The Best Movies of the Year

We've picked our favorites -- let the debates begin

The stars of Dig!, Brian Jonestown Massacre's Anton Newcombe and Dandy Warhols frontman Courtney Taylor, probably wouldn't go in for a little head-shrinking but sure as hell could use it, even after their rise turns into a protracted fall. Someone oughta make an album about them. (RW) Kid Movies Grow Up

Have we finally outgrown the notion that movies have to be cloying and cute in order to be acceptable to children? It sure seemed like it this year. Possibly the most sentimental major entry was The Polar Express, but that owed only to the source material -- director Robert Zemeckis did his best to distract from the sap with several runaway-train sequences and scary wolves that pushed the boundaries of a G rating. Pixar simply ignored the G for the first time with The Incredibles, in which characters die and children are menaced with guns.

It should go without saying that Shrek 2's references to Angelyne and Ricky Martin, and Shark Tale's riffs on Mafia movies, aren't exactly targeted at an innocent audience. Nor was Disney's Teacher's Pet, in which a boy's favorite dog becomes an adult human who romances his mom...ewww! One might suspect that a Garfield movie would be aimed only at preschoolers with no standards, but by adding Bill Murray's voice to the mix, the filmmakers actually managed to make something entertaining out of almost nothing. The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie even alienated some critics on the religious right by being "too dark and edgy" -- the bit with David Hasselhoff's morphing pecs was probably too much to handle. Naturally, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban induced frenzies among those same prudish faithful, with its freaky werewolves and demonic Dementors.

Yet one smaller, under-the-radar family flick that even managed to get approval from notorious right-wing scold L. Brent Bozell and his Parents Television Council was The Dust Factory, a surprisingly complex and mature piece of surrealism that packaged a variety of philosophical and spiritual ideas about death in an appealingly odd tale of a drowning boy trapped in a Purgatory-like dreamscape. Little seen in theaters, it deserves your attention on video.

If sickly sweet crap was what you wanted for your kids in 2004, you didn't have much luck, though Hilary Duff came through for ya in A Cinderella Story (as for the Olsen twins, let's just say New York Minute, with all its "accidental" near-nudity, seemed to be shooting for a whole new demographic). -- Luke Y. Thompson

Latin Love

Ever since Alejandro González Iñárritu's Amores Perros exploded onto American screens in 2000 -- followed soon after by Alfonso Cuarón's Y Tu Mamá También and Fernando Meirelles' City of God -- American audiences have been taking notice of Spanish and Latin American cinema. The year 2004 was no exception, with The Motorcycle Diaries from Brazil's Walter Salles and Bad Education from Spain's Pedro Almodóvar the most widely seen.

It may not be fair to lump the movies of Mexico, Brazil, Argentina and Spain together under one roof, but it is undeniable that films, directors and actors from these countries have brought a new excitement to American audiences. And the films do share some similarities, beyond the obvious Spanish or Portuguese language. First and foremost is their sociopolitical point of view.

The plight of the poor and the disenfranchised is front and center in The Motorcycle Diaries, which charts its heroes' political transformation during a cross-continent journey. Y Tu Mamá También, another road movie from a few years ago, emphasized the disparity between the rich and the poor. These frequently brutal depictions of life south of the border tackle everything from prison conditions (Hector Babenco's Carandiru) to pedophilia in the Catholic Church (Bad Education) to the civil war in El Salvador (Innocent Voices, Mexico's Academy submission for Best Foreign Language Film this year).

Not yet released in the U.S., Innocent Voices focuses, like so many other recent Latin American films, on children and the effect that war, poverty, drugs and governmental indifference have on the youngest, most vulnerable members of society. Interestingly, many of these films -- City of God being the most notable example -- marry elements of Italian Neo-Realism with today's sophisticated postproduction techniques to produce an in-your-face realism of visceral and dazzling power.

Mexican-born director Alfonso Cuarón, who moves easily between Hollywood and his native land (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, The Crime of Father Amaro), has suggested that the new burst of creativity can be traced in large measure to the changing political landscape in Latin America. When military dictatorships fall, artists are inspired -- and censorship no longer presents an obstacle. (Jean Oppenheimer) Gore Wins! The Year in Carnage

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.

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