2016 IN REVIEW – Between Greatness and Incompetence
Well, now we’re finally at the films that I actually did see from 2016. Below, in release order, are the films I watched from this past year that were neither great nor horrible. They made me neither super angry nor super thrilled. Again, they are ordered in terms of release date, and so the list does not represent a ranking. Should you watch these?
Should you avoid them? It’s really up to you. As the title suggests, I watched them and came away, generally, as feeling all of these were, generally, somewhere between greatness and incompetence.
Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party 1/08/2016 80%
Director Stephen Cone has previously addressed the issues of faith and being gay before, most notably in the 2011 film The Wise Kids, a film where a church music director struggles to retain his marriage to his wife, despite his obvious attractions, and a graduating high school student in his church goes the opposite direction by embracing his homosexuality, causing one of his well-meaning friends to become despondent at the possibility of him going to hell over this and what it means for their friendship. Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party continues these themes through a clash of cultures, with both Henry Gamble’s church and school friends coming together and debating who’s gay and what that may mean. Henry himself harbors some contradictions, secretly lusting after his best friend Gabe while shunning the boy who not so secretly has a crush on him while also being out to two more worldly classmates and a complete closet case to his well-intentioned church friends. While the film has some stilted characterizations and is a bit gratuitous in certain areas (such as the opening few minutes with Henry and his friend lying in bed and… yeah…), I do admire the way that Cone treats almost all of his characters with respect, acknowledging the misconceptions, misunderstandings, and ignorance of all sides of the issue without casting too much judgment on those you would expect to be outright vilified. It’s witty and conscientious, though not exactly the most entertaining piece of filmmaking, either. I preferred The Wise Kids.
The Boy 1/22/2016 27%
An American escapes her life in America by moving to England and taking a job as a nanny to a young boy who lives in isolation with his elderly parents in a mansion. The only catch? The boy’s actually a doll! Yes, it’s one of those kinds of horror movies that bets you’ll find the very object at the center of the film to be compelling and creepy enough to sit through nearly 100 minutes of a creepy, expressionless doll showing up out of nowhere and asking you to ask yourself if it’s real or not. And, you know… it kind of… worked? This is not a good movie by any means – do not mistake this as a recommendation, per se – but what saves this movie from being on my list of worst films is the fact that it’s just bizarre enough and played straight enough that I actually found it to be somewhat entertaining to watch unfold. [SPOILER] That the movie just decides at one point to let the lead character simply accept this reality of a living doll after a period of skepticism and fear of losing her mind is for some reason amusing to me in its silliness – to the point where I actually didn’t see where it was going. I guess it was to be expected, in retrospect, but I was amused, and that’s more than I can say for a lot of awful-to-mediocre horror films.
Kung Fu Panda 3 1/29/2016 87%
I wasn’t the biggest fan of the first Kung Fu Panda, but I will admit it’s entertaining enough to save itself from being lumped in with some of DreamWorks Animation’s lesser films. I was more than happy to find myself even more entertained by the second film, which had the advantage of a lot more environments and a more compelling and interestingly designed villain and no setup to an generic conclusion. So color me disappointed when I watched Kung Fu Panda 3 and found myself completely disengaged from the characters I had grown to like. Like most of the films on this list, it’s not a bad film, but it’s a significant step down in quality. For one, the character designs are just boring, which comes with the territory when most of the screen is now taken up by rotund black and white bears. The warriors and most other animals are sidelined in favor of nothing but an endless crowd of samey pandas who all operate on the same wavelength as Po. The scenery is also boring, as once it moves to the panda village, it pretty much stays there until the climax takes a detour into the mildly psychedelic. And storywise, it’s just another villain coming to defeat the grandmasters and help Po realize his next level of awesomeness. About the only compelling storythread involves Po’s adoptive father dealing with the idea of his son bonding with his birth father after their reunion (and not mother – of course). I wasn’t terribly impressed, but I’ll be open to a fourth, still.
The Finest Hours 1/29/2016 63%
Based on a true story, Disney’s historical drama about the harrowing Coast Guard rescue of the crew of the SS Pendleton in 1952 is an odd choice to be so tied to the actual Disney branding, given it resembles something more like Deepwater Horizon than an adventure or even something along the lines of their seemingly annual true story sports dramas, albeit without most of the cursing and finger-pointing. The actors here are all in fine form, and some of the effects are impressive, but the film suffers a bit in terms of pacing and characterization outside of its lead, played by Chris Pine.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies 2/04/2016 43%
Well, it’s not as embarrassing as the Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter adaptation, I’ll give it that. The mash-up of fiction with fiction is likely to settle better with those who found the previous adaptation of Seth Grahame-Smith’s later novel a bit distasteful. Personally, I had hopes that the premise would be so absurd as to prove to be inherently entertaining, but that simply wasn’t the case, so I welcomed a bit more of a coherent and less heavy mythology this time around that didn’t feel the need to do something like incorporate the slave trade into the vampire lore. The premise here works both better than you’d expect and short of how well you’d hoped it would. I admit I haven’t read or seen any previous adaptation of Austen’s novel, and so I consulted my friend who had not only experienced both but had also read the original Grahame-Smith novel and affirmed its relative adherence to the original story, simply adding in zombies where possible. The result is admittedly more a novelty that’s good for one use, but fans of previous Austen adaptations who have grown tired of the more reverent adaptations may want to grab some wine, tea, and biscuits or whatever and rent this one sometime. Those who lean more towards zombies, though, may not find themselves a bit less entertained.
4th Man Out 2/05/2016 55%
While the acceptance of gay people has undoubtedly come along way, it’s still not unusual to find essentially one type of gay man portrayed in the media. Growing up, it seemed like there was always one type ever shown: fussy, effeminate, flamboyant, sassy, dramatic, and usually a walking punchline. Sheltered from that area, it actually helped paint a picture in my mind about what it meant to be “that way,” and therefore led me to disassociate myself from it. Now, I’m not the manliest man, either – I do not care about sports, I sometimes seek out certain movies to “have a good cry,” and I bought the Rapunzel Disney Infinity Figure because I thought it was pretty. But still, that image is still what most people I know have of gay people, and that’s just not me. As a result, I appreciated the discovery of this movie about a “straight-acting” guy who comes out to his three other buddies and the fallout of them attempting to deal with it. The movie’s not especially funny, mind you, but it’s well-intentioned, not at all mean-spirited, a little bit endearing and – yeah, I’m pretty much giving it a pass for competence and presenting me with something at least I could relate to on some level.
The Mermaid 2/08/2016 93%
Stephen Chow’s oddball mermaid movie became the biggest Chinese film ever in its home country, so it really is a shame to hear it didn’t do so hot here in the U.S. The film is somewhat similar, I guess, to The Little Mermaid, only here the mermaid is part of a conspiracy to assassinate the human man she goes to the surface to romance. Here, it’s a businessman who has placed a sonar in the ocean that is making the animals and merfolk sick and die. The plan to trick him, however, goes awry when the mermaid finds herself charmed by him and realizes his intentions aren’t evil, just ignorant. The Mermaid has an obvious undercurrent of commentary on the way that we treat the environment, but Chow, who stays behind the camera, still ensures that the movie contains plenty of amusing sight gags and zany slapstick to balance it all out – though there are some shocking scenes of violence that, cartoony though it may be, is still kinda jarring. The effects may not be the best, either, but they at least seem suitable to the tone, and leads Lin Yun and Deng Chao – along with costars Zhang Yuqi and Show Luo – are great at shifting with the various tones without it feeling false.
