Thoughts on 2004 films in order of Atlanta release date, except for when they aren't

The Assassination of Richard Nixon (Niels Mueller): ***

Like The Woodsman below, succeeds almost solely based on the lead performance, this one being Sean Penn as Sam Bicke, a complex, riveting portrayal of a deranged man. Which is also what the film works as, and nothing more; its attempts at historical examination (Bicke really did try to assassinate Nixon) and social critique fall far short, although the slam-cut to the final credits is oddly affecting. Direction is functional at best, and the talented supporting cast is woefully underused. So, it's all about Penn.

The Woodsman (Nicole Kassell): ***

Would live or die on the back of Kevin Bacon's performance, so thank god it's possibly the finest of his career, dealing almost exclusively in quiet emotion, much like his work in Mystic River, the best in that film. It took balls to play a convicted pedophile, and he doesn't shy away from his character's dark side - watch the scene in which an 11-year-old girl (Hannah Pilkes, who in just two scenes turns in the finest child performance of the year) sits down next to him and they start talking; as Bacon struggles with his competing desires and guilts, the pain clear on his face is devastating. It's a perfect scene in a less-than-perfect film; it's obvious, and rapper Eve's performance is just awful. Still, it's a courageous debut from Nicole Kassell, and it confirms Bacon's place as one of our finest, most underrated actors.

Hotel Rwanda (Terry George): ***

A damning attack on pretty much the whole world for largely ignoring the Rwandan genocides of 1994, which we deserve, but I can't help but think that it would've worked better as an angry newspaper editorial; as a film, it can become tiresome (I especially could've done without the obvious images of Clinton, especially the "Time Man of the Year" one, at big moments), and its political message can overwhelm the personal story it's trying to tell. Still, the story can be quite powerful, especially in Don Cheadle's performance, which finally lets this great character actor carry a film, which he proves more than capable of doing.

Million Dollar Baby (Clint Eastwood): ****

Bests Mystic River in every possible way, at once more subtle and more powerful. As a boxing movie it's one of the best, but it's so much more than that, thanks to its sucker punch of a twist (which you should, if possible, avoid reading about); this is not a movie about boxing but a film about people who just happen to box and about spirituality and fate. It's not quite a masterpiece (the one-dimensional portrayal of Maggie's family is particularly irritiating, if of thematic importance), but the flaws simply serve as distractions from the rest of the film, which is nearly perfect. The three main performances are all amazing, with Eastwood turning in the best work of his career, and almost of the year, Hilary Swank finally proving that her Boys Don't Cry Oscar wasn't a fluke, and Morgan Freeman as the definition of minimalist perfection. The direction shows Eastwood as a man in complete control of the medium, awash in shadows and dark, enhancing the film's noir-ish feel. Stirring, heartbreaking cinema; Swank's sad smile will haunt you for weeks.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (Wes Anderson): ***1/2 [later upgraded to ****]

Ranks up there with I Huckabees as one of the most woefully misinterpreted films of the year. Criticisms of simplicity and a lack of caring are laughably off-base, as The Life Aquatic is easily Anderson's most heartfelt and mature film to date, a perceptive examination of aging gracefully. Did no one catch the scene in which Steve (Bill Murray) suggests that his relationship with Ned (Owen Wilson) be a subplot in his movie? That's not just throwaway nonsense - the Steve/Ned relationship is a poker-faced subplot in The Life Aquatic too, cleverly designed to mask and later magnify this theme, a point many have overlooked. Plenty of other evidence, too, not least of which is the title itself (forcing you to consider the Life Aquatic without Steve Zissou) and the exclusive use of Bowie tunes, but no fair giving it all away; you guys are smart enough to figure it out. I am also at odds with the claims that the film isn't funny, as I found it consistantly hilarious on top of being rather moving, thanks largely due to Murray's funny/sad work, which should (but won't) earn him another Oscar nomination. This is also Anderson's least vigorously visual big-budget work, with an often-shaky camera and less symmetrical (if no less detailed) compositions, which give the film a more direct, personal feel. This movie's great; screw the naysayers.

