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Leaning Sideways

In a year when small movies came up big, picking the best was a Payne

Our best movies of the year actually may have been anything but the best to a few of our critics -- such is the dilemma of offering employment to writers of dissenting opinion. In other words, the No. 1 film of 2004 wasn't universally heralded by our team of Bill Gallo, Melissa Levine, Jean Oppenheimer, Luke Y. Thompson and Robert Wilonsky; then again, neither was Hellboy -- though that film was lavished with praise by one of the above scribes. No, really, it was.

The Houston Presstop ten is determined via a composite score: Each critic submitted his or her top ten films of the year, and each film's ranking was added to reveal the overall winners. Following are the top ten films of 2004, as voted by the Houston Press film critics. Feel free to vent your outrage to the editor; Lord knows the critics will.

1.Sideways It's not as deep as About Schmidt or as cutting as Election, but Sideways is a hilarious, warm and winning addition to the oeuvre of Alexander Payne -- one of the finest directors at work in American cinema. Offering a twisted version of the road-trip/buddy flick, Sideways gives us Miles (Paul Giamatti), a bitter wine freak attempting to escape the twin sorrows of a failed novel and a failed marriage, and Jack (Thomas Haden Church), a washed-up, small-time actor desperate to live it up for a week before his wedding. The agenda? A wine-tasting tour of the central California coast -- for Miles, anyway. Jack just wants to get laid. The juxtaposition between Miles's brittle angst and Jack's doofy recklessness is rich with conflict and with news; in the end, the men have something to teach each other, though they would never admit as much. With an excellent, subtle performance by Virginia Madsen, as Miles's love interest. -- M.L.

Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church hit the wine country in Sideways.
20th Century Fox
Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church hit the wine country in Sideways.
Gael García Bernal plays a drag queen with a taste for blackmail in Bad Education.
Gael García Bernal plays a drag queen with a taste for blackmail in Bad Education.

2.Maria Full of GraceFirst-time director Joshua Marston's compelling drug movie has no automatic weapons and no car chases, just an unforgettable portrait of a 16-year-old Colombian girl (played by the extraordinary Catalina Sandino Moreno) who's forced by circumstance to become a mule for shabby drug dealers. She swallows scores of balloons stuffed with cocaine, then boards a plane for New York to deliver the stuff. But she's no victim. Exploited by sweatshop bosses, a loser boyfriend and her own family, she nonetheless shows a feistiness and an ability to think quickly that helps her, against long odds, to wring a new life out of despair and abuse. The atmosphere is harrowing, the performances uniformly superb. This splendid debut signals great things for Marston. -- B.G.

3.House of Flying DaggersZhang Yimou had two movies in U.S. theaters this year: Hero, which Miramax bought for $10 million and shelved for two years, and this martial-arts stunner, which is deeper and darker than its predecessor. That's not to slight Hero, but to praise House of Flying Daggers. In telling of an ill-fated romance between an assassin (Zhang Ziyi) and the cop (Takeshi Kaneshiro) bound to bring her in, it's a far more resonant picture -- dazzling with not just its stunts but also its story, which simply has a little more heart than the U.S. version of Hero. It's stunning to look at, too, with every second framed like a painting bound not for a screen but a museum wall, where it can be ogled till closing time. Somehow Yimou gets his greens greener and reds redder than any director working today. You will not see a more beautiful movie this year...or any other. -- R.W.

4. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless MindEveryone knows Charlie Kaufman can write a clever script, but often the gimmick's the thing, whether it be a portal into John Malkovich's head, Patricia Arquette's body-hair problems, or Nic Cage playing twins. There's a gimmick here, too -- the targeted erasure of memories -- but like the best sci-fi, it's primarily a metaphor for a deeper dilemma: the question of whether we'd really be better off eliminating heartbreak from our lives. Kaufman's funhouse structure serves the story by representing the dream state, getting inside Jim Carrey's head as portions of his mind are being destroyed, and director Michel Gondry rises to the challenge with a hallucinogenic sound mix and editing style. Of course, none of it would work if not for Carrey's very real portrait of heartache and Kate Winslet's charm as his free-spirited muse. -- L.Y.T.

5.Bad Education If Pedro Almodóvar's directorial career needed a summing-up in the wake of Talk to Her and All About My Mother, this is the great film to do it -- a fascinating meditation on sin, sexuality, the terrors of the Catholic Church in Spain and the comforts of art, all dressed (and cross-dressed) up as a seamy film noir that gleefully bows to everything from Vertigoto Double Indemnity to Rashomon. It's the tale of two rural schoolboys, once abused by a Franco-era priest, who grow up to be wildly disordered men -- one of them a drag queen with a taste for blackmail (The Motorcycle Diaries' Gael García Bernal), the other a celebrated movie director in Madrid (Fele Martínez). When their old tormentor, now an ex-priest, also shows up with his own version of past events, Almodóvar's cleverly interwoven trio of narratives enters a dazzling hall of mirrors. -- B.G.

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