2004 is one of the strangest years in cinema history. It’s not that it was exactly a good or bad year, though there’s multitudes of evidence for both. It’s that there were so many films that could’ve only existed in this one blip in history. There was something in the air, likely due to the incredibly intense political climate, that produced a fascinating moment in pop culture.
This was the year of my second semester of my freshman year and my first semester of my sophomore year. I had acres of free time. As a result I probably went this year more than any other period in my life. So I’ve got so much to say.
The year in film
As usual, a very weak month. The only film to break out financially was the Ben Stiller hit Along Came Polly. The Butterfly Effect and You Got Served both outperformed expectations as well. On the other hand, there was the epic bomb The Big Bounce which made a mere 6 million on a 50 million budget. Chasing Liberty became the first of two duds to focus on the president’s daughter. There was even an animated fizzle with Teacher’s Pet.
About the only story in film this month was The Passion of The Christ. All of the media focused on it and it would make as staggering $370 million. But before that there were hits. Barbershop 2 made a solid sum. Miracle also did well. There was the huge hit 50 First Dates which I have much to say on later. There weren’t all that many flops this month aside from the dull Twisted and long delayed Against the Ropes.
For the second time this year, a Ben Stiller film landed in theaters, in this case the wretched Starsky and Hutch. It would be forgotten quickly like films such as Hidalgo, Scooby-Doo 2, and Agent Cody Banks 2. Kevin Smith and The Coen Bros both flopped on March 26 with the awful Jersey Girl and the underrated The Ladykillers. There were a few successes that endured such as Secret Window and Dawn of the Dead. Then there was Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a film that would last and last hard.
This was a month for films that seemed to matter. Quentin Tarantino delivered the second half of his magnum opus Kill Bill. Guillermo Del Toro knocked it out of the park with Hellboy. Denzel Washington and Tony Scott gave us an all time great revenge film with Man on Fire. On the opposite end tonally was Mean Girls, arguably the film that left the deepest mark on pop culture. It wasn’t all successes as The Punisher fizzled badly. Disney closed out their 2D animation era with the unmemorable Home on the Range. The biggest tanking came in the form of The Alamo which lost 70 million. I also want to note The Whole 10 Yards exists because I doubt anybody else remembers it.
Two hoped for franchises died on the vine the first weekend of May as New York Minute destroyed the Olsen Twins’ hopes for an adult career while Van Helsing crushed Universal’s hopes for a modern monster franchise. Troy insulted fans of Greek mythology and couldn’t have been less fun. The Day After Tomorrow insulted scientists and couldn’t have been more fun. Then there was Shrek 2, the year’s biggest film and a movie that at least worked in its moment. Also notable this month was the well liked but ghastly Saved.
The month was bookended by two of the best blockbusters of the age. Alfonso Cuaron killed it on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Sam Raimi delivered one of the purest comic book movies ever with Spider-Man 2. In between the quality ranged. There were comedy hits like the well liked Dodgeball and the far more popular than you think White Chicks. The Stepford Wives came out with its production issues loud and clear. The Terminal was an almost surreally minor film from Steven Spielberg. The Notebook gave the world an all-time weepie. The Chronicles of Riddick and Around the World in 80 Days tanked. The much hated but what really did you expect Garfield hit. Then there were two of the year’s big flukes: Fahrenheit 9/11 and Napoleon Dynamite.
Rather inevitably, July was much quieter. The Bourne Supremacy and I Robot gave the month a pair of hits. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle both entered the comedy canon. There were teen releases like Sleepover and A Cinderella Story that existed. Catwoman and Thunderbirds cost their studios over $50 million. King Arthur didn’t fare much better. The Village began M. Night Shyamalan’s fall though it’s been somewhat redeemed. There was also the middlingly successful but far better than it had to be The Manchurian Candidate, a rare great remake. On the indie front, Garden State and Before Sunset fared well.
