Sweet ’16: 25 of the best films from the worst year ever (that I actually saw)

Man…

2016 was the pits.

Sure, there was some good moments here and there but what a stinker. It wasn’t a complete bust but my goodness did the lows seem extra low this year or was it just me.

Anyway, it’s almost at an end and unfortunately we can’t even celebrate because 2017 is shaping up to be even more of a shit storm.

As it is the end of the year, those of us with a passing interest in movies are mandated to regale the uninterested masses of what we think were the best and worst the year had to offer cinematically. So guess we should get started…let’s the worst out of the way first because boy howdy there were a ton this year. First off…

You know what?

Fuck that.

It’s time to be positive for just a few minutes.

So guess what?

I’m going to completely forgo a “Worst of” list this year, because frankly this year is the embodiment of a “Worst of” list OUTSIDE of the cinema. It wasn’t even a bad year all in all as far movies were concerned. Yeah, some of the big releases ranged from disappointing to absolute garbage wrapped in burning hair. But that’s every year.

And you know what else?

Not even going to bother with ranking movies either. Why make things that are awesome compete?

This year was all about the lingering factor. Which were the movies that really stayed with me rather than bleed into the background?

Now, as I am not a professional critic I have neither the time or resources to see every movie under the sun. Being smack-dap in the midwest doesn’t help either. That said, at the time of publication, I have yet to see critical darlings like Manchester by the Sea, Hell or High Water and Toni Erdmann. I have however, through connections or sheer happenstance, been able to expand the variety of movies I actually got to see in theaters this year. So I am “proud” of that at the very least.

I also don’t get too deep into individual plot specifics here so A) if what I have to say about the movie intrigues you but you’d like to know more, I recommend you watch the trailer and B) there won’t be any spoilers for those worried about such things.

Said individuals may rejoice and thank me later.

Said individuals may rejoice and thank me later.

I also spend significantly less time on those I’ve already reviewed. I’ve provided links to those aforementioned reviews because well…I like attention.

Let’s say goodbye to the bad for just a little bit, and embrace everything that there was to love about 2016…at the local movie theater at least.

Some honorable mentions:

Hail, Caesar! 

Midnight Special 

The Jungle Book   (Full review here.)

Captain America: Civil War  (Full review here.)

Sing Street

Rats 

The Neon Demon 

Tickled

Star Trek Beyond 

Kubo and the Two Strings 

Into the Inferno

Hacksaw Ridge 

Amanda Knox 

Moana 

20th Century Women 

Green Room

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If I were to pick any film to watch over and over again from this year, I think Green Room stands at the precipice. By no means a “fun” movie, Green Room is the best movie John Carpenter never directed. It’s Die Hard by way of Assault on Precinct 13 as it borrows the same basic concept: good guys (represented by a desperate band of wannabe punk rockers) trapped on the inside with the bad guys (a legion of Nazi skinheads led by ubermensch Patrick Stewart) on the outside.

Jeremy Saulnier’s third feature shows no mercy to its characters or its audience. There’s a moment that I feel will go down as iconic as it never fails to illicit a guttural reaction from whomever I watch the film with. It involves a box cutter, exposed belly and a point of no return.

As he did with Blue Ruin, Saulnier emphasizes the frazzled, hapless and mistake-prone eccentricities of his protagonists and isn’t afraid to make its characters look scared and weak and powerless and recognizably human; something I’ve harped on in the past.  This focus on pure desperation—as opposed to a Gary and/or Mary Sue-level of competence, provides for more tense scenarios as well as a much-needed shot in the arm of genre-filming altogether. Or in this case, a few HORRIBLY-REALISTIC lacerations to it. (Quasi-spoilers.) When violence comes (and boy does it) the actors don’t treat it like mosquito bites in the way the Fast and the Furious crew would.

It’s also really important to note that Green Room truly is a gift from the genre gods, deliveries from whom seem all too rare these days. It is at once both a nasty, down-and-dirty midnight movie made an actual filmmaker, aware of both the people and location he is cascading in gore. 

Moonlight

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Real talk: I went into Moonlight expecting to hate it. Well…hate is a harsh word I guess. But I’ve been burned by word-of-mouth festival darling award bait more than once these past couple of years (see Boyhood and The Revenant). Pretty important to also note that I have no business being pretentious about which movies I think do and don’t deserve Oscars, Golden Globes or what have you and you should attach no weight to my opinions on that matter either.

The final film however is, by and large, the movie I’d argue is objectively the most proficient of the year. In that every single thing about it is top notch. From acting to score, lighting to pacing, there is not a chink to be found in Moonlight‘s seemingly flawless armor.

