"His voice betrayed a craving for terrible things." -- Don DeLillo

Send all adoration/vitriol to marc@shadowbloom.com

BEST OF 2005 AWARDS

Best in Music 2005: Albums of the Year
Best in Gaming 2005: Console Games of the Year
Best in Gaming 2004/2005: PC Games of the Year
Best in Gaming 2005: Portable Games of the Year
Best in Television 2005: Shows of the Year
Best in Film 2005: Movies of the Year

Now presenting the third annual installment of the Best of Awards! My chance to rant and rave about the best (and some of the worst) in music, video games, TV, and film. This year, I decided to make things even harder on myself by employing ranked lists for each category. One concession, though, is that I'm adding a Dividing Line (trademark pending) for many of the categories. In other words, there's not an equal amount of quality between each entry, so I wanted a way to separate the cream of the crop from the rest of the best. Lots of silly fun. I always appreciate feedback, so shoot any proclamations of undying love or harshly-worded death threats to marc@shadowbloom.com. Enjoy!

BEST IN MUSIC 2005 - ALBUMS OF THE YEAR

1.  Animal Alpha - Pheromones

Hailing from Norway, Animal Alpha's a brash mix of schizophrenic, aggressive female vocals and chunky, brass nails guitar riffs. I've declared my love for these broken glass/angelic female voices before (indeed, Queen Adreena appears below), but Alpha one-ups the Adreena sound with a catchier, more tongue-in-cheek sideshow ambience in contrast to Adreena's slithery gloom (not that there's anything wrong with slithery gloom, of course). Tinged with a faint accent, lead singer Agnete Kjolsrud's voice drips with exotic sexiness (just listen to her glide over the opening of "101 Ways," "I want to see you crawl / I want to see you fall / Out of a window, mine / My sweetie pie"). While the lyrics are for the most part strong, some can't help but feel a little lost in translation (though they certainly don't act as a distraction). There's a handful of verse-chorus-verse (the urgent "Catch Me" gets the job done in a slight 2:36), but many of the songs are more expansive (particularly "Most Wanted Cowboy" with its jazz-infused, Portishead-esque breakdowns). Unfortunately, Alpha barely has a US presence at this time (I had to jump through plenty of hoops and run head-on into the language barrier just to order the album through www.cdplanet.no), so getting the CD won't be easy (though it appears it's available on iTunes if that's how you swing). I'd only heard of them because "Bundy" appears on the Burnout Revenge soundtrack (thanks to a contest they won). I was drawn to them immediately and am exceedingly happy I put in the effort for their CD. For fans of Adreena and their ilk, you now have a mission.

Highlights: "Bundy," "101 Ways," "Most Wanted Cowboy," "I.W.R.L.Y.T.D."
Web site: www.animalalpha.com

2.  Abandoned Pools - Armed to the Teeth

With their long-awaited second release, Abandoned Pools deftly sidesteps the dreaded Sophomore Slump with some of their strongest songs to date. Filled with foot-stomping, driving drumming, catchy, singalong choruses, and intelligent lyrics, the album establishes Tommy Walter as a modern songwriting force. While the whole album is solid, I found myself inevitably drifting to a handful of gems. That the album draws out this myopic approach is what kept Teeth from the top slot (I debated having Pools share the honors with Animal Alpha, but decided I've done that enough the past couple years). The core of the album is "Waiting to Panic" and "Hunting (The Universe Breaks My Heart)." You'll start air-drumming and singing before you know it, drawn to the Tommy's high-pitched, lilting voice and the radio-friendly choruses. Sadly, as the first single, the band chose the title track, probably my least favorite song on the album and starkly ordinary compared to these utterly perfect singles. Hopefully, this injustice will be corrected soon enough before the album slinks into obscurity.

Walter's lyrics deserve attention as well. On the heels of an emotional breakup while writing the album, Walter echoes familiar themes of regret and love lost (from "Hunting"):

   Maybe we could settle down and plant a tiny family tree
   I'll rid myself of what troubles me and set my little mind free
   In time we'll see what grows
   I've been hunting through forests, through the fields
   I've been sailing across the raging seas
   I've been scaling the mountains
   I have got to find a way to bring you home

But there is also an undercurrent of political disillusionment and fatalistic pessimism (hinted at in the album's title) which comes to a head in "Waiting to Panic" (with its plea of "What do I do to break this silence / What do I do to make the noise / you prefer to hear / demand to hear" and its repeated chorus of "I'm walking, I'm running / I'm thinking, I'm thinking / I'm waiting to panic / I'm thinking, I'm thinking / My head is exploding") as well as "Sooner or Later:"

   Well sooner or later, it's all coming down
   And high above the city, I ride the wave down
   And you won't be stopped 'til you crush me
   And you won't be stopped 'til you kill us all
   But I've got the ultimate weapon
   I'm sick of dangling question marks

It's a must-buy for fans of their first album and here's hoping it doesn't take another four years for their third.

Highlights: "Hunting (The Universe Breaks My Heart)," "Waiting to Panic," "Sooner or Later"
Web site: www.abandonedpools.com

<<---------------------Dividing Line-------------------->>

3.  Queen Adreena - The Butcher and the Butterfly

My favorite banshee Katie-Jane Garside returns with her band's latest effort, a stripped-down, balls-out, blues-inflected set that should appease their fanbase, but doesn't stretch their considerable talents far enough. Recorded live in the studio, Butcher has a rawness that reflects their formidable live performances. Sadly, this approach lessens the ambient production polish that scary-ed up their past two albums. In particular, Garside's voice sounds more echoed and less upfront, a live-in-the-moment sound that would work well for a handful of songs, but not in practically every one of the 16 tracks (case in point, "F.M. Doll" is a great song, but I preferred the version included on the CD single more than the album's--the former is tighter and puts more emphasis on the jaunty, kick-up-your-heels drum beat). Their best still burn brightly, though. Album opener "Suck" could only work coming from Adreena with Garside singing "Ohhh, suck! La la la la..." while Pete Howard's tribal drums pound in the background. "Birdnest Hair" is astonishingly beautiful (in the same vein as "My Silent Undoing" from their second album) and so delicate that Garside's gorgeous voice sounds like it would crumble in your fingers. While Queen Adreena hasn't released a bad album yet, it still feels like their masterpiece is yet to come. I will be waiting diligently. (NOTE: For those who haven't had any access to Adreena yet, go here and you can download quick samples for each track. They're worth a shot...)

Highlights: "Suck," "F.M. Doll," "Birdnest Hair"
Web site: www.queenadreena.com

4.  Nine Inch Nails - With Teeth

It's always a special time when Trent decides to get off the couch and pump out a new NIN album (read Marilyn Manson's autobio The Long Hard Road Out of Hell for a glimpse at Trent's raging procrastination--not that I'm one to talk), particularly since there's the distinct possibility that each new album could be the last. While Teeth is an improvement from the disappointing, overbloated The Fragile, Trent still has some work to do before we get back to the groundbreaking territory of The Downward Spiral. For each song that sparks of renewed focus (the title track and "Beside You In Time"), there's another that sounds like a b-side from the 90s ("Getting Smaller" and "Sunspots"). For what it's worth, Trent (oh, and if you haven't noticed, I'm on a first-name basis with Trent--a small group that includes Billy (Corgan), Matt (Good), and Chase (Utley, of the Phillies), among others) knows how to kick off an album: both The Fragile (with "Somewhat Damaged") and Teeth start off with the best songs from each album. "All the Love in the World" begins with an eerily-Massive Attack bassline, tosses in some refreshing Trent falcetto, and gradually builds to a cathartic, dance-explosion final minute of overlapping vocals, pulsing bass and drums, and get-up-and-move energy that rivals anything else Trent has released. For years now, I've been saying that the best album Trent would ever release would be a straight-up dance album (just listen to the final moments of "Ringfinger" off Pretty Hate Machine when Trent finally cuts loose). It seems like such a slamdunk that I'm now demanding that Trent makes this happen. At the very least, can someone hire him to do a technodance soundtrack for a movie and then conveniently drop a "Umm, yeah, the movie's been shelved, but how about that awesome soundtrack" line so we can get this out? Pretty please?

Highlights: "All the Love in the World," "With Teeth," "Every Day Is Exactly the Same"
Web site: www.nin.com

5.  30 Seconds To Mars - A Beautiful Lie

If you know nothing about 30STM and want to do yourself a favor, stop reading this page right now, go to www.thirtysecondstomars.com and give them a listen (especially "The Fantasy" and if you're intrigued, try finding "Attack," "The End of the Beginning," and "Capricorn (A Brand New Name)" (the latter two are from their first album) on your favorite online music source). Form a preliminary opinion, then come on back...

The problem with 30STM is once you hear more about the band, you'll immediately start pre-judging them and will lose all objectivity when you hear their music (and I thank my friend Chad for making me listen to "Capricorn" a few years ago without telling me any more than their band name). So consider yourself warned. The lead singer/guitarist/songwriter for 30 Seconds To Mars just happens to be actor Jared Leto. When you hear that, you may go "Oh, he's awesome. I gotta hear this," or "Fuck them, that guy's an asshole," or "Great, another actor thinks he's a musician." Point being, we're already way off-topic. You know what? It's a pretty damn good band. It's been a marketing nightmare, though. When their first album was released (in Summer 2002), Leto was conspicuously absent from the PR since actor vanity bands have been business poison. Good idea in theory, except that by having the leader of the band basically in hiding, they never managed to get any consumer traction. I think what would have been smarter would be to not hide at all that it's his band. He should have gone on the full talk-show circuit and said, "Yes, I love acting and will always find time for it, but my first love has always been music and it's a dream come true to finally be able to play it for everyone." The added publicity would have resulted in more radio play and more people would have realized that, yes, they are a real band and know what they're doing (instead of having everyone still say, "What? Jared Leto has a band?!") However, they fumbled around instead and eventually the first album disappeared off the radar. Now, with their second album, they're playing it more straightforward (and are currently midway through their first-ever headlining tour). We'll see what happens. [Tangent while I'm talking about him: take a look at Leto's filmography--he's been in a murderer's row of amazing movies: Fight Club, American Psycho, Requiem for a Dream. Toss in his once-engagement to Cameron Diaz and the staggering number of hot actresses he's been connected with since then and I don't just want to listen to his music, I want to be him. Fuck...]

