This year the In Memoriam section of the Oscars is going to be longer than the award ceremony.
I’m writing this shortly after hearing about Carrie Fisher dying. Yeah, I’m a Star Wars fanatic, so of course I dig Carrie Fisher. But to me, she was something more. When I found out that she was a script doctor and wrote screenplays, that was the first time I really considered screenwriting as a cool endeavor. She was sharp and funny.
So that’s why I’m here in Hollywood. I want to write. I want to be like Carrie Fisher and be known for both my writing and my personality. She was amazing, guys. Yeah, she was also bat shit crazy, but aren’t we all?
Here is a more in depth look at my favorite films of 2016. I’ll steer clear of spoilers.
Starting with a cheat…
Tied for #10: Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping. Both are super funny comedies, but the two couldn’t be more different. Wilderpeople is Taika Waititi’s follow up to What We Do In the Shadows (possibly the funniest movie of 2014). I think a lot of the New Zealand specific jokes go over our heads in America, but Wilderpeople is still a really touching and funny movie that’s essentially an odd couple road film…a very tried and true formula. Popstar is a modern day Spinal Tap from the Lonely Island guys. Their reign on SNL is a blind spot for me, so I really find their absurdly silly songs fresh and new. This is one that I saw in a screening very early on in the year (Judd Apatow was there) so I don’t know what’s different from the version I saw versus the final release. I’m guessing they trimmed down the final release, but the DVD/Blu-Ray features a lot of deleted material. Like Spinal Tap, the sheer number of jokes is mind blowing.
#9: Don’t Breathe. Again this is another one that I saw an advance screening. From what I understand, a few minutes of the Blind Man explaining his motivations were cut from the final release, but are on the DVD/Blu-Ray as well as a little bit of maybe a redemption moment for Jane Levy’s character. Jane Levy is becoming one hell of a scream queen. She’s great in this and writer/director Fede Alvarez’s previous Evil Dead reimagining. Don’t Breathe features a pretty realistic look at many of the vacant neighborhoods of Detroit too.
#8: 10 Cloverfield Lane. I missed a screening for this when it was still called Valencia. I think maybe the Cloverfield tie in hurt it at the box office. Did enough people see the original Cloverfield to warrant a kind of/not really sequel? The cast of this is phenomenal. I love stories that could work well as plays too. I’d love to see a stage adaptation of this. It’s really a master class in writing plot twists. I’m trying to piece together who is probably ultimately responsible for the great screenplay since there are three writers credited. Since the first two also have “story by” credits, I’m guessing Damian Chazelle, who will pop up again on this list later, is largely responsible.
#7: Sing Street. I’m probably the perfect age to really love this love story/80s musical. I’m the same age as writer/director John Carney. Like Carrie Fisher, Carney is very vocal about his opinions. Unlike Carrie Fisher, his opinions kind of made him sound like a dick. He took down Keira Knightley after making Begin Again with her. I loved Begin Again, as well as his debut Once. Sing Street, like those two films, is also the story about a boy who loves a girl and making art with that girl.
#6. Midnight Special. This is a phenomenal sci-fi allegory about parenthood. Jeff Nichols is just a master story teller. I’m really bummed that I wasn’t able to see his second movie this year, Loving. Midnight Special is wonderfully acted too. Michael Shannon and Adam Driver both play against type. Shannon is the protective dad and Driver, fresh off of The Force Awakens, is the socially awkward and clumsy NSA agent tracking Shannon and his son, played by Jaeden Leiberher, who held his own opposite Bill Murray and Melissa McCarthy in the sweet St. Vincent.
#5. Other People. Nobody has been talking about this movie that has my favorite performance of the year. It opened on 12 screens in September, but is now available to stream on Netflix. This was written by Chris Kelly, who was one of the head writers at Saturday Night Live as well as almost every other funny sketch thing. I’m guessing this is a semi-autobiographic story because it’s about a struggling comedy writer, played by Jesse Plemons, who has to go back home to take care of his dying mom played by Molly Shannon. Molly Shannon is nothing short of amazing in this. The fact that she isn’t even being considered for an Oscar nomination is a real shame and says a lot about the politics of show business. She is by far my best performer of the year. Like films along the lines of Skeleton Twins, Other People is a perfect balance of super funny in one moment and then heart wrenching in the next.
#4. Arrival. I love a movie that makes me look at life differently after seeing it. Arrival did that. I ended up going for a walk before I went to my car just so I could process what I watched. I think time jumps are really difficult to write. Arrival does that in a way that, without spoiling anything, is simultaneously clear and ambiguous at the same time. I can’t think of another film that expertly doles out information as precisely as Arrival. I’m bummed that it was based on a short story, because this is a film that I wish I could visit a more thorough version of in prose.
#3. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Yes, I’m biased. I’ve loved Star Wars my entire life. I’m not only a prequel apologist, but I’ll argue the merits of Jar Jar Binks. With that being said, Rogue One is the prequel we deserved. The last ten minutes of this film, the ten minutes where you know what’s going to happen, still end up being ten of the most edge-of-your-seat tense minutes of the year. I’ve been worried that Disney was going to do to Star Wars what they’ve done to Marvel and just drown us in content both good and so-so. I was cautiously optimistic about a Star Wars movie without the core characters, but Rogue One calmed any reservations I may have had.
#2. Green Room. This was, by far, the scariest movie I’ve seen in a very long time. Mostly because I’ve been in situations that could have easily broken as bad for me as it does for the band in this film. I worked in a punk/metal club that sometimes featured Nazi bands, which drew Nazi crowds. We locked ourselves inside when fights between Nazis and SHARPS (Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice) spilled outside and become near riots that attracted the Detroit Police. And in my later years, comedy has taken me to some really shitty dives in the middle of nowhere. Green Room, like Jeremy Saulnier’s previous film Blue Ruin is an uncomfortably grounded story about real people stuck in unreal situations.
