With all of the Best Of 2009 and Best Of/Worst Of Decade lists that have been published in print and online recently, I started to feel that there were some films that have been unfairly neglected. They’re movies that you saw over the past decade, but then they went on the shelf of your memory and haven’t been taken down since, despite the fact that you enjoyed them the first time around. I should note this post is partly inspired by Jim Emerson’s entry on his Scanners Blog, “The median-est of all movie lists of the decade.”
But whereas the aim of that post was to discuss fair to middling movies that might find their way onto repeated showings on TBS, I have a different set of personal criteria.
So, what kind of wonky rules did I use to compile the list? First, I looked back at my own log of movies watched from 2000-2009, either on DVD or in the theater. That totaled 739. Of course, not all of those were new releases. I tend to watch a lot of older films on DVD, and so I weeded those out. Then I went through the list, looking for movies that I remembered were either “excellent” or “above average.” I whittled it down further by deleting titles that received multiple Oscar nominations, and therefore a lot of press, but no wins (such as In the Bedroom and Good Night, and Good Luck, both outstanding films that came up empty the year they were nominated). What was left was a personal collection of nifty movies that I’d recommend to while away a lazy weekend. Again, these aren’t mediocre movies at all. I just think they’re a little bit hidden. My original title for this list, after all, was the “S#^t, I Forgot About That Movie—It Was Pretty Good!” list.
You’ll notice that most of the titles are from 2005 and earlier. That’s due to two (or rather, three) reasons:
- It’s easier to forget movies from earlier in the decade.
- The addition of children in 2005 and 2007 led to fewer movies being watched overall.
The Endurance (2000)
The story of Ernest Shackleton's failed 1914 attempt to cross Antarctica via the South Pole is documented in The Endurance. Shackleton's ship, the Endurance, became trapped in ice a few months into her journey. Three years later, the crew finally returned home. Amazingly, every man survived. Footage of the journey was captured by photographer Frank Hurley, and it has been incorporated into this amazing documentary, narrated by Liam Neeson. You can watch it for free, online now at this link: The Endurance.
Keeping the Faith (2000)
Edward Norton’s feature debut as a director was this light comedy starring himself and Ben Stiller as a young priest and rabbi both in love with the same woman, their childhood friend Anna, played by Jenna Elfman. Norton’s priest and Stiller’s rabbi are of the “hip” variety. They wear stylin’ duds and speak in plain talk to their respective congregations. But while the movie has some fun with religious behavior, it’s ultimately serious about its characters religious callings, which was kind of refreshing. And Jenna Elfman is cute as a button.
Shadow of the Vampire (2000)
The premise behind this fanciful movie is that Max Schreck, who played the vampire Nosferatu in the 1922 silent classic, was not just an actor, but a REAL vampire. Willem Dafoe was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his performance as Schreck. He’s always holding his spiky fingers close to his chest, as if he can barely resist ravishing the neck of one of the female leads on the set. John Malkovich plays the great director F.W. Murnau, who decides even after learning of his star’s “condition” that the show must go on. Here’s a sample of Shadow of the Vampire, as Murnau negotiates with his star.
Winged Migration (2001/2003)
Released in America in 2003 and nominated for a Best Documentary Feature Academy Award, Winged Migration is a spellbinding journey across the seven continents with thousands of birds as they make their way to their winter homes. The filmmakers spent four years capturing several different species of birds, including geese, storks, ducks, and even some exotic birds that look like they're wearing Moe's haircut from the Three Stooges. All along the way, we fly just inches away from the birds, thanks to the filmmakers' use of an ultra-light glider. This movie is a favorite of mine, and my children love it, too. Get it on Blu-ray if you have a player, it’ll be worth it.
Here’s an excerpt from the film.
The Cat’s Meow (2002)
Did William Randolph Hearst get away with murder on his yacht one day in 1924? Probably not really, but Orson Welles once recounted to Peter Bogdanovich the mysterious conditions surrounding the death of actor Thomas Ince, and Bogdanovich took that story and made it into The Cat’s Meow, a nifty little chamber drama with Kirsten Dunst (Marion Davies), Edward Herrmann (Hearst), Cary Elwes (Ince), and Eddie Izzard as Charlie Chaplin. Herrmann’s great accomplishment in the film is making you feel sympathy and sadness for the media titan, so desperate for the attention of Davies is he.
