These movies didn’t blow up at the box office, but you definitely should seek them out.
You probably saw all the big superhero films this year. You probably also saw Star Wars. And that’s great! There’s nothing wrong with seeing the biggest films of the year. But there were plenty of smaller gems that somehow fell by the wayside this year whether it was due to a lack of marketing, bad buzz, or just being unable to breakthrough next to bigger movies. But it would be a shame for these movies to get lost in the shuffle.
Although there are probably still some big movies you’re still aiming to see, be sure to add these great 2017 titles to your watchlist.
Brigsby Bear is an absolute delight even though the premise is ridiculously dark. Kyle Mooney (who also co-wrote the script) stars as a man who was kidnapped as a boy and raised to believe A) the outside world was irradiated so he couldn’t leave his family’s bunker; and B) there was a TV show called ‘Brigsby Bear’. When he learns that he was kidnapped and that Brigsby Bear was just for him, he sets out to cope with the trauma by making a Brigsby Bear movie. Rather than succumb to darkness, the film shows creativity as a refuge and an escape. – Matt Goldberg
Alcoholics can be real monsters. Delightfully goofy but ever anchored by fearless emotional truth, Colossal stars Anne Hathaway as an unemployed alcoholic forced to return to her hometown where reunites with a childhood friend (Jason Sudeikis in a hell of an underrated performance) and she realizes she shares an inexplicable connection with a giant monster terrorizing Seoul, Korea. Timecrimes director Nacho Vigalondo shakes up the Kaiju genre with this gleefully offbeat entry, which defies easy categorization as a comedy/drama/thriller/monster movie/empowerment tale. Colossal‘s clever investigation of addiction is matched by an unexpected, equally unusual spin on toxic masculinity, and the film tackles touchy subjects with a cheeky grin that sometimes transitions into a knowing survivor’s grimace. It’s a strange, stirring brew that goes down like a shot of sincerity with an irony chaser. — Haleigh Foutch
The director Bill Morrison utilized a treasure trove of footage at the Dawson City Film Fund to create this wondrous experimental documentary. The glut of the movie is made up of passages from films we will likely never seen in full, only rescued in snippets after poor storage and preservation standards led to them being essentially destroyed. Others burned up, as is the inherent danger of shooting anything on nitrate. The volatility of the format itself informs Morrison’s view of history, which he traces from the Gold Rush to the early 1930s. The filmmaker delights in plumbing the historical and geographical details of Dawson’s rise and financial downturn, strewn with a bevy of stories that lay the bedrock of Hollywood’s salad days in the 1920s, but Dawson City: Frozen Time pushes further. In assembling footage of these thought-lost movies, some by early female filmmakers, Morrison suggests an alternative history in which these people influenced early Hollywood and were discussed with similar fervor as early silent American masterpieces. He also, perhaps inadvertently, presents a striking argument for cinema being an all-too-important reflection of society and political structures that can themselves help shape and influence culture. Few movies this year felt so sensationally alluring, even hours after the movie itself finished. — Chris Cabin
We take Jake Gyllenhaal for granted. From to Zodiac to Nightcrawler to Enemy, the guy is clearly one of the best performers of his generation, but he also takes ambitious swings. On the surface, Stronger may seem like a pretty by-the-numbers true story drama. Gyllenhaal plays Boston Marathon bombing survivor Jeff Bauman, who was attending the race in support of his on-again/off-again girlfriend, and whose life was forever changed. In practice, Stronger is anything but predictable. Director David Gordon Green crafts a film that forces us to consider what it truly means to be labeled a hero simply for surviving a horrific event, which leads to a permanent and debilitating change to your way of life. The film never preaches, never strikes a false note, and while it confronts uncomfortable truths it’s also extremely respectful to its real-life subjects. Moreover, Gyllenhaal delivers one of the best performances of his career, and Tatiana Maslany is terrific in the emotionally complex role of Jeff’s girlfriend. If you dismissed this one as cliché or rote, please know it’s anything but. – Adam Chitwood
