Even if you’re a die-hard cinephile, it would be impossible to see all of the movies that come out in a given year. The big tentpole blockbuster films always garner lots of press, but smaller indie and foreign films tend to slip through the cracks. With 2016 coming to a close, we took it upon ourselves to list some of our favorite films of the year that might have otherwise gone unnoticed.
Drew Dietsch on High Rise
This surreal adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s dystopian science fiction novel flew under way too many radars this year. After the unnerving events of 2016, the story of a seemingly idyllic society crumbling apart into insanity feels very relevant. Ben Wheatley‘s direction is gorgeous and the performances are captivating across the board. High-Rise isn’t an easy movie; there are ugly truths and awful people populating this retro future. It’s a tough experience that will probably turn a lot of people away with its heady pessimism, but it might just be a weird masterpiece.
Travis Newton on The Edge of Seventeen
The Edge of Seventeen blindsided me. Even if you watch the film’s more revealing red band trailers, the movie will still surprise you. Writer and director Kelly Fremon Craig tells the story of Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld), a high-school junior who is struggling to keep her life together. While this is a high school movie through-and-through, it’s also a poignant R-rated drama.
Nadine and her family (Blake Jenner, Kyra Sedgwick) are struggling to find a new normal after the sudden death of Nadine’s father four years ago. And while Nadine loves to deflect her pain with sharp wit, she’s finding it more and more difficult. When Nadine’s best friend starts dating her older brother, the only person she can turn to is her favorite teacher (Woody Harrelson). Like I said — this is a high school drama, so it comes with all the trimmings. But it’s also disarmingly honest. It doesn’t feel petty or inconsequential and Hailee Steinfeld is incredible. If you missed The Edge of Seventeen, you should correct that. Immediately.
James Akinaka on Mifune: The Last Samurai
Here’s a 2016 film that you’ve probably never seen. That’s because so far, it’s only received a limited release at film festivals. Mifune: The Last Samurai is a documentary from Steven Okazaki, who won a 1990 Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject. The documentary explores the late and great Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune and his extensive partnership with director Akira Kurosawa. It’s proof that the documentary genre is alive and well, and also that Mifune was truly one of a kind.
With interviews from Japanese luminaries like Haruo Nakaji and Kyōko Kagawa, The Last Samurai examines Mifune’s impact on Japanese cinema. From 1948 to 1965, he and Kurosawa embarked on an unprecedented 16-film partnership. Their 17 years together generated films such as Rashomon, Seven Samurai, and The Hidden Fortress, which became widely celebrated.
In the same vein, The Last Samurai also explores how Mifune, in part, helped Japanese cinema join the international community. American directors Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese share about how Mifune and Kurosawa’s works inspired their own filmmaking. Keanu Reeves narrates the entire documentary, and I didn’t even realize it was him until the end credits.
After the screening, I was fortunate to be in the audience of a brief Q&A with Okazaki. One audience member asked Okazaki why he thought Mifune and Kurosawa ended their professional partnership. Okazaki reiterated what several of his interview subjects said: Creatively, it was time for them to move on. Whatever the reason for their parting, Mifune and Kurosawa had an indelible mark on Japanese and international cinema. If you have even a marginal interest in Japanese film, then The Last Samurai is worth your time.
Danielle Ryan on The Lobster
The Lobster is a difficult film. It’s set in a strange dystopian near-future where everyone must find their mate or else be turned into an animal. People must go to an old hotel to find their partner in life, and they only have 45 days to do it. The entire premise is strange and only gets stranger as the film goes on.
Part of what makes The Lobster so challenging is its tone. This is a very dark dramatic comedy, much like director Yorgos Lanthimos‘ previous films such as the Oscar-nominated Dogtooth. Fans of Lanthimos’ other films will likely appreciate the heart-wrenching and bizarre humor in The Lobster. Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz both give amazing performances, often communicating with one another via made-up sign language and symbols. They also have great chemistry, which is vital to the story working at all.
The Lobster isn’t for everyone, but it is an interesting examination of human nature and social norms. For those looking for a movie that will make you laugh, cry, and think, The Lobster will do all three.
Eric Fuchs on The Handmaiden
South Korean director, Park Chan-wook’s newest film, The Handmaiden, is the movie you should have seen in 2016. The Handmaiden is like a mixture between a sleazy 90s erotic thriller and a classy 19th century period drama. It is one of Chan-wook’s best films and easily his most beautifully-shot, contrasting weighty aristocratic cinematography with a story that grows trashier and most twisted with every scene. The Handmaiden is a story in three parts, each from a different perspective. With each change of protagonist, the film adds more layers to an elaborate puzzle of twists and betrayals.
The film is set in early 20th century Korea during the Japanese occupation. Pickpocket Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) is posing as a handmaiden for Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), a young heiress under the guardianship of her depraved Uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong). Sook-hee is conspiring to make Hideko fall in with her accomplice, pretending to be “Count Fujiwara” (Ha Jung-woo). They can then dump Hideko into a madhouse and steal her fortune. But this scheme is just the surface story. Everybody is playing a role and nobody is who they seem to be at first.
The Handmaiden features some of the most explicit lesbian sex scenes since Blue is the Warmest Color, but the film is playing off audience expectations for eroticism. It is a feminist rejection of male-serving pornography. This movie ironically plays up the tropes of porn to tell a tale of woman’s liberation.
