Scroll down if you just want the top 10, read through for my list of things I thought about movies in 2016.
- Carrie Fisher died today. Perhaps it’s this numbing year of obituary after obituary but I find myself mostly grateful for her work and sorry she predeceased her poor mother, Debbie Reynolds. I know how tacky it is to mourn someone you never met and with whom you had nothing in common, but surely there’s more to say than “Poor me, Carrie Fisher is dead.”
Fisher was, of course, a wonderful actress in everything from Hannah and Her Sisters to The Man With One Red Shoe to Soapdish, and her métier was comedy despite her association with the role that will feel her absence most keenly because it will continue to grow even without her, Princess Leia Organa in the Star Wars movies. Maybe it’s because she was funny that we like her so much those films: Yes, the sight of her in that chainmail two-piece ruined a generation of young men, but there are lots of pretty women in the movies. Fisher managed to sell herself as the most important character in a scene with a huge talking slug puppet, and Leia made sure the monster never messed with her again, and saved Han Solo in the process. It’s a quirk of contemporary intellectual property law that the Huttish Walt Disney Company keeps its chains around Princess Leia as though she was extricable from Fisher’s watershed performance. Comics and cartoons and video games featuring her likeness will be made for years to come – some of them likely worth taking in, though I pray she’s not further zombified onscreen (Rogue One bodes ill on that score). The persistence of intellectual property obscures a more important problem: The baby boomers are hitting their golden years, and we saw the early deaths in 2016 – Fisher was 60. It’s a moment that will last for a while and one we’ll all have to get used to, and in far more personal ways, I suspect.
So by all means, let’s mourn Fisher for Return of the Jedi and your favorite pinup spread in a cheap magazine and every dumb sex joke she ever delivered. Those are things real people do; whether or not they’re mistakes at least they’re not strings of code designed to tickle some rotting half-remembered emotional response. Carrie Fisher lived. Pour out some blue milk for her.
- I didn’t see Knight of Cups, Nocturnal Animals, Manchester by the Sea, or Everybody Wants Some!!. I missed Moonlight through sheer sloth and heard such wildly mixed reviews of La La Land that I haven’t bothered yet. I will see Fences. The one I’m sorriest to have missed is The Witch. These are all grave omissions, I know, I know. I will rectify some of them. I will see either Moana or Silence this weekend.
- Zack Snyder’s sneering objectivist Batman was the only good thing about Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which was I think one of the worst films I’ve ever had the misfortune to sit through. At least I did it for work. Aesthetics and politics aren’t indivisible but they do inform each other: I suspect Snyder would direct an okay adaption of Randian nut* Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, which is clearly the movie he wished he was making while dumb old company-mandated equal time for Superman spoiled his fun. The sections of the movie where Snyder is adapting the work of someone who agrees with him politically, as opposed to his adaptation of Watchmen by Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore, the latter of whom disagrees with Snyder on the color of the sky, are completely okay. He even manages to pull panels and pages out of the Miller book, and this works much better with Miller’s artwork than it did with Gibbons’s. My theory here is that Miller’s stuff is really heavily stylized and exaggerated and flat; Gibbons works dimensionally and in carefully correct proportions and clearly understands every corner of every room he draws before he puts pencil to paper, so reproducing him on film is redundant. With Miller, Snyder has to make choices and because they’re so simpatico – like it or not, Snyder’s 300 is a solid adaptation of Miller’s graphic novel – he makes very effective ones. They last for about 1/5 of a movie that seems longer than Cleopatra and is roughly as funny.
*This is not a knock on Randian nuts. Many Randian nuts make amazing visual art. Steve Ditko, Dave Sim, Miller himself – if you’re a self-involved neurotic who’s afraid to go outside you may find Rand’s philosophy attractive and you may also have the personal discipline and unusual perspective necessary to make things like Sin City and Spider-Man.
