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The 10 best films of 2004

CNN.com's intrepid reviewer makes his list

By Paul Clinton
For CNN.com


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"Finding Neverland" stars Johnny Depp, center, and Kate Winslet.
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Che Guevara
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(CNN) -- Amid all the big hits, sequels and comic-book-inspired capers, one trend ruled the year: the biography film.

From singer Ray Charles to billionaire Howard Hughes to Dr. Alfred Kinsey, the lives of some extraordinary people were saluted in celluloid. And now I'll salute them as well: five of my top 10 films for 2004 are biopics.

Starting with those five -- and in no particular order -- here are my 10 best movies of the year.

  • "Finding Neverland"
    Directed by Marc Forster; starring Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, Julie Christie, Dustin Hoffman and Freddie Highmore
  • "Finding Neverland," a whimsical tale exploring how Scottish playwright J.M. Barrie created his greatest work, "Peter Pan," is deeply touching without being overly sentimental. Barrie -- here played by Johnny Depp -- supposedly based "Peter Pan" on Peter Llewelyn Davis, the youngest son of a beautiful widow (a luminous Kate Winslet). Young Freddie Highmore will break your heart with his performance as Peter. Dustin Hoffman and Julie Christie also deliver wonderfully in supporting roles. The film is a delightful blend of magic, humor and human redemption. Bring plenty of tissues. (See full review.)

  • "Ray"
    Directed by Taylor Hackford; starring Jamie Foxx, Regina King, Curtis Armstrong and Richard Schiff
  • In an incredible performance, Jamie Foxx seems to become Ray Charles in Taylor Hackford's marvelous biography of the late, great musician. The actor literally glued his eyes shut for up to 14 hours a day to play the blind performer, and with every movement of his head and spring in his step he breathes life into this story of an American icon -- and doesn't shy away from its harder edges, either. "Ray" will break your heart -- and make it brim with joy. (See full review.)

  • "Kinsey"
    Directed by Bill Condon; starring Liam Neeson, Laura Linney, Chris O'Donnell, Peter Sarsgaard, Timothy Hutton, John Lithgow, Tim Curry and Oliver Platt
  • This brilliant film is a brutally honest, but nonjudgmental, look at a man who changed forever the way the American public viewed sex. Liam Neeson delivers a stunning performance in the title role, and Laura Linney is equally amazing as his wife Clara. But it's Peter Sarsgaard who steals the show, playing the bisexual researcher Clyde Martin, who had affairs with both Kinsey and his wife. Kinsey's findings are still at the center of a raging debate in today's society over what is moral or immoral regarding s-e-x, and "Kinsey" is well worth both your time and your money. (See full review.)

  • "The Aviator"
    Directed by Martin Scorsese; starring Leonardo DeCaprio, Cate Blanchett, Kate Beckinsale, Alan Alda, John C. Reilly and Alec Baldwin
  • story.scorsese.jpg
    Martin Scorsese directs Leonardo DiCaprio in "The Aviator."

    The Oscars aren't for two months, but "The Aviator" gets my vote for the best film of the year, best director, best actor and best supporting actress. It's the perfect meeting of talent and material: Who better than Martin Scorsese -- not only a brilliant filmmaker, but also one of the world's foremost film historians -- to tell the tale of Howard Hughes' Hollywood years? And who better than Leonardo DiCaprio, one of the world's most famous men, to play the famous Hughes? The film spans the billionaire's most prolific period -- from the mid-1920s through the 1940s -- when he was a pioneer in both film and aviation, and revels in the glamour of both. It's full of brilliant performances, including turns by Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner and (especially) Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn, but it's DiCaprio who takes center stage in the strongest performance of his career. And I hope Scorsese finally receives a long-overdue Oscar for directing this amazing epic. (See full review.)

  • "The Motorcycle Diaries"
    Directed by Walter Salles; starring Gael Garcia Bernal, Rodrigo De la Serna and Mia Maestro
  • Using Che Guevara's own journals, director Walter Salles depicted a transcontinental journey across South America that a young Ernesto Guevara (a terrific Gael Garcia Bernal) took with his best friend Alberto Grenado (Rodrigo De la Serna). The trip opened the eyes of the young, middle-class medical student and set the stage for him to abandon his life of privilege, help the poor and join Fidel Castro in the overthrow of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. Wonderfully acted and stunningly photographed, it's a cinematic feast.

  • "The Incredibles"
    Written and directed by Brad Bird; starring the voices of Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Samuel L. Jackson and Jason Lee
  • story.incredibles.jpg
    The Incredibles -- Dash, Violet, Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl -- prepare to save the day.

