Illustration credit Nick Wanserski/AV Club
Nate Wrestles 2016 into Submission: The Best and Worst Films of a Very Unmerry Year
Here we are once again, my friends, as we take stock of the best and worst of another year at the cinema. 2016 was a much-maligned year in the realm of politics though I would say it was a pretty pleasant year in the realm of movies. I saw 100 movies this year and it was much harder for me to compose my Top Ten for good reasons, trying to carefully select which of the finer films of the year was most deserving of making my final cut. This was a banner year for animation and one for the record books for Disney. Not only did the Mouse House smash financial records for a calendar year but it also produced one intelligent, imaginative, and terrific movie after another with some exceptions (Finding Dory could have remained lost). You’ll see many a Disney title on my Best Of list; they may claim dual ownership. Also, this is the first year I’ve been able to complete my extensive wrap-up by January, let alone early January, so bully for me I suppose. I invite you, dear reader, to follow along as I review the finest films, the lowest lows, and many of the intriguing and mystifying moments that highlighted the world of cinema.
But before going into all that 2016 had to offer at the theater, let’s turn back the clocks once more as I take another crack at my top ten list from 2015. There weren’t too many changes after catching later releases but there is one notable inclusion:
2015 Top Ten List 2.0
10) Ex Machina (formerly 9)
9) The Diary of a Teenage Girl (formerly 8)
8) The Martian (formerly 6)
7) Brooklyn (unchanged)
6) Kingsmen: The Secret Service (formerly 5)
5) Sicario (formerly 4)
4) Wild Tales (previously unranked – SEE THIS MOVIE!)
3) Inside Out (unchanged)
2) Room (unchanged)
1) Mad Max: Fury Road (unchanged)
And now ladies and gentlemen, on with the show.
PART ONE: BEST/WORST FILMS OF 2016
10) Pete’s Dragon
Pete’s Dragon is a simple story but this is not a detriment to its ultimate effectiveness. Rather the filmmakers take care to treat this childhood fable with enough heart and earnest emotion that the movie feels fully developed to its aims. Full disclosure: I’m a sucker for the “boy and his dog” stories, and while Eliot is a special dragon by design he is, at his core, a rendition of man’s best friend. Their relationship is one of love, companionship, and protection. From start to finish, Pete’s’ Dragon is bursting with warmth and resonant emotions. I was unprepared for the emotional wallop that this film delivered. Not since perhaps Pixar’s Up has a movie so effectively triggered my sympathies in its opening ten minutes. The original Pete’s Dragon was never a memorable or enjoyable film for me, so there was already much to improve upon, which is what the new version does in every way. It’s poignant, heartwarming, earnest, and bursting with feeling. It’s a simple story told exceptionally well with artistry and grace. There’s a dash of indie flavor to the mainstream filmmaking. I think this movie will appeal to people of all ages, grown ups that are looking for some magic in their movies, as well as families looking for a movie that will entertain children but won’t rot their brains. It’s fortunate that we can end such a mediocre summer at the movies on a high note, and Pete’s Dragon is a wonderful infusion of the old and new, magic and reality, heartache and triumph. It’s a movie dripping with purity, and one that demands to be seen and hopefully cherished.
9) The Handmaiden
I’m glad there’s still a filmmaker at the talent level of director Park Chan-wook (Oldboy) dedicated to making genuine Gothic romance with style and reverence. The Handmaiden is a ravishing, enrapturing, and momentously engaging movie with dark delights, startling depths, palpable romance, simmering tension, and high-wire twists and turns that keep redefining the story. The absurdly talented filmmaker takes a novel set in Victorian England and adapts the setting to 1930s Korea during the time of Japanese occupation, a fascinating and little-known time period for a Western audience. A poor orphan Sook-Hee (Tae-ri Kim) is pressured into a scheme to trick the wealthy Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim) into being admitted to an insane asylum, her family riches sold. Sook-Hee grows an unexpected affection for her mistress, and this includes a burgeoning attraction that the movie communicates with serious sensuality. The passionate lesbian sex scenes are, if anything, a tad restrained from what I was expecting from Chan-wook, and they’re definitely far more restrained and absent the male gaze than the still excellent Blue is the Warmest Color. I felt the same carnal desire the characters were discovering, a feat worth celebrating for still staying true tonally without veering into tawdry exploitation. More than the sex or the top-notch technical aspects, it was the characters that hooked me and refuse to relinquish. The deepening relationships and the subtle shifts of loyalty, perception, and desire make what is essentially a twisty and twisted chamber-play into world-class drama. You think it’s one kind of movie, and then it flips the script, and then it does it again, each time opening wider this mysterious and invigorating world. The Handmaiden is a ridiculously entertaining movie that is handsomely mounted, wonderfully acted by its leading ladies, and a romance worth losing your self over.
