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Best and Worst Film Viewings of 2016

Posted on the 29 December 2016 by Christopher Saunders

Best and Worst Film Viewings of 2016

2016: The Bubonic Plague of Years

Nobody needs reminding that 2016 has been monumentally awful - politically, culturally, socially and personally. Fame killed more people this year than Ebola, or at least it seems that way from the incessant drumbeat of celebrity deaths. I lost my job and spent months fighting for my sanity. America apparently lost theirs, and our best hope is that we aren't all dead by 2020.
It's not all bad, though. I read a personal record number of books, wrote some long-form history articles I'm proud of, and saw a huge collection of movies. Therefore, there's a larger than usual pool of movies to choose from, with a nice mix of classics, foreign films and obscure gems to peruse. Get ready for references we don't understand and words we can't repeat!

The Best:
Best and Worst Film Viewings of 2016
Same rules as usual apply: first-time viewings only. Despite their diverse provenance, it looks like political allegories and stylish crime movies dominate this year's list. Wonder why that could be?
10. Heavenly Creatures (1994, Peter Jackson)
Best and Worst Film Viewings of 2016
Innumerable films chronicle murderous duos, yet Heavenly Creatures seems particularly unsettling. Perhaps because its heroines have no claim to disadvantage or deprivation, no excuse making. They're simply misfits devoured by their fantasies, defending their imagination against the real world's intrusion. Peter Jackson shows a delicacy and inventiveness scarcely glimpsed in his later day epics; the movie's equal parts inventive, tragic and deeply disturbing.
9. Many Wars Ago (1970, Francesco Rosi)
Best and Worst Film Viewings of 2016
Francesco Rosi's epic stands atop the list of World War I movies. With an anger that makes All Quiet on the Western Front look jingoistic, it paints Italy's Alpine misadventures against Austria as a nightmare of nationalist pride and self-inflicted carnage, where avalanches and firing squads prove more dangerous than the enemy. War becomes a cosmic catastrophe, which neither our heroes nor their commanding officers can possibly stop.
8. Purple Noon (1960, Rene Clement)
Best and Worst Film Viewings of 2016
Alain Delon's never been better than this gorgeous adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley. Patricia Highsmith's sleek, scheming mystery man is a perfect fit for Delon, who turns sociopathy into a winking, engaging game. We might not like Tom Ripley but we love watching him, his improbable scheme unfolding against beautiful scenery and a leisurely plot. As travelogue thrillers go, it rivals The Day of the Jackal as the best of its kind.
7. The Hireling (1973, Alan Bridges)
Best and Worst Film Viewings of 2016
British period dramas are a dime a dozen, beloved of middlebrow viewers and Oscar voters. Yet The Hireling approaches its material with a knowing sensitivity lacking in your typical class melodrama. It hinges on the subtle characters, Robert Shaw's emotionally reserved valet and Sarah Miles' damaged heiress, whose peculiar connection leads to tragic misunderstanding. The story beats are familiar enough, but its understated power stands alone.

