Friday, January 6, 2017

Year in Review and Best of 2016 Part 1 - Movies

It's become trendy to personify 2016 as a sentient boogeyman, a grim reaper stealing childhood icons and ushering in a bizarre cultural era in which Pepe the Frog played a non-zero role in a US presidential election. It's a year that's been defined by an eclectic mix of fear, paranoia, and idiocy. It's a year where no matter what you make up, someone will believe you, as long as it's posted on Twitter. It's the Year of the Snake People.

In spite of the flood of national sorrows, triumphs, and explosions of stupid, 2016 was a mercifully quieter year for me than 2015. My work on Kaiju Big Battle: Fighto Fantasy really took off, including a trip to PAX East to present the game as part of a panel back in April. In addition to my new day job, Kaiju work ate up a lot of the time I'd normally spend writing, so you, my wobblers, have been neglected. I apologize. I'm hoping to launch the game in the first half of 2017, though we'll see if life has other plans; I've got a daughter due any day now!

Even with all that, I still saw a huge number of movies this year, whether at home or in theaters. I even liked most of them! Here's a look at them, divided into tiered lists and sorted alphabetically. As usual, this is an evolving document which I'll be updating as I see the final movies I missed out on. Let's talk movies!

Top Tier - My favorite films of the year.

Arrival - Denis Villeneuve's one of my favorite modern directors. He makes intensely personal films even when dealing with global issues, with Sicario being one of my top picks of 2015 and Arrival getting that honor this year. He's directed a great film for each of the last four years (Prisoners in 2013, Enemy in 2014) and is currently working on a 2017 Blade Runner sequel. I couldn't pick anyone better for the task.

Arrival is a rare modern sci-fi film focused on human frailty, memory, and fear, rather than taking aim at a villainous otherworldly foe. First contact with an alien race is handed off from the military to a linguistics team led by Amy Adams' Louise Banks, and the film alternates between Louise trying to find a means of communication and trying to unravel her own mind as alien thought begins creeping in. There's a good mixture of spectacle and intimacy here, and it's a mainstream sci-fi story with a legitimately strong female lead, not just a woman who can quip or kick monsters hard. Arrival focuses on international/intergalactic peace, rather than exist as a work of Human Exceptionalism. It's a rare sort of movie that crosses and often ignores genre lines, and is all the more powerful for that.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice - Love or hate them, Zack Snyder's films almost always lead to heated debates. The amount of passion he inspires on both sides speaks to his talents as an auteur director; no one holds a personal grudge against the guy who directed Elektra or the 2005 Fantastic Four movie. No one hisses and shrinks away when they hear the names Rocky Morton or Annabel Jankel, even if they still make fun of the Super Mario Bros movie. The ire that Snyder draws puts him in the rare pantheon of demonic figures recognized by the Church of The Nerd, a pantheon that also includes George Lucas and Michael Bay.

You can read my full review for my thoughts on the film as a whole. Loved Eisenberg's Lex Luthor, still a big fan of Adams and Cavil as Lois and Clark. Affleck plays an older, unhinged Bruce Wayne perfectly. The opening scene is a phenomenal ant's eye view of a battle between gods. I love the deconstruction of Batman's brand of justice and superhero justice in general and I love Clark Kent standing up for humane treatment of all people, even a truly terrible sort of criminal. I'll concede that the Justice League mini trailers were pretty terrible.
The Neon Demon - 15 years after his film debut with Pusher in 1996, Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn had his first mainstream hit with 2011's Ryan Gosling-led Drive. An intense, gorgeous film with a fantastic score by Cliff Martinez, Drive painted its bleak world in bright light and sociopathic optimism. Gosling's anti-hero driver, with an iconic scorpion-themed jacket, is a memorable, frightening, and still endearing figure.

Coming off of the goodwill from Drive, Refn directed the divisive Only God Forgives, casting Gosling in a darker role and doubling down on the neon insanity. Rather than doing an about-face, Refn kept going down that weird, glowing road with The Neon Demon. Refn is more concerned with stylish expressionism than mainstream appeal, making Drive's wider success feel like a fluke. Nothing wrong with that! They're at times worlds apart, but I loved both Drive and Neon Demon (I'm a fan of Only God Forgives too, but it's a harder film to approach.)

