Year end lists are like ex-girlfriends. They really represent a moment in the timeline of your life, and they provide a snapshot of who you were. And sometimes they just haunt you forever. I like and hate making year end lists with equal measure; on one hand they’re a great way to advocate for terrific films that might otherwise be lost. On a site like CHUD I have the unique opportunity to agitate in favor of genre films that might be left off the lists of the more ‘serious’ critics. But they’re also a bitch because they can be so political. You want to make a good showing and have important, smart movies on there as well as entertaining movies. You only have a limited number of slots. And worst of all, you’re too close to the year. 

I was going to do a halfway-through-the-year list for 2010, but then I realized 2010 has been mostly a wasteland. Instead what I’ve decided to do is have a monthly revisit to my old top lists, starting with 2004, the first year I can find on the site (I’m sure there are older ones, but back end changes and data migrations have made them almost impossible to find. If anyone out there can link to these older lists, I’d be happy to share them). This is a very embarrassing prospect for me – I know that some of these lists have glaring omissions and more glaring additions – but I think it’s kind of illuminating. From a sheerly navel-gazing standpoint it’s interesting to see where I’ve gone in the last six or so years, and for you as a reader it could be illuminating to measure my current reviews against these lists. Or maybe you’d just like to make fun of me for having Garden State above Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Or on the list at all, for that matter.

Click here to check out my 2004 Top Fifteen in total. 

The films of 2004 (with updated review links, where applicable. Due to a data entry issue, many of these reviews are incorrectly attributed to someone else.):

Tying the Knot
Old Boy
Kill Bill, Volume 2

Control Room 

Spider-Man 2
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Garden State
The Aviator
The Motorcycle Diaries
Shaun of the Dead
I <3 Huckabees

Looking over that list I’m not sure what I was thinking. It gets worse when you realize what isn’t on that list and made it into the ‘almost ran’ section - Anchorman, Bourne Supremacy, Prisoner of Azkaban. I’d say that in the past six years I’ve revisited those three films more often than I’ve even seen half the movies on my list. There’s no way to tell how you’re going to feel about a movie far into the future, but I remember wheezing for breath while watching Anchorman, so that feels like a very pointed omission. Was it left off because of the shame of listing a silly, raunchy movie as one of the best of the year? Probably. Dumb Devin of 2004.

Tying the Knot is the perfect example of a politically placed movie. Gay marriage has always been a hot button issue for me (it’s hard to believe that in 2010 we’re still denying people rights because of who they love), and placing that at the outlier #15 slot was an excuse to talk about the issue and raise some awareness. Old Boy and Kill Bill, Volume 2 are placed waaaay too low, though. Old Boy was a tough one for me to place because I had seen it in between its original Korean release and its American release; critics – especially festivalgoing critics – often face the dilemma of deciding when a movie is eligible for a list. If you put it on too early the audience will sometimes get annoyed, but if you wait too long the movie could drop off the radar (this is what happened with me and The Brothers Bloom). 14 was probably a safety slot for Old Boy, with me not taking many chances. Kill Bill, Volume 2 is plain dumb at 13, though. It certainly ranks higher in retrospect.

The rest of the bottom five actually feels about right. #10 is harder to judge from this point in history; watching Control Room, a doc about Al Jazeera, in 2004 felt almost revolutionary. Remember, this was back in the day when intelligent Americans thought Al Jazeera was Osama Bin Laden News Network. The doc is a compelling mix of the action of any news organization with the push and pull of a Middle East caught battling itself and outsiders. Modernization and the Iraq War are gnawing at the reporters from either side; I haven’t seen the movie in years, but it remains powerful in my memory.

But then we get to #9 - Spider-Man 2. What do you possibly have to say for yourself, 2004 Devin? Spider-Man 2 isn’t just the greatest superhero movie ever made, it’s one of the better popular entertainments of the decade. Putting it at 9 is such a pussy move, the sign of a guy afraid to stand up for great entertainment. But isn’t that one of the problems with a year end list in general? There’s that tension between the Great films and the Entertaining films, and rarely do the two ever meet. Is rewatchability really a criteria for inclusion on a year end list? Does being able to sit through something really make it better? Of course Spider-Man 2 isn’t just rewatchable, it’s a movie filled with great heart and soul and a sense of fun, buoyed by terrific performances and FX that, at the time, thrilled. 

Primer is a tougher one to judge. That’s a film whose greatness I understood right away, but I think 2004 was too close to really understand the extent of that greatness. Primer is a best of the decade type film, but it’s a slow burn in that category. You realize it’s one of the best movies of the decade in 2007 when you’re still puzzling over the intricacies of the time travel, and when you still get excited when you meet a new person who tells you they love the movie. Or even better yet, when you meet a new person who hasn’t seen it and wants to borrow your DVD. 

