Film

The 10 Most Underrated Movie Gems Of 2016

The best movies you probably missed this year.

It’s my job to watch movies, but frustratingly there’s so much I never get to review.

Luckily, the end-of-year list genre is often about playing catch-up. So here are ten movies that may have slipped through your fingers on their initial release, but which I think are definitely worth your time. Let’s revisit these diamonds in the rough.­­­­­

The 5th Wave

Based on a popular book trilogy by Rick Yancey, The 5th Wave was dismissed on its January release for failing to distinguish itself from either post-apocalyptic or alien-invasion stories. This coincides with a certain complacent vibe that young adult dystopian films are ‘over’ now, given The Maze Runner Dylan O’Brien’s horrifying on-set injury, and Allegiant’s disappointing performance that forced the planned fourth Divergent instalment to TV.

That said, I’ve been enjoying Shadowhunters, the trashy TV reincarnation of failed YA franchise The Mortal Instruments.

But I enjoyed The 5th Wave as a deeply satisfying example of what I call “the erotics of peril”. In war stories such as Tomorrow When The War Began and How I Live Now, as well as alien-invasion stories including The Host, young protagonists chart explicitly libidinal courses through crisis situations. Sexual attraction and rivalry become metaphors for trust and allegiance, and sexy bodies are trained, invaded or injured.

When we relegate this body politics to ‘hormonal teenagers’, we end up being surprised by the astuteness of Teen Vogue’s political commentary after the US election. And we find Allied fanciful – although WWII debauchery really was a thing.

Morgan

Comparisons to Ex Machina are inevitable. Corporate emissary Lee Weathers (Kate Mara) is sent to a remote forest compound to investigate the viability of Morgan (The Witch star Anya Taylor-Joy), a new human/AI hybrid supersoldier who has impulsively attacked one of the scientists caring for her. But Morgan is nowhere near as intellectual as Alex Garland’s 2015 film. It’s not a fretful Frankenstein fable about scientific hubris, and it’s not really as interested in the title creature’s interior life compared to the recent Planet of the Apes films, or 2011’s Hanna.

Instead, it’s more about how the atomising imperatives of capitalism violently disrupt the quiet ties of family and community. Emotions cannot be monetised. Morgan is a solidly enjoyable, meat-and-potatoes action thriller that gets the job done as efficiently as Weathers – directed competently by Luke ‘Son of Ridley’ Scott and given extra heft by a strong ensemble cast.

Risen

Writer/director Kevin Reynolds (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) depicts the Passion of the Christ as “the manhunt that changed the course of human history”. Initially there’s a fun Law & Order: Judaea vibe, as Roman tribune Clavius (the perpetually confused-looking Joseph Fiennes) and his deputy Lucius (Tom Felton) must locate the missing body of an executed Jewish radical before civil unrest ruins Caesar’s impending visit.

Released the week before the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar!, Risen is tempting to lampoon. Would that it were so simple! Much as Red Dog: True Blue shows a cynical viewer’s heart melting as he watches the original Red Dog, Risen meta-textually dares you to stop finding it ridiculous. Clavius loses, then gains faith as he meets the followers of Yeshua (Cliff Curtis) – and I was there for it! Maori actor Curtis earned rave reviews for festival hit The Dark Horse, and his portrayal of Big JC has a compelling gentleness. Risen is corny, but it got under my skin. Amen!

Central Intelligence

I was so sure I’d hate this Kevin Hart/Dwayne Johnson buddy caper, especially as it was marketed with the tagline, “Saving the world takes a little Hart and a big Johnson.” But while Central Intelligence is painted in broad strokes, its stars make an unexpectedly appealing duo: Hart as fussy accountant Calvin, playing off Johnson’s puppyishly gung-ho spy Bob.

What separates Central Intelligence from thinly scripted, improvised zinger-based studio comedies such as The Boss and Ghostbusters is its focus on character and relationships. Many comic characters only seem to spend time together because the joke demands it, but director Rawson Marshall Thurber (Dodgeball; We’re The Millers) and writers Ike Barinholtz and David Stassen (The Mindy Project) show how a moment of impulsive kindness shapes two people’s lives. That’s a nice takeaway in 2016.

Down Under

An Aussie comedy as black as a niqab or Ned Kelly’s helmet (a visual pun writer-director Abe Forsythe can’t resist), Down Under follows two rival carloads of young men in the aftermath of the December 2005 Cronulla riots. Lakemba-born student Hassim (Lincoln Younes) and Shire stoner Shit-Stick (Alexander England) are reluctantly recruited by their gung-ho friends for a retaliation mission that sets them cruising for disaster before the sun comes up over Cronulla beach.

