Plot twist! Why 2004 was a surprising year for movies

By Wesley Morris

No one else is going to say it, so allow me: 2004 was a good movie year. So good that this month’s edition of The Box is a sequel to last month’s. That one was set the late June weekend that “Fahrenheit 9/11” opened up top and “The Notebook” was still a sleeper. This one finds us in the first full weekend of August, when “Collateral” knocked “The Village” to second place.

That year is appealing because it’s among the last to feature a strong mix of original ideas, major directors and stars we still wanted to see. This particular weekend drew me because that endangered mix includes a couple of grubby comedies (“Little Black Book,” with Brittany Murphy, and “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle,” with John Cho and Kal Penn) and at least one star in something people went to see with their noses pinched. Time has been no kinder to “Catwoman.” It’s still a turkey whose meaning for Halle Berry is obvious. She’d recently made Oscar history; here she was, making superhero history — as “the first Black woman to …” The movie, though, which had sunk to No. 9 in its third week, doesn’t know what to do with the cats, let alone the Black woman hired to slink from screen saver to screen saver on their behalf.

The superhero franchise was still just an element of our diet as opposed to the whole enchilada. The people who made “Catwoman” — the director was Pitof, a one-named French visual effects specialist who should not be trusted with stars — must have known superheroes were hypnotic: “Spider-Man 2” was a couple rungs above it, massively popular in its sixth week. But this was an era when you could still treat a superhero like she was going to White Castle, too.

The movies in 2004 were alert to the wars the country had recently started without feeling beholden to depict them. Rue and fury had suffused the cinematic mood. So had paranoia. We were into it. Conspiracy and suspicion drives more than half this week’s movies. Matt Damon tries to solve the mystery of his memory in “The Bourne Supremacy.” Has the government programmed him to kill? Denzel Washington digs at the matter of Liev Schreiber’s sudden appearance on a presidential ticket in another version of “The Manchurian Candidate.” Who, in that movie, hasn’t the government programmed to kill? And in “I, Robot,” poor Will Smith zooms around an unconvincing future Chicago in even less convincing leathers, trying to figure out whether a fleet of mechanical helpers has also been… Programmed to Kill.

“The Village” is what really brought me back to this week. It’s M. Night Shyamalan’s sixth movie and his fourth as superstar filmmaker. And it, too, seems paranoid, as worried in its storytelling as the action movies. I remember finding the absurdity of it outrageous even for him. But Shyamalan doesn’t leaven the stress with chase sequences and top-drawer, whole-dresser fist fights. He’d become the last filmmaker of the pre-streaming era to make himself the draw.

This was another of his plot-twist puzzles; and, after “The Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable” and “Signs,” people had arrived at “The Village” ready to solve it. I don’t watch movies that way. A director gives me a story, and I’ll do my best to go wherever he or she takes me. And where this one is going — ostensibly, anyway — is a New England-esque hamlet in the 1890s. The place runs on forbidding rules that all but begin, “Thou shall not.” Red has been banned. And crossing the village boundary into the woods will upset the creatures the village elders have ponderously named “Those We Don’t Speak Of.”

But animals are being skinned and strewn about the land, and red paint slashes front doors. Seems like the creatures are already upset. But Shyamalan is smart. Fear of invaders provides the atmosphere; people are the problem. Hearts get broken, somebody’s almost murdered. At some point, a sightless member of the community has to journey beyond it for medicine.

“The Village” was a hit. You can tell, though, that the plot twist infuriated more people than it intrigued. Its numbers were down a staggering 67% from its enormous opening weekend. No one seemed to have the urge to protect the ending from being ruined the way they did for “The Sixth Sense,” a movie that inspired people to scream “I haven’t seen it yet!” when even strangers were overheard yammering about it and practically mandated the spoiler alert. Crossword fanatics turn to Rex Parker’s blog for comfort and commiseration. In 2004, frustrated Shyamaniacs had nowhere comparable to go. The ending was too — what? — insulting, pretentious, illogical to spoil. In the last month, I’ve encountered enough people who haven’t seen “The Village” that I’m compelled to preserve the surprise. There’s more to it than Shyamalan’s trap door, anyway.

The movie has a visual richness that rehooked me when I watched it again recently. Knowing the story’s conceit little diminishes Shyamalan’s skill in telling it. Roger Deakins’ cinematography frames shots through doors and windows; in one particularly deft move, through both. Christopher Tellefsen’s editing dances gracefully between excess and concision, between dream pacing and a nightmare’s rush. Shyamalan remains an underrated director of actors. Here, it’s William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, Cherry Jones, Celia Weston, Joaquin Phoenix, Adrien Brody, Judy Greer, Brendan Gleeson, Michael Pitt, a barely there Jesse Eisenberg, lots of children and Bryce Dallas Howard, whose way with confidence and vulnerability should’ve made her a bigger star than she became. (I blame her central spots in Lars von Trier’s American slavery screed, “Manderlay,” and Shyamalan’s follow-up and first stinker, “The Lady in the Water” — which I like! — plus the arrival of the somehow gutsier Jessica Chastain.)

“The Village” is a strange movie. It works as a yarn that’s no bigger or grander than it needs to be. It’s got some of “The Twilight Zone”— Shirley Jackson and Nathaniel Hawthorne, too. The film’s characters have given up on an America they say no longer feels safe and wind up becoming a danger to themselves all the same. We’d call them privileged now. Assessments of Shyamalan don’t tend to wade into his Indian American identity because the films don’t insist upon it. But with this movie, he’s built a world in which his own appearance would create suspicion in the dramatization of the conceit. The movie, therefore, becomes a tragedy about whiteness and its desperate preservation. The world beyond the village borders threaten its sanctity. One thing that remains so satisfying about the movie now is the director’s confidence. He believed he could get away with this thing, and, largely, he does.

