December 29, 2016

The 10 Best Movies of the Year (and the 1 Worst)

The 10 Best Movies of the Year (and the 1 Worst)

[nextpage title=”Introduction” ]

I love movies.  Due to that, and thanks to my work on Now Playing Podcast I have watched a lot of movies in 2016.  229, to be precise.  Many were for our upcoming book Underrated Movies We Recommend, and even more for the podcast itself.  Finally, a good number were thanks to my recent guest appearances on the UK radio show TALKSport Extra Time.

I logged and ranked every film I watched on Letterboxd. That made it very easy to see which were the best and the worst.  So as we start to ring in a new year, here’s a look back on the ten best (and very worst) movies I saw in ’16.

And a note, some of these movies were reviewed previously through those outlets. My views here may differ slightly from those initial reactions as I’ve rewatched the movies and had time to more fully digest them. Plus these are short reviews that work more like a “final thought” than the in-depth Now Playing analysis.

With all that said, let’s get started!
[/nextpage][nextpage title=”10. Jason Bourne” ]

10. Jason Bourne (****)Matt Damon is back in the role he was Bourne to play.

It’s been nine years since we last saw Jason Bourne on screen, but the actor slips comfortably back into this role. The story revisits familiar beats from some of the earlier films…and that’s not a bad thing.  After nearly a decade away from the franchise, director Paul Greengrass was smart to remind audiences of why they liked Bourne to begin with. Some echos of The Bourne Supremacy help trigger those memories.  The film is also updated with a contemporary topic–government surveillance through technology and social media.

After years of an aimless and violent life Bourne is again ensnared in that CIA plot. This time his “in” is through his former ally Nicky Parsons, played for the fourth time by Julia Stiles.  With her information Bourne is again on the run while trying to uncover a mystery that traces back to his roots in the CIA Blackbriar assassin program, and may involve his father.

The supporting cast of Bourne is the best yet in the series. Tommy Lee Jones dwarfs Brian Cox and the other government suits that have plagued Bourne previously. Riz Ahmed also won me over as social media CEO Aaron Kalloor. His Edward Snowden-like story may have been somewhat underdeveloped, but was the most interesting of any Bourne subplot to date. (Of course, maybe I have a penchant for those types of stories as the next film in this list will show…)

Jason Bourne also is a good action travelogue as our hero goes to Reykjavik, Athens, Berlin, London, and ends with an exciting Las Vegas car chase.  The practical stunts got my adrenaline pumping.

This was one of the best Bournes yet, and well worth a watch.

Hear Now Playing Podcast’s full review of Jason Bourne.










[/nextpage][nextpage title=”9. Snowden” ]9. Snowden (****)

Snowden is the most frightening techno-thriller film I’ve ever seen…because it was true.Conspiracy theorist and director Oliver Stone returns to a familiar topic–criticizing the power of the U.S. Government–in a familiar way. Snowden is Stone’s ninth biopic (tenth if you count JFK). This time he’s telling a story only three years old, that of CIA Analyst Edward Snowden and his discovery and media reveal of the NSA’s extensive domestic surveillance programs.

Most people are likely familiar with the last part of Snowden’s story, how he gave classified information to The Guardian and has since been a fugitive living in Moscow. He is seen by some Americans (citizens and politicians alike) as a heroic patriot, and by others as a traitor.  In this year’s presidential election he was a regular topic of debate.  While not everyone may have read the articles detailing all of the government spying on its citizens, this is all recent news that anyone who wants to see this film knows.

But Stone makes Snowden interesting by telling the programmer’s life story in flashback.  It begins with what we all know and then goes deeper.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt lowers his voice two octaves to play Edward Snowden. While the voice was initially off-putting, he soon melts into the role in a performance that is among his career best. He brings confidence and uncertainty in equal measure to this story of a man caught between morality and security.

Snowden’s rise through the ranks of the CIA is told in a way reminiscent of Stone’s original Wall Street. Both stories feature 20-somethings entering a high-stakes profession, and in both cases they are faced with making moral compromises to ensure success.  Along the way each found the love of a beautiful woman, but the relationship was put to the test as our protagonist deals with his convictions.

