Wednesday, February 23, 2005

My Favorite Films of 2004

To make a “best” list of pretty much anything is a fruitless and arbitrary effort in what is always, in the end, nothing more than personal preference. And yet we do it all the time. I am going to call my list “favorites” instead, thereby completely bypassing this accusation and fooling everyone into believing that I am completely and totally impartial and ruled only by a strict regard for art and cinematic technique.

While I frequently deviate to one degree or another with the Academy Award nominees, I have never been more at odds with their choices than this year. Sure, I think some are well deserved, but for the most part, the films that truly moved and influenced me over the last year are not on their list. Moreover, one of my selections is blatantly blockbuster fodder—and I don’t apologize in the slightest for naming it one of the year’s best. My utterly favorite film is no where near a Best Picture nomination and, in fact, was generally lambasted as one of the worst films of the year. I am, of course, talking about…


The most misunderstood and unappreciated film of the year.

Those critics who lambasted M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Village” must have seen a different movie than I saw. They must have missed my version that used the idea of an isolated village as a gorgeous metaphor for the dangers of control through fear, noble deception for “good,” the overriding power of myth, and the ugliness just under the veneer of a supposed utopia. They must have seen a different version that didn't deal with the fact that evil is a part of our world and you cannot escape it, no matter how well you hide yourself—sorrow and sin are within us all and you can never outrun yourself. They were unaware of the flip side of that truth—that alongside the evil rests kindness and mercy and that these traits are everywhere, even where we least expect them. They were ignorant of the universal desire for the collective myth that blissful simplicity and overarching goodness somehow existed in a past we’ve left behind.

These critics must have slept through the most beautiful cinematography this year—camerawork and direction so original and so evocative of time and place that one is lost in the visual narrative without hope of escape. And just when you think you have caught it cracking, you come to discover it has done so intentionally. They must have missed the fine acting and the beautifully minimalist love story that is a far greater emphasis of the film than the horror the trailers want you to believe.

No film this year raised more questions or forced audiences to confront the wickedness posing as righteousness in our modern world more than “The Village.” Too bad those same audiences were more interested in cheep parlor tricks to care.


“Finding Neverland” is a small, gentle, graceful motion picture that reminds us that it is still utterly important—essential even—that as adults, we never lose our grasp of the inner child buried and suffocating within all of us. Using the story of author J.M. Barrie’s inspiration for the writing of the classic, Peter Pan, “Finding Neverland” is a whimsical and delicate reminder that there is more to the world than we can see, that innocence is valuable and fragile, that it is essential to hang on to the belief that there is something that transcends the empirical world. Newcomer Freddie Highmore will break your heart with his performance as young Peter.


“The Passion of the Christ” was divisive and controversial. How one related to it depended on what one brought into the theater. Powerful, evocative, nauseating and harrowing, “The Passion” was Mel Gibson’s love letter to the most loving act toward humankind ever recorded. That this love should have been manifested in one of history’s most gory human sacrifices was just one of the many spiritual paradoxes this film so brilliantly reflected.


There is a scene in the abysmal “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier” in which Captain James T. Kirk, when offered the possibility of having all the painful memories of his life erased, states emphatically, “Damn it, Bones, you're a doctor. You know that pain and guilt can't be taken away with a wave of a magic wand. They're the things we carry with us, the things that make us who we are. If we lose them, we lose ourselves. I don't want my pain taken away. I need my pain.” This is a realization that Jim Carrey will make during “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” after trying to have the painful memories of a devastating breakup erased from his mind.

The film is a strange, quirky, dreamy trip that is both thoughtful and relentlessly creative. Sometimes bizarre, sometimes poignant, it is always thought-provoking. Its ultimate message—that love must be unconditional—is one of which we could all use more. Growth and true intimacy come only after we accept the faults and flaws of others and choose to love them in spite of it. It is only this sort of love that will overcome the first flush of infatuation and see us through life’s many hardships.

How ironic it is that a film about erasing memories is one I can't stop thinking about.


“Sideways” is a joy to behold, from beginning to end. Peppered with moments of deep sadness, biting authenticity, profound truth, and even uproarious slapstick, this year’s independent darling (last year’s was the luminescent “Lost in Translation”, my favorite film of last year) is a winner despite its impossible chances at taking home an Oscar for Best Picture. Taking the conventions of the traditional “road trip” movie, Director Alexander Payne weaves an original and charming story about two friends, one a loser and the other a loathsome playboy, and the women they meet along the way.

