Mike’s Top Hidden Gems of the Decade (20-11)
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.
20. A Most Violent Year
One of the best films of its year and criminally underrated from the moment it came out. It feels like all J.C. Chandor’s films have been criminally underseen, from Margin Call to All Is Lost to this and even Triple Frontier. This one, though — the most underseen of them all. It’s set in 1980s New York and has Oscar Isaac as the immigrant owner of a trucking company who is trying to protect his business during the most violent year in New York history. It’s an intense drama with some amazing performances and greats sequences. I don’t know what happened with this movie — it won a lot of critics awards and was poised to get all sorts of mainstream recognition, and then it just fell off the face of the earth. I don’t understand it, but you can change that by just seeing it and giving this film the recognition it deserves.
This is the kind of simple, unassuming, classical film that never get its proper due, but is a film that anyone could put on and enjoy. It’s so beautiful, and has themes and moments everyone can identify with in some way. It’s about an Irish girl in the 50s who decides to go to America and try to start a life there. And that’s the film. She travels to a new country alone, leaves her entire family and goes to a new place where she knows nobody. And the film is ultimately her meeting someone and falling in love, while also dealing with homesickness and coming into her own as a person. It’s s beautiful and Saoirse Ronan is tremendous in it. There are moments in this that are among the most touching I’ve ever seen on screen, and even though the film was nominated for Best Picture in what might be the strongest year of the decade, it’s still one of those films that I know not enough people have seen. Because it’s so low key it’s not gonna be something anyone rushes out to go watch. But trust me, it holds its own against anything else from that year and this entire decade.
18. The Front Runner
Crazy how Jason Reitman films went from appointment viewing to universally ignored. Remember last decade? Thank You for Smoking, Juno, Up in the Air. Everyone saw those movies. This decade, admittedly no one saw Labor Day, no one saw Men Women and Children and maybe some people saw Young Adult but probably didn’t care all that much about it. People just kinda forgot about him and stopped caring about his films. Then he came back with two films in the same year, Tully and this. And Tully is the only one that people kinda know about, since it’s part of that Diablo Cody motherhood/maturity trilogy with Juno and Young Adult. But this one… no one saw it, no one cared. It came out on Election Day and no one gave it the time of day. It’s a film that’s about Gary Hart’s 1988 presidential campaign, which I’m, not even sure young people even know about anymore. He was this really promising candidate and people thought he really could win… and then he got caught on a boat in Miami called Monkey Business with a mistress and the whole thing came apart. And the film is about that whole event. Only, it’s about so much more than that. It’s about the beginnings of the 24-hour news cycle, the onset of tabloid media and gossip journalism becoming primary news, it delves into the Me Too movement — there’s so much stuff packed into this film, so many corollaries to today’s society that you almost can’t believe how perfect a story it was to tell for this day and age. And Reitman directs the absolute hell out of it. The opening shot is straight out of Altman, weaving in and out of all the major groups of primary characters and giving you this Nashville-like portrait where in some cases you can focus on whatever threads you want without having to pay attention to others, since it’s all there on screen at the same time. It’s really well done, and the performances, particularly that of Hugh Jackman as Hart, are incredible. It’s one of the best films of the decade and it’s shocking to me how few people even know it exists.
17. Escape from Tomorrow
The most audacious film of the decade, that’s for sure. It’s a film that was shot… not illegally, but definitely without permission… at Disneyland. Because filming at Disneyland is allowed. Or else how would you get all your home movies? So what the filmmakers did was go in like regular park goers and shot this film on the sly without being caught. The director said he edited the film in like, Malaysia or something just because he was worried Disney had or would catch wind of it and come after him. And they went through teams of lawyers to make sure they couldn’t be sued (since as long as they didn’t use anything that was copyright, they were legally allowed to do it), and then they quietly put it out at Sundance without any notice, eventually starting a firestorm of press. So maybe you’ve heard of this movie from that — it’s the movie shot illegally at Disneyland. And on that alone, you need to see it. It’s about a family that goes on vacation to ‘the Happiest Place on Earth’ and then the father slowly starts to have a mental breakdown. That’s really all you need to know. And it goes to some really fucked up and bizarre places, and it’s kinda wonderful. The fact that it even exists is a miracle, and it deserves at least one view from anyone who loves film because you kind of have to support people making films like this. Without films like this, everything would be the same and boring.
