Many of the best films of 2015 struggled to find audiences on the big screen. It’s not that Americans have stopped splurging at the movies: ticket sales are projected to hit a record $11 billion this year. However, audiences were more inclined to brave the multiplexes for major tentpole entertainment like “Stars Wars: The Force Awakens,” “Jurassic World” or “Avengers: Age of Ultron” over small dramas or comedies. The golden age of television might be influencing consumer habits, too. Theatergoers want their money’s worth — in the form of special effects, explosions and A-list stars — when they make a commitment to see a movie.
If the trend continues, the industry will need to brace itself for major changes in the years to come. Although Sundance 2015 was a strong year for quality pictures, most of the titles that debuted in Park City floundered at the box office. The prestige fall movie season, typically a good time for indie and adult-oriented releases, proved to be equally cold: among the casualties were “Steve Jobs,” “Our Brand Is Crisis,” “The Walk,” “Freeheld,” “99 Homes” and “Burnt.”
But despite a challenging year for indie films, there are still distributors eager to deliver material, including Netflix, Amazon, The Orchard, Broad Green, A24 and Bleecker Street. As the independent-film market tries to stay afloat, some of these players will need to discover the right formula — between VOD and theatrical releases or some combination — that can deliver smaller movies to bigger crowds. For now, here are the most 13 underrated titles of 2015 that deserve another look.
1. “The End of the Tour”
Box office: $3 million
“Spotlight” may sweep awards season as Hollywood’s valentine to journalists, but this biographical drama by James Ponsoldt is among the genre’s best — in the same league as “Almost Famous” or “Shattered Glass.” Like a “Frost/Nixon” for a younger generation, this film traces the five days in 1996 that Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) spent profiling David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) following the publication of his magnum opus “Infinite Jest.” Eisenberg delivers his finest performance since “The Social Network,” by making the prototype of a hungry magazine-writer come alive, but Segel, who has been typecast as a comedic everyman in films like “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” steals the picture in a dramatic transformation that should elevate the trajectory of his career.
Box office: $2.5 million
This Sony Pictures Classics release chronicles the fall of “60 Minutes” producer Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) and anchor Dan Rather (Robert Redford) after they aired a critical story, with sourcing that later came under fire, about George W. Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard prior to the 2004 presidential election. CBS News has since declared “Truth” full of lies, which may have hurt the film’s commercial prospects, but regardless of what political party you belong to, it’s impossible not to be consumed by the dramatic retelling of Mapes’ story. “Truth” is carried by the best female performance of 2015, and while Blanchett will probably be Oscar nominated for her (also great) work in “Carol,” she deserves a third Academy Award for this harrowing portrait.
3. “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”
Box office: $6.8 million
The toast of Sundance got drowned out at the summer box office, not helped by comparisons to last summer’s “The Fault in Our Stars.” But don’t judge a movie by its premise. While “Stars” was a made-for-the-screen tearjerker of the week, “Earl” is an inventive dramatic comedy by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon in the tradition of “Juno,” not Lifetime, about a cancer-stricken high-school girl’s (Olivia Cooke) friendship with the guy down the street (Thomas Mann). It will earn more champions as it’s discovered over time.
4. “Clouds of Sils Maria”
Box office: $1.8 million
Kristen Stewart proved that she could be the Jodie Foster of her generation, despite all the baggage from “Twilight,” in this lush portrait of an American assistant’s relationship with an aging European movie star (Juliette Binoche). Directed by Olivier Assayas, “Sils Maria” debuted at Cannes in 2014 and Stewart later became the first U.S. actress to win the Cesar (the French Oscar), before finally making its way into the United States via IFC Films. Although it barely registered in theaters, the movie made a comeback of sorts, by landing on top 10 lists and earning Stewart a surprise win for best supporting actress by the New York Film Critics Circle.
5. “The Diary of a Teenage Girl”
Box office: $1.5 million
Director Marielle Heller’s 1970s coming-of-age story stars Bel Powley in the best cinematic debut since Carey Mulligan in “An Education.” If Oscar voters do their homework, she’ll factor into the best actress race for her portrayal of a California teenager who falls in love with her mom’s boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgard). Like “Me and Earl,” “Teenage Girl” was a buzzy Sundance title that somehow got lost with a summer release date.
