If you can get through anger, denial, bargaining, and depression, acceptance is a wonderful thing.
It can allow you to find 1993’s Super Mario Bros. endearing in its earnest goofiness. It doesn’t forgive the lost potential of what could have been a touchstone moment in legitimizing video game source material in the medium of film, but it allows you to take the ashes of this pop cultural train wreck on its own terms, and have a little straightforward fun with it. Yes, certain elements of the movie cross the event horizon of silly and enter the realm of the absurd, and yes, the aesthetic choice of portraying the Mushroom Kingdom as a sub-Total Recall dystopia is… disappointing for those expecting Mario actor Bob Hoskins to have another jolly old Who Framed Roger Rabbit romp, but going with the flow of Super Mario Bros. is not a miserable experience. It’s an oddly diverting one.
It’s an understatement to say that Super Mario Bros. has gotten flack as an adaptation of the video game franchise. And sure, the contrast between bright, colorful, fantastical Mushroom Kingdom from the games and neo-noir, steamy, dystopian Mushroom Kingdom from the film is one of the biggest communal punching bags in the history of fandom. But I think there are successful, or at least entertaining, translations of game elements.
It makes a twisted kind of sense to take goombas back to their roots as actual “goombahs” (emphasis on the “bah”) in the Mafioso connotation of the word. Daisy, not Peach, is the female lead, and is given passion, agency, and strength of character while also growing into her role as Princess. Iggy and Spike’s shift from buffoonish henchmen to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern-alike free agents is too bold a choice to write off. The bob-ombs are great. And when a voice in the crowd shouts “It’s a bob-omb!!!”, it’s one of the movie’s best absurdist jokes – in our world, “It’s a bomb!” is one of the last things you would ever want to hear, but just adding that one syllable makes it hilarious. And best of all, the running joke about Mario being frightening of jumping is kind of wonderful.
The outside-the-box spirit of the movie means it goes for crazy abandon. Fiona Shaw’s gangster’s moll character is electrocuted and gains the Bride of Frankenstein’s hairstyle, for… reasons? Dennis Hopper’s King Koopa makes his lair the top floor of a World Trade Center tower, making those scenes an odd watch nowadays. And this is a movie where the day is saved by blaring “Somewhere My Love” by Frankie Yankovic. (Yes, that weirdo’s father.) It’s all a carefree level of odd that’s consistently watchable. As the postscript section below lines out, Super Mario Bros. foreshadows elements of other films. One film it fails to foreshadow, despite its best efforts, is its own sequel. This movie has the sheer nerve to end on a cliffhanger! Of course, an ongoing story was not to be. Making less than half your posted budget will do that to you.
This way, Super Mario Bros. can live on as a curiosity, a one-off that blog posts like this can put under the microscope for some arcane purpose. But as the Mario license expands – cue marquee for Nintendo Land, coming to Universal Studios in 2019 – another movie must be on the cards. Now for all my advocacy, I can’t say the 1993 effort is a good film. I have fun with it and will stick up for certain aspects, but it seems extremely unlikely that any future Super Mario movie won’t clear this bar of quality. (Double negatives are where it’s at!) The 1993 Super Mario Bros. movie is flawed, an occasionally embarrassing patchwork of off-the-wall ideas, but it’s got heart, kid and a spirit of adventure. It’s certainly better than a piece of garbage like Resident Evil: The Final Chapter.
P.S.: Super Mario Bros. has a line in anticipating aspects of other movies. Predating the mighty Jurassic Park by a mere two weeks, Super Mario Bros. also features a primitively animated sequence voiced by a cheesily accented narrator explaining how dinosaurs can live in the present. Also, lovable Yoshi is in line with JP’s popularization of the velociraptor as iconic design. The reptilian goombahs swaying to music in an elevator foreshadows the celebrated (relative term) scene in 2014’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles where the Turtles improvise music during a long elevator ride. And well before the days of Harry Potter, future Aunt Petunia Fiona Shaw tells Daisy, “You have your mother’s eyes”.
“Any escape might help to smooth / The unattractive truth / But the suburbs have no charms to soothe / The restless dreams of youth” – Rush’s ‘Subdivisions’, 1982
After the suburban nightmare of American Beauty, Thora Birch returns to similar teenage angst in Ghost World, starring as the misanthropic Enid. At first joined at the hip with best friend Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson), the introverted outsider graduates from high school but despairs of living in a world populated so heavily by losers and idiots. Deceptively aimless days ensue, but all the while lives are being derailed. This apathetic but confident dramedy wanders but never meanders through its episodic plot, picking up steam as it goes on until it becomes something truly special. Filled as it is by characters who treasure obscure pieces of art, Ghost World ends up being worthy of treasure too.
Based on Daniel Clowes’ graphic novel (which, believe it or not, was required reading for me in grad school), this live-action adaptation more than does right by the source material. The cast makes sense of some of the tossed-off quirkiness of the comic, led by the terrific Birch. Johansson doesn’t make as much of an impression as her, but shows a real talent for underplaying, which has gone on to serve her extremely well later in her career. And after American Beauty, Birch trades in love interests for a definite upgrade: the pretentious Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley) for Steve Buscemi’s wonderfully endearing Seymour (choice line: “What if I don’t want to meet people who share my interests? I hate my interests.”).
Enid’s renegade rhetorical reaction to society’s bullshit makes her an antihero with a compelling arc; an early act of hers tips over into cruelty, but something entirely unexpected comes out of it. This is a key theme of the movie, as of all things a restaurant is used to make the same point. That’s the kind of quirky storytelling that works beautifully. No wonder that the screenplay (by Clowes and director Terry Zwigoff) was nominated for an Oscar; its trick is to so perfectly balance vignette structure and an A-to-B-to-C consequential plot. Plus, after an early stretch that tries a bit too hard for pithy, it’s damn quotable.
Films like Ghost World and American Beauty are pre-9/11 time capsules, when suburbia-as-hell could fly as a source of emotional malaise. But that doesn’t date Ghost World one bit, and it’s one of the better comic book movies out there. Daniel Clowes’ Wilson was adapted this year into a film starring Woody Harrelson, and if that movie had half the wit and purposefulness of Ghost World, it would have been sitting pretty.
P.S.: Favorite character actor bit part: future Monk actor Marc Vann as a hilarious vinyl snob.
P.P.S.: Stay through the credits.
For about five minutes at the beginning of Luc Besson’s latest gonzo science fiction romp, we are shown the building of a utopia. A montage of diplomacy, this opening shows how earthbound nations begin to cooperate in the arena of space, and then without skipping a beat, how humanity goes on to welcome various alien races as friends. The International Space Station gradually becomes bigger and bigger as more and more cultures add to its diversity; the core of the City of a Thousand Planets is already in Earth orbit. It’s a sequence of humanism to rival anything in the Star Trek archive (recalling as it does the show Enterprise’s title sequence chronicling the progression of space travel). And while Valerian goes on to dazzle with visual wonders, the opening title sequence is so much the standout that you can be forgiven for walking out right then and there.
