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The 15 Best Films of 2017

The most important question that any film must ask itself and that any filmgoer must ask themselves is “Why?” Why tell this story in this way? Why did I leave my house to go see this specific story being told? Why did I like that, why did I find that important to my life, why did I keep thinking about it? Why this film, this year?

For 2017, I had a fairly simple criteria. The “why” had to be “Because no one else could tell this story.” I looked for films that felt unique and exceptional. I looked for films that went above and tried to reach beyond what is to what could be. I looked for escapism in fantastic worlds, intense thoughts, and deep emotions. I looked for films to transport me to another world, to another mind. I looked for films that took a swing to land among the stars. These 15 did that.

15) Brigsby Bear

Creativity can and should be an act of kindness. Sharing some part of ourselves with the world around us is both asking for empathy and attempting to provide it. It’s a way of understanding the world and trying to work out our part in it, it’s that core belief that undergirds Brigsby Bear and makes it such a wonderfully remarkable little achievement.

Your mileage will of course depend on how much of writer/star Kyle Mooney’s anti-comedy shtick you can bear. There’s an awkwardness that feels genuine to every part of his interaction, a knowledge of how those truly isolated from society feel trying to interact with it, but it can be painful to watch someone on screen going through those growing pains.

But that’s what works about the film. It understands those growing pains as universal and finds the specificity in its bizarre little alternate world. The titular Brigsby Bear is a work of surprising cleverness and its steady outward growth and development provides a constant delight. It’s also rare that a year can boast two great Mark Hamill performances, but that’s what this film is good enough to give us.

Brigsby Bear is for people who don’t quite fit in anywhere but want to show people where they do.

14) Your Name.

The next Miyazaki is kind of a reductive term in Japanese animation (like calling anyone the next Disney), but let’s just say that I think Makoto Shinkai at least deserves the chance to carve the same path that Miyazaki had.

While he’s well into his career by now (and has made many great piece of animation), Your Name is the first movie that really stands to prove the great future potential of Shinkai. A fully realized and gorgeous work that feels like an old genre (body swap) made wholly original (now that would be telling), you see clearly why this film was the smash in Japan that it was.

It’s a rare accomplishment to write a story that goes from the intimate to the truly epic without ever feeling like it’s taking a wrong step. A tale across space and time that never loses sight of what’s on the ground, the snapshot of a time in your life where every possibility lays before you and you have no idea, where you uncover a world that’s larger than you could ever imagine.

Your Name tells a story we all feel on a scale we could only imagine.

13) Personal Shopper

Grief is an ever-changing process. It is something that no one can move through the same way, that no one has the same experience, but it is something that we must move through.

Personal Shopper shows one process of grief. Yours may not involve texting with a hostile-ish ghost, beautiful designer dresses, or being a medium. But Olivier Assayas’ haunting meditation is deeply recognizable in raw experience, in trying to move past something that has its claws dug into you, how to understand a loss that you haven’t reconciled with.

It helps that it has an all-timer of a performance by Kristen Stewart at its core. It’s important to never forget how much she’s turned her career around since the awkward early-20 something years to develop into one of our finest actresses. There’s an envelopment of the character, an internalization that she moves through in her own specific way to create something dazzling. She’s not creating the character, she is the character.

Personal Shopper moves through grieving in a way that makes us all understand.

12) Logan

America is heading towards collapse. We imagine it’ll look like The Road or maybe Escape from New York, but I know we won’t be that lucky. It’s more horrifying to imagine a world where things get steadily worse, but history keeps moving on. Humanity gets replaced, things get more desperate, the tentacles of control seize us without us knowing, the marginalized are shoved off.

Perhaps that’s the ultimate darkness at the core of Logan that has made it so resonant. James Mangold’s sweaty, fever-dream send-off to Hugh Jackman’s defining character posits a future where technology has increased late-capitalist desperation and where our own prejudice ends up swallowing up society whole. Jackman wears the weight of all that and the decades of violence that he has committed into his best performance, every moment and motion is a new agony informed by old pains.

Yet despite all that sorrow, Logan is at its best in the moments where it slows down. The moments of family, where Logan and Stewart’s Xavier get to just talk or enjoy a moment with Laura, Logan’s ersatz daughter. It’s a movie of atmosphere, willing to wear the weight of generations on its sweat-soaked shoulders.

Logan is a look into a future that we can prevent and a goodbye to the past we can learn from.

11) Colossal

It’s kind of rare that a movie ages well within the year it comes out. But as Hollywood had its dark underbelly turned up, Colossal‘s story of male entitlement and putting the pieces back together loomed larger and larger, much like the monsters contained within its movie.

