Specific years in cinema stand out as exceptional. For example, 1939 and 1999 are two years moviegoers regard as some of the finest ever. Audiences do not mention 2004 as much, but the wide range of films celebrating their 20th anniversary in 2024 deserve such esteem.
From critically acclaimed biopics, rousing adventures, and hilarious comedies, the best movies turning 20 in 2024 showcase how much this form of storytelling offers.
1. 50 First Dates
In their second film together, Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore charm viewers while also making them unexpectedly shed a few tears. This story follows Henry (Sandler), a man who thinks he'll never meet the woman who can cure his commitment issues- until he meets the effervescent Lucy (Barrymore) and sparks fly. There's just one “small” problem- Lucy has short-term memory loss and keeps living the same day repeatedly.
50 First Dates delights viewers because of its unconventional love story, told with the comforting romantic comedy formula and sweet chemistry between Sandler and Barrymore. It never quite reaches the comedy heights of The Wedding Singer, but 50 First Dates makes up for it with surprisingly poignant moments about the power of love.
2. 13 Going On 30
2004 made a movie star out of Jennifer Garner with 13 Going on 30, a sweet-natured romantic fantasy showcasing that age-old lesson “be careful what you wish for.” The plot follows Jenna Rink, a 13-year-old who magically flashes forward to adulthood, where she works as a “big-time magazine editor, living her best “30, flirty, and thriving” life. But Jenna has also lost her way, devastated to learn she and her best friend Matt (Mark Ruffalo) no longer speak.
Charming, funny, and with surprisingly profound messages, 13 Going On 30 works so well because of Garner's affable performance portraying a teenager in an adult's body, Ruffalo's natural, understated wit and chemistry with Garner, and the bright and energetic tone. A scenario rife with comedic potential, Garner gives her all, creating an iconic role and unforgettable moments, most especially recreating Michael Jackson's “Thriller” dance.
3. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy
As raucous a comedy as they come (certainly where movies turning 20 are concerned), Anchorman tells the tale of vain, ridiculous news anchor Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell), whose cushy world gets turned upside down by the hiring of a co-anchor named Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate).
Intentionally goofy and over-the-top, the plot matters much less than the array of ridiculous characters who elicit side-splitting laughter with their behavior, attitudes, fights with rival anchor teams, and quotable one-liners. Also starring Paul Rudd and Steve Carrell, if any movie could represent the word hilarity, it would be Anchorman.
4. The Aviator
One of director Martin Scorsese's most stylish and captivating films, The Aviator, follows the life of the famed, eccentric, and brilliant Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio). The story highlights Hughes's life as a pilot, film director, inventor, entrepreneur, and lady's man, also shedding light on his struggles with undiagnosed bipolar disorder and obsessive-compulsive tendencies.
From his relationships with Katharine Hepburn (Academy Award-winning Cate Blanchett) and Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale) to his high-profile senate committee trial and devastating personal moments that stem from his health issues, Scorsese never sugarcoats nor condemns Hughes. Instead, the director gives viewers a compelling story about a complex man and guides one of DiCaprio's most superb performances of his career.
5. Before Sunset
The second in Richard Linklater's dreamy and romantic trilogy, Before Sunset, takes place nine years after the original, following the same walking and talking format and featuring all the luster and poignancy of its predecessor. If Before Sunrise represents the thrill and beauty of a young, unexpected love, Before Sunset explores the “what might have been” and second chances tropes.
Just like the first movie, Before Sunset rests on stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy's ability to entice viewers and convince them that these two have never forgotten their one life-changing day together. This thoughtful, natural, and utterly romantic film enchants its audience with a lovely simplicity.
6. The Bourne Supremacy
The second in the Jason Bourne series, The Bourne Supremacy, proves that franchises can improve with each film. In this installment, the CIA forces Jason out of hiding after they blame him for the murder of two operatives. Desperate to prove his innocence, regain his memory, and some semblance of his humanity, he fights to uncover the truth and expose the real culprits, some entrenched deep in the organization.
