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My Top Fifteen for 2003.
My Top Fifteen for 2002.
My Top Ten of 2001.
My Top Ten of 2000.

Lists like these are tricky, because there’s always the desire to provide something that will please the casual film fans as well as the snooty highbrow cult, but at the end of the day it’s all about striking the balance between the films that work on every level for yourself. It’s a hair-pulling task, to whittle down an entire year’s worth of movies to a list that stands as your very best. The ones you life and die with. Oftentimes, the years make these lists look silly as time is both unkind and gracious to them. With that said, here’s my list for 2004. It’s a year that turned out pretty damned good, all things considered.

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

It’s funny how David Mamet’s forays into other genres results in weirdly mixed bags of films that often leave audiences scratching their head. It’s as if something was missing.

Heist left me cold but still worms its way back into my DVD player from time to time. State and Main has gone from good to great over repeat viewings, and The Winslow Boy is a downright masterpiece. Spartan has a rather flimsy third act, but Val Kilmer’s performance keeps the film from veering off the rails entirely and the point of a film like this isn’t to adhere to the three act structure as much as be faithful to itself and keep its mood. This film does it, and though Mamet’s often alienating way of telling a story isn’t for everyone, Spartan is a film that just works for me.

Kilmer sheds pretty much every facet of Val Kilmer we’ve seen before and delivers an effective and redefining performance. Derek Luke is solid, and his last scene in the film is one of honest brutality. The film is barren like its nakesake, but it’s a sneaky son of a bitch and a movie that will only get better with age.

Current Rating: 8.0 out of 10

Contributing
Factors:
Very familiar turf given the Mamet touch. Cold and ruthless efficiency. Chooses to focus on a different aspect of the thriller template.

Performance to
Savor:
Val Kilmer.

P.R. CHUD.com
Pull-Quote:
"Spartan is that thriller that chooses to live within the margins of the genre and pulls it off admirably."

.14. Kinsey (CHUD Review)

I was worried when I went in the theater to see this film.

It was only playing at the theater I’ve seen most of the perverse and arcane films theatrically, and the subject matter was of a frank and sometimes uncomfortable nature. Additionally, I did not like the first trailer at all. It left me totally cold. Thankfully, Bill Condon’s a genius (come on, Candyman 2!) and Liam Neeson is as reliable a performer as we have. Add an amazing supporting cast and a surprisingly playful tone to the movie and you have a flick that is just a few beats away from being in the top five of the year for me.

The female roles were scaled back a little and I never felt like Laura Linney was able to really shine, but Neeson is so engaging it doesn’t matter. John Lithgow shows his face and reminds us that he was an actor before an alien (though Dr. Lizardo will always rule), Peter Sarsgaard continues to show why he’s the cream of the character actor crop, and Timothy Hutton surprised the shit out of me. Aside from his totally underappreciated work in Beautiful Girls, the guy’s gotten no love since the early 80’s. We should never doubt Bill Condon.

Talking about sex is awfully cinematic.

Current Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Contributing
Factors:
Extremely engaging material. Phenomenal acting by Neeson, Sarsgaard, and William Sadler. Controversial material told in a very lucid and entertaining way.

Performance to
Savor:
Liam Neeson.

P.R. CHUD.com
Pull-Quote:
"Bill Condon has done it again!"

.13. Maria Full of Grace (Buy the DVD)

Say what you will about China, Japan, or Bollywood… the most amazing pool of filmmaking talent right now is Mexico. At first glance, Maria Full of Grace would appear to be the latest in a full court press of amazing talents from South of the Border, but it isn’t. Writer/director Joshua Marston is just another boring American guy who just happened to make an enriching and fresh film out of material that ought to be either stale or just plain boring. Hardly.

Catalina Sandino Moreno is absolutely perfect as the rebellious and slightly lost young woman who makes a dangerous decision to be a drug mule, and her story isn’t exactly what you’d expect it to be. This isn’t about drugs at all, but about decisions and how life can force you places you don’t need to be. It’s also surprisingly optimistic considering the material.

It’s not the kind of film that’ll stick to your ribs or one that bears a lot of repeat visits, but it does signal the arrival of some considerable talents and remind us that there’s no such thing as tired topics, just tired approaches to them.

