My Top Movies of 2016

December 30, 2016

As I mentioned in my “Top TV” post, this was the first year I had far more worthy TV picks to pore through than movies. I may have went to the movies just a tad less than usual this year but if so, not by much and with Netflix, Redbox, HBO, Amazon, etc. there’s no shortage of movies out there to see. Of course, studios often hold their best work back until the end of the year to stay fresh in voters minds come Oscar season and some of those (mentioned at #10 below) I’ve yet to have a chance to see. Conversely, there were a lot of great little popcorn films (Deadpool, Civil War, Jungle Book, etc.) that were fun to watch but lacked the depth of a truly great film IMO. Regardless, here’s what I liked the best and the top 3 or 4 were in particular great and timeless works while the others also had plenty to offer.

10) I’m going to cop out with this one but as I’ve yet to see so many great contenders this year I am certain that once I do one of the following will likely place somewhere on this list, likely shifting the back (5-9) portion of this list:  Everybody Wants Some, La La Land, Nocturnal Animals, Moonlight, Jackie, and Manchester by the Sea.

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9) Green Room

It was such a shame to lose such a young talent as Anton Yelchin this year. While best known for his work in the new Abrams Star Trek franchise, he delivers a more forceful and personal performance in Green Room. Veteran of an older Trek series, Patrick Stewart, delivers a menacing performance. Arrested Development‘s Alia Shawkat is also great here. This is a great little punk rock high-energy old-school grindhouse thriller.

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8) Tony Robbins: I’m Not Your Guru

I’m not a Robbins disciple and while I can see why many critics think this documentary failed to go deep enough in dissecting Tony and his own possible motives and motivations I found this a thoroughly entertaining documentary and portrait of a person, his audience and his work. I may not have gotten as full a picture of the person as I did with the subject of the equally entertaining Anthony Weiner documentary this year, this one just entertained me a bit more and made me think throughout.

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7) Dr. Strange

After a couple of decades or longer of consuming superhero stories in one format or other I more and more prefer in comics or films those that use the trappings of the icons and genre to tell bigger (or in some cases, smaller and more nuanced) stories. Marvel is in danger of over-saturating the market and now with C and D level characters (sorry Strange, you’re not known to the larger market in the way Spiderman is) moving into the starring role of their own films that risk looms even larger. Yet perhaps because of their relative obscurity to the mainstream it’s with these characters Marvel (in film and via Netflix originals) is telling its best cinematic tales (Guardians of the Galaxy, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage). It doesn’t hurt that Cumberbatch is a great actor. Nor does it hurt that this may be one of the only films in history to actually warrant a viewing with 3-D glasses as the mystical scenes are a roller-coaster via that method. Dr. Strange was the best superhero film of the year by remembering the value of the character, the motivation, the context and the uniqueness therein. While Suicide Squad and Batman vs. Superman bloated themselves to boring, Strange went small by focusing on character and then large with cosmic, intricate visuals and action.

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6) Star Wars: Rogue One

I’m torn a bit with the sheer omnipresence of Star Wars (like superheroes). I can’t help but think market fatigue and backlash is coming–can we really sustain a big-budget blockbuster Star Wars movie (and 10 superhero ones) every single year forward? The original trilogy was fantastic and nostalgia for those films went mainstream as fans grabbed the helm (Abrams). Regardless, Rogue One may only tell the tale of protagonists we know are doomed from the start and fill in a gap that wasn’t glaring (everything we need to know Princess Leia summed up in a throwaway line in the OT) but cash grab or not Rogue One may technically be the best overall SW film in terms of acting, production and overall delivery (though the magic of the OT isn’t quite matched). The new characters, short-lived they may be, are great and the final 10 minutes with Darth Vader are alone worth the price of admission.

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5) Bad Santa 2

So I realize this was generally panned even by critics who begrudgingly praised the first one. I also realize it’s a stream of nihilistic profanity from first shot to last which doesn’t scream “happy holidays” to most viewers. Yet I found it laugh out loud funny throughout and I’m always a fan of Billy Bob Thornton. Kathy Bates was also a welcome addition as was Christina Hendricks. It’s not high art but it gets the job done and it’s far preferable to most cheesy holiday dreck.

