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:
13TH—Ava 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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: https://smithsverdict.com/2016/05/18/deadpool-2016/
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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…
- 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!