Theaters are increasingly the arena of tentpole event movies that tend to block out the sun, making it easy for smaller films to get lost in the mix. The movies on this list aren’t universally obscure. Most of them did play at a theater near you. It’s just that it was easy to miss them if you didn’t know what to look for. The one thing they all have in common is that they all deserved bigger audiences.
Set on the realest, ugliest streets of LA, Tangerine is a story that sneaks up on you. What at first appears to be a Harmony Korine-inspired gawkfest turns into something surprisingly heartfelt as we get to know trans prostitutes Sin-Dee and Alexandra. Actresses Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez lend the proceedings an air of realism by actually being trans women instead of male actors playing trans women. And that gritty feel is made all the grittier by filmmaker Sean Baker’s decision to shoot the entire thing on three iPhones.
The movie was a hit when it premiered at Sundance, and it’s won a certain amount of caché in certain circles, but it hasn’t gotten near the audience it deserves. It’s available streaming on Netflix now.
#2. Steve Jobs
This one seemed to have it all — a sharp screenplay from Aaron Sorkin, stylish direction from Danny Boyle, a compelling subject in its title character, and Oscar-caliber leads in Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet. So what happened? After bringing in just $17 million at the box office (barely half the film’s estimated budget), Universal pulled Steve Jobs from most screens, sealing its fate as one of the year’s biggest flops. Despite the abysmal attendance figures, it still won mostly glowing reviews and made both Fassbender and Winslet contenders in their Oscar categories.
With those box office figures, we know not many of you bothered to see it, and that’s a shame. The film’s inventive structure smartly packs all the drama of Jobs’ life into three extended vignettes that all play out in real time with compelling results.
#3. 99 Homes
Digging into the housing crisis on a visceral, human level, 99 Homes finds Andrew Garfield playing the part of an unlikely and deeply troubled repo man working for Michael Shannon’s foreclosure-happy property baron. Both Garfield and Shannon won unanimous praise for this hard-to-watch gem, and if it had won a popular audience, they’d likely be a part of the awards season conversation.
Basically the most charming movie of the year, you will watch Dope with giant grin pasted on your face for most of its running time. It’s set in a tough LA-area neighborhood in Inglewood, Calif., where Malcolm, a nice geeky kid with a fetish for ’90s hip-hop, is trying to get into Harvard. Along the way he and his friends get wrapped up in a drug deal gone awry, and Malcolm finds himself having to sell off a couple of huge packages of MDMA (the main ingredient in ecstasy) to secure his place in his dream college. The film is clever, hilarious, perfectly cast, and the music is amazing. While it was a breakout indie hit, there’s still a good chance you missed this one.
#5. American Ultra
Proving that both Kristen Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg are box office liabilities in lead roles, American Ultra is a stoner action comedy that tanked hard in theaters despite its awesomeness. If you did give the movie a chance, you know how much fun it was, and that both the comedy and the action work. Eisenberg plays a former prodigy in a secretive CIA program to raise children up as killing machines. They’ve wiped his memory, given him a strong affinity for pot, and set him to work at a dead-end job at a convenience store where he likes to draw comics behind the counter. It doesn’t take long for the movie to dive into the action, though, and once it does, it doesn’t stop. Packed with memorable supporting performances from the likes of John Leguizamo, Walton Boggins, Connie Britton, and Tony Hale, this one is destined for cult status.
Yes, Sicario did well, but if there was any justice in the world, it would be among the top 20 or so box offices of the year. Emily Blunt is an icy FBI agent playing a futile game of whack-a-mole with the drug gangs near the Mexican border. When a shady CIA operative shows up and offers her a chance to cut the head off the snake, she jumps at the opportunity, only to find she’s jumped in way over her head. Packed with tension, and ridiculously great performances, Sicario is one of the best movies of the year, but it isn’t really being treated that way. Blunt, Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin, cinematographer Roger Deakins, and director Denis Villeneuve all deserve Oscar nods, but Deakins is probably the only one who will get one.
#7. It Follows
This one takes a ridiculously perfect premise — a sexually transmitted ghost — and runs with it beautifully. Starring Maika Monroe on the cusp of becoming a big deal, It Follows is a ghost story that finds ways to put you on the edge of your seat over and over and over again. This is one horror movie that deserves a much wider audience than just the genre fans who’ve already seen it.
#8. Bone Tomahawk
A western horror starring Kurt Russell in a role that echoes his turn as Wyatt Earp in Tombstone would have have made a bigger splash in the ’90s. But this year it went straight to video on demand, where it’s just starting to find its audience. With a healthy mix of tension, gore, and character development, fans of Dusk Till Dawn will appreciate the way it makes you care about the characters and pulls the rug out from under you once it really starts moving.
#9. The Wolfpack
Five brothers and their sister lived for years inside a Manhattan apartment, sheltered from the world except for the movies they consumed over and over and over again. This documentary (yes, it really happened) explores their family, how they connected to, and recreated, the world they saw in movies, and their first steps into the real world waiting for them. It’s a strange look at a strange family with hopeful results, and you can stream this one on Netflix.
#10. Ex Machina
Oscar Isaac plays a billionaire genius who cracks artificial intelligence with strange consequences in this claustrophobic dramatic thriller. Domhnall Gleeson plays the cerebral nerd tasked with figuring out if a sexy young robot (Alicia Vikander) isn’t just intelligent, but conscious. What’s great about the movie is the way it takes a subject with such far-reaching implications and boils it down to a three-person drama that’s just as much about the character’s flaws as it is about intelligent robots. It could easily be performed on a stage and be equally effective. This one’s streaming on Amazon if you haven’t seen it yet.
#11. Cop Car
Some of Kevin Bacon’s best work in recent memory came this year in a little indie drama that barely had a theatrical release. Two 10-year-old boys find themselves at the center of a very grown-up mess when they stumble upon a seemingly abandoned cop car and haplessly take it for a joyride. The car happens to belong to a very corrupt sheriff (Bacon) and it’s being used for some very shady dealings. The film blends a child-like sense of fun and excitement with edge-of-your seat danger at every corner, and it works like a charm.
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