Following a “3-Act of a Life” model most recently evoked by last year’s Steve Jobs, we are shown three vignettes in the life of Chiron, a closeted young man who struggles through a variable gambit of themes. As with Boyhood, we get different chapters in a young man’s life. This time however played by three different actors. Unlike Boyhood however, Moonlight actually tells an interesting/compelling story. While they may not look that much a like, the three (Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders and Alex Hibbert respectively) create a wholly singular performance that is absolutely astounding in consistency and attention to detail. 

If one were to place it in a box, one could define it as about being black or being gay, but writer/director Barry Jenkins has a made movie accessible to anyone unable to articulate his or her desires.

I also adored the way this movie played against stereotypes and/or audience expectations. Take Mahershala Ali’s Juan, a drug dealer. One automatically equates that character-type as someone who will send Chiron down the wrong path. Refreshingly however, things are much less clear cut than that. The same could be said of Chiron’s mother, played by Naomie Harris, a woman with clear demons but more complex shades than simply “uncaring parent.” Harris is also dynamite here; providing, for my money, the best performance of the year.

The Witch

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For full review. 

As perfect as horror movie can be. That’s my quick summation of 2016’s best horror film, although a terror film would probably be a more apt description given the film’s lengthly slow build as it favors a slow build over a cavalcade of jump scares.

It’s an incredibly small story, made large by its astonishing attention to detail. Its opening title card, The VVitch, being an early indicator of just how dedicated first-time writer/director Robert Eggers is to conveying 17th Century Puritan life.

Don’t Breathe 

For full review. 

While we’re on the topic of superior horror, let’s knock out Don’t Breathe while we’re at it. Don’t Breathe is much more in line with The Witch than initial appearances may let on. True, it’s more inclined to fun-house horror, unafraid to go for a cheap jump scare here and there. It’s strength however clearly relies on good-ol’ fashioned tension.

It’s a dumb movie made by a smart filmmaker. Yes the characters make largely stupid decisions. Yes it tampers with your suspension of disbelief. Like a master trapeze artist, director Fede Alvarez walks the line masterfully.  

Arrival 

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If I were to attach a “I NEEDED this movie” title to anything out of this year, it’d be Arrival. Two days after one of the most divisive election years in this nation’s history (the results of which leave me with little hope for the future), we get a science fiction film that ditches bombast and stupidity in favor of actual thought; for conversation, something I think we can all agree will be increasingly important (yet unfortunately neglected) over the next few years.

Denis Villeneuve, director of such feel good films as Prisoner and Sicario, doesn’t automatically bring about catharsis any viewers mind when attending one of his pervious movies. But much like David Fincher (the filmmaker I find to be the closest to Villeneuve in terms of the approach both men take to their projects), the guy is a film-making chameleon. Arrival represents the director’s most uplifting output to-date. 

The film owes a bit to those that came before (Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Contact spring to mind) and some of the grandiose posing of the blockbusters of Christopher Nolan, yet another director whose career Villeneuve seems poised to emulate. Where Nolan stumbled (in my opinion) with Interstellar in a narrative sense, Arrival soars. While there are little action sequences (something I’m 100% behind, I assure you), the movie thrillingly executes sequences that equate to simply two characters/beings trying to converse with on another.

The only part in which it stumbles that I can recall is when it harkens the cliche of ignorant military guys acting stupidly. Some of this works (and unsettlingly predictive given our incoming president-elect), while others involving a coup fell a little flat for me. Arrival‘s successes equate to much more than the sum of its (very minor) failings however.

I’ve heard rumblings of the twist being predictable and undeserved to which I wave a dismissive hand. Predictable or not, the turn that comes around the third act serves a higher purpose.

All of this resting on the considerable laurels of Amy Adams, an actress more deserving of Oscar gold than any other in her current peer group. Rooting for her to finally nab the Best Actresses gold that has long eluded her and for a role in a science fiction movie no less. 

Swiss Army Man 

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For full review. 

I kind of have to eat my words looking back as I boast this would be the most singular cinematic experience of 2016.

Forgive me as I had not seen or heard of The Greasy Strangler yet. But more on that in a bit.

Swiss Army Man is so many things that it almost demands a thesis paper. This while also being a stupid buddy comedy about a corpse that farts and has a boner compass. It’s an onion of a movie with so many layers that I argue it should remain almost undefinable, both in meaning and genre.

The Nice Guys 

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The Nice Guys makes the cut simply on the sheer power of charm and likability but would you expect any less from a Shane Black film? The plot is almost unnecessary when you’re operating with dialogue and characterization of such caliber.

