The Best Films of 2016 That You Haven’t Heard Of
I started doing this after I realized that not everyone is as up on all the movies that come out as I am. To an extreme level. Even people who really like movies are probably gonna look at some of the stuff I mention and go, “I have no idea what that is.” Or maybe they’ve heard of it in passing but don’t really know anything about it. Which says more about me than anything else. But since I am someone who sees just about everything, I can be the one to illuminate the stuff that ends up in the middle of the pile that you didn’t know you should pick up.
Here’s my metric. I ask someone who is into movies if they’ve seen Rules Don’t Apply. They go, “What’s that?” And I go, “The Warren Beatty Howard Hughes movie.” And they go, “Oh, yeah. That one.” There’s some recognition there, even if they don’t immediately know what it is. But then I go, “Have you seen White Girl?” And they go, “What’s that?” “The Sundance movie about the girl who starts dating the drug dealer.” And they have no idea what that is.
This list is about the hidden gems and the underseen stuff that you bring around and go, “You didn’t know you need to see this, but you do.” This list is more for the people who have seen that higher level stuff and now don’t know there’s more stuff that they’re gonna like that they just didn’t realize was there. This is the stuff I specialize in.
Here are the best films of 2016 that you’ve never heard of:
1. American Honey
Maybe if you’re into movies you have something of an inkling about this, but trust me, the majority of people have no idea this even exists. Just because in my semi-insular existence, a lot of people I know have heard of this, that doesn’t mean anyone else has. And even the people I think have heard about this don’t really know what this is. This also just won a couple British Independent Film Awards too, if that helps.
It’s a really simple film. It’s two hours, forty minutes, and it’s about this girl. The first half hour sets up her home life and what she wants to get away from, then we watch as she goes off an joins a group of traveling magazine salespeople. All misfit, twenty-somethings who have no place else to go. And they form their own weird little family. Normally I’d think a movie with this runtime and this story would be pretentious. But I was absolutely rivete throughout. I really liked this a lot, and I think a lot of people will skip it for similar reasons to those I stated above. Or just becaues no one has any idea what this is. This deserves an audience, because it’s one of the better films of 2016.
2. Army of One
Sure, you read this site, you know what this is. But nobody reads this site. The public at large has no idea what this movie is until you tell them. This barely came out and has gone away even quicker. Eventually this will be on Netflix and some people will get to know it, but right now, no one’s heard of this.
This movie stars Nicolas Cage as this guy, Gary Faulkner, who was told by God to go to Pakistan and kill Osama bin Laden. It was directed by Larry Charles (who did Borat and Seinfeld), and while the film itself isn’t great, it’s the fact that Nicolas Cage is so dedicated to this performance, the likes of which we haven’t seen from him in about seven years. Just watch the trailer. If that doesn’t do it for you, then I don’t know what to tell you. Cage is wonderful here, and the movie is just so much fun. And if you’re remotely a fan of Cage and the beautiful insanity he can bring to the screen, you’re gonna want to check out this one.
3. A Bigger Splash
This is one of the few that I think is more likely to be known by some of the more casual film buffs, but still, by and large, no one’s really heard of this movie.
It’s a remake of La Piscine, directed by Luca Guadagnino, who made I Am Love, starring Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Matthias Schoennarts and Dakota Johnson. And it’s really terrific. Ralph Fiennes steals the show. It’s gorgeous to look at, well acted, and it’s just a terrific movie. And while maybe some people may have heart of this around the time it was coming out, it’s definitely been forgotten since then. And it’s a great movie. A terrific primer for his Suspiria remake (which is filming now!).
4. Blood Father
People definitely don’t know about this one. They never do. Mel Gibson is still pretty much unemployable as an actor, and whenever he does get a movie, it’s usually getting some sort of minor release and barely any notice. Case and point — does anyone know what Get the Gringo is?
This is an old school kick ass kind of action movie, perfectly suited for him. He plays an ex-con who has since sobered up and quit crime in order to be a tattoo artist. His underage daughter has disappeared, going off to date a drug dealer. And one day, after she accompanies him on a job gone wrong and witnesses several murders, she turns to him for help. So now he’s got to protect his daughter from the rest of the cartel. Simple and effective. Really badass movie that will appeal to the Taken crowd, and all those dads who like stuff like Death Wish. And it’s better than those movies, which makes it more appealing all around.
