Agora This expensive and lavish period piece came and went without a peep, but it remains a thoughtful and socially relevant piece of history. Rachel Weisz gives a solid star turn as Hypatia of Alexandria. As a rare educated female who holds esteem over many of her male colleagues, Hypatia's gender is refreshingly irrelevant, until it's all that matters. The film concerns the rise of Christianity in Roman Egypt, and it deals rather objectively with the dangers of fanaticism and extremism in all faiths. It eerily draws parallels to modern day religious fundamentalism while acknowledging that the East and the West have a nasty habit of inciting those who would lash out in retribution. It's a piece of forgotten history and a darn good movie to boot. R-rating aside, this would be just the kind of film to be shown in classrooms, be it for would-be historians (better to pick out whatever factual inaccuracies that I didn't notice) or future mathematicians.
Daybreakers While most vampire pictures serve as a metaphor for rape or 'immoral' consensual sex, this Spierig Brothers picture used the vampires' thirst for blood as a not-so-subtle metaphor for our addiction to energy and/or fossil fuel. The film is no vampire classic, but it's a rock-solid B-movie with a fine cast (Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe, Sam Neil) and an emphasis on character and storytelling over sensationalized blood-and-guts. You get your violence, and the ending has a bit of gratuitous action, but the film has something worth saying, it says it well, and it tells its thoughtful story with style to spare.
Devil M. Night Shyamalan has so fallen from grace that his name above the title now may be more of a obstacle than a help. But this creepy and compelling little horror film is just what he should be doing with his time. The story is pure Shyamalan: several morally flawed people stuck in an elevator as they start being bumped off one-by-one. But he let Brian Nelson (Hard Candy) write the screenplay and the Dowdle brothers (Quarantine) direct the picture. The result is a genuinely engaging and deliciously old-fashioned spook story, the kind of story that was found halfway through one of those Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark collections you used to read at Halloween. It's not art, but it's popcorn-flying fun.
Four Lions This surprisingly thoughtful and compelling little black comedy concerns four would-be terrorists in their attempt to set off explosives in downtown London. The subject matter is obviously a bit disconcerting in this day and age, but director Christopher Morris carefully balances the desire to expose the buffoonery of most modern-day terrorists and the need to keep his lead characters somewhat recognizable on a human level. The movie doesn't shy away from the consequences of such a pursuit, but it remains oddly comforting in confirming that the terrorists we fear are not comic book super villains, but foolish human beings prone to error and vulnerable to circumstance.
Frozen This one was in theaters for ten minutes, but it's one of the best horror films of the year. The picture concerns three young friends who find themselves stuck on a ski lift in the middle of the night, with no means of rescue for several days and seemingly no safe escape. What would you do? This is a classic example of plausible horror. It's a genuinely nerve-wracking little movie and well worth a rental.
Mystery Team This direct-to-DVD comedy has a knockout idea at its core: what if Encyclopedia Brown never matured past adolescence and kept trying to solve neighborhood mysteries well into his teens? Donald Glover (MVP of Community, currently the best show on television) leads a trio of high school graduates who are stuck in their boyhood adventure years, still running around the block trying to find out who stole Ms. Maple's apple pie. But their skills are put to the test when they are asked to solve a most horrifying crime with broader implications. The film runs out of steam before the credits roll, but it remains a genuinely laugh-out-loud gem that deserved a theatrical release.
The Square This direct-to-DVD thriller is one of the finest pieces of pure film noir I've seen in quite some time. It's no reinvention of the wheel, but this Australian thriller is a dynamite example of genre filmmaking done just right. The plot is simple: a married man plots to steal money from his mistress's husband. And the plan goes off without a hitch, no one gets hurt, and everyone lives happily ever after. Oh no, wait... the exact opposite of that. I won't spoil what transpires, but this is bloody good fun and a picture that deserved a wider audience. Come what may, I fully expect this little pot-boiler to be remade in the next five years.