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The 17 Best Films You Didn’t See In 2014

The 17 Best Films You Didn't See In 2014

It’s the waning days of 2014, and we’ve emerged from our holiday food coma for a last few looks back at the cinematic year that was. We like to think that we’ve been pretty comprehensive with our year-end coverage, but there are still some movies that didn’t quite get the deserved recognition, even within our orgy of features (which you can catch up on here).

After all, with more movies hitting theaters (at least in New York or Los Angeles, which often see literally dozens of films opening each weekend), many films inevitably fall through the cracks. So as we start to close off our year-end coverage, here are 17 movies that you might have missed in 2014. Check them out below, and let us know what you think deserved more love over the last twelve months.

The Immigrant
There is another way of looking at it: thank heavens for Harvey Weinstein! The bizarrely botched release of James Gray’s Cannes Film Festival 2013 title does at least mean a whole bunch of people have the potential pleasure of its discovery on DVD or VOD. Of course, it’s a shame not to experience the luxuriant Darius Khondji photography on the big screen, but while the backdrop may be period and epic (Ellis Island and the great untold tale of American immigration), the Gray’s story is intimate, restrained and resolutely focused. Detailing the tangled love triangle between its three principals (a luminous Marion Cotillard, a morally evolving Joaquin Phoenix and a kind hearted Jeremy Renner) the film is less concerned with operatic broad strokes and more with the minute currents of love, blame, duty and forgiveness that flow between the central trio. The film pulls a terrific sleight of hand in its closing stages as to just who its lead really is and who is most profoundly affected by the events portrayed. Rich, considered and exquisitely played, “The Immigrant” may have been buried by TWC, but all the better for it to feel like treasure when you do get to see it. (Read our review here, and find a segment on its final shot here in our Best Shots of 2014 feature.)

Force Majeure
Ruben Östlund’s icy swipe at the fragility of our social identities within the family unit is a terrifically mordant comedy of manners that has picked up a little steam at the end of the year by figuring on several critic’s lists and landing on the Oscar Foreign Film shortlist. And deservedly so, since its dissection of the hubris of one particular picture-perfect family, and most specifically the father/husband, is precise and persuasive —its scalpel-like efficiency would be cruel if it weren’t so uncomfortably funny at the same time. Showing how the family dynamic changes in the aftermath of a near-miss avalanche during which the father (Johannes Kuhnke) runs for cover abandoning his wife (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and kids, Östlund’s witty script and keen eye for awkward social situations spins off into unexpected but never unbelievable directions. And Fredrik Wenzel’s undersung cinematography adds another layer of droll humor in its crisp, bold, simple IKEA-commercial lines which both reinforce and elegantly skewer the notion of effortless Scandinavian sophistication. (Read our review here and find a segment on the avalanche scene in our Best Shots of 2014 feature.)

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night
It says something about the enduring power of the vampire myth that just as we’re on the verge of getting bored with the genre, someone comes along to introduce some new blood. In 2014, Jim Jarmusch did it with “Only Lovers Left Alive,” next year there’s winning Kiwi comedy “What We Do In The Shadows,” and in between is “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night,” the genre-bending debut from director Ana Lily Amirpour. The film —which follows a lonesome hijab-wearing vampire, the boy who loves her, his drug-addicted father and a prostitute in the fictional, deserted Bad City— is set in Iran, but being shot in California, it has more in common with Jarmusch than Kiarostami, thanks to a high-contrast B&W look and emphasis on woozy atmosphere. But then part of the pleasure of the film is its refusal to fit into just one box. Arthouse Western? Sure. Feminist comic-book movie blended with social realism? Why not? Tender, sexy-as-hell romance? Definitely. Somehow, the disparate parts all meld together beautifully, thanks to pitch-perfect performances from its cast and Amirpour’s immediately assured direction, resulting in one of the most striking first films in recent memory. (Read our initial review here, and find it in our End of Year pieces on the Best Music Moments, Best Soundtracks and Breakthrough Directors of 2014)

