MOVIE BUFF-ET: Movie Buff remembers favorite — not necessarily the best — movies of 2016

Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham in Hell or High Water / Photo by Lorey Sebastian

As the end of the year draws near, no doubt, you are encountering more “best of” lists than you can possibly digest.

So what’s one more?

“Best of” lists can be presumptuous, particularly when it’s just the opinion of one person. More than 300 movies are released in an average year. Even if a person sees one or two new movies a week, he has still missed more than he’s seen.

“Best of” lists can also be a little pretentious. Taste varies, even among the most knowledgeable. The aspect of a movie that excites one viewer might be the very thing that turns another off. We all have our biases, and as hard as we might try, we don’t leave them at the door when we enter the theater.

New In Local Theaters

No new films are opening in Northwest Arkansas theaters this week, but here is a list of movies that opened in the last 10 days:

  • Fences (PG-13) 2 hr. 19 min.
    (AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Malco Rogers Towne)
    » Watch trailer
  • La La Land (PG-13) (PG-13) 2 hr. 8 min.
    (Malco Razorback, Malco Rogers Towne)
    » Watch trailer
  • Why Him? (R) 1 hr. 51 min.
    (AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Malco Pinnacle)
    » Watch trailer
  • Assassin’s Creed (PG-13) 1hr. 55 min.
    (AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Malco Rogers Towne)
    » Watch trailer
  • Dangal (NR) 2 hr. 35 min.
    (AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Rogers Towne)
    » Watch trailer
  • Passengers (PG-13) 1 hr., 56 min.
    (AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Malco Rogers Towne)
    » Watch trailer
  • Sing (PG) 1 hr. 48 min.
    (AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Malco Pinnacle)
    » Watch trailer

If you can’t stand a certain actor, it’s hard to give a movie staring him/her a legitimate chance. Conversely, there’re some performers whose films I’ll watch no matter how bad the movie is. Yes, I’ve seen every one of Elvis’ movies.

I don’t consider myself a critic. I’m a movie buff. I’d say I have middlebrow tastes, but some might find my opinions stuffy, while others might consider them crude. It’s really in the eye of the beholder.

With that in mind, I’m offering a “favorites” list instead of a “best of” list. I’m not sure I can definitively tell you what the best movies of the year were, but I can certainly reel off my favorites.

Favorite Drama: Fences
Fences is a powerful film about a middle-aged couple struggling with the effects racism has had on their family in the 1950s. Denzell Washington is charismatic in all of his films, but this is a standout performance for him in a career full of fine performances. His co-star Viola Davis locks arm-in-arm with Washington and goes toe-to-toe with him too. It’s early in the Oscar race, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Washington is nominated for best director and best actor with Davis getting a nod for best actress, too.

Manchester By The Sea is my runner up. It’s a simple tale about complex issues that breaks your heart, but also finds a way to make you laugh. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not a feel-good movie at all, but it does provoke you to chuckle at the ironies of life. Casey Affleck is great in a subtle performance, and Michelle Williams gives him fine support. Lucas Hedges is on point as a confused teenager, doing his best in a daunting situation.

Favorite Comedy: Deadpool
This category was the toughest for me. There were some O.K. comedies this year, but nothing I really loved. Then it dawned on me that Deadpool was a comedy starring a super hero rather than a super-hero flick that’s also funny.

O.K., so maybe I’m fudging at little.

The movie is raunchy as all get out, but it’s also laugh-out-loud funny. Wisecracking Ryan Reynolds was born to play the leading role in the film that’s action-packed, but also filled with madcap lunacy. It’s too bad that first-time director Tim Miller and Reynolds parted ways over creative differences while planning for the sequel.

My runner up would probably be Bad Moms. It just wasn’t a great year for comedies from my viewpoint.

Favorite Horror Movie: The Witch
The Witch is a creepy and unnerving movie that on the surface shouldn’t be all that frightening to a modern audience. However, this movie creeps up on you and gnaws at you in a way that no movie has for me since possibly The Exorcist.

There are very strong performances throughout, even one by a goat named Black Phillip. Two really creepy kids, a scary old hag, and a smothering tone only add to the swirling brew of horror that casts an odd eye on the themes of religious and political fanaticism.

Robert Eggers is a promising youngish director. I’m looking forward to his next project.

