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)

?

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)

?

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.

Munger Road

October 2, 2011 by  
Filed under Movies

The horror genre has always been kind of a side joke it seems in the grand scheme of things as far as Hollywood is concerned. It is always interesting to me, though, that many actors get their start in horror films (Johnny Depp, Jennifer Aniston, Kevin Bacon to name a few). But probably 80% of them aren’t critically praised, and even blockbuster hits are seen as just “fun bad entertainment”.

These days, the horror genre is completely dominated by remakes to the point that it’s almost become its own sub-genre. With big franchises like “Friday the 13th”, “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, and “A Nightmare on Elm Street” already having been re-booted, Hollywood is even taking aim at the more independent films like “Fright Night” and “I Spit On Your Grave” lately. It’s completely gutted the genre, and turned it into just a mindless cash cow, with no creativity or imagination put into it. It’s almost as if the genre has given up on itself. As schlocky as the 80’s were, we at least had gems like “Creepshow”, “Return of the Living Dead”, and “The Thing”.

But here comes along a small budget film that doesn’t look low budget, has the atmosphere and tension of something along the lines of “Halloween”, and it’s so fresh and invigorating to see life put back in the genre that this review may actually come off as a promo for it rather than a review. I will try to be fair, though. But “Munger Road” is the most effective horror thriller I’ve seen in years, and it actually gave me hope that if it finds major distribution, it could give the horror genre some leverage to be relevant again.

I thought “The Blair Witch Project” would have done the same 11 years ago; all it did, though, was spawn a lot of headaches like “Quarantine” and other wanna-be’s. “Munger Road” takes the more traditional approach.

It’s a ghost story. Actually, it’s a ghost legend story. It takes place in the western suburbs of Chicago, in St. Charles (a town I know quite well since I used to live around there). The legend is simple: there’s a road in Bartlett, Illinois called Munger Road that runs along train tracks. According to legend, a school bus stopped on the tracks and was hit by a train, killing the children. To this day, they “haunt” the area. So if you drive up to that road, and park your car, the children will push your car over the tracks so you’re safe. There are stories of a ghost train as well. There’s also a story of an old farmhouse where someone was murdered. But that one’s disputed. The popular theory is the latter, with the ghost children.

Of course, one of the best things about history is folklore. We can’t help but be drawn to stories like this. We want to believe them. For four kids, it’s their goal to get “evidence” of the ghost children pushing their car along the tracks. So they get a handcam, and baby powder, and their girlfriends, to go along and see if the Munger Road legend is real.

The kids are Corey (Trevor Morgan), his girlfriend Joe (Brooke Peoples), his buddy Scott (Hallock Beals), and Scott’s girlfriend Rachel (Lauren Storm). The girlfriends are obviously not into it, thinking this is just some dumb boy thing. But the boys are convinced this will be a good time. There’s a bit of a complication in Corey and Joe’s relationship that is never truly paid off between them, but it serves as an interesting underlying subplot that does actually have a good pay off in the end.

Meanwhile, the town of St. Charles is preparing for Scarecrow Fest, a fall carnival that is celebrated every October–and there’s a problem (isn’t that always the way?). An escaped lunatic has come back home, according to reports. The Chief of St. Charles Police, Kirkhoven (Bruce Davison) has to track the killer, or else the festivities could be upset. He takes his partner along with him, Deputy Hendricks (Randall Batinkoff), and the two discover a few clues that actually bring them close to where these kids are headed.

The film cuts back and forth between the cops and the kids, and first time writer/director Nick Smith does a good job of pacing the two stories, after a slow and somewhat clunky start, where eventually we’re just as invested in these officers getting their man as we are seeing these kids get out of their situation.

Oh, the situation is this: when they get to Munger Road, the two guys set up to make it look like kids handprints are on the car after it is mysteriously pushed forward over the tracks. The girls are upset when they figure it out, and just want to go home. But there’s a problem. The car won’t start. Didn’t see that one coming! But instead of this being an eye rolling cliche, we are invested enough in these kids thanks to good writing, that we really want them to get out of the situation. Munger Road is in the middle of nowhere, and their cell phones won’t work (of course!) so one of them has the idea that heading down the tracks back to town is a good one. Problems arise when he isn’t heard from after he leaves the car, and his girlfriend, Joe, tries to track him down.

One revelation that has one of the kids legitimately scared–they did capture something on the video recorder they didn’t expect. When they were trying to start their car, there’s the presence of someone behind them. Could it be the killer? That’s the obvious conclusion. But Smith does something interest with a bit of a twist at the end that we’re not really expecting. Let’s put it this way: it just isn’t as simple as the escaped killer; but it also may not be as simple that the legend is true.

The climactic scenes are very effective, even if there is a bit of a lull where there may be an expectation of a big reveal or “final fight” or something. It is a bit of a weakness, but I really did like the last scene. And although our expectations may be a little high by the time the film ends, I think Smith has enough command of the narrative that he did this on purpose.

There were a few “quiet” scenes between the kids that I would have liked to see a little more opening up about who they are; but there is so much tension in the air during their little adventure that I can forgive that Smith decided to forego a deeper look into the characters. We know enough to care.

I mentioned “Halloween” as a comparison. I do not mean to say that this film is in the same league, because that film is a classic and this film is just a bit too “familiar” to be considered on that level. That isn’t a slight to the movie, though. “Halloween” is one of the best horror films ever made. But Nick Smith has made a real contribution to the genre with “Munger Road”. And Smith uses atmosphere and tension instead of blood and gore, the way Carpenter did. And like Carpenter, Smith is always in control of this story. It may be something we’ve seen before, but it’s well executed, well written, and extremely well acted. The actors are very natural, and it reminded me of the performances in “The Blair Witch Project” (and the good news for them is that they don’t have to worry about their careers since this film isn’t built on the “found footage” gimmick). The character of Joe is the glue for the kids as much as the chief is the glue for the cop story, and both actors are very capable and so it’s all held together very well.

If you’re looking for a good “scare” movie, see this one–and take a date. It’s definitely better than what Hollywood’s been shelling out lately.

And if you’re going to go to Munger Road, just keep in mind–we all know about it. Including the cops. So be careful. And if someone starts pushing your car, just turn your car on and drive on. Do not stop. And definitely don’t check out the farmhouse, if you happen to find it.

My rating: :-)