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Josh's Obligatory Top Ten of 2004

My top ten is a little different than what the others are offering… I hope. Most critics tend to make their list based on what they think the best movies of the year are, not which are their favorites. Personally I don't understand the difference. The best movies are my favorites, and my favorites are the best films. Pretending that it's otherwise to me has always seemed a convenient way to justify putting “safe”, indie-pandering picks on your list that just go along with the crowd or out of some artificial need to promote unworthy independent films. Not that I'm out to shock anyone, just cut through all the pretension.

You also won't see me trying to fill some sort of quota for specific types of movies on my list. It's common for critics to refuse to put both Spider-Man 2 and The Incredibles on their list for instance, because they don't want more than one superhero film. Or to put a documentary on their list, just because they feel they should have one, not necessarily because they think it really belongs in their number ten slot.

With that said, what follows are the ten best movies of 2004, as I see it. I see a lot of movies, but It's impossible to see every movie, so no doubt in a few months I'll catch something on cable and end up beating myself about the head in self-deprecating retribution for having missed it. We'll all just have to live with that. Sorry about the tie, I hate having it as much as you do.

1. The Aviator

Directed By: Martin Scorsese Written By: John Logan Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, Kate Beckinsale, Adam Scott, Kelli Garner, Alec Baldwin, Ian Holm, Alan Alda, Willem Dafoe, John C. Reilly

Rebounding off of one of his biggest failures, Martin Scorsese does the best work of his directorial career with The Aviator. It's an easy film to place comfortably at number one, and a movie I feel sure I'll love no less a few years down the road. What's amazing to me is that I'm generally not a big fan of the big screen biopic. Most end up like Ray, nice movies that feel like they'd fit better on the beat up television of a High School history classroom than in a theater.

The Aviator so surpasses the constraints of its rather mundane biopic genre that it doesn't even feel like a member. Awash in the colors and glitz of Hollywood's golden air, drunk on the sheer exhilaration of flight, The Aviator is Scorsese's most masterful and daring endeavor. DiCaprio's work as Hughes, isn't an impersonation of a public figure, but a nuanced dramatic performance, a portrayal of a man struggling mighty to accomplish something big before he succumbs to what he knows will be an inevitable slip into complete and total madness. Marty, Gangs of New York is forgiven, Goodfellas is overshadowed, this is the film for which you will be remembered.

Best Moment: The way of the future... The way of the future... The way of the future... The way of the future... The way of the future...

CB Quote: “He also makes a gigantic airplane out of balsa wood; no doubt in the process innovating new methods of beaver repellent. All of his ideas weren't hits.” [CB Review]

2. (TIE) The Incredibles

Directed By: Brad Bird Written By: Brad Bird Starring: VOICE - Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Samuel L. Jackson, Jason Lee, Dominique Louis, Jean Sincere, Wallace Shawn, Spencer Fox, Sarah Vowell, Lou Romano, Elizabeth Peña, Brad Bird

The superhero genre has reached its zenith, I have the dreadful feeling that it's all downhill from here. The Incredibles is great not because Director/Writer Brad Bird came up with whiz bang unique superpowers for his heroes, or because he thought of a new gimmick like crime fighting blindness that hasn't already been explored to death in other super-powered films. It's a fantastic story because it cuts right to the heart of its characters, and by extension the audience. Of course it doesn't hurt that filming it as a completely computer animated feature allows Bird to do amazing things with his character's powers that'll never be done in live action film. The upcoming Fantastic Four movie has already gone back to the drawing board on some its stunts in response to the bar raising done by Bird and Pixar. Not just a great superhero movie, but great filmmaking, this one's a modern family classic.

Best Moment: Mr. Incredible sobs.

CB Quote: ”Brad Bird wanted to cast Frozone with the coolest voice he could find, so of course he hired Samuel L. Jackson.” [CB Review]

2. (TIE) Spider-Man 2

Directed By: Sam Raimi Written By: Alfred Gough, Miles Milar, Michael Chabon, Alvin Sargent Starring: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Alfred Molina, Rosemary Harris, J.K. Simmons

How do you top the original? Not better special effects, but better drama around the guy beneath that silly costume. More Peter Parker, that messed up kid who can't ever seem to get anything right and oh yes, also happens to be a heavily burdened superhero. Spider-Man, unlike any other hero exploration, really brings to life the personal costs of spending your time saving other people. Peter's personal life is a shambles, he lives in a shitty apartment, he can't hold a job, and he can't keep up his grades. He's helping people, but the guy is absolutely miserable. Peter's misery, is weirdly enough, the core of what's great about Spider-Man. It makes him easy to identify with and a heroic character that's worth caring about. Spider-Man 2 is exactly what we need in a world that in the past few years has become almost sickeningly obsessed with anti-heroes.

Best Moment: “Go get em Tiger.”

