We Heart Huckabees!

The Fox Searchlight™ fanfare fades and our Movie of the Year kicks off with its environmental activist hero's interior cri de coeur:


Motherfucking cocksucker, motherfucking shit-fucker, what am I doing? What am I doing? I don't know what I'm doing. I'm doing the best that I can. I know that's all I can ask of myself. Is that good enough? Is my work doing any good? Is anybody paying attention? Is it hopeless to try and change things? The African guy is a sign, right? Because if he isn't, then nothing in this world makes any sense to me--I'm fucked. Maybe I should quit. Don't quit. Maybe I should just fucking quit. Don't fucking quit. I don't know what the fuck I'm supposed to fucking do anymore. Fucker! Fuck! Shit!

Fifty-seven seconds into I Huckabees, and we want to stand up and cheer. Indeed, after a monologue as vividly evocative as that one, it hardly seems necessary--or much fun, frankly--to sit and tally up the reasons why an I don't know what the fuck I'm supposed to do anymore? movie (not to be confused with What the #$*! Do We Know!?) would have resonated (and repulsed) in 2004. So let's just say again that it's our motherfucking Movie of the Year, ranking high on all four of our film critics' Top 10 lists (and at the tippy-top of two of 'em).

No doubt at least a few of you must be wondering what the fuck this Huckabees is all about. Directed by David O. Russell in somewhat the same loopy spirit as his Flirting with Disaster, I Huckabees is a metaphysical farce that follows earnest young Albert (Jason Schwartzman) in his quest to discover the meaning of life with the help of a married pair of "existential detectives" (Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman). Founder and leader of Open Spaces, a group dedicated to curbing suburban sprawl, Albert finds himself being preyed upon by a pretty-boy ad man (Jude Law) from Huckabees, the "everything store," whose executives seize on the notion of co-opting Open Spaces as a way to court the progressive consumer. Sucker punches are thrown, crass insults are traded, silly FX are presented for our viewing pleasure, a firefighter named Corn (Mark Wahlberg) enters the picture (with a big rubber ball that he uses to achieve a dizzy state of "pure being"), the Huckabees model (Naomi Watts) begins to dress like an "Amish bag lady," two people have sex in the mud.

A quick glance at the comments section of the Internet Movie Database will tell you that lots of Americans (51 percent or so?) positively hate Huckabees. At press time, the movie was playing at just one Minnesota theater (the Riverview), with no Oscar push forthcoming from Searchlight. (However much it may have failed to seek timely kudos, the distributor does deserve credit for bankrolling and releasing such a weird, subversive film in the first place.) In other words, what we have here is a bona fide cult movie, the sort that in another era might have run at a single neighborhood theater for two or three years straight, but which these days chiefly compels its far-flung fans to e-mail info on how to download the bootleg--shot off the cineplex screen with a jury-rigged camcorder and accompanied by a live audience laugh track.

Whatever its lowbrow appeal, Huckabees is at heart a movie about the search for community in deeply divisive times--so it naturally plays best in a big theater like the Riverview, with lots of folks chuckling along. Like a number of the other 28 movies on our four Top 10s (see below), but more endearingly than any of them, it lets us know that we who don't know what the fuck we're supposed to do anymore are not alone. Plus it's entertaining as hell. And as Mr. Corn with the big rubber ball would tell us, that's important, too.

--Rob Nelson


The Everything Cinema

The message of 2004 seemed to be Act local!--so let me mention that it was without a doubt the strongest year for Minnesota movies in the decade since I started this beat.

Among the highlights: Documentarian Emily Goldberg delivered Venus of Mars, whose flared colors and propulsive editing rhythms were acutely synched to the story of love, art, and gender in loud, glam flux. Civil rights lawyers Jeanne-Marie Almonor and John Shulman brought their urgent case to the big screen with Justice, a drama whose spirited system-bucking extended to skipping the festival circuit in favor of coming straight to the people at the Riverview and the Edina. (It's airing on the Black STARZ! network three times Tuesday.)

