2016 in Film.

Queso, usually I’d put a bunch of excuses in this opening paragraph about why this is going up so late, when the real question is: nearly ten months into 2017, why even do this Best of 2016 movie list at all? (Answer: I’m a completionist and it was bugging me.) But really the bigger issue here is: I missed a LOT of movies last year.

I missed Oscar contenders (Hidden Figures, Hacksaw Ridge) and Oscar bait (Allied, Florence Foster Jenkins). I missed promising indies (Captain Fantastic, American Pastoral) and movies with cult-cachet (Swiss Army Man, High-Rise, Elle, Kubo and the Two Strings). I missed the big winter dogs (Passengers, Assassin’s Creed), the summer dogs (Independence Day: Resurgence, The Legend of Tarzan), and the just plain dogs (Alice Through the Looking Glass, Deepwater Horizon).

I missed some big tentpole remakes (Beauty and the Beast, The Jungle Book, The Magnificent Seven, Pete’s Dragon.) I missed a bunch of unnecessary sequels (Now You See Me 2, Ride Along 2, London Has Fallen). I missed the maybe-better-than-you-expect B-movies (The Shallows), the high-rated Disney outings (Moana). I even missed a few movies I still really want to see (Silence, Toni Erdmann).

But of the ones I did see, I suppose these are my…

Top 25 Films of 2016
2008/2009/2010/2011/2012/2013/2014/2015/The Oughts]
1. Moonlight: Damien Chazelle’s meet-cute May-December musical romance featured Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone at their…wait, one second. Er…Yeah, I know, a little late for that joke — Anyway, we’ll get to La La Land later on.

For now Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight was a perfectly-contained short story about a young boy forced to toughen up in a harsh and uncaring world, and a man trying to be brave enough to shed that lifetime’s worth of armor. I have some quibbles with the movie — the classical score can be occasionally cloying, and some of the characters — Naomie Harris’s junkie mom, Mahershala Ali and Janelle Monae’s saintly neighbors — occasionally felt too broadly drawn. But at a time when too many films feel swallowed by their own ambition, Moonlight told a powerful, personal, memorable, and resoundingly human story on a small and colorful canvas.

2. The Nice Guys: Not to bag on La La Land in every entry, but if you saw Ryan Gosling in one burgeoning (b)romance in the City of Angels in 2016, I hope it was this one. Harkening back to other LA neo-noirs like The Long Goodbye, Inherent Vice, and maybe even a smattering of Lebowski, Shane Black’s throwback buddy-cop misadventure was one of the smartest, funniest, and most purely enjoyable movie experiences of the year (even if I saw it on a plane.)

3. Captain America: Civil War: In his last installment, our hero took on the military-industrial complex that had made his beloved country more like Hydra than the New Deal America of his youth. In Civil War, Cap makes the case for free-thinking dissent as the proper form of democratic consent, and punches that billionaire war profiteering egomaniac Tony Stark a few times in the face to boot. (#TeamCap4life).

Clearly Cap is the hero we need right now, even if, in these Hail Hydra times, he’s not the one we deserve. Throw in that ripped-from-the-comics airline melee, Spidey-done-right, and Daniel Bruhl as the best and most nuanced Marvel villain to-date (until the 2017 list, at least), and you have another jewel in Marvel’s gauntlet. Go get ’em, Cap.

4. Green Room: Antifa, meet the Ain’t Rights. Like his first film Blue Ruin — do we have a KieĊ›lowski color trilogy going here? — Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room portrays in naturalistic fashion a bad situation growing increasingly worse. It also provides a final stage for the late Anton Yelchin (meshing well with an ensemble that includes Alia Shawkat and Imogen Poots) and a rich opportunity for Patrick Stewart to play it real dark for once. Sadly, Green Room feels even more realistic now than it did last year, what with the return of Nazis marching in the streets. Tiki torch this, you rat bastids.

5. The Lobster: Since La La Land has been the Rosetta Stone of this list so far, let’s just say The Lobster is the meet-cute rom-com that movie is farthest from. I liked the first third-to-half of this movie, as sad-sack Colin Ferrell navigates the hotel of last opportunities with folks like Ben Whishaw and John C. Reilly, more than I did the back-half, where he finds himself caught up in an anti-romantic resistance of sorts, living in the woods with Rachel Weisz, Lea Seydoux, and a bunch of aloof ravers. (There’s also a section in the middle involving Farrell’s brother-turned-dog which I’d like to never think about again, thanks much.) Nonetheless, this weirdo, pitch-black satire about human coupling has moments that will stick in your craw, and makes the uncomfortable, misanthropic squirm-humor that propels (great) shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm seem positively Up-With-People.

6. Hunt for the Wilderpeople: In its own way, Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople is also the anti-Lobster — a funny, sweet, good-natured foray into the deep New Zealand woods with a gruff Sam Neill, getting ever less gruff as he lets orphan Julian Dennison under his skin. Throw in Rhys Darby for a touch of Conchords zaniness and you have a thoroughly pleasant afternoon hike.

7. Hell or High Water: It’s a credit to the overall experience of David McKenzie’s Hell or High Water that it’s this high on the list, even though there’s some seriously ham-fisted writing in this movie. The most obvious offender is the racist-sheriff-with-a-heart-of-gold, a character that might not have worked at all if it weren’t Jeff Bridges playing him. But the heavy-handedness starts in the very first shot of the movie, with the wall reading “3 TOURS IN IRAQ BUT NO BAILOUT FOR PEOPLE LIKE US.” Ok, ok, I get it.) Still, even if it’s occasionally just No Country for Old Men by way of The Dukes of Hazzard, it’s a crowd-pleasing movie alright, and its heart was in the right place.

8. Doctor Strange: Another quality Marvel outing that’s all the more impressive given how badly it could have turned out. Benedict Cumberbatch isn’t the most inspired choice to play Dr. Stephen Strange — he’s basically just doing his Sherlock with an American accent — but it’s great fun to have Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong, and Tilda Swinton(!) along for the ride, as well as Mads Mikkelsen playing the heavy. (Obvious highlight: “Mister Doctor?” “It’s Strange.” “Maybe, who am I to judge?”) Now maybe they can find something for Rachel McAdams to do in the next one — she’s as wasted here as Natalie Portman in the first Thor.

