Self-doubting superheroes slamming into buildings, gothic vampires swooping down and people standing in front of oncoming tornadoes as the world comes crumbling down–last year’s top-grossing movies were like a malevolent storm descending upon a nation at war, with the public shivering in fear and clinging to deeply-held beliefs. Liberal dogmatists flocked to see blowhard Michael Moore’s anti-war tract, Fahrenheit 9/11, while the resurgence of religious fundamentalism was evident both in the grosses for cross-clutcher Mel Gibson’s latest display of blood, sweat and self-sacrifice (The Passion of the Christ) and in the re-election of a religious president. It is tempting to deem 2004 the year “Let’s Roll” gave way to “Let’s Pray,” and two bearded saviors appeared to satisfy the demand.
Americans wanted to believe in something–anything–in a culture driven by nihilism. For every Incredibles, there was a Hellboy, Twisted, Darkness, Man on Fire and Dawn of the Dead. Movies fixated on death, doom and destruction were far more prevalent than their counterparts. It was enough to make a movie fan go straight for the laughs, but comedy, too, could not escape the malevolence. With animated ogres spewing pop culture references and former box office queen Barbra Streisand reduced to playing a fat, frizzy hippie who is the author of a book titled “Is Your Vagina Happy?”–with Robert DeNiro farting at the touch of her fingertips–vulgarity dominated comedy. Critical favorites were worse, ranging from a biographical picture about a businessman going bonkers to an episode in million-dollar melancholy.
Those unmoved by visions of man as a drunk, a lunatic or a blind drug addict had a few spots of sunshine. Nick Cassavettes’ enchanted The Notebook set young love in Ferris wheels, canoes and kissing in the rain, a classic Hollywood hook which also provided the winning ticket in Robert Luketic’s delightful Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!
Peter Chelsom’s lively Shall We Dance tingled the toes, playfully kicking up its heels at Miss Mitzi’s walk-up studio and riding the year’s most romantic escalator to Peter Gabriel’s heart-stopping song for the husband and wife. Love and the lightness of being came to colorful life in Martha Coolidge’s vibrant The Prince and Me and in Joel Schumacher’s spectacular version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera.
Music made movies happier when happiness seemed harder to find, especially for those fighting in Iraq and their loved ones. Greek composer Vangelis returned to the screen with his triumphant score for Alexander–Michael Giacchino’s music for The Incredibles heightened the sense of thrill–The Notebook featured the music of Frederic Chopin–Shall We Dance had Henry Mancini’s “MoonRiver.”
Stunning production design kept Robert Zemeckis’ The Polar Express on track for a merry Christmas at a North Pole re-imagined as a 19th century version of a productive, bustling lower Manhattan. An exotic island escapade united The Incredibles as a happy family who returned to their strikingly modern home in the suburbs. The chirpy, performing arts-school picture Raise Your Voice depicted Los Angeles as a sparkling metropolis that welcomes its show business newcomers.
Hollywood offered something good in every flavor. The taut Cellular and the smart Spartan provided thoughtful suspense. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban gave us the further adventures of a child whose mind is his greatest asset. Home on the Range and Benji Off the Leash offered family fare without the jaded sensibility.
Great performances included Eric Bana’s idealistic Hector, standing taller than everyone in Troy–Kurt Russell’s intense hockey coach, leading a band of amateurs to victory over the Soviets in Miracle–Susan Sarandon’s searching wife, finding her middle-aged way back to falling in love in Shall We Dance. Among last year’s best actors: Gena Rowlands, poignant in The Notebook, Johnny Depp, literate in Finding Neverland, and the casts of The Sea Inside and Kinsey— 2004’s most thought-provoking and powerful movies.
Kinsey dared to choose knowledge over faith, Finding Neverland moved us to cheer for a child’s kite to fly, The Sea Inside sent us gliding over the Spanish coast to the music of Puccini — each so that man’s soul might soar above the clouds. That’s what makes a good movie: pictures in motion that lift us up, not down–and certainly not sideways.
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