For various reasons, my goal for 2016 was to attend less movies, hopefully avoiding the bad in favor of the good. And though I did skip some movies that in years past I probably would have gone to because they were there, the inevitable stinker still crept into my viewing addiction. And at 107 movies, I only saw 3 less than I did in 2015 (though those three would probably have ended up on my worst list). So much for that resolution. But, with 58 movies graded at an A- or above, this year’s crop still managed to be on the higher end in one way or another. So, what were some of the most awe-inspiring (and some of the stinkers) from the past year?
Top 10 Best
Arrival was a quiet film. There were no major battles. There were no monuments destroyed. There weren’t a lot of fun, quippy taglines. What Arrival did have was a thought-provoking idea that allowed the film to present the alien invasion as realistically as it could, both in how we as humans approached and reported on the events taking place. With subtle, yet compelling performances by all involved, Arrival gave us a unique vision layered with melancholy flashbacks that kept you invested in Amy Adams’s character all the way until the final twist changed everything.
#10 — Fences
Several years ago, Denzel Washington and Viola Davis brought Fences, August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, back to life on stage, which may have given them a leg up in giving such heartbreaking performances in this absorbing film adaptation. Washington directs the film like the pro he is, keeping the confines of the stage apparent while still managing to open the world to all of its grandness, its mistakes, its challenges and its triumphs. Though there are scenes restrained to one area for long sprawling speeches, the film still provides a visceral experience as the characters do their best to live the life they were given, and at the same time hold on to what they have lost.
#9 — Doctor Strange
Doctor Strange is a Marvel movie, so I expected it to be good. What I didn’t expect was it to be as good as it was. Bringing magic into the Marvel Universe for the first time, Benedict Cumberbatch oozes an arrogant, stoic personality to bring life to a master neurosurgeon who loses his ability to use his hands. The accident leads him to a mystic healer (Tilda Swinton) who teaches him there’s more to this world than what you can see. The special effects are the true hero of the movie, though, as they take what Christopher Nolan once did in Inception and turn it into a psychedelic fun house of adventure.
#8 — Deepwater Horizon
Peter Berg and Mark Wahlberg have created a partnership that works incredibly well. One of two collaborations this year (Patriot’s Day doesn’t go wide until next week, but was released in 2016 to vie for Oscar contention), Deepwater Horizon doesn’t explore the real-life tragedy in a way that will suck the joy from your marrow. Instead, much like the duo did with their first collaboration, Lone Survivor, they step inside the humanity of what happened during those fateful few hours, focusing on those who helped rescue the men and women who were caught in the middle of the destruction, inspiring us all with a story of true heroism.
There has yet to be a Mel Gibson-helmed film that I haven’t liked. From his directorial debut with The Man Without A Face to his most recent Oscar contender, Hacksaw Ridge, Mel Gibson understands how to tell a harrowing story of someone caught in unwinnable situation. Diving head deep into the story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a World War II medic who refused to use a weapon, Gibson paints a portrait of a man who holds his convictions close to his heart and won’t let any opposition, whether on the battlefield or at home, break his most coveted values, while at the same time, filming some of the most realistic, gruesome scenes ever depicted on film outside of Saving Private Ryan.
#6 — Hell Or High Water
Sometimes a movie comes along that just settles into the right pocket. Much like Arrival, there’s nothing big about this film except for its quiet subtlety. But that’s why the film works. As two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) team up to rob a series of banks in order to pay for their dead mother’s land, we slowly learn that, although the way they go about it is wrong, their intentions are good as they can be. There’s no black or white here. Pine, Foster and their main “adversary” Jeff Bridges (exuding his all-too familiar lone-dog gruffness) are all in some way corrupted by their circumstances, and are simply doing their best to give those that will follow in their footsteps a leg up in a world that doesn’t really care about them in the least.
From the moment the opening credits started rolling, I knew Deadpool wasn’t going to be your ordinary superhero film. Crass, vile, politically incorrect and ultra-violent, Deadpool takes as many hits as he gives. I’ve always been a fan of meta-fiction and breaking the fourth wall when done well and with a purpose, and Ryan Reynolds does all of it with perfection, throwing sarcastic quips and puns around like he had an unlimited supply of Skittles. Nothing, not even the movie itself, is safe from Deadpool’s drive for vengeance or his mouth.
