Fahrenheit 2004

Remembering the movies that heated up cinemas this year

Nobody in Metallica is dead yet (well, Cliff Burton, but that was a long time ago), but the band came close to winding up on the extinct list before going into therapy to work through some issues, chief among them James Hetfield's penchant for booze and his refusal to have a heart-to-heart with pal Lars Ulrich, who apparently was sired by a Lord of the Ringsextra. The chronicle of that experience, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, coulda been gooey -- whose heart breaks for multimillionaires who tend to whine? -- but wound up an essential portrait of a band at work while working it out.

The stars of Dig!, Brian Jonestown Massacre's Anton Newcombe and Dandy Warhols front man Courtney Taylor, probably wouldn't go in for a little head-shrinking but sure as hell could use it, even after their rise turns into a protracted fall. Someone oughta make an album about them. -- Robert Wilonsky

Closing Credits: "Dutch"

When Ronald Reagan died on June 5 at the age of 93, his political adherents hailed him as the president who "made America feel better about itself" in the 1980s. Nobody claimed he made America feel better about movie acting. A genial featherweight who went in for neither introspection nor artifice, "Dutch" Reagan the actor played upright, well-scrubbed romantic leads in more than 60 mostly B-movies, many of them for Warner Bros. Antagonists scoffed that he once shared top billing with a chimpanzee (in 1951's Bedtime for Bonzo), and everyone who ever bought popcorn was relieved to learn, as the details of his Hollywood career became clearer amid his political success, that Warner executives had replaced him at the last minute before shooting one of the studio's best-loved films. It's hard to imagine Reagan, instead of Humphrey Bogart, delivering the deathless lament, "Of all the gin joints in all the world . . . ," in the wartime classic Casablanca.

That's not to say the former contract player and General Electric Theatre host was bereft of acting skill. In his most demanding role, an eight-year run as the last Cold War president, he often spoke forcefully and dramatically. Neither Americans nor Germans will ever forget The Great Communicator's stirring challenge in the waning days of the Soviet Union: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" Little matter, when it was all over, that even Reagan's most loyal friends acknowledged he often could not distinguish between a dashing part he'd essayed half a century earlier in, say, Code of the Secret Service, and his most recent exchange with Margaret Thatcher. He was what he was -- a player untroubled by self-doubt when the klieg lights came on. -- Bill Gallo

The Year in Queer

The gay films of 2004 merit a solid fair-to-middling overall rating, with a couple of lovely exceptions. Chief among those was Miguel Albaladejo's Bear Cub, a poorly titled but beautifully rendered story of a (tubby, hairy) gay man who learns how to parent his abandoned nephew. The Legend of Leigh Bowery, a documentary from Charles Atlas, chronicles the life and all-but-indescribable career of the eponymous clubgoer, performer, musician, provocateur, and fomenter of outrageous artistic expression. The film presents a cascade of unforgettable images, all of them engineered by its subject during his brief and blazing reign over the '80s club scene in London.

The year's other notable gay movies came with flaws:

John Waters' A Dirty Shame was a sore disappointment, opting for hysterical, mind-numbing farce rather than bothering to make a shred of sense.

• There was plenty to love in Pedro Almodóvar's Bad Education, including a foregrounding of male homosexuality rare for the Spanish director and a superstar turn by Mexican delicacy Gael García Bernal. But Almodóvar undermines the power of his material by forcing it into a genre (noir) that doesn't suit.

• Newcomer Jonathan Caouette blazed into town with Tarnation, a sui generis scrapbook of his tormented childhood assembled from countless hours of stills, Super 8's, video, DV, and everything else he used to record the events as they happened. Tarnation doesn't linger on Caouette's sexuality, and that approach works beautifully; the trouble is the abundance of on-screen titles, and their overindulgence in explanation.

• In a historical turn, director Rodney Evans brought us Brother to Brother, an uneven, overearnest film that nevertheless has its merits, including a young, gay black man with a healthy dose of self-respect and a look into the lives of key players in the Harlem Renaissance.

Jim de Seve's Tying the Knot is a heartfelt endorsement of gay marriage that fails to consider whether the rights of unmarried and uncoupled people, gay or straight, should be considered in the struggle for equal rights.

Meanwhile, lesbians? Anyone? Anyone? -- Melissa Levine

Kid Movies Grow Up

Have we finally outgrown the notion that movies have to be cloying and cute in order to be acceptable to children? It sure seemed like it this year. Possibly the most sentimental major entry was The Polar Express, but that was due only to the source material -- director Robert Zemeckis did his best to distract from the sap with several runaway-train sequences and scary wolves that pushed the boundaries of a G rating. Pixar simply ignored the G for the first time with The Incredibles, in which characters die and children are menaced with guns.

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