I can’t believe this movie got no play and no notice, yet it contains an Oscar-caliber performance from Rebecca Hall. It’s about Christine Chubbuck, the news anchor who (spoiler) killed herself live on the air in 1974. So the film is about her, and we watch as she navigates her life and her job (with hallmarks all over the place signifying what’s to come) and slowly loses her shit. It’s a really good film and a great performance by Rebecca Hall. More people really ought to know about this.
6. Complete Unknown
Quietly a very solid film that opens up a lot of questions. Rachel Weisz plays a woman who was dating Michael Shannon when they were younger, and then, without a word, disappears from his life. And she now shows up at a birthday party of his, with a new identity, claiming not to know who he is at all. So imagine being really in love with someone, then having them completely disappear from your life, only to randomly show up twenty years later, pretending to be someone else and have no idea who you are or what you’re talking about. And the film takes place over the course of that party. It highlights her constantly changing identity and her desire to settle down, and his comfortable life, and his yearning for something exciting and different. Really well made film, well-acted, and by the guy who did Maria Full of Grace, too.
7. The Confirmation
This quietly got put out on VOD in the first quarter of this year, and no one even knows about this. It was written and directed by Bob Nelson, who wrote Nebraska. And it’s an incredibly simple movie. A young boy spends the day with his father, a recovering alcoholic. And his father discovers his prized tool set (basically the source of his only income) has been stolen. And he and the kid go around town, trying to get it back. It’s a really likable movie, the way Nebraska was a likable movie. The stakes are small, and its all about the characters and their relationships. A definite hidden gem of 2016.
8. The Dark Horse
I heard about this last year. I heard it was this terrific New Zealand film that won all their Oscars. And I said, “Yeah, whatever, okay.” And then I saw Cliff Curtis was in it. And that it was a chess movie. And my interest piqued.
The film is about Genesis Potini, a bipolar chess champion who suffered a nervous breakdown and begins teaching young kids how to play chess. It’s pretty wonderful. Cliff Curtis is amazing here, and the film is really solid. If you like Searching for Bobby Fischer (and liked Queen of Katwe this year as well), then you’ll like this.
9. The Edge of Seventeen
This movie was lovely. I like smartass teenage protagonists, and this one was extremely well-written. You should watch a trailer for this. That’ll tell you everything you need to know. If that sort of thing annoys you, then you know where you stand. But this is a really nice, underrated kind of high school movie. The last one of these I can remember was Easy A. That also quietly came out and went nowhere.
What I like about this is how prickly the protagonist is, and how borderline unlikable she is — and remains — throughout much of the film. She’s likable, but she’s very unlikable to those around her. And it’s the kind of movie that sometimes threatens to spiral out of control and get wholly unrealistic, but it never hits that level. This was really solid, and I know nobody knows what this is because it barely got released and made almost no money.
10. The Family Fang
Jason Bateman is quietly crafting a solid directorial career for himself. Bad Words was really funny, and is slowly starting to turn itself (I hope) into a cult film. This one is still in that “I have no idea what that even is” stage.
Bateman and Nicole Kidman are kids who were raied by performance artist parents (on of whom is Christopher Walken). And the film is about all the fucked up shit their parents put them through as kids in the name of art (the opening scene is them staging a fake bank robbery where the father is brutally in front of them), and what it’s done to them now as adults, especially when their parents go missing and are presumed dead.
It’s a really fascinating film that actually works really well. Great performanes all around, and it’s just one of those movies that, while not perfect, has a lot to like about it and deserves an audience.
11. The Fits
What a great film. 75-minute indie that doesn’t have a direct narrative, and yet at the same time it does. A 12-year-old tomboy who is training in boxing notices a hip hop dance troupe in a neighboring gym and decides she wants to be a part of that. So she starts taking dance classes. And pretty soon she notices that the girls in the group are all falling victim to what seems like epileptic seizures. It’s a really great film and a metaphor for femininity and puberty — really great stuff. A real calling card for Anna Rose Holmer, the director, and a really worthwhile film that no one’s really heard of.
