23. Army of Darkness (1992)
The third film in Sam Raimi’s gleefully self-indulgent Evil Dead trilogy stars Bruce Campbell as Ash, the character who, at this point, had become a cult horror icon, and one whose blithe, OTT rejoinders — “Gimme some sugar, baby!” — are irresistible to all but the most uptight of cinema goer.
Travelling through time by dint of a rift in space-time caused by the cursed text, the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis, Ash finds himself in the Middle Ages, in a gullible Medieval village, tormented by a race of undead beasties called Deadites. While recklessly questing to find a way back to his time, Ash runs afoul a series of trials meant to test his fortitude and an destructive doppelgänger, Evil Ash, is reared.
The tongue-in-cheek yet thoroughly blood-soaked adventures that accrue offer imminently quotable quips, hilarious set-pieces, old-fashioned Ray Harryhausen-style stop motion homages, gore, Three Stooges tributes, and inventive old formula fun. It’s not for everyone, fair enough, but it’s the sort of film that acquires devoted, ardent, and enthusiastic fans.
22. Moon (2009)
Duncan Jones comes out swinging in his deliberately lo-fi directorial debut, a mini-masterpiece of speculative fiction, Moon. Jones, who co-wrote the screenplay with Nathan Parker, artfully tells the tale of Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), an isolated astronaut on Earth’s moon, where he’s spent the last three long years in isolation, at the lunar station Sarang, mining helium-3, with only the AI computer GERTY (perfectly voiced by Kevin Spacey) for companionship.
Moon is a moody, and forcible film — a showpiece for Rockwell, it’s almost a one-man show — a throwback to 70’s cinema of the Aliens and Silent Running ilk. When the narrative takes an unsuspected turn, things get metaphysical and unpredictably audacious. A subplot involving clones and self-immolation arrives and overshadows proceedings, leading to a dewy-eyed conclusion that is both impressive and pointed. Moon makes a meaningful and precarious landing.
21. Adaptation (2002)
In a second and equally satisfying pairing after 1999’s Being John Malkovich, director Spike Jonze and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman give us Adaptation, an extremely self-referential meta-comedy. Nicolas Cage plays Charlie Kaufman, a severely blocked screenwriter trying to adapt an admired and wholly unadaptable literary masterpiece by Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep), “The Orchid Thief.”
It doesn’t help that the over-analytical and socially awkward Charlie has a well-adjusted, über popular, womanizing twin, Donald (also played by Cage). Fiction and reality are soon blurred as Jonze moves the audacious film at a feverish clip. Elements of autobiography and social commentary — Kaufman’s lacerating barbs aimed at Hollywood are alternatingly hysterical and full of spite — coalesce into an absurd, amazing, and yes, inspiring film.
“Do I have an original thought in my bald head?” is Kaufman’s first query in the film, and by its finish the audience is certain that he has several rattling around in there.
20. Coherence (2013)
Coherence marks the assured directorial debut of James Ward Byrkit — who also wrote the screenplay (though admittedly much of it was largely improvised) — in a reality-warping low-budgeted but high-concept science-fiction smorgasbord. When a low-flying comet passes over the Santa Monica suburbs, a gathering of old chums at a dinner party are in for an evening of intrigue involving alternate dimensions, duplicate selves (and then some!), all cleverly garbed in ‘locked room’ thriller dress.
Em (Emily Foxler), a guest at the party, is privy, somewhat, to the potential effects the comet may have, and, venturing out of the house during the resulting power-failure triggered by the comet, makes a startling discovery that involves a portal to someplace eerily similar to home. Is it a surrogate reality? An alternate dimension?
Fans of the analytical and mystifying mindfucks of Christopher Nolan or Shane Carruth will find much pleasure making Coherence coherent, and the results, as the film unravels and enshrouds itself, is deeply and rewardingly satisfying.
