The 10 Best Movies You Probably Didn’t See in 2017

In 2012, I was at the peak of my film-watching powers and saw all kinds of smaller movies that critics loved but audiences generally didn’t find. This past year wasn’t a total return to movie-watching form, but I saw way more movies in 2017 than any of the previous four years to be sure (current events escapism, anyone?), so I feel confident in having a crop of smaller films to recommend to you.

All of the films on this list made less than $2 million at the box office (a few were unheralded Netflix releases not counted among box office totals) and earned zero Oscar nominations, which means you either have never heard of them or you at least heard of some of them but didn’t make it out to see them in theaters (or think to download/stream them). If you’ve seen a film on this list, I’d love to hear if you agree with it being among the year’s hidden gems.


My number 10 film of the year period, “Raw” was a festival circuit film that barely played for general audiences. There’s not much to say here that I didn’t say in my top 10 of 2017 list, but French filmmaker Julia Ducournau will undoubtedly make a film that you will have heard of in the very near future.  Her debut feature tells the story of a young woman who goes off to veterinary school and amidst the first-year hazing starts developing powerful cravings for meat. A loss-of-innocence story driven by a visceral visual metaphor, “Raw” combines the artistry of an indie drama with unforgettable touches of horror; I don’t think I’ve ever squirmed so much watching a movie, let alone felt that such grossness was completely artistically justified. (Read my review)



I was fortunate enough to get a screener of documentary filmmaker Joshua Z. Weinstein’s feature debut to review through my day job working for a Jewish organization. I’ve seen plenty of Jewish movies, but there’s something unprecedented and groundbreaking about “Menashe,” which would still be good if it didn’t also contain the most authentic portrayal of American Hasidic Jewry committed to film. Unable to make a documentary about the Hasidic experience (it’s against their religion, literally), Weinstein was instead able to recruit a brave soul in Menashe Lustig, and various other actors, to recreate what he observed in New York’s ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. The script even adapted to tell Lustig’s actual story: After suddenly losing his wife, Menashe becomes unfit, by Hasidic standards, to parent his son until he remarries, causing him significant tension with his faith and community. The film is a moving character study intended to break barriers by showing us a different way of life. (Read my review)



Speaking of character studies, Harry Dean Stanton gifted us a great one before leaving us this past year. “Lucky” is a portrait of a nonagenarian living in a tiny desert town. You might expect a film about a man this old to be steeped in dreary themes of mortality, but actor John Carroll Lynch, making his directing debut, does the opposite. Lucky is very much a man alive, and through this story we come to see more and more of the life fully lived behind the caricature of the stubborn, routined old man. It’s occasionally out there on an intellectual level, but it’s also an endearing and moving film that I’m glad I chose not to pass on. (Read my review)


Band Aid

“Band Aid” is far and away the easiest movie for me to recommend on this list, and not just because of the recognizable comedic talent. Films about young people tend to be about finding love, not fighting hard to keep it. That’s just part of what’s refreshing about Zoe Lister-Jones’ film about a husband (Adam Pally) and wife (Lister-Jones) who start a band in order to work out their marital troubles through song. If you’re tired of films featuring pristine couples in smudge-free relationships who seem to have it all figured out, this is for you. If you are tired of films that do show relationship woes but stoop to infidelity as a plot device to conjure up drama and big moments of reconciliation, you too will delight in the messiness of “Band Aid.” Fred Armisen’s performance as a sex-addicted neighbor who drums for the band is another selling point. (Read my review)


A Ghost Story

Another film from my top 10 of the year list landing at No. 4, “A Ghost Story” was a passion project of filmmaker David Lowery, who used all the money he made from directing Disney’s “Pete’s Dragon” remake to bring it to life. Not a horror film despite the title (though it plays with those conventions on occasion), “Ghost Story” is a time-spanning art piece that follows a ghost wearing a bed sheet, played by Casey Affleck, who “haunts” (read: mopingly wanders)  the house he lived in with his wife (Rooney Mara) before he died suddenly. Quiet and carefully composed, this is not a film for anyone who gets impatient with artistic cinema, especially because Lowery deliberately messes with the passage of time. It is a portrait and in many ways a meditation on loss and legacy.  Just get in your most zen state before viewing. (Read my review)



