How tough is it for a movie to find an audience above the din of blockbuster marketing and beyond the clogged distribution pipeline? Tsai Ming-liang, the Taiwanese/Malaysian director regarded as one of the world's greats, had two films in U.S. theaters this year, The Wayward Cloud and I Don't Want to Sleep Alone. But neither made it far outside the nation's major cities. And they weren't lonely in their obscurity. From minor hits to complete unknowns, these 10 films — and others — deserved more attention than they got this year, either from audiences, distributors, or critics. Get that Netflix queue ready.
End of the Line: Good unreleased horror movies aren't exactly in overstock. So why has Maurice Devereaux's hair-raising subterranean shocker taken so long to surface from the festival circuit? Maybe it's because this sick satiric tale — in which religious zealots conduct their own Rapture with cross-shaped daggers on a stalled subway — pushes sensitive buttons about fundamentalist hysteria. Or maybe it's because the movie raises the even more subversive possibility that the zealots are right. Either way, it's scary as hell.
I Know Who Killed Me: Not even Lindsay Lohan's sojourn in the tabloids stirred up much interest in this marvel of trashy delirium. A pity, too: This mystifying movie about a demure honor student who morphs into a mutilated stripper was sold as torture porn, but in truth it's a glue-huffing psychodrama. Try finding a more eerie metaphor for a child star's uneasy transition to adulthood than pole-dancer Lohan facing her Disney-princess self packed away in a casket.
Joshua: This masterfully unnerving thriller is about a blank-faced tyke whose mom and dad suspect him of psychological warfare against their new baby, and it carries a mood of imminent doom that anyone with suspiciously quiet tots will recognize. The actors play the pressures of child-rearing so empathetically, the cumulative chills leave your teeth chattering. It's perhaps better watched at home, with your kids tucked safely in their rooms.
Lake of Fire: The year's most criminally underseen movie, Tony Kaye's landmark abortion documentary made a crucial commercial miscalculation: Because it presented both pro-choice and pro-life positions fairly, neither side wanted to see it. (A documentary is supposed to reinforce your prejudices, stupid, not challenge them.) For anyone brave enough to consider the issue beyond sloganeering and name-calling, though, this staggering doc has the power to tip the undecided either way.
Manufactured Landscapes: Despite the endorsement of Al Gore, this visually stunning documentary was snubbed by the same environmental groups who rallied around An Inconvenient Truth — in part because the inconvenient truth of this film is that the industrial ravaging of the planet, as shown in Edward Burtynsky's macroscopic photographs, has an undeniable (if horrifying) grandeur.
Music and Lyrics: Maybe the year's most pleasant surprise: an intelligent, genuinely amusing romantic comedy, scaled to match the modest ambitions of its hero, "happy has-been" Hugh Grant. Paired with Drew Barrymore, whose tremulous vulnerability has never been more appealing, Grant gives his least shticky and most winning performance in years as a Reagan-era pop idol who gets a shot at a mild artistic triumph after years on the berry-farm circuit. The cherry on the sundae: delicious pop-novelty pastiches by Andrew Blakemore, Adam Schlesinger, and others, including the deathless "Pop! Goes My Heart."
Paprika: Director Satoshi Kon's anime fantasy exemplifies the freedom of working in a medium with no physical restraints. With his sleep-troubled film-noir cop prowling the subconscious of a near-future Tokyo, Kon plays eye-boggling tricks with perspective, distending bodies and boundaries and looping his nightmare scenarios. And yet at the movie's heart is a wistful, romantic affirmation of the need for inviolate space where our inner selves can soar.
Private Fears in Public Places (Coeurs): A fake movie snowfall out of Josef von Sternberg's dreams blankets this gorgeous comedy-drama about the difficulty of forging new loves late in life. The film's combination of golden-age gloss and transparently theatrical design makes it more accessible than similar movies, but it still failed to reach many big screens. Too bad: The film's beauty will be diminished on TV, though not extinguished.
The Hills Have Eyes 2: It starts in a mock-up Kandahar with a war room staffed by stuffed dummies; it ends with a peacenik wisely chucking his pacifist ideals in the face of Pure F-ing Evil. In between, outmanned U.S. troops reap the fruit of decades-old government-sponsored desert nuclear testing in the form of implacable fanatics with the home-field advantage of tunnels and caves. In a year when Hollywood turned Iraq War hand-wringing into a virtual subgenre, no reputable movie caught the country's ideological confusion so fully.
Urim and Thummim: This memorably odd documentary — the story of three men who claim to have found an Old Testament portal on the 99-cent sale rack at a Madison, Tennessee Goodwill superstore — made its debut at the Nashville Film Festival last April. Last month, it played the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, where no less an admirer than Werner Herzog reportedly dismissed its critics as "retarded." Will you ever see it? The movie itself provides an answer: Stranger things have happened.