Now, it is safe to say that no movie handled the Me Too moment (or pre-handled the moment) with more off-kilter wit or fun than Colossal did. Writer/Director Nacho Vigolando reamed a lot of bizarre humor out of Anne Hathaway’s exemplary performance and the increasingly strange situation she finds herself in. He manages to explore the actual sci-fi ramifications (she did technically kill people!) without ever feeling like it’s getting too lost in though, a deft handling of a difficult tone.

It’s that ability to handle tone that becomes more and more important as the film goes on, as Sudekis’ Oscar begins to become a more sinister presence and the film becomes a good v. evil story where one side is every dude who ever said the phrase “ethics in gaming journalism.”

Colossal is a story just a few months ahead of its time that’s funnier and weirder than it has any right to be.

10) Baby Driver

As a resident of Atlanta, I spend SO much time these days watching my city play anything but itself. It’s New York, it’s L.A., it’s Lagos. It’s hard to ignore that the Chinese restaurant that was down the street from me for 3 years has suddenly picked up and moved to Portland, Oregon. So from the bottom of my heart, thank you Edgar Wright for letting Atlanta be fucking Atlanta and showing the whole world why this is the coolest city.

Of course, it helps that the rest of Baby Driver is about as cool as movies get. Edgar Wright has carved a breathless blast of high-energy cinema, slick as a 70s Steve McQueen and singular as 60s French auteur. Baby Driver has every beat of film cut to a perfectly curated soundtrack, every bit of action designed like fine clockwork.

No film this year felt so alive and exciting and like a shot in the arm for popular cinema. Elgort’s Baby is gonna be in the heads of every young film fan getting behind the wheel for the first time.

Baby Driver is the kind of film that makes it a little more dangerous to drive down I-85, blasting “Bellbottoms” and trying not to get caught by the law.

9) The Shape of Water

Guillermo del Toro probably has done more for my love of film than anyone else. There’s a part of me that will always be the kid meeting him during the promotion for Hellboy in awe and just a little confusion.

But it’s the slow delve into his filmography and his love of monsters that pushed me forward. Del Toro is a filmmaker of supreme empathy, seeing the good and the beautiful in the grotesque. The Shape of Water is in someways the ultimate fulfillment of this, a movie where the outcast and the monster is the object of empathy and the beautiful lover and the man of society is the twisted murderer.

A film borne of a young boy wondering why Creature from the Black Lagoon didn’t end up with the damsel ending up with the monster, The Shape of Water certainly makes some bold choices (including the one you’re wondering about). But the magic of the film is that it helps you understand all of those choices, believe in them, and become enveloped in them.

The Shape of Water believes in the good of monsters and the beauty of their love.

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The Worst and, more importantly, THE BEST of 2017, so far

So, as I am the grand arbiter of all things film, I’m officially calling the summer movie season at its close. Alas Logan Lucky, The Glass Castle, or Annabelle: Creation, you’re all part of the fall movie season. However will you survive?

And at the close of summer movie season, we’re essentially halfway through the movie year. I know we’re more than halfway through the calendar year, but trust me, that back half is always as packed as it gets. There’ll end up being things that are Oscar nominees that aren’t even on our radar right now. The worst movie of the year is likely still yet to come (though it’s hard to imagine right now).

But since I’m a fiend for lists, let’s make one, shall we? Let’s give a few check-ins and see where we are, starting with the worst (because it gets the attention) before taking a full celebration of the best.

Bottom 5 Films of 2017 So Far

5) The Dark Tower

Idris Elba

Ahh, The Dark Tower. The best franchise that will never quite be. Based on Stephen King’s series of epic fantasy western Lovecraftian meta-novels, some much smarter studio could have had a new Game of Thrones on its hands. Alas, it was in the hands of Sony and they instead produced a fall flat on its face. A mess of bad studio production, The Dark Tower wastes its actors, murders its pacing, and takes all the material and tosses it out the window for a mid-90s adaptation premise. Any film that features Matthew McConaughey saying “I see you’re still impervious to my magicks” with a straight face has an uphill battle. The Dark Tower doesn’t win it.

4) The Circle

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A bland mess of technophobia, I really just feel bad for the people involved here. The Circle is Black Mirror without the brains or heart, an aesthetic rip-off by a huge number of people who should be able to make some better stamp. Staring a pitch-perfect satire of late capitalism in the face, The Circle is content to shake its fist at social media and ultimately end up going nowhere.

3) Transformers: The Last Knight

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Look, who the living fuck expects anything out of this franchise at this point? The best Transformers has ever been able to aspire to is Bay’s weird hypercompetencies managing to shine through the material. But when they don’t, it’s the same thing that happens every goddamned time: A mess of story with awful design with a runtime that lasts for aeons.

