If you’re anything like me, you’re always on the lookout for more films to add to your already-too-large list of movies to watch. However, if you’re anything like me, you’re also very active in your pursuit. You read forum threads, blogs, critics lists of great films and so on. You’re already aware of most of the big blockbusters, most of the year’s critical darlings and everything inbetween. Finding new stuff gets harder and harder. Everybody knows of The Dark Knight. All but the most casual moviewatchers know of Memento. And while the average Joe might not be the slightest bit aware of foreign films like Oldboy or American indies like Winter’s Bone, a movie nut like you already saw them a long time ago. Twice. They’re hardly obscure among film fanatics.
But then there are the films that nobody ever talks about. The casual movie watcher never heard of them. The movie nuts skimmed them over. The critics reviewed them and forgot about them a month later. They rarely if ever pop up in online discussions, or blog posts, or anywhere.
And yet they’re movies I found myself really enjoying for various reasons. So if you’re looking for more movies to add to your watch list, you could do a hell of a lot worse than these 15 films from the past decade.
CASHBACK (Sean Ellis, 2006)
After a bad break-up, art student Ben (Sean Biggerstaff) suffers from insomnia. Not knowing what to do with all his extra free-time, he takes a nightshift job at a supermarket where he discovers he can freeze time at will.
Cashback is a delightfully funny British comedy. Ben’s new co-workers is a colorful bunch that all get their shots at providing laughs, whether it’s his overbearing boss, the kung fu expert or the juvenile slackers. The time-stopping thing mentioned above is not a gimmick the movie uses to base all its jokes and plot around. Rather, it provides time for Ben to reflect on how he views the world, his situation and the women around him. There’s plenty of monologues and flashbacks to flesh out his character, which makes for a nice counterpoint to the movie’s more humorous side. Also featured is a fairly touching romance developing between him and co-worker Sharon (Emilia Fox), as well as plenty of gratuitous nudity. So there’s something for everyone!
THE RULES OF ATTRACTION (Roger Avary, 2002)
Here’s another comedy, but one very different from the humor Cashback provides. The Rules of Attraction follows a couple of college students as they embark on various short-lived romances. Bisexual Paul (Ian Somerhalder) is attracted to bad boy Sean (James Van Der Beek), who’s pursuing the virgin Lauren (Shannyn Sossamon), who’s saving herself for Victor (Kip Pardue), who’s on a crazy vacation to Europe, and so on. But while there’s plenty of sex and partying going on, this is not your typical college sex comedy. This is comedy of the black kind, where every joke is punctuated with the despair and lack of direction that’s plaguing its protagonists’ generation. The characters are not likeable, but then they were never meant to be. It’s the second part of that sentence that differs The Rules of Attraction from most post-American Pie films in its genre.
The film is based on a novel of the same name, penned by American Psycho author Bret Easton Ellis. The book (featuring a very rambling and at times incohorent tone and multiple narrators, none of them reliable) is one that you’d never think could work as a movie when you read it. Director Roger Avary (co-writer of Pulp Fiction) magically pulls it off, though. Highlighting the comedy yet never losing sight of the darkness, he comes up with plenty of clever and unusual solutions on how to present the haphazardly compiled events of the plot. It’s a captivating and isolated world we get to visit, one that will probably make you laugh as much as it makes you feel filthy.
UNKNOWN WHITE MALE (Rupert Murray, 2005)
As far as documentaries go, there are few that make me think as much as Unknown White Male. It’s about Doug Bruce, who in 2003 woke up on a subway train in New York only to realize that he had no idea who or where he is. His memories had been completely wiped out. The documentary, made by one of his old friends Rupert Murray, follows Doug as he rediscovers the world and his life.
There has been discussions about whether Doug’s amnesia is a hoax or not. To me, such debating is missing the point of Unknown White Male. It’s a film that poses questions that make for delicious food-for-thoughts. How much of who we are is determined by our past experiences? Do you have any obligations toward parents you have no recollection of ever meeting? How would you know who to trust when your past is largely in the hands of others? The case of Doug’s particular amnesia is one-in-a-billion at best, but even if he’d come out tomorrow and reveal it’s all a hoax, the questions would still remain. And just because they might be hypothetical doesn’t mean they’re unworthy of consideration.
