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Ep102: The Best and Worst Movies of 2016 (So Far)

best

You can also download this podcast episode on iTunes and Stitcher.

So we did talk about The Light Between Oceans and Morgan and even Southside with You this week on the Now Conspiring podcast, but not as featured reviews.  No, we spent a good amount of time looking back on the year as a part of a whole before we move into the fall season. And we want all of you to judge which one of us “wins” the debate.

QUESTION OF THE WEEK: Who do you think had the best pick for Best and Worst movies? It’s between CJ, Will, Kayla, and Jon.

Go on…Ep102: The Best and Worst Movies of 2016 (So Far)

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How ‘Stranger Things’ Ended up Becoming the Best Movie of the Summer

stranger things best

To be clear, the Netflix original series Stranger Things is not a “movie” in the traditional sense. There was no theatrical release, it runs as eight hour-long episodes, and it’s obviously crafted to fit the specific medium of television. That is, it’s not trying to be anything but a TV show.

But if you can broaden your definition of “movie,” or in this case, a summer movie, to that of a contained experience that is meant to be watched in one sequence, then you’ll find that Stranger Things fits the framework.

That’s why I’m convinced that Stranger Things is the surprise hit that Summer 2016 needed, and I’d even push that it’s definitely the best movie of the summer, without question. An eight-hour movie, but a movie nonetheless.

And that’s not solely because this summer has been a series of painful disappointments with few bright spots, though that is a major reason why Stranger Things has stood out as prominently as it has. If anything, this Netflix series that few people saw coming had more reasons to fail than most tentpole blockbusters this summer had to succeed.

stranger things best

X-Men: Apocalypse, a film I did enjoy for the most part, was widely panned, despite following a succession of good X-Men sequels starring Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy, directed by Bryan Singer, the man behind some of the best X-Men films and Usual Suspects.

The marketing for Independence Day: Resurgence had most of us convinced that this would be 2016’s Jurassic World, but we ended up with something closer in quality to Alice Through the Looking Glass, the unremarkable sequel to a hugely successful Disney live-action film from 2010 that was followed up by critical darlings like CinderellaMaleficent, and this year’s The Jungle Book.

Warner Bros. followed up the most polarizing superhero movie in recent memory, Batman v Superman, with one of the most yawn-inducing films of the entire year, The Legend of Tarzan, despite featuring a fantastic cast and being directed by David Yates.

The movie positioned to redeem Warner Bros. in 2016 was Suicide Squad, which ended up being a decent, yet flawed movie that maintained the divisiveness of the DC cinematic universe, spawning far more arguments and “flame wars” than real discussion about how the movie has truly affected people.

Do we even need to mention Ghostbusters?

stranger things best

When you consider what makes a movie the “best” out of all the others, there’s a lot you might miss when settling on your conclusion. Everyone likes bad movies, and the vast majority of people even love bad movies (see Secret Life of Pets), and that’s because it’s quite impossible to enforce a list of rules that determine what makes a film objectively good, bad, or the somewhat ubiquitous okay, which does little to paint a true picture of a film’s quality.

Deciding which movie is the “best” has to speak to a larger list of criteria than your personal judgement, or even a critical consensus. You can turn it into a numbers game, gathering all of the reviews and fan reaction scores to calculate some kind of average that gives you an answer…

…But that’s a lot of effort for very little reward, and for many reasons, it’s still an ineffective way to call out a movie for rising above the rest and deserving to be remembered in 2026. This conclusion should be about more than getting better marks based on a small sample of opinions. True, you can factor in box office and impressions to make your guess, but as we’ve covered earlier, bad movies are quite easy to like, which makes the best movies hard to quantify.

All that said, my conclusion, obviously, is that Stranger Things is the best movie of the summer, despite not even being in the official running. I guess you can say that like the show itself, Stranger Things has a knack for defying expectations.

stranger things best

I reached this conclusion by considering a more nuanced trait of the show that no summer movie of 2016 seemed to achieve. But first and foremost, Stranger Things is fundamentally a well-crafted piece of entertainment. It’s well-written and edited, the characters transcend the tropes they’re based on, and there’s a polished feel to every aspect of this show that immerses you into Hawkins (and it’s “Upside Down”) like no other location we’ve been transported to all summer. Or all year, even.

In other words, Stranger Things gets the details almost perfectly right. The makers of the show, Matt and Ross Duffer, certainly gave it their all with this project. But the more nuanced trait that I mentioned earlier goes beyond the details. It’s all about the complete picture of Stranger Things that makes it the most satisfying experience of the summer, in just about every way you can think of.

