There are a multitude of reasons why any film may get unfairly overlooked. It could be a lack of marketing resources to provide a substantial push, or, due to a minuscule roll-out, not enough critics and audiences to be the champions it might require. It could simply be the timing of the picture itself; even in the world of studio filmmaking, some features take time to get their due. With an increasingly crowded marketplace, there are more reasons than ever that something might not find an audience and, as with last year, we’ve rounded up the releases that deserved more attention.
Note that all of the below films made less than $1 million at the domestic box office at the time of posting — VOD figures are not accounted for, as they normally aren’t made public — and are, for the most part, left out of most year-end conversations. Sadly, many documentaries would qualify for this list, but we stuck strictly to narrative efforts (though one genre-blurring documentary made both lists); one can instead read our rundown of the top docs here.
Check out the list of 50 (or so) below, as presented in alphabetical order and, in the comments, let us know the 2017 films you loved that aren’t getting the recognition they deserve. A great deal of the below titles are also available to stream, so check out our feature here to catch up. One can also follow the list on Letterboxd.
Abundant Acreage Available (Angus MacLachlan)
Faith-based cinema is as diverse a genre as there is, from the extreme, often violent portraits of devotion from established directors like Martin Scorsese and Mel Gibson, to the attacks on logic in the God’s Not Dead and Left Behind pictures. Angus MacLachlan, a great storyteller of the not-too-deep south, offers a nuanced example of what this genre can bring, returning with the moving Abundant Acreage Available. – John F. (full review)
After the Storm (Hirokazu Kore-eda)
Hirokazu Kore-eda is one of contemporary film’s best empathists, extending tremendous good humor and generosity of spirit to his characters even as he lays bare their weaknesses and failings. Has-been author Ryota is the writer-director’s biggest fuckup of a protagonist, chronically unable to translate his earnings as an ersatz private detective into child support payments instead of gambling debts. And Kore-eda manipulates every mechanism of the story to engineer one lovely moment in which life’s everyday ugliness falls away, and this is done not in the service of offering Ryota absolution, but instead a bittersweet reminder of beauty past, future opportunities lost, and the assurance that it is in fact still possible to do good and decent things in the midst of utter confusion. – Dan S.
All These Sleepless Nights (Michal Marczak)
Blurring the line between documentary and fiction like few films before it, Michal Marczak’s All These Sleepless Nights is a music-filled ode to the ever-shifting bliss and angst of youth set mostly in the wee hours of the day in Warsaw, Poland. Marczak himself, who also plays cinematographer, is wary to delineate the line between narrative and nonfiction, and part of the film’s joy is forgoing one’s grasp on this altering perspective, rather simply getting wrapped up in the immaculately-shot allure of its location. – Jordan R. (full review)
Beach Rats (Eliza Hittman)
Burgeoning sexuality is the basis for nearly all coming-of-age films, but with her specific eye, Eliza Hittman makes it feel like we’re watching this genre unfold for the first time. With only two features to her name, she’s captured the experience with a sensuality and intimacy nearly unprecedented in American independent filmmaking. Following 2013’s It Felt Like Love, the writer-director follows it with another look at the teenage experience in Brooklyn for this year’s Beach Rats, this time with a protagonist five years older and of a different gender. – Jordan R. (full review)
Berlin Syndrome (Cate Shortland)
While the recent 10 Cloverfield Lane and Room told stories of captivity with various hooks — science-fiction and the process of healing, respectively — Cate Shortland’s approach in her latest, harrowing drama Berlin Syndrome makes room for more nuance and depth. Locked in a Berlin apartment, there is little hope for our protagonist for nearly the entire runtime. And while some of the story’s turns can feel overtly manipulative, Shortland finds a bracing humanity in depicting the perverse situation of Stockholm syndrome. – Jordan R. (full review)
The Blackcoat’s Daughter (Osgood Perkins)
Osgood Perkins’ debut feature, The Blackcoat’s Daughter – originally known as February at its premiere – is a stylish exercise in dread, teasing out its slow-drip horrors with precision, and building a deliriously evil presence that hovers along the fringes. However, there’s a thin line between mystery and vagueness in storytelling, and it becomes difficult to decide where a film fits when it only works in the context of a specific structural order. Read my full review. – Mike S.
