Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Alex's Top 15 Over-Looked & Under-Appreciated Films of 2015

Now in year two of this surprisingly annual post, I’m quite pleased that I decided to start writing it. As I mentioned in last year’s inaugural installment, it provides a nice opportunity to showcase a few films from the year that I really enjoyed but that realistically (for the most part, anyway) aren’t making most peoples’ best-of-the-year lists. I love having a space to showcase films that may have come and gone so quickly that you never even had the opportunity to give them a watch.

In review of the films on this year's list, it seems that last year’s list contained a few more genre films than this year’s, though my love of horror and horror-comedies again shines through strongly. That genre has - and will always have - a soft spot in my heart (I already can’t wait to see some of what 2016 has in store: “The Witch”, “Nina Forever”, “The Invitation”, etc.). But there was definitely a bit more balance this year with a good number of dramas making the cut.

We’ll get to this year's films in just a second, but there are a few things I want to make sure to reiterate before we get there. First, think of the rankings more as block sections - they aren't random, but outside of grouping them into tiers, they are fairly arbitrary. I enjoy ranked lists, so that's why I will continue to do so, but after the first few, they're all pretty similar - I just want you to watch all of these films! Second, this also isn't a straight "favorites" list - I tried putting weight both into how enjoyable they were PLUS how accessible I felt they were. Even calling it an inexact science would be giving the system too much credit. Third, to that last point, I realize that determining which films I felt were under-appreciated was such a personal matter of perspective - I can't know what you were more exposed to than I; this was mostly best-guess. And there are obviously still small films out there that even I didn't get to that are surely better than some of these. But it's a start, and still all of the films below have something great to offer. If even just one person watches one film on this list that they weren’t otherwise familiar with, it did its job.

All of that out of the way, let’s take a look at what stood out to me (but in a very under-the-radar way) in 2015.

Before I jump in, I want to put in a plug for a 2014 film that would have easily made this list last year had I seen it in time: "Housebound". I believe it's still currently on Netflix, so please make sure to give it a watch. New Zealand horror-comedy is at the top of its game right now (there will be another of these featured below), and this is one of the better ones. It has everything you want in a movie (any movie): laughs, scares, suspense, great practical effects, tons of blood, inspired material; it's just a fun ride. Seek it out.


