When people look back on the early years of the new millennium they'll remember it for movies like The Dark Knight and Lord of the Rings. Or they'll geek out with their friends about the cult classics they discovered together, rewatching copies of the original version of Donnie Darko or spreading around copies of Idiocracy and laughing at its accuracy. Or we'll remember the prestige movies, the big Oscar winners like No Country For Old Men and Chicago.
But in a better world, maybe we'd remember these movies. These are the other guys, the great films you missed through circumstance or stupidity, through studio stumbling or simply bad timing. The best movies don't always get seen, the best movies don't always win the awards. This isn't a list of critically acclaimed indies which didn't do well at the box office, or films with huge fan followings which couldn't get anyone else to turn out (sorry Serenity). Nor is this a list of movies which flopped at the box office but later found cult success. These movies fell between the cracks and never really found the audience they deserved. When you're thinking back on the aughts, you won’t think of these films, but maybe you should. Consider giving these movies a second chance. Unique and strange, funny and weird, challenging and sexy; they're the most unfairly overlooked movies of the past decade.
Black Snake Moan (2007)
Samuel L. Jackson will be forever remembered for Pulp Fiction but he gives the best performance of his career as Lazarus, an aging, god-fearing blues man in Black Snake Moan. When he finds a half-naked, whored-up party girl (Christina Ricci) lying in his driveway, he carries the beaten up, high, and unconscious hottie into his house, nurses her back to physical health, and soon decides the writhing, sexed-up, drugged out girl's mental health is his responsibility as well. His southern hospitality goes a little too far when he chains the girl to his radiator to keep her out of trouble, but despite the chains Black Snake Moan is a movie about healing and redemption. Writer/director Craig Brewer's film is smart and savvy but the movie's also a big bomb of sensuality and southern grit. Soulful, down and dirty blues grinds its way through the movie as the soundtrack of Lazarus's life. It's sweet sound that stitches this underappreciated, brazen film together. Why didn't anyone see it? I can't explain it as anything other than uptight Americans skipping it based on the posters which featured Ricci scantily clad and in chains. Ironically, it's a deeply spiritual film, one with a lot of good things to say about the religious fervor which likely kept audiences away in the first place.
Shane Black's wicked script and the spot on timing of Robert Downey Jr., and most especially Val Kilmer as the hilariously named detective Gay Perry, made Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang the most badass piece of film noir since Fred MacMurray dropped dead in Double Indemnity. But this was before Robert Downey's big return to the limelight, back when he was still in recovery mode and everyone still seemed to be boycotting him. So this murder mystery went unwatched and what should have been Robert Downey's coming out party ended up on dusty, video store shelves where it was eventually shoved out of the way to make room for more copies of Iron Man. But it's better than Iron Man and ten times more fun. The chemistry between Kilmer and Downey is spot on, they're a classic on screen duo the kind which deserves a whole series of movies. Now the continuing adventures of Harry Lockhart and Gay Perry will never happen and all I can do is plead with you to hop on to Netflix and give Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang a chance.
Zack and Miri Make A Porno (2008)
It was supposed to be filmmaker Kevin Smith's breakout hit but whether because of bad timing or bad titling Zack and Miri barely managed to tread water, bringing in the same, limited crowd which show up for all of his films. But this was the Kevin Smith that deserved to be seen by the masses, a raunch-comedy of Apatow proportions which kills with out of control laughs and adult sincerity. It features stellar performances from Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks, who, come together in one awkwardly perfect moment to create what is almost without question one of the greatest, most strangely moving fully-clothed sex scenes ever captured on screen. It's also sweet, really sweet and romantic in a way the title probably doesn't suggest. Most of all though it's funny, really funny, in a way we'll probably never see from Smith again. The movie's failure has prompted the indie director to abandon his more personal filmmaking style in favor of taking on big studio projects. The next time you see his name on screen, it'll be in the closing credits of a buddy cop movie.
