This eclectic cinematic collection should not be overlooked.
What!? You haven’t seen Pottersville!??! You can’t put your end of the year list together until you’ve seen Pottersville!! Whoa nelly, hold your horses. This is not a list meant to shame or brag about the weirdo esoteric malarkey I insist upon cramming into my brain year after year. It’s a celebration of the quieter successes, the films that didn’t bust blocks or congest the water cooler. As of this writing, Box Office Mojo ranks 704 theatrical releases for 2017, from the total gross heavyweight of Beauty and the Beast (soon to be supplanted by The Last Jedi) to the wha-huh fizzle of Paul Currie’s 2:22. That’s a lot of movies. Several films are bound to fall between the cracks whether they deserve to or not.
I’m betting that some of you have seen a few of these already, and maybe a fewer still have seen them all. My purpose with this list is to highlight seventeen flicks that deserved more attention than they got this year. Are they all gold? Dammit, I say yes. Some films offer Oscar-caliber performances while others confound this die-hard genre hound with their very existence. It’s an eclectic collection to suit whatever mood that strikes you. This list doesn’t necessarily contain my personal Top Ten Films of the year (although there are a couple that make it), but you’ll only be the richer for pressing play when the January doldrums hit full catastrophe next year.
17. Beyond Skyline
This film just shouldn’t be. When the Strauss Brothers split their effects company (Hydralux Films) off from Battle: Los Angeles to produce their own alien invasion film at a fraction of the cost, the result was a claustrophobic cheapie with one nutter of a climax. Skyline did not set the box office on fire, but it did recoup its cost and revealed the brothers’ talent for shoestring creature work.
Seven years later, Beyond Skyline is still a cheap DIY bargain basement schlocker that reaches past its budget to achieve wildly bizarre set-pieces. No longer confined to a single location, the sequel rips a miserable police detective (Frank Grillo) and his son (Jonny Weston) from the subway tunnels of L.A. to the bowels of the alien mothership where they partner with Huggy Bear (Antonia Fargas) himself to halt the human harvest. By the time The Raid boys (Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian) show up to machete their way through intergalactic limbs your brain will be reeling. Those that question, if the Roger Corman spirit is still alive in cinema, need not look any further than this ridiculously inventive romp.
16. The Ballad of Lefty Brown
Bill Pullman channels the cantankerous Walter Huston for his title portrayal in this traditional Western saga of revenge and redemption. Spitting dialogue through booze and beard, Pullman excels as an old coot stumbling forth from the shadow of Peter Fonda’s legend and into his own respectable climax of bullet and bloodshed. After his friend is assassinated, Lefty Brown hits the trial in pursuit of the killer, collecting a few misanthropic rogues into his posse. The narrative twists are obvious but classic and deemed acceptable thanks to the emotional weight brought on by the performers. While the film did not get the marketing push like The Disaster Artist or The Florida Project, the very fact that A24 took this film under their wing is an excellent seal of approval.
15. Take Me
Pat Healy is a twisted little demon of a storyteller. If you’ve seen his performances in Cheap Thrills or Compliance than you know what depths of uncomfortable unease he can so easily possess. Working both behind and in front of the camera, Healy needles chuckles from his audience, but they’re often won through hands over mouths and a nearly endless amount of seat-squirming. Take Me tells the story of gee-shucks entrepreneur who specializes in simulated high-stakes abduction as a means of therapy…or feeding the insatiably kinky. When a mysterious client requests a surprise scenario, his in-home business implodes with confused and borderline horrendous consequences. It’s chump cinema at its apex.
Set against the ’92 Los Angeles riots, two Korean brothers defend their shoe store from impending doom. But not really. Actor/Director Justin Chon is less concerned with the details surrounding the apocalyptic event than the daily routine of alienation that inflicts his characters. While the audience awaits devastation after the broadcast of the Rodney King verdict, Gook spends the majority of its time focused on the pedantic squabbles between the brothers and Simone Baker’s neighborhood pest. It’s a constant cultural tug-of-war in which each party happily dismisses the other’s point-of-view until the city is burning down around them. Gook is a film that keeps its rage to a simmer, it’s ever-present and painfully felt by all parties caught in the tragedy. As with most films of this ilk, there are no answers, just warnings.
