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24 Movies You Probably Missed This Year, But Should Totally See

Just because these 2014 movies flew under the radar — and each grossed less than $10 million at the U.S. box office this year — that doesn't mean they aren't so very worth your time.

1. Actress

Playing Theresa D'Agostino in Seasons 3 and 4 of The Wire was a major break for Brandy Burre, the biggest role of her career. But she retired not long after to move to upstate New York to raise her two children with her then-partner Tim Reinke. Filmmaker Robert Greene was her neighbor in the small town of Beacon, and made this fascinating portrait of Burre keeping house, trying to get back into acting, and navigating the end of her relationship. It's a documentary, but it's also a dreamily subjective peek into the mind-set of someone who's always performing, and always aware of the camera. Burre is constantly trying to reshape the movie of her life — she's been playing the role of a Douglas Sirk housewife for a while, and now she's trying to find herself a new one. Greene's film is small, but so worth seeking out — it reshapes what you think docs can be like, and what they can do. —Alison Willmore

Where you can see it: In theaters

2. Blue Ruin

The stealthily brilliant premise of Jeremy Saulnier's lo-fi thriller is that sad-eyed hero Dwight (Macon Blair) approaches his quest for revenge like he's the hero of a much slicker movie than the one he's actually in. When the man who murdered his parents is released from prison, Dwight's attempt to kill the guy ends up being a sloppy, wince-inducing mess, and things only escalate from there until he's in a standoff with a whole family, battling over wrongs that will never be righted. Dwight's not stupid — like most humans, he's not a natural killing machine. Blue Ruin's well-staged action pile-up ends up being as believable, surprising, and occasionally as funny as it is tragic. —A.W.

Where you can see it: On DVD and Blu-ray, digital rental, and Netflix streaming

3. Calvary

Brendan Gleeson stars in what is legitimately the role of a lifetime in Calvary, writer-director John Michael McDonagh's second film and also his second to star Irish actor Gleeson. As Father James, a priest who received his calling late in life after the death of his wife, Gleeson's wisdom and solidity is balanced out by wry, salty years of secular experience. His indisputable goodness exists in a realm of abuse, despair, infidelity, anger, and vice for which he can only give his counsel. Over the course of a week, he deals with his daughter's (Kelly Reilly) recent suicide attempt, his parishioners' individual miseries, and the man who's vowed to kill him as retaliation for childhood molestation at the hands of another priest. Calvary sketches out a world in which pain is unavoidable, but forgiveness is divine. —A.W.

Where you can see it: On DVD and Blu-ray, and for digital rental and purchase

4. Citizenfour

The thing about filmmaker Laura Poitras' documentary-as-cyberthriller is that, even if you think you know subject Edward Snowden's story, Citizenfour drops you into his surveillance-state existence, making you feel that every bit of paranoia he displays is earned. As Poitras and journalist Gleen Greenwald hole up with the whistleblower–traitor–mild-mannered 29-year-old former National Security Agency contractor, the world swirls outside their Hong Kong hotel room in a way that makes the present look terrifyingly like a dystopian future. —A.W.

Where you can see it: In theaters

5. Dear White People

The secret of Justin Simien's acidly funny directorial debut is that, despite the title, it's not about white people at all — it's about the experiences of being black in a mostly white population, as lived by four students at a high-end college. Some are militant, some are model students, and some linger at the edges of different groups, trying to figure out where they belong. Simien's smartly observed movie combines normal college identity angst with the hundreds of unintended slights, misunderstandings, and generalizations you have to deal with as a minority, deftly exploring how they can sting and alienate even when there's no malice meant. —A.W.

Where you can see it: In theaters

6. Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me

Elaine Stritch, who died this year, was a goddamn national treasure, full stop. It would take much more than one feature documentary to capture the breadth of her talent and legacy, so this one doesn't try. Instead, it simply follows this Broadway fixture and singular performer as she lives her life while rehearsing and performing a one-woman cabaret show — at 89 years old. You see Stritch at her best and worst, and it is abundantly clear she would not have wanted it any other way. —Adam B. Vary

Where you can see it: DVD, digital rental and purchase, and Netflix streaming

7. Enemy

Adam (Jake Gyllenhaal), a downbeat college instructor, rents a silly comedy on a lark, and for a brief, fleeting moment, he notices that a bellhop in the background looks exactly like him. He tracks down the actor, Anthony (also Gyllenhaal), and learns he's a cocky jerk with a pregnant wife. They meet and things get even weirder. Spiders are involved somehow, and possibly some kind of oppressive government conspiracy. Or not! Enemy is a challenging film, with very little spelled out, but Gyllenhaal is wildly compelling in both roles, and the movie has one of scariest endings of any film I've ever seen. You've been warned. —A.B.V.

