Hundreds of movies are released every year, and inevitably, some great ones slip through the cracks. Whether it’s from poor distribution, poor marketing, poor timing, or just bad luck, we’re constantly finding hidden gems in the detritus of history.
The list below, while certainly not inclusive, has something for everybody. With rip-roaring comedies, terrifying horror, gritty mysteries, strange steampunk, and character-driven dramas, you’re sure to find something great to watch in our list of 14 Great Movies You Probably Didn’t See.
You may have heard of Gareth Edwards. He’s directing a revival of a dusty old science fiction saga in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Before taking on Jyn Erso, though (and before bringing back a certain giant lizard in Godzilla), Edwards helmed a small horror film called Monsters. With a budget of less than $500,000, Edwards shot, directed, and edited the film himself.
While such a low budget limited the special effects, Edwards won praise for leaving his monsters largely unseen-a menace felt more than visualized. Crossing the American Southwest, the film is visually beautiful and builds tension like a heating tea-kettle. While the movie's acting performances leave something to be desired, Edwards grand vision and smart use of limited resources make this a can’t miss movie.
13 City of Lost Children
This dark, bizarre, and beautiful film directed by Marc Caro (Delicatessen) and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amelie) is a must-see for fans of Tim Burton. Starring Ron Perlman (Hellboy) and Daniel Emilfork (What’s New, Pussycat) The City of Lost Children (or La cité des enfents perdus) is a steampunk classic and a terrifying examination of madness and immortality.
The film follows Krank (Emilfork), an aging mad scientist who kidnaps children and steals their dreams, as he is unable to dream himself. When carnival strongman One, played by Perlman, ventures to rescue his brother from Krank’s evil machinations, he finds unexpected help in the form of Miette, a young orphan thief. With a cast of bizarre characters, dark set pieces, a twisting soundtrack and inspired acting, City of Lost Children is a delight for any lover of film.
12 Near Dark
Near Dark is a near-forgotten Kathryn Bigelow-directed horror-western from the late eighties. Intertwining vampire, biker, and western mythologies, the film was Bigelow’s first big-budget foray into directing. With stunning visuals and a story which was far ahead of its time, fans of the current slate of vampire romance-dramas will find a meatier story here to sink their fangs into.
Starring Bill Paxton (Twister) and Adrian Pasdar (Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), Near Dark was praised for its cinematography and direction, with the Washington Post stating the film was “both outrageous and poetic; it has extravagant, bloody thrills plus something else – something that comes close to genuine emotion.” A planned remake has been scrapped due to the similarities between the human-vampire love stories in Near Dark and Twilight.
11 The Station Agent
Before he played Game of Thrones’ Tyrion Lannister, Peter Dinklage made waves with his stellar performance in 2003’s The Station Agent. This impeccably-acted and scripted film introduced (sadly, small) audiences to a remarkable actor in a powerful story.
Dinklage plays Finbar McBride, a man with Dwarfism cast adrift following the death of his best friend. McBride relocates, where he becomes a curiosity in a local town while trying to live a life of solitude. Slowly, people work through his defences to varying degrees of success and failure. With a nice supporting performance by Michelle Williams (Brokeback Mountain), this heartbreaking and intriguing film maintains its dignity and humanity even in its most difficult parts.
10 House of Flying Daggers
House of Flying Daggers may make better use of color than any film you’ve ever seen. The vibrant and varied shades are almost 3D in appearance, leaping off the screen and dramatically changing the many moods and settings of the movie. While a wuxia film, like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, it incorporates at least as much love story as martial arts, and mesmerizes viewers with it's constant assault of beauty and movement.
Starring Zhang Ziyi as a blind dancer and Andy Yao as a house guard, the martial arts in this film are more fluid than many of their counterparts. With a ballet-like grace, Zhang does a stellar job of incorporating her character's blindness into her precise and beautiful movements, and the contrast of that blindness with the visual cornucopia unfolding on the screen make House of Flying Daggers a romance for the ages.
9 Black Snake Moan
You’ve seen Samuel L. Jackson do a lot of things. He’s been a mad scientist raising ill-tempered sharks. He’s been a house slave. He’s been a hitman. A Jedi Master. He’s been a bizarre super villain and the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. Like Paul Rudd, Samuel L. Jackson has been in almost every movie you've ever seen. But you’ve never seen him like he is in Black Snake Moan.
In the movie, Jackson plays Lazarus: a poor Christian bluesman who has just seen the dissolution of his marriage. One day, he encounters Rae (Christina Ricci) beaten and near-death on the side of the road. He takes her in and nurses her back to health - while keeping her chained up. It’s a story full of conflict, redemption, anger, and failure, and features strong supporting work by Justin Timberlake as an abusive and damaged boyfriend in the role that showed he could be a serious actor.
8 Swimming to Cambodia
Spalding Gray was a strange and troubled man. Primarily a writer for the theater, Gray’s sparse and deeply personal monologues have been the inspiration for shows like “This American Life,” and “The Moth.” Swimming to Cambodia is the first of three Gray monologues to be adapted for the screen (the others being Monster in a Box and Gray’s Anatomy).
Directed by Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs), the film is simply Gray performing the monologue. Knowing that Gray took his own life years after the this monologue, it feels haunting and otherworldly, looking into the living soul of a dead man. It is sparse, bleak, and it is riveting. Gray’s delivery is as nuanced as his writing. It’s a rare thing to leave a film and feel like you are better for having seeing it; Swimming to Cambodia is one of those rare movies.
