Boomer’s Top Films of 2016

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A forewarning: this list is incomplete. As an annual list, it necessarily excises films that I haven’t managed to see this year but I am certain could appear here if I had: Moonlight and Loving are foremost among them, although I also missed Kubo and the Two Strings while it was in theatres and The Edge of Seventeen seems to have flown by with little fanfare, although I thought it looked like a lot of fun. I’m also almost positive that Hail, Caesar! would be on this list, but my friend group has a bit of a procrastination problem, so we missed that when it was in theatres as well.

I’m also completing this list before most of the Christmas releases make their way to theatres (so there’s no Rogue One to be found here, or Passengers, which I am looking forward to seeing) so that I’m not trying to push to finish this list while traveling for the holidays. And, in case the inclusion of the divisive Jupiter Ascending on my list of favorite films from last year didn’t tip you off, this is a highly subjective list of my favorite films of the year, not necessarily those which were objectively the best.

There were also several films I saw this year that will definitely not be making this list, for various reasons. I don’t normally like to make a “worst of” list, but there were some definite stinkers this year. I didn’t care for Batman v. Superman at all, and Independence Day: Resurgence and Deadpool (which I enjoyed more than Brandon did, but it didn’t exactly have me rolling in the aisles), while adequate-if-hollow representations of their individual genres, were nothing to write home about. I also was underwhelmed by Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which is notably not on this list. I got a modicum of enjoyment out of Beasts, finding it to be perfectly serviceable and moderately magical, but overly reliant on CGI and lacking the charm that made the Harry Potter film series work for me, despite a few standout scenes and  an main role for Katherine Waterston, who was in my number one movie last year, Queen of Earth.

Ghostbusters got quite a lot of laughter out of me, but I can’t call it a favorite of the year, and the same can be said of Captain America: Civil War; I may have given it a 4.5 star review, but it hasn’t stuck in my mind the way that other films on this list have. I also found Nicolas Winding Refn’s Neon Demon quite unfulfilling; I know that Brandon gave it a 5 star review, but I was largely disappointed. Among my coven of aesthetes, I’m usually the one who makes the argument that, although we usually think of film as a medium with standard narrative conventions, film can really be anything (an idea we’ll revisit below in the number one entry). With that in mind, I was expecting to really enjoy Neon Demon, but even as an art house film, its Mulholland-Drive-by-way-of-Dario-Argento vibe didn’t quite work for me, even though that description should land it firmly in my heart. As much as I liked the “Are you sex, or food?” question that foreshadowed many of the events to come, and as beautiful and sumptuous the film’s color and direction were, it just didn’t work for me.

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10. Pet: There’s very little that can be said about this film without discussing at least one of its intricate and baroque twists. It’s certainly no masterpiece, but it is genuinely inventive and relentless in its growing unease and unpredictable (but mostly well-earned) path. There’s gore and home invasion and stalking, but none of that really matters once the ball gets rolling. I gently mocked the film as an attempt at doing a more radical “eXtreme” version of the similar story (“It’s like Hard Candy, but with a girl in a cage!”), but that’s not really a knock on the film or its ambition.

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9. The Boy: I genuinely adore Lauren Cohan and have ever since her ill-fated recurring role in an early (read: good) season of Supernatural. That show already had one failed spinoff, but if they really want to get my attention, they’d have Cohan’s Bela return in her own program to act as Hell’s bounty hunter à la the 1998 series Brimstone. I’m genuinely pleased she was in two films this year (even if the other was Batman v Superman). With regards to The Boy, it’s worth noting that it’s not really a great film, although it is sufficiently suspenseful and genuinely creepy. Not every scary movie is (or ought to be) the next big thing in horror, and this movie is fairly run of the mill other than one major element. I love horror, but if there is one thing that I hate about the genre, it’s the fact that the skeptic is always wrong. If a group of teenagers head out into the woods, there will be something scary lurking in the darkness, and the skeptical character will usually be the first to go; if a psychologist and a priest are at odds about whether a young girl is possessed or mentally ill, she will be revealed to have a demon  beneath her flesh; if a person who is certain that phantoms are not real spends the night in a haunted house, he will be terrorized by ghosts; etc., etc. If a film juxtaposes an argument between rationalism and fantasy, the film always shows that the irrational is true. There’s only one franchise in the West that prioritizes skepticism over blind acceptance, and it’s for children: Scooby-Doo (which tells the realest truth– that the greatest evil in the world is done by greedy white landgrabbers). This movie is a breath of fresh air if for no other reason that the audience is presented with what is ostensibly a supernatural horror film about a doll that may or may not be alive, then reveals that there is a grounded, rational explanation, slightly goofy though it may be (and no, it’s  not that Greta has lost her mind). For that alone, it deserves a place on this list.

