With 2015 over, there are plenty of movie critics and fans assembling their lists for the best movies of the year. Most of these lists will be predictable. Mad Max: Fury Road will be a rather popular picture among the genre lovers. The Revenant will be hailed for its amazing acting and cinematography. You’ll most likely see Star Wars: The Force Awakens on a few lists because . . . well, how often do you get to put Star Wars on your list for the best movies of the year?
I could follow suit by just selecting the usual suspects and arranging them in the order I deem fit, but how much fun would that be? Rather than write the usual lists that litter the movie sections of every form of media this time of year, I decided to make a list of the more underrated movies of 2015. These are the films you probably won’t see at the Oscars, and they most likely won’t be on the very many best-of lists. But these are all very exceptional films that do not deserve to be pushed away by the more popular pictures of the year.
Sean Baker’s new street comedy made a splash at Sundance 2015 initially because it was entirely shot on iPhones with impressive results. But what’s even more impressive is how Baker manages to conceive a film that both uses the gimmick well and not rely on it over the story. There’s real energy and genuine chemistry to the tale of two transgender prostitutes seeking the girlfriend of their pimp. The dialogue feels natural and realistic in the way characters will babble and speak over one another about drugs and sex. The camera feels rather smooth and free-flowing in the way scenes easily transition from the interiors of fast-food joints to following characters around the corners of strip malls. Its mix of comedy and drama is quite genuine in the way it finds the right moments and lets viewers laugh at the situation and feel sympathy for the romance. Tangerine makes for one of the most unconventional romantic comedies with the most unconventional of shooting methods.
2. The Duff
In the realms of both teen sex comedies and the geek-to-chic Cinderella story template, The Duff stands out as one of the more impressive high-school comedies of the decade. The chemistry of Mae Whitman and Robbie Amell is both lovable and charming in a script that gives them plenty of wit to sling back and forth at each other. The story could have easily taken a clichéd and mean-spirited route given its material of Whitman discovering that she is the Designated Ugly Fat Friend. But thanks to some surprisingly hilarious writing and direction, The Duff offers up plenty of intelligence and twists, soaring past the predictable teen comedy formula. You know that Whitman and Amell will eventually end up together, but it’s such a fun ride to get to the inevitable conclusion.
3. It Follows
While mainstream horror seems to struggle with pumping out endless remakes, It Follows feels both classic and fresh. It takes cues from the John Carpenter school of 1980s horror but also takes a natural approach to the teenage characters, who are far more than just social media zombies. The teens are attacked by a sexually transmitted haunting that causes the victim to see ghosts that slowly walk towards them. If they get too close, a brutal death follows. It sounds silly on paper, almost as though it was some propaganda picture for STDs, but its direction by David Robert Mitchell is spot on in atmosphere and tone. It Follows is beautifully shot with relatable characters and a premise that ends up being more creepy than it should be.
Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Cinderella is a real treat and a breath of fresh air from the usual fairy-tale rewrites. His version remains true to the story, but still expands on the characters; whereas the original Disney animated film glazed over most of the character development, Branagh gives us plenty of time to understand and root for both Cinderella (Lily James) and Prince Charming (Richard Madden). The responsive mice and birds are present, but they do not steal the show even from a comic relief angle. The bratty stepsisters and the clumsy fairy godmother fill that area of humor well. And, as with any Branagh production, it’s a visually enchanting experience with decadent sets and lavish costumes. It just goes to show that the right man behind the camera can make a classic tale appear fresh and wondrous without ripping out all the pages or giving Cinderella a grim makeover (which almost happened with the first draft and director).
If you liked watching Elisabeth Moss evolve as Peggy on Mad Men, you’ll love her playing a woman torn in friendship in this odd little drama. Taking place entirely at a cabin, the film fades between Catherine’s (Moss’s) life before and after a breakup while on vacation. In both points of her life, she finds herself at odds with her friend, Ginny (Katherine Waterston), as they bicker and quarrel over their distancing friendship and the routes they took in life. Unconventional and nonlinear, Queen of Earth evokes a unique sense of drama that’s hard to pin down, but fascinating to observe.
