The 18 Best Movies You May Have Missed in 2016
The old rule of thumb is that there are 10 great movies that come out a year, or at least 10 worthy of being singled out. In reality, to someone who is watching upwards of 150-200 of the estimated 700-odd movies that hit theaters this year, there are often closer to 50. On a good year, like 2014 or 2007, that number could even hit 75. It depends largely on how close you are to a city with a solid independent cinema scene, but the advents of iTunes, other VOD vendors, and streaming services have made this less of a hurdle. Now, all you need is an appetite for the stuff.
In a year fueled by dread, fear, and outrage, 2016 ended up being a uniquely fruitful year for daring movies. I’m not sure if any other year could have produced something like Little Sister or The Treasure, two breathlessly political and lovingly intimate new classics, could have come out in any other year. Nor would ecstatic joys like those found in Sing Street and The Love Witch feel any more soothing and transporting in any other year. Thankfully, attention has already been given to major independent works like Manchester by the Sea, Moonlight, and The Witch, but there are countless other great movies that came out this year, many of which were of a similar caliber as those Oscar hopefuls. Here are 18 that the Collider staff wanted to single out as the movie year comes to a close.
When you think of coming of age films, the usual protagonist is pretty easy to guess: teenaged, sex-crazed, white and usually male is the kind of coming age drama we’ve seen hundreds of times. But first-time Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits chooses a different tack. The bewitching Royalty Hightower leads the film, with an unblinking gaze that pierces through Holmer’s dreamy camera to the viewer behind the screen. She stars as Toni, a young and ethereally perplexing girl who passes her time in a local community center, and finds herself torn between her preternatural love for boxing and her newfound fascination with a dance team populated by opaque and curious older girls. But when members of the dance troupe begin falling victim to violent “fits”, it’s unclear whether the girls are being physically harmed or simply passing through some sort of shadowy, feminine rite of passage. It’s a haunting and gorgeous exploration of genre performance, identity and assimilation that will no doubt become a feminist cult favorite despite its tiny release earlier this year. – Aubrey Page
'Audrie & Daisy'
The Netflix documentary Audrie & Daisy isn’t exactly an easy watch, but it is a worthwhile one. The film tackles sexual assault from the points of view of two young teenagers who never met, Audrie and Daisy. Audrie committed suicide at the age of 15, just a few days after her assault, due to an intense amount of cyberbullying and shaming at her high school. While Daisy underwent an intense amount of emotional grief due to shaming, blaming, and bullying of her own, but went on to become a vocal advocate for victims of sexual assault. The film takes a very difficult subject and makes it personal, which goes a long way towards understanding not only the emotional and psychological effects of sexual assault, but also the intense male bias from peers, courts, and even police officers when it comes to reporting these kinds of crimes. Ultimately the film’s message is a hopeful one, that things can and in some cases are getting better, but it’s important to come face to face with everything that encompasses a sexual assault—namely that the trauma of the assault doesn’t simply end when the physical act does. – Adam Chitwood
'Don't Think Twice'
Writer-director Mike Birbiglia‘s sophomore feature follows a year in the life of an improv comedy troupe, appropriately named “The Commune”, honoring the “yes and…” mindset of the consummate improv performer while exploring the peaks and pitfalls of success. Led by a fantastic comedic cast, with two particularly well-calibrated performances from Key and Peele‘s Keegan-Michael Key and Community‘s Gillian Jacobs, Don’t Think Twice navigates through comedy and drama with a light touch. Birbiglia is focused on the relationships and the fallout of their changing dynamics, but he never lets the drama dim the laughs and he never lets the laughs obscure the characters. It’s an intricate balancing act that pays off in a lovely ensemble piece about following your dreams and the challenge of finding your place in the world whether they come true or not. — Haleigh Foutch
Zach Clark’s ode to new weird America follows a Brooklyn nun, Colleen (Addison Timlin)—who still attends punk shows—back to her family home in Asheville, North Carolina where she attempts to get her reclusive brother, Jacob (Keith Poulson), out of the house. Her brother was horrendously scarred all over his body from a tour of duty in Iraq. He accepts no visitors. His meals come through a straw. And he drums to metal music all day long.
