The top 20 underappreciated films of 2014

A new year of films may beckon, but there are lots of movies from 2014 you may have missed. Here's a list of 2014's most underappreciated...

There was no shortage of magnificent films in 2014 of every kind, from the expensive and explosive to the low-key and experimental. But it’s a sad fact of life that not all movies do as well as they should, either because of poor distribution or simply because they’d been released at the same time as something much bigger and more star-laden.

While the list below is by no means an exhaustive one – there are plenty of great films from 2014 that we’re still getting around to seeing – it’s our attempt to highlight a few fine pieces of work that didn’t get quite as much love as they deserved.

So without further ado – and in no particular order – we’ll start with a stunning thriller that only got a limited release in UK cinemas.

Blue Ruin

This slow-burning, brilliantly-made thriller was a hit with critics last year, but Blue Ruins limited theatrical release may have meant that, unless you happen to live near a city, you may have missed it. Although consciously following the revenge thriller template, Blue Ruin is distinguished by its central character, Dwight (Macon Blair) – an unassuming, ordinary man led to kill by a sense of responsibility rather than macho bloodlust.

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Writer and director Jeremy Saulnier gradually reveals Dwight’s vengeful motives, and in the process crafts a tale of suspense that is both gripping and deliciously funny. Made for a relatively tiny sum – and partly funded via Kickstarter – Blue Ruin packs in all the excitement and emotional impact of a more expensive, mainstream thriller and marries it to the intimacy of an indie drama. Recently appearing on Netflix in the UK, Blue Ruin is essential viewing if you missed it the first time around.

The Sacrament

The market for documentary-style horror movies may be at saturation point by now, but Ti West’s The Sacrament is thought-provoking, disturbing and well worth a look. A fictionalised account of the Jonestown Massacre, which occurred in the 1970s, West’s film sees a group of filmmakers head to a remote religious commune in South Africa called Eden Parish.

What they find seems idyllic at first, with the commune providing a refuge from gadget-obsessed 21st century life under the paternal wing of its leader Father (Gene Jones – the petrol station owner from No Country From Old Men).Further investigation reveals that something much nastier is going on beneath the utopian surface. 

Like Ti West’s earlier films – such as The Innkeepers and The House Of The DevilThe Sacrament unfolds at a measured pace, and when things do spiral out of control, the violence is handled with maturity and restraint. Tense and unsettling, The Sacrament is all the more unsettling because of its lack of supernatural shocks or outrageous gore. If you’re looking for a decidedly atypical horror film, The Sacrament is well worth watching.

Earth To Echo

Our original review of Earth To Echo wasn’t a glowing one, and it’s certainly a film that retains a fair share of problems. It feels like it liberally borrows from other, more interesting movies, and it’s understandable that Disney put the project into turnaround before Relativity Media picked up the distribution rights.

Yet there are two reasons why it sits here. Firstly, given the lack of decent family films in summer 2014, Earth To Echo stood out. As derivative as it clear is, its marriage of E.T. and the found footage mechanic worked better than realistically it should have done. Furthermore, it’s rare to see a good, live-action adventure that’s aimed purely at a younger audience.

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Secondly, it’s really rather enjoyable. Earth To Echo has limits, and holes are not tricky to pick in it. But in 89 minutes, it keeps the momentum going, is really rather good fun, and it has a bit more to it than it first appears.

Cheap Thrills

The fallout from the 2008 financial crisis has often crept into films over the last few years, from Bruce Wayne’s fiscal straits in The Dark Knight Rises to the crumbling steel mills of Scott Cooper’s drama, Out Of The Furnace (which, coincidentally, also starred Christian Bale). Few films dealt with the subject with quite as much wit and toe-curling violence as EL Katz’s flawed yet engrossing Cheap Thrills. It sees two old friends (played by Pat Healy and Ethan Embry) who are both affected by the economic downturn in one way or another: the former’s out of work, the latter’s a debt collector.

While drowning their sorrows one night, the two friends meet millionaire couple Colin (Anchorman‘s David Koechner) and Violet (Sarah Paxton), who offer them tantalising sums of money for carrying out a series of childish pranks. But as the cash rewards climb and the dares become more dangerous, the pair turn on each other, with results that are both amusing and extraordinarily grim.

