Category Archives: Features

3 Things to Watch This Week: Inaugural Edition

Welcome everyone to what I’m hoping will be a regular column. Pretty much every site does one of these, so you get the gist of it. Three things I want to recommend you give a watch, for one reason or another. One of these will be up every Tuesday, talking about things that aren’t going to get full reviews, but should absolutely be on your radar.

Maybe they’ll be new movies or TV? Maybe it’s something classic I’m just now paying attention to. Whatever it is, this is what should be streaming or spinning in your DVD player this week.

Get Me Roger Stone

Billed as a documentary about Trump booster and Republican “Dirty Tricks” operative Roger Stone, the secret of Get Me Roger Stone is that it’s basically the best horror movie of the year.

Its monster is Roger Stone himself, a man so dedicated to winning at all costs that he injects his own personal brand of venom into the entire Republican party, seeing it twisted into his own image. Something like a Body Politic Horror, the thesis is that Roger Stone’s style of politics has had such remarkable effectiveness over the course of the last decade, lurking in the shadows and subtly unlocking the hearts and minds of those in power to unleash their true dark potential.

Get Me Roger Stone doesn’t believe that the current twelve-ring-fuck-up-circus is a creation of the last few years, but rather a slow creeping sickness of which it vacillates between Stone being the infection or the symptom. Trump is the ultimate validation of his dirty politics, a win at all cost mentality.

It’s incredibly well-composed. While I wish a few threads had stuck around (the idea of Stone as the proto-showbiz politician is dropped too soon), Get Me Roger Stone is so good at twisting the knife over the course, directors Morgan Pehme, Dylan Bank and Daniel DiMauro drawing out the threads of his operations and his beliefs before pulling them all together in a stomach-dropping montage of the 2016 election.

You may wonder why Stone would agree to something that makes him so easy to hate. Well, beyond the quote there in the header up top, it’s perhaps because the film so validates the effectiveness, his amoral drive to win. It’s a film that makes him the Machiavellian Orchestrator behind every Conservative political move in the last 40 years. Whether you buy it or not, he certainly wants you to.

And as the man himself says:

“I revel in your hatred because if I weren’t effective, you wouldn’t hate me.”

Streaming on Netflix

Samurai Jack (Season 5)

The long-awaited return of Samurai Jack has functioned as something like the series’ Logan, a chance for creator Genndy Tartakovsky to throw off the creative restrictions of content restrictions and open up a world with all the darkness and violence that has always lurked under the surface.

Yet that isn’t necessarily what’s made this season work so extraordinarily well. Blood has amped up the stakes, and the ability to explore what exactly being alone for 50 years with no hope of returning home might do to a man’s psyche has given the show a new sense of depth.

But what’s worked is that Season 5 has been Samurai Jack with an endgame, a story to reach and Tartakovsky at the height of his powers, while still being the same core show that was so popular.

Its action fundamentally still over-the-top and masterfully rendered. Its environment and visuals still gorgeously and meticulously crafted. There’s still kind of goofy sense of humor at the heart of it all, the first villain is Scaramouche, a Paul Lynde-talking robot jazz assassin.

It’s willing to go directions it never has, but retains its core.

Streaming on Adultswim.com

(500) Days of Summer

(500) Days of Summer is perhaps one of the better examples of how badly the studio system can end up chewing up filmmakers and spitting them out.

Marc Webb, best known at this point for directing two Spider-Man films that can muster a pleasant nod at their best notes, has essentially turned into a hired gun, a bland and anonymous journeyman shooting with enough personality to keep the studio chugging along, Gifted perhaps the nadir of all this so far.

All of this makes it particularly insane to look back at the debut that made his name and simply realizing how bursting with life it was.

(500) Days of Summer shows a filmmaker who basically can’t stop moving. Every frame is something new, some way to discover a part of the story, some stylistic trick that still drills down into the character, some show of his knowledge of the craft. He’s playing with the French New Wave, there’s a musical number, he’s dipping the film into black-and-white, he’s giving a Rashomon impression. It’s a film that’s so gosh-darned excited to be getting made that it’s showing every trick in the book, a sort of melancholy exuberance in its construction.

In its best moment, it indulges in a bit of fantasy crushed by reality. The famous “Expectations vs. Reality” split-screen, on just enough of a delay to see the thoughts unfold before the world as it really happens. The Expectations are not some soaring La La Land, the Reality is not some sickeningly painful experience. They’re tempered, and all the more powerful for how recognizable both those are. There are few moments that ever so quite convey the soft tragedy of things not going as you’d imagine them quite like this.

