Films of the year
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Date: 22 December, 2004


'In selecting them I have also sought to highlight quality movies big or small that had something to say to all of us.'

Catherine von Ruhland offers us her choice of the best films of 2004

It's been said that everybody in the audience sees a different film. We bring our own experiences, emotions, sensibilities to the cinema and that will determine to a certain extent what speaks to us.

So I make no apologies that what follows are my favourite films of the year. But in selecting them I have also sought to highlight quality movies big or small that had something to say to all of us.

Cold Mountain (15)
British director Anthony Mingella's American Civil War drama, released on the cusp of the New Year worked on so many levels.  Beautiful to look at, its themes of journeying, growth, self-sacrifice and new life as Jude Law's AWOL soldier struggled the miles home to Nicole Kidman brought depth to a simple love story. The final feast proved transcendent.
Since Otar Left (15)
Three generation of women left behind in fading post-Soviet Georgia by the titular Otar's sojourn to France, struggled in his wake. One of a gamut of quality pictures (Uzak, The Return, Vodka Lemon) that recorded the plight of Eastern European families rent asunder by economic migration.
My Architect (PG)
In a year where documentaries emphasised a strong social concern (Fahrenheit 9/11, Supersize Me, The Corporation), Nathaniel Kahn's account of his search for his long dead architect father provided an intimate contrast. A Bengali architect's gratefulness for the democracy enshrined in Kahn Senior's fortress-like parliament building in Dhaka movingly captured what great design can mean.
The Motorcycle Diaries (15)
The Latin American film renaissance continued apace with Walter Salles' road movie based on Che Guevara's youthful opus. Gael Garcia Bernal shone as the laddish medical student gaining political and social consciousness the deeper he and his mate cut across the continent.
The Story of the Weeping Camel (U)
A magical children's fable that Pixar could never hope to conjure up, this documentary-style tale (it included the filmed birth of a main cast member) focused on nomadic life in the sandblasted Gobi desert.  Audience members held their breath with the tribespeople on screen as music, ritual, and faith merged in the yearning for a camel to bond with her neglected, starving calf.
Zatoichi (18)
As bloody with choreography and SFX as Kill Bill and with a glorious ending more transcendent than The Passion of the Christ could muster, director Takeshi Kitano was iconic as the blind warrior wandering the foothills like a Japanese 'Man With No Name'.  The spectacular finale which had the entire cast hoofing it was both a joyful bit of fun - and a thrilling, redemptive comment on all the bloodletting and pain that had gone before.
Carandisu (15)
The crowded, oppressive and violent culture of a notorious Sao Paolo jail had a light shone into it by the arrival of a young doctor and his compassionate ways. Gritty and raw in the manner of Amores Perros and City of God, there was a deep humanity expressed as the facelessness of the prison masses was peeled away and individuals with needs and broken dreams emerged.
Pieces of April
Katie Holmes was April, the punky black sheep sponging off her downtown apartment block neighbours for an oven big enough to cook the Thanksgiving turkey before her family arrived; Patricia Clarkson was mon, worn down with terminal cancer but still trying to keep things light in the car over. This was a warm, tender ensemble piece that sought togetherness over difference.
My Life Without Me
A young mother learns she is soon to die - and realises she has barely lived. Without telling her loved ones, she makes a list of 'Things To do' - and soon realises that the most important thing is to prepare the ground for her husband and small children after she's gone. What could have been a small, sad film about death turned out to have a big heart and be truly life-affirming.
21 Grams (15)
Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, and Benicio del Toro lives entwined for better or worse after their fates collided in a car smash. The weight of the human soul (21g is how much the body loses at death) was puny, its salvation or destruction dependent on a right or wrong choice at any given moment. Director Alejandro Inarrito claimed that here we had a never-ending cycle of people being saved then damned.  But in fact the film's 'God's-eye view' of interconnecting lives presented largely hopeful conclusions even while there was trouble ahead.

Honourable mentions

Eerie morality tale Dogma had an abused Nicole Kidman primed for vengeance at its hub. Chalk marks on the floor instead of a set made it a town with no walls or barriers.

Elephant was Gus van Sant's chilly matter-of-fact reworking of a Columbine School-style massacre shot from different points of view.

Charming fiction Kitchen Stories showed the impact of a Norwegian Good Housekeeping-style survey on small town batchelor life.

Japanese Story packed a quiet emotional punch as geologist Toni Colette bonded with her foreign colleague deep in the Australian outback.

Ships that had once passed in the night ten years before in After Sunrise crossed paths again in Before Sunset  What made Richard Linklater's philosophical Parisian promenade especially involving was how much real life had etched itself on stars Ethan Hawke's and julie Delpy's looks in the meantime.

Jim Carrey is best when he plays it straight. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was a technicolour paen to both personal memory and the shared cultural history which shapes us.

The Station Agent captured the unspoken bonds of friendship.

I'm Not Scared portrayed a terrifying adult world far beyond any imaginary horrors created by the young boy who stumbles across a kidnapped child his own age in a pit in rural Italy.

Osama, Afghanistan's first post-Taliban release took a girl's eye view of oppression.

Documentary Bus 174 was a tragic recording of a desperate streetkid's last stand when he hijacked a bus in Rio de Janeiro.

Blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow made meteorology look cool as the geeks inherited the earth (well, what was left of it..) while Spiderman 2 have a frail, human spin to Tobey Maquire's web action.

Charming Buddhist meditation Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter And... Spring followed a monk's cyclical journey through life.

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