Wednesday, January 18, 2017
Top 15 or 16 Movies of 2016
Unfortunately the Top 15 List this year is telling me something. The sad fact is that I am officially an Adult. You can put that word in brackets and a scary font. [A-D-U-L-T]. A lot of the movies on this list are indie or relatively unknown or just more artsy, and is that really a surprise? The fact is that most bad movies, or even most mediocre movies, are bad in a very boring way. I don’t need to see that "Ben-Hur" remake to know it’s awful. I’ve seen this kind of garbage before. I'm sixty-six or something (give or take forty years) come last week, I've lost count how many years I've been writing this blog. I'm not even interested in reviewing bad movies anymore. I saw something like thirty to thirty-five movies in the theater last year. I've done it all too many times already, and frankly am just too old to waste it on trash. A lot of the movies here are stuff I would not have recommended when I started this blog, or things I probably much interest in. However, there is also a lot of stuff that me, no matter age, would love.
The final list does not have a single superhero movie, or even a single sequel. Frankly, 2016 was a year where blockbusters held no interest to me – and I’m not alone there. People were decrying the death of cinema at the end of the summer because nobody could work up the self-contempt to pay money for "Now You See Me 2". Most of the big budget movies last year just flew me by. There was a Tarzan movie last year?! How? Why?? So 2016 really left audiences with no choice. If you loved cinema, you had to go weird, you had to eat your vegetables. You had to really dig. And behind all the dirt of the sequels and the bad reboots and the utterly generic, there was a lot of gold to dig up. In 2016 you really needed gold at the movies.
2017 doesn't look much better, so this list is my small contribution to maybe making your year better. (And of course, utter egoism, as always):
15. The Boy and the Beast (TIE)
It was an excruciating decision in the end as to whether "The Boy and the Beast" or "Moana" would finally take a slot in my Top 15. Unfortunately I could not decide between the two. And well, this is my blog. I rule this universe and if I say that sixteen movies is actually fifteen, than sixteen is fifteen. If you don’t like it, 2 + 2 = fuck you. (See, I'm too mature yet, am I?)
"The Boy and the Beast" is arguably Mamoru Hosoda’s weakest movie in a decade. But even a lesser Hosoda film is something to be appreciated. It is still a tender coming of age story for a boy and his adopted beast mentor. This a typical Japanese animated fantasy as codified by Hayao Miyazaki. There is a warmth to almost every character here that you just don’t see in any other kind of film. Our protagonist Ren finds a home with a slacker bear samurai, Kumatetsu in the beast world, but also struggles to find his place in our world, falling in love and meeting his real father. There is a lot going on in this production. It gets a bit too busy towards the end, but the emotional core remains strong.
Even with a largely unnecessary final villain, I just could not leave "The Boy and the Beast" off the list. It had to be here.
15. Moana (TIE)
"Moana" is largely the opposite of "The Boy and the Beast", but also could not be left off the list. "Where The Boy and the Beast" is subtle and tender, Moana is the big Disney musical you’ve come to expect. There are "Moana" toys, there are "Moana" creepy fan comics, there will be a "Moana" stage show. We are well into Disney’s Second Renaissance at this point. After "Tangled" and "Frozen", Disney has these Princess things figured out. They've actually out-shown Pixar for the last few years. And while "Moana" is not breaking any new ground, it’s actually the best movie of the Disney Revival so far.
Three major musicals dropped in 2016: "Moana", the highly overrated "La La Land" (#hottake), and the highly underrated "Sing Street". "Moana" in terms of raw pop catchiness is a mile ahead of the other two. ‘You’re Welcome’, ‘Shiny’, ‘How Far I’ll Go’, these are tracks that ruled my life for two whole weeks. The film is a bundle of expected tropes, but it has its own heart and soul. I’m a sucker for ocean punk, so a Disney film inspired by the myths and culture of the Polynesian Islands really hits me. And while "Moana" is more sweet candy than "The Boy and the Beast"’s subtle richness, it still has great characters and fine moments. It also shows us that Dwayne Johnson is good in literally everything, even as a singer.
