There are a multitude of reasons why any film may get unfairly overlooked. It could be a lack of marketing resources to give it a substantial push, or, due to a minuscule roll-out, not enough critics and audiences to be the champions it might require. It could simply be the timing of the picture itself; even in the world of studio filmmaking, some features take time to get their due. With an increasingly crowded marketplace, there are more reasons than ever that something might not find an audience and, as with last year, we’ve rounded up the releases that deserved more attention.
Note that all the below films made less than $1 million at the domestic box office at the time of posting (VOD figures are not accounted for, as they normally aren’t made public) and are, for the most part, left out of most year-end conversations. Sadly, most documentaries would qualify for this list, but we stuck strictly to narrative efforts; one can instead read our rundown of the top docs here.
Check out the list below and, in the comments, let us know the 2015 films you loved that aren’t getting the recognition they deserve. A great deal of the below titles are also available to stream, so check out our feature here to catch up. One can also see the full list on Letterboxd.
10,000 KM (Carlos Marques)
10,000 KM doesn’t waste any time cutting to the chase, opening up with a lengthy and provocative sex scene that is as intimate as the day is long. Our story’s only two characters, Alex (Natalia Tena) and Sergi (David Verdaguer), it turns out, are trying to get pregnant. However, just as soon as the two manage to zip up their pants, Alex reads an email stating that she has received the opportunity to take on an artist’s residency in Los Angeles. After a brief, but well-played lover’s quarrel, Alex of course decides to take the residency while Sergi decides to stay behind in Spain. Bye bye, baby; hello, Los Angeles. This is when the film really takes off. Somewhat reminiscent of a docu-fiction, Marques-Marcet pulls out all of the tricks to hand you symbolic gestures on a platter. – Chelsey G. (full review)
Amour Fou (Jessica Hausner)
An ecstatically original work of film-history-philosophy with a digital-cinema palette of acutely crafted compositions. Amour Fou seamlessly blends together the paintings of Vermeer, the acting of Bresson, and the psychological undercurrents of a Dostoevsky novel. It is an intensely thrilling and often slyly comic work that manages to combine a passionately dispassionate love story of the highest order with a larger socio-historical examination of a new era of freedom, and the tragedy beset by those trapped in its enclosed world. – Peter L.
Appropriate Behavior (Desiree Akhavan)
Written, directed and staring Deesiree Akhavan, a Persian bisexual with attitude, Appropriate Behavior is a hilarious indie recalling other triple threat breakouts like Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It and Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Women. The work of an authentic voice, Appropriate Behavior gleefully defies the air of those festival indies hatched in a development lab, proving to be an unhinged, unrestrained, and unapologetic romantic comedy about an outcast attempting to find a place in the world that has yet to be invented for her. – John F.
Arabian Nights (Miguel Gomes)
Miguel Gomes’ Our Beloved Month of August and its ecstatically-received follow-up Tabu showcased the director’s love of storytelling as a means of contemplating reality. In these films, by whimsically intermingling and reinventing cinematic traditions as well as throwing in an abundance of personal innovations, Gomes wove tales that reflected on defining aspects of Portuguese culture with irresistible idiosyncrasy. The six-hour triptych Arabian Nights continues in the same vein, though with far greater ambition. Fascinating even in its misfires, this sprawling and fantastical document of the country’s plight in the wake of the global financial crisis confirms Gomes as one of the most exhilaratingly inventive filmmakers working today. – Giovanni M.C. (full review)
The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-Hsien)
The Cannes Film Festival represents the pantheon of arthouse cinema, so it does raise eyebrows when a wuxia movie is included in its official selection. After all, this is a genre known for superhuman speed and loud, physical forms of expression, stuff that fantasies are made of but not exactly traits one associates with fine arts. That’s until Taiwanese maestro Hou Hsiao-hsien came along to deliver his version of kung fu. The resulting The Assassin (translated from Nie Yinniang) turns out to be the quietest, most introspective and deliberately-paced film in competition, a feat so rare and radical it casually revolutionized decades of filmmaking tradition. – Zhuo-Ning S. (full review)
Beloved Sisters (Dominik Graf)
If German cinema has been dominated by reservation, here is kissing, screaming, fucking, pushing, breaking, and running. Most of all, Beloved Sisters embraces feeling, turning even the written word into a series of direct addresses that passionately reach toward its receiver instead of only an admiration for the transference of materials. Graf’s camera flies through these mansions and small alcoves with every cinematic technique known to man — push-ins, zooms, wipes, dissolves, quick pans, jumping titles! — but, most of all, he relies on the work of his editor to conflate time and space into pure emotion. – Peter L.
