Here's a roundup of my favorite movies of the year, plus a few that bugged me. Aside from my top choice, don't hold me to the numbers. Everything could shift tomorrow, though it likely won't. It's not in my nature to fuss over lists like this. I just hope it helps you find something enjoyable you might have otherwise missed, or perhaps avoid a dud. Like Collateral Beauty. Seriously, it's a mess.
1.) Hell or High Water
It's an action-packed contemporary western/heist story with a great cast in peak form, and it's relevant to our times while remembering to be entertaining. Chris Pine and Ben Foster play bank-robbing brothers. Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham play the Texas Rangers assigned to stop them. Director David Mackenzie, working from Taylor Sheridan's screenplay, takes a predictable plot and makes it feel new. The drama is genuine and the action scenes are corkers, especially a shootout near the end. I named this the best film of the year when it came out in August and waited to see what would knock it down. Nothing came close. On video now.
Casey Affleck gives a career-best performance as a brooding handyman living in self-imposed exile until he is forced to return home when his brother's heart gives out. The astonished loner learns that he's been named guardian of his 16-year-old nephew (played wonderfully by Lucas Hedges). You'd think this study of grief would be too depressing to sit through, but it's realistic enough to include the humor that arises in traumatic situations. In theaters now.
3.) La La Land
Musical about an actor (Emma Stone) and a musician (Ryan Gosling) trying to make it in L.A. Sit back and surrender to the music, the dancing, the art direction and the cinematography. Thankfully the singing is recognizably human, as opposed to the run-filled song belting so popular on TV singing competitions. The ending is different and satisfying in its own odd way. In theaters now.
4.) American Honey
A star is born in Sasha Lane and you're invited to go with her into writer-director Andrea Arnold's mesmerizing (and mostly credible) tale of Dickensian life in Walmart America. Warning: this is what's known as a “critic's darling,” which means that most folks will find it boring or too weird. The two hour, 40 minute production follows an 18-year-old woman (Lane) that joins a group of young people that travel from town to town selling magazine subscriptions. Shia LaBeouf plays their manager. On video now.
5.) (Tie) The Lobster / Swiss Army Man
I put these two together because they are critic's darlings that have polarized audiences. Colin Farrell stars in The Lobster, a futuristic tale of a society where couples mean everything. Single people (like Farrell's recently separated character) are given 45 days to find a partner or the government will turn them into animals. The film is exceptionally weird and very somber in a way that turns absurdly comic, while respecting the characters and their concerns.
Swiss Army Man makes The Lobster look routine by comparison. It's about a despondent castaway on a tiny island who becomes friends with a farty corpse. The corpse farts so often, and so powerfully, that the castaway is able to straddle his body and ride it around the ocean like a jet ski. A fart-powered jet ski. Paul Dano plays Hank, the sad man. Daniel Radcliffe plays Manny, the dead person. Both are fully committed to their roles. You can laugh, wince, and squirm at The Lobster and even more at Swiss Army Man. You can harvest the small truths, and enjoy the lyrical moments. And when somebody asks you if you've seen any good movies lately, boy, will you have an interesting answer. Both films are on video now.
6.) Everybody Wants Some!!
Remember Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused, which spent time with a group of high school students in 1976? Everybody Wants Some!! takes the same free-form approach, this time with a group of college baseball players in 1980. On video now.
Ryan Reynolds spent years trying to bring his vision of the comic book character Deadpool to life and damned if he didn't succeed! One of the most snarky, foul-mouthed movies ever, and a welcome change of pace from most superhero fare. On video now.
Richly detailed look at a young man growing up in a rough Miami neighborhood, told in three chapters with different actors playing him. Mahershala Ali is getting attention on the awards circuit for his work as a crack dealer that becomes a father figure for the boy. In theaters now.
9.) The Edge of Seventeen
Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit) is terrific as a teenager outraged at the indignities of growing up. She periodically turns to one of her teachers (Woody Harrelson) for help, but he's as acerbic as she is. Smart, frank coming-of-age story with a strong mix of drama and laughs. It feels genuine. Still in some theaters. On video February 14.
