19 Movies To See This Winter That Deserve More Respect

These compelling new films are worth a look, even if they aren’t getting awards buzz.

Sony Pictures Classics

The great thing about Oscar season — the increasingly long period of time toward the end of the year in which the film industry pivots from big blockbusters to speculation and self-congratulation — is that it spotlights the work of great filmmakers, some of whom wouldn’t receive all that much attention if there weren’t awards on the line.

But one of the downsides is that, if the self-appointed prognosticators of awards season decide that a movie released from late August through December is not a so-called contender, it very quickly gets shunted off and ignored. There are many films each year that get pushed aside because they’re immediately discounted from the Oscar race, but many are still interesting, challenging, and downright fun.

As the 2013 race heats up — with Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave and Alexander Payne’s Nebraska in theaters and Her from Spike Jones and American Hustle from David O. Russell nearing their releases, among others — there are quite a number of movies already being overlooked. Here is a guide to some of the best castoffs (in order of release date) for viewers of all sorts of interests.

1. Mr. Nobody

Starring: Jared Leto, Sarah Polley, Diane Kruger, Linh Dan Pham, Rhys Ifans
Directed by: Jaco Van Dormael
Release Date: On VOD now
What It’s About: This trippy blend of sci-fi and domestic drama originally debuted at the Venice Film Festival in 2009, where critics gave it positive reviews. Despite the acclaim and relatively well-known cast, it took two years for the film to premiere in the US, and then two more until it was actually released to American audiences. But Mr. Nobody, a tale about time, decisions, and regret, has attained cult status already. It also represents another win for Leto, who also steals scenes in Dallas Buyers Club (which has landed on some Oscar-worthy lists).

2. The Motel Life

Starring: Emile Hirsch, Stephen Dorff, Dakota Fanning, Kris Kristofferson
Directed by: Alan and Gabe Polsky
Release Date: On VOD and in limited release now
What It’s About: This adaptation of Willy Vlautin’s debut novel dips into the surreal with animation to help tell the story of two brothers living in a motel on the outside of Reno; abandoned as kids, a fatal accident sends them on the run. Find out more from Hirsch here.

3. Man of Tai Chi

Starring: Keanu Reeves, Tiger Hu Chen
Directed by: Keanu Reeves
Release Date: On VOD now
What It’s About: Reeve’s long-in-the-making directorial debut is a sort of mashup of Kung Fu films and Fight Club for the digital age, without the political message. The movie was co-produced by the China Film Group — the country’s government film agency — and was shot entirely in China. See what Reeves had to say about the process here.

4. About Time

Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Rachel McAdams, Bill Nighy
Directed by: Richard Curtis
Release Date: Now playing in theaters
What It’s About: From the writer of Four Weddings and a Funeral and director of Love Actually, this is a sugar sweet time travel love story featuring the loveliest fictional family Britain has to offer. It’s a lesson in family, the value of YOLO, and how to gently combine genres. Basically, About Time is this winter’s perfect date night movie. Richard Curtis talks more about it here.

5. Ass Backwards

Starring: June Diane Raphael, Casey Wilson, Jon Cryer
Directed by: Chris Nelson
Release Date: On VOD and in limited theaters now
What It’s About: Wilson and Raphael, close pals and frequent collaborators in real life, wrote and star in this dark comedy about two women who travel back home to win the beauty pageant that rejected them hardcore when they were kids. Who doesn’t like a good (attempted) redemption-revenge story? See what the writers and actresses said about Ass Backwards here.

6. Best Man Holiday

Starring: Taye Diggs, Monica Calhoun, Morris Chestnut, Terrence Howard, Melissa De Sousa, Regina Hall
Directed by: Malcolm D. Lee
Release Date: November 15
What It’s About: Lee’s long-awaited sequel to The Best Man reunites the original cast for a 15-year reunion over the Christmas holiday. Funny how people never really change!

7. The Great Beauty

Starring: Toni Servillo, Carlo Verdone, Sabrina Ferilli
Directed by: Paolo Sorrentino
Release Date: November 15 in New York City
What It’s About: Italian master filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino has wowed audiences with this film about a journalist whose deep dive into the decadence of society has left him adrift, searching for a higher purpose.

