Cinema Junkie Awards: The Best And Worst Of 2016
Films that raised the bar (and others that didn’t)
Friday, December 23, 2016
Credit: CBS Films
From sequels we never asked for to genre films that upped their game, here's what stood out at the cineplex this year.
KPBS film critic Beth Accomando picks films that raised the bar on what we should expect from movies in 2016.
Best of 2016
"Hell or High Water"
"Train to Busan"
"The Autopsy of Jane Doe"
"I Am Not Your Negro"
It’s time again for the Cinema Junkie Awards, the best and worst films of 2016.
Let’s face it: 2016 was a bummer. We lost David Bowie, Gene Wilder, Alan Rickman and Prince just to name a few. And we had a presidential race that seemed to make us lower our expectations about everything.
It was a year of sequels we never asked for.
Cases in point: “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” “Bridget Jones’ Baby,” “My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2,” “Mechanic Resurrection,” “Now You See Me 2,” “Independence Day Resurgence,” “The Huntsman: Winter’s War,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows,” and “Ride Along 2.”
Did we really need these films — created solely to cash in on a product brand — to take up hours of our lives that we will never get back? Some of these, like “TMNT,” were among the worst films of the year.
While Marvel delivered on comic book movies with the Captain America sequel “Civil War” and the surprisingly spot on, hilarious “Deadpool,” DC continued to flounder with “Batman vs. Superman: Dark Justice” and “Suicide Squad.” The DC films weren’t so much bad as just mediocre to the point of boredom. At least with “Deadpool,” Marvel gave us an R-rated comic book movie that lived up to everyone’s expectations of what that character should be, and kudos to Ryan Reynolds for nailing the irreverent tone.
And while Oscar buzz is circling films such as “Hacksaw Ridge,” “Sully” and “Silence,” these films seem like lazy picks by voters going to familiar directors who are not doing their best work. “Hacksaw Ridge” in particular is a painfully pedestrian and outdated war film highlighted by some effective scenes of war violence.
So this year, I listed films that raised the bar in some way; that challenged viewers and asked them to rethink their expectations when they walked into a theater; or that worked within a genre in clever ways.
The always riveting Isabelle Huppert is an unconventional actress who takes risks and never delivers the predictable. In Paul Verhoeven’s “Elle,” she played a rape victim who does not succumb to any of the clichés often found in films about this topic. Her character suggested there could be more than one type of narrative in a rape-revenge story.
Runners-up for best actress this year go to Kate Winslet for “The Dressmaker,” Rebecca Hall for “Christine,” Viola Davis for “Fences,” Jessica Chastain for “Miss Sloane” and Amy Adams for both “Arrival” and “Nocturnal Animals.”
For best actor, I have to go to a film that I loved until the final act: “10 Cloverfield Lane.” The film faltered badly in its final scenes, but John Goodman is pure perfection as he walks the line between creepy and funny with masterful skill.
Runners-up for best actor go to the ever dependable and fine Denzel Washington in “Fences" (which he also directed), Jeff Bridges for “Hell or High Water” (even though Oscar is calling this a supporting role), Viggo Mortensen for “Captain Fantastic,” Colin Farrell for “The Lobster” and Dong-seok Ma for “Train to Busan.”
In the supporting actress category, Judy Davis stood out in “The Dressmaker,” as did the actresses playing the waitresses in “Hell or High Water.” Katie Mixon and Margaret Bowman defined their characters with laser-like precision for only minutes onscreen. Also noteworthy were Michelle Williams in “Manchester by the Sea” and Kim Dickie in “The Witch.”
In the supporting actor category, Michael Shannon was low-key perfection in “Nocturnal Animals,” while hunky Aaron Eckhart was unrecognizable as the balding, pudgy fight trainer in “Bleed for This.” Patrick Stewart proved that a great actor can be powerful even when acting from behind a door in “The Green Room,” and Mahershala Ali was excellent in “Moonlight.”
Honorable mention films
Some honorable mentions go to “Knight of Cups” for telling a purely visual story with no overt linear narrative; “Swiss Army Man” for turning a fart joke into a story that redefines friendship; “Arrival” for pointing out the importance of a single word in a circular tale that made us rethink everything when we got to the end; “The Lobster” for a screenplay that was unique; “Miss Sloane” for giving us a ruthless female character who was the smartest one in the room and she didn’t need a boyfriend; “Birth of a Nation” for telling a tale of slavery from the perspective of a black man who chooses to stand up to injustice with violence; and “La La Land” for daring to revive the MGM musical even if it fell short.
Foreign film kudos
South Korea deserves a special award for constantly raising the bar on our expectations of genre filmmaking.
“Train to Busan” invested a standard zombie apocalypse with heartbreaking emotions that reflected social and political issues of a country divided. “The Handmaiden” took what could have been a conventional love triangle and twisted it into a delectable tale of deceit, sexual politics and cultural differences. These films proved that while you might start as a genre film, you do not have to be confined the genre limitations.
I also have to highlight “Elle” again, this time for Paul Verhoeven’s direction and his dedication for not delivering what anyone ever expects. And Pedro Almodovar once again proves with “Julieta” that he has turned melodrama into high art.
