It has been, all things considered, a damn fine year at the movies. There were scintillating blockbusters, like the superhero extravaganza Captain America: Civil War and the surprisingly effective Rogue One: A Star Wars Story; a throwback song-and-dance musical with enough pizzazz to warm the coldest of hearts; and a heartbreaking love story for the ages.
And by God, Americans needed these sporadic departures from reality—what with a pussy-grabbing Twitter troll tearing at the very fabric of our democracy.
With approximately 900 feature-length films released in 2016, or around 17 per week, many gems were bound to be left by the wayside. Due to the onslaught of films, The New York Times was forced to change its review policy last year, no longer guaranteeing coverage for all theatrical releases.
Our annual list of the Most Overlooked Movies of 2015 included the psych-pop Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy, the Holocaust saga Phoenix, and the gripping coming-of-age story Diary of a Teenage Girl, among others.
Here are this year’s picks for the best movies you probably missed.
10. TRAIN TO BUSAN
Director Yeon Sang-ho’s South Korean slaughterfest, about a group of passengers trapped aboard a train during a zombie outbreak, is the cinematic lovechild of Snowpiercer and Dawn of the Dead, providing a heady and exhilarating mix of class warfare, parental neglect, and murderous mayhem. There is the disaffected banker who’s promised his young daughter to take her to visit her mother in Busan; the salt of the earth blue-collar fella and his very pregnant wife; a venal CEO; two old sisters; a homeless man; and an entire freaking baseball team. As the infection spreads from one passenger to another, forcing each and every person onboard to do everything in their power to survive, their true natures are revealed.
9. A BIGGER SPLASH
Come for the breathtaking setting, the Italian island of Pantelleria in the Strait of Sicily, and stay for Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes’s dramatic pas de deux—she the mute David Bowie-esque glam rocker on vocal rest, and he her corybantic ex-manager who will not shut the fuck up to save his life. Their fire-and-ice chemistry is a marvel to behold, with special kudos going to Fiennes, who delivers the most gleefully feral performance of his career (and quite literally bares all). Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love) crams a lot into his film, from a Freudian subplot involving Fiennes’s daughter Penelope, played by Dakota Johnson, to a passing comment on the plight of refugees, but even when the party takes an unexpected turn during the final third, it never loosens its grip.
8. PATHS OF THE SOUL
Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yang (Shower) blurs the line between documentary and narrative fiction in his latest, which follows a group of Tibetans as they embark on the 1,200-mile bowing pilgrimage to Lhasa, the holy capital of Tibet whose name translates to “Place of the Gods.” Yang tracked the villagers for a year, and while the journey is trying, the rewards are vast—from stunning Tibetan vistas to the personal stories of the pilgrims, each hoping to cleanse certain stains from their soul. No other film released this year will make one ponder life’s bigger questions quite like Paths of the Soul.
7. THE INVITATION
An unlikely comeback vehicle for Karyn Kusama, the talented Girlfight filmmaker who’s been chewed up and spit out by Hollywood (see: Aeon Flux), this deliciously sinister offering is equal parts L.A. satire, study of coping with grief, and edge-of-your-seat suspenser. Its premise is simple enough: Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and his new girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) are invited to a dinner with their group of friends at the posh home of his ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her new husband David (Michiel Huisman). No one in this close-knit circle of friends has seen Eden and David in two years, and as the night wears on and the wine begins to flow, Will becomes convinced that their hosts want more than mere company.
6. LITTLE MEN
No filmmaker right now is better than Ira Sachs at dramatizing the deleterious effects of urban gentrification, and here, as he did in his sublime gay romance Love Is Strange, he presents a stirring portrait of New York City’s real-estate nightmare. When Brian (Greg Kinnear) inherits a two-story Brooklyn brownstone from his dead father, his family moves in—only to find a dress shop run by Leonor Calvelli (Paulina Garcia) in the ground-floor space. Like Brian, Leonor has a 13-year-old son, and the two boys become fast friends. But when Brian and his wife learn that his late father had been charging Leonor exceptionally low rent on her store, he finds himself at the crossroads of self-interest and compassion.
5. UNDER THE SHADOW
With all due respect to The Witch, Iranian-born filmmaker Babak Anvari’s directorial debut is not only the best horror film of the year, but also a deeply complex study of how the ghosts of Iran’s past continue to haunt its present. Set in 1988 Tehran, in the middle of the Iran-Iraq War, Shideh (Narges Rashidi) and her young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) elect to stay in their building amidst the shelling. They both begin experiencing visions as Shideh suspects that a djinn, or evil spirit, has designs on her daughter. Heavy on subtext—and genuine scares—Anvari’s film is not to be missed.
4. THE HANDMAIDEN
South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook is prone to stylistic excess. It often works well, as in the poetic brutality of Oldboy, but can also lead to literal and figurative overkill (see: the last half of Stoker). But here, he’s found the perfect story for his visual flourishes: a trashy, twisty erotic thriller. Set during Japanese colonial rule in Korea, a con man hires a Japanese pickpocket to pose as the maid of a Japanese heiress—in order to swindle her out of her fortune. But maid and master soon fall in love, setting off a series of erotically charged events. Park’s film is undeniably his—bold, sensuous, and thoroughly engrossing. It’s also the sexiest movie of the year.
3. THE FITS
Filmmaker Anna Rose Holmer’s stellar debut, a product of the Venice Biennale, tells the tale of Toni (Royalty Hightower, brilliant), an 11-year-old inner-city kid who finds herself torn between her love of boxing and her latest fixation: a dance/drill team. When members of the dance troupe start coming down with violent “fits,” we’re left wondering whether the children are being poisoned, or if something more otherworldly is at hand. As I wrote in August, “Holmer’s film is visually sumptuous, ethereal even, and a haunting meditation on identity, puberty, and assimilation.” And newcomer Royalty Hightower delivers perhaps the most mesmerizing child performance since Quvenzhané Wallis’s in Beasts of the Southern Wild.
2. GREEN ROOM
The plot of Green Room, Jeremy Saulnier’s follow-up to his stellar debut Blue Ruin, is straightforward enough: A punk rock band of twentysomethings squares off against a gang of neo-Nazis inside an abandoned bunker in the backwoods of Oregon. The beauty lies in the execution, as Saulnier stages this war of attrition with heart-pounding—and occasionally brutal—precision. And, amid the severed limbs and flesh-eating dogs, there is the leader of the skinheads, played with menacing calm by Sir Patrick Stewart, and our hero, embodied by the late Anton Yelchin. Given his recent passing, the film has taken on an added layer of emotion as you root for this frail, terribly outmatched punk rock kid to defy the odds.
1. AMERICAN HONEY
Andrea Arnold’s (Fish Tank) latest tracks a gang of outcasts as they traverse the American Midwest, selling magazine subscriptions and getting down to trap music. Beautiful lensing and powerful performances aside, no film captures millennials’ mélange of entrepreneurial spirit and rebellion quite like this one.
The documentaries TOWER and NEWTOWN shine a necessary light on the epidemic of gun violence in America, while MORRIS FROM AMERICA provides a moving fish-out-of-water story about a black American teen growing up in Germany. EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT is a surreal, stunning exploration of an Amazonian myth, and the French drama THINGS TO COME proves once again that Isabelle Huppert is an actress of the highest order, and that Mia Hansen-Løve is one of the best young filmmakers around.