Mike’s Top Hidden Gems of the Decade (130-121)

Of all the lists I’m making for this Top Tens of the Decade feature, I need to explain this one the most. Since the phrase ‘hidden gem’ can apply various different ways to a film and can mean different things: a) a movie you don’t know about that’s great and should be seen; b) a movie you may have heard of but probably haven’t seen that you should see; c) a movie you know and may have even seen, but is being underrated by the film community; d) a movie that straight up just needs to be seen by more people.

Obviously there are way more than just 200 gems from this decade. In my first run-through, simply compiling a list of things I might have on this list, before I considered whether they fit the criteria I wanted to use for it while also trying to be as exclusive as possible, I had over 250 films. I get that this isn’t a be-all, end-all list. These are just the 200 I chose to talk about because they’re the ones I felt deserved the most notice in this particular article and are the ones I wanted to shout out the most.

Now, how I went about the rankings was more vague. Part of it had to be how much I liked each of the films. I don’t see how it couldn’t be. But it’s not just that. Because that’s just a top films list, which I’m gonna do after this one’s done. This one’s also about just how much of a hidden gem I felt the movie is, or how much I wanted to give you that nudge in the direction of, “Hey, maybe you’re wrong about this and should give it a (or another) shot.” Or how much I wanted to emphasize, “You need to see this movie.”

I think it goes without saying – just because something is on this list doesn’t mean I assume you don’t know it. It’s because I figure (or know) there’s a larger percentage of people than I want to guess that either haven’t seen the movie or don’t fully appreciate the movie, and the goal is to introduce it to them. If you’re already in the camp of having seen it, good for you. I’m pretty sure most people reading this will have at least a quarter of this list that they haven’t seen. I suspect it’s more, but I truly don’t know how crazy most people are in relation to me in terms of seeing everything. I think most people will get some cool movies out of this.

130. Tracks

I know this won’t mean much to most people, but it means something to me. I — every time I went home over this past decade (and even when I go home now) I would give my parents a bunch of movies to watch. I grew up in a household that exposed me to a lot of really good movies at a young age, though at a certain point when I got into movies, I realized that my parents were also ones who would watch the same group of movies over and over and over again. It was always a limited pool, but a good pool nevertheless. And so I’d do my part to try to show them cool things I thought they’d like and try to expand that pool a bit (which I have). Or at the very least show them things they’d like, whether or not it became part of the rotation. And my father was always about the action stuff and in general ‘dude’ movies. Everything else he liked usually came from my mother watching stuff and him watching it alongside. My mother was always more open with stuff and would generally put her attention toward most things I gave her, particularly those where I’d say, “You’re gonna like this.” But generally what I’d do when I went home is give them like 50-100 DVDs (now thank god we’ve graduated to the point of flash drives) and assume that maybe 20-30 MIGHT get watched. And usually that’s the bigger awards stuff or the ones I marked as ‘you’ll like this’. But occasionally there’d be a random movie I made because I liked it that randomly got watched and then I’d hear about it, “I really liked that one.” And it was always just random enough to where it would surprise me positively that it was liked. And this is one of those movies. I randomly got the call one day and it was, “What did I watch? Oh yeah, the one with the camels. I really liked it.” Wasn’t expecting it at all.

The point of that whole story was — if my mother, who doesn’t care about cinema, and her take on most movies that win awards is “I don’t see what was so great about it, but sure,” can watch this movie, which she’d have almost never come across otherwise (unless it just happened to be on cable and she just happened to flip to it), and come out going, “I really liked it,” there has to be enough here for most people who like movies to enjoy it.

Now briefly let me tell you what it’s about — Mia Wasikowska plays Robyn Davidson, a real woman who felt like she didn’t fit in with society, who decided to travel across the Australian Outback with her dog and some camels (technically dromedaries). And that’s it. She just decided, “I’m gonna do this,” and then did it. And the film is about her journey. It’s really engaging, Wasikowska is amazing, and there’s a little bit of Adam Driver along the way too, if that’s your thing. It’s just a really nice movie about someone following their dream.

129. Stronger

Hugely underrated movie. I wasn’t thrilled about it because I thought, “What could this movie possibly be?” It came out just a few years after the Boston Marathon bombing and I thought it was gonna be some sappy movie where someone overcomes their disability. But it’s not. It’s rough. And he’s not always doing well. There’s much of a ‘The Fighter’ vibe here, where it’s much more about his family and the community around him as much as it’s about his story. It’s about the guy who lost his legs during the bombing, and that’s the film. Him now not having legs and dealing with this disability and what it does to his life. Jake Gyllenhaal plays the guy, and Tatiana Maslany plays his girlfriend. And the film is about the two of them, and him, and Boston. There’s a lot here. He’s trying to deal with this horrific circumstance, and part of it is about how this doesn’t change his failings as a person that existed before this, and as much as she’s trying to be supportive and stick by him, there’s still some shit that he has to deal with regardless. Plus you get the fun Irish Catholic family in some scenes. You get some cool stuff. Gyllenhaal and Maslany are really good, and somehow this is yet another really good David Gordon Green hidden gem. You figure with him, a hidden gem is something like Joe or Prince Avalanche, not this. This has a profile. But no. No one saw this either. And you should. It’s great.

