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2004: The Year In Movies

Luke Rush counts down the best films of 2004

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12. Super Size Me
Director: Morgan Spurlock

It’s practically common knowledge by now that fast food is generally bad for you (though judging by the increase in related lawsuits, public responsibility regarding that fact seems to be waning), but Morgan Spurlock’s gutsy, voyeuristic exercise in public awareness is the first time someone has gone as far as to put a face on it. Turning himself into a garrulous, engaging emcee in the name of science, Spurlock’s Super Size Me is an informative, entertaining and sometimes shocking document, part documentary and part road movie. To think that he was rejected from film school five times is enough to give any burgeoning filmmaker hope.

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11. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Director: Alfonso Cuaron

The third installment in the Harry Potter series has been cited by the greatest number of fans as the best story to this point, and the movie version holds true to that proclamation all the way through. Azkabanis also the darkest of the first three in terms of theme, so the move to Cuaron as director works just as well as you might think. The kids are noticeably more comfortable than they were at the start, but the presence of notable supporting talent like David Thewlis (Professor Lupin) and Gary Oldman (a striking turn as Sirius Black, a cornerstone character in terms of importance if not presence) pushes this one over the top. An adventure fit for any audience, young or old.

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10. Shaun of the Dead
Director: Edgar Wright

A smash hit in its native Britain, Shaun of the Dead was unjustifiably quite a flop in the States, never reaching a level of release that would have allowed it to make a real dent. And that’s a shame, because Shaun is a well-written, whip-smart comedy that comes off well regardless of whether you’re a zombie cinema aficionado or not. Simon Pegg, the title character and also the film’s co-writer with director Wright, creates the perfect modern anti-hero with his oafish flatmate Ed (Nick Frost). Chock full of pop culture references both common and obscure, Shaun of the Dead is destined to become a cult classic (Office Space, anyone?), just due for a movie that never really had a chance in America.

The opening of a new IKEA store

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09. Goodbye, Lenin!
Director: Wolfgang Becker

On the surface, Goodbye Lenin! is a story about a newly-liberated Germany struggling to come to grips with Capitalism. Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll find a touching story about a son who loves his mother enough to go incredible lengths to keep her alive, even if it means intentionally distorting reality. Goodbye Lenin! is a sweet, whimsical fable the likes of which we don’t see very often anymore, entirely fictional but still grounded within the confines of basic reality. Becker, who also co-wrote the screenplay, intertwines social commentary with some striking comedic moments, to great effect. Certainly one of the year’s great surprises.

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08. Control Room
Director: Jehane Noujaim

Control Room was this season’s most striking documentary by virtue of its modest intentions. It was made not to inflame or provoke, as most were during this election season, but to merely tell a familiar story from a different angle. The proliferation and influence of the news media is nothing new to Americans, but to see the media influence by way of the Middle East and its primary media mouthpiece, Al Jazeera, one sees that the general role of network news in culture is quite universal. Noujaim juxtaposes the efforts of Al Jazeera with the public relations efforts of other organizations as well as the American military in Iraq, on a balanced, depoliticized stage. It passes no judgment, and there are no antagonists or protagonists, just a public relations battle that finds its greatest divergence in the two sides’ cultural philosophies.

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07. Collateral
Director: Michael Mann

Michael Mann has proven himself to be equally adept at creating compelling character sketches about both ordinary people and extraordinary people (The Insider being an example of the former, and Alibeing one of the latter), and his 2004 effort, Collateral, finds him dabbling in the corner of each. The interplay between Jamie Foxx’s everyman taxi driver Max and Tom Cruise’s amoral, impenitent hitman Vincent brings the two groups face to face, a culture clash of sorts that finds two men just trying to make their living, albeit through wildly factious avenues. The film boasts a top-notch cast, even below the headliners (including Mark Ruffalo, Bruce McGill, Javier Bardem and Peter Berg, who directed this year’s Friday Night Lights), and Mann’s knack for handsome, atmospheric nightscapes gives the film a suitably reined-in, claustrophobic feel.

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06. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Director: Michel Gondry

If you’re a music fan, you’ve probably seen Michel Gondry’s handiwork accompanying the White Stripes’ “Fell In Love With A Girl” or any number of pop videos. His gifts as a visual trickster play well with the quirky strengths of Charlie Kaufman’s script (a redundancy if I’ve ever heard one, “quirky” and “Charlie Kaufman”) for the audaciously titled Eternal Sunshine, as well as a group of actors who can ably carry that aura of quirkiness along. Buoyed by what is arguably Jim Carrey’s finest performance to date and a resplendent Kate Winslet (lest we forget Elijah Wood, Kirsten Dunst, Tom Wilkinson, and yes, Mark Ruffalo), it is the antithesis of Before Sunset’s traditionalist romance, but no less the attuned love story with its finger right on the relations between the heart and the mind.

