We haven’t made an entry into our Underappreciated Gems series in quite some time, and we’ve had a lot of requests for more coverage of Netflix Instant, so I thought we’d combine the two and come up with a new round of Underappreciated Gems currently available on Netflix Instant.
The criteria for an Underappreciated Gem remains as it always does: A movie that didn’t make at least $10 million at the box office. I doubt many of these films, from the last three years, even crossed the $2 million mark. But that doesn’t make them any less worthy.
Links go to the Netflix page.
8: The Mormon Proposition: 8: The Mormon Proposition is a stirring, tragically depressing documentary about the Mormon Church’s massive efforts to support and pass California’s Proposition 8 ballot initiative (also called the California Marriage Protection Act), which in 2008 redefined marriage in the state of California as being only between a man and a woman, effectively making marriage between same-sex couples illegal and unrecognized. Depending on which side of the debate you stand on, you will find it either silly and pointless, or obscenely infuriating and find yourself filled with a sense of righteous fury. —TK
Assassination of a High School President: Pretty decent little film starring Mischa Barton and Bruce Willis — it’s sort of a glossier, comedic version of Brick, though nowhere near as good, obviously, although Bruce Willis — as a profanity-fueled asshole principal — steals his few scenes — DR
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans: While Herzog’s approach to the plot and his aesthetic and tonal embellishments go a long way in creating this unique experience, Nicolas Cage’s performance does the majority of the heavy lifting. Cage’s McDonagh has qualities of some of his previous characters, yet the drawl of his diction, the awkwardness of his gait, his overall swagger, and his use of props is completely unique. Cage’s off-the-rails performance, reminiscent of Herzog’s work with Klaus Kinski, is one of best comedic performances I’ve seen all year. — Drew Morton
Bass Ackwards: Bass Ackwards is a film that doesn’t fit into easy categories — it’s funny but not a comedy, has moments of drama but isn’t dramatic. It’s not particularly exciting, and for the first 30 minutes I was convinced it was going to be one of those movies where nothing happens. And indeed, when compared to other films of its ilk, nothing really does. Not on the outside, anyway. There are no swelling musical crescendos as he finds love and happiness, no rainswept moments of passion, no massive melodramatic epiphanies. All of the critically important things take place within Linas’s fragile, almost childlike mind. He’s a sweet schlub who doesn’t have a plan beyond getting to Boston, doesn’t have a life or a sense of purpose. Yet through his experiences on the road he evolves into a more complete person than he ever was. — TK
City Island: City Island is amiable, warm, and even veers into Neil Simon-esque dramatic farce near the end. It can feel a little contrived at times — as the secrets mount — but it’s brilliantly acted, anchored by Andy Garcia, Julianne Margulies and their characters’ constant affectionate bickering, as well as Emily Mortimer and Alan Arkin. City Island is not an original piece of filmmaking, and Raymond De Felitta — who has been writing and directing films I’ve never heard of for 20 years — isn’t much of a creative visionary. But he’s sure-handed and smart, and his City Island feels fresh in an indie world dominated by quirk and whimsy. It may not be a movie that you’ll love, but it’s a difficult film not to like. — DR
Cropsey: We all have ghost stories we told each other when we were younger. Parents threatened their children’s misbehaviors with vengeance by a hook-handed maniac or a blood-drenched witch who took bad kiddies off into the woods where they were never seen again. The same urban legend lurked in shadows up and down both coasts and in the hinterlands between. Countless horror films are based on the campfire tales and babysitter squeals we were taunted with as wee ones. Most of these stories are rooted in folklore or some fact; there really was an Ed Gein who cut up people and ate them. The Blair Witch Project and The Last Broadcast, which the Blair Witch filmmakers pirated their idea from, tried to do a fake documentary to scare up audiences. But filmmakers Barbara Brancaccio and Joshua Zeman took this a step further. They actually dug up the roots of their very own lurking madman Cropsey. While parents whispered warnings of wandering around Staten Island woods after dark in the late 1970s, a maniac was actually taking children from their homes and making them disappear for real. What resulted was a harrowing and fascinating account of the real-life boogeyman and how legend can lead to lynch mobs and frenzy. Cropsey is a thought-provoking and horrifying documentary about how monsters get made. — Brian Prisco
Easier with Practice: Easier with Practice takes that lie and spins it into a fascinating and complex love story about a lonely aspiring writer and his infatuation with a girl who exists only as a voice on a telephone. The layers infused in the telling and the excellent characters imply a practiced hand, but this is writer-director Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s first feature. Alvarez explores all the complications and implications of a romance communicated entirely through phone sex without ever relying on cartoonish punchlines or broad gimmicks. It’s just as touching and quirky and beautiful as Secretary.