BPM (Beats Per Minute) (Robin Campillo)
Sometimes a movie doesn’t need much character development to make an impact. The ensemble cast that comprise Robin Campillo’s AIDS activists in BPM (Beats Per Minute) all work together to be the same voice. Through this group, the director captures a force that resonates more in message than in any of the conventional, dramatic sparks you might find in a Hollywood version of this story. This is one of the most politically-minded movies to come around in quite some time as Campillo stages heated strategy sessions between the activists of ACT UP like a Godard cinematic political essay post-La Chinoise. Through effective direction, the activism on display here is inspiring enough to rile one up to set aside preoccupations and try to make a difference in the world. – Jordan R. (full review)
Brawl in Cell Block 99 (S. Craig Zahler)
S. Craig Zahler is the kind of genre filmmaker who’s making films unlike anyone else in his field today. His 2015 debut Bone Tomahawk pulled together an impressive cast of character actors to make a two-plus hour western/horror hybrid, spending its sweet time building to a repulsive finale. The long runtime, slow pacing, and abrupt tonal shift all worked, though, thanks to Zahler’s memorable dialogue and imagination when it came to horrific violence. Brawl in Cell Block 99 sees the writer-director sticking to the same formula that made Bone Tomahawk work so well, and it’s hard not to blame him. Usually formulaic would be a bad thing, but Zahler is the only one using his particular formula, and the results are just as brutal and entertaining as before. – C.J. P. (full review)
The Breadwinner (Nora Twomey)
In the Taliban-controlled Afghan city of Kabul, Nora Twomey’s debut film as sole director (she co-helmed Oscar nominee The Secret of Kells) depicts an eleven-year old girl facing the futility her future inevitably holds. Adapted by Anita Doron from the award-winning novel by Deborah Ellis, The Breadwinner delivers a heart-wrenching coming-of-age tale within a nation that’s lost its way. The shift was virtually overnight once the Taliban took over: women forced under hoods and trapped in houses, photographs and books outlawed, and men turned cruel as “protectors” of an extremist interpretation of a peaceful religion. The city’s former glory is immortalized only through stories of those who still remember. And as they perish to be replaced with new generations raised in hate, the past risks being forgotten forever. – Jared M. (full review)
Dark Night (Tim Sutton)
In many ways, writer-director Tim Sutton’s third feature, Dark Night, exists in the same world as his first two films, Pavilion and Memphis. As we follow a collection of young men and women drifting through a long day in the American suburbs, many of the themes from his earlier work shine through — boredom as punctuated by anger, lust, and artistic ambition, to name a few. Where the day will end we already know, thanks to the film’s blunt title, a not-so-subtle reference to the 2012 shooting at a showing of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado. – Dan M. (full review)
The Death of Louis XIV (Albert Serra)
“Gentleman, next time, we will do better.” On his deathbed, even a mighty king is of best use as a medical test subject. Jean-Pierre Léaud gives a riveting impression of agonizing disintegration in this landmark performance without raising his body beyond a 120-degree incline. At the same time that Louis XIV implodes, director Albert Serra keeps a precise grip on the proceedings, observing all with a detachment that’s at turns grim, somber, or morbidly humorous. It’s like a rotting face going through different “emotions” as the skin husks out, but in cinematic form. – Dan S.
