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David Poland

By David Poland

2016: The 15 Most Underrated Films

This category is not about underseen films so much as films that just have a weird aura of “meh” around them… in my view, unfairly. Some did good box office. Some did almost nothing. This is not a list of films that I wish made more money. It’s when you are at a dinner party and the title comes up and there are (to me) a surprising number of shrugs or distinct punches thrown in their direction.

Before the list, there are three titles that I have not seen that may fit in this category: 10 Cloverfield Lane, A Bigger Splash, and The Accountant . Another title seemed destined for this list, but found its way to the light, and that is The Lobster, which still splits rooms, but certainly gets its due now.

The 15 Most Underrated Films of 2016 (in alphabetical order)

The BFG – A boundary-pushing work by Spielberg that straddles the line between reality and the visual feel of a children’s book, in the tradition of Jumanji and in many ways, Avatar. For my money, we have never seen a human mo-cap effort as effective and emotional as Mark Rylance’s giant. Is it still a children’s fairy tale? Yes. It was never going to be E.T. because the giant is Elliott and the live child is the extraterrestrial. And the imagery was not “normal” with an oddity in it. All that said, not a picture that deserved to be dismissed by so many.

The Brothers Grimsby – Really f-ing stupid. Yes. No question. And as profane as the day was long. But I laughed a lot at this raunchfest. Would make a great double feature with Sausage Party, which was equally realistic. This spoof of James Bond films by way of The Man In The Iron Mask (or here, the man in the adult diapers). How does one rate a movie in which the climax is based on explosives being shot directly into the lead character’s rectum? Well, either that – and the sexual absurdities that swing both ways and maintain the general tone of a two-hour long fart joke – makes you laugh or it does not. I expected nothing… but I laughed, quite a lot.

Deadpool – I know. Massive hit. Some good reviews. But I still feel that there is a lot of head shaking out there. There is a lot about the movie that makes no sense. But the team make sweeping anachronistic choices with the material and the thing held together. It didn’t become Team America, where there were moments of unforgettable glory, but the movie didn’t really work. This movie works. And it deserves real respect… not just for its box office.

Denial – This film did okay at the box office. Okay with critics. But it is better than that. At the center of the film is a performance by Rachel Weisz that challenges in that it is dead-on bringing to screen the real Deborah Lipstadt… who is a character of a style that turns a lot of people off. But that was not only the truth, but a part of what makes this movie excellent. Tom Wilkinson and even Timothy Spall, as The Holocaust Denier, have it easier. Their characters are quieter. Spall’s David Irving is particularly suited to this moment in history, committed to his lies without flinching… like the president-elect. There was nothing easy about selling this film and as I noted earlier, they did pretty well. But this film will be much better remembered in time

Dheepan – Won at Cannes after being shown late in the festival (aka, after most of the media had left) and got kicked in the male private parts for its trouble. But a great movie. Jacques Audiard – who should more often be compared to an international filmmaker who is getting due credit this year, Paul Verhoeven – is a consummate master of serious sociopolitical drama combined with genre. Dheepan is a serious look at the troubles of immigration in the UK… combined with Death Wish. It is a remarkable, painful, angry, scary, truthful film. Take a look at it without the “did it deserve to win Cannes” weight hanging on it and see.

Indignation – This Phillip Roth adaptation by James Schamus got some rave reviews and did pretty good business. But again… not good enough. It’s a complex, frustrating story that chooses not to explain itself at every turn with some great, great performances.

The Light Between Oceans – Derek Cianfrance made 2016’s great weepie. But it’s more than that. It’s a film that takes its time to linger in spaces with broken people who are trying to navigate right and wrong and finding a way to love in the deepest of ways. As with all Cianfrance films, there is more to get into than one story. He loves layers. And you could really break this movie down into any one of 4 or 5 stories. But the reaction to this film was kind of like if you narrowed Sophie’s Choice‘s entire weight down to only The One Choice. As I have said many times, it isn’t that hard to make an audience cry or scream. But to have them take themselves into that space where they are truly empathizing with those characters, however unlike them in fact, that is movie magic.

