As much as we want to avoid it for the purity of reaction, we always walk into movies with some preconceived notions. Whether it’s a concept that sounds interesting or off-putting, or a director or actor(s) that would create some expectation from prior work. Sometimes we expect great things only to be let down, and sometimes we expect nothing only to be pleasantly surprised. Each year, I like to take a look at five films from each category, perhaps shining a light on what might have been overlooked or what should have been better than what it turned out to be.
This Philip Roth adaptation flew about as far under the radar as it could, overshadowed by the likes of The Birth of a Nation and Manchester By the Sea at Sundance and saddled with a paralyzing late July release date. But there’s far more good here than its treatment by Summit Entertainment and Roadside Attractions would dictate. A 1950’s period piece about frustration, be it sexual, academic or religious, it deftly creates a compelling world and ushers Logan Lerman further toward stardom. It’s a thorny story, not a surprise considering its source material, well told from writer/director James Schamus (who has worked extensively as a writer and producer with Ang Lee on the likes of The Ice Storm, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain) who succeeds in making the film appear nothing like it was a first time feature directorial effort. Indignation plays out over a series of contentious relationships, be it a torrid love affair or a clash with a dean far more interested in the importance of religion than other factors in education. It may lag behind the pack in a stacked year of excellent film, but it is deserving of reflection nonetheless
The sort of Disney release that feels like it should have been bigger than it was, Queen of Katwe shifts the setting and subject of inspirational sports movies to chessboards in the slums of Uganda, where a precocious young girl discovers a knack for the game while trying to escape the harsh realities of life far below the poverty line. Newcomer Mailina Nalwanga is a natural star (an impressive feat considering she shares the screen with the likes of Lupita N’yongo and David Oyelowo) and while the film follows every expected beat of the Based on a True Story variant of the sports movie, it finds contentment in simply being a familiar story incredibly well told. The film establishes the slums of Katwe with grace; it is clearly a rough place to live, but its denizens are not overly pitied or demonized, not simpletons but simply people making their way in the world. Queen of Katwe was easy to dismiss thanks to its familiarity and potential Oscar bait concerns, as well as its surprisingly small theater roll-out considering the muscle of the Mouse House behind it, but its pleasures succeed in transcending a well-worn genre.
Okay, a Disney animated film being good is surely not a surprise, but bear with me on this one. As Disney’s flagship studio has been on its streak of hits since revitalizing itself with Tangled in 2010, a good Disney Animated Studios film has become the expectation, perhaps even more so than their brethren over at Pixar these days. What makes Zootopia surprising, though, is the depth of its story and use of metaphor, offering a welcome and insightful commentary on many aspects of modern society within the Disney family movie shell. It feels like classic Pixar in that respect, offering plenty to cling onto for kids and adults alike, contrasting its upbeat Shakira-sung motivational song about being capable of doing anything with a pretty trenchant take on institutional racism and the Black Lives Matter movement. Zootopia was released so early in the year that it is perhaps easy to forget about it, lost in the shuffle of a glut of fall animated releases both good (Moana) and bad (pretty much everything else), but it really is the best animated film of 2016 not named Kubo and the Two Strings. It’s not surprising that it’s good, but it is surprising just how good it is.
Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising
The first Neighbors film was acceptable enough, a fusion of raunchy college comedy and an Apatow-esque look at how those hard partiers transition into an adult life full of responsibilities. It is unlikely much of anyone was clamoring for a sequel, but sequels are the rule of the day, and so sequels are what we get. Returning director Nicholas Stoller shifts the antagonist of his beleaguered parents (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne) from a fraternity to a sorority, making gender dynamics a much more important part of this one compared to its predecessor. Indeed, gender dynamics are at the root of pretty much everything in this movie; the whole reason Rogen and Byrne have to contend with this sorority is thanks to the antiquated restriction that sororities are forbidden from throwing their own parties, so a frustrated group of girls break away to rent a house and do whatever they want outside of the Greek system. The setup allows for quite a few laughs, and while Neighbors 2 doesn’t find itself in the upper echelon of 2016 comedies, it does manage to entertain quite a bit even despite its weaknesses, to the point that on balance, it’s actually an improvement on the first Neighbors, something that tends to be rare in the comedy sequel field. Response upon its release was decidedly mixed, but this is a better film than that general consensus seemed to indicate.
Low budget horror releases are one of the better genres to find hidden gems, in part because it’s the sort of genre that can accomplish a lot with a little, as well as because so many of them are churned out from year to year (the rate of return on these films can be massive if they find even a moderate audience) that it’s easy for individual good efforts to be lost in the deluge of dreck. The likes of Oculus and Unfriended has graced this article in years past, and this year finds The Autopsy of Jane Doe taking up the mantle of easily ignored but not easily forgotten horror films. Jane Doe sneaked into theaters just in time for consideration, boasting an impressive cast for its budget and scope (Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch are the leads). It’s a bottle film, taking place over the course of one night as the father/son team perform an increasingly confusing and disturbing autopsy on an unidentified woman discovered at a grisly murder scene. It’s not always perfect, but it knows what works (namely, a repeated static shot of the dead woman’s face, serene amongst the chaos) and pays off the mechanics it sets up well. As we enter the January/February dumping grounds, where lazy low budget horror films reign supreme and take advantage of the rest of the market being dominated by wide expansions of awards releases, do yourself a favor and check this one out instead. It’s worth it.
