I feel like we’re going to remember this year for the bad things — Batman v Superman, the Independence Day follow-up, Nine Lives (which I think will eventually, if not already, be known solely as “that Kevin Spacey cat movie”).
But 2016 had some bright spots — and I don’t just mean in some artsy category with movies full of subtitles. There were some great big-budget movies, some pretty solid examples of sequels and some good all-ages (or at least most-ages) fare.
Here, with the usual caveats about stuff not yet released in a theater near us in enough time for inclusion (specifically, La La Land, Jackie, Lion and Fences, which are in area theaters now, as well as your Live By Night, Hidden Figures and Gold, movies that will filter to us in coming weeks), are some of the movies worth remembering from 2016 plus a few you might want to remember to ignore.
• Great movies I probably won’t watch again: Both Manchester by the Sea, a movie about a broken man suddenly responsible for his orphaned teenage nephew, and Moonlight, a movie following a young man at three different points in his life, are on a lot of critics’ top 10 lists and I heartily agree. These are both excellent movies. Both excellent but super sad and occasionally gut-wrenching movies. I strongly recommend you see them but I doubt I’ll be able to sit through their heartache again.
• Somewhat above-average movies I’ll definitely watch again: While the above movies will probably rack up the Oscar nominations, I doubt there will be a lot of award-season talk about The Magnificent Seven (the awesome Denzel Washington-as-a-gunslinger remake), Ghostbusters (the all-lady remake that I feel was aimed squarely at my Gen-X gal demographic), Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (The Lonely Island guys do a Spinal Tap-style popumentary) and Keanu (everything great about the comedy team of Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele). But I’ll still rewatch all of these movies, the latter three of which were satisfying comedies and the first of which was a totally fun cowboy movie. I would also throw Bad Moms (the Mila Kunis, Kathryn Hahn, Kristen Bell and Christina Applegate comedy) in there, which I liked just a little less than the aforementioned movies but which I feel has the potential to grow on me.
• Seriously good movies: I recognize, however, that some people have standards. Those people, in addition to seeing Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea, should check out Arrival (the Amy Adams sci-fi which does some fun things with language and with storytelling), Hell or High Water (a modern blend of gunslinger and cops-and-robbers story that features great performances by Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges and Chris Pine), Eye in the Sky (a most grown-up and thoughtful but still wonderfully suspenseful and tense movie about drone warfare starring Helen Mirren and the late Alan Rickman) and The Shallows (a solid thriller that pits Blake Lively against a shark). These movies boast great performances, smart stories and all-around top-notch movie-making, yes even the movie with the shark.
• Hilariously good movies: The Nice Guys is also a movie for grown-ups, but a hilarious buddy-detective movie featuring Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe. Lost in the crush of bigger, louder movies at the beginning of the summer, it’s worth going back to, as are occasionally cringe-inducing comedies Hello, My Name is Doris (featuring Sally Field as a woman who comes out of her shell very late in life) and The Edge of Seventeen (with Hailee Steinfeld as a girl at the very beginning of maturity trying to break out of her shell of reflexive defensiveness).
• Not good or not for me?: Not everything is for everybody. Nothing exemplifies that more to me than Sausage Party, a very R-rated cartoon about sentient supermarket foods, and Me Before You, a weepy love story. I intellectually understood where the jokes were in Sausage Party but I didn’t find any of them funny. Me Before You seemed very pretty to look at but left me basically unmoved. Were these movies good? Bad? I have no idea.
• Everything doesn’t need a reboot: “Remember that thing from before? Let’s do it again!” often felt like the ruling principle of this year. And while I genuinely enjoyed some of these (see Ghostbusters), the pile of wigs and sandals that was Ben-Hur and the pile of unconvincing animal CGI and Christoph Waltz mugging that was The Legend of Tarzan are two examples of why a reboot isn’t an automatic sure thing.
• If you don’t have sequel nice to say...: Ah, but why just pick on the reboots? There was what felt like an absolute onslaught of sucky, unnecessary sequels and universe-extensions this year. There were the “long-awaited” Bridget Jones Baby, Blair Witch 2, Mechanic: Resurrection, Independence Day: Resurgence, Bad Santa 2 and My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2. There were exhausting continuing stories Inferno (a Robert Langdon mystery), Batman v Superman: The Dawn of Justice, Suicide Squad, Now You See Me 2, Alice Through the Looking Glass, Ice Age: Collision Course, Allegiant and X-Men: Apocalypse. And then there was Harry Potter-verse extension Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which is billed as the first chapter in what already feels like a trying five-movie saga.