I’ve heard talk that some may have found this movie boring as there aren’t that many action scenes in it and the ones that are in it primarily revolve around guys shooting at each other.

The meat of the movie truly is the way in which our leads are characterized and interact. Similar to Green Room, a lot of what Nice Guys does right can also be directly attributed to how much our heroes fuck up albeit a lot more comedic in tone in this case.

As it lacks the manic energy of Black’s earlier film, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, the film does get weighted down in its unneeded complexity from time to time. Nice Guys does best when it sticks to leads Russell Crowe (who turns out can do comedy…quite well in fact) and Ryan Gosling (who appears to do literally anything he puts his mind to). When it sticks to those two (with appearances by Gosling’s character’s teenage daughter played by the excellent Angourie Rice), the movie is pure, Black dynamite.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople 

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Another film that basically snuck up on me. In this case, I hadn’t even seen the trailer. I simply saw writer and director Taika Waititi’s name attached and thought I’d give it a shot. Waititi, whose credits include last year’s phenomenally funny What We Do In the Shadows, carries over his trademark oddball wit here all while successfully melding it with the growing pains struggles he embed with another critical favorite of his, Boy.

Given the film prominently features Sam Neill running around in woods, it plays a little like Jurassic Park minus one kid and dinosaurs. Waititi also does a commendable job at meeting the needs of a larger budget. The writer/director’s next project is a Marvel film; something I wouldn’t automatically peg him for given his penchant for the smaller scale.

Newcomer Julian Dennison is an acquired taste as far “cute movie kids” go, a choice that I believe was entirely deliberate. He balances the fine line between making Ricky both likable and exasperating. Even the cavalcade of fat jokes that seem to come his way land more as good-natured ribbing rather than straight-up bullying due to Dennison’s impressive confidence.

Something I’m sure you’ll notice (or already have by this point as I am basically the most predictable person you’re likely to meet) is that this year I put a heavy emphasis on genre (or subgenre) films because that is where my interest in movies is largely focused. This is the fifth one to appear on this list and it won’t be the last.

An old man paired with a cute kid is a movie we’ve seen time and time again. It’s basically a genre onto itself at this point. Wilderpeople doesn’t break the mold, but it provides a perspective all while being 100% entertaining; and that’s really all you can ask from a market with seemingly hundreds of other films with similar premises are vying for attention. In that regard, Waititi’s film stood above the pack.

Tower 

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As is the case with any given year, I am late to catch most documentaries. Unless its a Netflix exclusive, they’re rather hard to catch playing out here in the middle of nowhere…that is unless their far-right docs like Hillary’s America or for the more insane, Vaxed. Luckily due to the wonderful Oklahoma City Museum of Art however, I was able to catch Tower not just once but twice.

Too often we forget whenever a deranged lunatic commits murder on a gun, we lose sight of the brave men and women on the ground. In other words, at times humanity’s best is often highlighted when we are very best. This is the essence of  Director Keith Maitland’s quasi-documentary Tower. The film centers around the horror inflicted by former Marine Charles Whitman, who ascended the clocketower at the University of Texas on August 1, 1966, and proceeded to shoot 49 people, killing 15.

Maitland opts to stick close to the ground as it were, relying on moment-by-moment testimony from those that were there. There’s never a voice over to connect the dots as it were. Only inter-spliced individual perspective woven together to provide a larger picture. Given the unfortunately common place of such incidents these days, Maitland finds an effective way of conveying just how utterly surreal the experience was at the time. Combining archival footage with newly shot dramatic re-creations, presenting the latter as black-and-white rotoscoped animation (with occasional flashes of color),Maitland blends retrospective interviews with survivors and police officers, though their words are largely spoken (as well as their actions on the day in question) by much younger actors.

Perhaps the boldest move however is that Maitland dedicates virtually no time to the gunman, whose own story is perhaps interesting enough to warrant its own film.  The argument for this is simple enough however: Nobody on the ground knew who was shooting at them, so why should we?

If I were to have a nitpick it would be the inclusion to a closing montage of recent shootings from Columbine to Sandy Hook if only because it seemed unnecessary as Tower never came off as a lament or plea for sanity.

While they are all vital reactions to gun violence, this movie offers something equally valuable: the terrified perspective of the average person, who sometimes look past their fear and take actions that remind us why life is worth living in the first place harkening back to that iconic tried but true quote by the invaluable Fred Rogers:

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping 

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The movie I have hands-down quoted the most this year. Bar none. Also the catchiest soundtrack in a year of catchy soundtracks some of which are also represented on here. It’s also great for my generation’s Top 40-obsessed mentality its own Spinal Tap.