"Weiner" is the only documentary on this list, and actually the only documentary to ever make my Best Of lists. This is probably another symptom of me becoming increasingly old and boring. Remember the days when I would make ass rape jokes about "Bleach" episodes? Now I’m watching high-brow quote-in-quote “real” cinema. I mean, the movie is also called "Weiner" and is about a certain politician’s wiener and the places it took him, so maybe we’re not that high-brow yet.
Anthony Weiner made John Oliver’s career back in the summer of 2013, when he doubled down on his sexting scandal with a phone sex scandal, right as he running for mayor of New York. For reasons that are unclear to even the filmmakers, he allowed a documentary of his doomed mayoral run to continue. "Weiner" is a brutal film showing us a trainwreck in slow motion. His campaign, his marriage, and his entire life evaporate in front of the cameras, while Anthony Weiner himself fights on in a determined denial of the truth. His poor wife, Huma Abedin, can only watch from the sidelines. Her face is a mask, but still reveals that she has fallen out of love with her husband. "Weiner" is an agonizing movie of humiliation and self-destruction. You don't want to look, yet it is impossible to look away.
13. Green Room
Nazis definitely became a lot scarier as 2016 wore on. At the beginning of this year they were buffoons. By the end they were a real danger to the modern democratic order. But "Green Room" reminds us that even if are a real threat, they’re still buffoons.
"Green Room" is a horror thriller directed by Jeremy Saulnier, a director who seems to specialize in bitter depressive stories that never quite go where you expect. "Green Room" begins with a thriller set up as a punk rock band headed by the late Anton Yelchin are trapped in a redneck bar by furious coked-up Nazis with angry dogs. But while their tormentor’s machetes are sharp, the Nazis themselves are an incoherent jumble of fuck-ups and idiots. The film is frightening and tense, but also completely out of everybody’s control. The tension does not build up as much as fall to pieces in the end. This movie is not going where you think it is. It also does not have any easy answers for you.
"Green Room" was the most nihilistic movie I saw in 2016. Where the Coen Brothers take absurdist misunderstandings as comedy, Saulnier uses it to add to the tragedy of it all. Horror does not have to be pretty.
12. Hell or High Water
The world of "Hell or High Water" is one in decline. This is the America that a lot of voters see today: decay, foreclosures, and betrayal. Director David Mackenzie fills the movie with closed signs, graffiti, and dusty modern ghost towns. If you’re wondering why people would be willing to be so stupid to gamble on Donald Trump, here is why. In the places like "Hell or High Water"’s West Texas, the American dream is dead. So you might as well stab back at the assholes who killed it.
"Hell or High Water" is a bank robbery Western starring two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) as they pull together a wild scheme to win back their family farm by stealing from the very bank they own money to. They have a complex meticulous plan that requires specific timing, perfect formula for a race to the climax. But in the meantime Texas Ranger Marcus Howard (Jeff Bridges by way of Rooster Cogburn) and his Mexican-Indian partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) are on the case. Marcus and the brothers are creatures of another time: real cowboys in the age of Facebook and globalization. "Hell or High Water" is a classic Western collision course between these three It might not be my brand of politics, but this movie makes it all feel very true.
11. A Monster Calls
"A Monster Calls" is in theaters right now with a fairly wide release. It is the movie you should be watching this January instead of "Underworld/Resident Evil 5/6". This is a modern fairy tale fantasy film set around a young boy’s attempts to deal with a simply horrible turn in his life. It is directed by J. A. Bayona, a rising genre director who is finally reaching his peak maturity as a filmmaker – so of course Universal snatched him up to make a shitty Jurassic Park sequel next. In the mean time he's given us a film about the confusion and rage of puberty in the worst of circumstances.
Conor (Lewis MacDougall) is a preteen boy whose only friends are in his sketch pad. His closest relation is to his mother (Felicity Jones) who has terminal cancer. Neither will admit this to themselves, leaving Conor tortured by nightmares. As his mother’s illness gets worse, Conor is visited by a giant that inhabits a yew tree across the street from his home. The Monster (Liam Neeson) promises to tell Conor three fairy tales, which will eventually reveal Conor’s own story, a dark truth he cannot confess. "A Monster Calls" is a tear jerking film. I saw this with one of the loudest and dumbest crowds that a Saturday morning matinee can offer. By the end, nobody was talking. Everybody in tears.
