Bar none, these films are the most humblest.
Welcome back. We’re counting down My Top 20 Films of 2016. If you missed yesterday’s post, where we sped through numbers 20 to 11, or just need a refresher, then you can go here to check that out. Otherwise, Jean Genies, let yourselves go!
There may be spoilers. Proceed with caution.
Dirs: Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg
You may think that you know cringe. You’ve watched a few episodes of Peep Show, or overheard an arguing couple on a train one day, or you stood by at a party as a friend of yours stuck their foot in their mouth over and over again to such a massive degree that you wished that a meteor would crash down from upon high in order to ensure that there would possibly be no further consequences or memory of this event, and you thought you knew cringe. My friends, you have no idea. You have absolutely no idea what cringe is like until you’ve sat through Weiner. To watch Weiner is nothing like watching a car wreck in slow-motion, like the cliché goes. No, it’s worse. To watch Weiner is comparable to reliving every last single instance throughout the entirety of your life in which you made yourself look like a giant ass with no reprieve for 96 full minutes.
Weiner is painful viewing, albeit not in a bad way. It is a hilarious, painful, cringe-inducing portrait of complete and total public collapse, of how a potentially promising young political figure brought about a swift end to his career in politics because he couldn’t keep his goddamn dick in its pants. Directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg somehow managed to broker the kind of filming access that most documentarians have wet dreams about, following Weiner around through every step of his failed 2013 bid to become Mayor of New York City. Filming him, his team, and even his long-suffering wife Huma Abedin seemingly 24/7, and only very occasionally being shut out for whatever reason. At one point, Weiner himself chastises the people filming him as they try to get him to open up for the camera by asking if they’ve ever heard of a talking fly, in response to the film’s nature as a fly-on-the-wall documentary. Yet he doesn’t ask them to stop filming, he doesn’t rescind their permits, and he doesn’t reject the opportunity to offer up wrap-around interviews long after filming has finished despite acknowledging the indignity of appearing in a documentary about your own sex scandal, like the man is pathologically addicted to performing in front of a camera.
Weiner, despite the access, doesn’t attempt to paint its titular subject as some kind of great political figure done wrong by the media and world at large, thankfully. In fact, quite frankly, nobody really comes out of Weiner looking any good: Anthony himself is a pridefully self-obsessed antagonist that does not know when to cut his losses, who looks down at the hole he’s been digging and decides that it’s not quite deep enough for his tastes. His senior campaign figures often react to the sexting scandal with nothing but concern for how their continued involvement in this Titanic of a campaign will look on them. The media acts less like noble truth-chasers than hounding vultures, determined to turn a situation in the public interest into nothing more than a carnival sideshow where policies are disregarded entirely in favour of false narratives built on nothing but speculation… Really, the only “character” in the film who even comes out slightly smelling like roses is Huma, whom the film’s various cameras keep catching the perfect silent expression of barely-restrained exasperation at her duplicitous imbecile of a husband. The scene where the pair sit watching CNN as the scandal breaks during the campaign for the first time, complete with censored images of her husband’s penis on TV, is the kind of comedic sequence Armando Iannucci wishes he came up with.
A large part of the film’s pleasure comes from Eli B. Despres’ outstanding editing job on it, always finding the right shot or sequence to cut to for maximum juxtaposition, working overtime to puncture the insularity and “glamour” of politics and political campaigning. One standout sequence captures Weiner’s infamous trainwreck of an interview on Lawrence O’Donnell’s The Last Word by constantly cutting to Anthony alone in the studio, since O’Donnell is on the other side of the country during it, yelling out his various tirades to a studio otherwise covered in silence with basically nobody else around, before following that up with a scene of Weiner watching the interview back the following morning with inexplicable pride. Weiner resultantly is a film that feels both incredibly timely and, thanks to the results of this year’s Presidential Election, immediately outdated. Its depiction of a political campaign, an important part of the democratic process upon which society is based around, being reduced to a running joke, where the media rabidly took pleasure in devaluing that process and bringing a swift end to a man’s political career (somewhat understandably) due to his personal indiscretions, is both a timely commentary on the failure of modern journalism and immediately outdated given the inbound nature of President Trump.
