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Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Year in Review: Films 

Obviously, seeing as I live in Korea and thus have access to only a small selection of films from elsewhere - much, much worse than even New Plymouth, if you can believe that - I can hardly give a definitive Top 10 list of films from 2004. Hell, I've only seen 36 films with a 2004 release date, and 8 of them are Korean (you better believe I have an Excel spreadsheet....girls dig it, really).

So instead, I'll give you a Top 10 list of the best films I have seen for the first time this calender year (sample selection: 137 at time of writing), and a Bottom 10 of same (in a latter post). Ready?

Top 10:

10. BLOODY SUNDAY (Paul Greengrass, 2002) ***1/2

Devastatingly realistic portrayal of the tragic real life event in Northern Ireland. Manages to be documentary-like without ever resorting to hey-look-at-me-I’m-so-real-and-this-stuff-happened-exactly-like-this-isn’t-this-uncanny! posturing. Instead it takes an effortlessly relaxed, natural performance from James Nesbitt (who I keep wanting to call James Beattie for some reason) and spins a genuine sense of dread and a strong, affecting emotion. Director Paul Greengrass would take his shaky camera off to film Matt Damon running away from things in THE BOURNE SUPREMACY, but it is much more suited to this disturbing film.

9. ALMOST FAMOUS (UNTITLED CUT) (Cameron Crowe, 2000) ***1/2

Okay, so I had seen the theatrical cut before. And I don’t think the Director’s Cut is significantly better, as there is only so much time you can devote to someone else’s recollections as a teenage boy – meeting David Bowie and Led Zeppelin or no – before you are shipping them off to the retirement home to continue the conversation with the nice nurse Alice. But the elongated film, with 35 minutes of extra stuff, does deepen the nostalgia and strengthen the characters, emphasizing that for it’s setting of real life rock stars, boozing and decadence, the film is really about how people just want to be noticed – preferably by the person you love, but if that’s not an option, then just a lot of people will do. The most amazing thing in the film: Kate Hudson is good. Really good. What happened?

8. COLLATERAL (Michael Mann, 2004) ***1/2

I’ve always loved Michael Mann (platonically, of course, though I haven’t seen him in a bathing suit yet). Simply put, he makes great films for guys; at least the kind of films for guys that don’t involve serious waxing of hard to reach places on the part of the actors. His films are tough and no nonsense, but with an unshakable sheen of class and style, and here is no exception. The script is no great thing – it’s functional, does the job, gets from the beginning to the end without stumbling over itself – but Mann’s direction and the acting carry it into something macho-cool. Tom Cruise is not an actor I generally like: watching him prance around in MISSION IMPOSSIBLE 2 as if he was Chow Yun-Fat (which he really, absolutely, is not, no matter how many doves float around his head) just reminds you how narrow his range is: cocky, likeable characters are his thing, not much else. But since 1999, Cruise has started to prove me wrong. He was pretty good in EYES WIDE SHUT, fantastic in MAGNOLIA and now here, he is perfect for the role. I still think critics go too far overboard when they see a leading man play the bad guy – bad, it seems to me, is the easiest role to play – that’s not what Cruise does here. Here, he actually plays a goddamn loser trying to be cool, a hitman with the great looking grey suit who’s crap at his job. Don’t believe me? Check out the film again, see how many things he fucks up.

7. SPRING, SUMMER, WINTER, FALL…..AND WINTER (Kim-Ki-Duk, 2003) ***1/2

Long titles are cool; the sure as hell beat THE “X”. We need more long titles. THE VILLAGE would have been so much better if it had been called SHYMALAN REPEATS HIS LAST THREE FILMS BUT WITH CORSETS AND A SUPERHUMAN BLIND GIRL. Anyway, this is a Korean film about a Buddhist monastery in the middle of a lake surrounded by hills , and it charts the life – through 5 short segments of about 20 minutes each, set during the seasons of the title – of a young boy as becomes a middle-aged man. Beautifully shot, quiet and undeniably spiritual, even for a heathen like me, it makes small elemental observations of the human spirit and spins them into a delicately crafted ode to doing what’s right, even after you’ve done something completely wrong.

