The problem with top-ten lists, to which I confess my own shameful seasonal addiction, is not just how arbitrary they often seem. It is rather that they tell us so little about the year on screen and its cultural significance. This is especially true this year, the year of The Passion of the Christ, which generated more debate than any film in recent memory and became a box-office smash hit, the highest grossing R-rated film ever. Yet because critics harbor one or another objection to it, the film has made precious few top-ten lists. Thus the most remarkable event in the film industry, not just this year, but in many, many years has been utterly neglected in the evanescent litany of year's-best lists.
Of course, The Passion was not the only film worthy of note in the past year, a year that might be described as the year of the successful sequel. After years of sequels that failed to live up to standards set by their originators, this year witnessed a number of fine follow-up films: Spiderman 2, Shrek 2, Princess Diaries 2, and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. We pass over in silence such desultory fare as Scooby Doo 2 and Agent Cody Banks 2, about which there never were any expectations.
The Spiderman and Potter industries continue to combine entertaining, family-friendly stories with illustrations of the sacrifices and virtues of ordinary folks confronted with evils to which they must respond. The theme of excellence in the midst of the leveling tendencies of democratic social mores was humorously portrayed in the best animated feature of the year, Brad Bird's The Incredibles, a film that succeeded despite concluding segments far too reminiscent of the director's previous film, The Iron Giant, and the plot of any number of Spykids films.
Heroism was also on display in Miracle, the crowd-pleasing story of the 1980 U.S. Hockey Olympic upset of the Soviets. Miracle was far more entertaining than another sports film, Friday Night Lights, a critically acclaimed film about small-town Texas high-school football that was thoroughly unpleasant to watch, in part because of its overly sophisticated and ultimately nauseating camera work, with an incessantly moving camera bent on relentless tight shots of every scene. The real problem with the film is that it features characters whose idolatry of high-school football is so perverse that you simply lose interest in them and the story.
Hero was the title of one of the year's best foreign films, a historical drama about the first Chinese emperor that mixes Crouching Tiger battle scenes with the regal pageantry and themes of honor and betrayal characteristic of the classic films of Kurosawa. The film is directed by the increasingly noteworthy Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou, whose House of Flying Daggers is currently dazzling audiences. Yimu's genius precedes these recent successes; American viewers now have access to DVD versions of some of his previous films, such as The Road Home and To Live, films that have less in the way of special effects — the absence of crouching-tiger acrobatics is a plus in my book — but more in the way of storytelling and sumptuous cinematography.
In the realm of foreign films, it is becoming increasingly clear that the young talent and creative vitality, now apparently gone from traditional European film making powers of France and Italy, are to be found in Asian films and some Spanish-language films. In addition to Yimou's films, Japanese horror films continue to exercise an influence on the American market. Imitating the success of The Ring (an American remake of the Japanese film Ringu), The Grudge, starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, was another successful remake of a Japanese film, Ju-On, a very fine horror film just released in America on DVD. These Japanese films have not forgotten that the primary task of a horror film is to provide good scares and to immerse viewers in a credible universe of other-worldly malevolence. Another captivating and subtle horror film is this year's Italian movie I'm Not Scared. (The low-budget Open Water provided the best scares in an American film.)
American films continued to exhibit stylistic sophistication equal to the best foreign films. A sign of this is the enduring influence of film noir, whose style permeated the most visually arresting movie of the year, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, a film with a promising start that dissolves into four or five different genres. The noir influence could also be felt in The Manchurian Candidate remake and especially in the surprisingly strong, Collateral, a film that managed to turn Tom Cruise into an actor whose role for once eclipsed his cloying personality.
Much more could be said about this year in film, particularly about the way critics continue to fawn over relationship films that are either pretentious (Before Sunset) or perverse (Closer and We Don't Live Here Anymore) and how one film, Sideways, managed to transcend the clichés of the relationship genre, but I've already made that argument on NRO.
But these are all minor cultural stories compared to the event that was Gibson's The Passion. The only film story even to approximate its magnitude was the uproar surrounding Fahrenheit 9/11. (The Day After Tomorrow opened strong at the box office but its weird science failed to generate the national conversation about global warming its backers predicted.) Fahrenheit has some moments of humor and effective satire, but the overall effect is marred by Moore's habit of pandering to the American weakness for unsubstantiated conspiracy and narcissistic insistence on making himself the hero of his own documentary.
It is interesting to note that, in contrast to The Passion, Fahrenheit 9/11, although controversial, has not been ignored on top-ten lists. The disparity says something important about The Passion, which concerns its incommensurability with almost all other films. Indeed, it resists being reduced to a mere film, something that can be encountered at a distance for a few hours in a dark theater. At every turn, it forces upon viewers the deeply counter-cultural question of whether this man is who he says he is.
Although anomalous in many ways, the success of The Passion does fit a trend — if not in the Hollywood mainstream then at least in audience appetite — toward mythic battles between good and evil. In 2002, four of the top five box-office rankings belonged to Spiderman, Harry Potter, LOTR, and Star Wars films. Last year, 2003, LOTR, The Matrix, and X-Men ranked in the top six, while the top five in 2004 included the latest Spiderman and Harry Potter films, The Passion, and The Incredibles. What might have been expected to ride this wave, but did not, was a slew of overpriced historical epics, the most notable of which was Oliver Stone's artistically and financially disastrous Alexander, which managed to make us forget what a colossal failure The Alamo was. (Troy performed reasonably well in the U.S. box office but needed its huge success overseas to pull itself out of debt.) One wonders whether the Gladiator effect will be followed by the Passion effect, with would-be imitators of Gibson's achievement with a religious film. It seems more likely that The DaVinci Code and National Treasure would inspire a surge of films about the secret society of Masons than that The Passion would generate reverent, theologically serious films. But, when it comes to mindless attempts at mimicking success, there is no doubt that Hollywood is up to the task.