But throughout it all, Weiner never forgets to check in with the people most affected by this: the next generation of political activists. Watching them go from hopeful idealists at the campaign’s beginning to jaded funeral-marchers as the scandal drags on, their confidence in politics either shaken or completely destroyed by Weiner’s stupid imbecility, is a vital reminder that, for all the laughter we may have at an asshole digging his own grave, politics is no joke for those who rely on and put their trust in the people who wish to represent us.
09] Eye in the Sky
Dir: Gavin Hood
Star: Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Alan Rickman
It is impossible to make an apolitical War movie. This is something that I argued back when American Sniper was making the rounds, and it’s a theory I still hold belief in. War, as an act, is inherently political, nobody declares War on another person or another country simply because they’re bored and want something to do, and even then that would still be a political act. Therefore, a War movie is also an inherently political piece of cinema. You cannot provide “just the facts” in a War movie, especially a fictional War movie, no matter how hard you try because your finished product will end up saying something either pro or anti-War regardless of whether you intended it to. Despite it not being a War movie per se, I bring this up because I have a group of friends whom hate Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky because it tries, harder and almost more successfully than any other War movie I’ve seen, to be genuinely and staunchly apolitical – bringing up all the points on both sides of its drone strike debate and trying to leave it to the viewer to decide whether the outcome was justifiable or not.
That’s an opinion and viewpoint I understand and sympathise with – after the year that we have just had, works of allegedly political art that refuse to openly take a side on the issues that they are about are cowardly and wastes of space – but I’d argue that Eye in the Sky actually does take a side, as a direct result of it being impossible to make an apolitical War movie, despite its best efforts. Hell, the mere decision to characterise both Alia and her parents, devoting a not-inconsiderable amount of time before things start going to Hell to their daily lives, showing her father’s attempts to raise an educated compassionate daughter in the middle of strict Al-Shabaab control, is more than films like American Sniper bothered to do. It’s a film that constantly keeps the consequences in plain view for all to see, or not see in the case of those who either wish to circumvent procedure or pass the buck up the chain of command in order to somehow ease their conscience instead of making an actual goddamn decision.
At times, Eye in the Sky takes on the feeling of a sort of farce, albeit the kind of farce where you are only laughing because the alternative is despairing in absolute horror. It’s a film of cowards and cutthroats, alternately filled with people who would rather others make the horrific no-win decision for them so that they can sleep better at night, and obsessed operators who are willing to actively bend the truth, and coerce others into doing the same, in order to get a Go order. Throughout it all, almost everybody talks about Alia as anything but a young girl with a life and dreams of her own: as a potential propaganda piece, as an obstacle in the way, as a percentage figure, as potential collateral damage. She is dehumanised, constantly, whilst she sits on her street corner, selling her mother’s bread, completely unaware of what hangs above her. Only two people dare to respond to her existence as a person; the first is nothing more than the trigger and has absolutely no choice but to follow orders, the second is idealistic arguably to a fault, because, as much as we tell ourselves that we’d know how we are supposed to react to this situation, the truth is that this really is a no-win scenario and that the only certainties are that somebody will die and that it’s going to suck whatever that ultimate fate may be.
It’s deadly serious and there is no catharsis or conclusion in how things resolve, Eye in the Sky recognising that the actions of all of its cast, regardless of whether they believe they’re trying to help, are doing nothing more than continuing to perpetuate the cycle of war, giving those who may otherwise have been opposed to groups like Al-Shabaab, or with no political or ideological opinions at all, the motive and passion required to be radicalised. This is pretty much the more-refined and ideal version of Hood’s 2007 film, Rendition, which also attempted to tackle similar ground but to less success and far less nuance. His filmmaking has certainly come on leaps and bounds, at least. Eye in the Sky, despite primarily being a film in which people shout moral, philosophical, and political arguments back and forth at one another for 90 minutes, is unbearably tense, twisting the coil of its pressure-cooker ticking-bomb scenario ever tighter and refusing to let up until the end credits start rolling. He also gets a legitimately terrifying performance out of Helen Mirren, one that could have held up the film entirely in its own right but is still backed up by a uniformly stellar supporting cast, including a brilliantly droll Alan Rickman.
