While everybody else wonders whether 2016 was the worst year in the world since 1968, or simply the worst year ever, the conversation in the world of cinema has brightened of late.
Yes, for much of the movie year, 2016 was declared calamitous. Maybe movies were dead, or maybe were they merely much worse than television.
And then (as always) a bushel of terrific, smart, challenging films arrived in the final weeks of the year. From the vantage point of December, the cinema looks very much alive.
The biggest disappointment of the movie year was Hollywood itself, and not just because Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt are calling it quits, devastating as that may be to our lives. The cycle of remakes and sequels was more relentless than ever, and they seemed emptier this year than usual.
Of the superhero genre, only “Deadpool” showed signs of life — by ridiculing the clichés of superhero movies. It made a lot of money; meanwhile, a would-be franchise starter, “Warcraft,” offered more fun than anything on the Marvel slate, but flopped in the U.S., although the international market — crucial to a blockbuster’s success now — saved the day.
The year’s losers included veteran Hollywood filmmakers who stubbed their toes at the box office: Steven Spielberg’s “The BFG,” Ron Howard’s “Inferno,” and Robert Zemeckis’s “Allied” all under-performed. Increasingly, it seemed as though the kind of middle-range, old-fashioned entertainment struggled to connect with audiences.
Unless it is made by Clint Eastwood, that is, whose “Sully” was not only a success but a formally complex movie with a refreshing point of view. The most philosophically searching sequence in a big Hollywood film this year was in Pixar’s “Finding Dory,” which doesn’t reflect well on the rest of the pack.
A group of American indie pros helped lift the year: Jim Jarmusch (“Paterson,” which hasn’t opened locally yet), Kelly Reichardt (“Certain Women”), Richard Linklater (“Everybody Wants Some!!”). And while “Hail Caesar!” may not have been the Coen brothers’ best film, it surely contained some welcome silliness.
And then there was an unlikely smash hit (relative to budget, of course) of Whit Stillman’s “Love &Friendship,” a Jane Austen adaptation that reveled in its witty, erudite banter. A sign of civilized hope in hard times.
Another aspect of the year’s best movies is the abundance of films made for and/or about women. We dare not over-emphasize this — one does not want to risk wounding the childhood memories of the snowflakey men who felt the female “Ghostbusters” tarnished their “No Girlz Allowed” clubhouse. But it was a strong year for female image-making, from the decidedly perverse “Love Witch” to the happily un-P.C. “Absolutely Fabulous.”
Now, on to list-making, and the 2016 movies that I found most stirring. A slightly used Ghostbusters Proton Pack to the following:
1. “Aquarius” — An unpredictable, insightful movie about a 65-year-old Brazilian (the great Sonia Braga) who fights a greedy property developer. But director Kleber Mendonca Filho’s film is about a lot of other things, including, in some mysterious way, about the world today.
2. “Our Little Sister” — From Japan, a gentle beauty about an adolescent orphan taken in by her three older half-sisters. You keep expecting something awfully dramatic to happen, but director Hirokazu Kore-eda will have none of that; this is a movie about the rhythm of life, and the moments that accumulate as precious memories.
3. “The Fits” — High-school girls, competing for roles in the school dance squad, begin keeling over in fainting spells. Anna Rose Holmer’s dreamlike film is all about the hothouse of youth — there are virtually no grown-ups seen — and it also plays like a tone poem on introversion.
4. “Cemetery of Splendor” — Comatose patients in a military hospital are having very vivid dream lives — and so would you if you were being called into the spirit world to wage battle. Thai director Apitchatpong Weerasethakul crafts a drowsy, haunting look at politics and memory, with magic realism thrown in.
5. “Things to Come” — Isabelle Huppert anchors this study of fresh disasters in middle age, a scenario director Mia Hansen-Love treats not as tragedy but as a starting point for new opportunities.
