No joke – in the time between finishing the Bottom Ten post and starting this one, Carrie Fisher died. I was gonna do a funny little bit or something for an intro to start out this second list, but man, I don’t know if I can fake it now.
Sorry to bum you out all over again. Hopefully, you and I both can muster up a smile and celebrate some of the great movies on offer in this otherwise shitbag of a year. (Once again, all images courtesy IMDB.com.)
10. Shin Godzilla
“Accountability comes with the job. A politician must decide whether to own it or not.”
Looking back, Shin Godzilla feels almost eerily prescient. The major undercurrent of the film is more or less “The US needs to fuck off with its big, clumsy bombs and graceless, fragile foreign policy and let us handle our own shit.” I realize that’s a lot of swearing, but there is definitely more than a little (not undeserved) anger for America’s penchant for playing World Police percolating below the surface of this film. Of course, that’s just the background harmonics to the real star of the show, the Big Guy himself, Godzilla – brought back to his roots as a metaphor for empty, wanton destruction, a force of nature that cannot be reasoned with, browbeaten, or blackmailed. It’s a back-to-basics approach that pits the Kaiju against a group of very human scientists and politicians, desperately trying to beat the clock against both Godzilla’s rampages and the rest of the world’s plans to destroy the creature by nuking Japan again. It’s a bold, declarative statement about one nation’s place in world affairs wrapped in a giant monster movie that also revitalizes a classic pop culture icon. It’s a film about reclaiming a legacy, all the while reclaiming the legacy of arguably its most popular export. Godzilla’s resurgence is Japan’s resurgence. Take heed.
“Blood! Blood! Blood! And…death.”
It’s not uncommon for “children’s entertainment” to have a strong moral message – in fact, when I was growing up, it was more or less mandatory. Then again, I grew up in an era where “children’s entertainment” was pretty much wall to wall toy commercials with a moral tacked on the end to make it palatable to parents (not to mention BS&P). But yeah, if there’s a product aimed specifically at kids, more often than not there’s a good moral message hidden in the margins.
Zootopia doesn’t do little messages, and it doesn’t hide them in the margins. Zootopia decided to take on such legitimately hot button issues as racial profiling, gender roles, and language – specifically, slang and its cultural significance – and work them directly into the narrative itself. And while the film doesn’t always succeed, the fact that it shot the moon in terms of content and manages to nail it so much of the time is an astonishing achievement. Not only that, but there’s also a compelling mystery wrapped around a buddy cop movie, meaning all these “messages” are interwoven into a playful, exciting story that engages viewers of all ages. It’s a triumph of animation and storytelling.
8. Star Trek Beyond
“I like the beats. And the shouting.”
I almost feel bad for Paramount. This picture just might become a rallying cry for fans who think they can do it better if given the reins to the franchise – after all, a couple of Star Trek fans wrote Beyond, and look how amazing that turned out?
Of course, it helps that one of those fans-turned-writers is Simon Pegg, whose legacy of well-crafted screenplays – he co-wrote the Cornetto Trilogy, as well as Spaced – was established long before being cast as Scotty in the Kelvin timeline. And make no mistake, Pegg and co-writer Doug Jung understand what makes Star Trek work, even if (much like Dr. Strange, also from this year) they have to plug those ideas into a Standard Generic Summer Action Movie mold. Mix in Fast & Furious alum Justin Lin for brilliant, frenetic visuals and reuniting a cast well settled (but not comfortably static) in their roles, and you have a vibrant and exciting film that doesn't apologize for being Star Trek - it is, unequivocally, Star Trek.
7. Captain America: Civil War
“I remember all of them.”
Make no mistake, Captain America: Civil War is just as important to the superhero genre filmscape as The Avengers was in 2012. The biggest (and most legitimate) complaint against superhero sequels has always been the oversaturation of characters. More often than not, that criticism is leveled against the number of villains, but a bloated cast can sink a project regardless of whose side you are on (see what I did there?) CA: CW works (and boy, does it work) because it makes the introduction of new characters and the intermixing of previous characters feel not only effortless, but a natural expansion of the project as a whole. Let's be honest – did any of us really think the Black Panther was going to get a full, satisfying origin story here? Or that Spider-Man would actually feel like a natural addition, a “ringer” that Tony could use to put Steve off balance?
Combine that sense of concise storytelling with a fight scene in an airport that is inarguably the best action sequence of the superhero boom yet (and one of the best in the 21st century) – not to mention more character development and resolution than any sequel in recent memory – and you have one of the strongest entries in the MCU to date. I have no doubt we’ll be talking about Civil War for a long time to come.
6. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
“I am one with the Force, and the Force is with me.”
Really, how could any other quote measure up to Chirrut (Donnie Yen) Imwe’s oft-repeated mantra? I thought about using “We have hope! Rebellions are built on hope”, but that one line – really, that one character, but we’ll get to that in a minute – summed up the experience of Rogue One for me. With that one line, the Force is once again mystical; something to be studied and practiced and probed, but ultimately an unknowable secret of the universe. It also positions the Kyber priests as my favorite addition to the Star Wars mythology since Yoda. A group of force-sensitive monks who are distinctly NOT Jedi, who advocate for the Force and go around doing good deeds through badass martial arts? I’m all in. I want the t-shirt, the action figure, and the tie-in novels. You have cracked the code for making me love Star Wars again, Gareth Edwards/Disney. Congratulations.
