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(Welcome to The Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, a series that takes a look at slightly more obscure, under-the-radar, or simply under-appreciated movies. In this edition, we take a look at some of the best films of 2017 that didn’t make a critical splash, earned next to nothing at the box-office, and aren’t even being touted as among the year’s most underrated.)
2017, like many of the years before it, has been a pretty great time at the movies. You’re reading a movie site so that isn’t news to you, but while the other writers here focus on the best films of the year, the most successful, the most underrated, and the ones with the most gif-able dance sequences, my job remains the same – highlight the good to great ones that have slipped under the radar and deserve more attention. This column typically looks at movies from years and decades past, but this time I’m focusing on those released over the last twelve months with little fanfare and even smaller reaction.
Keep reading for a look at six of the best 2017 movies that you probably haven’t seen.
Three young friends fill their days with daydreams, pranks, and imaginative outbursts, but they find that even fun has its limits when they bail on school to go wander a long-abandoned studio lot. Props and sound stages litter the area, but something is amiss. The deserted landscape isn’t exactly empty, a creepily-masked figure drives into view, and a bound, gagged, and terrified woman is trapped in his trunk.
Picture an Amblin Entertainment movie meets a hard R-rated horror film, and you’ll have an idea what to expect here. There’s a playful sensibility to the three kids, each of them average and aimless little punks, and the thought of exploring an empty studio is an enviable experience for any now-grown movie lover. When the horror kicks in it does so swiftly and brutally, and the bloody violence is cringe-worthy and wet. There’s tension and suspense to spare, and the third act ramps up the intensity taking things further than you might expect for a teen-oriented tale.
At the risk of being labeled a cheater, this first entry isn’t even a 2017 release. I’m sorry. It’s a French horror thriller from 2014 that for whatever reason didn’t reach U.S. shores (outside of film festivals) until earlier this year when it premiered on the Shudder streaming service. The delay’s an odd one as it’s from writers/directors Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury, the duo behind the gory 2007 breakout hit, Inside. Even stranger, the same thing happened to their second film, 2011’s Livid, which still hasn’t been released in the U.S. But hey, at least their Leatherface reboot is widely available on Blu-ray.
Watch Among the Living on Amazon via Shudder.
A young couple on vacation in Iceland awake one morning to discover they’re all alone. Their hotel is empty, the small city appears deserted, and attempts to reach family back home go unanswered. As the days pass their efforts to find answers raise questions about their situation, their beliefs, and their chances of survival in an empty world.
This meditative feature is one part Icelandic tourism video, one part extended Twilight Zone episode, and one part existential exploration of our core beliefs and truths. It’s a beautifully-filmed look at personal themes both important and uncomfortable, and the end result is a film that resembles an engaging dream every bit as much as it does a harrowing nightmare. The film moves at a very deliberate pace, and its interest in human revelations over narrative ones might test some viewers, but the journey is well worth the patience required.
Maika Monroe (It Follows) and Matt O’Leary (Live Free or Die Hard) anchor the film as the only characters on screen for most of its running time, and they make it easy to buy into their relationship and the diverging reactions to the world they find themselves in. While the story and characters hold viewers rapt, they’re competing with the stunningly gorgeous Icelandic landscape which paints a breathtaking backdrop for the unfolding mystery and drama. The destination may not be everyone’s speed, but no one will be complaining about the view.
Buy Bokeh on DVD from Amazon or rent via Amazon Video.
It’s Halloween night in late ’90s Australia, and as younger kids go house to house in search of free candy, the older teens go searching for something less tangible. One of them finds just that after crossing paths with a boy he used to consider a friend. Paths diverged, and while Corey grew more popular and assured Jonah became a target. The two reconnect while walking among the jack-o-lantern-lit streets, but memories of their youth haunt their reminiscing.
Like the French film at the top of the list, this Australian import actually released prior to 2017, but it premiered in North America this year so it counts. I said it counts! The film released quietly on Netflix, and while it deserves more eyeballs, it’s perhaps fitting for such a hushed tale. The film’s trappings, and to an extent its marketing, reveal a terrifically-crafted Halloween atmosphere with the sights and smells of Fall drifting from the screen and into our senses. It succeeds beautifully in transporting viewers into a specific time and place, and for many of us it will be a reflection into our own youth.
The core narrative feels a bit like a YA Twilight Zone, but the emotions it mines are ones felt long into adulthood. The loss of innocence, guilt over past actions, and the sadness that comes with realized regret all play into the drama of two friends traversing what was and what could have been. There’s a dark beauty here and an even darker anguish, but while surface details offer the sheen of horror the substance beneath is pure humanity.
Watch Boys In the Trees on Netflix.
A powerful CEO sees his life shattered when his young fiance is killed. Worse, it appears to have happened at the hands of his own teenage daughter. Furious at the possibility, but determined to protect the only family he has left, he heads to court where a devastating truth is awaiting discovery.
Choi Min-sik is always worth watching, and while his latest lacks the dark stylings of Oldboy or I Saw the Devil, he’s every bit as strong in this more traditionally dramatic tale. He plays a father trying desperately to protect his daughter while struggling with the possibility of her guilt, and delivers a performance that walks a firm line between intimidation and suffering. Choi’s sincerity is clear throughout, and he anchors the twisty narrative with a recognizable drive and an undeniable love.
As familiar as its structure may feel at times it actually finds some surprises along the way. Side characters and sub-plots come into play, and the film devotes plenty of time to the ups and downs of the girl’s trial. Viewers shouldn’t grow too complacent, though, as even when it’s over it’s not actually over – the story continues in some smart ways.
Heart Blackened is not currently available, but keep your eyes open.
A young comedian still looking for a break returns home to Austin, Texas for personal reasons, only to find plenty of fodder for her act. The situation sees her staying with her ex-boyfriend – and his new girlfriend – and it’s just one more struggle making up her lot in life.
Noël Wells writes, directs, and stars in this delightful and very funny film, and while she’s been plenty visible in recent years – most notably as Aziz Ansari’s love interest in the first season of Master of None – she makes her presence and talent immediately known as one belonging on the big screen. She’s quirky without being obnoxious about it, she’s hilarious without being a litany of punchlines, and the pain she feels is recognizable to anyone who’s ever stopped to wonder just what the hell they’re doing with their life.
The film follows the indie tradition of young people returning home to discover truths about themselves, but it distinguishes itself through more than just the presence of a female lead. It’s smarter than many of its contemporaries and more honest in the lessons learned and answers provided. More precisely, those answers are in short supply.
Rent Mr. Roosevelt via Amazon Video.
Four friends playing on a brisk Autumn day see their lives upended by an accident, and it only gets worse as they attempt to hide what happened from the world. Knowledge is a dangerous thing, though, and each of the three remaining teens handle the truth in different ways.
This is a deceptively affecting drama that suggests John Hughes on a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day, and it works like gangbusters at capturing the fierce clash of confidence and concern that is our teenage years. The focus here is on two of the boys, friends since they were young children, and we watch as that bond is tested by the familiar pull of girls and maturity as well as the dangerous grip of their shared secret.
Beautifully shot and smartly acted, the film knows and understands teenage boys from their desires to their fears. The two move in differing directions, and it’s in this split where tragedy turns to terror. It builds to an incredibly tense third act that intertwines angst, doubt, and suspense into some of the year’s most thrilling beats. There’s real pain here, and as with some of the other films on this list it hits hardest for viewers who recognize similar moments from their own lives… except, you know, super dark.
Rent Super Dark Times via Amazon Video.