Monday, January 2, 2017

The 2016 Kryptos - Movies

Welcome to the 2016 Krypto Awards.  This isn't just for movies, but that's where we're gonna start - by looking back at the Good, Bad and Ugly of 2016 movie-watching here at The Signal Watch.  If you haven't seen our post on what all we watched this year, numbers-wise, you can check it out here.

It's tough to say "Best Picture" means a whole lot, but we'll try to narrow it down some.  We're only really talking about the movies we saw for the first time in 2016, which really narrows the field here from 160+ to 88 films.

Of course, we didn't just want to heap congrats on things we adored.  We kind of hated some things this year, so we'd be negligent if we didn't discuss what didn't work for us and take some cheap shots on our way out the door.

So - Let's get to it.


Possibly the worst movie I've ever seen, it's hard not to think of 2016 as the Year of Rollergator (1996).  In no way is it hyperbole to say - it's the output of a few professionals and amateurs monkeying around with S-VHS equipment, a foam hand puppet and no script to speak of.  The footage was then patched together into an unwatchable, 90 minute package and overlaid with droning, motivation-free guitar noodling for the entire duration.  If you can respect anything, it's the balls it took to release this on the world like something people would pay to watch.  It's hard to think of many more movies where you have nothing, at all, nice to say about it, but there you are.  It doesn't even feature a roller-skating alligator.  Just a puppet in a bag attached to a girl on rollerskates.

I still wake in a cold sweat, the words "Rollergator!" upon my lips.

We'd be negligent if we didn't mention the Valerie Perrine/ Steve Guttenberg/ Village People vehicle Can't Stop the Music from 1980.  A well-intentioned, bizarrely executed musical, nothing about this movie works, and it changes who seems to be the focal characters for no particular reason about 50 minutes into the movie.  But if you want to see a bunch of people clearly enjoying the effects of cocaine, I've got a movie for you.

I'd complain more about Mannequin, but it was so cheerfully bad and had enough Kim Cattrall, I don't look back at the movie with any real ill-will.

While The Net (1995) was good for a laugh, Hackers (1995) brought me back to what executives were selling as "edgy" back in the mid-1990's as they attempted to appeal to Gen-X'ers as a monolothic audience that was into technology, but also extreme sports, and post-punk, and cynicism, and Nintendos.  And skateboards.  Hackers is truly the Poochie of 1990's movies, and I think I hate a lot more of what it reminded me of* than what it actually was.  But what it was wasn't very good in any sense.

If one movie surprised me with how utterly terrible it was based upon positive comments from a few people and the box office returns, it was Jurassic World (2015).  Which was just stupid, formula-driven CGI-spank garbage.  And I know there's a market for this (Transformers), but that's just one more way in which I don't really trust the common sense of the masses in 2016.

We also have to make special mention of both Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) and Suicide Squad (2016), the two offerings from DC Entertainment.  These films I found especially disappointing as a longtime DC Comics fan.  We know these movies did just fine financially (at least in theory), so we're kind of amazed (and quietly optimistic) that WB has been messing about so much with their staffing in the wake of the release and critical drubbing of this pair of stink-bombs.  I guess they kind of care, so that's good news for us.

But not only were both movies cut from the same Hot Topic-ready cloth, at odds with what makes the DC Universe interesting, their characters and universe work - they both felt rushed and written by a 17 year old boy showing how edgy he is and how much he knows about the dark underbelly of the world, like he talks about at Denny's with his pals at 11 at night.  Both scripts lacked any internal logic, so you couldn't even sit back and watch them as "well, this is not what I would have done" and still enjoy them.  It was just lazy decision making and story telling at every opportunity.

DC's desire to get a whole universe on screen within two movies is gonna bite them in the ass for the next decade unless someone really pulls a rabbit out of a hat with Wonder Woman and Justice League.

Movies That Were Forgettable

One weird thing about the year-end exercise is seeing which movies you watched and wrote up, but complete forgot about in the interim.  Not every movie moves you, exactly, and if not for the reminder you've got by looking at the list of what you watched, it's possible you'd never think about it again.

Honestly, one of the issue I have with remembering Noir films is that they tend to star a lot of the same people, occur in the same few cities and have titles that are largely interchangeable.  I really liked Criss Cross, but I had to look up which movie it was when I saw it on the list because it could have been any of a dozen movies I've watched in the last few years.  But if you said "that Burt Lancaster heist movie with Yvonne DeCarlo and Dan Duryea", I'd know exactly what you meant.

And one should always remember Yvonne DeCarlo.

