There are a multitude of reasons why any film may get unfairly overlooked. It could be a lack of marketing resources to provide a substantial push, or, due to a minuscule roll-out, not enough critics and audiences to be the champions it might require. It could simply be the timing of the picture itself; even in the world of studio filmmaking, some features take time to get their due. With an increasingly crowded marketplace, there are more reasons than ever that something might not find an audience and, as with last year, we’ve rounded up the releases that deserved more attention.
Note that all of the below films made less than $1 million at the domestic box office at the time of posting — VOD figures are not accounted for, as they normally aren’t made public — and are, for the most part, left out of most year-end conversations. Sadly, most documentaries would qualify for this list — and we’d give a special shout-out to the all-too-limited releases of One More Time with Feeling and Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience — but we stuck strictly to narrative efforts; one can instead read our rundown of the top docs here.
Check out the list below, as presented in alphabetical order and, in the comments, let us know the 2016 films you loved that aren’t getting the recognition they deserve. A great deal of the below titles are also available to stream, so check out our feature here to catch up. One can also see the list on Letterboxd.
Aferim! (Radu Jude)
Leave it to a Romanian director to make a movie that best expresses the dangers of the dyed-in-the-wool mindset of modern America. Culled partly from historical documents, Aferim! is a twisted history lesson whose messages transcend its insular time period of 19th-century Romania. Its story concerns Constable Costandin (Teodor Corban) and his son, Ionita (Mihai Comanoiu), who chase after a wanted Gypsy slave for a large bounty offered by Boyar Iordache Cîndescu (Alexandru Dabija), a local noble. But even embedded in a timeline that’s centuries away, the story is strikingly relevant in showing how people maintain blinders in the face of inhumanity. – Michael S. (full review)
The Age of Shadows (Kim Jee-woon)
Eyebrows were raised when it was announced that South Korea will submit the as-yet-unreleased espionage thriller The Age of Shadows for Oscar consideration instead of Cannes hits The Handmaiden and The Wailing. Premiering out of competition at the 73rd Venice Film Festival, writer/director Jee-woon Kim’s return to Korean-language cinema after a brief stint in Hollywood with the Schwarzenegger-starrer The Last Stand turns out to be a worthy choice that makes particular sense representing the country given how it speaks directly to the national memory/identity. – Zhuo-Ning Su (full review)
Always Shine (Sophia Takal)
With the excess of low-budget, retreat-in-the-woods dramas often finding characters hashing out their insecurities through a meta-narrative, a certain initial resistance can occur when presented with such a derivative scenario at virtually every film festival. While Sophia Takal‘s psychological drama Always Shine ultimately stumbles, the chemistry of its leads and a sense of foreboding dread in its formal execution ensures its heightened view of a fractured relationship is a mostly successful one. – Jordan R. (full review)
American Honey (Andrea Arnold)
European directors have often faltered when crossing the Atlantic. Billy Wilder and Wim Wenders found things to say where Paolo Sorrentino could not. American Honey is certainly the former. Based on a 2007 article from the New York Times, it’s a backwater American road movie directed by an Englishwoman, Andrea Arnold, and shot by Irishman Robbie Ryan. We spot a few cowboys and gas stations and even the Grand Canyon, but it’s nothing to do with any of that. It’s about America (duh) but it’s also about friendship and money and learning to look out for yourself, and that primal connection young people make between music and identity. It’s visually astonishing and often devastating, too. This might be the freshest film about young people in America since Larry Clark’s Kids from 1995. – Rory O. (full review)
April and the Extraordinary World (Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci)
Most writing on Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci‘s April and the Extraordinary World speaks as though they’ve adapted one of revered Frenchman Jacques Tardi‘s graphic novels. This isn’t quite the case. What they’ve actually done is bring his unique “universe” to life with help from previous collaborator Benjamin Legrand (writer of Tardi’s Tueur de cafards) instead. Legrand and Ekinci crafted this alternate steampunk version of Paris as something inspired by the artist’s work rather than born from it. Tardi in turn helped by drawing original work later brought to life by Desmares’ animation team. The whole is therefore a culmination of its six-year production schedule populated by multiple creative minds working in tandem throughout. It may look familiar, but it’s very much brand new. – Jared M. (full review)
Aquarius (Kleber Mendonça Filho)
The staggeringly accomplished debut feature by Brazilian critic-turned-director Kleber Mendonça Filho, Neighboring Sounds, announced the arrival of a remarkable new talent in international cinema. Clearly recognizable as the work of the same director, Mendonça’s equally assertive follow-up, Aquarius, establishes his authorial voice as well as his place as one of the most eloquent filmic commentators on the contemporary state of Brazilian society. – Giovanni M.C. (full review)
The Brand New Testament (Jaco Van Dormael)
If you were to take the charm and playful visual language of Jean-Pierre Jenuet’s Amelie and pair it with a blistering satire of religious dogma, the end result would look something like The Brand New Testament, a new film from Belgian director Jaco Van Dormael. His previous feature, Mr. Nobody, starring Jared Leto as the last living human on Earth, also showcased a penchant for high concepts that veer towards the absurd rather than the literal. With his latest entry, Dormael is gunning for the big guy himself, God, portraying Him less as an all-powerful deity and more like an irritable grumpy man hellbent on making life miserable for us petty humans. In bringing life to these religious icons, he weaves a rich tapestry of conflicted characters whose unique problems become fodder for a truly holy upheaval of all that we know to be real. – Raffi A. (full review)
Cemetery of Splendour (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
Ceiling fans, water pumps, pedestrians switching places at a lakeside seating area… things keep spinning around in circles as nearby, narcoleptic soldiers are caught in an endless slumber dreaming recycled memories from another time. Using metaphors both literal and obscure, Weerasethakul communicates a tremendous sense of powerlessness in the face of Thailand’s dire political situation and the general futility of life. Meanwhile, it’s a sheer pleasure to spend two stickily atmospheric hours chatting with reincarnated Goddesses and being bewitched by the ghostly magnificence of their surroundings. Triggering a deep, almost primal response, this is a hypnotic film if there ever was one. – Zhuo-Ning Su
The Childhood of a Leader (Brady Corbet)
The feature debut from young actor turned screenwriter-director Brady Corbet, The Childhood of a Leader is an ambitious choice for a first project — a period piece tying together the post-WWI political climate and the upbringing of a child in a chateau outside Paris. The film, premiering in the Orizzonti section of the Venice Film Festival, is a huge psychological and tonal balancing act that could crumble at each turn, and yet never does. – Tommaso T. (full review)
Cosmos (Andrzej Żuławski)
If there’s any way to synthesize the many pieces that form the bull-in-a-china-shop filmmaking that is Andrzej Żuławski‘s Cosmos, an adaptation of Witold Gombrowicz‘s novel, consider its status as his first feature in fifteen years. Might some sense of long-awaited release account for its why and how — the intensity of its performances, the force of its camera moves, the sharpness of its cuts, the bombast of its emotions? I’m inclined to think so, but it’s possible I’m only proposing this in search of a “what” — what’s going on, what he was thinking, and what we’re meant to take from any and all of it. Answers, if they do come at all, will only gradually present themselves, and they won’t arrive via exposition or, with some exception, clearly stated themes. A filmmaker who values the power of shock, but not necessarily thrills for thrills’ sake, Żuławski elucidates material with tools that announce themselves in their presentation — surprising camera dollies, fast pans, sudden cuts, overly prominent music cues — and raise complex questions about their relation to one another. – Nick N. (full review)
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