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The Decade Decathlon: 2016

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Repressing memories, repressing films

Welcome back to the Decade Decathlon, where we're taking an extended look back at the past decade of filmmaking to see what worked, what didn't, and what stories we can learn from the past.

I think we as a society would like to forget that 2016 happened. That isn't to say that it was an awful year for movies. No, it was just an awful year all around. Tragedies seemed to occur on a weekly basis, but what really defined 2016 was the ugly and visceral politics of the year. It was a year defined by a US election that people are still bitter and upset over regardless of which political party you ascribe to. I'll try my best to keep politics out of this, since looking back at the 2016 election is nothing but a miserable affair all around, but I'll have to cover a Dinesh D'Souza movie in a few paragraphs so I make no promises. 

People wanted to forget that 2016 even existed, and that's totally understandable. It sucked for a lot of people. That societal desire to forget also bled over into the movies that released during this time. What stands out the most about 2016 is that so many of these movies, even though they came out only a few short years ago, have been buried by time. For a year like 2011, that's somewhat understandable due to the sheer amount of nothing that happened there, but 2016 had some major releases. It had movies that garnered critical acclaim. However, few people mention any of the successes of 2016. Why is that? Why is 2016 the year that film forgot?

Now let's get ready to go.

Most Decorated Movie: La La Land
Director: Damien Chazelle
Total Awards: 19
Oscar's Best Picture Winner?: Yes No

I adore La La Land. It feels like this was a movie that was scientifically engineered to appeal to me. A throwback to classic Hollywood musicals of old as well as the Golden Age of Hollywood, a soundtrack that is to die for, and a core relationship and performances that felt authentic. These are just a few of the components that made La La Land such a breath of fresh air. This came out in December of 2016, after people were beaten and broken by the year, so seeing a movie that was created with such love, passion, and optimism what exactly what I needed at the time.

That being said, if you were to ask most film fans their thoughts on La La Land, they would either groan about Damien Chazelle's bloated and tone deaf musical or laugh at the Oscar gaff where it was announced that La La Land won Best Picture over the actual winner Moonlight. As much as I can try and stay partial when analyzing movies, I'm struggling to see eye-to-eye with people that are critical towards the movie. There's criticism towards La La Land being a white savior narrative, but those comparisons crumble when John Legend systemically breaks down Ryan Gosling's views on jazz and how his idolization of the classics is actually hurting the business. As much as I try to see the flaws in the movie, I'm just unable to. 

What I can see is that while movie musicals were on the rise over the decade, with more audiences eager to see lavish sets and actors belting their hearts out on camera, La La Land made little to no impact in that genre. After Les Miserables released in 2012, a revival was fast tracked for Broadway. In 2017, audiences ate up The Greatest Showman, an overrated musical that completely overlooked just how terrible P.T. Barnum was in favor of a generic movie about EMPOWERMENT that is getting a Broadway adaptation in the next year or two. La La Land? No impact on the theatre community, which is a community that will fiercely defend any original musical regardless of quality.

I think this stems from La La Land being a movie that could only exist on film. It's DNA is tied to classic Hollywood movies and the saga of the struggling artist, whether it be Emma Stone's Mia trying to break into Hollywood as an actress or Ryan Gosling's Sebastian and his desire to open a jazz club. It's note designed to be performed on stage and tt doesn't end with a neat little bow like most musicals. It ends very naturally with an ending that feels both realistic yet sad. It's a ballet sequence in the same vein as Oklahoma's! dream sequence but this one comes tinge with the benefit of hindsight and asks what could have happened instead of what did happen. If you're looking at it from the perspective of an up and coming artist, it offers a conflicting message; follow your dreams, but the ending you get may not be the best one. It's a tough lesson to learn but La La Land handled it gracefully. It's just a shame that the movie quickly faded away and its reputation soured due to a split reception.

Worst Movie: Hillary's America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party
Director: Dinesh D'Souza
Razzie Wins: 4
Were the Razzies right?: Yes

It's not every day that we get propaganda screened in theaters. Now, before anyone jumps on me for this, yes, Hillary's America is propaganda. It twists facts and ideas to tell a narrative with a very sharp message, in this case the Democrats are evil con-artists and racists. Director and star Dinesh D'Souza also spends time trying to downplay his own crimes in the movie because of course he was convicted for campaign fraud and tries to play it off as simply "I gave a friend more money than I should have."

