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Everybody Wants Some!! (2016)

29 Mar



Smith’s Verdict: ****
Reviewed by Tanner Smith

One of my favorite filmmakers is Richard Linklater. No one can write dialogue and direct a large group of actors to convey what he’s going for in his screenplays quite like him. (Well…except for perhaps his French New Wave influences, but work with me here.) He gets a group of characters together from his own memory and/or imagination, gives them interesting subjects to talk about, and like his avid fans, I’m interested in what they have to say, when/where they say it. Among his impressive resume, “Dazed and Confused” is a cult classic that followed 1970s high-schoolers on the last day of school, “Boyhood” showed a boy come of age over the course of 12 years, and his “Before…” trilogy (“Before Sunrise,” “Before Sunset,” and “Before Midnight”) showed the progression of a romantic relationship—all based on mundane material, made interesting by intelligent writing.

And that also goes for “Everybody Wants Some!!,” a film set in Texas over the course of two days leading up to the first day of college for a bunch of baseball jocks (and in 1980). What do they have to talk about? Oh, they have lots. Competition. Subcultures. Cruising chicks. Pickup techniques. Living in the moment. Nostalgia. And occasionally, baseball. (There’s only one scene which features the players on the field, for “voluntary” practice, which is actually mandatory.)

I think my favorite topic of conversation arrives as one of the team, freshman pitcher Jake (Blake Jenner), realizes that he and the team have partied in many different local scenes—a discotheque, a cowboy bar, and a punk-rock concert—and thus taken on different identities mainly for the prospect of getting laid. “It’s not phony,” his enthusiastic teammate Finn (Glen Powell), assures Jake. “It’s adaptive.” (And this is before they attend a theatre party on campus.) It is adaptive, just as veteran players adapt to newcomers on the field and 18-19-year-olds adapt to being away from home for the first time.

There are many appealing characters in this ensemble, including—McReynolds (Tyler Hoechlin), who treats everything like a competition, even table tennis for which he meets his match with Jake; Willoughby (Wyatt Russell), who lives for the game and especially the team camaraderie; and Billy “Beuter” (Will Brittain), who is an outcast because of his Southern accent. Finn is my favorite character of the bunch—he’s a senior who is the smartest/sharpest and always has a philosophy on hand whenever one or a few of his teammates partakes in something unusual, whether in the fraternity house or out on the town, and he’s happy to share them with the incoming freshman players.

The film is almost entirely focused on this large group of young men, meaning the women they try and pick up are either underdeveloped or objects for them to try and obtain. Thankfully, there is one exception: Beverly (Zoey Deutch), a performing arts major who notices Jake, which in turn gets him to notice her. (That’s a refreshing take—sometimes in life, you simply like the people who like you.) As Jake tracks her down and starts up conversation with her, she’s able to introduce him (and his teammates, who insist on tagging along) to a whole other side of campus. What results is the sweetest part of the film, as Jake and Beverly form a nice, real connection that could lead to a college romance.

By the time the film ends with the first day of history class, with “Frontiers are where you find them” written on the board, the message is very clear to us after two days of partying in a new place with new potential best friends—wherever you go, there’s always room for opportunity. What comes of that opportunity is an interesting adventure (or “frontier,” if you will). Most of us remember our first time at college and will never forget it. With “Everybody Wants Some!!,” Linklater captures the setting, the tone, and the spirit perfectly. And he gave us some appealing characters with interesting things to say as well.


Southside With You (2016)

8 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Richard Tanne’s “Southside With You” is a sweet romance about the most important of dates in any relationship: a first date. It may not seem so important while it’s happening, of course, but when there’s a second date and a third and maybe even a long-term committed relationship that comes from it. There may be other times that couples look back on with more fondness, but deep down, they know that “first date” was the most special time in their lives.

Set in 1989, “Southside With You” is about two young adults who work in a Chicago law firm. He’s a Harvard Law student working for the summer as an associate for the firm. And she’s his advisor, a hard-working young lawyer. He invites her to a community-organizing meeting, picks her up, and, well…it doesn’t start for a couple more hours, and he also invites her to see some exhibits at a local art center…and maybe get a bite to eat too. “This is not a date,” she informs him. “Until you say it is,” he assures her.

She’s not looking for a relationship with a coworker, particularly him. She’s black; he’s black; she’s concerned about what her coworkers might think. “How’s it gonna look if I start dating the first cute black guy who walks through the firm’s doors?” she says. “It would be tacky.”

His response? “You think I’m cute?”

Thus is the start of a will-they-or-won’t-they day in which these two brilliant, motivated, likable individuals get to know one another a little more and enjoy being in each other’s company. They spend the whole day talking about numerous topics, including art, family, empathy for others, idealisms, even “Good Times” (“DYNOMITE!”) and Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” (which they go see at a movie theater together). He learns there’s more to her than a highly-motivated young African-American woman who fights to be taken seriously at the firm, which is mostly dominated by older white men. After hearing him speak at the community meeting, she realizes his full potential as a public speaker. They realize qualities in one another that they truly admire.

