As we approach the midway point of the year, we tend to look ahead—toward summer’s blockbusters and autumn’s Oscar fare—but some of 2016’s finest movies are already behind us. This year’s most provocative, entertaining and deliciously weird movies have transported us back in time to New England in the 1630s and Dublin in the 1980s. They have challenged our assumptions about relationships and immersed us in three-dimensional, computer-generated worlds of verdant vegetation and brilliant blue rivers. As we look forward to big friendly giants and ghostbusting comediennes, here’s a look back at the gems you might have missed.
Director Robert Eggers’ directorial debut about a family of pilgrims banished to the outskirts of an eerie New England forest is scary not for the spells of its alleged sorceress, but for the moody aesthetic and pervasive paranoia Eggers uses to paint a portrait of homesick immigrants adjusting to the New World. Its terror lies in the ways in which families turn on one another when the world itself has turned on them.
Zootopia could have limited its inspirational message to a tired regurgitation of “You can be anything you want if you set your mind to it” (in this case, a bunny who yearns to be a police officer). But that platitude is satisfied in the film’s first ten minutes, and it quickly morphs into something much deeper: a thinly-veiled allegory for strained race relations in America, transcending its adorably animated surface as it confronts, with a surprising lack of kid gloves, issues like racial profiling and discrimination.
At this point, Michael Shannon can be described as something like a muse to filmmaker Jeff Nichols, who directed him in Take Shelter and Midnight Special as well as this spring’s Cannes hit Loving. In Midnight Special, the brooding actor plays father to a boy with supernatural powers who’s wanted by both the government and the cult from which his family has escaped. It’s a sci-fi mystery in the spirit of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and a father-son drama with all the emotional resonance of Field of Dreams.
First-time director Trey Edward Shults made Krisha on a barely-there budget, casting several family-member non-actors for a shoot in his mother’s home. If it sounds like a haphazard senior thesis project, it is anything but: This drama about a woman who struggles with substance abuse joining her family on Thanksgiving after a long separation is an intense, often uncomfortable portrait of a person who wants desperately, but fails repeatedly, to do right by the people she cares about.
Born to Be Blue
Ethan Hawke sings and plays trumpet in this “anti-biopic” about “James Dean of Jazz” Chet Baker, but his performance transcends mere technical mimicry. The movie, which imagines what might have happened had Baker kicked his heroin habit and focused on the music instead, paints a tender portrait of a man who can’t decide what he loves best, a woman or an unnatural high. Director Robert Budreau’s inspired take on Baker’s life is as good an argument as any to ditch the traditional biopic formula.
Everybody Wants Some!!
Richard Linklater’s latest jaunt, about a college baseball team in the days leading up to the fall semester of 1980, has about as much plot as a baseball game but, thankfully, all the thrills of the hidden dalliances taking place underneath the bleachers. A spiritual successor to Linklater’s 1993 comedy Dazed and Confused, this sprawling film introduces a talented cast of newcomers we’re likely to be seeing more from and captures the essence of youthful longing—to fit in and, yes, to get some.
Boy meets girl way out of his league, boy brags about his nonexistent rock band, boy scrambles to assemble said band. Even if the premise sounds familiar, it’s unlikely you’ve seen it handled with as much charm as director John Carney (Once, Begin Again) brings to this coming-of-age tale set in mid-1980s Dublin. With original songs that pay homage to Duran Duran and The Cure and a thread of brotherly love that matters as much as, if not more than, the love story, Sing Street is magnetic enough to win over even a hardened skeptic of the movie musical.
The Jungle Book
Too many movies employ 3-D technology merely because it exists; to watch them on a small screen in 2-D is to sacrifice very little in one’s viewing experience. But Disney and Jon Favreau’s reimagining of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book justifies its high-tech sheen with an immersive world of CGI wolves and swaying palm fronds so vivid it’s practically tangible. Yes, Bill Murray and Christopher Walken are delightful as lazy bear Baloo and imposing orangutan King Louie, respectively. But as much as anything, this movie is a testament to the power of technology to enhance, rather than distract from, a story.
In Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos’ English-language debut, the originality of his dystopian premise—humans who fail to find a mate are unceremoniously turned into an animal of their choosing—is exceeded only by its poignant execution. Colin Farrell charms as a singleton whose displeasure with the regime is matched by his disappointment at the totalitarianism of its defectors. The movie asks questions it refuses to answer, and the outcome is all the richer for it.
The Nice Guys
Ryan Gosling has never been funnier than in Shane Black’s neo-noir private investigator comedy about two detectives probing the mysterious death of a porn star in 1970s Los Angeles. Russell Crowe plays the straight-man to Gosling’s hapless, well-meaning but decidedly lax-on-ethics widower. Their low-tech methods are rooted more in luck than in skill—clues to unlocking the mystery all seem to fall, quite literally, into their laps—and their unlikely camaraderie is reliably infectious.