16 The Gift
The Gift was sold as a thriller, but it’s so much more interesting than that. Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall buy a house together in a new city to better accommodate their plans to start a family. When they run into an old classmate of Bateman’s, played by director Joel Edgerton, Bateman wants nothing to do with him. So naturally it isn’t long before he starts showing up with gifts and refusing to leave even when it’s clear he’s outstayed his welcome and wants for social grace.
Bateman’s growing aggravation every time he sees his “old friend” suggests that there’s something between them he doesn’t want to get out. By the time Hall figures out that there’s something nefarious between the lines, it’s much too late. The Gift is about violent masculine pride as a disease in remission that can flare up without warning. His portrayal of a seemingly harmless yuppie turns ugly fast, revealing the inescapable brutality of a certain kind of American man.
15 Big Sky
Jorge Michel Grau follows up his cult sleeper We Are What We Are, about cannibals in Mexico City, with this tightly coiled neo-noir. Bella Thorne is Hazel, a young woman suffering from crippling agoraphobia. Her mother (Kyra Sedgwick) pays a shuttle driver who allows Hazel to ride in a box in secret during a trip to a treatment facility, saving her from looking out the windows. When the van is attacked by gunmen, leaving everyone but her injured mother dead, she has to face her fear of the great outdoors if she wants to live.
Big Sky is, funnily enough, a little film with a great sense of place and a cracker of a high-concept. Grau excellently details the grueling process of taking just one step when it could lead to both real and irrationally imagined danger.
14 The Grief of Others
Patrick Wang is slowly becoming the most dependably sensitive and inventive independent filmmaker in America. His latest, The Grief of Others, based on Leah Hager Cohen’s book, is a panoramic look at a family handling a plethora of tragedies in their own odd ways.
Father John (Trevor St. John) is caught between involving himself too much with his family and burying himself in work. Son Paul (Jeremy Shinder) is perpetually embarrassed by his family’s and his own feelings. Stepdaughter Jessica (Sonya Harum) has shown up after a rough break-up and becomes involved in a neighbor’s emotional turmoil rather than deal with her own. Youngest daughter Biscuit (Oona Laurence) is skipping school and acting dangerously, and mother Ricky (Wendy Moniz) is stuck in the middle of it all.
Wang invests fully in each character through experimental editing and patient direction, allowing the images and performances to burrow into the viewer’s mind. The Grief of Others is about finding a way out of tragedy’s maze and Wang is the perfect guide.
13 Crimson Peak
Guillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak is many things, none of which seemed to satisfy audiences. It’s a gothic fright film in the vein of Hammer Films, an homage to Franco-era Spanish horror, a luscious romance that recalls Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights and it’s the kind of aching, emotional ghost story that seems pulled from one of Edgar Allen Poe or Mary Shelley’s drawers.
It’s a gorgeous object, the kind that only Del Toro makes, one about not needing to succumb to our past mistakes, and the possibility of blazing trails even in the least imaginative societies. Mia Wasikowska plays Edith Cushing, a writer who falls under the sway of charming aristocrat Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), who’s fallen on hard times. Her father (the always great Jim Bever) doesn’t want her seeing the handsome, broke stranger, but the old man’s untimely death drives Edith right into Thomas’ arms.
Of course, romance and mourning isn’t all that’s waiting at Thomas’ estate, a crumbling English manor nicknamed Crimson Peak, which literally "bleeds" liquified red clay from its walls.
12 The Forbidden Room
Guy Maddin was using old film formats for wry, queasy nostalgic purposes long before Tim & Eric perfected the idea on the Awesome Show. Maddin’s latest film (co-directed with artist Evan Johnson) is a tip of the cap right back at the two outsider art curators, a series of “lost” film fragments that swallow and give birth to each other at odd junctures.
Starting off as a strange instructional video, The Forbidden Room then becomes a tale of men trapped in a sinking submarine and then into a lumberjack’s search for his kidnapped love and on and on and on. The Forbidden Room is concentrated doses of Maddin’s perfectly insane sense of humor and irreverent love for all things antiquated and obscure.
The funniest film of the year by a comfortable margin, The Forbidden Room will have you cackling like a vengeful ghost if you can get with its one-of-a-kind, idiosyncratic style.
11 Mississippi Grind
Steeped in the bad luck and smoky atmosphere of 70s buddy movies, but comfortably modern in its depressing milieu, Mississippi Grind is as much about gambling as it is about the country’s need for a break after the financial collapse.
Ben Mendelsohn (good in everything) and Ryan Reynolds (starting to be) are two card sharps who love saying yes a little too much. Both have abandoned relationships, lost jobs and ruined their lives and both believe they could turn it all around if they just had one good hand of cards with enough money riding on it. Their trip together is desperate and sad but their belief in each other as friends and good luck charms is touching.
Directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden present America as a series of small towns slowly dying while money is spent everywhere except where it’s needed.
10 The Assassin
Unspeakably beautiful and soft as velvet, The Assassin is a different sort of martial arts film. Really calling it a martial arts film is a bit misleading. It’s a piece of transcendent poetry occasionally broken up with oddly staged sword fights and hand-to-hand combat.
A woman (Shu-Qi) is sent to kill a politician, whom her masters don’t realize was once her lover. The Assassin doesn’t progress from scene to scene so much as it drifts along the fabric of its heroes’ lives. The film’s rhythms invite viewers to let themselves fall into a trance, propelled by the decorous interiors, lavish costumes and gently powerful gestures of its heroes.
Like a suppler take on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; The Assassin wants you to imagine its idyllic past and become lost in its tangle of damaged souls.
Rick Alverson is a gold-medal winner in the sport of discomfort, and his latest is Nadia Comaneci in Montreal ’76-level amazing.
