Ballots for the nominees for the Academy Awards are being mailed out today to eligible voters.
In that spirit, here are this column's choices for the Top 10 movies of 2004. Tomorrow, we'll do supporting actors and actresses, and lead categories on Wednesday.
10. TIE: 'THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE' and 'KILL BILL: VOL. 2'
A sequel (sort of) and a remake. I liked them both — so sue me.
Jonathan Demme is one of our best directors. His remake of "The Manchurian Candidate," originally directed by John Frankenheimer, stood on its own. The film had tremendous performances by Meryl Streep, Denzel Washington and Liev Schreiber.
I did hear a lot of carping comparing it to the original, but Demme's was its own film and a highly entertaining one at that. He added more than he took away and made an old idea relevant again. That's all you could ask for.
As for "Kill Bill: Vol. 2," was it a sequel or a continuation? It doesn't matter. Quentin Tarantino changed pitches from Vol. 1 and made a really spectacular companion piece to the chop-and-slash opener.
Uma Thurman, David Carradine and Michael Madsen all shine, and the cinematography and script are spot-on. More importantly, when the "Kill Bill" films are inevitably reunited, the combined film will be a lasting cult classic.
I can't remember a good small film that was over-hyped as much as "Sideways." It's gotten kind of weird that every film critics' group in every city had to pick this movie as the best of the year. Could they not think of anything else?
It's true that Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor did a great job of adapting a novel, as usual. Previously, the duo tackled "Election" and "About Schmidt."
They have an unerring set of eyes for even the smallest details, and Taylor's script manages to take two possibly very unlikable characters and make them incredibly sympathetic.
The careers of Thomas Haden Church and Virginia Madsen are exhumed and restored as well. But this is a character study, folks. A really good one, but a character study nonetheless. Relax already.
Bill Condon wrote the scripts for "Chicago" and both wrote and directed "Gods and Monsters." His passion for the subject and the main character is abundantly obvious.
Liam Neeson and Laura Linney make the Kinseys come to life with humor and wit. Not since "The Good Mother" with Diane Keaton has Neeson — who somehow cut his own height for this role, as he seems to shrink as "Kinsey" progresses — has gotten so to the heart of a character. And what could be timelier than a discussion of censorship and repression?
Jamie Foxx's portrayal of the late R&B legend Ray Charles put the actor on track for a slew of awards. But there is a lot more to "Ray" than Foxx.
Regina King, for example, as Charles' mistress and backup singe, is superb. I've heard complaints about the film itself, but my only criticism is that the end tag is unnecessary. We know what happened to Ray Charles after the movie ends — thanks.
Otherwise, director Taylor Hackford has made a compelling film, with exciting music sequences, that tells a complicated life story. Now the door is open for films about Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson and Marvin Gaye.
6. 'FAHRENHEIT 9/11'
The story of Lila Lipscomb's conversion from Michigan housewife and mother to anti-war activist resonates even more now than it did then and could be a whole sequel unto itself.
Of course, there's a lot of controversy that follows director Michael Moore everywhere he goes, but ponder this: He gambled against getting an Oscar for the film by giving it away for TV play the night before the presidential elections.
The movie most certainly would have been nominated in the documentary category had he not done this. His consolation is that the DVD continues to sell beyond expectations and remains a consistent hit.
5. 'THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES'
When I saw Walter Salles' wonderful movie about a young Che Guevara, I wrote that it could be a best picture nominee even though it was in Spanish.
I'm still crazy about this underrated film, but Focus Features couldn't seem to make it connect with audiences or now the Academy in a significant way. What a shame.
Salles did a remarkable job, and actors Gael García Bernal and Rodrigo De la Serna could not have been better. Maybe it was the wrong year for the story of a rebel's roots, but "The Motorcycle Diaries" is a keeper.
4. 'HOTEL RWANDA'
Terry George shot parts of this film in Rwanda itself and in Johannesburg, South Africa. It's not like these places have film commissions to pave the way for production companies.
"Hotel Rwanda" is a remarkable accomplishment for this reason alone. It tells the story of the near-annihilation of an entire culture — ignored and soon forgotten after it happened.
This film harkens back to a time when movies were about something other than themselves, like "Missing" and "The Killing Fields," and even "The Year of Living Dangerously" or "The Quiet American."
3. 'FINDING NEVERLAND'
Marc Forster's splendid interpretation of a play about "Peter Pan" author J.M. Barrie was on track as best picture of the year until "The Aviator" and "Million Dollar Baby" came along.
Forster manages to skate around Barrie's questionable interest in young boys and avoid letting his film become a Disney/Dean Jones piece of flubber at the same.
For my money, Johnny Depp gives his most nuanced performance to date, and Kate Winslet is utterly charming. The children seem to have watched a lot of Lasse Hallström — no cheap tricks or scene-chewing. The result is a haunting film that I predict will have a big life on DVD in home libraries.
2. 'MILLION DOLLAR BABY'
Clint Eastwood's two-hour plus drama is a late entry critics' favorite and certainly one of mine. But I wonder how it will play once it's out in the cineplexes.
"Million Dollar Baby" is like the offspring of Karyn Kusama's spare "Girlfight" and "The Shawshank Redemption." Wrenching and unsentimental, the boxing film-turned-tearjerker is always exceptional. When it's over, I don't know if you'll recommend it to anyone, but you will want a stiff drink.
Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman are in top form, but it is Eastwood that I relished the most here. In the last 10 years, he's gone from lone action hero to iconoclastic acting icon. Spouting Yeats, making sacastic remarks and walking as if he doesn't touch the ground, Clint is forever.
But, like "Gangs of New York" and many other intensely fine films, "Million Dollar Baby" is a No. 2 for the year — and there's nothing wrong with that.
1. 'THE AVIATOR'
Two years ago, Miramax tried and tried to make "Gangs of New York" the best picture of the year. It wasn't possible, of course.
"Chicago" won — even over Roman Polanski's "The Pianist" — because grim, gritty films, no matter how brilliantly executed, are not the stuff of a best picture Academy Award.
"The Aviator," like recent winners "The English Patient," "Unforgiven" and "Braveheart," is the kind of sweeping, perfectly realized epic that hits every note right — acting, directing, music, the look.
Leonardo DiCaprio makes playing Howard Hughes look easy and Cate Blanchett and Alan Alda are outstanding. But "The Aviator" is really the sum of all these parts, a gem of a production that should bring director Martin Scorsese his first Oscar.