Just ahead of Primer is one of my major miscalculations, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. There’s a lot going on here for me; it was a very personal film at the time, being released just as I was going through a devastating break up. Distance keeps coming up here – the lack of it is why December releases end up crowding so many critics’ best of the year lists – but it really applies with Eternal Sunshine. I couldn’t tell if the movie worked or if it just worked on me. These days I’m inclined to say that it doesn’t make a difference; as a critic my job is to not tell you whether or not a movie is right for you, but how it impacted me. 

So what’s the deal with Garden State? I don’t know. I loved it. I look at the rest of the list and am thankful I didn’t include awards bait hackwork like Ray or Million Dollar Baby, and I’m kind of okay with having this film on the list. Yeah, it’s twee and it’s full of itself, but it also has great performances by Natalie Portman and Peter Sarsgaard, and it has a good soundtrack. At the time I think I really wanted a youth movement film to pop up, some kind of modern day The Graduate, and I flung my arms around this movie because… well, because youth movement movies are dead and this was as close as you’ll get anymore.

The Aviator feels perfunctory at #5. Respect to Scorsese, and respect to a movie that celebrates a golden age in an authentic way, but I don’t know that The Aviator flies as well as it should. The 00s will probably be seen as the decade where Scorsese just didn’t have the means to fulfill his vision – look at Gangs of New York, a miss so near that it inspires a ton of love in me – and The Aviator feels a few million bucks shy of perfection. But there are moments in the film that are amazing, and there are elements that will probably live forever in the imaginations of Scorsese fans. 

The #4 film, Motorcycle Diaries, makes me happy. It’s a great, gorgeous film, and it feels kind of forgotten. I don’t know if Soderbergh’s Che overshadowed it or if Che himself has just fallen way, way out of favor again, but it’s a sin that we don’t revisit this film more often. What’s great about The Motorcycle Diaries is how non-political it is while still being subtly political. The film doesn’t need to have young Che rhapsodize Communist, it just needs to show you the pain and inequality that he saw firsthand while traveling South America. And at the center is a gentle, beautiful performance by Gael Garcia Bernal. I love The Motorcycle Diaries because it’s a movie that works even if you never heard of Che Guevara or Fidel Castro. 

Then we get to Shaun of the Dead. So close! Six years of looking back has convinced me that Shaun is the best movie of 2004, hands down, and probably in the top 5 of the 00s. It’s my favorite movie of the decade, at any rate, and everything about it holds up. But more than that it grows – rewatching the movie is a cumulative experience and instead of diminishing returns I think Shaun of the Dead gives you more each time. The biggest problem Edgar Wright is going to have with the rest of his career is trying to top such a perfect movie.

And the final two: I <3 Huckabees is such a wonderful #2 for me. I love this film, and I understand that it’s simply not for everyone. It’s a weird movie, it’s a self-involved movie, but it’s a sweet movie and it’s a funny movie and it’s a movie that feels so honest. But not in the way that indie movies are usually honest, where you just feel bad about everything. In the way the the Dalai Lama is honest and leaves you uplifted and smart and engaged. It’s the kind of movie that really appeals to me, and out of all the movies on the 2004 list, it feels like it’s the one I included because I wanted to include it. Coming in at the top spot is Sideways, a movie that you have to watch to appreciate. That’s a weird statement, but I think that Sideways is a movie so built on the characters and the performances that you have to be actually engaging the movie, being lost in those things, to really remember why it works. It doesn’t help that neither Paul Giamatti or Thomas Haden Church ever really managed to equal their performances here. 

Sideways was probably also partially a political pick. It’s not that I thought I could have an impact on the Oscars that year, but sometimes you have to stand up, and of the interesting and realistic possible Oscar noms, Sideways was the most realistic and interesting. 2004 was a pretty schlocky year for mainstream film, and championing such a character-driven movie – one that felt so real – was fun.

Putting movies in order has never been my strong suit. I envy the critics who can just list their end of the year picks alphabetically; being able to do so would have surely saved me a lot of shame when it came to the middle five of the list. But in the end I’m mostly happy with my picks; I wish I had been braver and more willing to err on the side of fun, but I don’t think I completely shit my pants on  this list. We still have five more years to go, though…

Are you the kind of moviegoer who keeps year end lists? If so, we’d love to get a look at your 2004 list. Post it and discuss it in this thread on our message board.