One can imagine a world where Marc Webb continued along this vein easily, and in directing the pilot of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, he sort of did, that show perhaps picked up this movie’s torch better than anything else has. If only he’d make another film quite so effective and interesting. At least we’ve still got this one.

Rentable on all major streaming platforms

A Definitive Ranking of The Fast and The Furious Films

Has any franchise taken quite the journey that The Fast and the Furious has? Starting out as the du-jour example of early ’00s blockbuster excess, more punchline than popular, it’s now turned into basically the single largest action franchise running. A sprawling, multi-cultural and globe-trotting adventure that still features (largely) the same group of rag-tag car-based criminals that the early installments did, just older and with larger adventures to undertake.

In case I’ve never made this clear, I have a deep and abiding love of The Fast and the Furious franchise. Few series are so absolutely aware of what they are and so absolutely willing to escalate and revel in that at every step while also able to do it with total skill.

A series about family that manages to put together a group of people that have legitimate chemistry and whose relationships manage to feel real and build on each other step by step. A series that manages to escalate its action at every step without ever COMPLETELY severing its connection from reality. A series that’s big and dumb and loud and knows how to make all those things happen without ever feeling too big, too dumb, or too loud.

So, 7 films so far, the 8th comes out tomorrow. How do they rank?

7) 2 Fast 2 Furious

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2 Fast 2 Furious is these days more remembered for its bizarre titling than anything else. Director John Singleton isn’t necessarily totally incompetent here (as he is in other films), and there are a few pleasures to be found. This is the entry that introduces Roman (Tyrese Gibson) and Tej (Ludacris), two franchise mainstays that have come back as total stars in the latter-day Fast and Furious films.

But the absence of Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto is deeply felt here, particularly as Brian (Paul Walker) stays the main character in this film. 2 Fast 2 Furious showed that it was the interplay between the two that kept the series’ main characters interesting, as Brian is a much blander character in 2 Fast 2 Furious. 

Beyond that, 2 Fast 2 Furious just doesn’t have much to recommend here. No particularly great or interesting racing or action sequences, with the less than sure hand of John Singleton keeping things from reaching over-the-top. It’s a markedly boring entry in a franchise where boring is the ultimate death.

6) Fast & Furious 6

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The first film after the franchise’s revitalization was almost by necessity going to be a bit of a shaky one. It has a lot of new toys to play with and it’s going to need to figure out how to use them. With all that in mind, the fact that the worst sins of Fast & Furious 6 are excessive length and a bit of logic and story breaking is a legitimate surprise.

This is when the franchise went past its crime film roots into full-bore soap opera, attempting (with various levels of success) to juggle an increasingly expanding cast and universe. Some of it works and signals the way forward, others are still great injustices towards fan favorite characters. Fast & Furious 6 can kind of be considered the yellow light for the franchise, a sign of what could happen if it doesn’t ease up.

Outside of that though, Fast & Furious 6 (I have never had to so often double check that I’m titling films right) is still sort of a delight. Evans’ Owen Shaw and his dark double Family is an idea that I’m shocked it took them until the 6th film to do. The new mode for action sequences yields one of the series’ best (HIGHWAY TANK) and there’s just clearly a whole lot of people having a whole lot of fun here.

5) Fast & Furious

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This is the franchise’s most overlooked entry, a gritty back-to-basics reboot that feels like a weirdly late reverberation of the Batman Begins effect. Focused less on either the action or the racing than the relationships between the characters and the pulpy situations they’ve put themselves into, this hardboiled entry feels weirdly out of step with the films that preceded it, tonally.

But as a shift for the franchise, this is the most underrated of the films. It lays the groundwork for the relationships and the operations to come, the rest of this franchise works largely because Justin Lin (who can be singlehandedly credited for the revitalization and redirection of this franchise) took such a basic approach in getting the relationships back on track, and making our love for the characters important.

Because of that, this film does work. I’m invested enough in Dom and Brian’s relationship, that the loose affiliation of crime story ideas turns into something compelling and makes those races all the more worth watching.

4) The Fast and the Furious

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The pace-setter and the original for the franchise is odd to go back to now. Less the predecessor for the eventual globe-trotting spy franchise this would become and more a hip-as-hell remake of Point Break, it’s surprising to see how enjoyable this thing still is.

An early evocation of this franchise’s ethos (we are what we are, and we’re going to have fun with it) with characters that are shockingly well-formed out of the gate (seriously, Dom and Brian are already pretty clearly conceived here), The Fast and the Furious is a time capsule, but one well-worth revisiting. Just a blast of fun and a blueprint for a franchise that you never could imagine spawning from this point.

