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Reverse Shot’s Best of ’04: “Before Sunset” and 9 More Films

Reverse Shot's Best of '04: "Before Sunset" and 9 More Films

Reverse Shot’s Best of ’04: “Before Sunset” and 9 More Films

Capsules by Neal Block, Michael Koresky, Marianna Martin, Adam Nayman, Matthew Plouffe, Jeff Reichert, Michael Joshua Rowin, and Suzanne Scott

Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in a scene from Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunset.” Image courtesy of Warner Independent Pictures.

[indieWIRE weekly reviews are written by critics from Reverse Shot. Founded by four friends in the winter of 2003, Reverse Shot (www.reverseshot.com) is a new kind of online and print community aimed at the next generation of film lovers. Reverse Shot’s unique symposium format allows writers an unprecedented flexibility in choosing the films they get to write about which leads to better, more exciting articles. Irreverent, intelligent, rigorous, not rigor-mortised.]

Labeling 2004 the “Year of the Passion,” as some have done, does film culture a dual disservice: it not only validates and ennobles the project of an obviously lunatic mind, but it also occludes that fact that, all-told, 2004 was a pretty great year for movies, if you were looking in the right places. For our annual Reverse Shot writers’ poll we asked our staff for their 10 best films of the year, and through an arcane tabulation system arrived at the master list of films below. Topped by a sequel none of us expected anything at all from, this list reflects, through various means, just how completely events in the United States this year absorbed world imagination. Look for longer, definitive takes on these films and the rest of 2004’s cinematic landscape in our Year End issue at www.reverseshot.com, forthcoming in early 2005.

[Capsules by Neal Block, Michael Koresky, Marianna Martin, Adam Nayman, Matthew Plouffe, Jeff Reichert, Michael Joshua Rowin, and Suzanne Scott.]

#1: Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, U.S., Warner Independent)

Even those of us who recognized Linklater as a major figure in American filmmaking, those of who listened closely to his yammering dreamers amidst the cacophony of Nineties Indie banality, those of us who had to defend “Tape” and “Waking Life” as dramatically vibrant ways of interpreting new media, were still astonished at the breathtaking artistic coalescence of “Before Sunset.” Much like Lynch‘s “Mulholland Drive” or Almodóvar‘s “Talk to Her,” this film was not just the apotheosis of a career marked by humbling detours but a refining and whittling down of all that seemed to matter to this most unassuming of auteurs. Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke don’t just reprise their roles from “Before Sunrise,” they have simply never left them. And for those of our generation who have never let go of Celine and Jesse, even after nine years, this miraculous meditation on time and mortality in the guise of a romantic comedy was a reaffirmation of everything we hoped these characters could almost, perhaps, try to become. For all the political, psychosexual, and philosophical (pseudo or otherwise) banter, what resonates most are the moments that only Bazin’s God’s-time cinema can capture: the aged crease in Hawke’s furrowed brow, the pangs of doubt that flash across Delpy’s beautifully aging face like lightning-bolt transmissions direct from the heart. For myself, and at least ten other people I know, the film’s casually abrupt, Nina Simone-enhanced fade-out elicited literal gasps of exhilaration, of awe at the wondrous fragility and resilience of the human soul, and the capabilities of cinema to capture what we’re all feeling, somewhere, deep down inside. – MK

#2: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, U.S., Focus Features)

If you ever suspected, in the middle of an awful breakup, that the beautiful and carefree were metaphorically dancing atop your bed of misery, the scene where Kirsten Dunst and Mark Ruffalo‘s characters literally do that to Jim Carrey‘s unhappy Joel will fuel your paranoia for years to come. Born of a conceit — that memories of those who’ve wounded us could be medically wiped — “Eternal Sunshine”‘s landscape of memory is one that can only be told in the form of cinema. And it is seldom that a film reanimates the magical properties of the medium — the logic of dreams dominates a cathartic indoor rainstorm or a quickly vanishing room as Joel clings to images seeking the goodbye he never got. Charlie Kaufman‘s movies are always beautiful playthings, but their typical sense of manipulation is absent here. The seeming whimsy is soon left behind, and beauty and simplicity remain. Clementine (Kate Winslet, vivid beyond her hair) and Joel are left to decide if any relationship is worth a probability of failure; the flicker of memory is gut-wrenching. – MM

#3: Dogville (Lars von Trier, Denmark, Lions Gate)

