Although South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone didn't score a critical or commercial home run with their animated satire Team America: World Police in 2004, one of their most notorious earlier creations gives me a convenient template for re-examining the past year's most celebrated cinematic face-off. In my version of Parker and Stone's "Jesus Vs. Santa Claus," Jesus is played, of course, by Mel Gibson and Santa is incarnated by that other fat elf from the far north, Michael Moore. When the two meet eyeball-to-eyeball on Mean Streets, USA, it's clear that the town isn't big enough for both of them, and the ensuing battle royale is down and dirty: Jesus knees Santa in the groin, Santa plants an elbow in Jesus' left eye socket.
Such cartoon antics give us the flavor of a contest that was, in fact, as absurdly incongruous as it was weirdly instructive. Was this really the year when the two most significant movies--though hardly the best--were a pious Biblical epic and a caterwauling political broadside? Yep, it was. And that alone is enough to tell us why Gibson and Moore, if they didn't hate each other before, have reason for eye-gouging and groin shots now: Like it or not, they're heading into the history books forever joined at the waist, like prisoners escaping a chain gang.
As phenomena, The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11 had similarities that far outweighed their ideological differences. Both lit fires on the nation's news and op-ed pages long before they hit the entertainment section. Gibson's film was targeted by the New York Times and its intellectually flatulent columnist Frank Rich for alleged anti-Semitism months before it opened. The campaign was, naturally, a goldmine of catalytic free publicity for Passion, which went on to become one of the most successful movies ever released.
In the case of Moore's film, the news stories began with Disney's craven dumping of Fahrenheit after having financed it, which narrowly preceded news of the movie's winning the Cannes Film Festival's top prize, the Palme d'Or, in May. When it opened in July, the film and the public clamor to see it again provoked further news stories and editorials, and its domestic earnings ended up well north of $100 million, where the previous record for a nonfiction film (Moore's own Bowling for Columbine) was a now measly-seeming $20 million.
(Absurdly, once John Kerry went down in defeat in November, some wounded Democratic pundits laid part of the blame at Moore's feet, suggesting that the contentious documentarian had alienated elements of mainstream America. I can't believe that any accurate study would show that Moore repelled more votes than he attracted. One of the most crucial early rallying points for the huge portion of the public that opposes Bush's fraudulent war on Iraq, Fahrenheit may not have been a great movie but it was an invaluable political event.)
As an object lesson in contemporary popular culture, it's fortunate that one these movies didn't come along without the other, because their similar box-office potency and opposing ideological orientations prove that red-state/blue-state divisions don't explain what puts people in movie seats for movies launched from the news pages. What does explain these twin juggernauts, then?
First, I would suggest, there's a tremendous public hunger for meaning in the post-9/11 world, for art and thought explaining this strange place where history has landed us. Yet most people, no matter what their political convictions, are canny enough to sense that the lion's share of what comes at us through the major media is superficial, pre-packaged, unchallenging corporate pap.
Gibson's and Moore's films, on the other hand, are nothing if not strong statements of personal conviction, ones that exist only because the filmmakers put themselves and their careers on the line to say something they passionately believed in. In that sense, their success must be read in terms of the failure of the media that supplies most of our art and information: Passion was made in defiance of an unwritten Hollywood law prohibiting films that speak of religion; Fahrenheit's very existence indicts the U.S. news media's failure to question the official lies and deceptions that led to the Iraq War.
Together, then, these movies posit cinema as an almost unique arena in the current culturescape: the place where you can get powerful individual truths that are less effectively conveyed in books and magazines, and that seldom are even permitted in the electronic media. Yet lest this make them sound too similar, I should note that the films are also as different as a Billy Graham rally and a Noam Chomsky lecture, or as a Midwestern multiplex and an urban art house. Although it surely oversimplifies to put it this way, they suggest a movie-loving America split into halves that barely speak the same cultural language. One half loves Biblical narrative and declines to question America's misadventure in Iraq. The other holds the president in suspicion but also distrusts any discussion of metaphysics. Can this schism ever be bridged?
The point for now, perhaps, is that such tensions and anomalies only add to the vitality of a medium that's at once populist and elitist, highly individualistic and deeply communal. Thanks partly to the political electricity of 2004, I found a lot to like at the movies during the year; the cream of the crop is noted in the 10-best list below.
For those who follow these lists from year to year, a note about a change in the rules for this year. In the past I've allowed myself to include any movie that I've seen during the previous year, including some viewed at festivals that haven't gone into national distribution yet. Now, partly to bring my Independent list in line with one that I submit to the Village Voice (see www.villagevoice.com/take/six ), I'm only allowing films that opened nationally during the preceding year.
