By The Playlist | The Playlist December 28, 2010 at 6:17AM
Each year sees hundreds of movies released into theaters and inevitably, some will fall through the cracks. Our list of the underrated and underappreciated films this year not only highlights the solid, critically acclaimed pictures that for whatever reason never got a fighting chance, but also the imperfect pictures that still had a lot to admire, as well as the straight up guilty pleasures that, despite ourselves, put a smile on our face. At any rate, if you managed to catch up with all the Oscar pictures already and are wondering if there is anything else this year you missed that is worth catching up with, this is a handy guide to those films that deserved a bit more attention or recognition than they got.
Unfortunately lost in the shuffle with an anonymous spring release date, and ignored and then forgotten by critics, “Please Give” was one of the best indie fims of the year that no one saw. In a year already boasting a wealth of strong female roles and performances, Nicole Holofcener’s whipsmart screenplay provided a few more. Catherine Keener, Rebecca Hall and Amanda Peet all shone in the film that explored the difficulties, hardships and yes, the laughs when trying to balance caring for others while also caring for yourself. The young Sarah Steele gave an eye opening performance, while the consistently underrated Oliver Platt once again knocked it out of the park providing a great foil to the plethora of estrogen around him. A beautifully drawn story full of heart and tender emotions, “Please Give” deserved to be in the mix of indie contenders alongside “The Kids Are All Right” and “Winter’s Bone” this awards season and deserves to find an audience now that it’s available on DVD.
This should have been this year’s “Antichrist” -- the gross-out, extreme indie flick that was a dare to watch. But even more, it was better than Lars Von Trier’s messy film and should have found just as large and as breathless a following. Blurring the line between fiction, found art, provocation, snuff movie, documentary and feature film, Harmony Korine's latest is a dirty finger in the eye to Hollywood's glossy, family-friendly, CGI HD 3D money train. Shot and edited on cheap-looking VHS and then blown up to 35 mm, Korine's effort not only looks ugly, but it boasts some of the most depraved reprobate characters you're likely to meet on screen this year. The picture is gleefully freaky, relentlessly demented, absurdly hilarious and of course features moments of extreme perverse beauty. Too hot for Netflix who have refused to stock it, give your indie movie store a visit and treat yourself to this year’s strangest delight.
“I Am Love”
Consider “I Am Love” the “real” version of Julia Roberts’ glossy “Eat, Pray, Love.” It concerns itself with similar thematic territory - the reconnection of a woman (Tilda Swinton) who, entombed in her life, explores her sexuality and her love of food - but is done so in a way that doesn’t belittle the material or turn it into an incredibly luscious commercial for The Olive Garden. Instead, there’s real sensuality in every frame of Luca Guadagnino’s debut feature, in the gorgeous cinematography, in the breathtaking music from John Adams, and in the perfectly calibrated performance by Tilda Swinton, who somehow manages to pull off an Italian accent with a hint of Russian while also running through a grueling gamut of emotions. It’s one of the few films that actually earns the adjective “sensuous.”
Ok, so our man in Cannes -- along with most critics on the Croisette -- didn’t love it, and the film’s brown palette and dour tone requires a steely nerve to sit down and watch it. That said, the latest of Alejandro González Iñárritu didn’t deserve the struggle it faced to find North American distribution, nor did Javier Bardem’s towering performance -- one of the year’s best -- deserve to be overlooked. The film’s concept is fairly simple, chronicling one man’s attempt to set things right in his life as he’s dying from terminal cancer, but the story touches upon the immigrant struggle, black market labor and even the supernatural. Overreaching? Perhaps, but the film’s grim setting can’t cover up the deep humanity hiding below the surface. Hollywood certainly isn’t making anything close to the emotional complexity and philosophical depth of Iñárritu’s film, and while that alone is enough for celebration, when the results are this rich and the performances this real, it’s pretty much a crime for a picture like this to fall through the cracks.