With a formula, it’s not the song it’s the singer, and Moana is a splendid and delightful animated movie that should enchant all ages with colorful characters, catchy songs, and the familiar formula of old given surprising and rewarding depths. It’s a lovingly made movie I fell in love with. With a few clever nods, Moana intimates to its audience that it knows what they expect and will be delivering the best of the old formula without being slavishly lockstep in its execution. Moana is a lavishly produced adventure with great characters, more than a few pleasant surprises, and an emotional core that becomes more evident as the two characters we’ve grown attached to come full circle. The visuals are lively and colorful, the plotting is carefully paced and comes to a meaty conclusion, and the emphasis is on the relationship of the two main characters and their function. There was nary a moment during Moana where I wasn’t smiling from ear to ear. Do yourself a favor and savor this second Disney Renaissance because since 2012’s Wreck-It Ralph the Mouse House has been on a near unprecedented creative tear. This is starting to get to peak Pixar levels, folks. What can I say except… you’re welcome?
I may be the last person on the planet to have finally watched Zootopia, Disney’s first quarter hit of the year, and I am very glad that I did. I was expecting something cute with the premise of a plucky rabbit (voiced winningly by Ginnfer Goodwin) joining forces with a wily grifter fox (Jason Bateman) in the sprawling animal metropolis, but what I wasn’t expecting was a fully thought out and stupendously imaginative world and a message that is just as thought out and pertinent. The anthropomorphic animal land is filled with colorful locations and plenty of amusing characters. It’s highly enjoyable just to sit back and watch. I knew I was in for something radically different and dare I say more ambitious when there was an N-word approximation joke within the first ten minutes. This was not a movie to be taken lying down. My attention was rewarded with an engaging relationship between the two leads, careful plotting, endlessly clever asides without relying upon an inordinate amount of pop-culture references, and ultimately a noble and relevant message about the power of inclusion, tolerance, and rejecting prejudice. The larger metaphor seems slightly muddied by the late reveal of who is behind the conspiracy to make the animals go feral, but I wouldn’t say it undercuts the film’s power. The characters charmed me and I was happy that each ecosystem factored into the story in fun and interesting ways. There are plenty of payoffs distributed throughout the movie to make it even more rewarding. Zootopia is a funny, entertaining, heartfelt, and immersive movie with great characters and a world I’d like to explore again. Given its billion-dollar success, I imagine a return trip will be in short order and we should all be thankful. Something this spry and creative needs to be appreciated.
6) The Lobster
The Lobster is daringly different, wildly imaginative, and drops you into the middle of its cracked, alternative landscape and expects you to pick things up as you go. The movie is exceedingly funny and so matter-of-fact about its peculiarities to make it even funnier. The Lobster is a romance for our age and an indictment of the romance of our age, an era where the swipe of a finger on an app is the arbitrator of contemporary dating. It’s a satire on our fixation of coupledom and being in relationships even when they’re not sensible. It’s a cracked fairy tale that punctuates the romantic love we’ve watched distilled to an essence in Hollywood movies. It’s a surreal and dark movie that manages to become moving and poignant, leaving on a note of uncertainty enough for different factions in the audience to interpret as either hopeful or hopeless. The Lobster is a unique movie with a singular artistic voice that dominates every shape of the narrative, the characters, and the boundaries of this fantastic alternative world. I imagine my depth of feeling for the movie will only grow the more I watch it. This isn’t an overwhelmingly dark or unpleasant movie without the presence of some light. It’s not an overly off-putting movie without an accessibility for a curious audience, whether those people are single or in happy relationships. The movie is inventive, transporting, but still relatable, rooting the nexus of its weirdness on the same awkwardness and anxiety everyone feels with the prospects of prolonged romantic courtship. If 2016 was a year that celebrated the oddities of cinema getting their due, then The Lobster is a captivating and unusual creation deserving of its spotlight and surefire future cult status amidst lovers of the weird.
5) Midnight Special
Jeff Nichols should already be a household name after Mud and Take Shelter, and with his new movie Midnight Special, the man has done nothing to break his incredible record of success with making deeply personal, ruminative, thrilling, and brilliant films. Midnight Special is a better and more earnest love letter to the cinema of Spielberg than Super 8 was. A young boy exhibits strange and supernatural powers. The religious compound he came from looks at him as a prophet. The government thinks he might be a weapon. Two different groups are on the hunt for this boy, and that’s where Nichols drops us right into the middle of, respecting the intelligence of his audience to catch up and figure things as they develop. In some ways it reminds me of Mad Max: Fury Road, an expert chase film that establishes its characters naturally as it barrels onward. The acting is wonderful all around and Nichols does a great job of finding small character moments that speak volumes, giving everyone time in the spotlight. The various twists and turns can be surprising, heartwarming, funny, but they stay true to the direction of the story he’s telling and grounded in the simple, unyielding anxiety and love of parents for their child. Michael Shannon (Nichols go-to collaborator) is directly affecting as a humble but determined father risking everything for the well-being of his son. The concluding act left me awed and felt something akin to what I think Brad Bird may have been going for with Tomorrowland. This is a thoughtful science fiction movie that allows its characters space to emote, its plot room to breathe, and yet still thrills and awes on a fraction of a Hollywood budget. It shouldn’t be long before some studio finally taps Nichols to jump to the big leagues of a franchise film, but if he wanted to keep making these small, character-driven indies on his own terms, I’d die happy.