See how I strayed from the music once I started talking about the band? Anyway, like their first album, Lie is fairly hit-or-miss, but you'll be listening to the hits over and over again ("The End of the Beginning" from their eponymous debut is one of my favorite songs of all time). The band's secret weapon is drummer Shannon Leto (Jared's brother). From the lockstep beats of "Was It A Dream?" to the all-out assault of "The Battle of One," he gives the album its momentum. There are a few missteps (the underwhelming "From Yesterday" and "R-Evolve" as well as an inspired, but too literal-minded, cover of Bjork's "Hunter"), but that's what fast-forward buttons are for. If you like good ole alt-rock with a splash of spacey ambience, toss out your preconceptions and give them a try.

Highlights: "Attack," "The Fantasy," "Savior"
Web site: www.thirtysecondstomars.com

BEST OF BEST OF

Matthew Good - In A Coma: 1995-2005

I hope I get to add Matt to my Awards every year (I haven't heard of anything on tap for 2006, but my fingers are crossed). Now this is how you do a Greatest Hits collection. CD One features fourteen of Matt's best along with two new songs and one previously-unreleased b-side. CD Two has brand-new, acoustic reworkings of nine more songs plus the ten tracks that comprised two old EPs (both long out of print and hard to find). That alone would be more than enough, but toss in a DVD of all his videos (complete with self-deprecating commentary by the man himself) and you've got an A+ package of musical genius. I've written plenty about Matt's brilliance before, but if you're looking for a good place to start, this is a pretty fucking awesome Cliff Notes. (Again, there's no reason not to order from amazon.ca instead of paying exorbinant import fees--even with shipping, it's still cheaper than it would be at most stores).

Highlights: "Oh Be Joyful," "Big City Living," "Ponyboy"
Web site: www.matthewgood.net

JURY PRIZES

Billy Corgan, "Mira Loy (M.O.Y.)" -- The most successful employment of Billy's technodrone sound and the best song Billy's released since the Pumpkins days.

Bloc Party, "Positive Tension"

The first 1:20 of Between the Buried and Me, "Selkies (An Unending Obsession)" -- Put this 1:20 into Guitar Hero 2 as the only song and I'd still pay $100 for it right now.

Craig Wedren, "Fifteen Minutes Late"

Lightning Bolt, "2 Morro Morro Land" -- Consider Lightning Bolt's album Hypermagic Mountain number six on my Best Of. Frantic drum-and-bass played with, shockingly, real drum and bass.

BEST IN GAMING 2005 - CONSOLE GAMES OF THE YEAR

1.  Resident Evil 4 (GCN)

The scariest horror movie I saw all year, doubly so since I lived it, RE4 reinvents the survival horror genre with jawdropping results. The behind-the-back perspective breathes new life into the series, cutting out the tank-like character movement that stifled the earlier games. Further proof of the oncoming collision of video games and movies, RE4 shows there's plenty of life left in linear storytelling. There are no branching plots, no extraneous open-ended sections of filler, just a storyline strong enough to keep the action fresh and varied without needing to resort to GTA-esque gimmicks. The game soars along for 20 hours and doesn't flag for a second. It also proves that we barely scratched the surface of the technical prowess of the GameCube. RE4 came out over a year ago now and it still has the best graphics of any game of its generation and even the first games of the Xbox 360 "next generation." It's why I'm not worried about the Revolution's technical capabilities. If this much could be nurtured from the GameCube with a little developmental love, I can't even imagine what's next.

Your heart will skip a beat when you hear the blood-curdling cries of "Cojelo!", you'll sweat as you run from the relentless mobs of villagers, pushing bookcases to block doors and windows and kicking over ladders as they climb to reach you on the rooftops, and you'll know real, palpable fear when you hear the unmistakable grind of an approaching chainsaw. It is in every way a true masterpiece, a Hall of Fame triumph for Capcom, and an invigorating sign of where gaming is going. Absolutely not to be missed.

2.  God of War (PS2)

Brutally violent in ways that only the best Greek and Roman Mythology can conjure, War exploded onto the PS2 last Spring and has given us an anti-hero for the ages in Kratos. The third-person perspective and controls will be familiar to fans of these actioners, but War's real innovation (along with a mature and adult-themed storyline) is its frequent use of context-sensitive gameplay. Incidentally, Resident Evil 4 employed this to great effect as well, but it's a more integral part of the gameplay in War. Basically, when battling enemies (and especially the epic bosses), you'll receive prompts on the screen to press particular buttons. Keep pressing them in time and you'll start a chain of brutality that'll have you grimacing in disbelief (such as Kratos grabbing a Medusa, wrenching its neck back and forth, and eventually ripping its head off altogether--and this is a regular, common monster). It allows the character to make more extravagent actions without resorting to non-interactive cutscreens. You stay with Kratos in these moments, tense because missing a button means watching him fumble his attack and fall prey to a counterstrike. More games started using this approach as the year went on and I hope the trend continues. In an industry where cookie-cutter sequels continually drown out original fare (see below), it's refreshing to see Sony throw its A+ resources toward a new intellectual property and succeed admirably. God of War is now one of the premiere series on the Playstation and I look forward to seeing much more from Kratos.

3.  Guitar Hero (PS2)

If you play guitar, own a Playstation 2, and don't own Guitar Hero, stop reading this, get $70 (beg, borrow, or steal if you have to), and go buy this game. This page'll still be here in a few weeks when you're first able to drag yourself away from this phenomenal new game. It's about as much fun as you can possibly have playing a video game and further establishes developer Harmonix as a God among men in the rhythm-action genre. The game's extra cost goes toward the rock-solid guitar peripheral that'll become your new status symbol of geekdom. Between this, the Donkey Konga bongos, the Taiko Drum, my DDR pad, and a copy of Karaoke Revolution, I've got one hell of a digital band brewing (and I've already started fantasizing about the ubergame that incorporates all of them). Hero's gameplay will be familiar to any rhythm-action fans: press one or two of the five buttons on the guitar neck corresponding to symbols rushing by on the screen. It's a violently addictive formula that worked wonders in Harmonix's Frequency and Amplitude and is just as great here. The song selection is all the buttrock and glam you can handle, from Pantera and White Zombie to Bowie and Queen, which is good since you'll be playing the 50+ songs over and over again (personal favorites? "Spanish Castle Magic" by Hendrix, "Even Rats" by The Slip, and "Sail Your Ship By" by Count Zero). As a guitar player, I was surprised at how well the gameplay mimics real guitar muscle memory (though I never got hammer-ons and pull-offs to work consistently). Plug in a second guitar and you'll be staging furious duels all night long. Some interface quirks need to be ironed out in the sequels (not autosaving after every high score and not just new star ratings is an egregious oversight), but you'll only notice them after playing the game to exhaustion. Accessible to gamers of all ages, if you don't like this, you don't like video games.

<<---------------------Dividing Line-------------------->>

4.  Jade Empire (Xbox)

Another laudable jump into new waters from an established developer, Bioware steps away from the Star Wars license and dives into Chinese mysticism and kung fu with Jade Empire. While the perspective and interface will be familiar to fans of Knights of the Old Republic, Bioware has revamped their fighting system with fast-paced real-time battling that befits the frenetic martial arts styles. Though the combat can be a little easy at times (I was never really challenged in the battles, though I also never cared enough to up the difficulty level from the default setting), it's always fun and watching your character develop even more devastating combos keeps you hooked. My only fault is that there is still way too much dialogue, a problem transplanted from KOTOR. Be ready to do some crazy skimming. More modestly paced than their earlier epics, Jade clocks in at a reasonable 20-25 hours and is well-worth a run-through.

5.  Ratchet: Deadlocked (PS2)

Through my first few hours of Deadlocked, I was ready to dismiss it as a quick brand cash-in that didn't take the series in any new directions. Then something unexpected happened. As I got closer to the end of the single-player game, I became more and more obsessed with leveling up my weapons and trying to buy all of the destructive firepower I could. Soon enough, I not only beat the game, but immediately kept playing in Challenge Mode so I buy all the ultra versions of the guns and start bringing those up to apocalyptic levels (the weapons are much more upgradable than in previous installments). I've since cooled again, but it shows the core gameplay of the Ratchet series--namely, blowing shit up with extravagent weaponry--still works wonders. Deadlocked is a departure of sorts for the series, cutting out all exploration and focusing entirely on the Assault-type missions from Up Your Arsenal. As a result, the missions are more polished than they were in the disjointed Arsenal (though just as linear), but we're still not approaching the perfection of Going Commando. Multiplayer continues to be fleshed out well, but I'm looking forward to developer Insomniac going back to the drawing board and preparing a next-generation Ratchet that pushes the action-platformer genre to new heights. In the meantime, this is an entertaining enough diversion.

