In life as well as in sports, we root for the underdog, either because we are underdogs ourselves or because we cannot stand even the smallest of injustices. Today, I am going to list my most underrated films of 2016 and briefly explain why. Why these films are “underrated” has nothing to do with the number of people who have seen them—the proper term in that case would be “underseen”. These films are underrated for various reasons. People may have hated some of these films and/or ignored others upon their release. They may have liked some of these films whereas the films actually deserve more than being merely liked. Elsewhere, there may be films with atrocious reputations that I felt they never truly deserved—the phrase “it’s not that bad” comes to mind.
(FYI, these films are listed in alphabetical order.)
(dir. Robert Zemeckis)
With this one part war romance, one part romantic thriller, Zemeckis not only incorporated equal amounts of grit, Hitchcock-like intrigue, and wartime class, but turned Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard into perhaps the most passionate film couple of 2016.
2. The Edge of Seventeen
(dir. Kelly Fremon Craig)
Even with its high praises (including from myself, who ranked it the 7th best film of 2016), today’s young generation has yet to discover The Edge of Seventeen. Part of me fears what will happen if it ever becomes more popular than at its release, but for now, it gives me pride to have witnessed the under-appreciated shine on this gem of a coming-of-age drama.
3. Eye in the Sky
(dir. Gavin Hood)
2016 was a weak year in film (not to mention the world), evidenced not only by how easily La La Land became my favorite film of the year, but by how the dependable sturdiness of Eye in the Sky in every craft department allowed it to remain at the top of my list for almost eight straight months. Many of those who did manage to see it take for granted its true quality, not to mention how rewatchable it is. Give me this over any of the summer blockbusters that came out in 2016.
4. Hell or High Water
(dir. David Mackenzie)
Hell or High Water’s perception is almost exactly like that of Eye in the Sky, except with Oscar nominations. This is a great little movie with great little moments that speaks loudly on the themes it presents while also looking and sounding gorgeous. Even with the Oscar nominations—none of which it will win, sadly—this will go under the radar in a few more months and it does not deserve it. (This is the equivalent of the 2015 gem Brooklyn, also a Best Picture nominee that left the ceremony empty-handed.)
(dir. Pablo Larraín)
I still believe that many take unorthodox biographical films for granted and lump them with those with a more by-the-numbers, textbook approach. As with Steve Jobs from 2015, this film isolates the key moments that get at the essence of Jackie Kennedy. Natalie Portman deserves all the praise, yes, but what about the rest of the film? The direction is inspired, the cinematography glides like a ghost, the score disturbs every inch of the spine, and all the period elements are executed with love and attention to detail. This is cinema.
6. A Monster Calls
(dir. J.A. Bayona)
Spanish director J.A. Bayona’s previous film from 2012, The Impossible, slipped under the radar despite its sole Oscar nomination (Best Actress for Naomi Watts), its unheralded special effects, and its equally-unheralded, Oscar-worthy performances by Tom Holland (his true breakout role) and Ewan McGregor. His latest low fantasy emotional rollercoaster will go the same way, except with no fanfare whatsoever and that disappoints me greatly. Bayona and screenwriter Patrick Ness (who also wrote the 2011 novel) crafted a special film that transitions cleanly between reality, the corresponding fantasy, and vice-versa, without ever condescending to the audience intelligence. Felicity Jones gave a heart-wrenching performance as the lead boy’s dying mother. Such a shame that no one wanted to watch this.
7. Queen of Katwe
(dir. Mira Nair)
Not only does this Disney-produced film about Ugandan chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi exceed the excitement threshold of the average sports film, but it remains colorful, grounded, and knows how to balance the comedy of discovering the comforts of the modern world and the dire drama of the living conditions of Phiona and her family. Lupita Nyong’o as Phiona’s mother preserves the passion and tenderness she exhibited in her Oscar-winning performance from 12 Years a Slave while also incorporating a tiger-like shrewdness that headstrong single mothers employ to protect their families.
8. Ratchet & Clank
(dir. Kevin Munroe & Jerrica Cleland)
Here it is—the one bad film on this list. Mind you, Ratchet & Clank is a mediocre animated family action-adventure. It adapts the popular PlayStation platform franchise a decade too late. (I’m personally not that familiar with this franchise. I was more of Jak & Daxter fan back in the day.) So why does it occupy a spot here as one of my underrated films of 2016? Four words—The Angry Birds Movie. Many trashed that film as well, but several gave it a pass for being a fun, well-animated time. I, for one, despised that film (it’s in my top 10 worst films of 2016) for its absence of a capable plot, bizarre pop culture references, and sexually-charged lines that took several steps beyond mere innuendo. Say what you will about Ratchet & Clank (those few of you who actually saw it), but no one can deny that it follows, albeit to a fault, the basic hero’s journey in a straightforward manner. Even its inclusion of a supporting character known to the franchise’s fans for betraying his allies and joining the villains for self-gain somewhat works. As bad as some films can be, film critics should still employ fair criticism for them, and I refuse to believe that a given critic or film buff out there finds Ratchet & Clank confusing, yet at the same time tolerates The Angry Birds Movie. (Or Storks. Or Trolls.)
9. The Shallows
(dir. Jaume Collet-Serra)
Sometimes all one needs in a film is a bloodthirsty shark and an injured but beautiful woman—in this case, Blake Lively—stranded on a rock some distance away from shore. Guaranteed to become one of 2016’s more memorable hidden gems.
10. 20th Century Women
(dir. Mike Mills)
Throwing a Best Original Screenplay nomination (which it did deserve) at it after denying Annette Bening a Best Actress nomination was appreciated, but writer-director Mike Mills’ film will still go unnoticed in the end and that is quite a shame. Few films in 2016 have illustrated and nurtured each and every member of its main set of characters like a living time capsule with as much love and patience as 20th Century Women. This will be another great hidden gem that people must revisit in the future.
About the Author
Renard N. Bansale once aspired to become an astronaut, before he found his passion in film discussion, criticism, conducting script-reading sessions of feature-film screenplays, and annual Oscar tracking. Hailing from Seattle, WA, Renard is currently pursuing his M.A. in Biblical Theology (Catechetical track) at JPCatholic after graduating from the school in 2016 with a B.S. in Communications Media (Emphasis in Screenwriting).