2016 IN REVIEW – My Favorite Films of the Year
Alright, finally! The end of the series. I’m sorry, guys, but I saw so many films this year, I’m actually thinking of returning to a limited Top 10 format or something. Regardless, as I said before, when I first started, 2016 has actually been pretty good for movies, even if you’re not really into indies and such.
As have done in the past, I’m choosing to instead order everything here by genre (roughly) and according to my favoritism, not necessarily how objectively great it is. Why? I feel it is unfair to compare certain genres against each other, firstly, and as for the second point, I find it’s weird to pretend like my opinion is fact, and so I’m instead going to be straightforward and say, “I enjoyed this one better.” Sometimes it’s just a gut feeling, you know? Still, all of these movies are great, and you can pretty much take their being here as a full endorsement should you ever see it available for streaming or rental and are curious. I, of course, also provided the Rotten Tomatoes score, in case you still don’t trust me, though.
Seriously, though, I can’t wait to get back to normal reviews. After a brief burnout recovery, of course….
Blood Father 8/12/2016 89%
2016 was seemingly the comeback year for Mel Gibson, both as a star and a director. Blood Father is basically right up his alley, too, playing a character with a sordid past and an even more complicated relationship with his daughter, who resents him for all the trouble he brought into her life, as well. Out of prison and living life alone in a camper, needless to say, he’s shocked when she turns up, asking for help and on the run from her boyfriend, who’s not exactly happy that she put a bullet through his nick. What follows is a tight, humorous, and action-packed chase film, with father and daughter reconnecting throughout it all and coming to an understanding about each other’s personal demons. Gibson and Erin Moriarty are great together as John and Lydia Link, and there’s also a really fun relationship Gibson shares with William H. Macy as John’s begrudgingly understanding AA sponsor, Kirby Curtis. Diego Luna plays the Lydia’s boyfriend, a dangerous and possessive gangster, and serves as a fairly credible villain, though he relies more on those working for him than John’s more direct approach to conflict. Gibson, whose production company coproduced, obviously felt close to the material, which also throws in a few apologetic moments where John confronts an old friend who holds some racist views, likely as penance for Gibson’s sordid past. I’m more than willing to welcome him back if he’s going to make movies like this and, of course, hope he keeps up the sobriety.
Deadpool 2/10/2016 84%
Forget what you knew about Deadpool from the awful X-Men Origins movie. The only thing that this has in common with that one is that Ryan Reynolds has returned to the role, and that’s really about it. Well, that and there are a couple winking nods at the film franchise’s bizarre continuity issues, which Fox seems to no longer care about maintaining. Deadpool is also the first R-rated movie in the series, and justifiably so, given the language, sex, and violence packed into the movie. As a result, the film has an obviously lower budget than the other films, but you’ll hardly ever notice – unless the film wants you to. A mixture of action-packed superheroics and raunchy comedy, the fourth-wall-breaking antihero openly acknowledges his existence as a movie character based on a comic book character played by a guy who also played a certain green-themed hero from a completely different company. That’s all fine and all, but the film actually has a great script and some seriously committed performances from all involved, with Ryan Reynolds in particular relishing this chance to do the character right. It also does so much with its miniscule budget, and it has the most fun with its license with the whole prejudice thing out of the way. The addition of a Boy Scout-like Colossus and the gothed up and fantastically named Negasonic Teenage Warhead to tag along and provide Deadpool with tentative allies he can play off of was a great choice, and the ultimate framing of the story as a romance, with an equally committed Morena Baccarin as the Merc with a Mouth’s lover – also provides it with a lot of surprising heart, even amidst all the gore and masturbation jokes. And thanks to the film raking in the money, earning the biggest first weekend box office of any R-rated film, we can now have nice things like the R-rated Logan, too.
Captain America: Civil War 5/6/2016 90%
As great as Deadpool is, and I must reiterate that it is seriously great, nothing in it compares to the sheer thrill of seeing Marvel’s heroes clash with one another while also being joined by new frenemies like the badass Black Panther and – OH MY GOD, FINALLY – the web-slinger himself, Spider-Man. While ostensibly centering around Captain America and his relationship with Bucky, who is still struggling to shake off the guilt of having been the Winter Soldier for all those years, Civil War essentially functions as Avengers 2.5 and even bests Age of Ultron in terms of action and story, with a villain who may not seem nearly as good as Ultron or Loki did in the past but who serves as a more personal and intimate force to be reckoned with, one who can get under the skin of these heroes and exploit their relationships and drive them to destroy one another. As a result, the stakes feel a lot higher than yet another doomsday device, just because we’ve gotten to know these characters so well, and we understand their motivations, even when we disagree with them. It’s not as nice and tidy nor as polished as The Winter Soldier, which is still the gold standard of Marvel films in my book, but for the sheer joy and spectacle of it all, as well as the willingness to let these characters seriously go at one another on both a physical and emotional level, I still freaking loved the hell out of Civil War. Plus, again, I must reiterate… the airport scene…
Finding Dory 6/17/2016 94%
I actually got to see this at a pre-screening with unfinished animation and voicework. It was pretty cool, since I had gotten the invite and accepted it along with my friend, but we didn’t know what it was going to be apart from a Disney film. I assumed Zootopia, as it was still a couple months away and was the next film Disney was going to release, but I did not at all expect for them to reveal it was actually the highly anticipated Finding Nemo sequel we were about to see. The level of freaking out that went on was infectious, but was the film itself going to be good? Luckily, even in its unfinished form, Finding Dory more than justifies its existence, even in spite of it showing us the origin of Dory and what it was she was doing when she ran into Marlon all those years ago. We all know that films that center on explaining minor details from characters’ pasts are prone to sucking, after all, but while Dory loses the scope of the adventure found in the first film, it at least tells a completely new story that also endears the audience to Dory even more, beyond just being an amusing character. Heck, it even makes the whole “Just Keep Swimming” song feel more poignant. This was never going to be a great Pixar movie, mind you, but even their middle ground work is usually pretty great. This is a sweet, amusing, and beautifully animated film, sequelitis be damned.
Pete’s Dragon 8/12/2016 87%
Damn. Disney’s really been knocking things out of the park and making bad and uncertain ideas work wonders for them, haven’t they? I rewatched the old 1970s Pete’s Dragon before seeing this in the theatre, and, good Lord, is that thing a treacly, overlong mess of forced wonder and whimsy. Which was just as I had remembered it back when this remake was announced. While bad movies with good ideas are often the most justified films to be remade, I had a hard time envisioning how Disney was going to pull it off without repeating the same mistakes. Surely they would have to reuse the songs and settings and merely put a fresh coat of CGI paint over everything, right? Apparently not. The new film barely resembles the original film, ditching not just the musical numbers, but the seemingly crucial element of whimsy, too. Indie director David Lowery then also guided the film to be a gentle, warm, and often heartbreaking story about a child who wasn’t abused by his cartoony guardians, as in the first film, but who lost his parents at a very young age and was taken in by the gentle green giant who comes to his rescue. Elliot, the dragon, is indeed redone in CGI, but is animated to be equally cuddly, playful, and wise but also recognizably powerful as an enormous creature. Pete, too, loses his manufactured sweetness and is more like an actual human child who hasn’t had any real contact with any other humans for years, and the audience is bound to be as conflicted as he is when it comes to what he wants and what he needs. The film has antagonists, but no real villains, which helps its narrative not get lost in any unnecessary nastiness that would ruin its theme of what makes a family. This is honestly a wonderful, beautiful, and completely unexpected film.
Zootopia 3/4/2016 98%
Disney takes on prejudices of all kinds in what is probably their most topical of any film in their official canon of feature films. Zootopia uses its anthropomorphic animal cast as a means of exploring themes like systemic racism, profiling, and even unfair paranoia about “the other” based on stereotypes and misunderstandings, all without feeling like it’s banging you over the head with preachiness. It’s a very funny movie, too, and has two equally likable but distinct heroes in Judy Hopps, the first bunny to become a cop, and Nick Wilde, a con artist fox who winds up assisting Judy in an effort to find out what is behind the recent spate of animals going missing, which of course turns out to be just the beginning of a bigger problem. The film takes these issues seriously, even while having its fun, and the film does a great job of making these themes digestible for even kids. The voice acting, provided by Ginnifer Goodwin and Jason Bateman in the leads, are also fantastic, and the animation accentuates the performances perfectly – it’s almost as if Bateman himself were transformed into a cartoon fox, sometimes.