Endgame: I said that I might be the wrong person to review this kind of film because I sometimes worry that I’m simply too close to the subject matter — despite a lack of sentimentality and cloying emotion, I still found myself stirred by it. Overall, Endgame succeeds because of its performances, and because of its steady, unpretentious and unobtrusive direction. It covers a little-known piece of history that paved the way for the more famous historical events to take place. It’s a true political thought piece that requires patience and attention, but that ultimately pays off. — TK
Exam: The extent to which you will enjoy Exam may depend on whether you feel 90-minutes of entertaining and engrossing misdirection was worth the answer to a riddle. I like a good riddle, and though the conclusion to Exam feels slightly anticlimactic, the lead up toward the answer is both engaging and, in the end, not so completely misleading as to completely piss you off.
House of the Devil: On first blush, the idea behind making a 1980 horror film that’s neither a remake or a sequel sounds itself as gimmicky as the other options, and cheaper, too. Exchange CGI effects for some bad hair and a rotary phone, and voila(!), right? Writer/director Ti West, however, doesn’t just settle for period-appropriate details; he nails the look, feel, tone, film grain, score, and pacing of an actual ’80s occult film. It is precise. Indeed, Ti West has done for ’80s horror what Black Dynamite did for blaxtploitation films, by recreating rather than re-imagining. The result, ironically, is that House of the Devil is not just one of the best horror movies of 2009, but of 1981, as well. — DR
The Lottery: The Lottery doesn’t afford the opposition much of a voice; it’s more concerned with demonizing those opposed to charter schools in Harlem through the use of selective editing, which highlights the screechy, irrational critics while humanizing the those in favor. It’s charter school agitprop, to be sure, but it’s wildly effective. — DR
Restrepo: War is hell. It’s so easy to politicize and name call, to use the sacrifices of a brave few to pass an agenda, to ignore the trees to point out the forest. What’s so affecting about Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington’s documentary following one platoon for one year in Afghanistan is that it merely turns a bare bulb on the reality of military conflict. You will walk out feeling justified in your beliefs, no matter what they are. It shows the seeming pointlessness of war, sending men to die so we can get just one more foothold. It shows brave soldiers dying for a cause they may not support and may not love, but because they want to keep their brothers in arms safe. Every day, they may go home missing a limb, with a new scar, or in a bag, and they will never be the same. It’s easy to forget when discussing war in the abstract that in reality it is men, some almost boys, dying every day. For me, it made me angry and sad. But it also made me appreciate the sacrifices that are being made. It doesn’t ask the questions “Why are we here?” “Why are we fighting this war?” “What is the point?” It doesn’t need to. You can see the reason in the eyes of every military man interviewed. — Brian Prisco
Revanche: Götz Spielmann’s arthouse noir is a deft and entertaining treatise on life in the margins of late-capitalism, a pitch-dark European take on The Postman Always Rings Twice. The bleak, predictable ending to a heist meant to bring two people away from the venal desolation of life in the city gives Revanche its initial momentum, but the latter half quietly arcs into troubling ruminations. This is definitive noir: existential and thrilling in equal and often quiet measures.
