Best Hidden Gems of 2017
By Zach Dennis, Andrew Swafford, Jessica Carr and Lydia Creech
**NOTE** This is not in ranked order
Princess Cyd (2017) by Stephen Cone
Princess Cyd is one of those films difficult to describe or sell because nothing really happens tangibly in the narrative, but a lot happens to its characters and their mental well-being.
It is a sweet film, one filled with such empathy and curiosity for its characters that you can’t help but to become enraptured in their journey. It is one of those works of art that lacks words to describe it, but so many emotions to feel it. It is in essence cinema.
Princess Cyd follows the titled character (Jessie Pinnick); a high school student who goes to spend a few weeks with her estranged aunt after her single father goes through yet another depressive episode. Her aunt, Miranda (Rebecca Spence), is an accomplished author, renowned in the sphere of her town for her novels.
Unlucky for her, Cyd isn’t interested in books, stories or discussion. She is interested in going outside to get a tan, running and training for soccer and meeting people. One of the people she meets, Katie (Malic White), is a barista at a coffee shop she happens upon while running, igniting an instant connection between the two.
Curiosity of one’s self is synonymous with Cyd’s age range, but writer/director Stephen Cone crafts the story to show that this characteristic isn’t beholden to just the youth, but also to those older and much more “together.” It is easy to play off Cyd for her youthful arrogance and straightforward mentality, but it also causes pause for Miranda, who reconsiders who somewhat secluded existence and opens herself up to some of the experience she sees her niece taking part in.
The same can be sad about Cyd, who discovers her connection to Miranda’s literature.
The film is warm and unassuming, but also biting and strict when it needs to be and felt as awakened as its characters. — Zach Dennis
A Quiet Passion (2017) by Terence Davies
As a sucker for period costume dramas (last year I wrote about Love & Friendship for our best of 2016 blurbs), of course A Quiet Passion called to me. Terence Davies’s biopic about the poet Emily Dickinson shines as an example of the genre and all the things I like about it.
Any genre can be adapted to tell different kinds of stories. Most people tend to associate romance with costume dramas, but as a famous recluse, Dickinson gets no such mushy love story. Instead, I’m here for any film that can breathe life into an era that I have a hard time considering alive. Cynthia Nixon plays Dickinson with keen feeling and sharp wit.
My favorite scenes are those in which she verbally spars with her sister Vinnie (played by Jennifer Ehle from BBC’s 1995 Pride and Prejudice miniseries!) or friend Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey), which reminded me of Love & Friendship. The Victorian Era can seem so distant and stifled, but, really, movies set in this time tend to give me the best representations of women being clever and funny with each other.
Unlike Love & Friendship’s purely satirical bent, however, Davies’s also imbues the film with an atmosphere of melancholy. Unrecognized during her lifetime and largely leading an isolated life, Dickinson (in the film, anyway) was deeply affected by the loss of friends and family to death (or worse, marriage) and her own existential musings about immortality.
Davies has Nixon reading a selection of Dickinson’s poetry over the events onscreen, which helps highlight the deeply felt nature of her words. In some way, Dickinson is brought back to life again and again, and I think Davies captures something of her essence--both the liveliness and sadness--beautifully. Lydia Creech
DOUBLE FEATURE: The Work (2017) by Jarius McLeary // Step (2017) by Amanda Lipitz
The Work and Step are both documentaries about people entrapped: the former takes place in a maximum security men’s prison, the latter an inner-city girls’ school. Neither institution is quite what you’d expect, with equal weight given to humanistic tenderness as to bureaucratic formality. In dialogue, the films present an insightful look at the societal systems that attempt (in their limited, rigid way) to construct and reform citizens--and the well-intentioned people turning sometimes-oppressive gears in hope of keeping those citizens safe from even less-desirable fates.
The Work follows a three civilians who have volunteered to join the inmates of Folsom Prison for four days of group therapy sessions, offering an intimate look at the “work” of these sessions: heavy emotional labor. The film is an always intense, sometimes bone-rattling exorcism of toxic masculinity—a wrecking ball to the emotional concrete standing between hardened men and their tears. The Work is one of the only films of last year guaranteed to have you shaking.
