Four of 2014’s Overlooked Cinematic Gems, For Your Holiday Streaming Pleasure

December 26, 2014
Let’s get this out if the way right now: go see “The Interview.” Find your nearest independent theater or rent it online anywhere you normally do such things. Depending on who you ask, the movie is either hot garbage or actually pretty funny. Doesn’t matter either way; it’s a monumental case of free speech and how we “won’t bow to terrorism.” That’s a lot to put on a Seth Rogen/James Franco satire, but these are the wacky times we live in. So go enjoy what will go down as one of the most important films of all time, dick jokes and all.
Now onto other matters. After you’re done being an American, here are some overlooked gems from the past year. All of them were easily in my personal favorites of 2014 but maybe didn’t get the respect and eyeballs they deserved. All can be rented on iTunes or Amazon and half can be found on Netflix. Each is more than worthy of your hard-earned dollars and extremely limited time.


Set in the 1960s post-Holocaust Poland, Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Ida” is deceptively simple. It concerns the titular character, a pious woman about to take her vows as a nun, who sets out with her much-less-pious aunt to discover what happened to her parents. It’s a road movie and a pseudo-detective story. It’s a quiet, wandering pastoral cast in haunting black and white. Even though it’s novella in length, it contains more depth of character and says more about the horrors of World War II than most movies could hope to with even 10 times its length. A.O. Scott of the New York Times says it perfectly:
 “Ida” is a breathtakingly concise film — just 80 minutes long — with a clear, simple narrative line. But within its relatively brief duration and its narrow black-and-white frames, the movie somehow contains a cosmos of guilt, violence and pain. Its intimate drama unfolds at the crossroads where the Catholic, Jewish and Communist strains of Poland’s endlessly and bitterly contested national identity intersect.
It’s also the current odds-on favorite to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. So time to buy low!
Available On: Netflix, iTunes and Amazon
Any movie that has the most Tilda Swinton-y Tilda Swinton performance in ages (pictured) is worth whatever the price of admission. It’s a completely nuts sci-fi that’s the quintessential “you just have to take my word for it” flick. The film takes place after Earth has frozen over and killed off all inhabitants — except those who were lucky enough to make it onto the titular train that doesn’t stop circling the continent. The train is divided into classes: poor in the back, rich in the front. Chris Evans stars as the leader of a rebellion from the back that looks to seize control from the dictatorial ruling classes. It’s also the first English-language pic directed by the Korean genre master Bong Joon-ho, whose previous efforts — the haunting murder mystery “Memories of Murder” and the Amblin-esque creature feature “The Host” — are equally masterful. There’s action, there’s social commentary, there’s people being force-fed protein bars made of bugs, there’s auto-cannibalism and so much more. And as much is it could be a trainwreck (zing!), it just works. It’s the most fun I had watching a movie this year. But what does Grantland’s Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Wesley Morris think?
Snowpiercer is more diagrammatic about what it’s up to. It’s an action movie. The plot proceeds like a philosophical game. But the image of the film’s great unwashed swaying in unison as the train rocks along the track is a chilling one…. Its a downbeat spectacle. But very good, unforgettably bizarre, original filmmaking and adventurously explored ideas can leave you feeling high, especially when you don’t know quite how it’s been pulled off. Ingenuity is part of it. The rest just seems like grim magic.
Available On: Netflix, iTunes and Amazon
Under the Skin
Let’s be very clear: You may hate this movie. It’s definitely not for everyone. It’s an enigmatic, disturbing puzzle of a film. While it concerns an alien, played by Scarlett Johansson, who comes to Earth to use her sexuality to lure men to mysterious ends, that’s about where the traditional sci-fi aspects begin and end. It is a wholly original, beguiling creation from Jonathan Glazer, the brilliant director behind “Sexy Beast” and “Birth.” It’s impressionistic, violent, sexy, and Kubrickian in its impenetrable scope. I’m using lots of adjectives and not real sentences because, well, it’s more a sensory experience than a traditional film. It comes at you in waves of viscerally felt adjectives: uncomfortable, arousing, awe-inspiring, confusing, ugly. It was the film that challenged me the most this year but also pushed the bounds of cinema further than I’ve seen them pushed in a long, long time. Film critic extraordinaire Matt Zoller Seitz was similarly speechless:
Is “Under the Skin,” in which Scarlett Johansson plays a mysterious woman luring men into a fatal mating dance, a brilliant science fiction movie—more of an “experience” than a traditional story, with plenty to say about gender roles, sexism and the power of lust? Is it a pretentious gloss on a very old story about men’s fear of women, and women’s discomfort with their own allure? Does it contain mysteries that can only be unpacked with repeat viewings, or is it a shallow film whose assured style and eerie tone make it seem deeper than it is? Is there, in fact, something beneath the movie’s skin? Why is every sentence in this paragraph a question?
Whatever the answer may be, the film is a monumental question worth asking.
Available On: iTunes and Amazon
The Babadook
“The Babadook” is scary. It’s very, very scary. It’s a classic, old-school haunted-house film with a touch of “Am I crazy or is my child the Antichrist?” thrown in. However, what makes Australian director Jennifer Kent’s debut all the more asotunding is that it is so much more than a horror. It’s actually about something deeper, something resonant and emotional in a way that might surprise you more than a good old-fashioned scare. To me, it’s a throwback for when horror movies actually had something to say. “Night of the Living Dead” was a commentary on race relations in the 1960s South and its sequel “Dawn of the Dead” had a message about rabid capitalist consumerism. Most horror movies these days are all surface: loud noise scares and gore without reason. “The Babadook” is about grief and how it can tear people apart and put them back together. It’s about a mother’s love for her child through unspeakable trauma. It’s quite simply a hell of a film. The Dissolve’s Scott Tobias says:
Kent’s debut feature combines the bumps and creaks of the classic haunted-house movie with the visceral kick of Australian exploitation films, creating an atmosphere that’s both heightened with dread and charged with the possibility of emotional and physical violence…. It would be enough for The Babadook to get by on scares alone—the eponymous spook is eminiently franchise-able—but Kent doesn’t give the audience that kind of distance. Her agenda is more personal.
Available On: iTunes and Amazon