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Last week, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences trotted out its list of the nine best movies of the year. The selection ranges from the portentous -- Terrence Malick's theistic head trip "The Tree of Life" -- to the cute but forgettable --"The Artist" -- to the simply awful -- "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close." The majority of these movies are middle-brow white elephants that are as self-serious as they are safe. Here is a list of a few arguably great, overlooked movies that didn't play it safe.
Nicolas Winding Refn's blood-soaked fairy tale noir isn't the sort of flick that the academy usually rewards. It's sleek, undeniably hip, and very, very violent. The movie feels heightened and charged with something akin to eroticism, from the inscrutable expression on Ryan Gosling's face to the gleaming surfaces of his car; from the languorous tableaux of nocturnal Los Angeles to the shot of Albert Brooks stabbing some hapless gangster in the eye with a fork. Though Gosling's character -- he's called just the "kid" or "driver" -- might be the hero of this tale, Refn is the movie's star. During the movie's bravado opening sequence, the protagonist acts as a getaway driver for a pair of nameless thieves. The virtuosity that he displays evading the cops -- hiding under a bridge here, bolting into a parking structure there -- is matched by Refn's virtuosity behind the camera. In an age when actions scenes have devolved into incoherent camerawork strung together by spastic edits over a blaring soundtrack, the economy Refn uses here is remarkable. While his obsession with old-school violence -- stomping, stabbing, gouging -- might not be everyone's cup of tea, "Drive" is simply the best directed flick of the year.
You might love or hate Lars von Trier's movies -- I've gone back and forth -- but his work is never boring. I'd much rather see a flick that infuriates me, as "Dancer in the Dark" did, than something tasteful and tepid as, say, "J. Edgar." Over the years, Von Trier has mined his very public struggle with depression and, as a result, has become a more interesting filmmaker. His last movie, "Antichrist," which featured a talking fox and a very inappropriate use of scissors, might possibly be a masterpiece, but it's clearly the product of an unhealthy mind. "Melancholia" is even more personal for Von Trier. Kirsten Dunst, in a fearless performance, plays Justine, a woman so depressed that she can't even get through a lavish storybook wedding but seems perfectly capable of dealing with the literal end of the world. The movie looks as beautiful as a fashion spread but is bleaker than Ingmar Bergman on a bad day. "Melancholia" plays like a doom-laden fever dream that is surprisingly hard to shake after the credits roll. Minutes before the apocalypse Justine says with eerie calm, "Life on earth is evil. It won't be missed." Philosophically, it's about as far away from the sentimental humanism of your typical Oscar fare as you can get. No wonder it didn't get any nominations. Of course, making bone-headed comments about Nazis at press conferences didn't help much either.
Jason Reitman has made a career of making movies about dislikable people. "Thank You for Smoking" is a sympathetic look at a tobacco lobbyist, and "Up in the Air" is a similarly sympathetic take on a guy who fires people for a living. With "Young Adult," Reitman, along with screenwriter Diablo Cody, not only creates his best monster yet, but he also manages to skewer some beloved Hollywood conventions. Mavis, an ex-prom queen who has reached a modicum of fame as a ghost writer of a series of young-adult novels, learns that her high school boyfriend just had a baby. Brimming with a toxic mix of delusion, self-loathing, writer's block, and jaw-dropping entitlement, she ventures to her dreary Midwestern hometown to stake claim on her ex-beau. Though the big city she hails from is Minneapolis, it could just as well be Los Angeles or New York; her city-slicker hubris fails to wow the good people of Mercury, Minnesota. After enduring one indignity after another, she has an early morning heart-to-heart with Beth, a high school classmate who has long admired her from afar. In a normal movie, this would be the moment that Mavis realizes the error of her ways and embrace a humbler, more down-to-earth outlook. Instead, Beth launches into a Nietzschean rant that boils down to "you're beautiful, you're (semi-)famous, screw 'em. You're better than them." It's exactly the wrong lesson for her to learn, and she takes it to heart as she launches a new life as a presumably even more self-involved, awful person. There is no moral here. No middle-brow values re-affirmed. In other words, "The Help" this ain't. And sometimes, that's kind of awesome.
See the trailer for 'Drive':