But how is the actual movie you may ask? Bad. Look, I've seen that propaganda doesn't try to come in a nice and neat little package. It's playing to a very specific audience and regardless of the overall quality of the movie, the target audience will eat it up. Propaganda is about making an audience feel a feeling, so in that regard, Hillary's America technically accomplished its job. On a budget of $5 million it made nearly three times that amount. It also happened to nab a 4 on Rotten Tomatoes and a 2 on Metacritic, so hooray for D'Souza...?

While it's obvious the reason this movie was made and released (it released in July right in between the Republican National Convention and the Democratic National Convention), who can say just how much of an impact it had on the 2016 election? Most likely next to none, but even if it swayed just a single person to flip parties, then it could technically be argued that Hillary's America may have had the most impact of any film in the decade. Granted, that could be stretching it beyond the realm of possibility, but one thing is for certain; Dinesh D'Souza made a movie where Woodrow Wilson watches the spirits of the KKK fly out of a screen showing Birth of a Nation and surround the White House lawn.

Highest Grossing Movie: Captain America: Civil War
Director: Joe/Anthony Russo
Total Gross: $1,153,296,293

It's been a hot few minutes since the MCU took the top spot at the box office for a year. Spoilers, they're not going away any time soon. While Avengers: Age of Ultron was a box office smash as always thanks to the flop proof standard of the MCU, it didn't really do too well critically. It was bloated, tried to juggle too many characters, tried to tie up a lot of loose ends from previous movies as well as set up new threads, and that's not even mentioning the original plot created for the movie with a whole host of new characters. It was a bit of a mess to say the least. 

But Captain America: Civil War was not only billed as being the most grand and action-packed Captain America movie, which were also some of Marvel's best solo films, but an unofficial Avengers 3. Plus it had Spider-Man! Everyone loves that Spider-Man! In all seriousness, trying to suss out why Civil War took the top box office spot isn't rocket science. At this point the MCU was firing on all cylinders, delivering several movies a year that made either a ton of movie or ALL OF THE MONEY. The franchise was critic proof at, with any bad reviews being completely swept aside by the perpetual hype machine that Marvel and Disney made for their titanic universe. 

And it works. By God does it work, and Civil War may easily be one of the best MCU movies to date. Sure, it's reliant on a lot of past knowledge and character relationships, something that the MCU will eventually have to deal with sooner rather than later, but the premise was compelling to both hardcore and casual fans. There's an ideological split between Iron Man and Captain America with both sides neither being right or wrong. In the original Civil War comic, it was pretty clear that Iron Man's faction were the bad guys due to such fun acts like murdering heroes, hiring villains to track down and attack Captain America's faction, sending heroes to an inter-dimensional prison that drives people insane, and just being all around assholes. Thankfully, Captain America: Civil War ditches all of that in favor of a simple(r) story about superheroes in the modern age with a Patriot Act allegory thrown in for good measure. 

Make no mistake, Captain America: Civil War is good and this is thankfully one of the few movies from 2016 that people still seem eager to talk about. Granted, that may have to do with its connection to the most popular film franchise on the planet, but that still has to count for something. Though it's a bit of a downer that the only way for films to stay popular and relevant is if they're now a part of a multi-media franchise. Remember the days when wonderful movies became pop culture phenomenons simply because they were good movies? The Godfather, The Shining, Jurassic Park, Pulp Fiction, Taxi Driver are all wonderful examples. Now those great original movies seem to be buried under the massive weight of blockbuster cinema. Now comes the question; will the spectacle and scale of blockbuster features still remain an important topic for dissection in the coming years, or will people look back at just how many great original movies were left at the wayside?

Biggest Bomb: Gods of Egypt
Director: Alex Proyas
Budget: $140 million
Gross: $150 million

Okay 2010's we gotta have a talk about the white-washing. This isn't the first time that this decade has had a problem with controversial casting, but thanks to the power of the internet, these "problematic" casting decisions are all the more laughable and embarrassing. Speaking of laughable and embarrassing, Gods of Egypt!