And there was more! Producer Daniel Bergin commemorated the state's rich African American history in North Star: Minnesota's Black Pioneers (airing Sunday at 6:00 p.m. on TPT-17). Prior Lake native Mara Pelece explored the effects of globalization on national identity in her film Between Latvias. Doc-maker Matt Ehling (Urban Warrior) continued his vital investigation of civil liberties with Security and the Constitution. Chuck Olsen took a playful surf through the world of online web logs in Blogumentary, whose all-access style of first-person nonfiction could have given it an alternate title: Open-Source Me. Michael Wilson made the most hotly anticipated Minnesota indie ever with Michael Moore Hates America, a movie you didn't need to hate Moore (or John Kerry) to admire. And in Wellstone!, Laurie Stern, Lu Lippold, and Dan Luke not only did right by the late senator's legacy, but presented their long-awaited work at the perfect time to give us a boost in the pre-election home stretch.  

That every one of these projects put politics front and center makes the future of Minnesota film look positively thrilling--even despite the sad fact that the Minnesota Film Board was forced to trim its operations still further in '04. Hell, old-school provocateur Robert Altman is reportedly coming here to shoot the Prairie Home Companion movie this very season. How's that for good news? Though my latest Top 10 is all over the map (see below), a year from now it could be full of movies made right here in Minnesota. That was the other message of 2004: Don't give up hope.


1. I Huckabees

Nattering intellectuals, born-again nitwits, existential conundrums, crisis investigations, "everything stores," communicable anger, random cruelty, "pure being," pure bullshit, big laughs, a little love, a little hope. Is this not ourselves?


2. Fahrenheit 9 /11

I never like to credit filmmakers for their intentions--except when their intentions include shining a global spotlight on a nimrod president's evildoings and throwing him out of office. That Michael Moore didn't succeed in the latter aim doesn't much matter to me, at least not for purposes of critical evaluation: In this case, the intent--with the level of force that he and others put behind it--was plenty by itself. (The artistry of Moore's message never felt as praiseworthy to me as the strength of his transmitter and his resolve to keep it running.) Where some saw the documentarian's agitprop turn to dust on 11/3, I saw a movie about profound despair gain yet another layer of tragedy--thick enough to make it, at least for the time being, too painful to watch again. But if history is fortunate enough to see another era follow this one, there won't be a movie that better captures what it felt like to want the culture to present us with a new start--or even Moore.


3. S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine

This stunning work of humanitarian cinema, among many other things, seems to reframe the irresolvable But what did it accomplish? debate over 9/11: Here, it's not the film's exhibition, but its production that's designed to bring about positive change in the real world--and the proof is on the screen. Cambodian documentarian Rithy Panh follows one of the seven survivors of the Khmer Rouge's most notorious detention center on his return to the scene of the crime: the torture and murder of more than 17,000 people. The perpetrators of these atrocities are directed to reenact their routines for the camera; we in the audience may or may not be the same afterward, as we prefer--but those on the screen would appear to have no such choice.


4. Before Sunset

The people I know who don't appreciate this romantic drama all say it's because they don't find the lovers likable. Huh? Since when do you need to find the lovers likable? Seems to me the lovers in any realistic romance (filmed or not) are always highly flawed, and this one, co-written by its director (Richard Linklater) and his stars (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy), is more realistic than most (filmed or not)--which is why it's more beautiful than most. I'm reminded of an old Leonard Cohen line: "Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack/A crack in everything/That's how the light gets in."


5. The Aviator

With this, the magnificently obsessive Martin Scorsese rounds out a decade spent in thorough investigation of the matters that most concern him: anxiety, isolation, desire, privilege, self-pity, social custom, world history, and cinema.


