23 Best Movies & Shows Released in 2004

Staff & contributors

Find the best movies and show to watch from the year 2004. These handpicked recommendations are highly-rated by viewers and critics.

Winner of a Golden Bear and a slew of awards at the European Film Awards in the early noughties, Head-on is named after the suicide attempt of Cahit Tomruk (played by the late Birol Ünel), a Turkish-born German in his mid-40s. At the psychiatric clinic where he is treated, he meets the equally damaged Sibel Güner who is also of Turkish descent. (The first ever feature film of famous German actress Sibel Kekilli, who you might know from Game of Thrones.) Sibel persuades him to marry her in an attempt to break away from her traditional-minded parents.

If you think this plot summary was tough stuff, it gets even grimmer from there. Directed by famous German filmmaker Fatih Akın, the intensity with which Kekilli and Ünel perform the character's unhinged self-hatred is as raw as it gets. Head-on is a brutal, gritty, and heart-wrenching story about the violence of love and hedonism – and the struggle of third-generation Turkish immigrants in Germany.

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Adam Bousdoukos, Aysel Iscan, Birol Ünel, Catrin Striebeck, Cem Akin, Demir Gökgöl, Feridun Koç, Güven Kiraç, Hermann Lause, İdil Üner, Maceo Parker, Mehmet Kurtuluş, Meltem Cumbul, Mona Mur, Orhan Güner, Philipp Baltus, Ralph Misske, Selim Erdoğan, Sibel Kekilli, Stefan Gebelhoff, Tim Seyfi, Tugay Erverdi, Tulga Serim, Zarah Jane McKenzie

Director: Fatih Akin

Rating: R

There are movies that leave you matured after you finished watching. You mature because you are forced to walk in someone's shoes and confront yourself with issues that you are not affected by. The Sea Inside is one of those movies –⁠ and won an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for it. Directed by Alejandro Amenábar, who you might know as the director of The Others, it tells the true story of Ramón Sampedro's decade-long fight for the right to end his own life. After he became quadriplegic after a diving accident, he was confined to the same bed in the same room for 26 years, except when he visited the hospital. Not an easy subject to say the least but Amenábar helps the fascinating story along with stylish directing, while Javier Bardem delivers a stellar performance to go with it. Thanks also to Ramón Sampedro's sunny real-life nature, this heart-wrenching watch also has plenty of uplifting moments.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Adolfo Obregón, Alberto Amarilla, Alberto Jiménez, Alberto Jiménez, Andrea Occhipinti, Belén Rueda, Belén Rueda, Celso Bugallo, César Cambeiro, Clara Segura, Federico Pérez Rey, Francesc Garrido, Javier Bardem, Joan Dalmau, Jordi Ballester, José Luis Rodríguez, Josep Maria Pou, Julio Jordán, Lola Dueñas, Lola Dueñas, Mabel Rivera, Marta Larralde, Tamar Novas, Xosé Manuel Olveira

Director: Alejandro Amenábar

Rating: PG-13

Mike Leigh’s forthright and compassionate depiction of working-class life extends to his period pieces as well. Imelda Staunton is remarkable as Vera Drake, a housekeeper in 1950’s London who quietly performs abortions on the side.

Leigh’s vigilant portrayal of class highlights the stark divide between abortion access for the poor and what is offered to the rich. The storytelling is simple and straightforward, he doesn’t over-sentimentalize or grandstand, but merely depicts conditions as they were. Meanwhile, Staunton’s Vera oozes so much fullness, warmth, and empathy, that the heartbreak that follows is mercilessly palpable. 

