Shimes' Top 10 or So Movies of 2004

Starring:
  • Puppet Sex
  • The Sound of Laura Linney's Hymen Breaking
  • Neil Patrick Harris

 

 
Directed by Crazy People

This Wonery Man Has the WMDs.

Promise in the Year of Election: The Movies Make a Comeback.

Movies are political. No more so than this year. And no, I'm not just talking about The Passion of the You-Know-Who and Fahrenheit You-Know-When. Even dumb movies like Harold and Kumar and Meet the Fockers seemed to have an agenda. And I don't think that's bad at all. Art is supposed to be political--in most cultures, artists are the greatest voices in politics. Hey, I'm not saying that Martin Sheen is Solzenitzen, but writers and artists are thinkers--and moralists. In America, we laugh when Brad Pitt comes out for Stem Cell Research because he's a tabloid star. And yes, I do think it's laughable when Britney Spears endorses the President. But I often don't understand the cyncisim directed toward celebrities who take up causes. Why does everyone hate Bono? Because instead of sitting on his arse, he actually does something with his fame, fortune, and stature? Why mock Hollywood's devotion to liberal charities? Because they're rich and stupid? Or is it some cynical, shallow mask of our own insecurities about doing nothing, or ironic detachment that somehow absolves us from giving damn about things outside of our own little worlds? True, the vacuousness of the celebrity culture can lead to Sean Penn going to Iraq to look for WMD. But art can be an inquiry into great moral questions. And yes, movies can do that too--even big Hollywood movies. On scales large and small, this was a year when movies had something to say, and we should respect that, rather than just dismiss it all as trash. I had a great time at the movies, even though this wasn't the greatest of years personally. Here's what made me laugh and cry, and more importantly, think.


10. The Low Brows: Anchorman, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, and Meet the Fockers

Every year the Filmsnobs say this: Comedy gets screwed. Everyone says they love comedy, it's harder than drama, blah blah blah, and then it gets no awards and virtually no recognition on top ten lists. Fuck that. A really good low brow comedy deserves a spot in the top ten, and this year, three really cracked me up. A low brow comedy really makes me laugh when it has larger ideas that prop up the jokes. Take Meet the Fockers, for instance. Here's a movie that doesn't need to give a shit. I hated the first one because it had exactly one joke: DeNiro is Alpha Male; Stiller is Beta Male. But it still made steamer trunks full of cash, and they could throw any piece of shit at the screen and it would stick to the tune of $150 million. But Meet the Fockers actually has ideas. It taps into the collective post-election anxiety of that 48% of the country that didn't vote for ShrubCo and mocks tight-ass, paranoid Red State assholes. Meet the Fockers tells the "Family Values" voter that over-parenting isn't the only way to raise a well-adjusted young adult. For that, it has my respect. Greg Focker isn't John Walker Lindh, and the Fockers aren't destroying the country. How can they? Look at Dustin Hoffman's shirt?

Harold and Kumar comes to us from the director of Dude, Where's My Car? You know you've seen it on HBO, and go on, admit that you laughed. Here, Danny Lerner takes the Stoner Comedy and makes it into a statement about second generation immigrants in MTV America. Kumar's dad might be a doctor, but his ambition is not to be Doogie Howser--it's to be Neil Patrick Harris!

Shimes' Review of Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle

As for Anchorman, I really don't think enough people understand what makes Will Ferrell so damn funny. He is the beleaguered Gen X male. In Old School and Elf, he mines this generational emasculation to give his characters that little extra depth that lifts them from funny to hilarious. Frank the Tank and Buddy the Elf are pathetic, yes, but they're also touching because they try so hard to be "manly" when they clearly have no idea what that is. Ron Burgundy is a response to that: A caricature of the ridiculous macho of the last generation of flabby, scotch-drinking, Old Spice wearing men who were men because they didn't give a damn--that's what made them attractive, if only to themselves. Want more Will Ferrell masculinity issues? Check out the trailer for Kicking and Screaming, where Ferrell plays a maniacal Soccer Dad who recruits no less than Mike Ditka to help him with his ten year old's team.

Shimes' Review of Anchorman

 

9. Desperate Housewives (Third World Division): Maria Full of Grace, Osama, and Hotel Rwanda

The great power of movies is to show a world through other's eyes. We hear of great atrocities on the news and read about them in magazines, but even the best reporting rarely brings the humanity to a story that art can. Hotel Rwanda is a Schindler's List-type story from the East African Genocide of the early nineties. For those isolationists who don't think America has a moral obligation to stop atrocities in far away lands, here's the movie for you. And for those of you who want to "seal off the borders" and lock up all illegal immigrants because it's your America, give Maria Full of Grace a try. America is the land of opportunity, where we reward ingenuity and risk, and few are more ingenius and riskier than Maria. And finally, for those of you peace-nik liberals who think the Afghanistan War was simple war-mongering, rent Osama. Osama is the first and only film to come out of Afghanistan post-9/11. It's sort of Boys Don't Cry of Kabul, where a girl pretends to be a boy to avoid the torture and slavery of being a woman under Taliban rule. Osama shows you the rituals of extremist Islamists--for instance, the priest who shows boys how to purify themselves after nocturnal emissions. Not included is Moolaade, the African female genital mutilation movie, which I haven't seen yet. I'll save that for a little light, rainy-day matinee, I guess.

