Looking back at the films that I’ve covered this year for Rover, not one strikes me as a “best of year” contender, though some of my favourites have been covered by others for the site (A Serious Man and Star Trek, to name only two). With this in mind, the following list presents ten overlooked, under-seen and/or under-appreciated Hollywood films from 2009.
The criterion for this list was simple: I wanted to point readers towards some films that aren’t likely to be part of the awards season discussion, which has been in full swing since the opening of the ’09 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). At the end of each paragraph, you’ll find a brief statement about what kind of awards categories the film in question should be considered for in a perfect world, even though I fully expect the Academy to ignore them in favour of more expected choices. So don’t expect to see Up in the Air, Avatar, Precious, or any of the other frontrunners below!
Richard Kelly’s poorly received follow-up to the even-more-poorly received Southland Tales takes the Donnie Darko director back to period filmmaking, which gives him a tremendous opportunity to showcase his astute eye for mise-en-scene details: everything in the frame oozes a thick ‘70s vibe that really adds to the authenticity of the piece. Kelly expanded Richard Matheson’s incredibly-short story “Button, Button” into a feature-length science-fiction drama, incorporating elements from his own childhood as well as the 1980s Twilight Zone episode inspired by the same story. The results are mixed: the story is less captivating than the visuals, but the latter alone should be enough to enthral anyone willing to go along with the narrative’s necessarily hastily explained sci-fi conceits.
If the world were just The Box would at least be considered for nominations in categories like Production and Costume Design, if not Visual Effects as well … but even I wouldn’t campaign for a Best Adapted Screenplay nod.
Brothers (now in theatres)
This film seemed to come and go earlier this month, but it’s worth hunting down if Avatar and The Chipmunks haven’t stolen all of its screens yet. Brothers doesn’t exactly break any ground on the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder that hasn’t been covered by other works (Coming Home, First Blood), but what’s remarkable about the film isn’t its narrative, but rather the performances. What’s even more remarkable is that, in a film that contains career-best turns from both Natalie Portman and Tobey Maguire, 10-year old Bailee Madison gives the best performance, stealing every scene she appears in from such stalwarts as the aforementioned Portman and Maguire, as well as Jake Gyllenhaal (who himself is no slouch). If you were turned off by the trailer (which seems to spoil the entire narrative arc), rest assured that it doesn’t really represent what the film is or where it takes its characters.
If the world were just Bailee Madison would not only be nominated for Best Supporting Actress, she’d take home the trophy. This is the best performance from a child actor that I’ve ever seen. Keep your eyes on this kid.
The Brothers Bloom (now on DVD and Blu-ray)
Rian Johnson’s sophomore effort, after the much-loved indie debut Brick, is colourful and infectious fun in the quirky vein of Wes Anderson, albeit without the latter’s clinical formalism. Even though Bloom fails to display Johnson’s originality as well as his first film, the story of two conmen brothers (Adrian Brody and Mark Ruffalo), their mute assistant (Rinko Kikuchi from Babel), and their mark/damsel who may or may not know more than she seems, comes to life through incredible costume work, and especially the memorable score by the director’s cousin, Nathan Johnson.
If the world were just The Brothers Bloom would be on the short-list for nominations for its score, production and costume design, and Kikuchi, who was nominated previously for her work in Babel, would grab another nod for Best Supporting Actress. You might not guess it, but she acquits herself here like a modern-day Harpo Marx!
Drag Me to Hell (now on DVD and Blu-ray, in theatrical and director’s cut editions)
Sam Raimi’s return to horror didn’t find much of an audience when it debuted in theatres this past summer, which is especially disappointing since it doesn’t give studios much of an incentive to support films like this over generic, by-the-numbers remakes like this year’s Friday the 13th reboot. Myself, I’ve already picked up the Blu-ray and can’t wait to revisit this overlooked-and-underappreciated gem! More fun than any horror film in recent memory, and full of wonderfully repulsing special effects (though the digital effects can go, thank you very much), this is the kind of film I’d love to see Raimi take on between each instalment of the Spider-Man franchise.
If the world were just Drag Me to Hell would have grossed more than The Final Destination. Let’s just move on.
Funny People (now on DVD and Blu-ray)
Judd Apatow’s third directorial effort shows not only his maturation as a filmmaker, but of his entire stable of talent, including Seth Rogan, Jonah Hill, and Leslie Mann. As was the case with Brothers, the trailer seemed to give the entire arc of the film away, which may have kept it from doing the kind of business that Adam Sandler’s films usually do (I bet they could have sold it better without using the “Sandler is dying” angle at all). Even so, Funny People is hardly aimed at Sandler’s regular audience; rather, this film is much more of a Raging Bull (just replace boxing with stand-up comedy) via James L. Brooks, in which we can’t help but be compelled by a protagonist that we despise. It’s startling to see how closely the character’s career trajectory resembles Sandler’s; it saddening to see that this film’s financial failure isn’t going to allow him to escape his character’s fate (exhibit A: the trailer for Sandler’s next, Grown-Ups).
