eKC feature
Jan. 28, 2005

 

The Best and Worst in Film for 2004

by Russ Simmons

After three years of dominance, New Zealand filmmaker Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings trilogy) handed Hollywood back to the Americans in 2004. (He’ll probably take it back when his version of King Kong is released in 2005.)

In spite of a weak start, the box office rebounded thanks to blockbusters like Spiderman 2, Shrek 2, The Incredibles and Meet the Fockers. The art house scene was healthy, too, thanks to critically acclaimed “little” films like Sideways and the cult hit Napoleon Dynamite.

A new multiplex opened at 135th and 69 Highway. Dickenson Theatres’ The Palazzo provided affluent Johnson County residents with a gaudy, lavish venue, while long-suffering Wyandotte County folks are still waiting for their promised screens near the Kansas Speedway.

Kansas City-based AMC experimented with a new approach last year. Two of the movies they screened in 2004 were shown digitally. Yes, they were films without film. AMC can now download movies from a satellite link or copy a disk on their hard drive and project it just like a 35mm print. This offers hope for the low-budget independent crowd.

The overall product quality was surprisingly high in 2004, even though there were few “great” movies offered. Regrettably, there was plenty of trash, too. So, here is our annual look at the best and worst movies of the year.

(Incidentally, Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou’s sensational martial arts epic, Hero, should be on the “Best” list this year, but fell through the cracks. Although it played in 2004, it was officially a 2003 release. The strong box office success it enjoyed demonstrates that American audiences will support classy foreign films when given a chance.)

THE BEST:

A Very Long Engagement

The team behind Amelie, director Jean-Pierre Jeunet and actress Audrey Tautou, reunited for a sometimes whimsical but appropriately sobering epic about WW I.

A stunningly beautiful yet unblinking adaptation of Sebastien Japrisot’s acclaimed novel, A Very Long Engagement was a giddy celebration of the unique possibilities of the cinema. Jeunet used flashy modern special effects the way the cinematic gods intended: to support the story.

The beguiling Tautou played a young crippled girl named Mathilde who refuses to believe that her fiancée, a French soldier serving on the front lines, was killed in action. She begins a long and arduous search to find him. Her efforts to locate her lost love provided the narrative backbone to Japrisot’s tale, even though numerous, interesting subplots were also offered.

In an age of cynicism, Jeunet is as refreshingly optimistic as he is talented. He filled his film with plenty of visual splendor and humor that helped to temper the ugly depiction of war.

Wilbur Wants To Kill Himself

Writer/director Lone Scherfig, who made the award-winning Dogma romantic comedy, Italian For Beginners, scored once again with this amusing look at a suicidal Scottish lad and his relationship with his protective older brother and a destitute young woman and her daughter who move in with them. Scherfig managed to find emotional resonance in the story without ever succumbing to sentimentality.

Sideways

Director Alexander Payne is four for four. After scoring with Citizen Ruth, Election and About Schmidt, Payne offered us Sideways, an extremely funny and beautifully written and acted ensemble piece about lives of quiet desperation.

Paul Giamatti and Thomas Hayden Church played buddies on a road trip through California wine country that are faced with some important, life changing choices.

The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Charlie Kaufman may possess the most creative mind currently at work among Hollywood screenwriters. As he demonstrated with scripts like Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Being John Malcovich and Adaptation, Kaufman is fully prepared to create an entertaining alternate reality. Spike Jonzes’ film starred Jim Carrey as a man who chooses to undergo brainwashing in an effort to forget his lost love.

Tarnation

Made for less than $300 and edited on a Macintosh, Tarnation resembled what it must be like to have your life flash before your eyes. Jonathan Caouetteıs haunting autobiographical film shows him as a young man desperately reaching for beauty in a decidedly ugly world. His extremely troubled life became an unexpectedly uplifting movie filled with both resignation and optimism.

Honorable mention: Before Sunset, The Aviator, Hotel Rwanda, Vera Drake, The Incredibles.

THE WORST:

The Brown Bunny

Would you like to sit through an excruciatingly dull road trip movie filled with long, wordless passages as the film’s protagonist stares blankly through the windshield of his car? If not, then Vincent Gallo has completely misread movie audiences.

