Earlier this month, critic David Ehrlich released his annual video list of his top 25 films of the year. To my chagrin, not only had I only seen one film on his list (Kubo and the Two Strings), I hadn’t even seen 25 films released in 2016 total. Of course, I’m not a professional critic, and I don’t have the opportunity to see films unless they’re in wide release or hit streaming/home video by the end of the year (with a few exceptions), but as someone who enjoys film and tries to come up with his own year-end wrap-ups, I try to see as many films as I can in a timely manner. I’ve managed to do some catching up (and I did end up seeing more than 25 movies from this year), but as usual the following observations are based on my rather selective and scattershot viewing. (One thing I did this year for the first time was keep a list of every film I saw, new or old, which has made it easier to remember what I saw way back in January; tomorrow I’ll review some of my favorite non-2016 discoveries.)
Since a large portion of the new films I saw this year were wide release blockbusters and family movies, it’s worth noting just how many of this year’s films were part of series or franchises: the Marvel films Captain America: Civil War and Doctor Strange; the Harry Potter spinoff/prequel Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them; and additions to the Star Wars, Godzilla, and Phantasm canons, among others. That’s not unusual: sequels and franchises have been common for years, although it seemed even more pronounced this year. Many of the sequels that came out this year (not all of which I saw) bombed, but there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with series. I enjoy catching up with familiar characters and settings as much as the next audience member, and new installments of ongoing series were among my favorites this year. (As always, I’m basing my list on US release dates.)
10. Love & Friendship (Whit Stillman)
Based on Jane Austen’s Lady Susan, Kate Beckinsale plays the scheming widow with a mixture of calculation and blasé wit for which Stillman’s brand of dry humor is perfect. Tom Bennett (as the empty-headed Sir James) is very funny in this and well deserves the accolades that have greeted his performance.
9. Hail, Caesar! (Ethan Coen and Joel Coen)
On the surface, the Coens’ homage to Golden Age Hollywood is a trifle, a light-hearted spoof and celebration of the studio system that had previously crushed Barton Fink’s spirit. The plot (in the loosest sense of the word) consists of several vignettes tied together by their connection to studio head Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) as he attempts to put out one fire after another in a typical day. The most worrisome is the kidnapping of leading man Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) from the set of the Biblical epic that gives the film its name. While I found Hail, Caesar! entertaining enough while I was watching it (and the film is lots of fun, packing an all-star cast into witty recreations of musicals, Westerns, Esther Williams-style synchronized swimming, and “women’s pictures”), it also felt a little slight. But Mannix’s defense of show business (against the materialism of both Communist rhetoric and a Lockheed executive attempting to lure Mannix to a position in the “real world”) has stuck with me, and is typical of the Coens’ habit of packaging serious messages in comedies that go down easily.
8. The Witch (Robert Eggers)
Subtitled “A New-England Folktale,” The Witch is a spooky distillation of Puritan fears of devilry and witchcraft, with a single family isolated in the woods illustrating the growth of a panic in microcosm. Are the glimpses of Satanic forces, exemplified by the unmanageable goat Black Phillip, signs of genuine witchery, or are they merely the fervid imaginings of eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy in a haunting performance)? Like the best horror, the answer is less important than what it reveals about the character of the family members as they retreat into religious faith, run off into the woods, or turn against each other.
7. Pee-wee’s Big Holiday (John Lee)
As I wrote in my review back in March, “Like many modern reboots and revivals of old properties, this ‘comeback’ is packed with nostalgic callbacks and Easter eggs, remixing an older story by sprinkling in familiar themes, character types, and imagery to summon up the old magic. . . . I’m probably too close to tell you whether this is a fans-only proposition, but as a fan, I liked it.” While the callbacks to the original were the weakest part of this year’s Ghostbusters reboot, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday proved that it is possible for the formula to work, at least as long as you’ve got super-cool Joe Manganiello providing a foil for Paul Reubens’ antic, childlike character. (Come to think of it, Chris Hemsworth was the funniest part of Ghostbusters: maybe 2016 was secretly the year of hunky, bromantic scene-stealers?) One statement I made in my review, that “Unlike Paul Reubens, Pee-wee himself hasn’t aged a day,” deserves to be explored: I didn’t realize when I wrote that just how much technological assistance was involved in rewinding a couple of decades of aging, but I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, given the ubiquity of CGI these days. In any case, Pee-wee’s digital facelift was less distracting and disturbing than the CGI resurrection of long-dead Peter Cushing in Rogue One (a movie I liked, but yeesh).
