(A “Then & Now” perspective.)
Like my 2005 list, this Top Ten comes at you twenty strong, because that’s how I wrote it back in the day on my LiveJournal. And like last time, I’ll be adding my commentary about how the movies have held up 11 years later, because tastes change. Some of these movies have aged well in my mind, and others? Not so much.
I don’t think of 2004 as a particularly strong cinematic year in the abstract, mostly because the movies that dominated the Oscars fell, in my mind, in “good, but not great” territory. (They’re in my Top 20 here, but mostly not in the Top Ten.) A Clint Eastwood movie cleaned up in Best Picture, Best Director, and two of the acting categories, and three biopics of varying quality also made stronger showings than they probably deserved. (Those would be the biopics of Ray Charles, Howard Hughes, and J.M. Barrie.) Even the year’s critical darling, Sideways — which did manage to come away with several nominations, including Best Picture — felt too uneven for me to wholeheartedly embrace, despite some lovely moments. (More on that later.)
However, now that I’m looking at 2004 again, I realize how many incredibly strong films came out that year, several of which I’d count amongst my favorites. They just weren’t incredibly well-represented at the Oscars.
So here it is. Let’s revisit 2004.
Few artists reach the literary legend status David Foster Wallace did — and fewer still do it with, essentially, one work. Many who do die tragically young. Perhaps there are certain eras more likely to breed this kind of tortured artist — Wallace was five years older than Kurt Cobain, and didn’t commit suicide until 2008. He was in his forties when he died.
Yet, captured in the earliest moments of his celebrity in James Ponsoldt’s The End Of The Tour, Wallace might as well be the other poster boy for Gen X angst — the literary Nirvana. The film depicts him on the last stop of his book tour with Infinite Jest, the 1,000-page tome that became an instant, unlikely runaway success — hailed as a masterwork upon release, prompting comparisons of Wallace to once-a-generation luminaries like Hemingway.
Stories about such figures tend to be larger than life, featuring screaming fans and flashing lights and usually at least one lonely shot of said celebrity staring mournfully in the mirror. An anguished artist battling an addiction of some kind — pills or booze or sex or fame itself, or maybe all of these — succumbing to the monstrous pressures of success.
But it should come as no surprise to anyone who’s read his work: Wallace refused to adhere to such a conventional narrative, and the first movie to be made about him follows suit. In The End Of The Tour, it’s not being a preternaturally gifted artist that comes at a price — it’s being human.
These days, the state of the film industry can be disheartening. Studios are focused almost exclusively on franchises, reboots, and colossally expensive tentpole releases. Mid-budget movies have gone the way of the dodo, and even the “indies” aren’t as independent as they used to be — three out of the last five winners of the Independent Spirit Awards’ Best Film have also won Best Picture (Birdman, 12 Years A Slave, and The Artist), and the other two starred Natalie Portman and Jennifer Lawrence. Few of the more notable independent films in recent years stand for what independent cinema used to be — narratively original, formally daring, possessing a spirit that is totally unrestrained by the Hollywood hit-making machine.
They were once an alternative to what the studios offered, not just a cheaper version.
If you’d told me before the fact that a movie about male strippers starring Matthew McConaughey and Channing Tatum would have been amongst my top five films of 2012, I may not have believed you, except for one key fact — the movie was directed by Steven Soderbergh, who tends to elevate could-be lowbrow material above and beyond expectations.
The first Magic Mike was, seemingly, an anomaly — a relatively light-hearted summer crowd-pleaser with real substance beneath the surface. Shedding genre conventions like rip-away pants, underneath the fairly straightforward plot beats of your average frustrated dancer movie, you could find both hard bodies in thongs and a pretty astute treatise on American economics — a tragedy about the working class. (Yes, seriously.)
Magic Mike XXL jettisons the All About Eve-esque plot machinations of the first film (as well as “The Kid” character who set them in motion, thankfully). In fact, it essentially jettisons any semblance of a plot at all. It’s as frivolous as you’d expect a summer sequel to a movie about male strippers would be, but it’s hardly disposable. Like the original, it’s a rarity, but in a different way. Magic Mike XXL is less about this gang of hunks, and more about the people who drop singles to ogle them. (Women, mostly.) Watch Magic Mike XXL, and you’re not really watching a movie about male strippers — it’s the rare movie that’s true subject is its own audience. If you’ve seen Magic Mike XXL, chances are, you’re somewhere in this movie.
(A “Then & Now” perspective.)
This Top 10 is actually a 20, because sometimes ten just isn’t enough.
Actually, it’s because that’s how I wrote it back when it was originally published a decade ago, and if I’m bothering to re-post it I may as well re-post the whole thing, right?
Continuing my retroactive Top 10 lists, this one takes us back to 2006, originally published in my “Confessions of a Dangerous Film Student” column in INsite Boston.
I’m tempted to post my review of Mad Max: Fury Road as a series of questions that popped into my head while watching it, but I won’t do that. It’s an early summer blockbuster that is being hailed by many critics as a masterpiece. Some have called it one of the most revolutionary action movies of recent years. There’s certainly something distinctive about it — that much is true. You can tell that just from looking at the pictures.
More than anything, Mad Max: Fury Road has reminded me that moviegoing is a subjective experience. One man’s Speed is another man’s Speed 2: Cruise Control. (I’m probably one of few people who actually likes Speed 2: Cruise Control, and prefers it to Mad Max: Fury Road, but let’s not go there.) Some people can sit through a film and find it wild and daring and completely innovative, while someone else — like, say, me — can sit there and be bored and frustrated all the while.
We all bring a little something different with us into a theater, and we all take a little something different home with us when we leave. Some leave with the treasure, some leave with the empty box that it came in. I was hoping to be exhilarated and dazzled by Mad Max: Fury Road, and from what I saw and heard of the film before its release, I had every reason to expect to be. So what happened?
My Top 10 for the year 2007 comes to you from the midst of the WGA Writer’s Strike of 2007-2008, when there was some doubt about whether or not a typical Oscar telecast would even be possible without those striking scribes.
That would have been quite a shame, since 2007 is one of the very best (if not the best) cinematic years of the new millennium thus far. In almost any other year that decade, my #3 choice would probably have been my #1 choice.
Of course, the Oscars did happen, with major wins for Marion Cotillard, Diablo Cody, and the Coen Brothers, amongst others. But it’s interesting, and a little depressing, to imagine an alternate reality where we never saw a bunch of very deserving actors and filmmakers take home the gold for a job well done.
(A briefer version of this Top Ten list was first published in my “Confessions of a Dangerous Film Student” column in INsite Boston in early 2008.)
Bitches, dick, Jack Daniels, and Jurassic Park references, all rolled into one.