“Movies are too damn long” is a pretty common modern movie complaint. When Transformers: Age Of Extinction clocks in at 165 minutes, I can understand the sentiment. But what’s the perfect length of a film? For me, it’s a trim 90 minutes. Not enough to outstay its welcome, but enough to tell a story and leave you wanting more.
History is littered with great films that are 90 minutes or under. Stand By Me, Duck Soup, and Beauty And The Beast are all classics that are economical with their runtime.
But what about those films that don’t get shouted about enough, all with a length that won’t give you a hernia watching? Well here’s my take on the top 50 underrated films with a 90 minute or under runtime. As to what makes a film underrated, that’s a highly subjective area. For me, they are films that were never appreciated upon release, and to this day remain unknown to the majority of the film watching public. Or they’re the films that were initially celebrated, but are now forgotten in favor of other, shinier treats.
On, then, with the countdown…
50. Nick Of Time (1995, 90 mins)
It seems fitting that we should start this top 50 with a film that is exactly 90 minutes long, and takes place in real time too. Step forward mid ’90s Johnny Depp thriller Nick Of Time. Depp plays an everyman who is blackmailed by Christopher Walken into killing a US state Governor.
The plot is pretty nonsensical, the action far-fetched and a bit silly, but there’s no denying the real-time action adds a layer of tension and dynamism to the proceedings and makes for a compelling watch.
49. Nothing Personal (2009, 85 mins)
Haunting, silent, and beautiful, Polish writer-director Urszula Antoniak’s odd love story of sorts relies on performances, images, and intentions rather than words spelling out what is happening. Opening with Lotte Berbeek’s Anne watching impassively as strangers take away all her belongings she has left outside, the film then takes us to Ireland, where after making her way to the coast she sets up home in a seemingly abandoned cottage; there she encounters hermit Stephen Rea.
It’s a film all about how we engage with strangers, what we can do to get to know someone, and how unlikely relationships form, even when we don’t think we need them.
48. It’s All Gone Pete Tong (2004, 90 mins)
A lot better than the title would have you believe. Paul Kaye plays legendary DJ Frankie Wilde, who due to to substance and sound abuse, loses his hearing and goes completely deaf. This sends his life into free-fall, with crowds booing him, his manager and wife leaving him, and Frankie spiralling into depression and despair. However, he learns to ‘hear music’ again through engaging with the deaf community, resulting in a comeback – although one laced with all the pitfalls of his previous lifestyle.
Surprisingly melancholic, it’s still a very funny film with a great performance from Kaye at its centre. For those who didn’t see his recent critically acclaimed move into drama acting coming, then the signs were all here.
47. Don Jon (2014, 90 mins)
Joseph Gordon Levitt’s recent directing debut, Don Jon is a pretty personal look at a guy who seemingly has it all. A modern day Don Juan in every respect, he has the looks, the body, the great apartment, and a lot of attention from women. But he really is a very modern Don Juan, in that he also has a addiction to porn, preferring it to genuine intimacy.
Charting his battles with this addiction, Don Jon is a witty rom-com with bright performances from Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, and Julianne Moore. It tackles a sensitive subject with warmth, and as critic Odie Henderson noted at the Sundance Film Festival, people found it a “more fun” version of Shame.
46. Bang Bang You’re Dead (2004, 87 mins)
A year in the life of a high school, but not the one you normally see in the movies. Ben Foster gives a brilliant performance as teen Trevor Adams, who is singled out for bullying, abuse, fear, and general avoidance due to calling in a phony bomb threat the year before, with Tom Cavanagh as teacher Val Duncan, the only teacher who believes in him.
A look at what really happens in school, as opposed to what the administration think is happening, it shows that the loners we often single out for abuse aren’t the ones we should be targeting.
45. Your Sister’s Sister (2011, 90 mins)
I’m as surprised as any of you to find this seemingly slight film in a Den Of Geek list of underrated films, but it fully deserves its place. Mainly due to the fact it’s a very entertaining, well-made film, with a irrepressible trio of performances from Emily Blunt, Mark Duplass, and Rosemarie DeWitt.
It subverts conventions expected from a rom-com, and engages you fully with the fall-out from its premise, where a grieving Jack sleeps with his female friend’s sister. It’s a film which would work equally well as a play, with the bright and sparky interactions between the cast driving the narrative, rather than any visual spectacle.
44. Eldorado (2008, 80 mins)
A surreal Belgian road movie, Eldorado tells the tale of Yvan (played by director Bouli Lanners), a lonely and grieving father who makes a living importing American cars. One night he returns home to discover a young heroin addict attempting to burgle him. Rather than call the police, he instead takes the young guy, who calls himself Elie, on a road trip back to his parents which turns into a series of bizarre encounters, ranging from psychics to nudists.
