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 Culled partly from historical documents, Aferim!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)
Creepy (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
One has to appreciate Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s winking self-awareness in calling his new feature Creepy. It’s as if the Coen brothers released a film entitled Snarky, or Eli Roth named his next stomach-churner Gory. Kurosawa, who’s still best known for Cure (1997) and Pulse (2001), two rare outstanding examples of the highly variable J-Horror genre, instills a sense of creepiness into virtually anything he does, regardless of subject matter. His latest, which sees him return to the realm of horror after excursions into more arthouse territory, certainly lives up to its name and has a lot of fun doing so. – Giovanni M.C. (full review)
Demon (Marcin Wrona)
Nothing’s allowed to derail the guests of a Polish wedding from having fun, not even the groom’s epileptic seizure. You just pick him up and cart him out. Send the ambulance away so it won’t scare the crowd, pump him full of meds to even him out, and simply bring out more vodka to spike the punch and confuse everyone’s equilibrium when the revelers start spreading rumors that he’s been possessed by a Jewish demon. We aren’t celebrating the union of man and wife after all, this is an excuse to go wild and revere the bride’s father as an unforgettable host. So what if those rumors are true and there’s at least one set of skeletal remains beneath our feet. We can worry about all that tomorrow. This is Marcin Wrona‘s final film Demon in a nutshell: a tale of destiny, the supernatural, and undying love. – Jared M. (full review)
Disorder (Alice Winocour)
A psychological drama that goes to substantial lengths to visually convey the headspace of its lead, Vincent (Matthias Schoenaerts) — a PTSD-afflicted ex-soldier who is the bodyguard to a wife (Diane Kruger) and son of a wealthy businessman on a work trip — Disorder is one of this year’s most impressive feats in cinematography. As shot by Georges Lechaptois, his claustrophobic vision tracks Schoenarts’ physicality with a unnerving touch as the threat of terror creeps around every frame. When matched with the enveloping sound design, Alice Winocour‘s latest drama is not easily shaken. – Jordan R.
Divines (Uda Benyamina)
A little over-the-top, a little out-of-control, this year’s Caméra d’Or winner about the road to perdition of a disenfranchised girl living in the French ghettos electrifies nonetheless — or perhaps exactly therefore. Writer-director Uda Benyamina sees the splendidly vital, dangerously volatile mix of dreams, rage, hormones, and despair brewing on the edge of Paris amidst racial tension and social injustice. Using blunt, blisteringly accusatory strokes that never attempt to downplay the heartbreaking waste of it all, she manages to capture the jagged energy in an intimate portrait that also serves as a reminder, an indictment, and a reverberating cry of compassionate fury. – Zhuo-Ning Su
The Fits (Anna Rose Holmer)
This is not technically Anna Rose Holmer’s first feature (her documentary Twelve Ways to Sunday came out in 2010), but her first full-length fiction film has staked her claim as a talent to pay close attention to. Holmer has spent years in various technical roles on both independent (Tiny Furniture) and major (Twilight) works, and it shows in the minute detail The Fits pays attention to, with careful use of sound and shot strategy that suggests an incredibly astute directorial sensibility. A tale about adolescence that expresses isolation and odd group dynamics through subtle physicality and framing instead of dialogue, The Fits is mesmerizing from the first shot to its unforgettable finale. – Dan S.
Francofonia (Aleksandr Sokurov)
Who are we without museums? Supposedly a tribute to France’s artistic excellence throughout the centuries, Aleksandr Sokurov‘s Francofonia quickly reveals itself as an exploration of the Louvre, the role of a museum, and the clash between the abstract notion of artwork and certain inescapable circumstances of the real world. And yet, a French version of Russian Ark this is not. – Tommaso T. (full review)
Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party (Stephen Cone)
With a relatively small theatrical roll-out earlier this year, it’s likely you haven’t heard of Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party, but Stephen Cone‘s drama is one of the best films of the year thus far. Authentically capturing a conservative upbringing and the repression therein, it takes place over one day as we follow Henry (Cole Doman, in a wonderful break-out performance) and his group of friends — as well as adults from the local church — as they skirt around trauma, burgeoning sexuality, and more. Directed with a level of intimacy and emotional truth by Cone that’s simply not present in most dramas — regardless of budget — it’s an essential watch. – Jordan R.
