So anyway, I thought of a different (and, in my mind, more noble) approach to a top 10 list and instead draw attention to 10 films of the past 10 years that I felt were sorely overlooked. Not necessarily the best films of the 00's (although there are a few here that fall under that category, too), but simply ones that deserve more credit than they got and should be sought out by people like you. I mean, c'mon... If you care enough to read about them, you should most definitely care enough to watch them. Unsure as to how one ranks "under-rated-ness", I have arranged them alphabetically, so that when you go browsing on NetFlix or your local video store, your search can be perhaps a bit more linear. Here we go:
The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004): This is probably the most big-budget, A-list movie star-studded film on this list, but chances are you still aren't familiar with it. Having just won an Oscar for his performance in "Mystic River" and following that up with the superb "21 Grams" (which, like this movie, co-starred Naomi Watts as well), Sean Penn's career had definitely peaked. I don't know if this movie got lost in his own wake or if the advertising budget was just too modest, but I think this is the performance of Penn's career. Yes, even better than his performance in "Milk".
There's no shortage of films about an ordinary man's inability to find purpose and meaning in a world that rejects him and, consequently, he slowly loses his mind and spirals down a path of self-destruction disguised as vigilantism (I guess that last sentence could be replaced by saying "Y'know... 'Taxi Driver'). However, this film - perhaps because it's based on a true story - seems somehow different. You pity him without siding with him - like the way you'd feel about a rabid dog. Or Charlize Theron's character in "Monster".
Oh, wait. Maybe that's it - maybe filmgoers passed this movie by because they'd seen enough depressing storylines from this year already ("Million Dollar Baby", for instance, won best picture) and didn't have room for one more (especially one more starring Sean Penn & Naomi Watts). Too bad. 'Cuz this was one of the best ones.
I don't want to reveal too much of the film's plot because the way it's unveiled is a big part of its impact, but in a nut shell: Two brothers - one, a family hero, the other, a black sheep - reunite after the bad brother gets out of prison but before the good brother is sent to Afghanistan for military duty. The good brother is captured by the enemy and thought to be dead and the bad brother begins to take on responsibilities in his absence. Eventually (after horrible experiences that have to be seen to be believed), the good brother makes it back home. I'll leave it at that.
Most movies about tragedy relegate the audience to being simply voyeurs, where you empathize with the characters' plight - basically like how you feel when you watch the news and hear some horrible story. That's not necessarily a bad thing from a movie-watching standpoint, but it's not nearly as powerful as experiencing the tragedy with the characters. That's much a harder goal for a filmmaker to accomplish (although Clint Eastwood, as a director, is a master at this). I can't put my finger on it, but there are some movies where you become so invested with the characters, that you feel their pain rather than witness it. This film is like the former. I suspect the remake is like the latter.
* On a side note, I'd like to express my pre-emptive disdain for the upcoming American remake of the incredible Swedish masterpiece "Let the Right One In" which is probably the finest vampire film I have ever seen (and perfect) and should never be remade.
The Fall (2006): This the only film on this list that is not only under-rated, but was far and away my favorite film of the year it was released. This one I am absolutely perplexed as to why it wasn't a huge record-breaking blockbuster. The movie snob in me would suggest it's because it was too sophisticated for mainstream audiences, but I don't think that's quite it. What confuses me is how so many people loved "Pan's Labyrinth" so much and wouldn't shut up about how great it was, but mainstream audiences somehow missed this one. This movie has the same basic formula as "Pan's Labyrinth", but it is so much better in every way: heartbreaking plot, vivid characters, breath-taking visuals, gorgeous landscapes, limitless imagination, grand performances, all that and more.
Even more impressive (but only if you've actually seen the movie) is the fact that it was shot over 4 years on 26 locations in 18 different countries and doesn't contain a single computer-generated special effect. Again, that may not sound like such a big deal, but try watching this movie with that knowledge and see how long it takes before your jaw drops.
I could describe the plot to you, but the plot is not the reason to see it. That's not to say the plot sucks (far from it), but the movie itself is such a celebration of beauty and storytelling, that to simply write a brief summary of the exposition would feel like a betrayal of the presentation as a whole. You hafta see the movie to know what I mean. And if there's only one movie on this list you should most definitely see, it's this one.
