Last week I finally saw the the last movie from 2004 that I wanted to see (an event that usually happens about a month into the following year), so I'm ready to share with a world that doesn't care my picks for best and worst films of the year.
My choices for the year's best films are those that both impressed me in their craft and engrossed me with their story. So the well made but boring "Finding Neverland" doesn't make the list, nor does the engrossing but quite high quality "Hellboy."
As for the worst list, it's a mix of movies that were just plain awful and those that were pretentious and unnecessarily lauded, two things I really hate.
I'm just picking an arbitrary number for each list. However many I think belong.
1. Tie: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Before Sunset
Although I am deep down a romantic, it's rare that I see a romantic movie that really gets to me. This year there were two. "Eternal Sunshine" is a brilliantly made film with a structure that helps to tell its story and make its point. This is a movie with a point, but it makes it through its storytelling, not by banging you over the head or, until the very end, even stating it. And it's a point with which I thoroughly agree: Even if you knew in advance all the heartache and pain that love will bring, love would still be worth it. Which goes to show that if you're truly in love, it's always worthwhile to stick to together and make it through the inevitable problems.
As for "Before Sunset," it has no structure to speak of. Two people spend 80 minutes talking. But the conversation is so real and the personalities so distinct and interesting and familiar that it's a compelling story. I think most of us have had the experience of a passionate (perhaps foolish) love/attraction when we were younger that didn't last or wasn't meant to be. And most of us who have gotten a few years into adulthood know what its like to deal with the disapointments of life, many of which are due to our own poor choices. I think if our slightly more mature self came face to face with that younger passionate self, this movie is exactly how the conversation would go. And the raw attraction on the screen between Ethan Hawke and Julie Deply (not chemistry and not lust, but attraction) is amazing. It was so real that it reminded me what the feeling is like. Really an amazing accomplishment.
3. Million Dollar Baby
I agree with most of the positive reviews. It's a moving and compelling story of three weird people who have, in their own unique way, deep love for each other. And these are very unusual people and a very unusual setting to see in a film. The controversial final act only serves to make those relationships revealed and raw.
You all know why. It's funny and deep and has a painfully real humor that Alexander Payne seems to capture so brilliantly. It's not as good as "Election," but that's an extremely high standard.
5. Hotel Rwanda
This movie definitely has faults. In particular, some of the exposition is a bit awkward and the photography early in the film is almost laughably bad. It looks like a TV movies from the early 80s. But the story is so compelling, some moments are so moving, and Don Cheadle's performance is so tremendous that I couldn't help but love it. I was particularly impressed at the way it conveys the physical and emotional horror of the Rwandan genocide without having to show the slaughter in detail.
6. Touching the Void
A British documentary/recreation that came out last spring about a pair of British climbers who nearly die and one of whom has to make it down the mountain with a severely broken leg. It doesn't linger on the grossness of the injury, but really effectively conveys what it would feel like to be severely injured and left for dead on a mountain and how a person could actually make it down the mountain alone in that condition. A scene near the end where he has to go about a mile with a crutch that falls on every step is particularly painful (in a good way). I don't think any other movie made me understand the protagonist's situation better than this one all year. And the fact that it was real is even more amazing.
1. Napoleon Dynamite
Easily one of the most loathsome works of art ever. I have never seen a film that had more hatred for its own characters. The entire movie exists only to hold its characters up for ridicule. We're supposed to laugh with the filmmakers at the simple, stupid, unfashionable rural people. It's also shockingly racist, with latinos who are naturally gangbangers and a black woman who turns a white guy she hangs out with into a gangsta. There's no excuse for anyone over 18 to not be horrified by this film. (Of course all the 20-something hipsters I saw it with in Los Feliz loved it)
2. Garden State
Not really a terrible film, but so pretentious it had to be on the list. It's been a long time since I saw a movie with such a yawning gap between its belief that it's saying something deep and the utter shallowness of its content. Zach Braff mistakes clever moments (like a guy in a sidecar) with a clever film, which this is not. Ultimately this movie has nothing beyond stupid obvious points to make and its pretensious of being the new "Graduate" are insulting even to that awful stage version of "The Graduate" with Jason Biggs.
3. Van Helsing
For exactly the reasons you're thinking. I know it seems obvious, but trust me, it really is that bad. To not note its awfulness would be libelous.