Remember almost exactly a year ago when I said this?
Well BAM! NEW LOGO! To go with the new website section thing! Check that top navigation! Check it out! NEW CONTENT! I watch a lot of movies and I talk about a lot of movies. So new thing for 2017, come read me talking about movies! Now, what say we get this thing started?
2016 draws to a close, and it’s left a path of devastation and misery in its wake, in the form of a fourth God damn Sharknado movie. It wasn't funny the first time, it won't be funny the fifth time.
But I digress.
It was a mixed year, particularly for horror. But then which year isn't a mixed year for horror. You have to dig through fifty direct to DVD pieces of garbage to find that one piece of gold. This year I was let down by pretty much everything North America had to offer so I went overseas, with a brief stop over in a trailer park, to let South Korea handle the horror side of things.
It was very much the year of the superhero movie. Of which, what, like one and a half were actually good? Here's to the next ten years, all carefully planned out to string us along as long as possible. It was also the year of returning franchises. Some worked out not terribly. Others, very terribly. I suppose it mostly depends on whether it was fuelled by a creative desire, a reunion of talent and artists, or MOOOOONEYMAKEITRAIN!!!1!
At any rate, here's my year end movie list because I HAZ OPINIONS TAKE THEM!
The absolute best of the best. These are the movies that are the ones that made the year worthwhile at the cinema. But which one tops the list? Well, setting aside the Pixar animated short Piper which is the single most adorable film ever made since the invention of film and is actually probably my favourite thing all year, that distinction goes to...
Rob Zombie’s newest film 31, a film about Rob Zombie characters being hunted down by Rob Zombie clowns for sport in Rob Zombie's American south.
An absolutely redneck balls to the walls grit sandwich that makes The Purge look like a puppy. It features the tightest direction Zombie has ever displayed and an array of twisted characters both good and evil, headlined by a performance from Richard Brake that is so perfect if this were a studio film it would have all but guaranteed a franchise. Brake is one of my favourite genre actors working right now, and his performances have been the highlight of many a not-so-great movie (Remember Doom?).
In a year when most horror movies were content to stand there and say "I'm scary!" before spitting on you, or throw a bunch of confusing shit in your face and assume not answering questions was a substitute for "horror," 31 grabs you by the hair, knees you in the face, and laughs while you crawl on the ground picking your teeth up. And that's just to start. I loved this movie. I adored this movie. It's a rare movie that I went back and watched immediately a second time, and it was just as good if not better. Zombie's last film The Lords of Salem didn't do anything for me. This one did everything.
Also, Richard Brake totally liked my tweet about the movie which is kinda awesome.
Deadpool tops the superhero list, because of course it does. Was there even a question about that?
It's also both entertaining and kind of sad that there is now a yearly superhero list, with enough films to warrant an entire Good/Bad/Meh list all its own (Deadpool/Batman V Superman/X-Men: Apocalypse, but we'll get to those later). Deadpool worked so well because it’s a film where for once being sarcastic and self aware makes sense, instead of just being a way of glossing over plot holes or inconsistencies. Instead of a wink wink, nudge nudge, it’s a punch to the face with a chimichanga. Ryan Reynolds was made for the role of comic book antihero Deadpool (who ever thought THAT was a thing that would be a thing) and it shows what can happen when a tent pole franchise is driven by people that care about more than just establishing a cinematic universe.
Cameos were jokes, not tie ins. References were references, not world building. And it wasn't afraid to both embrace and shit on its own universe. It was also competent as an action movie, giving us some solid action and creative set pieces that stand alongside the major players of 2016. But perhaps most important, the humour was dark to the point of being aaaaaaalmost unpleasant, keeping it planted firmly in the "Is it okay to laugh at that?" territory. And it gave us a joke at the expense of both the X-Men film franchise timelines AND the rights issues between Disney and Warner Brothers.
It was a thing of beauty.