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8. Ten Cloverfield Lane: Far better than it had any right to be, this sequel in-name-only suffers from an overly elongated denouement that is so tonally dissonant from the film that precedes it that I couldn’t justify placing it any higher on this list. I felt much the same way about Super 8 several years back: 90% of both of these film is absolute perfection, but the unsatisfactorily Syfy Channel ending mars what could be otherwise be an unequivocal classic. Still, the bulk of the film that is spent in John Goodman’s bunker is relentlessly and intoxicatingly tense, and the strong performances from the three players give the film an intimacy that many films that would be called “character pieces” lack.

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7. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping: Easily dismissed as a profoundly stupid film, the mockumentary Popstar is actually an incisive and withering dissection of the dreamy pop culture star-making machine as the industrial complex that it really is. Although some of my fondness for the film is no doubt informed by the loss of my beloved The Soup (I’m still in mourning) and the resultant general dearth of media that is aimed at mocking and disempowering the grotesque machinery of entertainment industry synergy, this is also a movie that rides high on hilarity, with jokes flying off the screen at a rapid pace. The narrative of a band member whose success and ensuing egotism destroys their relationships before realizing that interpersonal connection is more important than fame is a tired one, but at least Popstar is a parody, which makes it work at least as well as its spiritual predecessor Josie and the Pussycats. From mocking Macklemore and the way that his music is paradoxically homopositive and insecure about masculinity (“Equal Rights“), the meaninglessness of hip-hop that apotheosizes empty materialism (“Things in My Jeep”), and the creepy fetishization of military action and nationalism (“Finest Girl (Bin Laden Song)“), the film delivers on a lot of levels.

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6. London Road: Although I already spoke about the film in my review of it, I’d love to reiterate the intrinsic beauty of the way that this film is made and the voices that it uses to speak to us about human nature, in both its beauty and its spitefulness, its heart and its bile, while sidestepping the potential to be overly didactic. Tragedy can birth hope, or more tragedy, or both; communities can do good by creating solidarity and a desire for rebirth or evil by turning its back on those who need help most. The story of the people, in their own words, is at turns revolting and endearing, but never less than mesmerizing.

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5. Arrival: I like Amy Adams, even if her rise to stardom is an utter puzzle to me. To be honest, the first thing I think of when I hear her name is the episode of Charmed where she played a potential Whitelighter who almost kills herself (complete with terrible green screen effect); the second thing I think of is her playing a fat-sucking vampire because of kryptonite in her garden in Smallville (complete with terrible fat suit); the third thing I think of is her appearance as a vaguely self-hating member of Tara’s family in a Very Special Episode of Buffy where magic equals sapphic love (complete with terrible accent). Maybe that says more about myself and my wasted adolescence than it does about Amy (it does), but she’s come a long way since 2000, and I’m glad to see her here in this beautiful film about the nature of existence, how life is transient and ephemeral but also powerful, with ripples and effects that echo into eternity. Some of the plot elements are a little belabored, and I could have done with a little less idealization of romance at the end, but overall this is a touching film that could one day be the Contact of our generation.

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4. Star Trek Beyond: Nearly forgotten among the more high-performing comic book flicks and talking animal movies that made up the bulk of this year’s domestic box office successes, this third film in the reboot series actually feels more relevant now than it did at the time of its release. If the villain of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was Mike Pence (or, more accurately, amorphous forms of violence that are the direct result of suppressing one’s true nature due to political oppression, so… Mike Pence), then the villain of Star Trek Beyond is your average Trump supporter and voter. Krall is a man full of rage, a nationalistic fury forged to white-hot purity because of his viewpoint that the principles of unity and tolerance, the idealistic precepts under which the Federation flies its banner, are weak. In reality, the truth is that he is an anti-intellectual remnant of a bygone era, a time when strength and intimidation, not peace and acceptance, were the greatest of virtues; his madness and anger are the result of a society that has become more utopian in the time that he has been forgotten. Instead of finding a new niche for himself in this strange new world (as embodied in the way that Jaylah, who was born into Krall’s world but escapes it and finds a way to not only survive but thrive in Federation space), he would rather burn it all down than find a way to adapt. Ultimately, society is preserved because unity, peace, and compassion (and art!) are more powerful than the rage of the beast. At the time that the film was released, I could not have foreseen the outcome of the election, and when discussing this philosophical difference in my review stated that it was “not a terribly deep humanistic ideal, and is so faintly traced that the film could be accused of paying lip service to that idea more than actually exploring it.” In the wake of all that has happened in the weeks since the election, it’s an ideal that is worth remembering and even cherishing, and Star Trek Beyond may ultimately be the most prescient Trek since Undiscovered Country.

