24 Great Movies You Likely Missed This Year, But Should Totally See
None of these 2015 movies were among the top 100 grossing movies at the domestic box office — but that doesn't mean you shouldn't give them a chance. And don't miss our list of under-the-radar films from the first half of this year.
Like a forgotten episode of Black Mirror, Jennifer Phang's thinky sci-fi drama is set in a near future in which everything's a little sleeker and more competitive, and everyone's increasingly aware of and anxious about falling on the right side of the growing gap between haves and have nots. Jacqueline Kim, who wrote the script with Phang, plays Gwen, a single mom who's been working as the face of the Center for Advanced Health and Living, a euphemistic name for a place that offers cosmetic enhancement and rejuvenation treatments. When the company decides to pass her over for someone younger and more accessible (and, it's implied, less Asian), Gwen agrees to participate in a new, experimental treatment in order to keep her job and make sure her daughter can go to the right schools. Advantageous feels like it's set right on the cusp of a society turning from an exaggerated version of our own to full-on dystopian, and that delicacy is what makes it terrifying. What makes it sad is Gwen's desperate longing to do better for her daughter than she was able to do for herself, even if it means making an incredible sacrifice. —Alison Willmore
Where to see it: Advantageous is streaming on Netflix. It's also available for digital rental and purchase.
2. Best of Enemies
In 1968, desperate for ratings and with little to lose, third-place ABC News decided to do something unusual for its coverage of the Republican and Democratic National Conventions: Give renown public intellectuals William F. Buckley Jr. (a firebrand conservative) and Gore Vidal (a roguish liberal) airtime every night in which to debate the issues of the day. The result was a deliciously vicious and at times explosive series of verbal altercations, and this documentary about them, from directors Morgan Neville (20 Feet From Stardom) and Robert Gordon (Johnny Cash's America), is just as delightful — and insightful. The debates haunted both men far after they aired, and Neville and Gordon outline with great verve how they represented both the beginning of political discourse as televised bloodsport, and the last time men of such unveiled snobbery and unmistakable erudition were allowed to be on television. —Adam B. Vary
Where to see it: Best of Enemies is streaming on Netflix, and is available for digital rental.
3. Big Game
There have been several American-president-in-jeopardy-gets-saved-by-one-man thrillers lately, but I promise that you have never seen anything like this one. The president in question, William Alan Moore (Samuel L. Jackson), is betrayed by a Secret Service agent and has to ditch Air Force One while it's flying over the Finnish wilderness. There he meets Oskari (Onni Tommila), a small 13-year-old kid on a traditional walkabout where he must survive in the wilderness in a hunt for big game to prove he is now a man. Oskari, armed with a bow he hardly has the strength to pull, is the only person who can keep President Moore safe, and Jackson and Tommila — the nephew of director Jalmari Helander (Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale) — establish a winning rapport. Let's be clear: This is a silly, silly movie, but if you meet it on those terms, it is a genuine delight. —A.B.V.
Where to see it: Big Game is available for digital purchase.
One of the most acclaimed movies of the year has been playing in no more than 16 theaters since it opened on Nov. 20. The film will hopefully expand next month in the wake of an expected bevy of Oscar nominations, and then more audiences can drink in director Todd Haynes' finely wrought portrait of the unspoken romance that flourishes between New York upper-class housewife Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) and wide-eyed department store clerk Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) over Christmas and New Year's in 1952. When you do see it (and why wouldn't you, do you hate beauty and emotion and greatness?) please do read my colleague — and friend! — Kate Aurthur's interview with Haynes and Blanchett about the film's could-not-be-more-perfect ending. —A.B.V.
Where to see it: Carol is currently in theaters.
5. Christmas, Again
There's a particular displacement to feeling unhappy around the holidays, when everyone else seems to be basking in the cozy glow of togetherness and shared traditions. Clocking in at just 80 minutes, Charles Poekel's movie defty embodies that sense of melancholy disconnect by way of a lonesome Christmas tree salesman named Noel (Kentucker Audley) who's come from upstate New York to Brooklyn to peddle his wares while trying to get over heartbreak. Noel used to do the annual job with a girl others sometimes ask after, but who's clearly not around this year, and he spend his night shifts huddled in a trailer, trying his hardest to summon enthusiasm that's clearly not there. Christmas, Again looks simple but is deceptively smart in everything it understands needn't be said, from the class divide between Noel and the New Yorkers to whom he's catering to the salt in the wound of sharing the job with a day shift couple who clearly remind him of what he's lost. It's a masterful miniature about being alone at a time when everyone else seems to be coming together. —A.W.