Set in a gruesome Los Angeles, Neon Demon focuses on the strange odyssey of a young model played by Elle Fanning, newly arrived in town. It's a comedy, it's a romance, it's a horror film; this is a hard film to pin down, and it's unafraid to go to some truly awful places, only to veer back to deranged silliness. Jena Malone does an excellent job as Ruby, a friend/mentor figure/something else entirely, showing us a character both instantly human and completely alien. It's a film experience much like a nightmare, shifting between dark and light and taking the mind in unexpected directions. I left the theater saying, "That was great, but I don't need to see that again any time soon!" A week later, I wanted to see it a second time.

The Witch - A grim meditation on sin and familial persecution, The Witch is a Sympathy for the Devil film with a standout performance by a sassy goat. This is a fantastic debut by director Robert Eggers, featuring sometimes impenetrable Puritan dialogue and a wide swath of witchcraft mythology.

The Witch is a very quiet horror film, focusing less on immediate dangers and scares and more on existential terror; fear of God, of parents, of being lost and unwanted. It's a Book of Job story where our punished lead chooses to reject the cruelty of Heaven. There's an intimacy to the whole thing that makes the viewer feel like an invasive presence, peering into a world they don't belong in. The Witch also gets props for going completely bananas by the end while still remaining faithful to its themes and characters. Actress Anya Taylor-Joy plays the lead character perfectly in her debut in a lead role.

Excellent - Great films worth your time.

10 Cloverfield Lane - A sort of, sort of not follow up to Matt Reeve's 2008 monster movie Cloverfield, 10 Cloverfield Lane is the feature film debut of director Dan Trachtenberg. Set almost entirely in a survivalist bunker after a catastrophe hits, Cloverfield Lane is a very tight, intense thriller with a standout performance by John Goodman. It's got a few issues (a poorly directed reveal of a character identity twist) and the ending goes completely off the rails, but I'm OK with that. You might love the final act and hate the rest of the movie or vice versa; it's a huge departure from the rest of the film. I enjoyed both parts, even if it maybe wasn't the best choice for a story this personal.

Christine -  An extremely well directed piece following the final days of newscaster Christine Chubbuck in the mid 70's. Rebecca Hall is amazingly good as the lead, giving a very subtle, very physical performance that never feels cheap. It's a hard watch (especially if you know where it's going) but completely compelling. The whole "death of the news, birth of sensationalism" angle should be very familiar to anyone who's had a job as a writer. Serves as a spiritual prequel to Nightcrawler.

Hail, Caesar! - The first light-hearted Coen Brothers film in over a decade, after a long, dark run that started with 2007's excellent No Country For Old Men. I've loved most of the work the Coens have done in the last decade (only Burn After Reading didn't work for me) but I was excited to see them take another shot at something utterly silly. Hail, Caesar! is the lightest PG-13 possible, the most family-friendly Coens film other than 1994's Hudsucker Proxy. It's a sharp but loving satire of Old Hollywood film making, composed as a series of episodes connected by a Hollywood Fixer played by Josh Brolin. Features the best dance number of the year, completely owned by Channing Tatum as a bombastic sailor on shore leave.

Kubo and the Two Strings - The latest film by stop-motion animation house Laika, Kubo features the most impressive animation of the year. Absolutely brilliant water, paper, and fur animation are the most technically impressive parts, but the entire film is made with amazing expertise. It's a story about storytelling, with the main action of the film existing in a maybe real, maybe purely symbolic quest for closure following the death of the lead character's parents. I found the jokes pretty weak and often out of place, but the rest is strong enough to overlook that.

La La Land - Damien Chazelle's Big Hollywood Musical follow up to 2014's Whiplash, another film focused on and driven by music. Whiplash focused on instrumental music, while La La Land is split between old-fashioned musical numbers and jazz instrumentals. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling lead this pretty, heartfelt story, which has one of the most effective endings I've seen all year. For the first 15 minutes or so, I had trouble getting into the film; I didn't care for the opening number and detested Stone's roommates. Thankfully, it moves in a much more personal direction quickly, as our leads meet and bond over unfulfilled dreams. Features a fantastic cameo by J. K. Simmons, who could have used a lot more screen time.

Manchester by the Sea - A near-nihilistic drama driven by an intense Casey Affleck (it's a good year for Afflecks on film) and a great supporting role by Michelle Williams. Affleck plays a lost soul grinding through life trying his best to avoid painful memories when he's called back to his hometown for his brother's funeral. It's a tough film that deals with complex reactions to pain and doesn't sugar coat anything; no one is shown in a particularly good light, nor are they condemned. On a lighter note, living in the Boston area I had fun recognizing so much of the setting.