13. Batman vs. Two-Face
While we were all being drug through the emotional wringer by films like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Justice League, one of the year’s finest entries in super-hero cinema went almost completely unobserved. Batman vs. Two-Face is not only the last appearance of Adam West as the Caped Crusader, it’s also William Shatner’s introduction to comic book theatricality. As Two-Face, we’ve found a villain perfectly suited for Shatner’s special brand of start/stop Captain Kirk excitement. As a child who obsessed over 60s nostalgia, the only thing missing from this cartoon is a special guest-spot from the Monkee Men. With each passing adaptation of The Dark Knight, Adam West’s TV Batman only seems more valid. He’s certainly no less batty than Clooney’s neon nipples, Bale’s growler, or Affleck’s hulk.
12. Tragedy Girls
As our own Rob Hunter said, “Tragedy Girls is a god damn blast.” In their efforts to score retweets and get their hashtag trending, cheerleaders Sadie (Brianna Hildebrand) and McKayla (Alexandra Shipp) go on a kill-crazy rampage hacking through their classmates and neighbors. Director Tyler MacIntyre grinds down all the Not Another Teen Movie tropes into the juiciest patty of homicidal satire. You don’t need to be a student of the slasher film to appreciate the high school skewering, you simply need to have experienced the hell of teenage group-think.
11. All I See Is You
Was there a more disastrous or ugly exploration of marriage in 2017? Well, there’s mother! Still, All I See Is You is a deliciously wretched takedown of the masculine from the director of World War Z. Marc Foster, wearing the skins of Alfred Hitchcock and Roman Polanski, visualizes a horrific awakening for Blake Lively after Danny Huston’s doctor restores her sight. With new eyes, Lively must reassess her relationship with her husband, Jason Clarke. Is he a sweet caretaker, a passionate lover, or a crippling dominator? What was once known and controllable violently descends into the inexplicable and the grotesque. All I See Is You never unravels into cheap horror movie scares, but the revelations that occur are some of the most terrifying acts of betrayal I experienced this year. The smallest crimes in a relationship are often the most emotionally cruel.
10. Women Who Kill
Stepping out of Women Who Kill this year was something akin to my first theatrical experience with Shaun of the Dead. Writer/Director/Actor Ingrid Jungermann delivers another romantic comedy with a bite. Here you’ll find fluttery flirtations, sweet romance, sniping banter, and the genuine threat of violence. Podcasters Morgan (Jungermann) and Jean (Ann Carr) spend nearly their every waking moment obsessing over female serial killers. When they’re not scoring interviews with an infamous butcher (Annette O’Toole), they’re miserably navigating their own awkward feelings. Enter Simone (Sheila Vand) to woo Morgan from their weekly ritual. Filled with classic rat-a-tat repartee worthy of Woody Allen or Howard Hawkes, Ingrid Jungermann’s romcom nightmare scored enough attention to land an Independent Spirit Award nomination, but I’d love to see the cult of Women Who Kill grow further.
Sleight was one of the first films this year to really surprise me. Basically taking the Peter Parker story and grounding it into our reality, writer/director J.D. Dillard proudly displays his geek cred without sacrificing the authenticity of teenage melodrama. The science of the fantastic is certainly nifty, but just like with our favorite spandex crime fighters, the film works best when relishing in the heartbreak of heroism. While the film looks homegrown, you would never guess that the production budget landed just over $250,000. So while studios are tossing tentpole franchises to newbies, I’d love to see Dillard get a proper piece of the MCU.
8. Sweet Virginia
I love the imdb synopsis for this film, “A former rodeo champ befriends a young man with a propensity for violence.” Isn’t that really all you need? Don’t you want to watch the hell out of that movie? Maybe it’s because I knew absolutely nothing about this film before stepping into the theater that I’m so desperate to keep that experience intact for you. Sweet Virginia was a massive surprise of 2017, and we’ve become big fans of it around that FSR water cooler. Add the name Jon Bernthal behind the character of the former rodeo champ and you’ve got an absolute must-see movie. He’s so damn good. It’s probably the best performance he’s given us so far. I want to stop typing. I just want you to see the film. Press play and then afterwards you can dive deeper into the conversation with our interviews with director Jaime M. Dagg and, Bernthal’s co-star, Christopher Abbott.
