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Monday, January 03, 2005

My Top 30 Movies of 2004
I went to the movies 106 times in 2004, and for those of you keeping score at home, the breakdown was as follows: 50 films from the Americas (41 from the States, five from Central/South America, and four from Canada), 42 from Europe (10 from Spain, eight from Britain, seven from France, and 17 from the rest of the continent), eight from Asia, four from the Middle East, one from Australia, and one from Africa. (I use the official production designation to make this calculation, so even if a movie is about the Middle East, if it was produced by a European company, it counts as European—this was true of a couple of films I saw in the Seattle Arab and Iranian Film Festival.) I saw 91 features and 15 documentaries, two animated movies, and one silent film with live organ accompaniment. Purists would say that some of these aren’t 2004 films, but if that’s when I saw them, that’s what they are. The complete list of movies seen (at the cinema) is here, but my Top 30 are:

1. Mar Adentro (Spain). Since the key to enjoying culture (or perhaps life itself) is managing expectations, I was a little worried that I was going into this film hoping for too much. Having seen it, I’m not sure it would be possible to set one’s preconceptions high enough to be disappointed (though Stephen Holden, who wrote the New York Times review, wasn’t bowled over). All I can tell you is that I left the cinema devastated—a wreck who could barely speak—but not because of the sad story. Yes, Ramón Sampedro’s life story is sad, but although his struggle to end his life was at the center of the film, for me at least there were other, more dominating themes—particularly different ways of showing love. The film is so gorgeous (without that feeling of lovely emptiness that beautifully photographed films sometimes have) that it took my breath away. (I wish I could buy shares in Galician tourism.) And there just aren’t words (in English, Spanish, or Galician) to say how amazingly good Javier Bardem is. Outstanding.

2. Nathalie (France). As I’ve said elsewhere [penultimate item], I sometimes wonder if I can rely on my response to the movies I see at SIFF—seeing so many films so close together messes with your critical faculties—but I’m pretty sure this was one of the most erotic films I’ve ever seen, even though, as the woman sitting next to me said, with some irritation, at the end of the movie, “Nothing happened.” Fanny Ardant is a beautiful, elegant woman (the only actress who can outshine Catherine Deneuve—and if you don’t believe me, check out that scene in 8 Women one more time), and sometimes it’s hard to see past that, but in Nathalie she showed what a fine, subtle actress she can be. This wasn’t the second-best film of the year, but I was very affected by it, and it gets big points for that reason alone.

3. Dear Frankie (Scotland). Like the two films above it, I liked this movie as much for what it didn’t do as for what it did. The story of a woman who lies to her son about his father, and then tries to fool him by passing off a man she doesn’t know as his long-lost dad, the relationships were beautifully portrayed, and the acting was fabulous. Emily Mortimer was especially good—one of those portrayals that drives all the other movies you’ve seen her in out of your mind. I was positive she was a Scot, then days later I saw her as an upper-class English twit in Bright Young Things. This year, for reasons I can’t explain, a lot of the films I enjoyed had children at their centers; Jack McElhone, the lad who played Frankie, was also brilliant.

4. La Pelota Vasca: La Piel Contra la Piedra (Spain). A documentary by my favorite director, Julio Medem, about Basque nationalism/separatism. Seeing it in the States, where even the biggest newshounds in the audience couldn’t really follow who was speaking and what they represent, it’s hard to comprehend the immense controversy it aroused in Spain. It’s hardly surprising they couldn’t follow—Medem stuffed so much material into the two hours of the English version (I see there’s a very extended Spanish version now available) that he even cut out the natural pauses in speech, which means it was tough to keep up with the speaker IDs and the subtitles (and even Spanish speakers often needed to read subtitles since some of the interviewees spoke Basque). Although it was basically a talking-head documentary, the shot selection and direction were clearly the work of a genius. I do hope that Medem can make more features after the reception the documentary got at home—I love how his films are cerebral and emotional at the same time.

