COLUMN: 17 hidden gem films from 2017




In the shadows of the records being broken by Black Panther, a worthy film is finding its audience and spreading like wildfire.  Sure, cinema should be about the art first and the business second, but making money is the eternal challenge and end result.  Not every outstanding film is as lucky (pun intended later when you get to #2 on this list).  For every Black Panther, there are dozens of equally excellent films that never get a wide audience or big returns.

With each year of PR and press access, I’ve been diving deeper to experience more and more of what this art form and entertainment source has to offer.   For the second year in a row and on the heels of the Oscars putting a bow on all things 2017, I wanted to share a list of personal recommendations of hidden gems from last year.  Even these 17 are but drops in a larger bucket.  There so many little gems that I have yet to see.

All of the films I listed below made $1 million or less at the 2017 box office.  Seek them out if you’re tired of the norm and want an eclectic challenge.  I recommend JustWatch as a search engine for streaming and rental options.  Just enter the film’s title.  These underseen bites of buried treasure, two of which were in my year-end 10 Best list of 2017, stuck with me this past year and I virtually guarantee good experiences.

1. Wonderstruck

Todd Haynes’s PG-rated adaptation of Brian Selznick’s children’s novel was my #3 film of 2017.  It was the perfect application of Haynes’s storytelling and artistic themes of identity applied to a softer subject than his resume of Carol and the like.  The film, quite comparable to Selznick’s Hugo, requires patience, but the scope of its whimsy really flourishes beautifully.  I can’t recommend this film enough.  You can find it exclusively on Amazon Prime.  (Box office: $1,033,632)  (my full review)

2. Lucky

The late Harry Dean Stanton nearly scored a posthumous Oscar nomination for playing this surly and sharp nonagenarian in the directorial debut of long-time character actor John Carroll Lynch.  Just you wait, cool crassness hides cuddly truths and qualities about the man in a film that couldn’t help but keep me smiling for over 90 minutes.  Lucky was my #7 film of 2017.  (Box office: $955,925) (my full review)

3. Princess Cyd

Stephen Cone’s impressive coming-of-age drama and follow-up to Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party was a local product and find here in Chicago connected to the 53rd Chicago International Film Festival.  Touching and topical with its romantic LGBT themes with a star turn from Jessie Pinnick, summer comes alive with poignancy and innocence.  (Box office: N/A) (my full review)

4. Our Souls at Night

The wealth of Netflix original programming and their distribution power is growing exponentially.  They have something for everyone and have created what might as well be a “digital arthouse” for ambitious mid-level independent.  The best Netflix-backed film I saw this past year was this reunion between Robert Redford and Jane Fonda for a domestic romantic drama about a widow and widower who look for a simple arrangement of companionship only to find more potential connection and spark.  Two masters put on a clinic.  (Box office: N/A) (my full review)

5. Crown Heights

In terms of black performances showing out on the silver screen, Get Out dominated the 2017 landscape.  Its twisted fiction will win an Oscar this weekend.  Kind of like the theme of these hidden gems, for every Get Out there are a handful of films trying to punch their own commentary on diversity like Crown HeightsGet Out supporting player Lakeith Stanfield stars in this true story of the wrongful incarceration of Colin Warner.  Taut and focused, the film covers the passage of time and mounting emotions quite well.  (Box office: $238,558) (my full review)

6. I, Daniel Blake

If you think America is the only country with dire social service problems, go watch this dramatic episode played in England by renowned filmmaker voice Ken Loach.  Boosted by a soberingly straight performance from standup comedian Dave Johns, I, Daniel Blake shouts its message loud and clear in this microcosm allegory of realistic social commentary. Hardscrabble fate is a heavy thing.  (Box office: $260,354) (my full review)

7. Dean

I didn’t know much more about standup comedian and writer Demetri Martin before this summer indie.  Watching his act, I didn’t think he had the dramatic chops and focus in him until I saw his self-directed effort where he plays a layabout son dealing with a pre-midlife crisis alongside his father (Kevin Kline) after losing their family matriarch.  Dean is a very good and artfully-minded dramedy.  (Box office: $254,356)  (my full review)

