For simplicity’s sake (and for the sake of not having to try to remember everything I’ve watched this year) I’m going to limit this list to movies that came out this year, which means only stuff I saw in theaters plus Zootopia. And since that only totals seven movies, I’m going to go chronologically rather than ranking them.
Captain America: Civil War
I’m pretty much down for everything Marvel is doing in the movie department right now (except for Doctor Strange, fuck that) and this wasn’t a disappointment. The MCU movies have hit a good midpoint between highbrow and lowbrow, and it’s really just cool to see a shared universe in a movie franchise. Civil War wasn’t anything overly special in and of itself, but it was super enjoyable and was impressive in its handling of a crapton of characters.
This released before Civil War but I saw it on DVD so I think this is where it fits on the list. Anyway, Zootopia is a fine movie that does a really good job at exploring prejudice and internalized biases, but the actual plot was underwhelming to me–it’s just a standard police mystery, but waaay simplified. I’m sure that’s fine for kids, but it doesn’t really hold up from an older perspective that’s used to more complex plots in plot-driven stories. Adventure or character-driven stories work better for all-ages movies, IMO.
I rewatched Finding Nemo before seeing Finding Dory and I was surprised by how good the former is coming at it as an adult. The thematic material exploring cautiousness and father-son relationships was really well-handled and practically everything that happened in the movie supported its themes.
Finding Dory, on the other hand, kind of just takes a “if you repeat a word enough it’s your theme” approach that I found really disappointing, and the plot is pretty much just willy-nilly (or at least that’s how it seemed from a first viewing). Also, Dory doesn’t scream nearly enough.
Star Trek Beyond
I stopped watching Star Trek Into Darkness about 20 minutes in because it sucked. This movie did not suck! In fact I really enjoyed it; the plot was engaging, the characters were enjoyable, the visuals were great, the action was exciting. A great summer blockbuster and probably the best we can hope for from a modern Star Trek movie.
Kubo and the Two Strings
Oh man, this movie. Totally blows Finding Nemo out of the water as far as sophisticated thematic material goes, although I’m not sure it’s quite as successful in its execution. Kubo and the Two Strings is a gorgeous, enrapturing movie that hits on some really good pathos, but it stumbles a bit with the actual plot, which felt sort of incidental, like a first draft that never got tightened up. Still, I would readily recommend this movie with no real reservations; it’s really incredible. I might have more to say about it when I get around to rewatching it, as it’s a very dense movie.
Ugh. There’s nothing technically wrong with this movie; the plot can be followed, the character motivations can be understood (for the most part; I think Jyn’s arc is too sparsely-communicated), the effects are phenomenal, it doesn’t really drag. There’s nothing actively bad in this movie, and yet it forgets to actually do something to make you care:
The characters are bereft of even cliche, one-note personalities, and don’t really have anything in the way of arcs or progression. The plot is far simpler than it needs to be given how much screentime it takes up and how ultimately pointless it is (given that this is a prequel and we know the results). The personal connection the movie tries to build, of the protagonist and her father, is never explored or given its due. The villain is totally unthreatening and basically just a huge screwup. And frankly, there aren’t enough action sequences and the ones that are there are far too basic.
La La Land
A late entry delaying this post because I was too lazy to write about it!
On the surface I really liked La La Land. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone put in great performances (and Ryan Gosling is very dreamy), the songs are great, the ending hits the right notes of bittersweetness. There’s also a stylistic touch I really liked where the movie starts out a lot more heightened-reality, surface-level sort of thing as it goes through the budding stages of the central relationship, and then as things start to fall apart the scenes get longer and the musical segments fade away and it becomes a much more traditional movie to match the fading magic from Mia and Sebastian’s romance.
Unfortunately, I also think the movie has a lot of wasted potential and missed opportunities. The whole shtick is that it’s a sendup to classic Hollywood, but La La Land fails to ever really have anything to say about classic Hollywood, and it does nothing to update the genre beyond setting it in modern day. “A movie in the style of classic Hollywood but made in 2016” is okay as a premise, but it’s disappointing that there’s really nothing new or thought-provoking here.
The closest the movie ever really comes to meaningful commentary is when John Legend’s character remarks on how his poppy, modern jazz is, despite Sebastian’s clear lack of interest in it, a valid take on the genre, as the whole point of jazz was to be new and exciting and daring. But there’s never any payoff to this; Sebastian doesn’t really argue, but his opinion clearly doesn’t change and he gets his jazz nightclub in the end, so I’m left wondering what is being communicated by this. It kind of feels like nothing much at all, like the movie was just showing a defense of progress and change without really engaging with it.
Meanwhile, the movie’s biggest theme, as best I can tell, is of dreams and the pursuit of them. This is fine, but I think it’s wealemed by the fact that the movie never really goes into the reality of going after one’s dreams and doesn’t show its characters attaining them. The actual plot of the movie is just the relationship between Mia and Sebastian, leaving the themes less explored than I would have liked.
Also, as much as I loved the songs, two (maybe three, arguably) of the five didn’t have much connection or relevance to the plot or themes of the movie, which I thought was disappointing.
While I didn’t end up loving this movie as much as I hoped, because ultimately there isn’t enough going on underneath the surface, I do need to stress that the surface is really lovely. The primary-color costuming, the fantastic cinematography, the music, the set design; La La Land is delightful to watch and I enjoyed it a ton.