High-Rise (Ben Wheatley)
As soon as the voice of Tom Hiddleston‘s Dr. Robert Laing was heard speaking narration above his weathered and crazed visage manically moving from cluttered, dirty room to darkened feverish corner, my mind started racing. Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas popped into my consciousness and then his Brazil, after a quick title card shoves us back in time to watch as Laing enters his new concrete behemoth of a housing structure, oppressively standing above a vast and still parking lot. Add the clinical precision of Stanley Kubrick dolly shots and the chaotic, linear social ladder climb of Snowpiercer with a bitingly satirical wit replacing the high-octane action and you come close to describing the masterpiece that is Ben Wheatley‘s High-Rise. – Jared M. (full review)
The Innocents (Anne Fontaine)
Captured on cinema since it commenced, if a filmmaker doesn’t find a new angle in which tell the horrors of World War II, then it can perhaps seem like a futile effort. Agnus Dei, the latest film from Coco Before Chanel director Anne Fontaine, digs up such an example of a compelling, true story from Philippe Maynial. Its title, translated as Lamb of God from its Latin origin, most commonly refers to the sacrificial giving that Jesus offers. However, specifically in the Old Testament, it can refer to a person who succumbs to the punishment of sins without willing to do so, which is clearly where Fontaine more specifically draws from. – Jordan R. (full review)
In the Shadow of Women (Philippe Garrel)
While fitting snugly in the overall cohesiveness of Philippe Garrel’s filmography, In the Shadow of Women nevertheless feels like a companion piece to its predecessor, the 2013 critical hit Jealousy. Garrel’s latest is also shot in black-and-white, kept within a similarly svelte running time (73 minutes), and its pared-down story of marital infidelity again takes the jealousy intrinsic to adult relationships as its primary theme. In the Shadow of Women revolves around Pierre (Stanislas Merhar) and Manon (Clotilde Courau), a married couple living in a run-down Parisian apartment and struggling along as documentary filmmakers. The strain in their relationship is apparent from the outset and both soon embark on individual affairs. The contrast in their respective motivations – Pierre’s is physical; Manon’s is emotional – and reactions upon learning of the other’s unfaithfulness – Manon is understanding; Pierre is seething – lays bare the asymmetries in their marriage, forcing a confrontation with truths hitherto swept under the carpet. – Giovanni M.C. (full review)
The Invitation (Karyn Kusama)
Director Karyn Kusama was back this year, returning to her low-budget roots with The Invitation, a taut psychological thriller centered on a dinner party with many twists and turns that aren’t easily shaken. Kusama keys into the small spaces and quick glances to create an unsettling environment of paranoia, including one of the year’s best final shots. If one wants a similar experience, seek out the even more overlooked Coherence from a few years back. – Jordan R.
Ixcanul (Jayro Bustamante)
Guatemala’s entry for last year’s Foreign Language Oscar. As we said in our review, it’s an “absorbing, beautifully shot drama of cultural ritual and the drive of one young woman to escape a rudimentary social system. Set in a small coffee plantation village under the shadow of a giant volcano (the Ixcanul of the title), we follow Maria (Maria Mercedes Coroy), a quiet, introvert teenager who nonetheless dreams of shaping her own destiny.” – Ed F.