 

8. Blockbusters Achieving the Art: Spider-Man 2 and The Aviator

Here's the deal: Just because a movie has bunch of big stars, some special effects, and makes a lot of money, it's not necessarily a mindless spectacle. Here's what you do: Take a whole pile of money, give it to a director you can trust, and then just go let him make the damn movie. The two big budget blockbusters that reached higher than the rest came from Sam Raimi and Martin Scorcese. I reviewed Spider-Man 2, and as for The Aviator, check out my Oscar Bait recap for why we're going to screw Scorcese again.

Shimes' Review of Spider-Man 2

 

7. Death With Dignity

The Sea Inside is the story of Ramon Sampedro, a bed-ridden quadripeligic who wages a fight to die with dignity from his bed. This is a Spanish movie, which tackles the euthenasia question differently than how us American liberals tend to argue it. We corner the issue and frame it in stark moral terms: If someone lives in unspeakable pain, it's cruel not to let them die. The counter is a religious argument, and immediately the conversation descends into circular, either/or theological questions. The Sea Inside addresses the issue outside the usual dichotomy. Javier Bardem plays a man who has full command of his mind: He writes and paints, engages in philosophical conversation, discusses opera, and is well enough to launch a crusade for his right to die from his bed. His ability to argue for his right to die is precisely the argument against his right to take his own life--he's not on life support, so what kind of precedent would be set for those who have his same mental faculties and want to continue to live, but would be pressured by burdened family members? The director, Alejandro Amenabar (Abre los Ojos, The Others), argues that the man's imagination and vitality is in itself torture. He constructs sequences that recreate Ramon's imagination, flying over hills and diving into lakes, contrasted with the bed-ridden Ramon, who can only lie still and listen to the waves crash against the shore. There's another American movie that tackles this issue this year that will win Best Picture, but I'm telling you, this is a superior film.

 

6. (Not Really) Anti-Americanism: Control Room and Dogville

Control Room is sometimes known as the al-Jazeera movie. Which is true--it documents how al-Jazeera has modelled itself as the Fox News of the Arab Street. And any movie in which Fox News is the villain is not necessarily anti-American, in my book. It also contains one of the most poignant statements about the bridge between our world and theirs, and the value of human life.

Shimes' Review of Control Room

 

Dogville gets a similar rap. Here's the deal, folks: Lars von Trier is putting you on. He's the godfather of Dogme 95, in which he convinced a bunch of pretensious Dutch filmmakers to eschew music and unnatural lighting. So what's he do? He makes a musical with Bjork, which he covers with thirty different cameras. He "sets" his movies in America, but has never been there and doesn't even pretend that his movies look like America. For goodness' sake, he added the "von"! All the man knows is the European reaction to America. So what's he do, post Iraq War? Lars makes Our Town on a barren soundstage with tape marking where buildings are supposed to be, takes Oscar winner Nicole Kidman and stages a brutal thirty minute rape sequence, and lets you walk out of the theater to images of poverty set to David Bowie's "Young Americans"--after three hours of mind-numbing cinematic brutality posing as a bare-bones deconstruction of the American myth. My friends, this has to be a reaction to shrill, European anti-Americanism. It must be a joke. Granted, JimmyO and I were well into a twelve pack halfway through Dogville, but it's so far over the top, it has to be a joke on all of us. Remember, Lars "von" Trier is nothing if not putting you on. It's the second funniest film of the year.

 

5. Devout Athiesism: Touching the Void

The old maxim is that there's no athiests in foxholes. In deep Himalayan crevasses, however, there's been at least one. This is a combination documentary and acted account of two friends climb of a big mountain. One is forced to cut a rope and let his friend slide to his death, lest they both fall. But the friend survives. He doesn't credit God, only chance. Touching the Void is a parallel account of their physical journeys up and down the mountain, which is poetically parallel to the existential journey as well. PBS showed this one for free earlier this year, but if you haven't donated your fifty bucks and got your yearly tote bag, look for it on the rental shelf.

