Two 2016 films were on the tips of everyone’s tongue this winter: the La La Land against Moonlight, and their dust-up at the Oscars, where Moonlight emerged victorious. For a few weeks, these were the two most talked about movies in the world – two independent films, made by auteurs. It was a refreshing change from the typical discourse about which action blockbuster will get to $1 billion dollars the quickest.
2016 truly was a great year for independent films, like La La Land and Moonlight, but there were a litany of other movies that went overlooked by the majority of filmgoers. It had little to do with a lack of star power nor a dearth of good writing. In fact, many of these movies had huge names attached and almost all of them were well written. Thus, in the interest of giving credit where it is due (and in the interest of education), here are 16 Great Movies You Missed In 2016.
16. Train to Busan
A South Korean film about a train and a post-apocalyptic world may sound familiar (Snowpiercer anyone?) but Train to Busan somehow manages to break original ground, fighting an uphill battle against the trite convention of zombies in the process. This shouldn’t exactly be surprising, though. South Korean cinema has, in recent years, been dominating the market and proving its mettle in a tough industry that is desperately looking for originality and substance.
Audiences were, clearly, thrilled to see something that was decidedly not a superhero film or a coming-of-age story about a white guy, because Yeon Sang-Ho managed to make the first Korean film to break the movie theater audience record of 10 million. It also became the highest grossing Korean film in Malaysia, Hong Kon,g and Singapore simultaneously. It’s hard to overstate just how much people liked this movie. It had the added benefit of being a critical hit as well, garnering praise for its social commentary and well-written characters.
15. 20th Century Women
With a primarily (as the title might imply) female main cast, 20 Century Women, in some part, dwelled on the differences between men and women. Granted, this is a fairly tired concept that dates back at least to When Harry Met Sally, if not further, but the dynamic of mother and son (played by Annette Bening and Lucas Jade Zumann respectively) is a an interesting and under-explored avenue. Especially when it comes from the viewpoint of the mother.
Annette Bening’s character enlists the help of two younger women, Elle Fanning (playing a classmate of her son) and Greta Gerwig (playing an aspiring photographer) to help her raise her her teenaged son, helping him to understand her a little bit more in the process. He is, after all, in that stage of his life where rebellion starts to take hold and, without a father, Bening is raising him on her own. In short, Mike Mills made a touching tribute to a mother’s desire to keep her son close without pushing him away in the process, and an evocative ’70s period piece to boot.
14. Midnight Special
It is hard to talk about Midnight Special without mentioning its surface resemblance to Steven Spielberg’s alien classic, E.T. For one, it’s a science fiction movie about normal folks harboring an innocent being (in this case, Michael Shannon’s child) from a nefarious entity. But forget the notion that this is a ripoff, and see it for what it really is: a highly original chase story with some amazing acting. The latter is carried out by Michael Shannon, Adam Driver, and relative newcomer, Jaeden Lieberher. The movie also stars Sam Shepard, Kirsten Dunst, and Joel Edgerton.
The basis of Jeff Nichols’ film is that Michael Shannon’s character “steals” Jaeden Lieberher’s character (playing his son) from a radical Christian sect who wants to use his telekinetic powers for their own gain. Upon Shannon’s theft, Driver and Shepard (playing a cult leader and NSA-type respectively) are dispatched to find them. What ensues is a near two hour jaunt of through tense and exciting material that, as critics say, may or may not whet your appetite in the end.
13. The Edge of Seventeen
A depressive middle-class high schooler struggles to come of age – it’s well trod ground, and yet The Edge of Seventeen works. In fact, it works really well. Hailee Steinfeld, of True Grit fame, plays Nadine, a socially awkward and sexually frustrated teenage girl who really only wants to hang out with her one friend, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson). Then there’s her popular brother Darian (Blake Jenner from Everybody Wants Some!), her high-strung mother Mona (Kyra Sedgwick) and her hilariously dry teacher Mr. Bruner, played brilliantly by Woody Harrelson.
One thing that sets this particular exploration of teen angst apart is the writing. The naturalistic and recognizable way that everyone (namely the teens) talk is a result of writer and director, Kelly Fremon Craig’s extensive research of teenage speech and notions about the world. The research pays off, because the back and forth conversations feel like overhead snippets from any small-town burger joint where students gather after a winning football game. Then again, Craig’s protagonist wouldn’t be caught dead at a football game. Call it hipster nonsense, but The Edge of Seventeen is effortlessly entertaining without sacrificing substance.
12. Things to Come (L’Avenir)
The business of portraying misery in cinema is booming. Cynics might equate this to an overall mounting misery in the world at large, but that’s remarkably reductive. One of the the themes of Things to Come (L’Avenir), though perhaps not the central one, is that misery is the path to peace. However, there seems to be a concerted effort to avoid tacking on any real central theme to L’Avenir, as the movie (directed beautifully by Mia Hansen-Løve) follows Nathalie (portrayed here by the incomparable Isabelle Huppert) through one particular stage of her life, mostly free of commentary.