Ten Best for 2004
Million Dollar Baby (Clint Eastwood, USA). This startling, Yeats-quoting fight drama may be the finest film ever from Eastwood, a fascinating if erratic director in the John Ford tradition of gruff, lyrical stoicism. Given that it depends on a crucial narrative twist, you should try to see the film before reading or hearing much about it (it opens in the Triangle in late January). The performances of Eastwood and Hilary Swank are sure Oscar nominees.
The Return (Andrei Zvyagintsev, Russia). As evidenced by recent films including Sokurov's Russian Ark, there are signs of a cinematic renaissance brewing in Russia, one that implicitly repudiates the Soviet past while drawing inspiration from the celluloid mysticism of Andrei Tarkovsky. No work suggests the movement's artistic potential more than this mysterious, allegorical, masterfully mounted tale of a father trying to reconnect with two estranged sons. Easily the year's most impressive debut film.
Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, USA). Catching up with the protagonists of his charming slacker romance Before Sunrise nine years after their one-night epiphany in Vienna, Linklater finds them reconnecting in Paris, older, perhaps wiser but hardly happier. Filmed in real time, this engrossing talkfest is probing, even profound in moments, but what really distinguishes it is the note-perfect synchronization between Linklater and stars Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, all of whom collaborated on the script.
Maria Full of Grace (Joshua Marston, USA). Frustrated with her dead-end romantic life and job de-thorning roses in provincial Colombia, Maria is offered the chance to start anew if she'll act as a "drug mule" smuggling cocaine into New York. Marston, a recent film-school grad, made the year's nerviest wager in mounting his debut film mostly in a foreign country and language. The pay-off is a movie of rare moral conviction, cultural insight and brilliant filmcraft. It surely marks the beginning of a great career.
The Corporation (Jennifer Abbott and Mark Achbar, Canada). The year's smartest and most challenging nonfiction film may scan like a predictable leftist polemic against big business, but its reality is a lot more complex and ideologically uncategorizable. Cleverly employing psychiatric tests showing that the modern corporation fits a psychotic profile, the film uses business organization to ask tough, sobering questions about the entire nature and direction of our technological civilization. Sharply crafted and endlessly thought-provoking.
The Incredibles (Brad Bird, USA). Joining forces with the digital pioneers at Pixar, Iron Giant director Bird, arguably the most gifted animation auteur currently working, turns out a giddy, endlessly delightful comedy-adventure about a family of superheroes. Funny thing: The film's warmth, accessibility, narrative ingenuity and stylistic panache are exactly the qualities that used to distinguish the best live-action studio movies. Is Pixar the MGM of the future?
House of Flying Daggers (Zhang Yimou, China). After years chafing against political constraints imposed by China's repressive government, Zhang (Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lantern) has reinvented himself as a director of plush, international martial arts actioners. While the stilted, overwrought Hero suggested the negative potential of that choice, this superbly orchestrated sophomore effort shows Zhang finding his footing. It's a dazzling display, as graceful and imaginatively assured as a Minnelli musical.
Sideways (Alexander Payne, USA). Following Citizen Ruth, Election and About Schmidt with this droll tale of two buddies on a prenuptial tour of California wine country, Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor have established themselves as this era's pre-eminent masters of intelligently idiosyncratic character comedy. Sure, there's lots to flatter the self-image of wine-sipping boomers here, but the film's greatness lies in its sharp ambivalences and its flawless craft, including terrific performances by Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Sandra Oh and Virginia Madsen.
Mayor of the Sunset Strip (George Hickenlooper, USA). This bittersweet documentary portrait of L.A. scene-meister Rodney Bingenheimer, a deejay and erstwhile nightclub impresario whose pals range from David Bowie to Cher, offers an extraordinarily incisive and moving account of pop culture as ersatz religion. Bingenheimer is the ultimate true-believing devotee, and the ultimate sad sack when pop's tinsel glamour fades. Call it Day of the Locust in disco shoes.
Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry (George Butler, USA). Unfortunately overlooked--or assumed to be a mere infomercial--in the frenzy of the fall presidential campaign, this profile in courage is easily one of the year's best documentaries, comprising a uniquely vivid depiction of an America torn in half by the Vietnam War in the early '70s. Of course, if you were a Kerry supporter it's perhaps best not to watch it now: The might-have-been could break your heart.
A brief list of honorable mentions: Kim Ki-duk's Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter....And Spring, Andre Techine's Strayed, Cedric Kahn's Red Lights, Vincent Gallo's The Brown Bunny, Kevin Spacey's Beyond the Sea, Michael Mann's Collateral, Danny Leiner's Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, Chris Kentis' Open Water, William Arntz, Betsy Chasse and Mark Vicente's What the #$@&! Do We Know?, Jean-Luc Godard's Notre Musique and Shane Carruth's Primer.