Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (#1)
“I cannot believe my #1 of the year is a Jim Carrey film. Even more shocking, my #1 of 2003 was a Bill Murray film, and in 2002 it was Adam Sandler. What is the world coming to??!?!?” —Neil Marks, Hoboken, NJ

“All that has to be said is you have never seen a movie like this before now. You will likely never see one like it again. With Charlie Kaufman’s writing and Michel Gondry’s direction, the audience starts at the end of the story, works its way backwards to the beginning then folds in on itself in a seamless story about love and loss. Comic. Visual. Compelling. Fantastic acting from all on screen and a story which will leave you breathless but wanting more. In my mind, this is what filmmaking is supposed to be. It is a unique vision communicating deep subjects that no other medium would be able to communicate. Each scene has something new in it. Each performance is quiet and subtle, yet identifiable. My heart breaks and screams and fills each time I view it.” —Greg Wilson

“There’s the moment you realize, while watching Eternal Sunshine, you are being read a jumbled love letter so brilliant and sincere that you may be witnessing the 21st century’s answer to Casablanca.” —Ian Simpson, Poughkeepsie, NY

“The wonders of digital technology bring us ever closer to the possibility of a ‘live action’ remake of Duck Amuck.” —Richard Baez, San Antonio, TX

Sideways (#2)
“If Payne keeps this up, he is going to make Woody Allen look like an underachiever in the drama-as-comedy department. I disliked his Election, but really liked About Schmidt, and he did even better with this film. He touches a chord with those who seek to examine themselves and the way they live their lives without damning anybody, and does so in such a way that is so hilarious it almost always hurts. I think it is his ability to combine laughter so seamlessly with the pain of recognition that makes this film, as well as Schmidt great.” —Cliff Smith, Lynwood, WA

Sideways combined my two passions of film and wine. I haven’t been at a tasting in two months where somebody didn’t smirk: ‘I detect a slight soupçon of asparagus’” —Bob Kruk, Bloomingdale, NJ

“Most overrated: Sideways (of course). Another soft, ultimately sentimental comedy about unremarkable men by Alexander Payne. And yet, the wine talk stays with you. Very good performance from Virginia Madsen. The movie should have been about her. The film is quirky but minor. Loved, I’m sure, by those who can relate to soggy, self-regarding men (who ultimately get the girl).” —Larry Frascella, New York, NY

“Alexander Payne’s road trip for grown ups takes two lost men (one has lost his passion, the other has lost his sense) and sends them for one last bachelor’s hurrah through the California wine country. While tasting wine and food, they meet some ladies who help magnify the best and worst in both of them. Brilliantly written dialogue and flawlessly acted, this film brings humor and a reminder that the scary place is often times the best choice. But I still don’t understand what’s wrong with drinking Merlot!” —Greg Wilson

“The critical hoopla surrounding Sideways seems about as obvious as a critics’ group composed of 15-year-old girls awarding Mean Girls as the year’s preeminent cinematic achievement. Maybe I’ll get it when I’m old.” —Josh Timmerman

Before Sunset (#3)
“I love Before Sunset almost irrationally. I’ve watched it well over a dozen times since it hit DVD. Often since, I’ll rent something I’ve been meaning to see, but then I’ll opt to watch Before Sunset again instead. There are just so many perfectly wonderful moments: when Jesse first spots Celine out of the corner of his eye while speaking at Shakespeare & Co; when Celine realizes —right in the middle of demanding to know why Jesse didn’t show up in Vienna when she would have had her grandmother not died —that he was indeed there; the expression on Jesse’s face when he says, “See?,” after it dawns on him that it may well have been Celine that he saw in New York on the way to his wedding; Celine and Jesse, by turns, finally spilling their guts about the painful disappointments of their adult lives while driving to Celine’s apartment; and, of course, that entire final scene in Celine’s apartment, including what has to be the most sublimely romantic movie moment since the kiss that stopped traffic in Sunrise (Murnau, not Linklater). —Josh Timmerman

