Although 2016 is a record-breaking year in ticket sales at the U.S. box office, that statistic doesn’t tell the whole story. In fact, it’s the best of times and the worst of times at the movies. Big-screen epics like “Rogue One” are striking it rich, but independent movies have never had a tougher time competing for an audience’s limited attention.
For every “Captain America: Civil War” or “Finding Dory,” dozens of small- or medium-sized films went unnoticed in 2016. These feast-or-famine returns are part of the business, but the volume of prestige titles that are falling through the cracks is growing. The new economic reality is that fledgling distributors don’t know how to sell as many tickets (or simply can’t). Blame it on TV, Netflix, the 24-hour news cycle or the short-attention span of millennials.
But whatever is going on, it’s leaving great movies on the shelf, virtually untouched or struggling to survive on VOD. Of course, not all the news is so grim. In 2016, there were a few lucky underdogs, propelled by Oscars buzz, that have been able to succeed, such as “Manchester by the Sea,” “Moonlight” and “La La Land.” But for the most part, the state of independent movies is at a crossroads. Here are 11 titles that deserved a bigger spotlight.
1. “American Honey”
U.S. box office: $663,000
When Andrea Arnold’s drama about a group of troubled adolescents debuted at Cannes, it was heralded as one of the cinematic triumphs of the year. But it somehow got lost in the busy fall season. Newcomer Sasha Lane is superb as a young girl who joins a crew of magazine-selling misfits on a road trip. And Shia LaBeouf (pictured, above), as their leader, delivers his best performance to date.
2. “Other People”
U.S. box office: $90,000
This year’s opening night Sundance dramedy about a young gay man (the excellent Jesse Plemmons) who moves home to Sacramento to take care of his ill mother (Molly Shannon) is the epitome of what Park City does best. Shannon should earn an Oscar nomination for her role in the tearjerker—it’s too bad more Academy voters haven’t seen the film. First-time director Chris Kelly (who writes for “SNL”) will no doubt move on to bigger things.
3. “Sing Street”
U.S. box office: $3.2 million
The third entry in director John Carney’s movie musical trifecta—following “Once” and the sublime “Begin Again”—is set in Ireland in the 1980s, with a group of teenage boys launching a rock band. With an irresistible soundtrack and cast, “Sing Street” would have been one of the top-grossing movies of the year for Miramax, if it had only opened in the mid-90s. Instead, released by Harvey Weinstein last spring, it got clobbered.
4. “Everybody Wants Some!!”
U.S. box office: $3.4 million
Coming off the success of “Boyhood,” it’s a mystery why director Richard Linklater didn’t draw more crowds for his spiritual sequel to “Dazed and Confused.” The comedy about a 1980s college baseball team— headlined by Blake Jenner, Wyatt Russell and Tyler Hoechlin—at least has the ingredients to rebound as a cult classic.
5. “Hello, My Name is Doris”
U.S. box office: $14.4 million
By today’s standards, Michael Showalter’s comedy about a cubicle bee (Sally Field) that develops an infatuation on a co-worker (Max Greenfield)—is a hit. But I have a lingering feeling that if “Hello, My Name is Doris” had landed in theaters during a different era, like 1999, it would have easily crossed $50 million, as a zippier “My Best Friend’s Wedding.” I’ve seen the movie three times, and love it more on each viewing: a perfectly nuanced anti-valentine, anchored by a toweringly funny performance from Field.
6. “Don’t Think Twice”
U.S. box office: $4.4 million
Mike Birbiglia carries triple duty—as writer, director and star—of this dramedy that follows a troupe of New York improve actors. Like Lena Dunham’s “Tiny Furniture,” which also debuted at SXSW back in 2010, “Don’t Think Twice” is a portrait of people caught between the illusion of success and the reality of mediocrity.
U.S. box office: $297,000
In a year with no shortage of strong female performances, Rebecca Hall’s work as a woman on the edge of a nervous breakdown slipped by. But she’s remarkable in this drama, directed by Antonio Campos, based on the life of 1970s Florida-TV reporter Christine Chubbuck. Let’s hope Hollywood continues to give her chances to stretch.
8. “Morris From America”
U.S. box office: $91, 000
The award for the best father-son pairing goes to Craig Robinson and newcomer Markees Christmas, channeling an observant 13-year-old living in Germany, in this Sundance darling. That the movie vanished so quickly from theaters was a missed opportunity for distributor A24.
U.S. box office: $145,000
During a cheerful Texas Thanksgiving dinner, a woman arrives with a secret demon. First-time filmmaker Trey Edward Shults’ “Krisha” is part family drama, part horror movie about a grandmother trying to escape her past (played by Krisha Fairchild, the director’s own grandma, with traces of Sissy Spacek). Although stellar reviews didn’t lead to box-office success, “Krisha” is likely to be studied in the years to come, as Shults has been crowned as Hollywood’s new “it” director.
10. “Certain Women”
U.S. box office: $1.1 million
Three vignettes make up the patches-of-Middle-America drama from frontierswoman director Kelly Reichardt. But the last story, with Kristen Stewart as a teacher and Lily Gladstone as her wistful student, is so refreshing in its restraint, it will leave your heart on the floor.
11. “A Monster Calls”
U.S. box office: still in limited release.
Maybe I’m cheating a little by putting this Focus Feature title on my list, since “A Monster Calls” hasn’t opened wide yet. But after a small weekend in a few theaters, I’m scared that the attack of the holiday tentpoles will drown out this enchanting allegory about loss, with Liam Neeson voicing the title character and Felicity Jones (deserving Oscar consideration) as a British boy’s mom.