Monday, January 9, 2017

Favorites from 2016--Movies

Nic McPhee on Flickr  Some rights reserved
As per tradition(ish), it's that time for a post where I talk about my favorite things from the previous year. So here's a few lists of my favorite movies, comics, books, and music that I consumed in 2016.


First a few honorable mentions:

1. Jane Got a Gun was a good western starring Natalie Portman that felt very classic and very modern. I liked it very much, and it's a big improvement in many ways over Joel Edgerton's last movie (less rapey and gross).

2. Primer was not a recent release, but it was a twisty, weird little sci-fi thriller about time travel that was far, far smarter than me and left me with lots to think about. Low budget, but worth your time.

3. Haunter can best be described as "horror Groundhog Day played straight." It was very, very good, and very, very fun. Abigail Breslin is become an indie horror treasure.

4. Hush is a tense little horror movie about a deaf woman attacked by a violent psychopath in a creepy mask. It was the best of the slasher movies from the 80s and 90s, but without the worst, and with some fantastic acting, scripting, pacing, and sound editing. Seriously, look this one up.

5. Star Trek Beyond felt like an episode of the classic series, but scaled up to big budget. There were some squicky racial issues that got pointed out on Twitter, but ultimately I really enjoyed it and it's the first time we've had a legitimately good Star Trek movie--especially one that felt like Star Trek. Hope they make a few more before everyone calls it quits.

And now for some dishonorable mentions:

1. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was, with all due respect to those that liked it, trash. The worst big budget movie I saw all year, hands down. Abysmal plotting. Atrocious acting. Awful editing. And virtually colorless. The "Ultimate Edition" helped answer a few confusing bits from the original but also made an already bloated movie longer and helped none of the pacing nor scripting issues. Awful awful awful.

2. Don't Breathe being on my dishonorable mentions list will probably surprise you, but not half as much as the rapey bullshit this movie trots out surprised me or my wife. This movie is directed by the same dude that did the Evil Dead remake, and it was basically hitting a 100% for me until the aforementioned rapey bullshit. This is one of those tropes that instantly kicks me out of the movie, and it's incredibly hard for a movie to recover after that. Some can. This one, for me, didn't. It literally ruined the entirety of the rest of the movie, which is a shame because this director knows how to mash every primal fear button you have--which is why I liked the Evil Dead remake so much. 

If you liked it, great. Lotta people do, and I'm obviously in the minority on this one, but this is a trope that needs to be retired, burned, the ashes locked in a safe, and the safe launched into space. Men should have to go before a council of sexual assault survivors and make the case for why they should be allowed to include sexual assault in their art just so the women can laugh at them and slap them in the fucking face before telling them no, go home and be a family man.

3. The Hateful Eight was beautifully shot and featured Tarantino's quintessential absorbing dialog along with great acting from Kurt Russell, Sam Jackson, and Walton Goggins. The reason it's on this list is because it should have been more, but the film pulls a fast one main character-wise and leaves itself on unsure footing and stumbling for it remainder. The ending feels like a rehash of another Tarantino movie that was done better the first time around, which is a shame. The bones were good, but it just doesn't quite work like it should. It feels a bit like resting on laurels, and maybe Tarantino has earned that at this point. But this film still left me essentially going, "Eh? It was okay?"

And now for the proper list, in no particular order:

1. Elvis and Nixon is a bizarre little movie that told the story behind the photograph of when Nixon met with Elvis. It was funny, offbeat, odd, charming, and featured an equally captivating and baffling performance by Michael Shannon in which he doesn't even attempt at an Elvis impersonation, but brings such pathos to a man so far removed from what most people would consider reality that you can't help feel bad for him even while you're dumbfounded at how he blunders through standard protocols because he doesn't seem to think they apply to him--and they kinda don't since...well...he's Elvis.

2. Deadpool has been talked to death at this point, but it really was a great superhero movie. Unlike other take-offs on the superhero genre, this was a take-off of the superhero genre with an actual established, legit superhero. Ryan Reynolds performs the role he's basically been vying for since he made his first appearance and is as brilliant as you'd expect. Stoked for the sequel.

3. The Last Shift, like Hush, was a surprise little horror gem I found on Netflix this year. It details a woman cop's first night on the force--which is also the night shift on the last night that the old station building will be open since the new one across town opened. It starts slow and steadily builds the creepy atmosphere, using fantastic editing and framing to generate some of the best chills and spooks I've seen in a movie. This is one of those movies that will have you questioning what's real--which are my favorite types of horror movies. So so so so good.

4. The Sacrament was surprisingly good. It shouldn't have been a surprise since it's directed by Ti West, who made Innkeepers and the amazing House of the Devil, but still--I tend to be skeptical of found-footage movies, which this is. And something about the picture Netflix used made me worried it was going to be torture porny, but it wasn't. Brutal, yes. Harrowing, yes. But it all felt honest and not exploitative at all. The fact that it has its roots in real life events just adds an extra layer creepy that gets under your skin if you let yourself think about it while everything is unfolding on screen.

5. Captain America: Civil War was honestly more like Avengers 3 than it was a Captain America movie, but it was still very good. It managed to balance the sometimes very serious and heavy subject matter with the jokes and light-hearted banter very, very well. It managed to further a ton of characters' stories and introduce a few new ones. 