MAY (Lucky McKee, 2002)
May is what you get when you take “quirky” and apply it straight-faced to the horror/slasher genre rather than comedy. Borrowing some plot points from films like Carrie, this film follows its titular protagonist (played by Angela Bettis in a performance that lingers with you), a strange and awkward girl with no friends as she tries to bond with people.
The film really manages to carve out an identity of its own, largely thanks to the compelling main character. You snicker at May’s awkwardness every now and then, cringe as she clumsily tries to approach the subject of a new infatuation, and feel for her when people mistreat her. As the story progresses into more well-explored territory of its genre, it still maintains it’s unique tone and refuses easy shortcuts. The eventual ending is as well-earned as it is haunting and touching.
ELLING (Petter Næss, 2001)
A Norwegian comedy that scored a well-earned Foreign Language Oscar nomination, Elling has since faded from most people’s memory, at least outside of its native country. The hero of the story is Elling (Per Christian Ellefsen), an anxious and neurotic man who has lived with his mother his entire life. When she passes away, the 40 year-old Elling is sent to an institution where he meets the boisterous would-but-couldn’t-be casanova Kjell Bjarne (Sven Nordin). Eventually, the two are assigned an apartment and need to learn how to live in the real world.
Making a comedy about people with social and/or mental issues is always tricky. It’s easy to make the characters laughing stocks for undeserved reasons. Petter Næss navigates the treacherous waters with skill, however. While we’re certainly made to laugh about Elling and Kjell Bjarne’s unorthodox behaviors, they are still very sympathetic characters. This film is filled with heart and warmth amidst the humor.
THE WOODSMAN (Nicole Kassell, 2004)
Speaking of things that make for hard-to-tackle subject matter, how about pedophilia? In The Woodsman, Kevin Bacon plays Walter, a man just released from prison after having served a 12 year sentence for molesting children. He gets a job at a lumberyard and starts forming a relationship with one of his co-workers (Kyra Sedgwick), but his past very much still haunts him. To his shrink (Michael Shannon), he confides that he wants nothing more than to be normal but isn’t sure he can keep his demons in check. There’s also the constant fear that his dark secret will be revealed to others, as well as the threat of an unsympathetic police officer (Mos Def) convinced that it’s only a matter of time before Walter succumbs to his urges again.
If Kevin Bacon has put in a stronger peformance in some other film, I haven’t seen it. Here he is masterful, playing Walter as a man constantly on edge, hiding his tempest of emotions behind a stone wall face. It’s a performance of great bravery. And director/writer Nicole Kassell doesn’t try to make excuses for Walter’s past actions. Everyone, including Walter, knows that there is nothing that justifies what he has done. We’re shown a man who wishes to move on but doesn’t know if he can and if the world will let him. Redemption might not be an attainable goal for him, but it might still be something worth pursuing. The Woodsman is a film that sticks with you.
THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE (Steven Soderbergh, 2009)
There is no such thing as a Steven Soderbergh-ish movie. The man has put out a filmography of works in lots of diverse styles, genres and subject matters. The Girlfriend Experience ranks among his more fascinating endeavors. It’s far from a perfect film, but it provides an interesting look at a world often seen on film, but from an unusual perspective.
Adult actress Sasha Grey plays Chelsea, an up-scale call girl in New York whose wealthy clients are all concerned with the financial crisis. There isn’t much of a straight narrative outside of Chelsea’s strained relationship with boyfriend Chris (Chris Santos), but the political and financial climate hangs a looming shadow over everything. As Chelsea struggles to deal with clients of various levels of appeal, slimy website operators, new competition in her workfield and an intrusive journalist, the audience gets an outsider’s view at her life through Soderbergh’s spying camera. We’re forced to think about who she is, why she makes the choices she makes in her personal life, why her clients pay her for her services and why the film juxtaposes this with the crashing economy. The Girlfriend Experience’s starkly realistic tone suits it well, for the film is in essence about human nature.
