Honorable mentions of 2004: Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera -- Because Michael Crawford notwithstanding, actor Gerard Butler builds a better Phantom and director Joel Schumacher fashions an unmasking to rival Lon Chaney's. The Dreamers -- Because director Bernardo Bertolucci resides at that curious intersection of cinema, sex and intellect and is kind enough to periodically have us over for tea. Saved! -- Because comediographers Brian Dannelly and Michael Urban put me right back in the halls of my Christian high school with this surprisingly sweet and funny tale. Shrek 2 -- Because Mike Myers will always be the silliest, smartest, Shrekiest guy around. The Stepford Wives -- Because as the first couple of the eponymous burg, costars Glenn Close and Christopher Walken didn't just go out on a limb; they jumped to a totally different tree. Team America: World Police -- Because hearing puppets use the "f" word just never stops being funny. Vanity Fair -- Because even if the rest of the film walks too much in sunshine, Gabriel Byrne's Marquess of Steyne reeks of the decadence and degeneracy at the heart of William Makepeace Thackeray's nasty little novel.
And now for the numbers:
10. (tie) The Reckoning and Stage Beauty -- Because we learn nothing from Shakespeare if not the spectacular symmetry of a play within a play. Because Reckoning's Paul Bettany and Beauty's Billy Crudup deserve more than the obscurity they endure. Because Bettany's shamed priest crawls on his knees toward redemption and director Paul McGuigan gives it to him in one simple, true moment. Because, even though it's a partial performance, Crudup and costar Claire Danes deliver the most stunning Othello since Orson Welles'.
9. Closer -- Because it's possible to make a mesmerizing movie without a single likeable character. Because director Mike Nichols and playwright/screenwriter Patrick Marber don't flinch from the seamier side of a thing called love. Because star Clive Owen is that most precious of contradictions: an actor of feminine nuance whose masculinity can't be contained on screen.
8. The Village -- Because M. Night Shyamalan spends a lot of time in the dark corners that creep the rest of us out. Because Shyamalan is one of only a handful of American directors who know how to make color a character in his films. Because Bryce Dallas Howard might have gotten to the top because of her father, but she's going to stay there because of breathless performances like this one.
7. The Incredibles -- Because "fun for the whole family" can be oh-so-much-more than a marketing ploy. Because the technowizards at Pixar should probably get out more, but then again, they're awfully busy with that whole revolutionizing-animated-movies-as-we-know-them thing. Because this cartoon was the coolest action-adventure film of the year. Because animation even makes Sarah Vowell less annoying.
6. Collateral -- Because director Michael Mann films movies the way Edward Hopper painted masterpieces: sparsely populated, angular and vibrant.
5. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban -- Because, at long last, a Harry Potter movie that doesn't look and feel like it was made by a Muggle. Because Mexican-born director Alfonso Cuarón's rich artistic vision almost makes you forget that Daniel Radcliffe has outgrown his Hogwarts robe and that Richard Harris will never put his on again.
4. Finding Neverland -- Because after Monster's Ball, director Marc Forster needed a bit of silliness, really. Because you have to see the movie twice to understand just how effortlessly brilliant Johnny Depp is. Because most of us would fly off with Peter Pan tomorrow if we could.
3. Alexander -- Because director Oliver Stone doesn't care if anyone actually likes his movies as long as someone is challenged, educated or provoked by them. Because a lesser filmmaker would have wandered off into the desert looking for more action sequences. Because Stone is a master at pulling superior performances from young actors and, this time, he births a believable megalomaniac who wants to conquer the world and her name is Angelina Jolie.
2. The Passion of the Christ -- Because no one other than the uncompromising, unconventional Jim Caviezel could create such an unforgettable Jesus. Because director Mel Gibson poured his own cash and reputation into a misunderstood, maligned project and reaped a whirlwind of biblical proportions. Because he made a movie about his God and accidentally satisfied the only one that Hollywood worships anyway: box office. 1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind -- Because more films should be pulled from lines penned by Alexander Pope. Because Hollywood's resident mad scientist strikes again and, this time, writer Charlie Kaufman's heart catches up with his head. Because the film's grand romantic gesture -- a single whispered line -- carries all the impact and import of a Casablanca, a Doctor Zhivago or a Gone With the Wind.