The 10 Best Films

No list is definitive, and this year we can expect plenty of critical disagreement.

Ebert has spoken. There's scant overlap between his taste and mine for 2004 (two titles), and I suspect the year is going to produce some other wildly divergent 10-best lists. The New York Times' troika (1, 2, 3) will weigh in past my deadline, and my votes in the annual Village Voice critics' poll only yielded three matches to its top 10. For present purposes, I consider only those movies that had a Seattle theatrical release during the calendar year—not stragglers from '03 or early openers in New York and L.A. that'll reach here in early '05.

Among the latter group is Clint Eastwood's boxing melodrama Million Dollar Baby (reviewed next week prior to its Jan. 7 opening), Ebert's top pick. In a year when the bulk of the critics groups' prizes and early nominations are going to Alexander Payne's Sideways (absent from my list), reliable old Clint is getting special consideration, I think, because he values traditional storytelling over baby-boomer navel gazing. But if you want traditional, I say, then Scorsese is a lot more traditional—and entertaining—in The Aviator, the swiftest three-hour movie I've seen this year. Unlike 2003, when Capturing the Friedmans topped my list, truth turned out to be less compelling than pure inventiveness in 2004, which explains my No. 1 choice.

1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Go buy the DVD if you don't believe Jim Carrey can be reined in to deliver a low-key, naturalistic performance so far from his Lemony Snicket tantrums. This March release depends on his somber, grounded realism, because the movie's such a flight of fancy. Thanks to the direction of Michel Gondry and script by Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich), the premise that Carrey's ex, Kate Winslet, could have memories of him electronically purged from her head—causing him to do the same with her—seems downright plausible. A heart trip and a head trip all at the same time, Eternal Sunshine takes the subject of love gone sour and runs it backward into a Möbius strip of memory. It ends up being a wonderfully optimistic and affirmative film that somehow argues that bad memories can be the best place to start a new romance.

2. Vera DrakeA film about abortion set in the dreary English early '50s sounds like the most depressing topic available. I'm not sure the sun ever shines in Mike Leigh's latest ensemble piece; most of it is set in the dark, cluttered sitting room of its protagonist (Imedla Staunton) and her close, loving family. There are no speeches, no shouting, no histrionics about the rights of women and the rights of the unborn. Leigh expertly leaves everything out that doesn't matter to the drama, crystallizing it to Vera's moral impulse to "help out girls in trouble." That such do-gooderism is necessarily doomed is a given to Vera Drake's tragedy; compassion is her flaw and undoing. Staunton's is the best work by an actress I've seen this year, and Sally Hawkins also excels as a rich girl, impregnated by rape, whose story Leigh contrasts with Vera's ministrations to her fellow poor. Not yet on DVD.

3. The Aviator Martin Scorsese's best film since GoodFellas is getting unfairly lambasted in some quarters because—God forbid!—it takes liberties with its historical subject. Who cares if the real Howard Hughes was an anti-Semitic freak and drug addict? If Oliver Stone can rewrite Alexander the Great's foibles, so, too, can Scorsese and his producer-star, Leonardo DiCaprio. They concentrate on making Hughes' story as cinematic as possible, because The Aviator is a movie, not history, not biography. As such, it's great looking, expertly told, and episodic in a way that implicitly invokes Citizen Kane: There's no understanding a complicated, flawed man in his entirety, only flashes and glimpses along his meteor's path. DiCaprio acquits himself very well, too, and Cate Blanchett does an excellent job of acting beneath her Katharine Hepburn act. This may be Scorsese's last, best hope for an Oscar.

4. Blind Shaft Not a lot of people saw this March arrival about two con artists preying on miners in the laissez-faire economy of the new China. "Now only fucking money matters," says one of the cons. In this climate, they systematically befriend and kill hapless peasants in staged cave-ins, claiming the hush money from mine owners by declaring kinship to the victims. Blind Shaft dramatizes the flip side of globalization—a nation in wrenching transition from farms and collectives to smokestacks and cell phones. The doomed miners resemble the workers in a Sebastião Salgado photo. The half-Communist, half-capitalist system depicted here is like some dark doppelgänger of our own, like Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. Somehow we're implicated, too—this is our history being played out again, only in Mandarin. Already on DVD from Kino.

