Let’s say you go to the movies several times a week, hitting up all the big multiplex releases — your new Mad Maxs, your latest Marvel superhero epics, your Star Wars Episode VIIs and Furious 7s. You regularly log on to your favorite streaming services and check out what’s been added to the roster. Come September, you dutifully check out the Oscar-buzzed biopics and based-on-a-true-story dramas. Occasionally, you may even stop by your local arthouse theater or brave the wild frontier that is VOD, renting an unfamiliar movie on a whim because it has that one actor you like in it. And still, at the end of any given year, you might look back at several prominent Top 10 lists and see titles that produce a giant cartoon question mark over your head. I knew about Minions, you say, but what the hell is Mustang?
There are usually a handful of incredible movies that hit theaters and may slip right under your radar, or depending on where you live, bypass you entirely. So we’re shining the spotlight on 15 of our favorite 2015 releases that you might have missed: gritty to graceful indies, limited-distribution documentaries and mockumentaries, foreign films ranging from obscure to offbeat to, in the case of Hard to Be a God, downright WTF unclassifiable. Some require a more adventurous mindset than others; each can currently be found on DVD, Netflix, iTunes and/or other streaming services; all of them are worth your time.
‘Best of Enemies’
A tale of two intellectual gladiators who inadvertently changed TV news, this extraordinary documentary from Morgan Neville (Twenty Feet From Stardom) and Robert Gordon looks back at the infamous 1968 presidential-convention debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr. — 10 nights of verbal jousting that ended with high-class name-calling and threats of violence. Besides the sheer pleasure of watching this vintage clash of the titans, you get a first-hand look at the ground-zero moment of today’s television partisan punditry: The minute Vidal starts yelling and Buckley threatens to “sock” his opponent in the jaw, this history lesson instantly goes from time capsule to crystal ball.
Having inexplicably lost her sight, a young woman (Ellen Dorrit Petersen), spends her afternoons stuck in her apartment, writing on her computer. Several other characters — her distracted husband, a single mother, a disturbed porn addict — keep floating directly or indirectly into her orbit, each suggesting a world outside her window that’s seriously out of whack. The less that’s said about this Norwegian drama’s particulars the better, except to suggest that our heroine may not be the most reliable narrator, and that like his collaborations with filmmaker Joachim Trier (see Reprise), writer-director Eskil Vogt’s award-winning debut feature builds on the intersection between art and life in ways that feel somehow both uplifting and highly upsetting.
‘The Duke of Burgundy’
Ah, Seventies Euro-sexploitation films … how we’ve missed you. British director Peter Strickland starts off this torrid tale of an aristocratic lady of the manor (Borgen‘s Sidse Babett Knudsen) and her put-upon servant (Chiara D’Anna) as a pastiche of old soft-focus, S&M-inflected grindhouse imports. Then he suddenly hijacks the hot-and-heavy hijinks in the name of a real exploration of romantic flames in danger of being snuffed out, and you’re witness to one of the deftest uses of trash-cinema vocabulary in decades.
Forget Zac Efron and those techno-festival docs; the year’s best EDM movie came from France and favored mood over volume and bowel-rattling drops. Mia Hansen-Love’s tale of a young DJ in the early Nineties Parisian scene captures that feeling of discovering music that strikes a chord deep within you (in this case, vintage Paradise Garage house tracks) and giving yourself heart and soul to it. And then the movie flips the record and spins the B-side, in which the youthful obsessions that sustained you no longer deliver the goods and you’re left with blurry memories and hangovers. Bring the beat back.
‘Hard To Be a God’
Imagine Terry Gilliam and Russian-film godhead Andrei Tarkovksy co-directing a season of Game of Thrones, and you might scratch the surface of describing what this mud-caked, decades-in-the-making epic is like. Set in a galaxy far, far away — and on a world that resembles our own circa the Dark Ages — a knight (or, possibly, a scientist in disguise) pillages his way through ramshackle villages, encountering grotesques and slaughtering intellectuals along the way to either enlightenment or total annihilation. A labor of love for the late filmmaker Aleksei German, this immersive deep-dive into history and squalor drops viewers into a confusing world without a compass; it’s as much an endurance test as it an unforgettable cinematic experience. See it with someone you love and/or never want to speak to again.
‘I’ll See You in My Dreams’
You could be forgiven for thinking this tender, delicate tale of a seventysomething widow was simply an indie variation on the current wave of Oldsploitation, in which elderly people act like stinkers in the name of lazy laughs and lazier sympathy (see Youth, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel movies, etc). But despite the requisite old-biddies-smoking-dope scene, co-writer/director Brett Haley is much more interested in exploring what makes his autumnal heroine tick than picking low-hanging fruit. And what Blythe Danner does with this role is a gift to both her filmmaker and audiences — a nuanced, bone-deep take on late-in-life opening up to the world after years of closing yourself off. Attention must be paid.
