December 30, 2016

The Best and Worst Films of 2016

Top 10 Films of 2016
Best Film of 2016: Hell or High Water—All the traditional Western movie tropes are
here: cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians, an aw-shucks lawman, hayseed banks, land barons, and even an armed posse. But instead of being about how the West was won, this postmodern Western is about how it was lost. Two brothers steamroll across West Texas, trying to rob enough banks to save the family ranch from foreclosure. As the savvy, crotchety Texas Ranger on their trail, Jeff Bridges conveys a melange of racial complexity and world-weariness that's part Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, part Sheriff Ed Tom Bell in No Country for Old Men. There are no white and black hats here, only moral shades of gray.

2. Manchester by the Sea—The sometimes mundane, sometimes farcical juxtaposition of life's quotidian interruptions forms the fulcrum of this layered dissection of family dysfunction and loss. Casey Affleck gives an Oscar-worthy performance as a Boston handyman summoned back to his titular hometown upon his brother's death. There, he visits a tragic past he tried to leave behind and a future he didn't expect, want, or believes he deserves. The milieu for this third directorial effort by writer Kenneth Lonergan feels lived in and mirrors the contrasts of its denizens: convivial but cold, quaint yet insular.

3. Moonlight—Color looms large in director Barry Jenkins’ tripartite story about Chiron, a gay black boy/man living in the drug-riddled inner city of Miami. Jenkins’ highly stylized filmmaking foster a milieu that feels both real and ethereal. Like Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, the film tracks the life of its male lead across varying ages. The film is an episodic, intimate portrait of the urban experience, in kinship with Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep. And both Moonlight and Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain examine homosexuality in traditionally masculine settings. The acting is uniformly sublime in each segment, opting for grace notes over broad strokes—expect Oscar nominations for Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris.

4. La La Land—Having been denied a Best Picture Oscar for Whiplash, writer-director Damien Chazelle turns to that most tried-and-true awards tableau: self-referential films set in Hollywood. At some point, you just give yourself over to the film’s breezy, technicolor charm its star-crossed love story between aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone, luminescent) and the jazz-loving Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). Steeped in the nostalgia of Hollywood’s Golden Age musicals, this city symphony is like a dazzling daydream with a melancholy undercurrent.

5. O.J.: Made in America—Ezra Edelman’s sweeping, nearly eight-hour documentary follows the rise and fall of O.J. Simpson, from his upbringing to his football career to the infamous murders and trial that took place against the backdrop of generations of racial unrest in Los Angeles. Using reels of historical footage and 72 interviews,this is definitive nonfiction filmmaking at its absolute finest.

6. Nocturnal Animals—A over-stylized, byzantine veneer camouflages a revenge tale that writer-director Tom Ford Ford splits the narrative into three parallel tracks. One is the sterile LA art world, another a book-within-a-move neo-noir thriller set in West Texas that’s part Deliverance, part Straw Dogs. Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon and Aaron Taylor-Johnson are terrific as fiction informs fact. The film is thematically reductive, yet potent in its presentation, particularly Abel Korzeniowski’s intoxicating score with its obvious echoes of Bernard Herrmann. The already-infamous opening credits montage is an encapsulation of the contradictions that inform everything that follows: lurid, patriarchal, elitist, engrossing and mesmerizing.

7. Zootopia—Smart, funny and thoughtful, it’s is one of the finest Disney-proper animated feature films in many years. It’s a buddy-cop movie, an animal education primer, a movie parody, a coming-of-age flick, and a gateway into earnest discussions about racial and gender prejudice, bullying and cultural inclusiveness. While the issues are weighty, the wit remain breezy and biting in this “Animal Farm” analog.

8. The Handmaiden—This South Korean erotic psychological thriller lives up to its genre
description. Writer-director Chan-wook Park (Oldboy) presents a twisty drama worthy of Hitchcock, yet against the patrician, patriarchal backdrop of 1930s colonial Korea and Japan. Deceit and double-crosses culminate in forbidden love. It’s perverse, farcical, gorgeous and pure cinema.