Another film that boggles my mind when I think about why or how it could have possibly come and gone without almost anyone knowing about it. Just — we’ll start with this: Steve McQueen, making his first movie since 12 Years a Slave (and let’s also not forget Shame and Hunger, both of which are also amazing), stars Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, Michelle Rodriguez, Cynthia Erivo, Brian Tyree Henry, Colin Farrell, Daniel Kaluuya, Robert Duvall, Liam Neeson, Jon Bernthal, Carrie Coon and Jacki Weaver. Forget automatically feeling like that’s something you should see. Shouldn’t you feel like you should have at least heard about this movie? That’s my point. On top of that? It’s great. McQueen co-wrote it with Gillian Flynn (author of Gone Girl) and based it off a 1980s BBC miniseries. It’s about the wives of four criminals who die in a heist who band together to complete their husbands’ next big job, which also involves two opposing men running for city alderman (both of whom are criminals, but in different ways. Colin Farrell comes from a white political dynasty that has run this section of Chicago for generations and hasn’t really done a whole lot for the majority black population, and Brian Tyree Henry is a gangster who does understand what the neighborhood needs, but… well, he’s a gangster). There’s all sorts of different storylines weaving in and out, all of which are interesting. It’s one of those movies that’s just about two hours but feels like you could give it a full extra hour and be fine because everything is just so rich. It’s a wonderful movie and one of the best of its year and the decade. I wish all I had to do here was try to get more people to see it and remind you of how good it is and how you shouldn’t dismiss it just because it’s not 12 Years a Slave Part 2, but the fact that people don’t even know it was even made is so disheartening to me. How can there be a just cinematic landscape where no one knows this is there but watches some of those dumb studio comedies or junk food horror movies they churn out ad nauseam?
15. Love & Mercy
An unheralded masterpiece. I don’t know why this slipped through the cracks. It’s one of the best films of the decade and one of the best music biopics ever made. It’s about Brian Wilson. And it takes an interesting track to telling its story — it takes two separate timelines, him in 1966 as he’s recording Pet Sounds, stopping touring with the band and starting the beginnings of his mental illness and breakdown, and then him in the 80s as he’s under the care of an abusive psychiatrist who controls his life in every way, and how he meets the woman he’d later marry who ends up saving him from all that. And what they do is cast two separate actors as Wilson without really trying to match them up visually. Paul Dano plays young Brian and John Cusack plays older Brian. And it just works. And both halves of the film are really strong. Each has its great moments. They act autonomously of one another while combining into this beautiful portrait of the genius that is Brian Wilson. I cannot say enough amazing things about this movie and wish everyone went out to see this as soon as they could, because it’s one of those movies you’re almost guaranteed to like. It’s so watchable and so good, and really deserves to be placed among the upper echelon of all the music biopics that are out there.
14. Brawl in Cell Block 99
This is S. Craig Zahler again. After Bone Tomahawk, I wasn’t sure what I was gonna get with him. So imagine my surprise when I go see this movie and it’s one of the best theater experiences I had this entire decade. This is a movie that is indulgent in all the best ways. It’s set up to be a ‘prison’ movie, but then takes every possible detour it could possibly take before becoming that movie. It’s a B movie that’s trying to hit all the other letters of the alphabet before it settles into what it is. Vince Vaughn stars in a way you’ve never seen him before. You can see from the image above — they use every inch of his 6’5” frame and shoot him full frame to illustrate just how big he really is as a human, which most films generally don’t show you. And he’s big, too. You feel like he can fuck up anyone he comes across. Which is further underscored in the opening of the movie when he absolutely wrecks a car with his bare hands. The broad strokes of the plot are — he’s in prison, and he has to go to a particular prison and a particular cell block in order to complete a job for a psycho who is threatening his family if he doesn’t do it. But so much of the film is waiting for that to happen, and they give you this tender family moment between him and his wife, regular prison time in a relatively nice prison — and of course the occasional flash of brief, brutal violence — before getting to the part of the film you originally signed up for. It’s so much fun, though. It’s one of those grindhouse kind of experiences, where you feel like you should be in a small, packed theater with people screaming and laughing and throwing their popcorn everywhere the whole time. That’s the kind of film this is and it’s one of the more entertaining films I saw this decade. I’ve shown this to somewhere between 6 and 10 different people so far in person, and not one of them came out saying anything other than, “That was really awesome.” Because it is.
