I usually do a piece each year around this time about the 5 films you may have missed from the previous cinematic year.
However, since we’re now at the halfway mark of the 2010s, here is the run-down of the 15 most overlooked films of the demi-decade.
The rules are simple: instead of focusing on the major award winners, obvious box-office hits and mainstream blockbusters from the past 5 years, I’ve chosen to bypass these in order to favour the films that may have unfairly gone under the radar…
Brace yourselves and take notes: it would be criminal to let these films pass you by.
As common sense dictates, we start with 2010… because that’s how the decade started…
5 landmark films of the year: Inception, Toy Story 3, Black Swan, The Social Network, Kick-Ass.
Top 3 overlooked films of 2010:
Top 3 overlooked films of 2010:
THE GHOST WRITER
An eerie political thriller from Polanski
Based on the best-seller by Robert Harris, this politically drenched thriller sees Ewan McGregor’s nameless quill-for-hire tapped to finish the memoirs of disgraced ex-Prime Minister Adam Lang. The latter is played by Pierce Brosnan, who is never better than when he’s reined in by a seasoned director. The simple task facing our nameless protagonist becomes a hefty headache when Lang is accused of sanctioning the torture of terror suspects. The World Court comes a’knocking, the press get involved and the PM’s tangled past slowly unravels. The ghost writer slowly begins to understand who he’s working for and what truly happened to his predecessor…
The parallels between the story and the Blair / Bush administrations are as clear a chilled bottle of vodka from the freezer. However, Roman Polanski never overdoes it and maintains a constant air of slow burning mystery, beautifully complemented by Alexandre Desplat’s terrific score. This allows the final and underrated twist to have a sizeable impact.
Oh you saw it coming, did you?
While The Ghost Writer is by no means a masterpiece, it is sorely overlooked, expertly orchestrated and a hugely suspenseful ride.
Boy meets girl… and aliens
It’s hard to come by new ground with sci-fi films dealing with alien invasions… Countless colonisation stories, weak plotlines and an overreliance on CGI are symptomatic of the genre. However, before Gareth Edwards tackled last year’s disappointing Godzilla, the then first-time director released a film in 2010 that proved the sci-fi genre still had some surprises up its tentacled sleeves.
This road movie with romance at its core and aliens as its backdrop was not only directed by Edwards, but also written, shot, designed and produced by the British wunderkind. The passion project’s premise? A NASA probe carrying alien samples inadvertently crashes upon its return to Earth, landing in Mexico. Parts of the Mexican nation become inhabited by Lovecraft-esque alien life forms and the area is quarantined. In comes photographer Andrew (Scoot McNairy), who has been hired to find and escort his boss’ daughter (Whitney Able) back to the US. Fate conspires against them, leading the pair with no choice but to cross the alien-infested zone in order to reach the US border.
Clever, powerfully allegorical and bizarrely moving in its realist approach, Monsters, like all good sci-fi films, holds the mirror up to reveal something about human nature in the present. In this case, it makes us wonder who the titular monsters truly are…
A brilliantly original piece of filmmaking.
Hard-hitting British realism at its best
British director Andrea Arnold delivered her second feature at the beginning of the 2010s, a heartbreaking story that stands out even at the decade’s halfway mark.
Newcomer Katie Jarvis is Mia, a volatile and angsty teen who, when she’s not breaking noses and enjoying a drink or five, breakdances. She’s good. Not brilliant, but her passion allows her to briefly forget the limitations life has dealt her. Things change when Mia’s damaged mum gets a new beau in the form of Michael Fassbender, already showing that his turn in 2008’s Hunger was no fluke.
A new father figure that could bring stability to Mia’s life or the start of something altogether more transgressive?
Jarvis is brilliant as Mia, giving a raw performance that works wonders with Fassbender’s more assured one. It’s this dynamic that is at the heart of a biting coming-of-age story which subtly tackles sexual awakening and the struggle to find an outlet for the good that’s inside you. Above all, Fish Tank’s impact resides in Arnold’s raw, Ken Loach-ian direction. She bypasses all the ‘dancing will allow you to break out of the estate’ schtick and realistically affirms that some dreams will sadly remain dreams.
A hard-hitting, oddly sensual and believable tale that should not go unnoticed.
Honourable mentions for 2010: Emma Stone-starrer Easy A; the hilariously hypnotic Scott Pilgrim vs the World.
5 landmark films of the year: The Skin I Live In, True Grit, Drive, The King’s Speech, Source Code.
Top 3 overlooked films of 2011:
Top 3 overlooked films of 2011:
TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY
The anti-007 trumps the year
Swedish director Tomas Alfredson (the man behind the terrific Let The Right One In) orchestrated the best film of 2011, a brilliantly crafted adaptation of John Le Carré’s 1974 spy novel. It is the best kind of whodunit, an incredibly tense story about betrayal, paranoia and loneliness, all set in Cold War Britain.
