At this time of year, the critical community is all about forming a consensus. As critics’ groups and guilds start to give out their awards, the field of essential films for 2014 winnows down to a precious few: This year, it’s looking like Boyhood, Birdman, and Selma will dominate discussion from now until Oscar night in February. For the casual viewer, there is some benefit in this narrow approach. Time is limited, especially around the holiday season, so how are you to know which films you truly need to see?
If that’s what you’re looking for, you’ve come to the wrong place. Every year, I publish a list of 8 terrific films that will have little impact on awards season but deserve a bigger audience than they got. If you didn’t see them, it’s not your fault. The vagaries of Hollywood are such that quirky movies like these must find their audience on DVD or Netflix. So be it, but I hope you search these out. You may have a hard time discussing them around the watercooler, but they’re worth the trouble.
Jake Gyllenhaal made everyone take notice with his bold, brash performance in this fall’s Nightcrawler, but fewer people saw his equally impressive turn in Enemy earlier this year. Denis Villenueve’s psychological drama is about a mild-mannered office drone who one day discovers he has an exact doppelganger: a small-time actor that he spots in the background of a movie. Gyllenhaal plays both roles, demonstrating a remarkable range and gift for subtle characterization. The film builds to an abrupt and perplexing conclusion that will alienate some viewers, but Gyllenhaal’s performance(s) are impossible to shake.
This British indie didn’t make much of a splash at the box office upon its release in September, but it was a massive hit with critics and has even ended up on a few end-of-year Top 10 lists. Rising star Jack O’Connell (also in this month’s Unbroken) plays a violent juvenile delinquent who lands in the same prison as his career-criminal father (veteran character actor Ben Mendelson). Written by a former prison psychologist who spent time with violent offenders, Starred Up is a raw and tender wound of a film; vicious and violent but with warm-blooded at its core.
Cynics needs not apply to this soft and slow romance adapted from the beloved Alice Munro short story. Kristen Wiig plays Johanna, a caretaker who has spent her entire life working for one woman. When she dies, Johanna is cast out in the world with no social skills and, notably, little understanding of romance. Hired by a new family, she begins to flirt with the children’s absent step-father by mail, without knowing that his daughter has intercepted her letters and is cruelly toying with her. The film builds to a painful midpoint when Johanna discovers the subterfuge; but it’s at this point that the film takes a startlingly optimistic turn. Hateship Loveship is the kind of hopeful, romantic story that cynical Hollywood is rarely interested in these days, making its existence something of a minor miracle.
Some of the best sci-fi in recent years has come from movies with very low budgets (see 2004’s Primer or this year’s The One I Love). Coherence doesn’t have a single special effect, yet it is one of the most fun, thought-provoking, and deeply spooky films in years. It’s a deceptively simple premise: a group of thirtysomething friends gather for dinner on a night when a comet is poised to pass relatively close to Earth. After the power goes out, two friends leave the house, and when they come back…well, I wouldn’t dream of spoiling it.
Unsurprisingly, this Australian post-apocalyptic western did not attract much attention amidst the summer season of sequels and remakes. Probably because its dystopian vision does not involve zombies or superheroes. Instead, The Rover is the simple story of a man determined to regain what has been taken from him. Guy Pearce plays the unnamed hero, who traverses an unforgiving desert to regain his car that is stolen from him in the opening scenes. It’s a bleak and desperate movie, but its themes should resonate deeply in our times of existential crises, and Pearce’s stoic, physical performance plays like gangbusters.
Tom Hardy in a car. That’s the whole movie. There are no high-speed chases or car crashes. It’s just him driving for an hour and a half, talking on the car phone, and it’s absolutely never boring. Don’t ask questions. Just watch it.
A Coffee in Berlin
This one didn’t even make the Academy’s shorlist for Best Foreign Film but it swept the German Oscars last year, and it’s easy to see why. The astounding debut of director Jan Ole Gerster, A Coffee in Berlin starts out common – a young Berlin slacker breaks up with his girlfriend and then goes out in search of coffee. Following several personal crises, the film eventually becomes a deep meditation on a city and a nation in transition, grappling with its complicated past while pressing forward into an uncertain future. Filmed in black and white, the film evokes Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese while never devolving into homage.
If there were an award for this year’s most unlikely movie star, the undisputed winner would be Earl Lynn Nelson, who, in his sixties and with only three screen credits to his name, gives a star-quality performance in the indie Land Ho!. Nelson plays Mitch, a retired surgeon who drags his ex-brother-in-law (Paul Eenhorn) on a rejuvenating trip to Iceland. It’s kinda like a teen sex comedy for geriatrics, but at the film’s heart is the warm, forgiving relationship between these two very different men. Eenhorn undergoes the bigger transformation, but it is Nelson’s hilariously bombastic performance that will command your attention.