Unlike Wall Street’s Charlie Sheen character Bud, though, Snowden is less materialistic and more Born on the Fourth of July — he’s clearly painted as a patriot through-and-through. He joined the Army to serve his country, and when he broke his leg he searched for other ways to serve. He is painted as an idealist who questions the correctness of the surveillance programs he is tasked with creating. When Obama was elected and promised transparency Snowden believed him. When nothing changed the programmer chose to do what he felt was right by taking the information public.

The information Stone drops is truly frightening as he dramatizes and illustrates the scope of the data gathered by the NSA. Yet the personal stories in Snowden are given their proper focus. That stops this from feeling like a Michael Moore documentary. I was wrapped up in the plots and, though I knew how it ended, I was on the edge of my seat as Snowden stole the data and then ran from the government.

If you are firmly in the “Snowden is a traitor” camp then Snowden’s basic premise will chafe. It’s clear Stone views him as a hero, and he does a decent job of selling that thesis. If you agree, or if you’re unsure but want to know more, given this a watch.

Just don’t torrent it–the government will know if you do.









[/nextpage][nextpage title=”8. Don’t Breathe” ]

8.  Don’t Breathe (****)Don’t Breathe is a very accurate title. While watching this suspense-thriller I found myself holding my breath in anticipation of what would come next.

Fede Alvarez, director of the 2013 Evil Dead remake, reteamed with star Jane Levy for this original horror film (also produced by Evil Dead’s Sam Raimi and Robert Tapert).  Levy plays Rocky, a teenager who dreams of taking her little sister and escaping her alcoholic stepfather. Rocky has partnered with Alex (Dylan Minnette) and Money (Daniel Zovatto) to break into homes and rob them. Alex picks the homes he can enter undetected by targeting the customers of his father’s home security company.

Don’t Breathe follows the “one last job” caper formula. The trio hear about a blind man (Stephen Lang) with $300,000 in cash in his house. The home is completely locked with bars on the windows, but they find a way in. But this Blind Man has secrets of his own that he will kill to keep quiet. His Army training has made him a dangerous adversary even without sight. After hearing the robbery in progress he sets about hunting and killing the interlopers who have broken into his home.

Lang (Avatar) steals the show as a new horror film killer. His grizzled look, his large frame, and his commanding delivery make him an intimidating presence despite his blindness. More, he’s smart. As the three invaders try to avoid his touch and being heard, Lang carries himself like the Terminator. One slip-up will mean death to the young robbers.

These evasion scenes are the most tense. Alvarez’s camerawork and use of sound sucked me into the film. More, the script tricked me — the characters I assumed safe weren’t.

The highlight of the film (pun intended) is when the Blind Man cuts power to his house, leveling the playing field by rendering Rocky and Alex sightless. The scene appears to be shot in green “night vision”, the characters’ pupils open wide, as they struggle to feel their way to an escape.

When all is revealed the movie does suffer some logic issues. But the path there was fun and original. A solid Recommend.









[/nextpage][nextpage title=”7. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” ]

7.  Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (****)Star Wars goes back to its roots with Rogue One – a spin-off story that captures the fun of Lucas’ original trilogy.

The movie is a prequel,  set mere days before George Lucas’ original Star Wars.  That 1977 film began with a scroll that said “Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire.”  This movie tells of that battle–albeit focusing more on the ground fight than those in space.

Lucas’ original movie ended with the destruction of the Imperial Death Star through a flaw found in the space station’s design. This film centers on a group of six people brought together to aid the rebellion by trying to capture or kill the station’s architect, and to steal those Death Star Plans.

It’s a story with a foregone conclusion, so much is riding on the abilities of Godzilla director Gareth Edwards and his cast to make the story entertaining.  And they succeed.

Felicity Jones stars as Jyn Erso – a minor criminal blackmailed into helping the rebellion.  She says she’s never had the luxury of political opinion but her mission here starts to challenge her lack of ideals.  She is working with Rebel spy Cassian Andor, played by Diego Luna. His character starts to show some of the dark side of rebellions and the treachery involved.

But while those two star, the minor players really steal the show.  Alan Tudyk’s sarcastic droid K-2SO and Donnie Yen’s wannabe Jedi Chirrut Îmwe are standout characters that bring humor and action to the proceedings.