 There honestly isn’t too much to say as this is a straight up comedy, an area I absolutely hate writing about. What can I say? The Lonely Island brand of comedy speaks to me, and this is the trio working on a scale way beyond Hot Rod, another movie I feel as if I quote on a daily basis. It doesn’t hurt that just about every pop parody is as equally catchy as any of the real things on your iPod.

The Lobster

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Another film I was fairly late to the draw on as well as on where I fell on actually liking it.

I include it, not because I loved it, but more than any other film this year, it lingered in my psyche long after I finished it and continues to do so now. I’d be a stone-cold liar however if I claim to “get” every little nook and cranny however.

Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos presents a scenario that could easily have been an extended Black Mirror episode, albeit with more laughs and less technology. Staring an effectively cast-against type Colin Farrell, The Lobster posits a world, not too unlike our own, in which societal pressure to seeks companionship and settle down is all encompassing. Quite literally in this case as those that fail to do so are hunted down and turned into animals. It places an unforgiving mirror to our dating, engagement obsessed society. 

More than just a witty parody of meaningless, shallow couplehood, The Lobster is much more probing in how it delves deeper into the strange and cruel world it establishes, ultimately questioning whether two people can truly love one other on any meaningful terms rather than those forced upon them. As you laugh, you may notice you’ve curled up into a bawl and tears slowly emerge from your eyes. 

OJ: Made in America 

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File this under “I’ve seen a number of other reviewers include it on their lists so I’m going to too.”

While technically a miniseries, OJ: Made in America is under consideration for a number of best documentary awards, so fuck it, it is a documentary and more than qualified to be featured here.

It’s a five-hour sprawling epic, unparrelled in scope and content regarding the subject on-hand, much less about the crime in question and more about the much larger context of American class divisions and the ingrained biases in the American legal system. Yes, Simpson’s trial is covered extensively but I’d say that only makes up half of the beast. We also get the best look yet of who OJ Simpson is as a person as well. And it ain’t pretty.

What makes this documentary so effective (to me at least) is that, much like Tower, it doesn’t bold-face any of its messages and rather lets subjects speak for themselves. Director Ezra Edelman, his editors and researchers mostly let people tell their own stories, in full and uncensored, and then find pertinent archival material to support said testimony. 

It’s a film about how a story changes depending on how it’s framed.

Was the Simpson case about the fall of a beloved athlete or the death of a scared and battered woman? Was it about how the media narrowly focused to recognize widespread patterns of injustice? Is it about our tendency to force a narrative onto messy real-life events, distancing us from the truth? These are uncomfortable, yet necessary questions, choses to leave at our feet rather than answer outright. 

The film is journalistic marvel; something to be shown in law and journalism classes in the years to come. 

High-Rise 

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As with The Lobster, I was a fan of High-Rise right away…I think. No wait. Maybe? Okay, give me a second. Hmmm….was I? Yes. Yes. YES. Wait. No. Yes. Of course. Maybe.

I’ve never read J.G. Ballard’s novel, but I bet it is one that has been considered un-filmable for decades. This movie is DENSE in the way only a movie adopted from a DENSE novel can be so it’s fair to say the end result isn’t going to be for everyone.

The apocalypse comes quick in High Rise; so fast in fact that I felt an almost visual whiplash, a decision I wasn’t 100% on board with initially. It’s as if the film’s entire second act was cut out. There’s barely any transition between order and chaos outside of a brief montage, and it took a 2nd viewing for me to get the point. Societies can devolve to ruin so quickly that people simply accept the rubble as the new status quo.

Of cult English director Ben Wheatley’s other films, I’ve only seen Kill List, a movie I really liked for the most part but was more lukewarm towards once it entered the last act. With High Rise, Wheatley plays heavy with allegory, setting the film against the cultural nightmare of Thatcher’s England. Take a scene where our de facto “protagonist” Dr. Laing (a very, very good Tom Hiddleston) peels back the face of a cadaver, revealing the ugly bone and muscle underneath. All that glitters indeed.

I’ve heard it anarchically referred to as a “vertical Snowpiercer,” as the two films revolve primarily around class warfare. I’d argue the two are very different however with only fleeting similarities. Wheatley really avoids anything that could be considered a point of view. I only name Laing the protagonist as Hiddleston is on the poster. Wheatley shoots a wide gaze on the titular 40-story high rise complex, which gets more than a little disorienting once the proverbial shit hits the fan. Things aren’t as simple as “rich on top” and “poor on bottom,” particularly once the puzzle pieces start to move, amalgamating into a cocktail of poignant surrealism, unforgettable imagery, claustrophobia and nightmares.

