You may have missed these movies, but they deserve your attention.
In a market over-saturated with content, great films fall through the cracks every year. That doesn't make it any less of a crime.
For our part, we've compiled a list of must-see films from 2017. Some of these are simply underrated; others garnered critical attention but were ultimately lost in the fray due to limited theatrical runs, small marketing budgets, or any number of unlucky circumstances that can befall a film in the modern age. All of these films, however, deserve your attention.
An unlikely friendship is forged against the backdrop of an unlikely setting in Kogonada's radiant debut. Set in the little-known mecca of modernist architecture, Columbus, Indiana, Columbus is the story of two people, separated by age, background, and perspective, who come together over a conversation. Their conversation is about the subject of buildings.
Jin (John Cho) is a terse, serious Korean-born book translator in his forties; Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) is a recent high school graduate whose decision to forego college belies her mature intellect. Kogonada is best known in cinephile circles for his incisive video essays, which dissect the cinematic form with careful attention to both style and substance. With Columbus, he marries his intimate knowledge of cinema theory with an elegant humanism. Each shot in the film is meticulously constructed and nearly as complex as the main characters, whose intimacy is contagious. Columbus revels in the stillness that great architecture commands: an awareness of emptiness with a pursuant longing. As it is to view a great work of architecture or empathize with someone, our personhood is encapsulated by another form as we watch this film.
Director: Ana Asensio
Despite Ana Asensio's Most Beautiful Island being recognized with the 2017 SXSW Narrative Grand Jury Prize, few saw the film during its limited theatrical release in the U.S. last November. That's a shame. Both a gripping thriller and an illuminating portrait of the undocumented immigrant experience, the film stars Asensio as Luciana, a recent immigrant from Spain living in New York City. Lacking papers, her desperation for employment leads to odd jobs, including a mysteriously lucrative offer to work an elite party one evening. What appears to be a stroke of luck builds to a disturbing climax as Luciana is trapped in an increasingly debasing—and ultimately life-threatening—situation.
Cinematographer Noah Greenberg captures Luciana and the struggling characters that inhabit her underworld with a gritty Super-16 voyeuristic vérité style, following them around dark corners and through the swarms of chaos that so often subsume the city's invisible people. Most Beautiful Island proves that sometimes the rules for survival are "eat or be eaten" for the underclass,
Director: Cristian Mungiu
Cristian Mungiu emerged as the preeminent Romanian New Wave filmmaker with his Palme d'Or-winning drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, a film focusing in on illegal abortions in Communist Romania. Although Mungiu's latest, Graduation, deals with less explicitly disturbing material, it is just as morally complex and unflinching in its depiction of Romanian strife. Adrian Titieni stars as Dr. Aldea, an upstanding surgeon in a dreary provincial town. His daughter, Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus), a high-achieving student, is closing in on a competitive scholarship to Cambridge, pending top marks on her final exams. Dr. Aldea wants more than anything for Eliza to escape the toxicity of modern Romania, deeply regretting his own decision to remain loyal to his home country. But when Eliza is sexually assaulted the night before her exams, her performance suffers as a result, and her shot at the scholarship is jeopardized. Finding that the bureaucracy has no empathy for his daughter's situation, Dr. Aldea makes a Faustian bargain. He trades his honesty and idealism for an attempt to rig Eliza’s test scores, thereby initiating his daughter into the chain of disillusionment that characterizes contemporary Romania: illicit favors, corruption, guilt, shame, and dashed ambitions.
The film is shot in long takes that heighten the often thrilling and unbearable verisimilitude. "What I like to do in cinema," Mungiu told No Film School, "is to preserve the complexity and ambiguity that I see in life. Things don't come with an interpretation. They just happen."
Director: Benedict Andrews
What happens in Una is unequivocally immoral and illegal: A middle-aged man has a sexual relationship with a 13-year-old girl. But director Benedict Andrews and screenwriter David Harrower don't let us off with the comfortable answer. The film delves into ambiguous morality surrounding sexual abuse, where neither party is predator nor prey. We can't fully hate the perpetrator, nor can we fully trust the victim. As are all experiences that challenge our perspective, Una is extremely unnerving.
Based on the critically-acclaimed play Blackbird, which Harrower adapted himself, the film stars Rooney Mara as Una, now a grown woman who has tracked down her abuser, Ray (Ben Mendelsohn), despite the fact that he has changed his name after serving the prison sentence. Una wends its way between past and present as the unflinching confrontation plays out. What begins as a survivor's effort to reappropriate her past turns into a disquieting inquiry into the nature of truth, love, and redemption. The film is a labyrinth that constantly keeps the audience on a knife's edge. "As soon as we provide an easy answer for the audience, the film loses its power," Benedict Andrews told No Film School in an interview. "I think we also betray Una; we betray the complexity of her problem and the amount of damage that she carries from her past and the size of her questions in the present. It's about following her questions right through to the very last frame. There weren't going to be easy answers for [Una or her abuser] about whether this was love, or whether this was abuse. Obviously, it is abuse, but those two things are mixed up for Una."
Director: Laura Poitras
Unlike Laura Poitras's previous film, the Oscar-winning Citizenfour that sent shockwaves across the film community, Risk came and went without much fanfare. It deserved better—and not only because the documentary was an arduous, six-year-long effort, but also because it's a case study of the art of documentary itself. Poitras originally set out to make a film about WikiLeaks. She gained the trust of its founder, Julian Assange, and followed him around with a camera for years, hoping to gain some insight into the controversial organization. But when multiple allegations of rape and unlawful coercion were brought forth against Assange and WikiLeaks journalist Jacob Appelbaum, Poitras was forced to reassess her movie.
Risk became a character study of the volatile and egotistical Assange. It also became a journal of Poitras's attempt to grapple with the ethical dilemmas she faced while making the film. (Her production diary plays throughout the film as a voiceover.) Now, viewed through the lens of the post-Weinstein moment, Risk carries even more weight, posing the question of our times: Can a person's achievements be separated from his insufferable character and potentially unlawful actions?
Director: Julian Rosefeldt
Those who appreciate art, absurdity, and the intersection of the two will find much to love in Manifesto, Julian Rosefeldt's kaleidoscopic ode to the manifesto form. In a tour de force performance, Cate Blanchett plays 13 different fictional characters, all of whom deliver manifestos from 20th-century artists, philosophers, composers, architects, and filmmakers in contexts that bear no relationship to the words being spoken.
The text, from Sol LeWitt, André Breton, Karl Marx, Lars von Trier, and more, takes on new meaning as it passes through Blanchett's galvanizing performances and reverberates in the film's striking locations across Berlin, many of which appear as if constructed expressly for a big-budget sci-fi. Manifesto is at once a rigorous intellectual exercise, a laugh-out-loud comedy, and visual poetry—in short, a cinematic experience like no other.
7. Human Flow
Director: Ai Weiwei
Spanning more than 23 countries and 40 of the world’s largest refugee camps, Ai Weiwei's Human Flow attempts the seemingly impossible, illustrating both the vastness and individuality of the current migrant crisis. As the Chinese artist and dissident crisscrosses the globe, he encounters desperate refugees fleeing war-torn countries. Their interactions, however brief, bring to life the humanity of the global issue.
Although Ai's film is never didactic, it suggests, with great empathy, that migration is endemic to the human condition, and therefore a human right. As I wrote in an interview with Ai for The Atlantic, "Human Flow captures victims of conflict in the difficult holding patterns that have come to define their lives. The documentary is at once an intimate, on-the-ground travelogue and a sweeping cinematic experience."