Needless to say, I’ll be spending most of the rest of 2016 and the first few months of 2017 trying to catch up and review as many of the movies as I haven’t like I do every one of my slowpoke-ass years. But it’s Thanksgiving and so I have a bunch of films I can at least try to drop placeholder capsule reviews for before I get into the real thick of my thoughts for many films (which will include some of these films). And I mean this is going to be A LOT of movies, so let get right to it and then try to sort out the rest later.
In chronological order of premiere date, here are as many of the films I saw over the years as I can recall:
The Sea of Trees (dir. Gus van Sant, USA)
Good news for Adam Wingard, this is the worst Blair Witch Project sequel of 2016. The most transparent attempt at magical realism that fails because its central character that we care about is on paper the most pretentious douche one could encounter, even when he’s trying to be enlightened about himself through his waltz in the woods, and is further sunk by McConaughey’s very first bad performance since the McConaissance began. Never mind the whole fashion of turning the Magical Negro into a Magical Asian and letting that sort of otherness of Japanese culture ride out while trivializing suicide as just a “maybe” answer to a privileged white man’s malaise. And they didn’t even shoot most of it in Japan, man!
Mountains May Depart (dir. Jia Zhangke, China/France/Japan)
If you’re expecting me to go against the consensus opinion that the third of Mountains May Depart‘s three acts is a very severe flaw in its disinteresting drama about language and heritage, you’re gonna be disappointed. Nevertheless, the previous two acts are compelling love triangles that allow Zhao Tao to indulge in one of the best performances of the year, a woman stuck in the middle of two manchildren that don’t know what to do about their feelings or maintain their friendship and kind of exhausted by the idea that she can’t keep things platonic. And of course, Jia simply knows how to work that sort of human drama in his sleep.
The Little Prince (dir. Mark Osborne, France/Italy)
A movie that clearly devotes itself more to translating the themes of the source material book (which honestly has sentimental value to me personally due to a friend beyond its intrinsic value as a literary work, so this was always going to be an important film to me) than to fidelity to the minutia of its content, Osborne’s film ends up letting itself become exactly the sort of profound story of protected youth that we needed in the colorless world today. Of course the real treat the difference in animated texture between the frame story of a Little Girl trying to make it into a private school and her pilot neighbor’s previous encounters with the Little Prince in the Sahara.
April and the Extraordinary World (dir. Christian Demares & Franck Ekinci, France/Belgium/Canada)
Based on a comic and it shows. In its indulgence towards the alternate history it sets up at the beginning of the film and a steampunk aesthetic rooted in said alternate history. In its thick lines that shape the human characters and the great big ships and the thick forest greens. It’s clearly a bit of pulp enjoyment that’s on its mind and the adventurousness of its plot is hard not to enjoy.
A Bigger Splash (dir. Luca Guadagnino, Italy/France)
A Bigger Splash is totally the type of movie you watch to try to live in luxury porn. Guadagnino just has the best feel for style (I honestly don’t know how people go insane for Tom Ford over Luca) to the choice of his actors – altogether making up maybe the most aesthetically pleasant and versatile-looking cast ever and all having their moments of nude objectification (it’s probably most surprising that Ralph Fiennes spends a quarter of his screentime nude). And that’s just the movie laying the foundation for us to find underlying trouble in paradise where it doesn’t even need to be troubled, thanks to the dissonant energy of its cast, and a real 3/4 genre switch decision that just ends up feeling inspired and exciting even if it ends dissatisfying.
Eye in the Sky (dir. Gavin Hood, USA)
Back in college, I was involved in a play adapting the screenplay of a not-yet-released picture called Drones that obviously focused on the collateral damage and toll that drone warfare took on all involved. What the play simply did not have is a focus on the Kill Chain, the chain in which command and accountability and bucks are passed over and over for the highest power to give clearance so that they can know who will answer for an unfortunate additional casualty. Eye in the Sky focuses on that and as such, I really think it’s truly rewarding, especially in having a range of attitudes towards warfare and evils considered either necessary or appalling, from grief (Aaron Paul), to fear (Barkhad Abdi), to ferocity (Helen Mirren), to weariness (the late Alan Rickman), all embodying a different manner of intimacy with the fact that to take out terrorists believed to be on the way to an immediate bombing, they may have to kill a little girl. Heavy, heavy stuff.
Evolution (dir. Lucille Hadžihalilović, France)
A very chilly and icy portrayal of the horrors of community and familiarity, wrapped up with scientific grotesquerie and the most spine-tingling iron environments. It’s certainly understandable why folks would find this movie alienating, especially since it’s a very minimalist manner of storytelling – only a function of a narrative rather than any allowed depth to even our young boy protagonist as he investigates the cause of a dead body he discovered – but I couldn’t take my eyes off of it and I only find the ending shot of the film exactly the sort of thing that causes me to start discussing the movie even more excitedly.
