The 10 Best Off-the-Beaten-Path Films of 2017

Film is dead. Long live these films.

Michael Atkinson

Image from a poster advertising Cristian Mungiu's Baccalaureat, our critic's pick for the best film of 2017.
We have to face the fact that we're no longer living in a movie culture. The belle epoque for film lasted meaningfully for maybe a full century, but now we've moved on. The repetitive, distended stream of TV shows and the limitless abyss of online distractions are ascendant. Movies—real cinema, the kind made for thinking adults, not just children—have become a specialty medium, for a dwindling tribe of hobbyists and buffs, as the public shape of the art form is almost entirely controlled by a handful of corporations selling a handful of absurdly expensive blockbusters via a dwindling handful of theaters. 2017's top ten moneymakers were, unsuprisingly, a litany of superhero adaptations, cartoons and infantile franchise sequels. Any moviegoer from the 20th century would be appalled.
So, 2017: a sad year by any standard, free of masterpieces just as it's been free of justice, political responsibility and mature rhetoric. As always, I am put off by easy manipulations and soft landings, and drawn to human wisdom, ingenuity and a gimlet eye. The best film, by a nose, was Cristian Mungiu's Graduation, a drama of the Romanian New Wave school that traces a complex tumble of dominoes falling around an upper-class father's attempt to use his country's endemic quid-pro-quo corruption to ensure his daughter's college scholarship. Tense with comprised morality and the fragility of privilege, visualized in the typical Romanian way—as a breathholding launch into neo-neo-realism—it's a feast for grown-ups, however its huge festival profile went overlooked here. (As of this moment, it's on Netflix.)
My numero deuce, and maybe the year's most remarkable release, is Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk. As a brand, Nolan has meant only bloated, thinly-thought-out sci-fi fantasy to me; it'd been 17 years since his last really interesting film, 2000's Memento. But Dunkirk was a kind of big-budget studio-made experiment we never see, a massive recreation of war history that dared to defy the empathy-bonding mandate of Hollywood narrative filmmaking. Nolan's soldiers are just that—soldiers lost, panicked, dying or not on the beach, and we're not supposed to think that knowing their histories or even their names makes their trial less immediate. Terrence Malick's miraculous The Thin Red Line did something similar in 1998, and both films insist on a crucial humanism that steps over the individual and embraces the universal. That, and Nolan's visit to the English Channel is simply a harrowing, merciless ordeal.
Yorgos Lanthimos' The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a cinch for my #3, given the man's unearthly way of recasting reality with the tension of zombified etiquette, and of imagining interpersonal dystopias. This new film, which entails a complacent upper-class family led by doctor Colin Farrell and imperiled from within and without, is not as wickedly original as last year's The Lobster, but what could be?
For my #4 through #6, families in meltdown were thick on the ground: Asghar Farhadi's The Salesman, Andrey Zvyagintsev's Loveless and Michael Haneke's Happy End. From earnest Iranian patriarchal crisis to bitter indictment of Russian bourgie narcissism to sardonic rip through the French moneyed classes, by way of three of the world's most acute and ambitious film artists, you get the sense that the nuclear unit is on the verge of obsolescence.
Ruben Ostlund's The Square and Bertrand Bonello's Nocturama (#7 and #8) are terrific Euro discomfitures, lancing the pretensions of the art world and the hollowed consumerist souls of 21st-century youth, respectively. Then there's Tanna, the first and only film to be made in and about Vanuatu, a surpassingly beautiful Romeo-&-Juliet jungle saga (based on a true story) crafted by two very white Australian documentarians but with the vivid integrity of a folktale. The actors, all of them grass-skirted Yakel natives, exude a vibrant naturalness, as if the camera, which is forever chasing them through the verdant wilderness, simply wasn't there.
Of #10, David Lowery's A Ghost Story, reviewed earlier this year, one can only say to the dubious, impatient viewer: what seems like a daunting gag does in fact bloom into metaphysical poetry.
My runners-up, in order: The Unknown Girl (Luc & Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Belgium), The Death of Louis XIV (Albert Serra, France/Spain), The Meyerowitz Stories (New & Selected) (Noah Baumbach, U.S.), The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro, US..), Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig, U.S.), By the Time It Gets Dark (Anocha Suwichakornpong, Thailand), Good Time (Josh and Benny Safdie, U.S./Luxembourg), Harmonium (Koji Fukada, Japan), Marjorie Prime (Michael Almereyda, U.S.).

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Michael Atkinson is a film reviewer for In These Times. He has written or edited many books, including Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work Beyond Hollywood (2008) and the mystery novels Hemingway Deadlights (2009) and Hemingway Cutthroat (2010). He blogs at Zero For Conduct.
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