Friday, January 6, 2017

2016 Movies: The Good, the Bad, and the Mediocre

The heroes of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Like the year itself, the movies of 2016 were a mixed bag that included a few gems and a lot of flaming garbage.  I've already written a post about this year's mostly wretched summer movie season, but since most of the gems arrived toward the end of the year I thought it would be good to continue my tradition of reviewing the year's movies that I found to be good, bad, and mediocre (see my 2015 list here).

I'm not much of a superhero fan, so I'm not including any reviews of the legions of superhero movies that continue to descend upon our cinemas.  Friends convinced me to see Deadpool, which I enjoyed, and Suicide Squad, which was a vile crime against film that would be a contender for last place if I included it in my rankings.

I'm also only including movies that came out this year, although I did watch a lot of great old movies this year including the 1976 Carrie and a lengthy John Carpenter retrospective for one that included Escape from New York, Big Trouble in Little China, Halloween, The Fog, and They Live (the latter was recently the subject of some controversy when neo-Nazis tried to claim it as their own, a move that John Carpenter wasn't having).  Some of this was inspired by my Stranger Things-fueled nostalgia.  Maybe I'll say more on that if I get around to writing about 2016 TV.

I'm also limiting myself to more explicitly science fiction and fantasy movies, so while I loved Keanu and enjoyed other movies like Central Intelligence, Race, and The Girl on the Train, I'm not including them here.  I suppose I could've included Angry Birds and Zootopia, but I honestly forgot that I watched them until this list was already complete (Angry Birds because it was awful, Zootopia because I'm forgetful).

Anyway... without further ado, here's my list of 2016 movies starting with the good...

1. Arrival

My pick for the best of the year has to be Arrival.  Not only is it my favorite movie of 2016, it will definitely earn a place on my list of all-time favorite philosophical science fiction films, up there near the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Bladerunner.

The film shares many of the deep thoughts on language, time, and the meaning of life that are found in its source material (the novella, "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang).  But it adds beautiful cinematography, a sublimely haunting score, and a subtle yet powerful performance by Amy Adams as Dr. Louise Banks.  See my review for more thoughts on this masterpiece.

2. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Like most Star Wars fans I was really looking forward to this one, especially after how much I enjoyed The Force Awakens (which was #2 on my list last year).  Rogue One is a very different kind of Star Wars movie, but it did not disappoint.  So far I've only had time to write my "Non-spoilery Reactions" where I noted, among other things, that this movie stresses the War part more than any other Star Wars movie.  I hope to write a longer spoilery review soon in which I might discuss a deeper response I've had upon repeat viewings: just as the characters of Rogue One are willing to die for a goal they may not live to see achieved, so do mortal beings such as we need to think about things - climate change, social justice, etc. - with outcomes we won't live to see.  Perhaps this reflection is all the more poignant given the recent death of Carrie Fisher.  RIP.

3. Kubo and the Two Strings

Just when I was getting depressed about the summer movie season, Kubo and the Two Strings came along to become my favorite movie of the summer.  Here are some excerpts from my review:

Although there was some controversy about the fact that most of the main parts of this story set in Japan were voiced by white actors ...  I was really hoping that Kubo and the Two Strings would be a high point at the end of the summer movie season.  It was. ... I loved this movie.  ... The animation is beautiful.  The characters are intriguing.  The story is poignant and thought-provoking. ... The philosophical depth of the story revolves around memory and identity.  How essential to your own identity is your memory?  Can you really be you without your memories?  If loved ones keep your memory alive after you're gone, are you really gone?  Is this a kind of immortality for morals of the kind described by Diotima in Plato's Symposium?  How can these reflections help us deal with the death of our own loved ones?

4. 10 Cloverfield Lane

I somehow never got around to reviewing this on the blog.  I guess I had a lot going on in March, including writing one of my favorite posts, "On the Shallowness of Modern Life."  Maybe I didn't review this one because it would be impossible to discuss without spoilers.  I can say that it has nothing to do with the previous Cloverfield, it involves three characters in a bunker, and John Goodman continues to do us larger gentlemen proud by giving an amazing performance, honestly I would say one of his all-time best.