In Neil Jordan's romantic fairytale, an Irish fisherman and recovering alcoholic, (Colin Farrell) discovers a woman in his fishing net (Alicja Bachleda) who he believes to be a mermaid. Bachleda is so bloody gorgeous that Farrell made her his baby momma almost immediately after filming was complete (frankly, we would have thrown out the don't-shit-where-you-eat rule as well). Ok, what you really need to know: It's a wonderful, romantic and dreamy little fairytale and yes, it's flawed and has a twist ending that doesn't really work. But the rest of it is so beautiful — in part due to Christopher Doyle's gorgeous cinematography and Sigur Rós members' elegiac score — that we were able to forgive its flaws. Perhaps you can dub it a beautiful mess. Jordan mainstay Stephen Rea co-starred as a priest calling Farrell out for his sins or sins to be.
"Leaves of Grass"
An Ivy League professor (Ed Norton) is lured back to his Oklahoma hometown, where his twin brother (again, Ed Norton), a small-time pot grower, has concocted a scheme to take down a local drug lord (Richard Dreyfuss).. Ok, so the twins dual role thing didn't get as much attention as Armie Hammer in "The Social Network," but Tim Blake Nelson's "Leaves Of Grass" almost received no attention at all thanks to a botched distribution plan. A bigger buyer was supposed to step in mid-year and save the film, but that plan fell through and the film quietly hit DVD in the fall. During TIFF 2009 this film kind of floored us. If only because we were expecting a light comedy and instead received a complex, very well-written philosophical Greek tragedy that was at times unexpectedly hyper violent, at times hilarious and also involved a love story. It was almost five Coen Brothers films rolled into one, and the fact that it wasn't a disaster is a bit amazing. Our hat goes off to Tim Blake Nelson for pulling it all off, but even with a bigger release it could have proved far too heady and thick for your average audience. Susan Sarandon, Melanie Lynskey, and Keri Russell co-starred, bringing some wonderful female dimension to the super ambitious project.. Even if you detested it, you'd have to admit there's nothing like it out there.
Claire Denis' moody and intense Africa-set drama starring Isabelle Huppert, centered on a white French family outlawed in their home, attempting to save their coffee plantation while harboring a black hero also embroiled in the tumult. Everyone tries to survive as their world rapidly crumbles around them. Denis was raised in colonial Africa, and returned to the subject for the first time since her film Chocolat. With her cast includingChristopher Lambert and Isaac De Bankole, Denis teamed with cutting-edge novelist Marie N'Diaye, to create this almost nightmarish and sideways examination of contemporary African concerns, certainly one of the darker films she's made in recent years. Regular music collaborators the Tindersticks wrote the sensualist score and in many ways, the picture's quiet, horror-esque tone is reminiscent to Denis' work in the shoulda-been-awesome erotic-horror cannibalism film, "Trouble Every Day." Somewhat vague and elliptical to the point of frustration, "White Material," while flawed, was still a fascinating and memorable film nonetheless.
While it did better than expected at the box office thanks to George Clooney, most critics respectably frowned at Anton Corbjin’s masterful, meditative and enigmatic assassination thriller “The American.” And yes, we mean thriller. No other film this year was as impeccably formed, paced and executed than this lean, mean picture. Clooney turned in a startlingly rich internal performance using very little dialogue and mostly his world weary, morally conflicted face. Those complaining of the film’s somber tone and deliberate rhythm are missing a world of riches. “The American” boasted numerous slow boil sequences of nerve jangling tension and a coil of slow brewed internal conflict that eventually spills over in shocking, unexpected ways.
The trailers for “Stone” did the film absolutely no favors but the John Curran directed flick was far more complex than anyone could have expected. While the picture ultimately can’t quite handle all the thematic balls it throws up in the air, few films this year tried as hard or were nearly as successful as this one. Retribution, religious forgiveness and sexual obsession all are tossed in the mix in a film that refuses to play to predictability with numerous left turns and unnerving reveals. But the real surprise is Milla Jovovich, who turns in a performance as sexy as it is powerful, twisting Robert De Niro (of all people) around her little finger and playing for keeps. Hardly the Cinemax 2 AM B-movie the advertising purported it to be, “Stone” was smarter, sleeker and sexier than we expected and while it never quite adds up, its reach is certainly worth admiring.
