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Laramie Movie Scope:
The Best and Worst Films of 2004

My picks for the top and bottom films of 2004

[Strip of film rule]
by Robert Roten, Film Critic
[strip of film rule]

February 23, 2005 -- It is time to look back on the year 2004. Actually, I'm about a month late doing this. It was a good year for movies. I skipped most of the bad ones, so my “worst of” list is hardly definitive, but I've seen most of the best films of the year. Usually, there are six to eight A films and this year was no exception. I had eight A films (four stars out of four), and 14 B+ films on my list (I don't use an A- rating).

As usual, many of the top films are released in December. I saw a number of these films on screeners (thanks to the studios, publicists and the Online Film Critics Society). The rest, I saw in Laramie, Cheyenne or Denver. Don't feel left out if you haven't seen all these films. Lots of people haven't seen them all yet. Some of them are already available on home video. There are some acclaimed films that I haven't yet seen, such as “Moolaade,” “Undertow,” “Tupac: Resurrection,” “The Machinist,” “Dogville,” “The Five Obstructions,” “The Brown Bunny,” “Birth” and other films that were poorly distributed around the U.S.

I did see “Million Dollar Baby,” “Spider-Man 2” and “Before Sunset,” but they didn't make my list, although you will find them on many other critics' top 10 lists. These are certainly good films, but not great ones.

Below the list of top films are a list of honorable mentions, followed by lists of my picks for top director, top actor, top foreign film, etc. Those lists are followed by a list of the worst films I saw this year. One thing that makes my list different than most is I've got more comedies in my list. Most actors, directors and critics agree that it is a lot tougher to make a good comedy than it is to make a good drama, but then they go ahead and omit the comedies from their top 10 lists anyway. I practice what I preach.

Page navigation: Honorable mention Best of by category Worst movies

Best 10 films of 2004

1. Kinsey[4 stars]

This biographical film about the life of famous human sexuality researcher Alfred Kinsey is particularly relevant to today's political situation where sex is still a hot-button issue. This film features Oscar-worthy performances by Liam Neeson, Laura Linney and Peter Sarsgaard.

2. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind[4 stars]

Easily the most imaginative screenplay of the year from the talented Charlie Kaufman (“Adaptation”). A man agrees to have his memories of his old girlfriend erased, then changes his mind halfway through the process. Evocative, poignant and visually imaginative. Great performances by Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet.

3. Baadasssss![4 stars]

This is a great biographical film about the making of the seminal blaxploitation film, “Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song.” Mario Van Peebles stars as his film director father, Melvin Van Peebles in a film that works both as a documentary about filmmaking and psychiatric therapy. The scenes of Mario Van Peebles, portraying his father, speaking to the young actor playing himself as a child are eerie and powerful.

4. Garden State[4 stars]
This great coming-of-age comedy is a showcase for Zach Braff, who writes, directs and stars in the film as a zoned-out actor who comes alive when he meets a lovely young girl, played by Natalie Portman. Great performances, great writing and sure direction. Braff, of the TV Show “Scrubs,” announces his presence as a major talent with this film.

5. Maria Full of Grace[4 stars]

This is a hard-edged, but beautifully-told film about a young girl who finds herself working as a “mule” smuggling cocaine into the United States from Columbia. The story is told in a lean, clean way with no missteps. It features a great performance by Catalina Sandino Moreno as Maria.

6. The Aviator[4 stars]
Slick, star-studded, featuring top-notch acting, writing, direction, and production values, this film should win the Oscar for best picture this year. It is a compelling, entertaining, ambitious, sweeping, epic drama about the life of the fascinating Howard Hughes. Cate Blanchett is uncanny in her performance as legendary screen star Kate Hepburn. It should also give Martin Scorcese the Oscar for best direction he has long deserved, but then again, the Oscars often don't work out the way they should. The inferior “Million Dollar Baby” is expected to win the bulk of the awards. I hope that's not the case.

7. Closer[4 stars]
This film features outstanding performances by all four lead actors, Julia Roberts (“Ocean's 12”), Clive Owen (“King Arthur”), Natalie Portman (“Garden State”), and Jude Law (“Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow”). Flawless direction by uber director Mike Nichols. This powerhouse, raw drama is reminiscent of other classic Nichols films, like “The Graduate” and “Carnal Knowledge,” made over 30 years ago.

8. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban[4 stars]
Renowned Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón (“Y tu mamá también”) takes over the helm of the Potter series and makes the third film the best of the lot. Stripped down and speeded up, this Potter doesn't plod along the way the others do. This film also exhibits a very high level of visual imagination. This film sets a new standard for the wildly popular Harry Potter series.

