After a year filled with movies that surprised and disappointed, it’s easy to forget about those underrated films caught in the middle. These are the kinds of movies that were either misunderstood by audiences or too small and never got a chance to make a good impression.
Whether this is the result of bad marketing or no marketing at all, the sad truth remains. Every year there are tons of movies you’ve probably never heard of waiting to be discovered. This small and humble list is our attempt to remind you of some of those goodies you may have missed. Obviously we’re not going to include bigger films with enormous marketing budgets. Those films don’t need any help getting noticed and chances are the positive buzz surrounding them has reached you already.
The following list of 15 movies is alphabetized instead of ranked and they all have one thing in common, they are great movies released this year looking for an audience.
This is probably the most well-known movie on the list, but it’s also one of the most misunderstood titles as well. The biggest marketing hurdle for this film was trying to get families on board with the story of gentle nocturnal creatures who adopt a young boy as one of their own.
That’s the simple logline of The Boxtrolls, but there is so much weirdness surrounding this stop-motion animated film that most audiences passed on it before giving it a chance. The marketing seemed to be all over the place and never nailed the true spirit of the film, which is a shame since the company responsible for this also made Coraline and Paranorman, two other stop-motion gems.
Jon Favreau not only wrote and directed this summer sleeper, but he also starred in it as well. The movie is a not-so-subtle analogy of Favreau’s time as a gun-for-hire making the Iron Man movies at Marvel Studios, but it manages to turn a very familiar story into a genuine crowd-pleaser.
The movie found a small audience over its summer run but never broke out in the way most critics expected it to. Chef is a movie that proudly wears its heart on its sleeve and rewards its audience willing to go along for its culinary ride.
This was supposed to be Jude Law’s big comeback, but bad marketing and an uneven movie got in the way. The first half of Dom Hemingway is fantastic, one of the year’s best movies. Writer-director Richard Shepard (The Matador, The Hunting Party) gives Law the fantastic part of an angry, washed-up British gangster fresh out of prison and ready to raise hell.
It’s familiar territory, but Law sinks his teeth into the part so well that you can’t help but be mesmerized by his performance. Then something happens halfway through the movie, the story takes a left turn and the film loses steam. It doesn’t derail the entire thing, but it definitely turns into a lesser picture. Despite all this, Jude Law continues to command the screen as the titular Dom Hemingway and even though the film is unbalanced, his performance is not.
Richard Ayoade has only made one other movie prior to this (the equally great Submarine), but he already shows a comfort behind the camera that other directors take years to develop. The story of The Double is a weird one, but then again it’s loosely based on Dostoyevsky’s novel, so what do you expect? Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) is a meek office clerk in an environment straight out of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.
He’s dull, aimless and obsessed with his more outgoing female co-worker. These insecurities birth a whole new person at the office, someone who looks and sounds like Simon, but is more intelligent and aggressive. Is this all a dream or is there something deeper going on? Ayoade keeps the film moving at a very brisk pace and surrounds it with a haunting visual palette that makes for one of the best films of the year.
‘Ernest & Celestine’
Nominated for the Best Animated Film Oscar last year, Ernest & Celestine was finally released in the Spring after a qualifying run. The wait was more than worth it as the heart-warming tale of friendship between big bear Ernest and little mouse Celestine left many hard-edged critics in tears after its screening. Directors Stephane Aubier and Vincent Patar have a knack for creating emotion and fun out of the most basic premises.
In their last movie, A Town Called Panic, the setup had a toy cowboy and a toy Indian planning a surprise birthday party for their best friend, a toy horse. Eventually the planning goes haywire and the trio have to improvise. While that sounds ridiculous, it makes for one of the best animated movies of the last several years. In Ernest & Celestine, the directing duo take things a bit more serious and heartfelt, but they also balance it out with some welcome humor. The resulting mix is a film that should’ve won the Oscar last year for Best Animated Film.
‘The Face of Love’
Nikki (Annette Bening) has just lost her husband Garret (Ed Harris) and is in deep mourning. One day she spots a stranger in the street who is a complete double for the dead husband and she becomes obsessed. At first she spies from afar, but once she gets the courage to take things further, the very dangerous and creepy sides of this tortured person start to show.
Bening and Harris are great in this interesting and adult love story. Robin Williams also has a small part as Bening’s best friend who may be cautious of her infatuation of this stranger for all the wrong reasons.
