Top Ten Movies 2004

by Stephen Notley

1. The Incredibles

No surprise here. If people didn't know who Brad Bird was after The Iron Giant, they sure know now. The Incredibles it tour-de-force filmmaking, excellent on every level from the concept to the design to the performances to the sheer joyful realized ambition of it all. Funny, heartfelt, action-jammed, this is a movie doing what movies are best at. For cryin' out loud if you haven't seen it yet, go. GO!

2. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Writer Charlie Kaufmann (Being John Malkovitch, Adaptation) likes to dig deep and strange into the nature of identity and here he does it again, unwinding a relationship in a carefully-crafted lucid dream with no easy answers. Michel Gondry's fluid direction holds together this seemingly unfilmable journey and pays it off at every turn. Essentially tied for first with The Incredibles, EsotSM is the other great film of 2004.

3. Hero

This actually came out two years ago in Hong Kong, but it got a 2004 North American release, so whatever. A story-bending fusion of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Run, Lola, Run, Hero color-co-ordinates multiple iterations of the same events, unpeeling lies, suppositions, conspiracies, pushing ever deeper into what it means to be a hero, all while delivering jaw-dropping, genre-defining action scenes every 12 minutes. Man, those Chinese know how to make movies!

4. Team America

Nobody saw this; it made a paltry $30 million in theatres. And yet even though it lacks the South Park movie's dead-on brilliance, Team America is required viewing, a horrific, hilarious vision of America in the world refracted through puppets and emotion-manipulating musical cues. Rarely does a movie state its theme as explicitly as Team America and its thesis of pussies, dicks and assholes, while wrong, is wrong in exactly the way America itself is wrong; historians of any age will find no better distillation of American culture circa 2004 than this movie. Plus there's a scene where the puppets hump.

5. Before Sunset

Nine years ago Richard Linklater of Slackers, Dazed and Confused and Waking Life made Before Sunrise, in which Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy meet on a train, spark a connection and spend a night wandering through Vienna. Fueled by Linklater's perceptive writing and the easy charm of its leads, Before Sunrise is an essential romantic film. This summer the sequel, Before Sunset, fluttered briefly into theatres and picked up the story nine years on with the two meeting in Paris. An aching look at the passage of time and the meaningfulness of the connections we make, Before Sunset was this year's best overlooked gem.

6. Shaun of the Dead

Lately it feels like the zombie movie is becoming the ur-genre, the ultimate basic scenario onto which any filmmaker can cast his own ideas. Shaun of the Dead is easily the best zombie movie in quite a number of years, a funny, low-key zombie-up that takes the unlikely step of investing its characters with life that goes beyond the immediacy of the zombie invasion. Shaun's gradual transition from a haze of dumped-by-girlfriend depression to the clarity of pursued-by-zombies terror is note-perfect throughout and the jokes are good cuz, y'know, they're British.

7. Fahrenheit 9/11

Nobody seems to have a good word for Michael Moore any more, but even if Fahrenheit 9/11 failed to unseat the Beast there's still no question it's one of the most rawly emotional films of the year, filled with gut-level images of hard-rockin' marines, ragdoll Iraqi children and an American mom sagging with grief. Moore did America and the world a public service by bringing attention to just a few of the fragments from this ever-growing unreported mountain of horror, so of course he's not popular

8. Garden State

Movies about depressive characters wandering around in a blank haze shouldn't work. This one does, winningly, by filling the world around said character with spark and life, detail and co-incidence. Written by, directed by and starring Scrubs actor Zach Braff, Garden State is aimless but involving, each odd new turn revealing something worth seeing, and it also doesn’t hurt that Natalie Portman is in there as a living beam of human sunshine. Great soundtrack, satisfying little movie.

9. I Heart Huckabees

Another movie nobody saw, this one from Three Kings director David O. Russell. I Heart Huckabees is essentially a movie version of the Douglas Adams novel "Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency", except that Dustin Hoffman and a superbly great Lily Tomlin are the holistic detectives investigating the philosophical problems that afflict their clients. I(H)H has Three Kings's sense of fleet direction and visual invention; I particularly recall the pieces of the mouths of Mark Wahlberg and Dustin Hoffman floating into space, splitting and resplitting as the two argue about the relative superiority of the states of being and non-being.

10. Primer

An underground little movie that only popped up at the Edmonton Film Festival [note to ed: fact check? It was the festival in October with Don McKellar, I forget what it was called], Primer shows that if you've got a good enough idea you can make a movie for under $10,000. Premier is a true science fiction film, hard science, with characters who are scientists and engineers working the problem like real scientists and engineers without all the usual bullshittery of Hollywood storytelling. One of the best and flatly unsettling time travel movies ever.