Friday, December 30, 2016

2016 Movies Revisited

Every year I set aside my sense of individuality to conform with the masses and create a generic wrap-up list.

This year's count is longer than it's been in a while, with the caveat it should really be even longer. I really wanted to see Arrival, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and La La Land, at the very least. But with everything else going on, I ran out of time.

As always, I'm going through every new movie I saw, starting with my least favorite and working my way to the movie I liked best.

19. Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice
This movie didn't need to be great. It didn't need to be good. All this had to be was fun. Instead, Zack Snyder peppered this with cheap reference shots and inane themes. The characters yell and glare at each other, but the actual fight is boring.

And then there's the resolution. I'm not talking about the pair of coffins, one holding Superman's supposedly dead body and the other containing our hopes for a decent Justice League movie; I mean the resolution to the title fight, when Batman forms a connection to Superman due to a hilarious oversight from seventy-five years ago when lazy writing caused the two characters' mothers to share the same name.

This wasn't just bad - it was astonishingly bad, boring, and idiotic. It's rare for a superhero movie to actually make me angry. Dark Knight Rises pulled it off, but this makes me want to apologize to Christopher Nolan for my harsh review. Hell, this makes me want to apologize to Joel Schumacher. At least they tried.

Sure, Wonder Woman was really cool, but more or less everything else about this movie failed completely. It's the only thing I saw this year that felt empty and pointless. Unless you consider the extended cut to be a separate film - that was even worse.

18. Warcraft
This has to be one of the biggest budget B-movies ever made. It's schlock fantasy, complete with melodrama, magic, and simplistic life lessons. The moral of this is basically the same as (but significantly less nuanced than) the average episode of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic (on a related note, Twilight Sparkle and friends would have wrecked the Horde).

But it was kind of fun. Plus, the movie's zany, non-traditional structure was a little refreshing. It's nice to watch a movie without knowing what's going to happen (unless you're a fan of the game - I guess those people had a different experience).

I'm glad to see fantasy getting more exposure on screen, even if it's less than stellar. The magic was interesting, the costumes were fun, and the orcs were cool: that counts for something.

17. Kung Fu Panda 3
It's always hard with movies like this. There were so many things I loved about Kung Fu Panda 3 and only one thing I didn't. I loved the vibrant designs, the gorgeous action, and the beautiful animation. I thought most of the jokes were funny, and the characters remained engaging.

If it hadn't been part of this series - if this were a standalone movie that was this good - I'd have placed it much higher. But I said in my review I had no interest in being fair. I simply love part two too much to be happy with what's ultimately a mediocre sequel.

If they do make a fourth, I hope they stop one-upping the mystical destiny shtick. I hope they build up their side characters more, maybe even do a spin off with the Furious Five or just Tigress instead of having Po be the star of another cheap power fantasy. This world has incredible potential, as does Po, provided they stop upping his power-level by orders of magnitude Dragon Ball Z style.

It's not that this is bad, just that it feels like such a wasted opportunity.

16. Pete's Dragon
I liked this movie a lot, but it took some effort. I tried to love it, and there were portions when I succeeded. But it's telling I had to put in the work: the movie didn't win me over on its own.

It's not a bad flick - it's pretty solid, all things considered. It'll do for the next generation what the original did for mine: offer relatively inoffensive entertainment to kids. It's a good kid's movie, and in other years, that might have bought it a higher spot on this list.

But the world isn't starved for family movies. I can think of a half-dozen movies that are light years better than this, at least four of which were also made by Disney and released this year.

This was a good movie; on DVD, it'll probably be really good, especially if you're only half paying attention. It's one of those movies. But it's not Inside-Out, Finding Dory, The Jungle Book, or Zootopia.

Or, if you want to stay focused on the same age bracket, it's no Paddington. Kid's entertainment isn't second rate anymore: things like this don't get a pass the way they used to.