13. The Nightingale
I fell in love with this movie immediately and sort of half-knew as I was watching it that there was no way this would ever get the audience it deserved. It’s just not that kind of movie that will get audiences flocking to it. It’s Jennifer Kent’s second film, after The Babadook. A film I know you’ve heard of. So on that alone, maybe trust that it’s gonna be good. It’s set in early 19th century Tasmania (which immediately limits the audience this would get on principle, which is sad but unfortunately the reality). She plays an Irish woman in service of the British army, desperately waiting for a long overdue letter that will allow her, her husband and infant child their freedom. The army officer in charge keeps telling her that it’s coming and makes passes at her, but no letter ever materializes. Everything finally comes to a head in an absolutely gruesomely tragic moment that takes everything away from this woman. And so, with nothing left and no future to look forward to, she sets out for revenge. She partners with an indigenous man who helps her across the country’s terrain as she pursues the officers to murder them for what they did to her. It’s awesome. It’s so good. Aisling Franciosi gives the performance of the year. She’s so good in this movie. The film is an Australian western, which means that 1) western, and not everyone is gonna like that, and 2) Australian western, which means not a lot of the tropes of American westerns. So really you just have to take a bit of a leap of faith on this one. But trust me when I say that it’s worth it. It’s one of the best movies out there you probably don’t know about.
12. The Night Before
One of the best comedies of this decade and a film that should immediately be put on the list of best Christmas movies ever made. This movie is brilliant and absolutely hilarious. It’s Jonathan Levine, who made 50/50 and Long Shot and Warm Bodies, and is Seth Rogen, Anthony Mackie and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. They’re three friends from childhood who have developed a Christmas tradition that started when Gordon-Levitt’s parents died just before Christmas one year. They came to cheer him up and have since spent every Christmas Eve together. Only now, Rogen’s about to have a child and Mackie is a star football player and they just can’t do it anymore. Gordon-Levitt, meanwhile, is still bouncing around from job to job and doesn’t have his shit together, so the ultimate story of the film is him growing up. But really it’s just about all the insane shit that happens as the three go around partying and trying to get into this mythical Christmas bash that happens every year that is almost impossible to get into. It’s absolutely hilarious and is one of those movies that so few people saw when it came out, never really bothered to watch since, but whenever they do see it (often at my recommendation), they come out going, “That was hysterical. How did I not know about this before?” So that’s why I’m here. To try to tell you that this is right there, one of the funniest movies you’ll see, just waiting for you to put it on. So just go do it.
11. Beasts of the Southern Wild
A beautiful film. There’s such an energy and a community charm to this movie that just makes it feel so much greater than the sum of its parts. It’s funny because the filmmakers just came out with a second film, which was basically the story of Peter Pan done in this same style, and it didn’t work as well as this one. So whatever the alchemy was that went into this film, it’s not necessarily repeatable. There’s something about this film in particular that has the magic. It takes place in a small Louisiana community built on a levee, cut off from the rest of the world. The people all live as this insular community, perfectly happy with their lot in life, knowing full well that one day the levee is gonna break and they’ll all die in the floods. But they’re fine with it. And the film is a bout a six-year-old girl in the community and her relationship with her father. It’s… incredible. It really is. It’s one of those films you just need to experience. Certain people just won’t get it, but that’s a risk you’re gonna have to take. It’s just so charming, and the exact kind of movie that should be talked about more because they made it for no money and turned it into one of the most acclaimed films of the decade.
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