6. DOLLS (Takeshi Kitano, 2002) ***1/2

So it’s basically about a guy and a girl who walk around the beautiful autumnal countryside dressed as traditional Japanese marionette dolls; the girl is crazy because the guy broke up with her once upon a time, but he’s no sharp crayon in this resplendently shot box. Interweaved with this are two other delicate, intriguing stories of obsession and the intractability of time, how our actions haunt us even though we thought we had no choice at the time. There’s no blood in this Kitano film – well, there’s a little bit, but it’s a Kitano film, for God’s sake! – but instead a ton of mediation and stuff that sits well with the splendor of the camerawork.

5. NAUSICAA OF THE VALLEY OF THE WIND (Hayao Miyazaki, 1984) ***1/2

This guy is an animation genius (THE EMPEROR’S NEW GROOVE being an example of animated genius), and it’s nice to know that his talent extends right back 20 years; this means that in 2024, I will still be able to drink more than yamis and not look like an extra from BRAIN DEAD the next day. To the point: Miyasaki has two things that are unequalled in modern animation. First, he is able to push his environmental concerns without ever having the audience feeling like they are chained to a tree with vegan Greenpeace dude lecturing you about the dangers of, I don’t know, lactose (stereotype ahoy!) and though it NAUSICAA doesn’t have the subtlety and elegance of SPIRITED AWAY, it is still a heartfelt plea to take care of the world that has been entrusted to us. Secondly is his amazing habit of having characters that refuse to pigeonholed into good and evil, but are rather driven by a particular set of personal ethics that happen to encompass both at the same time. Again, another Miyazaki film, PRINCESS MONONOKE, has the best example of this (the desperately loyal Lady Eboshi), but NAUSICAA can be seen as an accomplished trial run for this sort of complicated character machinery.

4. THE SCHOOL OF ROCK (Richard Linklater, 2003) ***1/2

Oh, how I wish THE NEWTON BOYS didn’t exist, because then I could start this summary with the lazy cliché that Linklater has never made a bad film. So, instead I have to use the cliché that this is the role that Jack Black – the earnestly goofy, passionately obsessed man-child – was born to play. He totally kicks this pleasant, formulaic film into the stratosphere by merely being himself; in other words, by mugging and rocking and taking the piss. And of course, the music being worshipped is worthy of destroying the education of a bunch of (in the case of this film, winning and entertaining) muppets. The final credits song is better than the AC/DC original, by the way.

3. OLDBOY (Park Chan-Wook, 2003)

Shakespearian Korean revenge psycho-action-drama based on a Japanese manga, this is a trippy, hallucinatory mind-fuck of a film that would probably be remembered merely for it premise (man is locked in a small room for 15 years without ever seeing his captors, and then suddenly released for no reason) if it didn’t have such a strong emotional core, a devastating climax and such brilliant acting from all concerned, but especially lead Choi Min-Shik. Imagine David Fincher directing a collaboration between David Lynch and Phillip K. Dick, and you get the idea.

2. AMERICAN SPLENDOR (Shari Springer Berman; Robert Pulcini, 2003) ***1/2
Biopics are generally dull, sedate, complimentary affairs, covering too much time and not enough genuine excitement, and never being worthwhile as educational tools because so much dramatic license is used that if I was acting in the movie of my own life right now, I would have shagged Zhang Ziyi and been to the moon by now. So thank God for AMERICAN SPLENDOR, which sweeps aside so many of those concerns in one easy soundbite – documentary mixed with drama. So we get to see the superb Paul Giamatti act out his cantankerous side as the unusual comic creator Harvey Pekar, and then we get to see the real Pekar to show us that the film isn’t over exaggerating his uniqueness. The film is goddamn funny as a bonus.


Loving someone is a precarious thing. Sure, while you’re in the middle of it, it’s fine; all affection and dizziness, discovery and sex. But then, invariably, that all stops. How this happens can come in one of a million different ways, but the end point is the same: a deep sense of loss and pain, dislocation and self-doubt. This is the best film about why the latter is worth risking for the former that I have ever seen. While everything fades eventually, the happy memories are more tenacious than most – and they eventually transcend the bitter, screwed up ones. This is the first Kaufman written film I have really liked, and it’s a beauty. Before, he seemed like nothing more than a guy full of clever ideas who couldn’t write a third act because usually if you are trying to show everyone how smart you are, you can just leave the pub and go home to your Star Trek DVD’s. But a film requires some sort of closure, and Kaufman has never successfully done that till now. And the whole film clicks resoundingly into place when it arrives. Great film.


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