My Top 15 for 2004
Devin’s Top 15 for 2005

Questionable though they may seem, my admittedly weird tastes and viewing habits tend to fall somewhere right in the middle of the CHUD collective.  I appreciate craftsmanship, but I also love junk — for example, I missed Good Night and Good Luck and Hustle and Flow, and have yet to catch
Munich or Brokeback Mountain, but somehow I’ve seen Stealth. Twice. Willingly.

Selections are therefore made based purely on recollection and entertainment value and a number of different factors – believe me, this list isn’t necessarily an indicator of quality. For instance…

 15. XXX: State of the Union

This is sure to be a controversial inclusion on my Kongless list, especially since it’s showing up on plenty of Worst lists (and perhaps deservedly so). But just to clarify: this movie is transcendently terrible. Nick found it abnormal when I told him I enjoyed this shamelessly moronic detritus more than Revenge of the Sith (which was moronic detritus with lightsabers), but I howled with uncontrollable laughter through every retarded minute. With its complete ignorance of logic and basic physics, XXX: State of the Union is a political thriller for people who consider Torque a postmodern Western.  Between this and Mr. & Mrs. Smith (and an ability to secure other high-profile gigs like X-Men 3), writer Simon Kinberg must have some majorly incriminating blackmail material on Hollywood bigwigs, Lee Tamahori certainly deserves a stretch in Director Jail, and Ice Cube might now want to think about yet another Friday, but all that really matters to me is that they made the most relentlessly idiotic and unintentionally hilarious movie this year. Truly inspired awfulness.

Contributing Factors:  Our chubby super-agent effectively uses champagne flutes as camouflage, and rescues the President by firing a tank cannon at the
Capitol Building, then outraces a bullet train in a prototype car. Vin who?

Performance to Savor: Mr. Cube, who scowls, glowers and grimaces, then tells villain Willem Dafoe “I thought of you every night I spent in prison!”, and expects us not to giggle.

P.R. Pull-Quote: “Having the IQ of a cheeseburger will help you enjoy XXX: State of the Union!”

ca14. Millions (CHUD Review) (Buy the DVD)

His heart cleansed of heroin and rage infection, director Danny Boyle gets slightly sticky but never blatantly manipulative with this touching tale of found treasure. It’s a deviously simple idea – England is about to convert from Pounds to Euros, and two youngsters find a whole bag of Sterling from a bank robbery but have only have a few days to figure out what to do with it before it becomes obsolete. But it’s what Boyle and the kids do with the concept and the cash that’s affecting – I dare you not to get weepy. Just a little.

Contributing Factors:  A rare movie with a message not delivered via sledgehammer, and proof that Boyle is one of the more diverse talents working the camera today.

Performance to Savor: Leading lad Alex Etel may be a newcomer, but he’s also a natural. But Alun Armstrong steals his brief scene as one of the many saints to flit through the boy’s imagination.

P.R. Pull-Quote: “If you’re not moved by Millions, you’re some sort of cyborg!”

 13. 36 Quai des Orfevres

A stylish, suspenseful cop thriller from France (I know, right?), 36 Quai feels like a French Michael Mann film – lots of ambiguous morals and shady acquaintances.  It starts like a fairly standard police story (the title refers to the French version of Scotland Yard) with two rival detectives hunting a gang of violent armored car thieves, but the film becomes something else entirely, and is all the more satisfying for the risks it takes (it’s based on real events during director Olivier Marchal’s time as a lawman). Naturally, a Hollywood remake is already on the docket.

Contributing Factors:  Surprising and visually striking, with remarkable work from the cast – and hey, is that the chick from Hot Shots?

Performance to Savor: Though he may only be known stateside as a buffoon or Christopher Columbus, Gerard Depardieu makes a rather excellent bastard. Plus he’s really, really handsome.

P.R. Pull-Quote: “Ne soyez pas l’idiot! 36 Quai des Orfevres est mervilleux!”