And their conversations are fun and interesting to listen to, with dialogue written by Tanne, and they’re also wonderfully acted, by Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers. They both give immensely charming performances as two ambitious young people who might just be perfect for each other.

And just who are these two people, you may ask? Well, maybe if I share their names, you might have some idea as to who they are: Michelle Robinson and Barack Obama. That’s right—“Southside With You” is about the first date between the First Couple of 2008-2016 in the summer of 1989. But it’s not a political statement (though that’s not to say political affiliates won’t see it as such), nor may it be entirely factual (though I do wonder what the Obamas themselves think of this film), nor are there any obvious foreshadowing lines of dialogue such as, “Wow, Barack, you should go into politics!” (Not even a single “Yes We Can” is uttered once.) It’s first and foremost a romance; a first date between two charming, brilliant young people that may escalate into something more. (And it makes the film even more charming when you remember what happens with the characters’ real-life counterparts later on down the road.) And as such, it’s successful.

With a unique, nearly-perfect blend of hot-topic debates and emotional realizations of the past, all of which is shared between two interesting characters, “Southside With You” is a nice (albeit idealized) little romance that gives me a relationship about which I can care and by which I am intrigued. Even if it weren’t the future POTUS and his wife, I’d still follow these two. And that’s a high compliment to how well-realized they are. This is a sweet film.

Moonlight (2016)

8 Nov


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Warning—some spoilers ahead!

Oscars viewers who were distraught by the snubbing of the game-changing coming-of-age film “Boyhood” for the Best Picture statue are now redeemed after another groundbreaking coming-of-age film took home the award (but just barely—look up the 2017 Oscars controversy if you don’t know about it already). That film is Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight,” a small indie film that portrays three important moments in time for a young gay black man, as he grows from child to teenager to adult. Critics and film-festival audiences adored it, as did more mainstream audiences when the film hit theaters, and it became the “little film that could (and did).”

And for good reason—it is a REALLY good film. I missed it before I wrote my “2016 Review” post for this blog, but it surely would’ve made my top-5-films-of-the-year.

“Moonlight” shows us three chapters in the life of our main character Chiron. It’s like a trilogy of 40-minute short films in a way, starting with the segment titled “Little,” in which we first meet him as a young boy (played by Alex Hibbert) nicknamed Little. He lives in a Miami ghetto with his single mother (Naomie Harris) but would rather not spend nights at home often, due to his mother being constantly strung out on drugs and knowing more about punishing her son than showing affection towards him. When local drug pusher Juan (Mahershala Ali) finds him hiding from bullies in an abandoned house, Chiron doesn’t want to go home and instead spends the night at Juan’s before he finally tells Juan where he lives. Juan becomes Chiron’s father-figure (and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae) is like a surrogate-mother), as Chiron’s real father is nowhere to be found. He teaches him to swim, gives him crucial advice and tells him he’s going to grow up facing more troubles. But he also teaches him the importance of reacting such troubles.

Then we flash-forward to the next segment, titled “Chiron,” when Chiron (now played by Ashton Sanders) is a high-school teen, still dealing with his angry, drugged-out mother and enduring rougher bullying than before. He also has a sexual awakening after a long period of figuring things out within himself. Juan is out of the picture (though Chiron still spends some nights at Teresa’s), but Chiron still has a friend in classmate Kevin (Jharrel Jerome). But in the midst of his troubles comes peer pressure, which leads to a violent encounter that causes a rift between him and Kevin.

The final segment, “Black,” features Chiron (now played by Trevante Rhodes) as a 20something-year-old man with a new nickname: Black. He’s left Miami and moved to Atlanta after spending some time in juvenile hall, and he’s now a drug dealer, much like his mentor Juan was. He’s still sensitive and thoughtful, but you couldn’t tell by looking at his now-muscular appearance. He returns to his hometown, where he reunites with his mother and Kevin. The reunion between Chiron and Kevin is more meaningful, as the two catch up, Kevin talks about how he turned his life around, Chiron admits his true feelings, and the ending is ambiguously hopeful (more positive than how the film began).

“Moonlight” is not merely an exploration of a man coming to terms with his sexuality. It’s a film that shows how important it is to love yourself before you can love others. It’s often said in other sources that if you don’t love yourself, the insecurities get the better of you, which leads to unpleasant confrontations with the people in your life. That would help explain the behavior of Chiron’s mother Paula—when I saw this film a second time, the scene in the “Chiron” segment in which she goes through mixed emotions while on crack, I couldn’t help but wonder what was on her mind, how she grew up, what brought her to this, and more. This is a person who doesn’t love herself and thus doesn’t treat her son with the love he deserves. And once I considered that, that made their reunion in “Black” all the more powerful. (That’s all I’ll say about that.) And so here you have Chiron, who is going through so many issues in life, doesn’t have many people to call his friends or family, is confused about himself, faces intolerance and poverty, and could easily go down the wrong path for the rest of his life (which is why it’s alarming when he commits a certain act in “Chiron”). With confidence and love, he can overcome these things and turn it all around, which is what we hope will be the case when he reunites with Kevin.

