My Top 10 “Under the Radar” Films of the Past 10 Years

November 13, 2011 by  
Filed under Blog, Entertainment, Home Video

 I’m all about the past ten years all of the sudden. I’m also all about lists. I love top 10’s, can you tell? Anyway, here’s a list of 10 movies that I thought haven’t gotten enough love and I want to point them out and maybe generate some renewed interest. They may not be the greatest films ever but I enjoyed them for what they were and thought they undeservedly went through the box office with nothing more than a whisper.

  Note: I understand some of these films made it to Critics’ top 10 lists for their respective year. But who listens to critics anymore, amirite?

My Top 10 “Under the Radar” Films of the Past 10 Years

#10: Brick (2005)

 Written & directed by: Rian Johnson

The immediate allure of “Brick” is the dialog. It is a modern film but the dialog is purposely archaic; a throw back to the 20’s and 30’s, with that “hard boiled” detective film noir flavor to it. The reason the idea is fun for this film is that it revolves around teenagers. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Brendan, whose ex-girlfriend has been murdered and he wants to basically solve the case himself. The way the film unfolds is definitely reminiscent of old detective novels, where Johnson said he got his inspiration. The interesting thing is that when you strip away the novelty of the dialog and noir aspects, you still get a pretty well made and intriguing film. Credit the acting of Gordon-Levitt especially because he brings such sincerity to his role that it’s instantly credible. And that’s this film needed badly: the actors had to pull off the dialog. Otherwise it just looks silly. Well, they definitely do and I recommend finding this film and giving it a look.

#9: Ghost World (2001)

Written by Terry Zwigoff and Daniel Clowes / Directed by: Terry Zwigoff 

Daniel Clowes’ “Ghost World” is a graphic novel about a pathetic youth named Edin who, along with her friend Rebecca, derides pretty much everyone and everything, until they grow too close to each other, and then fall apart eventually. The film adaptation is pretty close to the intentions of the graphic novel thanks to the fine directing of Terry Zwigoff (“Crumb”, “After School Confidential”) and the screenplay by Zwigoff and the author of the graphic novel, Clowes. Enid is played by Thora Birch and Rebecca by a very young Scarlett Johansson. Both are very good in their roles as they make fun of the world around them; and then Enid begins to develop a genuine interest in someone she had previously pranked, a loner named Seymour (Steve Buscemi). The film is a great character study of a total hypocrite, much in the same vein of “Catcher in the Rye”. It’s a quiet film, and the eerie ending is left to your interpretation (although I think it’s pretty obvious what it ultimately means). This was pretty critically acclaimed at the time, but you rarely hear about it anymore. Still worth checking out if you happen to run across it.

  #8: “O” (2001)

Written by: Brad Kaaya / Directed by: Tim Blake Nelson

I’m cheating just a tad with this one since it was technically made in 1999, and the release was held up due to the Columbine massacre in April. It was released in 2001, which still allows me to use it in this list, I think. This film is an updated adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “Othello”, and in my mind, it’s one of the best modern adaptations of his work. It stars Mekhi Phifer as Odin, a high school basketball star who has everything going for him. Josh Hartnett, in one of his best performances, as Hugo (the Iago character in the play), is jealous of Odin’s talents, and is one of his teammates. He wishes he had Odin’s ability but knows he’ll never be as good as him. So instead of trying to better himself, he intends to ruin Odin’s life. Odin’s love interest is Desi (Julia Stiles) and Hugo creates a plan to make her an ultimate victim, while making Odin responsible for everything. The film’s tone is chillingly quiet and that lends more to its power. Hartnett is so convincing as the self-loathing Hugo, and with its violent climax and ending it’s no wonder why it was shelved after Columbine. But I’m very grateful it was eventually released, because it does such a good job of bringing new life into a play that’s hundreds of years old. While it’s great to see “Othello”, especially when done well; but to be able to relate to it in a modern atmosphere makes it all the more relevant and worthwhile. Credit director Tim Blake Nelson (also an actor, who played Delmar in “O Brother Where Art Thou?”) and screenwriter Brad Kaaya for setting this in a contemporary America where things like this can, and do, still happen. And watching it all unfold is just as shocking as it probably was when it was first performed centuries ago.

