20 Excellent Films You May Have Missed in 2014
With multiplexes playing the usual dreck coming out after December (Mortdecai? You serious?), and the only films worth seeing right now being the Oscar hopefuls we haven’t seen yet, it’s going to take some time before some truly interesting new movies come out. So why not spend this time watching some films from last year that were slept on? As we mentioned previously on the site, there were over 1,000 films released in 2014, and with a large number like that some films are bound to slip through the cracks.
That’s why some of us decided to profile those films that got too small of a release, made too little at the box office, or didn’t end up getting much love on year-end lists. These are the good, the great, the little-seen and overlooked films of 2014. And luckily for you, a lot of these picks are available right now. So why not spend this weekend catching up with some of last year’s hidden gems? You certainly won’t go wrong checking any one of these out, and you might end up singing their praises along with us. Read on to see our picks, and let us know in the comments what films you thought were overlooked from last year.
When Brandy Burre got pregnant while working on HBO’s The Wire, she made a dramatic change in her life. Putting her acting career on hold, Burre embraced the role of a stay-at-home mom, raising her two children while her partner played the role of breadwinner. Director Robert Greene started filming Burre as she tried to start acting again, showing the difficult process while exploring some fascinating themes on subjectivity in our own lives as well as documentary filmmaking. Things eventually take an unexpected turn once some information about Burre comes to light partway through, but the universality of Greene’s themes wind up playing directly into the film’s “twist.” By putting an actress front and centre, Greene puts viewers in a state of constant awareness about the validity and authenticity of what’s on-screen. And through watching the ups and downs of Burre’s personal and professional life, it’s easy to recognize how all of us play some sort of role in our lives at one point or another. Actress is a documentary about the roles we choose to play, the roles we have to play, and the struggles that come with trying to get the roles we want to play. [C.J.]
Availability: In limited theatrical release from Cinema Guild. Expect a DVD and/or Blu-Ray release later this year.
An American man and a French woman, both staying at the same hotel. He’s there on business, while she works at the hotel as a maid. Both people go through a transformative experience and must deal with the consequences. Revealing any more about Bird People would ruin the surprise. Pascale Ferran’s diptych is by far one of the most balls-out original films of 2014, and a total delight to watch unfold. It’s hard to describe without revealing too much, but few films gave me as much pleasure last year as watching Bird People open up in ways I never could have expected. The sudden shift from small-scale to large-scale, from low-key to something more like a dream, and seeing how both parts connect thematically is nothing but sublime. My recommendation: Watch Bird People with as little knowledge as possible about what to expect, and enjoy the ride. [C.J.]
Availability: IFC will release Bird People on DVD on January 13th. The film should also be available on VOD.
After a husband and father (Pat Healy, terrific) gets laid off, an unexpected reunion with an old friend (Ethan Embry) leads to a tantalizing opportunity once they bump into an arrogant rich man (David Koechner). He offers the two down on their luck friends a chance to earn up to $250,000. All they have to do is participate in a series of bizarre, grotesque challenges for Koechner’s own entertainment. Director E.L. Katz starts Cheap Thrills off as a sort of funny crossover between Saw and Jackass before gradually turning the film into something as vicious as Funny Games. At the heart of the film is one hell of a nasty message about class differences, one that makes Cheap Thrills feel like a modern-day update of the ’70s exploitation films not afraid to put politics front and centre. Katz’s film certainly has scorn for its rich villains, but in watching the two lower class protagonists degrade themselves to fight over cash (what essentially amounts to scraps for Koechner’s character) it’s impossible to not sit there and wonder why they’re even playing by this guy’s rules in the first place. Cheap Thrills is an angry film, one that puts viewers through a wide range of emotions before knocking them out with a stunner of a final shot. [C.J.]
Availability: Available on DVD, Blu-Ray, and streaming on Amazon Prime.
Cold in July
Jim Mickle has shown a lot of potential in the past, but hasn’t been able to get past a certain barrier with his films that really make me sit up and applaud. Things changed in 2014 when he released his gritty pulp noir thriller Cold in July. I remember hearing about it and being more ambivalent towards it than anything. Then a friend texted me: “Cold in July. Now this is a fucking movie.” I got a chance to finally see it, and as White Lion’s “Wait” played over the end credits, I had to pick my jaw up from the floor. Mickle’s film is drenched in blood, mood, atmosphere and style. If 1980’s John Carpenter made a revenge thriller in the vein of Rolling Thunder, this would be it. Assisted with a synth score straight out of the ’80s, and led by one of the best lead performances of the year (Michael C. Hall), Mickle’s film swerves from left to right, going from one dastardly deed to another. That’s what makes the film so good; you never know where it’s going until the final 30 minutes. And when you arrive at the gore soaked finale, you’ll be struggling to remember how our hero even got into this mess in the first place. [Blake]
Availability: Available now on DVD, Blu-Ray and VOD.
