The 17 Most Underrated Movies of 2014

17 Most Underrated Movies of 2014

One of the most disappointing realities about 2014 was that as box office shrank compared to last year, independent films were often hit the hardest. Despite stellar reviews, even festival darlings like “Whiplash,” “Foxcatcher,” “The Skeleton Twins” and “Dear White People” each grossed less than $10 million domestically. Here are the 17 most underrated movies of 2014 that deserve a second look in the opinion of Variety’s film critics and reporters.

1. “Enemy”
Jake Gyllenhaal’s biggest, most buzzed-about performance of 2014 may have been in “Nightcrawler,” but his best work could be found in “Prisoners” director Denis Villeneuve’s existential thriller about a mild-mannerded Toronto history professor who discovers he has a doppelganger in the form of a bad-boy bit-part movie actor. Virtually a solo — make that dual — performance piece, with Gyllenhaal playing most of his scenes opposite himself (and, in one case, a giant tarantula), this freewheeling mash-up of Davids Cronenberg and Lynch was a deliciously weird head-trip for the ages. –Scott Foundas

2. “Obvious Child
The year’s funniest indie comedy riffs on a subject even serious dramas tend to avoid: abortion. No wonder it ran into controversy in some corners. And yet, by being candid about the fact that its immature young protagonist has no intention of bringing the unplanned result of a one-night stand into the world, Gillian Robespierre’s refreshingly honest romantic comedy earned its way into our hearts. And so, in super-talented standup Jenny Slate, a star was born. –Peter Debruge

3. “Beyond the Lights
The most satisfying “Cinderella” story of 2014 (sorry “Into the Woods”) was this fairy tale about an emerging pop star (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) rescued from a fall — in more ways than one — by a heartthrob police officer (Nate Parker). In the hands of writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood, this love story never veers into cliché, and it showcases Mbatha-Raw in a luminous performance that deserved awards season recognition. Minnie Driver is also excellent as her controlling stage mom. –Ramin Setoodeh

4. Calvary
The rare film to tackle issues of faith, writer-director John Michael McDonagh has crafted a thoughtful and often very funny tale starring Brendan Gleeson as a priest in a small town in Ireland. In the film’s gripping opening scene, a parishioner informs the priest that he will kill him in one week. What follows is a mystery, a character study and a tour-de-force performance from Gleeson. –Jenelle Riley

5. “Big Men”
This mesmerizing documentary from “Our Brand Is Crisis” director Rachel Boynton barely made it into theaters (despite counting Brad Pitt among its producers), but it deserved far more attention for its portrait of an upstart American energy company trying to exploit the first offshore oil field discovered in Ghana. A perilous, alarming and often darkly funny clash of first world and third, Boynton’s film was a real-world “Chinatown” populated by characters as strange and memorable as the richest fiction. –S.F.

6. “Starred Up”
Now that “Unbroken” has introduced American audiences to intense British actor Jack O’Connell, they owe it to themselves to track down his most impressive screen performance to date. The young actor plays a tempestuous teenage prisoner who acts out in juvie so he can get promoted to adult jail, where he hopes to be reunited with his dad. That dysfunctional family connection gives this gritty drama the heft of Greek tragedy, or perhaps Shakespeare, written in the gnarled poetry of prison slang. –P.D.

7. “Begin Again.”
I saw John Carney’s follow-up to “Once” three times, and on each viewing felt more convinced that he had crafted a modern-musical “Annie Hall” that got lost in the avalanche of summer box office explosions (with a so-so box office gross of $16.1 million). It’s hard not to get swept up in this valentine, which got a boost from Judd Apatow in the draft-writing process, about a British songwriter (Keira Knightley) on the verge of fleeing New York when she meets a fired music executive (Mark Ruffalo). “Begin Again” features the most radiant performance of Knightley’s career, and the most addictive soundtrack of 2014 (with “Lost Stars,” performed by Adam Levine).

