Monday, January 9, 2017

My Top 20 Films of 2016 - Part 1

As is my tradition, I've compiled my Top 20 Films of the past year, which I will be unveiling today and tomorrow. I won't claim to have seen every big movie of 2016, but I've seen enough that I feel comfortable putting this list out there. Among the ones I haven't seen - Silence, Hacksaw Ridge, Lion and 20th Century Woman.

I've also actively avoided Manchester By the Sea and Birth of a Nation for fairly parallel reasons. Maybe I'll check one of both out when they come to streaming, but with so much else I'd rather make a priority, spending money and time on either of those films wasn't something that appealed to me.

And it probably shouldn't need to be said, but the rankings shouldn't be taken as absolute. I kept shuffling titles around each other even as I was writing these posts. There's a lot of "apples to oranges" in comparing these films, so on a different day, you might see some films easily exchanging places with other films in their immediate vicinity.

I saw over 70 films released in the last year and in ranking ALL of them, I was glad that a decent percentage of those were films I enjoyed to one degree or another. They were also a diverse bunch of releases, and so I maintain that anyone wanting to call 2016 "a bad year for film" simply wasn't looking hard enough for the good ones. They were out there.

I can't dispute that it was equally clear that 2016 was responsible for a large number of bad movies that were exceptional in their putridness. I'm not doing a "Worst of" list for many reasons, chief among them being that I'm certain that there were worse movies than what I saw, and that includes some pretty terrible films. (Just to give you an idea of how bad it all was, Independence Day: Resurgence couldn't quite crack the bottom 10.)

But why focus on the negative? It's more fun to celebrate the good, starting today with...

11. The Invitation - Another limited location film built around tension within the group. This achieves that with a much larger cast, though that fact also raises a few issues for me. More specifically, there comes a point in the film where I'm convinced more than one person would be sane enough to get the hell out of that situation. I've heard plenty of theories as to why the confession offered by John Carrol Lynch's character doesn't and more of the dinner party to the exit, but I don't buy any of them. What does work is the incredibly unsettlng atmosphere and a final shot that doesn't give an easy release from the intense finale.

12. Captain America: Civil War - I keep debating if it should be held against this film that it cannot stand alone. More than any other Marvel film, this is the culmination of multiple entries, and yet, you don't feel the strains of that as much as you could have. At the end of the day, this is a really strong entry in the Marvel canon that builds off of a well-justified conflict between Iron Man and Captain America. Along the way, the ground is seeded for upcoming films starring Spider-Man and Black Panther, but the clever work of screenwriters Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely keeps these cameos from feeling like mere advertisements for future spinoffs. (To see how all of this could have gone much more out of control, check out Batman v. Superman.) After a second viewing, I still find myself on Team Iron Man.

13. The Nice Guys - Ten years after Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, we finally get a worthy follow-up from writer/director Shane Black, who shares scripting duties here with Anthony Bagarozzi. This tale of two '70s era private eyes on the case of a missing teenage girl didn't quite blow me away as much as the former film, but it remains a fun romp full of everything you'd expect in a Shane Black film. Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling are as good as you'd expect, but I feel like the real find here is Angourie Rice, who was 14 at the time of shooting. She handles the Black tone and dialogue like she was grown in a lab specifically to wield it.

14. Rogue One - The first non-episodic Star Wars feature is a solid film, if one that lacks the emotional punch that The Force Awakens delivered so powerfully. The first half could stand to be faster moving, and I wish that the main characters had more depth to them... but once the mission actually gets going, the last hour or so is an awesome ride. This movie is the perfect example of how a story that ends strong can redeem earlier missteps. (That said, I do still have misgivings about how tiny the Star Wars Universe is becoming.)

15. Sing Street - Such a cute and nostalgic film about a young Irish boy in the 80s who starts a rock band and finds his own musical voice even as his parents relationship falls apart and he experiences his first love. I'm a major disciple of writer/director Jim Carney's previous film Begin Again, and while this one didn't hit me quite as acutely as that did, it still has some really hummable, toe-tapping tunes and just a really fun vibe.

16. Zootopia - I didn't expect a stealth lesson in prejudice and racial tolerance from this film, and the more I consider it, the more remarkable it is how seamlessly it's woven into the Pixar formula. It's a theme that sneaks up on you without compromising the usual humor and fun characters you expect to find in this film. Without being preachy, it offers strong values to a young audience that will rewatch these movies again and again and absorb the lessons young people really need to hear in this day and age.