Race 2/19/2016 61%
You would think that a film based on the life of Jesse Owens would have had a major biopic based on his life by now, but I guess not. Race is a fairly by-the-numbers historical biopic that, nonetheless, is admirably performed, decently paced, and engaging enough that teachers will likely be show it in schools thanks to the significance of its subject, a man who broke track and field records while also facing the challenges of being a black man in America in the first half of the 20th century and yet also representing the country during the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin, which was under the rule of Adolph Hitler. Race was never itself going to live up to Owens’ legacy, but one can at least appreciate it for trying to tell the story of the whole man, flaws and all, while still making apparent the man’s importance.
Risen 2/19/2016 51%
Not horrible. There were once again no films this past year that were produced by “Christian film studios” that made it onto my “best of” list (“Silence” is extraordinary but is not produced by one of these studios), but at least there were a couple of them that were verifiably “not horrible,” so… progress! Risen follows a Roman Tribune who is tasked with tracking down the whereabouts of a certain man who should by all means be dead but is reportedly now walking about again after spending three days in the tomb. (No points for guessing Who.) I honestly keep getting this movie mixed up with another, similar one called The Young Messiah, though the two may as well be considered unofficial companion pieces. The Young Messiah is honestly a better film, thanks in large part to Sean Bean’s performance and better pacing, but while Risen is predictable and a bit dull, it isn’t the worst thing ever, either. And, unlike PureFlix, you should know that Affirm Films has actually been known to produce actual movies such as Soul Surfer, Hachi: A Dog’s Tale, and The Water Horse, and not just stuff like Fireproof.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny 2/26/2016 19%
Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was one of the biggest foreign films released in the US and also the first foreign language film and so far only kung fu film to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. Its very name has entered the pop culture lexicon, and its success kicked off a new era in Americans’ interest in martial arts films. That time seems to have long since passed, but that didn’t stop Netflix from commissioning this long-rumored sequel. While Michelle Yeoh as Yu Shu Lien and the sword from the previous film make their return, the new film – directed by the previous film’s fight choreographer and kung fu movie legend Yuen Woo Ping – the film is actually fairly standalone, focusing on an otherwise all new cast of characters. It’s also filmed entirely in English, for some reason. While the film was never likely to live up to the standards of the original, it still had a chance of at least being a beautiful, action-packed spectacle, and the addition of Donnie Yen to the cast was also heartening. Alas, the film swaps out the first film’s elegant wirework for cold, unconvincing, and annoyingly pervasive CGI, and the young couple at the center of the film are just bland, particularly Shu Lien’s new pupil Snow Vase, who spends most of the movie looking like a sourpuss. Sure, we learn why, but it’s still disappointing how one-dimensional she is, particularly compared to the spoiled aristocrat Yu Jiaolong from the first film. I didn’t think the film was as bad as its 19% Rotten Tomatoes score would probably lead you into believing, but as a standalone film and particularly as a follow-up to the masterpiece that was the first film, Sword of Destiny is by any measure a significant and unfortunate letdown.
Triple 9 2/26/2016 53%
A thriller with a packed cast and a story featuring moles and backstabbers, Triple 9 is for people who liked The Departed but also thought that it could be a bit less cerebral. I honestly debated whether I would even give this movie the time of day, but it showed up in my mailbox from my Netflix DVD queue, so I gave it a shot. It’s sloppy and tries way too hard while often failing to be a shocking series of twisting events that put you on the edge of your seat, but it moves fast enough and has likable actors in it, so if you’re forced to join a friend or like an almost mindless crime thriller about corrupt cops, heists, and all that, then Triple 9 is among the myriad of other similar thrillers that may suit your desires.
Knight of Cups 3/04/2016 46%
I don’t know if Terrence Malick is losing his touch or that I was just so enchanted by The Tree of Life – the first film of his I ever saw – that I feel as though he has been in a decline, but Knight of Cups just wasn’t interesting enough to elevate its conglomeration of gorgeous visuals into the same levels of greatness. Here, Malick centers his story on a Hollywood screenwriter, played by Christian Bale, and the various relationships that pass through his life, be they flings, lovers, relatives, or, in true Malick fashion, his ever-present internal monologue, present throughout the eight tarot card-named sequences that divide the film. The Knight of Cups is itself a card that can represent someone who is artistic but easily disengaged from his life without much to hold his attention or even a façade that hides one’s faults, depending on the position of the card when drawn. It’s a fascinating means of telling a story, though Knight of Cups winds up feeling like a film that requires an appendix explaining it all to be more compelling than it actually is.
London Has Fallen 3/04/2016 25%
Olympus Has Fallen was a brazenly stupid and jingoistic flick that for some reason was successful enough to warrant itself a series. London Has Fallen takes the “America, fuck yeah!” attitude overseas, where it pretty much literally dances on the graves of foreign leaders to present a narrative wherein the Secret Service agent played by Gerard Butler in the previous film proves to also be the savior of not just America but also the world. And, you know – it’s kind of better…? Don’t get me wrong – it’s absolutely stupid. No movie wherein the protagonist shouts at a villain, “Go back to Fuckheadistan!” is deserving of being taken that seriously. But it’s so absurd and stupid that it’s actually kind of amusing in a trainwreck sort of way. Props, I guess, for improving into at least a tolerably stinky piece of crap rather than the pile that was the first film.
The Wave 3/04/2016 83%
Inspired by the 1934 Tafjord rockslide that resulted in a tsunami that killed 40 people, this Norwegian disaster film is also based on the fact that many other towns in Norway are threatened by even greater tectonic shifts that are likely to wipe them out entirely. The film follows a family that is split up by such an event – the father and daughter, who have decided to stay behind in their old home one last time when the disaster strikes, and the mother and son, who are staying at the hotel where she still has a few more days of work left to complete at the time of the event. While the film does feature a few secondary characters, unlike most disaster movies, which seem to find themselves invariably determined to follow a swath of politicians and families alike while juggling a cast of dozens in each role, The Wave stays smartly focused on the central family and their attempts to reunite with one another while stuck in their various circumstances without even trying to shoehorn in an allegory for overcoming marital woes, tertiary love affairs, or anything like that. As a result of this, while The Wave is not as a whole extraordinary or groundbreaking, it does at least feel a lot more personal and, therefore, appealing.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot 3/04/2016 68%
I am a fan of Tina Fey, but apart from Mean Girls, her work in film has been largely overshadowed by her work in television in terms of quality. A lot of this may be the fact that she perhaps gets a bit more say in her television work, whether or not she’s on the screen, or the fact that she simply just works better in that environment, but whatever it may be, Whisky Tango Foxtrot did nothing to challenge that notion, particularly following the disappointment that was Sisters. The film is admirable for attempting to not go too broad with its comedy, however, and even works in some welcome and not at all out of place drama into its story about a reporter heading to Afghanistan and Pakistan to cover both the war and the culture. Perhaps it’s due to the film being grounded in reality, as it’s based on Kim Barker’s memoir, The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan? I also liked the supporting cast, which includes Margo Robbie and Martin Freeman. It’s a bit predictable, but unlike the frequently obnoxious Sisters, this one at least stays on track and tells a compelling enough story.
Hello, My Name Is Doris 3/11/2016 83%
I’ve always liked Sally Field, so it’s always nice to see her in a role such as this, an aging woman who finds herself struggling to keep up with the times as a data entry worker while also keeping in check her uncontrollable attraction to a new and decades-younger man who just joined the company. This is a fairly gentle, light, and empathetic film, even as we get to know Doris’ bigger problems later on, and I admired that it didn’t let Doris’ (and Field’s) inherent likability get in the way of her having some serious flaws that are obviously within her capability of controlling, too, as it would be all too easy to make her some kind of elderly manic pixie dream girl. Field is great in the role, but so is Max Greenfield as the object of her infatuation, believably naïve to the ulterior motives of his elder coworker while being wholeheartedly into hanging out with her as a friend, despite the age difference. It’s a nice movie that’s not too nice, and I liked it.