"Paterson" is a pleasant movie. It’s so pleasant that it has no plot, though a plot threatens to emerge a couple of times. Instead it is simply a single week in Paterson, NJ as seen through the poet bus driver also named Paterson (Adam Driver, possibly the best actor working today). This is exactly what I mean when I say my tastes have become more [A-D-U-L-T]. This film from Jim Jarmusch is all about tone and character. It’s a lot of quiet jokes and recurring moments with a cast of characters who are as lovingly drawn as they are quirky.
"Paterson" is a movie that takes a while to get into, just like Paterson’s poetry. It is simple and unpretentious. He writes about a matchbook and how it symbolizes his love for his wacky artist girlfriend (Golshifteh Farahani). The poems seem banal at first, but then find a way into your head. By the time I left "Paterson" I was struggling to talk without breaking into Adam Driver’s rhythm. Paterson’s poems get really infectious. By Wednesday of this movie, his life is magnetically charming.
Also, pictured above is Paterson's dog (Nellie), who is the best actress of 2016. 13/10 puppeh. She unfortunately passed away last fall. RIP.
9. The Neon Demon
I’ve come to hate "La La Land". It is not that "La La Land" is a bad movie, it’s a perfectly fine movie, it might even be worth seeing. But it’s a movie for fifty-year-old parents with grown children to see on a date night. It’s twee. The fantasy musical version of Los Angeles does nothing for me. I'll take the one where you have one choice: "are you sex or are you food?"
"The Neon Demon" is the anti-"La La Land". This is a horror fantasy of Los Angeles. The young dreamers in this film are not taken on enchanted love story musicals, they’re eaten alive. Instead of masturbatory send-offs to old musicals and dead actors, it has its characters simply fuck the dead. Nicholas Wending Refn isn’t going to serenade you with warm jazz, he’s going to assault you with heavy techno and bright nightmarish colors. Elle Fanning’s Jesse is like an innocent doe before a nest of wolves in "The Neon Demon". All movie you can sense the hate and the jealousy around her. It is only a matter of time.
I was not sold entirely by "The Neon Demon" on first watch, but man has it grown on me over the months. This is a slow artsy movie much like "Only God Forgives", except with an actual plot and real stakes. Refn has become just a tiny bit more lucid, but just as disturbing. This guy is profoundly fucked-up. As in he takes an exploitation film and makes it just twisted and beautiful enough to be profound.
8. Manchester by the Sea
Casey Affleck has his Best Actor Oscar essentially sewn up for "Manchester by the Sea", and he deserves it. "Manchester by the Sea" is luckily not just some tired piece of Oscarbation. (If you’re looking for that, try "Sully".) It’s a sad family drama set in the cold gray air of a Massachusetts winter. It’s also a very funny movie with plenty of jabs at the awkwardness of funerals.
Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a janitor who is so reserved as to be utterly closed-off from the world. He is dragged back to his home town when his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) dies of a heart attack, forcing Lee to care for his teenaged nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Lee has become comfortable in his solitude and his past demons, so wants little to do with raising a kid. And Patrick is an obnoxious high schooler with two girlfriends and a terrible band. The movie is mostly made up of these two personalities bumping into each other. Then peppered with flashback of a time before, when Lee was a happy man with a happy family. Whatever has happened between has become the whispered rumors that surround the story for most of the movie. There’s the big maudlin moments of weeping in "Manchester by the Sea", but also moments of looking for where they parked the car. There's a wacky realism here, and a sad one.
7. Everybody Wants Some!!
When I wrote out my Top 10 So Far list last summer, "Everybody Wants Some!!" led the pack. But now it’s shrunk down to just seventh place. As it turned out, a lot of the best movies of 2016 were still to come. But don’t let that take anything away from "Everybody Wants Some!!" My opinion of this movie has not dampened at all during the course of this year.
"Everybody Wants Some!!" is Richard Linklater’s fantasy early-80s college party, and you’re invited. There is no plot and no real structure other than the first three days of a young college jock’s life. Linklater has pulled together a cast of some really great finds like Blake Jenner, Wyatt Russell, "Vampire Academy" survivor, Zoey Deutch, and Glen Powell. I expect to see all them doing great things in the future. (There has not been a cast of young actors this good since "Scott Pilgrim vs the World".) All these characters do is party to period music, get drunk, play baseball, get laid, and have the time of their lives. There is nothing to not be entertained by.