These are not the sort of characters we admire for their morality, but that doesn’t stop us from developing an affection for them and even seeing shades of ourselves in their derailed lives. The script’s delicate use of wine as a metaphor for human beings, describing grapes in the way people might describe themselves, is breathtaking. This is the sort of film you’ll want to see again and again.


One of the best superhero movies ever made (alongside 1978’s “Superman”, 1989’s “Batman” and 2003’s “X-2”), Spider-Man II easily eclipses its predecessor both artistically and philosophically.

Director Sam Raimi perfectly captures the angst of Peter Parker and his pot-holed passage to balancing great power with great responsibility. By focusing on the human rather than the superhuman, the audience relates to Parker’s struggles and identifies with him as a character of absolute believability—even while he crawls up walls and swings between the skyscrapers of downtown Manhattan.

Relentlessly fun, packed with razor-sharp humor, and shining with nearly IMAX nauseating first-rate special effects, “Spider-Man II” builds a meaningful story from its characters (even producing a villain that earns both our respect and sympathy) and shrouds it in symbolism that is overtly Christian in nature.


While “The Passion of the Christ” may have been the year’s most literal and boldest portrayal of Christ in film, the one that made the biggest impact on me was a film about a historical figure many in the West have been taught to despise—Ernesto “Che” Guevara.

Focusing on Guevara’s young life before he became the revolutionary leader we know him as today, “The Motorcycle Diaries” is another “road trip” movie that depicts the adventures and mishaps of two best friends who set out to see South America from the back of a rickety motorbike. The trip opens the eyes of the young, middle-class medical student and sets the stage for him to abandon his life of privilege in order to help the poor and downtrodden. The reflection of Christ seen in Che’s love of those suffering in a leper colony and his willingness to reach out and touch them when no one else will is the high-point of a movie that is nothing short of a cinematic feast.


Wuxia Pian films as they are known in China, the sort of action films like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” that skip bending the laws of physics in order to go straight to utterly shattering them, do not require that one suspends belief—they demand that we utterly surrender it. Reality is secondary to aesthetic. Truth is always subordinate to beauty. Only in abandoning oneself to the power of the visual poetry is a higher plane of reality accepted and embraced.

In “House of flying Daggers” and “Hero,” (both of which debuted ages ago but took years to make their way to American appetites) director Zhang Yimou delivers audaciously beautiful, improbable, exuberant martial arts feasts set in feudal China. What the films may lack philosophically, they more than make up for in the breath-catching beauty and grace of their aerial ballets.


After the gorgeous but atrocious “Gangs of New York,” the great Martin Scorsese has made his best film since “Goodfellas.” This hugely enjoyable biopic rises to the top of the pack in a season awash with historical biographies. This is a fascinating character study about a man who succeeded in spite of failure, and failed despite his success. Howard Hughes was a man who walked the knife’s edge between equal doses of genius and madness, and everything and everybody he touched reflect this juxtaposition.

The film spans the billionaire's most prolific period from the mid 20s through the 40s, skipping his most meteoric decent into later-life insanity. A giant of a personality, Hughes breathes life into epic films, epic aircraft, and epic women. Unwaveringly mesmerizing and riveting, the film boasts some of the best performances of the year, especially the brilliant Leonardo DiCaprio as Hughes and Cate Blanchett as the irrepressible Katharine Hepburn.

10) ?

I’m going to leave this one blank. Why? Aside from the nagging and persistent worry that I stupidly overlooked an obvious and earlier-designated candidate, there are many acclaimed films this year that I simply did not have the chance to yet see (“Kinsey,” “Vera Drake,” “Closer,” “Super Size Me,” “Before Sunset,” “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou,” “Dogville,” etc.) Perhaps one of them will one day soon be added here…

Honorable Mentions include: “Million Dollar Baby,” “Garden State,” “Fahrenheit 9/11,” “In Good Company,” “Hotel Rwanda,” “Saved,” “Kill Bill II,” “The Polar Express,” “Collateral,” “Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow,” “The Incredibles,” “Maria Full Of Grace,” “Harry Potter and the Prisoner Of Azkaban.”

My Annual Academy Award Predictions

There is a wide belief among “Star Trek” fans that each of the even numbered films invariably succeed while each of the odd numbered inevitably face lukewarm critical and fan reaction. The proof would seem to be irrefutable. My Academy Award predictions seem to follow a very similar, though opposite, pattern. 2001 and 2003’s predictions were nearly spot on, only diverging from the Academy by three or four statuettes. In 2002, I was trounced. If the pattern holds, this Sunday is going to be ugly. Nevertheless, I will venture a guess or two…

Best Picture:"The Aviator""Finding Neverland""Million Dollar Baby""Ray""Sideways"

“The Aviator.” I know most people are predicting “Million Dollar Baby” and they may well be right but I am sticking with the Hughes biopic. As good as the other three are, none are in serious contention—their honor is in their nomination. I am predicting (hoping?) that the Academy plans on righting decades of wrongs and honoring Scorsese on Oscar night.

