Non-blockbusters busted out in 2010, with these outstanding, overlooked movies worthy of your attention.
This was an exceptionally good year for studio films, with "Inception," "The Fighter," "Toy Story 3," "True Grit," "The Social Network" and enough left over to round out a solid 10-best list.
But there were plenty of off-the-grid gems in 2010 as well, indelible movies too freaky and daring for marketers to encapsulate in easily digested categories. Last year I saw lots that made me think, laugh and dream, but were generally overlooked and stuck in limited release in the Twin Cities. Here are a baker's dozen underappreciated gems -- many already on Netflix -- that should be atop any film geek's video-on-demand queue.
1 "The Crazies," a remake of George Romero's 1973 shocker, is a slick fearjerker, filmed with dazzling visual style and edited with sadistic precision. Timothy Olyphant is the beleaguered sheriff of an Iowa farm town whose citizens begin turning on one another with homicidal frenzy. The my-neighbor-the-monster theme is a scythe-sharp image of our zeitgeist. Breck Eisner directs with go-for-the-throat vigor. If Pa in Grant Wood's "American Gothic" impaled his companion on the end of that pitchfork, the scene would fit right in.
2 "Vincere" is a thrilling period tragedy about the power of romantic delusions. Beautiful Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) swoons for young political agitator Benito Mussolini. Mussolini (electrifying Filippo Timi) is in love with dreams of combat and dictatorship. And Italy is about to begin a mad, fatal affair with the fascist firebrand, who has his mistress locked away when she becomes a public-relations liability. It's a triangle worthy of Verdi. Veteran filmmaker Marco Bellochio whips the characters' grandiosity, overreach and self-immolation to heights of operatic emotion and Brechtian irony.
3 The"Red Riding" trilogy unfolds in layers of shocking violence and rich poetry. Underpinning the thrillers are notorious real-life police investigations in the north of England: the Moors Murders of several schoolgirls, the Yorkshire Ripper killings and the case of an innocent man railroaded on a murder charge. With their brutal interrogations, bloody crime scenes and strong themes -- including prostitution and child molestation -- the films feel like a keyhole view of hell. Andrew Garfield, who went on to distinction as Mark Zuckerberg's only friend in "The Social Network," is outstanding as a cocky journalist in far over his head. The stories are rich with animal symbolism and literary allusions, serpentine plotting, characters that grow and surprise us, and exemplary acting. The films deserve to be viewed consecutively, as a five-hour paranoid marathon.
4 "The Square" is a neat, nasty Australian import that bears comparison with "Body Heat" and "Blood Simple." The film's sunny suburban streets tingle with psychological distress as if they were mean urban alleys. The plot elements are standard noir -- grafting land developers, gangsters, a bag of cash, a beauty and a patsy -- but "The Square" is smarter than most films with the same themes. The violence is messy, but the timing is elegant. At the blood-soaked finale one of the characters stumbles out into the street, staggering as if stunned by a blow to the head. "The Square" packs that kind of wallop.
5 "Ondine" was the top mermaid tale/crime drama/romantic comedy of the year. Writer/director Neil Jordan created a beautifully realized fable about love and its attendant mysteries. He mischievously shuffles together mundane realism and flashes of possible magic, adroitly keeping us off-kilter and unsure of what's afoot. Until the final reel sorts things out, "Ondine" can be read as a hopeful romantic allegory or a human trafficking thriller heading toward tragedy. Colin Farrell sparkles as a not-quite-no-account Irish fisherman turning his life around. His father-daughter scenes with young Alison Barry are little jewels of teasing affection, and his longing for Alicja Bachleda, a maybe-mermaid he pulled from the sea, is a sharp portrait of a man tiptoeing around good fortune he doesn't expect to last.
6 "Marwencol" is the name of a fastidiously detailed diorama village where a heroic action-figure G.I. battles German soldiers with the aid of Barbie femmes fatales. It was constructed with obsessive artistry by Mark Hogencamp, who used the project as therapy to aid his recovery after being brain damaged in a barroom beating. Hogencamp transformed his personal struggles into WWII cliffhanger dramas. When his breathtaking photographs of his make-believe world were discovered by the art world, he had to decide whether to leave his imaginary realm and step into the spotlight. Jeff Malmberg's sensitive documentary tells the amazing true story with tenderness and tact. It's a truly transcendent film.
