The Best Movies of the Year

We've picked our favorites -- let the debates begin

Kitchen Stories. In 1950s Norway, a group of Swedish efficiency experts study the kitchen routines of single men living alone in a remote farming district, recording their every movement from stove to table, cupboard to sink. This quirky Norwegian gem ably satirizes the follies of petty bureaucrats and misguided social engineers, but it's also a touching meditation on the ways human beings grapple with loneliness and try to connect. Against all odds, the mild-mannered researcher and the dour, long-faced farmer forge a memorable friendship. (Bill Gallo)

The Manchurian Candidate. A remake of the John Frankenheimer classic, this spiffy redo subs corporations for Commies as its bad guys; Mama's still a creep with a crush on her sonny boy, but she's in bed with Enron, or close to it. Amazingly, in the Year of the Political Movie, Jonathan Demme's take on politics-as-unusual got lost in the shuffle -- considered too familiar by some, too wacky by others, not at all by most. Which was a shame, considering how it ultimately came out as a Republican-bashing, Patriot Act-hating movie without the polemics getting in the way of a kinky good time. (Robert Wilonsky)

My Architect. In this documentary by Nathaniel Kahn, the son of the great architect Louis Kahn tries to unravel the startling secrets of his late father's life and, in the process, explores his own nature too. Haunted and ineffably sad, the younger Kahn's quest to understand a parent who was deeply unhappy, stubborn and deceptive (good old Dad had two secret families aside from his "official" one) develops into a story of the troubled father searching for himself. In the end, the great man collapsed and died in a Manhattan restroom, and his body went unclaimed for two days. (BG)

A sleeper revolution: The Motorcycle Diaries
A sleeper revolution: The Motorcycle Diaries

The Story of the Weeping Camel. When a female camel rejects her newborn calf, a family of nomadic herders sends two of their children across the Gobi Desert to fetch a musician whose playing has the power to heal the mother's heart. This gem of a film is a melding of documentary and narrative (all incidents and characters are real, but some scenes have been reenacted for the camera). Simple, stunning, unique. Robert J. Flaherty would be proud. (Jean Oppenheimer)

The Terminal. A man without a country (Tom Hanks) lands in America and stays in the airport, where he falls in with the cleaning crew and baggage handlers, falls in love with a flight attendant and runs afoul of the bureaucrat bent on keeping him prisoner amid the bookstores, fast-food kiosks and other distractions that have turned airports into mini-malls. Why this was loathed and left for dead remains a mystery; it's one of Steven Spielberg's most charming movies in ages, a light, in-flight fairy tale without message or meaning, but one that was moving nonetheless. (RW)

Tokyo Godfathers. It's a Christmas movie about a transvestite, a bitter homeless bum and a teenage runaway. It's also a cartoon and a comedy. Anime director Satoshi Kon certainly likes to try new things and, having successfully animated a Polanski-esque thriller (Perfect Blue) and a brief history of Japan (Millennium Actress), he turns his hand to Frank Capra, albeit with a gritty edge that few American Christmas movies would dare approach. Stateside, it opened inappropriately during the early spring; rent it over the holidays and see it the way it was meant to be seen. (LYT)

The Twilight Samurai. Yoji Yamada directs a lingering, thoughtful film with a classical beauty and a very satisfying emotional payoff. Owing an obvious debt to Kurasawa's The Seven Samurai, it tells the story of a low-ranking samurai, troubled by poverty and the death of his wife, called to dubious action on behalf of his clan. Why wasn't it noticed? Because you need an attention span to appreciate it. (ML)

Fahrenheit 2004
Remembering the movies that heated up cinemas this year

The Moore the Merrier

One film looms over all others in 2004: Fahrenheit 9/11, released in the heat of summer and the heat of an election-year battle, casts all comers in its estimable shadow and renders them moot. Combined, the dozen-or-so political docs that received theatrical distribution this year didn't make a fraction of Fahrenheit's fortunes, and deservedly so, because not one of them was a good movie -- meaning not one outraged, engaged or entertained the way Michael Moore's did, no matter who you were voting for.

Love the guy or hate the guy -- and it's possible to do both, even if (or especially if) you agree with him -- he's still a masterful director, a street-corner propagandist whose sense of outrage is tempered by his sense of humor. He's too sloppy to make converts and too infuriated to make peace, but his was never offered as straight-up documentary; it's political cartoonery, as A.O. Scott pointed out in the New York Times, exaggeration born of genuine rage. And now, with his regime change failed, it looks even a bit quaint -- a man shaking his fist at 35 million people who patted him on the head while on their way to vote for the guy he hates the most.

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