Sunday, January 1, 2017

2016...At Least the Movies Were Good?

Look, at this point it's beyond cliche and almost passe to say that 2016 was...well, not so much a dumpster fire of a year as it was a congealing of dark forces from the hidden corners of our reality that gained malevolent consciousness and cut a vindictive swath of destruction through almost everything we know and love.

I mean, there were some good things. Tigers and Pandas are less endangered. Ebola got its ass kicked. I found out that I'm gonna be a dad. And yeah, there were some really bitchin' movies.

So let's dig into that. That sounds good.

Biggest Surprise:


Whoa, where did THIS come from? Not that I didn't expect it to be good, but Zootopia still seemed to come out of left field, not only thanks to releasing during the normally-quiet pre-summer March rather thank the summer or holiday season, but it also didn't exactly adhere to the "one princess movie alternated with one kinda geeky movie" that's characterized their pattern lately. And while it easily played like a goof on detective yarns in trailers, with a bunny cop being paired with a fox partner, what was hidden in the marketing was that not only had Disney taken the DreamWorks formula of "animated spoof on known genre, bonus points for starring animals" and eaten their rivals lunch, but they ALSO made the entire thing about racism.

Well, prejudice and bigotry, actually - the allegory isn't perfectly 1-to-1, deliberately so. Fortunately (or, unfortunately, as it happens?), this film could not have come at a better time. A movie aimed at kids that says point-blank that even people who try to be conscious of their prejudices can still make prejudiced mistakes that hurt others...but that doesn't make you a bad person. Acknowledging that prejudice and learning from it is the only way forward, and if the movie didn't hammer that home enough, the big flashy Shakira song literally uses that message as its freakin' lyrics.

Of course, it helps that Zootopia plays gangbusters just as a genre spoof of detective yarns as well.

Biggest Disappointment:


I'm almost tempted to belay beating this well-past dead horse...but I'm not gonna. Because this one flat-out deserves every single blow.

I'm not going to dwell on the film's problems more than I already did when it released, but rather why it ended up making the list as my most disappointing film. Not because I had high hopes for it - after the questionable choices in Man of Steel and the questionable choices in everything to do with the film's press and marketing, I wasn't expecting all that much. But I should have been. This was the first on-screen meeting of the two biggest superheroes of all time, the biggest icons of what is currently THE top money-making genre in Hollywood, a cinematic team-up that's been teased for decades and on top of that it was the first on-screen appearance of the most well-known female superhero ever.

And it was awful.

That can't be undone. However salvageable the DCEU may be at this point (assuming Wonder Woman and Justice League end up good), this should have been their absolute best foot forward, and it can never been taken back. We'll never again have a first movie featuring Batman and Superman and Wonder Woman, the DC Trinity, together on-screen. Even if the entire affair falls on its ass so hard that it gets rebooted, this will always exist. A generation of children is growing up right now with...this as their version of these heroes.

They deserve so much better.

The Worst:


If this seem obvious, it's because I managed to avoid several of the other films widely acknowledged as the year's "worst," and I'm glad - because watching this was quite enough, thank you. Suicide Squad is not only a ludicrously tone-deaf exercise in what it attempts to be, but it's editing is an absolute nightmare. You could literally teach a seminar on how NOT to edit a film using this as an example (as proven here), and that's not even getting into the massively problematic depiction of the romance between Harley Quinn and the Joker or how the film chooses to present its female characters as a whole. Which, to be clear, is tone-deaf sexism at best and at worst, a horrific near-active approval of misogyny and abuse in a genre that's already got serious issues on this front. It's actively unpleasant to watch, is incompetent from a storytelling perspective, and lacks even the brief (if shamelessly cribbed from better material) iconic images that give its equally-maligned DCEU predecessor any merit at all.

It's a movie that feels like it was written in a few rushed weeks and then cut together by a trailer house at the last minute...because it literally was.