I can't say I remember Night Editor all that well.   It was fine, maybe?  Re-reading the description I was like "ohhhh... yeah."  But I had no memory of it until that point.  In fact, I had this problem with matching titles to the films I saw during the Film Noir Fest.  It's a lot of movies in not much time, and that can mean you lose something from each by taking in that much that quickly.

But the most ridiculously forgettable movie of the year has to be Jason Bourne (2016).  I have no idea why this movie existed, and I couldn't tell you anything about it except it had lots of Julia Styles and nowhere near enough Joan Allen (ie: none).  I vaguely remember seeing it and being disappointed and going on with my life, certain I was done with this whole franchise.  Unless there's an all Pam-Landy-wears-turtlenecks-around-the-office-while-barking-orders-and-looking-concerned movie.  Then I'm in.

Need to Reconsider

Hateful Eight (2015) and The Revenant (2015).  Also, Lust For a Vampire (1971).

I didn't say anything about The Hateful Eight when I saw it, because I really didn't care for it, and a lot of you did, and I didn't feel like even talking about it.  At the time, it felt like the worst of Tarantino's self-indulgence with a lackluster plot that worked poorly as crime movie, western, social commentary or mystery.  I still don't know what it was, other than about an hour too long.

No, I don't find allusions to The Thing a stroke of brilliance, more of a curiosity.  And I felt like the movie squandered a lot of what seemed promised in the trailers for a kind of overly complicated set-up so he could get his characters in place.

Further, people went bananas for The Revenant, which felt - as did Birdman - more like a lot of ponderous camera work and look-what-I-can-do actor stunts than it did like a narrative or characters in which I could become invested.   It had bits of everything from Gladiator and Dances With Wolves that we'd seen before, and pretty much gave back an hour of watching an actor not have to act as he crawled into very cold water.  I was pretty excited for The Revenant before I actually saw it, but it never clicked with me.

But... I am willing to reconsider.

I recognize that these are not *bad* movies, and they've both received a lot of positive notices, so the fault could have been in what I thought I saw or failed to see.  It happens.  So, at some point the future, I'll give both another whirl.

To prove I am willing to admit when I'm wrong, I'll be re-watching Lust for a Vampire (1971), which I posted a rather negative and nasty review on, only to have one of the actors in the film show up on Twitter and point out how I was clearly not watching the film closely.  So...  you know, I respond to a proper shaming and I'll take steps to re-evaluate.

My Favorite Movies of the Year

We're not going to say "Best Picture", because that's a pretty slippery slope.

I'm going to start by talking about three movies that are, technically, probably not great films, but that I had a hell of a good time watching and will absolutely watch again in the future.  If you don't want to own a copy of a movie, I kinda call BS on whether or not you really liked it all that much, and I will be securing copies of all of these.

We can talk about what makes a great work of art, we can talk about style and substance and meaning.  And all of those things are important.  But at the end of the day, as I get older and don't feel the need to have an *experience* every time I watch film (we'll post on this later this year), sometimes I want to just have a good time, and that can happen in a lot of different ways.

I wrote enthusiastically about all three of these movies, and, frankly, I kind of think Danger: Diabolik gets a bad rap as MST3K worthy stuff.  It's just maybe way ahead of it's time, and possibly its budget.  But that doesn't make it any less entertaining to watch, so I'm frankly a bit surprised it doesn't get discussed more.

I wasn't expecting much out of The Vampire Lovers, and it mostly made the cut here because I was so surprised by it.  In general I watch Hammer Horror expecting some interesting stuff, but nothing that I find particularly spooky or suspenseful.  This movie actually managed what so many vampire movies try and fail - providing a genuine tension, creating real conflicts and actually managing to be a bit sexy instead of posturing.  And, frankly, I thought Ingrid Pitt was pretty rock solid.

And, what can we say about Starcrash we haven't already mentioned?  It's a pretty goofy, well-intentioned, utterly bizarre combination of pieces of sci-fi ideas, star casting, dorky robots and Caroline Munro.  And, of course, Rogue One's hero theme accidentally sounds a bit like that of Starcrash.  And if you don't enjoy it, you are probably dead inside.

I'm not sure any of the next films are any more "A" type films than what's above, but I felt they had something to offer that was maybe a step up in quality from the Best of the B's above.

Sweet Smell of Success is an odd-one for a noir.  No detectives, no cops and robbers, only the barest hint of sex and no dames leading men astray.  Instead it's a hard-boiled story of one of the movers and shakers working in the media business of the 1950's, trying to promote talent, all under the malevolent eye of Burt Lancaster's columnist J.J. Hunsecker, a man who can make or break you with a sentence or two.

