Once again it’s National List Month, that only time of year when all of Hollywood buys “For Your Consideration” ads in newspapers to impress the AMPAS over-70 voting bloc. Meanwhile on the internet, where newspapers can’t touch us except when they’re spreading propaganda or puff pieces that their supporters have pre-approved, we dedicated theater-goers can overlook the stars’ campaigns, hash out our opinions free of influence, and vote with our bullet points. It’s just this fun thing some of us love doing even though the rules are made up and the points don’t matter.
I saw twenty-two films in theaters in 2016, but three were Best Picture nominees released in 2015 and therefore disqualified from this list, because I’m an unreasonable stickler about dates. (Ranking those from Best to Least Best: Room, The Big Short, and The Revenant…though throughout the year I mentioned The Big Short in conversations more often than any other 2015 film.) Disqualified from inclusion are four 2016 releases I watched via Netflix, Redbox, or Black Friday Bluray (which are ranked in that entry), because I let convenience and budgetary concerns talk me out of a few extra theater trips.
Of the remaining 19 contenders that I saw in theaters, I saw nine sequels (five of which were super-hero universe expansion packs), one reboot, one would-be big-budget YA series launch, three Based on a True Story (none of which were grade-A), five animated films (two of which were not-great sequels included in said count), one original musical and one original science fiction film. To be honest, 19 may be the fewest films I’ve seen in theaters in any year so far this millennium. Here’s hoping 2017 tempts me out the front door a bit more often, time permitting and quality pending.
Links to past reviews and thoughts are provided for historical reference. And now, on with the lower half of the countdown:
19. Anthropoid. I feel mean picking on an indie film as the year’s worst, but even my normally magnanimous wife had unhappy words (e.g. “boring”) for this WWII true story rendered as lots of fretting and bellowing in two-tone broom closets. The film never came alive for us until the climactic shootout had us retroactively regretting the ho-hum build-up. The biggest sin: cramming Cillian Murphy into this tiny cinematic shoebox and trusting his eventual breakout would redeem the entirety of it.
18. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. I’ll concede this punchline of a movie isn’t irredeemable — it gave us Ben Affleck’s accurate rendition of Frank Miller’s aging Batman and a promising sneak preview of the Wonder Woman movie that better not be the Worst Film of 2017. But we now have two films in which Henry Cavill has been instructed to play the dire opposite of Superman, which will continue to drive me up a wall for as long as I keep hypocritically agreeing to watch him do it. Making matters worse are the millions of fanboys who now insist, “If you want to get why it’s an awesome film, you have to watch the Ultimate Edition on DVD!” Y’know what? Maybe they were perfectly happy paying full-ticket price for what they’re implying was an incomplete product knowingly filled with bugs, filleted into incomprehensibility, and overloaded with ads disguised as scenes, only to empty their pockets again for an encore in the form of a “real” version. But I paid to see one (1) complete film the first time, not a workshop print in progress. The more that studios keep following disappointing films in theaters with a “better” version on home video, the more it looks like the suits not really repenting their sins so much as they’re executing a crass marketing ploy to swindle apologist viewers who’re all too happy to shell out cash unconditionally every single time they’re asked.
17. X-Men: Apocalypse. After two great sequels, an improved Wolverine solo outing, and the unstoppable Deadpool phenomenon, the series coasted toward more pedestrian super-heroics. Bryan Singer and company ditched still more of their own continuity, lined up another roster of action figure options, and aimed their sights on appeasing the X-fans who thought either the ’90s cartoon or the Rob Liefeld/Jim Lee years represented mutants’ finest hours. Sooner or later when Hollywood realizes general audiences don’t have the same level of enthusiasm for every famous villain or story arc, comic fans may be disappointed to see more of their bucket-list adaptations getting crossed off Fox’s to-do list. Sure hope no one’s holding their breath anticipating “Heroes Reborn”.
16. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. At last I know the heartbreak of seeing a YA book series I really like crash at its big-screen launch. The moody atmospherics of Ransom Riggs’ olde-tyme found-photo mutant escapades are given the most inappropriate colorization treatment since Ted Turner ordered his entire black-‘n’-white catalog upconverted into garish clown montages. Either the studio’s only notes were “generic super-team” and “MORE DAY-GLO”, or this kind of half-hearted non-starter is what happens when someone assigns Tim Burton to characters that weren’t an integral part of his childhood.