9. Arrival—An aliens-to-Earth film that’s less about first contact than first communication. The mere arrival of 12 black ovoids simultaneously around the planet triggers hysteria and international mistrust. It falls to linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) to save the day. Director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario) marries many of the plot points to Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Day the Earth Stood Still. The narrative is a palindrome, and the alien’s non-linear language, triggers a linguistic relativity in Banks that eventually extends to the viewer’s interpretation of the story.

10. The Nice Guys—Seamy 1970s Hollywood is not just the film’s backdrop. It’s the uproarious foreground for a private dick, buddy action comedy that smartly borrows from its genre forerunners while giddily reflecting that homage using a funhouse mirror. Like the previous comedies of writer-director Shane Black (creator of the Lethal Weapon series), it’s the madcap performances of the film’s dual leads that carry the film. Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe appear as unkempt as the film’s extraneous scenes. But their unabashed Abbott and Costello pastiche is laden with wisecracks and physical gags that uniformly hit their mark. With its sharp repartee, and byzantine plot, The Nice Guys is Raymond Chandler meets the Marx Brothers.

The Best of the Rest (alphabetically): The Edge of Seventeen; Elle; Fences; Hacksaw Ridge; Hidden Figures; Hunt for the Wilderpeople; I, Daniel Blake; The Jungle Book; Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

The Bottom Rung
Worst Film of 2016: Swiss Army Man—Quite simply, the worst experience I’ve ever
spent in a movie theater. Chronicling this misbegotten film’s faults is in exercise in futility. Suffice it to say that between the flatulent, erectile corpse (Daniel Radcliffe, no kidding) and the fantasy love story—with its latent necrophilia—concocted by a deranged Paul Dano, it bears the wear of multiple trips through the Sundance Institute laboratory. It’s impossible to fully describe, and just as uncomfortable to watch.

Alice Through the Looking Glass—Director James Bobin strains to retain the abstract milieu of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, but anything resembling a cohesive plot or character development gets chucked down a rabbit hole.

The Boss—The tired formula of “wind up Melissa McCarthy and watch her go” is a decidedly hit-or-miss proposition. In The Boss, the audience feels like the ones handed a pink slip.

Collateral Beauty—Inscrutable, insufferable and indolent. A waste for all involved.

Criminal—A silly, self-serious bore bearing the earmarks of something around the time its cast’s house payments were due.

The Hollars—Reductive and infantile portrait of family dysfunction. A sterling cast is utterly wasted on a risible script.

Inferno—Director Ron Howard’s third adaptation of Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon book series is little more than a byzantine European holiday, where people are constantly on the run simply because they’re being chased, no matter that nobody knows by who or why. This Inferno is a dumpster fire.

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back—Saddled with a title-cum-epitaph, this Tom Cruise vehicle is a sequel nobody wanted to a movie few remember.

London Has Fallen—A cavalcade of jingoism and xenophobia varnished in terror porn, espousing a fanatical worldview fueled by eye-for-an-Old Testament style vengeance. Tack on a homily intoned by Morgan Freeman, no less, warning against American inaction in the face of international terror, and you’ve got Trump the Movie.

Mechanic: Resurrection—Unearths a film series that should have stayed dead and buried.

Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising—To the extent there's a feminist undercurrent here, it's that women can star in boorish, mindless movie comedies, too.

Most Unexpectedly Pleasant Surprises
10 Cloverfield Lane
Bridget Jones’s Baby
Deepwater Horizon
The Infiltrator
The Jungle Book
The Nice Guys

Most Disappointing
The Birth of a Nation
Finding Dory
The Girl on the Train
Hail, Caesar!
Jason Bourne
Patriots Day

The Two Films I Enjoyed Despite What Everybody Else Says
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Suicide Squad

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