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Films of 2004

Firstly, I can’t pretend to offer any scholarly comment on our film choices as I have no scholarly knowledge of film whatsoever. I do, however, go to the cinema a lot, or at least more than anyone else at diskant, meaning I ended up doing this. What is immediately striking though is how many of the films in this list are about love from which we can deduce that we have probably turned into a bunch of saps. There’s also a lack of big blockbuster/superhero movies with all the attention on understated quality. Well, and Michael Moore. The thing I’ve enjoyed most about this year’s voting is the complete lack of agreement. Every film has its haterz and it’s very enjoyable. I hope you agree.

Your panel of commentators consists of JGram (JGR), Simon Minter (SM), David Stockwell (DS), Tom Coogan (TC), Nicolette Smith (NS), John Coburn (JC), Chris Summerlin (CS), Jon Goodwin (JGO), Chris Haikney (CH) and myself (MS).

* * *

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

JGR: Just like Being John Malkovich, this was a truly original idea and a fantastic film to go with it and a never ending cast of stars (right down to an appearance by David Cross!). The soundtrack is the nuts and personally memorable for me because I took a Muslim girl to see the movie who emerged from the cinema bored telling me how her favourite movies are Terminator 2 and Predator. Maybe she should dye her hair cool colours like Kate Winslet.

SP: I work hard for my money, and I refuse to let Jim Carrey have any of it. Consequently, I have not seen this film.

JGO: I’m a total sucker for Charlie Kaufman pseudo-existential nonsense and I thought this surpassed everything he’s done. The plot was brilliant. The twist was brilliant. Kate and Kirsten were brilliant. The sub-plot was brilliant. Jim Carrey was watchable. Scratch that, he was brilliant. This was brilliant.

MS: I saw this twice in one week which I haven’t ever done before so impressed was I. The slightly bewildering looped storyline puts you in the right fuzzy kind of mood and the quirkiness and quick changing scenes keep you interested where you might otherwise get confused. But what impresses most is the way they managed to capture the realities of relationships in a depressing but optimistic way. Could really have done without Jim Carrey’s lapses into mugging for the camera and Elijah Wood really is a freaky-eyed hobbit boy and should be put in a museum rather than being distracting in movies.

TC: Sometimes bogged down by forced zaniness, this was nevertheless a genuinely touching film. For my money Kirsten Dunst just about stole it.

DS: I’m still not sure that I can cope with how good Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet were in this film. Or how awful the supporting cast were, actually. I saw this alone in a huge multiplex with my fellow pathetically-lonely housemate, and we both left the cinema welling up with emotion. I’ve just realised how many of 2004’s good movies were little films about life and love. Huzzah.

NS: I wasn’t expecting this to be good but i really loved it. Its a very entertaining, enjoyable and inventive film and don’t be put off by the presence of Jim Carrey – he is playing the opposite of his usual characters and is actually very good. Plus any film featuring Tom Wilkinson has to be worth seeing.

SM: I seem to be one of the few who didn’t really love this film to pieces. It was okay, but I surprised myself by getting tired of the relentless barrage of new ideas throughout the film – often at the expense of drama and narrative. And Carrey is still Carrey despite everything else.

* * *

Before Sunset

DS: This may well be the first film I’ve ever seen in an actual cinema that was perfect. Seriously, if you saw Linklater’s ‘Before Sunrise’ (1995), this is an absolutely flawless sequel. Tellingly, within a week of ‘Sunset’ coming out at our local arthouse, I had half a dozen different people asking me if they could borrow my DVD of ‘Sunrise’. Moreover, the first person I gave it to never even returned it (and then moved to London). Sherry Ostapovitch, consider yourself named and shamed.

JGO: I’d never even heard of Before Sunrise until about a month before this came out, when my girlfriend found it in a charity shop. We watched it, and thought it was ace. I think a lot of long-term fans of the first film were scared that the sequel would screw up the magic of its predecessor, but I’d like to think those fears proved unfounded. I loved it anyway. Even though the film is basically a ninety minute conversation between two unhappy thirty-somethings, I didn’t get bored or annoye d for a second. Though if you knew the two characters in real life you would surely punch their lights out.

JGR: I really wanted to like the sequel to one of my favourite all time films but it just fell flat for me. A sequel to Before Sunrise was always going to be really good or really bad but amazingly the film left me cold, without either such as emotion. The ending was very good and really brave. School Of Rock was Linklater’s best film this year.

