A Year of Mulligans | The 10 Most Underrated Films of 2016
Film criticism, like any criticism, boils down to opinions. The job of a film critic is to present their own, well-educated, thoughtful opinion – entertainingly, if possible – and explain how they came to that conclusion. Film critics are not responsible for reflecting popular opinions or for synching up their opinions to any movie’s box office success. This is why we have so many critics in the world. They offer different viewpoints from different people with different fields of expertise and different life experiences. If you don’t like one critic’s opinions, there is another critic out there for you. That’s how this works.
And yet sometimes it sure seems like there’s a group mentality out there, a generalized opinion about certain movies that gets a little out of hand. You’ve probably experienced this before, when the critics all seem like they’re ganging up on one particular movie that you had no beef with, or heck, maybe you even thought it was great. It’s important to remember that you don’t have to go along with the crowd. You don’t have to agree with critics. They’re just here to recommend movies for you to watch, to provide you with interesting new observations about those films, and to help you articulate your own thoughts about them.
In other words, you can like a critic and have a completely different take than they do about certain movies. That shouldn’t invalidate your relationship with that critic. It’s a conversation you’re having, or at least a listening exercise. If the critic hates something and you like it, that’s cool. If the critic likes something and you hate it, that’s cool too. But maybe if you read the critic’s thoughts you’ll see something in those movies you’ve never seen before. Outside opinions help us grow as people, and help us discover new and wonderful things in the world around us.
But it works both ways, doesn’t it? If we look at critics as “outside” the rest of the audience, then the rest of the audience is just as capable of forming their own, mass opinions as well. Lots of film fans seem to think that a film’s financial success is symbolic of its popularity; ipso facto, if a film makes money, then a lot of people must like it, and therefore it must be good. That’s flawed logic, of course. A lot of movies that made money are now forgotten to history, or derided as some of the worst movies ever made. (Ever hear of the Francis the Talking Mule movies? They were blockbusters in the 1950s. I rest my case.) To wit, going along with the popular opinion – from critics or the populace at large – has no value in and of itself. You have the right to your own opinion, and you should exercise it.
All of this is, I’ll admit, a rather roundabout way to introduce my picks for the most underrated films of 2016. But I think it’s important that we all get on the same wavelength here. A movie can be underrated by critics but financially successful anyway, and a movie can critically acclaimed but rejected by audiences out of hand. A film can also be ignored completely, making no money to speak of and falling off of most critics’ radar altogether. But all of these kinds of movies can still be worth your time and consideration.
In short, “underrated” can mean a lot of different things, and the following movies reflect all of those meanings. But all of them deserve a second chance to find an appreciative audience. If you heard they were bad, or heard nothing about them at all, then I think you owe it to yourself to give these films a chance because I found some good in them. Some of these films are brilliant and some are merely better than advertised, but I’d recommend them all.
And yes, that’s just my opinion. But you won’t be able to form your own opinions until you give these movies a fair shot, free of unreasonable expectations.
Steven Spielberg’s biggest bomb in decades isn’t even one of the director’s worst films. Indeed, it’s one of the most daring big-budget entertainments in recent memory. The BFG stars newcomer Ruby Barnhill as a young girl who gets kidnapped by a well-intentioned giant, played with CGI-accompaniment by Mark Rylance, and together they form a friendship based on their shared love of dreams and, in a remarkably sweet and endearing way, flatulence.
Spielberg spent an incredible amount of money bringing the bizarre wonders of The BFG to life, and what’s more, he had the gumption to take that budget and completely ignore mainstream blockbuster conventions. The BFG isn’t an adventure film. It isn’t a broad comedy. It’s an ambling tale of conversational friendship painted across an expensive fantasy landscape. And it’s absolutely captivating, so long as you’re not expecting something more conventional.
It’s one of the most famous horror movies in history but until this year there was only ever one sequel to The Blair Witch Project, and it sucked. So how you do bring the franchise back? If you’re Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett – the powerhouse duo behind You’re Next and The Guest – you make a proper sequel that ignores Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (rightfully so) and you set about reintroducing a new generation to the found-footage frights of the original.
And even though Blair Witch is a sharp throwback, revisiting many of the successful original bullet points and amplifying them, adding new twists and culminating in an impressive third act, audiences balked and critics were divided. Book of Shadows was chastised for not being enough like the original, Blair Witch was chided for feeling too similar. It’s not a horror classic (it didn’t even make my Best Horror Movies of 2016 list) but it’s still a solid shocker that, in time, I think people will discover and come to appreciate on its own terms, free of all that residual pop culture baggage.
