When Iron Man debuted in theaters in 2008, audiences had no idea that it would completely change the landscape of film-making forever. It marked the birth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The MCU became a collection of movies featuring different characters all tied together as a way to multiply audience interest and profits for otherwise uninteresting movies. While Marvel pioneered the scheme, other studios quickly jumped on board, notably Marvel’s main competitor, DC Comics. Universal Pictures recently decided to dust off their “Monsters” properties and build their own Cinematic Universe. The Mummy marks the first film in what they’ve christened “Dark Universe.” But the question remains; is The Mummy worthwhile?
From the very start, Universal wanted to make sure audiences were aware that The Mummy is part of a larger framework. With press releases and announcements of Johnny Depp playing the Invisible Man, this felt unnecessary. The studio has even inserted a logo variation that morphs the famous “Universal Pictures” vanity logo into the words “Dark Universe,” almost like a new entity that produced the movie. It’s an odd addition, one done out of hubris more than anything else, and it’s completely ridiculous. It would be as if Iron Man began with a logo touting it as “A Marvel Cinematic Film.”
The film itself opens in an equally bizarre way: on the burial of a Templar Knight in twelfth century England. It then quickly transitions to modern-day London before flashing back to Egypt and summarizing the history of Ahmanet and her quest for power, all told through a narration by Russell Crowe’s character. Why any of this was necessary I can’t say. The only thing I can think of is that the film’s writers, of which there are six, had no faith that audiences would have been able to understand the hook without having it spelled out. That theory also explains the immense amount of verbal exposition we get along the way. For a film that’s as steeped in lore as The Mummy, I would expect an excess of expository dialogue, but Universal really took advantage of my expectations.
Most of the film gets bogged down from how hard it is to like Tom Cruise’s character. Nick…Something Or Other is an Army Sergeant/thief who has his sights set on “liberating” whatever valuables he happens to find in modern-day Iraq. He makes no excuses for his deception and his main motivation throughout the film is saving himself. There’s a slight glimmer of goodness in his character, which is dashed as quickly as it appears by way of a sad attempt at levity. I doubt the writers even realized that their throw-away joke negated any positive quality in the character, because if they did, they should have worked harder to make him more likeable.
The dislike of Cruise’s character is compounded by how terribly the writers treat his female counterpart. Nick takes advantage of archeologist Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis) by lying to her, sleeping with her, and stealing her map to the location of what he believe is “treasure,” but not once does he show remorse for his actions. However, when he later discovers her secret that she’s been working with a covert team of “archeologists,” she’s made to feel terrible for her actions and apologizes profusely. Even watching this through the eyes of a dude, I could see the incongruity plain as day.
As expected, the movie makes a number of humorous attempts through its big, loud action sequence but most of them are so trite and obvious that they fall flat. Not to mention that some of the biggest jokes happen at the most inopportune moment, which made it uncomfortable to even enjoy them.
The humor was another pratfall the movie continued to make. Many of the jokes happen with unfortunate timing, such as when danger was at its highest. This created a strange juxtaposition that felt awkward. Am I supposed to laugh as Tom Cruise is about to get a dagger plunged into his heart? According to the writers, yes, I am.
I can’t say that the film is entirely bad, though. It does a few things right, most notably the casting of Sofia Boutella as the titular Mummy. Boutella has an amazing onscreen presence. The way she plays Ahmanet is threatening, unrelenting, and imposing, but she also manages to ply sympathy when needed. The only downside is how much her talent is wasted on a one-note villain. Granted, Ahmanet has more depth than both Cruise’s and Wallis’s characters, but her antagonism just comes off as boring. She’s the ultimate unstoppable evil that can be easily stopped by a MacGuffin.
