Thursday, December 30, 2004

OK, finally, here's the next installment of Nik's Picks for 2004: My 10 favorite movies of the year!
Unfortunately, as usual, many of the most anticipated Hollywood films of the year wait until the last minute to come out. So at this writing, I haven’t seen “The Aviator,” “Sideways,” “The Life Aquatic” or several other big Oscar-bait movies. Today's top 10 could be entirely different a month from now. But for now, here's my picks of '04:

1. Spider-Man 2
“Spider-Man 2” is just about as perfect as summer movie blockbuster sequels get, with returning director Sam Raimi balancing action, drama, intelligence and humor. Peter Parker doesn’t live the glamorous life of Batman’s Bruce Wayne, and gets beaten up left and right as he tries to do the right thing in this thrilling sequel. A combination of great storytelling, screen-shaking action and subtle acting by Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst and Alfred Molina as the villainous Doctor Octopus.

2. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
A brain-twisting love story, a head trip and a strange science-fiction film. Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet) are star-crossed young lovers who break up, and Clementine uses the technology of a half-baked “memory-erasing” company to rid her mind of any thoughts of Joel. But when Joel decides to have the procedure done too, he has second thoughts. This incredibly creative, vivid funhouse of a movie, from screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, the mind behind “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation,” pushes the limits of storytelling. Featuring a subdued, deeply powerful performance by funnyman Carrey, it’s the romance of the year.

3. Collateral
Here’s the pitch: Slacker taxi cab driver picks up fare. Fare is a contract killer. Sit back and watch sparks fly. Michael Mann’s beautifully shot, gritty ode to Los Angeles soars with Tom Cruise as the hitman and Jamie Foxx as the hapless cab driver. Whoever would’ve thought Foxx, from TV’s “In Living Color,” would become such a fine, restrained actor? He balances well against Cruise’s scenery-chewing psychopath in this tense battle of wits. A smart thriller full of unexpected depth, gorgeous cinematography and some incredibly tense sequences. Not groundbreaking, perhaps, but at the top of its class for what it is.

4. The Incredibles
Pixar Animation scores again, with its best animated comedy yet, and the year’s second-best superhero flick. The Incredibles are a family of superheroes who have been put out of business by lawsuits and the government. When Mr. Incredible has a midlife crisis and wants to do good work again, he suits up in the spandex and becomes involved in a conspiracy that soon drags his whole family along. Sidesplittingly funny and from a more adult perspective than “Toy Story” or “Finding Nemo,” with breathtaking computer animation and characters worth rooting for.

5. Shaun of the Dead
There was already one near-great zombie movie in 2004, the “Dawn of the Dead” remake, but this British import goes it one better, balancing horror, comedy, drama and gore to make a splatter/action flick that’s also packed with metaphor and Monty Python-esque humor. Slacker Shaun (Simon Pegg) is a bit of a loser who doesn’t even notice at first when the dead start to come back to life. But he soon discovers hidden depths of courage and ability as he and a rag-tag group of family and friends struggle to survive in an overtaken London. Are zombies any different than the crowds you see at Wal-Mart? “Shaun of the Dead” is a zombie flick for the ages.

6. Kill Bill Volume 2
Quentin Tarantino’s two-part revenge epic wrapped up with a bang and a sword slash or two, but it was also quieter and suprisingly thoughtful compared to the colorful blood-soaked chaos of last year’s “Volume 1.” The baleful Bride (Uma Thurman) continues her vengeance against her former employer Bill and his assassins, while flashbacks continue to fill in the Bride’s back story. While a bit slow here and there compared to the frenetic pace of part one, “Vol. 2” has more heart and soul. Plus, there’s an utterly magnetic performance by David “Kung Fu” Carradine as the strangely likable killer Bill. Put together, the “Kill Bill” series nearly equals Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” peak.

7. Garden State
Zach Braff, the star of TV's superb “Scrubs,” turns in a strong, melancholy big-screen debut as writer and director of this quirky independent-film romance. Braff stars as Andrew “Large” Largeman, a struggling actor numbed by his life and medications. Large returns to his native New Jersey for his mother’s funeral. Stumbling into a romance with a sassy local girl played by a dazzling Natalie Portman, Large starts to come back to life. By equal measures witty, surreal and sweet, with a sincerity that can’t be faked, “Garden State” isn’t perfect but it’s heartfelt. Anyone who’s ever returned to their old hometown to catch up with the people they left behind will emphasize with Braff's skewed take on the world.

8. Before Sunset
A sequel without shooting or gunfire? Richard Linklater’s follow-up to his 1995 cult hit “Before Sunrise” is a movie about words, about possibility and potential. In “Before Sunrise,” Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy were Jesse and Celine, young, single travelers who met on a train in Europe and spent one talk-filled, incredible night together, the kind of conversation you only have rarely in this life — and then they parted. “Before Sunset” picks up the story 10 years on. The movie is basically a single conversation, filmed with beautiful Paris as a backdrop. It’s also richly involving, thoughtful and truer to life than most movies ever are.

9. Fahrenheit 9/11
You already know by now whether you hate or love Michael Moore. Calling this a “documentary” isn’t quite right — it’s more of a filmed editorial, obviously slanted toward Moore’s views, but no more biased toward a viewpoint than any episode of “The O’Reilly Factor.” Political opinions are radioactive these days, with the media pushing the whole “red state/blue state” divide as if we aren’t all still Americans under the skin. Moore’s movie pulls no punches and certainly has an agenda, but as a provocative, compellingly filmed argument, it’s something all Americans should see — if only to utterly disagree with it.

10. Hero
This Asian import by director Zhang Yimou is hands-down the year’s most attractive film. It riffs off Akira Kurosawa’s “Rashomon” with a tangled tale of assassination and nobility, told multiple times through different viewpoints in ancient China. Similar to “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” it’s kung-fu chopsocky wrapped in a gorgeous skin, with simply amazing feats of stunt work, color photography and scenery. Structured with the depth of mythology, but with emotions that can’t be denied, it turns combat into art.

And three of the worst movies from 2004…

1. Dogville
Avant-garde “art” film at its worst, a cynical, bleak and hateful three-hour meditation on small-town American corruption by Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier. Despite an interesting look and an excellent performance by Nicole Kidman as a woman on the run abused by a small Colorado town’s hospitality, it’s basically a movie without hope and no other message than “gosh, people are bad.”

2. Van Helsing
Video game junk cinema that desecrates the fond memory of the 1930s Universal monster movie flicks, with a sleepwalking Hugh Jackman as the titular monster-slayer. Terrible computer special effects overwhelm the incomprehensible plot, and by the end of it all, you just feel pummeled and exhausted.

3. The Punisher
While “Spider-Man 2” rocked, this Marvel Comics adaptation sank without a trace. “The Punisher” is basically “Death Wish” in spandex, with no soaring superpowers to really wow the audience, some of the most annoying supporting characters in recent memory, and another truly rotten villainous John Travolta performance. It’s also revoltingly ultraviolent, with none of the satire or insight of the best “Punisher” comic books.

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