No one sees every film from every year, but it’s easy for strong ones to slip through the cracks for whatever reason. True, Oscar Season shines light on some great films that the average moviegoer hasn’t heard much about, but that doesn’t even scratch the surface of the great movies that fly under the radar. With that in mind, here are some of the best films of the year that you probably didn’t see.
Brief note: I’m leaving out stuff like Her and Inside Llewyn Davis, which are absolutely among the best of the year but which are getting enough promotion on the awards circuit that you’ll probably check them out when they go wide.
20. Short Term 12
What You Missed: Writer/Director Dustin Daniel Cretton expanded his original short film into a feature about a young woman (Brie Larson) working at a home for at-risk youth while dealing with her own problems, including the fallout from her own troubled past.
Why You Missed It: The film was well received at SXSW last March, but it didn’t go past limited release and it wasn’t a breakout hit like Mud or Spring Breakers.
Why You Should See It: While Cretton leans a bit too hard on melodrama in the second half, it’s still a beautifully observed, sensitive film that’s powered through its creakier moments by a fantastic performance from Larson.
19. Crystal Fairy
What You Missed: Michael Cera stars as an ugly American in Chile who’s missing all the local color because of his single-minded focus on scoring a cactus that produces a particularly strong high. When he asks the free-spirited hippie Crystal Fairy (Gaby Hoffman) to come along, the uptight Cera finds the antithesis to his uptight nature, much to his annoyance.
Why You Missed It: Maybe you’re tired of Michael Cera playing the same part over and over again, or maybe the trailer made it look too much like your average Sundance breakout comedy that’ll be forgotten in a few months.
Why You Should See It: Director Sebastien Silva gets Cera to play the nastier side of his personality in a way that bodes well for the actor’s future, and Hoffman is the perfect foil for him. The final act is a bit contrived, but Hoffman acts the hell out of it, justifying it in the process. Available on Netflix Instant.
18. Berberian Sound Studio
What You Missed: A proper British sound engineer (Toby Jones) is hired on the Italian film The Equestrian Vortex, only to find out too late that it’s an uber-violent giallo horror film. His mind starts to react strangely to the film he’s working on.
Why You Missed It: Atmospheric horror isn’t usually promoted as well as the likes of The Conjuring or even the smaller hit You’re Next.
Why You Should See It: Director Peter Strickland mines some great comedy out of Jones’s reactions to the pretentious/chauvinistic Italian horror director, and while the film isn’t scary, exactly, its use of sound and its bizarre finale are still rather unsettling. Available on Netflix Instant.
What You Missed: The first adaptation of a David Sedaris story, this one about a Sedaris surrogate (Jonathan Groff) going to apple picking country to impress a girl, falling in with a born again Christian (Denis O’Hare), and dealing with his repressed homosexuality.
Why You Missed It: The film was well liked at Sundance but didn’t get much in the way of promotion.
Why You Should See It: It nails the tricky tone of Sedaris well, with Groff equal parts smug and sympathetic as the lead, and O’Hare gives one of the best unheralded performances of the year as a man who’s never quite handled the way you’d expect.
What You Missed: The English-language debut of Oldboy director Park Chan-wook, about an introverted young woman (Mia Wasikowska) whose creepy uncle (Matthew Goode) returns from afar after the death of her father under mysterious circumstances.
Why You Missed it: Mixed reviews, perhaps, or perhaps the film looked so florid and so odd that you didn’t catch that Park directed.
Why You Should See It: In another director’s hands, this film would be silly. In Park’s, it’s the kind of invigorating mix of horror and operatic emotion that makes his films so vibrant, and the cast (Wasikowska, Goode, Nicole Kidman) all operate on the heightened level that the film needs to work.
15. The Counselor
What You Missed: Ridley Scott directs the first original screenplay by Cormac McCarthy, about a lawyer (Michael Fassbender) who gets in way over his head when he decides to turn to crime.
Why You Missed It: For every defender it had, it had someone who absolutely hated it (Andrew O’Hehir said it was one of the worst films he’d ever seen). The film bombed at the box office. The trailers were pretty bad.