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05. Finding Neverland
Director: Marc Forster

You can usually tell after seeing a movie whether the director truly had his heart into the project or not, and it becomes flagrantly apparent in the case of Finding Neverland that Marc Forster was pursuing his vision with a reckless abandon. It’s a fantastic story about a legendary story, and while it is certainly susceptible to fits of creative license, it becomes rather easy to just roll with the tides of the crisp, well-told tale of James Barrie and his realization of Peter Pan. It’s honest, heartfelt, and true to itself, which is more than we can seem to ask of most films these days. If your eyes aren’t damp by the end, then you probably didn’t invest in the story as much as the film itself does. But they won’t be.

Marc Forster’s Finding Neverland

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04. Million Dollar Baby
Director: Clint Eastwood

I couldn’t help but think time and time again during Million Dollar Baby of how ironic it is that the man who might very well be the greatest living American director – who not only writes the musical scores for his films but carries them along on a bed of emotion and nuance that every other movie director should wish they had such a feel for – was the guy who once played Dirty Harry Callahan. Million Dollar Baby uses boxing as nothing more than a surface metaphor, its axioms as analogous to life’s trials and tribulations. The boxing sequences, while impressively carried off, are secondary to the exchanges amongst the three primary characters, which vacillate from the standard Eastwood terseness to engrossing, near-lyrical dialogues. It’s not a stretch to think that all three, Eastwood, Hilary Swank, and good-as-ever Morgan Freeman, could and should get nominated. It seemed unusual that the first Oscar season in four years not to have the specter of the Lord of the Rings hanging overhead didn’t have a surefire favorite, but after all, that was just the first 11 ½ months. It’s here now.

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03. The Passion of the Christ
Director: Mel Gibson

While it was bound to meet an avalanche of contradictory opinions in light of the fuss that was raised long before its release, one thing is for sure about The Passion: There’s never been anything like it. The best thing that The Passion had going for it is that it wasn’t made by someone within the Pentecostal Christian/Falwell-approved loop, a group who would have undoubtedly shunned the film’s heretofore unseen level of personal violence had it taken place under any other set of pretenses. They certainly would have never put something like that to film themselves. Gibson never budged from his original concept ofThe Passion, and it shows. The film is unflinching, brutal, audacious and uncompromising in every sense, light years beyond Scorsese’s revisionist history of Christ or any Christian-endorsed filmmaker’s Sunday School-ing of crucial historic material. Mel Gibson might be a radical, but then again, radicals do seem to have a flair for getting people’s attention.

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02. Sideways
Director: Alexander Payne

Chances are that you’ll probably find a lot of flawed movies about perfect people at your local cineplex – I’m looking at you, Hollywood –  but much less often do you find a perfect movie about flawed people. Or at least a just-about-perfect movie.Sideways finds its beauty in the flaws of a handful of lost, wandering souls, and a little bit of northern California sun… But mostly the lost souls. Paul Giamatti is quickly going to have to take out a patent on the sad-sack character, taking one step closer to being this generation’s everyman actor with his performance as Miles, an aspiring author who buries his constant struggles in his auspiciously astute knowledge of wine. Sidewaysis a familiar story, being that we’ve seen its characters in our own daily travails, friends and acquaintances who make the same mistakes and find it hard to snap out of their bad habits. We laugh at the characters in Sideways because we know this sort of stuff happens. Sometimes it even happens to us.


01. Garden State
Director: Zach Braff

The Passion might be the bigger spectacle with all of the press, and Sideways might be the finely honed, spit-polished tale of human ineptitude, but there wasn’t a single movie in 2004 that charmed any me more than Garden State. It’s not a perfect film, but as a level headed, personable examination of everything from suburbia to family life to the sometimes-aimless purpose searching of young adulthood, it’s dead on. As evidenced by this movie and his directorial efforts on Scrubs, it’s pretty clear that Zach Braff, despite being a relative greenhorn on the scene, knows how to put together an affecting, emotionally relevant story arc. Add an immaculate supporting cast of Ian Holm, Peter Sarsgaard and that irresistible pixie Natalie Portman (her idiosyncrasies here seem to match up pretty squarely with her precocious youngster from Beautiful Girls), and you’ve got yourself a small-scale masterpiece.