Speaking of “pop culture baggage,” let’s talk about nostalgia, shall we? Hollywood has been churning out remakes and reboots of classic nostalgia properties left and right for many years now, but even though some of them are awful and/or tank at the box office, the fact is that the majority of them of them are brushed off with a feckless disregard by the moviegoing public. That Robocop reboot sucked, for example, but it wasn’t something to fight about. It was something to simply ignore. And so we ignored it, and (thank goodness) it promptly went away.
But no nostalgia reboot was met with more criticism and scorn than Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters, which might have even been okay if all that derision had churned up after everyone had actually seen the danged thing. Instead, many were eager to declare the new Ghostbusters a disaster without having seen it, months in advance and then months afterwards, and that’s a shame, because although it’s not as good as the original, it didn’t need to be. It just needed to be its own thing, and to be entertaining and interesting in its own right. A good reboot only needs to justify its existence. With an intriguing new mythology, funny characters and a feminist angle that added a whole new dimension to the Ghostbusters iconography, this movie achieved that goal.
If you think about it, that’s a heck of a lot more than the new Point Break could say for itself. Or the new Total Recall. Or the new Nightmare on Elm Street. Or the new (et cetera, et cetera, et cetera). There was no reason to pick on Ghostbusters this much. This is the kind of film for which words like “underrated” were created.
HELLO, MY NAME IS DORIS
Not so much conventionally “underrated” as “completely glossed over for some reason,” the comedy My Name is Doris should have been a comeback vehicle for Sally Field. She hadn’t had a lead role in a movie in a decade, and it’s been two decades since she was cast in lead roles with any sort of consistency. But she’s absolutely captivating here as a shut-in who, after years of isolation (and even hoarding), pretends to be “cool” in order to win the heart of a man who’s old enough to be her grandson.
It sounds like a hokey premise, but it’s got a kind-hearted twist. You see, Doris is already cool. She just never let anybody know it before. She opens herself up to new experiences and discovers a whole world full of people who appreciate her for own eccentricities. Unfortunately, Michael Showalter’s otherwise smart comedy falls prey to contrived plot points in an apparent effort to pack more dramatic “oomph” into the final act, but that doesn’t so much ruin the movie as take it down a peg. My Name is Doris is a sweet and amusing film with a great performance by Sally Field, and it deserved more recognition for that.
I AM THE PRETTY THING THAT LIVES IN THE HOUSE
While everybody was raving about Netflix original horror movies like Under the Shadow and Hush, the digital streaming platform quietly unleashed a masterful exercise in ethereal atmosphere. That the title sounds like a lost Shirley Jackson novel is probably no coincidence: I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House is the sort of haunting ghost story that reminds you of reading an eldritch tome by candlelight, in a house in the middle of the woods, with a rainstorm outside, and also the floorboards won’t stop creaking. It’s a shudder captured on camera.
Ruth Wilson stars as a hospice nurse who lives in an old house with a dying horror author, whose morbid works seem to have seeped into the walls. Our protagonist is a timid sort of person, so prone to anxiety that she can barely bring herself to read one of her patient’s novels. But the isolation starts to get to her – or maybe it’s the mold in the foundation – and she gradually becomes an integral part of the author’s greatest masterpiece. The plot is thin, but the atmosphere is thick. If you turn off the lights and stare at the screen, I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House is going to do a real number on your nerves.
LAST DAYS IN THE DESERT
Christian cinema is big, big business nowadays but one of the best films about Jesus Christ was almost completely overlooked this year. Perhaps that’s because Last Days in the Desert doesn’t adapt a story from The Bible, and instead invents a new one: it’s a morally complicated parable about the conclusion of Jesus Christ’s 40-day fast in the desert, as he comes across a family with ordinary but seemingly insurmountable problems. The devil challenges the son of god, arguing that if he can’t help three normal people, how could he hope to do better with the whole wide world? It’s a fair point, so Jesus takes it upon himself to try, and in so doing he learns valuable lessons about human frailty, temptation and what will be eventually required of him to inspire decency in others.
Last Days in the Desert is a fascinating exploration of the character’s divinity, one that doesn’t take Jesus Christ’s greatness for granted but instead argues that it must have been earned through self-reflection and, in turn, actually doing great things. Ewan McGregor gives two of his best performances here, as the messiah as well as the devil, and writer/director Rodrigo Garcia’s intimate story comes to nearly epic life via the always-impressive cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki.
TALE OF TALES
Tale of Tales is a sumptuous, violent, bizarre assortment of fairy stories directed by Matteo Garrone (Gomorrah), starring Salma Hayek, Vincent Cassel, Toby Jones and John C. Reilly as queens and kings whose hubris becomes their undoing, in fantastical and monstrous ways. Never heard of it? You’re not alone. It was barely released in theaters.
