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Most Overlooked/Underappreciated Films of 2009

We see a lot of movies every year, and there are always those films that we end up sitting in awe of in an empty theater wondering, “Where is everybody?” These are the films that for whatever mystical reason slipped through cracks, were ignored by critics and given the cold shoulder to by audiences. We feel a Netflix account is vital to anyone even remotely interested in film, and if you haven’t seen these we urge you skip the crap that’s filling up theaters over the next two months, add these to your queue and catch up with some great films you missed in the last year.

Btw, in case you missed these related features:
The Best Films of the Year [ed. picks only]
The Worst Films of the Year
The Most Underrated Films of the Year
The Most Disappointing & Overrated Films of the Year
The Breakthrough Performances of the Year
The Dumbest Projects Announced This Year

Two Lovers
If this is indeed Joaquin Phoenix’s last film role, then what a way to go. In easily his best role to date, he inhabits the role Leonard, an emotionally shattered man, awkwardly trying to put his pain behind him and uneasily looking to find love again. To that end, he becomes ensnared by two women, the wilder Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow) and the patient Sandra (Vinessa Shaw). Both excited and confused by these women, Leonard is a rollercoaster of emotion and is by turns outgoing and withdrawn, confident and dismissive. But it’s Phoenix’s utterly brilliant performance that captures Leonard’s complexity that makes it so fascinating. As for the completely undersung director James Gray, he is in such command of the camera here it’s utterly breathtaking. The film is imbued with such beautifully understated sequences
Sandra’s confession and the restaurant scene with Elias Koteas are particular standouts that they are practically film classes in and of themselves. As with many of our favorite films this year, this is one doesn’t revel in histrionics or big emotional scenes (when it so easily could), but heart-wrenchingly explodes with small moments, hesitant words and desperate longing.

The beach serves as a powerful setting in German filmmaker Christian Petzold‘s sophomore feature, a modern reimagining of “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” In scenes rife with physical intensity, Benno Fürmann plays Thomas, a striking Adonis of a man, hulking and authoritative, completely opaque and an emotional blank slate. Dishonorably discharged by the military, he soon finds a job working for Turkish immigrant Ali (Hilmi Sözer), and later has an affair with his wife Laura, played by the great young actress Nina Hoss (who is quickly gaining cache as one of world cinema’s most skilled actresses). Both native Germans, Thomas and Laura find themselves shamed by their relationship to the wealthy outsider Ali, a kind of resent which spurns a cultural and class-based conflict that informs many of the picture’s wordless stretches. Dialogue may be minimal throughout and the plot as simple as they come, but just the way Petzold positions his subjects within a frame says more about them and is more piercing than any other gestures could be.

Five Minutes Of Heaven
Briefly buzzed about early in 2009 for James Nesbitt‘s performance, the film was acquired by IFC and then pretty much dumped into a very limited theatrical run/On Demand release, never letting the film find the audience it should have (we ended up seeing it on a plane). But the film, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel (“Downfall,” “The Experiment“), certainly deserves better than being watched on a seven inch screen while waiting desperately for the drink cart to come around. This taut, nervy thriller about a man who gets the chance to meet the man who killed his brother in the religious battles of 1970s Belfast is an unflinching look at the toll of guilt, vegeance and anger that lies in the wake of terrorism. Featuring a blistering performance by Nesbitt, who is matched by a surprisingly dialed down Liam Neeson, this is one that shouldn’t be missed.

The Limits of Control
This methodically paced, slow burn minimalist masterpiece left a lot of critics confounded or indifferent, which is a crime, because Jim Jarmusch‘s immersive exploration of process, inspiration and creative focus is one of the year’s most singular and satisfying films. Following a hitman on a mysterious, slowly unfolding mission, Jarmusch is
less interested in plot intricacies that delving into the ritual of the task at hand. Loaded with deadpan humor, boasting a phenomenal soundtrack (featuring Boris, Sunn O))) and Earth) and graced with inspired lensing by Christopher Doyle (the closing shot is genius), “The Limits Of Control” is zen perfection.

Food Inc.