9. The Notebook[3.5 stars]
This is the most powerful love story of the year. It is touching, heart-wrenching, funny and tragic. Critics tend to be cynical. Maybe that's why they don't like love stories. If you are looking for a place where my top 10 list differs from most, look no farther. This film has great performances from its two main stars, Ryan Gosling of “Murder by Numbers” and Rachel McAdams of “Mean Girls.” Veteran actor James Garner (who is underrated) also turns in a wonderful performance.

10. Good bye Lenin![3.5 stars]
A bittersweet look back at the last days of the old Soviet empire as seen through the eyes of an East German family carrying a lot of heavy secrets in their hearts. It is poignant, sad and funny all at the same time.

Honorable Mention

11. House of Flying Daggers[3.5 stars]

This Chinese martial arts film is visually stunning, features a compelling story and is well-acted. Production values are very strong, with great stunt work, cinematography, art direction and music. This is very similar to director Yimou Zhang's other fine acton movie, “Hero,” but the story is a little more cohesive.

12. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ... and Spring
(Bom yeoreum gaeul gyeoul geurigo bom)[3.5 stars]
This Korean film is gorgeous-looking. Set in a remote mountain valley, it has very few characters and it all takes place in one location. Almost all of the action takes place off-screen, yet it covers a big chunk of human existence. This is one Eastern film that shows a world view that is very different than the Western view of the universe.

13. I'm Not Scared (Io non ho paura)[3.5 stars]
This Italian film is visually stunning. The story is told in such a visual way that you can easily follow the plot without understanding the dialogue. A young boy finds another boy about his own age trapped in a remote pit. He slowly realizes that he has a tough moral decision to make, a decision no child should have to face.

14. Sideways[3.5 stars]

This is a witty, funny, charming, insightful and sometimes outrageous comedy about two underachievers out for a week of boozing it up in California's wine country. Virginia Madsen and Thomas Hayden Church got Oscar nominations for their roles in this film, but the star of the movie, Paul Giamatti was unjustly overlooked by the Academy. His is the performance that holds the movie together. This film is a critic favorite, in part, perhaps because Giamatti is a guy who is very easy for critics to identify with.

15. The Incredibles[3.5 stars]

This is the best animated film of 2004. It has great characters, a great story and the animation sparkles.

16. Shrek 2[3.5 stars]

Most sequels are inferior to the original. Here's an exception to that rule. “Shrek 2” picks up where the last one left off and it doesn't drop the ball. All the characters are back and a new character is added, Puss 'N Boots, one of the great cats in cinema history.

17. Hero (Ying xiong)[3.5 stars]

The first great martial arts epic from director Yimou Zhang is not his best effort, but is better than 99 percent of martial arts movies, including the “Kill Bill” movies. A compelling drama set in ancient China, this film is visually stunning, featuring brightly colored sequences showing us alternate versions of reality.

18. Hotel Rwanda[3.5 stars]

A chilling story of madness and heroism based on the true story of Paul Rusesabagina, the manager of the European-owned Milles Collines Hotel in Kigali, Rwanda. He saved over 1,000 people from genocide through sheer courage and intelligence. It is a film that simultaneously demonstrates the human capacity for heroism and for evil. A very powerful film, boosted by a tremendous performance by the underrated Don Cheadle, who plays Rusesabagina.

19. Super Size Me[3.5 stars]

The best documentary of the year also has one of the smallest budgets. Director Morgan Spurlock puts himself front-and-center in the film, a la Michael Moore, as a kind of lab rat. He poses the question, what would happen if you ate all your meals at McDonald's restaurants for a month? Spurlock does just that, and the medical results are frightening to the team of doctors who examine him. This low-budget documentary changed the face of the fast food industry. It is entertaining, educational, and more than a little scary.

20. Touching the Void[3.5 stars]

A film with an incredible based-on-fact tale of survival by two mountain climbers trapped in the high Andes mountains of Peru. This documentary-style story drips with authenticity, derived both from the interviews with the actual climbers and from the fantastic location cinematography. Kudos to cinematographers Mike Eley (“The Blues” TV miniseries documentary) and Keith Partridge. There are times when you wonder how in the world they captured those incredible images.

21. Miracle[3.5 stars]

The best sports movie of 2004 includes superbly-staged and photographed game scenes with hard-hitting drama. Maybe the best performance of Kurt Russell's long career as Herb Brooks, the visionary coach of the U.S. hockey team and Patricia Clarkson gives an equally fine performance as Brook's wife, Patti. The players, chosen more for their skating ability than as actors, give good supporting performances.

22. A Love Song for Bobby Long[3.5 stars]

It is a rare American film that depicts people who are not extraordinary. This is one of those films. Set on the fringes of New Orleans, this Tennessee Williams-like film centers on a couple of drunks bound together by their mutual shame. They are shaken out of their pointless existence by the arrival of a young girl. The clash of personalities changes them all. Excellent performances by John Travolta, Gabriel Macht and Scarlett Johanssen.

