Best Movies Off the Radar 2017

A selection of 12 staff favorites that might not have played at your local multiplex.

by | December 28, 2017 | Comments

There are a lot — and we mean a lot — of movies that are released during any given year, and with all the marketing money going to big budget blockbusters and awards hopefuls, a lot of smaller films come and go without eliciting so much as a curious glance from moviegoers. With that in mind, we here at RT have picked just a handful of our favorite movies that were, for one reason or another, mostly overlooked by audiences at large this year. From carnivorous Polish mermaids and stray cats in Turkey to bombastic action in India and supernatural horror in Norway, here are some of the best movies of 2017 that you might not have seen.

American Fable (2016) 76%

Yes, there is a faun in American Fable (not a spoiler, you can see it in the trailer and the movie’s poster), and the story is told from the point of view of a young girl, but don’t be too quick to write it off as a Guilllermo del Toro knockoff. Gitty is the eleven year old protagonist of this film, and her life is pretty inauspicious and carefree, despite the palpable tension within her family. Then she comes upon a man in business attire, imprisoned in an abandoned silo on the family’s ailing farm. City meeting country is a common motif in horror films, but American Fable isn’t quite a horror, and writer-director Anne Hamilton manages to create a moody, enigmatic, and mysterious world that blends fairy tale with 1980s rural America. American Fable is the rare young girl’s coming-of-age film that doesn’t involve romance, where the growing up comes from gaining a greater understanding of the world around her and the many-faceted people who inhabit it. While the story may not pay off for all viewers, it’s still a striking, hypnotic representation of a point of view and a part of America that is often overlooked. I would be hesitant to call American Fable one of the best films of the year, but it is one of those films that you come away from in anticipation of what the director will accomplish in future endeavors. — Sara Ataiiyan

Available on: Amazon, Netflix

Baahubali 2: The Conclusion (2017) 86%

Baahubali 2: The Conclusion plays like a shotgun wedding between Ben Hur and Kung Fu Hustle, seasoned with bits of Shakespeare, Kurosawa, and Buster Keaton. In other words, it’s a blockbuster that’s both gigantic and lighter than air. The story of The Beginning was as simple as a fairy tale and as resonant as a myth, but with The Conclusion, director S.S. Rajamouli has cranked everything to 11; rarely have action sequences this gravity- (and logic-) defying been captured on film. What separates this epic (which was a massive hit in India and within the South Asian diaspora) from its American brethren is its sincerity and optimism: its righteous titular hero (played by Prabhas) and his band of honorable men and women clash with scheming, corrupt bad guys, and it feels alternately old-fashioned and refreshingly bold. It’s the kind of film that reminds us why we love going to the movies. — Tim Ryan

Available on: Amazon, Netflix

Birdboy: The Forgotten Children (2015) 94%

2017 was a great year for animation. Pixar had Coco. Cartoon Saloon gave us the gorgeously moving The Breadwinner. At some point, there was a Boss Baby. And hidden behind them all was GKIDS’ Birdboy: The Forgotten Children. Based on the Spanish graphic novel, Psiconautas, los niños olvidados, Birdboy follows four young ones as they navigate a post-ecological fall out world, and though it’s ultimately a coming-of-age story, that’s one of the only things it has in common with many of its animated contemporaries. It’s a haunting exploration of what happens to those left behind in society, warts and all, and the ways in which our inner selves and outer perceptions do not always align within the twisted, gorgeous landscape that surrounds us. Despite themes not often handled in animated features (including mental health issues, drug use, and sexual undertones), Birdboy finds a spark of hope amid the desolation. It’s got dashes of dark humor and a heartbreakingly beautiful finale which reminds us that, even in the darkest of times, there’s always a light that’s worth keeping alive. — Haña Lucero-Colin