The Lobster 5/13/2016 89%
This is a weird one, and I’m not so much convinced that I was amused as bemused by it, but regardless of which, I was most definitely intrigued by this bizarre and oddly morbid film about a reality in which individuals who spend too much time alone are forced to attend a hotel retreat where they are encouraged to seek out a new partner. Fail that in sufficient time, and you are then transformed into the animal of your choice. Again, this is a very strange film, made all the more strange by the affected, emotionless way in which the people of this world speak – including ones who have managed to escape the system. The film follows one such man who has recently been broken up with by his girlfriend, who decided she would rather be with another man. He accepts his fate, and goes on the retreat, where he attempts to follow the rules and attract a new partner, regardless of whether they feel anything for one another. This is dry, cringe-inducing humor at an almost extreme. The movie at times does feel as though it’s losing momentum, and it’s not going to be for everyone – I’m almost certain it was borderline not for me, in fact – but those who are intrigued and are willing to give it a shot may find themselves rewarded with what is undoubtedly one of the more original comedies in recent times.
Sausage Party 8/12/2016 83%
I know… I know about the whole animator mistreatment issues. I know that this is ultimately a supremely immature film that on its face should be one of the most obnoxious comedies to come out of last year, too. But before all that stigma came about, the fact is that I actually very much enjoyed my time with this film. It’s not the highest level of humor, and some of the uber fans of The Lobster are probably freaking out right now about me putting this movie in which one of the jokes is that there is a lesbian taco shell voiced by Salma Hayek and that one of the villains in the movie is a literal douche. I couldn’t help it, though. In substance, I enjoyed its easy and often filthy wordplays and the overall horrifying idea of food coming alive and basically having a completely screwed up religion based around being chosen to be taken off the shelf by us. Yes, the movie gets a bit too preachy about this aspect towards the end, and none of my enjoyment justifies exploiting your animators, but for the brief period of time from when I sat down in the theatre and left with whatever was left of my popcorn, I enjoyed the hell out of Sausage Party.
Morris from America 8/19/2016 89%
A black American child has a hard enough time as it is, living up to others’ expectations – both good and bad – and struggling to find his own identity in the midst of a culture that doesn’t fully understand both him as an individual and him as a member of a group of people who are already usually misunderstood. A black American child in Germany, however, almost assuredly has it even harder. Morris from America examines the life of one such kid who has just entered his teenage years. Having lost his mother a while ago, living with a father who struggles to ensure that Morris both remains his own person, but also a strong one and a good one. Morris is teased by the other kids, who call him names – not your usual childish names, but whatever black American cultural references they can recall, such as “Kobe Bryant,” while even those who are essentially friendly towards him treat him as somewhat of a novelty, asking about his rapping skills and even asking him outright about the size of his penis, as with a girl Morris becomes infatuated with. While the movie is a comedy, ultimately, its spin on the coming of age story is as unique as it sounds, and luckily the talent assembled is up to the task of making it all work. Craig Robinson plays Morris’ father, and his warm and firm performance should lead to him expanding beyond the realm of being “just” a comedic actor. Markees Christmas plays Morris and is just as good, playing up the tough persona while remaining recognizably a real and vulnerable child. I also enjoyed the relationship he has with his German tutor, played by Carla Juri, who tries as hard as she can to relate to Morris but also has quite a few blind spots of her own. This is an overall just very solid movie.
The Meddler 4/22/2016 84%
This is one of Susan Sarandon’s best performances I’ve seen in a while, and all it requires of her is to play an overenthusiastic mother. Or, rather, I should say “all it requires,” because I suspect that this is harder to pull off than one might think, given just how authentic Sarandon comes off as Marnie, regardless of whether she resembles my own mother exactly or not. Marnie’s daughter, Lori, is a TV producer who has moved way to L.A., which Marnie saw as an opportunity to join her and restart her own life after the death of her husband, Lori’s father, who was very dear to both of them. Lori is a hot mess, however, and alternates between needing her mother and desperately wanting her out of her life. For her part, Marnie means well and wants nothing but the best for Lori. While a lot of Lori’s problems are her own doing, Marnie isn’t exactly helping things by smothering her, and she’s doing herself no favors, too, ignoring her own needs in the process. Sarandon is, again, spectacular in the role, a loveable person who you can totally see being a pain in the ass if she were your own mother, leaving long, one-sided conversational voicemails on your phone on a regular basis, for example. Rose Byrne is also good as Lori, though playing a much more dislikable character thanks to her wishy-washy nature. J.K. Simmons also shows up to provide Sarandon’s Marnie with a warm, likable presence to work off of, too. The Meddler isn’t too complicated, nor is it very high brow, but it is frequently amusing, and its lead is almost unbearably likable.
Hail, Caesar! 2/5/2016 86%
A Coen Brothers movie is always going to be an interesting movie, and usually a very good one, too. Hail, Caesar! Is no different, and though it’s not their best, and I do wish they had thrown in a few more satirical moments – like Alden Ehrenreich and Ralph Fiennes’ struggle to understand each other’s idiosyncrasies after being unwittingly forced to work with one another on a movie set, or Channing Tatum’s hilarious but energetic performance of a musical number called “No Dames” – this send up of the old Hollywood studio system still manages to be a reliable source of wit and well-observed, familiar character types. This is one of those movies I suspect will only get better and better with each viewing.
Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping 6/3/2016 77%
It’s seriously a shame that this movie did so poorly at the box office. I guess Andy Samberg and The Lonely Island’s cachet with audiences isn’t as great as I thought. Regardless, Popstar is a spectacularly entertaining mockumentary that’s sure to please fans of these guys’ work. (Seriously, you should know them from their SNL skits, at the very least.) Sending up the modern music industry and artists like Justin Bieber and Kanye West, Samberg’s Conner Friel is one of those musical acts who’s a mix of genuine talent and a product of the system, having started as the frontman for a rap group called The Style Boyz before the group broke up over his arrogance. While the film is focused on Conner’s dealing with a sophomore slump and hubris, the musical performances are still the main highlight, with songs titled “I’m So Humble,” “Turn Up the Beef” (featuring Emma Stone), and “Finest Girl (Bin Laden Song).”
The Lady in the Van 1/16/2016 91%
Maggie Smith is seriously an international treasure. Here, she’s tasked with playing Mary Shepherd, an elderly homeless woman who selected the driveway of writer Alan Bennett as the parking spot for the only form of shelter she had, a bright yellow painted van. Beginning in the 1970s, she stayed there for 15 years before passing away, forming a strange bond with Bennett over the years. Smith portrays Mary with a great deal of poise and pride, despite her dingy clothes, paranoid behavior, and her oft-mentioned stench. The film is based on Bennett’s 1999 play, itself based on true events, and is directed by Nicholas Hytner, who also directed the original production of the stage version, which also featured Smith in the same role and won the 2000 Olivier Award for Play of the Year. The film is obviously made by people who cared about the subject matter, and the results show in the care that’s put into the sensitive and amusing film adaptation.
Everybody Wants Some!! 3/20/2016 86%
Touted as a spiritual sequel to Richard Linklater’s 1970s-set high school comedy Dazed and Confused, Everybody Wants Some!! shifts into the 1980s and college, with a freshman, Jake, moving into the house shared by the school’s baseball team players share with one another. As with a lot of Linklater’s work, it then takes off organically from there, with Jake and the other guys discussing various topics and doing various things within the few days between his arrival and the beginning of classes. The film had the potential to degrade into the usual college shenanigans comedy material, but Linklater is smart enough to make these guys more than just horny and foul-mouthed without getting artificially profound about anything, either. The cast has a natural rapport, and none of the characters overstay their welcome. Blake Jenner, as Jake, is also well-cast – immediately likable, but also someone who you don’t really know where he’s going later in life. Which, of course, is the point.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople 6/24/2016 97%
Hunt for the Wilderpeople is basically the New Zealander cousin to Morris from America. It’s another coming of age story about a tough kid, his struggle to fit in, and the systems that won’t allow afford him the things he needs most out of life. Here, it’s stability, as the system that forced Ricky into a foster home is also now the one that threatens to take him out just as he’s settled in. This film is ultimately a chase film, with Ricky and adoptive father Hec going on the lam and stay together as adoptive father and son, despite their frequently antagonistic relationship. Julian Dennison and Sam Neill have an amusing chemistry with one another, mismatched but at the same time complementary. Director Taika Waititi maintains a heightened reality throughout that keeps things light, even when they get a bit serious. It’s seriously one of the more genuinely charming films of the year.
The Edge of Seventeen 11/18/2016 95%
Fun fact: I actually thought this looked pretty awful the first time I saw the trailer, wherein Hailee Steinfeld’s Nadine, a tightly wound high schooler, comes to her teacher, Mr. Bruner, during lunch asking for him to help her because she’s going to kill herself. His response is to flippantly make fun of her through his own fake suicidal confession. We also get to see her mother doting over her “perfect” older brother right in front of her, as well as Nadine’s uncanny ability to predict everything her mother’s about to say, word for word, because she’s heard it all before. It looked like misery porn for any high schoolers who ever felt marginalized by a parent or, like… the system. But, you know, it could be decent, right?