It Might Get Loud (2008): If you haven't seen this one, I'm afraid it may be too late. As good as this movie is (and still will be on DVD), it's one for the theaters. If you ever notice they're screening some special engagement at a local theater (or you know someone with a home theater who's willing to show this at their place) don't miss it!
This is the only documentary on my list, but it's really kind of a documentary by default. Most documentaries have a journalistic feel (and I suppose this one does, too), but that takes a back seat to the celebration of music and the magic of creative expression. There are so many priceless and inspiring scenes in this film that it's impossible to pick a favorite. Furthermore, this movie could have lasted 24 hours and my interest in it would not have waned.
If you're still not sold, that's just because you don't know what the documentary's subject matter is: Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page, U2's The Edge, and The White Stripes' Jack White all get together in a studio to talk about each other's music and pretty much just jam. I would have been more than satisfied with just that, but they go into such thorough back story on all three individuals and their experiences and their influences that it is impossible to not be in awe. This movie excited me more than any action movie I saw all year. And it sounds f___ing amazing!
Lars and the Real Girl (2007): I almost didn't include this one on the list because it did fairly well for an independent film. Well enough to garner itself a (well-deserved) Academy Award nomination for best screenplay. However, as widely-seen and critically-acclaimed as this movie was, it still wasn't appreciated as much as it should have been. That's actually an indication as to how good it really is.
Think about the subject matter: A reclusive and socially awkward man treats an artificial woman (or, a sex doll, to put it bluntly) like a real person/girlfriend and his concerned family and friends play along for the sake of his need to be loved and accepted. Now, if this were a Hollywood film, it would be wall-to-wall sex jokes, crude innuendos, embarrassing situations and humiliating gags. And, you know what? It would probably actually be pretty funny and make millions of dollars.
Here, though, is a film that challenges itself to treat the subject matter seriously, with great care and, really, almost play a prank on the audience when, by the end of the film, we find we've actually grown to care for "Bianca" about as much as any other character in the movie. When you think about it, this is a real tightrope of storytelling and the movie never takes one wrong step. Not only that, but they make it look easy.
This film is a masterpiece and I'm afraid it's destined to be, at best, one of those movies where years from now, people will say, "Hey, remember 'Lars and the Real Girl?" "Oh, yeah. Barely. It's been a long time, but I remember it was pretty good." When it really should be, at least on an emotional level, on the same shelf as, say "E.T." or "Old Yeller" or any other great movie that makes us genuinely care for something that's not even human. Furthermore, it's a wonderfully optimistic commentary on the strength of community. I suppose it's kind of ironic, but when people talk about "small town values", I like to think of this movie as an example of exactly that.
Rocket Science (2007): It's possible I merely have a soft spot for this film because it's the first movie I ever saw at the Sundance Film Festival and, consequently, I wanted it to do better than it did, but I've re-watched it recently and think it still holds up quite well. In fact, for a movie about teenagers, I think it could withstand the test of time indefinitely because there are several universal truths (and tragedies) that anybody who survived adolescence could relate to.
Most teen movies with an awkward underdog for a hero usually end with him (or her) proving himself by overcoming the odds (or at least getting even). This movie's about a boy with an excruciating stutter who joins his high school's debate team to impress a girl. I won't reveal what happens to Hal Hefner at the end, but there comes a point in the movie where you realize it almost doesn't even matter whether he "succeeds" or not. His life is going to continue to be miserable and difficult no matter what - at least until graduation. That is what it's like to be a teenager and this movie makes that feeling all too real.
Being in my mid-30's now, usually when I watch a movie about teenagers (even one I originally saw back when I was a teenager), I'm left with a fleeting desire to be young again. The truth is, I do not. And I give this movie props for having the balls to show me why.
The Salton Sea (2002): This is a clear case of simply not enough distribution. I remember seeing this trailer at the movies, being excited to see it, anticipating its release, and then finding out it didn't even play in my city. After I finally got around to renting it (and seeing that it was every bit as good as I'd hoped), I eventually ended up buying my own copy for $2.50 in a used movie bin at Hollywood Video. This movie got a bum rap.
