Here in the dawn of the New Year, I'm still nursing my holiday hangover, so I'm going to finish up with my three-part Overlooked and Underrated series of columns, starting with Julian Jarrold's Becoming Jane, a fictitious biographical romance about Jane Austen (Anne Hathaway). It garnered unfavorable comparisons to Shakespeare in Love (1998), a film as dreadfully over-hyped as its cousin was under-hyped. (The hype meter must be perfectly balanced now.) James McAvoy -- currently receiving showers of awards attention for his involvement in Atonement (306 screens) -- plays the smoldering lover who titillates the educated and prickly Miss Austen. Unlike most brain-dead comedies in which the lovers are supposed to "fix" each other's shortcomings, these lovers are perfectly matched. Not to mention that Maggie Smith gives another one of her deliriously snooty performances.

I can't figure out why Richard Shepard's The Hunting Party failed, when it was just as energetic and funny as The Matador -- unless critics bristled at the film's political pokings. In this one, Richard Gere, Terrence Howard and Jesse Eisenberg make a wonderful team as three journalists (ranging from rookie to washed-up) who journey through Bosnia to find an infamous war criminal. Shepard's movie is constantly unexpected and alive, with three-dimensional characters you won't soon forget. Stick around for the whimsical closing credits, which explain the parts of the film that were "real."

I recently chose The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (4 screens) as the year's best picture, but it also appears to be one of the year's biggest flops; it has yet to gross $4 million against its $30 million budget. This one's not too hard to figure out; I've found that people who have seen more than a few Westerns love it, and people who have never seen any Westerns don't get it. It's long and contains very little action, and it has some very Malick-like and Lynchian touches that probably baffled audiences that came to see a Brad Pitt movie. But I can say that I've seen more than 100 Westerns, and this is one of my favorites.

A Cinematical reader recently slammed me for choosing 12:08 East of Bucharest for my ten best list, merely on the grounds that he or she had never heard of it. I guess I can't blame them. If you told me two years ago that I'd be raving about films from Romania, I might have sneered too. I've seen three films from Romania in the past 12 months, and the level of skill and emotional strength that has gone into them frankly astonishes me. (It could be a "Romanian New Wave.") This one is the shortest and funniest of the three, taking place over a single day, December 22, the anniversary of the Romanian Revolution. A TV talk show host and two guests try to decide if the revolution actually affected their small town at all, and whether or not that matters. The camerawork alone -- and the jokes it ignites -- is reason enough to see it.

I'm not the biggest fan of director James Gray, and admittedly his new film We Own the Nightlacked a certain spark; even his former defenders among the French critics corps gave up on him. But I really admired the general atmosphere his film generated, from the dingy police station, littered with half-eaten sandwiches to the slick New Jersey nightclub. Best of all, the film contained three action sequences of such quiet power that I couldn't stop thinking about them. It makes me wish that Gray would sell out and take a job directing the next big summer action blockbuster.

I'm a big fan of Allan Moyle's Pump Up the Volume, and his films Empire Records and New Waterford Girl likewise have their cult followings. I believe -- and hope -- that his newest movie Weirdsville will endure in the same way. Wes Bently and Scott Speedman play two stoners on the loose in a bizarre Canadian nightscape; it's like one of those Scavenger Hunt films in which dozens of odd characters charge around, each looking for something the other has. But within that framework, it's constantly unique and funny -- even well into the third act when most comedies give up.

Wristcutters: A Love Story has the same kind of cult movie feel. After spending some time on the shelf as a controversial item, it finally opened and revealed itself as a sweet, offbeat, and slightly dark romantic comedy. Set in a kind of depressing, sun-baked purgatory for people who killed themselves, three lost souls (Patrick Fugit, Shannyn Sossamon and Shea Whigham) hit the road in search of hope. Sure, it's your typical It Happened One Night-type thing, but no other movie car has a mysterious black hole under the passenger seat.

Finally, one of the best American films of the year, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, comes from a veteran filmmaker in his 80s, Sidney Lumet, who made some of the best films of the 1970s (Dog Day Afternoon, Network, etc.). Maybe that sounded too "old" for some viewers, but this emotionally wrenching take on a failed jewel heist is as viciously captivating as anything Tarantino might make. Philip Seymour Hoffman gives perhaps his most complex and unnerving performance, although he's sadly receiving more attention for his comic turn in Mike Nichols' overly-talky and simplistic Charlie Wilson's War.

categories Columns, Cinematical