Being a cinephile at the time, 2004 felt like a minor year after coming off early 2000’s that had such releases of the time as Mulholland Drive, Lost in Translation, and Far From Heaven, to name just a few, but in retrospective, 2004 was rather an extraordinary year with many great films that have aged well since. It will be remembered as being the most controversial movie year, with such releases as Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ that played a severe hand in the culture wars during a hot-button election year that all feels quaint compared to modern standards.
Twenty years later, these films below are the ones that have lived on my mind. I revisited each of these films leading up to this article and can honestly say they were even better all these years later. From the conclusion to Tarantino’s Kill Bill saga to great international films (House of Flying Daggers, Bad Education, Dogville)) and bittersweet American indies (Sideways, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) to big-budget superhero movies (Spider-Man 2) and prestige studio films (Million Dollar Baby, The Aviator, Closer), 2004 offered so many fully realized works of art. Like I do year-end lists now and how just I did my 2004 top ten back then, the year the film was released theatrically in North America is how I measure what year a film belongs in. For instance, The Best of Youth, 2046, Mysterious Skin, and Nobody Knows will be eligible in my 2005 retrospective. With that, here are my favorite films released theatrically in the U.S. in 2004, ranked.
Courtesy Warner Bros.
1. Million Dollar Baby (dir. Clint Eastwood)
Rarely do I ever have the Oscar Best Picture as my favorite film of the year, but Clint Eastwood made that happen with his masterfully crafted Million Dollar Baby. Even Unforgiven was my second favorite pick of 1992 (just behind Robert Altman’s The Player), and Million Dollar Baby is certainly the finest Oscar Best Picture winner of the 21st century (sorry Moonlight, No Country for Old Men, and Parasite fans) and even one of the finest in film history. The film is about a veteran boxing trainer named Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood) and his associate Eddie (Morgan Freeman), who reluctantly train Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), who comes into the gym looking to sharpen her skills in the ring. Frankie and Maggie end up forming a father-daughter friendship throughout her training, which leads her to her bouts in the ring that end up changing them both.
A film that hasn’t left my memory since the day I saw it on a cold December night. A transcendent sports drama that is very complex and holds many characterizations, I have to say, is also Eastwood’s most humane work to date. This could have been another trite sports drama, but writer Paul Haggis and director Eastwood supremely evoke a film so involving and staggering that it ends up becoming a Greek tragedy about loss. The film is also far from being grueling, as there is so much grace in the writing as it explores the power of perseverance and redemption. The performances across the board by Eastwood, Swank, and Freeman are all commanding and have stayed with me for years. Hopefully, younger generations will continue to celebrate this timeless treasure.
Courtesy Searchlight Pictures
2. Sideways (dir. Alexander Payne)
Upon its original release Sideways was just a small indie movie with no really big stars at that time and it eventually became a sleeper hit after strong word-of-mouth at TIFF, which made strong rounds week after week at the specialty box office, where it eventually found its way into multiplexes months after release. 20 years later, Paul Giamatti is now a beloved and universally praised actor by both audiences and critics, and many people quote the “I’m not drinking any fucking Merlot” line, and Merlot sales have skyrocketed upon its release. Yes, Alexander Payne’s Sideways has certainly aged very well upon release. A melancholic character study on life’s disappointments touches on broken dreams, depression, divorce, and loneliness. Sideways nevertheless, if filled with rich poignancy and compassion, resonates due to Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor’s sharp writing and deep humanism.
As Payne characterizes his heroine Miles (Giamatti) as a depressed schoolteacher, writer, and wine enthusiast who doesn’t hold much confidence in his first novel being published or in romance, he gives Miles resounding character depth, genuine pathos, and shimmers of hope throughout the film that propel his earned character arc. Miles estranged friend, Jack (Thomas Hayden Church), a voice actor, a former soap opera actor, and a womanizer, gives the film hilarity. Together, they make a trip up to wine country in Santa Barbara, California, for Jack’s bachelor party. While Miles wants to play golf and enjoy wine, Jack is searching for a fling before the big wedding. Jack ends up flirting and fooling around with a wine steward, Stephanie (Sandra Oh), while Miles ends up having a human connection with her friend Maya (Virginia Madsen). They end up going on double dates, emotions are formed, and the truth about Jack’s motivations are eventually revealed. Leaving both Mya and Stephanie shattered and the trip into limbo. With sophisticated humanism and brutal truths about the human condition, the wine grape vineyards serve as a beautiful metaphor for Miles’s emotional state and vulnerabilities. Payne’s bittersweet comedy-drama leaves you moved, saddened, and amused. Sideways remains Payne’s greatest achievement yet.