In select theaters

Colossal (2016) 81%

I can’t say it was the most obscure movie I saw this year, but Colossal was one of the most surprising. I’m constantly on the lookout for kooky stuff, so I was initially attracted by its odd premise, which essentially boils down to “a woman discovers she is psychically linked to a Kaiju.” It didn’t hurt that the woman in question was Anne Hathaway, that the supporting cast included Dan Stevens, Tim Blake Nelson, and Jason Sudeikis, and that the director was Nacho Vigalondo, who has something of a penchant for, yes, kooky stuff. But while Colossal does trade in goofy antics from time to time, there’s a real pathos at the center of the story, which sets Hathaway’s character on a path of self-examination in ways that are unexpectedly poignant and seemingly incongruous with its nutty high-concept premise. The film does stumble a bit in its attempt to deliver an “A-ha!” moment towards the end, but Hathaway is so good in her portrayal of a woman dealing with alcoholism, abuse, and the sins of her past that it was easy for me to overlook any minor quibbles. Colossal is a weird movie, and it’s not going to appeal to everyone, but it’s also a pretty effective exploration of stunted emotional maturity anchored by a phenomenal performance. And it’s got giant monsters. — Ryan Fujitani

Available on: FandangoNOWAmazon, Hulu

Columbus (2017) 97%

Stillness pervades Kogonada’s Columbus, in the steady, observant shots surveying the modernist architecture and public art that has given the city its prominent reputation among art lovers. This same impression of serenity spills over into the suspended lives of the two main characters: Jin, returning abruptly from a job abroad to watch over his comatose father, and Casey, a recent high school graduate who remains in Columbus in a self-imposed state of obligation, caring for her formerly drug-addicted mother. Their chance meeting is as natural as the relationship that follows, as the pair wanders from one architectural marvel to the next, confiding in one another but also challenging their respective inertia. Columbus poignantly depicts the difficulty of gazing inward and facing one’s fears, feelings that are particularly evident in Haley Lu Richardson’s luminous performance as Casey. Richardson’s facial nuances are a throwback from the silent era, subtly shifting from enthusiasm for the beloved buildings in her hometown to a fearful realization that she may never leave them behind. It’s this depth of emotion that makes Columbus feel like a conversation you can’t stop eavesdropping on. — Jenny Jediny

Available on: HuluAmazon Video

The Farthest (2017) 100%

Out of all the cool stuff the movies have thrown at us this year, it hardly seems likely that one of 2017’s best limited-release films would be a documentary about the NASA nerds who launched the Voyager mission in 1977. Yet while The Farthest is definitely about space and math and stuff, it’s also about so much more: as director Emer Reynolds subtly yet persuasively makes clear, this is a group of people who overcame incredible odds — and technological constraints that may seem absurd to younger viewers — to assemble one of the most awe-inspiring quests for knowledge undertaken in all of human history. In these divided times, it’s nothing short of stirring to see a positive example of what we can do when our priorities align; when some of those NASA nerds start tearing up while looking back on the brilliantly curious spirit that fueled their life’s work, don’t be surprised if you find yourself reaching for a tissue too. — Jeff Giles

Available on: Amazon, Netflix

Kedi (2016) 98%

Ceyda Torun’s directorial debut follows the life of seven stray cats in Istanbul, a city that for centuries has lived harmoniously with the hundreds of thousands of owner-free cats who go about their business in the streets like any human. Kedi is definitely a film for cat lovers, but it’s also a treat for those who love to travel and learn about different cultures, those who are interested in History, and even those in search of something heartwarming to watch.

Visually, Kedi is gorgeous. Torun and cinematographer Charlie Wuppermann create a beautiful portrait of the feline life, often shot from their perspective — at whisker’s height, offering a fresh picture of the city and its many peculiarities. The best part of Kedi, though, is how it depicts the very unique relationship between humans and cats in the city, something that feels almost magical to foreign eyes. There’s much to learn about cross-species respect and camaraderie from this movie, and it will most likely make you rethink the way you see the non-human citizens in the world around you. — Júlio de Oliveira

Available on: FandangoNOW, Amazon

The Lure (2015) 89%

Countless foreign films wash up on our collective shores each year, and as cinephiles, we pick through the flotsam and jetsam, occasionally stumbling upon some real treasures. Agnieszka Smoczynska’s The Lure is such a find from Poland. This mature fairy tale follows a pair of mermaids, Golden and Silver, who swim ashore after hearing a rock band play on the beach. They are soon employed at a nightclub, a catalyst for their grounded coming-of-age story. With musical numbers that range from large and lavish to intimate and dreamlike, The Lure introduced me to a killer pop-goth-rock soundtrack that I’ve been humming all year long. The film is colorful yet murky, with a camera that seems to float along with the action; it’s as if the mermaids brought their underwater sensibilities to the production itself. In a year of remarkable directorial debuts (Lady Bird, Get Out, Ingrid Goes West) this one still strikes me as the most confident and daring. Smoczynska has already arrived as a filmmaker, and I eagerly await to see what she bottles up next. If nothing else, I guarantee you won’t find a better Polish horror musical mermaid tale in 2017. — J.S. Lewis

