Picking through a group of excellent movies in search of one that's worthy of being proclaimed Movie of the Year is a gratifying ritual, I know — everybody likes to make lists, and everybody likes to trumpet an opinion. However, considering the wild variety of films that have to be contrasted with one another for this purpose, it seems a meaningless exercise, like comparing apples and auto parts. I can play this game up to a point. In fact, in the later categories here, I'll be happy to take something not unlike a stand. As for the Movie of the Year, though, below are eight films that I think qualify. They're ranked by number, you'll notice — but they're also listed in simple alphabetical order. Coincidence? Maybe.
1. "The Aviator"
Howard Hughes, the airman of the title, was an American original who transformed the U.S. aviation industry with his technical innovations and, as a self-taught moviemaker, cut a gaudy swath through Hollywood in the 1930s and '40s. Director Martin Scorsese depicts the period Tinseltown scene — the liquored-up nightclub debauchery and the tabloid celebrity hysteria — with clamorous brio; and the aerial shots, with rackety biplanes sailing through the sky and straight into your face, are exhilarating. The sequence in which Hughes is forced to ditch his malfunctioning jet in a leafy Beverly Hills neighborhood, and we see the plane ripping up rooftops on its way to a fiery crash, is breathtaking. Cate Blanchett isn't exactly a dead ringer for Katharine Hepburn (purportedly Hughes' great love), but she channels the late actress' blithe, chattery spirit most persuasively. And Leonardo DiCaprio, playing Hughes as a sleek, handsome loner whose brilliance is beginning to blur into clinical paranoia, gives the performance of his career.
2. "Before Sunset"
A young man and woman spend 80 minutes walking around some of the less-celebrated parts of Paris, talking and talking and talking. In terms of action, not much happens. But the talk is brilliant, sometimes spine-tingling — it sweeps you away. The two characters, Jesse and Celine, were introduced in director Richard Linklater's 1995 film, "Before Sunrise," in which they fell in love while walking all over Vienna one night; but then they parted, and didn't follow up. Now, nine years later, they encounter each other again in a Paris bookstore, and the spark — some fundamental connection — is still there. Linklater tells this story in real time, and shoots his peripatetic couple in extraordinarily long, unbroken takes. The stars, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, are exquisitely attuned to one another, and their marathon conversation, although it was in fact tightly scripted, seems to arise directly out of the moment. (Hawke and Delpy wrote the dialogue in collaboration with Linklater.) "Before Sunset" is a luminous example of how little is really required to make a sublime movie, as long as you have talent, if not money, to burn.
3. "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind"
The story — about two ex-lovers who've separately embarked on a technological process that will wipe their minds clean of all memories of their relationship — is a brain-swizzling Charlie Kaufman special. But this time, along with the vertiginous plot (you may still be trying to nail down all of its slithering implications for hours after seeing it), there's also a resonant emotional charge. Jim Carrey gives one of his most affecting non-cartoon performances, and Kate Winslet, as the girl whose fading memory he's chasing down the corridors of his own mind, lends the picture a sweet, effervescent spirit. The director, Michel Gondry, has given the movie a distinctive scruffy look that's almost as unusual, in its strange way, as the script. You may want to see this picture again more than once.
4. "Finding Neverland"
Super-cute kids, a dying mom, a lonely writer — "Finding Neverland" isn't a weeper, really, but don't be surprised if you find yourself losing it at the end. The story's potential sogginess is shored up by Johnny Depp's quietly precise performance as James M. Barrie, the man who wrote "Peter Pan." Kate Winslet, as the mother of the four boys who inspire Barrie's most famous play, effortlessly illuminates just about every scene she walks into, and director Marc Forster uses witty theatrical effects in telling the story, which is set in the plush world of Edwardian theater. The movie is about the transcendent power of the human imagination; it never sinks to the level of crude emotional manipulation, but it's suffused with real feeling. It has a magical glow.
Director Guillermo del Toro ("Blade II") really does this comix transplant up right. The movie's a riot of furious action, luscious color, wildly imaginative set design, and — the icing on the gargoyle — scum-sucking Nazis, too. Ron Perlman, as the wise-cracking, stogie-smoking Hellboy, a hulking behemoth who's switched his demonic allegiance to the fight against evil, gives one of the year's most original performances — he manages to project heart and soul from beneath a ton of prosthetic makeup. A fantasy classic.
