If you enjoy wandering off the beaten track, you've come to the right place. Every year, there's a handful of movies that, for various reasons, don't receive the fanboy fizz or critical attention they deserve. These underdogs come in all sizes and shapes from no-budget indies to expensive studio movies, from foreign films to blockbuster-wannabes. Below a celebration of the neglected and overlooked - the 10 best movies that, by and large, slipped under the radar.
In Her Shoes
From the great Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential, The Wonder Boys, 8 Mile) comes an exquisitely acted, touching, remarkably funny account of two very different sisters (Cameron Diaz, Toni Collette) who have to break up to make up.
A seductive film, Shoes has a lightness of touch and an appreciation for the simple pleasures of life that will knock you off your platforms. Sweet. Schmaltzy. Unmissable.
Hustle & Flow
Nobody had a better year than Terrence Howard. He stood out among the ensemble casts of Crash and Four Brothers and made the otherwise-bankrupt Get Rich Or Die Tryin' a bit more tolerable. But his most explosive performance comes as DJay, a small-time pimp who longs to trade in flesh-peddling for a career in rapping. First time writer/director Craig Brewer captures the seedy side of Memphis with such accuracy, you can practically smell the sweat and beer wafting off the screen.
Kung Fu Hustle
Writer/director/producer/star Stephen Chow (Shaolin Soccer) is the mastermind behind this near-perfect martial arts extravaganza about a two-bit thief torn between the poverty-stricken inhabitants of Pig Sty Alley and a cadre of gangsters called the Axe Gang.
On tap: unlikely heroes, Looney Tunes-inspired comic interludes, surprise twists, a kickboxing landlady and the best fight scenes this side of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
The New World
Already shut out of the Golden Globes and dismissed by the Hollywood trade publications, Terrence Malick's latest, due locally Jan. 13, is a work of astonishing depth and beauty.
Fourteen-year-old newcomer Q'Orianka Kilcher dazzles as Pocahontas, a Native American princess who betrays her people out of love for Capt. John Smith (Colin Farrell).
If Billy Wilder had directed Meet The Parents, the results might look something like this superb portrait of small-town life. Alessandra Nivola and Embeth Davidtz star as Chicagoans who return to North Carolina to visit his folks (Celia Weston, Scott Wilson), brother (Benjamin McKenzie of The O.C.) and his brother's pregnant wife (Amy Adams in a star-making turn). Strange and heartbreaking events ensue.
Two young men from Kansas (Brady Corbet of Thirteen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt of TV's Third Rock From The Sun) struggle in very different ways with the specter of childhood abuse. Directed by Gregg Araki (The Living End), the indie drama is deeply rich and oddly beautiful; it's a sneaky stunner.
From Todd Solondz, the bespectacled auteur behind Welcome To The Dollhouse and Happiness, you expect distorted emotions and provocative plot twists.
This fractured fairy tale delivers the goods and then some. A handful of actresses (including Jennifer Jason Leigh) play the central role of a teenager who runs away from home after her parents (Ellen Barkin, Richard Masur) force her to have an abortion. It's Solondz at his most disturbing.
My Summer Of Love
Beautifully shot by Polish-born filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski, this dreamy, Goldfrapp-scored cross between Heavenly Creatures and Pretty Poison focuses on two bored teenage girls one posh (Emily Blunt) and one poor (Natalie Press) who become intimate during a long hot summer in Yorkshire.
The film has a hypnotizing power; it lulls you in before pulling the rug out from under your feet.
In the latest from the Farrelly Brothers, Drew Barrymore and Jimmy Fallon play sweethearts whose relationship is tested with the advent of baseball season and his renewed obsession with the Boston Red Sox. Thoroughly charming, the picture deserves a pennant for replacing romantic comedy clichés with funky human moments.
Horror meister Wes Craven serves up a riveting thriller full of top-quality thrills and spills. Rachel McAdams is a revelation as a strong-willed airline employee kidnapped midair by a sloe-eyed nutjob (Cillian Murphy) who threatens to kill her father if she doesn't go along with his twisted plan. It's ridiculously entertaining.
Nothing disappoints as much as a terrific filmmaker stumbling on a grand scale. Below, a look at five films that failed to live up to their expectations.
The Brothers Grimm
Terry Gilliam (Brazil, Time Bandits) bottoms out with a comedy about the fairy-tale-spinning Grimm Brothers (Matt Damon, Heath Ledger). Cursed with wimpering heroes, a frantic pace and unconvincing special effects, this flick is damn near unwatchable.
Kingdom of Heaven
Gladiator director Ridley Scott drops Orlando Bloom into the middle of the Crusades, with disastrous results. Sadly lacking Gladiator's passion and crisp story-telling not to mention the presence of a leading man of Russell Crowe's stature Heaven winds up being a little piece of purgatory.
Get Rich or Die Tryin'
It tuns out that Fiddy isn't worth much as an actor. Hoping to replicate the success of Eminem's 8 Mile, 50 Cent and director Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot) teamed up to bring a fictionalized version of the rapper's life to the big screen. But by emphasizing gunplay over character development, they wound up shooting blanks.
Memoirs of a Geisha
Arthur Golden's book was a page-turner, but the movie by Chicago helmer Rob Marshall is a real snooze. The story of Sayuri (Ziyi Zhang), a young girl sold to a geisha house, should rip your heart out. Instead, it's static and stuffy. Only the great Gong Li (Raise the Red Lantern) delivers a performance full of fire.
Wes Craven does werewolves. What's not to like? Plenty, it turns out. An incomprehensible plot, a typically arch performance by Christina Ricci and cheesy special effects conspire to make this one of the most repellent horror films of the year.