Then you have Russell Crowe, whose appearance in this film is solely to expand the Dark Universe. Crowe plays Dr. Henry Jekyll. Yep, that Dr. Jekyll. He was a joy to watch as he seemed to be the only person in the ensemble who bothered getting into character. While I did like the way the film introduced the Jekyll/Hyde connection, I feel like they overdid it. In a case like this, as most of Marvel’s films have shown, a little goes a long way. Universal, on the other hand, didn’t seem to trust their audience would get the allusion and needed to center an entire action scene on just how badass Mr. Hyde could be. While it was a fun scene, it slowed down the pacing of the film and took some of the spotlight away from the Mummy, who should have always been the focus of the film.
For a movie that’s meant to kickstart a cinematic universe full of classic monsters, The Mummy lacks any sort of horror or thrills. It’s overflowing with cheap jump scares and cringe inducing creepiness (like Cruise being covered in rats), and those grow old fast. It also lacks the charm that 1999’s The Mummy starring Brendan Fraser had. At this point, it must be asked: what is this Mummy flick supposed to bring to the table, besides over-the-top action pieces?
Would I say The Mummy was a good movie? Nope. I will say that as the tent pole of the “Dark Universe,” it was fun, and at the very least, it opened the doors for films featuring a more diverse cast of classic monsters. After years of countless Dracula, Frankenstein and Werewolf movies, we finally have the chance to gets movies centered on the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and the Invisible Man. In the hands of the right writer and director, these movies have the opportunity to be mind-blowing. While The Mummy is mediocre at best, it deserves some credit.
Back in 2014, the world was shocked to find itself entertained by a hard sci-fi comic book movie with a main cast that featured a talking raccoon and a giant tree. Three years later, audiences eagerly anticipated the sequel to that film and here we are, talking about Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. But does the second film live up to the expectations set by the first?
Guardians Vol. 2 opens on the team, composed of Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), facing off against a pink, undulating, multi-tentacled creature at the behest of a race of beings called the Sovereign. It’s a fun scene that helps set the tone of the film and reminds audiences that they’re in for a good time.
The casting of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is definitely one of the films’ strong points. In addition to our core line-up, we are introduced to a few new characters. The first is Ego, played masterfully by Kurt Russell. We learn that Ego is Star-Lord’s father (not a spoiler) and wants to reconnect with his son (possibly a spoiler, if you couldn’t have deduced that yourself). Russell has such a great on-screen presence that he’s a joy to watch as Ego. He exudes charm in such a way that you believe him to be Star-Lord’s father; there’s no denying these two are cut from the same cloth.
The idea of “Family” is a main theme in this movie. They touched on this a bit at the end of the first film, where the cast begin to see themselves as a makeshift family. This time, with Star-Lord meeting his father, they elevate the theme. But we also see it with Gamora and Nebula (played by Karen Gillan), a pair of sisters who were always at each others’ throats. In Vol. 2, they spend more time together and begin to understand each other better. Also, Baby Groot exemplifies the theme of “Family.” Literally a toddler, Groot has an attachment to each of the Guardians, and in turn they treat him as if they were his adoptive parent. It’s very sweet in the way it’s handled.
We also meet Mantis, Ego’s handmaiden. As a full-fledged Guardian in the Dan Abnett/Andy Lanning comic book series, it’s no surprise to learn that Mantis would eventually join the team. Played by Pom Klementieff, Mantis was fun to watch on screen. Her ability to feel the emotions of other by touching them made for a few humorous moments, and though she served a purpose to the plot, I feel like her character was introduced to provide little more than that. That said, I’m happy to see her as part of the team and look forward to seeing more of her.
One character I didn’t quite get was Sylvester Stallone’s Stakar Ogord. Introduced early in the film, Ogord was used as a foil to Yondu (Michael Rooker), and shame him for his past transgressions. Ogord doesn’t make another appearance until the very end, at which point he’s given his very own post-credits scene that points to the character doing something more meaningful. Which makes sense considering they cast goddamn Sylvester Stallone in the role. Whatever it is that writer/director James Gunn has planned for him, I can’t even fathom. To me, his inclusion in the film felt shoehorned and overblown and I could have done without it.
