Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Top 20 Movies of 2016

As 2016 finally comes to an end, the general consensus seems to be this was a pretty lousy year with things like one of the nastiest election campaigns ever, numerous terrorist attacks, and several iconic celebrities passing away. Unfortunately, it wasn't a very good year at the movies either. This has not only been the worst year since I started getting paid to writing movie reviews in 2012 and started watching over a hundred movies in a given year, but there were long stretches where I started to really believe we were seeing the implosion of the big studio movies.

The independent movie scene remained strong and will likely always be the creative refuge for filmmakers who want to tell stories about things other than superheroes or major intellectual properties. There were still some cases of wide releases that were intelligent movies or at least were smaller in scale and more character driven. There is a lot to be scared about with the movie industry especially with their franchise and sequel obsessions but there was still a lot to praise and a reason to cling to the hope that quality matters and creativity can thrive.

I typically have done a Top Ten Worse of the Year and then a Top Ten Best of Year. I feel there has been enough articles and lists to pound out how disappointing 2016 has turned out. If you need to chug your negativity juice then it is frothy and fresh in many spots. I've decided to just spotlight the positives, because this year needs it. I have gone with a Top 20 of the Year list plus another 10 honourable mentions. That gives you thirty movies that have my top endorsement and show 2016 was packed with some high quality.

I should note that living in Brantford means that I miss out on a lot of smaller indy darlings that got released during the second half of the year or the majority of the big Best Picture hopefuls, because they don't get screened around here until January (full reviews for the movies  that do make it here when they come). This does mean that my list is missing many movies that made other critics best of the year due to not having watched them yet, such as Silence, Moonlight, La La Land, Manchester by the Sea, Paterson, Love Witch, The Handmaiden, and several others. I also just didn't have the time to review The Wailing, The Treasure, The Boy and the Beast, The Meddler, Where to Invade Next, and The Wave. Hopefully, I can review at least a few of those in 2017. Though my hope is 2017 ends up being a pretty busy year for movies where I'm churning out at least one reviews of a new release a week and have plenty to champion.

But 2016 isn't done yet, and there was lots to praise despite its reputation. Here are my favourites from the 129 movies that I saw that were released in 2016.

20. 10 Cloverfield Lane: A monster movie that shows that monsters can come in many forms. It is the creature feature you'd hope from a picture attached to the original Cloverfield, but it is also a slow, simmering, disturbing thriller that toys with you and challenges you on who you can trust and what is the truth. John Goodman is fantastic as the man who captured our heroine for her own good, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead creates a lead character that is right up there with Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor as average women that must become kick-ass warriors. I initially has no use for a Cloverfield franchise, but this was great enough to make me highly anticipate the next anthology instalment.

19. The Confirmation: Though not marketed as such, it feels like a modern retelling of the 1948 classic, The Bicycle Thief (Bicycle Thieves). Clive Owen's divorced, alcoholic, down-on-his-luck Walt gets his son for a weekend but ends up having to spend it travelling around town for his stolen carpenter tools that he needs for a much needed job on Monday. It is a slice of story that at times is funny and other times heartbreaking but always packed with true emotions and interesting, believable characters. It speaks into the modern concerns and worries of our society but tells a tale about family and life's struggles that are timeless.

18. Snowden: The Oliver Stone that directed classics like Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, and JFK has returned with this slickly paced, stylishly directed political thriller based on the real life events of Edward Snowden making top secret NSA files accessible to the public. Snowden is a controversial figure and the movie makes sure to avoid deifying him (though it is clear Stone is on his side) and allows him to be a complicated figure with flaws and conflicting views. Joseph Gordon-Levitt proves yet again he is one of the most underappreciated top actors in the business and conveys a true living character that connects with the audience.

17. The Shallows: 2016 did turn out to be the year that the big studios delivered some great horror features that had relatable characters, complex themes and some well-earned chills. But the movie that I had the most fun had Blake Lively vs. a giant shark, which felt like a throwback to campy grindhouse pictures of the seventies but also packed some big scares. Lively proves her immense skill with a great performance where she mostly just has a killer fish and a seagull to play off. Jaume Collett-Serra earned his place as a genre director to keep an eye on.