TC: Wonderfully written, acted and filmed. Far superior to Before Sunrise, which is saying something. A film with heart that wasn’t afraid to give us the ending we wanted.

* * *

Lost in Translation

SM: Any film with Bill Murray is pretty much destined to be great, but this added the wonder of loneliness in a foreign land with a realistically stunted romance. I was initially turned off by the forced Japanisms but subsequent viewings have lessened this.

SP: An enjoyable but slightly frustrating film. I wanted it to go further than it did, and explore things in greater depth, but it turned out to be a fairly shallow walk through standard ‘Japan is strange and the people are funny’ cliches. Still, good soundtrack and nice cinematography. And I’d see it again, if just for the opening shot of Scarlett Johansson’s thighs.

JGR: Managed to make me cry in the cinema three times like a bitch with a skinned knee. Subsequent viewings failed to have to repeat effect on me but it remains an amazing dry reflection of solitude and personal connection.

TC: Has some nice moments, but anyone who says this is Bill Murray’s finest hour is a snob and a fool. The jokes about the Japanese get old fast (they’re short! they can’t pronounce the letter ‘r’!), and Scarlett Johansson is pretty but unsympathetic.

MS: I wasn’t initially overwhelmed with this when watching it but it grew on me the more I thought about it and the sooner I forgot the bad points. I like films (and even more so, books) where nothing happens and this at times was a lovely fuzzy story of jetlag and dazed loneliness in a big city. If they’d ditched all the dumb jokes and slapstick and replaced it with more landscapes and more random chat all linked in with the excellent soundtrack it could have been this year’s Morvern Callar. But I guess that wasn’t really where they were aiming.

JG: Another beautiful leading lady… another good film. Its about a year since I saw this but I remember being mesmerised from start to finish. It could have actually kept my attention without Bill Murray’s gags, which is saying something. Lush.

DS: I remember that when I finally got around to seeing Sofia Coppola’s ‘The Virgin Suicides’, I wondered what the hell all my friends who had recommended it to me were talking about. Sure, it looked nice, the cast weren’t bad, and it was touching in a very vague and fuzzy kind of way. And so some kind of eerie parallel occurred in 2004 as I sat wondering why everyone was jizzing over this slight, mildly vacuous film. Sure, it looked good, Bill Murray did a great job of playing himself, and I felt mildly melancholy for about 30 seconds after the credits started. But then the feeling subsided, and I realised that I’d just experienced “arthouse” equivalent of a Big Mac. Looks like a vaguely involving film, sounds alright, supposed to have some good ingredients in it; but somehow it’s strangely unsatisfying, with an unsettling odour about it. And then you feel the need to purge yourself of it within minutes. Nice to hear the Jesus & Mary Chain on a cinema sound system though.

NS: My worst film of 2004. Supposedly funny, supposedly heartwarming, supposedly a masterpiece – don’t let the hype and lazy reviews fool you. It is sly, smug, mean spirited and unfunny. Coming out of the cinema was like waking up in an alternate universe. How could everyone say they loved it? Did I accidentally enter a parallel universe and see a different film? It is awful and I would do anything to avoid having to sit through it again.

* * *

Shaun of the Dead

JGO: Brilliant! I thought this might be the moment when Pegg et al ‘jumped the shark’. But this was no Sex Lives of the Potato Men. That it managed to keep up the Spaced quality (and frequency) of gags for an hour and half should come as no surprise really. You know that bit in the middle where they meet the other gang of people escaping from the zombies and its Jessica Stevenson, Matt Lucas et al? PLEASE let there be a concurrently-running sequel (contempuel?) featuring those characters.

SM: I could’ve been in this movie, but that’s another story. “The best British film in ages” as the Sun would doubtless have it. It really is good though, treading the comedy/horror line with reckless abandon.

DS: I’m still not sure why this got a cinema release. Everything about it howled “made-for-TV job!” Cult hit in the USA though, apparently. Then again, so was the execrable/zombified ‘28 Days Later’.

* * *

American Splendor

CS: Fucking brilliant. will someone make a film like this about John Fahey? Cinematically inventive, funny, beautifully dealt with subject matter. Supercedes Crumb even.