The subject of an African-American male growing up gay is rarely seen in films, and director Barry Jenkins knows just how to tackle it: by making the themes universal so that even audience members who aren’t gay or black or even male can find something big in this small film that they can completely relate with. (And this is an odd observation, but I couldn’t help but notice the lack of camera-shaking in the successful attempts to make the camerawork look/feel more “realistic.”)

But of course, it’s one thing to have a gripping script with a look/feel that seems genuine; it’s another if the right actors can pull off these roles. And boy, do they. The cast is across-the-board excellent, with all three main actors capturing all three sides of Chiron brilliantly. Naomie Harris is also brilliant showing the angry and bitter but also human and sad sides of a single mother with too many problems of her own to show love and affection to her son. And last but certainly not least, Mahershala Ali is outstanding as Juan. It’s not a big role, as he’s only present for the “Little” segment, but to say he makes the most of it would be an understatement. Now, I have a little story I want to share—I missed seeing this film in 2016 and only saw it after it won the Best Picture Oscar; Ali’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar clip convinced me I had to see it as soon as possible.

“Moonlight” is a film that is absorbing, rich, and more importantly, real. Much of it is bleak, but that’s what’s needed for the more uplifting, sobering aspects to take effect. The ending successfully shows that in life, there are no ways of going back (and no reason to either), the things you go through make you who you are, and where you go from here on out is ultimately up to you. That it all comes a film that is this well-acted and well-executed makes it all the more powerful and deserving of the Best Picture win.

La La Land (2016)

17 Feb
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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land,” Chazelle’s follow-up to the award-winning “Whiplash,” is both in the tradition of the old-fashioned Hollywood Musical and yet at the same time, it’s not quite. It’s in the tradition in that it features singing and dancing as well as stellar cinematography and choreography, it tells a compelling story while doing so, it has the feel of a musical like “Singin’ in the Rain” and “West Side Story” among others, and it enchants the audience. But Chazelle doesn’t rely on all that to make the film great. In fact, he actually moves past the traditional old-school Hollywood-happy-ending to continue the story for an additional half-hour or so, and in doing so, he delivers something far more compelling in the final act than audiences would have expected.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. “La La Land” is the best musical (or at least, best non-animated musical) to come around in a long time. It’s more energetic, nostalgic, and heartfelt than other musicals from the past decade or so (like “Les Miserables” and “Chicago”), while at the same time, it’s something more.

“La La Land” is gloriously made. You could swear Chazelle copied the entire rulebook of moviemaking from the 1950s-1960s. It’s wonderful to look at, with magnificent color pallettes, masterful camerawork that continues for long takes and doesn’t stop moving, and of course, being a musical, fun choreography for the lead actors, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, to shine through. You’d think this film was made in that popular era of musicals—even though “La La Land” is set in modern times, it doesn’t feel like it. (And that’s not a bad thing.) The opening scene alone is a masterstroke of nostalgia and effervescence—a musical number on a jammed freeway, where drivers, rather than express anger at their shared predicament, sing and dance together.

The story takes place in Los Angeles and focuses on two struggling artists—jazz musician Sebastian (Gosling) and actress Mia (Stone). They meet in the opening traffic jam (well…sort of; watch the movie, you’ll see what I mean). As time goes on, they spend more and more time together until they eventually fall in love and share a relationship.

It’s basically a love story in which boy meets girl, but here, we see something that you don’t often see in most boy-meets-girl stories—the complications of maintaining the relationship when you’re pursuing your own personal dream. They learn this the hard way when Sebastian can’t play the type of old-school jazz he wants to perform and he works for modern jazz performer Keith (John Legend) just to make some much-needed money. This causes a rift between Sebastian and Mia’s relationship as Sebastian isn’t happy doing what he does, Mia is still struggling in her pursuit of her own dream, they don’t see each other very much anymore, and hearing him talk about how upset he is about his job is too much for her.

Can I just say how ingenious the commentary is, with the Keith-jazz subplot alone? Sebastian wants to cling to his jazz heroes of the past by playing in their style, but Keith, who plays jazz for a more commercial demographic to bring in modern audiences, lets it down harshly that if artists (such as jazz musicians) don’t update for the future, that means people who celebrate the past too much will kill the art. That can actually be a bold statement for “La La Land” itself, because while Chazelle does use many elements of past inspirations for his craft, he tries his best (and succeeds) at bringing in a new way of delivering his own art—taking the things that inspired him, using what modern techniques he learned as a budding filmmaker, and blending them both resulted in something as beautiful as “La La Land.”

The back half of “La La Land” is nothing short of brilliant. If Chazelle really wanted to cling to the traditions of the past, he would’ve ended the film early on and given the audience a lovely happy ending. But no—the film continues for another 30-45 minutes to show the harsh truths of what happens after the couple thinks they’ve had their “happily ever after.” It shows how hard it is for two people who have different goals and ambitions, as well as the even harsher truth that all dreams come with a price. And when trying to be the best at what you can do is not as easy it seems and even harder than people say it is.

