As it was with the honorable mentions, the years listed with these films indicate world premiere, not U.S. premiere/domestic run, which explains why my top two are not identified as 2004 releases.
1. DOGVILLE (Lars von Trier, 2003)
DOGVILLE is Lars von Trier's wildly ambitious film rich with themes and cinematic extravagance. Via a Depression-era story centered on the porcelain-skinned beauty Grace (Nicole Kidman), von Trier examines the impulse to despoil beauty and goodness. His film THE IDIOTS was, among other things, about the death of communism. DOGVILLE explores the death of idealism. Certainly it can be viewed as an allegory for the exploitation of immigrants. Yet my second viewing uncovered von Trier's main interest, which is staging a morality tale steeped in the book of Revelation. Those familiar with the director's BREAKING THE WAVES or DANCER IN THE DARK know that he loves to yank the carpet from underneath the audience in the third act, and he does so here in a way that you'll find either necessary for his purpose or infuriating. Themes aside, this is a stunning technical achievement. The austere production--a set on a stage with minimal props--feels stifling even though it should open up the space. Von Trier lays out Dogville's geography with masterfully composed overhead shots, high angles that also hint at God looking down upon a world resistant to His message of love. Kidman's performance is nothing short of astonishing, but the real star is the director, whose artistic brillance makes DOGVILLE a masterpiece.
2. THE FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS (De Fem benspænd) (Jørgen Leth and Lars von Trier, 2003)
Lars von Trier challenges his mentor, filmmaker Jørgen Leth, to remake his short film THE PERFECT HUMAN according to rules of the apprentice's choosing in THE FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS. Imagine an art film/world cinema version of a reality television show with von Trier hosting and playing up his reputation as an enfant terrible. THE FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS examines how an artist unwittingly divulges information about himself in his work even if the observer gets no closer to seeing through the creator's eyes. The film also digs into the artistic process and how expression can be refined and improved even when in the most limiting circumstances. In the end, THE FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS is a commentary on life, how all manner of things obstruct us from doing what we desire but we push on and make a go of it regardless.
3. BEFORE SUNSET (Richard Linklater, 2004)
In Richard Linklater's 1995 film BEFORE SUNRISE Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy are American and Parisian twentysomethings who meet on a train going through Eurpoe and decide to spend the day together wandering around Vienna. Nine years later their characters, Jesse and Celine, are reunited in BEFORE SUNSET. BEFORE SUNRISE posed questions on the nature of romance and destiny and was itself a modern masterpiece. The sequel may be even better. BEFORE SUNSET is funny, romantic, and formally perfect. Linklater presents the film in real time, which lends a sense of urgency to everything, yet the tension builds to an almost unbearable point because of the complex emotions generated between Jesse and Celine. Hawke and Delpy embody these characters with performances so natural that they don't appear to be acting at all. A lot of words pass between them, but they say more with how they touch one another and, in one sublime moment, when they don't. BEFORE SUNRISE proffered a romance both real and fantasy. BEFORE SUNSET remembers that beautiful time and wonders how an idealized moment has changed them, especially when life hasn't matched that day. Where BEFORE SUNRISE encapsulated their starry-eyed twenties, BEFORE SUNSET captures the thirties, when some disappointment has caught up with them. Over a period of years François Truffaut followed Jean-Pierre Leaud as Antoine Doinel from childhood to middle age. If only we can be so lucky that Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy revisit Jesse and Celine in another five or ten years.
4. THE VILLAGE (M. Night Shyamalan, 2004)
M. Night Shyamalan's THE VILLAGE may have been the most misunderstood film of 2004, but make no mistake, it's the director's best film. Shyamalan looks at a community withdrawn from the world and the fear that compels the villagers not to venture outside their boundaries. The film's boldest stroke isn't the "twist" ending, which the director's fans have expected since THE SIXTH SENSE even if this one is hard to foresee, but a scene that is concerned with something Bryce Dallas Howard's blind character Ivy knows isn't true yet still causes her great anguish. Even those of us in the audience, well aware that the film firmly states something is not there, cling to the belief of what we had been told before the truth was revealed. It's a vivid depiction of fear's overwhelming power. Shyamalan's use of empty space on the screen and soundtrack to create dread and overall lyrical direction display his growing formal control. Howard's breakthrough performance announces her as an actress to watch.
5. THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU (Wes Anderson, 2004)
THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU, co-writer-director Wes Anderson's comic riff on MOBY-DICK, has Bill Murray's title character embark on a quest to avenge the death of his friend. Anderson creates a wondrous visual space in Steve's ship, the Belafonte. From the very first shot THE LIFE AQUATIC displays Anderson's masterful eye for composition and color, treating us to eye-popping images that make most other films look like the dingy work of amateurs. Not to be overlooked is the arch humor that lightens the film's ennui.
