Is it possible to discuss the films of 2004 without linking together THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST and FAHRENHEIT 9/11? Instantly dated, they are interesting mostly as symptoms of the culture war, not as works of art. While I didn’t go into THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST with high hopes (and its anti-Semitism and homophobia dashed what little chances I had of appreciating it as a sub-Lucio Fulci splatter film), I found Moore’s film even more alienating, precisely because I fall into its target audience.  Everyone who goes on TV gets their hair brushed and makeup done: it’s not a sign of  any specifically Republican vacancy. Government officials have to shake hands with many people, including men in Arabic dress. There’s not necessarily anything sinister about it, as implied by the borderline racist “Shiny Happy People” montage. The first half of FAHRENHEIT 9/11 is a collage of innuendo, rather than an argument. While the second half is stronger, it could only have been saved if Moore  delved deeper into his most insightful segment, showing the way military recruiting targets young black men as  cannon fodder.

In its entire history, Cannes has shown a total of four documentaries in competition. Two of them are BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE and FAHRENHEIT 9/11. Both won prizes. In essence, the festival programmers and their juries are asserting that Moore is a better filmmaker than Frederick Wiseman, Errol Morris, Claude Lanzmann, the late Johan van der Keuken and Jean Rouch, Marcel Ophüls, Ross McElwee or D. A. Pennebaker. Someone  needs a serious reality check.

When I saw THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST at the Regal theater in New York’s Union Square, they announced that it would be shown without the usual barrage of ads and previews. If the theater really felt so strongly about protecting it from the taint of commerce, they could’ve tried reducing the ticket price a buck or two.

The American media is usually too busy salivating over studio grosses, contributing to the blockbuster and Oscar-bait hype machine and cultivating the occasional moral panic to take aesthetics seriously. Americans like to say “it’s only a movie.” Clearly, THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST and FAHRENHEIT 9/11 are not “only movies.” The latter certainly served as a gateway drug,  expanding the audience for better political documentaries like THE CORPORATION, in which Moore appears and comes off pretty well, and CONTROL ROOM.  I wish it had been more effective as campaign propaganda. Perhaps THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST will entice progressive Christian filmmakers - if not an American Dreyer - out of the woodwork. (I wonder if Gibson has seen BREAKING THE WAVES, a truly great film about masochism as spirituality.)  But  our culture would be healthier if Thom Andersen could get 1% of Moore or Gibson’s publicity.

In the “Passion of the Jew” episode, the SOUTH PARK gang lent a welcome platform to those who felt that THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST was an excuse for Gibson to play out his unacknowledged S/M fantasies. However, TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE turned out to be one of the year’s biggest disappointments. Full of aimless provocation, it’s more right-wing than left-wing, but none too coherent in any direction.  Oddly, Parker and Stone find it easier to get angry at Alec Baldwin and Sean Penn  than any American politicians. (None are mentioned by name.) Coming from two guys who’ve used their show to comment on a wide range of issues, sometimes brilliantly, their disdain for celebrities who speak about politics is more than a little hypocritical. They should have stuck to writing song parodies.

Languishing without an American distributor, although it‘s been released in the UK and France, Bong Joon-ho’s MEMORIES OF MURDER is one of the best Korean films I’ve ever seen. I went in expecting a Korean equivalent of SE7EN (that would be TELL ME SOMETHING, briefly released a few years ago), but its wit distinguishes it from generic serial killer films. Set in 1986 in a backwater town where a rapist/murderer strikes on rainy nights, it has a raucous sense of humor,  often playing violence for laughs. Then it slams us in the face with the consequences of its characters' reckless actions. Here, police brutality isn't just immoral; it's futile at best and counterproductive at worst. Bong  creates a gritty look that avoids shakycam clichés, relying on cinematography that resembles a slightly faded, green-tinged print. About two thirds of the way through, the tone switches into sadness and disenchantment. Bong pulls off the change beautifully. He leaves politics - the government's violent crackdown on protest, in particular - in the background but never allows us to forget the social context. In the end, the failures of the police in MEMORIES OF MURDER are both personal and institutional. Rarely has  cop life looked so unappealing.  Its sorrowful mood doesn't even allow the scorched-earth comfort of nihilism, as a cyclical present-day ending keeps closure at bay. Out of all this year’s  films, it’s the only one that would make sense as a response to Abu Ghraib, even if it’s a reaction to a much different time and place.

South Korean cinema’s general profile was boosted this year by the commercial success of Kim Ki-duk’s SPRING, SUMMER, FALL, WINTER...AND SPRING and, to a lesser extent,  Kang Je-gyu’s TAEGUKGI. While flawed by traces of Buddhist chic, Kim’s film may  open Americans’ minds to its nation’s cinema. (As Jim Ridley pointed out, it’s a bit too early to deride him as “the overrated poster boy.”) Jang Joon-hwan’s SAVE THE GREEN PLANET and Park Chan-wook’s OLD BOY and SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE are on deck for 2005 release. Like MEMORIES OF MURDER, Lee Soo-youn’s THE UNINVITED has no American distributor, but I prefer it to Kim Jee-woon’s more popular K-horror opus A TALE OF TWO SISTERS. Made by one of Korea’s few female directors, it’s a disturbing reflection on family, loneliness and spirituality, adopting an ambitious structure of flashbacks and depicting violence against children with a stunning bluntness.