Courtesy Miramax Films
3. Kill Bill Vol. 2 (dir. Quentin Tarantino)
What started as a saga of self-aware homages, extreme violence, and pure exhilaration in “Kill Bill Vol. 1” that was released in October of 2003, Quentin Tarantino’s finale to his fourth film employed an ironic sense of humanism and optimism toward motherhood that found its conclusion in theaters in April of 2004. A revenge saga that actually becomes emotionally restrained was released in two separate years and divided into two volumes that made both of my top ten lists in their respected release years. One of Tarantino’s greatest achievements, the film’s writing and style, has all the signature stirrings that we have come to know from Tarantino. However, his writing structure remains some of his most brilliantly layered, consisting of many revelations of the many mysteries that slowly unravel themselves as certain plot mechanisms are unveiled. A strategy that he used to even greater effect in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
From the opening chapter that reveals the wedding massacre that ended up being a wedding reversal that leads into the astonishing Pai Mei (Gordan Lui) origin story that was seamlessly built up in the beginning of The Lonely Grave of Paula Schulz chapter, where Tarantino superbly builds up some great character depth involving Bill’s estranged brother Bud (Michael Madsen), to the unexpecting heartbreaking exchange between Bill (David Carradine) and Beatrix Kiddo (Uma Thurman), It’s a film that defied many expectations as Tarantino brought great emotional depth and transcended genre to brilliant effect. While Vol. 2. brings more resonance in the second half, Volume 2 still retains the exuberance of the first half. The showdown between Beatrix and Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah’s) offers some of the greatest fight choreography you will ever see in a trailer, and the buried alive sequence remains the most harrowing since The Vanishing.
Courtesy Focus Features
4. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (dir. Michel Gondry)
In 2004 Charlie Kaufman proved even further that he was one of the most skillful and inventive modern screenwriters and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was his final film screenplay he didn’t direct. It also guided him to his and out of all of Kaufman’s that he has written and directed films; this one remains his most poignant. The film wrestles with some familiar and cerebral themes that Kaufman have utilized before about human connection, loneliness, regret, memory, and Kaufman delivered a framework that is both cerebral and personal. It’s a film that affects the viewer both an emotional and intellectual level. Former music Director Michel Gondry dizzying aesthetics and rhythms certainly matches Kaufman’s and his craftmanship is proved to be suitable for the script.
The non-linear narrative which is about the painful breakup between a couple who hold undeniably has strong chemistry finds itself in a bizarre conundrum after, Clementine (Kate Winslet) endures a medical procedure that erases all memories from her ex-boyfriend Joel (Jim Carrey) from her mind. Once Joel discovers she undergone the treatments, he decides to get his memory erased at the same New York City based medical firm called Lacuna that is operated by Dr. Mierzwiak (the late Tom Wilkinson). Just like Kaufman and Spike Jonze proved to be a dream team, Gondry also proved to be a great collaborator for Kaufman’s delicately whacky screenplay, which is sustained by many heartbreaking and heartbreaking moments.
Courtesy Lions Gate Entertainment
5. Dogville (dir. Lars von Trier)
Danish provocateur Lars von Trier crafted his most aesthetically daring film of his career with Dogville. A visceral film where von Trier got really creative by using a sound stage and even chalkboards with invisible walls to sell the illusion of a fictional town called Dogville that plays out like a darker Mark Twain folk tale. A film that is both literary and visually arresting in which Quentin Tarantino rightfully proclaimed that it was deserving of a Pulitzer Prize. A film that is a greatly scripted with erudite narration by John Hurt holds a stark wisdom about human oppression and human nature that explores Americana triumphalism–Dogville illustrates with accuracy and detail on the trials and errors of altruistic liberalism that is confined to the cruelties of human behavior.
What could be dismissed as cynical or misanthropic is eventually anchored by von Trier’s intellectualism and philosophies of human aggression. The film is also undeniably engaging and spellbinding as the artificial setting draws you in and never distracts due to just how effective the narrative, writing, and performances are. While there has been endless debate about the film’s intentions and even accusations that von Trier held anti-American views, the film condemns human oppression if anything. Nicole Kidman in one of her most fearless and towering performance of her career plays Grace, who is on the run from criminals that are led by gangster father (James Caan). She ends up seeking refuge in the small town, where the citizens are at first alarmed but eventually accepting of her plight where they agree to accept her in their community in exchange she employs. Eventually, her hospitality is short-lived once “Most Wanted” signs are posted about her and the community’s compassion turns to contempt, leading to hostile and abuse from the community. Von Triers contemplative film is a fully realized work of art that raises fascinating questions about what happens to ordinary citizens and community once their perceptions are altered by fear and despotism.