9. The VVitch: “Wouldst thou like the taste of butter? Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?” And now we’re back to the woods being terrifying again. While the most memorable part of Robert Eggers’ The VVitch is its (kinda problematic) ending, I was also impressed with the way this movie puts you square in the 17th century, conveying the strangeness, isolation, and religious panic that must have come from living alone along the unexplored frontier. (Kinda what The Village aspired to do, but really, really didn’t.) Sure, it’s a slow-moving affair, but that’s likely how it would be, until Black Philip comes-a-callin’.

10. 10 Cloverfield Lane: I thoroughly hated the original Cloverfield, but watched this on the strength of Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Goodman. Pretty good choice! To be fair, this is basically the War of the Worlds reel in Tim Robbins’ basement drawn out to feature length. Still, 1010 Cloverfield makes for a reasonably taut chamber piece for most of its run, as alliances shift among the three main characters who may or may not be waiting out the end of the world in Goodman’s well-stocked bunker. Can you guess how it ends? Probably, but at least you got to see some of old Walter Sobchak along the way.

11. Rogue One: A Star War Story: To be honest, if I’d only seen this movie once, it’d have been much higher on the list. At that opening night show, Rogue One felt like it delivered the visceral thrill of the original films in a much purer way than the prequels or The Force Awakens. Finally, Vader — a character who’s been bogged down by New Age-y family matters for close to 25 years now — was an unstoppable malevolent force again, like he was when I was a kid. Finally, the world of Star Wars developed more much-needed diversity, even as Ben Mendelsohn gets to be the sneering Imperial aristocrat he was born to play.

Speaking of Imperial aristocrats, he gets a lot of grief, but I really liked CGI-Peter Cushing, and, while I get the icky implications for the future, I still thought it was an appropriate homage to a guy who hunted the undead for so long. And, of course, the Death Star’s exhaust port got a brilliant retcon.

But then I watched Rogue One again a few months ago on DVD. And, exposed to the light of day, it’s hard to ignore the movie’s serious pacing and writing problems. Almost all of Felicity Jones’ suicide squad are one-note at best — Alan Tudyk’s quippy droid comes off the best by a large margin. It’s hard to tell what they were going with with Forest Whitaker’s character, but it feels like more than half of his arc got cut somewhere. And, while we’re not at Starkiller Base, doing-violence-to-basic-physics bad, so much of what happens doesn’t make any sense. (If they desperately want to stop the transmission of the plans, why don’t the Imperials just blow up their own radar tower?)

So, in short, Rogue One was a great nostalgia delivery device, but it doesn’t really hold up. Here’s hoping some of the other one-off installments have more intrinsic quality.

12. Arrival: I haven’t read Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” so can’t attest to how Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival holds up to the source material. As for the movie, it’s a heady First Contact story that shows a great deal of promise in its first half, before getting derailed by a silly bomb subplot involving Halt and Catch Fire‘s Mark O’Brien — how were these aliens meant to be surprised by a bomb? — and then spending the rest of the movie explaining what you’ve probably already figured out. Still, a good run up to that point.

Much was made of this being the blue state science-fiction movie we all needed after Election 2016. But given that Arrival ends up being more cerebral than smart, and that the basic message ends up being “acquiesce to the inevitable preordained tragedy in your future,” I don’t think that holds up in the way suggested.

13. Louder than Bombs: Joachim Trier’s Louder than Bombs very much has that indie-arthouse Squid and the Whale, broken family/coming-of-age-drama, I’m-watching-this-on-a-Saturday-on-the-IFC-channel feel about it, and not just ’cause Jesse Eisenberg is back for another round. But this story about a father (Gabriel Byrne) and his two sons (Eisenberg, Devin Druid) coming to terms with the untimely death of their photojournalist matriarch (Isabelle Huppert) has a natural, melancholy, lived-in feel and some well-observed moments (and, let’s face it, it’s always great to see Tom Reagan again, with or without his hat.) Definitely comes by its Smiths B-sides title honestly.

14. Hail Caesar: With The Ladykillers being the exception that proves the rule, there are two types of Coen movies: the instantly great ones (most of them) and the ones that’ll grow on you if/when you see them again. For me, Hail Caesar was among the latter.

Set around a decade after Barton Fink burned down the Hotel Earle and disappeared from Hollywood, Caesar continues Fink‘s initial inquiries into the mid-century studio system, fellow-traveling screenwriters, and movies as the spiritual iconography of our time. Also has Channing Tatum dancing, Tilda Swinton playing twins, George Clooney mugging, and Ralph Fiennes and Alden Ehrenreich doing their “Would that it were so simple” routine. Like I said, my initial reaction to it was around the level of The Man Who Wasn’t There — eh, ok — and like that one, I probably need to see it again.

15. The Birth of a Nation: Both the problem and the potential are right there in the name. The Birth of a Nation is wildly over-the-top and full-of-itself at times. It’s also too self-consciously designed as a star vehicle for its writer-director Nate Parker (who, it has to be said, must go alongside Polanski and Woody in the probable rapist scumbag in real life department.)

At the same time, I appreciated the scale of ambition here — the blatant eff-you to the racist-as-hell D.W. Griffith standard and the attempt to overturn a cultural legacy that’s treated Nat Turner (or Denmark Vesey or John Brown) as criminals rather than survivors who rose up against an American hellscape that we sanctioned here for far too long. If all the turning Nat Turner into a vengeful Christ figure here is laying it on extra-thick, maybe we needed an extreme corrective to get the message out. In that regard, Nation is striking the same vein as QT’s Django Unchained, with a better grip on history to boot.

16. Knight of Cups: So we’re getting to the part of the list where I’ll freely admit that some of these probably played better on my TV than they would’ve in the theater. I grew a bit bored by Tree of Life in its second hour and absolutely loathed To the Wonder from start-to-finish, perhaps because I was trapped in. (Loved The New World, tho.) But, watching Terence Malick’s equally languorous Knight of Cups at home felt like less of an imposition on my time, and I could just roll with its impressionistic beauty. Christian Bale takes long walks on the beach and wrestles with deep spiritual malaise about the meaning of life, his many romantic escapades, and (Malick, natch) the wisdom once bestowed to him by his father (Brian Dennehy)? Go with it, my man. It helps that, like its milieu, Knight of Cups looks like a million bucks, with a captivating, sensual sheen (provided by Emmanuel Lubezki) throughout.

