Thursday, January 26, 2017
The utopias and dystopias of 2016
To quote Ryan Gosling in La La Land: "Oh my."
It was a year whose lows were more memorable than its highs. A lot more memorable.
It was a year in which we lost an inconceivable number of entertainment luminaries (David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, Alan Rickman, Gene Wilder, Debbie Reynolds, Carrie Fisher, Muhammad Ali, and that's just to get your started), and also lost a number of political luminaries forced into retirement (Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton). And even if not all those political luminaries were the perfect realization of what we wanted or needed, they gave us a much better chance of reaching the light than their alternatives.
And so we end the year in darkness.
But you know what? Whatever an individual year may be like, a cinematic year is always on a spectrum, with utopia on one end and dystopia on the other. And the highs outweighed the lows at the movies this year. A ridiculous 102 of the 151 movies I saw this year were movies I gave three stars or higher, which is 68%. So there was plenty of quality this year, even if 2016 was not quite as top heavy as some recent years.
And yeah, I can be a bit of a softie when it comes to star ratings. Perennially working on that, it seems. But it was a genuine reflection of my enjoyment at the movies this year.
So let's take a deep dive into the good, the bad and the ugly from 2016:
Three who had a good year
Ryan Gosling - If Ryan Gosling wasn't the most charming man in Hollywood this year, he might have been the funniest. Gosling's year was so good, he might have been both. Gosling had shown flashes of a comedic sensibility in the past, with movies like Crazy Stupid Love and last year's The Big Short (which I actually saw in mid-January of 2016, further burnishing his resume for this year). Committing himself to the effort proved he could be brilliant. First as as a hapless private eye in The Nice Guys (#29), and any time you doubt that comedy is all about timing, go back and watch Gosling in that scene where he's trying to hold a bathroom door open while also keep his gun trained on his adversary. It was physical comedy worthy of Keaton. Physicality is of course key to his role in La La Land (#5), which may not be as out-and-out funny a role, but makes up for it with charm, jubilant intensity, and terrific dance moves. Oh, and who knew he could tickle the ivories so expertly? (No one, since he actually learned piano for the movie.) Even when he was giving great performances, like in Half Nelson, I never knew how many tricks Gosling had up his sleeve, and he seemed intent on limiting his gifts through his collaboration with Nicolas Winding Refn. Gosling and Refn went their separate ways this year, and it was a benefit to them both -- Refn hit big with Neon Demon (#19), and Gosling became possibly my favorite male movie star. And my God, does he fill out that 70s private detective wardrobe. Hubba hubba.
Oona Laurence - My favorite new discovery of the year was of a young actor who feels, in a way, like she's been with us for years. That's not just a comment on Oona Laurence's mature talent. It's a comment on her appearance -- she looks and acts so much like a young Ellen Page that she could be the actual inspiration for describing someone as "a young _____." Except I'm not sure Page was ever this good. First I encountered her in Lamb, a film I like a whole lot more than its #56 ranking would suggest. (It was a good year for four-star movies, as I mentioned yesterday). She plays a girl who strikes up a strange (but not sexual) relationship with a 40-year-old man, played by the film's director, Ross Patridge. Her naturalism is off the charts. Most recently I encountered her in Bad Moms (#14) as the daughter of Mila Kunis' character, doing the neurotic concerns of a mainstream overachiever as well as she did the dangerous curiosity of her Lamb outsider. In the middle there was Pete's Dragon (#42), though up until a moment ago I remembered her as being in Midnight Special (#87) instead. Well, Pete's Dragon is an even better third film than the one I remembered, which is only okay. (I remembered her being the friend of an outsider boy, but there are no other children in Midnight Special.) In my Pete's Dragon review I called her "preternatural," trying to indicate that there's something otherworldly about her realism. She's only 14, and she's here to stay.
Kristen Bell - There was a time when Kristen Bell was trying to be an earnest romantic lead type. Like Gosling, she too just needed to indulge in her funny side, and her ability to play second banana. Bell was an indispensable part of two of my favorite comedies of the year, Bad Moms (#14) and The Boss (#59), and as a cherry on top, she even had a two-word role in my #3 movie, Zootopia. (Until the moment of writing this I had no idea -- and why would I -- that she plays the second sloth at the DMV, who listens to the joke about the three-hump camel.) Bell has a great sense of comic timing and a real ability to be self-effacing, first as the most buttoned-up of the three bad moms (I remember her getting whipped around in the back seat of that sports car), then as the put-upon assistant to Melissa McCarthy, who has a whole scene in which she's accused of wearing a sweater that turns her breasts into "sad basset hounds." Bell's only 36 and not over the hill yet, but she seems like the type who will embrace her inevitably changing roles as she's done with her two (three) films this year. Funny's not such a bad choice, is it?