The case for the rest of the film is weakened quite a bit by the vapid lead characters. Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevigne play agents Valerian and Laureline, titular heroes of a vintage French comic strip now adapted into this $175 million-plus-budgeted blockbuster. Their corny sub-pulp fiction banter and flirtation feels like the throwback it was intended to be, but rests entirely on a chemistry that isn’t there, and absent emotions. Co-star Rihanna may not be a professional actor, but she still shows more humanity in 10 seconds than either lead does throughout the entire movie. DeHaan is much more at home navigating sinister sanatoriums and playing the antihero than he is as a Buck Rogers-esque action hero, and Delevigne continues her quest to convincingly show an emotion on screen. At least Jane Fonda as Barbarella, who shows that there’s precedent for bizarre 1960s French pulp heroes to translate to film, had screen presence and was more in on the cosmic joke.
Trailers for Valerian billed it as based on the “legendary graphic novel”, but it’s more accurately a comic strip. And to match that, the film has a very episodic structure, all the better to slideshow its various spaced-out visual ideas and high-concept action scenes (interdimensional shopping!), all falling out of a very big and French piñata. This is the raison d’être of the movie, and the splendor of the world(s) is undeniable. It’s just a shame that a film so production designed to death didn’t invest the time to create characters worth caring about, and while there are interesting thematic elements to the plot (disrespect to one sentient race – incidentally with a coded transgender Emperor – becomes a nameless darkness that threatens the entire utopia), a story tying it all with a bow. There have been other significantly flawed but visually stunning movies this year, such as Kong: Skull Island and Ghost in the Shell. Let’s hope that future efforts balance the equation.
P.S.: Other aesthetic notes: As you can see above, long stretches of the film resemble nothing so much as a live-action take on René Laloux’ Fantastic Planet. Besson’s own Fifth Element gets a couple nods here in the form of a restaurant name and an equivalent sequence to the legendary “diva dance”. And in an ADR fail, I’m almost certain that for one important line, Laureline speaks while her mouth stays completely still.
P.P.S.: This is a semi-new category of review for the site, alongside the larger-scale film reviews with pretty pictures, editorials, franchise flashback, TV talk, and end-of-year review stuff. Mini-reviews are designed to take less time out of my schedule and hopefully a lot more are coming soon. As I see more and more movies every year (at time of writing, I’ve seen 55 2017 releases), my review productivity has gotten worse and worse. Mini-reviews are a new way to get more movie thoughts up on the site efficiently, but at the same time not just for new releases. And I know it’s a bit odd that this is the movie with which I’m coming back; there’ve been some heavy hitters I’ve missed reviewing. Perhaps pieces on some recent big names will turn up eventually; right now I’m at work on a big full-scale Fate of the Furious review. Happy viewing!
Music is the key. A while ago, I argued that to grow in quality, Disney’s live-action remakes should embrace more and more of their source material’s music. Cue an all-singing, all-dancing take on the studio’s landmark Beauty and the Beast from 1991, with that animation’s composer Alan Menken back to update the movie’s musical repertoire. Remaking the first animated Best Picture nominee is a major throwing down of the gauntlet, but this Beauty and the Beast has captured the spirit of the original, while also making smart and significant changes to craft an impressive new experience.
In 18th Century France, a Prince (Dan Stevens) selfishly rejects hospitality for an old woman, who turns out to be an enchantress. In so doing, he dooms himself to a seeming eternity as a Beast, his servants to transformation into household objects, his castle to an eternal winter, and his rule to be forgotten by his subjects. But his isolated world intersects with one of them, the bookish Belle (Emma Watson), and for the first time there’s a sliver of hope that the enchantress’ curse can be lifted. As Belle meets Prince Charming but won’t discover that it’s him until Act 3, will the Beast let this sharp-witted inventor steal into his melancholy heart? And will the castle finally see days in the sun again?
The whole picture falls apart without the foundation of Belle and the Beast’s romance, and it’s more convincing here than it’s ever been before. The key is the library scene. In the original, the Beast presenting Belle with the library was a grand romantic gesture suggested by Lumiére, whereas here, the Beast opens this world of letters to Belle with the casual manner of a boy showing a girl his back catalog of National Geographics. The two bookworms, charmingly played by Watson and Stevens, forge a genuine connection by the end of the movie.
Director Bill Condon (Chicago, vivid and a total blast) and co-screenwriter Stephen Chbosky (Rent, fun but lacking any storytelling spine) have both written movie musicals before, and that experience yields smart touches throughout. Like Love Actually or Hugo, there are several romantic subplots to track, maximizing the payoff for the inevitable happy ending. Plot holes from the original are swiftly papered over. Belle is a bit more of a modern hero. Characters in interracial relationships and others questioning their sexuality are represented without fanfare or comment. This Beauty and the Beast invites comparison with its animated predecessor, but while the two are kindred they move to profoundly different rhythms, and it’s details like these that enrich this telling.
Another great detail is that in the “Gaston” musical number, there’s a moment where people struggle to sync up their dancing. So, realism within a fantasy setting is what the filmmakers are reaching for, and what they achieve. But that also means that the most zonked out elements, chiefly the Busby Berkeley acid trip that is “Be Our Guest”, feel oddly disconnected from everything. What is there to the visuals in the sequence beyond the celluloid equivalent of drowning in confetti? The setpiece’s gimmick is that Belle is repeatedly presented with food that is whisked away before she raises a fork. Sure, that’s a tried-and-true comedy routine found in everything from A Hard Day’s Night to Spider-Man 2, but it doesn’t make any sense here. It doesn’t fit the story being told. I’m about to commit Disney heresy here, but maybe “Be Our Guest” should have been scrapped in favor of the other vintage household object showcase “Human Again” – or maybe a medley of the two. At least then a helping of humanity would fly at the audience along with the trays of bon fromage.
Yeah, that sequence isn’t my favorite. And just as a guideline, the two wolf attacks bookend what’s probably the clunkiest part of the film. But even in the weeds of these (relatively) rough patches, the cast is outstanding. (They better be, because the movie sort of gives them two curtain calls.) Emma Watson’s Belle is warm, but not soft – it’s satisfying to see how she cuts through her little “Madame Gaston” number with palpable fire. Dan Stevens’ striking eyes fit the Beast, and the character’s journey from full-on Krampus to romantic hero is sketched pretty well. (A nitpick, though: There’s a big moment where the Beast/Prince yells, “I am not a Beast!” Okay. But the film never gives him a name!) The household object characters are voiced by an impressive repertory company, of which Ian McKellen and Emma Thompson are only two. Luke Evans’ Gaston is both more appealing than his animated counterpart, and more villainous, with Evans adept at milking the comedic and threatening aspects of the role. Both Maurice and LeFou are clownish characters from the original given a humanity transplant. But the real breakout is Josh Gad as LeFou, given an entirely new arc ranging from broad comedy to soul-searching redemption.
And finally, the music in this musical. Newcomers Watson and Stevens hold their own alongside musical veterans like Evans and Gad, and the songbook itself has gotten an update. Incorporating lost lyrics from the late Howard Ashman into “Gaston” and the title song, composer Alan Menken honors his former collaborator’s legacy while also penning three original songs. (No songs are retained from the Broadway musical.) “How Does a Moment Last Forever” is poignant and sweet. “Days in the Sun” is a catchy check-in-on-all-the-characters number. And the third…
Earlier I committed Disney heresy and I think it’s time for more. I don’t think the animated Beauty and the Beast quite has a signature standout song. For me, it doesn’t have a “Let it Go” or a “Part of Your World”. But incredibly, in 2017, Alan Menken gives it one. “Evermore” is an utter showstopper, an operatic swing for the fences. In the Beast’s new and vital turn in the spotlight, Dan Stevens sells the low feelings and high notes, and Menken’s baritone ballad becomes the jewel in Beauty and the Beast’s musical crown.