August was as typical as it gets. With the very notable exception of the incredible Collateral, it was a rough month. Alien vs Predator kept both franchises alive but wasn’t all that well liked. A version of Exorcist: The Beginning opened after years of reshoots and recuts. There was a Yu-Gi-Oh movie I see. There was also Anacondas. The end of the month brought the legendarily derided Baby Geniuses 2 as well as the astonishing Hero. The Princess Diaries 2 happened. I don’t care.
Things got really bad this month. Lame outings like Paparazzi and Wicker Park seemed to define the period. Forgettable comedies like Mr. 3000 and Wimbledon came and went. (I saw both.) The Forgotten only failed to live up to its name by being one of the most hysterically bad movies of the year. First Daughter, the second president’s daughter movie, closed out that mini trend. There was some light. The financial bomb Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow blew my mind and I still think it’s underseen. Then Shaun of the Dead came and established Edgar Wright as a titan.
There was no middle ground in October. Movies were either great or atrocious with few in between. On the higher end were such efforts as the raw Friday Night Lights and Alexander Payne’s poignantly hysterical Sideways. Saw opened and started a revolution in R-rated horror, a move that can be debated but which I respect. On the other end were such abysmal outings as Shark Tale and I Heart Huckabees. There was also the underbaked Team America: World Police, an unfunny joke that feels less funny with time. A rare midle film was Ray, the well acted but oppressively by the numbers biopic.
Families drove the box office in November with four unusually solid efforts: The Incredibles, The Polar Express, The Spongebob Squarepants Movie, and National Treasure. For those seeking adult fare, it was a rougher month. Oliver Stone released the first cut of Alexander, a film he’d tinker with endlessly. Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason failed to satisfy fans of the original. Seed of Chucky has fans but it was ultimately far too weird for the mainstream. Oh and Christmas with the Kranks came out to attain its status as one of the worst Christmas films ever.
This month belonged firmly to the prestige pictures. Closer started the month, nearly redeeming the overexposed Jude Law. Million Dollar Baby entered limited release on its way to most of the major Oscars. Martin Scorsese landed a decade best film with The Aviator. In limited release and aggravatingly unrecognized was Zhang Yimou’s second great American release House of Flying Daggers. There were also the failed prestige outings like The Phantom of the Opera, Beyond the Sea, and Spanglish. For some baffling reason, the blander than American Cheese In Good Company got a release in this moment. On the other hand, the wide releases were about on the lower tier. Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events and Blade Trinity both aimed for franchises that never came. Meet The Fockers ranked among the laziest sequels ever. It was a busy end to a busy year.
The big themes of the year
Taking risks paid off… A number of major releases this year bucked the trends by being aggressively out there. The Passion of The Christ was a hard R religious film told entirely in a dead language. Fahrenheit 9/11 delivered a polemic to mainstream audiences who swarmed the theater to experience it. Napoleon Dynamite was an almost unbearably weird film that struck a real chord with viewers. Hero was a rare foreign language film to reach the top of the box office. Actual unexpected films hit it big.
…But that success was fleeting. The films I listed above all proved to have almost astonishingly short shelf lives. In all cases, the directors were unable to repeat their successes even though, with the exception of Jared Hess, all made far better films as followups. Indeed while I remembered 2004 as a strange year, it became clear analyzing it that it was actually a far safer year than I recalled. There were just bigger blips.
Comedy was powerful this year. Starting with the big film of the year, Shrek 2, comedy dominated hard. Meet the Fockers grossed a staggering $279 million. 50 First Dates and Dodgeball also crossed the $100 million mark. Starsky and Hutch, Mean Girls, and Anchorman all came with 15 million of the mark. Even the lower grossing comedies had legs such as Harold and Kumar (which scored two great sequels) and Shaun of the Dead. It hardly hurts that most of the films listed induced gut laughs from me.
Failed franchises were a big thing. So many stillborn film series hit in 2004. The Chronicles of Riddick (which got a sequel largely through Vin Diesel funding it himself), A Series of Unfortunate Events, Catwoman, Van Helsing, King Arthur, Sky Captain, and The Punisher all came and vanished. I get why studios chased this with the success of the mega franchises that did land, but the failures stood out.
