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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 Zootopia Episode

zootopia review

This week on the Now Conspiring podcast, we review Zootopia and chat about our favorite modern Disney movies. We also dish on the new Ghostbusters trailer, the new Finding Dory trailer, and how film critics get a bad rap.

QUESTION OF THE WEEK: What is the best recent Disney movie (starting with Meet the Robinsons)?

Go on…The Zootopia Episode

Review: ‘Zootopia’ Is a Preachy Comedy, But Not In a Bad Way

zootopia review

Unlike the scores of other animated movies starring talking animals with clothes, Zootopia opens with a lengthy explanation for why the creatures of their world are “evolved” enough to stand upright and build cities. And it’s at this point that the predator vs. prey racial dynamics are introduced, setting the tone for what is mostly a two-note movie about how bigotry and tribalism can manifest when we work to “be anything we want.”

The hero for this adventure is Judy Hopps (voiced perfectly by Ginnifer Goodwin), a small bunny from the boroughs who dares to have a job mostly held by larger mammals and predators (for the sake of keeping things simple, the movie only features mammals).

That job is being a police officer in Zootopia, which is this world’s “big city” filled with hopes and dreams for animals of all shapes and sizes, or so it’s advertised. One of the unique flavors of this animated movie about culture relations is how these animals actually live amongst each other. Each part of the city is geared toward a different environment suited for different species, and we observe the implications of each location throughout the running time.

Often, these shared spaces bring about their own baggage for the creatures of Zootopia, and it’s no different for the first bunny to become a police officer. Judy Hopps passes at the top of her class, yet her family still worries she won’t be able to coexist with predators in such a dangerous environment.

For the first half of Zootopia, subtle details  like Judy’s unwillingness then willingness to carry around fox-repellent to protect herself illuminate some of the subtle prejudice sprinkled throughout. Only to come about in an unexpected twist that says something meaningful about the very tropes Disney has championed for decades.

zootopia review

Much of the movie centers around Judy’s reluctant friendship with a hustling fox (voiced by Jason Bateman) who helps her track down creatures going missing throughout Zootopia. Their teamwork is probably the most genuine chemistry we get in the first half of Zootopia, as their values are mismatched — though not exaggerated — enough to provide some bits for clever comedy. And ultimately, their relationship is what elevates the movie to being a must-see.

That said, the film suffers a few lingering flaws, such as a simplified resolution to the disappearing cases and some worn gags and dialogue that borrow a little too liberally from buddy copy movies, Chinatown, and The Godfather. But for the first time in years, it seems Disney is comfortable creating inside jokes for its movies, poking fun at Frozen on multiple occasions, as well as some of its other movies dressed up as animals.

Further, Zootopia has more of an imagination than any of the other recent Disney computer animated movies, even Big Hero 6. This is one of Disney’s most carefully considered and beautifully detailed worlds ever, as Zootopia itself actually feels like a world designed by animals.

Despite some of its weak points, Zootopia delivers a solid punch in the final act that will resonate with both adults and children. It will undoubtedly start helpful conversations among families concerning the prejudice and bigotry that coincidentally occurs between the police and civilians of America, for instance. But beyond all the messages and preachiness of Zootopia, there’s a sincere cast of characters who make these challenging themes come to life in the best way possible.

Grade: A-

 

Extra Credits

  • Some of you may be wondering if I now agree with Germain Lussier that Zootopia is the best Disney film in 20 years. I don’t, simply because Mulan is stronger, but I can understand why many people will prefer this to FrozenWreck-It Ralph, and Tangled.
  • And then there are people who say this is the best since Beauty and the Beast. Those people need to calm down.
  • Sitting through the first half of Zootopia is not easy, actually. I thought it dragged quite a bit, and a lot of the jokes didn’t land for me. Things pick up Frozen-style later on, but you’ll still be entertained enough by the amazing visuals to let it slide.
  • What they did with Nick Wilde’s character was genius, restraining from making him yet another “Han Solo” type. Wish they had been kinder to Bogo as a character, though Idris Elba does his best with this annoyingly familiar police chief.
  • I did not care fro the “Shakira Gazelle” thing. It felt more like product placement than a real character existing in an animal city. Weird sentence, I know.
  • I wish I could get into spoilers, because there’s so much to talk about. Needless to say, this is akin to Frozen‘s dismantling of the “strangers falling in love after just meeting” trope, but with some more serious subject material. Disney better not lose John Lasseter. anytime soon.

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

‘The Hateful Eight’ Review; Our Favorite Quentin Tarantino Movies

hateful eight review

This week on Now Conspiring, we have a full cast (plus a special surprise guest) on deck to have a full discussion about The Hateful Eight, without getting into any spoilers.

By popular demand, we’ve added Show Notes below so you can keep track of our segments and jump around to your heart’s desire.

