A semi / biannual tradition begins here at Plot and Theme as I decide it is time to rank movies again according to my very own standards. My opposition to lazy list-style articles notwithstanding, every now and then taking a glimpse of the best trees in the forest offers potentially interesting observations. That is certainly true in this case, as I will not only briefly summarize and recount my favorite ten movies that I’ve seen released in 2016, but also discuss the relatively poor output of the big blockbuster landscape for this year. I’ll also predict whether there are any saviors on the horizon, or if 2016 is doomed to be remembered as a year of flops, both critically and commercially.
Because lists are more fun if they build suspense, I will start with my #10 film and work my way up to the very top. I have already written reviews of all of these movies, so I’ll link to that for the easiest clickability and most-efficient time-wasting on your part. You’re welcome.
#10 – Finding Dory
An early indicator that 2016 has its back against the wall is that the summer Pixar flick is a step below its 2015 predecessor (which was Inside Out). Finding Dory is likely poised to make more money, but even the biggest Pixar apologists (which counts me) will admit that Dory is a less-interesting film from both a narrative and stylistic standpoint. All that being said, this is still a fine film, and shows that Pixar treats its properties with respect as long as they are not named Cars. There was a great deal to like about Finding Dory, but probably the aspect that it will be most-remembered for is its introduction of fantastic new characters, and Hank the Octopus ranks the highest among them. The plot itself gets a little too silly at times for my taste, and the familiar characters are under-used, but this film still impresses. It will be hard-pressed to keep its spot on this list when the entire year’s output is available, but there’s no way one could consider this movie a failure.
However, there is a reasonable chance that Finding Dory won’t even be considered one of the top three animated films at year’s end. Depending on how you classify something like The Jungle Book, it might not even be at the moment! This is more due to the absurd output that Disney has pieced together this year, as you will soon see . . .
#9 – The Jungle Book
Yeah, so – is this an animated film? I am aware there was a human in the movie, but he was the only one. The entire world of the film was also animated, from every character to the last jungle leaf. It’s mostly semantics at this point anyway, but whichever side of that issue you fall on, you likely agree that The Jungle Book was an amazing surprise, and probably the biggest one of the year. It manages to update the original, improve upon its themes, and even flesh out crucial characters, most noteably Shere Khan. I just wish they had canned it with the singing. “The Bare Necessities” was fine, but shoe-horning in the King Louie song definitely felt out of place. It’s a minor gripe, though, and the draw for The Jungle Book has never been its rousing musical qualities. As a story focused around finding one’s place in the world, huma ingenuity, and friendship – it succeeds wonderfully. Let’s put it this way: I’d show my kids this version before I showed them the original, and it’s not close.
#8 – Hail, Caesar!
Though it will forever be kept out of the “Cool Kids” club that is the Coen Brothers Mount Rushmore (quick, carve yours out in the comments below!), Hail, Caesar! is still a fine film that suffered from exorbitant expectations. Just take one look at the cast for this flick! As it stands, there are isolated moments of majesty, but mostly it falls far short of the sum of its parts. It can also be pretty uneven at times, which is I think what caused most audiences to balk. Still, the moments where it does live up to the hype are some of the funnier sequences of the year so far. These include: an early sit-down with religious leaders and Josh Brolin’s character, in an effort to make sure that his film’s depiction of the Christ will not offend, an interaction between Ralph Feinnes’ director character and a green Western actor (who is our new Han Solo, by the way), and pretty much any time George Clooney’s actor garbles out some Communist rhetoric. It is shame these elements couldn’t be married into a better overall movie, but as it stands this film still offers more than the vast majority of movies this year.
And here’s an interesting place to start the griping. The minimally observant among you will notice that I have had to make excuses for each of these first three films, and yet I still count them as among the best I’ve seen this year. This may be 2016 in a nutshell – even successful examples of film sport flaws, and I would argue that those flaws are more pronounced than in previous years. Fortunately, the films I have listed in the top 7 spots I can recommend almost without any caveat, but it is interesting to consider just how flawed your own favorite movies this year have been. I don’t know why the quality seems to have dipped or whether this means the public has rebuked the blockbuster, studio system of recognizable IP (mostly Superheroes) and sequels, but it is something to pay attention to.