With the exception of Star-Lord, who learns about his heritage, we don’t get a lot of development in the main cast. Some of their backstories are expanded on but it mostly feels like a retread of what we already learned about them in the first film. Instead, the secondary cast gets to step into the spotlight, as Gunn dives into the histories of both Nebula and Yondu. We get a peek into why Nebula resents Gamora so much. Concerning Yondu, we get to delve into his relationship with Star-Lord, which was touched upon a little in the first movie but Gunn really goes in depth here. It makes for a touching story but if you spend enough time thinking about it, it becomes downright unsettling
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is dripping with sentimentality. Mostly it’s handled well; it doesn’t get overly dramatic, like Rocket’s reaction to Groot’s “death” at the end of the first film. However, given the emotions that are boiling over, Star-Lord reconciling with his father, Star-Lord’s confrontation with Gamora about their unspoken thing, and even Drax and his reminiscing about his wife and daughter, we see how despite all of their flaws, the Guardians remain human (a term used loosely given that 80% of them are aliens).
The first Guardians was impressively funny, probably the most humor-filled film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Rightfully, Vol. 2 manages to keep that vibe going, and they even upped the humor quotient this go around. I’m not trying to say they squeezed more jokes into the script, which, to be fair, they seem to have done. The tone of the humor was intensified, almost to the point of being cartoonish. A scene in which Yondu, Kraglin (played by the director’s brother, Sean Gunn), and Rocket make a jump to hyperspace really displays the ways James Gunn was willing to push the envelope. It works within the confines of this film, one which is willing to play around with the laws of physics, but it just seemed over the top and unnecessary. I think we’re willing to give Gunn the leeway to do things like this because his track record is relatively clean, but I hope he doesn’t press his luck too much.
One of the ways Gunn improved in the sequel is in the pacing. The first Guardians needed to build its world so some of the scenes felt longer than they should have, mostly because of the wordy exposition used to get the point across. Vol. 2, however, has pretty much established its rules, so the only wordiness is to expand character arcs. There were still quite a few wordy monologues but at least they didn’t feel as expository.
In regards to the composition of Vol. 2, Gunn uses the same formula as he did in the first one, which is the only main downside. We open with a scene from the past, cut to quirky musical intro credits, move into character intros, exposition, exposition, dramatic turn, final battle. There’s nothing wrong with working from the formula (that is, after all, how it became a “formula”), and at least Gunn manages to make this film feel different from its predecessor. If this becomes the norm, however, it could really bring down the series.
As part of the most offbeat series in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 could have gone in a number of directions but I’m pleased with where James Gunn chose to take it. Humanizing the cast was a great way to keep audiences connected with the characters. It was also great to see a few of the more underutilized characters from the first film get the chance to shine (while Baby Groot is the clear fan-favorite, Drax had a few pretty amazing moments). All in all, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 never lost sight of what everyone loved about its predecessor. While not perfect, it’s a fun movie that helps to elevate Marvel’s record in regard to sequels. I’m ready for the third one.
Sleight is one of those movies that almost flew completely under my radar. Despite premiering at Sundance in 2016, I hadn’t heard of it until a tweet showed up in my Twitter timeline. I forget its contents now but the retweeter, Dulé Hill of Psych fame, was promoting the film. Which makes sense considering he’s one of its stars. As a fan of Hill, my interest was piqued.
The movie focuses on Bo, relative newcomer Jacob Latimore, a brilliant kid with a penchant for science. He was forced to drop out of school after his mother died to take care of his younger sister, Tina (Storm Reid). During the day, Bo works as a street magician, performing simple card tricks and levitating items for tourists in the busy parts of LA. But at night he hustles drugs for a local kingpin, Angelo (Hill).
For the most part, his life is going well. His bills are paid, his sister is doing well in school. He even meets a girl, Holly (Seychelle Gabriel). But when Angelo asks him for a “favor,” his golden life starts to tarnish, and he sees that the man he’s working for is not the friend he thought he once was.