After a divorce from her long-time husband and the death of her mother, Nathalie, a high school philosophy teacher, feels adrift in the world. Her emotions are muted, but poignant, and life plods on through the 100-minute run time until eventually things seem to be okay. L’Avenir captures the human experience without complicating it with contrived plot points. Instead, it is a portrait of life – not a particularly happy one, but one that celebrates a certain optimism in the worst of circumstances.
11. American Honey
Road trip movies are one of the first genres any aspiring screenwriter should mark off their list, especially road trip movies ab out America and finding yourself and your place in the world. This formula is so overused simply because it has so much potential. Sadly, that potential is too often wasted on bad Jack Kerouac impressions and self-absorbed explorations of the self (some might argue the two are one and the same). American Honey, on the other hand, finds the needle in the haystack, as it were.
Directed and written by two Europeans (Andrea Arnold and Robbie Ryan, respectively) and starring frequent outcast Shia Labeouf alongside newcomer Sasha Lane, it’s worth dwelling on the outside perspective. Arnold and Ryan, through Labeouf and Lane, explore the notion of disenchanted youth in the supposed land of enchantment and opportunity. It’s certainly not a love letter to its titular homeland, but neither is it a condemnation.
10. Other People
Cancer films, like road movies, are too often used as a backdrop for a main character (typically free of cancer) to find themself while the cancer-ridden individual withers away. It’s a parasitic relationship that enriches the one who needs it the least, while draining the sick of their very last drop of life. In making Other People, Chris Kelly was quite aware of this. The name says as much, though that may not be apparent from the opening scenes.
David (Jesse Plemmons) is a comedy writer who lives in New York City but has returned to his childhood home upon learning his mother, Joanne (Molly Shannon) has cancer. Things aren’t going well in David’s own life either, but rather than attempting to help him find his way, the movie instead dwells on what an ass David makes of himself and how self-involved he really is in a time when his mother is suffering the worst fate of all.
Self-awareness is not often a trait possessed by Sundance dramedies, making it all the more pleasurable to see here. The acting is superb and the content, written by Kelly, a comedy writer himself, feels real and lived in.
9. Miss Stevens
Despite the subject of age-inappropriate love, Miss Stevens has little to do with romance. The titular character, portrayed by frequent American Horror Story player Lily Rabe, is a high school English teacher who has agreed to chaperone several students to an acting competition. One particular student (Timothée Chalamet) is a sullen and mopey exception to his flamboyant peers. Before she leaves, Miss Stevens is warned to look out for him by a concerned principal. Her concern is, quite accidentally, mistaken for romantic interest by Chalamet’s character and there is an underlying element of unrequited love playing throughout the film.
But, again, Julia Hart’s movie is not about romantic love. It’s barely about love. Mainly, it’s about what the title suggests: Miss Stevens. an alcoholic and deeply depressed individual who can’t seem to let go of a part of her life that drives her to near apathy about the world around her. It’s a character study of the long lasting effects of grief, and the world’s continued existence around it.
8. Last Days in the Desert
The story of Jesus Christ is a surprisingly hard one to tell. For a figure so ubiquitous in modern (especially Western) culture, there’s remarkably little to go on. This is due in large part to the fact that the Bible is decidedly mum about the inner workings of Christ’s mind. The New Testament, after all, was not striving for literary greatness. Still, this dimensionless god-figure is perhaps one of the most fascinating characters in all of history and there have been innumerable attempts to capture him on screen.
None so fascinating as Last Days in the Desert, though. Rodrigo Garcia’s fairly short (98 minutes) exploration of Christ (here referred to as Yeshua) is brought to life thrugh eye-catching dual performances by Ewan McGregor. In a surprising turn of events, McGregor also portrays Satan, as he attempts to tempt Yeshua away from the light. It is in these conversations with himself that Yeshua’s character really becomes human, a facet of the Christ figure that is too often forgotten in favor of his godliness. There is a plot to the movie as well, but it’s hard to focus on when Ewan McGregor is giving his best performance in years.
In recent years, a re-exploration of the notion of black Americans’ duality in a country that both accepts and rejects them has become a topic of intense debate and, optimistically, conversation. Kicks is, at once, both a shining example of this and a reluctant addition to the trope. The latter manifests in the fact that while Kicks is about a young black societal outcast, it spends little time dwelling about the country’s ills. That is, of course, an unavoidable backdrop, but it’s also a story about a black community that takes place within a black community, with the heroes and villains all sharing the same skin tone.
Of course, “heroes and villains” seems a simplistic term for the characters in Justin Tipping’s film. Brandon, a 15 year old kid, is just a socially awkward teen trying to find a place in a culture that values hyper masculinity and posturing. His “villain” Flaco is a child-rearing part-time crook who gets his own screen time and character development beyond the typical amount dedicated to antagonists. But it is Brandon’s cousin (played by recent Oscar winner, Mahershala Ali) that really steals the show – it is from a brief look through his eyes that we see the reality of the situation.
