In many ways, you can tell just as much about what kind of year it’s been by the movies that aren’t on the many year-end Top 10s and critics’ awards lists. If the regulars in those lists represented all there was to see, well, that’d be one thing (and in the case of this year’s movies, a fine thing); but 2014 was such an embarrassment of riches that even a rundown of the performances and films that aren’t generating “buzz” is pretty impressive. So, in advance of our own roundup of the year’s best movies later this week, we offer you a few less-discussed titles still worthy of your consideration.
Hilary Swank’s leading turn is something of a dark horse Best Actress possibility, but frustratingly little attention has been paid to the picture that houses it, a dark, moody, admirably eccentric Western from co-writer/co-star/director Tommy Lee Jones. He’s not just doing the revisionist thing, which has become the primary frame for modern Western pictures; he gives his story (adapted from Glendon Swarthout’s novel) a dreamlike, almost supernatural tinge, full of death and disease and wailing women trucking across the prairie towards nothing in particular.
The great Lynn Shelton — who could pretty much place a movie on this list every year — directs the first feature she didn’t also write, but Andrea Seigel’s witty, smart, and occasionally heartbreaking script is tuned in to Shelton’s wavelength. Keira Knightley’s loose-limbed performance transcends its type (the driven young professional who suddenly skids into immaturity), and Chloë Grace Moretz’s work becomes, with each passing year, even more engaging and confident. But Sam Rockwell shines brightest, doing the kind of Bill Murray-esque turn that so few other comic actors can pull off: the guy who can be funny, and chooses not to.
Director David Michôd follows up his gripping Animal Kingdom with this grim, grimy, sweaty little number, a kind of existentialist Mad Max set in Australia, “ten years after the collapse.” The details of that collapse are left deliberately vague; the world-building is sparse, and the storytelling is concerned only with the nihilistic present. Yet themes make themselves known, of survival and family, bringing this modest action drama to a wholly satisfying conclusion.
The Trip to Italy
For what it’s worth, you film editor would be just fine if Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, and director Michael Winterbottom got together every year or so, went on an eating holiday, and filmed it. Their second expedition takes them to the picturesque glory of Italy, but it’s not all beauty shots and food porn; the trio continues to explore notions of solitude, success, and friendship with a deftness that eludes far more serious dramas on the subjects.
Some movies engage us by telling a riveting story, or placing us in a character’s shoes; Kelly Reichardt’s films tend to be about a mood, a pervading feeling that is carefully crafted and rolls over the entire film. Her most recent picture is, on the surface, a tick-tock of an act of environmental protest/terrorism. But it’s ultimately less about how (or why) it happens than what it feels like to do it — before, during, and after, as self-righteousness and ambition give way to fear and paranoia.
Mainstream cinema tends to take a particularly one-dimensional view of both troubled kids and lower-class living, choosing in most cases to either dismiss or romanticize. Kat Candler’s quiet indie drama takes on both topics while avoiding the standard approaches; she looks her characters square in the eye and tells their stories without apologizing for them or playing up the pathos.
A Most Wanted Man
The final leading performance from the great Philip Seymour Hoffman is adapted, by director Anton Corbijn, from the work of John le Carré — and like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy a couple of years back, it resists the urge to dial up the fireworks, while simultaneously trusting its audience to follow a plot a good deal more sophisticated than the blockbuster norm. And it pays off again, resulting in a picture of uncommon richness and intrigue, while providing Hoffman one more opportunity to play one of his specialties: the prickly yet effective genius.
The Two Faces of January
Hossein Amini writes and directs this ace adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel with the zippy sophistication and quiet complication of Hitchcock circa To Catch a Thief, and he lucks out by landing a trio of performers with the throwback qualities to pull it off: Oscar Isaac (who is making a real specialty of these complex, impenetrable types), Kirsten Dunst (who makes her role into something far more complicated and interesting than merely The Girl), and Viggo Mortensen (who was born to play this kind of smoky, taciturn almost-protagonist).
Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia
Brilliant, complicated, difficult, and uncompromising, Vidal was of both an earlier time — the well-bred, well-educated man of letters — and a later one, rebelling against the Establishment (and the anti-Establishment, when represented by the tough-guy likes of Norman Mailer). Nicholas D. Wrathall’s documentary combines priceless archival footage with enlightening new interviews, and while it’s formally familiar, the electricity and timeliness of Vidal’s views give it far more juice than your average profile picture.
The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz
Brian Knappenberger’s portrait of programmer, entrepreneur, and activist Aaron Swartz was already well timed when it arrived last summer, thanks to the ongoing battles over such Web issues as net neutrality. But subsequent stories of nefarious activities online, by our government and others, have rendered it even more essential viewing — both as information and as gripping nonfiction filmmaking.