The Passion of the Critics

James DiGiovanna and Bob Grimm have a nice, quaint little chat about the movies from 2004

James DiGiovanna: Here's my basic problem with the whole "best of" thing: It seems to me that the point of film criticism isn't to just say "I liked this" or "I hated that," but to write something that's entertaining and says something interesting about the film itself or the culture that produced it, or to find in the film some point of interest that maybe not everyone would see. "This is good/This is bad" is pretty uninteresting all by itself. Plus, "best/worst" lists just generate mail from people saying things like, "You right-wing liberal media elitist heterosexist abortionist pig! How dare you say anything vaguely negative about Rain Man II: President Rain Man! That movie was full of specialness!" With that in mind ... on with the best/worst lists!

Bob Grimm: Man ... uptight! I feel like I've been invited to a pizza party where the person throwing it is lactose-intolerant. Talk about reading too much into a good, old critic's institution, the beloved Top 10. I have fun with Top 10 lists. I always got totally hyped when Siskel and Ebert did their film lists at years' end. It's just a fun, streamlined way of letting the public know what got you gassed in the past year. Simply listing the films is a bit stale, but going into detail and occasionally giving each other a verbal smack-down (as we are about to do) is just good, clean journalistic fun! Let the journalistically generic festivities begin!

JD: OK, as long as it's "clean" journalistic fun. You know how I feel about the dirty stuff. So ... Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was by far the best of the year. I really can't say enough good things about this film. I've rarely seen such a close marriage of visual effects and story content. This movie shows why artistry is more effective than simple emotional manipulation. Take that, Oprah Winfrey!

BG: Man, don't make fun of Oprah. Oprah's my daytime friend! I would like to give a special shout-out to Jim Carrey for a stellar year. I love how we got both Jims--the silent, somber type in Eternal, and the campy nut of Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. Lemony Snicket is also a very good film. I thought Carrey's over-the-top work made Count Olaf, essentially a mass murderer, all the more creepy.

JD: I Heart Huckabees--I couldn't believe they went into philosophy without dumbing it down! And great use of technique to add emotional distance. Here, though, the distance overwhelmed the feeling on occasion. That was not a problem in Kinsey. It told a human story with incredible power, and didn't make the horrid mistakes of turning the hero into a saint or overplaying the "poignancy" of his tale. That's what ruined The Hurricane, and a lot of other biopics. Kinsey avoided manipulation and simplification.

BG: I'm a fan of Huckabees and Kinsey. Loved Jason Schwartzman's totally weird performance in Huckabees, and Mark Wahlberg is my pick for 2004's Best Supporting Actor. Liam Neeson was certainly noteworthy, as was Laura Linney in Kinsey. Nothing is being said about Timothy Hutton in Kinsey: totally against type, and a reminder of his acting talent.

JD: Yeah! Hutton ruled! OK, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. Here, what especially worked was the refusal of realism. The scene in which Zissou single-handedly defeats the pirates is gold: instead of a gunfight, there's simply the set of cliché actions associated with a gunfight. Hilarious--a great commentary on film itself. Plus, Bill Murray! Give him a bald-man statue! And could anything be simultaneously sadder and sillier than Willem Dafoe's Klaus?

BG: Life Aquatic is not everybody's type of movie, but it certainly is mine. I relished every frame of Wes Anderson's work, and can never get enough of his collaborations with Bill Murray. Willem Dafoe, as the German with a chip on his shoulder, is one of the year's best performances. Easily the funniest work of Dafoe's career, and I'm counting Bobby Peru in Wild at Heart. Loved those sea creatures.

JD: Dogville had a lot of flaws, but I found the set and style of filmmaking dazzling. I also loved the story, except for the end. In the end, it became an American movie, and up to that point, it was an incredibly pointed critique of American movies. Maybe that's why he ended it that way, as a final comment, but I thought it provided too much satisfaction to the viewer. Or maybe, like me, the viewer saw that American ending and finally hated it. In any event, the performances were unnatural and yet perfect for the film, and the script used a variant of English to strong effect. I could actually go on and on about what's great about this film ...