Also a new baddie, Imperial Director Oson Krennic, played by Ben Mendelsohn, gives a new, slightly sympathetic face to the Empire. This guy is middle management who has succeeded in building the Death Star, but still seeks the recognition.  While he is clearly the antagonist, his ineffective style puts him in the same gray area as some of the Rebels.

The result are intriguing characters on a fantastic space romp. Despite having no one named Skywalker in the story, this movie is Star Wars through and through.

Rogue One does stumble over some logic issues that seem the result of rewrites and reshoots.  Some characters seem unmotivated and things just seem to happen. Plus the technology just isn’t there yet for the CGI necromancy they attempt to invoke by bringing back characters from that original movie. But when you’re swept up in this film’s fun you hardly seem to notice.

The Force is with Rogue One…and you should be too.

Hear Now Playing Podcast’s full review of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story










[/nextpage] [nextpage title=”6. Sully” ]

6. Sully (****)In Sully America’s Hollywood Treasure Tom Hanks plays America’s Real-Life Hero pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger.

The story of Sully’s takeoff, collision with geese, and safe landing in the Hudson River was well covered by the media when it happened in January, 2009, and Sully himself became a star appearing on both news and entertainment talk shows.  So the question is–why do we need a movie telling us what we already know?

Based on Sully’s autobiography Highest Duty, Sully is not your average biopic. We get two brief flashbacks of Sully as a young adult learning to fly, but this movie actually begins after the plane crash and focuses on the investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board.  In the film Sully says his life will be defined by 208 seconds and the film does just that.  It is not about the man, but the pilot dealing with the aftermath of a crash.

The hook is the NTSB simulations and computer data all say Sully made the wrong choice–he could have landed safely back at Laguarda or at Newark.  That mystery kept me in suspense the entire film wondering “Is everything I know about this man wrong?”

Of course, by casting perennial good guy Hanks as Sully we are always on his side.  The star, with white hair and mustache, sinks into the role to the point I sometimes forgot about the actor and focused on the pilot.  He is ably supported by Aaron Eckhart as his co-pilot Skiles and Laura Linney as his wife Lorraine (though Linney is stuck acting against a telephone receiver for the whole film–I wonder if director Clint Eastwood gave her pointers learned from his performance with a chair). Even the minor actors are often recognizable faces that gave depth to small parts.

It’s a cynical time in America’s history and this story of a crash is, ironically, quite uplifting.  At a fleet 96 minutes, Sully flies by, and with the gorgeous photography of New York City and the acting on display it’s a smooth ride everyone should take.











[/nextpage] [nextpage title=”5. Bleed for This” ]

5.  Bleed for This (****)You just can’t knock out the boxing film.  For decades, this sport has brought some great cinema from The Champ to Rocky to Raging Bull and the recent standout Creed.  Bleed for This differs from those films in that it is based on the true story of boxer Vinny Paz who in the early ’90s was a world champion boxer who broke his neck in a car collision and faced the real possibility he may never box again.

For those unfamiliar with Paz, this turn of events can come as a shock, as the first half of this film chronicles the fighter’s rise to the championship after jumping up in weight class.  And during that hour there are the usual boxing cliches — the training montage, the manager who doesn’t believe in him, the bouts set up that he can’t win, and his triumph.

The second half, chronicling his life after the accident, repeats many of those beats.  His new training montage as he tries to get his body back into shape.  His fights with family over the risk of him becoming paralyzed if he fights again.  His paralysis is to this film what Rocky’s loss to Clubber Lang was in Rocky III – a reason to train, a reason to root for the character to literally keep fighting.

But Bleed for This does rise above the genre thanks to an astounding cast of familiar actors who have transformed their look.  Aaron Eckhart is almost unrecognizable with a receding hairline and a beer belly as Paz’s trainer Kevin Rooney.  Silence of the Lambs‘ Ted Levine plays Paz’s manager– a smaller part he wears like a comfortable coat.  And it wasn’t until credits rolled that I realized Married with Children’s Katy Segal was Paz’s mother Louise.

And Miles Teller, who has played a good sahre of geeks and nerds, shows off a muscular physique and does what I thought impossible–he makes me believe he could take a beating.  I think he pales next to his co-stars but he delivers enough punch to pull off the role.

