Last year was the year of huge sequels: Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Despicable Me 3, Guardian of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and the highest earning film by a female director, Wonder Woman.
But among all those big budget films, there were many smaller films that went under the radar. Here are some hidden gems from the past 12 months or so that you should track down.
1. Land of Mine
Director: Martin Zandvilet
Runtime: 1hr 40min
Quite simply one of the best films of 2017. A tense nail biter that makes your heart rate race and palms sweat. Unwatchable at times for the sheer anxiety.
Inspired by true events, set after WWII, a group of teenage German soldiers are ordered to clear (by hand!) landmines buried along the coastline by their fellow German soldiers. It was nominated for the Foreign Language Academy Award.
There will be many times in the film that you will yell at the TV ‘oh my god, don’t do that!’ Great filmmaking.
2. A Life in Waves
Director: Brett Whitcomb
Runtime: 1hr 16min
Beep. Bop. Boop. Electronic music is pretty low on my list of things I’m interested in – so understand my surprise when I was particularly taken by this documentary.
I have never heard of the electronic-music pioneer Suzanne Ciani, but I had heard her work, without realising. She created, amongst many things covered in this doco, the Coca-Cola bubble sounds in commercials, Atari noises, as well as working with Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music.
“I was always told I was different,” Ciani says, but I walked away from this film not thinking that at all; rather, how lucky we are to have this genius creator in our lives.
3. Bad Genius
Director: Nattawut Poonpiriya
Runtime: 2hr 10min
I’m always fond of a good heist film, and this one has the added interest of being set around the high-pressured environment of school exams.
This thriller is apparently based on a true story and follows several students who devise an extraordinary cheating system on an upcoming University entry exam. It has slick production values, great characters (particularly Teeradon Supapunpinyo as the rich boyfriend) and quite a few twists that push the story along.
I’m not sure many people have seen a lot of Thai films over the past few years (or decade), but you can’t go wrong with this. Seek it out.
4. Dawson City: Frozen Time
Director: Bill Morrison
Hand on heart, I’ve never quite experienced a narrative woven together as director Bill Morrison accomplishes in this documentary.
In 1978, an entire swimming pool of 533 discarded film reels were discovered in Dawson City, Canada. The films were in different states of decay and had survived because, decades earlier, the swimming pool had been converted into an ice-skating rink and the films were entombed.
Morrison has made a narrative of the story of Dawson City and the discovery, using the faded, incomplete, volatile nitrate film images that were rescued.
Simply an incredible discovery and story.
Runtime: 1hr 55min
Director: Greg McLean
An Australian film that deserves more recognition.
Daniel Radcliffe is outstanding in the lead role, one of the adventurers who can’t resist an opportunity to go deep into the jungle to seek out an Indian tribe. There are some fine moments in this film, but be prepared for emotional punches and mental exhaustion.
The director previously made Wolf Creek, so he’s on familiar terrain with this psychological drama about survival and isolation.
Oh, and did I mention – it’s a true story.
Runtime: 1hr 33min
Director: Vanessa Gould
So, it’s a doco about obituary writers. Now, before you roll your eyes and think that’s quite morbid, keep in mind what one of the New York Times journalists say in the doco: “It’s counterintuitive, ironic even, but obits have next to nothing to do with death and in fact absolutely everything to do with the life”.
And this film covers a few strands about obituary writing – we are shown an entire lifespan of an idea to publication, we learn about the history of obit writing, and we are introduced to the Morgue – the New York Times’ filing room where hundreds of thousands of newspaper cuttings and photos are stored, and its curator is a quirky employee who seems like he’s lost in an escape room. Loved every moment of it.
7. The Galahs
Runtime: 58 mins
Directors: Cam Fink, Rob Heath, Tony Wilson
An Aussie documentary about the first group of Australian Rules footballers who went across to Ireland to take on the All-Ireland Gaelic Football champions.
The incredible story is enhanced by lovely old home video footage of the players training, and touring around the country, and extracts from the actual television broadcast of the game.
Many familiar faces for those who grew up with footy in the 1960s, and lovely to see former umpire Harry Beitzel get his due as one of the key organisers of the event.
Worth the price of admission for the skype interview and singing that ends the documentary.
8. A Ghost Story
Director: David Lowery
This film’s lead character is a guy with a white sheet over his head. And there’s even eyes cut out in the sheet. But somehow, this film has a mystical, alluring, and emotional core that is haunting, and drew me in. It demands a few viewings, but this peculiar drama is a worthy alternate to the big budget blockbusters that are prevalent in cinema.
Stars Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara.
Rhett Bartlett can be heard on ABC Radio Melbourne, and he writes obituaries for The Hollywood Reporter. You can follow him on Twitter.