4) Captain America: Civil War
Everything Batman vs. Superman did wrong Captain America: Civil War does right. I challenge someone to watch Civil War and tell me just how weightless and silly it is. The Russo brothers and the screenwriters take these characters seriously and their care shows. While there can be plenty of rapid-fire quips and one-liners, the movie’s sense of humor does not detract from the emotional weight of its dramatic shifts. We’re dealing with the cumulative effect of having twelve movies to build up storylines and character relationships. We’re invested in these characters and their friendships, so when they fight it actually does matter. There are political and thematic overtones, mostly the costs of vengeance and culpability, which provide extra depth to the onscreen derring-do. However, Civil War understands that an audience wants to be entertained as well with their heavy-handed messianic imagery. There are payoffs galore in this movie. Some are several movies deep from set up. It all comes together to make a thrilling and highly enjoyable movie experience that plays to its audience in the best way possible. It’s an expert summer blockbuster that packs its own punch. There’s a reason I have already seen Civil War three times already. There is so much to enjoy and it’s so tightly packed and structured that you can jump right in and go for the ride. This is the movie fans were hoping for. I would not have thought that Captain America would become the gold standard of the MCU but there it is.
What Moonlight achieves is both something different and familiar and amounts to nothing less than watching the birth of human identity on screen. The film chronicles three formative experiences at three different times of a man’s life, each serving as its own one-act play examining our protagonist and his tortured sense of self. The results are breathtaking and deeply immersive, allowing the formation of a human being to take place before your eyes in such magnificent artistic strokes. I felt like I was watching a documentary of a young black man’s life told with ferocious realism, or at least a loosely fictionalized version of a life informed by fully authentic personal experiences. Moonlight is a beautiful film told with such delicate care and a resounding sense of authenticity and personal detail. It swallows you whole and leaves you with the impression of a human life observed with tenderness, intimacy, empathy, and grace. It’s about the people and experiences that help guide us onto the paths we take, and while there’s a sense of heartache as we think of what might have been, there’s also the serenity of accepting what has been and what can still be. There’s a lilting, lovely lyricism to the movie that elevates Chiron’s life into feeling like poetry. This is a life we so rarely get to see given such an artistic and honest examination without condemnation or judgment. It’s the story of a man embracing his identity and overcoming isolation and suppression. This disadvantaged young man is worth your emotions, your sympathies, and your attention. Moonlight is an alluring and heartrending film that manages to be deeply personal and universal at the same time. It’s sublime.
2) Swiss Army Man
Swiss Army Man is a unique film experience and one that shouldn’t work. It’s filled with juvenile body humor. Its key supporting role is a dead body. It’s about a guy who may or may not be a stalker living in a fantasy world in his own head. This should not be, and yet like Manny himself, miraculously it has been birthed into existence and we are better for it. Amazingly, stupendously, Swiss Army Man delicately walks that narrow tonal path and succeeds wildly, rapturously, and produces the rarest commodity in Hollywood, something daringly different and excitingly new. Swiss Army Man is a disarming buddy comedy that weirdly yet miraculously deepens as it goes, becoming a genuine relationship drama that touches on the profound and philosophical. Every time it feels like the movie is heading for a more conventional direction that will weigh it down, be it a love triangle or some slapdash “he was dead the whole time” twist ending, it calmly steers away. This is a wonderfully humane, touching, earnest, and emotionally affecting movie, one that, yes, also involves farting. The body humor stuff is a reflection over confronting what we feel uncomfortable with and why that is, what social conventions tell us is in poor taste, tell us to box ourselves in and play by the rules. Here is a movie that gleefully plays by its own rules. It’s not going to be for everyone but if it’s for you, like me, there might not be much else that can rival its cinematic highs. Even if you think you will hate this movie, see it. See it just to have seen one of the strangest and most beguiling movies of the modern era. See it and judge for yourself. I’m still awed at how life affirming and profound a movie with a farting corpse can be. Swiss Army Man is a labor of love, an explosion of feeling, and a declaration to stay weird.
And the best film of 2016 is…..
Spellbinding during every one of its mammoth 467 minutes, Ezra Edelman’s five-part documentary is the definitive journalistic examination on the nexus of sports, media, race, privilege and celebrity that was the O.J. Simpson murder trial. It’s also one of the greatest documentaries I have ever seen. This is a monumental artistic achievement that seamlessly blends many different story threads to present a psychological, relevant, and compelling case as to how this notable flashpoint in race relations was inevitable. Consider the eight hours a searing and engrossing psychological study of one of the twentieth century’s most infamous cultural icons. As O.J.’s career soars he shuns larger responsibility to the black community, which is routinely rattled by shocking police brutality and a sense of institutional injustice, best typified with the controversial Rodney King acquittals. Edelman assembles an impressive coalition of interview subjects with startling personal revelations and sometimes shocking admissions. They all masterfully come together along with the narrative threads of the systemic history of Los Angeles police corruption and abuses, the public’s insatiable appetite for celebrity and its shamefully easy tendency to forgive the famous and horrible, and racial identity to form a complex, interwoven, and mesmerizing larger picture that feels like its own multi-media academic textbook with full annotations. It feels like a five course meal. This is the kind of powerful and ruminating documentary filmmaking that illuminates our understanding of the past and our greater connections to the wider world. O.J.: Made in America flies by effortlessly, packed with rich detail and archival footage, and serves as a terrific compliment to the brilliantly entertaining FX miniseries. This is a towering achievement in documentary film and rightfully earns the title of best movie of 2016.
