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Bests and Worsts in 2016 Movies

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Published December 28, 2016 at 10:00 a.m.

  • Moonlight

Rick Kisonak: If there's one thing we all can agree on, I suspect, it's that 2016 has been a seriously bizarro year. The election. Need I say more? And, speaking of surreal: The movie industry will make more money in 2016 than ever, even though ticket sales across the country continued their five-year-long free fall. Who's the president of the Motion Picture Association of America these days — David Blaine? 

The explanation is a development that's gotten surprisingly little mainstream coverage. While Americans have been distracted by the media's focus on Russia's covert hacking, the Chinese very openly have been carrying out a plan to take over the world of entertainment. Dalian Wanda Group, a firm closely aligned to China's Communist Party, is well on its way to achieving its goal of "build[ing] a real movie empire" by consolidating U.S. film studios and movie theater chains under one parent company.

In 2012, DWG bought AMC Entertainment, the second-largest movie theater chain in the U.S. It acquired Legendary Entertainment, the producer of The Dark Knight trilogy, earlier this year. With the purchase of Carmike Cinemas, Dalian Wanda will have amassed the largest chain in this country by the end of the year.

In 2016, China built an average of 27 new movie screens per day, surpassing the U.S. with 40,475 screens total. Last year, China's box office revenue increased by almost 50 percent; next year, it is projected to top that of the U.S., making China the largest movie market in the world. Oh, well. It was nice being No. 1.

How does all this explain the fact that Hollywood is making more money while selling fewer tickets at home? The answer is that moviemakers are jumping through Communist Party hoops so they can sell tickets over there. Even a microscopic slice of the Chinese pie is worth billions to Hollywood annually. The country's urban middle class — those most likely to be filmgoers — is growing rapidly and already roughly equivalent to the entire U.S. population.

You know what that means. Movies are going to be increasingly tailored to Chinese tastes and to appeal to the party's self-image. It's already happening. The 2012 remake of Red Dawn originally featured Chinese soldiers invading an American town. Producers changed the invaders into North Koreans. Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a record-breaking hit here, didn't do nearly as well in China, likely because it lacked Asian talent. It's no coincidence that this year's Rogue One: A Star Wars Story features major Asian stars. Not to mention martial-arts sequences.

Spoilers ahead: Awards contender Arrival was adapted from the novella "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang. Guess what — there's no handsome Chinese general who saves the world in the latter. One may wonder if the makers of the movie created the character to ingratiate themselves with that overseas demographic.

Yes, one wacky year indeed. I wish those filmmakers luck with the Communist Party — and at the upcoming Golden Globe Awards. As of last month, the Chinese own that, too.

Margot Harrison: The trend of courting audiences overseas is certainly real — and is probably contributing to making Hollywood movies bigger, stupider and louder, given that subtleties don't translate as easily as kicks, punches and explosions. Still, I can't say I detected much covert Communist Party ideology in this year's films. I was happy to see more women and people of color in leading roles and behind the camera — a pattern I hope continues.

Most Stellar Performance

The Founder
  • The Founder

RK: I can't understand why Miles Teller isn't receiving more awards consideration for his all-in portrayal of Vinny Pazienza, the Rhode Island fighter who made the comeback of all comebacks in the '80s. He's amazing in Bleed for This, conveying the agony and unbridled joy in every baby step. Michael Keaton inexplicably flew under the radar as well, but his work in The Founder is finely calibrated and first-rate from start to finish. Casey Affleck is extraordinary in Manchester by the Sea and will probably walk away with most of the season's best-actor hardware. But, in all honesty, I don't think I enjoyed a 2016 performance more than I enjoyed the one Michael Shannon gave as the dying Texas detective in Nocturnal Animals. Is he way underrated or what?

MH: I've been a Michael Shannon fan for a while; he was also outstanding this year in Midnight Special, and probably deserves a special award for the sheer out-thereness of his recent political rants. (The man is, let's just say, not a Donald Trump fan.)

But I was most enthralled by Rebecca Hall playing troubled newscaster Christine Chubbuck in Christine — a complex, thoughtful portrayal that raises questions about how we live our lives on film today. Amy Adams also deserves recognition for giving Arrival its emotional punch.

