Even more than taking down overrated films, I relish the ability to promote underrated ones. So many fine films languish unseen, and for so many reasons. And I consider it my responsibility as a cinephile to bring as many of these films to the light as I can.
In truth, 2016 was not as rich a year for underrated films as the past few, but there are still certainly enough to put together a respectable list, which I present to you without further ado.
This is frankly a year of underappreciated biopics, which is extremely rare. (Jackie and Loving also seem to have been moderately neglected.) And this is the most underappreciated of all. Yeah, it had solid reviews, but it barely got released and made just $300,000 in theaters. And it’s legitimately one of the best films of the year. Rebecca Hall’s performance is Oscar-caliber – she makes you feel all the pain and frustration Christine went through, while allowing her to be as aggravating as she probably was in real life. She’s surrounded by a very able supporting cast, backed up by a magnificent script, crisp direction and editing, a very good score, and a subtly effective recreation of 70s Florida. The climax is brilliantly understated, and I can only imagine how it must feel to see it, not knowing it was coming. Take my advice and just see it. It’s worth it.
- Elvis & Nixon
This is the kind of film which was bound to end up here. It’s the kind of film which was practically made to be a hidden gem, and it frankly is. No, it’s not quite a great film; the pacing can be poky, the Alex Pettyfer character is a bland audience-surrogate figure (though based on a real person), and Kevin Spacey’s Nixon, while fun, is essentially a caricature. But it’s got a funny script, fine period flavor, and above all, a wonderful turn from Michael Shannon as Elvis, blending the public figure at his most eccentric with a private man who realizes, sadly, that his life is not his own, that he must be “Elvis”, and not himself. It’s a simple, low-key film, perfect for a simple, low-key afternoon. In that spirit it should be most enjoyable.
This film got so much unnecessary shit that it belongs here regardless. It’s the kind of film that people got caught up in trumpeting or condemning for what it represented, rather than what it actually was. To be fair, it’s got some definite issues – the editing is often choppy (there are some strange gaps in the plot), the writing is uneven, the cameos from the original cast range from unnecessary to painful, and I confess I’ve never quite gotten why everyone loved Kate McKinnon’s performance so much (to me, she comes off as awkward and ill-directed, if not without her moments). But on the other hand, you’ve got a great, scene-stealing performance from Leslie Jones, solid leading turns from Melissa McCarthy and Kirsten Wiig, a delightful comic change of pace from Chris Hemsworth, and top-notch special effects as befits the high budget. Frankly, it’s just as good as the original.
Looking into it, I saw this actually made okay money for an arthouse release ($3.4 million). But did that do it any good in the awards season? And has it ended up on any best-of-year lists? Not that I’ve seen. And that’s a damn shame, because this is really a superb film. Taking Philip Roth’s novel of a non-conformist’s struggles at a Christian college in the early 50s and his tragic love affair with a troubled young woman, James Schamus writes one of the best scripts of the year, gets some of the best performances of the year from his cast, and pulls off at least one of the year’s best scenes: the epic confrontation between Logan Lerman (who really should be in the Oscar race) and Tracy Letts, just great writing filtered through great acting. Praise, also, to Sarah Gadon and Linda Emond as Lerman’s lover and mother.
I’m not sure if this is the lowest-grossing film I’ve ever seen in the theater, but it’s certainly the lowest-grossing film I’ve ever seen in a regular multiplex; it didn’t even clear $15,000 in the U.S., and I’m frankly amazed I got to see it at all. I’ve already written a full review of it, but I’ll reiterate my main points. The premise is troubling and thought-provoking, and the film handles it with sensitivity, a few contrived moments aside. It’s quite well written, and well directed given the low budget. But where it really shines is in the performances. Director and screenwriter Ross Partridge is good as the spiritually lost man, but Oona Laurence is simply tremendous as the young girl who becomes perhaps the closest friend he’s ever had, and their final moments together are authentically heartbreaking. It’s not a great film, but it deserves to be widely known.
- Miss Hokusai
Another film which barely got seen ($222,000 in the U.S., and seemingly not all that much in its native Japan), but which deserves so much more. It’s a portrait of artistic life in 19th-century Japan, centering around O-Ei (Anne Watanabe), the daughter of the famous painter Hokusai, and an accomplished artist in her own right. The logline might not be all that enticing, but I never found myself wanting for context, and the film is beautiful and universal enough that it should please the thoughtful viewer. Some of the episodes are truly striking (like the scene where the protagonists watch a prostitute writhe under the influence of some kind of incubus), and some are haunting (a climactic death), and others are simply sweet (O-Ei taking her blind little sister on a walk in the snow). It has its faults, but on the whole it’s one of the year’s better films.
- Nocturnal Animals
This might get its due with the Academy. It might not. It’s frankly one of the wild cards of the season. What’s less up in the air is its critical and popular reception, both of which seemed fairly muted. And that’s a shame. Because I really loved this movie, and it’s stuck with me in a year lacking in films which do. It begins with a credits sequence as startling and unexpected as it is beautiful, a sequence which forces you to question what constitutes exploitation and what constitutes empowerment. It proceeds into a triple-layered narrative (present, past, and meta-narrative), all of it extremely well written, directed, and acted, and woven together by superior editing. The highway confrontation-abduction is still one of the most wrenching I’ve seen all year, and Michael Shannon gives an absolutely brilliant performance. It’s not for all tastes, but I recommend it nearly unequivocally.
- Star Trek Beyond
I wonder if this wasn’t undercut by residual disappointment from Into Darkness. That would be a shame, since this is really the better film. The story is admittedly thin, and the villain is badly underdeveloped (a real waste of Idris Elba), but the present cast really comes into their own here; Anton Yelchin’s tragic death will leave a sizable hole in this ensemble. On top of their chemistry, Justin Lin stages some truly rousing action scenes (one of them to the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage”), and if the film as a whole aims lower than J.J. Abrams’ two entries, it might hit its target all the more precisely. With some of the best effects and makeup of the year, it’s a feast for the eyes, and as a whole it’s one of the most satisfying franchise films of the year. And it didn’t really get recognized as such.
- Swiss Army Man
This has made some top 10 lists. There are people out there who know how actually good this film is. But not enough. Because…it’s about a farting corpse. And yet it’s so much more than that. Honestly, until the last few minutes, this is one of my absolute favorite films of the year. It’s one of the sweetest bromances of the year, with Paul Dano in good form and Daniel Radcliffe giving probably the best performance of his career to date as the corpse, who gradually comes back to life – and wants to learn about the world all over again. And Dano is more than happy to teach him. It’s so well written and directed, it has such a delightful score, and it’s so full of imagination and heart that it comes close to greatness. It does lose steam in those final minutes, but it’s still an overall delight.
It’s been a great year for documentaries, no question. Weiner and O.J.: Made in America, the best of them, have rightly been fêted (especially the latter). But this is nearly as good, and it hasn’t received nearly as much attention. It starts as an exploration of a strange online phenomenon, “competitive endurance tickling”, and gradually goes down a rabbit hole which brings us to a series of revelations as compelling as they are horrifying. I wouldn’t dream of giving it away (and if you see it, you’ll understand how hard that would be), but suffice to say, it leaves you truly sobered by the realization of what people are capable of, given the right circumstances. We’re damned lucky it didn’t get sued into oblivion, because it ought to be seen. On its own, the story is well worth hearing, but it’s also told exceptionally well.
- Free State of Jones: Not a great film by any means, but in such a weak year, the pickings for underrated films are fairly slim. It’s an interesting look at a little-known (and rather debated) chapter of American history, with good performances from Matthew McConaughey and Mahershala Ali, good period detail, and some strong set pieces (the churchyard battle especially). The writing and editing let it down (it feels like it was tinkered with), but give it a chance.
- Independence Day: Resurgence: No, it’s not great. And it’s certainly not as good as its predecessor. But dammit, I thought this was perfectly entertaining for what it was. And it got shit on a lot harder than it needed to be. Any appearance by Jeff Goldblum is a cause for celebration, the action scenes are plenty engaging, and the final line is a sheer delight – “We are going to kick some serious alien ass.” Said by Brent Spiner.
- The Lobster: It hasn’t been totally ignored. It’s made money. It’s gotten awards nominations (and it could very well get an Oscar nod for its script). It got good reviews. But for my money, this was the best film of the year, and it deserved more. Where’s the acclaim for Lanthimos’ direction? Or Rachel Weisz’s performance? Or the costumes, or the editing? On top of that, some people out there absolutely hate it. Which I can’t fathom.
- Snowden: No, it didn’t need to be made, since CitizenFour exists. But this is really a solid film, gorgeously shot, with a strong performance from Joseph Gordon-Levitt (and a good supporting cast). And it just kind of came and went (though it did win a Satellite Award for its script). It makes some missteps – the final appearance of the real Snowden gives it an air of propaganda – but this is more worthwhile than you might think.
- X-Men: Apocalypse: Another film that’s a long way from great, but got dumped on way more than it needed to be. I’m not a huge fan of the X-Men franchise (I thought Days of Future Past was massively overrated), but this was a respectable entry. There’s not a whole lot to say about it, other than…I enjoyed it. Not a lot, and certainly a good deal less than Captain America, but more, it seems, than most.