Read any "Best Of" lists, lately? Were they a soporific mix of Inglourious Basterds, Precious, * and Up in the Air? With more than 300 movies released in 2009, many direct-to-DVD or video-on-demand, aren't there any worthwhile films beyond the publicist-approved 25 that will appear on almost every single list? Yes! So here's my own highly subjective list of the Top 10 movies (plus two extras) that were overlooked in 2009.
Armored. It's the Reservoir Dogs formula: Get six talented character actors to pull a heist, then lock them in a warehouse and watch them self-destruct. The genre mandates a certain amount of predictability, but the director (Nimrod Antal of Kontroll and the equally fuel-efficient Vacancy) and his cast (Matt Dillon, Laurence Fishburne, Jean Reno, Skeet Ulrich, Fred Ward, and Columbus Short) turn this into a stripped down, blue collar version of the pulp crowd-pleaser Taken only set in mid-recession America instead of Paris and without the xenophobia. (Released theatrically in December 2009.)
The Chaser. A massive glut of crummy, overproduced movies caused the Korean film industry to implode in late 2006, but after the dust settled, a series of gritty, intense, low budget films became word-of-mouth hits. The best of the bunch is The Chaser, a nasty thriller that unfolds over the course of one very long, very ugly night in Seoul. A pimp's best girl goes missing, and he's convinced that she's been abducted by a serial killer. As she struggles to escape, he tries to track down her last client and the tension gets ratcheted up with one sweaty-palmed set piece after another. Ace performances, impeccable technical credits, a screenplay as sadistic as a Hitchcock film, and an ending that will reduce audiences to numb, emotionally devastated wrecks—this is what thrillers were made to do. (Released VOD in April 2009)
Crank 2: High Voltage. The sequel to the underrated Jason Statham vehicle Crank, this movie is totally tasteless, crammed with racial stereotypes, excessively sexist, and has more energy, imagination, and ambition in any 60 seconds than most films have in their entire running times. Badass Chev Chelios (Statham) has his heart swiped by black market organ thieves in the first five minutes, and for the rest of the movie he has to keep his pacemaker fully charged by any means necessary while tracking down his missing love muscle. With appearances by Dwight Yoakam, David Carradine, Bai Ling, and Spice Girl Geri Halliwell, Crank 2 is the kind of stupid/smart free-for-all that gives trash a good name. * (Released theatrically in April 2009)
Grace. Horror movies don't get any more horrific than Grace, which finds one of our few remaining taboos (pregnancy), sticks it with a clawed finger and then wiggles it around. A nice vegan lady is having a baby and doing it the old fashioned way, complete with midwife and birthing pool. Then the fetus dies in an accident. Then she decides to carry its corpse to term. Then the baby is born and it's moving and breathing. Then it's somehow still dead? Zombies are the new cute, but Grace makes them upsetting again. (Released August 2009 ... in two theaters)
Just Another Love Story. Ole Bornedal is Denmark's best-kept secret, a gleefully intense, surefooted journeyman who's directed everything from bloody thrillers to children's films. This time, it's a twisted love song about a happily married dad who causes a car accident, putting the other driver in a coma. The sexy young victim wakes up with amnesia and the dad, stupidly, pretends to be her missing boyfriend. If you can accept these two plot contrivances you're in for an emotional ride that takes a god's-eye view of very smart people making very bad choices, all in the name of love. (Released on three screens in January 2009)
Mirageman. Forget The Dark Knight, this is the best superhero movie you've never seen. Chilean martial arts star, Marko Zaror, plays a nightclub bouncer who rescues a reporter from a mugging, becomes a media sensation, and transforms himself into a DIY superhero. With no stunt double and no special effects, Zaror will make you believe a man can fly (through the air, while kicking three guys in the face). It's a hilarious, two-fisted send-up of the genre … yet director Ernesto Díaz Espinoza deeply mistrusts superheroes and the movie builds to a slow-burning Taxi Driver ending that takes down the entire idea of the masked vigilante and buries it six feet under. (Released direct to video in October 2009)
Not Quite Hollywood. Documentaries that include Quentin Tarantino's talking head should normally be avoided, but NQH manages to harness the big-chinned Boy Scout's lightning-bolt enthusiasm to resurrect some respect for a forgotten genre: Australian exploitation cinema. Even if you're shy about documentaries, rest assured: Shining a light on Oz's shock 'n' schlock films of the '70s and '80s isn't a scholarly snooze. Dennis Hopper, Jamie Lee Curtis, and George Lazenby are on hand to dish the dirt but it's the film clips, ranging from Razorback (killer pig!) to Howling III (were-kangaroos!) to BMX Bandits (Nicole Kidman!) that make this one of the most entertaining films of the year. (Arthouse release in July 2009)
Passing Strange: The Movie. It's cheating to put a concert film on this list, but Spike Lee's record of the final three performances of the musical Passing Strange takes you to church and fires up your soul. It's the sweaty, rousing, ironic, whip-smart, and intensely moving story of a middle-class black kid in 1970s Los Angeles who grows up, discovers music, and joins a Berlin art commune. Stew, the writer and composer, presides over the show as its narrator and by the time he's ringing out the changes in the chest-exploding curtain call number, you'll wonder how you got through your life without him. (A very limited art-house release in August 2009)
Pontypool. One part experimental theater, one part zombie movie, Pontypool gives you the end of the world with only four actors and one set … and it takes place in Canada. Sounds rough, but in this William S. Burroughs nightmare, language has malfunctioned and it's turning Canadians into bloodthirsty zombies. We're trapped in a provincial radio station where controversial shock jock Grant Mazzy (an unforgettable Stephen McHattie) and his producers bring the news of the apocalypse to early morning drivers. Language becomes a virus from outer space in this majestic end-of-the-world flick that proves you can be really big by going really small. (Barely theatrically released in March, 2009)
World's Greatest Dad. The current pop culture moment is all about degradation comedy (The Office, Borat) but no one goes further or deeper than Bobcat Goldthwait with his third film, World's Greatest Dad. Robin William's life blossoms after his hideous teenaged son (played by Spy Kid Daryl Sabara)dies in a masturbation accident and Williams ghostwrites "the biggest posthumous autobiography since The Diary of Anne Frank." Is it funny? Not really. Does it rely too hard on its pop soundtrack? Sure. But it manages to find the humanity in humiliation, and it contains a performance by Robin Williams so restrained and subtle that it clears Patch Adams from his karmic debt load. (VOD release in July 2009)
Best Undistributed Film
Love Exposure. Sion Sono's four-hour epic about cults, Catholicism, up-skirt photography, porn, imprisonment, gang fights, brainwashing, guilt, redemption, sexual abuse, and true love became a massive hit with teenagers across Japan and inspired rabid devotion among those lucky enough to catch it at film festivals.
A Town Called Panic. Action has a new hero: Horse, a small, plastic horse who lives with a tiny plastic cowboy and a little plastic Indian somewhere in Belgium. See Horse, Cowboy, and Indian plunge to the center of the Earth! Fear as they are attacked by a mechanical penguin! Smell the stink of the sea creatures who oppress them! Time after time, it's Horse's coolness under pressure and his desire to learn the piano that brings them through the raging inferno of danger and safely out on the other side. A stop-motion, animated epic made entirely with toys, it's currently getting a very limited art-house release.
Correction, Dec. 31, 2009: This article originally misspelled Dwight Yoakam's last name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
Correction, Jan. 4, 2010: This article originally and incorrectly shortened the name of the film Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire as Push. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)