Bill Paxton is at his absolute freakiest in this little seen horror movie about fundamentalism gone awry. At first he's father to a happy little family. Father and two sons, they live in small-town Texas minding their own business, until of course Dad gets a message from God. God says there are demons in the world and it's up to Pop and his sons to destroy them. One catch, the demons look like normal, every day humans. Older brother Fenton is skeptical but his young brother Tommy has a case of hero worship, and does whatever Dad says. As the kids are perverted and twisted into serial killers and as the body count rises, the movie becomes a spine-tingling thriller of the highest order; a slow, creepy build with a mind-blowing twist ending that would have left you shattered if, of course, you'd seen it. Paxton is brilliant and sympathetic… even while scaring the hell out of you. Most of all it's the subtle little touches that make it so goddamn disturbing. There's a moment when Dad threatens a supposed demon with an axe and in the background, if you listen closely you'll hear Tommy whisper, "kill him" off camera and in the background. It's a small touch, but one that sticks with you in the dark ride on the way home. Is that Tommy whispering for your death in the seat behind you? Maybe you're a demon. Maybe you deserve death.
The Girl Next Door (2004)
The Girl Next Door had the gross misfortune to be released at the height of America's religious fervor back in 2004. The Passion of the Christ was the biggest movie in the world and covering up Janet Jackson's nipples was our new obsession. So it's no surprise that a no holds barred teen raunch-comedy would slip out of theaters with barely a notice. That doesn't make it right. Sure The Girl Next Door is down with nudity and sex as entertainment and sure a lot of it takes place at a porn convention. But Emile Hirsch plays the lead and makes it something special beyond that, with a character that it becomes impossible not to identify with while whatever crazy hijinks ensue. It's legitimately hilarious and beneath the movie's tits and ass veneer is a movie that John Hughes would have been proud to call his own back in 1984. Timothy Olyphaunt steals scenes as a porn king and the movie's soundtrack kicks ass. Even now it seems like somewhere along the way there should be some sort of cult audience for a movie like this. Maybe it'll find it yet.
City of Ember (2008)
We've been awash in second-rate fantasy movies since the very first Lord of the Rings, so perhaps it's understandable that audiences would give this one a pass, assuming perhaps that it's another lame entry in the vein of Legend of the Seeker. City of Ember is anything but. It dared to be different. The story of a lost, steam-powered city buried deep beneath the ground after the apocalypse should have been a crowd pleaser with stunning, eye-popping set design and a big stars in Tim Robbins and Bill Murray. Unfortunately 20th Century Fox seemed to forget to advertise it and its detailed set design and complex world of decaying civilization unspooled unwatched in theaters. Still there's never been anything quite like City of Ember, a complete picture of a dying civilization and the struggle of a scant few to find a way to escape it. It's ambitious and smart, and nothing like any other fantasy movie you've seen.
Jet Li's Fearless (2006)
While over the past decade other aging action stars like Jackie Chan abandoned their ass-kicking ways in favor of Disney-style babysitter comedies, Jet Li delivered one of the biggest roundhouse kicks of his career. Jet Li's Fearless embodied everything that has made Li, Li. As so many of these movies are, it's set in China's past, but in a way that's utterly grounded. There's no fantasy here and the fight scenes are gritty and feel completely real. They're even more eye-popping because of it and it contains some of the best fights this side of Drunken Master II. But more than that, it's a deeply personal film for Li and it shows in his performance which is, easily, the best of his career. It's based on the life of Huo Yuanjia, a real person who changed the path of Chinese fighting away from killing towards a simple battle of skill. He made it dishonorable for fighters to kill their opponents in the ring, and started the Jin Wu Sports Federation to ensure that future generations would learn from his mistakes. Apparently one member of those future generations was Jet Li who delivers a movie of deep honor, style, and intensity. And you missed it.
Take The Hunt for Red October and turn it into a ghost story and you'd have Below, the scariest movies ever to take place below the waves. In the midst of World War II the submarine U.S.S. Tiger Shark prowls the ocean on a rescue mission. But below the surface, the sub's walls are closing in as the ship's shell-shocked crew falls prey to sensory delusions and mental madness which send them over the edge. Or is it real? The ship could be haunted or cursed and they could be a damned crew sinking rapidly toward their doom. It's a psychological thriller and a war movie and a study in what happens when men spend too much time in confined spaces all at once. Or maybe it really is the story of a horrific underwater haunting. Below keeps you guessing and wondering and scared shitless throughout it's entire running time. For some reason though, this taut little thriller never got a decent theatrical release. It was dumped in a couple of theaters without advertising where, it never had a chance. Now's your chance. Grab a copy on DVD, if you can find it.
