Looking for a something a little different? Here's a few suggestions...
2016 was a particularly miserable year for Hollywood cinema, with barely a single blockbuster able to shake off the shackles of corporate interference.
The odd gem like Kubo and the Two Strings and Arrival offered some relief, but big budget cinema had a particularly weak 12 months. Thankfully, as ever, there was plenty of interesting things happening in the independent and world cinema space. Even Irish cinema had a pretty good year, with the likes of Sing Street & A Date for Mad Mary proving to be critical and commercial hits.
Below we take a look at 12 films you might have missed this year. We've tried to include a diverse bunch, from arthouse oddities to much more accessible efforts. Not every film here will be for everybody - but if you're looking for something a bit different, hopefully you'll find something of interest. All these films received Irish cinema releases in 2016 - most are now available elsewhere, and the rest should be out for home viewing in the first couple of months of 2017.
Oh, Charlie Kaufman, how we missed you. 2008's Synecdoche, New York seemed like the ultimate film from the screenwriter turned director - a film about 'life, the universe and everything' that left you wondering just where he could go from there. The answer? A small-scale, stop-motion animated feature (based on his own play). Sort of a love story but defying easy categorisation, the film follows Michael (David Thewlis) who has become so numb he can't even differentiate the people around him. That's until he meets Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) at a hotel, and the pair instantly hit it off.
This tale is told with all the wit and quirkiness you would expect from Kaufman, and goes in directions few viewers will expect. Animation proves the ideal way to tell the story too - the generic puppets and a voice actor (Tom Noonan) playing every other character being an extremely clever way to capture Michael's internal turmoil. It's now on Netflix, so well worth diving into this characteristically strange and beautiful film from perhaps the great American screenwriter of a generation. (Available on Netflix, VOD and DVD)
Don't let the name fool you - Portuguese director Miguel Gomes' trilogy is only very loosely influenced by the classic One Thousand and One Nights stories. What it is instead is one of the great pieces of post-recession cinema, a wild exploration of the consequences of austerity. Each of the three films are themselves broken into a series of loosely connected vignettes, constantly fluctuating in terms of focus and tone. The result is a trilogy that can sometimes seem uneven, but more often than not is a brave, ambitious and engrossing world to spend a half dozen hours with. It's a bit of a commitment, but the payoffs are well worth it. (Available on VOD and DVD)
Voted Sight & Sound's best film of 2015, the rest of us had to wait until January 2016 to see it - but even then it received an incredibly limited release. Thankfully, it's now easily available for everyone to watch. Hou Hsiao-Hsien's is one of the most gorgeous films to be released in recent years, perhaps ever. It's ostensibly an action film, but its calm, patient tone interrupted by short bouts of balletic fighting make it seem like it has dropped in from an alternate cinematic dimension (and what a dimension!). Few films have earned the 'every frame a painting' description quite like this one, and some shots are so perfect it's almost miraculous. Even if the oddly convoluted story loses you, just allow yourself to sink into the film's uniquely meditative atmosphere and intoxicating images. (Available on VOD and DVD)
Cemetery of Splendour
Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul has an almost peerless ability to create films that blur the lines between dreams and reality, past and present. Cemetery of Splendour is no different - the whole thing wrapped in an engrossing dream logic that separates it from the pack. The film's political undertones will likely be lost on those unfamiliar with the current situation in Thailand, but the parade of surreal imagery and ghostly encounters are more than enough to bewitch on their own terms. (Available on VOD and DVD)
Edge of Seventeen
This teen comedy-drama got a decent enough release in late November / early December, but sadly it appeared to get lost in the crowd. Which is a shame: more than any of the other films on the list, this is the sort of thing that would likely play well with a wider audience. It can't quite escape the shackles of being an American coming-of-age film, but writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig manages to dive quite a bit deeper to create a more honest and believable piece of work. It mercifully avoids most of the excessive 'tweeness' seen in the likes of Juno - when you cringe here, it seems like it's actually on purpose. Also great to see Hailee Steinfeld finally given material that allows her to live up to the promise she showed in True Grit. (Will be released on VOD and DVD early next year)
One More Time With Feeling
It's hard to do justice in words to the emotional rawness of Andrew Dominik’s documentary about Nick Cave. The film follows Cave during the recording of his most recent album Skeleton Tree. At the same time, the musician and his wife Susie were attempting to come to terms with the death of their teenage son Arthur. The resulting film is a devastating document of trying to come to terms with tragedy, both parents struggling to articulate their emotions (which comes out in interviews and through the extraordinary music on Nick’s album). It is also a truly great music documentary, with Dominik using constantly moving 3D cameras and gorgeous black & white cinematography to memorably capture live studio performances of the songs.
