There were plenty of bad movies released in 2004. Thunderbirds, Against the Ropes and Walking Tall quickly come to mind. But in mulling the list of films that I saw over the year -- almost 120 of them -- I was pleased to note that I liked many more than I disliked. In fact, when I sat down to pick only 10 of them, 35 titles turned up on my initial list -- 35 films that I wouldn't mind going back to see again.
In winnowing that list down to the 10 winners, though, they had to be movies that I wanted to see again right away, while they were still fresh in my mind. In fact, I've already seen three of them twice. So, in reverse order, here are my favorite films of 2004, with a handful of runners-up to follow.
10. Friday Night Lights
This is the first time a sports movie has made it to my list. But this isn't just about rural high school football. It's about the hopes and dreams of the players, and the dashed hopes and dreams of the players before them who ended up still stuck in the same small town. Excellent acting and action, and a moody, almost documentary-like realism.
9. A Very Long Engagement
War is hell, and so is love. The war in this case is World War I, and the battlefield scenes are grueling and loud and bloody. The love affair is between two French teens who are split up when he's called to fight. When he vanishes at war's end, she's convinced he's alive and tries to find him. Stunning cinematography and an almost dizzying structure to the lyrical story.
8. Kill Bill, Vol. 2
Part 1 was a study in action and violence. This conclusion to Quentin Tarantino's darkly comic tale of vengeance gone awry is comparatively meditative, with quiet talk replacing endless sword fights. The martial arts master (Uma Thurman) is on the trail of her lover, a cold-hearted killer (David Carradine), because, well, because Bang! Bang! Her baby shot her down.
7. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Scriptwriter Charlie Kaufman, who should cop an Oscar for this, is, simply, a genius -- even if some of his ideas are whacked. The idea here is that a medical procedure can erase specific bad memories from people's heads. But what happens if the patient changes his mind in mid-procedure? Jim Carrey underplays it, Kate Winslet is perfectly kooky and rude.
6. Spider-Man 2
Somebody took a comic book, made a movie out of it and got it right -- exactly right. Director Sam Raimi cut his teeth on cheap but imaginative horror films and put all of his know-how to work here. Tobey Maguire ups the angst quotient as the flawed superhero, and Alfred Molina presents, in Doc Ock, one of the greatest villains ever to grace the screen. The action is relentless.
What a rarity! A film for thinking men and thinking women, for wine connoisseurs and for those who like their stories told straight and easy, with no complicated plots. Two failed pals -- a writer and an actor -- hit the road to taste fine wines just before one of them is to marry. They both meet women and they all drink wine, and good and bad things happen. All that, and the film is funny as hell to boot.
4. The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou
The title character is a lost, lonely man whose career and life are falling apart, mainly because he's been so full of himself. Yet Bill Murray, blank expression on his face, manages to make him comically sympathetic. And director Wes Anderson gives him plenty of challenges, involving death, divorce and possible parenthood. As always in an Anderson film, the music is amazing.
3. The Aviator
Martin Scorsese's epic look at the accomplishments and dalliances in the life of Howard Hughes is a major success largely due to the bigger-than-life performance by Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead. But take nothing away from the director. He's come down off his Kundun high horse and made a good, old-fashioned movie for the masses. He's become a sort of contemporary Italian master.
2. The Incredibles
The final Disney-Pixar collaboration resulted in the best adult movie disguised as a kiddy movie ever made. Oh, there's plenty for the kids: bright colors, wild action, funny characters. But writer-director Brad Bird captures more mature viewers with plenty to think about, from dashed dreams to growing older to questioning authority. And it doesn't hurt that the visuals are eye-popping.
1. Million Dollar Baby
Clint Eastwood directed it, produced it, composed and performed the soundtrack and stars as a crusty boxing trainer who reluctantly takes on a feisty young scrapper from the wrong side of the tracks (Hilary Swank) who wants to be the next female contender. It's a story about heroes and determination and people finding solace in other people. And as anyone who sees it will realize, it's a movie whose makers have taken a lot of risks.
And because there were so many good ones, here are five more, in no particular order -- a group of honorary runners-up, all very much worth seeing, twice: Hellboy, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, I HEART Huckabees, Riding Giants, The Door in the Floor.