During awards season, even the most pretentious and cynical of cinephiles can get caught up in the hype. After seeing quality products like Boyhood, Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel take home prize after prize, the year’s best films are seemingly codified among the filmgoing community.
But with this year’s mostly predictable, almost entirely forgettable Oscars ceremony now behind us, I have awoken from the indulgent haze that is the awards season.
Of course, the above three films are all brilliant, but we shouldn’t let the narrative of this year’s films be boiled down to an essential few. As Julianne Moore said while accepting her Best Actress award last month, “There is no such thing as a ‘Best Actress.’” I fully agree with that sentiment—being the best is subjective and arbitrary.
So before we get fully immersed in all that 2015 has to offer filmgoers, I have five more movies to add to your watch list. Nominated for nothing, these five movies, each containing an engaging, empathetic element, prove that there is a plethora of great cinema worth discovering beyond the Hollywood blockbusters and award-baiting films.
Through the 1980s and 1990s, actress Robin Wright (The Princess Bride, Forrest Gump) was a huge movie star. And then something happened. Maybe it was her poor choice in movie roles. Maybe it was her increasing age. Maybe she just didn’t have what it takes to stay on top. All of these maybes are tackled in The Congress, a dystopian saga about the future of Hollywood.
In the film, Wright plays a fictionalized version of herself, similar to what Louis C.K. does on his show Louie. Struggling to maintain relevance in the industry while caring for her ailing son, Wright is convinced to sell her digital likeness to movie studio Miramount (a play on studios Miramax and Paramount).
Now Miramount can do whatever it wants with “Robin Wright,” because she is no longer a person. She is simply the product of a company that will exploit her in any number of ways—as an animated character, as a sexy action heroine, and more.
The Congress is a sharp critique of the ever-changing ways in which Hollywood packages products, the differences between real and commercial art, and the value of the human soul in the creative process.
Available on Blu-ray & DVD
Director Joe Swanberg is king of mumblecore—a subgenre of independent films characterized by low budgets and naturalistic dialogue often improvised by the actors themselves. His latest film, Happy Christmas, drew some attention from the mainstream thanks to the coup of casting Anna Kendrick, Lena Dunham, and Melanie Lynskey.
But just because his latest movie has a trio of famous ladies does not mean it has lost his homegrown charm.
Happy Christmas finds self-destructive and emotionally immature Jenny (Kendrick) moving in with her older brother (Swanberg) and his exhausted wife (Lynskey), who have a two-year old son.
Nothing grand happens in the movie. Instead, Happy Christmas organically follows its characters, the most interesting of which prove to be Lynskey’s Kelly, a writer who lost her creative spark in the aftermath of having a baby.
Swanberg’s films are not the type to win awards because of their simplicity, which is often misunderstood as rudimentary. But he captures an authenticity and intimacy in his films that is rarely seen outside of documentaries. Happy Christmas is quiet, funny, touching, and most importantly, vulnerable.
Available on Netflix Instant Watch & DVD
The life of John Wojtowicz is at the center of this documentary that proves the aphorism that truth is indeed stranger than fiction.
In August 1972, Wojtowicz attempted to rob a Brooklyn bank to finance his lover’s gender confirmation surgery. This heist resulted in a 14-hour showdown between Wojtowicz and the police, which was broadcast on live TV. Three years later, the story—which was perhaps mainstream America’s first encounter with the idea of transgenderism—inspired Al Pacino’s award-winning film Dog Day Afternoon.
Now, Wojtowicz finally tells the story from his perspective—and what a bizarre perspective it is. Wojtowicz is clearly not camera-shy, recounting sordid stories and sultry side notes in his life in a candid, politically incorrect manner that is both horrifying and mesmerizing to watch. The Dog is a polarizing experience, as viewers cannot help but empathize with a guy who defines himself as a pervert.
Available on Amazon Prime, Blu-ray & DVD
In a genre increasingly desperate to put a new spin on a tired format, Obvious Child is an innovative example that proves the romantic comedy is not dead. Jenny Slate (a former Saturday Night Live cast member) stars as Donna, an aspiring stand-up comedian whose one-night stand with the meek Max (Jake Lacy) results in an unwanted pregnancy. Donna then decides to get an abortion.
While that controversial plot point may prove troublesome for some viewers, the movie and its characters are less brooding and more heartwarming than that twist would suggest.
Obvious Child is not afraid to tackle a topic viewers aren’t used to confronting when going to the movies. But more importantly, the movie isn’t afraid to construct complicated, nuanced and funny female characters. Obvious Child proves that no topic is too taboo if handled in a comical, humane, and engaging discourse.
Available on Amazon Prime, Blu-ray & DVD
Chris Rock’s cinematic credentials are not considered a strong point in his career. The comedian—star of critical misfires (but audience favorites) like the Madagascar series and the Grown-Ups movies—first tried his hand at being a writer and director in the 2007 dud I Think I Love My Wife.
So when I told my friends that one of last year’s best films was Rock’s Top Five, I was met with skepticism. But the semi-autobiographical film—which has Rock playing a comedian trapped in a mediocre film franchise trying to become a “serious actor”—is easily a career-defining moment for Rock.
Top Five tackles a lot: being black in an industry dominated by white people, the contemporary entertainment journalism scene, and how fame and wealth affects your childhood family and friends. But it’s also a sweet, contemporary romantic comedy that Rock said was inspired by Woody Allen’s Annie Hall.
Comedies are never considered for serious awards because voters don’t associate the genre with prestige. Rock’s Top Five is a monumental achievement because it shows that comedies have just as much to say about the world as sad, serious dramas. For anyone looking for a laugh and something to get you thinking, I can recommend no movie from last year better than Top Five.
Available on Blu-ray & DVD March 17