“Let Me In”
Yes, the Swedish vampire flick “Let the Right One In” is a newly minted cult classic. But after the cries of heresy hurled at “Let Me In” subsided, there should have been widespread acknowledgment that the remake, under the canny direction of Matt Reeves (“Cloverfield”) was every bit as good as the original... if not more so. In transplanting the tale of two love struck youths, one a human (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and the other a vampire (Chloë Moretz) from Sweden to the equally chilly setting of Cold War-era Los Almos, New Mexico, he made a leaner, meaner version of the same story that shaved away much of the unnecessary plot mechanics and side stories that cluttered up the original. Some will still cry sacrilege, but after attending an early screening we thought to ourselves, “Well, we’ll never have to watch the original again.”
Soulful, mature and wise, Brian Koppelman and David Levien's sophomore feature effort took a sharp, often painful and incisive look at the self-destructiveness of men who have everything, but refuse to grow up. It also possibly featured the best ensemble cast of 2010 including its star Micheal Douglas in another excellent performance as a car magnate whose life falls apart due to his selfish and self-serving business and romantic indiscretions. The film also featured Jesse Eisenberg, Susan Surandon, Danny DeVito, Mary-Louise Parker, Jenna Fischer, Imogen Poots, Richard Schiff and Olivia Thirlby. A solid picture with strong writing and performances, the film received positive reviews too (81% on RT), but somehow near the end of the year, the picture didn't stick and it's certainly worth a shot if you've never seen it.
“Rush: Beyond The Lighted Stage”
Certainly not helped by a barely existent theatrical release and a rushed, hardly advertised home video debut, this was one of the year’s best rock docs that deserved a wider audience. We’ll put it right out there: we’re not Rush fans. Not by a long shot. But the story of this Canadian band’s rise to the top is remarkable because it avoids all the usual cliches associated with these kinds of stories. No drugs, no rehab, no endless string of girls. These were total nerds blessed with a wicked talent to rock, who worked a weird Ontario circuit of schools and churches, stuck it out and made it big. Ridiculously well researched, with ample participation of the band, fans and non-fans alike will marvel at their story and stand in awe as the band stuck to their individual style even as the rock world around them continued to morph and change. While it may not turn you into a believer, ‘Beyond The Lighted Stage’ will give you a new-found respect for one the world’s most humble bands, and in case you forgot, also one of the biggest.
“Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Rebel, Activist”
While most horny males know Playboy as the magazine that doesn’t provide hardcore photography, most people forget that at one time Hugh Hefner and his magazine were one of the centers of America’s cultural universe. This fascinating documentary chronicles the rise of the magazine and tracks it to its present day, but zeroes in on how Hefner and magazine not only battled censorship laws but, surprisingly, waged a strong battle for civil rights as well. From clubs around the country to his own network and television show, the reach that Hefner had across media -- print, music and television -- is as staggering as it is fascinating. And while the doc does stumble across the line at times from portrait to fawning chronicle, for anyone who counts “Mad Men” as their favorite TV show (and fans will note, the Playboy Club did feature prominently this season), your education of the sixties and seventies isn’t complete with knowing the story behind The Hef.
“Youth In Revolt”
This seemed to be the year of Michael Cera fatigue. The young actor appeared in two films based on acclaimed source material that for whatever reason simply could not find an audience. In fact, you may have long forgotten about “Youth In Revolt.” To be certain, the film is not perfect and even at ninety minutes, runs out of steam. But that said, there was no other comedy this year as erudite or archly funny as this. In fact, the film’s opening twenty minutes are pretty much right on target, with a deeply literate, sarcastic, whimsical tenor that knocked us out. Portia Doubleday made an impression as the unattainable object of affection and while those bemoaned yet another awkward Cera role they clearly weren’t paying attention to his wickedly devilish alter ego Francois Dillinger. Dumped in January, this one never stood a chance but in year largely bereft of sharp comedies, it deserves another look.