17. Jackie - A look back at the four days from President Kennedy's assassination to his funeral, from his wife Jackie's point of view. Natalie Portman gives a powerful performance as Mrs. Kennedy, aided by a strong script that plays on her fear that her husband will become an historical footnote. I'd read long ago about how she had devised some aspects of the funeral, but never fully understood what that meant to her until this film showed me.

So why is this so low on the list? For all the wonderful choices in art direction and aesthetic, the movie feels just a bit "over-directed." Too many shots are composed so perfectly that you are AWARE of how precisely they've been staged. (It's the same feeling I've often gotten in M. Night Shyamalan's work.) It's the directing equivalent of over-acting, and there were moments that it undermined Portman's performance for me and made me too aware I was watching "acting!"

18. Hidden Figures - I did not know the story of Katherine Johnson, the African-American mathematician for NASA who worked on the Mercury and Apollo 11 launches. Nor did I know that there were other African-American women working in NASA at that time. I applaud the film for bringing to light a long-ignored aspect of much-retold history. As a friend noted, it's PG, so it can be shown in classrooms across the nation. That's an effort I very much applaud. Taraji P. Henson is perfect as Katherine Johnson, and you won't find so much as a trace of EMPIRE's Cookie in her performance. She completely disappears into the role. Much praise also for Janelle Monae, whom I did not recognize from her music career and assumed was an experienced character actress.

Alas, this felt a little too much like a "made for TV" movie in its execution. The directing is pretty unremarkable, and while I went after JACKIE for being TOO directed, at least it felt like a movie. It's workmanlike in its approach, a weakness occasionally shared by the script. It feels like a surface-level Wikipedia take rather than a full deep dive into what that time truly felt like. The other irritant is the aggressive miscasting of Jim Parsons as a NASA engineer. If you have even a passing familiarity with his BIG BANG THEORY character Sheldon Cooper, his appearances are as jarring as if Oscar the Grouch popped out of one of Denzel Washington's trashcans in Fences. There's a lot to like in Hidden Figures, but some better choices could have been made.

19. La La Land - Once this film started getting high praise at festivals, I resolved to avoid all previews, all reviews, all write-ups until I saw it. I've seen this cycle before and wanted no part of it - praise, backlash for the overpraise, the backlash to the backlash, and finally, the drawing of battle-lines. Seems like that's exactly what happened. My take: If you want to separate good directors from bad ones, given them a long-take scene and you'll spot the posers right away. Damien Chazelle proves more than once in this film that he's one of the real deals. La La Land is a very pretty-looking film, shot in a really gorgeous way. It's vivid, bright and colorful. You can pick a clip out from it almost immediately.

On the other hand, what can I say about a musical where the music is the least notable part? It goes beyond there not being a single track I needed to IMMEDIATELY run to iTunes for - ten minutes after it was over, I couldn't even hum a single melody. Gosling and Stone get by on their natural charm and chemistry, but it's hard to ignore they're playing some incredibly thin characters. I don't think it cashes the check that the hype was determined to write, but man is it a pretty way to spend two hours.

20. Lights Out - One of the creepiest horror movies I've seen in a while, and it owes a lot of that to being built around something primal - fear of the dark. It has a great atmosphere about it, and a strong cast that compliments the script well. I'm always up for a horror film that pushes itself to be inventive, and that's exactly what we get from Eric Heisserer's script and David F. Sandberg's directing.

Come back tomorrow for the Top 10!


  1. I'm curious what similar reason you'd have for avoid Manchester and Birth, since I'd assume its middling reception would be the cause for skipping Birth.

    1. My BIRTH boycott is born out of a desire to not support Nate Parker. Back in 1999, he was accused of rape. Though he was acquitted, the facts of the case are pretty disturbing. Even more unsettling is the way he's attempted to defend himself when these allegations resurfaced. He was acquitted, so I'm not saying "lock the guy up" but after hearing him talk about it, in his own words, he's not someone I'm inclined to support.

      This is a good summary to the entire scandal, including links to the most offensive efforts at damage control.

      MANCHESTER's boycott is for similar reasons, as there have been very credible allegations that Casey Affleck has verbally and sexually harrassed female crew on past projects.

      Affleck seems to have learned from Parker's mistake and decided that these allegations would get less coverage if he didn't attempt to respond. Still, these women seem pretty credible, and I don't feel like supporting either man at the moment.

    2. Yikes, I kinda feel like an ass for completely blanking on Parker's scandals, especially considering how talked about it was back in the fall.

      Definitely good reasons to avoid the films, and here I was just worried you'd been turned off by Manchester's cringe worthy trailer.

  2. Also The Invitation is fantastic, kudos for singing its praises.