His performance, and look, is important too as director Ben Younger intersperses the film with actual video of the real Paz either boxing or on talk shows.  The video is given enough of a filter that it softens the differences between Paz and Teller, and sometimes I wondered who was who.

Younger also has an amazing use of sound and silence in the film.  Some montages, all set to 80s songs, just stop with dead air as something changes, instead of fading out.  The same audio trick is used during fights, the car accident, and more.  It’s a nice aural way of keeping the audience wrapped up in the action.

How the film ends is obvious even to those who don’t remember Paz’s 90s career, so it’s may be a TKO instead of a KO but this film gets a solid Recommend.












[/nextpage] [nextpage title=”4. Ouija: Origin of Evil” ]

4. Ouija: Origin of Evil (****)Ouija: Origin of Evil is a surprising film that shakes off the specter of the cliched original and become a standout Exorcist redux.

Elizabeth Reaser plays Alice Zander, a widowed fortune teller who involves her teenage daughter Paulina and her 9-year-old daughter Doris in her scams. But when she decides to add a Ouija board to her act it seems little Doris is actually able to communicate with their dead father.  Soon Alice is using her daughter’s skills to help business, but a dark, evil presence threatens to consume Doris forever.

Origin of Evil often plays like a moody and suspenseful updating of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. They even recreate the iconic scene of the priest standing outside the house with the framing and the pause–this time with E.T.’s Henry Thomas standing in for Max von Sydow.

The film is set in 1967 and they play up the period in several meta ways, including reel marking cigarette burns and reel jumps on this digital projection. They even use 60s style opening titles and the old Universal logo to open the film. These little touches made the cinemaphile in me giddy while also adding a touch of period-authenticity.

If you saw the first film you know how this ends, but while watching it’s really hard to believe they’ll connect those dots.  It’s a nihilistic tale surrounded by ’60s pastel decor.

Many beats of the original film are recreated, such as the “Hi Friend” opening from the ghosts, and the clumsy insertion of the Ouija board as a prop. But this film focuses on a small group, a low body count, and scares driven by the drama instead of by loud music stings

This may be the single biggest improvement in history of a sequel over the original. There’s Superman II, Godfather II, The Road Warrior, Wrath of Kahn, but all those original films had unique qualities and at least some merit.  Ouija is a film that seemed really undeserving of a sequel, and the result is quite impressive.











[nextpage title=”3. Deadpool” ]

3. Deadpool (****)Deadpool seems to do the impossible–stand out as unique in a deluge of comic book inspired films. And while it may be number three on this list, it’s clearly the biggest success story of the year.

By all rights Deadpool should never have been made at all. After Ryan Reynolds’ disastrous supporting role playing Deadpool in X-Men Origins: Wolverine the property seemed toxic. Fox Studios holds the rights to all of Marvel’s X-Men characters, and they repeatedly ignored fan requests to see the Merc with a Mouth get his own film.  Behind the scenes a similar struggle was taking place as Reynolds tried to convince the studio to do it and was continuously shot down.

Things changed, slightly, when director Tim Miller leaked test footage he had made with Reynolds showcasing what a Deadpool movie could be. The immense fan reaction online convinced Fox to move ahead with the project–but it was clear they had little confidence in the film. With an ever-shrinking budget that is estimated at $58 million Deadpool was the least expensive entry in Fox’s X-Men franchise. Even 2000’s original X-Men had $75 million, and that’s before adjusting for inflation.

Yet Deadpool may be a shining example of “art through adversity.”  The small budget led to some creative decisions in the film that became standout moments. Plus the small risk allowed Deadpool to have a hard R-rating and to take chances that no “by committee” X-Men movie has done.

The result is a massive $750 million box office — one of the most profitable studio films of all time. It grossed more than any other X-Men movie. It surpassed The Matrix Reloaded as the all-time top-grossing R-rated film. And it is Fox studio’s biggest film not directed by George Lucas or James Cameron.

I champion this film for taking risks and for proving that studio bureaucracy hinders filmmaking more often than it helps.