Midnight Special - Michael Shannon, Kirsten Dunst, and Adam Driver lead a film that feels like a lost Stephen King novel or an exceptionally good adaptation of a superhero comic. Shannon flees with his young son from the authorities and from an isolated religious sect he once belonged to. The boy possesses a variety of superhuman abilities and feels compelled to reach a certain place at a certain time in order to encounter an unknown event. It sounds grand, but the film is kept very small and personal, much like Arrival. With its dark yet optimistic tone, this film fits in well with Zack Snyder's Superman films, though Michael Shannon couldn't be more different here from his performance as General Zod in Man of Steel.

Moana - Disney's latest actually has a lot in common with Kubo; it's a personal voyage into an unknown sea of monsters, where the hero can find her place in the world and pay tribute to a recently departed family member. Definitely the best animated film I saw in 2016 and maybe the best of Disney's modern era. Music's great, all of the nature animation's fantastic, the lead's journey feels authentic and her victory earned, even if it's guided (heavily) by nature/gods it doesn't feel cheap. I love every bit where the animation style goes off the rails and transforms into 2D/paper cutouts/tattoo art. It's such a cool looking, well done movie. I also think the final monster encounter was designed by a Dark Souls fan.

Moonlight - Really amazing, subtle acting from three actors playing Chiron, one man at three different pivotal moments in life. Mahershala Ali also gives a strong performance as an unexpected mentor figure. It's a film that takes a painful look at emotional trauma, family bonds, and hiding one's identity. The film pushes many key moments in Chiron's life offscreen, focusing with intensity on just a few windows into his identity. The middle story, depicting Chiron as a teenager, was the most effective for me; the third act is written and acted supremely well, but feels more like an epilogue to the rest of the story. From structure to content to its intense classical score, this is an untraditional film and one very much worth experiencing. A good counter to people who claim that an actor needs to have pages of dialogue to create a deep character.

Nocturnal Animals -Yet another great performance by Amy Adams this year, though the film's most gut-wrenching scenes belong to Jake Gyllenhaal. The film is split between "reality," in which Adams plays Susan, an art gallery owner bored with High Art, and "fiction," as we watch a murderous melodrama unfold in a novel written by her ex-husband Edward. We flash between past and present, watching Susan and Edward's love and careers rise and fall, with the titular novel providing catharsis for both reader and writer. Emotions are played very loud and large, which may put some viewers off just as much as the film's violence. My only issue is that I wish more had been done to blur the lines between the real and the fictional. Michael Shannon shows up here too, playing a surprisingly funny, miserable detective. Jena Malone has a good, but brief, cameo.

Swiss Army Man - What a wonderful, stupid film. Paul Dano is Hank, a man stranded on an island preparing to commit suicide. At the last moment, he discovers Manny, a farting corpse played by Daniel Radcliffe that may not be as dead as he looks. Together, they rediscover a life worth living, as Hank helps Manny remember how to speak, how to use his imagination, and how to feel love. Radcliffe and Dano beatbox much of the film's soundtrack, as the proper across the sea with a seemingly endless supply of internal gas. It is, conceptually, the stupidest film idea of the year. It's also the funniest.

Very Good - Strong films with standout elements.

The Accountant - An excellent cast consisting of Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick, J. K. Simmons, Jon Bernthal, John Lithgow, and more leads this oddball crime drama/thriller. Affleck plays an autistic man with a talent for calculations and violence, and this is treated with a surprising sensitivity. Autism is a part of who he is; it causes problems but he can cope, living a successful life. He isn't played for laughs or shock, nor is his condition used to explain his semi-superhero combat skills (his father's responsible for that one.) He just happens to be a James Bond on the side. The action's well paced and tense when it needs to be, and Bernthal steals the show.

The Birth of a Nation - A biographical film following slave-turned revolutionary Nat Turner. At times, there's some strong film making here, especially toward the end where the film shifts from historical drama to a war film that contains scenes that would fit in a horror movie. However, the film's grasp of time and space is really cloudy, with characters meeting in one scene and being year-long friends in the next, with no obvious skip in time. It feels like there was a longer film underneath this one, in spite of the 2 hour run time.

