If you take even a cursory look at the top-10 film lists floating around this year, a pattern emerges: La La Land, Moonlight, Manchester by the Sea, maybe a Zootopia or a Kubo and the Two Strings to even things out.
But there's a point at which every critic's "best films" start to blend together into a chorus of mandatory obligations. To offset the familiar shouts and murmurs, The Globe and Mail presents an alternative top 10 that compiles the most overlooked, underrated and unfairly dismissed films of 2016 (listed alphabetically).
10 Cloverfield Lane
The comical level of chicanery that went into marketing this "secret" sort-of sequel to Cloverfield can be viewed as both a strength and weakness: Some audiences no doubt walked away from 10 Cloverfield Lane confused, maybe even angry that the monster mayhem of the original film was delivered on a much smaller scale.
But for those who cottoned on to producer J.J. Abrams's nifty conceit, the new film offered a tense, intimate and nerve-racking shocker that deserves as big an audience as Abrams's mystery-box marketing strategy can conjure.
Most will forever remember this thriller as one of the last projects for star Anton Yelchin, who died in a car accident last June at just 27.
But instead of using the film to mourn his loss, it should be celebrated as an instant cult classic destined to be discovered and rediscovered for years to come. In just 95 taut minutes, director Jeremy Saulnier crafts a fully realized world of violence, punk music and terror in the backwoods of Oregon – and uses his expertly assembled cast (including Yelchin, but also Imogen Poots, Alia Shawkat and Patrick Stewart, of all people) to create a delightfully cruel work of high tension.
Walk-outs at the Toronto International Film Festival are rare – especially if it's a world premiere, with the filmmaker and high-wattage cast in attendance. But that's just what happened at last year's TIFF debut of Ben Wheatley's dystopic thriller High-Rise – which is when I knew the film was something truly special.
A superbly twisted adaptation of J.G. Ballard's novel and starring such marquee names as Tom Hiddleston and Sienna Miller, Wheatley's film, which finally enjoyed a too-brief theatrical run in the spring, is at once supremely smart and unbearably uncomfortable (hence the walk-outs).
But by the time the movie reaches its surreal climax, complete with a killer ABBA cover, I wouldn't have it any other way.
How Heavy This Hammer
Ask anyone: it was a banner year for Canadian cinema. Well, okay, maybe not anyone – homegrown films are still barely worming their way into the cultural conversation, thanks to a dearth of attention, money, and industry support.
But for those interested in what the country's auteurs are up to, look no further than Kazik Radwanski's How Heavy This Hammer, a raw and engrossing portrait of a man in a rut.
It is a cold, often unrelenting film, but also utterly absorbing and deft in its execution. This is the type of bold, even dangerous filmmaking Canada needs to be supporting.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
This tale of a lonely boy and his curmudgeonly adoptive father has all the warning signs of a saccharine drama about loving and learning.
Thankfully, writer-director Taika Waititi has no use for such tropes, instead using the material as a subversive cover for his wildly funny take on the power of misfits.
As the young boy at the centre of the film, Kiwi actor Julian Dennison gives a star-making performance that, if there's any justice in this world, will inspire memes for generations to come.
What does it say about the industry when one of the best films of the year didn't even receive a theatrical release in Canada? I'll get back to you, as soon as I can find a theatre playing anything other than Rogue One.
In the meantime, seek out director Karyn Kusama's nasty social satire about wealthy Los Angelenos who may or may not be plotting something sinister.
Its final shot is one for the ages.
Okay, this is a bit of a cheat, as a) Beyoncé's "visual album" is not technically a movie and b) it's not exactly under the radar. But its cinematic underpinnings are undeniable (references to Terrence Malick, David Lynch, Julie Dash and Jonas Mekas abound), and thanks to its rich roster of directors – Beyoncé shares credit with Kahlil Joseph, Jonas Akerlund, Melina Matsoukas, Dikayl Rimmasch, Mark Romanek and Todd Tourso – it stands out as one of the finest moving-image works to be released this year, in whatever medium.
The Nice Guys
Shane Black's buddy comedy was supposed to be the movie that saved studios from their worst instincts: a wholly original idea, with the backing of major stars (Ryan Gosling, Russell Crowe), a decent budget, and no franchise expectations. Instead, this delightfully coarse caper barely earned $36-million at the box office, and will likely be used as an example of what not to do.
That's a shame, as Black crafted a sharp, immensely entertaining ode to old-school tough-guy shenanigans.
It is no secret that I've been in Matt Johnson's corner for the past year – The Globe has likely spilled more ink and pixels on the Toronto filmmaker than on all the Marvel movies combined (that might be an exaggeration – I'll have to double check the archives).
But it's only because the filmmaker's skills are so sharp, and his vision so distinctive. Part mockumentary, part fever-dream historical revisionism, Johnson's second feature is a beguiling and hilarious work of high-low art.
Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
It's a worrisome sign when most of the year's big-screen comedies failed to contain a single joke as good as the title of this music-industry spoof.
Not that anyone noticed – the second feature from the Lonely Island comedy crew (Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, and Akiva Schaffer) barely made a dent at the box office this summer, with audiences for some reason more compelled to find out whether Mike and Dave really needed wedding dates after all.
What everyone missed this year will hopefully become a delightful surprise the next, as Popstar is not only hilarious and cutting and laser-focused, but boasts a genuinely addictive soundtrack that uses pop conventions for good, not evil. The world needs more Popstar, and less Justin Bieber.