More so than usual, 2004 was a year of extremes. Election fever was the hot cinematic malady, headlined by Michael Moore’s specious Fahrenheit 9/11 and the anti-Bush documentary brigade, while Mel Gibson’s medieval torture-chamber piece The Passion of the Christ fervently represented the other end of the cultural-political spectrum. Such polarizing works were par for the course during a year in which Hollywood genres experienced some of their finest, and lousiest, moments. Superhero epics Spiderman 2, Hellboy, and The Incredibles packed a wallop that offset The Punisher’s wimpy comic book claptrap. Mike Hodges (I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead) and Pedro Almodóvar (Bad Education) rejuvenated film noir even as Tony Scott worked to quell this mini-resurgence with his disingenuous Man on Fire. Meanwhile, zombies provided both scares (Dawn of the Dead) and laughs (Shaun of the Dead), and Zhang Yimou helped erase the memory of Quentin Tarantino’s vacuous Kill Bill doubleheader with his martial arts extravaganzas Hero and House of Flying Daggers. There was, to be sure, some consistency among the cineplex’s bipolar offerings. The awful Shrek 2 and Shark Tale confirmed that DreamWorks’s animation unit is still no match for Pixar, the endearingly mopey Paul Giamatti (in Sideways) solidified his status as Hollywood’s finest character actor, and Charlie Kaufman once again proved himself king of the quirky head trip with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. But in this extreme—and extremely schizophrenic—year, nothing was quite as outlandish as Team America: World Police’s showstopping scene of hardcore marionette sex. Nick Schager
1. Bad Education (Pedro Almodóvar)
Like Talk to Her, Pedro Almodóvar’s Bad Education touches on themes of unconscious desire, except its characters are always, well, conscious. But being conscious doesn’t always mean being lucid, something embodied by the sad relationship between the film’s two leads, an actor-cum-diva played by Gael García Bernal and a filmmaker played by Fele Martínez. Like Eusebio Poncela’s relationship to Antonio Banderas in Law of Desire (and Naomi Watts’s obsession with Laura Harring in David Lynch’s brilliant Mulholland Drive), their power struggle is one part ego trip and one part wish fulfillment, a dangerous combination Almodóvar likens to our quasi-narcissistic and obsessive relationship to movies.
2. Crimson Gold (Jafar Panahi)
In a year overstuffed with Democratic-sponsored polemics targeting Dubya, the war in Iraq, and corporate malfeasance, Jafar Panahi’s Crimson Gold towered above them all. The genius of the film’s deceptively simple narrative, as written by Panahi’s frequent collaborator, the great Abbas Kiarostami, is how it seamlessly evokes America’s post-9/11 immigration policy in the intra-Iranian embarrassments suffered by the film’s lead, a pizza deliveryman who shoots himself in the head after a botched jewel heist. The film’s contemporary resonance is as flabbergasting as the subtle and acute precision of its social critique. This is allegory as truth.
3. Twentynine Palms (Bruno Dumont)
Bruno Dumont has said that he’s intrigued by the way people in Europe are attracted to American films, and he uses the sex and violence in Twentynine Palms as a pretext—not only to address the “nature” of American violence but to dissect the way audiences intellectually and emotionally respond to it. Dumont is clearly fascinated by America’s wide-open spaces, and much of Twentynine Palms, the existential story of a couple who love, fight, and fuck their way through the California desert, is a sinister poem to the way we look at the world and the way it looks back.
4. Dogville (Lars von Trier)
From the gooseberries in Ma Ginger’s garden to the German Hummels Nicole Kidman’s Grace collects throughout her stay in Dogville, everything in Lars von Trier’s latest provocation is a symbolic gesture of some kind. Narrated by John Hurt, this acerbic “illustration” of a small town’s curious notions of entitlement unspools as a Christian allegory by way of Mark Twain or Dr. Seuss. Von Trier understands that the root of American aggression is the arrogant elite’s subjugation of the culturally underprivileged. The director walks a fine line: Dogville isn’t anti-American, but anti-oppression.
5. Secret Things (Jean-Claude Brisseau)
In stripping Secret Things of any and all aesthetic bullshit, Jean-Claude Brisseau mediates the relationship between his two leads by bringing us closer to them. Call it an anti-distancing approach. Nathalie and Sandrine’s struggle to conquer a demonic hottie’s empire mirrors the struggle of disenfranchised masses trying to overthrow despotic leaders. Their weapon is sex and every assault is contrived as a political maneuver. Alliances repeatedly shift, and the higher they move up the social ladder the more dangerous things get. Happily and ridiculously over the top, the film plays out as a war of anarchic, sexual primitisim.