At the end of the year, we like to look back and take stock of our movie going lives. It was a rough year, no question. Many of the movies we were looking forward to most over the last 12 months took every opportunity to disappoint, but, as always, we can at least make a list of 10 films that stood out above all others in the realms of sci-fi, action and horror, and 2016 was no exception. From mercs with mouths to guys who are nice, from good alien invasions to bad alien invasions, from childhood quests both real and animated, and from remembering your heroes to remembering the dangers of being alone in the woods, these are the Top 10 Nerdy Movies of 2016…
10) For the Love of Spock
This isn’t the first documentary about the cultural effect of Star Trek, but it’s probably the most personal. Directed by Adam Nimoy, and released just one year after the death of his father Leonard, For the Love of Spock, is not just your typical bio-pic, but a probing sometimes painful look at a difficult father/son relationship. But like the inner workings of Nimoy’s signature character, the emotion stays beneath the surface. There’s a stoicism to the younger Nimoy’s direction that would make Spock proud, as the filmmaker tries to understand the man by understanding the character, while getting great insights from his beloved cast members, both old and new. With input from Leonard Nimoy himself before he died, For the Love of Spock shrewdly doesn’t go over much of the same ground as Nimoy’s previous insights into his life and character, and offers a broader context for a great actor’s career, and his place in the broader culture.
9) The Nice Guys
It’s hard to say that Shane Black’s latest was a nerdy movie, but there was definitely something nerdy about the way that Black combined his propensity for buddy-cop action and the kind of 70s nostalgia porn that only the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez typically travel in. Still, the odd couple pairing of Ryan Gosling as a drunken misanthropic P.I., and Russell Crowe as an enforcer with a heart of gold, made for one of the humorous action/comedy partnerships in years, and they ably led an ensemble of screwball characters as Gosling and Crowe find themselves embroiled in an L.A. mystery involving a federal investigation, a dead porn actress, and the American automotive industry. It’s like Chinatown by way of The Naked Gun, but with Black’s signature tone and pithiness. The Nice Guys was probably the best film from the summer of 2016, whether people saw it or not.
8) 10 Cloverfield Lane
There are very few surprises in modern moviemaking, but when it was announced that a new Cloverfield movie was going to be released back in March, it was very surprising indeed. More than that, 10 Cloverfield Lane was itself surprising, a tense, dramatic thriller that didn’t rely on gimmicks in the same way as its predecessor. Comparisons to The Twilight Zone were also apt as we spend most of our time in this basement setting, and are forced to wonder if this is somehow all a figment of John Goodman’s imagination, or whether there was an actual alien invasion/bio attack outside that he was keeping Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Gallagher Jr safe from. First time feature filmmaker Dan Trachtenberg keeps you guessing, all while showing a tremendous amount of self-control in terms of how he guides his triad of talented actors and how he manages the fantastical elements of the story. It’s a promising debut, but an even more promising launch of a franchise. The third Cloverfield movie arrives next fall.
7) Kubo and the Two Strings
Another year filled with animated hits for the kiddies, but the one thing they had in common was that they were all realized in the computer. Naturally, the odd man out, both stylistically and commercially, was the one film that was hand-crafted, old-fashioned stop-motion animation. Despite it’s apparent lack of cultural sensitivity (a clearly Asian-inspired tale with only two Asian actors in the main cast?) Kubo and the Two Strings was, at least, artistically inspired, a beautiful, self-contained tale that was imaginative and elegant. On top of the aesthetics, it never feels like director Travis Knight is talking down to the audience. Kubo’s journey is perilous, the dangers to himself and his companions are real, and the adversaries he faces, his evil aunts and grandfather, are scary enough to give grown men nightmares. Like with Sausage Party, 2016 was a great year for expanding animation beyond talking animals, but unlike Sausage Party, Kubo’s still waiting to be discovered.
