As Birdman and Boyhood continue to rack up accolades en route to what is increasingly looking like an Oscar showdown in the making, it’s important to remember there were a ton of films this year that aren’t getting anywhere near the same kind of awards season buzz (and probably won’t), but still deserve a fair amount of love. With that in mind, we’ve put together a list of RT staff favorites that have either been largely forgotten or will pass through awards season with little to no fanfare. Read on for our off-the-radar recommendations of 2014!
Alex Vo, Editor
Self-absorbed and misanthropic radio DJ Alan Partridge is Steve Coogan’s most popular creation in his home country and virtually unknown in the United States. This fact makes an Alan Partridge movie a tough sell here, especially since the character has been around for well over 20 years. For example, how much awareness of the character does one need coming into the movie? Fortunately, none! Alan Partridge more than stands on its own, with a barrage of hilarious jokes and scenarios rising out of the absurd “radio station gets held hostage” plot. Great tunes pepper the soundtrack, too, culminating with a memorable tribute to Sparks’ 1979 disco track, “#1 Song in Heaven.”
Jeff Giles, Associate Editor
If you’ve heard anything about The Babadook, you’ve probably heard that it’s one of the scarier horror films of the year, and for good reason. Debuting writer-director Jennifer Kent envelops the viewer in a steadily encroaching atmosphere of cold, isolating dread, ratcheting up the tension so effectively that — as with many of the best entries in the genre — the movie’s titular villain hardly needs any screen time to establish his malevolent presence. But The Babadook isn’t just scary; in fact, it works just as effectively as a wrenchingly honest (and, in the end, almost sweet) examination of the ways in which unprocessed grief can draw us into darkness. Watch it for the icy chills, but don’t be surprised if The Babadook lingers long after you’ve stopped looking over your shoulder at night — and definitely be on the lookout for more from Kent.
Grae Drake, Senior Editor
The idea of the revenge flick has been around for a loooong time. I imagine that the first one came out right after the Lumiere Brothers’ The Arrival of a Train, and featured a disgruntled passenger who had missed the train at the last stop. So now, in a cinematic landscape overflowing with recycled ideas, the revenge flick has to travel far from the beaten path to make a splash. Blue Ruin, directed and written by newcomer Jeremy Saulnier, is just such a film. Quiet and frantic, Blue Ruin slowly reveals the story of Dwight, who appears to be a lonely drifter with nothing but garbage dinners to keep him shuffling through life. Beneath the surface, however, lies a warrior who has suffered a great loss, and whose only desire in life is to restore balance through violence. One of the many problems Dwight has is that he is completely incompetent as an assassin, but where there’s a will, there’s a (messy) way. Dwight is the kind of samurai that I think I would be — full of enthusiasm and righteousness, but lacking in actual skill or know-how. Saulnier’s film never strays into slapstick territory, as the subject matter and Dwight’s life is too bleak to allow for lightheartedness. Somehow this movie manages to be poignant without being heavy-handed, and brutal without being judgmental.
Tim Ryan, Senior Editor
Plenty of movies can be described as “more style than substance.” A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, on the other hand, is something else altogether: a movie whose style is so striking that it becomes the substance. Describing the plot of A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night makes it sound utterly generic (lovelorn vampire seeks companionship) and its unofficial tagline (“It’s the best Iranian feminist vampire Western ever made!”) makes it seem like some kind of campy stunt. But A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night emits a weird vibe that’s hard to shake, from its haunting black-and-white cinematography to its pulsing soundtrack. Every once in a while, I’ll see something that feels so unique and fresh that I want to tell everyone I know to see it now! This year, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night was that movie.
Kerr Lordygan, Review Aggregator
The true story of small-time crooks Tommy and Rosie Uva is a pretty incredible one, and it’s brought to vivid life in the little-seen Rob the Mob. Written by Jonathan Fernandez and directed by Raymond De Felitta (City Island, Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story), the film is funny in its portrayal of a couple with enough chutzpah to steal from the mafia, but it’s touching, too; Tommy (Michael Pitt) and Rosie (Nina Arianda) love each other so much, they’ll do whatever is necessary to keep their passion alive. Struggling to pay the bills, they pull mini-heists to stay afloat, but after Tommy serves a stint in prison, he decides to try robbing private clubs owned by the Mafia, and Rosie is forced to go along for the ride. With a cast that includes solid pros like Ray Romano, Andy Garcia, and Griffin Dunne, the film is sure to entertain while pushing a few buttons. And tickling your funny bone. The actors are spot-on, commanding an unlikely empathy through their performances and making this modern day Bonnie and Clyde story worth more than just a glance.
Beki Lane, Editorial Coordinator
A surprisingly heartfelt drama starring well-known comedians Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, The Skeleton Twins is a soft-spoken success. I was amazed to find such simple and clear acting by two people who are usually known for over-the-top comedic performances. This story of estranged twins is easy to relate to and you get the distinct impression that you are peeking in on everyday lives in progress. It is also a study of depression, and the struggle of those who fight to live in the face of it. The Skeleton Twins is Certified Fresh at 87% on the Tomatometer, and is worthy of diving into.
