10
Oct
2009
Feature: Jordan's Movie Quest
Jordan's Movie Quest: The Year 2004
Jordan
Continuing my quest through the last decade in film, and leading up to a year end "Top Ten of the Decade" list, here are my favorites from 2004, with a short discussion of each.

10. Million Dollar Baby"” The movie won four Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress for Hilary Swank, and Best Supporting Actor for Morgan Freeman), and was also nominated for best Editing, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actor (for Clint Eastwood). I should clarify before going any further that I have a deep-seated dislike for Clint Eastwood. I think his directing is solid, though extraordinarily overrated and occasionally very heavy handed and self-aggrandizing. I also think he is one of the worst actors in history to achieve a modicum of recognition and respect by everyone in or around Hollywood. That being said, Eastwood is flat out terrific as Frankie Dunn, a gruff, distant boxing coach who agrees to take Swank's Maggie Fitzgerald under his wing and help her make it to the top of the game. With narration by the best narrator in the business (Freeman as Dunn's employee, ex-boxer Eddie "Scrap Iron" Dupris), the movie begins as a first-rate examination of a woman's struggle to achieve excellence against all odds, and becomes a touching treatise on the heart-wrenching question of euthanasia.

9. Shaun of the Dead"”Every genre has its "parody movie," a film that takes many of the well worn tropes of the type and subverts, inverts, or mocks them. Director Edgar Wright (who also co-wrote the script with star Simon Pegg) one ups each and every parody that's come before by making a film that isn't really a parody at all. Shaun of the Dead is, for all intents and purposes, a zombie movie that also just happens to be incredibly self aware. It also happens to be a romance, a bromance (as much as I've come to loathe the term), and a slacker comedy, all without missing a beat. Shaun (Pegg) enjoys the little things in life"”he likes his job as a low-level salesman, he enjoys going to the same pub every night, and he can't get enough of his best friend Ed's (Nick Frost) monkey impression. Unfortunately, Shaun's girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) wants more from life, and so she dumps Shaun. His quest to "sort out life, visit mum, win back Liz" is difficult enough before the zombie apocalypse strikes. Now, Shaun must protect the ones he loves, prove himself to Liz, and flat out stay alive. Co-starring Lucy Davis, Bill Nighy, Penelope Wilton and Dylan Moran, Shaun manages to be hysterical, touching, and occasionally even a little scary.

8. The Incredibles"”Bob Parr (Craig T. Nelson) loved his life as Mr. Incredible, savior to the city of Metroville. Unfortunately, soon after he wed fellow "super" Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), superheroes were outlawed and he was forced to settle into his life as an insurance salesman. Fifteen years later, new villain Syndrome (Jason Lee) arises with a plot to destroy all of the supers and claim Metroville as his own. Along with their children Dash (Spencer Fox) and Violet (Sarah Vowell) who possess super speed and invisibility respectively, the family sets off to avert catastrophe and save the day. Simultaneously a kid's movie, a summer action blockbuster, a superhero flick, and a meditation on the delicate balance between family life and a career, Director Brad Bird proved once again that Pixar is not to be trifled with.

7. I Heart Huckabees"”Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman) is in crisis. He is not respected at work, his efforts to save a marsh are being roundly rebuffed by the more charming Brad Stand (Jude Law), and he keeps running into the same African gentleman (Ger Duany). In an attempt to sort all of this out, and get some answers to life's big questions, Albert hires existential detectives Bernard and Vivian (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin) to spy on him and parse out the meaning of his life. Along the way Albert is paired with the militant, impulsive environmentalist Tommy Corn (Mark Wahlberg), who so despises fossil fuels that he rides his bike everywhere, including to emergencies at his job as a firefighter. The two are eventually engaged in a battle between the eternally optimistic detectives and their nihilistic former protégé Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert) as they struggle to parcel out the minutiae of everyday life and match that with a greater meaning for existence. Also starring Naomi Watts and featuring cameos from the likes of Jonah Hill, Richard Jenkins and Shania Twain, I Heart Huckabees is built like a "˜50s screwball comedy, but packed with the deep, often torturous questions that keep the introspective among us up at night. Director David O. Russell has created an ambitious, if divisive, existential comedy that teeters on the brink of masterpiece just as often as it asks us to look into the abyss of existence.

6. The Aviator"”Howard Hughes was a man with the world at his feet and the devil on his back. He was one of the richest men in the world, but was also afflicted with a severe case of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, which crippled many of his ambitions. A never better Leonardo DiCaprio (who was nominated for an Oscar for his performance) plays Hughes as a character of Shakespearean depth, with triumphant highs and tragic lows. Coming right off of Gangs of New York, one of my least favorite of his films, Director Martin Scorsese creates an American epic that displays the triumphs of capitalism and also the dark side of big business. The film follows Hughes through his early years as an aviation mogul, Hollywood heavyweight and lover to some of Hollywood's most glamorous stars, yet in the background leer the compulsions that will be his undoing. Co-starring Cate Blanchett in an Oscar winning performance as Katherine Hepburn, Alan Alda, Alec Baldwin, John C. Reilly and Jude Law, the film's three hour run time flies by so quickly you want to watch it again as soon as the credits roll.

