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Fahrenheit 2004

Remembering the movies that heated up cinemas this year

It should go without saying that Shrek 2's references to Angelyne and Ricky Martin, and Shark Tale's riffs on Mafia movies, aren't exactly targeted at an innocent audience. Nor was Disney's Teacher's Pet, in which a boy's favorite dog becomes an adult human who romances his mom -- ewww! One might suspect that a Garfield movie would be aimed only at preschoolers with no standards, but by adding Bill Murray's voice to the mix, the filmmakers managed to make something entertaining out of almost nothing. The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie even alienated some critics on the religious right by being "too dark and edgy" -- the bit with David Hasselhoff's morphing pecs was probably too much to handle. Naturally, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban induced frenzies among those same prudish faithful, with its freaky werewolves and demonic Dementors.

Yet one smaller, under-the-radar family flick that even managed to get approval from notorious right-wing scold L. Brent Bozell and his Parents Television Council was The Dust Factory, a surprisingly complex and mature piece of surrealism that packaged a variety of philosophical and spiritual ideas about death in an appealingly odd tale of a drowning boy trapped in a purgatorylike dreamscape. Little seen in theaters, it deserves your attention on video.

If sickly sweet crap was what you wanted for your kids in 2004, you didn't have much luck, though Hilary Duff came through for ya in A Cinderella Story (as for the Olsen twins, let's just say New York Minute, with all its "accidental" near-nudity, seemed to be shooting for a whole new demographic). -- Luke Y. Thompson

Latin Love

Ever since Alejandro González Iñárritu's Amores Perros exploded onto American screens in 2000 -- followed soon after by Alfonso Cuarón's Y Tu Mamá También and Fernando Meirelles' City of God -- American audiences have been taking notice of Spanish and Latin American cinema. The year 2004 was no exception, with The Motorcycle Diaries from Brazil's Walter Salles and Bad Education from Spain's Pedro Almodóvar the most widely seen.

It may not be fair to lump the movies of Mexico, Brazil, Argentina and Spain together under one roof, but it is undeniable that films, directors and actors from these countries have brought a new excitement to American audiences. And the films do share some similarities, beyond the obvious Spanish or Portuguese language. First and foremost is their sociopolitical point of view.

The plight of the poor and the disenfranchised is front and center in The Motorcycle Diaries, which charts its heroes' political transformation during a cross-continent journey. Y Tu Mamá También, another road movie from a few years ago, emphasized the disparity between the rich and the poor. These frequently brutal depictions of life south of the border tackle everything from prison conditions (Hector Babenco's Carandiru) to pedophilia in the Catholic Church (Bad Education) to the Civil War in El Salvador (Innocent Voices, Mexico's Academy submission for Best Foreign Language Film this year).

Not yet released in the States, Innocent Voices focuses, like so many other recent Latin American films, on children and the effect that war, poverty, drugs and governmental indifference have on the youngest, most vulnerable members of society. Interestingly, many of these films -- City of God being the most notable example -- marry elements of Italian neo-realism with today's sophisticated postproduction techniques to produce an in-your-face realism of visceral and dazzling power.

Mexican-born director Alfonso Cuarón, who moves easily between Hollywood and his native land (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, The Crime of Father Amaro), has suggested that the new burst of creativity can be traced in large measure to the changing political landscape in Latin America. When military dictatorships fall, artists are inspired -- and censorship no longer presents an obstacle. -- Jean Oppenheimer Love Letter to Alexander Payne

Dear Alexander Payne: How do I love thee? Let me count the ways:

1. You made Election and About Schmidt, two hilarious, probing comedies about suburban anomie and human angst.

2. You followed these with Sideways, transporting the same deep humor into a totally different milieu and combining a loser-buddy pic with an homage to the Central California Coast.

3. You cast Paul Giamatti.

4. You cast Virginia Madsen.

5. You turned down George Clooney -- who wanted the part of has-been actor Jack -- because nobody would believe he was a has-been.

6. Instead of Clooney, you went with Thomas Haden Church, an actual has-been, who aced the role.

7. You refused, in short, to sell out.

8. Even though your money was coming from a studio.

9. You knew how to maintain control, including in the casting.

10. And you trusted that your vision was superior.

11. Finally, you stayed intimate, resisting the temptation to make a grand, Hollywood-style epic with Big Themes.

12. Unlike some directors I could mention, but won't.

13. Okay, it's Jean-Pierre Jeunet, whose films are getting successively worse.

14. What is A Very Long Engagement? It is an overhyped, overly sentimental rehearsal of a thousand films we've seen before.

15. But enough about him.

16. Thanks, Mr. Payne. I love you. -- Melissa Levine

Gore Wins! The Year in Carnage

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