There is something I am curious about: what did Chazelle have to go through before he made it big as a filmmaker? Thinking about the films he’s made so far, I notice a pattern. In “Whiplash,” there was a young drummer who got brutally pushed to his limits to be “great,” and it showed the pain the poor kid had to go through to achieve recognition. In “Grand Piano,” which he wrote, Elijah Wood played a pianist who was threatened with death if he hit a wrong note while performing a difficult piece at a concert. And now, we have “La La Land,” in which Chazelle’s characters pursue their dreams, just as his previous characters in “Whiplash” and “Grand Piano” had pursued theirs, and their happy ending is not at all what they expect, and they don’t know how to feel about it. With this pattern, I have to wonder if Chazelle’s films are autobiographical at all…

I don’t want to make “La La Land” sound very depressing, because really, what I just wrote was all in interpretation. The ending, which I won’t give away, is actually rather beautiful and thought-provoking (while it may be upsetting for some audiences who expect something they’re more used to). In fact, it could serve as a short film by itself. It stirred an emotional response from me and my girlfriend when we first saw it—we left the theater talking about it immediately after.

The songs are all great, two in particular stay fresh in my memory (“Audition,” which is Mia’s theme, and “City of Stars,” which Sebastian sings to himself when pondering the future), but it’s Gosling and Stone’s movements, energy, and acting that overcome and astound me. Gosling and Stone aren’t the best singers, but that’s not important—what’s important is how they play every single number, which they do to the best of their abilities. These are performances that make other actors jealous.

There’s no other way to put it—I love “La La Land.” I love everything about it. I love the mixes of the past and the future. I love the energy put into it. I love the rich necessities that make the story more compelling. I love the performances. I love the style and look of it all. I simply love it. It is the best musical I’ve seen in a long time.

The Invitation (2016)

17 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

There’s something to be admired about the Slow-Burn. It’s when you know something is coming (but you’re not exactly sure what), and you’re allowing yourself to be patient enough to ride it all the way through. And then, when the ultimate resolution arrives, it makes you look at the whole film a different way, thus making you want to see it again. (I keep using “you,” but I really just mean myself. But judging by the Internet reception of the film in question, I’m not alone in this.)

Not many recent thrillers have the Slow-Burn, which is why I deeply appreciate the time and effort that was put into Karyn Kusama’s masterful thriller “The Invitation.”

“The Invitation” is a psychological thriller about the dinner party from hell. It begins as Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) arrive at a party at Will’s old house in the Hollywood Hills…and they were invited by Will’s ex-wife, Eden (Tammy Blanchard), whom Will hasn’t seen in about two years. (Awkward…) She is now remarried to David (Michiel Huisman), whom she met at a grief-support group meeting. (Little hints at characterization are flashed throughout the film, giving us somewhat of an understanding at Will and Eden’s past.) Also at the gathering are old friends, who join in on Eden and David’s way of establishing “new beginnings.” But there are two mysterious strangers (strangers to the guests, not to the hosts)—Sadie (Lindsay Burdge) and Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch). These two are part of a cult that helps deal with trauma, and they have an interesting recruitment video to show the guests…one that ends quite disturbingly. This gets Will (and us) a little on-edge and paranoid, especially when he notices little things the others don’t catch on to.

What are these strange people getting at? What’s the secret to Eden’s newfound calmness after tragedy? Why does David keep locking the doors? Is there something to fear? What’s really happening here? Is Will imagining things or should everyone run for their lives? Without giving anything away, “The Invitation” manages to answer these questions in a major way.

It requires a lot of patience and attention to get to where “The Invitation” ultimately builds up to, and I’ll admit my patience was tried a little with each possible answer they could give us to rising questions (without giving us the actual answers most of the time). But somehow, I knew the answer wouldn’t be as rational as characters would like Will to believe (or the audience to believe, for that matter), so I stayed with it, wondering what would happen, when it would happen, and how it would happen. And as much as I would love to talk about the back half of the film, when everything in the story goes to hell, I will leave it for you to discover, because believe me…it is worth it.

Operation Avalanche (2016)

28 Jan


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Some day, I’ll write a “Revised Review” for Matt Johnson’s debut feature “The Dirties.” I originally gave it a three-star review, but then as time went on, I wrote an in-depth column about its themes and meanings, after repeated viewings. Now, after seeing it about 40-50 times, I’m unashamed to say it’s one of my new personal favorites and it deserves another review.

But this review isn’t about that. It’s about Johnson’s next film, “Operation Avalanche,” another “faux-documentary” (which shows to be a good style for Johnson, who clearly loves film and filmmaking). Johnson is clearly a filmmaker who loves to take chances—his previous film (“The Dirties”) involved a school shooting, and this one…has a pretty interesting backstory.

