Presented in order of theatrical release:
Hail, Caesar! – The Coen brothers returned to the big screen with a loving homage to the Hollywood of the 1950s when musicals, Westerns, and Biblical epics were filling cinema screens. The studio, unfortunately, mis-sold the movie as a sort of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World screwball comedy with its all-star cast, but it was really the story of real life studio “fixer” Eddie Mannix, a man who put out fires and kept the secrets of his studio’s stars, even with a pair of gossip columnists (twins, played by Tilda Swinton) snooping around. From the cast to the spot-on production design, this should have been a movie to make real movie buffs swoon.
Deadpool – With Marvel having pretty much cornered the superhero movie market with their brightly-colored, family-friendly action flicks, it came as a surprise that Deadpool got made at all. But thanks to a cleverly “leaked” video of supposed test footage featuring an over-the-top action sequence (pretty much as seen in the actual movie) and the profane “hero” played by Ryan Reynolds that instantly went viral, Fox and Marvel had no choice but to move forward with the project. Debate came when fans demanded the film carry an R rating to reflect the spirit of the comic, and it ended up becoming one of the biggest hits of the year. The anti-hero movie was dark, violent, and vulgar – everything the fans wanted – with some terrific action scenes, and digs at the brighter side of the Marvel cinematic universe. Funny and extremely violent, Deadpool set the standard for superhero movies to come, including what is being billed as the last Wolverine movie (with Hugh Jackman at least), which will also carry an R rating.
10 Cloverfield Lane – As with Cloverfield eight years earlier, this film came out of nowhere, shocking fans of the original when the trailer broke at the beginning of the year. What was this? A sequel? A prequel? Or something altogether different? In reality, the film started out with a different title, but when the original studio was shut down, the film went to Paramount – which decided to launch a new Cloverfield cinematic universe, loosely tying the new film to the original. Fans of Cloverfield may have balked a bit that the movies were really not related, but what we got was a taut, three-character thriller with a great performance from John Goodman (is he crazy, dangerous, or both?). The film also established Mary Elizabeth Winstead as a modern “scream queen” following her role in The Thing and pre-dating her starring role in the summer TV series “BrainDead.” The ending may have been a little bit of a letdown, but the rest of the movie is an edge-of-your-seat nail-biter.
The Jungle Book – Disney has had some success in the past turning its animated classics into live action films (101 Dalmations), and they found even greater success with Alice in Wonderland, Cinderalla, and Maleficent. Thanks to the wonders of CGI technology, Disney took a gamble on bringing the classic Jungle Book to life and the result was nothing short of breathtaking, especially when you realize that the bulk of the movie was filmed on a green-screen sound stage.
The animals are ultra realistic, the landscapes are never not believable, and young Neel Sethi gives a remarkable performance acting against nothing but green walls and people in green body suits. The voice cast – including Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley and Christopher Walken – bring much of their own personalities to the characters, with Walken literally bringing down the house with his rendition of “I Wanna Be Like You.” Disney set the bar extremely high with this reimagining, and the upcoming Beauty and the Beast has some gigantic shoes to fill.
Everybody Wants Some!! – Richard Linklater, coming off of the 12-year production of Boyhood, sets his sights on a smaller film set in the 1980s and focusing on a college baseball team in Texas. Linklater populated his cast with some handsome faces, some known, some unknown, but all very much into their specific characters (and yes, each character is a specific “type”), all delivering Linklater’s spot-on dialogue in a film where nothing really happens. But the characters and the script are so engaging that you don’t mind spending a couple of hours with them. And if you grew up during that era, you can definitely relate to the questionable fashions and hairstyles, and you can probably recognize yourself or your friends in the characters as well.
