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The 2016 Adult Film Awards

After a summer of crappy blockbusters, we’re celebrating the midbudget wonders that slipped under the rug

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

Not-even-that-hot take: It’s been a terrible movie summer. Have we ever had more bummer blockbusters? The most dramatic thing about Suicide Squad was whether or not it would make back its marketing budget, Ghostbusters was deemed DOA before anyone saw it, and Jason Bourne forgot what made that franchise great.

But things aren’t completely dire. Because while it’s harder than ever to make a midbudget drama, or a sharp-edged thriller, or anything that reviewers might describe as “searching,” brave souls are still making those movies. So we’re celebrating them here: the small, the subtle, the straight-to-VOD. These are The Ringer’s Adult Film Awards. (No, not that kind.)

‘Everybody Wants Some!!’

Jason Concepcion: Richard Linklater probably makes movies about (mostly) white people doing nothing better than anyone. And that’s saying something. Linklater’s characters reveal their true selves in the spaces between events: in placid conversations in trains floating across central Europe, in buzzed bullshit sessions in parked cars, in the quiet corners of house parties, while getting hand-me-down CDs from their kind-of-estranged dad. His movies are often referred to as “loose” or “deceptively deep.” The latter seems most right to me; Linklater films are the best version of the universal bong-inflected, dorm-philosophy-session experience. Those conversations from your late teens and early 20s that creep up organically in the wake of a beer or something else, in which you give voice to thoughts never before spoken in ways that feel deep at the time but that ultimately come to nothing, except that you think about them, randomly, for the rest of your life.

Everybody Wants Some asks the question “What did college baseball players in 1980 do when they weren’t playing baseball?” Linklater’s answer — and, as a former college ballplayer who was 20 years old in 1980, let’s assume he knows — is: talk, smoke weed, talk, drink, talk, try to get laid, talk, play ping-pong, go to bars, break each other’s balls, and generally wait for something to happen.

It’s funny, breezily paced, and easily ingestible. Feel free to not think about it too deeply.

‘Pee-wee’s Big Holiday’

Rob Harvilla: I hoped it would make my mother laugh. That’s it. To weigh down the third full-length Pee-wee Herman movie (which arrived in March, a mere 28 years after the second one, as a low-key Netflix exclusive) with any further expectations seemed unkind, and unwise. I grew up on Pee-wee’s Playhouse, vividly remember being scared shitless by Large Marge, and got goosebumps when the full stage lights first came up on his 2010 Broadway show, and Mom was giggling right alongside me for all of it. Dumb, silly, profoundly unprofound fun is Pee-wee’s métier, after all, to use a word he would definitely pronounce in an exaggeratedly silly way.

So, yeah, this movie was pretty dumb: The plot, in full, is “Pee-wee travels to New York City to attend Joe Manganiello’s birthday party.” Joe Manganiello plays himself. (In the acting sense, not the DJ Khaled sense.) Pee-wee, a.k.a. the 63-year-old Paul Reubens, looks disconcertingly youthful, and flirts disconcertingly with the actually youthful Alia Shawkat. Whole scenes go pretty much nowhere, even in the context of a film where the desired destination is Joe Manganiello’s apartment. And yet at one point Pee-wee is confronted by a giant snake, and screams like this, and my mom laughed for 30 seconds straight. The humblest expectations often go unfulfilled, which makes their fulfillment all the sweeter.

‘Zootopia’

Lindsay Zoladz: Maybe it’s because BoJack Horseman has now primed me to read existential malaise into all cartoon animals. Maybe it’s because the summer’s most prominently billed “adult animated film” is basically just an extended, infantile joke about (GET IT?) hot dogs and buns. But regardless of the reason (even one of those reasons is just “by default”), Disney’s Zootopia is one of the most thoughtful and sophisticated movies to emerge in 2016, a year when so many long-simmering racial and sexual tensions have bubbled up to the surface. The real shock of watching Zootopia as an adult is that you get to have the realization, “Holy shit, Disney made a movie that is basically a giant allegory about racism.” It’s almost enough to make you forget about Song of the South! (Almost.) Ginnifer Goodwin brings a non-annoying amount of spunk to Judy Hopps, the first-ever bunny police officer; Jason Bateman adds just enough weasel to his sly fox, Nick Wilde. But the low-key MVP here is Marcel the Shell herself, Jenny Slate — between her turn here as the sheep-bureaucrat Bellwether and her scene-stealing poodle in The Secret Life of Pets, she has proven herself to be the greatest voice actress of her time. Zootopia is, of all things, a buddy-cop movie, and given the events of 2016, it will probably be the last of those for a long time. But its cute, fluffy surface allows it to subterraneously confront a lot of taboos and grey areas with surprising depth. Zootopia is a movie about difference, discrimination, and tolerance; there is also a very funny set piece featuring a lethargic sloth. As the man once said, a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.