Calvary

Following something as triumphant as The Guard was always going to be a challenge, and it’s one that writer-director John Michael McDonagh had no intention of even thinking about, it seems. Instead, he found another very different story he wanted to tell, that again had Brendan Gleeson at its heart. In fact, Brendan Gleeson in one of his best ever roles.

McDonagh inverts the damaged modern perception in mass media of the Catholic priest by making Father James (Gleeson) about the only good character in his film. We know from the start that there’s a who’s-going-to-do-it as the foundation of the film (which is arguably the only bit of Calvary that doesn’t quite live up to the standard of the rest of it), but what McDonagh then skilfully dissects is the attitudes, the deep-seated beliefs and the contradictions that exist in the small community around him.

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It’s not an easy film, and that’s very much a compliment, but Calvary is a rich, deep and difficult drama. It’s also, bluntly, excellent.

Life After Beth

A romantic comedy with zombies? You can’t help but invoke Shaun Of The Dead when you hear such words, and that immediately invites a comparison with a film that’s virtually impossible to top. So Life After Beth never really tries. Instead, it proves again that Aubrey Plaza is a real talent, both with range and good taste, as she takes on the title role of Beth, who just happens to be dead. And then who just happens to come back to life. As, y’know, a zombie.

Opposite her is her heartbroken boyfriend, played by Dane DeHaan, whose tears are wiped away when Beth re-enters his life. Only to, well, gradually start appearing again. Jeff Baena’s breezy film isn’t always an even one, it should be said, but it’s peppered with great moments. Household white goods have rarely been put to better use on the big screen, and you get a good supporting performance from John C Reilly. Paul Reiser’s in there too.

But it’s Plaza in particular who makes Life After Beth a joy. May she continue to seek out adventurous indie fare and resist the call of the blockbuster. Because it seems she can spot a decent script a mile off right now.

Cold In July

Like Blue Ruin, Cold In July is another unmissable low-budget thriller. Directed by Jim Mickle (Stake Land, We Are What We Are), it also refuses to bow to predictable genre conventions, even as it recalls such neo-noir classics as Blood Simple or Red Rock West. Michael C Hall stars as an average family man whose shooting of a burglar leads him into a conspiracy that we won’t spoil here. Forming an uneasy alliance with the father of the now dead burglar (played by Sam Shepard) and a sleazy private eye who also happens to be a pig farmer (a brilliant Don Johnson), Cold In Julys protagonist embarks on an adventure that takes in seedy video shops, men with guns and other murky goings-on. Beautifully shot, wildly unpredictable and accompanied by a catchy electronic score courtesy of Jeff Grace, Cold In July is a treat from intense beginning to color-drenched end.

The Zero Theorem

A new science fiction film from Terry Gilliam, who brought us arguably two of the best examples of the genre with Brazil and Twelve Monkeysis always worth celebrating. The Zero Theorem doesn’t reach the heights of those classics, but it’s still full of moments that are pure Gilliam, from its surreal plot to the overwhelming fussiness of its production design. Christoph Waltz stars as a programmer assigned with the task of finding the meaning of life, but finds himself distracted by a string of visitors and weird gadgets.

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Like a portrait of modern life – complete with the internet, working from home and aggressive advertising – filtered through Gilliam’s febrile imagination, The Zero Theorem is by turns bewitching and befuddling.  Waltz is joined by a great cast (including Matt Damon, Ben Whishaw and Tilda Swinton being among them) and some reliably mesmerising visuals. Even at this stage in his long career, Gilliam remains a mischievous, vibrant and iconoclastic director.       

The Book Of Life 

There’s not an animated film released in 2014 – at least if you don’t count the English release of The Wind Rises – that could hold a torch to the beautiful visuals of The Book Of Life. Co-written and directed by Jorge Gutierrez, the film has a simple – perhaps too simple – love story at the heart of it, that crosses between life and death. But what it also has is an undercurrent of accessible darkness, set against stunning animation, characters you actually remember once the credits have rolled, and a guilt whenever you peel your eyes away from the screen.

Gutierrez puts so many ideas on the screen that there’s something really quite irresistible about the end result.  Perhaps another couple of months tightening the script wouldn’t have hurt, but The Book Of Life feels so individual and different that there’s no shortage of pleasure to be gleamed from it as it stands.

