It’s the end of the year, a magical time in which critics and awards voters are hard at work making their selections for the finest that cinema had to offer. However, we at RT decided to take a slightly different tack. We’re giving some love to a few of the overlooked, underappreciated, and, in some cases, critically dismissed movies that made an impression on us. Read on for a rundown of lesser-known gems from 2013 that we think deserve another look.
Tim Ryan, Senior Editor
When we first meet Simon (Brady Corbet), he’s explaining to an acquaintance what he’s doing in Paris: he’s a recent graduate who’s in Europe trying to clear his head after a bad breakup with his long-term girlfriend. At first, he seems like a decent, intelligent guy, but it doesn’t take long for us to notice that something is a bit… off about him. We watch him lie about seemingly trivial things. Then we see him manipulate people, most notably Victoria (Mati Diop), an escort who clearly has feelings for him. Then we watch as he becomes a blackmailer and scammer. Then… well, no spoilers, but the movie’s called Simon Killer for a reason. Movie psychopaths tend to be diabolical and charming, but what makes Simon truly frightening is that he’s nothing like Hannibal Lecter or Patrick Bateman; instead, he epitomizes what Hervey M. Cleckley called “the mask of sanity.” Simon Killer is a slow-burning character study that’s not pleasant to watch, but it’s fascinating regardless. Director Antonio Campos’ visual sense is assured but unobtrusive, and he maintains a dispassionate tone that allows us to observe a monster without distraction or embellishment. It’s an uncommonly audacious and disturbing film.
Grae Drake, Senior Editor
This film adaptation of David Wong’s ridiculously off-the-wall book is all about Soy Sauce — but this stuff doesn’t come for free from a Chinese food place. It’s actually a drug that sends its users across time and dimensions, really giving them their money’s worth. Unfortunately, it simultaneously makes them inhuman. In every kind of body-snatchers-y type story, you need a hero with their feet planted firmly on the ground to save the world. Instead of that, you get John and David. They’re not the type of guys you want saving us from certain destruction — but that’s what makes this movie fun. John Dies at the End is directed by Don Coscarelli of Bubba Ho-Tep fame, and it features performances by Chase Williamson, Rob Mayes, and Paul Giamatti that are rock-solid, bizarre, and much better than one might expect from an indie movie about drugs named after condiments. Check this one out, and buckle up.
Ryan Fujitani, Editor
Every year, there are a number of noteworthy documentaries that some might say go criminally underseen, and 2013 was no different. One of the mid-year triumphs of the genre, A Band Called Death gestated in distribution limbo after its 2012 LA Film Festival premiere until it finally saw a limited release in June of 2013. The film chronicles the formation, marginal success, and subsequent rediscovery of a proto-punk band comprised of an unlikely trio — three black brothers from the heart of Detroit. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, while their contemporaries were getting their funk on, Motown style, David, Dannis, and Bobby Hackney dared to play fast, trippy rock and roll, inspired by the likes of Alice Cooper and The Who. Unfortunately, this band called Death failed to gain much traction due to its controversial name, and, unwilling to compromise his artistic integrity, David, the eldest Hackney and visionary leader of the band, eventually succumbed to alcoholism. While the film does chart the musical successes and failures of the Hackneys’ professional careers, it’s also a tender, sometimes heartbreaking testament to the power of family bonds, adding a profound humanistic touch to a story that would nevertheless have been a fascinating rock doc in its own right.
Luke Goodsell, International Editor
Gotta admit, I’m not really sure for whom certain movies are “on” or “off” the radar, because this was certainly one of my most anticipated of the year. Nonetheless, with only a handful of screens and less than $100,000 at the US box office, I’m guessing Leviathan qualifies. A lot of documentaries claim to trade in “objectivity,” but this one really is as close as a movie can get to purity. Directors Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel attached GoPro cameras to everything they could on a North Atlantic fishing trawler — rigs, nets, fisherman, you name it — and the result is cinema like you’ve never seen before. It’s queasy viewing at times, to be sure — hilariously, there were a lot of walkouts at my screening, presumably from people who thought they’d paid to see a gentle nature doc about seagulls — but for anyone into adventurous, next wave moviemaking, this is the real deal.
