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The year ahead

16 films to see in 2016

Silence is the latest Martin Scorsese film.

Silence is the latest Martin Scorsese film.

We all know the year ahead will feature the deafening sirens of sequels and superheroes – but there's cinematic life outside the franchise machine. Barry Hertz presents 2016's most intriguing, under-the-radar films

Meet the new box office, same as the old: 2016 will be filled with superheroes (often duelling, as in Captain America: Civil War and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice), sequels (Independence Day: Resurgence, a new Jason Bourne flick) and aspiring franchise starters (Warcraft, The Jungle Book). But it's also a year of exciting and daring cinema, if you know where to look. Here are 16 of 2016's most intriguing, under-the-radar films (all release dates subject to change):

Wiener-Dog

This is one of the more curious films of the year. Although its official plot synopsis makes it seem like a family-friendly diversion – "This film tells several stories featuring people who find their life inspired or changed by one particular dachshund" – the film is written and directed by Todd Solondz, one of cinema's most provocative artists (Happiness, Storytelling). Also, "Wiener-Dog" was the nickname of the bullied preteen protagonist of Solondz's breakthrough, Welcome to the Dollhouse, and early production rumours hinted that Greta Gerwig would play the same character, all grown up. Just a hunch: Don't take your kids to this one. (Premieres Jan. 22 at the Sundance Film Festival; theatrical release date not yet available)

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Certain Women

Writer-director Kelly Reichardt is one of the most important filmmakers working today, even if her films aren't seen on nearly as wide a platform as they ought to be. This might change with her latest drama, Certain Women, if only thanks to the appearance of Kristen Stewart, who can count on her Twilight devotees to follow her from project to project. Twihards aside, Reichardt's latest sounds like a typical Sundance-y indie – three women's lives intersect in small-town America – but the director will surely imbue it with her trademark sense of political ferocity and emotional dexterity. (Premieres Jan. 24 at the Sundance Film Festival; theatrical release date not available)


Jane Got a Gun

Let's just be happy this movie is getting released, period. After shuffling through a series of directors (Lynne Ramsay was the original helmer, not Gavin O'Connor), co-stars (Michael Fassbender, Jude Law and Bradley Cooper were all at various times slated to take on the role that Ewan McGregor now plays) and screenwriters (Brian Duffield's once-hot script was rewritten by Anthony Tambakis), it seemed as thought this Natalie Portman passion project would never see the light of day. And, while the almost comical production problems aren't the best sign, there's still reason to be enthusiastic; namely, the fact that the film is a rough and raw western with Portman in the lead. At the very least, it will be a fascinating hot mess. (Jan. 29)


Hail, Caesar!

A year without a Coen brothers movie is a sad one indeed, but at least we don't have to wait too long into 2016 for their latest: a madcap inside-Hollywood comedy featuring one of the greatest casts of the year: Josh Brolin, Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton and some fellow named George Clooney. (Feb. 5)


The Witch

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Robert Eggers's debut feature is one of the finest horror movies to come along in a generation – a sly reinvention of the genre while standing alone as a stellar addition to the canon. Taking place in 17th-century New England, the film follows a Puritan family's encounter with the titular villain, who's stalking them in her nearby forest lair. But that simple plot line doesn't do much justice to the subtle horror and intense drama to follow. After making waves at Sundance and TIFF last year, it's finally time for general audiences to experience Eggers's shockingly original and captivating vision for themselves. (Feb. 26)


Knight of Cups

Director Terrence Malick used to go decades without making a new film, although the past few years have been an incredibly prolific period, relatively speaking: He's released two whole films since 2011, with two more in post-production. One of those is Knight of Cups, a surreal-looking drama about a Hollywood screenwriter (Christian Bale) whose life spirals out of control. Like Malick's other late-career work (To the Wonder, The Tree of Life), Knight of Cups encountered a mixed, if not hostile, reaction when it premiered at the Berlin Film Festival last winter. But anything from the director is worth at least a cursory glance. (March 4)