#7 – Green Room
Talking about Green Room is somehow even more of a bummer than when it was released, thanks to the tragic death of Anton Yelchin. While Green Room is certainly not for everyone (and there have been a lot of movies which meet that description this year), those interested in a gritty slasher-type film will be pleased with this one. It manages to feel incredibly real and claustrophobic, thereby generating a sense of terror pretty much from the get-go. Most characters do not make it out alive, obviously, but it is the businesslike way they are dispensed that makes it truly chilling. I’ve said plenty about Patrick Stewart’s performance in my review, but suffice to say that it is wonderful in the worst and scariest way. Also worth noting: this is director Jeremy Saulnier’s third feature, and he doesn’t seem to be losing any steam (I have not seen Murder Party, but loved Blue Ruin). Keep your eyes peeled for his next film, for sure.
#6 – Zootopia
Yet another great animated film with entertaining world-building, spectacular characters, and a cogent, timely theme. Disney is really hitting it out of the park lately, and this fall’s Moana isn’t likely to rock the boat, so to speak. Disney opened the early discussion for the Best Animated Feature Oscar here (with its best competition likely being itself – must be nice) with this great story that just screams “Franchise”. The voice acting is impeccable, the characters are interesting, and they all have very human motivations, fears, and dreams. The tried-and-true formula of creating a story that children can follow but adults can parse for meaning succeeds completely here, even if the racial parables are a little on-the-nose. That’s a pretty petty nitpick, though, and those who seriously impugn Disney’s output on these merits deserve to watch the triple feature of 2016 “Blockbusters” : TNMT2, BvS, and ID4-R and experience firsthand what real dysfunction looks like. Zootopia earns extra points for an awesome Godfather homage and a sequence so terrifying that instead of judging the four-year old sitting behind me that started crying, I simply empathized. The year sometimes sneaks by, so it is weird to realize that this movie was released four months ago – if you’ve got a chance to check it out, you’ll enjoy what you see.
#5 – The Nice Guys
The biggest surprise so far this year has been Shane Black’s The Nice Guys, a neo-noir black comedy in the vein of The Big Lebowski or Snatch. Now, I am not saying that The Nice Guys is the equal of those movies, but I believe that five years from now these films will feel very comfortable together. There is a proto-cult film quality to Shane Black’s movie, as it performed poorly at the box office while receiving overwhelmingly favorable reviews from the majority of critics. One gets the feeling that it was just kind of lost in the shuffle and under-seen, but when the movie comes to Redbox, Netflix, Amazon, or whatever and people decide to take a flyer on this goofy crime story, it will start to gain a following. Predicting a “cult classic” is often a fool’s errand, but I think we’ve got one on our hands here. The film mostly succeeds on the back of the charisma of the two stars, Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe, but smaller performances are also keenly on point, most notably the pre-teen daughter of Gosling’s character Holly, played by Angourie Rice. She’s also recently signed on to the Spiderman: Homecoming movie, so keep your eyes open for her in that film
#4 – Deadpool
We’re a solid halfway through the year of 2016, and the best superhero film is the R-rated and midbudget passion project directed by a video game visual effects artist, Tim Miller. There were swathes of people who didn’t even think the character of Deadpool could work on film; he is too esoteric, too weird, and just isn’t well-known enough to carry a film. Then, when the film’s modest budget and R-rating was revealed, even more obstacles to the success of this film were dreamt up. Even despite a release in the presumed dregs of February, Deadpool annihilated every expectation, both critical and commercial. It set the pace for the other comic book films this year, and nothing has been able to keep up. In fact, Deadpool is the only film based on a comic book that makes my list at the halfway point of the year, and I don’t think Suicide Squad or Dr. Strange is going to best it, though I will admit that each film has a chance to reach this level of success.
