Word of the street could be heard loud and clear over the previous couple of months: on top of the elevated number of celebrity deaths and the hostile presidential election, 2016 has been labeled a pretty bad -- at best, lackluster -- year for the movies. While the first two points are tough to dispute, I can’t really agree with the third. Sure, there might be a lack of heavy-hitting, culturally significant dramas in the pool this time around, but this has been an exceptional year for genre films, many of which ascended above their niches and accomplished something noteworthy. Claustrophobic horror films adopted challenging contexts involving their respective scenarios, animated films expressed rich themes and motifs centered on coming-of-age and diversity, and a few of the more noteworthy dramatic portrayals of the year found narrative power and personality through earnest levity. And an R-rated superhero movie kicked a lot of ass by just being its own vulgar, fourth-wall-breaking self. Below, you’ll find ten favorites -- and a few honorable mentions -- that I'll be taking away from what should be considered an under-appreciated year of film, and while I always keep things alphabetical to avoid arbitrary rankings, you can go ahead and chalk up the first film appearing on this list to be my humble choice for the one that resonates strongest of the lot.
Denis Villeneuve has explored dark themes and big concepts in his previous works, from the grayness of renegade justice against accused child abusers in Prisoners to the necessary evils of combating Mexico's drug trade in Sicario, composing beautiful films with heavy, bleak substance. Arrival marks Villeneuve's first true foray into science-fiction, leaving one to ponder what might've drawn the director's complex outlook on the human condition to its story about figuring out how to talk with visitors from outer space, as well as the potential somberness that it might hold. While containing tough, incendiary reflections on the ways in which humans struggle to communicate amongst themselves in times of strife, there's a surprisingly uplifting and embraceable rhythm in Arrival's depiction of decoding an alien language that might be unexpected of the director, and it only deepens as this masterwork touches upon perceptions of how this mysterious universe of ours might actually work. [Full Review]
X-Men Origins: Wolverine suffered a number of issues upon its release, from a leaked workprint to middling reviews from both critics and comic-book aficionados alike. Yet, that reputation might've been the strongest reason why Deadpool actually got made, which could twist its legacy around in a bizarre sort of way. One blunder in Gavin Hood's take on Wolverine came in the handling of this "Merc with a Mouth", thinking it was a good idea to manually silence Wade Wilson -- and, by extension, Ryan Reynolds -- later on in the film. It was a creative risk that didn't pay off, but the response to this problematic take of the character led to a surge in attention towards getting Deadpool right, exacerbated by leaked studio test footage that proved somebody out there knew how to get it done ... and the fan response proved it's something they wanted. After years of tweaks, campaigning powered by Reynolds, and debate over the trickiness of an R-rating, the fruit of that labor is born within the gleefully violent and blatantly subversive Deadpool, and its fusion of fourth-wall-breaking and sentimentality exceeds expectations. [Full Review]
Several years back, Park Chan-wook left a subtle but disturbing impression with his first English-language film, Stoker, which took the vengeance-centered director's perspective into the space of a more closed-quartered, domestic style of psychological thriller. The Handmaiden might bring him back into the comfort zone of his native Korean tongue, but the design of his subject matter presents even bigger challenges than his previous works. Park Chan-wook's adaptation of the novel "Fingersmith" by Sarah Waters transfers the story back to '30s Japanese-occupied Korea, where a plot has been devised by a group of thieves and con artists to swindle a Japanese heiress, Lady Hideko, by infliltrating her home with a specially-selected pickpocket, Sook-hee, to become her handmaiden. As one can expect from the director of Oldboy and Lady Vengeance, things aren't as they seem on the surface, leading this tense caper film into a provocative and unpredictable downward spiral hinged on gender roles, perversion, and layers upon layers of deceit. Masterfully interweaving both unyielding thrills and brilliant expressiveness, it's arguably the director's finest.
