The Best Under-seen Films of 2015

The 85th Academy Awards® will air live on Oscar® Sunday, February 24, 2013.

We’re knee-deep in awards season. The Oscar nominations have been announced. We will showcase 3 of those films at our Oscar Fest just one day before the big event. We love spectacle as much as the next library.

But we celebrate the underdog, the minor key, the off beat…those the big awards neglect. What follows are films that Oscar is not going to hip you to. In other words, great movies that have a bit of an independent feel — much like our Sunday Films we show at 2 p. m. at the Main Library every month. Or what we delve deep into the last Wednesday of every month at 1:30 p. m. in our Independent Spirits Film Series.

Drum roll, please: some of the best under-seen under-awarded films of 2015. All available from your library (suggested award category precedes title in bold):

Love & MercyBest Picture, Acting: Love & Mercy
In 1966, Brian Wilson broke away from the Beach Boys surfin’ image to create one of the true masterpieces of recorded music, the deeply-personal Pet Sounds. How this album came to be as well as Wilson’s struggles with mental illness are explored in perhaps the best film of the year. John Cusak’s work as the older recluse Wilson is every bit as compelling as Paul Dano’s portrayal of the sensitive genius in his youth. Paul Giamatti plays the hiss-worthy psychiatrist that tried to lock Wilson away while Elizabeth Banks plays his savior. All handled with sensitivity and class, you don’t see the Mansons, nor do you see Brian gutturally screaming as he hurls tape against the wall. One masterpiece deserves another. Love & Mercy is it. If you want to delve deeper, listen to my podcast on the subject.

me-earl-dying-girlBest Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Editing: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Adapted from the book of the same name, this punchy, stylish film retains the humor of the book while wisely excising the self-deprecating “this book sucks” self-referentiality. A high school senior has learned to survive under the radar and get along with everyone by becoming friends with no one, aside from his “colleague” Earl, with whom he makes hilarious remakes of classic films…all until his mother tasks him with befriending a dying girl. The authenticity of the teen voice is dead-on. The soundtrack is carefully chosen and deployed (mostly Brian Eno’s 70’s work). The cinematography is breathtaking and expressive. The editing is sharp and fun. A thriller in a much different way than 7 Minutes is, this is the kind of movie that crackles with such energy that it reminds you what you like about the movies. And why you love them.

D TrainBest Original Screenplay: D Train
James Marsden and Jack Black star in this bizarro buddy comedy whose sweetness handily sets off its few disturbing scenes. Black plays a lovable loser in a quiet, frustrated life whose existence seems to hang on collecting RSVP’s at his high school reunion. If he can bag Marsden, the former class king….who is a comparative big-shot (in his eyes anyway) due to a Banana Boat ad, the rest of the class will be there. The lengths Black goes to do this are sad, sweet, and disturbing. All leading to believable, relatable character development, very human comedy, and an extremely satisfying ending.

mississippi_grindBest Acting: Mississippi Grind
In a very different buddy movie, Ryan Reynolds plays a young, charismatic gambler to Ben Mendelsohn’s desperate, haggard gambling addict. Both performances are surprisingly deep in an old-fashioned film (think 70’s buddy pictures) filled with as many twists and turns as the trip down the Mississippi River they take to try and change their luck.


End of the TourAdapted screenplay, acting: The End of the Tour
Yet another buddy movie, but a real meeting of the minds. Jason Segal deserves recognition as disturbed genius author David Foster Wallace. Jesse Eisenberg is very solid as the aspiring novelist interviewing him for Rolling Stone. Similar to The Clouds of Sils Maria, we see Eisenberg and Segal merge and separate in fascinating (and very believable) ways. The film offers few clichés and many genuine, tender, and troubling moments. James Ponsoldt is a director with a soft, evocative touch. And he’s one to watch; Ponsoldt also directed Smashed, a compelling film about alcoholism. And one of the best films of 2013, in The Spectacular Now.

7 minutesEditing, Visual Effects: 7 Minutes
Shot right here in Everett, featuring many local residents (including some police as themselves) and local sights — including the neighborhood around both library locations, civic pride is not the only reason to see this movie. Loaded with likable character actors, a creative flashback structure, and dripping with style, 7 Minutes is a tense, thrilling, heist-gone-bad film that will keep you guessing until the very end. For more on 7 Minutes, listen to my recent podcast.

