Director: Vanessa Gould
Cast: William McDonald, Bruce Weber, Margalit Fox
Synopsis: This documentary looks at the work lives of obituary writers at the New York Times.
What You Need To Know: This Tribeca premiere hit over 40 festivals along with its limited release in 2017, garnering lots of critical praise along the way. “Obit,” the second feature project from “Between the Folds” director Vanessa Gould, sheds some non-fluorescent light on the New York Times newsroom’s darkest cohort. From in-progress obituaries to advance death announcements, the Times staff shows the lighter side of a morbid job via Gould’s dry investigation. Despite its fascinating subject matter, “Obit” isn’t outstandingly challenging or memorable. While it is a well-made doc, this profile ends up more middle-of-the-road than extraordinary. That said, if you’re a journalism buff or a documentary fan, you just might be dying to see it.
Director: Valérie Müller and Angelin Preljocaj
Cast: Juliette Binoche, Niels Schneider, Anastasia Shevtsova, Aleksey Guskov
Synopsis: A ballerina poised to join the Bolshoi Ballet leaves behind her classical roots to follow a new passion, contemporary dance.
What You Need To Know: This Venice 2016 premiere offered dancer Anastasia Shevtsova and husband-and-wife directing team Valérie Müller and Angelin Preljocaj a crack at indie stardom, and it mostly succeeded. With a beautiful performance from lead Shevtsova and a compelling script by Müller, adapted from the graphic novel by Bastien Vivès, this movie has a lot more going for it than a great supporting turn from Juliette Binoche. Still, some critics disliked the moving coming-of-age tale, calling it slow and amorphous. You be the judge — if you’re interested in an artful take on adolescence that shows the joyous side of dance, you’ll probably think “Polina” is en pointe.
“Professor Marston and the Wonder Women”
Director: Angela Robinson
Cast: Luke Evans, Connie Britton, Rebecca Hall, Bella Heathcote
Synopsis: This biopic chronicles the unconventional origins of Wonder Woman, invented by American psychologist William Moulton Marston. Marston led a covert relationship with two different women: his wife Elizabeth and their lover Olivia.
What You Need To Know: “D.E.B.S.” director Angela Robinson lassoed critics in with this compelling TIFF-competitor-turned-wide-release, but the film missed out on mainstream attention. Critics praised “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women” for its original, non-exploitative take on sadomasochism, but the biopic ultimately only grossed $1 million. It’s not all golden cuffs and star emblems for this film in the critical world, though — our own Kevin Jagernauth called the film “uninspiring” and “conventional,” and other critics agreed. ‘Professor Marston’ may not be everybody’s cup of tea (particularly if you don’t believe that S&M and polyamory are inherently feminist) but if you do decide to watch this drama, you can’t ever go wrong with Rebecca Hall.
Director: Julia Ducournau
Cast: Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Nait Oufella, Laurent Lucas
Synopsis: A vegetarian vet school student becomes an unhinged cannibal after a brutal hazing ritual.
What You Need To Know: This savage first feature from Julia Ducournau earned a place on many Best of 2017 lists for its jaw-dropping artistry and riveting performances. Far more than just “that movie that made a couple people puke and faint,” “Raw” was one of the most original Sundance premieres at a competitive 2017 festival. In his review for us, Kenji Fujishima particularly praised lead Garance Marillier, saying her “committed performance as Justine […] carries you through every over-the-top, hard-to-believe twist — she makes it seem real.” In a year of stellar adolescent tales like “Call Me by Your Name” and “Lady Bird,” “Raw” absolutely reinvents the subgenre, steeping it in unprecedented, unapologetic gore. Horror fans and strong-stomached cinephiles cannot miss this bloodthirsty standout.
“The Rape of Recy Taylor”
Director: Nancy Buirski
Cast: Recy Taylor, Alma Daniels, Tommy Bernardi, Cynthia Erivo
Synopsis: This astounding documentary sheds light on white men’s rape of black women in the Jim Crow South via 24-year-old mother Recy Taylor’s disturbing 1944 case.
What You Need To Know: If there was an award for “Most Salient Film of 2017,” “The Rape of Recy Taylor” would at least secure a nomination. This Venice and Cannes competitor has stunned audiences throughout its festival and theatrical runs. At once historical and pertinent, “Loving” producer Nancy Buirski’s portrayal of this Jim Crow-era gang rape utilizes the documentary medium to its utmost potential. Buirski incorporates both Taylor’s own testimony and the cinematic context of mid-20th century race films into this harrowing tale, making it an altogether well-rounded portrait of systemic oppression. In her review for The Playlist, Kimber Myers called the work “utterly devastating” and “resonant,” terms that don’t fit just any documentary in this era of done-to-death tragedies. To learn some little-told history and bawl like a baby, choose a dour day and screen “The Rape of Recy Taylor.”
