Have you ever sat and thought to yourself: "man, there are sure are a lot of movies that come out each year, how am I going to watch all of them?" Well, the short answer is, you can't. It's all but impossible to make sure in this day and age that you see every new theatrical, streaming, VOD or alternative release that comes out in a year. That's why I have compiled my first ever list of hidden gems. This is a short list of films that I think were overlooked or that flew under the radar this year* and that deserve your attention. Included in the list I'll put up blurbs for films I have not covered, but at the very end of this article, I'll bring up some films that I fully reviewed which I believe to be hidden gems as well.
*Note: These release dates are strictly for North America only. Some of these films were released in other countries in 2016 or in strictly film festival screenings of that year, but by and large, these are films that were largely either put in theaters or on streaming or VOD of this calendar year in North America.
I Dream in Another Language (Dir.: Ernesto Contreras)
Taking inspiration from the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but with a much lighter dose of magical realism instead of at the forefront of the narrative, I Dream in Another Language premiered at Sundance to considerable acclaim, but has otherwise not properly been acknowledged stateside. The film tells the story of a young linguist who journeys to find the last native speakers of the Zikril language (a fictitious language in reality, but real in the context of the film,) in order to properly study it and record it so that it is not lost to history. The bulk of the film revolves around the ailing relationship between the last two men who speak the language, and how they must overcome their differences and come together for the good of history. The film takes some surprising turns, and has just enough magical realism peppered in to not feel too over-the-top or overbearing. The performances are all high caliber, and the cinematography is pretty good. Other than some flashback scenes that go on for too long, and some side characters that are either too ignored or never given proper depth, this is a great film that tells an interesting story with a tasteful cultural texture. It's currently streaming on Amazon Prime if you have it, and I highly recommend it.
Marjorie Prime (Dir.: Michael Almeyerda)
Think of The Sunset Limited with its McCarthy nihilism replaced by a sci-fi tinge. If you can imagine this, you've got a pretty good idea of where Marjorie Prime leads. Featuring only four actors enclosed in rooms, this film is based on an acclaimed play revolving around AI called Primes that exist to replicate deceased loved ones. The film discusses the nature of memory, grief, and family in equal measure, and at times it can feel a little slow, but the performances are breathtaking, and the direction uses its three-act play structure to great effect. If you don't mind another entry in the "filmed theater" genre, or if you appreciate dialogue and performance-driven films in the vein of The Sunset Limited, Fences, or Killer Joe, you'll probably find a lot to appreciate here. The performances carry the slow-burn narrative through its rough patches, and it's a beautifully executed piece of melancholy. It's on Amazon Prime now if you want to check it out.
T2 Trainspotting (Dir.: Danny Boyle)
Twenty years after Danny Boyle's cult classic Trainspotting became a worldwide phenomenon, the cast and director decided to return to a film that made such an impact on each of their lives with a sequel. T2 Trainspotting takes place twenty years after its predecessor, and it follows the characters as they've grown and changed...some more than others. The screenplay is surprisingly effective without being too overtly obligatory or drowning too much in fan service ala Rogue One. The cinematography is one aspect of the film that is spectacular: this is one of the best shot films of 2017, with some of the camerawork nearly reaching Vertigo levels of color mastery. While the narrative does have its conveniences and its third act is a little too iterative of the first film, this film flew under the radar in North America, largely staying in limited release, though it did make a good portion in the U.K. It's a hidden gem in the US as far as I'm concerned, and it deserves more acknowledgement. It's available to rent on VOD, or to stream on Starz if you have that premium channel.
My Cousin Rachel (Dir.: Roger Michell)
I'll admit I have a bias towards Gothic literature, but I still believe that this was an underrated period drama that had more to tell than just a story about a man who meets his cousin and develops lustful desires for her. With a story that speaks volumes about the nature of familial manipulation, the characters all immediately play mind games with one another upon interacting, and the whole film quickly becomes a multi-person chess match of who can get a particular man's inheritance money and property first. It's a neat period drama with thrills and performances that transcend the admittedly basic cinematography and score. It's available to rent on VOD if you want to check it out.
Hounds of Love (Dir.: Ben Young)
Hounds of Love is perhaps the most uncomfortable watch on this list, not because it's a bad film, but because it tells a tale of an extremely depraved couple and their kidnapping of a young, naive girl, and it tells this tale in increasingly vivid detail. The directorial debut of Ben Young, this Australian outback horror/thriller continuously displays scenes of physical and mental torment to agonizing effect, with its cinematography and score planting the viewer firmly within the confines of this torment. It's a visceral, emotionally taxing experience, but one that manages to find a small sliver of humanity and hope beneath the increasingly large heap of dread and sadism. It rises above the standard indie horror/thriller genre on its style alone, but the writing and acting are pretty decent too. Hounds of Love is available to stream on Hulu.
The Wall (Dir.: Doug Liman)
Doug Liman actually released two films this year! I already covered American Made, but this film is both much smaller in scope and much more intimate and thrilling as a result. The Wall tells a story of a soldier who must hide behind a brick wall from a sniper after his partner is shot and his own leg is shot. Unable to move and with his radio malfunctioning, he is forced to do what he can to survive. The film combines the intensity of the contained thriller genre with the inherent cinematic intrigue that can arise from contemporary war drama, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson's performance is well maintained throughout the run-time. Its pacing ebbs and flows, but it ends up having some surprisingly thought-provoking things to say about the war on terror and on continued American military occupations in the Middle East. If this sounds interesting to you, it's available on Amazon Prime to stream right now.