“Operation Avalanche” was made illegally (practically), as Johnson and his crew managed to get into locations such as NASA and Shepperton Studios, by disguising themselves as a documentary film crew. Technically, they were telling the truth; but what they were keeping secret was the fact that they were actually making a faux-documentary narrative set in the late-1960s, when NASA was about to launch Apollo 11. (But wait—it gets better.) In the film, they play the film crew hired to stage the moon landing… It’s so crazy, it actually works.

Set in the late ‘60s, the film stars Johnson and Owen Williams (playing themselves, as they did in “The Dirties”) as Ivy League film geeks who are recruited by the CIA and assigned to locate and expose a Soviet spy in NASA. Armed with cameras and two camera operators, they pretend they’re making a documentary about the upcoming race to the moon, and they bug the phones in an attempt to find the spy. But they learn that the U.S. can’t land on the moon, as it’s years behind schedule on the plans. That’s when Johnson comes up with a plan even trickier (and riskier) than the infiltration plan—make a film that simulates a moon landing and make it appear as if it’s Neil Armstrong walking on the lunar surface. They rent a warehouse for a set, build a giant prop that resembles Apollo 11, import sand from certain areas that supposedly resembles the lunar ground, and even get help from Stanley Kubrick (like, the Stanley Kubrick, using photographs and CGI to bring him to life for a brief scene—“Forrest Gump,” eat your heart out). But a hoax this controversial requires the CIA to eliminate any and all participants/witnesses if it all fails…even if they don’t know whether or not it will.

As a filmmaker, Johnson shows how bright he can be when making a film on a micro-budget—he makes the material consistently engaging, he helps us to believe in the story and the execution, and even though he doesn’t like to refer to his films as “found-footage,” it’s hard to deny he knows how to breathe new life into a subgenre that was growing tiresome before. He’s also a very good actor—he’s charismatic and knows how to gain the audience’s attention with his screen presence alone. And as I stated before, he loves to take chances with his films. “Operation Avalanche” could’ve been an easy failure, harping on the popular conspiracy theory that still has people debating to this day. For this film, he presents us with not necessarily his factual interpretation as to the behind-the-scenes of the moon landing (whether it was faked or for real) but with a “what-if” scenario. What if the landing really was fabricated? How would that have been done? What troubles went into it? Etc. Johnson has fun with it.

As with “The Dirties,” “Operation Avalanche” is about an ambitious, film-loving young person wanting to push the boundaries of what he can do with film, without thinking ahead about the consequences first. He wants his fame in helping the government pull off the greatest scam of all time, but what does it matter to anyone but himself? If America found out about it, he’d be the most hated man in the country. And there are also dire consequences for the people helping him. The final moment, in which everything has become all too real and bitter for Johnson, is probably the very best thing in the movie.

But again, as with “The Dirties,” “Operation Avalanche” is also very funny, particularly when it comes to his new film equipment and especially when Johnson is directing Williams in a space suit to hop slowly as if he’s walking on the moon. And there’s also a lot of fun in the film’s in-jokes relating to other films such as Kubrick’s work, which leads to an amazing sequence in which Johnson sneaks his way into Kubrick’s “2001” set to figure out how to use “front-screen projection.” A highlight of this scene—Johnson manages to get Kubrick’s autograph.

The film can also get very tense too, especially in the final act, which includes a car chase shot from inside the pursued car in one take.

“Operation Avalanche” is in the same vein as something like a Christopher Guest mockumentary or an episode of “Documentary Now,” not necessarily “mocking” the style of filmmaking but more appreciating/celebrating it (as well as positively satirizing it). It’s compelling, it’s fun, and it’s yet another example of what a talent Matt Johnson is. I eagerly await his next project, whatever it may be.

2016 Review

8 Jan


2016 Review

By Tanner Smith

Happy New Year, everybody! It’s that time of year that makes me look back on the previous movie year and consider the films I liked the most and the ones I liked the least. The time I feel like a true film critic!

And as with my 2014 Review and my 2015 Review, I am going to start off my 2016 Review with my least favorites before I get into my true favorites. Just like last year, I have very few films for this category, because I try to save my money for good movies, since I don’t get paid for reviewing films and so I’m not obligated to see some films that people and critics consider bad or trashy. For example, I did not see Nine Lives, Norm of the North, or Why Him? because I had more sense than to think they would do anything for me.


However, I have no explanation or excuse as to why I rented the dreadful remake of a 2002 film I didn’t even like to begin with. (Maybe a part of me was curious, I don’t know…) Cabin Fever was the worst film of this or any year. There is not a single thing I can think of that was better than the original film by Eli Roth. If anything, this ghastly remake made me appreciate the original just a little bit more. That’s not saying much, but Roth at least had ambition when he made the original—this one just feels dead, dead, dead in the water. And thankfully, I’m not alone in this—last time I checked Rotten Tomatoes, the film has received a rare 0% rating. I don’t even want to waste more time writing about it.


