I don’t tend to write about movies that often, because, well, becoming the next Roger Ebert is tough, y’know? Kind of competitive. I do watch a lot of movies, though. Probably too many considering I don’t get free screeners. I’m usually more up-to-date with movies than I am with video games, comic books or any of the other stuff I write about professionally. So yeah, enjoy this Top 10 list from a video game guy, who’s actually a closet movie guy…
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
I liked this one more than Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Not because it was gritty and brutal like REAL WAR – that whole marketing push was silly -- I liked it because it had an original story, the real Darth Vader instead of his dorky nephew, a killer “half-a-dozen things happening at once” final action scene, and understated characters that reacted to things in believable ways. Also, of all the brown-haired British types Hollywood seems to be obsessed with lately, Felicity Jones is definitely near the top of my list. Kind of a two-way battle between her and Hayley Atwell. I told you this list was going to be unprofessional.
The Nice Guys
2016 Shane Black turns in a fun, low-tech 1986 Shane Black movie. If this had been a homage from some 25-year-old director I still would have liked it, but the fact that it was from the buddy cop master himself made The Nice Guys just that little bit more endearing.
Kubo and the Two Strings
From beginning to end, the artistry on display here was just astounding, and the story pulled at my (wait for it)…heartstrings as well. Also, we can now add “sassy Japanese snow monkey” to the long list of roles Charlize Theron has nailed.
Jeremy Saulnier’s follow-up to the fantastic Blue Ruin was one of my most anticipated of the year, and it mostly lived up to my excitement. The movie is appropriately devastating, and the inspired/ridiculous decision to cast Captain Picard as a backwoods white supremacist gang leader paid off handsomely. Green Room goes a bit slack once it leaves its titular location, but this is four-fifths of a great film.
A syrupy, cliché-ridden opening half is redeemed by a sledgehammer second, which reimagines World War II as a literal blood and brimstone hell. In some ways, Hacksaw Ridge needed its sugary intro – fine spun emotions and nuanced characters wouldn’t have fit with the carnage of the movie’s back half. As unsubtle as everything Mel Gibson’s made, but also just as effective.
A perfectly amiable, entertaining Coen Brothers comedy. It’s no Big Lebowski, but it’s better than, say, Burn After Reading or Intolerable Cruelty. In terms of tone and quality, I’d put it right at The Hudsucker Proxy level. What? I liked Hudsucker Proxy! But not too much, so this one doesn’t make the Top 10 by that much. Maybe if there was one more Channing Tatum dance number. Ah, would that it were so simple.
The Top 10
A coming-of-age story told in three parts, Moonlight details the life of Little/Chiron/Black (three names, one character), a sensitive gay kid growing up in Miami’s Liberty Heights projects. Society at large is waiting to destroy everybody from Chiron’s neighbourhood, no matter how outwardly strong, so it’s absolutely heart-wrenching to watch this vulnerable soul try to navigate these dangerous waters. Every blow is devastating, every brief moment of joy is an emotional triumph. The movie loses its way somewhat in its third act, with an ending that hammers home the tragedy of Chiron’s life to that point, and provides uncertain hope for the future. I can’t help but feel a more joyous ending might have been a better, more fulfilling and timely choice, but Chiron and his sad moonlit world won’t be leaving my mind any time soon.
9) Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
The fact that nobody goes to see The Lonely Island’s movies is baffling to me. Everybody loves their albums, right? And the SNL Digital Shorts? And Brooklyn Nine-Nine? So, what’s the goddamn issue with their movies? Well, despite disappointing box office receipts, Popstar was easily the best comedy and movie musical of the year (suck on that La La Land lovers). Keep the stupid parody genre alive fellas.
