Hidden Gems of 2015

Every year people lament the state of contemporary cinema. People claiming that Hollywood is churning out way too many abysmal sequels, prequels, adaptations and seems to be running out of ideas don't seem to realize that if you manage to work past the endless stream of negativity, there is hope. Now, more than ever before, there are countless ways to find hidden gems that might not have even played at your local theater. It's not just VOD anymore, an entirely different market exists consisting of movies that skip the theatrical release and go straight to home viewing through services like Amazon and Netflix. No one can see everything, there's tons of cultural noise out there, and with close to 300 movies released every year, it's easy for a great movie to get lost in the shuffle. Well, that's where I come in. The following 11 titles did make it to theaters, barely, but deserved more attention. Don't mind chiming in with your own picks.

Predestination
One of the strangest most interesting movies I saw this spring starred Ethan Hawke. In the Spierig brothers' "Predestination", Hawke plays a temporal agent who constantly time travels to find a criminal that has obsessed him for god knows how long. To explain what happens in this movie is probably as hard as explaining Christopher Nolan's "Inception" upon first viewing. Mind bending and brilliantly conceived, "Predestination" is a movie that sometimes trips on its own format. In fact I guessed a few of the big twists before they actually happened, but it really is just a blast to sit through a film juggling this many ideas and that just simply wants to blow your mind – even if that's not always the case. The film takes pride in its lack of subtlety and in trying its best to shock, provoke and entertain in equal doses. For a year that finally seems to be recognizing the impact of female-driven cinema, "Predestination" provides a smart and vital additional angle to this year's feminist narrative. It reminded me of a great Agatha Christie book with a modern, 21st century, transgender twist. This is the best Wachowski brothers movie that they never ended up making.
Tangerine
"Tangerine", an ultra-low budget film shot on an iPhone for chump change and directed by Sean Baker, comes at you like an exhilarating force of nature. It doesn’t care if it shocks you or riles up your senses. It’s a fervent product of Sundance and one of many indie summer releases that first premiered over there this past January. It’s an imperfect movie but one filled with abundant energy in its every frame. Groundbreaking is the right word, for it is ultimately the first of its kind: a film shot on an iPhone with transgender actors taking on leading roles. Witness how evolving awareness of transgender issues has sparked a wealth of fresh cultural expressions. Jeffery Tambor is gut wrenchingly great in TV’s best show "Transparent" (with "Fargo" not too far behind if you must know) and if you haven’t heard of Caitlin Jenner then you’ve clearly been living under a rock. The film takes place on Christmas Eve in California and deals with a transgender sex worker who just finished serving a short sentence in prison and finds out her pimp/boyfriend cheated on her. She obviously doesn’t take the news very well and sets out to find the “fish” he cheated on her with. What ensues is a screwball comedy that never winces; in fact, it bites. It’s a hell of a good time, but more importantly it’s incredibly stylish filmmaking . Of course the fact that it was shot on an iPhone already makes it an important milestone film, but the L.A subculture that it introduces makes it all the more fresh and happening

The Gift

The biggest big studio surprise of the summer was, sadly, a movie that many people had not heard much about. With 108 reviews on RottenTomatoes “The Gift” has an outstanding RT rating of 93%. Its metascore on Metacritic stands at 77. So what happened between the critics and audience awareness? As with most mini-budget movies, the marketing was micro — but despite that unavoidable reality, it ranked #3 at the box-office when it premiered and since earned an impressive $28 million on a budget investment of $5 million. Directed by “Zero Dark Thirty” actor Joel Edgerton, “The Gift” is a tense, creepy psychological thriller that has so many twists and turns in its screenplay that you never know what’s coming next. Edgerton directed, produced, wrote and starred in a movie so inspired that it’s reminiscent of Hitchcock and “The Turn of the Screw.” Starring a nastily corrupt Jason Bateman and the vastly undervalued Rebecca Hall, we need more of her at the movies, “The Gift” is a razor-sharp dissection of marriage and friendship that reminds us how we can never escape our past. Go in knowing as little as possible and come out knowing more than you were prepared to find out. It's a nifty little B-movie that ends up turning the screw off your head.

