Total Recall

Best Movies Off the Radar 2015

In this week's Total Recall, Rotten Tomatoes staff members offer up their favorite underseen movies of the year.

by | December 30, 2015 | Comments

In between all the Jurassic worlds, impossible missions, hunger games, and other fast, furious blockbusters, 2015 saw the release of hundreds of smaller films that fluttered in and out of just a few theaters and attracted a mere fraction of the audience. Some of them were hot garbage, to be sure, but some of them were more than worth the price of admission. With that in mind, we here on staff at Rotten Tomatoes have compiled a list of our favorite films from the past year that most folks either never had a chance to see or never even knew existed. Read on for our Off the Radar picks of 2015!


Appropriate Behavior (2014) 95%

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Writer/Director/Star Desiree Akhavan’s debut film Appropriate Behavior follows a similar structure to Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, if Allen were a bisexual first generation Persian-American Brooklynite woman in her late twenties. The film follows Shirin as she gets over a bad break-up with her girlfriend, starts a new career and comes out (sort of) to her Persian parents. This journey is interspersed with flashbacks of how she met her now-ex-girlfriend Maxine at a party, how the two fell in love and moved in together, and how the inevitable break-up occurred. Achingly raw and personal, Akhavan finds the humor in loneliness, the need for connections (from hook-ups and relationships to friendships and family), and the perils of twenty-something life. Fans of recent Brooklyn-set films Obvious Child and Frances Ha may find Appropriate Behavior the perfect movie for a threesome. — Marya E. Gates, Social Media Specialist

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Beasts of No Nation (2015) 92%

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Writer-director Cary Fukunaga can set a beautiful scene, and Idris Elba turns in a larger-than-life performance in a way that very few actors can, but the powerhouse in Beasts of No Nation is undoubtedly its protagonist. First-time actor Abraham Attah is achingly poignant as Agu, a boy who loses his family to the violence of a rising war, and is then forced to join a captivating Commandant (Elba) and his battalion of child soldiers. In a story that takes place “somewhere” in war-torn Africa during a conflict that goes unnamed, Agu’s struggle to endure confronts us with a very specific emotional truth that is positively riveting– earning Attah the Marcello Mastroianni Award at the Venice Film Festival and the Breakthrough Performance Award from The National Board of Review. Due to it’s unique distribution deal with Netflix, some of the biggest theater chains across the U.S. opted to boycott Beasts of No Nation. So, many theater-goers never had a chance to enjoy it on the big screen. But have no fear; it’s still available to stream on Netflix. — Zayre Ferrer, Review Aggregator

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Breathe (2014) 92%

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I can’t pretend to know what it’s like to be a teenage girl, but if I did, I suspect I’d probably find Mélanie Laurent’s sophomore effort, Breathe, to be an accurate representation. Based on a novel by Anne-Sophie Brasme, the film’s script feels persuasively genuine, initially as a straightforward coming-of-age story about a demure high schooler named Charlie (Joséphine Japy) who befriends a new classmate, wild child Sarah (Lou de Laâge), and learns to open up to new experiences. But before long, Charlie discovers a secret Sarah’s been hiding, and that’s when the claws come out; their relationship begins to crumble, and what began as an earnest friendship quickly turns sinister. While the characters ring true and the film is beautifully shot, the real treat here is the work done by relative newcomers Japy and de Laâge, who absolutely own the screen. Not only is Breathe a surehanded triumph for Laurent, it signals the bold arrival of two talented young actresses we can look forward to seeing more of in the future. — Ryan Fujitani, Editor

Brooklyn (2015) 97%

Brooklyn

The year is 1952, and Eilis Lacey, a young Irish woman with few prospects in her small town home, emigrates to America.  Saoirse Ronan stars as Eilis, showing us a woman who initially struggles with desperate homesickness, but eventually blossoms into a new life in Brooklyn.  This isn’t a movie with big, dramatic moments and intense conflicts; on the contrary, it’s a subtle, almost leisurely film with seemingly small character moments that add up to something so emotionally engaging that it may catch you off guard. Eilis’ personal growth is conveyed by a pitch-perfect performance from Ronan, and the supporting cast (Emory Cohen, Jim Broadbent, Julie Walters, and Domhnall Gleeson) put in similarly grounded performances.   Ironically, those grounded performances are part of what makes Brooklyn such a magical movie. The retrained direction, beautiful cinematography, and wonderful writing show us America through an immigrant’s eyes, with all of the promise and hope that they brought with them. — Matt Atchity, Editor-in-Chief