Little Sister has a simple premise that’s executed with both warm care and reckless abandon—and it features a GWAR lip sync session that’s among the best scenes from any film this year. Colleen has yet to take her vows; she’s not having a crisis of faith, but rather a crisis of identity. The Iraq war and the Bush administration’s incorrect intel on weapons of mass destruction sunk both Colleen and Jacob into a world without hope. The setting is 2008, and Colleen’s acts of kindness parallel Barack Obama’s ascension to the presidency, reminding viewers of that time when human decency lifted the spirits of so many people who felt left behind and abandoned by an America that used Christianity not for kindness but for smothering opposition. This liberal motif isn’t directly spoken, but Timlin is simply wonderful as a young woman whose small acts of love are able to rekindle her own HOPE in humanity. — Brian Formo
Had this astounding work from Japan’s Ryusuke Hamaguchi been screened in more theaters worldwide, my hope is that it would have been on everyone’s top ten list. This might be a pipe dream, however. At 317 minutes, Happy Hour is an imposing feat: an epic melodrama about the working world and social peculiarities of a group of friends in Japan, one of who goes missing. That’s essentially the narrative of the movie, but that doesn’t account for the nooks and crannies of dramatic tension, visual wonder, and ceaseless intimacy that make Happy Hour such a dazzling experience. The first section focuses on a spiritual kind of group-building exercise, and the extended debate that occurs after that series of experimental “connections.” From there, it gets even harder to explain, but for a five-hour movie about the everyday, Hamaguchi finds plenty to contemplate about the human experience, whether it’s seeing the mixed emotions in a divorced couple’s lingering relationship or pondering combative feelings on social manors. I hate to put it this way, but you really do have to just see it to believe it. – Chris Cabin
Too Late feels like the victim of not having enough name recognition to go along with it. It has the level of ambition we expect from big name directors, and if Paul Thomas Anderson or Quentin Tarantino had helmed Dennis Hauck’s intriguing film noir, I suspect it would be landing on a lot of “best of” lists in 2016. That being said, Hauck is definitely a talent to watch as he composes his fascinating mystery out of chronological order and with a series of long takes. Each scene is one long take, and runs the span of one film reel. While’s its consciously reminding you that you’re watching a movie, it’s also reminding you of the form’s limitations and artificiality while still captivating us with a powerful thriller. And when you give the reins over to John Hawkes as your lead actor, you’re going to get an astounding lead performance. This hard-boiled story of a burnt-out detective investigating a young girl’s murder is a gem that I hope people discover in the years to come. – Matt Goldberg
'Fire at Sea'
Fire at Sea is the most patient and still reflection you’ll see covering the refugee crisis. Rather than having any talking heads, Gianfranco Rosi lets his camera observe two divergent stories on the Italian island of Lampedusa, the first port for hundreds of thousands of African and Middle Eastern refugees attempting to make their way into Europe. In one story, Rosi follows a young boy who’s destined to be a fisherman, as most young men are destined to become on the island; Rosi follows him as he searches for the best twigs to make slingshots from and to the doctor where he learns that he’s in danger of going blind in one eye and is given an eye patch that greatly diminishes his spirit. The other story documents the African refugees as they arrive on sinking rafts and the doctors sift through the over-stuffed vessels to determine who is still alive.
Fire at Sea gives both a harrowing glimpse at the conditions that refugees are living through in attempts to reach Europe and also a parable about the blindness Europeans have to their plight. Fire at Sea quietly observes the issue that has given rise to nationalism all throughout Europe and casts the response as impaired and unable to see the whole picture. In both presentation and reflection, Fire at Sea is perhaps the most necessary documentary of 2016. — Brian Formo
Filmmaker John Carney’s highly anticipated follow-up to his debut feature Once, the America-set Begin Again, got a big theatrical push and a splashy premiere, but the film itself fell somewhat short of expectations. So when his third film, Sing Street, offered a return to form of sorts, it was disheartening to see the movie’s release fumbled so badly. After playing to a rapturous reception at Sundance, this 80s-set story about a young boy in Ireland who forms a band to impress a girl was released with little fanfare back in the spring and fell somewhat into obscurity. But it’s absolutely one of the most delightful films of the year, complete with an original soundtrack with influences that pull from everyone from Duran Duran to The Cure. It’s a coming-of-age story at heart, and a good one at that; a film about growing up and becoming wise to the harsh realities of the world, but all with an air of immense joy. – Adam Chitwood