“The main characters have grown up. The dynamics of their dilemma is more interesting. The first 3/4 is a love song to Paris. I saw no other film this year where 87 minutes passed so effortlessly.” —Tom Reynolds, Seattle, WA

“The first film [Before Sunrise] came out as I was about to graduate from college, and it perfectly captured my naïve romantic view of the world. For someone in their early thirties, this film rang incredibly true and honest. I hope to grow old with these characters.” —Neil Marks

“Rick Linklater follows up the cult hit Before Sunrise with the same cast and premise. Set nine years after Before Sunrise ends, Linklater puts the audience in the movie as voyeur as Ethan Hawk and Julie Delpy meet again after missing their first date nine years prior. Set in real time, we follow the couple around as they catch up and eventually the walls come down. Truth and pain and nine years of what —ifs and unanswered questions pour out and I was just left with a sense of privilege and wonder at the masterful filmmaking.” —Greg Wilson

“This is a reunion movie in the best sense of the phrase. For those of us who loved these characters in Before Sunrise, this is a perfect coda, whatever happened to, that while not ending the story, at least builds on and expands on it. Before Sunset shows how time changes (and doesn’t change) these characters. Obviously, if one found the first film schmaltzy and dull, said viewers will find more of the same here. But I was moved.” —John Dodd

“Can we please stop praising the obscenely overrated Before Sunset and Before Sunrise? I felt that I was being punished for some unknown reason while enduring them. These are self-indulgent, overwritten, badly acted pieces of tripe. If critics keep extolling this crap, don’t you know what will happen? He’ll keep making more of them!” —Mitch Metcalf, Stamford, CT

“If Before Sunset is any indication of how Richard Linklater will continue to develop, he should return to these characters in another 10 years. The best indicator of a great film, in my estimation, is when you leave begging for more. Consider this my formal request.” —Jeff Jewell, Ann Arbor, MI

Million Dollar Baby (#4)
“Like the latter-day Bob Dylan, Clint Eastwood doesn’t view the world in terms of Left and Right or preach sermons about social issues. Instead he concerns himself with the human condition, which, seen here, is just a flicker of hope in a world of darkness. The film is limited in set locations and characters (it really only has three main speaking parts), yet it never allows itself to get bogged down in gloominess. This is a beautiful film by a master filmmaker.” —Lucas Stensland, Los Angeles, CA

“I find it amazing in such a strong year for film, particularly American film (finally), that so many critics would fall for the outright attack on the lower class that is Million Dollar Baby. The film asks us to ignore the economic background of the boxers, except for Swank, and that’s only so that we can laugh when she calls her family ‘hillbillies.’ We’re supposed to applaud Swank for trashing her ‘white-trash’ family and wanting to join the ranks of the middle class (read: US). Condescension, anyone (thank you, Mr. White)? And when Morgan Freeman punches out the brash young fighter for attacking a mentally challenged opponent, he tells the youngster to ‘get a job.’ Great. Ignoring the economic background of these lower class fighters is unprecedented —wait —I almost forgot that Michael Moore did it in F9/11. It’s as though Eastwood and Moore are asking the hungry how dare they steal food. Never mind MDB has strong echoes of post-modern white man’s burden and melodramatic narrative manipulation. —John A. Rangel

“I was not a fan of Million Dollar Baby. I still don’t understand what all the buzz is about. The movie at best felt like a Hallmark Lifetime ‘Movie of the Week’ where the characters were so straightforward with the good guys being completely good and the bad guys being completely bad. Even the dialogue was predictable, i.e. Hilary Swank ‘I had to fight my way into this world…’ I cringed knowing exactly what she was going to say next. And I was right. The film did nothing for me except show that Eastwood can go from making the best film of the year in 2003 to one of the most overrated films of 2004.” —Nick Walker, Richardson, TX

