This time of year brings a barrage of lists — critics and journalists telling you the 10 best movies you need to see, or need to feel bad for not seeing.
Admittedly, many of us in media-land tend to lockstep to the same films, or throw in a requisite foreign outlier. We’re also very willing to compile these lists, and then compile them some more. And why not? If you could validate your year locked in a dark room and dress it up as a public service, wouldn’t you?
But what about the other movies? The one that don’t merit the Moonlight or Silence treatment but are still pretty watchable and interesting? We don’t want them to be neglected.
So we’ve come up with what we’re calling the interesting-imperfect list of movies that contain a lot of unusual or intriguing elements, even if those elements rarely coalesce into a great movie. These are movies that believe deeply in their own vision, even if they don’t always give us reason to.
10. Ten Cloverfield Lane
It’s happened before. You’re deciding what movie to see on a Saturday night and wonder: What if someone took the suburban spookiness of many a Steven Spielberg or J.J. Abrams movie and combined it with the captive-prisoner subgenre of the modern horror film.
Or at least these filmmakers — Abrams, a producer, and Dan Trachtenberg, its director — so wondered.
The film looks at a woman taken captive by John Goodman and tries to figure out if he’s helping or torturing her. And while the results don’t entirely add up, the new addition to the genre canon makes for some compulsively watchable viewing. It will also make you pine for the hatch from Lost, and when could that ever be a bad thing?
9. War Dogs
Sure, the tone zigzags more than a drunk centipede and Todd Phillips might have watched Scarface one too many times before tackling this picture. But when do you ever get a chance to see Jonah Hill crashing around Fallujah, Iraq, as a yeshiva student-turned-arms dealer? Or watch a studio film that’s one part wish-fulfilment and one part implicit critique of war profiteering? Also, it’s based on a magazine article by this guy, so what’s not to intrigue?
8. Swiss Army Man
It’s been nearly a year since I saw this one at Sundance and I’m still not sure what the point of the movie — directed by filmmakers who professionally take advantage of their identical first names to go by the Daniels, like a pluralized Madonna — really is. On one level it seems like a more existential, indie Castaway, as Paul Dano’s character is trapped on an island with a dead man played by Daniel Radcliffe who can achieve certain tricks for his companion.
The film basically answers the question: What if Wilson the volleyball was Harry Potter? On another level it can make Weekend at Bernie’s seem like high drama; there are, for starters, a lot of flatulence jokes. So silly it’s profound or so silly you wonder why you, or anyone, invested in it. Maybe both.
7. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
Ah, the fall from grace of a potential multiple Oscar winner. Ang Lee’s foray into the experience of modern war didn’t go over well with critics — really not well, in some cases.
Based on Ben Fountain’s best-selling book, the movie sought to mix the post-traumatic stress disorder of modern war with a gentle satire about American excess. But these and the story aren’t the point — the technology is.
Lee sought to bring the experience of war and war memories home in an entirely novel way, using crazy high frame rates and other hyperreal techniques to transform the medium of cinema itself. It may not be fully worked out yet, but when you’re looking at immersive cinema, everything is in its infancy. Who’s to say where this all leads? You won’t know the answer. But your mind will dance with a lot more questions walking out of Billy Lynn.
No one would argue for this film’s comedic greatness, even by R-rated comedy standards: it’s a mishmash of action-comedy parody and Key and Peele sketch work. And it’s about a half-hour past its usefulness. But the chance to see Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele together again two years after their show went off the Comedy Central airwaves earns it a spot right there. Where’s Tyroil Smoochie-Wallace when you need him? Other bonuses: jokes about cats and Keanu Reeves stretched to the breaking point, Will Forte as a pot impresario.
5. The Founder
OK, so this one is ending up on top 10 lists, and justly so. But it felt right here too. Could a seemingly modest story about McDonald’s executive Ray Kroc be a way in to dissecting capitalism, modern America and even Donald Trump? Could director John Lee Hancock find, in a story about a recognized brand, a story that slyly offers judgments while making no judgments? We’ll let the arc of this one surprise you. The imperfect designation may not apply. The interesting part is off the charts.
4. Hello, My Name Is Doris
Even if it didn’t have some truly great performers from older actresses, even if it wasn’t politically noteworthy for its script-flipping older woman-younger man romance, this one would be interesting.
This story of a lonely 60-something woman and her quest — poignant, real, surreal — to attract the romantic eye of a younger co-worker is a breath of fresh air. Written by the cult comic personality Michael Showalter and the emergent indie filmmaker Laura Terruso, the movie can go from broad comedy to darker drama. Not always easily, it should be said, but never boringly.
3. Lights Out
Maybe it’s just the fact that it’s from someone who came up with the idea while turning out his bedroom lights. Maybe it’s the fact that we’ve all seen shapes in the night but never thought to make a movie about it. Something about the highest of high concepts — or is it the lowest of high concepts? — makes this a horror oddball worth watching. And that’s before a hugely satisfying visual punch line involving an automatic car-door opener.
2. The Lobster
You knew Yorgos Lanthimos, the Greek expat in London who made Dogtooth, was going to be up to something interesting with his first English-language film. You just couldn’t have imagined it would be this interesting.
In a gently dystopian future, single people are herded to an island and forced to mingle and pair up, lest they be turned into an animal of their choosing if they don’t. Dead-black comedy mixes with trenchant social commentary, even if it eventually takes us out of the compound to something a little more familiar.
1. Miles Ahead
Right now you’re probably thinking, “Which movie is this again?” Fair enough. Certainly American audiences felt this way; they barely turned out to see it. But it’s hard to come out of this film — co-written, starring and directed by Don Cheadle — with anything other than head-shaking wonderment. Or at least one of those reactions.
A film that already starts out oddly enough — as a kind of subversive biopic about a low point in Miles Davis’ life — gets even stranger as it morphs into an ode to ’70s blaxploitation movies, before a third act in which it completely disables the brakes. That would be literally, as a car chase becomes a dramatic pivot point. Guns are picked up and used, heists are carried off. Oh, and there’s a Tarantino-esque framing device.
Cheadle spent years raising the budget for this one, and even by the scrappy indie standards of “make your own movie, no one will tell you what to do,” this one’s a jaw dropper. Has he put forth a brilliant vision or a horrible misfire? In this regard it does what movies on this list — and movies generally — might hope to accomplish: You won’t come out of it feeling indifferent.