Turns out, yes, it could not only be decent but be actually pretty damn good. While the film does operate on level where pretty much anything can be made fun of, and characters – particularly Nadine and Mr. Bruner – are preternaturally quick with a quip and comeback for any situation, it works better in the context of the movie than in the quick couple of seconds of a crammed trailer. Same goes with the melodrama, which starts off highly focused on Nadine’s own feelings and then expands from there and exposing the complicated problems that she faces while acknowledging how her actions and situations have affected others, too, particularly her older brother, whose relationship with her best friend has complicated things. The Edge of Seventeen features great actors, is genuinely funny, and is unexpectedly insightful.
Swiss Army Man 6/24/2016 69%
It’s weird to have a film about a suicidal man who befriends a rotting, farting, talking, and multifunctioning corpse be one of the more profound cinematic experiences I had this past year. Challenging societal norms and the often arbitrary rules we enforce upon others while also providing some truly bizarre imagery as Paul Dano’s Hank talks to and uses Daniel Radcliffe’s dead man, Manny, as the titular multipurpose survival tool sounds like something that would be easy, but to do it so well, in such a funny and convincing way, and yet remain so wonderfully honest and touching is truly an accomplishment. Paul Dano is fantastic as the emotionally damaged Hank, who ran away from a society in which he felt marginalized, but Daniel Radcliffe’s impressive performance as Manny is also something to behold. Obviously, special effects were employed to help make the corpse effects more convincing and weird, but it’s still Radcliffe who imbues Manny with his childlike wonder and curiosity, having lost almost all memory of what life was like when he was alive. The film uses this as a means of also reminding Hank about what he also appreciated about his own life, despite the pain and loneliness, and even though his friendship with Manny may be highly unusual, that he’s making a friend at all is a sign that not everything is complete shit.
The Nice Guys 5/20/2016 92%
This movie has gone criminally under the radar for a lot of people. Excellently paced and featuring great performances all around, Shane Black’s The Nice Guys deserved better. Ryan Gosling stands out as a neurotic, alcoholic private investigator and father, Holland March, getting to show off his comedic sensibilities and proving that he can do more than just look handsome and play the romantic or dramatic lead. Russell Crowe, however, is also great as Jackson Healy, an enforcer who finds himself tangled up in March’s investigation of a missing girl – a plot that becomes increasingly more complex and absurdly conspiratorial as the film goes on. I also really enjoyed Angourie Rice as Holly March, Holland’s daughter. She’s precocious and wise beyond her years, but because Shane Black is such a great writer and Rice such a great actress, she doesn’t come off like most other precocious brats in movies. She still feels like a real girl. Think of her as Penny to Gosling’s Inspector Gadget, I guess, and the film integrates her seamlessly into the plot, so she never feels out of place, even when guns are firing off and the porn industry finds its way into the search for the missing girl. This is a slick, fun, hilarious, and even a great looking film. I cannot imagine why this flew under the radar.
Holy Hell 5/27/2016 71%
What would compel someone to join a cult when it seems like it should be plainly obvious that they should be avoided? Holy Hell attempts to answer this question, with director Will Allen candidly using footage he shot as the videographer to the Buddhafield cult in conjunction with his own experiences and interviews with others who experienced abuse at the hands of its charismatic leader, Michel Rostand – who still operates in Hawaii with about 100 followers, give or take. Allen, who was a young man when he came to California in 1985 after being kicked out of his mother’s home for being gay, joined the group when it was just starting out as a meditation group, which his sister was already part of. Over the years, he witnessed and was victim to Michel’s manipulations and sexual advances while being conditioned to accept this as not just normal, but right. Holy Hell could use a bit more polish and a professional’s examination of what Allen and his fellow former followers experienced, but as an intimate look into the workings of your everyday non-doomsday, non-suicidal cult, it’s certainly fascinating, and one can at least intimate the reasons why these people were led to sacrifice so much time and effort into such a niche movement.
13th 10/7/2016 97%
Selma director Ava DuVernay tackles the ways in which the system has provided loopholes that has allowed a disproportionate number of black Americans to be incarcerated since the ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865. Interviewing everyone from activists to even a seemingly sympathetic Newt Gingrich, the film goes forward through each decade and illustrates what exactly happened that led to the profit-focused, unfair practices that we see today. It’s a stirring examination, one that also attempts to gain insight from a wide range of contributors, and, lest DuVernay be accused of favoring Democrats over Republicans, she puts many of them under the microscope, as well, for their ostensible “tough on crime” stances that disproportionately impacted African-American citizens of this country. I admit that I’m probably not nearly as qualified to question the numbers presented, but as someone who considers himself to be fairly empathetic to even experiences I can’t experience myself, it’s seriously difficult to find fault with the film. From a rhetorical standpoint, I do think that it’s ultimately going to only preach to the choir, as I’m sure those on the other side of this issue are going to still consider it biased, but that’s really the climate we live in today, in general, isn’t it?
Amanda Knox 9/30/2016 87%
I’m not a true crime documentary aficionado – I barely made it through one episode of Making a Murderer – but Amanda Knox was a fascinating watch, painstakingly recounting the events that led to Knox becoming the primary suspect in her roommate’s murder while living abroad in Italy. Painted as a sexual deviant and narcissist by the police, who failed to even recognize how their own investigation went awry due to their own oversights, manipulations, and, it seems, the hunch of one man in particular: Giuliano Mignini, Knox’s prosecutor, who made first impression assumptions about who Knox was and still holds to them to this day, despite Knox twice being exonerated of the crime she was charged with. The documentary is both artful and yet straightforward in how it lays out how this all went down, as the story itself, as it happened, is as compelling as anything in fiction. The film also surprisingly gets some candid interviews with Daily Mail reporter Nick Pisa, who reported every sensational detail that came out of the case, defending his work as merely reporting what was coming out of the case, and even Mignini himself, who seems to think that everyone will see his side as completely rational, despite the subjective and not at all rational nature of much of his evidence. It’s a fascinating watch.
Coming Through the Rye 10/14/2016 71%
Based on director James Steven Sadwith’s own life and experiences, including his quest to find and speak to J.D. Salinger after becoming obsessed with Catcher in the Rye. Sadwith is represented here by Jamie Schwartz, a prep school student who immediately identifies with the novel’s protagonist, Holden Caulfield, and adapts the novel for the stage, casting himself in the lead. However, before he can do this, he is compelled to seek out the elusive Salinger’s permission – no easy task given that his whereabouts are a well-kept secret, and his aversion to adaptations of his work are equally well-known. Nonetheless, Jamie is convinced that his is the adaptation that Salinger will make an exception for, and so, with one of the few friends he has in his life, a girl named DeeDee, they set out on a road trip to find the Salinger. Alex Wolff is honestly great as Jamie, a self-assured outcast who has a few personal problems informing his perhaps unreasonable determination. Stefania LaVie Owen is also a welcome presence as DeeDee, providing Jamie with a voice of reason and a shoulder to cry on. Coming Through the Rye is ultimately a coming of age film, but its performances and presentation help elevate it to the top of the pack.
Eddie the Eagle 2/26/2016 80%
This film is based on the story of Michael “Eddie” Edwards, who competed in the 1988 Winter Olympics as the first representative from Great Britain to compete in ski jumping since 1929. He started with basically no experience in the event and had no professional sponsorships, and he was even a bit overweight for a jumper and had poor eyesight that necessitated glasses, but his determination eventually won people over, and Edwards became a sensation. Taron Edgerton here plays Eddie as awkward, a bit clumsy, but also full of earnest determination – all the ingredients you really need for your standard underdog inspirational sports movie, I’ll grant, but he does it very well. This is also helped by Hugh Jackman as Eddie’s coach, Bronson Peary, a disgraced alcoholic and former jumper. Now, this character is completely fictional, so that’s a shame, and Edwards himself has confirmed that much of the film is made up, but he also claimed that it does capture a lot of the spirit of his determination, despite the reality sounding a lot more bleak at times. You kind of have to wonder if this might’ve been better as a serious dramatic portrayal that shows him living in an insane asylum and eating out of garbage cans (all true and not portrayed in the film) than the comedic inspirational story we got, but what’s there is good and enjoyable, so I at least can’t fault it for being entertaining.
The Heroes of Evil 1/21/2016 N/A
Teenage rebellion has never been so melodramatic as in this Spanish production about three kids who form an alliance and vow to punish anyone they see deserving. However, the trio’s self-centered ideals quickly turn them into vandals, thieves, and are potentially on their way to something worse, thanks in large part to the presence of Aritz, a new kid in school and the frequent target of bullies. Aritz embraces Esteban and Sara as the only two people who understand and accept him, but he becomes jealous of the bond they form, becoming fixated on Esteban, whom he seems to have an unrequited crush on. He becomes a loose cannon, and the other two begin to suspect he’s becoming a bad influence on them, too. The film is highly melodramatic, using classical music and frequently surrounding the three teenagers with cold and worn concrete settings that rise high above them. The performances are also great. Jorge Clemente as Aritz is an empathetic but often unnerving presence who doesn’t seem to have an understanding of boundaries or how he’s affecting others. Emilio Palacios and Beatriz Medina are also great as the two teenagers who find themselves dealing with more than they anticipated. I also particularly liked how the ending was handled, which I won’t necessarily go into here. I only discovered this movie while randomly browsing Netflix, but I’m just going to say it here: this is a film worth watching. … Obviously, since it’s on this list.