6. Infernal Affairs

Cinema with passion revisits Hong Kong through the head and heart rather than the trigger finger. It's not an action movie, this one, but a film noir, like T-Men with a twist: Here, the two undercover tough guys (Tony Leung, Andy Lau) are seeking each other--without quite knowing it--from opposite sides of the fence. The characters' distinctly 21st-century disorientation (How am I not myself? How is he not himself?) becomes ours--and, in turn, even the villain becomes sympathetic (up to a point). Scorsese will be remaking this ingenious movie in Boston with Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon--and, according to rumor, without watching it first.  


7. The Polar Express

Master of the illustrative anachronism, director Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future) here goes forward to the past, using new digital technology to render a cartoon feature whose pastel images suggest it could have been drawn in 1955--the year Disney unleashed Lady and the Tramp in 'Scope (and Marty McFly went to the prom with his mom). It's a sentimental film and, for me, a sentimental fave: my two-year-old's first theatrical experience (in that magic time machine known as the Heights)--and it steamrolled both of us.


8. Collateral

Granted, it's tough to disagree about an L.A. movie with the maker of Los Angeles Plays Itself, who has gone on the record to say that this visual map of an Angeleno cabbie's long, long night doesn't know its way through the city (or much of anything else, either). So, too, I'll admit the movie has nothing on Heat or The Insider as a Michael Mann study of men at work. But I'll be damned if it ain't a landmark in digital videography for the cinema. And I do mean for the cinema: Watch the DVD, with its depressingly smoothed-out textures, and you won't be seeing the movie, which wasn't about men at work or Los Angeles or anything so much as it was about exploring the unique virtues of hi-def DV--including how it eliminates the need for special lighting to make black and white faces look natural in the same wide frame, even after dark.


9. When Will I Be Loved

The most flamboyantly unhinged, unpredictable, and unnerving Amerindie since Masked & Anonymous (let's keep this a cult movie, shall we?) had two weeks at the Block E last summer and then it was gone, baby, gone. But I don't think a day has passed when I haven't looked back on it in anger and awe. Neve Campbell plays the first scene buck naked in an open shower high above the class struggle of Manhattan, water spraying out of a well-placed nozzle and R&B pumping out of the speakers. Could anybody guess that this slinky, sleazy New-Wave-in-New-York number will invite The Sopranos' wrinkled ol' Uncle June (Dominic Chianese) to make an Indecent Proposal-type deal with the nubile heroine and her dumb-fuck hustler beau (Fred Weller), then turn her into...? Rent the DVD when it comes out in a few weeks and tell me I'm nuts for thinking that writer-director-actor James Toback--here playing horny Professor Hassan al-Ibrahim ben Rabinowitz behind impenetrably dark shades--is a provocateur par excellence.


10. Dawn of the Dead

I know the not with a bang... theory, but I still say the end of the world demands depiction with total ferocity. And this zombie revival by first-time director Zack Snyder does just that--from the chaotic cul-de-sac nightmare of the opening reel (they won't go gently in suburbia, it seems) all the way to the end credit sequence, which appears to get eaten alive itself. When the damn thing was finally over, I left the Yorktown Cinema Grill(!) shaking like a leaf, but oddly relieved: You think you've seen it all before and then along comes a movie--a remake, yet--that proves pop still has the power to sink its teeth into you. Maybe it's not the end of the world.


Honorable Mention (alphabetically): Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer; Bad Education; Blissfully Yours; Control Room; Cowards Bend the Knee; Goodbye Dragon Inn; Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle; Metallica: Some Kind of Monster; Notre musique; Tarnation.


As Good As It Gets

Not a good year for great movies, but a great year for good ones. Besides those listed below, I enjoyed the mirror-hall reflections of Andrew Lau and Alan Mak's InfernalAffairs and its crackerjack cast. Alfonso Cuarón magicked Harry Potter and his friends into real teenagers with unreliable bodies and moods. The first half of Kinsey went in unexpected directions with pleasing verve (before the movie settled into middle-class morality lessons). Vera Drake's heavy hand of fate was leavened by keenly perceptive performances, especially Imelda Staunton's. Likewise, Jeff Bridges (The Door in the Floor) and Clive Owen (Closer) pierced their stale chamber pieces with exuberant nastiness.