Louder than Bombs – I love this movie. It just gets me. Deep emotion. Brutal intellectualism. Characters desperately seeking answers that they don’t really know they are even seeking. The third great performance of the year by Isabelle Huppert. The best work I have ever seen from Jesse Eisenberg. This is not a film that answers every question. It asks you to do a lot of the work. But I found it deeply fulfilling.

Maggie’s Plan – A bonbon from the generally tough filmmaker, Rebecca Miller. Clever, witty idea. Wacky, Fun performance from Julianne Moore. Gerwig. Hawke. The ascendant Travis Fimmel. You could feel the push-back after it premiered at Toronto. I still don’t know why. I thought Miller did what Woody Allen hasn’t done these last 20 years… moved the New York rom-com into an interesting modern place.

Nocturnal Animals – The problem with being seen as Oscar bait is that people expect something other than compelling, original, thoughtful entertainment from your film. And I think that is the case here. From the audacious opening of large, naked women dancing unabashedly for our amusement and fascination to the extreme schizophrenia between the story and the story in the story to the mad performances of Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Mike Shannon and the Quaaluded sexuality of Amy Adams here, this is the kind of hard-R mayhem that I could imagine being held up as the very highest of low art. It’s never camp. But it’s never, as a film, as sharp-edged as the precision imagery of Tom Ford. It’s not even to be compared to Verhoeven’s work, which has a relative softness and does have campiness. It’s a singular piece of filmmaking. And that alone should be thrilling more “big thinkers.” I am still surprised how much it sits with me.

Pete’s Dragon – David Lowery is an artist. There is no mistaking it, even in a big studio movie like this with an animated dragon at its center. Lowery aims at the heart and hits the mark, over and over and over again. A beautiful movie and I only wish that every kid will end up seeing it, in whatever format, and feel its pleasures.

Silence – I haven’t written about this film because, really, I don’t feel ready. What I do know is that I feel the film and felt the film more watching it the second time. There is so much going on in this material. And I feel like the more “entertaining,” really meaning “more violent” version of this film would have been made by Scorsese in years past. But what is here is not just beautiful shots or great acting moments The effort to connect with God courses though the veins of this film and makes the audience as uncomfortable as the priests, who are also witnesses more than victims. I fear this is one of those films that will be forgotten for decades and rediscovered by another generation as one of the lost masterpieces of my generation of film writers and critics, much less audiences. More when I go back the third time… and fourth…

Snowden – Oliver Stone’s best movie in years because it is his first film that isn’t selling a political position in forever. I have never been as convinced about Snowden’s position in stealing secrets he committed himself not to expose as when I watched this film that wasn’t trying to force feed me him as an angel. However hard it is to listen to him, Joseph Gordon-Levitt committed to a character that was often uncomfortable to watch and hear and gives a great performance of both range and subtlety. I don’t think anyone really wanted a political film this year. Too much real life to deal with. But those who missed this missed a good one.

Why Him? – Not brain surgery. Unlike Meet The Parents, this film is based around a paranoid father of a potential bride who is dead wrong about his wannabe son-in-law. James Franco plays a wide open, giant-hearted character and never shows a moment of cynicism. He may be crazy and dumb about some things, but he is love embodied by man. And as the family comes along, they all get their great moments. So does Cranston. This is just a really likable piece of entertainment and too many people are just assuming it is a junky money-grab rip-off. Nope.

Zero Days – You really have to go back to Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room to find a Gibney doc that tells such a technically complex story and makes it so understandable. This movie is already on Showtime, so more people have a chance to see it. But it is perhaps the most important doc of this year regarding world politics and for some reason, it just isn’t catching on with the big talkers. I love many other docs and get the draw… but man, this is the right film at the right time and I just don’t get the lack of traction. It’s not perfection personified. But it is such a rich vein of information about the digital culture. Watch it.

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27 Responses to “2016: The 15 Most Underrated Films”

  1. Dr Wally Rises says:

    I was scrolling through that list hoping you would include Pete’s Dragon and Snowden, and you did. Thanks. Let me throw out some love to Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Barbershop The Next Cut (an unwanted sequel that turned out sharper and more heartfelt than expected), Everybody Wants Some!!, The Nice Guys, and Jason Bourne, at least for me.