Vile, seedy, and morally bankrupt Choke didn't contain any fight scenes so no one bothered to see it. Sex doesn't sell, apparently, but a good decapitation does. Amoral and filthy in the most glorious of ways, Choke starred Sam Rockwell as a sex addict and historical re-enactor who wanders through life screwing everyone he knows. Based on a book by Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk, it's viciously funny and, in a dark and twisted way, even a little poignant. But a confusing theatrical release pattern made it nearly impossible to figure out where or if it was ever playing and so Choke just sort of passed everyone by. Deep conversations about relationships are had during handjobs and true love is uncovered while trying to convince a stripper she has cancer. It's the film's seediest moments that seem the most real,when Victor's life is at its most despicable and unstable Choke shines. With the help of one of the coolest soundtracks you've never heard (Satan Said Dance!) it creates something unlike anything else you've never seen on screen.
Ghost Town (2008)
Do mainstream audiences know Ricky Gervais? Ghost Town proved rather definitively that they do not. Geeks know who Ricky is, but there simply aren't enough nerds left out there anymore to matter. They're all on the internet or they've morphed into Twilighters or something. But Ghost Town was a surprisingly smart, funny, and emotional movie. The premise seems stupid (A man talks to the dead? Doesn't seem fresh does it?) but Gervais was too brilliant to let it stay that way. He makes magic out of thin air. If only anyone had shown up to see him do it. What if Jesus had turned water into wine in an empty room? Would we still have Christianity? If people had bought tickets to Ghost Town, would we be praying to Ricky Gervais? Maybe we should be anyway.
25th Hour (2002)
In 25th Hour Edward Norton gives what is perhaps the best performance of his career in what is easily one of the best movie's of Spike Lee's filmography. Norton plays a convicted drug dealer headed to prison for seven years. Before he goes Monty Brogan has twenty-four hours to say goodbye, and he spends most of them coming to grips with his father and friends while venting his anger and frustration at the path he's taken. Anyone who's seen it will particularly remember Brogan's massive tirade against New York, America and everyone in it. "Fuck you all," says Monty Brogan as his anger pours out of the screen. It's Lee's most compelling and thoughtful film, one that puts a new spin on the types of choices we're all faced to make. You'll identify with Monty Brogan, or you would have, if the movie had gotten enough attention to talk people into seeing it. A little movie like this needs support from critics and awards givers and somehow, 25th Hour never really got it.
Open Range (2003)
The Western has been dead since Lonesome Dove and shows no sign of returning. When they're attempted we tend to instantly dismiss them, and usually with good reason, as yet another carbon copy of the hundreds of Westerns which have come before. Maybe that's why so much of the world missed out on Open Range, easily the best Western since Unforgiven and perhaps even worthy of being listed as one of the best ever made. Opening with a beautiful and irresistibly realistic portrayal of trail riding life, Open Range eventually morphs into a balls to the wall, shoot-em-up save the town flick. It's the chemistry between Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall that sells it, their interplay coming easy and slow, with a sometimes humorous and sometimes touching chemistry that would normally seem impossible to achieve with two such staunchly stoic characters. I suppose it also doesn't hurt that Duvall blows a guy to hell through a wall, with the rumbling blast of a killer shotgun. It's a visually stunning, gripping film. One which probably deserves to have been seen on the big screen, but since you missed that, just make sure you see it.
David Mamet's films are usually an acquired taste but Spartan is a rare Mamet effort that works on slightly more accessible level. Nameless special operations soldier played by Val Kilmer, at the forefront of a massive manhunt for a kidnapped VIP. Who Kilmer is and just who it is that he's hunting unfolds as a part of the events swirling around the film, never as a piece of obvious exposition that awkwardly lays things out for you. Mamet never really explains anything and the movie just sort of happens as if we've really stepped into the middle of something. And since it's a Mamet movie, yeah sometimes it's talky. But it's also an action packed, gritty thriller. An intense military puzzle which doesn't wait around for you to figure out the answers and leaves you with plenty to ponder later.
