The 19 Best Movies That You Didn't See in 2016 - Find & Watch These
by Alex Billington
March 8, 2017
The best of the best - that you didn't see last year. We have returned with another set of worth watching, underseen films from 2016. Back again is our annual list of the 19 Best Movies That You Didn't See in 2016 (find all the past lists here: 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007). Featured below is a hand-picked, double-checked line-up of the best independent and/or mainstream films that were either quietly dumped, ignored by audiences, or not marketed well enough. There's a mix of documentaries and features, all of them criminally underseen. So to give them some extra attention in the spotlight, and to support some of the finest filmmakers out there, here's our best you didn't see in 2016 recap. Full list below!
Here's to 10 years!! Wow. This is our 10th year presenting this list, and we're as proud as ever to share yet another set of films that deserve your attention. Back when I put this list together for the first time in 2007, there was nothing else out there like it. Nowadays there are 30+ different versions of the "best movies you didn't see last year" lists. My goal the first time was to convince a few of you to finally watch some of these films that I'd seen and loved, but felt like they'd been lost in the mix. Knowing that year after year readers are waiting for this list just to catch up with all of these films is exciting, it gives me hope that there is still a love for cinema, and that film lovers will seek out, find and watch something they didn't know about before.
As usual, it's not easy to put together this list. A few of my favorite films of 2016 – Taika Waititi's Hunt for the Wilderpeople, David Mackenzie's Hell or High Water, Matt Ross' Captain Fantastic, Richard Linklater's Everybody Wants Some!! – were contenders for this list, but once they started getting more attention (Viggo was nominated for an Oscar!!), I felt like they passed the point where enough people had seen them that I couldn't say "you didn't see" these. Because you probably did. That said, the 19 films I've listed below are my favorites and I still had trouble convincing people to see them. If you're looking for even more then these 19, check out the "Honorable Mentions" at the bottom - there's plenty of films to watch.
One of the best aspects of cinema is the endless discussions that surround it. Once you see one of these films listed below, start talking about it - with friends (online or in person), with other cinephiles, or with anyone who feels differently about it than you do. And if you really love a film, make sure you go out of your way to show it to other people. Loan them your DVD/Blu-ray, or better yet, host a screening for them and show it to them yourself. This makes a world of difference. Spread the love as much as possible. Remind everyone you meet that it's okay to love films of all shapes and sizes, even obscure indies that no one has heard about.
I would like to encourage everyone to watch at least one of these that they haven't heard of (or didn't see) beforehand. If you spend the two hours or so that it will take to watch even one of these movies mentioned below, it would mean that much more to the filmmakers who put so much time and effort into making each of these movies. This isn't about getting kudos for mentioning certain films, this article is about pointing out movies that don't deserve to be forgotten and are begging to be watched. So pick one and watch it tonight. Tip: click on the poster images below to visit each film's official website to find out where/how to see it.
20th Century Women
Opened on December 28, 2016
Directed by Mike Mills
The story of three women who explore love and freedom in Southern California during the late 1970s.
Why it's on here: This film is everything. I watched it twice back-to-back the first time I saw it. I was so floored, so in love, so moved by this film, that I literally just restarted it and watched it again right away. Every single scene in this is filled with emotional nuance, and there are so many important lessons being taught, so much wisdom being imparted. The film seems like it might be the most personal film yet from filmmaker Mike Mills, and it really shows, in every sense. The performances from these three – Annette Bening, Lucas Jade Zumann and Greta Gerwig – are extraordinary, some of the best you'll see in any movie on this list. It also has a killer soundtrack, and excellent cinematography. Please listen to everyone who has been singing the praises of this film and see it as soon as possible.
Opened on February 14, 2016 (Berlin Film Festival)
Directed by Anne Zohra Berrached
A happily married woman has a daughter, and is already six months pregnant when she has doubts if she really wants another child, as it might effect her career, and she wonders if she should get a late-term abortion.
Why it's on here: This film has stayed with me ever since I first watched it at the 2016 Berlin Film Festival, more than a year ago. 24 Weeks is a very powerful, very emotional drama that is told entirely from the perspective of a pregnant woman, played fiercely by Julia Jentsch, which is rare to see to begin with. Beyond that, the way they approach the story and the way they challenge the audience to think differently is done with so much empathy and understanding, it's hard to forget this film once you see it. I wrote in my review from Berlinale: "It's a remarkably beautiful and empowering film. Almost everyone in the theater was crying by the end. This is a film that would never be made in America, and I admire it greatly, as it must've been challenging to make and the result is something special."
