I emphasize classic movies on my blog and I don’t see very many movies at the time of their release, so my exposure to the movies of 2016 is very limited, but as a new year begins I want to share the movies I did watch last year, even though there are only 10 of them. I will place them in order from the poorest to the best, giving a grade to the quality of each movie.
10. The Secret Life of Pets (D-)
Only the opening and closing scenes of The Secret Life of Pets have anything to do with a “secret life” of what goes on in the minds of its four-legged characters. This has the potential to be delightful, but the rest is just typical and meaningless anthropomorphic action. The “secret life” that we get through the rest of the movie is a dark, disturbing, and gross world that resembles mafia life and warfare but its heroes are cute, lovable dogs. This makes the way for a confused and unsettling experience since the movie displays no direction. If it’s supposed to be for kids (as of course it is), expect some pretty upset kids. If it’s supposed to be for adults, expect some depressed and confused adults after this mess.
9. Zootopia (C-)
The hilarious DMV scene known from the trailer caused many people to want to watch Disney’s Zootopia. Unfortunately, it’s the only scene in the movie with any originality. The two main characters are boring and giving us no reason to care about them. The message of being yourself regardless of the expectations of the culture around you is handled in a heavy-handed way without a second of joy. The screenplay is a rip-off of The Silence of the Lambs and The Godfather, not the usual Disney homages to pop culture but just lazy uses of better movies hoping that this one could somehow become better by using them, but it never does.
8. Captain Fantastic (B-)
Matt Ross assembled a wonderful cast of actors to portray a family living in the middle of nowhere, learning survival and completely isolated from the rest of the world until the death of the mother. The father Ben (Viggo Mortensen) takes his six children out of isolation to attend their mother’s funeral and to meet the desires she expressed in her will that her family has disregarded. The movie asks a very big moral question: Is the way Ben raises his children child abuse or just strange parenting? Most of the movie explores different sides of this question in an intriguing way but drags on too long to keep its value. After a beautiful concluding scene where the family has completed what they call “Operation Rescue Mom,” the movie continues unnecessarily for another half hour. In that time, the big question is answered for us. It was much better when we were allowed to make up our own minds, but the final half hour ruins everything great that was accomplished in the movie’s first 90 minutes.
7. The Jungle Book (B)
Neel Sethi gives one of the great child acting performances as Mowgli in the newest version of Kipling’s classic. Director Jon Favreau assembled a great team for some of the technical elements of the film (the sets, the score, and the cinematography are top-notch), but not consistently. Some of the animated animal characters look too real to justify giving them voiceover actors; Bill Murray does his best but can’t take away the awkwardness of hearing his voice while looking at a creature that should not be able to talk; the technical greatness of the movie is not consistent enough to encourage the suspension of belief required here. There is much to admire about Favreau’s Jungle Book, but the 1967 fully animated version is far superior.
6. Finding Dory (B)
Finding Dory is both a sequel and a prequel to Finding Nemo (something only The Godfather Part II has done before). Its story includes both the relationship that Dory shares with Nemo and his dad after the journey of the 2003 film and Dory’s childhood with the development of her short-term memory loss. Dory’s memory disorder was the source of most of the humor in the original film but here it’s taken very seriously. In the sequel sections, we see Dory able to take care of herself and her friends (Nemo and his dad) despite the disorder which sometimes is hokey but usually charming thanks to the new friends she meets along the way, especially a hilarious octopus voiced by Ed O’Neil. Most of the humor in this movie comes from those new friends, not from Dory.
5. Love & Friendship (B+)
Jane Austen’s lesser-known novel Lady Susan is the source material for the funniest movie I’ve seen this year. In every one of her novels, Austen created female characters that we love to hate; they’re divisive, prejudiced, and immoral but somehow lovable. What sets Lady Susan apart is that this type of character is the story’s main character, something unheard of elsewhere in Jane Austen’s literature. Wilt Stillman’s adaptation takes every opportunity to find humor in this situation. Cate Beckinsale, as Lady Susan, gives us all the charm necessary to accept such a nasty person as the hero of this story.
4. The Fits (B+)
Anna Rose Holmer’s very small independent film The Fits shows very vividly how similar boxing and hip-hop dance are. On the surface this sounds very unbelievable and like a flimsy basis for a story. 11-year-old Royalty Highwalter gives a performance so urgent, so physical, and so emotive that as the movie progresses, we can see how much potential for a story really does exist within this scenario. It is a story of endurance, of the power that comes from discipline, and of the relationship between athletics and the arts. Anna Rose Holmer and Royalty Highwalter take these themes so seriously that they invite us to do the same and to join Toni (Royalty’s character) in her extraordinary journey of finding herself.
3. Morris from America (A-)
Writer/director Chad Hartigan gave us a very special movie mainly because of the wonderful way it depicts a great dad. Most movies about teens present the parents in a caricatured way that reflects reality in no way at all. This is even more sadly the case when Hollywood makes movies that involve African American families, satisfied with perpetuating stereotypes that should have been noticed and abandoned fifty years ago. But the father and son in Morris from America are real people, full of life, hurt, joy, fear, and hope for a future. Curtis (Craig Robinson in an Oscar-worthy performance, though he certainly will not be nominated) is the father whose love for and constant availability to his son Morris are so palpable that many viewers will wish they had had a father like him. This reaction is possible because we see the father’s own faults, limitations, hurt, and grief that drives his decisions. He’s far from a perfect man, but he is a perfect father for Morris.
2. Hail, Caesar! (A)
A satire of blacklisting and other harmful results of McCarthyism, an indictment on repression similar to what happened in the era of McCarthyism that is alive and well in America today, an homage to classic Hollywood, and a parody of the most popular genres of 1950s cinema (the musical comedy, the western, and of course the sword and sandal/biblical epic that the title refers to). Hail Caesar is all of these things, contradictory as they can be. The Coen brothers create their most visually stimulating film to date and accomplishes all the things I listed with perfect balance through one of their best screenplays to date. Hail Caesar is goofy but profound, simple but elegant, hilarious but angering. Above all, it is utterly unique.
1. Nuts! (A)
Also utterly unique is Penny Lane’s documentary on John R. Brinkley. Using a combination of animation and interview, Nuts tells the story of a man who became one of the wealthiest people in America through medicine and mass media. And it all started with a cure for impotence through goat’s testicles. The whole movie is as bizarre as the man’s initial claim to fame and takes us into a world too strange to be fictional. The less you know about Brinkley going in the better, because the story unfolds in ways so unexpected, with so much intelligence and empathy, that to say any more about it would risk ruining the experience.