For those that know me, it is no secret that I love to go to the movies. This year, I was lucky enough to watch about 24 movies (mostly) in theaters. In these last few days before the new year, I will be sharing my thoughts on these films, from the good, to the bad, to the mediocre. To keep things manageable, I will be breaking things up into a few different posts based on the original release dates for the films. I do have to be up front about one thing, most of the films on this list are popular releases, unfortunately I didn’t have as many opportunities to see “indie” and “art house” films as I would have liked, and I have only seen a handful of films that would actually be nominated for awards.
In terms of structure for looking at these films, I will give my brief take on the synopsis of the film, provide my initial thoughts that I had when I first watched the film, and finally share some thoughts I have had since seeing the film initially, sometimes providing links to videos or articles that may better articulate my feelings.
June and July may have been the strangest months at the movies this year. We watched a dead man get puppeted about to help a man survive being stranded in the woods, glamor literally devoured a young model, a chubby kid and an old man went on one of the most bizarre and heartwarming run in the New Zealand bush, an entertainer almost lost his career and his friends, and one of our favorite amnesiac super-soldiers made his return to the big screen.
Fair warning, I will try not to get into story details but there may be some spoilers ahead.
Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
Released: June 3, 2016 | Directors: Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone
Synopsis: In this mockumentary, a former boy band member strikes out on his own but will his ego going to be his undoing?
Initial Thoughts: Boy was that dumb but hilarious. Why isn’t any going to see this movie? I was legit dying during parts of it!
Reflection: I’m going to keep this short, this movie is dumb but funny and if you like Andy Samberg and other stuff that The Lonely Island have done you will probably love this movie. Some of the songs are funny as hell and many of the jokes land pretty effectively. The problem comes for this one in its storytelling. This isn’t a new story and doesn’t present us anything that we haven’t before, falling into the trap of turning into a story about lifelong friends reuniting after a rough patch.
I’ll put it this way: If you like the following video, you’ll probably have yourself a good time with this movie (parental advisory sticker goes here).
Swiss Army Man
Released: June 14, 2016 | Directors: DANIELS
Synopsis: This dude finds a dead body on shore and uses its strange magical powers to help him survive the wilderness.
Initial Thoughts: What the hell did I just watch? That was bizarre and I’m not sure if I enjoyed it.
Reflection: I am a huge fan of DANIELS so when I saw that the directing duo was getting a shot at a future film, I was pumped. Their music videos were always these wild and crazy affairs, and I actually use their treatment for the Turn Down For What” music video to teach my students about pre-production. Hell, I even had the chance to meet the guys and ask them questions in person at the Vimeo festival that used to happen in NYC.
All that said, I found myself disappointed walking out of Swiss Army Man.
On the positive, the visual quality of the film was fantastic, exuding that classic DAINELS over the top charm and explosive quality that those familiar with their videos would know. The way characters moved, or how things were visualized or “animated,” almost everything had their snappy signature all over it. The music was fantastic and engrossing, washing over you and taking you along for the ride (and narrating the ride in many instances). Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame was… interesting as the titular Swiss Army Man, a dead body with a really intense and strange assortment of “powers,” while Paul Dano was just as weird and creepy as he always is.
That’s where I think this fell apart for me. No, Paul Dano’s performance wasn’t bad. He nailed the character that was written and I would definitely say that he did an amazing job bringing a broken character to life on screen. As the film went on, however, it felt more and more uncomfortable to watch. The characters grated on me and bit by bit I felt my stomach churning over, partially because of some of the things that our magical dead body would do, but also as we learned more about Paul Dano’s character. I will not ruin things for you, but fairly early in the film you begin to get a sense that he is not a reliable guide to the world we are watching. You feel betrayed by him, and guilty for wishing that he’d make it through his self-imposed ordeal.
Overall, this is an artistic film which takes some risks, has some both beautiful and incredibly uncomfortable moments, and will more than likely scratch your head. It’s not for everyone, hell, it’s not for most people, but there is definitely a population who will love the creepy, quirky nature of this film and fall in love with the music.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Released: June 24, 2016 | Director: Taika Waititi
Synopsis: A kid who has been bouncing around the foster care system finally lands in a home where he is loved, but when his foster mother dies he and his forced father figure become the focus of an epic manhunt in the New Zealand bush.
Initial Thoughts: This was such an endearing and beautiful film. Taika Waititi finds a way to channel a visual, comedic, and storytelling style reminiscent of directors like Wes Anderson and Edgar Wright. His characters felt real and interesting, funny and complex, and really drew you into their world. This is such a great story of finding family and learning to trust others which may sound cliche yet the style that this film is made in make it feel original. The environments are beautiful and distinct, and the escalation of the film’s story, as well as our relationships with the characters, keep you engaged with the movie. There is also something really endearing about chubby kids from New Zealand who love Tupac that really hits me in the heart.
