It's not possible for every movie to receive the same amount of attention. There are literally hundreds of movies that came out every single year, and out of those maybe two or three will end up in your local multiplex. The rest will unspool at the art house or possibly On Demand, and really it's never been easier to get your hands on high-quality films at all times. But even with movie lovers having greater access than ever, there are still plenty of movies that slip beneath the cracks. So to kick off my end-of-the-year round up, I've selected ten of the movies that I absolutely loved that didn't have a lot of buzz....or didn't make a scratch at the box office....or were just severely under-appreciated. Two of these, Blue Caprice and Crystal Fairy, I caught at Sundance and my reviews suggest that I had some extremely high hopes for them. Just goes to show my radar is on the fritz more often than not.
10. Computer Chess
There have been a lot of great movies about chess. There have been a lot of great movies about nerds. What do you get when they're put together? You get Andrew Bujalski's retro, offbeat charmer, Computer Chess. Shot in black and white and extremely grainy analog video, the film is set 30 years ago as tech geeks gather for to test out the next wave of computer chess software in a weekend tournament. Technological paranoia and social awkwardness make for a hilarious and offbeat mix as Bujalski methodically pulls back the layers of his quirky cast of characters with his trademark naturalistic dialogue honed through years in the "mumblecore" movement. There couldn't be a less commercial film than Computer Chess but it's well worth the effort to seek out.
9. Plus One
Part Invasion of the Body Snatchers, part Can't Hardly Wait, Dennis Illiadis' +1 pretty much had me at 'Hello'. Basically one big "end of the year" bash gets sent to The Twilight Zone when clones of the partygoers start showing up, and since we're talking about a room full of drunken, drug-fueled, hormonal teens all their poor decisions have a chance of being repeated again and again until their world collapses in on itself or something. Yeah, the actual sci-fi stuff is a little messy but no other film has a girl making out with her own clone, or a dude watching himself have sex. Hope he took notes.
8. At Any Price
It's understandable that audiences didn't turn out for Ramin Bahrani's heartland drama At Any Price; his movies weren't made for the multiplex experience. But critics....really? Where are you? Especially now during awards season there should be some heat behind this powerful melodrama, which explores the idea of the American Dream in today's corporate society. Dennis Quaid has never been better (and I mean that, like ever) as a struggling farmer forced into some dirty tactics just to compete with his rivals. Although it's a low bar, Zac Efron gives the finest performances of his career as Quaid's racer car-driving son, who has no plans of ever joining the family trade. Issues of family loyalty, professional obsession, and the corporatization of America collide in this intimate, old fashioned film. There's a reason why Roger Ebert called Bahrani "the director of the decade", and At Any Price is a perfect example of his gifts.
7. Crystal Fairy
I typically turn up my nose at drug comedies. They've just never done much for me and as someone who has never so much as lit a cigarette, I always feel like I'm missing out on the joke. But Crystal Fairy isn't your typical drug comedy by a long stretch. Michael Cera plays a boorish, drug-addled American on a frenzied quest through Chile to partake of the San Pedro Cactus' hallucinogenic qualities. While it's fun to watch Cera play a character that is a bit rougher around the edges, Gaby Hoffman steals the show as the titular eccentric hippie weirdo accompanying him. With her bizarre outfits, hairy armpits, and apparently foul body odor, it's the sort of character that easily could have fallen into cliché. But Hoffman never lets it get that far, and Crystal Fairy becomes an honest, empathetic story about being true to one's self.
6. A Hijacking
My colleagues probably got tired of hearing me say that Tobias Lindholm's Danish thriller A Hijacking was better than Captain Phillips but I've yet to find someone who disagrees. While it lacks the true-life aspect of Paul Greengrass' film, A Hijacking more than makes up for it with an engrossing, in your face style that straps you in right alongside the victims of a sudden Somali pirate attack. You’ll have a hard time convincing me Tom Hank's anguished-but-calculated performance compares to Pilou Asbaek's quiet desperation. Branching out beyond the ship to the real world impacts, we see the effect the kidnapping has on the crews' family, and what happens when the hostages' freedom is negotiated by the company CEO. Suffice it to say, you don't want your boss thinking about stock prices when lives are at stake.