Mistress AmericaScreenplay, Actress:     Mistress America
In 2005, Noah Baumbach won dozens of awards for his breakout film The Squid and the WhaleChecking in with him ten years later, Baumbach has been quietly and consistently making some of the most affecting portrayals of modern, young thinking people. Last year’s While We’re Young pondered that aging process via two couples at different ends of the spectrum. This year’s entry is just as warm and witty an adventure into the thoughts of striving, thinking people. Since Baumbach connected with screenwriter, actress, and muse Greta Gerwig (above left), he’s been cranking out stories like this sweetly sensitive coming-of-age tale centering around a young woman (above right) and her desire to become somebody…perhaps even the person to her right.

Call Me LuckyDocumentary: Call Me Lucky
A very compellingly crafted documentary about angry political stand-up comic Barry Crimmins carries a whiplash twist. We begin with great contemporary comics from David Cross to Margaret Cho lionizing Crimmins for not only his quality of material, but for also helping them get a start in the business. This amusing portrait of a great funny man then develops to the not-so-funny. Exploring Crimmins’ anger at the Catholic church, we also come to learn his impact on outlawing online child pornography. A funny, fascinating, disturbing portrait of a film, Call Me Lucky should be recognized widely, but won’t. But that’s what this list is all about, isn’t it?

And the obligatory it-was-new-to-me / very close to 2015 / they had me fooled, in ascending silliness of award order: Production Design, Kids’ Movie Adults Could Enjoy: Paddington, Acting, Extreme Twisty-ness: The Guest, Screenplay, Utter Creepiness: Ex Machina, Acting, Perhaps Creepier: Prisoners, Local: Laggies, Best use of James Franco: True Story, Peerless Brilliance: Mr. Turner, Best use of Bill Murray: St. Vincent

Your turn: what are some of your recent favorites?

It’s All About That Death

meearldyinggirlOh, Jesus. Not another girl dying from cancer book. It seems like I just got over John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars and now I’ve decided to pick up a book about a teenager with leukemia? That is what I thought when I took home Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews. Why’d I take it home then? I’m a sucker for a good death. Or even a bad one. But as I got into it (and it is a FAST read) I found that this book is SO not about another dying teen girl. This book is about a goofy kid who sees himself as little more than a complete screw up.

The novel begins with Greg telling his story by writing a book. He’s in his senior year of high school and doing fine living on the periphery of things, not really having friends but o.k. with every group at school: the Goths, the jocks, the stoners, the theatre kids, etc. He has a sometime friend named Earl who he likes to make films with.

Earl is in my top ten favorite book characters. He’s a ghetto kid living in a falling apart house with half a dozen half siblings while his mom drinks from morning to night, keeps herself confined to an upstairs room and spends hours in online chat rooms. Earl is a foul-mouthed runt. No wonder I liked him so much. Here’s an Earl sampling:

  • Mr Cubaly want you to do some test while you in here but I got no idea how that supposed to happen so my advice is don’t worry about it
  • Oh I went to see your girl again
  • She got a bald-ass head right now
  • She look like Darth Vader without the helmet
  • Chemo is no joke, son

Greg’s feeling on top of the world because his senior year isn’t turning out as awful as he expected and then his mom tells him his former friend Rachel has leukemia. Rachel was someone he went to Hebrew school with when they were both 11. She had a little crush on him. He liked a girl with big boobs. Greg and Rachel stopped being friends (even though they had a couple of classes together and sat right next to each other) so he has a hard time trying to explain to his mom that it’d be more than awkward for him to show up and say “Hey. You have cancer. My mom said I had to be nice to you.”

He decides to go over to her house anyway, no matter how weird it might be. He makes her laugh. There’s no spark or feeling of long-lost love. She’s a girl he used to know who has cancer and now he’s forced to be nice to her because his mom told him to. And then he finds himself looking forward to hanging out with her.

Meanwhile, Greg and Earl make terrible films that only Greg’s family knows about. One of them is about Greg’s cat but cats aren’t cooperative actors. Who knew? Soon Earl comes along on Greg’s visits to Rachel. On one of these visits, while he and Greg are accidentally high, they tell her that they make films. They swear her to secrecy because they already feel their movies are crap and they don’t want anyone else to know how crappy they are. Greg hangs out on the edges of life, he’s failing school; Earl’s brothers are in gangs, selling/doing drugs; Rachel is dying. Life is falling apart.

Greg can’t get out of emotional tight spots by being funny (You can’t? I am so screwed.) My favorite line from the book sums up my life pretty accurately:

This book probably makes it seem like I hate myself and everything I do. But that’s not totally true. I mostly just hate every person I’ve ever been.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is an unsentimental look at death, high school, and the question of “What the hell am I going to do with my life?” (If anyone knows the answer to that last question please let me know because I’m still trying to figure it out.) Underneath a sarcastic and hilarious shell, this book is all heart and hope, but not the smarmy “Life’s going to be great!” kind of heart and hope. I wouldn’t force that kind of book on you guys.