Fahrenheit 2004

Remembering the movies that heated up cinemas this year

Numerous movies based on "real" people were released in 2004. While few, if any, of them chose the straight mythological route, just about all of them omitted, condensed or modified facts. Among the epics and biopics were Alexander, Kinsey, Ray, Beyond the Sea (about Bobby Darin), Finding Neverland (Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie), The Motorcycle Diaries (pre-Revolutionary Che Guevara), The Aviator (eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes), and De-Lovely (songwriter Cole Porter). Even King Arthur played around with the truth, although that's easier to do when nobody quite knows what the truth was.

John Logan, who wrote the screenplay for The Aviator, speaks for many writers when he says that he considers himself a dramatist, not a historian. But he is drawn to stories about real people and events, and is not cavalier about messing with the historical record. The very fact that a writer chooses to concentrate on a particular period of a person's life -- in the case of The Aviator, Hughes' love of flight -- means that he is "editing" that life.

Because a two- or even three-hour movie could never cover all the bases of a person's life, events are condensed or eliminated altogether, supporting characters are rolled into one. At other times, the truth is a mere inconvenience, and is therefore softened in the belief that if the subject's true personality were disclosed, nobody would want to see a movie about him.

Brando's great gift: reinvention.
Brando's great gift: reinvention.
Passion pit: Julia Roberts and Jude Law in Closer.
Passion pit: Julia Roberts and Jude Law in Closer.

Neither Ray nor Kinsey hesitates to reveal their heroes' less-than-admirable qualities, though both films do soft-pedal the negative. Kinsey (Liam Neeson) admits at one point that he has become addicted to barbiturates. His alleged real-life drug intake was far greater than that simple line suggests, as was his level of promiscuity. But given that cultural conservatives campaigned against the film before it even started shooting, omitting some of the more sordid details was probably a wise decision. -- Jean Oppenheimer

Here's to You, Mrs. Robinson

What is it about older women and younger men this year? No fewer than five films -- The Door in the Floor, The Mother, Being Julia, Birth and p.s. -- featured May/December couplings, with decidedly female Decembers. Three of these constitute an official subgenre, heretofore known as older-woman-seeks-to-date-reincarnated-lost-love-in-younger-man. In The Door in the Floor, Kim Basinger sees her dead son in a high school student; in p.s. , Laura Linney sees her dead high school boyfriend in an art-school applicant; and in Birth, Nicole Kidman sees her dead husband in -- ewww -- a 10-year-old boy.

The filmic examples of older men dating scandalously younger women are legion, and it'd be great if Hollywood were offering a saucy counterpart. But it's hard to wish for happy endings when the setup is so creepy. (The movies in this maudlin threesome have much more to say about grief than they do about love.) Even when the film wants the relationship to work, as in p.s. , one senses imminent failure. As for The Mother and Being Julia -- well, neither offers a whole lot of hope for the relationship, though they do offer a measure of redemption for the women. So when will we see a movie about a fun, healthy and successful relationship between an older woman and a younger man? Don't hold your breath. -- Melissa Levine

Docs That Rock

Concert films, save for a handful of exceptions, are a crushing bore -- the equivalent of a wish-you-were-here postcard that taunts you with glimpses of what you missed by choosing to avoid the crushing crowds, cigarette smoke and flicked Bics. Which is why the recently released, and just as quickly closed, Jay-Z doc Fade to Black was such a dud: Its concert sequences never worked up a sweat, never amounted to anything more than a glitzy-glammy whoop-dee-do infomercial. Its best moments were the shaky-cam interludes between performances, as Jay-Z bounced from studio to studio, producer to producer, in search of beats he could borrow for his Black Album. Sometimes it is more interesting to see the sausage made than to digest the final product, after all.

This has been a particularly wonderful year for engaging, entertaining documentaries about musicians -- those who fill the arenas with their monster-truck roars (Metallica), those who influenced generations without making fortunes (the Ramones), and those whose egos fill clubs that often go wanting for patrons whenever they play (Brian Jonestown Massacre and the Dandy Warhols). There was even one starring the Grateful Dead and the simply dead: Festival Express, made in 1970 and released 34 years later, long after the footage and audio were believed missing and buried along with Janis Joplin, Rick Danko, Jerry Garcia, Richard Manuel, and others who boarded that Canadian train that derailed somewhere between Toronto and the cineplex.

Another doc acted as a different kind of tombstone for a bygone era: Shortly after the release of End of the Century, Johnny Ramone died after a five-year battle with prostate cancer, leaving drummer Tommy Ramone as the last of the living Ramones (there were other drummers, none as essential). End of the Century, then, marked the last time Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Tommy would assemble to recall the ups and downs and downers of a career spent making noise off which so many would make so many millions.

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