TROUBLE CITY

DAVE'S TOP 15 OF 2004

EditorialDave DavisComment

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Discuss this here on our message boards.

Nick's List.
Devin's List.

I don’t get to the theater as often as I’d like and I don’t have the same access to advanced or press screenings as Devin and Nick, so I’ve yet to see a few of the films populating their lists.  As a result my selections will probably look significantly different from what appears on their (and other “critics”) lists, which actually shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who bothers reading the nonsense I’ve been scribbling on this site for nigh on five years…

m15. The Machinist (CHUD review)

A juicy role might be enough to convince some high-paid actors to learn dance steps or gain a couple dozen pounds for their craft, but few have ever undergone a transformation as absolute as Christian Bale, who despite his negligible density manages to anchor this murky thriller about an insomniac shop worker who thinks he’s being stalked by a stranger.  I wasn’t blown away by director Brad Anderson’s cheapie Session 9, but with The Machinist he takes a basic premise and gives it a distinctive (if erratic) presentation, blending broody visuals and bizarre elements of Lynch and Hitchcock with a vibe somewhere between Memento and Fight Club.  The script is a little loose, but the movie slowly ratchets up the tension and remains unpredictable, avoiding the clunker climax that’s increasingly common in the spooker genre.  And you don’t see enough movies these days (outside of Cinemax) that feature Michael Ironside, dammit.

Current Rating: 7.6 out of 10

Contributing Factors:  Consistently chilling.  A unique look at extreme effects of paranoia and altered perception.

Performance to Savor: Though he resembles the mobile deceased, the nearly unrecognizable Christian Bale makes you believe he could sell the character even without shedding the approximate weight of co-star Jennifer Jason Leigh.

P.R. CHUD.com Pull-Quote: “The Machinist delivers the year’s best heebies!”

s14. Stander (Buy the DVD) 

This is the Thomas Jane antihero movie people should’ve seen instead of The Punisher (not like audiences exactly flocked to see that Marvel mess).  TJ portrays the real-life Andre Stander, a cop in early 80s Johannesburg, South Africa who, frustrated with the state of police politics, decides to rob banks instead.  Seems perfectly reasonable.  After getting caught and tossed in the clink, he breaks out with the crazy Irish guy from Braveheart and Soap from Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, and the three embark on a spree of audacious robberies that baffle Stander’s former co-workers.  It’s certainly not what you’d expect from Bronwen Hughes, who had previously only directed disposable drivel like Forces of Nature, but she graduates with an embracing pseudo-documentary style (the story is based on actual events) that makes the film’s somewhat superficial motives and unlikely successes believable.

Current Rating: 7.8 out of 10

Contributing Factors: More fun and far less smarmy than another heist movie featuring a ridiculously high-profile cast.

Performance to Savor: Surrounded by a capable cast, Thomas Jane stands out (pun questionable) in the title role, giving his thief a casual likeability and lending credence to somewhat irrational behavior.

P.R. CHUD.com Pull-Quote: Stander will have you standing, or at least leaning forward, with excitement!”

r13. End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones

I’m a fan of the Ramones and punk rock in general (which for some reason surprises people, who are apparently deceived by my vast collection of snappy shirts), and with three of the four original members of one of rock’s greatest bands now collecting posthumous accolades, it’s great to see a thorough and endearing documentary that captures exactly what was behind those three chords they played over and over.  Despite their seemingly simple music and goofball façade, End of the Century’s archival clips, live footage, interviews and various looks behind the scenes reveal a quartet (plus proxy Ramones) of complex, intelligent, charming and very different individuals. Like the Marx Brothers ripping through two-minute anthems.


Current Rating: 8.0 out of 10

Contributing Factors:  As raw as the band, the film documents an enduring chapter in pop culture.

Performance to Savor: Johnny Ramone.  He’s a complete dick and I disagree with his stance on… just about everything, but in this light he seems like the most vibrant member of the band.

P.R. CHUD.com Pull-Quote: “There’s no stoppin’ the cretins from hoppin’!”

i12. Infernal Affairs (CHUD Review) (Buy the DVD)

Though I first saw it ages ago, Infernal Affairs finally got released in the States in 2004 so I guess it qualifies.  A curveball from director and co-writer Andrew Lau, previously responsible for action extravaganzas as A Man Called Hero and The Avenging Fist, Infernal Affairs extracts some of the most potent career performances from an all-star cast and confidently navigates through a tense labyrinth of risky circumstances.  As it switches parallel perspective from an undercover detective long entrenched deep in the Hong Kong triad and a spy in the Organized Crime and Triad Bureau, the movie turns the dial on the pressure gauge to excruciating degrees.  And with nary a two-pistol slo-mo slide or flapping dove to be found. I don’t know if it required both a prequel and sequel, but it’s definitely worth seeing before Martin Scorsese’s Americanized version.