It’s no secret that obesity is a huge problem in our society and Fed Up may not teach you things you don’t already know. But for the rest of us who aren’t as informed about the things in our food, this documentary is eye-opening. Interviewing nutritionists and speaking to kids who are directly affected by all the sugar and fatty foods available in stores, Fed Up will change the way you look at food. Since seeing this film, this writer hasn’t touched a drop of soda and feels great.
One of the biggest surprises at this year’s Sundance film festival was this weird and energetic thriller, a mix of The Bourne Identity and an ’80s horror movie. Dan Stevens from Downton Abbey turns his posh reputation from that show upside down, playing a mysterious soldier comforting a grieving family after the loss of their son. But once this titular guest arrives in their home, strange murders start to happen and the explanation may be different from what you’re expecting.
‘It Felt like Love’
Director Eliza Hittman’s feature debut follows teenage Lila (a breakout Gina Piersanti) as she struggles with her sexual identity. Intimidated by her more experienced friend, she sets out to experiment and catch up to what she feels is missing, even if she doesn’t know exactly what that is.
It Felt Like Love is a powerful feature that doesn’t sugarcoat teenage behavior. It’s uncomfortable to watch in places, but Hittman’s direction and screenplay flow authentically and demand your attention.
The process of making a movie is never an easy one, whether you’re making it for five thousand dollars or five million. The headaches and drama are always the same. This documentary takes things a step further and focuses on a film that was never made, recounting one of the biggest and weirdest “what if’s” in the history of the movie business.
Before David Lynch adapted the cult science-fiction novel Dune to the big screen, eccentric auteur Alejandro Jodorowsky had all the pieces in place to make the film himself. He is quite a character and goes into vivid detail, explaining how his vision for the film came together and eventually fell apart. Film critics and filmmakers each contribute their sides of the story, making Jodorowsky’s Dune one of the most fascinating documentaries of the year.
‘Kill the Messenger’
Conspiracy thrillers were a dime a dozen in the ’90s but now they are very limited. An even smaller group are the conspiracy thrillers that are actually good and Kill the Messenger falls into that category. Sadly, nobody bothered to see it upon release, so only a small group of people were exposed to the raw power of Michael Cuesta’s examination of political intrigue in the ’90s.
Based on a true story, Jeremy Renner headlines an all-star cast as a hungry reporter who stumbles on a big story that leads him straight to cocaine trafficking and the CIA. Even if you’re familiar with the details of the story, Kill the Messenger is tight and engaging cinema. It is one of the biggest surprises of the year and unfairly overlooked.
Humble Filipino farmer Oscar Ramirez can no longer afford to feed his family working the rice fields, so he takes a chance and moves the group to the big city in search of a better future. What follows isn’t the saccharine happy ending you’ve seen many times before, but instead something much darker and unexpected.
Metro Manila is unflinching in depicting the desperation for survival and is begging to be discovered. It won awards at Sundance 2013 and is now available to stream on Netflix Instant.
‘The Raid 2’
Speaking of Sundance, no other film had critics and audiences more energized this year than The Raid 2. It’s an action powerhouse that doesn’t require you to have seen the original film and is a nice mix of The Godfather and John Woo’s Hard Boiled. Every bone in the human body is broken at least twice in this movie and the action choreography is completely unconventional by Hollywood standards (the film was shot in Indonesia with the most suicidal stunt team).
Lots of films play festivals every year and get caught up in what I call “festival fog,” the feeling in the air that causes people to overpraise a film because they were the first audience to see it. The Raid 2 is definitely not part of that trend and needs to be discovered by action lovers who are tired of watered-down thrills.
The Rover is a slow-burn chase movie set in the Australian outback 10 years after “the collapse.” What exactly that collapse is and how it came to be are never explained, but from the film’s first few frames it’s easy to put the pieces together. Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson play opposites brought together by circumstance and their only goal is to track down a group of thieves with precious cargo. The Rover is a movie that demands patience and rewards you with beauty.
‘Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon’
I had never heard of Shep Gordon prior to this documentary, but hearing the raconteur replay stories of his youth I instantly became hooked on his words. Directed by Mike Myers, this all-access story spotlights the accidental rise of Shep as a music manager in the ’80s and ’90s all the way to his current career today. He is a household name in the celebrity community (many of his famous friends make appearances) and his documentary Supermensch is one of the most wild and entertaining rides of the year.