Although action and fight sequences dominate the film, the narrative remains engaging, with enough high-octane thrills to satisfy the adrenaline lovers.
Of all the movies turning 20 here, this one most evokes the geopolitical climate of 2004 with its focus on terrorism, black ops, and cloak-and-dagger intrigue.
Directed by the legendary filmmaker Mike Nichols, Closer follows four people living in London and their twisted, interconnected story rife with passion, betrayal, jealousy, love, and selfishness. A film about horrible people doing deplorable things may not be enjoyable. And indeed, many viewers would not use that word to describe the movie.
Love may be one of the film's themes. Still, Closer offers no romance but provocative dialogue and often raw, disturbing moments. And yet, Closer thoroughly captivates viewers because of the magnetic performances of its four stars, Jude Law, Julia Roberts, Clive Owen, and Natalie Portman, the latter both receiving Oscar nominations. Ultimately, Closer demonstrates the fragility of relationships devoid of honesty, fidelity, and trust.
Michael Mann‘s intense thriller subverts expectations by putting Tom Cruise in a supporting role as a ruthless villain who terrorizes protagonist Jamie Foxx. The plot follows a cab driver who unknowingly picks up a hit man as his last fare of the night. Thrust into this man's deadly itinerary, he fights to stay alive, relying on his knowledge and a healthy dose of adrenaline. Overall, Collateral delivers on multiple levels thanks to the unrelenting tension and riveting performances from Foxx and Cruise.
9. Ella Enchanted
This bright, hilarious, fairy tale parody loosely based on Gail Carson Levine's novel follows Ella (Anne Hathaway), a young woman given the gift of obedience as a baby. But this gift turns out to be a curse as she must do anything she's told, no matter how silly or literal. Wanting to free herself, Ella sets out to break the curse and finds love with the beloved Princess Char (Hugh Dancy) along the way.
The film's terrific cast includes Minnie Driver, Cary Elwes, Vivica A. Fox, Parminder Nagra, and Eric Idle, while the modern edge to the humor gives the film a fun-filled spirit. Chock full of colorful, goofy, self-referential humor, lively musical numbers, and poignant messages, Ella Enchanted more than lives up to its title.
10. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Dazzling, heartbreaking, and wholly original, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind follows a man who discovers his girlfriend has a procedure that erases all memories of him. Hurt by her actions, he decides to do the same until his consciousness regrets the decision.
Most cinematic love stories follow familiar tropes and characterizations, but Eternal Sunshine's unconventional approach creates something entirely different. The supporting cast of Tom Wilkinson, Elijah Wood, Mark Ruffalo, and Kirsten Dunst excels.
But the film belongs to Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, whose chemistry balances chaos and peace, demonstrating endless joyous, somber, heartfelt, and emotional moments. Eternal Sunshine's glimpse into the mystery of memories and the power of fate creates one of the finest of the modern era.
11. Finding Neverland
Director Marc Forster's Finding Neverland brings the true story of Peter Pan writer J.M. Barrie (Johnny Depp) to life with gentle and heartfelt grace and wonder. After the failure of his latest play, Barrie meets and befriends the kind and beautiful widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet) and her four young sons. Barrie finds inspiration from the family while he shows them the joys of using your imagination and the power of believing in the impossible. But tragedy looms on the horizon.
The performances and story bring viewers to tears in this extraordinary film. Forster masterfully blends fantasy and reality with the ways Barrie and the Llewelyn Davies family imagine the story and their playful adventures come to life. And in turn, they learn to smile, dream, and grieve. Finding Neverland demonstrates the importance of storytelling through a lovely, melodic lens.
12. Garden State
Zach Braff wrote and directed this thoughtful story about a young man who returns home for his mother's funeral after a long absence. On anti-depressants since childhood, his numb existence changes forever when he meets a quirky, kind woman and forms an instant connection.