Explosive KABOOMermeister Michael Bay hits the list as well this year, with his "I can be a serious director" film 13 Hours. With the exception of the fourth Transformers movie, the only film to give me motion sickness, I’ve liked all of his work. They're loud, they're stupid, but they're unapologetic, and they're some of the most technically wonderful films to watch. The difference between "shot composition over shot logic" Michael Bay and, well, pretty much any other director is that Michael Bay is Michael Bay. The same things he is hated for someone like Guillermo del Toro is lauded for. And Michael Bay does not give two shits, because he sleeps on an exploding bed of money buried in Victoria Secret models.
13 Hours is Black Hawk Down done by way of Bad Boys, but Bay shows off a remarkable level of restraint here. The action scenes are without question the best of the year, carrying Bay's slick direction but carrying a distinctly depressing level of violence and grit. What we're watching may be cool, but it's also unsettling and graphic. One minute we're watching our worn-down heroes triumphing at last, by way of simply surviving the night. The next we watch the widows of all the faceless grunts they gunned down walking into the killing fields to mourn their lost fathers, brothers, and sons. It strikes that balance just right, where it's both entertaining and makes you question what you're seeing. It hearkens back to the style of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, before the franchise went to space. Ultimately it is a piece of entertainment, and yes, it's entertaining. But drawing the audience in with that tone lets you hit them with a solid dose of reality, and suddenly they're forced to deal with the fact that those awesome action scenes left hundreds of ruined lives in their wake.
Tonally it is amazing. The growing unease that permeates the picture is almost unbearable, and when the shit hits the fan it never lets up. The sharp shift from paranoia to panic as things go from bad to worse, and the way you can simply feel the men worn down as the night goes on, is handled with almost Spielbergian skill. For that to come from the man who gave us Pearl Harbour is a remarkable feat. Also, who ever thought Jim from The Office would become such a badass.
A double export from South Korea showed that North America needs to up its horror game. The Wailing makes it onto the good list as an absolutely gorgeously shot piece of SK horror, with a well-balanced mix of humour, horror, and drama. There is such an energy to the ritual scenes I’d rank them higher than most action movies in terms of the heart pounding effect they have. They are countered with moments of long calm and quiet, where uncertainty and nervousness are allowed to take root. The film’s structure reminds me of spaghetti westerns: long period of unbroken anticipation, followed by a sudden and extreme moment of noise and violence. This film lets you wait and wonder, and then hits you full on.
A lot of the horror felt so effective because of the vast cultural differences. Maybe that's why foreign horror works so well. There is an innate unfamiliarity with it that immediately puts you out of sorts before things even start to go wrong. Sort of like sitting down to a meal, and you find out they serve the fish head. There's nothing wrong there, just something different. And that difference is there in this film, as the old ways and rituals combine with the modern. Throw in some culture clash between Korean and Japanese demonology, and there's plenty of meat here.
It just takes a little while to get to your table. My only complaint was that there were times it made you wait a little too long. The payoff sometimes felt flatter than it needed to be after the wait. Not to say it didn't still payoff, it did a damn fine job of it. But its desire to draw you in occasionally started to push me to the side. But if the only thing I can say about it is occasionally it takes a bit too long, that’s not bad considering how well put together the rest of the film is.
The second offering from South Korea is the absolutely fantastic Train to Busan, a film that seems like the result of someone watching World War Z and saying “We can do that so much better.” The epic sense of scale as the disaster unfolds lends a permeating sense of dread throughout, and there is such a weight to the unstoppable waves of zombie hordes washing over the unlucky humans that they genuinely feel like a threat. Each set piece is creative and unique, and it's all done with such apparent skill and ease that it shows up a true understanding of the potential of zombie movies. Amidst all the chaos and flesh eating there is a healthy dose of social commentary, giving us something more to chew on than Brad Pitt wearing scarves. THIS is how you do big scale action zombie movies.
A companion anime film titles Seoul Station was produced and released around the same time but I've yet to see that, but reviews I've read indicate it may actually be darker and more brutal than this one. If that's the case, the Busan films could be some of the best zombie films... ever.