Director:Martin Scorsese, "The Aviator"Clint Eastwood, "Million Dollar Baby"Taylor Hackford, "Ray"Alexander Payne, "Sideways"Mike Leigh, "Vera Drake"

“The Aviator” isn’t his finest film, by far. How Martin Scorsese, the director of such masterpieces as “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull” and “Goodfellas” has avoided getting an Oscar up till now is a source of massive debate and controversy in the filmmaking world. It is shameful that the Academy has passed over this great director so many times. No one can dispute the fact that he is due and he deserves it. Coupled with the fact that Eastwood is already a multiple winner makes this Scorsese’s year. If I am wrong, it will indeed be Eastwood. The other three nominees are not contenders. For those of you who are betters, ignore my prediction. The Director’s Guild of America awarded their prize this year to Eastwood, an almost certain indication that he’ll take home the Oscar for the same. Call me an optimist.

Best Actor:Don Cheadle, "Hotel Rwanda"Johnny Depp, "Finding Neverland"Leonardo DiCaprio, "The Aviator"Clint Eastwood, "Million Dollar Baby"Jamie Foxx, "Ray"

Several months ago, I managed to get tickets to an advanced screening of Michael Mann’s powerful, “Collateral.” I left the theater amazed at not only the film, but the superb transformation of comic actor Jamie Foxx. That very week, I saw the first trailer for Foxx’s next film, “Ray.” I remember telling those around me that this was the year of Jamie Foxx and that he was already the undisputed winner of the Oscar. I stand by that prediction. While I do not consider “Ray” to be worthy of its Best Picture nomination, its star is nothing but worthy. In an especially weighty and rich field of contention, Foxx’s portrayal of Ray Charles is one we’ll be talking about for years to come.

Best Actress:Annette Bening, "Being Julia"Catalina Sandino Moreno, "Maria Full of Grace"Imelda Staunton, "Vera Drake"Hilary Swank, "Million Dollar Baby"Kate Winslet, "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind"

Hilary Swank. It’s just that simple. Just as no one could touch her in the ring in “Million Dollar Baby,” no one will even come close to a knockout on Sunday with her hat in the ring.

Best Supporting Actor:Alan Alda, "The Aviator"Jamie Foxx, "Collateral"Morgan Freeman, "Million Dollar Baby"Thomas Haden Church, "Sideways"Clive Owen, "Closer"

For most of these, the nomination is the award. Foxx is not in serious contention because he will already be taking home the greater prize. It will come down to Morgan Freeman’s quiet pathos or Thomas Haden Church’s manic humor. I am going to go out on a huge limb here and put forward Thomas Haden Church.

Best Supporting Actress:Cate Blanchett, "The Aviator"Laura Linney, "Kinsey"Virginia Madsen, "Sideways"Sophie Okonedo, "Hotel Rwanda"Natalie Portman, "Closer"

It’s Madsen vs. Blanchett. The hard-working, never-rewarded, girl-makes-good vs. the established star who turned in a difficult and delightful performance as one of the screen’s most beloved icons. Like the Supporting Actor category, I am going to throw all caution to the wind and go with Virginia Madsen for her portrayal in “Sideways.” Besides, there’s good karma in the “Sideways” nods. (What I want to know is, where is “The Village’s” mesmerizing newcomer, Bryce Dallas Howard!?)

Writing (Adapted Screenplay):Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, "Before Sunset"David Magee, "Finding Neverland"Paul Haggis, "Million Dollar Baby"Jose Rivera, "The Motorcycle Diaries"Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, "Sideways"

As much as everyone would love to see “Sideways” win this one (and it still has a chance), the odds-on favorite has to be the powerfully gravimetric script for “Million Dollar Baby.” Simple and profound, it’s a likely and deserved choice. Linklater’s nomination is an appropriate and sweet gesture.

