Friday, June 2, 2017

Wonder Woman Review

(dir. Patty Jenkins)

Warner Bros.

"I will fight, for those who can not fight for themselves."

Set within a framing device that sees the Amazon princess, Diana (Gal Gadot) rediscover her purpose in the world, Wonder Woman tells the origin story of a woman blessed with incredible abilities and her fight to free the world from the influence of Ares, the God War, during the final days of World War I.

We’ve waited a long time for a Wonder Woman movie to happen. In fact, we’ve waited a long time for any solo superhero film starring a woman to be seen as a success, both critically and financially. It isn’t news that superheroes are Hollywood’s hottest property. Yet, amongst all the men clad in spandex and body armor, the examples female-led superhero films are few and far between. And the ones that do exist are rarely worth discussing. And the example of female directed blockbusters is nearly nonexistent when compared to the male domination of studio properties. To say that Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman was worth the wait wouldn’t be just. The truth is that we should have had a plethora of women-led blockbusters by female filmmakers to hold up a long time ago. There never should have been a wait. But since we did have to wait, we should be mighty glad that it was Patty Jenkins who got to deliver Wonder Woman our big-screens. If Wonder Woman proves anything, outside of being resounding success and achievement, it’s that the presence of women within a traditionally male dominated genre makes all the difference.

When we open on Themyscira, a paradise island populated only by women, we’re treated to lush open spaces, waterfalls and curved stone work that are a step away from the Greco-Roman designs often used in the comics. The point being that Themyscira is clearly a place developed by women, and lacking the harsh, impenetrable masculine design we typically associate with secluded fortresses (a design we see contrasted against Themyscira later in Germany). But the architecture isn’t the only thing that’s noteworthy. Paradise Island is filled with women of color, something the early Wonder Woman comics, and most fantasy movies have struggled with. But here, these women of color are given speaking roles and positions of power. While it may seem like a small thing within the grand narrative of it all, it’s key in establishing the impact that Patty Jenkins is aiming for. This is a film for everyone, that celebrates all women and that creates an immensely important notion of power, strength, and beauty for younger audiences who see this film. William Moulton Marston created Wonder Woman with the intent of her, and her world, being teaching tools for children, and Wonder Woman follows that lineage perfectly, while also teaching, or at least reminding adults of a few forgotten values as well.

The first half hour of the film firmly establishes Diana’s independence and fierce resolve from a child into young adulthood. The only child on Paradise Island, Diana struggles against the insular life her mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) would have her lead. Aided by her Aunt, and the Amazonian general, Antiope (Robin Wright), Diana hones her inherent warrior’s skill for a purpose she’s forbidden to know, a purpose her mother believes she can never know. But Diana’s life of paradise is upended when a pilot crashes through the barrier that keeps Themyscira hidden from the rest of the world. That pilot, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) comes with evidence of the Great War, a war the Amazons believed has been started by the fallen god, Ares. Unable to do nothing, Diana disobeys her mother’s wishes, arms herself a sword, shield, and Lasso of Truth, and appoints Trevor to take her to the front lines of the war so that she can defeat Ares and put an end to his madness.

Gal Gadot convincingly portrays Diana with equal parts brilliance and naivety. She’s already flirted with star power in the Fast & Furious franchise and Batman v Superman, but here it’s clear that Gadot's capable of so much more than we knew. Gadot portrays Diana with a worldliness from her hours of study, despite never having been anywhere. Yet there’s also a childlike quality to her, found in her excitement over learning about man’s world and her unfaltering optimism. As Trevor helps her navigate man’s world, the two develop a bond that feels both natural and engaging. Wonder Woman is a war film, but it’s also a sweeping romance and Jenkins successfully finds the space for the larger scope of the story she’s telling and the intimate human connection. While Wonder Woman is a major leap from her previous film Monster (2003), Jenkins employs the same level of care and context when it comes to humanizing larger than life figures. It’s nigh impossible not to fall in love with both Diana and Steve and their chemistry is compelling in the way of classic Hollywood movies. Steve, a U.S spy and pilot has an unfaltering charm that never comes off as machismo. There’s a swoon worthy Paul Newman quality to him that’s endearing. While he’s a key part of the story, he never takes anything away from the fact that Wonder Woman is Diana’s journey of self-discovery. She likes men, and finds herself allied with them, but she is not dependent on them. Much of the early part of the film revolves around Diana’s relationship with Steve Trevor and their camaraderie with his small band of thieves, liars and smugglers, along with his secretary Etta Candy (Saïd Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner, Eugene Brave Rock, Lucy Davis) who aid them in getting to the front lines in Germany. The film employs a light, approachable humor that doesn’t talk down to the audience, and takes a back seat as the plot thickens and losses are faced. Wonder Woman never loses sight of its tone or aim, and even the humor carries a certain poignancy that’s centered around these character’s inner lives. What’s more is that the film actually spends time with the people affected by the war and we see the costly outcome of every fight. The characters aren’t simply destroying bases filled with faceless foot-soldiers, but placed in real town’s with civilians and forced to fight enemies whose eyes can be clearly seen on the battlefield. There’s a deeply human quality to the struggles in this film, and as Taghmaoui’s character, Sameer tells Diana, they’re all fighting their own battles while she’s fighting hers.