In a year full of comic book movies, how do you stand out? Unexpected team-ups, invaders from beyond, shiny lights in the sky, and the special trend in 2016: superheroes fighting one and other. Deadpool was going to leap off the screen no matter how good or bad other films like Captain America: Civil War or Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice were going to be, but the fact that it was a good as it was on both an action and character level speaks highly of the skill and dedication by actor Ryan Reynolds, director Tim Miller, and screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick. Deadpool the movie both sent up and celebrated the things that have made superhero flicks a staple of the movie diet, but it does so lovingly, and with an eye on being a part of that world, all while being told from the point of view from a character that’s the perfect marriage of actor and part. Not bad for a movie no one wanted to make…
5) The Jungle Book
We sometimes bemoan the use of computer generated effects in film, but there’s no doubt that when it works, it really works. That’s the case with The Jungle Book, a world created almost entirely in the digital world save for one little boy named Neel Sethi who plays the main character Mowgli. Interacting with not only a fake world, but fake co-stars, Sethi carries a lot of weight for a child actor in a movie this big, but then again, so does director Jon Favreau who uses all the skills he’s learned so far as a filmmaker to guide Sethi through the imagined jungle and its population of tigers, wolves, bears and apes. Disney’s got it down to a science turning their beloved classics into live action hits for the new century, but this was their most difficult challenge it terms of creating a realistic animal kingdom that was both fantastical and grounded. Rarely are remakes able to exist in the same sphere in creating a while new world while still paying homage to the original, but The Jungle Book offers more than the – sorry – bare necessities.
4) The Arrival
A movie about patience and understanding was the ideal antidote to the tortured soul on the same week Trump claimed victory in the presidential race, but it just so happened to be dressed up in the clothing of a sci-fi thriller. Like a lot of movies, The Arrival starts with giant alien ships arriving on Earth, but the aliens aren’t even vaguely humanoid, they don’t pick up English like its no big thing, and they aren’t here to forcibly take our natural resources. Our hero is a linguist who understands that communication is complicated and messy, especially when the communicators seem to have nothing in common, even perception. Denis Villeneuve continues to build a filmography that shows a technical mastery that never loses the human touch, and Amy Adams seems like a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination early next year. It’s hard to say at this point whether The Arrival will become an all-time classic, but in the moment it delivered what the audience needed.
3) Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
No franchise has done more to muddy the term “prequel” than Star Wars, so it’s only appropriate that if the term is to be reclaimed, then a Star Wars movie be the one to do it. The basis for Rogue One, the first spin-off movie in the series, was a single line in the crawl of the first movie in 1977, but from that line is a glorious sci-fi war movie that has humour and heart, but also an ambitious scale and a grounded feel that almost makes you think your watching The Longest Day or The Dirty Dozen, but with laser pistols and TIE Fighters. A tremendous multi-racial cast create an entirely new Rebel crew you’re rooting for all the way through, and some clever digital trickery integrates old, familiar faces in a (near) seamless way. If the point of Rogue One is to establish the feasibility of an annual parade of new Star Wars adventures, then Gareth Edwards and company have made eager fans even more excited for the next phase.
2) Midnight Special
There were more than a few “Specials” at the multiplex this year, but Midnight Special was uniquely and appropriately named. In this movie, a cult sees a boy with unique abilities as the new messiah, the government sees him as a potential weapon, but his father sees him as his son, and he will do anything to protect his son. Jeff Nichols channels his own Earth-bound sensibilities through the lens of early Spielberg, like the director smashed together The Sugarland Express with Close Encounters of the Third Kind into a chase movie that’s as much about the emotional journey than the physical destination. It’s an epic reminder that a parent will do anything for their child, even if that means giving them up to protect them, and endangering themselves to protect that child from the goons wanting to exploit him. There’s a timeless quality to Midnight Special, and a simplicity that’s as warm and reassuring as a hug from your father. It may sound trite and idealistic, but Nichols makes a convincing case that love is the greatest super power of all.
1) The Witch
This was a great year for horror movies, no question, so it’s only fitting that the top spot be taken by the best of the bunch, The Witch. The feature directorial debut of production designer Robert Eggers, of course, looked resplendent, as if Eggers and his cast of unknowns actually went back in time to 16th century New England to film this movie, but how good a movie looks sometimes has no bearing on how it makes you feel, and how The Witch makes you feel is unsettled. The mood, the (lack of) lighting, the sound design, and the sparsely melodic soundtrack sells the feeling of fear and paranoia of these pilgrims to the audience, so much so that in the end, even you, in the audience, is praying for salvation. The Witch seems like the genre response to last year’s Oscar-winner The Revenant, a tale that captures the beauty of frontier life on screen, but passes on the cold, isolation, and dread so convincingly that you’re feeling alone yourself in a darkened theatre, no matter how many people are there with you.