Denis Villeneuve is one of the best things happening in film right now. Since 2013 he’s lodged one great movie every year with "Prisoners", "Enemy", "Sicario", and now "Arrival". "Arrival" feels like a dress rehearsal for Villeneuve’s turn towards big budget SciFi, as next year we’ll have to just learn to live with the fact that he’s making a "Blade Runner" sequel. In the meantime, "Arrival" takes the huge scale of an alien invasion story and twists into a personal narrative. It is such a good movie that maybe there is hope for "Blade Runner 2"... maybe.
"Arrival" is like a classic SciFi short story, with its structure built around a singular brilliant twist. Amy Adams plays Louise, a linguist professor who is tasked by the US military to help understand aliens who have landed on Earth. It’s a unique take on these sorts of movies, with a focus mainly on communication and cultural exchange. Still, Villeneuve crafts intense scenes as Louise first sees the craft and meets the visitors. But really "Arrival" is not even about the aliens or the hard SciFi - it’s about a personal choice. It’s a beautiful act of love for a child, even knowing the fate that child must endure.
"Enemy: is still Villenueve’s best movie, but the ending to "Arrival" was an emotional blow that tore me to pieces. No other film broke me in 2016 the way "Arrival" did. And despite that, it is a testament to last year there were five movies that were still better.
5. Swiss Army Man
Old ladies might love "La La Land", but they do not love "Swiss Army Man". Good. A lot of movies are all too glad to show us how we love each other for our best features. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are beautiful inspiring people. That’s fantastic. Of course they love each other and we love them for it. But "Swiss Army Man" is about breaking down your boundaries. You can’t just love somebody for their perfect exterior, you have to still love them for their worst features. At some point during "La La Land"’s courtship, I’m sure Emma Stone’s character ate really bad Taco Bell. And then farted loudly. And it reeked. Do you still love her then?
"Swiss Army Man" is Cronenberg body horror but with a loving edge. Paul Dano plays a lost castaway that finds the corpse of Daniel Radcliffe, which he names Manny. Manny eventually becomes a zombie which can do anything. He can store water, he can turn into jet ski with farts, and he helps Dano understand what a lonely incomplete life he’s lived. Because if you hide your farts from your friends, what else are you hiding? This movie is hilariously weird but it’s an exploration of the soul.
4. The VVitch
It took us thirty years, but finally there is a successor to "The Shining", my favorite horror film. A lot of the movies on this list are uplifting or teach us important lessons about life. Not the case here. "The Witch" (or “VVitch” as I prefer to type it) is just a greasy horror movie about a family’s destruction. For centuries we’ve known that the Puritans of old New England were a depraved group of religious maniacs. "The VVitch" finally takes the Calvinist repression that Nathaniel Hawthorne filled boring high school literature with and makes it a horror film of utter despair.
"The VVitch" is plenty gory and it is plenty disturbing. There are brutal moments here that a mainstream horror film would never dare attempt. But what makes this film work is not the highlight scenes (for example, an insane mother lets a crow drink milk and blood from her breast) but just the overall unrelenting tone of misery. There are not many colors in the "VVitch". Most of it is gray. But there's also the occasional black... and red. This is a family that is broken by tragedy, but more than that. Everything they’ve come to believe in the world is taken from them as madness and division sets in.
"The VVitch" could be the best horror film of the decade.
I really hope "Moonlight" does not win Best Picture this year, but I’m sure it will. After #OscarsSoWhite last year, there is no way the Academy can ignore this absolutely brilliant drama with an all black cast. But here’s the problem: winning Best Picture is death for a film." Moonlight" if it wins will no longer be a three-part coming of age drama of a boy’s difficult path to adulthood. The Academy will turn it into another "Crash". Best Pictures are instantly uncool. Even I’m caught up in it. "Birdman" was my favorite movie of 2014, but now that it’s a Best Picture winner, it seems overblown. "Moonlight" deserves better.
