The Best Movies of the Year

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

To list the other political docs released in 2004 would take up the rest of this small space; to add the others released on video and sold over the Web would eat up the rest of this issue. Suffice it to say Moore launched two separate industries: There were movies that looked an awful lot like Fahrenheit(Liberty Boundand Robert Greenwald's Uncovered: The War in Iraq) and movies that existed as its antithesis (George W. Bush: Faith in the White House, Michael Moore Hates America and the incredibly dunderheaded Celsius 41.11). They all preached to the choir; none would make a single convert or, for the most part, more than a single dime.

Some of the better political docs focused not on politics but on the media outlets that report on them, and quite poorly at that: Control Room, an even-handed look at Al Jazeera, damned by the U.S. government as the terrorists' CNN; Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism, Greenwald's no-shit movie about how FOX News Channel is the Bush administration's private press room; and Danny Schechter's disturbing WMD: Weapons of Mass Distraction, which revealed how easily the media can be manipulated in the interests of maintaining the illusion of access. And for those with good-ol'-days nostalgia, there was The Hunting of the President, about the right-wing conspiracy to take down Bill Clinton. Smell that? I am inhaling, and exhaling, as you read this. (Robert Wilonsky)

Here's to You, Mrs. RobinsonWhat is it about older women and younger men this year? No fewer than five films -- The Door in the Floor, The Mother, Being Julia, Birth and p.s. -- featured May/December couplings, with decidedly female Decembers. Three of these constitute an official subgenre, heretofore known as older-woman-seeks-to-date-reincarnated-lost-love-in-younger-man. In Door in the Floor, Kim Basinger sees her dead son in a high school student; in p.s., Laura Linney sees her dead high school boyfriend in an art-school applicant; and in Birth, Nicole Kidman sees her dead husband in -- ewww -- a ten-year-old boy.

The filmic examples of older men dating scandalously younger women are legion, and it'd be great if Hollywood were offering a saucy counterpart. But it's hard to wish for happy endings when the setup is so creepy. (The movies in this maudlin threesome have much more to say about grief than they do about love.) Even when the film wants the relationship to work, as in p.s., one senses imminent failure. As for The Mother and Being Julia -- well, neither offers a whole lot of hope for the relationship, though they do offer a measure of redemption for the women. So when will we see a movie about a fun, healthy and successful relationship between an older woman and a younger man? Don't hold your breath. (Melissa Levine)

Docs That Rock

Concert films, save for a handful of exceptions, are a crushing bore -- the equivalent of a wish-you-were-here postcard that taunts you with glimpses of what you missed by choosing to avoid the crushing crowds, cigarette smoke and flicked Bics. Which is why the recently released -- and just as quickly closed -- Jay-Z doc, Fade to Black,was such a dud: Its concert sequences never worked up a sweat, never amounted to anything more than a glitzy-glammy whoop-dee-do infomercial. Its best moments were the shaky-cam interludes between performances, as Jay-Z bounced from studio to studio, producer to producer, in search of beats he could borrow for his Black Album. Sometimes it ismore interesting to see the sausage made than to digest the final product, after all.

This has been a particularly wonderful year for engaging, entertaining documentaries about musicians -- those who fill the arenas with their monster-truck roars (Metallica), those who influenced generations without making fortunes (the Ramones) and those whose egos fill clubs that often go wanting for patrons whenever they play (Brian Jonestown Massacre and the Dandy Warhols). There was even one starring the Grateful Dead and the simply dead: Festival Express, made in 1970 and released 34 years later, long after the footage and audio was believed missing and buried along with Janis Joplin, Rick Danko, Jerry Garcia, Richard Manuel and others who boarded that Canadian train that derailed somewhere between Toronto and the cineplex.

Another doc acted as a different kind of tombstone for a bygone era: Shortly after the release of End of the Century, Johnny Ramone died after a five-year battle with prostate cancer, leaving drummer Tommy Ramone as the last of the living Ramones (there were other drummers, none as essential). End of the Century, then, marked the last time Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Tommy would assemble to recall the ups and downs and downers of a career spent making the noise off of which so many would make so many millions.

Nobody in Metallica is dead yet (well, Cliff Burton, but that was a long time ago), but the band came close to winding up on the extinct list before going into therapy to work through some issues, chief among them James Hetfield's penchant for booze and his refusal to have a heart-to-heart with pal Lars Ulrich, who apparently was sired by a Lord of the Ringsextra. The chronicle of that experience, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, coulda been gooey -- whose heart breaks for multimillionaires who tend to whine? -- but wound up an essential portrait of a band at work while working it out.

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