It’s axiomatic: Nobody can see every movie, even a movie critic. My job requires me to see as many new releases as possible — I just counted, and I saw a cool 200 new releases in 2017 — and even I feel like I’m constantly behind. And if watching all the movies is difficult, reviewing them all is even harder.
So, like every critic, I reach the end of the year with a few films I regret not reviewing when they were fresh. Some of those movies even ended up on my list of the year’s top films. Some of them — documentaries like Quest, Ex Libris, and Spettacolo, dramas like Loveless and BPM (Beats Per Minute) — aren’t yet available to watch at home.
But some of them thankfully are available to watch at home, meaning you can now catch up on some of the best under-the-radar films of the year from the comfort of your couch. Here are nine films, both documentaries and narrative fiction films, that I loved in 2017 but didn’t manage to write about extensively at the time — all available for digital rental or streaming.
All year, I heard about Columbus, but I didn’t get to see it until the end of the year, largely because so many of my colleagues were raving about it. Columbus is a stunner of a feature debut from video essayist turned director Kogonada. Haley Lu Richardson stars as Casey, a young woman living in Columbus, Indiana, who cares for her mother, works at a library, and harbors a passion for architecture. (Columbus is a mecca for modernist architecture scholars and enthusiasts.) When a visiting architecture scholar falls into a coma in Columbus, his estranged son Jin (John Cho) arrives to wait for him and strikes up a friendship with Casey, who starts to show him her favorite buildings. The two begin to unlock something in each other that’s hard to define but life-changing for both. Columbus is beautiful and subtle, letting us feel how the places we build and the people we let near us move and mold us.
Dawson City: Frozen Time landed on a number of year-end lists, and I finally saw it while catching up on documentaries at the end of the year. Director Bill Morrison — who often works with old footage to construct his films — reused hundreds of reels of nitrate film shot in the 1910s and ’20s and unearthed in 1978 in Dawson, a town on the Yukon River in northwestern Canada. The reels used in Dawson City were presumed lost, but Morrison uses them to reconstruct the history of the town, which is loaded with wild stories of fortunes made and lost, with twists and turns as exciting as any fictional film.
Good Time premiered in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, and though it wasn’t my favorite film at the festival, I’ve found myself thinking about it a lot since. It’s directed by brothers Josh and Benny Safdie (who also stars in the film), and it’s a lot of things — a kind of heist-like movie, a skitter through the city’s dark streets with petty criminals, and a neon-lit sideways look at the privilege afforded even a crook, if he’s white — but most of all it’s a showcase for Robert Pattinson, who, between this film and his supporting role in The Lost City of Z, had a great year on the big screen.
There was a Jon Hamm hologram walking around at the Sundance Film Festival in January, promoting this film’s premiere, but I didn’t catch it till the end of the year. Marjorie Prime is based on the Pulitzer-nominated play by Jordan Harrison, and it shows; it’s all talking, and the story unfolds as a series of quiet revelations in two ways. One comes in the setup of the story — that people can clone their loved ones after they die, and the new ones retain some memories but are molded by their “loved ones.” And the other is in what it says about the nature of love and of memory, and how those things are intertwined. Starring Lois Smith, Hamm, Geena Davis, and Tim Robbins, it is a small and beautiful film.
I think Personal Shopper is one of the best films of the year, but because I saw it in 2016 at the New York Film Festival, it slipped past my notice during its theatrical release. Regardless, in a year of films about memories and ghosts (including one of my favorites, A Ghost Story), it’s my favorite of the bunch. In her second collaboration with French director Olivier Assayas, Kristen Stewart plays a personal shopper to a wealthy socialite, with a sideline as an amateur ghost hunter who’s searching for her dead twin brother.
Personal Shopper is deeper than it seems at first blush, a meditation on grief and an exploration of “between” places — on the fringes of wealth, and in the space between life and death. Some souls are linked in a way that can’t be shaken, and whether or not there’s an afterlife doesn’t change the fact that we see and sense them everywhere. (It also has one of the tensest extended scenes involving text messaging ever seen onscreen.)
Stephen Cone’s work was new to me this year, and I finally sat down to watch his films at the insistence of a friend, who clearly knew what he was talking about. Cone is a master of small, carefully realized filmmaking; his earlier films such as The Wise Kids and Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party combine an unusual level of empathy for his characters with an unusual combination of interests: love, desire, sexual awakenings, and religion. Princess Cyd is his most accomplished film yet, about a young woman named Cyd (Jessie Pinnick) who finds herself attracted to Katie (Malic White), a barista, while visiting her Aunt Miranda (Rebecca Spence, playing a character modeled on the author Marilynne Robinson) in Chicago.
As she works through her own sexual awakening with Katie, Cyd unwinds some of the ways Miranda’s life has gotten too safe. They provoke each other while forming a bond and being prodded toward a bigger understanding of the world. It’s a graceful and honest film, and it feels like a modest miracle.
Rat Film was the final film I saw at the True/False Film Festival last March, and it was so brilliant that I couldn’t stop talking about it afterward. It’s about rats, yes — and rat poison experts and rat hunters and people who keep rats as pets. But it’s also about the history of eugenics, dubious science, “redlining,” and segregated housing in Baltimore. All these pieces come together to form one big essay, where the meaning of each vignette only becomes clearer in light of the whole. It’s a fast-paced, no-holds-barred exploration of a damning history, and it accrues meaning as the images, sounds, and text pile up.
I love dance documentaries, but they can be rote, predictable, or too controlled. Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan seems on paper like yet another documentary about a dancer overcoming difficulty, but it reveals itself to be something else altogether.
When Whelan left the New York City Ballet in 2014, it was a watershed moment: She was one of classical ballet’s oldest and most revered principal dancers, with more than 30 years at NYCB and a repertoire of more than 50 ballets under her belt. Restless Creature is a documentary of the months in which she grappled with her next steps, especially as she struggled with injury. It’s a cut above most dance documentaries — a frank, close, and sometimes uncomfortable look at the difficult psychological toll a life on the stage takes on its performers, even those who have successful and healthy careers. Whelan’s misgivings and fears about the future make for a riveting film, of interest to audiences far beyond dance nerds.
I watched The Work at home alone on my couch this fall at several people’s insistence. I felt as if I were vibrating by the end. The Work is an outstanding, astonishing accomplishment and a viewing experience that will leave you shaken (but in a good way). At Folsom Prison in California, incarcerated men regularly participate in group therapy, and each year other men from the “outside” apply to participate in an intense four-day period of group therapy alongside Folsom’s inmates. The Work spends almost all of its time inside the room where that therapy happens, observing the strong, visceral, and sometimes violent emotions the men feel as they expose the hurt and raw nerves that have shaped how they encounter the world. Watching is not always easy, but by letting us peek in, the film invites viewers to become part of the experience — as if we, too, are being asked to let go.