January is typically known as a dumping ground for studios. The fall is reserved for films seeking release within the awards window. Spring is where our blockbuster tentpoles begin to roll out. But here in January we find all of the stuff for which the powers that be have little hope regarding box office and awards. This is where we find late-stage horror franchise entries, middle-of-the-road dramas, and non-seasonal comedies. Sure, we will often find gems hidden in these dark weeks, but these are the exception to the rule. So if you find yourself disinterested in the current spread at the multiplex (or, like me, find that you’ve MoviePassed everything), why not use this time to check out a few films from the last year that maybe didn’t get the love they deserved? Here are a few that really worked for me, even if they didn’t remain in the conversation for long.
1. Wonderstruck (dir. Todd Haynes)
Todd Haynes has earned his spot in my list of filmmakers whose movies I make a point never to skip. This is why, even with a wide release pending, I made time for it at this year’s Philadelphia Film Festival. Brian Selznick, the scribe behind the similarly-minded Hugo, adapted his own book for the screen to tell adjacent tales of two youngsters joined by similar circumstances, but separated by decades of time. The earlier segments are shot in the style of a black & white silent film, while the modern day portions reflect modern stylistic sensibilities.
It’s a technical treat for film nerds, but it’s also a showcase for some great performances. Tom Noonan and Julianne Moore show incredible empathy and grace, and our two child actors, Oakes Fegley and Millicent Simmonds, the latter of which is deaf, just like her character, will melt your heart. Overall, it’s simply lovely. Although the framing device feels somewhat baffling at first, it settles nicely with time.
2. Patti Cake$ (dir. Geremy Jasper)
While it’s not the explosive underground movie its ad campaign wanted it to be, there’s nothing about Patti Cake$ that isn’t genuine. A true indie film made as a labor of love by a first time feature filmmaker, there simply wasn’t a single theatrical release in 2017 that felt more legitimately independent without leaning into arthouse conventions.
Patti Cake$ is all about a young dreamer who, despite not really fitting into the typical rap mold, wants to rhyme alongside the best of them. It’s 8 Mile in Springsteen’s New Jersey, and it’s sure to make an unconventional star out of Michelle Macdonald, who plays our titular wannabe rapper. I emerged from this film feeling inspired about my own dreams, all the while marveling at a prime piece of representative cinema, which boasts an ensemble of realistic, human characters in a movie where broad characterizations wouldn’t suffice. Watch this so that you can say you did before the team behind this one blows up.
3. Life (dir. Daniel Espinosa)
There were rumors that Life would follow the lead of Split by revealing itself to be a surprise origin story for the upcoming Venom flick. It turned out to be nothing of the sort. In fact, Life being such a singular film is what makes it such a joy. Yes, it’s essentially using the same setup as Alien, Leviathan, and a litany of other “trapped with a mysterious creature” films, but that doesn’t make it any less fun, and that’s why we’re here, isn’t it?
Life is a simple one: Astronauts on a space station discover a small alien creature, and before they can examine it fully, they find themselves struggling to keep it contained as it grows, adapts, and kills. The creature design is terrifying, the effects are gruesome, and the cast of A-list performers all show up for a movie that so many would have seen fit to phone in. Look at the lineup: Ryan Reynolds, Rebecca Ferguson, Jake Gyllenhaal, Hiroyuki Sanada (LOST fans know what’s up).
Did I mention it’s from the writers of Zombieland and Deadpool? Well it is.
Life is a solid thriller, made well, and nobody saw it. You should see it.
4. Lady Macbeth (dir. William Oldroyd)
After initially seeing Lady Macbeth, I found myself slightly disappointed. The press I’d read going in was RAVING about this being such a deeply troubling story that few could witness it without finding their jaw on the floor. And yeah, it was good, but I wasn’t particularly gobsmacked by it.
And then I went home. And then I thought about it. And thought about it. And thought about it. And thought about it. Weeks later, I still thought about it. The delayed effects of gravity on my jaw made its fall no less effective. The lengths to which our lead characters (played with dastardly coldness by Florence Pugh and Cosmo Jarvis) go to cover up a forbidden romance will turn your stomach while forcing you to call into question the effects of societal power structures. From that angle, it’s a wonder that this wasn’t tied thematically into as many 2017 conversations as it should have been. It’s all here, and at a slick 89 minutes it’s just enough to bowl you over or, if you’re like me, sneak up on you when you least expect it.
5. A Cure for Wellness (dir. Gore Verbinski)
See this movie. Just do it. I can’t promise that you’ll like it (although I suspect you will), but you won’t be able to deny it’s cocksure attempt at updating 1930s gothic horror. Gore Verbinski is one of the few mainstream filmmakers with a distinct style of his own, and the repurposed pieces of his canned Bioshock adaptation are put to much better use in this genre-informed, yet wholly original shocker.
Dane DeHaan plays Lockhart, a business man on a damage control mission to retrieve his company’s CEO from a discreet wellness center buried in the Swiss Alps. There he finds all the ingredients for a horror mystery: creepy locals, slimy eels, questionable surgery, dental torture, and authority figures with dubious credentials. It’s a supremely gross movie, which despite being a bit messy, never stops being thrilling, shocking, or creepy. In fact, Verbinski seems to revel in the messiness of the film, and you should too.
High praise: A Cure for Wellness comes in a very close second for my favorite in 2017 cinematography. Yeah, Roger Deakins’ work on Blade Runner 2049 still gets the top spot, but Bojan Bazelli ain’t no slouch. A Cure for Wellness looks FANTASTIC.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.