Why You Should See It: No film this year was more committed to bucking genre conventions, and if you get into the film’s bugfuck craziness and philosophical rhythms, it’s damned exciting.
What You Missed: Pablo Larrain’s film about the campaign against Augusto Pinochet led by an ad man (Gael Garcia Bernal) who used more upbeat advertising tactics to win people to their side.
Why You Missed It: It’s in Spanish. It’s a strange view of a battle against a dictator. It was an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Film, but Amour was so clearly going to win that you didn’t check out the other contenders.
Why You Should See It: Larrain’s mixture of real terror with goofy 80s style sets this film apart from your average Big Issue film, and the director also deliberately reproduces the look of 80s advertisements to make the film as beautifully ugly as possible.
What You Missed: An experimental documentary with no real narrative, just a series of shots on a fishing boat.
Why You Missed It: Experimental documentary. That’s not going to attract too many people.
Why You Should See It: Imagine a nature documentary by way of a horror film. The use of wide angle lenses and deliberately ugly compositions on bloated, dying fish and grimy interiors makes this a memorably unnerving work.
12. Beyond the Hills
What You Missed: A young Romanian nun’s troubled friend visits her, and the superstitious community begins to believe she’s possessed by a demon.
Why You Missed It: It didn’t go into wide release, and even if it had, it’s pretty bleak stuff.
Why You Should See It: Director Cristian Mungiu made one of the great modern realist masterpieces with 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, and his follow-up in nearly as stunning in its portrait of institutionalized terror.
11. To the Wonder
What You Missed: Terrence Malick’s follow-up to his masterpiece The Tree of Life follows a man (Ben Affleck) and a woman (Olga Kurylenko) as they struggle with love, contrasting it with a priest (Javier Bardem) struggles with his faith.
Why You Missed It: Maybe you didn’t dig Malick’s impressionistic rhythms in The Tree of Life and weren’t eager to see that applied throughout a whole feature. The reviews were mixed.
Why You Should See It: It might be Malick’s weakest film, but that’s hardly a knock. And it’s a great companion piece to The Tree of Life, the former film about embracing life’s mysteries, the latter about the frustration of unattainable answers. Available on Netflix Instant.
10. Drug War
What You Missed: A Hong Kong action flick about a cop (Sun Honglei) who forces a drug-runner (Louis Koo) to help him take down a narcotics ring, threatening him with the death penalty if he doesn’t cooperate.
Why You Missed It: Sad to say, but Asian films, even white-knuckle action thrillers like this one, don’t get the wide releases they deserve.
Why You Should See It: Director Johnnie To is one of the best action directors in the world, his precise compositions and edits playing as a stark contrast to the bombast of most modern filmmakers. Also, the stern cop Sun has to imitate a constantly laughing gangster by the name of “Haha” at several points, and it’s hilarious. Available on Netflix Instant.
9. The Past
What You Missed: A drama about an Iranian man (Ali Mosaffa) visiting his wife (Berenice Bejo) in Paris to get a divorce, only to find out that her fiancé’s (Tahar Rahim) wife is in a coma and that the reasons behind it are complicated.
Why You Missed It: It’s French, it’s directed by an Iranian filmmaker, and those don’t get wide release.
Why You Should See It: That director, Asghar Farhadi, is a modern day Anton Chekhov, and while The Past isn’t quite at the level of his Oscar-winning A Separation, it’s still a beautifully wrought drama filled with great performances and people who can’t help but hurt each other, no matter how much they try not to.
8. Blue is the Warmest Color
What You Missed: The Palme D’Or-winning, three-hour long lesbian romance about a young girl (Adele Exarchopoulos) who falls for an artist (Lea Seydoux).
Why You Missed It: It’s three hours long and rated NC-17 for explicit lesbian sex scenes, so no dice on wide release. Plus, it recently came out that director Abdellatif Kechiche bullied his actresses into doing more than they were willing to do on set.