3) Furious 7

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Furious 7 is ridiculous in the best of ways. A car jumps between not two, but three skyscrapers. A group of people parachute their cars out of an airplane. A man LITERALLY FLEXES HIS CAST OFF. At this point, our Family aren’t spies, they’re superheroes, capable of putting themselves through insane, almost Looney Tunes-esque stunts. It’s this franchise at its most purely enjoyable, a high-wire act.

Yet in a weird way, Furious 7 is also the film that makes you most realized how attached you’ve become to these people. The death of Paul Walker loomed heavily over this movie, and I can’t think of any franchise that so perfectly paid tribute to a fallen brother in the actual text of its film. I dare you not to cry at this film’s final tribute to him. These people have been through a lot, and we’ve been there with them.

2) The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift

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Look, I’m gonna be real. Tokyo Drift would deserve to be up here simply for introducing Han (Sung Kang), the coolest dude in this whole franchise and one of the most enjoyable people to watch in any American action film, recalling the best of the Japanese Yakuza heroes.

But Tokyo Drift‘s weirdly polarized reputation is ill-deserved by the actual film. Sure, it withdraws from all the most popular characters, and Lucas Black’s weirdo Southerner isn’t exactly a replacement, but Justin Lin kind of knows that and he lets the new environment and new rules serve as our entry point. It makes for a far more dynamic entry, one that’s a blast of fun and a brilliant look at a culture that feels legitimately revitalizing for the franchise.

1) Fast Five

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This is the best entry in the franchise bar none. The uber-example of what this franchise does at its best.

The action is clear and concise and constantly daring. From the opening bus rescue to the final chase through the streets of Rio as two muscle cars drag a bank vault behind them, Fast Five is ruthlessly exciting and an absolute thrill-ride to follow along with. No franchise is more breathlessly overjoyed to be able to try out its big, dumb, stunt pyrotechnics.

Its relationships are interesting and well-defined. Its old relationships (Dom and Brian) find new wrinkles and continue to deepen and grow. Its old characters find new ways to interact, I think particularly Han and Gisele (Gal Gadot) who have the kind of heat you can’t look directly at without special eyewear. Its new characters slide in effortlessly, Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) is just a total badass and gives a brand new energy that these films have never had (Franchise Viagra).

Fast Five is awesome, just awesome.

A Eulogy for Review

I’m not sure we’re ever going to see a show like Review with Forrest MacNeil ever again.

That’s a big statement, there’s a lot of television history to come, and the show itself was a remake of an Australian show. I don’t know for sure that we’ll never find another creation like this.

But there’s a specific alchemy that made Review with Forrest MacNeil something truly special, a confluence of talents and ideas that feels like something you could never recreate, one that would be almost incapable of getting the appreciation it deserved in its own time.

Simple enough, the show is about Forrest MacNeil (Andy Daly), a television reviewer of life. Each week, along with co-host A.J. Gibbs (Megan Stevenson) and producer Grant (James Urbaniak), Forrest would take viewer requests to review various experiences. Experiences we’re all curious about like Stealing, Drug Addiction, or Racism.

Then came the third episode “Pancakes; Divorce; Pancakes.” Forrest was asked to review eating 15 pancakes, asked to review divorcing his wife, and then asked to review 30 pancakes. Besides being likely one of the funniest episodes of television ever written-

“These pancakes couldn’t kill me. I was already dead.”

-it signaled a surprisingly brilliant focus shift for Review. This was the beginning of a dark downward spiral, Review turning into something like Comedy Central’s Breaking Bad. A man pursuing a goal, ostensibly for betterment but really for his own pleasure, at the cost of his friends, his family, and his own well-being.

This shift becomes license for the show to push Forrest MacNeil further and further down the rabbit hole, reviewing Leading a Cult (which leads to a shootout with the authorities by the person who takes over his cult), Having the Perfect Body (which leads to this),

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and Killing a Person (which results in him personally killing a person). No assignment goes uncompleted to the fullest and furthest of Forrest’s understanding.

And that’s where Review gets tricky/interesting. It’s an ostensibly objective perspective, a documentary about this man’s insane journey. But as criticism, it’s based entirely in the subjective perspective of its critic, what Forrest is willing and sees as his mission. Forrest believes that everything must subordinate to the “service he does.”

The show may ask that Forrest feels what it’s like to be a little person. It doesn’t ask that he continues walking on his knees as his father’s house burns down and he can’t reach the fire extinguisher. It asks that he blackmails someone. It doesn’t ask that he blackmail the woman he loves and force her away.

This is the darkness of Review, that everything the show asks is completely brought on by Forrest himself. A comedy show about a man that destroys his own life because he chooses to.

