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La La Land, Manchester by the Sea, and Moonlight are currently dominating the year-end movie discussion. Yet while those three standouts — along with high-profile releases like Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals, Denzel Washington’s Fences, Ben Affleck’s Live by Night, Martin Scorsese’s Silence, Mark Wahlberg’s Patriots Day, Will Smith’s Collateral Beauty, and Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt’s Passengers — are sure to get talked about in the coming weeks, there are many great films that too often don’t get the attention they deserve. Below, see our picks for the best films of 2016 that might have gotten lost in the shuffle — and where you can catch up with them now.
Steve Gleason blocked a punt for the New Orleans Saints in the team’s first game back at the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina, a living symbol of the city’s determination never to give up. That highlight, however, was followed by tragic hardship, as Gleason was diagnosed in 2011 with ALS (aka Lou Gehrig’s disease). Clay Tweel’s documentary chronicles Gleason as he battles the illness while also leaving behind a video record of himself for his unborn son. It’s a simultaneously stirring and heartbreaking portrait of courage and resilience that’s destined to streak even the coldest cheek with tears. (Available on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital HD)
A Bigger Splash
In a just world, Ralph Fiennes would be contending for award-season accolades for his supporting turn as a music agent still pining for his rock star ex-girlfriend (Tilda Swinton) in this sensual, romantic drama from director Luca Guadagnino. Brash, uninhibited, yet driven by underlying feelings of anger and desperation, Fiennes’s character is the beating heart of this wild saga, which also stars Matthias Schoenaerts as Swinton’s current beau, and Dakota Johnson as Fiennes’ troublemaking, hot-to-trot daughter. Set in one gorgeous Italian seaside after another, it’s an intoxicating swirl of passion and fury. (Available on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital HD)
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Writer/director Taika Waititi (soon to be helming Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok) delivers an odd-couple comedy with a distinctly New Zealand attitude. After his kind foster mother dies, a young delinquent boy (Julian Dennison) flees from child services, taking off into the bush with the begrudging help of his foster uncle (Sam Neill). Their wilderness misadventure is one of contentious banter and wild showdowns (with animal and human adversaries alike), and features choice cameos from Rhys Darby and Waititi himself as a weirdo minister. (Available on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital HD)
Anna Rose Holmer’s directorial debut charts the coming of age of a young Cincinnati girl (stunning newcomer Royalty Hightower) whose interest in boxing at her local gym soon gives way to a desire to join the local dance troupe that also practices there. What follows is a story of adolescent isolation — and longing for inclusion — that involves a rash of mysterious fainting spells suffered by her fellow dancers. Rather than a straightforward mystery, however, Holmer’s drama is an intimate snapshot of youthful estrangement, its atonal score and hypnotic visuals conveying the inner turmoil of its compelling main character. (Available on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital HD)
Louder Than Bombs
Despite the fact that it stars Isabelle Huppert (currently receiving acclaim for her roles in Elle and Things to Come), Gabriel Byrne, and Jesse Eisenberg, Norwegian director Joachim Trier’s English-language debut came and went in the U.S. with little fanfare. That’s a shame, given that its story, about a family’s response to its famous matriarch’s suicide, is an affecting examination of grief, resentment, and the various reasons that people choose — or choose not — to move on from tragedy. (Available on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital HD)
The male ego gets drolly skewered in this Greek import by Athina Rachel Tsangari about a group of men on a fishing trip whose juvenile competitiveness compels them to play a game — involving a series of random challenges in a variety of fields. The winner will be dubbed “the best in general.” Their behavior is of a petty, vengeful, ridiculous variety, with Tsangari using off-center compositions to highlight her characters’ askew personal relationships. It’s a sly, humorous investigation of macho anxieties. (Available on Netflix, DVD, and Digital HD)
Kill Zone 2
Known as SPL II: A Time for Consequences in its native China, Cheang Pou-soi’s film is a sequel in name only, and thus requires no prior knowledge of its 2005 predecessor — not that its story, with convoluted twists and turns involving organ-dealing villains and undercover cops, is its main attraction anyway. What matters is how this superior genre film delivers one magnificent martial arts set piece after another, many of which involve Muay Thai superstar Tony Jaa (Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior) — including a stunning knees-first leap through a moving truck’s windshield. (Available on Netflix, Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital HD)
Mountains May Depart
Jia Zhangke (24 City, A Touch of Sin) is one of China’s most acclaimed filmmakers. His latest is a transfixing tale about a love triangle whose evolution comes to speak volumes about China’s rapidly changing landscape. Taking place between 1999 and 2014, Mountains May Depart follows its three characters — and their eventual relatives and acquaintances — as they grapple with China’s new internationally focused capitalism. In the process, the film provides a melancholy commentary on the (inevitable and necessary) loss of tradition that comes from globalization. (Available on Netflix, Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital HD)
Embrace of the Serpent
An ethnographic drama of disquieting, hallucinatory power, Ciro Guerra’s film recounts parallel stories, one set in 1909 and the other in 1940, about European men searching for an ancient healing flower deep in the Amazon jungle with the aid of the same local shaman. What initially appears to be an indictment of colonial exploitation of this region soon becomes a far more ambiguous exploration of the dynamics shared between vastly different worlds — and the unavoidable sacrifices required by such a collision of cultures. (Available on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital HD)
Men Go to Battle
Zachary Treitz won the Best Director prize at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival for this indie (co-written by Kate Lyn Sheil), about two brothers whose day-to-day life together on their family farm is disrupted first by business disputes, and then by the Civil War. Quiet and haunting, this small-scale indie exudes a potent sense of both its time period and geographic setting, aided by a sterling soundscape of naturalistic noises. There’s understated humor here, as well as sorrow over relationships — and a way of life — passing into history. (Available on Netflix, DVD, and Digital HD)
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