The world of film is extremely subjective. One man's classic
could be another man's piece of garbage. Therefore, with the glut of top ten lists
in print and on the internet, it has become exceedingly difficult to genuinely
pick the top movies of every year. There will always be some sort of disagreement
or disparity. With that in mind, here's one author's view on the top ten movies
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Original Release Date: March 19, 2004
Starring: Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Kirsten Dunst, Elijah Wood, Tom Wilkinson
Directed By: Michel Gondry
not often a movie comes a long that is so good it makes you completely forget
that the entire premise of the film is utterly impossible. Eternal Sunshine of
the Spotless Mind is one of those movies. Jim Carrey stars as Joel Barish, a fumbling,
socially incompetent man who learns that his girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet)
has had him erased from her memory.
In an attempt to even the score and to settle his own demons, Joel undergoes the
same procedure to erase memories of Clementine from his head. Director Michel
Gondry takes us backward through Joel's mind as each individual memory is erased.
What follows is an extraordinary lesson about love, loss and the value of our
In Eternal Sunshine, Carrey gives the most inspired performance of his career.
While he has turned in standout performances in Man on the Moon and The Truman
Show, Eternal Sunshine shows his full range as a dramatic actor. Kate Winslet
sheds her familiar British accent and fully transforms herself in playing the
complex role of Clementine, a needy alcoholic who always seems to get bored with
The movie's non-linear style is a clever way to tell the story. It's not always
evident where the characters are in time. Subtle details, such as the color of
Clementine's hair in a particular scene, are used to identify the point in time
to the viewer.
The casting in Eternal Sunshine served as one of its strongest suits. Carrey and
Winslet are joined by youngsters Kirsten Dunst and Elijah Wood as assistants for
Lacuna Incorporated, the company erasing Joel's memory. All four characters have
their own sense of immaturity, but the balance between the subtle immaturity of
Carrey and Winslet's characters and the blatant, expressive immaturity of Dunst
and Wood's characters adds another layer of context to a very deep, emotional
On February 27, Charlie Kaufman was honored with an Oscar for best original screenplay
for Eternal Sunshine. After seeing him lose for several phenomenal films like
Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, it was nice to see a brave and original writer
finally get his due. Without a doubt, Eternal Sunshine is clearly Kaufman's most
ambitious project to date.
Original Release Date: December 22, 2004
Starring: Don Cheadle, Sophie Okonedo, Nick Nolte, Joaquin Phoenix
Directed By: Terry George
all due respect to Jamie Foxx, Don Cheadle gives the best performance of 2004
in Hotel Rwanda. The real-life tale of the Rwandan genocide that took place in
1994 might not have been seen by the majority of the American public this winter,
but it should have been. As Rwandan hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina, Cheadle commands
every scene and puts himself into the upper echelon of today's American actors.
The story of Hotel Rwanda may not be familiar to many. In over 100 days in 1994,
nearly one million people died as a result of a war between two Rwandan tribes,
the Hutus and the Tutsis. This tragedy was completely overlooked the world over,
especially here in America.
During this civil war, Rusesabagina housed thousands of Rwandan refugees in his
hotel, the Mille de Colline. As hotel manager, he bargained, pled and bribed for
the lives of friends, family members and those he didn't even know.
After numerous, but memorable, supporting roles in movies like Swordfish, Bulworth,
Ocean's Eleven, Boogie Nights and Traffic, it was refreshing to see Cheadle get
his chance at being a leading man. A former guest star on The Fresh Prince of
Bel-Air, Cheadle almost lost the part to his former co-star Will Smith, but director
Terry George took the reins of the project before that could happen. George financed
the project independently, so instead of producer's darlings like Smith or Denzel
Washington, audiences were treated to the writer and director's first choice,
While Cheadle was the heart and soul of Hotel Rwanda, he wasn't the only bright
spot. In addition to the aforementioned writing and direction from Terry George,
relative newcomer Sophie Okonedo turns in a brilliant, Oscar-nominated performance
as Rusesabagina's wife, Tatiana. Joaquin Phoenix and Nick Nolte also nail their
supporting roles, Phoenix as an ashamed American journalist and Nolte as a struggling
UN Colonel trying to keep the peace.