Colossal (Dir.: Nacho Vigalondo)
This film is easily the most bizarre offering on here, and on paper, it sounds like a disaster of a film, but above all odds, with vigorously committed performance and through newcomer Nacho Vigalondo's direction, it miraculously works. Anne Hathaway plays an alcoholic who discovers that she has the power to control a giant monster ravaging through South Korea. The script sounds like something even a Syfy Channel original film would be too stupid to qualify for during an initial pitch, but it's a film that just has to be seen to be believed. It's not a perfect film, but on a $15 million budget, it works wonders with the material provided. It makes sense why it floundered at the box office, making just a little shy of $5 million, but this was never a film that was going to attain a wide audience due to its premise. Colossal is on the path to become a cult classic in a decade or so, and for what it's worth, it's entertaining and committed to its premise. It's worth a watch, and it's on Hulu now if you want to check into it.
Shot Caller (Dir.: Ric Roman Waugh)
Shot Caller tells a story of a good man breaking bad, transforming into a criminal kingpin. It's not the most original of tales; in fact, pretty much half of all current prestige television shows feature this story within different contexts and time periods. Thankfully, what the story lacks in originality, it makes up for in execution. This is the best film performance from Nikolaj Coster-Waldau in his career so far, and it's also the most fully realized showcase from Ric Roman Waugh after the guilty pleasure action film Snitch with Dwayne Johnson a few years ago. If you like dark dramas with great acting and a screenplay that does not pull any punches, you will find a lot to like in this film. I'd highly recommend checking it out on Amazon Prime.
Raw (Dir.: Julia Ducournau)
While calling Raw a horror film is technically correct, it's a gross minimization of the different themes and genres it takes on in its screenplay. The film tells a coming of age story with a gory bent, as a young woman attending veterinary college attends a hazing ceremony whereupon she discovers an appetite for human flesh. The film then takes a turn for the grave, but always with a satirical tone in mind. As the events play out on screen, the viewer is constantly but subtly reminded that what is being seen is the result of character development and metaphor, as the more violent and the more visceral the film becomes, ironically, the more mature the characters act and greater growth exhibited among them. Self-realization and coming-of-age at the most intense and grotesque, but nonetheless beautifully executed, Raw is a unique beast of a foreign language film, and I highly recommend it if you want to watch something truly original and powerful. It's streaming on Netflix now.
The Handmaiden (Dir.: Chan-wook Park)
The Handmaiden does not pull punches when it comes to displaying erotica, but it's by no means a pornographic film. Only a director with the kind of skills that Chan-wook Park possesses could have made this film, and it turns out to be his best in over a decade. A Korean period piece that tells a taboo story, but one that has numerous twists and turns that morph the tone of the film into surprising direction, this is a very niche kind of film, but one that has a precision and focus unrivaled not only in Korean cinema but in universal artistry. Chan-wook Park remains the closest to a Korean David Fincher that we as moviegoers have working today, and The Handmaiden further cements his legacy as one of the greats. Watch it on Amazon Prime as soon as you are able.
Landline (Dir.: Gillian Robespierre)
Landline is a title that only dictates the film as a period piece of the mid '90s, but its marketing tagline, "1995: when people were harder to reach," does an excellent justification of the kind of dramedy you're in for with this film. Featuring a cast of indie darlings such as Jenny Slate, Edie Falco, John Turturro and Jay Duplass, the film tells the story of two daughters who discover their father is having an affair with another woman, and how they react to this conflict in relation to their own inner struggles with themselves. It's not the most original tale, but it's one that's extremely well executed and acted, and on those merits alone, it deserves your time. It's available to stream on Amazon Prime now.
Personal Shopper (Dir.: Olivier Assayas)
Kristen Stewart, like fellow actor Robert Pattinson, has tried very hard to distance herself from the Twilight series of films that, while grossing an incredibly large amount of money at the box office, were not necessarily good acting showcases for career longevity. This film contains her most realized performance to date, as she plays a personal shopper for a celebrity who shops by day, and attempts to hunt for the ghost of her dead brother by night. This summary only covers the first act of the narrative though, as this script is one of the best of the year, and one of the most unconventional, surprising films of the year. It's everything I want in a psychological thriller from beginning to end, and it builds to a fever pitch until the very final scene. With a career-best performance from Stewart, deliciously ominous camerawork, and a story that ceases to let the viewer breathe, Personal Shopper is perhaps the best psychological thriller of 2017. It's available to rent on VOD, or if you have Showtime, stream it on there.
Columbus (Dir.: Kogonada)
Who knew that there could be such a compelling architecture drama? Kogonada's directorial debut tells a restrained, intimate story of an architect who falls into a coma, and his son travels from Korea to Columbus, Indiana to tend to his affairs. He meets a young girl who is an admirer of his father's work along the way, and they bond over their shared connection to architecture. Not necessarily a romantic film, but with romantic imagery, beautiful cinematography and compelling acting, one can't help but fall in love with the director's quite resolve. While its writing is somewhat akin to the Richard Linklater-style talkie drama, it presents a defined visual style and message. This is honestly the most compelling, fully realized directorial debut I've seen this year, Lady Bird non-withstanding. Definitely check this film out if you have Hulu, as it's available to stream on there now.
Hopefully now you've got a list of hidden gem films to get you through the rest of the year, in between all the new Christmas releases and Oscar films that are sure to come out in late December and throughout January. For your sake, I won't repeat myself for films I've already reviewed, so without further ado, here are some films I've already covered on the site that not a lot of people saw that I would also consider worthy of the title of hidden gem:
A Monster Calls**
The Lost City of Z
A Ghost Story
**Note: These films were in limited release in the Christmas season of 2016, and came out in most areas (mine included) in January, 2017. All the more reason to add them to this list!