The Young Messiah 3/11/2016 46%
Attempting to fill in the gap between Jesus’ birth and adulthood, The Young Messiah is based on the Anne Rice novel Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt (yes – that Anne Rice), the film presents a speculative narrative that explores Jesus’ adolescence, in which He struggles with coming to grips with His identity and his parents’ fears over Him being… well, Him. They are also being pursued by a Roman centurion, Serverus, who begins to have his doubts about the mission he’s been sent on to kill the young boy who, he has heard, performs miracles. The film isn’t great, but it gets points for some relative ambition for its willingness to go in a creative and emotional direction in exploring the lives and emotions of its central characters – particularly that of a very young Jesus – when so many other faith-based films attempt to merely present lessons for us all to learn or familiar events for us all to remember.
Miracles from Heaven 3/16/2016 43%
Another faith-based film that isn’t on my worst of list? Yes, perhaps because I’m getting so used to these things, 2016 at the very least provided some of these films that didn’t invoke my wrath by the mere fact of not being hateful, choir-preaching screeds. Miracles from Heaven leans more towards the Heaven is for Real side of the pendulum in that it’s at least a story and is competently acted. It also happens to be inspired by true events, though the extent to which you buy into it is obviously dependent upon your interpretation of those events. Unlike the film in which we’re asked to believe that a child who’s barely been potty trained isn’t imagining or outright lying about his experience of going to heaven on the operating table and coming back with a full report of what we should all expect when we get there, thereby reinvigorating the faith and alleviate the doubts of even his preacher father, Miracles from Heaven at least has the good sense to make us empathize with the struggle of its characters, who are dealing with the fact that the youngest in their family is suffering from a serious disease for most of the movie. It nearly put me off by having the mother character declare that she knew better than her daughter’s doctors, who are portrayed as apathetic to their suffering, but it does steer away from that and acknowledges that she’s also a mother in crisis who perhaps overreacted, and it takes just the right doctor to assuage her understandable frustrations. I was mostly impressed with the performances by both Jennifer Garner and Kylie Rogers, and the film is refreshingly nonjudgmental about the doubts that this situation instills in even the most devout believers. What can I say? I’m grading on a curve here…
Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday 3/17/2016 82%
I used to watch The Pee-Wee Herman Show as a little kid. I barely remember it. I also never saw the Tim Burton-directed movie, nor the sequel, Big Top Pee-Wee. Probably because my mom hated the character. Needless to say, after a certain age, I lost track of all things Pee-Wee Herman and couldn’t even remember what it was that I liked about him, so when news broke of Netflix reviving the character in his third feature length film and all the buzz was about how excited people were, I was curious but perplexed. Just what was it about this manchild that made everyone so excited to see him? Luckily, Netflix also had the original movie, too. And… yeah. I enjoyed it. It’s silly, imaginative, and weird, and I totally understand why younger me would’ve enjoyed it. He’s a clown without the creepiness, a mature child, a figurehead whose antics lead to profound revelations about our own need to take things less seriously…. Or something. Anyway, Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday is one of the rare late game sequels that actually lives up to expectations, which means, I guess, that your mileage may vary.
The Confirmation 3/18/2016 91%
I very nearly forgot that this was a movie that released this past year. A seemingly deadbeat father spends a day with his preteen son, who is spending most of his time with his religious mother and stepfather. Within that day, the son learns things about the world and about his father that he never would have away from him, though he does seem to break nearly every commandment along the way. This could’ve been a somewhat contrived premise for an indie film, but the film is actually surprisingly moving and very well acted by both Clive Owen and Jaeden Lieberher as the father and son, Walt and Anthony. It’s one of those rare films I spotted on Netflix, read the synopsis, and pressed play on… and just kept watching because I was actually compelled to. It also features some really great cinematography within the dingy neighborhoods the movie takes place in.
Hardcore Henry 4/08/2016 49%
I didn’t think Hardcore Henry would be anything more than just noise when I saw the previews. To be honest, that is pretty much all that it is, but it’s also surprisingly effective at pulling off the first person perspective action film thing, and you have to wonder if this is the type of movie that might be best suited for VR. It’s basically an on-rails first person shooter that you’re not controlling, so why not? Beyond the novelty, you do also have Sharlto Copley in a strange role of a recurring character who shows up in different guises, usually only to be killed off in some conflict and then show up again in another ridiculous guise moments later, be it a punk rocker or a thong-wearing coke fiend. Hardcore Henry is a stupid, silly movie, but in the right mood and mindset, it’s reasonably entertaining.
Barbershop: The Next Cut 4/15/2016 90%
I’d never seen any of the Barbershop movies before last year, but I actually liked this one enough to go pursue the others when Amazon had a 99 cent rental sale going on. This one’s not as good as the first, but after seeing the others, I can say it’s still a return to form, and given the series’ themes revolving around people living in predominantly African American neighborhoods, it’s also a particularly timely return to a series that hadn’t been heard from since the poorly received 2005 spin-off Beauty Shop. The characters are mostly likable and, though often broadly characterized, they are not overly simplistic, and the cast, both new and old, is great working off one another, even after all these years have passed.
The Jungle Book 4/15/2016 95%
Disney’s live action remakes are shaping up to be pointless but mostly successful adaptations of lesser classics that somehow improve on them in certain ways. The Jungle Book, directed by Jon Favreau, is an ambitious technological endeavor that isn’t quite on the same level as Cinderella from the previous year, but even though you know a lot of it (okay, everything but the kid) is CGI, the world feels pretty alive, and the film also has a likable protagonist in Neel Sethi as Mowgli, who had the unenviable task of acting against literally nothing but his imagination throughout the film while remaining engaging – something even Academy Award-winning actors have expressed frustration over, so kudos to him. A cast of celebrity voice actors as the various animals rounds out the package, including pretty much perfectly cast Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, and Idris Elba as Baloo, Bagheera, and Shere Khan, respectively, while more interesting choices like Christopher Walken as King Louie make for… well, let’s just say that one’s got an unexpected take on one of the original film’s musical numbers going for it. You kinda wonder how they resisted the temptation of having Walken motion capture a little dance for it.
Keanu 4/29/2016 76%
At times hilarious, but often a bit too meandering for its own good, Keanu is still a straight up good time, with Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele bringing their brand of humor to a zany feature length film about two middle aged suburban men infiltrating the world of drug dealers in order to rescue an adorable kitten from its leader. I probably would’ve enjoyed it more if it had been a bit more focused, but for what it is, it’s still perfectly entertaining as is.
The Man Who Knew Infinity 4/29/2016 61%
Based on the true story of Srinivasa Ramanujen, a pioneer of mathematical theories who managed to overcome his financial disadvantages in India and be admitted into Cambridge almost halfway around the world, becoming one of the greatest mathematical minds of the 20th century. The film tells mostly of his time at Cambridge, where he struggled to continue functioning away from his wife and in the face of overwhelming prejudice and the threat of war. The film also covers his unique friendship with Prof. G.H. Hardy, who takes a begrudging liking to Ramanujen. The film has great intentions, and Dev Patel and Jeremy Irons are just fine in the two leading roles, but it has a hard time conveying the importance of Ramanujen’s legacy unless you understand the mathematics – and I sure as hell didn’t. Which is a shame, because even if we as an audience don’t fully understand the mechanics, we can certainly understand the significance of what the work can do. As is, it’s just another bland but not horrible biopic.