Courtesy Columbia Pictures
6. Closer (dir. Mike Nichols)
A highlight in the late career of the late Mike Nichols, Closer was perhaps Nichol’s most dramatically charged and complex film of his impressive career. In a way it works as a companion piece to Nichol’s own 1966 masterpiece, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf, which was also a chamber piece of four characters. Closer is one of Nichol’s greatest accomplishments of his career, a film that is based on Patrick Marber’s play about four characters who desire, love, and deceive each other over the course of time. What’s fascinating about the narrative is the characters tendency towards truth, which ends up emotionally damaging everyone involved.
Jude Law stars as an obituary writer in London named Dan, who ends up encountering Alice (Natalie Portman), an American stripper who comes to New York to reinvent her life, and they fall in love quickly and build a relationship together. Juia Roberts co-stars as Anna, a photographer that Dan quickly lusts for and eventually falls in love with during the photo session that is needed for his debut book. Clive Owen is potent as Larry, as a demonologist who ends up talking with Dan disguised as Anna in an online sex chat room, in which he sabotages a blind date to prank Anna, which ends up backfiring once Anna and Larry both end up falling for each other. As the years pass, the two couples end up falling in and out of love with each other as their relationships deteriorate and rebound as the years go by. Uncompromising and brutally honest, Closer can be uncomfortable about its truths about infidelity, seduction, and deception. Nichols and Marbel’s perfectly expose the dysfunctions and pressures of desire, as their framework isn’t afraid to dive deep into the consequences.
Courtesy Lions Gate Entertainment
7. Fahrenheit 9/11 (dir. Michael Moore)
A staggering documentary that combines combative muckraking on the halves that benefit from war while delivering compassion to the halve nots that fight in the war, Michael Moore’s once controversial Fahrenheit 9/11 remains potent but sadly quaint in the Trump era of insurrections, dishonesty, and severe polarization. A stirring condemnation of the Bush administration’s response to the tragic 9/11 attacks and its incompetence, as well as the corporate media that failed to ask the challenging questions during its buildup. Moore expertly argues how President George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and others in his circle exploited 9/11 for their own personal gains as they covered up so much corruption.
Upon the film’s release, about half the country didn’t buy into Moore’s ideas in the film as they dismissed it as “propaganda,” but now his exposes and revelations are generally accepted as truth even as Moore is now a credible political figure. What’s notable about the documentary, though, is how the film eventually lays the foundations of Bush, Cheney, and Moore, which turns into a more personal story as he interviews Flint native Lila Lipscomb, a career headhunter who assists unemployed people to find work who tragically lost her son in the Iraq War. Her story is genuine, and Moore even steps back throughout most of the documentary and allows the newsreel footage and interviews from others to speak for themselves with his lettered narration. Moore’s films have always been timely and timeless. He brings relevance to important issues that greatly impact America; it’s essential that he dives deep to reveal the injustice and brutal uncomfortable truths on cronyism and corporatism. While Fahrenheit 9/11 may have been a product of its era, it’s a fresh reminder that the wealthy and elite always dictate foreign policy as the rest of the public is left squandering, divided, oppressed, and having to do all the heavy lifting. It’s a blessing we have had Moore release combative documentaries like this one for the last 35 years.
8. The Passion of the Christ (dir. Mel Gibson)
Like Fahrenheit 9/11, Mel Gibson had his fair share of controversies with his biblical drama, The Passion of the Christ. The charges of anti-Semitism with the depiction of Caiaphas (Mattia Sbragia) and the abundance of extreme violence are certainly fair. However, I feel those criticisms are overstated, as there are many other Jewish people persecuted by Caiaphas, and if you revisit the film, some on his council disapprove. Not to mention that Jesus was also a Jew. As for the violence, a crucifixion would be very unsettling to witness, especially since this is about Jesus Christ, and only the Son of God would be able to endure such punishment. The violence sells the visceral and harrowing approach to Gibson’s bold vision.
With stunning craftmanship and astonishing visuals, Gibson and cinematographer Calel Deschanel’s visual style matches that of a Caravaggio painting. Jim Caviezel is also effective as Jesus, and Gibson does a serviceable job of relieving the audience from the grueling scenes to moving flashbacks involving Mary Magdaline (Monica Belluci) and Mary, the mother of Jesus (Maia Morgenstern). The film explores forgiveness and grace, and Gibson’s vision is undeniably moving in his depiction of Christ’s suffering. He stays sober to the Christian tenet. This is a powerfully moving film that is always worth appreciating.