#7: The Rules of Attraction (2002)

Written & directed by: Roger Avary

After the success of “American Psycho”, I guess it was fitting to go after another Bateman from Bret Easton Ellis’s satiric library of macabre 80’s novels. This time it’s “The Rules of Attraction”, whose main character (I use that term very loosely) is Sean Bateman (played effectively by James van der Beek). It takes place at a fictional college where very real college things happen. The film’s disjointed narrative parrots the novel in an adaptation that even Ellis said was the “best” that he’s seen. While I still think “American Psycho” is a superior film, just based primarily on the fact that it does have one direct narrative, this film is also entertaining for all its bleakness and ice cold attack on disenchanted and disinterested youth. Unlike “Psycho”, this doesn’t necessarily take place in the 80’s. Instead, the time period is relatively ambiguous but it’s pretty much assumed to take place in the now. I never felt this film got that much praise and it’s a shame because on the whole, it’s quite an experience. It has some very intense scenes (the suicide scene comes immediately to mind, especially with the use of Harry Nilsson’s “Without You”) and it has some very funny scenes (Kip Pardue’s amazingly hysterical and very cynical “European trip” sequence as Victor). I also want to point out my favorite performance and character in the film: Richard “Dick” Jared played by Russell Sams. He only has a brief appearance but it is absolutely hilarious. The film isn’t as easily accessible as “American Psycho” and it lacks the disarming faux-charm of Patrick Bateman; but it does have a lot of scenes that tie a nice chaotic and extremely dark experience together. It may leave you feeling a bit empty; but what else can you expect from Bret Easton Ellis?

#6: Sunshine (2007)

Written by: Alex Garland / Directed by: Danny Boyle

I was an Alex Garland fan after finishing his debut novel, “The Beach” which was adapted by Danny Boyle (I wasn’t a fan of the film at all). His writing ability as a novelist was obviously keen; but I was more impressed once he delved into screenwriting, with his first effort being “28 Days Later” (also directed by Danny Boyle). I don’t know the history of why Boyle and Garland work together, but every time they have, it’s been a great result. Maybe after what Garland saw Boyle do to “The Beach” (the screenplay was written by John Hodge), he decided he would set Boyle straight and show that his talents deserve better treatment. Whatever the reason, it’s paid off, and “Sunshine” is another fine example of this tandem’s efforts. It stars Cillian Murphy as an astronaut whose mission, along with his team, is to ignite the sun which has dwindled, and give it new life for earth. If they fail, it could mean the end of civilization. The premise is an interesting one, albeit it highly unlikely and not instantly credible. I mean, with the “payload” they have, I still don’t think it would do much to help the sun reach its potential to save mankind. But in any event, the execution of the premise is nicely done. The characters aren’t all interesting; but once things start to go wrong with the mission, it gets very interesting. Drawing obviously from movies like “Alien” and “2001”, “Sunshine” touches on a great question of “Can man play God?” They run into an unfortunate villain who seems to answer “No” to that question and there the film somewhat devolves into a slasher flick. But before all of that, I really like how the film works and there’s one scene involving an astronaut that finds out what happens when you “freeze” in space. It’s quite startling but fascinating. It’s certainly not as potent and timeless as “28 Days Later”, but “Sunshine” is definitely a fine film, I think it’s better than some of Danny Boyle’s other films. Definitely more interesting.

