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The best films of 2004

Philip Matthews and Helene Wong list their 10 best of the year.


1. THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD, directed by Guy Maddin.

"Sadness is just happiness turned on its ass," says impresario Chester Kent (Mark McKinley), entering the competition named in the title - a competition run by a Canadian beer magnate with glass legs, Lady Port-Huntly (Isabella Rossellini). Like Maddin's Careful, this pastiche is surreal, satirical and melodramatic all at once, taking great pains to look like a lost film from the era when talkies replaced silents. It is also insanely funny, despite the title, and utterly unique - there are more ideas in this one film than in some directors' careers.

2. THE RETURN, directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev.

The word "elemental" kept recurring in discussions of The Return: the sea, the forest, the island; the rain that keeps appearing from nowhere, from blue skies; the abandoned towers and empty landscapes; a father-and-sons dynamic that is as old as storytelling. Zvyagintsev's mysterious, profound film is even good enough to bear comparisons to the Russian master, Tarkovsky.

3. ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, directed by Michel Gondry.

Unexpectedly tender, this conceptual love story is the best of the Charlie Kaufman scripts so far produced (the others are Adaptation, Human Nature, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Being John Malkovich). It's clever, but it doesn't feel like a prank, and the performances of Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey as Clementine and Joel, the lovers who erase their memories of each other, are complex and moving.

4. ELEPHANT, directed by Gus Van Sant.

A calm and abstract response to hysteria, Elephant is Van Sant's film about the Columbine High School killings. Call it Daydreaming for Columbine: Van Sant loops time in long, long takes; he keeps coming to the point of the killings and pausing. For a moment you think - or hope - that it may not happen. Of course, it does.

5. IN MY FATHER'S DEN, directed by Brad McGann.

McGann didn't just adapt and update Maurice Gee's novel, he overhauled it, adding a whole new interpretational level (based on Patti Smith's Horses). Dark, involving and emotionally devas-tating, it featured great performances from newcomer Emily Barclay and, especially, the very subtle Matthew Macfadyen.

6. THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS, directed by Gillo Pontecorvo.

Resembling news footage made in the heat of the explosive historical moment, this gripping 1965 docudrama about the Algerian struggle for independence was revived at this year's festival - and, as Pentagon officials knew when they held a private screening last year, it is as relevant as ever. You can't imagine that the Americans came out of that screening feeling anything but dismayed, either.

7. SUPER SIZE ME, directed by Morgan Spurlock.

As in some reality TV stunt - call it McFear Factor - Spurlock went on a McDonald's-only diet for 30 days and the impact on his health (and, as his vegan girlfriend tells us, his libido) is much worse than you would probably imagine. Certainly, much, much worse than the fast food industry would like you to know. Spurlock is a funny, engaging presence and his film hides its didacticism within the easy comedy of his insane, dangerous experiment.

8. AILEEN: LIFE AND DEATH OF A SERIAL KILLER, directed by Nick Broomfield.

Broomfield's weird, by-now-patented mix of befuddlement and sympathy - with his documentaries like fool's errands - perfectly suits his subject here: the stranger-than-fiction serial killer Aileen Wuornos (impersonated by Charlize Theron in the not-crazy-enough Monster). Actually, this is Broomfield's second Wuornos film - the first anticipated a media feeding frenzy, this one responds to it. Amid the liars, abusers and bottom-feeders, Broomfield comes to seem like the last honest man.

9. OPEN WATER, directed by Chris Kentis.

Jaws remade with Blair Witch Project spirit. What happens if you go scuba diving in open water and your ride back to land leaves without you? A husband and wife team find out, slowly and painfully, in this cheap, impressive chiller made, oddly enough, by the husband and wife team of Kentis and Laura Lau.

10. COLLATERAL, directed by Michael Mann.

Tom Cruise finally makes a movie that he can't take his kids to. This nocturnal vision of Los Angeles is Mann's most compressed film in years - and although it doesn't have Heat's grandeur, it has the lonely, existential sense that has run through the best of Mann's work (Heat again, The Insider). Mann fans might also see the grey suit and beard of Cruise's wide-boy killer on a night-long mission as a homage to William Petersen in Mann's classic Manhunter. And I would rank this even higher had Mann not turned it into The Terminator at the end.


