Last year, 718 feature films were released in U.S. theaters—or about 14 a week. And, as much as we all enjoy a two-hour respite from the attention-grabbing antics of our commander-in-chief, a man the USA Today editorial board recently branded “unfit to clean toilets in Obama’s presidential library,” even the most vigilant of moviegoer couldn’t possibly catch ‘em all.
Among the many gems that fell through the cracks last year was A Bigger Splash, a sexy, sun-soaked tale of jealousy and deceit by Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino, helmer of the buzzy Call Me by Your Name; newcomer Anna Rose Holmer’s visually entrancing coming-of-age saga The Fits; and Green Room, a punks vs. Nazis grindhouse thriller by Jeremy Saulnier.
And, buried between towering blockbusters like Star Wars: The Last Jedi and our annual Marvel-superhero rations were some truly outstanding—and criminally overlooked—films this year, too.
PERSONAL SHOPPER (March 10)
People forget that, before those terribly popular emo-vampire films, Kristen Stewart was a character actress par excellence; a performer whose aching vulnerability, paired with a mélange of striking close-ups, stirs the soul. Her creative partnership with French auteur Olivier Assayas, which began with the 2014 film Clouds of Sils Maria, continues with Stewart portraying a damaged young woman who, when she’s not acquiring high-end dresses and jewelry for her celebrity-boss, is attempting to contact her recently deceased brother in the spirit world. And Stewart, all raw nerves and twitchiness, proves the perfect vessel for Assayas’ paranoid journey.
THE LOST CITY OF Z (April 14)
I suspect that, if this film had landed its intended star Brad Pitt, you’d be seeing it on a lot more top ten lists. It tells the story of Percy Fawcett, a British explorer who becomes fixated on finding an ancient lost city deep in the Amazon. Though Charlie Hunnam is a bit of a blank as Fawcett, Robert Pattinson, behind a bushy beard, completely disappears into the role of his right-hand man, and Sienna Miller turns in one of the best performances of the year as Fawcett’s tormented, endlessly devoted wife. Also, nobody not named Michael Haneke composes a final shot better than James Gray (Two Lovers, The Immigrant), and he doesn’t disappoint here. It will leave you breathless.
OKJA (June 28)
There’s a lot going on. A young Korean farm girl who travels to Seoul in search of her beloved genetically-engineered super pig. A goofy corporate CEO, played by Tilda Swinton, who hopes to profit from the cutting-edge creature. Paul Dano as the leader of a militant band of animal-rights activists hell-bent on exposing the food corporation. Jake Gyllenhaal’s batshit-crazy TV zoologist, who is in way over his head. And at the helm of it all is Bong Joon-ho, the acclaimed South Korean filmmaker behind Snowpiercer, who’s crafted a playfully mischievous fantasy-epic bursting with imagination.
A GHOST STORY (July 7)
Let’s first address the elephant in the room: Casey Affleck stars in this film. Some will find that a problem. He plays a man who, after perishing in a car accident, awakens in the morgue as a ghost with a sheet over his head and proceeds to haunt first his grieving wife (Rooney Mara), and then the succeeding residents of his Texas home. What sounds silly on paper—an Oscar winner under a sheet, framed by a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, in search of closure before passing on—proves to be a bold, poetic meditation on love, loss, and mankind’s pursuit of serenity. And Rooney Mara is dynamite. You’ll never look at a chocolate cream pie the same way again.
COLUMBUS (Aug. 4)
If there were any justice in Hollywood, this stunningly rendered film would be up for a slew of Academy Awards. Marking the feature directorial debut of video essayist Kogonada, it stands as a monument to the architectural beauty of the Midwest, as two lost souls—a morose forty-something (John Cho) whose architect-father is in a coma, and a whip-smart 19-year-old (Haley Lu Richardson) putting her life on hold to care for her recovering-addict mother—navigate the Saarinen-designed structures of Columbus, Indiana, as well as their pasts. It never hits a false note thanks largely to Richardson, whose performance is nothing short of profound. A star is born.
THE VILLAINESS (Aug. 25)
The plot to this South Korean action flick is more convoluted than the first Mission: Impossible film. There are double- and- triple crosses, sleeper agents, and a female assassin-protagonist who gets plastic surgery to completely alter her appearance. But holy shit, the action sequences in this movie put even The Raid to shame. There’s a highway chase on motorbikes, with our aforementioned hero dodging a flurry of samurai swords while weaving between lanes, that is so jaw-dropping you’ll want to race home to Google how they did it. Filmmaker Jung Byung-gil has immediately catapulted himself to the top of the action-movie food chain, and star Kim Ok-bin is, without question, the most badass action-hero on film this year.
BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 (Oct. 6)
Nearly twenty years after his finest film performance in Clay Pigeons, Vince Vaughn has returned with his second-best: as a tattooed ex-boxer who, after falling in deep with mob, must fight his way through the prison system in order to kill a man housed in a hellish maximum-security facility, thereby freeing his kidnapped pregnant wife (Jennifer Carpenter) on the outside. The film is skull-crushingly violent, and yet, Vaughn proves to be both physically imposing and incredibly charming, breaking bones and mangling faces with a wink and a smile. And the man at the helm, filmmaker S. Craig Zahler (Bone Tomahawk), is like a cross between Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez: he knows how to keep you firmly on the edge of your seat.