And yeah, it’s still a comedy. Review is funnier than a show this dark and sad has any right to be. Much of that is thanks to Andy Daly, our man at the center of it all. A masterfully gifted improviser and physical comedian, Daly’s willingness to throw himself whole into basically anything the show asks of him, and the little nuances he finds inside the Forrest character is consistently surprising.

Just take a look at this scene from “Pancakes; Divorce; Pancakes.”

Then remember the man gets divorced after this and watch the second clip here.

The difference in the way he starts out, the body language, the steely resolve of the latter vs. the reluctance of the former. The delivery of the narration, everything here is just suffused with comedy beats.

Plus, this shit is just funny. The man pushes himself to the limit for something so ridiculous, how are you not dying watching that? Daly brings such specificity and energy to the character and the escalation is just flawless. Let’s take a few more looks.

It’s such a perfect blend of sincerity and naivete and sheer gonzo insanity.

And lest I make it all sound like Daly, he’s also supported by an amazing cast. Megan Stevenson as his co-host brings a bubbly straight-man to the insanity and a look at what Forrest could have been. His ex-wife Suzanne is played by Jessica St. Clair who may have the best exasperated voice in the business. And James Urbaniak is the closest thing this show has to a villain as the manipulative Grant, who pushes Forrest further and further into his madness for reasons somewhat unknown.

So goodbye Review. You will be missed. Gone, but I have a feeling, not forgotten.

An Appreciation of Legion’s Existence and Why Jordan Peele Should Direct a Blockbuster

There’s not any real connection between these things, but it’s Thursday March 30th, both of these things are on my mind and I don’t quite want to make a full article out of both. So, without further adieu.

An Appreciation of Legion’s Existence

Wednesday night brought the season finale of Legion, the first live-action television show from the X-Men universe (that actually happened, unlike Generation X). Noah Hawley’s always off-kilter, never quite fully graspable drama garnered tons of critical love and just as much critical antipathy. In other words, Legion has people talking and arguing and giving shots cross the bow.

I come down on the side of critical love, in case anyone was wondering (You weren’t, I’m relentlessly positive). Legion is like nothing else on TV, a show that’s visually daring and as bold as narrative television gets. It’s relentlessly fun with some of the most bonkers action sequences I’ve ever seen on TV (a late-season fight plays out as a silent movie, complete with intertitles). It’s got a group of great actors all full of charisma, anchored by now-crowned leading man Dan Stevens and the show’s bedrock Rachel Keller. That group is then taken into the stratosphere by Aubrey Plaza, who legitimately deserves every award possible for her work on this show and for defying every image had of her. Plus, its first season actually managed to have its mysteries and then turn them into a satisfying narrative that it actually resolved.

But this isn’t just so much me elucidating the successes of Legion, there’s plenty of people who attack it in a more interesting way than I ever could. More, I want to simply step back and appreciate how insane it is that a show like this exists and appreciate what it’s managed to contribute.

Let’s be clear what Legion is. It’s a show that essentially allowed itself to exist outside of narrative reality for the overwhelming part of the season. It’s a show that compressed time down to the point where 3 episodes of the show took places over maybe half a second. It’s a show that was absolutely willing to go in its own direction and didn’t particularly feel the need to catch you up until it felt it was the right time.

In other words, it’s a show that pushed its medium, that felt as thought it was actively trying to carve its own path. You have to appreciate a show that took a property and made its own name and its own bones with it.

You also have to appreciate a show that almost single-handedly revived the cultural significance of the X-Men. The X-Men have been the red-headed stepchild in our brave new superhero-filled world, but between Legion and Logan, the two have made X-Men something exciting again because each leans into the inherent oddity and tone differences of the properties.

So yeah, Legion exists. That’s awesome.

Why Jordan Peele Should Direct a Blockbuster

For those of you who haven’t heard, Warner Brothers seems to be courting Jordan Peele, Hollywood’s hottest commodity after directing the smash-hit Get Outto direct one of its upcoming genre properties, either anime remake Akira or surprising DC Comics hot potato The Flash. 

The question here isn’t so much his suitability for either of those. Get Out showed a steady directorial hand and knowledge of genre tropes (a knowledge that’s been infused to all his work so far) that pretty much makes him capable of anything and makes me excited to see him direct either.

I will say that Akira would be more interesting. It’s a specifically Japanese story and I’m not thrilled about an American version, but courting Peele seems to point towards the one workable version of this thing. Akira spoke to a specific youth disaffection with Japanese society and the feeling that it exploited and abandoned them, a lost generation.

I sort of feel like, just maybe, that’s a story a Black male director could tell about the African-American youth experience. Set it in future Atlanta, cast a group of great young Black actors, have an artist as smart about race as Jordan Peele with a budget? Might be absolutely worth the years that people have been trying to get this potential shit off the ground.