15. The Nice Guys
Shane Black doesn't exactly leave his comfort zone for the The Nice Guys. The good news is that it's a good comfort zone. The bad news is that we've basically seen this movie before. Lethal Weapon was released almost thirty years ago, and - as much as I love a good comedy noir - what I really want is for Shane Black to expand his range.

All that said, there's so much to like here - the comedy is topnotch, the characters are well developed, and the setting is fantastic - that it's easy to set aside any issues with redundancy. Crowe and Gosling work amazingly well together, and the supporting cast is wonderful.

14. X-Men: Apocalypse
Cards on the table - this movie is benefiting heavily from both lowered expectations and from the ranking system powering this list. If I were basing this on the best movies, it would be quite a bit lower. Because this movie is a complete and total mess.

But you know what else was a complete and total mess? Every iconic and important run of X-Men from the comics. Those stories were jumbles of conflicting ideas and non sequiturs. And that's okay - the X-Men have always been at their best when their stories were about throwing everything under the sun into a blender and mixing it all up.

And this was no exception. I was annoyed with the unnecessary sidetracks rehashing Magneto's past. And Mystique may have just overtaken Wolverine as the most overused character in the movie franchise. But who the hell cares? This finally started embracing its comic book origins and delivering on the promise of big-scale adventure. I had a lot of fun with it.

13. Suicide Squad
It took them long enough, but Warner Brothers finally produced a movie set firmly in a passable version of the DCU. Now they just have to figure out how to produce good movies, and they'll be set.

I kid, but Suicide Squad, despite its dismal Tomatometer, was pure fun. The movie was quirky, and its leads were great, with Margot Robbie's pitch-perfect Harley Quinn leading the pack. The movie might suffer from comparisons to the far superior Deadpool, but she doesn't: her take is no less inspired or true to the character's roots than Reynolds's.

If they'd done nearly as good a job with the Joker, this would be even higher on the list. But Leto's disappointing turn, coupled with some poor editing and several lifeless scenes, hold it back. I don't mind the weirdly convoluted plot or the scores of superfluous characters (in fact, I consider those a plus). But, while this was a far better experience than I anticipated, it had some major faults.

But for a DC movie, that's a massive step forward.

12. Ghostbusters
I almost want to put this a little higher, because I appreciate the concept and execution so much. But, at the end of the day, I loved the existence of the movie but only liked the experience (well, except for McKinnon's Holtzmann, who basically walked onto the screen and plucked the "history's greatest Ghostbuster" award right out of Bill Murray's hands).

I still maintain the aspects I didn't love weren't calibrated for me to love: this movie was painstakingly constructed to appeal first and foremost to a female audience in a way few other blockbusters do. It knocked that out of the park, and I applaud Feig for pulling that off.

This wasn't my favorite movie of 2016, but I think it was one of the most important. This one's going to inspire generations of young geeks. And I'm not giving up hope for a sequel.

11. Kubo and the Two Strings
I'm extremely torn on this. I loved how this movie looked, and the witches rank among my all-time favorite animated antagonists (honestly, you don't even need to qualify that with "animated"). I loved how scary it became and how energized the fights were.

But I couldn't fully immerse myself in this because of the comic relief and a few missed opportunities (the big one being Kubo's lack of reflection immediately after his mother died - I'm assuming they were worried it would get too dark if they dwelled on that).

Elements of this rank among the best of the genre, but taken as a whole, I was much more lukewarm on it, at least after a single viewing. All that said, I felt the same way about several movies that have grown to become favorites - I can easily see this getting better over time as the flaws fade. But, for now, I feel like this is where Kubo belongs.

10. Deadpool
It's hard not to love a movie that was made with this much love. It took a decade for this to get through development, and it only made it after some test footage was leaked online. But damn if it wasn't worth the wait.

Between some fantastic writing and a cast who embraced the concept wholeheartedly, they found just the right recipe to bring the anti-hero to the big screen, and - I can only hope - to revive the film franchise he's part of.

