The Film Vault is a monthly feature designed to showcase critically-acclaimed films that had limited commercial release and/or success. Each feature highlights films that focus on a specific theme, genre, or technique designed to provide a greater understanding of film as an entertainment and art form.
It’s the end of another year and time for another “best of list.” While some of these films came out in previous years, the list consists of the best movies I watched this year. Most flew under the radar: do yourself a favor and check them out.
13 Assassins (2011)
Director: Takashi Miike
Cult director Takeshi Miike (Ichi the Killer, Audition) delivers a bravado period action film set at the end of Japan’s feudal era in which a group of unemployed samurai are enlisted to bring down a sadistic lord and prevent him from ascending to the throne and plunging the country into a wartorn future. (Synopsis by Magnet Pictures)
I wrote about Miike earlier this year for his remake of “Django.” His newest release is also a remake of a 1963 Eichi Kudo film. It’s a gut punch of a film and features what may be the longest and most insane fight sequence ever put on film.
Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop (2011)
Director: Rodman Flender
After a much-publicized departure from hosting NBC’s Tonight Show—and the severing of a 22-year relationship with the network—O’Brien hit the road with a 32-city music-and-comedy show to exercise his performing chops and exorcise a few demons. The “Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television Tour” was O’Brien’s answer to a contractual stipulation that banned his appearance on television, radio and the Internet for six months following his last show. Filmmaker Rodman Flender’s resulting documentary, Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, is an intimate portrait of an artist trained in improvisation, captured at the most improvisational time of his career. It offers a window into the private writers room and rehearsal halls as O’Brien’s “half-assed show” (his words) is almost instantly assembled and mounted to an adoring fan base. (Synopsis by the Official Site)
Whether or not you are a fan of his show, this behind-the-scenes documentary pulls back the curtain on a respected entertainer. I didn’t go into this film as a supporter of Team Coco, but I left with a great amount of respect for the man.
Director: Spencer Susser
Loud music. Pornography. Burning **** to the ground. These are a few of Hesher’s favorite things. And they are what Hesher (Joseph Gordon Levitt) brings into the lives of TJ (Devin Brochu) and his father, Paul (Rainn Wilson) when he takes up residence in their garage uninvited. Grief-stricken by the loss of TJ’s mother in a car accident, Paul can’t muster the strength to evict the strange squatter, and soon the long-haired, tattooed Hesher becomes a fixture in the household. Like a force of nature, Hesher’s anarchy shakes the family out of their grief and helps them embrace life once more. (Synopsis by New Market Films)
This is a hard film to put a finger on. The character of Hesher exists as little more than an abstract concept in the film. However, it is great fun to watch Joseph Gordon Levitt go off the rails and tear apart the scenery.
Meek’s Cutoff (2011)
Director: Kelly Reichardt
The year is 1845, the earliest days of the Oregon Trail, and a wagon train of three families has hired mountain man Stephen Meek to guide them over the Cascade Mountains. Claiming to know a shortcut, Meek leads the group on an unmarked path across the high plain desert, only to become lost in the dry rock and sage. Over the coming days, the emigrants face the scourges of hunger, thirst and their own lack of faith in one another’s instincts for survival. When a Native American wanderer crosses their path, the emigrants are torn between their trust in a guide who has proven himself unreliable and a man who has always been seen as a natural born enemy. (Synopsis by Oscilloscope)
I see the future. It is someone commenting below about how this movie’s ending is terrible. Granted. This is a great film up until moments before the credits roll—you are either going to be intrigued or turned off by those final few moments. Don’t skip it for that reason: you’ll be missing one of the best films released this year.
Rabbit Hole (2010)
Director: John Cameron Mitchell
Becca and Howie Corbett (NICOLE KIDMAN and AARON ECKHART) are returning to their everyday existence in the wake of a shocking, sudden loss. Just eight months ago, they were a happy suburban family with everything they wanted. Now, they are caught in a maze of memory, longing, guilt, recrimination, sarcasm and tightly controlled rage from which they cannot escape. The shifts come in abrupt, unforeseen moments. Becca hesitantly opens up to her opinionated, loving mother (DIANNE WIEST) and secretly reaches out to the teenager involved in the accident that changed everything (MILES TELLER); while Howie lashes out and imagines solace with another woman (SANDRA OH). Yet, as off track as they are, the couple keeps trying to find their way back to a life that still holds the potential for beauty, laughter and happiness. (Synopsis by Lionsgate)
Held up on the strength of the performance of Kidman and Eckhart, this film does feel safe at times considering the subject matter addressed. If you liked “Terms of Endearment,” this is a much stronger film.