#5: I Heart Huckabees (2004)

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Written & directed by: David O. Russell

David O. Russell is probably one of the most inventive and interesting filmmakers out there. Unfortunately, he’s also one of the meanest, and hardest to work with. Almost every film he does seems to have some kind of story attached about cast members being mistreated (most famously, George Clooney on the set of “Three Kings”; look it up). He’s definitely wears the “delicate genius” badge of honor proudly. But when you see the result, I don’t know how you can complain as simply as audience member. Don’t worry; I’m thinking it’s pretty safe that you’ll never have to work with him. This film is actually probably my favorite of his films, but I’ve enjoyed all of them. I like it mainly because it’s not only a philosophical film–it’s also a satire of philosophy. It’s all about existentialism. When I first saw it, I thought it was just pretentious and purposely over the top. Then I watched it again, and got the joke. It’s making fun of existentialism, as much as it is corporate culture and everything always getting caught up in consumerism. Tommy Corn is easily my favorite character. He’s played joyfully by Mark Wahlberg, which I always point to as a reference whenever someone criticizes him as a “bland actor”. This and Dirk Diggler, to me, prove Wahlberg’s ability. He’s very entertaining and energetic as the main character, Albert’s (played by Jason Schwartzman) Other as it’s called. Here’s a quick synopsis: an Other, in continental philosophy, is the opposite of the Same, which is your identity. I think it’s actually self-explanatory, right? So let’s move on. Anyway, the film’s got a lot of philosophical humor that if you’re into philosophy, you will laugh extensively. But I think the vernacular would even tickle the funnybone of someone who is aloof to philosophy or even downright dislikes it. It’s a bit hard to follow at first, and sometimes it does try to go over your head–but it’s a romp at its root, and it works very well. It’s not something you just pop in and enjoy; but I’d recommend a viewing, especially if you want to learn a little about philosophy. But especially if you don’t. Try and figure that out!

#4: Igby Goes Down (2002)

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Written & directed by: Burr Steers

Kieran Culkin may never go down in history as the most successful or even most recognizable Culkin–and I’m not sure that it matters all that much. But he wins my heart with his brilliant performance as Igby Slocum, the modern incarnate of Holden Caulfield. While “Ghost World” can serve as maybe the female “Catcher in the Rye”, this is almost its doppelganger. But it does have its uniqueness. Igby is a rich brat whose mother Mimi (played very well by Susan Sarandon) is dying. He hates his mother for an assortment of reasons–but it seems the biggest is because of how she treated his father, Jason (Bill Pullman), who was committed to a mental institution after a nervous breakdown that Igby witnesses as a child. After seeing this harrowing experience, Igby thinks he has some kind of connection to his father. Like he understands what he went through, and that he wants to break from the family because his overbearing mother is the downfall of not only his father, but he himself. He hates his brother, Ollie (Ryan Phillippe, in his usual snobby role), who is a perfect example of what Mimi wants in a son. Igby is the opposite. But he’s always bailed out by her, or D.H., his godfather. Igby is rebellious, but he’s a hypocrite because he is only rebellious in spirit. In action, he takes every bail out he’s handed. He preaches about how empty and hollow the lifestyle of rich people is, but he himself is just as hollow and his escapes never go beyond the reach of his rich mother. The other thing that Igby can’t seem to face is the reality of his heritage. That’s only revealed in the end, but it explains everything. Igby tries to be a tortured soul; but he has no reason to torture himself. He has no real connection with his father. He also doesn’t understand that his whole life, it’s been his mother’s lifestyle that he’s reveled in. So in the end, he’s his own worst enemy; not the whole world. And the worst part is, even if he escapes the world of his mother, he’ll never escape who he is, no matter how far he tries to go. But don’t think this is an overbearing, pretentious re-work of “Catcher”. It has a lot of laughs, and isn’t as dark as it possibly could have been.

#3: Observe and Report (2009)