128. Novitiate

This is one of those movies that, at face value, I’d want nothing to do with. But the cast and the fact that it looked really solid made me to go out of my way to see it. I remember sitting in a small(ish) theater here in LA, with maybe two other people in the entire theater on like a Wednesday night, watching this thing and thinking, “Oh wow, this is so much better than I ever thought it could be, and no one else is ever gonna care about that.” Because it’s about a woman becoming a nun. Nobody cares. Nor should you. But the movie is really interesting and well done. The specific plot is this woman deciding to become a nun right during the time when the Church started lessening its strict rules for clergy in the early 60s in order to get more people to join. Margaret Qualley is great, Julianne Nicholson is great as her mother, and you have Melissa Leo playing a character that I’ve called “Nurse Ratched of the Nunnery.” She’s the old school nun who has ruled her area with an iron fist for years and hates that they’re now going soft on all these newcomers and doesn’t want to have to play by these new rules. So of course she’s extra hard on all these new girls. And the rest of the prospective nuns are all really talented young actresses who you either have or will see in other things going forward. It’s a really interesting film, but admittedly has a very limited scope of who’s gonna want to see it. But I promise that if you do, you’ll be treated to some really powerful performances by a terrific cast and just a really solid adult drama. And this is coming from someone who intensely hates the Church and would want every reason to dislike this movie on that principle alone. But it’s just too good. It’s worth seeing.

127. Smashed

The movie that introduced Mary Elizabeth Winstead as an acting powerhouse. Sadly it’s almost a decade later now and Hollywood still hasn’t caught up to that fact, but I live in hope. Anyway, this is James Ponsoldt’s first big film and it’s about a kindergarten teacher who is also an alcoholic, along with her husband. And she’s just content to be an alcoholic until of course things spiral out of control and she loses her job and has to go to rehab and confront the issue she’s been avoiding all this time. It’s a really strong performance from Winstead and a solid film, though it is an indie, so if you’ve seen enough of those you should be aware of the kind of movie you’re getting overall. But really what you’re in for here is the performance above all else, and it’s very much worth it for that.

126. The Monster

Let me begin by reiterating — I dislike the horror genre. The two things you really have to get me on board with beforehand are horror and documentary. Those two I’m just not built to care about. And for me, most horror is the same old repetitive nonsense. Jump scares and supernatural things haunting houses. I just don’t care about your haunted doll movie or this second-hand story about a third-hand story about some girl getting an exorcism done in a barn in North Dakota in the 60s. I just can’t care about this stuff. The only way I care about the genre is if it’s legitimately scary and well made (and by ‘scary’ I mean… appropriate for the genre. I don’t need to jump out of my seat, but it has to feel well done) and, if it does have to be supernatural, that I can treat the supernatural element as being a metaphor for something else. Like how I can see the entity in It Follows as being about STDs and paranoia. The Babadook is about mental illness. In this movie, the monster is addiction and the pressures of motherhood. It’s from Bryan Bertino, who did The Strangers, and it’s a pretty simple movie — mother and daughter in a car broken down on the side of the road. There is a monster in the woods that is attacking them, and they need to not die. Now, the bonus is that you get a bit of the relationship between the two before this all happens, and you see that the mother (incredibly played by Zoe Kazan) has some issues with alcoholism and is abusive toward her daughter, and the daughter eventually says she wants to go live permanently with her father. So that’s what the trip is they’re taking is about while this is all happening. And so fighting the monster becomes this sort of redemptive act by this woman who has been a terrible mother and inflicted all this pain on her daughter to this point. So while there is a monster… it means something else. And I like when a horror movie can do that. Also, it’s really good. Only about 90 minutes, very lean, not a lot of extraneous stuff there. It works for what it’s trying to do. The metaphor and lead performance are just bonuses.