Ooooooooooooh boy do we have a stinker here, folks. The perfect example of a bad movie to grab a few drinks and make fun of, you can have a few good laughs with Gods of Egypt. What's not to love about massive white people pretending to be Egyptian Gods turning into even more massive animals with some truly wonderful special effects? Something almost as entertaining as the movie itself is how the director, Alex Proyas, took to all of the negative reviews after the movie released, calling critics such lovely things as "diseased vultures." If we're diseased vultures, then we sure had one hell of a meal thanks to Gods of Egypt.

So how and why did this movie bomb as hard as it did, costing Lionsgate over $90 million in losses? Well, white-washing for starters. Most of the lead-up to this movie, very much like 2013's Lone Ranger, was centered on the very accurate claims of white-washing. This isn't a case like Cloud Atlas where the mixed racial casting had a message behind it, this was just a situation where the studios wanted to bank on a reliable actor to bring in audiences. In 2013 it was Johnny Depp, but for Gods of Egypt it was Gerard Butler. Is Gerard Butler even a box office draw anymore? Does anyone seriously make it a point to see a Gerard Butler movie?

But the reason why so much money was poured into Gods of Egypt is actually an interesting one. See, Gods of Egypt was meant to be a Young Adult series that aimed to fill the void left by Lionsgate's last massive Young Adult franchise The Hunger Games, the conclusion of which premiered in November 2015. With no real bankable franchise in the books anymore, they attempted to make magic strike twice and keep the valuable teenage demographic in their thralls for years to come. Unfortunately instead of giving them another Hunger Games, they gave them Gods of Egypt.

But what I find fascinating in all of this is the slow decline of the YA genre. Back in the early 2010's, Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games all ruled the roost. They were franchises with rabid fanbases that not only watched the movies religiously, but read any and all material related to them. As the decade went on, nearly all YA franchises either died out or never got off the ground. Ender's Game, Valerian and the City of A Thousand Planets, Divergent, The Giver, and Mortal Instruments all failed at the box office with the few that became franchises barely making enough to justify their existence. The 2010's killed the YA genre and it wasn't because of God's of Egypt. That was just Lionsgate realizing that the proverbial horse has been beaten into paste and they needed to move to greener pastures. 

Most Underrated: The Nice Guys
Director: Shane Black
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 93%

Everyone that slept on this movie should be ashamed of themselves! When I think of an underrated movie, it's a movie that failed at the box office, was critically praised, stood out from the crowd, yet was swiftly ignored after a few weeks only to foster a loyal and small community. In that regard, The Nice Guys is the textbook definition of an underrated classic. 

Set in California during the 1970's, The Nice Guys teams up Russel Crowe and Ryan Gosling as two independent detectives trying to solve the case of a missing girl and her connection to the automobile industry, the porn industry, the government, and how Gosling and Crowe are completely out of their depth. Not only is the mystery engaging, but the movie nails that 70's aesthetic in a way that only Shane Black could do. Remember, when this guy isn't making an awful Predator movie, he's a pretty good filmmaker. 

So of course no one saw this movie. It made a small profit, but still didn't make enough to break even once you factor in its marketing budget. One reason could be that it released in a rather busy May, where it lost out to Captain America: Civil War, The Angry Birds Movie, and Neighbors 2, but I think the reason is far simpler than that. The Nice Guys isn't the kind of movie that gets released anymore. I'm not talking about original comedies, I'm talking about a throwback, simple, no glitz or glamour film. 

There's a certain grit to The Nice Guys that feels distinctly 70's. At times it feels like the movie was pulled right out of a 42nd Street theater with all the sleaze intact. How exactly do you sell audiences on a film like that in a time period where, let's face it, audiences are a bit more sensitive to watching movies where one of the main plot point revolves around the murder of a famous porn producer? It's R-rated, sure, but how can you release a movie like that to audiences in the middle of the summer blockbuster season? If The Nice Guys was a late August, early September release, then it seems pretty likely that it would have had a bit more room to breathe and stand out from the crowd, because it is an excellent movie all around. 