The beautiful and grim anthology tells the story of a queen who will stop at nothing to have a child, and then will stop at nothing to keep that child away from his doppelgänger. It’s also the tale of a king who becomes obsessed with feeding a giant flea, a predilection that eventually has unthinkable consequences for his daughter. And it’s a yarn about another, superficial king who falls in love with a maiden because of her beautiful singing voice, unaware that she’s actually an old crone. Each story is lovely and horrifying in equal measure, and gorgeously realized through impressive costumes, production design and visual effects. There was nothing else quite like it this year, or in most years previous, and if you keep saying you’re sick of seeing the same old movies over and over again, you owe it to yourself to seek Tale of Tales out.
TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES: OUT OF THE SHADOWS
Perhaps no other film represents the failure of nostalgia better than Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, a brash and enjoyable PG-13 adventure that gave fans of the classic cartoon series everything they always said they wanted to see in a live-action movie, and did it surprisingly well. But audiences stayed away in droves. Maybe there’s no rhyme or reason to popular culture anymore. Or maybe the last Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie just sucked so bad that no one was willing to give the sequel a shot, even though it was an improvement in just about every conceivable way.
Sure, it’s still dumb, but it’s a series called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Silliness was always part of the appeal. The action was superior, the characters acted like they were always supposed to, the visual effects were cool, and there was even a bit of heart to be found in there somewhere, as the film considered the psychological impact that living in seclusion would probably have on our subterranean heroes. All in all, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows was good, clean, matinee entertainment. It’s the sort of film we all would have loved when we were ten years old, and yet for some reason we decided to deny our ten-year-olds the opportunity to see it when it came out this summer. That’s pretty sad, isn’t it?
To hear other critics tell it, Warcraft was a disaster on the same level as Battlefield Earth. Well, there’s a reason I became a critic and it’s because I don’t always trust other people to make these decisions for me. I’ve seen Warcraft twice now and it’s a fun film, damn it. It’s an ambitious fantasy epic that strives – with, to be fair, only modest success – to convey an old-fashioned fantasy adventure with a renewed focus on the characters, making the so-called villains seem like sympathetic people and the so-called heroes seem less than idealistic. It’s a model that might have been better suited for television, or at least a longer movie: if you’re not familiar with the game, some have argued that it was too hard to keep up with who’s who, what’s what, and why each individual piece of the puzzle is important.
But get this: I’m not very familiar with the game, and I was able to follow along just fine. This isn’t exactly Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, it’s just a big story with a lot of larger characters. It’s brightly presented by a filmmaker, Duncan Jones, who was obviously eager to convey a fantasy narrative using imagery and color schemes that audiences aren’t often used to anymore (if indeed they ever were). It’s attractive to look at and if it feels similar to other fantasy movies, but there’s a reason for that. Warcraft is trying to do the same thing in a different way, not break the mould altogether. That’s hardly a crime, although it certainly does seem to diminish the film’s overall impact, even at its best.
All told, Warcraft is currently the best movie ever adapted from a video game… not that the competition was very stiff. If you heard it sucked more than anything ever sucked, I say give it a watch. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised that it’s an engaging three-star fantasy movie. It’s no Lord of the Rings, but it’s more-or-less as good as Willow.
Kevin Smith’s first canuxploitation horror comedy, Tusk, is one of the worst films of the decade. It’s a cynical and insipid exercise in wasting the audience’s time, which mocks you for getting emotionally invested while simultaneously taking itself too seriously to work as escapist entertainment. I’m on the film’s official Wikipedia page as the critic who said that Tusk “killed irony” and I stand by that comment.
So when I say that Yoga Hosers is getting a bum rap, please understand that I’m not a Kevin Smith apologist. Nor am I even saying that Yoga Hosers is great by any standard. It’s a silly film about silly people doing silly things, a hyper-energetic ode to teen power starring Harley Quinn Smith and Lily-Rose Depp as teen retail clerks who have an Anthrax cover band and who use yoga-inspired martial arts to stop Nazi meat monsters who have been amassing power in the basement of their store. That’s dumb, damn it, but at least it’s SUPPOSED to be dumb.
Say what you will, but Yoga Hosers isn’t pretending to be something that it’s not. It’s a shoddy, wacky comedy that invites you to enjoy its shoddy, wacky dumbness. If you can’t, that’s fine. The movie doesn’t even judge you for it. But there’s nothing offensive here, and nothing so bad it can’t be appreciated on an innocent or ridiculous level. It’s merely a stupid comedy. There’s a market for this, there’s nothing really wrong with it, and the movie doesn’t deserve to be singled out as “bad” just for doing exactly what it set out to do, especially when what it set out to do is so completely harmless.
Top Photo: Universal Pictures
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved, Rapid Reviews and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.