Monday, February 20, 2017

Alex's Top 15 Films of 2016

What a year 2016 was. Sometimes inspiring, other times defeating, 2016 was nonetheless memorable. On one hand, we dealt with countless, notable celebrity deaths; far more significant losses than we should ever have to see in a single year. On the other, my Chicago Cubs won the World Series for the first time in over 100 years. On one hand, Donald Trump became the leader of our country and has since done his best to run it into the ground. On the other, I got engaged to the most wonderful woman I’ve ever known. So a mixed bag, to say the least. But however you want to slice it (and for me, the pros still outweighed the cons), it was very notable. One that I will surely never forget.

Because of some of these experiences, there were many films that I think I'll always remember and associate with the year. In many ways, before we even knew there would be so much turmoil in the year ahead, the films being released were foreshadowing those notions. While the overall quality wasn't compromised, what stood out to me the most were the overarching somber tones that crowded the screens. I'm not saying there weren't positive adaptations, but many of the best films seemed very bleak - seriously, look back on the slate and see just how dispiriting it was. And really, maybe that was the perfect cherry to top off all that was 2016.

That all being said, there really were some great films to be seen, and plenty that I'm excited to talk about and share. When I first started writing my recap for 2016 (I cheated a bit and started composing it well before I saw all that the year had to offer), I was ready to note the same issues I had last year: plenty of "good" films but nowhere near enough "great" films. After a pretty lackluster spring and summer, it looked to be another down year in movies. However, after fully catching up on all of the year's offerings, I had to change my tune. I ended up feeling there were so many great selections. Of course there's always room for improvement, but I was thrilled nonetheless to re-write this paragraph with a positive spin. To offer praise and not lament the year at hand felt like a great mindset to have as we dive into these films.

So without further ado...

P.S. My total viewings were considerably down this year compared to recent years. I still got a lot in, but I don't think I can move forward without noting a few titles that I just haven't gotten around to yet. All of these I feel could impact this list and I will be making a point to see them in the near future: "Moonlight", "Nocturnal Animals", "Paterson", "Elle", "Toni Erdmann". So please keep these in mind as you're reading through.

