It’s awards season. Critics and craft guilds are looking to the best of 2017 and already there are some clear contenders cleaning up on acclaim. Many of the films gathering awards and nominations are worthy of the kudos, but there are many more films that also deserve attention. But most films don’t have a studio like Disney to make sure they open in thousands of theaters across the country and have a marketing budget that guarantees people know when those films are opening.
There are some films that I wish received more attention even with an established studio supporting them, like Roman J. Israel, Esq. and Killing of a Sacred Deer. And others still that are stirring awards talk but I wish more people were seeing them, like Get Out, Mudbound, Logan, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
But this is a list of films that either received no support from their studio or minimal theatrical release or simply got lost in the shuffle of superheroes and big time Oscar bait products. These are films that are worth seeking out but for very different reasons.
2017’s Top 10 Underappreciated and Overlooked Movies:
1. Brawl in Cell Block 99
The most criminally overlooked and underappreciated film of 2017 was S. Craig Zahler’s Brawl in Cell Block 99. What makes this doubly insulting is that the same thing happened to his brilliant 2015 film Bone Tomahawk. Both films were distributed by RJL Entertainment and the studio seemed disinterested in whether or not the film ever played in cinemas. It took months of hounding the distributor to get Bone Tomahawk to play at a micro-cinema in San Diego in 2016. But repeated requests for Brawl in Cell Block 99 could not get Brawl booked at the same cinema in 2017.
The film is a hardcore, B movie-style prison drama that once again displays Zahler’s brilliant sense of slow burn pacing and insane pay off. He gets Vince Vaughn to deliver a career best performance as a man on a private mission. The film keeps stripping things away until all we are left with is a man in a pit of a cell facing off against some scum. Warning: This film is intense and brutally violent but with clear purpose.
2. Dawson City: Frozen Time
Making and releasing a documentary is always a challenge. But Bill Morrison faced an additional hurdle in that his documentary defied expectations of what a documentary should be. His Frozen Time is a genuine found footage film because he uses nitrate film that was unearthed in the frozen tundra of the Yukon Territory as the basis for his film. He uses the silent film footage, mostly from films that had been thought lost forever, to weave together a narrative about Dawson City and the history of cinema. It is a breathtaking work of art that employs an exquisite score to deliver what feels like a fever dream.
Studios may want to finance horror films for a quick turn buck because such genre films are easy to sell. But sometimes that makes it harder for the truly good horror films, the ones that transcend the genre, to find the serious audience they deserve. There are a few horror films on this list and first up is a cannibal film from French director Julia Ducournau. The surprise here is that it’s the lengths to which some people will go to prove their love that’s the core of the story, not the cannibalism. Additionally, the school hazing that the main character has to endure is almost as terrifying as the eating of human flesh.
4. The Girl With All the Gifts
And while we are on horror, here’s a film that once again proves that the zombie genre can be endlessly reanimated if the filmmakers are clever enough. In this case director Colm McCarthy and author-turned-screenwriter Mike Carey deliver a fresh take on what a zombie-like apocalypse might be like. The zombie-esque creatures are called hungries and their condition is caused by a cordyceps virus in which the fungal infection attaches to the brain and controls the host organism. The story has much in common with the wildly successful 2013 Naughty Dog video game The Last of Us. In fact, The Girl With All the Gifts has been referred to by some gamers as the “unofficial” screen adaptation of the video game.
In The Girl With All the Gifts we are presented with both mindless hungries and young children like Melanie who are infected with the virus but who still can function as humans. As with Ellie in The Last of Us, Melanie may hold the cure for the virus. While McCarthy delivers quite a bit of gore, he also dazzles with some innovation. One of the creepiest and most tense sequences does not involve fast-moving hungries but rather a gauntlet of “sleeping” ones that the characters have to navigate through. The description of how Melanie and the other children hungries were “born” is also great as is the way McCarthy and Carey choose to end their story. The film also showcases outstanding production design and sound work.
5. The Transfiguration
Okay let’s just stay with horror for a bit. Next up is a reimagining of the vampire film with Milo, a young black boy coping with his craving for human blood. Milo dismisses the Twilight films as “unrealistic” and instead suggests that George Romero’s Martin is closer to reality… or maybe Near Dark, which he recalls with enthusiasm. Writer-director Michael O’Shea delivers a quietly effective film that uses vampire lore as a means of examining themes of being the other, of loneliness and alienation, and of spirituality and moral responsibility.
6. It Comes At Night
Here’s an instance of a film that was harmed by an aggressive ad campaign that painted completely false expectations for the audience. Horror fans going in were expecting some scary supernatural tale but what filmmaker Trey Edward Shults had in mind was something more cerebral and bleakly post-apocalyptic. If the film had been pitched to audiences as a survivalist tale set at some point in a dystopian future where societal infrastructure has completely collapsed, then they might have been more open to what was to follow. I hope that as the ill-conceived ad campaign fades from memory, people may rediscover this film with no expectations coloring their perception and appreciate its contemplative tale about how far one is willing to go to survive.