125. The Place Beyond the Pines

Derek Cianfrance’s followup to Blue Valentine. This is… it’s an ambitious movie. It’s three movies in one, almost. You wonder if he had made this about six years later if it would have just been a three-part limited series on Netflix or something, because that’s how it plays. The film has three acts and three main characters. The first act is Ryan Gosling as a motorcycle stunt driver who begins planning bank heists, the second act is Bradley Cooper as a cop originally tasked with taking down Gosling’s character, and the third act is Dane DeHaan as Gosling’s son. Admittedly I found the first two acts much more interesting than the third, but overall it’s still a really interesting movie that’s trying a lot of cool stuff. To straight up just abandon one character at a certain point in the movie and move on to someone else takes some balls. Especially when that character is Ryan Gosling and the film’s just gonna go on without him being the focal point. But I like that about it. I like that it’s trying something different. I get why this never got the audience it deserved, but that doesn’t mean it still can’t. There’s a real cast here, and it’s very much worth seeing.

124. Eye in the Sky

This got a little bit of notice for being Alan Rickman’s final screen performance, but otherwise most people have no idea what this is. It’s Gavin Hood’s return to proper filmmaking after the unmitigated disasters of X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Ender’s Game. The film is basically two stories happening at the same time. In one: a group of military personnel sit in a room watching drone footage of a potential terrorist (or rather… it is a terrorist, they’re just not sure it’s really them) having a meeting in a compound and decide whether or not they have enough evidence to order a drone strike and calculate the potential risk for all the civilians in the immediate blast area. In the other, agents and locals on the ground do their best to help confirm the target is in the house and make it so as few innocent people as possible are in the line of the potential blast. And so it becomes this really tense Fail-Safe kind of movie of them building to the moment of a decision having to be made and it being about whether or not they’re gonna do it and if innocent people are gonna be killed if they do. It’s really tense and taut and really doesn’t go all out on the set pieces either, which is nice. And of course it brings into debate the broader topics of drone strikes and whether or not it’s okay to possibly kill anyone as collateral damage even if it means potentially saving the lives of hundreds down the line. It’s one of the better gems out there and deserves an audience.

123. The Standoff at Sparrow Creek

I don’t throw around the phrase ‘Hitchcockian’ very often. But I felt that way about this one. It’s obviously not of that level, but to the extent to which anything in recent years has come close to even reminding me of what he was able to pull off with his films, I felt that at times with this one. The film takes place entirely within a warehouse. A group of local militiamen who keep talking about uprising and doing all these things are actually faced with a real life situation when someone shoots up a dead cop’s funeral. So they all convene on their location and realize — the gun that was used in the shooting is one of theirs. Which means the target is now on their backs. And because all of the people who had access are in the room — they need to figure out which one of them did it. So the film becomes about them figuring out amongst themselves who the traitor is. And it’s led by a former cop who begins interrogating the others one by one. And naturally tensions mount and the shit gets increasingly closer to hitting the fan as the night wears on. It’s a really nice little film and a great debut for Henry Dunham. I think people will enjoy this if for no other reason than the fact that it draws you in and maintains the tension throughout. You’ll feel like it took you on a ride, which you can’t really say about everything.

122. Enemy

Oh, so we’re up to this two-fer. Okay, then. This film and the next film on this list (I’m incapable of not talking about them together, because they both came out almost exactly at the same time) are variations of the same theme. Though each uses a different tone to convey that message. This is from Denis Villeneuve, and it becomes sort of the Rescuers Down Under of his Disney Renaissance. He made this after Prisoners but before Sicario and Arrival and Blade Runner. It stars Jake Gyllenhaal as a college professor who one day notices that there’s a movie actor out there who looks exactly like him. He just happens to spot the guy in the background of a movie and becomes fascinated with who he is. And the film is about him seeking out the guy and eventually, in a weird way, sort of taking over the other guy’s existence, since the two of them look identical. It’s a very surreal (at times) and absurd (at times) kind of movie. There’s a whole subplot recurring motif with spiders, and the whole thing plays as this mystery of sorts. It’s a very literary kind of film, and thus wouldn’t be for most audiences. I found it fascinating, but I’ll admit that it’s not for everyone. But it’s cool because it plays on that notion (which you see in other films like Vertigo) about someone becoming obsessive about an identity and trying to assume that identity over the course of the film. I think it’s worth seeing, if only because at this point we all know we can trust Denis Villeneuve.

121. The Double

So this is just like Enemy except much more absurdist comedy. This is Jesse Eisenberg as a shy, average worker who has a crush on a woman ad has all the problems of normal life. And then an exact doppelgänger shows up at his work and begins making his life hell. Because the dude is everything he isn’t — he’s smooth, charming, outgoing, everyone loves him. And all the times the guy does something bad somehow Eisenberg is the one who gets blamed for it. And of course he starts driving Eisenberg nuts. And the whole thing is absurdist so it’s got all these Kafka-esque situations that are just insane, but also played for laughs. I think of the two doppelgänger films, more people would out and out enjoy this one, but I think both are worth seeing as a really interesting double feathre.

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