The year is almost over, which means it’s time for the Weekend Warrior to do his annual list of his favorite movies of the year. You have to understand that even though I only brought back the Weekend Warrior column back in August, I still watch a lot of movies over the course of the year, either at festivals or just movies that sound interesting on a night I’m free, which means I end up watching a lot of movies that many people never get around to seeing, as well as a couple that have only opened in the last couple weeks. Any of these that aren’t currently playing in a theater near you should be available on DVD or Blu-Ray or On Demand or hopefully will come to your area soon, but they’re all worth seeking out. (Whether you’ve seen them or not, you can also check out the various interviews I’ve done for each movie when applicable.)
25. Elle (Sony Pictures Classics) – Director Paul Verhoeven returned with his controversial French revenge thriller starring France’s wonderful Isabelle Huppert as the head of a video game company who is assaulted in her home and proceeds to try to find the man responsible to get her own form of revenge. Not everyone could agree with the direction in which the film goes but few could deny what an amazing performance Huppert gives as this strong woman who experiences a moment of weakness that becomes an obsession.
24. Don’t Breathe (Screen Gems) and The Conjuring 2 (Warner Bros.) – Two of my favorite “studio” horror movies, the first being the latest from Fede Alvarez, who directed the excellent Evil Dead remake, the latter being the return of James Wan to horror after taking a break for Furious 7. Most of why both movies worked so well were due to their casts, whether it’s Jane Levy or Stephen Lang in the former or Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga in the latter. These were two fantastic tension-filled horror movies that helped elevate the genre this year. (Half of me wants to include an Honorable Mention here for the Wan-produced Lights Out, as well.)
23. Hidden Figures (20th Century Fox) – I really enjoyed this amazing story of three African-American women who worked at Langley doing math equations for NASA during the early ‘60s when being a woman and being black were two major hurdles. Directed by Ted Melfi (St. Vincent), it was an amazingly entertaining and pleasurable film to watch (a real crowdpleaser) not only due to the performances by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae, but due to the entire cast which includes Kevin Costner in another great role. As luck would have it, this opens nationwide next week!
22. Miss Hakusai (GKIDS) and The Little Prince (Netflix) – Two of my favorite animated films of the year are these two smaller lower-key films that didn’t get as big or wide a release as all the Disney animated films of the year. The first of these is a Studio Ghibli animated film from a female director about the daughter of a famous Edo-period painter who basically has to find her own way while living in her alcoholic, womanizing father’s shadow. A beautiful and quirky film. The second is an adaptation of the 1943 French classic about a young prince living on a planet by himself, this one as seen through the eyes of a modern girl living with an overly ambitious mother. Directed by Mark Osborne, this was a beautiful film that sadly didn’t get the attention of other theatrical animated releases.
21. Doctor Strange (Marvel) – Of the two movies from Marvel Studios this year, this is the one that really connected with me, mainly because I was so blown away how faithful it was to the original comics while still being very firmly based in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Benedict Cumberbatch was great as Dr. Steven Strange, but also loved Tilda Swinton, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mads Mikkelson, Rachel McAdams and Benedict Wong in their respective roles. But the visuals and graphics created by Scott Derickson were what really sold me on the movie, which was one of the few that really deserved to be seen in 3D.
20. Patriot’s Day (CBS Films) – Peter Berg and Mark Wahlberg’s third chapter in their “tragedy trilogy,” this one hitting much closer to home than Deepwater Horizon or Lone Survivor, being that it covered the 2013 terrorist attack on the Boston Marathon. The movie is more about the investigation to find those responsible and bring them to justice, but it’s an amazing ensemble piece where I was really impressed by all the performances, including an unrecognizable Melissa Benoist (aka Supergirl) as the wife of one of the terrorists.
(We'll have an LRM Interview with Michelle Monaghan coming in the New Year.)