John Michael McDonagh’s “The Guard” figured in our 2011 Underrated picks, and seeing the director show up on another underseen list with his followup film three years later is either a great compliment or a terrible shame. But “Calvary” is much more complex than the comparatively frothy “The Guard”; it’s darker and less overtly comedic, and not so much gruffly affectionate as barely-concealing-its-rage. And yet McDonagh’s trademark wit and verbal dexterity are there, perfectly delivered by a terrifically eclectic ensemble cast from “The Guard” lead Brendan Gleeson as the priest at its center, to reliable Irish comic and character actors Chris O’Dowd, Dylan Moran, Orla O’Rourke, Aidan Gillen, Pat Shortt and Killian Scott, as well as the English Kelly Reilly and a small turn from the great M. Emmet Walsh. A kind of crazy-mirror murder mystery in which an unseen person forewarns the victim of his intention to kill, the film is less successful as a thriller than as a pitch-black-hearted examination of the nature of faith and fellowship in a fundamentally fucked-up small Irish town. (Read our review here and here’s our interview with John Michael McDonagh from earlier this year.)

CON-CRETE! Tom Hardy’s Ivan Locke might have been the most enjoyable movie-related impression to drunkenly attempt since Daniel Plainview, but it sometimes risked overshadowing the excellence of Steven Knight’s film, especially since it didn’t connect especially well with U.S. audiences. That’s perhaps in part because the film was deliberately but incorrectly sold as a thriller, whereas in fact it’s a kind of one-man morality play, as Hardy’s construction genius drives from Birmingham to London to attend the birth of an illegitimate child conceived during a one-night stand with a colleague, imploding his career and marriage in an attempt to do what he perceives as the right thing. If you’ve avoided reading anything about it at all, the film’s entirely set within Locke’s BMW, something that could risk becoming a “Buried” style gimmick, but the excellent night-time photography, sharp editing and most of all Hardy’s magnetic performance (aided ably by the likes of Ruth Wilson, Olivia Colman and Andrew Scott on the phone) beautifully evoke the kind of long night of the soul we’ve all had to go through at some point. It might have begun as a kind of experiment, but the result is a complete portrait of a man you’ll know like a family member by the time his journey’s through. (Read our original review here, and more on Hardy’s turn in our Best Performances Of The Year feature.)

Love is Strange
Director Ira Sachs turned our heads with his previous film, the insightful relationship drama “Keep the Lights On,” so our expectations were already high for his next project. And yet “Love is Strange,” which details the unexpected fallout when a longtime gay couple (adorably embodied by John Lithgow and Alfred Molina) finally get married, surprised us. Anchored by the two deeply empathetic central performances, the film explores issues such as prejudice both subtle and overt, rising New York rent prices, the generation gap, familial bonds and the nature of loving relationships in their fourth decade with such sensitivity and truth that it totally overcomes the First World Problems-ish feel of its premise to become something very universal and human. Managing a similar trick as Blue is the Warmest Color but from the opposite end of the gender and age spectrum, “Love is Strange” is not simply a love story, but a staying-in-love story, bittersweet but ultimately life affirming for anyone who’s ever been in love, and who hopes to still be in love with the same person 39 years later. (Read our review here.)

As offbeat as a Soronprfbs track, rising Irish director Lenny Abrahamson’s “Frank,” written by Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan and loosely inspired by peculiar constructed Mancunian personality Frank Sidebottom, is perhaps the definition of a not-for-everyone film. Episodic, unapologetically self-indulgent and uncompromising to an almost self-defeating degree (getting fabulously good-looking movie star Michael Fassbender and sticking him in a papier mache head for the duration is a perfect metaphor), the film is thankfully such mischievous, self-aware fun that it breezes along anyway, powered by its own internal logic to an unexpectedly moving climax. As an ode or an anthem to the freaks, the misfits, the rogue element and the offcuts of the music industry, it surely has resonance for anyone who’s ever tried to be in a band or indeed any kind of creative endeavor and tried to negotiate the thorny path between commercial compromise and personal integrity. And of course Fassbender’s terrific, whether we can see his face or not, but the enviable ensemble of Domhnall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Scoot McNairy, Francoise Civil and Carla Azar as the rest of the band spark off each other brilliantly to turn in an occasionally cacophonous but deeply satisfying whole. (Read our review here and check out its write-up as our second favorite soundtrack of 2014 here.)

