Believe it or not kids, there was once a time when Amanda Seyfried and Rachel McAdams were largely unknown actresses with second billing to Lindsay Lohan, who was considered the most promising star of her generation, when Tom Cruise could star in a movie without Scientology and Oprahgate entering the discussion and when an M. Night Shyamalan film was something to look forward to.
If I said that 2004 was the most important summer in filmdom I’d be biased, because that was the first time I started to treat the critical viewing of films as a serious pursuit, so if I said that the films that came out that summer — Anchorman, Shrek 2, and Mean Girls -- were like nothing I’d ever seen before, that’s accurate in a way, as I was paying attention to films in a way I hadn’t before.
Still, 2004 was an unforgettable summer (if you don’t count the forgettable films like Catwoman and White Chicks). Here were the highlights:
Sequels Eclipsing the Originals
Sequels In the 2000’s movies transformed more drastically to the point where tent pole films in the summer were not only commonplace, but it was out of the ordinary if more than a weekend passed in the summer time without a new big blockbuster opening. Day After Tomorrow was the fourth highest-grossing film of the summer and it didn’t even win its opening weekend.
Sequels that bested the original were nothing new but the Summer of 2004 was notable in the way a number of Part IIs.
Both films were surprisingly introspective takes on the aftermath of the classic superhero/fairytale story arc. Shrek 2 started with a montage of two happy newlyweds to the tune of the Counting Crows’ “Accidentally in Love” (one of the unofficial songs of the summer or at the very least, my Windows Media Player queue) but disintegrated into a melodrama about holding a marriage together and meeting in-laws. The end result was a film with something new to say about the superhero genre. I know the word post-modern is overused but it seems appropriate here.
What was more significant, than whether I found the film uniquely satisfying, was that the film made a ton of money. Most people don’t know this but Shrek 2 became the 3rd Titanic and it wasn’t until The Dark Knight came along four years later that a film would make as much money as Shrek 2.
Spider-Man 2 was one of the first comic book movie hero sequels to not only transcend the original but earn such strong critical acclaim that it started to be taken seriously as an Oscar contender. In the film, Tobey MaGuire’s Spider-man (today’s teens are going to scratch their head and wonder how I could misspell Andrew Garfield so poorly) has serious doubts about whether he wants to be Spider-man anymore and his mask is even stripped off to a subway car full of bystanders as he’s saving them from doom. Spider-Man 2 was declared the best superhero film of all time by Roger Ebert and it was even named on AFI’s ballot of 400 films for their 100 Years 100 Movies 10th Anniversary Edition when they did their ballot a couple years later.
Also in the Part II category that summer were Bourne Supremacy which, while not the film of the summer, definitely mobilized and expanded the fan base to the point that when Bourne Ultimatum came out three years later, it got similar “Best action movie of the summer or best action movie of all time?” treatment by the critics and won an Oscar in the competitive Best Editing category.
Although it was technically a Part III, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was also a big hit. The films director Alfonso Cuaron (taking over from Chris “I didn’t discover America” Columbus), who has risen in stature since 2004 with Children of Men followed by his Best Director Oscar for Gravity, changed the tone of the film with reviewers noting it had a darker (one reviewer even used the word “wintry”), more inventive, and more delicately balanced tone.
A Lack of Anything Sequel-Worthy
20th Century Fox
Over the last ten years or so, sequels (or films that have been blatantly presented as part one of a larger story arc like Hunger Games and Twilight) have filled up the summer schedule to the point where it’s basically a given that any film that makes a dent in the box office like The Hangover, Pitch Perfect, or Horrible Bosses will merit a sequel despite the fact that it usually makes absolutely no narrative sense (“What’s that, roofing these guys in a different city and repeating the plot verbatim doesn’t strike your sense of integrity? Ok, I’ll just return this free $100 million”).
Looking at the flip-side of sequelitis in 2004, there are few films that spawned any sort of franchise. Part of this is that the franchises with the clearest aim to launch sequels – Catwoman, and Garfield - bombed (which didn’t stop the latter from getting a sequel anyway). Again, this is mostly a good thing. Catwoman 2 would have likely blacklisted Halle Berry from Hollywood forever if it was anywhere near as bad as the first, and The Day After the Day After Tomorrow might have been a stretch. The ability of Troy: The Iliad to spawn Troy 2: The Odyssey (IF the film followed the source novels which is a big IF considering I only read the Cliff Notes of the Iliad and spotted tons of inconsistencies) was severely dampened by the fact that they cast Sean Bean as Odysseus who, no offense to Mr.Bean’s immediate family, isn’t the kind of movie actor people would pay to see. Still, there seemed like a lack of staying power from most of the semi-original or original films. Part of this had to do with being overshadowed by the sequel juggernauts and part of this had to do with certain genres like historical fiction hitting a lull. There was not one but three historical fiction films that came across as generic action films: King Arthur, Troy, and Van Helsing. Troy, for example, oversimplified the mythology and excluded most of the God characters in favor of more screentime for a tunic-clad Brad Pitt. In the following years, Kingdom of Heaven (a mildly successful one-off), Thor and Sherlock Holmes would get the formula right.
Elsewhere, there was the annual Will Smith sci-fi action-packed fun-fest I Robot which I enjoyed as a cleverly- posited futuristic mystery but was likely too thinky and conceptual to get off the ground (Although I’m guessing acclaimed science fiction writer Isaac Asimov would have probably preferred watching to the Robin Williams ham-fest Bicentennial Man that was the only other novel of his to be adapted to film). There was also M.Night Shyamalan’s latest thriller The Village which marked the first Shyamalan film with a twist ending that most people found, for lack of a better world, sucked.