There was another horrible film I saw this year—one that was a tremendous disappointment to me, because I was sort of anticipating this film ever since I heard about it. It’s Cell, based on a novel by Stephen King and starring John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson (both of whom starred in another King adaptation, “1408”). This movie was so badly made that it made me wonder how it got a release (not a big release, but still). The dialogue is godawful, the “social commentary” is not subtle in the slightest, it’s near incomprehensible, the effects are average at best, and it takes one bizarre turn after another. But come to think of it…it was actually kind of hilarious. This movie was so laughably bad, embarrassingly awful, and pretty much “The Happening with cellphones.” When the first moment of “panic” hits in this movie, I was laughing my ass off! I had to pause the DVD to let it all out…and it took 20 minutes to calm myself down. Cell is one of the worst apocalyptic thrillers I’ve ever seen, one of the worst movies I’ve seen all year, and one of the most entertainingly terrible films I’ve seen in a long time.

The reason I was looking forward to seeing Cell was because the central premise (that being, our mobile technology turns us into zombies) was very similar to a short film I helped make with YouTube’s Andrew “Nukazooka” McMurry, called “Reboot,” in 2012. Take a look at this film made by some kids for the 48-Hour Film Project and tell me whether or not you think it’s better than anything in Cell.

And then there were three other films I saw in 2016 that I didn’t hate but I didn’t particularly care for that much either. They were:

Batman: The Killing Joke—Another film I anticipated seeing and another one that disappointed me. You’ve heard what everyone says about the film’s opening half-hour—it’s unnecessary, it’s awkward, and it has nothing to do with “The Killing Joke.” I agree. But the actual “Killing Joke” part is pretty good, in my opinion. As an overall film, however, it’s a mixed result.

Ghostbusters—The film that spawned a nonsensical, unnecessary controversy—if you liked it, you were disrespecting the original 1984 classic; if you didn’t like it, you were sexist, apparently just because the leads were female…yeah this was a weird time. I liked parts of this movie, and I thought Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones were very funny and appealing. But the script really needed work. The film was directed by Paul Feig, who directed the very funny “Bridesmaids.” Does anyone else think this movie could’ve been better if actress Kristen Wiig and her “Bridesmaids” collaborator Annie Mumulo co-wrote the script instead? (I mean, come on—their script for “Bridesmaids” was nominated for an Oscar! You had Kristen Wiig already. I assume she’s a Ghostbusters fan…)


Greater—I didn’t want to dislike this movie. I have some friends who worked on the film’s crew. But my problem with “Greater” is the same problem I have with most recent faith-based films; its message is too heavy-handed that it loses sense of realism and causes the film to go off-track. The intentions were great, but the results just didn’t affect me.

Before I stray away from negativity, I should list some films I have not seen that I pretty much want to kick myself for not seeing. They are: The Boy and the Beast, The Edge of Seventeen, Fences, The Handmaiden, Hidden Figures, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, A Monster Calls, Moonlight, Nocturnal Animals, OJ Simpson: Made in America, Paterson, Pete’s Dragon

OW! I just kicked myself. I’ll check these films out sometime in the future.

OK, enough negativity. Let’s move on to the films I did see and I did like!

But wait! Why limit myself to films? I saw the Hulu miniseries 11.22.63 (a far more superior Stephen King adaptation than Cell, to say the least!) as well as the popular Netflix Original series Stranger Things. I think those two shows deserve some Special Mentions!


11.22.63 was a gripping eight-part miniseries that had me hooked from start to finish. Based on the Stephen King novel, “11/22/63,” the story features an English teacher (played by James Franco) who discovers a time tunnel that leads to the early 1960s, which he uses to gather intelligence in an attempt to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy. But something in time doesn’t want him to succeed… As someone who loves the idea of time-travel and is fascinated by conspiracy thrillers, this miniseries intrigued me and had me on the edge of my seat.


Watching Stranger Things: Season 1 on Netflix probably provided me with the most entertaining thing all year for me. A loving mix of Spielbergian elements and Stephen King elements, this eight-episode contained season gave us a compelling mystery, a good sense of suspense and horror, a large group of appealing characters to follow, and a madly entertaining adventure from beginning to end. Viewers love it, and it’s easy to see why. If this wasn’t a series, I’d call it my favorite film of the year. (But to be fair, my favorite “film” of the year is pretty damn good too.) I can’t wait for Season 2 this coming year…


OK, enough stalling! Let’s get to some good films now!

Honorable Mentions (films that could’ve made the list, in alphabetical order): 10 Cloverfield Lane, Audrie & Daisy, Don’t Breathe, Eye in the Sky, Finding Dory, Hacksaw Ridge, The Little Prince, Manchester by the Sea, Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made, Sully, Swiss Army Man

Might As Well Mention These Too, Since 2016 Was A Good Year For Movies: The Accountant, Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders, The Conjuring 2, Doctor Strange, Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, Green Room, Hail Caesar!, The Invitation, The Jungle Book, Lights Out, Midnight Special, Moana, Ouija: Origin of Evil, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, Rogue One, Sausage Party, Storks, Tallulah

Oh, and I Liked These Too: Blair Witch, The Fundamentals of Caring, King Jack, In a Valley of Violence, Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday, Risen, Star Trek Beyond, Suicide Squad, The Wave

And finally, before I get to the main Top-15 list of my Favorite Films of 2016, I have another Special Mention:


13THAva DuVernay’s powerful Netflix Original documentary feature about the US prison system simply doesn’t belong on a list that also includes more-mainstream fare such as Deadpool and Captain America: Civil War. But I do think it is a special film that deserves the high praise it has been getting, and so I put it in a separate category by itself. It’s available on Netflix, so check it out when you get the chance.