Where you can see it: Blu-ray, DVD, and digital rental and purchase

8. Force Majeure

A Swedish family on vacation in the Alps has an alarming encounter with an avalanche. It's the result of a controlled explosion, but for a moment, it looks like it's real and going to take out the café where they're having lunch. How patriarch Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) instinctively reacts to the danger — by running away and abandoning his wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) as she tries to protect their two children — starts slowly fracturing his marriage once the snow has cleared. Ruben Östlund's droll movie is a dry send-up of modern masculinity and gender expectations that plays out against the pitilessly magnificent backdrop of a mountain ski resort. —A.W.

Where you can see it: On DVD and Blu-ray on Feb. 10

9. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

In one of this year's two impossibly hip vampire movies (see No. 17), writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour doesn't just offer up an avenging feminist bloodsucker; she places her heroine in a surreal Iranian city with other outcasts, criminals, and streetwalkers. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a ferocious genre-buster that feels like an '80s indie and something indescribably new at the same time, with Sheila Vand playing the title "Girl" as a slinky, scary, lonely creation, in her eyeliner and chador. Her budding romance with the gentle Arash (Arash Marandi) manages to be ominous and intensely sweet. And the immortal creature of the night becoming a shy girl bonding over records with a boy in one of the year's most luscious scenes. —A.W.

Where you can see it: In theaters

10. The Guest

With The Guest, director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett set out to make a movie with the feel of an '80s thriller like The Terminator or Halloween. The result is so much fun, it's a crime the movie didn't perform as well as the pair's previous slasher hit You're Next. Dan Stevens leaves Downton Abbey in the dust as David, a soldier home from war who looks up the Peterson family and claims to have served with their son, who was killed in action. His blond-haired, blue-eyed, all-American faultlessness hides some secrets, and part of the movie's many pleasures is in figuring out how sinister his agenda actually is. —A.W.

Where you can see it: For digital purchase now and on DVD and Blu-ray on Jan. 6

11. The Immigrant

If there were any justice in awards season, Marion Cotillard would win her second Academy Award in February for her tremendous performance in The Immigrant (or for her equally good one in the even better, but less flashy, Two Days, One Night). But James Gray's movie got unceremoniously dumped in theaters in May and is receiving no Oscar push, so I'll stump for it here: As Ewa Cybulska, a Polish woman arriving in New York in 1921, Cotillard embodies the hope and the dark realities of the American dream, plucked from Ellis Island and swept up into the untrustworthy embrace of shady entrepreneur Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), targeted for her beauty and her vulnerability. Ewa learns quickly that there's no counting on being rescued when she's caught up between Bruno and his dashing cousin Emil (Jeremy Renner), but she develops her own leverage in refusing to let Bruno rationalize away what he's doing. It's a role unusual in its power. —A.W.

Where you can see it: For streaming on Netflix

12. Jodorowsky’s Dune

In the mid-'70s, Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky — who had made art film sensations El Topo and The Holy Mountain — got it in his head that he was destined to adapt Frank Herbert's seminal sci-fi novel Dune into not only an epic feature film, but the movie to end all movies. "For me, Dune will be the coming of a god" is how he puts it in this hypnotic documentary about his efforts, and, indeed, his ambition was as limitless as his collaborators (including artists H.R. Giger and Jean "Moebius" Giraud) were talented. Alas, the movie never came to be, but at least we have this film to capture Jodorowsky's infectious manic spirit. —A.B.V.

Where you can see it: Blu-ray, DVD, and digital purchase

13. Locke

Locke is one big test case for how compelling Tom Hardy can be, and the answer turns out to be very. The whole movie consists only of Hardy in a car, driving down to London on a featureless stretch of the M1 motorway at night while having conversations on the phone. And it's utterly absorbing, thanks to Hardy's performance and to writer-director Steven Knight's script, which captures a man knowingly, regretfully imploding his stable, happy existence. Construction foreman and family man Ivan Locke (Hardy) has been principled and restrained all his life, but one uncharacteristic moment is having immense consequences for him. The film is cunning in how it allows these moments to unfold, while fleshing out a character study of a man determined to do right, no matter the personal cost. —A.W.

