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2016: The Wild Rides

They may not necessarily be awards winners, Oscar favorites, or high cinema, but they’re all just so much fun. Let’s close out this year’s retrospective with a look at the Wild Rides.

Best Unannounced Sequel to a Dormant Found-Footage Horror Franchise

I can’t believe I even have to make this category. Yet 2016 was the year in which a tiny little movie was made as a sequel to a horror franchise that hadn’t been heard from in ages, and we didn’t even know of the film’s existence until a couple of months before release. And then it happened again!

The first case in point is 10 Cloverfield Lane, a thoroughly awesome bit of claustrophobic psychological terror whose only real drawback was an inconsequential and purely incidental relation to the 2008 found-footage film it otherwise bears ZERO connection with. Conversely, Blair Witch was very clearly made from the ground up as a sequel to the 1999 smash that practically invented the genre, expanding on the earlier film in some fascinating ways. Yet the film itself was nonetheless forgettable and little more than average.

Blair Witch may have been the more faithful sequel, but 10 Cloverfield Lane is by far the better and scarier movie. So there’s the film that gets the prize.

Best Horror

Wow, this was a really good year for horror, wasn’t it?

Ouija: Origin of Evil mostly succeeded by virtue of low expectations, but it’s nonetheless remarkable how much the filmmakers were able to get out of less than nothing. We also got The Conjuring 2, which was an enjoyable — if forgettable — continuation of its franchise. The Witch was a sublime piece of work, even if it wasn’t really scary so much as creepy.

Yet the best horror films of the year don’t precisely fit the mold of what you might expect as a horror film, and they’re both far better and scarier for sidestepping those expectations. And oddly enough, they’re both somewhat similar in that they’re both escape movies centered around a group of delinquents trying to escape hostile territory. And they both went to some pretty fucked-up places before the credits rolled. I’m of course referring to Green Room and Don’t Breathe.

Don’t Breathe reveled far more in the characters’ suffering, and it had a much more interesting central gimmick in the Blind Man and his methods of perceiving the world around him. Yet Green Room had a better story, with characters (both heroes and villains) who were far more intriguing. The victim pools on both sides were larger, which meant for more action scenes and more scares, and the film was no less technically proficient than the beautifully made Don’t Breathe.

It’s a tough call, but Green Room has a longer running time (still brief at a breathtaking 95 minutes), with a beginning and ending that are far superior to those of Don’t Breathe. So I’m giving this one to Green Room.

Best Superhero Movie

This year may have been a huge disappointment for DC, but Fox turned out some uncharacteristically good work with their superhero licenses this year. X-Men: Apocalypse worked well enough, even if all the post-First Class films are starting to blend together at this point. But before that, we finally — FINALLY! — got the Deadpool film we’d all been waiting for, every bit as awesome and irreverent and faithful to the character as we could possibly have expected.

Similarly, Marvel had a more formulaic film and one that really broke the mold. The former was Doctor Strange, offering a predictable paint-by-numbers origin story seasoned with some of the most off-the-wall bonkers visuals that may ever take my breath away. And before that came Captain America: Civil War, which took some huge chances, made some bold decisions with its established characters, and even introduced some awesome new ones (Nice to meet you, Black Panther! Welcome home, Spider-Man!). All of our favorite MCU stars got some great moments in the spotlight, down to the last supporting character (Ant-Man’s enormous growth and his “Battle of Hoth” takedown from Spider-Man come to mind), yet it’s also the film that brought Captain America full circle in a way that’s profoundly shocking. The film was a beautifully satisfying payoff to a lot of stuff that’s been brewing since Phase One, and I can’t wait to see what the future holds for the MCU.

Best Action Movie

I don’t know if anyone expected Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to be any good, but it actually turned out to be a lot of goofy fun. Sure, the action scenes were shit, but the basic idea of translating the source novel’s witty repartee into actual physical fights was a clever one.

