Monday, January 16, 2017

22 Movies I Liked Just Fine from 2016

Here we are right in the middle of the bell curve.

46. For the Love of Spock

I talked more about this on Starmageddon, but the short version is that this is a good, professional documentary celebrating the character of Spock for Star Trek's 50th anniversary. For those who haven't heard a lot of the behind-the-scenes details of Spock's development before, there are plenty of interesting anecdotes presented in a visually interesting way.

But for those of us who already know the origin of the Vulcan neck pinch, I wish there was more about Adam Nimoy's relationship with his father as well as some deeper exploration of Leonard Nimoy's relationship with his daughter. It seems like she had a different experience from her brother and I would have liked to understand that better.

45. Alice Through the Looking Glass

I loved Tim Burton's critically underrated Alice in Wonderland and would have told you that I welcomed a sequel. But the trailers for Alice Through the Looking Glass made me less excited. Burton's version sent Alice on an emotional and spiritual journey that I deeply connected to. For a sequel to be as effective, it was going to have to find a new journey for Alice, but the trailers for Looking Glass made it appear mostly interested in just offering more of what Burton did.

And that's indeed what's going on. Looking Glass is mostly about fan-service. If you liked Burton's Alice in Wonderland, here's some more with these characters and that setting. Alice even repeats her spiritual journey from the first one (a huge no-no for a sequel), just not as powerfully.

The biggest change comes in the form of Sacha Baron Cohen at the personification of Time. He's good in the part, but he's doing essentially the same schtick that he did as the more-enjoyable Station Inspector in Hugo. Adding Time as a character also introduces a time-travel element to the story, but that's all about the fan-service, too. It's just a device so that Alice can witness the origin stories of the Hatter and the Red Queen. These stories are both supposed to teach Alice something about her own life back in her world, but the messages are really trite compared to what Alice learns in the first film. Or maybe I just didn't connect to them as personally. Either way, Looking Glass was amusing enough, but offered nothing new.

44. Central Intelligence

I love The Rock. And this is my first Kevin Hart movie, but I liked him a lot, too. He's pretty much what I expected from seeing trailers for his other films.

Both actors are funny and charming, but they're also both playing super exaggerated characters in Central Intelligence. One of them needed to play it straight. Hart's got the more grounded character, but he's still out there enough that the whole movie feels flighty and rather slight. It has some great things though to say about friendship, bullies, expectations for life, and finding your calling.

43. Manhattan Night

'40s noir by way of '90s sex thriller. Unfortunately, I only like one of those genres.

The mystery is good and it resolves well with some nice surprises, but it's not the surprise classic that I was hoping for.

42. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

I don't think I'm a prude, but I may have reached the limit of the number of times I need to hear the F-bomb in my life. And I'm pretty sure Popstar doubled it. It's a funny movie with some great cameos, but I'm not connected to the world that it's parodying. This probably just makes me old.

41. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

I kind of dig what Eddie Redmayne's doing and I very much like Dan Fogler's character, but the rest of the people in the movie are uninteresting. So is the plot: a thin, easy mystery padded with unrelated scenes of Redmayne's collecting creatures. I figured that I could at least rely on some excellent world-building by JK Rowling, but even that's disappointing. Instead of a magical world that I wanted to immerse myself in, Fantastic Beasts takes place in an oppressive dystopia that I couldn't wait to get out of.

Redmayne and Fogler kept me interested and some of the creature designs are fun, so I ended up liking the movie. But I'm also aware that that's largely thanks to a tremendous amount of goodwill created in me by the Harry Potter series so far. I'll likely watch the sequel out of curiosity, but if we didn't get any more of these, I'd be okay.

40. Ghostbusters

Funny enough with some good effects and just enough story to pull it together. Which pretty much echoes my feelings about the original. It's a decent Ghostbusters remake, but my least-favorite Paul Feig movie since Bridesmaids.

39. Arrival

Has some great things to say about life and some truly unique and cool ways to say them. But it can also be on-the-nose and sloppy in the process. I might like it more after another viewing or two, but I was underwhelmed the first time.

38. Passengers


Passengers takes the romantic comedy plot formula and wraps it in a mostly humorless science fiction setting. Fortunately, it's got completely charming people to spend time with, a core dilemma worth discussing, and an ending that I quite like. I understand that not everyone feels that way about the ending, but part of what I like about the movie is that it makes that kind of disagreement and discussion possible.

37. Outlaws and Angels

Great idea for a story. A gang of brutal bank robbers invade the home of a pioneer family. When the youngest daughter of the family begins to seduce the gang's leader, it's not clear if she's doing it to save her family or escape from them. There's an excellent thriller here with some interesting characters; I just wish it weren't buried under so much graphic violence and pretentious symbolism.

36. Don’t Breathe


Another unique premise that's very good at being tense. The problem with this one though is that it's not as morally ambiguous as I was hoping for. I wanted it to let me root for the "villain," but it steals that option away and without ever giving me a good reason to root for the main characters. So I ended up very curious about, but not especially invested in, where the story was going to go.