Directed and co-written by J.D. Dillard, Sleight really delves into the character of Bo, working hard to make sure the audience really understands what he’s going through. Unfortunately, it does this to the detriment of the rest of the cast. We get a small look into Holly’s home life, with lines that quickly explain away why she’s not as happy as she should be. Antagonist Angelo is a trope-fueled gangster; we never learn why he’s as sadistic as he is, but it turns out it’s never important to the plot. All that matters is that he put Bo in a certain position and all we are supposed to care about is how he’s going to get out of it.
Sleight does do something very right, and that’s the aspect of Bo’s “magic.” We see early on that things may not be what they seem and as the film progresses, our suspicions are confirmed. However, we spend so much time wondering just what is happening that by the time everything comes to a head, the finale seems anti-climactic. Everything that the movie worked up to, the final confrontation that I was looking forward to, was over in five minutes, leaving me with a “that’s it?’ feeling.
The film’s marketing is my biggest gripe with Sleight. The movie billed itself as a super hero film (it was referred to as “Chronicle meets Iron Man”) but it never actually feels that way. Sure, it contains a few elements of super heroism, like the source of Bo’s mysterious “powers.” But at its core it’s a character study. It’s a tale of revenge and redemption. We see a smart kid like Bo get stuck in a harrowing situation due to factors outside of his control, forcing him to do something stupid to try and pull himself out, only to get mired deeper into it. Yes, Bo can do some amazing things but that doesn’t make him a super hero and billing him as such denigrates the achievements of his character.
All that aside, Sleight is a beautifully directed film. Dillard uses natural light as often as possible, probably as a way to keep the production budget down but he does so in a way that makes the film more interesting to watch. Even his framing of characters in certain scenes added life to otherwise static moments; talking heads aren’t very interesting but if they’re shot from the right angle, we can be enraptured.
The acting in Sleight deserves a nod as well. Latimore was perfect in the role of Bo, coming off as cocky in his magic scenes but then awkward and unsure when he’s with Angelo or Holly. Seychelle Gabriel was also a joy to watch; Holly’s backstory didn’t lend much depth to the character but Gabriel manages to keep her interesting, mostly through Holly’s rapport with Bo. It’s a shame Holly was only used as a crutch for Bo. I would have liked to have dived deeper into her character.
Dulé Hill was one of the oddest characters to see in this film. As an actor who generally only plays nice guys, like Gus in the aforementioned Psych, seeing him as the tough-as-nails, sadistic drug czar was certainly a change of pace. At times, it even seemed awkward to hear him drop F-bombs and get physical with other characters. Unfortunately, Hill’s portrayal of Angelo felt a little stilted, like he was trying to make the character his own instead of drawing upon inspiration from other badass drug dealers in early cinema. Which is fine, but when every other aspect of the character is derivative of a hundred other films out there, it doesn’t jibe too well. That said, Hill did well with what he was given.
I’m happy that I saw Sleight early in its release and I do give it credit for what it was trying to do. However, having one interesting character in a cast of overused clichés doesn’t make for a very compelling film. Pair that with marketing that doesn’t wholly apply and you have a recipe for a movie that is bound to disappoint some people. Despite all of that, the character of Bo make it an interesting film, one that I would recommend if you have some free time.
If a tree falls in a forest, and a mythological gigantic ape picks it up to use it as a weapon, does it make a sound? Yes, that sound is me in the theater audibly uttering “wow” through a giddy smile. This is the true test Kong: Skull Island has to pass or fail. Could it not only entertain but “wow” audiences with its spectacle? Fortunately, it unquestionably amazes with its stunningly-crafted CG and scale, but it’s at the expense of smooth dialogue and strong characters.