9. House of Flying Daggers (dir. Zhang Yimou)
Two Zhang Yimou films were released in North America in 2004, just about four months apart, and while Hero was the more commercially successful film, House of Flying Daggers was the more critical darling one that year. It’s hard to decide which I prefer of the two—both exhilarated and moved me. Like Hero, the film is based on Chinese history. The film is about the Tang Dynasty fighting with rebel groups to keep control of China is quite an exquisite and sweeping one. This is in part due to a love triangle involving a blind dancer named Mei (Zhang Ziyi) and two Tang Dynasty deputies (Takeshi Kaneshiro and Andy Lau), who both fall for her while suspecting that she is working covertly with a female rebel group called the House of Flying Daggers. After she gets captured after a failed assassination attempt, they end up siding with her alliance and help her escape. Engaging from beginning to end, Yimou also brings a Shakespearian pulse to the material that ends in a lush and shattering finale. With breathtaking set pieces of various atmospheres, colors, weather settings, and tones, Yimou proved once again that his artistry and vision reign supreme.
10. Hero (dir. Zhang Yimou)
Yes, this first of two Zhang Yimou’s Wuxia films to be released in North America after it’s 2002 release in China, and Quentin Tarantino helped promote the movie as a presenter. With his endorsement and the star power of Jet Li, Hero became the #1 movie at the box office the weekend upon release in August of 2004. A stupendous epic, a thrilling martial arts adventure, and a ravishing exhibition of many striking colors (green, red, white, blue, and black). Of course, Christopher Doyle’s cinematography brings an even more exquisite eye to the beauty. If films like Hero don’t wow you with their color and decor, nothing will. Yimou’s epic feels like a ballet with its impressive martial arts choreography by Yuen Woo-ping.
It suspends disbelief and gives the film a poetic touch that moves the story with its empathy and historical perspective. Taking place in ancient China, a nameless warrior (Jet Li) ends up getting honored by China’s king. Once Nameless specifies how he defeated the king’s nemesis of a band of assassins—Broken Sword (Tony Leung), Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung), and Moon (Zhang Ziyi)—the more contradictions the king picks up on. As Nameless continues to enumerate, it becomes more apparent that Nameless is a potential ally of the assassins. With a structure that echoes Kurosawa’s Rashomon and intoxicating action sequences, Hero is a spectacular film that also holds an emotional center with a profound payoff.
Runners-Up (In Alphabetical Order)
The Aviator (d. Martin Scorsese)
The first film that allowed Scorsese to dive into his love for the movies and examine show business, in “The Aviator” Scorsese was able to recreate the troubled and over-budgeted production of Hell’s Angels (1930). The result is a highly sprawling and greatly acted picture that holds a lot of scope and character depth in its portrayal of Howard Hughes’ psychological deterioration and mental breakdowns. Leonardo DiCaprio delivers a skillful performance as Howard Hughes, one of the twentieth century’s greatest minds: an innovator, creator, and hot-shot film producer. Cate Blanchett is also glorious here as she won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar that year for her pitch-perfect role as Katherine Hepburn.
Courtesy Sony Pictures Classic
Bad Education (d. Pedro Almodóvar)
This melodrama may appear overstuffed, but watching it, writer-director Pedro Almodóvar’s layered, meta noir thriller takes on many tones and ignites on all levels; it’s a drag femme fatale revenge story, perhaps, but it dives into much more about artistic expression, reconciliation, mistaken identity, and childhood trauma. The film follows a crossdresser performer named Angel (Gael Garcia Bernal), who reconnects with an old grade school friend named Enrique Goded (Fele Martinez), who is now an acclaimed filmmaker. Angel delivers Enrique a very personal script that recounts their childhood at their strict Catholic school, where Angel was victimized sexually by a priest. Almodovar boldly and tastefully shows his characters in crises, indicating their vulnerabilities, with a non-linear structure that weaves through the past and present with many brilliant twists and turns. The result explores how the past hurts, showing how it leaves many broken, but the cinematic process is often the therapeutic remedy.
