Best empty theaters: The 10 best films without an audience in 2016

From high-brow sleepers and documentaries to low-brow comedies and genre films, these films are worth a second look

Published December 19, 2016 11:58PM (EST)

Ethan Hawke in "In a Valley of Violence"   (Focus World)
Ethan Hawke in "In a Valley of Violence" (Focus World)

With all the films released this year, it is more than likely that a few gems have slipped through the cracks. The films on this list all have been sadly overlooked or unappreciated. They may have had a “blink-and-you-missed-it” theatrical engagement or they were modest releases that were just too idiosyncratic to attract viewers.

Some were simply unappreciated for what they were, disappointing audiences that took them too seriously. From high-brow sleepers and documentaries to low-brow comedies, genre films and a misunderstood box office hit, these films all deserve to find the “right” audience:

1. “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk”

People stayed away in droves from Ang Lee’s adaptation of Ben Fountain’s novel and they missed an interesting if flawed work. The innovative 120 frames-per-second version was available only in limited markets, but the traditional screenings still captured the conspicuous consumption of Hummer limos and Dallas-sized spreads that are contrasted with Billy Lynn’s (Joe Alwyn) experiences in 2004 Iraq.

The central plot has the title character participating in a two-week “victory tour” with his squad after a heroic moment in battle. There are admittedly too many subplots, including Billy’s sister Kathryn (Kristen Stewart) hoping he opts out of redeployment, his efforts to connect with cheerleader Faison (Makenzie Leigh) and Albert (Chris Tucker) trying to sell the film rights for Billy Lynn’s story.

But every episode reinforces the extent to which the soldiers’ efforts are appreciated back home: It is often little more than lip service. That point is most keenly made in “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” when Wayne (Time Blake Nelson), a local businessman tries to express his appreciation to the unit, only to be dressed down by Dime (an excellent Garrett Hedlund) in a stunning speech.

Lee’s film may be episodic, but his fluid camerawork keeps audiences glued to each scene, from the ridiculous spectacle that is the halftime sequence to a heart-to-heart that Billy has with Norm (a miscast Steve Martin), the Dallas team’s owner. The film may be overambitious, both technically and narratively, but Alwyn is ingratiating in his film debut and “Billy Lynn” definitely deserves a look.

2. “Tower”

Almost nobody saw this animated documentary about a mass murder that took place at the University of Texas at Austin on Aug. 1, 1966. But this remarkable film speaks volumes about the gun debates that still resonate today when such rampages  are, sadly, increasingly more common.

The power of this film, directed by Keith Maitland, comes not just from the way the story is told — the animation enhances the emotions and experiences of the victims and heroes — but also in what is said. As onlookers describe their cowardliness or a co-op worker explains why and how he risks his life to save an injured boy and then assists the police in stopping the gunman, viewers will likely ask themselves, “What would I have done in that same, risky situation?”

As such, “Tower” recounts not just the horrific crime but also inspiring stories such as that of Rita Starpattern, who aided Claire Wilson, an injured pregnant student, as well as the coping skills of the people involved. As Wilson and others describe their candid and complex emotional reactions to the events of that fateful day, “Tower” becomes transcendent.

3. “Best and Most Beautiful Things”

Films that depict people with disabilities are often inspirational stories of uplift that smack of condescension. “Best and Most Beautiful Things” (whose title is derived from a Helen Keller quote) is a refreshingly unsentimental and nonjudgmental documentary about Michelle Smith, a 20-year-old in Bangor, Maine, who is legally blind and has Asperger’s syndrome.

Michelle wants to work at a job where she feels valued. (The film cites a statistic that 75 percent of people with disabilities are unemployed.) She deeply feels the struggles and losses that define her — from her younger brother’s death to her parents’ bitter divorce — and is quite candid about her life, collecting dolls and finding acceptance in the BDSM community.

In addition, Michelle is a budding activist who wants everyone to “unlearn normal” and embrace being an outcast. As she works toward acquiring the independence she craves (which includes gaining an opportunity to go to Los Angeles for an internship), she tries to break away from the support system she needs. Just losing her backpack or dressing herself, however, can create difficulties for Michelle. “Best and Most Beautiful Things” is a film as complex and sensitive as its subject and watching Michelle come of age and into her own is truly rewarding.

4. “Five Nights in Maine”

David Oyelowo has given a fantastic, incredibly understated performance as Sherwin, a widower, in Maris Curran’s absorbing chamber drama “Five Nights in Maine.” This small, quietly powerful film has Sherwin visiting in Maine his feisty, mother-in-law, Lucinda (Dianne Wiest), who has cancer. The grieving pair are uneasy companions. Sherwin overhears Lucinda tell her home care aide, Ann (a fine Rosie Perez), that she never thought he would visit.