Step operates from the bright end of the school-to-prison pipeline, capturing the lives of young black girls on their school’s dance team. In the shadow of Freddie Gray’s death, all of the film’s young subjects share an deeply-ingrained drive to escape Baltimore alive and successful. Where The Work is visceral, Step is pragmatic: the athleticism at the film’s center offers many girls the hope of scholarship opportunities, but much of the film’s drama occurs in school counselors’ offices and parent-teacher conferences, as professionals and families work together to get the GPA’s above application decimal-point thresholds and FAFSA forms filled out on time.
Despite such seemingly mundane subject-matter, Step is a film of great aspiration and joy, matching the sheer intensity of The Work’s emotional catharsis by suggesting such pain can be avoided. Revolutionary orators and signers of legislation are inspiring, but this is where the small scale work of freeing people from oppressive circumstances actually gets done. — Andrew Swafford
Tragedy Girls (2017) by Tyler MacIntyre
During the Knoxville Horror Film Fest, I had a chance to check out one of the coolest movies I saw in 2017 (Read more about my festival experience here). At 11 a.m. on a Saturday I was surprised with a horror comedy that went above and beyond my expectations.
Tragedy Girls was entertaining from start to finish. The film directed by Tyler MacIntyre had tongue-in-cheek dialogue, two dope lead actresses and really solid horror film references. What more could you want from a slasher flick?
Tragedy Girls is really a movie about friendship, but imagine if that friendship is between two teenage sociopaths. Sadie (Brianna Hildebrand) and McKayla (Alexandra Shipp) are two peas in a homicidal pod. They run a social media brand called “Tragedy Girls” where they post updates about a crazed serial killer in their hometown. At the beginning of the film they capture the killer and try to get him to mentor them. Things don’t really go as planned, so they decide to commit the murder themselves in order to reach social media stardom.
The film feels a lot like Heathers mixed with Scream. It understands the slasher film genre and tries to defy it with a more satirical touch. My one criticism would be that if you’re going to do a satire it needs to be tight and Tragedy Girls was lacking in that department. To me, it was unclear about what specific point the film is trying to make on the effects of social media in our society.
Otherwise, I think the film is genuinely funny and overall a real bloody good time. Look out for the untimely death of a Hunger Games star and watch as he rides his motorcycle into Sadie and McKayla’s path of destruction. — Jessica Carr
Win It All (2017) by Joe Swanberg
Win It All, the latest film from writer/director Joe Swanberg, begins with a film school premise: a man receives a duffle bag full of money.
Naturally, there are more nuances to the premise because 1) Swanberg is far from a film school screenwriter and 2) there is much more to the character than just having a bag full of money, but this basic premise allows the filmmaker, and his star, Jake Johnson, to work out an exercise that is closer to the basics of storytelling.
The man with the bag is Eddie Garrett (Johnson), a compulsive gambler, who is given the duffle bag by a friend who is set to enter prison for the next few months. His only instructions: keep the bag safe and you’ll get the cash.
This isn’t easy for Eddie, who lives bill to bill due to his struggle with gambling. He is trying to turn a corner though with the help of his sponsor, Gene (Keegan Michael-Key), but the emergence of this bag and the amount of cash inside becomes too much and he heads for his usual spots to try and enhance the initial supply.
Of course, it begins strong but quickly takes a swing to the negative with Swanberg implementing an anxious technique of showing the growth, and eventual decline, of the amount of money that Eddie has on screen. This device is enough to stress the audience out, but the complete full encapsulation of this addict by Johnson just adds to the anxiety as we watch his wrath and degrade himself to both win more, and then save himself.
Swanberg has always had a niche for himself from his “birth of mumblecore” days and has shifted into more Richard Linklater territory with his recent films starring Johnson, Anna Kendrick and Melanie Lynskey among others, but Win It All seems fresh, new and inventive with a premise that is simple and clean. — Zach Dennis
Lady Macbeth (2017) by William Oldroyd
Another film about an isolated woman wearing elaborate, pretty, impractical clothing, but instead of writing poetry, Lady Katherine (Florence Pugh) fucks.