6. Clouds of Sils Maria
Ever since she was released from The Twilight Saga's embrace, Kristen Stewart has celebrated by making a series of weighty and interesting choices. The best of them — so far — was to take a supporting role in this captivating character study as Valentine, the personal assistant to Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche), a legendary-if-fading actor compelled to revisit the play that made her famous, this time in the role of the older woman. Stewart's unfussy performance works brilliantly with Binoche's actress-y volatility, as they rehearse the play in a gorgeous house in the Swiss countryside and let its complex, off-kilter emotions seep into their own relationship. Or is it the other way around? —A.B.V.
Where to see it: Clouds of Sils Maria is available for digital rental and purchase.
7. The Danish Girl
Earlier this year, I stumped for people to see Tangerine, a raucous and wildly entertaining film about two trans women sex workers in modern-day Los Angeles that was shot on the iPhone 5S.
Providing a necessary reminder that stories of trans people contain multitudes, this year also gave us The Danish Girl, a period biopic about Lili Elbe (Eddie Redmayne), one of the first trans women to undergo gender confirmation surgery in the 1920s. Director Tom Hooper (Les Misérables, The King's Speech) brings consummate filmmaking craft and deportment to the story — every shot looks like it could be a painting — and Redmayne brings Lili to life with the same finely calibrated skills with which he won an Oscar for playing Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. The best part about The Danish Girl, however, is the deep, complicated feeling Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina) gives to Lili's wife, Gerda Wegener. This film is also slowly expanding prior to the Oscar nominations, including an expected Best Supporting Actress nod for Vikander, but when you see it, don't be surprised if Vikander strikes you as one of the film's two leads, and should be nominated for Best Actress — because she is, and she should. —A.W.
Where to see it: The Danish Girl is still playing in theaters.
8. The Diary of a Teenage Girl
2015 is year that gave us both a 3D cum shot and a softcore cineplex S&M romance, and yet no moment felt as sexually daring as the one in which 15-year-old Minnie (Bel Powley) drew an "X" in blood from on the thigh of the man who'd just deflowered her — Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), the guy who's been dating Minnie's mom (Kristen Wiig). The relationship between the two is fucked up, but also so wisely drawn so that it's part of Minnie's painful, recognizable growing up, not the point of it. Minnie's smart and sexy and insecure and imperfect, and she's exploring and making some terrible choices, but she also starts to realize her own power, even as she's getting her heart smashed to bits. —A.W.
Where to see it: The Diary of a Teenage Girl is available for preorder on DVD, Blu-ray, and digital rental/purchase.
9. Fort Tilden
According to Vice, this was the year that hipsterdom died. So thank the ironic gods it got the perfect send off right under the wire in Fort Tilden, a caustic comedy about roommates Allie (Claire McNulty) and Harper (Bridey Elliot) and their attempts to make their way across Brooklyn to the Fort Tilden beach in order to pursuit of a cute guy they met the night before. Allie and Harper are monstrous in ways that are specific to their coddled, vapid Williamsburg lifestyle (when getting the loft that they share "sex ready" before heading out, one of them tosses a copy of Infinite Jest on the table). But they're also experiencing a particularly noxious version of a general quarter-life crisis in which everything they do is underscored by a fluttering panic that they should know what they want to be when they grow up by now. Writer-director Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers capture the details of life in New York's most famous borough turned brand wittily and well — the scene in which the girls cross from gentrified Brooklyn to "real" Brooklyn is a wordless but very funny joke — but what makes the film linger is the empathy they have for their protagonists in all their insecure awfulness. Being young can suck. —A.W.
Where to see it: Fort Tilden's available for digital rental/purchase.
France is an increasingly diverse country, but you'd never guess it from the majority of the movies that make their way to the U.S. Céline Sciamma's coming-of-age movie doesn't just explore a sliver of the country that rarely makes it on screen — a poorer, heavily immigrant Paris banlieue. It also follows a teenage girl looking for a place between a country that seems ready to cast her aside and an African-French community with its own expectations for her. Marieme (Karidja Touré) gets shunted to a vocational program because she's too consumed with caring for her younger sisters to gets the grades needed to go to high school. Facing a future in which she can do cleaning work like her mother or have a family, like another young girl she crosses paths with, she instead finds solace in the company of a girl gang headed up by the fierce Lady (Assa Sylla). It's not an escape, but in their company, she finds the confidence to attempt to carve her own future, however uncertain. And in that process, Rihanna's "Diamonds" has never been put to such good use on screen. —A.W.
