It’s December, and most critics are looking to finalize their year-end Top 10 lists or fill out ballots for whatever guild or critics awards groups to which they belong. They can’t see everything, and neither can you, so let’s take a look at a handful of films that flew under the radar this year and deserve more attention, just in case you’re looking to catch up on some movies you missed in 2017.
Anyone who says this hasn’t been a good year for movies clearly hasn’t seen enough movies, because some of my favorites came and went with nary a blink. For every hit a studio might have, there’s always a movie or two that gets lost in the shuffle. They might get some critical attention, but for whatever reason, their marketing just doesn’t connect with moviegoers.
To keep things fair, the movies I’ve listed the movies in alphabetical order rather than in the order of my own preference, although many of these will probably end up in my own Top 10 list anyway.
Frantz (Music Box Films)
One of the only foreign films in this list is the latest from French auteur Francois Ozon, which had been getting great reviews since it premiered at the Venice Film Festival.When it was released in March this year, it fared about the same as many great foreign films. Nobody cared. It’s a real shame because Ozon has made many amazing films, but he’d been kind of erratic in recent years, and this took him further out of his comfort zone with a mostly black and white period piece about a French WWI soldier travelling to Germany to tell the family of a pre-war colleague of his death in the trenches.
A Ghost Story (A24)
David Lowery’s look at love and death and grief was one of the critically-acclaimed films from this year’s Sundance, and A24 seemed to be the perfect distributor for it. It stars Rooney Mara as a woman whose partner (played by Casey Affleck) dies, forcing her to deal with that while her home is haunted by his ghost. But it’s not a horror movie, at all. Again, great reviews and it made less than $2 million, even though it’s as beautiful and artistic as any Oscar contender.
Gifted (Fox Searchlight)
Granted, this movie directed by Marc Webb (The Amazing Spider-Man) did quite well earlier in the year, but it didn’t play any festivals and no one was ever talking about it as awards fare, so clearly, it wasn’t taken very seriously by critics or serious cinephiles. It stars Chris Evans as the uncle of 7-year-old Mary (the amazing McKenna Grace who also plays the young Tonya Harding in I, Tonya) who gets into a custody conflict with his mother (Lindsay Duncan) who wants to care for the girl for her own reasons.
The Hero (The Orchard)
If there’s any question that Sam Elliot is one of the most underrated and underappreciated actors on the planet, then it took Bret Haley (I’ll See You in My Dreams) to write a movie specifically towards his talents to prove it. Elliot plays Western hero Lee Hayden who gets involved with a significantly younger stand-up comic (Laura Prepon). Not sure how the relatively young Haley can write so well about ageing and concerns of older adults, but this is a beautiful character piece.
The Journey (IFC Films)
This may be the most esoteric film on this list, because this Irish film starring Timothy Spall and Colm Meaney really didn’t connect with other critics the way it did with me. Maybe it’s because the movie is obviously a fictionalized account of two of the leaders during the Northern Ireland conflict who take a car to the airport together, using it to hash out their differences. It was staged by director Nick Hamm like an on-the-road stage play, and it showed a sign of the “troubles” we haven’t seen before.
The Lost City of Z (Broad Green)
I wasn’t as big a fan of James Gray’s new movie about British explorers trying to find proof of early human existence in South America when it premiered at the New York Film Festival last year, but it’s grown on me. It stars Charlie Hunnam, Sienna Miller, Robert Pattinson and even a younger Tom Holland. Like other movies above, great reviews but barely made a mark at the box office when Broad Green attempted to expand it wide. I feel like Gray is one of these filmmakers who has made so many great films but only We Own the Night has made any money because it was released by Sony.
Maudie (Sony Pictures Classics)
Sally Hawkins is amazing in the recently-opened The Shape of Water, but earlier in the year, she played troubled Canadian painter Maud Lewis in Aisling Walsh’s drama, which also starred Ethan Hawke as her abusive husband. It’s such an amazing film mainly due to Hawkins’ performance, which should hopefully add to her Oscar chances. Releasing it almost a year after its Telluride premiere probably didn’t help get people interested.
The Mountain Between Us (20th Century Fox)
Like Gifted, this adaptation of Charles Martin’s novel — which placed Kate Winslet and Idris Elba on a desolate mountain top after a plane crash–did make around $28 million, but then it quickly vanished, possibly because critics generally snubbed their nose at it. (Part of it might have been the fact that the press screening at TIFF was delayed so critics went to see it expecting the worst.) I thought the performances by the two leads was top notch and director Hany Abu-Assad did a great job with the film’s remote location, but it came and went like a blip. (Fox didn’t even send out screeners of the movie to awards voters, and they sent out Murder on the Orient Express!)
My Friend Dahmer (Filmrise) – Super Dark Times (The Orchard)
I’ve written about both these movies here on the Tracking Board, so probably don’t need to say too much more about them, but if the teen serial killer thriller is going to become a new genre, then these two movies will have started the trend. Ross Lynch (who plays Dahmer) and Charlie Tahan from the latter are amazing and could both become big stars.
Sony Pictures Classics
Novitiate (Sony Pictures Classics)
I’ve already reviewed the movie and interviewed writer/director Maggie Betts, and I honestly thought that the movie would find an audience when released by Sony Pictures Classics, if only due to the knockout performance by Melissa Leo. I also thought that the film’s exploration of faith and religion and the young female talent on display both in front and behind the camera would make it of interest to more people.
Patti Cake$ (Fox Searchlight)
This might be one of the year’s biggest puzzlers, because Geremy Jasper’s directorial debut really blew people away at Sundance. It was one of the movies that everyone in Park City was talking about due to the amazing title character played by Australian Danielle Macdonald, as well as Bridget Everett as her harried former rock singer mother. This was just such a fun movie with some great tracks from Patti’s group “PBNJ.”
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (Annapurna)
Angela Robinson’s portrait of William Marston (Luke Evans) and the two women that inspired him to create Wonder Woman was one of my favorites at the Toronto Film Fest, and I was hoping the success of Wonder Woman might help this find an audience. Wrong again, Ed. Despite the amazing performances by Rebecca Hall and Bella Heathcote as the “wonder women,” it made $600 per theater, which is one of the worst per-theater averages of the year.
Considering how many movies have been made about 9/11 and the Iraq War, you’d think that this film starring Jake Gyllenhaal as Boston Marathon bombing survivor Jeff Bauman could at least do as well as Peter Berg and Mark Wahlberg’s Patriots Day earlier in the year. Nope! Apparently, having a Boston native like Wahlberg involved helped the movie do better both in Boston and overall. It’s another great performance from Gyllenhaal, which sadly, might get lost in the film’s inability to crack the $5 million mark.
Una (Swen Group)
I’ve also written about this movie from theater director Benedict Andrews, based on the acclaimed stageplay Blackbird. I’m less surprised this didn’t find much of an audience in theaters other than the fact that it was the first U.S. release by Swen. It stars Rooney Mara as a young woman who confronts the older man whom she had a sexual relationship with as a teenager. Ever though that man is played by Ben Mendelsohn, the subject matter is probably a little too “yucky” in this particular moment in time.
Hopefully you’ll be able to find some of these films, few of which are still in theaters, but most of which should be available via streaming or home entertainment, either now or down the line.
Edward Douglas | East Coast Editor
Under the Radar is a weekly column focusing on one or two movies that you might have missed or wouldn’t have heard much about since they have limited marketing budgets. These aren’t reviews per se and they won’t always be about movies I necessarily like — just movies you should know about and any social implications they might have that would make them worthwhile viewing.