Garden State's simple story works beautifully thanks to the talented cast (Braff, Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaardd, and Ian Holm) and the thoughtful script. With non-judgment, compassion, and empathy, Garden State proves that finding yourself and falling in love does not have to be mutually exclusive.
13. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Often cited as the finest in the franchise, the third installment in the Harry Potter series sees Harry and his friends deal with the imminent threat of the terrifying Dementors “guarding” Hogwarts and Azkaban prison escapee Sirius Black.
Director Alfonso Cuarón gives his film a gorgeous, moody look and tone, mirroring the darker narrative and character's emotions. The film explores themes of depression and grief but never drowns in sadness. Instead, fans witness a thrilling, engaging tale, more mature than its predecessors but still full of magical wonder.
In the vein of classic adventures of the 1930s, Hidalgo tells the true story of Frank Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen), a cowboy and stuntman for Buffalo Bill Cody's (J.K. Simmons) traveling show. Challenged by a sheik to prove he's the greatest endurance rider, Frank and his trusted Mustang horse, Hidalgo, enter a race across the Arabian desert. Unsurprisingly, dangers loom from unscrupulous contestants to harsh weather conditions.
Hidalgo harkens back to a classic form of filmmaking with an adventurous spirit, stunning cinematography, and an inspiring story. One of 2004's most underrated gems, Hidalgo proves to be a winner.
15. The Incredibles
The Incredibles follows a seemingly ordinary family with one significant difference. The once crime-fighting couple and their children each have exceptional individual powers. Antsy and frustrated with his suburban life, Bob, aka Mr. Incredible, receives a mysterious message, excited to be back in the superhero game. Of course, things take a turn, and the entire family must learn to work together and save the world from a scorned villain.
The bright color scheme, score by Michael Giacchino, and mid-century modern-inspired visuals create a lively, energetic atmosphere that helps the movie stand out. Moreover, the characters make viewers laugh, and familial moments feel relatable despite their abilities. One of Pixar's most extraordinary movies, The Incredibles, lives up to its title.
16. Laws of Attraction
A sweet and a little saucy rom-com, Laws of Attraction stars Julianne Moore and Pierce Brosnan and takes inspiration from classic comedy dynamics and storytelling, especially Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy's Adam's Rib. The movie follows two rival lawyers in a high-profile divorce case who bicker and verbally spar but find themselves undeniably attracted to each other.
The film works because of Moore and Brosnan's palpable and humorous chemistry and the hilarious supporting characters, played by scene-stealers Parker Posey and Michael Sheen. Though rom-com fans often forget this one, Laws of Attraction deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as other 2000s comedies for its blend of sweetness, silliness, and romance only found in the movies.
17. Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events
The children's book series gets a terrific, engaging adaptation in this overlooked family film. The film condenses several books into one and follows the orphaned but resourceful Baudelaire siblings and their attempts to escape from their greedy guardian, Count Olaf (Jim Carrey).
Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events features several virtues that deserve praise: stylish Victorian steampunk production design and costumes, a darkly whimsical humor and tone, and a wonderfully over-the-top performance from Carrey.
18. Mean Girls
In 2004, Mean Girls became a popular hit thanks to the sharply written script, pointed commentary done with fun-loving humor, and hilarious performances from the stacked cast, including Lindsay Lohan, Rachel McAdams, Lacey Chabert, Amanda Seyfried, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Lizzie Caplan, Tim Meadows, and Jonathan Bennett.
The plot follows teenager Cady Heron (Lohan) who attends public high school for the first time. She must learn to navigate the wild world of cliques, especially the “Plastics,” led by Queen Bee Regina George (McAdams). Mean Girls has become an iconic comedy fans still love to watch, quote, and laugh with, cementing its place in film history. As they'd say in the movie- that's so fetch!
19. Million Dollar Baby
Million Dollar Baby tells the emotional and heartbreaking story of aspiring boxer Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) and the gruff, worn-down Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood), who begrudgingly agrees to train and coach her. As Maggie rises in the ranks, she and Frankie form an unbreakable father-and-daughter-like bond.