 12. The Descent

Before The Descent, I honestly can’t remember the last time I was genuinely frightened by a movie. Dog Soldiers director Neil Marshall leaves lycanthropy and military machismo behind (and evades the cheesy B-flavor of the similarly themed The Cave) to take a gaggle of adventurous gals spelunking in some uncharted caves, where they learn a little about themselves while getting the absolute shit scared out of them by the local evolutionary missing link. Anyone who got a cheap thrill from playing the first Resident Evil or Silent Hill games will fill their cargo pants exploring these claustrophobic caves. The final scene is a bit of a gyp, but the preceding moments are filled with more discomfort, shocks and abject terror than the weekend I spent with Tara Reid.

Contributing Factors:  Just a fantastic use of sound, shadow and practical effects. And did I mention it’s incredibly fucking scary?

Performance to Savor: All the ladies give strong performances, but our ostensible heroine Shauna MacDonald convincingly transforms from fragile widow to bloodied beast-battler when survival instincts kick in.

P.R. Pull-Quote: “Plunge into The Descent, but pack spare shorts!”

 11. Sky High (CHUD DVD Review)

This year had a few superhero movies float into theaters, but only one was genuinely fun and successfully captured the comic book tone, even though it wasn’t based on previously existing material (with no ninja Bruce Wayne or biomechanical Victor Von Doom involved, it’s somewhat liberated from a certain level of geek scrutiny).  At its core, Sky High is just a “message movie” like any high school comedy, but it does it with boundless enthusiasm, vibrant colors, and plenty of comic book and pop culture references.  And some extremely cute teenage girls.

Contributing Factors:  Deliberately cheesy FX, impressive practical stunts and a cast that’s clearly having a great time. And extremely cute teenage girls.

Performance to Savor: With his tongue firmly in cheek, personal hero Kurt Russell pays homage to his early Disney days and obviously has a blast doing it.

P.R. Pull-Quote: “Kids and adults alike should enroll at Sky High! Pervs will be screened and reported!

  10. Kung Fu Hustle/Tom Yum Goong

Stephen Chow follows his loopy Shaolin Soccer with even more madcap martial arts in Hustle, even stepping back to allow the deadly secret masters of Pig Sty Alley engage in deliriously cartoonish mayhem against the dreaded Axe Gang until Chow himself goes all Neo for the big climax. Meanwhile, Tony Jaa follows his literal breakthrough Ong-Bak with a similarly simplistic plot in Tom Yum Goong — this time he’s a Thai villager chasing his stolen elephant to Australia, where he wriggles and elbows his way through increasingly insane setpieces (including an astounding restaurant skirmish apparently done in one long take).  I’ve seen more kung fu movies than just about anyone this side of Tarantino and the RZA, but I still found myself laughing, cheering and gasping with sheer amazement at the skills of these two masters.

Contributing Factors:  Yes, I’m cheating, but both of these movies are equal achievements in the genre. Chow is a virtuoso storyteller, and Jaa simply has no tolerance for crap like gravity.

Performance to Savor: Our lean and lethal leading men. Chow and Jaa may not have changed chopsockey flicks forever with their latest brawls, but they’re undoubtedly at the top of their game. That is, until they go even higher.

P.R. Pull-Quote: “Kung Fu Hustle and Tom Yum Goong will yank out your eyes and punch them across the continent!”

cas9. War of the Worlds

War of the Worlds is an odd blockbuster – sure it has loads of jaw-dropping FX and erratic grin machine Tom Cruise doing some real acting, and pays homage to Wells original tale and the 1953 film, but it’s entirely told from the perspective of an below-average New Jersey working stiff. Stephen Spielberg recalls the sense of dread from Jaws, the awe of Jurassic Park and the wartime horror of Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, combining them with some wicked aliens that ate E.T. and those skinny bastards from Close Encounters on their way to conquer our paltry planet. Good thing we had those germs lying around!  

Contributing Factors:  Some thought Spielberg would never travel down the darker path of extraterrestrials, but he wipes out a nice suburban neighborhood just as a warm-up.

Performance to Savor:  You have to admit, when he’s not acting like an absolute jackass in public, Cruise earns his superstar status.