The Aviator (Martin Scorsese): ***1/2

For the first two hours or so, it's the best film of the year: impeccably directed, thrilling, captivating. But then comes the third hour, and a simplistic trial subplot (featuring an irritatingly one-note performance from Alan Alda), which is the only time Scorsese falls into the trap of minor hero worship. So it's "merely" one of the best films of the year, and it's certainly the finest biopic, as it's the only one willing to fully examine its flawed protagonist. Scorsese remains as masterful a craftsman as ever and Leonardo DiCaprio overcomes his boyish looks to turn in what is quite possibly the finest male performance of the year, a complex, haunting portrayal (this, not Foxx's Ray Charles, is what inhabiting, rather than just imitating, a historical figure looks like, people!). Oh, yeah: Cate Blanchett is wonderfully entertaining, although I occasionally got the impression that I was watching Hepburn as in a movie, rather than as a real person. The Aviator could have - should have - been a masterpiece, but that's an absurd criticism; this is great, epic film-making, and if Scorsese wins a long-overdue Oscar, it won't just be as an apology.

Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events (Brad Silberling): **1/2

It's supposed to be dark, and it is - in theory. But due to the episodic nature of the film, nothing comes together cohesively, so you never get the never the feeling that anything's at stake, and the film never transcends a sort of pseudo-darkness; it's hard to feel afraid for these children when the director is unable to commit to ever making their (ultimately happy) fate unclear. It's a shame, as the series shows promise, particularly with the beautiful art direction and Jim Carrey's manic, Sellers-esque work. Nex time, just get a director willing to take risks, and it could be something great.

Spanglish (James L. Brooks): ***

Another solid, if flawed, success from Brooks. I have problems with some of its statements (Tea Leoni wants to enroll the little girl in an excellent private school? With a full scholarship? That bitch!), and I wish Paz Vega weren't so lionized, but it's still rather compelling and entertaining, largely because of the strong performances and clever dialogue ("Honey, right now your low self-esteem is just good common sense.") I particularly liked the conclusion to the relationship between Adam Sandler (who has never been quieter - or better) and Vega, which is at once sweet and authentic. The final scene is nice too, speaking well about the fears immigrants have of losing their culture upon moving to the United States.

Closer (Mike Nichols): ***1/2

Blistering adaptation of Patrick Marber's play - I walked out of the theater shaken. The acto's are uniformly excellent, although Jude Law and Julia Roberts are overshadowed by Clive Owen and Natalie Portman's electrifying work. The dialogue burns the ears, although it is perhaps too intelligent - rarely have I heard real people talk like this - and the characters occasionally feel like pawns in the director's game; still, this is terrific, stinging film-making. It pulls no punches, and its punches hurt.

Kinsey (Bill Condon): ***

Ultimately interesting, although I have to question whether it's not sort of pointless, as those it attacks are unlikely to see the film at all. At first, the structure of the film seems poised to destroy the this-happened-then-this-happened structure of most biopics (Kinsey's college days are handled in a single sentence, which is awesome), but this is quickly dropped, leaving way for a somewhat dissapointingly straight-forward narrative. Condon, in a misguided attempt to emotionalize the film, has an unfortunate tendency to over-direct, which not even Liam Neeson's quiet performance can overcome. Although pertinent in today's society, the film's connections are made far too obvious ("Homosexuals are not popular now, but there will come a time when this changes." Wink wink), and Kinsey's problems are touched upon but glossed over - and wholly forgiven in a late, stupid scene with Lynn Redgrave. Oh, and what's with this: the sex scenes between Neeson and Laura Linney are fairly explicit, but when Kinsey is seduced by his male assistant (Peter Sarsgaard), we're shown one kiss and it cuts away. It's not like I want to see two men have sex on the big screen, but isn't that just a tad hypocritical, considering the film's ultimate message? It may sound like I'm being a bit hard on it considering the rating, so I'll leave you with this: Laura Linney's performance is just wonderful.

Finding Neverland (Marc Forster): ***

Magical. But it goes on one scene too long, which is actually a big problem; what I most admired about the film was its emotional subtlety - a rarity in Oscar-bait - and that's just blown to hell in the final scene, although not enough to lessen my appreciation of what came before it or Johnny Depp's quiet and touching performance (finally this guy is getting truly recognized). Still, there was hardly a dry eye in the theater by the end, so I guess I'm just a grouch. Man, though - dammit; I would've been crying too, had it stopped at the right place.