The main takeaway from the release of Ghostbusters (apparently now titled Ghostbusters: Answer the Call in an Edge of Tomorrow-esque home video rebranding) over the summer was predominantly extratextual, as its marketing leading up to its release was invariably harangued by a persistent smear campaign from the darker corners of the internet (increasingly finding themselves no longer in corners these days…) hell bent on tearing it down for having the temerity to cast women in roles originally played by men. This dovetailed into a hateful and juvenile Twitter harassment campaign against star Leslie Jones. So Ghostbusters became more than a movie, a symbol of hope and defiance for some and of scorn for others, all of which before a single one of them had actually seen the movie they were incessantly arguing about. But through all of this, the sense that there was still a movie coming out was a bit lost, and the final product was honestly unworthy of all the hullabaloo surrounding it. It isn’t some terrible affront to cinema, but it is pretty aggressively mediocre. Paul Feig is hamstrung by a PG-13 rating that goes against some of his and star Melissa McCarthy’s best comedic sensibilities, making it feel like a censored for TV version of previous successes like Spy or Bridesmaids. It’s funny at times, but not consistently so, and too self-referential to stand on its own. It isn’t a failure for the reason all the internet trolls made it out to be, but it’s still kind of a failure, which is mightily disappointing.
To call this one destroyed by its own hype would be a massive understatement. Premiering at Sundance right after another year passed with no actors of color nominated for Oscars, Nate Parker’s Nat Taylor biopic emerged amongst the zeitgeist hailed by audiences and quite a few critics alike as a savior, the next 12 Years a Slave. It was going to run roughshod over the awards season until its inevitable Oscar win. This might explain why Fox paid a record 17 million for its distribution rights. And yet, even at Sundance, dissenting voices were present, and by the time Nate Parker’s world was turned upside down by previous allegations of sexual assault coming back to light, the clear Oscar winner it was in January seemed like a distant memory. And once The Birth of a Nation limped into theaters in October, divorced of expectations, it could be seen for what it is: a mediocre but well-meaning historical drama from a first time director that has its moments but doesn’t particularly amount to anything. It just couldn’t hold up to the symbol Sundance denizens wanted it to be.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
I don’t want to be a spoilsport here, but I can’t see Rogue One as anything more than a cash grab, a placeholder and excuse for Disney to put something with the words “Star” and “Wars” onto its 2016 release slate and continue their comical box office domination. The whole thing boils down to an opportunity to retcon why the Death Star had such a massive flaw in its design in Star Wars, which isn’t on its face a bad thing, but it’s too shackled to its own mythology to really set out to be something new and novel. Director Gareth Edwards rarely gets an opportunity to show his talent (beyond an admittedly impressive battle sequence in act three), and the characters are archetypes first and characters second, with little beyond muddled backstories to make them interesting. After The Force Awakens reignited the Star Wars franchise, I could honestly say I was excited to see more of the universe explored. Even with the familiar plot, it had engaging and exciting characters. I was neither engaged nor excited by the characters in Rogue One, and its use of computer generated actors was a clear example of striving for fan service instead of film quality. This is the Marvelization of the Star Wars universe, and I don’t like that trend emerging.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
And speaking of the Marvelization of a franchise, we come to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, an even more egregious cash grab than Rogue One. It attempts to breathe life into the finished Harry Potter franchise, but can’t find a pulse. The attempt to show a different side of the wizarding world by transplanting to New York in the 1930’s where wizard culture has a much harder and more fascist edge could have paid dividends, but in practice, Fantastic Beasts is so overstuffed with characters and B plots and concepts that it never seems to be able to get out of its own way. The attempts to like the series to the Harry Potter saga is tenuous at best and disastrous at worst (a third act reveal could not have been conceived and executed more poorly), and director David Yates seems to be content with churning these out over and over again, his sense of style getting lost in the shuffle. The idea that there will be four more of these is incomprehensible.
There was a time when a new Christopher Guest film would be a cause for celebration, but considering the utter lack of fanfare for Mascots, Guest’s fifth major improvisational release since Waiting for Guffman in 1997. Released onto Netflix in October, Mascots certainly has the sort of cast you would expect from a Guest film, with the likes of Parker Posey, Jane Lynch, Fred Willard, Bob Balaban and the like, as well as some new blood (including Love & Friendship superstar Tom Bennett), and the conceit of a sports team mascot competition evokes shades of Best in Show. Unlike Best in Show, though, Mascots isn’t particularly funny. The same could have been said about For Your Consideration, Guest’s Oscar send-up, making this his second straight cold fish release, a situation where even a boatload of talented comedians and improvisers can’t make a concept work. There are times Mascots can make you chuckle, times where it stumbles upon a good idea, but it rarely capitalizes on that idea for more than a few scant seconds before moving on to something else. It feels scattershot and uninspired the way improv gone bad can feel, and that can be a truly painful experience to endure. It’s possible Guest’s well has run dry, which is a shame. Hopefully he and his merry crew can rediscover their spark in the future.
Tomorrow, we set the stage for the best of the year by taking some time out to highlight the worst of the year. It is always best to see where we are at our lowest before we can appreciate where we can be at our highest.