The year in reviews 

Jeff Meyers:

Best romantic comedy that was neither romantic nor comedic:

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

I’ve never been a fan of Jim Carrey. His manic, over-the-top preening and elastic-faced wackiness tend to leave me annoyed or exhausted, and his occasional forays into “serious” films like The Truman Show or The Majestic have always struck me as critically overrated. He’s perfectly serviceable in those movies, but no more so than any of a dozen other competent actors.

Thus, when I discovered Carrey would be starring with Kate Winslet in Charlie Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, I didn’t have high hopes. It sounded like the idiot idea of a Hollywood marketing exec: “Kaufman’s wacky. Carrey’s wacky. It’s a sure thing.”

How wrong I was.

Smart, insightful and more than a bit dizzying, Eternal Sunshine defies the conventions of its genre. It isn’t afraid to unravel the bittersweet absurdity of love and subject it to plot devices straight out of a Philip K. Dick novel.

Playing against type, Carrey and Winslet not only shine as lovers Joel and Clementine, but also demonstrate palpable chemistry. Their messy, fractious and, ultimately, loving relationship is handled with dark honesty and keen insight. There isn’t a false note in either performance.

The story’s chronology is a jumbled jigsaw of reality and fantasy as Joel invades his own fading memories after arranging to have them erased. Eager to be rid of the hurt and pain of his breakup with Clementine, he ends up banishing moments of true love and tenderness. It’s these few precious past recollections that he fights to hold onto, but it’s too late. Or is it?

This film surprises you with its ingenuity, tickles you with its sense of the absurd and dares you to confront the untidiness of modern romance.

Biggest “Holy shit, that really happened!” reaction:

Touching the Void

For documentaries, Fahrenheit 9/11 and Super Size Me made the biggest splashes in 2004, but, for my money, neither approached the nail-biting, jaw-dropping, sphincter-clenching drama of Touching the Void. If you think George W. is scary bad, imagine being buried alive beneath 80 feet of snow with a broken leg, knowing that the world thinks you’re dead.

This tale of mountain climbers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates is both inspirational and terrifying. Young, cocky and in search of adventure, the two Brits decide to climb the Siula Grande, a 21,000-foot peak in the Peruvian Andes. The ascent goes smoothly, but on the way down the duo encounter a fierce snowstorm and Simpson falls, shattering his leg.

For most climbers, this would be a death sentence, but Yates stays with his friend and tries to lower him, 300 feet at a time, to the bottom. A series of mishaps sends Simpson dangling over a precipice. Yates, blinded by snow and unable to hear his friend below, struggles to hold on, not knowing whether Simpson is dead or alive. Exhaustion takes its toll, and Yates must cut the rope or risk being pulled over himself. Amazingly, both men survive. But not before going through further hell.

Blending stunningly dramatic re-creations with talking-head narration, Touching The Void is an exhausting and harrowing film that enthralls as much as it terrifies.

Most powerful is Joe Simpson’s confrontation with religion and faith. Simpson, a devout Catholic, when faced with certain death, comes to the realization that, for him, there is no God. It’s his fear of death’s finality that ultimately drives him to survive. It’s yet another unexpected twist in a film that brilliantly depicts a truth that is truly stranger than fiction.

Worst career choices:

Halle Berry

Even her flawless complexion and sudden acting chops shouldn’t stop us from taking back her Oscar and melting it down into slag for starring in last summer’s hideous Catwoman.

Stephen Sommers

The Mummy movies were entertaining but highly overrated. Van Helsing, however, proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Sommers is a no-talent hack with few original ideas. Remarkably, Hugh Jackman emerges from the film with reputation intact. Kate Beckinsale, however, deserves a special place in hell for starring in both Pearl Harbor and this cinematic turd. I don’t care how hot she is.

Paul W.S. Anderson

When is somebody in Hollywood going to recognize that this guy has no frickin’ talent as a writer or a director? His WWF take on the Alien and Predator franchises has ruined the modest reputations of both. Even the fanboys hated it. But then, what did you expect from the guy who directed Mortal Combat?

Everyone Involved with Blade:Trinity

Enough already. Three times was not the charm.