15. Finding Dory. Pixar’s back-‘n’-forth development strategy — an even ratio of one all-ages art film for every easy-peasy cash-in product — continues letting down us older fans who want more one-and-done originals like Inside Out (my favorite 2015 film) and a maximum of zero Cars sequels. Now it’s Nemo’s turn to perform once more for the corporate accountants, except he and poor Albert Brooks are relegated to virtual cameos while TV’s Ellen DeGeneres riffs on the same joke for 80-odd minutes. The tender “young Dory” sequences deserve a feature-length exploration; the disposable misadventures of ocean life jumping in mop buckets and magically driving semi trucks, on the other hand, was a Saturday morning cartoon in search of an undiscerning network.
14. Sully. In another case of a film stumbling in the final act, Tom Hanks and Aaron Eckhart do justice to the heroic duo of Captain “Sully” Sullenberger and copilot Jeff Skiles, who against all odds saved 155 people from becoming another set of plane-crash statistics with their stunning impromptu Hudson River landing. Unfortunately the famous “Miracle on the Hudson” — and the equally critical first-responders who picked up their relay-baton and finished saving the day — apparently wasn’t story enough to deserve a full-budgeted theatrical film in itself, so director Clint Eastwood had the post-crash standard board review (which by Sullenberger’s own account was amicably conducted and wholly non-contentious from start to finish) rewritten into a laughable, axe-grinding courtroom drama in which Big Bureaucracy threatens to pin the billion-dollar damages on these innocent, folksy pilots with a stock soulless gusto. Why waste resources distorting a proven non-example of corporate malfeasance into this shape when Real Life has given us so, so many instances worthy of a cinematic exposé? Granted, The Big Short used up several, but last I checked, 2016 replenished the supply for years to come.
13. Suicide Squad. Once more for the cheap seats: I don’t care if the “extended edition” home-video version transformed this nearly adequate DC film into the second coming of The Dark Knight. Viola Davis, Jay Hernandez, Margot Robbie, and Will Smith (playing Mirror Universe Bad Boys instead of the Deadshot I knew) stuck to the spirit of my ’80s comics fandom until blockbuster formula dictated they excuse themselves from David Ayer’s shrewdly crafted street-level anti-heroics and instead go through the motions of preventing world destruction at the hands of Doctor Strange-level sorcery. Honestly, dudes should be madder at the entire final act of this compromised flick containing large photocopied parts of Ghostbusters than at its own reboot.
12. Race. An insightful look back at the controversial 1936 Olympics and the tense negotiations between the notorious Joseph Goebbels who wants a perfect Germany broadcast worldwide and fussy filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, who wants the unvarnished truth even if it means the occasional imperfect glimmer, such as footage of Germans cheering nonwhite foreigners winning gold medals. Back in the boardrooms, Jeremy Irons and William Hurt debate America’s very participation given the strained political climate, while down in the locker rooms Jason Sudeikis turns in a rare serious role as the coach determined to see his racers through their events despite the racism coming at them from all directions, including from within. Once again we have another movie-about-moviemaking that hoped to cross the finish line for this year’s awards season. Oh, wait, one major problem: this is actually a biopic of record-breaking runner Jesse Owens released during Black History Month. Stephan James represents the legend well, but had to fight so hard for room to breathe between all those key white subplots that he got left behind at the starter’s pistol months ago.
11. Kung Fu Panda 3. The original KFP remains one of the Top 5 DreamWorks Animated classics; the second was just-okay. (I mean, a peacock for a Big Bad?) The third is slightly better, mostly harmless, wise in its commentary on “real” versus real fathers, and only moderately embarrassing for adults unenthused with fart-yuks. The martial arts haven’t lost their zing and the Asian panoramas are gorgeous to behold, but it’s a shame to see a gruff JK Simmons playing a one-note bad guy uncharacteristically bereft of wit. Still holding out hope for a Master Chicken spinoff, though, or at least a Master Chicken short in front of the next How to Train Your Dragon sequel.
To be continued!