6.  Mercenaries (Xbox/PS2)

I've bitched plenty about GTA-esque open-world design and my problems with it in most games it appears in, but Mercenaries is the best of the GTA clones. It ditches all the extraneous gameplay gimmicks and presents a military sandbox with dozens of missions and lots of earthshaking weapons. Like Ratchet, the tight focus is on one thing: blowing the living fuck out of something with as large an explosion as possible. Whether it's by toting around a rocket launcher and launching it at enemy camps or by laser-guiding an airborne missile strike, there's plenty of ways to blow up plenty of targets. Some of the "Wanted" missions get a little repetitive as the game goes on, but there's enough variety in the faction missions to keep you going. After all, who can resist a game that has Peter Stormare (in full-on Russian Nihilist mode) providing the voice of one of the playable characters?

7.  Dragon Quest VIII (PS2)

Ask any mid-20's gamer if they've ever had a subscription to Nintendo Power and, if so, you'll likely hear one story: Dragon Warrior. In one of the best promotional deals Nintendo has ever offered, Nintendo started giving away copies of the NES classic with every subscription to their then-new magazine. It was quite possibly my first taste of RPGs and evokes fond memories to this day. We're years later and SquareEnix is now releasing the eighth game in the series (and the first in the US under the original Japanese title--the Dragon Warrior games were notoriously white-washed for American audiences). As old-school as they come, the core gameplay really hasn't changed that much, but Quest features all the bells and whistles you'd expect: a swooning orchestral score, stunning character designs by Dragonball Z creator Akira Toriyama, and a gorgeously-rendered 3-D world where you can travel as far as the eye can see (and thanks to impressive draw distances, you can see pretty damn far). There are hours upon hours of gameplay and myriad secrets to uncover. It defiantly doesn't stretch the genre into new directions, but does what it does as well as any game ever has.

8.  Shadow of the Colossus (PS2)

Extra credit to the premise: all boss battles and nothing else. From the creators of the legendary Ico comes a new attempt at instilling emotion and consequence into the gamer's actions. You play a young man on a quest to defeat a group of enormous magical beings in an attempt to save a loved one. When I say "enormous," I mean enormous. Most of the battles involve slowly scaling the beasts, climbing and leaping while the creature roams about. The colossi are not portrayed as the "bad guys" or villains, making their deaths more distressing. Unfortunately, only somewhat wonky controls hold the game back. After you've fallen off a beast for the umpteenth time because you didn't jump properly, you'll start getting drawn out of the mystery a little. And while the sparse environments drill home that you're really alone out there, a little more variety or detail in the settings would have helped (a next-gen version could look amazing). Regardless, it's a laudable stab at something new (for a change) and hopefully other developers can learn from the example.

9.  Burnout Revenge (Xbox/PS2)

You can't reinvent the wheel every year, so developer Criterion shouldn't be faulted for keeping the Burnout 3 formula going strong. After the rebirth of the series last year (which was number one on the Best of 2004 list), this year's entry is just a small step forward. Wisely, the Crash Mode has been overhauled (removing the multipliers that turned last year's Crash events into "get the 4x mode"), but the new iteration still creaks a little (the wind can be annoyingly overbearing and there's a little too much luck involved). That said, the racing remains the best around and the engine has been given a nice aesthetic upgrade (which must have been difficult considering how tremendous the third game looked). Gameplay-wise, you can now check same-direction traffic, which doesn't make things as easy as you would think (since Criterion has also upped the number of cars on the road and oncoming traffic is as merciless as ever). There are tons of events, but the tracks gave me a heavy dose of deja vu. What the Burnout series needs now is Burnout Fantasy where there can be huge, epic leaps across mountains and rivers (think Bump 'n' Jump), colorful, fantastical environments, and blistering speed runs. That would get this series right back to the top of this list. Are you listening, Criterion?

10.  Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones (Xbox/PS2)

The third Prince in two years and the final part of a thematic trilogy, Thrones corrects some of Warrior Within's mistakes, but not all of them. Thankfully, the core acrobatic gameplay is still thrilling and keeps the series on lists like this. The brooding, focus-group-edgy prince of the second game has been replaced with the reluctant champion of the first and the new cityscape setting is refreshing, but I'll say it yet again: there is far too much fighting. The stealth-kill system is a welcome addition, but it's a little too finicky and precise. Having to slow down and sneak up on enemies takes away from the bombastic momentum of leaping from rooftop to rooftop. Here's what I want in the fourth installment: no wandering enemies. I just want to run, leap, swing, and climb with reckless, speedy abandon (and don't even think about bringing back the open-world design of the second game--I want it to be as linear as possible with no repetition). Instead of battling myriad enemies with the still-overcomplicated fighting engine (sign your fighting system is unbalanced: 95% of the enemies I encountered I killed by throwing them off a ledge so I wouldn't have to deal with the fighting engine--if I actually did fight anyone, it was because there wasn't a fall handy), just put in a handful of epic God of War-like boss battles. I don't care if it lasts a slight 5-7 hours, it'll be the best 5-7 hours in the series. C'mon Ubisoft, let's get cracking!

ONE STEP FORWARD, TWO STEPS BACK AWARD

Products of the Perpetual Sequel Machine

The Perpetual Sequel Machine feeds on the blood of originality and it was hungry last year. No less than half of the console top-ten are sequels to established properties and I haven't even gotten to Tony Hawk, Call of Duty, TimeSplitters, SSX, Katamari, Sly Cooper, SOCOM, and dozens others. While some of the sequels revolutionized their series (RE4 this year, Burnout 3 last year), most were content to ride the status quo and protect the bottom-line with incremental iterations (e.g. Burnout Revenge and SSX On Tour). Sadly, the rapidly increasing costs of game development and growing consolidation of the industry (such as EA devouring independent developers like Criterion and using their largesse to swing competition-killing contracts like the NFL license deal (which dictates that Madden is the only football game that is allowed to use real teams and player)) has made IP risk-taking a much rarer species. Of course, I'm not espousing the death of the sequel--I certainly am always happy to pick up the latest Prince of Persia or Ratchet game, but I'd like to see their developers taking chances more often (indeed, both series are overdue for major overhauls). Soon enough, every series will turn into Tony Hawk where there hasn't been a serious step forward since the third installment despite going through four more games since then. As much as publishers don't want to alienate their loyal audiences with grand departures, they should worry just as much about boring them or making them feel they wasted their money on a game they've already played. Sequels are never going away, but we need to get away from the knee-jerk reaction that a sequel just means more of the same. I was never much of a Resident Evil fan, but you better believe I'll be playing the fifth game after the groundbreaking fourth, so there's always a distinct chance to blow the market open for a particular brand.

BEWARE THE HYPE AWARD

The Xbox 360 Launch

Thanks to the Xbox 360 (360 as in "right back to where we started"), we've been given another case study in Bad Console Launches. Let's go down the checklist: limited-to-no availability (after weeks upon weeks of hype and buildup, nothing shoots you in the foot more than not having enough supply so people can actualy buy the damn things--the casual gamer with disposable income was left in the dust for the whole Xmas season since the only people who got the system were the hardcore gamers who preordered it years in advance and were going to buy it no matter what); overpriced hardware (Microsoft insultingly released a crippled system and called it a "value option," but the $400 system was really your only intelligent choice); overpriced software (every new console generation, financial analysts decry the end of the $50 game, the launch titles get priced high, no one buys them, and the price inevitably drops--can't we skip the middleman?); underwhelming launch titles (don't you think some Nintendo execs are sitting in a room nodding knowingly about the grand anticlimax that was Rare's launch effort?); faulty backward-compatibility (a complete dealbreaker for me; my Xbox is only a year and a half old and I've amassed a nice library since then. Until I can play them all on a 360, fuck Microsoft hard. Their half-assed "solution" allows for fun moves like EA not releasing a patch to play the Xbox Burnout Revenge when, oh so conveniently, the Xbox 360 version is due out soon); oversized, jet-engine-loud hardware (I mean, seriously, have you seen the power supply??); glitchy software (not a widespread problem, but ask those people whose systems ate and destroyed those $60 games); glossy, Generation 1.5 graphics (a problem that gets cured in time for sure, but for now you're paying good money for games with graphics barely improved over current-gen standards (I still think RE4 looks better than any of them)). Phew! Thanks, Microsoft, for giving us all a good handbook on how NOT to launch a console. Much appreciated. Which brings us to the...

HYPE IS SUCH SWEET NECTAR AWARD

The Nintendo Revolution

We've only been fed nice little tasty morsels of info, but the Revolution has the chance to best all of the above problems. The iPod-influenced hardware is small, sexy, sleek, and quiet. Full backward-compatibility with the GameCube, not to mention the tremendous potential of the Virtual Console (which will allow you to download and play games from all generations of Nintendo consoles). Budget-level hardware pricing (hinted between $150-$250; I think $150 would blow competitors away). We don't know what software will be available at launch, but my guess is the new Zelda (automatically better than anything the Xbox 360 saw), Smash Bros. (and since Nintendo has been brokering lots of deals with other developers, watch for the number of playable characters to explode in this one), and hopefully a couple from a list of Mario/Metroid/WarioWare/Pilotwings/F-Zero. Nintendo has a storied history of crappy software launches, but this one has serious potential. No one has ever launched a console quite like the Revolution and the only company I would trust to succeed is Nintendo. Keep your eyes on this one because it may change the gaming landscape forever. But maybe that's just the sweet, sweet nectar talking...

BEST IN GAMING 2004/2005 - PC GAMES OF THE YEAR

After far too many years of getting by on my pre-college computer gaming rig, I finally took the plunge last summer and invested in a polygon-pumping dream machine (a blazing-fast and HUGE Alienware Aurora). As a result, I've spent the past seven months catching up on the last few years of kick-ass computer games. Since the games I've played the most in that time came out originally in 2004, I figured I'd save myself some trouble and just make one all-encompassing Best of PC category this year. Have fun!