 

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4) The Witch

The Witch is an arty Gothic historical piece that was also the best horror film of the year.  I know some excluded it from 2016 consideration since it is technically a 2015 film but as it never hit a US theater, streaming site or DVD release before 2016 that hardly seems fair. There’s no gore to be found and most of the dialogue is pulled (and rearranged) directly from 17th century diary entries. It tells the tale of a Puritan family estranged from their community in 1630s New England and the religious paranoia, social isolation and supernatural (?) factors that slowly tear them apart. Black Phillip is a truly scary nemesis.

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3) Eye in the Sky

Another film excluded from many lists because apparently it is also a 2015 film–this one didn’t hit US theaters until April 2016 so I’m safely counting it as one of my favorite 2016 movies. This was a great movie. First of all there’s the cast–the always excellent Helen Mirren is phenomenal, the sadly departed Alan Rickman delivers a great performance as one of his last and Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul showcases a softer side than Jesse Pinkman. Then there’s the story itself–Hibbert’s script and Hood’s direction produces edge of your seat suspense in a nontraditional (for movies, especially “war” movies) way as computer screens, phone calls and second guessing stretches out a drone mission in real time. Moral complexity and a realer look at modern war than most cinema goers get in any format these days.

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2) The Arrival

The Arrival is not your typical sci-fi film and certainly not your typical “alien invasion” flick. It’s a smart, intricate rumination on language, culture, change, time, choices, peacemaking and relationships. It’s probably the best “contact” film of all time too. Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner are great and hey–Forest Whitaker gets two great sci-fi roles in 2016!

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1)  Hell or High Water

There wasn’t anything else close to being my top movie this year. Hell or High Water was by far the best movie I saw all year. Jeff Bridges and Chris Pine square off in an an epic noir standoff with the broken down landscape of America in the background. Some critics have claimed this as a modern western and that seems plausible though crime noir seems more applicable to me. Great bit parts people the landscape, great shots throughout, great dialogue, excellent score, everything works perfectly.

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Last weekend I went to see “The Imitation Game” and it’s a terrific film. Benedict Cumberbatch does a terrific job portraying Alan Turing, the often forgotten  hero of WWII who cracked the Nazi transmission code thus saving millions of lives and shortening the war by an estimated two years while practically inventing the computer in the process. Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke is just as good, in her portrayal of a woman capable of matching and in some ways exceeding Turin’s wit at a time women weren’t believed capable of  the science-heavy  work she was most certainly doing and doing well. “The Imitation Game” was one of the films I didn’t have a chance to see before the end of the year and thus was unable to weigh as consideration in my list of best films of the year. “The Theory of Everything” “Boyhood” and “Selma” waited far too late to show up in my neck of the woods as well but I plan on seeing each and expect each to be phenomenal. These films, along with “Birdman” (which I loved) “Whiplash,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “American Sniper” are all nominated for best picture at this year’s Academy Awards. I expect that “Sniper” is solid  in that Cooper is an incredible actor and Eastwood has rarely disappointed as a director. “American Sniper”  has generated quite a bit of political controversy which I’ll weigh in on later in this piece. “Budapest” is probably fine, I’m just not a Wes Anderson fan and find all of his films to be basically the same pretentious thing.