Honorable mentions: Kristen Stewart (Cafe Society, Certain Women, minus Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk), David Oyelowo (A United Kingdom, Queen of Katwe), Nicole Kidman (Lion, The Family Fang)
Three who had a bad year
Zac Efron/Aubrey Plaza - Efron and Plaza tie for first mention because they were both in both movies I hated them in, Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates (#144) and Dirty Grandpa (#151). Both are entrenched in my bottom ten for the year, the latter pulling up the rear out of all 151 movies I ranked. Efron was also in Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, and might have redeemed himself a bit there but I didn't end up catching it so I can't say for sure. There's a further distinction between the two, though. Efron gives a reasonable performance in both movies, but gets a demerit for making the bad choice; Plaza is just awful. I already devoted a whole post to the caricature Plaza has made herself, so I won't rehash that all here. I will say, as a sort of summary, that she has started giving performances that are so broad, they have quotation marks around them. Efron is the hapless nice guy in both of these abysmal features, but that doesn't take him off the hook. I mean, at least Plaza is trying something. But both need to seriously rethink things in 2017, and at the very least, not team up again.
Kate Winslet - And to think ... I didn't even see what might have been Kate Winslet's worst film this year, if people I trust are to be believed: Collateral Beauty. The two I did see were bad enough. First it was The Dressmaker (#108), which played in Australian cinemas last year but I counted with this year because this was the year of its U.S. release (and I saw it on video). The Dressmaker, which appeared to be a whimsical little romantic comedy about a woman who designs dresses returning to the small Australian outback town where she grew up, goes off the rails so completely in its final 20 minutes that it played like a sick joke. My ranking is still decent enough because of all the things that it (and Winslet) does right at the start. But the movie (and Winslet) start making some seriously bad choices and never recover. Her role in Triple 9 as a Russian mob boss was not a sick joke -- I think they meant it seriously. But it's laughable. The year started with her getting an Oscar nomination for Steve Jobs (which I still haven't seen), so overall it's a mixed bag for her, but that was a 2015 movie so it really doesn't count. And she'll bounce back. She's Kate Winslet.
Kevin Smith - I started writing a post on Tom Hiddleston (see the dishonorable mentions) but then I thought "Since so few creative talents other than actors are involved with more than one movie in a year, can I really turn down the chance to shine a spotlight on a non-actor?" I decided I could not. And that non-actor -- and yes, this is a criticism of his actual acting -- is Kevin Smith. Smith dared us all to hate a 2016 movie more than Yoga Hosers (#150), and I did -- but only just barely (the aforementioned Dirty Grandpa was the only one worse). The idea behind that movie, to give his and Johnny Depp's daughters a starring vehicle, was a nice one. But the idea behind that movie was just so terrible that it failed to clear even the lowest bar for getting a movie greenlit. Unfortunately, in the age of Kickstarter, directors can greenlight their own movies, if they've got enough of a following. Smith had a hand in another movie this year, though, which was Holidays (#74), an anthology horror I actually like quite a bit on the whole. But "on the whole" could never me more than 7/8ths, because one of the eight shorts was directed by Smith, and it made for easily the worst of the bunch. I kept watching each new one begin and thinking "I wonder if this is the one Kevin Smith directed?", never knowing for sure until I saw the director's name revealed at the end of the segment. Until I saw the one begin that was undoubtedly Smith's, and it broke my delusion that he could have been responsible for anything other than the one he actually made.
Dishonorable mentions: Kevin Hart (The Secret Life of Pets, Central Intelligence), Tom Hiddleston (I Saw the Light, High-Rise), Teresa Palmer (Lights Out, Hacksaw Ridge, Triple 9)
The year I died a little inside
There's no doubt that the election of Trump was a major blow. Cinematically, it had victims that were incredibly likely (Mascots and I Saw the Light, both of which I tried to watch that first awful night) and probably not as likely (Arrival, which I saw slightly more than 24 hours later on almost no sleep, and ranked only #64 after Denis Villeneuve's last two movies hit my top ten of the previous two years). In fact, in a year in which I gave out four-star ratings more than any other (see below), it took a full additional ten days after the election for me to hit that mark again.