Diana’s womanhood is allowed to speak for itself. A lesser script would have constantly had the character remind us that she’s a woman and meet every suggestion of caution with some version of ‘because I’m a woman?’ Instead, screenwriter (and former Wonder Woman comics writer) Allan Heinberg taps into her innate empathy and connection with nature as a means to service her femininity. Her feminism isn’t a line to beat us over the head with, but a trait that encompasses her very being. But Diana has always been a character of two natures (a subject I discussed in a recent essay on Wonder Woman’s 75 year history) and as much a peace and love are components of her character, she is also a warrior. Wonder Woman may be a superhero, but Jenkins doesn’t hold back from the fact that she’s fighting a war. People die. Wonder Woman kills. And as controversial as the subject of superheroes killing within DC films has become, Wonder Woman, like Zack Snyder’s DC films before it, doesn’t shy away from the real world stakes. Diana feels like a real woman, a real and complex character because the world around her is painted with complex reality, one that, despite its fantasy leanings, can’t uphold archaic notions while also remaining topical. There is cost and consequence to Diana’s actions, the film smartly avoids the idea that because she is a woman who stands for love that she cannot also be possessed by rage, and hurt, and fear. Wonder Woman stands for love, but she fights for it as well, embodying the bold contradiction of ambassador for peace and soldier.

Wonder Woman crats a complex look at heroism, within a world where defeating the bad guy does not always mean winning or stopping evil. Turning Bruce’s sentiment of “men are still good” from the end of Batman v Superman, Trevor tells Diana “sometimes, people aren’t good.” This realization is as equally important as the words Bruce tells her. Diana enters man’s world with the belief that she can easily change them, while having to face the fact that some people don’t want to be changed, that some people aren’t being controlled by otherworldly forces, but by the darker side of human nature that we all have within us. The film’s villains General Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and Doctor Maru AKA Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya) both represent the darker side of human nature, driven by their own choices rather than godly forces. While Ludendorff has fully given into the darker side of human nature, we’re allowed subtle glimpses into Doctor Maru’s secret pain and how her status as a woman has driven her to a darkness that is undoubtedly her choice but also a darkness that is perhaps not all-consuming. And when it comes to the presence of Ares, which I won’t delve too much into, Jenkins and Heinberg present a deconstruction of the character that speaks directly our modern crises of climate change and ignorant self-interest. War as a means of self-preservation isn’t entirely evil, but it denies the opportunity for change and snuffs out love before it can catch, and that is what Diana fights against.

On the technical side of things, Wonder Woman’s fight choreography is equally elegant and fierce. While Jenkins employs Snyder’s signature speed-ramping action scenes, the movements are unlike anything we’ve seen in an action film before. The action employs its own visual language, and while the CG isn’t fully polished in every scene, the final result is no less impressive. The action scenes, aided by Rupert Gregson-Williams richly texture score, and Jenkins and DP Matthew Jensen’s inventive camera angles, creates for an immensely satisfying blockbuster experience. Each action scene carries with it an emotional impact. While there have been complaints about the final battle, it’s backed by an emotional core. Plus, how often do we get to see a woman just absolutely go all out in final battle mode? Wonder Woman’s action isn’t only well done, but well deserved.

What’s most impressive about the film is how successfully it manages to include every characteristic of Diana’s vast characterization. Every major Wonder Woman writer from Marston, Perez, Rucka, Simone, and Azzarello are represented within the film, and made to flawlessly fit together in a remarkable celebration of the character’s history and enduring legacy. While origin stories have begun to fade out within the realm of comic book adaptations, Patty Jenkins makes a strong case for them by inviting both fans and newcomers to share in the pure joy of her grand vision. Without exaggeration, Wonder Woman is hands down, the very best superhero origin movie, and one of the best comic book adaptations.  And that’s something that will hold up even under Diana’s lasso of truth. But neither superlative would be the case if it wasn't for the woman's touch the film confidently employs. Wonder Woman is a milestone achievement for Patty Jenkins, for Gal Gadot, and for women in film. Hollywood is about to find themselves in the midst of a whole generation of creative women and the future couldn’t look more wonderful.