I know I ragged on the “Be Our Guest” sequence before, but I approve the song itself for the iPod playlist. The slowed-down tempo is an improvement, and Ewan McGregor as Lumiére chews into the lyrics with gusto. In fact, it’s a microcosm of the contrast between the original animated feature and this retelling; the new film is slower, making for a fulfilling opportunity to see the sights. I like how several songs are given reprises to keep them in the minds of the audience, and the other original songs are present and correct, with my favorite of the classics being the elongated introductory piece simply titled “Belle”.
With an appealing cast, convincing romance, beautiful production design (I love how the design of the castle is opened up, exposed stairways and all), lavish music, and a commitment to storytelling, the Beauty and the Beast remake is in good health. As it respects the original while weaving new magic of its own, it continues Disney’s streak of live-action remakes embracing the musical landscapes of their predecessors. (But word on the street is the next one, Mulan, is dispensing with the songs!?) Be its guest, and keeping the original in mind, you might find there’s something there that wasn’t there before. 8/10.
P.S.: The influence of Jean Cocteau’s striking and dreamlike 1946 version of the story is there from time to time. The most noticeable touch: the hands affixed to the castle, holding torches. And because the end titles are translated to French, the title card is framed by the Cocteau-alike La Belle et la Bête.
P.P.S.: In the animated version, LeFou poses as a snowman at one point. Now, LeFou actor Josh Gad is most well known for voicing the snowman Olaf in Frozen. Coincidence? Also, the Beast reads a book about the forbidden love between Lancelot and Guinevere at one point, and Beast actor Dan Stevens played Lancelot in Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb. Finally, Luke Evans (uber-skilled archer Bard in The Hobbit films) plays Gaston, whose preferred weapon in the animated film is a bow and arrow. Here, war veteran Gaston opts for a pistol.
Perhaps as soon as two years from now, China will surpass the United States as the biggest, most lucrative film market in the world. This is happening. And as it does, movies produced in the spirit of something like Zhang Yimou’s The Great Wall will become more common. So what appears to be an easily dismissed monster flick actually stands on the vanguard of a new globalist film industry. It’s entering uncharted territory, being the first Hollywood-sourced film produced in China. Put in other terms, this is a truly collaborative production – Universal provides most of the funding, the marquee movie star Matt Damon, a couple other supporting cast members, and part of the crew; China provides the director, most of the cast, the filming locations, and the rest of the crew. And at a cool $150 million, The Great Wall is also the most expensive movie ever made in China. So given the overwhelming context swirling around, what does this landmark international cooperation have to offer?
In the 11th Century, mercenary soldiers William Garin (Matt Damon) and Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal) find their way to northern China in search of the “black powder” (gunpowder), with the intent to take the substance west and sell to the highest bidder. But they are caught up in a mythical war between China’s watchers on the Great Wall called the Nameless Order, and the monsters they repel, the gargoyle-esque Tao Tei. With Commander Lin Mei (Jing Tian) forbidding the vagabonds from journeying back to the west, William and Pero must decide between following their desire for riches or taking up a new cause.
Unsurprisingly, the backbone of the drama comes not only from the sickly green hell-beasts barreling down on the Wall, but also from the culture clash between the Nameless Order and the western outsiders. Excepting a couple throwaway characters confined to the first ten minutes, there are only three non-Chinese characters, so few that they become avatars. They clearly stand out; as the Order moves like a single organism, western characters long for the black powder (reminiscent of the euphemistic “red flower” from The Jungle Book), and must be humbled by the selfless unity of the Order. There’s no balance to this portrayal. One westerner inevitably screws the other over for personal gain. When that character is blown up by the very gunpowder he intended to hawk, it doesn’t feel so much like a person has died, but rather a stand-in for capitalism.
Unlike every other western character in the film, our hero William quickly comes around to the cause of slaughtering monsters. Contrary to appearances, Matt Damon’s character is not so much the white savior of China as he is the white convert to Chinese communism. And why wouldn’t he be? The thousands-strong Order’s competence and unflinching loyalty is contrasted with two lone outsiders’ doomed quest for profit. When the (significantly labeled) Nameless Order speaks Mandarin, the subtitles are presented in the most straightforward font possible: a prosaic font for a prosaic people. This solidity gets results. At every turn, communism is implicitly championed over capitalism. Strictly within the context of the story it makes sense, but as the blunt theme of this co-production it feels cowardly. I’m not railing against The Great Wall’s politics as some kind of America-fuck-yeah statement. The problem is that these politics feel so corporately mandated. Back in the 1950s, at the height of McCarthyism and the Blacklist, putting communist themes in a Hollywood movie was transgressive, subversive, and risky. Now, it’s just pandering.
The character work is functional if colorless. The film stars Matt Damon and his variable accent, toggling between his normal voice, a southern drawl, and a posh take on Irish. Game of Thrones’ Pedro Pascal is fun in his role as a wandering and weary scoundrel, and his double act with Damon makes for stilted but amiable banter. According to director Zhang, he insisted at the script level that the clichéd romance between William and Commander Lin be removed, and that’s to his credit. But in the finished product, all the setup for that romance makes it to the screen! The seams are visible, so the matter-of-fact statement of mutual respect is diluted a bit.
The production design is striking. As is Zhang’s signature, strong color contrasts are used in the costumes, with each Corps within the Nameless Order corresponding to a clearly defined color: red for archers, black for infantry, sky blue for spears, etc. The large-scale production utilizes visual effects well, if not outstandingly, even though the opening sequence looks like a PlayStation 3 cutscene. The Tao Tei beasts are always given heft and weight when interacting directly with human characters. The visuals are mostly aiming for a specific kind of unreality, and on balance they’re the best aspect of The Great Wall.
But the opening gambit of the film doesn’t take encouraging first steps. The awkwardly edited prologue, filled with mile-wide close-ups, contains a moment of night-shrouded action in which several characters are meant to be killed. But the editing is so confusing I could only surmise they had died by their absence in the next scene. It feels like every once in a while Zhang aims for horror, and in this opening at least, he misses wide of the mark. The action throughout is engaging enough but never really catches fire. It’s consistently competent, miles away from the dazzling action on display in Zhang’s previous work like House of Flying Daggers. Rounding out the production, composer Ramin Djawadi uses thrumming martial tones familiar from his Warcraft score, ethnic motifs, and even a couple cues reminiscent of his Game of Thrones work in a middle-of-the-road effort.
The Great Wall is weird and sort of uncomfortably timely. This is a movie that glorifies the border patrol of a massive wall, that panders to the Chinese, and in which a Spaniard is portrayed as greedy and selfish. Not such great stuff there. But the action is competently staged, and the visuals are sometimes big-screen bonkers. Even though the themes are problematic, and there are myriad things, let’s say, off about this one, the film comes out more or less okay. So, this review is not advocacy for an underrated gem (Monster Trucks), or praise for a well-oiled machine firing on all cylinders (John Wick Chapter 2). It’s an acknowledgement that aside from all the baggage, The Great Wall is an adequate but flawed medieval fantasy war movie where people blow up a bunch of grotesque monsters real good. 5/10.
