Hollywood’s definition of a “smaller movie” has changed dramatically. And comedically, for that matter.
These days anything under a $50 million budget and/or with no bankable stars is considered a minor priority.
With surefire sequels to “The Hobbit” and “The Hunger Games” — as well as Brad Pitt’s much-anticipated WWII movie “Fury” and David Fincher’s adaptation of the best-seller “Gone Girl” — dominating the schedule (and marketing resources), you might blink and miss some of these upcoming releases.
But these plucky underdogs present some of the most potentially ripe and distinctive efforts remaining in 2014.
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Here are 10 modest films worth seeking out, whether they get only a limited release, an art-house run or instantly released OnDemand. (Release dates are tentative and subject to change.)
Indie idol Kevin Smith (“Clerks”) first came up with the idea for “Tusk” while recording his weekly podcast. He was discussing a Gumtree ad in which a homeowner was offering a free room if the lodger agreed to dress as a walrus.
From there, Smith extrapolated the tale into a complete hypothetical narrative, inviting his Twitter followers to tweet #WalrusYes or #WalrusNo if they wanted to see this in theaters. The yes crowd prevailed, so he made a $3 million horror flick that the trailer suggests is deeply disturbing.
Justin Long stars as a journalist captured by a reclusive maniac (Michael Parks), who tortures him into becoming a walrus. (Sept. 19)
‘The Skeleton Twins’
Aside from some voice work, comedic chameleon Kristen Wiig has remained fairly quiet since earning an Oscar nomination for her screenplay to the 2011 hit “Bridesmaids.” She reunites with fellow “Saturday Night Live” expatriate Bill Hader to play estranged twins who separately endure near-death experiences on the same day, compelling them to reconnect and cope with their decaying aspirations.
In spite of the humorous tandem, don’t expect laugh-a-minute hijinks from this memorably titled drama — it was co-written by “Black Swan” scribe Mark Heyman, who together with writer/director Craig Johnson won the prestigious Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at this year’s Sundance. (Sept. 26)
‘Dear White People’
Buoyed by its provocative title, “Dear White People” earned rookie filmmaker Justin Simien a Breakthrough Talent Award at this year’s Sundance fest and landed him on Variety’s list of “10 Directors to Watch.” His comedy follows the struggles of African-American students at the predominantly white Winchester University.
Tensions mount when Sam (Tessa Thompson), the president of an all-black resident hall, becomes the focus of reality TV show “Black Face/White Place.” This offers the opportunity for black outcast Lionel (Tyler James Williams) to cover the controversy for the school paper, despite his cultural disadvantages: “I listen to Mumford and Sons and watch Robert Altman movies.” (Oct. 17)
It’s not exactly a superhero movie, but it’s fundamentally about the fallout from superhero movies.
Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a washed-up actor best known for portraying the iconic Birdman, who toils to launch his own Broadway production. Fueling his self doubts is the gravelly voice of the superhero inside his head giving advice.
Casting the former “Batman” A-lister in the role suggests a self-reflexive quality to the dark comedy from Alejandro González Iñárritu (“Babel”). The powerhouse cast includes Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough and Amy Ryan.
Emma Stone plays Riggan’s daughter, who scolds, “Face it, Dad, you’re doing this because you’re scared to death — like the rest of us — that you don’t matter. And you know what? You’re right. You don’t.” (Oct. 17)
In a career filled with multiple Emmys, Golden Globes and Independent Spirit Awards, Bill Murray has been nominated for only one Academy Award, and that was 11 years ago for “Lost in Translation.” The 64-year-old comedian could earn another shot with “St. Vincent.”
Murray plays the titular character, an alcoholic misanthrope whose financial woes compel him to take the job offered by his neighbor (Melissa McCarthy) of watching her bullied 12-year-old son (Jaeden Lieberher). Of course, Vincent’s idea of after-school activities include hitting the race track and strip clubs. As expected, the pair help each other grow and develop.
Also garnering Oscar buzz is Naomi Watts as a pregnant Russian stripper. (Oct. 24)
“Who am I? I’m a hard worker, I set high goals and I’ve been told that I’m persistent. And I’m thinking, television news might just be something I love as well as something I happen to be good at,” says Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal).
So Bloom enters the nocturnal grind of crime journalism as a freelance cameraman in Los Angeles. But is he merely a detached observer or is his involvement more hands-on?
Gyllenhaal (“Prisoner”) lost 20 pounds to play the skeezy character. Rene Russo and Bill Paxton round out the cast. (Oct. 31)
Most would expect “The Daily Show” veteran Jon Stewart to choose a comedic project for his filmmaking debut. Instead, he follows the political route with “Rosewater.”
This adaptation of BBC journalist Maziar Bahari’s best-seller stars Gael García Bernal as Bahari, a Tehran-born Londoner. In 2009, he returned to Iran to cover elections that ended in riots. His subsequent reports (including a satiric “Daily Show” segment where he pretended to be a spy) led to his arrest by Revolutionary Guard police — overseen by a man simply referred to as Rosewater — who tortured and interrogated him for months.
Stewart himself kept the real story alive through “Daily Show” updates and subsequently featured Bahari as a guest upon his release. (Nov. 7)
“Walk the Line” star Reese Witherspoon walks for 1,100 miles in this adaptation of author Cheryl Strayed’s acclaimed nature adventure.
Witherspoon plays a heroin addict with a crumbling marriage who embarks on a grueling solo hike along the Pacific Crest Trail (from California to Washington) despite no backpacking experience. Laura Dern plays her mother in haunting flashback sequences.
The film represents director Jean-Marc Vallee’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning “Dallas Buyers Club” from a script by Nick Hornby (“An Education”). (Dec. 5)
Although it may turn out to be too big to be considered a small movie, this true-life project has been kicking around Hollywood since 1957, when Universal bought the rights to Louis Zamperini’s story as a vehicle for Tony Curtis. Generations later, the same studio is releasing the picture with unknown Brit Jack O’Connell in the lead.
The big names are now behind the camera: Angelina Jolie directs from a screenplay that includes writing credits by the Coen brothers.
The biopic details the amazing experience of this former Olympic track star, who competed in the 1936 Berlin games, then survived a plane crash in the Pacific. He spent 47 days on a raft before being captured by the Japanese, where he endured more than two years in POW camps.
It’s based on the book by “Seabiscuit” author Laura Hillenbrand. (Dec. 25)
Kim Jong-Un probably will not be lining up to see this comedy, which was officially condemned by the Korean Central News Agency as a “blatant act of terrorism and war.” That’s because the plot involves James Franco and Seth Rogen as celebrity journalists who score an interview with the North Korean leader, only to have the CIA order the pair to assassinate the man.
Rogen and Franco reteam with “This Is the End” writer/director Evan Goldberg for a movie that promises plenty of meta-hilarity. Although North Korea officially requested that President Barack Obama halt the release of the film, so far only the opening date has gotten pushed back from October to Christmas. (Dec. 25)
Also coming soon
The Last of Robin Hood
Dolphin Tale 2
No Good Deed
The Maze Runner
This Is Where I Leave You
A Walk Among the Tombstones
The Good Lie
Hector and the Search for Happiness
Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good Very Bad Day
The Best of Me
The Book of Life
Before I Go to Sleep
Big Hero 6
Beyond the Lights
Dumb and Dumber To
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1
Horrible Bosses 2
The Penguins of Madagascar
Exodus: Gods and Kings
The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies
Night at the Museum 3
Hot Tub Time Machine 2
Into the Woods