8. “Frank”
A celebration of the offbeat, “Frank” is a rousing success despite the fact that it obscures Michael Fassbender’s face behind a paper-mache mask for most of the movie. Though Fassbender plays a musician who insists on hiding behind a mask, the actor’s charisma and personality still shine through. As two of his bandmates, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Domhnall Gleeson, offer frustrated support. –J.R.

9. “Locke
It was literally and figuratively impossible to take your eyes off Tom Hardy while watching writer-director Steven Knight’s boldly conceived real-time character study. Impossible, since Hardy remained front and center for all of “Locke’s” dazzling 90 minutes, as a beleaguered construction foreman on the road from Birmingham to London, fighting off sleep, guzzling cough syrup, and fielding the series of cell-phone calls that will forever alter the course of his life. –S.F.

10. “A Letter to Momo”
In the wake of Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement from feature film directing, many have asked who, if anyone, can take the maestro’s place. This charming hand-drawn cartoon from Hiroyuki Okiura suggests there’s hope in the new generation. The emotional tale recalls Miyazaki classic “My Neighbor Totoro,” as a young girl with family problems finds comfort from a group of supernatural spirits. –P.D.

11. “What If
Daniel Radcliffe finally made audiences forget he ever played Harry Potter in this romantic comedy about a Toronto medical student who falls for his unavailable best friend (Zoe Kazan). “What If” is about 500 times more charming than “(500) Days of Summer,” but it never earned the same cult status. The MPAA, which forced CBS Films to change the title from the far-superior “The F Word,” is partly to blame for that. –R.S.

12. “The Great Insivisble”
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the 2010 BP oil spill, but filmmaker Margaret Brown reframes the calamity in personal terms. In addition to documenting the Gulf of Mexico residents whose lives and livelihoods were rocked by the disaster, she even extends her sympathetic eye to those who were working aboard the Deepwater Horizon rig when it exploded, revealing how a system of oil dependency and reckless profit chasing is really to blame. After winning top doc honors at the South by Southwest film festival, the movie received a teeny-tiny theatrical release, reaching a mere fraction of its potential audience. –P.D.

13. “Belle
As beautiful and exquisite as the painting that inspired the film, “Belle” features another star-making turn by Gugu Mbatha-Raw (she followed it with “Beyond the Lights”). In 18th century England, the mixed-race Dido Elizabeth Belle is raised amongst her aristocratic family, yet is always reminded that she doesn’t truly belong. Her fight for equality and love is beautifully brought to life with help from co-stars Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson. –J.R.

14. “Palo Alto
From overexposed celeb James Franco comes this underseen look at listless California teens floating through a series of adolescent experiences — parties, pranks, drunken stunts and silly mistakes — with little care for tomorrow. Directed by Gia Coppola, granddaughter to the “Godfather” auteur, the admirably nonjudgmental film finds ragged beauty in a handful of Franco’s short stories, from which it was adapted, resisting the impulse to sensationalize that overtakes nearly everyone else when dealing with the age group in question. –P.D.

15. “Kill the Messenger”
Jeremy Renner digs deep to play a real-life reporter for the San Jose Mercury News who covers a controversial story about the CIA’s involvement in cocaine trade. “Kill the Messenger” is one of the most realistic movies about journalism I’ve ever seen — Mary Elizabeth Winstead is pitch-perfect as a newspaper editor — and Renner reminds us he’s a much more layered actor than the movie star in blockbusters like “The Avengers” and “The Bourne Legacy.” –R.S.

16. “Memphis”
In this mythic yet haunting portrait of soul musician Willis Earl Beal and the crumbling city that threatens to swallow him at every step, director Tim Sutton challenges what we expect from the squarest of American film genres — that is, movies about musicians — nearly all of which track someone with talent from obscurity to fame, before turning cautionary as celebrity or wealth or easy access to drugs destroys what was pure about that person. But there’s no formula to fall back on here, just moment-to-moment experience as Beal slides ever downward, slowly disappearing into the background of his own life. –P.D.