Dishonorable Mentions:

Garfield, Birth, The Punisher, Godsend, Thunderbirds and Without a Paddle

Bad movies! Bad!

Dan DeMaggio:

Unsexiest fellatio scene in a film with the word “bunny” in the title:

The Brown Bunny

Vincent Gallo definitely knows how to get attention. This Hollywood iconoclast and sometimes Calvin Klein model directed what film critic Roger Ebert hailed as one of the worst films ever made when a rough version premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. Their short-lived and quite hilarious war-of-words in the press was more entertaining than Gallo’s rather tame and conventional road movie, a genre of film that kind of faded away after John Cassavetes slipped away to art-film heaven. If pissing off Ebert didn’t get the film all the attention it didn’t deserve, then Gallo’s erecting of a billboard in downtown Hollywood depicting the famed “climax” of the film certainly did.

So a drug-addled character played by Chloë Sevigny gives Gallo a hummer in a seedy Los Angeles motel room. The only reason the scene became famous is because Gallo reveals, in all its grainy glory, a trait well-known to those lucky devils that have firsthand (and first-mouth) experience with the breadth and girth of Italian ancestry. Anyway, the free 10-second snips of Internet porn that I hear are widely available for download (I wouldn’t know about such things) is the way to go if you’re jonesin’ for this type of action, not sitting through two hours of a mumbling, motorcycle-racing drifter named Bud Clay in search of the woman who did him wrong.

Runner-up: How To Draw A Bunny, the fascinating and truly creepy documentary about one of the most mysterious icons of modern art, Ray Johnson, failed to capture this year’s prize by not including any scenes of fellatio, sexy or otherwise.

Most ridiculous and politically motivated example of stating the obvious in a documentary:

Super Size Me

Hey! Eating at McDonald’s every day, for every meal, will make you feel like shit! And you’ll get fat, too! In director Morgan Spurlock’s investigation into every anarchist’s favorite place to smash windows (Starbucks running a close second), Spurlock bravely experiments with his own well-being by consuming nothing but Big Macs and Egg McMuffins for a whole month and discovers (gasp!) that the stuff isn’t all that great for you! His backhanded endorsement of attempts by fat people to sue the company shows where this dude’s heart is: to contribute to the ever-increasing list of “victims” whose only remedy is to bring down the evil corporations that exploit them. He should have just heeded the endless bleating of his vegan-chef girlfriend to avert his unavoidable health collapse. He probably went to McDonald’s to get away from her nonstop, self-righteous chatter, which is liberally sprinkled throughout this annoying film. Remember boys and girls: McDonald’s = bad. Making a name for yourself by telling us what we already know = good. What’s next, Spurlock? A heroic investigation of the pitfalls of putting lit M-80’s up your ass? Finally, a director not afraid of telling the truth!

The film that best highlights theindisputable fact that English professors are soulless cretins who do really bad things to people:

We Don’t Live Here Anymore

Jack (Mark Ruffalo) and Hank (Peter Krause) teach English. Jack’s a rumpled, well-read fellow who is boning Hank’s bored and sexy wife, Edith (Naomi Watts). Hank could care less. Hank likes to fuck his students, making said wife nothing more than a babysitter. Hank wrote a book called Alright Already, and looks out at the falling leaves through the window of his study while waiting for a publisher to accept it. He wants to fuck Jack’s wife Terry (Laura Dern), who has been driven to alcoholism by her husband’s inattentive ways. Sounds like a recipe for a probing examination of modern relationships and mores, eh? Kind of like a Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf for the MTV generation? Nope. This movie is so shallow and self-conscious that you anxiously await the next sex scene or fight scene just to wake up from this horribly botched attempt at a “relationship movie that’s, like, really real with, like, real adults in it.” The only “truth” you’ll derive from this waste of time is that everything you thought about your undergraduate English teachers is true: They’re dicks!