Most Annoying Performance

Suicide Squad
  • Suicide Squad

RK: Well, the entire cast of Suicide Squad comes to mind. But, narrowing it down to a single performer, I'd have to say Susan Sarandon in The Meddler and Sally Field in Hello, My Name Is Doris were about as annoying as screen legends got in the past year. Of the two, I'd have to give Field's performance the edge as the more cloying. Just painful to watch.

MH: The Shallows had potential as a fun summer thriller, but it was essentially a one-woman show in which Blake Lively was outacted by a sassy seagull. Her stagy, self-conscious delivery grated almost as much as Jesse Eisenberg's in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. He can do so much better.

Best Comedy

RK: What a strong year it was for this category, from the animated metaphysics of Sausage Party to Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising to the indescribably delicious Hunt for the Wilderpeople to Kevin Hart: What Now? to Todd Solondz's weird and wonderful Wiener-Dog. Even kids' films like The Secret Life of Pets were groundbreakingly funny this year. But, looking back, I don't believe it got better than Central Intelligence. It's one of the smartest dumb comedies ever made. Who would've guessed that former wrestler and Fast & Furious regular Dwayne Johnson is really a giant, muscle-bound teddy bear gifted with terrific comic instincts and boundless reserves of sweetness? Not me.

MH: I'm not entirely sure Toni Erdmann is a comedy, or what it is. But two absurdist scenes in this German film about a dad trying to connect with his workaholic daughter made me laugh harder than almost anything else this year. With any luck, we'll see the movie in Vermont one day.

Worst Comedy

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
  • Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

RK: A Hologram for the King is Tom Hanks' biggest flop, but, incredibly, even lamer comic efforts graced the multiplex this past year. Keeping Up With the Joneses was exceptionally fetid. As were Zoolander 2 and the aforementioned Hello, My Name Is Doris and The Meddler. I'm going to go with Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, however, because a film really has to reek to make Forbes' list of the year's biggest box-office flops when it has the multitalented Tina Fey going for it.

MH: Nine Lives, the movie that ensures Kevin Spacey will always have "voice of a CGI cat" on his résumé. The only funny thing about it: Christopher Walken crooning the phrase "poopy box."

Biggest Letdown

RK: This is a close one. Hail, Caesar! is the Coens on autopilot. On the other hand, Live by Night, Ben Affleck's directorial follow-up to Argo, never even gets off the ground. An unbelievably hokey, stilted, overlong dud.

MH: Maybe I was good at managing my movie expectations this year, because I didn't have any huge letdowns. But Hail, Caesar! was underwhelming, Allied and Miss Sloane bored me, and La La Land was a little tinnier and less magical than I'd hoped. Maybe I need to see it on the big screen.

Biggest Surprise

RK: David Mackenzie. Ring a bell? I wasn't familiar with the name, either. Then I saw the British writer-director's Hell or High Water. Now I won't soon forget it.

MH: Swiss Army Man, a high-concept film about a whiny hipster and his flatulent-corpse friend that I somehow found both funny and touching. Mileage may vary!

Film So Forgettable I Didn't Remember Seeing It Until Compiling This Year-End Review

RK: Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates. What's to remember about this lazy, repetitive and predictable anti-laughfest? Little, other than that it managed to assemble likable and entertaining personalities and somehow generate zero movie magic. What Mike and Dave really needed was better, more imaginative material.

MH: The Infiltrator. How could I be bored by a movie combining Bryan Cranston, period wear and drug busts? I'm a huge "Breaking Bad" fan! But this poorly structured biopic was all style and no suspense.

Best New Name to Watch in Front of the Camera

RK: Lion's pint-size superstar Sunny Pawar is this year's Jacob Tremblay (Room). Just 6 when he was discovered, the first-time actor effortlessly carries the fact-based film's first half as young Saroo Brierley, separated from his family for 25 years when he fell asleep on a train.

Pawar was attending a school for disadvantaged children in Mumbai when director Garth Davis put out an India-wide casting call. Ironically, the U.S. initially denied Pawar a visa, separating him from his film family when the time came to promote the picture. Now 8, he wouldn't appear to pose a serious threat. Except, of course, to other prepubescent thespians.

MH: Discovered by director Andrea Arnold on a beach, 21-year-old Sasha Lane lights up the sprawling narrative of American Honey with her daredevil energy.