The strangely limited cinema release of the film made it seem like a mere promo for the album. One More Time With Feeling is so much more than that. (Will be released on VOD and DVD in March 2017)
There's nothing better than an established director surprising you all over again. That's the case with Jim Jarmusch's wonderful Paterson, perhaps the American veteran's finest work in years (and he's done some great work recently). It follows the daily routine of a bus driver (an excellent Adam Driver) over the course of a week. He writes poems, spends time with his partner (Golshifteh Farahani), pops into his local for a drink. It sounds dull, but is broken up with small but illuminating asides & encounters. Mostly, it's a lovely celebration and exploration of normality - something that is all too rare in cinema. (Will be released on VOD and DVD in March 2017)
Son of Saul
Prepare yourself: this is harrowing stuff. Holocaust films are by their very nature difficult to watch, but László Nemes' decision to follow Saul's (Géza Röhrig) increasingly desperate journey through Auschwitz entirely in close-up makes this a particularly emotionally draining film. (Available on VOD and DVD)
Train to Busan
This Korean zombie movie breaks little new ground. It's not quite as smart as other recent genre films from Korean directors - and it's not even the best train-based one (that'd be Snowpiercer, still cruelly denied an official Irish release). And yet it still shows Hollywood how its done, easily leaving far better-resourced efforts like World War Z in its dust. The setpieces are terrific - the initial outbreak is brilliantly handled, and a mid-film stop at an abandoned station is a tense thrill-ride. The pace is relentless, the characters cartoonish but endearing, and every bloody action scene punctuated with plenty of humour. It's the sort of straightforward, unapologetic and confident genre film we just don't get out of American very often anymore. (Will be released on VOD and DVD in February 2017)
Under the Shadow
Horror has had a good few years, and this year saw some breakthrough hits like The Witch. But it was Under the Shadow that deserves a little more attention. It shows how putting some familiar elements in a new context - in this case 1980s Iran - can give them new life. This is a legitimately creepy piece of work that's also a great historical drama and a probing exploration of parenthood. It is a genuine gem, and a promising debut from Babak Anvari. (Out now on VOD, will be released on DVD in January 2017)
Released a few months before the US election, the documentary following Anthony Weiner’s disastrous run for New York mayor was already essential viewing. After the election it’s an invaluable historical document: the extraordinary FBI investigation into emails on a computer belonging to Weiner and his now estranged wife (and close Hillary Clinton aide) Huma Abedin plunging the Clinton campaign into chaos days before polling day. Even when nothing was found, for Clinton it was perhaps a deadly blow that may have even turned the tide of the election.
The documentary is an invaluable insight into the man who provoked so many headlines. At times it borders on hilarious farce, and at others offers the sort of bizarre twists and turns you couldn’t write. Weiner himself is a fascinating subject for a documentary - a charismatic but deeply flawed politician whose borderline addiction to sexting sees him end up in one scandal after another. His mayoral campaign gradually turns into a true slow motion car crash, with Abedin - unable to hide her growing frustration, anger and disbelief - watching on as her husband keeps a brave face (publicly, at least). One of the great political documentaries, and utterly engrossing. (Available on VOD and DVD)
Beyond Studio Ghibli, it has become increasingly hard for anime films to 'breakthrough' in the West. Which makes Your Name's theatrical success in the UK & Ireland so heartening. Already a box office smash hit in Japan, it's not hard to see how Makoto Shinkai's has translated so well - it's a big-hearted, funny, exciting and romantic film. It isn't the best anime film of recent years, and a few of its more 'out there' plot twists ask a lot of viewers. But it's hard not to be won over by its enthusiasm, charm and stunning animation. (Will be released on VOD and DVD in 2017)