Argued, debated and fought over (well, not literally), here's our Top Ten Films of 2004, including two films from South Korea, one French film, one Spanish film, one low-budget UK comedy horror, and a couple of zombie (Shaun and Dawn) films.
10 .Switchblade Romance (2004) Known in its native France as Haute Tension (soon to be known in the US as High Tension), Switchblade Romance is taut, tight and extremely well filmed. Every frame sets the dark mood, the soundtrack is suitably jumpy and Cecile de France is a revelation in the role of Marie. For the first hour, this stalk’n’slash flick is nerve-jangling stuff, but then comes the TWIST and unfortunately things turn slightly silly in the last reel. Shame, as this film could have so easily been higher in the list, but Alexandre Aja has still created a classic French film, and one that is definitely worth seeing.
9 .Freak Out (2004) Ok, slight cheat this, seeing as this film wasn’t officially released in 2004 (apart from festival and college screenings), but this low-budget British horror-comedy (by a group of ex-Bournemouth film students) was a perfect blend of comedy, horror, gore and knowing winks to the small, but obsessive, fans of horror film. Shot on 16mm for £30,000 Freak Out features a reluctant serial killer, fast-paced jokes, Larry Hagman and the greatest video store scene ever filmed. Anchor Bay will now distribute this film next year in the UK, US and Canada – fantastic news for the British underground horror scene.
8 .A Tale of Two Sisters (2004) The first of two Korean films on the list, A Tale of Two Sisters is a master class in spooky ghost story telling. Beautifully filmed, Kim Jee-woon’s (Sympathy for Mr Vengeance atmospheric chiller follows the tale of two sisters (funny that) who return to stay with their father and stepmother after spending some in a nearby hospital. But after spending the first nights in the house, the sisters begin to realise the house is very probably haunted and could be hiding some sinister secrets amongst its shadows. Ably creating a true sense of horror, this film is high-class art suspense at it’s best.
7 .Code 46 (2004) Take one innovative director (Michael Winterbottom), one of the world’s leading film score writers (David Holmes), add in two top actors (Samantha Morton and Tim Robbins) and blend with a prescient science-fiction script that deals with ‘brief encounters’ and the nature of love and you get one of the best ‘futuristic’ sci-fi romance drama films ever made. Thoroughly engaging with it’s dreamlike quality, made-up words, gorgeous visuals and mesmerising performances, Code 46 is a touching, yet ultimately tragic tale that is quite simply breathtaking viewing for all you fans of Brave New World.
6 .Saw (2004) It came, we saw, it almost kicked ass. With one of the best poster campaigns of the year, Saw delivered on it’s promise by giving us a well-contained mix of Hitchcock suspense and gritty grimy gore, and went on to sweep up at the box office. Based mainly around two characters (including Cary Elwes) that wake to find themselves handcuffed in a disused industrial toilet the film borrows elements from Reservoir Dogs and Se7en to create a truly unique entry into the horror film pantheon. Shame about the script though, as one or two logic problems means this potentially ‘Classic’ horror film only gets the ‘Very Good’ verdict.
5 .Dawn of the Dead (2004) In the light of recent horror remakes, (see Texas Chainsaw etc), our hopes for this remake, of the holiest of holy horror films, were not big. Instead DOTD far outstripped our expectations by actually being rather good. Revamping Romero’s stumbling zombies with lightening quick undead killers, DOTD trundles along with F1 pacing, great performances (Ving Rhames, Sarah Polley) and some of the grittiest gore seen in a film for a while. The film’s awesome opening ten minutes, and fantastic end-credits sequence bracket a cracking adrenaline rush of pure terror for the modern audience. Fast, frightening and thoroughly entertaining.
4 .Shaun of the Dead (2004) Zombies! Comedy! London! From the team behind ‘Spaced’! Surely it couldn’t be anything other than brilliant. And indeed it was, with Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright delivering a smorgasbord of top-notch zombie moments, from the stagger to the pub through the hordes of London streets (freeze-frame it, and you may spot us!), Prince records in the head, hog lumps, and pool-cue mayhem to the tune of Queen’s ‘Don’t Stop Me Now”. Cracking multi-layered dialogue and screen action, smashing performances and some of the best gore seen in a UK film for years. A slice of fried gold and destined to be a cult classic for years to come.
3 .Bubba Ho-Tep (2003) Speaking of cult classics, Don Coscerelli, the director of Phantasm returned to our screens with Mr Cult Classic himself, Bruce Campbell, in this incredible tale of an aged Elvis and a black JFK (they’re both in a mental institution by the way) who team up to battle an ancient mummy who is sucking the souls of his victims out through their assholes. First-class script, direction, music and performances all add up to a hilarious adventure that manages to also be strangely poignant and touching as it approaches it’s zimmer frame and wheelchair final confrontation. "Mr President. Let's go kill ourselves a mummy".
2 .The Machinist (2004) Screening at London’s Frightfest this year, Brad Anderson’s Spanish-funded film The Machinist is a true gem of a movie with an incredible lead performance from Christian Bale. He plays Trevor Reznik, the machinist of the title, who has been an insomniac for almost a year and has lost weight to the point of being skeletal. When he causes Michael Ironside to lose an arm whilst at work, events take a turn to the weird, with a perfectly plausible plot line that will both stun and shock by it’s final reveal. If there is any justice in this world, this film deserves at least an Oscar or two.
1 .Oldboy (2004) But, top film of the year must go to Chan Wook-Park’s breathtaking comic adaptation Oldboy. Opening at Frightfest 2004, this film grabs you by the scruff of the neck and refuses to let go as we follow Oh Dae-su, who is kidnapped one night, held in a room for 15 years, and then released with a suitcase of money and mission to find out who kidnapped him, and more importantly, why. Featuring dental work a la claw hammer, a one-take corridor knife fight, and live octopus-eating, it’s certainly not for the squeamish, but if you make it to the end, you’re in for one of the most spine-tingling, hair-raising revelations in cinema history that will simply turns the whole film on its head. Intelligent, funny, dark and tragic, Oldboy is yet another Asian master class in horror cinema. Oldboy? Yeah boy!