Most critics and bloggers couldn’t get past the “OMG Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning are gonna play rockers” factor and well, shame on them. To be certain Flora Sigismondi’s feature directorial debut left a lot to be desired. It followed the biopic route to a deadening pulse and the director’s usually gorgeous visual eye was nowhere to be found. But you know what? Stewart and Fanning were solid in their roles and Michael Shannon as the crooked manager Kim Fowley was awesomely outrageous and over-the-top. While it won’t start a revolution, for ninety minutes, there are enough guilty pleasures to be found within to make it worth your while.
This dystopian action-drama came and went at the beginning of the year, faintly remembered as a film that just barely missed its mark in the futuristic sci-fi subgenre. But that would be neglecting the fairly audacious triple ending, one that stuck in our head far longer than anything in the first two acts of the film. At the close of the narrative, the film uncorks a breathless action sequence that pays homage to “Oldboy” and cements Jude Law as a credible action hero, only to spill into the year’s freakiest, kinkiest and most disgusting sex scene, before wrapping up in a popular genre ending given a new twist. “Repo Men” is a film content to rip off every sci-fi picture you’ve ever seen (with generous callbacks to “Blade Runner”), but in those closing moments, “Repo Men” went in directions no other 2010 release even sniffed.
“The Scouting Book For Boys”
This is a film we saw well over a year ago. A film that we put on a list of "2010 Films We've Already Seen" in the hope that it would pick up U.S. distribution. And a film that, unfortunately, died on its U.K. release, and looks unlikely to see the light of day theatrically in the States, despite being better than 95% of movies that do see the interiors of multiplexes. We're sounding like a broken record at this point, but to reiterate: it's one of the best British debut features of the past few years, and anyone with the ability to play Region 2 DVDs should seek it out tout suite. It owes a debt to films as diverse as "Killer of Sheep" and "The 400 Blows," but proudly beats its own furrow, with an incredibly tough, uncompromising script from Jack Thorne. Director Tom Harper seems to be a colossus in the making (he'll next helm rom-com "Lost For Words" for Working Title), and Thomas Turgoose, first among an outstanding cast, proves he's no one-hit-wonder, moving from Shane Meadows' "This Is England" to a performance here that's even better.
“Disappearance Of Alice Creed”
While all the buzz reserved for ambitious minimalist concept thrillers seemed to surround the overrated “Buried” with Ryan Reynolds, another much more clever picture got overlooked. Though it slightly falls apart at the end thanks to one too many endings, J. Blakeson’s directorial debut “The Disappearance Of Alice Creed” is so much fun and at times so brazenly over-the-top it’s quite easy to forgive its flaws. Gemma Arterton deserved a lot more credit than she got as the titular, kidnapped Alice who spends the majority of the film strapped to a bed and gagged. And Eddie Marsan bit into this role as the vicious and surprisingly vulnerable Vic with a verve that was infectious. This brilliant, mostly one-set film never stops turning the screws on its three characters and the audience we saw it with couldn’t contain their gasps, giggles and outbursts of “what the fuck!”. Fully embracing its B-movie plot and delivering one helluva ride, “The Disappearance of Alice Creed” was all the loose fun that the self-serious “Buried” failed to deliver.
For whatever reason, Chris Morris' comedy about bumbling jihadists didn't spark the controversy people assumed it would, however it also didn't seem to make the great impression it deserved. The satirist has a knack for genuinely funny moments, steering clear of the problems that less-ambitious comedies seem to be full of, such as having people standing around talking. Sure, it was often silly, but it was also a different angle on a topic that is usually portrayed very flatly. It also managed to humanize a terrorist better than any recent attempt and balanced a fine line between nicer moments and colder tones. While admittedly a bit lighter than films should be in terms of emotional and artistic weight ("In The Loop," though also great, gave off a similar vibe), the laughs never let up, and the film refuses to cop out and give into sentimentality.
