You've seen Avatar already, right? And we're sure you didn't miss Star Trek. And you probably even sat through Terminator: Salvation for some reason. Films like those got a whole lot of love from critics and the box office.
But then there are those a little harder to find, and some that, once found, were rejected by audiences. Here are nine of the most overlooked and underrated films of 2009.
Paul Giamatti is Paul Giamatti in the story of a man who loses his soul (which looks like a chickpea) and finds it again after a mix-up with the Russian mob. Sort of like a Being John Malkovich except not at all funny, Cold Souls must be acknowledged as a true science-fiction film—most movies are just war stories or thrillers with futuristic art direction, but the conceit of soul removal and transference is the core of this film's emotional reality. You missed it due to limited release and solid reviews that were ultimately less than raves, likely because the film was a downer.
Fantastic Mr. Fox
A wonderful stop-motion animation based on the book by Roald Dahl, this film transports you so completely into the story of various animals defending their homes against human farmers that when I mentioned its place on this list to a friend of mine, she said, "But does Mr. Fox count as a fantasy?" Unless badgers are lawyers and foxes often have newspaper columns, of course it counts. If you missed Fantastic Mr. Fox, it's probably because you thought it was solely a kiddie film, but it is much more.
Audiences happily lap up dialogue like "Let's dance!" (before fights) and "Locked and loaded!" (before gunfights) and "Holy mother of--" *KA-BOOM* (all the time), so why is clever and competent Diablo Cody the writer everyone loves to hate? Jealousy, probably—she makes millions for her instant slang, and all you get for the same is a few people clicking the LIKE button on your Facebook. This tale of high school hell and the insecurities of teen girls wasn't your daddy's horror movie, but it was your sister's; because it was mismarketed as a sexy slasher, exactly the wrong crowd killed any chance of positive buzz after the first weekend for this flick.
Chandni Chowk to China
If you're like me, you love kung-fu films and Bollywood musicals and you've been known to rescue potatoes from the supermarket when they look like someone you know. And if you're like me, Chandni Chowk to China is the movie for you! If you didn't see it, maybe you're not like me, or maybe Hollywood just doesn't get three-hour movies with five plots, musical numbers and wuxia magic. Long movie plus no stars plus two acquired tastes in the same film and an arthouse platform release made Chandni Chowk to China a box-office flop.
Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is alone on the moon, extracting helium-3 from the lunar surface to fuel the world's economy, and it's almost time for him to go home. But he isn't alone ... and home isn't what he thinks it is. Moon is a clever film whose plot takes just the tiniest bit too long to get going, and though there are twists aplenty in the end, the entire film rests on the shoulders of Sam Rockwell's performance. With a $5 million budget, Moon is no sci-fi spectacle. Too smart for summertime fare, Moon was very well reviewed but was distributed by Sony Pictures Classics—which also handles documentaries and foreign films. You probably missed it because you don't live in a college town.
Nicholas Cage plays a MIT professor who comes into possession of a coded list of disasters that had been placed in a time capsule 50 years before, and panics as the code is clear to him—the world will soon end. Alex Proyas makes good movies. Nicholas Cage is a good actor, or was at one point. Few critics liked this film—probably because of the scenery-chewing, some heavy images not usually seen in disaster films and an ending that can leave you laughing if you don't gasp. Though Roger Ebert gave it four stars, Knowing just didn't have legs after a solid opening weekend thanks to less-than-enthusiastic word of mouth. It's too bad—this vision of the apocalypse doesn't pull any punches. In Knowing [**spoiler alert**], pretty much everybody dies!
Mock-Up On Mu
More likely to have you leaving the theater shouting "L. Ron Hubbard's got the tech!" than a Tom Cruise recruitment video, this experimental piece by underground legend Craig Baldwin takes footage found from Japanese monster films, North by Northwest and a zillion sci-fi sources both old and new to tell the kinda-sorta-true story of rocket scientist/occultist Jack Parsons. You didn't see this film because it was hardly released after a festival run in '08 except for a few days here and there in the largest cities. I caught it in July at a worker-owned movie house in San Francisco, where it played for two days. Seek out the terrible terrible truth!
Korean horror films that make it to the U.S. are often wonderfully overstuffed, and Thirst is no exception. Priest becomes vampire thanks to experimental vaccine for horrifying virus is plot enough, but that's the just the beginning of this film. Father Sang-hyun then breaks his vows to have an affair, kills his lover's abusive husband and turns her into a vampire, too—but she becomes very bloodthirsty. Then the mother-in-law shows up ... Thirst was a fairly big hit in South Korea, but in the U.S. foreign-language pictures generally get only a limited release, and a foreign-language genre picture generally shows up on a handful of screens, and just long enough for some Hollywood type to get the bright idea to ruin it via a remake.
Hobbes said that life in a state of nature was nasty, brutish and short, and Valhalla Rising is almost just like life, except the film is quite long. Less fantastical than purely mythic, this is the story of the silent, pagan One-Eye (perhaps Odin himself) who finds himself along with some Christian Vikings on a voyage to join the Crusades. They end up somewhere else (the New World, maybe?) where death awaits. Horrifically violent, glacially paced and heavily allegorical, you didn't see Valhalla Rising because horrific period-piece art films don't play in Peoria, or much of anywhere else.