Midnight Special

If you had to list 2015's best male performances, Michael Shannon (99 Homes), Joel Edgerton (The Gift) and Adam Driver (The Force Awakens – admit it!) would surely be at the top of the list. Now, all three are working together in Jeff Nichols's gritty-looking "sci-fi chase film," as the director describes it. From the looks of the trailer, Nichols seems to be channelling the collective visions of John Carpenter, Steven Spielberg and the early work of David Gordon Green. (March 18)


Green Room

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Easily the best film that played at the Toronto International Film Festival last September, Jeremy Saulnier's thriller is a fast-paced, darkly funny thrill ride of a film; it's not so much a passive viewing experience as it is a genuine test of endurance. The less said about the sometimes twisty plot the better, but at the very least the film boasts the best casting coup of the year: Patrick Stewart, who plays the methodical and grimly determined neo-Nazi villain. (April 1)


Sleeping Giant

A feature debut of startling power, Andrew Cividino's coming-of-age tale was perhaps the most unabashedly Canadian film to play the Toronto International Film Festival, and one of its most affecting. Set in Northern Ontario cottage country – and eager to trumpet its very particular setting – the drama follows three young boys just on the other side of puberty, with all the horrible and confusing elements that entails. Using mostly novice actors and gorgeous rural cinematography from James Klopko, Cividino creates a volatile, captivating and singular look at adolescence, wholly free of the sanitized antics of Hollywood. Although the film enjoyed a quiet awards-qualifying run three weeks ago in Toronto, it will enjoy a proper release this spring. (April 15)


The Meddler

The plot of this TIFF 2015 selection doesn't sound like much: A widow follows her daughter to the West Coast in the hopes of starting a new life. But with that widow played by Susan Sarandon, and a supporting cast that includes Rose Byrne, J.K. Simmons and Lucy Punch, the film rises above its potentially staid genre to sketch a remarkably strong character study of a life interrupted. Thank, too, writer-director Lorene Scafaria, who deserved far more attention for her similarly low-key but inspired 2012 comedy-drama Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. (May 6)


The Nice Guys

The trailer for Shane Black's new film is packed with the writer-director's favourite things: bad men doing bad things quite badly. And that's just how it should be, as Black has a skill at wringing comedy from the darkest corners of roughneck incompetence (see Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, The Last Boy Scout, Lethal Weapon, etc.). All this, plus Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling, together at last. (May 20)


Natasha

Canadian author David Bezmozgis is no stranger to the filmmaking world – his first feature, Victoria Day, earned praise at 2009's Sundance Film Festival. Now, though, the writer-director is back with Natasha, a dark Toronto-set drama about the romance between a teenage Russian immigrant and his cousin by marriage, a script adapted from his own 2004 short-story collection Natasha and Other Stories. With Bezmozgis's reputation and the stellar source material, the film could be one of the breakout homegrown hits of the year. (May 27)


Maggie's Plan

Julianne Moore came to TIFF 2015 with two high-profile films: Freeheld (which almost immediately disappeared into a critical and box-office chasm) and this charming romantic drama from writer-director Rebecca Miller. Moore is typically excellent, but the real draw is her supporting cast, which includes Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke, Maya Rudolph and Bill Hader. (June 3)


The Great Wall

There's not much known about this latest drama from Zhang Yimou (Coming Home, Hero, House of Flying Daggers) except its stellar international cast (Matt Damon, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau) and a simple but intriguing plot line: "A mystery centred around the construction of the Great Wall of China." That'll do. (Nov. 23)


The Bad Batch

Iranian filmmaker Ana Lily Amirpour set a small fire under her young career with last year's incredible vampire tale A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. Now, she's practically detonated a bomb by announcing her new film would pair Jim Carrey and Keanu Reeves in a project described as "a dystopian love story set in a Texas wasteland among a community of cannibals." Yes, sure, we're sold! (Release date not yet available)


Silence

Any Martin Scorsese film is an event, although the director's latest is more on the subdued levels of Kundun than, say, the deafening heights of The Wolf of Wall Street. Taking place in 17th-century Japan, the drama follows two Jesuit priests (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver, the year's hardest working Sith wannabe) who are seeking their mentor (Liam Neeson) in the face of violent persecution. (Release date not yet available)


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