Director: Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger
Filmmakers Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington pay a visit to Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley to spend a year with the Second Platoon, a besieged squadron who dubbed their stronghold Outpost Restrepo in honor of their fallen comrade PFC Juan Restrepo. An al-Qaeda and Taliban stronghold, Korengal Valley sees some of the fiercest fighting in the War on Terror. At Outpost Restrepo, every shot fired is personal, and every target hit a gift to a fallen friend. (Synopsis by Jason Buchanan, Rovi)
Hopefully, most people have seen this film by now, and it has been playing on the National Geographic channel over the last few months. No matter what your opinion may be on the war in Afghanistan, this is a must-see. Making the film even more bitter was the death of co-director and photojournalist Hetherington in April while covering the uprising in Libya.
Director: Quentin Dupieux
“Rubber” is the story of Robert, an inanimate tire that has been abandoned in the desert, and suddenly and inexplicably comes to life. As Robert roams the bleak landscape, he discovers that he possesses terrifying telepathic powers that give him the ability to destroy anything he wishes without having to move. At first content to prey on small desert creatures and various discarded objects, his attention soon turns to humans, especially a beautiful and mysterious woman who crosses his path. Leaving a swath of destruction across the desert landscape, Robert becomes a chaotic force to be reckoned with, and truly a movie villain for the ages. Directed by legendary electro musician Quentin Dupieux (Steak, Nonfilm), aka Mr. Oizo, “Rubber” is a smart, funny and wholly original tribute to the cinematic concept of “no reason.” (Synopsis by Magnet)
I know what you are thinking, but yes, this is actually worth watching. More than anything, it is a clever spin on filmmaking in general. Very tongue-in-cheek and extremely clever.
Synecdoche, New York (2008)
Director: Charlie Kaufman
Synecdoche, New York marked the directorial debut of iconoclastic, cerebral screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as Caden Cotard, an eccentric playwright who lives with artist Adele Lack (Catherine Keener) and their daughter Olive in Schenectady, upstate New York. Prone to neuroses, misgivings and enormous self-doubt, Caden also begins suffering from accelerated physical deterioration – from blood in his stools to disfigured skin. Upon receiving a prestigious MacArthur grant, Caden decides to use the money to concoct one gigantic play as an analogue of his own life; he builds massive sets amid a New York City warehouse, casts others as his friends, family and acquaintances, and casts others to play the ones he’s casting. After Adele whisks Olive off to Europe but demonstrates no sign of returning soon, Caden drifts into a series of relationships with lovers – first with box office employee Hazel (Samantha Morton), who purchases and moves into a house that is perpetually on fire; then with Tammy (Emily Watson), an actress assigned to play Hazel in the theatrical project; and subsequently with others. Unfortunately, the play itself grows so big and unwieldy – and rehearsals go on for so long, taking literally decades – that it becomes unclear if the production itself will ever launch. (Synopsis by Nathan Southern, Rovi)
Much like “Tree of Life,” it is hard to put into words why this is a good film. It is extremely esoteric, as are most of Charlie Kaufman’s films. This is the least accessible of his work, but it is still amazing to behold.
Director: Brad Anderson
When an American couple (Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer) traveling from China to Moscow on the Trans-Siberian Railway meets an outwardly friendly couple (Eduardo Noriega and Kate Mara) traveling the same route, deception soon gives way to murder in “The Machinist” director Brad Anderson’s tense tale of international intrigue. Ben Kingsley and Thomas Kretschmann co-star as a pair of Russian police officers striving to solve the case and stop the rising body count. (Synopsis by Jason Buchanan, Rovi)
One part a throw back to Hitchcock’s train-based thrillers and one part a social commentary, “Transsiberian” is a stylish thriller. Adding to the suspense are the twists in the plot. A great watch for a cold night.
Director: André Ovredal
Shot in a vérité style, TrollHunter is the story of a group of Norwegian film students that set out to capture real-life trolls on camera after learning their existence has been covered up for years by a government conspiracy. A thrilling and wildly entertaining film, TrollHunter delivers truly fantastic images of giant trolls wreaking havoc on the countryside, with darkly funny adherence to the original Norwegian folklore.” (Synopsis by the Official Site)
This is what “The Blair Witch Project” was trying to be. Part hand-held camera horror film coupled with enough mockumentary elements to make it engaging. Most impressive is the blending of guerrilla camera work with technical magic.