It feels like at this time every year, everyone is always discussing how disappointing it’s been for film, though this year is the first time it really feels like it.
That’s not to say there hasn’t been any good movies. On the contrary, the high points this year have been exceptionally high. But I’ve seen a lot that’s ranged from just ‘ok’ to flat out awful. Despite a really interesting premise, Lights Out proved to be extremely disappointing, while I’m still not sure we needed to wait all this time for Finding Dory when we had something as special as Zootopia. I did enjoy Deadpool, though it wasn’t a film I walked out of the theater loving. Though I prefer it a thousand times over whatever Batman Vs Superman or Suicide Squad were going for, and The Neon Demon challenges those films for the title of Worst Movie of the Year.
Still, this was the same year that brought us gifts like The Witch, Love & Friendship and The Meddler, so I suppose I can’t be too mad.
So, let’s get to it. My favorite films of the year (so far).
Indignation (dir. James Schamus) Starring: Logan Lerman, Sarah Gadon, Tracy Letts, Linda Edmond and Danny Burstein
I was not familiar with Indignation around the time the first trailer surfaced online, despite playing at Sundance earlier this year and being based on the Phillip Roth novel of the same name. Upon watching the trailer, I still didn’t really know a whole lot about the film, despite the fact it starred Logan Lerman, and seemed to be a period piece.
After watching, I can say that going in cold turkey was definitely the best choice in terms of watching Indignation. The film’s sucker punch ending wouldn’t have been as effective had I known anything about it prior to seeing it, and these days it’s rare to experience a film without knowing basically the entire plot beforehand.
There are things that don’t work quite as well as they should, like the relationship between the two principle leads and the oftentimes meandering plot. Despite this, the film is held together by a remarkable performance from Lerman. Though his performances in YA adaptations such as Perks of Being A Wallflower have hinted at the young actor’s talents before, this is unlike anything you’ve seen from him. The much buzzed about 18 minute long scene that comes at the film’s climax sees Lerman going head to head with veteran stage actor Tracy Letts, and he more than holds his own. It’s a performance that’s sure to make people see him in a whole new light.
Letts is also great as the strong-willed dean, while Linda Edmond makes the most of her very few scenes in a similar way to Viola Davis in Doubt. Indignation might leave some viewers cold by the end, but it’s an incredibly personal look at a post-World War II world dominated by uncertainty and fear, feelings I’m sure people in today’s world can relate to.
Green Room (dir. Jeremy Saulnier) Starring: Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots, Alia Shawkat, Joe Cole, Callum Turner and Patrick Stewart
Green Room is another film I knew very little about prior to sitting down in the theater to watch it. Though the marketing material did give a lot more away than Indignation’s did, I still wasn’t prepared for what followed. I’d also like to add that the trailer doesn’t do the film justice; Green Room is a wild, pulse pounding and adrenaline inducing ride from start to finish.
The film focuses on a small punk band looking for venues to make some cash. After landing a gig at a remote bar somewhere in the woods, they witness a murder that makes them the target of the bar owners, who just happen to be Neo-Nazis. The group manages to lock themselves inside the green room to hold off their opponents, though as the film progresses that turns out to be more of a curse than a blessing.
The principle cast, Yelchin, Poots, Shawkat, Cole and Turner, are extremely watchable, while Patrick Wilson revels in the opportunity to inhabit a more villainous role. This was one of Yelchin’s last roles before his untimely death earlier this summer, a testament to his overall versatility as an actor. He previously starred as an up and coming leading man (Alpha Dog, Charlie Bartlett) romantic lead (Like Crazy), co-star in a big budget sci-fi film (Star Trek); he fulfills his role here with the same charisma and magnetism that he brought to the aforementioned ones, which makes me wonder about all the great performances he could have continued to deliver had he not died so suddenly. But what a note to go out on.
The Meddler (dir. Lorene Scafaria) Starring: Susan Sarandon, Rose Byrne, J.K. Simmons, Cecily Strong, Jason Ritter, Billy Magnussen and Lucy Punch
The Meddler is a lot of things. It’s a heartfelt portrait of love between a mother and her daughter, a great showcase for Susan Sarandon’s actorly gifts, a PSA for Beyoncé b-side “I Was Here” from the underrated 4 and above all, it’s one of the best times I’ve had at the movies this year.
Sarandon plays Marnie, a recently widowed woman whose late husband has left her financially set for life. That financial security, however, comes at a high cost; all of the money in the world can’t fill the void left by her deceased husband. After moving to Los Angeles to be closer to her depressed daughter Lori (a prickly Rose Byrne), Marnie realizes she needs a purpose to keep her from confronting the sad truth of her reality. She instantly begins doing good deeds for others, including a kind Apple Genius Bar employee and one of Lori’s estranged friends. It’s when she meets Zipper (J.K. Simmons), a handsome security guard, that the truth becomes unavoidable; she needs to start living for herself.
