Now that awards season is underway, many quality under-the-radar movies are getting their due. Below are a few gems that got little mainstream attention, but are garnering plenty of critical acclaim. The following films are rated based on the four-star system:
Listen Up Philip ***1/2
This idiosyncratic indie film follows an angry, self-obsessed writer who finds little success in balancing his artistic life with his personal life. Part comedy, part drama, Listen Up Philip sneaks its way into the darker parts of your heart. Some may find Jason Schwartzman’s portrayal of the lead character to be overtly narcissistic and insufferable, but he exudes such charm and humor that it makes him hard to resist. After Philip's first novel gets published, he seeks to get the last laugh on old acquaintances who doubted his talent, and berates loved ones with bitingly sardonic wit. But all of these validations are short-lived, as achieving success comes at a cost and does not necessarily lead to happiness like one would think. The film also focuses on his mentor, played brilliantly by the great Jonathan Pryce; as well as his on-and-off girlfriend, played by Elisabeth Moss. Bold narration and clever, literary dialogue abound in this mini masterwork directed by Alex Ross Parry. Listen Up Philip is the least-seen movie on this list, but it also is the most well-written.
If one likes blackness in their comedy, Nightcrawler has it in spades. Jake Gyllenhaal mesmerizes in his total embodiment of a sociopathic loner on the edge of society. Desperate and down to his last cent, he pawns his only valuable belongings in exchange for a video camera and sets forth on a path to record exclusive, sordid footage to sell to the local TV news stations – no matter the human cost. He is heartless, cold and calculated; much like the newscasts that this picture successfully parodies. This is the most scathing critique of broadcast news ever laid down on film. The picture starts off fairly grounded, and gets more and more absurd by its conclusion, just as any great satire should. The main character tampers with evidence, manipulates his coworkers – primarily a news director played by Rene Russo, who has never been better – and has no remorse in using whatever means necessary to achieve his fiendish goal. Nightcrawler demonstrates that 'if it bleeds, it leads.' This first-rate satire stands with the best of them, like Network and Dr. Strangelove. Though, it is darkly comedic and not for the squeamish.
Under the Skin ***1/2
Scarlett Johansson stars as an irresistible stalker whose sole purpose is to lure vulnerable and unwitting men into her otherworldly trap. Multitudes deeper than Johansson’s other 2014 sci-fi film Lucy, Under the Skin makes the former picture seem like a shallow exercise in surfaces. The film deftly illustrates how it takes something other than a human to show us how lucky we are to be human. It also explores the deception of appearances, and the mental repercussions of taking lives. Some of the sequences in the movie appear almost hyper-realistic--and that is no surprise, considering that a handful of the actors were secretly photographed as they swooned over the protagonist. The sound design is particularly effective in reinforcing a potently eerie mood, leading up to a finale that is both abrupt and devastating. This easily is Scarlett Johansson’s best role since Lost in Translation. Under the Skin is an instant cult-classic.
One of the better films ever made about parenting and growing up in a broken home, Boyhood is a successful experiment filmed over 12 years with the same cast. You cannot help but think about your own life while watching these actors grow before your eyes. There has been a lot of recent buzz about this picture, but few have seen it, likely due to its lofty two-hour and 46-minute length. The movie stars Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette and newcomer Ellar Coltrane in a career-making performance. Boyhood effectively melds documentary with fiction; you feel like you are watching all these lives really play out onscreen. And you are, but you aren’t… that is the brilliance of Boyhood. There are a few rough spots of over-cting early on, but Richard Linklater’s direction becomes more assured in the second half as you feel the director himself mature and improve his craft just as much as the actors. Like Dazed and Confused before it, which Linklater also helmed, Boyhood features a likeable group of characters that you really grow attached to and enjoy hanging out with as you watch. Its existential questions also are hard to ignore.
Edge of Tomorrow ***
One of the best pure science-fiction films of recent times, Edge of Tomorrow features Tom Cruise as Maj. William Cage, a military officer who is thrust into battle as a futuristic soldier, and forced to repeat the same series of deadly events. Although he progresses a little further in battle each time before his life is reset, he cannot quite figure out how to advance to the next stage. That is, until he teams up with Emily Blunt, who shines in a strong physical role as an infamous female warrior. Bill Paxton also makes his mark as a belligerent drill instructor who guides Cage to the front lines. The action is fierce and skillfully crafted, and the CGI effects are seamless. Think Groundhog Day meets Aliens. Sadly, not many people went to see Edge of Tomorrow, so the studio changed the main title to Live, Die, Repeat, but it also failed to make much of an impact. If there is anything to criticize, it would be the presence of a few plot holes, but minor inconsistencies almost are impossible to avoid when dealing with subjects relating to time travel. Doug Liman (Swingers, The Bourne Identity) expertly directs.
Local film connoisseur Brandon LaMew has been ranked No. 15 among Netflix's top film reviewers worldwide. He is the production manager for Radio Arts Foundation-St. Louis (RAF-STL).