Written & directed by: Jody Hill

I have a review of this film on this site. I liked it when it came out, and I always felt it got jobbed by being released on the same weekend as “Paul Blart” with Kevin James. This is not a mall cop comedy movie. This is an extremely dark and cynical comedy about the lives of the depraved and self-indulgent. It follows the character of Ronnie Barnhardt (played by Seth Rogen, in his best film role to date), who is indeed a mall cop. But he thinks he’s more than that. He’s ultimately arrogant and has no self awareness at all. He runs a tight ship at the local mall–but there’s a problem. A flasher has been popping up perverting the parking lot, and Ronnie wants to solve the case himself. Of course, actual law enforcement gets involved, including a detective named Harrison (Ray Liotta), who hates Ronnie. Ronnie wants to catch the pervert not only for his own personal glory, but he also seems to be obsessed with impressing Brandi (Anna Faris), the cosmetics girl at a department store that is just as vacant as you could expect a cosmetics girl at a department store to be. He wants to “protect” her and the mall; but his tactics are laughed off by Harrison and Ronnie tries to become a real police officer to prove that he is more than just mall security. He fails the test, not physically, but he is bi-polar and is “off his medication” only because he’s “generally being a badass” and living a good life. Ronnie is not a necessarily likable person; but Rogen’s performance is pitch perfect and he hits the right notes at all the right times. Sometimes moody, sometimes out of line, sometimes inappropriate and vulgar, and even criminal himself…and then at some points, even sweet. The performance that stood out to me, as I indicated in my review, was by Collette Wolfe who plays Nell, a register jockey at a donut/coffee joint in the mall food court. She has a scene that just throws a monkey wrench in the film’s otherwise droll tone. This film is very dark, and not as accessible as a typical Seth Rogen vehicle. It also has some clunkiness, and some of the characters don’t really work for me (like Ronnie’s alcoholic mother); but overall, I think it’s great for that dark heart inside you. You know you want to laugh. And you will. Maybe you’ll feel bad. Good. That’s what it’s all about sometimes.

#2: Moon (2009)

Written by: Duncan Jones and Nathan Parker / Directed by: Duncan Jones

It’s very hard to pull of a feature length film that revolves one character. It doesn’t happen often, but examples to me are “Cast Away” with Tom Hanks and “I Am Legend” with Will Smith (although that film is pretty weak otherwise). But sometimes actors can just carry a film, literally. Well, let me introduce you to Sam Rockwell, because a lot of people don’t seem to know who he is; but he’s definitely recognizable. Guy Fleegman in “Galaxy Quest”; Zaphod Beeblebrox in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”; and most notably, Chuck Barris, in “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind”. He absolutely commands in this film, which is about a lone astronaut on a mysterious mission on the moon in which he oversees an automated “harvesting” of helium-3 from regolith on the moon’s surface. Something happens to him while he’s exploring one of the harvesters. What happens soon after basically changes the course of the film’s narrative, which I won’t give away–let’s just say, Rockwell has quite a range. And because of his amazing performance (unfairly overlooked by the Academy that year), this film works better than it actually probably should. It’s really a rather simple story. Almost more fitting for a Twilight Zone episode. But his sincerity brings so much more to the story. The film itself is a good one, I should say, even if it is simple. It is very touching, very sad in some ways, but incredibly gripping, especially when you figure out what’s going on. It’s a movie that I don’t even think the filmmakers remember coming out…I don’t remember anyone talking about it. But it’s a certainly a hidden gem.

So now you must be thinking…well Zack, what could be better than “Moon”, right? Well, this one was a hard choice because the ranking of this list makes it seem like some of the films are lesser than the others. Really, I just had to figure out a way to present them and…this is what I came up with.

So here’s number one…and I must say, this isn’t a highly rewatchable film by any means. But it’s worth seeing for sure.

#1: Zodiac (2007)

