Film 2004 

The worst of times vs. the best of times

Was 2004 a great year for film or a lousy one? It depends on who you ask. CL critics Felicia Feaster and Curt Holman debate the year's movies.

Felicia: Maybe I'm putting words in your mouth. Would you characterize it as a horrible year in film?

Curt: I wouldn't go so far as to call it a "horrible" year, but I found it an uninspiring one. I saw plenty of good new movies, but hardly any great ones.

Felicia: I think it's been an incredible year. I saw so many films that seemed to directly engage with the world. The sheer number of films so deeply expressive of the times we live in, like Control Room and The Corporation, reminded me of the emergence of film noir to express the crisis of faith and horror of World War II.

Curt: I liked those scrappy, seemingly countless get-out-the-vote documentaries of 2004 that used film as urgent political tract. But the films themselves, from Control Room to The Hunting of the President, proved as one-sided as Fox News, which makes them feel superficial and ephemeral -- it's hard to see them as lasting documents.

But I enjoyed The Manchurian Candidate as both a fever-dream thriller and call for campaign-finance reform, and I laughed all the way through Team America: World Police and its satire of left- and right-wing excesses.

Felicia: I agree about The Manchurian Candidate, an unbelievably scathing film that just slipped, like some nerve gas, into multiplexes. When I saw that film in a generic strip mall multiplex in Florida, I felt like the entire audience was holding its breath. Jonathan Demme nailed the insanity of the America we currently find ourselves living within.

I found just as many subversive messages in fiction film as in documentaries this year. I remember coming out of the screening of The Dreamers, for example, feeling shaken at how profoundly young people used to be moved by the world around them, and how apathetic they seem today.

Curt: I appreciated Bertolucci's evocation of such an explosively creative era and the thrill of his three young protagonists as they discovered politics, film and sex. But the latter left the most vivid memories -- and possibly not in the way the film intended.

It would be great if American young people responded to The Dreamers' cultural and political passions. I think the box office returns say that particular demographic showed more interest in Garden State and Napoleon Dynamite, two movies with distinct styles and some good laughs that tried too hard to imitate film festival darlings like Wes Anderson. And with The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, even Wes Anderson tried too hard to be like Wes Anderson.

Felicia: I always think it's a good year in film when even the most disappointing new films by someone like Anderson are still so clever and inventive. Life Aquatic may not be Anderson in top form, but Anderson even at half-speed is better than most.

Curt: Speaking of filmmakers at half-speed, I wonder if the divisiveness of the 2004 presidential campaign explains why critics have universally trumpeted Alexander Payne's Sideways as the best film of the year. While it's very well acted and sharply written, it's ... not in near the same league as Payne's Election. Maybe after such a confrontational year, Sideways' relatively quiet treatment of wine, women and middle-aged men struck a chord with movie reviewers.

Felicia: Some films are always overrated, which was partly true this year of Sideways, and certainly true of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. There were much better films out there that didn't make the critics trip over their tongues dishing out compliments.

But I found Sideways entertaining and enjoyed Paul Giamatti tremendously. I thought Sideways' popularity seemed largely due to Giamatti's unconventional male character, who fit in a larger trend this year of films about failure, like Dig!, Mayor of Sunset Strip and End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones. Despite desire and passion and talent, sometimes you don't make it. It was great to see these shout-outs to principled obscurity and the pathos of growing old after your glory days have faded.

Curt: Maybe that explains the significant step backward for epic films this year. The Alamo, King Arthur and Oliver Stone's Alexander took some of history's most fascinating subjects and flubbed them completely. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow used technical wizardry to evoke 1930s pulp novels and serials, but proved an utterly soulless contraption.

Felicia: I'm never surprised when Hollywood's attempts at glorious spectacle explode in its face. But there seemed to be such a mother lode of great documentaries and foreign films that I hardly noticed the usual mainstream hokum. Did anything good catch you off guard?

Curt: My favorite films mixed genres, like Shaun of the Dead's romantic zombie comedy; The Incredibles' blend of costumed heroes, James Bond and suburban mid-life crises; and House of Flying Daggers' kung fu/police drama/tragic love story set in Imperial China. They were far more invigorating than Quentin Tarantino's protracted geek-flick tribute, Kill Bill Volume 2.

Felicia: Don't even get me started on Finding Neverland or Before Sunset or Kinsey or The Twilight Samurai or Red Lights or The Saddest Music in the World. I could go on. I feel like Meryl Streep in Sophie's Choice being asked to give up one of her babies in whittling all this great stuff down to a Top Ten list.

Curt: This year I feel I saw more creativity and thematic richness in two TV series: the sitcom "Arrested Development" and the crime drama "The Wire." Lately I've been catching up on the year's films for Top 10 list consideration, and I find myself saying, "But I want to watch the shows!"

Felicia: Don't go there.

curt.holman@creativeloafing.com

felicia.feaster@creativeloafing.com

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