Zhang Yimou is one of the world's most richly gifted filmmakers. "Hero," his 2002 martial-arts romance, finally got a U.S. release last year (at the behest of Quentin Tarantino), and it was followed into theaters by the Chinese director's latest film, "House of Flying Daggers." Both are spectacularly gorgeous pictures. Zhang is a master of action and visual texture, and his ability to bend nature to his cinematic purposes — as he does with the gusting leaves in "Hero"'s most celebrated fight scene, and the thick, white-out snowfall at the end of "Flying Daggers" — is sometimes dumbfounding. Both films are built around love stories; "Daggers" is the slightly more melodramatic of the two, so if I had to pick one to tell anybody to please go see, it'd be "Hero." Please go see it. But see "House of Flying Daggers," too.
7. "Million Dollar Baby"
Clint Eastwood's autumnal contemplation of the themes of hope and loss and redemption, set in the boxing world, has a slow-building, tidal power. As a director, his unfaltering control of the picture's tone allows its subtly detailed performances to shine. As an actor, he brings a raspy charisma to the role of Frankie Dunn, an aging manager looking for one last champ to guide to a title. He's surprised when it turns out to be a woman, Maggie Fitzgerald, who's played by Hilary Swank with a beaming enthusiasm you can almost feel radiating off the screen. Morgan Freeman gives one of his finest, most soulful performances as Eddie Dupris, Frankie's partner, an old boxer who's seen a lot of defeat but can still spot a winner. The basic plot echoes any number of old prize-fight melodramas, but the characters are allowed an emotional depth that lifts the movie to another level. The ending is entirely unexpected, and unforgettable.
Two frankly middle-aged Californians, Miles (Paul Giamatti), a failed novelist, and his old college buddy Jack (Thomas Haden Church), a failing actor, set out for a week in the Santa Barbara wine country. Miles wants to continue his finicky search for the perfect pinot noir; Jack, who's about to get married, just wants to have one last sex-romp. They become involved with two smart, age-appropriate women, Maya (Virginia Madsen) and Stephanie (Sandra Oh), and soon couple-up. Things start off pretty well; then they start going all wrong, in funny, bittersweet ways. Affectionately directed by Alexander Payne, the movie has a sunny look and a breezy pace; it sparkles like a fine light wine in a crystal glass. Giamatti's hangdog connoisseur and Church's lovable lummox are a perfectly mismatched pair, and Madsen hasn't been given this good a role in a dozen years. (She aces it.) The picture has a casual flair, and it's seductive. It adds up later to more than you might think while you're watching it.
* * * * *
Best Director: Martin Scorsese, "The Aviator"
Clint Eastwood, Zhang Yimou, Richard Linklater and Guillermo del Toro all qualify for top props here, I think. But Martin Scorsese has been making great movies for 37 years now, and he's never won an Oscar. Giving him one for this film wouldn't be some kind of "lifetime achievement" dodge, either — "The Aviator" actually is one of his most masterful works.
Best Actor: Jamie Foxx, "Ray"
A lot of competition here from DiCaprio, Giamatti, Eastwood and Hawke. But Foxx's total-immersion portrayal of the great Ray Charles — capturing his sly humor, his cold calculation and his joyful love of music — is a feat bordering on the supernatural.
Best Actress: Natalie Portman, "Garden State"
Kate Winslet and Julie Delpy did some wonderful things in their various films last year, and Laura Linney was a fine, anchoring presence in "Kinsey." Cate Blanchett was remarkable in "The Aviator" (although I think she's been even better elsewhere), and I wouldn't be surprised (or disappointed) if Hilary Swank won the Academy Award for "Million Dollar Baby." But as the fizzily irresistible Samantha, Zach Braff's unlikely love interest in "Garden State," Natalie Portman so completely inhabits her off-kilter character that you almost forget there's an actress in there, too.