At its heart a film about family connections, Eldorado uses both digital landscapes and the real scenery of Wallonia to invoke its mythical title, while all the time showing the reality of personal bonds.
43. Liar Liar (1997, 86 mins)
Up there with any of Carrey’s best comedies, but one which was unfairly dismissed due to it arriving at the height of Jim Carrey’s dominance not only of Hollywood, but seemingly all of modern life in the mid ’90s. The follow-up Tom Shadyac/Carrey collaboration after Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Liar Liar is an obvious Carrey ploy to hit big in the lucrative family comedy market after becoming known for more gross-out humor.
Yet it despite it being sickly saccharine at times, it can’t help but be incredibly funny, especially in the initial sequences of Carrey being unable to lie anymore. Yeah it’s silly, but charmingly so, and now makes a weirdly perfect double-bill with Ricky Gervais’ The Invention of Lying.
42. 9 (2009, 79 mins)
Sadly ignored by the majority upon its release (perhaps due in some part to Rob Marshall’s far more hyped and marketed film, also called Nine, being released the same year), this animated science-fiction is one of the most original post-apocalyptic movies of recent years.
Based on director Shane Acker’s short film, 9 is the story of specially created Stitchpunks, rag-dolls who represent parts of their creators personality, and hold the key to restoring life to the earth, long ago wiped out by machines. The visuals are gorgeously realised, with the 9 stitchpunks easily recognised as unique individuals, with the majority of their personality coming through their movements and actions (the voice acting, featuring Elijah Wood, Christopher Plummer, and John C. Reilly, is weirdly subdued at times), while the bleak world feels fully realised and a place which goes on and on beyond the frame of the camera.
41. The Monster Squad (1987, 82 mins)
The first Fred Dekker ’80s classic on this list, The Monster Squad is notable for being co-written by one Shane Black. A love-letter to monster movies, the film finds the Universal monsters, including The Wolfman, The Mummy, The Gill-Man, and Frankenstein’s Monster, being led by Count Dracula in a quest to find an amulet and seize control of the world. Only one thing stands in their way – the Monster Squad, a group of young children who idolise the classic monsters.
It’s a children’s fantasy come to life, a love letter to another age of movies, and one which has inspired a new generation to fall in love with monsters all over again – as witnessed by several sold-out screenings at the Alamo Drafthouse to celebrate it’s 20th anniversary. Stan Winston reimagined the classic monsters, crating classics of his own, and with customary Shane Black wit the script sizzles, and the action is superbly paced. But as I’ll discuss later, The Monster Squad is part of solid evidence that Fred Dekker is one of the most underrated talents in film.
40. Tokyo Fist (1995, 87 mins)
Tetsuo director Shinya Tsukamoto delved into themes of revenge, male jealousy, and emasculation for his break from his earlier genre work. In Tokyo Fist, he plays Tsuda, a salesman trapped in a unrewarding life who loses his partner to old school friend Kojima, who has reinvented himself as a super powerful boxer who ripples with masculinity and power. Romantically thwarted and simultaneously intrigued, he embarks on a training regime of his own in order to become someone new.
The quick edits, montages, and loose narrative serve to disorientate the viewer at times, but the focused runtime lends a punch to the action on screen, and means the film never loses its way as it strips back the humanity from Tsuda, who literally and figuratively beats himself up over his perceived failings. It’s intense and powerful.
39. Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel (2009, 83 mins)
Garnering what I can only politely describe as mixed reviews upon its release, Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel exists in a strange place. It’s far removed from the traditional safe British romantic comedy, with a high concept premise, yet fails to match the intelligence and wit of Wright, Frost, and Pegg’s Cornetto Trilogy, which it feels like it was attempting to ape.
But it’s a very worthy try, notable for its script from Doctor Who writer Jamie Mathieson. Chris O’Dowd is always watchable, especially as likeable loser Ray who meets an American girl in a pub named Cassie (played by Anna Faris) who claims to be a time traveller. Together with his two friends, he attempts to navigate a night of time-travel, while avoiding any sort of paradox. To say more is to really spoil the whole thing, but suffice it to say it’s one of the more interesting British comedies of the last decade, and definitely worth investing an evening of viewing in.
38. Inside (2007, 82 mins)
Proof that even a film under 90 minutes can feel like an eternity (in a good way), French horror Inside grips you and never lets go during its 82 minute run-time of terror. Alysson Paradis plays Sarah, an expectant mother who has recently lost her husband in a car-crash. One night she is called upon by a mysterious woman, who tries to gain entry to the house. Realizing that she has been stalked by this woman for some time, a brutal and unrelenting night of home invasion ensues, involving her mother, the police, and horrendous attacks with a pair of scissors.