Bong-joon ho (“The Host,” “Snowpiercer”) is one of the most exciting filmmakers working today who not enough people have heard of. His films lean toward science-fiction and are not for everyone, but they tend to revolve around relatable characters and relationships. He’s kind of the Korean Spielberg in that his films are adventure or action stories usually involving children, but those stories are wrapped in darker, more mature themes, oddball characters (Tilda Swinton, a supremely messed-up Jake Gyllenhaal and Paul Dano among others),  and a fair deal of violence. “Okja,” about a girl whose best friend, the eponymous superpig, gets taken from her by adult forces for their adult schemes, is no exception. It’s one of the handful of good Netflix original titles from 2017 not getting enough attention. (Read my review)



If you like film and you also like architecture, “Columbus” is a must-see. It follows a young man (John Cho) who unwittingly finds himself in the small town and architecture haven of Columbus, Indiana when his father falls ill, and befriends a young woman (Haley Lu Richardson) who has lived there all her life. Documentary short filmmaker and film scholar-turned-director Kogonada makes every frame feel meticulously crafted and fussed over that “Type A” viewers everywhere will be filled with utter glee. Each shot is like its own painting at an art exhibit about architecture. The film’s lack of interest in plot specifics and fairly conventional indie story will overshadow the artistry for some people, but in pound-for-pound craftsmanship, it has few equals in 2017. (Read my review)


I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore

Another filmmaking debut (have you sensed a theme?), this one from actor Macon Blair, “I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore” is must-stream Netflix viewing for anyone who has ever loved a dark Coen Brothers comedy or delighted in the mayhem of a Quentin Tarantino standoff. The movie essentially imagines what might happen if someone feeling perpetually spurned by the powers that be decided they weren’t going to take it anymore and pursued justice for themselves. Specifically, a woman with depression (Melanie Lynskey) decides to make the people who broke into her home and stole her laptop pay for doing her wrong, and in the process befriends an awkward neighbor (Elijah Wood) who offers a unique brand of help. The story goes from 100 percent relatable to bonkers by the end, but the intent behind it is spot on. (Review to come)


Lady Macbeth

Here’s another feature film debut that goes totally off the rails, only with all the visual grace you’d expect from a period film. Although it begins building sympathy for its protagonist, a woman (Florence Pugh) in a terrible arranged marriage to an awful man in 1800s rural England, she begins to make choices in the name of her own freedom (an affair with a stable boy) and eventually becomes a downright freight train. Director William Oldroyd tries to maintain the poise and dignity of a period piece while the story takes darker and darker turns, creating a powerful clash in tones. Pugh is remarkable for her young age, combining both the poise and passion the role demands. Of all the assured directorial debuts on this list, this might have the strongest vision both in terms of visuals and storytelling. (Read my review)


Win It All

As much as I love the local feel of Chicago-based filmmaker Joe Swanberg’s (“Drinking Buddies”) work and his Netflix TV series “Easy,” I had yet to see a feature film of his that really grabbed me. He takes a solid step in the right direction with “Win It All,” another film starring Jake Johnson, this time as a man with a gambling addiction asked to safeguard a duffel bag of cash from a friend. The film chronicles his subsequent ups and downs, creating a much more compelling through-line for those familiar with Swanberg’s more true-to-life, off-the-cuff approach. Those less familiar might still want something more exciting from the story, but that’s part of the beauty of Swanberg’s style. “Win It All” is a great middle ground between convention and the stories Swanberg likes to tell. (Read my review)


NOTE: Just falling short of this list by making a hair over $2 M was the Safdie brothers’ “Good Time.” Definitely a film deserving a shout out on this list.


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