From a church perspective, it is even trickier. Do you choose films based solely on artistic merit? Should every movie have a strong moral message? Does an objectionable element automatically preclude the entire picture from inclusion? Such were the issues that percolated in our heads as we weighed the candidates.
Some very fine and superbly acted films had to be left out because their themes, at least in part, went against church teachings, such as Clint Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby" and Alejandro Amenabar's "The Sea Inside."
Other wonderful films like "The Notebook," "Maria Full of Grace" and "Alfie" imparted positive messages, but some troublesome elements precluded them from unconditional endorsements.
Since 1965 the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Office for Film & Broadcasting has compiled a list honoring the top 10 films produced each year. These exceedingly well-made motion pictures -- which include features and documentaries, both foreign and domestic -- are chosen not only for their obvious cinematic excellence, but for the filmmaker's striving to enlighten as well as to entertain. Each passes the test for intelligence, ethical content and inspiration.
So, without further ado, here are the 10 best films of 2004, in alphabetical order, together with their USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting classifications and Motion Picture Association of America ratings:
The Top 10 Films of 2004
- "The Aviator," Martin Scorsese's grandly glamorous biopic about the tortured life of legendary millionaire maverick Howard Hughes who triumphed over personal demons. A-III (PG-13)
- "Danny Deckchair," tender Australian import about a man who finds out that life is full of possibility, even when it seems otherwise. A-III (PG-13)
- "Finding Neverland," five-hankie fictionalized period drama, anchored by a superb performance by Johnny Depp, about British playwright and author J.M. Barrie's platonic relationship with a consumptive widow who served as the muse for his best-known work, "Peter Pan," and with her four young sons. A-II (PG)
- "Hero," visually spectacular martial-arts epic set in ancient China, which buttresses its eye-popping action sequences with a strong anti-war message. A-III (PG-13)
- "Hotel Rwanda," powerful fact-based drama about one man's heroism during the dark days of the Rwandan genocide, which celebrates the nobility of the human spirit even in the face of unspeakable evil. A-III (PG-13)
- "The Passion of the Christ." Mel Gibson's brutal but reverent interpretive distillation of the four Passion narratives, which, as a piece of devotional art -- controversy aside -- exhibits an uncompromising vision and some deeply moving imagery. A-III (R)
- "Ray," inspiring biopic about the talented and troubled life of blind entertainer Ray Charles who overcame adversity and addiction to become an American musical legend, featuring a standout performance by Jamie Foxx. A-III (PG-13)
- "Shall We Dance?" a charmingly crafted remake of a Japanese gem about a middle-aged man whose life in a rut is transformed when he secretly enrolls in a school for ballroom dancing. Despite getting trounced by some critics, the film offers a strong affirmation of marriage and family. A-III (PG-13)
- "Spanglish," James L. Brooks' touching comedy-drama about a non-English-speaking, Mexican single mom who struggles to instill traditional values in her young daughter, while working as a housekeeper for an affluent American family. The movie deals with parenting and cultural assimilation with great profundity under its breezy surface. A-III (PG-13)
- "Woman Thou Art Loosed," redemption tale a la "Dead Man Walking" about a woman searching for hope and meaning in her broken life while awaiting execution for murdering the man who had sexually molested her as a child. A-III (R)
- "Ella Enchanted," a whimsical fairy tale based on Gail Carson Levine's children's novel about a young girl in a storybook realm who tries to rid herself of a curse cast on her at birth by her ditzy fairy godmother, and who winds up learning about self-empowerment and the magic of love. A-II (PG)
- "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," the third and (though decidedly darkest to date) best installment of J.K. Rowling's hugely popular franchise about a wizard in training. A-II (PG)
- "I Am David," an uplifting coming-of-age tale based on the Anne Holm novella about a young boy's journey of self-discovery, as he escapes oppression in a Bulgarian labor camp and travels across Europe in search of freedom. A-II (PG)
- "The Incredibles," fun-tastic animated adventure about a close-knit clan of superheroes forced out of retirement to save the world, which, though edgier and more serious than past Pixar films, celebrates family love and striving for excellence. A-II (PG)
- "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events," delightfully macabre adaptation of Daniel Handler's popular children's book series about the outrageous misadventures of three orphaned waifs trying to navigate their perilous way through various guardians into whose dubious care they have been entrusted. A-II (PG)
- "Miracle," feel-good, true-life sports drama about the 1980 U.S. Olympic men's hockey team's inspiring, against-the-odds quest for the gold. A-II (PG)
- "The Polar Express," hauntingly beautiful Christmas tale based on the enchanting yuletide yarn by Chris Van Allsburg about a young boy's magic train ride to the North Pole. A-I (G)
- "Shrek 2," captivating sequel to DreamWorks' highly successful animated adventure about a cantankerous green ogre with a heart of gold. A-II (PG)
- "The SpongeBob Square Pants Movie," zany underwater animated comedy based on the hit cartoon TV series about the adventures of an unabashedly optimistic sea sponge and his aquatic friends. A-I (G)
- "Two Brothers," heartwarming animal adventure about a pair of tiger cubs separated by fate, and hardened by man's cruelty, whose lives cross paths, putting their brotherly bonds to the ultimate test. Directed by acclaimed French filmmaker Jean-Jacques Annaud, the movie is full of stunning natural photography and, in spite of its four-legged co-stars, humanity. A-I (PG)