#4 — Captain America: Civil War
The third (and final) comic book movie on my top ten list, Captain America: Civil War gives fans of Marvel and comic books in general exactly what they’ve been waiting for, while refraining from shying away from a topical debate for the pros and cons of registering any one group. What can be dubbed the non-Avengers Avengers movie (or Avengers lite, as it were), the team behind the film is able to focus on telling Captain America’s story (that is one that focuses on the unbreakable friendship between Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan)) while sending a wedge into the cracks that have been haunting the Avengers since their very first team-up and tearing the audience in half along with it. Adding Ant-Man, Black Panther and Spider-Man into the mix could have been a distraction, but with how the film is structured and written, all three of those characters become some of the major highlights of a perfectly captured superhero film. Choosing sides has never been more fun.
Based on the original teaser trailer that introduced us to the sloths running the DMV, I was pretty sure I was going to like Zootopia, so long as the rest of the film matched its wry, ironic humor. I didn’t know I was going to like it more than any other animated film out there this year, though. That DMV scene is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how the writers balance the absurd with the obvious. Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) is a terrific protagonist and her chemistry with the fox, Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), is as good as any live-action pair. Come for the puns, stay for the surprisingly emotional impact.
#2 — 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi
I don’t know how much of 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi is factual or how much was “enhanced” for cinematic reasons, but whatever the case may be, there’s no denying the strength of this movie’s convictions. From the performances (led by John Krasinski, an odd choice for a film like this) to the in-your-face action sequences (does Michael Bay know any other way), 13 Hours grabs hold and keeps you on the edge of your seat until the very last frame. Whether you believe that none of this had to happen, or that the whole incident has been taken out of proportion, as a piece of entertainment, 13 Hours does everything it’s supposed to do in bringing those tragic 13 hours to life.
#1 — Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Rogue One was basically Disney’s first test to see if Star Wars fans would take to stories that didn’t involve (or focus on) the Skywalker family. And I do believe Rogue One passed with flying colors by staying true to what made Star Wars so great while spinning itself into something much different than its predecessors — a war film that allows for gritty characterization and focus. In going back in time to focus on the story of how the rebels were able to acquire the plans for the Death Star, the filmmakers retained the production design of the original film, A New Hope, right down to Darth Vader’s less than quality costuming, an important decision that made the whole experience feel as if you were watching something that was made pre-1977 at the same time you were watching technology evolve to new heights.
Top 5 Worst
#5 — The Darkness
It’s never good when you sit down to watch a film with a child actor that you see on television every week, making it obvious that the film you’re about to watch has been collecting dust for at least a year. David Mazouz (Bruce Wayne in Gotham) plays an autistic child that brings home an artifact from some old Indian burial cave, opening his home to spirits from the other side. That’s the best explanation I can give to this slow, meandering horror film that somehow found a way to convince Kevin Bacon to trudge his way through the muck.
#4 — Mechanic: Resurrection
I’ll be honest — I never saw the first Mechanic film. And I only saw Mechanic: Resurrection because my friend wanted to go. That doesn’t keep this film from being critiqued. Mechanic: Resurrection is just another boring Jason Statham-fronted shoot-em-up that favors extreme action sequences over substance. The plot is uninspiring, the characters boring (especially Tommy Lee Jones’s “villain” and Jessica Alba as the supposed love interest), and the scenes that do play well are lost among the inanity of the script.
#3 — Warcraft
It’s said that films based on video games are incapable of being adapted properly. Other than the maybe Resident Evil and Tomb Raider, the track record for good video adaptations is scarce. The industry was really hoping Warcraft would be the film to break that trend. And it should have been — with its strong potential for world building, its strength of characters and its worldwide following, Warcraft had the potential to be Lord of the Rings on steroids. Unfortunately, saddled with a poorly-written script and performances that were overall lacking, Warcraft turned out to be the cousin Oliver of grand epic fantasies.
#2 — Gods of Egypt
I don’t mind when writers, filmmakers or artists take liberties with stories, fairytales or legends in order to put a new spin on things, so long as it’s done in a good, compelling way. (Heck, I’ve done it myself). Gods of Egypt isn’t one of those, failing incredibly in everything it does, from the SyFy-level special effects to the horrendous overacting of the majority of its cast, the most egregious of which is Gerald Butler in all of his overbearing wonder.
Phoning it in. That’s the term they use when an actor sleepwalks through a performance in a movie they only said yes to because they needed a quick buck or owed someone a favor. Kevin Spacey and Christopher Walken are both guilty of this and so much more in Nine Lives, parodying the perception of their personas in what’s basically The Shaggy Dog for cat lovers. What director Barry Sonnenfeld doesn’t understand is that for an animal movie to be effective, it needs to use real animals, and whenever the cat does something utterly absurd, that lack of realism is only heightened by the sub-par special effects that accommodate it. At least Jennifer Garner tries. But everyone on screen is better than the litter this movie find itself covered in.
What do you think? Did I exclude any? Did I add something that never should have made the list? Give me your top ten lists in the comments section below.