Monster Mash

Is the monster movie a lie? The title says it all, a movie with a monster in it. Therefore the monster should be the main character, the central focus and the best part about the movie. You put a big monster in a movie and the rest will write itself. So why is that not always true? As good as the monster can be in a monster movie, the human characters are still the ones who can up carrying the picture or dropping the ball. As iconic as the shark was in Jaws, the ones who make the movie memorable are distinct personalities of Chief Brody, Hooper and Quint. As monstrous as the worms of Tremors are, the people the audience has to pay attention to are the quirky hicks of Perfection, Nevada. Even in today’s monster movies like last year’s Rampage, the star of the movie is not the giant gorilla or the flying crocodile, The Rock is. The lesson of monster movies is that, despite the title, the human characters still have to be the most interesting part of a monster movie.

 

That lesson was unfortunately not taken to heart by Godzilla, the 2014 American remake of the omnipresent Japanese horror movie made 60 years prior. Gareth Edwards’s take on the giant dinosaur knew exactly how to make Godzilla’s return a big deal, teasing and tantalizing the monster’s presence by having him creep around the movie’s background for 90 percent of the film. When the monster finally did make his epic appearance, audiences around the world cheered in excitement and possibly relief considering the lack of Godzilla and the overwhelming presence of boring humans clogging up the rest of the movie. For all the justice Godzilla ‘14 did to its title character, it did a disservice to its audience by not giving them a real human connection to latch on to. It didn’t see the lie and it seems like Warner Bros. Pictures doesn’t see it either with their plans to double-down on monsters by shoving Godzilla and King Kong together next year. But how do we get there?

 

EVEN MORE MONSTERS! Godzilla: King of the Monsters is partly a sequel to Godzilla ‘14 but mostly an expansion of WB’s Monsterverse, where the studio digs through all of Godzilla lore to find more baddies for him to butt heads with until he meets the Eighth Wonder of the World (introduced in 2017’s Kong: Skull Island). Set years after Godzilla’s showdown in San Francisco in Godzilla ‘14, world leaders are growing impatient with the actions of Monarch, the secret organization monitoring the world for the big dinosaur. It turns out Godzilla’s arrival was not an isolated incident as more giant monsters (or “titans” as the movie dubs them) have been found around the world, lying dormant in the Earth waiting for something to bring them back. Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and his Monarch comrades think humans can live in harmony with the titans while world leaders believe the titans should be killed. However, a former British military official (Charles Dance) believes the titans should roam free on the Earth to cleanse it of the deadly plague known as humanity. He kidnaps one of Monarch’s top scientists (Vera Farmiga) and her daughter (Millie Bobby Brown) to use Monarch technology to awaken the rest of the titans. Monarch recruits the scientist’s ex-husband (Kyle Chandler) to help track them down while also betting on one force to stop the mad titans: Godzilla himself.

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It’s sad to report that Godzilla: King of the Monsters has contracted a terrible case of Roland Emmerich-syndrome: too many characters, too many subplots and too little care to be afforded to it all. King of the Monsters has an incredibly-stacked cast and yet there’s no real sense of a main character. It starts with a mother and daughter on a quest of discovery, then the scientists of Monarch trying to defend Godzilla’s honor, then the absent husband/father shows up to help, then it goes back to Monarch and then the mother/daughter duo and it keeps pinballing between the seemingly endless character cavalcade. Even Godzilla himself, who does have more screen time here than in his last outing, feels like he only has a bit part in his own epic. King of the Monsters has another rare quality to it, in that its writing makes you want every single human character to shut up. The screenplay, written by director Michael Dougherty (Trick ‘r Treat, Superman Returns) and Zach Shields (Krampus), has stupidity aplenty both in its exposition and dialogue. There are specs of comic relief that come off annoying and the “science” explaining how the monsters come to blows is blurted out at breakneck speed, most likely to avoid anyone picking up on how stupid it all sounds.

 

This leaves the cast with little to work with and all depending on how much investment they put into the script. Unfortunately, most of the people in King of the Monsters act like they’re here for a paycheck or a shot at relevance. Farmiga might be here as a favor to WB in between sequels to The Conjuring, which is fitting considering how she acts like her soul has been sucked out by a ghost. Chandler is the perfect everyman-looking actor to fit into such a crowded production and he does his duty of looking concerned in all the madness. Brown, for someone who has such a bubbly personality in real life, can’t seem to shake off the worry she puts on for Stranger Things and is merely here to be a token kid character. Even Dance, who should revel in playing a villain in a monster movie after his time on Game of Thrones, is nothing but an afterthought. Even after those stars, King of the Monsters still has a stocked cast that it either wastes or uses poorly. Bradley Whitford and Thomas Middleditch are the two comic relief characters who don’t say one funny thing in the movie while the likes of David Strathairn, Sally Hawkins, O’Shea Jackson Jr. and Ziyi Zhang are nothing but bit players. Only Watanabe brings any real emotional investment to the table and, rightly so, gets the best character arc of the whole movie.

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On a narrative and character base, King of the Monsters is an annoying and moronic experience. What saves it from being a disaster on the level of Emmerich’s own Godzilla movie in 1998 is the visual splendor. Though he sometimes moves the camera around like a 12-year-old on a sugar rush, director Dogherty knows the money shots are all during the fights between Godzilla and the monsters. There are some truly striking images in King of the Monsters both when the monsters are doing their respective intimidation poses and when they tussle. Each monster has his or her own signature color scheme Dogherty and cinematographer Lawrence Sher (The Hangover, Garden State) wash over the towering titans. The slighted-muted yellow makes Ghidorah look as unpredictable and frightening as the lighting he generates, while Rodan emerges from a volcano draped in molten red and orange. They mix together surprisingly well on-screen and when the titans clash with each other, there’s crisp and chaotic action for the audience to observe. The designs of said monsters are impressive and occasionally scary, from the demonic menace of the three-headed Ghidorah and the winged Rodan to the lush beauty of Mothra. Godzilla himself remains a wondrous site, terrifying up close with his sharp facial features but still adorable with his chubby body charging to fight monsters. It’s a great use of modern computer-generated design to make him a true monster while still having traces of the goofy suit worn by many in the original movies.

 

A miracle was likely required to make Godzilla: King of the Monsters a successful endeavor and while it has its highs, there’s still a hefty amount dragging it down. There’s no likable humans to root for and there’s too much blatant stupidity to ignore. That said, seeing the title characters captured on screen and clashing in 2019 is a sight to behold. Craftsmanship applied to the schlock of monster movies makes for great blockbuster entertainment and while King of the Monsters has a rocky dismount, it somehow barely sticks the landing. There’s still a question of how King Kong is going to fit into the universe King of the Monsters sets up, but at least there’s hope that marquee event could turn into a legitimate entertaining movie.

3/4

 

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Shock to the System

 

The Dark Knight was a real double-edged sword for Warner Bros. and DC in the long run. Sure it gave maturity and legitimacy to movies about guys in capes and makeup while validating the dedication millions of people around the world had to what were essentially cartoon characters. But the success and praise it earned for being dark, gritty and more realistic somehow forced future superheroes at the cinema to wear those colors for nearly a decade. It took Superman, the bright and shiny symbol of hope and heroics, and drowned him in gray colors and murky morals in Man of Steel. It made the first-ever live-action teaming of the most famous superheroes of all time look contrived and stupid. It even took a wacky adventure of a rogues gallery of renegades and hacked it to death in the editing room. When it came time for course correction to follow its competition, things got even more embarrassing. It would take something monolithic to undo the damage done by The Dark Knight, like say……a 14-year-old in a 38-year-old man’s body doing the floss.

 

This may border on hyperbole, but Shazam! is the easily best thing WB and DC have produced since The Dark Knight for being the exact opposite of Batman and the Joker’s epic faceoff. To quote Mike Stoklasa (without the sarcasm), Shazam! is a film about family and the lack thereof afforded to young Billy Batson (Asher Angel). He skips out on countless foster families until his latest one features Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), who walks with a crutch but bounces around with endless knowledge of DC’s superheroes. On a random day evading bullies, Billy is summoned by an ancient wizard to serve as “champion” of the universe. He says the wizard’s name and becomes Shazam (Zachary Levi), a beefed-up superhero with electricity powers and a stalled ability to fly. While he and Freddy try to figure out what it truly means to be a superhero (and try beer for the first time, obviously), Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong) also gains a mysterious power and wants Shazam’s as well to help him strike fear in the hearts of others.

 

The best thing Shazam! has in its corner is a cast and crew who not only know what kind of movie they’re in, but are actually happy to be there. The orchestrator of it all is director David F. Sandberg, who stretched his legs with horror movies (Lights Out, Annabelle: Creation) and here gets to put his creativity out in full force. Sandberg throws in occasionally touches of his horror experience with menacing monsters and surprisingly-graphic violence for a PG-13 superhero movie (one scene in a boardroom deserves an R-rating alone), but shows some solid talent directing comedy too. He takes his experience timing jump scares and uses that to land successful physical comedy bits throughout the movie. Atop of the physical bits are some genuinely funny lines from the script by Henry Gayden (Earth to Echo), which emphasizes themes of family, outcasts, finding one’s self and the simple virtue of being a hero. If its violence and humor are adult, Shazam!’s message is on the level of an afterschool special. But the movie is self-aware enough to know not to be ashamed of it and see it merely as a base to throw in wacky shenanigans like wizards, magic and scary monsters. In fact, the whole movie feels like if the story of Superman was told from the perspective of a teenager and that’s the most charming thing about it. Even the fight scenes are essentially parodies of the mass destruction in Man of Steel.

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Jack Dylan Grazer, left, and Zachary Levi in “Shazam!”

Adding to the Superman comparison is Zachary Levi himself as Shazam. With his firm physique, coiffed hair and wide-eyed attitude, Levi looks like he’s cosplaying as George Reeves’s portrayal of Superman from the 1950s. But when Levi’s dorky, prepubescent personality come through Shazam as it did on his NBC comedy Chuck, it makes the character complete. Levi plays Shazam exactly the way the plot dictates: a kid who gets superpowers and doesn’t what the hell to do with them. He stop muggers and robbers as long as he can get a cute girl’s phone number or paid in the process. He’s sitcom Superman and it’s a breath of fresh air for the DC Extended Universe, fully embracing the corniness of caped crusaders without overstaying his welcome. He and Asher Angel are good parallels, though Angel handles more of the tender scenes of the movie admirably. Angel is equal parts smartass and sensitive soul, assisted by Jack Dylan Grazer’s fine work as a foul-mouthed comedic sidekick. The movie thrives frequently with its supporting characters, ranging from Billy’s doting foster father (Cooper Andrews) to his good-hearted foster sister (Faithe Herman). Even Mark Strong, stuck with a routine villain role, makes an imposing figure and has fleeting moments of comedy.

 
Despite being an obvious superhero story, Shazam! Is more of an outright comedy than anything else. It’s a miracle how it mostly avoids being lowbrow and stupid, wearing its heart on its sleeve and trying to entertain kids as well as adults (or man-children, specifically). Regardless of what brought this movie and its tone to life (most likely desperation and indifference on the part of its producers), Shazam! is a reminder of why superhero movies were made in the first place. It’s not reinventing the wheel but goes back to the drawing board to find the essence of comic book movies. Charm and a good heart go a lot farther than Granny’s Peach Tea and an explosion.

3.5/4

Top 25 Movies of 2018

I’m sure you’ve read enough intro paragraphs to plenty of other “Best Movies of the Year” lists and are DYING to read one more. Unfortunately I’ve been swamped the past couple of weeks and in all honesty, 2018 was a lot more hit-and-miss at the movies than 2017. There were big blockbuster hits and indie darlings to block out the big bombs and horrible misfires. 2018 was a helluva stew at the movies but thankfully there was some standout choices. Here’s 25 of them!

 

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25. Wildlife

Paul Dano has had a strong career in the film industry so far, giving standout performances in Little Miss Sunshine, There Will Be Blood and Love & Mercy. Instead of using his stocked resume to break into mainstream movie roles, he took his talents behind the camera and probably came out all the better. Based on the Richard Ford book of the same name, Wildlife tells the story of the working-class Brinson family in 1960 Montana. Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) gets fired from his job and, out of desperation to provide for his family, decides to join local firefighters in their efforts to extinguish raging nearby forest fires. His wife Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) feels abandoned in a small town and seemingly goes through a midlife crises while her husband’s away. All of this goes on in front of their son Joe (Ed Oxenbould), who now seems to be the man of the house and unsure about the status of his family. Wildlife feels oddly present given it deals with a classic American family struggling to find a comfortable footing in the working world. Dano’s direction for restrained performances and cinematographer Diego Garcia’s mix of muted colors creates something like a faded portrait of the American dream. That grim display is also felt in the script by Dano and longtime partner Zoe Kazan, who take the scary feeling of missing out on life’s opportunities and put it through the eyes of young Joe, someone who would normally have yet to experience life but who faces it all rather suddenly. There are strong performances from both Oxenbould and Gyllenhaal, but Wildlife belongs to Mulligan’s performance as a lost damsel desperately trying to find her own identity. For someone known for his quiet acting performances, Dano makes a strong debut as a one researching the lost cause of old American morals.

 

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24. Searching

2014 saw the release of Unfriended, a twist on the slasher movie where the entire movie took place over Skype and a laptop screen. Though the final product was cheap and stupid, the gimmick was interesting enough to wonder what else could be done with it. Newcomer Aneesh Chaganty clearly saw potential in the gimmick and decided to use it for a thriller instead. Searching commits to its format as it also takes place entirely on laptop screens, this time though it’s the screens of suburban dad David (John Cho) and his daughter Margot (Michelle La), a straight-A student who goes missing on a random day. As David gets desperate to find his daughter, he digs through her laptop and realizes that she had shocking secrets to protect. Chaganty clearly studied how people use laptops and smartphones to connect with each other, showing how equally disconnected we all are when our lives are online. It was also wise for Sony Pictures to shell out the money needed for the movie to use actual websites like Google and Facebook, adding to how real the movie feels. Even if the audience is glued to computer screens for the whole movie, the script by Chaganty and Sev Ohanian holds attention with a gripping mystery story and Cho turns in a heartbreaking dramatic performance. There’s no telling what else could be done with the “laptop screen” subgenre that’s apparently forming, but at least we now have an example of it being done right.

 

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23. Mission – Impossible: Fallout

There’s something equally hilarious and horrifying about the fact that Tom Cruise would rather hang off of a helicopter hundreds of feet in the air than admit wrongdoing in publicly supporting a creepy space cult. But Hollywood’s favorite running man still has clout and pulls in some grade-A talent to keep his career afloat, so why not bask in the glory of the most consistent blockbuster movie franchise today? Round six of the Tom Cruise stunt show features his eternal avatar Ethan Hunt and the IMF team (sans Jeremy Renner, probably busy training for Thanos) tracking down pieces of plutonium that could be used to activate nuclear bombs. Also along for the ride is returning Brit Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) and fresh Yank August Walker (Henry Cavill and the moustache that killed Justice League) only adding to Hunt’s stresses of saving the world. Fallout represents the first time the Mission: Impossible franchise features a returning writer/director in Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects, Jack Reacher) and if the Oscar-winner passed the audition with flying colors through 2015’s Rogue Nation, he one-ups himself by making the most propulsive and impressive action movies since Mad Max: Fury Road. The way McQuarrie lines up so many action scenes in perfect sequence with each other is impressive, whether he throws Cruise out of a plane at 25,000 feet to get him to a bathroom fist fight or going from a motorcycle chase immediately to a car chase. As charming and likable as Cruise still remains as an action hero, the real stars of Fallout are McQuarrie and his incredible stunt team. You could say that “sky’s the limit” for the next installment of the M:I franchise but if Cruise goes any higher, he might as well be an astronaut.