It’s an extreme horror, not for the faint of heart, and genuinely makes you sick with emotion as it unfolds.
37. The Kid With A Bike (87 mins)
The Belgian Dardenne Brothers resurrect the Italian social-realist classic Bicycle Thieves for this simple morality tale about a young boy trying to reconnect with his father and lost bike. After being abandoned by his father, 12 year old Cyril first tries to connect with a woman who shows him kindness, before then falling into a life of crime in an effort to get his father to take him back. The bike in question acts as a bold metaphor for lost innocence, and acceptance of its loss dovetails with Cyril’s own emotional journey.
At 87 minutes, its leanness is its strength, with nothing about Cyril or his world explained. It simply is, thrusting you into the turmoil, and letting you come to grips with the themes of alienation, rebellion, and happiness.
36. The Fox And The Hound (1981, 83 mins)
The forgotten Disney film? Perhaps, as this House of Mouse effort never really found an enraptured audience in the way so many of its contemporaries have. Basil The Great Mouse Detective and The Rescuers (plus The Rescuers Down Under, the only animated Disney sequel to ever get a theatrical release if you don’t count Fantasia 2000) gained love from many, Robin Hood went down as a classic (despite not being very good), but none of these films had Mickey Rooney and Kurt Russell.
As to the film itself, I don’t think I can do better than IMDB user andy-227, who called the film one of the most “heartwarming and bittersweet cartoons in years,” before going on to glowingly discuss its themes of friendship between those not normally pushed together, before amazingly comparing it to Do The Right Thing. Don’t believe me? Here’s his review:
“This is a film that both delighted me and deeply upset me, because it seemed so happy, and yet, so unfair at the same time. The two best friends, the “Fox and the Hound”, meet again after they are fully grown adults, or, when they are old enough to face the fact that their friendship was never meant to be. That broke my heart, because it was such a beautiful friendship, unfairly tarnished by a cruel world. If only our world was a happy place, where races and cultures didn’t matter, and if only we could recognize those characters as our friends, and not our enemies simply because of our ethnic differences. Years later, Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing brought up that same point with a vengeance.”
35. Identity (2003, 90 mins)
Something of a guilty pleasure, I find Identity to be one of those films I always end up watching if I see it while channel surfing. I think it came out when I was a student, and for some reason it lodged in my still developing psyche.
Identity is a fun thriller that never quite lives up to what it wants to be, in which 10 strangers are stranded at a Nevada motel, before being mysteriously being killed off one by one. The cast, led by John Cusack and including Ray Liotta, Alfred Molina, and Clea DuVall, are clearly having a blast, and even though you can spot the twist from several miles away, it doesn’t detract from the fun. Thrillers should be tight, not outstay their welcome, and bear up to repeat viewings. Identity scores on all three points.
34. Mean Creek (2004, 90 mins)
A tough coming of age drama featuring a riveting turn from Rory Culkin, Mean Creek is the story of a group of young Americans who decide to plot revenge against an overweight school bully by forcing him to strip naked while on a river trip. However, the plan soon spins out of control as moral judgments are questioned, and peer pressure creates a dangerous situation.
A fascinating look at what drives group mentality and how actions and opinions change when you’re with different people, Mean Creekis a complex and multilayered examination of adolescence, and youths playing at being adults when they don’t fully comprehend the stakes.
33. Zelig (1979, 79 mins)
Praised and feted upon release, it seems odd to put Woody Allen’s acclaimed mockumentary Zelig on a list of underrated films under 90 minutes. But it fully deserves its place here, due to the fact that it in the minds of many film fans, mockumentaries began the following year, with the release of another sub 90 minute classic, This Is Spinal Tap. By contrast, Zelig is far less known, but by no means inferior.
Telling the story of 1920s celebrity Leonard Zelig, known as a human chameleon who is able to mimic anyone around him, Allen seamlessly merged actual news footage of the time with his own comedic elements, creating an academic comedy which also acts as love story, satire, and social commentary.
32. Paradise Now (2005, 90 mins)
Controversial, full of suspense, and deeply moving, Paradise Now is a Palestinian film about two childhood friends who decide to launch a suicide bomb attack on Israel. Confronting the reality about the decision to blow up not only yourself but innocents with you, Paradise Now examines the issue from the deeply uncomfortable viewpoint of the bombers themselves. Each is a fully formed character, each with their own doubts about what they are doing, but with reasons too.
It’s uncomfortable and powerful viewing, creating sympathy in the most unlikely of scenarios, as well as anger too.
