Compiling a list of my most anticipated films for the coming year is markedly difficult, not only because the number of films with a U.S. theatrical release in a given year has grown from over 500 in 2005 to nearly 800 in 2016, but because a whopping five films from my most anticipated list of 2015 were delayed until 2016. In the interest of exposing you to more films coming in the next twelve months, none of these five films are included in this list.
What remains encouraging is the ever-evolving landscape of distribution. No longer are movie lovers restricted by their geographic proximity to major cities with sufficient art-house programming and independent exhibitions. Instead an overwhelming majority of the year’s best (and often worst) releases are available at the touch of a button through various streaming and VOD services. Though the argument that this dissemination of content could adversely impact its quality (i.e. the influx of mega-budget tentpoles made to incentivize a trip to the theater and justify premium viewing markups in ticket prices) is not unfounded, a trend such as this will make more waves when On-Demand and VOD distribution is a more ubiquitous method of viewing; when technology transcends the fragmentation caused by the numerous disparate streaming and VOD services vying for our wallets and eyeballs.
It is important to take note of these developments because they will allow viewers to more easily see the ten films selected below and many others that would not be as readily available only ten years ago. A number of them are premiering at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the most prominent independent film festival in America, which began late last week. Be sure to post your most anticipated films of 2016 in the comments, and expect to see more on these films and many more in the coming year.
10. Cemetery of Splendour
A sleeper choice for one of the best films of this century is the Palme d’Or winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives from Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul. His latest feature is Cemetery of Splendour, which—if early reports prove to be true—is as elusive and mysterious as his previous work. The film is the story of a house wife who tends to a soldier stricken by a sleeping sickness epidemic sweeping across the country. The disease causes the patient to hallucinate and see spirits that cannot be distinguished from reality. The film made the festival circuit last year, but it will finally reach U.S. theaters on March 4.
9. Manchester by the Sea
When it was announced that Manchester by the Sea, the long awaited return of cinephile favorite Kenneth Lonergan (2011’s Margaret), would be part of Sundance, film Twitter erupted with glee. Starring Casey Affleck, Kyle Chandler, and Michelle Williams, the film takes place in the titular Massachusetts locale where an uncle must return to his hometown to care for his recently deceased brother’s son. Despite the familiar premise, one can expect Manchester by the Sea to be rife with emotional complexity, similar to Lonergan’s previous works.
8. Certain Women
Movie lovers may be beginning to forget the time when a movie featuring Kristen Stewart was met with mostly derision. After the regrettable Twilight series, the young actress has delivered one solid performance after another, including On the Road, Camp X-Ray, and—most recently—Clouds of Sils Maria. For her latest film, Certain Women, Stewart teams up with Michelle Williams, Laura Dern, and sensational indie director Kelly Reichardt (Meek’s Cutoff, Night Moves). The film centers on the characters’ intersecting lives in rural Montana, so expect Reichardt’s grand compositions and measured pacing to be in full effect here. Certain Women is slated to premiere at Sundance.
7. Kubo and the Two Strings
A refreshing trend as of late is the resurgence of stop-motion animation, and LAIKA, the studio behind Coraline and ParaNorman, has led the charge. Their next feature, Kubo and the Two Strings, is a samurai epic with a solid voice-cast (Charlize Theron, Rooney Mara, Matthew McConaughey, Ralph Fiennes) and plenty of intrigue. After awakening a spirit with an ages-old grudge, Kubo (Art Parkinson) must embark on an exciting journey to save his family and discover the secret of his late father, a powerful samurai. The film is set to release August 19.
6. The Nice Guys
If The Nice Guys, a team-up between a Los Angeles private-eye and a freelance enforcer in search of a missing girl, resembles anything like previous detective capers L.A. Confidential and Inherent Vice, then consider this new film from Shane Black (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) a winner. Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe are the duo here, and expect Gosling’s surprisingly strong comedic chops to be a compelling offset to Crowe’s physicality. The Nice Guys will be in theaters May 20.
