As Summer 2016 draws to a close, it is time once again to look back at the best the season had to offer at the cinemas. So let us forget about the bad movies of the last few months (*cough* Nine Lives *cough*) and dive into what was worth seeing in the calendar year’s biggest box office period, ordered by release date.
Nostalgia value is still alive and well. Thanks again, Pixar. Finding Dory is by no means an animated masterpiece. Thankfully, however, it does not retread over its predecessor. Instead, it expands on characters and gives the character of Dory an effective story. It is not my favorite animated film of the summer, but it is a film that shows that Pixar is continuing with its same pedigree, even when venturing into sequels.
Hunt For the Wilderpeople
This offbeat comedy from Taika Waititi not only features strong performances from Sam Neill and the young Julian Dennison, but it is also a zany comedy with tons of heart. This is a combination of comedic tones that is hard to blend into one, but Waititi has made a career out of doing it effortlessly. Wilderpeople isn’t as tight-knit with its comedy as What We Do in the Shadows, but it still entertains.
Joshy is a depressive dramedy for depressive people who like comic actors. Boasting an impressive cast of comedians, the film may appear from credits alone as a boisterous party comedy. It is anything but. It is funny when it feels appropriate to be funny, and sad when it feels appropriate to be sad. The scales just happen to balance in one particular direction. As an installment into the rapidly growing subgenre of mumblecore, the film fits right in. As such, fans of the genre will not be disappointed. Mainstream audiences, on the other hand, may find the bachelor party narrative uninviting.
Subtle this film is not, even if it makes attempts at lofty subject matter as inspiration for its gags. By no means a perfect comedy, Sausage Party takes a novel premise and beats you over the head with it with effective sight gags, wordplay, and puns. The narrative sags as this premise runs out of gas, but the climax (for better or for worse) is one you will not soon forget. The meta-textual wink at the denouement doesn’t hurt any, either.
The Top Ten (Not Ranked):
Captain America: Civil War
The latest Marvel Cinematic Universe addition is long in the rearview at this point, but Captain America: Civil War was certainly the action movie to see this summer. Packed with a long list of superheros and big name stars, Civil War could have been an over-packed disaster. Instead, it used a balanced tone and electric action sequences to dazzle even those most fatigued by the superhero movie onslaught. Team Cap or Team Stark, it doesn’t matter. We are all anxiously awaiting the next giant Marvel spectacle.
The Nice Guys
Shane Black knows how to write a movie (and Anthony Bagarozzi, co-writer, for that matter). Not to mention this: Shane Black knows how to direct a movie. Control of tone, atmosphere, setting, dialogue, etc. etc. is all apparent in The Nice Guys, a sorely underlooked movie of the summer. The strong chemistry between Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, and Angourie Rice doesn’t hurt anything, either. Anyone looking for a noir comedy, look here first.
The Lobster is, without argument, one thing: Strange. This Yorgos Lanthimos-directed indie romance is offbeat to the extreme. For this reason, many may be put off by it. The screening I sat through came with gasps, scoffs of disgust, and a few awkward laughs. And the sound of uncomfortable shifting in seats. But I loved it and wanted to laugh uproariously at the awkwardness that it caused in the audience. Lanthimos is without a doubt an acquired taste, but once you acquire that taste you are in for deadpan meditations on the absurd that are smart, uncomfortable, and hilarious all at once. The Lobster is no different.
The Conjuring 2
Horror sequels are stigmatized. Hell, all sequels are stigmatized. But the fear that a decent horror movie will be ruined by strung out franchises is perhaps the ultimate fear of the hardcore horror fan. When it came to The Conjuring 2, I was skeptical. But James Wan, again, delivered. Is it his best piece to date: No. But it delivers a great control of environment and a playful use of audience expectations. Anyone who enjoyed The Conjuring or is a fan of Wan’s work will find something to enjoy in The Conjuring 2.
The Neon Demon
I’ll admit it up front: I am a fan of Nicolas Winding Refn. Drive is perhaps one of my top ten favorite movies of the 2010s so far, if I am bold enough to make that statement (which I’m clearly not bold enough to do without a qualifier). Bronson and Valhalla Rising are also movies that I will return to multiple times over in the future. Only God Forgives did not tap into my love of indulgent directorial style to my liking, for some reason, but The Neon Demon mesmerized me. Like The Lobster, strange, but even more non-palatable to a mainstream audience. Its theme may be superficial, but the film succeeds with its lavish ambiance.
Steven Spielberg’s latest was a box office flop, ignored in a summer landscape with Pets and Finding Dory. This does not mean that The BFG was a bad film. While not Spielberg’s best, it is still a Spielberg movie, and as such we get a careful attention to direction that is not always seen in a children’s film. With this craft at full volume, The BFG does what other animated children’s films of the Summer can only hope to do, and that is put the love of film as an art form into the hearts of children.
Swiss Army Man
If the term “farting corpse movie” doesn’t peak your interest, then I don’t know what will. Despite what this label might make you think, Swiss Army Man is not a crass indie comedy. Instead, it is a unique look into psychological and literal isolation. Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe prop up this premise, which may have otherwise come across as just plain silly, with outstanding performances. The unique nature of Swiss Army Man‘s premise may not be for everyone, but the film is an indie darling worth giving a chance.
Captain Fantastic could have been a contrived, pedantic indie manifesto. Instead, it is an endearing case study into the lives of the estranged. Viggo Mortensen leads an astounding cast, most of whom are child actors, through a travel narrative that is funny, gripping, and heartwrenching. The film is a delightful watch, even if it starts spinning its wheel at the end of act two with a tonal disparity that becomes hard for the script to control. Still, Captain Fantastic is a must see, especially for anyone looking to satisfy an indie fix.
Kubo and the Two Strings
Looking at animation alone, Kubo and the Two Strings is a beautiful specimen. Small imperfections make the stop motion characters appear more real, and the macro-level landscapes are marvelous to behold. The story is simple but elegant, enough to satisfy children and parents alike. In a summer stacked with animated talent, Kubo may be the strongest contender.
Two-thirds of Don’t Breathe is perhaps the most pitch perfect experiment in tension this year (which is saying a lot coming on the heels of Green Room and 10 Cloverfield Lane). Taking a simple hook and running with it, the film does not let up on tension. Cinematographic cues and an excellent use of space makes for a white knuckled experience. This said, the third act lets up on the gas a bit, making the final narrative push more of a panting finish than a triumphant one.
To be honest, this summer didn’t blow me away cinematically. There were some standouts (listed above), but much of the output in the major markets felt particularly lazy and substandard. In terms of sheer memorability, I think these movies listed above could hold up better than the rest of the Summer 2016 pack, but even some of these films will likely fade into obscurity. Still, they are all films that I found enjoyable to the point where I would seek them out a second time if given the opportunity. If you enjoy the specific genres that these films fall under, then you will more than likely enjoy the films themselves.
As always, thanks for reading!
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)