  2. Stella's Boy says:

    Yes for Nocturnal Animals. My friends didn’t like it; said it’s all style and no substance. But the style is so damn good. It looks amazing and it mesmerized me from start to finish. I love the way it tells the story and the editing is wonderful. Shannon is so weird and amazing and fun, and Taylor-Johnson scared the hell out of me. The road incident had me more tense and fearful than any horror movie this year. Great flick. The rest of the list contains a lot of movies I haven’t seen, but I really want to see some of them, especially Indignation and Louder than Bombs.

    I would add The Invitation and Blood Father, and definitely The Nice Guys. Wanted to like Everybody Wants Some! and Jason Bourne but neither did much for me. Deadpool is on my most overrated list. Hated it.

  3. Tuck Pendelton says:

    Captain Fantastic – was shocked how effective it was. And Viggo’s performance is, indeed, fantastic. Not a great movie, but hope it gets attention down the road.

    The BFG refused to be a standard children’s movie, which I respected. The lack of forced musical numbers is worth noting. But for me the magic never really started. And I loved that book, loved that book, and am a big Spielberg fan – but it really just didn’t hit the notes for me.

  4. Sideshow Bill says:

    I enjoyed Grimsby, too. It’s absurdly vulgar and stupid but I laughed a lot.

    I would add The Invitation, I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House and Popstar.

  5. Larry Karaszewski says:

    Totally agree on Why Him? Plus I’d throw “Keanu” on this list… probably the best time I had in a theater this year.

  6. Stella's Boy says:

    Good call on I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House. So hypnotically weird and atmospheric, and Ruth Wilson is excellent. Forgot about that one, but it’s really good. Same with Keanu. Watched it the other night on HBO and laughed my ass off from start to finish. Really want to see Popstar. It came up in Slate’s Movie Club and someone said it’s one of their favorites this year.

  7. EtGuild2 says:

    Totally agree on “Nocturnal Animals,” “Indignation,” and “Denial.” On the latter, what an overlooked year for Rachel Weisz in general. I didn’t care for “Light Between the Oceans,” but she put in very good work in the barely seen “Complete Unknown” with Michael Shannon.

    Her post-Oscar career is littered with great roles in unseen movies. “Agora.” “The Whistleblower.” “Deep Blue Sea.” Even “The Lobster” and “The Fountain” to an extent.

    I would also add “Kicks” and “Take Me to the River” to the list of 2016 underrated/barely seen movies. Agree on “The Invitation” as well. Everyone’s rightfully celebrating Kenny Lonergan’s ressurrection, but Karyn Kusama’s comeback should be remembered too.

  8. Stella's Boy says:

    Kusama should be getting more props for sure. Also what a year for Logan Marshall-Green. He bored me silly in Prometheus and I didn’t think he was much of an actor, but he is superb in The Invitation and Cinemax’s Quarry, which is an underrated show. Great first season.

  9. Tuck Pendelton says:

    I barely got through 15 minutes of Popstar.
    My wife laughed her ass off the entire show.

    Keanu I thought was funny, but really thin. Some big laughs, but a lot of down time.

  10. David Poland says:

    The Nice Guys will be on my Top 10. I think that people who saw it liked it… they just didn’t get many people to see it.

  11. Sideshow Bill says:

    Re: I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House. “Hypnotically weird” is the perfect way to describe it, Stella’s Boy. It had me in it’s grips from the start, and I have to admit I was genuinely unnerved by the end. It’s a terrific little ghost story that had a big impact, for me. Osgood Perkins is something special.

    The Invitation was the same way. It sneaked up on me and was masterful. Plus, John Carroll Lynch.

    Both of those films are in my personal top 10 right now but there’s still a lot I haven’t seen.

  12. Stella's Boy says:

    Perkins is definitely one to watch. Can’t wait to see The Blackcoat’s Daughter.

  13. Dr Wally Rises says:

    Dave you should see 10 Cloverfield Lane too. The first 80 minutes or so are just about perfect. And Goodman has one of his best roles here – convincing as either a short-fused psychopath or a benevolent Uncle figure at the same time.

  14. Stella's Boy says:

    Totally agree about 10 Cloverfield Lane and the first 80 minutes (the last 10-15 is another story). Exceptionally tense and well-acted, especially by an amazing Goodman. He is terrifying and mesmerizing. An incredible performance. Rarely have I loved 90% of a movie so much while hating the other 10% with equal passion.

