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The best (and worst) at the movies

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Looking at the cinematic year in advance of awards season

Awards season is officially upon us.

While a number of organizations have already bestowed their cinematic trophies, the season really kicks off with the Hollywood Foreign Press’s Golden Globes, which take place this weekend.

From there, prestigious groups like the Writers Guild of America, the Directors Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild – along with numerous critics’ organizations - will all name their winners over the course of the next couple of months. As always, it will end on the highest of high notes – the Academy Awards.

There were some great movies and plenty of bad ones; here’s a list of the best and worst (in no particular order) for you to keep an eye on as the hardware is handed out.

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BEST

Moonlight

If you haven’t seen this film, you’re doing yourself a disservice. “Moonlight” is a coming of age story unlike anything you’ve witnessed on the big screen before. Beautifully written and uncompromisingly told, it’s a moving cinematic triptych – a visual symphony in three acts.

Once or twice a year, I get to go to the movies and see something that has a major visceral impact on me. My enjoyment of films usually springs from performance, production or plot – but this film was exquisite in all three respects, my annual gem.

“Moonlight” is a beautiful, sad, beautifully sad film. It is powerful and raw and unflinching, a cinematic experience that is both new and hauntingly familiar. Frankly, it’s difficult to articulate just how good this movie is. Just see it for yourself.

Manchester by the Sea

Family tragedy makes for easy emotional manipulation. But it’s a rare film that is unafraid to take the time to earn that emotional response, to build to a crescendo organically rather than via trickery.

“Manchester by the Sea” is one such film. Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan has a brilliant capacity for displaying the quiet emotion of repressed men. Casey Affleck gives the performance of his career atop an outstanding cast that uniformly excels in this emotionally-fraught gutpunch of a film.

“Manchester by the Sea” is great in every way that you might want a film to be great. It is emotionally engaging, smart and tragic and sadly funny. It is beautiful to look at, packed with exquisite performances. It is raw and true and heartbreaking.

The Edge of Seventeen

I’m not one to throw around the name John Hughes; he made movies that influenced my adolescence in a very real, palpable way. But this movie has something of that spark – “The Edge of Seventeen” is very much of its time in the same way that the best Hughes teen films are. Add the wildly talented Hailee Steinfeld to the mix and you’ve got something special.

Every generation has movies that resonate with it, films that tell the stories of the myriad highs and lows of being a teenager. A select few will manage to transcend generational boundaries and continue to find connections long after their original audiences have grown into adulthood. If there's any justice, “The Edge of Seventeen” will be one of those select few.

Arrival

As a lover of science fiction, I was kind of disappointed with many of the year’s offerings. Sure, there were only a few terrible ones, but the rest were all kind of “meh.”

Then “Arrival” came along and I felt better. This engaging take on the “first contact” trope featured some engaging ideas and a great aesthetic to go along with a cast headed up by acclaimed performers like Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner.

Everything about “Arrival” - the aesthetics, the narrative, the ideas, the performances - is great. Yes, it's a science fiction film, but it is also so much more than that. It is a story of ideas and fate and love and language. It is beautiful to look at and fascinating to consider.

Don’t Breathe

Horror, on the other hand, has been very hit or miss this year. Some phenomenal films and some really terrible ones, and while I’m not completely sure that Fede Alvarez’s “Don’t Breathe” is the best of the bunch, it feels nicely representative.

A crew of kids break into a reclusive (and blind) veteran’s home, but their robbery plans go wrong and they wind up trapped in a surprisingly engaging cat-and-mouse game riddled with unsettling twists.

“Don't Breathe” has an uncommon complexity that sets it apart; far from a run-of-the-mill home invasion thriller, it instead calls into question our perceptions of what is good and bad. With excellent performances and a constantly-shifting narrative, it's an outstanding horror movie in a year that has seen more than its share. Genre fans will delight in this unconventional take from a rising talent.

Sausage Party

I’m not going to lie – it feels weird putting this movie on a list like this one. But I’d be hard-pressed to choose a film from the last 12 months that made me laugh harder. Sure, I felt bad about laughing, but that only made me laugh more.

This brainchild of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg – the story of a grocery store hot dog learning the horrifying truth behind his existence – had no business working, but work it did.

“Sausage Party” is the kind of envelope-pushing weirdness that we rarely (if ever) see released by major studios these days. It is wrong in all of the ways that a movie can be wrong. It is offensive and line-crossing and gross. It is also cringingly funny and the smartest stupid movie we've seen in a long time.

So dig in.

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

Another film that I didn’t expect to include. I had low expectations for this Andy Samberg-starring pop music mockumentary, but it turned out to be a pretty exceptional example of the genre.

Samberg’s Connor B leans into the actor’s comfort level with over-the-top non sequitur lunacy, producing (seemingly almost by accident at times) a sharp and insightful satire about the world of celebrity.