'A Bigger Splash'
Sumptuous and sultry, Luca Guadagnino offers a very loose interpretation of La Piscine with a tale of excess, indulgence and privilege put in a pressure cooker built off the tensions of four characters with intense, conflicting passions. Tilda Swinton‘s Maryanne Lane – a rockstar in the mold of David Bowie-meets-Patti Smith – is hiding out on a stunning Mediterranean island with her long-term partner Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts) while recovering from a vocal surgery. Their peaceful retreat is thrown into disarray when Maryanne’s former lover and creative partner (Ralph Fiennes) blusters in to town with his enigmatic, seductive, and very young daughter in tow. Everyone in the film delivers a whammy of a performance, but Fiennes is impossibly good – radiant as he is ridiculous, dancing his way through their lives with the gleeful indulgence of an over-stimulated Tasmanian devil. On the technical end, Guadagnino and his cinematographer Yorick La Saux do stunning work, capturing the majesty of their surroundings and the nuance of their entangled relationships through brilliant colors and brazenly framed moments of detail. It’s a beautiful and bawdy film, lush with imagery and intrigue; it has the ripe salaciousness of good gossip without ever becoming as indulgent as its characters. — Haleigh Foutch
'Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping'
The best comedy of 2016 should have been a much bigger hit, but instead it pulled in slightly better numbers than MacGruber. I suspect, however, that in the years to come, it will also pick up the same kind of following as co-director Jorma Taccone’s cult classic. Even though it’s playing with the tropes of the music documentary, Popstar is unabashedly weird as often as its satirical. While it takes plenty of shots at the vanity of the music industry, the jokes are rarely obvious, and even if you can see them coming, they’re still hilarious. While the movie does note the absurdity of fame, it’s never afraid to be absurd itself. If you missed this one in theaters (and chances are you probably did), it’s time to track it down and appreciate The Lonely Island’s brilliant comedy. – Matt Goldberg
'Hunt for the Wilderpeople'
Soon enough, folks will know filmmaker Taika Waititi as the director of Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok. But for now, this New Zealand director is best known for his hilarious vampire “mockumentary” What We Do in the Shadows. But Waititi followed that up with yet another terrific and surprisingly different kind of film, this year’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople. The adventure comedy feels like an adaptation of a lost Roald Dahl novel, as it follows the exploits of a young orphan named Ricky Baker who becomes lost in the bush with his new grumpy foster father, played by Sam Neill. The result is a mix between Hot Fuzz and Up, with some phenomenal comedic timing courtesy of Waititi’s visual choices and a breakout performance from the young Julian Dennison. If you could use a bit of laughter—and chances are if you lived through 2016, you really could—Hunt for the Wilderpeople is the perfect remedy. – Adam Chitwood
Almost every year, Johnnie To releases one of the best action movies of the year. Sometimes, those movies are released in America and 2016, thankfully, was one of those years. With Three, To gives a nod to John Woo’s classic Hard-Boiled by setting his latest test of wills between a detective, a doctor, and a criminal mastermind in a busy hospital. There’s plenty of intrigue in the hunt for the mastermind’s colleagues in the hospital, and when the action starts picking up, Three becomes an exhilarating spectacle made with a master’s craftsmanship. This isn’t just your everyday action spectacle, however. Beneath the fireworks lies a severe, unforgiving consideration of the oaths and laws that separate those who attempt to uphold society’s moral code from those who seek to destroy it. – Chris Cabin
'Peter and the Farm'
One of the most arresting documentaries of the year barely ever ventures away from a Vermont farm. Peter and the Farm is a portrait of a man who took up farming in the 60s counterculture movement to get back to the land and live simply and now has isolated himself from any meaningful human contact. Peter Dunning is a fascinating subject for a documentary because he’s very giving in his dialogue about his triumphs and failures but his lucidity drifts when it comes to his present, seemingly aware that a darkness is close to enveloping him entirely out of existence, which is also his fear for his chosen trade.
