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.
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
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.