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Laurence Station's Best Films of 2004

Top 10:

1. Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, USA)
Gives the characters from 1995's unassuming masterpiece Before Sunrise a second chance at making, if not a life together, at least something more substantive than a Venice one night stand. The refreshingly improvisational dialogue and comfortably uncomplicated narrative, unfolding in real time, provide an effortless verisimilitude, that rare instance where the camera doesnít so much capture scenes as it grants us a window into a world inhabited by individuals who couldnít care less whether we watched them or not.
 
2. The Saddest Music in the World (Guy Maddin, Canada)
Guy Maddin plays by his own brilliantly idiosyncratic rules, artfully managing to fuse a serious affectation for silent film, romantic melodrama and shapely beer-filled glass legs into a fever dream concoction set in snowy, Depression-era Winnipeg. The quirks guarantee a narrow audience, but for those in tune with Maddinís curiously life-affirming gallows humor, Saddest Music hits all the right notes.
3. Goodbye, Dragon Inn (Tsai Ming-Liang, Taiwan)
A film about watching people watching a film could turn into a cheeky metaphysical exercise in self-fellating art. But Tsai Ming-Liang has larger concerns on his mind -- particularly, how easy it is for the modern person to be utterly alone even in the most public of places.
 
4. Maria Full of Grace (Joshua Marston, USA)
Fascinating look at the world of drug mules and the often-desperate circumstances that drive people to put their bodies at risk ferrying ingested narcotics into America. Catalina Sandino Moreno's debut performance as pregnant, questing Maria is startlingly assured and single-handedly justifies the filmís existence.
5. The Aviator (Martin Scorsese, USA)
Scorsese smartly focuses on the most glamorous period of famed recluse and billionaire Howard Hughesí life (young Hollywood playboy and record-setting but dangerously reckless pilot), and that makes for exciting cinema. Itís when the downfall begins during the final third that The Aviator loses altitude.
 
6. Sideways (Alexander Payne, USA)
Unlike Before Sunset, Sideways caves into plot contrivances that detract from the overall story. But in its examination of friendship, doubt, and the ever-appealing notion of hope when all seems lost, the film exhibits a depth and insight uncommon to the well-traveled buddy/road picture.
7. The Incredibles (Brad Bird, USA)
Whatever Incredibles has to say about society suppressing individual expression, itís ultimately a family values movie, more concerned with relationships than rayguns. As far as characters go, superhero costume designer extraordinaire Edna Mole steals the show.
 
8. Hotel Rwanda (Terry George, South Africa / USA)
A devastatingly tragic story told in a frustratingly pedestrian manner, Rwanda still resonates due to the sheer magnitude of the atrocities committed while the rest of the world turned a blind eye. Don Cheadleís performance as a man walking a dangerous tightrope between murderous Hutus and victimized Tutsis is a sterling example of desperate resolve masked behind a polite smile and the carefully chosen flattering remark.
9. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, USA)
Considering the talent involved, Eternal Sunshine should have been more mind-bending than it actually is. Still, the film admirably deals with issues of memory, vindictiveness and identity, and skillfully manages to work them into what is essentially a classic Hitchcockian race against the clock.
 
10. Last Life in the Universe (Pen-ek Ratanaruang, Thailand / Japan)
A stock gangster flick that puts more emphasis on alienation than acrobatic gunplay, Last Life chooses to follow the non-action-oriented characters instead of the typical rough and tumble anti-hero types, and that makes for a surprisingly engrossing detour.
 
Notable near misses (Alphabetically Listed):
 
  • BAADASSSSS! (Mario Van Peebles, USA) This is street-smart filmmaking courtesy, not of Spike Lee, but Melvin Van Peebles. Taking a true "by any means necessary" approach to getting his cinematic vision in the can, Peebles literally puts everything on the line (family included) -- and just when it looks like heís rolled snake-eyes, manages a "hard to believe if it weren't true" lucky seven.
  • Infernal Affairs (Andrew Lau, Alan Mak, Hong Kong) Involving cat-and-mouse crime drama that has just enough twists, turns and character development to rise above its formulaic underpinnings.
  • The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (Wes Anderson, USA) This charming failure from Wes Anderson has a pickup-stick narrative approach, steadfastly refusing to commit to a single type of movie and consequently failing to achieve a coherent synthesis of its many ideas. But itís still a loopy, engaging, and sometimes shocking adventure.
  • Talaye Sorkh (Crimson Gold) (Jafar Panahi, Iran) A Tehran pizza deliveryman views a wide spectrum of social classes and decides respect is overdue for the less fortunate. Crimson Gold is a film that offers no easy answers regarding hope for the downtrodden or an unsolicited dose of compassion from the gilded elite.

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