And now…my Top 15 Favorite Films of 2016!


  1. Kung Fu Panda 3—2016 was a very good year for animation, and its streak began with the unexpected surprise that was “Kung Fu Panda 3,” the third entry in a series of animated family films that only gets better with each chapter, in my opinion. I’m serious—“Kung Fu Panda” is to DreamWorks Animation what “Toy Story” is to Disney/PIXAR. These films have worked surprisingly well—they’re funny without resorting to pop cultural references, they’re lots of fun while also telling a touching story in each film, they evolve the characters without having them learn the same lesson over and over again, and they’re all visually incredible. And KFP3 is definitely no exception.


  1. Zootopia—And speaking of outstanding animated works, Disney has had some delightful ones: “Finding Dory,” “Moana,” “The Jungle Book” (well, that one’s mostly animated), and “Zootopia,” the best of the bunch. Strangely enough, I only thought the film was “fine” at first. After a couple more viewings, I appreciated it more and more. It’s an inspiring, gorgeously animated fable that has a valuable message to deliver and delivers it in the most entertaining way it can with its animal cast of characters. The comedy works, the action works, even the drama works surprisingly well. I have but one thing to say that not many people are addressing—shame on the people in charge of marketing for showing the entirety of the film’s funniest scene (the sloth/DMV scene) in one of the trailers. But at least they didn’t spoil the dramatic aspects of the movie.


  1. The Witch—This was not only a very good year for animation, but also for horror as well. And no film felt as creepy and unsettling to me as “The Witch,” a madly atmospheric and intensely executed thriller that kept me awake the very night I saw it. There are no standard horror-movie tropes to be found in this film. It’s heavy on the chilling atmosphere and the tragedies that surround a family in 1630s Massachusetts who come to fear themselves. It’s a terrible situation brought on by a supernatural entity that becomes even worse as it escalates. It’s both suspenseful and tragically dramatic. It’s quiet, it’s slow, it takes its time developing the issues at hand, it’s grounded in its situation, and that ending…THAT ENDING…you’ll just have to see for yourself.



  1. Hush—As noted, this is a list of my “favorites” of the year. So, even though I think “The Witch” is the “best” horror film of the year, “Hush” is my personal favorite (and the one I’ve seen about six or seven times now). This is a Netflix Original horror film in which a psychopath stalks a deaf-mute woman alone in a secluded house, and it’s masterfully handled by director Mike Flanagan (who had another winning horror film this year with “Ouija: Origin of Evil,” a prequel that was better than it deserved to be). It’s a entertainingly chilling thriller that impressed me the whole way through. Don’t just take my word for it—Stephen King even Tweeted about it, comparing it to both “Halloween” and “Wait Until Dark.”



  1. Captain America: Civil War—I could easily call this one “Avengers 2.5: Civil War,” because that’s what it feels like. All these Avengers fighting against each other for reasons that…honestly, are very understandable. The advertising may have had people choose if they were either Team Iron Man or Team Captain America, but the reality is it isn’t that easy to choose. I always admired “superhero movies” that ask the right questions and raise discussion amongst the audience, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe has turned in yet another entry that gave the audience what they wanted and much more. And Spider-Man? Awesome!



  1. Everybody Wants Some!!—In the same vein as director Richard Linklater’s 1993 film “Dazed and Confused,” his “spiritual sequel” “Everybody Wants Some!!” perfectly captured the feel and nostalgia of being away from home for the first time and enjoying those days leading up to your first day of college. As is expected of a Linklater film, the writing is outstanding, capturing that certain essence of the human element that reminds me of Eric Rohmer.


  1. Operation Avalanche—I originally gave Matt Johnson’s “The Dirties” three stars in my review, but it became one of my personal favorite films of recent years as time went on and I found myself admiring it more and more with more viewings. So, I was excited to see what Johnson’s next film was going to be. And when I heard the premise for said-film, “Operation Avalanche,” I was immediately hooked. It goes like this: Set in the late-1960s, a group of CIA agents/film buffs go undercover as a documentary film crew to find a mole inside NASA, and instead, they find a shocking truth…and decide to make a film that stages the moon landing. Conceived as a fake-documentary (much like “The Dirties,” but a little more grounded), this film has fun with documentary conventions, government conspiracy theories, old-style filmmaking, and even Kubrick films (Stanley Kubrick himself even makes a cameo appearance, fascinatingly). Matt Johnson is one of my favorite filmmakers working today; I admire this guy’s ambition. I can’t wait to see what he comes with next.



