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Critics are a cranky lot, and we're given to wringing our hands about the State of Cinema and how much better movies were in other decades and in other countries. But in reality, there were several dozen worthy films in release in Triangle theaters this year, and I saw at least 10 that were better than Sideways, the film that's become the consensus critics' favorite for 2004, having secured the nods of my betters in both New York and Los Angeles.

I'm not sure why Sideways has emerged as the It movie, though it could simply be the most palatable consensus selection in a year without an obvious heavyweight like Return of the King. It is true, however, that Sideways, a film about two buddies on a wine tour, has great legs, color and bouquet. But, as Paul Giamatti's oenophile would say, "It's quaffable but hardly transcendent." As easygoing as Sideways is, its flavor is a wee bit predictable and it shouldn't improve much with age. It's best drunk now, as the various December awards-givers have done.

But numerous films from the 2004 vintage linger longer on the finish, with surprising and memorable flourishes. In contrast to the familiar accents of romantic melancholy and satisfied desires in Sideways, the two films heading my list are more astringent tales about love, aging and regret. Although it played far too briefly in the Triangle last summer, I love Richard Linklater's Before Sunset, his second cinematic meeting of American writer Jesse and French activist Celine. However, I couldn't help but be suspicious of the sentimentality it evoked in me, for I'm the same age as the two lovers in that film--just as I was their age back in 1995 when the first film, Before Sunrise, was made. The last thing I want to be is like the baby-boomers I used to disdain, those ex-hippies I imagined marking the progress of their lives next to successive releases by Dylan or Jerry Garcia (or Francois Truffaut). So, in the interest of purging myself of mushy, self-regarding vanity, I've put Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind just ahead of Before Sunset on my top 10 list.

There are many things to love about Eternal Sunshine--from Kate Winslet's orange sweat jacket and color-coded hair to Jim Carrey's nervous and withdrawn performance to the parallel comic subplot brilliantly enacted by Mark Ruffalo, Kirsten Dunst, Elijah Wood and Tom Wilkinson--but the film's greatest achievement is finding a way to dramatize the way our memories live and breathe within us. Next to Eternal Sunshine's suggestion that human consciousness has no past or present but is rather a living, fermenting mash of clashing emotions, the old-fashioned nostalgia and regret of Before Sunset seems slightly less heady. Still, I'll be first in line at the theater a decade or so from now, when director Linklater and co-writers and stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy have indicated a third film may be in the offing.

On the other hand, if Eternal Sunshine adheres to its own logic, there won't be any more films about Joel and Clementine. To get the next installment of their lives, all we need to do is watch the original film again.

Top 10
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (dir. Michel Gondry; scr. Charlie Kaufman)

Before Sunset (dir. Richard Linklater)

The Return (dir. Andrei Zvyagintsev): Two boys in a remote Russian community take an unexplained road trip with their intimidating, enigmatic and long-absent father. The old man is a veritable force of nature, a man cut from the granite of Lenin and Stalin, but where the hell has he been all these years? Prison maybe, or exile? The mysteries of this film are never fully revealed; instead, The Return seems like a symbol-laden and passionate cry from the Russian soul.

Distant (dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan): Putting this 2003 Cannes Grand Prix-winning Turkish marvel on the list is a little bit of a cheat because it never got a proper local release. Instead, it fell to Duke University to program this tale of a country mouse who travels to Istanbul to stay with a hip and successful cousin. Urban and familial loneliness is the theme, and Ceylan's Antonioni-inflected camera captures faultlessly the subtle indignities of a big city that just doesn't care. (This film, like several others on this list, is available on DVD in at least one local store.)

The Corporation (dir. Jennifer Abbott and Mark Achbar): It was a solid year for documentaries, although the urgent goal of ousting George W. Bush meant that we saw many films that were as aesthetically crude as they were stridently leftist. But the artfully executed The Corporation presented the most radical and far-reaching argument, encouraging us to think differently about insentient non-corporeal institutions that exist because, we've been told since infancy, that is the natural way that free markets organize capital. There was only one documentary this year that proved to be such a radicalizing influence on its audience, and The Corporation was it.

What Alice Found (dir. Dean Bell): Indie films don't get much scruffier than this marvelously realized, albeit sloppy, digital video gem. This is the kind of movie that only works on a limited budget, as a mini-production perfectly scaled to the means of its characters. Newcomer Emily Grace carries off the difficult title role, but Broadway veteran Judith Ivey steals the show as a hillbilly sexpot who's both smarter and needier than she seems.

Maria Full of Grace (dir. Joshua Marston): First time helmsman Joshua Marston did a dissertation's worth of research on Colombian culture and drug trafficking, and it shows. Equally important, he was patient with his casting, an approach that yielded unknown talent Catalina Sandino Moreno. Best of all is Marston's restraint: Rarely does he turn his carefully wrought script over to Hollywood cliches, such as car chases and gratuitous violence.