6. “Far From the Madding Crowd”
Box office: $12.3 million
Compared to the other movies on this list, this romance set in Victorian England (adapted from the Thomas Hardy novel) qualifies as a hit for Fox Searchlight. But “Far From the Madding Crowd,” which opened in May, could still have done more business. It’s easily one the year’s best films, the rare period drama that would make fans of Merchant Ivory Productions swoon, anchored by an Oscar-nomination-worthy performance from Mulligan. If the Academy didn’t have amnesia for releases that opened early in the year, this would be a contender.
7. “Miss You Already”
Box office: $1.2 million
On paper, the story about a London woman (Toni Collette) fighting cancer while her best friend (Drew Barrymore) tries to get pregnant sounds like kind of fable suited for the Hallmark Channel. But in the hands of director Catherine Hardwicke, this bookend to her debut feature “Thirteen” is a raw, stylish and surprisingly effective sobfest. If you stumble upon it on VOD next year, give it a chance.
8. “Mistress America”
Box office: $2.5 million
It makes no sense that of the two Noah Baumbach comedies released this year, the rambling age-crisis story “While We’re Young” made three times as much as the nimble crowd-pleaser about a New York 30-something (Greta Gerwig) who enlists her new stepsister (Lola Kirke) on an adventure to find her true calling in life, which naturally includes a stop at an ex-boyfriend’s house in Connecticut. “Mistress America” is the Baumbach’s most rousing film since “The Squid and the Whale,” but it also fell victim to the curse of Sundance 2015.
9. “Sleeping With Other People”
Box office: $800,000
Although it opens with a hackneyed premise of a woman (Alison Brie) reconnecting with the man (Jason Sudeikis) who took her virginity in college, it’s impossible to resist the charms of this comedy directed by Leslye Headland. Credit the sharp dialogue and inventive plotting (by a script written by Headland), which brings to mind “Sex and the City” meets Woody Allen for today’s deprived singletons.
Box office: $700,000
Most of the press for this Sundance comedy made a fuss over the technical aspects of director Sean Baker’s film shot on an iPhone5S. But that would be missing the point. “Tangerine” works because it’s a marvelously crafted story, reminiscent of the verve of Spike Lee’s early films, about two transgender prostitutes as they roam through the streets of Los Angeles on Christmas (played winningly by newcomers Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez).
11. “The Voices”
Box office: N/A
The latest from “Persepolis” director Marjane Satrapi caused a stir went it premiered at Sundance — in 2014. Ryan Reynolds, in one of his best screen performances, stars as a seemingly ordinary guy that’s able to speak to his cat, and as the pieces of this horror thriller fall into place, “The Voices” doesn’t hold back in its demented turns. Unfortunately, the film was sidelined with a tiny theatrical and VOD run last February, and it remained largely undiscovered.
Box office: $240,000
It was hard not to snicker at stories about “Enter the Void” director Gaspar Noe’s latest endeavor. After it premiered at Cannes last May during a midnight screening, the movie was portrayed as a “3D porno” with full-frontal intercourse, oral sex, threesomes and ejaculation. But even with its racy, envelope-pushing tendencies, which made “Fifty Shades of Grey” look like “Pillow Talk,” “Love” turned out to be one of the most brutal portraits of its subject matter since “Blue Valentine.” Not to mention, it features strong performances from its cast of Karl Glusman, Klara Kristin and Aomi Muyock.
Box office: $4.8 million (still in release)
Another box office mystery of 2015: Why isn’t “Room,” backed by critics and awards season buzz, performing better? Since its October release, the drama based on Emma Donoghue’s best-selling novel has yet to crack $5 million, perhaps because it’s dark story about a mother (Brie Larson) and son (Jacob Tremblay) held hostage in a garden shed. Let’s hope the Academy Award nominations help this release pick up more momentum.