Oscar 2004 : Film Year in Review

Let's take a break from the Oscars and look back at the movie year, its highs and lows. Taking a cue from a number of good films about amnesia, my observations are arranged alphabetically, lest I forget.

Acting

It's been a banner year for actors, particularly men. I can't think of another year in which there were so many good performances, in every genre. It was a year in which we saw the entire spectrum of demographics displayed on the big screen, from vet actors such as Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman, to seniors such as Pacino, De Niro, and Hoffman, to newcomers such as Topher Grace. As always, though, the center of the male acting pyramid is occupied by actors in their forties and fifties, such as Sean Penn, Johnnie Depp, Liam Neeson, Kevin Kline, Don Cheadle, Jim Carrey.

Animation

With their sixth brilliant movie in a row, “The Incredibles,” Pixar reaffirmed its position as the leader of animation. More importantly, Pixar shows that animation is not a genre but a mode of filmmaking, that any story can be told through animation and that the story doesn't have to involve cute animals or toys. “The Incredibles” will not make the box-office bumbers of “Shrek 2,” the year's biggest blockbuster, but it's a more innovative picture, and also one that all members of the family can go together without anyone being embarrassed or bored by what's onscreen.

Biopicture

The Year's most prominent genre was the biopicture, a genre that in the past has suffered from lack of prestige and abundance of clichs. There were a dozen worthy biopictures, including “Alexander,” “The Aviator,” “Beyond the Sea,” “Finding Neverland,” “Hotel Rwanda,” “Kinsey,” “Motorcycle Diaries,” and “Ray.” Celebrating entrepreneurs, playwrights, singers, sex researchers, composers, and politicians, they continued to show one alarming bias: They were all about men. You don't have to be a feminist critic or a sociologist to deduct that, as far as real or reel heroes are concerned, women matter less in Hollywood and American society at large. Can't anyone come up with a strong part for a femme-driven bio a la British film “Vera Drake,” without relegating women to showbiz personae

Cerebral

The American cinema has always been more visceral and emotional than cerebral. It's therefore great joy to report that Jean-Luc Godard has single-handedly reasserted intellectual cinema, or cinema of ideas, with “Notre Musique” (“Our Music”), a film-essay-meditation about the inherent contradictions of our turbulent times: past and present, war and peace, words and images. At 74 (same age as our Eastwood) Godard is still more responsible for cerebral film criticism than any other director in the world.

Classic Hollywood Cinema

Classic Hollywood cinema, which reached its height during the golden age of studio system and has been in decline, is kept alive by one major force: Clint Eastwood. The “Man With No Name” has become the “Man With the Best Name,” a director who's experiencing an unparallel artistic height with “Million Dollar Baby,” a follow-up to the equally sublime “Mystic River.”

Comeback

It's absurd to describe Hilary Swank's performance in “Million Dollar Baby” as a comeback, since she only 30, but it is, considering she has made only bad pictures since winning the 1999 Oscar for “Boys Don't Cry.” Virginia Madsen, a sex symbol in B-movies of the 1990s, also made a splashy comeback as the world-weary waitress in “Sideways.” Did I mention La Streisand, whose appearance in “Meet the Fockers” is generating a strong buzz She has not made a picture in eight years.

Looking ahead: There is already buzz about Jane Fonda's comeback in New Line's comedy, “Monster's In-Law.” Fonda, the 1970s most brilliant American actress, has not acted since the disastrous “Stanley and Iris,” in 1987. Fonda proves that, contrary to what F. Scott Fitzgerald said, there are second (and third and fourth) chapters in American lives. Fonda is now beginning her (fill in) phase. A hint: start counting with her being Henry Fonda's daughter and Barbarellea and don't neglect her offscreen housewife part to a certain media mogul.

Comedy

One of the most underestimated genres, by the Academy and critics alike, has experienced something of a comeback of its own with “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “I Heart Huckabees,” “The Life Aquatic,” “Mean Girls” (yes, “Mean Girls!”), “Sideways,” and others.

Controversial

The year's three most controversial movies, each for a different reason, were: Mel Gibson's “The Passion of the Christ,” Michael Moore's “Fahrenheit 9/11,” and Mike Nichols' “Closer,” a stylish serio-comedy about the battle of the sexes and harsh critique of the male ego (or is it penis)

Critics

Who needs critics Well, Alexander Payne, Eastwood, and Scorsese do, very much so. There was greater consensus among highbrow and middlebrow, East Coast and West Coast critics than even before. “Sideways” is the year's best-reviewed movie. Period. The various critics groups guarantee that Payne will finally get formal recognition from the DGA and the Academy.

Debuts

The most striking feature debut was made by director Joshua Marston and actress Catalina Sandino Moreno in the terrific HBO (distributed by Fine Line) suspenser: “Maria Fill of Grace,” a gripping Hitchockian thriller that put effectively a human face behind the painful issue of drug-trafficking.

Foreign Films

Despite the dismal state of foreign cinema in the U.S., the year saw the release of a dozen brilliant films from France (“Notre Musique,” “The Chorists,” “Look at Me,” Red Lights”), Russia (“The Return”), China (“House of Flying Daggers”), Hong Kong (“2046”), Spain (“Bad Education,” “Sea Inside”), Italy (“Consequences of Love”), Denmark (Jorgen Leth and Lars von Trier's “Five Obstructions,” but not von Trier's “Dogville”), Germany (“Goodbye, Lenin”), Taiwan (“Goodbye Dragon Inn”), South Korea (“Old Boy”), Iran (“Five” but not “Ten”), even Georgian (“Since Otar Left”). Six films on my Ten Best are foreign, and I could have easily had another four.

