When Steven Soderbergh released this low-key drama back in 2005, far more ink was spilled on its release strategy than the film itself (it was released — get ready for a shocker — simultaneously in theaters, on DVD, and on demand. Can you imagine such a thing?). But it’s a remarkable little film, shot in found locations, mostly improvised, with a cast of non-actors. Its aims and style are modest, but few films have ever taken such an accurate snapshot of small town ennui.
Joe Carnahan is a tough director to get a bead on; he vacillates between all-out trash (like The A-Team and Smoking Aces) and thoughtful dramas in genre disguise, like The Grey and this sparse, fast-paced, tough-as-nails cop picture, which recalls the energy and edge of the great ’70s police movies, before their style and tropes were swiped and drained for bad television. Jason Patric is as sturdy and reliable as ever; Ray Liotta has never been better.
23. The Guard
Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges was a strong candidate for this list, but it seems to have finally found its rightful audience, via DVD and Netflix. Instead, allow me to recommend this terrific and underseen picture from McDonagh’s brother, John Michael McDonagh, which shares not just Bruges’ Irish settings and the big, open face of star Brendan Gleeson, but its snappy dialogue, quick and dirty, a clever mix of insults, callbacks, put-ons, understatements, and cheerfully inventive profanity. It’s a smart, funny, dark treat of a movie, and Gleeson — overflowing with vices, yet somehow also brave and honorable — is a wickedly enjoyable leading man.
This tale of suburban dysfunction in the 1970s sounds like Ice Storm Lite, but it has its own wit and style, thanks to its angular screenplay (by director Derek Martini and his brother Steven) and crackerjack ensemble. Alec Baldwin is the stand-out, doing his lovable rogue thing with precision, but everyone is good: Rory and Kieran Culkin, Jill Hennessy, Cynthia Nixon, Timothy Hutton, and Emma Roberts (it’s still the best work I’ve seen from her). In spite of its impressive cast and the presence of Martin Scorsese as executive producer, Lymelife came and went from theaters with little notice, but it’s waiting for curious viewers to discover it, and wonder why it’s such a well-kept secret.
21. Observe and Report
The ads tried (and failed) to sell it as a slapstick-y Seth Rogen comedy, but this 2009 effort from writer/director Jody Hill (best known for HBO’s Eastbound and Down) was something else altogether: uncompromisingly violent, dark, and more than a little disturbing — yet frequently, explosively funny — it was one of the more daring films to see a major studio release in recent years. It’s a grubby, dirt-under-its-fingernails effort that is closer to Taxi Driver than Paul Blart: Mall Cop — which it superficially resembles, and which preceded it into theaters by just a couple of months (and out-grossed it exponentially).
20. The Fall
Director Tarsem Singh (often credited only by his first name) established himself as an elegant visual filmmaker with several striking music videos, including R.E.M’s “Losing My Religion.” His first picture The Cell, mixed eye-popping visuals with a rather standard serial-killer narrative; it took eight years for him to release his follow-up, but it was worth the wait. It’s a movie about storytelling — about movies, really — as injured stuntman Roy (Lee Pace) spins epic tales of adventure and fantasy to a young girl recovering in the same hospital; those sequences are seen in vivid, smashing, hyper-saturated color, and present images that are startlingly imaginative (entirely without the help of CGI). It’s not exactly a model for clarity in storytelling (the plot is basically a clothesline for Singh to hang his mind-blowing fantasy sequences) but it is an astonishing visual experience.
William Friedkin spent much of the 1980s and 1990s lost in a wilderness of forgettable pictures and unmade projects, but he came roaring back to life with this taut, raw, powerful examination of fear, paranoia, and madness in an Oklahoma motel room. Featuring a career-best performance out of Ashley Judd and a star-making turn from Michael Shannon, this psychological horror film truly gets under your skin.
18. Open Range
Thanks to the folly of The Postman and our collective buyer’s remorse over Dances with Wolves, audiences weren’t exactly licking their lips in anticipation for Kevin Costner’s 2003 Western. But they should have; it’s a thoughtful, well-done, entertaining old-school oater of the Ford and Hawks school, with enough respect for its genre to deliver the goods, but enough insight into barbarism and violence for the required revisionism. And Robert Duvall (who says “sonofabitch” better than pretty much anyone in movies) is magnificent.
