I’ve kept an annual list of films, TV and books every year since 2014. This year I’m going to add a ranked list of my favorite films of 2016 as well. My list is better than all the other “top 10” lists, because… mine goes to eleven.
1. Hell Or High Water
2. Manchester By The Sea
5. American Honey
6. Certain Women
8. Toni Erdmann
9. Don’t Think Twice
The above ranking obviously doesn’t include pictures I haven’t seen yet, and that’s a list of its own that includes THE HANDMAIDEN, SILENCE, SING STREET, PATERSON, HIDDEN FIGURES, FENCES, and JACKIE. I’m working on it.
Below is a complete list of everything I saw in 2016. As always, the list only reflects things seen for the very first time. If I came across JAWS or GROUNDHOG DAY or YOU’VE GOT MAIL already in progress on TV and sat there like a zombie through ’til the end, well, that’s not considered worthy of note. What is worthy of note: ZOOLANDER 2 is so very, very bad it makes you feel stupid for having liked the first one. THE LOBSTER is the other movie I regret having made the effort to go see in the theater. I’ll give it points for originality, I guess. Then I’ll take those points back for being a miserable, cruel, misbegotten thing.
Linked titles will take you to either my review or more information on a particular film.
MOVIES ON THE BIG SCREEN
My Name Is Doris
Don’t Think Twice
Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words
Star Trek Beyond
Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie
Pete’s Dragon (2016)
Hell Or High Water
20th Century Women
MOVIES ON THE SMALL SCREEN
What We Do In The Shadows
Amira & Sam
Captain America: The First Avenger
Shaun The Sheep Movie
The Libeled Lady
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels
Lassie Come Home
The Shop Around The Corner
Swiss Army Man
The Mindy Project
Odd Mom Out
Mike Birbiglia: My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend
The Good Place
Game of Thrones
BOOKS and OTHER READING
Devotion – Dani Shapiro
60 or so screenplays for the Austin Film Festival competition
Just a quick recommendation for you today. We went to see Mike Birbiglia’s excellent new feature DON’T THINK TWICE and afterward my buddy Jared suggested I check out Birbiglia’s 2013 TV special. MY GIRLFRIEND’S BOYFRIEND is something halfway between stand-up comedy and a one-man show. It’s just Birbiglia onstage with a microphone – amiable and self-effacing, as is his way – talking relationships, love, sex, and commitment. It unfolds like a garden-variety stand-up set, but eventually it dawns on you that everything he’s saying is part of one big story. In the telling, Birbiglia makes multiple leaps back and forth in time, ping-ponging between years and girlfriends in a story structure that might make Quentin Tarantino envious. It’s funny and thoughtful and finishes on a sweet up-with-love note. Currently available on Netflix streaming.
Currently I’m watching two very different TV shows: SyFy’s The Expanse and CBS’s Supergirl. The differences between them, and how I find myself reacting to them, is making me think a lot about what’s really important in storytelling.
The Expanse is SyFy Channel’s prestige programming. It’s complex. It’s dark. It looks expensive. It takes itself very seriously. It tries very hard, but often to little effect. Supergirl, on the other hand, doesn’t hardly seem to be trying at all, but the emotional payoffs have been surprisingly powerful.
The storylines in Supergirl are your basic, primary-colors comic book stuff. No gritty re-imagining here. It’s not a perfect show: dialogue can be clunky, and effects and production design are often pretty cheesy as well. The stories are quite simple. But they resonate, because the writers are working basic, relatable themes: family loyalty, prejudice, anger vs. self-control.
The character of Supergirl (aka Kara) illuminates how important backstory can be to creating a relatable character. Like her more famous cousin, Kara was rocketed to Earth in a little space capsule by parents who stayed behind to die on doomed homeworld Krypton. The big difference between the two of them: Kal-el (Superman) was a baby when he left Krypton. Kara was 12. This simple fact makes Supergirl a much more interesting character than Superman, and has been driving the best story moments all season. Kara remembers her home, and her parents, and she misses them terribly. At times, torn between her human and Kryptonian identities, she literally feels alienated from the human race. She has anger issues. Think about that one for a minute: Supergirl has all the powers of her cousin. If she really came unglued, she could do a lot of damage.