Indie Cinema

Sadly, leaders of the indie cinema, both peres and fils, made some of the year's worst films. John Sayles' “Silver City,” Spike Lee's “She Hate Me,” the Coens' “The Lady Killers” are not only bad films, they are also the worst films in their directors' respective careers. Major younger directors have also fallen flat. Wes Anderson's “Life Aquatic” is a major disappointment, and so is David Gordon Green's “Undertow.” That said, there were a number of promising indie debuts, such as the sci-fic experimental “Primer,” and Jonathan Caoutte's “Tarnation,” which merits the label of the year's “most disturbing” picture.

Los Angeles, mon Amour

Can a noir crime film make you more committed to living in L.A. and enjoying it In a perverse way, this was one of the effects of Michael Mann's “Collateral” with its nocturnal multi-racial portraiture had on me. Dion Beene's luminous cinematography makes LAX, the subways, freeways, and streets seem both alluring and dangerously exciting.

Misunderstood

The most misunderstood film is Soderbergh's “Ocean's Twelve,” a playful, postmodern pastiche that combines retro cool, self-reflexivity, and old-fashioned star vehicle into one fun movie. Isn't more entertaining to see a stylish movie with a dozen well-dressed stars than the ineptly-made “Bridget Jones Diary: The Edge of Reason,” or “A Very Long Engagement,” Jean-Pierre Jeunet's decorous film that trivializes not only love but the brutal, fought-in-the trenches World War One.

.Moore (not Roger)

Is it fair to attribute the resurgence of the documentary genre to the work of one man, first “Bowling to Columbine” and then “Fahrenheit 9/11,” the most commercial non-fiction in film history Perhaps, but let's not forget the year's other great docus such as “Born Into Brothels,” “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster,” “Tarnation,” “Control Room,” “Super Size Me, and others.

NC-17

Is there any issue other than eroticism/sexuality that calls attention to the puritanical, hypocritical nature of American societyand the MPA. It's time to stop discriminating against films that deal candidly and overtly with sexuality. What the MPA is telling parents, de facto, is that violence is not as harmful and damaging to their children as having them witness frontal male nudity and masturbation (Bertolucci's “The Dreamers”) or same-sex intercourse (Almodovar's “Bad Education”).

Noir

The darkest, noirer than noir, film all year round was “Bad Education,” a dense film that blends seamlessly social problem (church abuse of children) and the lethal politics of desire, done not in the comic manner — the pink and blue color palette of Frank Tashlin (Almodoavr's 1980s style) — but in the mode of “Double Indemnity” and “The Lady from Shanghai.”

Old-Fashioned

There is room for all kinds of films, including schmaltzy and old-fashioned ones. How else do you explain the phenomenal success of “The Notebook,” which gave work to the honorable Gena Rowlands and James Garner, and became the movie with the longest legs this year, or “Shall We Dance” which appealed to women of a certain age.

Remake

The year saw the emergence of a new genre: the unnecessary remake. The leader among studios is Paramount with three unnecessary entries: The unfunny “Stepford Wives,” the trivial (Americanized) “Alfie,” and “The Manchurian Candidate,” a lukewarm picture that had the audacity to tackle John Frankenheimer's Cold War cult classic. My advise to the gifted Jonathan Demme: After two disappointing remakes (“The Truth About Charlie” and “Manchurian”), it may be time to return to the turf that made you such a uniquely American voice, with gems like “Citizens Band,” “Melvin and Howard,” and “Something Wild.”

Sequelitus

Against Hollywood commonsensical wisdom, a number of sequels outshone the original films in storyline, production values, and technology. While “Spider-Man 2” is a great popcorn flick, “The Bourne Supremacy” was not only superior to its predecessor, but its the fastest (in speed) and most technically innovative picture of the year, showing what a brilliant director like Paul Greengrass can do.

Spanish

Can anyone come up with a reasonable explanation of why the most interesting and enjoyable films were Spanish-speaking, even though they represented a wide array of countries. I could have had a Ten Best list comprised exclusively of such titles: “Bad Education,” “Sea Inside,” “Maria Full of Grace,” “Motorcycle Diaries.” Watch out for the Argentinean film, “The Holy Child” by Lucretia Martel, the most surprising entry I saw in competition in Cannes. Like “Maria Full of Grace,” the film will be handled by HBO-Fine Line.

Television-Like

A tie between Gary Marshall (“Raising Helen”) and James L. Brooks (“Spanglish”), who proved that American TV is well and alive in Hollywood–on the big screen. Both pictures contain enough stories and subplots for a TV soap or schmaltzy sitcom series, but not enough substance and humor for one good comedy.

Timing's Everything

The award to the film that single-handedly “confused” the holiday season and literally threw the Oscar race off balance goes to “Million Dollar Baby,” originally slated for 2005 release. For those who claim there are no surprises anymore, just look what one picture, directed by a certain director, can do. Expect shock waves on January 25, Oscar nominations day.

Oops, I promised not to mention the Oscars in this piece.

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