Not so Great
We all like to say that filmmaking is about art and expression, but the truth is that, for the most part, moviemaking is about making money. Lately, one of the easiest ways for the studios to make a lot of money is to make a movie that has mass appeal in China, a country with a large population that is ready to spend their money on big-budget blockbusters. The new action fantasy The Great Wall may just be the most blatant attempt to capitalize on that financial gold mine.
Gun Fu with Style
The original John Wick movie came out in 2014 with little fanfare, but very quickly became a word of mouth hit, especially on home video. It revitalized the career of Keanu Reeves, giving the actor his most talked about role since the Matrix trilogy. Following its surprise success, making a sequel was a no-brainer. John Wick: Chapter 2 is immediately poised to become a much bigger success than its predecessor and fortunately, that success will be justified. This is a film that will have the audience oohing, ahhing, and cringing in equal measure.
Not Very Shiny
In the middle of the last decade, Stephen Gaghan seemed to be a filmmaker on the rise. He won an Oscar for writing the script for Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic and then directed George Clooney to an Oscar in Syriana, a movie which earned him another screenwriting nomination. But after that he disappeared from features for a full decade before returning this year with Gold, the latest in what has been an ongoing parade of Matthew McConaughey award-season bait over the past few years. It is a very showy performance from the actor in what by all accounts should be a fascinating story, but unfortunately it is told in such a way that it is not at all interesting.
A Few Personalities Short
A tagline is purely a promotional tool and is not necessarily representative of the movie it is helping to promote, but when a tagline promises that a character has 23 distinct personalities and that the 24th is about to be unleashed, it is reasonable for the audience to expect to see 24 distinct personalities. Unfortunately in Split, the new thriller from writer/director M. Night Shyamalan, we only get to see seven or eight of the promised personalities, with the rest reduced to file names on a computer screen. That is a shame, because James McAvoy does so well in distinguishing each personality from the others, it would have been interesting to see how he would portray more.
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.
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