When my girlfriend and I peruse the selection on Netflix, I usually just let her pick something as I can get too picky. She chose The Den, and as I clicked on the icon to start it, I couldn’t have rolled my eyes any harder at the horrendous cover art (bad cover art usually equals bad movie). Boy was I wrong. Running at a lean 75 minutes, The Den is a very strong entry into the found footage genre. A young woman decides to experiment with a new website allowing users to talk to one another in rapid succession (exactly like Chatroulette). She stumbles upon a user that looks to have been murdered on camera and decides to investigate. The deeper she goes into this grotesque rabbit hole, the more dangerous her every turn becomes. The Den expertly builds tension with each subsequent scene, and the way the film shows the walls of one’s privacy slowly crumbling around them is chilling. The film also has a lot of its scares during the day in sunlight, which is something I really admire, and it all builds to one of the most intense endings 2014 had to offer (I remember turning to my girlfriend at one point during the finale and saying “Oh my god.”) While The Den isn’t a game changer by any means, it’s one of the best found footage movies in years. [Blake]
Availability: Currently available on DVD and streaming on Netflix Instant.
Grand Piano is nothing more than plain, absurd fun. Its premise is like a laughable remake of Phone Booth or Speed (after telling a friend of mine the premise, he said that a more appropriate title for this would be “Tempo.”) The film takes place during a pianist’s (Elijah Wood, continuing a string of great work in genre films) comeback performance after coming out of retirement. Before he starts the concert, he’s given a message from a man hiding in the building. Apparently a psychopath has a gun aimed at the poor pianist, and if he plays one false note he’ll get shot in front of everyone. It turns out there’s a reason why Wood’s character can’t play one false note, and it’s the definition of ridiculous. But so is all of Grand Piano, which knows how to take its silliness seriously. Director Eugenio Mira goes full Brian De Palma here, and screenwriter Damien Chazelle (yes, that Damien Chazelle) continually ups the absurdity without slowing down the film’s lean pacing (seriously, between this and Whiplash, Chazelle has mastered how to write a film without any fat whatsoever). This is the perfect kind of film to watch when you just want to sit back, turn your brain off and have a good time. [C.J.]
Availability: Currently on DVD, Blu-Ray and streaming on Netflix Instant.
Housebound introduces a simple yet kind of ingenious twist to the standard haunted house movie: What if you couldn’t leave a house you know is haunted? That’s the case for Kylie (Morgana O’Reilly), a young criminal sentenced to house arrest at her childhood home. Kylie’s talkative, overfriendly mom (Rima Te Wiata) drives her nuts with claims of hearing ghosts, but soon Kylie starts noticing strange things backing up her mom’s claims. Writer/director Gerard Johnstone deliberately plays into narrative conventions at first before cleverly revealing he has plenty of tricks up his sleeve: the officer assigned to look over Kylie responds to her claims of paranormal with excitement instead of skepticism (turns out he’s an amateur ghost hunter), and Kylie soon learns her mom might be hiding dark secrets about the home’s past. To reveal any more of Housebound’s curveballs would ruin the fun of watching the narrative frequently reboot itself into a completely different film. Those twists end up turning the film into a case of too many spinning plates, but Johnstone makes up for it by masterfully switching between tones with complete ease. Housebound is wicked fun, and one of the few horror/comedy hybrids that excels in handling both genres. [C.J.]
Availability: Currently available on VOD and iTunes, and you can purchase the DVD or Blu-Ray for the film exclusively from Amazon.
It Felt Like Love
One of the most fearless movies of the year, It Felt Like Love centers around Lila, a young teenager starting to experience her sexuality. Where most coming-of-age dramas wear a hopeful badge of honor, as sex is something that may be initially awkward but ultimately rewarding, Lila’s path feels dangerous and dirty. Lila fixates on an older teen with a reputation of sleeping around. He’s the type of bad boy usually idolized in this type of story, but he has a rough edge here. He mostly ignores Lila, but as she grows more confident and promiscuous, his response is cruelly realistic. That’s what makes It Felt Like Love so transfixing – using our expectations of the genre, looking upon a coming-of-age as some sort of fairy tale (that’s how Lila sees it herself), when it is actually realistic in the worst way possible. Debut filmmaker Eliza Hittman tells the story with an appreciable amount of grace, however, keeping the film from beating down its viewer as it does to its main character. Gina Piersanti, in her first acting role, shows a desperation and sadness well beyond her age. [Aaron]
Availability: Currently out on DVD, streaming on Netflix, and available to rent/buy on iTunes.