6. The Neon Demon (Nicolas Winding Refn)
An aspiring model (Elle Fanning) arrives in L.A. and discovers just how cutthroat the business can be in this stylish thriller. I just saw this one, so I’m still digesting it, but on a first pass I loved the visuals and Cliff Martinez’s electronic score; I wish I’d had the opportunity to see The Neon Demon on the big screen, but even at home it was electrifying. However, it took a while to win me over, as it was hard to shake the impression that I was seeing ideas and stylistic flourishes that had been done before by David Lynch, Ridley Scott, and Dario Argento. A grisly turn in the last twenty minutes took me by surprise and elevated the whole affair by recontextualizing much of what came before, so I have a feeling this is a film that will play very differently for me on a rewatch.
5. Zootopia (Byron Howard, Rich Moore, and Jared Bush)
Immersive, three-dimensional computer animation has its drawbacks: not every setting can stand up to the scrutiny invited by nearly photorealistic animation, nor live up to the standards of internal logic set by Pixar. This year’s Zootopia is a positive example, however, of the tendency to build worlds in a comprehensive way, a dazzling and thought-provoking allegory of modern race-relations and identity politics laid over a clever extrapolation of the “funny animals” that are one of the most venerable pieces of Disney’s heritage. After idealistic rabbit Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) joins the police force, having fought against (cuddly, nonthreatening) stereotypes her whole life, she is forced into a begrudging partnership with the hustling Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a (sly, predatory) fox, and learns to confront some of her own internal prejudices. The parallels to real-world issues are unmistakable, but Zootopia’s heavier moments are supported by a well-oiled action comedy with riffs on Chinatown, 48 Hrs., and The Godfather (and even a nod to Breaking Bad). Most fun of all is the multilayered title city, with its ethnic enclaves for different types (and sizes) of animals, somehow finding ways to live in harmony.
4. The Love Witch (Anna Biller)
The first time I saw the trailer for The Love Witch, I was unsure if it was a new movie or the latest rerelease of an obscure exploitation film. Even after seeing it, I’m impressed at the attention to detail writer-director-designer Anna Biller brought to her feminist-themed parody/homage of early 1970s softcore. Elaine (Samantha Robinson) uses spells and charms to win the hearts of a series of men, but they can’t fill the hole in her heart, even as she drives them to their deaths. (Robinson’s matter-of-fact voice-overs, revealing the gap between Elaine’s perceptions and external reality, brought to mind Election, another bone-dry comedy about feminine striving.) Wryly ironic and reveling in its artificiality (channeling Joe Sarno and Russ Meyer as well as the Gothic chic and hip Satanism of Hammer horror), The Love Witch could have perhaps better emulated the brevity of its inspirations, but like The Neon Demon it’s eye-poppingly colorful and turns its genre’s assumptions upside-down (and this one I did get to see in the theater thanks to a limited release in Wichita).
3. Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Taika Waititi)
Waititi’s vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows was my favorite film of last year, and while Hunt for the Wilderpeople is more down to earth, it is no less warm and funny. Wannabe gangster Ricky (Julian Dennison) and his reluctant foster father Hec (Sam Neill) find themselves on the run together in the “majestical” New Zealand bush after a series of misunderstandings. That these two lost souls will come to understand and support each other through their adventure is a given, but the movie never feels formulaic, a credit to both Waititi’s knack for making unusual choices in staging and music, as well as the humanity Dennison and Neill bring to their characters. (Props also to Rachel House, who is hilarious in a potentially one-note role as an overeager Child Welfare officer.)
