Five years allows films to mature like fine wine or be forgotten like a tasty Happy Meal. We learned this lesson last year with our Best of 2003 feature. When coming up with this feature, the question the Spectrum Culture staff pondered was this: “How well do these films play NOW!” Not five years ago, but how have they aged in our memories or after repeated viewings. While some of acclaimed films of ’04 remain strong on our list, some critically-lauded ones didn’t have the staying power. Million Dollar Baby? Bye. Ray? Sorry. This list is designed to give new perspective on things five years old. Thank you so much for reading! – David Harris, Editor-in-Chief
10. Hero (Dir: Zhang Yimou)
Few movies of the past five or even 50 years have been as stunningly and unapologetically beautiful as Zhang Yimou’s martial arts masterpiece Hero. Everything about this film, from the thoughtful, well-mannered dialogue to the ethereal and surreal fight scenes, is exquisite; even the tremendously heavy conflicts that the film addresses – self-sacrifice for the benefit of the collective, universal unity in a deeply divided world and resilience in the face of ruthlessness and insecurity – are handled with a timeless grace and subtlety that’s unique among action films.
Though Jet Li’s character remains Nameless, Hero succeeds where similar films fail, offering viewers a cast of assassins who are both empathetic and multi-dimensional. Few things are what they seem in Hero and each of the characters – Nameless, Broken Sword, Flying Snow and the vengeful but deceptively vulnerable King of Qin, among others – exhibit both idealistic and flawed judgments. We may not even understand their language, but their motives and desires remain very real to us, and their little tragedies and victories immediately become our own. Despite all the violence and bloodshed, this is a movie about peace and understanding; Hero is rare cinematic accomplishment that both mirrors the complicated world around us and allows us to momentarily escape from its cold indifference.
And yes, the fight scenes are, simply put, as badass as anything we’ve seen ever seen from Jet Li. You can’t ask for much more from an action film, and it’s unlikely that future action films will surpass, or even match, the beauty of Hero. – Marcus David
9. I ♥ Huckabees (Dir: David O. Russell)
I regard I ♥ Huckabees as something of a little miracle. As implacable and strange today as it was half a decade ago (and as funny, moving and perfectly executed, to boot) its one-of-a-kindness stands in stark contrast to the homogeneous Apatowized comedy world we’re living in today. Warm, open, not in the least bit pretentious, the film’s niche audience is not at all a reflection of its potential – and deserved – reach, but rather the result of it being very difficult to market. Still, when a reasonably expensive, star-studded production is allowed to be made as idiosyncratically and free-spiritedly as this, well, an angel gets its wings.
Hardly the philosophical treatise its detractors think it thinks it is, the movie is a comedic exploration that’s more about the concept of ideas than the ideas themselves. It takes the base form of existentialism and applies it to a number of disparate people, so that we can see, essentially how they all confront their own existences. It isn’t mean, even if it is a little pigeon-holey, and I think that’s where the ultimate value of the film is. The comedy isn’t about meaning, it’s about the search for meaning, and if there’s laughter to be had, it’s not at any concepts, but at ourselves – our confusion and our attempts to sort our lives out. Yuppie archetype Brad Stanton (Jude Law), when told that he’s not being himself (i.e. truthful) in one scene, responds confusingly with a question – “How am I not myself?” – that blows his philosophically-inclined interrogators’ minds. “How am I not myself?” they repeat to each other, wide-eyed. “How am I not myself?” – Andrei Alupului
8. The Aviator (Dir: Martin Scorsese)
It can be difficult to pick the highlights of director Martin Scorsese’s legendary filmography; when a resume includes Raging Bull, Goodfellas and Mean Streets, picking out even a subjective favorite isn’t an easy task. But even amongst those films, his 2004 return to form, The Aviator stands tall. An exquisitely crafted biopic of enigmatic billionaire, inventor, filmmaker and yes, aviator, Howard Hughes, The Aviator shows a side of the man that was less familiar to the public at large. Rather of the cartoonish, germophobic gargoyle Hughes is commonly perceived as, Scorsese presents him as a man of overwhelming ambition; Hughes is a lover of life, women and money who succeeds in achieving his childhood dreams, only to be undone by the maladies that would make him such an icon of American eccentricity.
And while the director’s decision to highlight the feats (and falls) of the young Hughes is brilliant, star and frequent collaborator Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance is nothing short of revelatory. While DiCaprio had previously shown sparks of brilliance in The Basketball Diaries and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, his immersion into the intensity of Hughes’s persona was like nothing he’d done before. In practically a single performance, he managed to shed the critically crippling legacy of Titanic and its “Tiger Beat,” teenybopper associations- DiCaprio completely inhabits the role, from Hughes’ smug confidence to his burnt-out exhaustion as his afflictions overwhelm him.
