It's that time of year again...where we take stock of all the films we saw for the year and weigh in on which ones were a waste of time and which ones were time well spent. And not like this needs repeating but I will do it anyway, this is a list comprised of films "I" felt were the best of what this past year had to offer us.
2016 had a lot to offer us both good and bad. Disney saw the most success out of everyone with hits like The Jungle Book, Zootopia, Moana, Pete's Dragon, Finding Dory and of course their one two punch of Captain America Civil War and Doctor Strange. But they weren't content to go out quietly as they capped off the year with Rogue One, the first ever Star Wars spin off and judging by its box office receipts certainly not the last. Other films saw success as well with some inspired horror offerings such as The Conjuring 2, Don't Breathe and Lights Out while action flicks and aside from the charming rom com Me Before You romances fell by the wayside. We also saw a lot of great smaller movies make an impression with films like Hell or High Water and Sully both of which enjoyed loving respect from critics and audiences alike.
Sadly the year wasn't great for everyone. Probably the studio that took the biggest blow was Warner Bros. and DC comics as they attempted to kickstart their own superhero film universe. While both Batman V Superman and Suicide Squad made money the damage done by their lack of quality has caused irrevocable damage to their branding. Fox also took a hit in the superhero department with their X-Men: Apocalypse which couldn't live up to the surprise box office juggernaut Deadpool which also came from them. Then there were the would be blockbusters such as Warcraft, Ghostbusters and Independence Day: Resurgence that proved audiences can't be dazzled simply by throwing a lot of pretty effects in their face. But we were still graced with a number of highlights throughout the year which made most of these stumbles a bit easier to recover from. There is much more to say and many other films to single out so let's get to it shall we?
Besides one other film this year (which isn't an outright comedy), Sausage Party delivered more consistent and hilarious laughs than any other comedy released. There were so many different ways this thing could have (and should have) failed from the fact that it is an R rated animated film about our food and grocery items learning the horrors of their lot in life to its overt (and very proud) indictment of other religions, ethnicities and sexual orientations that it boggles the mind to even comprehend how much they got away with here. The saving grace to all of this though is the same thing that has kept people like Matt Stone and Trey Parker going all these years which is to slander everyone in equal amounts. No carrot is left unpeeled in this grocery store of horrors and every time you think they can't possibly take it any further they seem to find new lows to exploit around every corner.
13 Hours is the best war film depicting modern day warfare since Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down. A bold statement indeed but both films share a number of similarities in plot, setting and more importantly in execution. Forget for a minute that Michael Bay had anything to do with it. Tuck those hateful and nihilistic thoughts away and look at this from an objective point of view. Bay may not know how to craft a story about every day people who live mundane lives that more often than not get thrown into extraordinary situations. He may try to blow everything up on screen and he may not be the most subtle filmmaker out there (his shaky cams are legendary at this point). But when it comes to military focused stories about bravery in the face of certain death all of his negatives suddenly take shape and form an overwhelming positive that for a while make you forget that this is the guy who made the Transformers movies.
La La Land
The horror genre had a few bright spots in 2016 but none were brighter than the ironically named Lights Out. Generally when a horror film rests its hopes on a clever gimmick, with the gimmick here involving a supernatural force that can only exist in shadows, things like character and story get over looked in favor of said gimmick. That was most certainly NOT the case here as all the characters, even the kooky mother who should have been annoying are surprisingly well rounded people with clear and believable motivations for their actions. The first two thirds of the film are devoted to introducing the audience to our characters and setting stage that they will eventually confront their foe on. But that is all leading up to the crazy cool events that transpire in its fantastically thrilling final act all of which made for one of the more interesting and genuinely terrifying horror films released this year.
This is the first real game changer in the superhero movie world since the first Avengers. Sort of how the original Matrix changed the face of action films forever it is hard to imagine Deadpool not influencing every single superhero movie coming down the pipe. The writing, directing and acting are all at such a high caliber and the meta scale is off the charts but in the end it is the story about a man who fights to save the woman he loves that truly sets it apart from all its peers. Well, that and how nearly every single joke lands harder than any of the punches thrown thanks to the filmmakers willingness to throw themselves under the bus any chance they get. We need more self aware films from self aware filmmakers like this, its almost like a palette cleanser for all the sub par cookie cutter superhero movies we have gotten over the past decade and a wake up call to those (cough...Marvel...cough) who think there is only one way to make a superhero flick.
Zootopia is, in my eyes, the pinnacle of Disney Animation Studios latest string of blockbuster hits. It has everything you could ever want in a movie, animated or otherwise. Endearing and impossibly rich characters, a world filled with imagination, a story filled with mystery and intrigue for the adults but still accessible enough for kids and most of all it is just a lot of fun. The relationship between Judy and Nick isn't just for laughs, there is real growth we see from both with Judy's stereotyping of Nick and Nick's distrust in Judy fading away as they form a bond that goes beyond friendship but never feels the need to make them more than friends. Zootopia was made as family entertainment but you might be surprised at how it makes you look at the world around you just a little bit differently.