Two brothers rob banks throughout the sleepy expanses of central Texas in David Makenzie's Hell or High Water, zipping around in what seems like a reasonably conventional setup for a modern western. Working from a script from Taylor Sheridan, who also penned the moral complexity and brewing intensity of Sicario, the film reveals that there's a good bit going on under the surface with the Howard brothers: a tale of desperation, obligation, and a little bit of redemption as they rush against the clock to protect their family's property. Hell or High Water reveals that a versatility of tone is the ace up its sleeve, shifting from a meaningful character study of a brazen ex-con and his divorced, slightly out-of-his-element brother to straight-up humor within their sibling banter. Couple that with a depiction of the nearly-retired Texas Ranger on their heels, a clever and capable officer with a quirky rapport with his Native American partner, and you've got a lot of substance filling the spaces between the pragmatic, tense heists executed by the brothers across Texas.
Along with slasher movies and revenge westerns, the troubled, coming-of-age teen drama has been done in so many ways that it’s hard to imagine a fresh take on the idea. Just like in real life, however, every situation like this is different, hinged on the individual kid, their prior experiences, and the types of concentration and attention in certain surroundings that’ll set them on the right path. That’s a part of what enriches Ricky’s story in Hunt for the Wilderpeople: seeing how a smart, charismatic, yet brash and rebellious teen from the city finds his comfort zone in the atmosphere of the New Zealand bush, filled with a splendid amount of humor through his wild experiences with his new foster parents, the warm “Aunt” Beck and the stoic, unlikely guardian Uncle Hec. When tragic circumstances force Ricky and Uncle Hec -- delightfully and gruffly portrayed by Sam Neill -- to tough it out in the woods around their home, director Taika Waititi (one of the guys behind Flight of the Conchords and What We Do in the Shadows) infuses sharp adventure, careful wit, and authentic bonding to form a truly resonant take on this weatherworn concept.
Several years ago, the Portland-based animation company Laika Entertainment emerged on the scene with the dazzling Coraline, a stop-motion journey into a mythical world adapted from the works of Neil Gaiman. Filled with dark whimsy and meaningful allegory, the Henry Selick-directed story put the animation studio on the map with its hypnotic, outlandish fusion of reality and nightmarish fantasy. Since then, the studio has been chasing after that same kind of artistic success, yet their following works -- ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls -- have been jaw-dropping works of visual creativity that lack the kind of substance that made their introductory work such a memorable experience. When Kubo and the Two Strings came crashing onto the scene with its Japanese-inspired setting, fairytale trappings, and symbolic storytelling centered on a child's voyage amid hardship, it appeared as if Laika might've rediscovered the same type of haunting magic that filled their first feature, and that turned out to be right. This is a stunning, quite memorable piece of artistry. [Full Review]
Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By the Sea is funny, surprisingly funny, something I really didn’t expect from a drama about the abrupt death of a beloved single father and the discussions of teenage custody that stem from it. Sure, Casey Affleck does a tremendous job of realizing the rattled, disgruntled personality of Lee Chandler, a janitor who’s thrust into the position of becoming the guardian to his deceased brother’s teenage son. Lonergan’s drama hits many of the anticipated roadblocks one would expect of the scenario, from figuring out a new living situation to juggling the social life of the teenage boy, amplified by Lee’s prior experiences with loss and sadness involving his ex-wife, Randi, exquisitely portrayed by Michelle Williams. What makes Lonergan’s original script so special rests in how it incorporates sharp verbal and situational humor into the despair, elevating its observations on grief, responsibility, and the struggles of moving by striking chords of endearing, frank humor along with it.