Borrowed Time (dir. Andrew Coats & Lou Hamou-Lhadj, USA)
It’s certainly very good looking. In its portrayal of the horizon as well as the deadly vertical aspect of the cliff that it takes place in, neither of which as incredible as the character design. Essential to a movie that parallels two separate time periods and needs to show the wear that emotional distress has taken on our lead, even as the head shape retains a masculine square rigidity. Unfortunately, the actual story is the most transparent and obvious kind of miserablism that one has obviously seen around over and over again. The whole thing is a cliche that is underwhelming given how overhyped the short was beforehand.
Ip Man 3 (dir. Wilson Yip, Hong Kong)
Donnie Yen has still fucking got it, no doubt. The man is in his 50s and I can’t imagine in the same shape he was back when I first saw him in 1993’s Iron Monkey (technically saw it in 2001, but he made it in 1993) and yet he’s still going at impressing me with his style and technique and discipline like he’s just another martial artist in the screen. He’s certainly aged more gracefully than Jackie Chan. Of course, the movie is also chockful of melodrama and I mean soap opera amounts from his wife suddenly dying to another storyline of a foreigner terrorizing locals like the last two to your good ol’ martial arts rivalry and they’re all just as hokey and transparent as you’d expect. But the real show is the fights and they’re all just too good to deny, especially the elevator showdown between Wing Chun and Muay Thai.
The Forest (dir. Jason Zada, USA)
Whelp, it’s not nearly as bad as The Sea of Trees, but it’s certainly more racist to the degree of an Indiana Jones picture. But, let’s not go down that road because I’ll give an earful. Frankly, it’s just a very underwhelming horror work and I’d have to work to find something to say.
Norm of the North (dir. Trevor Wall, USA)
There was a production stuck in development hell called “Norm of the North” from way back before I was born about an Eskimo in a New York City Fish-out-of-Water tale. The reason it was in development is because John Belushi, John Candy, and Chris Farley were all attached to star at separate points in history and those points all happened to be shortly before their respective deaths, leading to an assumption the production was cursed. I’m not sure if this is said movie (the plot seems similar except replace Eskimo with Bear) and I don’t want to wish death upon Rob Schneider, but the man does not make it easy with films like this. Films devoid of any care in their animation quality and make three-dimensional CGI look like a bootleg Nelvana two-dimension cartoon, films with toilet humor that even a five-year-old could be tired off, films that try to revolve around whatever hip new song is out right now (Walk the Moon’s “Shut Up and Dance” lost the lottery, but the viewer is the one pelted with those “Shut Up and Dance” stones). It will be tough to encounter a film in 2016 of lesser quality.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople (dir. Taika Waititi, New Zealand)
Oh, Sam Neill being a grump who has to spend a perilous journey in the wilderness with a child he doesn’t want to be around. Never seen that before… Snark aside though, this film is full of a shocking mix of warmth, arch humor that you’d expect from the guy who made Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and wonderfully “majestical” imagery of the New Zealand bush and horizon that I don’t know how I could have possibly expected a movie like this. That we get to spend time with the adorable Julian Dennison and Sam Neill’s never-less-than-human-yet-grim bushman like the anti-Dundee is only the cherry on top.
Whit Stillman was born to do Jane Austen. Kate Beckinsale was born to do Jane Austen and play the sort of manipulative triumphant woman Lady Susan Vernon is and she and Chloe Sevigny were born to be best friends. This is easily the funniest film of the year that I’ve seen thus far.
The Barn (dir. Justin Seaman, USA)
This is absolutely amateur first-feature filmmaking with all of its problems of production value and plotting and especially with the kind of actors that feels more like they just picked up who ever could show up than who was best for the part. Yet, it’s so endearing and full of personality in its love for Halloween and nostalgia (the director, who attended the screen, apparently originally wrote it as a storybook when he was a kid and brought that very storybook he drew as a child to the screening) that I can’t help but admit I enjoyed my time. The errors may have been distracting, but they’re just products of the same excitement that wanted to make the movie in the first place.
10 Cloverfield Lane (dir. Dan Trachtenberg, USA)
What a totally ok episode of Goosebumps we have here. Honestly, it’s more hurt from its title than anything else in the film.
Collective: Unconscious (prod. Dan Schoenbrun, USA)
Previous dream pictures have spoiled me. In general, anthologies are always going to suffer from never having the same level of quality between its subjects, but the fact that this movie is meant to be an adaptation of different dreams by different directors – a concept that seems very promising to me – and yet only one of them (the second one) seems to indulge in the avant-garde limitlessness of a dream, while all of them seem too dedicated to trying to pull a narrative out of those dreams. There are truth be told no bad segments or even segments that you can’t derive meaning from and easily the best is “Everybody Dies!”, which uses acerbic comedy to comment on young black deaths, but I expected more versatility and there is more than one segment where I felt bored or unwhelmed (namely the last one). Like I said, I’m spoiled. To the point that I’m legit disappointed none of these segments are animated.
(Collective: Unconscious is available for free on BitTorrent, Vimeo, and YouTube)
Keanu (wri. Jordan Peele & Alex Rubins, USA)
Now here is a movie that is absolutely fine with being not much more than a time-passer but still wants to at least attempt leaving you with something to think about. It’s little more than an extended Key & Peele sketch (hence the producers and stars), but it’s also eager to at least nudge towards (if not cut into, like Moonlight) black masculinity and the culture around it. Not that anybody would want to watch for any other reason than being in love with cats. Like yours truly.