2) Ghost in the Shell

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A pile-up of decisions so bad that you’re more baffled that it ever happened than mad that someone chose to do it. That all said, this is a film that was never going to be great and still manages to enrage far above its station. A messy script, terrible direction, and boring setpieces would sink any movie, but a movie that white-washes like this one does deserves all the ire that can be thrown. When your material is so fertile with intellect, you can’t be this fucking stupid in putting it together.

1) The Book of Henry

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Colin Trevorrow is a rare sort of filmmaker, one who in a past era would have perhaps been run out of town after town after the people found out his snake oil elixirs just weren’t working. The Book of Henry is his raw nerve put on screen. Excessively manipulative, baffling in every plot point put on screen, and a masterpiece of inhuman behavior, seemingly put together by a man who’s never met a human but is fairly certain he knows how they work. Fuck this movie.

Baby Driver is the kind of movie that makes you want to fall in love, drive real fast, and maybe commit a crime

Summary: 

Set in Atlanta, Baby Driver is the story of the titular Baby (Ansel Elgort), who is a getaway driver for crime lord Doc (Kevin Spacey). Baby is working off a debt and is quickly approaching his last job. He’s also falling in love with a young waitress named Debora (Lily James) with plans to run away together. But alas, the world of crime never makes things that easy. 

 

On the way out of Baby Driver, I had to make a phone call. Not so much to talk about the movie, though I certainly did plenty of that. But it was more to control myself, because I figured calling a family member would keep my head on straight and keep me from making life imitate art and barreling down I-85 at a hundred miles an hour with the radio blasting.

Baby Driver is pure cinema, motion and image and sound cut together in the way that only a master could do it. Writer/Director Edgar Wright, long one of our most sheerly thrilling working directors, has crafted something that functions like a shot of film adrenaline best injected directly into the heart. An action thrill-ride with a sweetness at the core, Baby Driver is as good a time as you can have at the movies.

Much of that is do to that aforementioned sense of motion. Baby Driver takes no time to get moving, to get exciting, to get a sense that things are happening. We open with Baby, headphones in, rocking out to the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and grooving along to the rhythm. Then a car chase through an implausibly empty Atlanta street.

Baby Driver understands cinema is a unique art form because of its sense of motion. The more movement, the more engagement, the more you can convey cinematic scope and emotion and action. Baby Driver never stops moving. If the car isn’t driving, our characters are shooting or dancing or the soundtrack is keeping the action pumping along.

But the skill of Edgar Wright is that the motion never feels overwhelming. Rather than something like Bayhem where the constant action serves to distract, Wright uses the constant action to engage. Baby Driver glides effortlessly from scene to scene, never breaking its stride, always imparting new information and new flavor and new bits of stunning setpieces.

Wright has always excelled at action, but Baby Driver continues his Scott Pilgrim American style, huge setpieces marked with a lot of quoting from Wright’s influences. You can see the work of filmmakers like George Miller and Walter Hill all over the film, but with Wright’s own musical twist here.

Yeah, Baby Driver isn’t a full-blown musical, but it’s about as close as you can get without the characters singing. Every scene is cut to the soundtrack, but it’s most explicit during the action sequences. There’s a mid-film shootout set to “Tequila” that’s just the bee’s damned knees.

That “Tequila” sequence is what Wright brings to a film like this. There’s a sense of fun and a looseness even for a film that’s as tightly controlled in its filmmaking as this one is. Baby Driver just pops off the screen at almost every opportunity it gets.

It even makes its location pop off the screen. As an Atlanta resident, it’s rare to get to see my city play itself. It’s even rarer to see it so well-represented. Wright gives Atlanta its unique character, a huge sprawling urban place with a lot of age and culture to its people, something distinctively Southern and distinctively urban all at once, a culture formed by a hundred influences and a hundred crossroads.

Though, to be fair, driving as fast as these people do on I-85 is just unrealistic.

Of course, your cast is exceptional too. Ansel Elgort has never particularly impressed me, but here his seeming stiffness comes into play, letting it become a part of his charm. This is probably one of Spacey’s best movie roles in a while, Jaime Foxx is a thrill as always, and Lily James is a delight to watch. The stealth MVP of the movie though is Jon Hamm, whose unraveling and psychotic criminal Buddy never loses his ability to surprise.

Baby Driver is just a near-perfect cinematic experience. There’s nothing less and nothing more that can be said. Edgar Wright has created pure cinematic joy that needs to be seen on a big screen.

Grade: A

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.”