We begin this year’s recap with another movie that appeals to both children and adults. But this time it isn’t Pixar (more on them later), although it is still Disney.
Zootopia is a clever film about a world where animals live like humans: they have jobs, wear clothes, live in houses, all that good stuff. And with that comes problems that look at lot like human problems.
The story centers on Judy Hops, a bunny who wants to live in the big city and be a cop, but generally speaking her species are considered to kind and sweet to be built for that kind of job. She does it anyway, and eventually gets assigned as a parking attendant, a job she takes on with as much excitement as she does everything else. She also comes across Nick Wilde, a fox who she initially assumes is a do-gooder, but who proves to be a swindler.
There are a lot of great moments in this film, lots of jokes for both kids and adults (the sloths work at the DMV!), but in the end the movie is focused on the idea of accepting people for what they’re good at, not just what they appear to be on the surface.
Captain America: Civil War
While this is technically labeled as the third Captain America film, what it really amounts to is Avengers 2.5, since the events here set up much of the rest of the MCU’s overarching story, especially bleeding into the next official Avengers movie.
But in spirit this is still Cap’s story, as the fallout from The Winter Soldier becomes the driving force of this movie, wherein Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark finally learns the cause of his parents’ death: Cap’s old buddy Bucky Barnes, although under the brainwashing of Hydra.
The disagreement over the Sokovia Accords — so named because of the casualties suffered at the end of Age of Ultron — is the catalyst for a fracturing of the relationship between two factions of the Avengers. The realization of Barnes’ role in the death of Stark’s parents is the final nail in the coffin.
Yes, the movie ends with hope, since the MCU needed to continue to its end several films later, but there is a darker edge to parts of this film that wouldn’t return until the final two Avengers installments. This time around is less genre film than the first two Captain America movies, but it’s no less effective.
One of the more unsettling movies I’ve ever seen in a theater, Green Room is one of those movies that starts out tense and then continues to ratchet up the tension more and more as it goes on.
Starring Anton Yelchin in one of the last movies he filmed before his untimely death, the film follows a punk band on a truly DIY tour. They end up at the next stop along the way, to find it’s a “club” out in the literal middle of nowhere, which turns out to be run by group of neo-Nazis.
Before too long the band members witness a murder, which of course makes them expendable, and the rest of the film focuses on the band members trying to escape the gang, with increased violence.
Clocking in at just over 90 minutes, Green Room is one of those take you by the throat movies that you simultaneously can’t take your eyes off of and don’t want to keep looking at, such is the nature of the violence. But its insanity and pacing works to its advantage, and not to mention that it is excellently made by writer/director Jeremy Saulnier.
It’s unforgettable, but mostly because the wildness of what happens on screen is almost unbelievable.
The Nice Guys
From Shane Black, the guy who brought us such movies as Lethal Weapon, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and Iron Man 3 (it’s good, people), comes a movie that feels like the best combination of everything he’d done up to that point (okay, maybe not IM3). The Nice Guys features two fantastic, witty, and self-effacing performances from Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe, as two private eyes looking to make it big in 1970’s LA.
One of the things that Black does so well as a writer is dialogue, the the quality of that in this film is never in question. And Gosling and Crowe look like they’re having the best time, even when the film calls for them to get beat up or knocked around, which is quite frequently.
It’s often hilarious and almost always a great time, and also features an absolutely fantastic mystery on top of everything else.
If there was ever a Pixar movie that called for more investigation into its world, the underwater world of Finding Nemo certainly feels like one of the better options. It took thirteen years, but Pixar finally returned to the sea to tell the story of one of the best supporting characters in its arsenal: lovable, forgetful Dory.
Still voiced with genuine charm and sweetness by Ellen Degeneres, Dory’s story is essentially Nemo’s in reverse: she’s off to find her parents, who, of course, she can’t remember. Through a series of spotty memories, her journey leads her to the Marine Life Institute, where she hopes to find them.
Along the way we meet more interesting characters such as Hank the octopus, Destiny the whale, and Bailey her neighbor. While maybe lacking some of the originality of the first Finding film, Dory’s story is just as sweet and tear-jerking as the first time around. And Nemo is even around to help her out this time.
La La Land
It’s funny what happened to the discourse about this film during its run in theaters and during the Oscar race in late 2015 into 2016.
When it debuted at the Venice Film Festival in last August, the film was critically acclaimed, and immediately hailed as the frontrunner for Best Picture, among many other awards at the Oscars. It played at several other festivals, like Telluride, Toronto, and AFI before officially premiering in — where else — Los Angeles in early December. Again, the acclaim was great and the expectations were high.
Then, as often happens in this day and age, the think pieces started coming in, as they often do for movies like this that seem to have leg up on the Best Picture award, and another film, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, started getting mentioned in the conversation, too.
