As the big blockbusters go, so goes the summer movie season. And this summer movie season, the big blockbusters were almost uniformly bad. But the reality is those films represent just a small percentage of the titles released to theaters during the dog days of summer. The vast majority of summer movies have tiny budgets and play only a handful of theaters at a time. And while the focus remains on the tentpoles, most of the summer’s best movies featured absolutely no robots or explosions or superheroes of any kind.

As we finally put the summer of 2016 to bed we wanted to shine a spotlight on a few of the very worthy titles that often got buried beneath their much-bigger competition — even by us sometimes. Some of these movies are still in theaters; others are already available for rental or streaming at home. All of them are way better than just about everything you saw over the last three months. In alphabetical order, our favorite under-the-radar hits from the summer of 2016 are... 

Don’t Think Twice
Directed by Mike Birbiglia

If you’re like me, a movie about improv comedy actors (aka the drama club nerds of the comedy world) sounds like one of the most uninteresting things you could watch, even if it was written and directed by Mike Birbiglia. But Dont Think Twice is a worthy follow-up to Birbiglia’s Sleepwalk With Me, one that might actually be better than its predecessor. Birbiglia exceeds expectations with a funny and surprisingly touching story about friendship, failure, success, and the realities of adulthood — which often means forsaking your ambitions and recognizing your hopes and dreams as childishly unrealistic in a world of mature concepts like “bills” and “rent.” It may run counter to the film’s message to single out any individual performers here, but Chris Gethard and Gillian Jacobs really knock it out of the park; Jacobs’ arc in particular is painfully relatable and heartbreaking to watch. — Britt Hayes

Don’t Think Twice is now playing in limited release.


Piki Films

Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Directed by Taika Waititi

Taika Waititi’s adventure comedy is the most I’ve laughed in a theater all year. Hunt for the Wilderpeople stars Sam Neill as Hec, a grumpy New Zealander who reluctantly takes in a foster child named Ricky Baker, a wise-cracking, hip-hop-loving kid who delights in busting Hec’s chops. But when the authorities show up to take Ricky away after a tragedy, Hec and Ricky flee into the wilderness. A hilarious manhunt ensues full of offbeat humor and poignant moments that brings two unlikely friends closer than they ever thought was possible. When it’s over, you want to start it the adventure over from the beginning and keep giggling. — Erin Whitney

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is now playing in limited release.


Magnolia

Little Men
Directed by Ira Sachs

On paper, a movie about gentrification sounds like a total snooze, but with Little Men Ira Sachs does what he does best – look at male relationships through the lens of the compromises that often pull us apart. This coming-of-age story explores the lives of two young boys from different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds who get caught in the middle of their parents’ rent dispute. Everything about this movie is steeped in authentic emotions, and it examines a side of boyhood and growing up in New York we don’t often see depicted in movies. I have a feeling that in a few years we’ll look back fondly on Little Men as a modern classic. — EW

Little Men is now playing in limited release.


The Lobster
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

For a movie about a weird hotel where people get turned into dogs and ponies and, yes, lobsters, The Lobster actually did pretty well in theaters, making $9 million in U.S. release. (For point of comparison, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping made $9.5 million in about 1500 more theaters.) That’s probably because, in spite of its strange sci-fi premise, the movie speaks to some universal truths about society and the way it treats the single people like lepers. Colin Farrell gave one of his best performances as David, the latest transplant to the film’s gorgeous hotel, where he has just 45 days to find a new mate or face a crustacean transformation. The lingering questions raised by the film’s troubling final scene underscore the central tension of the entire movie: How far are you willing to go to find love? And how far are you willing to go to pretend you’ve found it? — Matt Singer

The Lobster is now playing in limited release and available for rent or purchase.


Wiener-Dog
Directed by Todd Solondz

When you watch a new Todd Solondz movie, you know you’re in the presence of something special. Wiener-Dog follows the titular canine as he bounces from home to home in a series of four vignettes — one of which is a semi-sequel to Solondz’s cult classic Welcome to the Dollhouse, starring the great Greta Gerwig as a grown-up Dawn Wiener. From the film’s weirdly uncomfortable opening scene to its bleakly comedic but inevitable conclusion, Solondz blends pathos with dread and cringe-inducing humor to create an emotional and cinematic experience that is incomparable. — BH

Wiener-Dog will be available to stream on Amazon Prime starting on September 1. And be sure to check out our lists of the best and worst summer movies of 2016.