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Family Values: 'The Incredibles' showed surprising sympathy for the feeling of helplessness in the country.

Not Another 10 Movies

'The Incredibles' and 'Sideways' top our list of the year's best films

By Richard von Busack

Who's in charge here? "A too-confident sense of justice always leads to injustice," said the historian Reinhold Niebuhr. Yet little in 2004 offered even that unjust sense of confidence. No one feels like an authority. George W. Bush was still presumed to be a political outsider, "one of us" to the disenfranchised. The right felt thwarted by liberal special-interest groups. They see a septic popular culture that encourages acceptance of sinners. And after this last election, it's hardly worth explaining the left's own feelings of powerlessness. The best movies this year addressed the idea of authority gone lost or absent.

1.) The Incredibles. Like Spider-Man 2, The Incredibles used a favorite American symbol, the comic-book hero, to put to us the question of how to use power. The startling effects in this cartoon were secondary to the sympathy it evinced for the feeling of powerlessness.

2.) Sideways. Snobbery is the last refuge of the impotent. The pedantic "thin-skinned, temperamental" Miles (Paul Giamatti) embraces wine-fancying because he has no control over the important things. The background of Sideways is of powerlessness: Miles' ailing career, Jack's hopelessness over his sexual "plight," Miles' agent admitting that no one knows how to sell books, in a line obviously applicable to the movies: "The whole industry's gone gutless--it's only about the marketing."

3.) The Saddest Music in the World proves that what is really sad is what's happening to the world's music. Winnipeg director Guy Maddin's arcane but shrewd story lampoons the pop-culture business. Fueled by the need to sell such a thing as beer, hucksters fire up the melting pot--and then what once was raw and honest becomes cooked-up and diluted. Essentially, though, it is a good old-fashioned grisly melodrama, with mutilation, alcoholism, a revenger in disguise and a touch of incest. Why did people stay away?

4.) The Return. Playing an unreadable father in Andrei Zvyaginstev's searching film, Konstantin Lavronenko gives a brilliant, enigmatic performance. With all the 1,000 father-meets-son plots in 2004, this was the really deep rich film about paternal authority, about those who submit and those who rebel.

5.) Vera Drake is a drama about the misuse of authority, with Imelda Staunton as Vera crushed by the letter of the law. Director Mike Leigh shows his usual skill in delineating an atmosphere in which it is wise to keep your head down. Behind Staunton is the life just after wartime atmosphere: the shortages, the black-marketing, the efficient and unquestioned force by which the police and the courts bulldoze Vera.

6.) Hero. Zhang Yimou's use of color is perhaps more phenomenal in his recent House of Flying Daggers. But Hero is more grand, not just in scope, but in its political theme of a martyr-assassin who makes a power-mad emperor remember that a sword has two edges.

7.) Maria Full of Grace. At this point, the War on Drugs might as well be a Hundred Years' War--it has continued for seemingly forever, shows no sign of ending and no one's in charge. Colombian-born director Joshua Marston's white-knuckle ride through the life of a mula showed us a few casualties of that war. The most memorable is Catalina Sandino Moreno as the frightened but tough Maria. In its intimate scale, the film is as nerve-wracking as Clouzot's The Wages of Fear.

8.) Crimson Gold was Jafar Panahi's little-seen variation on Taxi Driver, about a deranged vet who's a pizza-delivery driver in Tehran--played by the real-life Iran/Iraq war vet Hussein Emadeddin. In Iran's capital a glacier of wealth is moving in, and the poor have to scatter. In the new, rich city center even the phoned-in pizza functions as a new symbol of affluence in which this ill and dazed ex-soldier can have no place. With the reported worries of new l evels of post-traumatic stress disorder, Crimson Gold is a portrait of things to come.

9.) Out of control in a different way than even the fans could expect of a heavy metal band, the stars of Metallica: Some Kind of Monster got back in track by trying an unusual tact: sensitivity. This intimate look at Metallica's slide into catastrophe was a lesson to any kind of artist--and any kind of viewer.

10.) The last 20 minutes of The Motorcycle Diaries are extraneous, the scenery is too pretty, Che was a lot less likable than this--I've heard all the complaints. Still The Motorcycle Diaries, like the similarly Don Quixote-influenced Sideways, grasps at humanism in a world bedeviled by bad religion.

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From the December 29, 2004-January 5, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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