The Greasy Strangler 

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Where oh where do I even begin?

I really, truly and honestly thought nothing was evening going to come close to touching the coherent weirdness of Swiss Army Man. Then this thing creepily shuffled into the spotlight from out of a the filthy ally I presume it originated from.

The closest thing I can compare it to is Tim and Eric by way of John Waters. Processing it completely comes in various stages. First comes, “What the fuck did I just watch?” Followed closely by buoyant exuberance as you start quoting the film with your friends. The final stage, and most divisive, will be if you’ll ever come back for a second helping.

After a lot of thing and soul-searching, I’ve reached a conclusion:

Xenu, forgive me, I loved every second of it.

This is by no means a movie meant to please anyone. In fact, I’d be hard pressed to find many that I’d actually recommend it to. It’s main goal is to cause discomfort, and maybe just maybe you’ll be entertained…probably by accident. I still think my level of enjoyment was a fluke. I was torn between this and The Neon Demon as I enjoyed both for very similar reasons. Both are well-made trash, and I mean that in the highest regard.

WARNING: THE VIDEO BELOW IS ABSOLUTELY NSFW.

La La Land 

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It’s rather jarring to pivot from something like The Greasy Strangler to a film as classy and refined as La La Land, a film that I’m pinning down as Best Picture at next year’s Oscars. Those guys and gals just love acknowledging movies ABOUT making movies. Go figure.

As with Saulnier and Green Room and Eggers and The Witch, writer/director Damien Chazelle is a relatively young talent that has captured my attention so quick fast you’d think he’s been around much longer. His last film, Whiplash, is as perfect a movie as there can be.

I saw a lot of movies I enjoyed this past year, but I think La La Land deserves special credit for being so instantaneously enjoyable. I’d even go so far as to call it the movie I had the most fun watching this entire year. It certainly didn’t hurt I saw it in a theater equipped with recliners and heated seats. Within the first minutes and its opening music number, I knew this movie was going to have seriously TRY to make me hate it.

An utterly joyous throwback to the musicals of yesteryear (Singin’ in the Rain, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg), Chazelle’s second feature serves as perfect companion piece to Whiplash, both films being testaments to artistic ambition. (La La Land notably being the more positive of the two by a large margin.) There’s also an emphasis placed on balancing relationships with the tough, often crushing business of following one’s dreams. The 10 minute epilogue is so pleasing yet simultaneously bittersweet that shockwaves of feeling ripple backwards through the whole extravagant production.

It also fortunately capitalizes on the bottled lightening that is the chemistry between Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, in what is their third time out as love interests. They make for a couple that you actually root for, their past shared onscreen relationships only building on that credibility. Stone in particular carries a lot of the weight on her shoulders, in regards to acting and singing chops. The movie owes so much to her La La Land feeds off her heartache and elation. In playing a wannabe starlet, Stone achieves movie-star transcendence.

And we haven’t even gotten to the songs. While I could always use more of the old song and dance (particularly when they are all as good as the ones written by Pasek and Paul with a absolutely gorgeous score by Chazelle’s film school buddy, Justin Hurwitz), but I rather enjoyed each. Neither Gosling or Stone have the strongest singing voices but their imperfection is part of the point. This is a musical set out to acknowledge the discrepancy between spotlight fairy-tales daydreams about and our more blemished reality of wage-slave circumstances. In summation, the Los Angeles of movie screens versus the noisy, gridlocked, unforgiving “real” version. Also, good “City of Stars” out of your head. 

La La Land doesn’t really break the mold in a significant way. It’s simply good harmless ol’ fashioned entertainment that only a simple movie of its caliber can provide.

 Shin Godzilla

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Don’t get me wrong: I was a definitely a fan of Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Americanized attempt at a Godzilla picture. No country on earth quite has the same handle on the character (and giant monsters as a whole) quite like the Japanese however.

And every few years, Toho wakes up the jolly green giant to show us all how its down. There latest effort, the 29th to be exact, is perhaps the most surprising source of political satire and commentary of the year. Heading into a Godzilla film, you’re not exactly ready for biting political satire. They’re not really known for their humor either…well, intentional humor anyway. All that changes here.  It’s Veep taking place within a kaiju film, meaning while it isn’t a laugh-a-minute, the jokes that land do so in way that bites deeper than your standard food orgy or used tampon gag.

In one of the best/most clever visual gags of the year, we are bombarded with a new bureaucratic situation on a scene-per-scene basis with each introducing a new official with accompanying text giving their title. As the movie progresses, those titles get longer and longer, until one person’s title LITERALLY takes up half the screen. It’s a subtle joke, highlighting the flat out absurdity of not being able to attack a giant monster currently leveling the city because, as it moves from sea to land, there is no set consensus as to whose jurisdiction the campaign should fall under.