Endless Poetry (Alejandro Jodorowsky)
Three years ago, Alejandro Jodorowsky returned to filmmaking for the first time since 1990 with his sumptuous autobiographic epic The Dance of Reality. Now the octogenarian’s second part of a planned five-part series — think the tales of Antoine Doinel on acid — heralds the madcap hippie director of El Topo and The Holy Mountain as a master of a deeply personal magic-realist genre, effortlessly moving as it is psychologically and artistically rich. – Rory O. (full review)
Félicité (Alain Gomis)
A wild and adventurous fourth feature from French-African director Alain Gomis, Félicité find ourselves in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, one of the world’s most dangerous places and a hard place in the best of times to make a living. Gomis, alongside cinematographer Céline Bozon, photograph the city as a wild, confused metropolis, unspooling over new-money concrete blocks, dirt tracks and a make-shift hazardous slums. It’s where Félicité, played with style and jazz by Congolese theatre actor Vero Tshanda Beya, works hand-to-mouth as a singer in raucous night clubs. The opening scene shows Félicité in full voice in a dive bar, where men drunkenly brawl and wads of notes are sent her way in reckless abandon, shot with an explosive energy. – Ed F. (full review)
God’s Own Country (Francis Lee)
God’s Own Country is an English film with critical and audience praise in equal measure. Somehow, this small production about gay European farmers with no name actors to tout has a life beyond the festival circuit. This is thanks, in no small part, to Francis Lee, the 48-year-old first-time feature-film director. With three shorts and a lifetime of screen and stage acting to his name, Lee depicts farmhand Gheorghe’s (Alec Secareanu) roughneck courting of an alcoholic farm owner’s son, Johnny (Josh O’Connor). Something you rarely see in popular film is the actual, at times brutal flirting among gay men. This film’s masculine pathos and the homophobia experienced by both leads is probably truer to life and a certainly less-glamorous experience of homosocial relations than, say, the wonderful but ever-polished Call Me by Your Name. – Josh E.
Gook (Justin Chon)
Winner of the Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival in the NEXT section where it premiered, Justin Chon’s Gook takes an intriguing perspective when it comes to depicting Los Angeles on April 29, 1992, when the Rodney King verdict was handed out and the riots began. “Warts and all, Gook serves as a perfect example (and reminder) of why the NEXT Section at Sundance is well worth exploring and reviewing and reacting to, perhaps more than any other slate,” Dan Mecca said in his review. “Chon has a vision and a voice and a good story to tell, full of social relevance and fiery emotion. Something this energetic and cared for is hard to criticize all that much. It’s a film worth seeking out and telling others about.” – Jordan R.
Graduation (Cristian Mungiu)
Despite winning Best Director at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, Cristian Mungiu’s approach in Graduation will feel safe to many already familiar with the Romanian New Wave, for which he broke major ground when winning the Palme d’Or with 2007’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. But look past the fact that, yes, this is another moral- and social-crisis drama consisting primarily of extended two-shot conversations and a knottier, more rewarding movie is waiting for you. Read my interview with the director here. – Nick N.
The Happiest Day In the Life of Olli Mäki (Juho Kuosmanen)
The Happiest Day In the Life of Olli Mäki is a boxing biopic that has no interest in the sport of boxing. Winner of the Un Certain Regard prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Juho Kuosmanen’s dryly funny, blissfully sweet, and deceptively absorbing work revels in Olli Mäki’s psychological surroundings as he contends with the strangeness of national promotion, the accruing pressures of competing, and a burgeoning romance that’s feeling more permanent than he expected. – Michael S. (full review)
Harmonium (Kôji Fukada)
Much of what tantalizes about the seemingly straightforward drama Harmonium is what makes it so difficult to describe. It is nominally a domestic drama, centering on a family whose normal middle-class existence as owners of a metal workshop is slowly, heartbreakingly upended by the arrival of Toshio’s old friend Yasaka (Tadanobu Asano). However, it holds more than a tinge of the thriller to it as well, and while the film never truly leaves its dramatic vein, writer-director Kôji Fukada’s skill is such that it moves around within this zone, assuming the quotidian and the suspenseful with shocking ease. – Ryan S. (full review)
Hermia & Helena (Matías Piñeiro)
For beginning with a dedication to Setsuko Hara, recently departed muse of Ozu and Naruse, Hermia & Helena — the new film by Viola and The Princess of France director Matías Piñeiro — perhaps aligns us to be especially attuned to the Argentinian auteur’s use of female collaborators. One to already emphasize the charisma and big-screen friendly faces of frequent stars Agustina Munoz and Maria Villar, he still seems to have an ability to make them points of representation, not fetish. – Ethan V. (full review)
Hounds of Love (Ben Young)
Premiering in the Venice Days section ahead of its 2017 Australian release, director Ben Young’s feature debut is the kind of film you wish you could un-see – except not really. Sure, its extended depictions of physical and psychological abuse will upset/offend many. At the same time, there’s no denying the level of craft and performance involved that probes human depravity so compellingly, you’re left with much more than just rattled nerves and a taste of bile. – Zhou-Ning Su (full review)
The Human Surge (Eduardo Williams)
One of the true sui generis films of 2017 and a whatsit in the best possible sense, The Human Surge is as quietly ambitious as any feature to emerge in the past few years. The directorial debut of Eduardo Williams, it uses three formats – 16mm, 16mm filming of Blackmagic projection, and RED digital – to capture life off the beaten path in Buenos Aires, Mozambique, and the Philippines. Constantly evolving and probing in immaculately choreographed extended tracking and static shots, Williams’s loose, almost documentarian method manages to capture something utterly ineffable about the technologically driven present. – Ryan S.
