Memory, Secrets & Identity

The 10 Most Original Films Of 2004

How everything is connected. or not.

Each year when I approach the task of selecting the top 10 films of the year, thoughts urge me to pick films that will hold their worth for 20 years. I’m ignoring such notions this year. Like certain wines, these films can be enjoyed right now. Maybe down the line they will be seen as creative cinematic comments on circumstances prevailing today. They may become “cult classics.” Some may even be called masterpieces by future cinephiles. But 2004 was a year in which crap prevailed, and I want to praise the films that dared break the mold.

About 300 movies were released in 2004, the majority sub-standard, generic hand-me-downs from a variety of sources: old movies (Alfie), ancient television shows (Fat Albert) or comics (Catwoman). Most bloated were historical epics such as Hidalgo, Alexander and Troy. Many sequels failed, notably Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason. Shame shadowed failures from well-liked books: Secret Window, Vanity Fair, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.

But the year also saw promising films by new filmmakers: Napoleon Dynamite, Garden State, Mean Creek, Dodgeball. And a few mainstream films stood out from the crowd: Collateral, The Bourne Supremacy, Hero, In Good Company, Friday Night Lights and The House of Flying Daggers.

2004 was a spectacular year for documentaries, but I don’t like mixing fiction films with nonfiction features. The year’s best nonfiction films include a son’s moving memoir of his famous father, My Architect; Michael Moore’s anti-Bush Administration blockbuster, Fahrenheit 9/11; the psychological head trip of the band in Metallica: Some Kind of Monster; an homage to world-class surfers and the gigantic waves they master, Riding Giants; the fast-food chronicle Super Size Me; a remarkable tale set among the isolated people of the Gobi and their animals, The Story of the Weeping Camel; and a breathtaking climb (and fall) in the Andes by two British climbers, Touching the Void. The Academy now honors feature-length documentaries, and both Weeping Camel and Super Size Me received 2004 nominations.

Sprinkled among 2004’s mostly forgettable movies were about 20 original films that reflected the generosity, curiosity, comic instincts and cinematic sensibilities of their filmmakers — directors who used their actors ingeniously and writers who respected all their characters. Of these I selected 10 which most perfectly meet this criteria.

Million Dollar Baby is Clint Eastwood’s great re-imagining of a generic sports movie, adapted by Paul Haggis from short stories by boxing trainer F.X. Toole. The Aviator is a celebrity biopic directed by Martin Scorsese and written by John Logan, which shows Howard Hughes’s moments of glory as well as the demons of mental disorder that ruined his life. Closer is Patrick Marber’s screen adaptation of his stage play, brilliantly directed by Mike Nichols and acted by a quartet of gifted actors. Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset is hands-down the year’s most satisfying sequel. Alexander Payne’s Sideways, co-written with Jim Taylor and adapted from Rex Pickett’s novel, reinvents the buddy road movie with terrific results. Jonathan Demme’s Manchurian Candidate, written by Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris, has many antecedents. A remake of the Cold War thriller based on George Axelrod’s screenplay and Richard Condon’s novel, the new Manchurian Candidate is set in the present with brainwashed soldiers from the Gulf War battling political and corporate intrigue, murder and assassination. Writer, director Pedro Almadovar’s Bad Education from Spain and Patrice Leconte’s Intimate Strangers from France demonstrate again that subtitled films need not be feared. Like director Michael Gondry and writer Charlie Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and director, co-writer David O. Russell and writer Jeff Baena’s I Heart Huckabees, the foreign duo are raucously non-derivative, challenging and delightful.

Memory plays a greater or lesser role in these films. Think of memory as your own private movie. At its highest and brightest memory shows us we have repeatedly given away our love and have been loved beyond imagining. Memories of yearning, love and loss mirror passions that drive us. Darker, long-repressed memories carry emotions that dictate behavior, shape attitudes and create problems we don’t understand because their origins are unconscious.

Hiding or revealing long-buried secrets creates shock waves for characters in these films, just as they do in our own lives. Mistaken identity, identity confusion and identity crises complicate the films selected here in much the same way they mess up our lives. These films show us a way to look at how memory, secrets and identity affect the stories we tell. At its best, cinema may show us how to understand and forgive ourselves and others.