If the world were just we’d see Best Picture and a Best Director nod for Apatow (though the screenplay probably could have used a bit of work, especially in the third act). Adam Sandler proves he can actually act for the first time since the transcendent Punch Drunk Love, and I’d love to see him rewarded with a Best Actor nomination (and give Leslie Mann a Best Actress nod while you’re at it: Meryl Streep doesn’t need two!).
Lymelife (now on DVD)
This Martin Scorsese-produced film first came to my attention when it debuted at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival, but 2009 saw it come to Montreal in a limited theatrical release. Featuring an extremely strong cast with universally great performances, the film is the best examination of a childhood defined by the mutual hatred of your parents since Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale. It’s full of moments of remarkable honesty and authenticity, from Rory (“the youngest”) Culkin’s shirtless posturing as Han Solo in his bedroom mirror, to the same character’s awkward de-flowering of Emma Roberts as his life-long girl-next-door crush.
If the world were just the younger Culkins would no longer be relegated to playing differently aged versions of the same character: they each deserve their moment in the limelight. Lymelife should be a strong contender for any awards ceremony that has a Best Ensemble category. (And I haven’t even mentioned Alec Baldwin, Jill Hennessey, Timothy Hutton or Cynthia Nixon, who play the parents of the young actors mentioned above.)
Orphan (now on DVD and Blu-ray)
The trailer for Orphan made it look like a generic, by-the-numbers “evil child” picture—which it is, but rest assured, it’s more than just The Bad Seed for the 00’s. The film that came to mind was actually Rosemary’s Baby: despite the title, the narrative is much more interested in the psychology of the adoptive mother (played by Vera Farmiga) and father (played by Peter Sarsgaard). I have to admit that, when I first saw the trailer, I wondered what such great actors were doing in such a poor looking film, but I needn’t have doubted their choice. Orphan is first-rate psychological horror—the most monstrous thing little Esther does in the film is give her mother a bouquet of flowers (obviously this doesn’t play out of context)—punctuated by an out-of-way-left-field twist that takes the third act into ever-more disturbing terrain.
If the world were just Vera Farmiga would earn just as much Oscar buzz for her work here as in Up in the Air.
Paper Heart (now on DVD and Blu-ray)
You’ve seen Charlyne Yi in small roles on 30 Rock and in Knocked Up, but you’ve probably not found her annoying if you haven’t seen Paper Heart. Half-documentary, half-verité fiction, Yi’s breakout is what you get when you take the “magic pixie dream girl” archetype and make her a fully fleshed-out human being rather than a quirky means to the male protagonist’s self-discovery (see Garden State). Yi is charming and vulnerable as herself, and her romance with Michael Cera (also playing himself) easily trumps the overrated (500) Days of Summer as the indie romance of the year.
If the world were just Yi would grab a Best Song nomination for her ode to Cera’s scent, “Magic Perfume.” Here’s a sample of the lyrics: “You pick me off the ground / And I don’t know if it’s such a good idea ’cause you’re way down there and I’m way up here / You have really long arms / So why don’t you use them to hold me tight?” Trust me, it’s charming in context.
Paul Blart: Mall Cop (now on DVD and Blu-ray)
So long, credibility. Seriously though, Paul Blart wins the battle of the 2009 Mall Cop movies (easily, even: Observe and Report is nihilistic and dreadful). With his moustache, Segway, and preference for “hand-written sentiments” over text messages (I’m with him on that one), Blart is actually a wonderful character who is easy to root for. His love interest, played by Jayma Mays (of Glee fame), is appropriately mousey and wide-eyed. There’s not one unpredictable beat in the script, but Mall Cop nevertheless charms on the level of characterization. It’s so rare to see overweight people in a comedy with actual depth: Blart and his daughter’s lives are legitimately sad, and are never played for easy fat jokes. It’s nice to see a film that emphasizes such character rather than mocking and pitying them.
If the world were just I could admit to liking Paul Blart: Mall Cop without fear of being stripped of my credentials as a film critic.
Watchmen (now on DVD and Blu-ray, in theatrical, director’s cut, and “ultimate cut” editions)
If there’s one thing Zack Snyder knows how to do, it’s make the static images of comics move. And if the insufferable 300 is any indication, the quality of the resulting film depends less on him than on his source material. I don’t mean to undermine the achievement of screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse, who did an incredible job of condensing Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s “unadaptable” 12-part graphic novel into a 162 minute feature. Snyder, of course, has a knack with visual effects, and Watchmen is full of evocative imagery (much of which gained in beauty in the transition from the page to screen). Where Watchmen has gone unsung, however, is in its performances: while Jackie Earle Haley got some early Oscar buzz for playing Rorschach, the universally decried Malin Akerman as Silk Spectre II is the true soul of the film, and Billy Crudup is stunning in an almost-entirely motion-captured performance as the computer generated Dr. Manhattan. I worry that Watchmen has been mostly forgotten by the general public by now (the film was released in March), but for me, the film represents a challenge to all superhero films in the future. Move over, Avatar: Watchmen was the real game-changer.
If the world were just Watchmen would get its much-deserved Best Visual Effects and Best Adapted Screenplay nominations. I wouldn’t complain if Haley got a statue for Rorschach, either.