Well, movies came out this year, but I think we can all agree that we are looking at a rather bleak field of films this year. It’s not, “2011, The Artist wins Best Picture bad,” but it’s close. And here we are again: Less than a month before the Academy of Motion Pictures releases its list of nominees, less than a week before the Hollywood Foreign Press hands out the Golden Globes, and of the likely list of top films to be nominated for Oscars this year, only five have opened wide enough to see in a suburban city of a Midwestern state. It’s the election all over again!
Last year, films like Sicario, Creed, The Martian, Bridge of Spies, and the eventual Best Picture winner, Spotlight all opened wide well before the end of December. That’s not to say that Sully, Hacksaw Ridge, Manchester by the Sea, La La Land, and Arrival didn’t try to play fair and open wide already; they did. But other potential frontrunners Moonlight, Silence, Hidden Figures, and Fences are all playing on this double standard of releasing a film in minimal markets so it can qualify for Oscar eligibility only to open wide on some obsequious and noncompetitive weekend after the new year. This is still an improvement over the 2014 awards season, where basically nothing but The Grand Budapest Hotel really opened wide, but it is a step down from the host of great films released wide during the calendar year in 2015. And let’s be honest, competition for theatrically released films has never been greater. With Netflix, Amazon, HBO, and other streaming sites moving into original cinema, film studios should begin cooperating, making theatrically released films easy to see, and make going to the theater special, but not exclusive!
Oscar nominations will be announced Tuesday, January 24th, bright and early, and after a two years of directorial domination by Alejandro González Iñárritu and three years of Cinematography superiority by Emmanuel Lubezki, it seems these two have left the field wide open for someone else to step up and win something. Anyway, Oscar nominations are a coveted announcement, but a far more important announcement is being made right now – my list of the top 10 films of 2016. While no Top Ten List can ever satisfy everyone, great care has been taken to analyze each film on my own particular set of criteria ensuring reliability! So without further ado, I present The People’s Critic’s Top 10 films (that I was actually able to see) of 2016.
10. Eye in the Sky
This film gets more and more fascinating the more I think about it. In the new millennium, we have seen drastic changes to what we consider “warfare,” and Eye in the Sky captures the intensity and complexity of an ever changing definition of modern warfare. Helen Mirren plays Captain Katherine Powell in command of an operation to potentially eliminate some of the world’s most wanted terrorists, who have holed themselves up in a small house in Kenya. When the risks of capturing them become too great, Powell gives the command for a hellfire missile attack via military drone. What complicates things is that a young girl selling bread sets up her storefront directly in the kill zone of the missile’s target, raising one of the many philosophical questions in this film, the first of which is whether there is an obligation to eliminate a potential threat to many lives by inadvertently killing an innocent. I promise you, this film makes you feel the full gravity of every decision that is made, which makes it one of the most intense movies of the year. This film also includes the great Alan Rickman in one of his final performances.
Speaking of Alan Rickman, Snape may be gone, but Rickman would likely be comforted to know that the world is not done with Potter and company just yet. J.K. Rowling does the near impossible by picking up her magic wand again and creating something moving, amazing, and magical yet again in her first effort as screenwriter with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Everyone who fell in love with the eight Harry Potter films will be delighted by this expansion of the wizarding world. Eddie Redmayne plays it a bit clownish as Newt Scamander, a magizoologist whose search for magical creatures brings him to New York City 70 years before “The boy who lived” ever hopped aboard the Hogwarts Express. There is a visual and immersive quality that we have come to expect when entering the Harry Potter universe, and director David Yates delivers once again. The characters are delightful, realized, and fun, and the environments (including the aforementioned “fantastic beasts”) are dazzling and eye-catching.
Sully is not a biopic. It is based upon Chesley Sullenberger’s memoir Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters and focuses almost entirely on the events of January 15, 2009 and the subsequent investigation. Bits of ‘Sully’s’ past are sprinkled throughout, but the film’s main objective is to feature the tremendous fortune that results from having the right people performing the right jobs. Sully is a solid film delivering its message and entertainment as effectively as Sullenberger’s miraculous water landing on the Hudson. Like it’s protagonist, the film showcases a couple of the right men for the job (as well as the right woman for a job that wasn’t there). A testament to superlative acting and creative filmmaking that breathes freshness into a story so recently and so publicly told.
7. Manchester by the Sea
Everyone you’ve talked to about this film is absolutely right; this is a miserably sad movie. However, what I think too few are saying about it is that it is also hilariously funny. Writer/Director Kenneth Lonergan’s third film in over 16 years is another masterpiece of familial ups and downs. He constructs a film unlike anyone else cutting to the bone with wit, nostalgia, and cold, hard truth. Casey Affleck carries an emotional load as Lee, a janitor who is made legal guardian of his teenage nephew when his brother suddenly dies of a heart attack. This is Affleck’s strongest performance in his budding career as an actor. Understated, but honest, Affleck’s performance has gotten a lot of buzz, but the real champion of this film is Lonergan who gets powerful performances from all of his actors and delivers a fascinating, funny, heartbreaking, powerful film about love, family, and what it takes to survive tragedy.
