by Sara Michelle Fetters -
SGN A&E Writer
It's Thanksgiving, and in the world of film criticism this holiday is typically that bellwether moment when one realizes it's time to get end-of-year thoughts in order. With barely a month left on the calendar, now is when Oscar predictions are mulled over and top ten lists are compiled.
In all honesty, as much as we critics like to think we know it all when it comes to the historical impact a film is going to have, the only way to truly know what's going to happen on that front is to let time pass and see which motion pictures are still being talked about and which ones have fallen off the radar. So last year around Thanksgiving a small group of Seattle critics, I amongst them, decided to look a decade into the rearview mirror and compare our top ten lists made at that time to what they would look like now.
This proved to be a fascinating enterprise (five films dropped out of my original ten for a variety of reasons, four newcomers - there was a tie, I decided against maintaining ties - taking their place), and as such a few of us resolved to make this an annual exercise. And so this Thanksgiving, on the eve of starting to make the attempt to craft a top ten for 2014 I can hopefully be content with, I'm revisiting 2004, looking back to see if the feelings I had about features released to cinemas then are the same ones I hold now.
And what was my 2004 top ten?
1. The Incredibles
2. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
3. A Very Long Engagement
4. Dig! / Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (tie)
5. Kill Bill: Vol. 2
6. Before Sunset
7. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
8. The Bourne Supremacy / Collateral (tie)
9. Hero / House of Flying Daggers (tie)
10. Bad Education / The Motorcycle Diaries (tie)
It's a good list that I'm largely satisfied with. Yet there are too many ties, and even though each set of films does go together I should have forced myself to make the tough decision and come to a determination - which one was worthy and which should have just missed the cut. It should also be noted that, as great as all of these movies are, I've admittedly not returned to a few of them near as frequently as some others that didn't make it into the first tier.
So what would I change? Quite a bit, especially when you take into account my 'no tie' rule, yet all-in-all seven of the films represented would still make my final list. That said, here are the titles I would remove:
o A Very Long Engagement - I still say that this whimsical, unabashedly melodramatic WWI era love story is acclaimed director Jean-Pierre Jeunet's best film to date, but for whatever reason I have trouble revisiting this heartrending love story near as much as I would like. It holds up beautifully, I just think there are other motion pictures released in 2004 I'd place just a tiny bit above it.
o The Bourne Supremacy - As much as I adore this second film in the wildly successful series, at the end of the day I actually prefer The Bourne Ultimatum, and as such this one falls out of the ten, having more to do with my 'no ties' rule than it does anything else.
o Dig! - This is a terrific music documentary, director Ondi Timoner's seven-years-in-the-making chronicle of bands The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre a fascinating journey to be sure. It just doesn't hold the same sort of sway over me now as it did at the time of its release, and in all honesty I'd almost forgotten about it before revisiting the doc in preparation for this column.
o Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban - Still the best Harry Potter film, still a wonderful fantasy-adventure showcasing future Oscar-winning director Alfonso Cuarón at the height of his powers. Yet all things considered, as great as this one is, as masterful as this third chapter in J.K. Rowling's sprawling saga might be, it just doesn't belong in the top ten; I can't say it any plainer than that.
o Hero - Director Zhang Yimou made two of 2004's best films, but as amazing as this fantastical epic might be, I admit to preferring the equally visually sumptuous House of Flying Daggers over it. As such, it needs to fall off the list no matter how much it pains me to remove it.
o Kill Bill: Vol. 2 - I love Quentin Tarantino's ambitious, sprawling B-movie martial arts meets revenge-fueled exploitation epic, but it just isn't near as fun to watch on its own as its 2003 first chapter is. Magnificent, yes, but it only truly works when taken in concert with Vol. 1, and because of that I can't in good conscience leave it in 2004's top ten no matter how much a very large part of me kind of wants to.
o The Motorcycle Diaries - This look at the early days of future revolutionary Ernesto 'Che' Guevera is a remarkable achievement, director Walter Salles' astonishing drama a devastatingly effective road trip through pain, suffering, sacrifice and redemption that puts a human face on one of the more complex and divisive figures of the 20th century. At the same time, as great as the movie is (and it's pretty amazing) the re-watch quotient is surprisingly low, thus removing it from the list is somewhat surprisingly easy to do.
And what three films would I insert into a revised top ten?
o Mean Girls - Has any satirical high school comedy of recent memory held up as magnificently as this one has? It's really hard to say, writer (and star) Tina Fey and director Mark Waters delivering a consistently hysterical effort that seemingly gets better and smarter with each passing year.
o Million Dollar Baby - Clint Eastwood's bruising, tragically obliterating boxing drama features what is arguably the actor/director's greatest performance while also gifting actress Hilary Swank with one of her signature roles (which just so happened to win her a second Best Actress Oscar). Controversial and not for the faint of heart (or spirit), this is a magnificent motion picture that forces the viewer to reconsider so many differing beliefs and thoughts the sheer number of them is close to mind-blowing.
o Miracle - I admit to adoring this chronicle of the U.S. national hockey team's so-called 'Miracle on Ice' more than I probably should, this rousing sports saga getting me to stand up and cheer no matter how many times I watch it. Kurt Russell's best performance is one that arguably should have garnered him an Academy Award nomination.
Films that just missed out making the final cut? Including the aforementioned six I just dropped from my original list, these titles would include:
Closer, The Door in the Floor, Facing Windows, Fahrenheit 9/11, Friday Night Lights, In Good Company, Infernal Affairs, The Machinist, Maria Full of Grace, Mean Creek, The Sea Inside, Shaun of the Dead, Sideways, Spider-Man 2, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring, Vera Drake
Without further ado, here is what my 2004 top ten would look like now if I were allowed a decade-in-the-making do-over:
1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
2. Before Sunset
3. The Incredibles
4. Bad Education
5. Metallica: Some Kind of Monster
6. Mean Girls
7. Million Dollar Baby
8. House of Flying Daggers
What does any of this mean? If I'm being honest I can't say I know. What revisiting 2004 does tell me is just how wonderful a year this was for film, potentially equaling recent hallmark years like 1999 and 2007. I could have composed a top ten out of any number of titles, each of these more than standing the test of time proving to be motion pictures critics, historians and regular viewers alike keep returning to again and again.
As for 2014, I'll get around to starting to assemble this year's top ten as soon as Thanksgiving is over. After all, there's turkey to be eaten, gravy to savor and pumpkin pie to be consumed. If anything can get me to stop thinking about great movies, even for a little while, then those are the three things that can do it.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! May you and yours have a wonderful holiday and, if you get the chance, watch a great movie or two like the ones listed here. You can thank me later for the recommendation.