  15. Pete B. says:

    Did everyone forget about Midnight Special? Seems like it had buzz early in the year and now it isn’t mentioned.

    I had to double check that it came out in 2016.

  16. Stella's Boy says:

    I’ve seen Midnight Special on some top 10 lists. I didn’t like it at all. It’s the only Jeff Nichols movie that did nothing for me.

  17. Sideshow Bill says:

    I liked Midnight Special a lot but it kind of got lost among everything else.

  18. palmtree says:

    I agree on The Invitation.

    Zero Days just got a WGA nom. Not saying that will move the needle, but it certainly helps. Now I’m definitely going to try to see it. Thanks.

  19. Greg says:

    I loved 10 Cloverfield lane.. even the last ten mins..

  20. Movieman says:

    Agree re: “Nocturnal Animals,” “Indignation” and “Pete’s Dragon,” but I’d slot “Everybody Wants Some!!” at the top of my “Underrated” list. It just may be my all-time favorite Linklater (which is saying a lot).
    “Kicks” is a good choice, too. Along w/ “Krisha,” it’s probably my favorite debut of the year.
    Other movies I loved that didn’t find any traction: “Little Men,” “Wiener-Dog,” “Tale of Tales,” “My Golden Days” and “Les Cowboys.”
    While it was a modest hit, “War Dogs”–which marked Todd Phillips personal best and was my favorite studio release of the summer–didn’t really get the respect it deserved. And “BOAN,” mostly because it got the wrong kind of attention, was undervalued by critics and largely ignored by audiences who couldn’t see the forest for the trees.
    Plus “Sunset Song,” “Knight of Cups,” “Cafe Society” and “Rules Don’t Apply, four ravishing, largely unheralded twilight films by master filmmakers (Davies, Malick, Woody and Warren).
    In closing, it was a really strong year for filmmaker docs (“DePalma,” “Cameraperson” and “by Sidney Lumet” were all terrific), but my #1 favorite was “One Day Since Yesterday.” It’s on Netflix: please check it out.

  21. MAGGA says:

    BFG, Nocturnal Animals, Snowden and Everybody Wants Some are all terrific, but Deadpool for me was pretty lame, just adding a superhero to the “we’re admitting it’s a movie!”-style of the late nineties

  22. Movieman says:

    On the verge of joining the Underrated/Overlooked class?

    “Neruda” (which, sadly, is getting lost due to all of the awards attention–deservedly–being focused on Larrain’s equally terrific “Jackie”) and “A Monster Calls” (destined to drop dead in wide release this weekend just as it did in limited release over the holidays).

  23. Stella's Boy says:

    It’s not a very wide, wide release either Movieman. Only 1,500 theaters according to BOM. Why didn’t it come out in October as originally planned? The buzz out of TIFF seemed very strong.

  24. Movieman says:

    It’s October date (Oct. 21) was ridiculously top-heavy so I understood why Focus blinked. (Akin to “The Space Between Us” vacating December for a friendlier February slot.)
    The December awards launch date for “Monster Calls” was probably in reaction to the TIFF buzz.
    It just sort of fell through the cracks (much like “The Founder,” a movie that already deserves the “Underrated/Overlooked” imprimatur) competing with sexier limited release awards-y type movies.
    I’m also wondering if it seemed too similar to “The B.F.G.” Maybe “Monster” would have benefited from a wider distance between their releases?

  25. cadavra says:

    Glad you included DENIAL (less so NOCTURNAL; ugh). I would add MISS SLOANE, KUBO, EYE IN THE SKY, HAIL, CAESAR! and, I’m not kidding, MONEY MONSTER, which works just beautifully as a straight-ahead popcorn thriller (though I wish Jodie had starred in it herself).

    About halfway through BFG, it hit me: Spielberg’s made a George Pal movie. And that’s likely why it failed: too “old-fashioned.”

  26. EtGuild2 says:

    I’ll throw out EVOLUTION, even though it was a 2015 release in France.

  27. Doug Pratt says:

    I can’t believe everyone is ignoring The Finest Hours, or is it they just can’t remember that far back into the year?

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