19. The People vs. Fritz Bauer (Cohen Media) – There’s been a lot of talk this year about the German comedy Toni Erdmann, which is indeed quite funny, but this amazing post-Holocaust Germany film from Lars Kraume was a hidden gem (which I missed at Toronto in 2015) about a German Attorney General who receives information about the whereabouts of Adolf Eichmann, sending him on this journey where he learns that other higher-ups in government would rather forget that World War II and the Nazis ever happened. It’s an amazingly layered film that helps the viewer understand what Germany was dealing after the events of World War II and a MUCH better film than the similar Labyrinth of Lies (which was Germany’s Oscar choice last year over this).
18. Jackie (Fox Searchlight) – Pablo Larrain’s amazing portrait of Jackie Kennedy, as played by Natalie Portman, in the days following the assassination of her husband, President John Kennedy, was simply one of the most stunning and sumptuous films made this year. It wasn’t just about Natalie Portman’s performance as Jackie, which was indeed fantastic and worthy of the Oscar nomination it’s going to get, but also Noah Oppenheimer’s screenplay and the way Larrain’s team recreated the White House, as well as the fantastic cast around Portman, Including Peter Sarsgaard as Bobby Kennedy, a performance that sadly is being overlooked for awards.
17. 20th Century Women (A24) – The third feature from Mike Mills (Beginners) was another personal partially autobiographical tale based on his own teen years being raised by his mother and two older teen sisters, as it shows the coming-of-age of 15-year-old “Jamie” whose overprotective single mother--Annette Bening giving another indelible performance—wants help from two other women, Jamie’s platonic friend Julie (Elle Fanning) and a artsy boarder named Abbie (Greta Gerwig), to help make sure Jamie turns out to be a good man. I connected with this movie and the main character in ways that could only be done by having similar experiences as a teenager (which I did).
LRM Interview with Mike Mills
16. The Edge of Seventeen (STX Entertainment) – One of the most fantastic directorial debuts this year was this coming of age high school comedy from Kelly Edmunds Craig, starring Hailee Steinfeld as Nadine, an angst-ridden teen ALSO living with a single mother (Kyra Sedwick) and her way-too-perfect older brother (Blake Jenner) who has a bit of a breakdown when the latter starts dating her only and best friend. It’s just such a dark and funny movie that follows along similar lines as high school classics like Mean Girls, Clueless and Juno, while introducing us to a fantastic new voice in Craig. (It didn’t hurt having a very funny Woody Harrelson as Nadine’s main foil either.)
15. Hell or High Water (CBS Films) – I’ve been a fan of director David Mackenzie for many years, so to find him finally getting more attention among American audiences for this modern Western written by Sicario’s Taylor Sheridan really made me very happy. It stars Chris Pine and Ben Foster as two brothers who are robbing rural Texas banks to get the money to save their mother’s farm, but on their tails is Jeff Bridges as a Texas Ranger with his partner. As it cuts back and forth between these two duos, the film tells an amazing story, not only of the area but also our times after the financial and home market crash of 2008, but also being very timely right through last year. And being Western, there was a lot of shooting and even a car chase, but it was the characterizations created by Sheridan and the cast that really won me over.
(LRM Interview with Taylor Sheridan coming in the New Year)
14. Moana (Disney) – At this point you’re probably wondering why Zootopia isn’t in the list and while I thought it was a fine animated comedy with some clever bits, overall I just didn’t like it as much as Disney’s other movie which harked back to the great animated movies from the ‘90s like The Little Mermaid. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that this movie is a bonafide musical with some great songs and it’s a coming-of-age story just like many of my other favorites this year. But this one was really fantastic and funny in ways that really blew me away… who knows? Maybe I’ll even check out one of songwriter Lin Manuel Miranda’s other musicals one of these days…
13. Hunt for the Wilderpeople (The Orchard) – Taika Waititi’s brilliant action-comedy starring youngstster Julian Dennison as the trouble-making youth Ricky Baker, who goes on a journey across New Zealand with his foster father (Sam Neill) while being chased by an over-zealous social worker (the amazing Rachel House, who also voiced a key role in Moana!!!), was one of the standouts at this year’s Sundance Film Festival with its hilarious tribute to ‘80s and ‘90s buddy comedies. I watched the movie two more times after that, as it played a bunch of other festivals like Tribeca and Fantasia, and it probably should have been in my Top 10 but there were other movies that ended up connecting just a little bit more. Still, an awesome movie I highly recommend.
