After a mid-year slump, Hollywood rebounds

The Monitor's movie critic unveils his list of Top 10 films - an eclectic mix of indie and major studio productions

It's been a middling year for movies. The early months brought commercial products that proved better than expected - "Mean Girls," "Torque," "Walking Tall" - but the warm-weather season was dreadful. The endgame has been uneven, with nice surprises and disappointing ones.

The year's only real trend was the increasing popularity of documentaries. Political ones gained the most visibility, reflecting the hotly contested US presidential election. This trend has already abated - which doesn't mean fewer documentaries will be made, but that filmmakers will return to mostly personal subjects and again have a hard time getting their work shown. In other words, business as usual.

In fiction filmmaking, I was pleased with the number of directors and screenwriters who took chances with quirky, offbeat material - and the number of major stars who took a chance by appearing in them, from Nicole Kidman in "Birth" and "Dogville" to Kevin Bacon in "The Woodsman" and Sean Penn in "The Assassination of Richard Nixon" the latter two of which open later this month.

There were fine big-budget projects as well. Here's my list of the year's 10 best movies, in alphabetical order.

The Assassination of Richard Nixon. The directorial debut of Niels Mueller stars Mr. Penn as a painfully ordinary '70s guy whose inability to do anything right - such as make a living in a decent, interesting way - drives him literally crazy, making him decide to kill the president. The movie has pungent sociological and psychological ideas to express. It also offers one of Penn's best performances ever.

Dogville. He's a little old to be called an enfant terrible, but Danish director Lars von Trier still gets a thrill from expanding our notions of cinema's artistic, emotional, and intellectual possibilities. With a big-name cast and a screenplay hovering between "Our Town" and "No Exit," this English-language epic is a love-it-or-hate-it proposition. I find it the sort of challenge that makes moviegoing worthwhile.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Audacious screenwriter Charlie Kaufman is inventing a whole new kind of movie script, based on the premise that human minds - and their flawed, imprecise ways of communicating with other human minds - are ultimately the most fascinating things in the world. Here the comic-romantic action is expertly directed by Michel Gondry and strikingly acted by Jim Carrey and a superb supporting cast. All this and a title quoting an Alexander Pope poem! May the daring Messrs. Kaufman and Gondry reteam quickly and frequently.

Fahrenheit 9/11. Agree with it or not, you have to admit that Michael Moore's documentary is a phenomenon - the most widely viewed nonfiction film in history, and sure to grip moviegoers long after memories of the 2004 election (which the picture evidently didn't sway) have faded.

Runners-up include the political documentaries "Bush's Brain" the Robert Greenwald projects "Uncovered" and "Outfoxed," and the ingenious movie "The Corporation," plus the show-biz docs "Overnight" and "Mayor of the Sunset Strip."

In the Realms of the Unreal. Focusing on creativity rather than politics, Jessica Yu's documentary explores the life and work of the late Henry Darger, a visionary artist whose seclusion was so complete that he never showed his zillions of art works and superhumongous novel - all about an imaginary war between evil men and an army of little girls who look like little boys - to the people who rented him rooms and supervised his menial jobs. The movie is so unusual that it won't show up in many theaters, so look for it on video if you miss it.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. Some feel this satire on today's "extreme adventure" craze is swamped by its visual gimmicks. Yes, the animated fish is a bit much, and I keep expecting to get tired of Bill Murray's trademarked sighs and shrugs. Wes Anderson has never before done such consistently ingenious directing, though, and Mr. Murray simply shines. So does the rest of the expertly chosen cast, whose delicately etched characters give the movie all the humanity it needs. Dive in.

Million Dollar Baby. You don't have to like boxing for this richly filmed drama to impress you. Hilary Swank is perfect as an aspiring prizefighter, and Clint Eastwood gives the deepest performance of his long, long career as the aging curmudgeon who agrees to train her. The movie also stands with "Bird" and "Mystic River" among Mr. Eastwood's best pictures as a director. Both triumphant and tragic, it gives "Raging Bull" and "Fat City" a worthy competitor at last.

Notre Musique. This intellectually dense voyage through a real-world inferno, purgatory, and heaven is far and away the finest film of 2004, but putting it on a top-10 list is like naming "Ulysses" alongside a gaggle of merely well-written novels. French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard is perhaps the only living director whose name can be plausibly uttered in the same breath as James Joyce's, which is a measure of his new movie's greatness.

The Saddest Music in the World. A wealthy woman sponsors a contest to discover which country can produce the most melancholy music. If that premise sounds odd, it's downright prosaic compared with Guy Maddin's filmmaking style, which serves up a new artistic idea with almost every shot. Runner-up: "Cowards Bend the Knee," an antic visit to the sporting world as only Mr. Maddin could portray it.

Sideways. Everyone seems to agree that this bittersweet comedy-romance, directed by Alexander Payne from a screenplay he wrote with regular partner Jim Taylor, is an all-around beauty, from its story (lovelorn English teacher travels through California vineyard country with insensitive college friend) to its exquisite acting.

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