Though Phoenix appears in just a few scenes, he delivers the most memorable and
perhaps the most accurate line depicting the Rwandan conflict. "If people see
this," he says, referring to Americans watching the news at home, "they'll say,
'Oh my God, that's horrible,' and then go on eating their dinners."
Maybe, if more people get a chance to see Hotel Rwanda, that sentiment could change.
This isn't just a movie; it's a film that can change lives, policy and the way
we think about our actions.
Original Release Date: August 6th, 2004
Starring: Tom Cruise, Jamie Foxx, Jada Pinkett-Smith
Directed By: Michael Mann
and producer Michael Mann has been making epic action films for years, yet he
has never really gotten his due as a director. While his latest endeavor, Collateral,
didn't break the mold, it was certainly one of the crowning works of the year.
Tom Cruise stars as Vincent, a contract killer making his rounds one fateful night
in Los Angeles. When he offers a cab driver named Max (Jamie Foxx) $600 to drive
him around for the night, things take a turn for the worst.
Collateral has one of the most original action screenplays in recent memory. Much
of the movie is contained within the cab and the scenes outside of it are stylish
and packed with emotion. Cruise delivers a strong performance out of his usual
character as the silver-haired assassin. Months of training with gun-slinging
definitely paid off for Cruise in terms of realism, especially during the club
and alleyway scenes. There's never a point in this movie where you feel like you're
watching Tom Cruise. It's always "Vincent" on the screen, and sometimes that's
a hard thing for actors to pull off.
Foxx gives his second stellar performance of the year as Max, a shy, ineffectual
cabbie with dreams of something more. While he earned most of his acclaim for
a stunningly accurate portrayal of Ray Charles in the biopic Ray, he deserves
just as much credit for his role here. Foxx really put in his background work,
as evidenced by his Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
The nomination for Foxx was deserved, even though this was a starring role. It's
obvious the Academy wanted to give him two nominations for his great work this
year, so they categorized his performance in Collateral as "supporting," which
often happens with successful movies. For example, Kate Winslet, nominated for
her starring performance this year in Eternal Sunshine, was also a contender for
a Best Supporting Actress role in Finding Neverland, even though she was the film's
While the lead actors do give great performances in Collateral, the real star
is Mann, who should have been recognized this year for his directorial work. Mann
has a knack for finding that special angle in every place he films, be it Los
Angeles or Africa. The shots of L.A. are brilliant and the pace and editing are
magnificent. It is Mann's attention to detail that really makes this picture amazing.
He specializes in giving his actors background information on feelings, emotions
and past events not necessarily evident to the viewer. This makes every tiny detail
and facial expression relevant and affecting. The audience always feels like there's
something more going on in each character's head.
Mann has directed almost 20 films, but his only Oscar nomination for directing
thus far has been for 1999's The Insider. Some of his best overlooked works were
1995's Heat, starring Al Pacino and Robert Deniro and 2001's Ali, starring Will
Smith, Foxx and Jon Voight.
Million Dollar Baby
Original Release Date: December 15, 2004
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Hilary Swank, Morgan Freeman
Directed By: Clint Eastwood
The winner for the best picture of 2004 at the Academy Awards, Million Dollar
Baby featured magnificent acting and directing. This boxing character study, the
latest effort from Clint Eastwood, is certainly deserving of whatever honors it
received. In addition to the award for best picture, it also won Oscars for best
directing (Eastwood), best actress (Hilary Swank) and best supporting actor (Morgan
At the heart of the film is Swank, who plays Maggie Fitzgerald, an aging boxer
with a hard past. When she meets Frankie, played by Eastwood, she sees a man who
could take her to the top of the boxing world. Despite his efforts to get her
to leave him alone, Frankie finally agrees to train her. Together, they form a
bond that helps Maggie earn fame in the ring and also fills a void in each of
While Swank is remarkable as Maggie, the real treat in Million Dollar Baby is
the interplay between Eastwood's Frankie and Freeman as his long time friend "Scrap."
