8 Under-the-Radar Films You Should See This Awards Season

By  · Published on November 30th, 2016

For Your Consideration

Don’t make your year-end lists before checking these titles out.

Are you preparing to make a year-end list of top 2016 films? Do you vote in various critic circles and oil the awards-season machine? Or do you simply want to catch up with some of the outstanding gems of the year (that aren’t titled Manchester by the Sea or Moonlight) that might just fall through the cracks of December noise? Here is where you can start.

Like all lists, the below is far from definitive, as I am still hurriedly working on addressing my own year-end blind spots. But I hope it will at least give you a jolt of drive to broaden your base a little. I purposefully avoided repeating any films we’ve already covered in our mid-year feature, in which we capsuled the best films we had seen till June. It goes without saying that those still stand.

Without further ado…

Krisha (Trey Edward Schults)

If you feel like you have been hearing about writer-director Trey Edward Schults’ feature debut Krisha, that’s because you probably have been. This increasingly tense and excruciatingly realistic film (I mean this as high compliment) first premiered at SXSW in March 2015, and has been circulating the festival and awards circles ever since. Winner of the John Cassavetes Award at Independent Spirits last year and this year’s Bingham Ray Breakthrough Director Award at Gothams, Krisha was finally released in March 2016 and remains to be under-seen to this date. On paper, it might look like a traditional and predictable “ex-addict screws it up at family reunion” story, but Schults’ script is thankfully a lot richer and more nuanced in its handling of the addiction disease than what we came to expect from a tale of this sort. The backdrop is Thanksgiving and the ex-addict in question is Krisha, whose cooking of the turkey (and eventual flop) offers a monumentally suspenseful phase in the film. Plus, its performances are top-notch (especially by Krisha Fairchild, Schults’ real-life aunt) and its script deepens and renews itself at every turn.

The Childhood of a Leader (Brady Corbet)

Brady Corbet is a familiar face through his acting work in the films of acclaimed directors like Olivier Assayas, Mia Hansen-Løve and Michael Haneke. Lucky for us that he chose to try his hand behind the camera with this mind-mending, triumphant feature debut. The Childhood of a Leader is an unsettling, instantly-gripping (and uncannily timely) psychodrama set in the aftermath of World War I, that follows a manipulative pre-teen (Tom Sweet in the role of Prescott) during the rise of fascism in Europe. Son of an American diplomat living in France and bereft of feelings of empathy in his mostly loveless day-to-day, Prescott signals that he might just grow up to be a Hitler-esque leader, who would terrorize the world one day. Lol Crawley’s dark and eerie cinematography is simply breathtaking and Scott Walker’s unnerving score adds the film a whole other dimension of discomfort. Corbet, who won the “Best Director” and “Best Debut Film” prizes at the “72nd Venice International Film Festival – Horizons Section”, is one of the most exciting creative voices to keep an eye on.

Our Little Sister (Hirokazu Kore-eda)

Japanese filmmaker Kore-eda (Like Father, Like Son, Still Walking) delivers a feather-light, disarmingly sweet and deceptively small family drama with Our Little Sister. The film follows three sisters that share a life together in their grandmother’s old home. Their father has been long gone and their mother seems to barely make an appearance. One day, they travel for their father’s funeral, discover the existence of a young half-sister and invite her to live with them. Kore-eda trails the lives of these women with an observant eye, while finding poetic beauty in even the most mundane tasks and banal chatter they engage in. The score, composed by Yoko Kanno, consistently keeps the tone of the film on a heartwarming and at times, humorous sphere, unapologetically accentuating feelings of harmony, joy and familial love that might be deemed a little old-fashioned these days. But Our Little Sister has not one hollow bone in its construct. It wears its sweet hopefulness on its sleeve with pride.

The Love Witch (Anna Biller)

There is multi-talented. And then there is Anna Biller, who is the writer, director, costume designer, editor, and production designer of her spectacular, feminist comedy/horror/satire The Love Witch. Thoroughly a product of this auteur’s vision on every corner, The Love Witch follows Elaine (Samantha Robinson), a beautiful brunette in heavy, stunningly applied make-up and various show-stopping retro outfits. She is the witch in question in this colorful world of mind-blowing, extremely detailed interiors, that playfully pull from various eras (from Victorian to 60s/70s). Starting a new life in California on the heels of a failed romance (after all, who can survive her deadly sexual spells), Elaine leads us into this film’s vivid technicolor world, occupied by overly poised people that deliver their lines in exaggerated cheeriness to unsettling effect. Elaine’s new adventure would also be filled with the battle of sexes, with her sexual empowerment guiding her while she chews up and spits out male entitlement at every turn. Biller’s The Love Witch is the timeless feminist movie we all have been waiting for.