8) Queen of Katwe
Yes, Queen of Katwe is a formula Disney sports movie – Cool Runnings with chess – but the magic is in the details. Filmed in the Ugandan slum in which it’s set, and directed by Mira Nair, who lives locally, the movie vividly captures countless details about Ugandan life, both big and small. Queen of Katwe doesn’t over-explain its cultural references, it trusts the audience can keep up. And hey, if you get a little lost, you have that Disney framework to hold onto. Acted with deep sincerity and warmth by Lupita Nyong’o, David Oyelowo and newcomer Madina Nalwanga, this one is a heartwarmer in the best sense.
Martin Scorsese is a crowd pleaser. The pop-music soundtracks, the glorious violence, the penchant for exploding cars – aside from being really, really good, he’s basically Michael Bay. His religious movies are the only time he turns his inner showman off, and Silence, a three-hour Catholic epic of torture and tested faith in 16th century Japan, is his most punishing, and least crowd-pleasing, to date. It’s also very good. Scorsese mostly ties his camera down this time around, but he captures some truly astounding images. His Japan is a place constantly stifled by sulfuric fog, where friends and foe alike can’t be made out until they’re within striking distance. Jesuit priests having to choose between their faith and the mortal suffering of their followers isn’t a universal story, it may baffle many in these largely secular times, but Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver and the film’s excellent Japanese cast sell the anguish. The temptation to heighten Silence’s crises of faith with shining lights and soaring music had to have been great for the usually-showy Scorsese, but he keeps his film grounded, sometimes brutally so. Silence’s battles are within the hearts of men, and God is keeping out of it.
6) Hell or High Water
Hell or High Water, aka True Grit 2: Rooster Cogburn Rides Again, is a damn fine western. That’s really all there is to it. Jeff Bridges is endlessly watchable and entertaining as his Mumblemouth McGoo character, and Chris Pine and Ben Foster are able antagonists. Foster, in particular, steals the show, bringing humanity and nuance to the kind of deeply broken person that blithely ruins lives even as they’re trying to do the “right thing.” Hell or High Water builds and destroys its characters with uncommon skill.
5) Our Little Sister
The latest from Hirokazu Koreeda is, like most of his movies, a wonderful empathetic family drama that will make you feel better for having watched it. Three sisters, the serious Sachi, the flighty Yoshino, and the quirky Chika, take in their little sister Suzu after their estranged father dies, and then, well, they basically get down to living. As in a good Mike Leigh movie, not a lot happens in Our Little Sister, but by the end of the film, you truly feel like you know these characters, and are moved by their minor, everyday dramas. Aside from being a very good movie in general Our Little Sister also provides the kind of rich, nuanced peek at modern Japanese culture you don’t always get in the movies they export here.
4) The Lobster
Yes, I know this one hit festivals in 2015, but us regular proles had to wait until 2016 to see it. Colin Farrell plays a recent divorcee, who goes to a resort looking for a new wife. If he doesn’t find one within 45 days, he’ll be turned into an animal of his choice (a lobster). At first, The Lobster seems to be merely weird. Sexy-weird, violent-weird, funny-weird. If it had just been that, I would have still liked it, but it would probably be occupying the Honorable Mentions section of this list. Eventually though, Farrell escapes the resort, and we realize the resort isn’t an anomaly – all of society in this movie is pathologically obsessed with pairing people into “perfect” couples. Being single is outlawed. Being with somebody not exactly like you is unthinkable. It’s an out-there premise, but The Lobster takes it, and the emotional trauma such a system would inflict, seriously. Also, in one scene John C. Reilly has his hand forcibly burned in a toaster after he’s caught jacking off, so there’s that.
3) Hunt for the Wilderpeople
I’m sad Taika Waititi is going to be making Marvel movies. He’s a unique, important voice. He’s got better things to do than overlook Hulk CGI sequences. Better things like Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Julian Dennison stars as Ricky, a Maori foster kid who conceals a sweet heart beneath a paper-thin “troublemaker” veneer. That veneer almost immediately melts away when he’s taken in by a backcountry-living couple played by Rima Te Wiata and Sam Neill. You will be crying within the first 10 minutes of this movie. When Ricky’s new “auntie” dies, a series of unfortunate events set him and gruff uncle on the lam. The resulting adventure is hilarious, moving, exciting, and special gift to thousands of indigenous kids like Ricky who have been neglected by the system. If this list was purely based on having your heart in the right place, Hunt for the Wilderpeople would be #1 with a bullet.