Honorable mention: Manchester by the Sea, Arrival, Kubo and the Two Strings
10) Yoga Hosiers
Yoga Hosers is a movie for a very select group of people, perhaps only Smith’s immediate family, friends, and most ardent of podcast listeners. I doubt that’s me. I’ve been a Smith fan since my own teens. His was one of the cinematic voices that awoke my own sense of what movies could be. I miss the caustic wit that separated Smith from the indie pack. The man was one of the few writers who could spin crass vulgarity into Shakespearean gold. He was a writing talent that many emulated but few could reproduce. Smith’s whip-smart comic perspective has always been his biggest cinematic draw, but with Yoga Hosers it feels decidedly neutered and wound down. I know he has gone on record saying he’s making the movies he wants to make without interference, but it doesn’t feel like the same Smith. Admittedly, a filmmaker in his early 20s is going to have a different perspective and creative impulses than a husband and father in his mid 40s. This apparently means that Smith has veered away from his conversational comedies and button-pushing topics and bought fully into genre filmmaking, mixing a pastiche of horror elements and varying tones. As an artist he doesn’t owe me or any other fan anything. Yoga Hosers might be a one-off, a love letter to his teen daughter and her bestie, or it could portend what is to come. Kevin Smith is making movies for himself at this point in his career. If you feel left out in that equation, like me, that’s okay. We can always go back and watch Clerks again.
9) Blair Witch
I didn’t fall under the spell of the 1999 original but I could appreciate its slow-burn efforts and execution, which relied upon a lot of unsettling dread left to audience imagination. With the 2016 reboot, the filmmakers have upped the ante but don’t have patience. There are over six different jump scares, each punctuated by a loud, often shrill scream. At one point there are three in a row in a succession of mere minutes, enough so that a character provides a meta dose of commentary by saying in exasperation, “Why do people keep doing that?” I was honestly expecting more from Wingard and Barrett after their previous genre collaborations. These guys know the underpinnings of enjoyable genre filmmaking and how and when t upend the conventions and expectations, zigging when others would zag. I felt these two would be able to take a studio gig like Blair Witch and find something new, something interesting, and certainly something scary with the property. I regret to say that this Blair Witch might be new but it sure fails to be interesting or scary. The characters are meaningless and interchangeable and boring. Their decisions are often illogical and stupid. The scares are stacked too high in favor of cheap jump scares, and the movie lacks the patience to develop its tension and horror. It can’t even properly establish rules for the audience to follow. It’s like the filmmakers are being upfront with their lack of faith in their final product. I think the key missing ingredient is, surprisingly, humor. Both You’re Next and The Guest balance along a delicate tonal line that can veer into macabre comedy any moment to lighten or heighten the tension. There are no (intentional) laughs to be had with this retread into the woods. I think the newest Blair Witch has done the unthinkable: it’s redeemed Book of Shadows.
8) Miracles from Heaven
If you’re looking for a feel-good affirmation you might be barking up the wrong tree because Miracles from Heaven was, for me, an interminable experience of unyielding and tactless sadness pornography. Any movie that features a young child stricken with a very deadly and incurable illness is going to fall upon the sadder side of human drama, but what sets this movie apart is that this emotional landing spot is the only territory it mines. What bothers me is that Miracles from Heaven takes its audience for granted repeatedly. They don’t bother with characterization and the examination of insurmountable grief and parental terror because instead they’ll just boil everything to its core element of Grieving Parent cries over Sick Child. It’s the same scene, over and over, bludgeoning the audience with sadness and suffering until it taps out, cries mercy, and is overjoyed for the titular miracle to chase away this dirge. Miracles from Heaven feels more like an anecdote than a film. It’s stretched far too thin. It doesn’t respect its audience enough to even bother forming characters or present a story that explores the realities of an incurable illness and the stress this unleashes on all parties. Movies have provided great empathetic exercises where we watch human beings suffer and then triumph, moved by their plight and uplifted by their spirit, perseverance, or perhaps even the frail realatability they exhibit as they tackle their oppression. The Oscar-winning film Room is an excellent example of this and a movie I highly encourage all readers to seek out and give a chance, subject matter notwithstanding. Room is a movie that celebrates the human experience but acknowledges the pain of it too. Miracles from Heaven, in sharp contrast, is a movie that barely acknowledges the need for basic storytelling and is nothing more than insulting high-gloss sadness pornography. You deserve better, America, and so does Jennifer Garner.