Tony Stone’s warts-and-all documentary puts the documenter in an uncomfortable position as his subject openly offers that the conclusion of the film will be his own suicide and requests assistance in liquor runs when he’s too shaky to drive himself. Yet this isn’t a dreary portrait. Like his subject, Stone is always able to find enough light to stave off the encroaching darkness. — Brian Formo
'Train to Busan'
Writer-director Sang-Ho Yeon takes a concept as reductive as “zombies on a train” and turns it into a propulsive, action-packed, and surprisingly touching spin on the burnt out zombie genre. The film follows a selfish businessman and his neglected daughter when she begs him to take her home to her mother for her birthday. They board the train just as the world is falling to the zombie apocalypse, and Yeon always makes it feel like there’s never a second to spare. One wrong step, one missed opportunity, and our characters become raging, contorted flesh-eaters. These zombies aren’t just fast; they’re rabid and remarkably infectious (and surprisingly, they pull off that zombie wave thing that was so ridiculous in World War Z). Along the way, they team up with a fantastic cast of secondary characters that you actually give a flying hoot about, especially Dong-seok Ma‘s Sang Hwa, a buff badass and father to be who’ll do whatever it takes to protect what he loves. The film gets a little heavy-handed with the “selfishness is bad” motif at points, but it’s never enough to drag down the breathless action or commanding characters, and the film is a well-needed shot in the ass to the genre that has largely floundered in the wake of The Walking Dead.— Haleigh Foutch
The Romanian New Wave marches on! In the same year that saw the release of Radu Jude’s surreal, adventurous Aferim!, Romania’s most exciting auteur, Corneliu Porumboiu, returned with The Treasure, a deceptively quiet yet wildly critical political fable about a goofy excursion to find buried treasure in the Romanian countryside. Formally efficient yet never rushed, the film uses the treasure hunt, embarked on by two middle-class neighbors, as a symbol of a search for Romania’s history, glory, and sense of social order. The land where the two protagonists look for their windfall is now essentially a backyard, but at one time, there were factories, bars, schools, hospitals, and other places of employment, leisure, and public assistance. The absence of a thriving community where jobs and relaxation are plentiful is felt in Porumboiu’s sparse yet enchanting long takes, and in the film’s staggering ending, the director suggests that a sense of hope can only be found far from the ground beneath your feet. – Chris Cabin
'Men Go to Battle'
One of the major issues with many movies that to attempt to tackle any one facet or – god help them – the entirety of the Civil War is the look of the film. Whether it’s Glory or Ride with the Devil or Gettysburg, there’s always a push to capture this part of American history with a broad, bucolic plainness, painted across the screen with total competency and exactly zero daring or lively intimacy. Zachary Treitz’s take on the subject acts as a sort of corrective to this detached conception of America in the time of Lincoln, folding the politics of the time and universal moments of defused desire and crooked ambitions into the story of two poor brothers of the Kentucky soil. The time is 1861, right as the war is flaring up, and two diverging visions of masculinity, existence, and work, on a national stage, begin to take shape in the fraternal pair, played with rare, quiet expressiveness by Timothy Morton and David Maloney. Co-written by the great Kate Lyn Sheil, Men Go to Battle harnesses rote subject matter into something exhilarating in its formal energy and borderline poetic in its understanding of a still-divided nation on the brink of violent chaos. – Chris Cabin
'The Love Witch'
Anna Biller, who wrote, directed, crafted costumes, paintings and sets for The Love Witch, has perfectly reconstructed the Technicolor pop palette of 60s sex films and giallos. The design, stuffy mood and the discovery of Samantha Robinson are the superficial delights of The Love Witch—a story about a witch who creates love potions, but never gets her desired result—but Biller does much more than recreate a look perfectly; she also reclaims modes of filmmaking that scholars have said have catered too much to the male gaze and muddied the line of consent: horror, soap operas and porno. And she uses this pop soufflé to rob unsuspecting men of their consent.
Although Robinson’s “Love Witch” fits the mold of the femme victims of 60s giallos—sexy, promiscuous and trusting of strangers—she’s the violent threat here; but in an era where women are celebrated for merely being able to kick ass in movies now, she’s also not a woman to celebrate outright; she’s devoid of personality, caters to men’s desires and doesn’t believe in her own attractive qualities to bewitch someone naturally. The Love Witch is a deceptively deep study of gender and genre, purposefully stilted in presentation to throw you off its perfume. But it wafts and lingers. — Brian Formo
If you dig enough, there are always a few great, low-key noirs being made every year with a surfeit of invention and on a small-ish budget. Last year brought the vicious Two Step, about a reckless, furious scoundrel who kidnaps, kills, tortures, and extorts to keep his ego and money intact. This year, honors should be reserved for Burn Country, a gorgeous, menacing slice of woodland life in which a former Afghani fixer – shorthand for guide and translator – finds himself embroiled in a series of murders when he arrives in Northern California. Ian Olds’ direction evokes displacement and alienation – there are a handful of haunting, beautiful tracking shots of Dominic Rains’ Osman, the fixer, as he attempts to get friendly with the local community. Only Melissa Leo’s Gloria, the mother of Osman’s previous employer, is looking out for him closely, and a romance is flirted with between him and Rachel Brosnahan’s Sandra, an actress and performing artist. Otherwise, the world of tiny West Coast towns is shown as eerie, bizarre, and violent, and it becomes a reflection of both the psychological effects of immigration and the isolation that soldiers and journalists feel in Afghanistan. The movie has a strong political and empathetic backbone, which makes its enveloping story of dead bodies and deadbeat dads all the more potent. – Chris Cabin