You can see why Shyamalan was such a draw. The great pop directors know how to give us what we want without pandering to do it; and getting exactly what we want still manages to arouse surprise. Hitchcock, Spielberg, Tarantino; it’s early but Jordan Peele. Shyamalan was in good box-office company that week. That “Manchurian Candidate” remake, doing so-so in its second week, was Jonathan Demme’s. It’s all over the place and strangely dull in parts. The action and politics never congeal in the script, so Demme has to force them together. You don’t know what compelled him to take the movie on, aside from the chance to work with Washington again and with Meryl Streep, who plays the scheming, gorgon mother. Demme guided one of Washington’s most sophisticated performance (in 1993’s “Philadelphia”) but his star barely comes through here. Watchful passivity is something a star like Damon can do (he’s used to having to find other ways to get noticed in a scene). But Washington can’t do small because he’s not. And so when he sits around, so does the movie.

Demme was coming off pouring a lot of his soul into an impossible adaptation of Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” from 1998, with Oprah Winfrey, Danny Glover, Kimberly Elise and Thandie Newton, and throwing a lot of confetti around “The Truth About Charlie,” a terrific, tremendously alive remake of Stanley Donen’s “Charade” with Newton and Mark Wahlberg. Both movies were received as misbegotten even though each has its considerable strengths, namely Elise and especially Newton, who was beguilingly weird in one and incandescent in the other. It’s possible that, by the time of this other, higher-stakes remake, Demme was just out of gas.

You wonder what Paul Greengrass’ hyperkinetic, docu-realist style would have made of the same material had he not been tied up with the “Bourne” films. Instead, Greengrass was leading franchise violence into headier, more breakneck territory. He and Sam Raimi, who brought some love of B-movie splatter to the “Spider-Man” series, were trying to point Hollywood toward a harmonious bond between “visionary” and “pop,” to prove that the so-called auteurs could make assembly-line smashes with a signature. Early that summer, Alfonso Cuarón had helped underscore that point with his installment of the “Harry Potter” saga. But at some point, the franchises became the auteurs just as the superheroes and villains became the stars. It would’ve been impossible to assert a trademark style upon worlds that come preassembled without one. Shyamalan could sense as much. He used “Unbreakable,” “Split” and “Glass” to build his own superhero trilogy.

The lasting cautionary lesson might not be Greengrass’ or Raimi’s. It’s probably that of Pitof. “Catwoman” was bungled from start to finish because all the vision was in the wrong places. The movie seemed to know it was an allegory for prematurely discarded female stars (Sharon Stone — casually invested, secretly campy — torments Halle Berry) but couldn’t conjure the outrage or concern for their plight the way Tim Burton did for Catwoman in his second “Batman” movie. Pitof evidently cared about the look, and even then his vision was impaired. The movie’s failure encouraged Hollywood to conclude that women make lousy subjects for superhero adaptations and that Berry should be hung out to dry. I left a second helping wondering why nobody could find a less lousy director.

I won’t suggest that Michael Mann might have been such a person. But even just a touch of his rigor with action sequences, atmosphere and, yes, comedy could have saved the day for Berry. That rigor is all over “Collateral,” a shoot-’em-up that Stuart Beattie wrote in which a taxi driver (Jamie Foxx) chauffeurs an assassin (Tom Cruise) around Los Angeles as he crosses names off his hit list.

Foxx does the driving under smoldering duress. Cruise does the killing under a block of ashen hair. They’re fantastic, and so is every sequence, nearly each shot and song selection. Mann was working with high-definition video, by Dion Beebe and Paul Cameron, that lent a matte painterliness to the images. The movie is set between dusk and dawn, and the light on Foxx’s dark brown skin and Cruise’s hair and matching suit turn them spectral.

“Collateral” opens with a borderline romance between the cabbie and one of those high-powered attorneys (Jada Pinkett Smith). She exits his cab for a late work night until the movie finds a plausible excuse to revisit her. The hitman-protagonist conventions are here: Cruise is heartless (and unkillable) except for the occasional cloud breaks of camaraderie and humor. He’s operating at a grave extreme of the narcissistic rectitude of his other roles. He’s as sharply dialed in as the photography.

Foxx is also in a zone — this is a star who can play small and gather strength as he shrinks. He was Academy Award-nominated for his work here. His performance as Ray Charles was about to win him an Oscar. Nonetheless, can a well-decorated actor be underrated? He should have four more.

Mann had made a summer movie that felt like winter. It’s sexy, tense, handsome, off-kilter, suspenseful, soulful yet chilly, a prelude to his sweltering, erotic feature-length re-imagination of “Miami Vice,” with Foxx and Colin Farrell. “Collateral” follows “Ali,” a hefty biopic ultimately focused on the Rumble in the Jungle. That film might have been too besotted to work. But there’s something poignantly fantastical about Mann’s assertions of Black humanity. Has any Black man in an American movie had as many close calls with the police as Foxx in “Collateral” and still be alive and free by the end? And the final shot, of two people seeing day break, feels perversely decadent. Of course, Cruise’s contract killer loves jazz. So this is also a movie in which he blows out the brains of a Black trumpeter and club owner (Barry Shabaka Henley) for failing his lethally subjective Miles Davis trivia night.

The movie might have been less than what audiences were looking for. Two hours of nasty Tom Cruise? It opened just under $25 million. Great for a Jamie Foxx movie back then, underwhelming for Cruise. I might have been part of the problem. At the end of that year, I made a Top 10 list and put 22 movies on it. None was “The Village” or “Collateral.” That was 2004 for you: treasure just left sunk.

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