6. I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story
As the most iconic Muppet of Sesame Street, it’d be hard to imagine the longest-lasting piece of early-childhood programming without the big yellow bird. Caroll Spinney, the man inside the suit for several decades, shares a similar personality to the innocent and lovable batch of feathers. His long story is filled with joy and heartbreak, but always enduring. Every aspect of his career is covered from the mechanics of working the Big Bird suit to the effect he had on many lives. There are even some eerie moments, such as Spinney contemplating his own mortality when he almost went up on the Challenger space shuttle. With such a long life spent almost entirely inside a giant puppet, it’s wonderful to learn that the man inside is just as human and warm as the bird he plays outside.
7. Slow West
Implied by its title, Slow West takes an easy approach to its western tale of Michael Fassbender and Kodi Smit-McPhee making their way across the country. It’s a film that takes its time to mosey around the cold plains and dangerous woods, looking to find a little something more to life in an era of guns and bounties. Smit-McPhee happens upon a lone traveler on the plains who shares his studies of Native American tribes. A group of bounty hunters share weird tales of mistaking bounties and shooting the wrong men. And, in one of the most defining scenes of the picture, Smit-McPhee and Fassbender happen upon the picked-clean corpse of a man crushed by a tree. They both agree that while it’s a grizzly sight, it’s still a little funny. But for all its philosophies and beautiful staging, Slow West still manages to pack a hefty punch of action when it wants to. The climactic gunfight in particular is one of the most intense and emotional climaxes of any western I’ve seen in the 21st century.
8. Call Me Lucky
If you’re old enough to remember the comedy of Barry Crimmins, you’re familiar with his savage wit for slaughtering current events. Call Me Lucky delves deeper into the personal aspects of Crimmins’s life that bred him into a fearsome force on the stage. He tells all and shows all; not only does he talk about his childhood rape, which made him so bitterly furious, but he even returns to the exact spot where he experienced the traumatic event. The humorous and hard-hitting moments of Barry’s life are covered in interviews from friends and family—relaying everything from his amusing means of running a comedy club to his early crusade against online child predators. It’s an amazing documentary that will both boil your blood at the corruption Barry stands up to and make you smile at his determination that refuses to diminish with age.
9. Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter
Japanese working girl Kumiko (Pacific Rim’s Rinko Kikuchi) finds herself so enveloped in a VHS copy of Fargo that she believes the events to be real, becoming particularly interested in the suitcase of money that was never found. Seeking an escape from her claustrophobic lifestyle, she swipes the company credit card and sets off on a treasure-hunting mission in Minnesota. In this very odd picture by David Zellner, there’s a certain quirky charm to Kumiko’s travels, which take her from the stern structures of Japan to the kindly hospitality of Minnesota. By the end, you really do want Kumiko to find that treasure and hope she never watches the Fargo TV series in which they reveal what really happened to the money.
10. Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films
The hilariously bad movies of the 1980s were defined by the Cannon Group. From the messy musical The Apple to the ridiculous Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, they produced all their movies quickly and cheaply. Electric Boogaloo dives face-first into how such a strange studio operated. The cast and crew who dealt with the unconventional movie producing tactics of Cannon producers Golan and Globus reveal their every crazy tidbit of the experience. From the odd methods of hiring a monkey to the creepy direction of the rape scenes in the Death Wish movies, the stories of just about every movie weave a strange tale of madness you couldn’t make up if you tried. Dolph Lundgren talks about his role in Masters of the Universe as something he felt a little stupid doing. An actress describes her terrible experience working on the set of Death Wish 3 in which the director refused to cover her nude body on the cold floor between takes. A screenwriter admits to crying at the end of Over the Top because he was terrified of what would become of his career. Countless stories flood the screen with laughs both genuine and shocking. As one Cannon staffer described their movie making process, “it’s like a bowel movement.” If you love bad movies, Electric Boogaloo is required viewing.
So what were your favorite movies of the year, and what are you looking forward to in 2016?