Wednesday, January 25, 2017

2016 unmasked

I'll make one prediction to you right now: This is the last year I set a new personal record for movies ranked.

In 2017, I won't have a round trip to the U.S. on which to watch nine movies (not to mention four more on domestic flights), and it's undecided whether I'll be vetting films for HRAFF again.

But for now, I'm in my own personal record books once again.

Netflix's 13th was actually 151st, as in the 151st movie I saw fit to rank in 2016 according to my own personal and somewhat inscrutable rules for which films qualify, by this traditional deadline, when Oscar nominations are announced.

Inscrutable? All the films I saw in the theater, you'd think, except not really -- I decided that Sherpa had had a U.S. theatrical release in 2015, so my 2016 theatrical screening didn't qualify it. None of the films that didn't get U.S. or Australian theatrical releases, unless they were films I vetted for HRAFF from last year's Sundance, which I assumed would get theatrical releases at the time I watched them, even though most of them didn't. And this year I also had to allow, for the first but not last time, for films that debuted on Netflix, as that will be a legitimate reality of our viewing lives going forward.

Anyway, I ended up with 151 -- eight more than last year -- and now indeed, I think I need to go drink some Bacardi.

It was a year when there were fewer absolutely knockout films, but many of very high quality, as films I gave four stars are appearing as low down as the 60s on my list. (With some 3.5-star movies ahead of them, of course -- that's part of the messy uncertainty of this whole process). It was also a year when real-world events made us want to escape into movies like never before.

Before I get into my top ten and the complete list, I thought I'd mention a few that I regret not escaping into. Usually this list is comprised of films that weren't available to me yet because I live in Australia, but my Christmas Los Angeles trip gave me access to literally anything that was released in time to qualify for the Oscars. So this year, it was movies I ended up not seeing through choices I made not to see them when I had the chance -- all part of the sixty-seven films on my Letterboxd watchlist that I didn't get a chance to see.

Listed alphabetically:

The Edge of Seventeen (see this post)
Elle (played here for ages, never got around to it)
Fences (chances in L.A. but saw Hidden Figures instead)
The Handmaiden (played here for ages, never got around to it)
Loving (right down the street from SoCal hotel, would have had to skip out mid-afternoon on family)
Moana (repeated campaigns couldn't interest my kids)
Morris From America (lost out in a numbers game for stretch run iTunes rentals)
Silence (would have been tricky but had the chance in L.A.)
Tickled (never became available for rental and couldn't justify buying it)
The Wailing (2:40 running time killed last-minute prospective viewing)

And others I could name. The more you see, the more you regret missing, it seems.

Here are the top ten of those I did not miss:

10. Moonlight - The most acclaimed movie of the year almost didn't make my top ten. It had something to do with impossible levels of hype, but more than that, the film has (for me) a diminishing impact over the course of its three-act structure. But in the last few days I've decided not to penalize Barry Jenkins' Moonlight for what it didn't quite do for me and honor what it did. One of the most visually dynamic films of the year is also one of the most emblematic of what I want cinema to be -- a look into lives that "matter," to evoke one of this year's most powerful social movements, but that I don't often get to see on screen. It's all part of the Roger Ebert empathy machine I referenced in Sunday's post about Obama. The trio of actors who played Chiron made me love him, but none of them held a candle to Mahershala Ali, which is (spoiler alert!) one of the reasons I didn't dig the second two stories as much as the first. This is no Place Beyond the Pines, though -- it's a brilliant first act (like Pines) and only slightly less brilliant second and third (unlike Pines).