Favorite Movie: La La Land Kubo and the Two Strings
Director: Travis Knight
Why?: Stop-motion Perfection

Not to diminish the success of Kubo and the Two Strings, but it isn't my favorite movie of the year. In case you can't tell from my gushing intro, that honor would go to La La Land as I treasure that movie dearly in my heart. But if I had to pick a number two, Kubo and the Two Strings would easily be my second choice. 

Laika is a studio that I'm genuinely worried for since both of their most recent movies, Kubo as well as this year's Missing Link, have been box office bombs. In the case of Kubo, it turned a slight profit, but Missing Link bombed HARD. How hard did it bomb? Come February, when I get to talk about 2019's most notable movies, I'm fairly certain it's going to be the biggest bomb of the year. Which is scary for me because if Laika were to shut down, then they'd never make movies as beautiful or as moving as Kubo and the Two Strings

Kubo and the Two Strings is the kind of family movie I wish more audiences went to see. It tells an original and unique story about a boy with the power to control paper going on an epic quest to defeat the evil Moon King with the help of his monkey and beetle companions, fighting monsters along the way. The message of the film feels fresh and ends on a note that hits me in the feels in all the right ways, but while the plot may be fantastic, that isn't the reason to see Kubo. If you're going to see it, you're seeing it for the stop-motion animation. 

Stop-motion animation is Laika's bread and butter and I would argue that the art style has never looked as good as it does in Kubo. The fight scenes are dynamic and flow wonderfully and the sheer scope of some of these scenes is so good they made me ask how they were technically possible. Early on in the movie our heroes fight a gargantuan skeleton that towers over our heroes and much like everything else in this movie, was animated via stop-motion. After the credits rolled, there's a mini-featurette showcasing how they animated the hulking bag of bones and it's straight-up art to watch. The amount of technical wizardry on display here has me thankful that not every animated movie needs to be CGI. Handcrafted animation, whether it be through hand-drawn visuals or stop-motion, still has value in today's world. It would be nice if people went to see those products, but there's something to say that Laika, even in the face of financial ruin, is still adamant about being true to their art. For now.

Was 2016 a good year for movies?

While there were a few flashes in the pan of brilliance here or there, 2016 was for the most part a year that went by without much fanfare. Sure, there were a lot of big box office successes throughout the year, like with Disney's myriad of movies and even smaller studios like Illumination and Sony scoring some major box office milestones, but nobody really talks about any of these movies anymore. It's not from a lack of quality, but rather movies just weren't at the forefront of people's minds. 

Back in 2015, there was a pop culture "event" happening nearly every month. Major franchises returned or concluded, with marketing teams in full swing reminding everyone to go out and see the biggest release, lest you fall victim to FOMO. But 2016 didn't have those water cooler moments for film. Those water cooler moments were happening on CNN or NBC in covering the presidential election, Brexit, or the Syrian Refugee Crisis. More important issues needed to be discussed in 2016, so film inevitably had to take a backseat to all of it. 

This wasn't by design however. Hollywood executives didn't all meet up and agree that they weren't going to push their movies as hard in 2016. That would be absolutely ridiculous. Remember, at the end of the day, movies are meant to be a distraction from reality. We escape to the movies in order to take a break from the world around us, but there comes a point where sometimes we can't run away to another place of mind. The big stories of 2016 weren't in the theaters; they were in the news. So no, 2016 probably wasn't the best year for movies, but it wasn't for a lack of quality/profitable titles. It was because the horrors of the world needed to be addressed in real life. We couldn't afford to distract ourselves from the real problems facing us.

Well that got real depressing real quick. Thankfully next month we'll be looking at 2017 which has absolutely no controversial releases whatsoever and will be full of sunshine and rainbows for one and all!

Movies from 2016 you should still see: The Witch, Hail, Caesar!, Zootopia, The Jungle Book, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, Star Trek: Beyond, Hell or High Water, Shin Godzilla, Moonlight, Hacksaw Ridge, Moana, Jackie

Past Years Completed:

2010
2011
2012
2013
2014
2015

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    Filed under... #Animation #Damien Chazelle #Disney #Laika #MCU #musicals #Shane Black #The Decade Decathlon #Top Stories #Young Adult

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