I love films and I maintain that good movies are good movies whatever their topic, target, or  intent. Some movies are popcorn-friendly summer smashes that are sheer entertainment; sometimes such films work in deeper content and purpose and when they do that’s great though it’s not always important. Sometimes big summer movies are just asinine garbage, but if someone enjoys them enough to stop worrying about their mortgage or ISIS for 2 hours then no harm done. Fall and Winter are the months reserved for the “serious” films to unroll, those award show contenders. It’s my overall favorite period of the movie-going year and most of my ticket money is reserved for the end of the year and the first part of the new year when the specialty market films finally trickle to the exurbs. Many people complain about this way of fielding films, that some are “serious” and “contenders” and that critics point the way to which those are and award them to their own preferences in a subjective way while unfairly (or elitely) dismissing others. It’s like this with any type of art criticism–literary, music or film–and certainly what one likes eventually boils down to a matter of subjectivity. I’ve defended the role of critics in the past, and I still think film criticism is a worthy task. If you’re paid to watch movies all the time seeing hundreds a year, have studied the history and techniques of film and have devoted much of your life and time to films and appreciating “good” films, then I have a good idea that one you run across in a typical year that you find warrants praise, your opinion is probably worth at least a little consideration. If there’s a growing consensus on certain pictures being worth our time as a viewer, if enough people who devote their time to film agree on certain pictures, I believe those pictures are likely good movies whether they’re suited to everyone’s tastes or not. On the other hand, I have no doubts at all that some truly worthwhile and entertaining films are critically rejected out of hand from pure snobbery, particularly “genre” films far too many critics feel “above.”  So the way I’ve always seen it, those universally raved works are probably good and at least worth a watch while simultaneously not everything panned is necessarily that bad or unworthy of my own consideration.

This year, and certainly not for the first time but perhaps more than usual, race has become a major topic in relation to awards-season and these critical “gate-keepers.” Race has been a large topic in everything this year and with good reason so it is certainly worth bringing to the discussion table regarding film, awards, and Hollywood today. The minute after the Academy nominations were released it became quickly evident and commentated on that there is very little diversity among the nominations. Not a single actor, actress, supporting actor, supporting actress or director nominated is African-American.  The director of “Birdman” is a Mexican-born film-maker but that’s pretty much it in terms of non-white diversity. “Selma” is of course about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil-rights movement but its African American lead actor is absent from consideration as its female African-American director. This comes shortly after some of the leaked documents from the Sony hack showcased Hollywood agents and shot-callers displaying a deep (if unconcerned) knowledge of racial disparity in Hollywood as they joked about the President’s likely favorite films (Kevin Hart movies) or discussed why Denzel Washington shouldn’t be cast in a particular film due to the potential loss of overseas returns due to a foreign audience’s perceived racism.
Chris Rock recently discussed racism in Hollywood in a deft piece for the “Hollywood Reporter”. Film buff and critic that he is, he makes the valid point that studio heads have to go out of their way not to hire Hispanics in Hollywood while hardly any Hispanics work on any set or movie company above the janitorial level. Rock himself, whose “Top 5” was one of the best pictures of 2014, is not immune to allegations of racism.*  He describes “Top 5” as one of the “blackest” films ever nationally released yet one that is so naturally and is not a “race” picture. Which of course is the area which needs growth; when Hollywood awards a black film it’s usually a “race” film dealing with slavery, civil rights, or race as a central topic rather than by simply featuring a diverse cast and profiling their lives and adventures naturally.
So is Hollywood racist? Rock details a scene he ultimately cut from “Top 5” in which a black agent (played by Kevin Hart) complains about studio racism (he’s not invited to a meeting) by exclaiming “and these people are liberals, this isn’t the KKK!” Racism certainly exists in Hollywood like it exists everywhere else. White-privilege works itself out by layering a power system at the top of every business, corporation, or political party in the same way it has in the media through concentrating generations of wealthy white male power at the top. Perhaps some of this is unintentional and a product of its formative time. It’s certainly time to shake up the membership of the Academy and bring down the overwhelmingly white, old, and male membership percentage and to boost diversity. Of course, Academy members have to invite diverse people into the academy on a member-to-member basis as that system works and to do that they have to socialize with a diverse crowd in the first place (a fault more than one industry and community shares). More films need to be made showcasing diversity, but ultimately in a natural way that isn’t overt and political. Hollywood isn’t a nonprofit so ultimately an audience has to vote with its dollars. Did those complaining about lack of diversity  pay to go see “Selma” “Top Five” or “Fruitvale Station”? Should it even be their (or our) responsibility? Going to the movies is expensive and even the most politically active diversity-seeking person around might not want to spend their time and money on something just to increase diversity when they may instead just want to see something fun and easy. What Hollywood can do is cast more African- Americans and Hispanics in roles where race is irrelevant (as was done in the great casting choice of Michael B. Jordan as the Human Torch in an upcoming “Fantastic Four” movie). If foreign audiences have a race problem and won’t bother to see a character-driven piece about black life in America or even a romantic comedy starring a black couple, perhaps they will be unable to avoid that multimillion dollar summer action blockbuster even if it is peopled with a diverse cast. Hollywood will still make their money and foreign audiences will be subtly acclimated to diversity and recognition that people are in some ways all the same.