Their meals together are chilly encounters. Sherwin had the impression from his late wife that her mother, Lucinda, was damaging as a parent. Was Lucinda really that damaging a parent? “Five Nights in Maine” could have worked as a play, given its modest scale, but Curran shot much of the film in intense close-ups, which magnify the actors’ performances. Oyelowo conveys so much thought and emotion in the simplest of facial expressions that viewers can feel his every ache as he tries to gather his strength just to get out of bed following his loss. In contrast, Weist makes the icy mother quite unlikable, which only ratchets up the drama.  

5. “A Hologram for the King”

Tom Tykwer’s shrewd adaptation of Dave Eggers’ novel opens with an exuberant rendition of the Talking Heads’ classic “Once in a Lifetime.” The sequence introduces viewers to Alan Clay (Tom Hanks), a businessman on the brink of failure who's hoping to score a big comeback in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, by coordinating a title hologram for the king.

The film, an uneven mix of amusing frustration comedy and astute character study, gives Hanks an opportunity to be obsequious, even when he tries to repair his strained relationship with his daughter (Tracey Fairaway). In Jeddah, Alan puts on an unflappable face when dealing with the bureaucracy of the king and his schedule or bonding with his co-workers and his genial driver, Yousef (Alexander Black), but he is afraid, as evidenced by a strange, symbolic growth that appears on his back.

Alan enjoys the company of his doctor, Zahra (Sarita Choudhury), but puts off the advances of Hanne (Sidse Babett Kundsen) who invites him to wild, liquor-fueled parties. “A Hologram for the King” is less about Alan’s distractions and more about how he finds himself in this void of an environment. The film’s poignancy stems from the few, real, valuable moments that Alan has amid all the chaos he encounters. It may be a message as clear as a hologram, but Hanks delivers it ably. Tykwer’s offbeat film works a strange, beguiling magic.

6. “In a Valley of Violence”

Ti West makes films that revel in genre. His “House of the Devil” was a nifty little thriller. West’s flinty new Western, “In a Valley of Violence,” is a modest, satisfying revenge flick. The film’s prologue has Paul (Ethan Hawke) and his dog Abby encountering a priest (Burn Gorman) who is drunk, stuck in the desert and uttering more than a few “Goddamns.”

Paul and Abby best the priest and head on into Denton, “a town of sinners,” where they inexplicably encounter more trouble. Gilly (James Ransone), the town deputy, is a wiry, arrogant hothead who menaces a gun salesman (K. Harrison Sweeney) probably just for something to do. He also challenges Paul to a duel, which Paul reluctantly accepts and he punches Gilly flat out.

After Paul leaves town, Gilly “aggravates the situation” by tracking down Paul and Abby. What transpires during that meeting prompts Paul to return to Denton and systematically kill everyone Gilly knows. “In a Valley of Violence” has all the typical Western shoot-outs and showdowns, but the best scenes are the intense encounter that Paul has with Roy (Larry Fessenden) in a bathtub or when the town marshal (John Travolta, nicely chewing the scenery) beats his son Gilly to teach him a lesson.

West coaxes strong performances from the ensemble cast, but it's Abby, the dog, wrapping herself in a blanket, that will impress viewers most of all.

7. “Mr. Church”

Eddie Murphy doesn’t have a single funny moment as the title character of this cloying comedy-drama said to be “inspired by a true friendship.” And it may be that the Oscar-nominated actor wanted to stretch his talents by playing wise rather than cracking wise. As a smart, selfless man in 1971 Los Angeles hired to cook and care for Charlie Brooks (Natalie Coughlin) and her mother Marie (Natascha McElhone) who is dying from breast cancer, Murphy plays it completely, well, straight. (Spoiler alert: There are a few hints his character is gay.)

The first half of the film is a bit awkward, with Charlie resisting the person she calls “the black man in our kitchen cooking eggs,” but she eventually comes to embrace Mr. Church. Viewers who give themselves over to the film’s mawkish sentimentality will embrace “Mr. Church,” too. Bruce Beresford has directed a big-screen equivalent of a Lifetime Movie of the Week, delivering trite platitudes about family and love and the ripple effect that people have on each other’s lives. But sobbing viewers won’t mind being manipulated in the least.