P.S.: Edward Zwick was the original director attached, and retains a story credit. His Tom Cruise/Ken Watanabe-starrer The Last Samurai has superficial parallels with this film, but The Great Wall has not an ounce of the empathy and grounded grandeur of that superior movie.
Action Scenes of the Year
9) Finale, Sausage Party
8) Atomic breath, Shin Godzilla
7) Bourne vs. the Asset in the sewer, Jason Bourne
6) Mirror Dimension chase, Doctor Strange
5) The proposal, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
4) Batman’s warehouse brawl, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
3) Darth Vader unleashed, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (a horror-action sequence!)
2) Monkey vs. Karasu – duel on the high seas, Kubo and the Two Strings
1) Leipzig airport six-on-six face-off, Captain America: Civil War (the finale is a better dramatic scene but this a superior action scene)
– Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: a better Pride and Prejudice adaptation than a zombie movie
– Sausage Party: a better sociopolitical satire than a comedy
Best Non-2016 Films Discovered this Year
Visit http://letterboxd.com/paulstanis/list/best-non-2016-films-discovered-in-2016/ for 19 terrific films from prior years I discovered in 2016.
By the Numbers
5 Ben Foster performances (The Finest Hours; The Program; Warcraft; Hell or High Water; Inferno)
5 Michael Shannon appearances (Midnight Special; Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice; Elvis & Nixon; Loving; Nocturnal Animals)
5 Hans Zimmer scores (Kung Fu Panda 3; Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice; The Little Prince; Inferno; Hidden Figures)
4 Chris Pine appearances (The Finest Hours; Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice; Star Trek Beyond; Hell or High Water)
4 Henry Jackman scores (The 5th Wave; Captain America: Civil War; Jack Reacher: Never Go Back; The Birth of a Nation)
4 Idris Elba performances (Zootopia; The Jungle Book; Finding Dory; Star Trek Beyond)
4 J.K. Simmons performances (Kung Fu Panda 3; Zootopia; The Accountant; La La Land – 5 if you count the English dub of April and the Extraordinary World)
4 Jeremy Irons performances (Race; The Man Who Knew Infinity; Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice; High-Rise)
4 Jesse Eisenberg performances (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice; Louder than Bombs; Now You See Me 2; Café Society)
4 Michael Giacchino scores (Zootopia; Star Trek Beyond; Doctor Strange; Rogue One: A Star Wars Story)
4 Michael Stuhlbarg performances (Miles Ahead; Arrival; Doctor Strange; Miss Sloane)
3 films climaxing with architectural reconstruction (X-Men: Apocalypse; Doctor Strange; Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find them)
3 films tackling the morality of drone warfare (London Has Fallen; Eye in the Sky; Snowden)
3 uses of “Spirit in the Sky” (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows; Suicide Squad; I am Not a Serial Killer)
2 Disney films starring intrepid seafaring women (Alice through the Looking Glass; Moana)
2 Disney-distributed films with black panthers (The Jungle Book; Captain America: Civil War)
2 films featuring Auschwitz (X-Men: Apocalypse; Denial)
2 films featuring “divine” elephants (The Jungle Book; The Legend of Tarzan)
2 films using the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse as a plot point (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies; X-Men: Apocalypse)
2 films with the subtitle “Resurgence” (Independence Day: Resurgence; Shin Godzilla/Godzilla: Resurgence)
2 Jane Austen adaptations (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies; Love & Friendship)
2 Jazz films (Miles Ahead; La La Land)
2 Olympic films (Race; Eddie the Eagle)
2 science fiction films inspired by Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Midnight Special; Arrival)
Favorite () Yet
Captain America: Civil War, my favorite Marvel Cinematic Universe film yet
Jason Bourne, my favorite Bourne movie yet
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, my favorite Star Wars prequel yet
Feelgood Movies of the Year
Hidden Figures; Eddie the Eagle; Moana; Queen of Katwe; Sing Street
Heroes or Antiheroes, Best of the Year
10) Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Hidden Figures
9) Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James), Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
8) Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Doctor Strange
7) Nadine Franklin (Hailee Steinfeld), The Edge of Seventeen
6) Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), Hunt for the Wilderpeople
5) Michéle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert), Elle
4) Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Captain America: Civil War
3) Moana (Auli’i Cravalho), Moana
2) Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
1) Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain), Miss Sloane
Heroes or Antiheroes, Worst of the Year
3) Mowgli (Neel Sethi), The Jungle Book
2) Mike Banning (Gerard Butler), London Has Fallen
1) Superman (Henry Cavill), Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Ranking Disney-Distributed Movies
12) The Finest Hours
10) The BFG
9) Finding Dory
4) Queen of Katwe
Alice through the Looking Glass > Alice in Wonderland (2010)
Captain America: Civil War > Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Jason Bourne > The Bourne Legacy
Star Trek Beyond > Star Trek Into Darkness
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows > Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles\
– 2016 is the only year besides 2002 in which both Star Trek and Star Wars movies were released. 14 years ago, the curtain closed on the Next Generation era of Trek films with the spectacular box office disappointment Star Trek: Nemesis, while Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones improved on The Phantom Menace while making all-new mistakes. While Nemesis has its flaws, Trek won that round. In 2016, both franchises enter the ring with excellent entries that balance nostalgia with new textures, but Star Wars ultimately carries the day over the wonderfully character-driven Star Trek Beyond with the emotional and explosive Rogue One.
– Line of the year: Anton Yelchin’s “It’s funny. You were so scary at night” in Green Room. It’s an astonishingly timely line, as the story encapsulates the threatening but ultimately pathetic nature of neo-Nazis.
– The most overrated film of the year is A Monster Calls, but I don’t begrudge anyone profoundly moved by it.
Most Underrated Films of the Year
9) Hardcore Henry
8) Swiss Army Man
7) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows
4) The Girl on the Train
3) Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
2) Miss Sloane
1) Gods of Egypt (which also gets a complementary “Pardon one turkey” award)
Villains, Best of the Year
10) Time (Sacha Baron Cohen), Alice through the Looking Glass
9) Norman Nordstrom (Stephen Lang), Don’t Breathe
8) The Sisters (Rooney Mara), Kubo and the Two Strings
7) Darcy Banker (Patrick Stewart), Green Room
6) Messala (Toby Kebbell), Ben-hur
5) Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
4) Crowley (Christopher Lloyd), I am Not a Serial Killer
3) Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl), Captain America: Civil War
2) Paula (Rachel House), Hunt for the Wilderpeople
1) Shere Khan (Idris Elba), The Jungle Book (as a bonus, the other two villains – King Louis and Kaa – are great too)
Villains, Worst of the Year
4) The Douche (Nick Kroll), Sausage Party
3) Psylocke (Olivia Munn), X-Men: Apocalypse
2) Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), The Magnificent Seven
1) All DC villains (Enchantress, Incubus, Joker, Doomsday, Lex Luthor), Suicide Squad and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Biggest WTF Moments of the Year
6) The Little Prince: Climax of the framing story. Is this The Little Prince or Planes: Fire and Rescue?
5) Fathers and Daughters: Constant clichés.
4) Standoff: Hilariously over-the-top insults. (Sample: “Fuck leverage! Do the math, dipshit!”)
3) Don’t Breathe: The turkey baster. You know the one.
2) Now You See Me 2: Why are there twin Woody Harrelsons???