1. eternal sunshine of the spotless mind

Memory is the fluid medium in which much of this wacky film’s action takes place. Joel (Jim Carrey) has learned that his ex-girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet) has had her memories of the two years they lived together erased by a company that calls itself Lacuna. At the Lacuna office Joel signs up to have his memories of Clementine blotted out, even after the doctor tells him that the process creates brain damage. (In this film, lacuna must refer to a hole in the head.)

That night techie Stan (Mark Ruffalo) comes to Joel’s apartment, sets the mission-to-Mars headdress atop Joel’s head, hooks up the electrodes and starts mapping and zapping his brain. Joel’s elusive memories spring to life and decay into dust, just as dreams may upon waking. But when Joel decides — in the middle of the process — that he doesn’t want his memories of Clementine erased, he discovers his memories are resilient and devilishly clever. Also, Clementine is in there helping him preserve his memories of her and prevent them from being wiped out.

Not everything in Lacunaland is rosy. In a parallel story strand, Lacuna’s secretary, Mary (Kirsten Dunst), comes to visit Stan while he monitors Joel’s brain. Mary uncovers a repressed memory of her own: She’s had her memories of a love affair gone wrong erased more than once. Because she doesn’t learn to recognize the unsuitable man she falls for, she’s doomed to fall for him over and over. Well, that explains a lot about my life. Yours, too?

2. i heart huckabees

This film deals with memory more obliquely. The film opens on the frustrated mutterings of environmental activist Albert (Jason Schwartzman). His scarily familiar, minute-long rant, which creatively overuses delirious, laugh-out-loud profanity, is so refreshing. Think of this scene as a palate cleanser, like when you munch crisp bread dipped in olive oil between wine tastings.

Instead of being haunted by memories, Albert is racked with self-doubt and self-mockery. There’s a marvelous scene with his mother (Talia Shire), in which she remembers things about Albert he has chosen to forget. Mom keeps safe the memories at the source of Albert’s discontent.

Huckabees‘ four main characters struggle with identity crises. Albert, who imagines himself a poet, suffers from a gap between that image and how others (including viewers of the film) perceive him. Brad (Jude Law) is a corporate executive who thinks he’s clever and others are clueless, until he’s shown his jokes are repetitive and mean-spirited. Dawn (Naomi Watts), the corporation’s babelicious logo, has lost herself in the role of Miss Huckabee. Dawn renounces her beauty to find self-acceptance. Tommy (Mark Wahlberg) is a firefighter who’s lost a grip on his identity since 9/11. Now he’s trapped in a head-trip and can’t stop thinking of how to save the world from oil companies and other foes of society and the environment.

This dialectic comedy’s big secret is that neither “everything is connected to everything else,” nor “one store, one world,” nor “cruelty, manipulation, meaningless” describes the real world we live in. Quixotically, this wacky, liberating film is all about finding the hope to go on in a world gone off the tracks. That it does so is surprisingly comforting.

3. sideways

While seemingly occupied by present experiences, the characters in this film are at the mercy of memory, secrets and identity crises, which underlie much of the film’s humor and pathos.

Best man Miles (Paul Giamatti) offers Jack (Thomas Haden Church), the groom-to-be and former television sitcom actor, a week-long trip through the gorgeous Santa Ynez Valley in central California. Miles envisions long talks, good wine, good food and a little golf. But Jack longs to get laid before he gets married, and he’s not inclined to repress even his raunchier fantasies.

A bitterly disappointed writer and school teacher, Miles doesn’t even hope for his own redemption, but he does love good wine. Miles sees his duty as best man to keep the groom from indulging his worst instincts. As former freshman roommates, Miles and Jack know things about each other they do not wish to recall.

The first night of their trip finds them at the home of Miles’s mother (Marylouise Burke). Mom brings up memories Miles prefers she forget, while a secret financial transaction tells us a lot about Miles. Meanwhile, Jack laps up mom’s loving recollections of his glory days.

When the men connect with two single women, Maya (Virginia Madsen) and Stephanie (Sandra Oh), Jack lives out his horn-dog goals, while crabby, nebbish Miles almost blows his chance for intimacy and maybe love. Looming over this charming venture into paradise like a gigantic shadow is Jack’s upcoming marriage, the film’s big hush-hush, don’t tell. Of course, the secret gets out, trailing recriminations and a well-deserved beating.