CB Quote: “Peter isn't an all powerful demi-god with the ability to fly around the world and turn back time whenever he sees the need.” [CB Review]

3. Open Water

Directed By: Chris Kentis Written By: Chris Kentis Starring: Blanchard Ryan, Daniel Travis, Saul Stein, Estelle Lau

Before it opened in theaters, Open Water was being hailed as the next My Big Fat Greek Wedding, only good and with people being eaten by sharks. Later, the buzz turned sour, but for me, Open Water remains the most terrifying and affecting thing I've seen in years. It gets to you not with exciting attack sequences or big budget shark effects, but with something as simple as two married people floating very alone in the water. In fact, almost the entire film is spent there, with two heads bobbing alone in the ocean, facing unimaginable and disturbingly realistic terror. Its intimate and the utterly realistic dialogue rings true. It could be me or you. The ending left me sick and a little worried inside, the way a movie like Jaws never will. That a film like this could be made on such a non-existent budget is a testament to the value of digital video.

Best Moment: The ending… which I cannot spoil.

CB Quote: “Hour after hour they bob around in their life vests like tasty and oversized fishing lures…” [CB Review]

4. Kinsey

Directed By: Bill Condon Written By: Bill Condon Starring: Liam Neeson, Laura Linney, Peter Sarsgaard, John Lithgow, Chris O’ Donnell, Timothy Hutton, Tim Curry, Oliver Platt

This isn't a movie with an agenda; it isn't trying to tear apart the moral fiber of our society any more than Kinsey himself was. Like Kinsey, the picture is simply trying to tell the truth. In doing so it creates a dramatic masterpiece with Kinsey as a sympathetic, flawed, damaged genius obsessively trying to open a resistant world's eyes to reality. Through his work, the man helped people. It's dismaying to see so many still trying to stick their heads in the sand today, or worse force all of us to stick our heads in the sand right along with them. Kinsey is smart, sophisticated, and open. Liam Neeson, most often found playing physically powerful warrior types, takes a step back to deliver a delicate, fragile piece of acting as the obsessed Prok. Like The Aviator, it is a film that transcends the bland biopic genre, only this film does so by mixing humor with strong social context. The laughter keeps the film from getting preachy and Condon's candor about Kinsey's work crushes claims of partiality.

Best Moment: Uncomfortable newlywed sex.

CB Quote: “It is the chemistry of love mixed with the science of sex that equals cinematic success.” [CB Review]

5. Alfie

Directed By: Charles Shyer Written By: Elaine Pope, Charles Shyer Starring: Jude Law, Omar Epps, Jane Krakowski, Nia Long, Sienna Miller, Marisa Tomei, Gedde Watanabe, Susan Sarandon

I feel a little weird putting a remake in my top ten, but I was never all that attached to the original Michael Caine movie anyway. Even if I were, there's no denying the greatness of this Jude Law powered take on it. Mis-marketed and misunderstood, Alfie was just one of Law's many big tanks at the box office, but is to my mind clearly his best piece of work. It's a bravely pessimistic, downbeat film with a lead character who is flat out a shit. He stays a shit right through the end of the film, which doesn't cop out for easy, Hollywood answers. Ok, so it's not a giddy night out at the movies, but if you pay attention it's actually a pretty profound one. This is Jude Law finally realizing all the potential we've seen with small roles in films like Road to Perdition and A.I.. It's a shame no one seemed to notice.

Best Moment: “What's it all about?”

CB Quote: “You might think of him as the pure sexual essence of James Bond, if James were a limo driver and didn't bother with all that spying.” [CB Review]

6. Finding Neverland

Directed By: Marc Forster Written By: David Magee Starring: Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, Julie Christie, Dustin Hoffman, Freddie Highmore, Radha Mitchell, Luke Spill, Joe Prospero, Nick Roud

This doesn't feel like a PG family movie, but it is. It blends the weird and fanciful seamlessly with stark, adult, emotional drama. A lot of people are avoiding it because they “don't like that Peter Pan stuff”, but that's not what this movie is about. It's mature drama that you can take the kids to without cringing… unless you're afraid of letting them see you cry. This is the first time in awhile where I've seen Johnny Depp give a really amazing performance, without being in the position to play a bizarro character. Captain Jack Sparrow, Edward Scissorhands, even in his own way Ed Wood, they're freaks. Oddities. J.M. Barrie is not, yet Depp is every bit as good playing him as he is stealing scenes as a guy with very pointy hands. Finding Neverland is a beautiful film that manages to have a holiday feel without actually being about any sort of holiday, god-powered or otherwise.

Best Moment: Barrie and his wife enter separate bedrooms. As their doors open, hers is dark and cold, inside his… we get a glimpse of Neverland.