Kaili Blues (Bi Gan)
At its heart, Bi Gan’s Kaili Blues is a meditation on the struggle between traditionalism and modernism. Through the story of one man’s journey through Chinese cities — Kaili to Zhenyuan — Bi focuses on characters who lament the people and ideas that they’ve lost as the world’s changed around them. But this is not just another screed against contemporary life; it finds a cruel beauty and gentle soul in the transition between elemental landscapes and the unfinished, industrialized future. And there’s personal serenity for some of these characters in being able to leave behind their old lives. – Michael S. (full review)
Kicks (Justin Tipping)
The film industry is still a long way from racial equity, but the last few years have seen strides to bring the young black experience to the screen in films like Dope, Dear White People and Morris From America. All of those films were important in distilling a specific existence, but they all offered black characters who self-identified as outcasts. Justin Tipping’s debut, Kicks, follows another societal reject, Brandon, a socially awkward black 15-year old living in Richmond, California, but while Brandon feels uncomfortable in his own skin, the script doesn’t demonize the culture he’s come from. Brandon has grown up in a place that idolizes a legacy of gangsters, but there’s just as much an understanding that expressing masculinity is about actively posturing. – Michael S. (full review)
Kill Zone 2 (Soi Cheang)
Containing a number in its title, yet blissfully not chained to franchise requirements — a decade-long gap between installments perhaps being the first clue as to a lack of continuity — Kill Zone 2 (aka SPL 2: A Time for Consequences) creates a welcome rupture within the action genre’s currently crumbling state: utterly classic in narrative beats yet unafraid to embrace the modern tools of the trade. – Ethan V. (full review)
Knight of Cups (Terrence Malick)
You know the deal: “Late” Terrence Malick — a period that ostensibly begins with The Thin Red Line and truly begins to bloom, stylistically speaking, once Emmanuel Lubezki came aboard for The New World — looms too large to simply divide cineastes into “pro” and “con” camps, the debate instead driving at the heart of anything and everything that could remotely be considered “cinematic.” (And perhaps whatever else a person feels like fitting into their argument.) Knight of Cups was far from an exception; rather, it broke that chasm open only further, and at this point there may be no turning back to the consensus masterpieces of the ’70s. That our own review, published out of Berlin last year, couldn’t settle in one camp and, almost 18 months later, we place it here, should be sign enough — and we (or at least I) get it. But most criticisms seem feeble when facing this movie’s grandest moments, which can render our contemporary world’s most banal components into something altogether new — has a drive down an L.A. street ever felt so majestic? — just as its reaches towards pathos reveal an eye for experiences far outside the hermetic world of Christian Bale‘s central character. (Claims of sexism are especially strange when the most piercing sequence is couched firmly in female perspective and experience. It’s almost as if considering this possibility is harder than simply pointing towards nudity as proof-positive of an artist’s “misogynistic impulses.”) Knight of Cups is not Terrence Malick’s best film — it might even trail behind that ever-controversial To the Wonder for me — and that’s fine. An artist daring to go further into the depths of human feeling and coming out with something new should never be considered a failure. – Nick N.
Krisha (Trey Edward Shults)
Though writer-director-editor Trey Edward Shults hardly turns the dark family drama genre on its head, Krisha compensates with exceptional acting and an infectious atmosphere of dread. If the bare bones of cliché are there simply so that artists can pack on their own meat, then Krisha Fairchild surely makes the most of the provided opportunity. Though I increasingly grow perturbed over “raw” performance in modern film that is maybe / sort of just misery porn, her three-legged-dog embodiment of Krisha’s mounting desperation is undeniably riveting. She attempts to tamp down her neuroses the same way she keeps her medications in a lockbox, but her every attempt to reach out to estranged siblings and in-laws and such is hobbled by the fear (or maybe resigned knowledge) that she will be rebuffed. – Dan S. (full review)
Last Days in the Desert (Rodrigo García)
Perhaps the most intriguing feature of last year’s Sundance Film Festival slate, Last Days in the Desert, follows Jesus (and Satan), both played by Ewan McGregor, as he’s in the final steps of his contemplative 40-day journey before returning to civilization in Jerusalem. Far removed from the recent bombastic Biblical tentpoles Noah and Exodus, Rodrigo García‘s beautiful, spare drama can frustrate as much as it allures with meditations on finding meaning in one’s life (and beyond). – Jordan R. (full review)
Little Men (Ira Sachs)
As with all of Ira Sachs’ films, Little Men is a study in compassion and humanity where each character deserves a film of their own. As thorough in his writing (the film was penned with frequent collaborator Mauricio Zacharias) as he is detailed in his direction, Sachs offers his audiences the opportunity to embrace complex moral dilemmas the likes of which mainstream American cinema has practically eradicated. Regardless of one’s spiritual beliefs, Sachs’ films are about soul-searching, and Little Men might just be his most profound work to date. – Jose S.
Little Sister (Zach Clark)
Saying Zach Clark‘s Little Sister being called a comedy does a disservice to the film seems like a slight on the genre. I know. But I don’t mean it that way. What this label does — even if it’s clarified with the word “dark” — is build an expectation that’s able to hurt the film’s true appeal. Clark and Melodie Sisk‘s script is definitely a drama first: a tough familial drama consisting of broken souls seeking an avenue to mend fences and remember what it was like to be whole. The humor enhances this drive by lightening the weightiness of the Lunsfords’ struggle as well as endearing them as a relatable group not so different from our own families regardless of our personal issues possibly not matching their immense tragedy. – Jared M. (full review)
The Little Prince (Mark Osborne)
Considering The Little Prince was available to nearly 90 million people through Netflix, it may not have been overlooked per se, but if we were to go by the level of actual discussion, it’s a shame this didn’t get more attention. The imaginative adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s famous novella may not have the budget of its studio competitors in the animated field, but it packs more heart and wonder than all released this year. With the hand-crafted style proving a perfect fit for its story-within-a-story, we hope Mark Osborne returns to this more home-grown approach in the future. – Jordan R.