Like I said, if there’s any way we’re going to tell an American story of this, Jordan Peele could be the one to pull it off. But that’s not what we’re talking about.

Rather, we’re talking the general resistance I see to Peele doing a big-budget studio project at all, working with comic book/adapted property. There seems to be a general resistance to the idea of him not sticking with his planned “social horror” project and to the idea of him “giving into the machine.”

Look, I’m not necessarily thrilled that we won’t get more Get Out-style movies right away. We should absolutely have a hundred like it, all from Peele’s hand. But I don’t think it’s a bad thing that Peele takes a swing at big-budget directing.

First off, he absolutely has the talent for it. Get Out is a lot of things, but its most exciting story is the announcement of Peele as an amazing director. Only the most horrifying micromanaged studio project suffocate the talents of the best directors, see Alien 3. But given that the success of Get Out gives Peele more negotiation room than Fincher on Alien 3, and given that it’s Warner Brothers, I don’t think that should be the concern here.

The other is that taking company man swings like this are necessary. Doing the studio film is how you get big budgets for original movies and dream projects. Christopher Nolan doesn’t do The Prestige without Batman Begins or Inception without The Dark Knight. Guillermo del Toro makes Hellboy because of Blade 2. David Lynch makes Dune and talks Return of the Jedi for the hopes of making the smaller pictures that have made his name. Hell, Ava DuVernay is filming Wrinkle in Time right now.

This isn’t to say there aren’t legitimate reasons Peele might want to make Akira or The Flash. But I’m also saying that being willing to work on these big pictures with less personal attachment is what’s going to launch him into the stratosphere he deserves to be in, what makes him the money and gives him the trust to make things that are truly daring and expensive. And a good relationship with Warner Brothers is not a bad way to do that, their business model is giving people a fuckload of money to do whatever.

Peele is undoubtedly one of the next great directors, to the point where I wonder if it will be trivia that he was once a great sketch comedian. He can and should take some time to earn studio capital and has the talent to make something great while he does it.

My Most Anticipated of 2017 (That I’ve Actually Heard Anything About)

As we close off the last year in film, it’s time to look forward to the next one. It’s one of the most fun parts of any film year, when all the blockbusters and big prestige dramas lay before us full of possibility, all the Sundance pictures are still in the happy festival haze before the backlash and shocking revelations get started.

Of course, I want to be a responsible critic and manage expectations. That means that I want to limit the films that I’m looking forward to that those that have evidence. In other words, things that have trailers, reviews from festivals, or just some actual news on what the movie could be. It would be also be nice to have a proven track record. In other words, actual evidence from past successes or previous films in the series

In other words, sorry to Kingsman: The Golden Circle, Star Wars: The Last Jedi: Thor: Ragnarok, and Justice League who are only up in the header image. Bait and switch, I know. But between no news, being too early for news, or being directed by Zack Snyder in Warner Bros.’ DCEU, there’s no reason to get excited just yet. But don’t despair! Here’s a few things you can be excited for!

Baby Driver

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Thinnest cling to the premise of the article, I know. But Baby Driver comes to us from Edgar Wright, one of the few filmmakers in Hollywood who’s earned enough trust to jump out on whatever ledge he asks. Besides, we’ve seen what the film looks like and we know what it’s about! Baby Driver is a crime picture starring Ansel Elgort as a mute getaway driver who gets caught up in a robbery that goes wrong.

Did I mention that Elgort plays a character who drives to music and that therefore the entire movie will have its action sequences set to a ever-rotating soundtrack? Because if you’ve ever seen any other Edgar Wright movie, you will know that merging soundtrack with action is one of his specialties, and that if he’s given a chance to set a whole movie on that idea? You should be buying tickets now.

The Big Sick

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One of the first darlings of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, this one comes from the husband-and-wife comedy team of Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, LA comedy scene darlings now turned screenwriters. The Big Sick is directed by Michael Showalter and based on the true story of how the two of them met and got married, it stars Kumail Nanjiani as Kumail and Zoe Kazan as Emily.

Kumail is a struggling comic who gets heckled by Emily at one of his shows. The two quickly fall for each other, but run up against a roadblock when Kumail refuses to stand up to his traditional Muslim family, which leads to their break-up. Emily, however, falls ill and Kumail is the only one in the area who can take care of her and must deal with his parents, her parents (Ray Romano and Holly Hunter), and his own need to grow up.

Sundance du jour from the sound of it, but the reviews have pointed towards a romantic comedy that is filled with specificity (thanks to its real life draw) and knowledge of its genre with able acting and filmmaking.

