I consider a "rental" any movie I have seen in 2010 that wasn't actually released in 2010 (or, in the case of a few films, some films released in 2009). Although there weren't as many gems as there were last year, the quality of these films is very nearly equal to those. Here's what I thought was the best, in order from top to bottom:
The Mother and the Whore (Jean Eustache, 1973)
The grand finale to the French New Wave movement. Eustache and star Jean-Pierre Léaud evoke both the talkiness of Godard and the romance of Truffaut in this evocative, emotive drama of love. Léaud's shining moment as an actor; some of his monologues would put more "traditional" actors to shame.
The Trial (Orson Welles, 1962)
A two-hour nightmare: perfectly captures the increasing confusion and insanity while never forgetting the sense of dread and doomed fate that hangs over Anthony Perkins' Josef K.
Twist and Shout (Bille August, 1984)
Two Danish best friends--one emotionally damaged, the other in love--deal with racing hormones while balancing adult-sized burdens, not limited to pregnancy, a mental mother and an abusive father. Twist and Shout sounds unremarkable, even slightly rote, but sensitive direction from August makes you care deeply about these damaged people. (More on Twist and Shout)
Applause (Rouben Mamoulian, 1929)
The first proof that these new-fangled "talking" pictures may prove to be just as fruitful artistically speaking as their silent predecessors. (More on Applause)
Z (Costas-Gavras, 1969)
Costas-Gavras' breakthrough film is the rare political thriller that manages to be both an intelligent, indicting commentary on the then and now political climate and compulsively watchable entertainment. The Raoul Coutard cinematography, with his usual palette of severe reds and blues, and Jean-Louis Trintignant, who manages to make his blue sunglasses an extension of his character, make this high-charged film cool.
Le Samouraï (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1967)
Speaking of cool, Alain Delon is the very definition with his perfectly positioned hat and icy cold demeanor in this stripped down, both dialogue-wise and visually, gangster film.
Another Woman (Woody Allen, 1988)
Gena Rowlands plays Woody Allen with surprisingly fantastic results in this sober, introspective drama more in line with Interiors than Hannah and Her Sisters.
Claudine (John Berry, 1974)
Diahann Carroll and James Earl Jones tackle "the race problem" in 1970's New York with the kind of head-on confrontation of the issues and stylized delivery more associated with sketch comedy (the Bunifa sketches on MadTV, for one) than the usual race film we think of then and now.
Tout Va Bien (Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin, 1972)
Godard and Gorin's call to arms in a post-'68 France is one of the most reactionary films I've ever seen. After watching the film, I wanted to riot in the streets and protest everything that's wrong with this country. Such is the power of Godard when he's in the right mood.
No End in Sight (Charles Ferguson, 2007)
Nothing in No End in Sight is exactly a breaking news headline when viewed in 2010, but considering the film came out in 2007, it's almost downright prophetic.
They Won't Forget (Mervyn LeRoy, 1937)
A white Northerner is accused of murdering one of his Southern students. The prosecutor has very little in the way of tangible evidence so he turns the town violently against the accused, eventually turning the case into a nationwide battle between the good ole boys of the south and the uppity Northerners. This Warner Brothers (surprise, surprise) flick is one of the most damning and truly progressive films of the entire Studio Era.
The Sundowners (Fred Zinnemann, 1960)
The rare family drama that works as both a 60's-era big budget crowdpleaser and an introspective look at the inner-workings of an atypical family. The characters are just as full of disappointments as they are triumphs.
Edvard Munch (Peter Watkins, 1974)
A biopic of the now famous painter who battled a hostile art community who refused to see his work as legitimate "art." Told in a highly unusual way, Watkins' intense stylization often walks the fine line of discomfort as Geir Westby's Munch often stares right into the camera as if he's staring right into the audience's soul.
The Collector (William Wyler, 1965)
Terence Stamp falls in love with Samantha Eggar so he does what any other normal male would do in such a predicament: he kidnaps her, giving her anything she wants while keeping her locked up in his basement. Stamp is a great addition to the oeuvre of Emotionally Damaged Boys and the film's complicated and often shocking intertwining of sex and slavery is shocking and fascinating at the same time.
The Happy Ending (Richard Brooks, 1969)
I feel like my love for this film has died slightly in the months since seeing it, but I can still appreciate Brooks and star Jean Simmons baring their souls and real-life marriage for everyone to see.
Best of B+
Shut Up and Sing (Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck, 2006)
The fall and rebirth of the Dixie Chicks. Uncomfortable, often times provocative, this documentary gets into nitty gritty of dealing with a PR nightmare and how to retool a once lucrative career because of one infamous sentence.
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (Tony Richardson, 1962)
I hate the British New Wave, but Richardson's film is an anomaly for the time period: it's more The 400 Blows than Tom Jones. Tom Courtenay, playing the Antoine Doinel of this film, is slowly becoming a favorite actor of mine.
A Hatful of Rain (Fred Zinnemann, 1957)
Zinnemann again, this time with a Broadway adaptation depicting the life of a heroin junkie, his wife, his brother and the horrible circle of co-dependency they live in day after day. Tony Franciosa got the Oscar nom back in '57, but Don Murray and Eva Marie Saint, as the husband and wife, respectively, are the real knockouts.
The Cell (Tarsem Singh, 2000)
I never thought this would be my kind of movie in a million years, but Tarsem's heavy, lush visuals are jaw-droppingly good. And it contains the best performance from J. Lo we're ever likely to see; her facial expression the moment she awakes from the killer's psyche still gives me chills.
King Rat (Bryan Forbes, 1965)
Bryan Forbes, director of such underseen "women's films" like The L-Shaped Room and The Whisperers, tackles men in a POW camp and achieves the same results he did with the women. The film chronicles how these men slowly start to lose their humanity in an artificial world where anything goes and you have to do anything it takes to stay alive. Tom Courtenay, as the uptight British officer trying his damnedest to be an honorable soldier but slowly realizing it may not be worth it, is once again a treat in this film, but George Segal and James Fox as amoral officers who seek control of the camp (and may or may not have a homoerotic vibe around them) are just as great.
Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993)
Somehow, I've managed to either to go 15 or so years since seeing this film or never seeing at all. Even more surprising was the film itself, with Spielberg at the top of his Movies as Entertainment game.