Embrace of the Serpent 2/17/2016 97%
A film that’s divided between two time frames, Embrace of the Serpent is ultimately the story about the last member of an Amazonian tribe coming to terms with the fact that his culture will die with him while also meditating on the fact that the white man is a large part of what led to his people disappearing. The earlier timeline, the 1910s, follows Karamakate as a younger man, reluctantly aiding a terminally ill white ethnologist named Theo find a plant called yakruna, which may be the key to curing his illness and saving him but is believed to be a legend that only Karamakate’s people know of. The second half takes place decades later in the 1940s, with Karamakate as an old man who has now forgotten many of his old customs. Again, he reluctantly helps a white man, a botanist named Evan, seek out the storied yakruna plant, using Theo’s journal as a guide now that Karamakate has long forgotten many of the details. Both stories are ultimately about misguided relationships and the exploitation of cultures, but there’s a lot of beauty in the film, too, with fantastic performances, but the most obvious is the stunning black and white cinematography.
Little Men 8/5/2016 97%
Two young boys meet under the same set of circumstances that ultimately threatens to tear them apart: Jake Jardine’s grandfather dies, and so his family moves into the house they inherit, which resides above the dress shop run by a Chilean woman, the mother of the other boy, Tony Calvelli. While the parents ultimately feud over the increase in rent that would make Tony’s mother unable to keep her shop, both Jake and Tony become quick friends thanks to their proximity and shared artistic ambitions. The film makes it clear that the Jardines are actually reasonable people who are also in need of more money and know that the neighborhood has been gentrified in recent times, but Tony’s mother, Leonor, has her points, too, believing that they should stick to the agreement she had with Jake’s grandfather, who didn’t care to profit off her, to keep the rent as it was. Undoing this would ultimately mean closing up shop. The film is ultimately about the innocence but also ignorance of childhood, where such problems ultimately don’t matter until adulthood finally comes to put an end to it, and they are forced to understand the unfairness of the world. The performances are all great, including Theo Taplitz as the reserved Jake, but it’s Michael Barbieri who really steals the show as the motor-mouthed, charismatic Tony. The film offers up no easy resolutions, as well, and it’s really all the better for it. Though the film is about kids, it’s ultimately about growing up, and this movie takes a refreshingly mature approach to what could’ve been manipulative material.
Sully 9/9/2016 85%
You would think that a man hailed as a hero for saving the lives of an entire airliner with split second decision making would be universally recognized as a hero, but that wasn’t the case with Chelsey “Sully’ Sullenberger, the pilot who became famous for performing the “Miracle on the Hudson.” While the media and public admired him, Sully himself seemed to be his own greatest critic, wondering if he had still done the right thing and agonizing over the details and how close he was to basically killing everyone on board had he made the slightest wrong calculation. The film has been criticized for its portrayal of the National Transportation Safety Board as antagonistic and caring only for the cost of the plane itself – basically the whole crux of the film’s dramatic tension apart from Sully’s own internal conflict – but at least apart from this, it does an excellent job of showing his turmoil, thanks in large part to Tom Hanks’ performance in the role, while also using various flashbacks that show up at various points and build upon previous ones with further events and different perspectives. It’s a tightly focused, very simple film from Clint Eastwood, and while I don’t think it’ll be considered one of his greatest hits years later, it’s still one of the better ones.
Queen of Katwe 9/23/2016 93%
Not into inspirational sports movies? How about an inspirational board game movie? Okay, so perhaps it’s really the same thing, but Queen of Katwe is firmly on the “excellent” side of that subgenre, not the least of which is because the film is centered on Phiona Mutesi, an underprivileged girl living with her family on the streets of Katwe, a slum in Uganda’s capital city, Kampala but who would go on to become recognized as one of the first titled female Ugandan chess players. The film is ultimately a feel-good drama, but while I know that label can sometimes be off-putting, I assure you that Queen of Katwe is compelling, authentically inspirational, and wonderfully acted, with Madina Nalwanga more than capable of holding her own opposite such phenomenal talents as Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo. Those tears of joy you cry will feel earned, not manipulated.
King Jack 6/10/2016 94%
Called “King Jack” by his father, but “Scab” by others, particularly his much older brother, who likes to remind him that he’s a drain on their mother’s paycheck, Jack is an ultimately selfish, troubled young teenager who is also genuinely misunderstood, a kid who just doesn’t really know how to do better even when he obviously wants to be, and even when he’s doing irrational, self-destructive things to those who torment him. When his aunt has an unexplained mental issue, however, Jack is tasked with keeping his younger cousin, Ben, company and Ben’s mind off his mother. Jack is initially resentful of Ben and even begins to become a bully himself, but as the two spend time together, Jack begins to develop conflicting emotions, and it’s not long before we begin to wonder which nickname he’ll live up to in the end. I’ve seen some accusations of the film being a bit amateurish, and that’s perhaps understandable, as it was also the directorial debut for Felix Thompson, but it could also be said that the film accurately captures the awkwardness of Jack and Ben’s age group, too. (It’s probably a mixture of both.) I ran across this film on Netflix pretty randomly, and I’m glad. The performances are really solid, including Charlie Plummer in the lead, and while the film does kind of lean too far into cliché, it’s still an impressive debut film and a strong film in general that deserves a look.
Lion 11/25/2016 86%
The unbelievable true story of Saroo Brierley, an Indian-Australian man who was separated from his mother and siblings when he was very little by falling asleep on a train and traveling 1500km from his hometown to Calcutta, where he started to live on the streets before being put up for adoption and adopted by the Brierley family in Tasmania. Later on, he began to remember details from his life with his family, worrying that they were still looking for him. And so he began a journey to find them, even though he could never figure out where it was that he was from. This is a very fascinating film with some incredible performances from Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, and even the little boy playing young Saroo, Sunny Pawar. If I had one complaint about this film, it’s that once it reaches its subject’s adulthood, it begins to feel like it’s spinning its wheels and probably could have done more with Saroo’s adoptive family. If I had a second, it would be that, much like the Brierleys, Rooney Mara is kind of wasted in the role of doting girlfriend to adult Saroo. I did feel as though Lion was the weaker of the Best Picture nominees this year, however it is overall still a remarkable and genuinely emotional film that I very much recommend seeing.
Don’t Think Twice 7/22/2016 99%
Comedian Mike Birbiglia stars in and directs this drama film about a group of improv comedians and their various struggles in attempting to uphold the core values of their troop but also balancing it with their personal dreams, often after several years of denying them. When one of their group hits it big, however, and goes on to unexpected fame, jealousy and feelings of abandonment begin to ignite formerly unexpressed desires and kindle newer conflicts within the group. I’d seen Birbiglia’s 2012 directorial debut, Sleepwalk with Me, a while back when a friend recommended it, and I was mostly impressed, so it’s really cool to see him come back so strongly with Don’t Think Twice. Based on Birbiglia’s own experiences in improv, it’s a film that feels unique to the world of those like its subjects, and yet we non-comedians can still relate to these characters on a universal level. Gillian Jacobs and Keegan-Michael Key feature as a couple who are particularly shaken up by the change in the group dynamic, and they are simply a revelation. I mean, I already knew that comedians often make for great dramatic actors, but, man… Jacobs in particular is fantastic, and so is the film in general.
Hacksaw Ridge 11/4/2016 86%
Mel Gibson makes a triumphant (and expectedly violent) return to directing with this almost unreal film about Desmond Doss, a Seventh-day Adventist who enlisted in the military but also refused to hold any weapons on the field as a conscientious objector. Initially scorned for his beliefs and even court-martialed for his refusal to cooperate with his commanding officers, Doss would ultimately be allowed to follow his beliefs as well as his duty to the military as a medic. Despite the chaos that ensues and the ultimate retreat against the Japanese forces, Doss manages to rescue dozens of men from the ridge, becoming the first conscientious objector to win the Medal of Honor. While Gibson falters a bit with some forced humor and emotional-baiting, the film overall is fantastic, with a great Oscar-nominated performance from Andrew Garfield. Those expecting Gibson’s trademark carnage, as previously mentioned, may still find this film’s gore levels to be unexpected, but at the same time, the film does not glorify it at all, making its subject stand out even more for his non-violent but ultimately triumphant display of courage.
