Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover: In 2016 I made 19 trips to the theater to see films made that same year (well, 20 to be honest — I saw one of them twice). In Part 1 we ranked the bottom nine. And now, the countdown concludes:
10. Ghostbusters. Finally I can lay to rest the disappointing specter that had cast a loathsome pall over my onetime Ghostbusters fandom for far too long, by which I mean 1989’s Ghostbusters 2. I was prepared to skip the reboot for that reason alone, but eventually changed my mind because nowadays nothing perks up my interest in a project quite like dudes losing their minds over it for the stupidest reasons, especially sight unseen. I found the situation so embarrassing that I responded with two reviews — one after I’d seen it, and one written weeks early to help bring balance to the internet. Some of the jokes didn’t quite land where they were aimed and were awkward instead of awkward-funny, but overall our new fantasy-comedy quartet more than acquitted themselves and kept the spirit(s) of the franchise alive.
9. Star Trek Beyond. These are the voyages of the Starship Franklin. Its two-hour mission: to save strange new worlds, to seek out Idris Elba and new stunt spectacles. To furiously speed how no ship has sped before. After that unlucky Enterprise crashes into its 100th planet, director Justin Lin throws out the JJ Abrams all-homage playbook and coaches our team through a thrilling, occasionally ridiculous adventure that pauses just enough for glimmers of heart and mind to satisfy longtime, not-so-legalistic Trek fans with this shiny, speedy popcorn film. But if you think the Fast & Furious jokes are tired by now, just imagine if they’d replaced Idris Elba with Vin Diesel.
8. Arrival. One of 2016’s best-reviewed films saw love from every corner of the internet and beyond, wowing audiences with its first-contact tale that reached toward tremendous heights on both the all-important metaphorical level (i.e., if we can’t all figure out how to talk to each other, as a civilization we’re doomed) and on the hard-science-fiction level, striving for a realistic approach to what it might be like to negotiate communications with alien lifeforms who are the exact opposite of humanity in every tangible way conceivable. I was generally enthralled until the last five minutes, when the metaphors reached fruition but the “realistic” “science” avoided the simple spoiler question of how learning a foreign language would give someone superpowers. Yes, yes, I agree “Knowledge is power!”, but again, that’s laudable yet wholly metaphorical. Both tracks were zooming along so nicely that it bugged me to see a bit of gravel on one so near the finish line.
7. Kubo and the Two Strings. Very nice stop-motion fantasy about a very nice boy and his very nice animal warrior sidekicks pursuing their very nice quest with the assistance of very nice supporting actors in their very nice fight against the forces of evil. An upstanding film about which I had no real complaints except that I spent much of the running time dwelling on how very nice everything was but never felt overcome with the kind of WHOOOAAA reaction that normally hits me sooner or later in all the really great films. For what it was, it was well done and…very nice.
6. Captain America: Civil War. I liked Daniel Bruhl’s version of a plainclothes Baron Zemo, but his fiendish, 826-point grand scheme was one of the ricketiest, most absurd Rube Goldberg contraptions since OK Go’s “This Too Shall Pass”, though at least theirs worked. Grafted to that set of contrivances is the year’s most inventive and engaging film about superheroes punching each other senseless. Everyone gets a turn in the spotlight, everyone gets a “best” moment in their performance (personal verdict: T’Challa is the man), and every comic book fan who loved Marvel at age 8 gets the wildest crossover of their lives. Now if we could knock off all forms of “Civil War” across any and all media and get back to some heroes-vs.-villains conflicts (and maybe some old-fashioned role modeling?), that’d be swell and actually heroic.
5. Moana. While Pixar pinned its business plan on using the Finding Nemo cast as a virtual ATM, Disney Central gave us not one but two grade-A films in 2016. Of the two, Moana‘s ocean epic had the most traditional Disney-story structure, but upped its game both in the graphics and soundtrack departments, thanks in no small part to It-Songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda, who along with the other composers took us on a Polynesian cruise in style and transformed The Rock into a singing demigod for the ages. But even he took a back seat to newcomer Auli’i Cravalho as the princeless princess who’s destined for greater things and proving there’s musical life after “Let It Go”.
4. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. I am one with The Force; The Force is with me. I am one with The Force; The Force is with me. I am one with The Force; The Force is with me. I am one with The Force; The Force is with me. I am one with The Force; The Force is with me. I am one with The Force; The Force is with me. I am one with The Force; The Force is with me. I am one with The Force; The Force is with me. I am one with The Force; The Force is with me. I am one with The Force; The Force is with me.
3. Doctor Strange. The Marvel Cinematic Universe literally travels to brand new dimensions in one of its most visually mind-blowing installments to date. Even as reality goes insane and space-time turns inside-out, even the thespians in attendance are on point — I would posit it’s metaphysically impossible to unite the forces of Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Tilda Swinton into a single movie and somehow produce a fiasco. Even though Cumberbatch’s increasing pop-culture ubiquity seems to be enabling a wave of Cumber-backlash, anytime a filmmaker yearns to give him free rein for wisecracking at 300 words per minute, I’m there with popcorn in hand.
2. La La Land. Winner of seven Golden Globes! Vehicle for beloved young actors! Bittersweet romance that probably works as an awesome date-night idea! Soundtrack that won’t fade from your brain for days! From the Director of Whiplash! My son and I are the only people I know who’ve seen this film because everyone else is still catching up on their holiday season blockbusters. I was more than fine with missing out on Passengers, Assassins Creed, Fantastic Beasts, and Generic Animated Kiddie Musical #718 to make time for this near-perfect throwback musical. If they’d had the spine to go all-in with the old-school vibe and shoot for that dreaded ‘G’ rating, I’d’ve named it Best Film of the Year.
1. Zootopia. As with Moana, the animation is top-notch and achieves dizzying new heights. As with Arrival, the overall timely message is Dear Planet Earth: Learn to Get Along or Perish in Flames. As with Ghostbusters, Officer Judy Hopps shows us Women Can Do “Men’s” Jobs Just Fine, Thank You and Sit Down. But in my book the best thing about this wonderful, multicultural, morally jam-packed crime-dramedy is that simple scene in which Officer Hopps summons up every last ounce of courage and conviction within her not for another frenetic chase, but to pour out the full contents of her shamed heart in admitting to a good friend that she was wrong, that she’s sorry, that she hopes he’ll forgive her for wounding him to the core at a time when he needed her support the most. Truthful moments of repentance and forgiveness — to say nothing of baseline civil friendship — are almost as rare in movies as they are in today’s hateful us-vs.-them political climate. If we’re ever to indulge in fanciful notions that humanity is heading anywhere except the eve of destruction, someone’s gonna have to draw a line across these battlegrounds and declare that this kind of humility and grace starts here and now.
…and that was my 2016 at the movies. Check back with us in the months ahead and see how many times I can be cajoled out of my comfy living room for two hours of cinematic splendor out in the wild with other humans!
Special note on that subject to my local theaters: a lot of y’all are replacing your standard seating with large, puffy, electric recliners, which are nifty, but which in turn reduce the total number of seats per screen, increase the chances of sold-out shows, encourage online presales to avoid being turned away at the door, and potentially compromise my lifelong preference for buying tickets at the door for any showing I want without upcharges. You’re not Broadway, and you’re not a luxury to the American middle class. If I start missing out on new movies because your attempted paradigm shift puts me on the wrong side of your new velvet ropes, far as I’m concerned y’all can stick your recliners in the nearest Goodwill bin and I’ll wait patiently for your products on Netflix and Redbox. Or I can skip them altogether, because I am decades away from running out of entertainment options.