35. Hail, Caesar!

A lot of fun, but I wish I hadn't seen the trailer, which makes it look like more of a single, cohesive story. That's what I was expecting: something along the lines of Raising Arizona or O Brother, Where Art Thou?.

Instead, Hail, Caesar! is a series of vignettes loosely tied together by some common characters. The individual pieces are all amazing and awesome; I just wanted a stronger narrative to pull everything together.

34. The Duel

A lot of cool elements here. It's a Western version of the story where a government agent has to take down the charismatic leader of a religious cult. And that's blended with an interesting murder investigation and a marriage that gradually reveals itself to be something other than it first appeared. Some of those things resolve well and some of them don't.

The two leads are just as uneven. Woody Harrelson is compelling as the cult leader, but Liam Hemsworth doesn't do enough with his Texas Ranger character. He's fine as a ruggedly stoic cowboy, but with everything he goes through, the role needs some emotion that he's not delivering.

33. Love and Friendship

I love Jane Austen movies, but this is a minor entry in the Austen film canon. It's funny and charming and I'm sure I'll revisit it, but when I'm in the mood for Austen I'll still head first to Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility or the Colin Firth Pride and Prejudice, with Douglas McGrath's Emma being a close third choice. But, if I'm marathoning Austen films, I'm not skipping this one either.

I also love Kate Beckinsale and she was a huge draw for me, but ironically, I would have liked the movie more if it had focused on her character's daughter instead. That's where the real story is.

32. Swiss Army Man

Strange and beautiful and whimsical and ultimately... deeply disturbing. I loved the journey, but the destination was nowhere I wanted to go.

31. X-Men: Apocalypse

I enjoyed it, even as I was aware that it wasn't doing anything new. It's the same basic story that the X-Men movies keep retelling; counting on my already established fondness for these characters to carry me through. A lot like the X-Men comics in that way, actually, but there's a reason I don't read X-Men comics anymore.

30. Zoolander 2

I almost didn't watch this one because of the universally horrible reviews, but I'm glad I went ahead. It's not as funny or good as the first one, but it's funny enough and I just really like spending time with these characters.

29. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Was hoping for something goofy and fun, similar to Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters. And it is, in parts, but the movie never forgets that it's based on Literature. It never lets itself get completely silly; going instead for a serious take that's occasionally interrupted by ridiculous moments.

But even though it's not exactly what I wanted, it is a pretty good version of what it wants to be. It's not a great adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, but it's an effective zombie movie with an interesting spin on the mythology around those monsters. And Lily James and Sam Riley are pretty awesome as the leads.

28. The Girl on the Train


I was considering reading the book until I saw the trailer for the movie. Whatever blurb I read about the novel made it seem like the eponymous Rachel is a complete stranger to a couple that she sees every day on her commute and then one day she notices something strange and when the woman disappears, Rachel has to solve the mystery.

That's all technically true, but the movie trailer revealed that Rachel is actually deeply connected to the couple and probably somehow involved in the woman's disappearance. I'm much more interested in characters who are drawn into adventure against their will, so I wasn't sure I cared about one who got there because of her own bad choices. But I went to see it anyway and I'm glad I did.

It's a good thriller. It's not great, but it kept my interest and Emily Blunt is awesome in it. Actually, everyone's pretty awesome in it and it has a lot of my favorite actors right now from Haley Bennett (Magnificent Seven) to Rebecca Ferguson (Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation) to Luke Evans (tons of stuff). There are even great, smaller roles for Laura Prepon, Allison Janney, and Lisa Kudrow. It's a lot of fun to watch and the mystery is compelling for a while as I'm trying to figure out what did happen to Megan (Bennett). Did she run away? Is she still alive?

Unfortunately, once that answer is revealed, Roger Ebert's Law of Economy of Characters makes it pretty easy to figure out who's responsible. It would have been a complete giveaway except that the movie doesn't play fair. It has the character abruptly change personalities as soon as they're revealed. It does this in a cool and clever way, but it's still a trick and it doesn't hold up to scrutiny. I loved watching Rachel's investigation, but felt cheated by the answers she uncovers.

27. Deadpool

The trailers and other marketing for Deadpool didn't make me laugh at all (except maybe for that poster above), so I had decided not to see the movie. But positive reviews from friends and critics made me reconsider and with little else going on at the theater one week, I checked it out.

And it's not too bad. I was surprised at how much I cared about the character even while I found him and his girlfriend super annoying. Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead are great foils whom I enjoyed whenever they showed up. And it was great to see Gina Carano and TJ Miller.

The movie has a great look to it, too, and I enjoyed the way it used music. My biggest problem with the movie is that it's just not my humor. I chuckled twice and both times were at lines that reveal character, not actual jokes. The jokes were just more of what the trailer suggested: references to sex, poop, and other movies. So while I had a pretty good time watching Deadpool, it ultimately didn't feel like it was for me.

Then again, I watched it again later in the year with a different crowd and laughed more. It may be the kind of movie that's best viewed in a living room with a bunch of friends.

26. Neon Demon

Neon Demon presents itself as a commentary on the fashion industry, but it's doing so much more than just that. I found some challenging insights about humanity's relationship with beauty in general. We're seldom able to just appreciate it for the gift that it is. Instead, we have to get all selfish about it: either becoming jealous of it or wanting to own and control it.

