In less than 3 days it'll be 2009 — but wait, there's at least 19 great movies from this year that you haven't seen yet! Back by popular demand, it's our second annual list of the 19 best movies that you didn't see in 2008 (see last year's list). Featured below is a hand-picked selection of the best independent and mainstream feature films that were either quietly dumped by studios, ignored by audiences, or just not marketed well enough. So to give these films some extra time in the spotlight, and to support some of the best filmmakers out there, we've put together this year end wrap-up for you. I want to encourage everyone to consider watching just one of these that they haven't heard of (or didn't want to see) beforehand.
If you spent the two hours or so that it would take to watch even one of these movies mentioned below, it would mean that much more to the filmmaker. This isn't about getting kudos for mentioning certain films, this is about pointing out movies that don't deserve to be forgotten and are begging to be watched.
Opened on July 25, 2008
Directed by Nanette Burstein
A documentary on seniors at a high school in a small Indiana town and their various cliques.
Why it's on here: At Sundance this year, American Teen became the festival's sleeper hit, fueled by immensely positive buzz coming from everyone who saw it. Despite what you may have heard, it's nothing like "The Hills" and is a fantastic inside look at the life of four American high school teens. If only just to see it once, American Teen is worth your time and money, as Nanette Burstein takes dry documentary storytelling and turns it into something exciting and entertaining.
Opened on November 26, 2008
Directed by Baz Luhrmann
Set in northern Australia before World War II, an English aristocrat who inherits a sprawling ranch reluctantly pacts with a stock-man in order to protect her new property from a takeover plot. As the pair drive 2,000 head of cattle over unforgiving landscape, they experience the bombing of Darwin, Australia, by Japanese forces firsthand.
Why it's on here: Despite all the talk about how it's not a movie that audiences want to see anymore, it's actually a wonderfully thrilling epic that only the likes of Baz Luhrmann could bring us. Yes, it's really two movies and that's initially hard to get past, but once you do, you'll find yourself being sucked into a sprawling Australian fairy tale lead by a handful of great actors. Even if you're annoyed by the dual stories in the end, I'm certain you'll at least admire the beauty of this great love story.
Opened on June 13, 2008
Directed by Jay and Mark Duplass
Four struggling actors retreat to a cabin in California in order to write a screenplay that will make them all stars. What happens when their story idea — a horror flick about a group of friends tormented by a villain with a bag over his head — starts to come true?
Why it's on here: Sony Picture Classics, who bought this film after its premiere at Sundance, screwed it over badly by dumping it during a crowded summer movie season and not giving it the support it needed. It's a very hard film to sell at first, but all they needed to do was get the right people in the theater. The Duplass Brothers are some of the best up-and-coming flmmakers around that use a refreshingly unique shooting style that plays into Baghead very well. It's a blend of horror and comedy like you've never seen before. You guaranteed to walk out of it with a smile.
Opened on February 22, 2008
Directed by Jon Poll
A rich kid becomes the self-appointed psychiatrist to the student body of his new high school.
Why it's on here: Wait, you didn't know that Robert Downey Jr. was in more movies this year than just Iron Man and Tropic Thunder? Yep, he was in another one called Charlie Bartlett, and it was a great movie and he did a great job in it. But he's not the only highlight — Anton Yelchin, who also plays Chekov in the upcoming Star Trek, was what made this movie so damn good. It's fun and rebellious and a great coming-of-age movie. And in more than one case, Downey Jr. steals the show, especially in a couple scenes at the end involving the pool in his backyard.
Opened on September 26, 2008
Directed by Clark Gregg
A sex-addicted con-man pays for his mother's hospital bills by playing on the sympathies of those who rescue him from choking to death.
Why it's on here: A devious and fun exercise in adapting the dark musings of the great Chuck Palahniuk, Choke explores the life of a sex addict trying to deal with a mother who is slipping away. With great performances from Sam Rockwell and Brad William Henke combined with twisted humor that can only come from the mind behind Fight Club, Choke is easily one of the most unique and authentically dark comedies of the year. If you dig deviance, this is one you shouldn't let pass by. (Written by Neil of FSR)
City of Ember
Opened on October 10, 2008
Directed by Gil Kenan
For generations, the people of the City of Ember have flourished in an amazing world of glittering lights. But Ember's once powerful generator is failing and the great lamps that illuminate the city are starting to flicker.
Why it's on here: City of Ember was one of the biggest flops this year next to Speed Racer (which is on this list, too). Before it first hit theaters, I really didn't care that much about it. But I eventually saw it and was completely surprised. It reminded me of the kind of movies that I used to love as a kid, just full of wonderment and excitement. As long as you recognize that it is a kid's movie and not much more, it should be easy to sit back and enjoy this adventure just as much as I did.