But most of all–the movie is a real fun time!  Ryan Reynolds has cranked his personality up to 11 here. The quips, the mannerisms, and the breaking of the fourth wall all fit Deadpool from the comic pages–and also are in line with Reynolds’ previous performances in Van Wilder, Blade: Trinity, Two Guys, a Girl, and a Pizza Place, and more.  He says that he is Deadpool–and the movie proves it.

Miller also gives some amazing visuals. The opening 3-D still image is a wonder of detail and his fights are all well-staged and inventive.

Finally, it’s a movie that came at the right time. Eight superhero films were released this year; 91 superhero films were released since Fox’s X-Men 16 years ago. So many of those movies follow the same tropes in action and in story that even casual fans are growing tired. Deadpool was happy to stick a katana in the comic book movie bubble and skewer those cliches. (That Reynolds also jabs a bit at his own ill-conceived outings as Green Lantern and the first Deadpool incarnation add to the fun.)

It is my most-quoted film of the year and one that has only improved on repeat viewings.  He may wear a red suit but he gets a bright green, CGI arrow from me.

Hear Now Playing Podcast’s full review of Deadpool











[nextpage title=”2. Captain America: Civil War” ]

2. Captain America: Civil War  (****1/2) Marvel Studios’ 13th film is also one of their best.  The Russos follow up the superb Captain America: The Winter Soldier with this action packed drama. The movie captured the school-yard fun of “Which hero would win in a fight.” More, the script elevated this above just fan-service; they believably made it character-driven.With guest appearances by Vision, Scarlet Witch, Black Widow, Falcon, Hawkeye, Black Panther, War Machine, Ant-Man, Spider-Man, and, of course, Iron Man, yes, it does feel more like a third Avengers movie than the third Cap solo project. But because it was a Captain America film they were able to focus on him and his story. To try and juggle an ensemble of this size and give each a fulfilling arc is near-impossible (just ask Joss Whedon). This was a personal story of conflict set in a universe filled with amazing and colorful characters.

More, the film sets two heroes against each other without turning either into the bad guy. It’s a tricky balance to make us excited to see Iron Man in this summer’s Spider-Man: Homecoming and to keep us waiting for whenever Captain America appears again. The Russos pull it off.

Marvel had a shaky 2015 with Age of Ultron and Ant-Man. Civil War put the universe back on track and has me counting the days until Infinity War!

Hear Now Playing Podcast’s full review of Captain America: Civil War












[nextpage title=”The Best Film of 2016 is….” ]

1. The Nice Guys  (*****)Hey girl, if you watch one original movie this year–make it The Nice Guys!

I rarely give any movie a perfect 5-star ranking. It seems every movie has something that could be fixed, tightened, or improved in some way. For this score I demand a movie that feels perfect immediately.  This year I only ranked one movie 5-stars. Only one film had the intelligence, the entertainment, and the charm for such a ranking.  That movie is Shane Black’s ’70s period-piece noir dark comedy The Nice Guys.

Black is a writer and director known best for his buddy-action films, including Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (the latter of which was one of my picks for our Underrated Movies book).  After straying from that formula with Iron Man 3 the director returned to the material that served him best with The Nice Guys, adapting another Brett Halliday novel for the screen.

The film follows drunken P.I. Holland March (Ryan Gosling) and muscle-for-hire Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) as they search for a missing porn actress.  In this way the movie functions as a suitable mystery, with enough twists and turns to keep you guessing.

The chemistry between the two actors engages me completely. Crowe’s bloated and violent Healy is a perfect foil for alcoholic, inexperienced March.  Both have better comedic chops than I would have expected from actors better known for their dramatic roles.  I was skeptical they could play these parts well, but such fears were assuaged in the first 10 minutes.  And they both play well off third-wheel Holly — March’s daughter played by Angourie Rice.  Holly brings a bit of a “Hit Girl” attitude to her role, but, like the grown-ups, she isn’t quite ready for what she’ll face.

They are aided by a supporting cast of name actors including Kim Basinger, Keith David, Matt Bomer, all giving great performances.

Much like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang the two detectives are at odds, but forced to work together to uncover the crime.  Throughout we are shown each character’s deep pathos about the state of their life and career. Such scenes are often laugh-out-loud funny but also touching. The film’s title shows these two attempting to be good people in a time and place where corruption reigns.  Of course, their definition of “nice” does include acts like dropping people off the roof of a building, letting them get hit by cars, or punching them in the face.

