The 2016 Top 10December 29, 2016
Before I get to the nuts and bolts of the list, let me throw out a few observations about the year in movies. 2016 has continued a trend that we’ve seen developing over the better part of a decade - the migration of dollars and talent from mid-budget efforts to would-be blockbusters. The reason is twofold. On the domestic side, this is where studios have seen the biggest pure return (as opposed to the biggest percentage return, which almost always comes from small-budget films). On the international side, this is where the hunger lies. The result is that the entire movie industry is now resting on a tenuous foundation of Star Wars, superhero movies, and animated films. While that might look good for today’s bottom line, it’s not sustainable in the long run. (One hopes the Hollywood studios are aware of this but I’m not sure about that. Their recent shortsightedness is well documented.)
The growing focus on the international box office (and China in particular) holds its own challenges. Yes - there’s a lot of money to be made there (at least in the near-term) but any studio putting too much weight on overseas grosses may be headed for a fall. World financial tensions could cause such revenue to dry up. If China doesn’t like Trump’s trade policies, one form of retaliation would be slamming the door shot on the import of Hollywood films (or the imposition of a tariff that would accomplish the same thing). There’s too much unpredictability in the international box office to build a sound business plan around it, yet that’s precisely what many of the studios are doing.
Films developed with domestic and international audiences in mind are, of necessity, dumb. That’s not because non-American audiences are stupid but because they don’t speak English. Explosions, loud noises and music, and special effects are a universal language. Reducing dialogue is mandatory; excessive dubbing and/or subtitling isn’t desirable because it can depress turnout and it’s almost impossible to have a smart, thought-provoking story with minimal dialogue. That’s why nearly every summer tent-pole seems like it was written by a fourth grader - because a movie-goer in China has no more desire to see a heavily dubbed movie than a movie-goer in Des Moines.
One result of this shift is that there are increasingly fewer quality movies being made annually by big studios. These have become viewed as “prestige” productions and, because there are so few of them, every studio wants them to be Oscar contenders. So they don’t get released until the October/November/December period. As a result, when a good movie is released prior to the end of September, it’s an anomaly: a rare blockbuster that’s well-written, an indie that gets dumped because there’s no perceived audience, or a brave attempt at counterprogramming. This year, only two titles released prior to October 1 made my Top 10 and each fell into one of those categories (along with all three runners-up). Only one blockbuster made the list and it’s as atypical a blockbuster as you might find.
A final observation about all these superhero and other big-budget extravaganzas - they’re starting to underperform. On the whole, 2016 will be a big year at the box office but, when you take away the massive January & December infusions from the two bookend Star Wars movies, things don't look as rosy. Also, nearly every comic book-inspired movie missed its early projections. Maybe only by a few percentage points but it was too consistent to not be a trend. The early stages of blockbuster fatigue are unmistakable and they are likely to gradually grow on a year-by-year basis. Eventually, the Star Wars market will become oversaturated and it will no longer be able to provide the kinds of bumps we have seen with The Force Awakens and, to a lesser extent, Rogue One. I’m not predicting that superhero movies will flat-line. There will always be a market for them but, with the passage of time, the audience will become distilled to the die-hard fans. How much can they generate at the box office? Not nearly enough to justify budgets to continue at their current levels.
Let Star Trek be an object lesson. The 2009 reboot generated a lot of widespread interest and was met with a domestic box office of >$250M. Now, seven years later, non-Trekkies have largely abandoned the series, resulting in an anemic $158M for Star Trek Beyond (which is about $25M less than the production budget and perhaps as much as $100M less than production+advertising). If Paramount wants to continue making Star Trek movies, they’re going to have to re-align expectations. For these films to make money, the production budget is going to have to be more than halved and that will show up on screen. To make up for the reduced sizzle, more attention is going to have to be invested in the story. Not a bad thing at all but there’s a lot of resistance to it. Eventually, the superhero movie genre and Star Wars franchise may face the same dilemma. Disney is king of the mountain in 2016 but who’s to say where things will be in 2026? By then, Amazon & Netflix may have risen to the top. Both made splashes this year and are poised to become bigger players in 2017.
Now, without further ado, here are the films I picked as this year’s best, presented in reverse order. [Note: Because it was not screened locally for critics prior to December 31, Martin Scorsese’s Silence was not eligible for inclusion on the 2016 list. If deemed worthy, it could show up on the 2017 edition.]
Honorable Mention #1: Hell or High Water
Honorable Mention #2: Kubo and the Two Strings
Honorable Mention #3: Son of Saul (This was a 2015 “holdover” - although entering limited release in December 2015, I didn’t see it until January 2016. It just missed the Top 10, but it’s strong enough that I wanted some kind of recognition for a film that might have nabbed the #10 spot on last year’s list if I had seen it earlier.)
#10: A Monster Calls: One of the best serious family dramas I have seen in recent years. It’s a powerful, unforgettable drama laced with fantasy and surprising wit. The effects work and acting are first rate and its message about coping with grief has universal appeal. It isn’t for young children, however. The monster might frighten some and the content might upset others. Don’t miss it when it opens wide on January 6.