Blade Runner 2049

The sequel that we never should have been excited for, Blade Runner 2049 quickly got us (okay, me) on its side with perhaps one of the only teams that could do any justice to the classic original. Director Denis Villeneuve, hot off the Oscar-nominated Arrival! Cinematographer extraordinaire Roger Deakins! A cast that includes Harrison Ford, Ryan Gosling, Robin Wright, Mackenzie Davis, Barkhad Abdi, Dave Bautista! Also Jared Leto is there. The recipe looks to be for success.

The trailer only seems to show that it’s coming together. Barely anything revealed, but it showed a world that clearly picks up off the visually distinctive original, a lot of progress, and an intriguing mystery to come. It could be still on the pile of bad ideas, but this one looks like it has the muscle to lift itself out.

The Fate of the Furious

Speaking of muscle.

This is not an ironic thing. I really do earnestly love these movies. It’s a big budget action franchise that knows it can’t and shouldn’t take itself seriously, and instead leans into the talents of its cast and into ever increasingly pushing the size and scope of what it’s covering. The Fate of the Furious looks to absolutely pick up on that, dropping a story epic in scale, pitting an apparently traitorous Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) now working with an evil tech terrorist (Charlize Theron) against his former friends, now seemingly led by Agent Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson). It’s a movie that’s going to have a full blown Arctic car chase with a submarine getting involved. How do you not love that?

Get Out

Key & Peele was long one of the most exciting shows in comedy, and much of that came with the eponymous duo’s surprising knowledge of genre tropes and the filmmaking required to indulge them. So when Jordan Peele splits off to finally make a genre picture, you should stand up and take notice.

This was Sundance’s surprise midnight screening this year, and reactions out of there are suitably impressed with Peele’s confident first-time direction as well as the movie’s nuanced take on racial issues, aimed more at the subtle ways that the seemingly well-meaning perpetuate racism and the daily existence of Black men.

A Ghost Story

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A small film made almost entirely in secret, no one knew quite what to expect when David Lowery showed up at Sundance with a film starring Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck filmed in a little over two weeks after his gorgeous big-budget Pete’s Dragon. Excitement began to percolate with A24 picked it up before its debut.

Word out of Sundance is that it does not disappoint. A gorgeous and entirely unique film with some serious shit on its mind about love, death, and time (THAT’S RIGHT. TAKE SOME NOTES COLLATERAL BEAUTY YOU MONSTER). Lowery is one of our most exciting filmmakers and I’m thrilled to see him refuse to rest on his laurels.

John Wick: Chapter 2

John Wick was one of the best action films of 2014 and the 21st century so far. That’s pretty much all you should need to get excited for John Wick: Chapter 2. More of Keanu Reeves’ enigmatic assassin, more of the impressive worldbuilding the first one pulled off, and hopefully more mindblowingly well-done setpieces. John Wick: Chapter 2 really needs nothing more than its previous sequel and the promise of expansion as he’s beset on all sides by assassins looking to kill him all around the world.

Logan

I know, it’s weird for me that I’m looking that much forward to an X-Men movie too. But Logan‘s feverish and melancholy broken-down Western vibe is majorly working for me, as well as the promise of an actual look at the legacy that this long-lived franchise has managed to create, specifically with Jackman’s Wolverine and Patrick Stewart’s Xavier. There have been some preliminary screenings of the first 40 minutes of this film that received absolute raves, so if this one can maintain that momentum as well as the surprising heart of its predecessor The Wolverine, Logan might be something actually great coming out of X-Men.

Mudbound

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If you aren’t familiar with the name Dee Rees, then you’re seriously missing out. Her 2011 debut Pariah is a sweet and fascinatingly nuanced coming-of-age queer tale with an extraordinary amount of directorial confidence and I’ve been dying for a big screen follow-up from her. Mudbound is that follow-up, a generational tale of race in the aftermath of World War 2 with a cast that includes Carey Mulligan, Jason Mitchell, Mary J. Blige, Garrett Hedlund and so many more. Early Sundance reviews name this as another favorite of the festival, a surprisingly epic film with that same directorial confidence and precision that she showed in Pariah. It’s great to see talent rewarded and I can only hope Dee Rees has a long career to come.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

This is the one I will most likely eat crow on, but I really don’t care. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planet is a return by Luc Besson to the gonzo Sci-fi that characterized his best film, The Fifth Element. Valerian clearly holds nothing back, there’s so much creativity on display in its scope and its design. The fact that Besson always seems willing to go balls to the wall story-wise gives us the chance that Valerian might be able to actually be the sort of thing that goes over-the-top and earns being that truly insane visually. Plus, Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne being the leads might mean this thing could be up for the Oscar for “Most Eyebrows in a Movie.”