The atmosphere is palpable, thanks to Alfredson’s direction, Hoyte van Hoytema’s austere cinematography and Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O’Connor’s tight script. Add the sheer amount of acting talent involved and sparks fly. Every character is flawlessly portrayed by the dizzying roll call: John Hurt, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Mark Strong, Toby Jones, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ciaran Hinds… They all unleash a collaborative thespian blitzkrieg in which all their characters have the potential to be either knights or pawns.
The star of the show is undeniably Gary Oldman, who delivered one of his most measured and powerful performances, one that should have nabbed him a well-deserved Oscar.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a cerebral, melancholic and absorbing spy ballet that has, to this day, yet to be trumped.
The Fass is at it again…
For their second collaboration (the first being Hunger and the latest 12 Years A Slave), director Steve McQueen and actor Michael Fassbender pulled out all the stops. They delivered a stunning, credible and harrowingly bold exploration of sex addiction.
While McQueen’s assured direction shows to what extent his Oscar-winning 12 Years A Slave was no out-of-the-blue accident, Shame’s powerful impact rests strongly on Fassbender’s performing shoulders. The endlessly versatile actor is here literally and figuratively naked on screen, giving a daring and complex turn that only few have managed to parallel in the last 5 years.
One scene in particular stands out in this mesmerizing and beautifully uncomfortable film: a wordless conversation on public transport. Fassbender’s Brandon is on the tube, eyeing a gorgeous redhead. Their silent interaction manages to exert a wide spectrum of emotions, all without the utterance of a single word. It is, like the film as a whole, palpably sexual, expertly photographed and nothing short of masterful.
A true masterpiece.
And you’re gonna hear Tom roar…
Overshadowed by The Fighter, released the same year, Warrior deserved so much more than to play second fiddle…
Ex-marine Tommy (Tom Hardy) mysteriously returns home to Pittsburgh. He plans to enrol in the biggest mixed martial arts competition there is. His estranged father (Nick Nolte) will train him. Concordantly, the alienated second brother in this dysfunctional familial tripod, Brendan (Joel Edgerton), has some financial issues. Wanting to save his family from selling the house, he enrols in the same competition.
While the above spiel may have you rolling your eyes, Gavin O’Connor’s Warrior effectively goes beyond its clichéd premise and delivers a proper gut punch.
Parts are predictable (the training sequences and certain emotional beats) but nothing stops Warrior from out-Rockying Rocky and affirming itself as one of the best sports films in recent years. It does this thanks to impeccably choreographed fight scenes and spot-on performances from all three headliners: Hardy is quietly terrifying, Edgerton calmly intense and Nolte is heartbreaking as the reformed alcoholic and abusive father who seeks forgiveness.
Conventional at times? Maybe. Not the most subtle film? Sure. But you’ll be hard pressed to find a film in the last 5 years that had you air-punching this hard.
Honourable mentions for 2011: Sean Durkin’s debut Martha Marcy May Marlene; David Michod’s crime noir Animal Kingdom.
5 landmark films of the year: Skyfall, Argo, The Avengers, The Master, Beasts of the Southern Wild.
Top 3 overlooked films of 2012:
Top 3 overlooked films of 2012:
Liar, liar, pants on fire
This stranger-than-fiction documentary may just be the best film of the past 5 years…
In 1994, a Texan teenager by the name of Nicolas Barclay disappears without a trace, leaving his family distraught and hungry for answers. Three years after the disappearance, the family receives word Nicolas has been found in Spain. They pick him up and are so desperate to believe he’s safely back that they don’t notice their boy is now in his mid-twenties… He is actually Frédéric Bourdin, a talented con-man known as the Chameleon. The latter is a man desperate to be anybody other than himself. As bewildering as it may seem, he manages to convince the Texan family that he is their missing child, despite not looking or even sounding like Nicolas.
How did Bourdin pull this off? How was the family so easily conned? Is it a case of grief and hope blinding the senses or is there a much darker explanation?
Director Bart Layton mixes elements of documentary (archive footage), narrative filmmaking (silent dramatic re-enactments) and the use of real-life testimonies. It is all perfectly and seamlessly interwoven, making The Imposter as suspenseful and as chilling as any of the best noir thrillers in recent years. It is without a doubt one of the most intoxicating films of the 2010s and will undoubtedly be up there with the best at the end of the decade.
Killing in the name of…?
Jay and Gal are ex-military and now freelancing hitmen. They get a job consisting of topping off three targets. The names are given to them on the titular list.
Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it?
It never is though…
Each target brings its lot of questions. Who are the two actually working for? Why is Gal’s new girlfriend so keen on Jay’s family? What does that vaguely-reminiscent-of-the-Blair-Witch-symbol mean? Why do listed victims all thank Jay before they are executed?
