Top 10 Under-The-Radar films of 2016

As per usual, plenty of the year’s best cinema found their way to us on platforms other than the Cineplex screens, or if they did show at the multiplex, they often came and went relatively unheralded. It’s the fact of Halifax being a small market: Many quality features won’t find distribution in theatres.

Here are 10 great and interesting films you may not have seen because they either had a very brief run locally, or they’re only available on Netflix, VOD, or Blu-Ray/DVD. A few of them were technically released in 2015, but because they never arrived in theatres here, they were made available to us only last year.

(If I’ve reviewed the films in 2016, you’ll find my more detailed thoughts if you click the titles.)

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Bone Tomahawk is the kind of western where the local bar is called The Learned Goat. In other words, not your average. S. Craig Zahler’s film is clever, dryly funny, and gorgeous-looking—witness the scene where Arthur (Patrick Wilson) reads the letter while in bed and the lamps flicker on the end tables. We also get to spend awhile with a terrific cast of whiskery character actors including Richard Jenkins, David Arquette, Fred Melamed, and even Matthew Fox, while Kurt Russell essays his best tough guy since The Thing‘s MacReady. The crossover from gritty western to bloody fantasy horror is signposted early—the antagonists are cannibalistic “troglodytes”—but the gore, when it arrives, might take some by surprise. Consider yourself warned. Netflix Canada

Still expected to open in Halifax is one of the late-2016 prestige dramas now playing in Toronto, Pablo Larrain’s Jackie. Starring Natalie Portmanit’s the story of Jackie Kennedy in the week following her husband’s assassination. I’ll have a review for that excellent picture when it arrives, but the second of and third under-the-radar films I’d recommend are the two others from the Jackie director, The Club and Neruda. Yup, he had a busy 2016.

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The Club is the story of four former priests and a nun living in a safe house in a small Chilean town. When we first meet them the four older men seem fairly benign, but as we go along we discover they’ve all done things that’ve forced the church to remove them from their communities, and the legacy of abuse is thick around them. A powerful story steeped in rage against the church, it explores the lingering effect of guilt, of sin, and of systemic complicity. It’s chillingly effective. iTunes

A much lighter, but no less engaging film is Neruda. It’s the story of the Chilean statesman and poet, Pablo Neruda, a communist who publicly criticized the Chilean government in the late 1940s. Neruda went on the run, he and his wife deftly avoiding the police investigator tasked to find him. Though this sounds a little like a biopic, it’s a long way from the stale offerings that too often populate that genre. Neruda has room for genuine playfulness, a gorgeous visual palette, a look at the ups and downsides of celebrity, and even a consideration of the mechanics of storytelling and fictional heroism: It’s no mistake that the film starts as a political drama and ends a western. It stars Gael Garcia Bernal, Luis Gnecco, and Mercedes Moran. In Cinemas

Creative Control marks the second film by Benjamin Dickinson, a sharp satire set in a near-future where an advertising executive struggles to manage his life while taking designer drugs and experimenting with augmented reality goggles.

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Shot in gorgeous black and white, this isn’t a perfect film by any means, but its narrative confidence and visual ambition impresses. There’s something about it that feels undeniably 2016. Netflix Canada

A Canadian-Norwegian co-pro, Hevn (Revenge) is a genuine Scandinavian treat. A drama with thriller bones, it tells the story of a woman on a mission of vengeance for past abuse. It works as well in the small, intimate moments as it does in widescreen, location-loving expanses.

From Ang Lee’s filmmaking partner James Schamus comes Indignationa thoughtful and delicate adaptation of the Phillip Roth novel. The story is of Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), a Jewish law student at an Ohio university struggling with the expectations of others, including his dean, while also managing his own sexual hang-ups. Deeply and hauntingly melancholy. iTunes

The goth-teen-turned-nun dramedy you didn’t know you needed, Little Sister a scrappy charmer from filmmaker Zach Clark. Colleen (Addison Timlin) ran away from a miserable family life in North Carolina and signed up for the Lord at a New York nunnery, but when her soldier brother (Keith Poulson) comes home from Iraq, she heads home, too. Though it doesn’t quite add up to a whole stronger than the sum of its parts, there are plenty of incidental pleasures to keep you engaged, not the least of which is the welcome return of the original goth teen, Ally Sheedy, as Colleen’s dope-smoking mom. Netflix Canada

With the current—and in my humble opinion, somewhat unearned—hubbub around La La Land, the best musical revival of 2016 isn’t getting nearly the attention it deserves. London Road adapts a stage musical, itself a strange amalgam of journalism and song. Folks in suburban Ipswich were interviewed while a serial killer was threatening their community and the interviews, including every “um” and “uh,” were turned into musical pieces.

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While it’s an entirely bizarre and unlikely marriage of material and presentation, it’s wonderfully effective and feels like nothing else you will have seen. In a broad ensemble, Olivia Coleman is especially good, and Tom Hardy cameos. Yes, he does sing. On DVD

At a time when romantic comedies are on life support, you need to be looking further afield than mainstream Hollywood to find quality examples. Consider these two: Man Up and Sleeping With Other People. 

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Man Up is set in London, where Simon Pegg is expecting to meet a blind date, but the woman in question is impersonated by Lake Bell. This high-concept tomfoolery is too fraught to sustain laughs through the entire film, which the filmmakers are aware. The jig is up by the second act, followed delightfully by recriminations, dance-offs, and parties into the night. Pegg and Bell—who does a perfect British accent—have chemistry to spare, and the script is just the right amount of zippy. Netflix Canada

Sleeping With Other People takes place in New York, as many of the best romcoms are. It’s about the non-romance between two sexual compulsives who met in college, lost touch, and then reconnect later, after many a catastrophic love affair. Recognizing their mutual destructive power, they agree to be only friends and confide in each other about their other interludes. Sure, it’s a little contrived, like every good romantic comedy, but it’s also great, R-rated fun, featuring the sparkling Jason Sudeikis and Alison Brie, with Adam Scott, Amanda Peet, and Marc Blucas offering sweet support. Netflix Canada

For my list of the best on the radar films of 2016, please go here.

About the author

flawintheiris

Carsten Knox is a massive, cheese-eating nerd. In the day he works as a journalist in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At night he stares out at the rain-slick streets, watches movies, and writes about what he's seeing.

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