Grade: A

Monday, May 8, 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 Review

(dir, James Gunn)

Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
"I'm gonna make some weird shit."

Picking up after the events of Guardians of the Galaxy, Peter Quill and his band of misfits encounter his father, the mysterious Ego, while a race of alien royalty, The Sovereign, and a mutinous faction of Ravagers threaten to tear the team apart in their attempt to fulfill the bounties placed on the Guardians’ heads.

After the first Guardians of the Galaxy blew away audience expectations and became a critical darling that showcased what the Marvel Cinematic Universe is capable of when they truly left the street level stuff behind, James Gunn was faced with the daunting question of how to follow it up. As the MCU has proven, returning directors haven’t had the greatest creative success with sequels. So rather than to further attempt to aim for corporate synergy and build closer to the ever approaching showdown with Thanos in next year’s Infinity War, James Gunn decided the only way Vol. 2 could fulfill the promise of the first film was for it to be even more of a James Gunn film and chart his own course. If you’re familiar with Gunn’s work from Slither, Super, or even his days at Troma, then those works provide a strong sense of what to expect from Vol. 2. The sequel is funnier, more emotional, weirder, and ultimately more indulgent than its predecessor. While it lacks the light-footedness of the first, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 truly feels like a voice-driven director showcase of the likes that we haven’t seen in the MCU in some time. While the central viewer question, “is it better than the first?” faces any sequel, not every follow-up needs to pull an Empire Strikes Back (a film that Vol. 2 shares a number of parallels with) and exceed the quality of the first. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 isn’t better than the first, but it is equal to it, its own unique strengths and weakness different from the first while also providing a continuing arc of themes and characters dynamics that feel natural in its aim not to beat out the first, but to continue the forward motion to the tune of Awesome Mix Vol. 2.

The film wastes no time getting things moving. After the Guardians stop an inter-dimensional monster on behalf of the Sovereign nation (and Rocket steals a few of their batteries, setting both The Sovereign and The Ravagers on their tails) the Guardians immediately encounter Ego (Kurt Russell). While so many films would have played the revelation of Peter’s father as a big reveal, particularly given the emphasis placed on it at the end of the last film, Guardians doesn’t go for the misdirect. Here, the revelation isn’t used as a twist for the sake of the audience, but is instead revealed for the sake of the story and to provide time for the emotional foundation necessary for the characters’ arc. Every story beat in this film (excepting the romantic and self-aware “unspoken thing” between Peter and Gamora) is for the sake of moving the characters forward, rather than relying on fan-service. Oh, there’s plenty of fan-service, what with Gunn’s penchant for Easter eggs revolving on the cosmic side of Marvel, but when it comes to the meat of Vol. 2, this is a logic based narrative that stems from giving every character an arc of their own. And while some have suggested that Vol. 2 follows too many similar beats as the first film, the different heartspaces these characters find themselves in gives Vol. 2 an entirely different flavor than the first.

The returning Guardians all display a greater degree of comfort in their roles, and Pratt, who has become one of Hollywood’s most likable leading men is able to explore an even greater emotional range this time around. There’s a sincerity to Quill, such that even when he’s being a scoundrel and cracking-wise, we’re never more than an arms-length away from the emotional vulnerability that serves as a noble reflection of humanity. Collectively, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper, Dave Bautista, and Vin Diesel have no problem reminding us why we loved these characters in the first place, while finding new pockets of vulnerability, heroism, humor, and inevitability the loneliness that bring the team together but also threatens to divide them this time around.  

New Guardians Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Yondu (Michael Rooker), and newcomer Mantis (Pom Klementieff) each define themselves within an already diverse group of eclectic characters. Klementieff portrays the antennaed empath, Mantis, with a naïve innocence and infectious enthusiasm that adds a welcome new dynamic to the team, particularly when she’s in the presence of Drax’s direct and literal personality. Together, Drax and Mantis create many of the film’s funniest scenes. But it’s Gillan and Rooker who deliver the film’s most impressive performances, each turning their characters’ reputations as villains into complex individuals who find heroism through their hurt. Both characters unwittingly find themselves as part of a family again, and as a result lose some of their edge while gaining a discovery of the selves they’d forgotten or buried.