Kill Bill Vol. 2 (#5)
“I find the Kill Bill installments more interesting as two separate films instead of as the epic masterpiece the Tarantino fanboys are clamoring for and that Tarantino himself had originally intended. Volume 1 plays like Operation Iraqi Freedom, the optimistic version —the swiftly executed coup pimped by Bush, Rumsfeld, & Co.; Volume 2 represents the much messier reality of what we’ve since seen play out in Iraq. Even outside this hallucinated political context, Vol. 2 is, surprisingly, one of the most poignant and heartfelt films I’ve seen about what it means to grow up and, more specifically, to become a parent. The film’s final shot, of The Bride and her daughter’s faces framed together, smiling for the camera, is something decidedly more beautiful than I’d have ever thought possible by the guy who made Reservoir Dogs.” —Josh Timmerman

Bad Education (#8): “A film about hidden secrets and changing identities from the filmmaker who has moved from trying to shock his audience to forcing us to examine our basic perceptions of right and wrong, meaning and purpose.” —Tom Reynolds

Collateral (#14): “First off, let it be known that I loathe L.A. (it’s one of the many reasons I’m here in Osaka and not fetching coffee for an up-and-coming producer in the City of Angels). Michael Mann, however, makes the City —any city, even L.A. —look like a dream, neon, guns blazing, and one code to follow, the Code of the Street. The story of Collateral is pretty simple, predictable even, with acceptable performances by all its leads. But just because the film looks like nothing special on paper does not mean that Michael Mann can’t make it something to wow. One can only hope that M.M. had attached Tangerine Dream for the soundtrack.” —Walker Roberts, Japan

I ♥ Huckabees (#12): “Hopefully years from now people will look back at Huckabees as indicative of this era. Its craftsmanship feels more in tune with this cultural climate than do films still lazily portraying jazz-loving hit men or super-hero dads.” —Lucas Stensland

Napoleon Dynamite (#23): The (no joke) transcendent dance at the end of Napoleon Dynamite, that, in its goofiness and complete sincerity, produced the single most touching and pure smile of the year (from the character of Pedro). Napoleon Dynamite out-Wes Andersoned Wes Anderson’s disappointing and bloated Life Aquatic in its quirkiness, its rich detail, and its unironic devotion to its characters. Many disagree, but that just makes me and the legion of Napoleon fans like it more. —Ian Simpson

Fahrenheit 9/11 (#15): “Michael Moore was wise in declaring this film an op-ed piece rather than a documentary. If he hadn’t, the Right-wing media would have further perpetuated the dumb debate regarding whether this is a doc or not and distracted from the film’s plain-as-day content. It’s odd that dismissive critics who cite the film’s failings on the grounds that it’s genre-less are often the very same who perennially hail the Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will as the paradigm of documentary filmmaking.” —Lucas Stensland

The Incredibles (#11): “[The film] is swift, raucous, and filled with super-human characters that are really just terribly human. The everyday moments experienced by the Parr family, when they aren’t saving the world, are what make this film a true gem. Don’t make the mistake of ignoring it as just a kids’ movie.” —Steve Norwood, Lewisville, TX

Dawn of the Dead: “Zack Snyder’s remake of George Romero’s second zombie film is a classic in its own right. Urgently frightening and frequently funny, it tells of a handful of people holed up in a mall while the dead jaunt about outside, snacking on the living. To give you a bit of perspective: this film has all the relentlessness and immediacy of The Passion of the Christ. But it’s a hell of a lot more fun to watch.” —Steve Norwood

Primer: “Fascinating science fiction of ideas slash home movie, Primer proves the most ambitious film debut of the year, for writer/director Shane Carruth. Not having money for special effects, Carruth had to rely on his talent. Primer is all the better for it. This is not a perfect film but a highly ambitious one with the most complex final act I’ve seen in many years (I’m still not sure I understood all of it, but I know I liked it).” —John Dodd