9. Star Trek Beyond
Before this came out, my honest hope was that it would do a decent job ending the series. I liked the 2009 reboot and enjoyed Into Darkness despite it's problems, but the return of Star Wars kind of made the new Trek feel redundant. The franchise was too far removed from its own roots, and it was hard to get excited about a fake Star Wars now that the real thing was here.

After seeing Justin Lin's take, I want more. I want more of this crew, this director, and these writers. Because, while this wasn't a perfect movie, it was a great one. And, more importantly, it distinguished itself from the competition by playing up the camaraderie between the crew. These people are connected; together, they can accomplish incredible things.

The sequence where they piece together how the enemy fleet operates, along with how they could dismantle it, is one of the most high energy scenes of the year. It's exciting and riveting... despite the fact it's just a bunch of scientists and engineers analyzing a situation. You know what? Strike that: BECAUSE it's scientists and engineers analyzing a situation.

Yeah, the cinematography wasn't on par with the previous two installments. And, sure, there were a few minor continuity issues and logical leaps. But who the hell cares? We got to see the crew of the Enterprise in action, working together, cementing bonds, and saving millions. I absolutely loved this movie.

8. Doctor Strange
It might not be as good as Captain America: Civil War, but that had nine earlier films feeding into it, while Strange had none. This is at least my favorite "new character" comic movie since Guardians (and, honestly, this might have edged that out). It expanded the Marvel Universe in directions that have been ignored far too long. Comics have always been a blend of SF, fantasy, and pulp; the "fantasy" aspect has been somewhat neglected (even Thor's been spun in a bit too much of a science-fiction direction. This corrects course. While there's still a somewhat rationalized edge to the spells, it's unquestionably magic, and that's a breath of fresh air.

Add in the effects, and you'd already have a hell of a fun film. But this also offered some great acting (I was skeptical of Cumberbatch's casting, but he was a perfect choice), and - even if the critics might dispute this - some great writing. The dialogue was funny and engrossing, and the twists - mainly courtesy of Strange's "creative" solutions - were a huge departure from the same old tired resolutions ("punch it until it falls" and/or "distract it and activate the McGuffin").

This felt different in all the right ways. I loved it.

7. Finding Dory
It's a little hard to settle on a spot for Finding Dory. The movie is subtle, intelligent, and astonishingly fun. The one thing stacked against it is that it's not all that ambitious a production. But, frankly, that's the brilliance of the thing: instead of remaking Finding Nemo with a shuffled cast, they took a character and re-contextualized the setting, premise, and even the title around her, and in the process managed to tell a very different kind of story. Where Nemo was epic, Dory's is a personal story, about a beautiful mind finding itself and achieving peace. It's the kind of spin on franchise entertainment you'd never expect, and it's exactly why the movie succeeds.

6. Moana
I just barely squeezed this one in yesterday. By my count, this is the sixth consecutive Disney princess movie that's fundamentally about not being a Disney princess movie (I'm counting Enchanted and Brave, for those of you playing along at home). If the 90's represented Disney's revival and the codification of the Disney Princess, this is the franchise's postmodern phase.

It's a fantastic movie through and through, thanks to a depth of mythology, great songs, stunning visuals, and wonderful characters. It's a worthy addition to Disney's lineup.

5. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
The Force Awakens topped my list for 2015 (though it actually would have come in second if I'd seen Paddington in time), while this doesn't fare quite as well. That's not actually because it's an inferior movie - I think there are compelling arguments it may be as good or better. But this isn't a contest of quality; it's an exercise in preference.

And while I love Rogue One, it didn't move me the way Force Awakens did. Ironically, the thing I loved most about Force Awakens is what I was most happy they omitted this time around: its mythic nature.

If you think it sounds like I'm being unfair, rest assured I agree. Rogue One is almost exactly the movie I wanted it to be: a relatively grounded story set in the Star Wars universe but with a strikingly different tone, direction, and even genre. It serves to build up the setting, even though that means the movie itself is a tad less engaging by design.