Why You Should See It: The film uses those three hours to explore every up and down of a young relationship, and the sex scenes are as notable for their emotional intimacy and intensity as their graphicness. Both actresses are superb.
7. Pacific Rim
What You Missed: Giant robots fight monsters. Awesome!
Why You Missed It: Giant robots fight monsters. Stupid!
Why You Should See It: Director Guillermo Del Toro is the poet laureate of monsters. No action film this year was more entertaining. Plus, it’s a big budget action film that stresses the importance of human life and cooperation. What’s not to love?
6. Frances Ha
What You Missed: Frances (Greta Gerwig) is a dancer in New York who floats through life without purpose, even more so when her longtime friend (Mickey Sumner, daughter of Sting) gets more serious with her boyfriend.
Why You Missed It: Limited release. Some similarities to Lena Dunham’s polarizing Girls. Writer-director Noah Baumbach is known for his misanthropic comedies (The Squid and the Whale, Greenberg).
Why You Should See It: Gerwig’s effervescent charms are on full display here, and it’s easily Baumbach’s warmest film in ages. Available on Netflix Instant.
5. The Act of Killing
What You Missed: Anwar Congo, a war criminal of the Indonesian genocide who claims to have murdered 1,000 people, gets a chance to reenact his crimes in the style of his favorite film genres.
Why You Missed It: That’s, uh, not an easy sit.
Why You Should See It: No documentary this year took more chances. The Act of Killing is an unflinching look at the nature of evil, and Anwar’s coming to terms with what he’s really responsible for is a sight to behold.
4. The Grandmaster
What You Missed: A biopic of Ip Man, the kung-fu master who trained Bruce Lee, and his relationship with Gong Er, the daughter of another master.
Why You Missed It: There was a lot of hubbub over the different cut that US audiences saw before it came out that director Wong Kar-wai was responsible, not producer/frequent butcherer of foreign films Harvey Weinstein.
Why You Should See It: Like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the fights are choreographed by Yuen Wo-Ping. Unlike the earlier film, it’s shot in a more impressionistic style that emphasizes the mechanics of fighting. Plus, Wong is one of the great romantic directors, and The Grandmaster has the same swooning quality of his best works.
3. Computer Chess
What You Missed: Mumblecore originator Andrew Bujalski goes weird with a film about competing computer programmers and the concerns of the oncoming digital age.
Why You Missed It: It’s one of the strangest films of the year, with no major stars and a uniquely odd look given by the ancient cameras Bujalski used.
Why You Should See It: Bujalski’s film is frequently hilarious, and there’s nothing quite like it this year. The odd use of sci-fi elements is particularly fascinating. Available on Netflix Instant.
2. All Is Lost
What You Missed: Robert Redford stars as an unnamed man stuck whose boat collides with a stray shipping container. It begins to sink, and he has to fight for survival.
Why You Missed It: Redford is the only actor in the film, and there’s barely any dialogue. Similar to Gravity, but far more challenging.
Why You Should See It: Redford gives the performance of his career as a man whose bone-deep exhaustion and age make the fight for survival all the more perilous. Director J.C. Chandor is so attuned to process and how we deal with disaster that every complication will make you yell something along the lines of “OH FUCK OH FUCK OH FUCK”.
1. Upstream Color
What You Missed: The long-awaited return of Primer director Shane Carruth sees him taking his abstract, intentionally confounding style to a more emotional heights in a story about a woman (Amy Seimetz) and a man (Carruth) dealing with shifting identities, past traumas, and weird parasites inside them controlled by a man on a pig farm.
Why You Missed It: All together now: what? It’s virtually impossible to get a full grasp of what Carruth’s doing on a single viewing, intentionally alienating to at least some degree.
Why You Should See It: It’s the best movie of the year. Even when everything’s confusing, in the hands of Carruth it all makes some sort of bizarre sense, and it’s refreshing to see a filmmaker trust his audience so much. Carruth also crafts one of the most deeply-felt relationships in recent film history, which is something given how the film is more based in image than dialogue. No film this year is more audacious, more rewarding, or more essential. Available on Netflix Instant.