Co-directors Hideaki Anno (Neon Genesis Evangelion) and Shinji Higuchi (the lackluster Attack on Titan adaptations) also do an effective job at returning Godzilla back to his nuclear roots. In what must be a clear allusion to the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, this iteration is mutated by nuclear waste dumped into the sea and is powered by nuclear fission. In a very Japanese touch, the ways in which to combat the monster are entirely communal; relying on many, rather than one lone solider. 

As with any of these movies, its far from perfect. It gets pretty dialogue heavy at points and its climax is a bit anticlimactic when stacked against some of the earlier set-pieces, but all these imperfections play into the larger charms of a proper Godzilla movie. 

Jackie

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Like Moonlight, I really wanted to write this one off.

I feel as if I’ve seen every variation of the biopic at this point. So forgive me when I’m not immediately chomping at the bits for yet another (what I assumed) standard piece on the life and times of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis; particularly one starting Natalie Portman, an actress is really hit-or-miss to me as a performer.

Once again, I’m happy to report that I was super wrong and really should stop being a pretentious asshole.

Jackie offers something more impressionistic, focused primarily on how the first lady’s dealt with the death of President John F. Kennedy. We get a few flashbacks here and there on Mrs. JFK during her time in the White House, but as with the best biopics, the film focuses on single point in its subject’s impressive life rather than a jukebox of their “greatest hits” as it were.

Direction aside, it’s Portman who really solidifies her place among the A-list in a performance that comes the closest to being iconic since her very first in Leon: The Professional and actually be just that (I’m sorry Black Swan lovers. I thought her output in that was largely overrated). As with Michael Fassbender’s largely underrated potrayal of Steve Jobs last year, it would be very easy to dismiss Portman’s characterization as a distracting impression. Couldn’t that be said of the real Jackie O though, a woman many can (and have) argued was simply playing a Kennedy.

Sure, the script gets a bit on the nose at times, but it takes the existential crisis at its center wholly seriously.

Silence 

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It’s should go without saying that Martin Scorsese would probably have to try his absolute best to turn in a movie that wasn’t at least worth watching two or three times at this point in his career. I honestly fear that it is cliche to just include on of his new movies on a “Best of” list without question. To be frank though, I was a little hesitant going into this one.

It looks for meaning in the contradictions and absurdities of faith, rather than its assurances. More obvious filmmakers would probably turn scenes of Christians being tortured and persecuted into pornographic spectacle. Ever the conflicted Catholic however, Scorsese instead (and more interestingly) shoulders the burden of our protagonists’ suffering.

It may not be a very fun movie, but it is an incredibly powerful one; Andrew Garfield’s less-than-perfect accent aside.

The Handmaiden 

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As with documentaries, I’m often late to the party when it comes to international cinema. If anything, it’s probably thing I’m most bitter about whenever I have to a year-end wrap up such as this because I feel as I’m only eating from the appetizers table when their is a whole host of a main course just around the corner.

To be frank, The Handmaiden is fucked up in every shade. But should one expect anything less from director Park Chan-Wook, author of such cinematic WTFs as Oldboy and the Vengeance Trilogy.

Based on “Fingersmith,” Sarah Waters’ novel of hidden identities and lesbian passion, Chan-Wook’s film transports the action to 1930’s South Korea. Now this isn’t a movie I’d be automatically be chomping at the bits to see and mainly gave it a shot purely based on Chan-Wook’s involvement. While it may sound like something akin to 50 Shades of Garbage, under the direction of an auteur at the level of its director The Handmaiden is pure Hitchcock.

I hate to get into plot specifics with this one because it really is all about the ride it takes you on. So you’ll just have to take my word on this one. Resting on standing performances from its two leads (Kim Min-Hee and Kim Tae-ri), The Handmaiden is a con-movie in all the right ways, all while being unafraid to tamper with conventions of the genre.

Pete’s Dragon

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For full review. 

Text book example of a remake done right. I’ve long maintained that Hollywood focuses on remake good movies instead of giving middling stories another shot with the vision of a new director. Sure, this is fiscally sound. People are often to flock to something they recognize fondly over a new version of something they didn’t like or forgot about the first time.

I think it’s safe to say that the original Pete’s Dragon isn’t many peoples’ favorite in relation to the massive, ever-growing Disney canon. Therefore it makes more sense to me to let someone else take a crack at it. Less risk, higher gains in relation to creativity and story innovation. (Unfortunately, this is the exact opposite financially so get used to beat-for-beat remakes of popular movies like…oh I don’t know…Beauty and the Beast? I don’t think I’ve seen that one remade enough. You?)