1.  World of Warcraft

Anytime you're breaking out the comparisons to ultra-addictive street drugs to describe a video game, you know you've got something special on your hands. Well, World of Warcrack is so devastatingly absorbing and time-draining, it should come with its own prescription to methadone. Years in the making by the mad scientists at Blizzard, World is the quintessential MMORPG (or Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game). The superficial goal is simple: create a character and bring them up to level 60. Sounds easy, but this is no quick pickup you bang out in a weekend. Literally HUNDREDS of hours of your life get drawn into killing thousands of monsters, navigating the hundreds of quests, and trekking through the perilous dungeons. Or maybe you just want to kick back and do some fishing, go hunting for precious metals and herbs, or shoot off some fireworks in the town square. And we're just barely scratching the surface here. World is that rare game that can draw in MMORPG newbies like myself (thanks to the methodical quest system that never lets you get unwillingly over your head and a brilliant rest-XP system that lets you play catch-up when you haven't had a chance to play in a while) and those who are willing to subordinate everything else in their lives in order to play it (you know who you are...(cough)Chad). I've already racked up over 160 hours and have to my name a level-43 Paladin, level-18 Hunter, and a brand-new level-8 Priest. Easily playable for 15 minutes or 15 hours at a time, World is now the new standard that all contenders must pass through. (For the record, I have not played Guild Wars yet, simply because I very well might lose my girlfriend and my job if I pick up another MMORPG addiction--my resolve is weakening, though.)

2.  Far Cry

Blasphemous though it may seem, yes, I am ranking this higher than the pedigreed Half-Life 2. The reason is simple: I'm tired of running around abandoned buildings and city wastelands. There's only so much dark-tinted rubble I can run through before I start losing my mind and I'm close to my breaking point. On the other hand, there's Far Cry, one of the most stunning computer games I've ever played. Slyly, the game opens with your character needing to escape from a been-there-done-that dark cave. Quickly, though, you emerge into a sun-drenched tropical paradise (and almost need to squint from the abundant sunlight). Set on a series of islands, Far Cry demolishes the linear barriers that HL2 and most other FPSs fall back on. Here's an example: in one later stage in the game, you start off in a boat and need to travel over to a distant island to destroy a power station. Now, the direct approach (the one that the strategy guides and FAQs point you to) involves docking at a shore in front of you, fighting off scores of mercenaries that have taken cover on a massive hill you need to climb before scaling a perilous bridge connecting the two sides of the island (while snipers pick at you) where you finally run into the tower to set the explosives. Sounds exhausting? Well, thanks to the brutal AI and punishing difficulty, it will be (and, for the record, I either would have thrown myself or my computer out of the window if I didn't have the Quicksave system that Crytek only added to the game after everyone bitched about its absence--fuck any FPS that doesn't offer a Quicksave). I decided to look for a different approach. Staying out of range of the army of troops at the shore, I went around to the back of the island, close to the tower. In the shadows away from everyone else was a small, lightly-guarded dock. I took care of the soldiers with a few well-placed shots from the onboard rocket launcher and pulled right up to the dock. On foot now, I see a small, but strategically placed, walkway going right up the side of the mountain. I run up the walkway, taking out a few scattered soldiers quickly and quietly, run directly into the tower at the top, set the explosives, and am already halfway back to the boat before the legions of other soldiers even knew I was there. This is how you do open-world gameplay. Very few games of any genre give you this much flexibility in approaching an objective and a more open design would have helped the claustrophobic HL2. If you've got the demon rig that can handle it (and with all graphic options on at 1600x1200, it's a graphics whore's orgasm), you have to check it out.

3.  Half-Life 2

Since I bought my first 3D accelerator card (the awesome Canopus Pure 3D) years ago specifically so I could play the original Half-Life, I was excited to rip into the sequel on my new PC. While developer Valve is continuing to push the limits of interactive storytelling, a little more variety wouldn't hurt. The Source engine is a thing of beauty (that has already spawned numerous mods and conversions--see #10) and the usage of physics is unparalleled (especially when the Gravity Gun goes Super-Saiyan in the final levels), but it doesn't change the fact that you spend most of the game fighting the same soldiers in the same dimly-lit warehouses and abandoned tunnels. While there are some vehicle levels to break up the flow, they tend to go on too long (a few of the missions do, in fact, since you spend most of the time just going from A to B killing monsters along the way). Where Half-Life 2 succeeds admirably, though, is in making players feel they are a part of the story. Completely eschewing traditional non-interactive cutscreens, here you get to always be a part of the action, even if you're just listening to characters talk. You never see protagonist Gordon Freeman's face or hear his voice, allowing the player to become the champion of Black Mesa. Like the first game, there's barely an ending to speak of, but, of course, it's the journey that matters and Valve takes you there in ways never seen before in gaming.

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4.  Indigo Prophecy

We're a long way removed from the halcyon days of adventure gaming and I still miss those days when just seeing the LucasArts/LucasFilm Games or Sierra On-Line logo on a package was the ultimate seal of quality. The number of brilliant games churned out by those two companies in a roughly ten-year span is staggering. It's safe to say that I wouldn't be the obsessed, devoted, loser gamer that I am today if I hadn't immersed myself in Quest for Glory and The Secret of Monkey Island as a young lad [sidebar: one of my most cherished pieces of videogame memorabilia is the box for Hero's Quest, which was the original name for the Quest for Glory games before Sierra had to change it shortly after release due to copyright problems with the Hero Quest boardgame (that, incidentally, I played plenty of also)--hell, the map of Shapeir that was included with Quest for Glory 2 is on my apartment wall right now; yeah, I'm not a loser at all...] Anyway, back to Indigo Prophecy. Indigo is the latest and most successful attempt to merge old-school linear adventure-gaming plots and gameplay with cutting-edge 3-D graphics and branching, open-ended design (you're allowed to approach certain parts in different ways, though you'll pretty much stay on the same track no matter what). Taking thematic cues from the classic Gabriel Knight games as well as the multi-narrative plot structures in TV shows like 24, Indigo begins with Lucas, the protagonist, waking from a trance in a dingy diner bathroom with a bloody, eviscerated corpse in front of him. As the game progresses, you control Lucas as well as the two detectives investigating the case. The action sequences get a mixed grade (I never got tired of the varied and awesome Simon Says action sequences, but the third-person "sneaking" sections and the frustrating first-person "anxiety-cam" parts grew tiresome quickly), but overall help to keep the experience tense and thrilling. And yes, the plot definitely goes haywire at the end (I couldn't possibly explain the ending to you coherently, but my favorite part was the sudden appearance of an otherworldly being seemingly made out of pure energy), but the momentum keeps you barrelling to the conclusion without giving you much time to go "Seriously, what the fuck?" For anyone who misses a good adventure game, don't pass this one up.

5.  Sid Meier's Pirates!

Having fond memories of watching my friend Erik play the original Pirates! on his Apple 2gs years ago (and later picking up Pirates! Gold myself), I was excited to take another spin along the Caribbean. The graphics may have been done up in flashy 3-D and some new minigames have been added, but the same addictive gameplay remains almost untouched. You pick a nationality, a starting year, and are set loose to make your fortune. The ostensible goal of the game is to rescue your kidnapped family by slowly collecting pieces of maps by ambushing rogue pirates, impressing Governors' daughters, and keeping an eye out at the local tavern. However, you can feel free to completely ignore the storyline and focus on pillaging ships, capturing cities, and choosing whether you want to use your pirating powers for good or evil. The various starting eras and nationalities give some replay value, but after pouring hours into trying to get as much accomplished as possible with my first character, I haven't felt much of a desire to head back to the seas since. It's plenty of fun while it lasts, though.

6.  The Movies

If The Sims and Final Cut Pro had sex while playing Rollercoaster Tycoon, The Movies would be the result. At its core is a tycoon game where you build a fledgling film studio in the 1920's up to a modern day, state-of-the-art production kingdom. Along the way, you nurture young, struggling actors and directors, feed their egos, and slowly turn them into money-making, critically-beloved superstars. The drag-and-drop interface will be familiar to tycoon fans, but while developer Lionhead deserves credit for minimizing interface clutter, as your studio lot grows, it becomes tiresome locating and dragging actors and scripts all across the sprawl. Some extra shortcuts or automation options would have helped significantly. If the tycoon game doesn't interest you, there's a surprisingly versatile editing program included as well that lets you create your own rudimentary films (complete with imported music and dialogue if you so desire). The learning curve is tremendous if you want to make anything remotely decent, but the rewards are equally impressive. It's a great start for a new franchise, though, and if cleaned up, the sequels could be amazing.

7.  F.E.A.R.

The latest in run-through-dark-industrial-corridors FPSs, F.E.A.R. differentiates itself with a horror-tinged storyline and a powerful physics engine that leaves your battlegrounds in piles of dust and rubble. F.E.A.R. wears its influences proudly: a little Half-Life 2 interactive storytelling here, a little J-horror ambience there, but Monolith (creators of the No One Lives Forever series) deserves credit for making the whole greater than the sum of its parts. The brutal AI won't just wander into your crosshairs and if you don't learn how to use cover quickly, you'll be hitting the Quickload button many times. It's nothing groundbreaking, but the sky-high production values (make sure to play with a loud surround system or good pair of headphones) and some legitimately scary moments make this an easy pickup for genre fans.