Current Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Contributing
Factors:
Confident and seamless filmmaking. Great acting. A new approach to totally overplayed material.

Performance to
Savor:
Catalina Sandino Moreno.

P.R. CHUD.com
Pull-Quote:
"Full of grace indeed."

.12. Hellboy (CHUD DVD Review) (Buy the DVD)

Hype could have easily murdered this film for me. Not only was I around for a little bit of just about every phase of the production, but it’s a film by a good friend about a comic book I’ve been reading since day one. There was a weird relationship between this site and this film, one that made it impossible to review the film during its theatrical or DVD runs.

Now that there’s a little oxygen between Hellboy and myself, I can say in full confidence that it’s a truly special film and the purest comic book movie I’ve ever seen. There’s such a loving and graceful treatment of the source material, such amazing nuances, and a refreshing embrace of the pulp and fantastic evident in every frame that it’s more than just a fun summer movie but a melding of the old and new in genre storytelling but something bigger. Of all the many things that could have gone wrong, none did, and Ron Perlman’s work here is nothing short of legendary.

It’s the best slice of old gothic, new age tech, and unadulterated comic book joy on film, so put that in your pipe and smoke it.

Current Rating: 8.8 out of 10

Contributing
Factors:
Old fashioned monster movie combined with modern comic book filmmaking. Great sense of style and a love for pulp. Ingenius effects and character work.

Performance to
Savor:
Ron Perlman.

P.R. CHUD.com
Pull-Quote:
"The purest comic book movie ever made."

.11. Garden State (CHUD Review) (Buy the DVD)

From left field came a totally fun, totally fresh, and willfully emotional movie from Zach Braff, a guy I knew nothing of (I’ll experience Scrubs through DVD).

It had the fortune and bad luck of being a flick that the psuedo hipster crowd gleaned to, but it doesn’t taint the film one iota. Its imperfections are virtues, its performances are true, and there’s a nice bit of style and warmth holding it all together. Natalie Portman delivers on her pre-teen promise as the girl we all wish we knew, Braff does drama as well as comedy, and Peter Sarsgaard is pretty much an acting savant.

Plus, any film with a main character named Large is just fine in my book.

Current Rating: 8.8 out of 10

Contributing
Factors:
Unafraid to speak from the heart. Great characters. A fresh sense of style. Just quirky enough.

Performance to
Savor:
Peter Sarsgaard.

P.R. CHUD.com
Pull-Quote:
"Zach Braff’s debut is a near classic."

.10. OldBoy

Everyone and their Korean mother raved about this film and for once in a blue moon, the hype was justified. Chan-wook Park’s film is not only brutal and unrelenting in its physicality and emotion, it’s also stylish and original. The two main performances are incredible, and though Min-Sik Choi is absolutely riveting as the lead, Lee Woo-Jin is the coolest and most original villain in ages.

The concept is so high concept that I thought it’d resonate like a Cube meets Memento sort of homage, but it goes as far as to eclipse both works and come into its own as a truly deserving work. It’s not higher on my list for two reasons. One, it loses a bit of luster in repeat viewings and two, it was released originally in 2003 in its native country and I hate judging films by their US release if at all possible.

Wait, it’s not been released here! Assholes.

Current Rating: 9.0 out of 10

Contributing
Factors:
Impeccable style. Brutal. Raw. Two phenomenal central performances. A perfect blend of high concept and low tech jugular grabbing filmmaking.

Performance to
Savor:
Lee Woo-Jin.

P.R. CHUD.com
Pull-Quote:
"You will never forget Oldboy."

.9. Shaun of the Dead (CHUD Review) (Buy the DVD)

The fact a zombie movie is on my top ten list is a bizarre and wonderful thought. The fact that a zombie comedy takes it a step further. The fact it’s from England… well, that makes sense. Without the prying eyes of a studio and the shattering American approach to spoof and satire, Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright delivered nothing less than a classic.

It’s funny, but the jokes don’t come cheap. It’s well-made but it doesn’t show off. It pays its respects, but not in an overt way.