16. Edge of Seventeen: Hailee Steinfeld is an actress that I have been championing ever since I saw her in True Grit, and it is her charisma and great screen presence that makes this picture such a wonderful treat. She has fantastic chemistry with Woody Harrelson where they share some of the funniest scenes in any movie this year. It has a great mix of humour, drama, and heart that earn it a spot along the best John Hughes movies. Kelly Fremon Craig shines in her directorial debut, and show the coming of age tale is still very much alive.

15. Barry:  A story about Barack Obama's college years as he tries to find his racial identity, come to terms with his family relationships, and figure out his own future. It is the rare biopic that doesn't have several smash you over the head scenes that outright tell you the subject's genius can be seen from the start but rather trusts the presence and performance of Devon Terrell to signal the future greatness of the 44th president. Like all good biopics, it is less about that point in time in Obama's life and more about bigger issues such as race relations, the need to belong, and different ways of overcoming guilt.

14. Moana: Disney has done a lot in the last few years to push for diversity and provide heroes that can represent groups often ignored. Not only do we get the first Polynesian Princess, but a movie that embraces the culture with vibrant colours and immensely catchy music. The picture is full of life and one of the most beautiful animated movies ever, but also just a really great adventure. It is also no small deal that Moana is a strong and independent woman who earns her tribes respect right from the beginning and gender is never an issue in the story. It is also Dwayne Johnson's best performance ever and you can feel his passion for this story.

13. The Lobster: An oddball, quirky comedy set in a near dystopian future where single adults need to find a partner in forty-five days or be turned into an animal of their choosing. The premise is both brilliant and absurd, and the humour comes from the odd behaviour of the characters and the almost monotone delivery of dry dialogue. This movie is destined to turn off a lot of people, but this world is so fully realized and so silly that there is an indisputable charm about this picture. It also has a well delivered deeper message about the dangers of absolutes and strict institutions even when their cause is just. Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz are wonderful together and their lack of chemistry helps elevate the message and themes of the picture.

12. Allied:  Not sure when the term "old-fashioned" became a criticism, because this is a movie that has a plot, style, and feel from decades ago. This is Robert Zemeckis homage to the sweeping war romance picture, especially the iconic Casablanca. It is part spy thriller and part grand love story, and both work thanks to great pacing, gorgeous set pieces, fun twists, and great chemistry between Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard. It borrows and follows the classic romance war movies of the past, but it has been so long that something like this has been tried at the big stage that it feels fresh and it is always absorbing. This is Zemeckis' strongest and most assured movie since returning to live action and was sadly underseen, so catch it when you have the chance.

11. Hunt for the Wilderpeople: A New Zealand adventure dramedy does something most American comedy releases failed this year: keep me laughing all the way through. The story of orphaned Ricky escaping into the woods with his cantankerous adopted father, Hec (played by Sam Neill in a great performance) to escape child services, who want the boy after the adopted mother unexpectedly passes away may have a predictable resolution and is smothered in sweetness but also ends up being one of the most original and irreverent movies of the year. The script is crammed with wit, and Julian Dennison and Neill has a fantastic energy with each other. The movie is rugged but also full of heart, and it is impossible not to fall in love with the characters.

10. The Jungle Book:  This movie proves that the complaints of extensive CGI or a movie being a remake/reboot isn't the real problem, because when both are done well it is magical. The standard for special effects have soared to the heavens with the cutting edge CGI that creates full breathing and realistic animals and a living jungle from a sound stage. Director Jon Favreau plays to nostalgia for several scenes but still transforms the story into something new, exciting, and original. I am a big fan of the animated The Jungle Book, but this newest tale fixes several of the thematic issues including now demonstrating a tribe or family can consist of different species and it just takes love to justify inclusion. Even if you don't dig for messages or themes, this is a fantastic jungle adventure that I see several kids wanting to replay in their back yards and is elevated by a great performance by a young Neel Sethi.

9. 13th: A must-see and powerful documentary by Ava DuVernay that looks at how the 13th Amendment allows for the prison system to continue the injustice and control of Blacks after the abolition of slavery. It has such a detailed history and its arguments are so in-depth that it is a valuable documentary for those on any side of the political spectrum. After seeing it, I think almost anyone would have to admit to their being some truth, or the very least that it is a masterfully created and compelling piece of cinema.

