5. Casting JonBenet (Kitty Green, 2017)
IMDb Rating: 6.2
No experiment in documentary filmmaking is quite like Kitty Green’s “Casting JonBenet,” released directly on Netflix in one of those quiet rollouts that tend to guarantee that the film in question will fly under the radar forever. When aiming to make a film about the 1996 murder of six-year-old beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey, one of the most oversaturated criminal cases of the last decade of the 20th century, this second-time feature director chose a different path.
She put out a casting call for local actors in Boulder, Colorado (Ramsey’s hometown), and then put a bunch of them together to stage a magnum opus-like reenactment of the many ways the crime could have gone. “Casting JonBenet” is a wonderfully crafted, detailed piece of filmmaking that finds novel ways to examine art’s empathetic effect on people’s views and opinions, especially in a case so charged with prejudices, taboos, and shadowy grey areas.
4. Jackie (Pablo Larraín, 2017)
IMDb Rating: 6.7
If you flip through Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín’s filmography on IMDb, you’ll find that none of his films were as well received by the public as they were by the critics. “Jackie,” his English-language debut, was no different. As Larraín dives into one of the most recognizable historical moments for the American public, his impressionistic style and peculiar rhythm of filmmaking was bound to displease at least a few of the viewers.
“Jackie” was also Larraín’s first serious Oscar contender, earning nods in the Best Actress (Natalie Portman), Best Costume Design (Madeline Fontaine) and Best Music (Mica Levi) categories, and for no small reason.
It’s a brilliantly crafted movie, a tense and somewhat nostalgic, if never naive, look at one of history’s better known tragedies – the shooting of American President John F. Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline Kennedy’s subsequent efforts to preserve his legacy and project a public image that would be eternalized in the American consciousness.
3. Mother! (Darren Aronofsky, 2017)
IMDb Rating: 6.7
“Mother!” is just one of those movies you either love or hate. At the time of its release, it stunned critics and outraged audiences, who were presented with a provocative, enigmatic, shocking drama with metaphorical and religious overtones about a couple dealing with bizarre visits to their newly-rebuilt home. On top of that, star Jennifer Lawrence and director Darren Aronofsky announced they were dating, piquing interest in the film and the intense physical strain it put on Lawrence’s character.
“Mother!” didn’t deserve to be the center of such controversy. It deserved to become a cult classic, an artsy little film in which the always disturbing Aronofsky lets loose his craziest, most extreme ideas.
It’s as much a tongue-in-cheek provocation as it is a clear passion project for the filmmaker, an exploration of themes he deeply cares about. As with any passion project, it’s also a bit self-centered and smug, but well-executed enough to make any true cinema aficionado overlook that.
2. It Follows (David Robert Mitchell, 2014)
IMDb Rating: 6.8
Part of a wave of brilliantly made, not at all conventionally structured independent horror movies, David Robert Mitchell’s “It Follows” tells the story of a young woman, Jay (Maika Monroe), and her friends, as they grapple with a sort of curse/haunting that follows her around and can only be transmitted through sex. While widely interpreted as a moralistic metaphor about STDs, “It Follows” is really a horror movie about the fear of growing up – and a great one at that.
It has few jump scares (though one of them is particularly unforgettable, as I’m sure anyone who’s watched the film knows which one I’m talking about), but it works the mood admirably, with an evocative 80’s synth-heavy soundtrack by Disasterpeace and stunning deep focus cinematography by Mike Gioulakis that has us searching every frame for the dreaded “monster.” Maybe audiences just weren’t in the mood for Mitchell’s artsy, somewhat depressing kind of horror, but it certainly deserves a chance.
1. The Witch: A New-England Folktale (Robert Eggers, 2015)
IMDb Rating: 6.8
Then again, “The Witch” is another one of those independent horror movies that spoke to critics more than it spoke to audiences. Robert Eggers’ feature debut follows a family who is kicked out of their village in the 17th century for expressing religious beliefs contrary to the norm – living in isolation, they see themselves assailed by possibly demonic forces, to be perfectly vague. Anya Taylor-Joy’s star-making performance here should be enough for you to want to watch “The Witch,” but the film has a lot more to offer.
Eggers’ script elaborates themes of religious oppression and misogyny in engaging and surprising ways, while his cinematographer (Jarin Blaschke), composer (Mark Korven), editor (Louise Ford) and production designer (Craig Lathrop) assist him in creating a somber and dramatic mood for this possession/sorcery story drenched in shadows, set in the past, but full of parallels regarding very current issues.