 

The Best of 2016: #10-1

Yeah, you should know the rules by now. If what’s on my Top 10 isn’t on yours, write your Top 10. These are the films that meant the most to me this year, that made me sing their praises at the top of my lungs, that made me laugh and cry and feel so deeply. I hope you love them as much as I did.

If you’re so inclined, feel free to click here and participate in a little contest.

10) Hail, Caesar! 

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Hail, Caesar! is the rare ode to Hollywood that actually understands the significance that the institution can hold. The Coens immerses themselves in the styles, the gossips, and the concerns of old Hollywood. They’re mocking religious epics, westerns, manners dramas, and musicals while absolutely feeling free to indulge in the fun of getting to make those. It delves deep to find the power of Hollywood, which Hail, Caesar! views as something akin to religion, with the film as its sacrament and the producer as a God. Indeed, the faith of Brolin’s Mannix becomes an avenue to explore faith and the meaning of the all-powerful and unknowable, a film as Catholic as the A Serious Man is Jewish. The fact that all that couched in a movie that’s a barrel of explosive comedic fun with great performances from Channing Tatum, Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton, and Josh Brolin is just icing. The fact that Alden Ehrenreich still manages to steal the movie out from under them is even more amazing. Hail, Caesar! is about as enjoyable as it gets to confront the unknowable and powerful God.

Best Scene: “No Dames”

9) Silence

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Scorsese’s great passion project, in development for 26 years, adapted from one of the greatest novels of faith ever written. Silence is an epic of doubt that manages to live up to all that weight and more, boldly forging a film art that’s sweeping and ambiguous and difficult and from a voice of faith that we’re never going to appreciate. Of a kind with the work of Ingmar Bergman and Robert Bresson, Silence is a technical masterwork, impossibly confident with shot after shot that makes you gasp. But it uses that masterworking to think through the toughest questions of God. What does it mean when we can’t hear God, what does it mean when our prayers and our suffering seem to go unanswered? What does faith mean when I’m in so much pain? Silence‘s most amazing quality is how it pokes and prods and tries, but it knows that as long as we live, we may never find the answers.

Best Scene: Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) makes one final decision over whether or not he will apostatize.

8) Manchester by the Sea

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The secret of Manchester by the Sea is that for all of its crushing and bleak portrayals of the depths of grief, it’s possibly one of the funniest films of the year. Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea portrays the process of loss and it really can be, blending the quiet humor and real humiliations of family and moving on with its more outright breakdown moments. What awes about Manchester by the Sea is its specificity, the way it feels so couched in a specific time and place with people plucked from the world it’s showing. Casey Affleck’s Lee Chandler is one of the best performances of this year, using Casey’s natural reticence and mumbling to his advantage, letting the silent gaps of grief speak the loudest. Manchester by the Sea is a healing film, one that shows in loss, you’re not alone.

Best Scene: One last conversation between Lee Chandler and Randi (Michelle Williams)

7) Pete’s Dragon

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This is about as good as family filmmaking gets, full of wonder and awe at the world and curious about the limitless possibilities that childhood holds. David Lowery found a way to tell this story as a deeply human fantasy, a story of a boy and his dog that will keep you in tears from the sheer beauty and awe that it inspires. It’s a story that knows we all deserve a chance and we all deserve to see something better in our futures. Disney’s still got it.

Best Scene: Elliot’s New Family

6) The Witch

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There are few debut features as confident as The Witch, a psychological horror film that figures it might as well let you know its title is literal in the first 20 minutes. From there, The Witch becomes a swirling horror of the first sins of America, of the fear and the hate that laid under the surface of our early days. Shot like a Hudson River School painting of Hell, it’s a film that feels all the more horrific for its authenticity, from its dialogue ripped from journals of the day to its immaculately recreated sets, like you’re looking into a Pilgrim nightmare. It all leads up to one of the most bone-chilling finales in years. The Witch is a nightmare of the fears of religion and the dark underbelly of the myth of pure Americana.

Best Scene: “Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?”

5) Arrival

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I will state that part of my impression of this film was formed by two outside sources. First, my previous knowledge of Villeneuve certainly didn’t make me think he would be capable of something so emotionally open and immersive, so being taken off guard there should certainly be taken in account. The second I won’t spell out here, but perhaps a quick Google of the release date should tell you all you need to know.

In that, understand my viewing of Arrival as a beautiful clarion call to find unity in the darkest hour and to understand the brief time we have on this planet. Arrival resonates as a film that shows the understanding we must attain of how fragile we are and how all we’ve done and the possibilities of what we will do inform who we are. Arrival is fundamentally hopeful for the future, showing the objects and the people who carve it in glowing and heavenly light, making decisions that strike deep into our own fears of what we may be asked to do.