Eye In The Sky
There are movies and then there are experiences. Movies can be fun, sad and exciting but on rare occasions we get a film that transcends those labels and provides the viewer with an experience that can either change our perspective or enlighten us on particular subjects. More often than not these types of films tackle real world situations such as war, racism, love or a mixture of sorts but as director Denis Villenueve's Sci-fi flick Arrival proves those genres don't have a monopoly on such lofty themes. Science Fiction is at its best when it infuses real world issues into its fiction but that is only part of what makes Arrival such a monumental success.
There are countless hidden layers to unravel as the film transforms from what at first appears to be your stereotypical aliens visiting Earth scenario into something transcendent. We get all the obvious moments of the military establishing control, the recruitment of different specialized scientists plucked from their ho-hum day jobs and a myriad of moments of discovery as pieces to the puzzle are slowly put together, but it is the themes that make Arrival a stand out in the genre. Amy Adam's character is a linguistic expert and she is tasked with finding a way to communicate with the alien visitors but what at first seems like such a minuscule aspect to the story turns out to be the one thing that makes it such a unique experience.
Look, I am dancing around the subject for sure but that is only because the reveal behind the importance of learning another language and the implications of it are best left to the film itself to let you in on. What I can say though is very few films, science fiction or otherwise, are able to make you appreciate the real world importance of communication. How we communicate with one another is the basis for everything our world has been built on. Arrival reminds us of this fact in quite possibly one of the most unexpected and fascinating ways possible simply by introducing aliens and some radical (but semi-plausible) science to back it all up. Let me leave you with one bit of advice before seeing the film (which you should do immediately), if you find yourself a little lost as to what is happening or confused don't try to rationalize any of it. Let it happen and the truth as they say will eventually set your mind free.
Previous Years Picks...
2016 Honorable Mentions
(Other films I wanted on my list but couldn't find room for)
While putting the name "Cloverfield" in the title was a bit misleading (the creators are saying it is a brand name now...sure, ok) it was easy to overlook since the core film was so good. Very few films released in 2016 can be labeled as riveting but this little independent film was from beginning until (almost) the end. If not for the tacked on ending that came out of nowhere this would have easily ended up on my best of the year list, instead it gets an honorable nod.
The problem with being so good at something is that after a while you start to be taken for granted. I am not taking for granted the amazing job that Marvel did with Civil War despite it not making top billing on my official list, so stop looking at me like that. There are a ton of amazing moments such as the airport fight and the climatic battle between Captain America and Iron Man, plus a ton of great character work all around. However, it didn't really break any new ground in the realm of superhero movies and I decided to give Deadpool the nod instead since that particular film is bound to start an entire legion of copycats.
Disney was on point in 2016, but just not with their superheros and Star Wars. Their continued trend of remaking their classic animated films into live action films has proven to be not quite as terrible as most had predicted. Case in point is The Jungle Book, an adaptation of one of the more obscure titles in Disney's vault of revered classics and one that was never really a favorite of mine. Director Jon Favreau did something I never thought I would happen though and made a film that is not only superior to the original in just about every way imaginable but also one of the most purely enjoyable films released this year.
Movies don't get as niche as Hardcore Henry. The list of caveats needed to enjoy or fully appreciate what this film is is longer than your monthly grocery list. You have to 1. Like videogames 2. Like First Person Shooter videogames 3. Know what a First Person Shooter videogame is. 4. Like extremely and consistent graphic violence 5. Know and like how stories in videogames unfold 6. Understand how a First Person Shooter functions 7. Like movies that exist solely to prove that something nobody else thinks can be done, can in fact be done and finally 8. Have a really sick and twisted sense of humor or at the very least can appreciate bad taste as art. If you fit all those categories then chances are you will love every single second of Hardcore Henry.
The Nice Guys
Writer/director Shane Black may not have come up with the idea behind the buddy cop genre but he sure as hell perfected it. First there was Lethal Weapon, then he gave us the massively under appreciated Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang and now we have The Nice Guys. If you are at least familiar with either of those other two films or have seen a movie starring Jackie Chan, Kevin Hart, Rob Schiender, Johnny Knoxville or any other comedic-like actor in the past 30 years, then you know what to expect here. The only difference is that Black knows this genre in and out as evidenced by his ability to cast two actors (this time Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe) with a ton of chemistry that is matched only by his ability to craft a fun and very entertaining movie that is almost impossible to not enjoy.