9. The Purge: Election Year - If you read this post, you are surely expecting to see this movie here. If you didn't, you're like "Wha?" There were five movies in my top ten that made me cry, but this surprise entry was the only one that reduced me to uncontrollable sobbing. That's right, the Jason Blum-produced horror movie. It was all about the fact that I saw it in the period recovering from Trump's election, and how viscerally it addressed the issues that had consumed the two sides of the political debate in 2016. A movie that would already have felt very intense just because of its flamboyant exploitation subject matter left me quivering from the sheer force of its metaphorical power. The multi-ethnic group of resistors, led by a woman, who challenge a corrupt system that's trying to become more corrupt by literally murdering the opposition ... well, it didn't feel too far off from what we were really seeing. And the expert execution of it all by James DeMonaco (I had to look up his name) left me putty in his hands. Slobbery, emotional putty. If only all genre films could marry the physical and the intellectual so fully.

8. Lion - "One more prestige awards contender in the theater before I close my list ... check." That was the procedural nonchalance with which I walked into Lion on Monday night ... and I walked out feeling kind of transported. Transported to India (for nearly the first 45 minutes!), and even transported within my own current city, where some of the ensuing action takes place. I really kind of expected this to be generic Oscar bait but it's really not -- it's much more complicated than I would have expected, taking a fierce and no-holds-barred look at its characters while still giving us a story that is no less inspiring. The way an incredible Sunny Pawar is cast off by random occurrence into a large and terrifying world left me speechless, and the fact that director Garth Davis stays with him for what feels like (but doesn't feel like) an eternity was an essential component to making this such an immersive experience. And Nicole Kidman ... Jesus. Recency bias may be playing a factor here, but I don't want that to detract from the terrific Lion.

7. Other People - Movies about family members suffering from The Big C are as common as disease movies get, and you'd think we would have drained that well long ago. If we did, Chris Kelly's Other People fills it back up with fresh tears. Okay, that was cheesy. But this movie did choke me up on multiple occasions as it follows a gay twentysomething (Jesse Plemons) during the year between his mother's cancer diagnosis and her death. (Which we know about from the opening scene, so that's not a spoiler.) In addition to doing the cancer progression points very well -- Molly Shannon is quietly heartbreaking -- I love how gay forward this film is, as it includes two other gay characters (Plemons' boyfriend and a platonic friend) as well as a boy barely into his teens who has already come out as trans. The movie is about being gay to some extent, but more than that it's about trying to send your mother off into the great beyond with the knowledge that you're doing okay -- even if you're really not. Moving stuff. 

6. Swiss Army Man - Who knows the heights this movie might have reached in my top ten if it weren't for something about that ending leaving me flat. And who knows if I'd had the chance to watch it again before the end of the year to determine if I were just wrong about that ending. But I was suspended in a state of sensory wonder and a kind of ecstasy for the first two-thirds of this splendidly weird movie, and that counts for a lot -- my sixth favorite film of the year. Paul Dano returns to my top ten for the second straight year and sixth time overall (twice in 2012), and Daniel Radcliffe keeps proving that Harry Potter didn't continue to define him. Twenty sixteen was the year a corpse taught us how to live and love (and use his farts as aquatic propulsion), and for that we have the wonderful Daniels, Kwan and Scheinert, to thank.

5. La La Land - Yes, it's just as delightful as everyone says it is. Which you probably already know, since you've surely seen it as well. Even seeing it after most you, long after you had hyped it to within an inch of its life, was not able to squash the joy I felt watching it. My feelings for La La Land enabled its writer-director, Damien Chazelle, to function as this year's only director ever to appear in my top ten before (2014, Whiplash)*. I don't know that I can contribute anything original to the discussion of why this movie is so light on its feet, so to speak, and so damn charming. But I'll suggest that it allows us to revel in something we want to revel in -- a pure passion for the movies -- by giving us a delirious celebration of all the things that make the movies magic. It also reminds us why the periodic revival of the musical as a popular form is always welcome. What's more, it showcases two stars at the peak of their power to woo us. The whole movie is like one big woo, and we're smitten.

* - UPDATE: By neglecting to mention the directors in my bit on Zootopia (see below), I failed to note that both Rich Moore (Wreck-It Ralph) and Byron Howard (Tangled) are past top ten directors.

