You’ve seen the superhero movies, but what about all the great films that didn’t have $50 million marketing budgets or didn’t attract much of an audience? There were plenty of sleepers in 2014, and many of them are now available on home video or on streaming services such as Netflix. Here are some don’t-miss films.
Chris Pine isn’t much of an actor to play the Tom Clancy take on James Bond, but in this origins story Pine isn’t expected to be Harrison Ford but merely the fresh-faced, slightly nervous young recruit just gaining his footing. A careful, methodical spy thriller that puts story over cheap thrills, Kenneth Branagh’s film features an able supporting cast including Kevin Costner as the mentor, Keira Knightley as a wily girlfriend and Branagh himself as a Russian terrorist with a plan to kneecap the U.S. economy.
The remake of the campy ’80s flick skipped the breezy one-liners and superfluous gore in favor of a smart story that reflects on the media, drone usage and free will instead of sticking merely to the original’s slightly ludicrous slate of villains. Sweden’s Joel Kinnaman does solid work in the title role while Michael Keaton is a lot of fun as a Steve Jobs-inflected tech guru and Gary Oldman is a standout as usual, bringing his trademark intelligence to the role of the chief scientist behind a project to make a cop’s few surviving body parts into a cyborg.
A black comedy about the news business, this satirical noir stars Jake Gyllenhaal as a creepy petty thief who wanders into video journalism and quickly becomes a star purveyor of gory images, zipping around the L.A. streetscape every night to beat the competition to the hottest and bloodies stories. Egged on by a news producer (Rene Russo), Gyllenhaal, who has the unnerving, just pretending-to-be-a-human quality of Anthony Perkins in Psycho, is enticingly strange as his character Louis Bloom makes use of his ethical flexibility in increasingly grotesque ways.
A Christian football movie starring Jim Caviezel, this disarmingly low-key film isn’t particularly strident in its faith but is well-grounded in its characters and its setting — a California high school that won every football game for more than a decade. Yet the film makes it clear that some things are more important than victory on the playing field, making the points that honor, respect and gratitude count for much more. The pivotal scene doesn’t take place anywhere near the gridiron but at a VA rehab center where the student athletes meet American troops who have left pieces of themselves on the battlefield.
6. The Drop
James Gandolfini’s final film is appropriately tough, unsentimental and smart. It’s set in a Brooklyn bar where Gandolfini and Tom Hardy play barmen who keep a watchful eye on deposits made there by a gang. After a robbery, the two men get increasingly enmeshed in a deadly plot that director Michael R. Roskam makes breathlessly exciting.
Steve Carell is a revelation as a freaky zillionaire, John du Pont, who runs a wrestling camp for Olympic-caliber athletes and develops an obsessive attachment to two brother wrestlers (Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo). Though the film strains a bit in its attempts to make du Pont an iconic American figure, it is a chilling, suspenseful, deeply weird and satisfyingly offbeat character portrait.
Long-serving character actor J.K. Simmons is an Oscar favorite for his work as a tyrannical music teacher and band coach who physically and psychologically torments a young drummer (Miles Teller) who wants to be better than just good. A narrowly focused two-hander, this film nevertheless dramatizes big ideas like what it takes to achieve true brilliance and the price paid by our sniveling fear of political correctness.
One of the year’s cleverest action movies, this one takes place in a near-future when a hysterical over-reaction to global warming causes global cooling, and on a snow-covered Earth the only survivors are the passengers on a surprisingly long train divided by cars and castes. Chris Evans of Captain America leads a peasant uprising by the worker-bees in the back of the train who gradually work their way up to increasing wonders and horrors as they get closer and closer to the man in command (Ed Harris).
An experimental movie made to prove the point that spending an hour and a half with a single character inside a moving car can be compelling cinema, this one was another opportunity for Tom Hardy to shine. He plays an omnicompetent engineer trying to keep a building, a family and a girlfriend from falling apart as he makes a series of dramatic phone calls on a night drive in England.
1. The Signal
Aspects of Twelve Monkeys, Logan’s Run and The Matrix fuel this twisty, cerebral sci-fi film about a trio of M.I.T. students, a mysterious hacker and aliens. Light on the kinds of cheap thrills we expect from sci-fi blockbusters, this engrossing low-budget film rewards close attention.