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My two cents: A former movie reviewer's take on the cinema I experienced in 2004

After a careful check of the calendar, and in line with my new policy of conforming as closely as possible to the unwritten laws of columnizing (to the extent that I understand them), I've decided to write a Year in Review column. It stands to reason that before Thanksgiving, we only want to read and hear about gratitude and family; before Christmas, the spirit of giving; and between Christmas and New Year's, the past year. We like to be saturated with each holiday as it wheels by. Coming up on Christmas, we revel in Christmas music, Christmas TV, Christmas sweater sets, Christmas plants, Christmas sales, Christmas presents, Christmas food, lights and decorations, and--in a sinister new development--Christmas bed linens. (And you thought there was nothing left to buy.) And as the year subsides, we clamor for retrospectives and roundups.

So here are my movie-going highlights of the year. Why movies? I used to review them, and still involuntarily compose reviews while I watch, an absolutely necessary skill for reviewers. Also, "waste not, want not" is the writer's creed. But since my column is strictly devoted to the wonderful world of me, you can forget both thoroughness and objectivity right now. Oh, and comprehensiveness--while I used to see at least two or three movies a week, I'm only hungry now for maybe one a month. The smell of popcorn makes me feel tired.

Note: Movies released earlier that I didn't see until this year, like Ocean's Eleven, are included. (Why? See above.)

Excellent

Donnie Darko: The Director's Cut--an awesome adventure in mind-bending, yes, but with a big, dark soul. It wraps around you and stays there. Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind--smart, heartfelt, funny and ethically interesting. And who wouldn't like to catch Kate Winslet and give her a big old kiss? The Triplets of Belleville--fabulous, just fabulous. Never mind that it's animated; go rent it.


Really Good

Sideways--writer/director Alexander Payne (Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt) can do no wrong, but while this was terrific, I don't particularly want to see it again. House of Sand and Fog--same deal, pretty much. Collateral--Michael Mann gives even the nearly exhausted run-'n'-run genre a hand-rubbed patina, and Tom Cruise vs. Jamie Foxx? Extremely cool.


Pretty Good

Ocean's Eleven--fun, but will it respect you in the morning?


Big Letdowns

The Manchurian Candidate--I saw it out of nostalgia for the original. Mistake. Hollywood gets so confused when it tries to think about politics. Mean Girls--what were the critics thinking? Mean Girls is not this decade's Clueless by a long, long shot. It's not even this decade's Heathers. And, hello? Tina Fey is not funny. Kinsey--splendid acting, but the movie, like its hero, spends way too much time thinking about sex. Personally, I enjoy plot in a movie.


Movies Yet to Come

House of Flying Daggers--have you seen the trailer? Yum. The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou--two words: Bill Murray. (Brief segue: We've got one of those weird movie-clumps going. Ocean's Twelve, The Life Aquatic, The Sea Inside and By the Sea have all been released in the last few weeks, and Spongebob Squarepants is still playing. Could it have something to do with global warming?) Bad Education--never saw an Almodóvar movie I didn't like. Million Dollar Baby--Clint Eastwood, the late-blooming Shakespeare of America, delivers his third full-on tragedy.


And Let's Not Forget TV

Best TV of the Year, Series: A tie between Deadwood and The Wire, both on HBO. One's a Western; one's a cop show, but neither is like anything you've ever seen.

I love The Sopranos with all my heart, but both of these are better--deeper, and more complicated and thrilling. Here's how good Deadwood is: My movie-mad friend, Marilyn Heins, the retired pediatrician who writes the Star's parenting column, called me for coffee one day specifically to talk about it. And The Wire, which just finished its third season, is just as miraculous, although if Wild Bill Hickok (Keith Carradine) hadn't been killed in the fourth episode, Deadwood would have won for sentimental reasons. (You knew it was coming, if you knew anything about Hickok--if you'd seen Jeff Bridges play him in the underrated 1995 film, Wild Bill, for instance. But it hurt anyway.) These series take full advantage of the space 13 hours provides for storytelling. Books are nearly always shortchanged when they're made into movies, simply because there's too much in a novel to fit into a movie. But a really brilliant series can achieve the detail and depth of great fiction. These do.

Best Freestanding TV: Angels in America, also on HBO. It's why we pay for cable.

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