BG: ... and I would be relieved if you did not. Being a Nicole Kidman fan, I went out and bought Dogville for my own home-entertainment pleasure. I saw it as a long, ponderous variation of Our Town, with the one major exception being lots of people trying, and succeeding, in their attempts to have nasty, unauthorized sex with Kidman. Lars von Trier's Dancer in the Dark is one of my very favorites of the last 10 years. Dogville , although an admirable try, is the sort of flop that leaves me scratching my head. Great talent, seemingly interesting idea, bush-league execution.

JD: And I think Kidman is bizarrely overrated. She's been truly awful in at least half of her films.

BG: Leave Nicole alone, you pretentious bastard! On to my picks. First, The Aviator, the year's best film and perhaps the movie that will start getting Leonardo DiCaprio that much-deserved respect. It's three hours long, and it just blasts by.

JD: I just didn't get to see that one yet. I have to see so many movies this time of year, and with this one being three hours long, and you already covering it, I just let it go. With that in mind, let me say this about it: "Martin Scorsese flies The Aviator straight into the ground! This three-hour monstrosity is an air disaster in the making! As for Leonardo DiCaprio, if you ask me, he should be called Leonardo DiCRAPrio! Your ticket for The Aviator will not be upgraded to first-class!"

BG: How dare you criticize Leonardo without seeing his work? He's one of the great actors of his generation. I just can't accept the Leonardo- and Tom Cruise-bashing. I know some people hate to look at these guys, but I just don't get it.

JD: See, when I say I haven't seen the film yet and then give it a bad review, that's called "irony." It's in the dictionary right between "duh" and "no-duh." Also, I appreciate that you love to look at Tom Cruise and Leonardo DiCaprio and want to be man-sandwiched by them, but neither are great actors. Both have had some good performances (DiCaprio's amazing turn in What's Eating Gilbert Grape and Cruise in Magnolia) and some bad ones (Cruise's "acting" in The Last Samurai and DiCaprio's mediocre turn in The Beach). Though I do appreciate that your special feelings for Cruise allowed you to work him into a discussion of a film that he was not, in fact, in.

BG: As for man sandwiches, don't be pushing your dietary preferences off on me, pal. Besides, DiCaprio has a real ugly ass (on display in Aviator), and everybody knows I'm an ass man. On my list, but not yours, was Shaun of the Dead. Acting in films like this is often overlooked. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost were this year's best screen duo, and the film's willingness to be disgusting makes it as important to the horror genre as it is to comedy.

JD: I agree about the acting, and a very-decent script. I enjoyed it, but I wouldn't place it in the "best" category. But then, I'm zombophobic.

BG: Zombophobic? All of these made-up words are getting red-flagged in the editor's spell-check, and most assuredly pissing him off. I'll make up one too ... how about "Berfulastic"? It's defined as a lazy, opinionated man who won't see The Aviator. Now, how about The Incredibles? It is my all-time favorite animated movie.

JD: I also enjoyed this, but thought it had a few big weaknesses. The second third struck me as slow, and it ripped off its story from Watchmen, The Golden Age, Powers and a bunch of other books, which, if I listed them, would make me so geeky that I'd be legally obliged to eat my own boogers.

BG: Jesus, man--can you ever just like anything without finding something to bitch about? How about Million Dollar Baby? Clint Eastwood made a sports film with all the typical clichés, but presented them with a style that is all his own. Some people might find that style slow, obvious and trite, but I think it can be quite graceful, as it is with this film. Hilary Swank deserves an Oscar this year. She destroyed me.

JD: I'm scheduled to review this one in a couple weeks, and haven't seen it yet. So let me just say, "Clint Eastwood's sappy, sentimental rehashing of the worst elements of the boxing movies of the 1940s ..." Oh, never mind.

BG: Knock it off! My No. 8 pick is Team America: World Police. Hans Blix perishing in the shark tank is one of the year's top comedy moments. Kim Jong Il's "I'm So Ronery" is the year's best movie song.

