In 2004, Washington movie houses presented a flurry of documentaries that didn’t change a thing about American politics or foreign policy, as well as a profusion of biopics that barely tampered with 50 years of formula. (Save, that is, for The Passion of the Christ, whose innovations were all in marketing.) Although Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 set box-office records for a documentary, its comic populism turned out to be ineffectual. More interesting was the flood of low-budget anti-Bush broadsides, which constituted a video update of the political-pamphlet tradition. These weren’t meant to be artistic, so their principal failing was that they weren’t seen widely enough to tint a few red states blue.

To no one’s surprise, the year also brought inane comedies, drippy romances, formulaic ’toons, and special-effects action flicks. After a year in which the two best CGI-enhanced adventures were both directed by Zhang Yimou, however, Hollywood had better be careful: It may not be just the textile industry that’s about to be swallowed whole by the world’s most capitalist communist society.

What’s left for Hollywood? Well, there’s always slacker attitude. The protagonists of 1995’s Before Sunrise matured a bit for this year’s disappointing Before Sunset, but there were plenty of aimless-adolescent types on both sides of the camera. The pallid Napoleon Dynamite was the most inexplicable of the lot, although better-known actors and bigger music budgets couldn’t disguise the self-satisfied hollowness of David O. Russell’s I § Huckabees, Zach Braff’s Garden State, or Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. Two widely celebrated slacker sagas, Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Alexander Payne’s Sideways, were less smirky and more humane, but both were essentially Hollywood romantic comedies with a routine Hollywood flaw: Rapport between the major characters was simply assumed rather than demonstrated.

A year of cinema is, of course, largely an accident of timing. It’s not Jude Law’s fault that he made six movies that got released within four months, thus taxing every dedicated filmgoer’s forbearance. (It didn’t help, of course, that only two of the films were credible: The Aviator, in which Law has a cameo, and the brilliantly directed but shallow Closer.)

A happier sequence of events led to 2004’s profusion of Asian films. Last year, few such movies played commercially in D.C.; this year, almost half of my top 10 (or 11) come from China, Japan, or Korea. Add two comprehensive citywide retrospectives, the complete “Yasujiro Ozu: A Retrospective,” and the half-century-spanning “Korean Film Festival DC”—as well as the Freer’s Tsai Ming-liang, Hong Kong, and Discoveries series—and followers of Eastern cinema could hardly ask for more. (Except that Miramax, which did at last unshackle Hero and Shaolin Soccer, lets us see Infernal Affairs.)

Alas, time ran out this year for Visions Bar Noir, which closed in part because of increased competition from Landmark’s E Street Cinema, though there were other issues as well. Meanwhile, location was a major concern for the American Film Institute, which lost its venerable Kennedy Center auditorium and reduced its repertory offerings at the underpatronized Silver Theatre and Cultural Center to show more first-run, English-language art-house fare to suburbanites. With the Avalon doing mostly second-run bookings and the Outer Circle shuttered, E Street and Dupont Circle currently own the in-town foreign and indie market, although offbeat stuff occasionally shows up at the Loews Georgetown and elsewhere. Yet amid these losses the city gained 22 commercial screens this year, a new documentary venue at the National Archives, and expanded programming at the Library of Congress’ Mary Pickford Theater.

One more matter of timing: The following (alphabetical) list reflects the films that actually opened commercially in Washington in 2004, and does not include ones that will play in New York or Los Angeles for a week or two in December to qualify for the upcoming Academy Awards. Not that the District’s exclusion from the Oscar-bait express is such a problem this year: The Assassination of Richard Nixon, Bad Education, Million Dollar Baby, Hotel Rwanda, and The Woodsman have all been screened for Washington critics, and none of them are masterworks. Hotel Rwanda is powerful and heartfelt, and all five include excellent performances, but they don’t rival these films:

Blind Shaft Two ruthless mine workers murder a string of naive co-workers to collect under-the-counter compensation in Li Yang’s taut, gray-blue film noir, the year’s bleakest study of killer capitalism.

Crimson Gold Jafar Panahi’s harshest film retains the conceptual elegance of his earlier work: Flashing back from a shocking crime, the story reveals social inequities that are universal and religious strictures that are specifically Iranian.