Best Scene: Louise learns the cost of understanding the Heptapod language.

4) Paterson

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Cinema is important not just for the grandiose visions it shows us of other times, places, and worlds, but for the empathy it generates for the ordinary and everyday. Paterson is a film that elevates the ordinary to extraordinary by showing us just how beautiful the everyday is. Seeing the world through Driver’s extraordinary performance as the titular character driving a bus through the titular character transforms everything.

The city, the people and their conversation, the natural world all becomes a poem, a place full of art and meaning and juxtapositions that are extraordinary and beautiful. Through him, we experience his wonderful wife (Golshifeth Farahani) and her caring ambition, the artist trying to share what she has with the world. Through him, we see the value of art and those who try everyday to reach for it and find meaning through it. The fact that all of this story is told with wonderful heart and humor is simply more indicative of how much Jarmusch deeply cares for these people and for the world around them.

Best Scene: We find out why Paterson’s mailbox tips over everyday.

3) Swiss Army Man

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No, really, this movie happened. Daniel Radcliffe, the guy who played Harry Potter, played a farting corpse that helped a guy played by Paul Dano come to grips with humanity AND adventure around an abandoned island. We’re all the luckier for it.

Swiss Army Man is one of the most human films of the year, a film that uses its vulgarity and audacity to break deep into the human fears of raising children, of explaining the meanings of life and trying to figure out why we do what we do. It’s a film that tries to understand the outcast and the downtrodden, but is fully aware of why they’re in that position. It’s a bold, daring work that actually feels like it’s putting everything it has out there. Directors The Daniels, most famous before now for the “Turn Down For What” video, feel like they’ve tapped into another world, two people who know the rules and know how to bend them for their own twisted and wonderful ends. Swiss Army Man will make you laugh, cry, and cry laughing. And maybe you’ll come out having learned a little something at the end.

Best Scene: Just pick a montage. Any montage.

2) Moonlight

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Moonlight is a minor miracle of filmmaking, one I’m still not sure we deserve, but that is vital to understand. Barry Jenkins has tapped into a world that feels like a dream but is all the more remarkable for the reality it portrays. This is a film of specific experiences, of the black experience, of the queer experience, that finds such deep empathy to map onto every single viewer. Heartbreaking and affirming in equal measures, Moonlight is a work of cinematic power in that it trusts its filmmaking to do all the talking, to capture the amazing work that the actors do, and always trust its audience to understand.

Its secret is how sweet of a film it is too, Jenkins has affection for the characters he creates. No matter what he puts them through, he wants them to be happy, and he makes sure that we see them in the smallest moments. An attempt to act tough, a quick bit of grooming before meeting someone you haven’t seen in a while. And no one short of Wong Kar-Wai has ever made romance this stylish and gorgeous and arresting.

Moonlight is an important work. It’s important as a beacon for the future of cinema, it’s important as a guide to the stories that cinema can tell and the empathy it can generate.

Best Scene: Everything in the diner between Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) and Kevin (Andre Holland), but specifically the moment where Kevin puts “Hello Stranger” on the jukebox.

AND THE TOP OF THE TOP IS…

1) La La Land

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Shocker, right?

If La La Land was simply the technical masterpiece that it is, it would have a firm and high place on this list. Director/writer Damien Chazelle’s dizzying Technicolor whirlwind is perhaps one of the most beautiful reminders of why we go to the theater to see movies. The gorgeous primary colours, the lavish and dazzling musical numbers, the costumes, the score, the mood lights. It’s a nonstop feast for the senses, not even getting into the sublime pleasures of watching Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling be as charming as they’ve ever been in their most intimate romance yet.

Why it places up top is that it understands in the most purely cinematic way how a break from the real world makes the difficult parts of human love and ambition feel all the more real. It’s bringing us up to crash us back down. La La Land is a film that knows the personally dark parts of ambition, of the compromises that we must make, the fears that we feel. The call that it’s not working out just yet, the dream slipping away because we can’t afford it, doing what you have to so you can cling to the hope of what you can. And the fact that you will have to say goodbye to the ones you love, that you’ll have to leave others behind for ambition.

There’s a lot people seize onto about jazz and Hollywood and all that. But for me, that’s all cursory to La La Land. La La Land is a movie about the dreams we make and the hearts that ache to achieve them. It’s a clear reminder of the power of cinema to show what lies inside, to reminds us of the aching pains and glories that being human comes with. It does it in a beautiful world that you want to reenter as soon as you leave.

La La Land is an escape that helps you to confront yourself and your pain, a film that’s been there and it understands. Empathy in a musical number.

Best scene: The reunion in the jazz club, a scene that has managed to make me cry 4 times.