14. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Based on the memoirs of foreign war correspondent Kim Baker, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot covers the years that Baker spent in Afghanistan, trying to find her niche in life while also trying to forge her way in a setting that doesn’t typically support women carving niches.

The film is anchored by an incredibly strong and game cast (Mike alpha romeo romeo yankee mike echo, mike alpha romeo golf oscar tango romeo oscar bravo bravo india echo!) who deliver at every turn.  A lot is asked of each of them and they always come through – whether it be in a comedic moment, a dramatic one, or a terrifying war born juncture – and elevate the film to be a much greater experience than it would be without them.  Tina Fey, Margot Robbie, and Martin Freeman in particular bring their A games and are to thank for any success this film manages to achieve.

And the film is lucky to have them because, otherwise, it’s a bit of an uneven affair.  The biggest problem is that the directing and writing often get in the way of the film, itself, and seemingly work to undermine its own identity.  There are plenty of instances where the cast is playing comedy but the music, camerawork, and framing is playing drama.  It’s bizarre and while a film never has to fit into a single genre, directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa try to force it to be too much at once.  Maybe with two directors there also came two different visions.  Whatever the cause, as a viewer, I frequently felt disoriented.

It’s not as though the individual parts of the film are subpar.  The comedy is great (again, entirely thanks to the cast) and the drama is weighty and powerful.  The comedy does, however, stop altogether about halfway through the film.  From there, for any who come in hoping for wall-to-wall laughs, the story begins to plod and eventually drags itself across the finish line.  It doesn’t quite know when or how to end and would have been well-served by trimming five or ten minutes or by finding a way to reinvigorate the picture by bringing the wit and charm that had been abandoned back, though I admit that the subject matter makes that difficult.

When it comes down to it, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot isn’t a bad film.  It’s a poorly balanced film that is completely saved by its overachieving cast.  This is an unfortunate case of the filmmakers simply not knowing their audience.  They aren’t getting what they’re expecting: the zany movie that the lead star and title imply. It’s a war story that has some solid comedy sprinkled throughout the first two acts, or so, and a cast that saves it and makes it worth a look.

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14. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

13. Zootopia


Ever since Wreck-It Ralph, Disney has been engaging in a new Golden Era for themselves relating to their animation division.  Following the financial and critical success of Ralph, the studio made a return to form with the extremely well-received princess story Tangled, and then far surpassed themselves with the instant classic Frozen.  There was no way to match those heights with their next film, but they managed to stay strong with another home run in their first Marvel adaptation since buying the company, Big Hero 6.  Now, Disney returns to its other popular form – the talking animal tale – with Zootopia.

A March release is unusual (though not unheard of) for a major Disney release.  The delay of Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur from 2014 until late 2015 wreaked havoc with Disney’s release schedule, giving us two Pixar films, last year, and no animated movies from Disney’s in-house team, as there was no way they were going to allow direct competition under their own umbrella.  Seeing the weekend box office results, it’s easy to see that it made no difference – at least not on the negative end.  Disney’s animation studio has successfully restored its reputation and people will see a Disney animated film no matter when it’s released.  Good for them.

Happily, Zootopia doesn’t break the trust Disney has formed with the public.  Just as Frozen broke the mold of the traditional princess story, so does Zootopia for the talking-animal genre.  It’s not quite at the same level of quality of Frozen, but not much is, so that’s not meant to be a criticism.  It’s really not that far behind.

Firstly, the animation and voice work very much is up to that level.  The characters act as much with their body language and facial expressions as they do with their words and vocal inflections and it’s wondrous to behold.  It takes a concerted group effort to bring any one of these characters to life and everyone involved goes above and beyond.  I truly think that Disney Animation had surpassed every other animation studio (including Pixar) in terms of the technical aspects of the art and have claimed their spot at the top of that game where they once say comfortably.

