Published Jan 15, 2016While you were busy watching The Force Awakens for the fourth time, there's a good chance you missed out on some great cinema in 2015. Fortunately, our crack team has assembled a list of the most underrated and under-seen films of the year. Maybe they were unfairly judged by critics, or maybe you never even heard about them until now. Either way, January and February are the months where studios sneak their worst films out, so spend your time wisely and watch these instead.
8. James White
(Directed by Josh Mond)
Whether you peg it a "cancer film," a coming of age story or the portrait of a privileged antihero (it's all those things), James White will wreck you. Boasting a first-rate cast that seldom get the recognition they deserve (Christopher Abbott, Cynthia Nixon, Scott "Kid Cudi" Mescudi and Ron Livingston among them), this feature debut by Borderline Films producer Josh Mond finds its titular character struggling to keep his self-destructive tendencies in check after his dad passes away and his mother's cancer returns with a vengeance.
Having produced the solid features of Borderline fam Antonio Campos (Afterschool, Simon Killer) and Sean Durkin (Martha Marcy May Marlene), Mond proves more than up to the task of directing, incorporating autobiographical strands into his claustrophobic tale of a born-and-bred New Yorker (Abbott) whose emotional immaturity and hedonistic ways threaten to derail his ability to care for his gravely ill mom (Nixon). Abbott is mesmerizing here, carrying the film with all kinds of dangerous, under-the-surface energies. James bottles up so much that you never quite know when it might all boil over. The GIRLS alum manages to make us root for his impulsive antihero even though he has little in the way of redeeming qualities – a testament to his charisma as an actor.
Nixon is fantastic as the forgiving mom who, not unlike her son, "feels everything in extremes", while Kid Cudi brings warmth and compassion to a low-key gay BFF part that could have easily felt hackneyed. The sound work is particularly immersive, fully conveying the anxiety and chaos of the daily NYC hustle, while the camera work immediately draws us in. DOP Mátyás Erdély favours lingering close-ups on James's exhausted mug, leaving both protagonist and viewers struggling to breathe. Indie drama at its finest, folks. (Films We Like)
(Directed by Sebastian Schipper)
Sebastian Schipper's Victoria is a film I almost skipped at TIFF due to its buzz as "this year's Birdman" and an ad campaign that seemed to tout the film's technical accomplishment without revealing much else. By the time I left the theatre, I was certain I had just seen a new masterpiece. Filmed in a single take, this is a remarkably smart film that works as 2015's best exercise in tension. Grounded by an incredible performance from Laia Costa, Victoria is a German bank robbery film that exceeds its genre trappings thanks to nuanced, slightly-improvised character work, building to a breathtaking conclusion. While many have criticized the film for a lack of focus in the first two acts, Schipper has in fact created a sprawling street epic, where cultures from around the world collide in a Berlin that is always moving, always evolving, always awake. Unlike the showy long-take work given praise in films like The Revenant, the style works in Victoria because it's rooted in theme, as we learn more and more about Victoria and her intentions, and the course of an unforgettable night accumulates into a bleary-eyed morning. (Mongrel Media)
6. The Duke of Burgundy
(Directed by Peter Strickland)
After breaking through with Berberian Sound Studio, director Peter Strickland significantly upped his game with The Duke of Burgundy. The film's as odd and unnerving as it is charming and hilarious. Thanks to eye-popping costume design and a regal soundtrack from Cat's Eyes, it's hard to tell if it's intended to be a period piece or not.
But really, trying to define Burgundy is besides the point: As the plot slowly unfolds, we learn about the complex sexual dynamics between a loving lesbian couple. And while piss play and vintage S&M gear are involved in the story, it's ultimately just a heart-warming romantic comedy. The Duke of Burgundy is weird, to be sure, but it's also one of the sweetest movies you didn't see in 2015. (Mongrel Media)
5. Cop Car
(Directed by Jon Watts)
Right down to its straightforward title, Jon Watts' Cop Car is a taut thriller that doesn't waste so much as a moment on extraneous detail. After a pair of delinquent kids happening upon a corrupt sheriff's unmanned vehicle in a clearing in the middle of nowhere, a cat-and-mouse game ensues that's packed as much with suspense as pitch-black humour.