The 10 Honorable Mentions:

The Invitation, The Boy and the Beast, Everybody Wants Some!!, Pete's Dragon, 10 Cloverfield Lane, The Jungle Book, Doctor Strange, Deadpool, The Conjuring 2, Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising

All of these are worth a look, but with special mention going to the first three. Karen Kusama's The Invitation is a fantastic bottle episode of a thriller that you can watch on Netflix (and should do so instantly, without learning anything else about it), The Boy and the Beast is the latest stealthily emotional masterpiece from Wolf Children's Mamoru Hosada, and Everybody Wants Some!! is Linklater being so good at his job that I felt profoundly connected to its characters in spite of having almost nothing in common with basically any of them or their life experiences.



Man, considering how August began (see above category), the middle of July felt like a freakin' promised land in comparison. This particular category is getting awarded to a pair of films (that's right, other buckets - ANOTHER TIE) that were just an absolute blast. I ended up seeing both 2-3 times in theaters in less than a month. This in spite of both having similar flaws. Both films are a shade too short to give all their assets proper due, and both hinge a couple character beats on "reveals" that don't quite land the way they should given how rock-solid the rest of their arcs are handled. However, I still love them - apart from featuring a couple of the biggest fist-pumping AWESOME moments of the year's blockbusters, these films also feature eerily prescient and massively important central themes given the state of the world during this year. Namely, that they come down heavily on the side of "Yes, of course women should be taken seriously when doing 'men's jobs'," and "Yes, cooperation and scientific progress will overcome militant tribalism."

Oh, if only life imitated art a bit more.



As someone who's been a fan of Disney Animation almost as long as I can remember, growing up during the '90s Renaissance, wringing my hands during the cobbled-together sequels of the '00s, and celebrating when the merger with Pixar essentially put John Lasseter in charge, their current resurgence (now at seven films over seven years) has been beautiful to behold. And Moana was a testament not only to the enduring strength of the studio's ability to craft immediately compelling female heroes, but this time - rather than chasing a prince - she got a capital letter Hero's Journey to go on, complete with magic and monsters and musical calls to adventure. Not only is the film easily the most gorgeous 3D animated film ever made, but between its staunchly feminist message and obvious influences from Hayao Miyazaki, it feels like a truly modern evolution of what films like Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin first pointed toward.

Also, I've been listening to the soundtrack for a solid month and still get chills during "I Am Moana." I think that Lin-Manuel Miranda fellow is going places.


So, you know how everyone's been moaning on and on over the past couple years about how franchises and remakes and superheroes have overtaken and ruined the megaplexes and ruined cinema and what we need are quality original films to support because that's what cinema is all about?

Well, I know most of those people are full of crap BECAUSE NONE OF THEM SHOWED THE HELL UP FOR THIS.

Popstar is a mockumentary that deserves to stand alongside A Mighty Wind and This is Spinal Tap in that it not only features scores of laugh-out-loud gags and comedic performances, but also pulls the trick of actually getting funnier the more you dig into exactly what it's ribbing. Andy Samberg is reliably brilliant at mixing self-deprecating humor with geniune emotional warmth as boy band front-man turned solo artist Conner "4 Real," the cameos and riffs on talk shows are perfect, and the film's musical numbers are every bit as good as you'd expect from the Lonely Island. It may feature a somewhat familiar musical biopic structure, but the devil is in the details.

And the details are hilarious.


And here's a complete left turn into a ultra-violent siege movie about the folly of underestimating the danger of working with Nazis.

Yeah, look, timeliness is just going to a running thing here, okay?

What makes Green Room work as well as it does (apart from the offhanded-but-insightful  approach to characterization or the subversoin of audience expectations in depictions of violence or the tight pacing or brilliant acting...okay, you get the point, but APART FROM THAT) is that it really holds the line when it comes to depicting the film's white supremecist antagonists as just regular people...right up until the point where they're shown to be total effing monters. This is exemplified in a so-restrained-it's-actually-terrifying performance by Sir Patrick Stewart as the Neo Nazi leader, a role that could have been all shouting and mustache twirling and he'd have gotten away with it because Nazi, but he's just tired and mildly grumpy and horrible.

This is one that's hard to recommend to everyone, given that it can be a real unpleasant watch for the faint-of-heart, but between aforementioned timely commentary on militant facists, the way it comments on our cultural assumptions about violence, and a final door-buster of a performance from the late Anton Yelchin, it's also hard not to recommend.


