By now, it’s been established that 2016 was another great year for film. It’s not just for the top shelf, universally loved instant classics, but also for the deep and diverse selections below La La Land, Moonlight, Manchester by the Sea, etc. As is always the case, there have been many great films released this year that, for one reason or another, haven’t made it onto most top 10 lists or are getting award buzz. Not surprisingly, many of these overlooked gems are already available to stream on the usual platforms.
But before we get our formal streaming recommendations to help you hold on or catch up to 2016, there are plenty of the firmly established best of the year that are available, too. Amazon Prime has a particularly good selection with The Witch, The Lobster, Green Room, Embrace of the Serpent, and more, all available. Over at Netflix, you can see mainstream hits Zootopia, The Jungle Book, and Captain America: Civil War, as well as the diametrically opposed tones of 13th and Sing Street.
If that isn’t enough, runners up for even more underseen, undervalued, or underrated picks available on streaming include Blue Jay, The Innocents, Lo and Behold, Into the Inferno, Oasis: Supersonic, Morris from America, Love & Friendship, Under the Sun, Krisha, Microbe and Gasoline, and Louder Than Bombs. And if you are a subscriber to Fandor, they have even deeper cuts from the year available, most notably Chantal Akerman’s intimate portrait of her mother, No Home Movie, as well as Homo Sapiens, Hong Sang-soo’s Right Now, Wrong Then, and The Academy of Muses. I could go on and on and on.
Eye in the Sky [Gavin Hood]
Available on Amazon Prime
It isn’t surprising that the heady Eye in the Sky didn’t make many [if any] best of the year lists, but its unusual approach to narrative storytelling shouldn’t be ignored. The film is basically an extended thought exercise—a British army colonel [Helen Mirren], an American drone pilot [Aaron Paul], and a general [Alan Rickman, in one of his final performances] must wade through the moral quandaries and political red tape to decide if a drone strike with minimal collateral damage is feasible. It can’t help to get preachy at times, but it is exceptionally thoughtful in an age where it is not always easy to have faith in the real-world military drone decisions. The core cast is all great, especially considering the actors spend the entire film in separate war rooms, only communicating with each other via phone or video conference. After Gavin Hood made a big splash with his international breakout Tsotsi in 2005, he hasn’t had much success [with X-Men Origins: Wolverine being a particularly noteworthy failure]. Eye in the Sky shows that he still has the ability to direct a competent and thoughtful film. The fact that it is so compelling despite it being more of a ethical exam than a film is even more of an achievement.
Gleason [Clay Tweel]
Available on Amazon Prime
Manchester by the Sea may be the preferred weepy of 2016, but Clay Tweel’s documentary might be the year’s most effective tearjerker. Even if you are a hardcore fan of the NFL, you probably don’t know Steve Gleason, who was a part-time player for the New Orleans Saints who became a local legend because of one particular highlight and its connection to the city’s struggle post Hurricane Katrina. Gleason isn’t a traditional sports documentary, though, instead an incredibly personal documentary profiling its subject’s fight with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis—more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Much of the film is in a homemade style, with Gleason’s personal video diaries serving as the impetus of the film—Gleason seems to have been filming himself before Tweel came on board, but the footage is essential to his film. Allowing for an even deeper look into Gleason’s life, the film also chronicles his wife’s first pregnancy, a situation that creates even more drama and introspective questions on how fatherhood affects the disease and vice versa. An incredibly compelling look into life, sickness, fame, and family, Gleason is one of the best and most emotionally rich profile documentaries in quite some time.
Homeland (Iraq Year Zero) [Abbas Fahdel]
Available on Netflix
Another of 2016’s best underseen documentaries, Homeland (Iraq Year Zero) is an epic look at the title country, separated before and after U.S. occupation. Though it focuses mostly on the extended family of director Abbas Fahdel, it is an incredibly sweeping look at the country and its people in this erratic time. It is one of the clearest looks at Iraq’s political turmoil and the devastating effects of American intervention. Homeland, despite being an angry film, is complex in its political examination—it clearly disagrees with the way the U.S. invaded the country, but it lets the people speak for themselves, including a lot of criticism of the political regimes prior to the death of Saddam Hussein and others in power. One of the most compelling sequences of the film is when the young nephew of filmmaker Fahdel [I believe he is only 11 or 12 years old] argues with a shopkeeper about the terror Hussein has perpetrated on his family. Breaking the film into two sections [and I should note that Homeland is an incredibly long film at nearly 6 hours] is an interesting device. We are able to see the profiled prepare for the oncoming occupation, hear their opinions on what they think or hope will happen, and then revisit them to see how they were truly impacted. For an issue that could use a very statistical, talking-head based approach, Homeland (Iraq Year Zero) is thankfully a much more organic and artistic depiction than we’d typically see.
Other People [Chris Kelly]
Available on Netflix
After those heavy picks, why not lighten the mood with a comedy-drama about a young man dealing with his mother’s cancer diagnosis? Joking aside, Chris Kelly’s Other People is one of the most enjoyable dramadies of the year. Though the film may be anchored by a breakout lead performance from Friday Night Lights and Fargo’s Jesse Plemons, this is a somewhat surprising spotlight on former SNL standout Molly Shannon. In the film, Plemons plays a wannabe screenwriter living in New York who returns home to Sacramento to spend time with his family, and to be honest, because he doesn’t have many good career prospects going. Not only is it a realistic and sometimes devastating look at the effects of cancer on a family, it is one of the most insightful LGBT films in recent years. And it is legitimately funny, too! This may be Kelly’s debut film, but he has a long list of writing credits for television programs including Saturday Night Live, Broad City and comedy writer for The Onion and the Upright Citizens Brigade. Other People feels like the kind of personal memoir film that can be difficult to duplicate for young filmmakers, but with that experience and these results, I’m expecting a lot of great work from Kelly in the future.
The Wailing [Na Hong-jin]
Available on Netflix
Part detective tale, part horror film, The Wailing is one of the strangest additions to 2016’s strong year in horror. South Korea has long become a staple for exciting genre flicks, known for their extreme violence and sadistic narratives. The Wailing fits the bill deliciously. The film takes place in a small village where a deranged sickness begins spreading, causing citizens to go on murderous rampages before quickly [and disgustingly] dying. A small time police detective begins investigating an old Japanese man who moved into town and may be responsible for the outbreak in some, perhaps demonic, way. Na Hong-jin, who is previously known for slick crime drama The Chaser, pushes the envelope of the police procedural even further here—the police drama/horror blend may not be seamless, but it is a much better example when compared to recent attempts like Deliver Us from Evil. At nearly 2 and a half hours, The Wailing is an imposing and exhausting film, but the crazy entertaining mystery on top of the best trappings of the South Korean extreme genre make it more than worth a watch for those willing to take a strange adventure.