Our Favorite Under-The-Radar Movies of the Year

It’s Oscar Season, so there will be lots of talk of The Revenant and Joy, Spotlight and The Martian, Carol and The Big Short. We assume you didn’t miss the big blockbusters of last year either (or if you did, you did so by choice): Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Jurassic World, Mad Max: Fury Road, Furious 7, and Avengers: Age of Ultron. But there were a number of great movies of the last year that flew under the radar. While the following films aren’t up for a lot of awards and didn’t make the big waves that the big studio blockbusters made, they are all exceptional films worthy of your time.

It Follows
Certain genres are hard to make new. They’re inherently formulaic: think rom-coms, think sports films, and certainly horror movies. You know the trajectory of the film before you see it, and so it’s hard to do anything truly interesting with it. This movie definitely does something interesting. It Follows is a horror movie that manages to both subvert and fulfill its genre expectations. A film about a sexually transmitted curse that causes “it” (it being the embodiment of death, the symbolized sexual repercussions, a monster, use your imagination) to creep its way ever toward you, impossible to stop. The film somehow manages to surprise, even as it adheres to classic slasher tropes. Rarely do horror films end up making the year-end “best of” lists but It Follows is an exception to the rule. It was one of last year’s boldest visions.

Irrational Man
Love him or hate him, it’s pretty undeniable that Woody Allen is one of the most important and most influential filmmakers in American cinema. He’s made some duds, undoubtedly, but he’s also made plenty of masterpieces. Irrational Man, which is helped by a phenomenal lead performance by the always alluring Joaquin Phoenix, isn’t Allen’s best film, but it’s certainly more in line with his masterpieces than his duds. Here Phoenix plays a philandering professor who, in the midst of existential crisis, begins to give his life new meaning when he considers murdering a judge who presides over a gross miscarriage of justice. Is it more rational to fight for justice or to avoid such fights? And, if we fight, what forms can and should this fight take before the fight becomes its own form of injustice? I don’t know the answers, but perhaps the best way to exist in this unjust world is to just see Irrational Man.

Love & Mercy
Music biopics can be boring, and often are. Sure, Straight Outta Compton was fun, but it still felt like the cliched rags-to-riches rock bio that we’ve seen and heard a million times (though admittedly not with rap stars in the place of rock stars). Love & Mercy, though, not Straight Outta Compton, which looks at Beach Boy Brian Wilson, was the year’s stand-out music biopic. Instead of following the formulaic rise and fall of a musical genius in a way that fits the obvious narrative, the movie toggles between two moments in Wilson’s life: the time before, during. and after Pet Sounds and the time in the eighties when he was under the thumb of Eugene Landy. The film is a heartbreaking look at how genius and mental illness often go hand-in-hand, but it’s also a poignant call to action for its two titular terms: love and mercy.

Ex Machina
Alicia Vikander, who is up for an Academy Award for her role in The Danish Girl, and Oscar Isaac, who charmed audiences as Poe in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, started out their year with Ex Machina, a wonderful little sci-fi film that does what all good sci-fi does: questions our current cultural and technological moment. In addition to Vikander and Isaac, the film stars Domhnall Gleeson, who actually also appears in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, as a programmer who wins a week with a secluded CEO who has created an artificial intelligence who he thinks may be able to pass the Turing test. It’s a brilliant film in all respects, visually, acting-wise, and content-wise, and if it weren’t sci-fi it might have been up for some Oscars (the Academy notoriously dismisses science fiction, no matter how good it is).

The Gift
Joel Edgerton’s biggest role of the year was likely his take on Whitey Bulger’s FBI frenemy John Connolly in Black Mass, but his best role was as a creepy stalker in The Gift, which he also directed. Starring Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall as a couple tormented by an old high school contemporary, this eerie thriller is the perfect gift to long-time fans of the genre. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it does hit all its notes perfectly.

Macbeth
We’ve seen Shakespeare on screen countless times, so it’s not surprising that a cinematic adaptation of one his plays might fly under the radar, but if you missed this rendition of the classic Scottish tragedy with Michael Fassbender as the titular character, you missed one of the most gorgeous films of the year. Yet even though it’s all shot with aesthetic brilliance, the movie, like the play, is as gruesome as all get out, showing the horrors of war in terrifying slow-motion. This film will stick with you like blood on your hands. But you won’t want to get this damned spot out.

Best of Enemies
Some great documentaries are up for Academy Awards, including Amy (on the tragic singer Amy Winehouse) and The Look of Silence (which explores the Indonesian genocide), but Best of Enemies was also worth viewing, even if it doesn’t have a chance to take home the Oscar. It focuses on two of the premiere public intellectuals of the 1960s--Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley--and their feud which exploded in front of a television audience on ABC for the 1968 Presidential Conventions. No matter what side of the political spectrum you fall on, you’ll likely find yourself agreeing sometimes with the one you least expected to. The reason? Neither one is either completely right or completely wrong in their assessments.

Beasts of No Nation
if there's any better evidence that the mainstream movie industry is still in denial at the power of companies like Netflix to produce grat movies it's Beasts Of No Nation. Many people were shocked that Idris Elba was not nominated for Best Supporting Actor for this film by Cary Fukunaga, who directed the amazing first season of True Detective (but had nothing to do with the abysmal second season). Based on Uzodinma Iweala’s phenomenal book, the movie gives an unflinching look at an unnamed wartorn African country. The story is poetic without losing its gritty realism, harrowing without losing some small semblence of hope, nightmarish while still remaining captivating. Fukunaga is a true talent, and this will be remembered as a crowning achievement in his artistic growth.

The End of the Tour
The gripes against The End of the Tour, which looks at a book tour of author David Foster Wallace (played brilliantly by Jason Segel), are mostly that it turns DFW into the sort of banal cliche he desperately tried to avoid becoming. It’s a worthy complaint to have against the film, but I think it’s also what makes the film so fascinating. Aren’t we all destined to become the things we strive against becoming? By the end of the film, when moments of catharsis come, and DFW would have been dismayed by the formulaic ways in which they do come, it’s hard not to realize the power of a story well told--even if it reduces the messy into the palatable.

Anomalisa
Since it’s up for Best Animated Feature, you might think, “Anomalisa can’t be that under the radar,” but it’s more than just an “animated feature” it’s one of the best movies of the year and that makes it underrated. From the mind of Charlie Kaufman--Being John Malkovich, The Eternal of the Spotless Mind, and Synecdoche, New York--comes a story of love and loss, but told through stop-motion animation.