- As nearly everybody has noted, this was a great year for people to get performatively reactionary about movies they hadn’t seen yet, which gets on my very last nerve every single time irrespective of political alignment, although the stuff from the right happened right up in my face (which suggests that it was a lot more omnipresent and fully realized than the bitching on the internet I read from the left) and was *super horrible* and got far less attention than thirsty performers and wannabe-journalists trying to get interviews to talk about their personal virtue in lieu of actual work. My read on this is that liberal woke take merchants are A. more visible because they’re not reflexively ashamed of themselves the way people caught spraypainting ethnic slurs usually are, and B. deeply odious in their naked self-promotion, which makes for a perfect hate-read. Thus they pull focus from actual swastika-graffiti racism, about which more in a moment.
Whether people were theatrically missing what was actually objectionable about Matt Damon participating in Zhang Yimou’s One China propaganda flick Great Wall (riddle me this: how is it “whitewashing” if the director, all the producers, and the government overseeing production are Chinese) or getting angry with Marvel about its new Spider-Man movie for [TK] reasons, liberals were super embarrassing about problems that were either in their imaginations or that well-meaning people were already trying to fix. They cried wolf so often that people were already halfway through a preemptive eye-roll when really outrageous nonsense did take place, like Scarlett Johanssen getting the role of Motoko in Ghost in the Shell* or a hilariously non-Egyptian cast of Egyptian gods Gods of Egypt. The takeaway from most of this was that liberal nerds are prone to the same gross entitlement and reflexive reductionism as are conservative nerds, and if there’s one thing that unites people across lines of gender, color and politics, it’s the impulse to shittily demand that artists make the movie or comic or TV show that is in your head rather than the one they want to make. Weirdly, I find that encouraging. At least when people get death threats from strangers in 2016, sometimes it’s over the lack of roles for people of color and not the fact that poor Kurt Busiek wrote a scene where Thor beats up Superman. I am always tempted to engage with this stuff on Twitter and I usually opt out because the smart people doing it are unpleasant social climbers about 80% – not all – of the time and the dumb people doing it are frustrating, but that’s why I’m writing about it at length here; it’s at least a discussion of moment.
That was the tame stuff, though: Conservatives accused Rogue One writer Chris Weitz of encouraging “white genocide,” which, white genocide, yay, and threatened to boycott the movie, which lollllllll. Then a little more locally and much much much worse in my uneasily integrating neighborhood filled with very nice Muslims and wild-eyed white dudes selling each other heroin, assholes scrawled swastikas on a poster for Ride Along 2 (it has black people in it, which triggers them and makes them need a safe space) and wrote TRUMP TRUMP TRUMP on a poster for Ava DuVernay’s documentary about slavery, 13th.
Bad show, species!
*Rinko Kikuchi? Maggie Q, at the very least? My suspicion is this is ageism toward Asian-American stars who would be a natural fit for the part, like Michelle Yeoh or Lucy Liu – yes I know they’re both Chinese-American and Maggie Q is Hawaiian and while that’s its own can of worms, performing is about appearance and no one can tell me that Scarlett Johanssen, great-looking as she is, appears to be in any way of Asian descent – rather than uncomplicated racism. TL;DR: Who wants a sexy robot over 40? Anyway for a taut and philosophically complex and quasi-feminist movie about the unconventional desires of sexy robots, albeit one made exclusively by white people, I recommend Alex Garland’s Ex Machina.
