As 2017 is now behind us and various year-end Top Ten lists roll out, we’d like to shine a spotlight on some of those great films that may have not been on your radar in the last year – movies that weren’t huge blockbusters, movies that weren’t featured on the Voice’s Top Ten list, movies that many people may not have even heard of, but great movies nonetheless that deserve your attention all the same. Here are 10 amazing movies you missed in 2017 (in alphabetical order):
A Ghost Story
In David Lowery’s A Ghost Story, a deliberately-paced, uncomfortably profound contemplation on grief and time, we follow a recently deceased man’s ghost (Casey Affleck) as he continues to linger in the house he lived in. Good news for anyone who can no longer stand to look at Casey Affleck: dude wears a bedsheet over his head for 90% of the movie (and the Academy Award for Best Costuming goes too…). The peculiar script combines with Lowery’s earnest deadpan direction, thoughtful framing, and aggressively unnerving use of sound and music, to create the very inexpensive indie-movie equivalent of a visionary spectacle. And just when we’ve gotten used to A Ghost Story’s punishing pace, the director starts jumping through time with a slipstream propulsion; suddenly, “that tense movie where Casey Affleck is under a sheet the whole time” becomes “that micro-budget movie that profoundly marries the chronological sweep of The Tree of Life to the cosmic wonder of 2001: A Space Odyssey.” It evolves into a compelling rumination on the nature of time, memory, history, and the universe. Bathed in warm humor and wistful longing, it’s a film that stays with you long after it’s over, a lingering reminder of the inextricable link between love and place. A Ghost Story is beautiful, but with that beauty comes an almost punishing level of sadness. But it’s for that reason that I’m so thankful it exists. It’s definitely worth experiencing. Also, there is an absolutely hypnotizing scene, going from ridiculous to melancholy, in which Rooney Mara eats a pie in a nine-minute unbroken shot. Don’t tell me you’re not curious.
The Glass Castle
I’ve called upon the aid of Halftime Leisure Editor extraordinaire herself, Claire Goldberg, to write about this one as I’ve not seen it myself. Take it away, Claire!
As a high schooler, my favorite required reading is and always was Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle. I was worried that when the movie came out, it would not live up to my lofty expectations. But this year’s adaptation, featuring Brie Larson as the protagonist (the story is of Walls’ own life) and Woody Harrelson as her adventurous but difficult father, brought the book to beautiful life. The performances were amazing and the story line, though an adaptation, was inspiring, dramatic, and tear-inducing. If you never got to read the book, the movie is something you shouldn’t miss, even though it didn’t get the recognition it deserved after its release this past summer. As a story of a powerful woman with a problematic past, filled with true family dynamics that at times feel unrealistic, it shines as a feel-good film that is more than just an adaptation.
Members of Team Edward: rejoice! And for those who always despised Twilight, you too can join in as Robert Pattinson has more than atoned for that with pretty much every role he’s had in the last five years. Good Time is the best of ‘em, a grungy New York City street drama from rising superstar directors Ben and Josh Safdie. In this breakneck nocturnal thriller, Pattinson is Connie, a low-level hood who finds himself on a desperate search for bailout cash after a bank robbery goes awry and his accomplice—his mentally challenged brother Nick (Ben Safdie)—is arrested and given a one-way ticket to Rikers Island. With a scruffy goatee, disheveled hair that he eventually bleaches a garish blonde, and amoral desperation in his eyes, Pattinson proves a mesmerizing man on the run, his motivations cloudy, his behavior unethical, and his every decision more foolhardy than the last. The Safdies’ up-close-and-personal shooting style sticks closely to their protagonist as he falls deeper and deeper into a hole of his own making, ultimately generating an intensity of sound, movement and mania that makes watching the film feel akin to being on a rollercoaster with faulty brakes. For one of 2017’s most exhilarating films, look no further. Dare I say, it’s a . . . good time.