You know what’s refreshing? The ability to have a long and meaningful conversation about the show, even if you disliked it, with people who share a different opinion. Yes, even online. Because almost no one is letting this show be about something else

With Ghostbusters, we were forced to start every review or analysis with our take on whatever irrelevant controversy we had the most thoughts on. Suicide Squad has been a purple and green train wreck in terms of how critics and fans think and react to each other, despite that not being a fault of the actual movie. Even movies that most audiences have loved, like Captain America: Civil WarFinding Dory, and Star Trek: Beyond, have been monopolized in conversation as sequels and franchises, not a unique or personal experience that actually changed anything.

stranger things best

Stranger Things, to be fair, did not achieve anything all by itself. At first glance, you might even get a bit cynical of its strengths because of how obviously reminiscent they are of classic 80s movies and novels, especially E.T.Poltergeist, and Firestarter to name a few out of probably dozens of relevant inspirations.

But Stranger Things does something unexpected with these established tropes. It turns them into new ideas. It does for 80s clichés what George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels did for Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey and fantasy platitudes repeated ad nauseam since Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

More specifically, Stranger Things persistently subverts its own genre, setting up your expectations to think the story is going one way, only to pay off its plot with surprises that still fit within the context of what you’ve already seen.

For example, you don’t have any reason to believe the character Nancy Wheeler isn’t someone capable or competent enough to stand up to supernatural threats. But the show wisely lets you think this when we’re first introduced to her as a love-struck teenager who doesn’t have time for her little brother and his friends, which isn’t hard to believe either. Her “jerk” boyfriend, Steve, is also set up a certain way, only to defy your expectations with his own distinct twists and turns as a character, and none of that feels reminiscent of what we’ve already seen in Spielberg and King stories. Far from it.

stranger things best

This allowed the show to grab and hold on to both key demographics of its potential audience: people old enough to remember these 80s tropes and everyone else. You’re hooked either way, because the movies and novels of the 80s influenced prominent filmmakers today, through movies like Super 8and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, both helmed by the quintessential 80s geek, J.J. Abrams.

But while those projects felt more like a celebration of 80s culture, Stranger Things finds impossible ways to both defy and evolve them for new audiences. It’s not a sequel, like Captain America: Civil War or Finding Dory, but it is a successor to something else, and in the most original way possible for what it is.

I haven’t mentioned the most memorable and important character of the entire show: Eleven. Her presence in Stranger Things deserves to permeate the culture, and it’s already starting to with devoted fans who are evangelizing 2016’s breakout role in Millie Bobby Brown. It’s easy to celebrate Eleven because of the child actor’s performance, of course, but there’s no reason to forget that she benefits from a script that effortlessly makes you feel every big moment of its running time. El works because just about everything else in this show works.

For me, the choice is clear. Stranger Things is objectively as good as the best movies to come out all summer. In my opinion, it stands above most films of the year. But what makes it the “best” piece of entertainment to sit down and enjoy this summer is its lasting effect through how it’s talked about, the point in time it was released, and the loving care that was put into just about every aspect of the final product.

stranger things best

And even though it’s over, complete with one of the most satisfying endings I can think of in 2016, it still manages to leave you wanting more, questioning everything you just watched, and speculating what’s possible when we’ll eventually (hopefully) revisit these characters, and Hawkins.

Season Grade: A


What did you all think of Stranger Things? I left out great highlights from the show (sorry Hopper!), so be sure to share your take in the comments. 

Also, thanks for reading this. You can subscribe to my posts by clicking “Follow” in the right sidebar. Or just say hello on Twitter! @JonNegroni


The Ghostbusters Episode

ghostbusters review

It’s time for a brand new podcast episode of Now Conspiring, and all sorts of things happened. We reviewed Ghostbusters, obviously, but we also found time to chat about some of the big movie news of the week.

Wondering what the deal is with those new Power Rangers posters? Confounded at the popularity of the gentleman’s smartphone game, Pokémon GO? Well, it’s time to conspire by listening to our conspiring.

QUESTION OF THE WEEK (and you’re required to answer this): If you could choose ONE film franchise to never be rebooted (or rebooted again), which would you choose?

Go on…The Ghostbusters Episode

Review: The ‘Ghostbusters’ Reboot Suffers Most From Forced Nostalgia

ghostbusters review

2015 was a banner year for the “requel,” in that it boasted several largely successful sequel/remakes ranging from Mad Max and Jurassic World all the way to a new Star Wars.

