Best in Show 

Our critics pick their 2004 faves

A tiny movie with a huge heart, this one. Bitterroot filmmaker John D. Nilles shot LITTLE for peanuts, using friends, family and neighbors for cast and crew, on a 16mm Bell & Howell camera he paid off by mowing its previous owner’s lawn eight times. Jay Webber (currently fixing planes in Alaska) stars as Jeff Ring, a quiet ranch hand who thinks up a super-fuel-efficient engine and then finds himself hunted by corporate thugs who want to squash the technology—and him! You can rent the DVD at almost any video store in Missoula and the Bitterroot. (AS)

The Saddest Music in the World
“If you’re sad, and like beer, I’m your lady.” So sayeth Isabella Rossellini as Lady Port-Huntley, a bitter double-amputee beer baroness who stages a contest in Winnipeg at the height of the Great Depression to see which country can boast the world’s most depressing music. First prize is $25,000 and the chance to swim around inside of an enormous vat of suds. Things get complicated when distant relations and former lovers show up and start currying favor with lady Port-Huntley. That Isabella Rossellini has never resembled her mother, Ingrid Bergman, in any movie as much as this one is perhaps the most unexpected—and beautiful—side effect so far of director Guy Maddin’s peculiar brand of self-consciously antiquated filmmaking. (AS)

Napoleon Dynamite
Call it the sleeper comedy of the year. Everyone else is, and Napoleon Dynamite deserves it—it’s the new Rushmore, complete with an endearingly dorky misfit, a diffident sidekick and a heaping helping of closely observed teen comedy set in small-town Idaho. Director Jared Hess actually grew up in the same milieu, hence knows that which he pokes fun at, and Dynamite’s wry treatment of its teens is pricelessly funny. Jon Heder’s Napoleon is a one-of-a-kind movie creature: “I see you’re drinking one-percent milk,” he says. “Is that because you think you’re fat? Because you’re not. You could probably be drinking whole milk.” (AS)

The Butterfly Effect
Yeah, so I’m an idiot for liking this one. Sue me. When it was scary, it was way scarier than anything else that came out this year, and even when it was dumb (which, admittedly, was a lot), it wasn’t any dumber. Ashton Kutcher is the weakest thing about his own big breakout vehicle, but his doy-ralph demeanor is a logical fit for a character trying to come to grips with blackouts and alternate realities. The blackout device is used pretty well, here—once you grasp its implications, you never feel safe, even if the movie never really makes good on the threat—but what’s really scary about The Butterfly Effect is the kids. You feel the same banal horror watching them as you do watching River’s Edge. (AS)

House of Sand and Fog
Two quietly forceful actors, Ben Kingsley (actually, that’s Sir Ben Kingsley now, and he’s said to be pretty insistent about the honorific) and Jennifer Connelly, square off in this drama about a bungalow contested by a hard-up divorcee (Connelly) and an exiled Iranian officer (Kingsley), both of whom have as much at stake emotionally as financially. Outstanding performances all around make this melancholy picture a standout. (AS)

Touching the Void
This nerve-scraping drama-in-real-life re-enactment of an ill-fated climbing expedition in the Peruvian Andes proved one of the most intense viewing experiences 2004 had to offer, and it was all the more enveloping for showing on the big screen at the Wilma, too! Survivors Joe Simpson and Simon Yates narrate this amazing tale, realistically reconstructed and convincingly acted. Have a stock of cool, fresh drinking water handy. (AS)

Mayor of the Sunset Strip
Los Angeles radio personality “Rodney on the ROQ” Bingenheimer is the subject of this peculiar meditation on cultish celebrity. Bingenheimer drifted south to Los Angeles in his teens and sought out the happening youth scene of the late ’60s, eventually breaking into radio and brokering the buzz on David Bowie, Nirvana and too many other bands to mention. The gnomish DJ has his hang-ups and sore spots—and his addiction to fame, albeit mostly other people’s, is a bit disconcerting at times—but George Hickenlooper’s generous documentary mostly takes him under wing, painting Bingenheimer as a shy man-child who happens to be friends with every big rock star in the world. In one scene, while visiting his family, he presents his sister with an Elvis Presley autograph he’d been holding onto for the better part of 40 years but never quite got around to giving her. (AS)

Fog of War
A rare and chilling glimpse into a beautiful mind. Errol Morris tailors his documentary about Robert S. McNamara as carefully as a bespoke suit, yet it is McNamara who stays in control. McNamara’s candid examination of the Kennedy and Johnson years and his confession of mistake on the Vietnam War convey the terrible power that lies with a few men at any given time, and certainly right now at this time. Morris, who has made a career of the oddball, the obsessive and the passionate, lets the movie speak about war with such intelligence and grace that the edges of the documentary repeatedly fade as you’re caught up in the real life of its subject. (SS)

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Michel Gondry experiments with love and logic in this highly peculiar and thoughtful movie. A man finds to his horror that all evidence of his love affair with a woman has been erased from her mind, that he might as well never have existed for her. Unable to endure his own pain and confusion, he opts for the same memory erasure, only to lead the movie into the catacombs and passageways of the human mind in a round-and-roundabout story that remains sharply etched and puzzling right up to its last moments. Jim Carrey gives a beautiful performance, raw with love’s ache, and Kate Winslet makes for a compelling object of desire, shifting her power in the film between her physical sexiness and her mental sexiness. In what is a strange and weird, almost inexplicable narrative, the movie is at the same time fiercely, lustily romantic, an ode to the salvation of a fresh start, and a bracing cerebral stimulant. (SS)

Gus Van Sant, who rarely does the same thing twice (how else could one director make both My Own Private Idaho and Good Will Hunting?), makes a smart, sharp and harrowing movie that is so quiet you won’t know what hit you. Graceful and powerful, Elephant reflects on reality and how we shape it. Set in the wide high school hallways of somewhere in America, Van Sant watches the tide of students ebb and flow along the bland and vacant linoleum in an effort to tell the story of a single tragic day from a variety of perspectives, including those of victims and killers. Loosely based on the massacre at Columbine High School, Elephant manages to create a place that is unique and an atmosphere that is universal, with sound design that should change the way you listen to movies and change the way you look for clues to what a director is trying to tell you. (SS)

Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events
Lemony Snicket begins as something it is not, opening with a crudely animated tale called The Happy Little Elf and an absurdly upbeat chorus singing like manic escapees from Oz. That movie, however, is interrupted nearly right away with a sad and ominous voice that tells us we’re about to see something very horrible. I loved the collusion with the audience and the idea that, yes, bad things do happen to good children—bad events, bad schools, bad dreams and especially bad people. Jim Carrey commands the movie with his weirdly repulsive villain Count Olaf and tries to summon the Man of a Thousand Faces. With a slithery, dark charm, a smart script, three heroic children and every corner of its world carefully designed, movies don’t get much more fun or more beautiful than this. (SS)

Reviews by Andy Smetanka and Susanna Sonnenberg.

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