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The 10 Best Films Of 2004

The 10 Best Films Of 2004

With 2015 upon us, we figured it was a good time to look back on the movies the millennium has brought us. And so we’ve dug into the archives and are re-running our Best of the 2000s pieces, from way back in 2009 when the Playlist was a little Blogspot site held together with tape and string. Each list runs down the top 10 films of each year (it’s possible that, half-a-decade on, we’d put them in a different order and even change some of the movies, but we wanted to preserve the original pieces untouched as far as possible). Check out 20002001, 2002 and 2003 if you missed them, and today we continue with 2004. The original piece follows below, and thanks to staffers past and present who contributed.

Man, if compiling this list was any indication, 2004 was a very peculiar year and one of the weaker ones of the decade. For some years, we were unfortunately cutting tons of pictures from the top 10. For 2004, we struggled and struggled to find ten films we felt completely passionate about. Sure, there were lots of decent pictures (see our ample honorable mention section), but 2004 overall feels a bit more slight than every other year in the decade.

And note, people love to rag on Nicole Kidman, but she can do some excellent work. She’s in two pictures in our top five. Meanwhile in the film world in general, it was still sequels driving the box-office (“Spider-Man 2,” “Shrek 2” and “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban“). Clint Eastwood‘s 2003 film, “Million Dollar Baby” would take the Best Picture Oscar and in what was more of a statement move more than anything, Michael Moore‘s “Fahrenheit 9/11” would take the top prize at Cannes.

10. “Anchorman”
Yes, “Anchorman.” With 9/11 still residing deep in the American psyche, Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, galled by the callous and exploitative nature of the media, created one of the most searing indictments of broadcast news since “Network.” Half-satire and half-political screed, “Anchorman” set its sights on the most protected of American institutions: freedom of the press. Will Ferrell, in a haughty mustache and ironic blue suit, gave the performance of a lifetime as journalistic hero Ron Burgundy, a powerful reporter from the city named after a whale’s vagina, who is tempted by desire and constantly at odds with his own raw masculine hunger. The centerpiece of the film is a bitter street fight between rival network anchors complete with tridents, men on fire and desperadoes on horses. The sequence is the most scathing critique of bourgeois consumerist desires since Jean-Luc Godard‘s “Week-End.” Provocative, controversial yet imbued with deep understanding of the human condition, “Anchorman” is one of the bravest films of the decade. When in Rome.

9. “Time Of The Wolf”
Michael Haneke‘s tense apocalyptic drama opens with a scene we can’t actually see. A family enters a home and we hear screaming, followed by a gunshot, and even further violence. While Haneke’s decision to not show the disturbance increases its own queasy, pornographic efficiency as far as troubling the audience, it also helps ground the film in a certain level of universality. It’s not the last such occurrence, as our orphaned characters make it through a desolate French countryside, shell-shocked by what we learn is an unspecified disaster that has left them without electricity or hope. Haneke’s genre trappings are clearly second place to the emotional and often familiar violence humans are capable of when society has been driven to its most primitive urges. This is clearly the movie “The Road” was trying to be.

8. “The Dreamers”
An extremely polarizing NC-17 film upon its release, Bernardo Bertoluccis wantonly naive — perhaps revisionist — paean to his ’60s counter-culture heyday is a valentine to the thrilling rush of New Wave cinema and an impetuous kind of sonic youth. It can be a little heavy-handed if you’re not a devout quixotic cineaste (but can you really hate on references to “Mouchette” and “Bande à part“?). But drunk on idealism, it throbs with erotic voltage and is fraught with romantic spontaneity — and it’s a film that is done wonders by repeat viewings and is deeply in need of a second glance. Featuring excellent performances by its three leads (especially a deliciously wicked and sultry Eva Green; the boys are Michael Pitt and Louis Garrel) the trio play disaffected youths insulated in a palatial Paris apartment, experimenting with sexuality, exploring abstract notions, philosophy and challenging social mores while the world outside is pregnant with unrest and discordant anomie. Its rich guilelessness is in essence its strength (the title says its all), as the film voluptuously (and profanely) lurches forward like an ardent molotov cocktail to the chest.

