While navigating the mega-blockbusters that fill cineplexes all year, it’s probable that you missed the films that never make it to the big theatres, or that only get shown on one screen for two weeks.
It’s sad indeed knowing that there are many excellent movies that will never get the kudos they deserve. But never fear friends. Below you’ll find some of the best films that went by with minimal fanfare this year in the hopes of guiding your movie rentals this January.
(In the interest of fairness, I’ve only included films that had some sort of theatrical release this year, even it was only a short run, and avoided films that are still on the festival circuit.)
“Agora” is for those who crave intelligence and historical verisimilitude in their toga epics. In 4th century AD Alexandria, Greek philosopher and teacher Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) ponders the mysteries of the cosmos while in the background a new religion rises to prominence: Christianity. She finds herself caught in the middle, refusing to align with either the Christians or the old Roman gods.
“Agora” is about the clash of science and religion. On one-side stands Hypatia, who refuses to waver in her atheistic beliefs and on the other, the Christians of Alexandria who feel her teachings are an affront to all they believe. It’s an all too familiar theme but in “Agora” it has a fresh spark. In the 4th century, Christianity was still in its awkward tween years, trying to map out the influence it would have in the world. This is what “Agora” shows, in more than just the film’s plot. Aerial views of the Christian mob taking Alexandria look like waves ebbing and flowing through the streets and alleys of the city and provide a perfect visual representation of the central conflict of the film.
Weisz carries “Agora” capably, in a performance that went far too unnoticed by many critics. She is neither saint nor sinner; instead she plays a woman who is simply driven by a desire for knowledge. The real-life Hypatia was a believer in the heliocentric model of the universe (that silly notion that the sun is the centre of our universe), and watching Hypatia philosophize on screen is as interesting as the battles that rage throughout the movie.
I have something to admit: I have not seen “Four Lions.” However, as I wait patiently for it to appear on screens in the Great White North (or for a screener to show up at my door), it is currently making the rounds at rep theatres all across the United States and has already been distributed in the UK. I recommend it because of all the films I heard of this year there hasn’t been one that has been so glowingly reviewed and recommended than this one. It even merited a full spread in Empire Magazine.
“Four Lions” is a pitch-black comedy. Four would-be-terrorists living in London plot to bomb a major London landmark. The only problem? Each one is more inept than the other. They fumble through their plan with Clouseau-esque lack of grace. Hopefully IJM will be able to provide you with a full review soon, but in lieu of that keep you eyes out for this outrageous gem.
Imagine your favorite John Hughes film. Now imagine that film with a protagonist who believes he is the incarnation of Marxist leader Leon Trotsky. Add union-sympathetic themes and a May-Decemeber romance between an 18 year-old and a 24 year-old law student (think Ashton and Demi, not Bruce and the model he married). That sums up “The Trotsky,” a Canadian feature that went on a limited theatrical run in Canada and the States. It’s a strange, strange concept but it works in a very satisfying way. Leon Bronstien, played by Montreal native Jay Baruchel, is going through something all teens go through. He’s finding himself. It just so happens that finding himself involves channeling the soul of a dead Communist leader and radicalizing his high school peers against the appropriately totalitarian principal (Colm Feore). On the whole, it’s probably not much weirder than listening to Marilyn Manson and wearing black lipstick to school.
Baruchel is charming, albeit a little old, in the role of Leon. He’s the cool kid who’s just a little outside the norm like Ferris Bueller or John Bender, and you find yourself rooting for him. The film also has its share of laugh-out-loud moments. Leon organizes a school dance in which students have to dress up as their favourite revolutionary figures which had much of my theatre in stitches. Overall, the film was very amusing and captured in many ways how frustrating a teen can be everyone, not just those incarnated from famous historical figures.
I have long tired of horror films that use a documentary format as an “original” concept (see my thoughts on “The Last Exorcism” earlier this year if you don’t believe me). Of course, the second I make this pronouncement is the one that I find a fake docu-horror that scared the living hell out of me. “Lake Mungo” is an Australian film that premiered at SXSW in 2009, and went on a small theatrical run in January this year. It’s a shame that it didn’t get a wide release because this is a truly disturbing horror film.
It follows a family who, in the wake of the drowning death of their daughter, believe that she is haunting them. Unlike “The Last Exorcism” or “Paranormal Activity,” which mimics rough-cut camcorder style documentaries, “Lake Mungo” is a fully formed documentary, complete with interviews with friends and family and old home movies cut in with real life events. It was so convincingly done that I actually turned to my movie going partner and asked him if he was absolutely, positively sure that this wasn’t a real documentary.
“Lake Mungo” works as a horror movie because it plays with tension so well. Until the final five minutes of the film, you are never sure if the family is being haunted or if human mischief is at play. That uncertainty, and the questions it leaves, makes it a true original. This one is set for a 2011 American remake, so see it soon so you can brag to your friends that you saw it first.
“Best Worst Movie”
The film that is so bad it’s good; we all have at least one we enjoy. When we come across it on the TV in the wee hours of the night, we find ourselves drawn in and inevitably MST3K (my personal favourite is “Batman and Robin”). In fact, some of these movies we even love. That is what “Best Worst Movie” is about. It focuses on the terribly lovable film “Troll 2” and its strange ascent to cult status. When I reviewed this in October, I was struck by how it chronicled a phenomenon unique to cinema; the ability of fans to take ownership of films and ascribe their own meanings to them. That feeling hasn’t lessened since the less time I watched it. In fact I’ve come to realize that “Best Worst Movie” is really a love letter to all the odd and wonderful things people do to express their love for movies. If you are a film fan you owe it to yourself to see “Best Worst Movie.”
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