The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015) 95%

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It’s rare to see a young female protagonist discover her sexuality and feel all the feels that come with it as boldly and honestly as we see here in Marielle Heller’s fantastic directorial debut. The Diary of a Teenage Girl, which Heller adapted from Phoebe Gloeckner’s semi autobiographical graphic novel, is set in the haze of 1970s San Francisco and wrought with the emotions so many teenage women feel and yet never see on the big screen. One might not begin their sexual journey with their mother’s lover, but there is something genuinely universal about Minnie’s (the marvelous Bel Powley) journey. Heller bears delicate witness to a young woman’s awakening rather than pass judgement. Imagine if young women were allowed the same transgressions, confusion, curiosities, and triumphs that young men are allowed on film; imagine a young woman’s story told from her point of view. Well, Heller did, and I hope everyone is taking notice. — Andria Hopkins, Review Aggregator

Ex Machina (2015) 92%

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What does it mean to be human? This question has been asked in movies countless times, and still we don’t seem to have exhausted all the answers. In Alex Garland’s directorial debut, computer programmer Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a competition to spend a week at the estate of this company’s CEO, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac.) Upon his arrival, he finds out he will be conducting a Turing test to evaluate an artificial intelligence’s capability to “think.” Has Ava (Alicia Vikander) evolved into a self-aware being, or is she just mimicking human behavior? And what are the consequences of that answer? As the test progresses, a number of unsettling situations will make Caleb question Ava’s and Nathan’s intentions, and his own role in the events that follow. With great performances and beautiful visuals, Ex Machina is filled with tension and secrets from beginning to end. Its cerebral plot will keep you interested and wondering where Caleb’s quest will take them all. — Julio de Oliveira, Project Manager

I'll See You in My Dreams (2015) 93%

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“I mean, I don’t have herpes, but it’s OK with me if you do.” This line could get a cheap laugh in a number of Sandler/Rogen/Ferrell films, but when it’s blurted in a scene about senior speed-dating in I’ll See You in My Dreams, it’s actually funny. Really, though, it would be challenging to find the film anything but affecting. Blythe Danner’s intimate, soft-spoken technique is a warm, tender filter for the often scary subject matter known as senior single-hood. Adults of all ages, though, ought to delve into it because this rare gem isn’t handled with kid — or senior — gloves. It’s just… real. A light, delicate approach to Danner’s relationships with both co-stars Sam Elliott and Martin Starr delights while drawing empathy, and a stoned walk home from the grocery store by a group of ardently inconspicuous senior citizens brings honest laughter. While it can be heart-mangling at times, the sweetly uplifting film almost makes the idea of growing old alone seem not so terrifying. — Kerr Lordygan, Associate TV Editor

KumikoTheTreasureHunter

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is a high-wire act. Based on the (broadly embellished) true story of a Japanese woman who froze to death while allegedly searching for the briefcase that Steve Buscemi buried in Fargo (and encountering baffled locals along the way), Kumiko‘s rough outline suggests the possibility of a mildly condescending culture-clash comedy. In the hands of filmmakers David and Nathan Zellner and star Rinko Kikuchi, what emerges instead is an unusually sharp study of a boundlessly lonely and deeply troubled woman that somehow never feels depressing itself.  Beautifully photographed (metropolitan Tokyo feels as empty and forlorn as North Dakota’s frozen desolation), bleakly funny, and deeply humanistic, Kumiko is also blessed with a final act of haunting, almost mythical, power. I love this movie to death, but more than that, I really happy it exists in the first place. — Tim Ryan, Senior Editor