17. The Neon Demon: Here, again, if I’d seen Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon at the multiplex, I think I’d just be waiting for this hyperbolic, cut-rate-Aronofsky madness to end. (Then again, I saw Only God Forgives on the small screen and lordy it did not help.) But for whatever reason, at home I could take Refn’s ludicrous, pulsing disco-club beautiful-people-are-vampires story for what it’s worth, and just enjoy the trippy visual stylings without being unduly burdened by plot, character, or the usual elements that make, y’know, a decent movie. Bronson and even Drive are far better, but this one’s oddly entertaining in its weirdo midnight movie Cat People sorta way.

18. Midnight Special: Speaking of midnight, Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special is another movie with great promise that kinda falls apart in the final act. In its opening moments, as Michael Shannon (also in Nichols’ Take Shelter) and Joel Edgerton cruise along at high speed with night-vision goggles on, the film immediately feels like an lost and underrated Stephen King short story, a sensation helped along by Sam Shepard and Bill Camp showing up as conflicted cult leaders and Adam Driver playing against type as a nerdy government agent. But as the Very Special Kid (Jaeden Lieberher) moves to the fore and we get to the Very Special Ending, Special loses its punch, and begins to feel less like an original sci-fi story and more like one of the many so-so ’80s Spielberg knockoffs these days, a la Super 8 or Stranger Things.

19. Lion: Lion is a true story about Saroo Brierly, a young Indian boy who accidentally left his village as a child and spends his days haunted by what he left behind. It is also well-made and perfectly cromulent Oscar bait, with solid performances all around, especially Dev Patel as the young man in question, Nicole Kidman and David Wenham as his supportive, if not totally understanding adoptive parents, and Divian Ladwa as his resentful adoptive brother.

Still, even if they’ve added a mid-movie romance with Rooney Mara to pad the running time (and which doesn’t contribute much to the film), we’re talking about a two hour movie here that basically builds up to a Google search. Lion was…fine, I suppose, and would probably appeal more to more sentimental types.

20. A Bigger Splash: A remake of La Piscine (which I haven’t seen), updated for modern times to incorporate the European refugee crisis and accommodate folks’ desire to hang out with Tilda Swinton, Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash‘s main asset is Ralph Fiennes’ manic turn as an extroverted, cocaine-fueled record producer on Italian holiday. Fiennes has played against his usual clipped-and-distant type before, most notably in In Bruges, but he’s still a jolt of delirious energy throughout A Bigger Splash, which feels a bit like the first third of Sexy Beast before taking a turn — as I now know, like the original movie — in the late going. (It gets a bit long in the tooth after that.)

21. La La Land: City of Stars, why do you have to be so white? Alright, so La La Land — or, as Amy and I began calling it as soon as it was over, “white people shit.” To be fair to the film, I thought it got better as it went along — I was on the verge of walking out during the big frenetic “let’s put on a show!!” traffic jam-boree at the start — and Ryan Gosling and especially Emma Stone are both appealing enough, even if Gosling can’t dance without looking at his feet.

But the real issue here is: Why should I care? Stone wants to be a megastar? Gosling wants to open a jazz club (presumably so he can keep whitesplaining it to anyone who walks in)? Gosling is worried his fusion breakthrough with John Legend might make him a sellout? Honestly, who gives a shit? C’mon, people, it is — sorry, was — the year of our Lord 2016. This is like the poor King of England having a stutter all over again. Please come at me with real problems.

22. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: I never read the books (I know, I know, we’re a long way from The Leaky Cauldron days), and I’m not sure we need an all-new multiple-film foray into the expanded Potter universe. But a Harry Potter prequel spinoff set in 1920’s America? Now you’re speaking my language! (Also, not to give the ending away, but I think I’d prefer Colin Farrell as the multiple-movie nemesis rather than He-Who-Should-Not-Be-Named-On-Account-Of-Spoilers.)

23. Don’t Breathe: Fede Alvarez’s Don’t Breathe was one of those horror movies getting It Follows, Babadook, and VVitch-level hype in some corners, and I saw it after it had been rather intensely hyped. Given that, the second act twist didn’t particularly impress me, and I was expecting more memorable all around than just a reverse-Wait Until Dark. Still, it’s always good to see Stephen Lang getting his due — unless you’re watching Gods and Generals, in which case dear god why?

24. Star Trek Beyond: a.k.a. the one where Kirk’s big contribution to the endgame is popping wheelies on a motorcycle. Idris Elba and Sofia Boutella are both wasted behind the extensive make-up, but at least this third installment of nu-Trek sidestepped the stupid remix brain of Into Darkness and focused on telling a fun, small-bore TNG-ish adventure. Beyond isn’t classic Trek or anything, but it does lend credence to the theory that, in the reboot universe, it’s the odd ones that don’t suck.

25. Deadpool: Like I said for a few years now, I like to give the last spot to a genre movie that knows what it is and does it well. This year, that was Deadpool. I have no connection to the character and frankly find him kinda irritating — he’s a sophomoric Liefeldian (re: many pouches) knockoff of the DC’s funnier, more-meta Ambush Bug. And much like Ryan Reynold’s very similar comic hero in Blade: Trinity, he also “appears to have learned English from reading AICN talkbacks” (or Reddit, for the kids out there).

Still, Reynolds, director Tim Miller, and co. embraced the guy, pouches and all, and gave him a movie that suited the character. Besides, it was fun to actually have Colossus running around a X-Men movie for once — but not sure this will get me in the theater for Josh Brolin’s Cable.


Warcraft: Look, I know that you probably weren’t disappointed by Warcraft. But I sure was. Duncan Jones of Moon and Source Code bringing the game I’ve literally spent a year in to life? This could’ve been pretty good!

Except — and here was the big issue — Jones didn’t make a World of Warcraft movie, which would probably involve a bunch of D&D-like classes on a quest to level up and gain loot or somesuch. Instead, he made a movie of the original Warcraft, a.k.a. the RTS game from twenty years ago, which means…orcs bashing things for two hours. (And I don’t even recall a single “ready to serve!”) The story of the entire movie should’ve been a LotR-like prologue.