I am getting a little tired that these movies seem to be getting longer and longer, but this movie is worth seeing for Spider-Man and Black Panther alone. Good stuff that gets you excited for future Marvel movies--and very refreshing that the major conflict isn't built around stopping a spaceship from crashing to the earth (Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain America: Winter Soldier, Star Trek Into Darkness, Thor: The Dark World), some portal to another dimension (Suicide Squad, Avengers)  or a bad guy that's basically an evil version of the superhero (Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Ant-Man, Incredible Hulk).

6. The Witch came out of nowhere for me. I heard nothing about it up until it was released. I wouldn't have even known about it if I hadn't seen a trailer for it on YouTube. And what I got was a fucked up, dark, twisted version of The Crucible. A Puritan-esque family leaves their village for being too radical and has to live on their own. But things just keep going bad, and after a baby was stolen, suspicion of witchcraft soon follows. Everyone's secrets become exposed and the family's extreme performative piety is soon shown for what it really is. This is a slow burn of a movie, but it left me speechless with how good it was. It was also just a few scenes too long and, I feel, over-explained things at the end. I'd have preferred that it end maybe three scenes sooner, but still so so so good.

7. Zootopia was a daring move on Disney's part. Children's films have tackled racism, sexism, and various other types of discrimination in the past, but to do it so blatantly was refreshing. And not only was the film not at all shy about that being exactly what this movie was about, it also handled the subjects with deft and nuance that most children's movies--hell, that most adult movies--don't display. Well meaning, good people do fucked up, racist, sexist things and get called on that shit because you can still be a good person and fuck up--Judy Hops insinuating that maybe predators are just naturally violent, racists learn the error of their ways with time and maturity, Nick Wilde both displays stereotypes of his people but also resists them, demonstrating that people are complicated and contain multitudes. Every parent should show this movie to their child. A very timely message.

8. Ghostbuster (2016) is hilarious. It's not like the original. What it is, essentially, is a movie that tries to justify it's own existence about a team of women coming together to do a job historically performed by men and must overcome unreasonable and virulent criticism, literally fighting a nerdy white man who thinks he's not being given his due respect, and being attacked by and forced to take down the symbols of their male predecessors in an attempt to save the city and demonstrate that, in spite of all of the negative press, they deserve to be there and are good at what they do.

I would like to know whether Paul Feig wrote the script BEFORE all the Goobergaters and Meninists shit themselves in rage and this was all a hilarious coincidence, or if he used this as an opportunity to tell those men to go fuck themselves. Either way is awesome. 

The movie isn't shot like the original--which was shot more like a horror movie. This one is shot as a comedy, it plays like a comedy. It's a comedy film. This is fine. It's also hilarious, featuring fantastic performances. Do check out the extended cut if you get the chance-it's even better, although it doesn't feature the great "salty parabolas" line, which is a shame. I ain't afraid of no ghosts--or funny women kicking those ghosts' asses.

9. Moonlight was deeply affecting, both in the ways I could and couldn't identify with it. 

Like the main character, I was bullied all throughout school. I was frequently called gay and other hateful words that meant the same--although I was not, unlike Chiron. I know what it's like to be terrorized every single day for existing. Like Chiron, my hometown was poor. Most of us were on food stamps and had free lunches. Drug and alcohol abuse were common. So were rundown homes. I had a friend who lived in a home with a two foot hole in the floor--straight through to the foundation. There were also katana slashes on the wall because the previous tenant wilded out and trashed the place. I had another friend whose mom was addicted to meth. Another friend whose family sold drugs and whose dad died in a drug related firefight. 

At the same time, I'm not black, and my hometown literally had no black people until I was well into high school because all the black people got run out of town by the white folks in racist riot in the early 1900's. The systemic issues that Chiron has to deal with are not the systemic issues I had to deal with, but there was enough overlap there to resonate. 

After saying all that, let me also say the movie wasn't the downer you would expect. In fact, I found it very moving, very hopeful, and very beautiful. It was a fascinating meditation on life, on family, on masculinity and sexuality, and how life's circumstances can shape you, and you can shape yourself.

10. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was my favorite movie this year. I recognize that it had flaws--the characters were necessarily hugely developed, and the pacing at the beginning is a little choppy with too many cuts to planet establishing shots with some nonsense spacey name. There's also a few elements that feel underutilized and seem to sort of drop from the film. 

That said, when the movie gets going, it's a bullet train to the finish. I will write a more spoilery piece later that puts my thoughts on this movie and other movies I saw within recent years in more detail, but I can safely say this is a bleak-ass movie. Where Force Awakens was hopeful, chipper, and optimistic, Rogue One is a grim, grim movie. I would describe it as "grim optimism." The movie is very much in line with Kameron Hurley's books--"everything is shit, but we fight anyway." And because of that, it was beautiful and moving. 

I liked this even more than Empire Strikes Back--that's not to say it's as good, but on a personal level it hit a whole bunch of my buttons in the best way possible and used several tropes and ideas that are instant wins for me. So it's hard for me to stay objective. I loved this movie. You will very probably enjoy it, too.