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Honorable Mention

– Before Sunset (Director: Richard Linklater)
– Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (Director: Adam McKay)
– The Corporation (Directors: Jennifer Abbott and Mark Achbar)
– Mean Girls (Director: Mark S. Waters)
– Friday Night Lights (Director: Peter Berg)
– The Terminal (Director: Steven Spielberg)

Film

Election still wins by a landslide

Twenty years later, the black comedy Election is still a hysterical look at power grabs and the meaning of integrity. But while the film hasn’t changed, the story is completely different —and better than ever.

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Election

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the incisive satire Election. Based on a Tom Perotta novel, Election tells the story of a high-school civics teacher, Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick), who plans to take down know-it-all student Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) as she vies for school council.

The film is still hilarious — a well-liked but sad-sack teacher tries to thwart an overachiever’s bid for school president by throwing a popular football hero into the race (and, accidentally, his disaffected sister). Thematically, it’s as relevant as ever. Integrity. Meritocracy. Nihilism. Hypocrisy. Ethics versus morals.

Watching Jim and Tracy’s battle of the wits many years ago, I recall Election posing the question not just of who would win, but who should win. The audience grappled with who to root for because Tracy and Jim’s misdeeds were presented on relatively equal footing. On paper, Jim’s deeds are far more dastardly than Tracy’s, but at the time, their personalities mattered more. Reviewers painted Jim as imperfect but well intentioned, while Tracy was obnoxious. Seductive. Even an “aggressive vixen” (cough cough Roger Ebert).

But a rewatch in 2019 reveals Tracy as more of a heroine than ever — and Jim McAllister a more pathetic and mean-spirited hypocrite than he seemed 20 years ago.

Part of what fuels Jim’s disdain for Tracy is a complicated plot point—his best friend and fellow teacher, Dave Novotny, was fired because he began sleeping with her. The film (and book) mostly portray Tracy as an equal, willing participant in this relationship, even a manipulative one at that. Tracy narrates her full consent, a point likely meant to assuage viewers and readers of the 90s, but today’s (hopefully) better understanding of power dynamics have us questioning not just the claims of Tracy’s manipulation, but her ability to consent.

A clearer understanding of a troublesome sexual relationship aside, it’s also easier to champion Tracy Flick thanks to shows like Parks and Recreation, a rare mainstream hit that humanizes ambitious women. The strong parallels between Election and Parks and Recreation are obvious. In true Leslie Knope fashion, Tracy’s mother writes letters to successful women like Connie Chung, soliciting advice for her daughter. And the race between Tracy Flick and Paul Metzler—played hysterically by forgotten teen dope of the 90s Chris Klein—closely mirrors Leslie Knope’s city council race against Bobby Newport. In every one of Paul Metzler’s ditzy and excited proclamations, it’s hard not to hear Paul Rudd’s portrayal of Pawnee’s fortunate son turned political candidate. (It’s also hard not to wonder if April Ludgate was partly based off Paul’s nihilistic sister, Tammy.)

More than anything, though, what changes how we see Tracy Flick in 2019 is how we see Jim McAllister in 2019.

Twenty years ago, Jim was far more convincing as a passionate educator. Sure, he was smug and made stupid decisions and treated people poorly. But his steadfast belief in morality (skewed as his version of it was) made him more sympathetic than he deserved to be.

Jim is truly despicable, though. His obsession with thwarting Tracy’s achievements reveals precisely who he is. He is every man who had a chance to achieve and fell short. He is every man who wasted his privilege and settled for something less than great. And he is every man who has ever resented a woman for rising to where he didn’t, despite his head start.

What Jim hates more than anything is feeling bested, particularly by women. After Linda Novotny, Dave’s ex-wife, comes clean about their affair to Jim’s wife Diane, his smothering declarations of love instantly turn dark.

“Why did you do that?” he screams into Linda’s answering machine. “You ruined my life, is that what you wanted?” Later, when Linda explains their tryst was a mistake and that he took advantage of her vulnerability, his anger turns into gaslighting.

“You hugged me! You kissed me!” he whines, as though Linda didn’t promptly reject his first hamfisted advance right after her marriage fell apart. (She did.)

Much as he lectures about it, Jim has a piss-poor understanding of morality. His treatment of Tracy shows how little he cares about a grown man taking advantage of a high-school student; his scolding judgments of Dave’s relationship with her seem performative and self-important. For all the lukewarm proclamations of affection for his wife, when his infidelity is revealed, he expresses nothing more beyond an expectation to be forgiven after a waiting period. And while he wields it often, he shows no understanding of the unfair power dynamic he briefly has with Linda, a vulnerable and confused woman who relied on him for support during a difficult time.

That’s why, when Jim describes seeing Tracy silently celebrating her victory in the hallway outside his classroom, he projects his anger and clings to his version of morality.