I expected a bit of light entertainment and what I got was a film that lives in my all-time list of great horror flicks that bend the rules. It’s a select group and Shaun deserves the spot in a big way.
Utterly quotable, perennially rewatchable, and a beacon in a fog of shitty horror flicks, Shaun of the Dead owns.

Current Rating: 9.0 out of 10

Contributing
Factors:
Great gags, great acting, great writing, and the perfect understanding of what makes zombies such great characters. Brilliance in every frame.

Performance to
Savor:
Simon Pegg.

P.R. CHUD.com
Pull-Quote:
"Shaun of the great!"

.8. Closer

Clive Owen, Julia Roberts, and Natalie Portman are absolutely unstoppable in Mike Nichols’ best film since The Graduate and a sequel in tone to his beloved Carnal Knowledge. Patrick Marber’s script has more great dialogue than just about any other film this year and though it’s not effective as a love story, it is an amazing character study.

Comparisons to Neil Labute’s work makes sense, as this also was unearthed onstage and though it may not match the bearded Mormon’s ruthlessness, it comes close.

There are a few scenes that are high points of the year for me, a confrontation between Owen and Roberts and another involving Owen and Law that seal this as something ballsy and frank, and an antidote to the middling attempts at relationship dramas we’re often dealt. It’s a shame that these are four supporting roles instead of leads, because everyone in the movie is at the top of their game.

Current Rating: 9.0 out of 10

Contributing
Factors:
Brutal dialogue, great acting, and no worries about trying to be a date film.

Performance to
Savor:
Clive Owen.

P.R. CHUD.com
Pull-Quote:
"The most frank and unrelenting relationship movie in the past five years."

.7. The Incredibles (CHUD Review) - I saw this yesterday. That’s insane. Pixar’s best film is as faithful to the superhero paradigm and free of angst as any ever made. If it were based on a comic, it’d probably be considered among the top one in history, but as it stands it does everything right in regards to having fun but also pointing a finger at some of the flaws and formulas in the genre.

The voice work is astounding, the music is a blast, and the design and animation is absolutely jaw-dropping. This is a work of genius and something bigger than Pixar and Disney.

Devin was totally right when he said that we really don’t need live action superhero movies if stuff like this is around. This film outdoes Spider-Man 2 on every level. Except web-slinging.

Current Rating: 9.0 out of 10

Contributing
Factors:
The best looking CGI movie ever, a total grasp of comic book staples, and it never dumbs down.

Performance to
Savor:
Holly Hunter.

P.R. CHUD.com
Pull-Quote:
"Incredible is too weak a word to describe this film."

.6. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
(CHUD Review) (Pre-Order the upcoming special edition DVD)

Calling this the most amazing love story since Amelie isn’t fair due to how recent the Jeunet film is. This is just incredible stuff, from Carrey and Winslett’s performances to Charlie Kaufman’s weird science tinged script to Michel Gondry’s reality shattering direction.

It’s a breath of weird, fresh air and the best Kaufman flick yet.

There’s something so innocent about it, so unafraid to strip to the basest of emotion yet it’s also aggressively bold in its vision. It’s great to see a video and commercial director that "gets it".

A classic.

Current Rating: 9.0 out of 10

Contributing
Factors:
Utterly aggressive style, let surprisingly low tech. Great acting. Fearlessness.

Performance to
Savor:
Kate Winslet.

P.R. CHUD.com
Pull-Quote:
"One of the best and most hopelessly romantic films of my lifetime."

.5. Sideways (CHUD Review)

I loved this movie early on, but when Virginia Madsen tells Paul Giamatti the truth about opening his most prized bottle of wine, it grew into something bigger. This is the real deal, a collection of incredible talents that have never really had their moment to shine given that chance in a smart, funny, and sad film from a critic’s darling of a filmmaker who finally proved his value to me.

It’s a guy film, but a mature guy film that doesn’t sell life as something to be conquered or breezed through. It’s a sleeper, but one that had true mainstream merit.

Paul Giamatti is phenomenal, Thomas Haden Church delivers the most sadly hilarious performance of the year, and Virginia Madsen comes from out of nowhere with a career defining role.

Plus, it’s set against the Napa Valley. You cannot go wrong.

