Michael Sragow's 10 best films of 2004

December 31, 2004|By Michael Sragow

A Very Long Engagement. Jean-Pierre Jeunet's epic about a Frenchwoman's quest to find a fiance left for dead in the First World War encompasses genres as different as private-eye films, cliffhangers and love stories, and brings them off with a cascade of flourishes as affecting as they are eye-popping. But what holds everything together is the script that Jeunet and Guillaume Laurant devised from Sebastien Japrisot's novel. The film's verbal balance is so exquisite that it achieves a powerhouse climax with 13 spare words of narration: "So Mathilde looks at him, she looks at him, she looks at him."

Miracle. "Great moments are born from great opportunity. That's what you have here, tonight, boys. That's what you've earned here tonight. One game. If we played them 10 times, they might win nine, but not this game. Not tonight. Tonight, we skate. Tonight, we stay with them, and we shut them down, because we can! Tonight, we are the greatest hockey team in the world. You were born to be hockey players, every one of you. And you were meant to be here tonight. ... This is your time. Their time is done, it's over. I'm sick and tired of hearing about what a great hockey team the Soviets have. Screw 'em. This is your time. Now go out there and take it!" In a year of startlingly good male lead performances, none was more powerful than Kurt Russell's as Coach Herb Brooks, who motivated the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team to conquer an arrogant Russian squad. And none had a more potent climactic speech.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. A studio-made special-effects fantasy with the depth and multiple hues of a location masterpiece like The Black Stallion. And then there's the crystalline script (see above).

Before Sunset. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, the couple from writer-director Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise (who shares script credit with his actors for this one), meet again after nine years and rebuild their love by tapping into shared insights and instincts and a joint appetite for magic. The movie rises and keeps swelling on the flow of its long, unbroken conversations. But it's also studded with aphorisms that Hawke and Delpy put over with tenderness and bite. He says, about his marriage, "I feel like I'm running a small nursery with someone I used to date," and she sums up much of the movie when she says, "Memories are wonderful things, if you don't have to deal with the past."

Sideways. The year's best-written individual love scene comes courtesy of director Alexander Payne and his co-writer Jim Taylor in one of 2004's funniest comedies. On a porch in California wine country, maladroit novelist Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Maya (Virginia Madsen), a waitress working on her master's degree in horticulture, share their views on wine and sweep each other away. Miles talks about Pinot, "a hard grape to know," one that's "thin-skinned, temperamental," but when "coaxed into its fullest expression" boasts flavors that "are the most haunting and brilliant and subtle and thrilling on the planet." But Maya outdoes him - and undoes him, and every man in the audience - when she says, "I love how wine continues to evolve, how every time I open a bottle it's going to taste different than if I had opened it any other day. Because a bottle of wine is actually alive - it's constantly evolving and gaining complexity."

The Aviator. For all of director Martin Scorsese's exhilarating and organic razzle-dazzle, the single element that does the most to raise the epic story of young Howard Hughes to its dramatic pinnacle is Leonardo DiCaprio's performance and his appreciation for the down-home eloquence in John Logan's script. "We build a plane that flies above the weather and we could get every man, woman and child in this country to feel safe up there ... . An airplane with the ability to fly into the sub-stratosphere - across the country - across the world ... . Now that is the future." In speeches like that, DiCaprio captures the drive and rhythm of American ambition and hustle.

The Incredibles. Yes, it's another funny, exciting computer-animated triumph from Pixar. But it's done in a brand-new comic-book style brought to them by writer-director Brad Bird (who did 1999's magical The Iron Giant for Warner Bros.). He worked out the script so intricately that it provoked debates about conformity and mediocrity in American culture while offering action scenes as beautifully visualized as the best of Harold Lloyd or Buster Keaton - or comic-book artists like Jack Kirby.

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