The election continued to affect the things I viewed and did not view for the rest of the year, both positively and negatively. In what feels like a negative, I boycotted a movie purely on subject matter for the first time in as long as I can remember: Weiner, the documentary that once might have played as humorous, but developed a possibly decisive role in Hillary Clinton's failure to win. It was probably the single must-have documentary I had on my list this year, at one point in the year. And I avoided it. Too painful.
But then that pain also resulted in weird emotional catharses in unexpected places. It couldn't get more unexpected than The Purge: Election Year. I hated the first movie in that series and didn't even watch the second one. I only ended up with the third as a result of a rental snafu, when I had to choose something and some positive word-of-mouth led me to choose this one. And as you may recall because I mentioned it more than once, this movie reduced me to nearly a minute of heaving tears at one point.
That was the empathy coming through, the empathy I already employ as part of my daily life that became so much more heightened after a bigot was elected president. And that had additional positives throughout. I wept again watching the story of a gay man struggling with his love life and a mother dying of cancer (Other People). I wept again when an Indian boy separated from his family for 25 years goes looking for them (Lion). I wept again when a young black boy asks what it means to be called a faggot (Moonlight). I wept again when circumstances and life choices kept apart two people who seemed like they should spend their lives together (La La Land). In 2016, I even felt empathy for a corpse (Swiss Army Man).
It's not that all these experiences are dissimilar from my own. It's that having empathy for others makes all struggles feel like your own struggles. And realizing that a bunch of wonderful, disadvantaged people are going to be struggling more than they usually do keeps a person's emotions close to the surface at all times.
And yes, I did see movies before November 8th. But 2016, a bad year in many respects even before then, came to be defined for the way a man who can't feel empathy became the leader of the free world.
Maybe he just needs to watch more movies.
2016 by the numbers
Breakdown of 2016 movies by star ratings: 5 stars (3), 4.5 stars (14), 4 stars (37), 3.5 stars (33), 3 stars (15), 2.5 stars (18), 2 stars (11), 1.5 stars (9), 1 star (8), .5 stars (2) - That's only 150 so I must have miscounted somewhere. But a miscount won't make the difference in this likely being my first year in which 3.5 stars wasn't my most common rating. Also, this is usually pretty much a bell curve, but not this year as I saw more movies that were 2.5 stars than three, creating a dip in the curve.
Total new movies watched in the calendar year: 325
Total rewatches: 57 (and yes, if you do the math, that's more than one movie per day -- also almost certainly a first)
2016 movies seen for the first time in the theater: 60
2016 movies seen for the first time on video: 91
2016 movies I saw twice: 3 (The Bad Kids, Tanna, Zootopia)
Best non-2016 movies I saw this year
I like to use this spot to highlight my favorite ten films I saw this year that weren't released this year. Here they are, listed alphabetically, with a short explanation for each:
The Big Parade (1925, King Vidor) - The silent movie war epic I never knew I wanted, or could love.
Downfall (2004, Oliver Hirschbiegel) - Like a sprawling Robert Altman movie but with Nazis. So much more profound and compelling than it sounds, and so much more than a meme.
The Exterminating Angel (1962, Luis Bunuel) - I've been catching up with old Bunuel movies at a pace of about one per year. I suspect he will perennially be a candidate for this list. Wonderful, intense absurdism.
Greed (1924, Erich von Stroheim) - "Greed is good." So says Gordon Gekko. I think he undersells it. Greed is fantastic, and undoubtedly the best four-hour movie I've ever seen.
Hannah and Her Sisters (1986, Woody Allen) - One of two 1980s Allen classics I saw this year, and the one that stayed good throughout. (I was a bit disappointed in where Crimes and Misdemeanors ended up going.)
JCVD (2008, Mabrouk El Mechri) - Who ever expected this self-aware, semi-fictionalized story of Jean Claude Van Damme being involved in a Belgium hostage crisis to have an emotionally devastating direct address monologue from the star halfway through?
The Kid (1921, Charlie Chaplin) - Chaplin makes this list for the second year in a row after The Great Dictator last year. Great, indeed.
The Illusionist (2010, Sylvian Chomet) - Does a similar thing to what The Red Turtle accomplishes with an absence of dialogue and a presence of the magic of the moving image.
