Mark Kermode - Heroes and villains

Film 2004 - The boundaries of buck-chasing Hollywood have been redefined

For some, it was the year in which Bill Murray was robbed of an Oscar for his turn in Lost in Translation, while his co-star Scarlett Johans-son lent a touch of Hollywood glamour to the British Academy Film Awards. For others, it was a battle between DreamWorks and Pixar to make the biggest, shiniest computer animation in the form of Shrek 2 and The Incredibles. But as a lifelong fan of violent horror movies, I will remember 2004 as the year I was out-gored by the God squad. Having stoked pre-release controversy for its alleged anti-Semitism and obtuse use of ancient languages, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ turned out to be an extravagant exercise in homoerotic sadomasochism that owed more to the carnivorous conventions of Italian cannibal movies than to the peace and goodwill of the average Sunday sermon. It may have been a spiritually vacuous experience, but at least The Passion of the Christ finally put paid to the myth that fans of spectacular screen violence are all devil worshippers.

Equally head-bashing was Fahrenheit 9/11, Michael Moore's hyperbolic broadside at the Bush administration, which notably failed to topple Dubbya at the recent US elections. Less politically insightful than Errol Morris's Oscar- winning The Fog of War, and less tastily subversive than Morgan Spurlock's Big Mac attack Super Size Me, Fahrenheit 9/11 was nevertheless awarded the prestigious Palme d'Or by a dopey Cannes jury headed by Quentin Tarantino, whose own Kill Bill: Vol 2 turned out to be another of the year's biggest bores.

On the international front, releases such as Dev, Deewaar and Veer Zaara reconfirmed the chart-topping popularity of Bollywood cinema in Britain. Meanwhile, Italy and Russia offered haunting visions of the terrors of childhood in I'm Not Scared and The Return, respectively; Spain's Take My Eyes took a moving and insightful look at spousal abuse; and the French shocker Switchblade Romance gave the slasher genre a savage new edge. European star Gael GarcIa Bernal proved his versatility by being gorgeous in drag in Pedro Almodovar's Bad Education and giving a human heart to a revolutionary icon in the Che Guevara biopic The Motorcycle Diaries. From China came Zhang Yimou's lavish epic Hero, which attracted British multiplex punters in record-breaking numbers, a feat I predict will be repeated by the Boxing Day release of House of Flying Daggers. Takashi Shimizu brought us The Grudge (Ju-on) in both Japanese and English-language versions, the latter courtesy of producer Sam Raimi, helmsman of the terrific superhero hit Spider-Man 2.

But it was South Korea that emerged as the new home of excitingly extreme Asian cinema, with bizarre export offerings ranging from the acclaimed serial-killer thriller Memories of Murder, through the ghostly chiller A Tale of Two Sisters, to the revenge-laden comic-book fable Oldboy - great film, shame about the octopus.

Moving swiftly over the horrors of Sex Lives of the Potato Men, there was also an encouraging upswing in the output of the British film industry. Mike Leigh's period drama Vera Drake kicked off the London Film Festival in fine style in October, with other home-grown highlights including Roger Michell's Enduring Love, a spine-tingling adaptation of Ian McEwan's novel of tragic obsession. Central to the latter's haunting power were compelling performances from the charismatic Daniel Craig (who also brought some much-needed depth to the post-Lock, Stock crime pic Layer Cake) and the mercurial Rhys Ifans, who recently performed a dazzling impression of Peter Cook in the TV production Not Only But Always. As for my favourite British actor, Paul Bettany, this year he adapted with equal dexterity to the torturous demands of Dogville, a stripped-down drama from Danish prankster Lars von Trier, and to the featherweight comedy of Wimbledon, a likeably inconsequential romantic comedy packed with added feel-good fluff.

The highlight of the year, however, was Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a dreamy fantasy from the French director Michel Gondry that boasted a unique blend of kooky sci-fi invention and heartbreaking emotional honesty. Based on a terrifically adventurous screenplay by the ubiquitous Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation, Being John Malkovich), Eternal Sunshine featured a career-best performance by Jim Carrey, who abandoned the rubber-faced antics of yore to build on the more adventurous promise of The Truman Show and Man on the Moon.

As for the downers, Frank Oz's fatuous remake of The Stepford Wives looked like a strong contender for worst of the year, with its hideous revision of a classic 1970s social satire. But that was before the release of Exorcist: The Beginning, a movie that redefined the boundaries of buck-chasing Hollywood stupidity. The film's first director died, the second was fired - but judging by the disaster of the finished product, both got off lightly.

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