Monday, January 03, 2005

Kurt's Top 10 of 2004

There is a lot of rambling and movie titles in this first part, if you are just interested in the Top 10, skip down a bit.

About Mainstream American Cinema of 2004:

The comic-book movies continued to pour on the screen. Hellboy was slightly disappointing but still all-right and Spiderman 2 was pretty good (better than the first one). I passed on The Punisher, Blade 3 and Catwoman (the less said about that one the better, so I've heard). Animation continued it's transformation in North America from kids fare to adult entertainment. There were many good ones this year. The Incredibles was fantastic (and just missed out on the Top 10), Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow may have been missing on plot and a cohesive narrative, but it was great to look at. Shrek 2 was better than it's predecessor and made more money than God (haha). Also, three gorgeous traditionally animated films came out of Japan. There was the ponderous Ghost in the Shell: Innocence, the disappointing Steam Boy, and I have not seen Studio Ghibli's Howl's Moving Castle yet but it is high on my list for 2005. The Triplettes of Belleville played way back in January 2004 and was excellent. I passed on Shark Tale (Is anyone else sick of Robert De Niro doing bad comedies and even worse supernatural thrillers?) because it looked dreadful and I have yet to see The Polar Express, as I'm waiting for a 3D Imax screening. Finally there was the very amusing puppet film, Team America, which featured soft-core puppet sex that had to be censored by the MPAA ratings board so it could play at a 'Theatre near You.' That is a lot of animation for one calender year (and I failed to mention the SpongeBob movie or the awful Disney effort, Home on the Range).
Remakes and television series and video game transitions are still in vogue, I passed on nearly all of them including Starsky & Hutch, The Stepford Wives, Thunderbirds, The Manchurian Candidate and Resident Evil 2. The Dawn of the Dead remake was actually quite good though, particularly the opening credits sequence set to Johnny Cash's "When The Man Comes Around"
There was the Exorcist Prequel debacle where an entire film was scrapped to make another film which nobody went to see. Hopefully the original Paul Shrader version (which was deemed to intelligent for mainstream audiences and not enough flying pea-soup...cue the hack, Renny Harlin) will appear on DVD.
Lastly, it was a year of politically charged films. Mel Gibson's springtime religious event-picture, The Passion of the Christ enthralled the faithful and grossed out or alienated everyone else. Michael Moore's entertaining but heavy handed election campaign documentary did exactly the same thing. They are opposite sides of the same coin really.
There were a few super-cheap movies that made a bit of a mark for themselves. Open Water tried to be this years Blair-Witch Project (and had as many detractors as did the 1999 film) but didn't come close. Primer had the buzz but not the success. The Grudge, the remake of a Japanese series of horror vignettes made big bucks for minimal investment (was this from the Buffy crowd? No Idea). Not that it will ever play in a multiplex, but there was the dark diary film which was made for $218 cobbled together from home videos, photos and answering machine tapes called Tarnation. It's very good, but difficult to watch due to the subject matter. The last was Super-Size Me, an off-the cuff documentary on the perils of a fast-food diet which is in part responsible for McDonalds taking Super Size off their menu.
Finally, the prestige awards films of 2004 were released very quietly this year from The Aviator to Million Dollar Baby, the buzz was significantly lower than the biopics on Alfred Kinsey and Ray Charles. I have not managed to see any of these films so far. Along with another Oscar (for acting anyway) hopeful, Closer.

Last year was a very good year for film, regardless of who says otherwise (and there are those who moan about this ever year, without delving beyond the surface). Much like 2001, 2002 and 2003, you have to go beyond the multiplex junkfood to find the good stuff.

About the Top 10:
This was certainly an asian film year for me. War Kong Wai, Zhang Yimou, Kim Ki Duk, Chan-Wook Park, Takashi Miike, Takeshi Kitano and Mamorou Oshii were directors I was watching for most of the year, including much of their earlier work. Also, Canadian Director Guy Maddin was a favorite. I very much enjoyed going back through his past 15 years of films after seeing The Saddest Music in the World in February. The quality of mainstream american cinema (as well as independent American cinema), in my opinion, dropped from 2003 so you will only see 3 American films on this years top 10, the rest are from around the world. The Links go to Blog entries or the IMDb.

10. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…And Spring - Kim Ki-Duks parable of the Buddist faith was released at the beginning of 2004. It's beauty, simplicity and sparse narrative which follows the life of a monk over the for seasons of his life (followed by his re-birth) is powerful and compelling. Three minutes into this film and you are hooked for the entire running time, despite only about 12 lines of dialogue.

9. Primer - One of the most dense and complex puzzle-box movies ever made. It is a fun exercise in deciphering it as you watch. I do not know what the rewatch value is on this film, but right after you watch it the first time, you want to go again to understand what you just saw. It is also a great example of a science fiction film where no special effects are required.

8. Good-Bye Lenin! - Highly entertaining, historically interesting and insightful in the way news/documentary footage can be completely recontextualized in the editing room. The story involves a boy convincing his mother that she is still living in Communist East Germany despite the fall of the Berlin Wall after she wakes out of a coma.

7. Shaun of the Dead - A great little British comedy which spoofs modern day living, geek-culture and Zombie Films. The best romantic Zombie Comedy since Peter Jackson's Dead Alive.

6. Kill Bill (Vol. 2) - Quentin Tarantino's conclusion to the stunning Kill Bill Saga is very different in tone from the first one. It has the epic comic-book western feel perfectly balanced with asian influences. I anxiously await the combined film (aka The Whole Bloody Affair) in it's uncensored form

5. House of Flying Daggers - I've watched it 4 times already. For big Chienese melodrama and one of the best eyes for visual symmetry, run to the theatre immediately.

4. The Saddest Music in the World - Guy Maddin is as much of an film archeologist as he is a director. Digging up and reconstructing film styles which have been dead for 80 years is his forte. The Saddest Music in the World is an ode to a bygone era of melodrama.

3. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind - Easily the best American film of 2004. Intricate, post-modern and hopelessly romantic, this is cinema at it's most arch and heartfelt and that is a tricky balancing act indeed.

2. 3 Iron - A brilliant take on the disconnect between reality and fantasy in modern society. A homeless man drifts through a city squatting in homes where the owners are on vacation. He eats some of their food, takes a shower, sleeps in their bed and usually takes a picture of his stay. He repays the favour by fixing little things in their house. In one home he is caught by one of the owners, a young woman who used to be a model, but is now a housewife. She has bruises on her face. She leaves with him and joins him in his benevolent squatting. They are sometimes caught by the owners and some less than pleasant things happen. It is a difficult movie to describe. There is almost no dialogue, much in the same way of Ki-Duk's previous film (also on this list!) Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...And Spring.I n the complexities of modern living, every person has a way to deal with the unpleasant parts. Television, vacation to the lake or a theme park, a round of golf or even holing up in your house and not going out can offer a temporary escape. When the escape eclipses the reality priorities get turned around and life can become surreal and disconnected. The hero of 3-iron lives each day of his life in a new small microcosm of reality and manages to bring in someone else for a very unique connection.

1. Vital - When we are young and do crazy things, do we flirt with death because we do not understand it, or are we just wired that way?Vital is the one of the strangest personal dramas which I've ever seen. A man recovers his humanity by literally dissecting his girlfriend. Before you lock in a mental picture of the previous sentence, know that the film is not gory in any way. It is in fact highly respectful films to human flesh. The anatomical pencil sketchs shown throughout the picture are hauntingly beautiful. This is not a horror film or even science fiction. It is a film which asks the deep human questions of how the flesh is connected to the spiritual. Can dead flesh be a record of who that person was, beyond the physial?A man wakes up with Amnesia. He is told by his father that he was in a car accident with his girlfriend (who died). He enrolls in medical school and years later when he gets to his anatomy lab, gets his girlfriend as the cadaver. He does not know this at first. But has he does the hands-on-course work his memories of life with her begin to flood back. He is able to move on with his life because he has done this. The movie does not exist in the 'real world' but rather the metaphoric much like Antonioni, Bergman or even Vincent Ward. I don't think that even in Japan there would be a funeral ceremony given to the donated-to-science-cadavers after the classes were finished. I don't think that the school or the parents would even allow this thing to happen once they knew the connections between student and cadaver. But the film is not about the plot. It is about deep spiritual questions.That these questions are answered through visuals more than dialogue is another superior thing. It is difficult enough to address these questions with words. It is fascinating how the writer-director Shinya Tsukomoto actually makes this work!The regaining memory 'flashbacks' has the lead character not just reliving the moments with his girlfriend, but also somehow being outside the moment, as if memory and nostalgia for the past give him a new way to interact with her. She is prescient and omnicient in those dreams. Her spark of life his done through a couple tour-de-force dance sequences against helplessly beautiful backgrounds. Far from being flashy however, the film is actually quite understated and the acting subtle.The emotional and intellectual and even sexual engagement (no, there is no necrophilia for those of you with dirty minds) of the movie is unsurpassed this year for me. The film references Blade Runner (which for that, will put any movie at least on my curiously list) several times from memory as passing rain, to the belching smokestacks which open both films. Flesh as memory and the origin of the soul are deep themes in both films as well.