Down Under’s blunt, at times upsettingly violent satire is urgently relevant to today’s polarised politics of grievance. Many of the film’s funniest moments also skewer and deflate masculinity, from failed Fast and Furious fantasies to a sincere love of pop music that briefly unites the squabbling hooligans.

Indignation

Adapted by veteran screenwriter and producer (but debutant director) James Schamus from Philip Roth’s 2008 novel, this drama is powerfully animated by its namesake emotion, which propels class-climbing Jewish weirdo Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman) through an early 1950s college sexual awakening. As his depressive shiksa lust interest Olivia Hutton, Sarah Gadon luxuriates in what’s become her niche: ethereal, troubled retro sirens.

Fretfully deadpan in a way that reminded me of the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man, its centrepiece is an extended verbal joust between an increasingly indignant Marcus and Dean Caudwell (playwright Tracy Letts, who wrote Killer Joe and August: Osage County), who’s weirdly determined to force Marcus to assimilate into campus life. While intensely stressful to watch, it’s executed with verve by both actors.

Nerve

This thriller uses glossy technology-panic teen movies like Hackers as a Trojan horse to explore the dehumanising effect of anonymous social media use. It’s somehow less tryhard than Oliver Stone’s thematically similar Snowden.

Sick of being a bystander in her own life, Vee (Emma Roberts) decides to join an online daredevil game whose users are divided into ‘Watchers’ and ‘Players’. She teams up with fellow Player Ian (Dave Franco) for a mischievous evening that quickly grows sinister.

Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (Catfish) use the recognisable look and feel of online avatars, swiping and tapping gestures, first-person mobile-phone footage and visually cluttered user interfaces to frame the story in an immersive way that also implicates us, the audience, as Watchers. The cinema lights came up at the end and I noticed the blue glow of other viewers checking their phones, admiring the disquiet such a fun, trashy film was able to provoke in me.

Captain Fantastic

I thought this was going to be a fish-out-of-water dramedy about home-schooled hippies trying to integrate with mainstream America, but it’s actually much more observational and downbeat than its Sundancey premise suggests.

Lucid, intelligent and dryly funny, Captain Fantastic is about how loss and longing can help negotiate between ideology, family and community.

Viggo Mortensen is excellent as patriarch Ben Cash, grieving his lost wife while defending the rigorous rationalism of their shared survivalist parenting. The actors playing the six Cash kids give sensitive, moving performances, especially George MacKay as eldest son Bodevan. (MacKay was also great this year in 11.22.63, Hulu’s miniseries based on Stephen King’s novel.) And its rendition of ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ is joyous.

Julieta

Based on Alice Munro’s short stories ‘Chance’, ‘Soon’ and ‘Silence’, Pedro Almodóvar’s melodrama offers deep emotional satisfaction, like a ragout slowly cooked down to its richest and most intense flavours. The Spanish auteur has always been interested in classic Hollywood tales of suffering such as Mildred Pierce (1945), as well as the Technicolor ‘woman’s pictures’ of Douglas Sirk (which Todd Haynes has also mined, most recently in Carol); but unlike his early, satirical films, Julieta feels restrained and ritualistic, stuffed with velvety jewel colours and lingering over talismanic objects and events.

After a chance encounter shocks middle-aged Julieta (Emma Suárez) from her chic, comfortable Madrid life, she recalls in flashback (played by Adriana Ugarte) the events that led to her estrangement from daughter Antía. With a beguiling tone of mystery and fatefulness, Julieta traces the threads that connect guilt and grief.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

Ang Lee’s adaptation of Ben Fountain’s terrific 2012 Iraq War novel became notorious for Lee’s ambitious technical choice to shoot in 4K digital 3D at an unprecedentedly high rate of 120 frames per second (which can be screened in only six theatres in the world). The hyperreal results disappointed some critics, who were troubled by the way Lee punctures cinema’s fictive illusion. I’m glad that here in Australia, the film screened in a less distracting conventional format, because its fluid framing and editing are just as crucial in creating its powerful impression of immediacy.

Lee deconstructs the ideological underpinnings of spectacle – whether in media circuses, sporting rituals or theatres of war. Open-faced newcomer Joe Alwyn is mesmerising in the title role: a soldier who becomes a reluctant national hero. The charismatic ensemble cast also includes Kristen Stewart as Billy’s anti-war sister, Garrett Hedlund as his sarcastic squad leader, and Vin Diesel as his gentle mentor.

Mel Campbell is a freelance journalist and cultural critic. She blogs on style, history and culture at Footpath Zeitgeist and tweets at @incrediblemelk.