Sausage Party (wri./prod. Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg, USA)
So you wanna be nominated for an Oscar, eh? HAHAHAHHAHAHAHAHAHHAHAHAHAHHAHAHAHAHAH.
Step 1: Don’t treat your animators like shit.
Step 2: Make sure said animators don’t leave you with animation a little above Foodfight! level.
Step 3: Make a good movie.
Man, I’m gonna so rip this movie apart when I find time for a full-length review.
I mean, at least the animation is impressive in making the shapey video game characters have dimension and it does what it means to by having its plot work for the reenactment of the popular cell phone game, but let’s be serious. You people let this movie take the money over The Nice Guys and I’ll probably never forgive you.
The Nice Guys (dir. Shane Black, USA)
Most of the people whose opinions I trust have held it against this movie (and Shane Black’s career in general) that it kind of doesn’t care for women and I… don’t think they’re wrong (personally, one of my favorite quotes about it is “It’s funny how a movie titled The Nice Guys hates women). But it doesn’t bother me as much as one would think it should when it’s not a movie that exists to be reductive so much as a movie that exists to be a buddy cop neo-noir comedy picture and it excels exactly at its purpose. It’s not exactly reinventing the wheel, but Ryan Gosling’s emasculated performance and Russell Crowe’s comfort at playing the familiar role of Big Scary Guy Who Beats People Up But Has Personality Deep Down have bonfire chemistry and The Nice Guys proves to be fizzy and fast genre work.
Also, I don’t want to be that one male guy who pretends “oh, here’s a consolation prize”, but I can’t imagine anybody walking away without the impression that Angourie Rice as the capable and intelligent daughter to Gosling’s character is the best damn thing in the movie (and her chemistry between the two of them – especially with Crowe – is just as fire and makes me wonder if Ty Simpkins in Iron Man 3 was more Black’s input or Disney’s).
The Neon Demon (dir. Nicholas Winding Refn, France/Denmark/USA)
Do yourself a favor: get a girlfriend/boyfriend that knows stuff about the fashion industry and watch this movie with her (assuming she digs horror and gore) and it will be a really great time. If unattainable (maybe you’re ugly, bruh), then you might still be able to love the gorgeous inspired visuals Refn was always known for (even when making garbage like Only God Forgives) and eat up exactly all the reason Neon is right there in its title. Also, having Sia in your soundtrack is a very easy way to get me on your side, even if I don’t understand what it has to do with the movie itself.
Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (dir./wri./prod. The Lonely Island, USA)
Would I probably enjoy it more if I had more of a pulse on pop culture rather than just knowing it via proxy? I’m sure, but I actually really adore the movie and had a fun-ass time laughing at all the insane ways they mapped out the Boy Band craze AND Justin Bieber’s infamous rise and fall as today’s popstar (plus including a Tyler the Creator parody). And that’s just without acknowledging that The Lonely Island have always been great at inventing different absurd but accessible musical compositions. And since Popstar gets to be just another vehicle for that with a great little pop culture-savvy narrative attached to it, it’s not hard to see why people had such a good time with this movie.
Piper (dir. Alan Barillaro, USA)
Piper is an absolute being of cuteness and so it’s tough not to be on her side as she begins to go out into the real world and the ocean. If that’s not enough to get you to enjoy the short film, the photorealism behind everything from the grainy sand to the fuzzy chick fur to the water (ay yo Pixar got dat amazing water animation) should keep you happy. But if you don’t love Piper as a character, you are probably not a person.
Godzilla: Resurgence (dir. Anno Hideaki & Higuchi Shinji, Japan)
Well damn, I did not expect Toho’s very first Godzilla picture in more than a decade to be essentially The Thick of It, but for that reason alone, it lived up to my hype. It’s good to see the character back and it’s damn good to see such an amusing and frankly inspiring narrative of bureaucracy attached to his return.
Kubo and the Two Strings (dir. Travis Knight, USA)
I don’t think anybody who is even cursorily interested in animation is truly against the understanding that Laika is right now the best animation house in the business (even if it’s also clearly one of the lowest-earning). But this is the first time since Coraline that it looks like they actually pushed the envelope of their craft – visually with fight scenes that are kinetic and imaginative in their presentation, narratively with their meta plot of a boy using stories to cope with his struggles and to map his own personal journeys, sonically with the absolutely moving Asian-influence score, and emotionally with the grief that anchors much of the film until it learns to move with it. It certainly blows most of Pixar’s post-WALL-E work out of the goddamn water.
Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience (dir. Terrence Malick, USA)
Man, I really hope this doesn’t fade from my memory whenever I dare to go for a Malick retrospective, but I have to say that it’s nothing we haven’t really seen already. It’s not all that reductive to point out that it’s an extended portion of the “Creation of the Universe” of The Tree of Life. While it’s certainly no less gorgeous (in fact I kind of might think Voyage of Time is more aesthetically pleasing), there’s certainly no real profundity in what we’re seeing. A great diversion that is pretty aware of how long it has to be with less than an hour, but it’s not exactly essential viewing.