What makes the current “Asian boom” different from New Waves of the past?  It’s a product of the video age, developing along with the advent of DVDs and multi-region players. Anyone with Internet access can now buy Korean DVDs shortly after a film’s theatrical release in that country.  OLD BOY was available shortly after it won the Grand Prize at Cannes, Hong Sang-soo’s WOMAN IS THE FUTURE OF MAN by the time it played the New York Film Festival.  Judging from the Mobius boards and the very existence of Nicheflix (as well as Miramax’s attempts to block Americans from importing copies of HERO), a substantial audience is willing to actively seek out these films on DVD.  Hell, I was tempted to rent OLD BOY, even though I knew it would eventually come out theatrically. When it comes to distribution, the first thing you learn is that you’ve always got to wait, to quote Lou Reed: Kim Ki-duk’s BAD GUY and Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s PULSE are finally coming out in 2005, a mere 4 years after they were made. Can  DVD speed this process along without wiping out the theatrical market for Asian film?  

Irony is dead. In fact, sincerity is the new irony. We’ve been told that for the past few years, but for the first time, a post-snark American cinema    reached maturity. In 2004, Indiewood finally justified its existence.  Perhaps it’s an accident of timing, but ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, BEFORE SUNSET, I HEART HUCKABEES and SIDEWAYS (the most feelgood of the quartet, admittedly) would have livened up even the early ‘70s American film landscape. (On the other hand, LOS ANGELES PLAYS ITSELF, the year’s best American documentary, couldn’t have been made before the advent of home video.) I value I HEART HUCKABEES because it captures what it felt like to live in the U.S. in 2004 before the election. Alexander Payne’s debut, CITIZEN RUTH, poured scorn on the whole notion of political activism, whether from the right or left, and his subsequent films, especially ABOUT SCHMIDT, spent too much energy mocking their characters for me to get too enthusiastic. In SIDEWAYS, he finally managed to synthesize respect and critique. BEFORE SUNSET is a perfect miniature, with equally careful attention paid to gesture and dialogue, and a worthy successor to Rossellini’s VOYAGE TO ITALY. In a relative weak year for European cinema (at least the films that played New York), it was heartening to see the influence of the French New Wave still alive in ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND and BEFORE SUNSET, especially after the xenophobia of LOST IN TRANSLATION last year.

It’s a shame that the creepy groupthink of critics’ organizations has hyped SIDEWAYS far beyond its modest but very real virtues. It would have to be the masterpiece of the decade to warrant all those awards.  Those who think middle-aged male critics love it because they see a flattering reflection of themselves in Paul Giamatti’s character must have tuned out during the scene where he lifts money from his mother. The male protagonists of BEFORE SUNSET and ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND are no angels, but they’re more comfortable identification figures.

Far less justifiably, MILLION DOLLAR BABY has received a similar amount of hype. Very late into his career, Clint Eastwood seems to have finally started making films with critics - and the Oscars - in mind. MYSTIC RIVER and MILLION DOLLAR BABY are not bad, but they’re no better than SPACE COWBOYS. The difference is that they’re filled with White Elephant self-importance: Eastwood thinks that slow pacing and a somber look and tone equal depth. In MILLION DOLLAR BABY, skillful direction, cinematography and acting just barely transcend a painfully formulaic script. A solid minor director who may have peaked before UNFORGIVEN made him respectable, he’s managed to win kudos that evaded better early films,  like HONKYTONK MAN and WHITE HUNTER, BLACK HEART.

Top 10:
1. MEMORIES OF MURDER (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea)
4. GOODBYE, DRAGON INN (Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan)
5. DOLLS (Takeshi Kitano, Japan)
6. BEFORE SUNSET (Richard Linklater)
7. NOTRE MUSIQUE (Jean-Luc Godard, Switzerland/France)
8. I HEART HUCKABEES (David O. Russell)
9. POETRY AND TRUTH (Peter Kubelka, Austria)
10. SIDEWAYS (Alexander Payne)

Runners-up: ANTENNA (Kazuyoshi Kumakiri, Japan), BOX (Takashi Miike, Japan), CELLULAR (David R. Ellis), CONTROL ROOM (Jehane Noujaim, USA/Egypt), DAWN OF THE DEAD, especially the closing credits (Zack Snyder), DIG! (Ondi Timoner), JU-ON: THE GRUDGE (Takashi Shimizu, Japan), LAST LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE (Pen-ek Ratanaruang, Thailand), THE RETURN (Andrey Zvyagintsev, Russia), THE UNINVITED (Lee Soo-youn, South Korea)

Shorts: THE ASTRONOMER’S DREAM (Ernie Gehr), the final shot of FIVE (Abbas Kiarostami, France/Iran/Japan), ORCHARD (Julie Murray, USA/Ireland), THE VISITATION (Nathaniel Dorsky)

Best retrospectives: Jean-Marie Straub/Daniele Huillet, Peter Watkins (Anthology Film Archives); F. W. Murnau (Film Forum); Joseph Losey, Anthony Mann, Maurice Pialat (Walter Reade)