This marks a reasonable place to address a bit of an elephant in the room: no, I don’t count Captain America: Civil War as one of the best films of the year. I am sure this invalidates my opinions for many of you out there, but each time I actually think about the movie from the standpoint of narrative, theme, characterization, and all of the things that make a movie a serious attempt at cinema, Civil War utterly fails and drops another peg in my evaluation. Was it fun at times? Of course, there are some fantastic action sequences and cute quips, but it lacks the thematic weight behind it all. The famed “airport sequence” is pretty window dressing, at best. That being said, Civil War is clearly a cut above the other superhero fare released after Deadpool: BvS was utter garbage, and I don’t care how much an extra 30 minutes helps it. X-Men was only slightly better, and the turtles were nonsensical.
Now, on to the real movies.
#3 – The VVitch
Hands-down the best horror film released this year (so far – I’m looking forward to Lights Out), The VVItch combines the subtle horror of Rosemary’s Baby with the realism of a period drama. The result is a fly-on-the-wall experience of watching a crisis in faith tear a Puritan family apart, piece by piece and in horrifying fashion. It is wonderfully acted, has a perfect pace, and is packed with symbolism and hidden meaning. I also appreciate the level of detail that director Robert Eggers has achieved, going so far as to lift dialogue from primary historical sources like diaries and letters. While some may feel the film veers off in weird directions by the end, it is all for the single goal of telling a truly New-England folktale, for making this story real, because for the people who lived during this time, witches, The Devil, and evil were real. This is a weird, spooky, and great film – perfect for watching in a dark room at home.
#2 – The Lobster
Production Studio A24 places its third film on my list with The Lobster (Green Room and The VVitch were the others) . This is a peculiar film, vainly “categorized” as a dystopian black romantic comedy. In the future, those who have not coupled (or lose their partner to a breakup or death) are sent to a hotel. If they do not find a partner within 30 days, they are transformed into an animal of their choosing. Collin Farrell is the main protagonist we follow through this strange future, but there are outstanding performances all around here. Director Yorgos Lanthimos certainly has a bizarre way of seeing the world, but it is a fresh perspective that produces a wholly original film. Though it is not always fun, it is always a twisted view into the dynamics at play in a society that places such importance on one’s relationship status. Coupled or single, someone is always quick to criticize your choices, and in The Lobster, we see just how far those criticisms can go.
#1 – Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Without doubt, the most fun I had at a movie this year was the two times I saw Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Most known as the creative force behind the HBO series Flight of the Conchords and What We Do in the Shadows, Waititi again produces a wonderfully heartfelt and powerful film that simultaneously has the audience rolling in the aisles with laughter. Everything about this movie is pitch-perfect, from the farcical tone to the outrageous characters, but there is surprising depth and pathos to the narrative as well. The result is a strange satire of the over-serious 24-hour news cycle and those responsible for fueling it, a stirring coming-of-age story, and an amazing analysis of family, belonging, and blazing one’s own path in this world. Don’t be surprised if Sam Neill and newcomer Julian Dennison end up with Oscar nods come awards season, and if Hunt for the Wilderpeople manages to sneak in some of the other prestige categories as wel, we may have the latest Indie darling on our hands here (think Little Miss Sunshine or Juno). Quite simply, this is the only film I have seen this year that I can 100% recommend without reservation. It is perfect storytelling and film making. Run, don’t walk.
There you have it – the first half of 2016. Yes, it has been a decidedly weak year, especially if one only considers the blockbuster, big budget Hollywood type movies. But, there are still fantastic movies coming out every month that fly way under the radar. This is another powerful reminder to venture outside of your movie-going comfort zone and look for what the tinier production studios have to offer. A24, Bleecker Street, Broad Green Pictures, Lionsgate Films, Open Road Films, and even the Weinstein Company put out some fantastic stuff, and this year especially it seems like we will have to turn to these smaller films for quality entertainment and film-making, because they aren’t focused on formulaic re-hashing of a familiar IP for quick profit. In fact, thanks to some pretty disappointing returns, the big studios are starting to learn that such a formula may not be guaranteed to make money anymore. Audiences seem to be tiring of the same old thing, and won’t stomach Big Superhero Tentpoles for five straight weeks in the summer anymore. It will be interesting to check back in at the end of the year and see if anything has changed, as most critical powerhouses are targeting for release in the latter half of the year to optimize award season chances.