The two have the most believable on-screen friendship in recent memory. With every
line and quip, the viewer has no doubt that the two have been best friends for
Unfortunately, Million Dollar Baby and many of its critics have come under fire
for the movie's final moments. While I won't ruin the ending by divulging it here,
I can say that there is a significant and controversial twist in the last third
of the film. Many critics revealed that twist in their criticism of the film's
morals and motivation. In response to these critics, I can do no better than to
quote renowned movie critic Roger Ebert, who wrote on the subject in a January
29 essay entitled "Critics Have No Right to Play Spoiler."
"Million Dollar Baby raises fundamental moral issues," wrote Ebert. "At a moment
of crisis, the characters arrive at a decision. I do not agree with their decision.
But here is the crucial point: I do believe that these characters would do what
they do in this film. It is entirely consistent with whom they are and everything
we have come to know about them. That is one reason the film is so good: it follows
the characters all the way to the limit, and plays true to them."
Ebert mentions that the film follows its characters to the limit, characters which
were first formed by F.X. Toole in his book Rope Burns. Eastwood has adapted the
F.X. Toole stories perfectly and provided us with an intriguing character study
that will make you question your beliefs and the actions of the characters. Great
movies make you think, and Million Dollar Baby does just that.
Original Release Date: November 12, 2004
Starring: Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, Freddy Highmore, Dustin Hoffman
Directed By: Marc Forster
master of the perfect accent, Johnny Depp, leapt onto the big screen again this
year in the immensely successful Finding Neverland. While the film's title may
lead some to poke fun, with the Michael Jackson trial in full swing, this movie
is nothing to laugh at. It is a touching look at the life of J.M. Barrie, the
playwright behind the legendary Peter Pan.
The film follows Barrie as he struggles to complete the story and production of
Peter Pan. Along the way, he meets up with a widowed mother (Kate Winslet) and
her young sons. Barrie helps one of the boys, an introverted youngster played
by Freddie Highmore, discover his joy for writing and life. Through the boys,
Barrie finds the inspiration for his next play. Through Barrie, the boys re-discover
the father figure they lost years ago.
Finding Neverland tugs at all strings. At any time it can be funny, touching,
poignant or agonizing. The goal of the story is to pull at your emotions and the
film succeeds in every way. While all aspects of this movie were very successful,
it's the performances by the actors that put it over the top.
Depp earned - and I do mean earned - yet another best actor Academy Award
nomination for his performance as J.M. Barrie. Despite the fact that he was nominated
last year for his role in Pirates of the Caribbean, the committee had no choice
but to give him his second straight nod. After being snubbed by the Academy for
several roles in the 1990s, including Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood and especially
Donnie Brasco, he's finally getting his just desserts as an actor.
Winslet also turns in a heart-wrenching performance as Sylvia Davies, an ill-stricken,
single mother of four. Pair this role with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
and Winslet managed to turn in a year of performances in 2004 that most actresses
would love to have in a lifetime.
In addition to Depp and Winslet, 12-year-old Freddie Highmore burst onto the screen
in Finding Neverland as perhaps the next great child actor. In fact, Highmore
was so good playing one of Davies' four sons that acclaimed director Tim Burton
decided to cast him alongside Depp again this summer. He is set to play Charlie
Bucket in a new version of Roald Dahl's children's novel, Charlie and the Chocolate
Factory, due out in July.
Original Release Date: July 30, 2004
Starring: Zach Braff, Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Ian Holm
Directed By: Zach Braff
In 2004, Zach Braff emerged as one of the year's best success stories. Braff,
a star on NBC's TV sitcom Scrubs, found distribution for his pet project Garden
State, which he wrote, directed and starred in.
