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Issue Date:  December 24, 2004

The best movies of 2004


Trying to pick the “10 best movies” in any given year is a harmless folly, revealing a reviewer’s prejudices along with a review of the industry’s product. Despite all the talent in the United States, artistic as well as technical, it should come as no surprise that it has not been a distinguished year for American films. Aimed primarily at young teens, overly dependent on receipts for the first weekend of their run, today’s movies have a built-in predisposition for violence, sex and the exploitation of easy emotions. Although special effects are often spectacular, film coverage belongs in the world business section of the newspaper. One of our leading exports, movies employ an increasingly simplified language, making it easier to compose subtitles for audiences in other countries.

Under such conditions, those unwilling to seek out foreign films are simply cheating themselves, losing out on opportunities to visit faraway lands and gain insight into other cultures. My list of 2004 favorites is not presented in order of merit but in terms of what month I saw them. Because of the vagaries of deadlines, there are probably some I missed that readers would have nominated instead. It would be helpful if you send e-mail recommendations so that, with the help of my video store, I could still catch up.

1. Kitchen Stories, a low-key Swedish comedy about a “scientific” study of Norwegian bachelors, was the most entertaining movie of the year. The absurdly unrealistic project sent observers to perch high in the kitchens of their unsuspecting subjects, hoping to diagram their every movement. Predictably, scientific objectivity fails to be observed; happily, the movie shows that Swedes can laugh at themselves.

2. Since Otar Left, a French movie directed by Julie Bertucelli, observes tensions between three generations of women in Tblisi, Georgia, with humor and sensitivity. The grandmother, Eka, a wonderful 90-year-old actress named Esther Gorintin, waits anxiously for letters from her son, Otar, living in Paris as a construction worker. When the younger women get news of Otar’s death, they keep it from Eka, even inventing letters that the granddaughter reads to her. Stubborn Eka takes on an aura of heroism when she sells her beloved editions of French classics to bring the family to Paris to look for her son.

3. The Story of the Weeping Camel takes us to the deserts of Mongolia where we share a domed yurt with an extended family of shepherds. Directed by Byambasuren Davaa and Luigi Falorni, this near documentary follows the birthing season of camels with attention to anthropological detail. The plight of the baby camel, at first rejected by his mother who has experienced a painful delivery, will appeal to adults and children. The film conveys the values of community and the inevitable encroachment of modern society.

4. Fahrenheit 911 has understandably spawned innumerable debates, but Michael Moore’s intentionally angry broadside at the Bush administration makes fine use of satire in constructing its documentary-like argument. He raises real issues in an entertaining framework, showing how military recruiters exploit those with limited prospects in their depressed communities.

5. Before Sunset is the sequel to Richard Linklater’s affecting 1995 romance, “Before Sunrise.” There Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy), American and French students respectively, meet on a train and spend an evening in Vienna. Now Jesse is in Paris to promote his novel; Céline shows up, and they wander around Paris. The actors work well together -- relaxed and tense, revealing and concealing. Married, Jesse is devoted to his son; when Céline sings a melancholy song, the effect is improbably touching.

6. Hero is Zhang Yimou’s mythic version of the unification of China in which swordplay is more beautiful than bloody, more ritualistic than realistic. Despite the Rashomon-like flashbacks and stunning use of varying dominant colors, the film’s center is the exchange between the assassin Nameless and the wily king, in which swordplay, calligraphy, music and theater are invoked in a search for truth. Paradoxically, “Hero” is a glorification of empire that nevertheless affirms that peace is superior to war making.

7. The Motorcycle Diaries, a superior buddy story and road movie, follows an 8,000-kilometer trip through South America of the 23-year-old medical student Ernesto Guevara (Gael García Bernal) and his older, fun-loving friend Alberto. Director Walter Salles shows how their adventures, both humorous and revealing, help them learn of injustice among miners and tenant farmers. They reach their final stop at a leper colony, which occasions the first speech of the future “Che,” a plea for Latin American unity.

8. Vera Drake is the powerful story of a devoted mother and encouraging neighbor who performs abortions without pay for young women in trouble. It is 1950 lower-middle-class London, and abortion is illegal. Imelda Staunton is superb in the title role; when she breaks down as the law pursues her when one of her patients almost dies, her whole body seems crushed. Despite his sympathy for Vera, director Mike Leigh avoids didacticism but forces us to reflect on the fact that an upper-class young woman is able to go to a sanatorium for her abortion.

9. Moolaadé, the latest film of the great Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene, deals with female genital mutilation yet manages to be entertaining and upbeat. We get a solid sense of community life and its rituals after the courageous woman protagonist offers asylum to young girls who have run away from the ceremony. The danger teaches the women the importance of mutual support and the value of radio -- which the elders want to ban -- since they learn through that source that the Quran does not call for female mutilation.

10. Ray has some of the weaknesses of film biopics but is a must-see for the performance of Jamie Foxx in the title role and the chance to hear so many songs by the late, blind genius who combined gospel, rhythm and blues, jazz and country-western. Director Taylor Hackford does not canonize his subject; we see the pressures of barnstorming in an atmosphere of drugs and available women. But Foxx draws on his own training as a classical pianist to suggest the pain and the triumph of Ray Charles.

I’d like to find space for Sideways, Kinsey, I’m Not Scared and Osama (the first full-length film made in Afghanistan), but the studios are rushing out more movies before year’s end to qualify for possible Oscar awards, so I’d better take off for Manhattan.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s movie critic. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, December 24, 2004

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