12. The Mermaid - From Chinese filmmaker Stephen Chow came this absolutely fantastic action-comedy about a mermaid and her tribe of mermen and women who are fighting back against the corporation trying to destroy their home. The movie was so distinctly Stephen Chow and probably his best movie since Kung Fu Hustle, just so weird and wonderful, but the best thing about it is his discovery of the hilarious “Jelly” Lin as the title character who brought so much humor with her beauty.
11. Deadpool (20th Century Fox) – My favorite superhero movie of the year was this Ryan Reynolds passion project that not only turned out way better than I ever expected, but probably was the funniest movie I’d seen all year. Not that I should have been too surprised with the writers of Zombieland writing it, but I just never was a big fan of the character so the fact they could tell a story that actually kind of works with characters like Ajax and Negasonic Teenage Warhead, who I wasn’t familiar with at all, was really impressive, and it went all out on its R-rating, as well.
10. The Dark Horse (Broad Green) – Another film from New Zealand, this one based on the true story of Genesis Potini, as played by Cliff Curtis (Fear the Walking Dead), a chessmaster suffering from mental issues who ends up homeless rather than living with his gangster brother, but he finds solace in teaching some of the local kids how to play chess, taking them to a championship in Auckland. As good as Queen of Katwe was, this was a far more moving and joyful chess movie that few people ended up seeing, just cause it just didn’t get the push it deserved.
9. Morris from America (A24) – Another one of my favorites from this year’s Sundance was Chad Hartigan’s amazing story of a 13-year-old black kid (newcomer Markees Christmas) living in Germany with his father (Craig Robinson in a far more dramatic role than we’ve seen him) and trying hard to make friends among the almost all-white kids of his school. Morris falls for a cute German girl and tries to win her over, while also having his German teacher (Carla Juri) as a mentor of sorts. It was a hip and funny movie that really won me over with its distinctive voice and story.
8. Lion (The Weinstein Company) - The glorious true story of Saroo Brierley (played by the younger Sunny Pawar and older Dev Patel) who was separated from his older brother at the age of 5 and ended up living on his own on the streets of Calcutta before being adopted by an Australian couple (played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham) won audiences over during festival season. Directed by Australian Garth Davis (Top of the Lake), it was an amazing film not only for the fact that more than a third of it took place in India with non-English-speaking actors, but also for the emotional journey on which we go with Saroo, as played by Dev Patel, along with his family and girlfriend (played by Rooney Mara). Like A Monster Calls (below), this was a movie that brought so many audiences to tears.
7. Kicks (Focus World) – Justin Tipping’s debut feature, which fell under way too many radars this year, starred Jahking Guillory as 15-year-old Brandon—you may have noticed that a lot of my favorite movies this year were about teenagers. (Not sure what that says about me or this year.) Brandon lives in a poverty and crime-ridden section of Oakland, California, where he saves up all his money for sneakers (or “kicks”) that are promptly stolen by a local thug and his gang, so Brandon goes to get them back with his non-gangster friends. Tipping is an amazing filmmaker and storyteller in the way he combines visuals with sound and music, and his debut also featured Mahershala Ali in a role that clearly got him the similar role in the overrated Moonlight that is likely to get him an Oscar.
6. A Monster Calls (Focus Features) – The Orphanage director Juan Bayona’s third film was an adaptation of Patrick Ness’ young adult fantasy, starring Lewis MacDougall as Conor, a young man whose mother (Felicity Jones) was dying from cancer and he’s dealing with bullies at school and having to move in with his strict grandmother (Sigourney Weaver). Along comes a walking-talking tree, voiced by Liam Neeson, who tells Conor three stories to help him get through his ordeals. It might not sound like much, but few people could get through the movie without tearing up, especially in one scene featuring Jones, who should be getting as much awards praise as Kidman and others.