Ben Wheatley’s film requires a strong stomach and a love for the cryptic. Kill List goes from being a kitchen sink melodrama to a hitman genre piece, and finally becomes a tense Lynchian nightmare in the final act. The director subtly interweaves these genres and adds some clues along the way. This makes rewatching Kill List an immensely rewarding experience.
It is a thrilling, surprising and often baffling film which leaves an indelible mark. Above all, it is peerless in its genre-pushing ambitions.
SOUND OF MY VOICE
Is she? Isn’t she? Aaaaaargh!
Moon. Primer. Chronocrimenes. Sci-fi films dealing with time travel don’t need a huge budget to brilliantly tackle the genre.
Sound Of My Voice is about an aspiring documentary-making couple who successfully infiltrate a cult. They are determined to covertly film the proceedings and expose its leader, an ethereally beautiful young woman who claims to be from the future. The year 2054, to be precise. Holed up in a basement and dependent on an oxygen tank, the softly charismatic leader maintains she has vital information for the survival of mankind… As the covert couple become more involved with the cult, their relationship becomes strained: doubts arise whether she is a fraudulent con artist or a bone-fide oracle.
Who is playing who? Where does truth begin and fascination take over?
This low-key and disquieting film is an engrossing psychodrama. It further proved that independent cinema can outshine mega-budget offerings. As for the rug-pull ending, it is one of this demi-decade’s very best.
Highly and eerily recommended.
Honourable mentions for 2012: Toby Jones-starrer Berberian Sound Studio; the terrific meta treat The Cabin in the Woods.
5 landmark films of the year: Inside Llewyn Davis, Gravity, Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty, Silver Linings Playbook.
Top 3 overlooked films of 2013:
Top 3 overlooked films of 2013:
BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOUR
2013’s Palme d’Or winner was worthy to say the least
While this award winner is one of the better known entries in this list, you’d be surprised how few people have seen it…
Based on Julie Maroh’s graphic novel and directed by Abdellatif Kechiche, La Vie d’Adèle – Chapitres 1 et 2 (Blue Is The Warmest Colour) follows the story of Adèle (newcomer Adèle Exarchopoulos) and how this young student’s life is impacted by a chance encounter with blue-haired Emma (future Bond girl Léa Seydoux).
Kechiche’s study of love and desire via the meeting of two souls is utterly captivating. The narrative focuses on the relationship and brushes aside any superfluous details that would drag down the fascinating story.
Every facet of the girls’ relationship is explored with such raw honesty (aided by close camera movements) to the point fascinating voyeurism: the incredibly intimate sex scenes and emotional confrontations, no matter how subtle or explicit, show to what extent both actresses are believable, fearless and flawless. The mere fact that it was the first time the Palme d’Or at Cannes was officially awarded to two of the actors as well as the director (who usually gets the distinction on his or her own) is telling in itself.
This raw and emotionally draining film cleverly addresses issues of gender and gay politics by making it less about a girl discovering her lesbianism and more about someone’s journey for happiness. An intimate epic that is as powerful as it is beautiful.
Giving you every reason to be stoked
For his English language debut, Korean director Park Chan-wook (of Old Boy fame) simultaneously delivered a tense horror-infused mystery and stylish fairytale exploring female sexuality.
The script, penned by Prison Break’s Wentworth Miller (no kidding), pays homage to the great Alfred Hitchcock, specifically his 1943 thriller Shadow of a Doubt. When you add Chan-wook’s masterful direction, each scene looks meticulously thought out, beautifully impregnated with enough symbolism to give Uncle Freud a powerful wet dream.
Furthermore, the wonderful musical score (thank you Clint Mansell and Philip Glass) and the cast deliver the goods in spades.
Stoker features a career-best from Matthew Goode, who plays the mysteriously charismatic Charlie, a solid turn from Mia Wasikowska as the reclusive daughter India and an ice cold Nicole Kidman nails it as the ambiguous matriarch.
Stylish, aesthetically pleasing and rich in substance, Stoker is a creepily enticing coming-of-age story that deserves so much more press than it got.
A unique dystopian thrill ride
Snowpiercer has had one hell of a journey. It came out in 2013 in limited markets and finally got some exposure in English-speaking markets last year… Thankfully, the stalemate between the director and the Weinstein Co was finally resolved…
Korean director Bong Joon-Ho adapted the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige and made a sci-fi allegory that is bizarre, violent, quirky and allegorical, with moments of Terry Gilliam-esque deliriousness.