Romances were in short supply this year, especially when it comes to ones that were any good. But an even bigger drought was the cliche tearjerker romance which is the epitome of manipulative entertainment. You know what you are getting the moment it starts and somehow you are OK with the inevitable simply because the people we get to spend that precious time with are people we genuinely begin to care about. Me Before You is a mostly predictable and by the numbers tearjerker romance but what makes it stand out more than anything is the jubilant and contagiously energetic performance given by Emilia Clarke who takes this opportunity to show us that she is more than just the Queen of Dragons, she is an accomplished actor who is more capable than most ever gave her credit for.
Not the funniest movie of the year but hands down responsible for the single funniest moment in any movie I saw in 2016 (just wait until he is asked to given an autograph through a car window). The guys of The Lonely Island music group have constructed a modern day pop version of This is Spinal Tap that takes the pop music scene and lampoons the hell out of it. From the self absorbed boy band dropouts to the completely oblivious nature of lead singer Connor4Real, there is no shortage of jokes in this inspired spoof of the music industry.
The Conjuring 2
There is nothing really that stands out in this sequel to the James Wans' original film about a couple (both literal and figurative) of paranormal investigators beyond its location which hops over the pond to England and a really solid performance from Madison Wolfe as the young girl possessed. But what really took it to the next level was an unexpected twist involving the ghost which I didn't see coming and took me by surprise in the best way possible. A solid horror offering with a solid cast and an interesting twist on an age old formula, what more could you ask for?
It seems in the past decade or so Steven Spielberg has gone from blockbuster filmmaker to big budget film auteur. His quality as a filmmaker has not diminished in the least but the projects he takes on are no longer things that reach as large an audience as they used to. The BFG is probably the first film in that time frame that hearkens back to the sort of fare Spielberg used to deliver to us on a more consistent manner back in the late 70's early 80's. If you had to compare The BFG to something from his recent filmography it is much closer in tone to something like The Adventures of Tin Tin but has a much bigger focus on the fantastical than adventure. The BFG flirts often with that classic Spielberg magic and is a very satisfying film but it does make one wonder if we will ever get a true classic style Spielberg film again someday.
Star Trek Beyond
Saddled with a horrible first trailer, this third entry in the Star Trek reboot film series had a lot going against it leading up to its summer release. A text book example of don't judge a book by its cover, Star Trek Beyond is in many ways superior to both of the previous Abrams Trek flicks but it is far from perfect. Embracing the exploration aspect of the original series for the first time (no policing the galaxy or chasing after a wanted criminal here) and putting a much bigger emphasis on the entire crew of the Enterprise almost made up for them blowing the ship up again and slapping on a completely unnecessary bombastic finale fueled by the Beastie Boys. It had the worst box office performance of the three but ironically it could actually be the best.
Hell or High Water
Cops and robbers boiled down to its base elements, that is exactly what you get here. Chris Pine and Ben Foster are fine in the roles of two brothers on a bank robbing spree and Jeff Bridges puts in yet another great performance as the soon-to-retire Texas Ranger hot on their trail but it is Texas itself and the films relentless pace that are the true stars here. Texas is one of those states that still feels like the wild west where the people police their own homes and take out the trash when need be and Hell or High Water gives us a glimpse into the harsh reality of what happens when an entire state turns on you.
Kubo and the Two Strings
Laika seems to have a permanent spot on this list in some form or another each year. I have a soft spot for the lost art of stop motion animation and Laika's continued support of said art is something to be cherished and applauded. But that isn't the only reason they make the list as they are also gifted story tellers and although they generally have a difficult time sticking the landing they always construct such detailed and amazing worlds filled with wonderful characters that never fail to make an impression. Kubo and the Two Strings is a fantastic film made with care and heart that is almost impossible to not appreciate if not outright love.
High concept thrillers are a hard nut to crack. Generally the concept gets worn out or fails to live up to expectations but that isn't the case with Don't Breathe, a tense thriller that never stops to breathe itself. Director Fede Alvarez proved himself a formidable filmmaker with his Evil Dead remake but for his very first original film he decided to give us something that hearkens back to those classics like The Hills Have Eyes or even Texas Chainsaw Massacre to some extent and the result is a sometimes terrifying but wholly entertaining journey into darkness. Oh and Stephen Lang is creepy as hell here which only makes everything that transpires that much worse.
Proof positive that you can have some of the biggest stars in the world and audiences still won't show up if your movie is a western. The power duo of Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt seemed like a good bet but you have to imagine the studio and director Antoine Fuqua knew going in this wasn't going to be a blockbuster (who makes westerns thinking they will make a ton of money?). It being a remake of a classic probably didn't help much either but truth be told this version is actually superior to the original in a number of ways and Fuqua keeps us on our toes as to which of the seven will make it and which ones won't. If you like westerns then this one is sure to please.