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3. Don’t Breathe: I wrote pretty extensively about this film in my review, so I’ll just paste over some of my thoughts from that piece: “[Director Fede] Alvarez’s beautiful cinematography and lingering camera work elevate what could otherwise have been a fairly run-of-the-mill horror movie. There’s an attention to detail that bespeaks a greater knowledge of the language of film, and Alvarez is obviously well on his way to being a master linguist. I can’t remember the last time, other than The VVitch, where I felt so much tension in my spine while taking in a fright flick, and I was haunted by the movie for hours after walking out of the theatre.”

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2. Anomalisa: This one is a bit of a technical cheat, since its release date (December 30, 2015; who the hell does that?) meant that there was no way to see the film in time to include it on my list of my favorite films from last year, but also meant that it shouldn’t properly be included in this year’s list since it was technically released in 2015. In case you missed it, Anomalisa is classic Charlie Kaufman madness, filled with quirky characters and sly character development that desperately wants (and often succeeds in having) the viewer sympathize with a main character who is ultimately morally bankrupt and unlikable, but pitiable in his mental dissolution. In my review of the film, I expressed my weariness with the seemingly endless “paint-by-numbers privileged-white-guy-versus-ennui” films that are littering our cultural motion picture landscape; in the ensuing year, I’ve moved past irritation into hostility, but I still recall this film with a great fondness. It’s atypical Kaufman in that it lacks much of the magical surrealism of Being John Malkovich and Synecdoche, New York (minus the conceit that all characters other than Stone and his love interest have identical faces), but the intricacy of its stop-motion beauty far outweighs the mediocrity of its unappealing protagonist.

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1. The Witch: A New England Folktale: How do I love this movie? Let me count the ways! It’s a cinematic masterpiece from the first frame to the last; I’m still anxiously awaiting a second-by-second breakdown by Every Frame a Painting, because each captured moment is elegant and haunting. The film acts as a kind of newly-discovered Nathaniel Hawthorne short story, what with its ruminations on faithfulness and faithlessness, acting as a kind of companion piece to both “Young Goodman Brown” in the way that both highlight the apparent Calvinistic truth that depravity is the true nature of man, and that the carnal world and its temptations must constantly be guarded against lest the smallest of sins (white lies, sexual curiosity, and even neglecting one’s prayers) snowball immediately into damnation. It’s a true New England American Gothic piece in this way, and that voice is clear and revelatory. The only real problem with the film is that it’s at once both a character driven drama, a horror flick, a mood piece, and an art film, and it’s that last one that I think is the biggest hangup for the film’s detractors. Unlike other movies that might fall under the generous “art film” banner, The Witch is not a hard film to follow or understand. If you recommend, for instance, Mulholland Drive to a friend, they may watch but not enjoy it, saying “I didn’t get it.” The danger with The Witch is that, despite its dense layers of subtext and meaning and its reliance on a basic understanding of Puritan morality, many may come away saying “I get it, I just don’t like it,” even though they fail to actually grasp the width and breadth of its mastery.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Pet (2016)

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Pet is directed by Carles Torrens, who recently helmed the well-received 2013 film Sequence, and written by Jeremy Slater, who co-wrote 2015’s underwhelming The Lazarus Effect as well as the critically derided Fant4stic (sic) Four. Slater was also the executive producer of the recent Fox miniseries The Exorcist; although I managed to miss his films, I did watch all of The Exorcist that has aired so far, and I didn’t care for it (each episode had some good skin-crawling horror imagery but the show itself is dreadfully dull).

The film follows feckless-if-reliable animal shelter employee Seth (Dominic Monaghan), who finds himself infatuated with the lovely-but- boring Holly (Ksenia Solo), supposedly a former classmate with whom he now shares part of a bus commute; she scarcely notices him, as she spends the entire ride journaling each day. Seth spends time gathering information from her off-brand social media profiles and endlessly rehearsing for each interaction, but his stalking quickly escalates despite her attempts to blow him off courteously. After Holly goes to the bar where her infidelious ex-boyfriend (Nathan Parsons) works to confront him about a gift of flowers, only to learn that he had nothing to do with it, she confronts Seth and hits him with her bag, scattering its contents. Seth is further beaten by the ex when Holly accuses him of impropriety, but he makes off with the journal that was left behind. Seth reads the journal at length and begins construction of a person-sized cage in a forgotten basement of the shelter; after following Holly home one night, he drugs her and absconds with her to the cage, where he tells her that he wants to “save” her.

