Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Alex's Top 15 Over-Looked & Under-Appreciated Films of 2014

In anticipation of my Top 15 Films of 2014 (which will be coming next week), I wanted to roll out a slightly different type of list.

Throughout most of my adult life, my friends and I have composed our end-of-the-year, best-of movie lists. We typically rank our 15 favorites, but without fail, there are always films left off that I wish I could better showcase. Typically, these are smaller, independent releases; films I feel made a nice impression on their genre or niche, but were under-seen by the masses. With this post, I'm hoping to showcase some films that I felt were really great this last year, but that might not get the recognition they deserve. There are plenty of films outside of this list that I still want people to see, but these are more the ones I feel have the potential to fade away if not caught while we're in the moment.

This philosophy obviously is very objective and potentially skewed – just because, from my perspective, a particular film does or does not feel properly appreciated, on your end, this could be completely different. I don't know everyone's situation personally; this is based on how the market read from my end. Also, I realize there are so many more films out there like the ones listed below that I just wasn't able to get to. But ultimately, my thought is that at least this is another set set of films we're talking about - hopefully that purpose can be appreciated. Even if you disagree with the inclusion of some of my selections, maybe a few titles that you might have missed otherwise will pique your interest.

If possible, I highly recommend going into as many of these as possible without knowing any more details on them than you might already know. Most of these were relatively unknown to me when I first checked them out, and the unexpected moments and plot details really helped me appreciate some of them even more. You're only hurting yourself if you ruin these before you watch them.

Also, as a side note: the ranking of a few films on this list might no correlate exactly with my end-of-year list. The purposes of these two lists are completely separate. My rankings below are more about how strongly I want you to check out a film mixed with how accessible I felt it was. There's no exact science here - this is just what felt right.