Gallo wrote, produced, directed and starred as Bud Clay, a lovelorn motorcycle racer who drives from the East Coast to the West in order to meet up with his former love, Daisy, played by Chloë Sevigny. Gallo has a knack for being able to establish a keen sense of the passage of time. The action in The Brown Bunny takes place over several days, and boy does it seem like it.

The Brown Bunny features a graphic, hardcore oral sex scene at the film’s climax. In an astonishing feat, Gallo managed to make it boring. It may well be true that The Brown Bunny is the most mind-numbing exercise in self-indulgence since the heyday of Andy Warhol. (At least Warhol had talent.)

She Hate Me

What on Earth has happened to Spike Lee? The once promising writer/director flopped once again with an amazingly bad exercise in narcissism called She Hate Me.

Anthony Mackie played Jack, a former business executive who becomes a stud for hire employed by a gaggle of lesbians who want to become pregnant. Forced, ugly and insincere, it was an unmitigated disaster.

A Dirty Shame

The biggest surprise in John Waters’ tasteless comic shockfest was that is was so utterly tedious. The maker of Pink Flamingos has morphed into such a parody of himself that his movies have nowhere to go nothing new to say.

Tracy Ullman starred as a sexually repressed housewife who suffers a bonk on the head and turns into a raging sex addict.

Alexander

Oliver Stone’s lavishly produced historical epic about Alexander the Great, played by Colin Farrell, was so disjointed that it played like somebody in the projection booth got the film reels mixed up. We were left with no sense of understanding of the man or his motives, nor did we care. Stone couldn’t even decide whether Alexander was gay or straight.

Envy

Barry Levinson (Rain Man, Diner, The Natural) joined Spike Lee and Oliver Stone on the list of good filmmakers gone bad. A waste of talent, a waste of money, a waste of time…and, oh yes, itıs about waste…doggie waste!

Jack Black played a man who got rich by zapping away dog doo-doo. Ben Stiller was his resentful and avaricious neighbor.

Dishonorable mention: Yu-Gi-Oh, Twisted, Catwoman, Soul Plane, Paparrazi.

 

Kansas City Film Critics Circle Awards

In early January, the Kansas City Film Critics Circle issued its film top honors. The 39th annual vote of the Kansas City Film Critics Circle was held on Jan. 2, 2005.

Comprised of print, television, radio and online critics from the Greater Kansas City area, the 24 voting members of the organization cast ballots in 11 categories. Films were eligible if they held advance screenings or opened in the Kansas City area during 2004. The critics voted the following as the best of 2004:

Best Film: Million Dollar Baby

Best Director: Martin Scorsese, The Aviator

Best Actor: Jamie Foxx, Ray

Best Actress: Hilary Swank, Million Dollar Baby

Best Supporting Actor: Thomas Haden Church, Sideways

Best Supporting Actress: Cate Blanchett, The Aviator

Best Original Screenplay: Charlie Kaufman, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Best Adapted Screenplay: Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, Sideways

Best Animated Film: The Incredibles

Best Foreign Language Film: A Very Long Engagement (France)

Best Documentary: Fahrenheit 9/11

Runners-up included:

Best Film: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind;Best Director: Clint Eastwood (Million Dollar Baby);Best Actor: Paul Giamatti (Sideways);Best Actress: Imelda Staunton (Vera Drake);Best Supporting Actor: Morgan Freeman (Million Dollar Baby);Best Supporting Actress: Virginia Madsen (Sideways);Best Original Screenplay: Bill Condon (Kinsey);Best Adapted Screenplay: Paul Haggis (Million Dollar Baby); Best Animated Film: Shrek 2;Best Foreign Language Film: The Passion of the Christ;Best Documentary: Control Room.

The first film to win the Kansas City Film Critics Circle award for Best Picture was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1966. The group is the second oldest organization of film critics in the United States.

For more information, contact KCFCC President Jon Niccum at 785)-832-7178 or go to www.kcfilmcritics.com.