Viggo Mortensen and Ed Harris have worked together successfully on number of pictures. They each possess the ability to evoke a dark realism, walking the border between very good and very evil with subtlety and nuance. In Appaloosa, an adaptation of the late Robert B. Parker’s novel of the same name, they walk this same line with aplomb.
Playing lawmen hired to protect a town, the pair exert strict control and even justice. With a villain played by Jeremy Irons (Batman V Superman) and a love interest by Renee Zellweger, the solid cast delivers all-around memorable performances, and the bright line between legal and illegal still leaves plenty of room for men of both inclinations to dwell in the shadows.
6 A History of Violence
Before teaming up in Appaloosa, Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen worked together in 2005’s A History of Violence. Directed by David Cronenberg (The Fly) and adapted from a graphic novel of the same name, it displays the long and inescapable ramifications a violent history exert on a reformed man.
Viggo Mortensen plays Tom Stall, a family man and diner owner who is largely living his dream-until an out-of-town mobster visits his shop and alleges that he is actually a gangster in hiding. The denials, revelations, and ramifications of that visit nearly destroy Stall and his family, and performances by Mortensen, William Hurt, and Ed Harris as a truly menacing villain will have you thinking about the movie days after the credits roll.
5 The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Probably the least-well-known of all the films to star Brad Pitt, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is part western, part morality play, and deeply engaging for its entire three hour length. Dramatizing the real-life events surrounding the death of the famous criminal, it is the memorable acting of a skilled ensemble cast which drives this period piece.
The film, based on a 1983 novel of the same name, chronicles the relationship between the notorious outlaw Jesse James (Pitt) and star-struck newcomer Robert Ford (Casey Affleck). With a stellar cast including Jeremy Renner, Mary-Louise Parker, Sam Shepard, and Zooey Deschanel, the drama leading to and following the titular event is gripping, and the characters are all spot-on. Casey Affleck proves he may be the more talented actor in the Affleck family, with his SAG, Golden Globe, and Oscar-nominated performance and Pitt smolders as James.
In the oft-examined field of time-travel, it can be difficult to find something new to explore. Primer manages to do so and more. Like 2015’s pedestrian teen time travel flick Project Almanac, the accidental discovery of time travel leads to new and unexpected possibilities. Made on a budget of just $7,000, not since The Evil Dead has more been done with less.
Unlike Project Almanac, Doctor Who, or any mainstream movie, however, Primer twists in and out of nonlinear timelines, disorienting the audience in a singularly disturbing way. As friendships are tested, ethical boundaries pushed, and an ever-increasing desire for power and control lead to near-certain destruction, Primer will leave you scratching your head, grabbing the remote, and tapping that rewind button faster than you can say “paradox.”
3 The Impostors
At its heart, The Impostors is a modern-day Marx Brothers film: it’s a cruise-ship romp with hilarious scenes intertwined with a preposterous plot. It’s also one of the greatest comedies almost nobody has seen.
Penned by Stanley Tucci (The Hunger Games) on the heels of his indie-darling Big Night, The Impostors follows down-on-their-luck actors played by Tucci and Oliver Platt (Fargo) and con-men who, after insulting a buffoonish Shakespearean actor (Alfred Molina) accidentally stow away on a cruise ship-wherein a great number of strange and delightful characters reside. With starring roles for Allison Janney, Lily Taylor, Tony Shalhoub, Campbell Scott, Isabella Rossellini, Billy Connolly, and Hope Davis, it is Steve Buscemi as suicidal lounge singer Happy Franks who steals the show.
2 Gone Baby Gone
After reading the reviews for Batman V. Superman, Caped Crusader Ben Affleck may wish he stuck to directing. Given the critical success of Argo, it’s a proposition with which it would be difficult to argue. Before Argo, however, Affleck teamed up with Boston novelist Dennis Lehane (Mystic River) and his brother Casey to write and helm an adaptation of Lehane’s detective novel Gone Baby Gone.
Throughout his career as a writer, Affleck has shown an aptitude to grab the dark underside of Boston lingering beneath the Brahmin on Beacon Hill, and his inaugural directing effort showcases this beautifully. Given the brilliant source material, Affleck wove a great cast (Casey Affleck, Michelle Monaghan, Morgan Freeman, and Ed Harris star) around a career-defining performance by Amy Ryan (Birdman). Lehane’s humor and knack for cutting to the emotional heart of a story are on full display on the screen, and you’ll be riveted for the duration.
1 Sweet and Low Down
Say what you will about Woody Allen (and yes, there’s plenty to say), the man knows how to make a compelling comedy. Whether it’s the humor in the longing of Annie Hall or the bizarre everyman in Zelig, Allen is at his best when he’s pushing at the boundaries of comfortable society, finding the laughs in the misfits and the heart within.
Sweet and Low Down is Allen’s version of a Christopher Guest mockumentary. Interspersed with interviews about fictional 1940s Jazz guitarist Emmet Ray is a narrative story about a broken man, rife with insecurities that manifest in a complete lack of social niceties. Samantha Morton (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) delivers a brilliant and entirely silent role, showcasing a deft humor and remarkable range. Sean Penn’s performance, though, may be his best. It is heartrending and heartwarming, offensive and captivating, and the fantastic soundtrack will stick with you for the rest of your days.
What movies did we miss at the movies and on our list? Let us know in the comments!
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