The Best and Worst of 2016 [u]

Updated on 20 Feb. 2017 to include three films viewed post-post.

Last year about this time, I bluntly stated “2015 was a terrible year for movies.”  Hence I named my end-of-year post “The Best and Mostly Worst of 2015.”  For some time I had thought that compared to the last, thankfully expired year of 2016, 2015 was practically a golden age of cinema.  That maybe 2016 in movies was analogous to the awful year it was in politics.  Actually compiling this list, however, makes me realize that 2016 wasn’t that much worse than 2015.  No film last year passed beyond an 8/10 rating; there were lots of so-so 6’s and ho-hum 7’s.  A fair number of good films, but the shining standouts went AWOL.   Just a kind of middling year.

So on to the list.  No need my normal note on home streaming; I saw all these films in the theater.  As usual, worst to first…

The Girl on the Train — 2/10 and Honours for Worst Movie of the Year

Suicide Squad — 2/10

Midnight Special — 2/10

The Meddler — 2/10

Lights Out — 2/10

Arrival — 3/10

Love and Friendship — 4/10

Everybody Wants Some!! — 4/10

Captain Fantastic — 4/10

Fences — 4/10

Deepwater Horizon — 4/10

Don’t Think Twice — 4/10

The Shallows — 4/10

The Witch — 5/10nerve-poster

Embrace of the Serpent — 5/10

Deadpool — 5/10

Elle — 5/10

Silence — 5/10

Moonlight — 5/10

Jackie — 6/10

20th Century Women — 6/10

The Accountant — 6/10

Ouija: Origin of Evil — 6/10swiss-army-man-poster

Hacksaw Ridge — 6/10

Lion — 6/10

The Lobster — 6/10

Swiss Army Man — 6/10

Nerve — 6/10

American Honey — 6/10.  This year’s Tangerine

A Bigger Splash — 7/10

Don’t Breathe — 7/10

Manchester by the Sea — 7/10

City of Gold — 7/10

The Nice Guys — 7/10

Hidden Figures — 7/10

Hunt for the Wilderpeople — 7/10

Café Society — 7/10

In Order of Disappearance — 7/10

10 Cloverfield Lane — 7/10

Hell or High Water — 7/10

Certain Women — 7/10

The Neon Demon — 7/10.  More on this one later.

Passengers — 7/10

Sully — 8/10

== TOP FIVE ==

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5. Nocturnal Animals — 8/10

4. The Founder — 8/10

3. Where to Invade Next — 8/10

2. La La Land — 8/10

1. Hail, Caesar! — 8/10 and Clearly the Best Movie of the Year.  Another grand victory for the Coens, yet swept under the rug.  Watch in a darkened theater, close to the big screen — or the nearest approximation thereof that you can muster.

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That’s right, Top Five.  As I said, a middling movie year.  I just couldn’t see highlighting movies that would have been at Number 30 on the 2014 list as a Top Ten pick here, putting them on some sort of equal footing as the magnificent films of that year.

END NOTE on OSCAR CONTENTION.

1) Not long ago (to the best of my recollection), films had to be released for at least two weeks in any given year to be eligible for Oscar consideration for that year; that time period has now been squeezed down to one week.  This means the trend of Oscar-contending films being released later in the following year at a theater near you has only gotten worse.  Foreign and independent films are the worst hit by this phenomenon.  Leviathan, for example, wasn’t available to watch locally until March 2015 — after the Oscars.  This is done to boost ticket sales for award-winning movies, but it’s annoying.

I mention this not because I want to go off on a rant, but to point out that I can’t wait until March or April to put out my yearly list.  There’s a good chance that I’ll be seeing more 2016 pictures in the months ahead; if so I’ll make a note of where they place on this list, and/or make an update.

2) As a corollary to point 1), it is widely accepted that any studio who wants a film to compete in awards season must release its movie in the final quarter of the year.  A summer release is iffy, though not ruled out entirely — but it would have to be a film that captured the year’s zeitgeist.  And anytime in the first half, no way.

Again, my main objective here is not to rant, though the release-date blues do get me down.  I mention it because Hail, Caesar!’s February release — and its studio’s opinion of it as reflected by that release — has more to do with its Oscar non-contention than anything to do with the quality of the picture.  As the best of the year, that’s a shame.  But then shame and the Oscars go hand in hand.

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Tripping the Light Fantastic in La La Land

la-la-land-poster

I liked La La Land very much, but I can’t say it made my heart sing.  Which is to say I didn’t love it.  Not gaga here.  On the other hand, KCRW had songs from the film playing in rotation the week immediately after I saw it, and I admit they’ve grown on me.  That’s good, because my initial reaction was that the music was a little unoriginal and unmemorable.  Less than ideal for a film that has been hyped to heck for six months and hailed as the savior of Hollywood musicals.

Which is a silly thing to say anyway.  Les Miz and Rock of Ages, from just a couple years ago, were impressive musicals.  Chicago, from 2002, won Best Picture.  And there is no signature tune in La La Land that will be hummed in 30 years.  No “Singin’ in the Rain,” no “Spoonful of Sugar” from Mary Poppins; no “Do-Re-Mi” from The Sound of Music.  Nothing so iconic here.  Nor a single musical performance as jaw-dropping as Anne Hathaway’s in Les Miz.