6. Hacksaw Ridge
Hacksaw Ridge is a film that I had trouble placing on this list. First, I wasn’t sure it was top ten material, then once I examined my criteria and determined that it was, I had trouble deciding if it was top five material! Ultimately it’s top six material. Hacksaw Ridge is decidedly two separate films. A coming of age story about a young man named Desmond Doss, played by Andrew Garfield, in Depression-era Virginia falling in love with a young nurse and hoping to find a way to serve his country in World War II as an army medic, even though he refuses to personally pick up a rifle. That story is then catapulted out the window for one depicting one of the most gruesome, gut-wrenching war stories ever set to screen as Doss’s unit is assigned to participate in the Battle of Okinawa, historically referred to as a “meat grinder” of a location for American troops. This is a true story and a remarkable one at that. The first hour is pleasant, sweet, and at times very funny. The second hour is an assault on your senses almost to a breaking point. Vince Vaughn surprises as Doss’s army drill sergeant and the rest of the supporting cast is fantastic including Sam Worthington, Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths, and Teresa Palmer. Director Mel Gibson makes the most of a powerful story and while his depiction of Doss feels a little too similar to that of another suffering protagonist Gibson is known for, it all works. Gibson has been a bit of a pariah as of late, and his off-screen antics are hard to forgive, but if you are one who can separate the art from the artist, this film is one of the year’s best.
5. Midnight Special
This is where I expect I’ll lose a few of you. What is Midnight Special? Why is it number 5? I am just as surprised as you! I stumbled upon this film on a flight. Jeff Nichols is a young writer/director who I am really starting to love. His last two films, Mud and Take Shelter were excellent, and believe it or not, he actually has another film that he released in 2016 called Loving that is getting far more attention than Midnight Special! Still, I am going to put all my chips in on Midnight Special. I don’t think any synopsis of this plot will entice you to see the movie, so just trust me and check it out (it’s running on HBO and HBO streaming currently). Michael Shannon plays a father whose son appears to have some strange abilities. The boy has recently become the worship center of a strange cult, and when Shannon steals his son away in the night, the cult is determined to get him back. The U.S. government has also caught wind of the boy’s abilities and send an NSA agent to track him down as well. This is a sleek, clever, special little movie, and while some will have qualms about the ending, I think it is exactly the right choice.
Speaking of alien movies with clever endings, here’s another one! Arrival is the latest Denis Villeneuve film, and if you sensed my budding love for Jeff Nichols’s movies, then you can multiply that by a million for Villeneuve. His track record speaks for itself: Incendies, Prisoners, Enemy, Sicario, Arrival, and this year Blade Runner 2049! In a different year, Arrival could easily be the best film of the year. Still, number four ain’t bad. Arrival finds Amy Adams putting out another excellent performance as a linguistics professor tapped by the U.S. military to help them interpret an alien language. What makes this alien film different is that 12 alien space crafts have touched down all over the world, and in a world of itchy trigger-fingers, Adams’s encounters and translations hold the fate of the world in the balance. Adams is accompanied by Jeremy Renner who plays a theoretical physicist, and the two of them have great chemistry making for a richly character-driven sci-fi film.
Surprise, surprise! The People’s Critic liked a Captain America movie, but this time I’m not alone. Everybody liked this movie. It’s hard not to. Civil War boasts three outstanding achievements that no Marvel film before it has managed thus far. First, it introduces two of the best new characters (Black Panther and Spider-Man, both slated to receive upcoming stand-alone films) and does it with panache! I’ll leave the details about these new characters out so not to spoil anything for the rare reader who has yet to see this film, but both are quite satisfying and Spider-Man especially receives a worthy reboot after some questionable recent attempts by Sony Pictures. Second, the “Civil War” battle is a remarkable scene. This scene replaces the “Battle of New York” from Marvel’s Avengers as the Infinity Stone in the Marvel crown. DC executives responsible for Batman v. Superman (See my five worst films of 2016 for my thoughts on this one!) should take notes on how Marvel succeeds at fighting internal conflict with external conflict! Third, Captain America: Civil War manages to give all of its cast members room to breathe and make a memorable and worthwhile contribution. No character is squandered, and as I alluded to earlier, this film explores some emotional depth but uses just the right amount of levity and humor to maintain an even tone.
