We’re approaching the end of the year and with that comes plenty of awards contenders as well as the decade’s most anticipated movie in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Yet when you’re not off in a “galaxy far, far away” or catching up on the typical awards fare, there are plenty of great films you may have missed in theaters during the past year that can now be watched at home. Here are seven of the best currently available:
With the popularity of TV shows like Black Mirror and the Hunger Games movie series, science fiction is definitely on the rise. Alex Garland’s Ex Machina continues that trend by being one of the most thought-provoking recent entries in the genre.
Domhnall Gleeson (Brooklyn) plays Caleb, an employee at a Google-esque company who wins the opportunity to meet his company’s founder Nathan (Oscar Isaac, Star Wars: The Force Awakens). Nathan has Caleb administer a Turing test with one of Nathan’s newest inventions: a lifelike robot, Ava (Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl), with impressively advanced artificial intelligence. Through the tests, Caleb begins to question both Nathan and Ava’s motives with these trials, as well his own understanding of what it means to be human.
Released in April, Ex Machina started The Year of Vikander that continued with The Man From U.N.C.L.E, Burnt, and now The Danish Girl. The praise is warranted as she gives a chilling performance as the mysterious A.I. The film is currently free for Amazon Prime members, as well as to rent through the usual means.
There are a lot of surprises on this list, but none are as unexpected as this directorial debut from Joel Edgerton (Black Mass), who also stars in the film. Credit goes to the Blumhouse and Lionsgate marketing departments who refused to give away too much of the plot, and I will follow their lead.
The film follows a couple — Simon and Robyn, played by Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall — who upon moving into a Los Angeles home, bumps into one of Simon’s high school classmates, Gordo (Edgerton). As Gordo starts bringing housewarming gifts and visiting frequently, Simon and Robyn begin to fear for their safety.
This is a classic thriller, very much in the vein of Hitchcock and Peeping Tom. It should be seen by anyone who likes a methodical, rewarding watch that doesn’t cheat the audience. The movie is available to rent on all platforms and services.
Mad Max: Fury Road
There are two reasons this movie shouldn’t be on this list: 1) George Miller’s sequel/reboot was one of, if not the, highlights of the summer blockbuster season. 2) The film is best as a theater-going experience.
Mad Max: Fury Road is on the list, however, because it barely made back its budget domestically, leaving a large contingent of moviegoers to still experience one of the best films of the year and possibly the best action movie of the decade. The film is a textbook example of pacing, chase scenes and how to set up and execute an action sequence, the last of which is an excellent evolution and callback to John Ford’s Stagecoach.
Outside of the spectacle, Fury Road has one of the best performances of the year from Charlize Theron (Prometheus) as Imperator Furiosa, who steals the film. The movie is available to purchase or rent through every platform imaginable, but I have to insist it be seen on Blu-ray, on the biggest possible screen with the best sound system available.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Despite strong buzz coming out of the festival circuit, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl struggled to find an audience. That was likely due to it being marketed as the next The Fault in Our Stars while also releasing close to Paper Towns, another adaptation of a John Green novel.
However, the film is closer to the likes of The Spectacular Now, minus the romance. As the title suggests, the film follows Greg (Thomas Mann, The Stanford Prison Experiment), a high school senior who prides himself on being outside any particular clique. When his neighbor Rachel (Olivia Cooke, Ready Player One) is diagnosed with Leukemia, the two form a friendship along with his friend Earl (RJ Cyler, Power Rangers).
This coming-of-age film represents the best of the genre and while it’s certainly funny (especially with its nods to Criterion Collection-type films), it’s very much a drama. The three leads give great performances, making every emotion feel earned. The film is available to rent and buy both physically and digitally.
Westerns are few and far between these days. So when they release, it’s expected those films match the genre’s rich history. Slow West continues that tradition with some superb performances, particularly from Michael Fassbender (Steve Jobs) — who plays Silas Selleck as if Han Solo was a cowboy — and Ben Mendelsohn (Mississippi Grind) as the bounty hunter Payne.
The film follows Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee, X-Men: Apocalypse) who, after seeing his father killed, goes out to find his friend and paramour, Rose Ross from his native Scotland. He meets Silas along the way and the two continue on their journey, while Payne is out to collect a bounty on Rose and her father.
Slow West uses many of the modern western tropes in its exploration of masculinity, as well as good vs. evil in a lawless world. While the film is currently free to stream with an Amazon Prime subscription, I strongly urge everyone to seek out the Blu-ray as the camerawork and gorgeous New Zealand landscapes will surely pop in 1080p.
This was the talk of the indie circuit during the summer. Much was made over the movie being shot on an iPhone — albeit with a lense attachment — and the performances from the unknown leads, Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, as transgender prostitutes on Christmas Eve.
I wasn’t as high on the film as many, but there’s plenty to appreciate. This is perfectly summed up in the opening scene, which starts off looking like a student film with good performances before kicking it up to 11 when director Sean Baker’s talent with a camera breaks through. Between that and a climax which juggles multiple plots with textbook style, there is plenty to look forward to from Baker, Taylor and Rodriguez in the future. The film is available to stream for Netflix subscribers as well as digital and physical rental services.
While We’re Young
Noah Baumbach has always been a mixed bag as a director, but has certainly been on a upswing since 2010’s Greenberg. The first of his 2015 releases, While We’re Young, continues that trend.
The film follows a middle-aged couple (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts) who befriend a young Brooklyn hipster couple (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried) and adopt their lifestyle. There’s also a plot involving Stiller’s character mentoring Driver’s career as a documentarian while trying to finish his own film.
The third act becomes too bogged down in its own plot, but the film shines in the way it explores its ideas like cultural possession among different generations. There are also some great scenes, including one where Watts’ character joins a hip-hop dance class. The movie is available to stream for Amazon Prime members as well as rental through other means.