- The Washington Times - Friday, December 31, 2004

A year ago, three movies seemed to demand pride of place as the most accomplished popular entertainments of 2003: “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” and “Finding Nemo.”

They were realized by filmmakers based in New Zealand; Australia; and Emeryville, Calif., respectively. Does this tell us something about the value of working outside a Hollywood mind-set?

Half a dozen features make irresistible claims as the most satisfying of 2004: the dazzling Pixar adventure-comedy “The Incredibles”; the topical animated farce “Team America: World Police,” which mocked Hollywood’s political pieties with timely, not to mention obscene, gusto; Joel Schumacher’s richly evocative and melodic film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical “The Phantom of the Opera”; “The Story of the Weeping Camel,” a disarming and humanely exemplary documentary sojourn to Mongolia; the brilliant Korean life-cycle allegory “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring”; and the Japanese revelation “The Twilight Samurai,” which discovers an inspired way of rejuvenating a classic genre.

Does it follow that there were twice as many distinguished movies in 2004? No, but it’s a way of illustrating that nothing in the way of a serious decline could be quantified from one year to the next. It rarely can be. Selective moviegoers can almost always count on finding about three dozen new pictures worth seeing for one defensible reason or another.

At least as many make risible or stupefying impressions as the most watchable “worst” movies in any given year, separating them from the duds that fail to prove diverting. For example, I don’t think Oliver Stone’s “Alexander” was ever within reach of dramatic or pictorial grandeur, but when Angelina Jolie is on the screen, it dallies with exalted kitsch.

This year’s top 10 can be filled out with “Vera Drake,” “Teacher’s Pet,” “Sideways” and “Broadway: The Golden Age.” A supplementary 10 recommend themselves more or less readily: “Beyond the Sea,” “Finding Neverland,” “Vanity Fair,” “Bright Young Things,” “Shrek 2,” “Win a Date With Tad Hamilton!” “Ray,” “Kinsey,” “Maria Full of Grace” and “Kitchen Stories.”

Documentaries have grown so varied and sympathetic, at least beyond the circle of projects devoted to political propaganda in general and contempt for President Bush in particular, that it’s also easy to compile a best 10 in this genre alone: “Weeping Camel,” “Broadway,” “My Flesh and Blood,” “Word Wars,” “Super Size Me,” “Control Room,” “Touching the Void,” “Paper Clips,” “Voices of Iraq” and “The Lost Boys of Sudan.”

The symbolic worst film of the year is Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” which doesn’t lack for showmanship and malicious entertainment value but does overrate its cleverness and opportunism while defaming the president. The election confirmed an intuition that might have seemed dubious when the movie was riding high as the Cannes grand-prize winner: Mr. Bush was fortunate in his detractors.

It will be interesting to see how stoutly the Hollywood community embraces Mr. Moore as an unscrupulous soul mate at the next Academy Awards. He didn’t influence the election decisively, but he does represent Hollywood’s political prejudice with lamentable fidelity. Two of the sorriest fictional movies of the year, “The Day After Tomorrow” and Jonathan Demme’s uncalled-for remake of “The Manchurian Candidate,” illustrate the desperate condition of liberal polemicists in the film industry.

Mr. Demme and his collaborators failed to recognize that a fictionalized Sen. John Kerry would have made more sense as an update of Raymond Shaw, the title character. Mr. Kerry’s resume included such Shaw affinities as hazy battlefield memories and private audiences with dedicated Asian communists.

Perverse and diabolical thrillers seem to be crying out for a merciful scuttling, to judge from the shortcomings of “Twisted,” with Ashley Judd; “Taking Lives,” with Angelina Jolie; “The United States of Leland,” with Kevin Spacey; “Man on Fire,” with Denzel Washington; “Godsend,” with Robert De Niro; “The Clearing,” with Robert Redford; “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead,” with Clive Owen; “Enduring Love,” with Daniel Craig; and “The Grudge,” with Sarah Michelle Geller.

Throw in “The Manchurian Candidate,” and you have a 10-worst list of thrillers alone. “Twisted” also set itself apart as the worst-timed of sinister duds. It opened in the teeth of Mel Gibson’s biblical juggernaut, “The Passion of the Christ,” and suffered the consequences.

It was not an auspicious year for Denzel Washington, Tom Hanks, Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell, Jude Law, Ben Stiller, Charlize Theron or Ben Affleck, who may want to brood about issues of selectivity and dubious choices. It’s difficult not to ascribe some of the bad judgment to the fog of partisan politics. Many performers seem to have envisioned 2004 as the year they owed the public a different president more than an astute choice of roles.

It’s certain Mr. Moore will spend the next four years formulating impeachment charges in the guise of crusading documentaries. If his sense of purpose is the tail that wags the Hollywood pooch, look for quality movies to continue to originate in such production centers as Wellington, Seoul, Tokyo, London and Emeryville.

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