1. THE LEOPARD, directed by Luchino Visconti.

A film from 1963? Yes, but the limited release here of the fully restored 1991 version cannot go unacknowledged. From its opening frames drawing us irresistibly into the lives and fortunes of an aristocratic Sicilian family on the brink of a new era, to the exquisite poignancy of the final 40-minute ball scene where all the themes - class, sex, politics, past and future - come to their climax and seem to dance with the dancers, this delivers epic cinema without ever losing touch with the emotional lives of its characters. Film-making at its finest.

2. CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS, directed by Andrew Jarecki.

In a year spoilt for choice in documentary, this stands out for its riveting interweaving of public concerns with the private lives of its subjects. The Friedmans - "captured" on the one hand in their home movies, and on the other for alleged child molestation by two of its members - are here exposed to the gaze of both a 20/20-style investigation reminiscent of our Peter Ellis case, and a voyeuristic family camcorder that charts the trajectory of their disintegration. The resulting dialogue between the two reveals neither guilt nor innocence, but by illuminating the murky boundary between truth and assumption, it does us all a service.

3. THE BOURNE SUPREMACY, directed by Paul Greengrass.

That rare thing: a mainstream thriller that thrills through intelligent, inventive ways. By making Matt Damon a sympathetic villain with amnesia, we're right there with him on the ride. Fast-cut action and flashback give no concession to inattentiveness, serving only to further tighten the grip on the nerve-ends. Some of the fights go on a bit, but, hey, it's boys' stuff.

4. THE TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE, directed by Sylvain Chomet.

Less about triplets than a loose collection of quirky visual ideas - gangsters, geriatric singers, cycling, food habits and 30s jazz - this animated delight is unquestionably Gallic in look and style, but its gentle satire has universal resonance. An almost complete absence of dialogue highlights the music and sound effects and the richness of the animators' eccentric imaginations.

5. ELEPHANT, directed by Gus Van Sant.

Out of small, repeated moments and long, slow-tracking shots along the eerily quiet corridors of an American high school, Van Sant brilliantly creates a creeping sense of non-specific unease. Structurally designed to blend suspense, mystery and dramatic irony, this study of youthful alienation and its all-too-credible consequences achieves its purpose to disturb ... but in these militaristic times, it won't make a blind bit of difference.

6. THIRTEEN, directed by Catherine Hardwicke.

Where antipodean girls enter their teens in silent brooding (Rain, Somersault), their American counterparts are all mouth and sashay, and this is a startlingly real and sympathetic treatment of it. Co-written with one of its young actresses, its dialogue and dilemmas are agonisingly recognisable whether you're the rebellious child or the distraught parent. Sharp and fresh with fine, intense performances.

7. BEFORE SUNSET, directed by Richard Linklater.

The pleasure of possibility drove its predecessor Before Sunrise; the pain of regret underlies this latest brief encounter of Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy). As involving and self-involved, talky and blessed with a great location (Paris) as ever, it reunites the pair almost 10 years later, and though tempered by age and unfulfilled ambitions, the connection and romance are still undeniably there ...

8. IN MY FATHER'S DEN, directed by Brad McGann.

This thoughtful adaptation and enhancement of Gee's novel is highly suspenseful, dense with the conflict of blighted lives and family secrets, and visually and emotionally evocative of small-town New Zealand. Its complex psychology and structure can be a challenge, but they reverberate in the mind well after it's over.

9. THE FOG OF WAR, directed by Errol Morris.

Veteran documentarian Morris gets up close with 85-year-old former US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and gleans more anti-war mileage than Michael Moore and Al Jazeera put together. A seamless tapestry of interview, audio and historical footage creates a portrait that is at once revelatory of the man and his times, and horrifying when you realise the "fog" surrounding this most powerful of positions has in no way cleared at all.

10. KAIKOHE DEMOLITION, directed by Florian Habicht.

Part social document, part love-letter, part celebration of banging stuff up, this affectionate and subtly insightful look at one of our hardest-hit small towns is a gem, reminding city folks of the simple joys of community and showcasing the quality of a truly indigenous humour. Habicht's easy relations with his subjects pay off in their openness and unaffectedness in the presence of his camera.