5. Train to Busan (Well GO USA) – My favorite Korean film of the year was Yeon Sang-ho’s crazy zombies-on-a-train action movie that figured out a way of creating characters that you really could root for as they tried to survive on a train filled with zombies. If you think you know what this movie is from watching The Walking Dead or World War Z, boy, are you in for a surprise! This may be one of the best zombie movies in at least a decade and probably one of the best Korean genre films since The Host.
4. I, Daniel Blake (Sundance Selects) - British filmmaker Ken Loach has really surpassed himself with this story of a middle-age carpenter (Dave John) who suffers a heart attack on the job and desperately needs to get help from the government, who would rather tangle Daniel up in red tape then help him. Along the way, he meets a single mother of two, played by Hayley Squires, who is having her own problems and the two of them find a way to help each other as things get more dire for both. It’s amazing look at real human beings helping others to get through tough times, and it was so grounded in reality that you find yourself being inspired by Daniel’s actions. An amazing film, for sure.
3. Sing Street (The Weinstein Company) – What remained my #1 movie for much of the year (until September) was the latest film from John Carney (Once), an amazing tale of youth and love and how one teenager (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) forms a band in order to impress a hot chick (Lucy Boynton) who agrees to be in his band’s music videos. Besides having a soundtrack full of awesome tunes from the ‘80s, Carney helped write some of the best ‘80s inspired songs of the year for the band (called Sing Street) to perform, and it’s another movie that I really connected with in a big way.
2. Arrival (Paramount) – Denis Villaneuve’s first foray into science fiction was this adaptation of Ted Chiang’s The Story Of Your Life, which had Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner talking to aliens and trying to decipher their language. There was a much bigger story at work about why these aliens are on earth, and by the time you learn the answer, the movie turns into something quite mind-blowing. I got more out of the movie and its story each time I saw the movie. Adams’ performance is amazing but Villeneuve continues to grow and thrive as a director with each movie, and Arrival proved he can do just about anything.
1. La La Land (Lionsgate) – Damien Chazelle’s third movie (and second movie to top my year-end list!) was a full-on singing and dancing musical starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling as an actress and jazz musician who “meet cute” in modern-day Los Angeles. Now normally a movie set in a city that I absolutely hate wouldn’t win me over, but there was the added bonus of having played keyboards in a band and played in jazz bands that made me how realize accurate Sebastian’s struggle was, just as I know how hard it is for actresses to get cast in roles, as well. One can only imagine how that might affect a relationship, but especially in the way this shows the beginnings of said relationship in such a beautiful and romantic way. Actually, the entire film was romantic in the way it romanticizes L.A. and jazz and old Hollywood movies and that nostalgic quality really added to my love of everything in the movie. But more importantly, it was about the songs, especially the ones performed by Stone, who is just fantastic in this, and after three viewings, it just continued to grow on me as I noticed new things. It’s the only movie this year I gave a 10/10, just like Chazelle’s 2014 film Whiplash, which was also my #1, so this might be the first time a director has gotten two perfect scores from me in a row! I don’t expect it to happen very often.
Two Honorable Mentions: My only prerequisite for this list is that the movies I include open in New York for at least a single weekend, which is a shame because two movies that might have made the list if they did were Mark Potts’ Spaghettiman and Claire Carée’s Embers. The first was a hilarious DIY comedy about a slacker superhero (who can create spaghetti at will) while the latter was a meditative look at a future where a virus has erased the memories of everyone on earth, following a number of people as they try to cope with that fact. They’re both on iTunes and Netflix (I think) and it’s a shame they never really got the theatrical release they deserved.
10 Great Documentaries
I’m a huge fan of the documentary genre, so much so that if I included documentaries in my main Top 25 list above, at least half of my choices would be docs, which is why they’re separated into their own category. (In case you were wondering…)
1. Gleason – Clay Tweel’s portrait of football player Steven Gleason, who was diagnosed with ALS just as his wife was having their first child, the film mixed Gleason’s own video blogs as his condition deteriorates as well as fly-on-the-wall footage to follow this moving and inspiring story.
