Over 800 movies were released in 2014, and this year promises even more than that. To put that into perspective, that’s about 15 movies per week—and even the most rabid of cineastes among us couldn’t possibly take on that load. And with big, dumb movies like Jurassic World gobbling up cinema screens (and box office), many excellent films were left out to dry.
Last year, our list of the Most Overlooked Movies of the Year included Jonathan Glazer’s sci-fi noir Under the Skin, starring Scarlett Johansson as an alien seductress stalking the streets of Scotland; the gritty prison drama Starred Up, boasting a ferocious turn by rising star Jack O’Connell; and the batshit-crazy action flick The Raid 2.
The 2015 edition counts a trippy biopic, a hip-hop bildungsroman, and a movie shot entirely on iPhone among its entries.
ABOUT ELLY (April 8)
This brilliant feature by acclaimed Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi (A Separation) has earned comparisons to Antonioni’s L’Avventura, and though it was released abroad all the way back in 2009, it didn’t hit American theaters until this year. Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani) has arranged for an Iranian couples retreat of sorts to the Caspian Sea, and has brought along a quiet librarian-friend, Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti), in the hopes of finding her a partner. But when Elly goes missing, fingers begin being pointed, and a deep web of secrets bubbles to the surface. Believe it or not, this is an even better film than Farhadi’s Oscar-winner A Separation; a captivating mystery that sheds considerable light on the unique relationship dynamics of middle-class Iranians.
LOVE & MERCY (June 5)
Who would’ve thought Bill Pohlad, an ex-film executive with scant directorial experience, could helm this extraordinary portrait of Beach Boys frontman Brian Wilson? Told via two parallel narratives –the 1960s, as a tripped-out Wilson (Paul Dano) records Pet Sounds, and the 1980s, as a medicated Wilson (John Cusack), is rescued from the control of his overbearing manager—the film effectively captures the mania and brilliance of one of our finest songwriters. And if there’s any justice in the world, Dano will receive considerable awards attention for his layered portrayal of the younger Wilson. He’ll rock your socks off.
DOPE (June 19)
Filmmaker Rick Famuyiwa’s coming-of-age story is the cinematic equivalent of a hip-hop track, pulsating with energy and eloquence. It tells the tale of Malcolm Adekanbi, a high school senior in Inglewood, California, with designs on Harvard who finds himself in possession of a backpack filled with top-grade ecstasy. Anchored by one of the year’s best finds in Shameik Moore, this is a screwball hip-hop comedy with plenty of heart, illuminating the plight of disenfranchised black youths, and is bolstered by a killer collection of ‘90s rap tunes—along with some original jams courtesy of Pharrell Williams.
EDEN (June 19)
Directed by Mia Hansen-Løve, this vibrant film chronicles a French DJ’s journey from house parties in the ‘80s through to the EDM boom of the 2000s, capturing the rise and fall of a scene from sexy and new to a sordid bore. Like the music portrayed, Hansen-Løve’s film crackles with energy—you can practically feel the sweat dripping off the writhing bodies, lost in the moment.
TANGERINE (July 10)
Shot entirely on iPhones, Sean S. Baker’s tale of a trans woman sex worker scorned is engrossing on every level. Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) is fresh off a 28-day prison sentence, and upon her release, learns from pal Alexandra (Mya Taylor), a fellow trans sex worker, that her boyfriend/pimp is cheating on her with (gasp!) a white cis woman. So Sin-Dee goes on the warpath across Downtown L.A. The film’s DIY nature lends it a gritty authenticity in this portrait of a rough-and-tumble Los Angeles that’s rarely captured onscreen.
PHOENIX (July 24)
The German director-actress combo of Christian Petzold and Nina Hoss is the best out there, and without giving too much away, this stylish noir centers on a Holocaust survivor (Hoss) who returns to Berlin after undergoing facial reconstruction surgery. There, she falls for the man who ratted her out to the Nazis. Petzold’s film combines the seductiveness of The Night Porter with the noirish intrigue of Casablanca, and, with all due respect to Cate Blanchett, it is Hoss who turns in the best female performance of the year. Also, the ending will leave you breathless.
THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL (Aug. 7)
Marielle Heller’s feature directorial offers one of the year’s most complex—and fascinating—characters: Minnie (Bel Powley), a 15-year-old comic book artist on the cusp of womanhood who begins sleeping with her mother’s boyfriend, narrating her thoughts and feelings in an audio diary (this is ’70s San Francisco, after all). Powley is an absolute marvel here, capturing the humor, innocence, and confusion of a hormonal girl, and she’s aided by a fine supporting cast, including Kristen Wiig, Alexander Skarsgard, and Christopher Meloni. And Heller handles this terribly taboo subject with unconventional wit and grace, announcing herself as a formidable new cinematic voice.
QUEEN OF EARTH (Aug. 26)
Following last year’s underappreciated collaboration Listen Up Philip, Elisabeth Moss (of Mad Men fame) has reunited with filmmaker Alex Ross Perry for this harrowing portrait of a woman on the verge of a total breakdown. Moss delivers one of the most courageous, unglamorous turns of the year as the woman at the end of her rope, while Katherine Waterston provides a deliciously icy foil. Moss’s tear-filled monologue during the opening minutes, with the camera in tight on her eminently watchable face, is one of the finest feats of acting this year. STEVE JOBS (Oct. 9)
I know what you’re thinking, why is a star-studded Oscar bait biopic on here? Well, because this Danny Boyle/Aaron Sorkin collaboration earned just under $18 million at the domestic box office. Unfolding like a three-act play, this biopic of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs is like a modern-day version of Hamlet, as ghosts from the cruel visionary’s past converge. Once you suspend your disbelief, and get past the physical differences between Michael Fassbender and the decidedly more effete Jobs, you’ll be won over by this formally audacious and inspired portrait of the broken man behind the machines.
THE ASSASSIN (Oct. 16)
Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s latest transports you to 8th century China as it follows Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi, radiant and riveting), a female assassin who’s tasked with traveling to a remote land to murder its ruler—a man she was set to marry. This is, without question, the most beautifully lensed film of the year. The lush cinematography by Mark Lee Ping Bin captures the Tang Dynasty in all its splendor and grandeur, and the film as a whole rivals Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.