Available on: Amazon

Mayhem (2017) 84%

Rip and tear! For all you corporate drones out there suffering from chronic employment, here’s an antidote: Mayhem, director Joe Lynch’s jagged little pill of blood, guts, and TPS reports. Steven Yuen, having found sweet release from The Walking Dead‘s pervasive mediocrity, is now settled into a nice high-rise office as a heartless lawyer. But a virus (maybe you’re the problem, Steve) has invaded the building. So just as he’s about to be thrown into the street as the fall guy for some botched business, his coworkers devolve into uninhibited psychos lusting for cathartic sex and total carnage. Call it casualty Friday. The premise doesn’t hold up under any real scrutiny and the budget is barebones, but Mayhem‘s bone-breaking renegade filmmaking only needs the purpose and passion witnessed here for it to work. It’s a primal scream from your empty screen that departs with an impact. Literally. — Alex Vo

Available on: FandangoNOWAmazon

Mommy Dead and Dearest (2017) 100%

There’s been an influx of true crime docs in the last few years, but if there’s one that’s absolutely worth watching, it’s Mommy Dead and Dearest. Dee Dee, a model mother, and Gypsy, her chronically ill daughter, live what looks to be a seemingly normal life. Interviews with neighbors, doctors, family members, and Gypsy herself prove that nothing and no one are what they seem. It’s like if Hannah Montana was Mischa Barton from The Sixth Sense, but was also kind of a murderer — er, a murderer’s apprentice, if you will. (That is the most accurate description anyone will ever give you.) The story picks up in the aftermath of what looks like your standard Law and Order: SVU-type plot: Daughter meets guy online, guy convinces daughter to run away, mother stands in the way, all hell breaks loose. But once the details start to surface, a drastically different tale begins to emerge. Mommy Dead and Dearest not only provides an interesting look into the kind of toll Munchausen Syndrome by proxy takes on an individual, but also takes a deep dive into the inner workings of fraud, emotional and physical abuse, and the state of both the healthcare and criminal justice systems in the United States. — Zoey Moore

Available on: FandangoNOWAmazon

Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer (2016) 87%

The latest by critically acclaimed director Joseph Cedar (Footnote, Beaufort) could be an ideal way to close out your year, with what quickly became my favorite Richard Gere performance yet. Gere plays Norman Oppenheimer, an aging Jewish wheeler and dealer in New York thrown into political mayhem when his new friend becomes elected Prime Minister of Israel. A classic tragic arc is made contemporarily relatable with a poignant stew — equal parts funny, heartwarming, and heartbreaking. The feeling walking out of the theater (or finishing the stream, as the case may be) is a darker one than expected at the start, and Gere somehow manages to turn one of those borderline abrasive characters that we’d often ignore in life into someone worth rooting for. — Kerr Lordygan

Available on: FandangoNOW, Amazon

Thelma (2017) 92%

I went into Thelma cold, only knowing that it had an intriguing poster that made me feel the same kind of fascination I felt with the VHS cover for Prom Night II (look it up, I was obsessed). Eili Harboe plays Thelma, a young woman in college who comes from a religious background. The movie is elegant and restrained, and compelled me to “solve” it. Thelma has a seizure at school, and things begin to get noticeably odd… or do they? Was I assigning value to something that meant nothing? Was this horror, sci-fi, coming-of-age, or all three? The fact that the movie takes its time to answer, while trusting the audience enough to draw some of their own conclusions, made me love it. Thelma’s journey into self-discovery is a measured kind of realistic, beautiful, and a little creepy. Watching it not only entertained me, but helped me understand how I watch films, and how wonderful moviegoing can be when you experience it rather than figure it out. — Grae Drake

In select theaters

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