The movie ended up making over $446,000,000 worldwide, was nominated for 14 Oscars (winning six, Director, Best Actress, cinematography, original score, original song, and production design), and maintaining its critical acclaim. It also famously almost won Best Picture, and in fact did for a moment, before it was realized that the wrong card had been read and Moonlight had prevailed.
And yet to me, none of this matters; what matters is the general feeling of excitement that watching this film — the first time and every time since — gives me. I love the performances, I love the story, I love the songs, I even love the way the movie ends, which I would have never seen coming.
Simply put: it’s one of my favorite movies of all time. Not just of 2016. Not just of this last decade. Ever.
Having just returned from seeing Clint Eastwood’s most recent film, Richard Jewell, the story of the man accused of the Atlanta Olympic bombing, my friend and I asked the same question: what was the last great Eastwood film?
The answer, we surmised, might go as far back as Mystic River from 2003, but might also include Invictus from 2009, and most definitely Sully, the story of the man who piloted, and then was forced to explain why he’d lost control of, the plane that landed in the Hudson River in 2009.
If I hadn’t seen the aftermath of the event with my own eyes (and also happen to know someone who was on the plane), I wouldn’t have believed it actually happen. This is probably why there was an investigation into the matter, as heroic as Captain Chesley Sullenberger, better known as Sully, was on that day.
The film is focused on that hearing, which allows the filmmakers to show the crash, recreated with great intensity and intricacy, from various angles and points of view. Sully likely experienced this throughout the investigation, and the film takes great care to show that even though he needed to intelligently make the case for his choices, that needing to do so agonized the pilot greatly.
Featuring an outstanding performance from Tom Hanks, who failed to score an Oscar nomination, Sully is a wildly well made film, as we as come to expect from Eastwood as a director.
A sci-fi film that isn’t particularly interested in answers or explanations, Arrival is a thoughtful, intelligent movie about the power of language, the importance of communication, and the reasons for the choices we make.
Amy Adams is spectacular in a role that asks her to do a lot of work and be on screen throughout most of the movie. The film paints her as a mother who lost her child, but there is a wild twist that only works because of the mysterious nature of the aliens that arrive as the film opens.
Great science fiction is not necessarily focused on aliens who are coming to take over the world and the violent ends that come because of them, but often works as allegory for the current world we find ourselves in. Director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Bradford Young create a visually beautiful version of our world, but writer Eric Heisserer clearly has bigger things on his mind.
I won’t spoil the ending, even all these years later, because if you haven’t seen Arrival yet, it’s certainly worth not knowing going into it. But suffice it to say it says a lot about humanity, even as the story focuses on aliens arriving on Earth.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
There are a lot of questions about the direction of the Star Wars universe as it has been working towards the ending of the Skywalker Saga since The Force Awakens. While Disney continues to movie forward with planned movies once The Rise of Skywalker is released, many question what the focus will be. At this point, we still don’t know.
But Rogue One at least suggests there’s a possibility that movies can be made without characters named Skywalker or Solo and still be of good quality. It’s the story of those who gave their lives to steal the plans for the Death Star leading up to the events of the original Star Wars film. This, of course, means that the ending of the film is never in question, since gaining the plans came “at great personal cost” to the Rebellion.
That doesn’t make the “how” they got there that the film looks at less interesting, and while the backstory elements of Felicity Jones’ Jyn Erso doesn’t always work (her father created the Death Star!), the action, especially the final set piece, is often successful.
I still don’t know what direction the Star Wars universe will go from here, but there is hope that good stories can be made without the characters we’ve come to know and love during the nine films of the Skywalker Saga.
Saw, but didn’t make the list (*close): Hail, Caesar!, Deadpool, Zoolander 2, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (eyeroll), The Jungle Book, X-Men: Apocalypse, Alice Through the Looking Glass, Cafe Society, Money Monster, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, Now You See Me 2, The Shallows, The BFG, Ghostbusters: Answer the Call, Jason Bourne, Don’t Think Twice, Batman: The Killing Joke, Suicide Squad, Pete’s Dragon, Sing, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, The Girl on the Train, Doctor Strange, Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, Moana, Passengers, The Founder, A Monster Calls*
Didn’t see: Silence, Fences, Patriots Day, Hidden Figures, Jackie, Allied, Manchester By the Sea, Loving, Hacksaw Ridge, Moonlight, The Accountant, Birth of a Nation, The Magnificent Seven, Deepwater Horizon, Lion, The Light Between Oceans, War Dogs, Kubo and the Two Strings, Hell or High Water, Captain Fantastic, Star Trek Beyond, Independence Day: Resurgence, Neon Demon, The Divergent Series: Allegiant, Everybody Wants Some!!, 10 Cloverfield Lane, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, London Has Fallen, Knight of Cups, Midnight Special