2016. It’s been a weird year. The dichotomy of good and bad has been a figurative roller coaster ride—the emotional peaks of personal projects and watching my son progress into toddlerdom have been balanced by the crippling lows of broader societal events. Sorry…I realize that politics have been talked to death this year, but damn…F*ck Trump.
And, well, in the midst of it all there have been movies…
This top 10 list has become a yearly tradition for me. As someone who doesn’t keep a diary (honestly, I wish I had the time), this list is my public record, a way to recount the year that was. It might be superficial, but for some reason, it just feels right to document a year by what showed up at the box office.
I realize that in a sea of professional top ten lists (every movie critic worth his/her salt makes one), mine doesn’t really matter. I’m not trying to break through the noise. Rather, I’m using this time to reflect…to see how my tastes have developed and grown over time…to see what entertained me the most.
Thanks for all the laughs, thrills, and heartbreak, 2016. Looking forward to what 2017 has in store.
Ever since his multiple, very public meltdowns, Mel Gibson hasn’t been able to crawl back into the favor of public opinion. Even when publicizing his recent directorial effort, the Golden Globe nominated Hacksaw Ridge, studios refused to put his name directly on the poster. But, with Blood Father he finally found a role that feels repentant yet also taps into the brutal anger exhibited when he was screaming anti-semitic one liners and sexists comments. Blood Father isn’t a complex film. It also isn’t deep. It’s essentially a remake of Taken in the sense that it’s about an angry father with a particular set of skills setting out to protect his daughter from bad “foreign men.” If you’re not into that plot synopsis, this movie won’t work for you and I won’t make excuses for it. But, there is a visceral joy in watching a gruff/grizzled Gibson (his face literally looks like an old catcher’s mitt) kick ass and take names. Blood Father isn’t a high brow experience, but I’d argue it’s one of the most entertaining, satisfying “kick ass” sort of thrillers in years. They don’t make Arnie and Stallone action movies anymore, but in a time where our old action heroes look less like Adonis and more like your Dad, Blood Father is just the sort of throwback that we need.
Don’t Think Twice
Don’t Think Twice may be a specific story of a Brooklyn-based improv troupe, but its conflicts feel universal to any person pursuing a creative career. Considering its 90 minute runtime, it’s astonishing how much writer/director/star Mike Birbiglia crams in here—from fear of failure to the anxiety of success to jealousy and depression. And, even more impressive, despite being about such heavy topics, it’s still actually funny. Don’t Think Twice feels honest in the way that most studio films don’t—what it lacks in production scale it makes up for in verisimilitude. Birbiglia doesn’t just get inside the improv comedy scene, but really gets inside the tortured mind of the creative spirit. The result is a dark, yet hilarious juxtaposition of drama and comedy that will resonate with anybody who has spent a sleepless night wondering if they’re wasting their time chasing their dream. Myself, included.
Swiss Army Man
It sounds weird to say because it’s about as “indie” of a movie as you can get, but I really wish I could have seen Swiss Army Man in a theater. It’s a small movie…a strange movie…but one that is visually exuberant. Despite it’s small trappings, it feels like a grand cinematic experience, from the innovative ideas to the rousing musical score (you will never listen to the Swedish techno song Cotton Eyed Joe in the the same way ever again). I probably shouldn’t have expected any less from the directorial team, DANIELS—a duo whose short films and music videos I’ve admired for years for their craft and weirdness. And, let’s get one thing straight: Swiss Army Man is very, very weird. Yes, it’s the movie with the “farting corpse” (played by Harry Potter himself). Yes, flatulence figuratively drives the plot and literally the main character forward. But, it’s also a film about relatable ideas: feeling alone, social anxiety, finding someone who truly understands you. Yeah, Swiss Army Man may just be the sweetest movie about a creepy, fart-obsessed, necrophiliac stalker that has ever been made.
Captain America: Civil War
Please don’t judge me. I mean…I get it…these are mass market movies meant to appeal to the widest range of humanity possible. They’re four-quadrant, money machines, more interesting in franchise building than telling satisfying standalone stories. But…hey…Spider-Man! It’s Spider-man…lassoing Cap’s shield! And, holy crap, is that Gi-ant man?
Look, if you’re not into Marvel films, Civil War won’t change your mind. But, as I tried to explain in a written defense earlier this year, I firmly believe that Marvel Studios genuinely understands the importance of character development and payoff. Even if you ignore the spectacle (and that airport sequence is hard to ignore), the Marvel films still are engaging because, at least for me personally, you care about the people involved and understand what they believe. Civil War isn’t perfect (I can only suspend my disbelief so far before we just admit that both Hawkeye and Black Widow are useless in a fight when there are literally god men spewing energy at another), but it’s a pretty deft juggling act. The fact that the movie has this many characters and subplots, yet is still comprehensible and entertaining is a feat in and of itself (check out Batman V. Superman as the crappy ying to this movie’s yang). Plus, the movie ends where the bad guy kinda, sorta…wins? How’s that for breaking the mold?
Comedian Matt Lieb described this as the most “woke” Disney Cartoon he’s ever seen. And, it’s hard to argue. In a year where racism became mainstream, here comes a talking animal film that’s dealing with prescient topics like bias, prejudice, and hatred. And, it does it all through the lens of an adorable rabbit who wants to reach beyond her station in life. But, even if you don’t buy into the central allegory (it doesn’t exactly hold up to logical scrutiny), Zootopia is just a solid movie. Character designs are stellar, the Chinatown-esque mystery plot is engaging, and the animation itself is colorful eye candy. With this and Moana, it’s clear that Disney Animation is the new Pixar.