     1. The Final Girls
I'm going with this movie in the top spot because I love when clever mechanisms are created to provide new angles to old tropes - especially within the horror genre. And this one hit a home-run. The premise is brilliant but in a very simple way: a group of modern-day teenagers are transported back into a cheesy 80's slasher movie and have to find a way to escape the killer. It's so meta and still provides all of the classic techniques and styles of a traditional B-horror film. This movie is a lot of fun and still has a lot of heart. If you're not a horror fan, you'll still find some enjoyment in it, but if you are a fan of the genre, the nostalgic homages will satisfy you greatly.
     2. Freaks of Nature
I had been looking forward to this film for a long time. Unfortunately, because of that, I feel I might have been building it up a little too much in my mind (had I seen this knowing nothing about it, I wonder how much more I might have loved it?). Still, it didn't disappoint. The premise alone is sooo good: in a mundane small town where vampires, zombies, werewolves and humans live regular lives amongst each other (it's basically a play on social cliques), they must overcome their differences and band together to defeat the attacking aliens. I mean, if there's a premise out there that's better than that, I haven't heard of it! The movie has so much fun with itself and it generally moves fast enough to make it entertaining from start to finish. And while the film centers mostly around a group of high school kids, it's the adult-actor cameos that make for the best laughs (Keegan Michael Key, in particular, crushes it).
     3. Deathgasm
Here's that other Kiwi horror-comedy I was referencing above. It also happens to be the third horror-comedy in a row atop this list - I promise there is more genre variety to come! This movie probably has the most inspired content of the lot, though I relate to it the least. The heavy metal elements and appreciation in the film feel very genuine; you can tell these filmmakers didn't just use it as a plot device but truly cared about the art. Still, the content adheres perfectly to the well-greased New Zealand model: off-the-wall content, tons of blood, grotesque humor, and plenty of energy. Of the three films on my list so far, I imagine this one will require the most passion for the genre. Non-fans might lose interest, but I still implore you to give it watch. Just in case.
     4. Staten Island Summer
Hopefully you remember my saying last year that the ranking for this list won't directly correlate to any titles that might find themselves on or off my Best-of-the-Year list. This is a prime example. This title does show up on that other list, but the three films above do not (spoiler alert!). It ties into my inexact science of how accessible/known these films might have been, plus how strongly I want you to see them. My love for the horror-comedy genre also plays a big role on a list like this. "Staten Island Summer" is a great coming-of-age teen comedy that actually has a very similar feel to "The Way, Way Back", one of my favorite films from a few years ago (biggest difference is that film focuses more on the process of summer break while this one is more about the end-of-summer blowout). Though the humor is juvenile at times, it's still pretty great, and like most everything else on this list, actually feels inspired. Plus it really makes me miss the parties in my early-20s where we'd stay out until 5 am without a care in the world. This film captured that feeling very well.
     5. The End of the Tour
Unfortunately, for reasons unbeknownst to me, "The End of the Tour" never got the national respect it deserved. There were a few long-shot possibilities for different Oscar nominations early on, and I really hoped it would nab one and bring a little spotlight to the film, but that never happened. And due in part to that, sadly, I think this film went mostly unnoticed. This is a greatly-acted film and character study on a very complex man. It centers around a real life interview between the author of Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace, and a Rolling Stone journalist, David Lipsky. The banter between the two is great and very realistic, and I also really felt for DFW - though not nearly as pessimistic about it, I can relate greatly to some of his thoughts on society and the world around him. I get it. Also, it doesn't hurt that the story takes place in Bloomington, IL, my own backyard!
     6. All Things Must Pass
This documentary examines the rise and fall of Tower Records, the first true record store(s) in America. The film is incredibly nostalgic, even if you didn't live through the era (which I did not). The first store opened in California in the late-1950's and the chain grew to hundreds of locations worldwide by the 1990's. Tragically, the company filed for bankruptcy in 2006 due in large part to digital music. What I loved about the film was seeing the culture Tower Records instilled. Its founder, Russ Solomon, just loved the music. He hired people who loved music. His stores were hotspots where people of all ages gathered to hangout, enjoy life, and listen to music. They created a corporate family that just worked, even if incredibly unconventional by today's business standards. Even though I don't feel I'm a major music aficionado, I really wish I could have been a part of this. The movie tells a great story about a facet of media in our culture and is relatable to our generation because you can basically replace "Tower Records" with "Blockbuster" and tell the exact same tale a few decades later.
     7. Cooties
Back to the horror-comedy genre. This one is a bit less entertaining than a few of the titles above, but it's still a fun film. It centers around a virus outbreak at a grade school that basically turns the students into rabies-crazed zombies. It doesn't affect the adults, so the teachers band together to survive the epidemic. The special effects for the film are actually pretty good, and the kids are satisfyingly insane, but it's Rain Wilson (The Office) as the abrasive ex-athlete gym teacher who steals the show in this one. "Nap time, motherfuckers!"
     8. It Follows