7) Suicide Squad
Suicide Squad is a classic example of trying too hard; it’s all empty posturing and posing, asking for plaudits about how edgy this cut-and-dry PG-13 movie must be with its mall Goth aesthetic and irreverent sense of good and evil. It tries so hard to be edgy that you can see the onscreen flop sweat. The tone and structure of the movie is like an unholy marriage of Stephen Sommers’ sense of careless plotting and archetypes, mish mashing tones, and Joe Carnahan’s sense of wanton violence, killer cool killers, and militaristic fetishism. The “worst of the worst” can’t be all that bad considering we’re working under the mandate of a mainstream PG-13 rating. They’re villains with gooey centers and moral codes. If this is trying to be an over-the-top B movie, it fails. If it’s trying to be a flashy and stylish diversion, it fails. If it’s trying to be a subversive take on super heroes, it fails. It just doesn’t work. It wants to thumb its nose at super hero movies and dance to its own anarchic, nihilistic beat, but you never believe the movie’s own convictions. It feels like empty posturing, confusing attitude and costuming for edge. It felt like some film exec pointed at Guardians of the Galaxy and said, “Make us one of those.” The sad thing is that Batman vs. Superman wasn’t good but it was at least ambitious, having to set up multiple franchises, serve as a sequel and reintroduce Batman. Suicide Squad had to do considerably less with the easy task of making a group of crazy anti-heroes as popular entertainment, and it flounders. It’s going to be a long wait until 2017’s Wonder Woman, the next DC movie in their larger plan to compete with the Marvel big boys, and the howls from dissatisfied moviegoers will echo until then, providing a pessimistic landscape for every new scrap of footage and trailer. Remember that the Suicide Squad trailer looked mighty good too and the actual movie is well and truly awful. Sometimes the packaging is the best part and sometimes it’s the only part.
Watching High-Rise left me in an agitated state of bafflement. I was desperately trying to fumble for some kind of larger meaning, or at least some kind of narrative foothold from this indie movie about a high-rise apartment complex where the rich reside at the top and the lower classes below. I was holding onto hope that what came across as messy, incoherent, and juvenile would magically coalesce into some sort of work of satiric value. This hope was lost. Director Ben Wheately’s (Kill List) movie is disdainful to audience demands, disdainful to narrative, disdainful to characters that should be more than vague metaphorical figures against the British class system. The social class commentary is so stupidly simple. At one point, the upper floor rich talk about how they have to throw a better party than the lower floor plebs (slobs versus snobs!). The movie lacks any sort of foundation but just keeps going; I would check how much time was left every fifteen minutes and exclaim, “How is there still more left?!” This is a chore to sit through because it’s so resoundingly repetitive and arbitrary. You could rearrange any ten minutes of the movie and make nary a dent in narrative coherence. There are some striking visuals and weird choices that keep things unpredictable; it’s just that I stopped caring far too early for anything to have mattered. It’s all just weightless materials for Wheatley’s empty impressionistic canvas. As society breaks down, things get violent and yet the movie is still boring. I was hoping for something along the lines of Snowpiercer but I got more of a pulpy Terence Mallick spiral of self-indulgent nothingness. High-Rise is a highly irritating and exasperating movie and I know it’s destined to be a future favorite of the pretentious.
5) Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice
Batman vs. Superman isn’t just a bad movie, and I never thought I’d type these words, it’s worse than Batman and Robin. It’s plodding, incoherent, tiresome, dreary, poorly developed, and so self-serious and overwrought to the point that every ounce of fun is relinquished. It feels more like punishment than entertainment, a joyless 150-minute exercise in product launching. By the end of the movie I sat in my chair, defeated and weary. Here is the most insidious part. Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice obliterates any hope I had for the larger DC universe, let alone building anything on par with what Marvel has put together. If this is the direction they’re going, the style, the tone, then I don’t see how any of these will work. What’s to like here? “Fun” is not a dirty word. Fun does not mean insubstantial nor does it mean that larger pathos is mitigated. If you’re going to have a movie about Batman and Superman duking it out, it better damn well be entertaining, and yes fun. It’s not a Lars von Trier movie. The Marvel movies are knocked for not being serious, but they take their worlds and characters seriously enough. They don’t need to treat everything like a funeral dirge, which is what Batman vs. Superman feels like (it even opens and closes on funerals). This movie confirms all the worst impulses that Man of Steel began, and because it gutted all hope I have for the future of these oncoming superhero flicks, I can’t help but lower its final grade. Batman and Robin almost killed its franchise but it was in decline at the time. As campy and innocuous as it was, Batman vs. Superman goes all the way in the other direction to the extreme, leaving a lumbering movie that consumes your hopes. The novelty of the premise and seeing its famous characters standing side-by-side will be enough for some audience members. For everyone else, commence mourning.
4) Rampage: President Down
I’ll never understand why Uwe Boll hitched his wagon to such a depraved and empty central figure. With the first Rampage film I wondered if Boll was trying to understand the disaffected angry male voice out there, to try and put the audience in the shoes of a human being who would commit horrifying acts of butchery as a means of lashing out against a system that made him feel inconsequential. That wasn’t Rampage, a nihilistic and tiresome exercise in shock value that was mistaken as commentary. The 2014 sequel only reinforced the flaws of Bill and his rise-up manifesto, and once again Boll’s story dawdled with contrived false tension until an explosive climax that lingered on the violence, celebrating the carnage. If Bill wants to complain about the people’s love of violence he might want to direct his fury at his own director. With President Down, Bill is dead and his message has inspired the populace to take control of their lives via the conduit of indiscriminate murder and terrorism. I think the message may have gotten a tad lost along the way. The Rampage films were never good movies but they were even worse intellectual exercises, and I worry about people who charitably refer to them as the “good Boll movies.” They’re not, and as one of the world’s foremost experts on the catalogue of Boll, I can legitimately say he has made some almost-good movies (Attack on Wall Street and Tunnel Rats). I beg audiences not to give Boll an easy pass. If this is the end of the franchise, it goes out with a whimper and no lasting impression beyond angry, misplaced rhetoric and violent nihilism masquerading as social commentary. Follow the lead of the Kickstarter folks and steer clear of this mighty mess.