This, on the other hand, I can recommend without hesitation. Taika Waititi, director of What We Do in the Shadows and this year's forthcoming Thor: Ragnarok (yeah - spoilers: get excited for that one) delivers a film that, if you're being reductive, feels like almost like a Wes Anderson joint with shades of Edgar Wright.

But that would be selling this "man vs. wild but actually man vs. other man vs. himself" film short. Wilderpeople is the story of Ricky Baker, a foster kid who goes on the run with his reluctant guardian "Uncle Hec," when the state decides to take him out of his new home. Anyone familiar with Sam Neil's turn in Jurassic Park will find him in delightfully familiar "I can't stand kids" mode, and Waititi delivers easily the most beautiful photography of his native New Zealand since Peter Jackson wrapped The Lord of the Rings. But it's Julian Dennison's turn as Ricky that gives the film its masterful balancing act between bittersweet drama and near-screwball comedy. Hunt this one down for sure.


Nostalgia can be a dangerous thing. Entire films have made much-needed points about how it can be as addictive as a drug or lead to us hoarding childhood things at the expense of our own children, but when echoed rather than recycled, when used as a time and place rather than a shortcut to empathy, revisiting those old stomping grounds can lead to something magical.

Sing Street is not just a coming of age yarn or a love story or a celebration of the unbridled freedom of finding your identity as a teenager, but it's about art. Not about how artists need to suffer and starve through horrible times to create something worthwhile, but how art comes through a constant act of refined creation, exploration, and discovery. Conor Lawlor, a boy transferred to the strict Synge Street Christian Brothers School in Dublin as his family is in the middle of splitting apart, and has to deal with crushes, school bullies, and authoritarian school masters, so of course he starts a band. The film walks up to the edge of some dark places, but instead tells a story of a boy who has a real support network even amidst a breaking family, who's musical journey is made possible in part by the hilariously blunt tutelage of his older brother, who's mates in the band are a rock of dependability. Like Everybody Wants Some!!, it's a celebration of compassion overcoming toxic masculinity.

And "Drive It Like You Stole It" is perfect.


...What? Look, I'll stop putting MARVEL movies on here when they stop being so damn good, okay?

Civil War could almost get overlooked/undervalued, given that it's such a heavily-marketed cog in the MCU machine, but that would be a massive disservice to what is genuinely a great film that is doing a lot of things at once. Not only is it a direct successor to The First Avenger & The Winter Soldier and a perfect companion piece to last year's Age of Ultron, but it's also the culmination of 5 films worth of character arcs for what have become two of the most well-defined superhero characters in the medium's history. Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr. are both acting their asses off here, all while the film delivers a thoughtful narrative about the use of power, the way we let ourselves be used to assuage our guilt, the lengths we'll go to do the right thing, and the cost of doing so.

And as if that weren't enough, it also features some of the best action of the entire year AND two dynamite performances from new-to-the-MCU Spider-Man and Black Panther on the side. If it only did one of those things, it might make the list. But it's the best film in what is easily the best superhero trilogy ever made.


Have we talked about how awesome Shane Black is? I feel like we have, but just in case anyone missed the memo: SHANE BLACK IS AWESOME. The man has been delivering pulp gold to Hollywood for nearly 30 years now, and it kinda feels like it's all be leading up to this one movie. The Nice Guys explores the seedy world of 1970's L.A. mixing together thugs-for-hire, porn stars, murders, national conspiracies, and swindling private detectives. It's a film that furiously points out the difference between the glamorization and the realities of objectification. It's a story of how we allow the good and innocent to be corrupted because we find it convenient. It's a movie about how we can endure horrible things being inflicted on people so long as it's through the distance of commercial art, but that commercial art still has the power to change the world for the better.

Even if it probably won't do more than change just one person for the better - because maybe, just maybe, that's enough.


If I'm being totally objective, this is probably the pound-for-pound "best" movie of 2016. Simply put, it's brilliant. Chan-Wook Park (Oldboy) crafting a masterful Hitchcock-ian thriller stuffed with excellent performances and some fantastic story turns, and it would feel like he's showing off if it weren't so meticulously functional. The movie is almost pornographic in the way it drenches its frames in scenery and color and meticulous details, until it reveals that the point of all that is who's watching from behind where at any given time. As if that weren't enough, the film's script is a thing of clockwork beauty, toying with unreliable narrators because of who happens to be narrating sequences at any given time, playing moments that could have been massively uncomfortable as either darkly comic or slyly triumphant, and showing just enough of its hand to let you feel smart for working something out just before it happens while still being able to surprise.

