The Best Movies of 2004 Were Auteur-Driven Indies And Sequels That Outshone Their Predecessors
The early 2000’s were a great time for cinema. After the success of Lord of the Rings, genre films got a boost at the box office where they aired alongside indie movies that were widely acclaimed. As we look back at some of the best films of every year, we examine the notable genre and non-genre films that made an impact. Today we are looking back at the year 2004. This was a year of notable sequels that outshone their predecessors. And some of our generation’s best auteurs were experimenting with form. Let’s take a look at the best movies of 2004.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Image via Focus Features
One of my favorite movies of all time, and a film that firmly straddles the line between big-budget science fiction and artsy independent cinema. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was written by famously eccentric filmmaker Charlie Kaufman and his equally quirky counterpart Michel Gondry. On their own, these two have delivered some extremely weird and obscure films over the years. However, their pairing somehow managed to strike a perfect balance and deliver a commercial success.
The film centers around a man who undergoes an experimental procedure to erase his ex-girlfriend from his memory. This comes after he learns that she has already erased him. What follows is a surreal trip down memory lane, as he watches his memories disappear around him. Soon he discovers that he doesn’t want to forget, and starts running and hiding in older memories in attempt to salvage what is left.
Eternal Sunshine stars Jim Carrey in his finest dramatic turn since The Truman Show. Uncharacteristically serious and sober, the filmmakers intentionally flipped the script to make his love interest – played exquisitely by Kate Winslet – the comedic foil. It also co-stars some notable genre actors like Elijah Wood, Mark Ruffalo, and Kirsten Dunst. Beautifully directed and acted, with jaw-dropping cinematography and practical special effects that still hold up. There is no question that Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is one of the best movies of 2004.
The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou
Image via Touchstone Pictures
Another auteur who saw great success in 2004 was Wes Anderson. While The Royal Tenenbaums may have skyrocketed Anderson to success in 2001, it was The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou that made him a household name. (At least it did in my house.) Here Anderson gets together his reliable crew of misfits led by Bill Murray (as the titular Steve Zissou) in a quest to seek revenge on a shark who killed his partner. The film is both an homage to, and a parody of the famous French diver Jacques Cousteau.
Screenwriter Noah Baumbach also worked with Anderson on this film, in one of his first credits on a feature film. However, the movie is quintessential Wes Anderson complete with zany adventures, neurotic characters, found family, and a dude singing David Bowie songs in Portuguese. Although it may not have been a success at the box office, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou quickly became a cult favorite. And so it makes it onto our list of the best movies of 2004.
Harry Potter & The Prisoner of Azkaban
Image via Warner Bros.
The first two Harry Potter movies were pretty straightforward adaptations of the books, and while they serve their purpose admirably enough they were definitely lacking some of the imagination that the series is known for. But that changed when director Alfonso Cuarón entered the picture to direct the third installment. Harry Potter & The Prisoner of Azkaban is much darker and more mature than the previous entries in the series. It also brought in Gary Oldman as the titular prisoner – Sirius Black. And Oldman easily steals the show, imbuing Sirius with all of the complexity and nuance that he deserves onscreen.
This was also the film where the young actors of Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint really started to come into their own. Radcliffe has spoken about how working with Cuarón and Oldman during the making of this film taught him a masterclass in acting and informed his performance for the rest of the series. It is still hailed as one of the best Harry Potter films, and so of course it makes our list of the best movies of 2004.
Howl’s Moving Castle
Image via Studio Ghibli
There is no anime filmmaker more beloved than Hayao Miyazaki. His Studio Ghibli is still one of the most renowned animation studios in Japan. And in 2004 Miyazaki released what would be one of his final animated films geared towards adults with Howl’s Moving Castle. The film is loosely based on a fantasy novel of the same name by author Diana Wynne Jones. It follows a young woman who is cursed to appear as an old crone. She seeks out the wizard who lives in the titular moving castle for assistance, and is swept up into a rebellion against a corrupt king.
Howl’s Moving Castle is a visual feast, much like all of Miyazaki’s work. It also contains strong anti-war themes, along with messages on aging and compassion. It was one of Miyazaki’s personal favorites of the films he made during his lifetime. And it is also my favorite. So there was never a doubt that Howl’s Moving Castle was one of the best movies of 2004.
Image via Searchlight Pictures
Okay, hear me out. In recent years it has become popular to make fun of both Garden State and its director Zach Braff. But it seems like people forget how beloved this movie was when it first came out. Garden State was the directorial debut of Zach Braff, who was previously best known for his starring role in the sitcom Scrubs. It is loosely based on some of Braff’s own real-life experiences, primarily centered around his youth living in New Jersey. Garden State follows Braff’s character as he returns home for his mother’s funeral and reunites with his high-school friends. Along the way he meets a young woman – played by Natalie Portman. And hears a song by the Shins that changes his life.