3) The Neon Demon
The prospect of a new Nicolas Winding Refn movie is akin to a trip to the dentist for me: long, painful, and full or regret over one’s life choices. The Neon Demon will not change this perception of mine. I hated this movie, and the more I think about it the more I hate it. This is borderline unwatchable cinema. The plot is like Showgirls without the camp but still following some of the basic plot beats. There is nothing interesting about these characters at all and that’s because they’re not people but robotic figurines at best. They’re dolls for Refn to pose and play around with his purple lights. It’s like watching two hours of somebody rearrange fancy-looking furniture. Refn should forgo the director’s chair and devote his career to being a cinematographer. He has an alluring eye for visual compositions and a great feel for atmospheric lighting, but with each passing movie I feel the man’s disdain for narrative filmmaking. His skill set is best utilized at making pretty pictures. Get him away from directing actors. Get him away from writing stories. Have adults in charge of the other aspects that help make a movie what a movie should be. The Neon Demon is a confounding, obnoxious, obtuse, intellectually destitute and monotonous movie experience. The Neon Demon is not a movie. It’s a collection of half-formed, shallow ideas that Refn has thrown together, a whole lot of dead and empty space connecting them together, and an 80s synth score to underline the high-contrast colors. At this point I’d rather go back to the dentist than sit through another Refn film.
2) Hot Bot
What seemed like a mere rip-off of Weird Science instead became one of the most uncomfortable, unfunny, and downright soul-destroying 86 minutes of the year. Two nerds, clearly patterned off the archetypes from Superbad, stumble upon a sex robot escaping the dirty-minded clutches of a senator (Larry Miller, why?). At first the boys think they’ve run over and killed a sexy lingerie-clad living Barbie, so they elect to take her back home to dispose of the corpse. This is also the part where the “Jonah Hill”-esque guy debates defiling her dead body… and this is before they know she’s a robot. The characters are powerfully unlikable but even worse are exasperatingly unfunny. The comedy is too often obvious and toothless, luxuriating in bad improv from actors given not enough of a script and far too much leeway. The vulgarity is lame and for a raunchy sex comedy the material is weirdly chaste, trying to insert a dissonant romance for our Hot Bot and nerd. The premise is so ripe for comedic potential that it’s almost baffling how much they blunder. It’s about as baffling as comprehending that this cheap-looking, sloppily executed dreck is made by the Polish brothers, a pair of indie auteurs responsible for much more thoughtful and adventurous cinema like Twin Falls Idaho and Northfolk. I didn’t know these guys were even capable of making something this bad and this pathetic. Watching this movie saps the life out of you as only a bad comedy can. It’s disheartening to watch ordinarily funny people strut and fret with weak material, and Hot Bot is the weakest of material. This movie will serve as a dark reminder for everyone who worked on it as they try and pay penance for the rest of their lives to eliminate the awfulness that they helped bring into this world.
And the worst film of 2016 is….
1) Hilary’s America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party
This is the underwhelming Return of the Jedi of conservative author Dinesh D’Souza’s trilogy of bad movies. They all exist in a galaxy far, far away from our own reality. Then again D’Souza has been catering to an alternate reality for the majority of his huckster career. Hillary’s America wants to spare the nation at a critical moment in history, but D’Souza’s agitprop will only appeal to the converted or at least those viewers with an alarmingly low quotient for intellectual curiosity. “They can’t take America from us without our consent,” D’Souza rallies his crowd into mobilization (as a felon, he has lost his right to vote in the meantime). People talk about the deep divides in this country, and it’s men like D’Souza that are stirring those divisions, placating and agitating their audiences, and knowingly distorting facts and reality in a shameless attempt to milk money from the hapless. Here is a man who said Obama never truly lived the “black experience” because his mother was white. Here is a man who tried to mitigate the horrors of slavery in his previous documentary and termed it “theft of labor.” Here is a man who believes Christianity literally invented compassion. Here is a man who states that no Republicans owned slaves. He is not a man who tells truth to power but a man who willfully distorts the historical record in order to make people feel better about unhinged political takes that have no bearing in reality. He couldn’t be an effective propagandist if he tried, and it really doesn’t feel like he’s even trying. Maybe at some level D’Souza is admitting defeat or at least sees the writing on the wall. He’s been on the wrong side of history and eventually history will judge him as well. Meanwhile, Hillary’s America is a disaster of a movie and the worst film of 2016.