‘Triple 9’

Sam Schube: Training Day is a dirty-cop movie. John Hillcoat’s Triple 9 is a filthy-cop movie. I mean that literally and figuratively: The cops are bad, and the film’s Atlanta is all hot concrete, sticky lawns, and poorly lit backseats. The boxes are all ticked: a bank robbery scene that immediately enters the Bank Robbery Scene Hall of Fame, Kate Winslet as a Russian Jewish mobstress (with país-wearing henchmen), and a cast that’s strikingly long on famous faces. I can’t remember the last time this many beautiful people were allowed to behave this badly outside a Tarantino film: Woody Harrelson lopes in like someone told him he was remaking Bad Lieutenant, Anthony Mackie plays his dude from The Avengers but without the wings, and Casey Affleck somehow makes himself look like Ben’s older cop brother. It’s Ocean’s 11, but terrifying.

And that’s the thing. Triple 9 wants to be a horror story: the gangs are nihilistic, the crooks don’t blink at torture, every cop that isn’t crooked is more or less unhinged. It’s all squeezed into something resembling hyperviolent reality, but it’s still a cartoon. Maybe MS-13 has an ironclad grip on Atlanta; maybe there’s a lady who wears a Jewish star and takes people’s teeth as punishment. Probably not, though, and thank goodness! What a terrible world that would be.

But in his amphetamine-goosed bleakness, Hillcoat bends the cartoonish over toward documentary, illuminates something about the way we live now. Preposterous as it is, Triple 9 has felt oddly consequential in the months since its February release. It’s an exceedingly violent fever dream — but one that tiptoes uneasily close to how life under the law looks like in 2016. Bad cops are bad; we know this. But what if everyone else is, too?

‘Love & Friendship’

Sam Donsky: “If she were going to be jealous, she should not have married such a charming man.” Kate Beckinsale gives the line-reading — and performance — of the summer in Love & Friendship, Whit Stillman’s ode to the things we tell ourselves. The film is an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Lady Susan, but mostly of its own title: Love is whatever, friendship is whatever — to Beckinsale’s Susan, it’s beside the point. She’ll marry, or not. She’ll love him, or not. She spends half of the movie talking shit to a friend, like a goddamn adult. Every story now wants to be subversive, exceptional: the romance that isn’t a romance; the comedy that isn’t a comedy. Stillman, though, understands how to truly subvert: Susan settles … and she couldn’t be happier. Happiness is also whatever, of course — sounds great, yeah, though who’s to say? Movies are rigged but the heart isn’t. We take the semantics we need to get by.

‘Precious Cargo’

Shea Serrano: Precious Cargo stars Mark-Paul Gosselaar as Jack, a guy who is an expert thief, which is a thing that we know because people keep talking about how good he is at being a thief even though every time he steals something in Precious Cargo it ends up a total mess. Bruce Willis is also in the movie. He plays Eddie, a no-nonsense crime lord, but only in reputation, as he never does anything truly intimidating. Eddie hires Jack and his crew to steal some things. Things go sideways, so then it’s Eddie vs. Jack. That’s the movie. I wish it was good. It could’ve been. I wish it was fun. It could’ve been. I wish it was something, anything. But it’s not. It’s just there. Really, the only reason I remembered watching it was because I was looking for a different bad movie about a different bad heist. (2015’s Heist, as it were, which Mark-Paul Gosselaar is also in.) The only halfway good part of the movie is Eddie’s main henchman, Simon, who is only good because he is the very worst, if that even makes any sense. (He plays the same role in John Wick, but he’s way better in that because he never talks.) There’s a part after an initial confrontation where Eddie and his team standoff against Jack and his. When Jack sees Simon, he snorts, “You’re not dead yet.” Simon quickly responds, “Only on the inside.” I rolled my eyes so hard at the line that they fell out of my head. I stepped on them when I was looking for them. I’m blind now. I typed this whole thing without looking. I hope there aren’t a bunch of typos.

I was told to watch Precious Cargo by a person I no longer trust.

‘Little Men’

Sean Fennessey: There is no angst like “They’re raising the rent” angst. This movie is part of a New York City diptych from director Ira Sachs that examines the changing face of neighborhoods and what happens to displaced middle-class people. Two years ago, he made Love Is Strange, a film about a gay couple whose lives are disrupted when they’re forced to leave their home. Little Men is seen through the eyes of two preteen boys, one the son of a recently transplanted actor-and-psychotherapist couple who have moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn, the other the son of a struggling dress shop owner. The boys become friends, only to be caught between the machinations of their parents. Sachs makes modest, quietly crushing movies, observant about life’s awkward tragedies and unsolvable crises — he’s empathetic to all of his characters. In each of them — but particularly the last two — resolutions are impossible, because, well, life is impossible.

‘High-Rise’

Chris Ryan: High-Rise is the Batman v Superman of art movies. Both feature beautiful male leads who don’t seem entirely sure of what movie they are in; both possibly misunderstand their source material; both grapple with the violent tendencies of rich white men. And, most importantly, both movies are signposts that we are living in the New Irons Age.

