The Fine Wines of 2016
Being a critic comes with one common stigma: we wield the ungodly power to make or break a film’s success at the box office by the stroke of a pen. Okay, maybe we’re getting ahead of ourselves, but you get the point. Every year we review well over 100 films. We attend festivals, create lists, rank everything we see, and so on. Frankly, we get very little time to really digest what we’ve consumed. And every so often, a film is released that might just be too challenging for a one-day review turnaround. The fine wines of 2016, as we at Crossfader like to call them, are a select few films that have lingered with us despite the fact that we gave them a negative review. They are films that we maybe didn’t like upon first watch, or that only revealed their merits as the year went by. Whatever the case, here are a few films that shouldn’t just be lumped in with all those other “Do Not Recommends.”
10. THE GREASY STRANGLER
Director: Jim Hosking
Genre: Dark Comedy
I’ve tried to explain THE GREASY STRANGLER to a handful of laymen, only to realize that I was completely out of my element. This is surely 2016’s wackiest film, and much like the other comedies on this list, I look back fondly on THE GREASY STRANGLER for not just being an improv-riddled mess, although it is a complete mess in other ways. I wouldn’t go as far as to call it a must-see, but anyone even remotely entertained by the humor of Adult Swim or Tim & Eric should feel obliged to give the film a chance. It’s willfully immature and sophomoric to the core, but it’s among the most dazzling aesthetic experiences I’ve had this year. The cult status that will follow in the years to come is imminent, and I can’t recommend seeing it in a theatre enough. It holds the potential to be the ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW for the millennial generation. And even if the humor doesn’t land, you can’t deny how catchy that theme song is.
9. HARDCORE HENRY
Director: Ilya Naishuller
The experiment at the heart of HARDCORE HENRY is noble, to say the least. A film shot entirely from a character’s point-of-view is a wonderfully playful concept. But frankly, it’s not a huge success. The technology still has a ways to go, and clearly the team behind HARDCORE HENRY didn’t have the resources to accomplish seamless extended sequences. The film features countless (unhidden) edits and is never quite as polished as it ought to be, but when it works, it’s the joyride of the year. The real problem is that only some set pieces are worth the entry fee. As such, I can never shake the feeling that it’s best to watch the film piecemeal. Aesthetically, HARDCORE HENRY was never a film that should have been shown in a movie theatre. It’s a lot less nauseating on a smaller screen. The influences from music videos are obvious, and as such, it makes for a lovely pairing in 10-15 minute increments. Here’s to hoping that the tech improves with time and we get that first-person shoot ‘em up we always desired.
Director: Louis Leterrier
It really takes a film like KEEPING UP WITH THE JONESES to remind me just how awesome Sacha Baron Cohen is. And while a film like GRIMSBY will never be half the film that BORAT is, I can’t help but admire the man for his dedication to character work. GRIMSBY is crass, lewd, and frankly, irresponsible filmmaking. But for all its transgressions, it’s still an unadulterated farce. In this day and age, I want nothing more. We live in a cinematic climate so bogged down by dialogue that Cohen’s goofy shenanigans are a breath of fresh air, even when they aren’t that good. As a firm practitioner of Jerry Lewis’s screen acting, GRIMSBY reflects a passion for staged comedy that we really don’t get to enjoy anymore. We can spend day after day complaining about every mark GRIMSBY misses, all the jokes it recycles, or all the people it offends, but frankly, it’s the film for 2016, one where being penetrated by an elephant while hiding inside of another elephant perfectly captures the absurdity of this year.
7. EVERYBODY WANTS SOME
Director: Richard Linklater
Richard Linklater hasn’t impressed me since 2013’s BEFORE MIDNIGHT; I know I’m in the minority when I say that. Unfortunately, EVERYBODY WANTS SOME also did nothing to alleviate this problem, but while BOYHOOD filled me with sub-par teen angst, I entertained this Texas-based university romp for its brilliant ensemble work. I can’t say that EVERYBODY WANTS SOME contributed anything to cinema in 2016. It went in one ear as quickly as it went out the other. As such, it was this year’s ultimate quick fix. A wildly entertaining, but objectively vapid film. Its inspirations are clear as day: EVERYBODY WANTS SOME is a derivative of DAZED AND CONFUSED, which in turn was a derivative of AMERICAN GRAFFITI, that in turn was a derivative of I VITELLONI. One would have to really try hard to make a case that Linklater’s 2016 outing is in any way superior to the aforementioned films, but what can’t be denied is that it’s just fun. And frankly, unabashed fun was far and few between in 2016.
6. POPSTAR: NEVER STOP NEVER STOPPING
Director: Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer
If there is one genre that has virtually died in modern cinema, it’s the skit film. Cue Andy Samberg and his Lonely Island team. POPSTAR: NEVER STOP NEVER STOPPING is a problematic experience. It’s not really a good satire, and it’s bogged down by its MTV-like docu-aesthetic. It often copies WALK HARD: THE DEWEY COX story with less success, and it’s never ingenious with its comedic quips. It is, by all accounts, a film for 2016, and one that will suffer from the shortest of shelf lives. But when taking it in, this faux-music biopic is perhaps the dumbest fun we’ve had all year (and GRIMSBY is on this list). Flashing through dozens of vignettes, interviews, cameos, and music videos, Andy Samberg’s romp is explosive. It’s been years since we’ve last had the privilege to just tune out and enjoy a quasi extended SNL episode on the silver screen. For what it’s worth, POPSTAR: NEVER STOP NEVER STOPPING is the in-joke of the year. One that is only worth watching if you weren’t living under a rock between the years of 2010 and 2016.