Reflection: Nothing new to add, I really just need more people to watch this film so that we can talk about it. Also, I had no idea that Sam Neill, you know, Dr. Grant from Jurassic Park, was in this film until I was writing this piece. He was fantastic as “Uncle” Hector, playing the perfect curmudgeonly woodsman opposite of Julian Dennison’s untested, hip-hop loving Ricky Baker. These two definitely made for one of my favorite on-screen pairs this year and I hope I can convince at least a few of you to give this film a chance.
If nothing I said can convince, here is a small taste of this fantastically funny and heartwarming film:
The Neon Demon
Released: June 24, 2016 | Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Synopsis: A young model travels to LA to start her career and must avoid the pitfalls looking to gobble her up hiding around every corner.
Initial Thoughts: (Taken from Facebook) So yeah, “brief” review of The Neon Demon… First off, if you didn’t enjoy Nicolas Winding Refn’s films that weren’t Drive, you’ll probably find nothing redeemable about this film. I’m not going to go into too much detail about the scenes in the film, but so much of it is triggering in the worst possible ways. Honestly, the best thing I can say about this film is that Natasha Braier, DP/cinematographer, did a killer job creating some amazing frames. There were several points where I felt like I would want frames from the film as prints (despite also feeling like I wanted to vomit from discomfort).
At first thought, from a perspective of performances, the acting was forgettable to bad. Most of the line delivery left me wondering if the actresses and actors were told to be intentionally bad. After a moment of reassessment, Elle Fanning, Abbey Lee, and Jena Malone aren’t terrible, with Malone giving perhaps the most nuanced and interesting performance. Elle Fanning also does a good job dissecting her character and evolving over the course of the film. Abbey Lee is perfectly menacing throughout the film. After some more time for reflection, I realize that my issue had more to do with the dialogue and interaction between the characters and less to do with their individual performances.
The story danced between condemning narcissism and applauding it. It was clear that the full package was meant to be something that was absurdly grotesque and incredibly beautiful at the same time. The problem is it didn’t fully deliver on either side and, as a viewer, I felt uncomfortably trapped and completely unable to reconcile what I watched.
It’s also a very triggering film, with many scenes that could potentially push people over the edge. One scene, in particular, showcased every aspect of what I hate about the way that some “photographers” interact with models. In a sense, the scene accomplished the exact feeling it means for you to have: absolute discomfort in what we are a witness to, intense fear for our protagonist’s safety, and concern for how the event will affect her. However, the inclusion of several other scenes of abuse and sexual assault are entirely too much, and the script writing and direction do not provide adequate dialogue or time for the character in the film (or the audience) to reconcile or process what just happened or what transpires next.
Ultimately, we slowly trudge through this film to a completely over the top climax that leaves you utterly deflated, that is if there was any air left in you at that point. It’s at this moment where the film moves from a position of a quasi-psychological thriller, to a pornographic horror film.
So yeah, real talk: DO NOT SEE THIS FILM.
Reflection: For all of the harsh things I had to say after seeing the film, it is one of the few that has stuck with me this year. Put a better way, it has haunted me. For the lack of real substance in this film, it is still very beautiful and I can’t stop visualizing images, moments, and scenes from this film. All of my warnings still apply, I definitely think this is something that many will not be able to enjoy at all, it can be incredibly difficult to look past the horrors that you are forced to witness, however, for those that are interested in watching cinematography gold this film may still have value for you. The music, the fashion, the lighting, the framing, all create portraits of beauty and true art within a film that barely holds itself together.
In the new year, I also plan to write something a little bit different about this film and other works byNicolas Winding Refn focusing on reconciling an appreciation for an aesthetic and complete abhorrence of content.
Also, if you need a little bit more information on the director and why he makes people uneasy, check out Vice’s interview with him.
Released: July 29, 2016 | Director: Paul Greengrass
Synopsis: There is money to be made so Jason Bourne needs to be forced out of hiding and go toe-to-toe with some of the world’s best agents and something about social media.
Initial Thoughts: (Taken from Facebook) Jason Bourne was way better than the critical response. Not everything needs to be high art to be both enjoyable and good.
Reflection: Way better was an exaggeration. Really, it was just another unnecessary, passable film, that had some fantastic action set pieces. I think at the time I saw this, I was trying to escape looking at every single thing with a highly critical eye and it let me just enjoy this film for what it is. Look, if you like Bourne movies and don’t get tired of them despite all of them having pretty similar plots, you’ll probably enjoy this too. If you don’t care for the character or series, this will feel like just another spy thriller which were a dime a dozen in the early aughts. One way or another, it’s doubtful this one will stick with you.
Nerdwriter1 has a fantastic video exploring “The Epidemic of Passable Movies” that you should definitely check out.
So what do you think? Were you just as weirded out by that farting corpse? Did the literal eating of the young make you want to vomit? Were you just happy to see Matt Damon again? Tell me your thoughts here or on social media!