As for Sideways, the "year's best reviewed movie," it gave me a headache.  


1. Hero

My reading tells me that Zhang Yimou's film is a candy-colored spectacle, a mass-market version of wild-eyed Hong Kong enthusiasms of old, an apologia for the brutalities of Chinese governments past and present. Certainly Zhang's banal House of Flying Daggers doesn't argue for his thematic perspicacity. But I appreciate the way that Hero's fight scenes de-escalate over the course of the film, as if Zhang is trying to wean the viewer off that thrill. The image of an individual's silhouette marked out by arrows seems all too perfect right now. And to rest in the elegant, experienced arms of Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung, I will even bear Zhang Ziyi.


2. The Saddest Music in the World

Guy Maddin's rowdy farce--with Isabella Rossellini as a beer baroness perched on brew-filled glass legs!--got less respect than his melodramatic vampire ballet Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary, but to me it's just as beautiful and twice as rich. Under cover of tipsy one-liners, the Canadian director blasts imperialist U.S. spectacle (wars and movies both) at the same time that he himself puts on one helluva Hollywoodesque spectacular.


3. Bad Education

No offense to Jude Law, but Gael García Bernal is easily the sexiest (wo)man alive. And Pedro Almodóvar's tricky noir polishes his boyishly vulnerable surface until we see ourselves, endlessly desiring. (Bernal's character himself lusts for his surface.) Bad Education is wiser (and wider) than Closer in its examination of unexamined passion and its costs. (Opens January 21 at the Uptown.)


4. The Aviator

Gangs of New York looked a clomping mess, but by the time Scorsese hit the graveyard and the modern street sounds of the credits, this viewer's chest was hurting with love of country: love in all its painful complexity. Scorsese's The Aviator left me unmoved, but marveling: So big! So smooth! So miraculously engineered! In the guise of portraying Howard Hughes's (mostly) glory years building solid aircraft and movies, the director has fine-crafted a tribute to making things well--something Americans were reportedly proud of doing in the early 20th century. Whether Scorsese intends the charismatic Hughes's eventual coddled paranoia to be representative of our last half-century, well....


5. I Huckabees

I laughed more than my friends, who thought it a trite Philosophy 101 lecture. To me, writer-director David O. Russell trumps fellow loser-art practitioners Charlie Kaufman, Wes Anderson, and even Richard Linklater in that: a) he acknowledges his white male privilege (see the movie's unpacking of the "magical" black man trope), b) his absurdity is uglier and funnier (see the mud-sex scene), and c) his characters actually confront a world outside their own mirror (see the saving-meadow-from-big-box-retail crusade, played for laughs and chills).


6. Tarnation

An autobiographical documentary whose significant emotional power is derived from facts stated in straightforward intertitles--Mom received years of shock "treatments," son was abused as a toddler--and images that illustrate, twist, mock, question, heighten, and otherwise continue to respond to those facts creatively. Filmmaker/subject Jonathan Caouette seemed to know even at the age of 11 that authenticity, too, is a performance.


7. Notre musique

Jean-Luc Godard's meditation on war and art begins with an intricate and intense montage of battle scenes, staged and otherwise. It's not a collection of great war moments, more a set of "forgotten hits" that pushes, say, Saving Private Ryan into perspective. That is: There's little that's "great" about war, unless you count the sorrow it engenders. The rest of Notre musique focuses on current conflict through the lens of life after war: people, including Godard, wandering the broken buildings of Sarajevo, trying to figure out what to do that might matter. (Opens January 14 at the Oak Street.)