In Garden State, Andrew Largeman (Braff) returns home to bury his mother in New
Jersey after 10 years of living on the west coast as a struggling actor. He has
been held down his entire life by anti-depression medications. On this trip back
to his roots, he leaves behind the medication and his reservations. With the help
of a few friends and a girl named Samantha, played by Natalie Portman, Andrew
embarks on a journey to rediscover happiness and himself.
The screenplay for Garden State might not satisfy those who are looking for action
and excitement. But, like Lost in Translation in 2003, Garden State is certainly
a solid movie. No, nothing explodes, but if you're looking for engaging dialogue
about self-discovery and an appealing story about a young man returning to his
roots, this is the movie for you. Braff's screenplay is clever and witty and his
characters have many layers.
The best thing about Garden State, as I've said before, is its intelligent look
at life. One scene in particular illustrates this notion the best. When Andrew
downs an ecstasy tablet at a party, he begins to observe the things going on around
him. Things move quickly, then slowly, and back and forth, in and out as people
go about their business. In his heightened state, Andrew begins to see things
in perspective. As he sits on the couch, partygoers pass him by at lightning-speed;
much like life passes us by as we sit and watch, oblivious to the fact.
It's these kinds of indirect metaphors that make Braff's script so incredible.
Watch the pool scene, figure it out and you'll see why.
The acting is also high-level. Braff brings the perfect pitch to the character
of Andrew, someone just recently freed of the medications that bound him for so
many years. And although she'll dive back into Star Wars this spring, Portman
helps to shed her "Queen Amidala" image with a quirky performance as Samantha.
With mature and complex roles in 2004 films like Garden State and Closer, she
shouldn't be in danger of being typecast.
The Passion of the Christ
Original Release Date: February 25, 2004
Starring: James Caviezel, Monica Bellucci, Rosalinda Celentano
Directed By: Mel Gibson
of the two most controversial films of the year, along with Michael Moore's Fahrenheit
9/11, The Passion of the Christ is a visual masterpiece. The Academy recognized
it with nominations for cinematography, original score and makeup. While the content
and storyline may not appeal to those unfamiliar with or opposed to Christian
beliefs, it's hard not to respect what Mel Gibson brought to the screen on this
One often overlooked aspect of many period epics is that everyone usually speaks
English, when it is quite obvious that a Roman emperor or warrior during the Crusades
would not have spoken that language. In Passion of the Christ, the dialogue is
presented in the two languages of that time period, Aramaic and Latin, with English
subtitles. This adds to the authenticity of the picture.
James Caviezel gives a spirited performance as none other than Jesus Christ. His
affect on the picture has less to do with his actual lines than with his facial
expressions as he is beaten and flogged repeatedly.
Indeed, beating and flogging must make up at least 75 percent of this film. I
can say without a doubt that this will be the most violent movie you will ever
see. Gibson has made certain of that, opting to focus on the Christian message
of Christ's suffering and the last hours of his life rather than on his teachings.
The result is a powerful image that may be too much for some viewers to handle.
Nonetheless, The Passion of the Christ accomplishes what it set out to do. For
those interested in the life of Jesus Christ, Gibson has painted a substantially
gruesome, yet visually stunning and moving epic for viewers.
Original Release Date: June 30, 2004
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Alfred Molina, Rosemary Harris
Directed By: Sam Raimi
When the original Spiderman hit the big screen in 2002, it helped to reinvigorate
the comic book movie franchise. While the sequel has its corny moments, Spiderman
2 stays true to the first film both visually and in the spirit of the characters.
The film builds on the story from the first movie, where Peter Parker first learns
of his unique, spider-like abilities.
If you're watching a sequel, chances are you've seen the first movie. Therefore,
this go-around is geared towards developing the characters and their relationships.
Peter, a.k.a. Spiderman, is having trouble dealing with his double life, balancing
a job and classes with his duties as a masked crime-fighter. His love interest,
Mary Jane Watson, has grown tired of waiting for him and is engaged to a wealthy
space cadet. Parker's best friend, Harry Osborn, is still dealing with the death
of his father, for which he blames Spiderman. Throw a new villain into the mix,
Dr. Otto Octavius, and there you have it.