The film around Sarandon is strong, but it’s really her show. She carries the film on her back without breaking a sweat. Donning a thick New Jersey accent that sounds totally authentic, she makes Marnie’s refusal to confront the truth abundantly clear from the get go. The scenes in her car where she repeatedly calls Lori and leaves rambling, five minute long voicemails detailing her day are some of the most entertaining moments in the film, if not because Sarandon is so committed to her portrayal of Marnie. But it’s the quieter moments where Marnie is forced to confront her survivor’s guilt that display the true power of her performance; Sarandon’s eyes are electric, giving us a sense of the many things she’s feeling at the moment, things she never makes the people standing in front of her privy to.
My favorite thing about The Meddler, however, is the way director/writer Lorna Scafaria lets Marnie just simply be; watching her interact with other characters without judgement is refreshing. This could have easily played like a sitcom, with the audience laughing at Marnie’s expense. And though there are some moments where we do laugh at her, it’s not from a malevolent place. There aren’t many movies that explore a lot of the themes this one does from the viewpoint of someone like Marnie, and above all it was just really refreshing to have this story told.
Ghostbusters (dir. Paul Feig) Starring: Kirsten Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones and Chris Hemsworth
It’s such a shame that Ghostbusters never really stood a chance. From the moment it was announced, Paul Feig’s female led reboot of sorts was a lightning rod of hatred from fanboys in basements all around the world. They cried foul over the “classic” from their youth (the original Ghostbusters) being “ruined by women.” It was at this time I thought to myself, “Since when did people care about Ghostbusters that much?” I mean, sure it’s a cultural landmark and encompasses the best (and worst) of the 80’s but did people really hold it that close to their hearts? I call bullshit. We all know the real reason why this film was so hated.
I’m not saying Ghostbusters is a perfect film by any means (not that it needs to be). In fact, it’s the weakest of Feig’s most recent string of brilliant films (Bridesmaids, The Heat and Spy), though that’s a pretty high bar for any film to clear. What Ghostbusters does have is an excellent cast who work extremely well together, and give the film the shot of adrenaline it needs. Both Wiig and McCarthy are playing the type here (especially McCarthy) and manage to remain no less effective than they’ve been in the past. The standouts, however, are Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon. Both have proved that they’re hysterical on SNL countless times before, but they feel right at home mining laughs from Feig’s screenplay.
As silly as Ghostbusters can be, it doubles as an entertaining action film without ever really taking itself too seriously. There’s cameos from Bill Murray and Sigourney Weaver that serve as a wink to the original films, great special effects and plenty of subversive plot elements to keep things interesting. I smiled from ear to ear after walking out of my screening of Ghostbusters. Not because I had just seen the best movie in the world, but because Feig and his team of hilarious actresses delivered a solid and thoroughly good time at the movies. I’d watch these women do anything at all, fighting ghosts or not.
10 Cloverfield Lane (dir. Dan Trachtenberg) Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman and John Gallager Jr.
Producer J.J. Abrams knew what he was doing in dictating the marketing campaign for 10 Cloverfield Lane: He gave potential viewers absolutely everything they needed to know by giving them nothing at all. Yes, there’s John Goodman and Mary Elizabeth Winstead. They’re confined together, though where exactly isn’t all that clear. What they’re hiding from, the context and if this movie is at all related to Cloverfield from 2008 are also not made clear to us.
And that’s all I’m going to say regarding the plot. The strength of the performances from John Goodman and Mary Elizabeth Winstead are enough to justify seeing the film. That they’re at the center of an extremely engrossing and claustrophobic sci-fi, psychological thriller is another reason entirely. It’s a film that never lets you feel truly at ease with the events that unfold, so that like Michelle (Winstead) we’re placed at the center of the narrative. It’s all the best parts of intimate independent filmmaking combined with the size and scope of higher budgeted blockbuster films.
The Conjuring 2 (dir. James Wan), Starring: Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Frances O’Connor, Madison Wolfe, Simon McBurney and Franka Potente
In a year littered with comic book sequels, unnecessary sequels and just flat out disappointing sequels, things didn’t look good for The Conjuring 2, which to me felt like something of a cash grab. Sure, real life paranormal experts Ed and Lorraine Warren (played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) have so many cases that we could have 1,000 sequels based on their exploits. But do we need them?