Baadasssss!: One of the best movies about moviemaking I’ve ever seen. Mario Van Peebles has made a masterpiece about the making of his father’s seminal Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. I was very impressed with his clear-eyed portrayal of his father, the Oedipal ramifications of which really creep me out. Watching the birth of the modern independent film movement was fascinating and hopefully this will inspire young filmmakers to take chances and make the films they feel rather than the films they think will only make them rich and famous.” —Mitch Metcalf

The Passion of the Christ: “It’s a shame this film ended up as half the cultural football of the year. I can’t help but thing that if people were able to think about it on more objective terms, they would see what a great film it was. It reminded me of another ‘Passion’ film, that being Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc. It had the same sort of emotional depth, power of performances, and attention to subtext that Dreyer’s film did. And let’s face it, it is a beautiful film about the extremely violent death of one of the most influential people ever to have lived. When you can pull that off successfully, you’ve really done something. It might well be Gibson’s only good film as a director (I thought Braveheart was dreadful) but it is a film where he was able to succeed beyond his abilities. Was he helped by God, or was he just lucky? Up to you.” —Cliff Smith

Van Helsing: “So it doesn’t have as sturdy a plot as say X2 or Hellboy. But solid narrative values didn’t keep those films from feeling like tired retreads. At least [Stephen] Sommers has gusto and a contagious love of his sources: old Universal horror movies. The more specific references to the older films (‘It’s Alive!’ Frankenstein’s ‘Friend?,’ the entire black and white opening with the angry villagers) are somehow very touching. (Sommers dedicates the film to his late father —which may explain the throb of affection that can be felt throughout.) The CGI effects are the best we’ve seen in a long while, in that they match the milieu spectacularly; it’s hyper-Universal-Gothic all the way. And despite a clumsy plot, Sommers crafts one tremendous set piece after another (Dr. Jekyll at Notre Dame, the carriage chase through the forest, the final set of battles: Friar vs. Igor, Beckinsale vs. Bride of Dracula, Wolfman/Van Helsing vs. Dracula). (Do I even perceive the influence of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein in that criss-crossing, multi-monster conclusion?) It takes a while for Sommer’s usual trio of good guys —the slightly parodic hero, the tough female and the foppish sidekick —to click into place. And the film should be funnier. But when all else fails, Sommers’s breakneck pacing and creative pile-on carry the day.” —Larry Frascella

The Mother: “Besides Zhang Yimou’s double whammy Hero and House of Flying Daggers, there was another important 2004 dual American release: Roger Michell’s The Mother and Enduring Love, two films that questioned societal mores. The Mother, the better of the two, manifests the lack of alternatives society offers people who don’t fit neatly in.” —Lucas Stensland

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (#13): “The film has a yellow submarine, a midlife-crisis-rattled filmmaker shooting a film he’s completely uncertain about, an attempted revenge on a shark that ends with a swim to shore, etc. Frankly, I could go on and on because these references to The Beatles, Fellini’s 8 1/2, and Jaws are just for starters. But Anderson isn’t just plugging his film full of cultural highlights. He’s the real deal. This film bursts at its seams with soul. Constantly emphasizing its own artificiality, the film speaks with both childlike enthusiasm and mature life experience. This is the most fun you’ll have watching a man feeling bad. Bill Murray doesn’t deserve an Oscar. He’s too good to be degraded by one.” —Lucas Stensland

The Door in the Floor: When is Jeff Bridges finally gonna be recognized for what he is: one of the best American actors around, period. His performance in Door in the Floor is masterful, and the look he gives Kim Basinger when she finally leaves the house for good transcends and cuts through pure emotion. —Sylvain Aumont, Vancouver, BC

