If “Juno” had opened in 2017, would it still have been a box office hit? What about “Shakespeare in Love”? “Little Miss Sunshine”? “Slumdog Millionaire”?
To say that the state of independent films is at a crossroads is the understatement of the decade. The movie business has now become a tale of two audiences. There’s the tentpole blockbusters, like “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” and “Wonder Woman,” which draw packed crowds at the multiplexes. And then there’s everything else.
For the last two years, even the month of December — a time when Oscar movies usually fare well — hasn’t necessarily been the most fertile ground for smaller movies. Blame the “Star Wars” franchise — the Disney blockbusters have become such Goliaths, they’ve put a dent in any title playing in a theater near them. That’s led to a pre-holiday lull for art-house movies, such as “The Darkest Hour” or “The Shape of Water” (both hovering at around $10 million in tickets sales so far in limited release), that rely on word of mouth to grow.
With competition from TV shows, the Internet, Netflix and other mediums, the number of independent films that enter into the zeitgeist become fewer and fewer. In 2017, the rare success stories included “The Big Sick” ($43 million at the domestic box office), “Wind River” ($34 million) and “Lady Bird” ($29 million), but even they didn’t do business on the same scale as a “Juno” from 2007 ($143 million).
Here are 13 movies that deserved a bigger spotlight.
1. “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”
Domestic box office: $2.3 million
Yorgos Lanthimos’ follow-up to “The Lobster” is his best movie yet, a dark horror comedy about a family led by Colin Farrell (a career-best performance) and Nicole Kidman (equally terrific) whose serenity is disrupted one day by an eerie visitor (Barry Keoghan). When “Sacred Deer” premiered at Cannes last May, it was followed by immediate Oscar buzz and comparisons to Kubrick. However, distributor A24 has had a lot of on its plate, with “Lady Bird,” “The Disaster Artist” and “The Florida Project.” “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” didn’t find the audience it deserved.
2. “The Lost City of Z”
Domestic box office: $8.5 million
In “The Lost City of Z,” James Gray has crafted a swashbuckling adventure with the heart of a lush period movie, set in the depths of the Amazon jungle circa the 1920s. The leader of the film’s travelogues is real-life explorer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), who is accompanied by his wingman Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson), while his feminist wife (Sienna Miller, fantastic) is left to worry back home in London. The movie quietly slipped out of theaters last spring from Amazon Studios—though it would have also been right at home with Merchant Ivory Productions. The film’s many vocal defenders on social media, including Variety’s Guy Lodge, are right; this should be seen.
3. “Battle of the Sexes”
Domestic box office: $12.6 million
By today’s standards, “Battle of the Sexes” wasn’t a flop. But it had so much in its corner after it earned stellar reviews out of Telluride and Toronto. This movie directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (“Little Miss Sunshine”) recreated a 1973 match between the Hillary Clinton of tennis (Emma Stone as Billie Jean King) vs. her own Donald Trump (a scenery-chewing Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs). “Battle of the Sexes” spoke to our moment loudly. Ironically, in another era, it might have mattered more.
Domestic box office: $4.2 million
Jake Gyllenhaal embarked on an onscreen metamorphosis to portray Jeff Bauman, the hero who lost both his legs in the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013. It’s hard to know when to release an independent movie nowadays. The summer is oversaturated with blockbusters, and the fall had “It,” a surprise horror hit. “Stronger,” which opened in late September, only managed expand to 645 screens. In the end, the movie may have arrived a little too early for awards season, where Gyllenhaal should be more of a contender in the best actor race.
Domestic box office: N/A
Dee Rees’ epic set in the 1940s Mississippi Delta, about two neighboring families (the moms are played by Mary J. Blige and Carey Mulligan), isn’t just a time capsule from the past. It premiered at Sundance (to the festival’s biggest standing ovation) on the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration, and its depiction of the Klu Klux Klan feels alarmingly relevant in 2017. Netflix landed the movie for $12.5 million, and presumably many viewers have seen it on the streaming service. But it doesn’t feel like it’s entered into the public consciousness in the same way that popular Netflix TV shows do. Maybe there’s still a bias against movies debuting in theaters first. We’ll know more when the Oscar nominations are unveiled next month.
6. “Patti Cake$”
Domestic box office: $800,000
Ever year, there is a Sundance darling that inexplicably turns into a box-office dud. Sadly, in 2017, that booby prize went to this should-have-been Cinderella story about a rapper from New Jersey (Danielle MacDonald) who lives with her mom (Bridget Everett). Fox Searchlight splurged $9.5 million on the acquisition, only to see a tiny fraction of that in ticket sales.
7. “Beach Rats”
Domestic box office: $473,000
2017 has been declared a breakthrough year for gay movies, except the only one that audiences have discovered is Luca Guadagnino’s “Call Me By Your Name.” That’s too bad, because this drama directed by Eliza Hittmann is just as sublime. Harris Dickinson delivers a star-is-born turn as a Brooklyn teenager named Frankie, trapped in his family’s basement as he struggles with his sexual identity.
8. “BPM (Beats Per Minute)”
Domestic box office: $92,000
Robin Campillo’s drama about a group of AIDS activists in 1990s Paris plays like a contemporary bookend to “The Normal Heart.” It’s hard to tell what’s worse: the fact that more people weren’t willing to see the movie in theaters, or that the Academy snubbed it from the short-list for best foreign language film.
9. “A Ghost Story”
Domestic box office: $1.6 million
Although “A Ghost Story” is truth in advertising, it’s not a scary tale—but rather, a meditation on life, through a series of vignettes that start off with a married couple (Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara) in their new home.
10. “Personal Shopper”
Domestic box office: $1.3 million
The other must-see ghost story of the year stars Kristen Stewart as a celebrity handler who is haunted by the memory of her dead twin brother. If Nicole Kidman in “The Others” reached mass audiences in 2001, why couldn’t this?
11. “Good Time”
Domestic box office: $2.0 million
Actually, it’s been a great year for former “Twilight” stars. When Robert Pattinson first appears on screen in “Good Time,” as a lanky bank robber about to pull off a heist, I had no idea it was him. The Safdie Brothers have finally given the actor a proper indie vehicle (after false starts in “Cosmopolis” and “Maps to the Stars”).
12. “Their Finest”
Domestic box office: $3.6 million
Lone Scherfig (“An Education”) returns to period England, with this effortlessly charming story about two screenwriters (Gemma Arterton and Sam Claflin) who are trying to cobble together a movie that will rally the morale of a war-torn nation. If you liked “The Artist,” you’ll love “Their Finest.”
13. “In the Fade”
Domestic box office: N/A
Fatih Akin’s drama about a German woman whose family perishes in a terrorist bombing opened in limited release this week. But it already feels like this title, which earned Diane Kruger the best actress prize at Cannes, has slipped through the cracks. The critics’ groups failed to bestow any recognition to Kruger for her career-best work (and my favorite female performance of 2017). Couldn’t she at least have gotten a Golden Globe nomination?