It also doesn’t help that, with the exception of Paula Patton and Team Preacher (Ruth Negga, Dominic Cooper), most of the human actors — I’m looking at you, Travis Fimmel and Ben Schnetzer — are 110-level charisma voids. By contrast, there are some good, fun actors among the orcs — Toby Kebbell, Clancy Brown — but they’ve been literally turned into cartoons. And Ben Foster, who can be fine in other things (Hell or High Water, for example) is operating on his own mad level of terrible here, like he method-trained for this by watching Jeremy Irons in D&D or Brando in Dr. Moreau. Just an all-around missed opportunity.


Suicide Squad: Remember how I said Rogue One seemed like a disjointed mess the second time I saw it? That’s Suicide Squad right from jump street. The whole movie has that Tranktastic Four, “we rewrote this in the editing room” and “eh they’ll see it anyway” haphazardness to it. Margot Robbie acquits herself fine as Harley Quinn, I suppose, and this may be the most likable Jai Courtney has been in anything. But Will Smith is bored, Viola Davis seems ashamed to be there, Joel Kinnaman, as the-absence-of-Tom-Hardy, just plays his cop from The Killing, and Jared Leto is a completely egregious misfire as The Joker.

On top of everything else, the film is just ugly — everything looks like it got storyboarded by Ed Hardy, not the least the Clown Prince of Crime, who we know is damaged because…it says “Damaged” on his forehead. Trust me, this movie isn’t even fun bad — it’s just an amateurish disaster. In other words, exactly the type of movie you’d expect from executive producer Steve Mnuchin.


Worth On Demand-ing::

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice: MARTHA!! Why am I (barely) recommending this deeply flawed sequel to (the even worse) Man of Steel? Well, mainly because of Batfleck and Jeremy Irons’ Alfred. Zack Snyder can’t seem to understand that Superman should not be a tortured, emo character — he’s more like Chris Evans’ Cap, boy-scout to the bone. But, yeah, Batman sure is — maybe they should write “damaged” on his head — and that stuff here works pretty well.

Don’t get me started on Jesse Eisenberg’s Luthor — rein it in, Jesse — or Snyder’s absurd love for slow-motion bullet casings, or the truly awful ways Diane Lane is employed here. (I’m not just talking about the Stepbrothers-esque “Did we just become best friends?” part — Zack, get Martha Kent away from your creepy-ass Polaroids.) But still, y’know, Batman, Wonder Woman, there’s some stuff to like here.

Keanu: Keanu, about Key & Peele trying to get their cat back from some stone-cold gangsters (including Method Man) is…ok. To be honest, given its creative team, I expected something much funnier, but then again I saw it well after the hype machine had kicked in. A nice send-off to George Michael, if nothing else.

Loving: Jeff Nichols’ Loving tells an important story in a rather drab and by-the-numbers fashion — there was considerably more energy in his Midnight Special. Joel Edgerton basically mumbles his way through the movie and even Ruth Negga, such a spitfire in Preacher, is rendered inert here. But, y’know, it’s fine for what it is, no harm no foul.

Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising: Did you like the first Neighbors? Well, here’s more of the same, now with Chloe Grace Moretz, Selena Gomez, and Kiersey Clemons in the mix as well. Rose Byrne is the secret weapon of these movies, but give Zac Efron credit: he’s surprisingly game for anything.

Manchester by the Sea: Hey ma, look heah: we gawt moah white people praw-blems. I had this in the “don’t bother” section for awhile but eh, it’s competently made, I guess. The main problem here is Casey Affleck’s bitter janitor (an Oscar-winning performance?!) is so emotionally recessed that he doesn’t register — he just mopes his way through scene after scene. (Lucas Hedges gave us a more layered character here, I thought.) I really like Kenneth Lonergan’s other movies, but this one, like Inarritu’s 21 Grams (which is more fun, because it’s so much more pretentious), just assumes that misery is a substitute for character.

Don’t Bother:

Fences: My wife and I saw Dave Chappelle here in DC this past week, and his opening act was Donnell Rawlings, who you may remember from Chappelle Show or as Clay Davis’s chauffeur in the The Wire. Anyway, he basically summed up the problem with this movie in his act: “Denzel, it’s been two and a half hours! Get out of your backyard! Stop looking at the fence!” In other words, this is not really a movie of any kind. It’s a filmed play — which is fine, if it had any sort of energy. It does not — just go see the play.

Ghostbusters: I’m bummed about this one because every MRA asshole on the planet has been whining about an all-female reboot of Ghostbusters somehow ruins his childhood. (To which I say: First, obviously, grow the fuck up. Second, the original Ghostbusters is wildly overrated and wasn’t even one of the ten best fanboy movies of 1984, so develop some taste.) All of which is to say that I was rooting for Paul Feig’s reboot — but, alas, it’s just not very good. Kate McKinnon gets in a few zingers, and they make solid use of Chris Hemsworth, but Kristen Wiig is wasted as the straight woman, and too much of the movie feels like it’s being improvised on the fly, like one of those interminable 11:45am trial-run SNL sketches. I’m glad this Ghostbusters is out there so future fangirls have some role models to look up to, and because this movie’s sheer existence deeply angers many of the worst people in the world. But in the end, sadly, it’s just not all that funny.

Jackie: Yeah, sorry, I don’t understand the love for this one at all. I was bored, as was our entire party. JFK getting shot is not new information, so please find something more to say about it than “then Jackie came up with Camelot.” And maybe Natalie Portman nailed the accent to some extent — moah white people praw-blems — but you can see the Herculean striving throughout her performance, and it makes her Jackie seem weirdly graceless. This was just a ponderous film throughout, tho’ it was nice to see John Hurt give one final, brief curtain call.

Jason Bourne: Have you seen any of the other Bournes? Yeah, you’re good, then. This is basically a Gus Van Sant Psycho remake.

Money Monster: The ubiquitous, beat-for-beat trailer spoiled this movie several times over well before I saw it. And despite the impressive pedigree here — Jodie Foster, George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Giancarlo Esposito, Dominic West — here’s no other part to the movie that you’re missing.

