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Looking Back: The Top Movies of 2004

Ethan Hawke & Julie Delpy star in 'Before Sunset'
Ethan Hawke & Julie Delpy star in 'Before Sunset'Courtesy of Warner Independent

As Oscar season kicks into high gear with TIFF and its host of prize-grasping films, I thought it would be a good time to look back. In the middle of awards hoopla, it can be hard to wrestle with what movies really stand out, let alone stand the test of time.

2004 was an excellent year for film, well regarded at its time for superior sequels (Spider-Man 2 & The Bourne Supremacy), popular independents (Sideways & Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and the coming out party of Jamie Foxx (Ray & Collateral). Personally, it was the year I graduated college, still residing in the fairly small town of Salisbury, Maryland; home to zero quality movie theatres. Yes, we had a multiplex that played the big releases, but a very long drive was necessary if you wanted to watch Primer.

A decade on, I’m taking in all things 2004, what I loved then and why, what has become a modern classic and delving into those movies that dropped in my, and perhaps others, estimations. Join me as I travel to a time when Lindsey Lohan wasn’t considered a complete train-wreck.

The 2004 List

At the end of 2004, I posted on the old LiveJournal my personal ten favorite films, struggling to cram in as many pictures as possible before the winding minutes of December. Due to the limited viewing options of my town, some of that year’s most acclaimed films remained out of my reach, including but not limited to Before Sunset, House of Flying Daggers and Vera Drake. As such, my ten lacked the kind of credibility I’m sure all people who read my LiveJournal expected of a young twenty-something movie’s opinions. Said list, in order, was…

10. Collateral

9. Team America: World Police

8. Ray

7. The Incredibles

6. Kill Bill Vol. 2

5. Spider-Man 2

4. Closer

3. Garden State

2. Sideways

1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Obviously, there is a lack of foreign films to that list. The closest thing to having an international touch in those selections is the North Korean set scenes from Team America. My guttural reaction to these picks is I forgot just how bullish I was on Mike Nichols’ Closer and Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 2. I recalled really getting into Ray in a manner that didn’t resonate after a second viewing, but the passion for those two I didn’t remember. The former is a film I am fond towards to this day, with a string of excellent performances uniting the bitterness relationships can bring. The latter is by no stretch a mess. Tarantino’s concluding chapter of Kill Bill has many great scenes; it stumbles in the last half hour though when his monologues get tedious and too clever.

Garden State, a film I recently revisited, definitely points to my age at the time. The movie doesn’t deserve the reputation as a navel-gazing mistake that one looks back on like a dated haircut; it also wouldn’t sniff most top tens either.

How about now though? With plenty of time to catch up on missed critical darlings, not to mention underrated auteur work, my top ten films is significantly different. There are still some holdovers.

10. House of Flying Daggers

Though director Zhang Yimou’s Hero was the more successful film, his House of Flying Daggers took the lush visual sensibilities of that film and layered onto it a deeper, more engrossing story. The martial-arts moves are creative, the tale is tragic, the score is moving and the stellar acting is painted onto a live-action canvas that few films since have matched in terms of shear gorgeousness.

9. Sideways

What is there to say about Alexaner Payne’s best received picture that hasn’t been said? It’s still fantastically entertaining, with a perfectly melancholic Paul Giamatti moving and aggravating in equal measures. I still hope Virginia Madsen can find a part as perfect as this one. I still watch it regularly and bask in its sun-drenched aura. Whether it’s Payne’s finest moment is more a mood thing than anything else; it’s excellence can’t be debated.

8. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy

In 2004, Anchorman was that funny movie that kind of went to shambles in the last act. In 2014, Anchorman still bottoms out a bit in that last act. That first hour and change though has been soaked into the bones of many American comedies. Adam McKay and Will Ferrell’s film is off-the-wall without being scatterbrained, the kind of inspired lunacy that comes together just right maybe once in a decade.

7. Spider-Man 2

For my money, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 remains the benchmark for live-action superhero movies. The action is breathtaking, as Raimi throws Peter Parker over, under and through a speeding train, as debris and pedestrians are caught in his webs along the way. It’s an energetic affair with strong character beats, consistent laughs and a pacing that beats them all. Just because it isn’t serious doesn’t mean it’s not better than Nolan’s Batman work.

6. The Incredibles

See all of that superhero stuff above. It’s right there, a few lines up. Well, that live-action caveat stands there because, frankly, The Incredibles is the actual best superhero film. Brad Bird wields Pixar’s budget and technical gifts to harness eye-popping thrills, presenting a narrative that has its stepping stones in character building theatrics. Many of the movies in the decade-plus since men-and-sometimes-women in tights took over blockbuster have tried to deconstruct the genre, thinking that extracting the fun is the way to making a commentary. The Incredibles shows a seemingly effortless ability to point out the absurdities of superheroes, all while being a blast too.

5. Infernal Affairs

Remade in 2006 as Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, Infernal Affairs is its own intriguing beast. Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s picture artfully delves into the mindset of a mole and the tolls it takes on a person’s psyche, anchored by the perfect Andy Lau and Tony Leung. One is a cop pretending to be a criminal, the other reverse. As each one seeks to uncover the deceiver in their midst, the movie’s tension grip evers tighter in an exacting thriller.

4. Time of the Wolf

Just before Michael Haneke brought in a – relatively – wider audience with Cache, he made this blisteringly eerie dystopian yarn. Anyone who wanted the film of The Road to live up to the book ought to check this one out, as a family tries to survive the countryside after the collapse of culture. The pinnacle is a scene where a character close to the camera stands in a field. The person is alone and suddenly in complete darkness when a lit torch appears in the distance. Is it something to be feared? Is it hope? Haneke’s movie gives no easy answers as it compels in the manner only his films can do.

3. Shaun of the Dead

In the ten years since Shaun of the Dead, Edgar Wright has proven to be a unique voice, meshing pop culture, humor and various genres into his own blend. None have excelled his zombie feature, an all aces piece about friendship, accepting adulthood’s pros and cons and making the difficult decisions life brings. It’s extremely hilarious too.

2. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman’s romantic collaboration continues to put me in awe. Kaufman’s script is so smart and sly about the ways people love one another; its ebs and flows. Gondry’s eye is nimbly playful, using his variety of tricks to extend its characters mental deterioration as Joel (a never better Jim Carrey) gets the love of his life Clementine (a maybe also never better Kate Winslet) erased from his memory. It’s an emotionally haunting movie that somehow manages to be equally hopeful.

1. Before Sunset

My favorite film ever. Anyone who has followed my writing over the years should not be shocked to see this one atop the list. Richard Linklater’s second outing with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy is pure gold, as two would be lovebirds look back at the decisions in their life and struggle to come to terms with what to do next. It’s a universal plot given oomph via specificity, layered dialogue and one of the truly great endings of all time.