Stephen King picks his 10 favorite movies of 2004
I love the movies. At my local theater they know me at the box office, at the snack bar, where my order rarely varies (popcorn and a medium soft drink, half Pepsi and half Diet Pepsi), and at the entrance to the cinemas, where the ticket taker in the wheelchair always asks after the wife and kids. If any of this strikes you as juvenile, all I can say is let’s hear it for arrested development. I love living those other lives for a while; I love those bright stories played out in the dark. And although my mental reach is longer than it was when I was 16, what I ask of the movies hasn’t changed much: Entertain me for a while. Touch my emotions without insulting my intelligence.
I saw more than 60 movies in 2004, and many entertained me hugely. I’ve been disappointed by a sense of creative exhaustion in this year’s holiday offerings — the only two I look forward to are the remake of The Flight of the Phoenix and Kevin Spacey in Beyond the Sea — but there were enough good ones in the months before Thanksgiving to make up the difference. Here’s my list of 2004’s best. It comes with the usual lack of apologies, but one small caveat: For every flick that made this list, there were two (Super Size Me and Friday Night Lights, for instance) that almost made it. And to me, that makes it a really good year at the movies.
10 Red Lights This French import, a cautionary tale of one husband’s dark drive and lost soul, wins the Hitchcock award as the year’s creepiest film. It starts slow, then works its feverish way up your nerve endings to your brain and heart.
9 The Bourne Supremacy Okay, all that jumpy editing is a trick, but it’s a good trick. Bourne was the best action picture of the summer, and guess what? Matt Damon turns out to be the real deal.
8 Collateral The cinematography has a sleazy shot-on-tape look, but Jamie Foxx is terrific and Tom Cruise is a revelation as the wolfish antihero. No one has done film this noir since John Boorman made Point Blank, and that be many moon ago, podner.
7 The Incredibles Up until now, there’s been a sadness in Brad Bird’s best work — The Iron Giant (1999), of course, and The Plague Dogs (1982), where he served as one of the animators. In The Incredibles, sadness has been replaced by a sunny, raffish, generation-bridging charm. There are a few dark moments, but nothing a kid hip to Goldilocks and the Three Bears can’t deal with. And, speaking of kids’ stuff that’s also adults’ stuff…
6 Shrek 2 There’s nothing you can tell childless adults who haven’t seen this (or The Incredibles) except ”Go.” Hunt up a spare kid to use as a beard if you must. Like Alice in Wonderland, the Shrek movies work on one level if you’re 6 and on an entirely different one if you’re 36. But explaining how spoils the joke. Just take it from me, okay? This sequel manages to be openhearted and satiric at the same time, which is the comedic equivalent of a triple axel. It’s The Godfather Part II of animation.
5 Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban makes the first two Potter pix look like Joe Camp Benji movies. Some of this has to do with how gracefully the young protagonists are growing up, more with Alfonso Cuarón’s dreamily gothic visuals.
4 Fahrenheit 9/11 I’m no Michael Moore fan, okay? I don’t buy that blue-collar-‘n’-ball-cap routine. But Moore’s a good documentary filmmaker who rose to greatness here. If Bowling for Columbine was Moore’s Tom Sawyer, 9/11 is his Huckleberry Finn — the sort of entertainment where you discover that the clown has lured you into a bramble patch full of tough questions and unpleasant home truths. Genuine satire, in other words.
3 The Manchurian Candidate Terrific direction by Jonathan Demme and the year’s best ensemble cast, topped by Meryl Streep, who gives the meanest cinematic demonstration of smother love since Angela Lansbury in 1962.
2 Dawn of the Dead Vicious, unregenerate entertainment. You can’t sit in front of it wondering if you put enough money in the parking meter, or if the dog is chewing hell out of the carpet back home; you can’t sit in front of it thinking about anything except what’s in front of you. Dawn produces the sort of E-ticket ride sensation that can’t be replicated on repeat viewings, but so what? Sometimes once is enough. This was a pure thrill machine. I could leave it off my list and look smarter, maybe, but then I’d be a liar. This was one cool movie.
1 Maria Full of Grace We’ve had a thousand movies about drug pushers and users. Here’s a suspenseful, heartbreaking film about what happens when the junk is actually moved from the abysmal poverty where it’s grown to the land of opportunity where it’s bought and consumed. Catalina Sandino Moreno, in the year’s most radiant performance, plays a drug mule named Maria who agrees to swallow 62 latex-wrapped pellets of death and then fly to America with them inside her body, because there’s also a baby growing in there, and she wants something more than a life of poverty in an overcrowded apartment. Beautifully acted, simply told, and with a lovely handmade look that far transcends its budget, Maria is one of those rare movies you drag your friends to, telling them ”You have to see this.” The payoff is that when the movie ends, most of them actually thank you.