2016 Media Reviews

I usually post an end of the year movie review bonanza, but this year is different. I saw a handful of movies last week, but I am not sure I watched enough movies in 2016 to produce a proper top 10 list. But I did see several brilliant longer than feature length documentaries and a TV series unlike any other, so after a few short reviews I'll offer a Top 10 Media List.

I intentionally waited a couple of weeks to review the latest Star Wars movie, but I couldn't avoid a couple of tweets about it:

Rogue One is great-- just not to the level of 1977 or The Empire Strikes Back. And it's a close runner up to last year's The Force Awakens. I nudged that one above Rogue One for a few reasons:

  1. Its scope. It's the beginning of at least two more movies, but doubtless many more (it grossed more than $1.5B worldwide). This movie had to set a tone with new characters and a plot that moviegoers could invest in for the long term
  2. Finn, Rey, and Kylo Ren-- great performances from the actors, interesting characters
  3. The idea that the light side of the Force tempts us too-- never seen before in a Star Wars film
Rogue One didn't have that kind of scale or agenda-- it slots into the timeline just before the 1977 film with characters we do not know (other than Darth Vader of course). Unlike every other SW film, RO has a defined beginning and ending. I saw it a second time with my Dad the day Carrie Fisher died. I loved it even more. Humor, action, gorgeous to watch, wonderful performances. This was the first film where we saw Darth Vader truly as Darth Vader-- ferocious and evil. It is not a kid movie. It's a war movie where actions have deep consequences.

The Death Star is the focal point of the movie, and seeing its destructive power unleashed on cities rather than a planet or space ships had a interesting effect on me. We see massive mushroom clouds rising from where a city and a military station once stood, and consider countless lives vaporized in the moment. I had just watched several episodes of The Untold History of the United States on Netflix, an Oliver Stone documentary telling stories and viewpoints of the last 100 years often overlooked in history classes (think about the feeling of JFK as a semester-long history class instead a three hour movie about one event). The combination of hearing alternative viewpoints about the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, the threats of using nuclear weapons in places like Vietnam, and President-elect Donald Trump's recent musings about expanding our nuclear arsenal brought about a profound sense of dread and worry that I am still struggling with. For a reference, here is the United Methodist Church's stance on war and the use of nuclear weapons.

La La Land

I liked, but didn't love, the musical La La LandEmma Stone and Ryan Gosling are the sweetest actors giving great performances, but I am not sure this is Best Picture worthy, as it is being marketed. I love old Hollywood too, and this is a great, optimistic movie. If you are feeling dread about 2017 and everything else, go check it out. You'll feel better.


Last year when Oscar nominations were released, #OscarsSoWhite was a trending hashtag on Twitter since no African Americans were nominated in the major categories for the second consecutive year. Fences guarantees that will not happen in 2017. If Viola Davis isn't nominated for Best Actress-- not Best Supporting Actress, Best Actress, there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. I haven't seen Jackie, but I've heard Natalie Portman is amazing in it. But this performance in Fences is one for the ages. Denzel is great too, and the supporters, but Viola...

Fences is based on a play, and the movie feels like a play-- there's only one setting, and the actors give long soliloquies. Denzel plays a former baseball player, "third only to Babe Ruth and Josh Gibson," who never really had a shot at baseball greatness because of racism. Growing up during the Jim Crow era of the American South, he had little opportunities. Fences is about some of the struggles oppressed communities deal with every day, like racism and poverty, and the painful shame they bring. Interestingly, Christy and I were two of only a handful of Caucasian folk in a packed auditorium. I'm not sure why that is. This is a movie everyone should see: it has amazing performances by some of our great actors, and a powerful message for our society.

Black Mirror

I'm kinda late to this party, but Christy and I have been watching Black Mirror on Netflix recently. It's like a modern Twilight Zone, but the commentary is more focused on the dangers of technology than paranoia over communism.  Some episodes are funny, some are serious, some are scary. I love Black Mirror because it isn't structured like a regular TV show. I've been sort of burned out on TV series recently, not wanting to dedicate 22 episodes per season to the same people doing the same things. Black Mirror exists in different times and places, and people share the same technologies, but each episode is its own unique story with its own characters. We're partly through Season 3, having watched the horrifying haunted house video game episode last night.

Best of Visual Media in 2016

Best feature length movie: Arrival (read my review halfway down this page). I love sci-fi, because it speaks to universal situations in unexpected ways. This movie lines up with the best of sci-fi movies. It is smart, original, beautiful, and emotional. Runners up: Rogue One, Captain America: Civil War (yes, I am serious).

Best conventional TV: Stranger Things. Forget media; this was one of my favorite things about 2016. Read my review here. Runners up: Black Mirror and Westworld.

Best documentary (some were broadcast on Netflix; does that make them movies or series or what?): OJ Made in America. This is seven hours of incredible film making. I could not stop watching it or thinking about it between viewings. It's available on Hulu or espn.com. I had no idea about the social and political implications of those murders and OJ himself. I mostly tuned out the case in 1996, but this series is immersive and unforgettable. Runner up: 13th. It's a powerful commentary on the criminal justice system in America, specifically the ramifications for the African American community.

Top 10 for 2016

Stranger Things
OJ: Made in America
Rogue One
Black Mirror
Captain America: Civil War
La La Land