It Happened in L.A. (Michelle Morgan)
One of my favorite discoveries at this year’s Sundance Film Festival was Michelle Morgan’s It Happened in L.A. (then going by the SEO-unfriendly title L.A. Times). As writer, director, and star, her voice was among the most unique I saw at the festival, mixing Whit Stillman’s sensibilities with a Wes Anderson-esque visual approach to deliver a sweet, distinct romantic comedy. “In an age where the modus operandi of love-seeking is ever-changing, a film can feel immediately dated on its journey from script to screen, yet Morgan’s voice feels like one of the freshest on this particular topic in some time,” I said in my review. “Eschewing the insufferable nature of the bulk of today’s romantic comedies, It Happened in L.A. stands apart with striking style in its self-aware shallowness.” – Jordan R.
Kékszakállú (dir. Gastón Solnicki)
In a year somewhat short on groundbreakers from experimental cinema, Solnicki’s operatic, radically loose portrait of teens trapped in limbo stood out. The scenes, if they can be called that, are minutely styled and observed, wholly self-centered snippets of life unrelated to one another. The way they deny any attempts at reconstructing a narrative confounds and grates but somehow also mesmerizes and feels tremendously, inexplicably liberating. Composed with spellbinding exactitude, it’s best to just give oneself over to these 72 very strange minutes and be amazed by how even the cooking of an octopus can look so damn meaningful. – Zhuo-Ning Su
Kill Me Please (Anita Rocha da Silveira)
Following in a wave of cerebral psychological horror films such as The Witch, It Follows, and The Babadook, Anita Rocha da Silveira’s debut Kill Me Please is the latest art-horror film that’s concerned with the internal repercussions of trauma. But unlike that series of films, Kill Me Please may be more effectively identified as a film about the end of the world. – Michael S. (full review)
Landline (Gillian Robespierre)
Although it was marketed as an “abortion romantic comedy,” Obvious Child went beyond that basic moniker, using the set-up to mine humor from the fears and anxieties tied with such a personal decision. Writer-director Gillian Robespierre and star Jenny Slate have now reteamed in Landline, a 1995-set drama about the dysfunctional lives of one family in Manhattan. Refreshingly scraggly in its structure and plotting, with an enormous heart and affecting honesty permeating every scene, it marks an impressive step up for the duo. – Jordan R. (full review)
Lovesong (So Yong Kim)
Tender and haunting, So Yong Kim’s Lovesong is a carefully observed, nuanced character study beautifully written, directed and edited. Much of the action, like in her pervious features In Between Days, Treeless Mountain and For Ellen occurs at the edge of the frame. Exploring the bounds of motherhood, childhood and maturity, Lovesong is an impressive and observant feature in which Kim allows the relationships the breathing room they require for authenticity. – John F. (full review)
Marjorie Prime (Michael Almereyda)
Open up a dialogue with the past. Literally: talk to your dead husband, mother, wife. Tell them your stories, which are all you have of them now that they’re gone. Eventually, everyone’s a story. The stories, in turn, are a conversation. The memories are a chorus. Technology lets us pretend that the way of life is not so, that we don’t have to leave things unsaid. Within the world of Marjorie Prime, that technology is holographic AI. In our world, it is cinema. We can literalize our inner struggles so as to better understand ourselves. The future’s here; might as well be friendly with it. – Dan S.
