Today I'm going to highlight the hidden gems of the year in my Most Underrated Films of 2014 list. Just to be clear, I generally hold specific criteria for a movie's inclusion in the top 5. The two parameters are a film's ridiculously low box office total (hovering around $5 million or less) as well as NOT being a viable awards season contender. In my honorable mention portion below, I open the door to films with slightly bigger name recognition. So here they are, 2014's most overlooked movies.
Honorable Mention: Chef ($31.1 million, but wrongfully omitted from the awards season discussion), Chris Rock's Top Five ($19.1 million and snubbed by the Golden Globes) and finally The Skeleton Twins ($5.3 million).
#5. Cuban Fury ($92k)
Kicking off the top 5 is the vastly under-seen comedy, Cuban Fury, starring two hilarious talents from overseas, Shaun of the Dead's Nick Frost and Bridesmaid's Chris O'Dowd. After a bullying incident as a young dancing phenom has left Bruce (Frost) shy and frail in his latter years, the introduction of his foxy new boss (Rashida Jones) pits him against an arrogant co-worker named Drew (O'Dowd) in a competition for her affection. But news of her love for Salsa dancing gives Bruce the slight advantage, as the now overweight former dancer attempts to out-dance Drew and sweep his sexy new boss off of her feet. Cuban Fury is a fine comedy selection filled with legitimate laughs and a wholesome story at its core. Ironically, another Chris O'Dowd movie landed in my top 5 of last year's list as well.
#4. Kill the Messenger ($2.4 million)
Yesterday I outlined the Most Underrated Performances of the year, and right at the top of the list was Jeremy Renner's staunch performance in the conspiracy theory drama, Kill the Messenger. Renner stars as news journalist Gary Webb, a reporter guided toward a major government conspiracy from the 1980s. Supposedly, our administration was in support of a group trying to overthrow the Nicaraguan government. However, since we couldn't help fund their efforts publicly, Webb alleged through his sources that the U.S. government knowingly aided the crack-cocaine epidemic that swept across major cities in the 1980s because those funds were being funneled back to Nicaraguan rebels. Years later and it's still unclear whether Webb's claims were substantiated with legitimate sources, or if he fabricated a majority of the story. Either way, Michael Cuesta's Kill the Messenger delivers an enthralling conspiracy tale that succeeds on the shoulders of a tremendously talented Jeremy Renner.
#3. The Mule (no box office)
Every year I'm pleasantly surprised by the impressive crop of Australian cinema that I encounter. 2014 was no exception, as one of the rare treats of the year came in the form of the true-story dark comedy, The Mule. With writing and directing credits to the film as well, leading star Angus Sampson plays the timid and unimpressive footballer Ray Jenkins. Still living with his folks and starving for friendship, Ray's coaxed into smuggling heroine into his country by a pseudo "friend". Yet, when he begins to act suspicious in the airport, Ray's taken into custody by the local authorities who are given seven days to supervise their target. Aware of his own guilt, Ray must exhibit physical and psychological restraint as he tries not to defecate for an entire week. It's a bizarre story, I know, but all in all a smattering of exceptional performances carry this highly captivating and often comical tale. And since Australia is struggling to generate box office revenue for ANY film, The Mule was sent immediately to digital platforms for download.
#2. Laggies ($400k)
I was thrilled to be one of the first people in the world to catch a viewing of Lynn Shelton's Laggies at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. While the indie debuted to middling reviews, I felt a strong connection with the central character played earnestly by Keira Knightley. Following a proposal by her long-time boyfriend and high school sweetheart, the twenty-something year old Megan (Knightley) needs some time for personal reflection. Therefore, she conjures up a fake story and treks over to a new high school-aged friend's house (Chloe Grace Moretz) for a week to get away from her normal routine. While shacking up there, her friend's father (Sam Rockwell) helps Megan understand what she truly wants in her life. Nowadays especially, it's a difficult world for those mid-twenties young adults who graduate college and struggle to find work. Not too far removed from those years myself, Laggies became an easy film to connect with and another spectacular performance from supporting star Sam Rockwell simply sealed the deal.
#1. Cheap Thrills ($60k)
2014's most impressive and underrated indie flick was the shocking dark comedy and psychological drama, Cheap Thrills. Guaranteed to land on my Top 10 Films of the Year list which is coming soon, the movie uses the chief motivator of money to tell an unrelenting story of modern day survival. Pat Healy gives a gutsy turn as Craig, a husband and father who loses his job and receives an eviction notice all on the same day. Attempting to drown his misery at a local bar, Craig reconnects with an old friend (Ethan Embry) and a new wealthy couple that offer a night the two buddies will never forget. With a climbing stakes of "fear factor" challenges, Cheap Thrills shows you just how far people are willing to go for financial stability. There are definitely some squeamish moments throughout the film's brisk 88 minute running time, but if you can stomach it, Cheap Thrills is undoubtedly a twisted good time.