17. Laurel Canyon
Frances McDormand usually plays button-down types, mothers and wives and the like, so it’s a bit of a surprise to see how easily she slides into the skin of a sexy record producer whose hedonistic lifestyle shakes up the relationship of her son and his fiancé. Christian Bale, Kate Beckinsale, Natascha McElhone, and Alessandro Nivola also impress in this candid look at sexual mores and relationship hang-ups from writer/director Lisa Cholodenko.
16. In the Electric Mist
This 2009 Bayou mystery has a marquee cast, a crackerjack script, and mood to burn, yet it somehow went straight to video, and I still haven’t puzzled out why. Tommy Lee Jones is aces as Dave Robicheaux, a Bayou ex-cop and recovering alcoholic who encounters a rogue’s gallery of Hollywood types when a film production comes to post-Katrina Louisiana. The great Bertrand Tavernier (Coup De Torchon, Round Midnight) directs the film nimbly, keeping the scenes brisk and efficient while maintaining plenty of thick, swampy atmosphere, and the supporting cast is terrific and eclectic: Peter Sarsgaard, Kelly Macdonald, John Goodman, Ned Beatty, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Mary Steenburgen, musician Buddy Guy, indie director John Sayles, and (in his last movie role) the one and only Levon Helm.
15. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
Tommy Lee Jones again, directing and starring in this bracing and lyrical Peckinpah-style Western. He turns in one of his most interesting performances (which is saying something) as a ranch hand willing to go to rather unconventional lengths to keep a promise to an old friend, but the real news here is Jones’ direction: sparse, elegiac, moody, and occasionally gorgeous. It took him nearly a decade to direct another theatrical feature, but buzz is good out of Cannes about his new film (another Western), The Homesman; here’s hoping it will rekindle some interest in this little masterwork.
The versatile Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, Trainspotting, 127 Hours, Millions) tries his hand at science fiction, but this is no mere space opera: it’s a rare thinking-person’s sci-fi flick, as interested in ideas as action, and working its impressive effects into the narrative, rather than stopping the show for them. And along the way, Boyle creates the kind of tension and dread that even most horror movies can’t muster up.
13. North Country
Niki Caro followed up the magnificent Whale Rider with this quietly powerful true story of the first sexual harassment lawsuit. Charlize Theron, fresh off her Oscar win, is raw and forceful, and the supporting cast (Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sissy Spacek, Sean Bean, Michelle Monaghan) couldn’t be better. But the stand-out here is the wonderful Richard Jenkins, who delivers a key speech late in the film so simply and directly that it becomes a little master class in great acting.
12. Tell No One
Writer/director Guillaume Canet adapts Harlan Coben’s novel — in which a grieving husband receives what appears to be an email from his dead wife, right around the time he is suspected for another, similar murder — with high wit and crackling style, expertly balancing a labyrinth plot, genuine suspense, and an “innocent man wrongly accused” narrative that Hitchcock would have been proud of. Yes, you’ll have to read some subtitles. But this is expert thriller-making of the highest order.
11. I’m Not There.
The audacious gimmickry of Todd Haynes’ 2007 Bob Dylan sorta-biopic pulled so much attention — six actors playing Zimmy, of varying ages, race, and sex — that the excellence of the film itself ended up getting rather short shrift. But it is a funny, thrilling, ambitious picture that thinks through the puzzle of Dylan and devises an ingenious method for portraying his chameleonic nature, filling out his mythology and resisting the urge to dissect it.
10. The Matador
Audiences mostly passed on this 2005 comedy/drama, presuming it to be one of star Pierce Brosnan’s between-Bond throwaways, but it’s much more than that: a sharp, breezy, funny, and wildly unpredictable story of an odd relationship between a milquetoast salesman and a hit man in a slump. Writer/director Richard Shepard lands every tonal curveball, and he’s doing so many seemingly disparate things in its climax, yet making them all work, that the film is something of a mini-miracle.
There are few chestnuts as musty as the one about the aging thief looking for one last big score before sailing off into the sunset, but here’s what’s great about David Mamet’s 2001 take: it knows it’s a chestnut, and acts accordingly, so it’s written and directed with both respect for the genre and a knowing wink. And it’s got Gene Hackman (in one of his last performances to date) doing his best grizzled man-of-action bit, plus some of Mamet’s most quotable dialogue (“You’re not that smart, how’d you figure it out?” “I tried to imagine a fella smarter than myself. Then I tried to think, ‘What would he do?’”)