Comedy was King
20th Century Fox
2004 was the year that comedy became dominated by a group of comic actors — Vince Vaughn, Owen Wilson, Will Ferrell, Luke Wilson, Jack Black, and Ben Stiller — called the frat pack (coined by a pair of articles in USA Today that June that I coincidentally remember reading from the newsstand that day). It would be difficult to categorize a single comic style of the group as a whole: Jack Black was the quintessential slacker with a gift for oversize expressions and physical comedy; Vince Vaughn was the smooth talker who could go a mile-a-minute if need be; Luke Wilson was more of a comedic straight-man; Owen Wilson was a verbal sparring partner and had a laid-back vibe; Will Ferrell brought his intensity as he descended into various levels of man-child, and Ben Stiller was chameleon-like and very often wrote and directed his own projects. Still, their comic M.O.s might have been a little different but they all wound up in each other’s films over the past couple years (i.e. Zoolander, Old School, Starsky and Hutch) and enjoyed good chemistry.
In the summer of 2004, the two highest grossing-comedies (if you don’t count The Princess Diaries 2, which, who would? Sorry, that was a movie?) were Brat Pack projects: Anchorman and Dodgeball. And they were not only hilarious, but just plain brilliant in my eyes. Prior to watching those two films, I had been slightly guilty of ghettoizing comedies in comparison to dramas. I had always assumed that the acting and production values of a good comedy could not be on par with a great drama, but Anchorman and Dodgeball won me over. With Anchorman, I wasn’t just the comic inventiveness of Will Ferrell in creating such a uniquely comic character, but the ability of everyone else in the cast to keep up with him and match his absurdly silly dialogue with lines that were even more bizarre. There were very few moments in the 94-minute running time that you wouldn’t have found me laughing if you walked into the Minneapolis theater where I was watching it.
Although, Judd Apatow (who’s band of comedic underlings supplanted the Brat Pack as the next big thing) is credited as Anchorman’s producer, the film is more reflective of the comedic stylings of director Adam McKay. Now five films deep into his career, improvisational stylings of ex-Saturday Night Live head writer Adam McKay (who’s now five films deep into his career) whose comedy is heavily improvisational which leads to a very natural cast chemistry and highly inventive out-in-left field lines like “Well, I could be wrong, but I believe diversity is an old, old wooden ship that was used during the Civil War era” to “60% of the time, it works every time” to the classic “I Love Lamp.”
Dodgeball was an equally brilliant satire of obscure sports that even spurned dodgeball tournaments at local colleges (and I imagine high schools and adult youth leagues. Sorry, I could only speak from the POV of a college student in 2004). Like a good piece of sketch comedy, the film just kept getting more and more absurd as the sportscasters got increasingly dense, Coach Patches O’Houllihan (a memorable performance by Rip Torn) got increasingly discombobulated, the villains got more absurd, and the cameos (Including Lance Armstrong back when people liked him) got more riotous.
Last but not least, there was also Mean Girls which sparked Tina Fey’s career and is now considered one of the archetypes of the high school melodramedy genre. A number of articles came out recently for the film’s 10th anniversary (found here, here, here, and here) showing the film’s influence which shows Fey’s whip-smart take on the genre has had a lot of staying power.
Political Messages in an Election Year
2004 was also a year in which politics were getting as heated as they’d ever been (or at least then they’d ever been in my lifetime) with opposition to the George W. Bush administration turning into thinly-concealed hatred.
“Red states” and “blue states” were starting to become mainstays in our lexicon and each party had their own mascot at the movie theater. For the red states, Passion of the Christ (technically, it was released back in February although it ran well into May) was a pet project by Mel Gibson who managed to mobilize the bible belt into making the film a humongous hit. Gibson didn’t even show it to the press and instead opted to screen it for religious groups and church congregations. At $370 million, the film managed to break into the Top 10 of all-time. What was mostly ignored in the story of its success was how unwatchable the film was if reliving Christ’s crucifixion wasn’t your idea of a fun afternoon at the movies. Stephen King noted in an essay for Entertainment Weekly that the film was inappropriate and even a scarring experience for children. Ironically, Gibson would soon have a public fall from grace over anti-Semitic charges that would severely diminish his chances of ever having the clout to fund such an epic film again despite being an Oscar-winning director.
The left’s cinematic answer for Gibson was Michael Moore who had made a name for himself playfully mocking conservative rhetoric with documentaries dating back to his anti-outsourcing manifesto Roger and Me and culminating in an Oscar win with his anti-gun documentary Bowling for Columbine. In Fahrenheit 9/11, Moore carried on with his trademark guerilla journalism by approaching members of congress on street corners with paperwork to enlist their children in the army and driving an ice cream truck through DC and reading the Patriot Act out loud after congressmen admitted not having read the whole act.
As a sign of the highly partisan times, people either saw as a sleazy nuisance or a populist hero depending on which party they were from. Still, few denied that Moore made an entertaining film and the $119 million domestic box office (at also helped that he was promoting it like mad) take was a new box office record for a documentary. In terms of influence, few remember that Moore might have helped his cause more by explicitly promoting Bush’s opponent, John Kerry, but I can think of at least one cinemagoer (myself) who was profoundly swayed as a voter the day he watched that film.
Whether it was a coincidence or a sign of the times, a few other blockbusters in 2004 had some pretty explicit political messages. In his remake of The Manchurian Candidate Jonathan Demme sought to modernize the 1962 classic by replacing the evil Manchurians as the big bad with the multi-national corporate agenda. Roland Emmerich, a director whose entire film career has been an excuse to blow up large buildings, attempted to take about as serious a stance on global warming as a popcorn movie can with The Day After Tomorrow. I, Robot attempted to take a stance on the decisive “Robot Apocalypse” referendum which if it isn’t on the ballot just yet, should be soon.