The Kid Stays In The Picture (2002)
Producer Robert Evans makes a fascinating case for himself to be the Guy Who Saved Paramount Pictures in the autobiographical documentary The Kid Stays in the Picture, based on his book of the same name. No, Evans didn't produce or direct the film, but he does narrate with a tanned, weather-beaten voice that says he's seen and done it all. Rosemary's Baby, Chinatown, and The Godfather were the films that gave him his stellar reputation. The ill-fated film The Cotton Club and personal troubles brought him down in the 1980s. Robert Evans doesn't exactly tell all (he leaves out several marriages in favor of waxing nostalgic about only one, to Ali McGraw), but there's plenty of great Hollywood dish in the film, and it's patched together in a kinetic style, like a hyper-realized Ken Burns film.
Down With Love (2003)
Down With Love both sends up and lovingly recreates the look and feel of late '50s-early ‘60s sex comedies, a la Rock Hudson and Doris Day. Heck, there's even a split screen sequence in the film that places its characters in hilariously compromising positions. Ewan McGregor stars as lad mag writer and playboy Catcher Block, determined to pull a fast one on the feminist author Barbara Novak (Renée Zellweger) by pretending to be a shy astronaut (!) from down south. The actors know they're hamming it up a little, and it's fun to watch. Novak eventually turns the tables on Catcher Block with a great monologue near the end of the film. David Hyde Pierce plays the sidekick, what would have been the Tony Randall character in the 1960s, and Randall himself has a fun cameo.
Here’s the opening scene. Note the intentional use of bad rear-projection effects!
Shattered Glass (2003)
It turns out the guy that played a teenaged Darth Vader could act, after all. In Shattered Glass, Hayden Christensen sweats bullets as Stephen Glass, the disgraced New Republic writer who was found to have fabricated quotes, sources, and even entire events to make his articles what he wanted them to be. Peter Sarsgaard is the editor that eventually discovers Glass's ruse. Glass's motives are not malicious; he just wants to be congratulated and praised. So when he can't get the story, he just makes it up. It's hard to make movies about reporters and writers thrilling, but director Billy Ray sets it up so that you're both simultaneously feeling sorry for this poor sap and hoping Sarsgaard will nail him. Killer Scene: Sarsgaard finally asks his reporter to take him to the scene of the story and recreate it.
Touching the Void (2003)
Touching the Void tells the story of Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, two young climbers who set out in the mid 1980s to scale the west face of Peru's Siula Grande, alpine style (tethered to one another). Their story is told in their own words, through separate interviews where the two men stare straight into the camera, and through a re-creation of their climb, using actor-climbers Brendan Mackey and Nicolas Aaron.
I once read that around 80% of the accidents that happen on a climb happen on the way down, and it would not be spoiling anything to say that something does go horribly wrong during Joe and Simon's descent. A ferocious storm whips up, and Joe slips, breaking his leg. The two devise a plan; Simon will lower Joe 300 feet at a time, using the rope that holds the two men together. But as the storm worsens, obscuring Simon's vision, he accidentally lowers Joe over the edge of a precipice. Feeling no movement for hours, and fearing he could be dragged down the mountain himself, Simon assumes Joe must be dead, and he cuts the rope. Joe's subsequent story of his solo descent from the mountain is riveting. Like The Endurance, this is another incredible story of survival.
House of Flying Daggers (2004)
House of Flying Daggers is an old-fashioned story at heart, but its gorgeous cinematography and graceful fight sequences, that seem more like dance, make it a dazzling experience. Ziyi Zhang, star of Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, plays Mei, a blind girl and member of a rebel army, who is freed from prison by a dashing stranger (Takeshi Kaneshiro) sent by the establishment to infiltrate Mei’s rebel army, the Flying Daggers. It would not be spoiling much to say that the dashing stranger and Mei’s journey across the countryside to meet up with the other members of the Flying Daggers is fraught with peril, and that the two eventually develop feelings for one another. This is a terrific yarn. The colorful palette of the film makes this one worth it on Blu-ray.