5. Ghostbusters (2016)

This may be a controversial choice, but I liked the Ghostbusters remake.  Was it mind-blowing?  No. Was it as ground-breaking as the original?  No.  But it was really fun.  And Kate McKinnon is amazing as Holzmann who's vying for first place with Rogue One's K2SO for my favorite film character of 2016.

My full review gets into how the whole thing is a metaphor for the destructive power of misogyny, but here's my general assessment:
Like many of the nerdy persuasion born in the 70's and 80's, Ghostbusters (1984) was practically on a constant loop on cable and VHS during much of my childhood.  So, along with a general disdain for remakes and reboots, I understand the fear that the 2016 reboot might ruin one's childhood.  What I don't understand is the blatant misogyny of some of the preemptive backlash (pre-lash?), nor the racist Twitter campaign against Leslie Jones. ...  But first: Fear not, fellow nerds of a certain age!  Ghostbusters (2016) is actually pretty good!  A lot of the jokes are hilarious, and it's a fitting homage to the original.  The whole thing is a lot of fun ...

Now to the mediocre...

6. Star Trek Beyond

With 2016 being the 50th anniversary of Star Trek, it would have been nice to get a really good Star Trek film.  Instead we got a mediocre one.  It's not that I didn't like Star Trek Beyond.  It had its moments.  It was better than Into Darkness.  I liked the new character Jeylah.  That scene with the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage" was fun.  But, aside from a lame villain that totally wastes Idris Elba's talents, the biggest problem is that the new Trek seems to have forgotten that Star Trek is not just action sequences and fun times.  Star Trek is supposed to be about something, namely, a utopian vision of a better life for humanity.

See my full review for details.

7. The Secret Life of Pets

This was a fun, but ultimately forgettable movie, which makes it better than most of the other movies of the summer.  From my review:
It's funny to imagine the emotional and intellectual lives of pets and what they do when we humans aren't around.  The story, somewhat predictably, touches on themes of the value of friendship and teamwork.  There are a few rather macabre moments where it turns out some of the feral animals want to kill all humans. Maybe Futurama's Bender got to them.  But then that concept is quickly ignored.  I guess someone remembered that this is supposed to be for kids.

And at last: the bad...

8. Passengers

I imagine the pitch for this movie went great when it was given in some Hollywood boardroom.  Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt in a rom com ... in space!  I admit I was looking forward to it.  But the thing is, it just wasn't that good.  Sure it was nice to look at (not just because of Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt) and the love story was kind of cute, but the movie squandered a good premise.  My biggest problem with the plot has to do with a major spoiler, so I won't discuss it here (you can read about it in this excellent review by Vivian Kane in The Mary Sue).  My summary: when the biggest suspension of disbelief in your movie isn't about interstellar travel, Houston, you have a problem.

9.  Independence Day: Resurgence

I was hoping to block this and the next one on the list from my memory, but alas, I had to have something to say about the bottom of the barrel.  From my review:
The 1996 Independence Day is not by any conceivable artistic criteria a good film. But it is a lot of fun as a guilty pleasure. And you've gotta love Will Smith. ... And that's exactly the problem with Resurgence: it has neither any fun nor any Will Smith (just his image on the wall mocking the audience). It's a paint-by-numbers, joyless Hollywood blockbuster. It does have Jeff Goldblum and some of the rest of the original cast. If someone made a cut of the movie with just the scenes with Brent Spiner, I'd watch that. But aside from Spiner and a few cool looking scenes inside the alien ship, I honestly hardly remember anything about this movie other than how soulless and uninteresting it was. Were they even trying to make this fun?

 10. Warcraft

At last we arrive at the very bottom of the barrel.  And what a putrid bottom it is.  I wasn't expecting much.  I used to play World of Warcraft, so that aspect was sort of fun.  And it really did look pretty.  But the plot, the acting, the ending ...  everything else was ...  well, here's an excerpt from my review:
The quickest way to review this movie is to follow the old adage, if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.  So here it goes: It looked pretty.

So there you have it!  I'm excited to see what 2017 will bring to a theater near me.  I'm particularly excited for/nervous about Hidden Figures, Alien: Covenant, Bladerunner 2049, War for the Planet of the Apes, and of course Star Wars Episode VIII.  

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