It's that time of the year again, when not-so-jolly critics start making those lists, checking them twice, to break down an entire year of movies in list form. Last year, I split up my year-end piece into three separate stories, Most Overrated, Most Underrated and my Top 10. This year, I'm changing things up again, ever so slightly, discarding the Overrated category entirely. It's a category I always seem to have trouble with it, and, this year, only two of my picks were wide releases, with another that hasn't even hit theaters yet. I'm also changing the Underrated list to "Overlooked," since it fits better with what I'm trying to say: that these five movies below are truly fantastic, but simply weren't given their just due in theaters.
That's not to say I'm completely surprised that this quintet is overlooked. After all, the "widest" release for all of these films was a whopping 63 theaters, although they were all readily available on VOD/Blu-ray/DVD formats throughout the year. Platform releases never come part and parcel with big marketing campaigns, so most of these films depend on word-of-mouth and positive feedback to sustain any kind of life in theaters and on home video platforms. Still, with that being said, theatrical box office numbers aside, I honestly have no clue how good or bad these movies performed on VOD/home video, since those figures are never released like the top 10 movies in theaters are every weekend. But still, it's a shame these invigorating indie films didn't perform better over the calendar year.
I'll also add the following caveat before we get into the list itself. I didn't see nearly as many movies as I have in the previous two years. You can CLICK HERE to check out all of the 2014 movies I have seen this year, which will likely get larger during the last week of the year. Compared with both 2012 and 2013, I'm still way behind my normal pace, due to a number of circumstances, but I still tried to watch a diverse range of the films that 2014 had to offer. Anyway, with all of that being said, here are my picks for the 5 most overlooked films of 2014.
1The Guest - $332,890 Domestic
I figured The Guest would be the type of heralded indie that usually sticks around for awhile at my favorite L.A. theater, the Arclight Hollywood, but, before I knew it, The Guest was gone, and, by the rave reviews from many colleagues, I knew I had missed out on something special. Thanks to an early Digital HD release, I finally got to see The Guest for the first time last week, and I was sufficiently blown away by this deviously intelligent thriller from the minds who gave us last year's overlooked horror gem You're Next. Director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett are at the top of their game, not only in crafting such an intense story, but with top-notch casting. Dan Stevens, best known as Matthew Crawley on PBS' Downton Abbey, turns in a remarkable performance as David, a seemingly innocuous young man who visits the Peterson family, claiming to be a soldier and friend to their son, who died in Afghanistan. Naturally, David is not who he appears to be, which unfolds in frightening and fascinating ways. With a stellar supporting cast including Maika Monroe, Brendan Meyer, Leland Orser, Sheila Kelley, Lance Reddick, Ethan Embry and Joel David Moore, The Guest gives us a glimpse at what a low-budget remake of The Terminator may look like, crafted to perfection by two filmmakers who just keep getting better and better.
2The Zero Theorem - $257,706 Domestic
I was never one of those kids who grew up as a film nerd. Sure, I watched movies as a kid, like every youngster does, but it was never an obsession for me until my college years. Ever since first watching 12 Monkeys, and revisiting his entire catalog since then, I've become an immense and unabashed fan of director Terry Gilliam. Sadly, he's not the type of filmmaker that you can expect a steady output from, but I always look forward to his work intently. His latest film, The Zero Theorem, wasn't seen (or liked, for that matter) by many, but regardless of your opinion of him, a Terry Gilliam film is something that simply cannot be replicated or mass produced, even if someone did have the balls to try. Two-time Oscar winner Christoph Waltz takes the lead for this heady and complex drama that could even be described as a companion piece (not a sequel) to Gilliam's 1985 classic Brazil. Waltz plays a hacker tasked by Management (an unrecognizable Matt Damon) to literally find the meaning of life (a theme prevalent in many of Gilliam's films), although he finds himself easily distracted from the task at hand. You will have to pay attention, thoroughly, and there's a pretty good chance that you may not even understand what's going on, but it's films like this that challenge us to look beyond the popcorn and explosions that we truly need more of in today's cinematic landscape.
3Cheap Thrills - $59,424 Domestic
I remember seeing this make several colleagues' top 10 lists last year, since it debuted at South by Southwest in 2013, touring the festival circuit until finally arriving in theaters this March. After hearing so many amazing things about Cheap Thrills for so long, this darkly wicked satire more than lived up to the lofty expectations I had, but I was quite saddened that this came and went so quickly in theaters. The story shapes up like an ultra-violent version of Indecent Proposal, centering on downtrodden man (Pat Healy) who meets up with an old friend (Ethan Embry) for some drinks. By chance, they meet an affluent couple (David Koechner and Sara Paxton), who lure them into their sadistic world with the promise of quick cash, in exchange for performing a series of acts that quickly escalates in jaw-dropping and ludicrously entertaining ways. Cheap Thrills is not, by any means, for those who are faint of heart, but if you can stomach the shocking violence, it's well worth a look-see to catch a glimpse at the underbelly of the American dream, brilliantly brought to life by first-time feature director E.L. Katz.
4Grand Piano - $22,555 Domestic
Filmmaker Damien Chazelle has been praised all year since the debut of his beloved indie Whiplash at Sundance in January, but this absurdly-talented 29-year-old filmmaker also provided the screenplay for the indie thriller gem Grand Piano. Elijah Wood, who continues to thoroughly impress me with the stories he takes on, stars as Tom Selznick, a piano prodigy who hasn't been heard from in years, as he prepares to make his comeback in front of a packed auditorium, in an attempt to conquer his crippling stage fright. His nerves are rattled even more when he gets a message from a disturbed sniper, watching him from afar, warning Tom that he will die if he plays just one note wrong. This is a relentless thriller full of brilliant twists and turns, with a stand-out supporting cast including John Cusack, Kerry Bishe, Tamsin Egerton, Alex Winter and Dee Wallace. Don't get me wrong, Whiplash deserves all of the accolades it's receiving, but Grand Piano is just as deserving as well.
5Starry Eyes - N/A
This is yet another film I remember hearing wonderful things about out of the South By Southwest festival in March, but I never got to see until it debuted on VOD last month. While it did screen at a local L.A. theater, I can't find any box office figures for Starry Eyes, which is unfortunate because a film this good (about Hollywood, no less), truly deserves to be seen on the big screen. Alexandra Essoe delivers an astonishing performance as Sarah, a reserved young actress struggling to make ends meet while chasing her dreams of fame and fortune in Hollywood. Of course, this is a yarn that has been spun many times before, but once we get past the well-worn aspects of the story, filmmakers Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kolsch brilliantly peel back the plot layers, uncovering the true nature of the cinematic elite, and the lengths one woman will take to secure her place among them. Starry Eyes does for the proverbial "casting couch" what Jaws did for the ocean, evoking fear and terror in alluring an imaginative ways.
That wraps it up for my Most Overlooked movies of 2015. All of these are currently available on either VOD or Blu-ray and DVD right now, so if you're looking for something new to check out over the holidays, give one of these indie gems a shot. You might be pleasantly surprised. If you agree or disagree with my picks, feel free to let me know on Twitter (@GallagherMW) and be sure to stay tuned for my Top 10 Movies of 2014 in the next few days.