 

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22. American Animals

Pete Shelley, lead singer of The Buzzcocks who passed away last year, once sang about the “very humdrum” world around him as he was “waiting for the phone to ring” not knowing that his life was passing him by. Spencer Reinhard, Warren Lipka, Eric Borsuk and Chas Allen must’ve been terrified by that song (among other things) so they decided to steal life for themselves. “Life” for them was a rare copy of John James Audubon’s The Birds of America in the library of Transylvania University, which they attempted to steal in 2004. Bart Layton’s movie adaptation of that heist zooms in on the lives of the four unassuming college students who pulled off this radical stunt. Layton knows these guys are true American idiots but at least their motivations of escaping the mundanity of modern life feels especially poignant. Not only does the movie have Layton’s sharp directing skills and quippy writing to fill out the background, but an added bonus of interviews with the actual thieves to throw reality back into the audience’s face. No matter how much of a hip fantasy the movie sets itself up to be, American Animals knows the best lesson is the one that actually happened.

 

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21. Black Panther

There’s a case to be made that Black Panther might’ve gotten overhyped. It’s become a gargantuan cultural moment that’s inspired millions of people, validated years of cultural appropriation and hopefully made Hollywood reevaluate how it sees the worth of blockbusters lead by black people. It’s towered almost every other pop culture movement of 2018 that it seems almost impervious to criticism. Black Panther is not a perfect movie by any means, but it’s still a damn good one. Ryan Coogler’s epic adaptation of the Marvel Comic sees Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) ascend to his destiny as King of Wakanda with the support of his smart sister (Letitia Wright), worldly love interest (Lupita Nyong’o) and stern soldier (Danai Gurira). On top of being unsure of his own abilities, T’Challa must hunt down a kooky arms dealer (Andy Serkis) and face a mysterious soldier (Michael B. Jordan) who looks to claim the throne for himself. Less a superhero movie and more like a modernization of Game of Thrones, Black Panther has a sweeping scale to it with fully-realized sets, costumes and action setpieces. All of that thankfully doesn’t drown out the magnetic performances on display ranging from goofy villainy (Serkis) to sprightly comedic (Wright). It’s when the movie puts the cold Jordan and the poised Boseman face-to-face with each other that the movie rises to greatness.

 

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20. Bad Times at the El Royale

So it seems the world has mostly canceled Quentin Tarantino this year and if that be the case, Hollywood could use a new master of stylish 70s throwback character dramas. Drew Goddard, come on down! After riffing on slashing films with The Cabin in the Woods, Goddard returns with a whodunit that has the gall to wait before telling us what the “it” actually is. The titular setting is an old motel on the border of California and Las Vegas in 1969. There’s a priest (Jeff Bridges), a singer (Cynthia Erivo), a salesman (Jon Hamm) and a drifter (Dakota Johnson) who all check in while leaving most of their real baggage out of sight. Much like Tarantino, Goddard tells his story by pulling the audience in and out of his characters’ backstories. But where ol’ Q’s characters were all serving a story out front and center, Goddard uses his players as puzzle pieces and takes his time putting them all together. It’s a long sit but El Royale’s lush cinematography, swinging soundtrack and splatters of blood keep things moving and grooving. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Bridges fills out every dimension of his character, Erivo adds just the right touch of humanity and Chris Hemsworth swings by to make crazy cult leaders sexy again. Now the world waits with anticipation to see what genre Goddard plays with next.

 

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19. Avengers: Infinity War

It shouldn’t have worked: over 20 major characters played by distinct personalities interacting with each other in one cohesive story for two-and-a-half hours against a villain that’s been there for six years and yet stood mostly anonymous for all this time? Marvel Studios keeps raising the stakes for itself every time it puts the Avengers together and they just can’t stop winning big. Despite having the characters and tones of five different movies sharing the same set space, Avengers: Infinity War has one definitive star: Josh Brolin’s haunting, maniacal but somehow charming Thanos, who sees the only way of saving the universe from total destruction is half destruction. The wisest things writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely did was not only keep most of the Avengers separate from each other but mix up the teams a bit. Who would’ve thought a moping Thor (Chris Hemsworth) could get his confidence back from Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel)? Or how about the festival of snark between Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland)? And seeing Captain America (Chris Evans) lunge into battle with Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) is more patriotic than anything the Trump administration has done in the last two years. The action and effects remain jaw-dropping, but it’s seeing characters we’ve followed for the last decade stand together (and face defeat) that help hold off superhero movie fatigue just a little bit longer.

 

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18. The Old Man & the Gun

Robert Redford was, is and will always be awesome. Everything from his shaggy blonde hair to his relaxed and confident walk in every scene to his warm smirk to the comfort in his voice has made him an icon of American cinema for nearly 50 years. Whether he’s playing baseball, reporting on Watergate or even hunting down Captain America, Redford has shown himself time and time again as one of the most natural actors in movie history. So if The Old Man & the Gun is indeed his last movie before retirement, he picked almost the perfect project to hang his hat on. Written and directed by David Lowery (A Ghost Story, Pete’s Dragon), the movie tells the true story of 70-year-old Forrest Tucker (Redford) and his string of cross-country bank robberies in the late 70s/early 80s. With little more than a smile and the occasional fake moustache, Forrest manages to elude a determined cop (Casey Affleck) and woo a ranch owner (Sissy Spacek) as he contemplates whether or not he can actually settle down. Old Man suits pretty much everybody involved in the film in front and behind the camera. After compiling a filmography of 70s throwback dramas (even his Pete’s Dragon remake looked like it was filmed in 1977), Lowery has found his dream project by having the movie shot with an old-school graininess and low, lush colors. He keeps things moving at a cruising pace that allows the actors to soak in the atmosphere and relax in their characters. Spacek’s warm presence and the intrigue Affleck shows in the case provides a great case of Forrest being stuck between a rock and hard place, while brief appearances from Danny Glover and Tom Waits add a touch of levity. But this is Redford’s show and like a heroic lone ranger riding off into the sunset, he glides through scenes as the wild spirit of American ambition. Never slowing down and always on the run.

 

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17. Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

It should be noted that there was once a real human being who likely believed in the same things as Paddington bear. His name was Fred Rogers and for over 30 years, he taught children the importance of love and caring. 15 years after the world lost Mr. Rogers, director Morgan Neville (20 Feet From Stardom) reintroduces the beloved host to a world seemingly devoid of the heart his work kept beating. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a concise and informative documentary not just about the message but the methods of Mr. Rogers. Neville shows that Rogers was an academic who studied how children process life and how the changing culture influenced the way children learn. Mr. Rogers had to take the events of JFK’s assassination and Vietnam while the youth of America took in rock music and the rise of rap, but Rogers never hindered from his vision of kindness. The documentary doesn’t shy away from what the world is today but offers an alternative: be a neighbor.

 

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16. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

The most disappointing thing about last year’s Spider-Man: Homecoming was that it’s about Peter Parker. As good of a character he is, we’ve seen him in six movies over 16 years and three different origin stories. Spider-Man has splintered off into many different incarnations in comic books that the potential for fresh material at the movies is limitless. Live action movies can only go so far with Marvel’s web-slinger…but what could animation do? Sony Pictures Animation rolled the dice on a whacko story from Phil Lord (The Lego Movie) and got something truly spectacular. Of course there’s one Spider-Man in Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), an inner-city teenage brainiac and graffiti artist who bops to Chance the Rapper and treks rooftops in Air Jordans. Then one day, there’s another Spider-Man (Jake Johnson) who moves a little slower and seems a bit jaded about saving the world. And then there’s Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld) wearing a white hoodie and a chopped blonde haircut. And then another, and another, and another Spider-Man entering Miles’s world. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a ginormous breath of fresh air not only for the superhero genre but for animation itself. It’s the most literal example of a comic-book movie as the animation has a uniquely vibrant and poppy art style, almost chopped-up in different layers allowing elements to leap off the screen. That same format applies to each of the six new Spider-Man characters in the movie as they all come with their own style from cold noir to Looney Tunes-esque 2D. Spider-Verse was clearly made with love for Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s creation along with the idea that no matter how long a character has been around, there’s always room for more.

 

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15. Sorry to Bother You

Don’t be fooled by the title of writer/director Boots Riley’s debut feature, he’s not sorry in any way shape or form for making one of the most intense and crazy movies of the year. Tackling capitalism, racism, unionization and representation, Riley has done the cinematic equivalent of throwing a cherry bomb into a company board meeting and it’s as exactly as entertaining as the thought of seeing a bunch of stiff company men simultaneously screaming their heads off. Sorry to Bother You follows Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) as he attempts to get him and his rebellious girlfriend (Tessa Thompson) out if his uncle’s garage by joining a telemarketing firm. It’s not until he uses his “white voice” with customers that he starts to make big money and grab the attention of company bigwigs, including a drugged-out millionaire (Armie Hammer) with big plans for the future. Riley clearly has a keen eye given how well he maps out color palettes, directs actors and sets up comedic bits. Even when the movie gets weird and goes off the rails (in a rather jaw-dropping way), Riley still squeezes out something compelling and impossible to look away from. More impressive is how Riley’s style doesn’t block out the substance of the movie’s message. It’s a lot to take in and Riley has no room for subtlety, but his creativity flows out of him so freely and with such clarity that it would be rude to tell him to stop. That would also require his cast to rein things in and it’s definitely illegal to tell Stanfield and Thompson, two of the best actors who had the biggest year of their careers, to stop being this good. So yes Mr. Riley, keep calling and the rest of us will be happy to listen.

 

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14. Paddington 2

Everyone in the world is so mean in 2018. We’re calling each other cucks and libtards daring one another to kill themselves while sinking further into perpetual misery. But in this darkest of timelines, it’s good to know there’s someone fighting the good fight of kindness and decency. So what if it’s a three-foot-tall talking bear in a raincoat and hat? It’s not like we’re getting it from anywhere else in the real world. Undoubtedly the feel-good movie of the year, Paddington 2 follows the adventures of the titular peruvian bear (Ben Whishaw) living in London with the Brown family. He looks to get a pop-up book for his dear aunt when a broke stage actor (Hugh Grant) steals it and frames him. Paddington tries politeness and kindness to survive his prison sentence and the stare of an angry cook (Brendan Gleeson). There’s no room for cynicism or hatred in Paddington’s world as director Paul King fills the screen with warm colors and endless whimsy. It also has no desire to pander to the lowbrow standards of modern kids movies as it features classic bits of physical comedy and impressively-intricate setpieces. The entire cast is more than game for the saccharine silliness, Gleeson and Grant in particular who seem to revel in cartoonish scenery chewing. Paddington’s mantra is, “If we are kind and polite, the world will be right,” and the movie’s commitment to that is so sincere and strongly executed that it skips past being a corny elementary school lesson to being almost a prayer for change in the next year.

 

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13. BlacKkKlansman

In August 2017, the world was horrified to watch James Fields Jr. run his car through a crowd protesting white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia. One of the darkest moments in modern American history has been something that people have either circled back to as a cause for action or have tried hard to forget as a means to ignore the very real rise of white nationalism in America. But someone who did not forget about it was Spike Lee, who decided to remind the world that the threat of racism and bigotry in America has always been bubbling underneath. Lee, one of America’s most talented and vocal critics of society, told the story of Detective Ron Stallworth in October 1978. The first black detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department took on a bold assignment when he posed as a white man over the phone and used a white officer to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan. Lee’s dramatization of those events is well aware of the historical shame America wears for housing such monstrous bigots and instead shows Stallworth (a stellar John David Washington) stuck between his duty to the law in serving justice and his pride as a black man in wanting to make the Klan look like the fools that they are. BlacKkKlansman is both a bracing history lesson in a time when it’s needed the most and another of Lee’s stylish character studies. The movie is dead serious about its lessons but also has the lovable splashes of Spike’s directorial style. Then the movie throws one final gut punch during its coda that flashes back to all of the events that led up to and followed the Charlottesville incident, showing that there’s still a fight to be made against bigotry 40 years later.

 

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12. A Quiet Place

Jump scares are one of the worst troupes in Hollywood movies today. They offer little substance to a film, are often used as an easy out for a lack of creativity and cheapen any sense of tension. They’re used so frequently in so many movies that it makes jumpscares more frightening than any killer monster. So imagine my surprise when I see that one of the best movies of 2018 is so strong because of its well-executed jump scares. And it’s from Jim Halpert, of all people! A Quiet Place is not John Krasinski’s first turn in the director’s chair, but it’s certainly the first that gave him a challenge. The game: make a tension-filled monster movie backed by a heartfelt family drama. The gimmick: the monsters have hyper-sensitive hearing, requiring as little dialogue and even sound as possible. In a tight 90 minutes, Krasinski lays out a pressure-layden haunted house ride that knows just when to hold the hostage with its sound design. Since the script is rather minimal, the movie has to rely on the “show, don’t tell” rule and expertly follows it. Krasinski is clearly as annoyed by horror movie cliches as most people so he sands everything down to the bare essentials with the growl of the monsters and the creaking of the sets keeping audiences at the edge of their seat. It’s rare to see such technical precision for a monster movie and should certainly earn Krasinki more opportunities as a director.

 

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11. The Miseducation of Cameron Post

It’s a damn shame what people do onto others in the name of an invisible bearded man in the clouds who grants wishes. How is it that human beings have made such grand technological achievements and championed capital industry but still punish people for their sexual preference? The Miseducation of Cameron Post wants you to ask this question because the people who suffering have been asking for years and still have few answers. Based on Emily Danforth’s novel, the movie’s title character is a 1993 high schooler (Chloe Grace Moretz) who is caught making out with a girl on prom night. Her guardian then takes her to a gay conversion therapy camp run by a soft-spoken but imposing doctor (Jennifer Ehle) and her unassuming brother (John Gallagher Jr.). The duo run Cameron through prayer circles, confessions and private moments of why her feelings are wrong. Cameron knows the camp is akin to prison but remains unsure of how to define herself. With the help of two fellow “disciples” (Sasha Lane and Forrest Goodluck), Cameron looks for clarity in her life. Despite the dark subject matter there are moments of true beauty in Cameron Post thanks to Ashley Connor’s gorgeous cinematography capturing warm fall colors on the ground and in the sky. There is a soft reserve to how the movie addresses the cruelty of gay conversion therapy but it doesn’t shy away from the method’s cruelty. Co-writer and director Desiree Akhavan shines by showing the bruises of these “disciples” are found under the skin and swallowing the teens whole. Whether their feelings are blocked by grinning denial (Gallagher Jr. in a career-best turn) or sneaky pot-fueled rebellion (Lane and Goodluck), Akhavan shows how the silence these kids display screams loud with no one to hear them. The voice leading the message is Moretz with her first great dramatic performance, equal parts innocent in her eyes but powerful in her resilience. No matter how painful the events of this movie is, there is comfort knowing that the number of filmmakers giving victims a voice is growing.

 

10. Boy Erased

Kids want to make their parents proud and return the love given to them all their lives by the ones who brought them into the world. But what would one rather have: the love of a parent or the love of one’s self? That’s the question asked in Boy Erased, Joel Edgerton’s gripping adaptation of Garrard Conley’s memoir detailing his time in a gay conversion program. Edgerton’s film follows teenager Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges), high school star athlete and proud son of local preacher’s couple Marshall and Nancy (Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman). He reveals to his parents that he had a gay experience and is unsure of his feelings about it, causing his parents (especially his father) to panic and send him to conversion therapy. Jared endures the emotional abuse of the program’s condescending leader (Edgerton) and debates how far he’s willing to sacrifice his soul for the love of his family. Whereas The Miseducation of Cameron Post showed signs of beauty in its look, Boy Erased is a more grim and bleak-looking film. It’s on-purpose too as Edgerton’s movie takes a harder look at a more tragic story about identity. Boy Erased’s depiction of gay conversion is also more aggressive, with Edgerton’s program leader interrogating the “participants” about why they chose to have homosexual thoughts and why they chose to hurt the ones they love. It’s emphasizes the cruel and unusual punishment these programs put people through, but the center of the story is Jared’s rough journey to coming out and still wanting his family’s love all the same. Edgerton is a fine director but he also shows himself to be a impressive writer by highlighting the emotional core of Conley’s story. Along Edgerton’s own imposing presence on screen, the movie is stacked with A+ actors. Kidman fills out the role of the conflicted but loving mother well while Crowe gives his best dramatic performance in over a decade as a man caught between the morals of his religion and the love for his son. Hedges has been proving himself as one of Hollywood’s great young talents for the last two years and Boy Erased showcases his talent better than ever before. He’s a quiet actor who says more with his silence than with dialogue. The pain in his face is something that echoes long after the credits roll.