The Incredibles (Brad Bird): ***1/2

Really, Pixar - it's almost getting boring. Could you make a movie that is actually less than terrific for once? Not that I'm complaining, of course; The Incredibles is yet another wonderful triumph, and easily the best Pixar film since Toy Story 2 - vibrant, funny, and, best of all, surprisingly mature. The early-film examination of the hero's mid-life crisis is far more ambitious than most animated films' stories, and the ultimate message of the film - that we live in a society in which those who are spectacular are shunned and mediocrity is accepted - is leagues beyond the traditional "love your fellow man" stuff. And when it turns into an action movie, the set pieces are as exciting and visually stimulating as any other this year. True, glorious entertainment.

Primer (Shane Carruth): ****

No, I really have no idea what happens in the last half, but it's still utterly fascinating, compelling, provocative, "the best pure science-fiction movie in like a decade," as Mike D'Angelo put it. Themes of power, trust, relationships, human nature, and probably a number of other stuff that I missed. No concessions are made for the audience's behalf, which could have been irritating but is instead exciting - and logical, as the ramifications of what they've done is mind-boggling to even the creators. Carruth has an eye for composition and detail, and the low-quality film-stock lends the film a gritty and otherworldly look. Any movie with the line "Are you hungry? I haven't eaten since later this afternoon" would be good with me, but Primer is something special.

Birth (Jonathan Glazer): *1/2

Hello, my name is Jonathan Glazer, and I'm a director. My new movie Birth is, quite possibly, the most important movie ever made, and just so everyone realizes it, I have decided to film it in a humorless, melodramatic style so that there is nothing to distract from the message. I will use a score made up of the most dramatic classical music I could find; during important moments, I will crank the volume up to eleven, allowing this to take the place of any distracting overt emotion, although I think Nicole Kidman is trying to sabatoge me by doing some great acting with just her face. Oh, well, I'll punish her by giving her some horrid dialogue to read. Trust me, everything I do is out of respect for the important material, and not at all because I'm pretentious and self-important. Nope. No way. [released Oct. 29, seen Dec. 4]

Ray (Taylor Hackford): **

The good: Jaime Foxx in a strong, if wildly overrated - it's a terrific impersonation, but it lacks depth - performance, amazing musical sequences (the first performance of "What'd I Say" in particular: it's one of the best scenes of the year). The bad: the movie as a whole is tedious, lifeless and sloooooowwwwww - far too much info is crammed into far too little time, and the film still feels about two hours longer than it is. There seem to be flashbacks every thirty seconds or so, at least for the first hour, and this would work better if the flashbacks weren't wholly unecessary and uninteresting (Charles spiraled into depression and drug use as an adult because he watched his brother drown as a child? I would've figured it was because he was blind). Charles is an impressive enough figure to deserve a movie, but did it have to be this one?

Sideways (Alexander Payne): ***1/2

An aching, honest comedy, with a quartet of sublime performances and assured direction from Payne. It may not be the masterpiece some have claimed, but it's still wonderful, and some of the most fun (yes, really) you can have at the movies this year. On the short list of best scenes of the year: Paul Giamatti explains why he loves Pinot Noir wine, and we slowly realize that he's talking about himself. It's hard to find words to say about it, so I won't even bother.

Saw (James Wan): ***

Absolutely stunning crap. Also incredible fun, largely because everyone involved seems to realize just how over-the-top and ridiculous it is, particularly Cary Elwes (a usually reliable character actor), who goes so hilariously crazy in the final act that I am shocked there's anyone who doesn't see it as purposeful. The plot twists are among the most retarded ever, but they are revealed with such demented (read: fake) seriousness that they filled me with some weird kind of joy. Still, some things are just plain awful anyway, Leigh Whannell the actor and Leigh Whannell the writer (actual exchange: "What's your name?" "My name is very fucking confused; what's yours?" "I'm Lawrence. I'm a doctor") in particular. But I liked it - so sue me.

Team America: World Police (Trey Parker): ***1/2

Obvious satire masking a surprisingly somber political statement - summed up in a hilariously vulgar climax - that is actually one of the more reasoned political messages I've seen on film. It ravages the extremists from both sides of the political aisle equally, although both Republicans and Democrats will feel like the most attacked group; anyway, anyone who gets pissed about this film (looking at you, Penn) is sorely lacking a sense of humor. Viciously skewered are big-budget movies, especially in the over-the-top intro and musical score, which contains some brilliant songs (although none up to the level of those in the South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut); standouts include "America! Fuck Yeah!" and the love ballad "Pearl Harbor Sucked and I Miss You." It's also very, very funny (and disgusting and sophomoric and et cetera), if not up to the level of Bigger ....