P.R. Pull-Quote: “You’ll love being invaded!”

csa8. The 40-Year-Old Virgin (CHUD Review) (Buy the DVD)

Steve Carell spins his refined Daily Show skills into his first leading role, which fortunately for him was far more perceptive and wittier than the year’s top-grossing comedy. Oh sure, there’s no shortage of profanity and tasteless jokes, but never overtly cruel (or reliant on a gratuitous Will Ferrell cameo).  Carell’s luckless virgin may be somewhat socially stunted, but even with his vast collection of action figures and videogames he comes across more mild-mannered than self-pitying misfit. Thanks to the collaboration with writer/director Judd Apatow (and the film’s comedic collective), he gets to transform into a complete person regardless of his cherry status.

Contributing Factors:  All those insults and sex zingers and bodily function discussion supplement an actual well-developed story!

Performance to Savor: The buddies each get their cracks, but Seth Rogen is especially hilarious as Cal. “You wait for the seed to grow into a plant, and then you fuck the plant!”

P.R. Pull-Quote: “Cheer for penetration!”

 7. Serenity  (CHUD Review)

As the biggest fan of Firefly among the CHUD staff (and apparently the only one who doesn’t utterly despise the character of River Tam), I was ecstatic when Joss Whedon’s space cowboys got defibrillated for a chance on the big screen, and he didn’t disappoint. Well, not entirely, anyway – I would’ve liked appearances by the Blue Sun corporation and eloquent bounty hunter Jubal Early (though Chiwetel Ejiofor’s serene assassin is a reasonable replacement), and Whedon gets atypically sloppy with Serenity’s mundane third act, but the Reaver-focused story itself is relatively satisfying, and the opportunity to see Mal Reynolds and his wily crew injected with a substantial budget for one more escapade (the last for some) is an undeniable treat.

Contributing Factors:  Whedon gets a bigger box of FX toys to play with, and his figurative pen is sharper than ever with the dialogue.

Performance to Savor: The whole cast gets a turn to throw verbal jabs, but Adam Baldwin makes the best use of his few gruff quips.

P.R. Pull-Quote: “You don’t need any particular colored jacket to get a charge out of Serenity!”


 6. A Bittersweet Life (CHUD Review)

In this outstanding Korean gangster flick from Ji-woon Kim (who last directed the stirring spook story A Tale of Two Sisters), mob enforcer Sun-woo seeks revenge on his former employer when he’s condemned to death over a misunderstanding.  A striking modern noir that plays like an Asian Point Blank, the dark and poetic A Bittersweet Life does phenomenal things with a simple premise.

Contributing Factors:  Though more subdued than overstylized, the film displays its technical capabilities during a vicious sequence when Sun-woo escapes his captors by becoming a Tasmanian Devil of carnage.

Performance to Savor: Lee Byung Hun, flawlessly balancing physicality and vulnerability as the wronged man.

P.R. Pull-Quote: “A Bittersweet Life tastes delicious!”

cas5. Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (CHUD Review)

Just when you thought it was all but impossible for Barry Pepper to fully recover from the career stain of Johnnie Goodboy Tyler, Tommy Lee Jones rescues him from a straight-to-cable future for his directing debut, a powerful and complex story filmed with Peckinpah filters.  Jones himself plays a troubled rancher on a quest to bury his Mexican friend, the victim of an accidental shooting by Pepper’s nasty Texas border patrolman. It’s a contemporary tale, but the basic mechanics could work just as well if the movie was set a century ago.

Contributing Factors:  Never preachy and unexpected right to its finale, Jones’ first feature attempt is subdued and beautiful, a true Western.

Performance to Savor:  Jones, at his most grizzled, as the man on a mad mission. It’s enough to make you forget even Fire Birds and Black Moon Rising. But not Double Jeopardy.