Russell, charismatic and ever capable of defining himself through roles created by distinct voices, brings heart and gravitas to the role of the lonely god, Ego. Ego provides one of the few instances in the MCU where the adversary makes for a compelling, and fully realized threat with clear motivations that stem from a similar place as the heroes’. Ego, a living planet who has built a body for himself, is one of the many examples in the film of James Gunn repurposing comic history to better fit the needs of the film. This isn’t a case of grounding the source material to make it easier to present, as so many comic book adaptations do, but of preserving the weirdness while also creating stronger thematic ties. Gunn knows his comic history, but isn’t tied to it and that knowledge gives him freedom. He takes Ego, a giant purple planet with a face and beard in the comics, and alters him not only into the ultimate “cool dad” on the surface, but a thematic means to discuss individually. While half of the Guardians are on Ego’s utopia, they become aware of his godlike abilities to spread his consciousness across the galaxy and become other planets through terraforming. The conflict that ensues isn’t just about a son realizing the fallibility of an absent father, but in finding a way to combat homogeny while also emphasizing commonality and difference between being as one and being a team.

So much of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is built on parallels. We see these parallels through certain callbacks to the first film, through the more unexpected music selection, which this time utilizes repeated motifs, and the characters’ personalities. By dividing the Guardians into factions for most of the film, those captured by the Ravagers, and those on Ego’s planet, we’re able to get a truer sense of these individuals and watch new bonds develop. Families aren’t created simply through a collective relationship, but through separate interactions and relationships within larger relationships. It’s this notion that Ego, in millenniums of experience, fails to see the smaller picture within his grand design, is unable to comprehend. The Guardians may be built on the principle that they’re all unique, but when it comes to their emotional ties, they are each driven by loneliness and their desire to be part of a family while maintaining their own will and sense of identity. Yes, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is about family, but it offers a more unique analysis of what that means in terms of individuals than any comic book film has had the interest in exploring.

The film is easily one of Marvel’s best looking films, and even though the cinematographer and production designer from the first film were swept up in Doctor Strange, Henry Braham and Scott Chambliss work magic in making Guardians visually distinct from the rest of the MCU. As great as Vol. 2 looks and sounds (you’ll get no soundtrack spoilers from me), what makes Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 so special is how evident it is that Gunn cares deeply about these characters. While so many comic book movie directors can claim fandom or an interesting take, it truly feels that each and every character in this film is an extension of James Gunn and that he knows them through and through. While the film is a bit stuffed with character moments and gags, rather than plot beats, a self-indulgent film is far preferable to a factory made film, and Vol. 2 gives such a clear look inside the head of one of our most offbeat modern directors. In the comics, the cosmic side of the Marvel Universe is often the most difficult to grasp, feeling unnecessarily obtuse and emotionless. But within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Gunn’s cosmic adventures have proven to be one of the very best aspects of this connected franchise, and certainly the most rewarding emotional experience. Sure, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 may be a popcorn film, but it’s definitely a Chicago mix, a balance of sweetness and cheese that’s impossible not to love.

Grade: A

Saturday, February 25, 2017

2016: The Year in Review

While I've already begun delving into the the cinema offerings of 2017, I couldn't let the Oscars creep up without giving 2016 a sendoff here, complete with a list of what I'm, most looking foward to this year As those of you who follow me on social media know, I published my Top 10 at Audiences Everywhere back in December. While that ranking has remained the same, I was able to catch up on more 2016 releases since then and finalize my Top 20. I watched a total of 171 movies in 2016 and 103 of those were 2016 releases. Here's my full list and ranking of the films I saw last year:

Top 10 (originally published at Audiences Everywhere.)

1. The Witch

The Witch avoids any sense of rightness. Cinematically, morally, tonally, David Egger’s film never settles for anything less than a jarring wrongness. Dread permeates the entire film, but that dread rarely stems from the same place from moment to moment. Whether the source of dread be from Mark Kroven’s sometimes anachronistic score, Jarin Blaschke’s shadow-filled cinematography, David Eggers’ steady and purposeful gaze, or the performances of the actors who make up the Puritan family at the center of the film, The Witch never provides a source of familiar comfort. While being a horror movie (any argument that The Witch isn’t is simply absurd), Egger’s film is also faith-based. Faith is challenged in this film both in the conversations between the characters and the images and symbols that are perverted and corrupted. Thomasin, a breakout performance from Anya Taylor-Joy, undergoes a crisis of faith, not just in Christianity, but also in the moral sanctity of family, and achievability of success through hard work and belief. Thomasin’s crisis positions her as other, alone in her changing values and the burden of sin unfairly placed upon her by the rest of her family. Ultimately, it is a deep desire for belonging that defines the titular witch, a lust to be plural instead of singular. We see this natural order in plurality through Thomasin’s younger twin siblings, the two white goats on their farm, the pile of fire wood, and the rotting pillars of corn. Faith, while established as a communal bond, becomes individualized as each member of the family begins to question it and strays from shared Puritanical notions, just as a difference in faith led to William and his family’s banishment from the larger plantation. Thus, if a community cannot be found through Christ, for this family, then their only alternatives in their isolation are to die alone, or to find community through sin in its lack of rigid rules and explanations. Implicitly doing so, The Witch gives weight to the notion of a coven, and defines it through the outliers of America’s non-secular institutions. The Witch basks in the horror beneath the newly laid floorboards of America, and with that comes horrific insights into the American Dream.