Where to see it: Girlhood is streaming on Netflix. It's also available on DVD and Blu-ray, and for digital rental/purchase.
11. God Bless the Child
God Bless the Child is a tender but fraught reminder of how seldom we see children really acting like children onscreen. Directors Robert Machoian and Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck know their cast well — Harper, Elias, Arri, Ezra, and Jonah Graham are Machoian's kids, the oldest a teenager and the youngest a baby. Rather than have them recite lines or play characters, the filmmakers turned them loose, and then shaped those scenes into a naturalistic drama about youngsters left to their own devices when their depressive mother leaves them without warning for the day, with no sense of when or if she'll return. The sequences that unfold are filled with the blissful oblivion of children at play as well as the growing alarm that these kids, who emerge with strong, distinct personalities, have been abandoned. It's not an approach that prioritizes story, but God Bless the Child finds room for some small miracles, like the single take in which Harper, tasked as the caretaker as the oldest, puts the crying baby Jonah to sleep with a story. It's real, but it's also magic. —A.W.
Where to see it: God Bless the Child is streaming on Netflix. It's also available on DVD and for digital rental/purchase.
If you are steeped in the world of fashion, you've likely heard of Iris Apfel, the 93-year-old style icon whose vast collection of couture, jewelry, and objets d'art rivals only her own delightfully outsized personality. If, like me, you are lucky to match your belt with your shoes, then do yourself the enormous favor of allowing the late, legendary documentarian Albert Maysles to introduce you to Iris with this deeply enjoyable cinematic sketch of her life and life's work. She is a singular force of nature, and spending any time in her company is a rare, cherished pleasure. —A.B.V.
Where to see it: Iris is streaming on Netflix, on demand, and for digital rental and purchase.
13. Love & Mercy
The Beach Boys' signature sound of coruscating harmonies and sonic invention defined the 1960s as much as the Beatles did, and it largely sprung from the mind of Brian Wilson — a mind also plagued by deteriorating mental illness and a Svengali-like doctor who exerted total control over Wilson's life in the 1980s. To solve the problem of how to capture both poles of Wilson's life, director Bill Pohlad cast two actors as Wilson: Paul Dano for the 1960s, and John Cusack for the 1980s. Both are terrific. The film oscillates between the two periods, as the hints of Wilson's mental state in his youth presages his weakened state as an older man, and the strength of Wilson's musical genius — watching Dano re-create the recording of Pet Sounds in the same studio where the seminal album was actually made is a major highlight — makes its absence later in life that much more tragic. Paul Giamatti, as that Svengali physician Dr. Eugene Landy, and Elizabeth Banks, as Melinda Ledbetter, who helps separate Landy from Wilson, also turn in strong performances in this refreshingly unconventional musical biopic. —A.B.V.
Where to see it: Love & Mercy is available for digital rental and purchase.
14. The Mend
The Mend sums up Mat (Josh Lucas) in one fantastically ragged montage in which he's shown tussling with his girlfriend's kid, doing another sort of tussling with his girlfriend, getting thrown out for reasons unknown, wandering the soggy streets of New York all night, camping out in a café, dumping a drink on a friend, and then making his way to a party being thrown by his brother Alan (Stephen Plunkett) and his girlfriend Farrah (Mickey Sumner). Mat's a force of chaos, but Alan only seems to have his shit more together, and thanks to the pair's respective personal miseries the two end up spending an unhappy interlude together the way that only siblings who know each other too well not to bring out the worst in one another can. Writer0director John Magary's debut film takes place on a small scale, but it has a cinematic jolt to its from that opening sequence that gives it an unmistakable heft. —A.W.
Where to see it: The Mend is now streaming on Netflix. It's also available for digital rental/purchase.
15. Mistress America
It is a more or less common experience when we're young: We meet someone older who seems at once fabulous and fucked up, and whose attention and friendship becomes like a drug, simultaneously making us feel more grown up than we really are, and more superior to our grown-up friend than we have any right to be.
