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Best and Worst of 2004

By Orson Scott Card (Originally printed in the RhinoTimes, Greenboro, NC)

Orson is one of my favorite columnists, one of these days I will actually read one of his many Sci-fi or historical fiction books that have won him world acclaim. Until then this local column will have to do.

Year’s Best Television

Lost is series television at its finest – reminiscent of what Dickens achieved in serialized newspaper fiction. Now we know how his readers must have felt, waiting urgently for each new installment to be published.

This saga of a group of airplane passengers stranded on a tropical island where magic seems to be rampant and danger abounds manages the extraordinary feat of advancing the story significantly with every episode, while still leaving openings for new viewers to join the story and not feel, well, lost.

Boston Legal is David E. Kelley’s cross between his earlier series The Practice and Ally McBeal. It never goes quite as far into absurdity as the latter, though it is far quirkier and takes itself much less seriously than the former.

Watching James Spader playing his most delightful character and William Shatner in the first great role of his long career is only part of the pleasure; there is always a fascinating story, an interesting legal dilemma, and other characters worth exploring. (Though I’m quite ready for the Sally Heep character to be run over by a bus or dropped down an elevator shaft or hired away by a strip club.)

I keep hearing that the sitcom is dead. I remember when they were saying that back in the ’80s – just before The Cosby Show launched a veritable golden age of sitcommery.

The irony is that when people were writing their articles about the death of the sitcom, Cheers, one of the great ones, was already on the air.

Likewise today: Two and a Half Men has some of the funniest writing and best performances in the history of television comedy – even as people are telling us the sitcom is dead.

What they really mean is that they were hooked on Friends and Sex in the City and they’re too lazy to look at anything new.

But be warned: Two and a Half Men is relentlessly about Charlie Sheen’s lothario character and his dubious influence on the lives of his brother and nephew. This show is not for children or easily offended adults. However, the moral position of the show is squarely against the lothario lifestyle and wholly sympathetic to Jon Cryer’s decent put-upon nebbish of a dad; the show is indecorous without being immoral, in my opinion, at least.

NYPD Blue is wrapping up its long run with some of the best storylines and perhaps the best ensemble ever. Currie Graham as the new boss is brilliant (and brilliantly written), and Mark-Paul Gosselaar is proving that the cast of Saved by the Bell wasn’t untalented after all. And who could bear to miss the finish of the role of Dennis Franz’s career? (Please, don’t let there be a spinoff series about how he buys a bar or something.)

Judging Amy continues to be one of the best legal shows and family melodramas on television, as long as you’re able to forgive the unwatchable performances of Marcus Giamatti and Jessica Tuck as appalling Peter and Jillian. Tyne Daly is giving the best performances of her career, and Amy Brenneman manages to keep us enthralled, making boneheaded mistakes in her personal life while serving as a very good judge.

Touching Evil on USA was an unforgettable ride – I hope there’ll be more.

24 has managed to be the consummate nailbiter, with Kiefer Sutherland facing moral dilemmas that chill our blood. Can they bring it off again in 2005 for a fourth season, with an almost entirely new cast?

And the Law and Order franchise continues to keep its focus on up-to-the-minute legal stories that never get distracted by the continuing characters’ personal lives – what Dragnet wanted to be when it grew up.

Year’s Best Movies

Lists of the “best” of anything are usually lame, and this one will be no exception. How can one compare, for instance, Shrek 2 with Ladder 49 or Miracle with Ray? OK, maybe you can compare Mean Girls with White Chicks (Mean Girls wins easily, by any standard).

But what do you do with The Passion of the Christ? It could not be judged solely on artistic merit or any other measure of success as a movie. Those who are believing Christians can’t possibly be objective, because the influence of piety cannot be measured. And those who are not Christian are no better suited to judge impartially, precisely because the target audience is committed Christians, and therefore unbelievers cannot possibly receive the intended effects.

Truth to tell, you can’t judge any film impartially. Either you’re in the audience for it or not; if not, you have little to say that’s of interest (though I, and every other critic, still say it); and if you are in that proper audience, you’re not exactly impartial, are you? You really want it to succeed.

But the problems surrounding The Passion of the Christ are, for list-making purposes, insurmountable for me. I feel vaguely blasphemous even comparing it to other movies – especially movies that I think are better, artistically, than Gibson’s film.

I regard Passion as a monumental film, a fine example of pious filmmaking at its very best – even a great film. But it will not be on my best-of-the-year lists.

With that in mind, here are my top five films:

1. Finding Neverland. A deeply moving and artistically brilliant story of a playwright creating love and joy out of loss and grief.

2. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. We can’t change who we are simply by forgetting what we’ve done.

3. Troy. Condensing and naturalizing a mythical saga, this movie shows how legends might really be born.

4. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. The best of the series shows us the darkness and majesty of power misused.

5. Ladder 49. A compassionate look at the men (and their families) whose lives are on the line whenever there’s a fire to fight.

All of them contain humor, moving human relationships, intense moral dilemmas and ideas that matter in the real world.

Now, in no particular order, the rest of my top 10:

Spider-Man 2, Polar Express, The Incredibles, Shall We Dance and I, Robot.

But this leaves me with another 15 films (in no particular order) that I believe are memorable and which I look forward to seeing again:

Ray, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Miracle and Mean Girls.

Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen, National Treasure, Shrek 2, 13 Going on 30 and Starsky & Hutch.

The Bourne Supremacy, Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, The Alamo, Sideways and Flight of the Phoenix.

That’s a worthy list of movies for any year. (And I reserve the right to add to the list when I get a chance to see Hero and a couple of others that I haven’t yet had a chance to see.)

Uncle Orson’s Acting Awards

Best actor: Jamie Foxx for the title role in Ray.

Runners-up: Johnny Depp and Freddie Highmore in Finding Neverland. Brad Pitt, Orlando Bloom and Eric Bana in Troy. Thomas Haden Church in Sideways. Joaquin Phoenix in Ladder 49. Dennis Quaid and Giovanni Ribisi in Flight of the Phoenix. Mark Ruffalo and Tom Wilkinson in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Stanley Tucci in Shall We Dance.

Best actress: Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, though she might as easily have won for her role in Finding Neverland.

Runners-up: Marylouise Burke and Virginia Madsen in Sideways. Jennifer Lopez and Susan Sarandon in Shall We Dance. Julie Christie in Finding Neverland. Jennifer Garner in 13 Going on 30. Diane Kruger in Troy and National Treasure.

Worst Movies of the Year

There are plenty of bad movies; to make this list, a film has to be spectacularly bad and be highly touted, either by critics or in advertising.

Worst sequel: Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason. A mindless waste of a fabulous cast in the stupidest sequel of the year.

Biggest waste of a huge budget: Van Helsing. (Runner-up: King Arthur.) Get a story first, kids – then spend the money.

Worst independent: Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. It’s junk like this that makes audiences avoid pretentious independent movies – especially when they’re touted as “comedies.”

Least original: The Village. Perhaps M. Night Shyamalan can make a movie that doesn’t exploit, without payment or acknowledgment, someone else’s idea.

Most dishonest: Fahrenheit 9/11. Joseph Goebbels would have been proud of Michael Moore, a perfect disciple of the doctrine of the Big Lie. (Runner-up: The Terminal, phony from beginning to end. But it’s Spielberg, so what do we expect?)

Worst adaptation: Ella Enchanted. Never has a delightful, intelligent book been so savagely destroyed by idiotic writing, directing and acting.

Worst musical, perhaps of all time: Phantom of the Opera. Mind-numbingly stupid, despite earnest performances.

Books of the Year

Film and television have a finite number of entries – you can get a pretty good idea of everything that appeared in a given year. (I didn’t actually have to go to the Chucky movie to know it wasn’t going to make my list.)

But with books, there are thousands and thousand each year, and I can’t even pretend that I’ve kept up with everything – least of all with the fields that I’m supposedly most familiar with, science fiction and fantasy. So I’m including only a few standouts.

Best Biography. Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton is deeply researched and derives all its conclusions from evidence instead of the preconceived attitude of the author. While concealing none of Hamilton’s mistakes and character flaws, Chernow goes a long way toward restoring “The Man Who Should Have Been President” to his rightful place among the founders of America – perhaps even in the top two, sharing the limelight only with Washington himself. Best of all, Chernow writes smoothly and clearly in a genre where clumsiness is the rule.

Best Fiction. Many worthy books were written and published this year, but the only one I wanted to read again immediately after finishing it was Peter and the Starcatchers, Dave Barry’s and Ridley Pearson’s prequel to Peter Pan. It’s funny, it’s magical and the action never stops for a second. I don’t want them to make it into a movie – they’d have to leave too much out.

Artist of the Year

I pay no attention to the denizens of the “art scene.” All I care about are artists who try to create truth and beauty. And, believe it or not, the artist whose work I found myself most looking forward to was CF Payne.

Never heard of him? Pick up any issue of Reader’s Digest for the past several years and there will be a work on the back cover headed “Our America.” Often wryly funny, always truthful, and also perfectly designed, Payne’s work is – dare I say it – better than Norman Rockwell’s at Rockwell’s own game.