DS: This film is absolutely fantastic. A refreshingly modernist approach to adapting an (already excellent) autobiographical comic, with a note-perfect performance from Paul Giamatto playing the author Harvey Pekar, the real-life version of whom just happens to pop his own head up now and again (and start moaning). The original comics are about Real Life in all its boring glory, and the beauty and significance that can be found within. The film does a great job of capturing this, and manages to be both clever and truly touching too.

JGR: Attempting to capture the vibe of Ghost World whilst also documenting in the same way as Crumb, you actually forget you are watching the tale of a complete loser as you take heart and inspiration from a genuinely funny kranky gruff old man. Paul Giamatti rocks the house after several amazing supporting roles in films Man On The Moon and Confidence.

SM: A glimpse into the life and mind of Harvey Pekar, told through an odd mix of the real, the dramatised and the animated. The tetchy, miserable and odd life of the comic book writer makes for a surprisingly entertaining, funny and touching couple of hours.

SP: By turns funny, poignant, banal, excruciating and tender. And speaking like Toby Radloff never fails to be amusing.

JGO: I would have put this if I’d have remembered it was out in 2004. I thought it was older. The older I get, the more I start to love films and TV shows about grumpy old men (Curb Your Enthusiasm being TV show of the year). I think I can see where my life’s going. This is an understated, touching and hilarious masterpiece.

* * *

Fahrenheit 9/11

TC: a lot of stuff we kn ew already, but backed up by footage that was genuinely revelatory and shocking (thinking especially of the Representatives in Congress, and the troops in Iraq). occasionally suffers by making Dubya seem so goofy he’s almost likeable.

SA: Yeah what can you say, this is the best film of the year, for content, for its purpose, for the fact that everyone saw it. Didn’t stop him winning though (for real this time).

NS: Its not a great film, especially when compared to Bowling for Columbine but was very important to get this information out to the world. Michael Moore can be a bit heavy handed at times but he gets the general public talking about the issues he raises whether they agree with him or not. Everyone should see it.

CS: I hated people for criticising this as a piece of propaganda. Thats EXACTLY what it was and it’s only fault was that it did’t effect enough people as shown with the election result in the USA.

JGR: I fucking hate Michael Moore with a passion. I’m sorry but Moore’s excessive whining and over accustation can turn a person from disliking to George Bush (on sensible grounds) to pitying the fool for victimisation! And after the fantastic Bowling For Columbine, this film was just hard work, pointing out the obvious facts of life, which perhaps the American audience needs pointed out due to their own media coverage. Moore’s treatment and representation in Team America is deserved and apt.

SM: Blah blah is he good, is he bad, possibly this was a fine film but the amount of ill-informed opinion it seems to have led to is frustrating.

DS: Oh good, the irrepressible Michael Moore. How long until he goes away please?

* * *


MS: This was the most beautiful film I have ever seen and I was completely mesmerised the whole way through. I loved the colour coded storytelling with different colours for truth, fiction and perceived truth and how the acting often seemed to mirror this, with the fictitious scenes seeming slightly over-acted and the true ones having much more depth of feeling. There’s also the usual beautiful fighting scenes in a variety of fantastical locations including the surface of a lake and the rooftop of a building with thousands of arrows flying around. My favourite scene was the fight in an autumnal forest, the ground strewn with leaves that whirled about through the battle and you see the scene through the dying eyes of one character, the orange trees, slowly fading red. I nearly cried, it was so lovely. The story does drag a bit in places and the political parts grate a little but it’s short enough that it doesn’t matter too much and the lack of dialogue lets you concentrate on the action, landscapes and colours without having to read lots of subtitles. I can’t wait to see this again.

NS: This is an amazing film. If you haven’t seen this or House of Flying Daggers then go see them now! Hero is a stunningly beautiful film with an absorbing plot and exquisite acting. Obviously if you found watching Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was akin to watching paint dry then don’t see Hero cos you aren’t worthy. Hero was my vote for best film of 2004 and I am sure that House of Flying Daggers will feature in the list for 2005.

CH: Nasty nationalistic/totalitarian aftertaste versus dancing through fields of arrows here. Can’t decide whether I preferred this or House of Flying Daggers. They’re both flawed and I think you’d have to combine them to get one Great film. Will have to watch it again.

