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In the effort to winnow down the more than 300 movies I saw
in 2004 to a list of the best 10, I’ve fudged things a bit so as to allow for
a total of 12. In two cases, a pair of films complemented each other so well
— almost as if their respective makers were enjoying a conversation with each
other — that it simply seemed wrong to tear them asunder. Arriving at these
dozen titles nonetheless entailed painful acts of omission in a year that brought
an embarrassment of riches, both domestic and imported, to local screens.

1. Star Spangled to Death/Notre Musique. It
took avant-garde cinema pioneer Ken Jacobs some 46 years to complete his nearly
seven-hour mixed-media diegesis about the buying, selling and selling-out of
America. Jean-Luc Godard was considerably quicker in fashioning his 80-minute
elegy to several centuries of global terrorism and inhumanity. Separately or
together, however, these were the most provocative, urgent, mind-blowing movie
experiments of the year, both the product of filmmakers in their 70s and, in
many ways, the capstones to two of the most remarkable careers in cinema.

2. Kill Bill Vol. 2. No mere sequel to its ephemeral
2003 predecessor, Vol. 2 proved a wholesale reimagining of it — Tarantino’s
unabashed movie love marbled with an equally powerful mother love and circumspection
about the consequences of violence. Pound for pound, ounce for ounce, this was
136 minutes of physical and psychological exhilaration of a sort rarely seen
on movie screens since Tarantino’s own Pulp Fiction.

3. Dogville. Nicole Kidman (in a career-best performance)
was the alabaster-skinned angel both fallen and avenging in agent provocateur
Lars von Trier’s post-postmodern morality play. Though it’s not to everyone’s
liking, neither is most art this startling, fearless and innovative.

4. Million Dollar Baby. Clint Eastwood’s rapturously
beautiful boxing movie was built on the foundation of classic Hollywood melodrama,
but executed with the intensity and unpredictability of a Charlie Parker solo.

5. Moolaadé. Jacobs, Godard and Eastwood
seem like young tykes next to 81-year-old Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene,
who proved he was still at the top of his form with this exuberant, masterfully
executed study of African village life and the clashing of modernity with entrenched
tradition.

6. Vera Drake. As its titular housemaid/abortionist
(the magnificent Imelda Staunton) traversed the social strata of London circa
1950, so Mike Leigh’s latest revealed itself to be one of his most penetrating
studies in class, behavior and those things left unacknowledged by polite society.

7. Distant. It took Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge
Ceylan’s Chekhovian tale of a middle-aged still photographer and his country-mouse
cousin 16 months to make it from its Cannes Film Festival premiere to its Los
Angeles opening. But that delay seemed oddly befitting of a movie that is itself
a study of the glacial passage of time, and how easily we can become lost in
the endless tedium of everyday routines.

8. Before Sunset. Along with Tarantino’s, this sequel
deepened, enriched and enlarged upon its 1995 predecessor, Before Sunrise.
Under the assured hand of Richard Linklater (in tandem with co-conspirators
Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy), what started out as a melancholic study of missed
opportunity gradually evolved into the most elating movie romance of its era.
And oh that talk, that glorious talk.

9. Kinsey. The best of the year’s multitudinous
biopics, and an inspired case of cinematic form following function. In recounting
the life and work of the sexual revolution’s Johnny Appleseed, writer-director
Bill Condon tailored his film’s clinical, scientific style to the personality
of its subject. Kinsey was also the most openly, progressively, unabashedly
sexual American film since Paul Schrader’s Auto Focus and — judging by
the protests it engendered — proof that, nearly 50 years after Kinsey’s death,
his work remains unfinished.

10. Collateral/Los Angeles Plays Itself. Two
disharmonious symphonies of our fair city — the first, Michael Mann’s nocturnal
odyssey of hit men, taxicabs and MTA trains careening through the neon-lit night;
the other, Thom Andersen’s acerbic essay about how movies like Mann’s do or
(more often) don’t accurately represent the place in which they were made.