• On the other hand, there’s no universe like a cinematic universe: You can’t blame the existence of sequels, though, for the problems of the above-mentioned movies. Finding Dory, the decade-plus follow-up to Finding Nemo, proves that you can go back to a long-ago movie and find a charming new story to tell. Star Trek Beyond shows that a series doesn’t have to grow stale but can use its characters to inject life into its stories. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and Cloverfield Lane (a horror movie) show that you can expand a universe to tell stories that fit with the original while also being self-contained adventures. Captain America: Civil War proved that even a mature superhero series can find stakes beyond an all-powerful entity that wants to take over the world. And Deadpool, which is sort of a sequel and a bit of a reboot and kind of a universe expansion all rolled into one, shows that just because something is “a superhero movie” doesn’t mean you can’t find a way to have fun with the form.
• Proud to be an American: Who doesn’t love to root for a hero? Sully isn’t necessarily a great artistic achievement but it is a movie I watched with great relief — a good man (Tom Hanks, of course) does a brave thing and everybody lives. Between that and the reassuring competency of the crew, the movie feels like the equivalent of a hug and an older, wiser person telling you everything in the world will be alright in the end. I realize that Southside With You won’t have everybody wanting to wave their flag and shout “USA” but there is something so sweet and endearing about this movie offering its take on the first date of a geeky but confident young Barack Obama and the no-nonsense yet thoughtful Michelle Robinson. Does anybody really talk that nerdily about doing good in the world while trying to impress a potential romantic partner?
• Movies for kids: Pixar (the people behind Finding Dory) has some competition this year when it comes to top-shelf animation. The excellent Moana (from Disney) is good and good for you with its standout music and its believe-in-yourself message. Kubo and the Two Strings used origami to influence its visual style and tells a swashbuckling adventure story. Zootopia, also from Disney, uses animals to tell a story about stereotypes and prejudice and somehow it works. The Jungle Book is, I guess, live action. While the only live thing in it is the boy who plays Mowgli, the movie looks so awe-inspiringly real that you may find yourself wondering, for example, how they got jaguars to do that. Back in the animation department, I’ll give an honorable mention to Trolls and Sing, both OK movies but with very fun jukebox soundtracks.
• Lousy movies for kids: If the above movies make entertaining kids with smart animated stories look easy, watch The Secret Life of Pets and Storks so you can see how difficult it can be.
• Moving pictures: Are Allied and The Light Between Oceans good movies? On balance, probably not. But both are beautiful. Allied, with its tale of World War II-era spies in love (starring Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard), features a dream wardrobe of period evening gowns and well-tailored blouses. The Light Between Oceans, with the story of a lighthouse keeper and his wife and the lengths they go to to have a child, will dazzle you with its cinematography.
• Good performances in an otherwise meh movie: Emily Blunt does some standout acting in the otherwise Lifetime movie-like thriller The Girl on the Train. As a heartbroken woman drowning herself in alcohol, Blunt does some really good work that nobody will remember because it was in such an at-times borderline hysterical soapy movie.
• Good story in an otherwise meh movie: Both Hacksaw Ridge (about a medic who refused to carry a gun but still wanted to see combat in World War II) and Free State of Jones (about a Confederate soldier who organizes resistance to the Confederacy) have at their hearts interesting historical stories but needed more work to get that tale to the big screen.
• No redeeming qualities: And now we get to the bottom. Don’t bother with Collateral Beauty, the emotional fakery with the good cast that is out now and billing itself as a feel-good movie. Or with Bad Santa 2, the laugh-free completely unnecessary sequel. Or with Nine Lives, the absolute pit of late-summer movies that featured a cat as the central character but didn’t even have any cat-fun with the concept.
• Most fun I had at the theater this year: Instead of picking the “best” movie, I’d rather talk about the movies that left me the most excited about movies themselves.
Honorable mention: Deadpool. Ask me in five years how this movie holds up and I might be so sick of fourth-wall-breaking, foul-mouthed R-rated superhero movies that I hate Deadpool and all it stands for. But as a breakaway from the familiar format and an example of how you can do something different with the genre, I’ve got to give the movie its due. It doesn’t hurt that it’s the rare roller coaster ride of a movie that’s worth the ticket price.
Runner up: Arrival. I almost didn’t know what to make of this movie while I watched it, it had such a strange, chilly quality. But by the end I was completely hooked on this world and completely awed by Amy Adams’ performance and by the way the movie had her tell the story. She does some standout acting that works both as you’re watching it and later when you know the whole story. And Arrival is a fun sci-fi movie that tells a really thoughtful version of the “first alien contact” story.
Absolute most fun: Moana. I know, it’s a kids’ movie, and a Disney princess movie at that. But Moana made me feel hopeful and optimistic about the world we live in and excited for the day when my daughter will be old enough to sit through more than 20 minutes of it (some younger viewers may be scared by some of the scenes of ocean peril, as I learned). It also features beautiful visuals of the jewel-toned Pacific islands and songs (written with Lin-Manuel Miranda of Hamilton fame) that I am still humming to myself. It tells a smart story, full of adventure that is both good in the role-model sense and a good time for the family at the theater.