1) The 5th Wave: 15 minutes shot in almost complete blackness…?
(Rough) Final Ranking of All 2016 Films Viewed (Best to Worst)
Moana; Captain America: Civil War; Miss Sloane; Swiss Army Man; Rogue One: A Star Wars Story; Arrival; Eye in the Sky; Snowden; La La Land; Sing Street; Star Trek Beyond; Green Room; Hunt for the Wilderpeople; The Nice Guys; Ghostbusters; Kubo and the Two Strings; Everybody Wants Some!!; Captain Fantastic; Hail, Caesar!; Hell or High Water; The Edge of Seventeen; Nocturnal Animals; 10 Cloverfield Lane; Queen of Katwe; Moonlight; Doctor Strange; The Jungle Book; Hidden Figures; Pride and Prejudice and Zombies; Midnight Special; Manchester by the Sea; Sausage Party; Pete’s Dragon; The Dressmaker; The Girl on the Train; Zootopia; Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find them; Hardcore Henry; Louder than Bombs; Elle; The Lobster; Jason Bourne; Kung Fu Panda 3; Eddie the Eagle; High-Rise; Finding Dory; The BFG; Money Monster; Denial; Lion; The Love Witch; Love & Friendship; Hacksaw Ridge; Deadpool; X-Men: Apocalypse; Fences; Ben-Hur; Gods of Egypt; Ip Man 3; The Light Between Oceans; Loving; Don’t Breathe; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny; Whiskey Tango Foxtrot; Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows; Café Society; Blood Father; Shin Godzilla; Race; Miles Ahead; I am Not a Serial Killer; A Monster Calls; Tale of Tales; April and the Extraordinary World; Inferno; Sully; The Birth of a Nation; The Little Prince; Allied; The Program; The Accountant; The Trust; The Magnificent Seven; Standoff; Warcraft; Elvis & Nixon; The Man Who Knew Infinity; The Huntsman: Winter’s War; The Legend of Tarzan; Jack Reacher: Never Go Back; Independence Day: Resurgence; Jane Got a Gun; Creative Control; Triple 9; Alice through the Looking Glass; I Saw the Light; Now You See Me 2; Suicide Squad; Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice; The 5th Wave; Fathers and Daughters; London Has Fallen; Moonwalkers; Misconduct; The Finest Hours
Whatever else 2017 will throw at us, we’ll always have movies. And whether it’s finding the greatness that comes out of a studio factory, or keeping an open mind to new independent efforts, I’ll be there. So amidst the delights and excesses of awards season, these are the 2017 films I’m most looking forward to seeing.
First, a bunch of bonus mentions. T2 Trainspotting (one of my favorite directors, Danny Boyle, returns to the film that made his name), Pitch Perfect 3 (After the sequel improved on the first, I’m ready for more a capella antics); Free Fire (a claustrophobic 70s throwback crime movie from the director of the stunning A Field in England, it could be this year’s Green Room); Annihilation (I only called Alex Garland the greatest science fiction screenwriter of all time. No big deal! Hopefully he continues to bear this out with his next writing/directing effort); Kingsman: The Golden Circle (The first Kingsman is even smarter than I initially gave it credit for, and Matthew Vaughn is a dynamite director of action); Kong: Skull Island (Apocalypse Now with Kong as Kurtz is a great pitch, and I love the 2014 Godzilla, with which this shares a cinematic universe); Death Note (an adaptation of one of my favorite comic properties looks to be a twisted psychological thriller); Logan (the rapturous response to the first 40 minutes screened to festivalgoers bodes well for this final bow of Hugh Jackman as Wolverine); Beauty and the Beast (given the state of the Disney remake, I’m very optimistic).
10) Wonder Woman
It’s a travesty that the greatest female superhero has never headlined a movie (hell, no woman has headlined one at all since Elektra in 2005). So under any circumstances, this first Wonder Woman film is a full-blown event. Under any circumstances; it sure doesn’t help that the current DC universe project hasn’t produced a single decent movie out of three chances. (And I hope the way Henry Cavill’s charisma is repressed in the role of Superman doesn’t parallel any untapped range in Gal Gadot’s performance.) But the trailer is solid, promising a weighty World War I setting, stunning cinematography on Themyscira, and impactful action. The image of Wonder Woman walking out from a trench onto “no man’s land” is incredibly potent, and I predict some very creative uses for the Lasso of Truth. The film will either wreck shop, or prove as divisive as DC’s previous movies. Please be good. And please don’t lean on Chris Pine as some kind of “stealth male lead”.
9) The Fate of the Furious
In the past six years, the Fast and Furious franchise has reinvented itself as one of the silliest and most rewarding in Hollywood, and this first post-Paul Walker entry will surely continue that pulpy momentum. When I reviewed Furious 7, I hadn’t seen any other movies in the series. Now having seen them all, I anticipate #8 all the more because while the showstopping stunt setpieces are the franchise’s signature, its secret weapon is the use of past cast members to create a sort of gestalt ensemble. In that tradition, former villain Jason Statham will join the team! That sort of loopy idea of community (indeed, “family”) is what I look for in a Fast movie.
8) Blade Runner 2049
Following up Blade Runner is almost a thankless task. But director Denis Villeneuve might be the best fit for the material anyone could hope for. After the painful intensity of Prisoners, nightmarish Enemy, the visceral Sicario, and the brooding but beautiful Arrival, Villeneuve is on an extraordinary run of atmospheric and pointed work. The teaser shows a matter-of-fact return to this very specific world, bolstered by another return to an iconic role by Harrison Ford, and a lead performance from 2016 darling Ryan Gosling.
7) The Masterpiece (née The Disaster Artist)
Tommy Wiseau’s The Room is a legendary so-bad-it’s-good experience, endlessly quotable and inexplicable (“Did you get your promotion?” “Nah.” “You didn’t get it, did you?”). And co-star Greg Sestero’s personal account of its making, “The Disaster Artist”, is one of the funniest and most engaging books I’ve read, so the burden is on The Masterpiece to live up to the incredible subject matter.
6) The LEGO Batman Movie
After The LEGO Movie (my favorite film of 2014, incidentally), it seems LEGO’s roast/tribute of the Dark Knight is far from over. What’s most intriguing about this spinoff is its apparent willingness to engage with the whole breadth of cinematic takes on Batman. So we’ll have riffs on Adam West alongside jokes reflecting the Christopher Nolan era. And the above picture hints that Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is already going to be satirized! For that alone, I can’t wait. It’s very unusual corporate thinking to let two Batman properties coexist on the big screen at the same time, making the business side of things fascinating as well. If all goes well, The LEGO Batman Movie could end up being the second-best Batman movie. That’s realistic.
5) Baby Driver
When wunderkind director Edgar Wright shows up, so do I. The sublime “Cornetto trilogy” of Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End alone ensures Wright’s place as one of the best filmmakers working today, but Baby Driver looks like a bit of a change of pace. Frequent collaborators Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are nowhere to be found, and it looks to be a harder-boiled affair. Revolving around a getaway driver (Walter Hill’s 70s pulp classic The Driver is a clear reference point), the hook is that he suffers from tinnitus and listens to music constantly on his earphones during heists. So Wright has license to make a sort of jukebox musical crime movie. Sounds like a plan.
