An appreciation of some underrated movies

Tue Dec 23, 2008 3:58am EST
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By Gregg Kilday

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - It's that time of year: Film critics are making their lists and checking them twice, ignoring most of the movies they consider "naughty" while championing those they consider "nice."

As an annual exercise, there's nothing wrong with the process: It's worth sending out reminders that such popular entertainments as "WALL-E" and "The Dark Knight" aspired to something more than just packing multiplexes during the summer months.

And amid the crush of year-end films with serious aspirations, it's fine to argue about the relative merits of such rewarding fare as "Slumdog Millionaire," "Milk," "The Wrestler" and "Gran Torino."

But inevitably, all those top-10 lists -- even when critics manage to hedge their bets by squeezing in an extra three or four titles -- overlook most of the movies that kept moviegoers if not always entertained then at least somewhat diverted.

Consider the following highly subjective sampling of some of the movies, or at least moments, that brightened the slogs through the predictable and uninspired.

Certainly, if there's a candidate for the most underrated comedy of the year, it's the Coen brothers' "Burn After Reading." True, a handful of critics championed it, and the film has earned two Golden Globe nominations -- one for best motion picture/comedy or musical and one for Frances McDormand's performance as a franchise-gym employee who seizes upon a computer disk, supposedly packed with CIA secrets, as a way of financing the plastic surgery that will boost her profile on the dating scene.

But after the near-universal praise that was showered on the Coens' Oscar-winning "No Country for Old Men," with its despairing take on human nature, many of the same critics turned thumbs down on "Burn" for its unapologetic misanthropy as, trapped in a corner, John Malkovich's downsized CIA analyst Osbourne Cox rails against "the league of morons" that surrounds him.

Still, if there was an A-list star who spoofed his own golden-boy image this year, it wasn't Tom Cruise's somewhat heavy-handed goof as a profane producer in "Tropic Thunder." It was Brad Pitt's genially dim-witted turn as a private trainer who isn't half as bright as he thinks he is. As a bonus, the movie played like a balloon-puncturing antidote to all the tech-crazy spy movies like "Body of Lies" that treats the CIA like some all-knowing satellite eye in the sky: In "Burn," nobody knows anything.   Continued...

<p>Director Ethan Coen (L) and John Malkovich attend the "Burn After Reading" news conference during the 33rd Toronto International Film Festival September 6, 2008. REUTERS/Mark Blinch</p>