Bone Tomahawk (S. Craig Zahler)
The Western experienced a resurgence this year, and writer-director S. Craig Zahler’s unflinching splatter western, Bone Tomahawk, was perhaps the most unexpected surprise. Directed with an assured, patient hand and written with an anachronistic zip that gleefully evokes Deadwood, Bone Tomahawk isn’t so much an adventure movie as it is an anti-hero movie. With a framework that recalls The Searchers, complete with a virulent racist (Matthew Fox in a career-best performance), and a rescue mission from Indians at its core, Bone Tomahawk skirts some very racist subtext about outsiders and savages. But it’s saved by both how little of the journey is actually about the Indians, and, more significantly, how those figures are meant to represent an omniscience. At a certain point, that specter of existentialism is finally calcified into pure annihilation. Even then, this isn’t merely a hybrid of exploitation and western components. The violence comes with a near-supernatural brutality — over in a flash, but unending in its effects. Bone Tomahawk doesn’t have heroes or villains; man is trespassing on nature, and anything that happens is inevitable. The ensemble — Patrick Wilson, Kurt Russell, Fox, and MVP Richard Jenkins — are stocked up for a journey by normal standards, but they’re totally unprepared for this vicious, uncaring landscape. Late in the movie, a character says, “We’ll make sure this all has value.” It’s hard to know what he means when this part of the world was always meant to be hidden. – Michael S.
Breathe (Mélanie Laurent)
Mélanie Laurent‘s second feature, Breathe, is an examination of proximity that’s as intoxicating as it is relatable. Favorably evoking fellow countryman François Ozon’s sensual inquiries (specifically with regard to In the House), Laurent is another voice keyed into the way friendship can bloom into obsession and consume the consciousness. The difference is that Laurent is just as enamored with the wonder of friendship as the ensuing aftermath. The high-school-aged leads — Charlie (Joséphine Japy) and Sarah (Lou de Laâge) — have opposite natures, but that doesn’t stop them from being an explosive chemical reaction, an instant, spontaneous force. Charlie is more worldly, cautious, ebbing on, but restless and unsatisfied with the conflagration of stress from school, home, and her social circles. Sarah is destabilizing; she controls the room with a slight twist of a grin, and yet the world of a healthy relationship is too small. She’s a recognizable high-schooler in her striving for more. Passion drives these women, and while scenes do flirt with sapphic undertones; this is platonic friendship as an act of seduction. They immediately fall into a rhythm of endless closeness. There are the shared rites of friendship — holding Charlie’s hair as she throws up after drinking too much, laughing about crushes, sleeping in the same bed — but these are condensed into montage, signifying the ephemeral nature of that honeymoon period; blissful realities are cut down with a single line. Sarah isn’t the usual manipulative, irrational monster that can fatally emerge in stories about obsession. Her motives are far more understandable and sad, tied to worries that are achingly universal for the average teenager. – Michael S.
Buzzard (Joel Potrykus)
A film obsessed with the post-recession, post-NSA era, Buzzard is littered with money (or the lack of it) that recalls neo-realist greats, but not by making a film about the toils of the human spirit. Instead, it takes the form of the a bro genre movie (pair this with Entourage for real whiplash), and peppers each one of its moments with stunning accuracy and an extreme paranoia. It’s a film that understands the new American dream is a bowl of spaghetti and meatballs instead of two microwaved Hot Pockets. – Peter L. (full review)
Christmas, Again (Charles Poekel)
Christmas time is a lonely time for many; a “time of giving” that reminds more than a few of us what we’ve lost. This is the feeling Christmas, Again wades in, as produced, written and directed by Charles Poekel. We follow Noel (Kentucker Audley), who’s selling Christmas trees on a Manhattan curb for the fifth winter in a row. He’s getting over a recent break-up and working with the younger brother of the friend that used to be his partner. It’s a lonely state of affairs, Noel waking up for the night shift, taking medication, sweeping the pine needles off of the curb, etc. Audley is an extremely talented young actor whose been around for some time now, supporting in fellow Sundance movies like V/H/S and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. Here, in the lead, he proves vulnerable and endearing, building an authentic character to care about and root for even during these smallest of trials and tribulations. In 80 minutes, you will learn more about the art of selling Christmas trees than you ever wanted to know. – Dan M. (full review)
Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (Spike Lee)
Praise God. Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is Spike Lee’s freest-feeling endeavor in a spell, the full-forced reminder that, after years divided by safe hits (Inside Man and, yes, Oldboy) and personal duds (Miracle at St. Anna, Red Hook Summer), he’s yet to lose sight of how both the personal and the lively might flow together. Weighed with regard to a place amongst the Lee canon, it stands as a work equally divided by divergences and conformities nevertheless united, forcefully, by a genuine, dyed-in-the-wool insanity. – Nick N. (full review)
The Duke of Burgundy (Peter Strickland)
Peter Strickland‘s wooly, playfully austere directing style isn’t an easy gateway into The Duke of Burgundy, but it’s an aesthetic mask for some of the oldest themes in cinema — consent and compromise. This is a psychic inquisition of the submissive-dominant relationship between an immaculate Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) that’s every bit as biting as classic battle-of-the-sex dramas (e.g. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and War of the Roses) without the need for emotional violence or crimes of passion. Firmly sexual but never pornographic (bubbles have rarely looked so erotic), The Duke of Burgundy fetishizes touch — not as a taboo, but as both a natural need and a form of performance. Pleasure is praised on a grand scale, but is it truly shared or as perfunctory as the seasons? Shot through the prisms of mirrors, keyholes, and windows that can’t help but feel anthropomorphic when juxtaposed with the teeming life outside the house, this is transgressive subject matter that doesn’t make the characters “other” so much as “only.” It places the viewer into the role of a voyeur to human nature and asks, “At what point is it worth compromising self to please your partner, or do relationships require this removal?” This is a question that The Duke of Burgundy never answers, but the film teases out a variety of possibilities both optimistic and morbid. – Michael S.