31. Wristcutters: A Love Story (2006, 88 mins)
A film set in a parallel world populated by dead people who have committed suicide doesn’t immediately scream romantic road-trip absurdist comedy, but that’s exactly what you get with Wristcutters: A Love Story. Patrick Fugit is Zia, who after finding himself in this suicide limbo, teams up with musician Eugene (Shea Wigham) to find his ex-girlfriend Desiree, who he discovers has also killed herself. Along the way they meet hitchhiker Mikal (Shannyn Sossaman) who insists there’s been a mistake, and enigmatic commune leader Kneller, played to perfection by Tom Waits.
With a kidnapping of a dog by a messianic Will Arnett, a black hole located under the passenger seat of a car, and a soundtrack by Gogol Bordello, Wristcutters is offbeat, unique, and genuinely, and sensitively, quite life-affirming.
30. Hausu (1977, 88 mins)
You might be hard pressed to spend a more surreal hour and a half than watching this overlooked Japanese horror from the ’70s. Seven young schoolgirls (all mostly amateur actors) travel to the home of one of their aunts. Cue a bizarre supernatural attack by the house itself on the seven girls, involving buttock biting flying heads, carnivorous pianos, cartoon spirit cats, and possessed grandfather clocks.
It’s a hallucinogenic kaleidoscope of dream-like visuals, colors, music, and sound design, which at times makes little to no sense, and feels like a fun house gone seriously wrong. But it’s always fascinating, often hilarious, and very gory. But perhaps the best thing about the film is that it was meant to be the Japanese answer to Jaws.
29. The Limey (89 mins)
Part of the incredible run which saw Steven Soderbergh put out Out Of Sight, this film, Erin Brokovich, Traffic, and Ocean’s Eleven in the space of four years (surely meriting an inclusion in my recent directing Hot Streaks article? I blame the writer), The Limeysadly gets the least praise of the lot. I think it stands toe-to-toe with any of the others, bar perhaps his masterpiece, Traffic.
Terence Stamp turns in a fantastic performance as British ex-con Wilson, who travels to Los Angeles to investigate the death of his daughter. From this set-up it becomes a tightly plotted, excellently scripted revenge thriller, with Stamp as the intense, furious centre of carnage and mayhem, ably assisted by the brilliant Luis Guzman, playing Eduardo, a friend of Wilson’s daughter. It recalls the thrillers of the ’60s and ’70s, and proved that Soderbergh was truly a master of any genre he turned his hand too.
28. Pi (1998, 84 mins)
Even with Darren Aronofsky’s subsequent success, his debut still remains relatively undiscovered by many film fans. That’s a shame, as it’s a dazzling piece of work, cramming in ideas about God, mathematics, the stock market, and the nature of madness within a compact running time.
It fizzes with two great performances – that of writer Sean Gullette as lead Max Cohen, and that from Aronofksy himself as director. He cohesively brings together a wealth of almost tangential points and narrative hand-brake turns into a satisfying whole, ultimately bringing together a story which encompasses the nature of our world into a very personal story about a troubled young man.
27. Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle (2004, 88 mins)
Probably one of the smartest ‘dumb’ comedies this century, and an early glimpse into the vast and varied acting talents of John Cho, Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle is slacker comedy supreme, with absurd detours, obvious jokes told well, surreal jokes told well, and even subtle jokes… told well.
Neil Patrick Harris proves himself a comic mastermind here, while the Cho and Kal Penn are hugely likeable leads. This is far more than your average stoner comedy – it’s a film that knows exactly how to subvert the genre and add its own twist to proceedings.
26. Cube (1997, 90 mins)
Described as a science-fiction psychological horror, Cube is far weirder and more intriguing than many of its mid 90s horror brethren. Focusing on a group of contrasting people trapped in a maze of boobytrapped cubes, with seemingly random deadly threats awaiting them in each new room. It’s a great concept, and tension thrums throughout the film.
Sharply drawn and antagonistic characters provide another level of conflict within the narrative, while the kills are all inventive and unexpected. The design of the maze elevates this above a great set-up and into a film which actually delivers on its promise, with the total lack of explanation for why people are there, and how they can escape, is actually quite satisfying in this age of endless origins and backstory.
25. Phone Booth (2002, 81 mins)
Hugely hyped upon release, it seems Phone Booth has almost been forgotten in over the decade since. Considered a return to form for Joel Schumacher (who never quite recovered from the underrated gem Batman & Robin), it’s another real time thriller, and like the just too long to qualify Buried, takes place in a single location – a phone booth in New York City’s Time Square, where Colin Farrell’s arrogant publicist Stu Shephard is trapped after answering a call, and threatened to reveal his cheating ways or face him and his loved ones being shot by an unknown sniper on the other end of the line.