7. “Before Sunset
Indie romances aren’t usually prime targets for sequels, but Richard Linklater and the stars of 1995’s “Before Sunrise” defied conventional wisdom to create the sublime “Before Sunset.” While most cinematic love stories end with the hook-up, the story’s continuation explores the aftermath of the one-night romance of Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) almost a decade ago, with the now-older-and-wiser pair spending an afternoon on the streets of Paris, rehashing their Vienna evening from nine years ago. The interaction between them is raw, revealing, and real, and the intimate script earned Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke an Oscar nomination and the affection of true romantics who aren’t swayed by Hollywood’s unrealistic output.

6. “Kill Bill: Volume 2”
While the first part of Quentin Tarantino‘s duo of revenge-driven films was bolstered by blood and battles and crisp forward narrative, the director downshifts for “Kill Bill: Vol. 2” and gives in to his devotion to chatter and tumbleweed-moody Spaghetti-Western-like tenors. For those who miss the epic action of “Vol. 1,” there’s an eye-popping match-up between The Bride (Uma Thurman) and Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah), as well as a magnificent kung-fu-tinged, coffin-bound flashback to The Bride’s training with Pai Mei (Gordon Liu) set to Ennio Morricone‘s “L’Arena” that is one of Tarantino’s most commanding, dialogue-less sequences ever (her triumph and rebirth from the entombment is an astonishing crescendo and confluence of music and picture). But it’s the film’s final soulful and patient third act that strikes the heart, revealing a lingering love between The Bride and her titular target, Bill (David Carradine). Discussions about a child’s discovery of death and the nature of Superman were a reminder that Tarantino — and his various mishmash of influences — can craft dialogue and even pathos just as well as dismemberments. “Kill Bill 2” might burn much slower, and it might also be more excessively talky than its predecessor, but these aspects only make its transcendent moments that much brighter.

5. “House of Flying Daggers”
Zhang Yimou‘s follow up to his candy-colored martial arts saga “Hero” has all of the scale and stunning majesty of its predecessor, but with a deeper emphasis on story. Taking place in the waning last days of the Tang dynasty, where a clandestine clan group goes all Robin Hood, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, there is a ton of action, but with an accentuation on the poetry of rhythmic movement and the artistry of battle (and oh, how gorgeous it is). Shot in Yimou’s uncanny visual style, utilizing radiant color-coding, scenes such as a young woman unsheathing a sword using just her sleeves (and of course all those flying daggers, arrows, and warriors) elevate the picture to a striking painting of beauty way above a post-‘Crouching Tiger’ martial arts epic.

4. “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman’s what-if centers around a technology that allows wounded lovers to erase the memory of their past relationship. The premise is merely a stepping-stone, however, to a trip into the corners of memories where dreams and reality converge into a mishmash of experiences either imagined or real, but altogether universal. Kaufman’s script blends the unreal, where footraces through the subconscious occur regularly, and the intimate, where we are able to truly experience the loneliness and desperation of lovers Clementine (Kate Winslet, typically great) and Joel (Jim Carrey, never better). A testament to the film’s universal appeal is that it’s been adopted by both the heartbroken and the deeply-in-love.

3. “Birth”
Nicole Kidman plays a widow about to remarry when a boy (a preternaturally eerie Cameron Bright) arrives at her swanky dinner party. The child, all of ten years of age, creepily claims to be Kidman’s husband, sharing with her knowledge only he would have taken to the grave. People looking for an answer to the boy’s claims are looking in the wrong direction, as what happens afterwards is more intriguing — a total collapse of the mental and emotional resources of this woman, perfectly captured by Kidman’s glacial visage. A critical re-evaluation is due for the majority of people who wrongly dismissed this Jonathan Glazer (“Sexy Beast“) film in its year of release, correctly rendering how emotionally violent the film is, particularly the sequence when the boy disrobes and joins her in the bathtub without warning and the haunting sea-side conclusion. Whatever the real answer to the central mystery may be, it’s shattering when you realize that the real damage has already been done.

