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The International Writers Magazine
: 2004 Film Overview

A totally incomplete film review of 2004
Sam North

A few films stand out in any one year. These are they and I apologise if I do not mention one you might hold dear. One doesn't always remember everything, especially if one tends to see one or two movies a week. Nevertheless this is what it says it is, an incomplete review of the stand-outs of the year so far.

The year began with Mean Girls Directed by Mark Waters starring Lindsay Lohan and Rachel McAdams and it was perfectly pitched at the superficial life kids lead in school now riddled with petty jealousies, harsh decisions and wonderful put downs. It was at least a film that was pretty reflective of the title and if tamer than Heathers, at least heads in the right direction.

From Asia - somewhat later than everyone else, I caught up with Infernal Affairs from Hong Kong directed by Wai Keung Lau and Siu Fai Mak starring Tony Leung and Andy Lau (and somehow totally missed Infernal Affairs 2). Number one was tough, taut and everything you expect of a HK police thriller, without the John Woo balletics, which have become a little tired of late. Hero was a visual treat from Zhang Yimou of course, but it did not engage my heart. Perhaps it is hard to have empathy with the endless telling of the same story from differing perspectives. Nevertheless, although the two films are starkly different but both speak volumes about the enormous amount of cinematic talent there is in China with much more to come. The House of Flying Daggers being next on my list as is the follow up to Wong Kar Wai’s ‘In the Mood for Love 2046 - long awaited in the UK now. (It was delayed by the SARS epidemic in 2003). We now look forward to Miyazaki's Howl's Castle already a major hit in Japan.

In 2003 there was Bellville Rendezvous (From Belgium/Canada/France) and Spirited Away (from Japan). This year my treat was Steamboy by Katsuhiro Otomo the first film feature release from Otomo since the astonishing AKIRA. I reserve judgement because I saw it in Japanese with French sub-titles, but suffice it to say, when it comes out with English subtitles I’ll be there. I can say it is a total visual treat but there seems to be at base a scientific flaw in that he confuses the power of compressed steam with that of atomic power. But hey, my French is who knows.

Steamboy tells the story of a young English inventor living at the start of the steam age and his hero Robert Louis Stevenson. There are evil industrialists trying to enlist steam for their own ends and start a world war and a mysterious ‘Steamball ’ that can power magnificent weapons (Not unlike atomic power and er well scientifically wrong but what the hell the drawings of 1850 England are amazing and have a clear visual understanding of 19th Century Britain.
My only disappointment is that there is no English animation equivalent at all, now or in the future. Whatever the plot, seek Steamboy out when it comes near you.

I think this is the key here. I spend ages waiting for a film to arrive. The UK is practically the last place on earth, even after Afghanistan to see new films. Want to see new independent or foreign films and you have to go to London or Paris to see them or else wait even longer for the DVD, if it appears at all. To enjoy film you have to be active and be prepared to drive long distance.

One I did catch early in Vancouver was the wonderful Garden State directed by Zach Braff, starring himself and Natalie Portman. Funny, original and bleak, it is a perfect antidote to the anodyne stuff normally emanating from Hollywood right now. Zach had a real struggle raising the funds, had to cut his budget from 6 million to 2.5 but for a first film, it is just so dry and so well observed. Zach wrote Natalie’s role for her (using her character from Beautiful Girls) it fits like a glove and she excels as the kooky girl he meets back home when attending his mother’s funeral. This is exactly why cinema exists, to surprise, entertain and show us something new. (Opens in the UK December 04)

Similarly I Heart Huckabees catches people off guard. A man who goes to see existential detectives to solve the crimes in his head…coincidences that seem to be totally random?
This is a film by David O Russell who directed Three Kings. (Which wasn’t a film I enjoyed and from the sound of it, Russell didn’t much enjoy making it). Here in Huckabees he gets to be himself as a director and although I understand it has alienated everyone between New York and LA – that red bit that voted for ‘moral values’, Huckabees is a gem. Hilarious, thoughtful, earnest, wacky filled with enormously eccentric performances from Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin, Jude Law, Mark Wahlberg, Naomi Watts, Jason Schwartzman and Isabelle Huppert (who has wandered belatedly off set from Hal Hartley’s ‘Amateur’). This is closest to the promise that cinema was going to change when Being John Malkovitch came out in 99/00 and before that with Hal Hartley himself, who seems to have disappeared off the map since Henry Fool. (I beleive he has a sci-fi film at Sundance in '05 called The Girl from Monday staring Tatiana Abracos.)