I’m still kind of baffled this movie didn’t do better. It’s firmly in the vein of the Ocean’s movies—it’s hilarious, it’s fun, and it’s clever. It’s one of the easiest recommendations I made all year, and it’s a movie I intend to keep in constant rotation in the same way I do with Ocean’s Eleven. The cast is outstanding, Daniel Craig gets the rare great movie where he isn’t playing James Bond, and it never panders to its characters. It also features the best Game of Thrones joke of all time. — Matt Goldberg
Visions of the post-apocalypse are a dime a dozen these days, but few tend to their characters so intimately and honestly as Stephen Fingleton’s quiet drama The Survivalist. Martin McCann stars as the titular survivalist, who fights tooth and nail to carve out a remote piece of land for hiamself in a world gone off the rails. Vulnerable to man’s cruelty and nature’s whims, the nameless survivor barely has a grip on his life of solitude when a starving, cunning mother-daughter duo (played by Mia Goth and a striking Olwen Fouere) arrive at his doorstep begging for food and shelter. The dance of desperation, distrust, and betrayal that follows dire but utterly fascinating as the trio forms uneasy alliances, growing together and breaking apart as circumstance dictates. The Survivalist is dire and stripped down to its very bones, but the slow-burn pacing pays off in spades with gripping interpersonal drama and unyielding uneasy tension, strung tight like a piano wire until the end credits finally give you permission to breathe. — Haleigh Foutch
The grizzled and sublime rejoinder to Southland Tales that we never thought we’d get, Ana Lily Amirpour’s The Bad Batch immediately takes its place in the upper echelons of the swelling subgenre of dystopia films. At the center of Amirpour’s maelstrom is Arien (Suki Waterhouse), who is processed out of society and dropped into the wastelands of fenced-off Texas, tattooed with a government-collected number and effectively left for dead. She comes close when she is kidnapped and dismembered for nourishing meat by a pack of cannibals, anchored by a group of muscle men, most prominently represented by Miami Man (Jason Momoa). From there, Arien finds a home in Comfort, a community run around a sex cult, led by the gloriously mustached The Dream (Keanu Reeves), and to say anything else would to ruin the visceral thrill of seeing Amirpour’s vision unfold. The script takes us from the brutal images of captives being cleaved for a good protein source to a cosmic trip that brings Miami Man and Arien together, and Amirpour indulges a daring and dark sense of humor, such as when Momoa chugs down a can of Jizzy Fizz or when Jim Carrey’s wise hobo demands a portrait from Miami Man.
There are plenty of risky moments and not all of them land, but what comes through consistently is Amirpour’s bold and confident vision of a not-so-unimaginable Hellworld, stylishly and confidently building on what she boasted in her stunning debut, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. Much like Richard Kelly’s aforementioned criminally misunderstood sophomore feature, The Bad Batch has already been dismissed as a lesser work compared to such an auspicious breakout, but it’s a far more skeptical and unsettling work than its predecessor. That it’s also a major advancement in Amirpour’s style seems like a minor accomplishment when one considers just how enthralling The Bad Batch is minute-to-minute. — Chris Cabin
Eff all y’all, this movie is a blast. I’ll be honest, I was not looking forward to King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. It looked gritty and self-serious, but I loved Guy Ritchie’s sexy, delightful spin on The Man from U.N.C.L.E. so I was willing to give King Arthur a shot and I’m glad I did. The film itself is anything but serious—it literally opens with Eric Bana pulling a Yoshi jump with a horse and murdering a warlock. The whole film moves at a thrilling pace, covering traditional exposition in unique ways and buoyed by Daniel Pemberton’s pulsing, rousing score. Charlie Hunnam plays Arthur with swagger, and Jude Law chews the scenery as the tortured Vortigern. Is King Arthur high cinema? Not really. But in an era where blockbusters suffer from stale sameness, following well-worn paths, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is more than a breath of fresh air—it’s a swift punch in the face. – Adam Chitwood
I’m also a little surprised this didn’t do better considering the popularity of Wonder Woman. Perhaps it was a failure of marketing to try and coast solely on Wonder Woman, and they should have played up the kink and sexiness even though Angela Robinson’s film never feels exploitative. It’s a movie about sex, but without the ickiness of the male gaze, and that makes for a more thoughtful, powerful experience. Also, if this movie had found the success it deserved, Rebecca Hall would be a lock for an Oscar nomination. – Matt Goldberg