In a misguided attempt to end global warming, humanity utterly fowls it up and ends up introducing a new ice age. The remaining life finds itself on the Snowpiercer train, a metallic arc that perpetually and self-sustainingly races around the globe. The front of the train is populated by the rich elite, while the back consists of the oppressed, who live huddled in terrible conditions. Led by reluctant leader Curtis (Chris Evans) and mentored by Gilliam (John Hurt), the have-nots lead the revolution against the 1%...
While Evans proves to what extent there’s so much more to him than Captain America, the wonderful Tilda Swinton is the MVP here. She delivers a brilliantly caricatured portrayal: she’s smarmy, she’s despotic, she’s got a Margaret Thatcher overbite and a grotesquely thick Yorkshire accent… You cannot take your eyes off her for one second and she is Snowpiercers’ greatest asset.
While the film might bewilder many and contains very familiar Orwellian tropes (class revolution / meditation on social order / control of the elite on the masses), it remains a stylish dystopian thrill ride that explores humanity’s hunger for control.
Honourable mentions for 2013: Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners; J.C. Chandor’s overlooked All Is Lost.
5 landmark films of the year: 12 Years A Slave, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Boyhood, Gone Girl, Guardians of the Galaxy.
Top 3 overlooked films of 2014:
Top 3 overlooked films of 2014:
“Killing a priest on a Sunday… That’ll be a good one.”
For his second film, writer-director Michael McDonagh delivered a crossover between a black comedy, a minimalist drama centred on a premeditated murder and a subtly potent indictment of how organized religion can be a plague.
The film opens in the small Irish coastal village of Sligo, within the confines of a confession box. Father Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) is told by an obscured parishioner that he will die at the end of the week. Even if Lavelle is a good and blameless man, he will take the fall for the perversion at the heart of the church. To make matters a tad more complicated, his troubled daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly) comes to stay…
Calvary is a unique whodunit of sorts, where the culprit could be any one of the small town’s detestable inhabitants. However, this film focuses more on faith, humanity and forgiveness than it does on trying to figure out the identity of the soon-to-be-murderer.
Gleeson gives a career-best performance, due in part to McDonagh’s superb script, which carefully balances bleakly fatalist yet fascinating themes, wisecracking dialogue and so many meta elements. Indeed, the fourth wall is not so much broken as it is wittily caressed, with talks of “opening lines” and “parts to play”.
Wickedly mordant, often moving and completely essential, Calvary was 2014’s best film according to yours truly and is destined to become a classic.
If it’s in a word or it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of…
One of the best horror films of the first half of the decade came out last year. Not only did Jennifer Kent’s debut feature put the competition to shame but also proved that the horror genre had lost none of its cinematic mojo.
The director takes the traditional tropes regarding parent / child relationships, childhood fears and the ‘is there really a monster?’ act and knowingly toys with the audience. Kent expertly masters the escalation of tension, installs a Rosemary’s Baby-like claustrophobia and builds dread in a naturalistic yet creepy way. Crucially, at no point does the director regress to cheap jump scares, what film critic Nigel Floyd refers to as “cattle prod cinema”.
As if that wasn’t enough, The Babadook benefits from a potent psychological dimension, tackles themes of motherhood and grief, injects disturbing iconography and some old school references (Melies and Murnau are cornerstones). Lastly, it features a powerhouse performance by Essie Davis.
So, alongside (but trumping) The Borderlands, Only Lovers Left Alive, Cabin in the Woods and The Innkeepers, The Babadook shows that the 2010’s horror films can still surprise you. A darkly memorable fairytale and will make even seasoned viewers look under the bed before trying to catch some ZZZ's.
Revenge is a dish best served bearded
Dwight’s life was turned upside down by the death of his parents. Now homeless, sporting an impressive beard and living in his car, his life is about to take yet another turn: the man convicted of his folks’ murder has been released…
This visceral, low-budget revenge thriller benefits from its stripped down premise and writer-director Jeremy Saulnier’s use of gripping suspense. Macon Blair is terrific as the sad-eyed and vulnerable Dwight, who gets over his head. An unconventional leading man to say the least and he brilliantly highlights one of the film’s greatest strengths: Blue Ruin expertly and refreshingly subverts clichés linked to the revenge thriller. Unlike most revenge films, Saulnier’s film shows the harsh reality of how taking a life has consequences and just because you seek retribution, doesn’t mean you’re automatically a gun-savvy expert who knows how to go about achieving your goals. It also delivers a fascinating meditation on how violence begets violence and that an eye for an eye will only result in blindness, to paraphrase a chap who strived for peace…
Tense and intelligent, this barebones thriller blows the dust off a worn out genre. From the wordless opening to the Straw Dogs-like resolution, you won’t unclench for these gripping 90 minutes.
Honourable mentions for 2014: Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin; the Tom Hardy-starrer Locke.
There we have it.
Apologies for a list that is unfairly light on laughs but be sure that missing out on these 15 films would be cinematically criminal.
- D - 10/03/15