Yet this year’s Ghostbusters is more akin to Rise of the Planet of the Apes, in that it reboots the lore of the previous films entirely by placing its hapless group of ghost hunters in NYC at the very beginning of their story. Despite this clean slate, though, the movie really doesn’t want you to forget that there was another Ghostbusters movie over 30 years ago.

The best gags come in the very early scenes, when it’s established that two former friends and paranormal scientists, Erin and Abby (played by Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy), reunite to help with a ghost problem in a local haunted house. They’re aided by Abby’s new engineer accomplice, Holtzmann (played by Kate McKinnon), who builds all the gear they use to subdue the CGI specters that have been unleashed all over town.

Later on, the “Ghostbusters” also recruit Kevin (played by Chris Hemsworth), a secretary with almost no other character traits aside from him being good looking and a total airhead, as well as Patty (played by Leslie Jones), a former MTA worker who lends the team knowledge over the historical nonfiction of New York, along with a new, sweet ride from her uncle’s funeral home.

ghostbusters review

It’s important to point out that this reboot works a lot harder than Ghostbusters 2 when it comes to rejuvenating what made the original 1984 film so endearing and an instant classic. But it does still contain a lot of the same story beats, because it is a reboot, after all. The idea of a mostly-female cast, however, is never quite used to its full potential, believe it or not, as a way to make this Ghostbusters feel like something all its own in comparison. For whatever reason, it’s nowhere near as smart as it probably should have been.

The main characters are still, for the most part, derivatives of the original cast, but with new actors who happen to be mostly women this time around. Granted, the comedic timing is a lot different as to be expected from a Paul Feig film (though Bridesmaids-level humor, this is not). Unfortunately, the majority of jokes read as some of the worst kinds of ad-libs you’d hear from an amateur improv group, rather than out of the mouths of SNL veterans, and a good number of the gags don’t extend far beyond the realm of generic slapstick and flatulence jokes.

In other words, this film won’t do any favors for harsher critics of last year’s Spy, for example, though that Paul Feig movie somewhat benefited from a more “uninhibited” McCarthy performance. Many of the jokes in Ghostbusters are surprisingly unfunny and ill-timed, many of them sounding like someone used the wrong punchline from another joke or bit.

ghostbusters review

And it’s not just the humor that feels a bit stifled and poorly executed. A good number of scenes were shoddily edited with very obvious cuts in the middle of humorous scenes that apparently didn’t translate well after shooting. There were plenty of moments when a scene would just end, without any sort of dialogue or transition you’d expect to be warranted.

The action, at times, is thrilling enough and benefitted by decent effects that let the movie go all out on its weird premise. To be fair, though, a lot of these action scenes are a lot longer than you’d want them to be, and it’s easy to find yourself getting quite bored as you wait for the ending, in no small part thanks to a weird lack of tension, even for a comedy.

The film is also distracted by its own overload of cameos and references to the original film, in a way that feels far too forced and hamstrung to carry any weight beyond, “Oh look! I know who that is!” Worse, the cast members they brought back for these cameos come off as positively bored and reluctant to even be here, save for Dan Ackroyd.

ghostbusters review

That said, the movie does have its funny, even engaging, moments, at least in the early goings. It’s hard not to be at least somewhat entertained by a Ghostbusters movie, after all, especially when you’re watching one with so many obvious callbacks to the movie you already love, as well as a funny joke once in a while. For a lot of people, though, these references and cameos will be painful reminders that they’d rather be watching the original Ghostbusters, instead.

To sum up, Ghostbusters is flashy, dumb, and shoddily made, which would be fine if it was at least consistently funny. And it lacks a basic fundamental of subtlety you didn’t know you expected from cheesy action comedies, in favor of forced nostalgia desperate to make billions of dollars out of a franchise. And even that’s been done to death already when it comes to Ghostbusters.

Grade: C-

Extra Credits:

  • There’s a lot more I want to say about this movie, both good and bad, which would be impossible without getting into spoilers. So if you’re interested a more substantial review, be sure to check out Monday’s podcast.
  • Dedicated to Harold Ramis. A nice touch, and well-appreciated by the fans in my theater.
  • Yes, there is a post-credits sequence that sets up more movies. And it’s about as cringeworthy as you’d expect.
  • According to Paul Feig, the original cut of this movie was over 4 hours long. And yeah, it shows.
  • Was there chemistry between the leads? Sometimes. But then you would have scenes where characters would start dancing for no reason, say something intended to be funny, and that would be the scene. I’m not sure if that’s chemistry or…anything.

