Last year sucked. Everyone I know seemed to have a crappy year. There were an unusually high number of natural disasters and extended periods of weird weather; every time I turned around, someone I knew was going to another funeral, visiting someone in the hospital, or going into the hospital themselves; and the economy was such that I didn’t speak to anyone who wasn’t complaining about their finances or jobs (or the lack thereof). And, of course, for progressives, 2004 sucked big time. It was just the Year of Suck.

But nothing was more representative of how sucky the Year of Suck really sucked than the ghastly selection of films we were served up this year. It’s one thing when your reality sucks, but when your escapism sucks, too, you know it’s a genuine and inescapable Suckfest.

In addition to being Lefty Political Pundit Extraordinaire, I am a film nut; my head is crammed with so much film trivia, names of obscure actors, and snippets of dialogue that I serve as a sort of breathing IMDB for my friends and family. One look at the ever-expanding collection of films taking up space in the den undoubtedly leaves one with the impression that I clearly intend to spend my unfunded retirement watching films in my cardboard box.

It is, then, with some measure of self-designated expertise that I deem 2004 a truly dismal year for films. Attempting to put together a Top 10 list garnered me a collection about which I was decidedly unenthusiastic; most of them wouldn’t even have warranted an honorable mention in other years. So I scrapped the typical format, and will plow onward accordingly.

I found myself skipping films by some of my favorite directors this year – M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village, Michael Mann’s Collateral, The Coen Brothers’ The Ladykillers, Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic, Stephen Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Twelve, and James L. Brooks’ Spanglish, all of which looked like renters at best. P.T. Anderson, Sam Mendes, Anthony Minghella – I hope you all had a nice year off, but we’re going to need you back in ’05, boys.

Most of the films that were supposed to be hits weren’t (ref: The Alamo, Troy, King Arthur, I, Robot, Alexander, et al), and some which were successful were probably only so by virtue of appalling competition (I’m talking to you Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azerbaijan…er, Azkaban). Falling short of expectations were Hero, The Terminal, Alfie, and The Aviator – disappointments all. (Please give it up, Scorsese; you’re a hack and a half.)

So, like I said – a shitty year all told. There are still a few films I want to see and haven’t yet (Shaun of the Dead, Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself, The Hunting of the President, Maria Full of Grace, I Heart Huckabees, The Machinist, Kinsey, A Very Long Engagement, and Hotel Rwanda all come to mind), worth a mention since I can’t give them the accolades they might very well be due.

As for films I’d recommend, well, they’re pretty slim this year. Good popcorn movies were Hidalgo, Hellboy, Mean Girls, and Man on Fire. Great popcorn movies were The Incredibles, Bridget Jones’ Edge of Reason, National Treasure, and The Bourne Supremacy. General recommendations are A Home at the End of the World, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (which warrants a mention for its fantastic title alone), Kill Bill Vol. 2, Closer, and the very sharp and funny Saved! and Napoleon Dynamite.

Which leaves my rather measly Top 5, which are true diamonds in a very rough year.

5. Finding Neverland. I’m usually not a fan of pictures that play around with history. I don’t tend to care for historical fiction (Shakespeare in Love) or especially revisionist biographies (A Beautiful Mind). But Finding Neverland didn’t stray far enough from the facts that it bothered me, and I thought Johnny Depp’s performance was superb (not to mention his flawless Edinburgh accent). And Kate Winslett was, as always, inimitably lovely.

4. Sideways. Alexander Payne is shaping up to be someone for whose movies I anxiously await. I loved Election and About Schmidt, and Sideways was a great third time out. He has a way of making movies that look and feel very real – not the movie version of real, but really real, in a sad and wonderful way. Paul Giamatti is also becoming one of those underrated actors who choose projects that tend to almost unfailingly appeal to my taste (Big Fat Liar notwithstanding).

3. Before Sunset. Nine years after the amazing Before Sunrise, we fans finally got our chance to visit again with Celine and Jesse. Before Sunrise managed to perfectly capture what it feels like to be young and abroad and falling in love – the compulsion to share one’s big thoughts, the bizarre experiences which leave one with untellable anecdotes. A slight film in duration, but one that has stayed with me like my own memory.

2. Spider-Man 2. The best superhero movie ever, bar none. Sam Raimi, the choice of whom for director of this series was nothing short of brilliant, was wise in eliciting the assistance of Pulizer Prize-winner Michael Chabon to help with the scripting. The first Spider-Man was great; this one was even better. The leads, Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, and Alfred Molina, can act, and the story of a man who reluctantly faces a destiny he did not choose renders the specifics of the destiny (superherodom) irrelevant. One is left with the notion that the world needs more Peter Parkers, rather than more Spider-Mans, and that is the film’s greatness.

1. Garden State. A simply amazing piece of filmmaking; what an accomplishment by writer/director/star Zach Braff. A look at Braff’s blog reveals the effect this film has had on countless people – thousands of comments, effusing appreciation, adulation, and gratefulness. The film is, simply, beautiful. (As is the accompanying soundtrack.) In a year with so much that was anything but, this graceful and thoughtful film is a reminder of all that is still right with the world.

Thus ends MovieTime. Back to our regularly scheduled political musings.

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