Disney goes topical  in Zootopia, tackling the ever-important topic of inclusion and racism.  The film never gets heavy-handed about it, stopping short of flat-out telling the kids in the audience that half of them have a-hole, Trump-supporting parents.  But, thankfully, it shouldn’t be lost on the parents, themselves, that an anthropomorphic bunny is trying to teach them something about life.  This film is basically the anti-God’s Not Dead 2 (and OH, will there be a future post on THAT little piece of work).  I love that.

Another layer to the film exists within the name of the titular city, Zootopia.  All of the animals look at it through rose-colored glasses, imaging from the outside that it’s the perfect (utopian) animal existence they’ve always dreamed of.  Much like our real-life existence, however, that theoretical utopia is hampered by the aforementioned closed-mindedness of certain inhabitants.  So, how much of a difference can one bunny make?  Therein lies the primary conflict of the film and the title is an ingenious reflection of the underlying themes.

The film is genuinely funny when it’s appropriate to be (Flash is awesome and Judy is charmingly funny, herself) and pretty exciting during a couple of well-constructed action scenes.  And the city of Zootopia, itself, is gorgeous and expertly designed.  I saw it in IMAX 3D and I didn’t want to blink for fear of letting a single frame go to waste.

I have no complaints or criticisms of Zootopia.  Disney continues its recent trend of forgoing animated films for kids and, instead, making animated films for everyone.  With copious surface-level entertainment buoyed by thoughtful subtext and depth and combined with masterful technical wizardry, Disney has once again thrown down the gauntlet to the other animation studious and practically dared them to step up to their challenge.  We’ll see if they do with The Secret Lives of Pets and Finding Dory, later this year.

13. Zootopia

12. Gods of Egypt


Who doesn’t love a film surrounded by controversy, huh?  Well, supposedly lots of people.  And I can’t discuss Gods of Egypt without at least touching on it.

Audiences and film pundits alike piled onto Gods of Egypt before it was even released, attacking director Alex Proyas and the casting department for casting (in their eyes) too many white people for a movie that takes place in Egypt.  To their credit, Proyas and company admitted fault and suggested they would remember that perceived mistake on future projects.

The professional critics then savaged the film upon its release, as it sits at 13% on Rotten Tomatoes.  Proyas somewhat viciously fired back at the critics, essentially accusing them of making up their minds before they ever saw the film and contributing to the modern trend of hip negativity in an effort to keep themselves from being singled out and attacked for liking a film that they didn’t think they were supposed to like.

Honestly, Proyas is right about that trend.  If critics seem to nearly-unanimously love a movie, it’s typically a good sign.  But if they all seem to hate one, I’ve learned to take that with a grain of salt.  I truly believe that many critics are embarrassed to admit that they like certain movies.  General audiences are the same.  Ask someone what they think about Titanic or Avatar.  They’ll probably say they hate it.  But, in reality, that’s likely just posturing.

But, I’ve never subscribed to that approach.  I try to objectively see the good and not-so-good in every film I watch.  And I’m not getting into the casting stuff.  Nope.  Audiences complain when a character’s race is changed and they complain when it isn’t.  At this point, audiences have lost any credibility and their complaints deserve to fall of deaf ears.  So, having said all of that, on what side of the fence do I sit with regards to Gods of Egypt?

My anticipation for this one has wavered. The initial trailer had me pumped.  The reviews dampened my enthusiasm.  So, I sat down (in a theater all to myself.  Yikes!) with trepidation.

I walked out glad that I took the chance.

Admittedly, I have a soft spot for Egyptian tales.  I’m not sure why or where that comes from.  But I love the mixture of human, god, and beast, the architecture, the pageantry, the elegance, the scope, the magic, the tongues, and the power that the time and place always seems to wield.  Gods of Egypt supplies all of that in copious quantities.

The action set pieces are a blast and generally inventive and creative – particularly when some sort of creature is involved.  The more traditional human combat feels a little standard but not subpar, in any way.  Proyas’s top – and maybe sole – priority is clearly to entertain and here he succeeds with little complaint from me.

