The older I get the more out-of-step I feel with the film industry. In a year of kiddie animation and cinematic super heroes, I saw only two of the year’s top twenty grossing movies and most of the movies I did see were at independent art houses. It was never my intention to be at odds with popular taste but it does seem that the movie business is primarily focused on audiences who are not old enough to vote. Consequently, there were months and months when there was nothing worth going to see, followed by a crazy rush to catch everything good in December.
Of course there were a few decent mainstream “adult” movies that were aimed at a general audience but most of them fell immediately out of circulation. Maybe adults have gotten so out of the habit of going to the movies that they no longer bother. In any event, 2016 was a pretty disappointing year. Here’s what I saw, ranked from best to worst.
A beautiful and mesmerizing story of a poor, sensitive, black, gay kid named Chiron growing up in the Miami projects. This feels like something you’ve never seen before, not only because of the unsparing depiction of life among the desperately poor but because of cinematography choices that seem almost documentary-style, with a lingering camera and a lack of narrative dialogue. The story is told in three stages of Chiron’s life, depicted by three actors ranging in age from youth to teen to adult. After two years of #OscarSoWhite, this once had a good chance to win the Academy Award and it still deserves to.
2. Manchester By The Sea
This is as bleak, unsparing, and visually arresting as “Moonlight,” but without any attempt to pretty-up a tragedy with a hint of a happy ending. Every time you think this movie’s going to give us a conventional feel-good twist it pulls back. To that end, it feels more like real life than anything I’ve seen in a long time. You feel like this is exactly what would happen when an already grieving uncle returns to his hometown after his brother’s death and is unexpectedly informed that he’s to be his nephew’s guardian. Life will go on, but it will be a struggle.
3. La La Land
Yet another startlingly original movie — a musical set in contemporary LA. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are barely adequate singers and dancers but you don’t really care because the cinematography is so luscious. But don’t expect a feel-good experience. In the end this is an exploration of art, ambition and love. You can succeed at two of those things but not all three.
4. Rogue One
Boy I was surprised that this was as good as it was — a very worthy addition to the Star Wars canon. It’s about the most perfect prequel ever, ending exactly at the moment when the original Star Wars movie (now called “A New Hope”) begins. The story is a little confusing but not impossible to follow, for once. The absence of Jedi mumbo jumbo is a relief too — it’s just straight action.
5. Everybody Wants Some
Finally, an intelligent feel-good movie. Richard Linklater’s homage to his college baseball career, seen through the prism of a freshman jock’s first weekend on campus. He checks into the baseball team house, meets his crazy teammates, has escapades and meets a nice girl. Very funny, textured and warm. If only my freshman year had been like this.
6. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
I seem to be one of the few people who loved this movie. Ostensibly a comedy starring Tina Fey and Billy Bob Thorton about a neophyte journalist embedded in Afghanistan, it’s also an eye-opening account of what our troops are experiencing over there.
In a year of depressing movies, this one ranks way up there. Amy Adams is a sad linguist who is called on to translate messages from aliens who have materialized at various locations around the world. A quasi-intellectual film featuring hard thinking on linguistics and time traveling.
8. Hell or High Water
Jeff Bridges has come a long way since “The Last Picture Show” but he’s still wandering the wilds of small town Texas. He’s after a couple of bank robbers who are trying to accumulate enough cash to pay off their predatory mortgage. Again with the bleak world view! Funny bantering, though, and some serious disquisitions on how to live your life when fate and society seem stacked against you.
9. The Edge of Seventeen
Seventeen-year-old Nadine has been (wait for it) depressed since her father died four years ago. Wallowing in her own grief, she loses it when her best friend starts dating her brother. Woody Harrelson is her cynical history teacher whose complete indifference actually increases his attractiveness as a life-adviser.
10. Captain Fantastic
A family of survivalists goes on a road trip to attend their mother’s funeral, with the usual conflicts between the all-modern and all-natural lifestyles. Their brilliant but didactic father (Viggo Mortensen) is an intellectual bully who has tried to create a new Eden in the woods but is just this side of crazy.