    The wonderful wizards at Pixar Animation Studio and writer/director Brad Bird have achieved that amazingly difficult feat -- a movie that works equally well for children and adults. After a series of mishaps -- such as being sued by people they're trying to help -- the married superheroes Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl are forced to retire and become everyday, average people living in the suburbs. Soon they have two children, Dash and Violet, also gifted with super powers. Things get complicated when Mr. Incredible is called back into action, and the family is forced to save him when he gets captured by the evil Syndrome, voiced by Jason Lee. However, it's the character of Edna Mode, voiced by Bird himself, who brings down the house. She is a superhero clothing designer, a wonderful combination of Coco Chanel, Yoko Ono and George Patton (not to mention the late Edith Head). "The Incredibles" is a movie you'll want to see more than once. Now, that's incredible! (See full review.)

  • "Sideways"
    Directed and co-written by Alexander Payne; starring Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh
  • Sideways
    "Sideways," starring Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church, is one of the most highly praised films of the year.

    Few people write dialogue better than Alexander Payne and his longtime collaborator Jim Taylor, something finely displayed in films such as "Election," "Citizen Ruth" and "About Schmidt." With the charming and totally entertaining "Sideways," they've done it again. The film stars the gifted Paul Giamatti as Miles Raymond, a miserable chump still recovering from a messy divorce two years earlier, and his best friend and former college roommate, Jack (Thomas Haden Church), a charming airhead who's looking for a little action before he takes his own stab at marital bliss. The two set off for the California wine country, where they meet winsome waitress Maya (a wonderful Virginia Madsen) and her sexy wine-pouring friend Stephanie (played beautifully by Payne's real-life wife Sandra Oh). The four hit it off in a way that will have you laughing until you cry ... or crying until you laugh. This perfectly crafted adult comedy features some of the best acting and writing of this -- or any other -- year.

  • "Hotel Rwanda"
    Written and directed by Terry George; starring Don Cheadle, Sophie Okonedo, Joaquin Phoenix and Nick Nolte
  • Hotel Rwanda
    Don Cheadle (right) stars as real-life hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina in "Hotel Rwanda."

    "Hotel Rwanda" is the true story of Paul Rusesabagina, the manager of a Rwanda hotel in the midst of one of the most horrific genocides in modern history. Don Cheadle gives a magnificence performance as Rusesabagina, who managed to save the lives of 1,268 people while unholy acts of inhumanity raged around them. The film, directed by Terry George, shows how just one man can change the course of history using cunning and courage. Sophie Okonedo plays Rusesabagina's wife, Joaquin Phoenix plays a cynical Western journalist who correctly predicts that the world will do nothing to stop the carnage, and Nick Nolte co-stars as a disillusioned United Nations soldier who is ordered to stand by and stand down. This highly charged emotional film may be a hard sell to audiences, but viewers will be greatly rewarded with stunning performances and a deeply heartfelt story. (See full review.)

  • "Kill Bill Vol. 2"
    Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino; starring Uma Thurman, David Carradine, Daryl Hannah and Michael Madsen
  • The conclusion to "Kill Bill Vol. 1" -- like the first film, starring the dynamic Uma Thurman as the Bride and the deadpan David Carradine as her former lover and arch-nemesis Bill -- is a marvelous bloodbath full of amazing action and surprising plot twists. The first film was about revenge, and believe it or not, this second movie is about love -- albeit a warped, Tarantino type of love. Uma Thurman is nothing short of magnificent. Quentin Tarantino has made a rip-roaring and extremely enjoyable follow-up to his original movie. (See full review.)

  • "Million Dollar Baby"
    Directed by Clint Eastwood; starring Clint Eastwood, Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman
  • story.swank.freeman.jpg
    Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman in "Million Dollar Baby."

    It may have an awful title, but "Million Dollar Baby" is one of the best films of the year. Eastwood plays an aged gym owner and boxing manager, Frankie Dunn, and Morgan Freeman -- in a stunning performance -- plays his gym manager, and former fighter, Eddie "Scrap Iron" Dupris. Swank, however, steals the show with her performance as Maggie Fitzgerald, a woman determined to become a champion boxer in the female boxing circuit -- and equally determined to get Frankie to train her. On the surface, this rookie-seeking-a-mentor setup sounds just like a dozen other films. But don't be deterred -- ultimately, "Million Dollar Baby" is a profound statement about the families we make along the way in life, and how they are the real ties that bind. The best love is earned. (See full review.)


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