4) Paddington 2
One of the biggest surprises in recent memory, Paddington is no joke one of the best family films I’ve ever seen. Charming, funny, emotional, and thematically rich, the freshman entry is a hard act to live up to, but the humility of the story will surely make for a non-bombastic follow-up. This is just the story of a (sentient) bear and the human family who loves him, and if this sequel continues in the vein of the first, that’s all we need.
3) Thor: Ragnarok
“Think you can handle having the incredible Hulk for a dad?” That’s a line spoken by Taika Waititi’s character in a film he also directed, simply titled Boy. Boy is a charming coming-of-age slice of life set in mundane New Zealand. Its simple charms seem miles away from those of a big-budget superhero movie, but that’s what Taika Waititi has been entrusted with in Thor: Ragnarok. Also the director of heartwarming adventure Hunt for the Wilderpeople and hilarious vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows, Waititi is an exciting indie filmmaker given the keys to the Marvel playground. And to bring it full circle, he’s got the Hulk.
He’s also got an unbelievable cast. Aside from returning favorites Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Idris Elba, Mark Ruffalo, and Benedict Cumberbatch, also signed up are Cate Blanchett, Karl Urban, Jeff Goldblum, and Tessa Thompson! That’s nothing less than a murderer’s row. I’m actually an unabashed fan of the oft-maligned Thor movies (this is Marvel heresy, but the first two Thors blow the first two Iron Mans out of the water for me), and Ragnarok has a chance to wrap up the trilogy in an unforgettable bow. With Waititi at the helm, there’s no limit to the cosmic and comic territories the film can go to.
2) Star Wars Episode 8
The world is still mourning the tragic death of Carrie Fisher, and even though Rogue One already functions as an odd tribute to her, she will actually have a strong presence throughout this second sequel to the original trilogy she was so beloved in. So Episode 8 will sadly function as a kind of collective wake for Carrie.
But beside all that, it will also function as a movie. In 2015, Star Wars: The Force Awakens brought the legendary franchise back to prominence in style. With Episode 8, Star Wars is taken over by writer-director Rian Johnson, who made the brilliant Brick and the visceral Looper. He inherits new characters audiences are already heavily invested in such as Rey, Finn, Kylo Ren, and Poe Dameron, and more minor ones like General Hux and Captain Phasma (who should have, you know, something to do this time around). And of course, Leia will be a prominent player and Luke Skywalker has re-entered the story. What’s particularly exciting is that now The Force Awakens has established the foundation of the story at a breakneck pace, Episode 8 can slow down and take the storytelling in any number of risky directions. The Force Awakens’ signature scene is the terrific lightsaber duel, and if Episode 8 comes up with anything as iconic, the series will be in good shape.
1) Molly’s Game
Aaron Sorkin’s body of work speaks for itself. Even ignoring TV, his screenplays for A Few Good Men, The Social Network, and Steve Jobs are masterful. (And to neglect non-masterpieces The American President, Charlie Wilson’s War, and Moneyball would be a mistake too.) With Molly’s Game, the doyen of dialogue will not only write but also make his directorial debut. And with my favorite actress Jessica Chastain in the lead role (as the real-life underground poker “queenpin” with a meteoric rise and fall), I’m very much in the bag for this. Last year Chastain starred in Miss Sloane, a movie I adore but which is also Sorkin-esque almost to the point of imitation. I look forward to seeing the genuine article, as it were.
Granted, Molly’s Game does not have an official release date yet. The year could go by without a release and I’d look pretty foolish for putting it in pole position, but this pick is a little more personal than the blockbusters that the eyes of the world will be watching. And in 2017, I’ll be watching quite a bit.
Best Supporting Actress
Kate McKinnon, Ghostbusters
Judy Davis, The Dressmaker
Rachel House, Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Lupita Nyong’o, Queen of Katwe
Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea
Best Supporting Actor
Daniel Radcliffe, Swiss Army Man
Ben Foster, Hell or High Water
John Goodman, 10 Cloverfield Lane
André Holland, Moonlight
Michael Shannon, Nocturnal Animals
Best Original Song
“How Far I’ll Go”, Moana
“Drive it Like You Stole it”, Sing Street
“Audition (The Fools Who Dream)”, La La Land
“The Great Beyond”, Sausage Party
“Montage”, Swiss Army Man
Bradford Young, Arrival
James Laxton, Moonlight
Sean Porter, Green Room
Adam Stone, Midnight Special
Vittorio Storaro, Café Society
Best Adapted Screenplay
Taika Waititi, Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Joel & Ethan Coen, Hail Caesar!
Eric Heisserer, Arrival
Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely, Captain America: Civil War
Simon Pegg & Doug Jung, Star Trek Beyond
Olivier Bugge Coutté, Louder than Bombs
Julia Bloch, Green Room
Matt Cheese, Money Monster
Luke Haigh, Tom Eagles & Yana Gorskaya, Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Matthew Hannam, Swiss Army Man
Best Original Score
Justin Hurwitz, La La Land
Michael Giacchino, Star Trek Beyond
Daniel Hart, Pete’s Dragon
Andy Hull & Robert McDowell, Swiss Army Man
Matthew Margeson, Eddie the Eagle
Best Production Design
Stuart Craig & James Hambidge, Fantastic Beasts and where to Find them
Russell Barnes, Captain Fantastic
Doug Chiang & Neil Lamont, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Mark Tildesley, High-Rise
Charles Wood, Doctor Strange
Best Original Screenplay
Jeremy Saulnier, Green Room
Shane Black & Anthony Bagarozzi, The Nice Guys
Daniels, Swiss Army Man
Richard Linklater, Everybody Wants Some!!
Jonathan Perera, Miss Sloane
Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
Damien Chazelle, La La Land
Daniels, Swiss Army Man
Anthony & Joe Russo, Captain America: Civil War
Oliver Stone, Snowden
Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
Paul Dano, Swiss Army Man
Robert Downey Jr., Captain America: Civil War
Ryan Gosling, The Nice Guys
Denzel Washington, Fences
Jessica Chastain, Miss Sloane
Amy Adams, Arrival
Emily Blunt, The Girl on the Train
Viola Davis, Fences
Hailee Steinfeld, The Edge of Seventeen
Captain America: Civil War
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Swiss Army Man
Rogue One, the first standalone Star Wars film, is in many ways not a standalone at all. It is a direct prequel to the original movie from 1977, and features scores of deep-cut references, allusions and easter eggs that only hardcore fans will appreciate. So Rogue One is big-budget fanservice. But crucially, it’s more than that. It’s fanservice that also happens to have great original characters and takes a lot of risks. The trick of Rogue One is that it’s a love letter to Star Wars (and works as such; the ending made me cry), but it also fundamentally changes its texture.
The Empire rules the galaxy with an iron fist, and seeks to solidify its reign by constructing a planet-killing superweapon. To complete work on the Death Star, Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) coerces the scientific genius Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), father of Jyn (Felicity Jones), into service. When Galen sends a secret message to the reeling Rebellion tipping them off to a structural weakness in the Death Star, a scrappy guerilla team must steal the Death Star plans. The team: Jyn; lethal Rebel intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna); sarcastic tactician droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk); desperate Imperial defector Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed); blind warrior-monk Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen); and his cynical companion Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen). But in this war, can any hope survive in the grime of Imperial domination?
In the lead-up to the movie, the talking points were obvious. “Puts the Wars in Star Wars.” “The gritty side of the universe”, blah blah blah. It’s one thing to hear the sound bites, but to see this saga taken out of the good vs. evil fairy tale realm so elegantly is something else entirely. That tale is great, it has its place, but Rogue One complicates it. There’s ethical compromise in the Rebellion, represented by Cassian. There’s a pecking order in the Empire, an elitist element that Krennic must constantly prove himself to. There are extremists on both sides. Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker)’s methods are disavowed by the Rebel establishment, while his opposite number, Darth Vader, plays enforcer for an unstable galaxy. Star Wars has always worked best as an underdog story (witness how The Force Awakens recreates the Empire vs. Rebellion conflict by another name), but the main characters here are underdogs even within the Rebellion. And Krennic, the villain they face, is an underdog even within the Empire.
None of this thematic stuff would click if the character work wasn’t there, and thankfully it is. All the characters resonate, but standouts include comic relief monstrosity K-2SO (think C-3PO with a two-by-four in place of an etiquette program), and apathetic loner to inspirational leader Jyn Erso. But my favorite character is Cassian Andor, who embodies what makes Rogue One work so well. The co-leading hero in the film, Cassian is exciting because he’s tainted. Pretty much the first thing you see him do is shoot an unarmed ally in the back because he would be a liability! (And you thought Han shot first?) He personifies the risks that the film is willing to take, introducing a Rebel officer as a morally compromised hero. The main characters are allowed to be impure or damaged, and Krennic, while ruthless, has to deal with bureaucratic and browbeating BS from superiors more evil than he. The idea is that the Rebellion’s purest heroes and the Empire’s purest villains are more background players, and we get to spend time with relatively complex characters.
Rogue One manages to stuff a lot of character into what is perhaps too compressed an amount of time. This does have downsides. Jyn’s character arc is good, but feels like it has a middle and an end while missing part of the beginning – we’re told Jyn’s rap sheet but we don’t see her struggles fending for herself brought to life. The first act has a lot of quick planet-hopping setup and so probably works better on a rewatch. Conversely, while the action in the third act is alternately breathtaking, tense, and emotionally powerful, it still feels like a little paring down might have made it pop even more.
But flaws aside, the storytelling always has something up its sleeve. This is a surprisingly emotional movie, largely owing to how the light contrasts all the more against the desperate circumstances. Chirrut’s reverence of the Force becomes poignant precisely because the Jedi have passed into myth. Put Obi-Wan Kenobi on the team and the everyman quality to the group crumbles. In a stroke of genius, the first test of the Death Star’s awesome destructive power is made intimate and personal. The pacing and atmosphere is far removed from the propulsive, almost manic The Force Awakens (which is great in that context). It’s Star Wars sung in a different key in a different time signature, and I ate it up.
Technically speaking, Rogue One has much to commend it. I love how the CGI Star Destroyers as near as damn them look exactly like physical models. The cinematography, and vaguely documentarian aesthetic courtesy of director Gareth Edwards make the action and emotion hit home. And considering composer Michael Giacchino only had a couple months to score the film after replacing Alexandre Desplat, his score contains some solid motifs.
Rogue One commits to its war movie aesthetic brilliantly. The acting ensemble is outstanding; even tertiary characters like the leery General Draven feel rich. This is a smart, weird, exciting, occasionally sloppy, and surprisingly emotional blockbuster, which enriches Star Wars in a two-hour salvo. It will be remembered for playing with what the franchise can do, while also blowing stuff up real good. 9/10. — If you’re a fan of the saga, there’s a good chance you’ll get emotional at the last scene. But after certain recent events… it might wreck you.
P.S.: *SPOILER-FILLED STRAY NERDY OBSERVATIONS*
So this is a mainstream blockbuster where every main character dies. With a sweeping gesture out of Shakespearean tragedy, the board is cleared and only characters on the fringes live to carry on. Disney will sugarcoat anything.
Darth Vader. Giving him an imposing evil tower immediately casts him in the same company as Sauron (with lava planet Mustafar standing in for Mordor). It codifies his status as an iconic villain. But it’s worth noting that a castle for Vader isn’t a new idea; it was proposed in concept art for the original trilogy and was even considered for inclusion in The Force Awakens. Vader’s first scene with Krennic perhaps isn’t everything it could have been. It ends with what I call “stand-up comedy Vader”, but even though it feels a bit weird in the moment, it’s not too far off from his “Apology accepted, Captain Needa” brand of humor. Vader’s other scene is just terrific. Add the hint of his vulnerability and his weird Riff Raff-esque butler, and Rogue One does some interesting things with this Dark Lord of the Sith.
When the Empire puts up the shield in orbit of Scarif, an X-Wing can’t pull up and crashes into it. Which is exactly what should have happened in Return of the Jedi when the Rebel fighters are flying to the second Death Star thinking the shield is down.
Star Wars isn’t known for romance. It has a few, but they’re either dreadfully stilted community theater (Anakin and Padmé) or a whirlwind flirtation carried by bickering and banter (Han and Leia). So am I alone in thinking that Rogue One contains the hottest moment in all of Star Wars? When Jyn and Cassian are in close quarters in the elevator, and it’s filmed like they might kiss, and they don’t?
If Rogue One came out when I was in junior high, it would have been the biggest deal in the world that Garven Dreis and Dr. Evazan are in the movie. Now, it’s just really cool. But in junior high, I wouldn’t have caught the significance of Chirrut and Baze being Guardians of the Whills, which is a reference to George Lucas’ original title for his Star Wars screenplay: The Adventures of Luke Starkiller as Taken from the Journal of the Whills, Saga 1.
17) Everybody Wants Some!!
At first glance I have next to nothing in common with the dudebro jocks that are the leads of this film. But Richard Linklater’s screenplay proves that great writing transcends little details like that. This is an extremely sharply written, human, funny, and profound hangout movie that happens to depict a very specific college experience. It’s an impressive achievement, to take such a barebones plot (a group of college baseball players party away the few days before term begins) and get so much storytelling mileage out of it. Everybody Wants Some!! is a very particular kind of Americana, and shows that a great movie can come from anywhere.
Look, stop motion animation is just cool. And when it’s wedded to visuals this beautiful and emotions this rich, it goes to a higher level. Set in a fantasy version of Japan, this fairy tale about family and the power of storytelling has no shortage of grand adventure, painful pathos, and unforgettable villains.
A damn fine comedy, with near-perfect cast dynamics. Ghostbusters strikes a nice balance between being SNL sketchy and committing to its science fantasy premise. So on the one hand, there’s plenty of tech and technobabble, and on the other, there’s a lot of improv-based comedy that goes a bit off the rails once in a while before reining back in. Kate McKinnon and Chris Hemsworth in particular get the most laughs, but everyone has something to contribute. All around charming. And there’s something oddly satisfying about seeing people shoot streams of radically polarized protons at ghosts.
14) The Nice Guys
Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe are an inspired pair in writer-director Shane Black’s evocative 1970s-set action comedy. Gosling in particular turns in a performance spun out of comedy gold as a drunken private detective, and the movie’s sense of place is impeccable. 70s Los Angeles provides an ideally seedy background to this warped conspiracy romp.