JD: And no film has better captured the poignancy of two puppets, both lacking genitals, engaged in the delicate art that the ancient Persians called "double snacking at the snake and canyon ranch."

BG: Man, you are sexually obsessed. Two notables for acting: The Sea Inside, in which Javier Bardem established himself as one of the world's finest actors, and Finding Neverland, in which Johnny Depp continues to establish himself as one of the world's finest actors.

JD: Johnny Depp really is one of the finest screen actors alive. I'm willing to second you on this in spite of the fact that you think Tom Cruise is capable of playing a part besides "Tom Cruise."

On to the crap! I take special umbrage with What the Bleep Do We Know?! because it mixes lies and half-truths with some interesting aspects of real science. There's a brutal refusal of critical thought in this film, and I think that's genuinely harmful. This would all be excusable if the story part of the film was competent, instead of tiresome and amateurish.

BG: The umbrage I take with What the Bleep isn't special at all. I scratched my head so much during this one that I could see skull bone afterward.

JD: Speaking of skull bones, I liked the fight scenes in Troy, and unlike you, I didn't care that the gods were removed from the story. They would have ruined the tone of this movie, which--while not an especially intelligent film--at least knew that it was about people and their ambitions and not about gods and their machinations. Plus, I'm not exactly married to the source material.

BG: It might not be married to the text of The Iliad, but its little nods to the source material irritated me, especially Pitt taking an arrow in the foot at film's end. That was just plain strange: a cute little Iliad reference to wrap up your bizarro historical take on something that never happened.

JD: I don't think this was a "historical" take; rather, I think that Wolfgang Petersen wanted to look at the theme of Achilles' quest for eternal fame and Hector's opposed value system, which focused on family. But if you're all hung up on it not being exactly like the Iliad, well, that's what libraries are for, and this was just a fun action movie.

BG: Your concept of fun amazes me. This film was a stiff. I can't accept a story based on the Iliad that eschews all the Greek gods. The film had potential for great fantasy, but instead opted for some sort of historical take on mythology. What's the point of that? And Pitt, whom I genuinely like in most of his films, was a dullard as Achilles. I also didn't buy the depiction of Achilles as this great warrior. All he did was run straight at opponents, jump in the air and do the flying stab thing. Don't you think some soldier would've figured that out, perhaps hit the deck when Achilles took to the air for the millionth time, and then stabbed him in his perfect ass as he flew past?

JD: Well, if the source material is sacred to you, you're not going to like Troy. And yes, Pitt is unnaturally muted to the point of stiffness, but that's thoughtful acting. It perfectly represents Achilles as a one-note character, interested only in glory. It is symbolic representation, not realistic portrayal, and I think that's truer to the epic character, but it's so unlike the Stanislavski-style naturalism that Americans are used to that I think it struck a sour note with a lot of viewers. I also thought King Arthur was a decent action flick that shot itself in the foot by calling itself "King Arthur." I mean, even if there was some historical personage from the fifth century who was the basis for some of the Arthur legends, that film had nothing to do with those legends, nor could it claim historical accuracy about that person, so WTF? I still liked it, though.

BG: I haven't dug into the unrated cut of King Arthur, but I can only hope it is better than the garbage strewn across the screen this past summer. It was another example of filmmakers taking a cool myth and removing all the magic in an effort to be "different." The only thing I truly dug about it was Keira Knightley's body paint.

JD: Here again, I just think this movie has nothing to do with King Arthur, neither the legend nor the historical Arthur, so I'm bracketing that issue and judging it as an action/adventure film. The battles worked for me, and I thought Clive Owen and Stellan Skarsgärd were fabulous.

BG: Then why in blazing Hades do you call it King Arthur? When I hear "King Arthur," I think of swords being removed from stones, strange women lying in ponds distributing swords (please excuse obscure Python reference) and the like. It's a magical tale that deserves a magical take, not Clive Owen riding around in the forest looking all sullen.

JD: I totally agree that it shouldn't have been called "King Arthur." I agree so much that I actually said it first. I do think that was its biggest flaw. If you call it "King Arthur," you have to put in, oh, I don't know, some moistened wench heaving a scimitar at somebody.