8. Blissfully Yours

Apichatpong Weerasethakul's characters grant themselves a drowsily sensual afternoon in the sun against a backdrop of dull daily work at a "Made in Thailand" sweatshop. A visceral portrait of world trade policy at ground level.


9. Metallica: Some Kind of Monster

Under the tutelage of a $40,000-a-month counselor, the members of Metallica learn to negotiate their relationship to one another rather than acknowledge the creative death of a successful name brand. It's surprisingly painful to watch--maybe because these stunted young men barely learn how to identify an emotion before they're learning how it can be profitably manipulated. A visceral portrait of world trade policy at ground level, Part II.


10. Maria Full of Grace

Colombian brings pellets of cocaine to America in her belly. A visceral portrait, et cetera, Part III.


Honorable Mention (alphabetically): Before Sunset; The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi; Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle; Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban; Infernal Affairs; Kinsey; Moolaadé; Time of the Wolf; Vera Drake.  


It Is What It Is

Bodhichitta--the simultaneous awakening and softening of the heart, the process of becoming vulnerable to the grief of others--is both subject and object of most of my favorite movies of 2004. Many filmmakers--Jean-Luc Godard, Michael Haneke, and Michael Moore being preeminent among them--came at the follies of the globalized moment with the canon of Western tragedy in mind: Godard recalled Dante, Haneke conjured Goya, and Moore created a tragic poem out of 21st-century image-language.

But the movie that gave me the most pleasure and consolation this year, not to mention the profoundest font of wisdom, didn't have a tragic shape: It was light rather than heavy, surprising and humorous rather than harrowing and inevitable, colored like a pleasant afternoon with your aunt at an upscale food court. And in its contemplation of very serious things, it felt like a feathery gust of cool breeze in the face: a refreshing draft of bodhichitta.

Part of what gives me such enormous joy in I Huckabees is that it reflects what I think and worry and dream about every day--only it has Naomi Watts and Jude Law and Mark Wahlberg speaking all the parts instead of the wheedling little voice in my head. Huckabees doesn't leave us shattered like Godard's Notre musique or pumped up to burn down the White House like Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11: It leaves us feeling slightly gentler toward ourselves and the person sitting next to us; it encourages us to receive catastrophe with mirth, ease, and an appetite for pleasure; it makes us more elegant and makes our lives more like art. I am coming to think that this might be a moviemaker's loftiest goal.


1. I Huckabees

Why do the actors seem so much happier than they usually do, even though the director reportedly screams all the time? Why is Mark Wahlberg throwing away all those Twizzlers? How am I not myself? What makes Talia Shire seem so sad? Is that supposed to be funny when Jason Schwartzman and Isabelle Huppert are fucking in the mud? Why is the "African guy" smiling like that? What happens when you don't figure something out? Doesn't she look so much nicer in a bonnet?


2. Notre musique

Contemporary cinema's preeminent existential detective explores the colossus of genocide as an abstract fugue on the permanence of sorrow. Godard's best movie since Every Man for Himself--and, with the possible exception of Contempt, his most emotionally naked.


3. Time of the Wolf

The impact of the end of the world on well-read, well-traveled, well-meaning First World people who aren't particularly handy or resilient and, I'd bet money, are much like yourself. Haneke is a tough-love purveyor of bodhichitta, but you leave the theater feeling almost obscenely open to the pain you had shut out of the corner of your eye.


4. Fahrenheit 9 /11

I seem to be the only critic in America who believes deeply that this is a great movie and not just a stirring op-ed piece. But hell, I think George Clooney is currently a better director than Martin Scorsese, so take me with a grain of salt. Still: If you have the DVD lying around, watch the last five minutes, then tell me what else has given you those goose bumps lately.


5. S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine

One of the few living survivors of a Khmer Rouge death camp interviews his teenage persecutors, now fully grown, and encourages them to reenact their crimes in the very place where they committed them. A sacred movie.


