If it seems like a new set of critics’ awards, year-end lists, and industry organization nominations are dropping every single day, it’s not your imagination — we’re in the thick of awards season, and everybody’s getting their say. (We’ll have our own contribution here in about a week — as you can understand, we have to devote proper space until Friday to the year’s most anticipated movie.) Many of the same titles are popping up, and for good reason: Carol, Spotlight, Mad Max: Fury Road, and the rest are certainly worth celebrating. But let’s take a moment to acknowledge a few more great movies from earlier in the year that have been mostly overlooked.
One of the year’s boldest, funniest, and straight-up strangest pictures, in which charming ol’ Ryan Reynolds is a likable guy who’s trying to romance a nice girl at work… oh, and his dog and cat are prodding him to add to the considerable stash of body parts in his apartment. It’s a serial killer movie unlike any other, in which gleefully anything-goes director Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis) bounces a Day-Glo production design and a cheery tone against the darkest undercurrents of her story — not for the sake of cheap irony, but to underscore how we see violence on screen, and in our lives. In a year where even the best movies mostly fell into easily defined boxes, The Voices was a movie exhilarating in its refusal to play it safe.
We hear plenty of talk about the challenges of unsympathetic characters, but few films this year crafted a pair of protagonists as sharply defined and potentially alienating as Harper (Bridey Elliot) and Allie (Clare McNulty), and then dared us to stick with them for an hour and a half. Writer/directors Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers seem, at first, to have a big-screen Girls riff in mind — two young women and the Brooklyn surroundings that define them — but their sensibilities are ultimately far darker, and less forgiving. Yet the less we like these characters, the funnier their journey becomes; it’s one of those movies where the laughs and cringes come in equal proportion, and roughly concurrently.
One of the year’s big indie narratives was the discrepancy between Sundance buzz and popular culture penetration; both Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and this hip-hop-flavored action/comedy from writer/director Rick Famuyiwa met with enthusiastic reception and pricey acquisitions in Park City, only to stumble in even their limited release. In the case of this film, that’s a real shame; Famuyiwa’s film has an infectious energy, a sly sense of humor, and a serious undercurrent that reveals itself at exactly the right moment. And it feels like the kind of movie we’ll look back on in a decade or so and marvel at all the young performers it broke before they were famous.
Z for Zachariah
It just figures that the year’s single most thoughtful and compelling YA novel adaptation is the only one that nobody saw. Margot Robbie, Chiwitel Ejiofor, and Chris Pine are the only three people in this post-apocalyptic tale from director Craig Zobel (Compliance), forming a love triangle of genuine emotional complexity and intensity, while its explorations of the relative value of faith and science couldn’t be more timely (or handled more delicately). Tense, thoughtful, thrilling stuff.
Its release in the dead zone of January certainly didn’t betray an abundance of studio confidence in Michael Mann’s latest, and its anemic grosses probably confirmed those leanings — to say nothing of the divisive reception it saw from critics. But those who went for it (and this writer was one of them) found the Heat director leaning in to his smeary, cool, deliberate aesthetic, with a film that delivered the clipped shop-talk, minimalist score, and elliptical storytelling he’s known for. As the non-believers note, it doesn’t work in conventional ways — but aren’t there plenty of action flicks that do, yet can’t deliver the mood and style that comes second nature to this gifted filmmaker.
Resistance to Dan Fogelman’s seriocomic drama was understandable — its trailers made it look like curdled cheese, and star Al Pacino hasn’t exactly been on a winning streak lately. But like his other spring vehicle, the far clumsier (yet still fascinating) The Humbling, it’s a film that seems not only aware of its star’s fallen stock, but to draw inspiration from it; Pacino has no trouble finding the heartbeat of a once-great artist who’s taken to phoning it in. Throw in a charming, wonderful Annette Bening as his romantic interest, Christopher Plummer conveying a lifetime of backstory in their offhand interactions, and an estranged family subplot (with Bobby Canavale, Jennifer Garner, and Giselle Eisenberg) that earns its warm glow, and you’ve got one of the year’s nicest surprises.
The Final Girls
It sounds, on description, like a cross between Scream and The Purple Rose of Cairo: through a freak accident, a handful of modern teenagers find themselves zapped into a Friday the 13th-style ‘80s camp slasher film. And to its credit, it delivers on that premise, with plenty of giddy movie in-jokes, bang-on visual reference points, and sneaky cultural commentary. But writers M.A. Fortin and Joshua John Miller and director Todd Strauss-Schulson have more on their minds than that, baking in a backstory that pays off with unexpected emotional dividends. There were plenty of great movies about relationships between women this year — but this one, like Mad Max: Fury Road, reminds us of the thrill of smuggling those stories in under cover of genre.
The Keeping Room
And here’s another example: a difficult and ultimately powerful Western with a feminist tint, peering unblinkingly at the kind of raw brutality that the genre’s table-setters could only hint at. Yet director Daniel Barber works adroitly within the visual vocabulary, playing long stretches without any dialogue at all, finding poetry in his images and narrative in his compositions. The storytelling is elegant and efficient, and it’s a film that lingers long after the end credits roll.
Over the past few years, Arnold Schwarzenegger has done some of the most interesting work of his career — work that’s been met, depressingly enough, with some of his all-time lowest grosses. Even worse, his attempt to follow the Travolta playbook with a leading role in a low-budget indie came and went with little notice at all. But it’s a great little movie, pulling off its unlikely mash-up of family farm drama and zombie apocalypse horror with aplomb, and he’s great in it; this is a modest, lived-in performance, projecting real honesty and tenderness, and the weight of a man who’s lived a long time and is no longer surprised by what he sees.
Similarly, Will Smith’s first starring role since After Earth (and only the third movie he’s fronted since 2008, a period of relative inactivity that he’s now busily making up for) looked like a big comeback vehicle; instead, critics were indifferent, and it fizzled at the box office. And look, it’s not exactly year-end best-of material — but it’s a fun little corker of a caper movie, filled with witty performances, snazzy visual touches, and one of the coolest scores of the year. Plus, B.D. Wong pops up in one of the best one-scene roles in recent memory.