8. Deadpool: Hands down the very best comic book movie of the year but even on its smaller budget, one of the very best big studio actioners. It follows the beats of the typical origin story but elevates it with its irreverent humour, in-your-face bloody action, and an unforgettable performance by Ryan Reynolds. It is a cliché but this was the role he was destined for and erases all memories of Green Lantern (though he makes fun of that in the movie). Deadpool is the reason there is suddenly a slew of R-Rated movies coming out in the next year, but its success has nothing to do with it rating but everything to do with it having a vibrant energy and daring to be different then all the cookie-cutter big budget superhero movies. Even though it is raunchy and violent, it also have a lot of heart and an uplifting spirit, and I'd argue it is a better Valentine movie than what most studios try to put out.

7. The Witch: People looking for a jump-scarefest will be disappointed, as this horror is much deeper and about so much more than making one spill their popcorn. It is a slow-building but tension filled story about a Puritan family that left their community because they felt it was disgracing God, but once they go out living in the wilderness bad things start to happen like losing the newborn son. It is yet another horror that explores the importance of family but also explores the dangers of putting your values and religion over love and having unwavering views even when it can cause harm to those close to you. Anya Taylor Joy is a super-talented actor on the rise (this year she starred in both Barry and Morgan and stars in the upcoming Split), but her role here as the daughter accused of witchcraft proves her skills have already arrived as a top star. The movie is set in the 17th Century and the language, aesthetic, and style makes it feel like it was a story written from that time and then passed down the generations. This is proof that horror can be high-art but also still damn frightening.

6. Sing Street: The story of a teenager who forms a band so that he can convince a girl he likes to star in their music video. I wish I was that smart as a teenager. It is directed by John Carney who has given us other music driven movies in Once and Begin Again, but I like this one best as it has more complex characters and is elevated by the mid-1980s Dublin setting. It embodies the doubts and worries of the financially struggling working class while exploring the power of music and being a fantastic coming of age tale. It isn't afraid to dig into dramatic themes like the danger of dogmatism, mental illness, need to belong, and acceptance, but coated it all with a sense humour and bounce in its step. This movie reminded me quite a bit of another coming of age story set in the 1980s and is about a band being formed, We're the Best - a movie that made my best of 2014 list, and both are on Netflix so you have a double bill for tonight.

5. The Nice Guys: There is this constant complaint that there is nothing new in the cinemas or people tiring of superhero adventures, yet this Shane Black directed noir-crime thriller soaked in seventies nostalgia was a box office flop despite being everything audiences claim they're starving to see. It has a distinctive style, well-earned plot twists, action sequences that have purpose, it is hilarious, it is emotional, and it is distinctly its very own things even if also a homage to past movies. Ryan Gosling proves he has amazing comic skills and Russell Crowe is a fantastic straight-man for him. Angourie Rice instantly proves she is a future star with her great stand-out performance as Gosling's daughter. Even though this is a crazy, violent, action adventure, it is packed with genuine heart and a great story about the bond of family. If you say you love movies or claim to be pining for something different that is geared towards adults, this is a must watch. Destined to be a cult classic.

 4. Zootopia: The best animated movies are the one where you go the first time for the story and a second time to catch all the stunning visuals and details in the backgrounds. Zootopia feels like a living place where every character has full lives and things are constantly happening around the main characters; the attention to detail in this feature is phenomenal and as a visual feast it is a classic. It also has two of the most intriguing and fun lead characters in Judy Hopps and Nick Wilde, and they go on a buddy adventure that rivals the very best of the genre when it comes to twists, action, and humour. It also tackles the ideas of diversity, acceptance, and equality in an intelligent and creative way that gets across valuable messages that really need to be heard based on the state of politics but avoids being preachy or hamfisted. It is one of the most thoughtful and creative movies of any genre and is proof that Disney (along with Pixar who they own) is back as king of the animated features and show once again that cartoons sure aren't just for kids and often tell stories better than live-action pictures.

3. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story:  I've been a Star Wars fan for the majority of my life and there may be even a chance I came out with a Kenner Early Bird Certificate Package in hand. It shouldn't be a surprise to anyone that this made my list, and if you remember, The Force Awakens nailed number one last year. I will fully admit my strong love for this world does cause me to look past some of its bigger flaws and I allow myself to be swept away back to my childhood as I'm engrossed for over two hours. This is what Rogue One and Force Awakens excelled at, live up to my childhood nostalgia, make me feel like a kid again, and take me to a familiar world while offering up exciting new stories. This is the prequel that I always wanted, and it is incredible how well this turns out as a companion piece to the original Star Wars movie as these events build right the literal start of that movie. It has a slew of winks and Easter Eggs for the hardcore Star Wars fan with lots of fun and unexpected cameos, but it is also one of the easiest to get into if you have never seen one of the movies before.  It is also the darkest and edgiest Star Wars movie since Empire Strikes Back, and it takes some very bold directions for a picture considered for families. Felicity Jones is great in the lead role and does the legacy of strong Star Wars females proud, which of course started with the late great Carrie Fisher (you will be missed).

2. Kubo and the Two String: Laika Studios isn't anywhere as well known or financially successful as Pixar, and on opening night I am usually watching their movies in a half full theatre (that never happens for Disney or Pixar), but from a quality standpoint it may be even more consistent than Pixar (which is the only studio that I highly anticipate their upcoming movie without even knowing a plot). Kubo is Laika's best animated feature yet with its unique but gorgeous animation, the amazing amount of creativity put into the story, action sequences that are more thrilling than anything attempted by the big budget summer tentpoles, and a real sense it was embracing elements of Japanese culture and mythology. Even though it has some big action sequences and is an adventure story, it is also a very gentle and kind picture that believes in second chances and open mindedness. It is a movie about the power of storytelling and how the tales must be passed down the generations. Speaking of generations, it is a story that values family in all its forms and was one of the most spiritual experiences I had watching the big screen this year. This is another great but underseen feature, and if you complained loudly about the state of movies, then you need to check this one out.

Honourable Mention: Amanda Knox, Captain America: Civil War, The Conjuring 2, Eye in the Sky, Doctor Strange, Green Room, Hacksaw Ridge, Hush, The Invitation, Maggie's Plan

1. Arrival:  It is sci-fi and it is an "alien invasion" movie, but not the type we've been conditioned to see. There are no cities being decimated, there isn't a single big battle scene, and the climax has nothing to do with a big explosion, but the movie is tense, thrilling, and deftly paced the entire time. There are high stakes, but the issues and conflicts are more about major government's insecurities and fears that can cause global disaster. Amy Adams is fantastic in conveying a strong women who also is deeply hurt by her past, and the audience can connect with her instantly. The movie is about the need for understanding and challenges government's tendency to see the outsider as an enemy. In many ways it is a subversive film that counters many of the main ideas of modern times, but it is also intimate and heartfelt. It is a movie that demands close attention to catch all the details and stay connected to the plot, and the type of movie that almost needs a second viewing to properly appreciate it (though I saw it only once and it owns my spot as favourite of the year). There is a big twist ending but one that comes about it honestly and is hinted at throughout the movie. The Arrival is a visual spectacle and firmly plants Denis Villeneuve as one of the best directors, and gives good reason to be excited about the upcoming Blade Runner 2049. It feels like a big event picture but has the smarts of the very best prestige movies, and would be a best of the year contender even during a very strong year.

Friday, December 30, 2016

The Breakdown on Indefinite Hiatus Plus the Fifty Billionth Blog Address

The Breakdown postponing from a few weeks back has now turned into a Gru stole the moon-like disappearing act. There have been a variety of issues that are best kept secretive but at this point, I am not sure about the future of the Breakdown. It likely will be back but not sure of that date at this exact moment.

What this has meant for the blog is that it has returned to Ghost Town status, one that has been far too common for the past few years. There has been no denying that 2016 outright was rotten for the blog being active.