4. Hell or High Water - Perhaps the only "macho" movie in my top ten is Hell or High Water, a real surprise from David Mackenzie, a director who had previously left me completely cold (Young AdamAsylum) or mid-level appreciative (Starred Up). I guess it's not a surprise from writer Taylor Sheridan, who made my top ten last year as well with Sicario. If you're looking for tired topics for a movie, you could do a lot worse than bank robbers on a spree through Texas. One of the great joys of this movie, though, is how it invigorates familiar tropes, and ends up being about something more far-reaching than its simple genre trappings appear to convey. Chris Pine also gives a performance that demonstrates how much he's really capable of. This is the movie I wanted a notable disappointment for me, No Country For Old Men, to be. It exists in the same milieu but does so much more with it, a modern-day cowboy movie with a whiff of nostalgia for simpler times, and a palpable sense of the specter of the financial crisis. Oh, and it's funny, too.

3. Zootopia - The second of my top ten to wrestle directly with our current America is Disney's most socially ambitious film in ages, possibly ever. For a while it looked like it could be the second straight animated film to top my year-end chart (after Inside Out in 2015). Now it also functions as a solemn look back on the hopes we had of a true melting pot under Hillary Clinton, but back in March it was a stunningly timely parable about the police brutality that had been escalating racial tensions in the U.S. the past few years. But Zootopia is one of those rare movies that manages to have it all ways. While it's hyper conscious of their sad tendency to racially profile, it views its police as heroes. While it makes villains of hicks in the form of a backwoods fox, it redeems that hick and makes him a central part of resolving the story's conflict. This movie really does love all the animals in its kingdom, and the permutations of that love are both touching and funny. It's cinematic utopia.

2. Tanna - And a movie you've never heard of is my 2016 runner up. Actually, you may have just heard of Tanna, as it's just secured a best foreign language Oscar nomination. I certainly hadn't heard of Tanna when I had to watch it at the end of August -- "had" because it was one of my assignments that week for the human rights film festival I'm helping curate, ultimately falling short of contention because it had already screened theatrically in Australia. What might have initially seemed like a chore quickly transformed into an immense pleasure. This story of native islanders in Vanuatu is engrossing, transportive and emotional devastating, before ending on a kind of ecstatic high. It's basically a Romeo & Juliet story where the two young lovers are in the same tribe -- but tradition dictates that Juliet must be married off to a man she doesn't know in another tribe, to keep the peace. A true story told by the natives about themselves -- with technical assistance from Australian directors Martin Butler and Bentley Dean, including gorgeous cinematography -- it's not only about the attempt to incorporate "love marriage" into tribal customs, but it even has a surprise thematic resonance for our current broadening acceptance of gay marriage. It crushed me, then did so again on my second viewing back in December.

1. Toni Erdmann - I knew there was something special about this movie from the way Alison Willmore described it on Filmspotting: SVU. It was her favorite film from Cannes (and ended up her favorite of the year), and the plot synopsis was given to us bemusedly, with a knowing sense of its apparent absurdity. But apparently absurd movies are often the ones most likely to challenge us -- see my #6 -- and Toni Erdmann was a challenge in all the right ways. The wrong ways would have been exhaustion over its 160-minute running time, which I never felt. The right ways are how it makes us consider what we want, how we want to go about getting it, and how we can maintain the relationships in our lives -- especially with an older generation that won't be around forever -- on the road to getting there. As anyone who has already praised this movie will tell you, it's laugh-out-loud funny at one moment -- I laughed the hardest I've laughed in five years during one ten-minute stretch -- and heartbreaking in the next. Movies you would describe that way are often schmaltzy, a Terms of Endearment or something, but Toni Erdmann replaces that schmaltz with genuine profundity. I can think of plenty of terms of endearment for this unconventional German dramedy directed by a woman (Maren Ade), my first exclusively female-directed #1 since Sofia Coppola managed that feat in 2003 with Lost in Translation (Valerie Faris co-directed Ruby Sparks in 2012). But the best is that it's my favorite of the year.