These action scenes range from slapstick to straight adrenaline. Black never lets the mood get too dark but the comedy serves the plot instead of being a distraction. More, it all feels natural and real. These are two guys caught up in a fiasco and they just aren’t going to handle it like action heroes.

Additionally Black owns the ’70s style he has chosen. This is not just costuming for the actors, the period’s gas crisis and financial woes are central to the overall mystery.

It’s a film I loved when I first saw it in May, and each home viewing has deepened my appreciation.  No movie in 2016 has come close to The Nice Guys for delivering the thrills I seek in a movie.














[nextpage title=”The Worst of 2016 is…” ]

The Worst Film of 2016 –Independence Day: Resurgence (*)

I think even Jeff Goldblum’s environmentalist character David would be against recycling after seeing the reprocessed garbage that is Independence Day: Resurgence.

The original Independence Day was a visual spectacle. While not exactly an intellectual movie, it had enough character types and action to engage audiences and become a world-wide success.  Much of that relied on the charisma of newly-minted star Will Smith as pilot Steven Hiller — he showed it could be fun to “kick E.T.’s ass.”

20 years later Independence Day is back, again produced by Dean Devlin and directed by Roland Emmerich. On screen are returning actors Goldblum, Bill Pullman, Judd Hirsch, Brent Spiner, and (briefly) Vivica A. Fox.

But Will Smith is gone. And despite so many people who did return to the project, all the magic of the original is gone too.

It’s unbelievable that the movie can go so wrong when, on paper, it seems they just remade the original ID4. The plot is nearly identical–an alien mothership comes to threaten Earth. It initially causes destruction, and then there is a period of calm in which the humans regroup and concoct a crazy plan to fight back.

But it seems few of the actors are having fun. Part of this is the roles they were given — Pullman’s former President Whitmore is disgraced and plagued by visions of the aliens. Goldblum’s David is no longer a savior but bumbling his way through both a romance and research into how to defeat the alien technology. David’s father, played by Hirsch, seems there to deliver bad jokes and extend the running time with a silly subplot.

Yet the returning cast sparkles when compared to the new recruits. Jessie T. Usher plays Dylan Hiller–the adopted son of Smith’s now-deceased character. But Usher plays the role with a barely contained fury and stoic demeanor. If Smith sold us on the fun, Usher personifies the frustration I had with the script.  Hiller is in a love triangle with two other pilots played by Maika Monroe and Liam Hemsworth–but it’s a relationship that makes no sense unless you read a dreadfully dull prequel novel.

The worst part of Resurgance though is its desperation to please.  The original movie felt self-contained. Every frame of Resurgence seems to scream “we’re setting up a whole slew of sequels!” The filmmakers want a profitable, renewable resource. But in the course of trying to serve future films that will never happen they utterly fail the movie at hand.

Resurgence is like trying to watch a six-year-old  give a stand-up routine. It’s uncomfortable to try and watch a somoene giving their all to please and failing so miserably.

Independence Day: Resurgence is more than just a let down for fans of the original. If viewed in a vacuum it still has a feeble script with no fulfilling character arcs. It lacks a single character with charisma–there is no one I enjoyed watching on screen.

And when compared to the original it actually makes that 1996 film seem worse. With no enjoyable characters or lines, the lamebrained plot in Resurgence gets my full attention. And it makes me realize how weak that original film was, and how the pacing and the actors carried it through.

In this whole year only one movie got a one-star rating and that was Independence Day: Resurgence.  I wonder if that single star was still too generous, and I hope someday aliens do come and obliterate all memory of this film from my mind.


















[nextpage title=”Conclusion” ]

Now you’ve read my 10 favorite, and single most-hated, movies of 2016. What do you think?

Leave your comments below on which films you loved, and come to our forums to talk more about it!

You can also keep up with my 2017 movies by following me on Letterboxd, and by subscribing to Now Playing Podcast!

Finally, if you want to read more of my written reviews, along with reviews by my Now Playing co-hosts Marjorie, Jakob, and Stuart, you can pre-order our book: Underrated Movies we Recommend! It has 125 reviews of movies you probably haven’t seen but we think you’ll love!


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