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Pop Culture

The 10 best films of 2004

Some of the most provocative film criticism this year came from the “South Park” creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone.

Their television special, “The Passion of the Jew,” portrayed Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” as a snuff film created by a sadomasochist. Their big-screen movie, “Team America: World Police,” made mincemeat of Michael Moore, who looked like he’d joined the cast of “Super Size Me.”

Actor Jim Caviezel portrays Jesus with Crown of Thorns and dirty scarlet robe, in a scene from the new film "The Passion of The Christ" in this undated publicity photograph. The film, produced by actor Mel Gibson, is a vivid depiction of the last twelve hours of the life of Jesus Christ. The film opens Febraury 25, 2004. NO SALES REUTERS/New Market Films/Icon Productions/Handout

Many cited Gibson’s “Passion” as the most popular religious movie of all time, and Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” as the most successful documentary in film history. Yet when box-office sales are adjusted for inflation, Gibson’s film clearly sold far fewer tickets than “Ben-Hur” (1959) or “The Ten Commandments” (1956), both of which placed in the all-time top 15 (according to Box Office Mojo, “The Passion” trails them at No. 51).

It’s a little trickier to establish how well Moore’s film has done. Box-office figures for older documentaries are hard to come by, but the claim that “Fahrenheit” is tops should be tempered by the fact that “Woodstock” landed in the top five for 1970. Moore’s film didn’t make the top 10 box-office attractions of 2004. Unlike “The Passion,” however, it’s been winning awards since it appeared, collecting the top prize at Cannes last spring and the more recent New York Film Critics’ Circle award for best non-fiction feature.

What can be said of both “The Passion” and “Fahrenheit” is that their popularity was something of an illusion. Many who attacked them did not bother to see them, and many who paid to see them attended no other movies during the year. Critics, who actually sat through both films, have a better idea of what’s actually in them. They also recognize that 2004 was a much richer year than the metro/retro war over “Passion” and “Fahrenheit” suggested.

The top ticket-sellers were, predictably, a couple of fantasy franchises: “Shrek 2” and the superior sequel, “Spider-Man 2.” Not far behind was the third and best of the “Harry Potter” movies. Many smaller films made a lasting impression, including such haunting, ultra-low-budget American movies as “Tarnation” and “Mean Creek,” and the superbly acted “Closer” and “We Don’t Live Here Anymore.”

Several actors did their best work to date, including Don Cheadle (“Hotel Rwanda”), Clint Eastwood (“Million Dollar Baby”), Imelda Staunton (“Vera Drake”), Topher Grace (“In Good Company”), Virginia Madsen (“Sideways”) and Jamie Foxx (“Ray”).

Putting together a top 10 list was tougher than usual. In alphabetical order, these are my picks:

“Blind Shaft” (Li Yang). Two vicious coal miners make their real living by murdering co-workers, pretending to be their relatives and blackmailing the mine’s corrupt management. But their intended latest victim, a cheerful teenager with big plans for his future, brings out their long-buried humanity. This gutsy, moving film noir demonstrates that contemporary Chinese cinema can be much more than eye-candy epics like “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers.”

The creator of “The Iron Giant” returns in triumph with the wittiest feature cartoon in years: a Pixar/Disney production about a family of superheroes who are obliged to hide their talents. The cast of voices is more recognizable than usual, with Holly Hunter a standout as Elastigirl, who can bend and shape herself into parachutes and other life-savers, and Jason Lee as an embittered one-time fan who provokes a war with the family.

“Strayed” (Andre Techine). Gaspard Ulliel, who is mostly wasted in the over-hyped “A Very Long Engagement,” gives a breakthrough performance in this excellent French drama about a family fleeing Paris for the countryside during World War II. Ulliel brings a commanding sense of mystery to the feral teenager who gradually becomes part of the family as he helps them to survive and escape the Germans.

A second 10:  “Control Room,” “The Corporation,” “Facing Windows,” “Finding Neverland,” “In Good Company,” “Mean Creek,” “Million Dollar Baby,” “The Return,” “Tarnation,” “Vera Drake.”