12. The Girl with All the Gifts
There’s a reason you haven’t heard of this movie — it’s not coming out in the US until next year. It only got a UK release in October and that’s about it. It’s based on a bestselling book, which is how I knew of it. I got to see this as part of a film festival in October, and while I’d normally wait and talk about it next year when it actually comes out, I liked it so much I’m getting the jump on everything and telling you now to look out for this movie, because it’s one of the best zombie movies in a long, long time. Since 28 Days Later.
Melanie is a young girl who lives in solitary confinement. Her day exists as a routine. The guards come in, rifles drawn, and strap the kids to chairs. They roll them into a sealed room where a teacher comes in to teach them. We slowly find out — all these kids are the result of a zombie infection that wiped out the majority of the human race. These kids are second generation. Whereas the first generation, and those who get infected now, turn into the zombies you normally see, these kids have evolved to work in tandem with the infection. So they have to eat to live — worms, animals, people, whatever. But aside from that, unless they are hungry and around the “scent” of flesh, they’re just regular kids. And the film is about Melanie, her teacher, some army officers, and Glenn Close as a doctor, trying to survive after an attack on their base. And it’s fucking wonderful. It really, really is.
I cannot recommend this movie highly enough. I’m worried that since it was bought by Saban Films, and their track record thus far has been to dump movies on VOD for no one to see, that even if this movie gets a release next year, not enough people will see it because they won’t give people the opportunity to see it. So I want to make as many people as I can aware of this movie now so it gets as much of an audience as it can get. Because it’s really good.
13. Hunt for the Wilderpeeple
This already has a bit of a cult status, because the director’s previous film, What We Do in the Shadows, is already a cult favorite. And he got hired to do Thor 3, so this has some degree of notoriety. But not enough.
It’s about an overweight New Zealand boy abandoned by his mother who is placed in a foster home. What starts off with him trying to run away turns into a pretty nice living situation… until his foster mother dies suddenly and his foster father, a gruff man (brilliantly played by Sam Neill) is going to give him back to child services. But he runs away before that can happen, and eventually Neill and the boy end up in the run, and shit gets hilarious.
This is a wonderful movie that most people will like. Let’s jump start this one’s cult status now.
A really wonderful movie. Even people who don’t understand sneaker culture (which includes me) will find a lot to like in this movie. It’s about an undersized boy who is picked on and overlooked, and he thinks it’s because he doesn’t have nice Jordans like the other kids. He works his ass off to make money for some Jordans, and ends up buying a pair of Jordan 1s, the originals. And all of a sudden, he’s happy, girls are noticing, life is picking up… and then he’s beaten and his shoes are stolen by a dangerous drug dealer in the neighborhood. And he’s gotta fight to get them back. It’s all about self-image and manliness, and how something as simple as a pair of shoes can spiral into so much more. It’s a really terrific film and one of the better indies of the year, and I know no one knows about this. Watch the trailer. You’ll want to see it.
15. Little Sister
The goth nun comedy you’ve been waiting for. Definitely my least favorite of the films on this list, but one with so much personality I couldn’t help but throw it on. It stars Addison Timlin, who has become one of my favorite actresses to see in things, since I saw her in Odd Thomas and also in Best Man Down. She’s got a charm about her that I can’t quite explain, and I really like the choices she’s made in the years since.
She plays a woman about to take her first vows as a nun. But given her past (she was really goth back in high school), and her family situation, the nuns think she should go home for a few days to really make sure this is what she wants to do. So she goes back home to her self-medicating, neurotic mother and her brother whose face was blown off in Iraq, leaving him with a permanently scarred visage.
It’s a weird, funny little movie that features one of the best musical scenes of 2016, where she, dressed in white face paint and a pink wig, goes to her brother’s room to try to get him to snap out of his depression by singing a song about murdering dead babies. Again, not for everyone, but those who find it funny (as I did), will laugh their asses off.
A really intriguing film that I guarantee you likely have not heard of at all. And it’s a goth nun movie. How hard is it for that to happen?
16. Look Who’s Back
Technically a 2015 film, but it also hasn’t been released in the US and was put on Netflix this year, so I’m counting it. I’ll start by heaping praise on the movie and then finishing with what it’s about, because that’s what’s gonna get you to see this movie. And trust me, you have no idea what this is.
First — this is a really great comedy. Brilliant conceit, and while it did start as a book, I’m sure they kept all the best stuff from it. I don’t think it’s perfect, but I do think the premise is so good that it has to be seen by all.
Here’s what it’s about: Adolf Hitler wakes up in an alleyway in the exact spot where his bunker was in 1945. It’s 2015. He has no memory of anything since 1945 and has no idea what’s going on. He wanders around, interpreting everything as though the Third Reich is still in power. Everyone thinks this is hilarious, that he’s an actor playing Hitler. No one takes him seriously, and pretty soon he gets on TV, spouting all this right-wing, fascist rhetoric that people think is a comedy routine. And very slowly, the TV producer who strives to help get him on the air starts to realize — this isn’t a joke. This is Hitler, and he’s unknoingly creating another monster.
Tell me you don’t want to see this movie.
17. The Monster
If there’s one thing that almost always works for me, it’s horror movies with a supernatural element that can be interpreted as a metaphor for something else. It Follows is really about STDs. The Babadook is about mental illness. This movie is about addiction and parenting.
Zoe Kazan is a drug addict who is just awful to her daughter. She does some really fucked up shit to her. This is a girl who should not have to go through the things she has. And Kazan realizes how terrible a mother she’s been, and, unable to kick her addiction, decides to give her daughter up to her father to raise, figuring that’ll be best for the both of them. And along the way, their car breaks down, and they have to fight a monster that’s lurking in the woods. It’s a really short, simple movie, featuring an incredible performance by Zoe Kazan. I know nobody knows about this one, and you really should, because it’s one of those quick and easy (but powerful) films that makes a great first half of a double feature.
18. Morris from America
Another one that maybe you’ve heard of in passing, but one you don’t really know about. It’s about a thirteen year old black kid living in Germany with his widowed father. Pretty much the only black people in Germany, the boy and his dad have to make due with this new life they’ve started for themselves. The boy, an aspiring rapper, takes German lessons and tries to flirt with this 15 year old German girl in his school. It’s a beautiful coming of age story with a GREAT performance by Craig Robinson as the father. One of my favorite performances of the year. It’s so tender and realistic, with no false moments designed for film. It feels like a real, grounded movie about these two people. And I love it, and everyone should see it.
19. Other People
This is an indie with the same setup you’ve seen a dozen times. At least three of them came out this year. A man trying to find success in some sort of creative industry has to return to his small town (and his family) to take care of his dying mother. The indie genre was built on stories like this.
What makes this interesting are the little variations — the main character is gay. He’s a comedy writer trying to write a spec to get a writing job on SNL. He goes home to a small town with no real gay community. And while he’s not downright rejected, it does give him a bit of isolation. Especially since his father refuses to accept his sexuality. And it’s a mix of him caring for his mother (a solid performance by Molly Shannon, who seems to turn in one or two really great indie performances every few years), dealing with his conservative family, and trying to get his shit together professionally.
There’s a really great performance here by a child actor who plays the younger brother of the main character’s best friend. Think the flamboyantly gay child stereotype turned up to 11 and then done in the most wonderful way. That kid is really impressive. And the film was written and directed by an actual SNL writer and based on his own experiences, which gives it an added sense of feeling realistic and not like your typical indie movie with the same story. Compare this to the John Krasinski movie that came out this year and you see which one is trying to be pandering and appeal to broad audiences, and which one knows exactly what story it wants to tell and feels like it has some weight to it.
20. The Red Turtle
People will start to hear about this one because it’ll likely be nominated at the Oscars, but I know most people have no idea this exists. And it’s a Studio Ghibli movie. It’s a co-production with France, so mostly Wild Bunch is getting all the press, but this is a co-production with Studio Ghibli, so that should put it on some people’s radars, right?
The film is a wordless parable about the cycle of life. A man is stranded on a desert island, and every time he gets off, a red turtle appears, seemingly keeping him there. I won’t spoil how we get to this point, but eventually a woman also winds up on the island, and the two of them begin a family together. This is a gorgeously animated film with much larger themes on its mind than 95% of other animated films I think this is a stunning achievement and one that really deserves to be seen by all.
I’ve been talking this one up all year. This movie is good enough to rank among the “non-Hitchcock Hitchcockian movies” of all time. It’s really terrific.
Christopher Plummer is a man with Alzheimer’s living in an old folks home. His wife has died. Every morning he basically “resets” and forgets everything. Martin Landau, another resident at the facility, tells him, “Hey, remember that plan we made?” And so he tells him — we’re Auschwitz survivors. The guard who tortured us and murdered our families escaped into the US under an assumed name, and you promised you’d go kill him after your wife died. Landau’s too sick to do it himself, so Plummer is sent. So now Plummer has to go around and look up the four men with the name and figure out which one is the guard. Meanwhile, on his journey, he keeps “resetting’ so to speak and having to, Memento-style, read Landau’s letter in order to remember his mission. So it becomes about whether or not he’s going to be able to keep his mind in tact long enough to find this guy, and also figure out which one of the four it is. It’s fucking great stuff.
I know nobody knows anything about this movie, but you really should, because it’s so Hitchcock it’s ridiculous.
How often do you see me putting a documentary on here? I know some people know about this, but it hasn’t gotten nearly the kind of play that it deserves.
I’m not gonna get too in depth about it, but it’s a documentary that starts as an investigation into online tickling competition, and the oddity those are to begin with. And then as the journalist starts to do what essentially amounts to an entertainment news piece about them, he starts to uncover some really shady stuff. And the first half is weird but enjoyable, with some odd stuff here and there. But then the second half, the revelations start coming one after another after another, and you cannot turn away. It’s so fucked up, I couldn’t even do it justice by explaining it. You NEED to see this movie, because it might be the best documentary of the year.
23. Too Late
A wonderful little noir that I know nobody knows about. Here’s the conceit: five chapters, told non-sequentially, each existing as a single, unbroken 22-minute take. John Hawkes is a noir detective in current day Los Angeles who is hired to find a missing girl. And we watch the story unfold in the way its laid out to us. I’ll admit that this is not a perfect film, and it’s trying to be cooler and better than it is, but the conceit of five, 22-minute single take sequences is a really interesting one. Especially the notion of a noir done today. It’s no masterpiece, but it’s definitely a great film that I know you’ve never heard of, much like Victoria was last year. (I bet most people still don’t know what Victoria is.)
Todd Solondz fans know what this is. I knew Todd Solondz, but hadn’t seen any of his movies before this one. So I had no idea what to expect. And even if you don’t know Todd Solondz movies, this one is so weird and unique you almost have to see it on premise alone.
This movie is about an actual Weiner-Dog, who goes through various owners over the course of its life. It’s dry, it’s funny, it’s cynical as hell, and it has such a dark sense of humor I couldn’t help but laugh my ass off. There’s a shot in this movie fairly early on — it’s basically a thirty second, unbroken tracking shot of diarrhea along a street that’s just hysterical. And either you’re gonna get why that’s funny or you won’t. But I know most people don’t know anything about this movie, and I think a lot of people are gonna find this really funny.
25. White Girl
Another one of those indies, like Kicks, that hit festivals early in the year and got early fall releases that never really gave them enough play to get noticed by anyone outside the hardcore film buff community. This is about a college girl who moves into a “bad” neighborhood in New York City. She lives in a shitty building where, across the street, drug dealers sit outside selling all day. She starts a relationship with one of the drug dealers, and we watch as her relationship, her life and her job as an intern at a magazine begin to spiral out of control as she starts to do more and more cocaine and fall really hard for her drug dealer boyfriend. It’s really good. And when the movie takes a turn around the midway point, it gets real fucked up. Morgan Saylor is really good here, and this is one of the best indies of the year that I know almost no one has seen.