At a deeper level, the question of identity plays out better for Miles than for Jack. Miles finally realizes Jack cannot be saved from himself, that the actor’s easy charm predisposes him to hit on every available woman he meets. Jack’s attractive qualities have brought him to a marriage that offers social and financial stability outside the entertainment industry. On the other hand, Miles learns from his experiences. He may have to give up his writing ambitions and angst for the chance to follow his bliss.

The four central roles are well-defined and beautifully fulfilled by Giamatti, Church, Madsen and Oh, whose performances are among the very best of the year.

4. bad education

Memory is at the very heart of Pedro Almodovar’s fabulous foray into film noir. It drives the film’s multiple storylines and ensnares its characters in webs of truth and doubt.

Filmmaker Enrique (Fele Martinez) vividly recalls a classmate of his at the Catholic boarding school where the boys discovered sex, movies and love. When a man appears after 16 years to say he’s Ignacio (Gael Garcia Bernal), Enrique doesn’t recognize him. But Enrique reads the story Ignacio, now an actor called Angel Andrade, bears. Enrique decides to make it his next film, and Angel wants the starring role, that of a transvestite named Zahara.

In Enrique’s resulting screenplay, memory strikes down Father Manolo (Daniel Gimenez-Cacho), a priest from the school the boys attended, when Zahara appears in his office, claiming to be Ignacio and ready to blackmail the priest for molestation. As Fr. Manolo reads the story Zahara/Ignacio has brought him, the priest realizes Ignacio knows too much. Later when Enrique’s film is being shot, the priest, now a businessman named Mr. Berenguer (Lluis Homar), appears on the set and offers to tell the filmmaker a much different version of events.

By the end of the film, identities have melted together, secrets have been revealed, and memory has shown its versatility by taking the form of many stories. Truth and falsity have little to do with memory and even less to do with whether a story is good or bad. Almodovar and Enrique (are they the same?) know the secret shared by stories and memories: We can’t do without them, because that’s where our feelings and imagination come alive.

5. before sunset

A singular conceit drives our pleasure in Before Sunset: how glad we are to see Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) together again. Our pleasure is mirrored on the screen by the two characters’ delight in picking up the dangling threads of their brief relationship nine years earlier. The film would be less rich and meaningful without the characters’ and viewers’ memories of what happened in Linklater’s 1994 prequel, Before Sunrise, also starring Delpy and Hawke. But as we learn in this sequel, memory may be unreliable and often needs to be coaxed into the late afternoon sunlight of a long walk through Left Bank Paris.

For the audience the first big secret is who went to meet the other at the railroad station six months after their first meeting as planned. He, she, both or neither? The characters approach the question gingerly, because one, both or neither may know the answer. Another mystery surrounds time: Do Jesse and Celine have enough time before he leaves to find the love they had and lost? The film ends on a grace note rarely acquired in contemporary cinema.

6. million dollar baby

This perfectly directed and performed dramatic film takes the sports movie cliché and turns it into a classical tragedy set in contemporary LA. The main characters live out the roles fate has ordained: a boxing trainer and expert ringside cut-man, Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood); and a fledgling but talented and determined 30-year old boxer, Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank). She becomes a daughter who cares for him, and he becomes the father she lost when she was a girl.

Standing in for the Greek chorus is an ex-boxer who now manages Frankie’s rundown gym on the seedy side of the city, Eddie Dupris (Morgan Freeman). Eddie sees everything that goes down between Frankie and Maggie, and he manipulates events in what he thinks is the right direction. The banter between Frankie and Eddie is priceless, comfortable and trusting. As the film’s narrator, Eddie is always on the sidelines but never misses a beat. He keeps his one good eye on Maggie while nudging his crusty ex-manager and boss to give the girl a chance.

All three characters carry heavy memories that affect their decisions and actions in the present: Frankie of the estranged daughter he writes to every week; Maggie of her pitiful upbringing and unappreciative family back in Missouri; and Eddie, whose memories of Frankie go way back. The film’s secret is a couple of words in Gaelic Frankie had embroidered on the satin robe Maggie wears into a fight in Ireland. I’m not about to tell you what they mean.

This film will probably be considered a classic in 20 years, because it has everything going for it cinematically and dramatically. The fight sequences are as brutal and beautiful as any ever put on the screen. Eastwood, Swank and Freeman give impeccable performances.