THE GRAND (Zak Penn, 2007)
Probably the closest you’ll get to a Christopher Guest mockumentary without Guest or any of his usual collaborators around, The Grand follows the strange participants in a poker tournament. The cast features a mix of big-name stars like Woody Harrelson, sitcom veterans like Ray Romano and Jason Alexander and inspired choices like Werner Herzog. The whole film is largely improvised, to the point where the card games had no predetermined winners and were actually played out by the actors to their best abilities. This hands-off approach to storytelling naturally means that the plot falters a bit in terms of dramatic payoff, but the film’s strength lies in the comedy which is pulled off really well. A very funny movie.
EVIL (ONDSKAN, Mikael Håfström, 2003)
Here’s another Scandinavian Foreign Language Oscar nominee that deserves to be seen. Evil is based on an autobiographical novel by Jan Guillou, one of Sweden’s most famous writers. It’s an uncomfortable look at the going-ons at a prestigeous private boarding school in the 1950s, where the students are mostly allowed to police themselves. Bullying is the norm, with physical and psychological punishments being doled out regularly by the older pupils. And at the center of this stands Erik Ponti (Andreas Wilson), a rebellious 15 year-old whose hatred for injustice makes him an immediate target. Evil is a striking portrait of the mentality surrounding certain upper class children of the time period, where the ugly morals instilled in the young is allowed to fester and boil freely. It’s not a subtle movie, but then it probably shouldn’t be.
HAPPY ACCIDENTS (Brad Anderson, 2000)
Marisa Tomei and Vincent D’Onofrio take center stage in this romantic comedy with a twist. She plays Ruby, a woman whose past love-life consists of an endless stream of flawed people who she nigh-pathologically tries to “fix”. He plays Sam, a kind man who displays awkward reactions to the world around him. They meet one day and fall in love. So it goes.
The central issue of Happy Accidents‘ story is one the film itself doesn’t reveal until half an hour in, so I don’t think I ought to spoil it here. Let’s just say that Sam makes a fantastical claim about himself. The rest of the film (told largely in flashbacks during a conversation between Ruby and her therapist) concerns itself with this claim. Is Sam telling the truth? Can Ruby deal with it? Should she? Director/writer Brad Anderson toys with the viewers, hinting at various ways the story might progress. And it works. We think we know where a story like this will go, but Anderson manages to create that lingering doubt of “maybe not” that always enhances the viewing of any romcom. Happy Accidents isn’t an insightful or overly polished film, but it is quite clever and certainly lots of fun.
OVERNIGHT (Tony Montana & Mark Brian Smith, 2003)
In the late 90s, then unknown and untested Troy Duffy wrote the screenplay for a movie called The Boondock Saints. Producer Harvey Weinstein, always on the lookout for the next big newcomer, signed a highly lucrative contract with Duffy that would allow this new prospect to direct his film for a budget of 15 million dollars. That’s a lot of money to give to someone who has never made a film before. Duffy was on cloud nine, but to say that he let the looming success go to his head would be an understatement.
Overnight spends little time documenting the tumultuous making of the film, instead focusing on chronicling a brash new film-maker as he crashes and burns in spectacular fashion. Duffy is so full of himself and convinced that he’s going to become the biggest thing Hollywood has ever seen. He alienates his friends, berates the people he works with, burns bridges barely built and manages to squander any potential goodwill with anyone in the industry. It is highly entertaining to watch, albeit in a somewhat morbid kind of way: Duffy is a man who’s effectively commiting career suicide right before our eyes. Watching Overnight, it seems a small wonder The Boondock Saints was ever finished and managed to become something of a cult hit. Duffy never saw any money from its success. Pride was his sin, and he burned brightly for it.
ROGER DODGER (Dylan Kidd, 2002)
In Roger Dodger, Campbell Scott plays Roger, a cynic with the gift of gab, at least in his own mind. His talent for picking up women gets put to the test when meek nephew Nick (Jesse Eisenberg, making his film debut) shows up and asks him for advice on just that. What follows is a night out on the town as Roger does his best to impart his wisdom on the teenager.