A Bigger Splash
Opened on May 4, 2016
Directed by Luca Guadagnino
The vacation of a famous rock star and a filmmaker in Italy is disrupted by the unexpected visit of an old friend and his daughter.
Why it's on here: Mostly because Luca Guadagnino is a genius (and it's best to see this before Guadagnino's Call Me By Your Name makes this list next year). This is a quirky, funky, fun film worth diving into even if it doesn't seem interesting at first. Watch it for Tilda Swinton's performance alone. Or Ralph Fiennes. "The world that Mr. Guadagnino creates is at once seductive and aspirational, and another reminder that movies have always excelled at stoking consumer desires. Much like Nancy Meyers, Mr. Guadagnino excels at creating lifestyle pornography of an especially rarefied kind, although in classic European style, he gilds the pleasure with some political guilt… Not too much, mind you, just enough to give the whole thing a patina of seriousness." (Excerpt from Manohla Dargis' review.)
Opened on October 7, 2016
Directed by Alex Lehmann
Meeting by chance when they return to their tiny California hometown, two former high-school sweethearts reflect on their shared past.
Why it's on here: This film is such a charming, refreshing indie relationship drama instilled with so much honesty and love. Don't even read about it before, just watch it. The lead performances from Mark Duplass and Sarah Paulson are key to it working so well, but beyond that, it's worth watching for the story itself (about two high school sweethearts reconnecting many years later) and for the filmmaking behind it. I love that it's a black & white film (featuring cinematography by director Alex Lehmann), and there's a lovely score by Julian Wass that helps enhance the mood. This is one of those rare films that makes you question your own choices, and daydream about the great loves in your life, and where they may be, and what things could've been like if you had ended up together.
Breaking a Monster
Opened on June 24, 2016
Directed by Luke Meyer
Chronicles the break-out year of the band called Unlocking The Truth, following 13-year-old members Alec Atkins, Malcolm Brickhouse and Jarad Dawkins as they first encounter stardom and the music industry, transcending childhood to become the rock stars they always dreamed of being.
Why it's on here: A fascinating and compelling inside look at the music industry, documenting the success of one young rock band. "As far as this documentary goes, it's more like the American nightmare. What unfolds is a transparent example of why the music industry continues to spiral downward toward a fiery hell. Through the guidance of uber-gaudy manager Alan Sacks — try to imagine a more zen-like Jerry Stiller in Zoolander — members Malcolm Brickhouse, Jarad Dawkins, and Alec Atkins are slowly molded to the likes of The Jonas Brothers and Demi Lovato, two glittery names on Sacks' prestigious resume… At one point, when Brickhouse rebuffs his agenda, Sacks sighs and insists he could fall the way of Bieber. It's a groan-worthy moment in a sea of uneasiness." (Excerpt from Michael Roffman's review.)
The Club (El Club)
Opened on February 5, 2016
Directed by Pablo Larraín
A crisis counselor is sent by the Catholic Church to a small Chilean beach town where disgraced priests and nuns, suspected of crimes ranging from child abuse to baby-snatching from unwed mothers, live secluded, after an incident occurs.
Why it's on here: Pablo Larraín! Of course. Larraín had three films released in 2016 - Jackie, Neruda, and El Club. While Jackie made my Top 10, I prefer this film over Neruda, because it's much more unsettling and unforgettable. You won't know what to expect, but it will definitely leave an impression once you watch it. "If Larraín's intention was to both slam the church and give his audience a hint of how repulsed, traumatized, and likely complicit its victims felt, he hit it out of the park. As far as the characters' closing hymn whose chorus asks to 'grant [them] peace,' well, it's doubtful that's ever gonna happen." (Excerpt from Tricia Olszewski's review.)
Opened on May 6, 2016
Directed by Louise Osmond
An inspirational true story of a group of friends from a working men's club who decide to take on the elite 'sport of kings' and breed themselves a racehorse.