Writing (Original Screenplay):John Logan, "The Aviator"Charlie Kaufman, Michel Gondry and Pierre Bismuth, "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind"Brad Bird, "The Incredibles"Mike Leigh, "Vera Drake"Keir Pearson and Terry George, Hotel Rwanda

This category will come down to the moving and gut-wrenching “Hotel Rwanda” and the clever and serpentine “Eternal Sunshine...” Witticism and existential quandaries will win the day, however, when the award goes to screenwriting superstar Kaufman for “Eternal Sunshine…”

Best Foreign Film:"As It Is In Heaven" (Sweden)"The Chorus (Les Choristes)" (France)"Downfall" (Germany)"The Sea Inside" (Spain)"Yesterday" (South Africa)

“The Sea Inside” will take this one. Controversial, yet deeply humanistic and inspiring, it will beat out its lesser known and seen competitors. If there is a dark horse in this category, it is the critically acclaimed, “Downfall” about the last days of Adolf Hitler. Like others on this list, it has yet to be released.

Best Animated Feature Film:"The Incredibles""Shark Tale""Shrek 2"

Where exactly is “The Polar Express” and why in the name of all that is holy is Robert Zemeckis’s original and brilliant animated insta-classic not nominated? Based on this field, Pixar’s “The Incredibles” will walk away with this one.

Best Documentary:"Born Into Brothels""The Story of the Weeping Camel""Super Size Me""Tupac: Resurrection""Twist of Faith"

I have not seen any of the nominees, not even the box-office smash, “Super Size Me.” Shame on me. I will forgo a prediction for this one. For those of you who won’t let me get off so easily, I’d put my money on “Born Into Brothels.”

Art Direction:"The Aviator""Finding Neverland""Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events""The Phantom of the Opera""A Very Long Engagement"

“The Phantom of the Opera” got a lot of talk in this area, but Schumacher’s kitsch will be his undoing. While the French “Engagement” will put up a good show, Dante Ferretti and the rest of the gang at the phenomenal CineCitta Studios in Rome will fly “The Aviator” to a win.

Cinematography:"The Aviator""House of Flying Daggers""The Passion of the Christ""The Phantom of the Opera""A Very Long Engagement"

What a wonderful list of nominees. Represented here are lush and sumptuous examples of what true cinematic art looks like. All are worthy. But only “The Aviator” will triumph.

Film Editing:"The Aviator""Collateral""Finding Neverland""Million Dollar Baby""Ray"

“The Aviator” will continue its near-dominance Sunday night, easily taking the Best Editing statuette.

Costume Design:"The Aviator""Finding Neverland""Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events""Ray""Troy"

“The Aviator” again. You don’t make Kate Beckinsale and Cate Blanchett look that beautiful and then turn around and give the award to a skirt-clad Brad Pitt.

Makeup:"Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events""The Passion of the Christ""The Sea Inside"

“The Passion” has to find its way into the ceremony somehow and this will be it. No one who has seen the story of Christ’s merciless torture will question the award’s deservedness.

Original Score:"Finding Neverland""Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban""Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events""The Passion of the Christ""The Village"

My personal darling category, this year’s nominees are especially good. “The Passion” is epic, powerful and moving, “The Village” is moody and evocative, “Finding Neverland” is melodious and gentle (I have not seen or heard “Snicket”), but the great leveler will be the maestro himself, John Williams for his simultaneously thunderous, soaring, and medieval charming “Harry Potter.”

Sound Editing:"The Incredibles""The Polar Express""Spider-Man 2"

All brilliant choices, but Spidey will sling his way to victory here.

Sound Mixing:"The Aviator""The Incredibles""The Polar Express""Ray""Spider-Man 2"
“Ray” reminded the world that Ray Charles is a musical giant. The Oscar for Best Sound Mixing will remind us all why.

Visual Effects:"Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban""I, Robot""Spider-Man 2"

He may have seemed like a cartoon in the first film, but Spider-Man takes on a believability in the sequel that utterly transcends the superhero, box-office behemoth, pop culture genre that he finds himself in. Here is a superhero we can believe in on many levels.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Alberto Gonzales Confirmed as Secretary of Torture

WARNING: The following, while sincere, is deliberately provocative and confrontational, though I hope laced with enough humor to ward off the letter bombers among my readership. Oh jeez, there I go again. Read at your own risk.

Today, the U.S. Senate confirmed Alberto Gonzales as the nation’s new Attorney General. I once thought I’d take absolutely anybody in the place of outgoing A.G. (Assembly of God? Attorney General?), John Ashcroft. Well…we all make mistakes.

Senate Republicans spent the last several weeks talking themselves blue in the face about Gonzales’ humble beginnings as the grandson of Mexican immigrants and how his Hispanic ethnicity trumps all other issues; for example—principles, morality, credentials and an appalling record.

Those pesky Democrats, intent on burning the nation’s Bibles, melting down all its guns, and greedily consuming millions of dollars from Bush documentaries, retorted saying that they could not, in good conscience, vote for Gonzales' record despite his compelling, made-for-TV personal story.