11. Hail Caesar
The Coen Brothers make a pretty funny but not very weighty spoof of Hollywood in the 1950s. The plot revolved around a studio fixer named Eddie Mannix (a real person btw) who’s trying to decide whether to take a legitimate job outside the business. Basically everyone in the movie is a moron, which is funny as far as it goes.
12. The Nice Guys
Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe are incompetent detectives in 1970’s LA. The movie is hilarious until it turns into a convoluted story of conspiracy involving smog and catalytic converters (I’m not kidding). If you took the first half of The Big Lebowski and combined it with the second half of Chinatown you’d have this movie.
A behind the scenes and very candid look at Anthony Weiner’s mayoral campaign. It’s only fitting that this narcissist would trip up the 2016 campaign. Why kind of man would expose his wife to the prying eyes of a documentary when he knows he’s been sexting with women under the nom-de-plume Carlos Danger? This is your classic train wreck from which you cannot avert your eyes.
14. Love and Friendship
Who knew there were Jane Austen novels yet to be mined by movie-makers? Love and Friendship is based on the unpublished novel “Lady Susan,” written when Austen was still a teenager. Hilarious and deeply cynical about the way the sexes manipulate each other, the movie is populated with dupes, rogues, brazen adulteresses, wide-eyed innocents and even a few honest gentlemen. Fun.
Sully’s plane goes up, hits some geese and miraculously goes down on the Hudson River with no loss of life. You may have heard the story. Clint Eastwood does an admirable job of expanding the narrative of this five-minute flight into a two-hour movie, screwing around a little bit with the truth of the post-crash investigation. Oh well, it’s only a movie. Tom Hanks is the only actor who could have played Sully.
16. Eight Days a Week
A documentary about the touring history of the Beatles. This is well-covered ground but as amazing as ever.
17. Fantastic Beasts
Perfectly serviceable Harry Potter prequel that I might have liked better if I could understand more than half the dialogue. The film-making is imaginative but I had trouble caring a lot about the main characters.
18. Sausage Party
An atheist allegory in which processed food items worship humans as gods, not knowing that their ultimate resting place is in someone’s digestive track. This bleak message is supposed to be made more palatable by the extreme coarseness of the animated food characters. And it is funny to see food sex. This is not a movie to which you would bring your confirmation class.
19. Absolutely Fabulous (The Movie)
Loved the TV show in the 90s. Very hilarious. And the movie is fun too for a while, but it’s hard to maintain that antic quality over a full-length feature.
20. Cafe Society
Late stage Woody Allen. This is a lot like La La Land without the songs, dances, handsome lead actor and brilliant cinematography. An ambitious young man and an ambitious young woman fall in love in 1940s Hollywood and face the usual complications. The movie is well-enough made but you feel that Woody Allen has explored all these themes already. (By the way, I saw 24 movies last year and four of them were set in Hollywood.)
The most ridiculous controversy of the year was the eruption over whether redoing Ghostbusters with a female cast defamed the spirit of the original movie. So then the female movie critics got on their high horse and said it was better than it really was, and the sexist pigs said it was worse than it was, when in reality it was just kind of meh. Let’s face it, the original wasn’t that great to begin with. This was not an all-female remake of Citizen Kane.
22. Magnificent Seven
Another unnecessary remake. It was fine. Your average western. Can’t remember much about it now.
23. The BFG
Steven Spielberg and Raul Dahl make a very strange pairing, although they’re both obsessed with childhood. A little orphan girl gets abducted by a lonely giant and gives meaning and purpose to said giant’s life. Technically beautiful and even charming, but a little languorous.
24. Office Christmas Party
This had a dynamite cast (Jason Bateman, Jennifer Anniston, T.J. Miller, Kate McKinnon, etc.) and a crazy antic quality, but it never lifted off to the realm of pure comedic genius. Nice try, though.