Defending his plan to throw the vote count in Paul’s favor, he says: “The sight of Tracy at that moment affected me in a way I can’t explain.”

But we can explain it, no problem. He is filled with pitiful male rage.

After all, underachieving Jim channels his need for validation through his relationship with women — an affair with Linda, “winning” against Tracy. But Tracy only channels hers into achievements. Extracurriculars. College applications. And winning the student council election she knows she deserves. She’s never concerned with “beating” Jim McAllister because she knows just how insignificant he will be in her life. And that infuriates and enrages him, like it does with countless other men when they’re outwitted by a woman.

While the film itself obviously hasn’t changed in 20 years, this dichotomy between Tracy and Jim used to be murkier. Tracy Flick is ambitious, cutthroat, smarter than her classmates and teachers, and shrill. That used to be all you had to say to get an audience to view a female character as at least partially unsympathetic, if not an automatic antagonist.

Back in 1999, Election relied on this assumption to paint Jim’s and Tracy’s wrongdoings in a similar light.The film’s trailer pieced together snippets of Tracy’s most stick-in-the-mud soundbites and pitched the movie as the story of an “ego the size of the Grand Canyon.” And it still is, but now we’re finally asking the right question.

Whose ego is that?

Election was originally released in April of 1999.

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Film Reviews

Film Review: It Chapter Two

The sweet spot between Stephen King fans, horror fans and (believe it or not) comedy fans

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The final installment in the It saga is a clever, scary, probably-too-long allegory about the power of friendship — complete with a 20-foot clown spider. Sure, it’s probably a half-hour longer than it really needs to be — but It Chapter Two is still a fantastic film that hits the sweet spot between Stephen King fans, horror fans and (believe it or not) comedy fans.

It’s a story about friendship, and just like the first film, it’s those relationships that make this story so compelling and keep it woven together in a way that you really care about what’s happening to all the folks Pennywise has been menacing across these two films. Sure, Bill Skarsgård’s absolutely terrifying performance as Pennywise is what puts butts in the seats, but at its heart, this is a story about the power of friendship to win out over pretty much anything. If we work together, we can overcome fear, loneliness, doubt, depression — and yeah — even a supernaturally godlike killer clown. Thankfully, all the blood keeps that message from getting too sappy along the way.

The first It in 2017 was a surprise, monster hit — but for good reason. The Stephen King adaptation by director Andy Muschietti is pretty much a horror masterpiece wrapped in a compelling coming of age story. Think Goonies meets a face-eating monster flick with jump scares galore to keep the blood pumping. But, despite a decently-closed ending to the first chapter, the story was always conceived as a two-part film run, which is pretty much the only way one could hope to possibly wrap up King’s massive tome (the studio actually briefly considered splitting Chapter Two into two films, because there’s just so much material). 

It Chapter Two makes a wise decision to keep the stellar younger cast from the first film involved via ample flashbacks, while still providing space for the adult Losers to live and breathe (and, ahem, die) while bridging the gap between who they were and who they all grew up to be. It also embraces the inherent silliness and insanity of its premise to laugh, now seen through the lens of middle-aged adults as opposed to middle school minds. It’s a hard tone to hit, and it arguably might come off with more laughs than scares, but it’s true to the inherent madness of Pennywise.

The adult cast is also a home run by and large. James McAvoy makes for a capable adult Bill; Jessica Chastain is the embodiment of adult Bev; James Ransome nails grown-up Eddie; and Isaiah Mustafa does a capable job providing the necessary info-dumps as adult Mike. But the real breakout is Saturday Night Live alum Bill Hader as grown-up Richie. There’s scattered buzz that Hader could be worthy of an Oscar nomination for his performance, and he deserves every bit of it. We knew Hader had comedy chops, and he uses them plenty to keep this dark tale from getting too dark, but he really taps into the emotion of what it’d be like to go through something so traumatizing. And the moments that break Richie will almost certainly break you, too.

As for the changes to King’s original novel, sure, they’ll certainly be noticeable for fans. That said, the book itself — especially the ending — is absolutely wild and arguably impossible to adapt in a way that could work on the screen. The ending on-screen largely stays true to King’s themes built into the novel, and for the story that’s been told across these two films, it really does work. Hell, even King himself shows up in a cameo to make a joke about just how hard it can be to get an ending right.

Thankfully, despite a few bumps, It Chapter Two pretty much nails the landing. In a world filled more and more with King adaptations, this two-film run will stand as one of the best.

It Chapter Two is in cinemas now

IT CHAPTER TWO
Directed by: Andy Muschietti
Written by: Gary Dauberman
Cast: James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader, Isaiah Mustafa, Bill Skarsgård
Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures
Run time: 169 minutes

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