"Moonlight" is a hard story about a young black boy growing up in the poorest parts of South Florida. His mother is a drug addict but his only father figure is found in the local crime lord who is selling the poison. (Mahershala Ali has gotten all the acting nominations but really the entire cast is phenomenal.) The boy goes by three names, first Little, then Chiron, then finally Black, and is played by three actors. Along the way, he discovers he is in love with his best friend, Kevin, but the culture of the streets forces the young man to become “hard”. "Moonlight"is an aching painful look at the passage of time and the shaping of a person by forces beyond him.
It is the black "Boyhood", and in a lot of ways, the superior "Boyhood".
2. Kubo and the Two Strings
"Kubo and the Two Strings" is the most beautiful movie of 2016. Sometimes it isn’t so much the story or the characters that makes a movie great, it’s appreciation for the craft. (Not that "Kubo and the Two Strings" has a bad story or bad characters, everything about this thing is great.) Stop-motion animation has been undergoing a frankly incredible revolution in technique and possibility throughout the 2010s. Kubo and the Two Strings is the result of thousands of hours of work. Every frame is a complex piece of art with real blood and sweat behind it. And the result is disgustingly pretty.
Really "Kubo and the Two Strings" does not excel in any one area as much as check off every box. It’s pretty. It has great entertaining characters. It has a strong visual style thanks to its Japanese influence. It has great action scenes. Matthew McConaughey is hilarious. There are actually frightening moments. There are emotional moments. There’s great music. There’s just great everything. It is a journey from one epic setpiece of another. From papercraft fights to battles on the high seas to massive prop skeletons to a terrifying final boss, "Kubo and the Two Strings" is perfect film craftsmanship.
A lot of the movies on this list I admit are fairly niche. I could see why you would not like "The VVitch" if you’re impatient. Or how you would not like "Swiss Army Man" if you’re a boring human being. But there is not a person on this planet who should dislike "Kubo and the Two Strings". It is a film for everybody, for any time. It is a film I want to watch a million times over and probably will.
That said, "Kubo" is not number one on this list. First off, the other business:
HONORABLE MENTIONS: There are actually so many good movies from 2016 that I could have very easily written a Top 25 and would not have regretted many of the picks. I did not because even this Top 15 took me three days to write. We're almost at 5,000 words here, I have to draw the line somewhere. Instead, I’ll give all the runner’s up a sentence or two:
10 Cloverfield Lane – A perfectly crafted claustrophobic horror thriller that shows there is still a place for smaller movies in 2016.
13th – A statement of purpose for Black Lives Matter that is all too important now that we live in a Trump age.
20th Century Women – A weird make-shift family of teenagers, burnt-out hippies, and Annette Bening make a rock solid cast that must figure out how to raise a son in the new America following the Sixties upheaval.
Captain America: Civil War –"Batman v Superman" can go fuck itself. This is how you do that movie right.
Don't Breathe - This is actually a flawless horror movie. Stephen Lang does great things with a turkey baster. I forgot this movie existed, that's why it didn't make the Top 15.
Elle – Paul Verhoeven’s first film in possibly forever is unfortunately a dry French middle aged comedy, but also about a creepy relationship between a woman and her rapist. It’s better than it sounds, and I have a feeling that given enough time, this movie is only going to rise in my feelings towards it.
Finding Dory – It isn’t as good as "Finding Nemo", but it tugged on my heart strings. The seashells, man. They never gave up on her... they never gave up...
The Jungle Book – For being one of Disney’s disposable live action remakes, it’s very well made, but it was Christopher Walken’s King Louie that won it a place here.
High-Rise – A disturbing movie of social break-down that is still lingering in my mind even now, but director Ben Wheatley just never gave us a real sense of who the characters are and why they’ve gone savage. Also it’s suspiciously close to rote anti-capitalist crap.
Loving – (Jeff Nichols - Take 1) Yeah, it’s boring Oscarbation about a Civil Rights case, but Nichols aims for the personal lives of his characters, not the big stupid maudlin courtroom dramas, making the movie sweeter and more unique than it should have been.
Midnight Special – (Jeff Nichols - Take 2) "Stranger Things" ate this movie’s lunch, but it’s still a tense father-son relationship in a SciFi thriller.