That, plus great jokes about hipster Manhattan living and undergrad literary pretension, is Mistress America, a heady indie about the off-kilter bond that forms between college freshman Tracy (Lola Kirke) and her possible stepsister Brooke (Greta Gerwig). Gerwig co-wrote the script with director (and real-life partner) Noah Baumbach (who is having a pretty great 2015, with the equally gratifying While We're Young), and their film crackles with heightened dialogue and unexpected plot turns, shifting into a full-out farce in its final act. It is funny and poignant, and barely made a dent at the box office when it opened in August — which is fine, because it was always destined to be a cult favorite, anyway. —A.B.V.
Where to see it: Mistress America is available for digital rental and purchase.
16. The Overnight
If you've heard about this movie, you've probably heard about the scene in which Jason Schwartzman and Adam Scott dance naked wearing prosthetic penises that are, respectively, giant and tiny. And that scene is, indeed, of the needs-to-be-seen-to-be-believed variety. But The Overnight is about more than just really funny full-frontal male nudity. Scott and Taylor Schilling play Alex and Emily, new parents who have just moved to East Los Angeles and don't know anyone, and Schwartzman and Judith Godrèche are Kurt and Charlotte, the worldly couple with their own son who quickly and a bit too eagerly invite Alex and Emily to their ridiculously posh home. Then things get weird (see: penis dancing), but also touching, exploring how much our sexual hang-ups can deeply inhibit the rest of our lives. —A.B.V.
Where to see it: The Overnight is available for digital rental and purchase.
17. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
A man dies in a cruise ship cafeteria, and the cashier, unsure of what to do with his recently paid for meal, turns to the watching crowd with the offer of a free sandwich and beer. A woman makes small talk into a phone (everyone in this film has the same phone conversation — "I'm happy to hear you're doing fine," they say) while a lab monkey on the table experiences electric shocks. An amorous dance instructor gets a little too friendly with a reluctant student. Two salesmen unsuccessfully try to peddle novelty items. Roy Andersson's movie is a masterpiece of deadpan profundity — the title is both a description of a scene, a joke of sorts, and an encapsulation of the movie's mundane grandeur. There was nothing else like it this year. —A.W.
Where to see it: A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is now streaming on Netflix. It's also available for digital rental/purchase.
18. The Stanford Prison Experiment
Let me be upfront here: This was one of the most difficult-to-sit-through movies I saw all year. It depicts with exacting emotional detail the famous real-life psychological experiment conducted in 1971 by professor Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup) on a group of volunteer undergraduate students at Stanford University. Half were assigned to be prison guards, the other half prisoners, and their prison would be the rooms and hallways of the school itself. The experiment was supposed to last two weeks, but in almost no time at all, the guards became authoritarian and cruel, and the prisoners (mostly) allowed themselves to submit to their verbal and psychological abuse.
It is excruciatingly difficult to watch inhumanity like this, but director Kyle Patrick Alvarez's approach to the material is top notch, especially the performances he gets from Michael Angarano (The Knick) and Ezra Miller (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) as a particularly brutal guard and mutinous inmate, respectively. Alvarez expertly captures the slippery moral calculus that allowed this experiment — which is standard reading in most psych classes today — to happen, and the result is harrowing filmmaking. —A.B.V.
Where to see it: The Stanford Prison Experiment is available for digital rental and purchase.
This is another movie that, on paper, would seem to be an agonizing experience to watch, but please do believe me when I tell you that Room is one of the most acutely satisfying feature films I saw in 2015. Based on Emma Donoghue's best-selling novel — she wrote the adapted screenplay herself — the movie does take its inspiration from the lurid stories of women kidnapped and forced to live in total isolation for multiple years. The crucial difference is that both Donoghue's novel and director Lenny Abrahamson's film tell the story through the eyes of Jack (Jacob Tremblay), the 5-year-old son of Ma (Brie Larson), who has been held in a backyard shed for seven years. You can do the math to figure out who Jack's father is, but Donoghue and Abrahamson never — not once — sensationalize or exploit Ma and Jack's harrowing circumstances, up to and beyond (and this really isn't a spoiler; it's in the trailer) what happens to them once they are able to escape. By keeping the audience connected to how Jack sees the world — for him, the world is just "Room," and does not exist outside the walls of their prison — we are invited instead inside the profound bond he shares with Ma. Both Larson and Tremblay give performances that will stay with you for weeks, as will this movie. I cannot think of a better endorsement! —A.B.V.
Where to see it: Room is still playing in theaters.
