The Best and Worst Films of 2004 (and a Susan Sontag memory)

sunsetlogoNarrowly edging out the Russians for #1 on my list: Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in 2004’s loveliest film.

10 Best

1. Before Sunset

2. The Return

3. A Letter to True

4. Bright Leaves

5. The Battle of Algiers

6. Japanese Story

7. I’m Not Scared

8. The Best of Youth

9. Maria Full of Grace

10. 25 Degrees in Winter

Honorable Mentions: Birth, Enduring Love, The Sea Inside, The Mother, My Sister Maria, BAADASSSS!, Blind Shaft, The Dreamers, The Assassination of Richard Nixon, and Finding Neverland.

Some Favorite Performances: Annette Bening in Being Julia, Ivan Dobronravov and Vladimir Garin in The Return, Toni Collette in Japanese Story, Patricia Rae in Maria Full of Grace, Rhys Ifans in Enduring Love, Julie Delpy in Before Sunset, Maya Sansa and Alessio Boni in The Best of Youth, Carmen Maura in 25 Degrees in Winter, and Jim Carrey in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.

brotheractA one-of-a-kind brother act: Garin photographs Ivan Dobronravov in Andrey Zvyagintsev’s evocative masterpiece The Return (Kino International).

As I begin to draft these notes to accompany my lists of choice, it is the first day of January 2005, an unusually cold one by Seattle standards; Susan Sontag, whom I treasure for her lucid critique of Bush’s war against Iraq, for her boldly stated summation of 9/11, died on December 28, and fewer activities could seem more irrelevant than gathering my thoughts on the best and worst that movies had to give in 2004.

Sontag and I had an inauspicious meeting in April 1990 (our first and last). I drove her from the Atlanta airport to the university in Athens where she would speak that night on AIDS and, yes, its metaphors. Driving through the Northeast Georgia hinterlands, we passed through the unprepossessing hamlet of Dacula. Sontag asked how the name was pronounced. Later I would learn that the natives accented the middle syllable; at the time, I assumed as she did that the town was simply missing the letter “r.” “Must be a lotta jokes,” Sontag said. And on we drove.

What did I want to make of myself once I graduated from college, Sontag found some eloquent way of phrasing. What were my plans? Well, I told her, I intended to go into arts management. Sontag saw through this. “You want to be an actor,” she countered. “No,” I protested, insisting on my shrinkage from the limelight. She reiterated her conclusion that I secretly wanted to act, adding that she’d known a lot of performers who had ended up in theatrical management, but that she had never met anyone before who wanted to start off doing that.

Later, much later, after the drive, which was hostile silence most of the way, after the dinner at the Peking restaurant in which she astonished the other members of the lecture committee with her abilities to be rude, impertinent, and to inhale an entire platter of spare ribs into thin air, after the lecture that left no hearer satisfied, I set about, having lost interest in arts management, to writing plays: one-acts that invariably boasted a singer, or a frustrated singer, as a protagonist. “I think Sontag was right about you,” a long-since lost friend in Ohio confided to me. “You make all your characters be performers.”

25posterA note on why I included The Best of Youth and 25 Degrees in Winter on my 10 Best list, even though neither ran theatrically in the United States following their festival engagements: because I love them, and because no one else will. Miramax, after keeping The Best of Youth under lock and key for some time, will ostensibly release the 6-hour Italian film this March. The brilliant, hilarious 25 Degrees in Winter, made by a Belgian director (Stéphane Vuillet) and featuring a predominantly Spanish cast, still has no U.S. distributor. Perhaps some enterprising young company, such as Newmarket, Wellspring, or ThinkFilm, can get to work on this? The film may be difficult to promote: it begins with a harsh sequence of illegal immigrants being busted as they covertly try to cross a border. The tone gradually lightens until 25 Degrees becomes pure comedy. If dumb American movie critics—who expect a film to be one thing and only thing only, not to mix too many disparate or contrasting ingredients together—have had such consternation over the blending of light and dark in a film as harmless as Lemony Snicket, I doubt that they would rally behind Vuillet’s maverick debut.