5. Harold’s Home Movies (USA). Harold’s Home Movies, a selection from the miles of footage shot over many decades by Hal O’Neal was one of my favorite movie events from 2002. Now it’s even more amazing, since my pals Sean and Jason spent hours interviewing Hal and Torg, his partner of more than 50 years, and have incorporated their commentary and a fabulous soundtrack into the movie. As I said back in 2002, it’s a fascinating flashback to gay society in very different times, and it was made all the more poignant by Hal’s death this June.

6 (tied) Wondrous Oblivion (UK) and The Miracle of Bern (Germany). Very similar movies in a way—perhaps the British and the German versions of the same idea. In Wondrous Oblivion, a cricket-mad Jewish English boy learns to play the game and learns about racism from the West Indian family that moves in next door; in The Miracle of Bern, soccer helps a German boy bond with the father who has returned from a Russian POW camp (Matthias wasn’t born when he left home) and is having a hell of a time adjusting to “normal” life. They’re both sentimental and more than a little bit clichéd, but they both moved me, and this list is about how much I liked them, hence their stratospheric placement on the list.

8. Spanglish (USA). I mostly went to see this film because I was curious to see how Paz Vega would do in a Hollywood movie (the short answer: very well; she’s ridiculously miscast, but she’s absolutely convincing, which is the most important thing I think). I expected it to be terrible, but how wrong I was. James L. Brooks’ ambition (to make a film about a family whose members love each other, even when that is a challenge) is commendable. I was shocked by how poor the film’s reviews were.

9. Off the Map (USA). To quote myself: “A very quiet and unhurried movie that never seemed slow. The story of a precocious and confident young girl who lives with her hippy parents in Nowheresville, N.M. … Actor-directors often make movies that are a long string of climaxes full of the kind of speeches that play well at the Oscar ceremony, but Campbell Scott completely avoided that here. There are some marvelous performances from Joan Allen, Sam Elliott, and Valentina de Angelis as the young narrator.” I’m really surprised it never had a proper theatrical release.

10. Cachorro (Spain). Back in October, I was on the features jury for the Seattle Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. I’m afraid it wasn’t a great year for gay cinema—at least at the Seattle festival—but this film was the unanimous choice for the Best Feature Film award, and I reckon it would’ve won even if there had been 10 great films up against it. A sex-positive film about an HIV-positive bear whose life is turned upside down when he becomes his nephew’s de facto guardian, it’s hard to imagine this film even being made in the States, much less receiving a buttload of public sponsorship money.

11. Noviembre (Spain). Perhaps this movie deserves a higher spot on the list since it has stayed with me longer than some of the films ranked above it. A kind of mockumentary from the future about an avant-garde theater troupe; the concept is a little bit strained, but the street theater scenes are amazing.

12. Jagoda in the Supermarket (Serbia). A great film about the changing political and social systems of Eastern Europe—worth its place on the list for the Balkan brass band that plays in the supermarket parking lot while the crowd gathers to cheer on Jagoda and her “kidnapper.”

13 (tied) Heir to an Execution (USA) and My Architect (USA). Heir to an Execution was directed by Ivy Meeropol, the granddaughter of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and concerns her lifelong attempt to understand the family dynamics that allowed her grandmother to die, thus leaving her two small sons orphaned, when she could have made a deal and lived. In My Architect, Nathaniel Kahn tried to learn more about the father he barely knew, architect Louis Kahn.

15. In Your Hands (Denmark). A very moving Dogme film set in a Danish women’s prison. The main protagonist is a woman priest who longs to have a child; although she is undoubtedly a believer, she wonders if one of the inmates has spiritual powers. Although abortion is a major theme, it’s really a movie about faith.

16. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (USA). A better film than lots of the movies above it on this list, but I found it cold and calculating. I admired it greatly, but I didn’t really enjoy it.