I Huckabees (David O. Russell): ***1/2

An absolutely stunning balancing act; just about every moment of the film seems right on the edge of collapsing, but it never once does. Many have mistaken the film for proposing or accepting the philisophical nonsense spouted by the film's characters, but that's not the point at all. The film is about the hopelessness of the American citizen post-9/11 and the extraordinarily ridiculous lengths we will go to in order to find happiness or balance in our lives, a point most poignantly summed up by Mark Wahlberg's (amazing) environmentally conscious fireman and - surprisingly - Jude Law's (just as amazing) unscrupulous businessman, although Jason Schwartzman is ostensibly the leading man. The film is definitely brilliant; too bad I'm so much of a pussy that I need a second viewing before changing the rating to a flat four stars.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (Kerry Conrad): ***

Story is positively retarded for the most part, but hey, it's basically a comic book, and the film's fantastic and original visual style - live actors in front of entirely computer-generated objects - more than makes up for the plot and Gwyneth Paltrow's genuinely annoying performance (Jude Law is pretty good). Yeah, using Olivier's image is nothing more than a gimmick, but it's not like the characters piss on his grave, and hell, he's only there for a few seconds. Simple, dumb fun - oh, right, it looks pretty damn cool, too. Did I mention that?

Silver City (John Sayles): ***

Doesn't work as a detective story. Or a romance. Or a mystery. What it does work as is a realistically cynical examination of modern politics and the current administration's environmental policies, as well a showcase for Chris Cooper's pitch-perfect - if surprisingly small - role as Dickie Pilager, a "user friendly" politician who is clearly meant as a stand-in for Dubya himself, although Pilager is just running for governor. The corruption Danny Huston's detective discovers within the campaign seems perfectly reasonable, and the film's assertation that people just don't care about corruption in government any more - leading up to a wonderful, pessimistic conclusion - hits in just the right way at just the right time.

Code 46 (Michael Winterbottom): **1/2

Fascinating if half-formed sci-fi vision (why, exactly, do some people have to live on the "outside," why would having a disease prevent you from being allowed to go to a country in which the citizens were immune to said disease?) sunk by a tepid and uninteresting romance. Good performances from Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton sunk by their absolute lack of chemistry. Solid direction and visual style sunk by a number of awkward and SAMANTHA MORTON'S CROTCH unecessary moments and shots. Terrific and suitably depressing resolution to said romance sunk by the fact that no one gives a damn how it ends.

Napoleon Dynamite (Jared Hess): **1/2

Feels like a good short film expanded into a sub-par feature film, which, it turns out, is exactly what it is. It's incredibly ostentatious, throwing the most bizarre situations and characters possible at the screen, simply expecting us to laugh at how odd everything is. Hess writes and directs like a dropout from the Wes Anderson school of film-making, only he lacks both Anderson's heart and intelligence. He seems to misunderstand that Anderson has affection for his bizarre and often flawed characters; Hess lacks this humanism: Napoleon is impossible to like, and his story is totally uninteresting beyond a "what the fuck" level. I was often too irritated at the film to laugh at it, despite some admittedly funny stuff. One consistant bright spot is Jon Heder, who completely disappears within the title character. He might just be the only significant contribution the film will make.

A Home at the End of the World (Michael Mayer): ***

I have long been a supporter of Colin Farrell, but even this is something I never would have expected of him. As Bobby, the center character of A Home at the End of the World, he abandons his typical brash arrogance for loneliness. It is an astonishing transformation, and an excellent performance. Farrell is ably supported by Robin Wright Penn and Dallas Roberts, both of whom are excellent, but the script ultimately fails him. What is undoubtedly a beautiful novel is adapted into an uneven screenplay that never quite comes together despite some sublime individual scenes. Emotionally and thematically confused, although there's a masterpiece struggling to break out; I can feel it.

Maria Full of Grace (Joshua Marston): ***1/2

"Based on 1,000 true stories" claims the poster, but Maria Full of Grace is not quite like any film I've ever seen. It is so authentic that it often feels like a documentary, and this approach proves incredibly strong; the lack of any melodrama makes the film even more powerful - the authentic display of a mule's responsibilities is among the most harrowing sequences of the year.. Maria (Catalina Sandino Moreno, in a stunning performance) is one of the most fully developed roles of the year; I only wish the rest of the characters were as believable. Still, it's one of the summer's strongest films, and an auspicious debut for director Joshua Marston - the final, hopeful shot is especially heartbreaking.