Favorite Super-Hero Movie: Dr. Strange
As a longtime comic-book reader, this was a tough choice for me. Captain America: Civil War was a really fine effort by Marvel Studios. I liked it a lot. Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans are a pleasure to watch as the yin and yang of the Marvel Universe as Iron Man and Captain America. Much of the film was pitch perfect — particularly the airport scene — but the third act did not hold up for me after getting over the initial blast of adrenaline from seeing the film with an enthusiastic crowd on opening night.

However, Dr. Strange is perhaps the best solo super-hero movie since Iron Man in 2008. Benedict Cumberbatch is perfectly cast as the prickly Stephen Strange, who must get over himself before he can develop into the hero the world needs him to be. While it does play a little bit with the comic-book canon, the movie does a fine job of capturing the core of the character, and it dynamically re-creates the psychedelic trippiness cartoonist Steve Ditko infused into series back in the Silver-Age of comics.

Favorite War Movie: Hacksaw Ridge
Hacksaw Ridge is a gut-wrenching film that goes about as far as it can to viscerally detail the sacrifice and loss suffered by American servicemen and their families when our nation goes to war. It shows the effect on families following a war by detailing a father’s struggle with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder as well as the actual horrific casualties on the battlefield by telling the true story of World War II medic Desmond Doss. Andrew Garfield gives the performance of his career thus far, although he is reportedly terrific in the forthcoming Martin Scorsese film Silence. Hugo Weaving is equally strong as his war-damaged father. Hacksaw Ridge is a gritty and compelling comeback film for director Mel Gibson.

Favorite Science Fiction Movie: Arrival
If you are looking for a shoot-‘em-up sci-fi space opera, then Arrival is not your movie, but if you are looking for a thought-provoking film that is as much about the necessity of communication in all relationships as it is a first contact with aliens, then you might really like this film that stars Amy Adams with support from Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker. The movie plays with a somewhat nonlinear storytelling that is a bit of a meditation on predestination. Denis Villeneuve is another director to watch.

Favorite Western: Hell or High Water
Hell or High Water is my favorite movie of the year. If I had to classify it, I’d call it Western Noir.

The movie centers around two brothers backed into a financial corner that resort to robbing banks to pay off the overdue mortgage of their deceased mother’s ranch. It plays off the legend of Jesse and Frank James, but with predatory reverse-mortgage lenders replacing the role of the railroads as the target of brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) Howard’s ire.

Jeff Bridges plays Marcus Hamilton, the cagey Ranger out to stop them with help from his reluctant partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham), who is kind of fed up with dealing with Marcus’ cantankerous ways. Bridges’ performance is an absolute treat, and Birmingham is nearly as good.

Yes, the plot is as familiar as the red dirt that fills the terrain of the film, but the details and the dialogue with which director David Mackenzie and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan flavor this old recipe with makes what could be plain and boring, tasty and fulfilling.

Favorite Animated Movie: Zootopia
With bright colors, funny and familiar voices, and anthropomorphic animals, the latest hit from Disney’s animation factory has all the trappings of any other funny-animal cartoon. However, Zootopia is not your average, ordinary funny bunny story.

Zootopia is social commentary disguised as a buddy-cop story that was dyed like a colorful Easter egg. The movie has layers, delightful ones that become more and more delicious as you make your way through it. Just like an actual Easter egg, the film might be even more enjoyable for adults than kids.

Favorite Remake: The Jungle Book
Like others I questioned why even try to remake a certified classic like Disney’s 1967 animated adaption of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. Director Jon Favreau (Elf and Iron Man) showed me and any other doubter why.

The movie washed away my skepticism very early on. The CGI is realistic in its depiction of the jungle environment and the anthropomorphic animals that interact with Mowgli (Neel Sethi) the man-cub who is adopted by a wolf pack. Amazingly the movie never trips itself up as it balances the talking animals against a pseudo-realistic environment.

As entertaining as the voice performances are by stars Bill Murray, Christopher Walken, Ben Kingsley, and Idris Elba, it’s the fantastic work by young Sethi as Mowgli that binds the film together. It’s a really enjoyable family film that’s available for streaming on Netflix.

Favorite Coming of Age Movie: Sing Street
If you ever did something crazy to grab the attention of a girl, or found yourself oddly attracted to a boy for a reason that you just can’t quite explain, or bonded with friends in forming a band, then Sing Street is a movie you might want to check out.