7 "Tamara Drewe," which recast Thomas Hardy's pastoral weepie "Far From the Madding Crowd" as a lively contemporary English romcom, was what all romantic comedies should aspire to be. Director Stephen Frears ("The Queen") gives us a picture of life observed in all its chaotic complexity, with an ironic but affectionate view of human frailties. Characters scheme against one another and act cruelly, but the crimes they commit are all in the name of love, however perversely they conceive of it. Luminous Gemma Arterton plays the title character, a plain girl who returns to her home village with a surgically improved schnoz and an agenda to settle old sexual scores. Satisfying comeuppances are meted out as lust and ego are punished, while love, affection and tenderness toward others are duly rewarded. Not everyone lives happily ever after, but almost everybody gets their just deserts. And the audience lives happily for a couple hours after.
8 "A Town Called Panic" combines plastic toy figures of a cowboy, an Indian, horses and farmers with the anarchic imaginations of Belgian animators Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar. The resulting explosion flings us into a world that resembles a naive children's show staged by screwball surrealist stop-motion puppeteers. The story lurches from the preposterous to the outrageous and beyond: an online shopping snafu leads to a schoolhouse fire, a North Pole battle with a snowball-flinging armored penguin, inconvenient cell phone calls and a battle with kleptomaniac mermen who emerge from their aquatic den via puddles and bathtub drains. It's 75 minutes of nonstop breathtaking hilarity.
9 "Dogtooth" is a funny-creepy Greek art film about overprotective parenting taken to insane lengths. Dad and Mom keep their young adult kids in eternal lockdown, ruling their spacious, high-walled garden estate like lunatic dictators. They warn that the common house cat is "the most dangerous animal there is" and explain that the region between the thighs is called "the keyboard." The three kids follow the crackpot house rules with docile fidelity until a couple of cheesy 1980s videotapes give them an inkling of life in the outside world, and rebellion seeps into their veins. Gaze into this antiauthoritarian satire and you will see a funhouse mirror reflection of our most cherished beliefs about family.
10"The Secret in Their Eyes" pairs a suspenseful cold-case murder mystery with a smart adult love story. A retired Buenos Aires judicial investigator (Ricardo Darin, a shrewd, romantic Alan Rickman type) reconnects with his former colleague (Soledad Villamil). Their discussion of an unresolved case skirts the issue that they almost became lovers while working together 25 years earlier. The film brings both storylines to closure in surprising but satisfying ways. Director Juan José Campanella is equally adept at fast, exciting chases and dialog scenes with the snap and sizzle of a thrilling dance routine. It's rare for a film to be so thought-provoking and outlandishly entertaining at the same time.
11 "The Good, the Bad, the Weird" is a hell-for-leather Korean gunslinger extravaganza, a Wild West story transplanted to lawless 1930s Manchuria. Scooping up stock characters and situations from Sergio Leone to Steven Spielberg, the film refines the ingredients and fuses them into an eye-popping bullet ballet. There's a treasure map and a lot of heavily armed people want it. Any plot baggage heavier than that would just weigh you down as you hurtle headlong into this exhilarating joy ride. The movie is often deliriously funny, but never a parody. Director Ji-woon Kim is far too fond of the myths he's invoking to lampoon them outright. This is a boy's adventure for grownups, the A version of a B movie.
12 "Monsters" features giant squid-like extraterrestrials, but the aliens take a back seat to a naturalistic, engaging and surprisingly lo-fi story. Set in a near future where northern Mexico has been overrun by tentacle-things, the story follows a pair of stranded Americans trying to make their way back to the States. Much has been made of the impressive professional quality first-time director Gareth Edwards achieved with a four-person crew, a largely nonprofessional cast and consumer-grade video equipment. That's an achievement, yet the real power of the film is the engrossing emotional journey of actors Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able. Their story, filmed in gritty, handheld verité style, has more in common with "Before Sunrise" or "Close Encounters" than "War of the Worlds." Pay attention to the film's nonchronological structure, and the finale will hit you with one of the most poignant and affecting twists in years.
13 "Get Low" is a winning blend of light drama and gallows humor. Robert Duvall plays a bitter hermit who hires hustling mortician Bill Murray to throw a send-off party while he's still alive. Sissy Spacek is a woman from Duvall's past who puzzles out his motives and calls him to account. Set in Depression-era Tennessee, the film has a burnished beauty, with shabby buildings and glorious nature side by side. As the "crazy old nutter," Duvall gives yet another bravura performance, an emotional dance of the seven veils revealing a man who is strong, capable, courtly, and burdened by pain and loss. It's a great turn by one of America's finest actors.
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