 

9. Beast

“Love is blindness, I don’t want to see.” While it’s the chorus for a U2 album cut, it could also apply to Michael Pearce’s haunting romantic thriller. Set in a calm but complacent English island community, Beast tells the story of love at first sight between Moll (Jessie Buckley) and Pascal (Johnny Flynn). Moll lives with her creepily overbearing family while stuck in a rut giving bus tours to visitors. Then she meets Pascal on a random day at the beach as he lurks in the reeds holding a hunting rifle. They fool around and he sweeps her off her feet. Then bodies start piling up and Pascal is the prime suspect. Is Moll falling for a serial killer? Does she even want to know? Beast is at times erotic, suspenseful, mysterious and classic. Similar to Gone Girl four years earlier, Beast is a sleazy grocery store romance novel done with class and style. Pearce juggles tones and moods like a craftsman letting scenes effortlessly flow into each other like a river stream pouring over rocks. There are moments of sizzling romance in the movie (credit Buckley and Flynn’s volcanic sexual chemistry for that) mixed with elements of psychological horror. It’s also just a great, gripping mystery that makes the audience second guess everything at least twice. Considering how much movie audiences love sexual drama, it’s baffling how Beast went under so many people’s radars. Hopefully it becomes a sleeper hit on streaming services when it arrives. Beast feels both meticulous in its planning and yet effortless in its execution.

 

8. Hereditary

As great as writer/director Ari Aster’s feature-length debut film is, you may never ever want to watch it again. Point blank, Hereditary is one of the most grim and depressing films of this, the last and maybe every prior decade when film existed. It’s indeed a horror movie, but it deserves the full extension of “horrifying.” On the surface, Hereditary is a family drama with a stressed-out mom (Toni Collette), passive dad (Gabriel Byrne), burnout son (Alex Wolff) and awkward daughter (Milly Shapiro). But weird things start to happen when grandma dies and some supernatural family secrets come to light, driving the family into madness and perhaps something even more sinister. Aster’s film wants you to be as uncomfortable as possible watching Hereditary. The pacing doesn’t so much move slow as it does eek and crawl along while it drags its fingernails across the floor. Aster also loves flat, immobile shots that lets his creepy dialogue play out. As dark and cringe-inducing Aster’s story and dialogue may be, there’s an irresistible magnitude about it as you wonder how dark he’s willing to go (SPOILER: very very dark). Hereditary does get very grotesque once its supernatural elements come into play, but the biggest compliment to the movie is that it almost doesn’t need any ghosts to be scary. The raw, unflinching grief it emits comes through thanks to the commitment of the actors. It’s a wonder what process Collette put herself through to reach the hopelessness of her character and the insanity she has to play out. She nails it of course, as does Aster in making a horror movie that damn near redefines the entire genre.

 

7. Eighth Grade

Comedian Bo Burnham thrives on awkwardness. Whether he’s sitting behind a piano asking why nobody else likes soda at parties or using Auto-Tune to whine about first-world problems, Burnham’s worldviews come from a place of introvertedness and confusion about the constantly mutating social norms for teenagers. And despite being 28, he seems to have kept paying attention about what young people are into the older he gets. That’s the only explicable reason he managed to capture a snapshot of shy adolescence in the 2010s. Eighth Grade follows Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) on her last week of the titular school grade. She’s an amateur YouTuber looking to impart wisdom on kids her age, a facade for her own insecurities at school. She’s awkward in conversation with kids her age, closed-off when her dorky dad (Josh Hamilton) tries to connect with her and addicted to her smartphone screen. Burnham puts Kayla through a fair share of cringey awkwardness throughout the movie, but it’s not entirely for comedic purposes. Kayla’s efforts to socialize and break out of her shell are natural efforts of anyone trying to make friends. Eighth Grade is as critical of teen social standards as it is sympathetic to the introverts of the world. Burnham also wisely shows the crippling fear Kayla has when she tries to break out of comfort zone, as if Kayla is on the verge of suffocating. She makes efforts to make friends with the cool kids but never lashes out at them. Burnham doesn’t take Kayla’s insecurities to the extreme for the sake of the movie. It’s a grounded and surprisingly realistic look into the struggle of connecting with each other in the 21st century. The two key ingredients are Burnham’s detailed script and how Fisher taps into it with her performance. This is a girl who has lived this movie before a camera even rolled.

 

6. Isle of Dogs

It’s getting harder to notice when Wes Anderson actually evolves. The man has a style that’s so beyond the realm of typical filmmaking, with layers of detail precision on top of each other, that to notice changes and improvements between his movies in the last decade would require some antique magnifying glass he’d probably put in the background of his next movie. In the case of Isle of Dogs, his second stop-motion animation feature, the biggest improvement is actually the most outstanding feature of the movie: a big beating heart. Set in a dystopian future where Japan deals with a viral outbreak amongst its dog population by exiling them to an island filled with garbage, a pack of island dogs come across a young boy who crash-landed on the island searching for his own dog. The dogs (Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum and Bob Balaban), lead by a mean former stray (Bryan Cranston), guide the boy through the remnants of the island and discover what humans and dogs lost in the confusion. While admittedly Isle of Dogs doesn’t have the freshness of Anderson’s previous animated adventure, Fantastic Mr. Fox, it does have a better embrace of the concept’s silliness without losing the emotional core. Anderson is still playing with his personal toys in a fine-tuned sandbox, his production designers and art direction team have outdone themselves with the scope of the island and Megasaki City, not to mention the impeccable touches to the designs of the dogs themselves. Even the drum-heavy score by Alexandre Desplat adds to the distinct atmosphere. But even under all of the style is the heartwarming story of two lost boys trying to find their way home through each other. It might be the most accessible movie Anderson has ever made without sacrificing his own integrity. Keep climbing, Wes!

 

5. Unsane

Boy we really didn’t see the Steven Soderbergh comeback coming, did we? After putting a hold on his movie-directing retirement with last year’s goofy caper Logan Lucky, Soderbergh decided to go the complete opposite direction for his next feature: a tight, tense psychological thriller shot entirely with iPhone cameras. For a man with such a wide-ranging resume, it’s actually amazing that he’s tackled both versions of a filmmaker’s comeback. Grounded in both simplicity and mystery, Unsane follows Sawyer (Claire Foy) and the struggle of being a followed woman. Sawyer has been stalked by a former work client so incessantly that she had to relocate, but she still feels like she’s in danger. She goes to a medical institute in hopes of joining a support group but ends up involuntarily committed. Sawyer claims she’s not crazy, but seeing her stalker somehow present at the institute makes her second guess her own sanity. While the iPhone camera shooting style might seem like a gimmick at first, it actually elevates the atmosphere and tension of the movie. Unsane is intense and unnerving, practically breathing down the neck of the audience the entire time, and part of that is because the camera is either still in the corner of a set playing out uninterrupted drama or in the face of its characters. The way Soderbergh sets up, lights and shoots the scenes of Unsane is this ugly neon shade that seems like everything is about to explode. The same could be said for Foy in her best film performance to date in her balance of quiet emotional confliction and frantic energy. Unsane is unnerving in all the best ways. When it stands still, you anxiously wait for it to strike like a killer tiger. When it’s unleashed and tries to terrify you, it shakes you to the core.

 

4. Roma

2018 had a curious double event: two Oscar-winning writer/directors return with their first movie in five years. The first of the pair is Alfonso Cuarón, who took audiences for a roll in space with the mega-hit Gravity. Cuarón could’ve gone anywhere he wanted with his next project, but he decided to go home. Loosely based on his own upbringing, Cuarón’s Roma centers around a middle-class family in 1970s Mexico City going through life. Seen through the eyes of the family’s maid Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), she and the family deal with marital troubles, societal shifts and growing up together. Shot in black and white, Cuarón’s vision is one of blunt scope as he lets the audience take in the wide shots of the family home or the sprawling mansion they celebrate the holidays in. You almost feel bad that the movie isn’t in color given all the wide scenery Cuarón captures. It’s a borderline documentary in how realized the sets are and how real the actors portray their characters. There are equal doses of grown-up reality and childlike whimsy, as if the movie is a child maturing before the audience’s eyes. Seeing the bustling and overcrowded locations in Mexico and how everyone finds ways to get by on their own highlights the story’s focus on family. Cleo, embodied in every degree by Aparicio, is both a fly on the wall to middle-class struggle and a look inside of the lives of the working-class. As hard as things may get for the family and Cleo herself, sadness is never a long-term option. And that seems to be Cuarón’s point: things may look as bleak as can be but you can always come home to family.

 

3. The Favourite

The career of Yorgos Lanthimos has been mostly fascinating but also a bit frustrating. The Greek writer/director clearly has a strong grip on making left-field dramas that challenge movie norms. The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer are like if Stanley Kubrick looked at the droll lives of modern society and took them to shocking extremes. With those concepts come tones, characters and executions that can seem too strange to fully enjoy. So much so that one wishes Lanthimos would drop the weirdness and take his technique to a more straight-forward story. Be relieved at The Favourite, which looks on the surface like an episode of Downton Abbey beefed up to be a soap opera. It’s the early 18th century and England’s Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is more like a bored child than a bold leader the country needs while at war with France. At the Queen’s side is longtime friend Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), who is as ruthless as a monarch but remains the Queen’s closest companion. Then Sarah’s cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) shows up looking for work, nudging up against the Queen herself. Lady Sarah feels threatened, Abigail feels empowered, and the Queen snickers to herself watching people fight for her affection. One of the best things about The Favourite is that Lanthimos has no writing credit, keeping his tendency for weird and rather depressing subject matter out of the movie’s stew. Instead, the script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara plays out a story of friendship, love, betrayal and power. It gives equal weight to development of all three leads: one with no love but great power (the Queen), one with neither love nor true power (Lady Sarah) and one with great love but no power (Abigail). Lanthimos lays out the three pieces in the immaculate Hatfield House estate and moves them around, against and occasionally on top of each other like a three-way chess game. Free of writing duties, the director focuses entirely on orchestrating the synthesis of gorgeous costumes, crisp natural light and a surprising amount of fish-eye lenses to let the audience soak in the driven cattiness between the leads. Despite being in constrictive corsets, all three actors revel at swiping their claws at each other. Colman has effortlessly jumped between dramas (Broadchurch, The Night Manager) and comedies (Doctor Who, Hot Fuzz) throughout her career so it’s fitting that she balances both in The Favourite for the best performance of her career. Weisz is downright sinister in her poise, line delivery and even just the way she holds her head up. Stone may seem like the hero of the movie at first, but she takes her time in turning as rotten as the wig worn by Nicholas Hoult (also giving a career-best performance). The Favourite should allow those hoping that Lanthimos’s talent was not dependent on his weird story twists a sigh of relief knowing that he’s the real deal in delivering his first true masterpiece.

 

2. Annihilation

For the last two years or so, the world has been asking for more female representation in Hollywood movies. No more token love interests or ditzy blondes, the people want smart and strong women to be the stars of movies that treat them like real people instead of stereotypes. So why did a movie in 2018 about five intelligent women using science and logic to investigate an alien invasion get beat at the box-office by a movie where James Corden voices a cartoon rabbit? It’s still a wonder why the world let Annihilation pass by as it stands as both a successful statement in the hopes of better female representation in films and one of the best science-fiction films of the decade. Based on Jeff VanderMeer’s novel, Annihilation follows a biologist (Natalie Portman), two scientists (Tessa Thompson and Tuva Novotny), a paramedic (Gina Rodriguez) and a psychologist (Jennifer Jason Leigh) brought together to enter “The Shimmer.” After a meteor crash lands in a remote U.S. coastal area, an electromagnetic bubble forms and grows throughout the land creating “The Shimmer.” All military teams sent into “The Shimmer” end up never returning, except for the biologist’s husband (Oscar Isaac) who seems….different. Annihilation makes writer/director Alex Garland two for two in the director’s chair as he builds on the promise of 2015’s Ex Machina on a larger canvas. There is in fact actual “shimmer” coming from the movie as cinematography Rob Hardy lets in the right amount of light to the jungle setting of the movie to let everything around the protagonists glow like crystal. Coupled with the set and creature designs all give an otherworldly illusion that Garland uses as a psychological test for his characters. There’s beauty in “The Shimmer,” but it’s lays a seed that grows something horrifying overtime. There’s also great beauty in Annihilation, but Garland shows himself an expert in building tension and even terror as the characters trek further into the unknown and into their own fears. Even the score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury starts as smooth plucks of acoustic guitar before flooding scenes with haunting synthesizers. It’s a deep, dark rabbit hole that Garland’s cast is more than game for. Every member of the quintet gets a moment to be swallowed whole by the movie’s nightmare, but Portman has room to showcase her bubbly personality with the deep emotional trauma of her character. Annihilation swallows you whole and leaves jaws on the floor. It’s not the easiest pill to take but it’s a ride that reminds you that science-fiction can be more than lasers and spaceships.

 

1. Widows

No disrespect to Alfonso Cuarón, but the winner of the “Oscar-winner returning after five years” competition is undoubtedly Steve McQueen. The British writer/director showcased shining beauty and unflinching brutality in 2013’s 12 Years a Slave. That balance is the key to McQueen’s success, an ability to effortlessly capture moments of tenderness and compassion one minute before taking a stranglehold of the audience through tension and violence. Put simply, McQueen makes movies about struggle and his latest offering was no exception in covering the strife of women raising families, women left alone by men, women abused by men, women intimidated by men and most importantly, women underestimated by men. At face value, Widows is an expertly executed heist movie where three widowed women (Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki) team-up with a determined single working mother (Cynthia Erivo) to finish a robbery laid out by their husbands who were double-crossed and gunned-down by police. But the script by McQueen and Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl, Sharp Objects) saw what was deeper inside Lynda La Plante’s novel: one woman making a stand for her husband’s memory, one refusing to fail for her kids, one fed up with being the accessory to a man and one trying to lessen the struggle for her family. McQueen and Flynn add more to Widows, ranging from political corruption in contemporary Chicago between two inner-city thugs (Brian Tyree Henry and Daniel Kaluuya) and a father-son dynasty (Robert Duvall and Colin Farrell) to police brutality. There are a lot of threads in the tapestry of Widows, but McQueen and Flynn manage to weave it all together in near-perfect sequence. It all lays out through the setting of Chicago filled with characters that feel like real people with grounded, working-class struggles. It’s a well-rounded depiction of modern American life that McQueen doesn’t try to glamorize or dress-up. Every bruise, threat, punch and gunshot is heard and felt thanks to some sharp sound editing and McQueen’s fluid camerawork. The biggest charm of the movie is how stacked the cast and crew are who’ve come together for such a stripped-down production, Widows feels like a movie Martin Scorsese or William Friedkin would’ve made at their peaks in the 1970s as a lost American classic. Credit also goes to the best ensemble cast of the year. Erivo continues her transition from Tony-award-winning theater actor to breakout movie star as she holds a strong screen presence on her own and with her castmates, while Henry and Kaluuya especially are imposing antagonists. Debicki also adds to her growing resume playing a battered woman saving herself as much as she is saving her colleagues. It’s rewarding to see Rodriguez, known for popcorn action vehicles like The Fast & the Furious franchise, get a deeper role for her to embrace and embody. But of course there’s Davis, undoubtedly one of the best actors alive today, turning in a balanced and heartbreaking performance. She’s got bruises and pain on her own that nearly shatters her to pieces, but she’ll never let it show if it means not taking what belongs to her and her team. It’s strength that busts through the screen and is impossible to dismiss as fake. Same goes for Widows as it stands alone as something present and timeless at the same time.

 

He Came Home…Again

Scenario: Two writers have a story about a mysterious monster that creeps on the innocent at night. They don’t say why the monster is lurking about or how it moves from the shadows like the quietest whisper, but its presence and attack strike fear into the hearts of audiences. The writers create the ultimate boogeyman and the chase after it is both terrifying and transfixing. It captures the imagination and nightmares of people all around the world becoming an icon of its time and times soon after.