17. “We Are the Best!”
The second truly great film from Swedish provocateur Lukas Moodysson, who rewrote the rules on how teenage girls were allowed to feel toward one another with 1998’s lesbian romance “Show Me Love,” introduces three high-attitude young ladies trying their hardest to shake things up in 1982 Stockholm. Their plan — to start a punk band — is driven more by the spirit of bored rebellion than anything they have to say musically, but it kicks off the year’s most endearing and unforgettable coming-of-age comedy. –P.D.

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  1. Bev Barlow says:

    Having seen both “Belle” and “Beyond The Lights”, I am so in appreciation of Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s talent. She is so wonderfully talented and refreshing. I love both films. Thank you

  2. _joefil says:

    You have “Enemy” listed at #1, it was entertaining but nothing special to me. My only issue is that you said his 2 best performances were for “Nightcrawler” and “Prisoners”, not exactly where you were going with that, just saying. Jake Gyllenhaal is becoming an amazing actor.

  3. Ironbob says:

    Begin Again was easily my favorite movie of 2014.

  4. laura says:

    “What If” was a good film but NO WAY it’s more charming than “(500) Days of Summer”

  5. Kistler says:

    Under The Skin?

  6. G.B. Moon says:

    i Origins and Hundred-Foot Journey need to be on this list.

  7. big bertha says:

    None of these are on Netflix… Shame.

  8. “…[Once] got lost in the avalanche of summer box office explosions (with a so-so box office gross of $16.1 million)”

    What are you talking about? ONCE was made on a budget of less than $1 million, it’s considered a huge indie success whichever way you look at it. I personally didn’t find anything I didn’t already hear in a Damien Rice album, but it’s in the eye of the beholder.

  9. Truth says:

    It shrank coz I stopped writing on my laptop and Amazon cracked down on the factory abuse. Lol

  10. European says:

    lame list. just American stuff.

  11. Jessica says:

    Chef should have made the cut.

    • big bertha says:

      Now this was on Nextflix and I agree it was a wonderful movie.

    • cdhaskell says:

      Hollywood have release too many film at the time and a family can’t afford to goes to the movie any more. It is cheaper to wait until the VOD/DVD become available. Hollywood forget the day goes to the movie nearby in over. There is the carfare(subyway/bus) not included where you are goes to park your car. You have better have a good credit/debit card for the food/drink. God help you if the movie turn out to be one of those should be up for the Razzie award.

  12. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya was even better than Momo. It’s a princess movie for people who are tired of run-of-the-mill princess movies. Beautifully drawn and potentially the last film by Studio Ghibli.

  13. bring on 2015 says:

    Gotta agree with MichaelZ here. Very disappointing year for movies. The only one on your list that I’ve seen and liked is “Calvary.” “Locke” outstayed its welcome and would’ve worked better as a radio play. When an actor with presence such as Tom Hardy starts to feel repetitive, you know you have a problem. “What If” was many times *less* charming than “500 Days of Summer”, on top of the fact that it was cliched while 500 Days was perceptive. “Enemy” had an intriguing premise but failed to sell. No reasons are ever suggested as to *why* the lead character should be as deeply disturbed as he is at the mere existence of a double, nor why we the audience should be so alarmed. Undercooked writing overcompensated by the directing and acting made for a hollow experience.

    “Birdman” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” were good.

  14. Aloysius says:

    I loved “We Are The Best!,” but it’s not just the 2nd truly great film by the underrated Lukas Moodysson. Fucking Amal (aka Show Me Love) was indeed a very special film, as was “Together” (2000). I even liked his little seen English-language debut, “Mammoth,” starring Michelle Williams and Gael Garcia Bernal. His finest film to date remains “Lilja 4-Ever” (2002), an unflinching, unforgettable masterpiece starring Oksana Akinshina. See it if you haven’t!

  15. Hollywood put out too many movie at the same time and who got the money to see all the movie. It is cheaper to wait until the film is available on DVD and either rent it or buy it because it is cheaper in the long run. You will need a good credit/debit card to cover the cost of a film.

  16. Hanna says:

    Yes, “Belle”, “Calvary” and “Beyond the lights” were wonderful. “Enemy” was a mess … to my mind, and I’m European and an arthouse-fan. I hated hated that film. Can’t wait to see “Messenger” and “Frank”. The others … not sure. Of”Locke” I saw the beginning and it stressed me out. I saw Radcliffe in “Horns”, and that’s enough for a while. He has that kind of face that I can’t stand too much of, at once. But he is a great actor. As an adult.