“Popstar” is hilarious and weird, with great jokes and songs that are both incredibly funny and remarkably catchy. It's a loving takedown of all things pop music and the closest thing to a 21st century “This is Spinal Tap” that we're likely to see for quite some time.

Zootopia

Disney has really been getting it done in recent years. They’ve produced a run of outstanding movies over that span, but the truth is that you could argue that this one belongs in the top spot.

“Zootopia” is about a world where anthropomorphic animals – prey and predators alike – have developed a functioning, peaceful society. It has all the hallmarks of Disney excellence, but it also carries within it a surprisingly deep and thoughtful exploration of the relationships between cultures.

Even without the complexity of its message, “Zootopia” would be a worthwhile addition to the Disney canon; the characters are great, the world is fascinating and the narrative is top-notch. But with that message? It might be the best offering from the studio this century.

Deadpool

You knew there was going to be at least one superhero movie on here, right? It's no secret that I'm a sucker for superheroes.

There were a couple of other super-offerings that could have made the cut, but ultimately, the best of the bunch was “Deadpool.” Filthy and funny, it showed that there’s more than one way to make a superhero movie and did so incredibly successfully. So successfully, in fact, that it forced me to move beyond my personal antipathy for Ryan Reynolds.

The fact that there's room in the comic movie firmament for a movie like “Deadpool” is truly exciting. It is crude and profane and brutal and hilarious and just a hell of a good time at the movies.

Hacksaw Ridge

Telling the stories of real people is always a tricky business. The reality is that even the most extraordinary life is going to require a little dramatic license … unless you’re talking about Desmond Doss, the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor in WWII.

Mel Gibson’s return to the director’s chair is an excellent one, telling the story of one man’s courageous acts to save the lives of scores of his fellow soldiers – all without ever once touching a weapon. Gibson and star Andrew Garfield combine to tell one of the most compelling true war stories you’ve probably never heard.

“Hacksaw Ridge” is a powerful film, illustrating not only the horrors of war but the ability of men of character to transcend those horrors. It tells the tale of an extraordinary man, one whose story would be utterly unbelievable if it didn't happen to be true. Captivating and intense and surprisingly beautiful.

(Other favorites:“Captain America: Civil War,” “The Nice Guys,” “10 Cloverfield Lane,” “Doctor Strange,” “Rogue One,” “Moana”)

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Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t offer up a list of the worst of the worst. Bear in mind that I’m aware of plenty of bad movies that didn’t make the cut, but rest assured that every single one of the following films should be avoided.

WORST

Nine Lives

Kevin Spacey in a bad wig plays a billionaire mogul who gets turned into a cat by Christopher Walken. He has to reconnect with his family and save his company – all while still being a cat.

That’s really all that needs to be said. Those two sentences pretty much say it all.

“Nine Lives” is a mistake that no one would admit that they were making until it was too late. It is the result of either a drunken wager or someone getting in too deep with a loan shark. It is a children's movie made by people who not only don't understand children, but may actively hate children - heck, they may never have even BEEN children. It is unfunny and condescending, a collective collection of paychecks.

This is absolutely the worst movie of the past year.

Shut In

DO NOT SEE THIS MOVIE. That's all I can tell you. Just don't.

There is nothing of redeeming value about this film. The first half is a derivative thriller that is devoid of scares, while the second half is a master class in Oedipal idiocy wrapped around one of the most ludicrous plot twists you're ever likely to see. It's all so awful.

This movie is hands-down one of the year's worst. It is regrettable on all levels, a film that makes you feel dumber for having been conned into purchasing a ticket. It is a thriller without thrills that offers horror without scares. It is boring and poorly-made and narratively ridiculous and very, very bad.

(Note that bears repeating: Todd Simcox is in this.)

I refer you to the closing line of my previous review – “‘Shut In?’ More like ‘S--t In.’”

Max Steel

I’m always going to have a soft spot in my heart for sci-fi films aimed at younger viewers. I loved those sorts of movies growing up and tend to cut them a lot of slack.

But “Max Steel” – based on a once-popular action figure – is just plain bad. Not bad in a fun way, either. It’s bad in a bad way.

“Max Steel” is what happens when the sole rationale for your film is “People used to like this toy.” It has little to no redeeming value whatsoever. It is dull and derivative, populated with characters that are poorly-developed and uninteresting. It's full of jokes that aren't funny and left-field emotional moments here and there. This movie makes the junk kiddie sci-fi of my youth look Oscar-worthy.

Seriously - kids deserve better than this.

Rules Don’t Apply

Passion projects rarely work out the way you’d hope. Most of the time, if someone is spending years trying to convince people to help make a movie, there are some legitimate reasons that everyone keeps saying no. Warren Beatty’s Howard Hughes rom-com “Rules Don’t Apply” – which he wrote, directed and starred in – justified every no he heard.