Where you can see it: On DVD and Blu-ray, via digital rental and purchase, and streaming on Amazon Prime

14. Love Is Strange

One of the more satisfying developments of our post-Prop 8 culture is how many different stories about same-sex couples are being told, like this one about an artist named Ben (John Lithgow) and a music instructor named George (Alfred Molina) who have been together for 39 years, with most of that time spent in their own lovely New York apartment. But when they are finally legally married, George loses his job at the Catholic school where he teaches, and they are forced, suddenly, to live apart: Ben with his grown nephew (Darren Burrows), his nephew's wife (Marisa Tomei), and their teenage son (Charlie Tahan), and George with two young gay cop friends (Cheyenne Jackson and Manny Perez) who live in Ben and George's old building. Co-writer–director Ira Sachs understands the subtle strains this time apart places not just on Ben and George, but also on the people around them, with a specificity born of decades spent in the cramped living spaces of New York. You feel like you know these people to their marrow — and that is the most you could wish from any film, really. —A.B.V.

Where you can see it: Blu-ray and DVD starting Jan. 13

15. Obvious Child

Abortion seems like the last possible subject for a successful romantic comedy, and yet, that is precisely what co-writer–director Gillian Robespierre has pulled off with Obvious Child. Donna (Jenny Slate) is a twentysomething confessional stand-up comedian with a perpetually arrested life that is made much more complicated after a drunken one-night stand with a handsome, kind-of-square dude from Vermont (Jake Lacy) results in an unwanted pregnancy. Robespierre and Slate make for a terrific partnership, as they walk the precarious tightrope of playing Donna's situation for comedy and drama without ever tipping into crassness or after-school–special schmaltz. This was another Sundance hit that made a miniscule impact at the box office ($3.1 million! Argh!), but this was easily one of the most thoughtful and gratifying comedies of the year. —A.B.V.

Where you can see it: Blu-ray, DVD, and digital rental and purchase

16. The One I Love

A married couple in crisis (Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass) is sent by their therapist (Ted Danson) to an idyllic mansion to work out their issues. What they discover there is odd and fascinating, capturing perfectly how we can project and idealize our significant others in small and large ways. To say any more would be to ruin this movie's twisting fun, so I won't. Suffice it to say, Moss proves again what a nimble and effortless actor she is, and Duplass continues his exploration of the charming hypocrisies of the modern heterosexual man. —A.B.V.

Where you can see it: Blu-ray, DVD, digital rental and purchase, and Netflix streaming

17. Only Lovers Left Alive

You might think there is no possible way to tell a vampire story that feels in any way new or original. And then you see Tilda Swinton as a 3,000-year-old vampire named Eve with a massive regal mane of animal-like hair, swanning through Tangiers with an inscrutable grin, thinking about her beloved husband Adam (played by Tom Hiddleston with equal languorous glamor), a mere 500-year-old living like a goth rock recluse in Detroit. And then you realize, Oh, right, never seen anything like this before. Writer-director Jim Jarmusch (Broken Flowers, Down by Law, Stranger Than Paradise) has rarely found subjects that fit his deliberate sense of pacing and wry fits of humor as perfectly as Only Lovers Left Behind's Eve and Adam. Drink them in and marvel. —A.B.V.

Where you can see it: Blu-ray, DVD, and digital purchase

18. Pride

In the mid-'80s, the U.K. was rocked by a confrontation between striking coal miners and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher that still reverberates in that country today. But one aspect of that period that has been unknown to even those who followed the strike closely is the group of gay and lesbian activists who saw their own oppression in the plight of the miners, and chose to come to their aid. That story has been transformed into a spectacularly rousing film about how the political really is personal, with a fabulous ensemble cast including Imelda Staunton, Bill Nighy, Ben Schnetzer, Dominic West, Paddy Considine, and Andrew Scott. And it barely made a blip in theaters. Rectify that situations in your homes! —A.B.V.

Where you can see it: Blu-ray and DVD starting Dec. 23

19. The Skeleton Twins

A hit at Sundance, The Skeleton Twins stars Saturday Night Live alumni Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig as estranged twin siblings Milo and Maggie, who reunite after news of Milo's failed suicide attempt interrupts Maggie's impending suicide attempt. I know, a laff riot, right? And yet, this film is indeed funny — and moving and dark and sublime — with a performance by Hader that makes clear he's just as rigorously talented as his co-star. The tricky storyline apparently kept audiences at bay — it's only grossed $5.3 million at the box office since opening in September — but between Mark Heyman and Craig Johnson's humane script, Johnson's easeful direction, and a killer lip sync to Starship's "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now," this was one of the most satisfying crowdpleasers of the year. Treat yourself to it. —A.B.V.