Too lazy to have finished Eric Schlosser‘s “Fast Food Nation” (guilty as charged, halfway through), and turned off by Richard Linklater‘s uneven adaptation of that work? Robert Kenner‘s insightful and compelling look inside the corporate controlled food industry is the perfect companion piece/stand-in if you missed the original works. Pretty damning no matter how you slice it, you can call it liberal, conspiracy theory angling all you want, but this much seems clear: like every other industry in America, the almighty dollar is God and therefore our health and the quality of the food that’s produced for us on massive scale will always take a backseat to profit. While it might not change your eating habits, it is a potent reminder that food choices can be in our control if we make the effort.


Erick Zonca‘s twisty, Mexico-set noir-ish thriller about a desperate, alcoholic woman (an amazing Tilda Swinton) who tries to extort money from a millionaire, using a young boy as bait might have been uneven and semi-convoluted, but it certainly deserved a much better fate (it was essentially totally ignored). As mentioned, Swinton’s Julia character is a selfish, reckless, degenerate ready to put anyone’s life at risk, if it benefits hers. One of the most vulgar female characters we’ve seen on screen in a long time, Swinton dove into the role headfirst, never looking back and perhaps like her mad character, not giving a rat’s ass if she looked foolish. It’s a compelling film and her performance alone is worth the price of admission.

Korean-American filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung film takes on a major conflict: the Rwandan genocide. And depending on your opinion of Terry George‘s “Hotel Rwanda,” “Munyurangabo” may be the first narrative film to capture the lingering spirit of the conflict in a realistic and honest way. About a young Tutsi boy, an orphan of the genocide, who vows to avenge his parents with the help of Hutu friend, the duo are immediately sidetracked by Sangwa’s decision to stop and visit his family. The film then unexpectedly stalls, and an examination of the lasting prejudices between Hutus and Tutsis becomes central, as does the complex dynamic between the members of an impoverished Rwandan family. Chung’s deft compositional sense, deliberate pace and sympathetic rendering of youthful characters stifled by a harsh culture and familial expectation is sublime. However, the real masterstroke here is a long-form, single-take poem – a moment in the film where fiction and non-fiction blur.

The Informant!
If you didn’t think that Steven Soderbergh’s gonzo whistleblower farce was deliberately goofy and tongue-in-cheek, just listen to Marvin Hamlish’s score for God’s sakes. But at some point, the tale of a spineless agriculture executive turned equally spineless spy (a superb Matt Damon), turns into something darker and more psychologically complex – a portrait of a man dealing with mental illness. When the movie makes that switch (via its outstanding, and rare use of great voice over
– the unreliable narrator), the entire movie shifts gears and becomes even more brilliant. “The Informant!” is proof that even Soderbergh’s “lesser” (ie. more populist) films require deeper consideration and multiple viewings.

It’s easy to see why Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden‘s followup to their critically acclaimed debut “Half Nelson” didn’t make the splash it should have. Misleadingly sold as a baseball movie, that’s only telling the half the story. Yes, while the first half of the film does concern the trials and tribulations of Dominican ball players trying to make it to the big show, the second act shift (which confounded many critics) opens up the film into a brave and honest look at the promise and compromises of the American dream. Fleck and Boden’s film brilliantly finds the common values that binds immigrants, Middle America and big city dreamers and makes the case that the nation has more than enough room
and heart for us all.

Bright Star
Fuck “Avatar,” “Precious” and “Up In The Air” — this is the best of film of the year. Jane Campion‘s breathtaking, gorgeous and deliriously romantic tale about the chaste affair betw
een poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne knocked our socks off. Bolstered by a star-making turn by the sublime Abbie Cornish, Campion’s film miraculously transmits the passion and desire of two characters who by circumstance and stature are unable to spend very much time together, but who regardless, fall madly, deeply in love. Featuring painterly cinematography by Greig Fraser and an impeccable eye for detail, Campion’s lush film has been unforgivably overlooked by both critics and audiences and deserves so much better. And jeers to Sony for shafting the film even more by giving it a DVD only release, when its gorgeous vistas practically scream for BluRay.

Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn‘s 7th film hit some of us like a lightning bolt from heaven; it positively electrified us. The true-life tale of small time hooligan Michael Peterson (Tom Hardy) who spent 30 of his 34 years in prison locked in solitary confinement. Assuming the name of his favorite vengeful action hero and occasionally taking part in underground fighting rings beating up gypsies and dogs, he is a larger than life character through-and-through. But this isn’t a movie where the performance outweighs the movie because, under the sure-handed direction of Winding Refn (of the “Pusher” trilogy), he transforms it into a performance art piece of violence and destruction. Rarely is mayhem this stylish and emotionally satisfying.

Red Cliff
Just thinking about how this movie, a gorgeously rendered historical epic with a total running time of 280 minutes, was truncated to a mere 148 minutes and dumped On Demand and X-Box Live at the time of its theatrical release, is enough to ruffle any respectable film fan’s feathers. This movie deserved the biggest screen around. But none of its release hiccups could dilute the impact of the original big daddy version of John Woo’s finest film in more than a decade. Too complicated to properly describe; it’s an embarrassment of riches (and solidifies our mancrush on Tony Leung). Hopefully this signals a return-to-form for the Hong Kong director and not a one-shot anomaly. Please, no more “Paycheck” films.

The Messenger
Without the weight of a major studio or big indie behind it (the new, tiny but awesome Oscilloscope have picked it up) “The Messenger” has been criminally overlooked this awards season. If “The Hurt Locker” took audiences right into the heat and chaos of Iraq, this film bravely brings us face to face with the difficulties that lie in the war’s wake on the home front. Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster play officers who must notify the families of slain soldiers while preventing the job from becoming too personal. The directorial debut by writer Oren Moverman (“I’m Not There,” “Jesus’ Son“) is wonderfully organic, allowing Harrelson and Foster to give two of the finest performances we saw all year. Moving, powerful and thoughtful, “The Messenger” is a reminder that long after the battle has left the Middle East it will continue to have repercussions here at home.

Austrian Gotz Spielmann‘s “Revanche” is a slow burning revenge saga that avoids the rhythms of, say, a Coen Brothers thriller, and favors a more meditative pace (especially in its last act), patiently observing its protagonist in the throes of moral crisis. But not everything in “Revanche” is so heady: it’s also a film of nerve-racking suspense, and one that uses a voyeuristic device similar to that in Florian Henckel von Donnersmark‘s “The Lives of Others” to both give insight into these characters and to build an overwhelming tension that earns a satisfying climax. Though slightly longwinded, the striking composition of nearly every frame, communicates an undeniable sense of loneliness and isolation. “Revanche” is one of the most accomplished films of the year from a very promising (and relatively new) international talent (and earned the attention of the folks over at Criterion, who will be issuing the film on DVD/BluRay next month).

Princess and the Frog
Disney’s “The Princess and the Frog” was a better musical than “Nine” and a better movie about the underprivileged female black experience in America than “Precious.” Also, it had a lot of voodoo, which both of those movies sorely lacked. A glorious return to traditional 2-D animation, Ron Clements and John Musker’s beautiful, under-seen gem hit all the right notes in a jazzy update of the classic “Frog Prince” fairy tale set in New Orleans’ French Quarter. Between the catchy-as-fuck Randy Newman songs and the spritely animation, it was hard not to fall in love with this handcrafted fable, as dazzling and engaging as any work of computer generated trickery.

Honorable mention:
Frederick Wiseman‘s almost three-hour-long ballet documentary “Le Danse,” which became kind of hynoptic
art by the end, and “Paper Heart” which most people seemed to loathe — it ended up on a lot of Worst Films of the year lists — but it’s actually pretty charming and funny in spots and nothing really worth hating on.
Hell, many — if not 80-90% of the picks in our editor’s Best Films of 2009 list were definitely overlooked and underrated so be sure to revisit that list as well. — Kevin Jagernauth, Drew Taylor, Sam Mac & RP

Posted via web from MovieDriver – Hollywood Teamster

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