Snowden: I’m very sympathetic to Edward Snowden and his predicament. This dull, hagiographic Oliver Stone outing still misses the mark by a country mile. That being said, Rhys Ifans does a pretty good CIA sinister, Nicolas Cage is here as NICOLAS CAGE!, and it’s kind of a funny kick to see Zachary Quinto playing Glenn Greenwald. Still, you’re better off watching CitizenFour.

X-Men: Apocalypse: Weirdly lifeless for a number of reasons. First, this movie makes the Willem Dafoe-as-Green-Goblin mistake of casting a fun, engaging actor (Oscar Isaac) as the Big Bad, but then burying him so deep in make-up that his personality disappears. Second, a lot of the new X-Men here, like Sophie Turner/Sansa as Jean Grey and Tye Sheridan/Ready Player One as Cyclops, are more than a little on the stiff side, while some of the better actors from the last outing — Nicholas Hoult, Evan Peters — aren’t given enough to do. (That’s especially true for Michael Fassbender’s Magneto, who gets one scene from a much better movie involving an attack on his family, and then just delivers exposition the rest of the time.) Third, maybe standards have changed, but this film looks really cheap for some reason. Bryan Singer delivered one of the best X-outings with X2, but this one’s only for completists.

Unseen: The 5th Wave, 13 Hours, Absolutely Fabulous, The Accountant, Alice Through the Looking Glass, Allegiant, Allied, American Pastoral, Assassin’s Creed, Bad Moms, Bad Santa 2, Barbershop: The Next Cut, Beauty and the Beast, Ben Hur, The BFG, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Blair Witch, Bridget Jones’s Baby, The Brothers Grimsby, Captain Fantastic, Central Intelligence, Collateral Beauty, The Conjuring 2, Criminal, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny, Deepwater Horizon, Demolition, Dirty Grandpa, Eddie the Eagle, The Edge of Seventeen, Elvis and Nixon, Eye in the Sky, Fifty Shades of Black, Finding Dory, Florence Foster Jenkins, Free State of Jones, The Girl on the Train, Gods of Egypt, Hacksaw Ridge, The Handmaiden, Hardcore Henry, Hidden Figures, High-Rise, A Hologram for the King, How to Be Single, The Huntsman Winter’s War, Independence Day: Resurgence, The Invitation, I Saw the Light, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, Jane Got a Gun, The Jungle Book, Kubo and the Two Strings, The Legend of Tarzan, Live By Night, London Has Fallen, Love and Friendship, The Love Witch, The Magnificent Seven, Me Before You, Miss Sloane, Moana, A Monster Calls, Nocturnal Animals, Now You See Me 2, Office Christmas Party, Passengers, Paterson, Pete’s Dragon, Popstar, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Race, Ride Along 2, Sausage Party, The Shallows, Silence, Swiss Army Man, Sully, TNMT: Out of the Shadows, Toni Erdmann, War Dogs, Where to Invade Next, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Why Him?, Zoolander 2, Zootopia, pretty much anything else you can think of.

(The Rest of) 2017: It’s September, y’all already know what’s coming out over the next few months. And while if I’d done this list nine months ago The Last Jedi or Blade Runner 2049 would probably get the pole position here at the end, I have to say at this point I’m most excited about…

The hammer of the gods
Will drive our ships to new lands
To fight the horde, sing and cry, Valhalla, I am coming…

Grow Young or Die Trying.

As seen in front of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (twice), Brad Pitt goes back in time in the trailer for David Fincher’s Curious Case of Benjamin Button, from the story by F. Scott Fitzgerald and also featuring Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton, Taraji P. Henson, Jason Flemyng, Elias Koteas and Julia Ormond. (Until it officially is released, this is the Spanish-language version.) Looks intriguing…and is it just me, or is it exceedingly strange to see Swinton and Blanchett in the same film?

Also in today’s trailer bin: Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino look for two full hours of that Heat magic in the second preview for Jon Avnet’s Righteous Kill, also starring Carla Gugino, John Leguizamo, 50 Cent, Brian Dennehy, and Donnie Wahlberg. (I’m not sold yet, even if Inside Man‘s Russell Gewirtz is the scribe.) And, over in former Soviet Union, the new international, R-rated trailer for Timur Bekmambetov’s Wanted pops up on the grid, with James McAvoy, Angelina Jolie, Morgan Freeman, Common, Terrence Stamp, and Thomas Kretschmann. Definitely maybe…although Night Watch had a good preview too.

Update: I neglected to post this one the other day: Uptown girl Nicole Kidman and cowboy Hugh Jackman find love during World War II in the trailer for Baz Luhrmann’s historical epic Australia. Not really my cup of tea, but you never know.

The Plame Identity: Kidman.

“‘I have a really, really insane take on how to tell it. It’s so outrageous,’ Liman said. ‘Ultimately, I’d be doing something no one has ever done before. Therefore it’s automatically appealing to me. I’m just starting to explore whether [what I have in mind] is even possible to do.’” Doug Liman, director of The Bourne Identity, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, and the upcoming Jumper, promotes his next project, a Valerie Plame biopic starring Nicole Kidman. Maybe he can get Josh Brolin to pull double duty as Dubya.

Stripped Bear.

“If you was to crack it open, you’d find no living thing in there. No animal nor insect at any rate. There’s a clockwork running in there, and pinned to the spring of it, there’s a bad spirit with a spell through its heart.” So the mentorly Gyptian scholar Farder Coram (Tom Courtenay) tells young Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) of a robotic wasp that’s tracked her down, at the behest of the villainous Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman). Alas, the same could be said of Chris Weitz’s disappointing version of Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass. The film looks nice enough, but it’s ultimately a plodding and mechanical take on Pullman’s fantasy, one missing its own inner daemon, if you will. And the mischievous, anarchic spirit that drives Pullman’s story has been so thoroughly confined in Hollywood drek and by-the-(Box-Office)-numbers banality that it barely resonates at all.