The Lookout (2007)
Scott Frank's brilliantly written and directed heist movie should have earned, at the least, an Oscar nomination for star Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Instead, in part because it was released too early in the year to stick with Oscar voters and in larger part because it never received any real promotion, almost no one seems to realize it exists. The Lookout stars Levitt as a young man with brain damage. He's not exactly stupid he just has trouble keeping things straight. Through circumstance he finds himself involved in a complicated heist plot and things spiral out of control while Levitt tries to remember brush his teeth. Jeff Daniels co-stars as a blind roommate and delivers one of the best visually impaired characters this side of Scent of a Woman. But Gordon-Levitt is the film's anchor and he's stupendous in his portrayal of a former prom king reduced to disability assistance and a janitorial job at the bank after a reckless accident. The heist plot is just the icing on the cake as Levitt's Chris Pratt gets in over his head.
Eagle vs. Shark (2007)
This is the movie Napoleon Dynamite wanted to be. Funny and quirky but without the vicious hatred for its own characters that seems to seep throughout Jared Hess's cult hit, Eagle vs. Shark is a beautiful and delicate where Dynamite is clumsy and stupid, an awkward film about awkward people looking for someone. It's the performance of unknown New Zealand actress Loren Horsley that really carries it. Lily is a completely magical character. Shy and uncomplaining, Lily says little but somehow says everything. Horsley makes her incredibly alive for a woman of so few words. On the outside she's a façade of almost painfully shy reserve, on the inside she burns with passion and bravery unmatched by any woman you're likely to see in any other film.
The Woodsman (2004)
It's a testament to just how good The Woodsman is that everyone ignored it. The topic is pedophilia and we're not talking about some revenge fantasy in which a pedophile gets his due. Instead it stars a pedophile and what's more a nearly sympathetic one. Kevin Bacon plays a man struggling with his own inner demons, as a recovering molester who served his time and now desperately wants to reintegrate into normal society. But he's at odds with himself, fighting to resist the urges inside him, his own lust for little kids. It's a compulsion. one which he doesn't want to give into but almost can't resist. The Woodsman tackles its topic with unflinching determination, showing the true face of what is definitely a sickness, without in any way condoning it. Bacon deserved and Oscar and the film deserved accolades, but awards givers and critics mostly refused to touch it, scared away by just how raw and real The Woodsman is. Without anyone to champion it, most audiences never even heard about it, and so what may be Kevin Bacon's greatest and most horrifying performance sits on a DVD somewhere, unwatched and underappreciated.
Grindhouse was the most fun to be had in theaters in a decade, so of course no one bothered to show up for it. Audiences were confused by the premise and intimidated by the four or five hours necessary to sit through two movies back to back. But those who took the plunge had a blast. Sure Tarantino's half, Death Proof, is talky and slow. There's a decent car chase, but he spends most of his running time wandering around the rural areas outside Austin with annoying coeds. But the fake movie trailers shown during intermission are comedic gold and Robert Rodriguez's zombie film, Planet Terror, is as insane and over the top as Tarantino's movie is not. It's more than enough to compensate for Quentin's inexplicable naval gazing. He has a stripper with a machine gun leg! What's not to love? The real tragedy here is that it's just not something you can properly experience at home on DVD. Grindhouse is all about atmosphere, and you can't get atmosphere at home on your couch. If you missed it in theaters, then you missed it.
The Weather Man (2005)
Nic Cage's complicated character study The Weather Man is downbeat and dejected, by design. So maybe it's understandable that no one showed up to see it. Sure it's not the quick and easy gratification we're used to but there's something emotionally connected about Gore Verbinski's movie. Cage has taken a lot of crap for making, well, crap over this past decade. But this is one of his true gems. It's the story of a weatherman named Dave, but not a meteorologist, who's good at his job but finds no satisfaction in it. He only spends two hours a day doing actual work, the rest is spent looking awkward and unimpressive while the real meteorologist figures out what Dave is supposed to say. Sometimes people throw things at David. His life is going badly and that's just one of the symptoms. Weirdly, it's so downbeat it's actually funny. The jokes and the misery play off one another, amplified by the contrast between them. At some point Dave's unhappiness becomes so profound it becomes intentionally hilarious.