10.) Captain Fantastic
For years, they raised their six children in the wilds of Washington state, living off the grid. When Mom dies, Dad (Viggo Mortensen) must bring his children into the outside world for the first time. Fascinating and very well acted. On video now.
Charming low-key Jim Jarmusch film about a bus driver poet (Adam Driver) and his creative, but less focused wife (Golshifteh Farahani). A pleasure to watch. Coming to Indianapolis theaters in early 2017.
12.) Hacksaw Ridge
True story of conscientious objector Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), who saved 75 men at Okinawa during WWII. Garfield is excellent.
Denzel Washington powers through life as a former baseball player working as a garbage collector in 1950's Pittsburgh. Based on a play, and part of its strength is that it doesn't hide that fact. In theaters Christmas Day.
14.) Sausage Party
Animated comedy for adults only, about anthropomorphic food items that find out what really happens after they've been bought and taken out of the store. Along with the dirty talk comes a engaging look at organized religion and popular belief systems. Surprising.
15.) Patriots Day
Mark Wahlberg has the lead role in this recreation of the Boston Marathon bombings, but the stars of the film are the people of Boston. Opens in Indianapolis January 13.
16.) 20th Century Women
Annette Bening is fine as a '70s Santa Barbara mother that enlists the tenants of her boarding house in the raising of her son, Jamie. Establishes an agreeable communal feel. Coming to Indianapolis early next year.
17.) Captain America: Civil War
Two factions of the Avengers end up battling in this sprawling epic that works because of its big fights and small exchanges between the characters. Ant Man pops up and it turns out he has a big surprise. And look, there's Spider-Man! The more's the merrier. On video now.
18.) Doctor Strange
Benedict Cumberbatch stars in Marvel's tale of a seriously injured doctor who turns to … um, non-traditional treatment. Trippy, with welcome bits of humor. On video in February.
The aliens have landed (well, they're hovering nearby) and Amy Adams must translate their language without reference points. Thoughtful and ultimately emotionally rewarding. In theaters now.
Natalie Portman plays the First Lady in the hours following the Kennedy assassination. Illuminating behind-the-scenes look at history. In theaters now.
HONORABLE MENTIONSZootopia (Rollicking Disney 'toon about diverse groups of talking animals working together in the big city. Big fun.): Don't Think Twice (writer-actor Mike Birbiglia directs a comedy-drama about the dynamics of an improv comedy troupe. Funny and insightful); Hidden Figures (the true story of African-American women who did the math for NASA in the early days of the Space Race. More when the film opens locally in January); The Handmaiden (Con artists in Japanese-occupied Korea – complicated, but rewarding); Finding Dory (Pixar sequel becomes the first cartoon starring a special needs character – cool!), Barbershop: The Next Cut (love the sense of community and the conversations involving multiple people); Star Trek Beyond (best yet in the current film franchise); Kubo and the Two Strings (Striking stop-motion tale including magic and martial arts); Deepwater Horizon (fact-based disaster story starring Mark Wahlberg); Moana (zippy Disney 'toon); The Nice Guys (bad-ass crime thriller with a sense of humor); Maggie's Plan (romantic-comedy with indie sensibility); Loving (sometimes soft-spoken people make history, like the Lovings, whose Supreme Court case ended the ban on interracial marriage); Weiner (too bizarre to be fiction – former Rep. Anthony Weiner runs for mayor of NYC, but his dick gets him in trouble. Again.)
THE 5 MOST ANNOYING
1.) Independence Day: Resurgence
The first film was ridiculous, overwrought, cheesy junk, but it managed to stay entertaining, especially on repeat viewings. This one is just a mess. What a disappointment.
2.) Collateral Beauty
Will Smith is aggressively despondent over the death of his daughter. He writes letters to Time, Death, and Life. His “friends” hire actors to play those roles and convince Smith they are genuine. Does this sound inspirational? Because it thinks it is.
3.) Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Leaden, pompous and really long. Oh, and the filmmakers basically turned Superman into Doctor Manhattan, so even the title is wrong.
The cast was great, but Kate McKinnon was the only cast member who really shined. The barrage of pointless cameos of cast members from the original film just made this reboot even draggier.
5.) Alice Through the Looking Glass
I didn't care for the original film, but this directionless time-killer made it look like high art by comparison.