In the latest Kong retelling, the story is as thin as you’d expect, since the emphasis is on the origins of these monsters. As the Vietnam war comes to an end, a group of determined scientists implores the government to send a military escort with them to an undiscovered island. Along the way, said scientists hire a tracker (Tom Hiddleston). Separately, a photographer tags along (Brie Larson). The plot broken down in a sentence is essentially “some dummies go to Kong’s island to study things.” I’m never a fan of being reductive, but a film isn’t supposed to make it so easy to do. Regardless, I suppose that’s not why we eagerly watch these types of popcorn blockbusters.
Commendably, Warner Bros. Pictures employs one of the strongest ensemble casts you’ll see in a movie all year. Hiddleston, recent Oscar winner Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, John C. Reilly, Toby Kebbell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, and Jing Tian star, to name a few. The film also features a Straight Outta Compton reunion with cast members Jason Mitchell (Easy E) and Corey Hawkins (Dr. Dre). The casting aspect alone held so much promise on paper, but this potential felt largely squandered.
Sam Jackson and John C. Reilly are clearly taking liberties and enjoying it in their respective roles, but everyone else is strikingly forgettable. There’s attempted interplay between a couple of the marines that ultimately falls flat. Heavy-hitting actors Hiddleston and Larson are simply present to be a conduit of plot details for us, the audience. Most of what they do while on camera is react with the best surprised expression they can muster. Sure, the two have distinct occupations but it’s merely an excuse to carry them into this dangerous adventure. Not to mention, Hiddleston’s James Conrad did very little tracking at all. As far as definitive personality traits, I didn’t notice any from Hiddleston, Larson, or the many other expendable individuals.
As I touched on, Reilly and Jackson are a blast to watch as they chew up their scenery. Whether improvised or purposefully written, the jokes never seem to land pre-Reilly. Like he does in his prior comedic work, he has a natural delivery and general presence that inspires laughter. Jackson as Colonel Packard recited some insane lines in the vein of a cheesy ’90s action villain with such hilarious conviction. The duo was nothing short of a joy to see perform.
We have to praise the real star of the show: Kong. Everything about him in Skull Island exceeded my expectations. If your primary complaint of 2014’s Godzilla was “where’d that enlarged lizard thing go?,” prepare to be satisfied. Kong appears in the first 3 minutes, and they don’t hold back as a means to build tension (which I personally appreciated in the latest Godzilla effort). At times, he’s spotted merely walking around the island, and every frame he occupies feels majestic. Terry Notary put forth a tremendous motion-capture effort that added a surprising amount of nuanced personality to the familiar beast. More than that, Kong is written with a layer of ingenuity. In his several oversized-creature battles, he uses his surroundings and tools he might spot at random to their full potential to aid him in bringing down his enemies. Kong himself should satisfy the majority of moviegoers.
Another facet I appreciated from the picture was director Jordan Vogt-Roberts‘ work behind the camera. There are plenty of carefully constructed frames with a remarkable colorful concoctions. After the movie rushes past certain crudely-written scenes with one-dimensional supporting characters, Vogt-Roberts squeezes in intricately vibrant set pieces. Whether it’s a fast-paced action sequence involving an abundance of fire or Kong purely looking at a sunrise, he shows off his knack for capturing the beautiful production design in a visually-palpable way. Unfortunately, he’s not given many opportunities to display these skills on more than a couple occasions.
I may have levied quite a few criticisms against this flick. Nevertheless, a visit to the theater to see Kong: Skull Island on the silver screen is a good investment. If you expected occasional astounding visuals and fantastic monster fights, then Skull Island will distribute that in spades. Anticipating tangible character development and dialogue that doesn’t make you cringe is simply too much to ask. While we always prefer a satisfying mixture of both, Kong is still an enjoyable (literal) giant blockbuster. Also, don’t forget to remain seated for a post-credits tease. You’ll start to see how the larger Warner Bros. MonsterVerse starts to connect, and it’s very exciting.