6. THE AVIATOR (Martin Scorsese, 2004)
THE AVIATOR is the old-fashioned Hollywood picture Martin Scorsese seems to have been itching to make. Astonishing period recreations, including lavish locations like the Coconut Grove, and the replicated film processing looks of yesteryear let the film burn with Scorsese's passion for the old films he loves so well. Leonardo DiCaprio delivers a dynamic performance as Howard Hughes, breathing life into the qualities that helped Hughes thrive in his work and ultimately brought about his ruin. Cate Blanchett's turn as Katharine Hepburn is also terrific fun.
7. MILLION DOLLAR BABY (Clint Eastwood, 2004)
Clint Eastwood's exceptional boxing movie MILLION DOLLAR BABY reveals itself, under closer inspection, to be a great love story. As one of the main characters, the boxing trainer Frankie, Eastwood uses his gruff screen persona differently than audiences are accustomed to seeing. He shows Frankie to be all bark and no bite rather than the pit bull we expect. His interactions with aspiring boxing champion Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman, who plays his best friend Eddie, are terse and brittle, but there’s little doubt that it’s his way of masking the affection he’s afraid to reveal. The three central performances rank among the finest these actors have given in their impressive careers, an achievement that can be credited in part to Eastwood’s unobtrusive, classical direction.
8. ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND (Michel Gondry, 2004)
For all of its plot complexities and gimmickry, ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND is really a very simple film about love and the impact others have on us. Charlie Kaufman's elliptical screenplay takes us through Joel's (Jim Carrey) memories of his relationship with Clementine (Kate Winslet) while a technician tries to eliminate them. The result is a touching story of a man who learns how this woman enriched his life and how valuable those experiences were and are, even if he ended up with heartache. Michel Gondry's inventive direction is of the same spirit that inhabits his music video work with artists such as Bjork and The White Stripes. Gondry assembles ETERNAL SUNSHINE like an M.C. Escher drawing made real. The performances are terrific across the board, including good supporting turns from Kirsten Dunst, Mark Ruffalo, and Tom Wilkinson. Carrey's work in this film is among his best, and Winslet captivates and frustrates us just like she does Joel.
9. KILL BILL VOL. 2 (Quentin Tarantino, 2004)
KILL BILL VOL. 2, a continuation of rather than a sequel to Quentin Tarantino's KILL BILL VOL. 1, features Uma Thurman as the payback-seeking former assassin known as The Bride. Tarantino pushes the story toward the climax promised in the title as well as revealing more of The Bride's backstory. Regardless of the reasons to cleave KILL BILL into two films, VOL. 1 and VOL. 2 are significantly different and work very well as stand-alone movies. The first was a cartoon orgy of violence that paid tribute to grindhouse and martial arts cinema. The second is an operatic ode to westerns and spaghetti westerns in which the landscapes and perhaps God himself look down on the story, as many shots take an overhead perspective. The languid pacing and extreme close-ups are in keeping with Sergio Leone's style, leaving lots of time for Tarantino's signature dialogue. VOL. 2 has fewer action scenes, but it has a doozy when The Bride and Elle Driver (Darryl Hannah) square off in the confined space of a trailer. Tarantino divided both films into chapters, giving them the feel of a novel. This storytelling device allows him to continue to work non-linearly but also affords him time for scenes that would otherwise be omitted. KILL BILL VOL. 2 is equally as good as its predecessor, which combine for a vital cinematic experience.
10. METALLICA: SOME KIND OF MONSTER (Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, 2004)
Metallica, the lumbering behemoth of heavy metal, agreed to document the recording of the album ST. ANGER, but with the group starting to come apart at the seams, METALLICA: SOME KIND OF MONSTER captures something much more interesting than what would typically comprise a standard making-of picture. The film transcends being a fans-only memento. In fact, it may be of more interest to those with nothing invested in the band. METALLICA: SOME KIND OF MONSTER details the music-making process with great skill. Directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky show how songs are built, from laying the musical foundation, to experimenting with vocal delivery, and then figuring out how to put it together in an album that satisfies the artists. More fascinating is the sight of these wealthy, macho metalheads trying to get in touch with their feelings during the band therapy sessions. Hearing them speak in psychological terms and strategies is often hilarious. The therapy scenes provide a lot of laughs, but it's in these emotionally naked moments that we can see the band members' humanity. Although they've accumulated more material possessions than they could ever need, it isn't enough. After all, Metallica will now struggle to stay at the top as they enter middle age in what is a young man's arena. METALLICA: SOME KIND OF MONSTER is a remarkable study of the creative process and group psychology.