Some have criticized Garden State for being self-indulgent and also for the extreme manic-pixie dream girl role that Portman plays. However, the movie is still genuinely funny. It also deals with the topics of depression and grief in a thoughtful way. And let me tell you, I lived in New Jersey close to where Braff grew up when this film came out. And it really nailed the culture and atmosphere of the time and place. Plus the movie was a commercial and critical success. So no matter what your feelings about it are, it is still one of the best movies of 2004.
Image via Sony Pictures
Kicking off a series of sequels that outshone their predecessors is one of the best superhero movies of the 2000’s. Spider-Man 2 found Tobey Maguire’s character of Peter Parker still living a double life while pining for Mary-Jane (Kirsten Dunst). It also dealt with Peter’s psychological issues as he struggles to be both hero and man. This gave the story a new layer of nuance and depth. Spider-Man 2 also gave us one of the best villains in Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock, a role that he will reprise for the upcoming Spider-Man: No Way Home.
Directed by Sam Raimi, Spider-Man 2 definitely leaned into some of the creepier horror vibes with Doc Ock. But a script co-written by author Michael Chabon helped cement the story in the human elements. One of the best superhero sequels of all time, Spider-Man 2 was undoubtedly one of the best movies of 2004.
Kill Bill Vol. 2
Image via Miramax
Kill Bill was originally supposed to be one movie, but due to the lengthy runtime director Quentin Tarantino split it into two volumes. Although the first volume is beloved, I have heard many people say that the second is their favorite. This is the film that gives more backstory on the Bride (Uma Thurman). Along with the cast of characters she has been hunting down. It also gives flashbacks to her training, and finally sees her reuniting with Bill in order to exact her vengeance. The first volume was bloody and action-packed. However, the second volume slows down for thoughtful character study and a dramatic arc. The legacy of the Kill Bill movies have been marred in recent years by actress Uma Thurman’s revelations about the pain and abuse she suffered because of Tarantino during the filming of the movie. But that doesn’t stop Kill Bill Vol. 2 from being one of the best movies of 2004.
Image via Warner Independent Pictures
Another sequel that rose above its predecessor is Before Sunset, directed by Richard Linklater and starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. It is the sequel to the 1994 romantic film Before Sunrise where the two characters spent an entire night wandering the streets of Paris talking and falling in love, before departing with the risk of never seeing one another again. Before Sunset picks up almost a decade later for the characters as they run into another once more and spend the day wandering Paris. While Before Sunrise was a dreamy idealistic film, Before Sunset is far more grounded in reality. It addresses the big questions of life, love, and philosophy from two characters who have grown and matured beyond the starry-eyed lovers of the first film.
Image via Searchlight Pictures
The movie that gave Merlot a bad name and spawned a generation of wine aficionados who will only drink Pinot Noir. Sideways is an adaptation of the Rex Pickett novel of the same name. This is a buddy film at its heart, with Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church) drinking their way through wine country a week before Jack is due to be married. The film explores not only wine country, but also toxic masculinity as Jack is on a quest to have one more sexual exploit before getting hitched. This single-minded pursuit has negative ramifications not only on his future, but also on his relationship with Miles. An understated character study of men in mid-life with stellar performances from Giamatti and co-star Sandra Oh.
Image via Searchlight Pictures
If there is one movie that exemplified the weirdness of the early 2000’s, it has got to be Napoleon Dynamite. This unassuming indie movie became a cultural phenomenon that is still endlessly quoted by an entire generation. A coming-of-age movie about a nerdy high-school student and his friends, Napoleon Dynamite might be thin on plot, but it is surprisingly heavy on the character study. It is an extremely funny and awkward movie that draws its humor from the everyday absurdity of life. The film feels real despite how ridiculous it is. And that may be because much of it was based on director Jared Hess’s own teenage years. Napoleon Dynamite launched an entirely new generation of quirky indie movies with larger-than-life characters living in small towns. For its cultural impact, we had to include Napoleon Dynamite on our list of best movies of 2004.
This is far from a comprehensive list of all the great movies that came out in 2004. And it is obviously biased to our genre preferences here on Comic Years. So let us know what your favorite movie of 2004 is in the comments, or by joining the conversation with Comic Years on Facebook and Twitter today.
Emily O'Donnell is a writer and photographer with roots in some of the earliest online fandoms. She cut her genre teeth on the Wizard of Oz books at the tender age of 6 years old, and was reading epic adult fantasy novels by the age of 10. Decades later, she still consumes genre fiction like there is no tomorrow. She is delighted to be living through the golden age of sci-fi and fantasy popularity. She is unashamed of the amount of fanfiction that still lingers online under her name.