Not Released in Theaters Yet
Directed by Rupert Wyatt
Frank Perry is an institutionalized convict twelve years into a life sentence without parole. When his estranged daughter falls ill, he is determined he make peace with her before it's too late. He develops an ingenious escape plan, and recruits a dysfunctional band of escapists — misfits with a mutual dislike for one other but united by their desire to escape their hell hole of an existence.
Why it's on here: It was my favorite film from Sundance this year and could've been my favorite film of the entire year if it had ever actually been released in theaters. THINKFilm picked it up at Sundance but that company went under part of the way through the year, so it never hit theaters. It was in theaters in June in the UK and will be out on DVD over there in January. This is one of the best films that no one has ever heard of. It's one of the most intense and thrilling modern escape movies ever made, and that's a huge compliment!
Opened on May 9, 2008
Directed by Tarsem Singh
In a hospital on the outskirts of 1920s Los Angeles, an injured stuntman begins to tell a fellow patient, a little girl with a broken arm, a fantastical story about 5 mythical heroes. Thanks to his fractured state of mind and her vivid imagination, the line between fiction and reality starts to blur as the tale advances.
Why it's on here: This beautiful film took two years to finally hit theaters after premiering at a film fest in 2006. Although a couple of people caught it during its theatrical run, The Fall never turned into a hit despite glowing reviews. I was even surprised to find myself enjoying it, especially because the trailers didn't seem all that interesting. What you'll discover is a gorgeous historic epic built around an ensemble of great performances. The Fall was worth the two year wait to see in theaters and shouldn't be quickly forgotten.
Opened on August 22, 2008
Directed by Andrew Fleming
In this irreverent comedy, a failed actor-turned-worse-high-school-drama-teacher rallies his Tucson, Arizona students as he conceives and stages politically incorrect musical sequel to Shakespeare's Hamlet.
Why it's on here: Whereas Choke was the quintessential dark comedy of the year, Hamlet 2 is the quintessential absurd comedy of the year. Steve Coogan shines like a young Gene Wilder as the whacky drama teacher that just about everyone had in high school. The story benefits from the smart and biting comedic mind of Pam Brady, who co-wrote the South Park movie. You'll get heavy doses of silliness, big scoops of absurdity and one giant musical interlude set to "Rock Me Sexy Jesus." What could possibly be better than that? (Written by Neil of FSR)
Let the Right One In
Opened on October 24, 2008
Directed by Tomas Alfredson
Oscar, an overlooked and bullied boy, finds love and revenge through Eli, a beautiful but peculiar girl who turns out to be a vampire.
Why it's on here: We've already talked extensively about why Let the Right One In is such a phenomenal film. But for those that don't know about it just yet, it's one of the best horror movies in the last few years and is the very best vampire movie since Interview with the Vampire in 1994. Although it's already getting a lot of exposure from fellow critics, most of whom are calling it their favorite movie of the year, it still didn't spread wide enough to be called a hit, so I'm putting it on here to give it even more of the exposure that it deserves.
Man on Wire
Opened on July 25, 2008
Directed by James Marsh
A look at tightrope walker Philippe Petit's daring, but illegal, high-wire routine performed between New York City's World Trade Center's twin towers in 1974, what some consider, "the artistic crime of the century."
Why it's on here: Every year there seems to be a documentary that transcends educational value and historical relevance and becomes something more, something deeply entertaining and alive with intensity. Last year it was the underdog story of The King of Kong. This year it is the daring tale of Philippe Petit. And while his accomplishment is the crown jewel of the film, it is Petit's engaging nature as a subject that makes Man on Wire one of the most exciting and riveting films of the year. It packs as much drama as you might see in a movie like The Dark Knight or Iron Man — and it is based on something that really happened. It doesn't get more impressive than that. (Written by Neil of FSR)
Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist
Opened on October 3, 2008
Directed by Peter Sollett
High school student Nick O'Leary, member of the Queercore band The Jerk Offs, meets college-bound Norah Silverberg and she asks him to be her boyfriend for five minutes.
Why it's on here: Before I even saw this, I was expecting it to be the next Superbad or Garden State. Then I saw it and thought it could actually achieve that level of success. Not only was it fun (and funny), but it had a sweet side to it that made it more than just the typical teenage comedy. It may have not been the best comedy of the year or even as good as Superbad or Garden State, but considering it is at least better than most other stupid teenage comedies, it deserves a bigger audience than it got in October. The charming Kat Dennings is at her best in it, as is Michael Cera.
Ping Pong Playa
Opened on September 5, 2008
Directed by Jessica Yu
A kid dreams of playing professional basketball in order to escape his dead-end job, living in the suburbs, his bossy older brother and running his Mom's ping pong classes.