Catherine Pricci, Review Aggregator
Considering it came in at number two on our Summer Movie Scorecard — Certified Fresh at 95 percent, no less — it’s hard to believe so few people have heard of Snowpiercer, let alone seen it. Imagine a frozen, post-apocalyptic Earth whose only survivors are living on a train that perpetually circles the globe, and all of the train’s inhabitants are divided by class. Curtis (Chris Evans) and a ragtag bunch of his fellow
proletarians are fed up and plan a forward assault to the front of the train in an attempt to secure better living conditions. As they progress through each car, they discover increasingly shocking things. There are extremely dark tones in this film that will resonate with most and the morals they live by. Snowpiercer is a rock-solid action film, but it’s hard to miss its allegorical concerns, especially at a time when economic hardship is a reality for so many of us.
Marya E. Gates, Social Media Specialist
Writer/Director Matt Wolf’s documentary adaptation of Jon Savage’s book, Teenage: The Prehistory of Youth Culture: 1875-1945, is more of a visual collage than a traditional documentary. Certified Fresh at 74 percent, Teenage uses archival footage and filmed recreations to tell the true story of four teenagers in the years building up to World War II. Narrators (including Ben Whishaw and Jena Malone) read excerpts from Savage’s book — much of which was taken from diaries and newspaper articles — to bring these four examples to life. A haunting musical score by Atlas Sound ties everything together, and the film ends with a montage of archival footage from post-1945 that celebrates the exuberance, despair, passion, and hope that comes during those tumultuous teenage years. While Teenage might not be for everyone, it’s definitely not like any other documentary you’re going to see this year.
Sarah Ricard, TV Editor
At the same time that she was kicking supervillain ass as Black Widow in Marvel’s blockbuster Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Scarlett Johansson was also quietly burrowing her way into the gloomy outskirts of Glasgow, Scotland as a mysterious, beautiful, and dangerous stranger in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin. Laura, whose name is easy to miss, drives a van through town seducing male strangers into coming home with her. While the men can’t believe their luck, they ought to remember that some things are too good to be true. Going home with a gorgeous woman, only to find that her apartment is actually an infinite quagmire of black goo, should be something of a real red flag. Under the Skin may frustrate many on account of its equally gooey pace and almost-too-subtle plot, but Johansson’s performance is at once beguiling and creepy, leaving you with two questions by this mesmerizing and shocking film’s end: What the heck did I just see? And when can I see it again?
Ryan Fujitani, Editor
Coming-of-age films are a dime a dozen these days, but the vast majority of them — even the comedies — seem intent on filtering adolescence through the adult lens of wistful, melancholy nostalgia. This is one of the reasons why Lukas Moodysson’s We Are the Best! feels so refreshing, even as its themes ring familiar. Set in the early 1980s but never cloyingly era-specific, the film follows a trio of outcast middle-school girls in Stockholm who come together to form a punk band, and it never devolves into the dire melodrama or awkward sexual awakenings of its genre kin. Instead, We Are the Best! embraces the joyful, devil-may-care rebellion of youth in all its ephemeral glory, best illustrated by the scene when the girls panhandle for change to pay for a new guitar, only to spend all their money on a candy and ice cream binge. There are some ups and downs in the movie, to be sure, but Moodysson’s affection for raucous Klara, sheepish Bobo, and demure Hedvig is so clearly on display that I’m inclined to declare you heartless if you don’t at least crack a smile when the girls finally break out into the titular chant.
Matt Atchity, Editor in Chief
It’s easy to understand why Whiplash got a little bit lost when it was released in October; it was a small film overshadowed by wider releases, and its leads (Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons) aren’t exactly box office draws on their own. But this film absolutely deserves all of the accolades its received so far, including the Grand Jury Award at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. Miles Teller plays a talented drummer studying at a New York music conservatory who falls under the sway of a tyrannical bandleader, played by J.K. Simmons. The movie explores artistic achievement and obsession in a way that will have you on the edge of your seat, as Simmons and Teller repeatedly face off on the bandstand. The movie features an especially chilling performance from Simmons, balancing charm and abuse in equal measure. Sure, the movie takes a bit of license with jazz history, but the tense and thrilling climax will stick with you long after the film is over.
Stateside audiences are probably unfamiliar with Alan Partridge (Steve Coogan), but folks across the pond know him from any number of media appearances and his BBC sitcom. In Alan Partridge, Coogan reprises his role as the egocentric radio dj and television presenter, whose radio station — under new corporate management — is taken hostage by a recently fired DJ; Alan finds himself at the center of the controversy when he is asked to play negotiator with his former colleague. Certified Fresh at 86%, Alan Partridge is a clever comedy that relies more on dry wit than laugh-out-loud moments, and while fans of the character will get the most out of it, it makes the most of Steve Coogan’s talents and should serve as a fun introduction for the uninitiated. Special features include a making-of doc, a commentary track with Coogan and writers Neil and Rob Gibbons, a slew of deleted scenes, and a blooper reel.
Ilo Ilo, a drama about a the trials and tribulations of a middle-class Singaporean family during the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s, is at 100 percent.
Afflicted, a horror film about a young man suffering from a sinister condition while on a globetrotting vacation with a friend, is at 92 percent.
The Retrieval, a Civil War-era drama about a man and his nephew on a mission to apprehend a fugitive ex-slave, is at 90 percent.
Watermark, a documentary about humankind’s complex relationship with water, is at 75 percent.
The Borderlands, a horror film about a group of tasked with investigating paranormal activity in rural England, is at 75 percent.
The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came To Eden, a documentary about intrigue and murder among a group of eccentrics on a remote island, is at 50 percent.
Alien Abduction, a found-footage sci-fi thriller about a vacationing family that encounters extraterrestrial life, is at 25 percent.