Lyric Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe's fascinating documentary about an FBI sting feels even more sharp edged in the wake of the San Bernardino shooting. Saeed Torres, a grumpy, lonely figure who was Cabral's neighbor, is a former Black Panther turned FBI informant who for two decades has been supplementing his income helping the FBI by getting close to potentially radicalized, dangerous targets. But (T)error makes it clear how fumbling a process this is, as Torres, under the name "Shariff," is sent to Pittsburgh to awkwardly befriend Khalifah al-Akili, born James Marvin Thomas Jr., a blustering convert who seems more prone to grandiose talk than any action. (T)error is billed as the first film to capture an FBI sting as it unfolds, and what unfolds on screen wouldn't fill anyone with confidence. The doc makes a compelling case that the agency's just clumsily baiting someone in order to have a subject to arrest. —A.W.
Where to see it: (T)error is now playing in select theaters and is coming to PBS in February 2016.
21. The Tribe
Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy's virtuouso film set entirely within a Deaf community is more focused on the formal potential of a story told without audible speech, but ends up being a rapturously interesting, if incredibly dark, experience in communication anyway. Set at a boarding school, it's told entirely in Ukrainian sign language without subtitles, placing the audience in the position of being the outsider trying to understand by picking up cues from expressions, actions, and delivery. It's an experiential feat as well as a storytelling one, as a newcomer to the school (Grigoriy Fesenko) discovers an underground economy of prostitution and crime, and falls in love with one of the girls (Yana Novikova) with very unfortunate consequences. It may be chilly to the touch, but as a film, it's an act of radical empathy. —A.W.
Where to see it: The Tribe is available for preorder on DVD and Blu-ray.
There were a lot of show-offy real or digitally assembled long takes at the movies this year — the bear attack in The Revenant, the "Bye, Felicia" hotel scene in Straight Outta Compton, the raid on the house in Beasts of No Nation, and the first big fight in Creed. But as far as swaggering cinematography stunts go, none of them holds a candle to Victoria, a movie shot in one continuous take on the streets of Berlin.
Directed by Sebastian Schipper, Victoria's an inarguably impressive feat of filmmaking, tracking a night that goes from delirious partying to a bank heist in one unblinking, fluid shot. But it's more than that, thanks to an extremely present lead performance from Spanish actor Laia Costa as the title character. Victoria's a newcomer to Germany, and lonely, and also trying to dive into life after years of a rigid life in a conservatory of music. And its her naked desire to be open to the new that makes the movie believable, because it has her following Sonne (Frederick Lau), a flirty man she meets on the street in the late hours of the evening, to some forbidding places, and it's never not believable. —A.W.
Where to see it: Victoria's available for digital rental/purchase, and on DVD and Blu-ray on Mar. 8.
23. The Walk
In hindsight, making a 3D movie about a man tightrope-walking across the twin towers of the World Trade Center was perhaps throwing one too many emotional and optical hurdles at an audience for this movie ever to be a success. And the film's lukewarm critical reception probably did not help matters either. But I genuinely enjoyed director Robert Zemeckis' fantastical approach to the story of how Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) doggedly strove to walk across those towers, including his decision to have Gordon-Levitt directly address the audience in a twinkly French accent from the torch of the Statue of Liberty. What can I say? I like whimsy, and Zemeckis manages it quite well here. And then, Petit's walk begins, and the film becomes a masterpiece of visual filmmaking, and one of the best uses of visual effects in many years. The film performed so poorly that its theatrical run is essentially over, but TVs are so big now that a great deal of the splendor and spectacle Zemeckis achieves here will be preserved in your home. —A.B.V.
Where to see it: The Walk is now available for digital download and is released on Blu-ray and DVD on Jan. 5.
24. What We Do in the Shadows
Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi's droll mockumentary is a vampiric roommate comedy, like Being Human if everyone were sillier and a little sadder underneath. The goofiness of the concept is wonderful, from Viago (Taika Waititi) and Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) hissing at each other over the fact that the latter has been letting the dishes pile up for several years to Vladislav's (Jemaine Clement) recent hypnotism dysfunction to the 8,000-year-old Petyr (Ben Fransham) leaving body parts on the floor like a nightmare version of a reclusive, eccentric uncle. But the four are also trying to show off for the camera crews, and the gap between the supernatural flourishes they attempt to give their undead lives and their petty realities is where the film really sings. What We Do in the Shadows finds a pathos to these characters as well as a poignance, especially in their friendship with Stu, a computer programmer who introduces them to the wonders of technology. —A.W.
Where to see it: What We Do in the Shadows is available on DVD and Blu-ray, and for digital purchase.