Ingrid Goes West
Many might write off Ingrid Goes West upon watching its trailer as an amalgamation of the worst aspects of Millennial culture. But, in reality, it’s Natural Born Killers for the social media generation: a grotesque reflection of our current culture’s worst tendencies. Peeking into a girl’s obsession with an Instagram model, the film is part addiction narrative, part stalker story — and yet it’s set in a world that’s almost pathologically cheery: the glossy, sunny, nourishing, superfood- and superlative-loving universe of Instagram celebrity. But despite Ingrid Goes West’s spot-on take on that world, the best thing about the film is that it refuses to traffic in lazy buzzwords and easy skewering, particularly at the expense of young women. Instead, the movie conveys that behind every Instagram image and meltdown is a real person, with real insecurities, real feelings, and real problems. And it recognizes that living a life performed in public can be its own kind of self-deluding prison. The film is a sun-dappled California take on the kind of manic extravagances that Scorsese helmed in the ’70s and ’80s. There’s a lot of Taxi Driver as well as a lot of King of Comedy in the way Ingrid’s ending toys with moral ambivalence and the cleansing nature of fame. This makes it all the more remarkable that such dark and complex ideas are entwined within a superficially comedic take on L.A. and social media culture. It’s a daring comedy with an exceptionally sharp bite.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer
The Killing of a Sacred Deer, the latest outing by writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos, following up his remarkably absurd The Lobster, is a hard film to write about because even describing the tone of the film feels like a spoiler. The story follows a cardiac surgeon named Steven (Colin Farrell) who befriends a kid named Martin (Barry Keoghan), which somehow correlates with each member of his family mysteriously falling ill. If you think you know exactly how this is going to pan out, then you are oh-so-wrong. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is Lanthimos’s segue from the theatre of absurdity to cruelty, as he presents a tale of mythical, methodical revenge that starts with an ironic chuckle and moves inexorably towards a silent scream. The film paints a world that feels somewhat sideways, filled with deadpan dread as Steven’s relationships with his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) and children are tested. It becomes part thriller, part psychological drama, part farce. The dryness of dialogue is deliberate, a kind of meandering tone that is as monochromatic as the walls of the hospital or austere home of the Murphys. This provides both an unsettling nature but also a highly performative one, emphasizing the theatricality of the entire enterprise. Truly, it doesn’t make a lick of logical sense in terms of the setting in which The Killing of a Sacred Deer takes place, but Lanthimos’ picture is a precise piece of frightening genre filmmaking that is totally fine playing by its auteur’s narrative playbook. Yet this frustratingly oblique approach to tragedy seems to be the point, as Lanthimos is letting us see what happens when all reason is tossed out the window, leaving nothing but absurdly ferocious emotion in its place.
Hell hath no fury like a woman oppressed, as is shockingly born out by William Oldroyd’s phenomenal feature directing debut—an adaptation not of Shakespeare but, rather, of Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novel Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Lady Macbeth is like a noir period piece, full of murder, lust, power plays, and intrigue. It’s the type of deliberately crafted, twisted drama, rife with gender warfare issues, that even Kubrick would be proud of. In a breakout performance of coiled intensity and ruthless cunning, Florence Pugh is Katherine, a young woman sold into marriage to an older landowner (Paul Hilton), whose nastiness is only surpassed by that of his domineering father (Christopher Fairbank). That union is full of problems from the start, though despite the film’s Shakespeare-referencing title, the path it wends is an original and horrifying one. Like its protagonist, it’s a film that’s placid and refined on the outside, ferocious and pitiless on the inside, employing a meticulous formalism to recount its cutthroat story about Katherine’s at-any-cost attempts to attain liberation. It’s visually stunning, each frame composed so carefully and deliberately that the wildness and danger roiling just below the surface feels even more frightening. Each scene ratchets up the tension to an explosive, chilling end. Easily one of the best movies of 2017, Lady Macbeth eats into the mind with its vision of evil as a contagion that transforms victims into oppressors.
Not a perfect film, but a marvel of the medium nonetheless, Loving Vincent paints the story of the legendary pioneer of Impressionism with unbelievable visual prowess. I use the word ‘paint’ specifically because Loving Vincent is the first ever fully painted feature film. While the narrative itself is a by-the-numbers account of the latter years of Vincent Van Gogh’s life, the dedication of the team behind this film is mesmerizing. Consider that this production required the services of 125 painting animators to create 65,000 oil-painted frames for this motion picture. Every frame of the movie is its own Van Gogh style painting, with each incorporating one of 120 of Van Gogh’s better-known works! In that regard, it succeeds to no end. It’s almost too beautiful for its own good; I found myself, too often, so dazzled by the form that I quite forgot about the content (if this script had been conventionally filmed and released, I suspect the movie might’ve been quickly forgotten). But the dazzle and passion are impossible to deny. If you ever wanted a masterpiece hanging in a gallery to come to life, your wish has been fully granted many times over.