2. “The Motorcycle Diaries”
Rendered with a deeply soulful and compassionately resonating lens, Brazilian director Walter Salles‘ affecting portrait of a young Che Guevara — far before his time as a Cuban revolutionary — is a luminous (and subtle) reflection of a thoughtful explorer waking up to the consciousness of the planet. Gael García Bernal plays Guevara when he was a young medical student then known as Ernesto (or his other nickname “Fuser”) traveling across South America with his best friend (Rodrigo de la Serna) before graduating and dealing with impending adulthood. But what is meant to be a bourgeois travelogue of hedonism and adventure turns into something deeper; a voyage that radically and inexorably transforms them as they become acutely attuned to the inescapable timbre of human suffering growing all around them. Deeply empathetic and heart-stirring.

1. “Dogville”
Nicole Kidman betrays her porcelain surface as a loner in small-town America who finds herself welcomed and then victimized before turning the table on her assailants. “Dogville” would fit neatly into the pantheon of cinematic stories about martyrs had mischief-prone Lars Von Trier not stuck to his experimental roots, playfully deconstructing the tragedy on a stage illuminated only by chalk and with a storyline that relies heavily on narration. Instead, it’s a provocative, hate-filled invective lobbed at American values from a conscience-less gag maker determined to pervert the cinematic form. Not for the ideologically squeamish, but still a fascinating take on the established boundaries of visual storytelling.

Honorable Mentions:
2004 wasn’t exactly the strongest year in the world of cinema and as mentioned, we struggled to come up with 10 films we felt very strongly about as a “Best of The Decade” film. Regardless, films that we discussed and considered include Pedro Almodovar‘s rare non-female-led drama “Bad Education,” a solid film, but perhaps his least successful this decade, and that’s even counting “Broken Embraces“; Michael Mann‘s “Collateral” which isn’t perfect, but is perhaps one of his most engaging of the aughts (plus it boasts that rare great Tom Cruise performance). Some of our writers wanted to include Edgar Wright‘s zombie-comedy “Shaun Of The Dead” and the intensely enjoyable Pixar film “The Incredibles” but neither made the cut (though many argued vehemently for the Pixar film; that’s what Best Animated Films of the Decade is for). This writer, your editor-in-chief, would like to also state that Jean-Pierre Jeunet‘s “A Very Long Engagement” is not a perfect film, but is also underrated and still has value, not to mention gorgeous aesthetics (it’s also a nice change of pace for the filmmaker). Another strong 2004 effort that didn’t quite make our list was “The Sea Inside” by Alejandro Amenábar, which in some ways feels like the poor man’s “The Diving Bell & The Butterfly,” only because the latter negotiates a similar subject matter and is just so bloody good. Also notable are Li Yang‘s exceptional, documentary-like coal mine drama “Blind Shaft,” about two con-men, one of whom suddenly develops a conscience, “Maria Full of Grace,” which is perhaps best remembered now for giving us the very excellent Catalina Sandino Moreno, Peter Berg‘s muscular and adept “Friday Night Lights,” Shane Carruth‘s sci-fi-ish thriller “Primer,” and Guy Maddin‘s two fantastical snowglobe reveries, “The Saddest Music In the World” and the silent “Cowards Bend The Knee.” Mike Leigh‘s working class, family tragedy “Vera Drake” is also a commendable piece of work.

Three others we forgot that deserve merit: Steven Soderbergh‘s popcorn-art free-for-all “Ocean’s Twelve” (which despite its reputation as far too loose, might just be the most enjoyable of the series) and Dylan Kidd‘s (“Roger Dodger“) second-chances drama “PS,” which features excellent performances by Laura Linney, Topher Grace and Marcia Gay Harden. Oh yeah, you know what else is great? “Mean Girls” with Lindsay Lohan and Rachel McAdams, no joke.

Films intentionally off this list (though some advocated for them) were David O. Russell’s gonzo, existentialism picture “I Heart Huckabees” (though Wahlberg is great in the picture; the rest of it is a severe mess), “The Aviator” (which still at least looks beautiful), “Sideways,” and “Ray.”

Your thoughts on 2004?

— Kevin Jagernauth, Kimber Myers, Drew Taylor and Rodrigo Perez.

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