But I would feel remiss if I didn't also mention the scene-stealing performances of some animal "actors" enjoying their first and probably last moments in the spotlight: Sully the seagull in The Shallows, the seven kittens who played Keanu, and the billy goat named Charlie who menaced his owners with satanic energy in The Witch.

Best New Name to Watch Behind the Camera

The Lobster
  • The Lobster

RK: To my mind, this is a tie between Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) and Tom Ford (Nocturnal Animals). Jenkins seems like the newer name, but both have directed two feature films. In other respects, the pair has little in common. Other than undeniable genius.

MH: I'll be watching both of them, for sure. And, if you weren't watching Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos after Dogtooth (2009), you definitely will be after this year's The Lobster, if only to see what kind of bizarre satirical provocation he can possibly serve up next. Please stay weird!

Most Inexplicable Hit

RK: I'm unclear on just how Suicide Squad made the list of the year's 10 top-grossing films. It's a mirthless, moronic mess. The action is a been-there-done-that yawn, the obligatory wisecracks fall flat and the CGI work looks like outtakes from Ghostbusters. The original. The latest addition to the DC Entertainment universe may have sold tickets and set records, but one thing it definitely didn't do is entertain.

MH: Right above Suicide Squad on that list we find Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, 151 minutes of operatic macho posturing relieved by the occasional scene so ridiculous it's fun. One can only hope next year's Wonder Woman will take itself a little less seriously.

Most Inexplicable Flop

RK: The words "Beatles" and "flop" aren't often seen in the same sentence, but somehow Ron Howard's totally fab The Beatles: Eight Days a Week — The Touring Years wound up No. 169 on Box Office Mojo's 2016 list. Which makes it floppier than Max Steel, The Brothers Grimsby, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping and Snowden — all on that Forbes list of the year's biggest bombs. Help!

MH: While not mega-bombs, Laika's beautiful animation Kubo and the Two Strings (No. 58) and Shane Black's comedy The Nice Guys (No. 69) — featuring a hilarious Ryan Gosling turn as a numbskull — should have connected with bigger audiences. Catch them on video or streaming.

Freshest, Most Creative Screenplay

RK: Easy: Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg and Ariel Shaffir's Sausage Party. Animated grocery items finding God, smoking weed and engaging in a graphic climactic orgy — need I say more?

MH: It doesn't get much fresher than Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou's screenplay for The Lobster, which starts as a dystopian satire of online dating culture, then flips around to mock militant singletons, then asks if there's any way human beings can engage with the concept of romantic love that doesn't make them ridiculous.

Most Formulaic, Cliché-Infested Screenplay

RK: La La Land. Yes, I realize Damien Chazelle's musical is a critical darling and Oscar favorite. That doesn't mean it isn't the hokiest two hours and eight minutes to dance into a cineplex in the past 12 months. Gabby struggling jazz pianist falls for aspiring actress in modern-day Tinseltown. Highest cliché count of the year by far.

MH: The screenplay for The Accountant, by Bill Dubuque (The Judge), packs in so many clichés that I guess you could say it ends up exhibiting a kind of twisted brilliance. Super-genius martial-arts expert with autism! Dogged federal agents with emotional baggage! Talky hit man! Dozens of increasingly silly twists! All of this somehow combined in a single film that makes less and less sense as it goes on!

Best Movie With No Movie Stars

RK: Barry Jenkins' moving, masterful Moonlight doesn't have a familiar face in it, yet it ranks among the year's most accomplished works of cinema.

MH: With any luck, Mahershala Ali, who plays the loving mentor in that film and also appears in the forthcoming Hidden Figures, is on his way to stardom. Another starless film I enjoyed was the dread-inducing period piece The Witch.

Worst Movie With an All-Star Cast

RK: This is a tight race, what with star-studded duds like Live by Night and Hail, Caesar! stinking up the year, but I've got to give it to Warren Beatty's Rules Don't Apply by a nose. Everybody and his uncle are in this movie, from the great Paul Sorvino and Candice Bergen to Martin Sheen and Matthew Broderick. Too bad there's so little of interest for them to do.

MH: The biggest problem with Allied was also its megastar: Brad Pitt, who didn't turn on the charisma — or anything else, really — in his role as a dashing Canadian pilot. Marion Cotillard, Jared Harris, Lizzy Caplan and others also felt wasted in the increasingly draggy film.

