While Michael Moore and Mel Gibson garnered most of this year's critical attention, plenty of fine films opened to little or no fanfare. Following are our reviewers' favorite movies that didn't draw the adulation they deserved. Consider yourself armed for the next trip to Blockbuster:
In a year of agitprop documentaries both left and right, the best political doc of the bunch was this genuinely fair and balanced look at Arab news station Al-Jazeera and its coverage of the Iraq war. Yes, the filmmakers ultimately lean left, but it's the US military's PR guy, Josh Rushing, who stands out as the strongest and most likable personality. Sadly, he was discharged shortly after the movie was finished, possibly for becoming too open-minded. -- Luke Y. Thompson
Donnie Darko: The Director's Cut
I wanted to love it the first time around, but the ending always felt like a copout, even after friends tried to explain that it really wasn't "all just a dream." This year, the full-length version expanded on the concept, delivered a greater emotional punch, and revealed the true greatness of Richard Kelly's vision. Initially an interesting disappointment, Donnie is now a favorite. -- L.Y.T.
The Door in the Floor
In Tod Williams' exceptionally crafted movie about a marriage wrecked by loss, relative newcomer Jon Foster plays a high-school student interning with a famous writer (Jeff Bridges) and his wife (Kim Basinger) for the summer. Bridges is glorious in his debauchery, and Foster truly charming as a young man whose innocence goes up in flames. The script, too, is tight and deft. -- Melissa Levine
I Heart Huckabees
David O. Russell directs Lily Tomlin, Dustin Hoffman, Jude Law, Naomi Watts, et al. in an existential romp that manages to be both earnest and ironic. It's a whip-smart, hilarious, and feeling look at one soulful man's journey to find meaning in life. The friendship between Mark Wahlberg and Jason Schwartzman is priceless. -- M.L.
In 1950s Norway, a group of Swedish efficiency experts study the kitchen routines of single men living alone in a remote farming district, recording their every movement from stove to table, cupboard to sink. This quirky Norwegian gem ably satirizes the follies of petty bureaucrats and misguided social engineers, but it's also a touching meditation on the ways human beings grapple with loneliness and try to connect. Against all odds, the mild-mannered researcher and the dour, long-faced farmer forge a memorable friendship. -- Bill Gallo
The Manchurian Candidate
A remake of the John Frankenheimer classic, this spiffy redo subs corporations for commies as its bad guys; Mama's still a creep with a crush on her sonny boy, but she's in bed with Enron, or close to it. Amazingly, in the Year of the Political Movie, Jonathan Demme's take on politics-as-unusual got lost in the shuffle -- considered too familiar by some, too wacky by others, not at all by most. Which was a shame, considering how it ultimately came out as a Republican-bashing, PATRIOT Act-hating movie without the polemics getting in the way of a kinky good time. -- Robert Wilonsky
An innocent prank goes awry when five kids decide to teach the school bully a lesson. Director Jacob Aaron Estes' feature debut is a pint-sized Heart of Darkness that raises sobering questions about responsibility, morality, and guilt, superbly acted by a largely unknown cast. Why was it overlooked? Maybe the R rating kept away the target audience. -- J.O.
The astoundingly hit-or-miss Roger Michell directs Anne Reid and Daniel Craig in a piercing, brave movie willing to delve into the awakening libido of a grandmother. Such finely tuned emotional registers aren't often seen on screen. Plus, Daniel Craig's abs! Eeeoooww! -- M.L.
In this documentary by Nathaniel Kahn, the son of the great architect Louis Kahn tries to unravel the startling secrets of his late father's life and, in the process, explores his own nature too. Haunted and ineffably sad, the younger Kahn's quest to understand a parent who was deeply unhappy, stubborn, and deceptive (good old Dad had two secret families aside from his "official" one) develops into a story of the troubled father searching for himself. In the end, the great man collapsed and died in a Manhattan restroom, and his body went unclaimed for two days. -- B.G.
Rarely does a documentary leave me wanting more, but this look at the disastrous crash-and-burn Hollywood career of Boondock Saints director Troy Duffy could have been twice as long and remained just as compelling. A must-see cautionary tale for those who dream of working in Hollywood, and a barrel of laughs for anyone who already does. -- L.Y.T.
She Hate Me
In short, a biz-world up-and-comer loses his job at a crooked company and starts another gig: impregnating desperate lesbians at $10,000 a pop. Damned by those who say Spike Lee went nutso, She Hate Me should be feted for its ambition and audacity; it's Bush-bashing at its most hyperbolic, an indictment of Big Business doing its dirty deeds beneath the comfy blanket of government protection. Add to that the volatile mixture of sex and race, and no wonder crits got it wrong; Spike's gotta have it all, and it's easy to mistake desire for greed. -- R.W.
The Story of the Weeping Camel
When a female camel rejects its newborn calf, a family of nomadic herders sends two of their children across the Gobi Desert to fetch a musician whose playing has the power to heal the mother's heart. This gem of a film is a melding of documentary and narrative (all incidents and characters are real, but some scenes have been reenacted for the camera). Simple, stunning, unique. Robert J. Flaherty would be proud. -- J.O.
Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War
Trey Parker and Matt Stone made great sport of the notion of war with North Korea, but this South Korean epic about the conflict that started it all blew audiences away in Asia. The tale of two brothers drafted into the army and eventually torn apart by circumstance, it's as graphically realistic and large-scale as any Steven Spielberg production, and as human as a family feud. It's one of the all-time great war flicks. -- L.Y.T.
Tamala 2010: A Punk Cat in Space
You've never seen a movie like this one, and most likely never will again. Combining images of a brutal computer-generated dystopia with a two-dimensional, black-and-white cartoon that mixes Hello Kitty with Barbarella, this fascinating slice of Japanese weirdness deals with a foul-mouthed spacefaring kitten who might be the reincarnation of an ancient goddess, or a robotic advertising mascot. I still haven't quite figured it out, but it's fun to try. -- L.Y.T.
A man without a country (Tom Hanks) lands in America and stays in the airport, where he falls in with the cleaning crew and baggage handlers, falls in love with a flight attendant, and runs afoul of the bureaucrat bent on keeping him prisoner amid the bookstores, fast-food kiosks, and other distractions that have turned airports into minimalls. Why this was loathed and left for dead remains a mystery. It's one of Steven Spielberg's most charming movies in ages, a light, in-flight fairy tale without message or meaning, but one that was moving nonetheless. -- R.W.
It's a Christmas movie about a transvestite, a bitter homeless bum, and a teenage runaway. It's also a cartoon and a comedy. Anime director Satoshi Kon certainly likes to try new things, and having successfully animated a Polanski-esque thriller (Perfect Blue) and a brief history of Japan (Millennium Actress), he turns his hand to Frank Capra, albeit with a gritty edge that few American Christmas movies would dare approach. Stateside, it opened inappropriately during the early spring; rent it over the holidays and see it the way it was meant to be seen. -- L.Y.T.
The Twilight Samurai
Yoji Yamada directs a lingering, thoughtful film with a classical beauty and a very satisfying emotional payoff. Owing an obvious debt to Kurasawa's The Seven Samurai, it tells the story of a low-ranking samurai, troubled by poverty and the death of his wife, called to dubious action on behalf of his clan. Why wasn't it noticed? Because you need an attention span to appreciate it. -- M.L.
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