Ilo Ilo
We don’t know a single person who saw “Ilo Ilo.” Despite picking up the Camera d’Or for the best first feature at the Cannes Film Festival in 2013, the film got only the briefest of theatrical outings in the U.S, taking barely fifty grand from the handful of theaters in which it screened. Fingers crossed that awareness spreads wider once it’s streaming, because it’s a little gem that deserves a wider audience. A rare film from Singapore, Anthony Chen’s directorial debut is an intimate story of a middle-class family who, despite dire economic straits (the film’s set during the Asian financial crisis in the 1990s), hire a Filipino nanny (Angeli Bayani) to look after their difficult son as the birth of a second child approaches. Tender and humanist in a way that’s reminiscent of the Dardennes and Asghar Farhadi, with a truly excellent screenplay that gives insight into both wider Singaporean culture and the politics and passions of this particular family, the film comes close to becoming sentimental but truly earns the emotions it stirs when they come. Full of terrific, lived-in performances (Bayani being a particular stand-out), cleanly shot and disarmingly cut, Chen barely puts a foot wrong, and we hope that he rises up the festival circuit with his next picture.

Winter Sleep
Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s “Winter Sleep” is a polarizing work with respect to the Playlist team. Yes, the film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year, but it has divided some critics. Some, like our review from Jessica Kiang, felt the film is impenetrably dense, and others, like Nik Grozdanovic, felt
it to be an utterly absorbing chamber drama. But I (Rodrigo Perez) feel like they are both right. There’s something hypnotic about this slowly unfolding film, but it also loses a lot of steam in its
second half as it fails to coalesce its themes in any meaningful
manner. Opening with a striking drama —a landlord is
faced with evicting lifelong tenants for falling months behind on
rent—  the movie soon shifts focus to the wealthy, arrogant, faux-enlightened and insincere landlord and the cold
war relationship he has with his younger, compliant wife. A loose
adaptation of two Chekov stories merged into one (“The Wife” and
Excellent People”), Ceylan’s picture places a high premium on mood and
sermon over narrative. “The ambiguous is part of life —that’s the thing
it’s worth making movies for. I’m just trying to show life as I feel
it,” he told the New York Times
recently. Perhaps fittingly hazy, “Winter Sleep,” is a melancholy story
of obdurate, stuck people caught in a wintery stasis, unable to change,
connect and move beyond their various self-righteous conflicts like a
den of stubborn bears.  It’s arguably the most uneven film on this list,
but its thick, suffocating mood lingers on far after the movie’s gone,
even if it doesn’t completely satisfy. And often that persisting
resonance is enough for an endorsement. (Read our review from Cannes and Nik’s inclusion of the film on his Top 20 Films of 2014).

Night Moves
A shivery, meticulous, almost procedural story in its first half, part of the slow genius of Kelly Reichardt’s “Night Moves” is just how believably and inexorably the wheels come off in its second. Detailing a coolly observed plan by a trio of eco-activists (Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard) to blow up a dam, it’s once the deed is done successfully that it all starts to unravel: the discovery that their supposedly altruistic act may have cost an innocent life sows guilt and fear of betrayal between all three, and each copes with it in different, increasingly unpredictable and desperate ways. Reichardt is a master of atmosphere (the tense dam explosion sequence is an exercise in suspense), and the frequent lack of dialogue lends discussion about the ethics of eco-terrorism and the effectiveness of an eco-lifestyle a certain philosophical weight. But by the end, the film becomes a character study of Eisenberg’s Josh, and it’s a role that may be better than any he’s had to date, subtly peeling back the geeky, nervy, endearingly unsure-of-himself persona the actor trades in to find something rotten and fearful beneath. A cautionary tale against those who would wear trumpet their ideals, “Night Moves” is a gripping slow burn examination of what happens when circumstances reveal one’s true colors. (Read our review here.)

The Strange Little Cat
With its one-theater release and south of $6,000 take, this film is likely the least seen of all these underseen films. Yet you may still be able to catch Ramon Zürcher’s tremendously odd, original, inexplicable film at an upcoming local festival. Playing the equivalent of an off-off-Broadway sidebar in Cannes in 2013, film student Zürcher’s debut is ostensibly a loose-limbed observation of a German family going about their regular Sunday in a small Berlin apartment —neighbors drop by, siblings squabble, mom (Jenny Schily) cooks. But the film’s atmosphere is just ever so slightly off, as though the whole world it views has been washed in a thin solution of surreality: small impossibilities like a malevolently spitting sausage or a constantly spinning bottle occur within the domestic routine, but no one reacts as though there’s anything amiss. The audience experiences an oddly alien viewpoint, but it’s not without a certain sense of fondness for the people we observe, albeit affection of a detached kind. Perhaps like what a cat might feel for its owners? The title is the only clue Zürcher gives us to what it all means —the family cat may in fact be the least strange member of this big ensemble, and so perhaps it is its eyes through which we are seeing. Either way, this deceptively minimalist film is one to seek out and enjoy less for its overarching philosophy and more for its charming performances and the observant details of the tiny secrets that family life can both reveal and conceal. (Read our review here.)