Mimosas (Oliver Laxe)
A “religious western” is how Moroccan-based Spanish director Oliver Laxe describes his second film, Mimosas, winner of the top prize at Cannes’ Critics’ Week. It’s a spiritual, ambiguously plotted journey through the Atlas Mountains, and those willing to give in to its mystical embrace and gorgeous visuals should find it a sensual, engrossing watch. – Ed F. (full review)
Most Beautiful Island (Ana Asensio)
Winner of the top prize at South by Southwest Film Festival earlier this year. Jared Mobarak said in our review, “What makes Most Beautiful Island standout, however, is that it isn’t just about desperation. Whether Luciana survives the night pales in comparison to whether she can gain power in the process by peering behind the curtain of paradise’s lie. When you have nothing to lose, why not use your oppressors’ vices to your advantage?”
My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea (Dash Shaw)
Who amongst us has not wished for something like a snow day or a power outage that would get us out of school or work? As the title suggests, in My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, it’s the hard-hitting high school student journalists’ good fortunate that an entire high school sinks while they’re on the beat. Dash and Assaf (the voices of Jason Schwartzman and Reggie Watts, respectively) seek to expose their principal’s misdeeds as Tides High School has been built on a cliff, under a fault-line, and has just opened a new auditorium on the top of its senior floor. Not since Wayside School have civic engineers and architects have greater failed the American Education System. – John F. (full review)
My Happy Family (Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Groß)
One of the better dramas I saw at Sundance, this tale of separation was overlooked then and sadly seems to be getting no push from Netflix. Nonetheless, it’s (thankfully) now easily viewable, and we highly recommend doing so. “This evocation of space and atmosphere is the greatest strength of My Happy Family. Despite tracking a narrative that could be dismissed as being too familiar – a middle-aged woman finally finds happiness – the film manages a level of specificity and honesty that makes it feel like a truly original story, rather than a riff on an archetype,” we said in our review. – Jordan R.
Nocturama (Bertrand Bonello)
Here’s an elevator pitch: Nocturama is Robert Bresson’s The Devil, Probably in a homegrown-terrorist garb that substitutes transcendental style for the form of contemporary thrillers and music videos, all the while filtering a faux-intellectual’s anger through a consumer-culture criticism that, in its place and mood, most recalls George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. This almost sounds like an easy sell, notwithstanding the fact that this elevator ride would need to take us to a building’s higher floors. But for plumbing the depths of radicalized Parisian teens’ desires and actions less than a year after ISIL-led attacks shocked the globe, every ounce of appeal that his film might — and, I think, ultimately does — offer can’t prevent writer-director Bertrand Bonello from being a victim of poor timing. Timing is so relative, though; doubly so when his is a picture that grows (some might go the cancerous route and say metastasizes) in days and weeks after being seen, the kind that feels at once explicitly of its moment and vaguely outside of any temporal trappings. – Nick N. (full review)
Novitiate (Maggie Betts)
Written and directed by Maggie Betts, Novitiate is a rare behind-the-scenes look in a pre-Vatican II (1962) convent in the 1950s and 60s at a time of extreme social change. The equally harrowing and frank Novitiate, like Martin Scorsese’s Silence, is about the dangerous consequences and ends in which those that have heard the calling are willing to go. The drama traces the journey of Sister Cathleen, played in a star-making turn by Margaret Qualley (The Nice Guys), an America teen from a troubled family who attends Catholic school and becomes enchanted by the notion of an otherworldly love. – John F. (full review)
On the Beach at Night Alone (Hong Sang-soo)
The impulse is to say Hong Sang-soo, teller of small-scale stories produced with means to match, won’t reach a wide audience, and that this is a foregone conclusion: unless your Korean film has a violence-soaked revenge angle and the distributor’s signed a streaming deal with Netflix, good luck getting it seen. Those factors and its place on this list (because, yes, this wasn’t going to be a huge box-office hit) in mind, On the Beach at Night Alone nevertheless continues a recent renaissance-of-sorts for the master chronicler of personal romantic follies — and though it might have taken a public romantic folly with his lead actress for the profile to rise a bit, it also gave way to what’s perhaps his most autobiographical film. (“Perhaps” because we only know what we’ve read in the Korean tabloids, who ate this up like starving dogs; some mystery remains.) It’s that actress, Kim Min-hee, whose feelings of heartbreak, regret, and anger — often all three simultaneously — hurtle the picture forward, her confrontation with the man (stand-in?) who brought things to this point proving an emotional combustion unlike anything Hong has staged, and maybe unlike anything he could’ve staged until now. – Nick N.