8.  Sid Meier's Civilization 4

Really not much of a review needed here. It's the fourth in the vaunted Civilization series and you should know what to expect at this point. There are the usual graphical enhancements, a multiplayer mode built right into the game (rather than as a half-assed add-on as before), a few gameplay tweaks here and there (you can now choose a state religion, though Firaxis made sure to equalize them so one isn't significantly "better" than the others), and Leonard Nimoy has been brought on to read the famous quotes that accompany your technological advances (lending further gravitas to the proceedings). At its core, though, is the same addictive, just-one-more-turn play that has been wiping out nights for many gamers for years. If you're ready to get back on the horse, Civ 4 is the best in the series yet and newbies owe it to themselves to check out what all the hype is about. But if you've had enough of taking over the world or winning the space race, there isn't too much new here to draw you back in.

9.  Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War

It probably won't come as a surprise to many of you to hear that I've got some Warhammer experience in my past. I played the original Warhammer rather than 40K, but I've had a soft spot for the series ever since (for those out of the loop, Warhammer is a miniatures-based war game--you buy lots of figures, paint them up all nice and purty, and gather your friends for some epic strategic battles (though thanks to an insanely complicated set of rules that makes each matchup last forever, I think I played maybe one entire battle using all the rules (and I won! Haha!)--most of my time was spent collecting and painting figures (think The 40-Year-Old Virgin))). Dawn is your standard RTS, but it integrates the 40K universe very well and with the requisite amount of bloody mayhem. The single-player campaign is fun, but straightforward (build defensive perimeter, resource-gather like a motherfucker, raise an enormous army, and march across the map wiping out everyone in your path). There are plenty of multiplayer options, though, and an expansion pack (Winter Assault) has already been released. Warhammer and/or RTS fans should check it out.

10.  GoldenEye: Source

Now, this is technically a mod (for Half-Life 2) rather than a standalone game, but it gets a special mention for being a gussied-up reinvention of one of the best FPSs of all time, Rare's N64 classic GoldenEye. Right now, it's just a multiplayer mod that takes three levels from the original, slaps a pretty new coat on them, and opens them up for sprawling multiplayer brawls. I'd pay some serious money for a full makeover of the single-player game, but since that's not coming any time soon, I'll settle for some good multiplayer action. It's still early in the mod's life, so there's plenty of room for improvement. I need way more than the three included maps (no Archives? C'mon!) and I actually prefer to play in smaller groups (the levels were designed for two to four players, so having 15 running around means you die very, very quickly), but thankfully they've included the different game modes (after all, License to Kill is the ONLY way to play GoldenEye). I'm still scared that the copyright police are going to shut this down at any moment, so go enjoy it now while it lasts.

BEST IN GAMING 2005 - PORTABLE GAMES OF THE YEAR

After resisting for a year because of an underwhelming software lineup, I finally broke down and got a Nintendo DS and it's absolutely worth it. Now that there's plenty of quality software out (and much of it can be bought on the cheap at half.com), there's no reason to stay away (actually, that's not quite true because now you might as well wait until the sexified Nintendo DS Mini comes out this summer). There are more games that belong on a list like this, but these three are the most innovative and make the best use of the hardware (Tony Hawk American Sk8land, Castlevania, and Mario Kart are plenty of fun and worthy purchases, but you've played all three games before). As a result of the success of the DS, not much love was given to the GBA this year. I wouldn't be surprised if Nintendo unveils the next generation Game Boy at this year's E3 at the earliest (and certainly next year's E3 at the latest). Against most analyst expectations, the DS trounced the PSP last year thanks to a lower price and more unique software (rather than watered down PS2 ports). Lesson to Sony: don't fuck with Nintendo when it comes to handhelds...

1.  Trauma Center: Under the Knife (DS)

Anyone remember the old computer game series Life and Death? The first came out in 1992 and I have vivid memories of playing with my Mom and routinely killing patients because we couldn't figure out what the hell we were doing. Trauma has finally brought back this type of gameplay with rousing success. A perfect showcase for the DS's touch-screen magic, you use the stylus to make incisions, remove tumors, stitch up wounds, pull out embedded glass shards, and much more. There's never been anything quite like it on the handheld market. Even better, there's a surprisingly complex and twisting storyline presented in broad anime brushstrokes. The plot even opens up a few unique gameplay scenarios later in the game that take you out of the operating room (I won't spoil the surprises). A must-buy along with your DS.

2.  Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan (DS)

I'm a rhythm-action whore, so as soon as I heard there was an amazing rhythm-action game out in Japan that featured inspirational male cheerleaders and lovingly digitized J-pop, I immediately made my trip to www.lik-sang.com and placed my order. Oh man, this game is great. You tap the screen in rhythm to the songs, but the action gets surprisingly difficult and will test all your rhythm skills. The manga cutscreens that open each song are beautiful and tell their stories so well that you won't even notice all the Japanese text you're not reading. It's import-friendly and you'll get the hang of it quickly (and you can turn to the always-reliable www.gamefaqs.com for some quick-and-dirty translation guides). If you have a DS and got mad rhythm, go get this game now.

3.  Warioware Twisted! (GBA)

Hovering under the radar since it came out on the GBA, Twisted uses a gyroscopic game cartridge that reacts to your rotating the system back and forth. It's one of those games you have to play to understand, but it's surprisingly intuitive considering gamers aren't used to manipulating controls in this fashion. Otherwise, the gameplay is straight from the Warioware factory. It would be nice if the interface could be played around with in later iterations, but that's all secondary to the addicting, never-before-seen control mechanism. Now I'm already fantasizing about where the series can go when given the versatility of the Revolution's controller. Excuse me while I commence drooling...

BEST IN TELEVISION 2005 - SHOWS OF THE YEAR

1.  Lost (ABC)

By far and away the best show on TV right now (and The Office is the only show anywhere near it), Lost has been unstoppable for well over a year now. When I included it on this list last year, I worried that at some point the floor would drop out. Well, we've plowed through another 20-25 episodes since then and it's only getting better. The show's genius is that it inundates us with tantalizing hints every week--allowing us to feel like we're getting closer to solving the Mystery when we've actually just stumbled upon another 30 questions. It's a show perfectly built for the Internet Age as it taunts its online community into hyper-analyzing every little twist and turn (check out the boards at www.oceanicflight815.com). The slow chronological pace (where a season and a half has only covered about 50 days on the island) ensures that the plot doesn't get ahead of itself and allows the tension to simmer to nearly unbearable levels (my favorite TV moment of the past year? The jawdropping misdirection of the opening five minutes of the second season premiere). The ensemble cast is clicking (and major bonus points for tossing Adebisi on the island) and the plot has left open a lot of leeway for more characters to be introduced when needed (try this on: how about when the hatch timer ticks to zero, it activates the huge electromagnetic presence on the island and causes another plane to crash?) There will always remain the distinct possibility that this turns into the Greatest Anticlimax in Television History, but, frankly, as long as that day is in the distant future, let's just enjoy the ride.

2.  The Office (NBC)

I've been a cheerleader for this show since it started and I can't tell you how excited I am by the huge success it's found in its second season (thanks to an unexpected boom on the iTunes video market, the success of The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and a front office at NBC that's stood behind the show the whole way). Those put off by the idea of an American version of the British classic need to calm down and jump on the bandwagon because they're missing the best comedy on TV. If you told me that I had to choose between watching Lost and The Office and nothing else on TV or watching whatever I'd want except those two shows, well, let's just say that I could get used to an hour and a half of TV perfection a week. With already more episodes in the can than the original, The Office has stayed fresh by bringing the strong supporting cast into the picture (rather than keeping the four-person focus of the British version). Steve Carrell has already won a Golden Globe and an Emmy shouldn't be too far behind. And if you're not riveted by every little development in the Pam/Jim saga, you need to take your cold, black heart back to Faces of Death. For a comedy, The Office has more character development than most dramas and it's more accessible than its close sibling Arrested Development. I love this show dearly and demand that everyone who reads this page at least gives it a shot.

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3.  24 (FOX)

Jack Bauer is my American Hero and is destined to go down in the annuls of television history as one of our greatest patriots. I'll admit that I was really late getting here--2005's season (the fourth) was my first and now I'm exceedingly angry I haven't been watching from the beginning. With a sharp, cynical edge right out of a trashy spy novel, 24 never pulls any punches (and we know that Jack certainly doesn't either). The 24-hour gimmick works brilliantly at upping the ante for every showdown. There's never any time for diplomacy, so it's straight to torture and mayhem we go! Kiefer Sutherland has established his legacy and it's impossible to imagine another actor in the role now. Sure, some of the plot contrivances require a little suspension of disbelief, but this is spy pulp of the highest quality and I'm willing to give it plenty of latitude. The four past seasons are readily available on DVD, so there's plenty of time to catch up.

4.  Arrested Development (FOX?)

Oh, what a long and strange road it's been for Arrested since they appeared here last year. Struggling in the ratings since it first aired, Fox reluctantly ordered a full third season last Spring. It began airing on Monday nights in the Fall before the sadly-cancelled Kitchen Confidential, but the ratings were still low and Fox did everything possible to make sure people weren't watching (including endless preemptions before Prison Break reruns finally took over its slot, leading to its season being chopped in half and the abhorrent dumping of the final four episodes on a Friday night that just happened to coincide with the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics). Now rumors abound that Fox is shopping it around and that Showtime is very interested, but creator Mitch Hurwitz is understandably hesistant to sign on after being jerked around for a few years now. Even with all of this behind-the-scenes garbage, Arrested remained as quirky and lightning-quick as ever. They even drew upon the controversies for December's wonderfully-meta "SOBs" episode (which featured HBO and Showtime namedropping and Michael Bluth delivering a speech about why maybe the Bluths don't deserve to be around anymore). In a way, I'm almost hoping the show doesn't get picked up. In its final hour, they managed to tie up every running storyline and brought closure to the whole series. If it is the last episode, it'll go down as one of the finest series finales I've ever seen. As it stands, we've got three perfect seasons and it would be a shame for that to be sullied. I'd prefer if Showtime just signed Hurwitz to develop a brand new show rather than try to pigeonhole Arrested into a new channel. If this is the end, though, rest in peace, Arrested Development. It's been a hell of a journey.