Demolition - Another excellent performance by Jake Gyllenhaal. Here he plays a man literally deconstructing his life following the sudden death of his wife. The symbolism is almost ludicrously on the nose, but that's fine! I'd rather a film go big than not try at all. Our lead here reacts to death not with sorrow or anger, but with an air of almost sociopathic indifference. It's both alien and familiar, and the film's main flaw is that no one else in it stacks up to Gyllenhaal.

Fences - In 2010, Denzel Washington and Viola Davis starred in a Broadway adaptation of August Wilson's 1983 play Fences. Six years later, Washington would direct the film adaptation, with both Davis and himself reprising their roles. This isn't a film to see for plot or for cinematography; only one montage towards the end really takes advantage of the medium of film, the rest transition directly from the stage. What makes it worthwhile are the performances. Washington dominates the film much as his character dominates his family, giving one of the best performances of his career. While Washington is a commanding presence from the very beginning, Davis is more of a slow boil until she snaps, giving us some of the film's rawest emotional content.

Finding Dory - A sequel to Pixar's 2003 film Finding Nemo. Though there are 13 years between these two films in the real world, only a few months have passed in the fish world. This is a good movie with a lot of heart, but it's also more or less the same movie as Finding Nemo. It does take the story in a few different directions, but not quite enough. Still, it's got a lot going for it, and the ocean-based animation is better than ever. Contains rude seals, an obvious plus.

Hell or High Water - Solid American Nightmare film from the writer of Sicario. Jeff Bridges is fantastic, he's got a lot of great jokes that always go just a little too far. Gorgeous landscapes, a strong score/soundtrack put together by Nick Cave, and a really great, washed out visual style. It's a pretty typical robbery/western (a newscaster in the film calls the events "straight out of a dime store novel") set in the modern day, only instead of seeking revenge on an outlaw who wronged his family we have Chris Pine seeking revenge on the financial system that caused the foreclosure crisis, more or less. There are no winners in that fight. Very condemning of gun culture. The "good guy with a gun" ruins everything and escalates the whole situation.

Hidden Figures -  This film focuses on the careers of three women at NASA in the early 60's as they break through racial barriers and help the US break into space. It's a feel-good movie that simultaneously looks at social discrimination and a genuine passion for science, with both focuses ending in triumph. It's a light film, treating its subject matter bluntly but cleanly, with little focus on the more horrifying moments of the civil rights era (there's a very brief shot of the news showing the aftermath of an attack on the Freedom Riders.) Janelle Monae's character has the least screen time of the main characters, but I found her to be the most fun to watch. There's a romantic subplot that feels forced, but otherwise this is a solid film that's perfect for younger audiences.

High-Rise - A great looking film with an awesome soundtrack (Portishead's cover of Abba's SOS rules and is well used) that unfortunately buckles under its own weight. It's set in a world in which socioeconomic classes are divided by floor number in a series of apartment buildings modeled after a hand reaching out of the Earth towards the sky. A very similar concept to Bong Joon-ho's 2013 Snowpiercer. I love that sort of symbol, but the film suffers from having the revolutionary working class guy be just as equally scummy as the richest men at the top, with our largely blank lead played by Tom Hiddleston serving as a generic "The truth is in the middle" figure. There's plenty of tense action and horror here, but its themes don't congeal as well as they should.

Knight of Cups - One of the most well composed movies of 2016, every shot here's gorgeous. It's a series of short vignettes centered around Christian Bale playing a hollow man, functioning in part as a living camera observing decay and debauchery. While I thankfully haven't experienced most of the things he goes through, it absolutely connected with the emptiness I've felt since losing my father. There's a lot to unpack here, and it's a difficult movie that may be hard to recommend, but it hit me. The right condition to watch this one in is "hot and miserable."

The Lobster - A horror/scifi/romance/black comedy where single people are transformed into an animal of their choosing if they fail to fulfill their duty and find a mate. The first half is extremely funny even when it's bleak, the second half is still good but much slower and harder to laugh with. It's a fairy tale wrapped in a near-future horror world, with a strong lead performance by Colin Farrell. If the second half was stronger, this one would rank higher for me; the first half is pretty much perfect, but the shift is a little too sharp.

