In looking back over a tumultuous movie year (and there's no other way to describe a year that included both "The Passion of the Christ" and "Fahrenheit 9/11"), it's calming to...

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In looking back over a tumultuous movie year (and there’s no other way to describe a year that included both “The Passion of the Christ” and “Fahrenheit 9/11”), it’s calming to think of the movies that brought solace — by the artistry they showed us, the effortless adventures they took us on, the unforgettable characters they introduced us to.

My favorites this year ran the gamut from a blockbuster superhero sequel to a tiny Russian drama directed by a first-timer. Their settings ranged from modern-day Colombia to Edwardian London, from the California wine country to a nondescript Paris office; their heroes included a middle-aged do-gooder who keeps a secret from her family, a rumpled Everyman desperate to erase the memory of love and a bespectacled boy wizard facing the hardest trick of all: growing up.

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These are my favorite movies seen in 2004, listed alphabetically because I’d rather not rank any of these lovely films above any other. Your top 10 list, of course, will be different — year-end favorites tend to be uniquely personal, like ice-cream flavors and coffee-drink preferences — and I hope each of you saw 10 movies that delighted you as much as these did me.

“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”


“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”

A wildly creative dream-ballet of a movie, from the swooping pen of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (“Adaptation,” “Being John Malkovich”), who takes us on another trip through the mazes of the mind. Director Michel Gondry makes it funny, heartbreaking and unforgettable.


“Facing Windows.”

Winner of the Golden Space Needle for best film at this year’s Seattle International Film Festival, Ferzan Ozpetek’s graceful drama waltzes us into the lives and hearts of its four main characters, examining the shadows that remain after a relationship — or a person — is gone.


“Finding Neverland.”

A gentle Victorian candy-box of a film, Marc Forster’s fairytale was inspired by the life of “Peter Pan” playwright J.M. Barrie — and by the ephemeral nature of childhood and creativity. Johnny Depp (with a whispery Scottish brogue), Kate Winslet and young Freddie Highmore give subtle and lovely performances.

“Facing Windows”


“Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.”

Third time’s the charm — and hey, the first movies weren’t too bad either. Director Alfonso Cuaron, new to the J.K. Rowling franchise, brings a touch of darkness and a spark of genuine magic to the third “Harry Potter” movie, with a cast of kids who keep getting better and better.


“Intimate Strangers.”

The year’s most irresistible premise — a woman enters the wrong office door and begins telling her marital troubles to a tax lawyer, thinking he’s a therapist — results in an enchanting two-person character study from French director Patrice Leconte.

“Maria Full of Grace”


“Maria Full of Grace.”

Newcomer Catalina Sandino Moreno etches an unforgettable portrait of a Colombian teen who, desperate to find another life, becomes a drug mule. Writer/director Joshua Marston gives her story an almost documentary-like realism — and, as its title suggests, an elevating and all-too-rare sense of grace.


“The Return.”

Andrey Zvyagintsev makes a stunning debut with this tale of a father who mysteriously returns home to his wife and two young sons after a long absence from their remote Russian town. Told in icy shades of gray, through a child’s eyes, the film has a haunting beauty. Zvyagintsev has a rare sense of storytelling — and of the power of understatement.


“Sideways.”

Raise a glass of pinot noir to this marvelous comedy, directed by Alexander Payne and written by Payne and Jim Taylor, that turns out to be about that rarest of movie subjects: genuine male friendship. Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church, as two buddies on a wine-soaked bender, are perfection.


“Spider-Man 2.”

Nothing this summer — or this year — was more fun than watching Tobey Maguire’s moody superhero swooping past the skyscrapers of New York, fighting crime and adding nuance to the character we fell in love with in Sam Raimi’s first “Spider-Man” film. Hollywood, take note: This is how it’s done.


“Vera Drake.”

With Imelda Staunton’s heartbreakingly gentle performance at its center, Mike Leigh’s drama about a wife and mother in ’50s London who helps out “girls in trouble” has a quiet, devastating power.


Thirteen lucky runners-up

, any one of which might have made my top 10 on another day: “The Aviator,” “Bad Education,” “Closer,” “Collateral,” “House of Flying Daggers,” “The Incredibles,” “Mean Girls,” “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster,” “The Motorcycle Diaries,” “My Architect,” “The Same River Twice,” “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow,” “Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter … and Spring.”


Best 2004 movie that won’t open here until 2005:

It’s impossible for me to choose between two beautifully made and deeply moving dramas, both opening in Seattle in January but eligible for this year’s awards: Terry George’s “Hotel Rwanda” and Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby.”

Ten perfectly dreadful movies I hope to never have to think about again, thanks very much: “Alexander,” “Along Came Polly,” “The Butterfly Effect,” “Christmas with the Kranks,” “Envy,” “Godsend,” “The Girl Next Door,” “She Hate Me,” “Suspect Zero,” “Van Helsing.”

And onward we go, into 2005. May it be a year filled with warmth, wit, art and goodness — on the big screen, and elsewhere.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com