- I went to see Lady Ghostbusters and it was like being in a parallel universe that contained only my seat; I thought all the jokes were played out before they were even delivered and that I’d seen better work from literally everyone in the principal cast within the past year, but all three folks I went with enjoyed it so incredibly much, loved the callouts to the original movie, loved Kate McKinnon’s annoying schtick, and so on. So it was hard for me to hate it given that I had a good time by proxy. Stripped of the hype and with a little perspective, it feels to me like one of those misbegotten late-90’s SNL-sketch-turned-movie movies we used to get I assume because Lorne Michaels had nude pictures of Jeff Zucker. Those exercises are pretty pleasant memories in retrospect. I mean, I have fond recollections of A Night at the Roxbury whether or not it’s a good movie, which it isn’t. Drenching that formula in nostalgized corporate branding is maybe Not My Favorite, though perhaps that’s a little disingenuous: Whether it’s a cynical exercise in sleeper-cell manipulation of people who’ve been programmed since childhood to say, “Aw! Slimer!”, everybody loves being reminded of their childhood toys. I just played with Marvel Comics action figures, I guess.
- Speaking of whom, I enjoyed Captain America: Civil War, so that should tell you something about how far you can trust me to resist corporate entertainment, although it felt a little like a trailer for the next ten Marvel Comics movies. Which I’m disappointingly fine with. I really like watching trailers. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was perfectly fun; quite a bit better than the last few Harry Potter flicks, I thought, mostly because it didn’t have the weight of a bunch of books before it and a bunch more after it that the entire audience has read several times to weigh it down. I was the only one of my friends to like Deadpool, which made me laugh out loud several times. I find Ryan Reynolds charming and love Morena Baccarin though I realize the former is not for all tastes. If you don’t like Morena Baccarin that’s your problem, not mine.
- I must be some sort of monster because I only sort-of liked Finding Dory, a movie that has some nice things to say about raising a child with a disability at the very, very end and basically nothing to say right up until that point. The Disney and Disney-adjacent movies are getting simpler and less interested in moral complexities and differences, and that’s not actually what I want from a kids’ movie. I love kids’ movies; two of them are on my top 10 at the bottom of the page, but this one… I dunno. Meh. The longer I think about Inside Out the more I actually hate it and think it’s manipulative trash, and Finding Dory feels like it remembers it has a soul only at the last possible juncture. That’s not to say that the screenwriters don’t go for broke in a really terrific way at that amazing moment, just that it’s the only real moment in the movie.
- I opted out of a bunch of high-budget blockbuster-wannabe superhero movies this year, which was unusual for me. Among them were Suicide Squad and X-Men: Apocalypse, both of which looked worse than cancer and took people hitting each other in designer swimwear very seriously for a combined nearly five hours of putative entertainment. I am, with apologies to the director of this year’s second-best movie, too old for that shit. I missed Star Trek Beyond and Jason Bourne, both of which I will probably catch on a lazy Saturday or an airplane somewhere, and I heard nothing but raves about Sausage Party, which just came out at a personally busy time. It’s on the list. I’m thrilled the Ben-Hur remake failed. I’ll watch Yoga Hosers some day and deny it. I’m amazed Ed Zwick, of Glory and The Last Samurai fame, directed a Jack Reacher movie; he must be a Scientologist. I wish Hacksaw Ridge had received more attention, because whether or not he’s a bigot, Mel Gibson is a killer director and should be cut at least as much slack as Roman Polanski. Arrival looked like it would depress the hell out of me, so I didn’t see it.
- On to the truly grave prestige-picture disappointments: Snowden was just dreadful, with hints of the stealth adaptation of 1984 it could have been if Oliver Stone had any fucks left to give after snorting them all away. The only Western Antoine Fuqua appears to have ever seen, ever, is the one he made, an appallingly misbegotten remake of The Magnificent Seven with Denzel Washington in the lead and no one on the crew or the production team with the historical or narrative skills to grapple with what that actually might *mean* to the enterprise of the film. I blame Nic Pizzolatto, our very own Tom Clancy, which is to say the best-loved bad writer of his day.
- My favorite movies this year:
1. Hail, Caesar! – Leave it to the Coen Brothers to thread a superdense Christian allegory aligning Jesus with exiled socialists through a shaggy-dog yarn about a blacklist-era Hollywood production of a hamfisted Jesus movie in the vein of The Robe. It’s just a total delight to anybody who loves old movies, or socialism, or Jesus, and a particular gift to those of us who like all three.
