Too Many Crooks in the Kitchen
Live by Night is a new gangster drama from writer/director Ben Affleck. The movie is based on a book by Dennis Lehane, who also wrote the book that Affleck turned into his first directorial effort, 2007’s Gone Baby Gone. The novel Live by Night is not especially long, only 432 pages, but judging from the movie version it packs a lot into those pages. Unfortunately, that becomes the problem as the movie that feels like it tries too hard to fit every bit of the story into a 128-minute movie. This results in a movie that feels bloated and inconsistent, while never really settling into any kind of a rhythm.
There were a lot of very good movies released in 2016 and many of them were smaller movies that might be lesser known or completely unknown to the average moviegoer. I never pretend that I can tell people what the “best” movies of the year are because movies are such a subjective experience. The best I can do is share the movies that were my favorites and hope that one or two of them will catch the fancy of others So without any further ado, here are my favorite movies released wide in 2016.
The Crowd-Pleaser We Need Right Now
As I pound away at this review, Academy members have already begun filling out their ballots for the Oscar nominations which are to be announced on January 24th. As usual, the list of expected Best Picture nominees is chock full of heavy-hitting dramas. It is a good batch of films, to be sure, as it has been a fine year, but what the Academy really needs is a crowd-pleaser, a movie your average moviegoer will want to tune in to the awards show and root for on the night of the ceremony. There is La La Land, a movie that I love, but as a classic characters-break-into-song-and-dance musical, that movie has already lost a good chunk of the general public who simply aren’t a fan of the genre. Enter the wild card, Hidden Figures, a PG-rated true story that had the audience at the advance screening cheering and breaking into rousing applause at multiple times throughout the film’s runtime.
Stars Among the Stars
Movie stars do not carry as much weight these days in terms of a movie’s box office success as they did in the past, but if you were casting a vehicle for a pair of stars, you could not do much better these days than Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt. Unfortunately, their star power is about all Passengers, an action romance spectacle set amongst the actual stars, has going for it. Perhaps it is time for the studio to start looking at less crowded release windows for their movie-star projects.
A Story of Love, Death, and Time
It is awards season in Hollywood with the Film Critics Society, the Golden Globes, the Screen Actors Guild, and others already announcing their nominations and, in some cases, their winners. It seems that every year around this time there is a movie that comes along which seems to be trying a little too hard to garner awards attention. This year, that role is being played by the Will Smith weepie Collateral Beauty. The December release date, holiday season setting, and plot similarities to both It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol suggest that it is also aiming to become another holiday favorite. But all that proves to be a little too much for the movie’s plate.
A Film for Dreamers
Writer/director Damien Chazelle was an unknown before he burst onto the scene two years ago with Whiplash, a tough, but thrilling drama about the challenges a young drummer must face to fulfill his dream of being the best. The movie was nominated for five Oscars including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. The movie also made quite a profit, earning 50 million dollars with a budget of only 3.3 million. The success of that movie afforded Chazelle the opportunity to bring his dream project to the screen with La La Land, a charming musical that pays homage to the classic Hollywood musical while at the same time reinventing the genre.
Eggnog, Improv, and Debauchery
Most people who work in an office environment know about office holiday parties. They are often fun, sometimes stressful, and every once in awhile they can be embarrassing. After all, people tend to let their inhibitions go a little when the alcohol starts flowing and they forget that they are partying with people whom they will have to see every single day after. The holiday office tradition is taken to the comedic extreme in the new movie Office Christmas Party, which hopefully won’t have too many people leaving the theater thinking “that reminded me so much of my office.”
A Magical Ocean Getaway
The new Disney animated film Moana may just be the movie that finally proves once and for all that Dwayne Johnson can do anything. The wrestler-turned-actor has done action well, he’s done comedy well, and now he has added singing a catchy tune in a Disney movie to his resume. Johnson’s performance as the demigod Maui is one of the highlights of this fun adventure of a movie. By hitting the open oceans and exploring Polynesia, Moana ventures where few other animated films have journeyed. The result is an entertaining adventure full of comedy, action, and magic.
A Whole New World
Like Thor and Guardians of the Galaxy before it, Doctor Strange expands the Marvel Cinematic Universe beyond our own world, but it manages to do so without ever physically leaving Earth. The movie introduces the mystic arts to the ever-expanding Marvel franchise and allows its characters to explore different dimensions. The result is a special-effects heavy movie that feels somewhat disconnected from the rest of the MCU at this point, but still manages to entertain. There is a lot going on in Doctor Strange so it is admittedly difficult to take it all in after only one viewing, but it is entertaining enough that future viewings certainly won’t feel like a chore.
War Isn’t Always About Taking Lives
Mel Gibson’s career as a director reached a high point in 1996 when the director took home both the directing and producing Oscars for just his second film, Braveheart. He returned to the director’s chair in 2004 and had a controversial box-office hit with The Passion of the Christ. He followed that up two years later with the lackluster Apocalypto. It was around that time that the star’s off-screen behavior caused a serious fall from grace and he disappeared from the cinema, both in front of and behind the camera. He returned as an actor in 2010 and has been steadily working since. Now he is back in the director’s chair for an incredible true story with Hacksaw Ridge, his first English-language film as a director since Braveheart.
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