Monday, December 27, 2010

2010 in Review: Good Movies You Missed.

Let us continue our look back at the year in film with a token acknowledgement of eleven good if-not great films that flew by the radar without much acknowledgment from audiences and/or the critical community. For the record, not all of the films below are great pictures, but they are all worth a look and deserve a bigger audience than they received. The following are in alphabetical order.

Agora
This expensive and lavish period piece came and went without a peep, but it remains a thoughtful and socially relevant piece of history. Rachel Weisz gives a solid star turn as Hypatia of Alexandria. As a rare educated female who holds esteem over many of her male colleagues, Hypatia's gender is refreshingly irrelevant, until it's all that matters. The film concerns the rise of Christianity in Roman Egypt, and it deals rather objectively with the dangers of fanaticism and extremism in all faiths. It eerily draws parallels to modern day religious fundamentalism while acknowledging that the East and the West have a nasty habit of inciting those who would lash out in retribution. It's a piece of forgotten history and a darn good movie to boot. R-rating aside, this would be just the kind of film to be shown in classrooms, be it for would-be historians (better to pick out whatever factual inaccuracies that I didn't notice) or future mathematicians.

Chloe
Most of what little attention this Atom Egoyan picture garnered concerned the moments of sexual intimacy between Juliane Moore and Amanda Seyfried. What was missed in the gossip pages was a sharp, thoughtful, and surprisingly fun little erotic thriller that deals with how our own imaginations can be our own worst enemy when it comes to keeping a family together. The ending is a bit pulpy, but Moore, Seyfried, and Liam Neeson shine in this under-seen gem. It's yet another film (like Solitary Man and The Kids are All Right) that would have been a mainstream release just a few years ago but now ended up stranded in arthouse theaters.

Daybreakers
While most vampire pictures serve as a metaphor for rape or 'immoral' consensual sex, this Spierig Brothers picture used the vampires' thirst for blood as a not-so-subtle metaphor for our addiction to energy and/or fossil fuel. The film is no vampire classic, but it's a rock-solid B-movie with a fine cast (Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe, Sam Neil) and an emphasis on character and storytelling over sensationalized blood-and-guts. You get your violence, and the ending has a bit of gratuitous action, but the film has something worth saying, it says it well, and it tells its thoughtful story with style to spare.

Devil
M. Night Shyamalan has so fallen from grace that his name above the title now may be more of a obstacle than a help. But this creepy and compelling little horror film is just what he should be doing with his time. The story is pure Shyamalan: several morally flawed people stuck in an elevator as they start being bumped off one-by-one. But he let Brian Nelson (Hard Candy) write the screenplay and the Dowdle brothers (Quarantine) direct the picture. The result is a genuinely engaging and deliciously old-fashioned spook story, the kind of story that was found halfway through one of those Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark collections you used to read at Halloween. It's not art, but it's popcorn-flying fun.

Four Lions
This surprisingly thoughtful and compelling little black comedy concerns four would-be terrorists in their attempt to set off explosives in downtown London. The subject matter is obviously a bit disconcerting in this day and age, but director Christopher Morris carefully balances the desire to expose the buffoonery of most modern-day terrorists and the need to keep his lead characters somewhat recognizable on a human level. The movie doesn't shy away from the consequences of such a pursuit, but it remains oddly comforting in confirming that the terrorists we fear are not comic book super villains, but foolish human beings prone to error and vulnerable to circumstance.

Frozen
This one was in theaters for ten minutes, but it's one of the best horror films of the year. The picture concerns three young friends who find themselves stuck on a ski lift in the middle of the night, with no means of rescue for several days and seemingly no safe escape. What would you do? This is a classic example of plausible horror. It's a genuinely nerve-wracking little movie and well worth a rental.

Mystery Team
This direct-to-DVD comedy has a knockout idea at its core: what if Encyclopedia Brown never matured past adolescence and kept trying to solve neighborhood mysteries well into his teens? Donald Glover (MVP of Community, currently the best show on television) leads a trio of high school graduates who are stuck in their boyhood adventure years, still running around the block trying to find out who stole Ms. Maple's apple pie. But their skills are put to the test when they are asked to solve a most horrifying crime with broader implications. The film runs out of steam before the credits roll, but it remains a genuinely laugh-out-loud gem that deserved a theatrical release.

The Oxford Murders
I could easily sit and listen to John Hurt reading the phone book. Which is basically what you get with this Magnolia release. Sure, there is a fun murder mystery at its core, and Elijah Wood provides solid support as an overeager Oxford grad student who gets caught up in a serious of homicides that involve his educational mentor. But the real appeal of this genuinely fun little movie is listening to Mr. Hurt pontificate about the nature of mathematics, the science of human reason, and the flaws of believing in absolute fact. The movie isn't quite as intelligent as it thinks it is, but good god is it swell to have one of the greatest voices in cinema joyfully lecturing at us for 100 minutes.

The Square
This direct-to-DVD thriller is one of the finest pieces of pure film noir I've seen in quite some time. It's no reinvention of the wheel, but this Australian thriller is a dynamite example of genre filmmaking done just right. The plot is simple: a married man plots to steal money from his mistress's husband. And the plan goes off without a hitch, no one gets hurt, and everyone lives happily ever after. Oh no, wait... the exact opposite of that. I won't spoil what transpires, but this is bloody good fun and a picture that deserved a wider audience. Come what may, I fully expect this little pot-boiler to be remade in the next five years.