7. the aviator

Taking the directorial reins on this epic about maverick aviator Howard Hughes, Martin Scorsese makes the film his own cinematically. His most fabulous sequence is surely the “Moonglow” glimpses of 1940s Hollywood shared by Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) from high above city in the cabin of his two-seater in the capable hands of his true love, Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett). Scorsese has never shot a more romantic sequence than this, as the lovers soar quietly like birds on a crystal clear night above the lights of LA.

Likewise, we get a snapshot of Hughes’s character in a brilliant plane crash sequence later in the film. Before the plane crashes, Howard flies it through a tony LA neighborhood, which it ravages. Scraping its way through the rooflines and walls of homes occupied by people in states of horror, the plane breaks up and finally stops, cockpit last. The sight of a critically burned and injured Hughes fighting for survival when it seems most impossible creates an indelible portrait of the feisty, take-on-all-comers nature of this charismatic character.

Like other heroes, Hughes was haunted by ghostly images of his mother, his great secret. But unlike others, he was crippled by half-remembered memories of childhood, and he lost his mind trying to rise above or obey them. Suffering from what we recognize as obsessive-compulsive disorder with paranoia, Hughes shows us such intimate moments.

The scenes of mental breakdown contrast sharply with Hughes’ many identities as self-confident aeronautical designer, daring business entrepreneur, renegade filmmaker, lover of beautiful women, and clear-eyed futurist. But in the end, critical childhood memories may determine a path one must travel, willingly or not. In our final moments with Hughes, we watch his unwilling acceptance of his mental illness and the degraded future he faces.

The Aviator may be around in 20 years and regarded as Scorsese’s later masterpiece. Who knows?

8. closer

In this tightly wrought film, a quartet of strangers bisect, intertwine, cross paths, crisscross, mingle, stray toward and shy from one another in a patterned sexual and marital dance of changing partners. At the start, these four pretty people are single, live in London and are pretty cool: a fine arts photographer, Anna (Julia Roberts); a strong-willed, urban contemporary, Alice (Natalie Portman); a struggling writer with a day job, Dan (Jude Law); and a dermatologist who talks dirty in Internet chat rooms, Larry (Clive Owen).

Interactions in the film include frank, adult conversations about sexual feelings, practices and attractions, tricked out with flashes of anger, resentment and jealousy. The occasional thought of vengeance lightens the burden for some, while others retreat into full-scale self-absorbtion.

The story covers several years in the characters’ lives, but the viewer doesn’t know that at first. So every time we see one couple or another, they are in crisis. We don’t learn much about them as individuals, only as sparring partners or lovers. Within these narrow limits, memory of the past exists only as an awareness of infidelity or flirtation. Clandestine affairs by nature are secrets that stay hidden until discovered, then they explode.

Identity is a more subtle matter. As various love triangles form and dissolve, each character may find herself or himself playing the other woman or the other man, the straying wife or husband, or the wronged party. But there are more than three sides to such triangles, and the same-sex tension over a prized man or woman may be more durable and deeply rooted than the sexual attraction to him or her.

It’s all fascinating: a movie for adults by adults. The acting is sublime.

9. manchurian candidate

The return of chemically repressed memories in Gulf War veterans who were brainwashed in a secret, enemy hideout creates the central conflict in this sterling remake of the 42- year-old original. Denzel Washington becomes Ben Marco, the army major haunted by recurring dreams since he and his men were lost for three days after a firefight in the desert.

Marco is accosted by a soldier from his squad at a patriotic speech he’s making. Marco realizes he and Corporal Al Melvin (Jeffrey Wright) are having the same bad dreams. A visibly shattered husk of the man Marco knew, Melvin shows him his drawings of the nightmare images that never leave him. Marco realizes these are not dream images at all, but memories.

Another soldier from the squad, Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber) is now a New York congressman and the recipient of a Congressional Medal of Honor. When Marco asks Shaw about his dreams or memories, Shaw shines him on. But Shaw has identity problems. He doesn’t remember doing anything heroic to save his men. He recalls that he was a coward, afraid for himself, and that his men hated him. Now his mother (Meryl Streep), a ruthless senator, is pushing him to run for the vice presidential nomination in his party, and he’s scared.