I should point out that I don't think Troy or Arthur were great films; I just had fun watching them. Neither is on my "best" list.

BG: OK, point taken. I was starting to worry about you a little bit.

JD: And you'll worry more: Kill Bill: Vol. 2 was the year's biggest letdown. Why did Quentin Tarantino put all the exposition in the second part of his movie? It was basically a set of long, boring conversations that lacked the humor of the first installment. After the thoughtful pastiche technique of KBv1 it was quite a shock that the second half was a simple, long-winded excursion into how motherhood is ultimately redemptive of things like murder. Yawn!

BG: OK, this is the point in our debate where I will just get rude and dub you slightly insane. The year's biggest letdown? Not only did I enjoy this sequel, but it made me appreciate Vol. 1 even more. "An excursion into how motherhood is ultimately redemptive of things like murder?" David Carradine's character left Uma Thurman's character for dead, and that's why she had to kill Bill, even if he was a doting father to their child. It was a revenge movie, not just an excuse for kung fu. There was no better fight scene this year than the mobile home showdown between Uma and Daryl Hannah! Yes, it ripped off the Coens' trailer brawl in Raising Arizona, but I don't care. It was elbow-crushing, eye-gouging mayhem at its best.

JD: Now you're getting rude? I'm glad you liked it, but I felt totally ripped off. So much exposition! So little time! And painfully dull and insipid dialogue, especially that looooong sequence in the end when The Bride confronts Bill. A different kind of awful was offered by Alexander. The big problem with this film was incompetence in storytelling--why are Alexander's first three battles done in voice-over narration over an image of a map!? And I can't understand why anyone would follow Colin Farrell's Alexander into battle, when all he does is give excruciatingly long, whiny monologues about how deep and full of feeling and special he was. Pain! Pain!

BG: Why did Colin Farrell do Alexander with his usual Irish brogue? I just couldn't get past that and that stupid hair. Oliver Stone, Woody Allen and Mel Brooks ... three of my favorite directors are quickly going nuts.

JD: Baadasssss! didn't get the attention it deserved. It was an excellent film about making a film, and a great look at early '70s culture that dealt with race better than almost anything I've seen. I also thought Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle had great things to say about race, though it aimed a lot lower than Baadasssss! Baadasssss! was really funny, and I loved that the white buddy comedy from 1986 starts the film, then walks out of it in the first few minutes, only to appear near the end to get its ass kicked.

BG: We are in full agreement here, and this one was strong competition for my Top 10. What an incredible transition for Mario Van Peebles, who didn't simply direct a great film, but delivered a career-best performance playing his own dad. It's a strong movie that worked as both a period piece and a harrowing insight into the sacrifices made for one's art. And Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle is easily one of the funniest films of 2004. When Kal Penn marries that giant bag of marijuana, it's an all-time-great cinema wedding.

JD: P.S. and Birth are interesting, because they have the same plot hook. Birth didn't really work, in spite of a great idea about how to resolve the issue, but P.S. was so beautifully acted that it really won me over. It could be the You Can Count on Me of 2004.

BG: I didn't see P.S. ; that was one of those hoity-toity films that left the theater before I knew it was playing. (I did see Topher Grace's other film, Win a Date With Tad Hamilton! It was cute. Topher rocks!) While I only had a slight fondness for Birth , I can't deny the fine work of Nicole Kidman and young Cameron Bright, who did a solid job sharing a bathtub together. The Bright kid can act, although I couldn't stand Godsend , his other 2004 effort. And mentioning Godsend reminds me of how much Robert De Niro totally sucked this year. Meet the Fockers is one of the year's worst movies. De Niro mugs like Alec Baldwin's impersonation of him on Saturday Night Live, and Ben Stiller just falls down a lot.

Stiller also made me sick with Along Came Polly, but I enjoyed him as White Goodman, crazed gym owner, in Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story . That was a good movie, and it would've been better had the director been allowed to use his original ending. You might want to rent that one and see how evil the original idea was.

