Fahrenheit 2004

Remembering the movies that heated up cinemas this year

Still, the biggest triumph of big-screen bloodletting came indisputably thanks to Mel Gibson, who managed to peddle a splatter movie to the very people who've condemned them most loudly. His secret? Make sure that the person being stabbed, beaten, ripped apart, abused and mutilated happens to be Jesus Christ. Do that, and audiences will even read subtitles. -- Luke Y. Thompson

Closing Credits: "Bud"

If Marlon Brando -- "Bud" to his family and intimates -- was not the finest movie actor who ever lived, he certainly had the greatest gift for reinvention. Between the opening night in 1947 when the lean, cruelly handsome young Nebraskan shouted "Stel-lahhhh!" in the Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desireto the moment, three decades and 200 pounds later, when he filled a dark jungle hut with a murmur: "The horror . . . the horror," he took on many forms. He was, in turn, the charismatic '50s rebel, the weird Hollywood iconoclast, a menacing Godfather, and a real-life father agonized by his son's conviction for manslaughter. By the end, which came July 2 at age 80, he had so many encrustations of myth that the real Brando, if there ever was one, had almost ceased to exist. But his legacy is unquestionably profound. Having absorbed The Method at the Actors Studio, he dispensed it far and wide through the performances of every awestruck actor who followed him. Troubled and tragic, Marlon Brando had become nothing less than a condition of life.

Michael Moore (right) takes his case to Capitol Hill.
Michael Moore (right) takes his case to Capitol Hill.
Workin' it out in Metallica: Some Kind of Monster
Workin' it out in Metallica: Some Kind of Monster

He may be remembered most vividly for his jowly, grave Don Corleone ("Tataglia is a pimp . . ."), but who among us wasn't captivated by the depressed U.S. expatriate he played in Last Tango in Paris, his tormented pug in On the Waterfront ("I coulda been a contendah"), the vengeful outlaw of One-Eyed Jacks, or the enigmatic, half-crazed Colonel Kurtz of Apocalypse Now, who embodied the American misadventure in Vietnam? Was the giant without humor or irony? Hardly. In The Freshman (1990), he happily parodied his Godfather role, and, for reasons known only to himself, he reportedly required all visitors to his Tahitian island hideaway to produce, well . . . stool samples.

"What are you rebelling against?" a sweet-faced teenager asks Brando's sneering, leather-clad motorcyclist in 1954's The Wild One. "Whaddaya got?" he replies. That might be epitaph enough for one of moviedom's few authentic geniuses. -- Bill Gallo

The Future of Modernism

Flash back to 1999. George Lucas steps back into the director's chair after two decades of absence and produces the critically derided Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Though its visuals are praised, many writers note the stilted acting and suggest that Lucas' extensive use of blue screens rather than actual sets is partially to blame. In 2002, the second Star Wars prequel seems to bear that out, and the use of "virtual sets" starts to look like a bad idea.

Or does it? Lucas, as has been the case before, may have been ahead of his time. This year saw two wildly different auteurs use the blue- and green-screen techniques to create two of the most expensive "personal" movies ever. Kerry Conran's Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow existed as a fully realized story inside a computer before a single actor was cast, while Robert Zemeckis' The Polar Express allowed actors to portray characters who transcend their physical limitations. Yes, there were accusations of stilted acting this time around as well, but more critics and viewers started warming to the notion of blue screens, especially after viewing The Polar Express in 3-D IMAX, which revealed minute details that were invisible on a regular-size screen.

The real breakthrough is still coming. Now that Lucas, Conran and Zemeckis have pioneered the technology, it's going to get cheaper and easier, and proof of that arrives in spring 2005 with the Henson Company's Mirror Mask, a computer-generated/live-action fantasy film by Sandman comic-book creators Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, shot mostly against a green screen for a paltry $4 million. Robert Rodriguez, who experimented with the style in Spy Kids 3-D, will follow shortly thereafter with Sin City, a highly stylized rendition of Frank Miller's hard-edged graphic novel series. Early glimpses of these flicks wowed the faithful at the San Diego Comicon last July.

Also hitting the festival circuit in '05 will be a remake of the classic German expressionist horror movie The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, in vintage-style sepia and white, but utilizing virtual sets to re-create the surreal look of the 1920 original.

Oh yeah, and there's that one with Darth Vader in it, too . . . -- Luke Y. Thompson

Some Like It . . . Not

When My Big Fat Greek Wedding scored a surprise hit for comedienne Nia Vardalos, the former Second City star may have figured any old second act would do -- even a dreadful rip-off of one of Hollywood's most beloved classics. Not so. A flop at the box office, lambasted by critics, and quite possibly the most unwatchable movie of the year, Connie and Carla labored mightily to update Some Like It Hot with the tale of two loudmouthed show-biz wanna-bes (Vardalos and Toni Collette) who take it on the lam from a Chicago drug dealer who thinks they've filched a kilo of his coke and flee to L.A., where they disguise themselves as drag queens in a gay nightclub. Never mind the conceit that these corn-fed pseudo-dragsters convince a far hipper, more observant transvestite crowd in West Hollywood that they, too, are men impersonating women; they also wow the locals with their awful caterwauling. Vardalos attacks the scenery like a starved hyena. Collette shrieks like a banshee, her jaw three inches from the camera.

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