Keanu – I can guarantee you won’t find this movie on any other list. The comedy from Comedy Central duo Key & Peele was hyped constantly with the film’s other star, the cutest kitten in the world. But the hype and the cute factor did not draw audiences into the theater and the film bombed – hard – with critcs and audiences. I thought it was hilarious, and you can’t hate a movie that stars the cutest kitten in the world. The story has Peele’s character Rell adopting the stray kitten, turning around his life after a break-up. But the kitten belongs to some very bad people who steal Keanu, forcing Rell and his friend Clarence to impersonate a pair of dangerous criminals to get the kitten back. Funny, profane, violent, the film also features a scene that is now a tribute to the late George Michael, and contains a pretty hilarious cameo by an actress playing herself (we won’t spoil it for you). This movie really deserves a shot at finding an audience.
The Nice Guys – Another film that tanked but really deserves to be seen is Shane Black’s The Nice Guys. Set in the 1970s, the film stars Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe as two different types of private investigators who are forced to team up to solve a case they were both working on. The mismatched partnership brings a lot of humor to the situation, and the period detail is amazing. Gosling’s comedic timing is terrific, and Angourie Rice, as Gosling’s daughter, should make casting directors sit up and take notice (she did nab a role in the upcoming Spiderman movie). Only Shane Black could take some arcane piece of history – the scandal involving the auto industry, the EPA, and catalytic converters – and make an interesting movie from it. All that, and he got Kim Basinger back on screen to boot. Definitely a must-see movie if you like witty dialog, good action, and great acting.
Lights Out – While I’m a fan of The Conjuring movies, I think Lights Out was the better of this year’s crop of horror flicks (which included The Conjuring 2, Ouija: Origin of Evil and Don’t Breathe). The film had a focused premise – a young boy is terrorized by something that seems to be somehow attached to his mother and only comes out in the dark – and some great scares, wisely avoiding until the very end showing audiences the terrifying entity in any great detail. It all worked terrifically well, but it all could have been completely derailed if someone hadn’t wisely cut the film’s original ending (which is available to view on the home video release). Like The Conjuring films, Lights Out (also produced by James Wan), does not resort to CGI trickery to bring its monsters to life, making everything feel more organic in the process. Watch this one and you may be sleeping with the lights on.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – Last year, Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens brought the Star Wars saga back to the big screen for the first time since the last of the three prequels unspooled in 2005. While a great return to form, the film ultimately felt a little too slavishly devoted to the original Star Wars trilogy, and when Disney announced that in addition to continuing the original series they would also be producing new standalone stories taking place within the established Star Wars galaxy, fans wondered if they were biting off more than they could chew. Everyone has breathed a sigh of relief with the release of Rogue One which tells a new-ish story that brilliantly links 2005’s Episode III to 1977’s Episode IV. The film tells the story of a band of rebels tasked with retrieving the Empire’s blueprints for the original Death Star, giving us a whole new set of characters and sprinkling in a few familiar faces here and there, most notably Darth Vader (voiced once again by James Earl Jones). The film feels fresh while still giving us a sense of familiarity, but it never feels like a copy of what has come before. Now with the untimely passing of Carrie Fisher, the film’s final moments are almost too poignant to bear, but it ends up now being a wonderful tribute to our fallen princess (and if you’re wondering, Fisher had completed work on Episode VIII but how they deal with her loss in Episode IX remains to be seen). If you’re one of the handful of people who have yet to see Rogue One … what are you waiting for?
La La Land – Musicals can be a hard sell for audiences jarred by characters suddenly breaking into song when reciting dialog is a perfectly reasonable way to address someone. But La La Land presents the classical MGM musical format in a fresh new way with some dazzling direction by Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) and two marvelous performances from Ryan Gosling (his second appearance on our list!) and Emma Stone. The movie looks terrific, from the cinematography to the production design and editing, and has a collection of sparkling tunes including the sure to be Oscar nominated “City of Stars.” The movie also features a delightfully poignant homage to the ballet scene in An American in Paris, and Emma Stone will tear your heart out with her audition story that turns into a lovely song. The film’s bittersweet ending has divided audiences who expected one thing but got another, but in life we don’t always get what we want. Regardless, La La Land is a wonderful throwback to a bygone era but with a modern spin, perhaps opening up Hollywood to a new era of big screen musicals.