And as if that weren't enough it's a surprisingly sweet and cleverly empowering love story about two women finding solace in each other at a time when they couldn't depend on anyone else. The Handmaiden is a modern noir masterpiece from one of the great international film-makers and is great entertainment.

It's also sexy enough to almost make Paul Verhoven blush.


This is where ranking things gets a bit tricky. Not that Arrival isn't a masterpiece in its own right - it's absolutely a sci-fi landmark that deserves to be mentioned alongside The Day the Earth Stood StillClose Encounters of the Third Kind and The Abyss in terms of thoughtful examinations of first contact with extra-terrestrials that are also compelling drama.

No, the reason this gets tricky is that I can't help but be somewhat subjective here. Denis Villenueve has previously proven his directorial chops with Sicario and Prisoners, but this is a film that legitimately made me think "actually, maybe another Blade Runner movie isn't such a bad idea, since this guy's directing it." Arrival is about language changing the way we think, about communication changing the way our world works, about the choices we make and why we make them, about the lives that we touch and how they are bound to ours, and about what we teach our children in the time we have with them. It approaches an "aliens meet humans" story from the perspective of science and reason in the face of fear and aggression, using a perfect cocktail of fantastic performances, tight narrative pacing, and gorgeous visuals. Not since Cloud Atlas has the editing of a film's finale so utterly taken my breath away, and the fact that this film was released the year (hell, the same month) I found out I'm going to be having a daughter...well, this film hit me hard.


But this one knocked me completely on my ass, then picked me up, only to knock me down again.

I don't know if LAIKA will be able to continue making movies after this, but if they don't, they picked a hell of a film to end on. And if they do, then they've set the bar ludicrously high for themselves, because Kubo is the masterpiece the studio has been chasing for nearly a decade.

This was a film that left me reeling when I first saw it in theaters, and it's also the last movie I watched in 2016, and aside from the fact that it's a technical masterpiece, aside from the fact that it's a beautifully-structured story that rewards repeat viewings with all the clever way it weaves together its story threads, aside from how it packs enough raw emotion into 100 minutes that I'd be just as wary of showing this to a child as I would be desperately certain that they should see it...this was the film I needed most in 2016.

We've lost something this year. Maybe it was the deaths of so many well-known celebrities or beloved artists or pop idols or inspirational icons, or the US Presidential election showing how ready so many people are to give into hate, or the growing interconnected nature of the world making violence and death seem all the more ever-present (even though the world is statistically safer), but we're hurting. We've gotten nearly 20 years into the 21st century and we've seen that the promise of the future was a lie, that our fellow humans would rather relive the world wars of the 20th than take to the stars or save our planet. That our world is pain and suffering and death.

Kubo and the Two Strings, an animated kids' movie, says exactly this to its intended audience. It states plainly that to stay on this earth is to fight and suffer and ultimately to die, to lose everything you've loved. But you do it anyway.


Because you may not get to choose everything that happens in your story, but you still shape it. Even if you lose the ones you love along the way, the ways in which they touched your life will have made you stronger, their threads will find their way into your tapestry and you will tell their story, and then those that come after you will tell yours, and no matter how much we lose, no matter how much we hurt, no matter how much we suffer and weep at the hands of the hateful world, our lives are still rich and wondrous and full of beauty because of the gifts of those who came before us - if only we can recognize them and put them to use.

We have been guided by princes and professors, led by star men and generals, inspired by athletes who went the distance and scientists who's journeys touched the heavens, loved by countless mothers and daughters and fathers and sons, and every one of them has left us stronger and braver and kinder and ready to fight for a better world. And in return, we have taken their memories, their lessons, their gifts, and woven them into our stories, our lives, and the things that we will pass on. We have made them immortal.

Just as, in time, so shall we be.

And that really is the least of it.

Happy New Year.

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