Surprise, surprise, surprise! The People’s Critic liked a Star Wars movie! Again, everybody liked this movie, or at least the last 20 minutes, which are perhaps the best 20 minutes in any Star Wars movie ever! Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a strong, balanced, and entertaining film that plays how we wish the original prequels could have played. There’s a hint of nostalgia along with new and fresh perspectives, which make us forget that we all know where this is going and “forces” us to care and root for these new characters. Director Gareth Edwards designs and directs this film to feel connected but not tethered to the other films, and I think that is a delicate task to accomplish. There are also some major bombshells and any misgivings you have about the film are wiped clean away with the final 20 minutes. If you have any level of appreciation for Star Wars, you will leave the theater in high spirits!
1. La La Land
I tried people. I tried not to toe the line. I tried not to be all “critic-y,” but goddamnit, my toes are still tap, tap, tapping to this beautiful, heartwarming, goosebump inducing, musical masterpiece. If Rogue One: A Star Wars Story had the best final 20 minutes of any Star Wars movie, La La Land has the best first and last five minutes of any movie in the last five years! What puts it at number one is that between those amazing first five minutes and outstanding final five minutes are 118 exhilarating, beautifully crafted, musical minutes. La La Land is a simple story of Jazz musician meets struggling actor, Jazz musician loses struggling actress, etc., but that’s ok. If the plot were any more dynamic, it would take away from the sensory experience of this film. Gosling and Stone are captivating as the leads and while their voices may not be meant for Broadway, they are perfect for a film that “dances” between worlds. Half nostalgic and half prognostic, La La Land shows us that writer/director Damien Chazelle is more than the real deal. He’s the next big thing! La La Land puts a nice bow on a tumultuous 2016 and is definitely the front-runner for best picture in my book.
The Five Worst Films of 2016
I’m sad to start this list with a sequel to a film that made my top 10 in 2013. The Conjuring 2 doesn’t really advance the narrative of the original’s characters or reveal any depth to the uncertainty of its source material. In the same way that a television series might be developed for a network, but then the studio makes a deal to tie it to an already proven property in order to reap an existing audience, The Conjuring 2 feels like a Mad Libs horror movie script and the studio slapped The Conjuring 2 on top of it. This is a “been there, done that,” movie for the ages.
At the end of 2015, we were all gearing up to see what DC had to offer to combat the cinematic monopoly Marvel Studios has had over the superhero genre. Well, the results are in and two of their films make my worst of 2015 list; Batman v. Superman being the first. Yet another bloated set-up piece, these movies need to stop hinting at something and start showing us something. Warner Brothers needs to stop holding its cards too close to the vest and start revving this thing up before we lose interest entirely. Wonder Woman and Justice League are next up for 2017. Let’s hope I don’t have to reserve two more spots on the Worst list for 2017.
3. Last third of Nerve
I had other films in mind for this list, but I kept coming back to how disappointed I was with the ending of Nerve. Let me start by saying, Nerve as a whole has no business being on a worst of the year list. However, given that my top two movies of the year were given that status in no small part due to their phenomenal endings, I think Nerve stands as a wondrous example of how damaging a bad ending can be. I’ve never been more disappointed in an ending for a movie. Not because it was bad. It was fine. But if the ending was as principled and interesting as everything that came before it, we’d have a much better film. Director Henry Joost is a newbie, but if you’ve seen Paranormal Activity 3, Paranormal Activity 4, and the film Catfish, you’d see where I’m going with this. Endings are crucial and bad endings to good movies are exponentially more damaging.
2. Suicide Squad
DC is back again with the number two worst movie of 2016, Suicide Squad. Anticipation couldn’t have been higher for this one. What seemed like dream casting, mixed with a lighter, funnier tone lead many of us to believe this was the film that would right a sinking ship. Instead, it blew one more big, giant hole in the hull. Unfortunately, the box office total of my, Five Worst Films of 2016 list is nearly identical to my Top Ten Best Films of 2016 list. What does that tell you. People are paying for and going in droves to see these bad movies. Suicide Squad is hardly a movie. It’s disjointed, it’s annoying, it’s shallow, and worst of all, it’s boring. Viola Davis attempts to give some credibility and Margot Robbie will be iconic as Harley Quinn, but nothing can save this mess.
1. Now You See Me 2
Lightening definitely didn’t strike twice for this fledgling attempt at building a franchise. Now You See Me was a perfectly fine, fun little movie, but not everything that is moderately successful needs a part 2 (or a reported part 3!). All the tricks are played out for this band of illusionists. The style was corny this time around, as original director Louis Leterrier was replaced by Jem and the Holograms director, Jon M. Chu. They couldn’t even get all of the original cast back for this thing as Isla Fisher would not sign on and also refuses to sign on for the third film. Red flags abound and poor Daniel Radcliffe never saw them coming as he looks utterly lost and confused in easily the year’s worst movie. Yuck.