We got a glimpse of that in the episode where Supergirl was temporarily turned bad by some red kryptonite. It revealed an inner life full of resentments, and made me think about her in a way I never had with Superman. (This hour also featured some of the best acting ever seen on the show, and yes, this is the one that made me cry.)
Ultimately, Supergirl’s corn and goofiness don’t matter: I understand the characters and I want to know what they’ll do next. I am entertained.
“Entertainment,” I imagine, is probably not a word that comes up much as often as it should in The Expanse writers’ room. To their credit, it feels like they are smart people working very hard at the 10,000-foot level to honor the big story arcs of the books (I haven’t read them).
The show plays a long game, over the course of the first season setting up political tensions on an interplanetary scale between Earth, colonial Mars (now an independent state), and the Belters, roughneck denizens of the industrialized asteroid belt. But big things are made up of little things. And The Expanse is rarely compelling at the smaller scale, the scale of viewer engagement – that is to say, individual scenes and episodes. (See Game of Thrones to observe how a show develops big story arcs while simultaneously making things work moment-to-moment. Personally, I’m not much into swords-and-sorcery stuff, but I’ll make an exception for GoT because… well, because that shit is undeniably gripping.)
The weaknesses of The Expanse are instructive to me because as a sci-fi guy I’m enamored with all the things it counts as virtues: the detailed world-building, the realistic hardware, the getting the physics of space travel (mostly) right. Yet, all through season 1, I struggled to stay with it because I didn’t much care about what was happening. There was a glimmer of hope in episode 2, when space-freighter guy Holden logged a distress call in direct violation of captain’s orders, forcing them to change course & try to help. Stakes! Conflict! Characters are what they do, and I saw Holden make a hard choice to do the right thing, regardless of the consequences. So now I’m in his corner. As the show has progressed, it’s been interesting to see Holden become the de facto leader of the Rocinante crew, despite the fact that they all rightly blame him for the pickle they’re in. I hang onto Holden and his gang to stay afloat in a sea of I-don’t-care.
But those scenes aboard the Rocinante are only about one-third of the show. The UN/Earth scenes are all talk. I just wait for them to end. The Ceres scenes are tough going too, but for different reasons. Sorry, maybe I’m a bad person, but I don’t care about the downtrodden people of Ceres. Oh, hey, you know who I cared about? Those mutants on Mars in Paul Verhoeven’s TOTAL RECALL. The Ceres scenes kinda bring those guys to mind. Again, stylistically far goofier than the grimness of The Expanse, but in TOTAL RECALL the basic requirements of drama had been met: I got to know the mutants. Early scenes introduced some of them to me as individuals, so when their oxygen got cut off, it hurt. The people on Ceres, by comparison, are an undifferentiated bunch of rabble. They are a symbol. And because they are a symboI, it doesn’t much matter to me whether they have air and water.
Furthermore, I didn’t care about the missing girl – the other part of the Ceres storyline – because again, I’ve been given no reason to care. Onscreen for maybe 10 seconds, at the beginning of episode 1, what we were shown of her was totally cryptic. I understand we were building a mystery, but if I can’t be told any info about the girl because it’s a mystery, I better damn well care about the guy who’s trying to solve the mystery for 10 episodes… but I come up empty there too. I don’t know why he’s working on this case except that his boss told him to. Oh, and I think he fell in love with a snapshot of the girl. Really?
There’s also the problem of uniformity of characters. Personalities in The Expanse range in disposition from “tough-but-fair” to “mass-murderer,” so inevitably we’re steeped in hard-boiled dialogue, all delivered with unblinking stares. It gets old. To differentiate the characters, some of them have accents, and a few of them are women (UN lady and mohawk girl*). This is the same flaw – wall-to-wall second-rate tough talk – that very nearly made me bail on season 1 of Netflix’s Jessica Jones, before that show was redeemed around mid-season by virtue of its terrific villain.
There are other things about The Expanse that make watching something of a chore. There’s a triple-whammy of accents, slang, and an invented language, compounded by characters who mumble, or whisper, or struggle with English pronunciation (UN lady). I’m not sure how much a crummy stereo mix has to do with it, but I for one am constantly rolling the DVR back trying to tell what’s being said. I should just turn on the subtitles I guess.