6. Ocean's Twelve

Yes, the world is on fire; yes, it needs our helping hands. But can I just go off-topic for a moment? If I can't stop staring at Brad Pitt, does that mean I'm going through some midlife sexual-identity change?


7. Control Room

Who would have guessed that the documentary form would lend itself to a 21st-century Balzac novel? The richness of sociological detail--especially the interactions among the self-contradicting characters--gives the movie a roundness and fullness that's very nearly unique.


8. The Terminal

Steven Spielberg's miniature portrait of comic abjection is among the most exquisite of his later works. Its felicities include the director's time-tested figure of the Wandering Jew being given many of the particularities of a Wandering Palestinian; and a terrifying set piece composed only of some Starbucks saltines and a handful of condiments.  


9. Jesus, You Know

Austrian director Ulrich Seidl is the most scalding social satirist since Otto Dix. Here, he has created a brilliantly equivocal object: a movie in which a handful of Austrians speak to us, in baroque church settings, the words they speak to Jesus Christ. Is it another Seidl slap at the Viennese haute bourgeoisie? A sincere rendering of the yearning hearts of ordinary people? Or--scariest of all--is it a work that leaves us to fill in the ideological blanks?


10. The Five Obstructions

A man I love to hate, Lars von Trier, redeems his loathsome oeuvre in the last minutes of this terrifically suspenseful documentary about the gauntlet of challenges he throws down in front of his now-less-celebrated filmmaking mentor. A Rubik's Cubic, all-purpose allegory for therapy, S&M, Oedipal wrestling matches, and the agonies of reviewing movies.


Honorable Mention (in order of preference): Bad Education; Primer; Vera Drake; When Will I Be Loved; Million Dollar Baby; Twentynine Palms; Dawn of the Dead; Moolaadé; Tamala 2010: A Punk Cat in Space; King Arthur.


The Kids Are Alright

Call it the Revenge of the Gen-Yers. If there was a prevailing film trend in the years 2002 and 2003, it was the continued dominance of '70s Hollywood and its movie-brat progeny: After seeing strong new work from Polanski, Scorsese, De Palma, Altman, Spielberg, Schrader, and Bogdanovich in the same 12-month span, a 21st-century viewer might have thought he had awakened in 1973--like Sleeper in reverse.

In 2004, though, the cream of the past decade's indie-film wave reasserted itself with a vengeance. Virtually every major indie auteur who emerged during the 1990s represented in '04: Give or take Steven Soderbergh (Ocean's Twelve) and/or Kevin Smith (Jersey Girl), only Paul Thomas Anderson was AWOL from a roster that included Quentin Tarantino (Kill Bill Vol. 2), Wes Anderson (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou), Richard Linklater (Before Sunset), Alexander Payne (Sideways), and David O. Russell (I Huckabees). And for the most part, they did exactly what we had hoped for: They raised the bar for mainstream filmmaking to such a degree that even their misses felt like hits.


1. Before Sunset

The least you can say for Richard Linklater's sustained Holy Moment of a movie is that it offers a late-afternoon stroll through Paris by the sun-dappled Seine. At best--which constitutes the entire 80-minute film--the characters, the locations, the actors, their off-screen histories, and the simmering sexual tension in their banter produce a sensation not unlike falling in love (in real time).


2. Dogville

Think of this rabid reworking of Our Town, a scalding morality play with the heft and mostly realized ambition of a major work, as The Passion of the Christ with the ending most people wanted after two hours of His bloody desecration--i.e., a payback that would make Sonny Chiba wince. Except this passion play comes with the horror of actually seeing our grim hope realized. We should be glad that Lars von Trier wants to be God and not the other way around.