8. The Armstrong Lie

Starring: Alex Gibney, Lance Armstrong
Directed by: Alex Gibney
Release Date: In limited release now
What It’s About: Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney, who put out a documentary about Julian Assange earlier this year, is finally releasing his movie about Lance Armstrong. He followed the now-disgraced cyclist throughout 2009 during his comeback to racing. But as Gibney was still working on the movie, Armstrong (plot twist!) finally admitted to the public that he did use performance enhancing drugs. That turned the film from one of resiliency and redemption to the story of the many lies that Armstrong told — and lives he destroyed — throughout his 10-year ride as an American hero.

9. Big Sur

Starring: Jean Marc-Barr, Kate Bosworth, Josh Lucas
Directed by: Michael Polish
Release Date: On VOD and in limited release now
What It’s About: This faithful, voiceover-heavy adaptation of one of Jack Kerouac’s last major works features Jean Marc-Barr — the American actor who has spent the last two and a half decades in Europe — as the beleaguered author in the throes of existential and alcoholic crisis.

10. Dear Mr. Watterson

Starring: Bill Watterson, in absentia
Directed by: Joel Allen Schroeder
Release Date: On VOD and limited release now
What It’s About: This documentary examines the cultural impact of the legendary comic strip, with interviews from comic writers and fans alike. It also explores why Bill Watterson, the strip’s creator, never wanted to cash in on merchandising or movies.

11. This Is Martin Bonner

Starring: Paul Eenhoorn, Richmond Arquette, Sam Buchanan
Directed by: Chad Hartigan
Release Date: On VOD now
What It’s About: This quiet indie film, which won raves at Sundance, tells the story of a man who uproots his life from Reno to the East Coast, where he begins working as a volunteer with newly released prisoners.

12. Sunlight Jr.

Starring: Naomi Watts, Matt Dillon
Directed by: Laurie Collyer
Release Date: On VOD
What It’s About: Sunlight Jr., a stark look at a downtrodden couple, is difficult to watch because it seems so real. Dillon plays a man in a wheelchair on disability, while Watts is a convenience store clerk (quite different than her role as Princess Diana).

13. Philomena

Starring: Steve Coogan, Judi Dench
Directed by: Stephen Frears
Release Date: November 27
What It’s About: This comedy-drama from the UK tells the true story of a former journalist who helps an old woman search for the son who was taken from her by nuns 50 years prior. A true mix of heartbreak and subtle, sweet humor, the movie was recently given a PG-13 on appeal by the MPAA after initially being given an R (for using “fuck” twice).

14. Black Nativity

Starring: Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Jennifer Hudson, Tyrese Gibson, James Latimore
Directed by: Kasi Lemmons
Release Date: November 27
What It’s About: The film adaptation of Langston Hughes’ famous play finds Latimore playing the son of a single mother (Hudson) in Baltimore, headed north to celebrate the holidays with estranged relatives.

15. The Punk Singer

Starring: Kathleen Hanna, Joan Jett, Carrie Brownstein
Directed by: Sini Anderson
Release Date: November 29
What It’s About: A documentary about Bikini Kill founder/singer Kathleen Hanna, who helped spearhead the riot grrrl movement in the ’90s.

16. The Last Days on Mars

Starring: Liev Schreiber, Romola Garai, Olivia Williams
Directed by: Ruairi Robinson
Release Date: December 6
What It’s About: Gravity is not the only space thriller out this year. This indie stars Liev Schreiber as the head of a platoon of astronauts collecting specimen on Mars… when something begins to kill them off, one by one.

17. Some Velvet Morning

Starring: Stanley Tucci, Alice Eve
Directed by: Neil LaBute
Release Date: December 10
What It’s About: This two-person, dialogue-heavy duel is more or less a play put on film. It’s an intense, troubling, and surprising look at gender roles and fantasies. Incredibly compelling.

18. The Invisible Woman

Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Felicity Jones, Kristin Scott Thomas
Directed by: Ralph Fiennes
Release Date: December 25
What It’s About: Fiennes directs and stars in this historical drama about Charles Dickens and his much younger mistress (portrayed by Jones).

19. Only Lovers Left Alive

Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Tilda Swinton, Anton Yelchin, Mia Wasikowska
Directed by: Jim Jarmusch
Release Date: TBA
What It’s About: This dark allegorical comedy, which was a hit at Cannes and several other festivals, finds Hiddleston and Swinton as two of the only remaining vampires, traveling by night and brooding amid a sea of mindless humans (whom they call zombies). Sony Pictures Classics bought this smart, literate film with plenty of subtle humor, but it’s uncertain when it will be released.

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