This YouTube clip hardly does it justice, but here’s Ziyi Zhang performing an extraordinary dance.
In 2004, Danny Boyle was known for the indie smash Trainspotting, about a close-knit group of heroin users in the U.K. Now, he's known for last year's Oscar-winning Best Picture, Slumdog Millionaire. Millions is a good-hearted film about two young British boys who find a sack of money on the eve of the conversion to the euro. Damian, the younger one, knows the Christian saints the way most kids know their favorite ballplayers. He wants to give the money to charity. His brother, Anthony, wants to keep the money for himself. The money's not theirs to begin with, of course. Nor does it belong to the robbers that stole it, and lost it along the train tracks near the boys' home. Who'll get the money? Who should get the money? This is a great, off-beat movie, perfect for families with kids about the boys' ages, 7 and 9.
The Terminal (2004)
Here is a sweet film in the tradition of Frank Capra from Steven Spielberg. Tom Hanks plays Viktor Navorsky, a man from the (fictional) country of Krakozhia, who becomes stranded in JFK Airport when war is his home country leaves him unable to return home, and unable to enter the United States because his passport is now invalid. Navorsky speaks hardly a word of English, but he learns the way things work in the airport terminal, and makes a living for himself there. He falls in love with a flight attendant played by Catherine Zeta-Jones; his nemesis is Immigration Officer Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci). Why has Navorsky come to America anyway? The revelation is as warm as the glow of the spotlight that illuminates tenor saxophonist Benny Golson in one of the few scenes that takes place outside the terminal. Incidentally, the terminal itself you see in The Terminal is a giant set that was built for the film, yet everything, from the fry cookers at Burger King to the coffee dispensers, was functional.
The Notorious Bettie Page (2006)
The Notorious Bettie Page is a romp through the world of the famous 1950s pinup queen that treats the opposing subjects of pornography and religion with equal weight, something that I found very refreshing. Page's Christianity is never mocked, and for that matter, neither are the anti-porn crusaders in the film. Sure, some of the acting was broadly played, but I never once felt a character was being made fun of. Gretchen Mol, hailed as the Next Big Thing in the late 1990s, had faded from the headlines, but she found a peach of a role here as Bettie Page.
Charlie Wilson's War (2007)
I once met the real Charlie Wilson when I was asked to do a tape-sync for All Things Considered. Basically, I sat in his hotel room at the Omni in San Antonio and held a mike up to him while Robert Siegel asked questions over the phone. Just out of school at the time, I really didn't know the extent of Wilson’s accomplishments, as a congressman and…otherwise. I remembered him as gracious and charming, and he had dark blue cowboy boots with the shape of Texas emblazoned on the front.
Charlie Wilson's War depicts Rep. Charlie Wilson's efforts to get the U.S. to aid the mujahideen in Afghanistan to beat back the Soviet invasion that began in 1979. He works with the CIA, with a big moneybags Texan (Julia Roberts), and anyone that'll give him half an ear. It's an entertaining and engaging story, with a message at the end: don't forget to clean up after yourself when engaging in conflicts abroad. Philip Seymour Hoffman was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of hot-tempered CIA operative Gust Avrakotos.
The Informant! (2009)
Matt Damon proves himself once again as one of our best character actors, as he slips into the shoes of Mark Whitacre, who blew the whistle on the Archer Daniels Midland company's price-fixing schemes in the 1990s. Whitacre approached the FBI, but then found himself in over his head as his own lies began to be exposed in the case, too. Damon is perfect as a guy that can't stop himself from talking, from telling the truth – or lying – or telling the truth again – or lying some more! The Informant! also features a great, jazzy score by Marvin Hamlisch.
So, there you have it -- fifteen hidden gems from the last decade, just waiting to be rediscovered. Happy viewing!