7. The Devil’s Candy
While not the first heavy metal horror show, The Devil’s Candy might be the most successful. Yes, Sean Byrne’s nightmare imagery certainly infects your thoughts in the hours even days after the credits roll, but it’s the pleasure in which his conceit unravels its passionate artistic characters that feels frighteningly honest. What is creative grace worth? Your soul? The soul of your family? Ethan Embry completely disappears behind Jesse Hellman’s obsessed painter. Through grit, grime, and gore two monsters touched by the same devil clash in a climax that actually sticks the landing on the impossible promise of a satanic encounter.
Two meandering individuals stumble into each other on the sidewalks of Columbus, Indiana and discover true connectivity through the city’s stunning experiments in architecture. It’s a hypnotic tour through our need to bond with outside humanity. Of course, John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson are not the pawns of some romantic dramedy drivel. The will they/won’t they pursuit is the pap of Hollywood, and has no place here. After years of dissecting the works of genius, this directorial debut proves that Kogonada truly is a master of the frame. The images captured here are as worthy of our leers as the buildings it exalts. I found myself freeze framing shot after shot, contemplating which image would make the finest addition to the One Perfect Shot feed.
5. Buster’s Mal Heart
Have you become just another cog in the machine of daily life? Are you ready for the inversion? Will you listen to DJ Qualls when he comes knocking? Buster’s Mal Heart is the story of that fork in the road, but is the choice between left and right ours to make? Director Sarah Adina Smith weaves a few narrative paths for poor Buster (Rami Malik). We see him manning the night desk of a local motel, churning the midnight hours that keep him separated from his wife and child. We also see him roaming the mountains above, stealing away in empty vacation cabins with a Grizzly Adams beard and a contempt for kitchenware. Then there is a third Buster, adrift at sea, and mad from baking in the sun. Buster’s Mal Heart reveals the schism that’s waiting to split all our lives. The mechanics of our home are breaking.
4. The Girl With All The Gifts
Just when you think the undead genre can’t possibly be reinterpreted in any new fashion here shambles Colm McCarthy’s grisly adaptation of M.R. Carey’s apocalyptic novel. Weaving elements from a variety of classical sources (a dash of George Romero here, a sprinkle of John Wyndham there), The Girl With All The Gifts manages to remain hopeful where all other doomsday visions wallow in misery. Well, it’s a hope deeply soaked in self-loathing and disgust for our current surroundings, but who can’t appreciate such deprecation these days?
3. Blade of the Immortal
Takashi Miike’s 100th directorial effort had the meekest of theatrical distribution, and it is a damn shame that most movie maniacs did not get the opportunity to see this treasure on the largest screen in town. While it still plays absolutely smashingly on the tv set, Blade of the Immortal was meant to take over your total vision. This epic saga of the undying Manji and his utterly hopeless return to honor tears through the frame viciously and with absolute beauty. When pain is greeted only with more pain, and the idea of death has long past our hero by, any wisdom or collected skill he once knew has given way to apathy. In embracing the supernatural, Miike comes closer to Akira Kurosawa’s samurai pursuits of duty than any other contemporary filmmaker.
Lucky is a beautiful puzzle of a film. It’s a quiet build, a good sit. Following one human encounter after another, Harry Dean Stanton’s title character constructs a final philosophy to soothe his mind before he perishes. It’s a film layered on conversations that slowly stack into a climactic monologue that not only gives you a good whack in the gut but acts as a final reminder to the phenomenal presence Stanton left on screen.
1. Anna and the Apocalypse
This is a little bit of a cheat. Unless you were in a handful of festival screenings then you definitely missed one of my favorite films of the year. Shouldn’t I just hold off until next year when hopefully you’ll all have had the opportunity to put your peepers on this treat? No. One, I love this film too damn much. Two, I need you to be psyched before this film even nabs distribution. You’re going to want to be ahead of the curve for this darling beastie.
Anna and the Apocalypse is a High School Zombie Comedy. That’s all well and good, but the miracle is that director Jon McPhail succeeds in delivering on every front. The funny, the bloody, and the show tunes. It all works. The songs will latch around your eardrums and you’ll be compulsively checking Spotify until they launch there. If you’ve been waiting for your Vanessa Hudgens decapitating Zac Efron fantasies to be made a reality than here’s the flick for you. Plus, zombie snowmen, treacherous superintendents, regrettable boyfriends, well-meaning do-gooder dads, and a variety of blunt instruments to clear the horde. It’s a true blend of the beautiful and the revolting.