Sherlock, Jr. (1924, Buster Keaton) - Speaking of movie magic ... this is the very definition.
Taste of Cherry (1997, Abbas Kiarostami) - Saw it before he died. If after, its themes of mortality would have felt even more poignant.
This and that
Weird trend of the year: Actors sharing last names with characters
Kyle Chandler as Joe Chandler (Manchester by the Sea)
Emilia Clarke as Lou Clark (Me Before You)
Five weirdest things for multiple 2016 movies to be about:
1) Famous Texas shootings of the 1960s (Jackie, Tower)
2) Anthropomorphized sausages (Yoga Hosers, Sausage Party, The Secret Life of Pets)
3) Man on deserted island joined by unlikely/dead companions (Swiss Army Man, The Red Turtle)
4) Christine Chubbuck, a journalist who killed herself on the air in 1974 (Chirstine, Kate Plays Christine)
5) Superheroes who should be friends fighting each other (Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Captain America: Civil War)
Five best uses of existing popular music:
1) "Plainsong," The Cure - Closing credits, Toni Erdmann
2) "Drops of Jupiter," Train - Multiple uses, Other People
3) "I Love It," Icona Pop - Bad Moms trash the supermarket
4) "Miss You Much," Janet Jackson - Opening credits, Southside With You
5) "Sabotage," The Beastie Boys - virus song (or something), Star Trek Beyond
1) Lion, Lamb
2) Sully, Passengers
3) Dark Night, Moonlight
4) I Saw the Light, Lights Out
7) The BFG, Little Men
8) Deepwater Horizon, Eye in the Sky
Thank you MIFF!
Seeing 11 films at this year's MIFF gave me:
- My #1 movie of the year (Toni Erdmann), which does not release here in Australia for two more weeks
- Two of the five best foreign language nominees (Toni Erdmann and The Salesman)
- Four movies in my top 30
- 11 movies in my top 150 (wait a minute ...)
Thank you HRAFF!
Vetting films for HRAFF gave me:
- My #2 movie of the year (Tanna), which I otherwise never would have heard of
- Two movies in my top 20
- Four movies in my top 50
And to finish with a bunch of quick hits:
Highest ranked best picture nominee: Hell or High Water (#4)
Lowest ranked best picture nominee: Hacksaw Ridge (#138)
Best picture nominees I haven't seen: Fences
Craziest eyebrows: Emilia Clarke, Me Before You
Least crazy eyebrows: Slimer, Ghostbusters
Fartiest corpse: Daniel Radcliffe, Swiss Army Man
Fartiest giant: Mark Rylance, The BFG
Best remake: Pete's Dragon (#42)
Worst remake: Morgan (#133 - practically a remake of Ex Machina)
Best reboot: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (#33)
Worst reboot: Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (#131)
Best sequel: The Purge: Election Year (#9)
Worst sequel: Bad Santa 2 (#142) or Yoga Hosers (#150), depending on your definition
Best prequel: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (#33)
Worst prequel: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (#106)
Best movie that's not related to any other movie: Toni Erdmann (#1)
Worst movie that's not related to any other movie: Dirty Grandpa (#151)
Director I finally trust: David Mackenzie (Hell or High Water)
Director I no longer trust: John Hillcoat (Triple 9)
Director who no longer trusts me: Kevin Smith (Yoga Hosers)
Director who keeps going one on, one off: The Coen Brothers (Hail, Caesar!)
Most exclamation points: Everybody Wants Some!!
Fewest exclamation points: Paterson
Fewest exclamation points while still having at least one exclamation point: Hail, Caesar!
Actor who should have gotten an Oscar nomination but didn't: Daniel Radcliffe, Swiss Army Man
Actor who shouldn't have gotten an Oscar nomination: Andrew Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge
Actress who should have gotten an Oscar nomination but didn't: Molly Shannon, Other People
Actress who shouldn't have gotten an Oscar nomination: Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins
Actress who should have gotten a lifetime dissing Trump award: Meryl Streep
Most languages in a movie: Toni Erdmann
Least languages in a movie: The Red Turtle
Overrated: Hacksaw Ridge
Underrated: Cafe Society
Biggest surprise: Hello, My Name is Doris
Biggest disappointment: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
One more 2016 wrap-up piece tomorrow in the form of my now-traditional portmanteaus humor piece, and then I will leave you alone.