Dishonorable mention: London Has Fallen, Nocturnal Animals, God’s Not Dead 2
PART TWO: VARIOUS AWARDS AND ACCOLADES
Worst titles of the year: Grimsby, Knight of Cups, Yoga Hosiers, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, and the clear winner, Collateral Beauty
Titles that could be confused with porn: Bad Moms, They’re Watching, Hardcore Henry, The BFG, Nocturnal Animals, Edge of Seventeen
Biggest Disappointment of 2016: Independence Day: Resurgence. It’s been twenty years and this was the best they could come up with? Resurgence suffers from CGI-heavy spectacle that has long lost its appeal without supplying helpful additions like characters to care about, exciting action sequences that develop and impact the plot, meaningful plot turns, and a story that follows some form of logic. It’s not that the first film was intellectually rigorous sci-fi, but it went about its destructive business with a satisfying precision. This movie all too often just feels like things happening, then not happening, and with characters that are there but without any compelling reason beyond survival. The end of the movie sets up an intended sequel and possible extended franchise of sequels with a larger galactic war against the alien invaders. It’s both hopeful and naïve, dangling the promise of another tantalizing human vs. alien throwdown. It’s also a bit aggravating because the premise of the hypothetical sequel is much better than the “they came back again” sequel we get with Resurgence. Don’t make me pay my money and then tease me with a better movie down the road.
The Best 10 Minutes of 2016: The kaleidoscopic New York City chase sequence in Doctor Strange. It felt like an array of M. C. Escher paintings were folding onto one another in an eye-popping highlight for this highly imaginative, trippy action film.
Runners-up: the tense Hudson River water landing in Sully; “Would that it were so simple” sequence in Hail, Caesar!; “Sweet Dreams” Quicksilver sequence in X-Men: Apocalypse; the airport fight sequence spectacular in Captain America: Civil War
Too Limited in Options: Allied and Nocturnal Animals. Here’s the problem with Allied’s premise: it’s too limiting. Either Marion Cotillard is a spy or she isn’t, and if she isn’t that makes for boring drama. You’re stuck so more and more obstacles have to be put in place to merely delay the inevitable reveal because that’s all the movie had. Nocturnal Animals was watching Amy Adams read a story for two hours, and in that story there were only so many characters to serve as proxies. It’s not hard to figure out metaphorically whom stands for whom yet the film thinks it’s radically intellectual.
Interesting Worlds, Bad Lead Character(s): Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, War Dogs, The Infiltrator, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children
Welcome to Franchise Death: The 5th Wave, My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2, The Huntsmen: Winter’s War, X-Men: Apocalypse, Neighbors 2, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: Out of the Shadows, Independence Day: Resurgence, Alice through the Looking Glass, Ghostbusters, Ice Age: Collision Course, Blair Witch, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, Ouija: Origin of Evil, Inferno, Bad Santa 2, Assassin’s Creed. Special dubious distinction to Divergent, which won’t even finish its two-part finale in theaters as Lionsgate plans to conclude the series as a TV movie/backdoor pilot. Whoops.
The Gods of Egypt Award for White Washing: Gods of Egypt
Most Gratuitous Moment of 2016: Wife and husband’s co-worker exchange in The Infiltrator. Undercover government agents Kathy (Diane Kruger) and Robert Mazur (Bryan Cranston) are fake getting married according to their cover stories, so what else does a fake bride-to-be do but seek out her fake husband’s tuxedo that he wore decades prior upon his real wedding to his real wife? Why does Robert need to wear the exact same tuxedo? Can his office not afford to rent a new one that likely more accurately represents his size? Even if this cost-cutting measure was plausible, why must Kathy be the one to pick it up, and from Mrs. Mazur? It’s contrived and forced conflict to shove these two characters together, so that Mrs. Mazur can ask pointedly, “Are you sleeping with him?” Rather than say nothing, or dismiss the assertion, Kathy provides what has to be the most irritating and obfuscating answer: “I think you know the answer to that.” Does she really? This scene is a pristine example of characters operating at a sub-level of intelligence because the movie wants to force contrived drama when there is already plenty of organic drama being ignored.
Runner-up: Zoe Saldana donning blackface to play Nina Simone in a biopic. I didn’t think a black woman wearing blackface was possible, but there it is. There are plenty of darker-skinned African-American actresses in Hollywood (Viola Davis, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gura, Rutina Wesley) that would have been better suited physically. Just don’t use blackface, period.
Best Time I Had in a Theater in 2016: Captain America: Civil War, especially seeing it three weeks early (thanks Dan Nye!) and having bragging powers.
Most Ridiculous Plot Element of 2016: Collateral Beauty. The very premise was kept away from audiences for good reason. Will Smith is in a deep depressive funk years after the death of his child. His partners at his advertising firm scheme to save the company by having him declared mentally unsound, nullifying his majority vote. They pay actors to represent Time, Death, and Love, the entities he’s writing to, and they will confront him in public, coax a response, and then this will be surreptitiously recorded and the hired actors will be digitally erased later. What in the what? The digital erasure constitutes explicit fraud and it feels so much grosser. It’s an expensive step to provide visual evidence of a man having a nervous breakdown. It’s even more egregious when Collateral Beauty presents these characters as the heroes. It makes it a little harder to swallow all that outpouring of cloying sentiment later. These murky and misguided manipulations will symbolize much that is wrong with the movie.
