The Best Films of 2004

I was reminded this year of the way Saturday Night Live treated the lingering death of Francisco Franco ("Still dead," was the regular report on Weekend Update), when I realized that the French New Wave was finally dead also. Alain Resnais, Eric Rohmer and Jean-Luc Godard all had new films this year, and of the three only the Godard ("Notre Musique") was even watchable. It hurts, but I'm thankful anyway that we had them and their art at some point in our lives.

Maybe our expectations have been lowered; as the explosion of filmmaking in every corner of the globe continues critics are assaulted by the daily output of more and more insistent work. The New York Times now has six film critics on its staff, and would probably like to add more. I managed to see more than two hundred films, though I reviewed only 74 because I was looking for films to choose for the festival I direct, and many films I loved this year I didn't review because they haven't yet opened commercially.

At any rate, this was a year without a bombshell movie, the kind that just takes everyone up into its arms and cuddles us while we nuzzle at its breast. Think of "Pulp Fiction," or "Run Lola Run," or "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." In fact some films that exploded onto the scene this year, like Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11," lost traction after the election and now seem prisoners of a lost time.

But all in all it was a good year for films, which came as a surprise to me because by July the choices were dismal. I even was able to put together a more-or-less conventional critics' list of my top ten - something I've never done before. Here they are:

10. The Singing Detective - Written by Dennis Potter as a new screenplay derived from but not a condensation of his television series of twenty years ago, and directed by Keith Gordon in a way that honors the nuances Potter insisted on, the film stars the amazing Robert Downey, Jr., along with a surprising, understated performance by Mel Gibson as a psychiatrist. It slipped in and out of theatres in about a minute, but it was one of the best films of the year.

9. Garden State - TV star Zach Braff makes his first film and it's a doozy. Sweet, smart, funny, and considering that he wrote it and stars in it as well, we may have a major new talent on our hands. Natalie Portman and Peter Sarsgaard are delicious in supporting roles.

8. The Incredibles - Forget the endless chase sequence of the last twenty minutes; this film, written and directed by Brad Bird, who obviously was given his head by the studio, is the most brilliant animated film since "Toy Story 2." Witty, thoughtful, even insightful into the ways in which we live and relate, it is laugh-out-loud funny all the way.

7. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind - The team of Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman shows promise of being as good as the team of Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze was. My only problem with this inventive and provocative film was Jim Carrey, who somehow cannot persuade me that he can act a normal human being.

6. Ray - This film is Jamie Foxx all the way, channeling Ray Charles and even playing his piano riffs note for note. The music is gorgeous, the film doesn't run from or sugarcoat the tough and unflattering events, and with the exception of some slack writing that demeans and weakens the supporting performances, this film is both beautiful and powerful.

5. Maria Full of Grace - A first feature by the American Joshua Marston, who's worked as a documentarian in Colombia, and starring the amazing Catalina Sandino Moreno as the tough, beautiful 17-year-old Maria, this film is one of the great, unexpected treats of the year. A near-perfect story with near-perfect casting, Marston gives us beauty, power, fear and near-fatal tension without hitting us over the head with them.

4. Finding Neverland - I saw this film at the Telluride festival, home of the edgy and new, so this came as an unexpected treat. Call me sentimental, but I loved almost everything about "Finding Neverland" and cried at the end. Marc Forster, the Swiss-born American director of "Monster's Ball," has switched gears to give us one of the loveliest films in years. Johnny Depp not only acts but is J.M. Barrie, or perhaps the person Barrie would have wanted to be, in this story of the year leading up to the first production of his play "Peter Pan." Even though we know everything that's going to happen (Kate Winslet coughing delicately into her handkerchief signals, well, you know), it still tears at our hearts and lifts us up.

3. Kinsey - What a performance by Liam Neeson! and by Laura Linney! The story of this strange yet lovable man who singlehandedly changed the way Americans think about sex - they were already doing it, so that didn't change - has found the perfect director in Bill Condon, who also wrote the script. Like his fascinating film about director James Whale, "Gods and Monsters," Condon here knows exactly what makes people tick and has the rare talent to let them just show it.

2. Kill Bill, Vol. 2 - Remember this movie? It should have been released in the fall of 2003, one week after Vol. 1, but Miramax made a rare mistake by holding it for almost six months, so the buzz was gone and the film came and went too quickly. But it's the most brilliant two hours of filmmaking this year, with great wit and power, as well as marvelous action scenes. And who would have thought that Uma Thurman and David Carradine would make the sexiest couple of the year?

1. Bad Education - A film that had gestated within Almodovar for almost thirty years has finally come out, a sea change from anything he's done before. There isn't a woman in the film (except for an old star playing herself), just three men living through retrospective and current hells. Gael Garcia Bernal plays three roles himself, and confirms his reputation as the great young actor of our era. Though we can sense Almodovar trying to shoehorn more information, more events, more overtones into the film, it survives the occasional clotting to emerge as the most powerful, even beautiful, film of the year.

Here are the films that didn't quite make the top list but which I greatly enjoyed in whole or in part. Listed alphabetically they are: The Aviator; Collateral; Closer; Fahrenheit 9/11; I Heart Huckabees; The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou; The Motorcycle Diaries; Napoleon Dynamite; Open Water.