2. 13th - Ava Duvernay’s Netflix doc about the American prison system and how it’s used to keep the black man down was quite fascinating in the way that Duvernay created a near-perfect thesis proving her case, and it left most people who saw it quite stunned at the fact that this has been going on in our country, without many of us even realizing it.
3. Newtown – One of the most moving films of this year is this doc about the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting through the words of those who came to the rescue as well as the parents of some of the young children killed in the shooting. Still one of the most tragic events to happen on American soil made even more so in the way director Kim A. Snyder tells it.
4. The Beatles: 8 Days a Week - Ron Howard’s look at the greatest band in history through their years touring both in the UK and in the world is amazing for the amount of footage and pictures of those times that includes performances that make you realize why they got so huge and popular so fast.
5. Two Trains Runnin’ - A last minute entry is this movie about a bunch of college students who went down to Mississippi looking long-lost blues legends in 1964, just as the Freedom March was taking place trying to get Southern blacks the right to vote. It’s an amazing film, but especially if you’re interested in Delta or country blues.
6. Danny Says - I’m not sure if many people know how important manager Danny Fields has been to rock music, not just from managing The Ramones, but also his influence on the likes of the Velvet Underground, Doors and the Stooges as well as all the other bands who he was around during their formative days. This doc did a great job making Field’s influence clear and I actually liked it more than Jim Jarmusch’s Gimme Danger (which was just about The Stooges).
7. De Palma - While I’ve never been a huge Brian De Palma fan—I have a couple faves--but he’s a fascinating filmmaker especially in the way that his life and career are framed through his films in this amazing doc by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow.
8. The Eagle Huntress - Directed by Otto Bell, this told the amazing story of a 13-year-old Mongol story (yes, another teenager) who breaks the glass ceiling of her people’s traditions in wanting to become an eagle hunter like her father and grandfather.
9. Amanda Knox – You probably already know the story of the exchange student who was accused of murdering her roommate in Italy and the craziness surrounding that case, but never in the way it’s told in this Netflix doc which got Knox and many of the key players (including one of the tabloid
10. (tie) Off the Rails and Tower – So this ended up being a tie because I didn’t want to bump either movie due to the late addition above, but these are two very different movies, the first one tells the story of Darius McCollum, a New Yorker obsessed with trains and buses who spent many decades pretending to be an MTA worker, often taking buses on joyrides on their regular routes picking up passengers. (It’s an amazing story!) The second involves the 1966 shooting on the campus of the University of Campus told in a really interesting way, mostly using animation to recreate the events and putting the interview subjects back into their old skin. Way too many parallels can be drawn to more recent shootings.
The Weekend Warrior’s Terrible 10
And here’s the moment you’ve been waiting for, the absolutely worst of the worst in movies that were released in 2016, and while I usually do a Terrible 25, I decided not to put myself through that.
10. Kickboxer: Vengeance - Jean Claude Van Damme returned to one of his earlier ‘80s franchises, but this time he played the mentor to Alain Moussi, who is a better martial artist than he is an actor. It really was a horrible movie, just dumb in every way, and yet, somehow they got Dave Bautista and Gina Carano on board in varying sized roles for a really poorly-made film (by director John Stockwell, no less) set in Thailand.
9. The Greasy Strangler – It was hard to put this movie on this list because there was something enjoyable about how Jim Hosking’s movie was so quotable, but when I call it this decade’s Pink Flamingos, I’m not sure I can use that as a recommendation, because it was literally almost unwatchable. Basically, it stars Michael St. Michaels and Sky Elobar as the worst father and son ever as they fight over the love of a woman named Janet… and that’s basically all I can say about the movie because saying any more might make you lose your breakfast, lunch and dinner.
8. The Brothers Grimsby - Sacha Baron Cohen returned with a movie so awful that not even one of my favorite actors, Mark Strong, could salvage it. This was his play on James Bond with Cohen playing the poor and quite stupid suburban brother to Strong’s secret agent and then the humor just went as far low-brow as you can get. There were things in this movie that made The Greasy Strangler seem almost tasteful.