Alex Vo, Editor
Despite the big-name cast (Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone) and Zombieland‘s Reuben Fleischer in the director’s chair, Warner Bros had to steer Gangster Squad under the radar. Originally set as a late 2012 summer release, Gangster Squad‘s trailer had gentlemen in trench coats blasting Tommy guns through a movie theater screen, a trailer that was seen by every victim of the Aurora, Colorado Dark Knight tragedy. Subsequently, WB pushed Gangster Squad out to January and shot a new ending. The movie is a quirky cocktail: the wardrobe and production capture the smoky, languid flavor of L.A. noire, but the storytelling is strictly western classic. Mythic heroes, public showdowns, children in the crosshairs, and even a sharp-shooter cop in the form of Robert Patrick complete with revolver holster and cowboy hat. It’s not perfect by any means, but Gangster Squad is a unique ode to classic genres.
Jeff Giles, Associate Editor
It tells far too quiet and uneventful a tale to make much of an impact at the box office during our tentpole-driven times, but for those who can hold their craving for CG spectacle at bay for 90 minutes or so, This Is Martin Bonner offers some of the most richly rewarding filmmaking you’re liable to see in 2013. Driven by Chad Hartigan’s empathetic direction and powered by a pair of note-perfect performances from Paul Eenhoorn and Richmond Arquette, Bonner offers a gentle plea for acceptance — not only of other humans with their idiosyncrasies and their flaws, but of ourselves, and the way our changing relationship with the world around us can provoke unexpected circumstances.
Beki Lane, Editorial Coordinator
I’m not quite sure how any Joss Whedon movie can wind up “off the radar” in 2013, but that’s exactly what happened with his adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing. Shot in secret at Whedon’s house over two quick weeks while on break from filming The Avengers, this film features many Whedon regulars, including Nathan Fillion, Clark Gregg, Sean Maher, Amy Acker, and Alexis Denisof. It was also a family affair; the movie was co-produced by his wife, Kai Cole, who also designed the home where the film is set, and the soundtrack features songs performed by his brother Jed. The result is a film that makes many bold choices: it’s filmed in black and white, it’s set in contemporary times, and it’s performed with modern American speech. It takes a few minutes for such anachronisms to settle in, but once they do, this Much Ado About Nothing is an interesting ride that keeps you engaged throughout, even if it’s just to see what they do with this unique setup. The cast’s ability with Shakespeare is varied; many are good (and Nathan Fillion is brilliant; I wish he’d been playing Benedick, but the scenes with Dogberry are hands-down the best) and a couple are painful, but that’s all part of the fun and charm if you go in understanding the intended spirit of the film. And it’s Certified Fresh at 84 percent, in case you need any extra convincing.
Kerr Lordygan, Review Aggregator
In the final days of World War II, Russian troops discover some revolting developments in an abandoned German town. On behalf of the Nazis, Dr. Viktor and a group of scientists had been building an army of patched-together soldiers constructed from humans merged with found objects, including, in some cases, regular household appliances. No plane propeller or blender is safe! Some viewers may want to bring Dramamine to watch Frankenstein’s Army — this is a hand-held found-footage film that might induce occasional motion sickness. But I was so intrigued by the innovative creatures (the designs are terrifying) and humor (Czech actor Karel Roden is remarkable in his ability to make Dr. Frankenstein likeable) in this low-budget feature that I became a fast fan. And I didn’t even need a bucket.
Catherine Pricci, Review Aggregator
Chris Evans as a serial killer? Sign me up! Ok, so he’s not the main character in The Iceman, but the only other time I’ve seen Evans play a bad guy was in Fierce People, so I had to check this out. Oh, and did I mention he’s barely recognizable as the ruthless hitman Mr. Freezy? Alright, let’s move on to the actual film itself. Michael Shannon brilliantly portrays Richard Kuklinski, an infamous contract killer who’s also a devoted family man. He starts out doing small jobs for Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta) but after being asked to cut back, he goes out on his own to kill. That’s when he teams up with Mr. Freezy and the two are a truly dynamic serial killing duo. Shannon’s performance is fantastic — he manages to make me feel for him even after he gets caught. It was clear he loved his family and the fact that his extracurricular activities were on the illegal side tested my moral judgment when it came to his undoing. Winona Ryder stars as his wife, and there’s a surprising cameo from David Schwimmer.