It hasn't been for a lack of talking points as personally there has been significant events like Everett's second year at school or Danika proving to be mischievously different than her brother. Plus even though most of the news hasn't been very uplifting this year, it has been one worthy of extensive think pieces and analysis. Over the last few years there has been public figures that have played a huge role in my life that have passed away such as Shirley Temple, Ultimate Warrior, Carrie Fisher, David Bowie, Roddy Piper, Wes Craven, Dusty Rhodes, Prince, Gene Wilder and Muhammad Ali that I had lots of thoughts to share. On a daily basis there has always been something that I could write about, but I have allowed sinister voices to prevail and have simply bottled up my creative energy. It is hard to say where my current fisticuffs with depression have emerged from but it has gained a lot of strength from me not allowing my natural instinct of writing to thrive.

Luckily. 2017 is loudly knocking on the door. It is a fresh start for weekly reviews of Netflix originals and new theatrical releases. It is a chance to share the daily adventures of the Spicer family. An opportunity to write tributes to significant figures that I neglected to honour when they passed away. A chance for my passionate thoughts on major events to be shared. It is the year that the novel can be written and finally find a home with a publisher. It will be the year where more of my writings show up in other places and the links will be posted here. My 2017 resolution is something get posted here every single day on the blog, though depending on my work load the time may change (will aim for morning but sometimes may need to settle for late night or just a link be that day's contribution).

2017 may be looking to be a scary year when it comes to politics and the world stage, but my vow is that it will be a rocking year for my writing career and for this blog to get back to being an interesting place again.

Thank you for those readers who have stuck with me these last few years. I promise your patience will be rewarded with a great 2017 for The International House of Spicer.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Remembering Carrie Fisher

My first crush was Princess Leia. As a young boy, I was convinced she was the most beautiful and coolest lady you could ever find. Even though as a boy I was supposed to want to be Luke Skywalker or be wowed by the coolness of Han Solo, my favourite character was Leia. I always had a soft spot for strong and confident women, because I was lucky to have an amazing mom who showed me that woman are awesome (I had to praise my mom after claiming Leia was the coolest and most beautiful lady around during my childhood).

She stood out because she wasn't the typical damsel-in-distress or love interest. She may have been captured for most of the original Star Wars and the male heroes went on a rescue mission for her, but she never just cowered in her cell waiting for a saviour. She showed no fear in the presence of Darth Vader and she kept composure when she saw her home planet destroyed (and her family murdered). When she was rescued, she held her own against the arrogant Han Solo and she was the one that came up with an escape route when trapped in the detention block hallway. She remained strong, witty and independent throughout the entire adventure and was a great symbol for female power. I have talked about Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor as great female action heroes, but Leia deserves a place right along with them.

Princess Leia was such a powerful and attractive character because of who played her, Carrie Fisher. She also was outspoken, independent, and honest, which brought something special that helped make Leia so memorable. She was a fantastic actor that I don't think ever really got the recognition that she deserved. She did have some other memorable supporting roles in movies like Hannah and Her Sisters and When Harry Met Sally. Fisher had too many other talents to just dedicate herself to acting, and she proved to be an incredible writer. Her written works earned their acclaim due to her incredibly sharp wit and brutal honestly that told the truth about Hollywood. Fisher's talents and presence is one that will be missed for a very long time.

Fisher ended up writing four novels, four non-fiction books, three screenplays, two plays, and doctored several movie scripts (this means sprucing up dialogue and cleaning up the original drafts). Her best known book is probably the semi-fictionalized Postcards from the Edge, a story about an actress struggling with depression who has to deal with a mother who is powerful and intimidating Hollywood star. She also ended up penning the screenplay adaptation of the novel that turned into the 1990 comedy of the same name that was directed by Mike Nichols and starred Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine.

While it was a fictional work, it also was a way for Fisher to share what life was like being born into Hollywood royalty with a father who was a celebrated musician, Eddie Fisher and mother who was a major Hollywood star, Debbie Reynolds (who was one of the leads in the 1952 mega-hit Singin' in the Rain). It was also a way for Fisher to deal with her own battles with mental health and drug addiction.