Hero and House of Flying Daggers Originally conceived as part of the same martial-arts saga, these Zhang Yimou films share absolute mastery of color and movement. The first is more opulent, the second more intimate, but both are dazzling.

Kinsey Bill Condon’s witty, wonderfully played ensemble piece blows open the mid-20th-century U.S.A. via the interlocking life and career of the man who proved scientifically that Americans really were having sex.

Maria Full of Grace In a stunning performance for first-time writer-director Joshua Marston, first-time actress Catalina Sandino Moreno travels from innocence (rural Colombia) to experience (New York City) as a drug mule.

My Architect: A Son’s Journey Nathaniel Kahn’s search for the various legacies of his enigmatic father, architect Louis Kahn, is the most engrossing of this year’s autobiographical documentaries, although it had strong competition from Pearl Gluck’s Divan and Jonathan Caoutte’s Tarnation.

Notre Musique Jean-Luc Godard’s most straightforward feature in years offers a crushing view of hell, a provocative interlude in purgatory, and an ambiguous vision of heaven.

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring Korean bad boy Kim Ki-duk goes picturesque with this account of changing seasons at a remote Buddhist temple. But he hasn’t forgotten about sex and violence—he’s just integrated them into life’s eternal cycles.

The Twilight Samurai The year’s best anti-martial-arts film is veteran Japanese director Yoji Yamada’s tale of a scruffy, debt-ridden clerk who is finally offered the pointless honor of fighting for his clan.

Vera Drake This expertly acted tale of a plucky, altruistic postwar London abortionist is warmer than most Mike Leigh films—which doesn’t prevent its final half-hour from being chilling.

In another mood, or on another day, I might have chosen one or more of these films instead: Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Distance, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Distant, Ousmane Sembene’s Moolaadé, André Téchiné’s Strayed, or Michael Haneke’s Time of the Wolf.

Pre-eminent among this year’s films that were clever, charming, or lovely but ultimately too sweet or slight were Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s Bon Voyage, Marc Foster’s Finding Neverland, Peter Webber’s Girl With a Pearl Earring, François Dupeyron’s Monsieur Ibrahim, and Huo Jianqi’s Postmen in the Mountains.

A few films were so raw and provocative that they’re memorable even though they weren’t entirely convincing: Lars Von Trier’s Dogville, Marina de Van’s In My Skin, Kim Ki-duk’s The Isle, and Brad Anderson’s The Machinist. Von Trier and Jørgen Leth’s The Five Obstructions was equally perverse, but in a more academic way.

In the years after the Key and Biograph closed, many of the best new foreign and indie films screened locally only once or twice, at such nonprofit repertory venues as the Freer Gallery of Art, the Goethe-Institut, the National Gallery of Art, and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. That was less common in 2004; such films as Crimson Gold, Notre Musique, My Architect, and Tarnation premiered in museum programs, but then quickly re-emerged at commercial houses. (The same has yet to happen, however, with Tsai Ming-liang’s 2002 Goodbye, Dragon Inn.) Still, Filmfest DC and such series as the National Gallery’s Lands of Abraham and AFI’s European Union Showcase presented some notable films that don’t yet have a U.S. distributor, including Ermanno Olmi’s Singing Behind the Screen and two vivid Iranian dramas about women and children in Afghanistan, Samira Makhmalbaf’s At Five in the Afternoon and Marziyeh Meshkini’s Stray Dogs.

Every year brings a staggering number of bad films, and most needn’t be recalled. It’s hardly a surprise, after all, when movies that are supposed to be so bad they’re good—The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, for example, or The Hebrew Hammer—turn out to be just plain bad. Still, when a director as eminent as Bernardo Bertolucci makes a film as off-key as The Dreamers, it must be acknowledged. And when such a brutal, anti-Semitic spectacle as The Passion of the Christ is widely accepted as gospel, the implications—if not the movie itself—can’t be ignored. And when Hollywood can turn a innocent picture book like The Polar Express into a endurance test in which pained-faced tots take a grim trek to meet a Santa who commands them to “believe,” you have to wonder, Believe in what?CP