The entire film is a treat for the eyes. Whether it be special effects, the settings, the colors, or the human form that catches your attention, there’s plenty here to feast on.  It’s the most beautiful film I’ve seen in some time, stealing that accolade from Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.  My screen was a little dark so I’m anxious to check this out on 3D blu-ray (which I’m going to buy) and see it in all of its colorful glory.

The film’s single greatest asset is unquestionably (and ironically) the cast.  Every single one of the principle cast – god and human, alike – injects their character with a charm and accessibility that becomes the primary source of fun for the majority of the run time.  Watching them interact is never anything short of a joy and they all manage to succeed at this singular task by using their own individual and unique talents and turns.  Everyone manages to stand out on their own while elevating the film through a united team effort (and now I’m extremely excited to see Elodie Yung as Elektra in the second season of Daredevil in a couple of weeks).  It was remarkable to watch and a huge credit to them all.

The humor doesn’t always land in the form of actual laughs (a few chuckles) but it does add to the likability of the cast, even when it isn’t all that funny.  An interesting dichotomy.

Marco Beltrami’s score is mostly grand and sweeping but I found it intrusive during the lighter moments, as if it wants to tell the audience what to feel rather than just allowing them to be in the moment.

There are also too many last-second, coincidentally-timed saves.  These types of moments have become a hallmark of the action/adventure film but that doesn’t keep me from wishing that more filmmakers would find a way around them while still maintaining the drama that they wish to preserve.

My biggest issue comes at the climax.  The camaraderie among our group of protagonists is practically sacrificed to Ra, himself, as the group is eventually fractured due to various circumstances.  As a result, what serves as the heart of the film – the team dynamic – vanishes and we are left with a much more standard, cookie-cutter ending to a film that has up to that point felt a little off-the-beaten-path.

After seeing the on-screen chemistry among the cast, I would have wanted to completely re-write and re-cut the ending to make it more of a concerted, team effort.  After all, they all had a horse in the race and it wasn’t just Horus’s battle.  Then again, that would cost more money and the film cost $140 million as it is.  And the studio is getting practically none of that back.  Is there an alternate universe where someone decided to make those changes, critics loved it, and the film made a lot of money and a huge profit?  Yes.  But this isn’t that universe and we can never know if that would have been the result of that decision in the universe in which we exist.  So, speculating does no good.

With that change at the finale, I would have loved the movie from beginning to end, despite its other flaws that I alluded to.  As it is, I loved the first 75% of it and liked the final 25%.  And I do think the critics are largely guilty of that which Proyas is accusing them.  Gods of Egypt is one of those films whose existence is solely for the purpose of entertainment, and wholly entertained I was.  I regret the beating that this one is taking because from my perspective, it’s completely undeserved.  I hope Proyas and company can pick themselves up and be proud of what they did, even if it goes over the heads of others.  In the meantime, I’ll be anxiously awaiting the blu-ray.

12. Gods of Egypt

11. Eddie the Eagle


Going about this crazy crusade of mine to see 100 2016 releases in the theaters is bound to result in my seeing some movies that I otherwise wouldn’t have.  Eddie the Eagle is one of those.

For the most part, the film is probably what you think it is.  There are a lot of sports/underdog movie close cliches that are present and waiting to be checked off your checklist: loving mother and unsupportive father, a-hole jocks hazing the lovable geek, comedic spit takes, and – yes – the omnipresent training montage.  But there is a little more than that to Eddie.

This is already the second film of 2016 about a struggling prospective Olympian. But I think this one succeeds in one important area where the other, Race, surprisingly dropped the ball: I was invested in the protagonist’s journey.

This largely comes from director Dexter Fletcher’s ability to communicate the seriousness and ominous threat of the challenges that lay before Eddie.  I felt nervous every time he took his starting position and when things didn’t go well, the consequences weren’t glossed over.

The performances were helpful, as well, as Taron Egerton was endearing as Eddie and Hugh Jackman brings the same heart to his role as Eddie’s coach that he brings to every single part he plays.  He has to be one of the most likable guys in Hollywood, both on- and off-screen.