Current Rating: 8.0 out of 10

Contributing Factors:  Nail-nibbling situations, complex character motivations, striking visuals and praise-worthy acting turn a familiar premise into a particularly palatable concoction.

Performance to Savor: Andy Lau as the gangster who, after infiltrating Hong Kong’s finest, begins to question his loyalties.

P.R. CHUD.com Pull-Quote: “Star-studded cop swap exceeds the sum of its parts!”

o11. Ong-Bak

This one’s sort of another cheat, since it hasn’t yet been officially released in the US… but hey, it’s my list.  Anyone who regularly reads the site knows I’m loopy for Asian films and martial arts flicks, but there hasn’t been anything this pure since Jackie Chan ran out of Project As and God armour.  At first I was distracted by the undercranked fight footage and (admittedly insane) stunts repeated from multiple angles, but on further viewings have come to accept these shortcomings as eager charms from a neophyte director.  No wires, no CGI, just the uncanny physical abilities of lanky star Tony Jaa and the unfortunate stuntmen who get brutalized along the way. 

Current Rating: 8.1 out of 10

Contributing Factors:  The craziest gravity-defying martial arts and punishing stunts of the new century.

Performance to Savor: Tony Jaa.  I have little doubt that with some language lessons and a personality injection, the world’s wide open for this wiry skull-crusher.

P.R. CHUD.com Pull-Quote: Ong-Bak will hit you in the neck and groin, and you’ll beg for more!”

bill10. Kill Bill vol. 2 (CHUD review) (Buy the DVD)

Though I dug everything about Kill Bill vol. 1 more – the soundtrack, the death list victims, Go-Go Yubari, the convalesced Bride’s transformation to sword-swinging whirligig – vol. 2’s swerve into spaghetti western territory (with a detour into Shaw Brothers chopsockey) is also a welcome homage compilation in the hands of Tarantino, and wisely given room to breathe in its own film.  People can argue Tarantino’s creativity all they want, but he’s certainly poaching from the right sources as far as I’m concerned.  And in addition to continuing his penchant for drudging up fading actors (Carradine, Hannah, Svenson) and giving them fresh meat to chew, Tarantino also found perhaps the most wonderfully precocious young child actress in recent screen history.   And that’s not (just) the pedophile in me talking.

Current Rating: 8.2 out of 10

Contributing Factors:  Grindhouse, kung fu, westerns and samurai elements collide (again) in an epic exploitation experiment.

Performance to Savor: He only gets a few moments on screen and he’s camouflaged with makeup, but Michael Parks’ oily whoremaster makes an otherwise superfluous scene one of the film’s best.

P.R. CHUD.com Pull-Quote: “Twice the Bill-killing of vol. 1!”

h9. House of Flying Daggers (CHUD review)

What a surprise – another martial arts film on my list.  Though I still prefer the palette and cast of Zhang Yimou’s Hero, his striking wuxia romance House of Flying Daggers is a worthy successor to his high-flying swordplay melodrama.  Crouching Tiger, Stunning Hotness Ziyi Zhang continues to be impossibly gorgeous and more accomplished as both an actress and a “movie martial artist”, and while Yimou seems increasingly reliant on digital trickery, the gracefully furious fights of Daggers are nonetheless exhilarating to the point of near-exhaustion.

I'm really glad that Sony got their hands on the film instead of another distributor that starts with M and ends with iramax, since it means we didn’t have to wait two years to see it (and it didn’t have an English dub, scenes eradicated and a hip-hop version of "Kung Fu Fighting").

Current Rating: 8.2 out of 10

Contributing Factors:  Pretty faces, a love triangle, duplicity and arterial spray.

Performance to Savor: Ziyi Zhang.  See above.

P.R. CHUD.com Pull-Quote: “The best bamboo battle of the century!”