P.R. Pull-Quote: " Three Burials will have you grabbing your shovel and kissing your favorite Mexican!”

csa4. Lady Vengeance

Director Park Chan-wook once said he had no interest in movies that evoke passivity, and never was this more evident than with Lady Vengeance (about an unjustly imprisoned woman with a complicated payback plan), the devastating denouement to his “revenge trilogy” following the bleak Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and the brutal Oldboy.  Unquestionably talented though he is, Park must be something of a sadomasochist – there’s one particular emotionally annihilative scene in Lady Vengeance that’ll pull your guts up into your throat and make you swallow them again. 

Contributing Factors:  Park’s film is unsettlingly cold but thoroughly gorgeous, with an insidious and evocative use of red pervading virtually every scene. The guy is worthy of every word of hype. And then some.

Performance to Savor:  Out-revenging the Bride, the lovely Yeong-ae Lee is the physical embodiment of vengeance. Hence the name.

P.R. Pull-Quote: “Lady Vengeance is a pure delight of sorrow and pain!”

 3. Zathura (CHUD Review)

Fantasy films aren’t usually my flavor, but Jon Favreau’s whimsical sci-fi flick hit me right in the child.  When two constantly squabbling brothers find a dusty old board game and launch their house into deep space I went right along with it, and it didn’t take a hot teenage sister slinking around in her underwear to capture my attention (I’m not saying that hurt, though). I could’ve done with a little less of the incessant screaming, but malfunctioning robots and hungry lizardmen and meteor showers and Favreau’s proficient direction make wild and imaginative fun.

Contributing Factors:  I’m a total mark for old-fashioned practical effects, and Favreau obviously developed a taste and talent for it from Elf.

Performance to Savor: Dax Shepard, who could’ve been grating as standard comic relief but actually gives a nuanced performance as a lost astronaut.

P.R. Pull-Quote: “Terrible title, wonderful movie!

cas2. A History of Violence (CHUD Review)

David Cronenberg may have hung up his Decker button-mask and left behind his various buckets of goop, but that doesn’t mean his latest film, with its short-sharp-shock punctuations of bloodshed, makes any compromises. The story (loosely based on a graphic novel) of a small-town family man (Viggo Mortensen) who takes down some thugs and becomes a media celebrity keeps the audience off-balance, even as the dark secrets we suspected are slowly uncovered. Minimalist and subversive and visceral and philosophical and altogether brilliant, Cronenberg’s masterfully acted film makes statements on everything from marital trust to Americana, transformation and human nature.  And, unsurprisingly and perhaps most importantly, the violence of the title.

A near masterpiece.

Contributing Factors:  Cronenberg’s wide-angle lens captures his very deliberate composition to illustrate more layers of story, and reminds us that even after years of weirdness, he’s an exceptional fucking filmmaker.

Performance to Savor: Ed Harris, as the menacing scar-faced mobster rightfully convinced that Viggo is a notorious killer from the big city.

P.R. Pull-Quote: A History of Violence is bloody terrific!”

efw1. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang  (CHUD Review)

Shane Black takes his buddy banter that made him a millionaire (and ultimately became garbage), and returns from self-imposed exile to prove why he was worth those ridiculous sums in the first place.  And while he’s at it, he shows he’s a pretty snappy director as well. Not only did he provide meaty roles for Val Kilmer and the fully (?) rehabbed Robert Downey Jr. to properly demonstrate their abilities, he gave the bewitching Michelle Monaghan her big break and convinced her to disrobe.

I’m still incredulous that this movie, the most outright entertaining film I’ve seen in a theater all year, didn’t get a wider release when unfiltered fecal matter like A Sound of Thunder was mercilessly sprayed across the nation – Warner Bros. should hang their head in shame.

Contributing Factors:  Black infuses a pulpy murder mystery with his own trademark crackerjack repartee, smacking his detractors in the groin and exposing his imitators as the inferior copycats they are.

Performance to Savor: Val Kilmer, delivering his best work since Real Genius.

P.R. Pull-Quote: “You’ll wish you were one of the 235 people who saw Kiss Kiss Bang Bang!”

Honorable Mentions:  Kontroll. King Kong. Land of the Dead.  Hostage. Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Green Street Hooligans. El Crimen Ferpecto.