In our main segment, we discuss our favorite Tarantino movies, and then ask you all…

QUESTION OF THE WEEK: What is your favorite Quentin Tarantino movie?

Go on…‘The Hateful Eight’ Review; Our Favorite Quentin Tarantino Movies

What’s Your Most Anticipated 2016 Movie?

most anticipated 2016 movies

This week on the podcast, we discuss our most anticipated movies of 2016. From Pixar and comic books to wizards and french cartoons, we discuss which films are on track to become new favorites.

We also briefly discuss our favorite movies of 2015 to kickoff the show (and there are some surprises, for sure). Feel free to add your favorite 2015 movie to the comments below.

QUESTION OF THE WEEK: Which 2016 movies are you looking forward to the most?

Go on…What’s Your Most Anticipated 2016 Movie?

Snarcasm: The ‘Star Wars’ Prequels Were The Best Movies All Along

Star Wars prequels

Snarcasm is a weekly series where I encounter and try to understand the worst articles on the Internet. This week, I take on my fellow millennials who’ll say anything for a click. 

OK, we already talked about Star Wars a few weeks ago, but that was more about Piers Morgan and how irrelevant his film commentary is. That said, a similarly contentious article about the revered Star Wars saga was recently dropped on my doorstep with “It’s a trap!” scribbled across the label.

Writing for Toronto Star, Ian Gormely presents his case for why we may have been a little too harsh with the Star Wars prequels. Of course, that means his headline is…

Why the Star Wars prequels are better than the originals

And they say clickbait doesn’t write itself.

Now to be fair, the subhead is a little less sensational:

A generation of fans who grew up with the more recent trilogy make a compelling case that those are the superior films.

*shrugs*

Alright, you have an element of an interesting think piece here because younger viewers like me gave the prequels a pass, which is arguably similar to how older fans forgave the original trilogy for its ample flaws. I don’t agree, but it’s a worthwhile argument.

Then the article starts.

The prequels never stood a chance.

Right. One of the most anticipated films of the last 20 years never stood a chance. And yet the hype surrounding The Phantom Menace was astronomical, more so than this year’s The Force Awakens (because hey, we’ve learned the hard way not to get our hopes up).

The prequels very much stood a chance. People over the age of 15 just didn’t like them.

Hampered by two decades’ worth of expectations and hype, George Lucas’s deep dive back into the Star Wars universe was destined to disappoint.

I’m sure Ian would have said the same thing about The Empire Strikes Back if it had been terrible.

Star Wars (awkwardly retitled Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope when Lucas rereleased it in 1997) and its sequels were generation-defining movies.

Awkwardly? I grew up in this time period, too, and I don’t remember having an issue with the naming conventions. And if they had kept the name “Star Warsfor just the fourth movie, that would have been way more awkward.

Also, why even bring that up?

When Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace arrived in May 1999 fans were met with a film that was visually (computer-generated effects) and tonally (it was aimed at kids) miles away from their beloved originals.

When he says aimed at kids, he’s implying that the movie was mostly aimed at kids. Which isn’t true at all if you remember any scene from The Phantom Menace about trade negotiations, political squabbling, and multiple Jedi blathering instead of fighting until the last ten minutes.

And just to be clear, I enjoyed The Phantom Menace as much as I did Revenge of the Sith. I think they’re decent, even average movies. Their mediocrity is all the more depressing, of course, when you compare them with the original trilogy. Attack of the Clones is the only Star Wars film (in my opinion) that gets a failing grade.

 Subsequent prequels, Episode II: Attack of the Clones and Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, moved closer to Lucas’s originals, but many fans felt betrayed. This wasn’t their Star Wars.

He’s framing this argument as if Lucas was some sort of visionary trying to create something different, but those pesky fanboys were just too afraid of change. The problem, obviously, was that this change we got in the prequels was filled with annoying issues that even kids pretty much shrugged at.

Granted, we loved the prequels as kids. At the time, they were beautiful spectacles that forced us to wade through hackneyed plots to get to the stylized action. But not once did I ever consider them better than the original trilogy, solely because they were designed to be depressing departures, while the rest of the saga was filled with…well, hope.

J.J. Abrams’ upcoming seventh film, Episode VII: the Force Awakens, will reportedly hew closer in style to the original trilogy. 

Reportedly? Why did this blog spam suddenly remember it’s on a news publication?

But here’s the rub: a lot of people went to see The Phantom Menace — it made a billion dollars at the box office. Now in their 20s, this generation of Star Wars fan grew up not knowing a world without digital effects or Jar Jar Binks.

You know, unless we watched Quentin Tarantino movies instead.

To get a better sense of how they view the Star Wars universe we asked three deeply passionate fans to share their thoughts on the prequels.