Eden (Mia Hansen-Løve)
Rather than 131 minutes of a throbbing soundtrack complemented by extravagant club-lighting schemes, Eden is indeed un film de Mia Hansen-Løve: its aesthetic dressings are both spare and precise; its language, as both written and performed, is quiet (even the glut of music isn’t played to high-decibel levels); and its formalism is, by certain definitions, “low-key,” the camera-eye acting almost exclusively as a means of digging out characters’ psychological processes via captured glances and gestures. The cohesion just isn’t immediate at first. – Nick N. (full review)
Entertainment (Rick Alverson)
Director Rick Alverson makes some scary comedies. His previous endeavor, The Comedy, showed us the horrors of aging trust fund babies, making for an excellent, funny and headache-inducing result. The challenging experience that is Alverson’s latest film, Entertainment, makes The Comedy feel like a walk in the park. The comedy, which he co-wrote with star Gregg Turkington and co-star Tim Heidecker, follows a bottom-of-the-barrel comedian (Turkington) traveling from gig to gig across the California desert, performing genuinely funny and crude jokes that aren’t for everyone. But then Alverson’s not telling stories for everyone, making his films stand out all the more. – Jack G. (full review)
Experimenter (Michael Almereyda)
Experimenter sets for itself an impossibly high bar to clear. Almereyda’s storytelling does not need to be Nabokovian to be good, and the choice of a historical subject instead of oneself allows significance to be bestowed on the individual. His film is deftly and intelligently edited, with Peter Sarsgaard’s addresses to the audience forcing contemplation at the most radical moments, reminding viewers that this is a work of art, not a Wikipedia page. Save for the ending, there is no high-school-level historiography, only the visible work of a director expertly matching eyelines, creating clearly defined spaces for characters to inhabit and encroach upon, and using blocking and reveals to create meaning. Not everything can be Citizen Kane or Speak, Memory, although it’s always good to see something try; it’s even better, however, to see it succeed on its own terms, as Experimenter does. – Forrest C. (full review)
Faults (Riley Stearns)
Small two-hander films are often the easiest to overlook because of their essential diminutive nature. They are often small interpersonal dramas that depend on a deep investment in the characters with little in the way of external draw. This is not the case with Faults, a film that follows a cult deprogrammer as he tries to save a young woman from a dangerous new cult, but who soon begins to suspect that her faith group may be on to something. The movie deftly weaves dark comedy with psychological thriller, creating a tense story with high stakes and devilish twists. That it did not have find a footing among discerning moviegoers looking for something off the beaten path with a style and personality of its own is a shame. Luckily, with streaming services, there’s a chance for this film to have a second life. – Brian R.