Another American Indie comedy that really surprises is Napoleon Dynamite directed by Jared Hess. This film just won’t go away and is a success because young cinemagoers recognise the nerd in themselves and in their lives. Napoleon is cruelly funny and yet stuns it’s victims with the sheer utter stupidity of small town life and the petty ambitions of his family and those around him. Jon Heder as Napoleon may find he is trapped by this role for some time. It too is due to open int he UK soon and I am sure it will find a loyal audience very quickly.

Before Sunset is another that stands out. You will have had to see Before Sunrise of course, also by Richard Linklater with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, but this one was different. Much more the woman’s film. How ‘the what might have been’ affected her life choices after their first meeting 9 years before. He wrote a book about ‘what might have been’, she lived a life of regret in Paris and the passion and anger that tumbles out of her mouth for the 90 minutes of real time is quite affecting and feels genuine. I know, I took my niece and she cried, so it stirred the wounds in her heart.
You are probably saying, well where’s De-Lovely or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or King Arthur, or even Shrek 2…all interesting films. Only one of which had Keira Knightly in it, but, aside from Shrek 2, which was genuinely funny, they just haven’t lingered. They haven’t connected, for whatever reason. Of course I didn’t see The Butterfly Effect until 2004, so that counts and I still rate it as the most satisfying and thoughtful films about time travel made in a very long time. Certainly worth seeing on DVD. As is Pieces of April another 2003 film that was only released at Christmas last year. So now I am left waiting for Jeunet’s new film ‘A very long engagement’ starring Audrey Tatou, Gaspard Ulliel and Dominique Pinon that is making box-office records in France, much like his wonderful Amelie did in 2001.

Meanwhile The Incredibles has opened world wide and what an amazing film. Fully deserving of its success. Here at last is a super-hero movie that adults can get their teeth into. Cynical, wise, filled with flawed characters who just can't understand why they have been contrained from 'doing good' by the American legal system. Who have to hide their special talents, because in PC America everyone is special. The wonderful retro style, complete with 60's open plan housing (shades of The Right Stuff) is perfectly captured as the family go into exile in the 'burbs and have to conform. The kid, Dash is not even allowed to compete in sports because he might 'win'. Elastic girl (Holly Hunter) is now a housewife spurning her remarkable powers of 'stretch' and has taught her children to be 'normal' even fear showing their talents.
When Mr Incredible (Craig T Nelson) does escape his ordeal as punch-bag for the insurance industry (with a pedantic Wallace Shawn boss) he doesn't realise until too late that he is being 'tested' by the evil 'Buddy', a smart kid whose help he once spurned. Now he has to take on the evil adult Buddy on his own turf, a remote Dr No island filled with high-tech gadgets and rockets. The film is actually more thrilling than the average Bond movie (even with the same plot) and as I was watching this I was quite tense. That's real success in an animation film, ok CGI film. The super-family unit wins out in the end of course, but it is great watching the young Violet blossom from super weed to ultra confident teen.
Buddy Pine aka Jason Lee

Brad Bird, the director and writer also gave us the much neglected Iron Giant. Seek it out and watch it. You will be equally amazed. Long may Pixar survive.

I must add that Polar Express Directed by Robert Zemekis, which is still out there in your cinemas does not deserve the bad press. If you want to take a kid to the movies I cannot think of a better more delightful Christmas movie that this. OK the animation is a bit creepy but you get used to it and Tom Hanks does a good job with all the voices. It is absolutely stunning and the train journey, which is the bulk of the movie is exciting and a real treat. Find a kid who doubts there is a Father Christmas and go, you will be happily surprised and so will they.

Meanwhile we await 'Closer' and Howls Moving Castle...
Natalie Portman is 'Closer'

© Sam North Dec 14th 2004
editor at

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