5.  Entourage (HBO)

Another one I missed the boat on, but thank God for HBO On Demand because I'm right back in it now. After all, how can I miss a show that showcases the privileged life of a young, rich, successful actor and his hangabout friends. Lots of pot smoking, starfuckers, random celebrity encounters (Ralph Macchio!), and excessive hedonism...again, how can I not watch this show? Jeremy Piven shines as always-spinning superagent Ari (though the Jerry Maguire ending to the season was a little hackneyed). It's the kind of show that could only work on cable as it would be neutered without the copious nudity, drug use, and swearing. Make sure to revel in the transcendence of Kevin Dillon, the failed actor brother of Matt, kickstarting his career by playing the failed actor brother of lead character Vincent Chase. Just beautiful.

6.  Bodies (BBC America)

A harrowing miniseries of medical incompetence and corrupt bureaucracy set in the Ob Gyn ward of a British hospital. Yeah, also not a show getting near American networks any time soon. I made a pledge to not watch any medical or crime procedurals this season, but had to make an exception for the critically-acclaimed Bodies. Hey, it's only six episodes. Max Beesley plays Rob Lake, a new resident paired with Roger Hurley, an accomplished academic who is also responsible for more than a few tragic mistakes during his operations. Lake decides to blow the whistle on Hurley, but discovers that the hospital leadership is more concerned with protecting its bottom-line than good health care. For a sign of how skewed American TV standards are, BBC America showed full-frontal female nudity and quite a few disturbing and bloody operations, but the word "fuck?" Oh yeah, that's edited out. I don't know how you could catch the show now (though the BBC America website says season two is coming at the end of 2006), but if you notice a marathon of it one day, get your DVR ready and prepare yourself for a hospital drama that puts all the American pretenders to shame.

7.  Everybody Hates Chris (UPN)

The critical darling of the past TV season, Chris earns its accolades with clever writing and an earnest cast. Chris Rock may not star in the show, but his presence is felt in his acerbic voiceover narration. My favorite of the cast is Terry Crews, a former football player with an intimidating build that would seem to destine him for shitty roles like "Thug #2" in bad Gangsta movies. Here he's cast as Chris's loving, penny-pinching father, and he steals every scene. It's nice to have a good ole family sitcom in your schedule and this is the best of the bunch.

8.  Invasion (ABC)

I was wary of where Invasion was going for the first couple months (especially after the Threshold debacle--see below), but at the end of the year it picked up considerably and is quickly growing into one of my new favorites (I'm especially intrigued because Lost had a similar trajectory last season). A family drama wrapped in sci-fi overtones with a political/xenophobic subtext, Invasion succeeds where Threshold failed by consistently pushing the story forward and slowly upping the suspense and stakes (especially with the recent revelations about "hybrids" in other communities slaughtering their children). The relatively unknown cast is strong (I'm so excited that William Fichtner, long a favorite of mine, is back on a successful show), but I'll be the first to admit that I can't look at Alexis Dziena (who plays a high-school-age girl on the show) the same way after her lingering, completely nude scene in Broken Flowers. Feels a little dirty to me (and I don't think that's a bad thing). Moving on...it plays nicely next to Lost, its close relative, and makes for a must-see two hours of science-fiction-tinged mystery on Wednesday nights.

9.  Robot Chicken (Cartoon Network)

Co-created by Seth Green, it's a nonstop run of two-second gags, surreal pop-culture sketches, and lots of assorted randomness. Parodies of You Can't Do That On Television, the Smurfs, the A-Team, Napolean Dynomite, Real World, Life cereal's "Mikey" ads, and we're only skimming the surface here. Oh, and I should mention, it's all in glorious stop-motion claymation. Complete with a cavalcade of celebrity guest voices, it's go-for-broke hilarious and each episode runs a slight ten minutes. For the record, Aqua Teen Hunger Force absolutely deserves to be here as well, but technically I've been watching more of the DVDs than the new episodes, so I'll give the nod to Robot instead. Dive into the Adult Swim.

10.  Weeds (Showtime)

Recent widower Nancy Botwin, worried about how she can support her family alone, becomes the local pot-dealer for her snooty LA suburb...now that's a TV premise you don't get to see that often. There's a palpable dirtiness to the show that makes for addicting, salacious viewing. It's as if all the sex and drugs jokes that are too R-rated for Desperate Housewives formed their own show. Mary Louise Parker, as Nancy, elevates the material and keeps it from pandering to the lowest common denominator (she deservedly won a Golden Globe in January after her Desperate competitors split their votes). Kevin Nealon also pops in to play a stoner, middle-aged accountant (a role he was born to play). I'm curious if they have enough material to make the show last more than a couple seasons (luckily Showtime seasons are only 10-12 episodes long), but for now it's great junk food TV.

**BONUS** BEST OF 2006 PREVIEW

The first generation of reality shows are still limping out each season, trying to pretend they're still hip and new, but The Bachelor, Amazing Race, Apprentice, et al. have long since slipped into irrelevancy. If you're looking for the new breed, look no further than Bravo's Project Runway. Take a group of intelligent, creative, inspired fashion designers, toss them together, and have them tackle tasks like creating an ice skating gown for Sasha Cohen or a dress for a new Barbie line and great TV ensues. I eagerly anticipated every new episode at an almost Lost or The Office level and that is high praise indeed. I'm still upset that the wildly-talented Daniel Vosovic fell just short at the end, but don't dismiss this show when it comes back around for another run in the Fall.

DISAPPOINTMENTS OF THE YEAR

1. The Jawdropping Collapse of Desperate Housewives

If you had told me a year ago I'd be writing this, I wouldn't have believed you. Housewives was tremendous TV for the first few months of its life. Most people point to the start of the second season as where the trouble began, but I think the cracks starting showing little by little last Spring. Nearing the end of its first season, Housewives seemed to spin its wheels for a few weeks, as if the writers knew how they wanted the season to end, but had to pump out a few episodes of filler before they could get there.

(SEASON 1 SPOILER-FILLED RANT WARNING)

For me, it all comes down to the sad death of Rex Van de Camp. For weeks last Spring, I maintained that there was no way they could kill Rex off, especially not by sniveling pharmacist George. Here's what I still maintain: say you're having serious heart problems and have been prescribed important medication. You go to your regular, local pharmacist to fill said prescription. But that pharmacist, who's always seemed a little off, begins hitting on your wife once he hears about your marital problems through the town grapevine. Seems a little too obsessed with her. You even get into a few heated arguments with him. Your wife's mad at you, though, so she plays along, happy to be lavished with all of the pharmacist's attention. Around this time, you go back to the doctor and find out that you're not getting any healthier...the medication doesn't seem to be working. Now, if you're in this situation, you know what you would do? YOU WOULD STOP GOING TO THAT PHARMACIST. Even if you have no reason to believe he's tampering with your prescription, do you want to put your life in the hands of some guy who's trying to pick up your wife behind your back? No, you don't. I thought it was ridiculous that Rex didn't tell George to fuck off and then go find another pharmacy. But as long as Rex didn't die, I didn't mind too much. Well, in the season finale, poor Rex died believing that his wife was the one messing with his drugs. He died believing she wanted him dead. I know it's a dark show, but Rex didn't do anything to deserve such an emotionally brutal and easily preventable death. Yes, he had been cheating on Bree, but what the hell was Gaby doing that whole time also? It was an overly cynical move that seemed forced and unnecessary (as if the network told the writers that someone had to die for the big Sweeps finale and they decided Rex was better than some of the other choices). Really, I'm just pissed off that this meant the end of the "Bree-as-dominatrix" storyline, which I thought would have been amazing. So, the show certainly didn't end its first season on a high note and, as has been widely reported, the second season got off to a limping start. The loose threads of the first season kept any new plotlines from gathering steam, the Alfre Woodard "prisoner in the basement" story has been uninspired, and it's just not as much fun anymore. The housewives themselves are starting to look underdeveloped and stuck in their neurotic ruts (I'm tired of watching Lynette continually fuck over Tom (the only main character I still really like)). I'm still watching, though, and I'm still hoping it'll return to its old form (and 2006 is off to a better start--I hope the "Bree-as-alcoholic" angle has some legs), but it's no longer the must-see water cooler show it once was. It's sad how far a show can fall in a year.

2. FOX Rapes Its Viewers

I'd like to take this opportunity to give a big, loud "Fuck You" to Fox for a Fall season of audience-killing sadism. First, there's the disgusting treatment and cancellation of Arrested Development, pretty much the only show on Fox's docket that could claim overwhelming critical adoration (are there any Best Comedy Emmy winners that have been treated so poorly?) There's the lightning-quick dumping of Kitchen Confidential, one of the more promising shows of the young season--cancelled before it even had a solid, regular timeslot to win viewers. I'm not even touching Fox's terrible postseason baseball coverage. But worst of all was the abrupt assassination of Reunion. For those who didn't watch it, Reunion covers 20 years in the lives of a group of high school friends. Every episode spans one year, leading up to the present day when one of them has just been killed. They didn't even reveal the murder victim until five or six episodes in, so hints and red herrings have been littered all over the place. I'm thinking, if you sign a show like this onto your schedule, you're pretty much committing to a whole season. It had a small, but not horrendous and certainly dedicated, audience. This wasn't groundbreaking TV or anything (the dialogue and acting were especially laughable at times), but who doesn't love a good mystery and if you started watching, you were going to watch until the end. Fox, however, wasn't happy with the show's performance, and gave it the boot in early December. The creators were asked if there were any way they could wrap up the mystery eight or nine episodes early--a task that, of course, they said was impossible (since the mystery hinged on events and characters that weren't being introduced until later in the show). So, with no fanfare and no notice, Fox pulled Reunion off the air with four episodes already in the can to forever remain unaired. A callous move made with an eye on the bottom-line rather than the audience. Since then, Fox Entertainment President Peter Ligouri has discussed the probable identity of the killer (and a pretty sneaky one it was at that--my money was on all of the friends somehow being implicated), but too little, too late. Let's hope that Fox gets its head out of its ass before we lose more unfortunate shows too early.