And with the good there comes the bad ... the very very bad. My five worst:

5. Special Correspondents - A shockingly lazy effort from writer-director-star Ricky Gervais in which he and Eric Bana play journalists who pretend they are in a war zone while sitting in a building across the street from their radio station. It's slapdash and has idiotic ideas about character dynamics. For all the good stuff Netflix picks up, it also picks up shit.

4. American Honey - Long, boring, incredibly self-indulgent, weirdly anti-American, and Shia LaBeouf playing a douchebag poet savior with a bad rat tail (is there any other kind?). Some people worshipped this film. I wanted to claw my eyes out.

3. Triple 9 - The worst waste of talent this side of, um, anything I can think of recently, with a nihilistic attitude toward sleazy cops, sleazy bad guys, and Kate Winslet doing an awful Russian accent as some kind of ridiculous crime boss. 999? Should have called 911. What happened, John Hillcoat?

2. Yoga Hosers - The absolute worst possible iteration of nepotism by Kevin Smith and Johnny Depp. Their daughters can't really act, but it's their fathers' fault for trying to build a movie around them using an idea that barely begins to qualify as flimsy. Dumb Canada jokes + homicidal teenagers + Nazi sausages + Ralph Garman doing celebrity impersonations = a movie that would be my worst in nearly any other year.

1. Dirty Grandpa - But not this year. Yoga Hosers, you're off the hook. I shouldn't be surprised that Robert DeNiro would sink so low, yet I am still offended that he chose this crass spring break "comedy" that loathes its characters and especially its audience. I spent this movie engaged in one long head shake that could have earned me a trip to the chiropractor.

And now the whole, big, giant thing, from #1 to #151:

1. Toni Erdmann
2. Tanna
3. Zootopia
4. Hell or High Water
5. La La Land
6. Swiss Army Man
7. Other People
8. Lion
9. The Purge: Election Year
10. Moonlight
11. Hello, My Name is Doris
12. The Red Turtle
13. Cafe Society
14. Bad Moms
15. Off the Rails
16. Snowden
17. Captain America: Civil War
18. The Invitation
19. The Neon Demon
20. Blood Father
21. A Month of Sundays
22. Paterson
23. Manchester by the Sea
24. Seoul Station
25. Everybody Wants Some!!
26. Tower
27. A United Kingdom
28. Do Not Resist
29. The Nice Guys
30. The Lure
31. Sully
32. Southside With You
33. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
34. Kate Plays Christine
35. Clown
36. Dheepan
37. Don't Think Twice
38. Rams
39. Don't Breathe
40. After the Storm
41. The Founder
42. Pete's Dragon
43. Deepwater Horizon
44. Embrace of the Serpent
45. When Two Worlds Collide
46. Nerve
47. 10 Cloverfield Lane
48. Kubo and the Two Strings
49. The Birth of a Nation
50. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
51. Chasing Asylum
52. Eye in the Sky
53. Trapped
54. Certain Women
55. Under the Shadow
56. Lamb
57. The Bad Kids
58. 13th
59. The Boss
60. The Fits
61. Cameraperson
62. The Witness
63. The Family Fang
64. Arrival
65. Green Room
66. Krisha
67. Queen of Katwe
68. Little Men
69. The Salesman
70. The Phenom
71. Jane Got a Gun
72. Sunset Song
73. Too Late
74. Holidays
75. Hunt for the Wilderpeople
76. Zoolander 2
77. Keanu
78. Love & Friendship
79. Christine
80. 13 Hours: The Secret Solders of Benghazi
81. How to be Single
82. Grimsby
83. Jackie
84. Passengers
85. Ben-Hur
86. Graduation
87. Midnight Special
88. Sing Street
89. Hidden Figures
90. Florence Foster Jenkins
91. Ghostbusters
92. Life, Animated
93. Cemetery of Splendor
94. The Shallows
95. Hooligan Sparrow
96. Synchronicity
97. Deadpool
98. Last Days in the Desert
99. The BFG
100. Under the Gun
101. Office Christmas Party
102. Finding Dory
103. Sausage Party
104. Hail, Caesar!
105. X-Men: Apocalypse
106. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
107. Holy Hell
108. The Dressmaker
109. Star Trek Beyond
110. Miles Ahead
111. Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World
112. Criminal
113. Storks
114. The 5th Wave
115. Tumbledown
116. Doctor Strange
117. Dark Night
118. The Meddler
119. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
120. Hardcore Henry
121. Where to Invade Next
122. Me Before You
123. Baskin
124. The Girl on the Train
125. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
126. I, Olga Hepnarova
127. Warcraft
128. I Saw the Light
129. The Secret Life of Pets
130. High-Rise
131. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice
132. Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
133. Morgan
134. Central Intelligence
135. Lights Out
136. Eddie the Eagle
137. Money Monster
138. Hacksaw Ridge
139. Hush
140. Suicide Squad
141. Regression
142. Bad Santa 2
143. Mascots
144. Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates
145. I.T.
146. Gods of Egypt
147. Special Correspondents
148. American Honey
149. Triple 9
150. Yoga Hosers
151. Dirty Grandpa


