It should be self-explanatory that I liked these films a lot but couldn't find room for them in my top 10. If it isn't, then keep reading. I liked these films a lot but couldn't find room for them in my top 10.
(The years listed with these films indicate world premiere, not U.S. premiere/domestic run, which explains why so many of these are not identified as 2004 releases.)
BON VOYAGE (Jean-Paul Rappeneau, 2003)
A kitchen sink movie with a who's who of French stars. The Nazi invasion of France provides the backdrop for a story about an actress (Isabelle Adjani) guilty of murder, the man mistakenly imprisoned for her crime, and a scientist who must find safe passage out of the country with some dangerous materials. BON VOYAGE has the sweep of classic cinema, being at turns comic, romantic, thrilling, mysterious, and historical.
CODE 46 (Michael Winterbottom, 2003)
The versatile Michael Winterbottom's futuristic tale of global totalitarianism and forbidden love makes a fine cinematic companion to novels like Aldous Huxley's BRAVE NEW WORLD and George Orwell's 1984. Like the best science fiction, CODE 46 explores contemporary issues from the perspective of the world to come, in this case looking at genetics and globalization in a woozy, hypnotic tomorrow.
COWARDS BEND THE KNEE (Guy Maddin, 2003)
THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD (Guy Maddin, 2003)
Canadian director Guy Maddin makes distinctive films that frequently recreate silent-era cinema, with inspirations as disparate as German mountain climbing movies and Soviet propaganda films. COWARDS BEND THE KNEE, his comic rumination on hockey, hairdressing, and sex, is as imaginative and provocative as anything Maddin has done.
THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD isn't a silent film, but it retains much of the tone and style of those old melodramas. Maddin is some kind of aesthetic genius in how he mimics film's early days. He gives the images a bygone era's texture and authenticity. Yet modern technology is what permits him to make something as altogether fresh and astonishing as this. Formal aspects aside, THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD is worth seeing because it is a consistently funny film. Isabella Rossllini plays a Depression-era, double amputee beer baroness who holds a contest to find what country plays the planet's saddest music. Maddin takes good-natured pokes at cultural stereotypes and the absurdity of what he's putting on screen. The film also works as a sort of musical, with Maria de Medeiros' nymphomaniac Narcissa providing a song highlight.
GARDEN STATE (Zach Braff, 2004)
Written, directed by, and starring Zach Braff of SCRUBS as an aspiring actor who returns home for the first time in nine years, GARDEN STATE takes its place as a film for the generation growing up in a time when parents and doctors try to manage them with Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft, or any other similar drugs. Braff creates an absurdist environment where someone wearing a suit of armor in the kitchen simultaneously looks correct and out of place. He inserts sly visual jokes, often as punctuation to scenes, that are similar to those in SCRUBS, except in this film they're based in reality rather than fantasy. GARDEN STATE shares the postmodern angst and the humor derived from it that exists in Douglas Coupland and Dave Eggers' novels. Contemporary life is amazing, bewildering, and feels like it is experienced at a distance. Braff has a terrific eye as a director and turns in a good, low-key performance. Natalie Portman is sweet and eccentric in one of her two great performances of 2004, the other coming in CLOSER. Peter Sarsgaard also does some fine work as Braff's gravedigging friend. The music leans toward emo selections and is well suited for the film.
HERO (YING XIONG) (Zhang Yimou, 2002)
HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS (SHI MIAN MAI FU) (Zhang Yimou, 2004)
Zhang Yimou's HERO, finally allowed off the studio shelf, and HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS delivered a one-two chopsocky combination punch for the Chinese director. HERO'S poetic martial arts scenes with superstars Jet Li, Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung, and Zhang Ziyi are staged against gorgeous scenery and landscapes and captured in Christopher Doyle's color-drenched cinematography. The visually sumptuous wuxia spectacle HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS contains breathtaking action and passionate romance. A sight to behold for the eyes and a treat for the ears, the physical and emotional violence rises to operatic proportions.
MARIA FULL OF GRACE (Joshua Marston, 2004)
MARIA FULL OF GRACE provides an authentic and compelling view of a drug mule's experience. The difficulties of carrying the pellets, not to mention the danger, are spelled out in a few terrific scenes. As Maria, Catalina Sandino Moreno gives a natural and assured debut performance. Moreno's skillful acting and writer-director Joshua Marston's screenplay convey why an intelligent young woman with a future would choose to risk everything to serve as a one-time drug courier.
SIDEWAYS (Alexander Payne, 2004)
The week-long tour of California wine country with a prickly English teacher (Paul Giamatti) and his freewheeling friend (Thomas Haden Church) in SIDEWAYS made for one of the year's better blends of comedy and drama. Jim Taylor and director/co-writer Alexander Payne's screenplay gets under the tough exterior of a wounded man who is incapable of letting others see his true self. Sterling performances from the four principal actors and Payne's fluid direction bring out the characters' humanity with humor and deep feeling.
SPARTAN (David Mamet, 2004)
The President's daughter has been abducted, and Val Kilmer must find her in SPARTAN. Kilmer stars as a special forces ranger up against a ticking clock to find the girl before the story hits the media. The title refers to the lone warrior sent to assist in a conflict, but it could just as well apply to the film's style. David Mamet has fashioned a film as terse in story and character as his trademark staccato dialogue. The major pleasure of SPARTAN is trying to cut through the minimal, sometimes enigmatic words and keep up with the film. Big explanatory scenes have been eliminated. Mamet forces the audience to read between the lines. Although he may lose clarity in the moment, he gains a propulsive pace that makes this one of the more exciting thrillers in recent memory. His signature dialogue is highly stylized and wonderfully chewy. Kilmer delivers his best performance in a long time, maybe ever. He spits out words in a blunt, programmed manner while keeping his steeliness in check.
SPIDER-MAN 2 (Sam Raimi, 2004)
Improving on the original, SPIDER-MAN 2 features top notch action scenes and special effects work, but it's the character moments, like Peter Parker's struggle to accept the personal sacrifice being a superhero entails, that make the film stand above most other comic book adaptations.
SPRING, SUMMER, FALL, WINTER...AND SPRING (BOM YEOREUM GAEUL GYEOUL GEURIGO BOM) (Kim Ki-duk, 2003)
This Buddhist fable about a master and pupil living on a floating monastery removed from society grants a window for meditation in our busy lives. SPRING, SUMMER, FALL, WINTER...AND SPRING is a film of few but select words that encourages reflection and appreciation of nature's beauty and the importance of simply being. The stunning cinematography shows the world with fresh eyes.
TOUCHING THE VOID (Kevin Macdonald, 2003)
The will to live shines through in TOUCHING THE VOID. Not quite documentary or narrative feature, the film mixes interviews with mountain climbers and recreated scenes of their harrowing climb in the Andes. The trip down should have resulted in certain death for one man, who broke his leg, was cut loose from his partner, and fell into a crevice. Somehow he found the inner strength to grit through the mental and physical anguish and make it to base camp in time to survive. Director Kevin Macdonald's excellent recreations give the viewer the firsthand experience and show how amazing it was that anyone could overcome these obstacles.