Which is why, in part, nothing shot out at me from La La Land screaming “THIS IS PURE MAGIC,” despite its labors to that effect.  Another reason is the musical scenes don’t feel as organic as they should.  Still, the music is good.  It doesn’t fall into the trap of Inside Llewyn Davis, a musical which features forgettable, even irrelevant music.  Which leads to the assets of this film: astounding performances and magic on film.  Magical individual scenes, that is — not magic as a whole.  But there is one great scene after another — great singing and dancing, and a terrific representation of the eternally mystical, and magical, City of Angels.

 * * *

Now back to the negatives.  The underlying story is, fundamentally, a repackaged cliché (Flashdance, anyone?  Or better yet, Good Will Hunting) which might have been overcome with more interesting, perhaps conflicted characters.  The two stars don’t really have any faults — they are essentially perfect — and as such are rather 2-dimensional.  This is why Whiplash is a cut above, even without the spectacular flair.

I point out all the flaws of La La Land because this is where my criticism diverges from anyone else’s — which is always the point of this blog.  The picture’s adulation is readily available and practically ubiquitous.  My summary: La La Land ranks just behind Hail, Caesar! as the top film of the year.  And in this exceptionally weak year for movies, La La Land is a freight-train to Oscarland.

* * *

la-la-land-text-blockEvery time I watch a snippet or hear a song, La La Land keeps growing on me, despite my reservations.  Initially I thought I would not need to see it again any time soon, but now — two weeks later — I’m looking forward to some day paying another visit.  It must be more catchy than I first reckoned.  Maybe I am gaga.  8/10

Comparison Notes: Besides the films already mentioned above: Everyone Says I Love You (I have not seen); Recommended: Café Society, Mulholland Dr., L.A. Story, The Player

* * *

UPDATE: Since we’re upon the time for my year-end list, I need to officially downgrade Where to Invade Next.  That was never really a 9/10 film, but I was so impressed with the material that I inflated the rating.  Its true value: 8/10, which I think will still counts for top five of the year.  And by the way, we have got to give credit for Michael Moore for predicting the Trump win.  That adds even more credence to Where to Invade Next, and indeed his entire oeuvre.

Film Brief: Moonlight

moonlight-poster-smallI had no desire to see Moonlight, but it has proven to have legs and is likely to garner Oscar nominations including the big one.  Plus, I was in the mood for something that might make me think a little.  And so my review:

Act “i”: Great; Act ii: Great; Act iii: Complete and utter collapse.  Also not happy about omission of an opening title.  8/10 if you lop off Act iii, but since the producers did not, thumbs-down; 5/10.

 

Holy See Log: Babette’s Feast

MIRTH is the operative word here.

Pope Francis continues to surprise and delight me.  What a breath of fresh air in the world!  His latest comments regarding Donald Trump brought me beyond mirth — they downright filled me with glee.  And last year when he was visiting the U.S., I was surprised to find out he’s a film buff; see “Pope Francis’ three favorite movies to be shown at Philadelphia theater.”  I had heard of Babette’s Feast some time ago; Fellini’s La Strada was already in my queue, and I’ve now added Rome, Open City.

Babette’s Feast draws multiple parallels to Big Night, and the comparisons bring about even deeper musings about life and our place in the world than either film does by itself.  Big Night is unquestionably the better film, but that could be said about most any other movie, as Big Night defines film.

There is one rather serious flaw in Babette’s Feast: people don’t live forever.  Time moves aggressively forward in the film, but the characters seem largely age-defying.  This flaw is hardly a deal-breaker, though.

Rita Kempley, The Washington Post:

This deceptively modest story, with its quiet colors and contemplative characters, actually teems with contrasts and subtle dynamics. The eternal burn of the artist vies with the cold fire of the puritan’s denial. Serious as it all sounds, Axel and his fine cast interpret Dinesen’s ironic original with great charm and gentle comedy.

Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian:

It is as if the portions of everyday sensuality they have refused all their lives are now to be totalled up and paid to them all at once in this remarkable feast, just when they must bid farewell to the world, with all its pleasures and vanities. Twenty-five years on, the story is still charming and beguiling.

Babette’s Feast — full of mirth and charm — almost defies a numerical rating, but when I have to get down to business I render an 8/10.

Availability: iTunes rental

Comparison Notes (all highly recommended): Local Hero, Breaking the Waves, Big Night

The Best and Mostly Worst of 2015

2015 was a terrible year for movies.  There was a dearth not only of good, mainstream Oscar contenders (“big” movies) but also of quality indies.  Making this list, however, I am a little surprised no 7/10-rated film made the top ten.  So maybe it wasn’t the worst year ever.  But the whole year felt weird and “off.”  I considered highlighting a “TOP FIVE” instead of the normal top ten, because it’s hard for me to be enthusiastic about the better movies this year.

