[BEST OF 2016] Mike Vanderbilt’s Year In Review + Top Ten

Every year I read that cinema is dead and every year I end up seeing more than a few pretty good movies and even a few great ones. I don’t think enough credence is given to movies that are pretty good. Let’s admit it, most things in life are a C+/B- or else we wouldn’t have a vocabulary that includes “amazing” or “horseshit.” Bret Easton Ellis routinely expounds the death of cinema, implying that television is the new medium for cinematic storytelling and that many films are lauded for their message and ideology rather than their aesthetics. I’m inclined to agree with him on both, but there is still plenty of terrific cinema out there, and the good ‘ol days weren’t always that good. That said, plenty of the average films released in 2016 were quite enjoyable in their own way.

Upon its release in February, there was quite a bit of talk of DEADPOOL being a “superhero film for adults.” I can assure you that’s not the case, DEADPOOL is a superhero film for teenagers and immature adults…and that’s ok. DEADPOOL was a very funny, often crass meta-parody of the superhero films and quite a bit of fun. The film rides on the charms of Ryan Reynolds as the “merc with a mouth” and doesn’t elevate the superhero genre, but is a welcome addition to the superhero genre that won’t be going away anytime soon. February also saw the release of the divisive THE WITCH, an elevated genre film that was perhaps cut off at the knees by hyperbole with festival critics calling it one of the scariest movies of all time. THE WITCH plays more as a family drama—with some admitted terrifying supernatural elements—that won’t play to all horror fans (or all film fans, for that matter) but what really does?

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BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE was widely panned upon its release and having finally caught up with it, I get it, but what do audiences expect from superhero movies anyway? Marvel has been cranking out hit after hit since 2008’s IRON MAN, but outside of GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY with its ‘70s cosmic aesthetic, the films all feel like they’re coming off an assembly line and more concerned with setting up the next sequel than providing a solid story in the standard two-hour and ten minute runtime. Even GUARDIANS seemed too concerned with setting up the MCU at points; for all of its ‘70s sci-fi notes, taking a cue from STAR WARS which worked so well as a stand alone film wouldn’t be a bad direction for some of these films to take. BATMAN V. SUPERMAN is hardly great: it’s has a bland visual palette from Zack Snyder, feels overstuffed, and that Martha reveal is clunky and could have been smoothed out in one more draft of the script. However, at least DC is taking chances. A more serious take on things is appreciated, but being serious doesn’t mean you have to be dour. DC’s big summer release SUICIDE SQUAD feels like an attempt at a sleazier take on Marvel’s GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, and while trying to recapture the magic of that film, SUICIDE SQUAD doesn’t feel any better or worse than something like CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR or DOCTOR STRANGE which are just fine, C+/B- films…like most releases. SUICIDE SQUAD remains a touch more memorable for how gleefully trashy it is and being a David Ayer movie that doesn’t just ooze machismo leaving Margot Robbie to steal the show.

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April saw the official theatrical release of Jeremy Saulnier’s GREEN ROOM, a film I had been anticipating going wide since I saw it at 2015’s FANTASTIC FEST. It’s not often one gets to be completely surprised by a film these day—particularly when you’re in the media—which is why I try to do as little research as possible when I attend film festivals and go into a film blind. GREEN ROOM spoke to me as a film lover and a musician; the characters felt very real to me and helped sell the extraordinary situation that they’re thrust into, playing a sketchy show at a skinhead hideout. For better or worse, I felt like I’d played that show before myself. GREEN ROOM is an expertly paced film that ratchets up the tension at every turn, rewarding the audience with brutal explosions of violence and let’s faces it; we here at DAILY GRINDHOUSE love some violence.

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When I watch films—particularly when I’m at a festival—I think to myself “Whom could I recommend this to?” Not every film I love is going to play to everyone I know. Leaving the theatre at FANTASTIC FEST, I knew GREEN ROOM was something I could recommend to jus about anyone I knew: movie nerds, musicians, even my parents who turned me onto genre filmmaking. GREEN ROOM didn’t turn into the runaway cult hit that I thought it would, but I think that once it hits NETFLIX, it will be on the tip of everyone’s tongue.