 

The Best DVDs of 2004

by Jason Aaron

 

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Special Extended Edition)

While 2004 may have been a lackluster year for theater goers, it was a definitely banner year for DVD collectors, offering everything from the long-awaited debut of the original Star Wars trilogy to the continuing onslaught of TV box sets and new Special Edition versions of classic films.

Once again, the year’s absolute best DVD comes courtesy of director Peter Jacksonıs landmark Lord of the Rings trilogy. Considering the Extended Versions of the two previous films both ranked among their respective yearıs best DVDs, it should be no surprise that The Return of the King (Special Extended Edition) finds a place at the top of this list.

No, it isn’t anywhere close to being one of the greatest films ever, as some have called it. It's not even the best of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. But it is yet another impressive four-disc DVD package, loaded with documentaries covering every facet of the film’s gargantuan production, including the emotional farewells for the cast and crew, many of whom dedicated years of their lives to bringing Tolkien’s stories to life.

Capturing the Friedmans

This is a film so compelling, perplexing and provocative that it could only be ripped straight from reality. What begins as a documentary about a professional clown turns into a showcase for home video footage of a family in the midst of utter chaos.

You’ll simply have to decide for yourself just who to believe in this story of a small town computer teacher and his teenage son brought up on charges of child molestation, and no matter who you trust, you’ll still be left with nagging questions that you’ll struggle for weeks to answer.

This DVD helps add a little more fuel to the fires of debate, with deleted and extended scenes, new evidence, unseen home videos and on-the-scene footage of the highly charged New York premiere where several of the filmıs subjects were in attendance. You can even check out the original short film by director Andrew Jarecki, about birthday party clowns, that led to the whole seedy story’s discovery. Nothing about this film is simple, save its importance. It is quite simply a must-see.

Walt Disney Treasures — On The Front Lines

As much as I love to bash Disney these days for their lackluster animation and straight-to-video knockoffs, I’m also quick to celebrate their successes.

Part of the ongoing series of Walt Disney Treasures, On The Front Lines is a collection of WWII era propaganda, educational films and recently declassified training material that boasts several fascinating shorts, including Minnie Mouse and Pluto demonstrating how cooking fat can be turned into ammunition and the Seven Dwarfs combating malaria. Believe it or not, thereıs even a goose-stepping Donald Duck, who wakes up inside a nightmarish Nazi world in the hilariously surreal “Der Feuhrer's Face.”

There’s nothing hilarious about “Education for Death,” which in its portrayal of a young Nazi’s coming-of-age proves to be the most shockingly grim bit of animation Disney has ever produced. This 2-disc set also includes the feature length Victory Through Air Power, which like the rest of these rarely scene bits of history, showcases gorgeous animation that ranks alongside Disney’s most revered efforts.

The Office — The Complete Collection

Last year offered the DVD debut of several noteworthy TV shows, including the new Emmy-winning comedy Arrested Development, hilarious cable hits Curb Your Enthusiasm and Chappelle’s Show and of course the long-awaited appearance of the modern sitcom classic Seinfeld, which offered up its first three seasons (though personally, I’ll get more excited when the fourth and fifth seasons are released, since that’s when the show really hit its stride). There were also continued DVD sets of animated favorites The Simpsons (up to the fifth season now) and The Family Guy (the DVDs of which have proved so popular that Fox has renewed the failed show for another go-round).

However, no show was more of a DVD godsend than the complete collection of the 2001 British comedic cult-hit The Office. This mockumentary of mind numbingly boring office life is the brainchild of writer Ricky Gervais, who also stars as office manager David Brent, one of the most clueless, arrogant and mortifyingly embarrassing characters you’ll ever meet. At times smartly subtle, other times excruciatingly severe, The Office is always painfully hilarious.

This Complete Collection DVD set features both seasons and the follow-up Special, all of which showcase a razor-sharp wit that puts most other TV shows to shame.

Short Cuts (Criterion Collection)

No Best Of DVD list would be complete without at least one entry from the Criterion Collection, that continuing “series of important classic and contemporary films” that all serious DVD collectors know and love. Probably no film of recent memory deserves the Criterion treatment more than Robert Altman’s sprawling 1993 masterpiece, Short Cuts.