5. Gimme the Loot
You hear about the plot of Adam Leon's SXSW hit Gimme the Loot and it's hard not to worry: Two African-American graffiti artists cook up a plan to bomb (spray paint for you lay people) that stupid Mets apple in Citifield. Hollywood would do unspeakable things to a plot like this; fill it with racially insulting stereotypes of urban youth and refashion it into some sort of manic heist film. Fortunately, Leon's film rattles to the beat of its own spray can with a defiant, anti-corporate spirit that channels the old school hip-hop movement. With an eye towards the early street-level works of Spike Lee, the film is led by Ty Hickson as brash Malcolm, who wears his braggadocio like a badge of honor; and Tashiana Washington as his best friend Sofia, a whip smart tomboy just beginning to flower into a beautiful young lady, although she'd never admit it. Endearing, optimistic, and totally free of pretension, Gimme the Loot should be the model and not such a rare find.
If you're one of those who follows my Pinterest board (thanks to those who do!), then you might notice that Joe Swanberg's Drinking Buddies was one of the most recent movies I saw. The truth is I've not been very interested in it, largely because so many of my colleagues have sung its praises for so long. Sorry, that's just how I'm wired. But finally catching up with it I discovered that not only is Drinking Buddies hysterical and chock-a-block with unexpectedly terrific performances, but it may be the smartest relationship movie of the year. New Girl star Jake Johnson and the ubiquitous Olivia Wilde are best friends working at a local brewery, and there's rarely a scene when a beer isn't in somebody's hand. There's an obvious romantic attraction but both are involved with others who may or may not be a better fit. It's a film that explores whether men and women can just be friends without the pull of sexual entanglement, and if not can they at least be good drinking buddies?
3. The Hunt
One thing you won't find a lot of in a Thomas Vinterberg film? Laughs. His latest harrowing personal drama The Hunt returns to the familiar theme of sexual abuse, explored in his breakthrough film The Celebration fifteen years ago. Teaming with co-writer Tobias Lindholm, who appeared on this list earlier for A Hijacking (these guys just don't do funny), the film features a Cannes Best Actor-winning performance by Mads Mikkelsen as a small town teacher falsely accused of molestation by a young student. The firestorm that sweeps the village engulfs his personal and professional life, while internally he's reeling with the incredulity that his claims of innocence are falling on deaf ears. It's a harrowing, surgical look at how only a few small words can reduce a person's life to ashes.
2. Blue Caprice
I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Blue Caprice didn't play anywhere outside of the Nation's Capital. Heck, it barely played here and frankly I don't blame theaters for not wanting to run with it. The impressive directorial debut by Alexandre Moors dares explore the twisted logic of the DC sniper John Allen Muhammad, played with remarkable intensity by Isaiah Washington, who frankly should be in the Best Actor race right now. This isn't just another blow-for-blow depiction of the three week ordeal that paralyzed DC eleven years ago, but a terrifying look inside the mind of a monster. In fact, the killings themselves soon fade into the background, which only makes Muhammad's twisted philosophy, one he spreads to the mind of a young Lee Boyd Malvo (Tequan Richmond), all the more disturbing. It's a delicate balancing act trying to figure out Muhammad without sympathizing, but Moors pulls it off effortlessly.
1. In a World...
My good friend, voice actor, and WETA Around Town colleague Robert Aubrey Davis will probably faint with joy that Lake Bell's In a World....tops my list of great overlooked movies. Bell, who has always been a talented lady in front of the camera, does literally everything to make this film about the sexist world of trailer voice-over actors shine. As director, producer, writer, and perky lead she delivers a charming and insightful comedy about a career path none of us having given a lot of thought to. In a way it's like a cousin to those terrific Christopher Guest movies like Best in Show, only a whole lot funnier if you ask me. She gets a lot of help from a hilarious ensemble of comedic heavyweights such as Fred Melamed, Dmitri Martin, Ken Marino, Michaela Watkins, Rob Corddry, Demetri Martin, Tig Notaro, and Nick Offerman (with a couple of sweet cameos best left unspoiled), but it's Bell whose voice is loudest and most welcome. Hopefully we'll be hearing a lot more of it.