5. It’s Only the End of the World
Adapted from a play by the French playwright Jean-Luc Lagarce and featuring a French heavy cast (Marion Cotillard, Vincent Cassel, Léa Seydoux), It’s Only the End of the World is the story of a writer who returns to his alienated family with an important secret. It is also one of two potential 2016 projects from 26-year old phenom Xavier Dolan (Mommy, Tom at the Farm). Between shooting Adele’s music video for “Hello” and his first English language film, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, Dolan is rapidly becoming one of the most sought-after directors working today. It’s Only the End of the World will likely premiere at Cannes.
4. The Neon Demon
If you are a fan of hyper stylized violence and visually arresting cinema, then The Neon Demon and work from its director, Nicolas Winding Refn, may be right for you. Known best for his 2011 film Drive, Refn is looking to bounce back after his most recent feature Only God Forgives was widely maligned by critics and audiences alike. With another solid cast (Elle Fanning, Christina Hendricks, Jena Malone, Keanu Reeves), Refn’s film centers on a Los Angeles model who comes under the guise of a gang of beauty-obsessed women who wish to consume the essence of her beauty. Amazon Studios holds the distribution rights and may be vying to secure a birth at Cannes, similar to Refn’s past two films.
The long-in-development passion project from Martin Scorsese is finally slated to be revealed this year, after other projects and legal issues disrupted progress for a number of years. Liam Neeson (replacing originally cast Daniel Day-Lewis) and Andrew Garfield star as 17th century Jesuit priests who travel to Japan to spread Christianity and to search for their mentor. Like many missionary tales, they encounter violent resistance along their journey. This is certainly a departure from Scorsese’s recent work (The Wolf of Wall Street, Hugo), but it also hearkens back to the director’s earlier films—such as The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun. If post-production is finished in time, the film is likely to appear at Cannes.
2. The Witch
The Witch is an exception on this list, not only because it premiered at Sundance last year, but because it is the only film on the list that I have already seen. It was one of many films I saw at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, last fall, but it was the talk of the festival for reasons I will not spoil here. This feature debut from director Robert Eggers galvanized audiences for its attention to detail of 1630s New England and its menacing antagonist, but the focus of this old testament-style horror film is a small puritan family living in a secluded wood cabin. It does not take long for this God-fearing family to sense the evil that lives in a nearby forest, but their descent into doubt and madness underscores the film with an undeniable sense of dread. Look for The Witch in theaters on February 19.
1. Hail, Caesar!
Coming off one of the best films of 2013, Inside Llewyn Davis, Joel and Ethan Coen top this year’s most anticipated list with their follow-up, Hail, Caesar! Featuring a murderer’s row of a cast (including Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Josh Brolin, and more), the film takes place in 1950s Hollywood and stars George Clooney as Baird Whitlock, one of Tinseltown’s most prominent actors, who suddenly goes missing. Brolin’s Eddie Mannix is a Hollywood fixer tasked with tracking Whitlock down, but he soon realizes the job is anything but simple. Though we have seen a number of self-aggrandizing movies about Hollywood in the last few years, one can be reassured that a Coen brothers film on the subject will carry enough satirical bite to avoid the pitfalls of its predecessors. Hail, Caesar! can be seen in theaters on February 5.
Michael Shannon runs into an old flame who claims to be someone else in Maria Full of Grace director Joshua Marston’s Complete Unknown, premiering at Sundance; Kristen Stewart reteams with French director Olivier Assayas in Personal Shopper, also showing at Sundance; Oscar Isaac, Christian Bale, and Charlotte Le Bon form a love triangle set during the fall of the Ottoman Empire in The Promise, no release date set; Cannibal love story set in post-apocalyptic Texas, The Bad Batch, starring Jim Carrey, Jason Momoa, and Keanu Reeves, no release date; La La Land, Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to Best Picture nominee Whiplash, starring Crazy, Stupid, Love. co-stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, in theaters July 15; James Gray’s (The Immigrant) largest film yet, the Amazon expedition picture The Lost City of Z, no release date; Starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s latest, the alien invasion film Story of Your Life, no release date; Australian director David Michôd (Animal Kingdom, The Rover) joins Brad Pitt and Will Poulter (The Revenant) for War Machine, a satire of America’s war in Afghanistan; 24 Frames Before and After Lumeire, Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami’s short-film anthology, mid-year release target.