The humor generally fell flat for me, though I admittedly chuckled a few times.  And no bones are made about the film occurring in the eighties as pop songs from the decade play at appropriate moments and the score, itself, sounds like it was pulled straight from another film of that time.  I felt immersed in the film and much of that is owed to the music.

The messages of these sports films generally fall into one of two arenas and this one is no different, but a couple of unexpected bumps in the road occur along the way, and I appreciated that.  As I mentioned when discussing Race, Hollywood has a penchant for selecting true stories for films that play out a lot like other true stories that have already been adapted.  So, something needs to be different about each one.  Eddie the Eagle isn’t all that different from any other sports movie, but it has a moment or two.

I don’t think anyone needs to rush out and make Eddie a priority.  If you wanted to see it, anyway, go see it.  If someone invites you to go, go with them.  It’s not a bad time at the movies.  Just don’t expect any huge surprises.

11. Eddie the Eagle

Interlude – Films That Every Self-Professed Film Lover Should See

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Virtually everybody who lives in modern civilization watches movies.  Whether it’s a movie a week or a movie a year, you’re going to be hard-pressed to find someone you know who has never seen one.  But for maybe every 100o casual filmgoer with lower standards and/or expectations, there might be one genuine film-lover.  What makes a true film-lover?  Primarily two qualities: open-mindedness and a willingness to spend time watching them.  If you’ve ever said, “I don’t watch cartoons,” or, “I refuse to see anything that stars Tom Cruise,” then you are no true film lover.  Maybe certain genres or stars might not usually be your cup of tea, but if someone truly loves film, they will remain open-minded to any film, given reason to be.  Here is an alphabetical list of ten films that anyone serious about movies should either have seen already or should see, soon.

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1. 2001: A Space Odyssey

This is Stanley Kubrick’s true masterpiece.  In this 1968 exploration of the origins, the history, and the potential of human life, Kubrick takes the viewer on an epic adventure that spans millennia and beyond, all while demanding the audience’s attention and insight.  It takes almost 30 minutes for a single word to be spoken but during that time, the film never devolves into anything less than captivating and thought-provoking.  And, in what I have always been assumed to be an effort to mimic the very realism of the human lifespan that Kubrick studies, here, important questions are raised and never answered.  At least not explicitly and not by Kubrick.  That’s up to you, making the viewer a participant in the film, itself.  On top of all of this, despite being nearly 50 years old, 2001 is as beautiful as (or more beautiful than) most films of today with a potent vibrancy injected into every single frame, eventually building to a climax that overwhelms both the senses and the mind, driving home the point that life can never be fully comprehended but its potential is up to each of us to discover and to savor.

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2. Citizen Kane
This is the one that everyone hears about but a relative few have actually seen.  And so many who have seen it say, “It’s so boring!”  What a shame.  There are no visual effects.  No car chases.  No nude scenes.  This is a mystery that is seen from the press’s point of view and told entirely through dialogue.  Lots and lots of dialogue.  So, why is it so highly regarded?  Why is it held so high above other dialogue-driven films from throughout cinematic history?  Partly because of the story and its unique approach of attempting to humanize someone who seems entirely inhuman; a renowned publishing tycoon (is anybody described as a “tycoon” anymore?) who is resented and hated due to the moves he made to attain his status.  It’s a common societal tendency to think of the rich and famous as less than we are in an effort to make us feel better about ourselves.  Kane approaches this idea delicately and memorably.  And it’s also Orson Welles’s performance that garners rave reviews, to this day.  But maybe even more than that, it was his directing and his use of revolutionary camera work that sets it apart.  Watching it now, an uninformed viewer wouldn’t even notice, because they were so inventive and applicable that they’re still used today.  For brevity’s sake, I’ll move on, but Citizen Kane is a film-lover’s film.