Filled with human drama and plenty of (mostly unnecessary) explosions, this Peter Berg (Lone Survivor) film about the largest oil spill in the history of the United States that took place in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 hits every mark (not the Wahlberg) just about as perfect as one can hope for. The first half is arguably the least exciting but certainly the most interesting as we bare witness to the decisions made (both good and bad) that led to the event where for an unprecedented 85 days oil spilled out uncontrollably. The cast is up to par with a better than usual Mark Wahlberg and the always great Kurt Russell and Berg keeps the momentum up without ever feeling as though it spills over into excess. Great film about a tragic event.
Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children
Have you ever wanted to see Tim Burton do a superhero movie? Well this may well be the closest thing we will ever get. Focused on a small group of peculiar children (think X-Men) who must live out their days in seclusion inside a repeating time vortex created by their caretaker Miss Peregrine, the film is a lot of fun with the usual Tim Burton visual trimmings to make nearly every shot worth looking at. Just about the only thing that holds it back is the inconsistent tone (especially that finale with the skeletons) and it bearing an uncanny (no pun intended) resemblance to Marvel's X-Men that is more distracting than endearing.
Marvel churns out superhero origin stories like they are on a production line (which they likely are nowadays) but it is through some sort of voodoo (or mystic arts) they still find ways to make them unique and more importantly entertaining. Benedict Cumberbatch makes for a perfect Sorcerer Supreme and the impressive visual effects combined with a number of interesting action set pieces were more than enough to make this one of the better origin stories to come out of the blockbuster machine that is Marvel.
There are two movies here, one that is everything you could want out of a Harry Potter spin-off and another that feels horribly tacked on to pave the way for future sequels (the actual book it is based on had no sequels). The best parts are when we are with our wizarding quartet Newt, Tina, Jacob and Queenie as they scour New York in search of magical beasts who have been set loose on the unsuspecting muggle population. However, everything having to do with the villain played by a capable Colin Farrell is hopelessly uninteresting and underdeveloped. If we do get sequels lets up we get more fantastic beasts and less villain types.
If Edward Snowden wasn't a real person who actually became one of the biggest whistle blowers in the history of the United States you can almost imagine the film's director Oliver Stone (who lives and breathes government conspiracy theories) coming up with a character like him all on his own. But since Snowden is real and with so few people in the world who truly understand the impact of his sacrifice, Oliver Stone was the only person who could bring this story to the screen in a way that doesn't really paint him as an unfortunate victim but more as a willing accomplice who eventually couldn't take all the lies anymore. Once you get around Joseph Gordon Levitt's odd accent this was one of the more compelling films released in 2016. See it with Eye in the Sky as a double feature for extra effect.
The Miracle on the Hudson was one of the most incredible accidents ever recorded. What Captain Sullenberger did that day was nothing short of an actual miracle and something that only someone of his skill could have even hoped to execute let alone come up with on the fly like that. Directed by Clint Eastwood who has recovered from his own downward spire with this film and with another solid performance from Tom Hanks, Sully isn't so much about the miracle itself but the man responsible for the miracle. An inspirational film about a man who inspired our belief that miracles can and do happen.
Unlike The Jungle Book Disney's original Pete's Dragon wasn't exactly regarded as a classic. In fact, it was a curious piece of film that was part of their live action mixed with animation experiments like Mary Poppins and Song of the South. So hearing there was a remake in the works wasn't too surprising considering how few people remember let alone actually saw the original film. That being said this updated Pete's Dragon is something rather special and again supports Disney's trend of remakes. As much as you want to hate them for going to the well over and over again it is difficult to argue with when everything seems to be turning out so darn good.
I didn't really care for The Witch while I watched it. It comes off as extremely pretentious and way too self serious (as evidenced by the frustrating period specific dialogue) but somewhere along the way it really got under my skin. This is a horror film in the sense of the amount of dread and despair it instills in the viewer as they watch this heavily religious family living in isolation systematically become unhinged as they appear to be suffering at the hands of a curse by a suspected local witch. Unnerving and completely drained of all hope, The Witch is a film that will haunt you long after it is over and that is what good horror should do.
Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders
The only non-theatrical release in either list, Batman Return of the Caped Crusaders was the best DC comics film released in 2016. Sure, you need some nostalgia of the 60's Batman TV show and able to handle copious amounts of cheese filled dialogue like a champ but there is no denying the charm and almost childlike innocence found in this animated film. Beyond the awesomeness of having Adam West and Burt Ward reprise their iconic roles as the caped crusader and the boy wonder it also stands in stark contrast to both BVS and Suicide Squad in both tone and quality which proves once and for all that Adam West will always be the defacto Batman. Warner and DC need to make more of this and less of BVS.