Branding Lars von Trier a misogynist has become the cinematic equivalent of calling George W. Bush stupid — in both cases the labels gloss over far more complex and sinister realities that are more comfortably left ignored. With “Dogville” von Trier begins a trilogy of films explicitly dealing with the United States, and places his tale within the boundaries of a radical formal project that simultaneously acknowledges his inability to travel the country in question and recognizes that doing so would only limit the scope of his investigation. A new beginning, but for the bulk of “Dogville” you’d be forgiven for imagining yourself planted firmly in the queasy moral landscape of his “Golden Hearts” films. But then, near the end of his lengthy fable, he deviates from the expected path. Instead of painful self-sacrifice, our familiar, long-suffering, beatifically innocent female protagonist is offered an opportunity to step out of her shackles, assess her oppressors and pass judgment. Tables turned, von Trier provides the fire and brimstone finale of the year. Imagine if Bess from “Breaking the Waves” had gone back to the sailors who violated her, not to offer her body again, but armed for retribution. In “Dogville,” von Trier truly finds the American grain he sought in “Dancer in the Dark.” His heroine Grace is pristine, gorgeous, naÔve, yet cunning and savage all the same. And the fateful locale of her degradation is completely anonymous but always familiar — Dogville isn’t just any town in America, according to von Trier, it’s every town. He might just be right. – JR

#4: Kill Bill Volume 2 (Quentin Tarantino, U.S., Miramax)

Once upon a time, in Hollywood, some believe in the year two double-aught four, Quentin Tarantino exceeded the auteurist expectations that had proved more of a hindrance than a standard since 1994’s “Pulp Fiction.” And, not unlike kung fu master Pai Mei, whose slightest of nods to a passing monk goes unreturned “once upon a time in China,” the second installment of Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” was met with little fanfare, critics having seemingly cooled on Tarantino’s innovative pop culture patchwork. But, beyond the loving appropriation, there’s real human sweat to be found on the symbolic brow of “Kill Bill: Vol. 2,” a sequel comprised of contextual weight that runs a veritable emotional gamut while seamlessly balancing tone and theme as though on the point of a Hanzo samurai sword. So, it’s fitting that the most “retro” moment in Tarantino’s accused retro career is to show The Bride’s “cruel tutelage” under Pai Mei’s killer hands in such raw, grueling detail. Training montages, themselves the most worn of filmic tropes, have rarely been so brutal, or irony-free, as they are here. In a downloaded “I know kung fu” age, Tarantino has made classical struggle and Shakespearean revenge cool again, and while “Kill Bill: Vol. 2” might lack the frenetic energy of the first, it does lend it retrospective weight. And that permutation of “retro,” sorely lacking in contemporary film, let alone contemporary film sequels, is something that certainly deserves more than a mere nod of acquiescence. – SS

#5: Goodbye Dragon Inn (Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan, Wellspring)

“Goodbye Dragon Inn” could be called the “Mulholland Drive” of 2004: a sumptuous, self-reflexive, haunting eulogy to cinema’s powers to cast spells through dreams and deceive through illusions. But while Lynch subverts the tropes of film noir and melodrama to create a hallucinatory nightmare of showbiz corruption, Tsai Ming-liang works within contemporary Asian cinema’s penchant for patient rhythms and slowly-unfolding anti-narratives (see also Weerasethakul‘s “Blissfully Yours” and Hou Hsiao-hsien‘s “Café Lumiére”). The result is something less frightful and a little more melancholic, a nostalgic work of mourning for the once proud giants of a national cinema, as well as a fare-thee-well to the fading cultural traditions such giants stood for. Tsai places King Hu’s martial arts classic “Dragon Inn” at the center of his somnambulant characters’ night journey through a gorgeous, crumbling movie palace of yesteryear — a simple, yet effective metaphor for film’s lost past and murky future. In a year that saw the passing of Brando, the final film of Bergman’s career, and Godard’s latest treatise on The End of Cinema, “Goodbye Dragon Inn” provided the most striking image of vanishing cinephilia: the house lights go up and the theater is empty. We are looking into a mirror: the audience has been comprised of phantoms. – MJR

#6: The Village (M. Night Shyamalan, U.S., Touchstone)

Perhaps the most unjustly maligned studio release of 2004, M. Night Shyamalan‘s precisely executed fable is both a thoughtful allegory of current world events and a fantastically artful horror film. Striking an effective balance between subtlety and over-the-top theatrics, Shyamalan, a director whose trade in gimmickry has earned him both praise and critical dismissal, winds up with a film that’s timely, lush and suspenseful. A tale of an isolated 19th century village terrorized by monsters who roam the surrounding woods, “The Village” sees Shyamalan further mastering his directorial art; where “The Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable” seemed mere vehicles for the twists at the end, “The Village” is entirely captivating even before the trademark reveal. Quiet, emotive performances from Joaquin Phoenix and Bryce Dallas Howard perfectly compliment the tension Shyamalan puts into his slow pans, rolling mists, and ominous shots of black forest. A movie this sure of itself and of its message is bound to have its critics — the Hobermans will find it hokey and the Shalits will find it too subtle. It’s neither. “The Village” is Shyamalan’s best film, and one of the most relevant, simple statements made about America in a year full of political hot air. – NB

#7: Crimson Gold (Jafar Panahi, Iran, Wellspring)

