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Zombies, superheroes, and sex, drugs, and R&B: 2004 was a fun year at the movies, if nowhere else. Typical Hollywood escapism? Not exactly. The big screen was often a very serious place, too, overrun by the furious filmic politicking that kicked off with June’s Fahrenheit 9/11—and continued all the way through this month’s too-little-too-late WMD: Weapons of Mass Deception—and dotted with sobering fare from Important Directors such as Mike Leigh (Vera Drake), Mike Nichols (Closer), and Jean-Luc Godard (Notre Musique). Hell, even Kevin Smith got reflective—if not quite fully lucid—with the daddy-daughter meditation Jersey Girl.
But this year, many of the most winning films were also the most concerned with transmitting those classic lights-go-down pleasures of outsized characters, how’d-they-do-that? visuals, and big ol’ belly laughs. And the most winning of those proved that none of the above preclude thoughtfulness—or, for that matter, thinkiness. In fact, geeks of all persuasions were especially rewarded: Whether your jones is horror, comics, music, or even science, 2004 provided viewing that was entertainingly brainy, slyly silly, or, in the case of a few documentaries and biopics, thrillingly persuasive in the portrayal of folks with passions just as focused as yours.
And, oh yeah, the ’70s came back, too.
For those who love being entertained but hate being pandered to, here are the 10 best movies that showed me a good time in 2004, in alphabetical order:
Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy Bad suits and worse hair may be requisite when making a movie about a sexist ’70s news team, but to leave it at that would be too easy. Will Ferrell and co-writer and director Adam McKay loaded their movie with inspired cameos (Tim Robbins as an Afro’d public-broadcasting anchor), bizarre one-liners (“I want to be on you”), and the pop-cultural dregs of the decade (“Afternoon Delight”) to ensure that this seemingly one-joke comedy didn’t go the way of so many supersized SNL skits.
Hellboy Hellboy will grudgingly leave his nachos and TV to help out mankind, but with worries about overtaxed muscles and a mantra of “Aw, crap,” this slow-aging superhero has the attitude of the senior citizen he actually is. Writer-director Guillermo del Toro and co-scripter Peter Briggs—not to mention a surprisingly non-Beastly Ron Perlman—bring to cantankerous life a comic-book character who’s more depressed about his girlfriend than the sorry state of the world.
Kinsey Bill Condon’s biopic of Alfred Kinsey, author of 1948’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, neither dumbs down nor sexes up the bedroom revolutionary’s unflagging nerdiness as he interrogated Americans about what they do to whom and how often. But that doesn’t mean Kinsey doesn’t practice what its subject preached: Rarely has such a high-minded script been such filthy fun.
Primer Attractive, funny, and smarter than you or I, the nerds in Primer could easily score as often as Kinsey but are too busy time-traveling to think about girls. First-time writer-director Shane Carruth makes a scientific Memento whose curious garage projects and flurries of smart talk will make you want to go back to school—or at least see the movie again.
Ray Released just months after Ray Charles’ death, Taylor Hackford’s biopic of the “blind ’Bama boy” who helped invent soul music is a triumph for both its warts-and-all story line and the jaw-dropping performance of its star, Jamie Foxx. Between Foxx’s transformation and Charles’ rump-shakin’ repertoire, Ray could turn casual fans of the man or his music into lifelong devotees.
Shaun of the Dead Hungover Brits fight the undead with dull cutlery and bad records as they slowly realize that their own lives are nearly as zombielike. Writer-director Edgar Wright and co-scripter Simon Pegg pay homage to the Romero trilogy with a dry English spin and a fresh social moral—neither of which rules out realistic corpses, genuine frights, or a character’s getting his guts ripped out in graphic old-school style.
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow First-time writer-director Kerry Conran’s set-free marvel may be based on ’30s movie serials, but it resembles nothing more than a comic book come to life. Using only computers and his imagination, Conran offers a sepia-toned and soft-edged art-deco cityscape where both pitching zeppelins and giant droids seem right at home. The story may not always crackle in step with the noirish look, but you’ll be too dazzled to care.
Spider-Man 2 Another case of the superhero blues: Peter Parker realizes that a dual life can mean double the disappointment as his moonlighting responsibilities get the always-late Peter labeled a screw-up and have Spidey losing his web-slinging touch. By turns elegant, insightful, and Evil Dead–wicked, Sam Raimi’s sequel was one of the most well-rounded movies to munch summer popcorn to.
Starsky & Hutch Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson are shaggy, sweatered, and fuzz-fabulous as they play ’70s cops who are best buddies—albeit the kind who serenade each other with “Don’t Give Up on Us.” This being a more manly era, however, the duo has to remain delightfully conflicted. Even when making up after a fight, Starsky denies the tears that Hutch assures him are healthy: “It’s great, but I’m not crying. I’m not a crier. I don’t cry. I work out.”
Super Size Me Director Morgan Spurlock turns his liver into “pâté” as he eats nothing but McDonald’s for 30 days in this informative and often funny crusade against the fast-food industry. As he considers the roles of both personal and corporate responsibility in the country’s obesity epidemic, Spurlock offers loads of statistics, expert opinions, and updates on his own worsening health. Even better, while discussing why most children equate fast food with playgrounds and treats, he says, “That’s why, when I have kids, every time I drive by a fast-food restaurant I’m gonna punch them in the face.”
Honorable mentions go to Baadasssss!, Dawn of the Dead, Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, Fade to Black, The Incredibles, Ocean’s Twelve, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, and 13 Going on 30, all of which also added some cinematic fun to the year—and weren’t nearly as dumb as Catwoman.CP