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Prime Cinema

The Best of 2004

OK. First, I have a confession to make: I haven't seen many movies this year that I haven't been paid to see. Cinema Team CP has three soldiers, and from week to week we divvy up the product between us. I rarely ask to review Hollywood movies, and Team Leader Al ("Sir, yes, sir!") rarely asks me to.


Back when I was a pup, I felt obligated to "catch up" on the Hollywood detritus that I didn't have time or space to review. But now that I'm a silverback, I'm perfectly happy to let it all float out to sea on a cinematic gar-barge. Weekend after weekend I've tried to drag my sagging ass to see The Terminal or Van Helsing or The Day After Tomorrow. But somehow I always found something more pressing to do. (You should see how short my toenails are.)


And so my roundup of this year's fare probably consists of numerous movies you haven't seen. But you should see them, because they're all very good. And lest you think I'm a sucker for anything with subtitles and symbolism, think again! The good thing about a bad art film is that it gives you plenty to write about.


Here, then, is my list, beginning with my '04 fave and going alphabetically from there.


Primer. Writer/director/editor/star Shane Carruth earned a math degree in college and a film degree with his $7,000 debut feature, a clever science fiction in which two young corporate turks invent a sort of time machine in a two-car garage. Don't worry about keeping up with the film's loopy narrative: Carruth may not want you to. There's plenty else to cogitate in all he says about science, ethics, friendship, desire, envy, responsibility, the road not taken and the unexamined life.


The Barbarian Invasions. Denys Arcand's beautifully rambling film, a trenchant and moving sequel to his The Decline and Fall of the American Empire (1987), reassembles all of the original actors and their characters to revisit the lives of Rémy, a philandering (and now dying) liberal college professor, and his circle of friends. It's a two-hour volley of dialogues and ideas, easy to understand and difficult to comprehend.


Dogville. The mondo-quirky Danish director Lars von Trier casts Nicole Kidman as a mysterious woman who happens into a mysterious town somewhere in the mysterious Heartland just after World War I. Filmed on a large set, with virtually no props, the recondite three-hour drama allows von Trier to share his gloomy views on America -- which he's never visited.


Elephant and Zero Day. The former by the idiosyncratic Gus Van Sant, the latter by newcomer Ben Coccio, both films tell, in disparate documentary styles, stories of emotionally troubled high school student-assassins. Van Sant's is arty and difficult, Coccio's more lean and accessible. But each is a chilling reminder that the kids are not all right.


Garden State. Who'd'a thunk that goofy Zach Braff, the star of TV's Scrubs, could write, direct and star in this lovely tragic-comedy about a young man reconciling himself to his mother's suicide and his life in general? Peter Saarsgard and Natalie Portman fill out an exceptional cast in a first film that's as humane as it is smart.


Goodbye Lenin. The year's best subtitled comedy comes from Germany and tells the story of a dutiful son, just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, who allows his ailing, dyed-in-the-wool Communist mother to think that East has not met West. Built on wry humor and lovely metaphors, Wolfgang Becker's bittersweet black comedy is an unexpected treat.


Hukkle. It's great to have real Hungarian cinema back now that Istvan Szabo is a Hollywood director (Being Julia). György Pálfi's odd film is a challenge and a bizarre pleasure to watch. The title, which means "hiccup," refers to an old man whose gastro-respiratory affliction is both music and a metaphor for life in a lethargic rural town that's at once touchingly real and disturbingly surreal.


The Ladykillers. What's this heresy?! A remake of a classic -- one of the year's best??? What can I say? I laughed and laughed at Joel and Ethan Coen's retelling of the famously droll 1955 Ealing comedy, with Tom Hanks stepping in for Alec Guinness and his overbite.


Red Lights. From France comes this intelligent and satisfying thriller-cum-domestic-drama about a husband, a wife, a vacation and an escaped killer. Cédric Khan, adapting a story by Georges Simenon, keeps the emotions and the suspense wound tight, and his actors deliver it all beautifully.


Stage Beauty. There's more than enough to keep you talking and thinking in Richard Eyre's adaptation of Jeffrey Hatcher's Restoration-era romp about a Shakespearian acting company in turmoil when the King decrees that women shall play women's roles on stage. But watch it just for fun, and for Billy Crudup's remarkable lead (and title) performance.


Strayed. From André Téchiné comes a deftly nuanced, immutably sad drama of a young mother, her two children and a 17-year-old wanderer who try to survive the war together by hiding in the French countryside. But this is no story of the triumph of the human spirit, and Téchiné brings it to a climax so ruthless that you'd almost rather have it end with another German air attack.


Finally, this was a good year for documentaries, like Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, which had a coup in mind, and Errol Morris' The Fog of War, in which Robert McNamara gave the interview that Donald Rumsfeld owes us. We also had to suffer through Mel Gibson's Christ addiction in The Passion. (Clearly he still has all 12 steps to go.) Tim Burton's sublimely entertaining Big Fish, a 2003 film, made it to town in January; and Pedro Almodovar's Bad Education, his homage to himself and to living out loud, arrives in January '05. In the meantime, don't overdo the holidays, and don't rent crap. You've been forewarned.