1. Prince Avalanche (2013)
10 Words or Fewer Summary: Texas highwaymen make penis jokes, struggle with women, get existential
A beautiful, mysterious little film from director David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express, All the Real Girls) and starring the likable duo of Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch. Prince Avalanche is as funny as it is eerily unsettling: Rudd and Hirsch (both very good) bicker and crack sophomoric jokes while seemingly losing their grips on reality as they repair unused roads in the middle of nowhere. The result is oddly moving at times; beautifully self-contained (the entire film takes place in post-brushfire Texas woods, completely removed from civilization), the film feels allegorical and mysterious. Prince Avalanche is eagerly open to interpretation, but impossible to pin down, so definitely avoid this one if you need an ending that neatly resolves everything.
2. The Dirties (2013)
10 Words or Fewer Summary: Bullied teens make revenge film, scheme for girls, lose sanity
The Dirties starts off with two geeky but lovable teens: Matt and Owen are direct descendants of those heroic nerds from 80s cinema whom ultimately triumph over bullies and the in-crowd (and, of course, get the girl) with far-fetched schemes that could only exist in Hollywood’s dreams. But The Dirties takes those same characters, brutally bullied and woefully neglected, strips away the layers of fantasy, and drops them into a modern reality where school shootings have become a terrifying epidemic. Sounds dark, huh? You’d think so, but the movie is bold enough to mix humor with genuine tragedy, to incredibly powerful and authentic results. Having rooted for these types of “underdog nerds” in the past (Revenge of the Nerds, Weird Science, Superbad, etc.) we are predetermined to cheer them on again, and The Dirties pulls the rug out from under our feet with alarming swiftness. I should mention that this is a found footage film (the term used for handheld, supposedly “real” films àla The Blair Witch Project), usually as headache-inducing as they are creatively barren, but that here the conceit is used to expert effect.
3. Walker (1987)
10 Words or Fewer Summary: Surreal biography of William Walker, crazed 19th century American mercenary
Walker, a vehemently original juxtaposition between art house and acid cinema, is one of my favorite movies. A scathing commentary on US foreign affairs in Central America (most of the film deals with William Walker’s tumultuous stint as president of Nicaragua), Walker is so politicized and counter-cultural that it’s amazing it ever saw the light of day. Star Ed Harris is spectacular (no film before or since has better employed his icy-cold gaze and understated sense of humor), the score from Joe Strummer is haunting and beautiful, and the cinematography is vivid and unusual. An angry film, but not a joyless one, Walker has humor (like William Walker’s blatantly inaccurate narration, reimagining his story as it might appear in some awful, jingoistic textbook) and excitement, thrilling us as it delivers its potent message. The film’s artistic liberties (glaring anachronisms, surreal tendencies) have frustrated many, but they actually serve an ideological purpose – this story of greedy exploitation is not one rooted in the past, but tied very much to our current day. To tell such an important and grim story with such punk rock verve and irreverence is a landmark achievement.
4. Drug War (Du Zhan) (2012)
10 Words or Fewer Summary: Narcotics agents use shady informant to take down drug cartel
This breakneck thriller from celebrated Hong Kong director Johnnie To masterfully mixes an intricate plot of double-crosses and deception among Chinese cops and criminals with stunning, purposeful action. Completely riveting – the film equivalent of a densely-plotted page-turner you can’t stop reading – Drug War continues upping the tension until its incredible shoot-out finale. Perhaps most impressively, though every scene is plot-driven and no attempt is made to develop the characters outside of their relation to the action, the film winds up with two unforgettable incarnations of archetypical characters – the obsessively driven cop and the crook who’ll turn on anyone to save his own skin.
5. Kill List (2011)
10 Words or Fewer Summary: Hitmen take on dangerous job, enter horrific, shadowy underworld
Kill List, a horror/thriller from England’s Ben Wheatley, completely blew me away. Undoubtedly flawed – the ending feels lifted from a film school project – parts of this movie are nonetheless so dread-inducing, so jarring, that it reaches a level of disquiet that only a handful of movies can match. Spectacularly acted, with a much needed dose of savage humor and well-defined characters and relationships, Kill List is the kind of film distinctive enough to inspire an entire genre’s worth of knockoffs. Despite the out-and-out horror that the film climaxes towards, the most unsettling scenes are those that occur in a seemingly normal suburban home – scenes that uncover a palpable sense of anger and hatred towards one’s own family. It’s the same awful sense of the familial turned macabre that made The Shining so haunting. While its flawed ending is glaring, Kill List’s virtues are powerful enough to make even its missteps beguiling.
6. Oslo, August 31st (2011)
10 Words or Fewer Summary: One fateful day in the life of a recovering addict
The best way I could describe Norway’s Oslo, August 31st to you would be to call it the ideal companion piece to Infinite Jest – one that necessarily avoids attempting to match its scope (going in the opposite direction, in fact, and zeroing in on a single day in one man’s life), but wonderfully capturing the depth and understanding, the compassion and bitter realizations. Most of all, Oslo shares those incredible insights into addiction, depression, happiness, family, friendship, and the horror of being unable to connect with the world around you. Beyond the dark beauty of the story, it’s also formally audacious – the film beautifully mirrors itself narratively and thematically. The camera is often poised far above the characters, slowly closing in on them, a telling technique that is memorably employed in one of the final scenes. The cast is terrific (especially star Anders Danielsen Lie) and the cinematography is striking.
7. Computer Chess (2013)
10 Words or Fewer Summary: Computer chess nerds congregate in hotel, insanity ensues
A rare occasion to honestly say “I’ve never seen anything like that before,” this low-fi absurdist indie comedy is bizarrely endearing and compulsively watchable. Often very funny, and always extremely odd, Computer Chess has a knack for capturing a very specific time and place – not a time or a place that I think has ever existed in our universe, but some kind of intriguing alternate dimension 1980s hotel populated with socially-deficient computer geniuses. I’m not entirely sure what Computer Chess says about artificial intelligence or humanity, but it certainly says it with conviction and some sort of demented intelligence. The film effectively uses amateur performances and low-grade digital video tricks, inexplicably leaving you wanting more – I’d gladly sign up for a recurring series on these odd characters and their unfocused travails.