‘The Kindergarten Teacher’
A teacher (Sarit Larry) notices that one of her young students writes poetry that suggests he’s the second coming of T.S. Eliot. Her admiration leads to an almost single-minded dedication to nurturing his singular gift — and then to the woman’s complete unraveling. One of the brightest filmmaking talents to come out of Israel in years, writer-director Nadav Lapid (hunt down his 2011 feature debut Policeman if you can) tackles a number of big-picture questions — How far will a person go to protect beauty? Can an artist function in a society that prizes power over poetry? Is it appropriate to wake a five-year-old from a nap in order to steal his work? — while slowly bringing everything to a boil.
One of 2015’s two must-see feel-bad New York indies (the other being The Mend, which is also well worth your time), writer-director Josh Mond’s story of a troubled twentysomething (Girls‘ Christopher Abbott) taking care of his terminally ill mother is one raw-nerve experience; even if it wasn’t semi-autobiographical, this character study would still feel like a personal exorcism. There’s an attention paid to both the snot-nosed restlessness of an Upper West Side lost boy and the mechanics of caring for a loved one that feels all too real, as well as a career-best performance by Cynthia Nixon that adds a serious tenderness to this unflinching look at death, dying and redemption.
Call it a Turkish Virgin Suicides or a prison film embedded in a female coming-of-age story — just don’t pass up the chance to see Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s lyrical debut about five young women butting up against the Eastern European country’s oppressive gender-based restrictions. As these sisters find ways to fight off their life-under-familial-lockdown blues — sneaking out for a soccer game, sassing their elders, forming their own sorority of support — the powers that be keep conspiring against them. (As with Vegas, the house always wins here.) Yet there’s a sense of hope beneath the cri de couer bleakness here, suggesting that standing up and speaking out is in itself a victory against second-class citizenship.
Returning from the WWII camps with a surgically reconstructed face and bone-deep scars, a former nightclub singer (Nina Hoss, never better) seeks out her long-lost husband in Berlin — a down-on-his-luck lout who wants to recruit this unrecognizable woman to impersonate (wait for it) his allegedly deceased wife to collect an inheritance. Filmmaker Christian Petzold reworks Vertigo‘s notion of reinvention and romantic obsession from the outside in, suggesting both a Germany rising from the ashes and a heroine who seems ready to go up in flames in the name of love. And that ending is a serious doozy.
Whether or not the horse opera is making a genuine comeback remains to be seen — but what we can say is that this criminally underrated, left-of-center take on the wild, weird West scratched our oater itch far more than any heavily hyped frontier-justice parables this year. A young Scottish dandy (Kodi McPhee-Smit) travels across the 19th-century badlands in search of a lost love; a high plains drifter (Michael Fassbender) with his own agenda accompanies him on his journey. Filmmaker and former Beta Band member John Maclean offers up a warped America full of preacher assassins, absinthe benders, good intentions, bad decisions and beaucoup dead bodies. All this, and Ben Mendelsohn in a plush fur coat.
A new boarding-school student falls in with the institution’s resident Mob-like gang and thanks to quick wits and quicker fists, soon finds himself rising in the ranks. Alas, an emotional attachment to a young prostitute spells disaster for our young antihero. Did we mention that everyone involved is deaf, and that the characters communicate through untranslated sign language? Ukrainian director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s spellbinding, one-of-a-kind drama bypasses gimmickry and goes straight for the jugular, presenting a Lord of the Flies-like world of social Darwinism that’s as brutal as it is strangely beautiful.
There were lots of impressive displays of long-take virtuosity in 2015, and then there was Sebastian Schipper’s elaborate, Rube-Goldberg–mousetrap of a movie — in which a Spanish ex-pat meets a potential soul mate in a Berlin nightclub, hangs out with him in the wee small hours, is recruited to be a getaway driver in an impromptu heist and goes on the lam all in a single 138-minute shot. An extreme example of real-time cinema choreographed down to the last shaky-cam chase scene, this would be a stunner simply by virtue of pulling off its technical stunt successfully; that it also manages to capture a certain anything-goes moment in your twenties and boasts an incredible central performance by Laia Costa as the titular over-her-head heroine only sweetens the deal. Run, Victoria, run!
‘What We Do In The Shadows’
The notion of a mockumentary about centuries-old vampires cohabitating like twentysomething bros, co-directed by the guy who made Eagle vs. Shark and the bespectacled half of Flight of the Conchords … let’s just say on paper, this didn’t exactly sound promising. But what the New Zealand duo of Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement does with this horror-comedy is fairly miraculous: It removes the stake from the heart of Bloodsucker Spoofery 101, adds in Type O-splattered set pieces and pathos, and mines humor from apex predators muttering over mundane roommate problems — and balances it all perfectly. Call it the undead-pan movie of the year.
Welcome to the premier girl-meets-dog, girl-loses-dog, dog-leads-massive-canine-revolt-against-human-oppressors movie of 2015. Whether you view Hungarian filmmaker Kornél Mundruczó’s drama about a girl’s search for her M.I.A. pet in a city full of animal-control thugs, underground hound-fight clubs, etc. as a class-conscious allegory or simply Benji reimagined as a vigilante thriller, there’s an undeniable rush to seeing an enraged four-legged army running amuck in the streets of Budapest. Also, someone needs to get that lead Shar-Pei/Labrador pooch a three-picture deal and a role in the next Star Wars ASAP.