One of the biggest surprises of the year was The Magnificent Seven, a remake of a remake directed by a director with some amazing highs (Training Day) and some spectacularly low lows (Tears of the Sun). Rarely can I say that a remake is more than good enough to stand alongside the original, but here it is. It’s also probably the most unabashedly fun movie of the year, throwing itself fully into its Western playground and embracing every trope and cliché and using it to its full advantage to create one of the best modern Westerns, and one of the best western homage films just about ever.
Antoine Fuqua’s love of the source material is clear in every shot. This is an amazing western, mixing modern style with traditional trappings without stumbling over itself or getting hung up on self awareness. When it pokes fun at itself and its clichés, it does it in universe in appropriate ways. But despite having fun, it’s also remarkably dark. It’s not toned down or prettied up for mass consumption. The movie doesn’t end with seven riding off into the sunset. In fact, the vast majority of characters in this movie don’t end up leaving the final showdown. It’s not a movie about winning, it’s a movie about being willing to fight for what’s right, and it uses the array of characters to explore that distinction. It’s a rare ensemble piece that can have seven characters, all of whom are unique, and all of whom are recognizable and developed.
It also features a great turn from James Horner in what would be the final score he composed before his death, featuring familiar themes and twists on old works, somehow acting as a perfect summation of his work and standing as a fine tribute to one of cinemas greatest film composers.
And last but certainly not least, Shin Godzilla. You know how the Godzilla movies are these fun, cheesy, kinda bad movies where a guy in a rubber suit fights other guys in rubber suits?
This is a hardcore disaster movie interspersed with moments of sheer terror and chaos. Godzilla does not have a cheesy son in this movie. Godzilla leaves devastation in his wake, destroying Japan in ways not seen since the original. Godzilla was a commentary on the dangers of nuclear fission, drawing on Japan’s experiences as the only nation in human history to have nuclear weaponry deployed on it, and offering one of the most unique perspectives in humanity. No other nation can, or likely ever will, be able to say what it means to have nukes dropped on it. And it did so in a very Japanese way: with a giant monster. Since then the franchise drifted away from that darkness, becoming a bit of a spectacle. Attempts to reinvigorate the franchise always involved men in rubber suits, making serious attempts seem tacky as men in suits ruminated on the folly of man while Godzilla fought a giant three headed squid beast or some such thing.
Shin Godzilla returns the franchise to its roots, utilising Godzilla as a metaphor for the disasters and trials that the Japanese people have faced, particular those with a nuclear element. It draws heavily on the earthquake/tsunami/meltdown triple disaster that resulted in Fukushima, going so far as to almost straight lift news footage of the event. Blue jump suit wearing government officials wander through the wreckage as firefighters dig for survivors, and Godzilla pushes water and piles of boats out of waterways as terrified people run for safety in scenes that could have easily been lifted directly from news coverage of the event.
Buried beneath the rubble and nuclear mayhem is some fairly scathing commentary on the bureaucracy and its functionality during such a disaster. For all its giant monster mayhem, this is a remarkably smart movie, understanding that while Godzilla may be the draw for audiences, it is ultimately just a tool for telling a much larger story.
But it doesn’t forget the fans, offering up just enough fan service to be enjoyable but not so much it crosses into fanboy territory. When Godzilla in his primary form appears for the first time Akira Ifukube's original (mono!) theme song starts playing, and I found myself humming along as he slowly marched towards the city. It's a grand moment that, despite how much I did enjoy the American Godzilla, was sorely missing from that film. Godzilla felt huge, but he never felt like an otherworldly GOD. But as the theme subsides and reality sets in, you realize you were cheering for a monster that just killed hundreds of people. And that is where this films success truly lies: in making Godzilla a monster again, instead of just a man in a suit.
So those are the best of the best, but there are a few others that fall into the “Good” category this year.