6. Certain Women
Short story collections rarely get made into films, especially ones primarily about women. But Certain Women is a welcome exception to the rule and Kelly Reichardt does an excellent job of allowing her audience a look into the relatively normal lives of three women. Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, and Kirsten Stewart star as these three women, each suffering from a lack of connection – a problem too often seen through the lens of misanthropic men.
Laura Dern and Michelle Williams give characteristically brilliant performances, and their characters’ stories are certainly worth watching. But it is Kristen Stewart who deserves the most attention, mainly because her performance is such an unexpected treat to watch. Had it been said five years ago that Kristen Stewart would be a contender for the title of “best young actress” the world may have laughed in unison. Despite her schlocky beginnings, Stewart has emerged as a real talent, even becoming the first American actress to win a César for her supporting role in Clouds of Sils Maria in 2014. She’s taken to indie films like a vampire to the dark.
Pablo Larraín had a great year. His sort-of-biopic Jackie, starring Natalie Portman as the late JFK’s recent widow, was incredibly well-received and critics praised both her performance and Larraín’s direction. Directors only dream of such praise once in a lifetime, but while everyone’s focus was on the former First Lady, Larraín managed to sneak out another masterpiece. Neruda (like Jackie) is a biopic that cares little for its title character’s life as a whole. Rather, it’s far more interested in that character’s place in the world, and his response to adversity.
Famed Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco) is a recently outed communist who is on the run for his sympathies, fleeing an ambitious and obsessive inspector (Gael García Bernal). The story is aptly named, though perhaps for duplicitous reasons, as it is the latter character who takes center stage. His hunt for Neruda plays out over an hour and forty seven minutes, through which the audience gets an oddly detailed look at two men who are so disparately matched, yet strangely similar.
It seems as though A24 can do no wrong. The studio, responsible for such hits as Moonlight and The Witch has had a near perfect run of excellent cinema that certainly did not falter with this low-budget character drama. Krisha stars no one you’ve heard of. It almost feels like a home video that may have been picked up and accidentally broadcast to the world, which is fitting since director Trey Edward Shults cast his actual aunt Krisha in the lead role. A musing on abandonment and atonement, Krisha follows the story of its title character; a woman who returns to her family after years of estrangement on the eve of Thanksgiving.
Cinematic depictions of family often begin with idealism and descend into dark reality. Krisha, on the other hand, begins at that logical end. To put it lightly, this is not a happy telling of familial strength, but a miserable portrayal of broken bonds, even those that are supposedly the strongest. Drug problems and mistrust abound and the sprawling cast of Krisha’s family portray a troubled group of both broken and resigned people.
3. The Handmaiden
Park Chan-wook is no stranger to success. The South Korean director is a powerhouse at home and his influence long ago stretched to the United States with his gritty success Oldboy, a film that would later be (unsuccessfully) re-attempted by Spike Lee with Josh Brolin. But, unwilling to (and perhaps incapable of) resting on his laurels, Park has put out yet another piece of cinematic art. This, too, found success across the ocean.
The Handmaiden does not shy away from Park’s familiar theme of vengeance in this cinematic adaptation of Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith. The film is set in early 20th century Korea, around the time of the Japanese occupation of that region, and is split into three distinct parts, each replete with feminist overtones that strive to take revenge against a violent and evil patriarchy. But above all the film is a love story between the two female leads. The Handmaiden is a masterpiece that eschews typical male centeredness for the sake of portraying the depths of a few women and their willingness to go the distance.
2. A Monster Calls
Dispensing with the earlier notions of cancer being used as a character trope for the non-sick characters, A Monster Calls is a brilliant exploration of morality, not grief. Grief, of course, factors in heavily, as the moral lessons tend to hinge on it. But it takes a backseat to the coming-of-age of its young character, Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall). The son of a cancer-stricken mother, played by Felicity Jones, he is sent to live with his seemingly cruel and unfeeling grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) and taken away from his idyllic life. This all seems fairly cut and dry as these sort of stories tend to go.
Then there’s a giant tree monster with eyes made of fire. This monster (Liam Neeson), whether he exists in Conor’s mind or not, is not a dream sequence but a waking nightmare. But a nightmare that eventually becomes, oddly enough, a friend to someone very much in need. Through gruff, wizened speech, the monster seeks to teach Conor lessons in right and wrong and help him to understand not only himself, but the nuances of the people around him.
1. Morris From America
Another home run from A24, Morris From America is a story about a young black boy and identity. It is not, however, a film about black identity. Not, at least, at its core. Had it been set in the States, it might have ended up that way, but writer/director Chad Hartigan instead sends his characters (a father and son played by Craig Robinson and Markees Christmas) to Heidelberg, Germany. Christmas, playing the title role of Morris, is deeply out of his element as a young kid from Virginia, and his initial interactions are limited to his father and his German teacher. With time, however, Morris begins to fall for his classmate, Katrin (Lina Keller).
The film concerns itself less with Morris as a lover and more so with Morris as a writer, with his raps inspiring criticism (albeit constructive) from his father, who implores him to write about life. This is the essence of the film, a humanistic view of people thrust into environments out of their control and their grasping attempts to understand their place in it.
Which movie from 2016 do you wish more people had seen? Let us know in the comments!