Abbas Kiarostami may well be his country’s Roberto Rossellini. Since “Crimson Gold”‘s disillusioned protagonist Hussein’s job as pizza delivery man allows him to traverse the social strata of Iran, the film has in common with Italian Neorealist classics the unflinching, raw ability to analyze existing conditions while documenting them. What comes through in the script Kiarostami wrote for Jafar Panahi are the contradictions and hypocrisies of a theocracy venturing into capitalist territory — a police crackdown on upper class revelers, young people forced into law enforcement, palatial mansions unappreciated by the spoiled children of Westernized millionaires. Despite Godard’s bitching about Kiarostami’s inability to “make films with a camera,” “Crimson Gold” was the humanist-materialist film of the past year, tracing the use of violence back to its roots in social inequality and desperation. The fact that Panahi and Kiarostami never condescend or preach makes this film a marvel of quiet outrage. – MJR

#8: Notre musique (Jean-Luc Godard, France/Switzerland, Wellspring)

If 2001’s “In Praise of Love” glimmered with hope of a second coming, this year’s “Notre musique” was The Light. A welcome confirmation of Godard‘s artistic resurrection after years entrenched in confounding esoterica, “Notre musique” also may be among the most inspiring and important films of this young century. Silencing his once-innumerable detractors, Jean-Luc returns to the pulpit with a pointed sermon on Heaven, Hell, and the art of Cinema; it’s a divine and clearly conceived triptych with the power to save any lax cinephile’s soul, straight from the heart of the medium’s holiest father. And to think: some of us thought he was the one lost. At a seminar amidst the ruins of Sarajevo, Godard grumbles on the subject of le text et l’image, truth and beauty, revolution. His young female protagonists, a journalist and a film student, survey “Purgatory” between antithetical bookends. “Musique” begins with the piecemealed avalanche of destruction on film known as “Hell,” and ends at “Heaven,” an unsettling yet halcyon tableau. That he can still command the camera with such nuanced vitality at age 74 is not just a reminder of his relevance but of why Godard remains the filmmaker most worthy of a single-name sobriquet, the first three letters of which lend a deserved resonance. – MP

#9: Time of the Wolf (Michael Haneke, Austria/France, Palm Pictures)

While Lars von Trier continues to retreat (albeit brilliantly) into mere provocation, Michael Haneke has asserted himself as the European art cinema’s foremost stone-in-the-shoe humanist. The odd indifference that greeted “Time of the Wolf” at Cannes 2003 might have had something to do with its screening out of competition, or the fact that between “Elephant,” “Dogville,” “The Brown Bunny,” and “Twentynine Palms,” there was an unprecedented glut of formally austere, thematically challenging auteur projects. Anyway, this muted gaze at a secular apocalypse beats ’em all: as in “Code Unknown,” the rigorous minimalism of Haneke’s approach works to generate maximum emotional impact. There is a narrative trajectory in the aftermath of a vaguely defined social/environmental tragedy (nuclear holocaust is one possibility) a mother and her two children helplessly wander the abandoned French countryside until running into a group of survivors huddling in a train shelter. Haneke could have used the hoary, pseudo-sci fi scenario to mock genre conventions a la “Funny Games,” or to indulge in portentous, cautionary-tale hysterics, but restraint, not to mention the director’s genius for imbuing small details of human interaction with catch-in-the-throat significance, carries the day. One indelible moment (of many): a man presents his aged father with a tiny container of milk, procured with great difficulty and not likely to ever be replaced. The older man gives the precious gift to his own terminally sick wife. She feverishly drinks the entire thing down, in front of her equally thirsty and doomed husband, and wordlessly resumes waiting to die. That sound is your heart breaking. – AN

#10: Twentynine Palms (Bruno Dumont, France, Wellspring)

When’s the last time you were truly scared by a movie? No, this isn’t the tagline for the latest Dimension release or a marketer’s tactic to get you to see some low-budget indie horror phenom that “breaks all the rules.” The sort of fear that French philosopher (and sometimes filmmaker) Bruno Dumont dredges up in “Twentynine Palms” is the kind so difficult to classify that most decided to ignore it altogether. Like denying the id, refusing to acknowledge the primordial sensations Dumont means to coax is like walking through this world blindfolded. A wholly unpleasant couple, barely communicating due to a barely tested language barrier, drive out into the desert from Los Angeles, stay at a series of motels, fuck loudly, fight violently, and drive, drive, drive in their increasingly anthropomorphized Hummer. The camera watches and waits. When Dumont finally, in thirty terrible seconds, slices through the mundanity of it all, the primal scream is deafening. Goofy, absurd treatise on American foreign policy? Stupefyingly literal-minded burrowing to the heart of complacent misogyny? Exercise in meta God’s-eye POV trickery? Adam and Eve redux? To even attempt to so strictly define it seems sheer folly: like shoving your hand into a gaping wound and poking around. You’re sure to emerge with something you weren’t quite ready for. – MK

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