Written by: James Vanderbilt / Directed by: David Fincher

The Zodiac Killer is possibly one of the most intriguing serial killers of all time. I don’t know how much of a ringing endorsement that is for someone that is only famous for murdering people…but the reason why he’s so interesting is that because of his elusiveness, he’s never actually been captured. Don’t worry, if he were still alive, he’d be in his 70’s at least. How dangerous could he be now? But in the late 60’s/early 70’s, the Zodiac Killer captured the imaginations of millions of Americans, especially on the West Coast where he prowled. David Fincher’s film, which wasn’t a huge box office success, is, in my mind, the best film that’s about catching a killer. Now, no, of course, they don’t catch him. That’s not the point. The journey here is in the absolutely exhausting police work. Fincher dabbled in this with “Se7en”; but with that, we had a conclusion. Here, detectives Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards), have to team up with other detectives and spend countless hours pursuing dead leads and red herrings because the Zodiac loves taunting the police, and is so hard to figure out, he remains enigmatic. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Robert Graysmith, who wrote the exemplary book “Zodiac” in 1986 (also was the basis of the screenplay), a cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle, where the Zodiac letters are addressed to. Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.) is a writer for the paper, as a crime reporter. Avery and the rest of the staff at the Chronicle don’t pay much mind to Graysmith; but Graysmith is obsessed with the encrypted nature of the letters, and is able to eventually crack the code of one of them. This gives him credibility to Avery, who somewhat befriends him. Throughout the film, every character is more engulfed into the story, and catching the killer almost becomes more of the story than the killer’s serial murders. And that’s actually what interested me most about the film, which itself is exhausting, clocking in at 157 minutes (162 director’s cut). There are some very creepy moments in the film. One of my favorite ones involves a scene with a suspect named Bob Vaughn, played well by Charles Fleischer. What struck me was not only the odd casting of someone like Fleischer (known mostly as a voice actor, predominately as Roger Rabbit), but also how uncomfortable he is. He’s so awkward and strange, you start to really wonder if he is the killer. Graysmith’s obsession with the case also has its cost on his life–he loses his job and his wife leaves him. But when you see what everyone goes through to find this killer, you realize just how intense police work can be–and when it’s all for naught, what can be extracted from that? Was it all a waste of time? What was actually accomplished? These questions are explored and not necessarily answered by Fincher. But that’s what’s appealing about the film. It’s not about the answers. In some ways it’s just as mind bending as the killer himself. And that’s what makes it such a great film.

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus

January 29, 2010 by  
Filed under Featured Content, Movies

I’m not always sure how to review a Terry Gilliam film. These days, I think it’s safe to say it’s an achievement for him to even get one made anymore. After projects coming together, then falling apart (“The Man Who Killed Don Quixote”, “Good Omens”), and with this one even being in question after the main star had died during production (do I even have to say his name?), the fact that this film is FINISHED can be given a thumb’s up, no? But this is the film critiquing business and I still have a job to do. Even though I’m not paid for it and nobody really reads these anyway. I still believe in myself. So there.

I’d have to start off by saying if you enjoy Gilliam’s earlier works, you will most likely enjoy this. If you’re not a fan, this won’t make you one. It keeps within the visual styles and narrative themes that he and his co-writer Charles McKeown have been making for decades now. In this film, the theme is self-indulgence and selfishness, and it’s presented in a typical, Gilliam way.

The “Imaginarium” is a world beyond a mirror that you can be taken to for a donation, as a traveling “circus” like stage moves about towns, seeking customers. Anton (played by Andrew Garfield) is the attractor. Valentina (Lily Cole) is the beautiful temptress to lure the men. Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) merely sits on the stage in a zen-like way, waiting for those who want to come into his world.

It looks like a cheap parlor trick, but inside the Imaginarium is literally a fantasy world. In it, your wildest dreams come true. But there is a price. Actually, there is a choice. The devil, known as Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), is waiting in the Imaginarium to seduce you as well. As the plot continues you learn that the two of them are battling for souls, as part of a bet that Parnassus made with him long ago.

But Parnassus is not made out to be God, or god-like. He’s a simple man with simple pleasures and simple desires–and he’s an alcoholic. He is accompanied by a dwarf named Percy (Verne Troyer) who tries to keep him in line (“What would I do without you, Percy?” “Get a midget.”) but Parnassus is consumed with himself. He made a deal with the devil that if he doesn’t win, he loses his daughter to him. His daughter, nor Anton, know about this and Anton is in love with her.

