the state of the union since the debacle of the 2000 Presidential Election.  Love it or hate it, “Fahrenheit 9/11” – from outspoken filmmaker Michael Moore, the Oscar-winning director of 2002’s “Bowling for Columbine” – blew the lid off the box office when it grossed more than $119 million, by far the most ever for a documentary.

Some could certainly argue that Moore’s extremely one-sided political point-of-view bordered on sensational propaganda, while others could argue that Gibson’s equally one-sided, less-than-subtle depiction of the Crucifixion bordered on anti-Semitism.  Either way, both films struck a serious chord, proving that in 2004, divided moviegoers wanted to be enlightened, intrigued and provoked.  The real irony is that neither of these top-grossing films came from a Hollywood studio – Gibson paid for the $25 million-budgeted “Passion” out of his own pocket, while Harvey Weinstein went around his own studio (the Disney-owned Miramax) to distribute “Fahrenheit” with Lions Gate.

Yes, it was a helluva year to behold as “The Passion” and “Fahrenheit 9/11” played to both ends of the extreme, but beyond the controversy, there were plenty of great movies to be found…

1) “Sideways” – Yes, it really is as good as everyone says it is!  After all, who needs a big budget and A-list stars when you can have great direction and poetic dialogue delivered by well-cast actors?  Acclaimed character actor Paul Giamatti, faded TV-star Thomas Haden Church and former B-movie queen Virginia Madsen all re-invented themselves in writer-director Alexander Payne’s best film yet.  It’s a genuine, bittersweet, hysterical movie that will mean different things to different people, and like last year’s “Lost in Translation,” you simply don’t want it to end!
2) “Maria Full of Grace” – Writer-director Joshua Marston displays a remarkable level of confidence for his first feature, which defies comparisons to other drug-trafficking movies because of its particular point of view.  That, of course, comes from the incredible Catalina Sandino Moreno, who delivers an excellent breakthrough performance as the reluctant Colombian drug mule who tries to make a better life for herself and her unborn child.  She makes some poor choices along the way, but that’s what makes the film so honest, provocative and, ultimately, inspiring.
3) “Spider-Man 2” – One of the best comic book movies of all time?  Sure, that’s easy.  One of the best movie sequels since “The Godfather Part II?”  Damn right, baby!  In a year already rife with superior sequels (“The Bourne Supremacy,” “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” “Shrek 2”), director Sam Raimi delivers the best of them all by honoring Spidey’s comic book origins.  The action scenes were more exciting, the special effects were more realistic and, most importantly, the story was more emotionally resonant than its predecessor.  Not only does it deserve a shot at the Best Picture Oscar, but Tobey Maguire displayed an incredible amount of range, proving that nobody could play the angst-ridden web-head better than him.
4) “Kill Bill Vol. 2” – If “Kill Bill Vol. 1” was all style and no substance, then “Vol. 2” was all style and lots of substance.  Not only does the film stand of its own – an amazing feat, considering that both movies were shot simultaneously – but by paying tribute to the spaghetti westerns and kung fu flicks that inspired him, Quentin Tarantino returns to form with his best movie since “Pulp Fiction.”  The acting is pretty damn good too, as David Carradine almost steals the show from Uma Thurman, who goes through the physical and emotional wringer for an Oscar-worthy performance.
5) “The Manchurian Candidate” – If there ever was a film that did not need a remake, it’s John Frankenheimer’s classic from 1962 that starred Frank Sinatra.  At least, that’s what I thought before I saw this excellent update, which immediately won me over as a terrific companion piece to the original film.  It goes without saying that this intense, intelligent, timely political thriller – deftly directed by Oscar-winner Jonathan Demme (“The Silence of the Lambs”) – features excellent performances from Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep.  But the real star here is Liev Schreiber, who infuses genuine emotional conflict into the detached character that Laurence Harvey coldly played in the original film.
6) “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” – Was it the fact that Jim Carrey finally gave a convincing serious performance without drawing too much attention to himself?  Was it the fact that visionary director Michel Gondry’s bizarre, challenging, non-linear love story was the most stylish movie of the year?  Or was it the fact that this fable on memory loss told from the mind’s point of view just got better (and made more sense) after repeated viewings?  Actually, the latest mind trip from screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (“Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation.”) is all of those things, as “Eternal Sunshine” should require mandatory study at films schools all over the world from here on in.
7) “Before Sunset” – It’s one thing for a sequel to be better than its predecessor, but it’s another thing for a sequel to be so good that it makes its predecessor better than it was when it first came out.  That’s certainly the case with “Before Sunset,” which arrives 9 years after “Before Sunrise” and was well worth the wait.  If “Before Sunrise” was an idealistic, naïve, rose-colored depiction of passion, then “Before Sunset” is a bittersweet wake-up call about reality, regret and re-connection.  Reunited lovers Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy may do a lot of walking and talking, but what they say hits home before concluding with one of the most romantic endings in ages.  For full emotional effect, watch both movies back-to back.
8) “Million Dollar Baby” – Who would have thought that a movie about a violent sport like boxing could pack such a tender emotional wallop?  That’s certainly the case with Clint Eastwood’s 25th directorial effort, which also features the most gut-wrenching, vulnerable performance of 74-year-old screen legend’s career.  Hilary Swank also delivers a knockout performance, while Morgan Freeman plays the voice of reason as the friend and confidant to both leads.  And just when you think the boxing drama is going to take a conventional, “Rocky”-style approach, it takes a sharp, unexpected turn that will break your heart and stay with you for days.
9) “Collateral” – Tom Cruise is supremely effective as a contract killer, and Jamie Foxx is a downright revelation as the unsuspecting cab driver he holds hostage.  But the real star of this thriller is the city of Los Angeles, which stylish, visionary director Michael Mann captures unlike any filmmaker has done before.  By shooting most of the film with digital cameras, Mann depicts the nocturnal atmosphere in the City of Angels with a moody, beautiful, haunting gaze that only solidifies the existential message at its core.
10) “Dawn of the Dead” – What can I say?  I loved this movie, and I’m not ashamed to put it on my Top 10 list!  If last year’s low-budget “28 Days Later” gave the zombie thriller a much-needed facelift, then this remake of George Romero’s 1978 classic was a fun, scary, well-produced thriller that took full advantage of its Hollywood budget.  The result was one of the year’s most exciting films, and don’t even think about leaving before the ending credits start rolling!
Most surprisingly good:  “National Treasure”Most surprisingly bad:  “Ocean’s Twelve”