Current Rating: 9.1 out of 10

Contributing
Factors:
Great writing, great acting, and a great nose.

Performance to
Savor:
Virginia Madsen.

P.R. CHUD.com
Pull-Quote:
"The slyest and most surprising film of the year."

.4. Ocean’s Twelve (CHUD Review)

Superficially, this is an inferior film to the stylish original. It’s imperfect. It doesn’t care about a Chinese puzzle of a heist plot.

It’s retro and cut like a 60’s foriegn film.

In reality, it takes a look at its genre and does a 180 degree turn. Instead of trying to outdistance the original in coolness and pizazz, it just unfolds under its own rules and in the process delivers a more rich and character driven film that is filled with little moments that make it infinitely more special.

One day, everyone else will realize how great this flick is. Until then, I’ll do my best to be the Ocean’s Twelve apologist on my side of the pond.

Current Rating: 9.3 out of 10

Contributing
Factors:
Sexy, playful, and utterly cool. Brad Pitt and Vincent Cassell are amazing, and the score is nails. Total nails.

Performance to
Savor:
Brad Pitt.

P.R. CHUD.com
Pull-Quote:
"This film blows the original away and will be considered a true classic in twenty years."

.3. Collateral (CHUD Review) (Buy the DVD)

This movie just floats.

Michael Mann is officially my favorite filmmaker now, and its his relaxed and honest approach to the high concept thriller genre that seals it for me. Shot on digital video and set almost exclusively to the confines of a taxi cab, his film is as good at quiet conversations as it is at gunplay. Everything about it, even the oft-criticized last act’s conventional approach, is free form and loose.

Cruise is terrific and efficiently cold as the assassin, Jamie Foxx is brilliant as the driver, and Jada Pinkett offers some stout support work as the lawyer who gets caught in the middle but this is Michael Mann’s show.

Effortless and classic. I can watch this movie on a loop.

Current Rating: 9.3 out of 10

Contributing
Factors:
Michael Mann’s genius. Great use of music. Cruise, Pinkett, and Foxx on fire.

Performance to
Savor:
Tom Cruise.

P.R. CHUD.com
Pull-Quote:
"An amazingly loose jazz riff of a movie."

.2. The Aviator (CHUD Review)

Finally.

Martin Scorsese does so much so well that it’s crushing when one of his movies doesn’t connect on all cylinders. This is his best film since Goodfellas and his most accessible work. Normally, the term "accessible" means compromised, but not here. This is a totally entertaining film, one that showcases the same Scorsese virtuosity but merged with the nuances he picked up in the films that didn’t achieve greatness. There’s also a lot here that shows Scorsese paying respects to the filmmakers he spoke of in the brilliant My Voyage to Italy.

This is the pinnacle of polished, confident mainstream moviemaking.

Current Rating: 9.4 out of 10

Contributing
Factors:
Amazing filmmaking. Delicious performances. A great subject.

Performance to
Savor:
Leo.

P.R. CHUD.com
Pull-Quote:
"The most accessible and complete Scorsese film ever."

.1. Million Dollar Baby (CHUD Review)

Man, it was only a little over a decade ago that everyone was in agreement that Clint Eastwood was pretty much the elite in the movie business. Now, even though he’s made some good movies (A Perfect World is SO underrated), it’s this film that puts him right back in his rightful place.

This came out of nowhere, a film with a premise that seemed as if it’d be a case of sleepwalking. Not so, as it reaches through the gristle and grime and grabs ahold of the soul and gives it a firm shaking.

A crushing movie. A wonderful movie. A timeless movie. In the world of masterpieces centered around boxing, there is Rocky, Raging Bull, and now Million Doillar Baby. Yeah, it’s that good.

Current Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Contributing
Factors:
Raw emotion. Amazing acting. Familar ground dealt with with grace.

Performance to
Savor:
Flip a three-sided coin. All of the leads are phenomenal.

P.R. CHUD.com
Pull-Quote:
"The most shattering film of the year."

Honorable mentions: Spider-Man 2, Hero, Finding Neverland, Hotel Rwanda, Anchorman, The Bourne Supremacy, Kill Bill, Vol. 2, Troy.

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