The legacy of Carrie Fisher will be how she was open about her own mental illness in a time it was a dirty secret most kept hidden or refused to acknowledge as real. She was champion for putting into out in the open and get people talking about it. Fisher did not hide that she had a bipolar disorder or that she wrestled with heavy drug use for decades. She tackled the issue with great strength and a biting sense humour, which is made her books both entertaining and important. All of her non-fiction books are honest and sincere, but she always explored the tough subject manner with a sharp wit and pen for entertainment. I respect her for her amazing skills at composing elegant prose and having the bravery to be so raw and truthful about herself and life in Hollywood.

I was introduced to her as the beautiful and tough princess who was ready to lead the rebels and take down the evil Empire. I will remember her as the beautiful and tough woman who did not shy away from her demons, was ready to shake up things in Hollywood, and wrote books that showed me what it takes to be a great writer.

I will miss Carrie Fisher, but I'm thankful for the humour, joy and truth she brought to this world.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Man of His Word

During the summer on the Breakdown podcast, we had a Summer Box Office Challenge where Scott and I had competing predictions over what would be the highest grossing movies from May to August. To make it a bit more interesting this year, we added a prize where the winner would get to choose three movies the loser would have to see and then verify that they saw them by posting a review on their blog. Well, I luckily won that competition and have been patiently waiting for my reviews ever since. One of my picks was the critically smashed disaster known as Sex and the City 2; a movie that I largely picked because I was annoyed how excited Scott was over Winter's Tale leaving Netflix and felt I needed to find something even more inhumane and venomous. 2016 may be almost over and the outside makes the summer seem like the distant past, but Scott has posted his review for Sex and the City 2. You can join me revelling over the poor guy's misery over at his blog. While you're there, check out some of his other reviews, because he also happens to be a fun and talented writer.

Breakdown Postponed This Week

No Breakdown this Monday morning, unfortunately. On Friday I was given the gift of being able to spend several hours in bed with a trusty and well-used bucket by my side thanks to the good ol' Mr. Flu. Things got worse again Sunday morning when we normally record, which would have made for an awkward show of Scott talking while I hobble away at regular intervals. Our apologies for missing a show this week and you will all be getting your refunds in the mail shortly.

Monday, December 05, 2016

The Breakdown of 'Bridesmaids' and 'To Kill a Mockingbird'

The Breakdown is a Delorean this week as we look at two old movies held up as classics. First we have the raunchy female comedy that made the careers of Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy and Paul Feig with Bridesmaids. After that we look at the adaptation of Lee Harper's massive bestseller, To Kill a Mockingbird. It is over 90 minutes of in-depth discussion and analysis of these two movies as we look at their impact on cinema, what made them into hits, and how it effected the careers of those involved. It is a fun show for movie lovers and if you know one that is missing out on the weekly show then please pass on the word.

Remember you can now subscribe either to The Movie Breakdown feed (a subscription link is at the top right hand of this site) or on iTunes.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

'The Mummy' Trailer Going in a Different Direction By Being Every Other Blockbuster

One positive about the upcoming The Mummy reboot/remake is that at least isn't just going to be a retread of the Brendan Fraser franchise. Too many remakes just end up being retreads that have no reason for existing, but being different isn't always good. While I always endorse Tom Cruise in a lead role of an action picture, I'm not totally excited about the direction of this hoping to be cinematic universe launcher. The Fraser series was campy and tongue-in-cheek homage to adventure serials that had an Indiana Jones battling ancient monsters like vibe that had a fun energy and compared to most of today's blockbusters would come off as something pretty fresh. This first trailer promises a much more intense and gritty actioner full of explosions and CGI chaos, or also known as most big studio movies we see every summer. There is nothing here that really screams different or fresh, but rather just hero trying to save the world with the villain this time happening to be a creepy century old magic lady. But maybe I'm just getting too cynical and some of you think this is a smoking bag of awesome. At least it is pretty clear we will get lots or running Cruise.

One positive is that director Alex Kurtzman is claiming that they aren't blatantly building to a big Avengers style movie right away but rather concentrating on making good movies with small little tidbit hinting towards a wider universe. The fact he and hopefully the studios are aware that the forced universe building and promoting of future movies that happened in Amazing Spider-Man 2 was a failure and the best way to get fans excited about future movies is just to make really good movies. Now, I just hope I am wrong about this trailer and this is a fun start to the Universal monsters world.