The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)
One thing that film can do better than any other medium is capture the reality of conversations, and writer-director Baumbach is among the best in the business when it comes to relaying the rhythm and nuances of realistic talking. His Netflix-distributed film The Meyerowitz Chronicles is a perfect exemplar of why film is perfectly suited to reproduce the realism of everyday people and the way they act and speak to one another. Premiere writers like Aaron Sorkin and Quentin Tarantino have made great careers out of finding the music in human speech, producing it as what it ideally could be (and the results are always awesome), but there is a general disconnect between the perfectly articulate and witty characters of their films and real-life people. Baumbach seems to be committed to presenting people how they actually are and, in the process, offers a film that rings extremely true about the insecurities of modern Americans through the lens of this specific New York family. Like in Punch-Drunk Love, Sandler does an earnest, endearingly damaged variation on his trademark goofy-exterior-masking-interior-rage persona as Danny, who along with half-brother Matthew (Ben Stiller) and half-sister Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), has been thoroughly shaped—mostly for the worse—by his faded-artist father (Dustin Hoffman). The corrosive influence that parents have on their children, and the discord it breeds between siblings, is at the heart of Baumbach’s film, which would resound as a tragedy if not for the consistent humor derived from the Meyerowitzs’ distinctly NYC-Jewish brand of fuming, fussing and bickering. Intricately scripted and grandly performed by its stars (including an amusingly impossible Hoffman), it’s a must watch if you’ve got Netflix, as compassionate as it is critical.
If Edward Cullen qualifies for this list, then Bella Swan does too, perhaps even surpassing her vampiric lover’s 2017 effort. Kristen Stewart has found her niche and gives one of the year’s best performances in Personal Shopper. This movie is deeper than it seems at first blush, as it transforms from the account of celebrity’s personal shopping assistant into a meditation on grief and an exploration of “between” places — on the fringes of wealth, and in the space between life and death – as she begins to make contact with what she thinks is the ghost of her late brother. Indeed, this digital-age take on ghosts reinvents ghost story by approaching with radical directness and a singularly modern sense of self. Bracingly direct in one moment and stubbornly elliptical in the next, Personal Shopper isn’t just a story about a young woman trying to connect with her brother across the beyond, it’s also a story about how technology shapes the way people remember the dead and process their absence. Olivier Assayas’ alluring film is genuinely spooky but also poetic, a meditation on the membrane between the worlds of the living and the dead, and on grief as a portal between the two.
A classy French-Belgian horror with an unusual yet aggressively effective female perspective on monstrous taboos, Raw is undoubtedly one of the best films of 2017, further demonstrating how the feminine touch behind the camera has taken cinema by storm this year (The Beguiled, Lady Bird, Lady Macbeth, WONDER WOMAN!). Julia Ducournau’s feature directorial debut is a parable of a freshman trying to find her way, as we follow Justine (Garance Marillier), a lifelong vegetarian newly admitted at a veterinary school, turn from innocent and wide-eyed to malicious and hungry. Justine’s transformation from vegetarian to cannibal (yeah, you read that correctly) is a clever allegory for the indulgence that college life offers and how it can corrupt the naïve youth, and yet the absurd violence is among the least startling feature of the film once we get used to it like she does. It’s not necessarily the monstrous moments that will shake the audience up, but rather the mundane ones. There’s a deliberate disorientation during the seemingly normal occurrences, but a fixed serenity during the more violent ones. Such control is a testament to the sheer talent of its director. Docournau channels Cronenberg’s style of symbolic body horror and Lynch’s hypnagogic surrealism and makes them her own in a cacophony of loud, densely-packed imagery. The aesthetics she employs are multi-faceted, providing psychological shock, emotional catharsis, and allegorical commentary. And Marillier’s portrayal of Justine’s persona shift is a marvel to behold. Raw is on currently on Netflix and well worth multiple viewings, as it shows off how the female touch (in front of and behind the camera) can add so much to an understanding of tone and genre filmmaking. By adding terror with a feminine backbone, Ducournau and Marillier offer deeper characterizations and engage viewers in the emotions of each disturbing beat of the film, weaving a bloody tapestry that powerfully represents coming-of-age fears and considerably emboldens the importance of women in film.
Editor’s note: half of this list are films distributed by A24, so you really should just check out A24’s film catalog if you’re ever looking to watch some of the best movies of any given year.
Image Credits: IMDb