Adults were respected. While yes, most of the big hits were your typical blockbuster fare, there were a surprising number of very successful adult films. The Aviator, Collateral, and Million Dollar Baby all grossed $100 million, though The Aviator lost money. Sideways actually outgrossed films like Dawn of the Dead and Hellboy. Fahrenheit 9/11 definitely owes its success to an older crowd eager to think. And honestly even the general audience films just felt smarter this year.
Did the Oscars Get It Right? I’m not sure. I would’ve voted for The Aviator over Million Dollar Baby but the latter, while profoundly problematic, still moved me deeply. I can’t argue with Charlie Kaufman winning Best Original Screenplay for his best film or with Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor winning Best Adapted Screenplay for Sideways. Jamie Foxx’s win for Ray does annoy me because I really think he gets too much credit for an impersonation. A better win would’ve been in Supporting Actor for Collateral. No argument with Cate Blanchett winning ever. So a mixed bag.
My top 8 Worst of the Year
Normally I do awards in this spot but I really went to the theater a lot in 2004. So much so that I’d do better to just do a conventional best and worst list so that I can focus on the films themselves. In ascending order:
8. Starsky and Hutch. This one is slept on as awful. Here is a movie that represents the peak of bad ironic comedy versions of previous material. It’s completely committed to the joke of how funny the 70s were and how “bad” the original show was even though it was just a generic 70s cop show. The jokes aren’t remotely funny either. This movie sums up how homogenous comedy was this year.
7. Meet the Fockers. I was really nice to Meet the Parents in my look at 2000. I maintain I still think the first is a finely honed comedy of manners. The sequel isn’t. Despite being an at times scene for scene repeat of the first film, it lacks all of the rhythms that made the first so potent. It feels sleepy and disinterested. Nobody cares.
6. Team America: World Police. How much more can I say after my podcast minisode? Its a bad, unfunny, horridly messaged film.You know I hate it. Enough said.
5. 50 First Dates. Adam Sandler has made worse movies but I’m not sure he’s made more agonizingly uninteresting ones. This movie goes absolutely nowhere interesting and serves as a template for the standard Sandler movie. It’s set in an exotic location (Hawaii). He’s a stud who lands women left and right. The film is filled with his friends. There’s phobic humor left and right. A giant miss.
4. Saved! I really, really hate this movie. I hate it more than Garfield, which I saw the next day (and actually liked well enough.) Saved failed to make me laugh even once despite being in the film’s target audience. Instead I found it smug, almost astonishing in its flat acting, and directed so poorly I’m amazed it played a major theater. Bad indie comedy is the worst.
3. The Forgotten. I feel like this title proved all too correct. Let me fix that. This is a movie in which aliens are conducting experiments on humanity by removing children from existence seemingly and making it so they never existed. Except they’re not able to do things like put the parents in a new home without traces of their kids. And if you do remember you might get sucked into the sky out of nowhere. This is a godawful film that proved maybe ending with an “all in your head” twist would’ve been safer. So, so bad.
2. Shark Tale. Yeah we’ve all savaged this one. Still I want my shot. Shark Tale is the embodiment of corporate filmmaking. Everything about it is safe. It’s wall to wall references to things adults will get but kids won’t. It’s cast with name actors who could not give less of a rat’s ass about being in an animated film. Every joke, every beat is completely safe. No wonder the film’s message is “play it safe.” This defines it. Shrek 2 looks like the actually rather solid film it is in comparison.
1. I Heart Huckabees. Did anybody think this wasn’t going here? This is by far and away the absolute worst film of the year and in my opinion a contender for worst of the decade. Yes, it’s “well made” and a couple of the performances are even good. But I wanted to punch every frame of this self satisfied piece of trash. This movie is in love with itself to an almost unsettling degree. It’s actually as smart as a college sophomore just learning about philosophy. The film contains some of the worst performances of the year with Jude Law and Naomi Watts humiliating themselves with some of the worst American accents I’ve heard. David O. Russell sold out hard after this. I’d argue that was a gift to cinema if it kept films like this from the screen.
