I saw a lot less movies last year than the year before because MoviePass rewarded me for using their service as it was intended (see one movie every day) by cancelling my plan (full disclosure, they offered me 6 (SIX) movies a month for the same price). Fuck. That. What follows is a brief reflection on the films that captured my attention the most. It should in no way be viewed as a Best of 2016. I didn't see enough movies to make that list.
1. Rogue One - A Star Wars Story
Rarely does a blockbuster represent disparate ethnic groups, feature a female lead, address the current political climate, appeal to a generous cross section of ages, and hit all of the emotional highs and lows we expect from giant movies without compromising plot or characters. Rogue One doesn't talk down to the viewer. It tells a stand alone tale that fits perfectly into the Star Wars oeuvre while providing quality story telling for anybody (lost on an island for 30 years) not familiar with the Skywalkers. It is a war film, more so than any other movie in the catalogue. It's devastating and hopeful at the same time. For my money this is as good as blockbusters get, which is why I put it at number one. This isn't a film by an auteur; it took a village. This kind of consumable movie making isn't supposed to be spectacular. Yet, Rogue One is. If you haven't seen it I encourage you to right away.
This is a movie about aliens that really isn't about aliens. It's the kind of film that can shift your paradigm if you let it. What if we're all one? What if there isn't a separation between individuals at all and everyone and everything is interconnected? Perhaps we are stardust, ephemeral. The movie presents a kind of Quantum Mechanics for lay people (I think). I wish everyone in America had seen it 6 weeks before the election. I left the theater feeling like a different person because it shook me up like an hallucinogen. It's a profound film worth surrendering to. Also Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner have never been better.
3. Hidden Figures
I was blown away by this film. It recounts part of the history of Project Mercury, the undertaking that put John Glenn into orbit around the Earth, by telling the stories of three woman who worked for NASA during that time. It's topical and didactic in the way it addresses racism, sexism, income inequality, and privilege but not in a condescending or sentimental manner. Although it uses the lives of real people to unravel the plot it never becomes a straight up biopic, which I find almost always distasteful. The film was in production before anyone could anticipate a Trump presidency but it hits particularly hard considering all that's happened in the last couple months. I was taken with Janelle Monae who I'm going to go ahead and call the most beautiful human being alive. I know I haven't seen every single living person's face, but I've seen enough to know that other people don't look anywhere near that beautiful. Hidden Figures is still in theaters as of this writing. Run don't walk.
4. Sing Street
Never fucking give up. Never ever ever. Never. That's what Sing Street said to me. I loved it so much. Also who doesn't like things set in the 80s and full of music? Your heart has to be really fucking hard. Hard like concrete or just plain dead. Jesus, why is your heart so hard? Sing Street is on Netflix now and you should watch it next.
5. Don't Think Twice
I love improv. LOVE it. I've never taken an improv class but half the people I know have and a bunch of them are actively involved in the NYC improv scene. This movie is about more than improv, comedy, and writing though. It's about New York City and life in New York City. It's about trying and failing and trying some more. But mostly it's about living in New York. If you hate comedy and smart writing and The City then by all means stay away. I saw this in Dayton, OH and left the theater feeling so far from home it took my breath away. "What's it like living in New York City?" Watch Don't Think Twice.
6. The Lobster
In a dystopian future single people are sent to a hotel to live for 45 days. If they don't find a mate in that amount of time they are turned into the animal of their choice. It gets weirder from there. The Lobster is romantic, nuanced, subtle, hilarious, dark (as fuck), and sumptuous. It's the most interesting film of 2016 by leaps and bounds. It is not for everyone. It makes no attempt to play to the mainstream or be easily consumable. It's a quiet masterpiece and I can't recommend it enough.
7. Midnight Special
This is one of those movies that I think giving any details about might compromise the beautiful story that reveals itself slowly. I think that's why it wasn't popular. You can't market it well without major spoilers. You don't wanna know what it's about, trust me. It's way more fun to let it unfold. All I can say is it stars Michael Shannon, Joel Egerton, Kirstin Dunst, and Adam Driver and they are all as good or better than anything else they've done. It has broad appeal. It feels like it could have been made in the 80s. Enjoy this gem.