As you maybe can imagine, based off the title alone, the results are pretty disastrous. Left alone by her disinterested husband under the care of her controlling father-in-law, Katherine is bored mindless by her prescribed role in life as a woman (stay inside! produce an heir! don’t talk back! don’t talk at all!), and as soon as she gets an opportunity, she embarks on a (preeeetty steamy) affair with stable hand Sebastian. Things get complicated from the very beginning, due to the nature of their meeting being rooted in class and racial exploitation, and soon bodies start to pile up.
What’s really remarkable about this film, other than the beautiful cinematography and sound design and general overall tension, is the so so so smart way it handles Katherine’s various identities and her subtle, complicated slide from sympathetic to … less than… (aided by a cool-as-ice performance from Pugh but, to be honest, I maaay still like her by the end of it).
I’m fascinated by the ways in which a person can go from being marginalized in one context (being a woman in 1860’s England) to turning around oppressing others in another (being white and rich and abled). The climax is less about who is telling the truth than who is most likely to be believed. This is a story about survival, and leaning hard into whatever privileges are afforded under a patriarchal society. As it turns out, quite a lot, comparatively. — Lydia Creech
Better Watch Out (2017) by Chris Peckover
Considering both Halloween and Christmas are in the rearview mirror for the moment, you may want to mark your calendar in advance for next year: Better Watch Out is required seasonal viewing.
Combining tropes of home-invasion/slasher cinema with the aesthetics of Christmas family favorites, Better Watch Out feels most greatly indebted to Home Alone, the latent sadism of which has always been hand-waved away due to its cute protagonist and sweet suburban veneer. Director Chris Peckover is savvy with such optics, and in Better Watch Out he has constructed a film that never stops exploiting his audiences expectations. The original title, Safe Neighborhood, gives a small ironic hint at what’s in store.
The film is best watched with as little prior knowledge as possible, however, so I begrudgingly offer this brief synopsis: while his parents attend a Christmas party, a middle-school boy plans to tell his high-school-aged babysitter about the crush he has on her--until the two begin hearing suspicious noises outside and spring into self-defense mode. Don’t look up anything else-- Better Watch Out is built like a steel trap, and the feeling of being caught in the film’s clutches is quite a treat. Like Get Out (our #4 film of last year), this is a tightly-crafted genre movie with no wasted minutes, intricately detailed scripting, and efficient camerawork. The similarities don’t end there: Better Watch Out is also smuggling plenty of strongly telegraphed socio-political insight, as it scrutinizes common film archetypes and suburban power dynamics, ultimately flipping the bird at a specific kind of white male sociopathy.
Though it took me a little while to fully appreciate the coal-black heart of Better Watch Out, it now stands out as the clear highlight of all the new releases screened at last year’s Knox Horror Film Fest. After a long festival circuit, the film is now available on a plethora of streaming platforms--and I recommend all horror fans check it out whenever the holiday spirit strikes. Andrew Swafford
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (2017) by Angela Robinson
“I want you to love me for all of my days.”
The most romantic film of 2017 is also one that ultimately tanked at the box office. It is a biopic about the man who created Wonder Woman. But the more interesting part of the story is that the man who created Wonder Woman was in a polyamorous relationship with two other women. The love mutually flowed between William Moulton Marston, Elizabeth Marston, and Olive Byrne. Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is truly a unique film exploring sexuality, consent, and the unconventional things we’d try for those we love.
The film plays out much like most in the romance genre but with a third player involved. It tells the story of husband and wife, Harvard psychologist and inventor Dr. William Marston (Luke Evans) and attorney and psychologist Elizabeth Marston (Rebecca Hall) as they work to perfect their lie detector test. The two hire Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote) to help with the project and both realize that they’ve fallen in love with her. The trio decide to give the relationship a chance and throughout the film they explore some rather kinky bondage scenarios. All of these aspects of Marston’s life contribute to his eventual creation of Wonder Woman’s character. With Angela Robinson’s direction, the film ditches the usual fetish tones that this subject matter would normally give, and instead tells a story that feels more genuine.
The film is able to focus on the elements that make Wonder Woman the amazing superhero she is known as today. I think the film is really the best it could possibly be while staying true to the real life story of Marston. His character was shaped by the strong women around him. This was probably the most heartfelt movie about romantic relationships in 2017 and it totally has bondage, and I'm totally fine with that. — Jessica Carr