Genre: Drama

Actor: Adrian Scarborough, Alan Williams, Alex Kelly, Allan Corduner, Angela Curran, Anna Keaveney, Anthony O'Donnell, Billie Cook, Billy Seymour, Chris O'Dowd, Craig Conway, Daniel Mays, Eddie Marsan, Eileen Davies, Elizabeth Berrington, Emma Amos, Fenella Woolgar, Gerard Monaco, Heather Craney, Helen Coker, Imelda Staunton, Jake Wood, James Payton, Jane Wood, Jeffry Wickham, Jim Broadbent, Joanna Griffiths, John Warman, Judith Scott, Leo Bill, Lesley Manville, Lesley Sharp, Liz White, Marion Bailey, Martin Savage, Nicholas Jones, Nicky Henson, Nina Fry, Paul Jesson, Paul Raffield, Peter Wight, Phil Davis, Richard Graham, Robert Putt, Rosie Cavaliero, Ruth Sheen, Sally Hawkins, Sam Troughton, Sandra Voe, Sid Mitchell, Simon Chandler, Sinéad Matthews, Tilly Vosburgh, Tom Ellis, Vincent Franklin, Vinette Robinson, Wendy Nottingham

Director: Mike Leigh

Rating: R

Featuring a Pre-Bond Daniel Craig, Layer cake can be described as a mix between Lock Stock, Two Smoking Barrels and Scarface—a darkly funny and incredibly violent film. It features great acting from Craig and the rest of the cast, action that will keep you on the edge of your seat once it gets moving and a complex and deep theme that can make you reconsider your worldview. This is a true action movie for the thinking man (or woman).

Genre: Crime, Drama, Mystery, Thriller

Actor: Ben Brazier, Ben Whishaw, Brinley Green, Burn Gorman, Colm Meaney, Daniel Craig, Daniel Moorehead, Darren Healy, Darren Sean Enright, Dexter Fletcher, Dimitri Andreas, Don McCorkindale, Dragan Mićanović, Francis Magee, George Harris, Ivan Kaye, James Dodd, Jamie Foreman, Jason Flemyng, Kelly-Marie Kerr, Kenneth Cranham, Kerri Kravin, Louis Emerick, Marcel Iures, Matt Ryan, Matthew Vaughn, Michael Gambon, Nathalie Lunghi, Neil Finnighan, Nick Thomas-Webster, Peter Rnic, Rab Affleck, Sally Hawkins, Sienna Miller, Stephen Walters, Steve John Shepherd, Tamer Hassan, Tom Hardy

Director: Matthew Vaughn

Rating: R

A breathtaking and enigmatic masterpiece of Thai cinema, Tropical Maladyis a poetic and deeply philosophical exploration of human desire, spirituality, and the mysteries of nature. It follows the story of two men, a soldier and a farmer, who fall in love and embark on a journey deep into the heart of the jungle, where they encounter a shape-shifting spirit. The film's surreal and dreamlike imagery is mesmerizing, and the performances are outstanding, especially the nuanced and subtle portrayal of the two protagonists. This film is truly a stunning and unforgettable work of art that challenges our perceptions of love, identity, and reality.

Genre: Drama, Fantasy, Romance

Actor: Banlop Lomnoi, Sakda Kaewbuadee

Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Before the late 2010s push for more Asian American and lesbian cinema, there were movies already making strides toward better representation. One of the first to achieve this was Saving Face. Despite this film being the first feature for writer-director Alice Wu and actress Lynn Chen, and the first lead role for Michelle Krusiec, the three women lead the film with ease. Wu’s clear mastery of rom-com and family drama tropes directs us through some predictable moves, but with unpredictable twists. Krusiec and Chen’s Wil and Vivian are easy to root for with their striking chemistry, but at the heart of this film is Wil’s relationship with her mom Hwei-Lan (Joan Chen). Their dynamic—expressed through passive-aggression, bilingual bickering, and their need for the other’s honesty—turns this easygoing rom-com into a light yet cathartic family drama.