The Ornithologist (João Pedro Rodrigues)
Publicly stated by its director to concern Saint Anthony, the Portuguese priest and friar who legend calls the most supernatural of saints, The Ornithologist luckily manages to see the profane outweigh the sacred — no white elephantine “spirituality,” but rather a progression of set-pieces. We have something of a return for João Pedro Rodrigues to his debut feature Fantasma, a nocturnal “erotic thriller” of sorts that moved by the logic of its own images, this in opposition to more character-driven films such as Two Drifters and To Die Like a Man or his most recent The Last Time I Saw Macao, a tad too much an academic exercise in mirroring post-colonialism through a deadpan “non-mystery.” – Ethan V. (full review)
Our Time Will Come (Ann Hui)
In an early scene in Hong Kong New Wave pioneer Ann Hui’s historical war drama Our Time Will Come, a Chinese rebel accidentally drops a live grenade in the middle of a large crowd of civilians. A brief moment of chaos ensues as everyone ducks for cover; bullets are exchanged, tables and chairs are thrown up and ducked behind — and then quiet. They wait and wait, nothing happens, and the rebels get up and leave. If it wasn’t obvious up until then, this confirms Hui’s stiflingly quiet approach to World War II, a setting and a genre of film that generally characterizes itself with loudness and overblown heroics. The film, like its characters — civilians-turned-spies who must carry themselves as if nothing were wrong — exudes delicateness. The two most common words in the film, “Xiao Xin” — which translates to “Be Careful!” — become a formality, repeated incessantly in hushed whispers. – Jason O. (full review)
The Other Side of Hope (Aki Kaurismäki)
The Other Side of Hope is an offbeat comedy with an oddball cast of characters that’s also a commentary on the Syrian refugee crisis — so it’s not all too surprising its understated charms have yet to find their way to a wider audience. Khaled (Sherwan Haji) managed to flee a war-torn Syria with his sister but was separated from her as they crossed borders. Now in Helsinki, Khaled forges an unlikely bond with a shrewd middle-aged salesman-turned-restaurateur, Waldemar Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen), in effort to find his sister and attempt to peacefully get by in a Finland that’s simultaneously welcoming, with its wonderfully strange rockabilly street musicians, and antagonistic, with bands of violent white nationalists skulking around at night. Leave it to Finland’s working-class bard, Aki Kaurismäki, to tell a story with such intuitive nuance that all the deadpan wit and painstaking attention paid to navigating the arduous bureaucratic process of seeking asylum accumulate into a poignant fusion of melancholy and tireless ambition: a bittersweet ballad for Syria’s displaced, critiquing Finland’s response to the crisis and urging their acknowledgement. – Kyle P.
Paris 05:59: Théo & Hugo (Jacques Martineau and Olivier Ducastel)
Linklater’s films are clearly a precursor here, but perhaps Andrew Haigh’s Weekend is a closer relative. Haigh’s debut really nailed the insecurities of discovering a lover’s idiosyncrasies and flaws, those that grate and those that charm. Paris 05:59 manages to capture that as well, and in doing so creates a sense of ambiguity as to whether any sort of love between the men can last. As the English title suggests, time is also a vital character. With their youth in such jeopardy, their shared trauma raises the stakes for their relationship and adds a good helping of spice, an anxiety that is heightened by the fact that the film plays out in real time. The director ends each act by overlaying the image with a large digital clock as a reminder. – Rory O. (full review)
Person to Person (Dustin Guy Defa)
Any well-reasoned film viewer reached their saturation point for New York-set indie comedies by, say, 2012 — consider Lola Versus the Nagasaki to New York, I Love You‘s Hiroshima — though it’s best, at day’s end, not to burden Person to Person with qualifiers. The strengths are wholly unique: it, like many in the above-mentioned class, was shot on 16mm, but with an autumnal, timeless quality rather than an attempt at grit and girt; it concerns an ensemble, but doesn’t feel a need to cross every strand in some attempt at tapestry; and its plentiful microscopic scenarios never work in disregard to something larger, something more macroscopic — maybe nothing as mysterious as the fulfillment of a complete endeavor. And it’s knee-slappingly funny! How nice when movies are so. – Nick N.