Finally, The Expanse is sometimes hobbled by what seems like indifferent direction. There are fumbled opportunities to build suspense and pay it off with action. Setups are poor, so when action comes, I’m surprised or confused. Moments that should have visceral impact slip by because I’m trying to interpret them. Hey, somebody in a spacesuit (can’t tell who) just did something! A gun went off! Whose gun? Which way was it pointed?
Happily, there are exceptions to this. Most notably, a terrific scene in the season’s final episode, set in the lobby of a seedy space hotel. Pretty much every character in the show arrived there at once, all of them looking for the mystery girl. What transpired next was a long, wordless scene as the suspense built, and built, and built… and was finally paid off with a shootout that was absolutely bananas. I was grinning.
The Expanse is telling a complicated story. For that, it should be applauded. I’ll bet I’ve been more patient with it than your average viewer, but, like an average viewer, I am tuning in for entertainment. I want a payoff. So far, The Expanse’s payoffs have been kind of meager. I’m hanging in there, hoping it will get better. Rooting for it, really, because on many levels The Expanse is just what I always wanted in a sci-fi TV show. It’s been renewed for a second season, and I’m glad. It would be a shame to see it go away. There’s a lot of potential there.
*After an entire season I can’t remember anybody’s name except Holden’s. For that I’m not going to apologize… or Google, for that matter.
Comparing 2015 to last year’s list only makes me appreciate the films of 2014 more. Following a year that brought us UNDER THE SKIN, HER and BOYHOOD, this new batch looks pretty weak. Even worse when you consider that the best film I saw on the big screen last year was Bennett Miller’s tremendous FOXCATCHER, and that was a late 2014 release. That said, I did enjoy most of these titles quite a lot. 2015 from my perspective was a year with a lots of very good movies, lacking in any great ones. Linked titles will take you to either my review or more information on a particular film.
MOVIES SEEN IN THEATER
Into The Woods
While We’re Young
Burnt In Memory
Mad Max: Fury Road
I Want To Be A King
Bridge Of Spies
The Good Dinosaur
The Heart Of A Dog
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
MOVIES ON BLURAY/DVD/DVR/TV
X-Men: Days of Future Past
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Lego Movie
Grey Gardens (1975)
Je, Tu, Il, El
Two Days, One Night
Defending Your Life
Orphan Black (Tatiana finally got her Emmy nom. Yay! Didn’t win, though. Boo.)
BOOKS and OTHER READING
World War Z
MOVIES SEEN IN THEATER
The Wolf of Wall Street
Under The Skin
Edge of Tomorrow
Guardians of the Galaxy
This is Where I Leave You
(My “best of” list is topped by UNDER THE SKIN. Jonathan Glaser’s finest film to date turns a “vampire from outer space” premise into an artful meditation on the concept of alien-ness. Followed closely in ranking by Spike Jonze’ HER (read my 6-tweet mini-review here), BIRDMAN, and BOYHOOD. Meanwhile LUCY has the distinction of being the dumbest movie I paid good money to see on the big screen in 2014.)
MOVIES ON BLURAY/DVD/DVR/TV
Leviathan (2013) (my 6-tweet review is here)
Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World
Jeff, Who Lives at Home
Tell No One
Friday Night Lights
The Bells of St. Mary’s
This Is The End
Synecdoche, New York (ow, my mind. ow, Charlie Kaufman’s mind)
Saving Mr. Banks
In A World
20 Feet From Stardom
The Way, Way Back (sweet)
Now You See Me (terrible)
Love and Other Drugs
12 Years a Slave (over-rated)
August: Osage County (under-rated)
Orphan Black (where is Tatiana Maslany’s Emmy?!)
True Detective (Season 1)
BOOKS and OTHER READING
I confess: December 31 finds me still nibbling on the same volume of short stories by Mike Resnick that I’ve been working on all year. So much for my resolution to “read more.” I read my friend’s screenplays. And plenty of essays and articles and film criticism, or course, most of it online. The one that has stayed with me was this transcript of Jonathan Lethem’s “State of Cinema” address to the San Francisco Film Society. Really smart. Read it.