The Forbidden Room (Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson)
Dense and lacking the playful quality of his more straightforward work, this represents a new multi-narrative direction for Maddin, and a kind of rabbit hole. Working within the art world verses the film world, Maddin’s work, style and influences have a tremendous amount of power applicable to cinema within the space of a gallery installation. Night Mayor, his first collaboration with the NFB, fictionalized the tension between the NFB’s mission and government controls, capturing the inherently cinematic story of an immigrant inventor who dreams of transmitting images made by Canadians to Canadians. The Forbidden Room, while often brilliant upon first viewing, seems to overstay its welcome. A challenging feature representing a new ambition for Maddin, it’s a step forward, a reinvention, and a difficult film to describe and process. I imagine my admiration for it may grow upon future viewings, even if a first viewing had me fearing it lacks substance beyond the disjointed narrative. – John F. (full review)
Gangs of Wasseypur (Anurag Kashyap)
Director Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur is a five-hour, two-part, wildly blood-drenched saga. A densely plotted multigenerational gangster epic, Gangs is a stunning achievement, whether taken collectively or individually. Over the course of these five hours, we experience prison escapes, drug-addled sibling rivalries, revenge killings, tense life-or-death meetings, a Sonny-at-the-tollbooth-style esque massacre, lying politicians, “money and debauchery,” and a dash of Bollywood, with a unique use of music and lyrics to comment on the action (“This barter of bloody blows will make you cry”). Director Kashyap has succeeded in creating a gangster drama that feels fresh and realistic – no easy feat. Yes, it is unwieldy, and Part 2 lacks the visceral impact of Part 1, but there’s no doubt that Gangs of Wasseypur is an exhilarating creation and not-to-be-missed cinematic event. – Christopher S. (full review)
Girlhood (Céline Sciamma)
Released in the doldrums of the year, Girlhood was inevitably and lazily posited as the female version of Richard Linklater’s watershed Boyhood, but Céline Sciamma’s film views the endless horizon of potential less with wonder, more with creeping dread and disillusionment. All around her, other women have settled or gracefully acquiesced to their expected roles, but Marieme (Karidja Touré) believes she’s outrun that predictable outcome. Sciamma’s previous work has focused on the exploration of gender identity and the way that people self-conceptualize; Girlhood picks up this thread with the coming-of-age story of Marieme, a young woman whose future becomes a series of compromises on her idea of herself. But even as Girlhood threatens to feel oppressive, it never stops feels empowering and celebratory of the beauty of the moment. It mines the seductive power of friendship (the scene of Marieme dancing with her friends to Rihanna’s “Diamonds” is still one of the most cinematic moments of the year) and the butterflies of young love, but it’s just as astute about the later arc of these dynamics, and the way that life is a series of episodes each with its main set of players. The first piece of her life may have passed, but there’s still time. – Michael S.
Güeros (Alonso Ruizpalacios)
What’s on the screen is often (to use a phrase that everyone understands and no one entirely agrees upon) over-directed, but Güeros’ visual eccentricities — a camera spin here, an extended dolly shot there, a handheld run through the streets in-between them — are tampered by Alonso Ruizpalacios’ understanding of what’s on the page: a road-trip movie with more than a few digressions and little sense of the final destination’s importance. While sometimes reminiscent of Y Tu Mamá También – a comparison perhaps boosted by Gael García Bernal’s producing credit — this is its own beast, often shot and edited with a far more rigid sense for space and movement. If Ruizpalacios can continue to hone his sensibilities and pen effectively structured tales (co-writer Gibrán Portela obviously deserves some credit here), this could eventually be seen as the start of something special. I’d really be pleased if Güeros isn’t a one-time deal. – Nick N.
Hard to Be a God (Aleksei German)
Aleksei German‘s final film was finished in the editing room by his wife and son — Aleksei German Jr., a great director in his own right — and quietly opened at the Rome Film Festival in 2013. It is, without a doubt, a stunningly radical work: a three-hour journey into the heart of darkness that doesn’t just grab you, but envelops, haunted by a moral bleakness that leaves nothing beyond the images of terror it creates. While German remains simply a curiosity in the United States (he is as beloved as Tarkovsky in Russia), Hard to Be a God is the perfection of the director’s long-take approach, likely to remain unmatched for years to come. – Peter L. (full review)
Heaven Knows What (Ben Safdie and Joshua Safdie)
There’s a repulsion instinct that makes Heaven Knows What one of the more compelling films on the festival tour this past year. Exploring the plights of the middle-class or lower-class isn’t sparse in cinema, but it’s rare to see a seemingly accurate portrayal of homelessness in conjunction with drug addiction. Shot with a detached style, directors Benny and Joshua Safdie take a story that is ushered along by a heroin addict named Harley in New York City (played by first-time actress Arielle Holmes) and weave it into a compelling narrative that occasionally has a false sense of urgency. The collaboration between the three of them provides a narrative arc that is both heartbreaking and endlessly fascinating to watch. – Bill G. (full review)
Horse Money (Pedro Costa)
Even though this film carries over some of the characters, the Fontainhas trilogy remains its own entity, as Horse Money comes as something entirely new, with all traces of the docu-fiction labels thrown toward In Vanda’s Room and Colossal Youth vanishing. Instead, Horse Money is likely the Pedro Costa film that best exemplifies the influence of classical Hollywood genre cinema on his work, with both the ghostly hospital where Ventura resides and the looming hell-tunnel he frequently travels feeling like they came straight out of a Jacques Tourneur or Fritz Lang film. – Ethan V. (full review)
James White (Josh Mond)
In the five months found within James White, our title character is at the most difficult chapter of his life thus far. He’s grieving the loss of his father and attempting to assist his ailing mother, and the drama authentically depicts the brutality of that process. After producing the gripping Sundance dramas Martha Marcy May Marlene and Simon Killer, Josh Mond diverts in some ways with his directorial debut. While providing yet another intimate character study of a fractured individual, James White also has a perhaps unexpected, enveloping warmth.While lesser, perhaps more commercial films might shy away from the actual process of decay and loss, Mond displays no fear in vividly walking us through the bleak events in James White’s journey. – Jordan R. (full review)
Jauja (Lisandro Alonso)
Even if it is understandable why a movie could be overlooked — or in this case, perhaps, outright avoided — it can still be depressing to consider. Jauja is a film that seems to seek to keep the audience at a remove, but does so in service of a heartbreaking and beautiful story, and as such it deserved attention from more adventurous film enthusiasts. Shot on location in Argentina, but in a way that makes it seem as though it takes place on the surface of some alien planet, the film revels in long takes and lack of incident. It leaves the view stranded alongside Viggo Mortensen, drifting in nothingness, unmoored from reality. It offers an ending that provides answers in the form of grander questions. It’s the kind of movie that demands to be viewed breathlessly and discussed endlessly. – Brian R.
Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter (David Zellner)
Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter is a film that will charm in its oddities and heart. The film follows a somewhat simple yet resourceful woman, Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi), who is convinced that the film Fargo holds clues to real, buried treasure, and then leaves her home in Japan to make the trek all the way across the world to Fargo, North Dakota. The trek isn’t easy, but it is Kikuchi who pulls it off looking entirely transformed from her former modeling days. There are moments of dark levity inserted throughout, and you are never quite sure how much to laugh at the troubles Kumiko gets into. It is certainly easy to see why the film didn’t take off, as its appeal is for a select sensibility. But there are few films like it with as much confidence and solidity in its core ideas. – Bill G.
Li’l Quinquin (Bruno Dumont)
L’il Quinquin: The Theatrical Experience: Come for the ‘scope compositions, stay for the audience slowly start to feel bad for laughing so much. But really, while it’s certainly hard to imagine the ever-so-serious, ever-so-austere Bruno Dumont even cracking a smile, should we really just reward him for resorting to his usual tricks just through the prism of goofy comedy? To be perfectly honest, when it’s this funny, and its characters and setting are allowed the kind of breathing room to live beyond being allegorical / philosophical / socio-politcal / you-name-it symbols through mini-series length? Sure. – Ethan V.
Man From Reno (Dave Boyle)
A difficult genre to effectively nail in today’s age, the neo-noir proves to be alive and well with Dave Boyle‘s Man From Reno. Full of perfectly cast characters (including Steven Seagal’s daughter Ayako Fujitani in the lead role), the low-budget drama feels greatly authentic in its tone and execution. While comparisons to films from the Coens and even Chinatown are warranted, Boyle’s take is fresh enough to create an original, gripping mystery. – Jordan R.
The Mend (John Magary)
With its iris-in first shot, quick succession of establishing scenarios, and punk-rock opening credits, The Mend initially strikes like a lightning bolt, only to settle into a burned-out, melancholy groove so thorough — so specific in atmosphere, tempo, cinematographic sense, and the certain musicality of its editing, while also terribly relatable in its anger and sadness — that one is prompted to ask: where did this even come from? Given a summary of writer-director John Magary’s feature debut — in which two distant brothers reconnect in a New York apartment as both struggle with romantic relationships — it sounds, well, familiar. The devil is in the details: a tight-as-a-drum-snare script, filled with lines that bounce around the mind for weeks (or months) after; the balance of Josh Lucas, Stephen Plunkett, and Lucy Owen’s performances (vicious bitterness, subdued bitterness, and a frayed sense of adulthood, respectively); numerous passages syncing sound, image, and headspace; or the shocking behavior of primary and tertiary characters, which lends it an anything-can-happen feeling. (Or something like that. Maybe you should just see the movie to figure it out for yourself.) Magary’s follow-up, whatever it may be and whenever it may come, is greatly anticipated. – Nick N.
Mississippi Grind (Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden)
The playfully confident Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) meets the morose and hungry Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn) across a poker table. The two men form a quick rapport and embark on a road trip down the Mississippi river, hitting every casino and card game along their way. Mississippi Grind is a sadly funny story of two degenerate gamblers, one of whom tragically mistakes the other for a good-luck charm. Like two hopeless addicts hunting for uniquely different drugs, Gerry and Curtis co-dependently feed off one another until a melancholy reveal exposes the narrative in a painful new light. Writer-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson) evoke lovely shades of ’70s cinema with their wounded characters and fluid dialogue, never once condemning or judging these lost souls. Mix in a plot reminiscent of Robert Altman’s equally overlooked California Split and a cryptic James Toback cameo, and you’ve got an absolutely must-see film. – Tony H.