I was rooting for Weitz here: I quite enjoyed About a Boy and In Good Company (which he produced), and thought his leaving the film for awhile suggested he was aware of the epic scope the project required. And, while Pullman can be a stunningly self-inflated and ungracious sort, I thought the first book of His Dark Materials, before the trilogy bogged down in its own self-importance and anti-religious fervor, was a particularly good fantasy yarn. Alas, the movie as presented — I get the sense we may see another cut of it someday — does Pullman and Compass a severe disservice. All the subversiveness has been drained away from the story, and what we’re left with is virtually indistiguishable from any other B-level Rings clone. It’ll probably just be remembered the one with the polar bears.

Compass establishes its debt to Peter Jackson’s Rings films early — Like The Fellowship of the Ring, Compass begins with a “world as we know it” establishing prologue, setting up the conceits, the McGuffin, the good guys and bad guys, before keying in on one happy-go-lucky youngster who’s the focus of our story. The child in question is one Lyra Belacqua (Richards, good with what she’s given, and she avoids the cute-kid trap very well), an orphan living at Jordan College (i.e. the alternate-dimension version of Oxford). Lyra spends her days frolicing with the town children and getting into trouble with her daemon Pantalamion (Freddy Highmore) — In this world, you see, every person has their own animal-spirit companion which reflects their nature, following them around, sharing their pleasure and pain, and offering advice and conversation as needed. (This is quite different from our world, where my animal companion spends his days chasing his tail, barking at evil, and passing out on the couch.)

But Lyra’s world is about to come undone: Her free-thinking uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig, also quite good given the circumstances), has upset the ruling order of the Magisterium (Think the Vatican, except with Simon McBurney, Derek Jacobi, and Christopher Lee in tow) by arguing not only that parallel worlds exist, but that they might be accessible through the omnipresent interstellar medium known as Dust. And, when Asriel — now that the whole world looks Dusted — decides to continue his research in the polar North, Lyra herself gets caught up in the great events, particularly after an undercover agent of the Magisterium, one Mrs. Coulter (Kidman, seeming somewhat lost — she was better in Margot last week), takes a shine to her, and it is determined Lyra can read an ancient and powerful device known as an alethiometer, which invariably speaks truth to power. Is Lyra that child, the one prophesied to come by the witches of the North? Well, definitely maybe…

There are some elements of The Golden Compass that work rather well. As I said, Richards is an appealing presence, and it’s hard to imagine a better Lyra than her. Daniel Craig and especially Sam Elliot, as the aeronaut-cowboy Lee Scoresby, breathe much-needed life into the story in their brief moments onscreen. The daemons are for the most part cleverly handled, with particular plaudits for Mrs. Coulter’s vicious golden monkey (It really seems like it leapt off the page.) And most of the polar bear sequences, featuring Ian McKellen as the deposed bear-king Iorek Byrnison and Ian McShane as the evil usurper of the throne, Ragnar Sturlusson, are as good as one could hope for.

But McKellen’s inherently Gandalfian qualities further cement a comparison which doesn’t work in Compass‘s favor. If anything, Weitz’s film proves how important composer Howard Shore (like production designer Alan Lee) was to the success of the Rings trilogy. In Compass, as in Rings, characters are prone to describe places they’ve arrived at with a burst of description and a musical flourish. (“Svalbard, kingdom of the ice bears!“) But Alexandre Desplat’s score is so leaden and overbearing that it makes these bouts of exposition seem like, well, exposition. As a result, there’s much less magic in Compass than there should be — Like Chris Columbus’ first two installments of the Harry Potter series, Weitz’s film at best feels like a book on tape.

Or does it? Daemons and polar bears aside, the thing that made Compass an interesting read was Pullman’s subversive intent. In fact, I’ll admit to being more than a little curious as to how the heck The Subtle Knife and especially The Amber Spyglass, with its overtly Miltonic war against “the Authority” (i.e. God), was ever going to translate into a Christmas blockbuster. The answer the studio suits came up with, it seems, was to disembowel the film almost completely. Perhaps, given his haughty disdain for other authors’ fantasy works, Pullman even deserved to see his Golden Compass turned into an eviscerated Disney ride — Polar bears without the Coke. But fans of the book sure didn’t. Somewhere, somehow, somebody at New Line clearly decided that Compass needed to be more upbeat if it was going to make any money.

As a result, the ending of the movie, which cuts off a few chapters early (despite scenes of the Northern Lights in the trailer), was such a flagrant sucker-punch to the audience that I left completely disgusted with the film. If you’d never read The Golden Compass, you’d be hard-pressed to follow what’s going on anyway, or to give the overarching story the benefit of the doubt when it’s so often drowning in exposition. If you have read The Golden Compass, then you know how it ends, or will remember as it goes along, and don’t expect to see anything different. But, no, in keeping with its resolute ambition throughout not to offend anyone, Compass is (currently) given a syrupy, platitudinous ending before Lyra et al reach the Crack in the World. It’d be as if the Coens transformed the end of No Country for Old Men, or Joe Wright his new version of Ian McEwan’s Atonement, just to make it feel more upbeat and “viewer-friendly” and thus improve the box office. (In fact, if anything, it reminded me of the disrepect George Sluizer showed his audience with the feel-good American version of The Vanishing, which recently came up over at THND.) I was on the fence, leaning negative, about The Golden Compass up to that point. But those closing moments encapsulate most of what’s wrong with this saccharine adaptation. Say what you will about Philip Pullman — He’s definitely more fun with claws.

Dysfunction Junction.

I’m guessing there must be a lot of awkward silences around the Baumbach household during the holidays. For, if you thought Jeff Daniels’ misfit academic Bernard Berkman was insufferable in The Squid and the Whale, Noah Baumbach’s semi-autobiographical recounting of his famous parents’ divorce, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Margot at the Wedding, which I caught at the Angelika Friday night, is basically a claustrophobic family reunion of damaged, needy, unlikable people, and none more than Nicole Kidman’s monstrous Margot, a brittle, self-absorbed Manhattanite who wreaks emotional havoc on everyone around her despite herself.