The Love Witch (Anna Biller)
Shot in sumptuously lit 35mm, The Love Witch is a throwback to Hammer Horror films and Technicolor melodramas of the ‘50s and ‘60s, with set design and color schemes that seem to invoke the ghost of Jacques Demy, all in subservience to a decidedly retro ‘70s vibe with a contemporary setting. Only writer-director Anna Biller‘s second film, The Love Witch affirms not only her skill as a director, but as an auteur – Biller also produced and edited the film, and was responsible for every aspect of the production, art, and costume design, and even composed the score. – Josh H. (full review)
Men Go to Battle (Zachary Treitz)
The Civil War is known in lore as the one that pitted “brother against brother,” and that’s literalized here. But rather than a somber drama, it’s instead the stage for idiotic pratfalls. The two brothers at the center are Goofuses without a Gallant. But after they part ways, the battlefield and the homefront work to force the pair into growing up. It’s not so much a case of war making men out of boys as it is that the war represents all the demands that adulthood asks of us. After all, this has barely any battle scenes. Somehow, a no-budget indie is one of the best Civil War movies ever. – Dan S.
Miss Stevens (Julia Hart)
Most high school-set films prefer to take a perspective of the student, particularly as it pertains to the coming-of-age drama. For a budding teacher, though, the period can be a tumultuous one, and Julia Hart‘s debut is an evocative one as we follow Rachel Stevens (a fantastic Lily Rabe) as she deals with a personal emotional upheaval as well as the unspoken attraction from a student (Timothee Chalamet). By the finale, one may not feel entirely fulfilled by Miss Stevens, but the taboos it explores with a careful eye make it a more-than-worthy watch. – Jordan R.
Mountains May Depart (Jia Zhangke)
Though vastly more moderate than its predecessor, the ultra-violent A Touch of Sin, Jia Zhangke’s Mountains May Depart continues the director’s move away from the extremely measured, observational style that characterized much of his earlier work. Even as his narratives have become more charged, however, Jia’s thematic focus has remained constant and Mountains May Depart offers his latest reflection on the momentous societal changes that have swept over China as a result of its entry and ascension in the globalized world economy. If A Touch of Sin expressed Jia’s rage at the contemporary impact of capitalist progress on Chinese society, Mountains May Depart is his lament over the direction in which it is headed. – Giovanni M.C. (full review)
Morris from America (Chad Hartigan)
Coming to Sundance with his tender character study This is Martin Bonner a few years back, director Chad Hartigan triumphantly returns with the coming-of-age comedy Morris from America, a stylistic leap forward that still retains a keen sense of humanity. Telling the story of our title character attempting to keep his identity while making friends in the foreign land of Germany, it’s also an acutely funny testament to single parenting and the specific bond it fosters when both sides put in their all. – Jordan R. (full review)
My Golden Days (Arnaud Desplechin)
Arnaud Desplechin’s My Golden Days bears some superficial similarities to national compatriots Eric Rohmer and Olivier Assayas, two directors who tend to make films about beautiful, young, artistic people going through tough times that results from some combination of inner conflict, government, and the sensibilities of other, equally fashionable people. Of course, these directors aren’t especially alike; Rohmer is concerned with the way a person’s desires and actions — or their ideas and realities — may conflict, particularly in concerns of (heterosexual) love; Assayas’ characters drift apart and float together through means largely outside their control, or at least through means incident rather than integral to their decisions. (His protagonists are generally undone by loneliness and isolation, whereas Rohmer’s encounter trouble when they interact with one another.) My Golden Days contains much of Rohmer’s hapless romance and Assayas’ internal depression, but it is temporally expansive and deploys new tricks at every turn in a way that the films of Assayas and especially Rohmer — whose work takes place in subtly but rigorously established worlds — never would. – Forrest C. (full review)
Neruda and The Club (Pablo Larraín)
Pablo Larraín is not finished wrestling with his nation’s psyche. His first three films, Tony Manero, Post Mortem, and No, formed a loose triptych that confronted the trauma of the Augusto Pinochet years from different angles. His fourth, The Club, was a blistering attack against the contemporary institution of the Catholic Church in Chile, which accused it of deep-seated corruption and of collusion with the Pinochet regime. With Neruda he returns to the past, back to 1948, the year the eminent poet and Communist senator Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco) went into hiding after the Chilean president outlawed Communism in the country. – Giovanni M.C. (full review)
With his exceptional trilogy on the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship – Tony Manero (2008), Post Mortem (2010) and No (2012) –Chilean director Pablo Larraín proved himself a trenchant commentator on his country’s problematic past. He turns his attention to the problematic present in The Club, a scathing j’accuse directed at the institution of the Catholic Church that represents his most uncompromising and vociferous film to date. – Giovanni M.C. (full review)