Le Week-End
Roger Michell might be best known for “Notting Hill” and some duff would-be awards-bait like “Hyde Park On Hudson.” But when he’s at home, making intimate little comedy-dramas in collaboration with writer Hanif Kureshi like “Venus” or “The Mother,” it’s like he’s an entirely different filmmaker. “Le Week-End” completes the pair’s unofficial trilogy about old age with a film that at first glance looked like a sort of “Best Exotic Before Sunrise,” as two academics head to Paris to recreate their honeymoon for their thirtieth wedding anniversary. There’s a certain middle-class smugness here, and it’s trafficking in the same kind of acutely bittersweet low-key relationship drama as Richard Linklater’s trilogy, but it’s far from a knock-off, with its own particular sensibility, sense of humor and a winning and sometimes cutting specificity towards its two subjects. Those subjects are portrayed by Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan, and the two (especially Duncan) give performances as good as any seen this year, especially when they get to play off Jeff Goldblum, whose extended cameo as an old frenemy of Broadbent’s continues to prove that Jeff Goldblum should be in every movie (and the moment when the trio recreate the dance from “Bande a Part” is pure joy). It’ll probably hit hardest for those of the age group portrayed, but it’s likely to age like a fine wine for the rest of us. (Read our original review here.)

Delivering the second half of one of the best one-two punches in recent memory by debuting this film alongside “Prisoners” in Toronto, Canadian director Denis Villeneuve showed in one fell swoop just how wide his creative register is. “Prisoners” was the more easily categorizable and therefore more commercial work and duly was a modest success last year. However, while it shares a lead in Jake Gyllenhaal (in a performance every bit as terrific but less externally transformational than in “Nightcrawler”), “Enemy” is much trickier, a deeply unsettling film about the nature of identity that is more of an exercise in atmosphere than anything like a conventional thriller. Based on the José Saramago novel “The Double,” Villeneuve’s film is a small masterpiece of minimalist unease with a focus that, despite narrowing further as time goes on, somehow simultaneously builds to a climax that feels almost sci-fi apocalyptic in scale. Willfully ambiguous, profoundly mysterious and evoking the sense that there are monsters gliding just below the surface, the film is not simply about meeting your mirror image (in a way that perhaps Richard Ayoade’s similarly themed but utterly different “The Double” was), it’s about what happens when you stretch out your hand to him and venture right through the looking glass. (Read our review here, here’s an interview with Villeneuve and you can find write ups for the film’s penultimate shot in our Best Shots of the Year feature and its various posters in our Best Posters of the Year feature.)

It’s almost two years since we discovered Dutch oddity “Borgman” at Cannes, but the film continues to subtly insinuate its way into the lives of various Playlisters after all this time, and given half a chance, it’ll do the same to you too. The latest from director Alex van Warmerdam has one of the most arresting openings of the year, as a group of men, including a priest, chase the title character (Jan Bijvoet) and his mysterious hole-dwelling cohorts through the woods. Borgman escapes, and after being beaten by the hot-tempered, well-to-do Richard (Jeroen Perceval), reinvents himself as a gardener and gradually finds his way into the family. The film draws immediate comparisons with Haneke and Yorgos Lanthimos, but by the end, it’s entirely its own beast, a curious fable (in the truest, cautionary tale sense of the word) that dangles its true meaning always just out of reach. Arrestingly shot and playful, even darkly funny in tone, we certainly didn’t see anything like “Borgman” this year. Or in many years before, to be honest. (Read Jess’ original review here, and read about its art in our Posters of the Year feature.)