Mustang (Seniz Gamze Ergüven)
This year, Mad Max: Fury Road dominated the conversation about challenging patriarchal values and the ways that human values can be corrupted, but Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Mustang is an exploration of social mores that’s just as trenchant, incisive, and visceral without ever needing the fantastical backdrop of a futuristic wasteland. Set in a remote village in Turkey, Mustang pivots on the aftermath of one event that, to much of the world, may appear innocuous. It’s a demonstration of gender expectations in a micro context that expands into a heartfelt, angry, and telling story of freedom, individuality, and the sheer potential of these repressed women. But, like other culturally sensitive films (e.g. Jafar Panahi’s Offside), Mustang continually pushes back at the staid conventions of society while recognizing that these social dictates have their own complicated history. Erüguven never needs to resort to explicit finger wagging, for the gradual cloistering of these girls stands as the most persuasive argument. – Michael S.
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (Roy Andersson)
The closing chapter of director Roy Andersson’s Living trilogy, which includes You, The Living and Songs from the Second Floor, brilliantly recaptures the sense of surreality and impending doom found in its predecessors. Composed of a series of peripherally connected vignettes, the delightfully wafer-thin narrative centers on two pitiful salesmen stuck living in a strictly regimented men’s hotel. As with his previous films, Andersson’s absurdist comedy perfectly blends with his ghoulish attention to the detailed minutia of daily life, all of which is anchored by truly unforgettable and arresting visuals. Easily the darkest entry in the trilogy, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence builds to a sobering and deeply disturbing climax, searing unfathomable yet hauntingly photogenic imagery into the mind’s eye of the viewer. Andersson is a true auteur whose work remains unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. Unless you’ve seen a Roy Andersson film. – Tony H.
Queen of Earth (Alex Ross Perry)
To say nothing of Impolex, a creative riff on Gravity’s Rainbow, Alex Ross Perry’s The Color Wheel and Listen Up Philip, two incisive takedowns of a particular kind of self-loathing narcissist, were somewhat limited by a directorial approach that evokes the words “thesis-driven.” For all his sharp observational power and unhinged humor and all the talent on display, they suggested, respectively, a writer-director unafraid to let accusations of misanthropy interfere with character diagnoses and one unafraid of rapidly expanding his skill set and making increasing use of available tools. But it isn’t until Queen of Earth that these came together. The camera is often placed excruciatingly close to actresses Elisabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston, providing an inescapable sense of claustrophobia, and dreams, hallucinations, and flashbacks interrupted the story with the confidence of his well-documented literary idols. At the same time, Queen of Earth makes so full a use of a learned filmic language that influences – Fassbinder, Polanski, Bergman, Altman, Allen – pile up in such numbers that they seize to be of any use. If Perry’s first three films suggested ambition and confidence, his fourth suggests the birth of a great director. – Forrest C.
Results (Andrew Bujalski)
Considering the sheer amount of movies to arrive each year, it’s rare for me to rewatch a film, let alone experience it three times. However, after being relatively cool on Andrew Bujalski‘s comedy Results after its Sundance premiere, I’ve found myself drawn to revisiting it. The picture certainly rewards: while there’s enough substance here solely from Kevin Corrigan‘s gestures, the offbeat love triangle-of-sorts between his character and those played by Guy Pearce and Cobie Smulders results (sorry!) in a lovable, charming experience that proves the romantic comedy is still very much alive when in the right hands. – Jordan R.
Saint Laurent (Bertrand Bonello)
Perhaps more than any film on this list, Saint Laurent will someday be looked back upon with both greater admiration and, in the case of its middling critical reception, a very specific sort of bafflement. Why is Bertrand Bonello‘s biopic the most lively we’ve seen in years? It could be the decision to give out only the absolute necessities in order to paint a coherent portrait, otherwise letting our imaginations — and the clubs, drugs, sex, music, montages, mirrors, memories, structure, and connections to Proust — do the rest of the talking. This movie, frankly, has no time for bullshit, despite its ability to both wallow in the everyday details of Yves Saint Laurent‘s (a picture-perfect Gaspard Ulliel) life and head in directions that only tangentially concern him. A work of total magnificence. – Nick N.
She’s Funny That Way (Peter Bogdanovich)
The contemporary is overrated; sometimes, we have to look back in order to move forward; the new is always found in the old. These are some of the obvious mantras of Peter Bogdanovich, quite possibly the most misunderstood filmmaker in all of American cinema. (Just read Vincent Canby’s dumfounded reviews of the otherwise brilliant Saint Jack and They All Laughed.) The plot of his latest film, She’s Funny That Way, is a wish-wash of knots and tangles where, through sheer coincidence, the characters end up whimsically encountering each other. “A city of eight million people and everybody knows everybody. – James K. (full review)
Sleeping With Other People (Leslye Headland)
An outrageously hilarious comedy that refuses to compromise centers on a platonic relationship between Lainey (Alison Brie) and Jake (Jason Sudeikis), two sex addicts who lost their virginity to each other back in college. Writer-director Leslye Headland (Bachelorette) delivers some of the year’s wittiest one-liners in this high-energy romantic comedy with a dirty mind, while Brie and Sudeikis help deliver both bite and charm. – John F.