dogsurfMy review of Bruce Weber’s A Letter to True doesn’t do justice to the film. When I saw the movie last May at SIFF, I liked it a lot; four months later when it appeared at the Port Townsend Film Festival, I had a much deeper and unanticipated emotional response to the documentary. There’s a segment where Weber asserts, “Like most of us, my dog is still recovering from the aftereffects of September 11th.” Initially, I thought, “Bullshit!” The same scene came around again, and this time, amidst a jam-packed Sunday morning screening at the Rose Theatre, my reaction was to burst into tears. I wept during the dog-walking montage that quickly chases Weber’s bizarre pronouncement, a montage scored to Blossom Dearie’s 1950s Verve recording of “Manhattan.” And the woman seated to my left, with whom I’d been trading sarcastic ripostes before the lights went down, noticed that I was sobbing.

Besides this, other elements in A Letter to True that seemed jarring the first time around are less so on second sight. Fascinating are the pearls of wit and wisdom from the mother of what my festival-weather friend D.D. Wigley calls “the idiot family,” i.e. the youth who are always leaping from the heights of farm equipment into the depths of the mud below. D.D. noted with approval, and perhaps with a level of fathoming I cannot share, the roughneck mother’s insistence on only dating married men. “I get the good stuff,” the animal-branding, rural mom declares, “and then they go home to their wives.”

charlesshawNot much to be said for the selections that follow: the 10 worst, the dishonorable mentions, the acting dregs. Except perhaps for this: several of my choices for the cinema’s most agonizing experiences this year past may be found in prominent abundance on the 10 “best” lists of the taste-impoverished, bought-off, mainstream daily and weekly reviewers. Honestly, what does anyone see in Sideways? Surely the critics aren’t taking Paul Giamatti to their collective bosom because, as David Denby presumptuously stated in The New Yorker, “at one time or another, all of us have been that guy”? Alexander Payne has made a real show of talking about a revival of 1970s cinema aesthetics; his film, however, plays like a dumb sitcom. The spit bucket of wine over the head, the ramming of a car into a tree on purpose in order to stage a story about an accident, Virginia Madsen’s infantile sense of betrayal at the news of the wedding, and that extended, cruelly condescending episode about retrieving a lost wallet from a naked, overweight white trash couple while they are, of course, in the middle of humping vigorously—all of these amount to a movie that is blatant crap. As for Giamatti’s supposed great acting in the role of Miles, he has the persona of someone you’d expect to find at Skagit Valley Casino, chair-dancing to the gyrated strains of a has-been entertainer on the disorder of Christopher Cross. Neither the actor nor the director transcends their limitations into art, but my, how they’ve roped in all the suckers who fell for Lost in Translation.

I’m also at a loss to account for the “popularity” (if that’s what it is) among critics, especially the self-consciously “edgy” alt-weekly types, of Jean-Luc Godard’s inscrutably awful Notre Musique. As bad as Godard’s ‘60s films were (A Woman is a Woman, Pierrot le Fou) they at least offered the pleasures of style: gorgeous cinematography, beautifully lit compositions. Notre Musique serves up only the same stick-figure revolutionaries willing to die for convoluted causes, and the movie looks, moves, like mud. An editor I know suggested that the critics are too “intimidated” by Godard’s icon status to admit publicly that the film is a product of a senile incompetent. Sounds plausible to me. – NPT

10 Worst

1. Around the Bend

2. Napoleon Dynamite

3. A Slipping Down Life

4. The Trilogy: An Amazing Couple

5. A Dirty Shame

6. Dogville

7. The Saddest Music in the World

8. Good Bye, Lenin

9. Garden State

10. Sideways

Dishonorable Mentions: The Aviator, Notre Musique, Kinsey, Goodbye Dragon Inn, Alfie, Super Size Me, The Mudge Boy, Closer, Red Lights, The Polar Express, The Prince & Me, The Life Aquatic, Born into Brothels, Touching the Void, and The Hunting of the President.

Ghastliest Performances of the year: Natalie Portman in Garden State and Closer, Meryl Streep in The Manchurian Candidate, Tom Hanks in The Polar Express, Leo DiCaprio and Jude Law in The Aviator, Michael Caine in Around the Bend, Michael Pressman in Frankie & Johnny are Married, Susan Sarandon in Alfie and Shall We Dance, the entire cast of Napoleon Dynamite, and Morgan Spurlock in Super Size Me.

January 1, 2005