As an aside, it makes me even angrier at Force Awakens, which wasted the cast of The Raid on a small cameo when we could have used them as more Kyber priests in a future Star Wars story.
If we’re being completely impartial, Rogue One is not a perfect movie – the first half hour has tremendous pacing issues, the Chthulu monster Saw Guerra uses is so pointless I’d already forgotten it by the time I saw the movie again, and at least one of the two digital cameos feels especially in poor taste now. But man, I am one with the Force. And the Force is with me. Again. More than it has been in a long time.
5. Hunt for the Wilderpeople
“It was a relaxing song. And a relaxing sausage.”
Every once in a while, a movie will come along that is, at its core, a genuinely sweet film that has no pretensions of being anything else. It’s not a film that’s trying to be sweet, or a film that’s pushing a saccharine agenda. It’s just a film that, by its very nature, is good-hearted. That, to me, describes Hunt for the Wilderpeople. I don’t want to go deeply into details, because I don’t want to expose the quiet wonder and gentle humor of watching this for the first time (it’s one of those rare films that the trailer – which is hilarious – barely scratches the surface of the jokes and levity in this picture). It’s difficult to put the delight, the joy, of watching a movie like this into words. Of all the films on this list, I would argue for going into this one as cold as you can. You won’t be disappointed.
“We need to make sure they understand the difference between a weapon and a tool. Language is messy and sometimes one can be both.”
Arrival feels like a movie we don’t deserve right now. It’s a hard science fiction look at first contact with a species so alien that only do they look nothing like us, their way of communication is completely antithetical to our own. It's a movie that goes out of its way at each and every point of contention to stress that learning to converse with and understand those who are alien is the smarter, more mature solution – as opposed to the assumption of threat and the response that assumption requires. It’s a movie that begs its audience to think, to consider, to take the time to appreciate the unknown, and it wraps its own narrative in a startling twist that feeds that point and expands it. And even that’s not enough, because it’s a gorgeously shot film from Denis Villeneuve (who directed an equally visual stunner in Sicario), with gut-wrenching performances from Amy Adams and a roguishly charming Jeremy Renner. It’s the best science fiction film I’ve seen since Ex Machina, and arguably more important. Arrival feels like a film we don’t deserve – but it’s a film we could desperately use more of.
3. Green Room
“It’s funny. You were so scary at night.”
For my sins, this is the first Jeremy Saulnier film I’ve experienced. That is something I need to rectify soon. Green Room is an unrelenting adrenaline rush, a staccato rhythm that speeds relentlessly forward, barreling towards its final confrontation with no regard for the consequences to its characters or its audience. It’s punk rock as film, bleak and violent and shocking and weirdly hopeful when it’s all over. It’s a horror movie that never once sticks to the genre’s conventions, never lets things settle, n gives in to the easy story trope. And again, it’s a film that feels especially timely, considering certain online movements. Patrick Stewart deserves a goddamn Oscar for his portrayal of a Nazi skinhead bar owner, and the loss of Anton Yelchin stings even more watching his mix of energy and subtlety here. One of the single best cinematic experiences I’ve had this year.
2. Kubo and the Two Strings
“It’s the memories. The most powerful kind of magic there is. It makes us stronger than you’ll ever be. These are the memories of those we’ve loved and lost. And if we hold their stories, deep in our hearts…then you will never take them away from us.”
Kubo and the Two Strings feels like 90’s-renaissance Disney partnered with pre-buyout Pixar and took a tour through the Jim Henson Creature Shop. (Which may be why Laika continues to outperform each of them individually – it knows their tricks, and does them better.) It’s an emotionally affecting, smart, and satisfying coming of age tale that takes on such heady concepts as dealing with the loss of loved ones and learning to forge your own path while respecting your history, and it does so in a manner that never talks down to the intended audience. It also doesn’t shy away from being scary when it needs to be, and at no point does its emotional core feel forced or insincere. It’s a masterstroke of filmmaking that is affecting for adults and inspiring for children, an all ages classic that rates among the best of Laika’s releases.
1. Train to Busan
"Why is your ringtone so tacky?'"
The most innovative zombie film since Shaun of the Dead. Train to Busan succeeds because, much like Shaun, it takes the time to make the audience care about the potential victims - making their eventual deaths (and subsequent revitalization) all the more heartbreaking. Busan, however, is a horror movie first, with bits of humor and clever dialogue strategically placed to punctuate the breakneck tension of the story and compliment the unnerving visuals of passengers trapped between train cars filled with zombies. This film is a horror classic, breathing fresh life into the fading, lackadaisical zombie sub-genre while upping the ante for anyone who might attempt to tackle these monsters in the future, and it's my favorite film of 2016.