Why it's on here: Easily the funniest movie of the last two years. I first saw it at the Toronto Film Festival last year and in turn called it the Best of the Fest. It eventually hit theaters earlier this year, but barely anyone knew it even existed. It was sad to see it go unnoticed because not only does its lead actor, Jimmy Tsai, and its director, Jessica Yu, deserve plenty of praise for their skills, but it is literally one of the funniest movies I've ever seen. As I said in my review, screw Balls of Fury, "Ping Pong Playa is the ping pong movie that should be in the spotlight!"
Opened on June 6, 2008
Directed by Steve Conrad
Two assistant managers of a corporate grocery store vie for a coveted promotion.
Why it's on here: Yet another hilarious comedy that I discovered at a film festival (SXSW in March). I'm not normally a fan of John C. Reilly or Seann William Scott, but both of them gave extraordinary comedic performances to make this an all-around gem of a comedy. It's unfortunate that this didn't catch on because it has so many hilarious moments that really stand out. It's one of those refreshingly different kind of independent comedies that no one knows about; but you'll be grinning when your friends come gawking to you about it years later because by then you'll have already memorized it all by heart.
Son of Rambow
Opened on May 2, 2008
Directed by Garth Jennings
During a long English summer in the early 1980s, two schoolboys from differing backgrounds set out to make a film inspired by Rambo: First Blood
Why it's on here: From the writer/director that brought us The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy comes one of the most heartwarming, unique little indie films of the year. The story of two friends from different sides of town (and religions) and their desire to make their own Rambo movie in the 1980s might sound simple, but it is loaded with layers that have an undeniable heartwarming effect. A story of friendship, acceptance and religious persecution, Son of Rambow is one of the most clever stories released in theaters this year. (Written by Neil of FSR)
Follows the adventures of Speed Racer, a young race car driver who sits behind the wheel of the lightning-fast Mach 5 racecar. Aided by his family and his devoted girlfriend, Speed racks up victory after victory, but still lives in the shadow of his late older brother, Rex. When Speed garners the wrath of Royalton Industries, he must team up with the enigmatic Racer X to defeat the ruthless corporation.
Why it's on here: I don't care what all the critics said about it — I loved this movie! And as more and more people are starting to finally watch this of their own volition, they're finding it to be way more entertaining than they were expecting. It's a kids movie at its heart but it's also infused with the Wachowski's one-of-a-kind stunning visuals and energy. It was killed by some early bad buzz but deserved much better. If you can get that bad buzz out of your head, a few of you might actually enjoy this in the end. At least give it a chance!
Not Released in Theaters Yet
Directed by Pierre Morel
A former spy relies on his old skills to save his estranged daughter, who has been forced into the slave trade.
Why it's on here: I already recently wrote about my feelings on Fox screwing over Taken, so I'm adding it here to emphasize to everyone (and Fox) again that they really did make a big mistake in delaying it. We should've all seen Taken already, as it was originally scheduled to be in theaters in September, but for reasons that still baffle me, Fox pushed it all the way to January. It couldn't be more fitting to include Taken on this list, considering it really is one of the best movies of the year that no one saw thanks to idiotic studio decisions.
Opened on July 3, 2008
Directed by Jonathan Levine
Set against this backdrop of New York City in 1994, a lonely teenager named Luke Shapiro spends his last summer before university selling marijuana throughout the city, trading it with his unorthodox psychotherapist for treatment, and falling in love with his stepdaughter.
Why it's on here: In addition to American Teen, this is one film that came out of Sundance this year with a whole lot of buzz. But yet again, Sony Pictures Classics buried it with a terrible release date and a series of poorly made trailers. Even if it had trouble finding the right audience, I'm assuring everyone that this still is one of the best movies of the year. While I've thrown around that phrase a lot, I really mean it this time, especially because its been on my mind constantly as I've starting to thinking back over this year. Do yourself a huge favor and catch this as soon as you can!
Young People Fucking
Opened on August 29, 2008
Directed by Martin Gero
A smart and fast-paced comedy that intertwines the stories of 5 couples over the course of one sexual encounter. As the couples attempt to have some seemingly straight forward sex, they run into all sorts of problems.
Why it's on here: I first encountered this gem at the Toronto Film Festival last year, but it didn't hit theaters until this year. Maybe it was its uncensored title that fucked it over (pun intended), but let me tell you, Young People Fucking is one of the funniest no-holds-barred sex comedies ever made. It has a very independent and personal feel to it, but that's what makes it so damn good. Even if it's just to find out what he said, Young People Fucking is definitely worth watching, especially with a significant other.
I hope I've been able to introduce everyone to a few more great must-see movies that they've never seen. Not everyone will love all of them, but I guarantee there is something unique to discover in every last one. Support an indie filmmaker today and watch one of these 19.
Guest commentary on Choke, Hamlet 2, Man on Wire, and Son of Rambow provided graciously by our good friend Neil Miller of Film School Rejects - thanks for helping us put this together my friend!