5. THE SHALLOWS
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Genre: Thriller, Horror
In a cinematic climate that has fed us not one, but five (who knows, maybe it’ll be more) SHARKNADO films, I wouldn’t have anticipated there to be an unironically good film about the king of the sea. What I would have expected even less is that I would not particularly enjoy said film at first, only for it to grow on me with time. THE SHALLOWS is a unique exercise in single-location filmmaking. It is a film built entirely around a single external conflict. As guest contributor Rocky Parajito mentioned in his video essay on video game influence in film, THE SHALLOWS is quite literally the cinematic manifestation of an end-boss. What initially rubbed me the wrong way was THE SHALLOWS’ blatant need for an internal struggle. This is all framed through lead actress Blake Lively’s relationship with a seagull and her dead mother. In that way, it bears a stark resemblance to Cuaron’s GRAVITY (seagull notwithstanding). But with time I began to appreciate THE SHALLOWS’ controlled cinematography. This is a film all about geography. It is enchanted by mapping terrain, solving puzzles, timing patterns, and outsmarting one’s opponent. As a genre outing, it’s pretty exciting.
4. MICHAEL MOORE IN TRUMPLAND
Director: Michael Moore
Genre: Comedy, Documentary, Stand-Up
Few films felt as pandering, lazy, and uninspired as documentarian Michael Moore’s stand-up special MICHAEL MOORE IN TRUMPLAND. Ripping into Republican supporters and singing Hillary’s praises? Really? For conservative viewers, there was absolutely no appeal to this film, and for liberal audiences, it just seemed like preaching to the choir. After all, any democrat in November would have insisted that Trump could never win the presidency. But with the election of Donald Trump as the United States’ next Commander-in-Chief, this little foray feels all the more enlightening. Michael Moore has always been quite ahead of the game. Despite his liberal bias, he saw the Trump phenomenon and dealt with it before anybody else. He understood the psychology of his voters, and his film is exactly the dialogue that liberals need to be having in order to reconcile what they have done wrong in order to let Trump win. I won’t go as far as to say that Moore’s praises of Hillary are worth your time (though he brings up a few good points), but the first half of the set does an exceptional job at dissecting the divide in contemporary America.
Director: Clint Eastwood
Clint Eastwood is a filmmaker I have taken for granted for far too long. I have always been a long-time fan, but my interests in him began to wain right around the time when he started talking to empty stools at NRA conferences. But with SULLY I realized that politics was clouding my better judgement of one of cinema’s last classical practitioners. SULLY is a deconstructive film, and one that showcases Tom Hanks and Aaron Eckhart at the best of their abilities. It is morally complex, and plays with our understanding of America’s fascination with heroes more than it does with any external conflicts. This isn’t a film about immediate danger, but rather man’s role in society after communities have dubbed him a nationwide hero. It’s about lone wolves, quiet heroes, and the camaraderie of the American people. It is Eastwood’s most patriotic anti-American film to date. In that sense, SULLY is quite literally a film that exudes the spirit of the Wild West. A film directed by a former cowboy, and one that acts to critique the culture that worships icons.
2. HAIL, CAESAR!
Director: Joel and Ethan Coen
With every passing day, I seem to grow more fond of the Coen Brothers’ whimsical take on the Golden era of Hollywood. HAIL, CAESAR! is a one-of-a-kind experience, a film that willfully avoids screenwriting rules, builds up an enormous ensemble, hardly ties off any loose ends, removes entire characters in the editing room, and still exudes a charm that other directors would kill to channel. The fact of the matter is that HAIL, CAESAR! is exactly the type of comedy that one has a hard time appreciating early in the year. It is only through the release of countless lazily written comedies and improv-laden Apatow films that one can really begin to admire the Coens’ devotion to dialogue. Where it stands in the duo’s greater catalogue is up for debate. Some hail HAIL, CAESAR! as a modern marvel of self-reflection, while others enjoy it as a one-off greatest hits compilation. Whatever the case, it’s ecstasy.
1. KNIGHT OF CUPS
Director: Terrence Malick
Genre: Drama, Experimental
I’ll go on record to admit that reviewing any Terrence Malick film on the day of its release is not only a disservice to the filmmaker’s daring process, but also gravely pessimistic. If watching the American auteur’s catalogue has taught me anything, it’s that no Malick film can be fully appreciated upon first viewing. While some are more readily transparent than others through their inherent accessibility (take THE THIN RED LINE as a case in point), one must accept Malick’s emotional depth. This is not a filmmaker who directs on a whim. No film is a quick escape. As such, one must let a film like KNIGHT OF CUPS simmer. And boy did it grow on me with time. Perhaps it’s the lucid, lyrical reality that Malick operates in, but his poetics, especially those that he has been practicing since THE TREE OF LIFE, mark a distinct cinematic style where no single scene is actually embedded into my brain. Instead, I have a cavalcade of emotions seared into my retina, temporally indeterminate, and fluctuating like a dream. Malick is a pastor for the digital age, and though KNIGHT OF CUPS may not be the film for me (my point still stands that it frankly feels too alienating for just about anyone), there is a density to the filmmaking that is breathtakingly fresh.