Sunday, January 1, 2017

Mike's Musings: Top 10 of 2016

As I said in my previous post, 2016 was not a good year for movies.  Low quality, low ticket sales, low excitement.  That doesn't mean there weren't good movies to be found.  There were quite a few that were a three-and-a-half or above.  You just had to know where to look.  Most were mid-to-low budget movies that put more of an emphasis on quality rather than being easy money.  Classics are made by people with passion and a willingness to take chances.

10. I'm Not Ashamed.  I did not expect to like this movie.  In fact, I was astonished at the fact that someone could have the gall to make this movie.  Evangelical Christianity playing the victim card in "God's Not Dead" and its miserable sequel was bad enough, but exploiting one of the victims of the Columbine massacre?  Unforgivable.  Fortunately, that was not the case.  The filmmakers had too much respect for Rachel and what she stood for.  They had the courage to let Rachel speak for herself.  Her message comes through by what she does, not by how many Bible verses she knows or how pious she is.  Much of that is conveyed in a stunning performance by Masey McLain.  "I'm Not Ashamed" is a good movie, but it's McLain's warmth, energy and talent that earned it a spot on this list.  She deserves all the accolades that she won't get.  I hope to see more of her in the future.

9.  Hacksaw Ridge.  War movies are a dime a dozen.  They've been around since movies were born.  While not the king ("Saving Private Ryan") or queen ("American Sniper"), it's up there.  What's especially noteworthy is how director Mel Gibson manages to get a lot of the same power as those movies while telling the story in a conventional way.  That speaks to his talent as a filmmaker.  I doubt it will be up for many Oscars (that depends on its showing at the other umpteen awards), except for a few technical ones.  Still, this is an experience you won't want to miss.

8.  Hush.  "Hush" is as effective as it is rare: a smart horror movie.  Horror movies depend on their characters having brain cramps.  It's what gets them into the sticky situations that allow them to be put in jeopardy...thus the scares.  Not here.  It's scary because both the deaf-mute heroine and the killer outside are smart.  She knows her house but he's able to anticipate her moves.  What I'm wondering is how any studio could have let this gem get away?  It's smart, effective and violent.  What more can a horror fan want?  Fortunately, Netflix acquired the rights, and now it's available to stream.  However, as far as I know, you can't buy a copy on DVD or Blu Ray anywhere.  Side note: if I'm wrong, please let me know.

7.  Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life.  Making a feel-good movie is hard.  The balance has to be just right.  Too much sweetness and it curdles.  Too little and it's a cold and unforgiving movie.  But this movie gets it right.  Unafraid of tackling some difficult issues, such as bullying, death and parental remarriage head on, this one's a real winner.  It's warm, funny and has some clever animation.  It's a perfect family movie.

6.  Don't Breathe.  With thrillers, it's all about the execution.  Pun intended.  Characters we can care about are necessary, but a thriller by someone who truly knows what he's doing, not mandatory.  This movie has both.  The acting is strong, but it's the way it's put together that makes it stand out.  Director Fede Alvarez is very careful about how he composes the shots in order to generate the maximum level of tension.  The film is surprisingly intense, and what's more, Alvarez is very good with slight of hand.  We never know what is going to happen, especially not the killer twist.  Only the poor decision to start in the middle and go back to the beginning mars it from a perfect 4/4.

5.  Only Yesterday.  The lack of success of "Only Yesterday" was due, in part, to Disney's cowardice.  They were unwilling to release a film where schoolgirls experience menstruation.  Never mind that, considering the context, it's completely appropriate for younger children.  Never mind that nothing graphic is shown, or even talked about.  Never mind that it was clean enough to earn a family friendly PG rating from the notoriously prudish MPAA (if that's not a sign that you're in the clear, nothing is).  They were afraid of backlash from conservative parents and groups who would have an apoplexy at the words "menstruation" and "kids movie" in the same sentence.  Considering our sex-phobic society, maybe they were right.  Whatever the reason, Studio Ghibli had the good sense to write it into their contract with Disney that they could not alter one of their films.  Enter GKIDS, and now the film is available to watch at home.  I strongly suggest that you do.

4.  Miss Sloane.  What a knockout!  This movie bites hard from the opening scene and never lets go.  It floors you.  A twisty drama with the relentless pace and ferocity of a top notch thriller, the exploits of master lobbyist Liz Sloane are impossible to turn away from.  Jessica Chastain is flat out riveting here, and an Oscar nomination is a certainty.  It's an award that she should, but probably won't, win.  To my utter shock, it bombed at the box office.  With a minimal advertising budget, it didn't have the muscle to stand next to the year's holiday hits like "La La Land" or "Passengers."  Let me tell you, this movie is a must-see.

3.  Meru.  Can I put it on this list?  It was released last year, which would be fine for a holdover.  But I looked online and it was released in August.  I saw it for the first time in January, right after I had created my list.  Silly me.  The Netflix envelope was sitting next to my TV, and I just put it off, despite the urgings of my best friend.  Perhaps as a way to atone for my procrastination, but I'm putting it on here, however inappropriate it may be.  The movie is a treasure and deserves all the praise I can give it.  I know that documentaries are tough sells, but trust me when I say this, it's as stunning to look at as anything I've seen in a while, and is as suspenseful as hell.

2.  Bad Moms.  Given the state of comedies these days, which is stand-up comedians improvising riffs on the same lame joke and acting like self-absorbed boors, I approached this movie like I was going to the gallows.  The horrors of the years earlier comedies still fresh in my mind.  I was completely taken aback.  I was laughing.  And laughing more.  And laughing hard.  I was even cheering.  I've never done that before in a movie (well, once in "Zootopia").  This movie is funny.  It's funny because it has a point of view.  The jokes come from areas of truth, ones that we can all relate to.  Especially if you're a mom.  I'm not, and never will be, but like "Office Space," another comedy I liked without being able to directly relate to it, it's funny not just because it understands its subject, but because it understands satire and human nature.

1.  Eye in the Sky.  Christmas came early for movie lovers this year.  This riveting thriller was released in April, and film lovers couldn't be happier.  Flawlessly paced, well-acted, and generating a starling amount of momentum from a relatively simple situation, it never talked down to the audience or showed off.  Director Gavin Hood was smart enough to trust his actors and his story to sell the film.  And sell it they did.  This movie was exhilarating, and it's my pick for the best of 2016.

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