The Edge of Seventeen (Kelly Freemon Craig)

This delightful, yet unmistakably mature film tells the story of a misfit teen named Nadine, astutely played by the inimitable Hailee Steinfeld. Nadine’s world turns upside down when her childhood best friend starts dating her seemingly perfect older brother, whom she does not get along with. The most surprising aspect of The Edge of Seventeen is how well realized its entire universe is. All of its characters –from the troubled teen, struggling single mom, jock brother and idiosyncratic teacher –resemble people we have seen a million times in other teen flicks, but Craig smartly sidesteps all clichés and develops all her characters, main and side, with care and an unprecedented amount of detail. This film makes you realize how rare it is to have a story where each individual is their own person, not wastefully there to solely build another character up. Kelly Freemon Craig’s directorial debut, which includes a memorable Woody Harrelson and Kyra Sedgewick, is still in theaters and from the looks of it, can really use some Box Office love. Run. Don’t walk.

The Eyes of My Mother (Nicolas Pesce)

The amount of despair and horror Pesce’s stunning directorial debut packs within its unusually lean running time far exceeds the possibilities of its short 76 minutes. This Borderline-produced (of Martha Marcy May Marlene and James White), genre-defying horror/thriller first met the audiences at Sundance Film Festival last January and is finally opening on limited release on Friday, December 2. Set in an undefined time in an idyllic and remote Portuguese farm, The Eyes of My Mother traces the solitary life of a young woman, whose tragic childhood (which involves the brutal murder of his ex-surgeon mother) haunts and defines her future in unimaginable ways. This is a brutal film and it most-definitely won’t be for everyone. But for curious genre fans, its style, monochromatic atmosphere (the film is shot on black and white) and gorgeous soundtrack contain many rewards.

Tower (Keith Maitland)

This immensely original, heart-rending documentary smartly blends animation with live action in telling the story of the first mass shooting in the US. Reenacting the University of Texas shooting of 1966 beat by beat and slowly leading the way to introducing some of the real-life heroes and victims that were marked by the horrors of the day, Maitland finds new urgency in an unthinkable, 50-year-old tragedy which left 14 dead and 32 wounded in its chilling aftermath. With Tower, which unfolds like a thriller in lurid rotoscopic animation, Maitland admittedly treads risky territory that might easily succumb to exploitation. But he smartly overcomes this, by keeping a tight focus on the human dimension of the story and letting the story speak for itself in the wildly-divided gun debate that sadly won’t be resolved anytime soon. During my SXSW interview with him, Maitland noted that Tower is not necessarily a political advocacy film. Witnessing how an unspeakable tragedy brings out the best in people powerfully brings his artistic approach to his film into sharp focus.

Cameraperson (Kirsten Johnson)

Is renowned cinematographer Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson a documentary? Or is it a brand-new form of storytelling? To sum it up briefly, Cameraperson (which I wrote about extensively before) is made up of seemingly random bits of footage, which Johnson captured throughout her career while working on films like Fahrenheit 9/11, Darfur Now, Throw Down Your Heart, Citizenfour, The Invisible War and Women, War and Peace as a cinematographer. These are coupled with Johnson’s own personal footage of her family life. At first, there doesn’t seem to be all the much that connect these snippets of stories she chooses to include in her film. But then slowly, Cameraperson starts forming an unusual narrative that coherently adds up to the human experience in broadest terms. If movies are empathy machines like the great Roger Ebert once said, look no further than Johnson’s Cameraperson to understand what inherently unites human beings around the globe, regardless of their exact location and geography (the film spans across Bosnia, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Sudan and Egypt, among other places). This is a beautifully made film with noteworthy editing (in fact, it is one of this year’s finest editing jobs) that very much deserves to be in all year-end conversations.

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Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.