Loving 11/4/2016 89%
One of two Jeff Nichols films on this list, Loving tells the true story of the appropriately named Richard and Mildred Loving, a quiet, mostly unremarkable couple living in Virginia who were nonetheless thrust into the spotlight when they became the subject of a legal battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court. Their only crime, of course, was who they loved – each other – and the fact that he was white and she was black. I’d not previously heard of the couple until I saw the 2011 documentary The Loving Story, which pretty much covers the same ground as here, so when I saw the trailer for this film and who was directing it, I was actually eager to see it. It lived up to expectations, with Nichols serving the film well with his understated style that fits the almost shy couple’s personalities. Both Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga – nominated for an Oscar for her performance – are also wonderful in the title roles. Even though you know the ultimate outcome, of course, this isn’t about plotting so much as it is about painting a portrait of what true love is.
Hidden Figures 12/25/2017 92%
This unexpected blockbuster hit tells the story of Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson – three black women at NASA who really deserve to be recognized more for lending their mathematical talents to the early space program than they do for their gender and race. Seeing as how those are the two factors that kept them and other women from gaining the recognition they deserved in the first place, it is an unfortunate reality that a film like this is necessary – but hey, at least we got a very entertaining and inspirational film out of it, right? Hidden Figures cannot escape its inspirational film trappings, but that’s totally okay. Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer (Oscar-nominated for her role), and Janelle Monae are all magnanimous in the leads, with Henson justifiably taking center stage. Janelle Monae, though, really seems to suit this acting gig, having also shown up in another one of my favorite films this year, further down the list. I’m thrilled that this movie was such a huge hit, too, both for the fact that these women (the real figures and the women playing them) all deserve recognition, and it’s also great because I still consider space travel important work, and it’s great to have a film that’s affirming of that and perhaps the desires for others like these women to break barriers and make their own history.
Only Yesterday 1/1/2016 100%
Originally released in 1991, this Studio Ghibli film made its American debut 25 years later with a limited theatrical release from GKIDS, ultimately solving the problem of the studio’s almost complete lack of output this year, apart from collaborating on The Red Turtle. As a result, I know it’s a bit of a cheat, but considering we had no other way of seeing it until just now or importing it, I’m counting it. The film follows a woman named Taeko Okajima, who is heading out to visit her extended family in the countryside for a change of pace from life in Tokyo. On the trip, she begins to reminisce about her days growing up in the city and her transformation from a child into a woman and how these changes also affected the people around her as it happened around and to them. Meanwhile, her time in the countryside also seems to spark in her certain interests she never thought she would think of exploring. The film was long considered unmarketable thanks to the subject matter of the film, which even [gasp] includes a mention of menstrual cycles. Naturally, though, fans of Studio Ghibli will flock to see almost anything they release, and so I’m glad that this film finally made it over. It’s beautifully made, and even if you’re not a woman, the subject matter still rings as relatable.
Fences 12/25/2016 93%
Denzel Washington really outdid himself with this adaptation of screenwriter August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor, Best Picture, and winning Best Supporting Actress at this year’s Oscars, Fences is a stirring portrait of one man, Troy Maxson. Troy is a complicated man, both prideful and deeply flawed, wise but capable of stupid decisions, obsessing over his past as a baseball player but demanding his son staying away from professional sports, and demanding respect despite his sometimes abusive behavior. Washington excels in the role of both lead and director, while Viola Davis proves yet again why she is one of the most talented actresses working these days in a moving performance as Troy’s second wife, who still doesn’t seem to reap all the rewards of being Troy’s second chance. Both actors won Tonys for these roles in 2010, and they obviously brought the same award-worthy commitment to the film adaptation.
Manchester by the Sea 12/16/2016 96%
Controversies regarding Casey Affleck aside, Machester by the Sea is an achievement in filmmaking, beautifully shot, incredibly well-acted, and observant of life’s nuances without being cute about it – recognizing instead that no moment of sadness is ever without everyday quirks that interrupt and ruin not just our happiest moments but also our moments of tormenting grief. Life is full of these interruptions, including the ultimate one: death, which obviously impacts more than just the person who succumbed to it. This film is about those who are affected by the death of loved ones and the weird ways in which they go about coping with it while taking care of little things just as much as the bigger issues. Affleck and costar Michelle Williams really and truly are remarkable in their roles – such authenticity and subtlety rarely seen is on display in these two performances. Perhaps that’s why I actually didn’t quite latch onto the nephew character and Lucas Hedges’ performance in the role? I dunno, but regardless, this is overall still a masterwork.
Americans who think they know religious persecution in this day and age really, seriously need to see Martin Scorsese’s Silence, a story about two Jesuit priests who go to Japan in the 1630s to locate their mentor, who is rumored to have forsaken his beliefs in order to spare his life after Christianity is outlawed in the country. There, they bear witness to the severe treatment of those who are caught or even just suspected of practicing their faith or harboring those who do, and the situation quickly becomes almost hopeless, with the two priests themselves tormented physically and mentally, even without being caught. Based on the 1966 novel by Shusako Endo, Scorsese has actually been trying to bring this film to the screen for quite some time, and, at the very least, this passion shows. Andrew Garfield may have been nominated for an Oscar for his performance in Hacksaw Ridge, but it’s here that he does even more remarkable work as Sebastião Rodrigues, the Jesuit priest who becomes our eyes to the horrors going on. The film failed to be nominated for anything but its beautiful cinematography, but it really deserved higher recognition.
Hell or High Water 8/12/2016 98%
A modern western, Hell or High Water follows brothers Toby and Tanner Howard as they make their way across Texas, robbing the branches of the bank that’s threatening to foreclose on their family’s land. In pursuit are Texas Rangers Marcus Hamilton and his partner Alberto Parker, who share a uniquely antagonistic relationship with one another, but who nonetheless seem to have an odd kinship with one another. I’d seen the trailer for this film only a couple times before quickly forgetting about it. A friend and I then went to see another film one weekend and saw a huge crowd gathered for an event. Turns out, it was just a showing of Hell or High Water, which was getting rave reviews. I decided to go see what the fuss was about as soon as I was able and… yeah this is an excellent film with excellent performances from Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges, and Gil Birmingham. It’s compelling, intense, a little bit humorous for good measure, and it even has some of the best cinematography of the year. Despite not being nominated in that category, it did receive several award nominations, as well, including Best Supporting Actor, Best Original Screenplay, Best Film Editing, and even Best Picture. I don’t know how this one flew under my radar for so long, but I’m glad I saw it in the theatre. I was actually kind of rooting for this movie to win Best Picture if it weren’t for the next film.
Moonlight 11/18/2016 98%
So I said that my lateness to writing this wasn’t going to affect my ordering of this list, and I’m sticking to that. No, honestly, because this movie was already at the top of my list for the best of the drama category. This is a near perfect film that I really struggle to find any faults with. I nearly didn’t see this one until I realized this movie I’d never even seen a trailer for was getting such rave reviews. Luckily, it was playing that morning in my area, and I decided I’d had enough of the big screen mayhem films anyway. This movie blew me away, telling in three parts the life of Chiron, first as a child, then a teenager, and then a young man, each part exploring the lessons Chiron learns about how he sees himself and how others perceive him as both a black man and a closeted gay man. The film’s story is filled with complications, messes, and tragic truths about Chiron’s reality, but it also offers the promise of relief and hope for a person who has only ever known hardship and risks growing up hardened. This is the kind of film you want to expect when you go out to see a “Best Picture” nominee.
The Little Prince 8/5/2016 93%
For some reason abandoned for a theatrical release by Paramount earlier in the year, Netflix picked up this animated adaptation of the 1943 French novella by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. The film adds a framing story about a young girl whose life is heavily controlled by her mother with little allowance for fun and socializing. They move into a new neighborhood, however, next door to an old man who used to be an aviator. The Little Girl befriends the man, who tells her the story about a prince who fell from the sky into the Sahara desert. These stories are where the adaptation kicks in, and, with it, the film also shifts from CGI to some truly gorgeous stop motion animation that mimics the original book’s illustrations. The framework story never quite works as well as these more direct portions, doled out throughout the film, and a later expansion of the original story also feels kind of odd and too modern in its sensibilities as a continuation of the original work, but it’s still a moving and sweet film that I’m sure many families (and even single adults who still like these kinds of movies, regardless) will be sure to appreciate.