Shaun the Sheep

"Shaun the Sheep" features some of the best dialogue-free scenes in recent memory. The film has scarcely any spoken words, as it just relies on its visuals to entertain us, and does a marvelous job at that. Clearly influenced by Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton's physical screwball comedy, directors Richard Starzak and Mark Burton have fashioned a classic out of such a simple story. A complete freak accident sends a farmer tumbling down the road to a bigger city where he loses all memory of his life and accidentally becomes a famous hairdresser for the celebrities. It's up to his flock of sheep to get him back to the farm, but not without going through the most insanely crafted screwball adventures imaginable. Just like Wallace and Gromit, the cast of characters were well known in the U.K. prior to the film's release, but if audience reaction and the deluge of rave reviews is any indication, this won't be the last we hear of them. The stop-motion animation is breathtakingly beautiful with layers of details in ever frame. The British deadpan wit is also in prime display here, with a little Monty Python-esque skit comedy thrown in for good measure.  I’d probably put this in an exclusive category of stop-motion classics such as “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “Chicken Run,” “Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit” and of course “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”

Grandma

If I said that 75-year-old Lily Tomlin has never been better than in this phenomenal movie by Paul Weitz (American Pie, About a Boy) would you be impressed? Well you should be, because Tomlin’s had a phenomenal career: “Nashville,” “The Late Show,” “9 to 5,” “All of Me,” and “Flirting With Disaster” have all had a little Tomlin-esque spiciness sprinkled at their core and all the better for it. She was also, once upon a time, Robert Altman's muse -- which quite frankly tells you everything you need to know about Tomlin. What she does in “Grandma” is heartbreaking and nothing short of astounding. She brings the spiky, zesty nature she’s always been known for, but plays with our emotions until we reach a finale that seals the deal on the truly amazing quality of her work. Tomlin's Elle Reid is a foul mouthed, all-too honest lesbian granny that aides her suddenly pregnant granddaughter to find enough money for an abortion. Taking place in a single day, the film is an episodic romp that gets deeper and more fragile as it goes along. It's not necesarilly a film about aging as much as it is about the deeper connections we miss in life. David Edelstein said it best when he remarked "Grandma marks a new era in gay cinema — one’s that confident and mature enough to acknowledge regret." Expect a torrent of awards love to come Tomlin's way in the months to come, she'd probably be my pick for the New York Film Critics Circle "Best Actress" Award.

Infinitely Polar Bear

Mark Ruffalo gave the best performance in "Spotlight", but that wasn't even the best acting he gave this year. In "Infinitely Polar Bear" he's a manic-depressive mess of a father that tries to win back his wife by attempting to take full responsibility of their two daughters while she gets out of the city to complete her business degree. Ruffalo creates one of the most entertainingly inappropriate, but ultimately disturbing accounts of mental illness in recent memory. His mannerisms and gestures look scarily real, but so do the twitches and spasms that run throughout his body, a sign of the physical and mental unrest that inflicts this tangible character.  The director is Maya Forbes, a Harvard graduate and first time filmmaker that based the movie on her own experiences as a child in Cambridge where she was raised by her father who had bipolar disorder. The movie is an ode to her dad, a lovingly rendered portrayal of a man trying his best, but chased away by inner demons. Much of what happens in Forbes' movie can be crushingly real or even unbearably painful, but she seems to find light in every dark shade present. She doesn't direct the movie as much as live through it which, given the backstory, is quite a heroic and formidably therapeutic attempt. Ruffalo, one of the very best actors of his generation, completely floored me.

Heart of a Dog

The brilliant Laurie Anderson's film is more than just an ode to her deceased dog Lolabelle. This exploration filled non-fiction film is about the deepest questions we can possibly ask ourselves as human beings. The themes range from death, love, memory, surveillance all the way to the nature of language. It's all beautifully narrated by Anderson, who's soothing voice reveals the depths of pain she has encountered in the past few years with the death of her husband Lou Reed, her mother Mary Louise and beloved dog Lolabelle all coinciding one by one. Her narrative voice becomes a kind of melodic flow rather than a plain spoken worded ordeal- it intensifies the stories she tells us and is an integral soundtrack to her personal journey. Most of all this is a film about mortality, the one theme that eats us up as human beings, the meaning of which will never fully be explained in our lifetime. That doesn't mean we can't keep asking ourselves questions about it, that's part of who we are and what makes us feel relentlessly alive. We might never come to terms with it, but there's something wondrously mysterious about it all - the meaning we try to find out of this personal journey might never be fully comprehended, but there's a real beauty in coming to terms with the unknown. I don't use the term very often, but "Heart of a Dog" is the definition of a "work of art".