Good, but not incredible:  “The Incredibles”

Most scorching:  “Man on Fire”

Most in need of a hit:  Ben Affleck (“Jersey Girl,” “Surviving Christmas”)

Most in need of a flop:  Disney/Pixar (“The Incredibles”)

Most in need of an explanation:  “I Heart Huckabee’s”

Most all grown up:  Lindsay Lohan (“Mean Girls”)

Best remake:  “The Manchurian Candidate”

Worst remake:  “The Stepford Wives”

Best ending:  “Before Sunset”

Worst ending:  “The Village”

Most in need to end sooner:  “Troy”

Most terrible:  “The Terminal”

Most Riddick-ulous:  “The Chronicles of Riddick”

Most not great:  “Alexander”

Most deserving of a Best Picture nomination, but probably won’t get one:  “Spider-Man 2”

Most undeserving of a Best Picture nomination, but will probably get one anyway:  “Finding Neverland”

Biggest proof that controversy sells tickets:  “The Passion of the Christ”

Biggest proof that controversy sells tickets, part 2:  “Fahrenheit 9/11”

Most in need to go away for 4 years:  Michael Moore (“Fahrenheit 9/11”)

Most in the zone:  Jamie Foxx (“Collateral,” “Ray”)

Best casting:  washed-up actor Thomas Haden Church playing a washed-up actor in “Sideways”

Worst casting:  43-year-old Kevin Spacey playing 23-year-old Bobby Darin in “Beyond the Sea”

Most in need of a break:  Ben Stiller (“Along Came Polly,” “Starsky & Hutch,” “Envy,” “Dodgeball,” “Anchorman,” “Meet the Fockers”)

Most in need of a break, part 2:  Jude Law (“Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow,” “Alfie,” “I Heart Huckabee’s,” “Closer,” “The Aviator,” “Lemony Snicket’s a Series of Unfortunate Events”)

Not in need of a break, but will hopefully take one anyway:  Ashton Kutcher (“The Butterfly Effect”)

Most in need of a cheeseburger:  Christian Bale (“The Machinist”)

Most disturbing image:  Robert De Niro wearing a lifelike breast-feeder in “Meet the Fockers”

Best hope for comic book movies:  “Spider-Man 2”

Worst hope for comic book movies:  “Catwoman”

Most in need to truly kick ass in 2005:  “Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith”