Looking Back: The Unseen Gems of the 2016 Summer Movie Season
by Dan Marcus
August 26, 2016
With the 2016 summer movie season all but officially over, plenty of movie bloggers/journalists have been quick to say this past summer has been rather lackluster for film. I would argue otherwise – while some of the blockbusters have crashed and burned at the box office, this past weekend Suicide Squad and Sausage Party still performed strong at the box office. Marvel's Captain America: Civil War and Disney's Pete's Dragon were highlights of the summer as well. So why all the “doom & gloom”? That's likely because most audiences never really gave some of the best films of summer 2016 a chance. There were quite a few hidden gems out there waiting to be seen, if you were brave enough to give them your time (and money).
It may not be entirely the audience's fault, though. One of the best films of the summer, Star Trek Beyond, had a very mediocre first trailer that was met with scorn by many Trekkies. The subsequent trailers were better, but they didn't do an adequate job of showing why this Star Trek – directed by Justin Lin, taking over for J.J. Abrams – was any different from the previous two sci-fi films. As an example, one of the film's most marketable aspects, Idris Elba playing Krall, is a major star along the likes of Into Darkness' Benedict Cumberbatch but was missing (or hidden underneath many layers of make-up) from most of the marketing materials. Which might explain why the film, so far, is the least grossing film out of the recent rebooted series of films – even though critics and the audiences that did see the film seemed to enjoy it.
So what are some of the best unseen gems of this past summer movie season? Well, let's take a look…
The Nice Guys - Directed by Shane Black
Why It's a Gem: Shane Black's buddy cop throwback was a breath of fresh air in a summer where a lot of the mainstream comedies (Neighbors 2, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, Central Intelligence) didn't quite click. It perfectly blended a 70's interpretation of noir with the slam-dunk chemistry of Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling. Black's reputation proceeds him – he's written some of the best action films of the genre (such as Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, Last Action Hero) and with The Nice Guys he delivers another knockout that subverts violence in an entertaining but always hilarious way.
Why No One Saw It: The film earned only $36 million on a $50 million budget, a far cry from the box office success producer Joel Silver probably wanted. The film's trailers were funny, although the red band trailer that not many people saw was funnier. It had the misfortune of opening up against Angry Birds: The Movie, a decision that everyone involved in the making of The Nice Guys is surely regretting now. Between those pesky birds and Neighbors 2 (also opening that weekend), The Nice Guys sadly got lost in the shuffle. It's a shame, too, because it is definitely one of my favorite films of the summer, if not the year, and comes out on VOD and Blu-ray this week. I highly recommend it.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople - Directed by Taika Waititi
Why It's a Gem: You might not be that familiar with New Zealand writer/actor/director Taika Waititi yet, but you soon will. If you haven't seen any of his directorial efforts, from the hilarious vampire satire What We Do In The Shadows to this, you will probably become familiar with him next year as he's currently directing Thor: Ragnarok for Marvel. Waititi has the seamless ability to mix off-the-wall humor with a great story and an even greater personal message about identity and self-reliance. The cast, including veteran Sam Neill (yes, from Jurassic Park) to newcomer Julian Dennison, is superb in this affecting comedy that will concurrently tug at the heartstrings but make you laugh while doing so. The film is insanely clever and inventively made, with a true spark that was sadly missing from most blockbusters this year. I dare you to find one more heartfelt, hysterical or original. It's really one of the better films from this summer.
Why No One Saw It: It shouldn't come as a surprise that Hunt for the Wilderpeople didn't make a huge splash at the box office, appearing in only 200 theaters across the country this summer. It's a shame because the film is really quite good. I can't really fault the marketing, either, as the film's domestic trailer is full of clever editing and plenty of hilarious gags to get people interested in the film. With a wider release, maybe it could have caught on. If you're looking for a rollicking good time that's different than most of the mainstream films this year – or even looking to familiarize yourself with Waititi before Thor: Ragnarok next summer – I highly recommend you give The Hunt for the Wilderpeople a chance. You won't regret it.
Swiss Army Man - Directed by 'The Daniels' (Daniel Kwan/Daniel Scheinert)
Why It's a Gem: This quirky dramedy starring Daniel Radcliffe and Paul Dano might've been somewhat off-putting at first, with bizarre trailers and an even weirder premise - Dano plays an adrift survivor lost in the woods, who finds Radcliffe's corpse and strikes up an unlikely friendship with him. Yes, you read that right. However, Swiss Army Man had the sweetly perfect blend of humor, goofball antics and genuine humanism that elevated the film above its wacky idea. Both a celebration of life and cinema itself, the film perfectly encapsulates the miserable awkwardness of loneliness while simultaneously encouraging a very uplifting story about hope and acceptance.
Why No One Saw It: Despite the star-power of Harry Potter himself, the film only took in $4 million at the box office. It didn't have a hugely wide release (only appearing in 600 theaters at most) but it is possible the strange trailers and story might've turned off potential audiences. It also was released in the thick of summer, where more people were probably seeing Independence Day: Resurgence or something else just as bad. Regardless, hopefully the film finds a following on DVD/Blu-ray and VOD, as it's truly one of the most unique and heartfelt films of the year. Don't let the premise and previews dissuade you.