Neon Bull (Gabriel Mascaro)
From Blue Is the Warmest Color to Stranger by the Lake, from Pride to The Danish Girl, movies dealing with LGBT issues or characters have become ever more present at film festivals and cineplexes these past years. Against such background it’s especially intriguing to consider something like Neon Bull – a Brazilian rodeo drama in which everybody turns out to be straight – and its place in queer cinema. – Zhuo-Ning S. (full review)
Rams (Grímur Hákonarson)
Following his 2010 debut, Summerland, Rams marks the second feature film from Icelandic director Grimur Hakonarson. Premiering as part of Cannes’ Un Certain Regard line-up, the film chronicles the tale of two brothers, Gummi (Sigurdur Sigurjonsson) and Kiddi (Theodor Juliusson), in a rural Icelandic valley who both make a living as farmers raising sheep and rams. In fact, they are the sole two breeders of a special stock of rams that are renowned for their excellent and sought-after qualities. However, the two brothers are not on speaking terms, quite literally for the last forty years, due to a divisive incident in the past. A breakout of a degenerative neurological disease which affects sheep, scrapies, affects both brothers in the valley. The government decides that all the flocks in the affected valley must be culled in order to eradicate the outbreak. So begins the central story, as we see how the two brothers must learn to move on from the past in order to salvage whatever little remains of their future. – Raphael D. (full review)
Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong Sang-soo)
I was generally puzzled by the rhapsodic critical praise lavished upon virtually every one of Hong Sang-soo’s staggeringly frequent — and unabashedly homogenous — new features, but with Right Now, Wrong Then I finally “got” it. The film is a veritable masterpiece of understated filmmaking, one so deceptively simple that its depth catches you by surprise and leaves you in awe of a director capable of approaching the human condition with such empathy and sensitive insight. – Giovanni M.C. (full review)
Sunset Song (Terence Davies)
A tension is formed by a cut, quickly transporting our heroine from an expansive wheat field to a confined classroom. We’re not just talking the difference of 70mm for the former and the Ari Alexa for the latter, but that of, to quote Kate Bush, the “sensual world” versus the punishment of destiny. Based on a mainstay of Scottish classrooms, Sunset Song is a triptych of sorts chronicling farmgirl Chris’ (Agyness Deyn) womanhood; the first deals with her abusive father (Peter Mullan) and the pain he inflicts on her and the others in the family, the second follows her falling in love and marrying Ewan (Kevin Guthrie), while the third sees Ewan enlisting to fight in World War I and coming back a violent man that resembles her father. – Ethan V. (full review)
Things to Come (Mia Hansen-Løve)
The twists and turns of fate and the ways in which individuals react to them constitute the central preoccupations of Mia Hansen-Løve’s cinema. Her exceptional second feature, Father of My Children, observed a film producer’s escalating desperation in the face of snowballing debt, and then considered the impact of his unexpected suicide on the family he left behind. Her disappointing follow-ups, Goodbye First Love and Eden, charted the progressive dissolution of its protagonists’ idealism over a period of several years – a teenage couple’s fanciful notions of love and a DJ’s chimeric aspirations of success, respectively. Considering the largely universal relatability of the former and the fact that the latter represented a fictionalization of her own brother’s / co-writer’s path as a DJ, the tremendous accomplishment of Things to Come, which centers on the emotional tribulations of a woman in late middle-age, suggests that the 35-year-old writer-director is a lot more adept at crafting stories that depart from her direct experiences. – Giovanni M.C. (full review)
Valley of Love (Guillaume Nicloux)
From Sophie’s Choice to My Sister’s Keeper, child loss has been the subject of everything from prestige Oscar pictures to YA drivel. It’s an understandable focus, for there are few more intrinsically emotional narrative foundations than parents coping with the loss of a child. And whether those characters are together or separated, that loss serves as both a shared crucible and a uniting force. Guillaume Nicloux’s Valley of Love pares this scenario down to its most elemental sediments, brings in two international superstars with a loaded onscreen history, and the rest nearly takes care of itself. Valley of Love lives and dies on the caliber of its actors, and the film is certainly in good hands with Isabelle Huppert and Gérard Depardieu, two performers who haven’t been together since Maurice Pialat’s Loulou but have careers that, together, span every major auteur constellation across the globe. – Michael S. (full review)
Three (Cheng Siu-Keung and Hung Mo To)
A sterile hospital building may not be the first choice to capture cinematic beauty, but Three proves that a film in the hands of Johnnie To means expectations will be upended. If cinematography is as much about camera placement and movement as visual quality, Three is a masterclass in the former. The best (perhaps only worthwhile) action movie of the year, this is the rare genre entry in which the intense build-up may impress more than the guns-blazing climax — itself a euphoric, sublimely executed bout of showmanship. – Jordan R.
