I made two assumptions when I arrived in Costa Rica, lo these many years ago. First was to imagine an incredible variety of film to choose from, what with this being Latin America and all. Surely there would be access to the best of the region s cinema. Second, I figured there would be decent peanut butter. Initially wrong on both counts, but 2004 showed definite improvement in both the film and peanut butter situations. TO be sure, Costa Rican movie-going still feeds you a steady diet of Hollywood crowd pleasers, usually a few weeks after their release up north. At this writing, a scan of the marquees shows John Travolta as a pensive firefighter in Ladder 49, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jude Law fighting killer robots in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, and Tom Hanks taking on multiple roles in The Polar Express. Okay. As for that last one, it is Christmas. But, sigh. Hooray for Hollywood, as the song says, but Costa Rica this year began to show that there is life beyond Tinsel town. THE country s nascent film industry got a big shot in the arm in November with the premiere of locally made Caribe. Director Esteban Ramírez s work mixing marital infidelity with oil exploration opened to positive accolades, although a TT reviewer did qualify it as a bit soap opera-ish. But all agreed that the scenery alone makes it a must-see for anyone who loves Costa Rica s Caribbean region. In addition, although not in the movie houses, TropiX, written and directed by long-time residents Livia Linden and Percy Angress and filmed mostly on the Pacific coast, was bought by Blockbuster Videos and can be ordered from www. amazon.com. SPANISH-language cinema received an occasional showcase in the big three theater chains (CCM, Cinemark and Cinépolis) with debuts of Walter Salles The Motorcycle Diaries and Pedro Almodóvar s Bad Education as two examples this year. El Semáforo, near the University of Costa Rica in San Pedro, this year cemented its claim to fame as the best place in town to take in a work of Latin American cinema. If your Spanish is up to the task, the theater is cool in a bare-bones kind of way, and screens nothing but indie films, such as the Peruvian Coraje, and Mexican El Cometa, which wouldn t find a venue anywhere else in town. THREE notable some would say notorious U.S. films debuted in Costa Rica this year, products of two directors, different as night and day. None would ever be pigeonholed as mainstream Hollywood movies. Mel Gibson s The Passion of the Christ premiered here in April, depicting the final hours of Jesus on earth. What can you say about a film spoken entirely in Aramaic, Latin and Hebrew (and presented here with Spanish subtitles)? The sanitized Jesus on the cross you saw in your Sunday school books this was not; Gibson spared no blood and gore, giving a more realistic portrayal of what a crucifixion really was. The film did well among Catholic and fundamentalist- Christian audiences, both of which are in abundant supply in Costa Rica, but critics charged Gibson with catering to old anti- Semitic stereotypes about the Good Friday story. Two films by equally controversial director Michael Moore, who could not be farther away politically from Gibson, had their debuts here this year as well. Moore examined the U.S. love affair with guns in his 2002 documentary Bowling for Columbine, which played here for a month in January/February. A full two years after its U.S. debut, the price of the film had come down enough for local theater chain CCM to bring it to Costa Rica. THE director s more recent Fahrenheit 9/11 opened in August, just in time for the U.S. campaign season, and was a scathing look at the Bush administration s headlong, rest-of-the-world-bedamned rush into Iraq. Opponents accuse Moore of juxtaposing images improperly and playing fast and loose with the facts. The film drew the curious and the passionate, but whether it changed any votes in an already deeply polarized environment remains doubtful. Love em or hate em and if you like Moore you probably dislike Gibson, and vice versa kudos to local distributors for bringing all three films here this year. Then there s the venerable Sala Garbo, long a haven for film lovers. Who else could move seamlessly from Iran s The Color of Paradise, to New Zealand s Whale Rider, to Denmark s Italian for Beginners, as the near-west-side theater did in 2004? IF you re a true film lover, get in the habit of scanning the paper. (Here s a welldeserved plug for the TT Calendar.) Small film festivals cropped up at the last minute in varying venues around town (cultural centers, schools and sometimes in the mainstream theaters, too). The year saw screenings of films from Cuba, Mexico, Germany and Turkey, among others. They re out there; you just have to find out about them, since their promotional budget is often small.