7. I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Any More
Actor-turned-filmmaker Macon Blair begins his film as a seemingly realistic dramedy about a depressed young woman whose home is burglarized. But her quest for justice and some sense of decency in the world leads to the film taking some wildly absurd turns with sudden bursts of violence. Melanie Lynskey and Elijah Wood make a perfect odd couple in this strangely endearing film.
Todd Haynes is a filmmaker known for making us feel deeply uncomfortable with films such as Poison and Safe. He’s also known for taking up social issues in films such as Far From Heaven and Carol. But Wonderstruck, which tells two parallel tales in New York City separated by decades, is his sweetest and most charming work. The film is notable for stellar production design in creating the two time periods and for focusing on characters who cannot hear. Haynes comes up with beautiful ways of depicting their worlds so that we understand how it feels to be cut off from sound.
9. The Work
At a time when media attention is focused on women stepping forward and finally being heard on issues of sexual assault and harassment, a documentary about men getting in touch with their feelings may not find an appreciative audience. But Jairus McLeary’s documentary about a program at Folsom Prison that allows men from the outside to participate in a four-day group-therapy retreat with a group of incarcerated inmates is compelling and moving. The men inside are convicted murderers, gang members, and robbers, and the men coming from the outside bring a variety of baggage with them. Then they all attempt to come to terms with who they are, where they are in their lives, and what things factored in to how they have ended up.
McLeary’s camera is mostly a fly on the wall, not taking sides or commenting on the proceedings but rather just letting them unfold before your eyes. It may all sound touchy-feely and like an attempt to excuse their crimes, but the film proves to be neither. It feels very sincere and what it reveals is that there are turning points in people’s lives, sometimes those moments are huge and sometimes seemingly small, but moments where a change occurs. For these men those moments mostly resulted in negative outcomes, but its helpful to hear them talk about their experiences in the hopes that we can learn something positive about helping people before they commit acts with serious consequences. We also see that positive change later in life may also be possible.
10. I Love You, Daddy
Here’s a film that I resist calling underappreciated but it definitely has been overlooked and perhaps for valid reasons. But putting Louis CK’s film on this list is by no means condoning his behavior off screen or suggesting that he should be treated with any leniency for things he’s been accused of. But at a time when Hollywood is seeing celebrities brought down by sexual scandals on a regular basis, it might not be a bad idea to look at a piece of art that provides some insight into the mind of someone who has been accused of sexual misconduct.
Toronto International Film Festival premiered the film back in September of 2017 and described it as “Shot on 35mm in black and white, Louis C.K.’s I Love You, Daddy was filmed entirely in secret.” Perhaps because C.K. needed to get it made and screened before accusations about his private life would bring him down. Just a couple months after the film’s premiere, it would be pulled from distribution amid accusations by five women of sexual misconduct. I’m not critical of the distributor’s decision to pull the film and if the film ever does become available I hope that any money it earns goes to some non-profit organization that helps women who have suffered sexual harassment or abuse and none of it ends up in Louis C.K.’s pocket. But I also find it to be a fascinating work because of who made it and when. The film plays out like a confession, denial, explanation, and justification of his behavior all at once. Since he was raised Catholic, that all kind of makes sense. It’s as if he felt guilt for doing something wrong and wanted to get caught but at the same time didn’t want to suffer any consequences for his behavior.
But the real irony and perhaps arrogance of the film is that C.K. casts himself as the moral compass of the film. He’s the one who tells his daughter it’s not right for a teenage girl to hang out with a man decades older than her. He’s the one to be critical of the behavior of a Woody Allen-esque director for courting his 17-year-old-daughter. Then to add more irony to the situation, C.K. then has the female characters of his film justify why his character needs to back off from his criticism. As his daughter China (who is two weeks from being 18), actress Chloë Grace Moretz gets to raise the question of why is she treated as a child who cannot make decisions for herself but in two weeks she is suddenly an adult? It could be a valid argument but it would sound a lot more sincere and convincing coming in a film written and directed by a woman than in a film where it comes across more like a justification for why we shouldn’t be critical of older men hanging out with teenage girls.
Before the scandal broke the film had received positive reviews or comments from journalists and the studio pasted quotes (perhaps out of context) from female critics Manohla Dargis of the New York Times and Jada Yuan of New York/Vulture on the awards screeners that were sent out to critics’ groups just days before the scandal broke. Although this film may not merit appreciation or praise because of who made it, it is a film that I hope sees the light of day if only for psychologists to analyze and pick through for clues into what makes someone like C.K. tick so that maybe people like him won’t be able to be in positions where they can take advantage of women. In the film we see him idolize the Woody-like director for both his art and for what he sees him able to get away with because of his celebrity. It is most definitely a cringe-worthy film but perhaps also one that in its “eeew” moments we can learn something from or gain insights from.
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Some Honorable Mentions: Okja, The Lure, BPM, Better Watch Out, It Stains the Sands Red, Colossal, Casting JonBenet, and The Hero (for Sam Elliott’s performance).