Director: Laura Poitras
Cast: Julian Assange, Jacob Appelbaum, Sarah Harrison
Synopsis: This documentary chronicles the work of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.
What You Need To Know: “Point of View” creator/“Citizenfour” director Laura Poitras once again wowed critics with this high-stakes portrayal of Julian Assange. “Risk” had a limited release last May after its 2016 Cannes debut, showcasing Poitras’s characteristically humane take on groundbreaking journalism. Offering one of the most complex portraits of Assange the world has ever seen, “Risk” makes up for its erratic pacing with enthralling content. In his review of the film for us, Nikola Grozdanovic especially praised Poitras’s own risk taking. He said the film is “instilled with a sense of immediate urgency as an apprehensive cloud hovers over every action, every word, every wayward glance.” While it may not upend cinematic convention, “Risk” certainly lives up to the name, making for an engrossing watch.
Director: Lucia Aniello
Cast: Kate McKinnon, Ilana Glazer, Zoë Kravitz, Scarlett Johansson
Synopsis: Five college friends get together for a bachelorette weekend, but things go horribly wrong when the stripper they hire dies.
What You Need To Know: This feature debut, penned by “Broad City” writers Lucia Aniello and Paul W. Downs and directed by Aniello, grossed over $40 million after its wide release this summer. While many critics panned “Rough Night” for supposed faux-feminism, others (like our own Kimber Myers) argued that the fun, female-centric movie just wasn’t meant to be that deep. The film brings the same kind of uniquely funny female humor as “Broad City,” but it’s not exactly trying to recreate Seneca Falls. Instead, “Rough Night” provides relatively guilt-free raunch with a gender-bent twist and a romantic subplot that’s unprecedented on the big screen. One of the best R-rated comedies of the year, especially due to stellar turns from Kate McKinnon and Ilana Glazer, “Rough Night” earned its commercial success no matter what most critics said.
Director: Neasa Ní Chianáin and David Rane
Cast: Amanda Leyden, John Leyden, Dermot Dix
Synopsis: A fly-on-the-wall style documentary detailing one year at primary boarding school the Headfort School.
What You Need To Know: Released in Ireland as “In Loco Parentis,” this is a charming look at primary school children poignantly questioning life. When asked in class what their opinion on gay marriage is, one child sweetly replies “sometimes it is better to be gay than single,” a timely reminder of the changing social attitudes of the Emerald Isles from those seen in Peter Lennon’s “Rocky Road To Dublin.” While overlong in length (the pacing could have done with some trimming), there is a delicacy and intimacy found in the charming moments where subject Amanda Leyden tells the camera, “Give them fun!” This mantra allows pupils to drum solo, practice Teenage Kicks and rehearse Shakespeare with Kells accents at the forefront. Premiering at Sundance in January 2017 (read our own Gary Garrison’s positive review), this is a film that shows the beauty of schooling through Ní Chianáin’s naturalistic lighting and focus on the subjects themselves: the children. —Eoghan Lyng
Director: Jennifer Reeder
Cast: Fawzia Mirza, Shabana Azmi, Sari Sanchez, Audrey Francis, Charin Alvarez
Synopsis: Pakistani wrestling fan Zaynab looks after her mother in Chicago, straddling her mother’s heteronormative expectations and a new romance with the effervescent Alma.
What You Need To Know: After its premiere at SXSW 2017, “Signature Move” pinned critics’ hearts to the mat. Jennifer Reeder tells a diverse, enthusiastic tale with this feature which won the Grand Jury Award at Outfest. Co-writer and lead Fawzia Mirza gives a passionate performance as lead Zaynab, and Sari Sanchez shines as her love interest. While some critics, like our own Gary Garrison, condemned the film’s prosaic premise, many praised its fresh take on a little-told love story. LGBT cinephiles and wrestling fans will certainly want to check this one out, but it warrants attention from those outside its target audience as well. “Signature Move” is more than just a multicultural lesbian romance, it’s a delightfully watchable tale that will half-nelson your heartstrings.
Director: Amber Fares
Cast: The Speed Sisters
Synopsis: This adrenaline-fueled doc follows The Speed Sisters, the first all-female racing team in the Middle East, as they zoom through the male-dominated Palestinian street car racing scene.
What You Need To Know: This first feature from “Transparent” producer Amber Fares was nominated for Best Sports Documentary at the Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards after a high-speed release at the beginning of 2015. “Speed Sisters” offers a spirited look at some jaw-droppingly badass women, all of whom are bucking convention by even existing in the Middle Eastern street racing world. Like its subjects, this doc is plucky and powerful, the kind of universally pleasing watch that rarely disappoints. Though the film occasionally slips into prosaicism, it’s overall a politically relevant and delightfully energetic first work. With “Speed Sisters,” Amber Fares manages to straddle that age-old divide between sports fans and feminists, proving that the most interesting stories can unite us all.