Best Supporting Actor: Morgan Freeman, "Million Dollar Baby"
Freeman has given a number of indelibly memorable performances, but now, at the age of 67, he's hit a career peak with his poignant portrayal of a man who seems like he's fading into the background of his own life. There are other contenders in this category, of course. Peter Sarsgaard's sleepy-eyed charm has never been quite so charming as it was in "Kinsey," and David Thewlis brought a kind of antic warmth to the role of Professor Lupin in "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban." Bokeem Woodbine did a solid-plus job of playing sax man David "Fathead" Newman in "Ray," and I liked Josh Lucas' showy, whack-job turn as the ex-con brother in "Undertow." If Morgan Freeman hadn't been in the running this year, one of these actors might have prevailed. But Morgan Freeman was in the running.
Best Supporting Actress: Virginia Madsen, "Sideways"
Meryl Streep was rousingly acidulous as the mom-from-hell in "The Manchurian Candidate"; and you have to salute first-time feature-film actress Sharon Warren for her crackling performance as Ray Charles' young mother in "Ray," and Nia Long for her portrayal of the wronged and wounded girlfriend in "Alfie." But when you listen to Virginia Madsen rapturously explaining all the things she loves about vintage wine, and the key thing turns out to be "just because it tastes so f---ing good," you want to give her a big clumsy hug and welcome her back to the bigtime, where she belongs.
Best Documentary: "End of the Century"
It was another strong year for documentaries. The lacerating psycho-bio "Tarnation" and the Metallica therapy session "Some Kind of Monster" were fascinating pictures. And the amazing "Overnight" — about a self-important film geek who scores a movie deal with Miramax, turns overnight into an enormous a--hole, and then, after alienating everybody within screaming distance, gets squashed flat like a fat, gooey bug by the gods of simple justice — offers viewers a sense of rich, malignant joy they won't find anywhere else. But "End of the Century," the story of the Ramones, recounted through sometimes startling interviews (conducted over the course of several years) and rocket-launch concert footage, is one of the most revelatory rock docs ever made. And of course one of the most rockin'.
Breakthrough Performance: Bryce Dallas Howard, "The Village"
A whole lotta people hated this movie, but Howard's sharp performance as the feisty blind girl, Ivy, was extraordinarily winning. She's got the gift. (Pretty soon we'll have to stop referring to her as Ron Howard's daughter.) The runner-up in this category would be Jon Heder, the wonderful, mouth-breathing star of "Napoleon Dynamite." It's difficult to predict what he might be capable of doing next, though.
Worst Movie of the Year: "Darkness"
I'm pretty sure about this. Oh, I know "Van Helsing" was expensively stupid, and "I Heart Huckabees" was pretentiously stupid, and "Alexander" was preposterously stupid. And "The Phantom of the Opera," of course, just sucked (and is still sucking) on every level. But the stupidest movie I saw in 2004 was also the last one I saw. (It was made in 2002, but just opened here on Christmas Day.) "Darkness" is a haunted-house flick that aspires to be a low-budget version of "The Shining," but fails utterly. Not only is it not as scary as the famous Kubrick film, it's not even as scary as "Seed of Chucky." A family of four — parents, small boy, older sister — moves into a remote old house that's so gloomy, it might as well have a sign that says "Foreboding" tacked up over the front door. Strange happenings weary us with their inevitability. The lights go out a lot, for one thing — possibly to obscure the fact that nothing much is going on in the picture. There's Something Under the Bed, too, although we never find out what, and never actually care. It seems the house is connected with the murders of a group of children many years back, possibly as part of a mysterious ritual — a ritual that remains as mysterious after it's explained to us as it was before. Although not as mysterious as the fact that Anna Paquin is in this movie. She plays the sister. Anna Paquin won an Oscar at the age of 11 for her performance in the 1993 film "The Piano." Seven years later she settled into the cast of what promises to be a very durable "X-Men" franchise. Now she's in this. I can't believe it. And now that she's paid off her massive gambling debts, or whatever pressing concern it was that prompted her to take part in this project, I bet she can't believe it either. Jaume Balagueró, the Spanish director of this movie, is thought in some quarters to be a stylish filmmaker. Maybe so, if your idea of style is broody, lingering shots of empty playground swings swaying wetly in the midnight rain. I mean, please. "Darkness" clocks in at about a hundred minutes — which is too long, believe me. By about a hundred minutes.