It's hard to communicate how well this movie works, from the moving lens to the barely-contained tension on Curtis' face, and especially the rat-a-tat dialog that would make Aaron Sorkin jealous (and likely is what he's aspiring to).  I think the name gives people pause.  It's sounds like a Doris Day movie, and that can't have helped with the marketing.  Heck, it's taken me this long to get to the movie myself.  But don't let that deter you.

The movie isn't exactly a warm hug to humanity, and you're unlikely to see anything more cynical - it reminds me in some ways of Glengarry Glen Ross.  But I also don't think it's exactly just depressing, so much as a good old fashioned cautionary tale about what we value but where we put our efforts.

Arrival hasn't blown away the box office, but was a welcome, smarter-than-it-needed to be sci-fi movie that understood how to ground a science fiction movie in the relatable, in character, and work from inside to out and back in again.  I won't armchair quarterback some of the nit-pickier stuff about the why's and how's of Adams' linguist character breaking through the alien language.  That she does is what is important, and that Adams was the right actor for the role is never in question.

As part of the recent wave of fairly-smart sci-fi, it's a welcome entry alongside The Martian and Interstellar (which, yeah, the ending of Interstellar is a little cheesy, but c'mon).

I suspect that in a few years this film is likely to fade a bit into obscurity for the masses.  It's not out to myth-build or create a franchise, but it'll be one that will wind up spawning imitators, intentional or otherwise, and we'll see a lot of comparisons to the movie in years to come.

I didn't watch too many docs this year, and I'm likely in the bag for this one no matter what as it details the events on the day of the UT Tower shootings, fifty years ago this August.  Tower is more of a narrative reconstruction than a true doc, and I am afraid this will mean that it falls between the cracks.  Not quite a doc, not quite a biopic, impressionistic animation rotoscoped over real people...  Still, the most gut-churningly impactful movie I saw this year.

And, shocker, I put Captain America: Civil War on the list.  Maybe not as a stand-alone film, but as a capstone one what is turning into a fascinating new way of structuring these franchise pictures, ensuring fidelity and integrity between each picture, long-term character arcs and growth.  The other film competing for this slot was Rogue One, which I really, really liked, but I'm not sure I genuinely liked better.  But we're splitting hairs at that point.

While tragically lacking in anything but a still of Agent Carter, for sheer watch-ability and repeat-watch-ability, if you've been keeping up with your Marvel films, I'll put Captain America: Civil War up against anything else that came out this year in any genre.  Arcs for something like a dozen characters, genuine investment in the schism formed between allies/ friends, plot threads that played out to conclusions that defy initial expectations - it's an interesting bit of character study tied up in brightly-clad men punching each other.  Plus, some totally bad-ass fight scenes.

If you want to draw comparisons between real-life issues and the fantasy issues of the film, it's there for your interpretation.  Superheroes always make for interesting allegories, much like good sci-fi.

And, I want to know what happens next.  Isn't that what it's all about when it comes to serials?

Honorable Mentions:

Cry of the City - great noir with a pair of terrific performances and a fascinating cops and robbers dichotomy
Moana - which, if I'd seen it again, I'd likely have on the "My Favorites" list.  Heck, go ahead and push it up there if you like.  It's really fantastic.
Rogue One - I don't know why this isn't up top.  I just feel it lost it's slot to Cap.
La La Land - which I think needed a less paint-by-numbers story to really shine, but was a gorgeous movie, and you should see it
Legend of Tarzan - good, pulpy fun.  Probably not actually that good, but I liked it.
Beauty and the Beast (1946) - if I saw this in high school or college, I would have lost my damned mind.  Rock solid fantasy.
The African Queen - I mean, come on

I can't really pick a favorite for this year, and it would likely change again if you asked me tomorrow.  If I had to pick one at the moment, it's likely Captain America: Civil War for sheer popcorn factor, and just because it's the convergence of so many things I dig in media.  But as far as well-made movies go - sometime treat yourself and watch Sweet Smell of Success.

I dunno.  I may change my mind at some point.

*Mountain Dew and Surge soda commercials


The League said...

To my point, today I'm looking at this list and saying - what? NO! Tower was the best movie I saw in 2016.

Oh, well.

mcsteans said...

I think mine is Arrival.

Groboclown said...

Some good choices there. If I did anything like this kind of list, I'd be sticking Starcrash near the top, too (Danger: Diabolik I've already seen several times in previous years).