2016 saw the return of Jason Bourne in the fifth film in the franchise. I’ve always quite liked the Bourne movies, arguably more than the Bond movies. They feel more grounded, more real, and their grit feels less like it’s been slathered on top of something shiny and more like an ingrained part of its identity. The latest entry, featuring the return of both Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass, is a bit of a mixed bag. Mostly good, but not quite as good as some of the others. The highlights? Matt Damon kicks ass as Bourne, the villain is menacing and genuinely threatening, and it features some hard hitting action set pieces. All in all, it might not be the best movie of the franchise, but it’s a solid third out of five (after 1 and 3 obviously).
Zootopia, a remarkably complex take on social and racial dynamics starring talking bunnies, is Disney’s finest non-Star Wars/Marvel/Pixar movie in some time, and rightfully deserves the stamp as a modern animated classic. Far more than the likes of Frozen. The design, animation, voice acting, direction, everything works together perfectly. It also embraces a grey morality, rather than the simply "good is good, bad is bad" which is always a nice change of pace.
Triple 9, a gritty crime drama that fell just short of being a modern classic, features excellent performances from everyone involved and has one of my favourite action scenes of the year. The only major flaw I found with it was the length, and the result that had on the narrative. It should have ended about half an hour sooner than it did. Instead, it kept going and worked to tie up every single loose end. For a film so rough, that features the trial of good in a world of bad, to end with a few bad guys getting away and some threads left hanging would have not only suited the story, it would have given it a bleak impact that would have elevated it to classic status.
Space Cop, which if you’re a Red Letter Media fan makes sense, and if you’re not doesn’t make a lick of. This is a for-the-fans sort of movie. If you aren’t a fan of Jay and Rich and Mike, this movie will probably seem pretty terrible. And it is pretty terrible, but if it were “good” it wouldn’t be good. Confused yet? Good. Go watch Double Down and then we’ll talk.
Rampage: President Down, the latest (and potentially LAST) film from Uwe Boll. He gets a lot of flack, and yeah most of his movies are shit. But they’re a good sort of shit, a very divine sort of insane shit. MST3K shit. And he seems like a genuinely nice, albeit crazy, kind of guy. Some of the performances in this are truly terrible. We're talking "wouldn't sound right reading my McDonalds order back to me" level of terrible. But somehow it works. There's almost an independent film sort of charm with his movies. He talks about how he's a rebel fighting the system, and you know what? You can feel it. His movies, particularly the Rampage series and this entry in particular, genuinely feel like he took all his friends and contacts and scraped together everything he could manage, then went and made a movie just to prove that he could. This may not be the best movie ever made, but it's a damn fine way for a filmmaker like Uwe Boll to end his career on. Assuming he actually stays retired. Honestly never thought I would say it, but I hope it's less a retirement and more a vacation.
Star Trek Beyond, a film that understands the importance of fun. I liked the first Star Trek when I first saw it, but upon second and third viewings realised it wasn't much better than the second Star Trek movie, which is probably the worst Star Trek movie committed to film. Yes, I said worst. At least Star Trek V wasn't built upon the foundation of a better film, failing to understand why that film was good, while also being a bad film in its own right. But Star Trek Beyond? It was fun. Every crew member had a job to do. It felt like Star Trek, not an action movie set in space with spaceships. The characters felt right, the setting felt right, and despite the cliched story (so far ALL THREE new Star Trek movies have been people with ties to Starfleet seeking revenge) it managed to pull it off.
Deepwater Horizon, a disaster movie that was exciting, emotional, action packed, and tightly directed. And... eh. It was good, it was an entertaining two hours and I was pretty much only using for the edge of my seat despite paying for the whole thing, but it's like a lot of both disaster movies and Peter Berg movies: forgettable. Remember Lone Survivor? Hancock? The Kingdom? None of them are really BAD, in fact they have all the elements to make them great. But they're just sort of meh. Watch 'em once and move on.
There you have it folks, the best of 2016! Of course this doesn't include some pretty guaranteed additions I didn't have a chance to see, like Arrivals or The Neon Demon, but I'll get around to them eventually.
In the mean time, that's it for today.
Tune in tomorrow for Part 2: THE WORST!