Kevin Bacon sports a ridiculous moustache and effortlessly slips into the skin of the oily sheriff, while the movie wisely avoids telling us too much about the dead bodies he was transporting in his trunk. The spare dialogue between the two kids is stylized yet keenly observed, and a scene where they discover a stash of guns inside the car and struggle to figure out how to fire them is one that will likely be watched through the fingers of your hand. It's also beautifully shot, with a backdrop of empty skies and rolling plains that seem to offer no escape in sight. (Starz)
4. Magic Mike XXL
(Directed by Gregory Jacobs)
Underappreciated by audience and critics alike, Magic Mike XXL failed to take off the way its predecessor did back in 2012. But the film is essential to modern conversations of sexuality and gender in 2015, transforming a standard Hollywood sequel into a text about the female gaze. It certainly helps that most of these themes are communicated, like the best of musicals, through dance.
Yes, Magic Mike XXL is one part Busby Berkeley fantasia, one part MDMA-fueled hazy summer throwback and one part character study, but the film manages to stay on its nimble toes thanks to steady direction from Gregory Jacobs (subbing in this time for Steven Soderbergh). The film is virtually plotless, as Channing Tatum and his merry band of strippers drive from town to town en route to a convention, listening to women and dancing for them. The airy vibe creates something truly unique, a sex-positive art film from a major studio, focused on the ways pleasure is produced. Don't think this is homework though. There was no scene more transcendent in 2015 than Channing Tatum dancing to "Pony." (Warner Bros.)
3. The Visit
(Directed by M. Night Shyamalan)
M. Night Shyamalan has been the subject of ridicule for so long that we've collectively forgotten he used to be a reliable filmmaker. Unsurprisingly, audiences mostly skipped The Visit for this reason. Stripped of all Shyamalan's excessive visual metaphors, heavy-handed narrative symbolism, and infamously ridiculous plot twists, The Visit slyly winks at the overwrought cinematic style that's bogged down Shyamalan for years. By situating the story as a hand-held mockumentary with an emphasis on the "mock," The Visit can freely play with established horror tropes by highlighting how and why they're constructed — and then using them to great effect. It's a great reminder that, after years of getting bogged down by overly ambitious and convoluted premises in recent years, M. Night Shyamalan still knows how to tell a tightly paced, fun, funny, and terrifying story. (Universal)
Laura Di Girolamo
2. 99 Homes
(Directed by Ramin Bahrani)
When it comes to films depicting the 2008 mortgage crisis and subsequent worldwide financial collapse, Adam McKay's The Big Short may get the most attention this awards season, but it's Ramin Bahrani's riveting and honest 99 Homes that will likely stand the test of time thanks to powerful performances from Andrew Garfield (as a man trying to work within the system that destroyed his life and family home) and Michael Shannon (who somehow manages to make the villains who gamed the system seem somewhat likeable, even when their actions are far from respectable).
Blame a limited theatrical release and its straight-to-VOD placement over a year after it wowed critics at the Toronto International Film Festival for it being somewhat swept under the rug, but for those willing to comb iTunes and other subscription services' back catalogues, 99 Homes is an intimate and engaging watch, and may be one of the most scary-yet-relatable movies of the year. (VVS)
1. The Overnight
(Directed by Patrick Brice)
It's increasingly rare in these formulaic times to find a film where you don't know well in advance where things are headed. As such, The Overnight is such a welcome anomaly because most of the time it doesn't even seem to know exactly where it's headed. Instead, it's content to let its characters gradually learn more about each other as two sets of parents use an innocent play-date for their kids as a gateway to an all-night session of swimming, smoking pot and uncomfortable bonding.
The cast is uniformly excellent in what is essentially a four-hander set in just one location, as Jason Schwartzman and Judith Godrèche's free spirits play host to an evening that gradually bares all of Adam Scott and Taylor Schilling's greatest insecurities. Freed from the confines of any conventional plot, the script inches the new acquaintances closer together despite the conflicts of their contrasting lifestyles through amusing details—Schwartzman paints pictures of people's buttholes, Godrèche starred in a breast pump instructional video and Scott is extremely insecure about his micro-penis. It's true that meeting new friends only becomes more and more difficult in adulthood and The Overnight plays like some kind of comic nightmare on just how excruciating that process can truly be. (The Archive)