Thinking back over the past 12 months, it doesn't feel like it was an especially robust year for cinema. Yet when I start reflecting on particular titles, I'm struck by the force of individual scenes and even individual seconds -- brief moments so potent, so perfect, that they force me to reevaluate the movie year as a whole.
The motion pictures that make up my Top 20 are packed with such instances. Sideways alone contains a whole crate of them, but I especially adore the scene in which wine lovers Paul Giamatti and Virginia Madsen connect during a quiet conversation -- followed by the sequence when Giamatti spits at his reflection in the mirror, "God, you're such a fuckin' loser. You make me so fuckin' sick!" after he balks at seizing that perfect moment with this perfect woman. How many of us have similarly berated ourselves after a comparable instant of self-defeat?
Million Dollar Baby also carries more than its share of magical moments, though I always tear up thinking about that shot when, realizing that she has far outgrown her worthless redneck family, Hilary Swank's scrappy fighter tells Clint Eastwood's time-ravaged trainer, "I got nobody but you, Frankie," to which he responds with a faint, reassuring smile, "Well, you've got me." Those few seconds speak volumes in terms of what brought these characters to this point, what sort of relationship has developed between them, and where they're heading together.
Peter O'Toole's wonderful emoting during his tentside encounter with Brad Pitt in Troy reminds us that, as our classic actors continue to age and eventually pass away, all connections to the shimmering beauty of Old Hollywood will be lost forever -- except, of course, through the films themselves. For pure comic timing, it's hard to beat Natalie Portman's vigorous ear-tugging during an uproarious sequence in Garden State. And did any movie in 2004 end more perfectly than Before Sunset, which in just a few precious seconds made us fall in love all over again -- not only with the notion of love itself but also with the possibilities of cinema?
Out of the 160 movies I screened during 2004, here are my picks for the best and worst the film industry had to offer. And with the possible exception of 1994 (Pulp Fiction versus Quiz Show), never have I experienced so much difficulty settling on the number one movie of the year, given that there were two equally worthy candidates. But simply put, you're not going to go wrong with either one leading the pack.
THE 10 BEST
1. MILLION DOLLAR BABY (Clint Eastwood). The best picture of 2004. Handicapped by a weak title and arriving on the scene with no fanfare, Million Dollar Baby is this winter season's biggest underdog -- an apt position for a movie about a female boxer (Hilary Swank) who's given little chance of going the distance. Yet what director Clint Eastwood and writer Paul Haggis (adapting stories by F.X. Toole) have pulled off with this hoary outline is remarkable, neatly upending the expected cliches until what's left is a movie experience with transformative powers. The first half plays largely as expected (albeit with astute attention to characterization and dialogue), but the second part heads off in its own direction and never looks back. The result is a real stunner, an incisive drama marked by sterling turns from Swank, Morgan Freeman and, in the finest performance of his lengthy career, the grand master himself.
2. SIDEWAYS (Alexander Payne). The other best picture of 2004. Adapting Rex Pickett's novel, director-writer Alexander Payne and coscripter Jim Taylor introduce us to Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church), two buddies who book passage to California's Santa Ynez Valley to tour the local wineries. Although they don't actually spend much screen time in their car, the movie nevertheless has all the trappings of the best "road movies": individuals who hit the highway looking for adventure, only to learn valuable life lessons about America, about its occupants (repped here by Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh) and, most tellingly, about themselves. Like the fine wines that figure in the plot, this exquisite movie ages beautifully, as repeat viewings uncork new emotions and new insights -- and allow us to spend more time with these wonderfully flawed, wonderfully recognizable people.
3. GARDEN STATE (Zach Braff). Sitcom star Zach Braff used his minimal clout to secure financing for his first endeavor as a writer-director-star -- and then proceeded to knock one clear out of the park. Braff plays a struggling LA actor who returns to his New Jersey hometown for his mother's funeral; while there, he reconnects with old acquaintances and strikes up a romance with a vivacious life force (sensational Natalie Portman). The best kind of emotional workout -- a movie that allows viewers to laugh, cry and reflect, sometimes all at the same time.