The plot thickens when they encounter a hanging man that they bring back to life, who’s revealed as Tony (Heath Ledger, among others). They’re not sure where he’s come from but he bears strange markings on his head, and he’s dressed in a suit. Tony, meanwhile, cannot remember anything, not even his name. Parnassus gets a few tidbits from Mr. Nick (though they’re “enemies”, the two have a relationship) and Parnassus convinces Tony who he is and what he was doing (he was hosting a charity event). But Mr. Nick swears that Tony is “not his”, nor sent by him. Tony feels obligated to pay Parnassus back, so he joins their traveling show and woos women into coming into the mirror. This allows Parnassus to possibly win the bet and get his daughter back. He needs 5 souls.

But problems arise once Tony is sucked into the world himself. He transforms, becomes other manifestations of himself. He grows increasingly selfish about it, and is revealed to be somewhat of a bad person. It is in this world that brings other performances by Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell into the film, as Tony. Each one delivered is a good one, and in some way resemble Ledger’s Tony. This is what saved the film. It would not have been finished without this happening. However, it makes perfect sense in the narrative for it to happen regardless. In fact it strengthens the theme because of how much Tony “changes”.

While I enjoyed the theme and the look of the film, it was actually the performances that I found the strongest element of it. Andrew Garfield is perfect as Anton; Waits is a pure delight to watch, and Ledger & Co. are all entertaining, especially Jude Law.

The film bears striking resemblances to earlier Gilliam works as well. I’m not sure if I’d call it a weakness, but it certainly doesn’t possess the uniqueness that some of his older work has. For instance, the “street” scenes with Parnassus are straight out of “The Fisher King” and “12 Monkeys”. The character of Tony is extremely reminiscent of Brad Pitt’s Jeffrey Goines. Parnassus himself reminds me of Baron Munchausen. Some of the disjointed and disorganized dialog and presentations in the Imaginarium are straight out of “Brazil”.

All of that being said, however, the film is fun to watch and I enjoyed it thoroughly. Its climax and ending are very satisfactory, and I left with a smile on my face.

I’m sure this is not the last film we see from Gilliam. But I hope his next venture isn’t as much of a hassle. I won’t hold my breath, though.

My rating: :-)

Sherlock Holmes

December 29, 2009 by  
Filed under Featured Content, Movies

In some ways this film felt more like a summer action flick than a brooding winter film. Somehow, a film involving a shrewd and careful detective like Sherlock Holmes doesn’t seem like it would involve a lot of action or fighting. But in Guy Ritchie’s world, Holmes doesn’t just have to beat you up mentally–he has to beat the living daylights out of you physically, too. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing.

This film snaps, crackles and pops from the very getgo. It starts in a rather brooding way, as Holmes is introduced as somewhat of a brute more than an intellectual. It’s Watson that’s more down to earth and calm. Their chemistry works well, although as usual Downey, Jr. steals the show.

The plot revolves around a mysterious and dangerous man named Blackwood who apparently has supernatural powers (and gives off the feel of Voldemort from “Harry Potter”), and “rises from the dead” after being hanged for murder. Also revealed is a larger plot involving an underground occult society that has big plans for England, and the world, as far as a takeover. For the most part, I wasn’t sure how this would work out since Holmes stories don’t usually involve the supernatural. But the pay offs, while predictable, make sense–and Holmes will always get to the bottom of it.

There are some things that didn’t seem to work. Rachel McAdams plays an ancillary character who is a criminal, but is a love interest for Holmes. For some reason, this chemistry never seemed to mesh. I like McAdams and I think she has been very good in some of her roles. But this just seemed a bit forced, and thrown in because the studio wanted a romantic sub-plot. Also, some of the ways Holmes figures things out can be a bit contrived as well. You don’t get to follow his logic, he is always three steps ahead of you. While that works for most of the film, it’d be nice for the audience to be in on it a little bit and be able to figure out how some of these things unfolded rather than Holmes just automatically telling you. I’ve never been a big fan of the “Let me explain to you the entire plot, Mr. Bond” thing.

But this film is very enjoyable from start to finish, and it certainly delivers where it should. Guy Ritchie may have too much a fondness for grungy characters and violence, but he sure knows how to shoot it and make it look good.

My rating: :-)