A critic who writes for a weekly must begin any year-in-review column with qualifications. Our production schedule requires us to file commentary before a handful of films debut on Christmas Day. Moreover, writers in smaller markets like New Orleans are inevitably out of synch with annual award ceremonies. Many films that capture award nominations don't appear locally until January and even February. Errol Morris' documentary The Fog of War, for instance, was certainly one of the best films I saw in 2004, but it didn't open here until the week it won the Academy Award for Best Documentary -- of 2003. So be aware that I am writing before the regular theatrical runs of such titles as Martin Scorsese's The Aviator, Terry George's Hotel Rwanda and Joel Schumacher's The Phantom of the Opera, all of which have landed best-picture nods in the Golden Globe competition.
I must also acknowledge that I no longer see all the films that open here every year, not even all the films I'd like to see. I am a devoted fan of small, character-driven, off-beat movies. Yet, time and assorted circumstances kept me this year from seeing Zach Braff's Garden State, David O. Russell's I &127; Huckabees, Alexander Payne's Sideways and Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, all of which I look forward to catching eventually.
Still, I saw plenty of movies in 2004 to put together a list of year-end recommendations. First of all, though finding them won't be necessarily easy, documentary fans should seek out former New Orleanian Paul Stekler's look at local Texas politics in Last Man Standing; Kim Bartley and Donnacha O'Briain's The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, an almost "found film" about the failed coup against Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez; and, best of all, Nicolas Philibert's To Be and to Have, a soaringly sweet and sunny portrait of a year in the life of a rural French school teacher.
As for the fictional films I admired most this year, I recommend the following 10 as worth your attention. 10. Monsieur Ibrahim and the Flowers of Coran: Francois Dupeyron's gentle story stars Omar Sharif as an aging Muslim grocer who becomes a friend and surrogate father to a 14-year-old Jewish boy. 9. Bon Voyage: Jean-Paul Rappeneau's clever, funny and very suspenseful World War II thriller with Isabelle Adjani and Gerard Depardieu would have been a hit in the United States were it not for the fact that American audiences won't read subtitles. 8. The Manchurian Candidate: Jonathan Demme's remake of John Frankenheimer's 1962 classic political thriller about a sinister attempt to control the American presidency stands on its own as worth seeing even by those thoroughly familiar with the original; the plot, with Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep and Liev Schreiber, plays out with key differences, and the ending is entirely different. 7. Silver City: John Sayles' film does not rank among his best, but he's so much better than most American filmmakers that this multi-character picture about a corrupt Colorado governor's race still lands on my list of 2004 favorites.
6. Rana's Wedding: Hany Abu-Assad's story about a young Palestinian woman trying to marry against her father's wishes employs its unlikely plot to illustrate the indignities and dangers even the secular and non-political Arab must endure in the age of the suicide bomber. The film transforms the story of a single individual into a metaphor for an entire people. 5. Good Bye Lenin!: Wolfgang Becker's comedy profiles an East German teacher who falls into a coma in October of 1989 and wakes up after the fall of the Berlin Wall in a brand new country. Much fun is poked at the idiocies of the Soviet economic system, but the film's provocative premise is that the authoritarianism everywhere practiced by Soviet socialists betrayed, but does not erase, the humanity of a communitarian ideal. 4. Kinsey: Bill Condon's biography of seminal sex researcher Alfred Kinsey offers terrific lead performances by Liam Neeson and Laura Linney as Kinsey's wife. The film appropriately views Kinsey as a hero who shined light where darkness had hitherto reigned but also as complicated and flawed human being sometimes as blind to the spirit as his opponents were to the body. 3. Closer: Mike Nichols' film examines the emotional and sexual entanglements of four young people in contemporary London. Brave performances by Natalie Portman, Julia Roberts, Jude Law and Clive Owen make this picture particularly memorable. Its theme that many people use "love" as a defense for self-indulgence rings sadly true. 2. Ray: Taylor Hackford's biography of music legend Ray Charles offers an astonishing title performance by Jamie Foxx and all that music that kept reinventing genres every time Ray Charles sat down at a piano. And, 1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: Directed by Michel Gondry from a typically wild and brilliant Charlie Kaufman script, this love story with Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey is intriguing, wise, refreshingly different and deeply satisfying.