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring (dir. Kim Ki-duk): Five seasons, five short parables about the seasons of humanity. Innocence and wonder, carnal desire, selfishness, regret and death--it's all here in Kim's meditative, magical and even humorous disquisition on the fatal attraction of desires gratified and ungratified. Kim's film leaves us with an enduring visual metaphor, one of life lived as a constant struggle against the millstone around our necks. At times, SSFW...S seems like an elegant infomercial for Buddhism--and how much more appealing is Buddhism than Mel Gibson's brand of Christianity!

The Incredibles (dir. Brad Bird): A family movie in the best and truest sense of the term, Bird's marvelously ingratiating animated epic locates the hidden heart of every suburban household member. (Altogether, the premise is more than a little reminiscent of another show about the secret lives of an ordinary family of four in the suburbs: the Sopranos of New Jersey.) Still, I'm not that crazy about the film's thematic hobbyhorse, the one about mediocrity being a conspiracy of P.C. educators and John Edwards-style trial lawyers. This is a political viewpoint that could be seen as sub-Nietzschean or, as the New York Times' A.O. Scott suggested, influenced by the writings of the much less hip Ayn Rand.

House of Flying Daggers (dir. Zhang Yimou): Although it may seem like Zhang can crank out two martial arts flicks a year, his earlier Hero was made in 2002 but only came out this year due to the mysterious ways of the Brothers Weinstein at Miramax. As it happens, Flying Daggers is the better film, with a greater concentration on lovelorn characters, operatic emotion and Crouching Tiger-esque gravity-defying chopsocky. And, in contrast to the Chris Doyle-photographed Hero, the eye candy is doled out with less abandon.

In sorting through the year's releases in order to refresh my memory, I was startled to realize just how many excellent films played in the Triangle. There's generally two or three good movies playing at any one time, and most of the exciting work is being done below the E! radar. In alphabetical order, a grab bag of honorable mentions: American Astronaut; The Aviator; Badasssss!; The Barbarian Invasions; Being Julia; Control Room; The Cooler; Crimson Gold; Dig!; Dogville; Fahrenheit 9/11; The Flower of Evil; The Fog of War; Friday Night Lights; Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry; Greendale; Hero; Kinsey; The Mother; My Architect; Noi Albinoi; Rana's Wedding; Ray; Riding Giants; Sideways; Spider-Man 2; Stage Beauty; Triplets of Belleville; Twilight Samurai; Undertow; We Don't Live Here Anymore; Young Adam; Zero Day. [Note: I've not been able to see Pedro Almodvar's Bad Education and Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby, both highly acclaimed films that should be arriving in the Triangle soon.]

Worst Films
Leaving aside such obvious targets as The Punisher, Surviving Christmas and National Lampoon's Gold Diggers, it's tempting to beat up instead on The Passion of the Christ (the year's third biggest hit) for blasphemously turning Jesus into Mel Gibson's own vengeful self-image, a William Wallace or a Mad Max who endures unspeakable torture only to repay it manifold to his tormentors and other unbelievers. Instead, I'll single out Tony Scott's unspeakably immoral Man on Fire, a lugubriously hateful, 110-minute celebration of using sadistic violence to exorcise demons and recover one's manhood. This Denzel Washington abomination was the perfect companion film to Abu Ghraib. A close second is Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers, which provided further depressing evidence of the deterioration of this once-great director's career into nostalgia and teen-girl ogling. And, more in sorrow than spite, I have to say that John Sayles' Silver City was a huge disappointment, a deadly film that held fast to smug liberal piety in a year that needed outreach and persuasion.

Best Performances
Male: Jim Carrey (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind); Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church (Sideways); Jamie Foxx (Ray, Collateral); Billy Crudup (Stage Beauty); Ethan Hawke (Before Sunset); Mark Ruffalo (We Don't Live Here Anymore, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind); Leo DiCaprio (The Aviator); Liam Neeson (Kinsey)

Female: Judith Ivey and Emily Grace (What Alice Found); Annette Bening (Being Julia); Laura Dern and Naomi Watts (We Don't Live Here Anymore); Kate Winslet (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind); Julie Delpy (Before Sunset); Cate Blanchett (Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou; The Aviator); Zhang Ziyi (Hero; House of Flying Daggers); Kirsten Dunst (Super-Man 2; Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind); Catalina Sandino Moreno (Maria Full of Grace); Imelda Staunton (Vera Drake); Virginia Madsen (Sideways); Kimberly Elise (Woman Thou Art Loosed)

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