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Most impressive films, biggest disappointments of 2016

“Moonlight” has a bold soundtrack, and slow-motion shots that frame the picture with an artistic flair that rises to the level of the lived-in performances from its leads.
December 31, 2016

The year of 2016 in film was like a scavenger hunt to ferret out some of the best it had to offer. Many of them appeared locally, but some for only a brief time, while others received a smattering of releases in tiny art house theaters. Also, a few arrived just at the year’s-end buzzer. And, granted, a number of films just released locally were indeed quite good (“La La Land,” “Manchester by the Sea,” “Fences”), but they need to digest before I can catapult them to the top of my list. So this year, I will mix it up a little and end the year with the most impressive films and biggest disappointments of 2016.

There is no specific measuring stick for either category, but rather films that either surprised me by their originality and passion or fell way below expectations despite their buildup. 

Most impressive films of 2016 (in no particular order)

Moonlight: The drama of a black boy journeying into adulthood and struggling with his sexuality is filled with moments of stark physical and emotional violence and tenderness, but director Barry Jenkins filled the film with stunning vistas, a bold soundtrack, and slow-motion shots that frame the picture with an artistic flair that rises to the level of the lived-in performances from its leads. 

The Nice Guys: Shane Black penned several of the seminal action flicks of the ‘80s and ‘90s (“Lethal Weapon,” “Long Kiss Goodnight”), and directed one of the criminally underseen films of the last 15 years, “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang.” Here, he blazes back to the director’s chair with Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe in this gritty film noir comedy that is one of the funniest films of the year. Underappreciated by audiences upon release, “Nice Guys” will undoubtedly be beloved by a fervid cult following long into the future. 

The Lobster: This one may be reserved for the more adventurous viewer, as it is one that may require the need to just accept what transpires and roll with it. For those who do, you will venture into a comically dystopian future that actually has more to say about the institution of marriage (or couplehood) than you may initially realize. It’s not for all tastes, but it is certainly a film that isn’t arty for art’s sake and is certainly unlike any other film in this, or any other, year.  

Zootopia: If anything, 2016 was a year in which animation reigned: from the gorgeous spectacle of “Kubo and the Two Strings,” to the lush landscapes of “Moana.” But “Zootopia” packed on the visuals and cemented them with a timely moral of equality, then wrapped it in a zippy film noir that made it stand above other contenders.

Sausage Party: Immature? Yup. Profane? You betcha! Hilarious? No doubt. Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg hide behind a slew of animated, food-centric sex and drug jokes to take on some rather sacred cows and still manage to fit in the most jaw-dropping finales of the year. I said it once, and I will reiterate it here: thought it may look cute and funny, parents please do not entertain the idea of sharing this one with your children. But once they are asleep...laugh away!

Hunt for the Wilderpeople: Director Taika Waititi, fresh from his brilliant vampire mockumentary “What We Do in the Shadows,” here shows he can be equally funny with material aimed at children. The generational struggle between an old recluse (played by Sam Neill) and his portly foster child (newcomer Julian Dennison) is one we’ve seen before, but their adventure and their inevitable bond is one we won’t soon forget.

Everybody Wants Some!!: Twenty-three years ago, director Richard Linklater bestowed upon us one of the most lovingly nostalgic, enduring paeans to high school with “Dazed and Confused.” This year, he bookended it with this semi-sequel that focuses on the awkward first days of college for a group of “bros” in the early 1980s. His keen ear for dialogue and devotion to capturing those seemingly inconsequential moments that shape us as adults are evident throughout. 

Captain Fantastic: Led by a devoted performance from lead Viggo Mortensen as a father who seeks to raise his family off the grid, “Fantastic” feels like an updated version of that overlooked Harrison Ford classic “The Mosquito Coast,” with a healthy dash of “Little Miss Sunshine” thrown in. There is not a weak performance in the entire cast, and it’s a heartfelt reminder to those who have ever dreamed of just chucking it all to live in the woods that the grass is always greener on the other side. 

Doctor Strange: Of all the superhero films released in 2016 (there were eight in the U.S. alone, if you are keeping score), “Strange,” was the one that seemed to push the boundaries (sometimes in a truly metaphysical sense) of our expectations in the best possible ways. It would be right at home with Christopher Nolan’s first two “Batman” films, but still manages to have enough mainstream “snap” to fit well within the Marvel Universe.

Ouija: Origin of Evil: Not perhaps the best of the year, but the most loving devotion to scary movies of 2016, “Ouija” was as dedicated to its time period (the mid-1960s) as it was to its chills. With its measured pacing and just-out-of-frame horror, it was the perfect antidote to the stale state of horror that has seemingly petrified of late. 

Most Depressing

It’s fairly easy to troll the countless bottom-rung knockoffs that appear in Redbox cubes and Netflix queues, but these spots were reserved for films that had promised to deliver in 2016 and, for reasons too numerous to mention, left audiences with buyer’s remorse. 

Batman v. Superman/Suicide Squad: This was supposed to be the year DC launched its heavyweights into the multiplex, with both a star-studded spectacular in June (“BvS”) and a rogue band of misfits in August (“Suicide”). Though they both seemed to make bank at the box office, it’s really hard to find anyone who actually liked them. 

Sequels no one asked for: Was there really an audience clamoring for “Independence Day: Resurgence,” “Now You See Me 2” “Zoolander 2,” “London Has Fallen,” “Big Fat Greek Wedding 2,” “The Huntsman: Winter War,” “Bad Santa 2,” and “Inferno”? Judging from their box office dollars (which combined, did not even break into the top five films of the year) the answer is a resounding “nope!”

Ghostbusters II: Turns out, it was not the appearance of an all-female cast (as much as the media tried to tie its poor performance to misogyny), it was a deficit of laughs in this painfully inept waste of talent, time and money.

Warcraft: Ever wonder what “Avatar” would look like if remade with warthogs?

Blair Witch: It’s hard to capture the lightning in a bottle that was the original “Blair Witch Project” at the theaters, but given the advanced photographic technology now available, it's amazing to think that the producers could not have been more creative than this thrill-less return to the fabled woods and the film that started the entire “found footage” subgenre.

Hail, Caesar!: While punctuated with moments of sheer wonder (Damn you, tap-dancing Channing Tatum! Is there anything you suck at?), this latest effort from the Coen Brothers feels like one big inside joke that is never revealed to the audience. Yes, many of the Coens’ films are more about the ride than the destination, but “Caesar” felt like a road to nowhere.

The Girl on the Train: This is one gone “Girl.”

Gods of Egypt: Gerard Butler, please go back to making good movies! Oh, wait. He hasn’t made one yet.