The good news is that they still exist, so you have a chance.
My criteria for what qualifies for this list is simple. One, they’re all varying degrees of great. Two, they had to have made less than $1 million at the box-office. And three, in the spirit of spreading the love, I’m sticking strictly to films that didn’t make the cut on any of my other year-end lists (action, foreign, horror, or best overall).
Before we get started I just want to clarify that when I say the movies “you” missed I don’t actually mean you. I would never dream of being so bold as you most likely were one among the very few who caught these tiny gems in theaters or on VOD this year. So please don’t take offense, and instead maybe give some of these a re-watch or even share with a friend instead.
An ex-soldier (Matthias Schoenaerts) is hired as bodyguard to a wealthy man’s wife (Diane Kruger) and child, and while that setup seems highly familiar director/co-writer Alice Winocour finds a more interesting approach than simply that of an action/thriller. Both action and thrills are present, but the focus here is on the bodyguard’s PTSD-rattled psyche and how he begins to see threats where they may not be.
Writer/director Gabrielle Demeestere’s film (based on a James Franco book) is less of a narrative than a look into a time and place populated by young boys approaching the end of innocence. Where Stand By Me pressed its characters’ faces into the stink of mortality, the boys here move ever forward, blissfully unaware of the dangers and impending knowledge crouched just outside their peripheral vision.
14. The Nymphets
If you’ve seen Eli Roth’s Knock Knock the temptation might be to write this one off as a low-rent copycat – but don’t. Whereas Roth’s film features an abundance of annoying behavior married to some highly improbable but mildly entertaining genre trappings writer/director Gary Gardner’s feature debut uses a similar setup to tell a far richer and more satisfying tale. It’s a delicately crafted threesome with sexy, sad, and awkward emotional fumblings in place of intertwined limbs resulting in an evening more chaotic and honest than anyone expects.
13. The Intervention
Clea DuVall writes, directs, and co-stars in this tale of friends enduring one hell of an awkward weekend, and she brings along an equally impressive supporting cast with Melanie Lynskey, Jason Ritter, Natasha Lyonne, Ben Schwartz, Alia Shawkat, and others. It’s funny, but the bigger goal here is honesty leading to some harsh truths along the way.
The awkward gatherings continue with this Thanksgiving-set drama about a woman who returns to her family’s holiday routine after a decade apart. It’s an occasionally funny, increasingly intense experience as we watch her efforts to fit back in be stymied by both her past and present. Krisha Fairchild’s lead performance is a kind of mesmerizing anguish to behold.
I’m not the biggest documentary guy for various reasons, but there are two this year that made me take notice. One has found a spot on my Best Movies of the Year list, and the other is this utterly insane investigation into an extremely odd corner of the internet. Try to avoid reading anything about it and go in blind instead.
Horror anthology films get a shot in the arm with this cleverly-interlocked collection of tales involving dark spirits and darker souls. Most of the talents involved previously worked on the first V/H/S film, and happily they’ve ditched that franchise’s weak connective tissue in favor of stronger stories and a smooth transition between nightmares.
9. Always Shine
Two old friends get together for a weekend away, but jealousy and madness interrupt their reunion with tragic results. Sophia Takal proves herself just as capable behind the camera as she typically is in front while handing acting duties over to the incredible Mackenzie Davis and Caitlin FitzGerald. Davis makes us feel her character’s inner pain and inadequacy to an uncomfortable degree, but she also lets us see the beauty hovering just beyond her reach.
8. Morris from America
In other hands the tale of a man (Craig Robinson) moving to Germany with his son would have been played strictly for laughs, but writer/director Chad Hartigan has his eye on a far more human story. The film is still quite funny, but it gives equal time to feelings of isolation, frustration, and confusion as the man and the boy try to navigate this stage of their lives.
J.G. Ballard’s novel was viewed as unfilmable by some, but the frequently brilliant Ben Wheatley clearly didn’t get the memo. His adaptation captures and channels the book’s black humor and social commentary into a sharply-drawn satire populated with terrifically game actors including Tom Hiddleston, Luke Evans, James Purefoy, Jeremy Irons, and others. The end result is beautifully-controlled chaos.
6. The Love Witch
Writer/director/producer/composer/editor/production designer/art director/set decorator/costume designer Anna Biller delivers a singular experience with this incredibly stylish, sexy, and scathing tale of a witch in search of love. The film is a colorful, stylized nod to the days of Technicolor romance that manages to be both a takedown of a patriarchal society and a loose, fun romp.
5. Spa Night
As Moonlight soaks up well-deserved accolades across the country it would do viewers well to seek out this compelling and equally specific take on culture and sexual identity. Writer/director Andrew Ahn delivers an intimate coming of age film that explores the Asian-American experience through an infrequently used lens, and Joe Seo gives a lead performance that’s equal parts desire and guilt.
4. The Age of Shadows
All you should need to know is that this is the latest from director Kim Jee-won, the man behind modern classics like I Saw the Devil, A Tale of Two Sisters, A Bittersweet Life, and The Good the Bad the Weird. Now go see it.
3. Frank and Lola
Michael Shannon is many things – including often the best thing about any film he’s a part of – but until now he’s never been the romantic lead. It shouldn’t surprise you, but he’s a mesmerizing leading man who you quickly come to buy as the counterpart to Imogene Poot’s dysfunctional and lost young woman. Part comedy, part twisted drama, writer/director Matthew Ross’ debut is an engaging tale of love gone awry. And yes, Shannon’s still the best thing about it.
2. In a Valley of Violence
Ti West takes a break from his methodically-paced horror genre to deliver this year’s Slow West with a fast-moving, exciting, and incredibly funny western. In addition to featuring John Travolta’s best performance in years the film also casts Ethan Hawke as a reluctant hero, Taissa Farmiga as a spunky bar maid, and the most ridiculously talented canine actor since Chuck the wonder dog stole Up the Creek from its entire human cast.
1. Little Sister
Zach Clark’s latest offers a funny and striking look at one young woman’s journey of self-discovery, and it manages the near-impossible by doing so with a unique voice. Addison Timlin shines as a soon-to-be nun who returns home for a brief visit with her family, and where most films would drum up a romance or some other artificial drama the focus here is reconnecting with her self and her battle-scarred brother. It’s sweet, beautiful, and occasionally caustic (and the addition of Barbara Crampton as a Mother Superior makes it even better).
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