 

Hollywood has a Sequel Problem

hollywood sequel problem

Pamela McClintock via THR: 

Sequel after sequel has disappointed at the box office this year. This weekend’s underpowered opening of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows is just the latest example. And that is perplexing and alarming Hollywood studios, which are addicted to turning films of all sizes and genres into ongoing franchises, from comedies to the smallest horror films to tentpoles.

And that’s just one of many examples cased in this article, which include Alice Through the Looking GlassThe Huntsman: Winter’s WarRide Along 2Zoolander 2, Divergent Series: Allegiant even Neighbors 2, and more, which all have suffered huge drops in box office against all of Hollywood’s expectations for how sequels should “work.”

In this list alone, I’ve only bothered to review Alice and Allegiant, mostly because interest in these other movies was waning long before I ever went to a screening. When I choose a film to review, I usually go with the one I think people are actually on the fence about checking out and want to discuss afterward. How much does that say about the fact that we don’t even want to talk about some of these sequels?

TMNT is the exception, and it’s a film I would have reviewed if I had seen the first of the series. But even that franchise is a tough sell for me because the Turtles are such lasting pop culture icons with so many iterations that I don’t think my opinion on said movies will do much to sway people or offer some new insight.

“Sequels of late have fallen on rough times. The tried-and-true formulas and familiar characters and themes that are the cornerstone of the modern sequel have acted as a de facto life insurance policy against box-office failure,” says box-office analyst Paul Dergarabedian. “However, 2016 has proven to be a very tough battleground, and the landscape has been littered with a series of sequels that have come up short, and thus call into question the entire notion of the inherent appeal of non-original, franchise-based content.”

Good.

Review: ‘The Jungle Book’ Is More Than Just a Pretty Face

 

jungle book review

It’s no secret that Disney has had tremendous success with its live action cartoon remakes, even if they usually come at the expense of better storytelling than what’s appropriated for new takes on Alice in Wonderland, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella.

But The Jungle Book, a remake of the 1967 animated classic (well, classic soundtrack at least), is the first of these live-action films to rise above what came before it. It solves many of the issues fans have had with the original for years, even if it does stumble from time to time due to its own limitations.

Directed by Iron Man and Chef‘s Jon Favreau, The Jungle Book is among the most gorgeous movies in recent years, discounting computer and hand drawn animation. But it’s strength really is in how immersive its jungle is without having to computer animate the characters. Granted, the majority of The Jungle Book was made on a computer, and it was filmed thousands of miles away from any real jungle.

Based on Rudyard Kipling’s series of tales set in India (mostly Mowgli’s Brothers like the rest of these adaptations), The Jungle Book is a coming of age story about a boy named Mowgli (Neel Sethi), who was raised in the jungle by wolves and overseen by a stern, but loving, panther named Bagheera (Ben Kingsley).

jungle book review

Unlike past iterations, The Jungle Book fully explores the role of a “man cub” living amongst animals, as he has to familiarize himself with the politics of said society and decide once and for all where he truly belongs. At times, Mowgli is given opportunities to set himself apart for the good of the animals around him, while at other times, his mere presence causes disaster, brought on in large part by this film’s excellent new rendition of Shere Khan (Idris Elba), who will do whatever it takes to kill Mowgli before he becomes a true threat.

Like the “red flower” that defines human dominion, Mowgli has the potential for both life and destruction in this world. It’s a simplistic story, but not a thin one, in that Mowgli’s agency as a character provides ample motivation and purpose for the various creatures he meets throughout the film. Making their believability as characters (both visually and narratively) all the more impressive.

The vast majority of audiences will be enamored by the surprising depth of The Jungle Book, but it’s not a perfect film that will convert everyone. There are several scenes that feel aped (no pun intended) from other Disney stories like The Lion King. This film crosses the line from homage to ripoff by the third act.

There is also an inconsistency with how this film deals with the popular song numbers from the animated classic, which were critical to its lasting memory. Only two of them make it into the film, and only one comes off as a harmless tribute. The other is quite out of place and nearly ruins a fantastic scene featuring the well-realized King Louie as an extinct giant ape (Christopher Walken).

jungle book review

Thankfully, nearly everything else in The Jungle Book is extremely solid and even brilliant at times. You’ve probably never seen talking animals appear so convincing and true to life on the big screen, yet so mystical at the same time. And they’re balanced nicely by a set of valid themes that raise great questions for children, such as man’s place in nature and what it means to respect the environment, without putting them to sleep with a preachy message.