And people wanted more.

So the writers wrote a bloated but necessary coda to the monster trying to kill its prey once and for all.

And people wanted more.

The writers didn’t want to write anymore, so some other writers tried to bring the monster back to lurk again.

And people wanted more.

So another group of writers had the monster follow a little girl.

And people wanted more.

So then there was a death cult.

And people wanted more.

So then there was Busta Rhymes.

And people wanted more.

So then there were obvious rednecks.

And the monster was still there, only lumbering rather than lurking and sulking rather than scaring. No matter what you add to the monster, it’s still the same monster doing the same old thing. Is it too much to ask for more?

 

Don’t be fooled by Halloween, the third reboot and the second remake of John Carpenter and Debra Hill’s original slasher classic. In fact, don’t even associate the word “original” with the new movie directed and co-written by David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express, Eastbound & Down). Despite it eliminating every other Halloween sequel from canon and being a soft reboot/sequel of the 1978 original, this is still very much a Halloween sequel. Whatever potential there might have been from having two podcasters (Rhian Rees and Jefferson Hall) coming to Haddonfield adding to their pseudo-Serial fame by covering the Michael Myers murders is thrown out the window for the same plot as the first movie: the hulking Michael escapes custody and returns to his hometown to slice up civilians on Halloween night. Despite the now-grandmothered Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) using her trauma to become a hardened hunter badass wanting to put a bullet in Michael’s skull, the masked killer is mostly hunted by a random cop (Will Patton) and a psychiatrist (Haluk Bilginer). Sure Laurie’s paranoia led to her daughter (Judy Greer) cutting her out of her life and the life of her own daughter (Andi Matichak), but Michael doesn’t care since there’s teens making out and townspeople being unsuspecting so it’s time to start stabbing.

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There’s astonishment to be had when a remake is 15 minutes longer than the original and it still feels rushed. Through a combination of rudimentary dialogue, speedy delivery and choppy editing, Halloween feels incredibly routine and mechanical in its execution. It’s as if God from Monty Python and the Holy Grail is shouting behind the camera to “GET ON WITH IT,” given how the movie rarely takes a break to set up tension or subtlety. Carpenter’s direction in the original movie made the audience pay attention and use dark shadows to find Michael in scenes, letting the viewers that saw Michael genuinely jump in their seats and those that didn’t see Michael freak out at the terror they don’t see. It’s like obeying and breaking the Jaws rule by both hiding the monster in the background but still showing him in clever ways. There’s only a handful of scenes where Green keeps Michael shrouded in the secrecy of the background to creep up on the audience. The rest of the time he has Michael strolling through the background damn-near waving at the audience to remind him that he’s in the movie. Green also rarely uses the power of silence in a horror movie as he can’t figure out when exactly to leave out the fine score composed by the Carpenters (John and son Cody) and Daniel A. Davies so he puts it in a bit too frequently. Green blessedly doesn’t over indulge in jump scares, something the original Halloween did but sparingly and with intelligence, and does have some genuine moments of spooky ambiance in certain scenes thanks to lighting and brief moments of silence. Sadly they’re too few and far between to leave an enjoyable impression.

 

Another element cutting the movie off at the legs is the script. Rehashed main story aside, the “new” elements that have hyped up the new Halloween feel like just that: hype that doesn’t hit. The true crime podcasters that open the movie trying to interview Michael in an admittedly creepy setting are merely just additions to Michael’s body count and don’t bring a different viewpoint to the story. Despite having three generations of female Strode women in this movie, Laurie’s daughter is a two-dimensional whiner that does little else but feel embarrassed for her mother or cry in concern. Laurie’s granddaughter is merely the typical high school teenager dealing with relationship drama and the odd fact that her granduncle might be a serial killer, as any high schooler does these days. Most disappointing of all is Laurie’s arc herself, switched from the victim in hiding in the first reboot Halloween: H20 to the avenging warrior lying in wait here. For all the talk of Laurie’s character change addressing trauma victims and how to turn that into strength, Halloween has no room to dive deeper into what her mental state did to her life after Michael was put away and what else makes up her personality. Laurie Strode is only defined by her extensive collection of rifles and her long granny hair. The lack of definition also applies to the movie’s antagonist. There’s no mystique or analysis left to waste on Michael Myers but all killers need to have some type of motivation. Even something as lame as Leprechaun had a reason for its tiny terror to attack people (a stupid reason, but a reason). Halloween 2018 merely sees Michael as pure evil, nothing more and nothing new. What else is he going to do? Hell and outer space are already occupied by another masked killer of teens anyway.

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The bigger shame than the characters not being given much else to work with is the solid cast wasted in this. Curtis looks like she wants to really explore this different take on Laurie Strode and she makes the little given to her work as a sadder, bitter Laurie trying to take charge of a terrible situation. Even with her more sullen demeanor, Curtis is as charming and likable as she was 40 years ago as a spunky babysitter. Patton has always been a reliable supporting actor and he brings his expected southern grit to the role despite also not being given much to do. Greer is wasted in another franchise property (that happens a lot) by being nothing but a worry-wart and Matichak is only used for something Michael to chase.

 
It’s fitting that the opening credits of Halloween features a smashed jack-o’-lantern re-assembling itself since the remake is trying to make the old and broken fresh again. Sadly the new Halloween is less fresh and more stale by recycling the same basic plot of the original movie (and most of its sequels) and leaving all of its new ideas underdeveloped. There’s specks of creativity peppered in here but it’s not enough to excuse the fact that we’ve seen this movie before, multiple times in fact. It’s barely scary, occasionally funny, sparingly creepy but all-around unsuccessful. How many times can audiences hear the same story and ask for it again? In the case of Michael Myers, apparently 10 times. That doesn’t mean it can keep a viewer from looking as tired and bored as Michael’s mask does.

2/4

Bad Odds

There’s something of a contradiction when it comes to why Han Solo is such a memorable character. He doesn’t have the youthful dreamer sympathy that comes with Luke Skywalker, the spunky attitude of Princess Leia or the history of years-long strife and heartbreak of Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi. Han Solo is memorable because he’s supposed to be forgettable. He’s a nobody, a schmo, barely even worth mentioning as a nerf herder. Sure he’s charming, cocky and mostly-fearless, but he has no stake in the events of Star Wars. He’s just there, with nothing but the blaster on his hip and the charisma of Harrison Ford to make him one of the most famous characters in movie history. It’s not mystique or history that makes Han Solo cool, it’s just Han Solo.

 

I’m only pointing this out to remind people that Solo: A Star Wars Story had an uphill battle to endure before there was even a hint of who would be directing the movie. And even with all the drama that went down between Lucasfilm and Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the writer/director team behind the 21 Jump Street movies and The Lego Movie who were originally slated to helm Solo before being replaced by groundbreaking visionary sci-fi icon…Ron Howard..this still didn’t make a good enough case for Solo to be made. It was understandable with Rogue One since the story of the Death Star plans being stolen could’ve been interesting (*Arrested Development voiceover* it wasn’t), but with Solo it feels like Lucasfilm are obviously cashing in on the nostalgia of the original Star Wars trilogy. Because despite the potential, telling the origins of a beloved character is a very fine line to walk and the odds of this being a successful endeavor were slim (not that Han would care, of course).

 

Anyway, about that movie: Solo follows everyone’s favorite smuggler in his younger years. Played by Alden Ehrenreich with more feathered hair and a vest with sleeves this time, Han starts as an orphan trying to escape the pickpocketing life with his girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke). Sadly fate separates them, but Han then lucks into meeting an angry wookie named Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and a shifty thief named Beckett (Woody Harrelson). Han and Chewie end up joining Beckett in his effort to steal some fuel for a testy gangster (Paul Bettany), but they employ the help of a smooth card shark named Lando (Donald Glover), his trusty droid sidekick (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) and his spaceship: the Millenium Falcon.

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Solo has elements of different films rolled into its 135-minute runtime: an origin story, another prequel, a space western and a heist movie. Divvying the movie into specific sections is a bit challenging though, considering its pacing moves at breakneck speed with little time left to slow down and take in whatever mood certain scenes set up for the audience. Fortunately the movie doesn’t stop dead for callbacks to the original trilogy (which cut Rogue One off at the legs) and is mostly free of distracting fan service, staying with the events of its own plot and getting right to the action. It is very much its own story and yet it seems to want to get itself over with as quickly as possible. Which is a shame because, like Rogue One, the movie’s depiction of the dirtier bottom-feeders of the Star Wars universe is really interesting to see and shows the possibilities of expanding the cinematic universe of Star Wars. Even the two major action scenes, one being a train robbery and the other being a heist in an intergalactic mine, are well-staged and shot to flow smoothly by Howard. Solo works best when it’s not servicing the Star Wars brand, instead having its action scenes made with the styles of a western and a caper. When Solo is on point, it’s more reminiscent of Firefly and Ocean’s Eleven than a straight-up Star Wars movie.

 

The sets, spaceships, costumes and all-around design of Solo are impressive and immersive, if only the movie would pump its breaks every now and again to let the audience get more invested in the movie. For a movie over two hours long, Solo has an odd paradox of moving too fast and yet somehow feeling stretched out in its final half-hour. That accelerated pacing also doesn’t do much justice to the characters either, as many of the new ones are jettisoned from the movie by death and the established ones don’t have any further development. Which is a shame because there are some likable characters here, but most of them are done away with or don’t get to truly shine in the movie. The movie’s tightness also keeps alot of fun from seeping into its unnecessary drama. It made sense for Rogue One to be a grim and dramatic sense it was supposed to be akin to war movie, but the characters of Solo imply that this could be a looser, more fun adventure movie. Yet there are character deaths and grim moments that throw off any energy the movie gets going for itself. It’s another example of Star Wars thinking its more important than it actually is. The reason why Star Wars is so omnipresent and beloved is because it’s a fun sci-fi adventure with likable characters and a likable universe. So far these spinoff movies have gotten the latter part right but can’t nail down its characters right.

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Solo unfortunately bears the burden of being about characters, specifically one of the most famous in cinema history. That’s a lot of pressure on any actor, let alone relative newcomer Alden Ehrenreich. He was caught between a rock and a hard place: he could’ve either done a Harrison Ford impression and be called a glorified stand-in or approach Han from a completely different direction and be castrated by the fans for ruining their childhood hero. Ehrenreich has seemingly tried to do both, capturing Ford’s relaxed walk and constant bargaining like a used car salesman while also bringing his own idea of who Han Solo was as a younger man. He’s more chipper, better able to adapt to certain situations, much more optimistic than Ford’s droll pessimism, which is refreshing. But there’s just something missing about Ehrenreich’s performance that’s a bit hard to pinpoint: he doesn’t have a mean streak, he doesn’t have a strong presence and his charm can seem a bit annoying at points. It’s like Han is a blank slate waiting to be filled in, but there’s not enough of a base to his personality to warrant more adventures out of him.

 

Han Solo is actually one of the least interesting things about his own origin story, though he’s not alone. Emilia Clarke actually gets to show off a little more authority and charge, on top of being a gorgeous romantic lead straight out of a 1950s Hollywood classic. But her character Qi’ra is just another space for an actor to fill without anything to truly make her interesting, replaced with ties to the Star Wars expanded universe that bait for sequels. But the blankest of blank slates in the movie is Paul Bettany’s Dryden Vos, a one-dimensional villain whose only definable feature are a bunch of scars on his face that flame-up whenever he gets angry (which is never explained). Bless Bettany for seemingly having fun in his brief scenes, but that doesn’t make up for his lack of threat. Fortunately the rest of the supporting cast is colorful and outstanding in certain scenes, despite how limited some of their screen times are. Woody Harrelson looks like he’s having the most fun in a long time spinning guns around and flexing long coats, while also being a believable father-figure for Han. Donald Glover, who’s arguably overtaken the movie in terms of must-see performances, slides into the shoes and cape of Lando Calrissian with the greatest of ease. While he doesn’t have the full-out confidence that Billy Dee Williams had, the simple act of Donald waving his fingers in the air has an air of swagger and smoothness to it. It also helps that he plays Lando as the straight man to the hijinks of Han and co. Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Thandie Newton and Jon Favreau all make their marks as background players who sadly don’t get enough screen time to keep the fun going.

 
And that might be the biggest worry coming from Solo: Star Wars is starting to not be fun anymore. There was plenty of potential with Solo and some of it did make the final cut of the movie, but a combination of underdeveloped characters and rushed pacing to hide how underdeveloped the characters are make Solo feel intermittently fun but mostly hollow. It is an improvement from Rogue One in that there’s some levity and energy to Solo’s events and characters, but the movie miscalculates the need for it to be another “MOST BIGGEST MOVIE STORY IN YOUR LIFE HAIL STAR WARS” and not just a fun side quest. It’s the contradiction of Star Wars: we always want more, but what happens when the more we want is too much.

2.5/4

Wade Started A Joke

How do you tell the same joke again? It was funny the first time, got laughs out of everybody and was completely different from the jokes everyone else tells at the party. It feels good and you want to keep that feeling going, so the obvious answer would be to tell everyone that joke you know. But how? Do you make it longer? Weirder? How do you take something that was supposed to be a throwaway goof and repeat it to the same (or better) effect? What a tough question, especially for handsome do-gooder Ryan Reynolds to answer. He certainly had a great love and passion for Deadpool, the merc with a mouth that’s been throwing a bomb-laced pie in the face of comic book lore for nearly 30 years, but Reynolds probably didn’t expect his passion project to become a nearly-$800 million smash hit that turned the superhero-movie phenomenon on its head (mostly by being slightly different from the superhero movie formula, but still). So since Deadpool was a hit and Fox likes money (and another superhero franchise since Wolverine is dead and the rest of them are circling the drain), Reynolds had to back a sequel. He had to tell the same joke for a bigger crowd than last time who heard how good the joke was and wanted more. Heavy lies the crown of the Canadian snark king.

 

Deadpool 2, 11 minutes longer and over-$50 million more expensive than the last one, brings us back to the adventures of Wade Wilson (Reynolds) the deformed, deranged, self-healing assassin specializing in monologues and swordplay. He tries sucking up to the X-Men, or just Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand), by trying to help an angry young mutant named Russell (Julian Dennison). Unfortunately Russell is being hunted by Cable (Josh Brolin), a mercenary from the future with a robotic arm, a huge gun and very little patience. But Deadpool, who often leaps before he looks, decides to form a crew and take Cable head-on.

 

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In typical sequel fashion, Deadpool 2 is a bigger and louder production than its predecessor. There are more characters, more set pieces, more action scenes, more jokes, more schtick. Fortunately, Deadpool 2 seems very self-aware of the pitfalls of being a sequel and avoids being overstuffed. Despite the plot not really kicking in until the 30-minute mark, the movie has good pacing and has enough snark to mock foreshadowing and plot resolutions before the audience does. Big credit goes to newly-crowned action movie heavyweight David Leitch (John Wick, Atomic Blonde), who shoots the bigger and more meticulously-staged action scenes with smoothe composition and even some nice bits of slow-motion. Even the comedy gags are well-directed and edited, making the 119-minute runtime mostly zoom by. Writers Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick and Reynolds himself pack the script with barrels of one-liners, fourth-wall breaks, in-jokes and sarcasm. Amazingly almost all of them land, though the best jokes in the movie are the sight gags with physical comedy that use the movie’s hard-R rating to the fullest.

 

While Deadpool 2 is an improvement from its predecessor in the technical department, it can’t quite stick the landing of being a great movie entirely. Mostly because the movie starts running on fumes after its action centerpiece where Deadpool tries to rescue to Russell from a convoy. While it has a strong start in how it uses the X-Force, specifically a sly Zazie Beetz as Domino, it feels like the movie ran out of money near its end with some distractingly cheap-looking CGI and a 10-minute lull where the movie just stops. Much like the first movie, there’s a desire for Deadpool 2 to keep upping the ante and go balls to the wall with its action and violence in keeping with the spirit of the comic. It’s nice that Leitch would want to slow down and build the movie back up to its climax, but that’s when the movie becomes typical again and loses the manic spirit that makes Deadpool so fun to watch. The spirit of Deadpool 2 seems to be “whatever,” but more of a feeling of throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks and less gleeful anarchy. Maybe it’s because of the budget or studio mandate or Reynolds himself, but Deadpool on the big screen always seems grounded by desperately wanting laughs more than it wants blood. And that’s fine because the movie is pretty funny, but it feels like there’s another half to the movie’s promise it keeps forgetting to make good on.