     15. The Founder
It was so hard to pick the last film to showcase here; this spot could have went to ten other movies. Ultimately, because I’m a sucker for mid-century American history, I landed on this one. While not always the best constructed film, it was one that told a story I was intrigued by. Based on the true story of Ray Croc (Michael Keaton) and his dicey partnership with brothers Dick and Mac McDonald, if nothing else, the movie was fascinating and educational. I knew pieces about the McDonald’s story, but it was nice to get the whole picture. And while I can’t personally relate to the restaurant climate of that time, it was interesting to see just how radical some of their ideas were (I absolutely loved the kitchen planning scene) and how much it changed the restaurant industry in America. As for the characters, Kroc was the kind of guy who would do anything to win – maybe not break the law, but he wasn’t trying to make friends. Dick and Mac were wholesome, “American Dream” kind of guys, who just wanted to make a good product for their customers. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out which kind of person won that battle. I felt bad for the brothers, but also totally understood Kroc’s views. Kroc saw what he had to do and didn’t care about anyone’s feelings to make it happen. Still, I did think there were some pacing issues that made parts of the film less exciting than it could have been; it got a little too serious and introspective at times when it probably should have moved at a quicker, lighter pace.
     14. Don't Think Twice
"I feel like your 20's are all about hope, and then your 30's are all about realizing how dumb it was to hope". That line grabbed me more than just about any other single line I heard this year. While this movie as a whole was actually rather entertaining, it also took a very honest look at the entertainment industry (specifically here, improv comedy). The cast was so funny and worked so well together; I fully believed their group chemistry and angst. The film follows a comedy troupe struggling to make it in Chicago, depicting just how hard it is and how fluky the whole process can be. Before you know it, you've devoted 10+ years of your life to something that probably isn't ever going to pan out. Having done so many creative things with the group of people who write for this site, and in our 20's thinking it could amount to anything meaningful, this movie was significant. And I don't mean that in a defeatist way, simply that it's an inevitable coming-of-age tale that many of us experience. Definitely worth a watch, whether you relate to any of that or not.
     13. The Monster
If you love classic monster movies (and really, who doesn’t?!), then you’ll be pleased with this modern entry. And while this was a “monster movie” at heart, the film focused much more on the mother-daughter relationship, and I think executed that with great success. Writer and director Bryan Bertino (“The Strangers” – one of my favorite horror movies over the last decade or so) again nailed the atmosphere with this movie, paying close attention to set design, musical selections, and sound effects. Everything I loved about “The Strangers” was captured again here. There was a good sense of fear when the monster was revealed, though my biggest complaint was that we saw a little too much of it. The tension of the unknown was much more powerful to me than the actual encounter. Still, the monster was scary looking (HUGE props for leaning on practical effects instead of CGI), and it did a great job of playing up the lore of classic monster tales. When they started figuring out how to beat it, I really loved how you could imagine “real” monster mythology taking shape (they discovered it was afraid of bright lights, hence why kids use nightlights). Ultimately I appreciated the film quite a bit, and it’s clear that Bertino knows what I like in my horror movies.
     12. Midnight Special
This isn’t the best way to start this description, but my overarching feeling about this movie is that I wanted to like it more than I did. Michael Shannon has become one of my most trusted actors – I'm never worried that he won't shine in whatever role he's in – and his presence mixed with longtime collaborator Jeff Nichols ("Mud", "Take Shelter") was a winning combination if I ever saw one. The concept was definitely fascinating, too, centering around a boy with special powers and a family trying to protect him. But for one reason or another, it just never clicked with me quite as much as I’d hoped. In the film, the father, played by Shannon, goes on the run to protect his boy from different government and religious factions who want to use the boy and his powers for their own gains. And probably what I enjoyed most about the film were the real world implications it would have on these different entities; how they could and would use it to manipulate their followers. Though the film just missed on fully pulling me in, it was still unique and entertaining, and Shannon showed great skill in portraying a father's love and desire to protect his child. For me, this one isn’t in the class of “Mud” or “Take Shelter”, but it was still a solid entry. I’ll be excited to see what Nichols lines up next.
     11. Hunt for the Wilderpeople
From director Taiki Waititi (“What We Do in the Shadows”), this was quite the change of pace from his last efforts. This coming-of-age tale focuses on a juvenile delinquent boy who goes on the lam through the New Zealand brush with his adoptive uncle (Sam Neill). These characters couldn’t be more different or irritate one another anymore. But while on the run, they live life to the fullest and encounter a variety of interesting scenarios and characters along the way. There’s of course the coming-of-age, maturation aspect central in this plot, but really it was the formation of a bond between these two unlikely characters that I most enjoyed watching. It was great to see these two learn to understand each other over the course of the story. Overall, the film was easy to absorb, the cinematography was elegant with a lot of beautiful scenery, and the characters engaging (the delusional war vet abettor and the overzealous CPS worker, notably). While the basic theme wasn’t necessarily anything new, it felt real, had plenty of that zany New Zealand comedy to keep things light, and had charm to spare. Worth a watch.
     10. Captain America: Civil War
