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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.

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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.”