In many ways, it reminded me of Robert Altman’s Popeye or Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are; less a work-for-hire gig and more a genuine attempt to imbue children’s entertainment with a little more personality, a little more heart…some would accuse this of being boring and truth be told, Pete’s Dragon could have stood to be a little lighter. It’s never too grim, but its definitely darker than your standard Secret Life of Pets fluff. But so where a lot of the most memorable/best films of our youth.

I think its sole stumble is its villain, played here by the ever-underrated Karl Urban. He’s serviceable, but he comes off as almost one-dimensional in a film that is anything but. He’s definitely more misguided than mustache-twirler, but he could have stood to be more developed.

Zootopia 

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While we’re on the topic of Disney, the company’s global domination is well-under way and the fact there are other major studio releases to “compete” with them can simply be considered pity.

Out of all their major releases this year though (The Jungle Book, Captain America: Civil War, Finding Dory, Moana and Rogue One respectively), I feel as if Zootopia will be the one I come back to more frequently if only because at it could have have come out at a more appropriate time. Which surprised the hell out of me as the concept did not exactly inspire confidence in me.

The subtext on display isn’t exactly hidden, but isn’t exactly spoon-fed either refreshingly.

Near the beginning of the film, our protagonist Judy Hops (maybe the best Disney has provided in the past few years) protests: “A bunny can call another bunny cute, but when another animal does it…” She trails off, letting the resemblance to certain human distinctions hang in the air. 

Zootopia is often delightfully specific about said subtext, about the way different groups share certain spaces in the world, trying for peace (or at the very least, manageable harmony) but continuing to stumble over presumptions, stereotypes, and the often uncomfortable legacies of how things “used” to be. These are important, even hefty, lessons to place on kids 10 and under but what better year for Disney to put out a movie about understanding one’s neighbor, overcoming fears and so forth? Okay, so we all didn’t exactly get over all that stuff (don’t say the Trump word, Tyler, we’re being positive remember?) but this will be things that will become increasing important as times get scary, more volatile and even more divisive. Kudos to Disney for getting ahead of that with the perfect movie to open up those important conversations. 

Love & Friendship

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I feel like such a snobby tool for enjoying this movie as much as I did, but what can I say? It charmed the living hell out of me. I watched it on a whim, not expecting much, and remained completely absorbed throughout. An adaptation of Jane Austin’s “Lady Susan,” (no easy task given it’s a epistolary novel as well as material Austin herself didn’t intend to publish, only becoming available after her death) this isn’t really a movie I’d necessarily seek out either. Just check out this official synopsis:

“Recently widowed, Lady Susan arrives, unannounced, at her brother-in-law’s estate to wait out colorful rumors about her dalliances circulating through polite society. While there, she becomes determined to secure a new husband for herself, and one for her reluctant debutante daughter, Frederica, too. As Lady Susan embarks on a controversial relationship with a married man, seduction, deception, broken hearts, and gossip all ensue.”

Oh joy.

But credit where credit is due; this movie was just what I needed right when I saw it.

If anything, its nice to see Kate Beckinsale take a part that reminds us all of how lightening quick she can be as an actress and wear a wardrobe that consists solely of tight, black leather. (As a male, the latter is always fine but the movies in which she does this are anything but.) Everyone is on fire, but Beckinsale really is the main attraction here. She delivers cutting lines with the casual cheeriness of someone who can’t even conceive of caring what others might think of her and she’s just pure dynamite. In a fair world, she’d be in the same conversation with Adams and Stone for Best Actress come Oscar season.

It doesn’t hurt the movie is also a lot of fun. You don’t have to be an English major or literary snob either. I credit writer/director Whit Stillman, a man who seems adept at taking droll, quasi-pedantic material and making it easily digestible for someone as stupid as me. 

Special kudos must also be extended to Tom Bennett as Sir James Martin in what may be the best comedic performance of the year. Martin is a lovable doofus for the ages. Any competent actor could get a chuckle from a choice line, but it requires a special sort of auteur to be handed “How do you do?” and turn the basic response of “Very well, thank you” into something hysterical. Bennet does this by having Martin consider the question as if it were a riddle from the fucking Sphinx.

Gold.

Storks

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For full review. 