Director Sam Raimi uses the same style he did in the first movie, but makes significant
advances in special effects. The moving tentacles of "Doc Ock," in particular,
helped earn Spiderman 2 an Academy Award nomination for best visual effects.
As expected, Tobey Maguire delivers as Peter Parker. His shy, gawky demeanor is
perfect for the role and fans of the series can only hope he stays on for the
duration of the franchise. He was rumored to have been replaced by Jake Gyllenhaal
for this film due to a back injury, but stuck with the project. His status for
Spiderman 3 is up in the air.
Alongside Maguire, Kirsten Dunst's performance as M.J. is so comic book-like that
you can almost envision a box over her head containing her lines. While not the
best actress in some situations, she is definitely the perfect choice for this
role, a part that requires a certain amount of overplaying at times.
Then, there are the character actors, most notably J.K. Simmons as Jonah Jameson
and Alfred Molina as "Doc Ock." Both do a fine job and add something special to
their scenes. Molina has a presence about him that oozes complexity. You can feel
the internal conflict between "Doc Ock" and Otto Octavius, especially towards
the end of the film when Octavius tries to pry himself away from the prosthetic
tentacles that bind him.
Several potential villains are introduced subtly throughout the film as well,
although I won't spoil the surprises for fans of the original comic book. Hopefully,
those fans will get to see these new villains in many future installments of the
franchise. As long as the core of Raimi, Maguire and Dunst stays in tact, moviegoers
can always expect a treat from their friendly neighborhood Spiderman.
Friday Night Lights
Original Release Date: October 4, 2004
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Derek Luke, Jay Hernandez
Directed By: Peter Berg
Varsity Blues, replace the humor with drama and you have Friday Night Lights.
In this sports flick, Billy Bob Thornton stars as the embattled football coach
at Permian High School in Odessa, Texas. The film focuses on the team's run at
the Texas State Championship in 1988.
Apparently, a prerequisite for American actors is to appear on screen as a coach.
If you don't believe that, just look at the list. It features: Al Pacino; Gene
Hackman; Nick Nolte; Denzel Washington; Walter Matthau; Jon Voight; Tom Hanks;
Tom Berenger; Kurt Russell; Samuel L. Jackson; James Caan; Kevin Bacon; Keanu
Reeves; John Candy; Emilo Estevez; Dennis Hopper; Danny Glover; Rodney Dangerfield;
Henry Winkler; Burt Reynolds; John Goodman; Rick Moranis; Ed Harris; and James
Earl Jones. Now, Thornton can add his name, and his performance should put him
somewhere near the top.
This isn't the perfect movie. Some of the characters aren't fully developed throughout
the film and the state tournament montage towards the end seems trivial. Permian
had gone through several tough losses, but suddenly they were unbeatable and the
games weren't even in question. Maybe a more dramatic look at those contests would
have helped, but overall it doesn't severely damage the story.
The young actors who comprise Thornton's footballers are a serviceable bunch,
the most notable being Derek Luke. Luke turned in a quality performance alongside
Denzel Washington in Antwone Fisher and comes through again in Friday Night Lights.
The movie is based on H.G. Bissinger's best-selling novel, and those who have
already read it will not be shocked by the way things unfold. However, those experiencing
this story for the first time will be surprised. This is not your typical, cookie-cutter
sports movie. That alone should set it apart from its predecessors.
For Thornton, add Friday Night Lights to his growing list of respectable movie
roles. Previously, he's turned in memorable performances in films like Tombstone,
Monster's Ball and Bad Santa. His new career path, however, may be as a football
coach. He'll play one again this year, when a remake of The Bad News Bears is
released to theaters this spring.
Just Missed the Cut:
The Aviator, The Butterfly Effect, Closer, The Incredibles, Ray, Saw, Sideways,
Ben Samara is Editor-in-Chief of unbound. He is a junior journalism major at
The College of New Jersey, with a minor in interactive multimedia. He is a freelance
web designer and is also currently employed by the official website of The Ivy
where he designed their 2004 Ivy League football media guide.