Million Dollar Baby became one the most awarded and critically acclaimed films of 2004, winning Oscars for Best Picture, Director (Eastwood), Actress (Swank), and Supporting Actor (Morgan Freeman). Any filmgoer can understand the praise. The movie both inspires and breaks its viewer's hearts. It subverts expectations and transcends its initial subject matter into something even more profound. Million Dollar Baby stays with viewers long after the credits stop rolling.
“The Miracle on Ice” from the 1980s Winter Olympics gets a worthy treatment in this Disney film. Starring Kurt Russell as Coach Herb Brooks, the movie follows the team's journey from a group of young, self-serving athletes to a united team that learns the honor of playing for their country.
Whether viewers know the true story or not, the film remains engaging and inspiring, eliciting the chills and tears that come from the singular experience of watching sports, especially on the Olympic level.
21. National Treasure
National Treasure creates a fun ride for filmgoers looking for a good, old-fashioned PG adventure. Those who love treasure hunting and American history will delight in this tale that follows Ben Gates (Nicolas Cage) and his fellow “treasure protectors” on a quest for the Templar Treasure.
With clues hidden everywhere, including The Declaration of Independence and the Liberty Bell, Ben and his friends race to protect and preserve history from the greedy and ruthless Ian (Sean Bean) and his goons.
Also starring Diane Kruger, Jon Voight, Justin Bartha, and Harvey Keitel, National Treasure moves swiftly, entertains, and gives viewers a creative and fun adventure from start to finish.
22. The Notebook
Based on the Nicholas Sparks novel, The Notebook tells the story of Allie and Noah (Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling), a couple with passion to spare, kept apart by distance, war, and family interference. A love story for the ages, Allie and Noah's tale unfolds as an elderly Duke (James Garner) reads to an older Allie (Gena Rowlands) who suffers from dementia.
The Notebook exudes a dreamy and romantic spirit with magnetic performances from Gosling and McAdams, a lovely, sweeping score, and gentle and fiery moments. But the film becomes even more poignant with its depiction of the effects of age and illness.
Some romances transcend eras. The Notebook's timeless qualities have made it a modern classic for romantics everywhere.
23. The Passion of the Christ
The story of Jesus Christ and his crucifixion, The Passion of the Christ, gets the most brutal and realistic on-screen translation ever. Starring Jim Caviezel and directed by Mel Gibson, the film depicts a brief timeframe. Still, it creates an intense and compelling spiritual journey.
Although the brutality and violence can be challenging to watch at times, the significance of the film, particularly for viewers of faith, also cannot be understated. Caviezel transforms into Jesus Christ with quiet strength and tremendous dignity. This film will surely elicit strong reactions.
24. The Phantom of the Opera
Andrew Lloyd Webber's famed and beloved musical gets a magnificent screen adaptation that leaves an everlasting impression on viewers. The story follows the happenings in a Paris Opera house. After an accident with the Prima Donna Carlotta (Minnie Driver), the talented ingenue Christine (Emmy Rossum) takes her place, amazing the audience, opera house owners, and young patron Raoul (Patrick Wilson). As for the most impressed, the mysterious Phantom of the Opera (Gerard Buther) entrances Christine, thus beginning a gorgeous and tragic tale of love and obsession.
Every single frame in The Phantom of the Opera shines with a radiant and luminous quality. Moreover, the awe-inspiring performances and glorious renditions of Webber's music add to the film's virtues. Though nothing can replace live theater, this spectacular musical reaches heights far beyond the balcony.
Jamie Foxx deservedly won an Oscar for his transcendent, uncanny performance of singer Ray Charles. Likewise, the film itself gives movie watchers a look into the singer's life, never glossing over his demons, vices, and childhood trauma. But significantly, Ray also demonstrates his immense talent, ingenuity, determination, and perseverance.
Blind since the age of seven, Charles had to learn how to make it without help. Charles changed the cultural and musical landscape forever with a keen ability to mimic and hear what others cannot. Ray showcases his life's work and reality with style, grittiness, and poignancy.