As much as I try to move past them, Marvel keeps churning out entertaining entries that keep me coming back for more. And in my opinion, this was probably one of their best. Basically another Avengers movie, we knew it was going to be tough balancing the stable of characters already introduced PLUS the handful of new ones joining in. But the Russo Brothers handled it with great skill and aplomb. To begin, the plot was actually believable and grounded (as much as it can be for revolving around characters with super powers). I was happy to get a story without some crazy otherworldly villain and instead focus on a human storyline. And I liked the natural way this divide was created (neither side was "right" or "wrong"; I understood both perspectives). The two new additions to the team (Spider-Man and Black Panther) were both welcomed and refreshing components, though it was Black Panther who definitely stood out as my favorite in the film. His patience and intelligence was refreshing and also felt significant from a cultural standpoint. He was the bright spot in a film already jam-packed with stars. Plus, that airport battle.
     9. Hacksaw Ridge
Is Mel Gibson back? Personal issues aside (I’m not wasting space here to have that discussion), I sure hope so. I think he’s an excellent filmmaker and I hope this means we’ll start seeing more from him again. As for the film, I really thought Andrew Garfield did an excellent job in this role. I fully bought into this character and understood why he (1) believed in what he did, and (2) still joined the military anyway. The story was really intriguing and inspirational, even if I don’t usually care much for stands taken on religious bases; I get that America is was all about that freedom. That said, I also understood why his platoon didn’t trust him and why the military was trying to get rid of him. Beliefs aside, going into battle without a weapon is not something that seems very prudent. But time after time he showed his dedication and ultimately gained their respect. The major battle in the film was a rather long scene, but I didn’t get bored with it even once (something that often happens for me with lengthy action scenes). It was so well shot and did an excellent job of showing just how unrelenting war can be. Whether you like war movies or not (I usually do not), I think this was a good depiction of where America was during World War II, and it felt like a story that most anyone should see and hopefully appreciate.
     8. Captain Fantastic
A timely premise that questions societal norms, the film centers around a father obsessed with leftist, radical practices and has decided to raise his children “off the grid” and outside of civilized society. But what I ultimately appreciated about the film was the balance between and acceptance of both of these worlds; the realization that neither alone is ideal for raising a family. The “normal world”, where kids drink soda and eat preservatives, where corporations run elections, and schools are barely educating our children, can be just as bad as raising them in a world without social interaction, organized school and programs, or standardized healthcare. You can argue ideals or in a perfect world… all you want, but the reality is that this is the world we live in, and children need to be prepared to thrive in it. I understand his philosophies (and on a certain level, agree with many of them), but that’s not the world we live in. And that doesn’t mean accepting a paltry fate, rather finding balance in what we have and doing everything we can to make the best of it. Viggo Mortensen does a great job of conveying a man who wants the best for his kids, even if, ultimately and begrudgingly, he doesn’t care for the system they’re stuck in. The movie loses a few points for me because I felt, at times, that writer/director Matt Ross tried a little too hard to push his pretentious principles, but I found it an interesting study nonetheless. 
     7. Miss Sloane
There are things I loved about this movie, and a few things I didn't. What I loved was Jessica Chastain's portrayal of this character. Chastain is one of my favorite actresses, and her depiction of this ruthless lobbyist, determined to do anything to win, was fun to watch (even though she was probably even more manipulative than I could ever be - and I often feel I could thrive in a world like this). I also loved the political subject matter and behind-the-curtain view of Congress. It was fascinating to see a bill proposed and how both sides went about collecting votes. From the outside, we just hear about a bill and see what the final vote tallies are. It's sickening to know (even if not always quite so extreme) that there are a handful of people swaying these people based on agendas that in no way service the people they were elected to represent. I hate that's the way our government works, but I still enjoy watching it. What I didn't like about the film was that it pretty constantly felt "Aaron Sorkin-Lite"; like writer Jonathan Perera was trying his hardest to channel that style into this film. And it's not even that it was poorly written, I just kept thinking, gosh, this scene would have been better if Aaron Sorkin wrote it. And I just feel like that's not a great thing to have in the back of your mind while you’re watching something.
     6. Manchester by the Sea
As this list focuses more on “favorites” of the year rather than “best” (though there’s no doubt those two very frequently intersect), this was one of the hardest films for me to rank. While I’ll probably never want to just sit down and throw it on again (for fun), I can imagine still wanting to introduce it to people who haven’t seen it, which at least helps even out those aspects of this ranking. I won’t give too much away – I wouldn’t consider anything a “spoiler”, but the feelings will hit you harder if you don’t really know what to expect – simply state that this was such a well-made film with some really great acting performances. And one of the saddest movies I’ve seen in recent memory. Casey Affleck was outstanding in this role and I fully believed the hardships he was dealing with (“I can’t beat it”). But even though it was sad, it was fascinating to see all of these different characters dealing with pain and coping in their own ways. Whether good or bad, I think if a movie can make you feel, that’s worthy of praise. If you can handle some sadness – and I’m talking about real, human pain; not pandering, concocted sadness of a sappy romance movie – I’d definitely check this movie out. It was one of the more genuine films I’ve seen in a while.
     5. Hell or High Water
