What if Hollywood refused to release any more movies after June 30th, leaving audiences and Oscar voters to pick from what washed in with the tide from the first six months of 2016? Yikes. Last year at this time, we'd already had Mad Max: Fury Road, Inside Out, Love & Mercy and Ex Machina. This year's pickings are, well, slimmer. Amid the furor over the degrees of suckitude in Batman v Superman, the lack of laughs delivered by Kevin Hart in Ride Along 2 and Central Intelligence, and the franchise fatigue brought on by Alice Through the Looking Glass, X-Men: Apocalypse, Zoolander 2, The Huntsman: Winter's War, and The Divergent Series: Allegiant, a few goodies did manage to poke through the sludge. Here's the best of 2016 so far:
Captain America: Civil War
The year's best popcorn flick to date is one of the few films of 2016 to break the sequel jinx. The Russo brothers, Joe and Anthony, actually know how to get us caught up in the feud between the Cap (Chris Evans) and Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr,) and bring in Marvel's Avengers — only the Hulk and Thor are MIA — to take sides. Lesson to Hollywood suits only in it for milking a franchise: If you build the damn thing right, they will come.
The R-rated black sheep of the Marvel movies actually gets better with repeat viewings. If Academy voters weren't such tools and ass-hats then Ryan Reynolds would get award attention for turning snark into an art form. As Deadpool, a medical experiment gone wrong, he proves that a rogue superhero is a lot more fun with a mouth on him. Thank Reynolds and director Tim Miller for turning what should have been junk into something deliciously disreputable.
Director Brian De Palma likes to get up in your face. Prudes are always bitching about the sex, violence and defiant perversity in him films, from Carrie and Dressed to Kill to Scarface. If you're not already a fan for those exact same reasons, however, then listening to him dish on his career, with choice clips to match, will cinch the deal. Directors Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow just let the dude talk; my only gripe is that this doc is too damn short at 108 minutes. Sequel, please.
Everybody Wants Some
Richard Linklater reflectively rolls us back to 1980 in the company of baseball jocks starting a new year at a small Texas University. That's all. But Linklater, a master minimalist from Dazed and Confused to Boyhood, creates something major about the way freedom tastes when the future still lies ahead and getting stoned, laid or both is a key part of the journey. And that soundtrack!
A lot of American indies get touted as the next big thing. The Fits deserves to be. Royalty Hightower is only 11 years old, but you can't take your eyes off her. She plays Toni, an Ohio kid learning to box at a Cincinnati community center. And then, in the gym next door, she sees a dance team of older girls going through their paces. And everything about her life, her direction, her body, her sexuality — it all changes. No wonder these girls have fits. Anna Rose Holmer's stunning debut film may have the same effect on you.
The Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, look back at Hollywood in the 1950s and show why their impure love of cinema is the driving force behind everything they create. That's some agenda for a goofball farce starring George Clooney, Josh Brolin, a dancing Channing Tatum and a scene-stealing Alden Ehrenreich (the young Han Solo in an upcoming Star Wars spinoff) as a singing cowboy. I've been accused of being buzzed, stoned or in the tank for the Coens for finding Hail, Caesar so funny and affecting. But it did make me drunk on movies again.
The Jungle Book
Director Jon Favreau didn't care that the 1894 Rudyard Kipling story about a boy in the jungle had been filmed many times before, most famously in Disney's 1967 animated musical version. He thought today's technical marvels, including 3D, could bring it to life like never before. With Neel Sethi as the boy, the only human in a cast of talking computer-generated animals, the director and his VFX team holed up in an building in Los Angeles and created visual miracles. Favreau, wise dude that he is, brought the heart.
Love & Friendship
Whit Stillman's flagrantly naughty take on a novel that Jane Austen wrote in 1794 is as modern and badass a romantic comedy as you'll find anywhere. The gorgeous Kate Beckinsale is killer good as a fortune-hunting widow on the prowl. She and costar Chloe Sevigny, as her American co-conspirator, plot like the real housewives of Austen Country. If the Oscars were given out today, Beckinsale gets my vote for Best Actress, hands down.
There's no explaining why you can get knocked sideways by this simple tale of how a bunch of music-crazed teens form a band in 1980's Dublin while the sounds of Duran Duran, the Cure and Spandau Ballet swirl around them. Maybe it's because Irish writer-director Jon Carney (Once, Begin Again) lived it all himself. Or maybe it's because Carney captures the tenderest of moments without an ounce of Hollywood bullshit.
A horror movie that scares you senseless without a single cheap trick. Impossible? Just take a look at the small miracles achieved by debuting filmmaker Robert Eggers. The setting is a New England farmhouse in 1630 when Puritan repression conjured up evil, real and imagined. Is Anya Taylor-Joy's bonnet-wearing beauty a witch because her little brother went missing in her care? And what's with that goat the kids call Black Phillip? Eggers' slow burn off a movie wants to plumb the violence of the mind. Boy, does he ever!
The frontrunner for animated movie of the year (and, yes, I did see Finding Dory) mixes mischief and menace in ways that will sail over tiny heads. In this animal kingdom, a feminist bunny, who's also a rookie cop, teams up with a snarky fox, who's also a con man. They tackle politics and prejudices in a town where predators, who once lived in peace, revert to attack mode. Trump would blow the problem away or at least build a wall. Zootopia, alive with vibrant ideas and images, sees no reason why entertainment can't also be a provocation. Me neither.