Life of Riley
Alain Resnais, one of the greatest directors of our time, passed away in early 2014 at the age of 91, mere weeks after unveiling his latest film at the Berlin International Film Festival. The fact that Life of Riley won an award at Berlin dedicated to opening new perspectives on film showed that, even at 91, Resnais continued to excite and innovate. Adapted from Alan Ayckbourn’s play, the film opens with three couples learning their mutual friend Riley has been diagnosed with a terminal illness, giving him a few months to live. They invite him to join their theatre group, but soon the complicated histories between Riley and the three wives begin to emerge, causing tensions to rise between all three couples. Resnais fully embraces the artificiality of theatre in his adaptation, using sound stages with painted backgrounds and hand drawings for establishing shots among several other distinctive visual styles throughout. Resnais makes it all work, and with the help of his amazing cast (Sabine Azéma, his wife and longtime collaborator, is especially great), Life of Riley is always light on its feet, even when dealing with such somber material. Resnais’ final film, an unintended swan song, also happens to be one of 2014’s liveliest movies. [C.J.]
Availability: Still in a (very) limited theatrical release by Kino Lorber. A Blu-Ray and DVD will be released on March 10th.
Los Angeles Plays Itself
I’m going to do a bit of cheating here. Los Angeles Plays Itself originally came out in 2003, but 2014 saw a proper release of the film with remastered video and audio. Before 2014, you could only see Thom Andersen’s incredible video essay through crappy online copies or a rare screening. Now the film is available for all to purchase and watch, and if you have any interest in Los Angeles it’s absolutely essential viewing. Andersen opens the film with an idea: if people can appreciate documentaries for their fictional qualities, why can’t the opposite be true? So he does exactly that, using countless features taking place (or shot) in Los Angeles to show the development of the city, as well as how decisions on and off the screen impact each other (one of my favourite parts: when Andersen explains how the city’s modernist architecture was devalued by having the movies always associate the look with antagonists). Andersen’s incredible, in-depth research and personal touches elevate the film into more than just an academic piece, and it’s so involving the nearly 3 hour runtime flies by. In fact, by the end you’ll wish it kept going. [C.J.]
Availability: Available to purchase on Blu-Ray and DVD, and currently available to stream on Netflix Instant.
In last year’s feature on overlooked films, I put Megan Griffiths’ underseen thriller Eden on the list. Now, one year later, I’m putting yet another film by Griffiths on this list. Why is it that her films seem to attract little attention? Lucky Them is a really solid work, a grade above a lot of romantic comedies because of its cast, screenplay and themes. Toni Collette plays Ellie, a music journalist ordered by her boss to cover the disappearance of her ex-boyfriend, a legendary musician who vanished over a decade ago. Ellie teams up with an eccentric aspiring filmmaker (Thomas Haden Church) to travel across the country and find out what happened to her ex. Collette and Church have great chemistry, and both actors do a terrific job making their characters feel like fully realized people despite their eccentric qualities. Griffiths also does a great job sustaining a low-key, breezy tone to her film, one that makes it effortless to invest in Ellie’s quest to confront her past. Lucky Them is far from extraordinary, but so what? I wish more movies could be as consistently charming as this. [C.J.]
Availability: Out now on DVD and available to rent or buy on iTunes.
I’m going to take a bit of a defensive stance here, since Open Windows got a thrashing from critics when it came out (its average rating on Rotten Tomatoes is 33%). One of the main criticisms lobbied against Nacho Vigalondo’s film was its stupidity, dumb plot twists piled on top of each other, technology that made no sense, and an intriguing gimmick that eventually gets tossed off. But give Open Windows a break. Do you honestly think a movie that casts Sasha Grey as an A-list actress not willing to do nude scenes doesn’t know what it’s doing? Open Windows is as fun as it is silly, a visually inventive little thriller taking place entirely on someone’s computer screen. Vigalondo throws some clunky messaging about the dangers of technology in there, but he’s far more impressive when he prefers showing over telling. One of the film’s gimmicks is a piece of software (seriously, the programs in this movie make the “Zoom, enhance” stuff on CSI look 100% real) that renders people and locations into abstract, polygonal shapes made up of multiple camera angles. It’s a strange sight to behold, and a pretty fascinating way of showing how modern technology distorts the way we see things. The originality in something like that alone makes it easy to forgive any shortcomings Open Windows might have. [C.J.]
