The Best Movies of the Year

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

Leaning Sideways
In a year when small movies came up big, picking the best was a Payne

Our best movies of the year actually may have been anything but the best to a few of our critics -- such is the dilemma of offering employment to writers of dissenting opinion. In other words, the No. 1 film of 2004 wasn't universally heralded by our team of Bill Gallo, Melissa Levine, Jean Oppenheimer, Luke Y. Thompson and Robert Wilonsky; then again, neither was Hellboy -- though that film was lavished with praise by one of the above scribes. No, really, it was.

The Riverfront Times top ten is determined via a composite score: Each critic submitted his or her top ten films of the year, and each film's ranking was added to reveal the overall winners. Following are the top 10 films of 2004, as voted by the RFT film critics. Feel free to vent your outrage to the editor; Lord knows the critics will.

1) Sideways. It's not as deep as About Schmidt or as cutting as Election, but Sideways is a hilarious, warm, and winning addition to the oeuvre of Alexander Payne -- one of the finest directors at work in American cinema. Offering a twisted version of the road-trip/buddy flick, Sideways gives us Miles (Paul Giamatti), a bitter wine freak attempting to escape the twin sorrows of a failed novel and a failed marriage, and Jack (Thomas Haden Church), a washed-up, small-time actor desperate to live it up for a week before his wedding. The agenda? A wine-tasting tour of the Central California coast -- for Miles, anyway. Jack just wants to get laid. The juxtaposition between Miles' brittle angst and Jack's doofy recklessness is rich with conflict and with news; in the end, the men have something to teach each other, though they would never admit as much. With an excellent, subtle performance by Virginia Madsen, as Miles' love interest. (Melissa Levine)

2) Maria Full of Grace. First-time director Joshua Marston's compelling drug movie has no automatic weapons and no car chases, just an unforgettable portrait of a sixteen-year-old Colombian girl (played by the extraordinary Catalina Sandino Moreno) who's forced by circumstance to become a "mule" for shabby drug dealers. She swallows scores of balloons stuffed with cocaine, then boards a plane for New York to deliver the stuff. But she's no victim. Exploited by sweatshop bosses, a loser boyfriend and her own family, she nonetheless shows a feistiness and an ability to think quickly that helps her, against long odds, to wring a new life out of despair and abuse. The atmosphere is harrowing, the performances uniformly superb. This splendid debut signals great things for Marston. (Bill Gallo)

3) House of Flying Daggers. Zhang Yimou had two movies in U.S. theaters this year: Hero, which Miramax bought for $10 million and shelved for two years, and this martial-arts stunner, which is deeper and darker than its predecessor. That's not to slight Hero but to praise House of Flying Daggers. In telling of an ill-fated romance between an assassin (Zhang Ziyi) and the cop (Takeshi Kaneshiro) bound to bring her in, it's a far more resonant picture -- dazzling not just with its stunts but also its story, which simply has a little more heart than the U.S. version of Hero. It's stunning to look at, too, with every second framed like a painting bound not for a screen but a museum wall, where it can be ogled till closing time. Somehow Yimou gets his greens greener and reds redder than any director working today. You will not see a more beautiful movie this year...or any other. (Robert Wilonsky)

4) Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Everyone knows Charlie Kaufman can write a clever script, but often the gimmick's the thing, whether it be a portal into John Malkovich's head, Patricia Arquette's body-hair problems or Nic Cage playing twins. There's a gimmick here too -- the targeted erasure of memories -- but like the best sci-fi, it's primarily a metaphor for a deeper dilemma: the question of whether or not we'd really be better off eliminating heartbreak from our lives. Kaufman's funhouse structure serves the story by representing the dream state, getting inside Jim Carrey's head as portions of his mind are being destroyed, and director Michel Gondry rises to the challenge with a hallucinogenic sound mix and editing style. Of course, none of it would work if not for Carrey's very real portrait of heartache and Kate Winslet's charm as his free-spirited muse. (Luke Y. Thompson)

5) Bad Education. If Pedro Almodóvar's directorial career needed a summing-up in the wake of Talk to Her and All About My Mother, this is the great film to do it -- a fascinating meditation on sin, sexuality, the terrors of the Catholic Church in Spain and the comforts of art, all dressed (and cross-dressed) up as a seamy film noir that gleefully bows to everything from Vertigo to Double Indemnity to Rashomon. It's the tale of two rural schoolboys, once abused by a Franco-era priest, who grow up to be wildly disordered men -- one of them a drag queen with a taste for blackmail (The Motorcycles Diaries' Gael García Bernal), the other a celebrated movie director in Madrid (Fele Martínez). When their old tormentor, now an ex-priest, also shows up with his own version of past events, Almodóvar's cleverly interwoven trio of narratives enters a dazzling hall of mirrors. (BG)