  1. TIE—Deadpool and The Nice Guys—I know it’s a cheat, but I had trouble choosing between these two R-rated action-comedies. They’re both crudely smart, they’re both relentlessly thrilling and entertaining, and most important, they’re both funny as hell.

Review of Deadpool:


  1. Hell or High Water—I wasn’t sure where the this quiet Southern-Gothic-like dramatic thriller was going at first. I was getting kind of a Coen Brothers vibe from the feel of the production. But as it went on, I found myself becoming more and more engrossed by it. Brilliant performances by Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, and Ben Foster (who I barely even recognized here) aided by incredible cinematography that made the Texas atmosphere shine (…even though it wasn’t really shot in Texas) helped make this a film I won’t forget anytime soon.


  1. Kubo and the Two Strings—My favorite animated film of the year. This movie is constantly entertaining with hardly a dull moment at all, but it’s also very thoughtful and mature—maybe the kids won’t get as much of the themes as the adults do, but then again, maybe as they get older, these things will stick with them as time goes on. Much like the best family films we grew up watching—we went into them for the entertainment, but the meaning grows on us the more we watch them. That’s what I think “Kubo and the Two Strings” is like. And watching it as an adult, I can already tell you it’s both delightful and meaningful, and it works on so many levels. Keep going, LAIKA—your animated works (including “Coraline” and “ParaNorman”) impress us more and more.


  1. De Palma—I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this documentary from Noah Baumbach & Jake Paltrow about the career of filmmaker Brian De Palma, because even though I like some of De Palma’s work (such as The Untouchables, Blow Out, and the underrated Casualties of War), I’m not a big fan of his overwhelming style of filmmaking. And when you get down to it, it’s just a well-known director sitting in front of a camera, telling stories (with clips of his work shown). But the stories he tells are fascinating—I was never bored by what he was saying; even when he’s talking about his movies I don’t particularly care for, I’m still intrigued in what he recollects from those experiences in making them.


  1. Loving—Jeff Nichols is one of my favorite filmmakers working today, and he had two films released in 2016. One was “Midnight Special,” which I thought was good. The other was “Loving,” which I thought was very good. It’s based on a true story from the late-‘50s-mid-‘60s about a Virginia married couple that was arrested and exiled before they brought their plight to the Supreme Court. Their crime…was being an interracial couple (at the wrong place at a very wrong time). We’ve seen many movies that remind us of how nasty things were back in the day, with racism, segregation, anti-miscegenation, whatever and so on. But “Loving” tells this particular story in a simple, straightforward way that works very effectively without hitting the audience on the head with the message. Powerful performances from Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga also help a lot.



  1. Arrival—Honestly, I didn’t have much expectations going into this film; all I could think was what this alien-arrival movie could do that hasn’t been done so well already. Then I saw it again, and I thought to myself, “I gotta see that again.” This thought-provoking film surprised me, delighted me in doing so, and even resulted in a discussion between me and my father who saw it with me—what did everything mean, why was this the resolution, and so on. That’s a sign of a great film: when it can get people talking about it for hours after seeing it. I can’t wait to see this movie again.



  1. La La Land—One of the best musicals I’ve ever seen. No lie. No doubt. Maybe not even hyperbole. This is a brilliantly done film with beautiful execution, cinematography (and choreography), and story, paying homage to old-style Hollywood musicals while also bringing it to the modern time and showing the dark side of dreams and passion. What happens after the traditional “Hollywood musical” ends? That’s where “La La Land” really cements its status as one of the truly best films of recent years: its second act is honest, truthful, and challenging. Critics love it, audiences love it, I love it. I rarely predict the Oscars, but…I think this is a sure bet for Best Picture.

And my personal favorite film of 2016 is…


  1. Sing Street—Without a doubt, this is my favorite film of 2016. (Or maybe I’m saying that because it’s the film I’ve seen the most in 2016.) It made me smile, it moved me in a way I didn’t expect, it delighted me in each direction it took, and there was hardly a moment when I wasn’t invested or didn’t have a smile on my face. Shaded with sheer optimism, this film could’ve been just a simple film about a boy who starts his own rock band to impress a girl he likes, and in some way, it is that simple. But that’s what I love about it—there’s a genuine passion thrown into the making of this delightful film that is felt all throughout, like director John Carney (who also made the great musical-drama, “Once”) had this story in his head and wanted to get it out any way he could. His ambition shows in the way he tells the story of this kid growing up in Dublin, falling in love for the first time, relating to his older brother, writing music with his friends, and dealing with the hardships of his life the only way he can (through art). I could easily relate to and sympathize with this kid, Conor (played very well by Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), and the things he goes through. On top of that, the songs are very good, especially “Up” and “Drive It Like You Stole It” (at least one of those songs needs a Best Original Song nomination). It makes me happy watching this movie again and again; that is why it is my favorite film of 2016.


See you next year!