Before Sunrise (1995) Richard Linklater’s third feature film remains one of the greatest romances ever put to screen, largely because it’s also one of the most realistic. It’s a kind of Rorschach test that reflects whatever experiences you bring to it – that time you fell in love abroad, that quick burning love that got away, that first date that you didn’t want to end. No formulaic romantic comedy conventions here, just an ode to the power of conversation to intimately connect one person with another. For all the justified praise Before Sunrise gets for its genuine romance, it also deserves credit for being a dead-on snapshot of people in their early-twenties – something the sequel’s more cynical (but no less apt) take on thirty-something disillusionment underscores.
Cloverfield (2008) Thanks to that Statue of Liberty decapitation in the teaser trailer, Cloverfield might be the only time in history a January release was a blockbuster event. Before the found-footage style began its journey towards over-saturation, Cloverfield demonstrated the thrilling potential of seeing big happenings from a claustrophobically limited point-of-view. It established that when done well, the style can make us not just witness characters’ terror, but feel it through their eyes. Couple its successful use of found footage with its frantic atmosphere, big action, surprisingly bleak tone, and legit scares, and it remains the best Godzilla movie Hollywood ever gave us.
Daybreakers (2010) It’s a shame that the Spierig Brothers’ inventive film has gone overlooked amidst the epidemic of vampires infesting popular culture. Few movies bring something new to the creatures of the night, but Daybreakers cleverly does. The directors honor, flip, and reinvent genre tropes in their inverted allegorical world where almost everyone is a vampire, and humans – the only nourishment resource for the bloodsuckers – are becoming extinct. There is a point where the film’s originality runs out of steam and shifts to operatic bloodbaths to overcompensate for its increasingly ho-hum story. Still, it works as a natural shift from one kind of pulp to another. Because ultimately Daybreakers plays very much like a worthy distant cousin of early 20th Century pulp science-fiction: heavy and unsubtle in its allegory, rich in its speculative ideas, and entertainingly sensational.
Deep Rising (1998) Stephen Sommers’ only venture into R-rated territory is something of a Frankenstein monster, stitched together out of the bits and parts of other movies. It’s a hodgepodge of enthusiastic homage if you’re being kind, or blatant plagiarism if you’re being truthful – and that’s not a criticism. Half the fun of Deep Rising is watching it persistently invoke the Alien series, Jaws, Tremors, the Titanic story and the dependable tropes of 1980/90s action cinema. The other half of the fun is realizing Sommers is making this without an ounce of irony and instead large dollops of shlocky commitment. In other words, it is unapologetically a B-movie happy to be a B-movie. On those terms Deep Rising succeeds as perfectly entertaining stupidity ripping off the movies you already love.
Final Destination 2 (2003) The original Final Destination presented one of the most efficient ideas in horror movies: cut out the slasher middleman and just make Death itself the killer. The first film spent most of its time setting up Death’s fondness of Mouse Trap-like machination to reclaim those who unnaturally escaped its clutches. Final Destination 2 ups the stakes by taking advantage of audience’s familiarity with Death’s modus operandi. No longer do we watch one Mouse Trap predictably play out. Instead multiple traps are set-up, and we’re left squirming trying to guess which set-up is a red herring and which one is going to fatally follow through. It’s what makes Final Destination 2 such sadistic fun, and provides not only the greatest opening scene of the series, but some of its best deaths. This is the movie that made us paranoid that any time a pencil rolls across the floor, or a tack falls off a cork board, it could begin the domino effect that would lead directly to our deaths.
The Grey (2012) The Grey was advertised as a film where Liam Neeson tapes broken airplane liquor bottles to his knuckles and punches killer wolves. It was exactly the kind of Neeson movie we didn’t know we always wanted. Joe Carnahan’s The Grey isn’t that movie. It’s better. An unexpectedly gripping existential tale of survival, it’s as visceral as it is character driven. Carnahan admirably ensures it never becomes a movie about blood-thirsty wolves, but instead about men trying to find the strength to survive blood-thirsty wolves. Something the ending – which for our money was one of the best of 2012 (if you ignore the post-credits sequence) – makes amazingly clear.
Haywire (2012) While a critical success, Steven Soderbergh’s custom-built action flick for Gina Carano was curiously rejected by audiences. It’s a shame, because Haywire is a wonderfully sleek and stylish thriller. It does for the betrayed spy movie what Soderbergh and screenwriter Lem Dobbs did for the revenge flick with The Limey – injects a welcome amount of lean artistic oomph. Which isn’t to say it holds back where it matters: punches. Carano brings all her MMA skills to refreshingly stripped down and brutal fight sequences. Some have criticized her acting abilities, but she’s far better than Schwarzenneger and Stallone were when they started out, and possesses a natural physicality most action stars fail to ever achieve. The pleasure of Haywire isn’t just its style, but the chance to see someone doing what they are naturally good at.
Taken (2008) Between this and The Grey, Liam Neeson could very well become The King of January Movies That Aren’t Awful. He has always been a great actor, but Taken was the film that launched his current renaissance of awesome action star bad-assery – and for good reason. Neeson’s complete commitment to the role and its brutality elevates Taken past its paint-by-number plot. It reminds us that with the right lead, watching a hero do bad things to bad people can be quality entertainment. The movie wouldn’t work half as well without Neeson, nor would it have had one of the greatest threatening speeches in action movie history.
Tremors (1990) Once a box office disappointment, over the past two decades Ron Underwood’s hootenanny monster movie has become the beloved cult classic it deserves to be. It seems reductive to praise Tremors simply by saying it’s fun, but that’s the source of its endless appeal. It’s like an episode of The Dukes of Hazzard that just happens to have giant subterranean worms eating people, and Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward perfectly filling in for the good old boys. The world could use more horror movies with this much joy, because there’s nothing quite like watching a bunch of people bite the dust while you’re laughing and wearing a big smile on your face.
Waiting for Guffman (1997) Christopher Guest’s comedy about small town theatre still remains his best (if perhaps not funniest) movie. That’s partly because his mockumentaries have suffered from the law of diminishing returns, but mostly because Waiting for Guffman has more poignancy than Guest’s other movies. It makes you care for its characters in between the moments you’re chuckling at them. Waiting for Guffman is as much an uproarious spoof as it is a resonant love letter to the quiet dreams of everyday people, and the power of performance to make them come true.