 

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But the movie is committed to its comedy base and to its credit, its got some funny people backing the lines. Reynolds has always seemed like a born movie star with his charming good looks backed up by his ace timing and investment in scenes. Once again hidden in a red suit and slathered in makeup, Reynolds breaks through it all with sheer charisma and attitude that never loses steam. Even if his movie can’t be great, Reynolds bounces and zips through every scene like Bugs Bunny with swords and not a single sign of exhaustion in his voice. His supporting cast is along for the ride too, with Hildebrand’s droll shtick always useful, Kapicic’s thick-headed optimism makes a great foil for Deadpool and Dennison (who proved his comedic chops last year in Hunt for the Wilderpeople) has no problem being a tough brat and takes getting punched in the face multiple times like a champ. Beetz also gets a star-making performance here, going toe-to-toe with Reynolds’s sarcasm and having a strong screen presence on her own. Surprisingly the weakest link in the movie is Brolin, only three weeks removed from playing one of the best villains in superhero movie history (and that didn’t even require using his real face!). Brolin is still intimidating as hell with his giant gun and cold glare, but it feels like he was just written in as a roadblock for Deadpool to throw punches at and doesn’t get much development. His Cable is essentially if John Conor had the same abilities as The Terminator, which is funny considered the future that the movie shows he traveled from looks exactly like the one ruled by the machines in the Terminator franchise.

 
Do I still wish Deadpool was just a one-off goof that inspired more outlandish comic-book movies instead of just becoming a new franchise? Of course, but that doesn’t sully the fact that Deadpool 2 is a lot of fun. It moves fast, it gets laughs and still has enough wit to be considered “different” from the typical superhero movie fair. It’s questionable as to how much longer Reynolds and his team can keep this joke funny, especially in the age where superhero fatigue is looming more and more. For now, let’s all just take comfort in the fact that Deadpool is still funny, Ryan Reynolds acting career is doing fine and David Leitch is still making action movies cool again. It’s the little details that keep the joke funny.

3/4

 

 

 

Last Call

Even before Anthony and Joe Russo ran their first reel, Avengers: Infinity War had a lot of problems. Not only did the movie have to adapt one of the most mystical and visually-striking comic series in the Marvel canon, not only did it have to bring together all of the popular superheroes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe into one coherent and enjoyable narrative, not only did it have to payoff a seemingly-random post credit scene from six years ago with a giant purple alien wanting to slide into death’s DMs….but they had to tell people that it was going to be two movies. Due to the size and scale of the source material, not to mention cutting up screen time between over 20 main characters, the Russo brothers had to split the grand finale of the MCU’s first decade between two movies (with the next installment out next year). That would be enough of a challenge, but then Marvel Studios had to go ahead and tell everyone about it. So that’s the biggest rub: with everyone knowing that Infinity War is only Part 1 and that whatever happens is only the first half of the whole story, how do they give any weight or meaning to anything that happens in the movie?

 

In a word: Thanos. The intergalactic, purple-faced, multi-chinned, wannabe-god first introduced at the tail-end of The Avengers finally makes his presence known in the 19th feature film in the decade of dominance held by Marvel Studios. And six years later with endless teases, boy howdy does he make his presence known. Motion-captured and voiced by Josh Brolin, Thanos finds himself burdened with glorious purpose: to balance the entire universe by wiping out half of its inhabitants from existence. He plans to use his mighty Infinity Gauntlet and the six Infinity Stones to power his “mercy,” as he describes. He already has the purple Power Stone and now looks to collect the rest from a cavalcade of caped crusaders: the blue Space Stone from Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), the green Time Stone from Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Wong (Benedict Wong), the yellow Mind Stone from Vision (Paul Bettany) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), the red Reality Stone and the mysterious Soul Stone. Thanos’s malicious intent garners the attention of Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Spider-Man (Tom Holland), Captain America (Chris Evans) and his team of exiled Avengers, Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and the city of Wakanda, Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) and the Guardians of the Galaxy, especially Thanos’s jaded adopted daughters Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan).

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Since Marvel was at least smart enough not to further damage the movie’s merit by putting a Part 1 at the end of the title, Infinity War’s greatest challenge is merely standing on its own two feet. A great control in this experiment is Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, a pointless first installment in a two-part finale that mostly spins its wheels to get to the actual conclusion of the story. Thankfully, Infinity War is a solid standalone installment in the MCU that gives its audience an enjoyable and high-stakes adventure before saving its sequel-baiting for the final moments. Kudos to the Russo brothers for giving such a stacked cast of characters all something to do and a purpose for being in the movie outside of fan service. For such a huge movie with basically three climactic action scenes going on at the same time, the Russos shoot the blendings of CG and live-action surprisingly well without too much shaky cam and with a focus that doesn’t jerk the audience between perspectives. The movie’s art direction and production design also take full advantage of the movie’s cosmic settings in outer space and on Thanos’s spaceships, merging the universes of Thor and the Guardians of the Galaxy with Marvel’s Earthbound heroes. And even with all the cosmic lasers and monsters, many of the fight scenes here are surprisingly well-choreographed fistfights (seriously, Thanos looks like Manny Pacquiao in his prime going toe-to-toe against the Hulk). All of these elements make the 149-minute runtime fly by and don’t make the movie seem bloated or overdone.

 

Despite this movie’s advertising billing Infinity War as an epic event, it seems like the movie can’t commit to that promise. A problem with some of the recent Marvel movies is a stubbornness to let go of the laughs with certain emotional scenes being cut off by a quick or lame one-liner (see Thor: Ragnarok for example). Infinity War has that same problem, as many of the first-time interactions between the likes of Doctor Strange and Spider-Man or Thor and the Guardians of the Galaxy are used for jokes that can pull the audience right out of the movie. On top of that, the script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (who wrote all three Captain America movies) can’t find the right pacing rhythm. The movie rarely takes time to slow down and have its characters recognize the weight of the scenario. It’s mostly just show up, suit up and throw hands, which leaves little room for great character development. The likes of Iron Man, Gamora, Star Lord and Thor get the best of the writing character-wise and while everyone else has a presence in the movie, they end up as bit players in the background when all is said and done.

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But with all the big names and big guns on display, Infinity War does have one essential main character: Thanos. His characterization and impact to the story could’ve broke the movie down before it even started but right from the get-go, as he walks across the corpses of fallen enemies, he stands as one of the MCU’s finest villains, let alone one of the finest comic-book movie villains. He’s incredibly imposing in his presence, Brolin’s deep growl matched with his lines is a good combination of intelligence and evil, and the movie doesn’t overstate how righteous he thinks he is. Thanos believes he is doing the universe a favor by committing genocide, but he’s not cackling like the Joker when he takes an entire planet and shoots it at Iron Man (a wonderful visual, by the way). Thanos is the best character in this movie, and it’s easy to see how much Brolin enjoys the subtleties of playing him. He may be in a motion-capture suit (also impressively done) but Brolin clearly envisioned the universe around him in all the green screen and really liked every second of being in it.

 

Not every member of the Avengers gets character development here, but it seems like the movie gives time to right ones. Zoe Saldana’s Gamora in particular play a pivotal role, being Thanos’s adopted daughter and all. She seems to give Thanos the most cause to reflect on his actions and Saldana gets very emotionally invested in it. Same with Chris Hemsworth’s Thor who, without spoiling anything, takes a great deal of loss in the movie and it’s clear his brutish armor is starting to rust away. Downey Jr., the flagship star of the MCU, also has great emotional weight on Tony Stark being that he took a great bulk of trauma from his first encounter with Thanos six years ago. It’s understandable as to why he’s more stressed and emphasizing the threat of the movie than his typical joking self. On the flip side of that, Chris Pratt can’t seem to turn off the goofy Han Solo-esque schtick and get into the events of the movie. Tom Hollland’s aggressively teenaged Spider-Man also does not belong in the events of Infinity War, while Sebastian Stan’s Winter Soldier, who’s been such a focal point of the MCU for the past four years, merely seems like an afterthought addition to the cast. There’s plenty of faceless monsters for the Avengers to fight, but not enough screen time for them to establish their investment in the movie.

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So for a studio-mandated, contextually-required first half of grand finale, there’s a great sense of relief knowing that Avengers: Infinity War is as good as it is. There’s a lot of moving parts and some of them stall, but the essential pieces keep the motor running smoothly. It’s action-packed and more grim than the previous installments, never boring or overbearing. A superhero orchestra playing the right notes for an entertaining night out. The biggest problem though is that it is obviously a “Part 1,” leaving whatever risks it takes stuck with an asterisk on it needing to be solved in the next movie. That next installment will prove whether or not the entire journey was worth the investment or not but if it’s the latter, at least we got one good ride out of it.

3/4

Top 30 Movies of 2017

I know I know, a little late to the party. But with the Oscars just around the corner, what better time to say what movies from last year were the best of the best. Because who knows better: the Academy or a 20-something journalist with snark and sarcasm to boot? So in honor of my lateness and about how great the year 2017 was for movies, I figure I’d expand my annual list to 30 movies. Because again, 2017 was a damn good year at the cinema. We had blockbusters made with some genuine creativity and imagination both with their special effects and writing, paired with the continuously-improving independent film scene. It felt like 2017 was when creators were fully in-charge of their projects instead of the feel of studio interference in a lot of 2016’s worse movies. So in the vein of celebration and the prizes of all movie prizes just days away, here are my top 30 movies of 2017.

 

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  1. Ingrid Goes West

It’s actually amazing that’s taken so long for someone to make a satire comedy about the dark side of being Instagram famous. Co-writer and director Matt Spicer’s slightly grim and side-splitting comedy stars Aubrey Plaza finally breaking out of her own droll gaze as a mentally unstable woman who falls in love with the life of an L.A. Instagram star (Elizabeth Olsen, hilariously bitchy) and does everything possible to become her friend. Spicer and co-writer David Branson Smith use cringe comedy merely as a front to display the deeply-troubled effects of obsessions with likes and follow sprees. It’s led by Plaza in a truly star-making performance that a strong blend of comic, dramatic and impossible to look away from.

 

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  1. Call Me By Your Name

In 2015, director Luca Guadagnino used sexual tension and rock-and-roll to play a four-way cat and mouse game in the bright but kooky A Bigger Splash. This year, he decided to cut the BS and present one of the most tender and heartfelt romances in 2017 cinema. Based on the 2007 novel, it follows a summer romance in Northern Italy, 1983 between 17-year-old introvert Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and the laid-back visiting student (Armie Hammer) of his archaeology professor father (Michael Stuhlbarg). The two, both womanizers in their own rights, find common ground in their intelligence and freewheeling behavior that morphs into something more. Of course it’s beautifully shot (props to cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom) and soundtracked by some glittering 80s new wave (and Sufjan Stevens, always a pleasure). What makes it pop is the booming chemistry between the two leads, equally shy of the unknown between them yet infatuated with each other. It’s the quiet but forceful debut of one actor (Chalamet) and the resurgence of talent for the other (Hammer).

 

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  1. Baby Driver

It’s not fair to call Baby Driver Edgar Wright’s worst movie, because 1. It’s not a bad movie in any way, shape or form and 2. Edgar Wright has yet to make a bad movie. So let’s call the writer/director’s longtime passion project his “least-best” movie before going into what makes it still good. While its core is a run-of-the-mill “criminal tries to get out of the game” story following a baby-faced getaway driver (Ansel Elgort) who meets his dream girl (Lily James) and tries to shake off a crime boss (Kevin Spacey) and his band of baddies (Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Eiza González). But Wright, being the obsessive perfectionist/lovable movie geek he is, sets nearly every bit of action and driving to a rocking soundtrack turning the movie into something of an action musical. On top of the flawless action scenes is some of the year’s best supporting turns from Hamm, Foxx and James. But this is Wright’s show, and very few are as good a ringmaster as he.

 

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  1. Spider-Man: Homecoming

Look, nobody needed another Spider-Man reboot. It’s actually quite amazing how everyone isn’t sick of Marvel’s geeky wallcrawler and his great responsibility and whatnot. But since Marvel (and Disney) likes money and Sony Pictures are desperate for a hit, the two studios pooled their resources and now we have the sixth Spider-Man movie in 15 years. Wisely skipping the origin story, our new Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is a high school science geek in Queens who stops bike robberies and helps old ladies cross streets while trying to be taken seriously by stand-in father figure Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). He gets his chance when he tries to stop The Vulture (Michael Keaton) from stealing and selling alien weaponry on the black market. What Homecoming has in its corner is its full acceptance of being a screwball comedy that happens to have Spider-Man in it. Not only does Holland capture the geekiness and good heart of Peter Parker better than his predecessor (sorry Andrew), but he’s got a grounded yet charismatic adversary in Keaton’s Vulture. Seriously, we need Michael Keaton in more of our blockbusters.

 

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  1. Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie

Yup, the children’s cartoon with potty humor that we all read when we were in elementary school is one of the best movies of the year. Sue me. What makes the cinematic debut of Dav Pilkey’s bald and misguided superhero (Ed Helms) created by two childhood buddies (Kevin Hart and Thomas Middleditch) so memorable is its understanding of what makes cartoon comedy work so well. Because Captain Underpants is such a silly premise to begin with, it opens up possibilities for more creative forms of comedy. Want to do a random live-action scene with sock puppets? Sure! How about an unbroken bit where Captain Underpants snaps back-and-forth into his alter ego at a breakneck pace? Absolutely! Screenwriter Nicholas Stoller (Get Him to the Greek, The Muppets) understands that there is an art to being silly, and Captain Underpants has enough warm color and expertly-crafted antics that it could sit in the MoMA.

 

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  1. Mudbound

We can never leave the past behind. No matter how far America has come in terms of equality and civil rights, we must be reminded that there are still smudges in this country’s star-spangled history. One the year’s most striking reminders came from writer/director Dee Rees’s stirring and grim Netflix period drama about two World War II soldiers (Jason Mitchell and Garrett Hedlund) who return home to Mississippi to face their own personal wars. One (Hedlund) has a drinking problem and can’t seem to measure up to the expectations of his seething racist father (Jonathan Banks) and farmer brother (Jason Clarke) with a unfulfilled wife (Carey Mulligan). The other (Mitchell) sees his mother (Mary J. Blige) and father (Rob Morgan) working for a white family still feeling the racial injustice of the south despite him being a war hero. Rees pulls no punches when presenting the cruelty of the southern white man, yet also finds the small ties that bind the different characters in the grim mud of the Mississippi farmland. She also has one of the best casts of the year working overtime with Mitchell, Mulligan and Blige lifting the movie up with their hearts on their sleeves.

 

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  1. Star Wars: The Last Jedi

It actually helps to like Star Wars but not be super invested in the mythos and cult of George Lucas’s over 40-year-old space opera This way when super-fans tear themselves apart over the eighth installment in the franchise, rioting in movie theaters when their midnight viewing is only slightly delayed then whining online after seeing the movie become “BAAAAD,” you can just sit back and shrug your shoulders enjoying the first legitimately interesting and different Star Wars movie since the original trilogy. Whether it’s focusing on Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill, never better) and his disillusionment with the Force against the hopes of Rey (Daisy Ridley, getting better), the evolution of conflicted villain Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, still the best) or the scrappy heroics of Resistance crew Finn (John Boyega), Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Rose (a beaming Kelly Marie Tran), writer/director Rian Johnson (Looper) decides to let the past crutches of Star Wars die and shoot the characters in a new direction. Unlike the last risky Star Wars movie (The Phantom Menace *shivers*), The Last Jedi rolls the dice by making its villain deeper, turning the beloved imagine of Luke Skywalker into a heartbroken shell of himself, and showing how failure and loss is just as important in Star Wars as hope and heroism. And that’s all after witnessing the best-looking Star Wars movie to date. It’s not perfect by any means, but it’s hard not to applaud a Star Wars movie that doesn’t rely on nostalgia and fan service to garner interest.