Mississippi Grind

I'm a sucker for gambling movies. I'm also a sucker for road trip movies. Mississippi Grind is both of those, so of course it makes this list. Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden (Half Nelson, Sugar) are also one of the very best Indie filmmakers in the business. In Mississippi Grind, the highly talented Ben Mendelsohn plays Gerry, a gambler who is unquestionably down on his luck facing personal and financial ruin until he meets Curtis (Ryan Reynolds), a young poker player who also craves the adrenaline of a quick financial gain. They bond through their love of card playing, dice rolling, and chip throwing. They go from Iowa to New Orleans in search of the big win, and their journey turns "Mississippi Grind" into a road trip movie. Curtis claims "The journey's the destination," but the same can be said about the film which seems to have taken pieces of Altman's "California Split" and Karel Reisz's "The Gambler". Both leads are perfectly cast. Mendelsohn is at times mesmerizing and Reynolds shows us that he has acute acting chops if given script pages with some meat to chew on. Together they make a formidable pair of losers. Two men who would appear to be fun to be around but are reckless and therefore dangerous to be associated with. And therein lies the beauty and intricacy of Mississippi Grind. Shot on film, Mississippi Grind almost has that 1970's film feel. It's methodical in its pace and is not afraid to rely on the charm of its characters to further elaborate its narrative.

James White
Opening in very limited release on November 13th, "James White" is already destined to be overshadowed by the marquee holiday titles aiming for box office gold and awards love. Starring Christopher Abbott -- of "Girls" fame -- and a never better Cynthia Nixon, the film might just be the total opposite of Amy Schumer's summer fling "Trainwreck", yet this film is very much about a trainwreck. A man -- or boy if you will -- has to deal with so many issues, both physical and mental, that watching it you are just waiting for the moment when it all implodes and the breakdown occurs. What you don't realize is that the breakdown has already started: from the very first scene he's bouncing around drunk mid-day in a dingy club, and things only get worse after that. Nixon plays this boy's mother, whose cancer that was previously in remission has come back in full stride, and next thing you know she's at stage 4 and with only weeks to live. Meanwhile her son, trying to cope with the whirlwind of emotions, continues to go out, get drunk, get high, sleep with women, and exude violent behavior. It's not a happy movie, and you might need a drink or two after having watched it, but the artistry is phenomenal. After its incredible bow at Sundance in January, where it was praised in every way, director Josh Mond's film is about to get released to a public that might not want to deal with the many "heavy" issues at hand, but that would be a mistake. "James White" is an impeccable artistic feat with Mond using his camera for abnormally efficient closeups on his main character to only enhance the claustrophobic feel of the movie.

99 Homes

Ramin Bahrani’s tense but terrific film stars Andrew Garfield as Dennis Nash, a man whose family home gets foreclosed by arrogant, money-hungry real estate mogul Ray Carver, devilishly played by Michael Shannon. Circumstances lead the desperate Dennis to work for Carver to get his home back. Both are excellent, and Laura Dern as Dennis' mother is heartbreaking in an exceptionally resonant role, showing us the immense talents this underused actress possesses. Bahrani brings an authentic documentary-style feel to the whole thing, using hand held cameras to swerve with the characters and raise the tension. This is about a society gone astray, hell a country gone astray, and a poisonous system that doesn't just seems unfair, but criminal. This is a movie for its time about its time, that is frighteningly urgent and has more than enough relevance to pack a punch. Late film critic Roger Ebert was a staunch supporter of Bahrani’s films and for good reason. He’s a unique voice that finally makes his big studio picture debut here. You can tell there’s a studio behind him here because “99 Homes” does have to make some concessions in its final cut and is not a perfect movie, but the artistry is major and Bahrani creates a movie that'll give you nightmares.

Victoria

Sebastian Schipper’s high-wire act of a movie is more than just a stunt. Shot in a single 138-minute take, but not one cut, it’s a grim, but powerful look at a Spanish girl named Victoria who meets 4 German men in the wee hours of the night in Germany and embarks on a harrowing journey with them. Schipper and his ace cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen  make the camera move poetically through the after hours of Berlin with elegant ease, never has Berlin looked this menacing, but breathtaking in a movie before.  Grøvlen's camera seems like its own acting beast and breathlessly dictates the white knuckled tension.  I fear many might shrug it off as just a gimmick, but that would be very far from the truth. Yes Schipper's film is in fact a phenomenal technical achievement, but one done with the alerting sentiment that there needs to be a good story behind the gimmick. There are some scenes of unquestionable tension here as hoodlums, clubbers, hustlers, romantics navigate in an out of the story, but character development rarely gets forsaken.

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