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20 Great 2016 Movies You May Have Missed

13 January 2017 | Features, Film Lists | by Shane Scott-Travis

2016 had more than its share of blockbuster releases, from Marvel and DC superheroes smacking each other around to Star Wars space operatics unfolding with seemingly limitless budgets and big name stars. And while such large studio fare gets most of the attention when it comes to audiences plaudits, lots of foreign-language films are largely ignored, as are indie-derived pictures, genre entrees, documentaries and arthouse fare.

And while this following list is somewhat limited––there were so many wonderful films released last year––any way you look at it, any roundup of 2016 films will feature gifted visual storytellers, fearless filmmakers, invention, and vivid imaginings.

Without further ado, please enjoy this list and be sure to add other overlooked films in the comment section below.


20. Hedi


Winner of the Best First Feature Award at the 66th Berlin International Film Festival, this Tunisian drama from Mohamed Ben Attia hasn’t gotten the distinction it so richly deserves in North America

Majd Mastoura is astonishing as the eponymous Hedi, a sincere young man with ambitious dreams, credulous to a fault, struggling his way through the uneasy social conventions in present day Tunisia. Hedi’s overprotective mother, Baya (Sabah Bouzouita), tries to decide his life for him, including arranging his upcoming marriage, when suddenly and much to his surprise, he meets a lovely and loose woman named Rym (Rym Ben Messaoud).

The unfolding dramatics, co-produced by the Dardenne brothers, will work like catnip for arthouse audiences. Hedi’s numerous loving close-ups from cinematographer Frederic Noirhomme will long stay etched in the viewer as this deeply satisfying film unfolds with a rare grace and delicacy.


19. Embers


Director and co-writer (with Charles Spano) Claire Carré’s ambitious and meditative sci-fi film worships at the twin altars of Philip K Dick (shades of Obik) and Andrei Tarkovsky (think Stalker).

Featuring Josh Ritter in one of five interlacing tales set amidst a global epidemic of a neurological nature, each artfully exploring different Dickian ideas of memory and identity, futures without pasts, and a menacing mindfuck envelope that fans of challenging hard sci-fi will deeply appreciate.

That it’s all done on a small budget but with striking visuals all the same, make this haunting and imposing little picture something of a marvel, and one that’s destined for cult status.


18. Graduation


Cristian Mungiu’s provocative Graduation is as intricate as it is sharp and unsettling. This Romanian film, which netted Mungiu much praise in Europe––he shared the Best Director Award with Olivier Assayas (for his excellent film Personal Shopper) at Cannes––but has been largely overlooked in America.

A gripping Adrian Titieni as grey-haired Dr. Romeo Aldea dominates almost every frame of this arresting Romanian drama.

Elements of Michael Haneke’s work loom heavy and even the lilting air of Abbas Kiarostami seems discernable in the enigmatical progress of the story. Romeo’s teenage daughter is assaulted just moments after he drives her to school and his troubled mind, and ours, wanders all over the place in the wake of this tragedy.

Bleak, tangled, and persistent, Graduation teases at the viewer, troubling us and yet gratifying us also, for all its ability and brilliance.


17. Évolution


Arriving some eleven years after her last film (2004’s Innocence), French filmmaker Lucile Emina Hadžihalilović’s latest provocation is the hauntingly atmospheric cine-essay on gender fluidity, Évolution.

Max Brebant is brilliant as 10-year-old Nicolas, an islander residing with his mother in a village whose only inhabitants are women and young boys. Akin to a Kafkaesque nightmare, the boys are each subjected to a strange and surely sinister medical treatment in the grim hospital that menacingly looks down upon the sea.

Of all his peers, Nicolas is the only one who questions these unpleasant aesculapian treatments and the odd nightly meetings the women hold each night upon the shingle.

Strongly surreal and endlessly unnerving, Évolution is a poetic experiential horror fantasy that may well only appeal to a certain and specific alcove of admirers, though cinematographer Manuel Dacosse’s prize-winning work will impress even the most mainstream audience members.