They are both also bad. I know Batman is bad. High-Rise is “bad,” and I’m still trying to figure it out why, and that’s the fun part. Well-intentioned bad movies (or bad-intentioned movies in High-Rise’s case … because it really has the worst intentions), the ones that walk the wire and fall through the net, are a lost art. In this film attention economy, there isn’t enough loose change or spare time to spend on a movie that can’t be reacted to briskly (even before we see it), processed, and then filed for future reference. High-Rise does the opposite: It bugs me, months after watching. How can it feel so timely and anachronistic at the same time? How can a movie that hates all its characters be this charming? Why did this movie get made? And can we have more like it? It’s OK for films to repulse and titillate, and fill you up and leave you feeling totally empty. I don’t mind failure. What I mind is failure with no risk involved.

‘Don’t Think Twice’

Alison Herman: Does the world need another comedy about comedians? Objectively not. In fact, it’s probably time to lock all of Hollywood in a room and refuse to let them out until they finally promise to start telling stories about people who aren’t, well, them. But the wonderful thing about art is that it isn’t objective, and sometimes it gives us a gem like Don’t Think Twice.

On paper, Mike Birbiglia’s quiet, lovely indie is almost suffocatingly insular: An improv group at a theater that is definitely totally not Upright Citizens Brigade gets torn apart when one of its members gets beamed up to a show that is definitely totally not Saturday Night Live. The first hint that this is not yet another option to flick past on Netflix and mutter “You know, an SNL movie” when your viewing partner asks, “What’s that?” is the cast, which includes: Birbiglia, Gillian Jacobs, grassroots comedy icon Chris Gethard, comedy duo alumni Keegan-Michael Key and Kate Micucci, and Tami Sagher, a writer for 30 Rock and Inside Amy Schumer taking a turn in front of the camera. All are comedians skilled enough to gel into a believable troupe; all are actors empathetic enough to imbue their characters with sensitivity and pain. Somehow, Birbiglia makes room for every one of them to go through a particular flavor of heartbreak.

Because over the course of its run, Don’t Think Twice reveals itself as a chronicle less of comedy than the bittersweet toll of maturity. Its love for the community of improv and the principles of Del Close is real, but so is its observation of more general phenomena: the shifting power dynamics of friendships, the painful outgrowing of young adulthood and its relationships, the inevitable reckoning of people with enough in common to bring them together, but not enough to keep them there. No movie this year will depress you about adulthood more, and no movie this year will thrill you with its complexity more.

‘April and the Extraordinary World’

Ben Lindbergh: April, an animated French film that made it stateside in March, takes place in Paris during what would have been World War II, if civilization’s leading scientists hadn’t been kidnapped by literal lizard people who assigned the brightest brains to a secret and semi-sinister project, plunging the rest of the world into a sooty steampunk stasis. That description omits a talking cat, a Bonaparte who still sits on the French throne, and an elixir that makes anyone who sips it immortal. “Extraordinary” isn’t an understatement.

April’s cast of semi-comic characters, led by its plucky, independent, eponymous protagonist (voiced by Marion Cotillard), alternates between scenes of slapstick and poignancy, all suitable for a film with all-ages appeal; I watched it with subtitles, but the dubbed version delivers some serious star power. The movie has an environmental message about the consequences of pursuing science irresponsibly — and the even greater risks of not pursuing science at all — but the world-building makes the sometimes-tropey plot secondary. The animation is the main draw: A blend of old and new, April looks a little like Tintin, boasting detailed, hand-drawn 2D backgrounds (courtesy of French graphic novelist Jacques Tardi) and subtle CG that sprinkles in pieces of flair. April isn’t a perfect fix for a slow blockbuster season, but its almost universally positive (and largely deserved) Rotten Tomatoes rating shines like a beacon in a summer that’s seen more movies spoiled than certified fresh.

‘Green Room’

Ryan O’Hanlon: I want to go to sleep with my face on Gabe’s face in Green Room. I bet it feels like a Tempurpedic pillow that fell off the back of a delivery truck and somehow ended up as an operations managers for a horde of neo-Nazi hound-enthusiasts in the Willamette Valley.

In Green Room, a group of wannabe punk rockers accidentally witness a murder at venue run by skinheads. Patrick Stewart plays Darcy, the … head skinhead, and Gabe, played by Macon Blair, functions as Darcy’s lieutenant. Lots of people die, plenty of body parts get mutilated, and Gabe starts to realize that life would be just a little more chill if he let his hair grow out.

I saw this movie alone — whatever you do, don’t see this movie alone — and I’ve never hated myself more than during those 95 minutes. But Gabe’s face — a near-blubbering lump of dough that just wants a pair of red shoelaces — got me through it. The pacing is tortuous and incredible, and Jeremy Saulnier managed to make something equal parts horrifying, damp, and beautiful, but until the end, I wasn’t really sure why this was something I needed to be doing to myself. Gabe always seemed like he felt the same way.