Grade: B+

Extra Credits:

  • OK, let’s nitpick. Neel Sethi did a fine job, but at times, his performance was bizarrely over the top, far removed from what you would expect from a boy raised by wolves.
  • I’m not sure where I stand on the film’s intense action scenes. Mowgli is in a constant state of peril at times, and it all seemed rather frightening for a PG kids film. It’s about as violent as something like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, for example.
  • I didn’t get to mention Baloo, who was voiced by Bill Murray in what I believe is his best role in years. He doesn’t show up until about 40 minutes into the movie, but his impact on the darker tone of the script is felt almost immediately.
  • I wish I could lend the same praise to this film’s handling of Kaa, voiced by Scarlett Johansson. She has a lot of fun with the character, but it’s far too brief to get excited about.
  • Disney has a new opening logo treatment that I hope lasts into future films. It has a unique transition that looks great in 3D, and it’s hopefully not the last we’ll see of this technique.
  • The end credits are also fun to watch, as we see a literal book unfolding one of the dance numbers. I’ve always thought it was weird that these movies are called The Jungle Book rather than The Jungle Movie.

I’m Jon and thanks for reading this. You can subscribe to my posts by clicking “Follow” in the right sidebar. Or just say hey on Twitter! @JonNegroni

 

2016 Movie Power Rankings

2016 movie power rankings

Welcome to my second-annual “Year in Film” rankings, where I list out every movie I’ve watched and reviewed in 2016.

Last year, I reviewed 87 films (most of them reviewed via the Now Conspiring podcast). But in 2016, I’m putting more focus into written reviews, so you can more easily search the archives.

Here are the rankings so far, with corresponding reviews linked:

#1 Moana

2016 movie ranking

#2 Sing Street

2016 movie ranking

#3 Manchester by the Sea

2016 movie ranking

#4 Hell or High Water

2016 movie ranking

#5 Moonlight

2016 movie ranking

#6 Sully

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#7 Zootopia

2016 movie power rankings

#8 Midnight Special

midnight special ranking

#9 Kubo and the Two Strings

2016 movie ranking

#10 Captain America: Civil War

2016 movie rankings

#11 Green Room

2016 movie ranking

#12 Pete’s Dragon

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#13 The Conjuring 2

2016 movie rankings

#14 Swiss Army Man

2016 movie rankings

#15 Southside with You

2016 movie ranking

#16 Hail, Caesar!

2016 movie power rankings

#17 Everybody Wants Some!!

2016 movie ranking

#18 Hunt for the Wilderpeople

2016 movie ranking

#19 The Jungle Book

2016 movie rankings

#20 10 Cloverfield Lane 

2016 movie power rankings

#21 Edge of Seventeen

2016 movie ranking

#22 Hacksaw Ridge

2016 movie ranking

#23 Arrival

2016 movie rankings

#24 Captain Fantastic

2016 movie ranking

#25 Finding Dory

2016 movie ranking

#26 Don’t Think Twice

2016 movie ranking

#27 Deadpool

2016 movie power rankings

#28 Doctor Strange

2016 movie ranking

#29 Don’t Breathe

2016 movie ranking

#30 Queen of Katwe

2016 movie ranking

#31 Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

2016 movie rankings

#32 Justice League vs. Teen Titans

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#33 The Lobster

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#34 The Witch

2016 movie power rankings

#35 The BFG

2016 movie rankings

#36 The Nice Guys

nice guys ranking

#37 Kung Fu Panda 3

2016 movie power rankings

#38 X-Men: Apocalypse

2016 movie rankings

#39 Demolition

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#40 Snowden

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#41 The Light Between Oceans

2016 movie ranking

#42 Neon Demon

2016 movie ranking

#43 Star Trek Beyond

2016 movie ranking

#44 Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

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#45 The Accountant

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#46 Magnificent Seven

2016 movie rankings

#47 Suicide Squad

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#48 Money Monster

money monster ranking

#49 Hardcore Henry

hardcore henry ranking

#50 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

2016 movie power rankings

#51 Batman: The Killing Joke

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#52 Jason Bourne

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#53 Gods of Egypt 

2016 movie rankings

#54 Ghostbusters

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#55 Warcraft

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#56 Independence Day: Resurgence

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#57 Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children

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#58 The Secret Life of Pets

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#59 Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

batman v superman ranking

#60 Sausage Party

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#61 Alice Through the Looking Glass

alice looking glass ranking

#62 Dirty Grandpa

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#63 The Divergent Series: Allegiant

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#64 The Legend of Tarzan

2016 movie rankings


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