More lists below

[Strip of film rule]

Links to reviews of all the films are indexed below:

A through B   C through D   E through G   H through I
J through L   M through N   O through Q   R through S   T through Z

Best director

1. Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind)
2. Mario Van Peebles (Baadasssss!)
3. Bill Condon (Kinsey)
4. Zach Braff (Garden State)
5. Joshua Marston (Maria Full of Grace)

Best actor

1. Jamie Foxx (Ray)
2. Jim Carrey (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind)
3. Don Cheadle (Hotel Rwanda)
4. Liam Neeson (Kinsey)
5. Mario Van Peebles (Baadasssss!)

Best actress

1. Kate Winslet (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind)
2. Natalie Portman (Garden State)
3. Rachel McAdams (The Notebook)
4. Laura Linney (Kinsey)
5. Claire Danes (Stage Beauty)

Best supporting actor

1. Thomas Haden Church (Sideways)
2. Clive Owen (Closer)
3. Peter Sarsgaard (Kinsey)
4. Rodrigo De la Serna (The Motorcycle Diaries)
5. James Garner (The Notebook)

Best supporting actress

1. Natalie Portman (Closer)
2. Cate Blanchett (The Aviator)
3. Virginia Madsen (Sideways)
4. Kate Bosworth (Beyond the Sea)
5. Kerry Washington (Ray)

Best adapted screenplay

1. Closer
2. Baadasssss!
3. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
4. The Notebook
5. Shrek 2

Best original screenplay

1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
2. Kinsey
3. Garden State
4. The Incredibles
5. The Notebook

Best foreign language film

1. Good Bye, Lenin!
2. House of Flying Daggers
3. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ... And Spring
4. I'm Not Scared
5. Hero

Best cinematography

1. Riding Giants
2. Touching the Void
3. Collateral
4. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ... And Spring
5. The Passion of the Christ

Best original score

1. Justin Caine Burnett (Man on Fire)
2. Michael Kamen (Open Range)
3. Howard Shore (The Aviator)
4. Jan A.P. Kaczmarek (Finding Neverland)
5. Michael Giacchino (The Incredibles)

Best breakthrough performance

1. Catalina Sandrino Morengo (Maria Full of Grace)
2. Rachel McAdams (The Notebook)
3. Zach Braff (Garden State)
4. Sharon Warren (Ray)
5. Jon Foster (The Door In The Floor)

Best breakthrough filmmaker

1. Zach Braff (Garden State)
2. Morgan Suprlock (Super Size Me)
3. Jared Hess (Napoleon Dynamite)
4. Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead)
5. Chris Kentis (Open Water)

Best documentary film

1. Super Size Me
2. Touching the Void
3. Fahrenheit 9/11
4. Festival Express
5. Control Room

Best animated feature

1. The Incredibles
2. Shrek 2
3. The Polar Express
4. Team America: World Police
5. Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (Kôkaku kidôtai 2: Inosensu)

Best film editing

1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
2. Team America: World Police
3. Napoleon Dynamite
4. Man on Fire
5. Open Water

Funniest film of the year

I ♥ Huckabees

The year's most overrated films

1. The Village
2. Million Dollar Baby
3. Kill Bill Volume 2
4. Finding Neverland
5. The Life Aquatic

The year's most underrated films

1. The Notebook
2. King Arthur
3. Man on Fire

O.K. just one more list below

Links to reviews of all the films are indexed below:

A through B   C through D   E through G   H through I
J through L   M through N   O through Q   R through S   T through Z

[Strip of film rule]

The Worst Films of 2004

While I saw most of the best films of the year, I purposefully missed most of the worst films, including such stinkers as, SuperBabies: Baby Geniuses 2, National Lampoon's Gold Diggers, Johnson Family Vacation, Yu-Gi-Oh, The Whole Ten Yards, Paparazzi, Surviving Christmas, Christmas with the Kranks, Taxi, My Baby's Daddy, Godsend, Twisted, First Daughter, Envy, You Got Saved, A Cinderella Tale, Without a Paddle, Raise Your Voice, The Perfect Score, New York Minute, Saw, Merci Docteur Rey, White Chicks, Soul Plane, Thunderbirds and many others, so this is not in any way a list of the worst of the worst films, just the worst of the films I saw. I did see “Alien Vs. Predator” and “Catwoman,” by the way (after they came out on video). After all, I don't get into the movies for free, and I don't like to waste my money, but I got fooled into spending too much on the following films anyway:

1. Agent Cody Banks 2: Destination London[no stars]
2. Around the World in 80 Days[half star]
3. Ocean's 12[1 star]
4. Alexander[1.5 stars]
5. The Punisher[2 stars]
6. Counting on Democracy[2 stars]
7. Van Helsing[2 stars]

[strip of film rule]
Copyright © 2005 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]