A Bigger Splash 5/04/2016 89%
A rock star, recovering from throat surgery, and her record producer partner play host to her former lover and his adult daughter, resulting in a time meant for rest becoming a time of jealousy, lust, and suspicion. This movie played well with most critics, and by all means, it is a well-made and performed film. However, I just… I dunno. Something didn’t click, ultimately. I became bored by these people’s woes and gradually found the melodrama insufferable and the characters’ problems enraging. Like, really, get over it, guys…
Last Days in the Desert 5/13/2016 75%
Putting aside the continued problem of white actors being cast as ancient Middle Easterners, Last Days in the Desert proposes a scenario in which Jesus, during his forty days in the desert, encountered a troubled family and was tempted by the devil to lose faith while helping them work out their issues. I suspect that either the film or possibly myself are just failing to fully click with one another. I wasn’t bored, but I was struggling to find much insight beyond surface level stuff. The kid wants to move on from his life out there, but his father is a staunch traditionalist who wants his son to carry on the family legacy when he’s gone, while the ailing mother just wants everyone to get along. Meanwhile Jesus plays observer and occasional voice of reason. It’s interesting and decent, but I didn’t find it as compelling as some.
The Angry Birds Movie 5/20/2016 43%
I hate to say it, but The Angry Birds Movie may be one of the better video game cinematic adaptations ever made. At the very least, it’s definitely the best of 2016. Which, given that the other two films were the atrocious Assassin’s Creed and Warcraft, that isn’t saying much, but even grading on a curve, Angry Birds is still better than I had feared it would be. That it’s not trying to take itself seriously doesn’t hurt (I don’t know how they could’ve done it, but consider the film adaptation of Super Mario Bros. got made and you’ll realize anything’s possible). That the original games don’t really have much of a story to begin with also gives the filmmakers a lot of leeway in terms of crafting something around the original premise without trampling over what fans of the game series to begin with. The movie is also pretty nicely animated, more than it really needed to be. I also may have smirked at some of the more humorous moments. I don’t know whether that’s the filmmakers or the cast of talented comedians riffing, but it happened, and… yeah, I dunno. It’s not the worst thing ever.
Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising 5/20/2016 62%
It’s a rare comedy sequel that can live up to the original’s quality. 22 Jump Street is a rare, recent example of such a film, and while Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising doesn’t match it in terms of the Jump Street films’ consistent success, it comes pretty darn close to achieving the same thing – tweaking the formula just a bit, adding a few new twists on familiar jokes from the first without overstaying their welcome, and moving the characters forward just a bit without removing what we loved about them the first time. Sorority Rising even finds a valid reason for bringing back Zac Efron’s Teddy from the first film, despite his fraternity vacating the premises of the house next door to the Radner family. Stuck in a rut and finding his frat bros are quickly leaving him behind, he becomes desperate to relive his glory days and winds up helping a group of girls set up their own sorority in the same house, getting a bit of revenge on the couple who he thinks ruined his social life by getting him kicked out and thus encouraging his buddies to move on. Of course, it’s not long before the aging frat boy is joining the Radners in taking down the monster he helped create. Chloe Moretz is a welcome substitute for Efron as the leader of the youthful terrors, and the film also finds unique and humorous ways for the girls to terrorize the Radners, who are even more humorously fumbling their way through selling their house. The film is about what you’d expect, and while some familiarity and predictability hampers the film, the commitment to the material makes this still a worthy follow-up.
X-Men: Apocalypse 5/27/2016 48%
The X-Men movies really seem to have an issue with third films, don’t they? Apocalypse doesn’t come anywhere near the low set by The Last Stand, but this third in the prequel-ish series that started with First Class and so far peaked with Days of Future Past is still a massive letdown, given that it pales in comparison to even the various TV series’ adaptations of the rise of the ancient mutant at the center of the film. Despite continuing to use the gifted cast from the first two, adding some new talents as younger versions of familiar characters, and casting the villain with one of the more gifted actors working today, Oscar Isaac, Apocalypse is an achievement only in watering down one of the more promising X-Men storylines with frequent character introductions, reintroductions, and a sideplot involving Quicksilver’s pursuit of reconnecting with his father, Magneto, which ironically goes absolutely nowhere beyond frequently being mentioned. Apocalypse himself barely makes an impression and isn’t even that intimidating. Apparently the extensive use of awful CGI and green screen meant that what little scenery Isaac was given to chew on just left a bad taste in his mouth. The movie’s still watchable, and there are some good individual moments with the characters, but between expectations for the film being set so high after arguably the best X-Men film to date and the squandering of the film’s 80s-era setting, Apocalypse kind of makes you just want to see what would happen if they had just let him destroy the world.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows 6/03/2016 38%
An improvement on the first film that also has a lot more fun with its premise, Out of the Shadows still suffers from the Michael Bay-ification of this continuity, including the still grotesque character designs and leaps in logic that don’t even mesh with the reality of the film. It somehow also features a performance from Megan Fox that manages to be more detached from the material than she’s been in past films. But who could blame her with the material she’s given? I don’t even know what the heck Laura Linney’s doing here. Like, seriously, she hardly matters to the story, so why such a big and respected name? Perhaps Linney’s kids, like co-star Stephen Amell’s, just really like the Ninja Turtles and would be overjoyed to see their parent star alongside their heroes? I can’t imagine anyone being happy with this film – but, then again, I know grown adults who insisted the first was genuinely great and that I just didn’t “get” the material, so what do I know?
Now You See Me 2 6/10/2016 34%
The only thing that saved this movie for me was Mark Ruffalo, unshackled from the burden of a twist ending, and Lizzy Caplan, who is a far better shock magician than Isla Fisher from the first film. That’s really about it, though, as I still found it hard to care much about this world of impossibly skilled magician thieves. The wink-wink addition of Daniel Radcliffe does nothing for the film, and the addition of Woody Harrelson’s character getting a cartoonishly annoying twin brother actually serves as a detriment to the film’s otherwise mediocrity, but I guess I didn’t hate this one nearly as much as the first. Probably because it’s dumb enough to not try to be clever in the first place.
Central Intelligence 6/17/2016 69%
Kevin Hart. Kevin Hart, Kevin Hart, Kevin Hart… I just cannot seem to muster up any enthusiasm for the man’s movies. At least The Rock was here to back him up. Despite Hart once again falling into the “shrieking small man pal of bigger, stronger, more badass dude,” Central Intelligence does at least rise above the Ride Along series and be funny now and then. It’s still a tired schtick, and despite Dwayne Johnson’s comical performance as a perky, former fat guy turned badass spy who still idolizes the one cool guy who was nice to him in high school, I also couldn’t really much tell you what it was about this movie that made it not awful, either.
Free State of Jones 6/24/2016 47%
A worthy enough story to be told in film, but Free State of Jones gets far too caught up in the hero worship aspect of Confederate defector Newton Knight, who sought out to establish his own government where everyone was treated equally, more or less. I think the filmmakers took the “supporting” in “supporting character” far too literally, however, as anything that happens to them is presented as a means of explaining how it affected Knight, robbing them of their own humanity and instead rendering them into almost prop-like roles. This is not only ironic, considering the freedom aspect of its Civil War-era story, it’s borderline torturous, as the film is just under two and a half hours long and yet really only ever focuses on one man. Matthew McConaughey is fine in the lead role, but it’s not a performance that can carry that burden. When you have a supporting cast that includes Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali, and Kerri Russell, you better damn well ensure that the talent you’ve assembled is put to better use than to relegate them to such middling and borderline degrading roles.