* * *

Kill Bill Vol.2

SM: Excellent stuff, especially the frightening ‘buried alive’ sequence which unnerved me greatly. The two parts of Kill Bill will seemingly run effortlessly together, and then I believe it’ll be a great film.

MS: The ‘Attack of the Clones’ of this year’s polls. Obviously we all had to go see it since we saw the first part but now we can’t remember anything about it. After Vol.1’s relentless wide-eyed face-slapping action, complex sets and style switching, Vol.2 seemed kind of pedestrian and once all the kid stuff came in my brain started to lower expectations a few notches, correctly. Sure, there were some excellent sequences but not enough to justify the two films thing. Ditch some of this and little bits from Vol.1 and it can be one excellent long-ish film.

NS: Yes it was a disappointment after Vol 1 but its still a great film with some killer moments. The whole Pai Mei thing is fantastic but the fights with Budd and Elle are just not as jaw dropping as the amazing House of Blue Leaves sequence in Vol 1. He basically put all the good stuff in Vol 1 and Vol 2 suffers in comparison. Kill Bill will probably make more sense as one film but on the other hand it could just send us to sleep.

DS: You know, I’d completely forgotten that I’d even seen this until it popped up on some other ‘Best of 2004′ list. But now I distinctly remember thinking this one answered all my criticisms of the first volume. I guess the whole thing wasn’t actually that great after all then. Cheers Quentin. Now please go and make a film with some substance again.

* * *

Metallica: Some Kind of Monster

CS: Absolute must-see for band members. A modern day Spinal Tap made better because it’s real. Moment after moment of jaw dropping hilarity (“that double kick drum makes my dick hard” says Lars). You come away thinking Lars Ulrich is a dickhead but that you’d love to hang out with him because he’s so entertaining. This should be packaged as a DVD with A Year And A Half In The Life Of Metallica (film made about the black album) to make a perfect set.

SP: Made me laugh in places, and not many films can do that.

MS: There was so much enjoyment to be had from this film from the band therapy sessions to the pitiful lifestyles of the band to their mind-bogglingly hilarious songwriting ‘techniques’. Plus the extra special fun of imagining your band acting like this. So many best moments that it’s almost impossible to describe this film to anyone who hasn’t seen it without them thinking you’ve gone mad.

JGR: Were I Metallica, I would not have allowed this to be released. The fact I didn’t laugh very much could be interepreted in many ways.

SM: Wonderful! Spinal Tap, for real. Metallica simultaneously make you pity them and hate them.

* * *

The Garden State

SM: Very sweet and romantic, and with rather a Hollywood sheen on mental illness, this still made me happy for a couple of hours with its gentle pacing and cutesy (if not slightly affected) characters.

DS: I heard some good reviews of this but decided I couldn’t be bothered, but then somehow ended up at the cinema watching it anyway, and lo and behold: it’s actually a nice little heartfelt film, with a few things to say in an admirably subtle manner. Praise be to that guy out of Scrubs (as well as his blog detailing just how much whoring around the world he has be en doing for it). Admirably pleasant.

JGO: Yeah! I liked it. Its not perfect – its overly cheesy and gives two fingers to reality (he seemed remarkably with it for someone who’s just withdrawn from anti-depressants) and its got a shit soundtrack, but there were some great gags in there and a nice story. Pretty watchable.

MS: This was a sweet little film where nothing much really happens (my favourite sort of plot). It was nicely quirky and understated and strangely compelling with random little gags and interludes that didn’t go anywhere. It did seem a little woolyminded in places and the ending annoyed me greatly. Plus if you actually met anyone like Natalie Portman’s character you would run a mile.

JGR: Trumpeted with too much fanfare, a movie with the best of ideas which fell short and eventually ended feeling as if the story hadn’t actually been finished/completed by the end. Has no one else noticed how certain clever cinematic techniques appear in the early part of the movie but by the end of the film, its all gone mundane? And Natalie Portman is not all that in it.

JC: This was the limpest film I saw all year. An overly self-indulgent auto-biographical mess from writer/director Zach Braff that strived to suggest a number of deep and meaningful things with a wafer-thin plot and a cast of one-dimensional characters you learnt absolutely nothing about. Cliched melancholic American schmindie complete with angsty soundtrack, heavy on painfully trite symbolism and low on interesting dialogue. This film has no redeeming features.

Our favourite albums of 2004