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3. Frozen
Hating on the popular thing is what all the kewl kidz do.  (Contrarianism: It’s All the Rage!)  But sometimes the popular thing is popular for a very simple reason: it’s that damned good.  And Frozen is that damned good.  On every level.  The story lulls unsuspecting audiences into thinking they already know what’s going to happen before turning the conventional fairy tale tropes on their heads and delivering a genuinely poignant tale that tugs at heart strings and reminds the viewer of the truly important things in life.  The humor delivers (Olaf is great, but Anna is hilarious to me).  The animation is flawless, bringing any one of their computer-generated characters to life with more realism and believable performance ability than the entire cast of “Fuller House”.  And the music.  The music strikes a chord with people of all ages and origins and has had toes tapping for over to years now.  It’s trendy to complain about “Let It Go” due to nothing except its popularity (true quality doesn’t diminish with repetition) but as I heard that song for the first time as I watched Frozen, I thought to myself that it would win Best Original Song at the Oscars and I was right.  In my mind, it’s the best original song in film history and is unlikely to be challenged, anytime soon.  And Frozen is a masterpiece, as a whole – the total package where everything goes perfectly.  Filmmaking at its finest.

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4. Jurassic Park

This list wouldn’t be complete without Jurassic Park.  Not if I’m writing it.  This is the movie that made me love movies.  This is the film where I came to understand that, in the movies, truly anything is possible.  Steven Spielberg is a true auteur, molding each of his films into his own personal creation.  Here, he crafts a breathtaking cautionary tale that is a recipe of equal parts thought-provoking poignancy and mind-blowing thrills.  Stan Winston cemented himself as a genius, here (if he hadn’t already, by that time), and is just as responsible for the legacy that this film carved for itself.  It’s not perfect (there are continuity and production errors) but it doesn’t even matter.  Jurassic Park changed cinema forever and it did it with a combination of style and substance.

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5. King Kong (1933)
While many films owe much to Jurassic Park, Jurassic Park owes all to the original King KongKong was the first true special effects event film – the first must-see escapist movie whose primary was simply to entertain.  Now, that’s almost all most moviegoers look for in a movie.  But at the time, the technology didn’t really exist to make that sort of film happen often.  Other than comedies, you were pretty much stuck with headsy thrillers or dramas that barely allowed one to forget their own issues and just get away from it all.  So, this was a gutsy, frightening experiment that was as risky as they come – both financially and creatively.  And JP isn’t the only film that owes its existence to Kong.  So does Citizen KaneKong saved RKO Pictures from going under and showed the entire industry what is no common knowledge – the money is in the magic.

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6. King Kong (2005)
You might think this is cheating or unnecessary.  Or even blasphemy!  You’re wrong on all three accounts.  This film is often given a bad rap with the same lazy, regurgitated line: “It was too long!”  Snore.  But for true film lovers, not a problem!  Because this one has everything in the world to love.  The first half is an excellent, character-building dramedy and the second half could still stand on its own as one of the greatest action films of all time.  But, more importantly, with this film, Peter Jackson shows just exactly how to properly do a remake.  The same lazy armchair critics referred to earlier also like to whine about how “Hollywood is out of ideas” and “lacks creativity” simply because of the number of sequels and remakes that have recently hit theaters.  It seems to me that those critics are describing themselves as a true film geek can understand the difficulty in telling a story with previously established characters or retelling an old classic.  Peter Jackson nails it by staying true to the original’s themes and story but correcting its flaws and filling it out to form a more complete story.  Some of the original’s flaws were budget- and technology-related, at no fault of its own.  But others were due to the fact that it was product of its own time and nearly as misogynistic as Donald Trump.  Jackson modernized it while respecting it and Naomi Watts, coupled with WETA, supplied King Kong with an abundance of heart.  There is no lack of originality, creativity, or innovation in this remake that took a brilliant concept and perfected it.