It’s so bad this year that the Academy agrees with me.  Although, naturally, they missed the two best pictures of the year, they’ve only nominated eight for the top prize — and two of them are Mad Max and The Martian!  Now that’s a good one.  They’re really scraping the bottom there.

As established last year, each movie is linked to the original post; an asterisk denotes a film seen via VOD.

Furious 7 — 1/10 and Honours for Worst Movie of the Year.

Sicario — 1/10.  A close runner-up for Worst of the Year

The Martian — 2/10

Unfriended — 3/10Mr Holmes - poster

Creed — 3/10

Phoenix — 4/10

About Elly — 4/10

Mr. Holmes — 4/10

Paper Towns — 4/10

Brooklyn — 4/10

Mission: Impossible V — 4/10

The New Girlfriend — 4/10

Hot Girls Wanted* — 5/10

While We’re Young*– 5/10

It Follows — 5/10

Ich Seh Ich Seh (Goodnight Mommy) — 5/10.  Tragic how this film was resolved.  Otherwise such a powerful picture.

Tangerine - posterWhat We Do in the Shadows — 6/10

Crimson Peak — 6/10

Star Wars VII — 6/10

The Big Short — 6/10

Maps to the Stars — 6/10

Black Mass — 6/10

The Visit — 6/10

Leviathan — 6/10

Dope - movie poster vertEverest movie posterMad Max: Fury Road — 6/10

The Wolfpack* — 7/10

Straight Outta Compton — 7/10

An Honest Liar* — 7/10

Spy — 7/10

Tangerine — 7/10

Trainwreck — 7/10

Best of Enemies — 7/10

Meru — 7/10

Amy - movie posterThe Diary of a Teenage Girl - posterDope — 7/10

Everest — 7/10.  Rating applies to 3D theatrical showing.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl — 7/10

Amy — 7/10

Love & Mercy — 7/10.  This movie had problems, but I find these months later it still resonates with me.

Irrational Man — 7/10

Carol — 8/10

== TOP TEN ==

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10. The Overnight — 8/10

9. I’ll See You in My Dreams — 8/10

8. Spotlight — 8/10

7. The Hateful Eight — 8/10

6. The Gift — 8/10

5. Relates Salvajes (Wild Tales) — 8/10.  The most “fun” movie of the year.

4. The Revenant — 8/10

3. Room — 8/10

2. Ex Machina — 9/10

1. The Walk — 9/10 and Clearly the Best Movie of the Year.  A beautiful, inspiring film; make sure to watch on the big screen.

The Revenant: Iñárritu Wins Again

The Revenant - poster

The Revenant is a grand spectacle of filmmaking virtuosity on a scale perhaps never before seen.  With Birdman, Iñárritu set the keystone of his newly developed fluid style.  I wrote that Birdman was:

…a film executed in whirlwind non-stop frenetic fashion that will hold you from start to finish. …But I found the story too monotone, or put another way Birdman has trouble breaking free of its self-imposed Alcatraz.

The Revenant builds on the expertise set forth in Birdman, and adds a stronger story.  Birdman’s enclosed spaces have been blown out and replaced by vast, wide-open, windswept and snow-covered landscapes, and realized by an absolute mastery of the lens and anything put in front of it.  From a moviemaking point of view, The Revenant is pure wonderment.  This is an impressive film.

The Revenant - text blockSomething else I liked was that this is a Western put in stark, brutally realistic terms — a true rarity.  So there is no doubt The Revenant is a great film.  But there were a couple storytelling issues I ran into.  A couple 5-minute days, for example.  I mean, I know it’s winter and the days are short, but they aren’t that short.  Another small problem toward the end nagged me slightly.  And ultimately, the story, with all its applied nuance, is fundamentally a one-dimensional revenge picture, with a pair of characters at the core who could have been more interesting to say the least.

The Revenant will win the Best Picture Oscar, and I don’t have a big problem with that.  8/10

Comparison Notes: Recommended: Dancing with Wolves, Dead Man, I Spit on Your Grave; Not Recommended: The Grey, True Grit (2010)

Thoughts on the 87th Academy Awards

Lady Gaga and Julie AndrewsFirst of all, I think we all saw a new side of Lady Gaga.  What a singer, what a talent, what a star.

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The “In Memoriam” segment featured the timeless theme music from Sophie’s Choice by Marvin Hamlisch.  A score that connects us with a time gone by, of The Waltons, of pure Americana and at the same time the deepest sentiment for those lost. There will never be an “In Memoriam” played to any of the music nominated for an Oscar last night.  I don’t intend that as a slam against last year’s movie-music, but as a point about the greatness of Sophie’s Choice, arguably the greatest film ever made.  One day I’ll expand on that idea.

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As for the winners, they mostly went exactly as predicted.  Ida, in a mild upset, won best foreign film, and Birdman, not even in the top 20 of the year, won the big prize.  It took either balls or further incompetence for the Academy to endorse to the public at large such a niche, inside-entertainment film.  It makes you wonder how they got it right with Eddie Redmayne, who displayed exceptional humility given his astounding performance.