So, I understand why others may hate Eye in the Sky. But I found it to be a gripping, heart-wrenching, nuanced, intelligent, and mature exploration of drone warfare and the fucked perpetual nature of modern War. Even if it still fails at the one thing it sets out to do: make an apolitical War movie.
08] Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
Dirs: Akiva Schaffer, Jorma Taccone
Star: Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, Jorma Taccone
I could try writing a giant 1,000 word treatise on how Popstar is some kind of hyper-intelligent piece of socially-relevant and mature underrated genius that blows the film’s standing and importance far above what it actually is. But fact is that doing so would be even more bullshit than most of my essays during my university Film Studies course. There is no secret underbelly to Popstar, no defiantly feminist undercurrent like last year’s major comedy representative Spy, no entertaining meta-commentary like the Jump Street series, and no deeper personal connection that raised it into the upper echelons of the list like with our next entry. Nope, Popstar is a great film simply because it is really, really, really fucking funny, and it is on this list and this high up simply because there were maybe 2 to 3 minutes of film total where I was not laughing uproariously at it, and there were multiple times where I was in actual pained stitches from laughing so hard at it for so long.
There’s a part of me that feels like I’m doing Popstar a disservice by not doing some kind of in-depth deep-dive analysis on it like I have every other film up to now, but the truth is that Popstar really is the kind of film whose greatness is apparent just by watching it, and talking about it becomes little more than just explaining the joke or, worse, listing off all the funniest jokes in a dry-as-hell manner that’s just not entertaining to read about. It’s much like Sausage Party in that it’s a smart dumb movie, a film that flings the stupidest jokes at you at 100mph and with such earnestness that it’s basically impossible to not be won over. After all, if this one gag doesn’t work, another 15 will be along in just as many seconds and at least a third of them will land with some capacity. Seriously, the gag-per-minute ratio in this film is ludicrous, there are more gutbusters here in these tight-as-hell 86 minutes than most full seasons of TV comedies provide.
Where things differ from Sausage Party is that, whilst both films are very loving and surprisingly sweet, Popstar manages its gags without ever really having to resort to offensive shock humour or regressive stereotypes. Basically all of its laughs come from incredibly well-crafted jokes, whether they be big setpieces, physical and visual comedy, one of the film’s many running gags, or even just something incredibly stupid. Given that you can’t get through a comedy film today without at least four gay-panic “jokes,” that’s refreshing to experience. In fact, much of Popstar acts as a sort of antidote to the modern American comedy film, doing right everything that they do wrong. Celebrity cameos are either relevant enough to the film or the joke that they’re attached to that their prevalence doesn’t feel like a crutch, the editing is tight with a firm grip on when to stop a joke and what scenes are worthy of inclusion in the first place, the base script sketches three-dimensional characters and great jokes in its own right that there’s little noticeable difference between the scripted jokes and the improv moments (if there even were any to begin with).
Schafer and Taccone – with the exception of The Watch, which was just dire – have a habit of directing brilliant outstanding comedies that go underappreciated upon release but eventually gain the respect that they deserve with time. It happened with Hot Rod, it happened with MacGruber, and I guarantee you that it’s gonna happen again with Popstar in a few years, when a whole mess of people stumble upon it on Netflix and proceed to laugh their arses off at it. I realise that my entire argument for it being on the list and this high up boils down to “it’s just that great, go watch it for yourself,” but that really is the best way to sum up Popstar. Sometimes, there really is no deeper meaning as to why a film is so great. It just obviously is.