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7. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
As we all progress through high school, we’re required to read certain books as part of our English/Literature courses.  I’ve always liked to read, but I never cared for being told what to read.  But I’m so thankful to my twelfth-grade AP English teacher for making me read Ken Kesey’s ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST.  I had to read it over the summer that preceded my senior year of high school (along with LORD OF THE FLIES, which I also liked, but not as much) and I absolutely loved it.  Had it not been for that, I may not have watched this film adaptation (“Adaptation”?  Hollywood was SO out of ideas in 1975!) and what a shame that would have been.  Jack Nicholson and director Milos Forman get most of the credit for this one (and they deserve every single tribute that comes their way) but this classic was a true group effort in which every single contributor – both in front of and behind the camera – left their mark forever.  It does everything a great film should do and does so effortlessly.

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8. Memento
As all of my friends’ (and students’) resident film geek, I’m often asked what my favorite movie is.  I always respond with a clarifying question: “Based on personal preferences or pure quality?”  If they want my answer based on pure quality, my answer is always Memento.  Despite many people’s best efforts to prove otherwise, this may be the only film which I truly believe to be perfect.  I saw this in the theater in 2001 based solely on the positive reviews and my mind was absolutely blown.  From the moment the final credits rolled on that day, fifteen years ago, Christopher Nolan has been my favorite director.  The attention to detail, intricate plotting and directing, delicate structuring, and mammoth confidence required to even come close to getting a film like Memento right is hard to conceive.  But this wasn’t “close”.  It was flawless.  The concept, itself, is genius.  The execution is magnificent.  And the fact that it holds up even when viewing all of the scenes in chronological order is even more impressive.  Showing the end of the story at the beginning of the film is gutsy and it takes a master of the craft to then continue to push forward with a captivating story (and an equally-captivating protagonist inhabited by Guy Pearce) that still manages to shock, enthrall, and impact audiences as they continue to discover this genuine work of art to this day.

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9. Mulholland Dr.
The year 2001 was my personal 1939 for film.  1939 saw The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and others hit the big screen.  2001 saw Memento as well as David Lynch’s greatest film achievement, Mulholland Dr..  When I tell people that Memento is my favorite film of all time based on quality, I follow that up by saying that this one isn’t far behind.  Most people turn to Blue Velvet for classic Lynch but I far prefer Mulholland Dr. for its mystery, its fluidity, its versatility, and its outright refusal to restrain itself and fit a preconceived mold of what a film is supposed to be.  Naomi Watts defies all expectations and was outright robbed of and Oscar nomination and win.  Meanwhile, Lynch dares you to follow his bouncing ball and delivers a film that is akin to trying assemble a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle without having the box to give you the picture.  And it’s gorgeous.  It’s gorgeous in terms of its cinematography, yes, without question.  I recently re-watched it after its LOOOOOOOOOONG-overdue blu-ray release and every frame was a feast for my eyes (all four of them).  But Mulholland‘s beauty also lies in its brutal honesty.  It tricks the viewer into believing they are watching one film and then pulls the rug out and drags them over hot coals, broken glass, razor blades, and the Human Centipede before finally dumping them back into reality and telling them to love it.  And love it, I do.

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10. Singin’ in the Rain

I’m not sure that most people realize that none of the music in Singin’ in the Rain is original to the movie, itself.  Did you know that?  These songs were chosen and a story was written around them.  Man!  I guess Hollywood was all out of ideas in 1952, too!  Regardless, they managed to crank out an all-time classic musical that has stood the test of time to the point that kids who have never seen this movie – maybe don’t even know that there is such a movie – know the title song.  This film took previously existing work and it elevated it all into the permanent public zeitgeist.  And it did it by having fun.  No edginess.  No cursing.  No sex.  Just classic, over-the-top characters trying to entertain you.  And Gene Kelly owning the screen, just as he’ll own you.

That’s it!  This is not an exhaustive list, nor is it a Top Ten.  There are plenty more that could be included here and I may very well do another edition of this, somewhere down the line.  The March to 100 will pick back up, this weekend, and go into overdrive as I have a week off!  Get ready!
Interlude – Films That Every Self-Professed Film Lover Should See