6) Napoleon Dynamite. We all know how nerd movies are supposed to go. Our lead guy is some basically good-looking kid like Anthony Edwards hidden under horn-rimmed glasses, just like you and me except that he gets beaten up more often. Infatuated with the most beautiful girl in the school, he concocts harebrained schemes to win her over, ultimately managing to woo her away from her jock/bully boyfriend and saving the day in a big and noticeable way. Real nerds, however, are often ugly, socially inept, delusional, passive-aggressive and totally lost in their own world. The key is to find sympathy for them anyway, and director Jared Hess pulls off that neat trick with flying colors. Napoleon gets his brief moment in the sun at the film's climax, but his real triumph is in finding love and friendship among the equally out-of-place. The supporting cast plays like a Mike Judge cartoon come to life. (LYT)

7) Osama. A ruthlessly uncompromising look at the status of Afghan women under Taliban rule, Osama marks the stunning feature debut of writer/director Siddiq Barmak. Marina Golbahari, a girl whom Barmak found begging on the streets of Kabul (all the actors are amateurs), plays the twelve-year-old protagonist, whose widowed mother disguises her as a boy because unchaperoned women are forbidden from appearing in public or holding jobs. When militants round up the boys of the village for religious indoctrination, the girl's true identity is discovered, and she faces a future that is truly worse than death. A painful, harrowing, essential film. (Jean Oppenheimer)

8) Fahrenheit 9/11. Michael Moore got messy with his facts and occasionally with his film, which engages but occasionally outrages even its most passionate supporters, who wish he had tried harder to connect the dots he so casually tosses into the air like a kid playing with empty shell casings. Like George W. Bush (and, oh, Mel Gibson), Moore's a divider and not a uniter; he couldn't convert a libertarian, much less a neo-con. But he's first and foremost an entertainer -- a song-and-dance man putting on a show at which you can hurl dollar bills or rotten tomatoes, yer pick. This is no more a documentary than a puppet show is a Jerry Bruckheimer movie, and only people who've never watched reality TV could confuse it for "truth," which doesn't diminish its entertainment value. Of course, it's a relic already, too, a quaint vestige of the liberal rage and optimism that dissipated at 9:12 p.m. November 2, when the map behind Tom Brokaw went red and Michael Moore got a little bluer. (RW)

9) Metallica: Some Kind of Monster. Here's a cross-sell: World's most popular metal band investigates its own dysfunction through group therapy. Think it'll attract the mulletheads and the NPR crowd? Indeed it should. Perhaps the finest rockumentary ever made, Some Kind of Monster is a brilliant, probing examination of relationships between and among men -- creative men, addicted men, wounded men, angry men and hilarious men, intentionally and otherwise. Directors Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger had the genius (or good fortune) to capture the band in crisis, when internal strife -- largely the antics of mercurial, infantile leader James Hetfield -- threatens to break up the group forever. Can drummer Lars Ulrich requisition the strength and support to keep it all together, even while Hetfield takes his sweet time drying out? For those who hate metal, the music all but disappears from this movie. Instead, rising like a phoenix from the ashes is the band's honest, noble and humbling attempt to get real. (ML)

10) Closer. Sophisticated and savage, this lacerating chamber piece offers a bleak view of human relationships. Based on the stage play by Patrick Marber, it returns director Mike Nichols to the fertile territory he mined in Carnal Knowledge and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Under the guise of telling the truth, the four protagonists -- two couples whose romantic loyalties are continually shifting and realigning -- lay waste to one another's emotions with alarming ease. Powerfully acted, especially by Clive Owen, Jude Law and Natalie Portman, Closer reveals the terrible damage that people do to one another in the name of love. (JO)

Second Run
Celebrating the overachieving, underhyped movies of 2004

While Michael Moore and Mel garnered most of this year's critical attention, plenty of fine films opened to little or no fanfare. Following are our reviewers' favorite movies that didn't draw the adulation they deserved. Consider yourself armed for the next trip to Blockbuster:

Control Room. In a year of agitprop documentaries both left and right, the best political doc of the bunch was this genuinely fair and balanced look at Arab news station Al Jazeera and its coverage of the Iraq war. Yes, the filmmakers ultimately lean left, but it's the U.S. military's PR guy, Josh Rushing, who stands out as the strongest and most likable personality. Sadly, he was discharged shortly after the movie was finished, possibly for becoming too open-minded. (Luke Y. Thompson)

The Door in the Floor. In Tod Williams' exceptionally crafted movie about a marriage wrecked by loss, relative newcomer Jon Foster plays a high-school student interning with a famous writer (Jeff Bridges) and his wife (Kim Basinger) for the summer. Bridges is glorious in his debauchery, and Foster is truly charming as a young man whose innocence goes up in flames. The script, too, is tight and deft. (Melissa Levine)

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)

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.