For reasons passing understanding, those with the consciences and cajonies enough to buck their party, objected to Gonzales’ most infamous example of moral bankruptcy—a memo, ordered in January of 2002, which defined permissible torture as anything short of death, permanent psychological damage, or organ failure.

It was this memo which directly sanctioned, if not overtly authorized the sort of heinous behavior captured so nauseatingly on film in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

According to Gonzales, the Geneva Conventions, which have governed military and battlefield behavior since 1864, are both “quaint” and “obsolete.” Ain’t he just the sweetest thang!

A recent editorial in The New York Times pointed out, “The attorney general does not merely head up the Justice Department. He is responsible for ensuring that America is a nation in which justice prevails. Mr. Gonzales’ record makes him unqualified to take on this role or to represent the American justice system to the rest of the world.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham challenged Gonzales, saying, “When you start looking at torture statutes and you look at ways around the spirit of the're losing the moral high ground. Once you start down this road, it is very hard to come back.”

“Judge Gonzales is the wrong man for this job,” Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, declared. “Mr. Gonzales' actions as White House counsel have tarnished our country's moral leadership in the world and put American soldiers and American citizens at greater risk.”

By appointing and standing by his nominee, President Bush proves once again that his fixation on moral leadership and spiritual divination was nothing short of a product of the Magic 8 ball sitting on his desk in the Oval Office.

In the end, the Democrats’ pleas and petitions were not enough. The final vote was 60 for and 36 against. All dissenting votes were cast by Democrats and one Independent.

Now, after weeks of congressional infighting, Mr. Gonzales can finally get on to the real job of continuing to obliterate the line between what makes an Iraqi who tortures his victim a “wicked evil-doer” and the American who tortures his victim an upstanding and faultless patriot standing up for freedom and oppressed people everywhere.

Former Focus on the Family President, James Dobson could not be reached for comment on Gonzales’ confirmation because he was too busy engaging in the far more critical and Christian “moral values” that made Gonzales’ appointment possible in the first place—beating the &%*@ out of defenseless cartoon marine animals. The moral majority was too busy writing checks to First United Church of Christ Incarnate In Dubya, Texas Synod, to notice.

Gonzales himself recently declared, “Torture and abuse will not be tolerated by this administration. I will ensure the Department of Justice aggressively pursues those responsible for such abhorrent actions."

Mr. Attorney General, try looking on top of your own ass.

Gonzales’ confirmation follows a rash of other imprudent and obtuse appointments to the catastrophic Bush administration, starting with none other than:

President George W. Bush: Despite an utterly arrogant and deeply flawed foreign policy and an abysmal record of fiscal mismanagement, the American people saw fit to give President Bush another term. Appealing to the rotten angels of our nature, Bush managed to wrangle an additional four years to continue what he’d already started—the dismemberment of America’s dignity, might and security in the name of God and his own singularly innate ability to ascertain that God's national providence on the US of A.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice: If there is a poster-child for the banning of genetic cloning, Ms. Rice is it. President Bush once commented that he liked to surround himself with bright people who didn’t necessarily agree with everything he said in order to give him opposing viewpoints when making important decisions. If this blog were a sitcom, the hysterical laugh-track would be added here.

Director of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff: Very soon, the Senate will confirm Michael Chertoff to head the leviathan watchdog organization. Possessing what is at first glance a generally untarnished resume, Chertoff was, in fact, instrumental in drafting and implementing the Orwellian “Patriot Act.” He sees you when you’re sleeping; he knows when you’re awake; he knows when you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake!

Let the irate comments begin!

Hailing Frequencies Closed

Just when it was finally getting good, Star Trek: Enterprise will go where no Trek series has ever gone before—into early retirement.

UPN announced today that, after four seasons, Star Trek: Enterprise, the network's embattled flagship, will be cancelled.

Star Trek has been an important part of UPN's history, and Enterprise has carried on the tradition of its predecessors with great distinction,” said Dawn Ostroff, President, Entertainment, UPN.

David Stapf, President of Paramount Network Television, said, “The creators, stars and crew of Star Trek: Enterprise ambitiously and proudly upheld the fine traditions of the Star Trek franchise. We are grateful for their contributions to the legacy of Trek and commend them on completing nearly 100 exciting, dramatic and visually stunning episodes. All of us at Paramount warmly bid goodbye to Enterprise.”

If UPN has another Star Trek series waiting in the wings, mums the word. When Enterprise’s final episode airs on Friday, May 13th, it will be the first time in nearly 20 years that a first-run Star Trek series will not be showing on TV.
Ut In Omnibus Glorificetur Deus