This is a Star Wars movie that wasn't supposed to be the biggest, most exciting movie of the year - it was more interested in expansive world-building and developing the property. I wish more franchises would learn to do this every now and then. It gives them a little contrast to play with to make the big, epic installments feel that much cooler.

4. Captain America Civil War
Civil War took characters we've been following for years and turned them against each other without sacrificing their rationality. It managed to handle twelve characters without making a single one feel obsolete. It reintroduced Spider-Man in a way that left me certain he was being played by Peter Parker, not Tom Holland. It finally gave us Black Panther, faked us out into thinking they were going to misuse the character, only for them to complete a movie-long character arc culminating in him becoming precisely the hero he should be.

And, after two and half hours of seeing them fight, all I wanted was more. The airport fight goes on a very short list of absolutely perfect superhero movie scenes.

There have been years this would easily have topped my list. But 2016 was a hell of a good year for cinema.

3. The Jungle Book
Like Avatar, The Jungle Book managed to build a realistic world almost from scratch. Unlike Avatar, it did so in a movie containing complex characters and strong writing. Besides the integration of the effects, the real feat here was how skillfully Favreau managed to combine different genres and tones into a satisfying package. The comedy is hilarious, the adventure exhilarating, and the horror is scary. But, despite all that, you never feel like anything's out of place. This is woven together, not tossed in a pile, and the effort shows.

2. Zootopia
It's not unheard of for animation to tackle serious issues like racism, but you'd be hard pressed to find an example of anything that managed the topic nearly as well as Zootopia. Rather than offering platitudes or simple solutions, this movie used a familiar cartoon trope - a city of diverse anthropomorphic animals - to confront multiple facets of the problem, even going so far as to use an underdog story to make us unwittingly root for the wrong side before allowing us to see a broader picture. The moment when Judy, realizing the damage she's been complicit in, hands over her badge rather than bring more harm to the marginalized inhabitants of the city is heartbreaking.

It's the kind of movie where context transforms huge swaths of the movie retroactively. There are sequences that initially come off as encouraging, optimistic, and genuine, only to feel chillingly regressive in retrospect.

It's a fantastic achievement in writing and animation.

1. The Little Prince
I found this movie deeply engrossing and moving. Maybe it helps that I've never read the source material, so the turns of that story alone caught me off guard. Alternatively, maybe it was the peculiar blend of genres that produced a unique dystopian fairy tale.

Whatever the reason, I love this movie. The visuals pulled me in, and the deliberate pace won me over.

Sure, elements were a tad heavy-handed, particularly in its unsubtle portrayal of the "adult world." But then again, it's difficult to challenge the movie's verdict, given that even the absurdist, over-the-top rendering of its cartoon villain was still more three-dimensional than the soulless Paramount executive who decided to pull this from wide release.

Seriously. Who the hell watches a movie like this and decides there's no point putting it in theaters?

Closing Thoughts
This was a great year for geeky movies - possibly one of the best in my lifetime. It says something that the cutoff for movies I absolutely loved was at ten - that's pretty astonishing. Everything at seven and above I at least had to consider whether it deserved the top spot - this was very close.

I also want to draw attention to fact that seven of my top ten (actually, seven of my top eight) were made by Disney. While the rest of the industry is stagnating, Disney gets better and better. While they still have some issues with formulaic writing (though even this seems to be improving) they're by far the most consistent company out there. Especially compared to WB - their only real competitor, based on franchise rights - Disney's name denotes actual quality.

If you think that's just me being some sort of fanboy, go check out the average score on Rotten Tomatoes for Disney's films versus other studios. Or take a look at box office returns. No matter the metric you choose, it's becoming increasingly clear that they've built a substantial lead. And unless WB stops making films like Batman V Superman, that isn't going to change anytime soon.

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