I have mixed feelings about Margot. On one hand, as in Squid, Baumbach displays a talent for making sharp, withering observations about people and their foibles, and at its best moments the film captures harsh truths about all of us at our grasping, rationalizing worst. But, these are only moments, and unlike Squid, Margot never really coalesces into a film, playing more as an episodic, occasionally diverting, and mostly repellent string of character observations. More problematic, the tone of the film toward its characters is uneven — some are portrayed as nuanced and multifaceted, but other seem to be around for cheap gags and blunt caricature. While I can’t say I’m sorry I saw Margot — it’s an interesting failure — I also don’t feel like I can recommend it. Hard to sit through in any event, given the people we’re trapped with, Margot ultimately seemed too indulgent and unfocused to warrant paying for. Alas, I thought it might all work out, but the Wedding‘s off. Call it irreconcilable differences.

As the film begins, an androgynous teenager named Claude (Zane Pais) shambles down a crowded train aisle and plops down next to a sour-faced brunette he thinks is his mother Margot (Kidman, solid despite a slipping accent), a successful short-story writer. It’s not — she’s three rows up, much prettier on the outside, and (presumably) much uglier within. Margot and Claude, we soon discover, are headed to the old family homestead somewhere on the Eastern seaboard to attend the wedding of Margot’s estranged sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh, also Baumbach’s wife) and her new beau Malcolm (Jack Black, which obviously suggests he might not be the best of catches). The trouble ostensibly begins when Margot takes an immediate disliking to Malcolm, an overweight, unemployed schlub with an ironic moustache, a seething jealousy toward U2’s Bono, and an (admittedly somewhat seductive) slacker philosophy. (His advice to Claude on wanting to be famous: “Make sure you can handle rejection. I can’t. For me, expectation just turns to disappointment. So, ultimately I’d rather not try. It’ll all go black for us soon enough anyway.“)

But, Malcolm or no, trouble was inescapable. In effect, Margot is Godzilla in a floppy pink hat, and everyone else is Japan. As her long-suffering son well knows, the only way Margot knows how to express affection is by running people into the ground, and in any case, everyone at the family gathering is damaged, self-diagnosed, and medicated within an inch of their lives. (Pauline’s pre-teen daughter from a previous marriage — which Margot basically destroyed with a revealing short story in The New Yorker — is convinced she suffers from “adult ADD.”) Throw in a few more randoms — Margot’s gallant husband Jim (John Turturro), Margot’s new boyfriend Dick (Ciaran Hinds), his voluptuous teenage daughter Maisy (Halley Feiffer) (who just got into Harvard early — Barnard grad Margot is not impressed), and the next-door neighbors (the Voglers, whom Squid‘s Bernard might charitably call “philistines”) — and simmer. Let’s just say an awkward toast at the nuptials would be the least of this gang’s problems.

At its best, Margot at the Wedding feels both impressively and uncomfortably real. Even if everyone here (as in Squid) treat their children like therapists, which is a tic I’m can’t say I’m accustomed to, Baumbach has a keen sense for the rhythms of innocuous conversation, and how they can suddenly and disastrously go wrong. (I also liked well-observed moments such as when Margot, on a dare, gets stuck in a tree — at first, she’s feeling great about it, and admiring the altered perspective from above, then the bugs start to come out.) And, perhaps due to the semi-autobiographical nature of Squid, there’s some interesting rumination at times about using one’s life to write “fiction.” But, as the film progresses, a divide emerges between the more well-rounded characters (such as Margot and Pauline) and the one-note caricatures, most notably the ridiculously rednecky Voglers next-door, who make Billy Baldwin’s joke of a tennis instructor in Squid seem profound. Their kid in particular comes off as an unholy cross between Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel and the green-eyed kid from A Christmas Story.

And then there’s Malcolm, who starts off reasonably enough but becomes little more than a punch line as the movie goes on. (Note the scene of him running down the stairs, for example, or the rather unnecessary nude shot, which basically seemed thrown in to let the audience laugh in disgust at Jack Black’s ass, love handles, and tighty-whities.) Speaking of which, there’s a late turn in the plot involving an indiscretion by Malcolm that threw me out of the film to some extent. His failing is sad, pathetic, and reprehensible, but I also thought the reactions of the other characters seemed so disproportionate to what he was admitting to that I got confused about some Polaroids shown earlier in the film, and had to read the script when I got home to make sure I’d seen things right the first time.

At first, there’s some tension between Margot’s impression of Malcolm (“He’s so coarse, he’s like guys we rejected when we were sixteen“) and the actual character, whom Pauline and Claude seem to like well enough. But he finishes the movie a blubbering, simpering joke. Granted, nobody else in the film is very likable either, but his character in particular reflects Baumbach’s tendency in Margot to get ham-handed and cartoonish at just the wrong time. (See also the rat in the pool, the pig carving, the “family bond” bracelets, any of several Oedipal moments, and other capital-S Symbols that slap you in the face every so often throughout.)

In short, Margot at the Wedding isn’t terrible, but it definitely feels like a misfire for Baumbach after Squid and the Whale (and isn’t much fun to sit through in any event). Hopefully, he won’t have to plumb too deep into his own familial id to get back into form next time ’round.

The Polar Express.

A brand new trailer for The Golden Compass materializes online, and apparently Christopher Lee (Magisterium Big Bad), Freddie Highmore (voice of Pantalamion), and Ian McKellen (voice of Iorek) have all signed up for duty in Chris Weitz’s film. They join Dakota Blue Richards, Daniel Craig, Nicole Kidman, Eva Green, and Sam Elliot (the latter as Lee Scoresby, but reeking of The Big Lebowski.)

Spaced Invaders.

So, in the midst of last week’s somber news, I followed my usual routine when needing to unwind and caught a double feature with a friend. The second film we saw was Superbad. The first was…well, super-bad. Oliver Hirschbiegel’s The Invasion, the fourth movie version of Jack Finney’s science fiction novel The Body Snatchers, is, alas, a trainwreck. Apparently, somewhere along the line, the studio got the sense they had a stinker on their hands, and brought on the venerable brothers Wachowski to try to salvage the patient. Well, whoever’s to blame — and it’s probably all involved, since it feels so much like a movie-by-committee — the result is an ill-thought-out mishmash of stock tropes, bad ideas, and warmed-over elements from The Matrix. As filmed, The Invasion barely makes any sense, and it brims over with unnecessary car crashes, obligatory cute-kid scenes, and some of the clunkiest sci-fi exposition I’ve ever heard in a big-budget film. That being said, I have to admit I did sorta enjoy myself through the film in a so-bad-it’s-good kinda way, even if I felt sorry for otherwise-quality stars Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, and Jeffrey Wright for having to churn their way through this morass.