The Notorious Bettie Page (2005)
In an era of sexual repression Bettie Page got out the whips and chains, but there's more to her biopic than the kink you've seen on posters flaunting the iconic pin-up. Gretchen Mol delivers an epic performance as Page, who, didn't really understand the impact her pictures had in a time when sexual repression and censorship fought with freedom. She challenged the establishment, but almost inadvertently. For Bettie, it was just a good time playing dress up. The story of America's first sex icon is compelling and yeah, of course, also sexy as hell. But mostly it's the story of a beautiful, purely innocent soul and a love for life which made her sometimes dark pinup pictures endure and end up on your bi-sexual girlfriend's t-shirt. Unfortunately awards voters overlooked Mol's performance and, of course, general audiences were scared off by nudity. Oh the irony.
Stardust was really weird, but knew it and seemed to have no problem poking fun at itself and the fantasy genre for just how strange it all is. That wickedly sarcastic sense of fun made the story of a boy's quest to save a fallen star (which happens to be a woman) with the help of unicorns and gay air pirates one of the most inspired bits of filmmaking in the last decade. A lot of the credit has to go to director Matthew Vaughn who took an 80s story in the vein of Willow or The Dark Crystal and used his own sense of style to make a completely unique fantasy film. So of course no one saw it. As funny and engaging as the movie was, it proved too challenging for the average moviegoer. Stardust was another flop. Let's hope Matthew Vaughn's next movie, the equally inventive looking superhero movie Kick-Ass, fares better.
Open Water (2003)
Open Water is the exact opposite of almost every horror movie you've seen lately. A couple on holiday goes scuba diving and through accidental circumstances gets abandoned out in the ocean without a boat, all alone, with sharks circling around. What follows is pure, gut-wrenching terror as they float together, waiting for death as sharks circle and clouds form and things go from bleak to certain doom. It's an exercise in stripped down restraint, almost the entire movie is spent on these two people. It works because they seem so real, they're any couple you've known. Maybe they're you and your mate. Open Water is Jaws on a much more intimate and personal level. Its unflinching, uncompromising approach not only makes you afraid to go in the water, but makes you question all sorts of things about the way you spend whatever amount of time you have left on rock hard earth. It's the kind of movie Paranormal Activity was supposed to be, and wasn't. So of course no one saw it, preferring instead to watch the same horror movie over and over again, in which a large man with a knife chops off pretty girls' heads.
Death at a Funeral (2007)
It's getting remade with Chris Rock in the lead but before you bother with the redo you owe it to yourself to catch the original, one of the funniest movies no one has ever seen. Directed by the great Frank Oz, Death at a Funeral takes an ensemble cast and drops them into the funeral from hell. There's a blackmailing midget and a drugged out Alan Tudyk. The body in the casket isn't the family's beloved father and the oldest son is trying to keep it a secret. Cranky uncles and insane family members abound. The only reason you haven't already seen it and pronounced it one of your favorite movies is because, for some inexplicable reason, MGM never bothered to market it. Even surprisingly few critics saw it. There's literally no way the remake can top it, so why settle for second best when you can pick up the original comedic insanity on DVD?
The Wackness (2008)
The Wackness, despite a lot of buzz from blogs like this one, was another victim of Sony Pictures Classic. They're the indie distributor you don't want buying their movie. They release the occasional Rachel Getting Married but for the most part, SPC is where good indies go to die. And The Wackness is a good indie. Those who have seen it know that it's a special little film, a perfect homage to growing up in the 90s, even for those of us who didn't grow up in New York dealing pot. Josh Peck, who till now had shown no aptitude for well, anything, acts his ass off and Ben Kingsley does the most strangely effective and affecting Robin Williams impression I've seen since Williams did one of himself in Aladdin. Oh and it has one of the Olsen Twins! Wait, that may not seem like a positive. But really she doesn't suck. A movie where an Olsen Twin doesn't suck? Come on, that has to be something pretty dope doesn't? Seek it out. Watch it. Itunes the soundtrack and imagine the Fly Girls dancing in your living room while you listen. You'll thank me for it.
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