The Boy and the Beast 3/4/2016 90%
I’m fairly certain that this is the first non-Studio Ghilbi or Pokémon-related anime film I ever saw in theatres, but you know… I’m also certainly glad that I did, as The Boy and the Beast was a very entertaining film. An orphan boy, Kyuta, who lives on the streets of Shibuya is taken in by a brash, short-tempered bear name Kumatetsu, who intends to train the kid in martial arts as his apprentice. It turns out that Kumatetsu is known for being a bit of a buffoon in his realm, irrespective of his actual fighting abilities, and so he’s setting out to prove everyone wrong. Kyuta himself has a chip on his shoulder and resents Kumatetsu’s harsh training, but after a time, the two of them begin to form a unique bond. The film is highly original and the script very funny. The animation, too, is expressive and fluid, which lends itself well to a lot of the physical comedy and action scenes. If you’re like me and in need of some expansion in the world of anime beyond Ghibli’s output, this is a great place to start.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them 11/18/2016 73%
I had some high expectations for this Harry Potter spinoff, and I am happy to say that they were largely met. Fantastic Beasts is a charming, amusing, and wonderful film that doesn’t concern itself too much with setting things up for the Harry Potter films that came before it, despite having a lot of free ground to work with, having been adapted from a fictional textbook. The film could’ve been less reliant upon CGI for its settings, which frequently look like a soundstage, but the beasts themselves, though also being obvious, are a lot more forgivable because of their unique and fascinating designs. Even the tiny, gold-loving creature that escapes our hero’s magical briefcase and causes all sorts of mischief manages to be amusing rather than annoying. The film holds together thanks in large part to the exploration of the American side of J.K. Rowling’s world and the all around wonderful performances from Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterstno, Dan Fogler (a scene stealer), and Alison Sudol. The film also includes a plot by a magic-hating puritan who has recruited children into her cause. Samantha Morton is chilling in this role, while Ezra Miller is also great as her adopted son who is hiding a rather easy to guess but no less effective secret. I’m really looking forward to the sequels, regardless of whether they were commissioned just because Warner Bros. misses the big bucks the series brings in.
Your Name. 12/2/2016 97%
One of the only films I hadn’t heard about until I listed the films released last year, this became the highest grossing anime film worldwide, earning $331 million as of January 2017. The film concerns a teenage boy and girl who randomly find themselves switching bodies. As the two attempt to figure out what is happening, a stranger mystery also begins to unfold, one that happens to concern a comet passing Earth at close range. The animation is really gorgeous, and the film as a whole is surprisingly sweet and funny, and the mystery of what’s happening actually becomes increasingly fascinating as it unfolds. The title holds some significance that I won’t spoil here, but needless to say, it’s a fitting and poignant one.
Kubo and the Two Strings 8/19/2016 97%
While I did not hate it, I also really did not care for Laika’s last film, The Boxtrolls, and so I was only tentatively excited when I saw the trailer for this Japanese-influenced fantasy film – and part of that was honestly for the fantastic and unexpected surprise of a shamisen cover of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Luckily, the film wound up being not just a return to form but also arguably being their greatest film to date, a mesmerizing, stop-motion animated film with some imaginative ideas and a willingness, as with a lot of great fantasy adventures aimed at families, to go into some dark and even scary territory. This film does not condescend, and while I do think that the climax has an ultimately kinda just… off resolution that needed some rethinking, Kubo and the Two Strings is still a masterwork of visual and emotional storytelling.
Doctor Strange 11/4/2016 90%
Marvel’s big screen introduction of magic into the Marvel Cinematic Universe – actual magic and not just “advanced technology that seems magical,” as in the Thor films – gives us some of their most entrancing visuals since … well, since the previous year, when Ant-Man used its tiny hero to fantastic effect. Doctor Strange could easily be (and has been) critiqued as yet another redemption of an asshole arc for one of Marvel’s heroes, basically remaking the first Iron Man, but Strange, as a hero, does at least differ from Tony Stark in that he’s an actual asshole and not just a cad with an ego. Okay, he also differs in another significant way, as he thinks he knows everything there is that he’ll ever have to know until an accident renders his hands incapable of performing the complex operations that he was known for. Driven to desperation for any sort of remedy that can fix him, he goes against his better, rational judgment and embraces spirituality and magic, albeit only when it’s been proven to him that the mystical arts he’s exposed to are the real deal and not just some kind of trendy nonsense. Ultimately, this is about Strange coming to terms with his own smallness and arrogance rather than any need to fix the mistakes from his past. While it definitely sits on the middle area of Marvel’s turnout, the film offers up plenty of visual splendor and excitement to overcome its familiarities. Marvel, again, continues to not disappoint – at least for me.
A Monster Calls 12/3/2017 87%
Grief is a sticky subject for many family films, one that’s usually glossed over with a sticky sweetness that makes all the sadness go down much better. This isn’t always a fault, but it’s often a commonality, and so when a movie like A Monster Calls comes around, I feel like we should take notice. It makes few promises of a hopeful and happy outcome for Lizzie and Conor O’Malley, a mother and son who are living on their own and dealing with Lizzie’s terminal illness. Conor holds out hope that the various procedures she undergoes will uncover one that cures her, but everyone else around him seems to acknowledge things he’s not willing or unable to see himself. A quiet and artistically inclined boy, Conor is also inevitably dealing with a group of bullies at school, with one in particular having an almost obsessive fixation on him. These injustices begin to come into focus for him, however, when he manages to summon a monster treelike creature who relates to Conor three true stories, but makes him promise to tell a fourth afterward – one concerning the truth about Conor’s recurring nightmare. A Monster Calls is a beautifully sad story that resists easy moralizing by explaining that people are far more complex than they initially seem, and also that justice is not always divvied out to only those who are deserving of it. While I did take issue with a few ways in which the film handles Conor’s actions and perhaps a bit of philosophy thrown in, this was ultimately minor and perhaps even a misinterpretation that might be worthy of further viewings to clarify. This is still a remarkable film in the end.
The Conjuring 2 6/10/2016 80%
It’s not often that a horror movie sequel lives up to first, even when the first is as critically acclaimed as the first Conjuring movie. Luckily, James Wan continues to work his magic with this follow up that is yet again based on the (supposed) experiences of Ed and Lorraine Warren, loving spouses and paranormal investigators. Here, they yet again get involved with a family that is being harassed by evil spirits, heading to England to examine a girl who is seemingly being possessed by the spirit of a man who used to live in their home. Lorraine forms a bond with the girl, whom she believes is telling the truth, despite evidence this may also be a hoax. The film continues to spin this into a fascinating and moving story about familial bonds and the bond between Ed and Lorraine, roles in which Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga continue to be very charming. The film does go a bit cliché, now and then and almost goes off the deep end with one of its creepy monsters towards the finale, but it’s always complemented by a bunch of other compelling imagery, and I must stress again that the film wouldn’t work nearly as well as it does without the solid cast Wan gets to work with.
Ouija: Origin of Evil 10/21/2016 82%
Speaking of horror sequels that live up to their predecessor, how about one that breaks with all expectations and surpasses the first in every way possible? Yep, Origin of Evil’s a follow-up to the maligned Hasbro-commissioned film from just a couple years ago, one of a string of films based upon their toy merchandise and also a myriad of shitty horror films aiming to make a bunch of money on tiny budgets. I never actually saw the first, I admit, largely due to its awful reviews, but apparently a lot of people did, as it was a considerable box office success. Somehow, beyond all odds, they managed to put that money to good use, making a prequel film with actual ambition and artistic vision, with director Mike Flanagan shaking up expectations and even having some fun with the material, centering it around a mother and her two young daughters in 1967.
The mother, Alice, is a widow who makes a living as a spiritual medium, albeit one who is an admitted fraud, using daughters Paulina and Doris to create convincing special effects for her. She spots the titular board one day and brings it into the house, hoping to use it in her act, but when the youngest daughter, Doris, uses it without her knowledge, she gains some actual paranormal abilities that at first seem beneficial but, of course, not all is as it seems by the end. You really do not have to have seen the original to follow, though I hear it provides some insight into the original’s backstory in small ways. Regardless, this is a totally standalone film, one that may not provide a lot of scream-out-loud scares but excels at atmosphere and off-kilter creepiness, even finding ways of making the creepy little girl trope work. Impressive.
Train to Busan 7/22/2016 96%
Zombies have really become tiresome. I admit it. I’ve seen far too many new horror films that avoided them while either bringing something new to the table or reviving other staples of the genre to really consider them my main choice in horror movie creatures. That being said, it’s still fun to see a zombie flick when a well-made one comes along, and this South Korean film really hits the spot if you get that itch. Following a father and his daughter, who is disappointed she doesn’t get to spend as much time with him anymore now that he’s divorced her mother, the film sees the two of them taking a trip to her mother’s home when a zombie outbreak occurs, stranding them on a train that’s quickly being overtaken, car by car. The film uses this dynamic to its advantage and ups the stakes in inventive ways. A bit of social commentary about how capitalism has affected society in South Korea, too often favoring the businesses to the detriment of the common people. (NPR drew the parallel to one such company that, in 2014, purposely overloaded a ferry in order to save money, leading to the death of 300 people when the ferry overturned.) It’s at times a bit heavy-handed, but Train to Busan proves that still more can be done with zombies than perhaps we’d all thought while still keeping them relatively entertaining.