8. The Blackcoat’s Daughter

Loyal readers know that I’m not a horror fan, but I’ll gladly jump on an atmospheric psychological thriller that I saw at the Chicago Critics Film Festival.  As a avoider of horro, I like where the suggested terror always measures better than the explicit peril. That’s the spine-tingling effect of a group of girls staying on an empty campus during a break weekend only to encounter unseen forces and evils.  Director Oz Perkins should be going places.  (Box office: $20,435) (my full review)

9. Lost in Paris

I think the true and impeccable timing of sight comedy and physical comedy has become a lost art replaced by toilet gags and shock humor.  The simplicity created out of the intricacy of those techniques creates an enormous amount of choreographed situational comedy and romantic charm in Lost in Paris, a Parisian fish-out-of-water comedy that also starred recent Oscar nominee and national treasure Emmanuelle Riva.  After The Big Sick’s Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, the genius team of Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon were the best married duo working in movies last year.  (Box office: $691,597) (my full review)

10. Win It All

My second favorite Netflix-backed film of 2017 was the mumblecore caper-ish film from Chicago’s own Joe Swanberg.  I find it to be, better or worse depending on your mumblecore tastes, his straightest and most accessible film to date.  For me, it beats his usual chatty open-endedness (that I kind found insufferable after awhile). Jake Johnson, as a hard luck gambler, makes this one hum.  (Box office: N/A) (my full review)

11. Mr. Roosevelt

I first discovered comedienne Noelle Wells during her blink-and-miss-her season as a Saturday Night Live cast member.  Her impact was slight and her departure quiet.  After seeing Mr. Roosevelt at the Chicago Critics Film Festival, I’ll never forget her again.  Writing, directing, and starring in her own film effort, Wells plays a woman returning to her native Austin struggling with closure from her longtime ex-boyfriend and their deceased cat in a nice blend of pity party comedy.  (Box office: N/A) (my full review)

12. My Egg Boy

The quirkiest visual romance I saw last year came from this Asian Pop-Up Cinema offering.  Initially silly with its costumed characters representing sperm and eggs, I didn’t expect the human romance on the outside to sweep me up, but, gosh it sure did.  This is melodrama working at its finest to let pining hearts do the talking.  (Box office: N/A) (my full review)

13. Worlds Apart

This Greek myth-inspired triptych from director Christopher Papakaliatis is a story of modern interconnected citizens.  Netting the headliner of Oscar winner J.K. Simmons into their ensemble, the characters are all faced with their own unique boundaries, hurdles, and challenges that all draw from the notion and desire of love.  The twists and scope of this film were very commendable.  (Box office: $60,298) (my full review)

14. Barry

Watching this college years biopic episode of a young Barack Obama will make you miss his older self in the Oval Office.  Highlighting and educational, familial, and romantic crossroads in the future President’s life, Barry is a fascinating peek at the core of the man we would come to now.  Newcomer Devon Terrell was a dead ringer and nice discovery.  Between this and Southside With You, we’ve had two excellent Obama films in two years.  Keep them coming.  (Box office: N/A) (my full review)

15. Te Ata

Well-supported by her native Oklahoma, Te Ata tells the story of Mary Frances Thompson, the first state treasure of Oklahoma who lived to be 99 years old.  History remembers her as her titular stage name, a proud woman and aspiring actress who finds her role and success in sharing Native American stories and cultures to non-native audiences, up to and including the residents of the White House.  Q’orianka Kilcher gives a dedicated and respectful performance in a film this school teacher finds fitting for any social studies class.  (Box office: $73,236) (my full review)

16. Score: A Film Music Documentary

As a lover of film scores, I was an absolute mark for this tidy documentary zipping through the history of orchestrated film music while highlighting the work ethic and production steps that make up today’s processes for film composers.  This is a must for soundtrack fans.  (Box office: $101,382) (my full review)

17. Love, Lies

Not far behind My Egg Boy was the generational regret on World War II-era wartime love coming through the voices of lust and song from Love, Lies, another local offering that came out of the Asian Pop-Up Cinema series.  The more I watch Asian cinema, the more I need to discover.  Their whole industry is churning out excellent film productions.  (Box office: N/A) (my full review)

More outstanding recommendations on the next tier up that made between $1 million and $10 million:

Loving Vincent ($6.5 million) *also on my 2017 "10 Best" List

The Florida Project ($5.8 million) *also on my 2017 "10 Best" List

Stronger ($4.2 million)

The Hero ($4 million)

Marshall ($10 million)

Julieta ($1.4 million)

Colossal ($3 million)