Splice
We all complain about the lack of truly unique and original films in our mainstream entertainment, but then we ignore and/or ridicule a beauty like this. The film is deceptively simple: two romantically-linked scientists create life from a test tube and then find themselves playing mom and dad to the difficult-to-manage and unpredictable creature. With a lesser cast and a weaker script, this might have ended up as a Saturday night SyFy original movie. But Sarah Polley and Adrian Brody bring class to the proceedings, and the film works as a metaphor for raising a special-needs child as well as a disturbing fable of science-gone amok. It also earns big bonus points for having, hands-down, the funniest scene in any theatrical movie this year.

Waking Sleeping Beauty
This wonderful documentary chronicles the Disney animation divisions from 1984 to 1994, when Jeffrey Katzenberg, Michael Eisner, and Roy Disney brought Disney animation back to their former glory. The copious behind-the-scenes footage is astonishing (among other things, we get a young Tim Burton animating bits of The Black Cauldron), and the level of candor from this Disney-sanctioned project is surprising. This is a warts-and-all look at the people who took Disney back to the top and how their own fragile egos almost wrecked it all over again. I would love to see two more of these, chronicling the rise of Pixar and the death of Disney 2D (1994-2004), along with how Disney and Pixar faced the brutal challenges to the throne from Dreamworks and the like (2004-2014).

And that's it for this year. Of course, there are plenty of allegedly good films that I missed this year, so feel free to add your own unfairly-ignored gems for 2010. We'll be back with a few extras, and then the best/worst of 2010.

Scott Mendelson

11 comments:

Byron the afro-filmviewer said...

Saw Five of these films. Daybreakers had an uneven tone and was pretty bland take away the visuals.

Four Lions is one my faves of the year. But then I'm a massive Chris Morris fan.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Bq_dkPkQUU

faithljustice said...

I saw Agora when it first came out in NYC and loved Weisz' performance as Hypatia. I thought the film was beautifully shot, a bit uneven, but a wonderful exploration of modern themes in a historical context. However, this is a fictionalized version of Hypatia's life. Many folks forget that this is the artist's way of making a point and believe it's all true. For more about the historical Hypatia, I recommend a very readable biography Hypatia of Alexandria by Maria Dzielska (Harvard University Press, 1995). I also have a series of posts on the historical events and characters in the film at my blog - not a movie review, just a "reel vs. real" discussion.

Anonymous said...

Between your uber-creepy by-line photos, your unwarranted more-hip-than-thou attitude, the stale format of your pieces and the complete absence of an argument, theory or original perspective in any of these tidbits, I find myself appalled by your writing even when i agree with you about the film in question. Please...Scott, continue to state your bitter, sniveling opinions as if they are inarguable facts because you are too lazy to come up with a year end concept that isn't tired, dull and insulting. Yes, Please, another article about movies, we the willfully ignorant have criminally overlooked, or even better, 10 films we, the readers thought we liked, but it turns out we shouldn't because they actually sucked. Thank you for saving us from ourselves, you holy warrior you.

Scott Mendelson said...

faithlijustice -

Fair enough (I take most historical movies with a big grain of salt anyway), but the DVD actually has well over an hour of meaty historical documentaries dealing with 'the real story'. If you can point me towards the 'real vs. reel' blog post for this movie, I shall link to it when this essay goes on Huff Post and the like.

Anonymous -

Well, since you said please, I suppose I shall.

Tom Clift said...

Of the four I've seen, I loved three and didn't mind one. Agora, Mystery Team and Four Lions especially (which is one of my favourites of the year) were all terrific. Splice was a bit inconsistent, but still a ballsy piece of sci-fi.

Funniest scene of the year?

Scott Mendelson said...

Tom -

The presentation to the stockholders that occurs halfway through the film. Funniest scene of its kind since the opening of Robocop. My wife and I both embarrassed ourselves in the theater.

Dan in KC said...

Scott, I normally read your reviews on Huffington Post,even though I am a little right of center politically. I very much enjoy your posts, although I'm not sure I agree with them even half the time. I like your reasonable approach ("Hey, it's just an opinion") and calm, even demeanor in the face of unfair criticism, like Anonymous here. Keep up the good work, and you've got a fan....

Diane said...

Thank you for this - I rarely go to movies anymore and I would probably pass up most of these based on their trailers. I think I saw one trailer for Agora and was interested (but missed it during its' theatrical run), so thank you for reminding me!

Dan in KC said...

Scott, I normally read your reviews on Huffington Post,even though I am a little right of center politically. I very much enjoy your posts, although I'm not sure I agree with them even half the time. I like your reasonable approach ("Hey, it's just an opinion") and calm, even demeanor in the face of unfair criticism, like Anonymous here. Keep up the good work, and you've got a fan....

Tom Clift said...

Of the four I've seen, I loved three and didn't mind one. Agora, Mystery Team and Four Lions especially (which is one of my favourites of the year) were all terrific. Splice was a bit inconsistent, but still a ballsy piece of sci-fi.

Funniest scene of the year?

Anonymous said...

Between your uber-creepy by-line photos, your unwarranted more-hip-than-thou attitude, the stale format of your pieces and the complete absence of an argument, theory or original perspective in any of these tidbits, I find myself appalled by your writing even when i agree with you about the film in question. Please...Scott, continue to state your bitter, sniveling opinions as if they are inarguable facts because you are too lazy to come up with a year end concept that isn't tired, dull and insulting. Yes, Please, another article about movies, we the willfully ignorant have criminally overlooked, or even better, 10 films we, the readers thought we liked, but it turns out we shouldn't because they actually sucked. Thank you for saving us from ourselves, you holy warrior you.

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