Part of the role of the critic is underlining special films that undeservedly were swept under the rug. Actually, in all my years writing about film, this is really my most crucial function. A four-star blockbuster doesn’t need my help, nor does it make a dent if I scorn a two-star blockbuster movie seeped in formula. But the movies that got away, the ones underpromoted and dumped by the studio, or didn’t connect with audience hunger at the time — those are the ones that matter to write about. Of the twenty movies I write about from the first half of this decade, 15 of them I would give three and a half stars or higher. The other five, well, they’re three star movies but let’s just pretend they are three and a half stars since I found enough reason to talk about them. Alphabetically listed:
BIG EYES (2014, 105 Minutes, PG-13) was Tim Burton’s first good film in ten years, centered on the 1950’s art work of Margaret Keane (Amy Adams) and the conniving husband (Christoph Waltz) who stole author and sales credit. Her art prevails today, and it’s good-looking art. This is surprisingly stark material on a bullying relationship between one talented woman and a charismatic louse husband.
CELL 211 (2010, 110 Minutes, NR, Spanish with English subtitles) has a man report a day early to his new job as a guard and coincidentally finds himself assimilating with the rest of a block of prisoners following a prison riot. There are perhaps a couple far-fetched convolutions of plot, but overall, this is a pulsating thriller with ingenious extras choreography. The suspense of whether or not the guard’s life can be saved is palpable.
COHERENCE (2014, 89 Minutes, NR) has a few early pretentious moments, but it’s a pleasurable miniscule-low-budget gem. After neighborhood power goes out, a dinner party enters a Twilight Zone-inspired fifth dimension. They try to find other friendly neighbors, but what they find are mirrored versions of “themselves.” Clever and creepy.
COMPLIANCE (2012, 90 Minutes, R) is a mean little number based on middle America true events, a depiction of a prank phone caller pretending to be a police officer and the gullible bunch at a fast food chicken restaurant who listens to his orders. It’s an unforgettable look at the power of suggestion. Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker and Pat Healy are the key players.
THE CONGRESS (2013, 132 Minutes, Unrated) is too rambling to be a masterpiece, it drags in spots, but when it connects it is as ambitious a mind-bender as there has been in years. Robin Wright, playing a variation of herself the actress, sells the digital rights of herself to a movie studio and finds herself twenty years later corrupted, and astray, in an animated world. Most of the world’s disenfranchised population prefers to live as avatars in animation, and if you grimace hard enough, you see how this links to the themes of Hollywood art degraded, too. This picture, though, by writer/director Ari Folman, is nonetheless art just as much as Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil.”
DEALIN’ WITH IDIOTS (2013 Minutes, 88 Minutes, Unrated) is written and directed by the great comedian and cast member of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” Jeff Garlin, and the cynic can say it’s missing a certain kind of disciplined craft. But he really lets the camera roll while his loopy co-stars amble on in their genuine idiot behavior, and the results are hilarious. There are kids playing baseball, the parents, the umpire, and well, most of them are idiots. I was honestly touched by the ultimate fantasy scene. Another Garlin slice of life I enjoyed was his 2006 directorial debut, “I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With.”
FROZEN GROUND (2013, 105 Minutes, R) is one piece of evidence that proves Nicolas Cage is still a good actor, as an Alaska state trooper looking to trap serial killer Robert Hansen (John Cusack). When it comes to serial killer movies, there are “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Seven” at top tier, and then the rest – well, there’s just too many derivative titles. Yet I believe this is a good one, I was riveted.
HOME (2010, 93 Minutes, NR, Swiss with English subtitles) depicts a happy family that has lived off of an incomplete highway for years, only for public road construction to begin again and thus spoil their living space. Slowly, we come to see them as a dysfunctional family (Olivier Gourmet, Isabelle Huppert as the parents) whom have had long dormant fears and aversion to adaptation on a number of levels. Thoroughly compelling, psychologically absorbing, and nearly flawless.
JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI (2012, 81 Minutes, PG) is a swift foodie documentary on the world’s best sushi chef (hence, most comprehensive and meticulous in preparation), found in Tokyo, Japan. Many rich and famous people have gone out of their way to eat there for $300 per person. Philip Glass’ music from “The Hours” complements the images.
MISSISSIPPI GRIND (2015, 108 Minutes, R) is a loose remake of Robert Altman’s 1974 “California Split,” and it is the truest delivery of impressive filmmaking by Ryan Fleck and Anne Boden since their 2006 debut masterpiece “Half Nelson.” – they’ve coasted along on tiny slices of life since then with “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” and “Sugar,” okay movies but not much there. Ben Mendelsohn and Ryan Reynolds are gambling addicts whom both profess there are worse junkies than them (liars!) is this crackling, cogent character study of observing two hazard cases living on the edge.