Availability: Available to rent or buy on iTunes.
When I caught The Overnighters at Hot Docs last March, I felt it was going to make waves when it finally got released. Unfortunately, things didn’t turn out that way; it’s in the running for a Best Documentary nomination at the Oscars, but despite critical praise The Overnighters hasn’t taken off with audiences. It’s a huge shame too, since The Overnighters feels like the kind of documentary people will look back on and revere years from now. It’s a remarkable look at the town of Williston, ND, one of the only towns in America that found itself booming during the country’s recent economic hardships. Jay Reinke, the town’s Lutheran minister, allows people arriving in town looking for work to sleep in his church, and his commitment to helping out those in need of shelter triggers a disastrous chain of events. It’s incredible filmmaking, and my pick for the best documentary of 2014. Run to catch this one if it’s playing near you; calling The Overnighters unforgettable feels like an understatement. [C.J.]
Availability: Drafthouse Films currently have the film rolling out in a limited release across the US. No word on home video/VOD availability yet, but you can arrange a screening in your town through here.
As I’ve gotten older, I’m become more and more cynical about movies that seem like blatant crowd pleasers – I can see right through those middlebrow films taking on fairly obvious and safe political stances, playing them off as something progressive. Matthew Warchus’s Pride fits this description, and yet it somehow hit just the right spot for me. The mid-80s true-life story of a group of young gay and lesbian activists raising money for a small community of striking miners is incredibly sweet, big-hearted and funny. It hits many of the well-trodden gay and lesbian cinematic tropes, but the relationship between the two groups gives a new perspective on the issues, with a bit of fish-out-of-water humor that feels refreshing. Pride also scores one of the year’s best ensembles, with great performances from veterans Imelda Staunton, Paddy Considine and Bill Nighy, along with relative newcomers Ben Schnetzer and Faye Marsay. And if that’s not enough, what other film features an extended dance sequence with Dominic West and disco? Despite being one of the most successful indies in its native UK (it beat out Mr. Turner, Calvary and The Imitation Game, all films with a much higher profile, for the British Independent Film Award), and a decent theatrical release, I don’t feel Pride got much love stateside. Outside of a rather surprising Golden Globe nomination in the Best Musical or Comedy category, I haven’t seen the film get much mention with critics as one of the year’s best. Pride certainly deserves more attention from us yanks. [Aaron]
Availability: Out on Blu-ray/DVD and available to rent/buy on iTunes.
A Spell to Ward off the Darkness
A film I saw very early in 2014 that still feels like I only saw it yesterday, A Spell to Ward off the Darkness follows a quiet, unnamed man (Robert A.A. Lowe) as he tries out three completely different lifestyles: living on an Estonian commune, living alone in a Finnish forest, and fronting a black metal band in Norway. Directors Ben Rivers and Ben Russell come from a background that includes experimental filmmaking and ethnography, and through their film’s structure put a heavy emphasis on how location defines a person, as well as throwing in plenty of existential and philosophical themes. Their approach is completely absorbing, but it’s in the film’s final third that Rivers & Russell let out a loud, transcendent howl as they observe Lowe perform a concert with his band. Not many people had the chance to catch A Spell to Ward off the Darkness last year, but in my eyes it’s one of the year’s biggest cinematic achievements. It’s a truly unique and transfixing experience through-and-through. [C.J.]
Availability: Still in limited theatrical release at the moment, and currently streaming on Fandor. Readers across the pond (or people with region free capabilities) can purchase a Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack in the UK.
Stop the Pounding Heart
Since 2011, Italian filmmaker Roberto Minervini has made three films taking place in Texas, using nonprofessional actors and seamlessly merging documentary with fiction. Stop the Pounding Heart is the final film in this trilogy (note: the films aren’t linked narratively, so you don’t have to see the other two first), and quite possibly the best one out of the lot. Minervini follows Sara, a 14-year-old living with her Christian family on a goat farm. Her family is extremely devout, with her mother home schooling Sara and her siblings with teachings from the Bible. Sara starts hanging out with Colby, a young bull rider, and soon goes into a crisis of faith over whether or not she should follow her desires or the role God intends for her. It’s hard to find a moment in here that feels forced or set-up; Minervini appears to create a fictional narrative from his documentary footage, and it’s fascinating to see how well his methods evoke Sara’s inner struggles with such potency. Minervini never shows an ounce of judgment towards his subjects’ lifestyle either, and by doing so he opens the film up to explore fascinating issues delving well below the surface. [C.J.]