And while I'm at it, let me give a nice Honorable Mention "Fuck You" to ABC for their insanely frustrating schedules. Shows like Lost and Desperate Housewives work because they build their overarching story and characters each week. When both shows constantly disappear off the air for weeks at a time, the viewers keep having to say, "Wait, what the hell was happening again?" whenever ABC deems us worthy of new episodes. Actually makes me give a point of credit back to Fox for showing 24 uninterrupted in the schedule. If ABC really wants to stretch their shows from September to May, then just maybe they should order another seven or eight new episodes each season to get us there without four billion repeats in between. I can't even express how much this pisses me off. When did staring at the Idiot Box become so masochistic?

3. Threshold Stumbles To An Early Grave

Especially disappointing since I had such high hopes. Coming off a spectacular two-hour pilot, I was ready for this to become the next Lost. As I wrote in September in my Fall TV preview, though, I was worried about the show turning into Law and Order: UFO with each episode degrading into yet another frantic search for the latest victim of "the signal." Unfortunately, my fears were well-founded. Despite setting up a juicy plot with aliens preparing to take over the world by manipulating human DNA so the race wipes itself out (or something like that since we never got that far), we never saw any progression to the story. Every episode played out as a self-contained search for the latest renegade and because there were no clear signs where this was leading, there was none of the urgency the show desperately tried to work up. With no compelling master storyline developing from week to week and a Friday timeslot that might as well be the Bermuda Triangle, it was only a matter of time until CBS euthanized it. What I'm most sad about is not getting to see Peter Dinklage every week in a role that was fantastic for him. C'est la vie...

BEST IN FILM 2005 - MOVIES OF THE YEAR

1.  Oldboy
Based on a story by Garon Tsuchiya
Screenplay by Hwang Jo-yun, Lim Joon-hyung, and Park Chan-wook
Directed by Park Chan-wook

Disturbing, visceral, morbidly funny, and capped off with a nice mindfuck, Oldboy takes chances that Hollywood studios would scoff at and has already become a cult legend. Average, middle-aged businessman Oh Dae-Su is arrested for public drunkenness and on his way home suddenly disappears. He awakes to find himself locked in a small, lightly-furnished apartment with no explanation why he's there. He's delivered a daily allotment of wontons, is gassed unconscious every few weeks so his hair can be cut and the apartment tidied, and is held this way for sixteen years. Just as suddenly, one morning he finds himself free. The villain reveals himself soon enough, but Oh Dae-Su (in shades of The Vanishing) can't kill him without fating himself to never knowing why he was kidnapped. And so the cat-and-mouse game begins. I don't dare reveal any more of the plot without skirting dangerously close to spoiling the sheer pleasure of watching the pieces slowly come together until their combined realization hits like a train wreck. Park Chan-wook directs with a sure, confident hand, embracing the widescreen frame, and injecting the morbid proceedings with a pitch-black gallows humor (the single-take fight scene is mesmerizing).

2.  Serenity
Written and Directed by Joss Whedon

A dazzling sci-fi/western pop masterpiece, Serenity is the epitome of everything the Star Wars prequels tried to be and failed. Revenge of the Sith should have cracked this list with ease, but while it's easily the best of the prequels, we're still lightyears away from the pure magic of the classic trilogy. Meanwhile, Joss Whedon roped together enough money to bring his much-loved, but short-lived, TV series Firefly to the big screen and the result is a rousing winner. I never watched the original series, but Serenity does a good job bringing you up to pace and I never felt left behind. The special effects are impressive without reaching the video game level of the Prequels and, gasp!, there's actually witty, intelligent dialogue performed well in front of the effects, something grossly missing from Lucas's stilted scripts. It's just a damn fun time at the theatre and those don't come around that often anymore. Go buy the DVD so the studios make enough money to bankroll some sequels.

3.  Grizzly Man
Written and Directed by Werner Herzog

Grizzly tells the surreal tale of Timothy Treadwell, a failed actor/beach bum who reinvented himself as a preservationist who spent part of each year camping in the Alaskan wilderness with the grizzlies. That is, until he and a female companion were killed and eaten by one of the bears one fateful Fall day, leaving behind hundreds of hours of footage he took in his final years. In most directors' hands, the film would be a mess. In Werner Herzog's, it's a multi-faceted look at an insecure man set loose in the wild to learn a fatal lesson about the separation of mankind and nature. Many Timothys are found in the footage: devoted nature lover (he befriends a fox and fetishizes one bear's droppings), deluded would-be-actor superstar, and, hidden in the background, the vulnerable, wounded man who lost his place in the cynical world of humans and arrogantly assumed he could join the community of bears. At its most basic level, the nature photography is gorgeous, showing a pristine, unblemished world--the best moments have a sublime, unscripted spontaneity. Its absence from this year's Best Documentary Oscar category is only further proof of how out-of-touch the "award" has become.

4.  Brokeback Mountain
Based on a short story by Annie Proulx
Screenplay by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana
Directed by Ang Lee

Deservedly acclaimed for having the courage to treat its material with respect and solemnity rather than sensationalism and melodrama, Brokeback is Ang Lee's masterwork. Its triumph is its universalism. Much more than a "gay cowboy film," it painfully demonstrates the soul-deadening effect of repressing your most genuine, heartfelt passions. In a Bush World that's become increasingly segmented and xenophobic, its plea for tolerance and understanding is especially earnest given how their absence can turn even the strongest men into empty shells. Heath Ledger's minimalist performance speaks of age beyond his years--his clenched teeth delivery evokes a man afraid of letting the slightest emotion escape lest it betray his stoic facade and reveal his deepest, most-inner desires. A powerful film whose repercussions will long be felt.

5.  The 40-Year-Old Virgin
Written by Judd Apatow and Steve Carell
Directed by Judd Apatow

Flat-out the funniest movie of 2005 and further cementing the reputation of Steve Carrell as a comedic genius, Virgin is bawdy-as-hell, surprisingly kind-hearted cinematic euphoria. While Carrell has his lovable loser act down pat, special notice should also go to the winning supporting cast (particularly Paul Rudd, Romany Malco, and Seth Rogan). They keep the jokes and one-liners coming fast and furious and send the laughs-per-minute ratio to vaunted heights. Yeah, it's a lot of dick jokes, but they're about as clever and inspired as you can get. Impressively, the movie never sinks to making fun of Carrell's Andy Stitzer, allowing us to pull for him (in a matter of speaking) without feeling like the movie is laughing at us. One of those filmgoing experiences where you miss half the dialogue the first time because the audience is laughing too hard, turn in your politically correct sensitivities at the door and you won't forget this first time.

6.  Downfall
Based on books by Traudl Junge and Melissa Muller and by Joachim Fest
Screenplay by Bernd Eichinger
Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel

The first German-made movie to tackle Hitler's final days, Downfall is a grim, depressing study of the collapse of a dictator and the entire military society he built around him. Bruno Ganz disappears into the role of Hitler, embodying a man whose mind and body have long since deteriorated. At war councils, he makes strategic moves with troop regiments that have already been killed, he damns the German people and declares that they deserve to die if they cannot win the war, and around him the sycophantic commanders know he has lost his hold on reality, but will do nothing about it. Most poignant are those trapped in this self-destructive orbit either through the naivety of youth (the fresh-faced secretary) or the innocence of childhood (the sad fate of Goebbels' children is shattering). You may think we've gone to this well far too many times, but Downfall proves there are still works of art to be made (and receiving a ton of critical acclaim is this year's upcoming concentration camp drama Fateless, which hasn't been released here yet).

7.  Fear and Trembling
Based on the novel by Amelie Nothomb
Screenplay by Alain Corneau
Directed by Alain Corneau

Amelie is a young Belgian professional who has just fulfilled a life-long dream by moving back to her birthplace Japan to start work as a translator at a large conglomerate. She fantasizes about being a "real Japanese" and is lost in the exotic beauty around her. She soon learns, though, that being able to speak the language doesn't mean you speak the culture. Her small, but embarassing, slips and errors accumulate and she finds herself slowly moving backwards on the corporate ladder. Fear plays like Haiku Tunnel or Office Space transplanted to Japan and directed by Bunuel. Amelie's increasingly surreal misadventures would be more frustrating and uncomfortable to watch were it not for her omnipresent optimism. Her smiling fervor to please her superiors no matter how degrading the task keeps the movie light and playful. Any office-dwellers will enjoy the peek into a Japanese corporate culture that prides itself on a self-reliance that, unfortunately for Amelie, comes with a fair dose of foreign distrust and wariness. A small gem.