5. Kinsey As Frank Rich keeps writing in The New York Times, isn't it funny how sex is still upsetting people a half-century after this guy did his work? In one of the best male performances this year, Liam Neeson makes Dr. Alfred Kinsey an odd, compelling, self-blindered evangelist of statistics—not sex. Apart from tender scenes with his wife (the always excellent Laura Linney), he's more clumsy than concupiscent. Writer-director Bill Condon's intelligent treatment of a once sensationalized life is anything but sensational: His not-quite-tragic hero follows his research to its logical conclusion (birds do it, bees do it . . . ) and can't understand why higher mammals don't want to hear the truth. Crucially, Condon leaves in the lingering confusion and hurt feelings to both sex and love; Kinsey can't explain their ultimate mysteries, and the movie doesn't neatly explain him, either.

6. Mean Creek Like Lord of the Flies in a rowboat, this little August indie strands a half-dozen kids on a river, then watches the blood flow. Taunting, bullying, puppy love, and Truth or Dare push these passengers to the edge, but it's not River's Edge. Violence is treated quite differently. Writer-director Jacob Aaron Estes' movie is quieter, and better, than just about anything I've seen on the subject of youthful cruelty—perhaps because it makes those youths morally accountable for the tragedy that binds them. In its way, it's a Columbine movie, about the young pariah who snaps. But unlike Lord of the Flies, the reversion to a primitive, unlawful state isn't finally such a terrible thing. Mean Creek succeeds by naturalistically treating cruelty and conscience as parts of the same normal adolescent organism. Kids will be kids, for better and worse. On DVD Jan. 25.

7. Before Sunset Blah, blah, blah. In his sequel to the fairly beloved 1995 Before Sunrise, Richard Linklater again makes an entire movie out of what used to be called the "walking and talking" shot in Woody Allen films. Not everyone has a high tolerance for such gab, but reuniting Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy feels like the resumption of fondly remembered but also frustrating conversation. Not everything they have to say is particularly scintillating or profound, but that's part of the movie's charm: Stumbling around Paris together for a few hours, the ex-lovers also stumble on their words and meanings. They're too old and wary to believe they're falling in love again (if they were in the first place), and Sunset is too wise to offer any happy endings or easy conclusions. The movie's beguiling if—like Delpy's slow, knowing surrender—you let yourself be beguiled. Already on DVD.

8. Maria Full of Grace Few actresses apart from Imedla Staunton (Vera Drake) carried a movie this year like Colombian newbie actress Catalina Sandino Moreno. No matter that much of the picture's in Spanish (with English subtitles), she does her best work silently figuring the odds—with her squabbling family, with her no-good boyfriend, with the drug dealers who hire her as a mule, and with the U.S. Customs agents whose job it is to keep her out of this country. Once Maria's here, the movie becomes more immigration study than crime flick. Instead of internal drugs, we have internal drama, and Sandino's contemplative beauty is well suited to both: Her face always has the look of a woman who's underestimated yet shrewd—a true American, in other words. On DVD earlier this month.

9. The Incredibles Animator Brad Bird's last overlooked feature, The Iron Giant, topped my '99 list, perhaps because it had more the purity of a fairy tale. This time around, the former Simpsons writer has joined forces with mighty Pixar to deliver a popular blockbuster—about family, midlife disappointment, the cult of the average, and the superheroes of the past. More than paunchy Mr. Incredible looking back on his own golden age, Bird is looking back to the golden age of comics and cartoons, when flying saucers and evil supervillains regularly descended on an unprotected Earth. The visual wit to the Incredibles' battles and their suburban ranch house is delightful. Their storming the upstart evil genius' island volcano hideout is the best animated Bond film never made. Ignore the Ayn Rand stuff, and it's the most fun on-screen this year.

10. Touching the Void "Isn't it ironic?" people asked me following a terrible climbing accident I suffered this summer. "Just like in that movie you reviewed." Yes and no. I'd long ago read Joe Simpson's 1988 book about his even worse fall in the Peruvian Andes, and his story is better than mine. Director Kevin Macdonald alternates between a talking-heads approach with Simpson and his partner, Simon Yates, and re-enactments of their ill-fated 1985 climb. It sounds like a dubious hybrid, but both of the real personalities are compelling in their different, prickly ways, and the staged footage gives you a real sense of the mountain's menace. It's a case of story winning out over storytelling. Already on DVD.

Honorable mention (alphabetical; most are on DVD): Bad Education, Bus 174, Fahrenheit 9/11, The Fog of War (late arrival from '03), Hellboy, House of Flying Daggers, I'm Not Scared, My Architect, The Manchurian Candidate (remake), The Motorcycle Diaries, Osama, The Return, The Same River Twice, Super Size Me.

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