I Am Not a Serial Killer 3/13/2016 93%
Based on the novel by Dan Wells, this film is still probably one of the most original stories I saw this past year, following a teenager named John Wayne Cleaver who is diagnosed with sociopathy and bearing all the signs of becoming a serial killer (They all tend to be known by their full names, remember?), he struggles to fit in with society but is usually just the target of derision, which isn’t helped by his family’s unusual family business: running a funeral home, which provides him with an outlet for his proclivities. The struggle becomes even more intense, however, when an actual serial killer begins to take lives in his small town, inspiring John to go into action. But will he be tempted into giving into his urges in the process, or will he manage to use it to his advantage and take down the real killer? The concept is not nearly as strange as that perhaps sounds when you see it playing out, and I have to hand it to Max Records (the kid from Where the Wild Things Are) for somehow making John such a charming, albeit creepy, hero, while the intentionally chilly setting and dingy cinematography also accentuates the film’s already strange but fascinating personality.
Hush 3/12/2016 94%
Mike Flanagan reappears on this list! This was a Netflix release about a deaf woman, Maddie, who finds herself the target of a home invasion. And… yeah, the premise really is as simple as that. Perhaps that sounds worrisome – the home invasion movie remains a tired premise itself – but as with the Ouija prequel, Flanagan finds ways of making the film work, using the character’s deafness work in some clever tension-building tricks while still leaving Maddie a resourceful but believable heroine. It also helps that there’s no real reason for the villain to be there – he’s just in it for the thrill, it seems. Maddie’s not hiding some secret, and the intruder, who goes nameless, isn’t seeking anything specific. This is pretty much just a really well-made, high tension thriller.
Don’t Breathe 8/26/2016 87%
A one-two punch for horror movies using disabilities to their cinematic advantage, and Don’t Breathe manages to turn the tables and have its home invaders be the protagonists, too. Three young thieves – Rocky, Alex, and “Money” – break into the house of an old blind man, who is rumored to have $300,000 stashed away somewhere inside. What they don’t count on, however, is that the old man isn’t nearly as helpless as his disability would let on. I previously noted that one of the reasons Hush worked so well is that it was a simplistic thriller with no secret motives or targets, but Don’t Breathe works because of this – the trio of young adults have their reasons for wanting the money, so while they are not justified in action, we are able to become empathetic to their struggles, particularly Rocky’s. You, of course, also completely understand the old man’s motivations, too. Because he is justified in defending his home, we understand why the cops cannot be called. Of course, we also find out why the old man cannot, as well. I do find this to be a bit of a stretch, but the relentless, brutal pacing and fine acting keep the film from being sunk by this shift. This was a close call, but while Hush is the most efficient film with its premise, Don’t Breathe is the most thoroughly exciting, and I enjoyed it just a bit more, as a result. Of course, why not watch both?
The Witch 2/19/2016 91%
I was disappointed a while back to find The Exorcist to be not all that scary after having only seen pieces of it as a kid and finally getting around to the full film later in life. It’s still excellent, but it’s not nearly the frightfest that people claim it to be. The Witch, on the other hand, shook me. This is seriously one of the most disturbing horror films I have ever seen. Using actual documents and journals from the time period to ensure accuracy in the language and speech patterns, The Witch follows a family of Puritans who have been exiled from their community after being accused of witchcraft. Headstrong, the father of the family believes they will be blessed for their faithfulness, regardless, and they set off to settle a new home. Unknown to them, however, they are closer to evil now than ever before. The film is an unsettling exploration of faith, pride, and temptation. The film is relentless in conveying the paranoia and struggle of this family and its individual members. The acting is phenomenal, as well, even from the younger cast members. A particular scene featuring the son, played by Harvey Scrimshaw, had me floored with both the commitment of the performance from a kid as well as the way that director Robert Eggers captures it. The Witch is a triumph in horror and filmmaking in general.
La La Land 12/25/2016 93%
A slightly overrated film, I assure you (Out of the nominees this past year, it does not deserve to win Best Picture, not the least of which is because it’s yet another movie about the magic of Hollywood), but it’s no less an enjoyable and well done throwback to the golden age of cinema musicals that features some truly remarkable work from both Ryan Gosling (who apparently learned to play a convincing piano just for this film) and Emma Stone. While you can tell that the choreography and singing parts were made for actors who weren’t particularly known for song and dance numbers, as Saturday Night Live pointed out earlier this year, that is kind of the point. Damien Chazelle’s film follows two struggling artists working their way through various jobs while seeking out careers in their passions – him as a jazz musician and her as an actress. A chance meeting sees them fall in love and… well, you’ll just have to see the film, but seeing as it’s a throwback romance musical, you may or may not see where this modern retelling goes but will no less have fun while watching it.
Moana 11/23/2016 95%
Disney’s first musical feature film since Frozen may also find itself continuing to flounder in the shadow of its icy predecessor in the same way that film’s predecessor, Tangled, also seems to never catch the recognition it deserves, but Moana easily deserves its place among the most well-regarded of Disney’s animated musicals, thanks in large part to strong performances from newcomer Auli’i Cravalho in the lead role of Moana and Dwayne Johnson as the demigod Maui and songs written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa’i, and Mark Mancina. It’s also a gorgeous film, with animation so expressive and lifelike, despite the stylized characters, I sometimes wondered if they used motion capture. As a Disney Princess film, it’s just self-aware enough to subvert expectations – there isn’t even a potential love interest to be seen, for one – while not getting so cheeky as to become overly meta. Disney really is on a strong streak, and anyone who claimed that 2016 sucked for families is obviously one of the few to have forgotten to look at Zootopia and Moana.
Sing Street 4/15/2016 96%
John Carney continues to make some of the better, original musicals of modern times. Set in 1985, Sing Street follows a group of high schoolers putting together a band, mostly so that one of them can woo a girl who happens to catch his eye while leaving his new school, but they do also find that they rather enjoy playing together, too, and find that music provides them with an outlet for their life’s frustrations. Much like Carney’s previous films – Begin Again and Once – Sing Street is about passion for music and music as expression. It doesn’t care too much for studio polish so much as the authenticity of the artists behind it – the boys in the band are realistically skilled but they’re not trailblazers, either, and their music is designed to reflect the various styles of the time that would have influenced them, with Duran Duran, The Cure, Hall & Oats, and others getting some recognizable analogues. The original songs, particularly “Drive It Like You Stole It” are enjoyable and catchy as hell – seriously, talk about robbed for an Oscar nomination! This is an overall joyous, entertaining film, and I, obviously, highly recommend it.
April and the Extraordinary World 3/15/2016 98%
Alternative history always provides for some interesting settings. April and the Extraordinary World imagines a timeline in which France had a supersoldier project go awry and coal, not electricity, is still the primary source of energy throughout the world (steampunk, in other words). The timeline further diverges through the years afterward, with the world’s most famous scientists disappearing without a trace. April’s parents are some of the few remaining behind, but the French government is demanding that all such persons are to dedicate themselves to advancing a planned war with Canada in order to obtain their dense forests. Resisting arrest, they flee only to themselves disappear, leaving behind April to grow up alone on the streets and continue their work in secret. New developments, however, may shed some light on where her parents have been taken as well as a scientific discovery that may just put an end to the war. The film is beautifully animated to resemble the work of cartoonist Jacques Tardi, and the storyline also features some really fun set pieces. It’s a shame that as a foreign film not from Japan, it was overlooked.
Midnight Special 3/18/2016 83%
Director Jeff Nichols continues his winning streak of fascinating, understated films about ordinary people (one of which usually played by Michael Shannon) caught up in big stories with Midnight Special. Midnight Special may almost be seen as the opposite of The Witch in some ways. In that bleak horror film, the unknown is something to be feared, something that can corrupt and so the children must stay on the expected path. Here, its leads are fleeing such strict doctrine, willing to embrace the special but unknown nature of a little boy who became a focal point for the cult they belonged to, thanks to his unique but inhuman capabilities. Not wanting for him to be exploited, his father and mother collaborate with others to have the boy be taken from the compound and take him to… wherever it is that he needs to be. Midnight Special seems to be about the fears and anxieties of parenthood, the fact that this person is someone who will ultimately do things that you may not understand but will hopefully be proud of all the same, regardless of whether it’s up to the expectations of others. In that sense, Midnight Special joins Arrival in being two of the more emotionally moving sci-fi films released this year.