“We Are The Best!”
It’s been a good few years for comebacks for Scandinavian filmmakers who’d been off their game for a while. Last year, Thomas Vinterberg returned from the wilderness with the phenomenal “The Hunt,” and in 2014, Lukas Moodysson, whose work had become increasingly unwatchable since “Lilya-4-ever” in 2002, returned to the warm and touching form of early films “Show Me Love” and “Together” with the glorious coming-of-age punk tale “We Are The Best!” Based on his wife Coco’s graphic-novel memoir, it’s the story of a duo of just-teens, Bobo and Klara, who decide to start a punk band in 1980s Stockholm, enlisting straight-laced Christian classmate Hedvig, who actually knows how to play an instrument. It’s not a wildly eventful film: there are no divorces, near-death experiences or life-changing romances. But Moodysson has here regained his touch for the interactions between teens, and the fluctuations in friendships and unrequited crushes feel as important as they did when you were afflicted with puberty yourself. The film’s directed with a lightness of touch that means it could feel slight, but its sheer warmth and sweetness, the truthfulness of its depiction of the bond formed by a band, and the importance of that to the kids who feel like outsiders, makes it into a sort of Swedish take on “Freaks & Geeks.” We can think of few higher recommendations. (Read our original review here, our interview with Moodysson here, and our discussion of a key scene in the Music Moments feature.)

Stray Dogs
There are many films about the forgotten living on the margins, but few are as bewitching as Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang’s “Stray Dogs.” If Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s films slowly unravel, then Ming-Liang’s hypnotic movies are like watching a faucet drip in slow motion in a loop for hours on end. Certainly not to everyone’s tastes —even the New York Times’ critic Stephen Holden described the film as “a glum, humorless exercise in Asian miserablism”— Tsai’s rigorously patient works are for the most ardent cinephiles, but if you’re willing, there are tremendous rewards to be derived. “Stray Dogs” centers on a hopeless, homeless alcoholic struggling to keep his two children sheltered and fed on the streets of Taipei. These outcasts perhaps receive a glimmer of hope in a lonely grocery store clerk that enters their lives (and in a swirling surreal move fitting to its mesmeric qualities, the character is played by three different women). Shots doggedly hold in place for up to 12 minutes at a time, often of characters standing in front of or staring at a spellbinding mural. As disorientinging as it can be, what comes into focus eventually is a strikingly humanistic and grippingly compassionate portrait of endurance, survival, and unforgettable struggle for dignity. (Read our review and find an arresting moment from the film on our Best Shots of 2014 feature)

Goodbye To All That
You’ve hopefully never suffered the blindsiding pain of a divorce, but you can likely still sympathize with a life dealt with a seriously cripplingly blow. The directorial debut of Angus MacLachlan (the screenwriter behind the superb dramedy “Junebug” that launched Amy Adams’ career), “Goodbye To All That” is a terrific and richly observed look at a life in collapse. Starring Paul Schneider (in probably his career-best performance) as a well-meaning, but irresponsible husband divorced by his wife (Melanie Lynskey) after one too many fuck-ups, “Goodbye To All That” watches Schneider try to clean up and move past the shards of his broken life, but does so with heart, humor, empathy and soul. All raw nerve, Schneider greets pain and confusion with a mix of fear and excitement. He grapples with post-divorce hook-ups (genuinely sexy), his wife’s infidelities (authentically aching) and the anxiety of his daughter who eventually does not want to stay the night with her dad (indisputably heartbreaking). But through it all, this comprehensively funny and humanist film is able to laugh at life’s absurdities, even sometimes through a pool of streaming tears. Definitely 2014 catch-up worthy. (Read our review.)

Honorable Mentions; Of course, if we had our way, every movie we love would be bigger than “Transformers: Age Of Extinction,” but we picked out the ones that we felt were most deserving. Films like “The Rover,” “The Babadook,” “Blue Ruin” and “Obvious Child” should have been bigger hits than they were, but we’ve been shouting about them for a while, including in our year-end coverage, so we wanted to use the spotlight to shine on some darker corners.

Also in that category were “Pride,” “Starred Up,” “Beyond The Lights,” “The Double,” “Cold In July” and “The Tale Of Princess Kaguya,” and “Closed Curtain,” “Honeymoon,” “The Homesman,” “The One I Love” and “It Felt Like Love,” among many others all deserve a look too. — Jessica Kiang, Oliver Lyttelton, Rodrigo Perez

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