16. The Complexity of Happiness

Italy’s Gianni Zanasi (Non penarci) offers up a shrewd, cerebral, and stylish comedy with The Complexity of Happiness. Enrico Giusti (Valerio Mastandrea) is an autonomous businessman who routinely chides no-account CEOs to trade their companies, but his old ways won’t wash now that he’s met two orphaned beneficiaries; college student Filippo Lievi (Filippo De Carli) and his teenage sister, Camilla (Camilla Martini).

Watching Enrico warm to and assist this surrogate family is both uplifting and unpredictable. Some familiar tropes are subverted and capsized and all with a deft attention that is, especially for a comedy, unique and refreshing.

Zanasi’ film takes some getting used to as it’s unashamedly strange and stylish, and doesn’t mind bringing the narrative to a screeching halt to take musical interludes with slo-mo music video flourishes and arresting tableaux.

Zanasi’s The Complexity of Happiness offers polished and precise filmmaking full of flash and flair.


15. Ghostland


Simon Stadler’s endearing and open-handed documentary, Ghostland, follows a culturally sheltered group of Ju/’hoansi people on their landmark journey to Germany (and their first ever airplane trip). With an observant but never overly intrusive eye Stadler presents the Ju/’huansi as engaging and endearing subjects.

A tribal people who’ve lost their traditional hunting practices thanks to the meddling Nambian government, these inventive people––bushmen from the Kalahari––have resorted to performing for tourists as their culture is exploited, and forever changed.

Playing out something like a neo-realist reboot of Jamie Uys comedy classic The Gods Must Be Crazy, the resulting culture clash is equal parts comedy and tragedy but never is it anything less than compelling as a group of amiable and intelligent Ju/’huansi find themselves exploring metropolitan life in Germany; marvelling at skyscrapers, shopping malls, filling stations, and more, all with the eyes of innocent’s.

Stadler presents the Ju/’huansi allegorically perhaps, or maybe that’s just what the viewer brings to it having looked into a mirror flashing our up-to-date nabe placed in proximity to the oldest existing culture on the planet with reflecting and refreshing results.



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  • David Valencia

    Embrace of the Serpent was incredible! As a colombian myself I have to say it’s probably the best colombian film ever made.

    • Vincenzo Politi

      Wow! Now I am curious!

    • Felixliterator

      It is the best colombian film ever made, that’s right.

  • Nelsonoca Galvis

    Abrazo de la serpiente one of the most overrated movies, is script is just stupid how could you compare that with Aguirre or apocalypse now, at last is power is thanks to can watch the Amazonas

    • D Train

      You’re stupid.

      • Nelsonoca Galvis

        okey, you could be blind if you want

    • Felixliterator

      It seems you didn’t understand much of the film. What a pitty, because its message is perfect for people like you, who think that any european or american film is better than ours just because of its origin or the fame of the film maker (at least, you did’nt say why the script is stupid, but it is not hard to find a dozen reasons to compare Guerra’s movie with Coppola’s and Herzog’s).

      • Nelsonoca Galvis

        Ey viejo, yo soy colombiano, el guion es pobre y estupido, porque no explora ningun efoque antropologico especifico, se remite a narrar acciones vacias de calidad discordante sobre como se supone que deberian comportarse los indigenas, en ningun momento se adentra en realidad en sus costumbres o comportamiento psicologico, asi mismo pasa con la exhibicion de la selva o los caudales del rio, en ultimas es solo un film caricaturesco que parece mas serio de lo que en realidad es ¿como se va a comparar con Aguirre o Apocalipse now?

