1. Frank (2014)
10 Words or Fewer Summary: Untalented musician joins cult-like band, loses mind, plays SXSW
For a movie about an experimental, Zappa-esque band led by a mentally ill musician permanently encased in a gigantic fake head, Frank is more of an audience-pleaser than you’d expect. Funny and endearing, the film’s eccentricities are mostly superficial – take away Frank’s fake head, and you’ve got a very earnest story of makeshift families and artistic yearning. In many ways, the mysterious Frank is the most accessible and well-rounded character, and Michael Fassbender does an incredible job using his voice and body to convey everything from cheery optimism to sheer panic to tortured alienation. However, Domhnall Gleeson is also impressive in a role that morphs from lovable loser to detestable prick – in fact, nearly every character in the film eventually reveals unexpected nuance. This is a lighthearted movie, but it’s also a fascinating take on the creative process, and that eternal question of whether all great art requires great suffering.
2. Family Affair (2010)
10 Words or Fewer Summary: Chilling documentary explores family’s unimaginable secrets
This devastating documentary focuses on the rampant incest that plagued a 70s Kentucky family, while also finding time to touch on such pleasant topics as physical abuse, schizophrenia, poverty, Vietnam trauma, prison, and racism. Filmmaker Chico Colvard accidentally shot his sister when he was 10 years old, and the resulting aftermath exposed his family’s insidious dysfunction to the light of day. The ways in which familial demons resurface through generations, sickness breeding sickness, are starkly evident here. Family Affair is extremely unsettling, but, amazingly enough, also hopeful and bittersweet; Colvard handles the material sensitively, without sensationalizing it or falling into unrelenting darkness. Captivating.
3. Day of the Dead (1985)
10 Words or Fewer Summary: Scientists vs. Soldiers vs. Zombies in underground, post-apocalyptic bunker
Spectacularly gory George Romero feature, the third installment in his Living Dead series, is one of his most overlooked. Day of the Dead has some of Romero’s finest zombie effects and disembowelments (“Some of his finest disembowelments!” would’ve make a great pull-quote for the poster), but focuses more, as per his style, on the interaction between survivors. There is plenty of interesting commentary here, as the humans come across as far more dangerous and unpleasant than the rotting undead (one zombie is even taught basic human skills in an interesting subplot). Unfortunately, Romero is so unsubtle with his depiction of the military that many of the dramatic scenes get played for laughs. The three actors portraying the main military characters are great fun in their hammy roles, but having all of them so far over the top is more annoying than anything. But, Day of the Dead is thoughtful and complex nonetheless, often quite funny, with spectacular effects and set pieces. Romero seemed to be working with money for once here, and he makes the most of it.
4. Snowpiercer (2013)
10 Words or Fewer Summary: Violent class warfare on post-apocalyptic high-speed train
An intoxicatingly wild and original sci-fi action film, Snowpiercer is like a Terry Gilliam/John Woo mashup. Essentially a cinematic evocation of the Howard Zinn aphorism “you can’t afford to be neutral on a moving train,” Snowpiercer’s social allegory is none-too-subtle, but it’s delivered with style and verve in the best tradition of Gilliam or Paul Verhoeven. Taking place after human civilization has managed to accidentally freeze the planet and kill everyone, Chris Evans stars as a rebellious peasant leading a violet revolt against his wealthy overlords on a high-tech train perpetually transporting the last living citizens across Earth’s icy surface. I know, I know, it’s been done. But while the plot is ludicrous, the film’s world is fascinating, and director Joon-ho Bong displays a wonderful visual flair as he explores this strange milieu. The cast is great (Tilda Swinton! John Hurt! Ed Harris!), the action is top-notch, and Bong keeps us on our toes with oddball twists and a penchant for killing off seemingly crucial characters. This is pure cinematic fun, kinetic and witty and eccentric: think of it as the best possible Coors Light commercial.
5. RoboCop 2 (1990)
10 Words or Fewer Summary: Remember RoboCop? Well, this is the sequel
Let me preface this by saying a great deal of people hate RoboCop 2, sequel to Paul Verhoeven’s sleazy 80s action masterpiece. But from my from my angle, while the criminally underrated RoboCop 2 might not match the quality of its predecessor, it comes about as close as you could reasonably expect, especially without Verhoeven involved. This follow-up takes the first film’s virtues – the biting satire, the absurdity, the gratuitous B-movie excess – and gives us a welcome second helping. The plot, in which an evil corporation is essentially trying to sabotage Detroit so that it can take the city over and privatize it, is wonderful. Reagan-era big business, where the corporation is valued over the individual, is repeatedly and cleverly mocked, and the film is often very, very funny. Director Irvin Kershner’s tone is enjoyably strange, the practical effects are miles ahead of the original, and while RoboCop himself often takes a back seat, most of the secondary characters getting screen time are at least eccentric enough to warrant interest (there’s a 12-year-old drug dealer and a maniacal mayor!). Characters and plot elements come and go without much warning – this film feels heavily chopped – but there are some dynamic action set pieces. It’s not easy to find intelligent genre pics whose excesses can be justified by some level of self-awareness and social commentary, so RoboCop 2 should be praised rather than condemned.
6. Blue Ruin (2013)
10 Words or Fewer Summary: Homeless guy seeks revenge on dude who murdered his parents
Appalachian revenge thriller Blue Ruin doesn’t win many points for originality, but it invests its graphic violence and high body count with appropriate weight and emotional heft. While we’ve covered this blood-soaked ground before (especially in recent years – Kill Bill kicked off a genuine revenge renaissance), Blue Ruin is pleasantly low-key and authentic, and has a surprisingly comic undertone. In fact, one of the film’s conceits is that the main character, seeking vengeance against the man who murdered his parents, is really, really bad at being the stereotypical resourceful action movie guy. Like, he’s the kind of action movie guy who accidentally slices his hand open while trying to slash someone’s tires and who gets embarrassingly outwitted by the bad guy’s henchmen all the time. Director Jeremy Saulnier paces the film well and the cinematography is full of the somber, saturated blues that the title suggests. Additionally, Blue Ruin has the rare kind of final twist that lends poignancy towards the story rather than seeming like some hackneyed tack-on.
7. Side Effects (2013)
10 Words or Fewer Summary: Young woman takes antidepressants, all hell breaks loose
You’ve probably heard of Side Effects, but have you heard that Side Effects is actually good? Largely overlooked on its release, Steven Soderbergh’s tremendous, engrossing thriller takes pleasure in throwing us curveball after curveball. Just when it seems like none of the characters are who we thought they were, we realize all of them are – the young woman is hiding a terrible, dark secret; her psychologist is as unscrupulous as we fear him to be; her former therapist is manipulative and calculating. The same can be said for the film: at first I was disappointed when I realized that instead of a grand statement on the damaging union of big business and pharmacology, it was a very specific and smaller-scale mystery thriller. But, impressively, it retains the excitement and unpredictability of those B-movie genres while still making some astute observations on modern medicine – namely, that when capitalism and prescription drugs hit the sack (as they do quite literally here, in one of many unexpected twists), things get crazier than a suburban mom armed with a Xanax and a bottle of wine. Side Effects exists in a frighteningly familiar post-ethics nightmare in which shady corporations play a shell game where the health of the consumer is nothing more than a variable to be managed. The film may make absolutely no sense from a realistic, plot-hole perspective, but it’s wildly enjoyable, an ode to those great Brian De Palma trash classics. With terrific performances, especially from Jude Law and Rooney Mara, and a great score.