6. The Candidate (1972, Michael Ritchie)
Best and Worst Film Viewings of 2016
Today, Michael Ritchie's political satire seems almost wistful. Sharply funny and observant, it shows Robert Redford's Jerry Brown-RFK liberal idealist degenerating into a mealy-mouthed politico while running for Senate. Its take on the perils of image-making is amusing but depressingly realistic; if anything, it doesn't seem cynical enough. For the days where selling out was a political candidate's greatest potential sin...
5. L.A. Confidential (1997, Curtis Hanson)
Best and Worst Film Viewings of 2016
It's easy to see why Titanic beat L.A. Confidential for Best Picture, which doesn't make it less of a shame. That movie's bloated, grandiose melodrama pales next to Curtis Hanson's tough-minded neo-noir, meshing impeccable flash with brilliant plotting and a dynamite cast. More hardboiled than any Humphrey Bogart or Alan Ladd vehicle, its only answer to a crooked world is... more corruption.
4. Point Blank (1967, John Boorman)
Best and Worst Film Viewings of 2016
No crime movie's more cerebral than Point Blank, which builds something grandly unnerving atop a pulp revenge plot. John Boorman's impenetrable mood, fractured imagery and shock montage leaves viewers unsettled, questioning whether the movie's events are real, a dying man's dream or something even stranger. Lee Marvin's performance, steel wire cool and effortlessly tough, grounds the spookiness with businesslike menace.
3. A Face in the Crowd (1957, Elia Kazan)
Best and Worst Film Viewings of 2016
Elia Kazan's jet black satire occupied cineastes and pundits alike this year, and no wonder: Lonesome Rhodes' rise from guitar-playing con to demagogue seems discomfortingly prescient. Kazan's sharp style and evergreen analysis of manipulation earn it points, but Andy Griffith's performance sells it. A slick hick with a discomforting smile and a gift for manipulation, he's cinema's most chilling demagogue. You'll never watch TV Land the same way again.
2. Ace in the Hole (1951, Billy Wilder)
Best and Worst Film Viewings of 2016
Billy Wilder's best remembered for his broad comedies, yet this acid satire might be his best work. Kirk Douglas plays an unscrupulous reporter who leaves a man trapped in a mine, creating a media circus that makes him a household name. Films like Network debate journalistic ethics but Ace in the Hole treats them as irrelevant; the media always goes for story over facts, preferring ratings to responsibility. Sadly, too many reporters embrace Chuck Tatum as a model rather than warning.
1. 1900 (1976, Bernardo Bertolucci)
Best and Worst Film Viewings of 2016
Many films are entertaining, some are impressive; only a handful leave you in awe. 1900 belongs in a class with Lawrence of Arabia and The Godfather, an epic so well-crafted, beautifully made and richly textured it makes other films look puny. This portrait of Italy's slide from bourgeois democracy into fascist decadence has the depth and sweep more often associated with literature than cinema. Whatever may be said of Bernardo Bertolucci's ethics, this achievement retains respect.
Honorable mentions: All the King's Men, Brooklyn, Cape Fear, Father, Guardians of the Galaxy, Hardcore, The Most Beautiful Wife, The Organizer, Room, She's Gotta Have It
The Worst:
Best and Worst Film Viewings of 2016
Unfortunately, this year's viewings also included a basket of deplorable films. The overriding sin, beyond a few films soaking in toxic ideology, is overreaching: filmmakers pumping their movies with money, imagery, action and cringe-worthy symbolism rather than bothering to make them good.
10. Gabriel over the White House (1933, Gregory La Cava)
Best and Worst Film Viewings of 2016
I'd like to think that this tale of a divinely-inspired fascist delivering America from Evil were merely a quaint, amusing relic of the Great Depression. Instead it touches upon something deep in the American psyche: the latent national yearning for a strongman unhindered by law, ethics or common decency. At least Walter Huston's character doesn't have nuclear weapons.
9. Zabriskie Point (1970, Michelangelo Antonioni)
Best and Worst Film Viewings of 2016
Watching this inscrutable excretion from Michelangelo Antonioni, wherein hippies hijack planes, asexually reproduce for a desert orgy and blow up rich folks with their minds, made me appreciate Bertolucci's 1900 more. That movie's so captivating that its Marxist polemics can be appreciated without our subscribing to socialism. Zabriskie has no idea what to say, besides that deserts are pretty and capitalism is a bad scene, man.
8. One from the Heart (1982, Francis Ford Coppola)
Best and Worst Film Viewings of 2016
I spent January plumbing the depths of Francis Ford Coppola's Eighties filmography, and what a depressing journey that was. While Tucker or Peggy Sue Got Married are forgettable, their mediocrity towers over this tinselly abortion. Coppola spent so much time tinkering with slot machine visuals, phony sets and outsized musical numbers that he forgot a movie needs to be not just elaborate, but good.
7. Raintree County (1957, Edward Dymtryk)
Best and Worst Film Viewings of 2016
This misbegotten farrago has everything an epic needs: big stars, elaborate battle scenes, gorgeous Technicolor. All it's missing is a story, a script, reasonable characters or any reason to care about its going on. It's a stock company version of Gone with the Wind that can't be bothered to engage its audience.
6. A Town Called Hell (1971, Robert Parrish)
Best and Worst Film Viewings of 2016
Unfortunately, most of the Westerns I watched this year sucked. With all due disrespect to The Glory Guys, Custer of the West and Heaven's Gate, I'll restrict my opprobrium to two, including this incomprehensible Euro-Western. Its mixture of flashbacks, anachronisms and headscratching plot holes might rate as surreal, if it weren't so cheap and idiotic. The chintziest, druggiest Django ripoff is more cohesive than this exercise in nonsense.
5. Fantastic Four (2015, Josh Trank)
Best and Worst Film Viewings of 2016
I can't think of a superhero movie so utterly joyless as Fantastic Four - and brother, in a world where Zack Snyder exists, that's saying something. While Four's lack of a second act cripples its potential, the movie's dull before then and dumb afterwards. Miscast stars bickering with each other then whining about their superheroes isn't compelling cinema. Then the movie ends just as it gets going, ensuring audiences were vexed as well as angry. Fortunately, viewers were smart enough to avoid it, which can't be said of others on this list.
4. Another Nice Mess (1972, Bob Einstein)
Best and Worst Film Viewings of 2016
Half-baked hippie satire only Jerry Rubin could love. You'd think self-parodying squares like Nixon and Agnew would be easy targets, but Bob Einstein and Tommy Smothers can't imagine anything funnier than their hurling bricks at each other while Hitler hides in a dumpster, smoking pot and cackling maniacally. By film's end, you can't blame Nixon for cancelling their TV show.
3. The Hateful Eight (2015, Quentin Tarantino)
Best and Worst Film Viewings of 2016
Someone who loathed Quentin Tarantino couldn't do a better a job destroying him than this. The Hateful Eight has all the bloody vomit, racial slurs, male rape and B Movie homages you'd expect, but none of the style, humor or enjoyment. That said, viewers at my screening laughed uproariously when Jennifer Jason Leigh slowly strangled to death. Perhaps I just lack the psychosis necessary to appreciate QT's unique brand of humor.
2. God's Not Dead (2014, Harold Cronk)
Best and Worst Film Viewings of 2016
If you spend the Christmas season berating Wal-Mart cashiers for saying "Happy Holidays," this movie's for you! Rather than affirm its viewers' faith, God's Not Dead panders to their persecution complex, treating the mere existence of atheists, vegetarians and education as a plot to destroy Jesus. Fortunately, the movie ends with Kevin Sorbo dying in a car wreck, with our heroes proclaiming his death "a cause for celebration!" Even Mike Huckabee and Sabrina the Teenage Witch couldn't make the sequel so joyously hateful.
1. Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016, Zack Snyder)
Best and Worst Film Viewings of 2016
Ladies and gentlemen, the Silent Majority blockbuster: a pompous, puny-brained, pretentious pile of excrement that everyone hated (or publicly claimed to hate), yet struck box office pay dirt. Now we're in for a decade of sequels and spinoffs complete with moping super-non-heroes bonding over shared maternal names, ubermensch mumblings and giggling Lex Luthor juggling Jolly Ranchers and urine jars. Its success left everyone stupefied, but moviegoers can only blame themselves. As a wise man once said, if a movie stinks, just don't go.
Here's to a better 2017. Last year I said things couldn't get worse, so let's not tempt fate.
Previous lists:
  • 2012
  • 2013
  • 2014
  • 2015

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