The Transfiguration proves that self-aware horror doesn’t have to be snarky — it can use the tropes and traditions of the genre to unfurl a tragic tale that takes itself completely seriously. The feature debut from writer/director Michael O’Shea follows a troubled teen, Milo (Eric Ruffin), who is fascinated with vampire lore and discovers a deadly thirst inside himself. Trapped in the projects with only his depression paralyzed older brother to care for him, Milo escapes into his world of dark desires. O’Shea lays Milo’s violence bare for all its horror, but carefully sidesteps judgement or definitive answers. Is this a boy driven to violent deeds by circumstance or an ungodly paranormal bloodlust? O’Shea lays enough track for you to decide, but wherever you fall, Milo’s tale is a striking tragedy about cyclical violence and discarded youth that rattles the spirit with brutality and honesty in equal measure. — Haleigh Foutch
Though Bong Joon-ho and Park Chan-wook have developed more support with mainstream audiences, Hong Sang-soo is inarguably the golden child of the South Korean New Wave. Prolific, perceptive, and often wildly funny, Sang-soo’s movies are often deceptively similar in subject matter – a director’s troubled romantic pasts is often at the center – but the details and the perspective are mercurial and surprising. All of this is true of On the Beach at Night Alone, one of his best films to date, which traces the aftermath of a famed actress’s scandalous relationship with an older, married filmmaker and mentor. Where Sang-soo’s other films have consistently returned to feelings of bitterness, anxiety, indecision, and cowardice, often funneled through numerous drunken nights, On the Beach Alone at Night is rattling in its irreconcilable anger. The young actress, played with thrilling directness and fury by Kim Min-hee, spends much of the movie reflecting on her own guilt-ridden fame and the relationship, a series of encounters and flashes of solitude echoing the fallout of Min-hee and Sang-soo’s real-life, highly publicized relationship. Sang-soo uses a minimal, eloquently lonesome style that recalls the darkest passages of Eric Rohmer’s work, but his eye for modernsocietal and behavioral rhythms in conversations grounds this stark yet luminous film in the tumultuous now. – Chris Cabin
When news of the Disney-Fox merger broke, one film that came to mind as the kind of movie a Disney-owned Fox may no longer make is A Cure for Wellness. The studio gave visionary filmmaker Gore Verbinski $40 million to make a nearly two-and-a-half-hour Gothic horror psychological thriller, with a dash of old-fashioned monster movie thrown in for good measure. It’s an absolutely gorgeous, hallucinatory effort, and the kind of film that doesn’t get made too often. Verbinski runs wild in genre territory here, drawing out tension with strikingly unique visuals and dizzying production design, not to mention a swell Dane DeHaan performance as a businessman falling further and further down a rabbit hole. A Cure for Wellness is not for everyone, but it is delightfully, certifiably insane. And I am so, so glad it exists. – Adam Chitwood
Ben Wheatley’s most accessible movie to date by far, Free Fire pulls a Mad Max: Fury Road and turns a single action set-piece into a feature length fiasco. As the title suggests, Free Fire is all about one giant, fucked up shoot out after an arms deal goes all wrong. Set almost entirely within the walls of a dingy, disgusting warehouse, Free Fire soars on the chemistry of its knockout cast, which includes Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, Cillian Murphy and Sharlto Copley in standout roles. As the bullets fly, the wild cast of characters try to sleaze or sweet talk their way out of mutually assured destruction, always with a hail of firepower railing down on them. Tense and thrilling, with Wheatley’s signature wicked humor, Free Fire’s 85-minute runtime that keeps the film zipping along even as its characters are pinned down at the spot. — Haleigh Foutch
A uniquely ambitious coming-of-age tale that doubles as a crackling psychological thriller. Best friends Zach and Josh (Owen Campbell and Charlie Tahan, both excellent) are still wrestling with the sexual frustration and hunger for dominance of adolescence when they witness and arguably enable the death of an admittedly disturbing mutual friend. The inner tremors that come after the death begin to break through the surface as the movie goes on, souring the intimate discoveries of Zach’s romance with Allison (Elizabeth Cappuccino) and giving depth to Josh’s lack of empathy and thirst for power. No fair spoiling where this all ends up but director Kevin Phillips, working from a haunting script by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski, makes a bold entrance as a stylist and a visual storyteller with his debut film. It may not be as polished as Beach Rats or Call Me By Your Name but its vision of sexual discovery and the dramatic entanglements that go into coming-of-age is no less lively. – Chris Cabin