The problem seems to be a mixture. It’s that not enough quality films are made with diverse casts on one end. Should this year’s nominations have not been recognized as top-quality simply because they’re not diverse enough? A lot of wonderful films this year lacked diversity but that’s no reason to boycott good films or to refuse to recognize their excellence or quality. I’m neither gay nor British and did not serve in WWII but can thoroughly enjoy “Imitation Game” much the same way I’m not black nor a comedian but can enjoy “Top Five.” Audiences nor studios can be asked to subsidize films for activism’s sake. Yet those who love film and independently make films can certainly take more risks as they so often do. What films that were made were slighted this year? The glaring omissions by concensus seem to be “Selma’s” director and lead actor. Which others?

And what about that “American Sniper” controversy? Politics most certainly do play a role in who goes to see and praise a move after all, do they not? Some left-leaning critics decried the perceived glorification of war and that a character based on real life with depictions of real war was played for heroic effect. The real life American sniper this film was based on labels the natives of the country he does battle in less than admirably in his book. Many who turned out to see “Sniper” did so in an odd sort of patriotic support of our military. This became an “issues” movie. Oddly, stats show evangelical Christians turned out in significantly higher numbers to see “Sniper” than they did that notable movie about a Baptist preacher living out his faith to lead an equality movement. Yet should such a movie as “Sniper” not be made? Of course not. War is indeed an ugly thing and there is danger in glorifying it and unconditionally praising soldiers regardless of what they may have done in combat and for what reason De-facto. There have been great war movies; ones on the one hand that portray it starkly, realistically, and troublingly. On the other hand, there have been those that white-wash it and portray it as good vs. evil, which is difficult to do with any war effort post-WWII. I haven’t seen “Sniper” yet and can’t personally offer my opinion but I do find the discussion interesting, particularly the fact that for those who don’t see a difference between fantasy violence and violence based on real life narratives and real life violence don’t see why there’s even a discussion over this film.

Politics and Race affect what movies are made, what movies are praised, who sees what movies, and often what someone thinks of a particular movie. This is a reflection of society at large. So ultimately, the issue must be resolved in larger society as a whole and then these reflections will follow suit. Of course, often a bottom-up approach of fixing the symptomatic expressions of racism and class-ism is easier and more effective than seismic large-scale change. So it’s good that we as a society are having this discussion now. Hopefully by addressing it, the coming years will see more diversity in film simply because it’s been so noticed now. In the meantime, as art is always an expression of the place its overall society finds itself, I maintain that good movies are good movies even in the midst of troubling power-structures. They represent their era in explicit and implicit, intentional and subconscious ways. Nothing precludes “Selma” and “American Sniper” from both being good films but maybe watching either should lead to a discussion for the viewers.

Your thoughts?

* A quick note on the allegations of racism towards Rock. The ones I’ve heard in most recent months oddly attack him for stand-up material he made popular more than 20 years ago as much of that re-surfaced in a misappropriated manner by white “fans” in the form of social media posts following Ferguson. Simply put, like Chappelle and Pryor, Rock is one of the funniest comedians to ever do comedy and all three have made race a loud, often uncomfortable, but prophetic topic. Sadly a certain white frat-boy culture always misappropriates and wrongly quote such material but I find that hard to be the comedian’s fault. Rock has always been accused of class-ism too, as he has done well for himself and does come from a middle class background. Check Rock now–his most recent stand-ups, his comedy round-table contributions, “Top Five”, and his “Hollywood Reporter” piece to see where he is now. Acknowledging race and tackling racism as always, trying to give a hand-up to other new black comics, etc.