Dir: Paul Feig
Star: Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones
Ghostbusters is not, strictly-speaking, a great film. Its biggest problem is undoubtedly the fact that its second hour has been hacked to the bone by a studio that, given how atrocious the marketing for this film was, seemingly tried everything in their power to kill this thing dead, so the film just slams into its final third really awkwardly and noticeably. But there are also other problems: its villain is quite dull, at least half of the callbacks are pace-ruining groaners, the relationship between Erin and Abby is missing some connective tissue required to make the finale pop, and the action direction is passable at best. It’s a very good film, and still one of the best comedies released this year as I originally asserted it would be in my review, but it’s not objectively great.
But, then again and I await your inevitable pitchforks and torches for saying this, so was the original Ghostbusters. Both films are very good works that only really elevate themselves into greatness depending on the circumstances and expectations surrounding your viewing of them. For example, I didn’t see the original Ghostbusters for the first time in full until I was 17 and was struck with the realisation that I’d not only absorbed pretty much the whole film by pop cultural osmosis over the years, but also that my muted reaction would likely have been closer to adoration had I seen it when I was, say, 7 or 8. This Ghostbusters, meanwhile, appeared terrible in the run-up to its viewing and I was worried that this would be the moment that the Paul Feig bubble would burst, despite many instant-classic individual shots littered about the trailers and promotional images. But then I sat down to watch Ghostbusters and got… a Paul Feig movie. A Paul Feig movie devoid of swearing and with a giant expensive blockbuster finale, but a Paul Feig movie in style, tone, presentation, and overall theme. And that was alright by me for, if you’re somehow unaware, I love me the works of Paul Feig.
Paul Feig’s film career – well, his film career from Bridesmaids onwards, since we apparently don’t talk about the two films he directed prior to that – has been characterised by a focus on female friendships and dynamic female characters, both traits that many American comedies, particularly in the wake of the wave of Todd Phillips and former-mentor Judd Apatow bro/dude comedies of the 2000s, never really focus on or treat well. Bridesmaids, The Heat, Spy; all three may have had a male creative presence leading the charge (having written the script for Spy and directing all three) but they all have a female feel to them. They all have fun, entertaining, multi-faceted female characters who get to look stupid and have legitimate flaws and share burgeoning friendships based on love and respect and feel, well, real. Ghostbusters takes that view, that Paul Feig Movie, and demonstrates just how well it can work when applied to the typically male-driven blockbuster tentpole. Patty, Abby, Erin, Holtzmann; these are phenomenally well-written, defined, realised characters whose every interaction with one another, especially in part to the perfect casting that abounds throughout the film, is a genuine joy to witness.
And that is powerful. For me, to see some kind of near-ideal of what a female-fronted studio tentpole blockbuster could be, about women whose traits don’t solely consist of “is a badass” or “is hot” is powerful, it’s refreshing. 4 women, 2 plus-sized, 1 Black, 1 a lesbian played by a lesbian (that the film frustratingly never comes out and admits because Sony are cowards); that means something to my defiantly feminist heart. To watch them trade jokes, actually funny jokes, and support each other, and go on genuine arcs however subtle, was genuinely uplifting to see. To find myself represented on the big screen in a $144 million blockbuster movie by Dr. Jillian Holtzmann – which I went into further detail on here, for those of you who may be (somewhat understandably) scoffing or laughing in disbelief at this statement – with Kate McKinnon’s go-for-broke performance, was sincerely inspiring, an escapist-yet-obtainable ideal version of myself I can now look to as something I can strive towards.
Representation matters, particularly when said representation is attached to a film as good and entertaining as Ghostbusters is. I’ve seen it 3 times this year, twice in the cinema, and I plan to watch it many more times in the years to come because watching Ghostbusters makes me happy. It brings me joy, and given the year that I have been through, joy is a commodity that I put a very high price on. Nobody can take that away from Feig, Katie Dippold, and everybody involved in the making of this movie.
