The summer of 2004 was a glorious one for Hollywood, delivering cerebral acrobatics with “Kill Bill Vol. 2,” relationship degeneration in “Eternal Sunshine” and a whole lot of Moore (get it?) with “Fahrenheit 9/11.” Everything seemed to be on the right track during the fall with “Motorcycle Diaries” and “Birth,” but then the holiday season was a surprising disappointment. Luckily a few very bright gems shone through the filthy muck of “Phantom of the Opera” and the like. Without further ado, I give you the three best films of 2004.
“Million Dollar Baby” — Neither a fan of “Mystic River,” which I found too emotionally draining, nor Clint Eastwood’s particular blend of machismo, I went into “Million Dollar Baby” already prepared to dislike the film. But Hilary Swank’s turn as the eager Maggie Fitzgerald is a masterpiece. She is inexperienced and mature, a fighter inside and out, embodying a crazy, unprotected hope found only in the best athletes. Dunn (Eastwood), her coach and protector, is unsure of whether to halt her dangerous boxing career or to promote it. His movie-length struggle to take care of the young woman is a gripping examination of this protective instinct. Stuffed with these strong internal issues, “Million Dollar Baby” weaves a psychological web that is brilliant and illuminating.
Everything down to the very sound of the dialogue is a tour de force. Screenwriter Paul Haggis’s poetry flows abundantly, dripping with mood and wit. Surrounded by the ducking and dodging of words, the expertly crafted boxing matches seem physical manifestations of these conversations. Eastwood takes his camera in close, relishing the tactile punches.
The film is full of good old-fashioned acting and directing. No intricate camera angles get in the way of the plot; Eastwood trusts his actors to carry the picture. In one scene where most modern directors would use a flashback, he has Morgan Freeman’s character Eddie tell his life story into the camera.
“Million Dollar Baby” is a triumph of skill in an industry that relies more and more frequently on distraction.
“A Very Long Engagement” — Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s World War I epic channels the dark comedy of “Catch-22” through the whimsical gadget-play of “Amelie,” his best-known film. What emerges is a gruesomely beautiful tale of the war machine and the many human lives destroyed to feed it. Boosted by a big budget, Jeunet delves heavily into digital technology, creating a sepia-toned France of swirling lighthouses and pockmarked battlefields.
Circled by meaningless death, Mathilde’s (Audrey Tautou) quest to find her almost-certainly dead fiance is alternately a farce and an affirmation of humanity. Unflaggingly hopeful, she operates outside the cold realm of logic and machines. While Jeunet flashes back to the blossoming of her cautious love, he shies away from mushy romance, never candy-coating Mathilde’s desperation. Far from a love story, “A Very Long Engagement” identifies what makes man different from machine and how the two become blurred during wartime.
Jeunet replicates Mathilde’s cycle of confusion, near-loss of hope and sudden revelation within the very fabric of the film, deepening the cinematic experience. As in real life, the film’s characters do seemingly impenetrable things which only make sense after repeated observation. This is not a movie in which the viewer can sit passively, Jeunet demands active thinking from his audience.
“Spiderman 2” — This summer, with the Iraqi situation going from bad to worse, and the presidential campaign becoming more and more negative, America needed a hero, and we got one in Peter Parker.
Partially written by the great novelist and myth-maker Michael Chabon (“The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay”), the film places its superhero in our sarcastic, ironic and selfish world. The plot doesn’t shy away from the ugly side of America, showing an ungrateful public and conscienceless media. Unsure and temperamental, Parker (Tobey Maguire) has to choose between himself and the uncaring others he saves.
All the great comic book themes are here: love and death, man vs. machine and good vs. evil. Each is addressed with a seriousness and originality rarely seen in the genre.
The film is deliriously over the top. Director Sam Raimi has not been this much fun since 1981’s “Evil Dead.” His Lichtenstein-inspired shots soar well beyond the first film. “Spiderman 2” contains not only the greatest surprise attack of the year (a car sails into a private conversation between Peter and Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane) but also the greatest death sequence (a repentant Doc. Ock sinking into the depths of the Hudson with signature sunglasses in tow).
As opposed to its predecessor, “Spiderman 2” is not about an elite hero who can do things we cannot, but about the buried heroism of the common man. In the film’s most sublime moment, as Spiderman is protected by the commuters on the train he almost died saving, irony and satire fall away, to be replaced by the American heart reborn.
In the middle of a national identity crisis, Raimi gives us a film that joyfully preaches the heroic national ideal without a hint of jingoism. Rarely does cinema provide such good guidance.