The Mermaid – It’s the most successful movie of 2016 that you didn’t see, a madcap Chinese eco-comedy love story musical action film. It's everything! Go see it.
The Nice Guys – Shane Black’s worst film. But that's still better than almost anything else, and even though two Hollywood stars get top billing, its little Angourie Rice who elevates this movie.
Shin Godzilla – Godzilla has his edge back.
Silence – Martin Scorsese’s intense tale of Catholic torture during Japanese repression is stirring, painful, and has a deep meaning – however the movie is also pretty boring.
Warcraft – Lovable trash. The best B-movie since "Jupiter Ascending".
...and yeah sure, if you insist, Deadpool. ...It’s fun.
DISHONORABLE MENTIONS: It was my intention to not see too many bad movies, as I said before, but... yeah, a few snuck in there. Some movies this year were just disappointing like "American Honey" and "La La Land", but I could see quality somewhere. These are simply trash:
31 – Cheap, pathetic, and seen-it-all-before. Rob Zombie has regressed as a filmmaker back to before square one.
Batman: The Killing Joke - 2016 was a real bad year to be a Batman fan. This animated movie has some fucked-up issues with women (I don't even want to try to unpack all that), and only escapes being worse than its 250 minute rival because Mark Hamill's performance saves the day.
Independence Day: Resurrection or Retribution or Something – When I was eight I used to imagine an "Independence Day" sequel, then realized it just would never work, you can’t top the original. Decades later I learned I was right.
Gods of Egypt – I really wish I could love this movie, but sorry, this is no "Jupiter Ascending".
Ghostbusters – The most boring movie of the year. There is nothing to talk about here.
Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV – All this? This should have been in the game.
Yoga Hosers – I’m lying, I didn’t actually see this. "Tusk" scared me off Kevin Smith movies forever. Not because it was scary, it was because "Tusk" actually might be worse than "Batman v Superman", now that I think about it.
...Speaking of which: last but so very least, Trumpman v Superfascist: Dawn of FUCK. Congratulations, Zack Snyder, you've made a movie worse than "Man of Steel", and you've made the Worst Movie of 2016.
And finally, finally, let us talk about the Best Movie of 2016:
1. The Handmaiden
"The Handmaiden" comes to us from Park Chan-wook, director of "Oldboy" and most recently, "Stoker". Park Chan-wook is a filmmaker that I admit I don’t know nearly as well as I should. But "The Handmaiden" is the best his movies have ever looked. This crazy Korean takes sleaze and makes it art. This movie is a red hot battle of sexual dominance hiding inside a tangled multi-layer puzzle thriller with all the trappings of a seemingly classy period piece. It also has some of the best performances of the year, especially from Kim Min-hee, who is the best actress outside of the dog from "Paterson". (Who is a again, 13/10.)
"The Handmaiden" is set during the Japanese occupation of Korea. The events take place mostly inside a mansion owned by a depraved Korean industrialist who is attempting to be Japanese. His mansion is a symbol of the film itself: a home on Korean soil but with architecture half-inspired by traditional Japan and half-inspired by Victorian England. He’s a Korean imitating the Japanese imitating the Europeans. (Three layers are a recurring feature in "The Handmaiden".) Cultural battles are only part of the story here, the war between the sexes is the even more intense theme. Lurking within this home are layers upon layers of schemes and counter-schemes.
In "The Handmaiden" every character is playing a role of some kind. Nobody is who you think they are. The first act sets up a plot involving a grift to steal the young Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee)’s heart, with the pickpocket Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) becoming her handmaiden. Only who is the innocent virgin here and who is the seasoned vamp using her sex as a weapon? "The Handmaiden" changes perspectives three times, revealing all the twisting gears of manipulation and pornography. There is a ton to unravel in this meticulous design.
Sometimes characters appear to be victims, then they’re utter psychopaths. As you dive deeper into "The Handmaiden"'s core, nobody is left with just one dimension. But by the end, you find yourself with an almost feminist statement of liberation, all within sultry nudity and oozing perversion. This movie has a bit of everything. It is one of the best films I have ever seen.
There you have it: "The Handmaiden", the Best Movie of 2016.