I like to feel like I’ve seen most of the movies on everyone else’s top ten lists before I compile mine. That being the case, my list is still not ready yet. So… since I’ve done posters and trailers already, I thought I’d offer up a different list. Here now, in alphabetical order, are the 10 best movies I saw last year that were not released last year. If you’ve seen them, great, but if you haven’t, fire up the queue and then tell me what you thought.
Blow Out (1981)
I’d seen some of this before but Criterion released it on Blu-ray, so I gave it a complete re-watch. Glad I did. It’s a thriller from director Brian De Palma starring John Travolta in what might be his best performance. Travolta plays a sound man for “B” pictures and one night he accidentally records a murder. He finds himself caught in the middle of a strange conspiracy with politicians, prostitutes, and serial killers. It’s a total riff on Antonioni and Coppola, as well as De Palma’s usual penchant for Hitchcock. But De Palma makes it his. It’s a tense thrill ride with fantastic camera tricks and wonderful lighting courtesy of the great cinematographer, Vilmos Zsigmond. It’s a brilliant statement on sound and film, as well as obsession. John Lithgow is creepy as ever. There’s a fun 80’s score by Pino Donaggio. Every set-piece one ups the last. The final moments are truly haunting.
Yes, another De Palma, and with good reason. Carrie was on my shame list, so I rectified that situation and was completely blown away. Carrie is of course the Stephen King adaptation about the strange and sheltered teenager with special psychic powers. Sissy Spacek plays the titular role and she nails it. I thought I knew what this film would be like; I was so so wrong, and so happy for it. I thought Carrie would be using her powers left and right, that it would be cheesy and I don’t know what else. It’s so much more than I ever thought. For starters, there’s the wonderful girls locker room opening. It’s amazing. You get T&A in sumptuous slo-mo, but then De Palma pulls the rug right out and turns it into the film’s thematic creed. By the time the film reaches its operatic climax, I wasn’t just on edge; I was fully invested in every character. Horror doesn’t get much better than this.
This seems like the most daunting film to watch. It’s 3 hours long, not full of happy endings, and there are no real sets or props. The film is shot on a stage with chalk outlines designating houses, doors, gardens etc. The actors mime a lot. And it’s all shot with director Lars Von Trier’s usual digital handheld camera. But it’s really good, so look past all that and give it a shot. Nicole Kidman is on the run and comes across a small town. There she must rely on the kindness of strangers to protect her. Unfortunately for her, the film is a morality play where the staging is not a gimmick but a statement. You get used to the style quickly and are sucked into the dark and beautiful storytelling. There’s vicious sarcasm to the narration and the cast is uniformly great. It’s not anti-American but anti-people, and why not?
Kicking and Screaming (1995)
Not the Will Ferrell soccer film, but writer/director Noah Baumbach’s sublime debut. There’s not a lot of plot: a bunch of college friends graduate and then can’t decide or commit to doing anything next. The best example of this is the Eric Stoltz character. He has been going to college for over 10 years and has no aspirations other than to stay in college and tend the local bar, spouting his wisdom. It’s a very funny movie and the cast is terrific, especially Chris “I can’t understand why he’s not in every movie” Eigeman. There are many, many quotable moments, but it doesn’t feel like a spoiled kid with a degree showing off how witty he is. It’s all very natural and honest and in the end a little romantic. It’s like a Whit Stillman movie and a Woody Allen movie had a slacker lovechild.
The Last Days of Disco (1998)
Speaking of Whit Stillman, I finally watched his criminally under-seen gem. Maybe it was the shitty trailer, or Boogie Nights being so great, but this never looked appealing. How very wrong I was. It’s a lot like Kicking and Screaming, only replace the stunted college grads with stunted yuppies and throw in an awesome disco soundtrack. There’s even a clever discussion on what it mean to be a yuppie. The cast is really good: Kate Beckinsale, Chloe Sevigny, Robert Sean Leonard, Mackenzie Astin, Matt Keeslar and (look who it is again) Chris “I can’t understand why he’s not in every movie” Eigeman. All the characters fall in and out of relationships, with the local disco as a backdrop. It’s lovingly nostalgic but not without some sardonic wit. The film’s greatness resides in the many, many awesome monologues that are hilarious, poignant, and worth watching a second time. The Lady and the Tramp dissection alone is worth the price of admission.
McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)
I run hot and cold on writer/director Robert Altman, but McCabe and Mrs. Miller is a masterpiece. It’s another gorgeous movie from cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond. It’s shot like a faded photograph and the images are evocative of a not too distant past. Warren Beatty is the smooth talking McCabe and Julie Christie is the ambitious madam, Mrs. Miller. The two form an unlikely business partnership in the mining town of Presbyterian Church. The film is a bit of an anti-western, not in an Unforgiven way but more like Deadwood. It’s very unique. Men shoot men in the back (sometimes unprovoked), sex and violence are in the foreground, Leonard Cohen’s music is wonderfully anachronistic, and gun-slinging takes a backseat for other dynamics. Beatty and Christie are in top form, and Altman allows the drama to bloom organically and the movie is all the more powerful for it.
The most unique take on the zombie-genre I’ve seen in years. It’s a talkie, zero bullets-to-the-brain kind of movie with one principal set. Stephen McHattie plays a radio DJ in a small Canadian town. Through news updates during his morning show it becomes clear that some kind of outbreak is happening outside the station. As society crumbles around him, McHattie and his producer race to discover just what the fuck is going on while trying to survive. The third act goes into some bizzarro territory, but I liked the strangeness. I also appreciate someone thinking of a new cause for people turning into zombies other than a virus or what have you. Even though the film is more of a thinking man’s zombie film, there are still a few good scares and a little gore for those who demand it. It’s what I imagine a zombie film directed by Orson Welles would look like.
Prince of the City (1981)
After Sidney Lumet died, I went and watched some of his films I’d never seen before. The guy was prolific, so I still have plenty to catch up with, but this 3-hour crime epic must surely be one of his best. It stars a very young Treat Williams as a narcotics detective in a special unit. He and his partners, including Jerry Orbach, are a little dirty. His conscience gets the best of him, so he starts naming names and wearing a wire, but he swears he won’t turn on his partners. What follows is an engaging look at New York City cops, politicians, and crime in the late 70’s. Williams owns this movie. The film really explores how hard it can be to do the right thing and how it’s hard to know what that is sometimes. It’s similar territory as Lumet’s Serpico. I honestly liked this film more, and Serpico is pretty fucking good. Also, I know the title doesn’t sound great, but it is much better in context (something that was most likely more common knowledge back then, since this is based on real events).
Still Walking (2008)
A heartbreaking family drama from Japanese writer/director Hirokazu Kore-eda, the movie is about a family gathering to commemorate the death of their eldest son. As the story unfolds, we slowly learn what happened but more importantly we come to know this family. Through routine and custom, we see how each member interacts with the other and how the family tragedy has changed this. It all takes place over the course of a long day, but the film is never dull. You’d be surprised how riveting it can be to watch an extended family sit down to eat. And oh the food. Few films will make your mouth water and belly grumble like Still Walking. The Criterion DVD even comes with a few of the recipes for the meals featured. Sometimes the simplest stories can be the most dramatic, and despite a lack of flash, this film is pretty great. The epilogue is one of the most quietly devastating endings I’ve seen in a long time.
I sought this early Michael Mann film out because a lot of people were comparing it to Drive. Well, they were right. Thief stars James Caan as a master criminal and sometime car dealer. He doesn’t like to take chances on scores that are too big and he doesn’t like to answer to anyone. Against his better judgment, but with a new romance changing his outlook, Caan agrees to do a job for Robert Prosky. From what I’ve seen this is James Caan’s best performance. The mammoth monologue he delivers in a diner might have something to do with that, but Caan really commands the screen. Tangerine Dream provide a great atmospheric 80’s score, and Michael Mann does the rest. It has the “last big job” plot but it doesn’t feel stale. Mann brings his great ear for dialogue, attention to detail, and thirst for authenticity. It’s a character study disguised as a crime caper. So basically half of Heat crossed with Drive…um, yes please.
Let me know if you’ve seen any of these and whether or not you agree. In the meantime I’ll be watching more movies from every year, and I swear I’ll have my top ten done soon.