Honable Mention:
Ripley's Game - How did this film not get a theatrical release in North America. It's significantly better than the Anthony Minghella one starring Matt Damon. John Malkovich is haunting and effective. Lilian Cavaini has to make more films.

Birth - A haunting Kubrickian meditiation on how it is difficult to get over a tragic death and how reason can so easily be undermined by fantasy. Nicole Kidman is fantastic, but the direction is marvelous.

The Life Aquatic w/ Steve Zissou is the largest scale Wes Anderson film. This undermines his style a bit, but the film shines so often and I expect it to come more into focus with repeat viewings.

Collateral - A brilliant an superior action movie. Possibly Michael Mann's finest film. Jamie Foxx is electric and the look of the film is just perfect.

Moolaadé - Emotionally stirring film on the battle of traditional values vs. liberation and personal freedom. You would have to be dead not to have a reaction from watching this African drama.

Triplettes du Belleville - Released in Canada waaay back in January, it is one of the most inventive and original animated films ever released. Simply Magic.

The Incredibles - How does Pixar consistently make films that are on subjects that have been done to death and yet make them superbly entertaining by both kids and adults and somehow seem fresh at the same time?

Kung-Fu Hustle - Looney Toons meets Shaw Brothers Cinema. Best Kung-Fu Comedy. Ever.

Sideways - The Comedy of Alexander Payne mixed with Wine Metaphors and the occasional naked flapping penis. Excellent.

Old Boy - A revenge thriller like no other. Oldboy is one of a kind. Hammer fighting and live octopus consumption are just icing on this genre cake.

Infernal Affairs - Going hand-in-hand with Collateral's testosterone overload, this slick police thriller offers great acting, a convoluted story and some great visual imagery. John Woo style without the overblown melodrama.

Notable Absences (movies I missed that may have made the Top 10 list):

Closer, The Aviator, A Very Long Engagement, Kinsey, I ♥ Huckabee’s, Maria Full of Grace, Code 46.

The Bottom:

With two infants at home, my outgoing movie watching has gone down (Although I'm sure I still managed to catch at least 60+ films this year theatrically) so i generally skip the bad ones, however my Worst 3 films of the year list would have to be:

The Passion of the Christ - Commits most of the cinema crimes (extreme violence, oversimplification, racism, gratuitous pandering, etc) which many church organizations bash the film industry on a regular basis (see Kill Bill, which was playing in multiplex cinemas right beside Mel Gibson's opus during the month of April). Yet it was 'sold' as a religious and/or moral obligation to the faithful. This irks me to no end. The movie is like a hammer over your head. While it is gorgeous to look at, one has to ask themselves why 90 minutes of realistic torture delivered with the complexity of a Burger King menu and almost completely ignoring the teaching and philosophy of Christ should be considered the ultimate christian movie. Easily the worst film of the year, not just because it was bad, but because it was insensitive, oversimplisitic, crude and above all it caused a weird glint in the eye of too many people.

9 Songs - A noble, but failed experiment by Michael Winterbottom to tell the story of a couple through nothing but concert footage and explicit sex scenes. After 10 minutes I knew that i didn't want to know anything about these two boring and selfish people.

Van Helsing - It is what it is: An expensively made cheap, silly, and above all boring package delivered by some computer algorithm which spits out these types scripts along with the CGI effects, toy line, and marketing tie-ins in the supermarket. If Mystery Science Theatre 3000 was still on the air, this would be the perfect film for Mike and the Bots to tear to shreads.


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