Pop Aye (Kirsten Tan)
While much attention has currently (and rightfully) been drawn toward Bong Joon Ho’s Okja within the realm of human-and-beast cinema, Kirsten Tan’s Pop Aye is a worthy companion. Intimately canvassed and drawn with raw etchings of humanity and human error, Tan’s film is both a road movie and a buddy film, a familial drama and a study of the ever-evolving, industrialized landscapes where not everyone fits in. Through her insistent gaze on the human (and non-human) figures at its center, Tan never forgets why this story is being told. This focus makes Pop Aye a film that is heartwarming in its human-to-animal gaze, and yet crushing in its understanding of a human’s flaws. – Mike M. (full review)
Prevenge (Alice Lowe)
Veering between dark comedy and somber drama is a flavor of the times in indie film, but Prevenge puts a new spin on this, tying those emotional shifts more directly to the mindset of its lead character than any other movie of its ilk has yet. That’s because the lead is heavily pregnant. Combine that with serial killing, and the stage is set for an agreeably bloody-minded oddball of a film. – Dan S. (full review)
Princess Cyd (Stephen Cone)
Full-hearted loveliness was in short supply this year, and perhaps its greatest provider came in the form of Princess Cyd, a film about a teenager visiting her aunt, which is equally about the ways they both change each other over the course of a few weeks. At once quotidian and lingering, immensely kind-hearted and sobering, it uses its balance of queerness and implied spirituality to invigorating effect. Its universal acceptance of all is rendered exquisitely and without a trace of obviousness: Stephen Cone’s film simply exists, and does so with an ineffable vitality. – Ryan S.
Slack Bay (Bruno Dumont)
Following his epic drama Li’l Quinquin — to which he is currently prepping a sequel — director Bruno Dumont returned to last year’s Cannes with Slack Bay, a dark period comedy following an investigation into a series of mysterious disappearances on the beaches of northern France led by his Camille Claudel star Juliette Binoche, Fabrice Luchini, and Valeria Bruni Tedeschi. Our review from Cannes last year was mixed, but entering the world of Dumont is an experience to cherish. – Jordan R.
Song to Song (Terrence Malick)
The films of Terrence Malick tend to produce remarkably polarizing responses, especially his later, post-Thin Red Line output. Regardless of where you stand on the increasingly unconventional work of the 74-year-old Texan, he continues to mine the philosophical and theological depths of the human soul unlike anyone working in modern American cinema, and with the vigor of an artist half his age. Song to Song lunges headfirst into the intoxicating allure of the Austin music scene as it traces the turbulent, interweaving professional and romantic lives of some of its members as they roll and tumble over the span of however-many years. With the help of various long-time collaborators such as Emmanuel Lubezki and Jack Fisk, Malick further affirms his status as one of America’s greatest living filmmakers by weaving a biblical tapestry that places the new Garden of Eden in Texas and uses this allegorical premise to explore the vagaries of modern love. – Kyle P.
The Son of Joseph (Eugène Green)
Eugène Green’s penchant for mannered performances and shooting in intimate, face-forward close-ups is wedded beautifully to the religious overtones of The Son of Joseph, a comedy about a boy trying to find his father that slowly transforms into a lovingly crafted drama about the formation of families. That the superb satire of the publishing world in the first half and the tender friendship that develops between father figure and son in the second cohere at all is wonderful, but that they weave back together to form one of the most gorgeous finales this year is something else entirely. – Ryan S.