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 Bound and 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. Robinson

What 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 is more 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 Rings extra. 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.

The stars of Dig!, Brian Jonestown Massacre's Anton Newcombe and Dandy Warhols frontman Courtney Taylor, probably wouldn't go in for a little head-shrinking but sure as hell could use it, even after their rise turns into a protracted fall. Someone oughta make an album about them. (RW)

Kid Movies Grow Up

Have we finally outgrown the notion that movies have to be cloying and cute in order to be acceptable to children? It sure seemed like it this year. Possibly the most sentimental major entry was The Polar Express, but that owed only to the source material -- director Robert Zemeckis did his best to distract from the sap with several runaway-train sequences and scary wolves that pushed the boundaries of a G rating. Pixar simply ignored the G for the first time with The Incredibles, in which characters die and children are menaced with guns.

It should go without saying that Shrek 2's references to Angelyne and Ricky Martin, and Shark Tale's riffs on Mafia movies, aren't exactly targeted at an innocent audience. Nor was Disney's Teacher's Pet, in which a boy's favorite dog becomes an adult human who romances his mom...ewww! One might suspect that a Garfield movie would be aimed only at preschoolers with no standards, but by adding Bill Murray's voice to the mix, the filmmakers actually managed to make something entertaining out of almost nothing. The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie even alienated some critics on the religious right by being "too dark and edgy" -- the bit with David Hasselhoff's morphing pecs was probably too much to handle. Naturally, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban induced frenzies among those same prudish faithful, with its freaky werewolves and demonic Dementors.

Yet one smaller, under-the-radar family flick that even managed to get approval from notorious right-wing scold L. Brent Bozell and his Parents Television Council was The Dust Factory, a surprisingly complex and mature piece of surrealism that packaged a variety of philosophical and spiritual ideas about death in an appealingly odd tale of a drowning boy trapped in a Purgatory-like dreamscape. Little seen in theaters, it deserves your attention on video.

If sickly sweet crap was what you wanted for your kids in 2004, you didn't have much luck, though Hilary Duff came through for ya in A Cinderella Story (as for the Olsen twins, let's just say New York Minute, with all its "accidental" near-nudity, seemed to be shooting for a whole new demographic). -- Luke Y. Thompson

Latin Love

Ever since Alejandro González Iñárritu's Amores Perros exploded onto American screens in 2000 -- followed soon after by Alfonso Cuarón's Y Tu Mamá También and Fernando Meirelles' City of God -- American audiences have been taking notice of Spanish and Latin American cinema. The year 2004 was no exception, with The Motorcycle Diaries from Brazil's Walter Salles and Bad Education from Spain's Pedro Almodóvar the most widely seen.

It may not be fair to lump the movies of Mexico, Brazil, Argentina and Spain together under one roof, but it is undeniable that films, directors and actors from these countries have brought a new excitement to American audiences. And the films do share some similarities, beyond the obvious Spanish or Portuguese language. First and foremost is their sociopolitical point of view.

The plight of the poor and the disenfranchised is front and center in The Motorcycle Diaries, which charts its heroes' political transformation during a cross-continent journey. Y Tu Mamá También, another road movie from a few years ago, emphasized the disparity between the rich and the poor. These frequently brutal depictions of life south of the border tackle everything from prison conditions (Hector Babenco's Carandiru) to pedophilia in the Catholic Church (Bad Education) to the civil war in El Salvador (Innocent Voices, Mexico's Academy submission for Best Foreign Language Film this year).

Not yet released in the U.S., Innocent Voices focuses, like so many other recent Latin American films, on children and the effect that war, poverty, drugs and governmental indifference have on the youngest, most vulnerable members of society. Interestingly, many of these films -- City of God being the most notable example -- marry elements of Italian Neo-Realism with today's sophisticated postproduction techniques to produce an in-your-face realism of visceral and dazzling power.

