There’s too much TV, too many films, and there have been a few other things going on in 2016. So for sure, there are very few of us, even among the fraternity of full-time film commentators, who can say they’ve seen everything. Thus, here’s our annual roundup of the films we feel most likely either fell off your radar while you built your nuclear bunker, disappeared from their short runs while you attended an underground resistance meeting, or languished in your Netflix queue while you researched alternate-universe theory and the likelihood of a life-sustaining nearby planet being discovered in the next four years.
For more recommendations of the best of 2016, you can check out our exhaustive coverage of everything from Best Films to Best Soundtracks to Best Action Sequences and so on, not to mention yesterday’s bumper crop of Best Things We Couldn’t Think Of Putting Anywhere Else. But to get you started, here are the 25 films whose signal-to-noise ratio in 2016 felt most unfairly weighted against them. We hope you find something to tempt you during these dark, short, closing days of the year, and maybe even something to bring you a little joy.
Sometimes there just seems to be nothing you can do to get people to go and see a black-and-white, period Romanian troubadour shaggy-dog story, not matter how much you try. We put Radu Jude‘s hilarious picaresque on every “look out for this one in 2016!” list we could, and, perhaps even more influentially, the Berlinale Jury awarded it Best Director in 2015. Yet still no one saw it. Here’s hoping it has a better afterlife on home formats, because “Aferim!” really deserves it: It’s a tricksy, delicious film, completely unlike anything else you’ll see in its combination of bawdy, often base, knockabout humor and incisive social comment. With Western elements rubbing shoulders with moments of pure vaudeville, it stars a perfectly pompous Teodor Corban as a 19th-century Wallachian constable charged by a local landowner with tracking down the gypsy who cuckolded him. Like Shakespeare but funny! Like Laurel & Hardy but serious! It’s hard to put a simple handle to the rollicking tone and wittily profane wordplay that makes up Jude’s rambunctious movie, but one thing’s for sure — trailing through stark, feudal Wallachia on horseback in the company of such an impossible antihero has no business being this much fun.
“The Age Of Shadows”
There may be a point during Kim Jee-woon‘s terrific “Age of Shadows” where you get a certain swoony sense of vertigo, where you suddenly realize that individual scenes and sequences have displayed as much intrigue and thrillingly cross-cut action beats as many other entire movies do. Put crudely, Kim, who has been a favorite Korean filmmaker of ours for a long while without ever quite cracking the top 3, directs the shit of out this utterly gripping, beautifully designed and shot period spy caper. Undoubtedly nationalistic in tenor, and so densely packed as to become almost overwhelming at times, really, those are the only negatives we can find to lay at its door — far more key to the experience is the absolute rush of pristine, epic action filmmaking in which it all unfolds. Korea has been showing the rest of the world the way in genre movies for quite some time now, but Kim’s brilliant film is the textbook definition of how to make a dense, historically inspired story into a pulse-pounding, crowd-pleasing thriller without sacrificing any of the smarts.
Between this and her lovely turn in “Black Mirror” episode “San Junipero,” Mackenzie Davis has had a strong year, but Sophia Takal‘s intriguing indie deserves greater attention than just as a performance showcase. Adding to the subgenre of films about conflating identities — and specifically to the sub-subgenre within that of films that deal with conflating identities between female friends, such as Ingmar Bergman‘s “Persona” and Alex Ross Perry‘s “Queen Of Earth” — “Always Shine” is a precise and peculiar evocation of the rivalry and envy that can exist between women. Davis stars alongside Caitlin FitzGerald — who is just as, if not more, impressive as the successful one who turns out not to be as sweet as she seems. They play a pair of longtime best friends, both actresses, who go away for a weekend to repair the unconscious rift that has sprung up between them. Not all of its twists are wholly convincing, but the terrific playing-up and playing-off between the two leads, and Takal’s surehanded but cleverly ambivalent filmmaking, makes “Always Shine” a divertingly acidic observation of the dynamic between frenemies.
“The Brand New Testament”
Belgian director Jaco Van Dormael has been a little hit-or-miss in the years since his terrific “Toto The Hero,” but the delightful, gently blasphemous religious satire “The Brand New Testament” sees him back on daffy, buoyant form. Working off the endearingly batty premise that God exists, lives in Brussels and is a bastard, the film gets actually more madcap the longer it goes on, and as God’s daughter (Pili Groyne) escapes his clutches and goes about redressing the injustices of the universe by first telling everyone on earth the date of their death. Delirious and daft as it is, the deadpan delivery from the whole cast (newcomer Groyne is a standout, as is veteran Belgian character actor Benoît Poelvoorde, who plays the sclerotic deity in a dirty undershirt) as well as the smooth, glossy photography and production design, makes the whole thing feel polished rather than scrappy, and if the plot makes not one lick of sense, who cares, when it’s the only 2016 film in which the floating skeleton ghost of a fish croons “La Mer” and Catherine Deneuve falls in love with a gorilla?
At this stage we’re running the risk of reducing The Playlist to a Pablo Larraín fansite, but when the director of one of the most acclaimed and potentially awards-worthy films of the year (“Jackie“) also released not one but two other movies that same year, and both are quite different, and differently brilliant, what are we to do? “Neruda,” Larraín’s dense, mischievously meta, smashed-up biopic of famed Chilean poet and Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda starring Gael García Bernal, was also very underseen, though it got a bump when it briefly entered the Best Foreign Film Oscar frame (it was submitted as Chile’s entry) only to be passed over in the nominations. Still, even the “snubbing” discussion gave it more shine than Larraín’s other 2016 title: the excoriating “The Club.” Shrouded in deliberately gloomy low-contrast photography, it follows a group of disgraced priests living in a prison-like exile in a Church-owned house by the sea. Their chickens comes home to roost as one of their victims confronts them with shocking results, and the result is a mordant morality play in which the darkness is ever so slightly leavened by an intelligent, angry sense of irony.