Inspired by the short stories of Raymond Carver, Short Cuts weaves together the sordid, darkly funny and violently tragic lives of 22 different characters in 1990’s LA. The unparalleled ensemble cast includes stellar performances from Tim Robbins, Jack Lemmon, Julianne Moore, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Andie MacDowell and Fred Ward, to name just a few.

This two-disc Criterion DVD edition includes documentaries on both the film and Carver, a 1983 radio interview with Carver, a brand-new 25-minute conversation on the film between Altman and Robbins and best of all, a book insert that reprints the 10 Carver stories that inspired the film.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Extended Version)

Sure, 2004 was the year when classic films like Gone With the Wind and The Grapes of Wrath finally made it to DVD, but still no film was more overdue for restoration than Italian director Sergio Leone’s gritty masterpiece of gunfighters and Civil War gold, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Stars Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach even returned to the studio to record voice tracks for lost scenes never dubbed into English.

To Live and Die in LA (Special Edition)

If you only know actor William Peterson from his current role on TV’s CSI, then this is maybe the best film you’ve never seen. With this 1985 crime thriller, director William Friedkin did the impossible: He crafted a car chase that actually topped the famous chase sequence from his 1971 classic The French Connection.

To Live and Die in LA also delivers one hell of a shocking finale.

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore

Better known as the film that inspired the TV series Alice than as one of director Martin Scorcese’s best films, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is a true classic of the 1970s. Featuring a terrific performance from Ellen Burstyn, it’s more heartbreaking and honestly emotional than any romantic drama produced since.

Clerks (10th Anniversary Edition)

This 3-disc set of writer/director Kevin Smith’s 1994 breakout indie hit boasts plenty of hilarious extras, including an interesting, feature length, behind the scenes documentary, an all-new animated lost scene, Smith’s appearances on The Tonight Show and two different profanity laced commentary tracks.

Late Night with Conan O'Brien — The Best of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog

Created and voiced by former Saturday Night Live writer Robert Smigel, Triumph the Insult Comics Dog has provided some of the funniest moments of television’s last ten years, including his dog-humping visits to the Westminster Dog Show, his appearance on Hollywood Squares (where he sat next to Kathy Lee Gifford) and, most notably, his hilarious roasting of Star Wars fans waiting in line for the film’s premiere.

 

The Worst DVDs of 2004

Star Wars Trilogy

Yes, I’m one of those nerds who’s still upset that director George Lucas chose to release only the updated versions of these films instead of the original classics. And on top of that he even tampered with the movies a little more, putting them more in synch with his newer, far less entertaining batch of Star Wars films.

Dawn of the Dead (Unrated Director’s Cut)

No amount of bells and whistles or all-new unrated gore can hide the fact that this is a terrible remake of a classic horror film. On a positive note, that 1978 original film did get a great new Ultimate Edition DVD release in 2004 featuring three different versions of the film.

Dukes of Hazzard — The Complete First Season

One word: Why?

The Three Musketeers

As usual, Disney manages to claim at least one slot on my Worst Of list, thanks to this piece of uninspired drivel. I pity the poor children who are forced to endure its “comical spins” on the music of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky

Comic Book: The Movie

Just when we comic book fans were starting to claw our way out of the gutters of geekdom into the bright light of social acceptability, along comes this travesty to set us back a few decades.

21 Grams

Great movie, one of the best films of 2003, but the DVD is so barren of special features that it already retails for $9.99. It deserves much better.

The Punisher

The only thing worthwhile about this package is the 28-page mini comic by writer Garth Ennis that’s sealed inside. But if you’re smart, you’ll just buy the comic for $3 and save yourself the burden of watching this wretched film.

Hellboy (Director's Cut)

This was released just a few months after the Hellboy: Two Disc Special Edition, which apparently wasn’t so “special” after all.

Kill Bill Volumes One and Two

Since these two splatterfest masterworks were originally intended to be one movie, you just know there’s a Kill Bill: Special Edition in the works that lumps them both together. Why not just put it out first?

Duplex

Bad movie. Bad waste of plastic packaging. Bad waste of time.

 


              
              
                 

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