The Neon Demon - Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
Why It's a Gem: Nicholas Winding Refn (abbreviated to just NWR) is one of the most provocative and innovative filmmakers working today. He slowly made his unique presence known with the Pusher trilogy and Bronson, but didn't really appear on everyone's radar until Drive, his first mainstream hit. The less said about Only God Forgives the better, but The Neon Demon is a hypnotic return to form for the filmmaker. The film's plot is oblique - centered around Elle Fanning as an aspiring model traversing the seedy underground that is Los Angeles. But the film is a murky, atmospheric and ultimately arresting fervor dream of a film, captivating from start to finish.
Why No One Saw It: The film, to date, has earned only $1.3 million. Which certainly makes it a success in Refn terms more than Only God Forgives, even if it didn't reach the box office heights of Drive (which earned $35 million). The Neon Demon was never going to be a box office hit, even if it did open in nearly 800 theaters. The film is too nightmarishly lurid to appeal to general audiences or even adventurous filmgoers. However, The Neon Demon is one of the most visually stunning films of the year, so if you're looking for something different than your conventional mainstream fare, check it out.
The Lobster - Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
Why It's a Gem: I would argue The Lobster is probably one of the more inimitable films to come out this year, with an absurd concept and setting that shouldn't mix but inexplicably does. The story, featuring Colin Farrell as a man who must find a romantic partner or else he'll get turned into an animal (I'm really not making this up), The Lobster is a darkly hilarious, dystopian film that is both unnerving and thrillingly ambitious at the same time. The film is rounded out with an exceptional cast (Rachel Weisz, John C. Reilly, Ben Whishaw, Lea Seydoux) which bring this sinisterly funny story to life with aplomb. It won't be for everyone, but if you're looking for a comedy that isn't run-of-the-mill or like any other comedy you'll see this year, then you will find something to appreciate in The Lobster.
Why No One Saw It: Despite the stellar cast and near uniramous praise from critics, I'm not really surprised The Lobster never really found an audience. The film's dystopian setting and esoteric plot doesn't really lend itself to mass appeal. While many of my friends seemed to have enjoyed the film, I know some that just didn't get the film or enjoy the somewhat dark and pessimistic underpinnings of the material. However, over time, I see this film developing a cult following as more people discover it when the film hits Blu-ray/DVD. It's definitely an acquired taste, but there will be plenty of people looking for something unconventional and will find that and then some with this quirky comedy.
Café Society - Directed by Woody Allen
Why It's a Gem: At this point in his career, Woody Allen could be on autopilot and still churn out fun, enjoyable romps without batting an eye. That sort of feels like what he's done with Café Society, a harmless period piece about a young man (Jessie Eisenberg) who moves to 1930's Los Angeles and falls in love with his talent agent's assistant. There's nothing really remarkable about the film, but it's so fun, sweet and innocent that you can't help but be charmed by the film's likable characters and gorgeous visuals. The film's nonchalantness may be why it hasn't caught on, but don't let the film's causal whimsy fool you: it's a fun time at the movies and a nice escape from some of the louder, brasher blockbusters of this past summer.
Why No One Saw It: Unlike a lot of films on the list, Café Society is actually still playing in some theaters. In which case, if you're looking for a sweet and enjoyable Woody Allen comedy, you should check it out. The film has made a little over $9 million so far domestically at the box office – around the same amount as the previous film on this list, The Lobster- however I'd argue Café Society has a lot more marketable, mass appeal than that film. Despite the film's high-profile cast – including Jessie Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart and Steve Carrell – it hasn't quite taken off yet, but that could very well change with more time.
There were many other great films that came out this summer season that people also seemed to miss – including The BFG, Pete's Dragon, Nerve, and Hell or High Water – although at least two of those films (The BFG and Nerve) have respectively earned about $50 million and over $30 million at the box office, so they weren't completely ignored by audiences. Many of these films were inevitably tossed aside because they weren't backed by enormous marketing campaigns or were films without franchise credibility behind them, but many of them deserved more attention than they ultimately received.
If you're wondering why Hollywood has produced so many disappointing blockbusters this summer, it's not something that is new or revalatory to the industry. Almost every summer is full of lackluster films that don't quite capture the imagination like others. Even in a summer where we had Mad Max: Fury Road, we also had 50 Shades of Grey, San Andreas and Terminator: Genisys. Not every summer is going to be chock full of winners and game-changing surprise stories. Right before the film's release, many people were either writing off Fury Road or had very minimal expectations for it. It was definitely a film that roared its way out of a dusty field that no one saw coming. And often times that's where the best films emerge from.
I believe it is the job of true movie-lovers and cinephiles to seek out the hidden gems that Hollywood might not ordinarily promote. It still baffles me that a movie like Star Trek Beyond can make less than Star Trek Into Darkness, but that's what happens when a studio undermines its marketing campaign. Regardless of marketing, I know many people who had no expectations for the film but were pleasantly surprised by Beyond. Similarly, The Nice Guys was all but ignored when it was released, but now that it has hit Blu-ray / DVD people are discovering it for the hilarious caper that it is. Read Jeremy's review for more convincing.
If you're looking for a fun diversion from Hollywood's typical blockbuster fare, there are plenty of choices out there. You just have to know where to look. Who knows… what you find, may surprise you. What do you think of the summer? Do you think these films are the true unseen gems of the season?