MeAndEarlAndDyingGirl

Full disclosure — this is a kid with cancer movie. What separates it from the pack is a biting sense of humor, captivating characters, and a love of cinema. Thomas Mann stars as Greg, who’s crafting the “mopey teenager” thing into an art form. When his mother (Connie Britton) tells him that his neighbor Rachel (Olivia Cooke) has leukemia, she forces him to go visit. They develop a friendship that involves making fun of people who are sad about cancer and Earl, who Greg makes movie parodies with.  Although the storyline isn’t necessarily the most surprising, with charismatic actors, fun movie references, and a good heart underneath all the sass, Me and Earl is definitely worth watching with some Kleenex on hand… just in case you need to ball it up and throw it at the person sitting next to you who’s crying like a dummy. — Grae Drake, Senior Editor


Mississippi Grind (2015) 91%

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Mississippi Grind is a road trip buddy flick about a couple of degenerate gamblers, and if that description doesn’t exactly fill you with a burning desire to watch Ryan Reynolds and Ben Mendelsohn make a slow, often uncomfortable journey toward a high-stakes poker game in New Orleans, that’s perfectly understandable. After all, if there’s a genre that’s been more thoroughly picked clean (or more often mishandled) than the road trip picture, it might be the gambling drama. But if you can make your way past the assumption that you’ve already seen Mississippi Grind‘s sad story played out in dozens of other pictures, there’s a genuinely affecting film waiting to be discovered here — one whose contemplative pace and thoughtful cinematography recall the meandering charm of certain ’70s Hollywood classics, topped off with some of Reynolds’ best work and a reliably superb performance from Mendelsohn. — Jeff Giles, Associate Editor


Predestination (2014) 84%

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A graphic bomb disposal failure serves as opening to Predestination, which then whisks viewers onto the next stop of its whirlwind temporal tour. The year is now 1978: a bartender (Ethan Hawke) offers a bottle of liquor to a patron (Sarah Snook) in exchange for a shocking story. The patron speaks of shadowy corporations, unrequited love, and intersex transformations, and at the end of the tale, the bartender offers his own twist: a chance to go back in time and fix the mistakes. As moviegoers we like time travel stories because they’re fun to dissect and pick apart, a sort of scrutiny that challenges filmmakers to match their plot pieces together logically. Predestination makes no such audience concessions, reveling that this tightly-wound movie is a paradox to the core. What is at first confusing takes on a haunted quality, then the creep factor gets cranked up so high it becomes weirdly, grossly sweet. — Alex Vo, Editor

What We Do in the Shadows (2014) 96%

WhatWeDoInTheShadows

If you have an appreciation for anything slightly spooky, but also like a good laugh, What We Do in the Shadows is well worth your time. It’s a mockumentary about a quartet of vampires living in a flat in Wellington, New Zealand. And it turns out that flatmates are flatmates, whether you’re undead or not. (Un)living with others requires give and take, and that includes putting up with flat meetings, chore assignments, and remembering to leave the living room tidy after a kill. After debuting at Sundance in 2014, What We Do in the Shadows received its official US release in February 2015. The cast is great, and everyone plays their parts with ghoulish abandon. Jemaine Clement is wonderful as Vladislav (yes, THAT Vlad!), but the most committed bloodsucker of the bunch is Taika Waititi as Viago (Clement and Waititi also wrote the script). Also Ben Fransham is frightfully fantastic as Petyr. For vampires werewolves, zombies, and plenty of laughs, spend a night with these silly sanguinarians. — Beki Lane, Associate TV Editor

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In 2010, a fledgling documentarian was walking down New York City’s First Avenue when a wild group of boys ran past her. They were the Angulo brothers, and all six of them had spent most of their lives informally imprisoned in a small apartment by their bizarre and controlling father. The filmmaker, Crystal Moselle, bonded with the boys over their shared love of cinema and she commenced the filming of a documentary about the Angulos’ unusual lives. Unable to experience the world in the flesh, the brothers had been living vicariously through watching movies, and then elaborately re-creating them with their limited resources. Though many essential details of their confinement are frustratingly ignored by the film, The Wolfpack does its subjects justice by focusing on the brothers’ limitless creativity, insatiable curiosity, and innate desire to be free. As the saying goes, boys will be boys, and there’s no better evidence of that than Moselle’s uplifting and moving 2015 documentary. — Sarah Ricard, TV Editor

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