Scorsese’s latter-day rejuvenation is remarkable for an auteur that could easily rest on his laurels; fortunately, his own ambition, perfectionism and drive mirror that of his subject. Hughes may end the film by despairingly repeating “The way of the future” but Scorsese’s own future seems to only get brighter. Even five years later, The Aviator remains a stunning achievement. – Nathan Kamal
7. The Motorcycle Diaries (Dir: Walter Salles)
There is nothing more quintessentially American than the road trip. Add in a motorcycle and your best friend and the romantic thermometer is about to burst. Yet, it’s not necessarily the trip itself that is at stake in Walter Salles’s Diarios de motocicleta, but the very notion of what defines something American. It is 1952 and fresh-faced medical student Ernesto “Not Yet Che” Guevara (Gael Garca Bernal) with best friend Alberto Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna) embark on a motorcycle journey through South America. Based on Guevara’s diaries and a book by Granado, the movie follows the two friends as they explore the Andes, chase Chilean women and fight for the rights of the patients of a leper colony.
While most of us know Guevara only for his modern day iconography, Salles takes great pains to humanize him as an innocent youngster whose leftist ideology sprouts during this road trip into manhood. Guevara sees the faces of the Americas and learns how people are exploited for labor. It’s a rousing call to give voice to those without one, wrapped up in a road movie.
But despite its serious undertones, wonder and humor make their mark on Diarios de motocicleta. Guevara and Granado are not very accomplished riders, they get chased out of a Chilean town for trying to seduce its women and bicker in the way only close friends can. However, Salles’s biggest feat is giving us a journey that is intimate and immediate in the way friendships only are when we straddle that line between our childhood and adulthood. – David Harris
6. The Incredibles (Dir: Brad Bird)
The Pixar franchise is like the fountain of youth. Their films have the ability to bring forth your inner child. Never is this more so than in The Incredibles. It’s smarter and quirkier than your average animated film, without losing the innocence that keeps it kid-friendly. The chemistry between Craig T. Nelson and Holly Hunter, as Bob and Helen Parr – respectfully, Mr. and Mrs. Incredible – sizzles equally as hot as any romantic pairing placed on film. Jason Lee, as Syndrome, former Mr. Incredible groupie turned super-villain, added indie cool to the cast credit and a comically villainous performance that may not have been as entertainingly appropriate with the use of another actor. Casting the baddest motherfucker on the planet, as Mr. Incredible’s faithful sidekick, gives us another repeat-worthy Samuel L. Jackson line akin to snakes on planes and paths of the righteous. We don’t know where your super suit is, Frozone, but we’ll sure get off our ass and help you find it.
The Incredibles is family-friendly fare, sure, but there’s something incredibly special about the savvy humor and sassy performances that make it a hoot and a half to watch every single time. Whether you’re four or 42 there’s something in it for you to laugh at and relate to; which makes it a pleasure to watch each and every passing year. – KayJay
5. Sideways (Dir: Alexander Payne)
Alexander Payne has acquired something of a reputation for his insight into human nature, and with a film like Sideways under his belt it’s no wonder. This sophisticated buddy comedy is a sublime collection of authentic moments; awkward, tender and infuriating, that’s as deeply moving as it is hysterical.
The perfectly cast Paul Giamatti stars as Miles Raymond, a self-loathing wine aficionado and struggling author in the midst of an extended midlife crisis. He’s brought his soon-to-be-married best pal, the confident and womanizing actor Jack Cole (Thomas Hayden Church), to California wine country for a week long bachelor getaway. The pair sips wine, hits the links, hooks up with a pair of local ladies (Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh) and are soon wrapped up in the absurd complications of love and friendship, the wry edge of loneliness and regret, and the wrath of a very angry, very naked fat man.
With incredible, nuanced performances and a hopeful, poetic ending Sideways was one of the most flat-out pleasurable movies you could pick to watch in 2004. But like the fine wine featured in the film, this is a story that gets better with age. Through the five years of my own life since its release, subsequent viewings of Sideways have been increasingly complex experiences with increasingly relevant parallels to the plights of Miles and Jack. It takes time to realize just how good this movie is. – Brady Baker
4. Kill Bill Vol. 2 (Dir: Quentin Tarantino)
From the moment the credits rolled to conclude the first volume of Kill Bill, we knew how the next installment would unravel: Beatrix Kiddo would sniff out Budd, slay her nemesis Elle and ultimately complete her revenge on the Deadly Vipers by offing the infamous Bill. True, the second volume offered enough twists to keep viewers engaged – Elle, not Beatrix, whacked Budd with the help of a black mamba, Beatrix channeled the spirit of the enigmatic Pai Mei to escape being buried alive and, in perhaps the film’s biggest twist, her daughter, who was supposedly killed in the womb, was discovered alive and well – but it remains a testament to Quentin Tarantino’s directorial vision that, despite the generally predictable plotline, Kill Bill Vol. 2 remains one of the most engaging films in recent history.
Forsaking the torrent of big budget action scenes that defined the first installment, this sequel instead relies on heavy doses of dialogue and background, in the process painting vivid, multifaceted pictures of both Beatrix and Bill. The precise lines between good and evil that encompassed the first volume become so hopelessly blurred that even the homicidal Bill merits sympathy; when Beatrix finally does him in with the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique, it feels less like a cause for celebration than a reluctant necessity.