.8. Spartan  (CHUD Review) (Buy the DVD)

David Mamet grabs exposition and traditional narrative by the scruff and hurls them from a speeding vehicle, shouting “I don’t need this shit!”  And he really doesn’t.  Spartan immediately drops viewers into the story and lets them play catch-up as Val Kilmer’s ronin-esque military consultant searches for a politician's kidnapped daughter, except... someone doesn't want her found. 

It gets a bit Hollywood-lazy in the third act (the same reason Collateral didn’t make the cut – Terminator Tom??), and there isn’t a single relative of Stallone’s Demolition Man character anywhere, but it’s easily Mamet’s best work since Glengarry Glen Ross.

Current Rating: 8.4 out of 10

Contributing Factors:  Lean, mean, surprising, and loaded with Mamet quips.

Performance to Savor: Val Kilmer, who reminds us that suffering stuff like Red Planet and Hard Cash and At First Sight can eventually lead to something like this.

P.R. CHUD.com Pull-Quote: “Val Kilmer isn’t dead after all!”

spid7. Spider-Man 2 (CHUD review) (Buy the DVD)

Like the first adventure of the webbed wonder, Spider-Man 2 loses some luster upon repeat viewings, but there’s no denying Sam Raimi has a superhuman grasp on transferring comic book aesthetics to the live-action format.  With the origin of our hero out of the way, Raimi can focus on the burden of such a responsibility, which gives Maguire that much more room to play.  It’s occasionally awkward and a little heavy on angst (it’s the Empire Strikes Back of comic flicks), and Dunst looks like she’d rather scarf down another handful of Xanax than deal with mechanical tentacles and guys in pajamas, but the sequel has more near-perfect comic book moments than the wallcrawler has creature-named villains (although I’d still argue that Raimi’s Darkman is the greatest comic book movie ever, despite it not being based on an actual comic book). 

Current Rating: 8.4 out of 10

Contributing Factors:  A marvelous (ahem) bridge between the introduction of our swinger and his inevitable showdown with… whoever the villain in part 3 is.

Performance to Savor: Alfred Molina.  The guy’s come a long way from whip trading.

P.R. CHUD.com Pull-Quote: “Your heart will be ensnared by the wrist-jizz of Spider-Man 2!”

primer6. Primer (CHUD review)

While Will Smith blasted holes through iMac mandroids and cranked the casket rotation of Isaac Asimov, a bunch of smaller, more cerebral and much more interesting sci-fi films were released… and seen by a few dozen people.  The Final Cut couldn’t focus and Code 46 was a little too insular, but the no-budget Primer found the sweet spot… assuming one was willing to fire the synapses.

Confession time: Shane Carruth, writer/director/star of Primer, sent me a copy of the film about a year and a half ago, perhaps hoping I might be able to give some small amount of guidance.  Unfortunately, beyond suggesting Sundance and film festivals I was at a loss for advice, as I found the film maddeningly cryptic and entirely stupefying.  Subsequent viewings, however, have revealed a compelling, brilliant and utterly unsolvable Mobius strip about “found science” and its effects.  And considering it was shot for the cost of a used motorcycle, it looks pretty great, too.  Glad to see someone sharper than me recognized Carruth’s gem and gave it some attention.

Current Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Contributing Factors:  Natural characters and dialogue, and more techno-jargon than you can shake a theoretical physicist at.

Performance to Savor: Shane Carruth, who pulls the whole thing together. Then travels back and does it again.

P.R. CHUD.com Pull-Quote: Primer is smarter than you!”

t5. Taegukgi (Brotherhood of War) (Buy the DVD)

Taegukgi is obviously inspired by Saving Private Ryan, but doesn’t get quite as strained by the mawkish anti-war sentimentality of Spielberg’s opus.  Told through remarkable use of flashbacks, the movie follows two happy brothers suddenly thrust into the vicious frontlines of the Korean War (depicted in some wickedly harrowing battle scenes).  The older brother volunteers for increasingly suicidal missions in an attempt to earn enough commendations to request his kid brother be discharged, but it’s misinterpreted by the younger sibling as a reckless quest for glory.

After the glossy Die Hard-styled Shiri, director Kang Jae-Gyu gets his hands (and cast) muddy in the madness-inducing trenches of warfare.  The huge scope results in slightly sketchy characters and the script falls victim to a few clichés (it’s no shock when that guy who proudly displays family photos gets smithereened), but I think the film benefits from the backdrop of a war whose politics I know little about -- the astonishing battles and their devastating impact are where the film triumphs.

Current Rating: 8.7 out of 10

Contributing Factors:  Technically proficient, relentless... South Korean films continue to impress the hell out of me.