What follows is creative use of one man in a trapped space, giving Farrell plenty of room to showcase his acting talents, making us believe in his plight despite the entirely unbelievable situation. While it never gets to the master’s heights, it wears its Hitchcockian influences proudly, and for the most part is a fitting tribute and a thoroughly enjoyable modern day suspense thriller. It’s also one of the last time a phone booth could convincingly be used in a film that wasn’t a period piece…
24. Boy (2010, 87 mins)
New Zealand filmmaking has quietly been making quite a splash in recent years. Gaining prominence through Eagle vs Shark and his work on (and with) Flight Of The Conchords, Taika Waititi has proven himself the master of the touching comedy drama, which doesn’t outstay its welcome. His first film in this list is perhaps his most personal work to date.
Set in 1984, Boy is 11 years old, and lives on a farm with his grandmother, younger brother Rocky, and several other cousins. He spends his day dreaming about Michael Jackson, as well as creating stories about his estranged father coming back for him and Rocky. But when Alamein, the father, eventually does return, things aren’t exactly as Boy hoped for. What follows is funny, troubling, and full of surprising depths, as the coming of age drama merges with the absurd comedy of Alamein striving to be a wannabe biker gang leader, as well as trying to become a big shot criminal. The performances are just perfect, the script sparkles, and the direction light enough not to overpower the story, but clever enough to make the dream sequences not seem too out of place.
23. In This World (2002, 88 mins)
Michael Winterbottom has tackled many genres in his prolific career, but his 2002 docudrama about Afghan refugees attempting to illegally reach Britain might just be his most affecting, and in light of the recent situation in the Mediterranean, the one most worth revisiting to remind you of the human consequences of fleeing a country at war in order to find a better life, and what you must go through to accomplish that.
Shot using non-professional actors improvising most of their lines, Winterbottom filmed mainly on actual location (often without permits) in order to gain as much truth as he could. The blurring of these lines lends the film such an air of authenticity that you have to stop every now and again to remind yourself that you’re watching a fictional film.
22. Shoot ‘Em Up (2007, 86 mins)
Some of the most fun 86 minutes you could possibly spend watching a film. Clive Owen leads this action comic come to life, which proves equally thrilling, funny, vile, and stupendous at alternate times. The action scenes are pulled off with aplomb by director Michael Davis, but perhaps the less said about the plot the better.
It doesn’t really make a huge amount of sense, but then again that really isn’t the point here. Shoot ‘Em Up is all about the joy of cinema, with balletic gunplay, outrageous stunts, and hyperreality all par for the course over the short run time. Clive Owen as an assassin gleefully shooting his enemies in dozens of inventive ways in always enjoyable.
21. Corpse Bride (2005, 77 mins)
The hype for Tim Burton’s first attempt at stop-motion was fevered, especially considering his earlier produced film, The Nightmare Before Christmas, had practically become a cottage industry for merchandising in the twelve years prior since its release. But instead of Nightmare Part II, they instead got a bittersweet tale of romantic longing, which is a much quieter film then its predecessor, and not as immediately marketable. It also landed during the period where some had become to tire of Burton’s endless fascination with the macabre, and so it seems to have passed by many, relegated to the realms of good, but no classic.
However, if you just watch it for the animation alone, that would be good use of your 77 minutes. But you’ll always get a beautifully told tale of the afterlife, a Johnny Depp performance which is actually believable and affecting, an ace soundtrack including several songs from an on-form Danny Elfman, and a original and haunting world which will stir your soul.
20. Top Secret! (1984, 90 mins)
The Zuckers and Jim Abrahams’ follow-up to Airplane!was also going to suffer in comparison. The ZAZ team have admitted that they struggled to write this film, while David Zucker has since said it may be a very funny movie, but it’s not a very good one. In that, he’s spot on.
A parody mash-up of both World War II films and the ’50s rockabilly pictures made famous by Elvis, Top Secret! never really knows what it wants to be, apart from a joke machine. And at that, it is the perfect vehicle. Reduced from 2 hours to 90 minutes after test screenings, Top Secret! often throws away any sense of logic, narrative, time period, and character in order to go for the laugh. Which is an admirable trait in a comedy movie after all, and this one lands far more bullseyes than misses, making it a worthy, if unfairly maligned, follow-up to one of the all-time great comedy classics.
Our longer lookback at the film is here.
19. Locke (2013, 85 mins)
Did making a low budget ultra lean indie film finally convince people that Tom Hardy could be a genuine movie star? I think so. He had been threatening for years, but when his big role as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises failed to punch through into public consciousness (beyond the voice anyway), it seemed like his time was never to be. So he became involved with Locke, which came out of nowhere and cemented Hardy as a true talent who could carry a film on his charisma and intensity alone.
Set entirely in the car of Ivan Locke as he drives from Birmingham to London to be at the birth of his child conceived during an extra-marital affair, Locke is thrilling and superb. The camera never really leaves Hardy as he engages in phone call after phone call. Whether it’s with his wife, the mother to be, or his worried assistant at work, panicked while doing a job Locke is now missing on his drive, Hardy is compelling, playing different roles but always true to his own character’s flawed code. While Mad Max: Fury Road made him a big name, Locke made him matter as an actor.