7. Bad Santa 2- I thought Billy Bob Thornton’s original comedy as the Bad Santa was quite funny and perfect for the time but when you wait more than twelve years for a sequel, times change, and the mean humor in this movie just wasn’t so funny a week after the end of a very ugly election. Not even Kathy Bates could save this one.
6. High Rise – Brit Ben Wheatley was bound to hit a snag sometime in his career, and this difficult adaptation of JG Ballard’s 1975 novel, starring Tom Hiddleston and Sienna Miller, looked nice and reminded me, at its best, of some of Kubrick’s greatest works, but things get ugly real fast as it shows what happens as the inhabitants of a high rise building start to clash. I walked out of this movie at the Toronto Film Festival last year but gave it another chance when it played Tribeca. I didn’t get any more by staying through the end a second time as it just got worse and worse.
5. 31 – Rob Zombie’s new movie about a group of carnival workers who are kidnapped and put through a night of terror against a series of killers… well, it was an interesting concept anyway, but the amount of misogyny and sexism in the name of entertainment just brought me way down. The less said about this the better.
4. Blair Witch – Another bad horror movie, this one being the nearly unwatchable Blair Witch Project remake, which dragged the already dying horror sub-genre of found footage movies down even further with a remake of the movie that started it all. The results were so loud and obnoxiously edited that it was almost unwatchable. It’s a shame because I’ve liked some of the filmmakers’ other work, and I feel bad for being glad the movie bombed so this idea would finally be put to bed, hopefully for good.
3. Vigilante Diaries - As a little taster for the #1 worst movie of the year, here is an atrocious action-thriller from Jason Mewes of “Jay and Silent Bob” fame that was originally meant as a web series, something made quite evident from the bad quality of the movie, which was so sexist, racist and homophobic that I was bummed that I had to watch the whole thing in order to review it on assignment. But man, I would have been happier never knowing this movie existed.
2. Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie – I actually used to like this BBC show when it was on Comedy Central but bringing everyone back decades later but not having a story or the writing to back up bringing the characters back just made this a really frustrating and almost unwatchable mess…and that’s in a year with Bad Santa 2, Bridget Jones’ Baby and plenty of other unnecessary sequels. This was most definiltely NOT "absolutely fabulous."
1. Yoga Hosers – I saw Kevin Smith’s latest and biggest disasters to date when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier in the year, and literally, no other movie can surpass it in terms of just being flat out AWFUL. You might already know that this was a follow-up to his already not great horror film Tusk, bringing back the Canadian clerks, played by Smith’s daughter Harley Quinn and Johnny Depp’s daughter Lily-Rose, as well as having Johnny Depp himself as a wacky French-Canadian detective. At least Tusk had an unusual and original premise and a story while this was just a mess of jokes and ideas that involved Nazi bratwursts (played by Smith) that are killing the people of a town while the two teen daughters pranced around mocking everyone, proving to be more annoying than their fathers. Maybe the worst moment is when Smith’s daughter says a quote from Clerks, as if this is the thematic sequel to Smith’s first movie. This was just appalling and there was nothing that could be said or done to convince me otherwise. I keep hoping Smith will get over this awful phase he seems to be in, but my hopes aren’t very high at this point. (No surprise, Smith ended up self-releasing the movie 'cause no one else would touch it.)
Added Bonus Round – My Favorite Albums of the Year!
Culture Abuse – Peach
David Bowie – Blackstar
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree
Metallica- Hardwired… to Self Destruct
Sing Street, La La Land and Moana Soundtrack Albums
We’ll be back next week with the first Weekend Warrior of the new year featuring Underworld: Blood Wars and two movies that made my Top 25, Hidden Figures and A Monster Calls, which will expand nationwide.
Wrote 5 reviews, 6 features and one long-ass column this week... so you know what I'm going to do now? Start on next week (after I sleep).