Oy vey, what a year in movies!

It began with Judas and ended with Shylock. All in all, 2004 was not exactly a warm and fuzzy year for Jews at the movies.

The good news? The most talked about documentary of the year did not feature a dysfunctional Jewish family of convicted pedophiles like 2003’s “Capturing the Friedmans.”

Mel Gibson set the tone in February with “The Passion of the Christ,” a brutal slog through the Christian Bible that denigrated Jews at every turn.

Judas, the ostensible villain of the story, was a milquetoast and a pawn in Gibson’s adaptation, compared to the Jewish elders. But the action hero-turned-director lavished his greatest “love” on Jesus, reveling in an excruciatingly prolonged whipping scene leading up to a fetishized crucifixion. By the end of “Passion,” Mel turned the “King of the Jews” into a tortured rag doll.

In comparison, the moneylender Shylock’s demand for a mere pound of Antonio’s flesh seemed almost gentlemanly.

Michael Radford’s splendid adaptation of “The Merchant of Venice,” which opens in the Bay Area in mid-January, establishes a climate of Venetian anti-Semitism from the outset — complete with a Jewish ghetto — that provides a powerful context for Shylock’s mad desire for vengeance.

Such a sympathetic historical view notwithstanding, it’s still tough to make a case for Shylock as a Jewish role model.

Though one could hardly consider them persecuted, a trio of unpopular Jewish movie moguls paraded their egos off-screen in business journals and courtrooms.

Disney honcho Michael Eisner thumb-wrestled with Miramax founder Harvey Weinstein over the future of their related companies, while a suit brought by Disney shareholders exposed Eisner and his extravagantly compensated former employee Mike Ovitz to further scrutiny and embarrassment.

Woody Allen took some jabs at these modern-day Sam Cohns in the New Yorker, but the venerated filmmaker was absent from American screens for the first time in more than a decade. As a result of the vagaries of distribution, Allen’s latest, “Melinda and Melinda,” won’t reach theaters until March. (Since the prolific auteur is currently prepping his next movie, we may get a double dose in 2005.)

Clearly desperate for a nerdy, wisecracking Jewish hero, audiences embraced a younger and less manic version in the person of Zach Braff. The star of TV’s “Scrubs” made his feature writing and directing debut with the droll “Garden State,” a modest film (with Braff playing the lead) that was a hit with the date crowd.

Braff’s breakthrough somewhat offset the agony of watching the once-promising Ben Stiller methodically shred his career. Or have you already forgotten “Along Came Polly,” “Starsky & Hutch,” “Envy,” “Dodgeball” and “Anchorman?”

Stiller hopes to erase any lingering memories with “Meet the Fockers,” arriving next week.

The comedy also features Dustin Hoffman and — deep breath — Barbra Streisand, in her first screen role since “The Mirror Has Two Faces” in 1996. One imagines that a sublimely witty script lured La Streisand off her deck — or a Brando-sized paycheck.

Although none of the year’s Jewish-themed foreign films matched the box-office success of 2003’s “Nowhere in Africa,” the deeply satisfying Hungarian romantic drama “Gloomy Sunday” enjoyed a belated long run. Unfortunately, the wonderfully crafted “Valentin” (Argentina), “Facing Windows” (Italy) and “Rosenstrasse” (Germany) failed to find audiences, although all three are well worth catching on DVD.

American audiences were treated to an unprecedented bounty of Israeli movies, ranging from the piercing yet accessible social satire of “James’ Journey to Jerusalem” to the quirky family dynamics of “Broken Wings” and “Bonjour Monsieur Shlomi.” Alas, none made a dent at the box office, and moviegoers had to hustle to see them before they vanished from theaters.

Another trio of Israeli dramas heads our way in 2005, with Eran Riklis’ “The Syrian Bride” and Eytan Fox’s “Walking on Water” likely to have higher profiles than Savi Gavison’s “Nina’s Tragedies.”

It was a relatively quiet year for Jewish-themed documentaries, with the usual contingent of films from the Middle East overshadowed by the election-year parade of American political documentaries. “Checkpoint,” “Gaza Strip” and “Ford Transit” were provocative films about “the situation” that did manage to draw some attention.

Keep an eye out next year for “The Ritchie Boys,” which made the short list for the documentary Oscar and has an excellent shot at scoring one of the five nominations. The German-Canadian film spotlights a group of Jewish refugees who received U.S. training in intelligence and propaganda during World War II, then returned to Germany to wage psychological warfare against the Nazis.

Some Jewish figures left us forever in 2004. Count the composers Elmer Bernstein and Jerry Goldsmith, who wrote countless memorable film scores, among them.

Alan King and Rodney Dangerfield, stand-up comics who went on to successful but vastly different careers in the movies, also died this year. To honor their wisdom and wit, I suggest you skip “The Passion of the Christ” and revisit “Enemies: A Love Story” and “Caddyshack.”

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.