Cellular: “It’s wearing the uniform of a dumbed-down, overly-slick and crass summer movie dope-fest, but don’t be fooled-this movie is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It’s actually got an exceptionally clever premise and structure and completely unencumbered by any trace of self-seriousness. I love movies that eschew any artistic pretensions yet wear their intelligence firmly on their sleeve. That’s what Cellular is —it’s both the class clown and the valedictorian. In a way, it’s the complete opposite of Garden State, a movie with so much less to say than it pretends.” —Scot West, Iowa City, IA

The Village: “This is a great film, and not because of some nonsensical political allegory some seem to want to make it into. It is certainly a film that addresses issues of how to respond to pain, death and destruction in the world, but I reject the notion that this film is somehow all symbolic of the troubles since 9/11. This is a simple film about the human condition, and our reaction to pain, and about the consequences and morality of our responses, intended or not. It is also one of the most unpretentious and honest love stories I’ve seen since I first saw Zefferelli’s version of Romeo and Juliet. And in a day where the kind of crap that happens in Mike Nichols’s gleefully insulting Closer passes for even legitimate human connection, let alone love, I found it very refreshing. I’d also like to note that Bryce Dallas Howard was fantastic. I look forward to seeing her in more films.” —Cliff Smith

“An exceptionally creepy film about a group of well-intentioned people who use a combination of fear and deceit under the pretense of keeping their isolated society safe from the nameless threat outside its borders. Code red, anyone?” —Jeff Jewell

Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle: “Seriously! This movie is so funny and clever. As I watched it I realized that it was basically an American race-relations movie disguised as a stoner buddy road movie. But it’s very subversive about it and doesn’t shove it down your throat. And the bag of weed dream sequence (if you’ve seen it, you know what I mean) is one of the funniest scenes of the year.” —Adam Ball

The Brown Bunny: “By far the best film event of the year, probably of all time as far as I’m concerned, was listening to Vincent Gallo discuss everything Vincent for two-plus hours after he screened The Brown Bunny on his tour across America. Those who don’t perceive Gallo’s genius are stiff, slack, and not the kind of people I’d ever want to hang around. The fact that he’s a card-carrying member of the Republican party may seem souring at first, but maybe that’s what makes it all the more perfect.” —Ivar Zeile, Denver, CO

Spartan: “The critical tide has turned against David Mamet, yet he continues to work within genre in compelling ways. In Spartan, tonally the genre isn’t ‘political thriller’ as much as it is hard-boiled detective stories. The plot is suitably complicated, the atmosphere perfectly suspenseful, and everything’s more painful than the tough guy lead character wants to admit.” —Dave Heaton, Philadelphia, PA


“I am almost willing to miss some films on Cineplex big-screens if they don’t de-amplify some of their previews. Good God, they’re loud! Squirming through the ear-abuse of a come-on for Julianne Moore’s The Forgotten, I worked up a new hypothesis: the higher the preview volume, the worse the ensuing film. Pretty sure I’ve hit on something.” —Josh Warthen, Amherst, MA

“Several of the films on my list were films shown throughout the civilized world in 2003 but only made it to Baltimore in 2004. Indeed, in some cases on my list, titles made it to Baltimore only in the form of (sometimes bootleg) home video —and still others made it not at all: I had to make it to them, whether by driving to Philadelphia or D.C. or making my annual pilgrimage to the Toronto Film Festival (never an unpleasant task, I must admit).” —Eric Allen Hatch, Baltimore, MD

“One could have predicted that in a year of hotly debated politicizing it was the movies that (unfortunately?) attracted the most attention. Controversy was an attraction even at the most mainstream multiplexes, coming to us in the form of a flagellated Jesus Christ, an exploited and abused Nicole Kidman, a smarmy blowjob from Chloë Sevigny, and Michael Moore’s obviously liberal call to arms. (The only question became, when everything is objective in cinema, how much does that matter?) Strange, then, that the strongest films of the year consisted of kung fu, conversation in Paris, and a meta-cinematic tug of war between student and mentor.” —Matt Levine, Milwaukee, WI