CB Quote: "Take all the really good parts of Shakespeare in Love and Big Fish, put it in a blender, and the end result is Finding Neverland." [CB Review]

7. Kill Bill Vol. 2

Directed By: Quentin Tarantino Written By: Quentin Tarantino, Uma Thurman Starring: Uma Thurman, David Carradine, Daryl Hannah, Gordon Liu, Michael Madsen, Christopher Allen Nelson, Vivica A. Fox, Lucy Liu, Samuel L. Jackson, Bo Svenson

The thing that still confounds me about Volume 2 is that it would be higher on my list if only the film hadn't been split up. Still, even in it's unduly separated state, Volume 2 is a serious kick in the pants. There's talk again of Uma being nominated for an Oscar, but for me, it's David Carradine that carries things, a component that was missing in the more inferior Volume 1. This movie works in a way that on its own, Volume 1 never did. It's as if Tarantino finally got over his ridiculous case of the giggles and got down to business. When he's on his game, few are better at that than QT. The payoff to QT's chop soky homage is perfect, and in fact vastly superior to the movie which got the whole thing started in the first place. It's so good, it even makes that first film better.

Best Moment: Bill discusses the true nature of Superman.

CB Quote: “If the anime sequence in Kill Bill Vol. 1 was your favorite moment, then you may be disappointed by what KB2 offers up.” [CB Review]

8. The Woodsman

Directed By: Nicole Kassell Written By: Steven Fechter, Nicole Kassell Starring: Kevin Bacon, Kyra Sedgwick, Mos Def, Benjamin Bratt, David Alan Grier, Eve, Kevin Rice

I wish I'd had more time to let this film simmer before plopping it down on my list, but so be it. My gut reaction to The Woodsman is one of awe inspired by the sheer power of the film. It's powerful because it is uncomfortable and uncomfortable because it dares to tackle the most hated type of criminal this side of Hitler without simply dismissing him as a monster. That's not to say the film sympathizes with Walter, brought to life by Kevin Bacon in the best performance of his career. There is no sympathy for the pedophile, only honesty. It's as if the movie is pointing at these loathsome creatures and screaming, “look this is what they are!” It doesn't ask for sympathy, only pity and vigilance in a movie that's so distressing and so commanding it nearly becomes a thriller. Some people simply won't be able to handle the subject matter. For those who can, you'll be able to cut the tension in your theater with a knife. It's impossible to leave it unaffected.

Best Moment: Walter hits on a 12 year old blonde. No really.

CB Quote: “It helps that Bacon, unlike Kidman, never actually makes out with any children.” [CB Review]

9. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

Directed By: Nicole Kassell Written By: Steven Fechter, Nicole Kassell Starring: Kevin Bacon, Kyra Sedgwick, Mos Def, Benjamin Bratt, David Alan Grier, Eve, Kevin Rice

I've probably said this enough that it's become repetitive, but The Life Aquatic is Wes Anderson's third best film. It's a tribute to Anderson as a fantastic filmmaker that his third best movie still warrants the number nine spot on my list. It maintains the bizarre, unique, and wonderful atmospheric style that Anderson brings to all of his films, and plenty of the same trademark subtle humor as well. I've seen the movie twice so far, and think I like it more with every viewing. While this performance probably won't win Murray another Oscar nomination, he does solid work as Anderson's ever present muse. The Life Aquatic is addictive, nuanced performance that'll have you hooked once you see it. I'll leave questions as to what it actually is to you. Comedy, drama, fantasy, action movie, I think it's a crazy mix of all three.

Best Moment: “Be still Cody!”

CB Quote: “Zissou would be a lot like Jacques Cousteau, if not for a tendency to outfit his crew in red beanies and Speedos.” [CB Review]

10. Collateral

Directed By: Michael MannWritten By: Stuart BeattieStarring: Jamie Foxx, Tom Cruise, Jada Pinkett Smith, Mark Ruffalo, Peter Berg, Bruce McGill, Irma P. Hall, Barry Shabaka Henley

I've never really bought in to the Michael Mann hype, and his obsession with Ali only confirmed to me that hype is all it really was. Collateral proved me wrong. It's a masterful film that surpasses my expectations and manages a truly cinematic presentation using the till now inferior medium of DV. This, not Ray is Jamie Foxx's best work of 2004. Where Ray is almost more of an impersonation, Sonny is a much more subtle character, requiring more from Jamie than could be easily tapped by his naturally impressionist roots. Though the subject is a night with a hitman, this isn't so much an action movie as it is a gritty character study. Tom Cruise's winning smile makes him an eerily effective killer, and as a foil for Sonny's development, Vincent is startling. Mann doesn't need gimmicks, just two characters in a cab to make an amazing flick.

Best Moment: Vincent toys with the jazz man.

CB Quote: “Tom Cruise gets plenty of chances to run his ass off, I love watching how fast that little guy can move!” [CB Review]

Great Stuff that didn't make the cut:

The Notebook, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, 50 First Dates, Team America: World Police, Garden State, Anchorman, The Bourne Supremacy, The Chronicles of Riddick, Shrek 2, The Manchurian Candidate, Miracle, The Girl Next Door, Starsky & Hutch, Spartan, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Just in case you were wondering:

Beyond the Sea was the worst film of 2004. Kevin Spacey has re-doomed the movie musical.

me with the way you see it.