The Bourne Supremacy (Paul Greengrass): ***1/2

What a terrific franchise this is turning out to be. The studio took a risk by hiring indie director Paul Greengrass, but the choice paid off in spades. By using a jittery handheld camera, the film is given a jarring sense of immediacy; the fight sequences might occasionally be hard to follow, but we feel every punch. Nearly every second of the film is compelling, and the plot is rarely predictable - an early twist genuinely shocked me. It's a little hard to follow sometimes, and there are, of course, some holes, but so what? Damon has proven himself a great action hero, unlike a certain college buddy of his. And say welcome back to Julia Stiles; a scene with Damon cruelly interrogating her, curled up and sobbing in a corner is easily one of my favorites of the year.

I, Robot (Alex Proyas): ***

A fairly smart sci-fi film that occasionally succumbs to Hollywood blockbusterism, what with its over-the-top action sequences and Will Smith doing his smartass hero thing. But it does pose some interesting questions, and the special effects are above and away the best of the year so far. Not nearly as good as Proyas's Dark City, but it's still worth seeing for his astonishing futuristic vision. Also impressive is Alan Tudyk, who, in an Andy Serkis/Gollum-esque performance, makes Sonny - a robot - the most human character in the film.

Before Sunset (Richard Linklater): ***1/2

An undercurrent of darkness underscores this sequel to the magical Before Sunrise, shown most clearly in the boat and car scenes, culminated by an ambiguous and cathartically sudden conclusion. I could've done without all of the sex talk, as their relationship was, to me, never about the physical love, although that's not really a fair complaint about the film itself. When Ethan Hawke angrily cries "Why couldn't you have been there that day?" or when the two break down in the back seat of the car, the effect is heartwrenching; we see that these people, once so young and idealistic, have been scarred and torn by the passage of time. It truly is a shocking change from the happily romantic first film, but anything less would have been a cop-out, unfair to the character's Linklater has so painstakingly constructed. As in the first film, Hawke turns in a terrific performance, but he is outshone by the sublime Julie Delpy, whose sadness is at once quiet and wrenchingly palpable.

Anchorman (Adam McKay): ***

Not especially well-made, but still one of the funniest films of the year, if this is your kind of thing; if it's not, you'll despise it, of course. The plot, involving narcissistic anchor Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell), is more like a series of sketches than a cohesive story, but I really could not care less. Ferrell throws himself into the role with Method-like seriousness, and he establishes himself as one of our finest comic actors, even overshadowing the briliant Steve Carrell, who would have been the standout in any other film. The cameos are pretty excellent too, and, surprisingly, they never seem gratuitous. No deeper meaning here, no sharp examination of gender politics in the news station, but what the hell would you want that for? It's a Will Ferrell movie. Jesus.

De-Lovely (Irwin Winkler): ***

I was not much aquainted with the music of Cole Porter before going into De-Lovely, so I can say beyond a shadow of a doubt that the film is a terrific compilation of his works. Everyone knows the details of Porter's life by now, so there's nothing really new in this warts-and-all portrayal, but his life is interesting enough to make a pretty decent biopic. The music is the selling point, though; you either like his music (or, like me, are interested in it) or you don't. Kevin Kline is so talented it's almost disgusting; he sings badly to match Porter's voice and still sounds decidedly better than most people. Oh, it's also just a terrific performance.

The Clearing (Pieter Jan Brugge): ***

A film I really respect, even if I didn't exactly love it while it was unspooling. It's nice to see a director with the stones to try this sort of thing with a star like Robert Redford. It's refreshing to see Redford play bedraggled, but his performance is surprisingly dull, overshadowed by Willem Dafoe (great, as usual, balancing despicability and pathos with ease) and Helen Mirren. I like the disjointed timeline, which gives the film an indescribably surreal feel; the only problem is that once the viewer figures out the structure, the final twist becomes not much of a twist at all. But it is to the film's credit that even expecting the ending doesn't make it any less ballsy or effective. I didn't quite buy the Redford/Dafoe relationship, which is actually the centerpiece of the film, so it's a testament to the film's conceit and execution that it barely matters.