Morgan - A stealth prequel to Blade Runner, made by Ridley Scott's son. Luke Scott says,"The intent was you could somehow find a path to Roy Batty and the Tyrell Corporation, that Morgan represented that first stage in the corporation. This is set about 25 years before that." It's a tense, small, and largely quiet bit of sci-fi, up until the bombastic final act which features some unfortunately poor action choreography. Kate Mara's no-nonsense lead is a fairly nontraditional choice, and The Witch's Anya Taylor-Joy continues to impress. It's an unusually heavily female-centric sci-fi/action film, and that's always good to see. While it lacks Blade Runner's grand scale and visual wonder, Morgan is a surprisingly good little film.

Purge: Election Year - Earlier I said that I have no problem with overwrought, on-the-nose imagery, and that's why I can get into the Purge series. James DeMonaco is not a subtle director and he gives this insanity just the level of bombast it needs. The Purge films (this being the third installment) feel like grimier, more bitter takes on The Hunger Games mixed with Escape From New York. This isn't a horror film. It's almost pure action/satire, the only scary part is recognizing elements of our current political climate and wondering who in Washington would see this movie and say "You know, that's not a bad idea." They're dark films, but surprisingly hopeful ones that put the power in the hands of good, compassionate people. There's a scene where a group of kids on Spring Break drive an murder-car made of Christmas lights pumping Miley Cyrus. It's ludicrous, it's great.

Rogue One - The first of 40,000 Star Wars spinoffs to come. I enjoy the Original Trilogy, I defend the Prequels in spite of their issues, I thought Force Awakens was mostly pretty decent if unspectacular. Rogue One is a far more thematically interesting and coherent film than Force Awakens, focusing on the little guys in the trenches rather than knights and princesses. It shows the early days of the Rebel Alliance as a fickle group nearly doomed by their own bureaucratic cowardice, the very issue that brought down the Old Republic and the Jedi Order in the prequels. As such, it serves as a great bridge between the two trilogies. Rogue One's prettier and tells a better story but features a (mostly) weaker cast of characters than Force Awakens. Donnie Yen's non-Jedi Force monk is one of my favorite bits. The actual Star War part of the film features massively better spaceship action than the obligatory Not Death Star run in Force Awakens.

The Shallows - A film where a surfer is tormented by Satan in the form of a shark and protected by her dead mother's spirit in the form of a seagull. That works! Really fantastic ocean photography, and I'm a sucker for long landscape/seascape shots. A horror movie where the lead character stops and thinks and makes logical plans for survival, some that work and some that don't. Similar set up to The Martian in that sense, except here there's actually a sense of danger. Really gross but brief surgery scenes.

Snowden - A dry film with great acting. It's dramatized but nearly documentary at times, focusing largely on the facts at hand. There's no such thing as a truly neutral viewpoint though, and the film does sympathize with Snowden heavily. If you hate Snowden, you probably won't like it; if you think he's a hero, you probably will. It (rightly) chastises politicians on both sides of the aisle, though Bernie Sanders gets a positive sound byte in one of the film's final lines. I think he's the only one who does, but he's not a presence in the film really. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is fantastic; everyone's decent but he's exceptional here. Nicholas Cage gives a fun performance in his small role.

Star Trek Beyond - This is a solid action movie, but Justin Lin is way better at directing scenes with a physical weight to them than he is with spaceships. The car chases in Lin's Fast and Furious movies feel heavy, even when they defy physics. They're intense, insane, and shocking. The action here is pretty typical in comparison. While Beyond is pretty good, Star Trek 09 and Into Darkness are better films. Beyond is more straightforward than either of them, and has less of the political commentary found in Into Darkness or the fan/obsession commentary of 09. The theme here is largely,"If we lose our purpose we can become monsters," which is kind of toothless. It's Kirk's birthday, he's upset about being older than his father was, so he gets a crazy adventure to teach him that life's worth living. A deformed monster-man pursues him. For the TV version of this movie, see the fairly dumb Deep Space 9 episode Distant Voices.

Zootopia - I knew going in that Zootopia would be a story about systematic inequality as told by foxes and rabbits but wasn't expecting a Disney movie to involve The Man slipping drugs into minority communities to destabilize them. There are a lot of mixed metaphors at play here that at times undermine its weight, but there are surprisingly gutsy bits in between all the corny visual gags and bunny jokes. It's a fun ride but isn't as well-crafted as Moana. Shakira as a sassy musical gazelle is a really odd choice and her song's fairly bad.