This is where things get really interesting, as Pet swiftly takes its first major turn, setting us up for a chain of reveals, playing out like a more “eXtreme” version of Hard Candy, with the audience being unsure of which character really has the moral high ground and who’s really in control. Admittedly, the trailer for the film claimed that the movie challenged expectations about whether Seth or Holly was the real monster, and I found it difficult to conceive that this could be adequately pulled off; I have to say, however, that the film successfully manages to do so.

SPOILERS BEGIN.

Earlier, we see Holly have a few brief conversations with her best friend and roommate Claire (Jennette McCurdy), and we see Holly have another conversation with her after she is caged, apparently as a coping mechanism. Seth quickly lets her know that he has overheard one such conversation, and confronts her with her journal, in which Holly has recounted the evening on which she intentionally wrecked her car with Claire (with whom the ex was cheating) in the passenger seat. When Claire didn’t die immediately, Holly finished her off in a way that would make it appear she died in the crash. All of the appearances of Claire have been hallucinated. This killing seems to have unleashed something in Holly, as her journal details the killings of several other people. She attempts to play this off as creative writing, and although Seth tells her that she is a good writer (she most certainly isn’t, given the few brief insets that we saw flash by on the screen), but that after reading the journal, he followed her to make sure it was true before committing to his “cage the girl you love” plan.

The film continues to spiral into madness from there, with Seth believing that Holly kept the journal because she secretly wanted to get caught, and Holly believing (or perhaps pretending to believe for the sake of gaining his trust) that Seth was drawn to Holly because they are alike, encouraging him to consider his own potential for bloodlust. It’s never clear who’s telling the truth from moment to moment, who is playing who and to what end or for what reason. Although I was dissatisfied with the final twist, I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that although I foresaw three possible endings, none of the predicted outcomes came to fruition (if you’re worried that the film will all end up being a story written by Holly, please allow me the honor of letting you know in advance that this is not the case).

SPOILERS END.

This is a flawed film. Above and beyond any knee-jerk reactions to the ostensible misogyny of the piece, there’s a weird tonal shift in the ending that makes it feel like a tacked-on reshoot, with a couple of strange elements that make one feel out of place. Notably, a character is considering violence, sees a knife, and approaches the person against whom they are enraged while hiding something behind their back before revealing that they are concealing something innocuous; why? Every action we saw the characters take up to that moment had been for the purpose of concealing something from another character, not the audience. It was disorienting. Combined with the fact that the epilogue raises quite a lot of logistical questions and has a notably different lighting and color scheme from the rest of the movie, it doesn’t feel
quite right.

Furthermore, the performances are a mixed bag. Monaghan performs ably as the nebbish Seth, whose apparent ineffectuality and affability makes even his emotional violence lack menace, which is disquieting in and of itself. On the other hand, while there are moments when Solo is knocking it out of the park, especially given that the audience is unsure if she’s truly revealing herself or creating a facade that will ultimately help her earn her freedom, there are weaknesses in her performance as well. The personality that ultimately seems to be her truest self feels the least authentic, and that hurts the film. McCurdy’s brief appearances contain the film’s weakest acting, but she’s not onscreen enough to affect it too negatively.

Overall, however, the film has more to praise than to denigrate. The cheapness of the film is apparent in several sequences that are genuinely cinematic in their framing but appear to be shot on low-end digital video; on the other hand, that same sparsity of funding also means that the film has room to breathe as a character piece, regardless of whether any of the character growth that we see is genuine. If Don’t Breathe is is a schlocky thriller with slick artistic design that disguises its crassness, Pet is a low-rent version of the same, with sufficient style but none to spare. There’s also a wonderfully executed duality in Seth and Holly: he accuses Holly of leading a double life, with a “Holly” character that she plays in public while hiding her real interests under the cover of night; this is ironic, coming from a man who, in private, meticulously practices conversations for each social interaction. Seth’s time spent alone is used exclusively to prepare for the character he plays in public; he has no real internal life. Holly may be playing a role in the real world too, but at least she knows it. It’s a lovely statement on identity wrapped in a nauseating thriller and marred by a subpar conclusion, but well worth the time if you can stomach it.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond