No matter what, the major Hollywood blockbusters are always going to dominate the conversation. After all, films like Finding Dory, Captain America: Civil War and Zootopia attracted such broad audiences this year that all three Disney-owned properties managed to crack the $1 billion mark worldwide. Although those films were largely lauded by critics and fans, there is a growing disparity between releases that sit atop the box office charts and those that frequent critics’ lists. Sometimes, this is the result of a film’s subject material just being too bizarre or offbeat to earn the attention of the masses or perhaps it’s simply because the distributor lacks the marketing budget to effectively build up anticipation.
Whatever the case may be, we’re turning our attention to the 2016 films that many of you may have missed so far this year. First, a few ground rules: We’re including both major studio releases that underperformed at the box office and indie darlings that failed to break into the mainstream. More specifically, qualifying films must have received at least a limited theatrical run in 2016 and grossed less than $50 million domestically. Now, let’s the spotlight on these under-seen gems.
Here are the 17 Best Movies Of 2016 You Haven’t Seen.
17. Swiss Army Man
Starting things off, we have a film that may very well be among the most divisive films of the year. Soon after its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, Swiss Army Man became known as Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe’s “farting corpse movie” and elicited such a mixed reaction from the crowd there that some viewers walked out of the screening. However, for those that do appreciate the film’s twisted sense of humor and darkly powerful third-act twist, Swiss Army Man offers a distinct viewing experience that invites viewers to unravel the subtext in search of even deeper layers of meaning. Filmmakers Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert — credited as simply “Daniels” — make an incredibly ambitious debut here, and the film features what many are calling Radcliffe’s best performance to date. If there’s one role we never thought we’d see the former Harry Potter take on, it’s that of a flatulent corpse. That certainly should count for something.
16. Don’t Think Twice
Comedian Mike Birbiglia wrote, directed and stars in this comedy-drama centering on a New York-based improv troupe that begins to crumble when one of the comics (Keegan-Michael Key) is selected to join the cast of a Saturday Night Live-esque sketch show. Gillian Jacobs, Kate Micucci, Tami Sagher and Chris Gethard round out the main cast of Don’t Think Twice and riff off of each other beautifully as this all-too-common scenario plays out. Praised for its hilarious script and poignant subject matter, the film has received universal praise from critics for balancing its delicate tone and capturing the fragile dynamic between performers and friends all striving to “make it big.” Prior to Don’t Think Twice, Birbiglia’s only directorial credit was the 2012 indie comedy Sleepwalk with Me, but given the unanimous love for his latest film, we’re betting it won’t take long for him to step behind the camera again.
15. Hail, Caesar!
Joel and Ethan Coen are routinely cited as two of the best filmmakers working today. Much like their early hit Barton Fink (which is also connected to the fictional Capitol Pictures), Hail, Caesar! examines the life of those in the movie business, albeit from the perspective of a studio fixer (Josh Brolin) tasked with locating the leading man (George Clooney) of an upcoming Roman-set epic. Part screwball comedy and part genuine satire of the Hollywood system, Hail, Caesar! unites a large group of gifted actors — including Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson, Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Tilda Swinton and Frances McDormand — to play one outlandish character after another. Moreover, it introduced the world to Alden Ehrenreich, the young actor who nabbed the role of Han Solo in the upcoming Star Wars spinoff film. It might not be one of the Coens’ finest hours at the box office, earning just $30 million domestically, but it was enough for Hail, Caesar! To become a modest hit during its theatrical run.
14. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
For over a decade, The Lonely Island — the hip hop comedy trio comprised of Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer — has been cranking out hilarious send-ups of pop music, becoming one of the most popular musical comedy acts of the modern age. So a feature-length mockumentary that pokes fun at the excess and arrogance of celebrity seemed like a natural fit. Unfortunately, Samberg’s turn as former boy band singer Conner4Real was widely ignored by moviegoers. Earning less than $10 million domestically, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping somehow found less of an audience than The Lonely Island’s last big-screen collaboration, 2007 comedy Hot Rod. It’s a real shame, considering how much Popstar gets right about fame and how memorable some of its silly tunes are. In truth, it’s one of the best comedies to come out of a major studio this year. Hopefully, like Hot Rod and MacGruber (which Taccone directed), it will develop a cult following in the years to come.
13. The Fits
Even when first-time filmmakers exhibit real talent in their debut features, it’s often raw and unrefined, offering hints at greatness to follow. Rarely does a director’s vision shine through as sharply straight out the gate as it does in The Fits. Anna Rose Holmer wrote, co-produced and directed this drama about a young girl (Royalty Hightower) who becomes fascinated by a dance troupe and finds herself swept up in a dangerous world. The film premiered at last year’s Venice Film Festival and soon garnered attention for its central mystery, the sense of tension it creates and the way the story captures the mindset of its young protagonist. Hightower has also received tremendous praise for her role, scooping up her own share of festival recognition for her performance. The Fits barely received a theatrical release, but we’re betting that it will have a much longer life on demand and on streaming services.
12. Everybody Wants Some!!
After 20 years and more than a dozen films, Dazed and Confused still remains one of director Richard Linklater’s signature works. That release is renowned for helping to launch the careers of actors like Matthew McConaughey and Parker Posey, but it’s also just as known for capturing the high school experience. So when word got out that Linklater was planning a spiritual sequel to his 1993 classic, fans were naturally excited to see what he had in store. Everybody Wants Some!! takes the 1970s high school focus of its predecessor to the natural next step: college in the 1980s. Centering on a team of college baseball players, the film features a winning ensemble cast that includes Blake Jenner, Will Britain, Glen Powell, Ryan Guzman, Wyatt Russell and Tyler Hoechlin. Though some critics have derided the film’s lack of a female perspective, its nostalgic tone, killer soundtrack and Linklater’s laid-back direction led Everybody Wants Some!! to universal acclaim.
11. The Lobster
Director Yorgos Lanthimos (Dog Tooth) leaps into this absurdist dark comedy/drama with such wild abandon that it’s hard not to get swept up in its bizarre storytelling. Colin Farrell stars as David, a man whose wife has recently left him for someone else. However, David lives in a world where anyone not in a relationship will be transformed into an animal of their choice if they don’t find a mate within 45 days. Therein begins the insanity, which blends a satirical look at relationships and society’s perception of the single life with a bittersweet tale of loneliness and the desire to belong. Farrell has received widespread praise for his deadpan work, and The Lobster walked away with the Jury Prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. The film’s twisted sense of humor and strangely dystopic world may not be for everyone, but it is certainly one that offers a distinctive viewing experience.
10. A Bigger Splash
One of the year’s most critically lauded films, A Bigger Splash had such a whirlwind theatrical release — never playing in more than 378 theaters nationwide at one time — that it quite possibly swept through your town without much notice. Regardless, the film stars Oscar winner Tilda Swinton as an aging rock star whose vacation on a Italian island with her boyfriend (Matthias Schoenaerts) becomes complicated by the arrival of an old friend (Ralph Fiennes) and his daughter (Dakota Johnson). That seemingly simple premise spirals into an erotic psychological drama that thankfully more than does justice to its top-notch cast. Swinton has particularly been on a roll in recent years, appearing in a half-dozen memorable roles since 2013. Of course, she’s next set to show up in Marvel’s Doctor Strange as The Ancient One, but it’s her work in this standout release from director Luca Guadagnino that has kept critics talking.
9. Captain Fantastic
Don’t let the title fool you. This isn’t yet another superhero film. In fact, it’s a meditative family drama starring Viggo Mortensen. Following his role as the heroic Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Mortensen hasn’t really embraced the Hollywood leading man status he could have claimed. That’s because the actor seems to be way more interested in pursuing smaller-scale tales that take a character-driven approach to drama. Captain Fantastic, for instance, perfectly fits this description. The film — directed by Matt Ross (28 Hotel Rooms) — follows a family that is forced to re-enter society after living in isolation for the past decade. Mortensen plays the father of six children — each of whom deliver standout performances in their own right — and delivers a multi-layered turn that ranks among his best in years. Moreover, Captain Fantastic ponders some meaningful themes and emerged as a festival favorite soon after its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.
8. The Witch
Writer/director Robert Eggers created one of the year’s most talked-about horror films with this period piece/horror folk tale centered on a Puritan family who quickly descends into paranoia following the disappearance of their new baby. Anya Taylor-Joy (Morgan) hands in a star-making turn as the teenage daughter who bears the brunt of her family’s fear and guilt. The Witch delves deep into the role religion played in Puritan society and features some of the year’s most disturbing twists as a result of the authenticity Eggers puts into the production. Moviegoers searching for traditional jump scares or an abundance of gory imagery might be disappointed, as Eggers’ film is far more interested in psychological terror than typical horror movie tropes. It’s the very definition of a slow burn, but the final act of The Witch pays off all that tension in a wholly satisfying way that will likely stay with you long after the credits roll.
The only foreign-language film on our list, this Turkish release follows five orphaned girls as they struggle to grow up in a conservative world. Deniz Gamze Ergüven makes her directorial debut with the film, which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (an honor it lost to Hungarian drama Son of Saul earlier this year). While its initial theatrical release took place in late 2015, Mustang expanded throughout the spring, ultimately reaching its peak release of 57 screens in mid-January. Anchored by a gifted ensemble cast and a moving story, Ergüven’s film delivers a powerful message that has earned universal praise from critics and a number of accolades from the festival circuit. Still, it’s gone mostly unnoticed by mainstream audiences due in part to its lack of availability and the absence of any recognizable stars. Thankfully, Mustang is now available on streaming services and ready to watch.
6. The Nice Guys
Legendary Hollywood screenwriter Shane Black first gained fame for writing Lethal Weapon back in 1987. Originally an actor in films like Predator, Black has since evolved from a top-earning screenwriter to an auteur of the very kind of action comedy films he helped to pioneer. Financially speaking, Iron Man 3 is by far the most successful project Black has ever been involved in, but his third directorial effort, The Nice Guys, actually has way more in common with his debut, 2005 release Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, than the Marvel sequel he wrote and directed. This new film stars Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe as a private detective and enforcer, respectively, who wind up teaming up to solve a complicated case involving the seedy 1970s Los Angeles underworld and the adult film industry. Filled with Black’s signature quick wit, The Nice Guys should have been a blockbuster hit with two marquee names and an accessible tone. However, it only brought in a disgraceful $36 million domestically. Here’s hoping its target audience finds the film on home video.
5. Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Before Taika Waititi shares his vision of Thor: Ragnarok with the world, the filmmaker — who last helmed the slick vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows — invites moviegoers to check out this adventure. Hunt for the Wilderpeople stars Julian Dennison as Ricky, a city kid infatuated with the gangster life, and Sam Neill as his father figure, Uncle Hec. When Ricky runs away, Uncle Hec is in full pursuit, and a national manhunt kicks off to find both of them in the New Zealand wilderness. What transpires then is a heartwarming and hilarious tale of two very different individuals that find common ground due to their shared circumstance. Waititi continues to prove his mettle as one of the sharpest filmmakers working today, and if he can bring any of the personality and fun of Hunt for the Wilderpeople to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, we’re all in for a treat when we return to Asgard next year.
