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Best Films of 2004

     There’s much too much Jude Law, but how else to characterize the cinema of 2004? What about declaring it The Year of the Bio-pic Bisexual Male? With a new daring for Hollywood, audiences were snuck into the boudoirs of such homo-curious protagonists as Alexander the Great and Alfred Kinsey and De-Lovely’s Cole Porter, all of whom, with their wives’ knowledge, invited boy-things between the sheets.

     Any more bisexuals?

     Considering the biographical subjects of other 2004 films, there could have been far more AC/DC switching on the screen. The Aviator director Martin Scorsese was too old-school Catholic to explore womanizer Howard Hughes’s proclivity for male lovers, documented by the randy billionaire’s biographers. Miramax Pictures was surely too concerned about red-state box office to push the so-obvious Freudian reading of Finding Neverland’s James M. Barrie: the married Peter Pan author hung out obsessively with pre-pubescent boys because - why else? - he was attracted to them. There’s not a Michael Jackson moment in the unbearably chaste, boring film.

     And what about Troy? I defer to New Yorker film critic David Denby, who is a Great-Books scholar of The Iliad. According to Denby, Brad Pitt’s Achilles should have been less a ladies man and more, in line with Homeric ethos, heels-over-head enamored of Garrett Hedlund’s Patroclus. Only then does it make sense when Achilles goes bananas over Patroclus’s death.

     2004 proved a shaky time for the once-invincible House of Harvey. Miramax’s bullying boss, Harvey Weinstein, was not only sucker-punched and embarrassed by Peter Biskind’s pungent muckraking tome, Down and Dirty Pictures, but he saw the Miramax grip on key indie filmmakers seriously challenged, especially by Fox Searchlight Films. "Harvey Scissorshand" has regarded most Miramax directors as work-for-hire underlings, often reediting their work himself, and in a manipulative, sentimental way. Fox Searchlight is pledged to an anti-Weinstein and very un-Hollywood policy, allowing its filmmakers not only leeway with script and casting but complete authority over the final cut. Can such enlightenment last for a subsidiary of tyrant Rupert Murdoch?

     For now, Fox Searchlight is where Kinsey was made, also David O. Russell’s erratic but highly original I Heart the Huckabees, and the year’s best film, Alexander Payne’s Sideways. Credit Fox Searchlight for non-interference when, as the legend goes, Payne actively discouraged box-office star George Clooney from taking the lead. Clooney gave way to Paul Giamatti, whose portrayal of a neurotic wine expert is the finest acting performance of 2004.

     Can a film critic lose his cool? Thirty minutes after the excitement of the Sideways world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, I entered an elevator and there was Alexander Payne. I barely know the guy, but that didn’t stop me from surprising him with a clumsy "thank you" hug. I Heart Sideways!

     The best foreign film? Distant, almost unseen in America, concerning the visit to an alienated Istanbul photographer by his country cousin, from Turkey’s master director, Nuri Bilge Ceylan.

     The Ten Best Fiction Films of 2004: Sideways, Before Sunset, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Spongebob Squarepants Movie, We Don’t Live Here Anymore, Distant (Turkey), Moolade (Senegal), Notre Musique (France), Blind Shaft (China), Tanner on Tanner (Robert Altman TV film).

     And these ten runners-up: The Door in the Floor, Garden State, Spider Man 2, Birth, Collateral, Goodbye Dragon Inn (Taiwan), Yossi and Jagger (Israel), The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi (Japan), Noi (Iceland), Red Lights (France).

     Best Documentary (tie): Tarnation, The Story of the Weeping Camel (Germany-Mongolia).

     The rest of the Ten Best: Supersize Me, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry, The Five Obstructions, Power Trip, Girlhood, DIG!, Outfoxed.

     And these ten runners-up: Tying the Knot, Touching the Void, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, Festival Express, The Lost Boys of Sudan, Bukowski: Born into This, End of the Century: the Story of the Ramones, Flag Wars, Word Wars, Tom Dowd and the Language of Music.

     Best local film: Ross McElwee’s Bright Leaves.

     Best Director: Payne, Sideways.

     Best Screenplay: Payne and Jim Taylor, Sideways.

     Best actor: Giamatti, Sideways.

     Best Actress: Hilary Swank, Million Dollar Baby.

     Best Supporting Actor: Clive Owen, Closer.

     Best Supporting Actress: Sandra Oh, Sideways.

     Best Cinematography: Harris Savides, Birth.

GERALD PEARY
Boston Phoenix - December, 2004

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