Performance to Savor: Jang Dong-gun, who resembles a Korean version of Chow Yun-Fat.

P.R. CHUD.com Pull-Quote: “War… it’s fantastic!”

baad4. Baadasssss! (CHUD DVD review) (Buy the DVD)

I already sufficiently praised the film in my DVD review, but I’ll paraphrase:  Mario Van Peebles virtually erases his less-than-superb filmography from memory with Baadasssss! (aka How to Get the Man's Foot Outta Your Ass), a pseudo-documentary chronicling his father Melvin's arduous task of making the blaxploitation flick Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song.  It doesn't succeed 100% of the time, but it still delivers an extraordinary personal story of perseverance that's far better than the film it's about (Sweetback may be a seminal work, but it's pretty terrible).  Honest, frightening, depressing and uplifting, it’s a captivating Hollywood saga.

Current Rating: 9.0 out of 10

Contributing Factors:  A stylish and confidently crafted tribute to the elder Van Peebles’ work that isn't afraid to show the misery of filmmaking.

Performance to Savor: Former NFL linebacker Terry Crews.  Forget other big names and recognizable faces -- if/when they make the A-Team feature film, this guy’s your B.A. Baracus.  Hell, give him Luke Cage while we’re at it.

P.R. CHUD.com Pull-Quote: “Don’t be no fool… Baadasssss! is what it is!”

old3. Oldboy

I was surprised and pleased to find this on the lists of both Nick and Devin, who have been introduced to the greatness of Korean director Chan-wook Park.  The guy is making some of the most affecting, accomplished and uncompromising films today, in any language (except maybe Zeta Reticulan). Even his hypnotically bleak kidnapping thriller Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance wasn’t enough to prepare me for this brutal tale.  Tarantino may have paid ample tribute to the revenge genre(twice!), but Chan-wook almost reinvented it.

Some masochistic part of me anticipates the American remake, just to see how much they fuck it up.

Current Rating: 9.2 out of 10

Contributing Factors:  Grim and ghastly, mesmerizing and staggering.

Performance to Savor: Min-sik Choi, in the role of a lifetime.

P.R. CHUD.com Pull-Quote: “You’ll be thankful you aren’t the guy in Oldboy!”

.2. The Incredibles  (CHUD review)

If you like animated movies and superhero stories and you weren’t excited by The Incredibles, there's probably a shortage of oxygen in the peculiar dimension where you dwell.  Comic book parodies have been pummeled more than Baron Strucker and Batroc the Leaper combined, but The Incredibles transcends satire and commands a place alongside other supreme efforts.  At first I found the setup of an amazing family acclimating to suburban life to be a bit of a drag, but then the villain’s island fortress and the massive climax put everything into perspective.

Thematically it may be the nebulous Pixar film to date – there’s some curious statements on being “special’ – but it’s also the greatest realization of super powers ever to hit movie screens (excluding Nuclear Man, naturally).  I’m sure anyone with a comic flick currently in any stage of production is shitting in their unstable molecules at the prospect of defeating this new comic book masterwork.

Current Rating: 9.2 out of 10

Contributing Factors:  From the nearly infallible Pixar studios and the brainpan of Iron Giant writer-director Brad Bird.

Performance to Savor: Hero dad Craig T. Nelson, delivering his finest line readings since Action Jackson.

P.R. CHUD.com Pull-Quote: “A delicious hero sandwich.  It’s like the title without the S!”

shaun1. Shaun of the Dead  (CHUD review) (Buy the DVD)

I debated with myself over making another Brit zombie flick my number one selection (28 Days Later held the slot last year), but it turns out I’m a bit of a pussy so that was an easy win.  We've probably showered this film with more gooey love than anything previous here on CHUD, but it's the rare film that actually deserves every bit of moist affection. With the equally ingenious UK television series Spaced as a training ground, the filmmakers turned their love of reanimated corpses into a sardonic and surprisingly heartwarming tale of love, friendship, responsibility and undead infestation. I’ve seen the movie at least a half-dozen times, and it’s already cemented a spot on my list of all-time favorites.

Current Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Contributing Factors:  Ingenious and polished, dappled with gore and bulging with respectful nods to the genre.

Performance to Savor: Simon Pegg, supplanting Ken Foree as the king of the zombie smashers.

P.R. CHUD.com Pull-Quote: Shaun of the Dead is a gift from beyond the grave!”