4. Kubo and the Two Strings
Of all the films on our list, Kubo and the Two Strings is probably among the most well-known. In fact, it came closest to the $50 million box office mark we established upfront. With a $47 million domestic haul, the fourth stop-motion animated feature from Laika Animation — following Coraline, Paranorman and The Boxtrolls — still meets our criteria because of the sheer love it has received from critics as well as those moviegoers who have seen it. The tale of one-eyed Kubo’s (Art Parkinson) quest to collect ancient artifacts with the help of a monkey (Charlize Theron) and a beetle (Matthew McConaughey) may be archetypal in many ways, but it features such striking visuals and such a masterfully told story that this dark fairy tale is essentially a shoo-in for a Best Animated Feature nod at this year’s Oscars. We only wish more people would have checked it out in theaters, as Laika is second only to Pixar in its ability to consistently deliver meaningful animated entertainment.
3. Hell or High Water
Before Hell or High Water hit theaters, no one quite knew what to think. Here was a Western heist thriller starring Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine and Ben Foster from a filmmaker whose most notable release was 2013 drama Starred Up. However, Hell or High Water gradually emerged as one of the year’s best surprises. Bridges and Gil Birmingham star as Texas Rangers on the trail of two brothers (Pine and Foster) who have been committing a string of bank robberies. Placing an emphasis on character over carnage, director David Mackenzie allows his story to play out at such an even pace that its underlying message effortlessly rises to the surface. In addition, the film features charismatic performances across the board, with many critics specifically calling out Pine’s role as a highlight. By letting word of mouth build off of its near-universal critical praise, Hell or High Water was able to earn more than double its $12 million budget in its domestic release.
2. Green Room
Earlier this year, the world was shocked and saddened by the passing of Anton Yelchin. While Star Trek Beyond features a subtle tribute to the late actor in its final moments, this chilling thriller from writer/director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin) has been heralded as the film that may have marked Yelchin’s breakout role as a leading man. Green Room follows a punk rock band who face off with a group of neo-Nazis — led by a particularly fearsome Patrick Stewart — after they witness a murder at a gig. Yelchin plays the band’s bassist and must escape the group’s clutches along with co-stars Imogen Poots, Alia Shawkat, Joe Cole and Callum Turner. Saulnier creates a claustrophobic masterpiece that alternates between delivering thrills and shocking audiences with just how far it’s willing to go. Despite strong reactions from almost everyone who has seen it, the film’s wide release only lasted a single week back in May before it gradually faded from theaters with a cumulative domestic box office take of just $3.2 million.
1. Sing Street
John Carney has previously explored the relationship between an individual’s personal journey and his or her musical ambition in films like Once and Begin Again. The director’s newest film, Sing Street, follows the same tradition as his previous two releases. Set in the 1980s, the film follows teenage Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) as he starts a band with his friends to impress local girl Raphina (Lucy Boynton). Though his creative endeavor starts this way, Conor soon finds himself on a road of self-discovery that expands far beyond the desires of his heart. In a world already obsessed with looking back, Sing Street is a love letter to 1980s music and culture, as Conor is tutored in the era’s rock by his older brother (Jack Reynor). Anchored in a universally relatable coming-of-age story, the film is a charmer in the purest sense of the word and captures the joy of going to movies more than any other film this year. Plus, it features some of the catchiest original music of 2016. Just give a listen to “Drive It Like You Stole It” and try to get it out of your head. We dare you.
With all the big franchise films and blockbuster hopefuls out there, it’s easy for some smaller but equally worthy releases to slip through the cracks. Hopefully, our list of some of the best under-performing films to hit theaters this year has helped shed light on a few that you’re interested in tracking down. Luckily, most of the films we’ve highlighted are available either on physical or digital media, with a few even streaming on sites like Netflix and Amazon. We highly encourage you to seek out those that sound intriguing, as they might offer a refreshing change of pace from more mainstream fare.
As always, our selections are, of course, subjective, but we’re eager to hear which films you feel deserved to be seen by more moviegoers as well as your thoughts about the ones we’ve discussed above. With any luck, the remaining weeks of 2016 will bring many more unforgettable films. We’ll see you in theaters.
How many of the films on our list have you seen, and what’s your favorite under-seen 2016 release? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.