10 Cloverfield Lane
Time moves quick. Ten years ago, I was listening to Dan Trachtenberg discuss all things nerdy on the “vidcast” Geekdrome (i.e. before the Marc Maron-led podcast explosion where everyone and their mother had a podcast). 10 years later, he’s directed one of the best feature length Twilight Zone episodes ever made. Okay…okay…10 Cloverfield Lane isn’t a Twilight Zone episode per-say, but, spiritually, it feels like one (much more so than it feels like a sequel to the 2008 found-footage thriller). Based on a spec script co-written by wunderkind Damien Chazelle, Lane is a bottle movie…a paranoia thriller that may or may not be hiding supernatural elements. It takes a simple concept, but pairs it with enough twists, turns, and character changes to keep the audience guessing. John Goodman, one of America’s treasures, gives a supporting performance deserving of an Oscar (something he assuredly won’t receive because the Academy is dumb). And, Trachtenberg proves to be more than just a podcast host who got lucky. Rather, he’s got the impressive technical chops to back up his nerdy credentials.
Five minutes into Arrival, I was convinced I was going to hate it. It starts in a place that feels eye-roll inducing—the stuff of cliché melodrama. But, by now, I should have learned not to underestimate director Denis Villeneuve. While I’m not in love with his filmography (admittedly, I still haven’t seen Prisoners), he’s unquestionably a gifted craftsman. I mean, is there a better looking movie from last year than Sicario? So, despite Arrival’s cliché elements—the dead kid stuff, the stereotypical, dumb military characters—the film manages to succeed. It’s a technically brilliant first contact film: atmospheric, gorgeous, and full of big ideas. That alone makes it worthy of recommendation. But, then, the film—through the use of a very clever twist (I hate that term, but it’s fitting here)—makes all that cliché stuff actually feel pretty heady and smart. And, so what results is something that is not only aesthetically gorgeous, but also smart and emotionally affecting. Science fiction with a soul? Yes, please.
Craving a bad ass indie punk neo nazi thriller? Look no further. Green Room rocks because it doesn’t give a lick about cinematic convention—all those things that screenwriting books tell you are important, like character backstory and dramatic arcs, are sort of thrown out the window here. There are no stock characters…no tragic backstory that gets paid off in the third act. Rather, it’s just a tense situation about people trapped inside what becomes an increasingly more f-cked up situation. It’s brutal and intimate, but never feels gratuitous. I’m sort of in love with director Jeremy Saulnier (admittedly, it’s partially due to his Washington, DC area roots). He’s a filmmaker who makes intense genre thrillers for the arthouse set. That is, his films are fun, but also have a serious, grounded foundation. He stages brutality that is shocking and vicious, but not unearned. Beyond that, Green Room features Patrick Stewart playing against type as a stoic white supremacist. In the Trump era, that feels surprisingly prescient.
I hate using the term “feel good movie” because it comes off as so demeaning; almost like it’s celebrating how inoffensive and placating it is (I feel the same about the term “popcorn” movie”). But, sorry, it’s hard to not describe John Carney’s Sing Street as a feel good movie. It’s a diegetic Irish musical/coming-of-age story that will lift spirits and remind you of the warmth and goodness in life. It’s a romantic depiction of that time when you’re a teen and anything seems creatively possible. In a way, the film is almost too romantic (no teenagers have ever made music this good, this easily), but still, it’s a joyous celebration of finding one’s self through art. And, well, as someone who has been making (mostly crappy) movies since I’ve been 12, that really speaks to the sentimental dork inside of me.
La La Land
I hate Damien Chazelle. I hate that young, talented bastard so much. I mean…c’mon! At 31 he’s made two of the best films of the last several years!? He’s a gifted writer and director whose knowledge of cinematic rhythm defies comprehension. I hate using the word genius, but, you know what? F-ck it! Chazelle is a genius. And, here, with La La Land he’s made a movie that is wistful, romantic, charming, and—with one of the finest end sequences I’ve ever seen—emotionally devastating. Granted, we’ve seen all the trappings of La La Land’s story elements before: it’s about attractive white people with big dreams of making it in show business. But, it’s a testament to Chazelle’s skill that he manages to make the familiar elements seem nostalgic rather than cliché. The film’s leads—Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone—are incontrovertibly movie stars (in the best sense of that term), and watching them move on screen in choreographed song and dance is more thrilling than any CGI set piece I’ve seen this year. Whiplash left me breathless. With La La Land, I can’t stop singing its praises out loud.
Is there a more articulate way of saying “phoning it in”? No? Well, in a way I suppose it’s fitting to use tired, worn out turns of phrase when discussing Bryan Singer’s latest X-Men outing. When people talk about superhero fatigue, I imagine they are referencing movies like this: generic “bad guy” vs good guys CGI spectacles that feel like everyone’s going through the motions, but nobody really cares. Apocalypse is the equivalent of sex in a loveless marriage: it takes something that is supposed to be be pleasing and full of energy, and contorts it into a bumbling, clumsy mishmash of bodies banging up against each other shooting their loads.
Even the character of Quicksilver, who starred in the best action scene of 2014, is wasted here. He’s given a sequence that is essentially just a lukewarm rehash of what we’ve already seen. Offensive in just how inoffensive it is, X-Men: Apocalypse might just be the most unnecessary superhero movie ever made (and this is coming in a year when there was Suicide Squad).