Deadpool is of course a notable action flick from 2016, but without all the sight gags and wisecracks from Deadpool, there’s actually very little action in that movie. Conversely, The Magnificent Seven (2016) had a few outstanding moments of action, but completely misunderstood the original film in some imperative ways. Then there’s Hardcore Henry, a film that was virtually 100 percent action and clearly treated the plot as an afterthought if that.

This one goes to Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, which delivered warfare and stakes the like of which haven’t been seen in the franchise for a very long time, if ever. I’m talking about action so compelling, in which our protagonists are fighting against such tremendous odds, that I had been led to forget that this was a prequel and a win for the Rebellion was guaranteed the whole time. More than that, this is a prequel that made the original trilogy better by association. Who could ask for more?

Best Animated Film

This is gonna be another one of those years in which the Academy will get roasted no matter who they have to snub for “Best Animated Feature.” Even I had a hard time narrowing this list down to five, there were so many noteworthy candidates this year.

We got Kung Fu Panda 3, a triumphant conclusion to the DreamWorks Animated trilogy. (You hear that, DreamWorks? Trilogy.) We got Kubo and the Two Strings, which may well be the most ambitious and beautiful movie in Laika’s whole impeccable filmography so far. Finding Dory turned out to be a serviceable follow-up to the Pixar classic, which is impressive in itself. Hell, Moana may have had a predictable story, but its presentation was magnificent from start to finish.

Even so, the clear winner here is Zootopia. It’s admittedly old hat for a kids’ film that encourages the audience to go chase their dreams, and a film with anthropomorphic animals is nothing we haven’t seen before. But this film was positively epic in scope, with so much care put into millions of little details about this world and how it works. Moreover, the film used its animal characters and its procedural mystery plot (And seriously, how many of those do we see in a family picture?) to make some bold and timely statements about prejudice, social pressure, and living in constant fear of each other. Phenomenal stuff.

Best Fantasy Movie

Girl Asleep gets another nod here, because I really want to stress that it’s a good film and more people need to know about it. Compare that to The Mermaid, an even weirder movie that became this year’s surprise international hit following huge box office returns in its native China. I’m also putting The Love Witch in here, because I’ve nowhere else to put such a colorful oddball picture.

The crowd favorite for this one will likely be Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which was indeed a delightful return to the house that J.K. Rowling built and David Yates refurbished. But I’m giving this one to Pete’s Dragon (2016), an exceptional remake of a lesser Disney film. It’s a smart, heartwarming, beautifully acted, superbly made movie that cuts right through the cynicism of modern adulthood to make anyone feel like a kid again. Absolutely enchanting.

Best Comedy

I could’ve hoped for a better crop of nominees with this one.

I personally got a kick out of Buddymoon, primarily because it did such a good job of showcasing the Pacific Northwest wilderness, but I know it’s still a self-indulgent little trifle that might not hold much appeal to anyone not from the area. This was also the year of Pop Star: Never Stop Never Stopping, but I’m just not a fan of Lonely Island the way some others are.

Barbershop: The Next Cut was more my speed. The film was hardly perfect, but it made some wonderful statements about gun violence and racial inequality in the context of gang-ridden south Chicago. I like how the film used humor to try and understand such terrible problems in our society without ever once understating their importance. It’s a sweet little film with a lot of heart, a surprising amount of brains, and a lot of seriously funny moments, even if its numerous subplots make for an uneven overall product.

Best Wild Ride

We’ve covered the films that delivered the biggest laughs, the most engaging action, the boldest ideas, and the best stories. But which one was the best at handling all of the above? For my money, that’s no contest.

I can only say so much about The Nice Guys, because it’s a film that speaks pretty clearly for itself. It’s a bold movie with a wicked sense of comedy, great characters portrayed by a rock-solid cast, outstanding action, and an engaging central mystery. It’s retro fun as only Shane Black could deliver. Brilliant stuff.

***

Do you agree with the list? Is there anything I left out? Are you looking forward to this coming year? Be sure and leave a comment. See you at the movies!

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