At the center of Eliza Hittman’s extraordinarily moving sophomore feature is Frankie (Harris Dickinson), a buff teenager who spends his days and evenings chasing girls like Simone (Madeline Weinstein), who eventually becomes his girlfriend. At night, however, Frankie cruises video chat sites for willing and ready gay men who he talks to and regularly meets up with for late-hours sex in the wooded areas or beaches of Brooklyn. Obfuscation is a motif that Hittman returns to often in Beach Rats and the absence of talk from Frankie about his hidden desires lays out a sprawling system of lies and self-deceptions that fuel his very existence. Beach Rats is a tragedy of sorts, as Frankie imprisons and prods his true self in the hopes of maintaining acceptance from mostly despicable people. With her second feature, Hittman isn’t plumbing her own sexual becoming, as she did in It Felt Like Love, but the tremulous feeling for unbridled, unspeakable desire and endless empathy that coursed through that film feels just as alive and piercing here in slightly less personal territory. – Chris Cabin
The best science-fiction movie of the year (unless you count Get Out) is also the most understated. Director Michael Almerayda has often made the vagaries of memory central to his films, from modernized Shakespeare adaptations to unconventional biopics, most notably in his 2014 wonder Experimenter. Marjorie Prime, which follows a family’s interactions with futuristic holograms of passed-away loved ones that incorporate memories into their programming, brings it to the forefront and reckons with how technology will aid memory, even as it essentially wipes out the need for memories. Heavy stuff, to be sure, but Almerayda’s great talent is remaining both cerebral and warm-blooded, toying with grand, universal ideas while not losing sight of the unkempt human spirit and its sentimental pitfalls. Working from Almerayda’s adaptation of Jordan Harrison’s play of the same name, Lois Smith gives one of her best performance to date as Marjorie, who we meet getting used to the “prime” of her late husband, played by Jon Hamm, while both Tim Robbins and Geena Davis subtly express years of bitterness, exhaustion, and depression as Marjorie’s daughter and son-in-law. Under Almerayda’s direction, much of the special confines of the original stage setting remain and yet the movie feels boundless in its concepts and implications on the state of technology and how its rapid advances may change how we relate to the end of life, such as it is. – Chris Cabin
An instant confirmation that director S. Craig Zahler has the same rattling, thoughtful taste for violence, poverty, and the aftermath of criminal life as John Carpenter, if not his imagination necessarily. After toying with cannibalism and capitalism in Bone Tomahawk, Zahler takes another look at how money sculpts American life and civility in Brawl in Cell Block 99, a rousing, rough-hewn and brutal slow-burner. At the center of the film is Vince Vaughn’s towering Bradley Thomas, a former drug-runner who is forced to kill his way through high-security prisons to end up in an abusive hellhole where he is tasked with executing an imprisoned drug kingpin to save his wife and child. Zahler depicts life for an ex-con like Bradley as an existence ruled solely by survival and protection, forced into a job in the illegal drug trade when his tow-truck driver and mechanic position goes up in smoke. Zahler echoes this bleak outlook in his no-frills style but Zahler isn’t shooting for plot alone. His compositions are thoughtful and his work with Vaughn, who has never been this good, betray Zahler as a rare attentive, soulful filmmaker working in the realm of blood and guts. With ample help from a dedicated cast, including Don Johnson and Jennifer Carpenter, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a thrilling throwback to noir-tinged B-movies and yet is built on matters of money and criminal justice that speak directly to 2017. – Chris Cabin
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Best Movies You May Have Missed in 2017 – Collider
These movies didn’t blow up at the box office, but you definitely should seek them out.