The Golden Asterisk Awards
In 2004, there were a number of films that were of high quality but whose messages made my skin crawl. I’m including three of them here. I can’t ethically put them in my best of list but I can’t exclude them either.
The Passion of The Christ: I have every reason to exclude this film but I’d be dishonest if I did. This is a poetic, powerful adaptation of one of the best known stories in Western culture. It’s decidedly on the gory side but that makes it for me an experience that mattered, one that felt of a piece with Renaissance art. Here’s the undeniable truth: it’s also, like much of that art, the work of a man with intensely racist views. I can’t ignore how much that drove Mel Gibson’s work here. He includes portraits of the Jewish clergy that I didn’t find anti-Semitic but those who know more than I do did find such. I can’t dispute this. After all I’m not of their world. I found the movie artful, but it must go outside the list.
Million Dollar Baby: I wrestle hard with this one. On one hard, it’s one of the most classically made films of the year, a model of dramatic purity. On the other hand, it has one of the single most despicable messages possible yet one the Academy was unsettlingly high on this year, awarding this Best Picture and The Sea Inside best foreign language film. I can’t decide how I feel about this film which is fitting as I wrestle with euthanasia itself. I’m very unsettled by its message and the way there’s no balance for pro-disability messages. A stellar film, but an uncomfortable one.
The Incredibles. Yup, I can see the pitchforks at once. I mean it though. The Incredibles is a great film, a powerful tribute to family with stunning animation. It also has a deeply disturbing message which I cannot overlook. Others have pointed out how Randian it is. Some of my closest friends have argued it. I’m sorry, this is my list, and I think it’s incredibly Randian. I really hate Randian ideas. Yes, some of the points are right but the film doesn’t come up with counter balance to overcome its creepy implication that some are just born better. It’s a great film, a classic even, but I’m giving it the asterisk.
The 15 Best Films of 2004
2004 was a wildly mixed year but that only means the great shines. So rather than honorable mentions, here are 15 great films period. In ascending order.
15. Kill Bill. Vol. 2. OK, if it wasn’t connected to vol. 1, you could move this to the #3 slot. But it is so deeply tied to that film, which I actually saw for the very first time just hours before watching v2. So this is a compromise. I’ll do the same when I hit on vol. 1. But of course I think it’s a thunderous work. Such a great journey.
14. House of Flying Daggers. I hate that this one is slept on. Zhang Yimou crafted a truly stunning piece of art here. The movie is filled with breathtaking visuals and stellar fights, albeit less than the norm as the film focuses more on the love story. It’s quite effective on that front too with a touching plot that might not surprise you but does hit you hard. One in need of rediscovery.
13. Friday Night Lights. This is very much a dark horse pick for me as the film is pretty much forgotten in the wake of the blockbuster show. But I’d like to see that change. It’s an unusually bleak, honest take on the sports movie. There’s no magic ending. It’s just a true depiction of a culture that at the time I was covering weekly. There’s so much here to love.
12. Napoleon Dynamite. This spot was going to go to Mean Girls, so consider that unofficially the 16th film on the list. I just like this one more after 12 years. Napoleon Dynamite is a polarizing, strange film that at times seems to mock its characters and at others seems to love them, ultimately landing hard in the love camp. It’s a sweet, funny film that celebrates the America ignored in cinema. I related to it and just liked being in this world.
11. Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. Let me note that neither Man on Fire or Collateral are on this list. I didn’t include a number of much smarter films. But I put this one here. Why? Because if Hollywood insists on making idiot movies then I must speak up when in a fluke, a golden one breaks out. This movie has all the trappings of a goofy comedy but trojan horses a vicious, angry rant about Hollywood’s insistence on white heroes and racial stereotypes. The characters played by the gifted John Cho and Kal Penn are instantly iconic heroes that we can’t wait to follow to the next adventure. (The sequels are great.)
10. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. OK, Hollywood needs to understand that there’s not actually a giant audience for films aping the serials of the 30s and 40s, Star Wars and Indiana Jones aside. They lose money. That said, I’m one of those who never passes one up and I love the hell out of this exciting, funny, thrilling movie. Everything about this movie was made for me. I hate that it bombed because Kerry Conran could’ve been a vital voice.
9. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. Scrub away the years of overquoting and the sequel (which I actually dug the hell out of!) and this is a film that still works so damned well. In many ways it’s like Austin Powers, a film that set the patterns for comedy to come. Will Ferrell commands the screen in his first lead role with able assists from Steve Carell, David Koechner, and Paul Rudd in his first big post-Clueless role but far from his last. The film even includes a rare stellar lead role for a woman with Christina Applegate more than matching Ferrell. Still one I love.
8. Hellboy. I thought long and hard about putting a few other films in this slot but really I have to acknowledge this one in the top 10. It’s very studio altered, but Guillermo Del Toro’s vision shines through. He crafts a rich universe largely out of shorthand and gives some excellent kaiju fights. Ron Perlman gives the film its core as a hero unlike any in the genre.
7. Shaun of the Dead. Edgar Wright’s first appearance and it won’t be his last time in my top 10. What more really can I say on this one that hasn’t been said to death? It’s the definitive horror comedy of its age. It’s just incredible. What I think makes the film so effective is how much it loves its characters. We care about them, even the ones we dislike. It’s a kind, humane film. Also hysterical.
6. Spider-Man 2. Comic book movies rarely returned to the perfect synthesis this achieves. Everything about this movie is pure comic book. It’s shot like one. It’s written like one. The fights are absolutely astonishing even if the CGI is starting to age a bit. This is how it’s done right.
5. Hero. Zhang Yimou’s second appearance. This could easily have been another year due to its time on the shelf but it was released in the US in 2004, so it goes here. This was the true visual marvel of the year. Every frame of this was eye candy. Christopher Doyle’s camera handled color in ways I’ve never seen before. But beyond that? Still great. The movie does have an unsettling pro-authoritarian view so it really just missed the golden asterisk, but I found that fascinating frankly. It has ideas. It has mythology. It’s not just pretty. A true masterpiece.
4. Closer. This is probably the choice that’ll be my least popular. I don’t care. Yes, this is stagy as it gets. The thing is, it’s directed by a master of stage work, Mike Nichols. He knows how to keep the film moving even as it does slip into territory that’s definitely not new or shocking. It’s just masterfully executed with four great performances. I saw it late at night. I never felt bored. Again, I know not a popular choice.
3. The Aviator. I hate biopics so it’s important that one made my top 3. Leonardo DiCaprio has never been better in my opinion, speaking with a dead on Texas drawl as he captures a man whose ego contrasted with his painful battle with mental illness. Martin Scorsese kills it behind the camera, truly nailing an epic feel. Then there’s Cate Blanchett who makes a real character out of a woman who lived her life as a caricature. So much good here.
2. Sideways. Look, this is a white guy movie. About as white guy as it gets. But damn if it’s not completely deserving of this spot. Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor tap into something real about how we live with their first rate script. Paul Giamatti’s absurd snub for a nomination for Best Actor baffles me. Thomas Haden Church turns in a career best turn here. There’s so much richness here.
1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Pretty easy choice really. One of the most profound, poignant films of the year with a murderer’s row of a cast working from Charlie Kaufman’s strongest script ever. Everything about this film hums. It’s a film that captures the hard truth that life is neither all good or all bad. A film that unites cinephiles and common viewers alike. What more need be said?
So now, after 4000 words, my journey through 2004 is complete. I had such fun covering a year deep in my college period that I’m breaking with tradition. 2005 and 2006 will follow in the next two months.