 

4. This Time, It's Personal: Badasssss!

Multi-layered, complex, and metafictional. Mario Van Peebles envisions his dad's no-budget opus Sweet Sweetback's Badassss Song as the black Easy Rider--in fact, his opening scene is Melvin, played by Mario, on a motorcycle with the star and stripes helmet. In Mario's telling, Sweetback embodies the black counter-culture: politics, racism, sex, and violience--a stick of dynamite and a lit fuse. To Mario, though, Melvin is certainly no hero: he's so self-obsessed he contracts gonorrhea and uses his compensation by the DGA to buy film rather than penicillin. Mario films Sweetback, literally, as Melvin's shadow. In turn, we see that this dark side of black culture was an evil--perhaps a necessary one, but evil all the same. There's so much more going on in this movie--we haven't seen this level of skill ever from Mario, and that includes New Jack City. It's mult-layered and deeply personal, worth watching a few times. Mario may hate his dad for making him star in that sex scene, but he ultimately honors the old man's legacy by fleshing out all aspects of his film, the man, and the man's place in his life. It's like nothing that's ever been done before.

 

3. Answered Prayers: Before Sunset

One question hovers over any great movie: Will they or won't they? Before Sunrise makes an entire movie of the question, and then asks it again. In the sequel, we get the sense that Jesse and Celine's chance meeting in Paris is a mixed blessing. Theirs is a Cupid and Psyche story: The two can only be in love while in the dark--they both fear reality, what would happen if they see each other in the light. The myth is kept aloft by deceptively smooth direction by Richard Linklater, who narrates the film by passing his characters in and out of tunnels, onto boats and over bridges, the setting of sun building tension in both the audience and the characters. I always hoped there would be a sequel, but now that there is, I'm tortured by having to wait for the third.

Shimes' Review of Before Sunset

 

2. Cosmetic Psycho-Therapy: The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Probably the best movie of the year, but sticking with my political theme, I'm going to put it here and save the top slot.

Shimes' Review of The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

 

1. Drawing Distinctions: Kinsey and Team America: World Police

Time Magazine beat us to our original idea, which was to name The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11 as co-films of the year. I didn't like either movie, but they provoked, which is what movies are supposed to do. And in an election year, what is more representative of the Red/Blue divide? But here's the deal: Movies are supposed to provoke, true, but The Passion and F9/11 simply preach to the choir. Kinsey and Team America are deeper, better films because they take that Red/Blue dichotomy and slice it wide open, exposing the default views of both sides.

Look to the two sex histories Kinsey records toward the end of the film. Red Staters see Kinsey as a sinner who promoted child molestation (William Sadler''s scene with the ten second masturbator). Blue Staters see Kinsey as a hero, as in Lynn Redgrave's scene. Bill Condon's movie shows us that the actual man lay somewhere in between, and that we have to make choices about what's moral and what's not based on his work--it forces us to draw some lines, and asks that conservaties draw theirs farther left, and that liberals might want to re-think moral relativism. Kinsey himself was not a heroic crusader against theocratic sexual mores, but perhaps a monster who nonetheless exposed the moral hypocrisy of the ultra-religious. And in the process, both the Right and Left are asked to consider their default stances: On the Right, if homosexuality really is common, especially in the natural world, how can you say that you're going to outlaw it? And on the Left, where exactly do you draw the line on permissive sexual conduct, because Kinsey himself clearly crosses it somewhere. Kinsey doesn't just provoke, it questions, which engages the audience on a more personal level.

Now for Team America: World Police. I know what you're thinking, but I agree with my KCFCC colleague Robert Butler (he has to hate that): TAWP might be the Dr. Strangelove of our generation. That's a movie in my top ten of all time; how can a similar film not be ranked this high? The justification lies here: This year marked the most important presidential election of my lifetime, which was decided partly on religious/sexual issues addressed in Kinsey. But it was also decided by perceptions of the War on Terror. Virtually none of the serious journalism on the War on Terror sounds anything like what the Republican and Democratic parties talk about when they talk about the War on Terror. The Neocon Lighter Military, Sweets and Flowers approach is total bullshit, but half the country bought it without reservation. But then there's the peacenik Left, who submarined the anti-Iraq War movement by turning it into a peace protest, without offering solutions to dealing with the madmen who threaten to hold the civilized world hostage with WMD.

How the hell did the country divide itself in two and buy both these loads of shit? Team America: World Police gives the best answer I've heard. TAWP proposes that America has been so warped by the ubiquitous influence of Hollywood movies and pop culture, that when politicians tell us the War on Terror is going to be short and sweet like an action movie, we naturally believe'em. We're Team America, FUCK YEAH! Or, if Hollywood actors tell us that there should be peace, even though they don't really understand the complexities of geopolitcs, we buy that too. It's all a show for our entertainment, but also to manipulate without really winning our hearts and minds on any honest terms.. Parker and Stone show us, literally, the strings being pulled. That, my friends, is the politcal power of movies. I laughed until I cried because I know they're right. In a year dominated by dishonesty in politics, this is the movie with the clearest vision of the truth.

Shimes' Review of Team America: World Police