If you live for the noisy blockbusters Hollywood releases every year, 2016 wasn’t a victory. Zoolander 2, Independence Day Resurgence, and even Jason Bourne disappointed audiences. However, in the independent (or indie) landscape, the cinema thrived. If you live in this layer of lower-budgeted film, you found original, thought-provoking, visually-pleasing stories like I did. In fact, there were so many winning 2016 indie films, I have conjured up several acknowledgements outside of my top 10.
To avoid bogging down this list with even more thorough explanations, I’ll list each 2016 indie films mention with an accompanying sentence. If you’re a fan of yucking it up at the theaters, the relatable coming-of-age teen comedy The Edge of Seventeen delivers huge. Also, comedian Mike Birbiglia steps behind the camera again for another honest and funny outing with Don’t Think Twice.
If you yearn for the unconventional approaches, The Lobster will quench that desire and then some. Director Ben Wheatley contributes a bizarre but compelling story about an apartment building gone to hell with High-Rise. The Eyes of My Mother will discomfort you but penetrate your every thought after you see it with its interesting serial killer origin tale. Always Shine throws plenty of psychologically thrilling elements at you to stick with you as well.
For those that have sappy hearts like me, the family dramedy Captain Fantastic and the romantic, reminiscing-on-old-love flick Blue Jay hit you deep in your feels. Winding down these 2016 indie films selections is an unflinching study of alcoholism in the gorgeous Krisha. Lastly, Goat shows an unpleasant side of college fraternity hell week that can’t go ignored. With those stellar titles out of the way, here’s my 10 favorite 2016 indie films!
10. Hunt for the Wilderpeople
The first movie comes from the same director as 2015’s hilarious What We Do in the Shadows. This time, writer/director Taika Waititi pursues an adventure-driven dramedy feel and sticks the landing. With Sam Neill and newcomer Julian Dennison leading the picture, nailing the tone appeared to come easy. The 2 leads have a palpable chemistry that evolves as the film proceeds. If you’re searching for laughs and heart in a film, Hunt for the Wilderpeople has an abundance of both.
9. The Invitation
The Invitation came out of nowhere, more so than any other previous or forthcoming pick. Out of these 2016 indie films, this picture is the most pulse-pounding and uncomfortable to watch. This is not due to overuse of gore, but just pure atmosphere, which director Karyn Kusama immaculately creates. More than being a horror-thriller, The Invitation serves as a study in grief and how one copes with loss, similar to Kubo & the Two Strings but much darker and with more adult-geared themes. The movie is available now to stream on Netflix, so I implore you to see what the fuss is about while it’s there.
8. Green Room
While The Invitation is uncomfortable to watch for its atmosphere, Green Room makes you squirm through its unexpected, real-feeling violence. Writer/director Jeremy Saulnier hits yet another home run here, with his first being a revenge-driven movie, Blue Ruin. Here, Saulnier manages to round out a more recognizable cast with the late Anton Yelchin and the surprisingly-creepy Patrick Stewart. The violence doesn’t exist simply to evoke unease though. Its purpose is shown through how it drastically affects our protagonists. I’m eager to dive into spoilers to further justify this film’s placement, but I’ll stop myself to recommend you catch this streaming on Amazon Prime now.
7. The Handmaiden
Director Park Chan-wook can frankly do no wrong in my eyes. He continues to live up to this with The Handmaiden, an erotic, thriller that shifts perspectives and makes you second guess what you’re watching at every possible chance. The story occurs in Japanese-controlled Korea, where a con man attempts to marry an heiress to steal her fortune. That’s the biggest oversimplification of a film that features such layered complexities, one after another. Like all of Chan-wook’s movies, this demands to be seen for one’s full appreciation. A fair warning though: at some point, this features the director’s propensity for odd, gross-out moments. Like his prior works though, those moments are absolutely earned.