2. Shin Godzilla (Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi)
In October, I wrote that Shin Godzilla, the first new Japanese Godzilla movie since 2004, “is a worthy successor to the legacy of the King of the Monsters, balancing its weighty political themes with incredible spectacle and an exciting scientific race against time.” I stand by my original review, but reading other viewers’ responses to the movie, it became clear to me that I underestimated how much humor is in the movie (as the heroic bureaucrat Yaguchi ascends ranks, the onscreen captions listing his titles become longer and longer, until the bulk of the screen is filled with text, for one example), caught up as I was in that spectacle. I have so far only seen Shin Godzilla once, but like most of the films I’m highlighting this year, it’s one I hope to return to in order to pick up more of its nuances.
1. 10 Cloverfield Lane (Dan Trachtenberg)
As I wrote in October, I only caught up with 2008’s Cloverfield this year, but it was one of the best movies I saw that month. This year’s 10 Cloverfield Lane isn’t exactly a sequel, but is rather a free-standing story with a completely different set of characters, only loosely connected (if at all) to the first film. Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) loses consciousness in a late-night car wreck, only to awaken in the underground shelter of Howard (John Goodman), who informs her that an attack on the United States has left the surface uninhabitable. Whether she likes it or not, she’s stuck in the bunker with the paranoid Howard and his good-ol’-boy handyman, Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.). Michelle is understandably skeptical of Howard and his motives, but this tightly-plotted thriller kept me guessing with twists and turns (and powerful lead performances by Goodman and Winstead) up until the very end.
Worst movie: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Zack Snyder)
Complaining about this one almost feels like piling on at this point, but I can’t help it: leaving aside the humorless, sociopathic interpretation of its “heroes,” Dawn of Justice is a cluttered, kludged-together mess of a movie that would make even less sense to anyone who had never heard of Batman or Superman. I won’t deny that Snyder attempted to make some serious points about hero-worship and the burden of power, but every time I’m tempted to give credit for its ambition, or for good points like its introduction of Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot, the best part of the movie), I remember the nonsensical nightmare sequence (Sucker Punch starring Batman, i.e. the movie I suspect Snyder really wanted to make) or the plot-stopping interlude that serves only to introduce the members of the future Justice League. The result is a sprawling contraption designed primarily as a launchpad for future DC comic book movies. And I like comic book movies!
(P.S. I didn’t see Suicide Squad.)
Dumbest movie that I will almost assuredly watch again: Yoga Hosers (Kevin Smith)
I actually had some hope for this one, against all reason to be optimistic: I liked Tusk, imperfect as it was, and this follow-up put the two Colleens (Harley Quinn Smith and Lily-Rose Depp, seen briefly in the first movie) front and center, facing off against living Nazi bratwursts in a convenience store. Perhaps it’s my affection for movies that take goofy premises and play them out to their logical ends, or perhaps I was hoping for something like The Gate or Freaked!: kid-friendly horror comedies that knew just how ludicrous they were and leaned into it. Or maybe it had just been a while since I’d treated myself to something so shameless. (A rip-off of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Gremlins? With Nazis? Sign me up!) I’d have a hard time recommending the result, a comedy of cod-Canadianness so dopey it makes Bob and Doug McKenzie look subtle, but I would have loved it when I was 13, and I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t watch it again. The two Colleens have a fun, snarky chemistry that reminds me of why Smith’s Clerks was so refreshing way back when; Justin Long as a seedy storefront guru makes me laugh; and I can even put up with the return of Johnny Depp’s Clouseau-like Guy LaPointe, who has a few choice lines about his attempts to cash in after solving the case of the “Winnipeg Walrus” in Tusk. You know what this means, right? I’m obligated to see the final installment of the trilogy, Moose Jaws (like Jaws, but with a moose), when it comes out.
Movies I didn’t get to but which probably would have been in the running: Green Room, Swiss Army Man, Arrival, Moana, La La Land, The Handmaiden, too many to name, really