        • Felixliterator

          Pues no estoy de acuerdo en casi nada. En efecto, no se exploran las tradiciones de los indígenas como lo haría un documental porque ese no es su objetivo. Pero no es cierto que no tenga ningún tipo de acercamiento antropológico ni que presente una visión caricaturesca de las comunidades amazónicas (de hecho, más cerca de esa caricatura está Herzog, pero nadie sería tan tonto de criticarlo por ello, pues claramente su intención es enfocarse en el punto de vista europeo. Sobre eso Ciro Guerra mismo ha hablado y es muy interesante lo que dice). El filme precisamente critica ese tipo de miradas paternalistas y estereotipadas y muestra a unos indígenas inmersos en la historia nacional. También muestra la complejísima relación tanto nuestra (“occidentales”) como suya con el conocimiento ancestral (lenguaje, música, medicina, geografía, religión…). En cuanto a la selva, difícilmente puedo pensar en una película que muestre de forma más lograda y bella (la fotografía es una obra de arte) tanto la exhuberancia selvática como la selva en su devenir histórico (aunque suene extraño): la presencia de españoles, de los Arana, lo que pasa con los cerrros de Mavicure, el abandono estatal… la relación entre naturaleza y la “magia”, por una parte, y con la industria, por la otra… Cinematográficamente también es una gran película: la fotografía, la música, las transiciones están muy muy bien logradas, el desarrollo narrativo fluye muy bien, el perfil psicológico de los personajes es muy bueno, pero hay que entenderlo en su doble naturaleza: tanto realista como simbólico… Yo creo que a muchos les molesta que la película no es explícita en mucho de esto, pero la tarea del arte no es dar respuestas sino generar preguntas, y esta lo logra con creces: la pregunta por la identidad nacional, en mi opinión, es quizá la más importante y está formulada con todos los elementos necesarios: nuestra historia española, católica, “modernizadora”, liberal, indígena, natural… la película pregunta y denuncia dónde queda cada uno de esos elementos y qué lugar debemos reconocerles o no, y lo hace respondiendo a una realidad (el extractivismo y el olvido de un país que cree que el Amazonas es solo folclór y materia prima).

          • Nelsonoca Galvis

            Tu comentario es en cierto sentido algo contradictorio, parece curiosa la manera como a los defectos e incapacidades del director de construir personajes y exponer con conocimiento tanto a la selva como a las culturas indigenas se justifique con base a concebir la pelicula desde el punto de vista de un extranjero, como quien dice, la ignorancia del punto de vista extranjero pasa a ser la escusa para la ignorancia de la pelicula, ese comentario se lo tomaria en serio si por lo menos su anterior pelicula “los viajes del viento” no fuera igual de ignorante, pero la ignorancia ya parece que va a ser la constante de Ciro Guerra a lo largo de su cinematografia; si, claro, la pelicula tiene muy bella cinematografia, y??? eso no la hace buena per se, ni menos estupida, ¿en que sentido la psicologia de los personajes es buena? si basicamente ninguno tiene personalidad ¿en que sentido la narrativa es buena? la transicion entre un punto y otro de la trama no son precisamente de una indole superlativa ni mucho menos, antes son algo bruscos y hacen que cualquiera se pierda con facilidad, ademas es un poco gracioso ese comentario de que la tarea del arte es generar preguntas ¿? desde cuando el arte se rige por un dogma, y mas uno tan particular, esa parece mas bien otra manera de justificar las incapacidades de la pelicula para exponer de forma realista o natural el contexto hitorico que atraviesa Colombia en el periodo que se quiere emular; ademas lo de caricaturesco no es por sinonimo de mala calidad, si no porque la gente quiere afrontar la pelicula como un retrato serio de las culturas del pais, asi como de su biodiversidad, cuando no pasa de ser una pelicula de explotacion, difrazada de cine de alta cultura.

          • Felixliterator

            Although there is still much to say, I preffer to let other visitors of this website watch the film and participate in our conversation, so maybe we can have more than two opposite points of view. (By the way, I appologize for writing in spanish, since this is a site in english).

  • sailor monsoon

    I’m glad you added operation avalanche.
    Matt Johnson is a new interesting voice in cinema

  • I’ve seen three flicks on here and was severely underwhelmed by all three, especially Little Sister.
    2016 was a lackluster year for cinema in my opinion (I’m adding IMO, but think it’s not very debatable)

    • D Train

      Little Sister was great and I noticed it topped The New Yorker’s Best of 2016 list. Maybe your opinion is shit??!! Haha. 😉

  • enrico rama

    it’s “Non pensarci”, not “Non penaci” 🙂

  • SupernaturalCat

    Re overlooked horror flicks of 2016 …one of the more effective spook films I’ve seen in quite a while.

    The Autopsy of Jane Doe

  • jamako

    Edge of Seventeen, Embrace of the Serpent and Embers are all great films! I’ve been trying to get my hands on Évolution since I saw the trailer, but it’s almost impossible to get over here :/