So there was a split decision among this, Star Trek Beyond and Captain America: Civil War. Don’t take this as anti-franchise snark but as awesome as it is to see how the well the Marvel characters have translated on the big screen as well as the closest thing we’ve gotten to an actual cinematic Star Trek yarn in well-over two decades, I tend to skew towards equally entertaining original material. In keeping with the oddball theme of 2016 and the movies that came out of the woodwork, I’d feel remiss if I’d reserve a special place for Storks. And let me stress this isn’t some ballsy attempt to “be different” or “standout.” I just fell in love with the zany world this movie sort of passes along like some sort of hot potato.

It made money to be sure, but it’s largely left the conversion. I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a torch bearer. That’s imply this movie is forgotten, when it fact it’s fair to call it a success. I just don’t want it to disappear. There’s so much to love here. It gives us a return to Looney Tunes-physics, something I feel has largely disappeared from major studio releases. Fast-paced, line-a-minute dialogue that comes from recording sessions involving multiple actors, another rarely utilized tool. It also provides the standout character of the year in Tulip (Katie Crown, in what I hope is a bright future in voice acting).

So if you happened to have missed Storks, I recommend seeking it out particularly if you’re an animation fan. I was a little harsher on it after my first viewing, but with each viewing since, I’ve softened on it considerable even growing to love this weird $70 million blip on the 2016 radar.

A Monster Calls 

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Cathartic.

That’s the one word I’d use describing both A Monster Calls and the the young adult novel upon which it is based.

Some accuse the movie of being…overly simplistic, even unsophisticated, in relation to its statements and themes on death, mourning and general grief. I accuse those who may do that of losing sight of the movie’s intended audience: children.

Having lost more than a few loved ones, some unexpectedly and others slowly, the film hit me in the same way the books did, something that rarely transfers over from page to screen. The plot follows your typical pre-teen fantasy formula: we have Connor, a young, artistic yet intrinsic boy, who feels alienated at school and at home, save from the relationship he shares with his terminally ill mother. Each night at 12:07 a.m., The Monster (voiced here by Liam Neeson at his growliest) arrives to tell a story that pertains to Connor’s current predicament. The Monster warns however that once these stories are done, Connor will have to tell his own story and it must be true…or he will suffer his worst nightmare.

The crux of why the film hit me deals largely in just how personal it feels, all while being universal as well; akin to movies like A Christmas Story or Stand By Me. It’s hard to say if the movie will do much for anyone else to me and it’d be easy to dismiss it as simple Oscar bait. If that is the case, I guess fell in hook-line and sinker. Watching it, I was reminded of a Guillermo del Toro, a director I could easily see Monster‘s J.A. Bayona emulating. (The two have worked together in the past, most notably Boyona’s terrific 2007 horror flick, The Orphanage.) Now I don’t think When Monster Calls ranks as high as a movie like Pan’s Labyrinth, but the same sort of magic is certainly there.

Weiner 

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I add this movie last as it was the toughest to include. Given the part Anthony Weiner ended up playing the 2016 election, I’m not exactly his biggest fan. Set aside his personal demons. Set aside he’s a massive piece of shit as a person. Set aside the massive disappointment he turned out to be. Remember that period where he had actual promise behind? I’m not from, nor have I ever been to, New York City but this guy’s heat was palpable and felt all the way out here from those who cared to pay attention.

It’s bad enough the guy trashed a promising political career derailed by a dumb Twitter sexting scandal. Then he went and did it again disappointing millions willing to look past his transgressions. Everyone loves a good comeback story after all, right? The filmmakers behind this doc obviously thought so originally.

A lot of what the movie does well is completely by accident. That isn’t a knock on the filmmakers at all. Co-directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg didn’t set out to document a scandal. This was a movie meant to give us rare insight to a political comeback.

They instead happened to be on the ground floor to be there right as the final nails in the coffin that was Weiner’s hope of a political career. It’s astounding at the level of access we are treated to, not all of it is pretty either. It’s a spiritual successor to War Room, perhaps the most important political documentary of all time. The most dramatic sequence takes place on election night. Weiner’s loss is basically assured. However as a publicity stunt, his sexting partner, Sydney Leathers, shows up at his concession speech to confront him and his wife, Humma Abedin, on camera. Th back and forth between Leathers and Weiner’s team as a potential confrontation approaches is genuinely nerve-wracking and one of the most tense of the year. 

Perhaps the best element of Weiner is that it doesn’t just put up a camera to the man himself but also the parties that took him apart. The filmmakers effectively indict the rivals, reporters, and cable hosts who seemed offended that Weiner stayed in the race and kept trying to talk about real issues. Weiner is at once about the downfall of a politician, but it’s also about the smugness and hypocrisy of those who took a politician down mainly because dick pics make better copy than substantive explanations about zoning laws.

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