23 Feb Underrated Movies 2016
Rounding out my year-end movie quartet, here’s a look at some lesser-known gems you may have missed. My shouts for most overlooked treats of 2016. All were distributed in cinemas at one point or another (okay, the Aussie entries would’ve been a bit difficult to manage) so perhaps you caught one or two – if you did, bravo.
To those that didn’t… here’s your homework list. Get to it.
FANTANA’S MOST UNDERRATED FILMS OF 2016
10. Down Under
On 11 December, 2005 a series of race riots occurred in the beach-side suburb of Cronulla, Sydney, involving upwards of 5,000 youths of white and Lebanese culture. In the first of two Australian films to make this list, writer/director Abe Forsythe takes a darkly comic look at the bursts of retaliatory violence that took place over the subsequent days, following two opposing factions of angry, over-impulsive Cronulla locals. On one side Jason (Damon Herriman) rounds up the ‘Australian Pride’ brigade, including violence-averse idiot, Shit-Stick and his down syndrome-afflicted cousin, Evan. On the other side, mature and responsible student, Hassim (Lincoln Younes), is dragged into action by rash school pal Nick.
Forsythe balances the contrast of comedy and darker overtones very well, succeeding gloriously in showcasing the inherent idiocy in racist violence by caricaturising the fools involved in this night of misplaced manifest destiny. Down Under is laced with comedic gems (the interactions between Jason and wife, Stacey, are standout) but it is the pitch black final encounter, and the sadistic morning after, that will linger when the credits roll.
Fantana Score: 7
9. Train to Busan
Directed by Sang-ho Yeon, Korea’s entry into the zombie-apocalypse cannon opts out of showing the audience the sheer scale of such an event, instead compressing focus into the restricted confines of a train carriage, destined for the titular city, that unluckily picks up a solitary infected passenger. A visual and emotional treat, from its chaotic beginnings (the visual of a rabid throng filling the passenger car to the point of bursting is overwhelming!) to the latter, much subtler, moments of taut, taut tension (the overhead compartment crawl is as tense as it gets). But it’s in the character relationships where Busan really succeeds, creating several empathetic connections we will be sorry to see torn in two as the cursed vehicle hurtles toward its destination.
For the completists out there I would also recommend primer prequel, Seoul Station, also directed by Sang-ho. Although not as easily gripping, this anime contrasts the high octane thrills and tight focus of Busan with silent, simmering malice in a sprawling city to high effect and boasts a great third act.
Fantana Score: 7
As with any effective undercover agent thriller, one would expect the tension to ramp up with every other beat and Imperium is certainly aware of this. Daniel Radcliffe impresses (something I never thought I’d hear myself say until 2013’s Kill Your Darlings) as eager FBI agent, Nate Foster, who is implanted into a white supremacist group suspected of stealing radioactive isotope material with malicious intent (well it wasn’t going to be for good, was it?).
Foster uses his intellect to propel himself through the various echelons of group hierarchy, raising suspicion with each step upward but keeping a foothold by staying on the right side of his next friend up the ladder. This is all about the tension and the genuine sense of danger that builds as the protagonist’s evolving lies – and therefore his grip – begin to unravel. And the result is very satisfying.
Fantana Score: 7
7. The Magnificent Seven
Since delivering Training Day in 2001, Antoine Fuqua has been a bit all over the place in terms of the standard of output, that said he has brought us a couple of dark horses (see: Brooklyn’s Finest and the Equalizer) and Magnificent 7 can be firmly placed in the same basket. Admittedly I am a sucker for a western and this plays on all the tropes of the genre that win me over; the rag tag band of anti-heroes; the O.K. Corral odds; the honour amongst thieves. It’s all good. Where Fuqua takes it one step further is in his eye for the impactful, his unflinching nerve when it comes to viscera, his courage to waive the right to protect his stars – none of these fellows, you will come to feel, is safe.
Of all the movies to fit the ‘blockbuster’ mould this past year, Magnificent Seven was undoubtedly the most understated. Perhaps it benefitted from this…
Fantana Score: (a magnificent…) 7 (sorry!)
6. The Monster
The first of a duo of horror movies on this list that deals with very real issues. In this case the horror is counterweighted by the human drama of a slowly deteriorating relationship between a young mother, Kathy (Zoe Kazan), an alcoholic, and her daughter, Lizzy (Ella Ballentine), who has had to grow up in a very quick period of time as a result of her mother’s problems. On their way to Lizzy’s father, their car strikes something on a forested road and subsequently breaks down.