8. Pressure Cooker
A sort of kitchen-set take on Hoop Dreams, Mark Becker and Jennifer Grausman’s 2008 documentary is an intimate portrait of three inner-city kids vying for culinary scholarships, and the extraordinary woman who encourages them. Strong, powerful filmmaking, with a sequence of closing scenes that are unbelievably moving; this viewer basically spent the last 20 minutes of the picture either on the verge of tears, or just over the edge.
7. Dirty Pretty Things
Few directors can switch gears between films more effortlessly than Stephen Frears (his filmography includes The Grifters, Dangerous Liasons, High Fidelity, and The Queen); here, he switches them within the film, which is by turns a social drama, suspense thriller, and complex love story. When it was released in 2002, the draw was co-star Audrey Tautou (hot off Amelie); now, it’s an opportunity to see an early leading role for Chiwetel Ejiofor, who already shows the kind of indelible presence that would lead him to 12 Years a Slave.
6. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
If Malick made a cowboy picture, it might come out something like Andrew Dominik’s 2007 art-house Western — particularly in the narrative interludes that punctuate the story and set its contemplative tone, which are beautifully photographed by Roger Deakins and perfectly complimented by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ gorgeous music and Dominki’s narration (much of it pulled verbatim from Ron Hansen’s novel). With an unwieldy title and a running time to match, Jesse James flopped loudly upon its original release, but a passionate audience has since discovered the film, and been held tightly by it; Jesse James is in no hurry to get where it’s going, but it unfolds with an uneasy inevitability, and the results are fascinating, lyrical, and utterly spellbinding.
5. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
Well-paid screenwriter Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout) reemerged from a long Hollywood hibernation to write and direct this crackling yarn that both satirizes and pays homage to classic Hollywood detective flicks. Robert Downey Jr. turns in his funniest performance to date, wisecracking his way through both the loopy story and its self-aware narration, Michelle Monaghan crafts a star-making turn that should’ve paid off bigger than it did, and Val Kilmer reminds us of why we used to be so excited about Val Kilmer. But Warner Brothers didn’t know how the hell to market an action flick with an indie sensibility, and they fumbled the release badly; audiences are still just discovering this wickedly funny and endlessly entertaining picture.
Director Duncan Jones takes several familiar elements — the blue collar space setting of Alien, the quietly controlling computer of 2001, a cloning plotline, etc. — and spins them into something exciting, spellbinding, and new in this thoughtful and slick 2009 sci-fi film. And it remains one of our finest showcases for the considerable talents of Sam Rockwell, who spends most of the film either acting alone or acting against himself; in other words, Rockwell finally finds an actor he can’t steal scenes from.
3. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind
Mr. Rockwell again, fronting George Clooney’s inventive, energetic, and uproarious directorial debut. It made a promise Clooney’s had trouble keeping — Confessions is joyously alive, abuzz with exhilaration for the sheer pleasure of making a movie. In adapting Gong Show creator/host Chuck Barris’ “unauthorized autobiography,” writer Charlie Kaufman and director Clooney figure out exactly the right approach (jazzy Cold War satire), and land every laugh without shying away from the darkness at the picture’s center.
2. Whip It
It seems like Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut should’ve been a giant hit: it’s got a knockout cast (Ellen Page, Kristen Wiig, Alia Shawkat, Eve, Marcia Gay Harden, Daniel Stern, Barrymore herself), an infectious energy, and a girl-power message that’s more than welcome. Maybe people just didn’t wanna see a movie about roller derby, but that’s like saying Hoosiers is a movie about basketball. Whip It is about growing up, finding yourself, making a new family, and accepting the one you have. Every time I return to it (which is fairly often), it makes this viewer unreasonably happy; there’s a good chance it’ll have the same effect on you.
1. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
You can assemble the virtues of Wes Anderson’s underappreciated 2004 gem into something like a shopping list: the melancholy Bill Murray performance at its center, the gee-whiz enthusiasm of Owen Wilson, the tremendous supporting cast, the ingenious production design, the epic scope, those clever creatures. But the film’s beauty and sadness and power all boils down to one simple line: “I wonder if it remembers me.” It takes a moment like that to fully appreciate the emotional stakes of what Anderson has created (here, and throughout his filmography); you can feel the ground under the movie open up, and take you anywhere you want to go. Zissou may not have the pathos of Royal Tenenbaums or the sheer hilarity of Rushmore, but it is its own special creation, and worthy of praise on its own terms.