18. 101 Reykjavik (88 mins)
A coming of age comedy for 30 year old Icelandic man Hlynur, a slacker with no motivation in life, content to live off benefits, and drift from one day to the other. He still lives with his mother, but when her Spanish Flamenco teacher moves in, he discovers that not only are the two having a lesbian affair, but that he also has complicated feelings for both.
A film which has been hailed as a true snapshot of part of Icelandic life, it lifts the lid on this isolated world, letting us into the heads of those who feel life has given them nothing, and so they give nothing in return. A beautiful soundtrack by Damon Albarn only heightens the atmosphere, and the script (based on the book of the same name) is razor sharp, despite the drifting of its main character.
17. Only God Forgives (2013, 90 mins)
Maybe some people expected Drive 2? But those people obviously weren’t too familiar with Nicolas Winding Refn. Always a director to confound expectations, here he presents Ryan Gosling not as the good looking movie star who brutally saves the day, but as a damaged, repugnant coward, only out for his own self-interest. He’s one of the villains of the piece, even if the story focuses on him – called upon by his mother to seek revenge on the killer of his brother, murdered for killing an underage prostitute.
It’s a nasty film, full of brutality and horror, but not one that revels in it, which some critics attacked it for. It’s fascinating, beautifully shot, and provokes questions without giving answers. It’s as formally dazzling as anything else in Refn’s career, and remains a challenging watch, but one not to be missed.
16. Frances Ha (2012, 86 mins)
Possibly my favourite Noah Baumbach picture, it shares much with his other work, including the narrative drift which has turned more than a few critics and audiences off his films. But unlike his previous work, Frances Ha has Greta Gerwig in the lead role. She’s brilliant, colorful, and radiates a tractor beam like pull on anyone watching it.
Frances Ha might only be a glimpse into the life of this 20 something struggling dancer in New York, but Gerwig brings her to life so vividly that you feel you could spend the next few years catching up with what she’s doing – Frances in her 30s, 40s, and beyond. It’s a film which revels in its state of being, despite its lack of dramatic substance, and makes you feel you know their lives. Which while it might seem easy to write, is incredibly difficult to get right.
15. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009, 87 mins)
Noah Baumbach is back again, as he shares a co-writing credit on what is possibly the best Roald Dahl adaptation ever made (sorry fans of Matilda, The Witches, James And The Giant Peach…). A seemingly huge departure for Wes Anderson at the time, he somehow made the world of Dahl mesh perfectly with his sensibilities, providing a stop motion marriage made in heaven. Until Grand Budapest Hotel, it was easily the funniest of Anderson’s films, with a sight gags popping up alongside witty repartee.
George Clooney is just the best casting for the English Mr Fox (I know!), but Anderson’s usual array of supporting actors pop up to provide ace voice work. MVP of the piece though? Jarvis Cocker as the very Jarvis Cocker alike Petey.
14. Attack The Block (2011, 88 mins)
So did anyone expect this from Joe Cornish, one half of lo-fi comedy duo Adam and Joe? Previously best known for such genius as making Yoda take the role of Richard O’Brien in a Star Wars figure version of The Crystal Maze, and a hugely popular 6Music show, Cornish proved he had outstanding filmmaking chops.
Set on a London council estate on Guy Fawkes night, a group of tower block teens have to defend themselves from “big gorilla wolf motherfuckers,” who in reality are aliens intent on killing and eating everyone in sight. You would expect an excellent script from Cornish, but he also provides confident and exciting action sequences, albeit on a small scale. The creature design is great, and the young and relatively unknown cast are superb – with the stand-out being one John Boyega, who we might just be seeing a lot more of in the coming years…
13. Primer (2004, 77 mins)
I’ve seen Primer several times now, and it still defies total explanation. I would worry, but then I watched Shane Carruth’s 2013 follow-up Upstream Color, and it made Primer seem like a Ladybird book. A super low-budget time travel film, it combines hard science with philosophical debate and complex narrative structure. So not the most accessible film ever.
But wrap your head round it and it’s worth the investment. It strives to make sense, so if you even have a passing interest in the implications, ramifications, and possibility of time-travel, you’ll find potential answers here, as four friends accidentally invent a time-machine and struggle to deal with the consequences.
12. Enemy (2013, 90 mins)
If anyone managed to see this Jake Gyllenhaal film on its theatrical release then I congratulate you. It was a pain to track down. Based on Blindness author Jose Saramago’s novel The Double, Enemyis a dreamlike, often confusing film about a man who discovers an exact physical copy of himself, and how their two lives begin to intertwine.