Runners-up: “MAAAARRRTHHHAAA!” Batman vs. Superman; gaslighting conclusion for The Girl on the Train; Enchantress and her kiss-activated goo-face goons in Suicide Squad; Christopher Walken’s giant singing/dancing orangutan in The Jungle Book
Release From Movie Jail: Mel Gibson (Hacksaw Ridge), Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (Nerve)
Throw into Movie Jail: Nicolas Winding Refn, Jared Hess (Masterminds), Barry Sonnenfeld (Nine Lives), Gary Marshall (Mother’s Day)
Thora Birch Award for Hottest Actress in 2016: Haley Bennett in The Girl on the Train, Magnificent Seven, and Hardcore Henry. She was a seductress in two movies and a frontierswoman whose gown top was dangerously close to slipping off her shoulders at several key points. She may have gotten typecast here, and I’m not helping. I’m thinking I might need to rename this award considering the overall dearth of material from his teenage crush, Miss Birch. In the meantime, Bennett is a pretty woman with striking eyes.
Runner’s-up: Bella Heathcote in Neon Demon and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies; Alicia Vikander in The Light Between Oceans; Ana de Armas in War Dogs
Unnecessary Setup Award: Structurally, the Sundance hit The Birth of a Nation is amiss because we don’t need 90 minutes to justify why slaves would violently revolt against their masters. The best part is its final act when the revolts come and the slave owners get what they have coming. Some will equivocate that not all slave owners abused and terrorized their slaves to the same degree of abject cruelty, but the very nature of owning another human being is an assault on fundamental morality. 12 Years a Slave had an excellent 15-minute section where it disproved the notion of the “good slave owner” with Benedict Cumberbatch’s character. Even he too was corrupted because the institution of slavery is a corrupting agency. What that movie was able to communicate in 15 minutes is what The Birth of a Nation takes 90 minutes to do the same.
Red Tails Award for Famous Black Figure(s) That Deserved a Better Movie: Jesse Owens in Race and the African-American women in the Space Race with Hidden Figures. They waited 60+ years… for formulaic movies.
Best Onscreen Death: (tie) Doctor Strange again and again and again as the film’s climax and Sharlto Copley over and over in Hardcore Henry. Benedict Cumberbatch doesn’t out muscle the super interdimensional monster bent on world destruction. Instead he traps the cosmic brute in a time loop wherein Doctor Strange dies over and over to protect the people of Earth. Copley magically pops up throughout his movie after being dispatched in a variety of gnarly and bloody ways.
Runner’s-up: John Lithgow in The Accountant; Chris Pratt’s smoking exit in The Magnificent Seven; one last bullet, Deadpool; the conclusion for Rogue One
Bring Your Barf Bag Award: I experienced a fierce bout of motion sickness from Hardcore Henry unlike anything I’ve ever encountered in a theater. I’m usually rather immune to shaky camera movements and found footage movies. I remember reading about people getting sick and throwing up during screenings of The Blair Witch Project not because of its content but simply from its handheld camerawork. I have never had an issue up until now. After 20 minutes of Henry, I had to sit much further back in my theater. The continuous whipping camerawork caused me a great wave of nausea. I even had to leave the theater for five minutes in the middle of the movie just to re-calibrate my brain. I would warn people about sitting too close to the screen but ideally this movie’s proper place is really your home television.
Best Villain of 2016: John Goodman in 10 Cloverfield Lane. Nobody made post-apocalyptic hospitality more nerve racking than Goodman. The unsettling layers the movie reveals about his character, never fully spelling out the exact misdeeds, make our heroine contemplate which side of a bunker she’d rather spend the apocalypse.
Runner’s-up: Samuel L. Jackson in Miss Peregrine; Black Phillip in The Witch; Patrick Stewart in Green Room; Demon Nun in The Conjuring 2; Jared Leto as the Joker in– just kidding—Juggalo Joker dandy gangster was well and truly awful.
Favorite Line From a Review in 2016: From Kevin Smith’s Yoga Hosiers: “From my viewpoint, it feels like Smith is voluntarily erasing what made him a unique cinematic voice and choosing to disappear into the benign morass of schlocky genre filmmaking.”
Runner-up: “A melodrama through and through, The Light Between Oceans is at its core a pretty-looking movie about pretty-looking people being sad.”
PART THREE: OVERALL MOVIE GRADES
I have reviews and mini-reviews for almost all of the graded movies listed below.
Captain America: Civil War
O.J.: Made in America
Swiss Army Man
Kubo and the Two Strings
Manchester by the Sea
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children
The Conjuring 2
Hell or High Water
The Jungle Book
Bridget Jones’ Baby
Edge of Seventeen
The Light Between Oceans
The Lovers and the Despot
The Magnificent Seven
Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates
Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising
The Nice Guys
The Purge: Election Year
Star Trek Beyond
10 Cloverfield Lane
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
La La Land
Thirteen Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi
The Birth of a Nation
Free State of Jones
The Girl on the Train
A Monster Calls
Now You See Me 2
Bad Santa 2
Batman: The Killing Joke
Boo! A Madea Halloween
Independence Day: Resurgence
God’s Not Dead 2
London Has Fallen
Miracles From Heaven
Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice
The Neon Demon
Rampage: President Down
Hillary’s America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party