2004: Film in review

Thursday, 24 February 2005 — 11:45pm | Capsule reviews, Film

As was the case last year, now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country, where “aid” consists of making sweeping recapitulative generalizations and comparative value judgments, and “country” refers to films classified as 2004 releases that caught my attention.

I will first begin with an identification of some of the major trends and overarching themes that characterized 2004 as a film year. Consider this an exercise in completing the sentence, “2004 was the year of…” – as in, “2001 was the year of preposterously explosive opening hype-driven weekends and precipitous second-week plummets,” or “2003 was the year of The Lord of the Rings and not much else.” So, 2004 was the year of the following:

The episodic bio-pic: This year saw a collective, synchronized movement to reduce the genre of the dramatized biography to a series of unfortunate events, to borrow a phrase. Initially there seems nothing wrong with this – after all, isn’t biography just the story of someone’s life? – but what separates a dramatization from a documentary is its engagement in the act of interpreting the life of its subject into a cohesive, selective narrative that makes decisions about what to focus on.

De-Lovely forgot about this and ended up being a lot of pretty pictures and good songs – great scenes, but not much of a movie. Ray fared considerably better, but it is a film that I would put on the shelf next to A Beautiful Mind, alphabetical considerations notwithstanding; both consist of visionary representations of their subjects’ talents and limitations, but fall victim to an episodic structure proceeding from event to event without an eye for priority. Superb filmmaking, yes, but with an asterisk. Alexander… well, we all know how that turned out.

The Aviator is a remarkable case study in that it, too, takes the conventional episodic approach complete with an abundance of title cards, but there is something to be said for the effect of title cards that read “Hell’s Angels, Year Two” and later, “Hell’s Angels, Year Four.” The events themselves are disconnected as we proceed from Howard Hughes, the filmmaker to Howard Hughes, the titular aviator to Howard Hughes, the openly obsessive-compulsive recluse – but what makes it all click is that everything feels like it lends itself to a consistent revelation of who he is, and who the film says he is.

It seems like the only high-profile bio-pic to break the one-event-after-another curse was Finding Neverland, which steers clear of being the Life and Times of J.M. Barrie and instead focuses on his relationship with a specific family and relatedly, a specific work of literature for which he is known.

The good sequel: I keep hearing people in both the critical community and the filmgoing public complain about what a bland year 2004 was. Well, for films that bodies like the Academy would actually consider awarding, that is to some extent true. But unless you are Francis Ford Coppola or Peter Jackson, you accept that sequels just don’t get a lot of recognition; justifiably so, most of the time, on the grounds that relative value judgments like awards, star ratings and Lettermanian decuples should generally offer a handicap for novelty.

This is a shame, as three of the very best films I saw in 2004 were, in one way or another, sequels. Spider-Man 2 is, hands-down, the best comic-book superhero movie I have ever seen (aside from The Incredibles, but that’s an equine of a different pigment). It’s smart, funny, and involving – and the fights are great. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was underage wizardry finally done right, and everyone from John Williams to Steve Kloves to Emma Watson churned out their finest work in the franchise. It only took them three tries, but as Alfonso Cuaron hadn’t stepped in yet, I guess the first two don’t count.

And then there’s Kill Bill, Vol. 2 – not a sequel so much as the quieter half of a deeply schizophrenic movie, where one half cannot exist without the other (at least, not very well), but the two are in so many ways completely different. On its own, Vol. 2 does not stand up, but it justifies the first part, which justifies it back in return. Taken as a whole – and at some point, I should like to see the two parts cut together – I consider Kill Bill a career-best for Quentin Tarantino.

The Mad Genius archetype: In no other year has the Incredibly Talented Crazy Person been treated with so much respect by so many films, each of which have something unique to say. There’s Otto Octavius in Spider-Man 2, who, unlike the Green Goblin, is a character and not just a bad guy on drugs. There’s the Phantom of the Opera in a little film curiously entitled The Phantom of the Opera, whose disfigurement and isolation drive him to a misdirected self-consciousness, a heartbreaking denial of the love he seeks, and a penchant for nooses. Then there’s Syndrome from The Incredibles, who fails to recognize the special ingenuity that resides within himself and applies it to weapons of mass destruction as if they were a necessary equalizer. We don’t see much of Totenkopf in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, but in him we see the convergence of the man-machine dynamic.

The most thorough take on the Mad Genius was what Scorsese and DiCaprio did with Howard Hughes in The Aviator, but that is because after a very lengthy sit-through clocking in at almost three hours, one really comes to know the ins and outs of how a character is portrayed. We really do get a complete picture of the young Hughes, and the film says enough about him that I shall not repeat it here; go check it out for yourself.

Snow: Last week I watched the DVD restoration of the Vincente Minnelli classic Meet Me In St. Louis starring Judy Garland, which is a generally great movie with a major distraction – that being how in the Winter vignette, the snow is really, really, really fake. Considering that this is the film that gave us the song “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” this is a big deal. But it does give us a sense of how far movie-snow has come in the past sixty years, and not just when it comes to how real it looks, as in the Caradhras sequence in The Fellowship of the Ring.

In 2004, snow wasn’t just real – it was beautiful. Some of the most memorable and downright gorgeous scenes of the year involved snow. The Phantom of the Opera spun high romance on the rooftops with little flakes of snow in “All I Ask Of You,” and then painted a breathtaking cemetary in “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again”; the latter was as perfect as perfect gets when it comes to staging an Andrew Lloyd Webber number, and I wouldn’t change a frame of it. The Prisoner of Azkaban not only harnessed snow to show off the Invisibility Cloak in a way we had not seen before, but squeezed a great scene out of it in Hogsmeade upon Harry’s discovery of the truth behind Sirius Black’s connection to the Potters. The Polar Express was an hour and a half of lush animated snow with a movie buried somewhere underneath. Perhaps the very best scene in Alexander is when an endless expanse of snow-capped mountains presents itself as something even Alex the Great could not surmount. And one would be remiss to neglect the signature shot in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind of a couple lying on the frozen Charles River; which, I might add, I will have to try sometime.