8. “Dirty Grandpa”

Critics may have panned this odd couple Robert DeNiro-Zac Efron comedy, but it’s often so ridiculous that it’s hilarious. From the moment DeNiro’s perpetually horny Dick Kelly is caught with his pants around his ankles doing a “No. 3,” the Oscar-winning actor shows how committed he is to going all out for a joke. From his snicker-inducing euphemisms for his grandson Jack’s (Efron) pink mini Cooper to his trash talking about Jack being a cockblocker and his unsubtle flirting with the game Lenore (Aubrey Plaza), “Dirty Grandpa” induces shameless chuckles.

And if DeNiro’s karaoke mike-drop rap to Ice Cube’s “It Was a Good Day” can even make the uptight Jack smile, then surely viewers will be smiling as well. “Dirty Grandpa” additionally gives Efron a chance to display his talents, both his singing and dancing skills but also his hot — and at times naked — body. (Reports are that he used an ass double.)

When Efron gets to wear clothes, they tend to be extremely loud country club style ones, or silly half shirts with bad slogans or fringe that are mismatched with pants covered in blood or semen. The supporting cast is also invested in the film’s filthy-minded humor, from Adam Pally’s totally inappropriate Cousin Nick to Danny Glover’s riotous cameo who heckles while watching“Alf” and doing needlepoint that's pornographic. Yes, the sophomoric humor is very risk vs. reward, but If “Dirty Grandpa” exaggerates its gags to make points about doing what's in your heart and thinking for yourself, than so be it. Sure, some folks would rather “have Queen Latifah shit in my mouth from a fucking hot air balloon” — as DeNiro’s Dick tells Efron at one point — but they would be missing one of the funniest and naughtiest comedies of the year.

9.Dude Bro Party Massacre III

This isn’t just one of the best titles of year but a truly inspired horror-comedy by the troupe 5secondfilms. “Dude Bro Party Massacre III,” which received limited theatrical release, unspools as a film within a film — the only existing VHS tape of a “Midnight Morning Movie” recorded over some Midwestern teenager’s family’s home movies. Set at East Chico University in the Ronald Reagan era (and there are some very pointed references to the former president), the Delta Bi Thetas are on the chopping block.

It’s not just that the dean Pepperstone (Nina Hartley) is upset about a fraternity prank involving a downed airplane decimating an orphanage, but there have been two previous massacres on frat row by “Motherface.” The deaths are gory but hilarious; one of the best gags has the local weed dealer being done in by a “Keep off the grass” sign.

The storyline has Brent Chirino (Alec Owen) trying to solve the murder of his late twin brother Brock. There is hilarious over-the-top violence as the filmmakers find inventive ways of killing off the characters, such as death by beer tap.

Featuring some very funny one-liners and funnier double entendres, as well as some brilliant commercial parodies that interrupt the film from time to time, “Dude Bro Party Massacre III” is better and smarter than one might expect.

What’s more, there are great cameos from Patton Oswalt, Larry King (as a murder victim), and Greg Sestero (of “The Room” fame), who learns the hard way that it’s “hoes” before bros as he is dispatched by a gardening implement. It’s nearly impossible to make a cult film on purpose, but the guys behind “Dude Bro Party Massacre III” have admirably succeeded.

1o. "The Girl on the Train

Tate Taylor’s howlingly funny adaptation of Paula Hawkins’ best-seller clearly wanted the film to be this year’s “Gone Girl,” but it missed the mark on so many levels that it needs to be appreciated for what it is: an unintentionally hilarious camp classic. Rachel (Emily Blunt) is a drunk who pours vodka into her water bottle and gulps it like a baby with a sippy cup. She is an unreliable narrator who says she knows something about Megan (Haley Bennett), a missing woman — someone who has just quit her job working as a nanny for Anna (Rebecca Ferguson).

This prompts Anna, in one of the film’s many LOL moments, to complain about the difficulties of shopping at a farmers market and mashing sweet potatoes while nursing. Anna is married to Rachel’s ex, Tom (Justin Theroux). Rachel is having difficulty accepting this: Watch her all drunk and crazy smearing lipstick X’s all over a bathroom mirror! She insists that she has clues to a crime that has been committed but detective Riley (Allison Janney) thinks the drunk and emotionally distraught Rachel may need help.

“The Girl on the Train” plays out its story in a confusing timeline — “4 Months Ago” is followed by “Friday.” And there are achingly funny scenes of Rachel smashing a tray of deviled eggs all over the patio wall of Tom’s boss or gratuitous soft-core shower sex. The film’s corker of a climax comes when a character is killed in an extremely violent fashion, only to have a someone go over to the writhing, dying, blood-splattered body to literally twist the proverbial knife. Yes, “The Girl on the Train” is that subtle — and uproarious.

By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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