Happy autumn everyone! As we ease our way into the holiday season (and the interminable awards season), I thought I’d take the opportunity to take a look back at this past summer at the movies. And what a summer it was, spearheaded by a smattering of franchise hits and studio tentpoles that raked in all sorts of box office glory, totaling $4.48 billion dollars in the US alone. Jurassic World led the pack and scored the largest opening weekend of all time with a gross of $500 million worldwide, demonstrating that even with the most extinct of film series, life indeed finds a way to get in line and purchase a ticket. Avengers: Age of Ultron opened with less than its (superior) predecessor, but $190 million is still nothing to sneeze at. Furious 7 overcame the loss of its lead actor and drove the series to lofty new heights, becoming the fastest (furiousest?) film to gross a billion dollars worldwide (in just 14 days!). Also in the billion dollars club? Minions.
Extraordinary amounts of money, yes, but is all of this that surprising? Not really. Nearly every major blockbuster released over-performed on its projected grosses, and save for a few duds (COUGH Fantastic Four COUGH) this was the second most profitable summer Hollywood has ever had (it is only beaten by 2013’s total of $4.7 billion). We all have our favorites (For me, Mad Max: Fury Road currently stands toe-to-toe with Citizen Kane as the greatest cinematic achievement ever made), but I’m not here to discuss any of these films. Instead, I’d like to shift the spotlight elsewhere, and highlight some real gems that I thought were under-seen, undervalued, and therefore, under-appreciated. To commemorate the summer of 2015, here are the 10 best films you didn’t see.
One last note before we begin: I only picked films that were released between April 3rd (Furious 7’s release date and what essentially kicked off summer at the movies) up until September 23rd (the first day of autumn). Also, the films I’m about to list have grossed less than 25 million dollars collectively. Oops.
Norwegian writer Eskil Vogt (who previously scripted Joachim Trier’s wonderful Reprise and Oslo, August 31st) makes his filmmaking debut with Blind, a heart-wrenching tale about a blind woman struggling to cope in an unforgiving world. Featuring an astonishing lead performance by Ellen Dorrit Peterson, Blind is a beautifully realized motion picture, and one of the best directorial debuts I’ve seen in quite some time. Peterson plays Ingrid, a woman who loses her sight and soon develops paranoia over the fidelity of her husband. Fearing he may be unfaithful, Ingrid takes solace in her writing, and imagines a series of characters who personified by her fears, weaknesses and neuroses. These characters are seamlessly integrated into Ingrid’s own narrative (the editing here is phenomenal), and it’s a true testament to Vogt’s craftsmanship as he blends fiction and reality (giving the feature a distinct Stranger Than Fiction vibe) without ever compromising the film’s emotional core. I can’t wait to see what he does next.
Straight Outta Compton was quite the box office barnstormer when it was released this past August, but as far as hip-hop based movies spun in Southern California go I was more partial to Dope, an entertaining picture about a geek caught up in a drug deal gone bad. And how couldn’t I be? Compton had its moments, sure, but most of it is bogged down by its relentlessly self-aggrandizing posture and rote storytelling tendencies. Dope, on the other hand, runs a full half hour shorter and feels like a fresh blast of wit and imagination. The picture follows Malcolm (Shameik Moore), a senior in high school who hopes to escape “The Bottoms” of Inglewood, CA to make it into Harvard University, utilizing his intellectual prowess and street-smart acumen to out-wit and outmaneuver the likes of bullies, gangsters, drug dealers, rappers, police officers, and criminals. Stylish, charming, and immensely likable, Dope is one of the most enjoyable times I’ve had at the cinemas this year, and it is perhaps surpassed only by the next film on this list…
DUDE BRO PARTY MASSACRE III
Yes, in all of its beer-soaked and blood-drenched glory, Dude Bro Party Massacre III remains the single funniest film I’ve seen all year. Crowdfunded by the brilliant young minds over at 5SecondFilms.com (seriously, go spend a few minutes there and tell me you’re not laughing), Dude Bro Party Massacre III huffs a hefty bag of Troma fumes until blue in the face to concoct a hilarious, wild, hilariously-wild, wildly-hilarious, and terrifically-realized homage to the 1980’s era of VHS horror cinema. The story revolves around a demonic entity known as Motherface who stalks a local Chico State University fraternity, seeking revenge for their destructive, party-going ways and gleefully dispatching them one by one, Jason Voorhees style. Okay, so the plot is not Chinatown, but it doesn’t need to be when it has so much humor to spare. Guided by a flurry of well-timed jokes nailed with sniper-like precision as it amiably sends up the very genre it’s absolutely in love with, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more uproarious motion picture this year than Dude Bro Party Massacre III.
