Ruk Ranks Every 2016 Movie He Saw: (35-31)

35. The Witch

 

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Funnily enough, The Witch is a movie that probably would’ve been a lot more improved if… well… there wasn’t actually a Witch. Because the movie really works as a rather good psychological drama about a troubled young girl in an isolated Puritan household as things collapse around them. As a straight up supernatural horror movie though? …Not so much. The vast majority of the scenes with out-and-out supernatural things happening fail to carry the same level of dread and unsettling tension and, in a few cases, just look kinda silly.

It’s especially irritating because most of said out-and-out supernatural stuff could easily be cut in favour of making the horror ambiguous. Is a witch really influencing their actions? Is Thomasin or the twins responsible? Or is it all just a serious of unfortunate accidents and coincidences? It’s so easy to just leave it ambiguous. Hell, I’ve even heard people come up with their own interpretations where Thomasin really was responsible for everything and the witch stuff was just delusions. And it works all the better for it.

That said though, when it sticks to the psychological horror stuff, it’s a genuinely really good thriller. The old-timey premise and setting are original and intriguing, the dialogue, while confusing to some, really lends to the atmosphere being built and the drama is compelling. Unfortunately, it fails to provide the same level of compelling interest to the actual supernatural threats present and thus, for me at least, is overshadowed by the other better horror movies this year.

 

34. Queen of Katwe

 

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This is pretty much every underdog sports movie you’ve ever seen. But with chess. And in Africa.

I’m serious, it hits every cliché beat you expect from the genre. The impoverished kid with a poor family life. The charming mentor with his own issues. The people who look down on her because of her poverty/background (seriously, first match she plays, her opponent shakes her hand, then wipes his hand on the tablecloth! I almost burst out laughing at that point.) Her showing her talent. Her getting a successful career in the sport. Her getting overconfident in a big game and losing, leading to a crisis of faith. Her getting past it and achieving her goals. All played completely straight without a trace of irony. It is every single underdog movie you’ve ever seen before.

But that said, unoriginality aside, it really isn’t a bad movie. Yes, it’s as straight an underdog movie as you’ll ever seen, but it’s still a well done one. The acting is good, the pacing is good and the underdog clichés work for a reason, even if they’re fairly obvious and somewhat laughable at times. So while it may be very unoriginal, it’s still a relatively fun watch.

 

33. Hell or High Water

 

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Hell or High Water is rather like Pete’s Dragon in the regard that I really don’t have that much bad to say about it. The movie was a perfectly enjoyable neo Western, with good acting (including an almost unrecognisable Chris Pines), decent tension and good characterisation. In particular, it did an excellent job at characterising its very setting, in Texas. I’ve never been to the place myself, but this movie really makes the setting stand out with its own quirks in a way that few other movies ever truly manage.

That said, while I don’t have many real major criticisms, the film never really connect with me the way that it has with so many others, mainly because it’s just not my sort of thing.. Honestly, Crime Dramas and Neo Westerns just really aren’t my thing in general (which is funny because normal Westerns totally are) and this movie never really left a solid enough impact on me to become one of the major exceptions. So it only places here on my list. I suppose it’s less a problem with the film and more an issue with me, but hey, I threw any claims of objectivity on this list out the window with Warcraft.

 

32. Star Wars: Rogue One

 

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Now from a movie I don’t have much bad to say about, to a movie I have plenty of bad to say about, but enjoyed anyway.

I wrote up my thoughts on this a while ago but, honestly, I will admit my view has actually softened on it quite a bit since then (and with a second rewatch). Yes, I still don’t think it’s an amazing film and every problem I had with it still feels completely legitimate, but there’s a lot that does work as well and I found myself looking a bit more fondly at it with time. Not enough to give it higher than a B, mind, but that’s still some improvement.

The thing is, Rogue One is a movie with a fantastic, pulse-pounding third act… that would’ve hit so much harder were the first two acts not so muddled and lackluster. Now, there are many reasons I could list for this. Poor pacing. Questionable character arcs. Lousy characterisation in general. But I think, ultimately, all these issues lead from one major problem. The first two acts of Rogue One have way too much plot.

