Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Five Best Movies I Saw in 2016

As I've said over and over, 2016 wasn't my best years. Lots of stress and sad news, and one of the consequences of all that is my viewing time (and, perhaps, my movie-viewing attitude) was limited. So this year the annual list is cut back to five. Hopefully I'll be back to my usual ten next year. For now, as usual: these are my favorites of all the films that I saw for the first time this year, whenever they were originally released. In alphabetical order:

The Marvel Cinematic Juggernaut continues to roll forward, and old fans and new geeks continue to line up. This year's Captain America: Civil War was a great action film, and included the hugely anticipated entrance of Spider-Man to the MCU...but as time has gone by, I think Doctor Strange sticks with me as the better, more intriguing, more complete movie. The flaws I found with it (so, what Stephen Strange mastered the mystical arts in a couple of months?) originally have seemed less impressive, and its strengths (a genuinely cosmic perspective on what it means for some people to have access to powers that are simply inexplicable, with all the desire and fear that would cause) have grown more impressive in my mind. Yes, I'm curious as to how Strange will feature in the next Thor movie and subsequent Marvel properties...but I also really just want to see him sent out to explore more on his own.

Ron Howard's Eight Days a Week was a delight, mainly because The Beatles were, as individuals and as a group, a real delight: ambitious, funny, smart, and, of course, enormously talented--something that they knew and were proud of, but not especially self-conscious about, at least not for all those years when they were moving so fast, playing so often, and breaking so many records that they hardly had any time to think. By using "the Beatles on tour" as his focus, Howard was able to show me things that I'd never thought about, and lent new insight to all sorts of trivia that a Beatles geek like myself already knew well. The interviews with various stars (Sigourney Weaver, Whoopi Goldberg) should have seemed like a distraction from the more original archival stuff, but Howard weaved it into the narrative wonderfully, giving us a glimpse of stars as star-struck fans themselves, and that, too, was a delight.

I think I had heard something of the controversy over Gone Girl when it was first released, but whatever I heard I'd forgotten about by the time I watched the film, and thus I was surprised by the evil twists of this updated and vicious noir film. True, the actions of Amy confirm to all sorts of misogynistic stereotypes, but I don't think those stereotypes are just invoked for purposes of generating audience sympathy for Nick; on the contrary, I think enough of Amy's backstory is efficiently shown to help us accept her for what she is: a bad and unstable person, who married a man far too weak and self-involved to possibly enable her to escape her own crazy. I suspect that any of the great film noirs of the past--Double Indemnity or Gilda or other similar film from so many decades ago, all with their own femme fatale--were they updated to the 2010s, would play out similarly, and that's to director David Fincher's credit.

The very best thing about the wonderfully written and acted Spotlight is that, with only one exception I can think of, it never played out like your typical "striving journalist challenging the system" movie; instead, again and again the movie shows the journalists at the Boston Globe doing their jobs, following through on mundane details, and thus being reminded, again and again, that seemingly everyone already knew about the Catholic priest sexual abuse scandal--even themselves! But, until the right combination of misfortune, persistence, and journalistic ambition combined, they never put it together, never took it seriously, never were willing to tackle such a difficult story, which was exactly the situation that dozens, even hundreds, of victims and parents and administrators and enablers had found themselves in for decades. If Spotlight and its horrible yet banal story tells us anything, its a reminder of George Orwell's dictum: telling the truth is a matter of seeing clearly that which is right in front of your nose.

There were a lot of fine animated features that I saw this year: Moana, Kubo and the Two Strings, The Little Prince. But Zootopia was my favorite, for several reasons. First, because it was just so, so dang funny, and much of that credit goes to the brilliant voice actors they had behind these animated characters. Second, because some real consistent thought went in to designing the premise of the movie; from what I hear about a possible sequel, I wonder if the pursuit of a cute plot (look, Judy Hopps and Nick Wilde are a couple!) will lead them to disregard that good thinking, but even if they do, it doesn't undermine the careful imagination--different environments, different technologies, and different mores for different species!--which went into designing a world where intelligent non-domesticated mammals could all live together peacefully. Third, and most importantly, it not only didn't shy away from, dove right into questions of racism (species-ism!) that would of course plague such an imaginary city, and very cleverly build them into a smart and compelling cops-and-robbers plot. Yep, a great, great little film.


Anonymous said...

Would I be correct in assuming you still haven't seen Interstellar?


Russell Arben Fox said...

You are correct, sir. As I said, not a great year for movies for me.