#9: Moonlight: Sure to be a Best Picture nominee, this character study of three phases in the life of a gay black man (a minority in a minority community) is smart and honest. It’s also beautifully filmed. This isn’t a happy film nor is it designed to provide a guilt-free escape from reality but it offers an exploration of a culture we rarely see on screen (either big or small) and presents it with exceptional skill and craftsmanship.
#8: Fences: In adapting August Wilson’s award-winning play, Denzel Washington chose not to open up the setting or make any major adjustments. As a result, viewers of the movie hone in on the same qualities available to viewers of the live production: dialogue, character interaction, and some of the best acting in any 2016 film. Fences is a treat for those who appreciate these qualities. The emotions are raw and the action is mostly internalized. Expectations are key to getting the most out of Fences. Be aware of what you’re getting and you’ll come away satisfied.
#7: The Edge of Seventeen: One of the smartest coming-of-age movies to have arrived in theaters in years, The Edge of Seventeen is being routinely overlooked at awards time because of a blunder on the part of its distributor: not sending out screeners to awards voters and critics’ groups. The movie stands strong on its own with intelligent dialogue, well-written characters, and the best teen insight this side of John Hughes… but not enough people saw it. It’s out of theaters now but this is a title to remember when it arrives on home video next year.
#6: Deadpool: A superhero movie unlike any other superhero movie. More of a comedy than an action film (although it contains elements of both), this takes place in one of the X-Men universes (and actually features a couple of X-Men). The film’s most laudable quality is its complete irreverence. There are no sacred cows and the movie delights in breaking the fourth wall. I’m tempted to say I wish there were more movies like this but I think Deadpool works in large part because there aren’t. But I wish superhero movie makers would take note of the creative energy behind this production and stop playing it safe.
#5: Manchester by the Sea: Manchester by the Sea is one of the most emotionally wrenching films of 2016. It features some of the best acting and Kenneth Lonergan’s direction is sure-handed. It’s also unbelievably bleak. Seeing this movie is an experience I wouldn’t have wanted to miss. It takes the mind and heart on a journey and, when it returns, there’s a lasting impact. However, it’s not a film I would want to see again. It’s too harrowing for multiple viewings. Still, it’s good to see that movies like this are can still be made in 2016 and proof that emotional implosions can be more jolting than pyrotechnic explosions.
#4: Eye in the Sky: I wrote the following in September, when I named Eye in the Sky the best film of the first 3/4 of 2016. Although it has slipped three places since then, it remains one of the year’s top movie treats and the best reason not to have avoided multiplexes altogether early in the year. (It also contains the late, great Alan Rickman’s final performance.) “With a powerful story that asks tough questions, a blistering satirical commentary on how decisions get made at the highest levels, and some of the best acting of 2016, this falls squarely into the ‘don’t miss’ category. And it’s already on home video so there’s no excuse not to rush out and get a copy.”
#3: The Handmaiden: Erotic lesbian sex! Twists that even a seasoned film noir lover won’t expect! Park Chan-Wook at his most diabolical! Alfred Hitchcock may be dead but, at least for one film, Park channels The Master’s love of warped twists into a movie that’s as fun as it is artistically satisfying. There are two caveats: those who venture into the world of The Handmaiden should be aware that the sex scenes are rather explicit, and the movie is in English-subtitled Korean. Neither of those things diminished my enjoyment but I realize they may be deal breakers for some. The movie was funded by Amazon Studios and, as with all such productions, it will appear on Amazon Prime’s video service in the near future (if it isn’t there already), making it easily accessible to many.
#2: La La Land: Without question, the feel-good movie of 2016 and a bravura directorial effort from Whiplash’s Damien Chazelle. With catchy songs that make you want to hear them again (this is one of the few soundtracks of the past few years I have spent time listening to) and an atmosphere that recalls the great musicals of the 1950s, La La Land has earned its position as the early favorite to win the Best Picture Oscar. Whether it holds on and does so is irrelevant: this is great movie and only missed getting four stars by a hair. Maybe I should have been more generous. It’s that good and, more importantly, that much fun.
#1: Arrival: More often than not, first contact science fiction is botched. So when a movie comes along and does it right, making us think about the human ramifications of a “we are not alone” scenario, it’s a reason to be excited. Arrival is such a movie. It’s primarily a character study with a wonderful portrayal by the versatile Amy Adams in the crosshairs. But it’s also science fiction that deals with how we might communicate with aliens (who almost certainly would not speak English). There are also time travel paradoxes and all sorts of other things going on here. Those who equate science fiction with loud action and space ship battles should go to Rogue One instead (which does those things exquisitely well). Arrival is a slow burn movie with an unhurried style that builds tension while occasionally introducing dreamlike interludes. It may not be the best-ever first contact movie but it’s the best film 2016 had to offer.
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