 

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  1. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

I’ve always thought of writer/director Martin McDonagh as “classy Tarantino,” meaning a guy who doesn’t mind making movies laced with profanities, violence and darker subject matter but stages it like a grown-up character study instead of through the lens of 1970s pop culture. For his third feature film, McDonaugh decided to take some pages out of the Coen brothers’ playbook: small-town crime mystery, emotionally-damaged characters, Frances McDormand, etc. The longtime-Coen muse stars as a mother demanding answers for her daughter’s murder, so determined that she erects the titular ads calling out the local police chief (Woody Harrelson) and his dim-witted deputy (Sam Rockwell). While not as classically-tragic as his debut In Bruges but certainly more adult and grounded than his follow-up Seven Psychopaths, Three Billboards is a modern American story of people struggling to let go of the little things they had to keep them going through the day. Though it has some well-earned moments of hilarity (points to McDormand and Rockwell with solo charisma and great chemistry together), it’s a grim tale of small-town anguish over injustice, literal and personal.

 

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  1. I, Tonya

It’s rare that America looks back fondly or sympathetically on its subjects of tabloid fixation and overexposure. That said, Tonya Harding deserves an apology from everyone in the country who wrote the blonde former figure skating champion off as crazy white trash. I, Tonya pleads the case that Ms. Harding, who was publicly shamed for being tied into an attack against fellow skater Nancy Kerrigan in 1994, was merely a victim of a brutal upbringing, a rushed romance with an abuser and the American people’s obsession with people more miserable than they are. Lead by Margot Robbie in the title role, which certifies her as a damn good actress, I, Tonya follows Harding from an upbringing with a monstrously-pushy mother (Allison Janney, equal parts hilarious and horrifying) to her tumultuous marriage with Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan, showing himself more than the ratty wig of the Winter Soldier) and how her obsession with perfection and victory against the skating world that looked down on her led to her downfall. Director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) orchestrates a biopic that’s like if Martin Scorsese remade Ice Castles: raw, raunchy and rarely taking its foot off the gas. But when he zooms in on his title character and how she handled becoming a princess to a pariah, it becomes some damning evidence against America’s love of a villain in the spotlight (how times have changed, eh?).

 

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  1. War for the Planet of the Apes

In a world where audiences flock to movies about capes and spandex, it’s truly shocking to find one of the most heroic movie characters of the year is a computer-generated talking ape. Matt Reeves second (and final) turn directing the rebooted Planet of the Apes franchise manages to be an epic and entertaining summer blockbuster while also being the darkest and most heartfelt of the new trilogy. After the battle of San Francisco in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar the ape (Andy Serkis) leads his tribe into the woods to avoid the attacks of an anti-ape military battalion and its ruthless commander (Woody Harrelson). But when Caesar and tribe suffer heavy losses, Caesar treks through the snow for a final assault against the battalion. What makes War such a striking summer blockbuster is how reserved it is and focused more on the duality between its hero and villain than explosions.  Between the impressive set pieces and action scenes is the almighty Andy Serkis as Caesar carrying the emotional burden of being a lone avenger for his struggling ape brethren even as he starts to lose faith. It’s true acting, all while wearing a gray onesie with dots on his face.

 

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  1. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Behind all of his love for snarky comedy, gross monsters and 70s/80s pop-rock, writer/director James Gunn does have a soft spot for family drama and togetherness. He takes outsiders, rejects, abandoned children and total assholes and brings them together because even if they don’t like each other, they’re all they’ve got. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is arguably the most emotional movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, focusing on the daddy issues of Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), the dissenting rebels of Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Yondu (a very impressive Michael Rooker) and the torn sisters Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan). What makes Vol. 2 one of the most outstanding comic book movies of the new decade (maybe of all time) aside from the gorgeous visual effects, creative set design, great soundtrack and the lovable cast is the heart that Gunn writes into his characters. Gunn, the sole writer on this endeavor, impressively juggles the right amount of development for all the characters while putting on a colorful and wacky sci-fi/action spectacle. He sees the Guardians as equal parts children and parents to each other, petulant about where they stand on the team but always there to help the other up after getting thrown around by a giant space monster. The Guardians may never get along, but who else would put up with their baggage. All of this while a vibrant imagination runs wild, fantastic entertainment.

 

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  1. T2 Trainspotting

A sequel to a beloved cultural time capsule 21 years too late? Yes, the very idea of T2 Trainspotting is off-putting. So surprise surprise that original director Danny Boyle got the gang back together again for another darkly comic romp through cultural dissention and drug-addled mischief. Clean and well-adjusted Renton (Ewan McGregor) returns to the dirty slums of Edinburgh for the first time since he stole money from his friends after a drug deal. He runs into his old pals Spud (Ewen Bremner) and Simon (Jonny Lee Miller), no better off than where he left them but sparking something inspirational in Renton. That is, if he doesn’t get killed by former-buddy/recent-jailbird Begbie (Robert Carlyle). T2 doesn’t harbor on the nostalgia of the Britpop days. Instead, it manages to further develop its main characters in a believable way. It makes total sense that all four of the youthful, reckless leads turned into bitter, disappointing shells of their former selves. No matter how much they try to relive their substance-addled days of old, Boyle and writer John Hodge (from Irvine Welsh’s sequel novel, no less) keep the dark cloud of reality all over their heads. As Renton says, “Choose life….we thought it was amusing at the time.” How time flies.

 

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  1. Colossal

I guess Hollywood has run out of ways to make movies about the dangers of substance abuse outside of say, a Lifetime original movie with high school kids discovering booze for the first time. So why not hide an abuse drama inside of a giant monster movie? Colossal’s trojan horse plot is the sighting of a giant monster that starts randomly appearing and disappearing in Seoul with no explanation why. The lone Greek hiding in the plot is Gloria (Anne Hathaway), an alcoholic that’s been dumped by her boyfriend and forced to move home. After reconnecting with an old friend (Jason Sudeikis) and indulging in heavy drinking, she wakes up the next morning to find her drunken demeanor is eerily similar to that of the monster. Despite the mystery of how Gloria and the monster are connected being the selling point of the movie, it’s actually the least interesting part of Colossal. Instead, Nacho Vigalondo’s character study is less zany than it could’ve been and instead focuses on the negatives of Gloria’s dependency. It hangs on the performance of Hathaway and Sudeikis: the former being more believably human and interesting on screen than she has in a long time, and the later providing a shockingly effective dramatic turn.

 

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  1. The Lost City of Z

In 1980, writer/director Michael Cimino released his highly-anticipated follow up to The Deer Hunter known as Heaven’s Gate. It was long, it was epic, it was ambitious, and it bombed like mad with critics and audiences. But what if Heaven’s Gate was a smash success and Cimino was so made in Hollywood that his next movie could’ve been even more grand and epic? We’ll never know, but it would probably look a lot like this stunning adaptation of David Grann’s book. It’s the true story of Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam, reminding everyone how capable a movie star he is), a British explorer in the early 1900s looking for something greater in life. With the help of Corporal Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson), Percy finds evidence of an ancient civilization undiscovered in the jungle and becomes obsessed with finding the lost land. Writer/director James Gray (The Immigrant) has made a classic adventure story, putting his actors deep in the green jungle instead of a green screen set. He sees the humdrum ordinary life as a grim wasteland of lost potential. It’s when he’s in the jungle, with the imposing trees and rushing water, that he sees the vibrant excitement of life. It’s as if Gray is making a meta-commentary on the CG-heavy modern blockbusters and how it’s more interesting to see a historical epic that’s as real as the history it’s based off of.

 

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  1. Logan Lucky

As far as car-based heist movies go, Steven Soderbergh beat Edgar Wright by a country mile in 2017. The stylish yet reclusive director came out of retirement from filmmaking for this loose and zany caper about the Logan brothers of West Virginia: single dad Jimmy (Channing Tatum) and veteran/amputee Clyde (Adam Driver), who are fed up with their misfortunes and decide to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway. But since they’re just two men who’ve never done wrong in their life before, the brothers decide to employ the help of incarcerated bomb expert Joe Bang (Daniel Craig) to pull off the job. It would be easy to dismiss Logan Lucky as “white trash Ocean’s Eleven,” but that would be ignoring the genuine comedy Logan Lucky has to offer. It brings the typical Soderbergh craft to filmmaking: hi-resolution video making for more realistic cinematography, David Holmes’s swinging score, sharp camerawork and a tightly-woven supporting cast (Katie Holmes, Riley Keough, Seth MacFarlane). Logan Lucky’s ace in the hole is a more relaxed vibe throughout and a more down-to-earth story than previous Soderbergh productions. Usually fascinated with only the fanciest of fancy people (Ocean’s trilogy, Side Effects, Magic Mike) or the very obscure (Bubble, The Girlfriend Experience), Logan Lucky is Soderbergh in touch with the world around him and being surprisingly sympathetic to it.

 

 

  1. Super Dark Times

Many people have been complementing this year’s remake of It for its comradery between the young kid characters being relatable and believable in the face of a suspense/horror movie. I, an intellectual, point instead to this delightfully cool suspense thriller crossed with a coming-of-age story. Set in a sleepy New York suburb in 1996, it follows high school buddies Zach (Owen Campbell) and Josh (Charlie Tahan) riding their bikes around town while talking about banging chicks in high school (teenage masculinity, everyone). One day, the boys are playing around with a samurai sword (as you do) and a gruesome accident occurs. In the midst of dealing with their feelings for a cute classmate (Elizabeth Cappuccino), the boys grapple with crushing guilt and the haunting suspicion of who will find out. Super Dark Times is another offspring of the atmospheric indie-thriller subgenre manifested by 2014’s It Follows: luminescent cinematography, themes of sexual frustration mixed with a mystery, John Carpenter-esque synthesizer score and well-executed tension and gore. It’s all the more impressive that Super Dark Times is made by a first-time director (Kevin Phillips) and writers (Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski), clear film fans who understand what makes thrillers work. Tender and haunting in its quiet moments while knowing how to build and break tension, it’s a shame this movie won’t be the VHS hidden gem it wants to be. Guess it’ll have to settle with being one of the best indie thrillers of the 2010s.

 

 

  1. Lady Bird

Greta Gerwig has always seemed destined for bigger things. She’s a feisty and fiercely funny presence on screen on top of being a talented writer for modern-day situations and relationships (see Frances Ha and Mistress America). And since she found herself unsure for mainstream Hollywood movies (see the 2011 remake of Arthur…actually, don’t), she must’ve figured she’d be better suited blossoming in indie world behind a writer’s desk and a movie camera. Lady Bird’s title character (Saoirse Ronan in fiery rebel red hair) is a smart but snooty high schooler trying to break out of suburban Sacramento and go to a culturally-woke college. She’s in a working-class house with a stubborn mom (Laurie Metcalf), a spunky best friend (Beanie Feldstein), a straight-laced boyfriend (Lucas Hedges), a douchey crush (Timothée Chalamet) and a big helping of self-doubt. Gerwig, the sole writer and director, says that Lady Bird is only semi-autobiographical. She could’ve fooled the audience, as the film’s characters, environment and emotions feel very lived-in. Gerwig is a proud child of the new millennium (2002 specifically), putting Lady Bird in the awkward scenarios of modern love and faking friendship with the cool kids. The heart of Lady Bird is in the mother-daughter bond, two bright souls constantly clashing but always finding solace in each other. It’s a true family story executed by Ronan and Metcalf’s incredible chemistry with each other, along with Ronan’s obvious solo star power carrying each scene. The real star of Lady Bird is of course Gerwig, seemingly trying to push the cliched teen comedy into a more grounded, relatable territory.

 

  1. Novitiate

Growing up in a Catholic family, I’ve always wondered about the life of a devout Catholic. How does one devote his or her mind, body and soul to such a strict lifestyle and a idea that isn’t tangible? Writer/director Margaret Betts, in her first feature film, doesn’t paint a picture in the black and white worn by the nuns that are the subject of Novitiate, and that’s what’s so fascinating about it. Set in sheltered convent in 1960s, there are two focuses of Novitiate: a long-time devout nun (Melissa Leo, as intimidating as Darth Vader despite speaking mostly whispers) whose extremely traditional ways are challenged by the issuance of Vatican II, and a teenage novice (Margaret Qualley, a delicate flower who speaks volumes with little dialogue) trying to become a nun herself after only finding solace in the light of the Lord. It’s a personality crisis for both lead characters and the easy route would be for the two to find solace in one another. Betts takes a different approach, effortlessly balancing two different stories of people questioning their faith. Despite the beautiful set design and cinematography straight out of a Sofia Coppola movie, Betts is not afraid to show moments of heartbreaking brutality endured by the younger nuns in the movie. And even when their emotions ache after being stripped of their dignity in front of Leo’s character (repeatedly, mind you) they have to crawl (literally) back to their place in line and keep their heads down in the name of something they cannot see or feel. Novitiate doesn’t attack the Catholic religion, but more observes it with a keen eye and simply lays out its events for the audience to take in on their own accord. Betts is clearly a talent behind the camera and the writing desk, but it’s hard to ignore her actors on camera. Leo is an absolute force onscreen, equal parts antagonist and soul of the movie being a victim of changing ways as much as she is a soldier of the old. Qualley also evolves into a full-fledged movie star in her soft and thoughtful performance. Novitiate is a quiet movie, but one that sticks in the back of your mind and picks away at you.

 

  1. Atomic Blonde

2017 has been a great year for women, especially ones that punch people in the face: Wonder Woman, Valkyrie, Gamora, Wolverine’s clone daughter, Rose McGowan, etc. But of all the ladies who kicked ass this year, no one did it better than one Charlize Theron in the neon-bright but brutal Atomic Blonde. Fittingly directed by one of John Wick’s co-directors (and helmer of the upcoming Deadpool sequel) David Leitch, the movie’s title character is undercover MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Theron) who is charged with recovering a list of double agents from the cold of Berlin on the eve of its wall collapsing in 1989. Aided by a shady British operative (James McAvoy, in full sleaze mode) and a mysterious French photographer (Sofia Boutella), Lorraine tries punching and kicking her way out of Berlin unsure of who’s her friend and who’s her enemy. It would be easy to call Atomic Blonde “girl John Wick,” but Blonde is more of a spy thriller than a straight-up action movie with a classic plot of double-crossing and espionage. Think Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy remade by the guys who did The Raid 2. As stylish as vibrant this movie can be (everything from the costumes to the music to lighting is 80s glory), Blonde also has a knack for brutality as every bruise and blood stain Theron takes is proudly displayed for the audience. It’s an action movie that knows how good its action is, so it makes the audience feel every closed-fist and bullet put in the front of the camera. The audience also feels the powerful presence of Charlize Theron, who finally gets a well-deserved action lead role after AEon Flux bricked 12 years ago. And Theron reveals in the role, gliding through scenes in her white trench coat and platinum blonde hair while shooting people in the face and repelling off building with George Michael playing in the background.

 

  1. Coco

Depending on who you talk to, it’s hard to pinpoint when specifically Pixar Animation Studios started on a downward slope. It might’ve been in 2011 with the unnecessary Cars 2, the admirable but incomplete Brave in 2012 or the good-looking misfire of The Good Dinosaur in 2015. On top of that, competition from Warner Bros. Animation and Laika as caused Disney’s animation brain trust to start sweating creatively (not financially of course, because Disney always makes money). So Disney decided to stop making movies about inanimate objects and go back to making human stories…ok, they’re mostly dead humans, but still. Coco follows the journey of Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), a young boy dreaming of being a world famous musician against his family’s ban on even the tiniest musical note. Following the words of his late hero Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), Miguel looks to enter a talent show on the eve of Day of the Dead and tries borrowing his hero’s famed guitar from his tomb, inadvertently winding up the spirit world. Teamed with a fast-talking con man (Gael Garcia Bernal), Miguel looks to meet his hero and find some way to get home. Co-directed by Pixar mainstay Lee Unkrich (Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, Toy Story 3), Coco follows the Pixar formula of lost kids on their own finding the importance of family and all the usual schmaltz. What Coco has in its corner is a beautifully-designed and imaginative world inspired by Mexican culture that’s worth getting invested in. The animation is always stellar in Pixar movies, but Coco takes great advantage of the brighter and more vibrant colors to make the movie pop. With some gorgeous Spanish guitar music soundtracking the film and wonderfully lively voice acting talent, the story of what parts of our family history we hold onto actually packs more of an emotional punch.

 

  1. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

Noah Baumbach loves dysfunctional people, especially when they’re blood relatives. The writer/director thrives on trying to give narcissistic creative-types the chance to redeem themselves as decent human beings and showing them repeatedly fall on their faces. His characters might be stuck in some form of eternal misery, but Baumbach always manages to find partners for them to gravitate to. When he writes about messed-up families (most famously in 2005’s The Squid and the Whale), it’s even sadder, funnier and more heartfelt to watch how hard these people who’ve grown up with each other still try desperately to connect with one another. His latest feature is another family affair: Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman) is the soft-spoken, self-centered, curmudgeon artist living out his golden years in New York City. He has three grown-up kids: mustached Danny (Adam Sandler) dealing with his only daughter (Grace Van Patten) going off the college and being mostly a failure, suit-wearing Matthew (Ben Stiller) who lives in Los Angeles and is annoyed by his father’s snobbery towards financially successful people like himself, and daughter Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) who is so mousey and unassuming that she’s practically invisible. Baumbach, not one for the typical movie plot, simply lets the movie play out as interactions between the Meyerowitz family. What makes The Meyerowitz Stories one of the most accessible and emotionally-impactful movies of Baumbach’s career is how grounded his characters are this time around. Harold and his children touch on many different aspects of troubled family life: abandonment, failure, overachieving, lack of acknowledgment and just miscommunication. All three of Harold’s kids are so different from each other and the only common ground they have is the different ways their father annoys them, so they’re all they got. Of course it’s told in Baumbach’s typically funny way of talking over each other and cringe comedy, but it’s more about togetherness than before. It’s all played out with the best cast Baumbach’s had in his entire career: Hoffman is an entertaining grump while still having his intelligent and soothing voice, while Marvel is the secret MVP with her droll delivery and deeper character development. The real stars here are Sandler and Stiller, more reserved and emotionally-bare than ever before. Well beyond their capacities to handle the mainstream slapstick that got them rich, it’s nice to see these two comedy heavyweights handle such rich characters and make it seem so natural.

 

  1. The Florida Project

Kids always manage to find happiness in anything. Even in the worst of times in broken homes and little money, young children have a limitless imagination. It’s like they have a sixth sense that has them see the world as this strange alien planet just waiting to be explored. Writer/director Sean Baker took audience into that world one more time, with the very-adult reminder that it’s never a truly happy ending. The Florida Project follows the summer adventures of six-year-old Moonee (newcomer Brooklynn Prince) and her twenty-something mom Halley (older but still-newcomer Bria Vinaite). Moonee and Halley live in a run-down motel just outside of Disney World with faded purple walls, broken air-conditioning and people who stay longer than the motel’s owner (Willem Dafoe) would like. Through all the obvious signs that she should be in a more stable household, Moonee manages to find little bright spots in her home of faded failure. With some gorgeous cinematography and the real set pieces of abandoned housing complexes and endless weeds from the wet and hot weather, Baker captures a snapshot of a modern-day American white trash and frames it like some kind of paradise lost. It’s obvious how desolate and faded Moonee’s stomping grounds are, but her enthusiasm and imagination makes each setting more than meets the eye. Baker doesn’t let Moonee off entirely, as Halley’s attitude and obvious incapability to make a stable living for her and her daughter becomes more apparent as the movie goes on. Baker slowly builds up to reality crashing down on Moonee, but it’s so subtle that the movie’s heartbreaking end comes practically out of nowhere and hits harder. Until then, The Florida Project is a borderline documentary about the forgotten kids of the early-2000s ringtone rap generation left behind to struggle. For the feature debut of a kid and a girl who Baker found on Instagram, Prince and Vinaite are extremely compelling and natural in their blissful ignorance of the world around them. Even Dafoe’s crazy eyes are restrained for a more tender and human performance, one of the best of his career.

 

  1. The Shape of Water

At some age, we were told that we’re not allowed to believe in fairy tales and monsters anymore. Guillermo del Toro didn’t get that talking to when he was younger, and cinema has been all the better because of it. Whether he’s working with a miniscule budget (Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth) or given carte blanche by a major studio to spend money and run wild (Blade II, Hellboy, Pacific Rim), del Toro is a proud believer in the magic of movies and a wizard in concocting mystical myths for grown-ups. With his 10th movie, del Toro has seemingly made the most tender and innocent project of his career centered around the wonders of monsters, blood and sex. It’s 1962 in a small American town and mute, timid Elisa (Sally Hawkins) and her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) work as janitors in a secret underground military base overseen by a shifty army Colonel (Michael Shannon) without knowing why. It turns out the base is hiding a human-size amphibious creature that forms a bond with Elisa. So much so that she conspires with her artist neighbor (Richard Jenkins) and an undercover Russian agent (Michael Stuhlbarg) to break the creature from its prison. Of course these elements of monster movies and dark thrillers in The Shape of Water, but del Toro throws in his affiliation for classic foreign films as well. Everything from exceptionally crafted 1960s set design to Alexandre Desplat’s French romantic score to the emphasis on mood through the lime green color scheme feels uniquely European while also tipping a cap to classic Hollywood. At its core, The Shape of Water is an old-school love story: two lonely misfits finding each other and showing each other how much one means to the other. All of those elements in the melting pot and del Toro stirs it like a master chef, officially claiming his title as a master genre filmmaker. Even in a scene between a skinny Creature From the Black Lagoon and a mute woman that seems so weird on paper, del Toro uses everything in his power to create this sweeping feeling of passion and romance. Despite his technical tools ever present, del Toro further proves his talent as an actor’s director by allowing Shannon to be the off-kilter type of imposing that his anger and face expresses. His muse, aside from the creature (played by del Toro favorite Doug Jones), is Hawkins in a stunning performance that doesn’t even need words to be the heart of movie. The tender way she moves through scenes and interacts with the creature is inspired and can inspire others to believe in the power of movies again.

 

  1. Free Fire

No matter how intricate, delicate, subtle and quiet all the best movies of the year are, nothing makes for a good time at the movies like a good ol’ fashion shootout. All the more impressive when that shootout manages to take place over the majority of a 90-minute movie and continuously be interesting. Seemingly a cross between Scorsese swagger and Tarantino’s taste for cussing and bullets, Free Fire is set in Boston (where everyone handles things calmly and with friendly language) where a group of arms dealers gather together for a deal. Things go south, insults are thrown around and bullets fly. It’s a premise simple as toast, and co-writer/director Ben Wheatley (High-Rise, Kill List) knows to keep the movie that way. While movies like John Wick and Atomic Blonde have turned gunfights into expertly-choreographed shootout symphonies, Wheatley prefers something more realistic. Free Fire’s shootouts are sloppy, frantic, dirty and more importantly, unpredictable. It heightens the anticipation of where the bullets are going to fly and nothing about the movie’s plot is predictable or certain. When the movie’s brisk 91 minutes conclude, there’s both satisfaction and desire to see more. It probably comes from the stacked cast (Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, Sharlto Copley, Cillian Murphy, Noah Taylor) having fun with each other slapping each other and rolling around in the dirt. Free Fire is basically the little movie that could, something that probably have a higher profile in the 1970s but serves as a reminder of the simpler pleasures of action movies in the bloated 2017.

 

  1. Good Time

New York City has always been a popular place for filmmakers to make movies about crime. The towering skyscrapers are always the focal point for so many that it’s fascinating to zoom in on the dirty alleyways and see civilization try to call over itself and pick up the scraps left over by the rich. Every decade provides a classic NYC crime movie: the 70s had Mean Streets, the 80s had The Pope of Greenwich Village, the 90s had New Jack City and the 2000s had 25th Hour. As for the 2010s, there would be a strong case for 2014’s A Most Violent Year holding the title for best NYC crime film. But that’s the classy version, how about something as grimy and hectic as a back alley in Queens? Good Time follows two brothers: Connie (Robert Pattinson) and Nick (Benny Safdie, who co-directed the movie), who rob a local bank but Nick gets caught by the police and sent to jail. Connie, concerned for his mentally-challenged brother, races through seedy scenarios in the city to try to come up with bail money and ends up falling deeper and deeper into a hole of failure as the night goes on. It’s fitting that Good Time’s plot revolves around brothers, considering it’s directed by Benny and Josh Safdie (who also co-wrote the script). It also revolves around chaos and tension. The Safdie brothers shoot the movie mostly with handheld camerawork and close-up shots, making the experience fast and unstable. It’s a dizzying experience, but never boring in the slightest. There’s a near-constant feeling of uneasiness in Good Time, like this flaming bullet train is set to go off the rails at any second. The throbbing, pulsating, electronic score by Oneohtrix Point Never and the bright neon lights that flood every other scene help emphasize the constant dread hanging over the movie. And the way Robert Pattinson, fully removed from the weight of Twilight, sprints through the movie and claws desperately at any form of saving grace is enthralling to see. Good Time is a crime movie for the modern-day common man, sweating out the day in baggy clothes and psychedelic drugs trying to outrun their failures.

 

  1. Dunkirk

It’s amazing how Christopher Nolan has reached so far out to what can be done with blockbuster event movies that doing a World War II movie is the tamest thing he could’ve thought to do next. Think about it: he’s messed with memories, cops, dreams, space and superheroes in his near 20-year directing career. So why wouldn’t he take a genre so tried-and-true like the war movie and flip it on its head? The subject of Dunkirk is the 1940 evacuation of 300,000 English army soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk, France after German soldiers have overwhelmed the surrounding area. What Nolan brings to the table is the use of different sets of perspectives of the evacuation: one from a group of soldiers (Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, Harry Styles) trying to get off the beach in any way possible, one from a team of Spitfire plane pilots (Tom Hardy, Jack Lowden) trying to clear the air for a rescue, a duo of commanding officers (Kenneth Branagh, James D’Arcy) frantically trying to organize options to get their boys home and a group of English civilians (Mark Rylance, Barry Keoghan, Tom Glynn-Carney) joining hundreds of other local boaters to trek the ocean and help rescue the soldiers. Of all the major set pieces and action scenes in Dunkirk, the most important thing in the movie is a tiny sound buried deep in the movie: a ticking clock. Not to say that Hans Zimmer’s score isn’t also equally important and one of the most impressive of his career, but the ticking that pops up every now and again after a bomb drops, bullets spray on the shores or the cold sea water of the English Channel get closer and closer to filling their lungs of the soldiers. Dunkirk is not the typical war movie: it’s a test of morals in the absolute worst case scenario. How much of one man’s soul is he willing to sacrifice to stay alive? Nolan, often criticized for missing a human element in his movies, challenges the typical valor and honor in military heroism in a spectacular action thriller that stays remarkably grounded in realism. Not only does Nolan make one of the most realistic movies of his career, but he reminds major movie studios how to make an old genre fresh again.

 

  1. Logan

Has the Golden Age of superhero movies finally turned to gluttony? The Marvel Cinematic Universe shows no sign of stopping with three movies a year, Warner Bros. and DC Comics are trying (poorly, but trying) to keep with the times, and even 20th Century Fox ended up surrendering to the House of Mouse just to save face. The phrase “superhero fatigue” is being thrown around more and more lately, as critics and audiences are starting to see too much of the same every time a caped crusader walks across a movie screen. So how does the superhero movie stay relevant? It needs to do something few superhero movies ever do: say goodbye. Logan is the swan-song of everyone’s favorite hairy Canadian with metal claws and anger issues, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). It’s the near-future of an Earth where mutants are practically an endangered species and the famed X-Men are either dead or scattered somewhere unknown. Wolverine, simple referred to as the title character, is an old limo driver sulking along the Mexican border scrapping for cash and caring for an extremely senile Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart). Logan’s got pus coming from his knuckles, his claws come out slower and his reasons for living are practically nonexistent. Until he meets a small girl (newcomer Dafne Keen) with claws in her body, rage in her eyes and gun-touting enemies on her tail. Logan and the Professor then trek north to get the girl to safety despite both men clearly being on the last legs of their lives. One of the most amazing things about Logan is that there isn’t really an antagonist. The movie is a splicing of a road movie and a western with R-rated ultraviolence and superpowers thrown into the batch, no one’s heading for an ultimate showdown or trying to take over the world. Co-writer/director James Mangold thrives being back in the old school American grit he once shot in Cop Land, Walk the Line and his original western masterpiece, 3:10 to Yuma. The yellow sun beats down on the grey hair and open wounds of our heroes while the open range of the midwest makes for some gorgeous backdrops for blood-soaked fight scenes that are some of the best in action movie history, let alone superhero movie history.  Logan is also a character study of a man who after years of thriving on the attribute of being able to self-heal has to finally look mortality right in the face. Logan’s fate isn’t toned down or skirted aside, you know that this is the last ride for Marvel’s mad animal. What makes it so incredibly satisfying is how it stays focused on giving Logan a satisfying arc to go out on and how much it throws so much gloom and reality at Logan himself that it makes him the most human he’s ever been. There’s a lot of emotional baggage that comes with Logan, and it’s ever so fortunate that the cast understands that. Stewart is having a blast playing a more bitter Xavier that cusses like a sailor and newcomer Keen is practically mute for the whole movie but leaves a damn good impression with her face and mannerisms. But it’s Jackman giving a career-best performance that carries the movie, seeing the fatal flaw in Logan’s anger and showing how broken the iconic character really is. When Logan’ final shot graces the screen, it’s the biggest emotional gut-punch to probably ever run through a comic-book movie. And for a genre that’s been in a gluttonous phase for the last 15 years, that’s saying something.

 

  1. It Comes at Night

One of the most popular movies of 2017 was an adaptation of Stephen King’s It. For me, It represented all of the major problems of modern-day major-studio horror movies: cheap jump-scares, little tension, unimposing monster and not enough genuine scares that stuck with me after the movie was over. The big horror movies don’t seem to trust their audience enough to let things build in the background and feel the dread of silence, which is why it’s better to look deeper into the indie movie scene to find truly scary horror movies. 2016 had The Witch and 2017, thankfully, had It Comes at Night. It follows Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife (Carmen Ejogo) and teenage son (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) living isolated in the woods after an unknown plague hits the Earth and impacts the popularity. They family lives to strict living guidelines and try to find some form of harmony until Will (Christopher Abbott), his wife (Riley Keough) and younger son (Griffin Robert Faulkner) is found in the woods looking for a place to stay. Despite going against everything Paul sees as a form of security, his family lets Will stay in the home. But as the fear of the unknown creeps into the house, Paul and Will’s paranoia starts getting the better of them in the worst way possible. This is only the second feature for writer/director Trey Edward Shults (Krisha) and, much like The Witch’s writer/director Robert Eggers, Shults proves himself as a true pro. He knows that the least important part of the movie is the actual monster (in this case the unknown plague) but what the emotions and character that the monster brings out. He hangs the unknown over the head of the characters and the audience, keeping the hair-trigger tension high throughout its 91 minutes. The gloomy cinematography also highlights the brief color flares of fire and blood that practically jump through the screen. And what makes those brief moments of chaos so gripping is how Shults shoots the movie with a steady arm and patience to keep the viewer guessing as to what is or isn’t lurking in the shadows. The darkness and the silence used together are such strong monsters in horror movies because it never tells you what it is. You don’t get to know it, you just get lost in it.

