View from the couch - the best of 2004
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Date: 21 December, 2004

Shaun of the Dead

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'Captivating and enchanting, a sophisticated and mature look at relationships which offers more wisdom than all the other romance movies of the year put together.'

Steve Couch reviews his choice of the best film releases on DVD for 2004.

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OK, here are the rules: no box sets, no TV shows, just a personal selection of the best new films released on DVD over the year. Any of these would make great last minute stocking fillers, or bargains to look out for in the January sales.

Best children's movie: Finding Nemo
Certificate 15

Pixar does it again, knocking Shrek 2 effortlessly aside with this funny, heartwarming tale of a little lost fish and his Daddy’s quest to find him.

Best animated movie: Spirited Away

Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece. Beautifully animated, with a mature wisdom at play in the unfolding story of a little girl who gets lost in a strange, enchanted spirit world. Available with subtitles or with a dubbed English soundtrack, both of which work well

Best teen movie: Mean Girls

An outsider’s perspective on the mean streets of high school life. Some astute observations on the seductive power of popularity; nicely drawn characters who manage to transcend their stereotypes; and plenty of laughs along the way. Easily overlooked, but much better than you might expect.

Best romantic comedy: 50 First Dates

Barrymore plays Lucy, who has lost the ability to make new memories, so Sandler has to woo her all over again every day. The chemistry between the two turns this from a formulaic rom-com into something truly enchanting. And Barrymore’s response when she thinks Sandler is being mugged is a contender for the single funniest scene to be committed to DVD this year.

Best music-related movie: School of Rock

Jack Black runs riot as the down-on-his-luck would-be rock star. Sacked by his band, he blags his way into a school and soon realises that his pupils have the makings of a kick-ass heavy rock group. So far, so formulaic, but Black’s distinct charms coupled with a sharp script and some of the least annoying kids in the history of cinema raise this well above expectations. A must for rock fans, well worth watching for everyone else.

Best Comedy: Shaun of the Dead

A must for fans of Zombie movies (which, by the way, I’m not) but deservedly found a wider audience. The whole film is played for laughs, but there is also time for Simon Pegg’s likeable everyman to re-examine his priorities and direction in life. Not for anyone who isn’t comfortable with comedy gore-splattering, but fans of Pegg’s TV show Spaced will adore this film. The best extras package in a film that doesn’t feature hobbits too. As I said, I’m not part of the core audience for Zombie features, but I loved every second of this.

Best love story: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

A film unlike anything else this year, despite the loss-of-memory parallels with 50 First Dates. Jim Carrey has never been better, and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman adds emotional punch to his trademark intelligent weirdness. A strong contender for film of the year.

Best action movie: Spider-Man 2

The Spider-Man franchise quite simply puts all the other superhero adaptations to shame. Director Sam Raimi’s roots in schlock horror are put to good use as new villain Doc Octopus cuts loose, and the tortured romance between Tobey Maquire’s Spidy and Kirsten Dunst’s Mary-Jane ensures a genuine emotional weight to go with all the special effects and fight scenes.

Best sci-fi/fantasy: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Excellent, whether you go for the just-released extended version (now weighing in at a whopping four hours, but well worth the investment of time) or the original theatrical cut. If you’ve got the previous two Lord of the Rings films, this is an essential purchase. The extended version has the best extras package you can expect to find on any DVD this year too.

Best non-romantic friendship movie: Lost In Translation

A strong field in this often sparsely populated category. honourable mentions go to Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World and The Station Agent, but Lost In Translation is an outstanding film which isn't afraid to strike out on its own stylistically. Not everybody’s cup of tea, but don't be surprised if you see this film cropping up on several 'best movies of all time' lists in years to come.

Best un-feelgood movie: Mystic River

Clint Eastwood directs the deserving Oscar winners Sean Penn and Tim Robbins (and the ungarlanded Kevin Bacon, who more than holds his own alongside his more decorated colleagues) in this unflinching portrayal of lives marred by the past. The world we are shown is one without hope, but the journey is captivating.

Most unfairly underrated: Jersey Girl

I’ve banged the Matrix Reloaded / Revolutions drum quite enough this year, so for this category let me offer up this Kevin Smith romantic comedy for your reconsideration. Jersey Girl suffered from featuring Ben Affleck (starring) and Jennifer Lopez (supporting role, only in it for the first 15 minutes or so) and being released shortly after the ill-fated couple’s ghastly Gigli. Everything about this is better than that notorious flop. This isn’t one of the best films of the year, but it is a perfectly good film that deserved a lot better.

Biggest Christmas Turkey: Van Helsing

The single reason why Hugh Jackman (whose strives manfully to lift this woeful material) won’t be the next Bond. A risible plot, liberally sprinkled with holes; laughable supporting characters and a Dracula that fails to rise above parody. The level of the film is summed up by the fact that our first shot of Kate Beckinsale is of her tightly-clad bottom. This is simply dreadful (although entertainingly so if you’re in the right mood). Even worse than The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Save your money.

Top five films on DVD for 2004

1. Shaun of the Dead - So good that it even beats Return of the King. Without such a good package of extras, this would still be a contender, with them it leaves the rest limping along like so many reanimated corpses.

2. Return of the King - Peter Jackson saved the best till last in his trilogy of Tolkien adaptations. Kept off the number one spot in this list mainly because some people will be put off by the length. But this is a brilliant final instalment in a spectacular adaptation of the book that they always said was unfilmable.

3. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind - Captivating and enchanting, a sophisticated and mature look at relationships which offers more wisdom than all the other romance movies of the year put together.

4. Big Fish - A film that doesn’t feature in any of the above categories, partly because I wasn’t sure where to put it. But a fascinating story of an inveterate liar (with Ewan McGregor in sprightly form as the young alter-ego of the teller or tall tales) which asks questions about identity, truth and the bond between father and son. This is up there with the best of director Tim Burton’s work.

5. Spider-Man 2 - Proof that sequels aren’t always a disappointment, that franchises can result in great films, and that blockbusters don’t have to be all style and no substance.

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