Maybe it came out too early, or maybe audiences are only interested in Ben Stiller movies that involve animals using a toilet. Who knows, but Noah Baumbach's latest was severely overlooked by theater patrons, and its absence on many 2010 lists suggest many have since forgotten it. It's a damn shame because the director's style is really developing into something special and he seems to finally have mastered the ability to expose his characters' unlikable qualities in a hilarious fashion. It may not have had the punch that "The Squid and the Whale" or the severely under-appreciated "Margot at the Wedding" had, but this tale is much more concentrated, with Roger Greenberg's lack of ambition and direction holding a distressing weight that's never been in his work before. The director also remains one of the only filmmakers that refuses to belittle his creations (and, in turn, audience) by making them complex human beings rather than buffoons. Yes, we laugh at them, but also with them.
The Duplass Brothers struck gold with their first mainstream punch, featuring a lonely John C. Reilly finally finding his soul mate in the gorgeous Marisa Tomei. Anybody that lucky is practically guaranteed a few hurdles, though few are more disturbing than the complication of overly close momma's boy Jonah Hill. Funny and endearing, the directors' style of building a story with their actors works insanely well with these seasoned vets, unearthing some of the most affecting scenes in a comedy. We're actually more surprised that Hill hasn't gotten any acting nods for his multifarious portrayal - he could've easily played a straight up creepy asshole, instead he demonstrates some of the most subtle acting in the entire picture. Just look at those eyes! Why people avoided it was anyone's guess, but hopefully it finds life on DVD or, like the other two Duplass films, on the extremely convenient Netflix instant watch.
Just as a giant mainstream success will see people scurrying for knock-offs of that film (witness the R-rated comedies that have overwhelmingly made up the Black List in the years since "Knocked Up" and "Superbad" hit), an acclaimed indie pic will, a couple of years down the line, suffer its own uninspired copycats. For instance, Charlie Kaufman may have been one of the most original voices to hit screenwriting in years, but that still meant the mediocre likes of "Stranger Than Fiction" and "Cold Souls" will come along. One of the few films to be influenced by Kaufman while still maintaining some originality was "Skeletons," the 2010 debut from writer-director Nick Whitfield. Following a mismatched duo of 'psychic cleaners' whose job is to expose the titular skeletons in the closets of their clients, the picture won the Michael Powell award at the Edinburgh Film Festival, and received a tiny release in the U.K. (with no sign or likelihood of a U.S. release), but it should become a cult hit in the years to come. It's truly unlike anything you've ever seen, mixing Ealing comedy, Philip K Dick and "Withnail & I," among others, with ease. Sometimes its ambitions may outstrip its means, but there are more good ideas in its head than in almost everything else released last year. And the cast, from near-unknown leads Andrew Buckley and Ed Gaughan, to going-places-very-fast ingenue Tuppence Middleton, and more familiar faces like Jason Isaacs ("Harry Potter") and Paprika Steen ("Festen"), are all worth the price of a rental on their own.
Two pictures this year delved into the underworld, examining the crime genre through the eyes of a family immersed in the bitter realities of that world. One was David Michod's "Animal Kingdom," a gritty, gripping look at a Melbourne crime family, and one of the best pictures of 2010. The other was a very, very low-key British film, "Down Terrace," which opened a far more banal, comedic window on the same premise. The film was frequently described as "Mike Leigh does "The Sopranos,"" and it's not a bad comparison -- the gently observed family dynamics, played terrifically by a cast including a number of veterans of Edgar Wright's "Spaced," (most notably Julia Deakin as a matriarch at least as terrifying as Jacki Weaver's character in the Australian film,) would fit in nicely in one of Leigh's films. But there's a tension and a sense of impending violence that sneaks up on you like the very best of the genre. Writer-director pair Ben Wheatley and Robin Hill are clearly talents to watch, and we sincerely hope that, as the years go by, people will catch up with their debut film.