19. Primer (2004)
Writer/director and star Shane Carruth, who wouldn’t follow-up this dizzying debut for 9 years with the astonishing Upstream Color (2013), offers up a deliberately dense, mind-bending mystery with Primer. Playing with familiar time-travelling tropes, but manipulating them to intense extremes involving causality, doppelgängers, and quantum mechanics, all on the tiniest of budgets, the results are a cerebral mindfuck that confounds as many viewers as it dazzles.
Two engineers, Aaron (Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan) stumble across a bizarre phenomenon, inadvertently, of course, while trying to improve upon one of their existing inventions. Realizing that they could deepen their pockets by meddling with causality and time manipulation — what could possibly go wrong? — resulting in an unpredictably complex puzzle where the consequences become increasingly devastating.
Admittedly, an additional viewing may be necessary, though certainly rewarding, Primer is a small scale masterpiece, and the kind of film that Philip K Dick would have adored.
18. Schizopolis (1996)
Steven Soderbergh’s seriously experimental comedy, a non-linear perplexity like its title suggests, is a strange, at times unintelligible, non sequitur-spewing affair, that is also a shit ton of fun. Shirking no responsibilities whatsoever, Soderbergh directs, writes, stars (in multiple roles, no less), edits, and films the decidedly unconventional tale, a pointed thrust and parry at society’s ills, in a three-pronged self-aware narrative.
Told from at least three differing perspectives (not counting the viewer, who’s frequently implicated in the proceedings), Schizopolis details the life of office drone Fletcher Munson (Soderbergh), who works for an L. Ron Hubbard-type guru, and also depicts the duplicitous goings on of Munson’s dentist doppelgänger, Dr. Jeffrey Korchek (Soderbergh), an artless exterminator named Elmo Oxygen (David Jensen), and Munson’s liberated wife (Betsy Brantley) also referred to, in vulgarized fashion as “Attractive Woman #2”.
Schizopolis works as a comedy and as a satire, in spite of it’s self-destructive tendencies and deliberately serpentine storyline. It’s the type of film that alienates a large portion of the audience, but the other portion will love it and find it imminently quotable, perhaps obsessively so.
17. The Double (2013)
Jesse Eisenberg is nebbish database processor, Simon James in Richard Ayoade’s calamitous comedy The Double. Simon slaves away thanklessly for an unnamed Orwellian company and its autocratic boss, Mr. Papadopoulos (Wallace Shawn) in a retro-dystopian future akin to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil with a whisper of Kafka, in a fable-like tale loosely based off Dostoevsky’s novella of the same name.
Simon’s heart is in twain over au fait love interest Hannah (Mia Wasikowska) but, while he fumbles for his affections a newcomer shows up at work, one James Simons, his exact double, though no one but Simon seems aware of this uncanny instance.
Eisenberg is a delight to watch as he goes from graceless fool to affably evil twin, each with aplomb, and his energetic performance is equally matched by Ayoade’s faultless direction. The film may be boundlessly bleak, it is also kaleidoscopic, off-kilter, and runs amok with noir nods and artful umbrage.
16. Femme Fatale (2002)
It must be said that Brian De Palma’s delectus is running over with paired protagonists and designful lookalikes. Closer to the top of this list you’ll find De Palma’s coup de grâce, Body Double, but other great films of his, like Dressed to Kill, Obsession, Passion, Raising Cain, Sisters, even Mission: Impossible, contain the twin trope.
But an often overlooked treasure, albeit of the Euro-trash variety, is his erotic thriller/time warping mystery, Femme Fatale. It’s a beguiling, snappy, and chic shocker, which, hammy performances aside, ranks in the upper echelon of De Palma’s canon.
Rebecca Romijn stars as Laura Ash, a career criminal, and also as Lily Watts, a wealthy Parisian blueblood, both ensnared in a botched diamond heist involving hitmen, kidnappers, and a nosy photographer (Antonio Banderas).
The opening sequence, a jaw-dropping pilferage mounted at the Cannes Film Festival, is mind-blowing in its execution and mastery, making Femme Fatale worth seeing for that accomplishment alone. The visuals are breath-taking, the story unpredictable, and the results, a sprightly stroke of genius.