May saw the summer movie season kick-off with the aforementioned CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR. As far as the Marvel films go, the CAPTAIN AMERICA films always stand taller than the rest and CIVIL WAR delivers some solid action set pieces (including a superhero battle royale) as well as introducing the world to the big-screen’s new Spider-Man and Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther. CIVIL WAR is perfectly serviceable summer movie fare, but ultimately forgettable. THE NICE GUYS also hit screens in May and—despite it’s 1978 setting—was a welcome throwback to the sort of silly, sort of serious action movie that Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer cranked out in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Crow and Gosling ham it up in period costuming while Angourie Rice steals the show as Goslings precocious but never annoying daughter who may be the real brains of the operation. David Keith is underused but it’s always a pleasure seeing that toothy, evil green on screen. In the era where action films are silly comedies (THE GOOD GUYS), superhero films, or super serious like the BOURNE series, THE NICE GUYS is a nice change of pace, splitting the difference. THE NICE GUYS sits squarely next to THE LAST BOY SCOUT and THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT as an action-comedy featuring a mismatched, crime-solving team.

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As far as big-budget summer popcorn flicks go, INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE was the best of the lot this year. RESURGENCE is a rare sequel that builds upon its predecessor and actually makes the first film a better movie expanding on the characters and their motivations. The set design recalls the coolest ‘80s space toys you had when you were a kid and plenty of stuff gets blowed up real good. INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE attempts at creating a new band of heroes that don’t have 50 years of exposition in their corner like most superhero epics do.It’s action packed and features plenty of misplaced Roland Emmerich humor and quips. Like THE NICE GUYS, RESURGENCE is a welcome return to ‘90s style action pacing and also features one of the most deftly handled gay romances audiences are bond to see this year or any year, especially in a mindless sci-fi epic. RESURGENCE is a modern day Saturday afternoon serial, patterned after the nostalgia of STAR WARS. The INDEPENDENCE DAY sequel is by no means perfect: it suffers from a severe lack of Will Smith’s charisma and doesn’t feature many surprises. However it is no better or worse—or no more smart or dumb—than any superhero film that has been unleashed in the past decade or so. I imagine most people who put it on their worst of the year list haven’t event watched it and are simply subscribing to a group think mentality. To quote Roger Ebert’s 1995 review of CONGO, “False sophisticates will scorn it. Real sophisticates will relish it.”

This summer also so the release of the much anticipated—or dreaded—GHOSTBUSTERS reboot that caught the ire of plenty of people for assorted reasons. The film came out, it did moderately well, and nobody got hurt. People struggled to say they loved it, and the charm of Leslie Jones and Melissa McCarthy—and a special effects packed third act—made if difficult to hate. For better or worse, it simply became a forgettable, C+ comedy that may get a second life on cable. It’s unfortunate that a nostalgia fueled reboot based on what became a Saturday morning cartoon show (I’m convinced most people my age actually have fonder memories of the series and toys than the films themselves) became the most talked about movie of the year. This is generation infantilism. Of course, the new movie didn’t answer my one question: if all the Ghostbusters can be women, how come, still, only one of them can be black?

In August I had the pleasure of attending the Bruce Campbell Horror Film Festival where I saw an early screening of Jackson Stewart’s noteworthy feature directorial debut BEYOND THE GATES, an oddly affecting pastiche of PHANTASM, THE GATE, and the NIGHTMARE VCR game. The real standout of the festival was Billy O’Brien’s I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER. Reminicisent of George Romero’s MARTIN, SERIAL KILLER features Max Records as John Wayne Cleaver, a diagnosed sociopath who’s afraid that it is his destiny to become a mass murderer. When his Minneapolis town falls under the specter of a series of unsolved murders, Cleaver goes on a quest to find the identity of the killer, which leads him on a very strange trip. While a compelling story, SERIAL KILLER is a masterwork of aesthetics. Shot on 16mm, the film has terrific warmth that plays against the chilly midwestern backdrop that never falls into cheap, throwback territory as the film feels like it is out of time. THE LOVE WITCH similarly is a triumph of aesthetics feeling like a lost film from the SOMETHING WEIRD vault. The film combines hard lighting, spot-on early ‘70s set design with a smart, feminist bent. Samantha Robinson is a vision as the titular character, perpetually clad in boots and stockings, appealing to the fetishist in us all. While a touch long at two-hours, THE LOVE WITCH, creates a wonderful world that fans of a very particular style of trash cinema will want to live in forever. The film is also ridiculously sexy, which some film goers seem to be afraid of.