It follows a fake stand-up comedian (played by the real fake stand-up comedian Gregg Turkington) on a small jaunt through some of the most upsetting venues in the southwestern United States. His tenuous grip on his identity slips completely out of his grasp as he comes closer to the end of his run of shows. His act, already pretty alienating, grows more hideous and acidic all the time.
Alverson turns his life into a nightmare, a freakish reality show whose lead character wants to escape so badly he’ll put himself through any embarrassment to be free of his own skin. There is no other American film like Entertainment this year. It must be seen.
8 Here’s To The Future!
A film about the making of a remake of a scene from a forgotten film called Cabin in the Cotton, Here’s To The Future! is a little tough to pin to a genre. The previous descriptor isn’t inaccurate, but it hardly gets at why Here’s To The Future! is such a joyous little movie.
Gena Telaroli, an up-and-coming voice in American film, captures the rehearsals and set up of her experiment and all the banter of her cast and crew. You’re in the room with them, slowly getting on their wavelength as they prepare to shoot one scene a dozen different times with different actors. The repetition, shot through with that same behind-the-scenes footage, gets at the heart of collaboration and the truth of what it feels like to make a low-budget movie.
The look on everyone’s face as they watch the dailies and laugh overflows with unexpected warmth and poignancy.
7 The Mend
Many films this year (Mistress America, Wild Canaries, Heaven Knows What, Time Out Of Mind, Hungry Hearts, Glass Chin) showed a New York never before seen in motion pictures. Not because no one had thought to find forgotten corners of the city, but because the social landscape evolves so rapidly. New York now is acidic, a mix of old and new designs, integrity and dishonesty.
The Mend captures the real and the fake New York by splitting it between two brothers (Stephen Plunkett and Josh Lucas) who represent a fairy tale idea of the kind of people who used to make it in the big apple vs the people who can afford to live there now.
Wonderful writer/director John Magary hands them some of the most amazing defeated dialogue and a cozy French directorial style. In the end, they find the new New York is an exhausting place, but also kind of magical.
6 The Vatican Tapes
Mark Neveldine, one half of the team who gave us the Crank movies and the excellent Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, struck out on his own for the totally unsung The Vatican Tapes. It’s an exorcist film, and unlike the vast majority of those, it justifies itself through style.
Olivia Taylor Dudley starts acting weird, then violent, then drives everyone in her group home to murderous insanity. Michael Peña plays the local priest investigating the case and is typically excellent. But it’s Neveldine and cinematographer Gerardo Mateo Madrazo who’re the real stars of the show. They fashion an atmosphere of twisted suburban paranoia just by using degraded digital video. The camera throws itself through space like an addled cosmonaut, discovering the perspective of someone whose world has been thrown out of whack in the process.
5 Bone Tomahawk
Westerns, lately, have become the province of low-budget filmmakers and, uh, Quentin Tarantino. Hopefully, more viewers will bemoan the loss of the genre when they see Bone Tomahawk, the gnarliest film of 2015.
A woman is taken by a tribe of cannibals that even other Native Americans fear and revile, so her husband (Patrick Wilson), the sheriff (Kurt Russell), his deputy (Richard Jenkins) and a cowboy (Matthew Fox) go after her. It goes shockingly bad. Wilson breaks his leg, bandits steal the horses, and the cannibals outsmart them handily. All of that is, of course, the point. Manifest destiny is taught much more fiercely than diplomacy or common sense, so no one but the dumb and confident make the laws and gain property.
Bone Tomahawk punishes its erstwhile searchers with every imaginable torment in the goriest possible detail.
Peter Sarsgaard has been the unsung backbone of american independent film for over a decade, and his fans have reason to hope he’ll finally win every possible award for his performance as infamous experimental psychologist Stanley Milgram.
Sarsgaard plays him as a perpetually put-upon nebbish burdened by what he suspects about humanity. Naturally, he’ll grow more hunched over and tired as his suspicions are confirmed through his work studying human behavior and obedience. Director Michael Almereyda (whose similarly fabulous Cymbeline should also be seen by fans of hungry, adventurous cinema) crafts a world of false surfaces and backgrounds to match Sarsgaard’s slowly peeling back the layers of the American psyche. A more warm, exciting morality play you won’t see this year.
3 Uncertain Terms
Nathan Silver’s Uncertain Terms is like Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H* in miniature.
David Dahlborn plays a troubled 30-something who goes to help out at his aunt’s home for unwed mothers-to-be. He’s trying to work out a failing marriage but he gets distracted by the house full of troubled pregnant teens (played by a murderer’s row of fabulous young actresses like Gina Piersanti, Tallie Medel, Hannah Gross and India Menuez). Silver treats Dahlborn like the very flawed human he is and each of the girls presents a possible path out of his problems, but none of them suggest he fix the life he’s already broken.
A sensitively handled, incredibly well-made movie, Silver could remake this film every few years and never run out of interesting stories.
2 The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
Since 2009’s Sherlock Holmes reboot, Guy Ritchie's style has been based on the slickest set of perimeters of any modern action director. His reboot of the spy series Man From U.N.C.L.E. is, and though these things are difficult to quantify objectively, the coolest movie of the last five years.
Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer play an American and a Russian spy during the height of the Cold War who have to work together to bring down a family of dapper arms dealers. They’re dressed to the nines, they’re Rat Pack charming, they can kill people with their bare hands, and they’re unfairly handsome. Ritchie treats them better than Bond, with a cool pastel color palette, a sense of humor that goes beyond quips, and action choreography much more innovative than anything 007 gets up to.
Man From U.N.C.L.E. was shrugged at upon its release. Rectify this in a hurry, because you’ll want to watch it everyday afterwards.
What did we miss? What are your favorite underrated films of the year? What do you think you’ll be watching in ten years? What are you looking forward to catching before the year ends?
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