2. The Nice Guys – I hope Shane Black makes a third wiseassy buddy cop movie, with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, so the box set is tidy. They should teach this movie in screenwriting classes. The structure is perfect and so is the dialogue.
3. Kubo and the Two Strings – The movie that will probably destroy Laika with its terribly low gross is also the stop-motion studio’s best, better even than its transcendent Paranorman or its most popular film, Coraline. I blurbed this for our end-of-year roundup and will link when it goes up. It’s a fantasy story set in an idealized Edo-period Japan and I was just astonished by its amazing beauty.
4. Shin Godzilla – Written and co-directed by Hideaki Anno, creator of anime masterpiece Neon Genesis Evangelion, this live-action Godzilla movie A. scared the hell out of me and B. kept up an amazing pace for the whole of its running time. The monster looks amazingly like he’s stepping on large parts of Japan, largely because Anno and Shinji Higuchi film these incredible, highly disturbing establishing shots that look like every documentary of Japan you’ve ever seen except with a terrifying monster crawling – yes, crawling – through them. I have no idea how they did it. They look for all the world like composite shots but they can’t possibly be because of the expense.
5. Zootopia – I really liked this Big Sleep-style detective movie about conspiracies and racism and talking animals. Your mileage may vary on whether or not the central conceit works but I spend a long time trying to predict the plot and failing.
6. Rogue One – Despite its ghoulish CGI resurrections, Rogue One thrills just as often as the best of its predecessors, benefiting tremendously from what appears to be a lot of uncredited work by ace director (and one of the film’s credited screenwriters) Tony Gilroy, who reportedly shot a ton of pickup after the movie had wrapped principal photography. Gilroy’s films Michael Clayton and Duplicity are two of my favorite movies of the aughts; I was not prepared for the way he handled the compromised nature of this movie’s heroes, or for the scenery-chewing turn from Forrest Whitaker. Gilroy always finds interesting uses for big-ticket movie stars – in other films, he’s had Julia Roberts as a honeypotting industrial spy and George Clooney as an amoral fixer who grows a conscience; Whitaker gets to deliver one of those fills-up-the-screen performances you’d be likelier to see from Gary Oldman or the late Alan Rickman. I both admired this movie and want action figures from it.
7. Doctor Strange – I think I’m the only one of my friends who truly loved Doctor Strange but love it I did. I loved the eye-melting psychedelic sequence, I loved Wimbledon Tennismatch, I loved the revelation that the heroic Ancient One’s fantastical powers are by definition tainted, I loved both the death scene and the deaths scene, and the beautiful time-running-backwards finale.
8. The BFG – I bring you good news as apparently the only person in America to have watched Steven Spielberg adapt Roald Dahl, why on earth weren’t there lines around the block for this, but I guess that’s how things go these days. Anyway there is no better actor working than Mark Rylance and this is a remarkably un-condescending kids’ movie from Spielberg, whose visual vocabulary exceeds everyone else’s in the form.
9. 10 Cloverfield Lane – About ten years ago when I first started off at Variety, TV networks would take out “For Your Consideration” ads for their stars before every single awards show, as a matter of course, just to show they cared, and I remember very distinctly a TV awards ad for an elderly soap opera star whose name escapes me. The blurb they’d picked from her reviews was a helpless critic observing, “Good acting is where you find it.” It’s not the best compliment in the world of acting but it might be the truest: this movie had some really boss acting, especially from John Goodman, who turns in an Anthony Perkins-level performance here. Go see it.
10. My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea – A goofy animated movie from the delightful indie cartoonist Dash Shaw, MEHSSItS is basically a feature-length episode of Doug. It’s a cute film, and the aesthetic is somewhere between Heavy Metal and Nicktoons. It’s quite short and a little unsure of its own ambition but I liked it a lot and thought it was visually gorgeous. I talked to Shaw about it.