Average - Some flawed, some decent films

The BFG - It's rare to see a family film that's this calm and leisurely. While I liked Dory and Zootopia, they're both nearly non-stop movies. This one says it's OK to slow down, take a break, and drop a rank fart. Why not? Mark Rylance is great. Fantastic voice work and motion capture. The other giants aren't as good, but whatever, he's the star here. It's not revolutionary and it's not one of Spielberg's best, but it does what it sets out to do well.
Deadpool - I won't say it's not well made, but it's pretty much exactly the kind of humor I dislike. Everything's punctuated by a quip or a reference to the point that none of them really hit because there's just too many. There's no element of surprise to any of the jokes. I didn't like the character, but Ryan Reynolds nailed it. He plays Deadpool absolutely perfectly for what the film's going for. No one else in the film matches his level of investment. The biggest surprise is that the action is pretty dry, which shocked me after the trailer's action which syncs wonderfully to DMX's X Gon' Give It to Ya.

Eddie the Eagle - A feel-good sports movie about a nerd becoming a ski jump Olympian. It's silly, it's sweet, and it's got a grouchy Hugh Jackman. Nothing bad here but nothing that really stands out, Eddie the Eagle is a pleasant film whose ambitions don't soar as high as its lead character's.

Elvis & Nixon - A quiet, nervous comedy about two people we mostly see as cartoons today. Here they try, sort of, to be human and escape their own shadows. It's filmed in a fairly straight television style without many embellishments, outside of a fantastic, colorful opening credit roll. Casting Michael Shannon as Elvis is absolutely weird! He's great here, and this has been a good year for him but it's impossible to not see him as an Elvis impersonator rather than the man himself. Some impersonators in the film make the mistake themselves! It works, since part of the drama here is the human underneath having to put on this cartoon persona to get by. Kevin Spacey is funny as a sleazy dad version of Nixon.

Ghostbusters 2016 - A perfectly average summer blockbuster. It's not nearly as bad as its detractors make it sound, nor is it as good as it should be. It feels too polished and clean, and some of the cameos are rancid (Ozzy Osbourne's being among the worst I've ever seen, Bill Murray's being a needless distraction) but the chemistry among the lead actresses works well enough and I liked how gaudy it was willing to go with its neon monsters. For a film that generated so much heat on the internet there's not a lot of fire here, but it's just as good as the average comic book movie these days, and people love those.

Jackie -  A portrait of a few brief moments in time rather than a biography, focusing on the Kennedy assassination, the funeral and the immediate aftermath. It's nonlinear, hazy, and full of half remembered thoughts. Memories we have, memories we wish we didn't, and the way they blur together. It's an accurate portrayal of grief and of planning your life beyond loss, but from a point of view that's as far from ordinary as possible. Most of us don't have to worry about the public relations angle in a funeral. Makes a good double feature with Manchester by the Sea, with two people dealing with similar grief from completely opposite ends of the class spectrum. Portman's solid, but this isn't a standout film.

Money Monster - A CNN clown host (George Clooney) is held hostage by a man whose life was ruined by a bad day on Wall Street and is kept alive by his director/The Voice of God/Julia Roberts. It opens as a blunt mockery of the sort of cult of personality that surrounds entertainment news before turning into a pretty tightly written thriller that does its best to sound like Aaron Sorkin but doesn't quite get there. Very little time is wasted, though you could probably cut nearly all of the NYPD chatter and change nothing. I'm surprised Wolf Blitzer appeared in the film (as himself) given how hard it thumbs downs the idea of pop journalists with no investment in actual truth.

Suicide Squad - I don't really know what happened here, but Suicide Squad features a solid cast playing mostly interesting characters and proceeds to do little with them. Big fan of Margot Robbie's Harley Quinn and Will Smith's Deadshot, and I enjoyed the little bit of Jared Leto's Joker that we get to see. There's a foundation of a great Avengers satire here, focusing on a team of poor and working class people being recruited into a secret hero squad rather than the actual Avengers movies focusing on the richest, coolest dude in the world getting to play global hero. And yet, it never quite gets there. The editing is bizarre, the pacing is messy, and the action is bad, but I'd say the same for Avengers. The film's soundtrack is great, but used in really bizarre ways. Suicide Squad is often bad, but contains enough good pieces to at least be worth seeing.