JD: P.S. was toity, but not hoity. And yes, Dodgeball was way better than it got credit for. Stiller saying, "It's a metaphor ... but it really happened!" was the funniest line of the year. I also thought The Village was unfairly hated on. It was like a really good Twilight Zone episode. The thing I like about M. Night Shyamalan's films (though I didn't like The Sixth Sense) is that they're not real or believable. They're not films about life; they're films about other movies, or TV shows or comic books. Village was, essentially, a Twilight Zone episode used as a background for a visual exploration of a particular color palette. I could have watched that film with the sound off (I know--"maybe it would have been better"). And I enjoyed the artificial language they spoke. Variant English always works for me; it's what I like about Joyce, Nabokov, George W. Bush ...

BG: The Village was like a bad Little House on the Prairie episode meeting a bad Twilight Zone episode. I was OK with The Sixth Sense , thought Unbreakable had one of the cheapest endings I've ever seen, and I loved Signs--absolutely loved it. I don't go into films looking for genres to be respected, or good trailers to be honored. I just go in looking for a good movie, and The Village was abysmal. The speech pattern drove me CRAZY!--a lot of shit about "the shed which thou shalt not use and covet" and "the butter knife for which the margarine is spread on thy toast" and whatnot. The big twist, complete with Shyamalan's super-lame big cameo, provided no surprise. I'd like to say the ending sabotaged the film (as did the ending of Unbreakable ), but there was nothing to sabotage with this one. It was excremental from the get-go.

JD: Another "bad" movie I liked was The Day After Tomorrow, a movie with a truly awful script, story and performances that I nonetheless thoroughly enjoyed because of special effects. I've never seen effects carry a film before! The effects were creative, beautiful and most importantly, original. No standard explosions and space ships; instead, an entirely new set of effects never before seen.

BG: Yeah, I liked this one, too. I loved The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure , and I would put Tomorrow in a class alongside them. Dennis Quaid is one of the great underappreciated actors. I thought he carried this film, with all of its kookiness, really well, as was the case with Flight of the Phoenix. Both not great movies, but serviceable, thanks in large part to Quaid. I haven't seen In Good Company yet, but I imagine it's a great capper for a good year in the life of actor Quaid.

JD: I like Quaid, too, and he's excellent in In Good Company, but I thought he was weak in this. Then again, he had nothing to work with. The script was so bad that Jake Gyllenhaal actually refused to say some of the lines. It would have been better if he'd refused to say all of them.

How about The Passion of the Christ for best gay S&M film ever? No plot or characters, but lots of shots of a dude in armor beating a naked guy. I love that Mel Gibson gets sickly rich by making a film about a man who told people to give up their worldly possessions. Mel puts the "heist" back in "Christ!" Plus, the scene in which the crucified criminal gets his eyes pecked out is not only not in the Bible; it's the antithesis of Christianity, which so strongly stresses forgiveness. Mostly, though, I just thought the lack of motivation or character made the film uninteresting. But it's great if you're into seeing some guy get the shit beat out of him for an hour ... plus, great special effects! Like evil midgets! And a chick playing a dude! And floggings!

BG: Jesus gets his ass kicked--Roman style! You know, I really loved this movie. Not because it made me rethink my refusal to accept Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior (will never happen!), but because I saw it as a tremendous statement on fulfilling your promises and reaching your goals, at all costs. This guy was getting large chunks of his body ripped off, but nobody, not even demon dogs and creepy babies, were going to keep him from getting to that goal of being the ultimate martyr. Beautifully shot, well-acted (or screamed) and genuinely moving. Mel Gibson is a total freak, and I hate him vigorously, but I like his movie.

JD: My friend Carey liked this movie because he's a big fan of 1960s gore films. I can see the appeal on that level, but otherwise ... and it's not like anything was standing in the way of this dude becoming a martyr. Everyone seemed to be working toward that, so there wasn't any real conflict.

Of course, none of this matters, because your rejection of Jesus means you'll burn in hell for all eternity. Flame on, sinner!

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