This was the toughest film for me to rank and I debated even having it on this list. In some ways, it's the best film on here; in others, it probably had the most exposure and most significant wide release of anything. This is a true horror/suspense film, and one I feel will stand the test of time. It's deep and layered and thankfully relies much more on the psychological elements than cheap thrills. The soundtrack was easily one of the best on film this last year, and I loved that you can't tell in which decade it takes place. You can come up with a whole variety of themes and metaphors this film represents, which I think only adds to its intrigue.
     9. The Lobster
This movie had a great first half, but an awkward second half that kind of lost me. Still, the concept alone was too strange and unique to pass up, and I've become something of a fan of Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos ("Dogtooth", "Alps"). Starring Colin Farrell, John C. Reilly, Rachel Weisz, and Lea Seydoux, the film takes place in a world where, if you're single, you're mandated to go to this hotel where you then have 45 days to find a new mate or you'll be turned into an animal of your choosing for the rest of your life. Pretty weird, right? And it really is exactly how it sounds. The first part of the film - the part that takes place in the hotel - is super intriguing. There's a very unsettling feel to it and some really strange characters/situations. The second half, however, changes way too much and turns into something of a guerrilla anarchist film with this group trying to take out the government. It just loses a bit of steam and focus on what I felt was the most fascinating aspect of the film. Even still, it's such a unique premise that I'd love for anyone to give it a watch.
     10. Spring
This film is the opposite of the previous film. I don't necessarily want to give plot/genre details away, but the first half is really just a standard low-budget tourist movie about a guy who's basically lost everything and goes on a trip across the world to escape it all. He meets this girl and fixates on being with her even though she continuously tries to keep him at a distance. Eventually, he discovers some secrets about her that change their relationship entirely. The ending annoys me a little because he's kind of selfish, but it creates for great discussion/debate on the concept of love. This gets kicked down the list for its slow start and low production values, but the third act of the film really is pretty neat and unexpected.
     11. The Nightmare
The second documentary to make this list, this film centers around those who experience the phenomenon of sleep paralysis. The people that get interviewed are all pretty weird people that I mostly don't like, but some of the stories they tell and some of the images/scenes that are depicted are pretty scary. I really wish there would have been more any science provided from experts on sleep paralysis and not just testimonials from those who suffer from it, but it was still an interesting look into that world. And really it just makes me so thankful that I've never experienced anything like that in my life.
     12. The Rewrite
Another pretty regular character dramedy that I just felt a need to plug. Hugh Grant stars as a screenwriter who fails in Hollywood and is forced to move to a small town and become a college professor to make a little money. Begrudgingly, he decides to teach a script-writing class and eventually learns to embrace this new role and help these kids achieve their dreams. It's not a story we're unfamiliar with, but I really enjoyed the journey Grant's character takes. And anything that has to do with the film industry - writing, in particular - usually works for me. Plus Marissa Tomei shines in a supporting role, and I just love her.
     13. Backcountry
I can't figure out if I'd be ruining any of the story by talking about the plot or not, so I will mostly avoid it. This is a thriller about a couple that ventures into the deep woods (maybe of a giant national park or something?) for a hiking and camping excursion. The trip doesn't go quite as expected and we follow along as they try to find a way through it. I wouldn't classify this as a horror film at all; it's purely suspense - but I will say the film does a great job of conveying that aspect throughout.
     14. Truth
We'll wind this list down with a few more serious dramas. This one tells the true story of the news team at CBS in 2004 that reported on the validity of then-President George W. Bush's military records. The questionable accuracy of the report led to station-wide controversy and ultimately resulted in the resignation of Dan Rather and producer Mary Mapes. I love a good news story, and I also love Cate Blanchett (who stars as Mapes). The film paints a nice picture of the entire process, though I do feel the script was a bit lacking. I kept wanting it to hit me just a little bit harder. Also, if you're a fan of Aaron Sorkin's "The Newsroom", this actually lines up very similarly with the show's second season - I'd be curious to see if Mapes' memoir had much influence on Sorkin's show. I bet it did.
     15. Pawn Sacrifice
This final film makes my list more for the story than the actual quality of the film - I didn't feel the writing or direction were great. However, I loved the content. This tells the (general) life story of chess phenom Bobby Fischer. I've watched and read a lot about him already, so this was mostly a condensed re-telling of much of the same material, but it was nice to finally see a film tell the story from start to finish. I felt that Tobey Maguire did a great job of portraying the paranoia that Fischer demonstrated, as tragic as it was. You watch something like this and wonder what he could have been had his mind been right; then you also wonder if he ever would have accomplished the things he did if it were. Really, it just makes me so fascinated with the brain. Whether you're very familiar with Fischer's story or not, this is worth a watch for the content alone.

So that's where we stand. There's not really a need for a recap here, other than to simply say that I hope when you get the chance you give most of these films a watch. I think, in their own ways, they were all great examples of filmmaking in 2015.

Our Top 15 Films of 2015 lists will be coming out starting next Monday (2/22), so be on the lookout for those!