The thought that might creep into one's mind when they hear that a fashion designer has directed a motion picture might be one of artifice, that they've concentrated on style above substance in how they've brought their talents to a storytelling medium. Tom Ford's soulful adaptation of A Single Man, Christopher Isherwood's novel about the lingering effects of losing a loved one, proved that the designer has far more tricks up his sleeve than the glamours and expression of aesthetics, instead paving the way for sheer enthusiasm toward his next project. Ford's second feature, Nocturnal Animals, channels the polish of his freshman film into a layered, challenging psychological drama that explores grief, redemption, and how humans perceive masculinity and strength themselves, wrapped around and interwoven within an unsettling story-within-a-story that amplifies its musings. [Full Review]
Bad Robot's Cloverfield turned out to be little more than a serviceable found-footage monster movie built around a Statue of Liberty-sized kaiju tearing through Manhattan, but the mysteries and speculation surrounding its prolonged viral marketing campaign were something to behold. An enigmatic trailer without a title, social-media pages for the characters, and websites built around the fictional brands found in the film created a long line of breadcrumbs for interested parties -- many of whom were already caught up in the puzzle-solving of LOST's missing pieces -- to follow until its release. Dan Tractenberg's 10 Cloverfield Lane, a parallel spinoff set in the same universe, does almost the exact opposite, where instead of a year of promotional nudges and winks, a surprise trailer emerged mere months before the film was slated to arrive in theaters. The difference in approaches to the marketing reflects the differences between the films themselves: 10 Cloverfield Lane keeps its scale small and its intentions cerebral, producing a well-crafted paranoia thriller with apocalyptic science-fiction in its veins. [Full Review]
No matter how far horror movies push boundaries to desensitize audiences with physical gore and terror, there's always something unsettling about the unknowable motivations and manipulations of supernatural beings. In twisted depictions of a spiritual realm beyond our existence, they involve everything that lingers between the extremes of salvation or damnation, ones which either don't align with one's personal beliefs or have warped them into a terrifying state. Why do these being interfere with, often tormenting, the affairs of man? It's a question that lingers at the center of South Korea's The Wailing (aka Goksung), the new horror-thriller from The Chaser's Na Hong-jin, where a lethal and inexplicable disease drives others into a murderous rampage. Grueling transformations of the virulent killers and their victims are just the tip of the iceberg, as the suspected root of this evil -- a fabled stranger who just moved into a small township -- leads to an absorbingly outlandish and consistently disturbing descent into the enigmas of folklore. [Full Review]
If you were to tell me that the two best things about Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice would be Ben Affleck’s temperament as the Caped Crusader and Gal Gadot’s embodiment of Wonder Woman, two of the more hotly-discussed and complained-about casting decision in the annals of superhero-film history, I would’ve thought you had bats in your belfry. That’s exactly what happened in Zack Snyder’s nonevent of a square-off between these two giants, a tonally leaden, inert blockbuster and a uninspiring way of jump-starting DC's interconnected cinematic universe. Thing is, this could be foreseeable based on Snyder’s work in Sucker Punch and Man of Steel, whereas the disjointed nature of Suicide Squad is a rare misfire for David Ayer, who gets some of the attitude -- and nearly all of Harley Quinn -- right without concentrating on a suitable narrative and respectable action beats to engage his wacky renegades. Both films planted seeds of decent characterization that could sprout up in the heroes’ later independent films, but the pair of films surrounding these comic-book icons doesn't make for a dynamic duo.
In a year filled with tweaked reboots, sequels lacking innovation, games that didn’t match their touted potential and a plethora of remasters, the door was left wide open for smaller, unassertive gaming experiences to step into the spotlight. Layers of Fear, a narrative-driven horror adventure, ended up being one of those. There’s something decidedly retro in its approach to the scenario, where a mentally-unstable painter explores a warped perspective on creativity in the making of his great masterpiece, tearing apart his family and his living conditions in the process. As the painter, the player navigates the shadowy halls of the house while coping with the stresses of his everyday life in an era not directly revealed, a place with clues scattered everywhere to uncover. Like Amnesia and point-and-click adventures of yore, finding these clues and solving underlying puzzles sends Layers of Fear through a funhouse of jump-scares and ominous corridors. These reflect the painter’s psychosis as he grows nearer to completing what he believes to be his legacy, encountering legit scares and unsettling outcomes depending on choices made.
2016 was a big year for claustrophobic horror, poetic animation, and laughs where one might've not expected them, which comes close to making up for the other lackluster areas of the cinematic world that you may have heard being harped upon. On top of that, the science-fiction lover in me also got to experience one of the more thought-provoking and soul-searching pieces of work to come out of the genre in many years, one that telegraphed crucial messages right when they seemed necessary. Here's hoping these movements forward in those genres continue throughout 2017, and that the power of the movies provides equal measures of escapism and reflection upon the current state of things throughout the year, something that should prove to be quite intriguing to write about over the coming months. All the best, readers; hope you enjoyed this rundown, and I hope the year treats you well.
Posted by Thomas Spurlin on 2/02/2017