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance

Actor: Ato Essandoh, Brian Yang, Brittany Perrineau, David Shih, Hoon Lee, Jessica Hecht, Jin Wang, Joan Chen, Lynn Chen, Mao Zhao, Michelle Krusiec, Pamela Payton-Wright, Ruth Zhang, Saidah Arrika Ekulona, Twinkle Burke

Director: Alice Wu

Rating: R

Let's fight! I'm not a fan of "Into the wild" okay okay, calm down... Maybe we can fix this. Maybe we could watch "The Motorcycle Diaries" together. Watching this heartwarming movie, you will get the travel bug. I got it and I never got rid of it. I even want to go on a motorcycle tour through South America although I would have never dreamed of getting on a motorbike. Have fun with it. Oh and... this film is about the young Che Guevara and his friend Alberto Granado by the way.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Antonella Costa, Constanza B. Majluf, Cristián Chaparro, Erto Pantoja, Fernando Farías, Franco Solazzi, Gabriela Aguilera, Gael García Bernal, Gustavo Bueno, Jaime Azócar, Jean Pierre Noher, Jorge Chiarella, Lucas Oro, Marina Glezer, Mercedes Moran, Mía Maestro, Natalia Lobo, Pablo Macaya, Ricardo Diaz Mourelle, Rodrigo De la Serna, Sergio Boris, Sofia Bertolotto, Susana Lanteri, Vilma Verdejo

Director: Walter Salles

Rating: R

, 2004

Kristen Stewart stars as Melinda, a girl entering the gauntlet of freshman year in high school who is also carrying a heavy secret: after suffering an assault over the summer at a party, she has become determined to speak as little as possible. Melinda’s subjective experience is presented without mediation, melodrama nor moralism, but rather as life through her eyes: teachers are puff-chested bullies; parents are mumbling, ephemeral strangers; whispering girls are talking about her, all the time. It is a realistic portrait of the inner life and experience of a young woman whose sudden introversion, academic decline, and loss of social connections appear to go completely unnoticed, while she struggles to process and unburden herself of the weight of trauma. It’s an empathetic story well-served by Stewart’s understated performance and the film’s quiet pace.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Allison Siko, Arron Kinser, Caitlyn Folley, Christina Hardebeck, D. B. Sweeney, Elizabeth Perkins, Eric Lively, Hallee Hirsh, Kristen Stewart, Leslie Lyles, Michael Angarano, Richard Hagerman, Robert John Burke, Steve Zahn, Susan Gardner

Director: Jessica Sharzer

Mind Game is a mind-bending and exhilarating animated film that takes the viewer on a journey through the depths of the human psyche. The story follows a young man who, after a near-death experience, finds himself on a self-discovery journey through surreal and constantly shifting worlds. The film's unconventional and experimental animation style, combined with its complex and philosophical themes, create a truly immersive and unforgettable experience. Admittedly, the story's progression and wild tangents may not be worth it for some viewers. But Yuasa’s signature film (now a cult classic) is a bold and visionary work of art that pushes the boundaries of animation and storytelling.

Genre: Animation, Comedy, Drama, Fantasy, Romance

Actor: Jôji Shimaki, Koji Imada, Rintaro Nishi, Sayaka Maeda, Seiko Takuma, Takashi Fujii, Tomomitsu Yamaguchi, Toshio Sakata

Director: Masaaki Yuasa

A very touching film about Japanese children who are abandoned by their mother in their apartment and left on their own. It's movie that perfectly encapsulates the world of kids and its alignment with this story is both heartbreaking and joyful. Their innocence will make you smile from ear to ear until moments come where you will shed tears. This is a film everyone should have watched, it breaks my heart how little-known it is.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Ayu Kitaura, Hanae Kan, Hiei Kimura, Kazuyoshi Kushida, Ken'ichi Endô, Momoko Shimizu, Ryō Kase, Sei Hiraizumi, Susumu Terajima, You, Yuichi Kimura, Yukiko Okamoto, Yûya Yagira

Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda, Hirokazu Koreeda

Rating: PG-13

For the longest time, American media coverage was skewed to justify the presence of US forces in Arab states. Control Room unveils that bias by following Al Jazeera at the start of the Iraq War in 2003. One of the biggest Arab media outlets at the time, Al Jazeera dared to cover both sides of the war, but by doing so put a target on its back. It was vilified by both the US government, which called it an Osama mouthpiece and the Arab world, which called it a Bush ally. 