8. Nocturnal Animals
This extraordinary movie had me riveted from the first frame of a naked, carefree, shameless, obese woman slowly dancing, to the very last shot. It's a neo noir masterpiece set in west Texas about a writer and his ex wife. The plot jumps back and forth between "real life" and the story in his novel, revealing nuances about the characters each step of the way. Tom Ford eloquently demonstrates how a motion picture can incorporate different styles of story telling into one piece without making the film feel feel fragmented, alienating, or inconsistent. The makers of La La Land should take note. Amy Adams does it again in a big way and Jake Gyllenhaal is in top form as well. I love it when actors inhabit the characters to serve the story and bring more than just their name and famous faces. These two do it in spades.
9. La La Land
This is a movie I would expect to be a minor indie hit despite it's huge star power. I'm surprised that audiences seem to be embracing it so warmly. I loved it but I had huge reservations at the same time. It is absolutely not a musical. It's a dark, romantic drama with a touch of musical, magical realism added. I love the musical numbers but I can not for the life of me figure out why they are included. The majority of the story is a straight drama. I would love it if there was more music and the story was driven by the songs, but it isn't. The songs appear out of nowhere and it makes the movie feel inconsistent. It opens with a lavish song and dance number that is as good as anything I can think of done on film. It made me think of Bye Bye Birdie and West Side Story that I watched over and over as a kid. But then the music fades into the background. There is gorgeous number between Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone where they both tap dance and sing that I could watch all afternoon. Full disclosure, when this tour is over and that clip is on youtube I'll probably do exactly that. Don't try to find me on Mondays in April. The emotions, ideas, and conflicts in La La Land resonate. The film cuts to the quick of what it's like trying follow one's ambitions and love somebody at the same time. I just wish they figured out what kind of film they wanted to make, because this goes in too many goddamn directions to be considered great. It's worth seeing. But it's compromised.
10. Everybody Wants Some!!
This year was full of films that referenced the 80s in tone but Richard Linklater's Everybody Wants Some is actually set in the 80s. It's spectacular. It's to the 80s what Dazed and Confused was to the 70s. It captures the irresponsibility of youth and the attitude and feel of being alive as a teenager in the Reagan decade. It's more time capsule than nostalgia and it gets the details correct. One of the things I love about Linklater is he cares fuck all about plot and focuses on characters, much like the best filmmakers of the French New Wave. This film has a lot of characters and it's major failing is that you can't invest in all of them. When there isn't an enormous plot to fall back on some audience members check out. Fair enough. It's worth watching this movie for the soundtrack alone. There are so many incredible songs and it's fun to see how they drive the scenes. I think this movie would have made more sense as a musical than goddamn La La Land (which I really did like, but it frustrated me). I'm disappointed it got so little attention or fanfare considering Linklater's last film, "Boyhood" was one of the best movies made in my lifetime.
R rated, dark, hilarious superhero movie starring Ryan Reynolds and Morena Baccarin. What else do you need to know? You like superheroes? You like violent, dirty humor? You like romance? Boom. I know zero about comic books but I love most of the Marvel films. This is my favorite one because they made it for fucking adults. I understand that kids want to see superhero movies too; I spent more hours as a child watching Superman 1 and 2 than you can probably imagine. But there's something rich and deeply satisfying when a movie's lead character is a man in a tights that is allowed to say "fuck."
12. The Witch
2016 started out really slow for movies. The first thing I saw that grabbed my attention was this unique horror film that memorized me with its style and tone. The story is the stuff of folk tales. Puritan family living alone in New England in the 18th century banished for some sort of denominational heresy loses child while farming. Weird shit ensues. The execution is perfect. It's creepy, scary, and beautiful to look at. They shot the goddamn thing only with natural light and candles. Uncompromising in tone this is a movie that elevates the genre. I love it so much.
13. The Lady In the Van
First of all Maggie Smith is a gift. I think pretty much everybody knows her to see her but she isn't a household name like Meryl Streep. She should be. A. Gift. This movie is rewarding on every level. It's beautiful to look at, the script is magnificent, and the performances beyond Maggie Smiths's are awesome. A tiny British movie about a homeless woman could be a trifle very easily but this is not. It made me feel things without being overtly emotionally manipulative. British filmmakers are often better at that than Americans. I left the theater overwhelmed and uplifted. See it. Love it. Watch everything Maggie Smith has ever done. She was in Clash Of The Titans. Clash Of The Titans!
