You can look at this list as a sequel of sorts to lists that J.D. and I wrote in 2006. The Top 10 Overlooked Movies lists were designed to give you something to rent that you may not have heard about or had the wrong idea about. Think of this as an updated version of that list, inspired in part by the new Ricky Gervais film “The Invention of Lying,” opening this weekend. He starred in a great little romantic comedy from last year that disappeared from theaters without a trace (see #10) and it got me thinking again: What other new-ish movies do I never hear anything about anymore? What happens to great films after they suffer disappointing box office runs? The answer? They turn up here.
If you have an idea for your own Top 10 list, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
10. Ghost Town (2008)
He saw dead people, but nobody saw this movie. As a self-centered dentist who must grapple with the fact that dead people are suddenly asking him favors at every turn, Ricky Gervais is just testy enough to feel make the silly seem authentic—and very, very funny. He also pulls off the tricky task of convincing an audience to love a prickly bastard and root for his romance with ghost Greg Kinnear’s widow (Tea Leoni). Writer/director David Koepp peppers his movie with just enough cynicism and to keep “Ghost Town” from falling into bad rom-com Hell, and when things do get a little sappy, it actually works.
9. Zathura (2005)
This is the little-seen kids-oriented movie that Jon Favreau directed right before he did “Iron Man.” On the surface, it’s a story about a house that gets transported without warning into outer space by a mysterious board game. There’s a visiting spaceman, a giant robot, and the lizard-like Zorgons to contend with, but most of all, “Zathura” is about the camaraderie and friendship of two young brothers (Josh Hutcherson and Jonah Bobo) that’s always marred by varying degrees of competition and jealousy. Favreau shows that even before “Iron Man” he knew how to strike just the right balance between character and fantasy. (Sidenote: It was co-adapted from the book by David Koepp, who also co-wrote and directed “Ghost Town.” Weird.)
8. The Lookout (2007)
Having adapted the Elmore Leonard novels “Get Shorty” and “Out of Sight,” screenwriter Scott Frank makes a sure-handed directorial debut with this modest crime caper set in Kansas City. Chris (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is crippled with guilt and not able to function at a normal cognitive level anymore after a tragic high school car accident. His roommate is a blind father figure played by Jeff Daniels. Things get complicated for Chris when he meets a shady new crowd and they draft him into a scheme that he isn’t entirely aware of. Gordon-Levitt (who would go on to do “500 Days of Summer” and “G.I. Joe” this year) shines as the regretful loner and Matthew Goode (“Watchmen”) is magnetic as his new friend. The crime element is well-played, but its the characters you’ll really remember.
7. The Upside of Anger (2005)
The best female performance of 2005 in any movie was Joan Allen’s funny and fearless turn in a misrepresented film called “The Upside of Anger.” The hard-drinking, hard-charging Terry Ann Wolfmeyer is the razor-sharp creation of writer/director Mike Binder and, though you may think from the ad campaign that it is a touchy-feely family film, you’ll know from the moment you see Allen dismiss her daughter’s dreams in a fierce verbal barrage that you are in for more than you bargained for. Snappy dialogue is a rare find in Hollywood these days, and Allen and co-star Kevin Costner are on their game in this biting movie that avoids sinking into sentimentality until the moment it becomes almost unbearable not to.
6. The New World (2005)
The fact that the touching love story between John Smith (Colin Farrell) and young native princess Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher) in Jamestown, Virginia probably never took place does not take away from writer/director Terrence Malick’s ability to tap into an emotional core that few directors achieve. The movie feels strange and new, like the English explorers must have felt coming upon a land unseen by “civilized” eyes, or how the native Algonquin people must have felt seeing those huge ships sail up to their shores. It also dismantles the entire rose-colored vision of America’s discovery and re-imagines historical events like the first Thanksgiving, all with the director’s trademark impressionistic style.
5. The Matador (2005)
Although he travels to exotic locales and is paid handsomely to be a “facilitator of fatalities,” Julian (Pierce Brosnan) is desperate and lost. He’s losing his knack for being a hitman, and realizes the trivial nature of his existence. His life is a series of frenzied one-night stands when he meets a mild-mannered salesman in Mexico City (Greg Kinnear). The two form an unlikely friendship, and soon Kinnear is doing all sorts of things he shouldn’t be. This is a funny, stylish movie from writer/director Richard Shepard that constantly feels as if it’s going to fall apart, yet it never quite does. It also showcases a depraved comedic side of Brosnan that is kind of a shock after all those years of playing the suave James Bond.
4. The Fountain (2006)
Before the neo-realism of “The Wrestler,” director Darren Aronofsky achieved a unique kind of narrative cohesion that defied traditional plot-driven mechanics with this lovely, stirring, and personal film. The combination of moody music, beautiful visuals, and rhythmic editing transports viewers back and forth through 16th Century Spain, a present-day medical struggle, the Fountain of Youth, the Tree of Life, and a future where Hugh Jackman floats through space in a clear bubble. While the ultimate meaning of the film may be up for interpretation, there’s no denying the film’s power to overtake the viewer. It’s narrative cohesion comes not from story, but rather the exquisiteness of its images and its transcendent life/death themes.
3. The Black Dahlia (2006)
Brian DePalma’s hugely theatrical adaptation of James Ellroy’s dark novel is one of the most criminally misunderstood movies in recent memory. Advertised as a film based on the real-life events surrounding L.A.’s most notorious unsolved murders, audiences and critics were instead treated to the pulpy, operatic descent into darkness of two 1940s L.A. cops (Aaron Eckhart and Josh Hartnett) and the woman they both love (Scarlett Johansson). Flamboyant camerawork and extravagant set design apparently weren’t enough to clue people in that this was meant to be a lusty and overheated soap opera set against the backdrop of a sick and twisted Hollywood. This is black noir the likes of which have never been seen, and the exaggerated acting by all involved is just part of the fun. This one is destined for a re-evaluation.
2. Speed Racer
To dismiss one of the most inventive movies in recent memory as a candy-colored assault on the senses is missing the point completely. This groundbreaking offering from the Wachowski brothers was unfairly bashed like no other movie last year. Like most films that are ahead of their time, though, I’m sure that “Speed Racer” will have its day. Rather than depicting reality, 14 different effects houses worked together to create a new form of “layered unreality” where nothing that is seen on the screen can actually exist in real life. The goal? A live-action interpretation of Japanese anime. The effects teams literally pieced together layer upon layer, essentially becoming the production design heads and “virtual” cinematographers. The pacing is frenetic, and the movie is probably too long for its own good, but as a bold experiment in storytelling, nothing else from last year is as invigorating.
1. Broken Flowers (2005)
Jim Jarmusch’s “Broken Flowers” tackles life’s ambiguous big picture and comes up with– guess what?– more ambiguity. A compelling portrait of loneliness tied together by a mystery plot, this meditative film has a wide-open array of interpretations. What it does subtly and surely, by putting Bill Murray’s eminently likable face on a character who stands in for our own existential nightmares, is ask us to face our own past and future. Does examining one’s regret require a complete flameout like Murray’s unfortunate Don Johnston, or will the inevitable march of time deal us cards of redemption? Murray keeps his hand close to his chest, wearing his best Poker face, and standing in for the viewer throughout. Devious in its simplicity, “Broken Flowers” has two transcendent moments of truth for every one silly and charming moment. Murray is alternately heartbreaking and hilarious in a role that Jarmusch wrote specifically for him, and there are no two better supporting performances in 2005 than the ones by Frances Conroy and Jeffrey Wright.