Control Room shows the difficulty (if not sheer impossibility) of achieving journalistic balance, objectivity, and integrity. Through interviews with Al Jazeera reporters and US military officers, we witness how lines are blurred, loyalties are tested, and purpose is shifted in a state of war. A seminal work on media bias and press control, Control Room is vital and enlightening, a must-watch to understand the inner workings of the fourth estate. 

Genre: Documentary, War

Actor: Abdul Jabbar Al-Kubeisi, Donald Rumsfeld, George W. Bush, Hassan Ibrahim, Josh Rushing, Muafak Tawfik, Nabeel Khoury, Omar Al-Issawi, Tom Mintier

Director: Jehane Noujaim

A Swedish film about a world-famous conductor who suddenly interrupts his career to return alone to his childhood village in Norrland. It doesn't take long before he is asked to come and listen to the fragment of a church choir, which practices every Thursday in the parish hall. "Just come along and give a little bit of good advice". He can't say no, and from that moment, nothing in the village is the same again. The choir develops and grows. He makes both friends and enemies. And he finds love. It's a wonderful movie about faith, values, and the exploration of one's spirit.

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Music, Romance

Actor: André Sjöberg, Barbro Kollberg, Frida Hallgren, Helen Sjöholm, Helen Sjöholm, Ingela Olsson, Kristina Törnqvist, Lasse Petterson, Lasse Pettersson, Lennart Jähkel, Lennart Jähkel, Michael Nyqvist, Mikael Rahm, Mircea Krishan, Niklas Falk, Per Morberg, Ulla-Britt Norrman-Olsson, Verena Buratti, Ylva Lööf, Ylva Lööf

Director: Kay Pollak

Rating: Not Rated

, 2004

Director Wong Kar-Wai made this loose sequel to one of the best films ever made, his 2000 classic In the Mood for Love. Much of the story is set around Christmas eve.

In the far future, people take a train to the world of 2046, where no sadness or sorrow can be experienced. No one has ever returned from that world except for a lonely Japanese writer, who narrates the first part of the film.

There are four acts to the story and as is common to Wong Kar-Wai, they are listed in non-chronological order. Not that you will care but 2046 is far from confusing. Instead, it functions as a dazzling visual poem on unreciprocated love.

Genre: Drama, Fantasy, Romance, Science Fiction

Actor: Akina Hong, Akina Hong Wah, Ben Yuen, Ben Yuen Foo-Wah, Benz Kong To-Hoi, Berg Ng, Carina Lau, Chang Chen, Chen Chang, Ching Siu-Lung, Dong Jie, Farini Cheung, Farini Cheung Yui-Ling, Faye Wong, Gong Li, Jie Dong, Li Gong, Maggie Cheung, Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk, Ping Lam Siu, Ronny Ching Siu-Lung, Siu Ping-lam, Takuya Kimura, Thongchai McIntyre, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Zhang Ziyi, Ziyi Zhang

Director: Kar-Wai Wong, Wong Kar-wai

Rating: R

More than a decade before she made Toni Erdmann, German filmmaker Maren Ade turned her eye on a small-town school, a socially awkward teacher, and the inarticulate in between. Even with her debut, Ade showcased a talent for spotting the hidden comic potential of situations that can be wounding, turning vulnerabilities into power through comedy. The Forest For the Trees is a dilemma-film, in the ways in which it both invites and rejects identification with Melanie. A frighteningly optimistic person, she misreads most if not all social cues and finds herself in embarrassing situations. Even more, her devotion to making it all work, after moving away from the big city for said teaching job, is something a lot of viewers can recognize and support, but her borderline unlikeability is sometimes too hard to ignore. However, a majestic finale crowns the film with a scene that is worth rewatching again and again, like a dream you wish to appropriate for yourself.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Daniela Holtz, Eva Löbau, Ilona Schulz, Jan Neumann, Robert Schupp

Director: Maren Ade