Following a worldwide pandemic, theatrical releases have slowly attempted to make a comeback. For the most part, things have gone relatively smoothly. Although box office numbers haven’t quite reached pre-pandemic heights, movies like Black Widow and Free Guy have proven the viability of movie theaters.
In other words, summer blockbusters are back. The Marvel Cinematic Universe roared back to life, Dom Toretto reunited with his family, and animated movies offered plenty of all-ages escapism. It’s great to see these big budget releases back on the big screen, but there’s more to life than $100 million action movies. That’s why this list exists.
Below, you’ll find ten exceptional movies from this year that slipped under the cracks. Regardless of the reasoning, these entries failed to find an audience in spite of the overall quality. With so much positive word-of-mouth being directed toward the cinematic heavy-hitters, it can be difficult to discover more under-the-radar releases. This list aims to right that wrong.
Sweat could have easily thrown its protagonist under the bus. After all, social media fame is not something that has been well-received. Many people would argue that the rise of influencer culture has had a negative impact on society. This brand of stardom is often associated with excess, greed, and selfishness.
Magnus von Horn, the screenwriter, doesn’t care about that though. He doesn’t want to make some grand statement about the toxicity of internet fame. Instead, he wants to focus on the human aspects of a fictional social media star. He wants to put us into one fragile woman’s shoes.
This woman is named Sylwia Zajac. She’s a fitness influencer who has amassed an enormous following thanks to an active social media presence. Her followers may adore her, but they don’t know the real her. Zajack, like everyone else in the world, has her own problems to face.
That’s what Sweat is about. It’s not a kooky satire that aims to tear down an entire culture; it’s a more empathetic portrait of an individual facing her own set of problems. In spite of her happy-go-lucky social media persona, her life is imperfect. This approach to storytelling allows Sweat to hypnotize its audience. It goes against the grain, and it works.
However, that’s not the only reason it’s so successful. Since Sweat is so focused on one individual character, it obviously needs an actress that can keep up with the powerful storytelling. Magdalena Kolesnik does that and more. Kolesnik approaches this performance with a healthy dose of grit and raw talent. Put simply, her work is unparalleled.
Overall, there’s not much to criticize here. If you really examined every little detail, you’d likely find some issues, but Sweat is still a brilliant piece of filmmaking that constantly defies expectations. It’s unsettling, inventive, and unforgettable.
2. Paper Spiders
Filmmakers aren’t exactly shy when it comes to examining mental illnesses. This makes sense considering the fact that these types of movies generally impress critics and audiences. For example, Silver Linings Playbook, Black Swan, and The Aviator all earned glowing reviews. While it would be cynical to assume these examples succeeded solely because of the subject matter, it’s hard to deny the fact that people are drawn to this kind of topic.
That being said, it’s starting to feel like we’re being inundated with a reskinned version of the same story year after year. Even when filmmakers approach the subject matter with sensitivity, these kinds of films still tend to feel a bit too familiar. Bringing attention to mental illness is rarely a bad thing, but it would help to explore new territories.
This brings us to Paper Spiders, a film that makes an effort to flip the script. These types of movies almost exclusively focus on the person experiencing the mental illness. Inon Shampanier’s revelatory drama, on the other hand, looks at what it’s like to live with someone facing a delusional disorder.
More specifically, Paper Spiders tells the story of a high school senior named Melanie whose mother begins having paranoia-induced breakdowns. Melanie must navigate high school while taking care of a struggling family member. The typical coming-of-age clichés are present to a certain extent, but they sit alongside the more gloomy central conflict.
The shift in point-of-view is commendable, but it’s hardly the only thing worth noting. As a whole, Paper Spiders is a masterful work of fiction that features multilayered characters, thoughtful writing, and near-perfect casting. At risk of sound cliché, it really is the whole package.
3. Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street
In the late 1960s, Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett collaborated on a picture that would eventually change the face of children’s television. During this time, television felt like more of a babysitter than a potential educational tool. It was entertaining, but there was little beneath the surface, especially when it came to programming directed at kids. This wasn’t inherently problematic; it just felt like something was missing from the medium.
This led to Sesame Street, a television program that sought to educate and entertain simultaneously. With so many inner-city children facing obstacles that prevented them from learning, this seemingly simplistic puppet show sought to fill in the educational gaps, and it worked. Sesame Street honed in on the kids who needed it most, and as a result, it has stuck around for over fifty years.
Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street provides you with this information within the opening minutes. From there, it weaves a tale that’s as engrossing as it is inspiring. Good documentaries make an effort to provide knowledge regardless of the viewer’s history with the subject matter. It doesn’t matter how much Sesame Street you have watched; Street Gang finds ways to pull you in and keep you invested.
It takes viewers on a fifty-year journey through the eyes of the folks who worked on the legendary television series. It highlights the good, the bad, and the ugly, and it does so in a way that remains celebratory. At the end of the day, this is a movie that seeks to paint a positive picture, but the willingness to explore the various hurdles helps it come across as multifaceted. Even if you have no personal experience with Big Bird, Elmo, or Grover, it makes you care about Sesame Street.
Roughly a century ago, scholars started to discuss a concept known as the American Dream. This is the belief that anybody, regardless of their background, can attain success in the United States. This concept has been the focus of numerous books, films, and television shows, and it’s easy to see why.
There’s so much flexibility when it comes to how you approach the subject matter. As an idea, the American Dream tends to have a positive connotation. After all, the definition sounds pretty encouraging. Regardless, not everyone has used this belief to push a positive message. This is true of Holler, a film that takes the best pieces from Winter’s Bone, The Glass Castle, and Nomadland.
The film focuses on Ruth, a hard-headed high school senior looking to escape her sheltered life so that she can attend college and break free from her family’s grip. Unfortunately, her family needs her more than ever. She is the one piece holding everything together, but she also desperately wants to live her own life. The gravity of this decision-making weighs heavily on both the characters and the audience. This conflict is handled with care, giving folks a movie that never talks down to its audience.
This is all made so much better by the presence of Jessica Barden. Barden is perhaps best known for her mousy performance in The End of the F***ing World, but you might not be able to make that connection immediately. In Holler, you’ll find a completely different side to the actress. She ditches her fiery attitude in favor of something more nuanced. This time around, you’ll find something that’s perhaps best described as stripped back, and it works just as well.
This all adds up to a motion picture deserving of praise and accolades. It will continue to get buried as the next round of awards season contenders start to appear, but that doesn’t mean it should slide under anyone’s radar. It deserves to be discussed alongside the bigger releases.
5. Les nôtres
Like a majority of the films on this list, Les nôtres is characterized by its low-key pacing and chilling tone. It’s a quiet, meditative film that looks into the life of a French-Canadian teenager who faces an unexpected pregnancy. This problem is exacerbated by family drama and adolescent growing pains. The end result is a weighty coming-of-age drama that fearlessly tackles taboo content.
The end result is also uncomfortable. The melancholic atmosphere certainly pairs well with the subject matter, but it doesn’t make for a particularly cheerful viewing experience. Les nôtres looks at the ugly side of adolescence. It looks at the physical and psychological dangers that comparable films tend to overlook. It avoids sugar coating things because it wants the viewer to understand that growing up is hard.
You’d be hard pressed to describe the film as fun, but there are still countless other adjectives that can be used to prove that this film will hold your attention. It’s unsettling, intense, and above all, gripping. It may be a different kind of coming-of-age story, but it’s still a coming-of-age story worth watching.