06] Kubo and the Two Strings
Dir: Travis Knight
Star: Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey (voices)
Animation has had a banner year. This is a fact that I mentioned back in the preamble to the first part of this specific series, and the fact that there are still two more animated entries to come on this list should lay to rest any further doubt or debate about the issue. But, with one major exception (which will crop up in the next part), no other animation studio on the planet is anywhere close to the level that Laika are currently on. Their films are bold and daring – where studios like Disney and Pixar attempt to tackle complex themes and subjects in a presentation that nonetheless aims for as wide and inoffensive an audience as possible, Laika refuses to tone down the presentation of its themes at the risk of turning away the youngest of kids from their stories. Coraline was a straight-up Children’s Horror movie, ParaNorman goes to some incredibly dark yet vital places and is one of my favourite animated movies of all-time, and whilst The Boxtrolls was an unequivocal disappointment, it was still a boundlessly inventive and visually stunning disappointment hampered more by a lack of restraint in the ideas phase than a compromised vision.
Laika are storytellers, first and foremost. You can see that in all of their films, and not just because all of their films are about stories in some way, because they have such a confidence in the tales they tell. They wouldn’t be caught dead making a film about animals singing “ironic” covers of pop songs. Maybe it’s the fact that they’re essentially the pet project of the son-of-Nike-CEO Phil Knight, so they’re basically guaranteed some kind of financial safety net as an independent animation studio and can therefore make the kind of risky singular films that they do (anybody labelling them “The American Aardman” is doing both studios a major disservice). With Kubo and the Two Strings, Laika’s head, Travis Knight, finally steps into the director’s chair and any, and I do mean any, further reservations or qualifications about this studio have been silenced for good. Kubo is not just an exemplar of animated filmmaking, it’s one of those films whose viewing reminds you of why you watch movies in the first place. It’s within spitting distance of ParaNorman, and I do not say that lightly.
It’s more than just Knight, and writers Marc Haimes & Chris Butler, tapping into the spirit of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, seemingly a shorthand way to earn excessive praise from most all film critics and animation fans. There’s a genuine tangible respect for Ancient Japanese culture and mythology on display, here, in a rather similar way to Edge of Tomorrow. It’s more than just taking Japanese iconography – with samurai warriors, village customs, all-powerful Gods, and Eastern-influences on the excellent Dario Marianelli score – it’s there in the themes of reincarnation, of matriarchal power (a driving force throughout the film and so goddamn amazing to see), of the process of grief and the afterlife, of forgiveness and redemption, and so much more. The closest comparison is probably the Kung Fu Panda series (albeit with that one being China rather than Japan), only Kubo has the commitment and confidence in its tone and audience that KFP3 lacked; juggling Drama and Comedy with deftness and skill, knowing that a good joke can provide a vital release for the audience but also knowing when to jettison jokes entirely to avoid undercutting the drama and the heart that powers the story.
There is an intensity to Kubo that is unmatched by almost any other animated feature on the market right now (not already made by Laika). It’s a film of strong emotions, not always positive ones, the kind that can often run the risk of turning off those with stigmas surrounding what they believe Animation should be like. But Kubo’s commitment to them is one of the ways it stands out from the pack, because it knows that telling this story in any other way with any kind of dilution would dull the impact that it’s going for. There’s a spectacular fight at sea on a boat around the film’s midpoint, that I already highlighted back in my list of The Best Scenes of 2016, that compliments the film’s spectacular visuals with a viciousness, a scrappy knockdown-drag-out fight to the death, that sells the villains, the threat, and the story’s themes of matriarchal protection with an undeniable passion. Oh, and of course, Kubo is utterly breath-taking to look at – both in its showier setpieces, including the Gashadokuro (one of the largest stop-motion puppets ever), and in the little details, with some phenomenal boarding and shot choices all over the thing.
Kubo is what happens when Animation storytellers take risks and have the courage and confidence in their convictions to create something different and bold from the rest of the field. Other studios make marketing exercises involving Angry Birds or motherfucking Emojis of all cocking things. Laika tell stories, and they are operating on a level so far above everybody else (bar one) right now that it’s not even funny.
Return tomorrow for The Top 5.