The Conjuring 2 is that rare sequel that may bring little to the table in terms of plot innovation, but succeeds by unashamedly amping up all of the elements that made the first film such a thrill. In my humble opinion, I believe this film surpasses the original; without giving too much away, it’s scarier, where the original’s scare meter was definitely fluffed by the marketing team and several reviews of the film.
Once again, Ed and Lorraine are called away to investigate a house that’s being haunted by a paranormal force. Only this time, our heroes are sent to England, and they’re not so much investigating as they are observing, and for good reason. Lorraine is being tormented by an evil nun demon, and is still shaken by her recent experience in Amityville, while Ed is frustrated by the growing amount of naysayers who say he and his wife are frauds. But of course the two, originally sent by the church to feel things out, get entangled in the haunting and have to step in.
As I mentioned, The Conjuring 2 is scarier than the original. The sound editing and score are flat out incredible, but the film’s villain Valek, aka the star of the impending Nun spin off film, is flat out terrifying. The acting is also phenomenal, with Farmiga in particular elevating some hammy and contrite dialogue. And sure, it’s a little long, but the climax more than makes up for the running time. I still need some time before I ever see another nun ever again, whether she’s a demon or not.
Love and Friendship (dir. Whit Stillman), Starring: Kate Beckinsale, Xavier Samuel, Emma Greenwell, Morfydd Clark, Jemma Redgrave, Tom Bennett, James Fleet, Justin Edwards, Jenn Murray, Chloë Sevigny and Stephen Fry
Love and Friendship was perhaps the biggest (and best) surprise of the first half of the year, for me. Though I have long been a believer in Kate Beckinsale’s capabilities as an actress, this is the best performance of her career. Witty, quick, versatile; she doesn’t waste a single frame, and no matter what scheme she’s plotting or what character she’s manipulating you simply cannot take your eyes off of her. Her Lady Susan is one of the most indelible film characters of the year.
But to just make the film about the strength of Beckinsale’s performance (as easy as it is to fall into such a trap) would undersell the other elements of the film. The rest of the cast is just as strong, working together like a well oiled machine. Chloë Sevigny is pitch-perfect in her scenes alongside Beckinsale. Her role is brief, but she’s smartly used; scattered throughout the film so that just as your missing her, there she is again. Stephen Fry has a small cameo, while Xavier Samuel, Emma Greenwell, Jenn Murray, Tom Bennett and Morfydd Clark all manage to impress. This is the kind of cast the Screen Actors Guild Best Ensemble Award was made for. The dialogue and humor is piercing, but intelligent, with sharp and assured direction from writer/director Whit Stillman. Run, don’t walk, to see this one.
Hello, My Name Is Doris (dir. Michael Showalter), Starring: Sally Field, Max Greenfield, Beth Behrs, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Stephen Root, Elizabeth Reaser, Natasha Lyonne and Tyne Daly
I can’t remember the last time Sally Field had a true lead role, or one as meaty and complex as the one she was handed in Hello, My Name Is Doris. All I can say, is that it’s been far too long since someone challenged the actress to use her gifts.
Field plays Doris, a lonely, obsessively compulsive hoarder who is satisfied working the same thankless job she’s worked since she can remember. That is, until her world is thrown for a loop with the arrival of a new boss, the handsome and much younger John (New Girl‘s Max Greenfield). What starts out as an innocent crush suddenly spirals into something beyond her control. Soon, Doris begins letting her down, doing everything and anything to improve her relationship with John, including sabotaging his relationship with another woman, attending an EDM concert (and meeting the band’s leader, Jack Antonoff in a funny cameo). But as her feelings persist, her life unravels, and suddenly Doris must start answering some really hard questions concerning the loss of her mother, her own obsessive tendencies, her failures and whether this “relationship” is real.
Anyone familiar with Field’s filmography is well versed in the actress’ capabilities around a thorny yet sympathetic character (see Steel Magnolias). Doris can be a very grating character, but Field dives headfirst into making her more than a “quirky” little old woman. She highlights her struggles with mental illness and loneliness, making what could have been a cheap caricature a very heartfelt, well rounded portrait. The film’s climax with Doris monologue about all of the things she’s missed out in life is enough to justify the strength of Field’s work, but to make such a character watchable for an entire film is something else. Greenfield is charming as John, but it’s Tyne Daly as Doris’ BFF Roz that is the real scene stealer. It’s not always an easy watch (I found myself cringing a lot actually) but it’s one you’ll be thankful you stuck with till the end.