The Fundamentals of Caring 6/24/2016 77%
This Netflix movie is nearly too contrived for its own good: A down-on-his-luck writer – who lost his son years ago in an accident he still feels responsible for – decides to make an unexpected career turn and becomes a certified caregiver. His first client, however, turns out to be a foul-mouthed and prank-prone teenager with muscular dystrophy who has, of course, chased off many prior caregivers. Naturally, the rocky relationship between the two steadily grows into a begrudging fondness, and the two convince his protective mother to let them go on a rare road trip to visit the world’s deepest pit – which takes a few unexpected detours that teach them some life lessons. Because of course. The R-rated edge of the film still can’t cut through the overly contrived sweetness of the premise, but it helps that Paul Rudd and Craig Roberts have great comedic chemistry with one another, and even Selena Gomez, continuing to shed her Disney Channel identity, puts in a good performance as a runaway bad girl who becomes the object of the boy’s infatuation. It’s predictable but charming, and you’d find far worse ways of burning an hour and a half.
Independence Day: Resurgence 6/24/2016 31%
This is a dumb movie. This is not a good movie. This doesn’t even live up to the first film, which is itself not a great film but still manages to be entertaining. But, dammit, I had fun at this one, too. I set aside any notions that this was going to be great and even set myself up to expect the worst, but I just could not help but have a huge grin on my face throughout this movie, laughing at the ridiculous dialogue and just the absurdity of this 20-year-belated sequel that somehow looks and feels even more dated than the original 1996 film. The characters aren’t even nearly as entertaining as in the first, and Will Smith’s character is even killed off between the timelines, his role as hotshot pilot replaced by a cocky Liam Hemsworth, barely carrying the film on his shoulders, and a cardboard cutout playing Dylan Hiller, Smith’s son from the first film. And, yet, I seriously enjoyed seeing this in theatres. I almost wanted to clap by the credits for how enjoyably stupid it was. If ever there was a film to be “that person” who ridiculously applauds the absent filmmakers for their efforts from within the theatre, this was it.
The Shallows 6/24/2016 78%
Blake Lively wouldn’t have been the first person I thought of when it came to carrying a shark attack movie, but The Shallows is actually a fairly decent survival thriller with a bit of horror thrown in. Lively does a pretty good job as Nancy, a young woman attempting to reconnect with her recently deceased mother by visiting a once fabled beach where she had surfed while pregnant with her, only to encounter a rather tenacious great white shark. The movie plays out a bit like Gravity in that Lively is tasked with dealing with the daunting situation on her own, mostly talking to herself (and a seagull companion with the only appropriate name of Steven Seagull) as she attempts to survive her ordeal and make it back to land in one piece with very little contact from anyone else. The film is also quite beautiful to look at when it’s not piling on some rather fantastical-looking CGI action. While I don’t see myself purchasing it, it’s a worthwhile rental and was undoubtedly worth seeing in the theatre.
The BFG 7/01/2016 75%
I actually considered putting this movie on my list of the worst movies, but charming performances from Mark Rylance and Ruby Barnhill as the young orphan who befriends Rylance’s giant just barely saved this Disney/Steven Spielberg production, which may very well be one of Spielberg’s worst movies. It attempts to be a quiet, gentle, and enchanting film, but the distractingly hit-or-miss effects, an almost zero-stakes storyline, and pacing that left me very literally struggling to stay awake nearly sank the film for me. While I enjoyed elements of The BFG, the parts really did not make up to a worthwhile whole.
The Purge: Election Year 7/01/2016 54%
I really did not enjoy the first movie, which squandered the absurd premise of a government sanctioned night of legalized crime by placing the film entirely within the confines of a single home, but the sequel, The Purge: Anarchy, was a welcome realization of the franchise’s potential, focusing on an entirely new cast, particularly Frank Grillo as an unnamed man bent on meting out vengeance and finding himself guardian and companion to a series of people just trying to make it through the night alive. Anarchy was an enjoyable B-movie that didn’t challenge audiences’ ability to suspend disbelief, nor did it employ cheap, cliché villains within a tired genre the way the first film did. Election Year luckily knows what worked best and continues to follow Grillo’s hardened man from the second film, who now has a name and a job protecting a senator who is running on a campaign promising to end the annual purge. Naturally, her political enemies take advantage of the purge night to make a few changes to the rules, hoping to silence her and continue on with their bloodthirsty ways. Election Year doesn’t click the way that Anarchy did and lacks its variety of setpieces, taking one too many breaks with actual sane people to keep the momentum going, but it, too, knows what’s best for it and continues to work in some not-so-subtle political commentary while still mostly keeping the action out on the streets and in the chaos. I liked this movie, regardless of whether it was as enjoyable as the second.
Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates 7/08/2016 35%
Zac Efron can’t seem to stay out of the wacky, R-rated comedy business, can he? Mike and Dave Needs Wedding Dates sits uncomfortably somewhere between Dirty Grandpa and Neighbors 2 for 2016’s Efron releases. The film isn’t quite a disaster, but it’s not especially funny, either, and the assault of having both Efron and Adam DeVine play over-the-top crazy brothers who get wasted all the time pairing off with the over-the-top crazy fake wedding dates played by Aubrey Plaza and Anna Kendrick is borderline intolerable. Enough of the scenarios and lines that the film flings at the audience with abandon is funny enough to save the film from being awful, but it’s not nearly exceptional enough to prevent the film from feeling like one more movie on the pile of improv-heavy comedy films one would presumably put on as background noise to a kegger.
The Secret Life of Pets 7/08/2016 74%
Countless other film critics have pointed this out, but it’s worth mentioning here, too: The Secret Life of Pets is basically just Toy Story and Toy Story 2 smashed together and the toys replaced with pets. You’ve got your mismatched pair who don’t get along at first because one of them was there first and isn’t willing to share the spotlight of their owner’s affections, and you’ve got a bunch of other side characters going out on a crazy adventure to find the two after they go missing and themselves go on a journey that leads to a mutual understanding that ultimately leads them home again. Okay, fine – it’s a generic enough premise that it could be mere coincidence, but that everything leads into this grand and wacky adventure where our heroes encounter murderous bunnies who lead an army of abandoned, angry pets and where traffic jams caused by dozens of animals assembling in the middle of a bridge goes basically unacknowledged just makes the movie feel even more contrived, as the film doesn’t even care to adhere to the whole “secret” thing. Though the humans here really do seem more oblivious than the ones in Toy Story, too. I dunno. I wasn’t nearly as charmed as some people were. It wasn’t funny enough, it wasn’t pretty enough, and despite being an animal lover, I’m also not amused by the mere presence of cute animals acting out a story, either. At least I found Kevin Hart to be a little bit funnier here than he is in live action.
Café Society 7/15/2016 70%
Woody Allen once again directs a passable film about lonely and neurotic men being pursued by a woman who has nothing better to do with her time than have their lives revolve around them. It’s way better than Allen’s Magic in the Moonlight, but this whole thing he’s doing lately has really gotten boring, and I couldn’t care less about ever watching this again, no matter what title and era he gives it next time.
Ghostbusters (2016) 7/15/2016 73%
Yes, we know – it’s not as good as the original. My God, please shut up now. The gender-swapped 2016 reboot of the franchise is perfectly enjoyable, if not exactly destined to become a classic. Paul Feig reteamed with Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy and also added Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones to the slate of talented funny women he’s worked with while throwing in an amusingly dimwitted performance from Chris Hemsworth for good measure. The film lacks a satisfyingly creepy villain an relies upon Feig’s trademark of letting his actors ramble off too much improvisation, but the characters are fun and the film still feels very much like a proper Ghostbusters movie. There’s room for improvement, of course, but those of us who actually enjoyed it for what it was are probably wondering if anyone involved in this production is willing to come back, given the ridiculous backlash attached to the whole thing.