 

  1. Blade Runner 2049

It’s fair to say that Denis Villeneuve is one of the hardest-working men in show business. The French-Canadian writer/director has made one of the best movies of the year since 2013, ranging from an abstract mystery (Enemy) to a crime thriller (Sicario) to an inquisitive sci-fi story (Arrival). With each movie being a step up in scale and ambition, there was a sense that Villeneuve was building to something bigger. Villeneuve was about to make something that would truly solidify him as one of the great directors working today. And sure enough he did. How good is his 2017 project? So good that it doesn’t even require mentioning that this is a sequel to one of the most influential and beloved sci-fi films ever made. Villeneuve’s follow-up to Ridley Scott’s 1982 technological detective drama still sees the future the same: bleak, overcrowded and yet without any sign of radiant life. It’s 2049 and replicants are still the somber slaves of humanity. Those who try to escape are hunted down by the blade runners, one of whom (Ryan Gosling) uncovers a mystery about the potential of replicants. When the pretentious CEO (Jared Leto) of a replicant-making company wants to keep things quiet, the new blade runner sets out to find Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) for some more answers. While the movie’s 164-minute runtime might seem intimidating, take comfort in knowing that the world Villeneuve and his production designers built is so absorbing that somehow the movie just flies by. The combination of practical sets and CGI backgrounds are so spot-on that it’s hard to tell where the solid stuff stops and the green screen begins. Making it all pop is the gorgeous cinematography by the almighty Roger Deakins, sinking the movie deep into greys, blues, oranges and yellows that are sunk into the background of the movie instead of flooding in front of the actors. Blade Runner 2049 is the potential of today’s hundred-million dollar movie standard fully-realized, a movie that uses its budget not to overindulge on one element but flesh-out everything to make it a complete presentation. It’s the blockbuster movie format made by craftsmen, the bridge between the art house students and popcorn movie audiences. Despite what its box-office returns say, Blade Runner 2049 is a monumental achievement for movies and proof that even when he constructs one of the most awe-inspiring visual experiences, Villeneuve manages to maneuver through it all and focus on the human elements of any movie (even when they’re about fake humans).

 

  1. Get Out

When the first trailer for writer Jordan Peele’s directorial debut first hit the internet in October of 2016, it took a second for a few things to sink in. 1. That this was a real movie, and 2. That seemingly no one else had ever made this movie before. Sure it’s basically Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner spun as a horror movie, but how had no one thought of doing that until 2017? Though the best time to make this kind of movie was 2017, a time when racism was (and still is) thoroughly back in public conversation and smaller films often make more interesting choices than the blockbusters do. But this was all speculation even before the movie came out, so the world waited to see if anything it set out to do. So let’s list all of the things Get Out has done since its release nearly a year ago:

  1. One of the most critically-praised horror movies of all time
  2. $252 million at the global box office from a $4.5 million budget
  3. Four Oscar nominations
  4. Unironic meme status
  5. Successful horror movie unreliant on jump scares or found footage
  6. Genre film that is socially and culturally relevant without using dated references or humor

ALL OF THAT, from a very basic premise: Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is going with his girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) to meet her family. They don’t know that Chris is black, but it’s ok because mom (Catherine Keener) employs two black housekeepers and dad (Bradley Whitford) really wishes Obama got elected for a third term. Everyone’s friendly to Chris….a little too friendly. And that’s all the audience needs to go with the movie. It doesn’t smack you in the face with its symbolism or commentary, turning what could be obvious into some strong cringe comedy. Even with that dark comedy going on at the forefront, Peele is carefully setting up the hard left turn the movie makes into a genuinely terrifying survival story. Peele is working on a very basic level in both genre and filmmaking style, yet his amazingly-tight script and story elevate the material into something revelatory. It goes without saying that his cast is also reveling in the material they get and dead-serious about what it’s trying to get across. The tears and fear in Kaluuya’s eyes grab hold of your soul and make you feel like his attackers could turn right into the camera and hold the entire audience hostage in the sunken place. And on top of playing the typical horror-movie protagonist perfectly, Kaluuya has a deeper character going on that he never leaves behind even as he frantically tries to escape. Even if Get Out didn’t achieve the global success it did and earn its many Oscar nominations, it would still stand out as one of the most outstanding genre exercises in recent memory. It’s also a friendly reminder that even in something as tired and unoriginal as the horror genre is, creativity can still shine through.

Step Into the Spotlight

Blasted internet hype machine.

 

Ok, so the world has been building up the buzz for Black Panther ever since Chadwick Boseman stepped onto the screen in Captain America: Civil War two years ago (admittedly, I was one of them). I’d go so far as to say Black Panther was the best part of Civil War: great actor owning the role, exciting superhero debut and strong story arc. With the announcement of his own movie, the wheels started turning in the internet buzz contraption. And it’s amazing to see everyone get so excited for this, especially since people are slowly starting to not care about Marvel movies anymore (don’t deny it, it’s happening). So yes, writer/director Ryan Coogler getting his first real shot at breaking into big-budget Hollywood movie-making, Boseman assuredly getting the role that will make him as a bonafide star, Michael B. Jordan and Lupita Nyong’o and Danai Gurira and Daniel Kaluuya and Angela Bassett in the same movie (and a MARVEL movie no less!) and a superhero protagonist that isn’t a cocky milquetoast smiling guy are all the reasons to get excited for this event. But notice how I said the “event” of the movie and not the actual movie itself.

 

Speaking of the movie: is this the best Marvel production to date? Nope. Is it the best superhero movie made so far? Not really. Is it a good movie? Oh yeah, most definitely.

 

Boseman returns as T’Challa, prince of the isolated but technologically-advanced civilization of Wakanda. After his father was killed in Civil War, T’Challa inherits the throne and the responsibilities of protecting his people from the corrupted evils of the outside world. He also occasionally dons a black bulletproof suit and hops around the world to stop evil and protect the secret of his home as the Black Panther. His mother (Bassett), sister (Letitia Wright) and military commander (Gurira) all support his belief in the traditions of Wakanda, but his ex girlfriend (Nyong’o) and fellow tribe leader (Kaluuya) want the world to know the truth about Wakanda and how it can help others in need. Conflicted over how to represent his people and still grieving over the loss of his father, T’Challa then faces Erik Killmonger (Jordan), an ex-military stud turned gun-for-hire who has a dark secret that could undo T’Challa’s legacy.

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I’m surely not the one to discuss the accuracy of the movie’s representation of culture, though judging from the glowing response by critics and audiences it’s safe to say there aren’t too many complaints. So let’s stick with the movie: it’s good. Damn good, in fact. Despite the stocked cast, the star of this movie is undoubtedly Ryan Coogler and his journey from indie darling (Fruitvale Station) to box-office upstart (Creed) to bonafide Hollywood director coming full circle. Coogler knows exactly what he’s doing both as a director and a writer. He and co-writer Joe Robert Cole (American Crime Story) clearly understood they had to make another origins/introductory superhero movie and, stripped to its core, Black Panther follows that formula. What Coogler and Cole focus on and excel at in the final product are the details: the conflict inside of T’Challa, the debate over if Wakanda can save the world or be tainted by it, the questioning of loyalty and tradition and how to synchronize all that into another Marvel property. All of that works and is present throughout the movie, only taking a backseat into occasional misfires of comedic one-liners thrown in to keep the movie from being entirely serious.

 

That leaves Coogler’s directing talent, which is also solid if not leaving a lot to be desired. Maybe the size and scale of Black Panther, certainly the biggest movie Coogler has ever done, was a bit too much for Coogler to completely handle. Some of the early fight scenes in the movie are shot with too much shaky-cam, poor lighting and close-up shots, further leading to some choppy editing. There’s the sense that Coogler is as hyped about making the movie as he knows the audience will be, so he kept wanting to shoot the movie at the same brisk but fair pace the 134-minute final product is. But again, Coogler knows what he’s doing for most of the movie. He holds on his actors to let their chemistry with each other shine through or their presence alone hold scenes. And his action direction gets better as the movie goes on, especially in the grand climactic battle between the tribes of Wakanda. He also knows how to lead a movie team and create an awe-inspiring setting. Wakanda is one of the if not THE most striking and engrossing settings not just in a Marvel movie but in any kind of fantasy/action/adventure movie in a long time. The set designs, both practical and computer-generated, feel like they were made from the ground up and boom with color. Same goes for the costumes, hair and makeup that look as fantastical and unique as anything out of Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. And Coogler pulls everything together and lays it out just enough to make the audience want more but not distract from the main story.

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Especially not his fantastic cast. Boseman is OFFICIALLY a made man in Hollywood as he proves he can command a movie in the lead role. Stern but not stiff, focused but not overdoing it and compelling even when he’s victim to a “WHAT ARE THOOOOOSE” joke, Boseman is actually invested in the story and characters while also having the time of his life playing with swords and shields and wearing the Black Panther suit. He’s not distracted by the comic-book origins of the movie and seems legitimately passionate about this story of family and tradition. He’s not alone there as everyone from Kaluuya to Gurira to Andy Serkis to Wright to Winston Duke as a fellow tribe leader are all great in their own ways. Gurira, continuing her streak of ass-kicking lioness following The Walking Dead, is having an absolute blast with this big budget production swinging around a spear while Wright is arguably the most energetic and bubbly member of the cast. Jordan is a legitimately interesting character that just so happens to be a villain. If you thought Vulture was sympathetic in Spider-Man: Homecoming, you will be very conflicted over who to root for between his Killmonger and Boseman’s T’Challa. For all the challenges and questions that the audience could lob at Wakanda’s logic, Killmonger has them motivating his actions. Jordan is shakey with the character at first, but the more he builds his malice the more compelling he becomes.
So as an event, Black Panther is a monumental moment in culture that deserves every positive hashtag and packed screening it’s getting. Like Get Out and Coco did last year, hopefully Black Panther tells Hollywood that people are desperately wanting the next age of blockbusters to come forward and it doesn’t involve your average white male with little stubble and a crooked smile. With all of that said, all Black Panther had to be was a good movie and it is. It doesn’t match the incredible hype that’s been building, but how could it? No matter the context, this is still most definitely a Marvel product. It tries its hardest to make you forget that (sans the annoying end credits scene), but it is still a licensed item in the Disney/Marvel buffet and it follows that formula. But like I said, it’s about the detail that a strong creative mind like Coogler but into it. And for that, he and his team have earned their cultural zeitgeist.

3.5/4

The Truth About News

The newspaper business. People know about the first word but often forget about the difficulty of the second word. The newspaper does its damndest to deliver the important news of the world to the general public, but it still needs business to pay its hard-working reporters and circulate to newsstands. News needs to sell papers just as much as it needs to be informative, not as a means of capitalism but sustainability. Of course there’s the concern of certain news stories being too shocking or revealing that it might scare people away, especially people with money. Imagine having a story so shocking that it could literally unravel over 30 years of trust and prestige built by the American government, and said government is practically holding a newspaper hostage until every other newspapers promises to betray their duty and not report news. Which word does one protect: the newspaper or the business?

 

This is the debacle of The Post, a poignant and powerful look at the tug of war between a newsman and a businesswoman. The former is Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), editor of The Washington Post who is tired of the Post playing second fiddle to everyone from The New York Times and The Washington Daily News with better stories than his reporters offer. The latter is Katharine “Kay” Graham (Meryl Streep), the publisher of The Post who jumped into job after the paper’s previous publisher, Katharine’s husband Phil, committed suicide in 1963. It’s now 1971 and Kay is about the take the company public on Wall Street to ease financial worries when longtime friend and U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) tells her one night that the Times is going to run an “unflattering” story about him the following morning. The story is the infamous leaking of the Pentagon Papers: 7,000 pages of classified government secrets detailing how the Vietnam War was a lost cause but America would rather send men to their deaths in Army helmets than admit defeat. Bradlee is pissed that the Times got the scoop and wants his reporters to find the pages for follow-up coverage, while Graham is struggling to make her voice heard in boardrooms full of stuffy businessmen determining what’s best for business. Bradlee’s reporters (Bob Odenkirk, Carrie Coon, David Cross) are getting closer to finding the papers and pulling back the curtain of the White House even more, but Graham and Bradlee butt heads over if the Post can handle being on President Nixon’s hit list if they publish more stories.

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There are two obvious comparisons to be made with The Post: 1976’s All the President’s Men detailing Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s reporting of the Watergate scandal, and 2015’s Spotlight about the Boston Globe’s crack team of investigators revealing years of sexual abuse by priests of the Catholic Church. Those two movies focused more on the reporting side of journalism, the muckrakers who spent months on end chasing dead-end leads and chipping away at the facts to find what the world needed to know. While The Post does highlight the tireless effort of reporters Ben Bagdikian, Meg Greenfield and Howard Simons, it’s more about the chains that profitability holds on newspapers. Liz Hannah and Josh Singer’s tight script expertly balances the obvious need to report the truth and the equally-obvious fear of the government effectively shutting-down the Post after ordering the Times to stop publishing stories about the papers. Also unlike Spotlight and President’s Men, The Post is a much flashier version of the story courtesy of director Steven Spielberg. While The Post is no blockbuster spectacle, Spielberg’s love of background spotlights and the faded color palette typical of serious Spielberg movies from cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan) are ever present. Whereas the filmmaking of President’s Men and Spotlight were more grounded, The Post is a glossy Hollywood production. Fortunately, Spielberg is well-aware of the material he’s working with and leaves most of his eccentricities at the door. The filmmaking doesn’t distract the audience from the story being told and the drama isn’t blown out of proportion, it’s presented for the audience to feel the weight of the story.

 

Further making The Post an event is the presence of Meryl Streep. Ever since her speech at last year’s Golden Globe awards calling out Donald Trump and announcing her support of protecting journalist, practically all eyes have been on the acting legend and her performance in the movie. Now we can breathe sighs of relief because Streep is in top form here, fully embodying the dual-persona Kay Graham had to take on at the time. In front of the Post’s board members, Graham was patient and unphased by the subtle sexism of her male colleagues. Even if she’s talked over in conversation or talked down to, she keeps a brave face and is able to establish her own presence in every room she walks into. Privately, she’s still a touch unsure of herself as a publisher in the middle of the Pentagon Papers controversy with friends in the Nixon camp (especially McNamara in a heated confrontation). She knows publishing stories about the papers is the right thing to do, but she’s pressured into fearing for how Washington elites might feel about the Post adding to the damage of the Nixon administration, lessening the worth of the paper and her family legacy (her father bought the Post in 1933). Graham is the underdog of the story and Streep plays her without a hint of asking for sympathy.

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The rest of the cast basically revolves around Streep, but that doesn’t mean they slack off. Tom Hanks, America’s dad in Hollywood, is a fine choice for the Bostonian grump of Ben Bradlee. It’s actually fitting for smiling everyman Hanks to spend his golden years playing hardened bossmen cracking wise while national history is going on in the background. Even more impressive is the supporting cast: Bruce Greenwood, an expert supporting actor who’s played everyone from John F. Kennedy to a captain of the Starship Enterprise, is incredibly compelling as a man simply stuck in the middle of the worst possible situation a high-ranking government official could be. Despite him actively trying to close the leaking of his own handiwork (McNamara commissioned the Pentagon Papers), he’s not a villain but more of a victim of the incompetence of past presidencies fully-experiencing an unprecedented situation. For the rest of the cast, it seems as if Spielberg has spent the last decade watching every great TV show and picking out who made the best impressions in the smallest amount of screentime, hence solid performances from Bob Odenkirk, David Cross, Carrie Coon, Sarah Paulson, Alison Brie, Bradley Whitford, Jesse Plemons and Zach Woods.

 
If it weren’t for the political and cultural context, The Post would probably not be as big of an event as it currently stands. It would be a simple reminder that Steven Spielberg remains untouchable as one of the greatest film directors in film history, he knows how to pick his actors and said actors bring their A-game on screen. But now, it is a much-needed reminder of the delicacy newspapers take in informing the American public. There is a crushing pressure to find the sources needed for a story and frivolous work that goes into researching and crafting a story. But even after a story is done and a newspaper is ready to go out, there is still that final moral dilemma of “is this story right,” meaning right in terms of accuracy and right for the readers. In the era of #fakenews, The Post is a reminder how no matter what (or who) the circumstance is, journalists know when to cut the crap and make the country eat its vegetables. It’s meant to show how the effort of listening and taking a stand against lying can be the start of something more, something greater. The best example of this is The Post’s ending scenes: The first being a recorded phone call with President Nixon sounding stressed from the Post’s further investigation of the papers, and the second being a security guard investigating a break-in at the Watergate Complex, the kickstart of the Watergate scandal.

3.5/4