Many moviegoers remember 2004 as the year that made Merlot and the art of wine tasting mainstream. Of course, Alexander Payne's comedic tale reaches far beyond that premise. The story follows two men, Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church), days before Jack's wedding. A fun bachelor weekend in the wine country in California becomes a crazy, unexpected journey. Jack's intent on sewing wild oats with the alluring Stephanie (Sandra Oh) wreaks havoc. At the same time, the genuine connection Miles finds with fellow wine enthusiast Maya (Virginia Madsen) opens his eyes and heart.
Sideways explores the complexity of the human condition, cleverly using wine as a metaphor for life. If people never open the bottle they've been saving, sooner or later, it turns sour. It takes courage to open up, but it will always be worth it. With terrific writing and acting, these insights balance the outrageously comedic moments, making Sideways both funny and profound.
27. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
Fans will remember the movies of 2004 for numerous things, including the technological advancements and creative chances filmmakers took. In Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, writer/director Kerry Conran creates a visual world unlike any other combined with a fun, old-fashioned adventure story.
In the film, the tenacious reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow) and her charming ex-boyfriend and ace pilot Joe (Jude Law) team up after giant robots attack the city. Uncovering the mystery proves dangerous, adventurous, and exciting as Polly and Joe bicker, flirt, reignite their spark, and help save the world. Along with a muted color palette, there's a sheen to the film and look that's rich and unique. Additionally, the nostalgic tone and affable characters help make Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow soar.
28. Spider-Man 2
The silver screen has seen multiple adaptations of the Spider-Man comics. However, many still find Sam Raimi's Spider-Man films the most compelling and well-made. Likewise, most fans would agree that Spider-Man 2 represents a peak in superhero movie storytelling- for good reason.
The plot sees Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) struggling to balance everyday life and being a hero. He loves Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst), but his actions make her confused and frustrated. Additionally, a horrible accident turns Peter's mentor, Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), into a monster controlled by artificial intelligence, leading to intense battles, kidnappings, and potential catastrophes.
The brilliance of Spider-Man 2 comes from the characters' grounded, realistic, and very human struggles and emotions combined with the type of high-energy action audiences love in their comic book movies. Told with an exciting and dynamic visual style and excellent performances, filmmakers of comparable films should look to Spider-Man 2 as a zenith example of captivating fantasy storytelling.
29. The Terminal
One of Steven Spielberg's most underrated films, The Terminal, follows Victor Navorski (Tom Hanks), a man who becomes stranded in JFK airport after the collapse of his country's government nullifies his papers. With no home to return to and forbidden to set foot on US soil, Victor makes a home at the airport, makes friends, and changes lives. The film's sweetness creates a pleasing and touching viewing experience. It presents an inspiring story about determination, self-reliance, friendship, selflessness, and integrity.
Combining the romantic comedy and sports genres, Wimbledon follows British tennis player Peter Colt (Paul Bettany) on the brink of retirement, unexpectedly doing well in the Wimbledon tournament. There, he meets Lizzie Bradbury (Kirsten Dunst), a star on the rise with an effervescent spirit and competitive drive. Neither expects to fall for the other, but fate has other plans, making for a complicated, funny, uplifting tale.
With magnetic chemistry between the leads and a story that makes audiences cheer, Wimbledon remains one of the 2000s's most underrated rom-coms.
– The Polar Express
Robert Zemeckis dazzled many in 2004 with this beloved children's book adaptation. The motion capture technology elicits varied reactions, but the story beautifully captures the holiday season's whimsy and magic.
– Shrek 2
The finest in the Shrek franchise, the fun-filled sequel features the same kind of creative, sometimes irreverent humor. But the story and heart of the film exceeds the original.
– Win a Date with Tad Hamilton
Win a Date with Tad Hamilton proves that one should never judge a film prematurely by its title. This underrated romantic comedy features a lively, fun spirit, an excellent cast, wholesome sweetness, and an unexpectedly deep and thoughtful look at what loving someone means.