MONSTERS (2010, 94 Minutes, Unrated) could be the first ever intellectual monster movie. In the near future, a space probe captured gigantic tentacle beings but then upon a return to Earth inevitably crash landed, turning Northern Mexico into an “Infected Zone.” Photographer Andrew Kaulder (Scott McNairy) has been hired to escort Samantha Wynden (Whitney Able), a rich man’s daughter, from Southern Mexico back to the States by rickety buses, vessel ships, and motor boats as means of travel. The latter requires a ride through the Infected Zone which they are informed to proceed at their own risk. The U.S. Military has a strong fortified defense and espouse a strike without warning policy at the Border. Compelling, extremely well-photographed, and surprisingly – if ironically – beautiful.
OSLO, AUGUST 31st (2012, 95 Minutes, NR, Norwegian with English subtitles) follows a damaged young man 10-months clean from drug addiction on the one day set free by the drug rehab center so he can attend a job interview. If Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie) is a self-sabotage case, it’s because “I like it when people feel sorry for me.” Anders has the smarts to reintegrate productively into society, but if he were to really want to live differently, he for one should remove himself from his rat’s nest hometown of Oslo. Then there are the regrets of lost time. If he had only cleaned up seven years ago, or five years ago, or three… etc. etc. It’s a wrenching film.
PERFECT SENSE (2011, 91 Minutes, R) is a shivery contagion thriller that should grip you in the same way that “Children of Men” did. Ewan McGregor and Eva Green as a chef and epidemiologist embrace in hot sex while an unsolvable epidemic takes away the sense of smell from the world’s population. Just as the world adjusts to this single catastrophe, a new wave of horrors consume: the mass population loses the sense of hearing. Directed by the underrated David Mackenzie (“Young Adam,” “Hell of High Water”).
ROOM 237 (2013, 102 Minutes, NR) is a whacked but engrossing deconstruction of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” not by veritable critics but by super-obsessed fans who find a myriad of hidden meanings and conspiracies from within the film, such as the far-flung argument that Kubrick helped fake the moon landing. For the true “Shining” lovers, this documentary extrapolates on Kubrick’s usage of subliminal imagery within the film.
SPRING BREAKERS (2013, 93 Minutes, R) is the misanthropic, female-debasing avante-garde film by Harmony Korine that is for a few moments nihilistically ugly, then… fascinating as a sociological portrait of nihilism itself. Four college girls go to St. Petersburg (led by Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, Rachel Korine), get arrested in their bikinis, then get bailed out by James Franco as a repugnant hustler and opportunist. Some might feel severely bothered that there aren’t any three-dimensional people here, but that’s the point, these aren’t people with three-dimensions in them. I took an admiration for this movie like I would a David Lynch or Gaspar Noe film.
TANGERINE (2015, 88 Minutes, R) spends a day in the life with two transgender prostitutes who work the squalid East Hollywood area. It’s part comedy, [social landscape] horror film, and tragedy. The human behavior at the donut shop, where the two get into a jealous spat with their pimp, is for the crazy highlight reel. There’s no denying, though, that when it comes to no-names in casts, Kitana Kiki Rodriguez gives the most jaw-dropping performance by someone you’ve never seen before.
TERRI (2011, 106 Minutes, R) is a teen misfit drama with Jacob Wysocki is the titular fat kid who wears pajamas to school because he claims “they’re comfortable” but really it’s just a pretense for his depression. John C. Reilly plays the outlandish assistant principal Fitzgerald, who sets aside time to befriend Terri. Then we meet Heather (Olivia Crocicchia), who is both pretty and decimated by such low self-esteem that she needs a Terri type to redeem her. The fat kid and the pretty girl? Improbable, but the keen and nuanced writing by Patrick Dewitt and directing by Azazel Jacobs makes them absolutely believable.
WHAT MAISIE KNEW (2013, 98 Minutes, R) is a divorce drama that tells its story in the point of view of a 6-year old who is tugged between exceedingly selfish parents (Steve Coogan and Julianne Moore), that only fail this sweet little girl. An improbable situation of two others coming in to save Maisie makes this a peculiar, but special film. It’s too aching for youngsters, and is strictly for adult viewing.
YOUNG & BEAUTIFUL (2013, 95 Minutes, R, French with English subtitles) concerns a 17-year old girl (Marine Vacth) who believes she is immune to disaster and an imperious belief she possesses wisdom – she comes from a well-off family yet anyway decides to be a prostitute for older men. There is stubborn coldness and fleeting warmth in this story, and long after it’s over, it’s haunting. Francois Ozon (“In the House”) directed, and I happen to believe this is his best film.
THE ZERO THEOREM (2014, 107 Minutes, R) is way too claustrophobic for a futuristic sci-fi trip, but that’s only because – let’s face it – writer-director Terry Gilliam these days is impeded by budget constrictions in order to get his projects off the ground. Christoph Waltz plays a computer programmer who practically chooses to work himself to death. The beach fantasy forays, a sharp contrast to the rest of this hellish enclosed vision, is some of the best work Gilliam has ever done. You need to be an effin’ cerebral geek to enjoy this one. It’s true (you think!), that I sometimes I happen to qualify as one.