Slow West (John Maclean)
Western films being overlooked is nothing new. The genre seems to have grown stale, and, in spite of the efforts of 3:10 to Yuma and Deadwood, the doldrums continue. This leads to many films (e.g. The Proposition and this year’s Bone Tomahawk) being left by the wayside. Slow West is another such film, forgotten and overlooked in spite of a swell cast — anchored by Michael Fassbender — and a lyrically mischievous tone. Lacking most of the fear and dread of the average interpretation of the open range, this film instead plays as a fairy tale, and one with all of the attended secret motivations and uncertain identities and blistering ironies. Short, sweet, and delightfully entertaining, Slow West should find its place in the hearts of those who deserve it soon enough. – Brian R.
The Summer of Sangaile (Alanté Kavaïté)
Comparisons between Alanté Kavaïté’s The Summer of Sangaile – the Lithuanian writer-director’s first feature since her 2006 debut Fissures – and Abdellatif Kechiche’s unmerited Palme d’Or winner Blue Is the Warmest Color are likely inevitable. Despite distinct thematic and narrative similarities between the films, however, in terms of sensibility and aesthetic approach, Kavaïté’s portrait of a teenage girl’s first same-sex romantic experience couldn’t be more different from Kechiche’s. A crucial distinguishing factor is the mixture of humility and affection manifest in Kavaïté’s direction. Free of condescension and uninterested in enlightening the viewer, The Summer of Sangaile is an intimately involving celebration of the fiery passions that accompany pivotal periods of adolescence. – Giovanni M.C. (full review)
Spring (Aaron Scott Moorhead and Justin Benson)
A low-key horror film, Spring is one of this year’s most moving and fascinating surprises. As written and directed by Justin Benson & Aaron Scott Moorhead, the film is tender and realistic from the heartbreak of its opening moments to our man’s (Lou Taylor Pucci) discovery that the object of his affection is not what she seems to be. Italy provides a lush backdrop for both romance and myth in this odd combination of tender romance and body horror. – John F.
Tangerine (Sean Baker)
Like a bat out of hell does Tangerine, the new film from Sean Baker, begin. Shot entirely on iPhones, this film has a very specific style and Baker is determined to shove it down the viewer’s throat. It’s a bold, visceral piece of work about a certain part of Los Angeles and the people who live there. Our heroes are two transgender prostitutes named Alexandra (Mya Taylor) and Sin-Dee (Kiki Kitana Rodriguez). It’s Christmas Eve and Sin-Dee, just back from a 28-day stint in prison, learns from Alexandra that her pimp/boyfriend Chester (a scene-stealing James Ransone) has been cheating on her with a woman whose name starts with a “D.” And so begins a day-long odyssey for Sin-Dee to find “D” and confront Chester, while Alexandra walks around town inviting anyone and everyone to a solo-singing performance of hers at 7pm. – Dan M. (full review)
Taxi (Jafar Panahi)
Paradoxically but not surprisingly, the filmmaking ban on Jafar Panahi has garnered him more attention as a director than he experienced during his first stint as a director — that is, the legal one. Nevertheless, the restriction of his art has led to superficially thematic similarities in his three films since the ban, all of which have to do with that ban itself. Still, to characterize the stark, probing This Is Not A Film alongside the urgent, depressing Closed Curtain and the lively, humorous Taxi is unfair. The legal situation of their maker aside, the films have little in common; reflexivity and transparency in production have long been mainstays of Iranian film. As such, Taxi should not be seen as a novelty or experiment. (And, unlike its predecessor, it really isn’t; it is overlooked more because of distribution models than anything else.) What we have is an illuminating meditation on cinema – what it is and can be, how it is nurtured and fostered, how it is distributed and recognized and treated, what powers and capabilities it can manifest – that uses its transparency and Panahi’s restrictions to further its case. Far from being blunt or didactic, as could so easily be the case, it continues to explore and complicate a constantly growing slate of issues. – Forrest C.
