Trouble Every Day – The always-surprising Claire Denis brings us a revisionist vampire film that restores to the over-exposed monster its ability to horrify and disturb. Almost devoid of dialogue, the story unfolds elliptically through shocking imagery, precision editing and a throbbing soundtrack that crawls under the skin and gets inside the mind in a way that few horror films ever do. A movie this dense, implacable, blood-soaked and transgressive was bound to alienate mainstream audiences and critics alike. It only solidified my respect for the director’s intellectual and artistic rigor.
Unforgettable – Unforgettable, to most minds, is a quite the opposite. It has garbage airport potboiler script with a spin, that's really kind of a dumb. Ray Liotta is a medical examiner determined to find his wife’s killer. His primary edge is a serum that lets you experience another person’s memories, provided by obligatory hot scientist Linda Fiorentino. The movie would doubtlessly be miserably bad if not for John Dahl, a talented director who keeps below radar and turns out consistently above-average modern noirs. This is his only flirtation with sci-fi and, despite being one of his weakest films, still kept me engaged, but it tanked at the box office. Dahl’s filmography reads like marathon of better-than-they-had-to-be thrillers most of which I’d defend, including Red Rock West, You Kill Me, The Last Seduction, Joy Ride and Rounders.
The Village – Reviews of this film stank when it came out, and it’s now frequently referred to as the starting point of writer-director M. Night Shyamalan’s precipitous decline. Critics and audiences were especially dismissive of the film’s rather obvious twist (after The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, everyone knew to look out for it) and the plotholes revealed therein, but I remember seeing this in theaters with my dad and thinking it was not only quite good, but a lot smarter than its given credit for being. The thematic investigations of fear, control and isolation are compelling to me, the mystery-thriller aspects really rather thrilling and the visual motifs well-handled. I don’t know if it would hold up to a second viewing, but I'm one of the few people who sound like they'd even look forward to a second viewing.
Vampires in Havana – In this animated Cuban movie that mixes vampires, music and politics, Joseph, a womanizing trombonist, gets caught in the middle of a vampire gang war centered on a sunlight immunity serum invented by his uncle. The potion would threaten the indoor beach resorts and blood-based speakeasies of the American cabal while the European gangsters plan to market it as a wonderdrug. The animation lacks a sense of place, character or artistry, but the story doesn't lack for energy and ideas.
Wanted – A secret society of assassins uses weaving errors in a mysterious ‘loom of fate’ to identify targets. As the movie begin, they send one of their top agents (Angelina Jolie) to recruit a regular office loser (James McAvoy) and teach him how to curve bullets by flicking a gun with superhuman speed. Soon he's on a mission to avenge his father. Cue explosions. Twist plot. Introduce exploding mice. This is how to make a stupid action movie and make it well (but still stupid). I came into this thinking that the film would be so ludicrous it had to be terrible, but Russian director Timur Bekmambetov keeps going one step further, rapidly leaving behind our conventional notions of the ludicrous, and entering into a dimension of pure entertainment where blazing action, the rule of cool, self-parody and idiocy magically coexist.
Wayward Cloud – Arguably the best musical about sex and watermelons, Wayward Clouds is Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang’s worst reviewed film. I think it’s his best. Ming-Liang, one of the luminaries of ‘slow cinema’ previously experimented with including lip-synced Chinese pop ballads in his impressive low-key sci-fi film The Hole, but Wayward Cloud takes things to new heights with music numbers that include synchronized umbrellas and genitalia costumes. The story, a pessimistic meditation on the impossibility of romance in a porn-saturated culture, takes place during a drought that forces Taipei to depend on watermelons for hydration.
Wild Things – There’s no question that Wild Things owes its popularity to its canny use of its cast’s assets, most famously on display (unless you are watching the TV-friendly cut) during a threesome between Matt Dillon, Denise Richards and Neve Campbell. But this film would be nothing but empty late-night cable fodder if it weren’t for the surprisingly sharp script, which lets everyone involved really relish their bad behavior and then trots out a seemingly endless supply of twists (most of which work). The slick polish that only a Hollywood budget can provide also meant that some poor art director actually bothered to make the steamy noirish atmosphere and swampy bayou setting needlessly compelling. Sure, it’s the embodiment of guilty pleasure viewing, an unabashedly sexy thriller with no deeper message or higher truth in mind, but it’s better than it should have been.
The World's Greatest Sinner – Though it has been years since I saw this on a late-night TCM airing, Sinner has stayed with me ever since. This independent 1962 cult film follows a regular Joe (actor-director Timothy Carey) during his evolution from insurance salesman, to rock star, to political figure, to cult leader and finally, and most disastrously, to godhood. He spends a lot of the film seducing, and I do mean seducing, old women out of their life savings. Carey, though it seems unlikely, is bizarrely watchable.
Yes – I consider this one of the most wrongfully hated art house masterpieces ever made, with critics almost tripping over each other to spit on it (a 29% average score on Metacritic with the only perfect rating coming from Roger Ebert). Joan Allen, Simon Abkarian and Sam Neill turn in brave top-notch performances with Allen playing a wealthy married microbiologist in love with Abkarian, a Muslim chef. The story is arguably rote, but it's carried to rapturous heights by director Sally Potter’s innovative camerawork full of delicate shallow focus movements, carefully captured details and a claustrophobic materialism. Most controversial of all, however, was her rhyming iambic pentameter script, which I felt was magnificent and perfectly wedded to the story and style but was ruthlessly torn to shreds in reviews, seemingly less for its actual quality than for the hubris of reviving unfashionable poetry in the new millennium.
You Are a Widow, Sir! – A Czech military satire sci-fi body-swap comedy with roots in the fast-paced anything-goes zaniness of the Marx Brothers. The army plots to assassinate the president after he disbands them for gross incompetence (they accidentally cut off his hand during a ceremony) and it’s up to a bumbling love-sick astrologer to foil their plans, which involve brain transplants, bombs and veal. Too convoluted to explain, it nevertheless makes internal sense upon viewing. Not only do I find this a truly funny little gem, I admire how the director leaps headlong into new complications and then, like an escape artist, digs himself out. I’m also a bit obsessed with Czech model/actress Olga Schoberova (I’ve tracked down some real crap just because she's in it) who earlier appeared in director Vaclav Vorlicek’s best work: Who Wants to Kill Jesse? Thankfully Jesse is slowly getting the critical attention it deserves, which is why I felt it was better left off the list.