5. Kill Bill Volume 2"”My love of Kill Bill is pretty well established. Volume 1 was # 7 on myTop Ten of 2003 List, and Volume 2 is even better. Where the first film was all set up and mind-numbingly awesome action, the second time around Director Quentin Tarantino slows down a bit, and examines not only what led up to The Bride's (Uma Thurman) bloody quest for vengeance, but also where it will lead and what that means for everyone in question. Bill was largely spectral in the first film. We never saw his face, and only heard his voice as he commented on the actions that had taken place in the movie. This time, he is front and center. Played with wisdom, wit, and world's full of heartbreak by David Carradine (who should honestly have walked away with a Supporting Actor Oscar, as much as Morgan Freeman deserved to finally win a statue), Bill is shown to be much more sympathetic than we might have thought, and the quest that The Bride is on becomes that much more deliciously complex as a result. With a look at how The Bride became as deadly as she is, a discussion on the thin line between relief and regret, and a monologue that brings me the closest I've ever come to being fascinated with Superman, Kill Bill Volume 2 is more than just a revenge flick, it's a study of love, loss, respect, consequences, and the pain we cause in ourselves when we inflict pain on others.

4. Before Sunset"”Nine years after Richard Linklater left viewers wondering whether lovers and virtual strangers Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) would meet each other in six months in his film Before Sunrise, he returns to the tale with a heartbreaking, but not surprising answer. It has been almost a decade since the two last met, and their lives have changed pretty profoundly. Unfolding in real time, Before Sunset follows their unexpected reunion and allows them to continue their enrapturing dialogue about life, love, sex, and regret. Mature where its predecessor was romantically naïve, the film captures the spark left by the first film and allows it to grow into a beautiful flame of ideas, anecdotes, and a shared connection that time cannot fade.

3. Sideways"”Writer-Director Alexander Payne is a master of showing people at their worst, when they have hit rock bottom and keep finding there's a lower depth to which they can sink. His previous film About Schmidt made my Top Ten of 2002 list, yet Sideways steps even further into the minds of people on the edge, of those who have hit mid-life and feel they have nothing to show for it. Miles (Paul Giamatti, in his second Oscar-worthy performance in as many years) just wants to take his old college roommate Jack (Thomas Haden Church, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for the performance) on a wine tour for his bachelor party. Unfortunately, Jack would much rather get some strange before tying the knot on Saturday, which leads him into an entanglement with single mother Stephanie (Sandra Oh). Miles is anxious that his novel will be rejected for the last time, and takes solace in the world-weary wisdom of the beautiful Maya (Oscar nominated Virginia Madsen) and perhaps a bit too much wine. The film won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for it's in depth study of four characters in crisis, and for a depiction of wine culture so alluring you can't help but reach for the bottle.

2. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou"”Steve Zissou (Bill Murray, in a subtly touching and hilarious performance) was the world's foremost adventurer and nature documentarian"¦a few decades ago. Now he has fallen on hard times. His film's no longer get respect, he's estranged from his wife (Anjelica Huston) and his best friend has just been eaten by a jaguar shark. What is a disenchanted documentarian to do? Go on a ten day drunk and then find and kill the shark for revenge of course. Along for the ride are Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson, in his career best performance), Steve's alleged son, Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett), a pregnant reporter and former admirer of Steve's, Klaus Daimler (Willem Dafoe), former bus driver and current Zissou team member ,and bond company stooge Bill Ubell (Bud Cort), among others. Simultaneously dryly hilarious and surprisingly poignant, Director Wes Anderson has created a film about the people we hope to be, the people we actually are, and the bonds that tie us together for better or worse.

1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind"”From genius writer Charlie Kaufman and Director Michel Gondry comes a tale of romance gone wrong, and the convoluted path back to happiness. Joel Barrish (Jim Carrey in a rare serious turn) has just broken up with the love of his life, Clementine (Oscar Nominee Kate Winslet in a stunning performance). Desperate to win her back, he soon discovers that she has utilized new technology to have all memory of their relationship erased. Half out of anger and half out of depression, Joel goes to visit Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (the always excellent Tom Wilkinson) and decides to have Clementine erased from his memory. As the procedure is carried out by Stan (Mark Ruffalo) and Patrick (Elijah Wood), Joel must watch his relationship with Clementine play out in reverse. As he sees their bitterness and anger dissolve into intimacy and love, he realizes he may be better off with the memories intact. A meticulous study in a particular relationship, from its downfall to its romantic inception, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind reminds us all the importance of love, even when it fails, and displays the necessity of even our worst memories toward making us who we are.
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