Tony Benn: Will And Testament

The finite number of eyeballs and hours in the day sometimes precludes us from covering as many documentaries as we’d like at Den Of Geek, but this one’s something special. When the divisive one-time Labour MP Tony Benn died last year, he was bestowed with tributes from across the political spectrum. Many of them started with the glorious cliche, “I didn’t always agree with his politics, but…” And that’s a good way to approach this look back at his life.

The heart of the film is an interview with Benn recorded before his death, but its setting that against stock footage and headlines from across his career that gives it a real three dimensional context. Very moving, and politically challenging, it’s one of the best documentaries of 2014.

The Riot Club

The key criticism aimed at the screen adaptation of the play PoshThe Riot Club – was that it didn’t quite have enough rage in it.  Mark Kermode on his radio show framed this well, arguing that The Riot Club didn’t feel angry enough.

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But I’m not sure I agree. I walked about of The Riot Club – effectively a fictionalized story around the infamous Bullingdon Club at Oxford University – ready to punch all but a handful of characters from the film hard in the face. And the last thing I hit was my thumb with a hammer in 2009.

Watching a near-two hour film about a bunch of undergraduates backed by riches and privilege, bullying those below them and behaving as if other human beings were mere pawns on their way to high office,  could easily be described as provocative. And in truth, director Lone Schefig doesn’t look for too many other angles on this. Her film lets its characters behave horrifically, and just at the point you wonder how it could get more rage-inducing, she calls in Tom Hollander for one of the best scene-stealing cameos of the year.

The Riot Club may not be the definitive text on The Bullingdon Club, but as a starting point to put you in a really bad mood, it’s a well made, strongly acted drama. And it has the most hateful ensemble of characters of any 2014 release.

The Double

Like so many films on this list, Richard Ayoade’s follow-up to his adorable 2010 drama Submarine got a disappointingly limited release in cinemas. The Double stars Jesse Eisenberg in a dual role as a meek, put-upon office worker and his complete opposite: a cocksure, charismatic doppelganger who beguiles everyone he meets. As the quieter Eisenberg watches the girl he admires (Mia Wasikowska) fall for his more outgoing double, he begins to fear that he’s fading from existence altogether.

Ayoade creates an engaging retro future full of chunky CRT televisions and beige furniture, and the result is a film that is both touching, comic and oddly nightmarish – the claustrophobia and design of The Double creates the feeling that we’re trapped in the troubled mind of its protagonist. Eisenberg’s superb leading performance is matched by a superior and eclectic British supporting cast, which takes in Edward Fox, Chris O’Dowd, and Paddy Considine, and even as the film veers into desperately poignant territory, there’s always an unexpected cameo or quirky one-liner to raise a smile.

They Came Together

Made on a relatively small budget of $3m, this parody of the romantic comedy genre only received an equally dinky theatrical release. Although some jokes hit home better than others, They Came Together is laugh-out-loud funny when its shots land on target. This is thanks in no small part to reliably entertaining turns from Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler, whose meeting and subsequent romance reads like a list of every cliché from every forgettable romance of the past decade or so.

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A passionate kiss that leads to the destruction of an entire apartment is one highlight; a cameo from a wild-eyed Hollywood heavyweight is another. Given the sheer number of strangely expensive comedy duds in 2014 – $40m misfire A Million Days To Die In The West, we’re referring to – They Came Together emerges as an unexpected highlight.

The Guest

Another thriller with a retro, John Carpenter flavor, The Guest has the same playfully dark sense of humour as Adam Wingard’s previous film, You’re Next. Downton Abbey‘s Dan Stevens struts into town as David, a devilishly handsome ex-soldier who charms his way into the lives of an ordinary American family. At first adding a dash of simmering sexual tension and danger to their lives, David gradually becomes more sinister as Wingard’s brisk story unwinds.

That David is a maniac isn’t a spoiler; even from the clanging opening credits, The Guest lets us in on David’s secret. The fun comes from watching David interact with the family he falls in with, and wondering exactly how dangerous he really is. Although The Guest did relatively little at the box office, it’s one of those films that seems destined to become a cult favourite in years to come.

Frank

British readers may be familiar with Frank Sidebottom, the one-of-a-kind character created by comedian and musician Chris Sievey. With his nasal voice and papier-mâché head, he was a familiar sight on television in the ’80s and ’90s, and his surreal humour is beautifully captured in director Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank.