Like many of you, I've come to really love the Neo-Western genre, and this was easily one of the better depictions of that genre I’ve seen. The film centers around two brothers who resort to bank robbery to take back what they feel is rightfully theirs (their land; back from the banks who have foreclosed on them). The film paints a clear picture of the economic state of our country, especially that in rural America dealing with the aftermath of the housing crash and unemployment spike (though, in my opinion, it sometimes tries a little too hard to drive that context through). Still, this was an intricately crafted film that featured some career work from Chris Pine and Ben Foster (Jeff Bridges was also excellent, but he always is). I thought the pacing of the film was perfect for the genre, and I loved the cinematography and thought it was shot incredibly well for being about such bleak situations. It was pretty easy to feel for these characters, even though they were committing crimes - while most of us wouldn't ever go down this path, there's a small part that roots for the little guy taking down big banking. If you're looking for a grounded take on the economic climate in our country – or simply an entertaining modern western – this is as good an entry as any. Easy and enjoyable to watch.
     4. 10 Cloverfield Lane
I don't want to spoil anything for anyone who hasn't seen this yet, but I know many of the complaints for this film were in regard to its final scenes. I'll just say that while it did clearly feel "tacked on", I didn't hate it. I thought it was a neat way to conclude the film, though something that probably would have been more exciting and unexpected had the word "Cloverfield" not been in the title. Still, that aside, the rest of this film was so engrossing and so perfectly crafted. What stood out to me the most was the pacing and tension. It never stalled and always kept building. Much of that was due to the confined space we were trapped in (great set design, by the way), but also the actors who carried the film and made us buy into their situations and circumstances. Mary Elizabeth Winstead was the perfect “hero”, and her portrayal against standard female norms (especially when it comes to horror films) was incredibly refreshing. Then there was John Goodman, whose character was equally likable and scary; logical yet unhinged. You never quite knew what to expect from him. I’m not surprised since the Academy doesn't think much of genre films like this, but in my opinion, Goodman should have secured a nomination for this role.
     3. Everybody Wants Some!!
Richard Linklater's spiritual sequel to "Dazed and Confused" (an all-timer for me) was something I really had my eye on. With his dialogue-driven, character-focused films, Linklater has become one of my absolute favorite filmmakers. He creates great stories and characters that I respond so well to and that I'd most want to work on if I were a filmmaker. This entry was no different. The setting in a 1980's college frat house was entertaining and featured a wild collection of characters (and having some associations with baseball was a nice plus for me). What I think I enjoyed the most (and what Linklater is so good at) was the world-building he did. I felt immersed in this era; like I was transported back in time. The dialogue was great, the characters fully detailed, and the tone was so easy to absorb. The film takes place over just the course of a few days, and like many of my favorite films, was sort of "about nothing", as I like to say; just a quick peak into the world of everyday people going through and talking about life. Linklater is so great with that concept and really showcased that here. There's nothing flashy about this film, but it works and is a fun ride.
     2. La La Land
Look, I wasn't chomping at the bit to see this movie. I actually had to force myself just to go see it - I really didn't have much interest in even watching it. Still, going in I liked the established chemistry between Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, and I was definitely curious about the idea of Damien Chazelle ("Whiplash") tackling a musical. After viewing, and much to my surprise, the film was an absolute delight. The songs and score were a real standout (I downloaded the soundtrack shortly after seeing it); the choreography (especially that of Gosling's character and its nods to the greats like Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly) was excellent; the color pallet with all of its vibrant primary colors was refreshing and beautiful to look at; the pacing and editing (no surprises there, thanks to Chazelle) was fast and direct; and as I hoped, the chemistry between our two leads was perfect. The story was sweet and even if you haven't seen many classic Hollywood musicals, you can feel the homage throughout. Still, this film, which also featured a really nice epilogue, found a way to still feel fresh and original. In a year where so many other films felt pretty dreary, the rousing nature of “La La Land” was a welcomed addition. This defined all that is magical and wondrous about movies.
     1. Arrival
It took a while for me to finally commit to this placement for the film, but after some time, it was the clear choice. Intelligent, character-driven science fiction is something that will always play well for me – if you've ever read much of what I've written on this site, it’s quite high on my list of interests. I've also recently been a fan of director Denis Villeneuve ("Prisoners", "Sicario"), which probably added some unfair expectations going in, but clearly that didn’t end up factoring in too much. Throw in an excellent role and performance from Amy Adams (wait, where’s that Oscar nomination??) and a soundtrack and sound editing/mixing that was some of the best of the year, and you have the recipe for a near-perfect film. Revolving around Earthbound governments fighting against the clock to decode an alien language, this was so fascinating and I felt strongly the real-world implications of a scenario like this. Seeing how different countries deciphered their messages was so spot-on (and scary). I also really loved the concept for the aliens and how their language/world was constructed. It can be difficult to wrap our heads around something so different than what we understand, but I thought it was presented perfectly. And none of that even touches on the subplot of this movie and what Adams’ character is dealing with throughout the film. I was hooked from start to finish, and if you care about thorough, sharply-crafted sci-fi, this is definitely a movie to watch.

So there we have it. Overall, I’m really happy with this group of films. While I often feel these lists trail off towards the end, this year it felt very solid from top to bottom; I don’t think there was a single weak spot. And though I didn’t make any sort of plans going into this list, I’m pleased with the genre/theme variety, and feel there’s a good mix of independent and studio productions. Very balanced and broad. Hopefully this exposes you to something you didn’t know about or might have passed up before. Either way, make sure to give each of these a chance – they were all excellent entries; I can't imagine any will disappoint.

Thanks for reading - be sure to check back daily throughout the week for each of the other writers' lists!