Skip to main content

What I Watched in 2016

For my second year-end post, I'd like to talk about movies. There are five movies that stuck with me this year, perhaps not the five best movies, but certainly good ones that meant something to me. From my limited perspective as a routine movie-goer the gap between blockbuster movies and "quality films" continues to grow each year. Are these even in the same genre anymore? While certainly the basic technology employed by movies and films is the same (except when it isn't) the point of films seems to be diverging. The point of a movie like Marvel's Captain America: Civil War is to serve as the vehicle for cathartic spectacle while the point of my favorite movie is something closer to communication - the passing on of knowledge to the audience. In principle, I enjoy both modes but I wish they would cross-pollinate a bit more. It is the rare movie, (The Lord of Rings Trilogy, Star Wars, and Interstellar come to mind) that seems to want to do both: to create a grand and awesome spectacle with the idea of telling human and nuanced stories for adults looking for such things.

Streaming Light by Morgan Crooks 2016
I guess what I'm saying is that while a number of films I saw this year entertained me (Captain America, Doctor Strange, Ghostbusters, etc.) It took until the last fourth before I saw movies that really felt consequential.

  1. Arrival: This was my movie of the year for no other reason than its story asked the most from its audience. The scope required to tell this story meant wrestling all of the various pressures of science fiction, epic film-making, political thrillers, and the rest but still found time for a truly compelling story with interesting characters. This is also a study on how small changes can have profound influence on the meaning of a story. Not to get into spoilers, but the film-makers elected to alter how the aliens' perception of time works in the movie. This is probably defensible in terms of making the movie work as a movie but lends a different note to the main character's story. To be clear, I don't think this is a bad change, it's just an interesting one. For the record, I'd suggest seeing the movie first and then comparing it to the excellent short story, "The Story of Your Life," by Ted Chiang. The movie is structured with a big reveal at the end, where the story is more of a slow mediation on facts as presented. 
  2. Manchester by the Sea: I saw this last night and immediately had to change my best-of list. This is a terrific film. Full of sadness, incredible and poignant sadness, this movie is propelled by the conflicting and often counter-productive ways humans deal with the intolerable tragedies of life. It's a deep and very moving film, made all the better by the unflashy cinematography and unhurried, judgement-free witnessing of the characters' story. The story feels inevitable in its conclusions but also hard-won. I went into the film prepared to be depressed, and to be clear, this is a very sad movie, but I was not prepared for how funny and real it was. 
  3. Rogue One: This is a movie about and composed of conflicting pressures. I may be putting this as my third film simply because I haven't quite figured out what I feel about it even after a second viewing. That it ranks as one of the better Star Wars movies doesn't seem too much of a stretch to say. While far from flawless it does excel at doing one thing: provide everything a potential audience might ask for in a movie as well as one or two more things besides. I left the film exhilarated both times. To own the truth, you could easily convince me to watch it a third time for one basic reason: I felt like this movie added more to the stories of Star Wars than it took away. It respected my time and money. On the other hand, I do want to know more about what was going on behind the scenes with this movie. The differences between the trailers and the finished movie suggest that some considerable changes happened late in the film's production. Was this a shift away from a darker tone or was it a push towards one? There's nothing that feels out of tone with the rest of the movie (except perhaps for the not-quite-ready-for-primetime digital actors) so perhaps the reshoots simply exaggerated the movie already there. One final thought: as the first movie of the so-called "Star Wars Story Movies," I found myself interested in the question of fictional provenance. While this movie slides deftly in the beginning of the fourth movie, it does not feel tonally the same as the original trilogy. When discussing this with a friend, I tried this analogy: episodes Four through Six at times feel like the New Testament - using historical cues to provide context for an essentially mythological story. Rogue One is more like the work of the Jewish-Roman historian Josephus, discussing events propelled by religion and belief in a more or less historical fashion. 
  4. The Witch: Speaking of tone in movies, we have The Witch, a movie I probably respected more than enjoyed. The time period depicted here, the early colonial days of the Massachusetts Colony, is one I find fascinating. The menace and peril of the events of the story really crept under my skin when I watched it, the sense of awful things happening just outside of the camera's view. It's a horror movie to be sure, but its use of historically accurate dialogue and convincing sets separates it from other historical horror pieces this year (the enjoyable Conjuring 2 and Ouija come to mind). Essentially, the movie obeys its own rules, the rules set out at its outset. This is a movie set in Puritan times about people who, if not Puritans, understand the world in those terms. I'm not sure the movie quite fits together as planned but it's undeniably unsettling, especially in its final reel. 
  5. Zootopia: This movie stuck with me. I'm not sure I can write more about it other than as a work of fantasy, it creates a world I didn't feel quite done with at the conclusion of the movie. Contrasting this to "The Secret Life of Pets," which I enjoyed but didn't find myself thinking about later; I think this movie is helped by its theme of tolerance and prejudice. The film-makers also demonstrate the importance of taking seriously their own premise. I'm not sure how this world of predators and prey living together in a slightly futuristic city-scape happened, but I never felt like the film-makers were winking at their material or playing it for a cheap joke. For the story they were trying to tell it was important for there to be animals living together in uneasy collegiality.


Popular posts from this blog

Reading Response to "A Good Man is Hard to Find."

Reader Response to “A Good Man is Hard to Find” Morgan Crooks I once heard Flannery O’Connor’s work introduced as a project to describe a world denied God’s grace. This critic of O’Connor’s work meant the Christian idea that a person’s misdeeds, mistakes, and sins could be sponged away by the power of Jesus’ sacrifice at Crucifixion. The setting of her stories often seem to be monstrous distortions of the real world. These are stories where con men steal prosthetic limbs, hired labor abandons mute brides in rest stops, and bizarre, often disastrous advice is imparted.  O’Connor herself said of this reputation for writing ‘grotesque’ stories that ‘anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.’ This is both a witty observation and a piece of advice while reading O’Connor’s work. These are stories about pain and lies and ugliness. The brutality that happens to characters …

Arisia 2019: Wrap Report

Arisia 2019 is over!

It’s back to the real world this week after an entire weekend in Arisia 2019. I go to this convention every year, but this one will definitely be special to me. For one thing, this is the year that felt, at least for a moment, like it wasn’t going to happen. If the debacle with the e-board wasn’t enough, there was the strike at the Westin. The convention felt slimmer this year for sure. A lot of people self-selected to not come this year and honestly with the smaller, more confined venue of the Boston Park Plaza, that was a decision enormously beneficial to my enjoyment of this con.
I had a blast. I was more invested in the panels this year because I wrote a portion of them. It’s one thing to go to a panel and listen for reading suggestions, or new ideas, or people to follow on social media, but it’s quite another to put together a panel of people to create a very specific conversation and then get to sit back to see how the discussion plays out. I loved that aspect…

Thoughts on the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Anything that persists for an entire decade as a recurring entertainment event begins to mean more than simple entertainment. It’s inevitable that once a franchise like the MCU has continued for long enough that its overall significance has to be factored in. I don’t think fans quite appreciate what genre movies like these used to be like before MCU.

It’s really not the special effects or effective mix of humor, action, and character development. It’s the fact that all three of things happen within the persistent universe. Because no Marvel movie is the last Marvel movie, and there’s always another one to develop the characters, fans have a different relationship to this franchise.

It’s more like what comic books are, obviously, where no matter what crazy stuff goes on in a crossover event, you have a reasonable expectation that your favorite character will be back the next month or the month after that.

There have been good MCU movies, mediocre movies, and one that I’m pretty sure quali…