Fahrenheit 2004

Remembering the movies that heated up cinemas this year

Perhaps it's because we see real-life violence on the news every day now, not to mention in political documentaries, but nobody seems too worried about excessive bloodletting in the movies anymore. That's good news for gorehounds.

The year kicked off with Ashton Kutcher impaling his own hands in The Butterfly Effect and continued with a full-fledged revival of the zombie movie, starting with Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead remake, continuing with the video-game-based Resident Evil: Apocalypse, and going truly international with the U.K. hit Shaun of the Dead. Cary Elwes hacked his own foot off in Saw, John Waters got his face melted in Seed of Chucky, and "comedy" troupe Broken Lizard used tits and blood to (unsuccessfully) sell its Club Dread. Meanwhile, Hellboy and Alien vs. Predator showed that you can have as many disembowelments as you want in a PG-13 movie, provided the only victims are demons and outer-space creatures that bleed funky neon colors. From across both oceans, Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War and A Very Long Engagement brought the intensity and realism of war to an audience that may not have expected it.

The award for Funniest Use of Gore goes to Team America: World Police, in which Danny Glover and Sean Penn (in puppet form) got mauled to death and had their guts chewed on by Kim Jong-il's "giant panthers" (actually a pair of black housecats). The Pointless Gore Award goes to art-house snoozer Twentynine Palms, for the scene near the end when the protagonist suddenly appears to turn into the Toxic Avenger.

Still, the biggest triumph of big-screen bloodletting came indisputably thanks to Mel Gibson, who managed to peddle a splatter movie to the very people who've condemned them most loudly. His secret? Make sure that the person being stabbed, beaten, ripped apart, abused and mutilated happens to be Jesus Christ. Do that, and audiences will even read subtitles. -- Luke Y. Thompson

Closing Credits: "Bud"

If Marlon Brando -- "Bud" to his family and intimates -- was not the finest movie actor who ever lived, he certainly had the greatest gift for reinvention. Between the opening night in 1947 when the lean, cruelly handsome young Nebraskan shouted "Stel-lahhhh!" in the Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire to the moment, three decades and 200 pounds later, when he filled a dark jungle hut with a murmur: "The horror…the horror," he took on many forms. He was, in turn, the charismatic '50s rebel, the weird Hollywood iconoclast, a menacing Godfather and a real-life father agonized by his son's conviction for manslaughter. By the end, which came July 2 at age 80, he had so many encrustations of myth that the real Brando, if there ever was one, had almost ceased to exist. But his legacy is unquestionably profound. Having absorbed the Method at the Actors Studio, he dispensed it far and wide through the performances of every awestruck actor who followed him. Troubled and tragic, Marlon Brando had become nothing less than a condition of life.

He may be remembered most vividly for his jowly, grave Don Corleone ("Tataglia is a pimp…"), but who among us wasn't captivated by the depressed U.S. expatriate he played in Last Tango in Paris, his tormented pug in On the Waterfront ("I coulda been a contendah"), the vengeful outlaw of One-Eyed Jacks or the enigmatic, half-crazed Colonel Kurtz of Apocalypse Now, who embodied the American misadventure in Vietnam. Was the giant without humor or irony? Hardly. In The Freshman (1990), he happily parodied his Godfather role and, for reasons known only to himself, he reportedly required all visitors to his Tahitian island hideaway to produce, well, stool samples.

"What are you rebelling against?" a sweet-faced teenager asks Brando's sneering, leather-clad motorcyclist in 1954's The Wild One. "Whaddya got?" he replies. That might be epitaph enough for one of moviedom's few authentic geniuses. -- Bill Gallo

The Future of Modernism

Flash back to 1999. George Lucas steps back into the director's chair after two decades of absence and produces the critically derided Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Though its visuals are praised, many writers note the stilted acting and suggest that Lucas's extensive use of bluescreens rather than actual sets is partially to blame. In 2002, the second Star Wars prequel seems to bear that out, and the use of "virtual sets" starts to look like a bad idea.

Or does it? Lucas, as has been the case before, may have been ahead of his time. This year saw two wildly different auteurs use the blue- and greenscreen techniques to create two of the most expensive "personal" movies ever. Kerry Conran's Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow existed as a fully realized story inside a computer before a single actor was cast, while Robert Zemeckis's The Polar Express allowed actors to portray characters who transcend their physical limitations. Yes, there were accusations of stilted acting this time around as well, but more critics and viewers started warming to the notion of bluescreens, especially after viewing The Polar Express in 3-D IMAX, which revealed minute details that were invisible on a regular-size screen.

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