Time Out of Mind (Oren Moverman)
Time Out of Mind offers a bleak vision of the city, yet it’s appropriately ethereal all the same. Even when characters are situated in front of the Statue of Liberty (an obvious piece of commentary), the surroundings feel foreign. Surprisingly, it is Time Out of Mind‘s audio design that makes the film a quintessential portrait of New York. The sounds of the city, scattered conversations by passing patrons on cell phones or blaring sirens, are overlaid with the primary drama on screen. Often, these glimpses into a grander life — or, perhaps, simply a life other than poverty — are more riveting than the central action. – Zade C. (full review)
Tokyo Tribe (Sion Sono)
Though a hip-hopera (the last film to earn that label possibly being R. Kelly’s everlasting epic, Trapped in the Closet), Sion Sono’s Tokyo Tribe puts itself in the company of the extreme Japanese genre cinema eaten up by festival audiences, given their brutal violence and flagrant weirdness. Those essential thrills notwithstanding, it becomes off-putting in how one must struggle to keep up with the film throughout — not just in the narrative terms of story and character, but also its extreme formalism. The camera is constantly roving to seemingly new characters, gangs, and raps almost every couple of minutes — even if, on the other hand, the beats seem very redundant. Yet what makes Tokyo Tribe ultimately unique, if still problematic in its sheer amount of chaos, are the underlying politics. – Ethan V. (full review)
The Tribe (Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy)
Devoid of any spoken words, music, voice-over or even subtitles, Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy‘s debut feature film The Tribe is communicated through sign language, for all the characters are deaf. This provides a unique challenge for any audience member not versed with how to sign, as the filmmaker provides no direct explanation of what characters are actually saying. While this may initially seem daunting, a viewer’s patience and keen observation is rewarded by a haunting cinematic experience that truly is unlike anything else this year. – Raffi A. (full review)
Tu dors Nicole (Stéphane Lafleur)
Stéphane Lafleur’s black-and-white comedy might have looked, sounded, and felt a lot like Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha, and while the director promises it’s merely a coincidence (“I was just screaming” he said when I spoke to him over the summer), the fact is that the film might have been a little “undersold” because of that. Truth is that Tu dors Nicole was much more than Baumbach-ian. It’s positively unique in combining a surreal sense of humor with a charismatic, star-making performance by Julianne Côté as the title insomniac, who dreams of her life past the summer. At times languorous, other times intensely energetic, the film is also Lafleur’s most accomplished project to date, as he established himself as one of Quebec’s most distinct cinematic voices. – Jose S.
Unexpected (Kris Swanberg)
Early on in Kris Swanberg‘s Unexpected, inner-city school teacher Samantha Abbott (Cobie Smulders) finds out that she’s pregnant. The timing’s off, as the Chicago public high school she works at is being shut down after graduation. At home, she’s got a loving boyfriend (Anders Holm) who is fully supportive of the situation, if a bit naive. The two are quickly married, much to the dismay of Samantha’s judgmental mother Carolyn (Elizabeth McGovern), and make a tentative decision for Samantha to stay at home with their baby once it’s born. Back at school, Samantha learns that Jasmine (Gail Bean), one of her most-promising students, is pregnant as well. – Dan M. (full review)
Victoria (Sebastian Schipper)
Per se, single-shot films are hardly novel any longer. Even excluding sleight of hand à la Rope or Birdman’s digital suturing, there are plenty of films besides Russian Ark that solely consist of one unedited take, yet they were instantly forgotten because that was their only notable attribute. Victoria won’t suffer that fate and the reason is simple: it’s not merely impressive; it’s also intelligent, affecting, and thoroughly electrifying cinema. – Giovanni M.C.
The Voices (Marjane Satrapi)
Sometimes it is hard to know why a movie is overlooked. Other times, once you have heard what the film is about, the answer is so obvious that it would be more surprising if it was a hit. The Voices falls squarely in this latter camp. In spite of having a fairly popular cast — Ryan Reynolds, Anna Kendrick, and Gemma Arterton — the film plumbs some fairly dark waters related to homicidal mental illness. It’s understandable why some people would be put off by the oddity and the darkness, but you would think curiosity would drive some people towards this film. After all, as dark as it may be, the idea of a dog and a cat speaking to Ryan Reynolds and basically fighting for his soul has to be seen to be believed. – Brian R.
When Marnie Was There (Hiromasa Yonebayashi)
Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s When Marnie Was There is, in every way, exquisite — exquisitely sad, exquisitely haunting, exquisitely lovely. The latest and supposedly final release from Studio Ghibli might not be a Ghibli classic, but it is a fine creation in every way. This is a hand-drawn film of great ambition and stunning beauty, and it tackles heavy themes — abandonment, familial loss, adolescent panic — with offbeat charm. The involving story of smart, sad-eyed Anna and a mysterious, blonde-haired girl named Marnie is believably emo, and its attention to the ebb-and-flow emotions of youth is noteworthy. Here is a film about adolescence, friendship, and memory centered on a young adult, but told without the cheap humor that sinks so many animated efforts. “I’m sorry, it’s a sad story,” says a character in When Marnie Was There, and she isn’t kidding. – Christopher S.
What are your picks for the most overlooked films of the year?