     1. Coherence
This movie was a great surprise. I'm going to try and provide reasons why this film earned the #1 spot without giving too much away – a task that seems incredibly challenging. For this movie, while the production values weren't amazing, the concept was awesome. Any time a movie can really make you think about the plot and want to dissect its scenes, you know it's good - was this more a study of physics or ethics? A couple of really neat twists and plenty of suspense made this one of the best viewing experiences for me this last year. Don't look anything up on this film before watching it; the chance of ruining any plot details isn't worth it. Just go watch it.
     2. What We Do In the Shadows
What a fun, refreshing take on the vampire genre this was. I love when films take a genre and gives it a new twist – something a few films on this list managed to do this year. Right off the bat, this film grabbed my attention and had me excited to see what would happen next (I particularly loved its opening credits sequence). The film featured really nice energy, a creative script and entertaining characters. If I had one complaint, it would simply be that the film does lose a bit of steam in its second half – but coming in at just under an hour and a half, it's not like you're ever laboring through it (plus there's a cool sequence towards the end that makes it worthwhile). Jemaine Clement ("Flight of the Concords") co-wrote and co-stars in the film, so if you like his brand of comedy, this will be right up your alley. Overall, I think anyone looking for a clever film with a few laughs will enjoy this one, but horror aficionados especially.
     3. Snowpiercer
Here's an example of a movie that I ultimately probably "liked" more than the two above, but this one felt just a bit more accessible - the two above you really need to seek out. To start, I love post-apocalyptic themes. The entire movie takes place on a dingy train, which you'd expect would make for certain shortcomings, but in its own way, the settings are very fresh and the cinematography very beautiful (the segmentation of its scenes and sets really helped to keep it moving). Fascinating characters and an intriguing premise move this one along and keep you engulfed. I expected much less out of this film when I watched it, but it blew me away.
     4. The One I Love
Here's another that's best served without any knowledge of its plot details. For me, going into this film, when I first heard about it, all I saw was that it starred the guy from “The League” and the girl from “Mad Men”. I figured that alone would be enough for me to eventually check it out, but when I started seeing feedback on Twitter from fans making a point to keep the plot details a secret, I knew I had to see it – what were these secrets they were keeping from me?! After watching it, I fully remain in their camp. Providing any plot or genre details completely ruins the experience. You need to go in blind here, but trust me, it's worth it.
     5. Blue Ruin
Is there anything better than a good ol' fashioned revenge movie? Sure, plenty of things. But they're still really great. This movie didn't feature any notable actors, didn't tell any kind of groundbreaking story, and didn't give us characters that we haven't seen before. But somehow, this one still felt fresh and significant. Macon Blair, who plays the main character, provided a believable and honest performance. You can hardly say his actions are just, but you still root for him. There's nothing like a man taking it all on his back and fighting for his family's honor. This was a very enjoyable experience – seek it out.
     6. Starry Eyes
I love a good horror movie. Especially one like this, that can still appease my interests after so many other entries I've seen. A brooding atmosphere and slow build, culminating in an intense and gruesome finale - that's a setup I just can't pass up. The film is about an actress trying to make it in the big city, eventually nabbing a series of auditions that will test just how far she's willing to go to be a star. This is a premise we've seen plenty of times in the past, but the eventual twists and gory imagery in the latter portions of the film set this one apart from the rest (if you recall the phrase "Hollywood changes people", this film explores that in a very literal sense). And really it's the performance of newcomer Alexandra Essoe that makes this picture. She perfectly embodies this character's desires. Horror fans won't want to skip out on this one - and I'd keep an eye on this writing/directing team - but all who watch might very well be seeing a star in the making. Essoe was that good.
     7. They Came Together
David Wain is definitely a filmmaker that I keep tabs on. I tend to enjoy most of his work, and usually look forward to what he has to offer. “Wet Hot American Summer” is one of my all-time favorite comedies, and any film that has many of those same people involved is something I'm going to want to check out. Wain and Michael Showalter wrote the film here, and many of their frequent collaborators appeared in it (Paul Rudd, Amy Poehler, Michael Ian Black, Ken Marino, Christopher Meloni, just to name a few). Add in Cobie Smulders (“How I Met Your Mother”), Max Greenfeld (“New Girl”), and a slew of other great cameos, and this one has plenty of pieces to keep you interested. This was a fun play on the romantic comedy genre, and regardless of if you like the genre or despise it, you'll be able to enjoy this film.
     8. Cheap Thrills
Everyone's played the game, "How much money would it take for you to do X thing?". This movie explores that concept and takes it to the extreme with some pretty intense scenarios. I felt most of what occurred in the film was pretty accurate to how I would respond throughout the whole process, but it's frightening to see those outcomes. This movie isn't as dark as you might think, as there's enough comedy sprinkled throughout to level things out, but it's still scary to see what some humans would do for amounts of money that mean nothing to others.
     9. The Mule
The biggest complaint I have about this film is that the Australian accents are so thick that sometimes the story details get lost in the exchanges. Obviously if you're Australian this isn't an issue for you, but as an American, that was a slight issue for me. Outside of that, though, there are scenes and moments in this film that made me more uncomfortable than any other film I can think of. I'm not really grossed out by much in movies anymore – and trust me, you'll be able to test your limits with one particular scene here – but there was definitely a general, over-arching uncomfortableness that stuck with me throughout the film. The craziest part about this whole movie is that it's based on real events.
     10. The Babadook
Like many of the best horror movies, there's a nice slow burn setup here. And the performance from a kid that might be the best child performance of the year. The atmosphere is amazing, and I totally bought into the characters' pains and fears. One big credit I give the filmmakers is that they never showed too much of the monster (a major issue I have with many horror films). I thought they teased its presence beautifully. Unfortunately, the finale of the film just missed on its execution (in my opinion). I completely understood what the director was trying to accomplish, and I loved the concept, but he just missed on capturing it. I still don't hold that against the film too much, but had it hit on its final act, this might be an all-timer for me. Still, I won't be surprised if this one sticks out as one of the best horror movies of the decade. It was that good (lower on this list because I feel like it's been talked about greatly - pretty accessible). 
     11. Under the Skin
Probably one of the "best" films on this list, unfortunately this one just didn't have the tone or the pace of a film that is capable of being appreciated by the masses. But a great performance from Scarlett Johansson (all around, she's just crushing it right now), and a really neat concept (aliens posing as humans) made this a necessity for this list. The cinematography is beautifully done, and the musical score is very powerful - maybe two stand-out features from any film I saw in 2014. But, at its heart, it is still an art film, and I know plenty will be instantly turned off by its construction. There's a narrow group of people to which I'd recommend this film, but of that group, I'd very strongly recommend it.
     12. Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films
This is a documentary about the production company Cannon Films, which had its “peak” in the 1970s and 1980s. Unless you're a real film buff, you're probably not familiar with this company by name, but you've probably seen at least a handful of their films. They made B-movies/exploitation/action films, mostly trying to bank on getting actors just past their primes to appear in their pictures. They didn't adhere to the Hollywood lifestyle, but thrived due to one philosophy: quantity over quality. This company was a disaster, but you also felt for them simply because of how much they loved movies. They made them because they wanted to. The film is a fascinating look at lesser-known movie history, and gave me dozens of titles to now check out that I wasn't previously familiar with. If you're not a fan of these kinds of movies, you might not care too much for this documentary, but I think the history itself is intriguing enough to interest most movie fans.
     13. Tusk
This is simply one of those “what in the world is happening here?!” kinds of movies. Kevin Smith wrote and directed this one, so based on your affinities towards his films, you might line up similarly here. I'm a middle-of-the-road guy with his stuff, probably leaning more towards disinterest, but this film impressed me at times. The build-up set a really nice atmosphere, and the acting by Michael Parks is what made this movie. I understood some of the moments when Smith got silly with the content – sometimes with stories like this you just have to go that way – but it also took me out of the moment a few times (unfortunately that was also the case with a cameo appearance from a notable star). This movie was very weird and definitely worth seeing because of that alone, but there's a lot I didn't care for, and most of the time I was thinking about how cool this content might have been had another director tackled it.
     14. Stage Fright
In my mind, I want this movie to be higher on this list. I'll always have a soft spot in my heart for the horror genre. On paper, this one has everything you want: a horror/slasher/musical that takes place at a teen theatre/drama summer camp where Meatloaf is the Camp Director. Sign me up! While there are some funny plays on the “Glee” phenomenon, and the final act of the film features some really great moments, the first half of the film does drag a bit, and you really have to be committed to the horror-comedy genre to want to get through it. I loved it for a lot of reasons, but I can see so many more why the majority of people wouldn't have any interest at all.
     15. Horns
I'm still not entirely sure what to make of this film. At its roots, it's a crime/mystery movie with supernatural elements. Daniel Radcliffe stars as a man wanted for the murder of his girlfriend, trying desperately to clear his name. Oh, and he also has horns of the devil, and anyone in town who comes across him says and acts out their darkest secrets. There are surely metaphors happening here that I'm just not mentally interested in fully dissecting, but I think I understand the basic concepts. Nonetheless, this was definitely a unique film to watch, and I'm increasingly impressed with Radcliffe's work post-Harry Potter.

Those are the films I saw that I believe were most over-looked and under-appreciated in 2014; ones that I think deserve to be sought out and seen. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I know there are so many more out there that I missed out on this past year, but at least this gets the conversation started. What other films need to be on a list like this? Which films did you see in 2014 that you feel didn't get the attention they deserved?