6. Southside With You
For me, Southside With You was the largest surprise of the year. A movie about Barack and Michelle’s first date didn’t sound necessary or appealing. If anything, Southside had giant potential for failure. However, thanks to the brilliant casting and compelling dialogue, we instead received one of the best romance movies in the last decade or so. I have a fondness for films that opt to tell their story in a single day, and do it well. Not only that, through its writing, we’re shown many differing yet very valid perspectives on the racial climate, the business world, and the importance of community. Even if you’re not politically aligned with the subjects of Southside, you’ll still come out enjoying it.
Goodness, Jackie is a beautiful film to behold. Every frame is meticulously crafted like a painting. All credit can be given to director Pablo Lorrain for captivating me so successfully and effortlessly. In addition to the enthralling sights, Natalie Portman puts in another award-worthy performance in her career as Jackie Kennedy Onassis as she experiences the single hardest moment of her life. Then there’s a whole underlying conversation the movie makes about politics bleeding its way into every facet of life, even something as personal as facing a devastating loss. Instead of grieving in private, every action you take is endlessly scrutinized. Considering this, Jackie is a feast for all the senses.
4. Sing Street
I admit the placement of Sing Street is based on its personal connection to my life. In high school, I studied guitar and songwriting in every free second I had. Granted, I didn’t start that venture to “get the girl” like Conor does in this film. Nevertheless, the seemingly never-ending stream of failures after taking multiple risks is a familiar feeling that resonated with me on a large scale after my first viewing.
Director John Carney, who tackled one of my favorite musicals to ever exist titled Once, concocts one of the best coming-of-age movies of the 2010s. With the relatability comes an incredibly infectious original soundtrack. “Drive It Like You Stole It” still seeps into my brain randomly, and I saw this film more than 8 months ago. Sing Street just hit Netflix’s streaming platform, so I implore you to watch this and get some unadulterated joy in your life.
3. Hell or High Water
Sicario scribe Taylor Sheridan yet again knocks it out of the park with 2016’s Hell or High Water. As far as 2016 indie films go, an argument could be made for this title at #1. Not only is High Water the best written movie of 2016, it has one of the best performances of Jeff Bridges‘ entire career. Ben Foster shines and continues to show how Hollywood is simply out of excuses as to why he’s not a consistent leading man. Story-wise, you’re left with clammy hands and tense feelings up until the end credits. Even though this was a summer movie, there’s still consistent awards talk for this picture and it’s entirely justified.
Once again, we have another of these 2016 indie films that could be argued into the top position. Director Barry Jenkins carefully creates one of the most perfectly directed, affecting movies of the year in Moonlight. Mahershala Ali turns in a quiet performance that’ll evoke so many emotions from you. The emotional moments are endless though and rather subtle. However understated the film is as a whole, it doesn’t detract from its importance and its engaging themes that will connect with everyone universally. If you’re looking for an underdog to take the Best Picture award at the Oscars, Moonlight is it.
1. Manchester by the Sea
The giant gut-punch of a reveal and the breathtaking, touching performances seen in Manchester by the Sea elevate the movie into “best drama of the 2010s” status for me. Paired with writer/director Kenneth Lonergan‘s distinct vision, you have Casey Affleck offering up his career best, and Michelle Williams‘ vulnerability breaking us to tears. Although spoilers will help explain why Manchester is so highly regarded on my top 10 2016 indies films list, it’s imperative you experience this ride for yourself. With the movie occurring in Boston, the coarse language divvies out much of the humor, especially when our protagonists are placed in awkward encounters. I assure you it’s not all downtrodden misery, and it’s not just a performance-driven piece. Yes, heartache is very present, but these are characters you ultimately root for and identify with in meaningful ways.
If these heavy-lifting, fascinating, inventive dramas are indicative of anything, it’s that the state of cinema is healthy. With an eye to 2017, we have plenty of more promising blockbusters to anticipate like a new Christopher Nolan film, another Blade Runner film, and of course another Star Wars episode. It may be harder for indies to eclipse those pictures in quality or excitement levels, but like 2016, the gems will be there if you seek them out.