Nice prank, Ian! For a second, I thought you were going to crowdsource your opinionated article with anecdotes instead of arguments—

Stuart (do you really want to know his last name? Isn’t privacy a thing in cases like this?)

Current Age: 26, which means he was 10 when Phantom Menace was released in 1999.

Why is this happening?

I’m going to leave out the heaps of personal data Ian dishes out for this guy, including his inclusion of (and I’m not joking) working for Virgin Radio.

I loved Darth Maul. The final lightsaber battle, that was the best lightsaber fight I’d ever seen.

Really? Because even my 8-year-old self still preferred Luke’s freakout in Return of the Jedi. Different strokes, but perhaps you loved that lightsaber battle more because the rest of the movie was so forgettable? Maybe?

Fans of the old series were looking for that nostalgia that they could relive. When the Phantom Menace came out, that’s when I think I was getting the experience that my dad and his generation had when the originals came out.

The problem is you think you had the same experience, but you’ll never know. And that’s fine. It’s great that you enjoyed these movies, but how can you compare that with someone’s else’s experience with a different movie during a different era? It would be like me telling my grandmother that seeing Get Hard was the equivalent of her going to see Gone With The Wind on opening night.

Ian’s next conveniently positive anecdote comes from someone who was 6 when The Phantom Menace came out (I wonder why we aren’t talking about Attack of the Clones at all?)

If you look at Star Wars as an epic Grecian tragedy, (the prequels) contextualize the original trilogy so well. It actually lends the original trilogy a lot more power when you know the history behind it

At times, this happens, sure. Notably in Revenge of the Sith when we get some solid scenes of Anakin getting seduced by the dark side. But come on, that’s a fraction of the whole film, which was mostly nonsense dialogue, deadpan characters, needless explanations of things that were better left to our imaginations, and sand, everywhere.

The worlds, the designs and the sci-fi concepts they introduce (in Attack of the Clones) are the best in all of Star Wars.

No.

No, they are not.

No reasonable fan with a straight face can say that the worlds of Attack of the Clones — Coruscant (which we’d already seen before), Tattooine (which we’d already seen before), Naboo (which we’d already seen before), and an asteroid field (which we’d already seen before) — were superior to anything in the other films, including the prequels.

Scrap those rehashed locations and you’re left with the green screen that is Kamino and Geonosis, which was basically Tattooine with mountains and a CGI factory.

Simply put, saying Attack of The Clones has the best worlds and designs is like claiming Chappie is a better Neill Blomkamp movie than District 9.

They made the political parts of The Phantom Menace that people hated, the political intrigue, actually interesting.

Oh really? I wonder how many people can tell me (without looking it up) why Jango Fett was trying to assassinate Senator Amidala. Or how Palpatine specifically got his emergency powers. Or why the clones were working for Jango, but ended up in the hands of the Republic by the very end. Or why Dooku betrayed the Jedi. Or what Anakin’s deal is with SAND EVERYWHERE, HE’S FROM A SAND WORLD SO HE SHOULD BE USED TO IT.

Sorry. Unresolved issues.

Star Wars was an adventure story and now they give it scope. It’s more than a ragtag team trying to take on the whole world. It almost becomes a political thriller.

Now we’re just throwing words into sentences and calling them paragraphs, people.

A ragtag team? Of a girl, her stalker, and two droids who offer nothing to the plot but are only there because we remember them from other movies? Or were you referring to Obi-Wan and…um…that fat alien from the diner? Oh, those dang misfits!

Ian provides more anecdotes, and what’s funny about them is that these guys completely admit the elements of the prequels are terrible. One guy notes “the crappy love story,” but justifies it by saying people were invested and had to see what’s next. You know, like clickbait.

And that’s it! Ian ends the article…there. No conclusion…hmmm…comments are closed, that’s interesting…

I guess I missed the part where Ian and his friends actually make a case for why the prequels are better than the original trilogy. Or bring up specific things about the original trilogy. All I read was a laundry list of subjective observations and straw grasping for the sake of getting attention. That’s the Snarcasm guarantee.

Guys, I’m not trying to hate on anyone who loves the prequels. I get it. They can be guilty pleasures because we saw them at an age when all we wanted to see on the big screen was a cacophony of lightsaber fights and epic space battles. And the prequels absolutely delivered on that.

But let’s not kid ourselves, pun intended. The prequels were fan service, but for the lowest common denominator. They were the Fast and Furious movies in space, except they were intended to be more compelling, which makes them all the more cringeworthy. I don’t mind re-watching them and appreciating decent moments throughout, but you’re never going to convince true fans of any age that they’re better than what we got with the original trilogy.

And please don’t watch Chappie

Hey! If you’ve come across a silly article that deserves the snarcasm treatment, send it my way via Twitter or the comments below!

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

 

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