Two excellent performances from Gyllenhaal anchor the film in a reality you can believe, while at the same time giving enough clues to the audience to question what they are seeing. Is it really two separate men, or is the same person with two varying personalities? It’s a fascinating, compelling, and disturbing watch, and proof that Gyllenhaal is one of the most interesting actors working today.
11. Black Dynamite (2009, 84 mins)
Michael Jai White’s blaxplotation spoof is a riot of quotable lines, laugh out loud jokes, and a loving tribute to the films it also sends up. Black Dynamite is a former Vietnam and CIA vet now out for revenge on the drug dealers who killed his brother. From that the action obviously shifts to discovering a plot to shrink the penises of every African-American man via malt liquor, and a final confrontation on Kung Fu island. But you’re not here for the plot, you’re here for comedy.
It works on multiple levels, so there’s something for everyone here, no matter what humor amuses you most. But it’s also incredibly smart, with a ton of nods for film aficionados hidden within. It’s a film which rewards multiple viewings, and feels very much a labor of love for Michael Jai White, who excels in the lead role. We’ve had a surfeit of spoofs in recent years, many of them terrible. Black Dynamiteis probably the best of the bunch, and wisely never outstays its welcome.
10. What We Do In The Shadows (2014, 86 mins)
Taika Waititi’s second entry in the list, although this time he shares directing and writing duties with Flight Of The Conchordsalumni Jemaine Clement. What We Do In The Shadows is an absolutely superb comedy about a group of house-sharing vampires. On the surface it first seems to be a mockumentary played solely for easy laughs, but the films reveals itself to be a quite a deep and poignant piece about the cost of eternal life, the changing nature of friendships, and the loneliness that eats away at those who live a long time.
That’s not to say it abandons the humor at any time, far from it, as this proves to easily be the funniest work of Waititi’s career, and at times rivals Clement’s Conchords work for laughs. As well as riffing on the current trend for vampire films, it also takes time to mock werewolf conventions, honor old school vampire traditions, and poke fun at New Zealand. Which will never get old. The news it’s getting a sequel is to be hugely welcomed.
9. Love (2011, 84 mins)
If you like your sci-fi cerebral, and I do, then Loveshould be on your must-watch list. A companion piece of sorts with Moon and Solaris, Loveis the story of astronaut Lee Miller, trapped aboard the International Space Station and unable to do anything but watch as humanity destroys itself on the planet below. Intertwined with this is the story of American Civil War soldier Captain Lee Briggs, encountering a mysterious and unknown object which may hold the clue to Miller’s eventual salvation.
It’s a meditation on loneliness, loss, and humanity. While at times a bit too oblique and meandering, the delight in the set design should keep you avidly watching. Attention to detail sells Miller’s plight as surely as Gunner Wright’s performance, and Love beguiles you as it draws you into its story.
8. Sightseers (2012, 89 mins)
In some ways, this number 8 entry should be for all of Ben Wheatley’s career. The man can do wrong, and he does no wrong in a beautifully compact runtime. But for me, Sightseers is not only his best work, but his most underrated. Down Terrace showed his potential, Kill List confirmed this but didn’t stick the landing, while A Field In England is one of the most trippy films I’ve ever seen in my life, but one which doesn’t cry out for repeat viewings.
Contrast all this to Sightseers, and you find a film which works perfectly from beginning to end, rewards endless watching with new jokes and quotable lines, and confirms all of Wheatley’s potential as one of the UK’s finest current directors. A love letter to Britain, it has a truly superb Steve Oram and Alice Lowe take a trip to such tourist hot spots as the Cumberland Pencil Museum in their caravan, while also indulging in a spot of murder along the way. A classic British comedy of observation and embarrassment, but turned into a waking nightmare, Sightseers doesn’t put a foot wrong.
7. Show Me Love (1998, 89 mins)
Also known by the slightly more risqué title Fucking Amal, Show Me Love was the directorial debut of Lukas Moodysson. Unlike his later, bleaker work, Show Me Love is guaranteed to make you feel warm inside. Agnes and Elin are two teens at a school in the small town of Amal. Elin is popular and outgoing, while Agnes is reserved and shy. She is also in love with Elin, but feels like she’ll never be able to express it. However, after Elin unexpectedly shows up at Agnes’ birthday party, the two begin an unlikely friendship which develops into something deeper. Exploring first love, coming to terms with your sexuality, and peer pressure to conform in a small town,
Show Me Love is a pure joy to watch, even in its most painful moments. It has the ring of truth about it, helped greatly by the performances of Alexandra Dahlstrom as Elin and Rebeka Liljeberg as Agnes.