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While THE LOVE WITCH was a hit on the festival circuit, somehow it did not make to 2016’s FANTASTIC FEST. The Austin film festival continued its tradition of providing attendees a mixture of horror, sci-fi, foreign, comedy, as well as the just plain weird. Stand outs at the fest were a rerelease of 1971’s THE ZODIAC KILLER from the aforementioned SOMETHING WEIRD, the Michael Mann influenced Korean crime epic AGE OF SHADOWS, THE VOID, featuring a more serious take from the part of the ASTRON 6 collective, the shot on video JUNGLE TRAP, the oddball (but could be a left-field Hollywood hit) COLOSSAL, and the long-awaited PHANTASM: RAVAGER. RAVAGER appeared to disappoint many fans of the PHANTASM series looking for an epic ending to the Pearson saga. The film swings for the fences in the special effects department and at times falters due to a low budget. There was a lot of weight on first time director David Hartman and he handles the film with grace. It’s weird, slightly confusing, and a little anti-climatic but loaded with charm and a terrific family of actors and actresses…sounds like a PHANTASM movie to me.

The overall favorite at this year’s FANTASTIC FEST was Park Chan-wook’s THE HANDMAIDEN, a sleazy tale of forbidden love, grifting, and lots and lots of leather gloves. It’s also remarkably funny. The film is a beautifully shot pastiche of overwrought, Merchant-Ivory period romance and Jess Franco style sleaze but at the same time, wholly original.

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One of my favorites from the previous year’s FANTASTIC FEST, APRIL AND THE EXTRAORDINARY WORLD received a limited release overseas. This steam punk inflicted animated adventure recalls the very best elements of ‘80s Don Bluth, Lucasploitation, and those offbeat British cartoons such as COUNT DUCKULA and DANGER MOUSE. It’s a thrilling tale of a young girl on a hero’s journey featuring evil lizards and a very cool and memorable character in Darwin, voiced by Tony Hale.

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I rarely binge watch anything, but O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA had me tuning in every night I got home from work when it aired on ESPN over the summer. It’s interesting to watch a documentary featuring events that I was relatively aware of while they were happening. I always knew O.J. Simpson as Nordberg from the NAKED GUN films; I’ve never been terribly interested in sports. MADE IN AMERICA crafts a compelling story of a complicated character of O.J Simpson while exploring the concepts of celebrity, race, and the history of racism in the Los Angeles police department. The documentary says so much about America by telling this one man’s story.

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The Lone Star Noir had a moment in 2016 with THE FRONTIER, HELL OR HIGH WATER, and NOCTURNAL ANIMALS. THE FRONTIER is another aesthetic achievement, shot on Super 16mm and featuring terrific costume design, wonderfully weird and greasy character actors, propelling a pretty simplistic “drug deal gone wrong” style of story. It resembles a very good made for Showtime flick that would have aired in the ‘90s the same way HELL OR HIGH WATER feels like an extended episode of JUSTIFIED sans the charm of Timothy Olyphant’s Raylan Givens. HELL OR HIGH WATER made the Top 10 for my podcast REVENGE OF THE POD PEOPLE, and while a terrific genre flick, out of the three dusty noirs, NOCTURNAL ANIMALS was my favorite. Tom Ford’s film of course oozes visual style but outstanding performances from Jake Gyllenhaal and Aaron Taylor-Johnson (who was such a dope in GODZILLA) elevate ANIMALS. Michael Shannon is a standout as the greasy Texas lawman who seeks to make things right when a brutal crime occurs in his West Texas town. While HELL OR HIGH Water’s tale of criminals doing the right thing was slickly executed, the brutality of the crime featured in NOCTURNAL ANIMALS helped raise the stakes just a little bit higher.