17 (tied) Maria, Full of Grace (US/Colombia) and B-Happy (Chile). When filmmakers and actors show up at SIFF, their presence usually enhances the viewing experience (for example, the directors of Heir to an Execution and In Your Hands were both very impressive women who gave really interesting answers to the audience’s questions). I must admit that Joshua Marston rather put me off his film—he came across as smug and self-satisfied. Still, Catalina Sandino Moreno was magnificent, and Marston deserves credit for finding her and making the movie. Like MFoG, B-Happy is the story of a young woman who takes great personal risks to get out of a bad situation. Like MFoG, it’s the young actress, in this case Manuela Martelli, who makes it special.

19. La Vida Que Te Espera (Spain). A very flawed film that tried to do too much—it couldn’t quite decide which genre to explore—but it really got to me.

20. Walk on Water (Israel). The German siblings’ rendition of “Cinderella Rockefeller” at the kibbutz talent show isn’t the only reason I liked this film. I found its big issues—Israeli homophobia, right-on young Germans' attitudes to their grandparents' wartime politics—rather pro forma, but the acting was great as was the general tone of the movie.

21. Te Doy Mis Ojos (Spain). I think I gave this film my highest rating on the SIFF pass-holders’ ballot, but Icíar Bollaín’s harrowing movie about domestic violence hasn’t really stayed with me. All I really remember six months after seeing it are some beautiful shots of Toledo and Candela Peña’s wonderful turn as the abused woman’s sister.

22 (tied) Bonjour, Monsieur Schlomi (Israel) and The Triplets of Belleville (Canada/France). Two fabulous family dramas about grandparents and grandchildren.

24. Garden State (USA). More family drama. Hmm, I sense a theme.

25. A Mi Madre Le Gustan Las Mujeres (Spain). A silly movie, but full of joy. Still, I completely agree with the person who wrote this IMDb user comment: “The lesbian relationship between the mother's character (Rosa Maria Sarda, wonderful as always) and her lover is totally unbelievable and artificial—they don't even kiss each other during the whole film!”

26. The Game of Their Lives (UK). A documentary about the astounding success of the North Korean team in the 1966 World Cup. It’s fascinating to see how much international soccer has changed and how little North Korea has changed over the last 40 years. There are amazing scenes when the former players, now old men, weep when they think of former President Kim Song-il. Now there’s a cult of personality that even the most popular footballer couldn’t rival.

27. Torremolinos 73 (Spain). An encyclopedia salesman becomes a porn star and then a serious filmmaker in the middle of Franco’s Spain. Silly, but the acting of Javier Cámara (Benigno in Hable Con Ella, Paco in La Mala Educación) and Candela Peña is excellent.

28. In Good Conscience: Sister Jeannine Gramick's Journey of Faith (USA). A powerful documentary about an extremely articulate nun silenced by religious authorities because of her work ministering to lesbian and gay Catholics.

29. Sideways (USA). I really should move this up—it’s a smart movie for adults, and I was really impressed by Alexander Payne, who took some questions after the screening I attended. I particularly loved his comments about casting—he chose the actors because he wanted them to look like the people they were playing (a middling actor, a schlubby wannabe novelist, a smart waitress, a vineyard worker), which really made me think about casting in a new way. But Tony Scott put his finger on my problem with the film in today’s New York Times: “It both satirizes and affirms a cherished male fantasy: that however antisocial, self-absorbed and downright unattractive a man may be, he can always be rescued by the love of a good woman. (What's in it for her is less clear.)”

30. The Aviator (USA). It gets its place on the list almost exclusively on the strength of Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of Katharine Hepburn. I have to say, though, that as I was leaving the cinema, I was very surprised to notice that almost three hours had passed—that’s a very good sign.

So, the breakdown for the top 30: US 10, Spain 8 (pretty amazing since I only saw 10 Spanish movies this year—let’s face it, I’m in the bag for el cine español), 3 from Britain; 2 from Israel, and 1 each from France, Germany, Serbia, Denmark, Colombia, Chile, and Canada. I missed several big movies—Vera Drake being the one most likely to have made the list. Funny how the ones that got away seem the most interesting sometimes.