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Best of 2016: Movies February 19, 2017

Posted by David Card in Media.
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Photo credit: flickr user Hans Splinter

It was a good year.

I gave out my first 4-star Rotten Tomatoes score in years, and saw five 3.5-star movies and ten 3-stars. That compares with three 3.5’s and 14 3’s in 2015. Per Box Office Mojo, U.S. theater ticket sales were up a couple of percentage points from a big 2015, and the spoils were more evenly distributed.

Before we get to my favorites, I’ll talk a little about the box office stats.

  • You can’t be a successful studio without big hits, and big hits come from franchise properties. Three movies broke $400 million in sales: Finding Dory, Captain America 3, and Star Wars spinoff 1. (Rogue One will go way over $500M, as it continues into 2017.)
  • I saw about half of the top 20, but few made my “Best of” list. Superhero movies were a mixed bag, even as they propped up the box office as usual. They comprised four of the top 10, though Warner Bros./DC’s offerings look like shaky franchises at best. Fourteen of the top 20 were superheroes, cartoon franchises, and/or sequels or remakes. Lord, help us.
  • Disney crushed it. It soaked up over a quarter of domestic sales, due to its Pixar, Star Wars, and Marvel acquisitions, with a little help from its own animation studio.
  • I hold out hope for scrappy little guys making movies for grownups, as Hidden Figures (Fox) and La La Land (Lionsgate) cracked the top 20. But that market is increasingly looking like it will be hybrid limited release/simultaneous direct to on-demand Internet delivery. Amazon just might be doing better than Netflix on that front. Keep your eye on what happens with A24, that’s cranking out good films that make money.

I enjoy blockbusters and genre flicks as much as art films. This year, I’m pretty amazed how many of my favorites got nominated for Oscars. I haven’t seen Lion or Hidden Figures, even though the latter takes place at Langley Research Center, where my dad worked for 30+ years. Yay, NASA! I expect the actual Academy Awards outcome will be a mix of La La Land sweep and #oscarsowhite reversals.

The best movie of the year was:

  • Hell or High Water. Sad, funny, tense, twisted valentine to West Texas. Very, very good cast, terrific script, and killer soundtrack and score. Reminded me of the best of the Coen siblings.

The movies I gave three and a half stars were, in rough order of preference:

  • Manchester-by-the-Sea. You can’t go home again. Stunningly good cast.
  • La La Land. Charmingly un-ironic, yet self-aware. Bravura opening and closing scenes. Will win many awards and will deserve the ones for art direction and Emma Stone.
  • Hacksaw Ridge. Old-school corny and cliche’d….and then they hit Okinawa. Mel does violence and faith and heroism well; is he redeemable?
  • Train to Busan. Zombies on a Train FTW. Everything World War Z wasn’t: exquisite tension, likable heroes, hissable villains, good stunts, minimal CGI.
  • Shin Godzilla. Believe it or not, the rubber suit style approach can still shock and awe. Make no mistake, this is not goofy Godzilla, but an often chilling Gojira with some political satire around the edges.

I’m having a hard time narrowing the list to a top ten, so let’s make it a baker’s dozen. The best of the 3-star movies:

  • The Witch. Who knew the Salem witchhunters got it right? Moments of real horror – not terror or suspense, but actual horror. It’s a little dull in between, but it sticks to its vision almost to a fault.
  • A Bigger Splash. Sexy, sensuous, sensual – and I’m just talking about the scenery and SWINTON’s couture. I’m becoming a big fan of director Guadagnino, even if he lets Fiennes steal most of the scenes.
  • Weiner. “Because I lied to them, I have a funny name, and the media don’t do nuance.” Well, two out of three. I’m baffled why it wasn’t nominated for best documentary.
  • Moonlight. This small – in a good way – movie gracefully turns stereotypes on their ear. Superb cast.
  • The Accountant. A pleasant surprise. Its nutty mood swings and plot-twist reveals make it feel fresh compared with most recent thrillers.
  • Silence. Eloquent. Thoughtful. Marty’s Jesuit teachers should be proud.
  • April and the Extraordinary World (Avril et le Monde Truque). The steampunkery animation is gorgeous and witty. The story loses control in the third act, or it might have been a classic. Inspired me to buy some Tardi collections.
  • Captain America: Civil War. “Underoos!” And the Cap movies always have the best Marvel fight scenes.

You might think I’d have loved Arrival. Well I did love the first half – real, thoughtful science fiction, with interesting stuff on linguistics and non-action-heroes. But the resolution, which I won’t spoil, kind of wrecked it for me. Fences was well-acted, but stagey – in a bad way – though it reminded me of O’Neill, who wrote about the same themes 50 years earlier.

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