The Secret of Kells: If it seems like my review is swamped with hyperbole, that can’t be helped. I watched The Secret of Kells three days ago and still can’t get it out of my head. I don’t know if it’s the best animated feature of the year, as I haven’t seen all of the entries, but I do know that I can’t recall ever being so completely captivated by an animated… no, by any movie. I’m not suggesting it’s the greatest movie of all time, but for right now, in this time and place, it remains on my mind, and I cannot wait to immerse myself in it again. — TK
Sin Nombre: in Nombre feels like good Mexican food; there’s not much to it but a few basic ingredients, but when properly assembled with care and a hint of authenticity, it’s outstanding. Cary Fukunaga in his writer/director feature debut takes a simple and almost high school Shakespearean plot and layers it with gentle flourishes and powerful performances. His cast seems plucked from the barrio, a horde of menacing gangsters and simple day laborers. It’s tense and tragic, Hitchcockian by way of Honduras, and builds to a vicious kick in the ribs finale that even if it seems obvious and fated still crushes the very breath out of you. It’s a hell of a visceral flick, interspersed with gorgeous landscape camerawork that could have been painted by angels. For such an ugly story, it’s told beautifully. —BP
Solitary Man: Solitary Man is a quietly entertaining film. It’s intelligent, well paced, emotionally complex, and at times, sexually charged. But like Up in the Air, which also had a lighter, breezier tone, Solitary Man is so thematically heavy that it sneaks up and wallops you over the head as you’re leaving the theater. Thematically, it’s about the consequences of living in the moment, and about mortality, and how we face death when we know it’s lurking around the corner. Do we go quietly, snuggled up against our spouses in front of the television waiting for death to knock? Or do we cast our loved ones aside and seize all the moments we missed out on in our lives, regardless of the repercussions? We only die once. How do we go out? Guns blazing, no regrets? Or do we holster all those missed opportunities and peacefully embrace the end? — DR
Teeth: There’s a certain pornographic air about Teeth, the debut feature from writer-director Mitchell Lichtenstein, and it’s only partly due to the film’s graphic sexual nature. No, the real suspense comes in the waiting, in sitting there during the exposition and plot twists and just wondering when the film’s central theme — the vagina dentata — will rear its fanged head. As films go, Lichtenstein’s is all over the map, veering from arch drama to black comedy to quasi-cautionary tale to Cold War monster movie, but the feeling of anticipatory dread that runs below the surface is never less than perfect. And yet it’s also hard to come out and call the film good, since Teeth is clearly more concerned at being great at its premise and less so in its execution. It could be the best B-movie ever made, but it’s also tough to appreciate even ironically because it won’t stop winking at itself and the audience. The movie’s strongest sequences come in its second half, when Lichtenstein somewhat manages to find a balance between the dark comedy and horror film he wants to make. Self-awareness can be a dangerous game, and Teeth is at its best when it takes refuge in its natural intelligence and doesn’t try to become overly clever. — Daniel Carlson
TiMER: It’s a chick-flick, but it’s smart, endearing, and at times even a little sexy. And the beautiful irony about the film is this: In a movie about accurately predicting your love life, TiMER manages to be as unpredictable a romantic comedy as you’re likely to see. Indeed, while watching Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds kiss at the end of a romantic comedy might give some of you the warm fuzzies, it’s a movie like TiMER that reminds you that those kisses are warmer and fuzzier if they’re earned instead of predicted. — DR
Trick r Treat: Trick R Treat is a thoroughly enjoyable flick. It plays with much of the Halloween mythos, the urban legends, the common fears, then twists them up and takes you by surprise. The film, written and directed by Michael Dougherty in his rookie effort, is a gorgeously filmed, pulp-filled ode to our darkest fears, the weird and the bizarre. It’s certainly not the scariest movie ever — there are some decent jumps and startles, but overall it wins you over with atmosphere, cinematography and sterling performances from its entertaining-as-hell cast. — TK
Valhalla Rising: Valhalla Rising is a singularly unusual film. Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, best known for the excellent, unflinching Bronson, it stars Mikkelsen as an unnamed prisoner who is simply referred to as One-Eye (due to the fact that he, well, has only one eye, the other a hideous mass of scar tissue), captured by a ragged band of vikings in around 1000 AD, and used in primitive fighting games for gambling. He’s a mute (literally), brooding brute of a figure, a vicious fighter who bloodily destroys his opponents. Eventually, One-Eye escapes in a visceral, violent uprising and takes in a young boy as a companion. One-Eye encounters a group of Scottish Crusaders seeking to spread the word of God, and joins them on their quest to Jerusalem. Unfortunately, their boat ends up off-course, and the band finds themselves in a strange new land filled with unseen dangers, not the least of which is possibly One-Eye himself. — TK