Captain Fantastic 7/18/2016 83%
This is one of those movies I never heard about until I looked up the movies I hadn’t seen yet and promptly watched soon after. 2016 provided me with few gems in the process of doing that, but it did provide me with at least this one interesting one about a father who attempts to raise his children out in the woods and away from a society that he believes is beneath them and ruled by simple pleasures and not enough knowledge about philosophy, survival, and a whole manner of other subjects. Their lives, however, are turned sideways after a tragedy, however, and he’s forced to reintroduce them to a society they had seemingly given up on and surpassed years prior. The cast is pretty great – not just Viggo Mortensen as the dad, but even all of the kids, who are variously enthused or not with the lifestyle and events that transpire. I liked that, while the movie seems clearly on the side of the father, it’s also quick to point out that he’s not exactly the greatest influence, either, and while his kids are bright, they’re not exactly well-adjusted, either. It’s an entertaining and interesting watch, even though it’s a bit high on itself, and I’m glad to have found out about it.
Lights Out 7/22/2016 76%
Horror has been having a good run of late, and while Lights Out doesn’t reach the same levels as It Follows, The Babadook, or even its more apparent peer Don’t Breathe, it’s still one of the better conceived and executed psychological horror films out there, and with some great performances, too. The film was taken to task for allegedly justifying suicide, but it’s hard to imagine a case in which that was the actual intention of the filmmakers, so that hardly seems fair, even if it perhaps should come with a big trigger warning no the packaging or something. The psychological aspect of the terror that haunts the family at the center of the story, however, is done much better than one would likely expect from a low budget horror flick, and I can honestly say again that the actors are really good in this.
Batman: The Killing Joke 7/25/2016 50%
One of the most iconic and controversial storylines in Batman comics got an animated adaptation this year that also got a limited special event run in theatres. The original storyline had the Joker attempting to prove to Batman that all it took was one bad day to make a villain as crazed as him, resulting in an orchestrated plan against Commissioner Gordon that would also leave his daughter and current Batgirl, Barbara, paralyzed from the waist down and everyone involved traumatized for life. The comic has become notorious for its implication that Batman may have killed the Joker by the end (it’s ambiguous, but it was also originally a non-canon standalone story), but the treatment of Barbara led to much backlash against DC and the comic’s writer, Alan Moore, for what many believed was an excessive and exploitative creative decision. Still, it’s also one of the more influential stories from the comics, and Barbara’s transformation into Oracle both salvaged the mess and resulted in one of the more notable and celebrated role models for handicapped people everywhere, to the point where the reversal of that was also not without its controversies. So an animated adaptation akin to the one done for The Dark Knight Returns was not out of the question, and the fact that it reunited The Animated Series’ Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill as Batman and Joker, respectively, was also a nice plus. They also set out to flesh out Batgirl with some original material – and then promptly botched it by making it a strange sexual infatuation thing with Batman, right before the incident. … Progress…? The adaptation was obviously a labor of love, but even putting aside misguided good intentions, it wasn’t that great, either.
Nerve 7/27/2016 66%
The trailers for this movie looked awful and insufferable, but it got decent enough reviews, and so I rented it from Redbox. And, you know, this story about a social media game that encourages players to do increasingly insane stunts and dares for cash is not so bad. Sure, it’s a bit too superficial and is borderline condescending in its portrayal of our social media-obsessed culture, but it’s brisk, and its hook proves to be more compelling in context of the film and not just the trailer. Not a bad way to spend some time. The movie… not… the fictional app.
Bad Moms 7/29/2016 59%
2016 was surprisingly not a bad year for comedy films if you were willing to branch out. Bad Moms was not one of those remarkable films, but it’s not one of the worst, either. It’s not nearly as obnoxious and tired as The Boss and, unlike The Bronze, its leads are not insufferable and almost irredeemably awful, either. This movie had me smiling a few times, and as obvious as the grievances are in this film regarding helicopter moms and their delicate treatment of their precious children, I at least liked that the resolution wasn’t what I expected it to be.
Into the Forest 7/29/2016 77%
Ellen Page and Even Rachel Wood play two sisters, still living at home with their father in an idyllic house in the woods sometime in the near future, who wind up having to survive the near apocalypse when seemingly all technology shuts down. Into the Forest is a surprisingly gentle, emotional film, though one that teeters on the edge of schmaltz and would have tipped if not for the grounded and believable performances from Page and Wood. The bond between the two sisters carries a lot of weight, and, despite some odd turns, the film was a lovely piece of filmmaking.
Jason Bourne 7/29/2016 56%
Though the camera tried to make this as painful an experience as one could ever expect from a shaky-cam action thriller from the returning Paul Greengrass, I had a reasonably good time watching this long-belated and honestly unnecessary sequel. Then again, I said pretty much the same thing regarding spin-off The Bourne Legacy, so what do I know? Nothing quite matches those first three films, and anyone expecting to be surprised will be sorely disappointed by the retread of familiar story elements and action sequences, but as a time killer, this wasn’t so bad for me.
Holding the Man 8/01/2016 78%
Based on the 1995 posthumously released memoir by Timothy Conigrave, which tells the story about his life and that of his partner, John Caleo, who were both diagnosed with HIV in 1985 and died within two years of each other, with Caleo contracting cancer and passing in 1992 and Conigrave in 1994. With a script written by Tommy Murphy, who also adapted the memoir into the 2006 stage play, Holding the Man obviously has its heart in the right place and is mostly well made, but it’s hard to feel like it’s anything but a by-the-numbers biopic that’s trying a bit too hard to be an important film rather than just a good one.
Suicide Squad 8/05/2016 26%
I’m still kinda torn between whether this or Batman v Superman was the worse film, but at the very least, Suicide Squad had the decency to fit in some fun. That d Warner Bros. reportedly farmed the film out to multiple trailer companies in order to focus on all the highlights they predicted audiences would like, however, is obvious and results in a bizarre film that’s all character quips standing in for depth and no true payoff to the story. Suicide Squad is neither a successful film nor even a successful adaptation of the source material, as it doesn’t even understand what the purpose of the Squad was (they’re the fall guys for shady government-sanctioned missions, not an enslaved anti-Justice League). The cast is padded with characters who might be interesting if they were explored beyond their character design and gimmick and not just promptly discarded or made stand around in the background while the other half of the cast either chews scenery or makes way for them to show up in a random shot of them kicking a faceless monster to remind us they’re still around. Apart from Cara Delevingne as Enchantress, I can’t really say anyone in the core cast is unwelcome, at least – just underutilized and rendered pointless. Of course, then there’s Jared Leto’s Joker – a bizarre mess of ideas who is reminiscent of Heath Ledger’s take, only with a street thug persona and strained, random laughter in place of any deep motivation. He is partnered up with an honestly great Harley in Margot Robbie, and though she rarely gets to be more than just a piece of eye candy, there is something there that suggests Robbie is poised for success in a much better film.
Emily & Tim 8/12/2016 N/A
More of an intriguing premise than an intriguing story, Emily & Tim tells a very basic story about the same couple going through life throughout the decades, changing up the cast with each chapter, with a late in life wraparound holding the parts together. The idea is to show that love and relationships are all pretty much the same for every couple, both the good times and the bad, and that these things transcend arbitrary things like race, class, and even gender (in one scenario the couple is reimagined as waspy gay couple, Emile and Tim). And, sure enough, it is remarkable how well the story flows together, despite the changes, which should, at the very least, put to bed any complaints one might have about characters being gender swapped or ethnically altered in remakes and adaptations. The film is still more interesting for its novelty factor than its story and central couple, however, as the whole premise of the film is that everything is the same and familiar, which doesn’t make for compelling storytelling.