Star Trek Beyond 7/22/2016 84%
I still like Into Darkness, but there’s no doubt that I feel almost like I have seen the light in knowing what annoyed people so much about that film. If there was ever a review I would like to re-write to reflect my current opinion, that one is the one that’s at the top of my list, for sure. My anxieties over J.J. Abrams leaving, however, were no less palpable, however, when they announced that Justin Lin, of Fast & Furious fame, would be taking over the mantle of the third film in the rebooted series. It sounded like the worst rebound ever from the studio, and I was sure that Lin would turn Star Trek into what I felt like everyone else was complaining about with the first two films – loud, stupid, and severely over-the-top in its action. I, of course, owe Justin Lin an apology, as Beyond wound up being one of the best Star Trek films ever. Sure, it’s still ultimately an action-packed film at its heart, but there’s nothing wrong with a longrunning series like the Star Trek films changing up styles now and then. (Or are you one of those people who complain about The Voyage Home being too funny?) And while he still managed to deliver those fast-paced thrills, he still managed to make this look and feel as if this was a cinematic episode of the TV series. Lin is a fan, for sure, but he also knows what worked and didn’t work in Abrams’ films and incorporates that knowledge into the final product. The now signature use of The Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” even gets a callback in a spectacularly nerdy fashion. While I do hope to see a return to a more contemplative story after this, I also don’t think I would object to Lin taking the helm for at least one more film, either.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story 12/16/2016 85%
I can’t help it. I just love Star Wars too much! While it does have some severe deficiencies, including a lack of sufficient time spent with the characters to build them up to a more satisfactory level, Rogue One, the first of Disney’s spin-off films not focusing on the Skywalkers, is ultimately still a huge success thanks to its gripping action and fascinating backstory to the original films that manages to somehow add more depth and scale while also not trampling all over things along the way. While some took issue with the film’s lack of adherence to the usual Star Wars tropes, I actually applaud Gareth Edwards’ boldness in doing away with the traditions. Save those things for the Episodes. This is still a recognizable entry in the series, as there are Stormtroopers and smart-talking droids and mentions of the Force and the Death Star and even Darth Vader, but on a stylistic level, Rogue One not only does away with the usual opening crawl, it more so resembles The Hurt Locker more than an epic adventure through the stars, even when it’s jumping from planet to planet. I like that. It’s time for something new to contrast with the familiar, which still has at least two more films for us to see. I’m thrilled that Disney is willing to take such risks with a property that’s still in its developing stages under their lead (even if rumors persist that there was still hesitance to go too far away). And even if you had issues with Rogue One (I did, too, don’t get me wrong), I can confirm that repeat viewings actually seem to show how unimportant or nonexistent they are.
Arrival 11/11/2016 94%
Denis Villeneuve has quickly become a director whose films I eagerly look forward to, even when he’s, for example, revisiting a film that really didn’t need a sequel. (Please don’t suck, Blade Runner 2049…) Arrival is remarkable for its restraint, more than anything. There aren’t many major films where aliens arrive on earth and the main focus of the film becomes not “How do we survive them?” but rather, “How do we talk to them?” Such a thing is usually only briefly touched upon to make us look like the more reasonable beings before our rude visitors unleash hell upon us. Arrival, based on the short story by Ted Chiang, is ultimately about how working to come together and figure out how to communicate those you don’t understand, even when the differences seem insurmountable and may take years, at least, to overcome, can ultimately lead to enlightenment for everyone involved. The film presents a message that’s not just about generic goodwill towards those who don’t look or sound like us, but true empathy and profound connections with other people in general. This can even bring about a new appreciation for those close to us, not just enjoying their presence, but achieving a new level of intimacy and joy from being around them. Arrival is truly remarkable, an unusually meditative sci-fi film that’s sure to move you.
Patriots Day 12/21/2016 82%
There’s an understandable amount of controversy about this movie being made in the first place. At the time of the film’s release, it would’ve been less than four years since the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, and production on the film obviously began even sooner than that. Many families are still healing from the events, and so it can seem especially exploitative of an ensemble thriller based on the events to be released amidst the Oscar season and play on people’s emotions. I totally get that. I also do not think that that was the intention of at least Peter Berg and star Mark Wahlberg. Wahlberg’s plays a fictional cop who goes through basically the entire film participating in pretty much every event that happened, from the bombing to the Watertown manhunt for the terrorists who caused the bombing.
The film would’ve been better had it merely stuck to the facts and people, as it already seamlessly cuts away to focus on several other real people who were impacted by this, from a couple who were standing in the crowds to the man who was carjacked by the terrorists and held hostage for a time. The film also spends time with the FBI as they piece the case together, as well as the terrorists themselves. The film is obviously not empathetic to them, but it does humanize them in suitably startling ways – these guys were, after all, American citizens who made some evil decisions. It’s important to remember this, and I think the film does a job in this area. And, truthfully, while I both understand and cannot fathom the anger felt by those who find the film exploitative, I did feel as though the film did justice to its subject matter and cementing in my mind what happened during those days – at least with the understanding that certain liberties were taken.
Deepwater Horizon 9/30/2016 83%
The first of the two Peter Berg/Mark Wahlberg true story films released in 2016 follows the events that unfolded back in 2010 which led to the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The film makes no apologies about portraying just who the villains are in this, with careless British Petroleum managers Donald Vidrine and Robert Kaluza standing in for the entire company. The film is ultimately about those aboard the titular oil rig, however, and their efforts to control the situation and ultimately make it off alive. In that sense, it’s just as much a thriller as it is a drama. Those who were put off by Patriots Day’s too-soon qualities will likely find Deepwater Horizon less problematic, as well.
Imperium 8/19/2016 83%
We are so often more concerned about the threats from outside our own countries that we often forget the threats from those already within our borders. Based upon a story by and the personal experiences of former FBI agent Michael German, Imperium follows a young FBI agent, Nate Foster, who is plucked from his desk job and trained to go undercover within a white supremacist group that may have connections to a case involving some stolen caesium-137, a radioactive substance that can be used in a dirty bomb. In order to avoid detection, Nate must temporarily indoctrinate himself in their manner of thinking and speaking and become an intimate confidante to their members and those affiliated with them. Daniel Radcliffe plays Foster, with Toni Collette as his handler, Angela. Radcliffe is truly remarkable in the role, playing a character who is disturbed to find himself so quickly picking up on all the disgusting jargon and ideals he has to adopt and even, oddly, understanding why these guys feel like they are so oppressed, despite reality. The film was a small production, given limited release in theatres, and while the film falters a bit in the pacing and moving Foster along to different groups a little too haphazardly, as if it’s going through a sampler plate of different shades of hateful white people, it’s still incredibly compelling stuff, and a good reminder of what kind of dangers we often ignore to justify our own biases.
Eye in the Sky 4/1/2016 95%
The trailers for this movie do not do it justice, making it look like a cheap thriller that managed to cast some recognizable faces who were more than happy to collect a paycheck for some easy work standing in a room. Eye in the Sky is ultimately a low budget film, but there’s definitely nothing cheap about the skill behind and in front of the camera being put to effective use. While it does largely take place within the same few scenes – a command center, a conference room, a street corner in Kenya, and a small room from which two pilots control a drone – the result is an efficient film that feels like a stage play about how morality in warfare has changed alongside the technology we employ, with a little girl unaware of the danger around her as she becomes the unwitting focal point of an international operation’s success or failure that may put her own life at risk, but potentially saving hundreds more. It’s not an easy film to watch, not the least of which is because of the strong performances from everyone involved – Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, and the late Alan Rickman in one of his last roles at the forefront of this. More critically, director Gavin Hood also ensures that the little girl is not just a nameless face, as we get to see her in her daily life, having to play with her beloved hula hoop behind a wall to avoid criticism and destroy her family’s livelihood, which partly involves selling bread on the aforementioned street corner. A few cut corners here and there in terms of special effects doesn’t negate the fact that this is an efficient, profound film.
Green Room 4/15/2016 90%
Sad to say, this is yet another thriller featuring one of the last performances from a gifted actor taken too soon – this time with Anton Yelchin, who plays the frontman of a punk band that’s traveling from place to place looking for gigs to keep them going. One such gig, however, sees them playing in front of a whole club of white supremacists. The two groups, ironically, seem to tolerate one another, however, until the band bears witness to a violent incident backstage, leading to the club owners holding them prisoner. What follows is an intense, horrifically violent struggle to escape their captors and find help. I teetered between throwing this one in the thriller or horror genre, and, really, it could be considered both, but while it’s certainly scary, the film is far more remarkable for its intensity and adrenaline-pumping pacing. The cast is excellent, including Patrick Stewart in a rare villainous role, which he really should do more of. For a bloody, violent film like this to receive such high acclaim from critics illustrates just how great this movie is.
10 Cloverfield Lane 3/11/2016 90%
Another film that could have easily been placed in multiple genres, including sci-fi and horror, this is still ultimately a film about a mystery and escape, and it’s one that does so by really drawing out the mystery while keeping one glued to the screen and wondering what the heck is going on and what information they should trust. The film pretty much came out of nowhere, too, having previously gone under the radar as a completely different film before a trailer unveiled its unexpected title, connecting it to the 2008 kaiju film Cloverfield. You would expect such a film to thus offer up the same found footage style thrills and giant monster mayhem, but instead Dan Trachtenberg sticks to a confined setting with disciplined cinematography that both feels confined and yet purposeful and interesting. All three stars – Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman, and John Gallagher, Jr. – are also excellent, with Goodman standing out as the film’s enigmatic center. You never quite know what’s really going on inside his head, and even the most charming scenes can be terrifying. I seriously loved this movie, and I look forward to whatever other “rides” (as J.J. Abrams likened these films) there are in what I’m going to call Cloverfield Land.