This is strange film and I don't always love the visuals that Nicolas Winding Refn chooses, but I very much appreciate what it's saying.

25. Free State of Jones

Bigger in scope than I expected and that's mostly a good thing. It's not so much the story of one event as it is the history of a very interesting part of Mississippi during the Civil War and into the Reconstruction period (and even into the Civil Rights Movement a little).

All based around this one guy, but what a fascinating person. I just wish it had more to say about the experiences of the black characters. That would have made it more compelling and important to me.


Erik Johnson Illustrator said...

I enjoyed Hail Ceasar for its "inside baseball" look at Old Hollywood references and in-jokes. However they may have been a turn off to casual viewers. I feel bad for anyone who came for the star studded cast but only got to see Frances McDormand, Jonah Hill and Scarlett Johansson, who got maybe two minutes of screentime each.

There was also a bit of retroactive push since the DVD release lined up with when Alden Ehrenreich was announced as young Han Solo, making it all the more amusing that he's putting in a great performance as a bad actor.

While I wouldn't rank this among the Coen's best, I would like to watch it again because I do think they are trying to say something about juxtaposing commerce with religion, its just there between the lines.

Michael May said...

I'll definitely need to watch it again. I do think there's a lot there, just in a different form than I was expecting and I didn't adjust very quickly.

Siskoid said...

Of those I saw...

Popstar is Spinal Tap for the 2000 hip-pop generation, which I'm also too old to connect to, but it made me discover The Lonely Island and from there a number of better pop artists, so I guess I think it's pretty good. I would have ranked in this same category, but it did lead to further laughs across YouTube.

Fantastic Beasts: What if Eddie Redmayne played Doctor Who. I liked it better than the Harry Potter Octology, if that means anything.

Ghostbusters: I'm a big booster of this movie. Not its plot, but then I'm not THAT keen on the original's either, but Chris Hemsworth's character made me laugh a lot and I like the all-female cast. It's no Spy, but it'll do.

Arrival: I see a lot of people put it among their Best of list. Like you, I didn't. I thought it was interesting, and I do like scientific procedurals as a rule, but I'm not sure the 3rd act twist is credible within the universe of the film. So just fine for me.

Don't Breathe: Yeah pretty good, but the villain's whole thing is on the whole, disgusting, and therefore cheap.

Hail Caesar: I think it's one that will get better and better on repeat viewings. It seemed like silly comedy vignettes at first glance, but the more I thought about it, the more interesting its underlying themes became. Would that it were so simple.

Love & Friendship: Thought it was hilarious, and I love how the Austen heroine is actually an Austen villain in this.

The Girl on the Train: Or Gone Girl on a Train, as we called it. Nice performance from Blunt, and something to say about the reliability of memory, but left me a little cold.

Deadpool: My friends went gaga over it, I thought it was just okay. Despite its irreverence and meta textual fun, it's still a formulaic movie.

The Spock documentary is in my Netflix cue, I'll see it eventually. Swiss Army Man I got for Christmas after our deep disappointment that our theaters didn't get it even though they showed the trailer. Waiting for a good time to watch it as a group. Pride & Prejudice & Zombies is another one we missed (only played a single weekend and only a 2 PM, weird) because I'm a huge fan of the director's Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter. The Neon Demon has likewise long been on my list. I'll probably take a look at some of the more indie entries in your list than I haven't seen.

Anonymous said...

The Girl on the Train: I'd seen the trailers first, but actually ended up reading the book before opting to see the movie. Having read the book I don't think I could ever enjoy the movie. Blunt is gorgeous, she doesn't look like Rachel to me. Rachel has let herself go a bit and other characters around her point it out. There's a point in which someone comments about not dropping their standards due to certain circumstances. Rachel is undesirable.

I knew who did it fairly early into the book though it was very cleverly disguised. I read too much Christie and know the ways of Hercule Poirot to be fooled. :)

The book was engrossing and I'll probably read it again, but I don't think I'll ever see the movie.

Siskoid said...

Let me preface this by saying I'm not advocating seeing the movie, but while Blunt is certainly an attractive woman, she's been put through the ringer and appears unhinged in this. After the film, my crew remarked on how badly her make-up was applied, and how she was in no way glamorized or softened the way Hollywood often presents female characters. What she wouldn't have pulled off physically, she pulls off in performance.

Whatever the film's weaknesses, Blunt isn't one of them. That said, the film may be completely redundant to somehow who has read the original material.

Michael May said...

I agree with Siskoid. I don't recommend the movie, but Blunt was fantastic and totally unglamorous in her role.

Anonymous said...

I have no doubt of Blunt's ability to portray the mental state of the character. There is an additional psychology that goes with the changes in the characters physical appearance that I would miss - only because I've read it in the book and now it's in my mind.

The trailer got me interested - now I'm just too rigid to relinquish the vision I created while reading the book. Who knows, someday I may break and give the movie a chance but I'll need some space and time before I get there.

Michael May said...

Totally understand that. I'd want to do the same thing.


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