Director Carol Morey conjures quite a heaping of hysteria with The Falling, a cross between Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock and Ken Russell’s The Devils (minus the explicit sexual content). Set at a strict, all-girl conservatory, The Falling observes a series of young adolescent women (led by Maisie Williams, Arya Stark of Game of Thrones fame) falling victim to an unusual “fainting spell,” after one of their classmates becomes pregnant and dies. There’s an air of mystery to the proceedings that is wholly enticing, as you are never quite sure if the girls are faking their illness, if they’re actually becoming mentally ill, or if there is a genuinely supernatural force at work. Williams continues a trend of strong performances (she’s one of the best things about Thrones) and looks to make a promising film career as she ventures into adulthood.
THE LOOK OF SILENCE
Danish filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (2012) is one of the most important documentaries of the last ten years. It was a harrowing look at the genocide of hundreds of thousands of Indonesian people in the late 1960’s, and brought forth the perpetrators and criminals who willingly recreated their heinous crimes on camera. With his latest film, The Look of Silence, Oppenheimer turns the lens in the opposite direction to examine a family who tragically lost one of their own in these atrocities. Compared to Killing, Silence is the quieter of the two features, but it’s no less powerful, taking on an inherently mournful tone as the family comes face to face with the people who nearly destroyed them. It’s a fascinating look at humanity and grief, and when paired with The Act of Killing, becomes a formidable double feature that represent two halves of the same, blood-stained coin.
The second of two Noah Baumbach films to hit theatres this year (While We’re Young was released last spring), Mistress America is absolutely delightful, featuring the helmer’s knack for sharp screenwriting and spirited performances. Featuring Greta Gerwig in their third collaboration together, Mistress plays like a Frances Ha 2.0, except here it is given a Peter Bogdonavich-esque screwball comedy twist that is a more than welcome addition to Baumbach’s naturalistic sensibilities. It also introduces Lola Kirke as a talent to watch, who acquits herself extremely well with her pleasing lead performance, and has an excellent, electronic score by Dean Warhead and Britta Phillips.
QUEEN OF EARTH
Elisabeth Moss re-teams with her Listen Up Phillip director Alex Perry Ross to deliver her best performance in a feature film with Queen of Earth. Though far from anything even remotely uplifiting, Ross sharpens his filmmaking skills here, drawing from the best of Roman Polanski and Ingmar Bergman to craft a stunning motion picture, and Moss is simply divine as Catherine, a woman swallowed up whole by depression after the death of her father and the dissolution of her relationship. Seeking to make a recovery, Catherine is brought to a secluded cabin in the woods by her friend Virginia (Katherine Waterston, Inherent Vice), where the two embark on a series of physical, emotional and psychological games of one-upmanship, slowly fraying the once thought to be unbreakable bonds between them. Queen of Earth is not an easy picture to sit through, but it is a hugely rewarding one.
Slow West has the all elements of a traditional western (horses, gunslingers, etc.) but the final product is anything but. One of the more pleasant surprises this summer, Slow West is a truly original film from newcomer John Maclean, setting a love story against the backdrop of 19th century Colorado. Performances are excellent across the board (Michael Fassbender is thoroughly reliable as the strong, silent outlaw-type and Ben Mendelsohn steals every scene he’s in as a wily bounty hunter), violence is often poetic and is instilled with a hint of a Coen Brothers’ level of pitch black humor, and the film is sumptuously photographed, filmed with a painterly elegance in New Zealand that stands apart from many of its predecessors in the genre (John Ford enthusiasts, there is no Monument Valley for you here). As one of the best films I have seen all year, I simply cannot recommend Slow West enough.
The Tribe is set at a Hungarian school for the deaf and is told entirely in sign language. There are no voiceovers, no subtitles, no spoken dialogue and no written text. But the strength of the film lies not in what the characters are saying to each other, but how their bodies react to each other. Strikingly made and uncompromising to a fault, it’s understandable that few would want to rise up to this sort of filmgoing challenge (bouts of extremely graphic violence in the third act don’t help such matters) and every scene is presented in extended wide shots in which the only editing present is to take you to the next scene (something akin to Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise) but for those brave enough to submit to the misery on screen will find The Tribe to be an assured, powerfully performed picture with a meticulously-working brain, a fiercely beating heart and a real set of teeth.
WORLD OF TOMORROW
Okay okay, I’m cheating a little bit here, because at a scant 17 minutes World of Tomorrow definitely does not qualify as a feature film. But what a glorious 17 minutes they are! Created by animation ace Don Hertzfeld and drawn by his traditionally minimalistic style and off-kilter brand of humor, World of Tomorrow dares to dream big and wholly succeeds, crafting an existential masterpiece that journeys across the endless realm of time as seen through the eyes of a three year-old girl. It’s one of the best things I’ve seen all year, and it’s distinct vision and imagination trumps everything that made over $100 million at the box office this year. Except for Mad Max: Fury Road.