Why it's on here: This is an amazing, inspiring, one-of-a-kind documentary that I can't recommend enough. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2015, but didn't hit theaters in the US until 2016. I totally fell for this doc right from the start, the way it draws you in with the music, and the beautiful footage, and the quirky characters who had a hand in this. It's one of those highly entertaining docs that sometimes feels more like a feature film (with plenty of recreations), which is on purpose, but every few minutes you have to remember "this actually all happened for real!" As stated in the film right at the start, it's a story about a group of nobodies from a small town in South Wales breeding a race horse and taking on the wealthy elites at their own game. And it's oh so sweet to see them mess with the rich folks. Plus, best of all, these people really loved this racehorse and constantly gave him the best care.
Don't Think Twice
Opened on July 22, 2016
Directed by Mike Birbiglia
When a member of a popular New York City improv troupe gets a huge break, the rest of the group - all best friends - start to realize that not everyone is going to make it after all.
Why it's on here: Don't Think Twice is comedian/filmmaker Mike Birbiglia really digging deep to deliver a completely honest, yet still hilarious to watch, look at the never-ending ups and downs of life. This is probably the best film we'll ever see about improv troupes (which is different from films with improv actors in them, since there are tons of those). The ensemble cast makes this worth seeing – Mike Birbiglia, Keegan-Michael Key, Gillian Jacobs, Kate Micucci and Chris Gethard (most of these are comedians in real life) playing the improv troupe. Not only does this film have some genuine laugh-out-loud moments, but it has a lot of hard-hitting emotional moments, and there's a great deal of self-reflection. This is the perfect example of a tiny little indie film that many refer to as a "gem" and it should be cherished.
The Edge of Seventeen
Opened on November 18, 2016
Directed by Kelly Fremon Craig
High-school life gets even more unbearable for Nadine when her best friend, Krista, starts dating her older brother.
Why it's on here: For actress Hailee Steinfeld in one of her best roles yet, she was born to play this part. But also because this is one of the best coming-of-age teen comedies in years, really. Every single person I know who has seen this film has been talking about how amazing it is, and it even made a few Top 10 lists last year, because it's really that good. The writing is so intelligent, telling an original, authentic, and amusing story of a high school senior dealing with the stress of her brother dating her best friend, not to mention everything else in life hanging over her head. This one is a hard sell because it seems like a cliche teen comedy, however it's anything but. You just have to trust us and watch it - you'll be thankful you took the time to catch it and will be telling everyone else to watch it as well.
Opened on June 3, 2016
Directed by Anna Rose Holmer
While training at the gym 11-year-old tomboy Toni becomes entranced with a dance troupe. As she struggles to fit in she finds herself caught up in danger as the group begins to suffer from fainting spells and other violent fits.
Why it's on here: It's unlike anything else, totally entrancing. "Ms. Holmer leads with atmosphere and space (including that landscape called the human face), and tends to let the sumptuously textured visuals and intermittent blasts of percussive music express what the characters don't. (The cinematographer is Paul Yee, another talented newcomer.) Just at the point when the movie seems to be settling into familiar indie-film narrative drift, the older girls begin having inexplicable seizures, fits… The miracle of the movie is that, like Toni, it transcends blunt, reductive categorization partly because it's free of political sloganeering, finger wagging and force-fed lessons. Any uplift that you may feel won't come from having your ideas affirmed, but from something ineluctable – call it art." (Excerpt from Manohla Dargis' review.)
The Girl with All the Gifts
Opened on September 23, 2016 (Fantastic Fest)
Directed by Colm McCarthy
A scientist and a teacher in a dystopian future embark on a journey of survival with a special young girl named Melanie. Based on the book by Mike Carey.
Why it's on here: Because it's the best zombie movie in years (yes, even better than Train to Busan). There are so many zombie movies nowadays, that few have anything new to offer. The Girl with All the Gifts is the first movie in years that has something new to offer, but also pushes the entire genre forward, making us think beyond the initial invasion/takeover. The film has a huge scope and scale, yet tells an intimate story with lots of bite and blood. All the performances are great, but the young lead actress Sennia Nanua is exceptional, and she really helps sell the story. Even if you're tired of zombie movies and don't want to watch anymore, this one (and this one alone) is definitely worth a look.