Florence Foster Jenkins 8/12/2016 87%
Although I think that Meryl Streep’s nomination for this role most certainly stole a nomination from a more deserving actress, there’s no questioning whether or not she’s good in this role of Florence Foster Jenkins, a real woman who was noted for her enthusiasm for the musical arts, putting on productions, donating money, and even hoping to one day take center stage. The only problem: her singing voice is comically atrocious, a fact that goes unadmitted by those closest to her (and those paid well enough by her philandering but doting partner, St. Clair Roberts, to keep their mouths shut in her presence). Streep these days rarely gets to be as hilarious as she is here, and it’s her most endearing work since probably Julie & Julia, wherein she played Julia Child, another real life eccentric who pursued an unlikely career path, albeit one who was far more successful in her chosen field than Ms. Jenkins, who was far more admired for her tenacity and enthusiasm than any recognizable gift. Hugh Grant and Simon Helberg play St. Clair Roberts and Jenkins’ accompanying pianist Cosmé McMoon, respectively, and both are suitably lively and round out the cast nicely, with Helberg being nominated for a Golden Globe for the role. While I do think Streep’s performance is somewhat undeserving of a nomination, that’s only because Streep sets the bar so high in the past. It’s still an exceptional performance, though, and an exceptionally endearing movie in its own right.
Summer of 8 9/01/2016 N/A
I only watched this because the film was a 99 cent rental on Amazon. Centering on a group of eight teenagers who have just graduated from high school and are on their way to college and potentially separate lives, Summer of 8 attempts to encapsulate the raw emotions of moving on and dealing with any regrets of things done and not done during the period of time when you’re supposed to be figuring things out, but it really reads more like a romanticized TV production’s idea of it – something you’d see on The CW. I really can’t say that the film spoke to me, but it wasn’t awful, and I have a feeling that teenagers would get a lot more enjoyment out of it than someone who is well over a decade removed from that time period, despite likely coming from the mind of just such a person.
Other People 9/09/2016 88%
It takes talent to make a sappy song like “Drops of Jupiter” have such emotional resonance as it does in Other People. Based on director Chris Kelly’s own experience dealing with the very slow process of losing his mother to cancer, with Jesse Plemons playing Kelly’s surrogate, David, and Molly Shannon as David’s mother, Joanne. Joanne remains relatively high spirited throughout the ordeal, while David, returning home from his job in New York as a TV writer (Kelly is a writer for Saturday Night Live), also has to put up with reconnecting with his younger sisters and father, who still refuses to acknowledge that David is gay after all these years. Despite being filtered through David’s experience, the film finds plenty of time to develop a lovable character in Joanne, and Molly Shannon is pretty much perfect in the role, too. Plemons has to deal with being a bit of a sourpuss, and David does come off somewhat self-absorbed, given the circumstances. The film does seem aware of this, however, with his sisters calling him out on it, so your mileage may vary with him. Regardless, it’s a warm but very bittersweet film that feels completely authentic.
Denial 9/11/16 82%
Very Important Movies, even ones based on true stories, can often come off as preachy, but when you’re dealing with something like Holocaust denial, it’s kind of understandable. Denial covers the legal case brought against Deborah E. Lipstadt, who was accused of libel by alleged historian David Irving, a noted denier, after a she made accusations of him spreading intentional falsehoods in order to support his beliefs in her book Denying the Holocaust: the Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. The case, which was also brought against her publisher Penguin Books, came to be seen also as a defense of the continued acceptance of the Holocaust as historical fact. The film is surprisingly effective in putting this point forward without bending logic (It really doesn’t have to dramatize such a thing in the first place, though, does it?), and the film is also careful not to lionize Lipstadt into a saint – Weisz is allowed to portray her as an impatient and sometimes even caustically blunt person, but one with a great deal of conviction about what she’s standing up for. Timothy Spall plays David Irving, who is portrayed here with somewhat less nuance, as we see video of him making racist statements to crowds and weaseling his way through logical loops in order to justify his hatred of minorities. I can’t say I blame him, but it would’ve been nice if we had gotten something a bit more nuanced than seeing him play with his young daughter at the beginning of the case. Humanizing a villain isn’t the same thing as acquitting him, after all. Regardless, despite its shortcomings, it’s still a fascinating and well-made film that, in a world where “alternative facts” are gaining so much traction in people’s minds, is also surprisingly timely.
Bridget Jones’s Baby 9/15/2016 76%
I suppose we didn’t need this third entry in the Bridget Jones series, but after The Edge of Reason threatened to leave us all with such a dreadful taste in our mouth, it’s actually kind of nice to see both the character and Renée Zellweger back in action in a surprisingly decent – but overlong – third film. Naturally, as the title suggests, Jones finds herself pregnant, and she doesn’t know who the father is, having both recently split with Mark Darcy and having also had a fling with a new American suitor, Jack. The rest of the film pretty much follows as you would expect, which is both fine and also kind of disappointing, as there’s very little drama. The cast is still good, however, with Zellweger in particular hopefully proving to filmmakers she’s still able to carry a film. Patrick Dempsey joins the cast as Jack, a billionaire dating site inventor who… I guess is overall fine but is a bit too much of a cartoon character. Naturally, Colin Firth is much more preferable, playing the straight man to the antics and providing some solid, stern-faced comedy in turn.
Blair Witch 9/16/2016 36%
Yet another late arriving sequel, Blair Witch unsurprisingly improves upon Blair Witch 2 (or, at least, I hear it does – I still haven’t seen that one, and apparently neither did this film, which doesn’t acknowledge that inexplicably meta film) and returns the series to its found footage, shaky cam in the woods roots. It even returns to the original cast, in a way, with the film centering around the younger brother of Heather from the first film making a documentary in which he and his friends attempt to find out what happened to her all those years ago. Naturally, things go south. The film was much anticipated, particularly since it was originally announced as a film called The Woods and only revealed to be a Blair Witch sequel at Comic-Con shortly before its wide release. The film perhaps doesn’t live up to the hype, and it lays into the clichés of the genre pretty hard, but I still surprisingly found it to be a kind of fun adventure, all things considered.
Miss Stevens 9/16/2016 89%
You ever have those teachers who bond so much with the students, they almost feel like peers? There were a few of them at my high school, and one even had a few events at his place, one of which introduced me to the underrated film Equilibrium. The titular Miss Stevens of this film is one such teacher, who clearly cares for and enjoys the presence of her students, and they, in turn. This type of relationship proves to be a taxing one, however, as teachers must also maintain a safe and professional boundary with their students. They are still the adult, after all, and are ultimately in the kids’ lives in order to educate, not entertain. Stevens is an English teacher who leads a small group of kids on a trip to an acting competition. Along the way, she must wade through helping them sort out their own personal issues while dealing with the fact that she has to seemingly keep her own problems to herself – even though these nascent adults may also be the only people she feels she can really open up to. The movie is sweet, simple, and entertaining, and while the melodrama is laid on a bit thick at times, Lily Rabe is excellent in the lead – wise, vulnerable, strong, likable, and clueless all at once.
Goat 9/23/2016 77%
Despite the frequent trouble they get into, fraternities – hazing and all – are still often romanticized into idealized versions of themselves and the subject of comedy shenanigans meant to entertain audiences and make teenagers think they’re going to have the best time next year. Goat is the sobering chaser to all those films, depicting an environment that preys upon vulnerable young men who are looking for a place and group of people where they can belong and exploits them with brutal results. The film is based on the experiences of Brad Land, who wrote a 2004 memoir recounting how he was drawn to a fraternity after being made to feel vulnerable after being mugged just before going off to college. The title comes not just from what the older fraternity brothers call the newcomers, but also has a certain other significance later in the film. Goat is at times a bit amateurish, but it’s potent and overall still worthwhile watch.
