December 30, 2004,
The problem with top-ten lists, to which I confess my own shameful seasonal addiction, is not just how arbitrary they often seem. It is rather that they tell us so little about the year on screen and its cultural significance. This is especially true this year, the year of The Passion of the Christ, which generated more debate than any film in recent memory and became a box-office smash hit, the highest grossing R-rated film ever. Yet because critics harbor one or another objection to it, the film has made precious few top-ten lists. Thus the most remarkable event in the film industry, not just this year, but in many, many years has been utterly neglected in the evanescent litany of yearís-best lists.
Of course, The Passion was not the only film worthy of note in the past year, a year that might be described as the year of the successful sequel. After years of sequels that failed to live up to standards set by their originators, this year witnessed a number of fine follow-up films: Spiderman 2, Shrek 2, Princess Diaries 2, and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. We pass over in silence such desultory fare as Scooby Doo 2 and Agent Cody Banks 2, about which there never were any expectations.
The Spiderman and Potter industries continue to combine entertaining, family-friendly stories with illustrations of the sacrifices and virtues of ordinary folks confronted with evils to which they must respond. The theme of excellence in the midst of the leveling tendencies of democratic social mores was humorously portrayed in the best animated feature of the year, Brad Birdís The Incredibles, a film that succeeded despite concluding segments far too reminiscent of the directorís previous film, The Iron Giant, and the plot of any number of Spykids films.
Heroism was also on display in Miracle, the crowd-pleasing story of the 1980 U.S. Hockey Olympic upset of the Soviets. Miracle was far more entertaining than another sports film, Friday Night Lights, a critically acclaimed film about small-town Texas high-school football that was thoroughly unpleasant to watch, in part because of its overly sophisticated and ultimately nauseating camera work, with an incessantly moving camera bent on relentless tight shots of every scene. The real problem with the film is that it features characters whose idolatry of high-school football is so perverse that you simply lose interest in them and the story.
In the realm of foreign films, it is becoming increasingly clear that the young talent and creative vitality, now apparently gone from traditional European film making powers of France and Italy, are to be found in Asian films and some Spanish-language films. In addition to Yimouís films, Japanese horror films continue to exercise an influence on the American market. Imitating the success of The Ring (an American remake of the Japanese film Ringu), The Grudge, starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, was another successful remake of a Japanese film, Ju-On, a very fine horror film just released in America on DVD. These Japanese films have not forgotten that the primary task of a horror film is to provide good scares and to immerse viewers in a credible universe of other-worldly malevolence. Another captivating and subtle horror film is this yearís Italian movie Iím Not Scared. (The low-budget Open Water provided the best scares in an American film.)
American films continued to exhibit stylistic sophistication equal to the best foreign films. A sign of this is the enduring influence of film noir, whose style permeated the most visually arresting movie of the year, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, a film with a promising start that dissolves into four or five different genres. The noir influence could also be felt in The Manchurian Candidate remake and especially in the surprisingly strong, Collateral, a film that managed to turn Tom Cruise into an actor whose role for once eclipsed his cloying personality.
Much more could be said about this year in film, particularly about the way critics continue to fawn over relationship films that are either pretentious (Before Sunset) or perverse (Closer and We Donít Live Here Anymore) and how one film, Sideways, managed to transcend the clichťs of the relationship genre, but Iíve already made that argument on NRO.
But these are all minor cultural stories compared to the event that was Gibsonís The Passion. The only film story even to approximate its magnitude was the uproar surrounding Fahrenheit 9/11. (The Day After Tomorrow opened strong at the box office but its weird science failed to generate the national conversation about global warming its backers predicted.) Fahrenheit has some moments of humor and effective satire, but the overall effect is marred by Mooreís habit of pandering to the American weakness for unsubstantiated conspiracy and narcissistic insistence on making himself the hero of his own documentary.
It is interesting to note that, in contrast to The Passion, Fahrenheit 9/11, although controversial, has not been ignored on top-ten lists. The disparity says something important about The Passion, which concerns its incommensurability with almost all other films. Indeed, it resists being reduced to a mere film, something that can be encountered at a distance for a few hours in a dark theater. At every turn, it forces upon viewers the deeply counter-cultural question of whether this man is who he says he is.
Thomas Hibbs, an NRO contributor, is author of Shows About Nothing.