2016 won't be remembered as a particularly stellar year when it comes to blockbusters, but there were plenty of excellent films lurking just beneath the surface. Here are 20 indie curiosities, genre offerings and provoking documentaries that got critics raving.
"Swiss Army Man" Get past the gross-out humor and the weirdness of seeing Daniel Radcliffe playing a flatulent corpse, and you will find a touching tale about enjoying the simple things in life and finding fulfillment in yourself rather than relying on others. This is also the most physical acting you will see this year, as Paul Dano carries Radcliffe, manipulates him like a puppet, and even puts his fingers in his mouth.
"The Witch" Though this was arguably the most successful horror movie of the year, it still deserves even more fame than its getting. The slow build of fear and dread, historically accurate mannerisms and dialect, and chilling moments of occult are enough to make it a classic. But its villain, the murderous goat Black Philip, should stand alongside Jason and Michael Myers in the pantheon of mysterious horror movie killers.
"Everybody Wants Some!!" Though a story of buff, party-loving, mostly white college baseball bros will put off many in the age of #OscarsSoWhite, Richard Linklater brings out the fun and gentle humanity in his characters and shows how important "shooting the s---" can be when it comes to empathy and personal growth.
"Kubo and the Two Strings" Shame on you all for not giving Laika your money. "Kubo" will easily go down as one of the all-time great stop-motion masterpieces, weaving a simple Hero's Journey tale into a world with gorgeous environments and characters whose lovability makes the twist surrounding them incredibly poignant. This is the only animated film that has a shot at upsetting "Zootopia" at the Oscars.
"April and the Extraordinary World" Technically, this French steampunk animated treat was released in 2015, but it didn't get a U.S. release until this year. Unfortunately, it came out at the same time everyone was in a furor over "Batman v Superman." Now's the time to enjoy this great all-ages sci-fi tale complete with walking houses, talking cats and crocodiles, and two Eiffel Towers.
"Hunt for the Wilderpeople" If you're a Marvel fan, you should definitely watch this film from Taika Waititi, the man tasked with directing "Thor: Ragnarok." It features a pudgy juvenile delinquent on the lam with his crusty foster father and his pet dog Tupac in the most awkward, yet sharply funny, spin on father-son bonding ever.
"Keanu" If you have ever seen an episode of "Key & Peele," you know how brilliant these two are together. Their cinematic debut is no different, as they play a pair of goofy cousins who dive into the criminal underworld in an attempt to get back their abducted kitten, Keanu.
"Miss Hokusai" You may not have heard of Katsushika Hokusai, but you've seen his art. Now the ukiyo-e artist behind "The Great Wave" has an anime biopic about his life as well as that of his equally successful daughter, Katsushika Ōi
"Your Name" A small town girl's life changes dramatically when she starts randomly swapping bodies with a boy from Tokyo. Sounds like anime-style "Freaky Friday," but director Makoto Shinkai quickly transforms the premise into a poignant coming-of-age tale with a supernatural backdrop.
"Weiner" This is a documentary to watch through your fingers. What started as a doc about Anthony Weiner's road to redemption while running for NYC mayor becomes a chronicle of his slow destruction after he gets embroiled in yet another sex scandal. It's not only a brutal look at Weiner's folly, but also at a society hungry for salacious news stories and a press more than willing to provide it.
"13th" A.K.A. "Ava DuVernay's Revenge." The "Selma" director has followed up the film that triggered #OscarsSoWhite with a thorough exploration of how the prison industrial complex has become the new tool of black disempowerment. It's a manifesto for the Black Lives Matter movement, and will likely contend with "O.J.: Made In America" at the Oscars.
"Pete's Dragon" 2016 has been a wildly successful year for Disney, but two of their films sadly slipped through the cracks despite critical praise. The first is this remake of the cheesy live-action/animation hybrid from Disney's dark era, which transforms the dopey musical into a tear-inducing, heartfelt ode to the wonder of childhood, which when you get down to it is what Disney does best.
"Queen of Katwe" Second in our underrated Disney double feature is Mira Nair's rags-to-riches biopic about Ugandan chess wunderkind Phiona Mutesi. Though much of it follows the traditional biopic tropes, it is brought to life by a stellar cast who keep the characters from becoming inspirational story archetypes.
"The Handmaiden" Boy, do the Koreans know how to make a thriller. From "Oldboy" director Park Chan-wook comes a murderous battle of wits between four very messed up people for control of an immense fortune. The schemes stack one on top of another as alliances between the four are made and broken, and it's an absolute thrill ride watching and waiting to see who makes it out in the end.
"Sing Street" Taking a page from the 80s rock and inner-city Dublin of his youth, director John Carney has created an endlessly charming tale of a boy named Conor who yearns to escape his stifling life by starting a band. "Sing Street" hits all the requirements of a coming-of-age delight, from awkward attempts at being cool to the slow development of confidence and passion in your dreams.
"The Nice Guys" Combined with "Drive" and "La La Land," this film provides a great demonstration of Ryan Gosling's range. "The Nice Guys" is a lighter, groovier take on "Chinatown" that got buried under the hype of "Captain America: Civil War"… something that the cast themselves lampooned in a hilarious promo for the film.
"Ouija: Origin of Evil" A prequel for a dopey occult horror movie that actually works? Believe it. Like "The Witch," "Origin of Evil" puts in the hard work of making us actually care about the protagonists, something that a lot of forgettable horror flicks fail to do for their kill fodder characters. The scares don't come until nearly halfway in, but when they come, they are a brilliant payoff.
"The Lobster" A man is sent to a hotel where he has 45 days to fall in love with someone, or he will be turned into the animal of his choice -- in Colin Farrell's case, a lobster. If that doesn't get you intrigued by this black comedy, check your pulse.
"Midnight Special" One of the most original films of the summer and a sci-fi allegory about the uncertainties of parenthood. Michael Shannon plays the father of a son with otherworldly powers who seeks to protect him from the clutches of the government. Director Jeff Nichols steers his characters through alternating moments of tension and peace, culminating in a climax that can only be described as Spielbergian beauty.
"In a Valley of Violence" Ethan Hawke, John Ransone and John Travolta get wrapped up in a darkly funny shoot 'em up that consumes a small town in the Old West. Bonus points to Travolta for his best performance in decades as the town's sheriff who futilely tries to stop the bloodshed.