Michael Hastings:

Best raging teen hormone flick masquerading as a family-friendly blockbuster:

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

This third Harry Potter installment finally broke the cash-cow franchise of its literal-minded, mirthless, soon-to-be-a-theme-park rut and introduced us to a world thick with true British atmosphere, very real threats and, yes, the burgeoning possibility of sex. With Chris “What’s a subtext?” Columbus ceding control to Alfonso Cuarón, one of the most intuitive filmmakers working today, Harry, Hermoine and Ron shed their prepubescent voices, dorky threads and thespian training wheels in favor of more grown-up concerns. Is it any coincidence that the movie opens with the 13-year-old wizard casting spells with his wand under his bed sheets? Not to say we’ve stepped over into the territory of Larry Clark’s Kids — this is still a PG affair — but the more mature themes of J.K. Rowling’s writings snap into full focus here, whether Harry’s taking a acid-trippy double-decker bus ride, verbally sparring with the bracingly self-possessed Hermoine, or confronting the specter of his father in one of the more surreal, Freudian, Lynch-ian movie moments of the year.

Worst family-friendly blockbuster masquerading as a raging teen hormone flick:

Napoleon Dynamite

Writer-director Jared Hess answered a question no one asked: Wouldn’t it be great if someone remade Todd Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse as a feel-good underdog story? In a word, no. Hess’ debut feature — made for a pittance and inaugurated into the hipster canon at that bastion of mediocrity, Sundance — tried to turn its banality and lack of inspiration into virtues, the way Richard Linklater’s Slacker did more than 10 years ago. Instead, the film just ended up being banal and uninspired. Recommended only for the audience that made it a surprise hit: 12-year-olds who think Detroiters dress like hookers and carry around mixtapes of Jamiroquai with them wherever they travel. The rest of us are best advised to rent Rushmore.

Best $220 movie that played in Detroit for a weekend:

Tarnation

Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation rewrote the rules of the personal-confessional documentary, telling the filmmaker’s tale of growing up with a mentally unstable mother through a fractured collage of still photos, indie rock songs and snippets of ’70s children’s shows. Gathering together the detritus of his life and feeding it into an iMac, Caouette creates a hypnotic, moving video-scrapbook of sorts, avoiding all the clichés — sappy voice-over, swelling music, emotional breakthroughs — that tend to make documentaries like this so insufferable.

Best sex and best film of 2004:

Bad Education

Pedro Almodóvar’s noir tribute may not have featured its characters in the most positive sexual encounters — attempted pedophilia, revenge sex and casting-couch seduction all figure prominently in the plot — but it cast an alternately hilarious, enthralling and nonjudgmental eye on the lengths to which men will go to rewrite their own personal histories. As usual with Almodóvar, in a movie full of deceitful studs, it’s the women — or rather, the pre-ops and post-ops — who have the balls to be sexually honest. (Special mention should be made of the MPAA’s puritanical decision to slap the film with an NC-17 for sex scenes that are no more explicit than the ones in any R-rated film featuring straight people screwing.) Runner-up: Bill Condon’s guide to getting the most out of marriage, Kinsey.

Worst sex:

The Brown Bunny

Runner-up: Young Adam, an ambitious, only partly successful amoral fable that featured the least-appealing use of condiments during coitus since 9 1/2 Weeks.

Richard C. Walls:

Best musical:

The Saddest Music in the World

This is Canadian writer-director Guy Maddin’s most fully realized attempt to make a cohesive film out of his personal vision of absurdist melodrama. Maddin’s touchstone is the German Expressionism that flourished in the ’20s, a world of shadows, grand gestures and morbid decor. The word masterpiece has lost much of its meaning in the hyperbolic language of movie-reviewing, but I’m tempted to use it here.

Maddin’s films are always funny, both in the ha-ha and peculiar sense, but Saddest has more depth of emotion than his usual fare, and the determining ingredient here is music. Specifically, his masterstroke was to employ the old chestnut “The Song is You,” a very resilient tune that is used here in an upbeat mode, as a torch song and as a solo cello piece. It’s the aural corollary to his visual surrealism, in the sense that music, with or without the prompting of lyrics, can be a pipeline to the subconscious, remaining abstract while sometimes evoking strong emotions.

Best polemic:

Fahrenheit 9/11

Both satirical and polemical, Michael Moore’s movie was criticized by some for its occasionally fast-and-loose approach to the facts. But since the truth of his main accusation — that the war in Iraq was an ill-advised sideshow to the war on terrorism — is being borne out everyday, the details start to seem more and more petty.