To be honest (and perhaps like other recent invasions that come to mind), The Invasion actually peaks at the very beginning. Trying to fend off a sleep-dep delirium amid a sea of fluorescent flat caffeine lights, a scared, haggard Nicole Kidman (inasmuch as she can seem haggard — she looks great in this movie, even for her) furiously scans the back room of a ransacked pharmacy for the remaining uppers, amphetamines, and assorted other go-pills. Before we know what’s going on, we then cut to convincing CNN coverage of a space shuttle tragedy, which occurred during an unplanned re-entry and which has strewn wreckage across the continental United States. Enter government fixer Jeremy Northam to inspect the scene, and the trouble begins. After cutting his hand on a piece of the aforementioned wreckage, Northam returns home to his live-in girlfriend (Malin Ackerman, soon of The Watchmen), establishes he has an ex-wife and child somewhere, and promptly falls asleep…and you can probably guess what that means. (Ack! Merchant-Ivory Pod Person!)

We then cut over to Kidman, who it seems, is a Washington D.C. psychologist with a relentlessly adorable kid, a hunky doctor boyfriend (Craig — sadly for The Golden Compass, the two don’t show much chemistry here), and an accent borrowed from Kyra Sedgwick on The Closer. Over the next few days, Kidman slowly discerns that her ex-husband, her patients (and their spouses), her neighbor’s kid, and varied other D.C. denizens are starting to act curiouser and curiouser — They’re calm, flat, level-headed, magnanimous…assuredly not the usual Inside-the-Beltway mentality. And, as this virus of clear thinking spreads (in a rather unseemly fashion — don’t drink the water), Kidman, Craig, cute-kid, Craig’s colleague Basil Exposition (Jeffrey Wright, slumming it), and the dwindling host of honest-to-goodness humanity must negotiate their way though a tightening noose of epidemic protocols and cordons sanitaire, all designed to catch those among us who would continue to display their emotional baggage in public. We’re coming to get you, Oprah…

More than even most sci-fi parables, Invasion of the Body Snatchers has always been grist for keen cultural commentary, from the sinister spectre of Communist infiltration and/or McCarthyist paranoia haunting the 1956 version to the rising tide of Reaganism evident in the 1978 Donald Sutherland remake. (I never actually saw the 1993 Abel Ferrara one with Gabrielle Anwar, but I’m going to presume it’s there too.) And this version is no exception, although what it’s actually trying to get at is more confused. There’s a running gag throughout the movie — funny at first, overdone by the end — that the world as run by Pod People is a kindler, gentler one, where Iran and North Korea voluntarily disarm, Bush passes universal health care, and the Mideast Conflict just sorta settles itself. Or, put another way, the Others Nicole Kidman is facing this time around are exactly the sort of people she’s been trying to fashion as a psychiatrist — bland, innocuous entities that have been over-prescribed into a flat, emotionless stupor, with all their edges taken off. (I’d also like to think that Kidman fighting aliens from outer space who threaten to take over our brains and make psychiatry redundant is a wry parting shot at her ex-husband’s Scientology, but I’m probably reading into it.)

But that subtext, which could’ve made for a wry, subversive little flick, gets confused by all the other elements brought in (to say nothing of the interminable car crashes, “save the child!” pandering, and out-of-nowhere chase scenes thrown about.) Instead, The Invasion spends a lot of time dabbling in epidemic hysteria, an immune-carrier subplot done better in the far superior 28 Weeks Later, and what feels like leftover material from The Matrix. (Kidman finds that, while most authority figures seems to have lapsed into Pod Peopledom quite early, a few other citizens, usually African-American, are also managing to live “under the radar.” This would be quite a clever conceit, if we hadn’t so recently seen the exact same point made as the heart of The Matrix.)

But, most importantly, The Invasion is just terribly written. Different strokes for different folks, of course, but I’d beware anyone who doesn’t cringe at the Czech dinner party scene or the horrible telegraphing involved in the adrenaline needle sequence. And watch out for those who don’t restrain guffaws during Kidman and Craig’s discussion of a possible antidote, or, for that matter, anytime poor Jeffrey Wright has to open his mouth and spew forth another dubious “tachyon field”-type explanation for recent events. They may just be Pod People.

Compass Golden?

Even more Comic-Con riches: A new, extended, walk-you-through-the-plot trailer for The Golden Compass is now online, and it looks…well, to be honest, it looks pretty darn good! Big ups to the art direction and casting people — Iorek (the polar bear), the daemons (particularly Miss Coulter’s twisted golden monkey), and the main players (Lyra, Lord Asriel, Mrs. Coulter, Lee Scoresby) all look note-perfect.

Lyra, daemons, and bears, oh my!

Another big fantasy trailer comes in the wake of Harry: New Line plays the LotR card to help sell audiences on the new teaser for Chris Weitz’s take on Phillip Pullman’s The Golden Compass. Well, the actors and the polar bears look pretty good…I’d like to see more of the daemons.

Promises, Wonders, Jokes.

Several trailers of note over the past week: Aragorn continues his History of Violence and returns to the unsettling world of Cronenberg in the new trailer for Eastern Promises, also with Naomi Watts, Vincent Cassel, and Armin Mueller-Stahl. Shopgirl Natalie Portman looks adorable facing up against stiff-suit Jason Bateman in the otherwise cloying trailer for Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, also with Dustin Hoffman as Willy Wonka, uh, Magorium. Nicole Kidman tries to stop her sister (Jennifer Jason-Leigh) from marrying Jack Black in this look at Noah Baumbach’s Margot at the Wedding. (Not usually my bag, and Jason-Leigh can be a huge red flag, but Baumbach has earned a look after Squid & the Whale.) A bit-player in the Russian mob and a recent emigre to Liberty City (you) tries to move up the ranks of his organization in two new trailers for Rockstar’s eagerly-awaited Grand Theft Auto IV. (I may have to break down and get a 360, just for this game.) And, finally, a Kramerfied, really poor quality version of may very well be the teaser for Chris Nolan’s The Dark Knight has emerged online. (I’ll reserve judgment until a higher quality version emerges, but for now I like the laugh.)