2017 was a pretty good year for American film. Sure, there were plenty of head scratchers, disappointments, and outright train wrecks, but that’s for another column. (Which will be called “Head Scratchers, Disappointments & Outright Train Wrecks” – it’s all about the ampersand.) Today, we celebrate the minor gems.
“Minor” only in the sense that they didn’t get a great deal of attention when they were released. Some, though not all, are major films. Others are just major fun. One of the pretty cool things about 2017 is that many of the movies that would have headed up this list in previous years will not be included because, despite low budgets and small marketing campaigns, their quality has already demanded a lot of attention. Early in the year, it was Get Out taking audiences by storm. Toward the end of 2017, Lady Bird grabbed headlines for being the highest rated film in Rotten Tomatoes history. Between those two, The Florida Project (Spoiler Alert – The Florida Project will be a strong contender for some unnamed critic’s Best American Movie of the year award) was a revelation. All three of those movies have solid chances for a Best Picture nomination when the Academy makes their announcement in a few weeks. And though I didn’t love smaller movies like The Big Sick and Wind River the way some others did, they too found a warm reception from mainstream audiences.
So let’s just mention a handful of other small movies that didn’t get quite as much love – at least not as much as they deserve. And let’s pair them up in categories just for the hell of it.
The Outcast Child
While mainstream movies like Wonder and Gifted were doing a perfectly serviceable job portraying youngsters who were just a bit out of the ordinary, these two movies went a lot farther and were ultimately more rewarding.
Brigsby Bear – Dave McCary
McCary walked a very fine line in this gentle fantasy about a young man who has been raised Truman Show-style, cut off from the world. Brigsby is the fantasy character he has been watching on television his entire life, the standard by which he judges all of humankind. When he is set free, he must adjust to reality, though his simple wonder at it all begins getting those around him to question whether Brigsby’s world might have more to offer than it seems. Kyle Mooney, getting a chance to play a lead, shines in the man-child role of James, and he gets great support from vets like Mark Hamill and Greg Kinnear.
The Girl with All the Gifts – Colm McCarthy
Moving to the other end of the spectrum, McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic horror fashions a world in which a plague has turned most of humanity into zombie-like flesh eaters. Some children born to infected parents have retained the disease but have shown the potential for controlling it. When we first meet Melanie (a very powerful Sennia Nanua) the young girl is being subjected to some kind of brutal, experimental “school” along with other kids like her. The strange part is that the big scary-looking guards appear afraid of the children, rather than the other way around. We will soon find out why, and we will soon watch Melanie escape her lab/prison with a small team of scientists and soldiers to make a terrifying journey toward hope. Many of the particulars are common to these types of stories but McCarthy renders them in consistently exciting and surprising fashion. And M. R. Carey, who adapted the screenplay from his own novel, has something meaningful to say about the nature of evolution and where we all might be headed.
The Action Comedy
This genre has become a staple of Hollywood, especially in the first nine months of the year, before it gives way to the big prestigious award contenders. But as larger-budgeted underachievers like Kingsmen: The Golden Circle and Suburbicon show, getting the formula right can prove tricky.
War on Everyone – John Michael McDonagh
But nothing seems all that tricky for the McDonagh brothers. While his brother Martin was creating the big-time Oscar contender Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, John was weaving this postmodern buddy cop romp. Think of it as Lethal Weapon dipped in a vat of Dragnet deadpan and painted with a brush of hyper-violence. Or see it as a reworking of Of Mice and Men with Alexander Skarsgard playing Lenny to Michael Pena’s George. Or just see it as a cop movie which begins with the heroes running over a surrendering mime, and proceeds to get more and more bizarre from that point on.
Logan Lucky – Steven Soderbergh
If War on Everyone sounds too violent for you, try Soderbergh’s quirky caper romp. Yes, there is violence, but it tilts more toward comedy. There is also an unusual amount of genuine familial warmth in this Nascar robbery story. Channing Tatum heads up the cast, but there are great performances throughout, from the likes of always fun-to-watch Adam Driver and who-knew-he-could-be-this-funny Daniel Craig.
The Immigrant Experience
Immigration is much in the news these days. Hollywood takes it on a variety of ways, from Victoria and Abdul to Lowriders. But these were the best versions I saw this year.
Gook – Justin Chon
It’s black & white photography is beautiful to behold and its story of the relationship between the Korean and African American communities in LA is potently nerve-racking. This movie pairs exceedingly well with LA ’92, one the year’s best documentaries, as a consideration of recent history. The rioting after the announcement of the Rodney King verdict was 25 years ago, but the wounds remain as fresh as ever.
On the Seventh Day – Jim McKay
McKay’s first movie in a dozen years is a very affecting tale of immigrants living in Brooklyn and working at a variety of service-industry jobs. Jose (Fernando Cardona) works six days a week so that he can indulge his true passion, playing soccer in the park with a group of men from his native Puebla. When his boss needs him to work the Sunday of the championship match, it causes great anxiety and leads to furious plotting and scheming. The plot does not break any new ground, but the real life that hangs from its spine (McKay cast mostly non-professional actors to essentially play themselves) is always fresh and riveting.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle and Donnie Brasco did it. So did Radiohead and Beck. But taking creeps and losers and also-rans and turning their stories into compelling movies isn’t especially easy. Just consider Wilson and Lemon from 2017 alone and you’ll see why. (But don’t actually watch them – just take my word for it.) Fortunately, these two movies turned potentially depressing characters into poignant examinations of the value of trying, regardless of the outcome.
Menashe – Joshua Weinstein
Menashe Lustig plays the title character, a sweet, invisible member of the highly-regulated Hasidic community in Brooklyn. When his wife dies, more successful members of his family, with the support of the religious authorities, decide Menashe is not a fit father for his young son. The movie tracks Menashe’s attempts to grow up and win back the respect of his community and of his son. It is a character we rarely see presented on American screens with such honest grace, humor and sadness.
Norman – Joseph Cedar
This has more of the trappings of standard Hollywood fare. It also has Richard Gere in its lead role. His character, Norman Oppenheimer, purports to be a genuine player in NY power circles, and Gere’s Hollywood gloss plays beautifully when Norman is bullshitting his way through one door or another. But at his core, Norman is another sad lonely Jewish man struggling to be heard in New York, very much like Menashe. Gere give one of his best performances bringing out the noble fragility which holds up Norman’s entire world.
Hollywood threw big name stars like Matt Damon and Tom Hanks into movies that explored various forms of social experimentation. The result was the vaguely bland Downsizing and the disastrous would-be satire The Circle. Fortunately, a few small movies featuring mostly unknown performers did a much better job of both entertaining and elucidating.
The Belko Experiment – Greg McLean
I admit it. I truly disliked David Fincher’s The Game. But along with The Cube (which I liked a lot more) it helped re-introduce the elaborate game premise into mainstream movies. The Saw series would follow, as would my personal favorite from the genre, Stuart Hazeldine’s Exam. Belko is the latest entry, and no matter how ludicrous you may find the premise of eighty people locked in an office building and subjected to stress games resulting in massive death and destruction, there’s no denying that McLean delivers effective suspense and creative chills. Call it a guilty pleasure if you like, but there’s enough thematic material to make you at least think a little bit, which is more than I can say for The Circle.
The Work – Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous
There is absolutely nothing silly about The Work, one of the best documentaries of the year. McLeary and Aldous took their cameras into Folsom Prison to film a four-day group therapy session attended by both violent criminals and civilians who volunteered to take part. The result is a staggering commentary on masculinity and two types of incarceration – the kind imposed from the outside and the kind we create for ourselves. The movie follows three civilians as well as several inmates, and each goes through some form of explosive breakdown and catharsis. It is difficult, violent, and utterly riveting.
There is cross-over between this category and two previously mentioned. Anti-heroes may share traits with loser characters. This is especially true in genres that float in on the perfume of noir, where flawed characters destined to fail become our heroes. And the action comedies frequently revolve around a good- natured crook who is trying to pull off a con or a heist. The strategy of the film is that we root for the felon. But neither genre typically deals in hard core anti-heroes. These two movies do.
Good Time – Bennie and Josh Safdie
Good Time is getting some acclaim from critics but it was virtually unseen when it was released in the late Summer. That despite the fact that it stars Robert Pattinson in perhaps his best performance to date. But this is a different Pattinson. Though still smoldering and sexy, he is largely unrecognizable as the borderline sociopathic Connie, who devotes every breath he has to keeping his mentally-challenged brother Nick out of prison. Pattinson is a tornado of urgency and he gets strong support from Taliah Webster, Buddy Duress, and co-director Bennie Safdie. Film Comment’s top movie of the year.
My Friend Dahmer – Marc Meyers
Meyers and star Ross Lynch do the seemingly impossible here. They humanize one of the most notorious villains of the last fifty years. This movie largely covers Jeffrey Dahmer’s senior year in high school, just before he began his horrific killing spree. Lynch reveals a very troubled young man, who also has a quirky sense of humor and a great deal of intelligence. He is the kind of loner who exists by the score in most major high schools, kind of weird and goofy, more the butt of some low-key teasing than someone on the cusp of mania. Though the movie cannot explain what pushed this particular outsider over that edge, it does manage to make Dahmer’s particular transition entirely believable. Lynch gives one of the year’s best performances.
We end with war. But neither of these is a traditional war story. American film is rife with those, ranging from the mundane to the magnificent. These two movies offered a different take on war.
Oklahoma City – Barak Goodman
The PBS American Experience documentary focuses on the war at home. It begins with the 1995 attack on the Murrah Federal Building, then backtracks to trace the growth of white supremacist groups throughout the 1980s. In so doing, it attempts to understand the anger and hatred that motivated Timothy McVeigh. It covers Ruby Ridge and Waco, and eventually takes us back through the devastating bombing and subsequent trial. Just as Gook’s look back at the LA riots 25 years ago seems ever so timely today, this look back at Oklahoma City feels extremely relevant given the climate of race-fueled hatred infecting the US today.
The Wall – Doug Liman
This is a more standard war story, given that it has soldiers firing guns at each other. But is only has three characters of note and most of the action is confined to a single spot. An American soldier (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is pinned down behind a crumbling wall in the middle of a deserted Iraqi village while his partner (John Cena) lies bleeding to death out in the open. An unseen sniper is firing at them. To be fair, this is not as good as Danis Tanovic’s similarly constructed No Man’s Land from about 15 years ago. But it is noteworthy for several reasons. First, Taylor-Johnson gives a towering performance suggesting he is more than ready to move beyond the Kick-Ass and Marvel franchises for which he has been most known up until now. Second, though his role is small, Cena also shows growth as a serious actor, and though he may never flourish outside of comedies, this performance opens the door to greater range. But it is the third performance that really makes The Wall worthy. As the sniper Juba, we never see actor Laith Nakli. We only hear his voice talking to Taylor-Johnson on the phone. How refreshing it is to see an American war movie in which the enemy is actually presented as a genuine character, with a past, and a brain, and even a sense of humor, despite his obvious cruelty and violence. American movies, from crowd favorites like 13 Hours to award winners like Argo, so rarely do that.
That’s it. Hopefully you’ll find something you like in here. And I’m sure you have your own small gems. Please share them if you care to. I’m always eager to find something new.