Best documentary films
Two of the year’s best documentaries proved you didn’t need any pyrotechnics to hold an audience rapt.
In “De Palma,” Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow challenged the idea that a single talking head is boring by letting filmmaker Brian De Palma talk directly into the camera for nearly two hours and deliver a master class in filmmaking. It was riveting.
In “I Am Not Your Negro,” Raul Peck lets James Baldwin, an African-American author who died 30 years ago, speak from beyond the grave and prove that what he wrote decades ago about race relations is still sadly relevant today. He speaks through old archive interviews and through Samuel L. Jackson reading from Baldwin’s writing. At one point, Baldwin answers a question in a TV interview about blacks and whites in America:
“I am terrified at the moral apathy, the death of the heart, which is happening in my country. These people [white majority] have deluded themselves for so long that they really don’t think I’m human.”
That statement rings chillingly true as we see police shootings of blacks and hate crimes today.
Also noteworthy were “13th,” “Gleason” and “Amanda Knox.”
Best english language films
I want to give kudos to genre films that upped their game. “The Autopsy of Jane Doe” raised the bar on horror to prove that a small budget and confined setting can be an advantage and can challenge a filmmaker to be clever about how to create fear. An autopsy room with a dead body that never moves proves the foundation for a truly creepy horror tale. And there is a lovely detail of a bell on a corpse’s foot, an old tradition meant to ensure that a body is actually dead.
“Hardcore Henry” was touted as the first GoPro point-of-view movie where audiences were put in the shoes of a man fighting for his life. But rather than being a film driven by a gimmick, Russian-born filmmaker Ilya Naishuller shows us just what this new technology can do to provide an adrenaline rush to action junkies. The action choreography was carefully designed to work with the Go-Pro technology and the result was something we have not seen before (and some might say they don’t want to see again). But I loved they way the film made you feel like you were in a video game. This is pure kinetic energy.
Major props go to Gareth Edwards, who showed what a fanboy can do when given the keys to Skywalker Ranch. Edwards takes his love of “Star Wars” and mixes it with state-of-the-art technology that allowed him to do things like cut in old footage with new in “Rogue One.” “Rogue One” shows how a small indie filmmaker can turn a tentpole picture into a personal love letter. Edwards’ film gleefully announces that we no longer have to lower our expectations for a “Star Wars” film.
Next up is a pair of films that sent some viewers running for the exits in disgust, anger or confusion. I think that made me love them even more because it signaled that they were pushing people out of their comfort zone. I appreciated them for not telling audiences what to think but rather leaving them with mysteries to be solved. Both Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Neon Demon” and Tom Ford’s “Nocturnal Animals” were gorgeously stylized cinematic seductions all about beauty, narcissism and revenge in that most self-absorbed, surface-obsessed city in the world, Los Angeles. I love films that ask us to think about what we are seeing and not to take anything at face value. These films defied Hollywood’s need to present likable characters and to be reassured at the end that everything is OK. These films also set a high standard across all the craft categories from production design and cinematography to editing, sound and make-up and hair. These were perfectly executed films in which nothing was there without a purpose and both directors imprinted every frame with their particular vision.
Turning to another horror film that elevated the genre is Robert Eggers’ Puritan nightmare, “The Witch.” Eggers challenged us to redefine what we think of as horror by giving us a luminously beautiful film about things that terrify us. Those things could be the unknown that lurks out in the darkness or the terror of fanaticism.
I fell in love with “The Dressmaker” from its opening words: A gloved and perfectly coiffed Kate Winslet boldly announcing, “I’m back you bastards.” Director Jocelyn Moorhouse made us rethink what a revenge film can be and did so with humor, heartbreak and a stylish flair. She raised the bar for women filmmakers by showing that a film all about women does not have to fall victim to chick flick clichés but can be fresh and exciting. She also challenged viewers by not revealing exactly what the film was about from the get-go, only that it would involve getting even of some kind.
Topping my list for 2016 is a film that did something truly rare: It knew exactly how to end.
“Hell or High Water” is an indie film about two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) on a crime spree and Jeff Bridges as the Texas Ranger on their trail. The ending does not tie everything up in a neat bow but rather ends with an ambiguity that is absolutely satisfying and perfectly defines the two main characters and where they are at the end of the film. It also harkened back to '70s indie filmmaking with its cast of supporting characters that are richly defined.
“Hell or High Water” — as with “Arrival,” “Nocturnal Animals” and “Neon Demon” — go against the Hollywood trend of making films that either talk down to audiences or assume we all want popcorn movies all the time instead of delivering grown-up pictures that refuse to spoon feed us. Popcorn movies are great escape and we need films like “Rogue One” and “Deadpool.” But sometimes, it is refreshing to go to a movie and be challenged and sometimes even unsettled and disturbed.
I am thankful to each of these films for raising the bar on what we should expect from movies. They may not be perfect, but each was ambitious in some way and went against conventional thinking to make us see something old with fresh eyes or to take an extra level of care to execute something with refreshing precision.
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