Remember when your mum told you that being popular wasn't everything? There are many situations where that advice holds true. Take watching movies, for example. Sure, superhero flicks look great on the big screen — but for every blockbuster you head along to, there's probably a heap of smaller films you're missing out on.
They're the small players in a world that focuses on big hits, and the ones that pop up at fewer cinemas, run for shorter spans, and don't break attendance records. But just because they don't get as much love, doesn't mean they're not worth viewing. Indeed, among the ranks of the under-seen lurk some of the year's best efforts. Take these ten, which — by way of a limited screening season or lacklustre local box office performance — you may have missed, but we think you really should take the time to see.
A MOST VIOLENT YEAR
It has been a good year for Oscar Isaac. He's about to feature in one of the year's biggest films (that is, Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens), he made an unnerving impact in the best artificial intelligence movie of 2015 (Ex Machina), and he starred in a heartbreaking HBO TV series made by The Wire's David Simon (Show Me A Hero). But before all three, he teamed up with always exceptional Jessica Chastain in A Most Violent Year, a moody, '80s mob thriller from All Is Lost writer-director J. C. Chandor. The tale of an honest man corrupted as he follows his ambitions might seem familiar, but there's nothing that's routine — and plenty that's riveting — about this devastating dissection of the American dream.
Writer-director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky's first feature was always going to be a hard sell. The film runs for more than two hours without a word of dialogue, a hint of music or even any subtitles, with its characters — a group of classmates at a Ukrainian boarding school for the hearing impaired — communicating only through sign language. And it's not just a difficult concept; in an effort that becomes both violent and haunting — all the more so because it demands audiences pay the utmost attention to what they can see — it's also difficult to watch. Reports of fainting are widespread, but those who can stomach its brutal sights will find a movie completely unlike anything else they've ever seen before.
When the National Theatre turned the real life 'Suffolk Strangler' case into a stage production, it probably wasn't expected. Adapting the play into a film shouldn't have been quite as surprising, but the results certainly are astonishing. Filmmaker Rufus Norris (Broken) teamed up once again with writer Alecky Blythe to bring the theatre work to the screen — not only telling the tale of the murders of five prostitutes that rocked England's Ipswich in 2006, but charting the media frenzy that followed and the reactions throughout the community. What makes London Road stand out isn't its narrative, though, but its approach. The words uttered by actual residents of the area, reporters covering the case and sex workers become a musical sung in stuttered bursts and choreographed in a highly stylised fashion. It also features a memorable performance by Olivia Colman, as well as appearance by Tom Hardy as a taxi driver.
Two youths fall in love, but external forces — i.e. the wishes of their families — complicate matters. With that description, you're likely thinking about Romeo and Juliet — however, there's more to the first feature shot entirely in Vanuatu than simply following in William Shakespeare's footsteps. In fact, the film actually stems from a local tribal tragedy, uncovered by writer-director-producer duo Martin Butler and Bentley Dean after spending seven months living with the indigenous Yakel community, and then working with them to make the movie. Calling Tanna authentic is underselling its heartfelt account of the story, its impassioned performances and its arresting images — the latter of which makes the most of the South Pacific archipelago nation's lush greenery and ash-spewing volcanoes.
With Girlhood, the third time is the charm for filmmaker Céline Sciamma — although, with the likes of Water Lilies and Tomboy also on her cinematic resume, the first and second times were pretty up there too. Her film might sound like a female version of Richard Linklater's 2014 hit, but even though it also serves up a coming-of-age narrative, that couldn't be further from the truth. Charting the tough times faced by 16-year-old Marieme (Karidja Touré) on the outskirts of Paris, the movie tackles maturity on the margins with a raw, realistic and intimate approach — and with stunning performances from the largely untrained cast, too. Plus, it ensures viewers will always feel fondly about Rihanna's 'Diamonds', which provides the soundtrack for the film's most striking scene.
Trust a film about a charismatic figure that lures single mothers and their children into his cult-like enclave to have the same mesmerising impact upon its viewers. In relating the experience of the oldest boy in the commune, Alexander (Jeremy Chabriel), when he's deemed mature enough to complete special tasks, Ariel Kleiman's debut feature is the kind of movie you can't look away from — even if you want to. Partisan might be inspired by actual accounts of child assassins, but this is an atmospheric take on allegiance and rebellion, rather than an action flick. It's also the latest effort to feature a hypnotic performance by Vincent Cassel, who's no stranger to playing menacing men, but is rarely given a role so simultaneously threatening and understated.
The complexities and contradictions of war are thrust onto the screen in '71, and so is rising star Jack O'Connell. If both seem frenetic and anxious, that's understandable — the film recounts the terrors of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, as seen through the perspective of a rookie British solider left in unsympathetic territory by his squadron, after all. Director Yann Demange splices the two together with skill, his first-time helming efforts as intense as the movie's lead portrayal. If you thought O'Connell was good in TV's Skins, or in previous big-screen offerings Starred Up and Unbroken, prepare to see him blow those performances out of the water.
If ever there was a match made in cinema heaven, it's the combination of Anton Corbijn and James Dean. Add actor Dane DeHaan to the equation, and you've got a movie that smoulders as much as its subject, all while peering behind the tragic star's mystique. Everyone knows that Dean was killed in a car accident at the age of 24 with just three films to his name — and while other features have attempted to give him the biopic treatment, capturing his allure is a much more difficult feat. With the same precision he demonstrated in his last account of a fallen idol, the Joy Division-centric Control, Corbijn achieves just that as he focuses on Dean's connection with Life magazine photographer Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson).
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then Sebastião Salgado's efforts are worth several multi-volume encyclopaedias. Yes, his images are that intricate and informative — as they should be. The Brazilian social documentary photographer and photojournalist has travelled the world for more than 40 years, snapping the people and places few ever see. Thankfully, the film that charts his life, work and impact is just as engaging and illuminating, as directed by veteran filmmaker Wim Wenders alongside Sebastião’s son Juliano Ribeiro Salgado. Don't take the younger Salgado's involvement as a sign of the documentary's sentimentality, however. Instead, he helps craft a textured portrait of a man who has dedicated more than just his career to taking textured portraits.
One of the year's funniest and most thoughtful movies sprang from an unlikely place: within the human resources unit of an Israeli army administration office. There, two pencil-pushing women (Nelly Tagar and Dana Ivgy) dream of something more — however, they're never unaware of their status, nor of the military side of their employment. You're probably thinking that Talya Lavie’s feature sounds like it wouldn't be out of place alongside other amusing yet perceptive looks at bureaucracy and war, and you'd be right. Blackly comic as well constantly subversive, Zero Motivation is a slacker comedy and a contemplative consideration of combat, all in one package.