Mexican-born director Alfonso Cuarón, who moves easily between Hollywood and his native land (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, The Crime of Father Amaro), has suggested that the new burst of creativity can be traced in large measure to the changing political landscape in Latin America. When military dictatorships fall, artists are inspired -- and censorship no longer presents an obstacle. (Jean Oppenheimer)

Gore Wins! The Year in Carnage

Perhaps it's because we see real-life violence on the news every day now -- not to mention in political documentaries -- but nobody seems too worried about excessive bloodletting in the movies anymore. That's good news for gorehounds.

The year kicked off with Ashton Kutcher impaling his own hands in The Butterfly Effect and continued with a full-fledged revival of the zombie movie, starting with Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead remake, continuing with the video-game-based Resident Evil: Apocalypse and going truly international with the U.K. hit Shaun of the Dead. Cary Elwes hacked his own foot off in Saw, John Waters got his face melted in Seed of Chucky, and "comedy" troupe Broken Lizard used tits and blood to (unsuccessfully) sell its Club Dread. Meanwhile, Hellboy and Alien vs. Predator showed that you can have as many disembowelments as you want in a PG-13 movie, provided the only victims are demons and outer-space creatures that bleed funky neon colors. From across both oceans, Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War and A Very Long Engagement brought the intensity and realism of war to an audience that may not have expected it.

The award for Funniest Use of Gore goes to Team America: World Police, in which Danny Glover and Sean Penn (in puppet form) got mauled to death and had their guts chewed on by Kim Jong-il's "giant panthers" (actually a pair of black housecats). The Pointless Gore Award goes to art-house snoozer Twentynine Palms, for the scene near the end when the protagonist suddenly appears to turn into the Toxic Avenger.

Still, the biggest triumph of big-screen bloodletting came indisputably thanks to Mel Gibson, who managed to peddle a splatter movie to the very people who've condemned them most loudly. His secret? Make sure that the person being stabbed, beaten, ripped apart, abused and mutilated happens to be Jesus Christ. Do that, and audiences will even read subtitles. (LYT)

They Sucked: A Contrarian Perspective

It's easy to bash the big-budget blow-'em-up epics that Hollywood wants audiences to like, but harder, as a critic, to go against the tide of movies deemed Important Artistic Triumphs. I've always been a contrarian, though, so with due apologies to my critical colleagues, here are the movies you're wrong about:

Closer. A better movie back when it was called Your Friends and Neighbors and directed by Neil LaBute.

Maria Full of Grace. "Based on 1,000 True Stories" is the most pompous tagline of the year by far, especially from an American director claiming to speak for all the people of Chile. It does, however, explain why the characters feel so one-dimensional -- they're ciphers standing in for a thousand others, after all. Yes, the drug-swallowing scenes are discomforting, but I saw the same shtick in a Beavis and Butt-head episode a decade ago.

I'll Sleep When I'm Dead. Mike Hodges and Clive Owen tried to repeat the cleverness of Croupier and ended up sending us to slumberland a good deal sooner than the title implied.

Open Water. Just because Blanchard Ryan does full-frontal nudity doesn't make her a good actress. Especially since, while she's suffering from sunstroke, dehydration, hunger, seasickness and jellyfish stings, she still looks like a million bucks. Applaud the actors for swimming with real sharks, but don't applaud the lack of drama that ensues.

Bright Leaves. Director Ross McElwee seems to have no idea how boring he and his family history are. Understandably, those who liked Sherman's March wanted to find out what happened to its director-protagonist; the answer turned out to be: not much.

Red Lights. If you want good reviews, make your film in French. American critics will hail films on that basis alone -- even this tonally inconsistent hodgepodge about an obnoxious drunk who drives badly.

The Aviator. Of all the figures in cinematic history I'd be willing to spend three hours watching, Howard Hughes ain't one. If you genuinely think the special effects here are good, you might be on crack.

Mean Creek. Angry kids on an unsupervised boat trip? Constant ominous music? Gee, wonder what's going to happen next?

Garden State. You mean to say that depressed people can snap out of their funk after sex with Natalie Portman? Never woulda guessed.

Shrek 2. Using "Livin' La Vida Loca" as a setpiece musical number should be grounds for an automatic thumbs-down. Stealing an entire song from Footloose for the climax ought to clinch the deal. Mostly, though, depending upon a stale pastiche of recycled gags from other movies is pure cinematic laziness -- and needs to be labeled as such. (LYT)