The script is bland and lightweight; it's basically a generic romantic comedy that has shoehorned Howard Hughes into the story. The stakes feel manufactured - if you feel them at all - and the narrative has a thin, paint-by-numbers quality. Combine that with direction where the primary conscious choice appears to be nigh-constant shadows surrounding Beatty and the result is a movie that is completely and utterly forgettable.

It's nice that Warren Beatty was able to bring his passion project to the big screen. I only wish that it had been something better - or at least more interesting - than “Rules Don't Apply.”

Ben-Hur

Obviously, when you decide to remake a cinematic classic, you’re taking a pretty big risk. And when you fail, odds are you’re going to fail in spectacular fashion.

Which brings us to “Ben-Hur,” a digitally-constructed husk that can’t even manage to give us the kick-ass chariot race that we so richly deserved. Instead, it’s a long, dull snoozer that is inferior to William Wyler’s masterpiece in every conceivable way. Wait, I take that back – this one has Morgan Freeman and Wyler’s didn’t, so there’s that, I guess.

“Ben-Hur” is a transparent attempt to grab a piece of the not-insignificant faith-based movie audience, one of the few big-budget efforts aimed at that demographic. It's not a bad idea; the only problem is that in this case, you still need to make a good movie - and this is not a good movie.

Gods of Egypt

This thing was almost inconceivably awful. How it managed to not only get made, but get a wide release, is something that I am simply unable to comprehend.

This film somehow manages to look 20 years old - and not in the good way. The liberal and obvious reliance on green screens borders on painful to look at, while some of the action sequences would look more at home in a video game cut scene from 1998 than in a major theatrical release in 2016.

It's an utter failure from director Alex Proyas. There's no story. There's no ensemble chemistry. There's no production value. Heck, there's no value of any kind. 'Gods of Egypt' is an absurd fever dream of a film, a wrong-headed mistake. Nothing more.

Warcraft

I worried that I disliked this film because I was unfamiliar with the video game that inspired it. Thankfully, I was told on no uncertain terms by a number of people that yes, “Warcraft” was a terrible movie that didn’t make a ton of sense.

Even by the low bar set by video game adaptations, this film just wasn’t very good – it felt like a prequel to a movie that hadn’t been made yet.

“Warcraft” is just one more in a long line of less-than-stellar video game movies. However, quality of storytelling aside, this one has already proven to be one of the genre’s most successful. It isn't much fun and it doesn't make a lot of sense, but it made box office bank and really, that's the bottom line.

Alice Through the Looking Glass

In a year filled with unnecessary sequels, this one might have been the most painful of the bunch. Johnny Depp in crazy makeup isn’t quite the draw it used to be, as we discovered with this bizarre Mad Hatter origin story.

Nonsense is fine – it’s a central part of Lewis Carroll’s work, actually – but with nothing beneath it, the cynical cashgrabbery shines through. 

Despite a talented cast and some incredibly rich source material, “Alice Through the Looking Glass” is little more than an ill-conceived and empty bauble, a candy-coated turd attempting (and failing) to pass as a delicious treat. Rarely has a movie made clearer how miserable an experience it was to make.

The Brothers Grimsby

I saw this movie by myself in the movie theater - as in, I was the only one in the place. And frankly, I’m thankful, because I didn’t have to look anyone in the eye (aside from myself in the mirror, of course) after sitting through the garbage fire that was “The Brothers Grimsby.”

The plot – a soccer hooligan winds up with a long-lost brother who’s a spy and they have to team up – is meaningless, a framework upon which to hang foul sight gags and unfunny jokes.

“The Brothers Grimsby” is Sacha Baron Cohen at his nadir; his shtick simply didn't work this time around. Pushing boundaries for the sake of pushing boundaries rarely does. A willingness to commit can be a wonderful thing, but it can backfire when the initial decision is a poor one - something that occurs far, FAR too often here.

Dirty Grandpa

Robert De Niro is so far from caring at this point. I don’t even know if he reads scripts anymore; just write a check and you’ve got Bobby D.

De Niro is the titular “Dirty Grandpa” who goes on a road trip with his uptight straight-laced grandson, played by Zac Efron’s haircut and abs. The pair wind up at spring break; De Niro swears a lot and talks about weird sex stuff while Efron stands around looking vaguely confused.

“Dirty Grandpa” is almost painfully unfunny, choosing to rely on overwhelming coarseness rather than any sort of real attempts at humor. Truly, the title is apt, and in more ways than one you'll almost definitely feel dirty after watching.

(Other non-favorites: “The Disappointments Room,” “Collateral Beauty,” “The Legend of Tarzan,” “Independence Day: Resurgence,” “Inferno,” “Blair Witch,” “Zoolander 2”)

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