We knew all along that Beatrix would eventually get her retribution, but what we didn’t expect was that somewhere along the way we’d start to hope for … something else. Five years later, viewers still may not be sure what that something is, but we know that Kill Bill Vol. 2 remains that rare type of film that provokes the most varied of emotions from the simplest of premises. – Marcus David
3. Shaun of the Dead (Dir: Edgar Wright)
One of the cruel twists you find out once you reach adulthood is that the same sense of loyalty that it takes to be an action hero will likely limit everything else. Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead became an instant classic by giving Simon Pegg the benefit of dire circumstances to become a cricket bat wielding zombie fighter that the rest of the world’s good-hearted underachievers can look up to. Wright whittled his genre tribute into a character study that is so minutely drawn that you can find a new aspect of Shaun to examine on return viewings. Years later the movie’s humor is still crisp and well timed but Pegg’s performance grows even more remarkable. We’re quickly drawn into Shaun’s hapless world where his contentment with the simplicities of life clashes with the restlessness of his girl, her fickle friends, and a obsessively buttoned down housemate. And then of course, the undead extras flood in and thrust our hero into leading a band of survivors through the allegorical horrors of his existence.
The best horror comedies (Return of the Living Dead, An American Werewolf in London, Braindead) do well when they realize the parallel tracks of the two genres lie upon a downward spiral. When things continually go from bad to worse the same principles which apply to humor can double as a reaction to something truly frightening. Wright makes Shaun of the Dead work by showing how a working class schlub born out of a clever Britcom can be right at home among the ranks of fleshing eating uglies. – Neal Fersko
2. The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (Dir: Wes Anderson)
There’s an unfortunate tendency amongst the hipster elite to turn on those who get known; for Wes Anderson, this backlash seemed to appear in the wake of the relative success of The Royal Tenenbaums, a film that managed to be a subtle upgrade of Anderson’s distinct aesthetics without fundamentally altering his formula. But Tenenbaums only felt the backlash after it had succeeded; the real ire of former fans and critics was reserved for The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou.
At the time of its release, many felt The Life Aquatic was just the overblown summation of Wes Anderson’s obsession with nostalgia: its plot focuses on the last excursion of the titular Steve Zissou (Bill Murray), a washed up (ahem) oceanographer reminiscent of Jacques Cousteau. Zissou’s crew consists of a musician whose sole purpose seems to be to sing Bowie classics in Portuguese (real-life musician Seu Jorge), a sycophantic German played by Willem Defoe and Zissou’s alleged long lost son Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson). For Anderson haters, it was simply Anderson reliving his childhood with his usual stable of actors and some purposefully retro effects; throw in the quirky soundtrack and an appearance by Harold and Maude’s Bud Cort and you’ve suddenly got all the ingredients for a backlash feeding frenzy.
But here’s the thing: Anderson is damn good at what he does and what he does is carve out worlds that feel familiar but domestically alien, with characters that are always more than just a series of tics, closer than most directors ever get to the characters of our own lives. Further, Anderson’s devotion to past aesthetics has enabled his films to be without age, incapable of becoming dated. Life Aquatic’s animated sequences have even seemed to have improved over time as more works utilize nostalgia, including Anderson’s own Fantastic Mr. Fox. To narrow down on the superficial trademarks of Anderson’s oeuvre is to miss out on an entire world of detail and nuance living below and consequently be dismissive of an artist who very well could be seen decades from now as a leading light of our cinema. – Morgan Davis
1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Dir: Michel Gondry)
To call Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind unconventional would be an almost unforgivable understatement. Wearing different colored socks is unconventional. This is a Charlie Kaufman screenplay, the best of his career, entirely redefining established boundaries of romance and science fiction. It’s a big question he’s taking on, and an old one: is it better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all? The bittersweet love story that results–begun from the end and told half-backward–uses that point of entry to explore the modern relationship with stunning originality and tender sincerity.
Eternal Sunshine tells the story of Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) and Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet); a broken couple who elect to have the memory of their two-year relationship erased. The bulk of the story takes place inside Joel’s quickly vanishing subconscious, an ideal locale for director and DIY-effects magician Michel Gondry to fully realize his particular brand of skewed (sur)reality. Scenes literally fade, disintegrate and collapse around the story’s star-crossed lovers as memories are wiped from existence. The heart of the story, however, remains deeply real and tangible beneath the metaphysical trip.
What makes this film truly timeless is Kaufman’s curious exploration of subjective experience. The theme is prevalent in all of his films (last year’s Synecdoche, New York in particular), but Eternal Sunshine is something of a subjective viewing experience in itself. With shards and shrapnel of Joel and Clementine’s failed relationship, the audience fills in the gaps and ties the pieces into a coherent story, developing a unique affinity for the characters in the process. Outstanding performances from Carrey, the always-stellar Winslet and a terrific supporting cast make the film a true tour de force. It’s that rare instance of extraordinary and varied talents clicking perfectly on all cylinders and, five years later, still the best film of 2004. – Brady Baker