Henry Gamble's Birthday Party
Opened on January 8, 2016
Directed by Stephen Cone
Takes place over 24 hours, at the 17th birthday pool party of preacher's kid Henry Gamble. As Henry treads through various sexual possibilities, seeking to come into his own, so too do the adults and teenagers at the party.
Why it's on here: A refreshingly enjoyable indie with a killer synth score. "Authentically capturing a conservative upbringing and the repression therein, it takes place over one day as we follow Henry (Cole Doman, in a wonderful break-out performance) and his group of friends — as well as adults from the local church — as they skirt around trauma, burgeoning sexuality, and more. Directed with a level of intimacy and emotional truth by Cone simply not present in most dramas — regardless of budget — it's an essential watch." (From Jordan Raup's review.) "Transformations occur in quiet moments of honesty, or in expressing uncertainty in a world that is supposed to be so certain. Cone keeps so many balls flying through the air, and he moves so easily from farce to awkwardness to quiet conversations to rampant sexual teenagers and back and forth that there's never a dull moment." (Excerpt from Sheila O'Malley's review.)
Into the Inferno
Opened on October 28, 2016
Directed by Werner Herzog
"What we worship can destroy us." An exploration of active volcanoes around the world, made by documentarian Werner Herzog.
Why it's on here: Werner Herzog explores volcanoes all around this world in this spectacular, breathtaking, remarkable documentary that is best experienced on the big screen (with big sound). It's much, much better than Herzog's other doc from 2016 about the internet (called Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World) and might just be one of Herzog's best docs ever, in all seriousness. The footage of the lava flows is so mesmerizing, and listening to the people he interviews is always interesting. I wrote in my festival review: "Into the Inferno is as fascinating to watch as it is enjoyable, with incredible footage and thought-provoking conversations. Herzog once again shows how to open our minds to the grandiosity of the universe while appreciating this wonderful planet we all live on."
Opened on September 9, 2016
Directed by Justin Tipping
Brandon is a 15 year old whose dream is a pair of fresh Air Jordans. Soon after he gets his hands on them, they're stolen by a local hood, causing Brandon and his two friends to go on a dangerous mission through Oakland to retrieve them.
Why it's on here: Because of Mahershala Ali! Ahem, I mean, Academy Award winner Mahershala Ali. But this is also just an outstanding little indie film. Kicks is an epic story of a young kid who has to chase down the thugs who stole his fresh pair of Air Jordan kicks that helped make him feel complete. It's surprisingly sentimental and boasts a moody score by Brian Reitzell, but beyond that, this film is totally dope. It's the story of an underdog fighting back, it's the story of how dreams and desires guide us. Yes, Mahershala Ali has a small role in it, but the main kid Jahking Guillory is awesome, too. It took me a long time to see this film, but when I finally caught up with it it surpassed my expectations.
Kubo and the Two Strings
Opened on August 19, 2016
Directed by Travis Knight
A young boy named Kubo must locate a magical suit of armor worn by his late father in order to defeat a vengeful spirit from the past.
Why it's on here: Kubo!!! I love this movie so much. It made my Top 10 of 2016, and I would argue it's Laika's best movie they've made (so far). Kubo and the Two Strings is an incredible animated adventure, with some of the finest stop-motion animation you'll ever see. But it's actually the story, and the lovable characters, and the emotional journey that Kubo goes on, that really makes this such a wonderful movie. I wrote a passionate post when this film was released
begging encouraging everyone to go see it and support hand-made, hand-animated films. The score is awesome, the visuals are stunning, and it tells a heartfelt story about family and friendship. The way it ends is just perfect - read what David Ehrlich wrote about it if you need anymore convincing. This should be one of your top priorities.
The Little Prince
Opened on August 5, 2016
Directed by Mark Osborne
A little girl lives in a very grown-up world with her mother, who tries to prepare her for it. Her neighbor, the Aviator, introduces the girl to an extraordinary world where anything is possible, the world of the Little Prince.
Why it's on here: This adorable animated film is much more than just another retelling of the classic story of The Little Prince (or Le Petit Prince). This French film mixes stop-motion animation with computer animation to tell two stories - one of them is the story of The Little Prince, the other is the story of The Little Girl, who lives with her mom. I admire the way the film balances and intertwines these two unique stories (each one with a different animation style). Above all, I really love the message of this film - about how over-planning your life leads to less satisfaction, and that we should learn to value spontaneity and freedom of choice. It's charming, entertaining, and may make you rethink the way you live your life.