Availability: Big World Pictures are currently showing the film in limited release across the US. No word yet on when the film will be available on home video.
Vic + Flo Saw A Bear
Released early in 2014, Denis Cote’s Vic + Flo Saw a Bear is quite a beguiling film. It’s quirky, but Cote’s approach is so precise (yet off-kilter at the same time) it’s on a completely different planet than the sort of indie comedy you’d expect. It’s like a thriller that doesn’t realize what it is until much later. The title characters are lovers from prison. At the beginning, Vic goes to stay at a dying relative’s after she’s out of jail on parole. Flo eventually joins her, and the two try to start a life together in rural Quebec. For a time, Cote hits a really funny groove with his film as his characters’ uncompromising attitude clashes with everyone they encounter (including Vic’s parole officer). Eventually things take an unexpected turn, although it’s easy to go along with the film’s abrupt shift in tone. Vic + Flo is the best kind of unexpected movie, one where it’s impossible to guess what will happen from one minute to the next. And in case you’re wondering: they don’t see a bear. You’ll have to watch the film to take a guess at the title’s meaning. [C.J.]
Availability: Available now on DVD, Netflix Instant, iTunes and other VOD services.
Watchers of the Sky
Raphael Lemkin dedicated his entire life to stopping genocide from ever occurring again (he actually invented the word “genocide” as part of his quest to make it a recognizable crime), but his efforts were barely noticed. He died penniless, with less than a dozen people showing up to his funeral. Edet Belzberg’s documentary aims to give Lemkin the treatment he deserves by focusing on several people around the world still continuing his fight today. What her documentary shows is a beautiful portrait of the human condition, of people continually fighting against the current to make the future a better place. Lemkin, as well as the different subjects Belzberg profiles, know they’ll face impossible odds. They know they’ll go to their grave without seeing their dreams and goals realized, and with little appreciation from others for what they’ve done. But they know their actions will make it easier for the next generation to continue the fight, and that their own needs are trumped by the scale of their battle. There’s nothing more awe-inspiring than seeing that level of selflessness on display. [C.J.]
Availability: Currently in a limited theatrical release.
White Bird in a Blizzard
Not many people liked Gregg Araki’s latest film (including some of us on this very site), but count me as a fan of White Bird in a Blizzard. Taking place in the ’80s, White Bird focuses on the coming of age of Kat (Shailene Woodley), a bored suburban teenager with little else to do besides sleep with the cute boy across the street. One day her mom (Eva Green, in full-out Virginia Woolf mode) disappears, and from there the film turns into a sort of lazy mystery. Yes, Kat wants to find out what happened to her mom, but she’s also busy trying to figure out herself as she transitions from high school to college. Araki shoots the film with a unique, melancholy tone, underscored by gorgeous cinematography and a killer soundtrack (no matter what your opinion of Araki is, his music taste is impeccable). And it should be mentioned that this is by far Woodley’s best work to date, showing that she’s the real deal within her group of young, up and coming actors. In my eyes, this is Araki’s best film since Mysterious Skin. [C.J.]
Availability: Currently on VOD, and will get a DVD & Blu-Ray release on January 20th.
2014 saw a lot of great new talent emerging behind the camera, including Israeli writer/director Talya Lavie. Zero Motivation, her debut feature, focuses on young female soldiers counting the days until their mandatory conscription finishes. Close friends Zohar and Daffi can’t stand their boring office work, but soon a strange series of events leads to a falling out between the two. Lavie structures her film in a way similar to her characters’ feelings of frustration and boredom. She’ll switch focus at times, suddenly following a different character on the base, or even introduce some surreal elements into the mix. It all comes together to make a confidently pleasant experience, one that’s surprisingly funny and likable. The film’s episodic structure (split into three parts), and emphasis on character over narrative make Zero Motivation feel like an extended pilot for a TV sitcom about soldiers dealing with their humdrum day-to-day lives. And I won’t lie: if it actually was a TV show, I’d probably tune in every week. [C.J.]
Availability: Currently in a limited theatrical release.