Staying Vertical (Alain Guiraudie)
Those only familiar with Alain Guiraudie’s sublime Stranger By the Lake, which finally brought the gifted French director to a (relatively) wider audience following a laureled Un Certain Regard premiere in 2013, will likely find themselves confounded by its follow-up, Staying Vertical. With his first entry in Cannes’ main competition, Guiraudie returns to the psychoanalytic mode of the features preceding Stranger, where he gradually and stealthily eroded the boundary between reality and fantasy to probe the complexities of human desire — particularly of the sexual kind — exposing the stifling effects of social norms and conventions to thoroughly bewildering results. – Giovanni M.C. (full review)
Super Dark Times (Kevin Phillips)
Set in an familiar and ambiguous time and place (mid-90s in anytown USA), Super Dark Times functions as a kind of trojan house until its twist. Delivering horror thrills, the Kevin Phillips-directed feature first and foremost invests in character development as an effective and sympathetic coming-of-age story until it lives up to its title. We follow four friends Zach (Owen Campbell), Josh (Charlie Tahan), Daryl (Max Talisman), and Charlie (Sawyer Barth) as they have mild, seemingly innocent adventures: watching scrambled pay-per-view softcore porn, playing 8-bit video games, biking over an abandoned bridge, and ultimately stealing from Josh’s brother. The last part doesn’t end well and it is impossible to discuss the film without spoiling the twist. – John F. (full review)
Sylvio (Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney)
Vine fad “Simply Sylvio” and its film adaptation — more plainly titled Sylvio — by directors Albert Birney and Kentucker Audley offer a tense amalgamation of lowbrow sensibilities and highbrow execution, which the anthropomorphic gorilla then beats into submission. In a film about dualities, it makes sense for Sylvio to tread lightly despite its loud premise, concerning the budding relationship between aspiring talk-show host Al Reynolds and the eponymous gorilla, as well as their fame, derived from the success of a recurring segment on the show in which Sylvio goes bananas by breaking stuff on-screen. – Jason O. (full review)
Thirst Street (Nathan Silver)
One of the more delectable films of the year, Thirst Street wrings a great deal of pleasure from its willingness to plunge into its protagonist, an American flight attendant relocated to Paris, and the total obsession she develops with a hunky bartender. Luridly shot by Sean Price Williams (one of three excellent titles he lensed this year), marked by arch narration by Anjelica Huston, and cut together with some astonishingly intuitive editing by Hugo Lemant and The Mend director John Magary, Nathan Silver’s film is a fleet, disturbing, and sensual experience. – Ryan S.
Tramps (Adam Leon)
The romantic comedy formula is one that can’t help but become redundant in premise. How many different scenarios are there for two people to converge? Even so, Adam Leon may have found a new one with his meet-cute during a dead-drop gone wrong called Tramps. It should have been a painless exchange: Ellie (Grace Van Patten) picks up Danny (Callum Turner), they retrieve a briefcase with unknown contents, and deliver said case to a woman with a green purse at the train station. She may have second thoughts and he may be pinch-hitting for brother Darren (Michal Vondel) who’s currently in jail, but how could anyone screw this up? – Jared M. (full review)
Una (Benedict Andrews)
“It’s a long story.” So says Una, a young woman with a going-nowhere office job and an emotionally devastated past, when asked about her relationship with Peter — the man she knew as Ray. Indeed it is a long story — a morally complex and cruelly realistic one, too. The debut feature from theater veteran Benedict Andrews, Una is an astonishing success. Anchored by two exhilarating performances from Rooney Mara and Ben Mendelsohn, the film is also harsh, moving, and extraordinarily riveting, one of the more unsettling works to play the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival and undoubtedly among the most provocative. – Christopher S. (full review)
The Untamed (Amat Escalante)
There’s something dark and wonderful lurking in The Untamed, the brilliant, frightening, hyper-real erotic mystery from the mind of Mexican auteur Amat Escalante, whose Heli ruffled more than a few feathers in Cannes a few years back. Is the 37-year-old merely a provocateur? On the evidence of his latest film, he is clearly not. The plotline of a strange extraterrestrial being that lurks in the woods granting ultimate pleasure sounds like a schlocky drive-in science fiction flick, but the director heightens things immeasurably by expertly cultivating the visceral, aesthetic nowhere of a drug trip, as if the characters involved (and perhaps the viewer) are participating in some sort of communal high. – Rory O. (full review)
The Woman Who Left (Lav Diaz)
Lav Diaz’s Golden Lion winner from this year’s Venice Film Festival feels like something of a surprise because, for all its extended shots, luminous black-and-white photography, and socio-historical weight, The Woman Who Left is ultimately an unostentatious work. Compared to, say, Norte, The End of History’s remarkably grim ending, with its reaches into fantasy / metaphysics (don’t forget that Tarkovsky-esque levitation), there doesn’t seem to be quite the same need to impress or belabor the point. – Ethan V. (full review)
Continue: The Film Stage’s Top 50 Films of 2017