Besides, the satisfaction that one derives from the film is in direct proportion to the degree of frustration that one has experienced with not just the post-9/11 Bush administration, but the lame responses of our culture in general. Fahrenheit seemed like a tonic, a smart-assed hardball pitched after a season of loping soft ones tossed out by a mainstream media that seemed too submissive by half, a pointed screed amid the freaked-out assertions of clueless pundits (anybody remember “the death of irony”?). As post-9/11 commentaries go (or went — things have improved lately on the dissent front) Fahrenheit was the proverbial turd in the punch bowl.

Best comedy:

Sideways

Writer-director Alexander Payne’s fine-tuned character study is a buddy movie in which one guy’s a dysfunctional alcoholic, the other’s an idiot, and they’re both extremely likable. The thing that struck me most about this film, which I saw on its opening weekend with a crowded and very appreciative audience, wasn’t its humane bits, but the moments of cheerful vulgarity. It’s earthy and elegiac, with a smart script and wonderful performances, especially by Paul Giamatti, whose patented schlub character reaches some kind of apotheosis.

Most devastating film:

Osama

The simple premise of this Afghani film: A young girl, during the reign of the Taliban, disguises herself as a boy in order to obtain work. Instead, she finds herself recruited by the dictatorship and sent to one of its religious training camps where she must continue her charade while enduring all the hardships of indoctrination. No happy ending here, but the insights that the film offers into the horrors of living in a theocracy are both excruciating and timely.

Clare Pfeiffer Ramsey:

Prettiest movie that sucked:

The Village

M. Night Shyamalan cloaked his pastoral utopia in hues of mustard and crimson, and dressed the townsfolk like the Jawas from Star Wars. It looked fantastic, but the movie featured the lamest plot twist to date from the man who brought us Signs and The Sixth Sense. Oh, so much wasted beauty.

Best low-budget thriller:

Open Water

Filmed for only $150,000, a handheld camera, pure suspense and some pissed-off big fish made Open Water one freaky trip. A bickering couple gets lost on a tourist dive and finds themselves stranded overnight in open sea, with no land in sight. It’s the best low-budget freak-out since the Blair Witch phenom. Every sound of fish tails slapping the surface will give you the willies.

Worst nude scene:

Birth

What’s grosser than gross? How about a naked Nicole Kidman in a bathtub with a 10-year-old boy who claims to be her dead husband reincarnated? Yep, that’s grosser than a scab in your cornflakes. Who’d think it possible to be repulsed by Kidman in the buff?

Most anticipated DVD:

Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle

Some of us loved Harold and Kumar. Others were practically blind the next day from so much eye-rolling. But it’s a safe bet that the first Asian-American-stoner-buddy-flick will be better enjoyed on the small screen with the proper accompaniments of herbs and hops rather than in the theater with popcorn and soda. Maybe then we could forgive the lame-ass pranks like riding a computer-animated cheetah and focus on the really silly gags that gave us the giggles — and the munchies.

Movie that should have pissed off more people:

Vera Drake

There were plenty of flicks to draw the ire of ultraconservatives in 2004, and one would think the compassionate portrayal of an abortionist would top off the list. But somehow, Vera Drake hardly caused a ripple. Where were the angry mobs lining up outside the art houses waving baby dolls and pictures of fetuses. Where were the vitriolic jeers and fire and brimstone? Maybe the pro-lifers were too busy getting out the vote for Dubya this fall to notice Vera Drake. Or maybe the movie treads so carefully around the subject the anti-abortion folks couldn’t figure out what to be pissed off about. Nevertheless, British stage veteran Imelda Staunton’s turn as the chirpy back-door abortionist was one of the best female performances of the year. Staunton, armed with pots of tea and a smile that lit up the bleak post-Word War II London set, gave Drake an unexpected sweetness and had us all teary-eyed.

Goriest movie of the year:

Passion of the Christ

Well, either that or Seed of Chucky.

Best use of body hair:

The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie

We got up close and personal with David Hasselhoff’s furry back when SpongeBob and Patrick took a ride on the “Knight Rider” in The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie. Hasselhoff sure has some kind of pelt on him.

Dan DeMaggio, Michael Hastings, Jeff Meyers, Clare Pfeiffer Ramsey and Richard C. Walls write about film for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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