Sing Street is a little movie with a big ol’ romantic heart whose charms are difficult to resist. It’s is not as slick as the 1980s John Hughes’ dramedies it’s been compared to, but the grit serves Irish writer-director John Carney’s film well as he spins an off-told tale that’s made infectious by the performances of Ferdia Walsh-Peelo and Lucy Boyton.

Favorite Prequel: Rogue One: A Star Wars Tale
Going into the movie, I thought Rogue One: A Star Wars Tale would be fun, but the movie far exceeded my expectations.

Director Gareth Edwards expertly weaves his tale of how a mismatched band of rebels stole blue prints for the Death Star from the Empire at a tragic cost into the Star Wars canon. While some Star Wars experts might have some issues, from a general fan’s standpoint, the movie links up tightly with George Lucas’ Star Wars: A New Hope, and even makes it better.

While the original Star Wars Trilogy featured heroes fighting in a war, Rogue One is more about soldiers bonding together to perform missions vital to the Rebellion’s very existence.

The film’s conclusion is emotional and inspiring, and really leaves the door wide open for future films to delve into the far corners of the fantasy universe Lucas created.

Favorite Surprise: Greater
I covered Brandon Burlsworth during his career as an Arkansas Razorback, and unfortunately that included reporting on the car accident that robbed him of his life just as he was embarking on an NFL career. It is one of those events that still makes me wonder why, nearly two decades later.

When I heard that local real estate developer Brian Reindl was developing a film about Burlsworth’s life, I was skeptical that it would ever be made much less make it into theaters. Once I heard Reindl has accomplished both of those feats, I feared the movie might be bad.

My worries were unfounded. Greater is a solid movie that does right by Burlsworth and his family.

Are all the facts just right? No, the film takes creative license. There are exaggerations, and the movie simplifies aspects of the story and collegiate athletics for economy in storytelling.

That said, the movie really worked for me, and I think it would for most Razorbacks fans and Arkansans in general.

Neal McDonough offers a moving portrayal as Marty Burlsworth, Brandon’s older brother and father figure, and Nick Searcy is particularly good in a surprising role that I won’t give away. Novice actor Chris Severio gives heartfelt performances that will likely prompt laughter and tears.

Burlsworth beat the odds as a walk-on who became an All-American football player, but Reindl and his co-writer/director David Hunt triumphed over even greater odds to make the film and get it in theaters. What a pleasant surprise.

Classic Corner

Postcards from the Edge

There are quite a few successful actresses who have had daughters follow in their footsteps and make a significant mark on film. Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli, Janet Leigh and Jamie Lee Curtis, Ingrid Bergman and Isabella Rossellini, Goldie Hawn and Kate Hudson spring to mind rather quickly.

All of those are notable, but when you consider the significance, popularity and quality of Singin’ in the Rain and Star Wars, I’m not so sure that Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher didn’t top them all.

Fisher, 60, died Tuesday after suffering a heart attack on flight from London last week. Reynolds, 84, Fisher’s mother, died Wednesday after being taken to the hospital with complaints of breathing problems.

Singin’ in the Rain, co-starring Reynolds with Gene Kelley and Donald O’Connor, is considered by many to be the best musical ever produced by Hollywood. Star Wars, co-starring Fisher as Princess Leia with Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker and Harrison Ford as Han Solo, changed the film industry. Some say for the better, while others argue for the worse. Either way both films are highly entertaining and have provided joy for movie lovers for decades.

Reynolds and Fisher’s personal lives may have been more interesting than their careers, and those exploits became fodder for Fisher’s semi-autobiographical novel Postcards from the Edge, detailing her battles with drugs and mental illness in a candid but humorous fashion.

Fisher, a gifted writer who became one of the best script doctor’s in Hollywood, adapted the novel into a wickedly funny 1990 film by the same name that was directed by Mike Nichols. Meryl Streep garnered one of her 19 Oscar nominations for playing Suzanne Vale, the role based on Fisher, and Shirley MacLaine was nominated for a BAFTA for her part as Doris Mann, the role based on Reynolds.

Postcards from the Edge isn’t in the same league as either Singin’ in the Rain or Star Wars to my estimation, but the three would make for an eclectic lineup for a mini, at-home film festival over the holiday weekend.