X-Men: Apocalypse - The third, and weakest, film of the X-Men: First Class series. Cyclops looks toward the audience and remarks that "the third one's always the worst" as he leaves the theater after a screening of Return of the Jedi in 1983. The X-Men films work best when dealing with personal, social issues; this one focuses on an Egyptian God rampaging around the globe. Magneto, once again played wonderfully by Michael Fassbender, has a strong, emotional story that's interrupted by Oscar Isaac's not nearly hammy enough god-mutant Apocalypse. Apocalypse whisks a grieving Magneto off to the ruins of the concentration camp he was kept in as a child, while a ninja in a sexy swimsuit poses in the background. It's an almost shockingly tone-deaf film, but still a fun watch thanks to a wonderful cast (even if Isaac is horribly used) and a few great action pieces (Quicksilver is, as in the previous film, the highlight.) It's ludicrous that this is supposed to be set 20 years after First Class when everyone looks the same.

Below Average - Films flawed in significant ways

Captain America: Civil War - Also known as Avengers 3. There's a decent core here but it's a good hour too long. Spider-Man's action scenes are fun but he has no real place in the film; Paul Rudd's good as Ant-Man but he's another cool cameo that isn't important at all. There's a ludicrous amount of character bloat here; I wanted to see more of Chadwick Boseman's Black Panther, but there's not enough space for him in this Captain America vs. Iron Man adventure. The film seemed to want me to sympathize with Cap, but I really couldn't. The whole regulation vs. freedom debate shown here is basically a gun control argument with Cap arguing that nuclear bombs should be allowed to be held by anyone who can afford them or be born with them. "The UN should supervise Avengers activity" seems incredibly tame; they're not tracking down and interning anyone who shows the Mutant X Gene, they're asking a private military corporation to adhere to international law. "We can't trust the UN, because this one time, SHIELD was infiltrated by Nazis" is pretty weak. On top of all that, it's just got really dull, uninspired cinematography.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them - This movie has three parts: Ministry of Magic adventures as in the later Harry Potter books, Pokemon adventures, and a PG-13 remake of Carrie. We've got some big mixed metaphors here; American wizards live underground and fear nothing more than being exposed, yet behave as fascists, happily tormenting an immigrant and blaming him for their problems and then sentencing him to death. This is interesting stuff! Unfortunately it's also a tiny, tiny part of the movie, interrupted by a giant hippo trying to hump a dude while Eddie Redmayne stomps around pretending to fart. I'm not exaggerating that. Newt going around capturing monsters is entirely unconnected to the rest of the events in the film. It's a two and a half hour identity crisis. The big villain reveal at the end is trash, discarding a very human performance in favor of a cartoon clown.

Jungle Book 2016 - A forgettable film with exceptionally good animation. Average celebrity voice acting, a plot designed only to take us from platforming sequence to boss fight to platforming sequence, and one and a half songs. For 20 minutes in the middle, the movie wants to be a musical; it changes its mind after that and does go back until the end credits. The best singer in the film is Scarlett Johansson and her song gets stuck in the credits instead of the film proper. I liked the portrayal of elephants as almost otherworldly Old Gods, but really did not appreciate the amount of exposition stuck in everywhere. Kaa explaining Mowgli's origin story is just really odd and halts the momentum of what should be a trippy, scary scene. I don't think the 1967 version is a masterpiece, but it's far more effective at what it sets out to do.

Tale of Tales - A fairy tale/horror anthology that jumps between three stories but never intertwines them. This more or less killed the film's momentum for me; as soon as I was really getting into one of the stories, it cut away to something else for a half hour. The three stories are thematically connected (selfishness is bad, mothers/fathers/sisters will always betray you but brothers are bros for life) but share no characters or plot. There's zero reason to not just segment them as three separate short films, making up one whole.

Awful - Films with no redeeming qualities

Collateral Beauty - I'm always interested in checking out movies that critics really hate, and I often end up disagreeing with them. No disagreeing here: This movie was awful. Great actors reading atrocious monologues at each other, an incredibly​ mean premise (Our boss lost his daughter, let's hire actors to convince him and the board that he's crazy so that our stock value survives) and an almost shockingly stupid final twist that's​ one of the most unearned I've ever seen. Collateral Beauty is easily the worst movie I watched this year.


And that's that for this year's films! I'm hoping to check out the final few I wanted to see that I missed, but otherwise this was a satisfying year, though I believe 2015's batch was stronger. It was a particularly good year for animation and not a great one for blockbusters, and no sequel this year was as good as 2015's Creed.

Tell me your favorites! What are you predicting to be 2017's biggest hits? Monster Trucks? A Dog's Purpose? God's Not Dead 3? Only time can tell as we head into the wild unknown!

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