13) Hunt for the Wilderpeople
The most domestically successful New Zealand film of all time, Hunt for the Wilderpeople launches what can only be called an hour-and-a-half charm offensive. Orphan and wannabe “gangster” Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) runs away into the wilderness but needs the help of his grumpy adoptive uncle Hec (Sam Neill, who in a one-man promotional tour took the film all over rural New Zealand) to survive out there. Hilarity and poignancy ensue.
12) Green Room
When a punk band takes a gig at a skinhead-controlled bar, they see something they shouldn’t have and hole themselves in the green room to survive the night. This shockingly relevant tale of hipsters vs. Neo-Nazis is told with breathless economy, making for a pure cinematic experience. And the ride is thrilling not just for the knife-edge intensity but also for the extreme efficiency of the storytelling. This is an airtight screenplay if there ever was one.
Star Trek gives itself an excellent 50th anniversary gift in Star Trek Beyond, essentially a big-budget version of an original series episode with the action and character development dialed up to 11. Promoting cast member Simon Pegg to co-writing duties pays big dividends, as the film is built on a foundation of strong character, whether it’s Spock and Bones sparring while isolated or Kirk rediscovering what this whole trek through the stars thing is all about. It’s a really nerdy blockbuster, where a character spouting a humanistic platitude is the equivalent of an action movie one-liner. Contains two show-stopping scenes: the approach to starbase Yorktown, scored to magisterial perfection by Michael Giacchino; and another deployment of music more cacophony than symphony.
10) Sing Street
An endlessly endearing coming-of-age tale. Conor, a teen in mid-1980s Ireland, tries to impress a local girl by offering her a part in his band’s latest music video. Naturally, the next step is to grab a bunch of mates, and, you know, start a band. The charm of the band, named Sing Street after the repressive school the boys attend, is that they’re both quite talented, and embarrassingly amateurish. Even after weeks turn into months, you’ll still find a couple Sing Street compositions lodged in your head.
9) La La Land
She captured a feeling / A sky with no ceiling / A sunset inside a frame / Here’s to the ones who dream / Foolish as they may seem. Another musical! Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling cut a bit of a Ginger Rogers/Fred Astaire rug in this nostalgic throwback to retro Hollywood Technicolor musicals. She wants to be an actress, he a jazz pianist with his own club. Sparks fly, romance ensues, all to the backdrop of the promise and heartbreak of Los Angeles. Ecstatic but also profoundly bittersweet.
Notorious filmmaker Oliver Stone shoots this sharply relevant Edward Snowden biopic beautifully, telling an extremely timely story with a deft hand. The film is unabashedly on Snowden’s side (a subversively patriotic score accompanies the copious computer action), so a measured or nuanced debate will not be found here. But this narratively ambitious biopic is always vividly brought to life, and I find it hugely engaging.
7) Eye in the Sky
Eye in the Sky takes the simplest of starting points – “let’s use a case study to tackle the ethics of drone warfare” – and spins an unbearably tense thriller out of it, turning the screws on the audience with tactical precision. One of the very best ensembles of the year, including Helen Mirren and the late Alan Rickman, wrings their hands with edge-of-your-seat results.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind meets Interstellar. After extraterrestrial craft hover over 12 locations around the globe, Amy Adams’ linguist is recruited by the United States government to communicate with the aliens who’ve come to their backyard. Arrival is a classic science fiction concept atmospherically shot, bolstered both by universal humanistic themes and what’s probably the twist of the year.
The first “standalone” Star Wars film is based on the heist of the Death Star plans that kicked off the plot of the original 1977 film. And so Rogue One is large-scale fanservice, but it also happens to have great original characters and takes a lot of risks. The trick is that it’s a love letter to Star Wars (the ending made me cry), but it fundamentally changes its texture. In the lead-up to the movie, the talking points were obvious. “Puts the Wars in Star Wars.” “The gritty side of the universe”, blah blah blah. It’s one thing to hear the sound bites, but to see this saga taken out of the good vs. evil fairy tale realm so elegantly is something else entirely. Star Wars has always worked best as an underdog story (witness how The Force Awakens reconstructs the Empire vs. Rebellion conflict by another name), but the heroes here are underdogs even within the Rebellion; and the villain they face is an underdog within the Empire. Rogue One is a smart, weird, exciting, emotional, unique, and occasionally sloppy blockbuster, and I love it.
4) Swiss Army Man
Daniel Radcliffe as a farting corpse. Yep, that’s the one. That might imply a certain kind of movie, something cooked up by giggling fratboys. And Swiss Army Man is super scatological, but it’s also one of the most profound, human, and life-affirming film in recent memory. And in an act of mad genius, the act of farting is the key to its themes. Paul Dano stars as a castaway about to end it all before a corpse washes up on shore to provide the unlikeliest of hopes, and this survival tale revolves around the wacky and wonderful bond the two forge. To describe more would be to reduce the film. The only possible misstep is the tonally confusing ending, but it’s a rare wobble in a truly innovative statement, and the best dramedy of the year.
3) Miss Sloane
Sometimes a movie is so up your alley it feels made just for you. My favorite actress Jessica Chastain, in fierce form, dominating a hyper-fast-talking political thriller? Yes, please! Chastain is the titular gun control lobbyist, characterized by the old cliché of her being brilliantly manipulative and brilliantly impolite. Think Sherlock Holmes on the hunt for senatorial votes. It’s an old familiar template, but damn if this isn’t a great version of it. The film is Aaron Sorkin-esque almost to the point of imitation, but it really works. Miss Sloane is a movie that’s kind of always impressed with itself, but I’m right there with it.
The pinnacle achievement of Marvel Studios. And maybe that’s because Captain America: Civil War contains multitudes: it’s a deeply personal story about hanging on to the past, a globe-hopping political thriller, an espionage/revenge tale, an introduction to two important new superheroes, and of course, it has that six-on-six action extravaganza. But in spite of all that stuff, the third act pares everything down to the essentials, then makes the title bout between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark utterly painful, then offers a perfectly ambiguous grace note of hope on its way out the door. This is some mighty impressive storytelling. It’s always a joy to catch up with the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s stable of likable characters, but Civil War goes above and beyond, having fun with them while also putting them through the wringer. I don’t know how subsequent Avengers team-up movies can walk a narrative balancing act as effortlessly as this one, but I can’t wait to see them try.
Moana viscerally reminds me why I love musicals. Sometimes a character pouring her or his heart out in song has a primal power. It’s such a simple idea, and that directness can mean a lot. Moana is the chieftain’s daughter on a nonspecific Polynesian island, and chafes against a preordained life on the island, longing instead to voyage on the open sea. So far, so familiar. But the execution of this coming-of-age story is off the charts good, with a few casually genius thematic things going on. This is not even to mention the stunning animation or gorgeous songs, co-written by Disney’s new golden boy, Lin-Manuel Miranda. There’s a line where the sky meets the sea and it calls me / But no one knows / How far it goes. Moana is the complete package of adventure, emotion, character, and charm. I can’t remember the last time I cried so much at a movie.
Be warned, though. There’s one bad joke in the film. Shock and horror!
P.S.: And with that, my favorite film from three of the past four years has been animated (Frozen in 2013, The LEGO Movie in 2014). And not only that; it’s surreal to note that my favorite movie of 2016 has a sequence that directly riffs on my favorite movie of 2015, Mad Max: Fury Road!
And to see these 17 film posters looking all nice together, visit http://letterboxd.com/paulstanis/list/my-favorite-films-of-2016/