The Magnificent Seven 9/23/2016 63%
A remake of a remake that was in turn based on a film that inspired a number of other knock-offs and inspired-bys, the new Magnificent Seven features a much more diverse cast – Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, and Martin Sensmeir – and swaps out bandits terrorizing a small Mexican town for a violent robber baron terrorizing and exploiting a small mining town in the Old West. The film also features what may as well be the eighth member in both function and prominence apart from the fact that the film needed to keep its recognizable title, that being Haley Bennett as Emma Cullen, who hires the seven men after her husband is murdered by the baron. Antoine Fuqua’s remake is honestly an entertaining film, but it’s also pretty tired and presents us with nothing new. The revelation of Washington’s personal reasons for taking the job come far too late and are still far too obvious to make any sort of intended impact. Meanwhile, the film even manages to push the boundaries of Chris Pratt’s natural charms to their limit – I actually kind of got sick of it. I do like that the characters here are more interestingly defined from one another, however, and while it’s not great filmmaking, it’s hardly detrimental in its existence, either.
Storks 9/23/2016 63%
This movie shouldn’t have worked so well for me, given that it’s got all the things I’d normally hate about modern animated films not made by a Disney studio, but Storks was amusing and energetic enough for me to give it a pass. Its story of a stork and a grown orphan working together to deliver a baby to her family after storks move on to more profitable ventures in delivering online orders isn’t going to be remembered as one of the greatest or most moving family films ever made, but the timing is mostly good, and the insanity that is the wolf pack that’s constantly chasing after the heroes after the infant endears herself to them is the kind of good, well-timed, and visually inventive zaniness that so many other family films lack. Not great, but you could’ve definitely done worse in 2016.
The Birth of a Nation 10/07/2016 71%
Putting aside the director and writer’s public PR problems involving past respective accusations and convictions of rape and harassment, The Birth of a Nation was still poised to be one of the year’s most talked about films, particularly given its subversion in having a title shared by one of the most notoriously racist but cinematically significant films ever made. And the film did have a lot of positive buzz surrounding it, with people even claiming the film was Oscar-worthy. Unfortunately, that’s really not the case. Again, putting aside the behind-the-scenes problems, The Birth of a Nation suffers from a similar issue that Free State of Jones did in that it too narrowly focuses on its lead, an educated slave named Nat Turner who led a rebellion against slave-owners, and designates everyone else as significant only so far as how they prop up the lead’s stature. That the film has also been accused of diminishing the role of the women in Turner’s life is also notable, especially in light of the real world issues. It’s still a decent historical drama, though, and much better than the unbearably dull Free State of Jones.
The Great Gilly Hopkins 10/07/2016 65%
Sort of a My Girl for the 2010s, The Great Gilly Hopkins is also the story about a precocious young woman who is almost neurotic in being unable to deal with her issues and instead seeks solace in obsessing over her absent mother. She’s particular about the people she hangs out with, suspicious about what the adults in her life are up to, and learns a great deal of lessons as she continues to grow. Unlike Veda in that sickeningly sweet older film, however, where the lead had a network of adults who were willing to appease her at every turn, Gilly is a much more jaded and even violent girl who has been passed around within the foster care system from family to family. And yet she continues to believe her deadbeat mother will come and rescue her from this life once things are sorted out. In the meantime, she must currently suffer the overweight, middle-aged religious woman who has taken her into her house, the little boy who refuses to speak and is picked on at school, the blind elderly man across the street who makes his way over for dinner on a regular basis, and the chatterbox at school who for some reason seems determined to be Gilly’s friend, no matter how badly Gilly mistreats her. Gilly still must learn quite a few predictable lessons, and it’s no surprise that her mother’s reappearance makes her question the very meaning of the word “family” as it’s traditionally understood. The movie is fine for what it is, but even with Kathy Bates, Octavia Spencer, and Glenn Close in prominent supporting roles, The Great Gilly Hopkins is little more than just fine.
Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life 10/07/2016 57%
I’m not putting this on my Worst of List because I can totally see a younger me completely digging this movie about a boy who fights an oppressive school system that doesn’t dig his independent, creative spirit and seems hell-bent on destroying it. I went to a school like that and was even told to apologize and promise to never write the stories I was writing ever again after I accidentally left behind a binder in a class. (No, they were not the kind of stories that any sane school would find troubling, but rather stories about spies and superheroes and stuff. I wasn’t nuts! They were!) Younger me likely would’ve even found the twist in the latter half to be profound, and I can see other kids these days feeling the same way. … Then again, younger me was also an idiot, as all kids are. I’m beginning to rethink giving this one a pass..
Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders 10/10/2016 89%
The best Batman film of 2016? You bet. Sure, it’s technically a direct-to-DVD film that saw a small theatrical release window, but when the film features the return of Adam West, Burt Ward, and Julie Newmar to the roles that made them famous in the 1960s Batman series (albeit in animated form), how could you resist counting it? The film also brings back some familiar villains with fairly good sound-alikes, and its sharp writing almost perfectly recreates the campy humor that’s emblematic of the series, even taking quite a few digs at more recent portrayals of the character since that era. It’s not a blockbuster megahit or anything, but if you liked the feature film that spun off from the series, think of this as a much belated but worthwhile animated sequel.
Passengers 12/21/2016 31%
I know. I’m probably a monster for even considering this movie to be “okay” instead of the worst thing that has ever happened. Here’s the thing, though – I get the problematic issue of how this story plays out. I get that the Chris Pratt’s characters are inexcusable. I get what the significance of his actions are to the Jennifer Lawrence character, and – yes – I definitely get the issues of how this story ultimately plays out. But, apart from perhaps that convenient ending, I do get what this film was trying to portray, and I think the desperation of the situation, while not excusable, is ultimately understandable, and I think the film justifiably does not attempt to in any way make the audience think this was okay. I think because the film was advertised a certain way, this resulted in the shock factor, and I get that, but the film we actually got does try to portray how this would play out if this situation had happened in real life, and I think it was good enough that it doesn’t deserve to be considered “the worst.” Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence are perfectly good in their roles, and I actually think they have some decent chemistry, too. The story really could’ve used a rewrite while it was spending time in limbo, however, and I guess the film could’ve also been much more conscientious about the way in which it unfolded.
Sing 12/21/2016 73%
This was the family film of the year I dreaded seeing the most. It’s from Illumination, a company that has failed to impress me beyond technical prowess. It’s centered upon an American Idol-like singing competition, so it’s also kind of feeling out of date. It also features a misunderstanding at the center of its main plot while featuring a whole host of other individual subplots to make up the whole. It features animal characters singing licensed, familiar songs from several genres rather than coming up with its own. The jokes in the trailer looked hackneyed. The trailer seemingly appeared before every other film I saw prior to its release, so… basically the whole year. And it featured an ensemble cast of recognizable celebrities in the voice roles, which I know most animated movies do these days, but I point you back to the previous points and remind you that those factors do not also suddenly become better because of their voice acting, and so obviously the filmmakers cynically expected us to flock to the movie because of them. And yet… Sing wasn’t the worst thing ever. It’s all of those things I mentioned, mind you, but not to the extreme degree I was expecting, so perhaps that tempered my expectations a bit and let me enjoy what I could. There wasn’t a lot, but it was there and it was enough. … I still could’ve done without those totally racist, wacky Chinese red pandas, though. Why’s that stereotype still okay?