6. Best In Show (2000, 90 mins)
Proof, if any more were ever needed, that Christopher Guest is a true genius. Another superbly crafted mockumentary, Best in Showessentially fell victim to his own greatness. People expected superb comedy from him. Best In Show is this, but it didn’t explode the mockumentary genre. And for that it seemed to slip from memory.
However, watching it you see a sharp, but also subtle, comedy which may lack the stand-out scenes of the majestic Spinal Tap, but in its skewing of the dog show world, manages to highlight even more absurdity. Although an ensemble piece, the star of the show is Fred Willard, who dominates proceedings as show commentator Buck Laughlin.
5. Tucker And Dale vs. Evil (2010, 89 mins)
Probably the film I enjoy watching the most on this whole list. A Canadian comedy horror starring Tyler Labine and Alan Tudyk as well-meaning hillbillies Dale and Tucker who are mistaken by vacationing teens as two psychopaths living in a cabin in the woods, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil gleefully subverts every single cliche in the genre while also constructing a hugely entertaining and effective horror story of its own.
At times uproariously funny, especially in the accidental deaths that take place, the film is propelled along by the sheer charm of its two leads – two friends you root for, despite all their accidental killings, maimings, and other calamitous actions. While the ending of the film doesn’t quite carry the same verve as the first two thirds, it’s a hugely satisfying watch and a great addition to the comedy horror genre.
4. The Lady From Shanghai (1947, 87 mins)
It’s almost a cheat to have this here, as how can The Lady From Shanghai be underrated? But in the context of Orson Welles’ career, this is truly the one that people often dismiss, and that’s truly at their peril. Necessary viewing for fans of film noir, Rita Hayworth, set design, and stylised camera work, The Lady From Shanghai was panned upon release, and gained Welles a reputation for going over-budget and proving difficult to work with.
However, much of this can be laid at the door of Colombia Pictures president Harry Cohn, who insisted on studio reshoots (Welles had shot mostly on location, a Hollywood first at the time) and challenging his director for daring to cut Rita Hayworth’s hair short and bleach it blonde. But what remains is a fascinating watch, with the ending shoot-out in the hall of mirrors a masterpiece of film noir.
3. Night Of The Creeps (1986, 86 mins)
Fred Dekker’s second film on the list, and a true ’80s masterpiece – but one which has never really gained the acclaim it deserves. A mash of many genres, including alien invasion, slasher, zombie, and high-school, wrapped in an affectionate B-movie embrace. Written in a week, it tells the story of alien slugs who fall to earth and reanimate dead bodies, and only a high school loner and the girl he has fallen for can stop them.
Not only an affectionate send-up of B-movies, it’s a cult classic in its own right too, with James Gunn’s Slither owing a huge amount to it (although Gunn claims never to have seen it prior to making Slither). Among the joys contained within are a bus full of zombie fraternity jocks being flame-throwered, space slugs writhing up from an axe split head, and Tom Atkins owning the shit out of the film as Detective Cameron, a weary vet cop who sums it all up with the line “What is this? A homicide or a bad B-movie?” Track it down and watch it today.
2. Office Space (1999, 89 mins)
It’s genuinely amazing how many people still haven’t watched Office Space, Mike Judge’s modern classic on life as a cog. Perhaps with the massive success he’s having at the moment with Silicon Valley on HBO (if you haven’t seen it yet, then please do so as soon as possible. The best comedy series in years.), more people will be tempted into exploring his back catalog, and realizing he is far more than Beavis & Butthead or King Of The Hill.
Office Space is ostensibly a comedy about a man pushed too far by corporate life, but its also a rallying call against the system, often more cutting and effective than Fight Club, released at a similar time and sharing several themes. The comedy builds, with the jokes being earned throughout the film (a Judge hallmark), which perhaps was a bit too ahead of its time upon release. The studio were not fans, and audience and critical reaction was mixed. However, in the years since its reputation has only grown, and now it stands near the top of the heap of ’90s comedies.
1. Blue Ruin (2013, 90 mins)
Proof that a well-told revenge thriller will always be compelling and necessary viewing, Blue Ruin seemingly came out of nowhere (in reality a crowd-funded Kickstarter campaign) and knocked the socks off everyone who saw it.
Dwight Evans is a drifter, who upon finding out the man who killed his parents is to be released from prison, springs into action, weaving a murderous path involving two families and their intertwined history of hurting each other. It’s truly edge of the seat viewing and grips you from the off, all the way to the inevitable and climatic shoot-out finale. But while you know the basic beats of the film, it’s just all done so superbly well by director Jeremy Saulnier. It’s no slick action fantasy, but a comment on what a disturbed and anti-social loner can do with easy access to a lot of weaponry, and a wrong he burns to set right through bloody means. It never shys away from the consequences of revenge, but nor does it preach to you about it. It just lays it out on-screen, shot after expertly crafted shot.