Opened on July 1, 2016
Directed by Roger Ross Williams
A coming of age story about a boy and his family who overcame great challenges by turning Disney animated movies into a language to express love, loss, kinship and brotherhood.
Why it's on here: So that Owen Suskind can inspire more people. Owen is the subject of this beautiful coming-of-age documentary. Life, Animated was honored with an Academy Award nomination this year, and it completely deserves it. This exuberant documentary tells the story of a boy who learned to overcome his autistic challenges by watching all of the classic animated Disney movies (think: Aladdin, The Lion King, The Jungle Book, Tarzan). Disney even let them use their characters for a special animated sequence made just for the doc, wherein (an animated) Owen bands together with various sidekicks from these movies to fight off bad guys. One of the best documentaries of 2016 with a lovely score to top it off.
Morris from America
Opened on August 19, 2016
Directed by Chad Hartigan
The romantic and coming-of-age misadventures of a 13-year-old African American boy living in Germany with his father.
Why it's on here: Original films need all the support they can get. Morris from America is a funny, and surprisingly heartfelt, comedy about a young African-American boy living in Germany with his father, played by Craig Robinson. Robinson is actually so damn good in this film that he was nominated for an Indie Spirit Award this year. Markees Christmas, who plays Morris, is also fantastic in the film, taking on a difficult role playing the oddball in a place where he definitely does not fit in. This film has a totally dope soundtrack mixed by Keegan DeWitt (you can listen to it here), and there's an affectionate side that to it that is partially the reason it has stuck with me for so long.
Opened on December 28, 2016
Directed by Jim Jarmusch
A quiet observation of the triumphs and defeats of daily life, along with the poetry evident in its smallest details.
Why it's on here: To learn how to love poetry. I've heard so many people say "but it's a Jim Jarmusch film, and I don't like his films." Nonsense! This is different than any other Jarmusch film before it, plus it's light and easy to watch. And it demands to be seen. It was my #2 favorite of 2016 and I kept going back to theaters to see it again. Paterson is a film that teaches us the importance of the little things in life, to notice the details all around us, small moments between people that can inspire us. Adam Driver and Golshifteh Farahani give perfect performances as a couple that inspires each other. I love this film so so so much, and I want more people to experience it and learn from it and grow from it, just the way I did. Give it a chance, and let the words and the little moments connect with you in their own way.
I hope we've been able to introduce everyone to a few more great must-see films that you have never seen. Not everyone will love all of them, that's certainly expected, but I guarantee there is something unique to discover in every last one of these. Support an indie filmmaker today, watch one of these 19, it will make a difference! Let us know what you think of it after, too.
Honorable Mentions (even more great films to watch!): Andrea Arnold's American Honey, Garth Davis' Lion, Clea DuVall's The Intervention, Julia Hart's Miss Stevens, Kleber Mendonça Filho's Aquarius, Mia Hansen-Løve's Things to Come with Isabelle Huppert, Yorgos Lanthimos' The Lobster, Asghar Farhadi's The Salesman, Antonio Campos' Christine + Robert Greene's doc Kate Plays Christine (about the same person), Brady Corbet's Childhood of a Leader, Jean-François Richet's Blood Father, Trey Edward Shults' Krisha, James Schamus' Indignation, Babak Anvari's horror Under the Shadow, Terence Davies' Sunset Song, Jeff Feuerzeig's doc Author: The JT LeRoy Story, Josh Kriegman & Elyse Steinberg's doc Weiner, John Carney's Sing Street (love this film!), Jia Zhangke's Mountains May Depart, Makoto Shinkai's animated Japanese film Your Name, Christian Desmares & Franck Ekinci's animated film April and the Extraordinary World.
Other best movies you missed lists for 2016 to check out similar to ours: Wired's The Best 2016 Movies You (Probably) Never Saw, Buzzfeed's 24 Movies You Probably Missed This Year, The Guardian's Best Films of 2016 That You Probably Didn't See, Insider's The 24 Best Movies You Probably Didn't See, io9's Great Scifi Movies You May Have Missed in 2016, and The A.V. Club's The Best Movies of 2016 That We Didn't Review.
Let us know how many of these movies you've seen, plus any other favorites that we might have missed!