So begins the tensest horror sequence released throughout 2016. The pressure as Kathy and Lizzy watch numerous horrors unfold, both upon each other and those who cross their path, is absolutely palpable, serving up some genuinely terrifying scares. They don’t always work, but where the horror occasionally falters (which, seriously, is not often), the human strains – told effectively through intermittent flashbacks as well as present day verbal bile – remind us of the very real allegories the titular beast is a reflection of. Great on multiple levels.
Fantana Score: 7.5
Admittedly one of a handful of trailers I was most excited for at the tail end of 2015, looking into the year ahead, Morgan may have not delivered to the scale of my overinflated weight of expectation, however, it should not be ignored for what it does accomplish. Specifically a slow-burning sci-fi-lite thriller that is well-written, well-cast, well-acted and well-directed. Director Luke Scott shows promise with some well-crafted, well-framed visuals that echo his obvious influences (his dad is Ridley).
Shades of Carpenter’s the Thing and (to a lesser extent) Akira shine through to compliment the simmering sense of dread, and the cast (Anya Taylor-Joy, Boyd Holbrook, Kate Mara, Chris Sullivan) lend enough gravitas to elevate it to an extra level. Although the ‘twist’ is telegraphable from two acts away, in the end it isn’t that impactful to the plot to merit much disappointment and it is best to forget there is such a thing and watch this as an entertaining, albeit linear, tale.
Fantana Score: 7.5
4. Before I Wake
Thomas Jane (The Mist) and Kate Bosworth (SS-GB) adopt narcoleptic orphan Jacob Tremblay (Room) and discover his dreams manifest physically while he sleeps. At first this seems magical and enlightening, however the couple soon learn the same goes for Jacob’s nightmares… and recently he’s been having a recurring one involving a creepy fellow named the Kanker Man…
If you’re squeamish this may be a struggle (there’s a boogeyman… he’s scary), but if you have the nerve, it’s worth enduring the frights to enjoy the very real underlying themes. To give away what sets it apart, what makes it great, would be to give away the main plot reveal, so on that I will remain schtum, but that aside this is a great – and a very different – exploration of loss and grief and coping with both.
Fantana Score: 7.5
Video Credit: Movieclips Trailers
3. Blood Father
When his estranged, alcoholic/user daughter, Lydia (Erin Moriarty), gets in touch, parolee John (Mel Gibson) learns she is on the run after shooting gangster boyfriend (Diego Lunah) and becomes embroiled in a cartel revenge mission, promptly going on the run and relying on old instincts and contacts to fend of the pursuing sicario.
This is hardboiled dirt and grit at its finest. Self-contained desert noir with a father-daughter relationship at its core. The desperation is very apparent, the supporting cast well-rounded, and the leads (who are by no means perfect) as sympathetic as is needed to ensure we come round to their side and root for them as they hurtle towards a bloody final showdown. Most will look to Hell or High Water for their 2016 western fix, but this is a very competent and watchable alternative.
Fantana Score: 7.5
2. The Handmaiden
An intricately–woven tale of love, deception, greed and revenge, set in Japanese-occupied Korea and delivered in three parts. Sook-Hee is employed to pose as handmaiden to Japanese heiress, Hideko, but secretly she is in place to aid a plot to defraud her.
Coming from Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, Lady Vengeance, Snowpiercer), it’s a given the final product would be both dark and beautiful. It’s difficult to talk on the Handmaiden beyond the basic premise without saying too much, with each new act delivering a twist to debunk the plot of that which came before it. The plot plays out like a colonial the Departed, with a heavy peppering of romance. Supremely watchable and those that give it their full attention will be well rewarded.
Fantana Score: 8
Unlikely to be heard of on this side of the globe, Goldstone comes out of Australia to make a real statement that will have most film buffs rethinking what the country is capable of in the medium. Written, directed, produced, shot, edited and composed by Indigenous Australian film-maker, Ivan Sen, this outback noir chronicles the investigation of a missing Chinese girl, carried out by Aaron Pedersen’s questionable detective, a stranger to the titular town, which is equally as flawed.
A greater political mind might find increased enjoyment dissecting the obvious allegories and parallels to the greater Australian political landscape Sen touches upon, but that aside this is an opulent master class in story-telling. The cinematography is gorgeous, the outback a stunning backdrop, the story steeped in neo-noir and western tropes and packed with a perpetual sense of foreboding that lingers long after the bittersweet dust has settled. The pacing timed to perfection, with rich characters that are easy to support or despise as appropriate. Wherever you are in the world: find it, see it.
Fantana Score: 8
Honourable mentions: Seoul Station, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, Goat, Hush, Remainder, the Autopsy of Jane Doe, Keeping Up With the Joneses.
Please let me know in the comments if you caught any of these and what you thought. Always up for a friendly debate! Bye for now.