2) The Witch
The Witch will go down as one of the horror greats. In terms of tone, atmosphere and setting, The Witch can stand side-by-side with classics like The Exorcist and Alien. Today we snicker or wisely shake our heads at stories of old-timey witch hunts, but The Witch forces us to consider how truly terrifying these stories would be to Puritans living in New England in the 17th century. The stress, hopelessness, and dread is palpable. It sticks to the characters like an evil film, and is made all the worse by the fact that witches are actually real in this movie’s hellish world. They’re right there, beyond that wall of trees, in the unknowable, uncharted forest, and they’re planning something very, very wicked. Like the best horror movies, The Witch preys on all your senses – you’ll leave the theater feeling flushed, a little bit sick, and very happy you live in the 21st century.
1) Manchester by the Sea
Manchester by the Sea stars Casey Affleck a man who leaves his spare, solitary life in Boston to return to his hometown, the site of an unspoken trauma, to care for his teenage nephew after his brother dies. This movie floored me. Usually you hope for one or two moments of real truth from a drama, but Manchester by the Sea feels achingly real from beginning to end. From dealing with the death of a loved one, to teenage sexuality, to trying to find where you parked your fucking car when it’s freezing, you’re upset and you just want to be warm. This movie delivers one heartbreaking, hilarious, bracingly authentic scene after another. This is a movie about the terrible, ridiculous, awkward situations we’ll never be ready to face, and how we react when life subjects us to them anyways. That’s what most dramas should probably be about, but precious few of them are.
Bonus! The Worst Movies of the Year!
Yeah okay, worse movies than this came out in 2016, but I try to avoid movies that look outright bad. These are the movies I, personally, enjoyed the least.
I’ve watched all of Ron Howard’s Dan Brown adaptations. I don’t know why. Inferno isn’t the worst of the bunch, but it’s still pretty shit-awful. Y’know, aside from Felicity Jones, who, I remind you, is my favorite (or maybe second favorite) brown-haired British actress. Thought this list was getting too respectable.
4) The Magnificent Seven
More like The Magnificently Shitty Seven, amirite? Everything a western shouldn’t be. They couldn’t even make Denzel Washington look cool in his first western role – dude is rocking some serious dad bod, and the 90s jeans to match. Maybe Denzel just isn’t cool anymore, but I find that hard to believe.
3) Nocturnal Animals
Woof. The most shallow, self-satisfied movie I’ve seen in a while. The smug just drips from every oh-so-pretty, yet utterly empty, frame. Granted, there is actually a decent little neo-noir story and a great performance by Michael Shannon hidden beneath all the superficial artsy wanking, but it’s not enough to save the rest of this barfpile.
2) Knight of Cups
Whoa man, look at those cool space shots! Why, that one nebula looks like a guy with his head up his own ass! Every ignorant criticism you’ve ever heard about Terrence Malick is 100% true in Knight of Cups. Just insufferable. But hey, if you’re looking for faux-classy masturbation fodder, the 73-year-old Malick provides all the leering shots of naked 20 and 30-year-olds you could want.
1) The Girl on the Train
So, this is one of those “based on a popular sexy potboiler” movies, which begs the question – why did anybody enjoy this story? It isn’t sexy, exciting or daring, it’s sad, endlessly dreary and hateful. Emily Blunt is stuck in an utterly thankless role, which requires her to drunkenly stumble from one horrifying embarrassment to the next. Halfway through this slog I started wishing I was under a train.
Extra Bonus! Stuff I Saw That Lots of People Liked, But Left Me Lukewarm
La La Land, Arrival, Deadpool, Zootopia, American Honey, Marvel everything
Okay, now we're really done. What were some of your favorites of 2016?