#1. La La Land. I’m a sucker for a musical. I’m a sucker for a Hollywood story. I’m a sucker for a love story. I’m a sucker for a bittersweet story. I’m a sucker for a story about pursuing your dreams. I feels like Damian Chazelle made La La Land specifically for me. This, like Rogue One, ties a perfect bow on a really stellar piece of art in those final moments. The music is so good. I just saw this yesterday, otherwise I’d have already overdosed Allyson (my fiancé) with the soundtrack. I think I caught all of the “hidden” edits in Birdman. If there are hidden edits in the opening number of La La Land, then I didn’t find them…although, as soon as I finish writing this, I am going to dive deep into all the information I can find about how this was made. The cinematography was just amazing. Simply amazing. Linus Sandgren takes places I see every day and shoots them so beautifully.
So that’s the list. I haven’t seen Silence yet, but I really want to. I love stories about people whose faith is pushed to the limit. That’s why Calvary was my favorite film in 2014. I didn’t get to see Edge of Seventeen or the aforementioned Loving either. I think I’ll really like them both when I do catch up with them. One film I did see this year that will definitely make my 2017 list is Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. I saw a preview screening and if it came out this year, it would have easily been in my top three. I think it screened at Sundance or South by Southwest, so I guess technically I could have included it, but we’ll hold off until everyone gets to see it.
After the release of the Rogue One: A Star Wars trailer last week, I posted on Facebook five IMDB message board thread titles that I felt really showed the best/worst reaction.
The fanboys aren’t happy.
Later in the day, I had a talk with a gay Asian coworker about the reason behind the backlash. He didn’t get it. That’s when I realized what it might be. He’s had a lifetime of not seeing himself onscreen in genre films. Most fanboys haven’t.
Straight, white males are used to seeing themselves represented in nerd culture. From Ant-Man to Zartan, comic books and sci-fi are riddled with straight, white male characters. I grew up in a pretty white suburb. When we played Star Wars on the playground, everyone wanted to be Han Solo or Luke Skywalker. No one was calling dibs on being Princess Leia or Lando Calrissian.
If a movie hero isn’t a white male, for the longest time, that movie was a mainstream flop. Granted, Steel and Blankman are arguably terrible movies. But Spawn were decent enough. And Hancock was actually good. The Crow was a cult hit and maybe that’s because Brandon Lee was only half Asian.
To the best of my memory, Val Kilmer in 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is the first time I even remember seeing a gay action hero on screen.
It’s been said that video games are the future of entertainment. They don’t have a much better track record, although I always liked to believe that Pitfall Harry was a nickname for Pitfall Harriet, and she was running across the jungle, not in an exercise of futility, but for Civil Rights.
Video games, for the most part, have straight, white male protagonists, unless it’s a game where you can create your own character. When those games offer a possibility where your male avatar can romance another man or your female avatar can romance another woman, it becomes a newsworthy and there’s backlash.
I’ve got news for the conservative parents who insist that Mass Effect made their son, playing a male Shepard, romance that hot male soldier. The game was impartial. Your son banged that dude because your son wanted to bang that dude. And believe me, he had to really work for it, just like I had to work to have my female Shepard bed down with Liara, the blue alien lady.
I like this new era of seeing diversity in our heroes. Any time I’ve played a video game where I could create my own character, I’d create a badass lady hero. And it’s not that I’m such an emotionally advanced and progressive dude. It’s just that if I’m going to stare at the back of someone running for 100 hours of game play, I want them to have a pretty butt. And that’s the same as my coworker who said that any time he can create his own character, he’d create a super hot guy.
The backlash with female heroes seems to be a pretty American thing. Luc Besson almost exclusively heads up his films with strong ladies. Mad Max: Fury Road is a technically an Australian film. And even more so, should have been titled Imperator Furiosa: Fury Road. American genre films, especially Star Wars seems to be the core of sexism and racism in nerd culture.
Was Mad Max any more groundbreaking than Star Wars: The Force Unleashed? Both movies are female lead requels of existing franchises with full realized worlds and cutting edge special effects. Star Wars was woefully snubbed at the Oscars. How many black people are in the entire Mad Max franchise? One. Tina Turner. Star Wars has Finn in a starring role and I really hope that it’s dropped casually and matter of factly that Poe is gay. Star Wars also has a much deeper plot then, let’s drive towards the left side of the screen for an hour, then turn around and drive to the right side.
The Force Awakens was dismissed by many as being a retread of A New Hope. I couldn’t disagree more. They’re similar only in that both stories are about people discovering their calling. Isn’t that kind of the case of all origin stories? A New Hope is basically just Luke’s story to blow up the Death Star. The Force Awakens is mostly about the quest to find Luke Skywalker. It isn’t just about Rey’s journey from survivor to hero. It’s about Finn going against his literal programming to be a hero. It’s about parents trying to fix their part in not being their for their son. It’s a much deeper film than Mad Max and A New Hope.
One of my biggest hopes was that if I ever had a daughter, I’d have a son first, so he could be the protective big brother. But in this age, especially in this Star Wars age, of having role models like Daisy Ridley, Felicity Jones and hopefully a better used Gwendoline Christie, I realize I don’t have to revert to ancient beliefs and hokey old fashioned thinking. If I ever have a daughter, she’ll get to live in a new era of Disney Princesses who don’t need rescuing. She’ll get to live in an era where Disney Princesses wield lightsabers and steal Death Star plans.