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

Unreeling The Year

'The Incredibles' and 'Sideways' led the way in a 2004 riven by the culture wars

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. From art direction to plot to music (a ripping pastiche of John Barry themes by Michael Giacchino), The Incredibles sourced the Bond movies, which are all about the same thing: an agent of the government goes after rogue capitalists who take free enterprise to its most murderous extreme.

The left-wing critics of The Incredibles fretted about hidden messages for tort reform as well as a hidden pro-Ayn Rand tendency in director Brad Bird's writing. Few noted that line of dialogue, from a captive Mr. Incredible to the strangely W-like villain Syndrome, a line that someone should aim at Bush at his next press conference, regarding the 1,300 American dead: "You mean you killed real heroes so that you could pretend to be one?"

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. Two landmarks bookend the film: a pair of rotting guard towers, whose guards have long since gone elsewhere. In a movie this pregnant with meaning, the two towers are symbolic. The protectors have vanished. A failure of fatherhood seems to match the broken promises of the Russian fatherland. 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. Mike Leigh shows his usual skill in delineating an atmosphere in which it is wise to keep your head down. Behind Staunton is life just after wartime: 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 House of Flying Daggers. But Hero is grander 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. 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.

8.) Crimson Gold was Jafar Panahi's variation on Taxi Driver, about a deranged vet who's a pizza-delivery driver in Tehran—played by 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. 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 levels 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—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. Runners-up: The Dreamers; Bad Education; Touching the Void; Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ... And Spring; Tarnation; Primer; Spider-Man 2; Fahrenheit 9/11.

Whenever film fans get together, they always ask, Was this year the worst ever? The tendencies that are slowly turning cinema into video games continue, so 2004 is certainly in the running. So many multiplexes ignore leaking noise, poor projection and out-of-control patrons. The publicity machinery crams 12 advertisements for a given film into the course of about one hour of TV programming. What can you possibly feel after such a media blitz, except disappointment?

Roger Ebert, our best-known film critic, fights for little movies and often stands up to advertising pressure. But he gave more than 100 "enthusiastic thumbs ups" this year. Does that figure jibe with anyone's moviegoing experiences? 2004 may not have been the worst year. Maybe it only seems that way since the tendencies that make bad movies thrive get stronger every year.

The runners-up for worst of 2004 included My Mother Likes Women, which was bad news for women and mothers, just as Catwoman was a mutual insult to women and cats. Blade: Trinity and Van Helsing showed how easy it is to burn a hundred million dollars making two insufferable movies about Dracula. How could God have let Godsend be released? How could a lesser God let his child Marlee Maitlin appear in What the #$*! Do We Know!?

Still, the $370 million gross of The Passion of the Christ was the low point. This God-is-my-publicist movie scared the secular media into submission. And its success prepared reporters for the idea that it was God who beat John Kerry. As a behind-the-scenes Republican politician once said about a similar victory back in the 1800s, "Providence didn't have a damned thing to do with it."

A key to the cruciflix's success wasn't just the advertisements in every church in the country. Don't forget the all-important teen audience, who wanted to see if they were men enough to take it. At least Mel Gibson delivered the gore in a way Saw didn't. Gibson's medievalism is something we have a whole year to live down. Coming soon expect a movie that's a panacea to Jews dragged through last spring (The Merchant of Venice) as well as something a little wiser for Catholics (Million Dollar Baby).


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From the December 29, 2004-January 4, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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