Another year-end post in the books. PLEASE COMMENT. I love comments. I know you love some of my choices and hate some of my choices ... tell me so!


Groundskeeper Willie said...

Great list! I'm looking forward to picking through it for the rest of the day.

Do you have any thoughts on O.J.: Made in America? Did you see it and dismiss it as ineligible for this list because it's TV?

Nick Prigge said...

Wow, that Top 10 is interesting! I've only seen 4 of those! Was planning to get to "Other People" but I'll expedite the process. Hoping to find a way to see "Tanna" soon. And you, my friend, and you alone could make me want to see a "Purge" movie.

Also find your thoughts on "Moonlight" interesting because, for me, it was the opposite. Not in liking it, of course, because I loved it, but in how I really thought it BUILT through each act to a quiet whopper of a conclusion.

(I also kind of wanted to claw my eyes out during American Honey.)

Derek Armstrong said...

Thanks Groundskeeper! I haven't tackled seeing O.J. yet. Its length would likely be problematic for me in terms of an apples-to-apples comparison to the other movies on this list, even if not for the whole thorny "where did it debut?" issue. (I guess it screened at Sundance last year, which is what caused people to consider it a movie.) I quite enjoyed The People vs. O.J. Simpson, which means a) I'll probably really enjoy it but b) I probably had enough O.J. Simpson in 2016.

Nick, so glad to hear I'm not alone in my hatred of American Honey. I think of Moonlight as a movie I will live with and watch multiple times in the future, and I expect to have the kind of experience you had with it on those future occasions. I did like the third segment but I don't know, I guess I figured that when he developed this really confident and self-actualized version of himself (albeit as a gangster) then he would also own and experiment with his homosexuality. I guess I didn't quite believe that the character he had become had never again physically pursued his desires.

The Purge ... I suspect I'll be catching a lot of flak for that. I could have bumped it out of my top ten but that would have meant denying one of the most profound full-body viewing experiences I had last year, which I thought certainly counted for something.

Steve Dawson said...

Thirteen movies on airplanes! I find it increasingly hard to watch and pay attention to a movie on a plane. Did any of the thirteen make it into your top ten?

Derek Armstrong said...

Indeed one did Steve! I watched Other People on the plane. And not even in my seat back entertainment system -- this one was on my phone! A good movie is a good movie is a good movie, I guess. I think I've grown accustomed to watching movies with interruptions ... a couple years ago, my #1 movie was a movie I started watching at home one night, fell asleep, and had to finish watching the next morning.

CSPAN Adamson said...

You think you can put The Purge above Manchester you hack???

Jk an interesting list though.

Derek Armstrong said...

Thank you Mr. CSPAN!

I think "Purge above _________" will be a common complaint about my list this year! But it rocked me. You don't forget experiences like the one I had with The Purge.