  17. BLACK MAN says:

    I thought “Locke” was bad. I thought the film was poorly directed and unconvincing. No one in real life would take their eyes off the road as much as the main character did.

    The concept was original, but it didn’t work (for me anyway).

    Happy new year.

  18. Suzy says:

    I loved Frank; one of my top films of the year, whether underrated or not. Fassbender was great. Thanks for including it.

  19. Sam says:

    confusing error in first film paragraph, the movie is enemy not prisoners.

  20. MichaelZ says:

    Nice try. The biggest problem this year was not underrated movies. It was the horrible, homogenized overrated garbage Hollywood dumped on movie goers. Your “even them” examples “Whiplash,” “Foxcatcher,” “The Skeleton Twins” and “Dear White People” were some of the worst offenders. They, along with “Interstellar,” “Into The Woods,” “Unbroken,” “Top Five,” “Gone Girl,” “The Interview,” “Wild,” “Boyhood,” and on and on and on, came together to make 2014 the WORST year in film history. Quality films like “Still Alice,” “Birdman,” “Love Is Strange,” “Selma,” and “Grand Budapest” were solid but few and far between. Sadly, the best film of 2014 was “Winter Sleep,” a foreign film!

  21. Amanda says:

    Yes to Begin Again. The perfomances, the songs, the wit! I actually prefer other tracks such as Tell me If You Wanna Go Home to Lost Stars, but nevertheless yes, very underrated. I wish it got released later in the year instead.

  22. Ryan says:

    I second Kill the Messenger. Such a great film with Oscar-worthy performances, esp Renner. He was phenomenal, better than the hurt locker. If Focus Features had played their cards better instead of going overboard for Thoery of Everything, their awards season would have been incredible. As it stands, I see at every overplayed TOE advertisement as a missed opportunity for KTM.

  23. Andrew says:

    Great to see Enemy at #1, but poor form with the unnecessary spoiler.

  24. I loved your opinion about the 17 most underrated movie of 2014. I got a feeling that those film will do better on VOD/DVD rental because the film got lost in the rank of the summer/fall blockbuster film.

  25. macd says:

    It took 3 years for MAKE YOUR MOVE, a charming dance musical drama (“West Side Story” with a happy ending), to get a theatrical release. But its distributor sabotaged it by dumping it on a handful of theaters sans publicity or advertising (and showing it “flat” though it was photographed in “real” 3-D, not a cheap post-production conversion). Thus audiences were deprived of seeing the most dynamic dancing to hit the screens since the heyday of Astaire & Kelly, thanks to the star-making performance by charismatic young Derek Hough (also a fine actor, but now wasted on TV’s “Dancing with the Stars”). Catch it on HBO starting January 2nd, and see what should have been, with the proper promotion, this past summer’s “Dirty Dancing”.

  26. ross says:

    It would be fucking rad if you actually watched movies without names. Oh, was Tom Hardy and Jake Gyllenhall unnoticed? Variety is supposed to stand for “others who are different” not others who are in every single movie. Way to be bold.

  27. cadavra says:

    I second PRIDE (below) and WHAT IF, but there were other wonderful indies this year: THE GRAND SEDUCTION (also with Gleeson), THE ANGRIEST MAN IN BROOKLYN (a towering performance by Robin Williams), FRONTERA, THE CONGRESS, LE CHEF (not CHEF, though that was fine, too) and THE LOVE PUNCH. All terrific, all ignored. And yeah, I’d throw in VERONICA MARS, too.

  28. tlsnyder42 says:

    Why no movies among the Top 10 at the box office? Surely, the public is right at least some of the time, and the critics can’t always be right by excluding such movies, can they?

  29. Sean Kennedy says:

    The film; “The Drop” was overwhelming..Tom Hardy’s performance was nu-match!!!

  30. Davey says:

    Where is Pride?

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