The Treasure (Corneliu Porumboiu)
Though regularly grouped with the directors that comprise the Romanian New Wave, Corneliu Porumboiu’s brand of social realism is all his own. Dispensing with the shaky cam so popular amongst his peers, his fictional features capture the world through contemplative long takes, their duration and frequent immobility allowing for careful observations of the subjects’ relationship to their environment, which is always reflective of wider-reaching concerns. The Treasure, his fifth feature and the winner of this year’s Un Certain Talent Prize, is the latest gem in the director’s exquisite filmography — another tightly focused, minimalist and enchantingly humane story of individual struggle within the broader social reality of contemporary Romania. – Giovanni M.C. (full review)
Under the Shadow (Babak Anvari)
Cinema is often a space for abstract, subconscious expressions that require airing. Under the Shadow is an inspired psychological thriller from Iranian filmmaker Babak Anvari that effectively delivers the thrills expected, and more. Here, the horror is both personal and natural. It’s a theme found amongst a few world cinema selections at Sundance this year, notably the cancer drama A Good Wife, which also uses the landscape of the war torn Bosnia as an emotional theme. – John F. (full review)
The Wailing (Na Hong-jin)
Since the early aughts, South Korea has been one of the most prolific and exciting exporters of genre cinema, giving us such indelible gems as Oldboy, The Host, Snowpiercer, to name but a few. The country made its prowess felt again at this year’s Cannes Film Festival with no fewer than three high-profile titles covering historical suspense (The Handmaiden), zombie action (Train to Busan), and, perhaps most memorably, supernatural horror in the form of The Wailing. – Zhuo-Ning S. (full review)
Wiener-Dog (Todd Solondz)
As uncomfortable a viewing experience it may be, the best films from Todd Solondz slowly reveal themselves with their character intricacies and distinct touches, burrowing deep inside as they replay in one’s mind. In his latest feature, Wiener-Dog, he’s crafted a series of incisive, perceptive vignettes mutually connected by the shifting owners of his title character. Aptly described by Solondz as Au Hasard Balthazar meets Benji, there’s no denying it bears his brand of humor and heartbreak in every scene. – Jordan R. (full review)
To wrap-up: there were also a handful of worthwhile studio films that, while grossing over $1 million, underperformed and / or didn’t get the attention they deserved, including Jeff Nichols‘ Midnight Special, Richard Linklater‘s Everybody Wants Some!!, the Lonely Island’s Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, Shane Black‘s The Nice Guys, and, most recently, The Edge of Seventeen, featuring Hailee Steinfeld in one of the year’s best performances.
We also hope late-December releases such as Toni Erdmann, Paterson, 20th Century Woman, Julieta, and I, Daniel Blake end up breaking the $1 million mark (and beyond), but considering their recent bows, we opted not to include them on the list. Lastly, there’s the one-week awards qualifiers in 2016 that won’t make next year’s list, but we hope they do well as they return to theaters in January and February; they include The Red Turtle, I Am Not Your Negro, My Life as a Zucchini, and The Salesman.
What are your picks for the most overlooked films of year?
Read More: The Film Stage’s Top 50 Films of 2016