14. 10 Cloverfield Lane
I know some people have a problem with this movie because of the last act. I don't want to give away anything so I'll just say I'm not one of those people. But I think the film is incredible even if you discount the last third. John Goodman is in top form here (is there anyone that doesn't consider this guy an actor's actor?). John Gallagher Jr. turns in a performance I didn't expect, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead kicks ass in the first noteworthy film of her career outside of the Diehard 4 Director's cut. The movie unwinds slowly, like a bottle of wine you have to let breathe. It's claustrophobic and suspenseful in all the right ways. By the time it gets to the third act, which you probably know is coming, it doesn't matter if you buy into it or not. So much awesome shit happens to get to that point. It's basically a chamber film with three actors in a room and goddamn can these three bring it. Also it's Dan Trachtenberg's first feature as a director. That guy is going places.
15. Eddie The Eagle
I don't usually go in for feel good, sentimental claptrap and that's what I thought this movie was gonna be. When I called my mom and recommend it she was like, "Who is this?" But you really must see it. This year there were a lot of movies about following your dream and not giving up in the face adversity. I don't think that's a message that gets old as long as it's executed well. If it's hollow like one of those posters on the wall at the myriad temp agencies I used to visit when I still thought office work was the means to an end to my freedom then, gross. But this gets much deeper. SIDEBAR - many people are miserable doing what they hate in an effort to try to acquire wealth to either 1. Fit in with others 2. Do what they think is expected of them or 3. stock pile enough cash to eventually do what they want someday in life. The problem with that kind of thinking is life is finite and "eventually" often turns into "never." Do what you want right fucking now because as Garth Brooks totally misunderstood tomorrow literally NEVER fucking comes. This is in essence what I took away from Eddie The Eagle. Christopher Walken has a cameo. It's cool.
16. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
I just rewatched this over Christmas and it completely held up to a second viewing. I don't think the public thought Tina Fey could handle a major dramatic role and this film failed to find an audience. Ironic because there are so many people who like to shout about women not being funny (which is bullshit) yet here she suffered for being serious. It's almost like society is replete with institutional sexism and gender bias. Huh. She's spectacular. I would argue that Fey has never been better in anything. This movie manages to be antiwar and pro military/soldier, without getting bogged down in politics. It has a point of view to be sure but it's target audience is pretty broad. Unfortunately I think I'm the only person who saw it. You know when someone says a movie has heart and you throw up in your mouth a little? Well this movie has heart and it's a good thing. Heart without sacrificing intellect. It doesn't feel manipulative. I think that's a hallmark of the best movies. They have to move you and bring you around to whatever ideas or feelings they're selling but if you feel like you're being sold, BZZZZZ. Thank you for playing. Get the fuck out. WTF never feels like it's doing anything but telling a very compelling story.
17. Money Monster
The trailer for this film made it look so stupid that I almost passed. But it was directed by Jodie Foster so I rolled the dice. Glad I did. Clooney and Roberts are two of those people that have been in a ton of terrible movies but you always kind of love them because they're George Clooney and Julia Roberts. This time they are on the money. I wonder why income inequality surfaced as such a big theme in films in 2016? Money Monster wears it's politics on its sleeve, which I hope causes folks who disagree with its conclusions to relax and enjoy the story. We need more smart, entertaining, overtly political films coming out of Hollywood. I think we have different standards for indie films and studio pictures and we don't expect big budget moves to "say" too much. Fuck that. I realize this budget was low for Hollywood standards but 27 million is hardly indie. Filmmakers didn't hold George Bush's feet to the fire and they sure as fuck didn't hold Obama's to the fire either. Hopefully we'll start to see more Hollywood films in the Trump era (gag) that speak truth to power.
18. Dirty Grandpa
Now for something completely different. This is a raunchy, prolonged dick joke that would have been completely dismissed if not for the brilliant cast. It's actually a pretty fantastic comedy. I've seen it three times. The premise is simple. Robert Deniro's character has been married for like 50 years, his wife dies, and all he wants to do is "fuck a college girl." So he cons his nephew to drive him from Georgia to Boca Raton in an effort to do just that. It goes deeper eventually but that's the essential premise. It's bawdy and ridiculous but a lot of fun. This is not the Robert Deniro cashing in with the Focker movies. This is a guy consciously making bold choices late in his career to do something different and fun not caring how his decision is perceived. He already did Raging Bull. What are you gonna say. Deniro sucks? Shake it off. There are a bunch of jokes at the expense of Florida. I saw it in Georgia first, the theater roared. Then I saw it in Florida where the laughing was significantly restrained. Anyone who says this film is garbage probably hasn't seen it.
That's my 16+2 for 2016. There were a lot of other movies I loved. Just to name a few, Hail, Caesar!, The Family Fang, The Edge of Seventeen, Captain America Civil War, Suicide Squad, and X-Men Apocalypse. Never stop watching movies!