Where you can see it: Blu-ray, DVD, and digital rental and purchase

20. Snowpiercer

The very premise of co-writer–director Bong Joon-ho's post-apocalyptic sci-fi thriller sounds like an Occupy activist's fevered nightmare come to life: After an attempt to stop global warming plunged the planet into a perpetual frigid winter, what is left of humanity lives on a massive train that takes 365 days to circumnavigate the globe. The wealthy live in comfort in the front cars. The huddled masses live in squalor in the rear.

As a parable for our 1 percent age, that may be a bit on the nose. But as a movie, it is always a wildly inventive and engrossing experience, as a steerage revolt led by Chris Evans' reluctant Curtis fights all the way to the mysterious conductor (Ed Harris) living in the engine at the front of the train. Things just get increasingly gonzo as they move forward, with Tilda Swinton delivering an outrageously entertaining performance as the conductor's passionate (and unhinged) deputy. It's unlike anything you will have seen, with an ending so dark and twisted you'll likely be thinking about it long after the film is over. I know I have. —A.B.V.

Where you can see it: Blu-ray, DVD, digital rental and purchase, and Netflix streaming

21. Starred Up

You can currently see Jack O'Connell in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken, where he plays a real person and suffers terribly at war and loses weight, all tried and true signals of actorly seriousness. But O'Connell is a million times more interesting and vital in this scrappy British prison drama from director David Mackenzie, in which he plays a 19-year-old whose violent behavior earns him an early transfer to adult prison, where, for the first time, he ends up in the company of his father (Ben Mendelsohn). Eric Love (O'Connell) hasn't quite polished himself into the type of hard man who'll forever be in and out of lockup, but he's getting there, and Starred Up presents a gripping dilemma: The behavior that makes someone a good prisoner in the behind-bars world of macho posturing can also doom him from ever having a normal life. —A.W.

Where you can see it: For digital purchase and rental now, and will be on DVD on Feb. 3

22. We Are the Best!

Sorry, The Fault in Our Stars — the best bittersweet on-screen portrait of adolescence was this kick-ass punk rock saga from director Lukas Moodysson. It's no surprise that a charmingly humble Swedish movie about Stockholm middle-schoolers went so grossly under-seen, but We Are the Best! shouldn't be allowed to slip by — it's funny, tender, and painfully recognizable in its portrayal of youthful joys, awkwardness, and angst. Friends Bobo (Mira Barkhammar), Klara (Mira Grosin), and Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne) attempt to start a punk band despite that fact that, in 1982, the movement's heyday has already passed them by, and two out of the three of them can't play instruments. But punk rock spirit won't be so easily held back, though cute boys and disapproving parents provide bigger dramas that have to be overcome. —A.W.

Where you can see it: On DVD and Blu-ray, via digital rental, and streaming on Netflix

23. What If

The fine art of romantic comedies is underappreciated, and, judging from Hollywood's output over the last decade, criminally undernourished. Which makes this tale of Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe), a romantically challenged ex-med student, and Chantry (Zoe Kazan), a hopelessly romantic animator, that much more charming and delightful. Wallace and Chantry meet at a party and hit it off so well, it is obvious they are meant for each other. The obstacle in their way — Chantry's strapping, totally fine boyfriend Ben (Rafe Spall) — is far less high concept than so many recent rom-coms. What sets the film apart is the crackling dialogue from Elan Mastai's screenplay (based on the play Toothpaste and Cigars), as Wallace, Chantry, and their friends Allan (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Mackenzie Davis) bounce off one another about love and commitment. This film is so fun, and Radcliffe and Kazan carry it with such winning charm and chemistry. Yet, it inexplicably made a pittance at the domestic box office — just $3.5 million! What are you waiting for? Life is short! Watch this film! —A.B.V.

Where you can see it: Blu-ray, DVD, and digital rental and purchase

24. Whiplash

With J.K. Simmons' performance as Fletcher, a rabid, abusive jazz band instructor, earning him front-runner status for Best Supporting Actor in this year's awards season, chances are high that interest in this movie will continue to spike in the run up to the Oscars. That's as it should be; writer-director Damien Chazelle has crafted a stunning, singular film about just what lengths we will push ourselves to reach perfection, and what we sacrifice when we do. In another year, Miles Teller (The Spectacular Now) — as the aspiring drummer who falls under Fletcher's thrall, and lash — would also be earning awards buzz for his immersive performance. He'll have to be content with delivering his strongest performance to date. —A.B.V.

Where you can see it: In theaters