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The coming-of-age tale is always a favorite when it comes to top ten lists and Oscar voters with MOONLIGHT becoming an early favorite for next year’s nominations. Written and directed by Barry Jenkins, MOONLIGHT follows Chiron as he grows from a boy to man and comes to terms with his homosexuality and his first love. The film is beautifully shot, poetic, and features a remarkably subtle performance from Mahershala Ali as the drug dealer with a heart of gold who takes Chiron in as a young man, but it didn’t move me. The character of Chiron is never developed any further than his sexuality; the audience never finds out what kind of music he’s into, or if he likes movies, and that keeps the character from ever really becoming human. Most viewers can relate to the films second act, showcasing Chiron as a mopey, misunderstood teenager and can revel in a moment when he finally exacts revenge on a school bully, but the film makes it hard to see him as anything else as a victim. I found myself relating much more to Hailee Steinfeld as a selfish teenager who needs to learn a thing or two about empathy in Kelly Freemon Craig’s THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN. Despite its sitcom trapping—no doubt the influence of James L. Brooks—SEVENTEEN is always honest. Perhaps I’m just drawn to characters who can be kind of shitty.

 

SING STREET was another favorite in the coming-of-age subgenre, that despite featuring some terrific music from Gary Clark—particuarly the Hall & Oatesploitaiton tune, “Drive It Like You Stole It—left me flat. The film opts for a very dreamy-eyed, tale of the nice guy FINALLY getting the girl when the relationship between Ferdia Walsh-Peelo’s Connor Lawlor and his brother and his band (who the jerk ditches in the film’s climax). In the musical genre LA LA LAND promises the return of movie musicals but forgets to include any memorable tunes. The jazz infomercial is very dismissive of pop music despite—after having Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone sing throughout most of the film—having John Legend show up halfway through performing a rocking pop tune that’s the most memorable song in the film. That’s really not fair to Gosling and Stone.

Finally, we come to ROGUE ONE, which makes the list simply by being a very good STAR WARS movie and passing my cable test (If I saw it was on, would I flip over to see what part it’s at). In an alternate universe, ROGUE ONE would have made a terrific sequel to STAR WARS in 1978 and retains that great ramshackle tone of the original film, despite being kind of a downer. It’s the best STAR WARS prequel I’ve ever seen even though it misses the soap opera elements of the original trilogy as well as THE FORCE AWAKENS.

 

I’d like to wrap things up by thanking everyone here at DAILY GRINDHOUSE for an awesome 2016. Here’s to 2017 and even more successes.

1.GREEN ROOM

2.I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER

3.THE HANDMAIDEN

4.THE LOVE WITCH

5. O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA

6. APRIL AND THE EXTRAORDINARY WORLD

7. THE NICE GUYS

8. NOCTURNAL ANIMALS

9. ROGUE ONE

10. INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE

You can hear me discuss these films in depth on DRINKS ON MONDAY WITH THE STRIKE TEAM.

-MIKE VANDERBILT, Assistant Editor

@MikeVanderbilt

Mike Vanderbilt

Mike Vanderbilt

Mike Vanderbilt is a freelance writer and contributor based on the south side of Chicago. Mike has appeared on The A.V. Club, The Chicago Reader, and Consequence Of Sound tackling a variet of subjects ranging from Cheap Trick, George Lucas' Red Tails, and for better or worse knows a thing or two about online dating. A bartender by trade, he holds a degree in accountancy but he was never very good at it.When not mixing cocktails, Mike hosts and produces the Drinks On Monday With The Strike Team podcast, as well as Revenge Of The Pod People. He can also be seen performing with his power pop band The Romeros and punk act Modern Day Rippers.
Mike Vanderbilt

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