Still a viable, chilling portrait of the high-level corruption of patriotism by self-serving interests, the film also notices the power of memory to shape our lives.

10. intimate strangers

In this offbeat, character-driven encounter, Anna (Sandrine Bonnaire) shares her marital secrets with William Faber (Fabrice Luchini), a man she believes to be a therapist in an hilarious instance of mistaken identity William does not swiftly correct.

William’s a bored, lonely financial advisor who lives in the same building as his office, all inherited from his late father. William could tell Anna he’s not Dr. Monnier (Michel Duchaussoy), a psychiatrist who resembles Sigmund Freud and practices down the hall. But he doesn’t. William doesn’t even tell his nosy secretary, also inherited along with the office and apartment. The secretary is suspicious when William won’t allow her to bill the mysterious woman, who keeps coming back for her after-hours, off-the-books appointments.

A slow dance between Anna and William ensues, becoming a surprisingly satisfying relationship in which she talks and he listens. He’s a really good listener, and she needs to be heard.

A generous send-up of psychotherapy, midlife crises, and the way unlikely individuals are sometimes just right for one another, this is a film for grownups who don’t need to have everything explained and all wrapped up, who accept, even welcome, such mysteries as life’s gifts.


by lois wadsworth

RAY: Jamie Foxx gives a terrific performance as one of America’s most popular singers, Ray Charles. His music spanned generations, but he kept secret his heroin use from both his family and his fans during years of addiction. It forced him to live two lives: one as a professional entertainer and womanizer, and another as a devoted family man. Ray always remembered his roots and how his mother’s tough love gave him a chance in life, despite his blindness.

A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT: French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet directs Audrey Tautou as a young woman who refuses to believe her lover died at the front during WWI. Memories of their time together fuel her search for him and give him something to live for in an ungodly war.

WE DON’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE: Four people are locked into the drama of splitting or staying when their marriages hit the rocks. Mark Ruffalo, Laura Dern, Peter Krause and Naomi Watts run headlong into the guilt, self-revulsion, confused sexuality and identity crises that accompany the not-uncommon marital itch, which seen from a distance may even be humorous.

HOTEL RWANDA: Terry George’s impassioned film about the 1994 genocide in Rwanda stars Don Cheadle as a hotel manager who manages to save 1,200 refugees, including his own family, from the ethnic murderers roaming Kigali’s streets. Based on a true story, this film sears your conscience.

MOTORCYCLE DIARIES: Walter Salles directs Gael Garcia Bernal as Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Rodrigo de la Serna as his school friend, Alberto Granada, as they embark on an ambitious motorcycle trip through the interior heart of South America, the Andes and the Amazon. Based on a true story, Che and Alberto are deeply affected by the people they meet and the conditions they see.

THE DREAMERS: Bernardo Bertolucci’s exquisite and troubling tale of a pair of old-money French siblings and the American boy they take in. These “Holy Innocents” are in Paris at the time of the Paris revolt of 1968, and the air is full of sex, idealism, youthful revolution and love for the French New Wave cinema.

STAGE BEAUTY: Edward Kynaston (Billy Crudup) and Mrs. Margaret Hughes (Claire Danes) were actually performers in English Restoration theatre, but the flights of fancy, including their love affair, may well be fictional. A highly enjoyable film about the time when men playing women onstage came to an end.

FINDING NEVERLAND: Johnny Depp plays James M. Barrie, who wrote the play Peter Pan. He meets Sylvia (Kate Winslet) and her orphaned sons in Kensington Park, where the boys are playing and he is making notes for a new play. The resulting friendship is marred by tragedy, but the story, whether true or not, is lovely.

KINSEY: Liam Neeson gives a brilliant performance as Alfred Kinsey, a scientist who led the first investigative study of the sexual behavior of actual men and women. Laura Linney plays his wife, while Peter Sarsgaard plays an important associate. Excellent.

MARIA FULL OF GRACE: The noteworthy debut of writer, director Joshua Marston and his star, Catalina Sandino Moreno, this is the straightforward story of a girl so desperate to leave her homeland she becomes a drug mule. Documentary-like in its examination of how the Colombian drug trade affects young people in third world countries, it is also an intimate portrait of a courageous young woman determined to beat the odds and survive on her own terms.