Courtesy New Line Cinema
Birth (d. Jonathan Glazer)
Jonathan Glazer’s sophomore feature, Birth, was another polarizing film with critics upon release; whether it would still be greenlit today will remain a mystery. A psychological drama that plays with tropes of a mystery thriller that evokes the aesthetics and tone of Ingmar Bergman, Stanley Kubrick, and Roman Polankski. Both intimate and involving, this austere mystery is filled with mystery and supernatural elements. Nicole Kidman, in her second towering role that year, plays Anna, a widower who has grieved for over 10 years after the death of her husband, Sean. Anna is now engaged to Joseph (Danny Huston), and they are about to get married. During the night of her mother’s birthday party, a young boy named Sean (Cameron) arrives unexpectedly, claiming that he reincarnated as Sean. What seems like a prank or unreal at first ends up becoming more convincing once young Sean knows very personal and intimate details that only Anna and Sean knew together. Ultimately, the mystery of the puzzle doesn’t really become the point—it’s more of a depiction of how we find closure and move on from our sorrows. Austere and dramatically charged, Birth is a treasure.
Courtesy Searchlight Pictures
I Heart Huckabee’s (d. David O. Russell)
Taking a stab at the quirky, offbeat indies that were ubiquitous upon the rise of Charlie Kaufman, David O. Russell’s sustained his own existential ideas in his brightest film to date, which benefited from a superb cast of Jason Schwartzman, Mark Wahlberg, Dustin Hoffman, Lily Tomlin, Jude Law, and Naomi Watts. O. Russell’s sharp writing and directing asks and explores a lot of fascinating questions on the dueling philosophies of existentialism and nihilism. Schwartzman plays Albert, an environmentalist at a non-profit who hires the services of a pair of “existential detectives,” Bernard (Dustin Hoffman) and Vivian (Lily Tomlin), to observe the meaning of his recent coincidences. The discovery of Albert holds a lot of anxieties that resulted from Brad (Law), a public relations manager at a major retailer called Huckabee’s. Brad himself ends up hiring the detectives to find the purpose of his life as well. It’s a zany journey that leaves us with belly laughs, sophisticated ideas, and the importance of human connection and friendship.
Spider-Man 2 (d. Sam Raimi)
With all the multi-verses, sequels, and reboots, the Marvel comic book character of Spider-Man has certainly stayed relevant in the movies for the last 25 years. While the live action Spidey films have certainly been hit-or-miss with the Spider-Verse animated films remaining the most consistent, I would have to say Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 remains the triumphant Spider-Man film to date. Not only was this film a major blockbuster upon release, but a deeply moving and compelling portrait about Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) wrestling with his personal struggles in balancing his responsibilities as both a super-hero as Spider-Man and being a committed a nephew to his Aunt May and friend to Mary Jane (Kristen Dunst) and Harry Osbourne (James Franco) when he’s not in the Spider suit. It was not only greatly crafted by Sam Raimi, who delivered so many astounding set-pieces including the remarkable train sequence. Aside from the great action, the film delivered deep resonance as well the vulnerabilities on display with Peter Parker’s character. Even when Spider-Man 3 disappointed, Raimi’s Spider-Man left off with a great sense of promise, and it’s one of the strongest sequels you will ever see.
Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics
Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, and..Spring (d. Kim Ki Duk)
The late Kim Ki-Duk’s Spring Summer Fall Winter Spring is one of his few films that received worldwide acclaim. It’s a miraculous and illuminating film that is nothing less than masterful. The film is structured around the cycle of seasons to represent the passage of time. During the summer season, we see the young Buddhist as a young man (Seo Jae-kyeon), who develops a sexual relationship with a girl who arrives at the temple for guidance, spirituality, and practice to improve her health. The young man gives into temptations and abandons the temple, only to find himself seeking redemption years later. It’s like his other enigmatic films, Iron and Pieta, with minimalism and abstractions that explore spiritualism. The luminous film is about a young Buddhist mentee who is guided by an elder monk (Oh Yeong-su) at a secluded temple that is submerged in a body of water located deep in the Korean wilderness.
Honorable Mention (In Alphabetical Order)
Before Sunset (d. Richard Linklater)
The Bourne Supremacy (d. Paul Greengrass)
Collateral (d. Michael Mann)
Crimson Gold (d. Jafar Panahi)
The Dreamers (d. Bernardo Bertolucci)
The Five Obstructions (d. Lars Von Trier and Jørgen Leth)
Kinsey (d. Bill Condon)
Los Angeles Plays Itself (d. Thom Anderson)
Maria Full of Grace (d. Joshua Marston)
Napoleon Dynamite (d. Jared Hess)
The Return (d. Andrey Zvyagintsev)
The Saddest Music in the World (d. Guy Maddin)
Super-Size Me (d. Morgan Spurlock)
Twilight Samurai (d. Yoji Yamada)
Vera Drake (d. Mike Leigh)