Bob Aquavia on Midnight Special
A criminally under-seen movie from this past year, Midnight Special is the low-key, hopeful sci-fi that we need right now. The movie focuses on a young boy, Alton, who with the help of his father and his father’s friend, escapes from a religious cult in rural Texas. From the very beginning, we see that Alton is special, with powers that make both the cult and the government very interested in finding him.
The movie was released with critical acclaim but unfortunately very little box office to show for it. This is a downright shame because it’s one of the most heartfelt movies I’ve seen all year. Michael Shannon and Kirsten Dunst give standout performances as Alton’s parents, and Adam Driver does a phenomenal job as the lead government agent in pursuit who just wants to make sure Alton is safe but also wants answers.
The tone and look of the movie is also very reminiscent of Spielberg’s 80s sci-fi, in line with E.T. and Amazing Stories. If it was possible, it actually feels like there’s more heart. There’s a subtlety to how the mystery unfolds, where sometimes the silence and pauses in conversation say more than the actual words. Simple expressions and body language convey so much love, but so much pain that Alton’s parents went through to keep him safe. And by the end, you have some — but not all — the answers, and it feels like the movie is more magical because of it.
Kitty Bates on Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates
Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates is one the most underrated films this year. The hilarious comedy starring Zac Efron, Adam Devine, Aubrey Plaza, and Anna Kendrick is a side-splitting comedy that’s both amusing and inspiring. The film looks at the story of Mike and Dave Stangle, two brothers who are reckless at every family gathering. Their parents want them to get dates to rein themselves in a bit and to try and make them behave for their sister’s wedding in Hawaii. Mike and Dave put out adverts and get on the Wendy Williams show to get two girls to come with them to the wedding.
Enter Tatiana and Alice, two hard-partying girls who want to get away so Alice can get over her ex-fiancé whom she left at the altar. Mike and Dave meet the girls and ultimately choose them to accompany the brothers in Hawaii. Although the film can be inappropriate at points, is my favorite feel-good summer film of the year with an adult twist. A hilarious yet heart-warming rom-com, Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates ticks all the right boxes for a light-hearted film.
Andrew Hawkins on Krisha
Krisha is one of those films that is extremely difficult to watch but also intensely captivating. A24 continues to push boundaries with their output and this story of a weathered woman returning after abandoning her family is no different. The thing about this film is if you have ever had a mother who can’t really find her footing in life, this will hit home in many uncomfortable ways. Krisha takes a great deal of effort to get through, especially if you have endured trauma and family dysfunction.
I have known a lot of Krisha’s in my life. This is a woman who is in a constant state of struggle. In this film, the main character visits her sister’s home for the holidays, and despite her best efforts, her past demons refuse to stop knocking on her door. She is torn apart by her failures and eventually succumbs to a breakdown. Krisha isn’t for everyone, but for those that can connect with director Trey Edward Shults’ harsh and truthful film, it is one of the most highimpact cinema experiences of the year.
Travis Newton on The Invitation
After directing the intriguing misfire Jennifer’s Body, Karyn Kusama is back to horror. The script for The Invitation came from her husband Phil Hay and his writing partner Matt Manfredi. Together, the three of them created one of 2016’s best indie horror films. The story unfolds at a dinner party at a lovely house in the Hollywood Hills, where Will (Logan Marshall-Green) plans to see his ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) for the first time since their divorce.
But something is very, very off about Eden and her group of new friends. They’re all involved in a mysterious religious movement and seem to be celebrating a holiday. But Will’s desperate need for closure and curiosity about what the hell is happening to his ex-wife will lead him to a horrifying revelation. With a stellar cast, creepy performances, and incredible cinematography, The Invitation is the most chilling slow burn of 2016.
Eric Fuchs on Everybody Wants Some!!
Nobody has ever had a better college experience than the kids in Everybody Wants Some!! But we all really deserve to have one like this masculine fantasy. Richard Linklater’s film takes bad words such as “jock” and “bro” and makes them charming. He humanizes characters who typically would be the villain in any other young adult film. Instead of stealing the dorky hero’s girlfriend and challenging them down a ski slope, they’re just having a great time.
Everybody Wants Some!! has no plot. It is the first three days of college at a Texas university in 1980 for a group of baseball scholarship students. They go to parties, they get drunk, they clown around, they argue, they play ball, and one even falls in love. But the cast is an incredible collection of relative unknowns. Linklater has great finds here with Blake Jenner, Zoey Deutch, Wyatt Russell, and Glen Powell. There is no great problem to overcome, but the cast and script carry the experience. The movie is simply a collection of characters who are a wonderful time to be around. It is very funny.
There is no more lovable comedy to be released in 2016. That makes the relative obscurity of Everybody Wants Some!! disappointing. This is the kind of movie that anybody could enjoy, no matter how awful the jocks were at your college. It’s a refreshing view of their world. Everybody Wants Some!! celebrates living life to the fullest, and in a terrible year like 2016 has been, we need more movies as bright and warm at this.
Drew Dietsch on Swiss Army Man
OK, let’s get the concept of this movie out of the way: a castaway finds a corpse that he uses to find his way back home. The corpse slowly comes back to life and the two strike up a friendship. Swiss Army Man has flatulence and lowbrow humor by the dozen, but it’s also the most uplifting and sweetest film of the year. Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe craft the best on-screen friendship of 2016 in this magical piece of abstract fantasy. Swiss Army Man tackles some big life questions in the most boyish of ways and never loses its heart along the way. If you can buy into the absurd concept, you’ll find that this is the feel-good movie of the year.