3. Blissfully Yours

This raptly contemplative summer picnic of a movie follows a middle-aged Thai housewife, a young Burmese immigrant, and his girlfriend into the forests near the Burmese border on an afternoon reverie. Time dissolves in an erotic haze, and director Apichatpong Weerasethakul's languid takes are an immersion in natural wonders: the chirps of unseen wildlife, the prismatic play of light on a pond, even a penis unfolding like an exotic lily in a lover's hand. Despite its elegiac epilogue, the movie's lingering effect is restorative, as if the director had held a tuning fork to the world and recalibrated our senses. Be sure not to miss the precredit sequence--all 45 minutes of it.


4. I Huckabees

The movie that Preston Sturges might have made had he lived through 9/11: a riled-up, extraordinarily generous and humane farce about competing philosophies (and philosophers) that could just as easily have been called Design for Living. As a hotheaded firefighter with a short fuse, Mark Wahlberg proves he would've made an excellent William Demarest.


5. Primer

Metaphysical in its ideas and implications, Luddite in its means (all the way down to its glorious Super 16 cinematography), writer-director-editor-star Shane Carruth's $7,000 science-fiction marvel demonstrates that imagination is a special effect few movies can afford. What makes its abstract time-travel conundrums plausible is the mundane concreteness of the surrounding details: suburban garages, industrial-park monotony, guys in white shirts and skinny ties talking in the impenetrable shorthand of impatient techies.  


6. The Polar Express (IMAX 3-D)

The unconvincing stiffness that plagues human characters in digital animation is the only thing keeping this instant classic of slumberland Americana out of my #1 slot. Among viewing experiences, none all year topped that of peering through an indoor snowfall while a thousand illuminated flecks dusted the theater--and that was just in the first few minutes. Robert Zemeckis may be the first director to grasp the spatial and compositional possibilities of 3-D and CGI: The camera is liberated from mass, from gravity, even from reality. All this plus a midnight train where kids in their pajamas get to drink hot chocolate.


7. Hero / House of Flying Daggers

After seeing these Zhang Yimou films back to back, I now think of the director's martial-arts epics much like the two volumes of Kill Bill: The first absorbs and transforms its influences, while the second "merely" serves up undigested genre play as it leaps from one astounding set piece to the next. I'd give Hero the edge for three reasons: Maggie Cheung, Christopher Doyle's ravishing camerawork, and Zhang's color-coded evocation of the distortions of fiction, memory, and longing. But House's Shaw Brothers-esque "echo game" and insane bamboo-forest showdown reveal that Zhang is no dilettante of the genre. Note to unsung fight choreographer Tony Ching Siu-Tung: Take a bow for cashing all of Zhang's checks.


8. Crimson Gold

The faddish interest in Iranian cinema may come and go (mostly go, if the swelling backlash continues through 2005), but not this mordant tragicomedy about a drugged bear of a man lurching through a world of comforts he'll never possess. As directed by Jafar Panahi and scripted with uncharacteristic noirish flair by Abbas Kiarostami, the movie is a time capsule of class resentment, embodied by the hulking nonactor Hossain Emadeddin in a seething performance.


9. Undertow

Unjustly greeted with critical silence and half-assed distribution, David Gordon Green's Super '70s riff on The Night of the Hunter turns the stuff of backwoods drive-in melodramas into a mixture of folktale and homegrown Greek mythology. And I still can't believe that entirely credible Delta river rat is really the kid from Billy Elliot.


10. The Aviator

Scorsese to Hollywood: "Okay, I'll make your prestige-biopic kinda picture, your Beautiful Mind or whatever the hell it is. And because I'll make it with such eye-popping pizzazz, you'll never notice what it's really about: how you started out as a brazen daredevil full of possibility and ended up a timid, decrepit old vegetable--'the way of the future,' indeed. Just send my Oscar to New York, thanks."


Honorable Mention (alphabetically): Bright Leaves; The Brown Bunny; The Corporation; The Return; Shaun of the Dead; Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring; Team America: World Police; the "Hell" and "Heaven" sections of Notre musique; the amazing train chase and chicken run from Torque; and every extra second spent in Lee Marvin's company from The Big Red One: The Reconstruction.

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