If there were an Oscar for Best Snow, though, the clear winner would be House of Flying Daggers. It delivered the fluffiest, puffiest snow you can imagine, but more than that, it highlights the brutal emotional anguish of the finale; autumn turns to winter with a ferocious blizzard, and it captures a certain mythic poetry of a fight that lasts from one season to the next. This, my dear readers, is great snow. Andrew Adamson, take note: when Lucy wanders into the wardrobe and steps into Narnia next December, I want to see snow this lovely.

Now, without further ado, let us move on to the lists. As always, I find ranking movies in an enumerated fashion to be far too discriminating and always in flux, even as someone who is willing to call some movies better than others. So, in an effort to offer some compromise between relative appreciation and subjectivity, I will delineate films into tiers.

Instant classics built to last: For the past few years we have been spoiled with life-changing landmark films that will identify this decade in the history books and more importantly, have earned a permanent place in my heart as a total movie geek – The Lord of the Rings, for instance, or Finding Nemo. This year was lacking in masterpieces that would contend for positions in the upper echelons of my all-time favourites, but I did manage to identify two for which I harbour a boundless love: The Incredibles and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Must-sees both, and the best films of 2004.

Reservations are negligible at most: These are movies I enjoyed and will probably continue to treasure once I have them on high-quality DVD, if I don’t already, and can watch them over and over again. You should watch them too, and stand in awe of what they achieved. I had an absolute blast with Spider-Man 2, A Very Long Engagement, House of Flying Daggers, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Garden State, and I remain in awe of how good they are. They are in plentiful company, but good company.

In my opinion, terrific: The following have certain properties that make them open for some very valid criticisms in the eyes of their occasional detractors, but on balance, those alleged flaws either did not detract from the piece on the whole or did not appear for me at all, and what I saw was an astoundingly good movie. They are The Aviator, The Phantom of the Opera, Million Dollar Baby and Kill Bill, Vol. 2.

The ones that didn’t make the above: Funny how when you start naming a bunch of films at once, it doesn’t feel like such a bad year after all. Nevertheless, I feel it necessary to artificially extend this discussion so Steven Spielberg doesn’t get left out, and mention that I saw a lot of films in the past year that demonstrated some very skillful movie magic at work, though ultimately, I do not consider them to be what I expect I will remember most about 2004. There’s Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow – stupendous fun from beginning to end, but in the end just a diversion; Ray, a marvelous but sometimes unfocused achievement that I assessed in the above discussion of episodic bio-pics; The Terminal, because even when Spielberg tries to be as standard and mainstream as possible, he does a good job of it; The Passion of the Christ, which is so commendably good at hurting the audience that I never want to see it again; and Finding Neverland, which legitimately earned its Best Picture nomination but is really nothing revolutionary.

And now, for the ancillary mentions:

Worst film I paid to see: In retrospect, I let The Punisher off easy. Aside from the origin-story killings that set the plot in motion and a good performance in a sea of dreck on the part of Thomas Jane, there is nothing about it that I can recommend. On the upside, maybe it’s setting itself up for a Most Improved Sequel prize a few years down the road, which Marvel has a knack for doing.

Most Improved Sequel: Spider-Man 2.

The Holdover Prize: This is awarded to a film from recent years that I did not or could not see until this year, and I give it to 2002’s Hero. Miramax finally got its act together, and in spite of the extraneous prologue and epilogue text that was tacked on for the North American release, we got to see what I think will be remembered as a true wuxia classic.

I don’t get it: I have a feeling that I will fall in love with Sideways when I am forty and divorced. Right now, I am neither, and while I found it to be a highly enjoyable and smartly-written character comedy, I am befuddled at how the vast majority of critics in professional circles have stopped just short of calling it the Second Coming. Most overrated by the general public, as reflected by box office returns, was Shrek 2. Cute, funny, and full of visual gags, but the first one was so much more than that.

Nobody else got it: Well, most of the lay-audiences I have spoken to got it, but it would be hypocritical of me to cite them now when most of the time, I let them eat cake. That said, The Phantom of the Opera was clearly the most underrated movie of the year, and it continues to astound me how so many others decided to pick on it at once. Having read most of the negative reviews in an attempt to understand where the detractors are coming from, I have come to the conclusion that they either have no affinity for the music (a sentiment with which I absolutely cannot empathize) or like the musical, but want Michael Crawford to reprise a role he played on stage fifteen years ago.

It could have been a contender: I desperately wanted both Alexander and De-Lovely to be among the best times I have ever had at the cinema. As it turned out, I was asking for a bit much, and instead of great movies I got a bunch of great scenes scattered about here and there. A ho-hum expedition like Hidalgo can fizzle out like it did and be excused and forgotten, Troy can be evaluated with severely lowered standards and dismissed with a “What did you expect? Besides, the fights were great,” but Alexander… what a shame.

There you have it, folks. Still to come, time willing, is a pre-Oscars assessment of this year’s nominations, what they mean, where they went horribly wrong, and where they will in all likelihood go horribly wrong when the awards are announced on Sunday. Then it is time to pull out the calendar and start booking off weekends for the major releases of 2005, and by golly, they’re numerous. Somewhere in between I may even sneak in a Constantine review, but I make no promises.

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