The Witch (dir. Robert Eggers) Starring: Anna Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie
I’ve been thinking about Robert Eggers directorial debut since I saw it back in February. I saw it twice, with two different sets of friends. We were all terrified, albeit not in the way the trailers and reviews had suggested. Many complained that The Witch is not a horror movie. Sure, it’s not The Conjuring and it’s not any of the Saw movies or even Insidious or Sinister. The Witch is more in line with last year’s brilliant film, The Babadook: a terrifying drama film with horror elements.
Puritan New England, whether you’re reading about it in a textbook or watching The Crucible, is one of the scariest points in human history. In a word, it’s dark. Eggers draws on this darkness, using the 17th century as a stage. It’s perhaps the most historically accurate film I’ve watched in a really long time (the screenplay was written with the assistance of documented conversations from the period); the dialogue rolls straight off of the actors’ tongues, never seeming false for even a second. At it’s core, it’s a character study. After a brief introduction into the ways of the Puritans, we spend the rest of the film with the same six characters and observe the way they interact with each other. That may not sound like it’s the most exciting thing in the world, but Eggers and his cast of primarily unknown actors manage to mine some brilliantly tense moments out of what could have been a boring experience in less capable hands, because the most horrifying thing about The Witch isn’t the threat of a supernatural presence; it’s what the seed of fear, once planted, can provoke human beings to do to one another.
That’s not to say the titular Witch isn’t involved or scary. Oh no, she’s terrifying, and after appearing for only a few moments in the very beginning of the film, she casts a dreadful cloud over the rest of the plot and the audience. Though largely unseen, she still manages to ad to the suspense and fear. She makes another brief appearance again in the film’s harrowing climax, one that is as unforgettable as it is terrifying.
I won’t be forgetting about The Witch for quite some time.
Zootopia (dir. Byron Howard, Rich Moore & Jared Bush) Starring: Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, Jenny Slate, Nate Torrence, Bonnie Hunt, Don Lake, Tommy Chong, J.K. Simmons, Octavia Spencer, Alan Tudyk and Shakira
Could the best film released in the first half of 2016 really be an animated movie that didn’t come from Pixar? Why yes, it absolutely could, and it is. Witches, endless superheroes and the return of Nemo and Dory have absolutely nothing on the sheer brilliance of Zootopia.
It’s incredible that a movie this smart exists, first of all. The way it appeals to both children and adults without ever dumbing itself down or seeming too intelligent is something that a lot of live action films could stand to learn from. There are plenty of light hearted scenes scattered throughout (my personal favorite has to be the DMV scene, my roommates and I were howling), but screenwriters Jared Bush and Phil Johnston interject plenty of subversive elements to make it more than your average film.
The over zealous Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) dreams of being a police officer, despite being told bunnies can’t be officers and being pigeonholed as “weak” by those who are bigger than her. Similarly, Nick (an excellent Jason Bateman) dreamt of being a boy scout when he was younger, but after a cruel prank decided to play into the stereotype about foxes being shifty by becoming a con artist. There are other characters that do and don’t subscribe to various labels and stereotypes, much like the way human beings do and don’t play into hurtful stereotypes society forces upon them. Judy and Nick team up together to solve a mystery threatening the peaceful age between smaller animals and bigger animals in Zootopia, dismantling these stereotypes and solving the case in the process.
Sadly, 2016 has been dominated by Donald Trump’s xenophobic steamroll to becoming the Republican party’s (presumptive) nominee, and the tragedy that was the Pulse shootings in Orlando and the continued discrimination against people of color by institutions of authority highlight that we all need to stop being prejudiced and invoking stereotypes against one another, which is why Zootopia couldn’t have come at a better time. The message is delivered in a way that doesn’t seem preachy or pandering, and it certainly doesn’t undermine the danger of judging others based on their appearances. Underlying message, it’s just a damn good movie; it transcends its status as an animated film and succeeds purely as a buddy cop comedy and a thrilling character study. There’s plot elements of classics like Chinatown and L.A. Confidential which are streamlined perfectly into appealing equally to kids and adults.
The voice cast is aces; Goodwin and Bateman are perfectly cast, with Idris Elba, Jenny Slat, J.K. Simmons and Tommy Chung rounding out the all star cast. Also, we have a Best Original Song contender in the form of Zootopian pop star Gazelle’s (voiced by Shakira) anthem “Try Everything.” Written by the always dependable Sia Furler and Shakira herself, it’s found a way to lodge itself in my brain and refuses to get out, and I’m not even the least bit mad about it.
In a perfect world, Zootopia would be an Academy Award nominee for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Song and Best Animated Feature (which it most definitely has in the bag) and maybe some others. But screw awards, they’re not necessary in recognizing what this film manages to achieve. To say it sticks the landing would be underselling it completely.