Not sure why the studio didn't have enough faith in it to really put it out there. Maybe it was because the screenwriter originally intended for the script to be a writing sample to show around to studios to get work. Maybe they spent all their budget on the movie itself and didn't have enough left for promotion and distribution. Maybe they thought with a movie this good, word of mouth would be enough to give it legs. The cast itself boasts a who's who of independent film character actors - almost to the point of being a self-contained hall of fame.
Unfortunately, it's one of those films that's got a convoluted plot full of surprises, so I can't divulge too much, but I will say it's cut from the same cloth as "Memento" and "The Usual Suspects". Maybe that's the problem. There were a lot of wanna-bees that tried to cash in on that similar crime-drama formula at the time. I don't consider this a wanna-be because it's unique enough to stand on its own and it's not a victim of its own style like so many others. Its characters are not cliches nor are its surprises frivolous and arbitrary. It's sad to say that probably the only reason this movie got greenlit in the first place is because of the movies that came before it, but if someone had taken a chance on "The Salton Sea" first, I guarantee you'd have already seen it I'd be talking about some other unappreciated movie here instead.
Seeing Other People (2004): This is a very funny movie and, in its own way, somewhat profound. If you're in a relationship, it'll make you appreciate your significant other more. If you're not in a relationship, it'll make you glad you're not. Sounds impossible, but it's true.
The bride-to-be of a happy couple begins to regret that she hasn't had many sexual conquests in her past and suggests to her fiancee that they allow each other to fool around and "sow their remaining wild oats" (as it were) before they finally marry. I suppose you can imagine what kind of mayhem would ensue under such an arrangement, but it actually gets much worse than what you may imagine.
Like "The Salton Sea", it's got a great cast (although, contemporary comedians this time) who offer up all sorts of character types to ensure no permutation is left unexplored. I suppose it could be a pretty therapeutic movie to watch for somebody who has been cheated on, but more importantly, I think it would be a good movie for somebody who is contemplating cheating on their significant other to see. This movie will either bring you back to fidelity or make you opt for just breaking up in order to save yourself a heckuva lot of trouble.
Session 9 (2001): Given the popularity of the "torture porn" horror movie these days, it's hard to find a good old-school creepy horror film that relies on mood more than gore for its effectiveness (although, I give props to "Paranormal Activity" for bringing it back, even if only briefly). This movie pre-dates "Saw" by 3 years, so I can't say it's an anomaly to the contemporary suspense genre, but it is still unique by today's standards.
The brilliance of "Session 9" is its ambiguity. Five haz-mat crew members are brought into a condemned insane asylum for asbestos removal in preparation for renovation. The asylum in question was closed down years ago for controversial methods of patient therapy. How's that for a set-up?
Naturally, creepy things start happening while they're at work, but because of the movie's set-up, the audience has no idea what's responsible for the unsettling occurrences. One by one, workers inexplicably stop showing up for work. Are there still crazies hiding out in the asylum? Homeless people? Ghosts? Monsters? And what's happening to the workers? Are they dying? Are they being kidnapped? Fleeing? Being devoured by the building itself? Because of how little is shown to us, we never really know what's going on until it is revealed at the very end.
This movie will get under your skin and, while you might be thick-skinned enough to not have it bring you nightmares, chances are you'll think twice before going into a big empty building by yourself.
Stander (2003): I tend to be a sucker for movies that contain either a great heist or a great prison break. It's a real treat when I find a movie that contains both. "Stander" contains at least two prison breaks and more heists than I bothered to count. It's the story of a South African police officer who, disenchanted with his government's enforcement of apartheid, becomes a bank robber. Not only that, for a time he becomes the detective assigned to investigate his own crimes. That's not the best part, either. The best part: True story.
There are so many moments of bad-ass-ness in this movie that it's tempting to spoil them all by listing them here. That's certainly the easiest way to convince someone to see the film. You'll just hafta take my word for it, though, and find out for yourself.
On a side note, I'd like to say that the musical score for this film is outstanding and it frustrates me to no end that it was never released for sale. Yet another tragic side-effect of a movie that has gone unappreciated.
So, there you have it. I should close by saying that there are lists upon lists of movies that I have not only never seen, but never even heard of that probably deserve to be on this list as much as the ones I listed. I'm always looking for recommendations - the more obscure, the better. In any case, as this blog progresses, I intend to point out any great movie I see that probably most people have not whenever I come across them. Thank you for reading, now go out and rent some of these bad boys.