Whom We'd Like to See More of at the Movies

RK: Ellen Burstyn plays a bitter invalid who hides behind huge black sunglasses and renames the titular canine Cancer in Wiener-Dog. It's a dark riot of a performance and a reminder of what a powerful, versatile actress she is. It would be nice to see her get something besides bit parts.

MH: Still very much a leading lady at 63, Isabelle Huppert is scarily mesmerizing as an alpha female in Paul Verhoeven's new thriller Elle. It's one of the performances of the year. I know she's in tons of French movies, but it would be nice to see some of those films on American screens for a change.

Whom We'd Like to See Less of at the Movies

RK: Back around the time of Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), I noted in a review that Werner Herzog seemed slightly nuttier than usual. The filmmaker has always been tremendously eccentric, but, since then, he's become increasingly daffy and prolific. Herzog made three movies this year, two of them documentaries. One is about volcanoes. The other is about the internet. Each features stunning imagery, challenging subject matter and jolting, quasi-blithering digressions. For the sake of his legacy, I'd like to see him give it a rest.

MH: Did Ben Affleck really have to play two solitary, angsty larger-than-life heroes this year? Has no one noticed that tortured interiority isn't really his skill set? Could we give it a rest with the tormented-superhero-type characters in general?

Best Documentary

RK: O.J.: Made in America has the awards-season momentum, but the far superior work in my book is Ava DuVernay's 13th. Titled after the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which outlawed slavery, the film makes a convincing argument that slavery is, in fact, alive and well, perpetuated by the country's criminal justice system through mass incarceration. Painful, powerful stuff.

MH: Agreed. But as a fan of narrative (rather than issue-driven) docs, I was most riveted by all seven hours-plus of O.J.: Made in America. A tragedy on multiple levels, not just about O.J. but about racism, celebrity and the media, it covers some of the same ground as DuVernay and offers historical context for a few of 2016's most searing events.

Most Disposable Movie Franchise

RK: Is Zoolander a franchise? I suppose it doesn't matter. The sequel lost so much money nobody would touch a third installment. Max Steel was going to be a franchise but tanked so badly there won't even be a sequel. That zero percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes probably didn't help. At any rate, I'd rather watch Zoolander Meets Max Steel — the three-hour director's cut — than one second more of Suicide Squad.

MH: The Huntsman: Winter's War was a spin-off of the 2012 hit Snow White and the Huntsman. You could say it's loosely based on the Snow White legend, only with more fight choreography, double evil queens and no Snow White. None of that made much sense on the screen, either.

Worst Picture

RK: Did it get worse than Miles Ahead and I Saw the Light? If it did, I didn't get the memo. How anybody managed to make such boneheaded baloney out of the stories of these two musical geniuses is beyond me. Let's call it a tie.

MH: Religious faith has inspired many great films, but God's Not Dead 2 isn't one of them. Was it necessary for this message drama to misrepresent secular culture as bizarrely and egregiously as it did? Or for the actors to deliver such painfully wooden performances? I tried to keep an open mind, but this travesty made me long for an artistically compelling defense of Christianity like Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita.

Best Picture

Manchester by the Sea
  • Manchester by the Sea

RK: Manchester by the Sea, Hell or High Water, Paterson and Moonlight are all truly great movies (Fences is not), but nothing I saw this year impressed me more than Nocturnal Animals. Fashion mogul Tom Ford's second foray into filmmaking doesn't merely fulfill the promise of 2009's A Single Man. It establishes the writer-director as an artist on par with Hitchcock, Sorrentino or Lynch. Plus, it has Michael Shannon. In 2016, it didn't get better than this.

MH: Moonlight is like an unforgettable ballad playing after a summer storm. I really enjoyed the chilly, twisty conceits of Nocturnal Animals and Elle and would love to see dark adult thrillers make a comeback. But my warmer side loved the mournfulness, wonder and hope that suffused Arrival. I've been rooting for director Denis Villeneuve since Prisoners, and he fulfilled his promise with this speculative story that suggests perhaps we should try to communicate with "others" before we attack them.

RK: So, that's a wrap. Best wishes for a boffo 2017. Oh, and something to think about as you ring it in with "Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve With Ryan Seacrest": Yup, the Chinese own that, too.

The original print version of this article was headlined "The China Syndrome"

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