8.  Head-On
Written and Directed by Fatih Akin

Cahit is an aimless late-30's German man drifting into substance abuse and contemplating suicide. After driving his car into a brick wall, he meets Sibel in the hospital. She's much younger, comes from an upper-class Turkish family, and is desperately trying to escape her overbearing parents. She proposes the two marry to placate her family and Cahit agrees. While Sibel is adamant that she be allowed to sleep with other men, the two slowly develop a bond, one that is sealed with an abrupt, unexpected spasm of violence. Presented with an unflinching eye by Akin, it's sex, violence, lies, parental conflict, culture clash, and unbridled passion thrown together in a furious head-on collision of blood, sweat, and tears. Defiantly unpredictable, it's one of the year's best surprises.

9.  Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-rabbit
Written by Nick Park, Bob Baker, Steve Box, and Mark Burton
Directed by Nick Park and Steve Box

Among the most beloved characters in animation, Wallace and Gromit finally get the call for their first feature-length film and it's a wonder. The painstakingly complex and detailed claymation is glorious to behold on the big screen and the spare use of CG only complements the canvas. Par for the course, it features the same crackling-smart puns and visual gags fans have enjoyed for years (Gromit exudes more personality with just his eyebrows than half the actors in Hollywood). The voicework, with A-listers Ralph Fiennes and Helena Bonham Carter added, is brilliant (I'm scared, though. Peter Sallis, the unmistakable voice of Wallace, is now a ripe 85 years old--can't Nick Park churn out a few more scripts and have Sallis record all the dialogue now so Wallace can have his voice for years to come?) Though I have to say, since the plot concerns a town's vegetable-growing contest, every time I heard those British accents say "veg" (as is "Wow, that is quite a veg you've got there!"), my brain kept hearing a certain part of the female anatomy (which, needless to say, really took the movie in a different direction). It capped off a successful theatrical run with the Best Animated Film Oscar in this year's Academy Awards.

10.  Crash
Story by Paul Haggis
Screenplay by Paul Haggis and Robert Moresco
Directed by Paul Haggis

An ensemble piece (with one hell of an ensemble) about fear and racism set in the Los Angeles sprawl, Crash was the surprise winner of this year's Best Picture Oscar and, while my vote would have gone to Brokeback, it's not an undeserving winner. Befitting a movie with so many story threads, the characters start as one-dimensional stereotypes (the racist cop, the spoiled wife, etc.), but Haggis shrewdly twists each character as the plotlines intertwine, revealing deeper motivations and provoking our empathy. The script skirts dangerously close to precocity, but the cumulative emotional impact dulls this tendency for too-clever-by-half plot manipulation.

WHAT THE HELL, HERE'S TEN MORE

11. Layer Cake...beats Guy Ritchie at his own game.
12. March of the Penguins...Darwinism in action and a surprisingly tender love story with oh-so-cute penguins and stunning photography.
13. Off the Map...makes you want to sell your possessions and become an artist in the desert.
14. The Squid and the Whale...features the best and most realistic dialogue of the year.
15. Last Days...Haunting and subdued, the camera prowls around the final moments of a Kurt Cobain-like, drug-ravaged rock star.
16. Match Point...builds to a climax that seems utterly inevitable and then finishes with a deliciously cynical touch.
17. Walk on Water...where an assassin is forced to reevaluate the political and cultural boundaries he has long taken for granted.
18. Pride and Prejudice...because who the hell thought someone could actually breathe new life into the Jane Austen catalog.
19. Cache...Utterly beguiling, many of you will hate this movie with a fierce passion, but I couldn't stop thinking about it.
20. Palindromes...Todd Solondz's latest features seven women and one boy alternating the lead role of Aviva.

HORROR WILD CARD

The Devil's Rejects; Three...Extremes ("Dumplings" segment); Resident Evil 4

Admittedly a somewhat disappointing year for horror. High Tension finally received its long-overdue US release, but in a terribly butchered, half-assed edit that has half the visceral punch of the original. Thankfully, we've got Rejects, a loving homage to Texas Chainsaw and '70's shock-horror. Directed with misanthropic glee by Rob Zombie, it's a nasty one with no redeemable characters, no morals or happy endings, and lots of excessive brutality (the "face-facemask/roadkill" death still gives me the creeps). I'm excited to see what Zombie can do with a more original framework. Resident Evil 4 isn't the latest shitty game-to-movie sequel, but the GameCube masterpiece that was scarier than any movie that came out last year. Three...Extremes is a triptych by three Asian genre masters (including Oldboy director Park Chan-wook and Audition director Takashi Miike), but by far the best of the three segments is Fruit Chan's "Dumplings." A shortened version of his feature of the same name (which I sadly haven't tracked down yet), it features very little bloodletting and overt violence, just what your sick little mind can conjure up. An aging actress visits a tiny apartment where the owner (played by Bai Ling, who will always be evil to me after The Crow) is renowned for making speciality dumplings that are known to reverse the aging process. Their secret ingredient? You probably don't want to know. (Bah, here's a hint: if the pro-life crowd is that pissy about them being used for stem-cell research, they don't even want to know what Bai Ling's character is doing with them--yikes). This is no gross-out superficial shocker, though, as most is left to your imagination. Be careful the final scene doesn't haunt your nightmares...

FILM FESTIVAL FARE

Survive Style 5+; Late Bloomer; The Soup, One Morning

Three that sadly weren't getting anywhere near your local cineplex, these made for excellent festival picks for the year. Survive features stunning set designs not to mention plenty of black humor and cartoon violence with boundless energy to spare. Why it hasn't been released on DVD here is a mystery. It seems a sure fit with the midnight movie crowd and is waiting to establish its cult status. Bloomer will also be a favorite of fans of extreme Japanese cinema. Suffice to say you've never seen a movie where a man with multiple disabilities who's confined to a wheelchair goes off the deep end and becomes a brooding killer. Until it hits DVD, though, you'll just have to keep an eye out at a film fest near you. Finally, I doubt Soup will ever approach a DVD release here--it's a modest indie from Japan about a young man's slow mental slide into a religious cult and its impact on his relationship with his girlfriend. Slowly-paced and deliberate, the vast majority of American audiences would tune out in minutes. Despite its small scale, the tension grows steadily and the ending has the dramatic weight of a film ten times its scope.

THE ONG-BAK AWARD FOR EXCELLENCE IN ASS KICKING

Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior

"Hell yeah!" The first words that come to mind when I think of this movie. There are no stuntmen and no CG tricks, just pure Muay Thai magic. Featuring brawling and chase scenes so spectacular they deserve their own award, Ong-bak is required viewing for martial arts fans and anyone who thought those guys in The Matrix and Crouching Tiger were wirework pussies. You'll talk about the movie in exclamations ("Did he just run across their shoulders and then slide under that truck?!") and will bow to star Tony Jaa's mindblowing skills (Hollywood needs to start working on a proper showcase immediately). I saw it in a theatre last Spring with a modest audience and every 10-15 minutes, the crowd would erupt collectively with an appreciative "Ohhh shit!" There's a perfectly hateable villain who spits out Thai through an electronic voicebox (easily one of the creepiest things I witnessed last year) and even one of those always-reliable "underground fight club in a dingy bar" scenes. During an intense duel in said club, Tony Jaa's Ting and his soon-to-be-victim eventually bash their way into a small office overlooking the arena. Now, any regular action hero would just toss the victim through the window to the floor below. Not Ting. He throws him out the window and then leaps out after him to give him one more knee to the face as they're falling to the ground. Hell yeah!

WORST OF THE YEAR

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

To my credit, I managed to avoid many of the movies that would have rocketed into this slot. Miss Congeniality 2, The Man, Deuce Bigalow 2, et cetera, would have been locks...except there was no way in hell you would have caught me at any of them. So, picking out of the movies I've actually seen, let's go with Charlie, the latest train wreck in Tim Burton's increasingly disappointing career. I bitched about this in my Oscar preview, but seriously, what the fuck is wrong with Burton? Corpse Bride was impressively made, but otherwise uninspired. Big Fish is maudlin crap. Planet of the Apes, Sleepy Hollow, and Mars Attacks! are big-budget, low-concept, studio dreck. I'll leave Ed Wood alone since it has its fans and it's been a while since I saw it. Then we're at Batman Returns, pretty much the polar opposite of his earlier, brilliant Batman. We're now back to 1990, my friends. In the 15 years since, it's been all soulless gloss. In the five years before, try these on: Edward Scissorhands, Batman, Beetle Juice, and Pee-wee's Big Adventure. Maybe he shot his creative load on those and has been on cruise control towards big studio paydays ever since, but this ain't the same director who seemed ready to set the world on fire after Batman.

That brings us to Charlie, another easy lay-up for Burton when he should be stretching out his dramatic muscles. In my opinion, the whole project was doomed once Marilyn Manson took himself out of consideration for Wonka (due to scheduling conflicts). With Manson in the cast, Burton would have been forced to really embrace the dark side of Wonka (the part that always lurked in the background in Gene Wilder's performance and still freaks me out today). Manson would have ripped that role apart. Instead, we have the usually-reliable Johnny Depp in one of his worst performances. He miscalculates the character by playing up the man-child, Peter Pan, Michael Jackson-esque aspect of Wonka instead of his simmering cynicism and isolationism. Toss in the fey haircut and voice and there's no coming back. Even with Production Design Superhero Alex McDowell involved, the ubiquitous CG is technically strong, but lacking any real heart or over-the-top giddiness [seriously, check out McDowell's filmography; a small, but unbelievable group including Fight Club, Minority Report, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and The Crow]. The new Wonka backstory is unnecessary and poorly-implemented and I'm not even touching the musical numbers. Of course, it still made millions upon millions worldwide, but maybe it's about time Burton had a ridiculous critical and box office bomb so he could reevaluate his career and finally start moving towards making real movies again instead of predictable blockbuster garbage. C'mon, Tim, there's still plenty of time...