Based on the (fictionalised) real-life experiences of Sidebottom and co-writer Jon Ronson, Frank sees a young keyboard player (Domhnall Gleeson) drawn into the weird orbit of the titular comedian and front man, who insists on wearing his homemade mask at all times and resolutely refuses to break character.

Michael Fassbender spends much of the film behind that mask, and he manages to project a tender, gently funny performance through it. A quintessentially British, eccentric film, Frank also has a lot of warmth and humanity lying beneath its whimsical shell.

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A Most Wanted Man

Photographer turned director Anton Corbijn’s previous films, Control and The American, were shot through with a frosty air of sadness. His third feature, based on the John le Carre novel of the same name, is doubly poignant because it features the final leading role from Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who tragically died last year.

Hoffman plays Bachmann, a German agent on the trail of a Chechen refugee who may or may not be a terrorist. Eschewing pyrotechnics for quiet intensity, Corbijn’s thriller is an absorbing slow-burn, and as exquisitely framed as his earlier films. Most of all, A Most Wanted Man is a must-see for Hoffman’s weary, captivating performance. It’s a fitting testament to the enormity of his talent.

The Drop

Featuring a tough, terse script from Dennis Lehane, The Drop is a brooding crime thriller starring Tom Hardy and the late James Gandolfini. The latter plays Marv, a New York bar manager whose establishment has become a venue for money-laundering Chechen gangsters. Hardy plays a quiet barman who’s drawn into an increasingly brutal cycle of violence when a robbery goes wrong.

Although elements of The Drops story have been criticised for being clichéd, director Michael R Roskam’s film is distinguished by the strength of its performances; Hardy exudes all the Brando-like leading man charisma you’d expect, but there’s also real chemistry between he and Gandolfini, who turns in a great supporting turn – his last before he sadly passed away in June 2013.

Starred Up

In truth, the breakthrough performance for Jack O’Connell on the big screen should have been Tower Block, the impressive British thriller that he dominates whenever he’s on the screen. But Starred Up? Good grief, he’s really something special here.

He takes on the role of Eric Love, a young man being transferred from a young offender’s institution to an adult prison. David Mackenzie’s film is utterly unflinching in its portrayal of said prison, which can’t help but bring back memories of seeing Scum for the first time. Yet Starred Up has a different core: the relationship between a father and son, with the latter careering down the same violent path as the former.

Sat in the middle is Rupert Friend’s therapist, working as a volunteer at the prison, and trying to show Eric a different way forward. Friend’s character is based on the real life of Jonathan Asser, who wrote the screenplay, and there’s never a sense that any part of what’s on the screen has been softened. So whilst O’Connell deserves the many plaudits he’s received for his work, there’s a list of others who got things pretty much bang on too here.

Two Faces Of January

Drive and Snow White And The Huntsman screenwriter Hossein Amini made his directorial debut with The Two Faces Of January, adapted from the novel by Talented Mr Ripley author Patricia Highsmith. In 1960s Athens, con-artist couple Chester and Colette (Kirsten Dunst and Viggo Mortensen) meet a less experienced swindler, Rydal (Oscar Isaac).

Before long, the trio are drawn into a tangled web of murder, deceit and false identities. Magnificently acted and brimming with tension, The Two Faces Of January is one of those thrillers that feels almost timeless – not unlike Anthony Minghella’s magnificent 1999 adaptation of The Talented Mr Ripley, in fact.

The Rover

After all the attention Andrew Michod’s debut feature Animal Kingdom rightly received, we logically assumed that The Rover would have appeared with a bit more fanfare. But while reviews were largely positive, Michod’s post-apocalyptic thriller sneaked out on a limited release in US cinemas. Guy Pearce stars as Eric, a seething, violently amoral man on the hunt for his car, which was stolen by a criminal gang. Along the way, Eric forms an uneasy partnership with the gentle, easily-led Rey (Robert Pattinson), a gang member injured and left behind during their escape.

What follows is a minimalistic, moody and occasionally brutal film. The Rovers Australian setting and dusty roads have drawn inevitable comparisons to Mad Max, but Michod’s film has its own stark and meditative atmosphere, with some superb, contrasting performances from Pearce and Pattinson. The Rover also sees Pearce engaged in a confrontation with a group of a disgruntled circus performers, which isn’t something we were expecting to see in a bleak, post-societal collapse road movie.

No less a figure than Quentin Tarantino praised The Rover as “a mesmerising, visionary achievement.” And who are we to argue?