6. “Everybody Wants Some!!” — The kids are all right in Richard Linklater’s comedy of college jocks, a funny but philosophical tale of rampant masculinity circa 1980. I’ve rarely seen a film so accepting of its characters’ foibles and goofs — everybody’s human here.
7. “Sully” — Eastwood’s account of pilot Sully Sullenberger’s Hudson River landing is interesting enough as a look behind the scenes. But this movie is actually about the value of expertise and experience in a world that devalues those qualities.
8. “Paterson” — Jim Jarmusch’s new film opens locally in 2017. It’s a whimsical look at a New Jersey bus driver (Adam Driver) who writes poetry and loves his flaky wife (Golshifteh Farahani). Jarmusch is a master of finding the enchanted in the everyday, and there’s plenty of both here.
9. “Green Room.” — Changing the mood: A punk band is taken hostage by a cadre of Oregon neo-Nazis and must fight to survive. This violent indie by Jeremy Saulnier (“Blue Ruin”) is a reminder that some people still know how to tell stories. This is a true action film in which the action defines character.
10. “Aferim!” — There have been many fine movies from Romania in the last 15 years, but Rade Jude’s film is different: a brutal 19th-century story of bounty hunters and gypsies, a black-and-white “Western” from Eastern Europe.
Some of these are close calls, so let’s include 10 very potent runners-up: Arnaud Desplechin’s “My Golden Days,” a glowing remembrance of things past; Yorgo Lanthimos’s “The Lobster,” a bizarro story with claws; Andrea Arnold’s sprawling “American Honey,” a truly original road movie; “Les Cowboys,” a French thriller inspired by “The Searchers;” Kelly Reichardt’s episodic and sad Montana saga, “Certain Women;” Anna Winocour’s “Disorder,” a story of a damaged warrior; Kenneth Lonergan’s mournful “Manchester by the Sea;” Barry Jenkins’ also-mournful “Moonlight;” Anna Biller’s retro-’70s-zany “The Love Witch” (I know what I like); and Whit Stillman’s Jane Austen bauble “Love &Friendship.”
Can we be objective about the worst movies of the year? No. We can only say that something about this group rubbed me the wrong way.
1. “Criminal” — A spy’s mind is injected into the brain of a psychopath (Kevin Costner). No problem with that, but this movie keeps inventing the dumbest possible reasons for the plot to move forward.
2. “The Adderall Diaries” — James Franco looked understandably distracted by this tale of a writer who can’t get over his writer’s block nor, apparently, grow a decent beard.
3. “The 9th Life of Louis Drax” — An incompetent slice of woo-woo about a kid who may be touched by an angel or touched by fate, but you won’t care why.
4. “Genius” — It’s always a tough job to portray famous writers, but this portrait of famed editor Maxwell Perkins (Colin Firth) is especially shameless in loading on the cliches about Thomas Wolfe, Hemingway and Fitzgerald.
5. “Norm of the North” — Animated film with Rob Schneider as a polar bear. This was the first movie I saw in 2016. Do you believe in omens?
6. “Nocturnal Animals” — This arty story-within-a-story is getting respectful reviews, and you can’t knock the efforts of Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal, yet overall it feels like an exercise in manipulative style.
7. “Knight of Cups” — Terrence Malick’s latest noodle (about how spiritually empty Hollywood is, or possibly existence itself) has some gorgeous moments. But its ideas once again expose the Emperor’s new clothes.
8. “Ride Along 2” — Kevin Hart and Ice Cube wade through exactly the same jokes from the first film. This one fell far short of the original’s funny standard.
9. “I Saw the Light” — Nothing against Tom Hiddleston, a talented actor, but maybe it’s his Englishness that prevents this shapeless biopic of Hank Williams from having any country swing.
10. “London Has Fallen” — Dull as this action flick is, it gets mention here for an amazing scene in which the camera watches Gerard Butler drink a large glass of water, for no reason. Who says the movies are dead?