See, when it was announced, I thought Rogue One had a perfectly simple and useable premise. A group of rebels trying to steal the Death Star plans. Understandable, compelling and a solid foundation to build a movie around, right? But, if you think about it, that doesn’t become the main story thread until the final act. The first two acts are about finding this Imperial pilot… or, no wait, finding Saw Gerrera so they can get the message from him about Galen Erso’s location… or was it a message about the superweapon? Or was it Galen Erso’s message about the superweapon while finding out whether the superweapon exists… Agh, forget it. The point is, the main aim/plot/conflict of the movie keeps jumping about and about until it finally reaches the conclusion at the third act (aka when it actually gets good) and people start thinking ‘Hey! Maybe it might be worth stealing those Death Star Plans there?’ Which, you know, pretty much everybody already watching this movie knew from the beginning! The movie takes an overcomplicated and meandering path to something that should’ve been the aim from the very start. And that makes it suffer.

See, one the biggest pitfalls I keep seeing in the lousier blockbusters this year is the misapprehension that more plot = more substance. The idea that the more elements you add to a story the greater it somehow becomes. I saw it in BvS, Fantastic Beasts, TMNT: Out of the Shadows, X-Men Apocalypse and now this. And it’s just not true. If you add too much plot, then, unless you handle it very well, your story becomes weighed down and sluggish, it becomes harder to pace effectively, your audience gets bored of keeping track of all these elements and, most painfully of all, vital things like characterisation get shoved aside to make room for all the plot threads and side stories and exposition and etc etc. If there’s anything filmmakers should’ve learnt from Mad Max: Fury Road last year (and there are many many things filmmakers should learn from that movie), is that sometimes a simple story is better for a movie than a complicated one, especially if you know how to tell it.

Unfortunately, that’s advice Rogue One didn’t follow. Characterization for Jyn, Cassian and most of the squad suffered because the movie didn’t have enough time to explore them because it was chasing plot threads. Which is a shame because there were some interesting tidbits there (especially Cassian’s greyer tendencies). If I had to pick a personal favourite character (aside from Vader obviously) then it probably would have to be K-2SO. Not just because he was amusing (although he was (even if a few quips were hit and miss)) but because he at least had some kind of an established characterisation. Chirrut and Baze also had some level of characterisation and it’s no surprise they were better characters for it. But when it came to Jyn, unlike Rey before her, she really didn’t have much to speak of character-wise and her gung-ho switch to supporting the rebellion came fairly out of left-field.

Not to say the movie is all bad mind, or even prequel bad. That third act is most definitely worth it and more or less makes the movie by itself. It’s exciting, tense, fairly heartwrenching at times (even if it would’ve been a lot more heartwrenching had the film done a better job of making us care for these characters) and was pretty much everything I was hoping for from this movie. And, though Vader’s time onscreen is brief, he more than makes us feel every second of it. And while I rail on the first two acts, they’re far from being prequel bad. Plus, I do have to applaud the film for delving into the greyer aspects of the rebellion, from some of Cassian’s more morally grey actions, to the idea of extremists and splinter factions. And it does definitively feel like a Star Wars movie, even without much in the way of Jedi antics. I don’t know whether all that is enough for me to necessarily recommend it, but it’s enough to make it not unwatchable. But it’s no Force Awakens (even if it does have the space battle that movie was sorely missing.)

 

31. The Wailing

 

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You know, there are movies out there which have had all the right ingredients for me to like them, yet, for some reason or another, they just didn’t quite work or click with me as much as I’d like. I’m sure you’ve all had the same feeling at one point or another. A movie that contained all the sorts of things you should like but for some reason left you feeling somewhat underwhelmed.

This movie, however, is actually… kind of the opposite.

While watching it, I thought it was overlong, overly melodramatic and at times silly when it was trying to be terrifying. Yet, when it came time to make this list, I couldn’t consider putting this movie any lower on this list despite, on paper, enjoying other films more. Not because it felt like a guilty pleasure, like London has Fallen or Sadako vs Kayako, but because somehow the movie just… worked. There was just something that, against all odds and flaws, really clicked with me about this film.

So what exactly was it that worked so well? If I had to take a guess? Atmosphere. While I considered the movie too long and rolled my eyes at the sillier aspects, the cinematography and sound design gives a real foreboding atmosphere to this little village that makes it difficult to look away. It’s rare the sort of movie, horror or otherwise, that can create such an effective understated atmosphere of tension and unease. Even some of the higher ranking horrors on this list didn’t quite achieve that. It’s not quite enough to make up for everything else I considered flawed in the movie, but it’s still quite an achievement.

Honestly, as it is, if the story had been more streamlined and compelling, I actually think this movie could have made my Top 10 for the year and become a real classic in my mind. As it is, it’s still here as an enjoyable, if slightly flawed in my eyes, fun horror movie.

 

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