It’s unfortunate that we rarely receive honest, hilarious, relatable coming-of-age films nowadays. Luckily, when films like The Edge of Seventeen come along, they get the deserved attention. Seventeen has a familiar premise, but thanks to writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig‘s perspective, it conversely has a fresh approach. Because of the strong writing and performances, Seventeen lives in a class among the best like Mean Girls, Clueless, and Easy A.
To summarize, The Edge of Seventeen follows awkward high school student Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) as she tries to create a social life for herself. Her best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) starts dating her older brother (Blake Jenner), which drives a rift between the three. In the interim, Nadine befriends a more-awkward, show-stealing kid named Erwin (Hayden Szeto). She also seeks occasional advice from unconventional, crass teacher Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson).
As you read through my synopsis, you should recognize certain plot aspects. We’ve seen an uncomfortable teenager flounder through adolescence on film before. The witty, sometimes-rude teacher isn’t a new idea. The unassuming romance is definitely a trope in teen movies. However, the originality in dialogue and unique traits Nadine, Erwin, and Mr. Bruner possess elevate the film.
To obtain some appreciation for The Edge of Seventeen, I implore you to watch the hilarious red band trailer above. The charming, vulgar humor is immediately apparent and appreciated. This isn’t just true for the trailer, but for the entire feature. In the vein of Superbad, kids curse, and curse often in reality, but in Seventeen, conversations feel more realistic. Instead of aiming for the best gut-busting one-liner, the comedy flick opts for believability in its word choices.
Although the laughs are plentiful at the start, the final third act attempts to be poignant. While Nadine’s arc feels fulfilling, the resolution feels rather predictable and sudden. If you’ve seen one teen movie and watch The Edge of Seventeen trailer, you can guess the film’s ending easily. However, I feel the writing short-changes a particular character on closure that the audience would have welcomed. Regardless, the first two-thirds of the movie balance witty humor and character depth to cover for any finale weaknesses.
Backtracking to the performances, The Edge of Seventeen can certainly brag about its central cast. Hailee Steinfeld’s effortless skills would take years for any other actor to master. Woody Harrelson is impeccably utilized as the charismatic, sometimes-crude teacher. The star-making performance ultimately belongs to Hayden Szeto as Erwin Kim. He’s a love interest unlike any other in the teen comedy/coming-of-age genre. He acts so convincingly uncomfortable in his own body when trying to speak to Nadine. In every nervous twitch and stutter, I saw so much of my adolescent self in Erwin Kim. That earns the timid kid a spot as one of my favorite teen comedy characters to ever exist.
While the central cast’s performances are a bright enough highlight to drown out any criticisms, said criticisms still remain among the supporting cast. Kyra Sedgwick as Nadine’s eccentric mother, Mona, feels slightly mishandled. I’m unsure how the regular moviegoing audience will feel, but I yearned for more meaningful interactions between Nadine and Mona. Also, unfortunately Blake Jenner as Nadine’s older brother Darian simply couldn’t measure up to Hailee’s acting prowess when necessary. Haley Lu Richardson as Nadine’s best friend Krista eventually became moving background furniture after the first half of the movie. At times, I needed reminding that Nadine and Krista were even best friends.
While the supporting performances felt shallow for me, most of that fell on the writing of those characters instead of the actors themselves. The Edge of Seventeen definitely shows Kelly Fremon Craig’s endless potential as a writer, producer, and director, even if some areas could use improvement. Nonetheless, where Seventeen thrives is Craig’s grasp on the principal characters’ identities, the comedic timing, and the fluid pacing. Objections aside, the great outweighs the mediocre or questionable, which can 100% be attributed to Craig’s work.
Speaking overall, if you want a memorable cinematic experience to Mean Girls or Easy A (but R-rated), The Edge of Seventeen is absolutely for you. Prepare yourself for more gravitas behind its emotional moments than most of your standard teen comedies. What you’ll remember most though is the unique, charming, and relatable characters, and the unexpected laughs they bring.