You could feel the audience turn on “Splice” as the reels unspooled. At first, they were into the charmingly cheeky low-budget shocker about a pair of rock star geneticists (Sarah Polley and Adrien Brody) who monkey around with science and create a bizarro mutant hybrid (Delphine Chanéac). But then the film got even weirder, moving into more uneasy thematic territory while upping the ante on both the gore and the raw sexuality (both things that mainstream audiences are entirely uncomfortable with). By the end of the movie, at least in our theater, a minor revolt had started, and you could feel, on a wider scale, director Vincenzo Natali’s unblinking, blackly comic cautionary tale being lost to the ages. Still, it’s the kind of thing that has “cult classic” written all over it.
2010 was an unreasonably good year for animated films, between mega-blockbusters like Dream Works Animation’s “How to Train Your Dragon” and Pixar’s “Toy Story 3” to smaller fare like this under-heralded masterpiece from “Triplets of Belleville” director Sylvain Chomet. “The Illusionist” started life as a script by French comic master Jacques Tati, who wrote the film as a way to deal with abandoning a daughter at a young age (a decision that haunted him). Many years later, the script was handed to Chomet, who decided to make it his “Belleville” follow-up after getting fired from a big budget Hollywood film (“Tale of Desperaux”). The result is a visually ravishing, emotionally devastating tale about an aging magician and the young girl he befriends. The movie is virtually wordless, but that doesn’t mean it won’t break your fucking heart.
"Hot Tub Time Machine"
Dumb, stupid fun comedies really got the shaft in 2010 and other than “MacGruber,” there was probably no other absurdly stupid, yet fun-as-shit comedy as Steve Pink’s “Hot Tub Time Machine.” While not at the level of say Judd Apatow films (which are arguably much more mature anyhow), the level of ludicrous laughs weren’t far off of what goes down in most Adam McKay films (and honestly, while we liked “The Other Guys” we laughed way harder during ‘Time Machine’). Perhaps it was that laughably disparate motley crew of a cast in John Cusack, Clark Duke, Craig Robinson and Rob Corddry, which is mostly unrecognizable and more importantly, unbankable. Still, for retarded, dumb as all get out stupidity, there was probably more laughs per buck than any other completely silly comedy this year. And oh yeah, Crispin Glover's cameo role ruled.
If anyone anticipated or assumed a dumb SNL sketch would make for a fun comedy it surely wasn't the Playlist. In fact we originally had it featured in our 2009 year-end Dumbest Projects Announced This Year article. While we still don't have a lot of faith in "Rubik's Cube" the movie, "The Smurfs" or "Candyland," we'll admit we were dead wrong about "MacGruber." Unfortunately for it, critics and audiences seemed to agree with our original assessment and it came and went. Just as enjoyable, if not more so than Will Ferrell's "The Other Guys" (which was in toothless PG-13), "MacGruber" delivered as a hard R that saw Ryan Phillippe stick a celery stick up his ass in the name of ludicrous laughs. Val Kilmer made a great villain, Will Forte gave MacGruber some witless dimension we'd never seen on the show and scene stealer Kristin Wiig was on point as per usual. Was 2010 the death of the R-comedy? Hard to say, but both this and "Hot Tub Time Machine" deserved much much better.
Honorable Mention: Arguably some of our favorite films of the year have been grossly overlooked, “Mother,” “Biutiful,” “I Am Love,” “Valhalla Rising” and “Dogtooth” are all films that have been routinely gone unnoticed and or ignored this year, but most of them center closely in our various best of top 10 lists (you'll see some of those soon), so we excluded some of them here, but chances are you may have missed them and if you have, you need to change that stat. For a deeper look at many of these underrated/under-appreciated pictures you can take a look at our Favorite Films of The Year So Far which was written in June before most of the year’s big films arrived. Also generally underrated was the Argentine crime thriller "The Secret In Their Eyes," the excellent documentary, "Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno," Bruno Dumont's least provocative (and therefore least annoying) religious drama, "Hadewijch" and Ken Loach's funny and inspirational drama "Looking For Eric." The list will of course go on and on. Stay tuned for more Best of 2010 coverage from The Playlist. - Kevin Jagernauth, Drew Tayor, Oliver Lyttelton, Gabe Toro, Chris Bell