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DON’T MISS THESE UNDER-THE-RADAR FILM PICKS FROM 2016

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Photo: Markees Christmas as Morris in ‘Morris From America’

Today’s world has transformed every (remaining) film critic into a curator-in-waiting. Having spent decades critically watching and commenting on film, assuming the role of scout-curator for a film festival or a film center, makes for an obvious transition that allows us to put our knowledge, experience, and taste to good use, while also accounting, far more directly, for our impact on cultural awareness and literacy. In this case, our opinions and predilections matter even more.

But I’m here to say, why wait?

Each year I attend a festival or two, carefully sifting through hundreds of thousands of insightful words on films, many of which never grace the screens in our market. Some of those titles end up nominated for an award—indie nods, national critics honors, and distinctions from filmmaking peer groups—but they remain little more than selections that, I assume, enjoy and celebrate the nominations before fading into obscurity. It’s reclamation time, dear readers! Let’s seek and find some cinematic joy.

PATERSON (Jim Jarmusch)

After the otherworldly genius of “Only Lovers Left Alive,” I wish technology would allow us to experience unfiltered day-to-day interactions from the perspective of Jarmusch. I can’t believe regional audiences haven’t had access to the Akron native’s observations of the life of an unassuming poet (Adam Driver) eking out a living as a bus driver in Paterson, New Jersey.

MORRIS FROM AMERICA (Chad Hartigan)

I argue vociferously for greater diversity in representations of people of color, seeking narratives beyond the narrow confines of our assumed communities and experiences. “Morris From America” details the comical romantic misadventures of a young African-American teenager (Markees Christmas) forced to re-settle with his father (Craig Robinson) in Germany. Now that’s what I’m talking about.

DOG EAT DOG (Paul Schrader)

Having written the screenplays for “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull” before taking the helm of his low projects like “Blue Collar” and “American Gigolo,” Schrader certainly knows his way around the cinematic underbelly, which makes him the perfect choice to pursue the story of a trio of ex-cons (Nicolas Cage, Willem Dafoe, and Christopher Matthew Cook) enlisted by a gangster in Cleveland to kidnap the infant child of a rival mobster.

I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO (Raoul Peck)

Peck, the celebrated Haitian director of “Lumumba,” incorporates elements from “Remember This House,” the unfinished novel by James Baldwin, allowing Baldwin to tell the tale of race in America in this documentary, which enjoyed a successful festival run. So sorry I missed joining the bandwagon at the TIFF station.

FREE FIRE (Ben Wheatley)

Last year, I somehow couldn’t fit Wheatley’s scathing social satire “High-Rise” into my Toronto schedule; and this year, “Free Fire,” his deliriously demented crime thriller about a gang meeting that turns into a wild shootout in a deserted Boston warehouse, fell through the cracks. Next year, I’ll know better.

THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE (André Øvredal)

Horror selections at elite film festivals skew toward more cerebral fare that tends to get under the skin and inside the psyche. Another sign that we’re in for a treat is the casting of Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch as father and son coroners, charged with uncovering the secrets of a mysterious “Jane Doe” before they succumb to a macabre fate of their own.

KICKS (Justin Tipping)

Sneaker culture in Oakland takes center stage in Tipping’s tale of Brandon (Jahking Guillory), a 15-year old who finally got a pair of Air Jordans, only to have them stolen. “Kicks” captures the lengths that Brandon and his two closest friends go in order to get the shoes back.

ELLE (Paul Verhoeven)

While I was fortunate enough to catch the lovely Isabelle Huppert in Mia Hansen-Løve’s “Things to Come” at TIFF, I couldn’t fit Verhoeven’s much-debated thriller, featuring the French treasure as a successful entrepreneur who engages in a cat and mouse game with a man who raped her during an earlier period of her life. “Elle,” in typical Verhoeven fashion, challenges the notion of Huppert’s character as a victim, with the actress slyly twisting expectations enroute to a breathless conclusion.

TONI ERDMANN (Maren Ade)

The overwhelming buzz surrounding writer-director Ade’s film began with its screening at the Cannes Film Festival in May and carried throughout a far-reaching global run (from Australia, across Europe, before landing in North America at Telluride and then Toronto). The film offers an intriguing look at a father (Peter Simonischek) seeking to reconnect with his successful adult daughter (Sandra Hüller) through a series of embarrassing jokes and exchanges intent on exposing her joyless lifestyle.