It’s fun to see where Eisenberg, whose stock has certainly risen in recent years, got his start. He does a fine job here, but it’s Campbell Scott who gets the fleshed out character to play with. It’s clear to us early on that Roger’s cunning isn’t as vast in reality as in his own head, so the movie really becomes less about the lessons he tries to teach Nick and more about surveying Roger himself. Does he believe everything he says? How much of it is BS? How much of it is due to his bitterness over a recent break-up? The frank discussions about sex and attracting women are sharp and makes the movie an entertaining watch, but Scott’s finely tuned performance is what makes it stand out.
EAGLE VS SHARK (Taika Waititi, 2007)
Eagle vs Shark is Napoleon Dynamite minus the utter disdain it shows for its characters. The New Zealand film is certainly filled with quirky and odd people that we get to laugh at, but they are all shown to have their good sides which helps us to care about them and what they do. It makes the type of humor found in these films much easier to digest.
In the leading roles we find Jemaine Clement (best known from The Flight of the Conchords) and Loren Horsley. The former plays Jarrod, a grumpy man with little grasp of social skills. The latter is Lily, the mousy woman who falls for him anyway. They become something of a couple early on in the movie, allowing most of it to instead occupy itself with a trip back to Jarrod’s hometown and his quest to confront a bully from his childhood. The relationship between Jarrod and Lily is tested of course (because with characters like these it’s inevitable), but the comedy is what shines the brightest.
THOMAS IN LOVE (THOMAS EST AMOUREUX, Pierre-Paul Renders, 2000)
Taking place in the near future, Thomas in Love examines the human need for contact and the disconnect offered by technology. The titular Thomas (Benoît Verhaert, who is never seen in the film, only heard) suffers from extreme agoraphobia and hasn’t left his home or let anyone in in eight years. The film is presented entirely through what he sees on his computer screen. Through video phone calls with his worrying mother, insurance company representatives and state-sanctioned online prostitutes, we get to enter his world. The unorthodox format of the film effectively creates a claustrophobic atmosphere. There’s some room for both bleak humor and tentative romance to shine through at times, but the story really plays second fiddle to what the film has to say about our growing dependance on technology and how human intimacy gets sacrificed in the process. Thomas in Love is a unique and experimental film that keeps you hooked from start to finish and gives you plenty to think about long after the credits have rolled.
WIT (Mike Nichols, 2001)
Proof that just because a movie is made for TV doesn’t mean it can’t be impressive. Wit is based on a play by Margaret Edson and follows Vivian Bearing (Emma Thompson), a professor in metaphysical poetry, as she is diagnosed with and undergoes treatment for ovarian cancer. Vivian has devoted her life to intellectual pursuits at the cost of forming bonds with people around her. Now she finds herself alone but for the medical staff, faced with an unfamiliar threat. She at first tries to tackle the new situation as she has always done with everything, with dry wit and stoicism. But cancer of course can’t be deterred by things of that nature. The bitter irony of it all is, as she herself points out, that the humanity she has always put on the sideline in favor of research is what she now wishes the doctors would show to her. Instead, they seem to mostly see her as research for a new form of chemotherapy.
As with most stage-to-screen adaptations, the strength of Wit lies in its writing and its actors. Seasoned veteran Emma Thompson is at the top of her already high game, expertly showing how Vivian’s defenses successively crumbles as her treatment drags on. The camera is often fixated close upon her face as she delivers monologues to the camera, and it’s impossible to look away no matter how evident her pain is. The dialogue between her and the doctors and nurses is sharp and, yes, witty. It serves as an occassional relief from the inevitable grimness of the film’s subject matter. The film is certain to strike a chord with anyone who has had someone close to them go through cancer treatment, as it shows all the ugliness it involves, the pain and the loss of dignity. But it is also oddly hopeful and warm, albeit perhaps not in the ways one might expect.