2. Moonlight

Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is poetry. The silence that fills the spaces in between the major moments of Chiron’s life give the film rhythm, and this rhythm creates identity. Throughout the three acts of Chiron’s life that we encounter him, silence becomes his defining characteristic. This silence is not only a result of the abuse brought down upon him by his mother and peers, but also silence brought about by his inability to answer a question he poses early in the film, “am I gay?” While the journey of self-discovery Chiron takes to answer this question, or to avoid this question at times, takes brutal and heartbreaking turns, Jenkins never avoids situating the viewer in a place of empathy. If the viewer cares about human beings, then Jenkins makes it impossible not to feel connected to Chiron, his hurt, his longing, and his awakening—each beautiful in their own distinct way. This empathy carries over to the film’s other characters as well. Two of the film’s most morally questionable characters, Chiron’s drug-addicted mother (Naomi Harris) and the drug-dealer, Juan, who befriends him (Mahershala Ali) are both painted with a humanity that respects their struggle but also splattered with the consequences of their lives. Humanity is messy, and Moonlight manages to turn this aspect of the human condition into an art form.   Like last year’s Carol, Moonlight is a progressive step in cinema in that it refuses to turn its characters into martyrs, and instead celebrates the poetry of their lives. As an LGBTQIA film, as a black film, as a human film, Moonlight’s compassion and understanding for the complexities of identity and sexuality is the bar to aim for.

3. Swiss Army Man

Who would have guessed that Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan’s farting corpse movie would be one of the most life-affirming movies of the year? Swiss Army Man is a film composed out of what many would deem seemingly worthless ideas, and created in an effort to encourage a celebration of honesty and things left unsaid—the beauty and ugliness of life with no need to apologize for it. It’s an undoubtedly silly and strange movie, with moments that could be considered major turnoffs for many audience members. Despite its apparent immaturity, the Daniels take a heady and heart-filled dive into how social constructs both hurt and help us. Paul Daniel and Daniel Radcliffe give a codependent performance where each makes the other stronger and infuse Hank and Manny with bits of sadness and sweetness that make them endearing but also purposeful in their respective flaws and attributes. In many ways this film is a lesson about what being human means at its core, away from all the bullshit. With humanity comes hurt, and while so much of the film is charming and easygoing, it’s also mixed with a slight dread. This dread stems from the fact that we know the world of honesty and love Hank and Manny created in the woods, cannot exist within the confines of the self-conscious, ego-driven, and ultimately fear based walls of our world. Swiss Army Man attempts to break down the walls in our head that have made society what it is, while also breaking the barriers of traditional filmmaking. Every year we talk about how the films that are the most respected rarely push the art forward. Swiss Army Man, eschews any traditional appeal for respect, but narratively, musically, and visually it pushes film forward as an art form and as a teaching tool for understanding the human condition. Swiss Army Man is a multi-purpose gift that had a profoundly positive personal effect on me. 

4. Everybody Wants Some!!

Richard Linklater’s spiritual follow-up to Dazed and Confused, brings all the best parts of college to the screen in what is truly, and without hyperbole, the feel good film of the year. Everybody Wants Some!! Is about appreciating the moment you’re in, but ironically Linklater creates a world we want to live in, through a sense of nostalgia for a world some of us never even experienced. The characters he creates, the 80s setting, the music, all contribute to our desire to be part of this time period, to see the potential in ourselves and in the world restored. There’s a simplicity to the film, which doesn’t mean that it’s without conflict, only that the conflict is so small in scale compared to real-world conflict many of us are facing outside of the theater, and perhaps the conflict these young men will face after graduation. The thing is, Linklater’s film isn’t simply a look at something that’s gone, and the mantra “here for a good time, not for a long time” doesn’t simply apply to college life. Everybody Wants Some!! Is Linklater’s impassioned statement to live life to its fullest, to shake off nostalgia and perhaps a bit of responsibility, and create our desirable world in the here and now. All of Linklater’s films are about living life to the fullest in some regard, about taking chances and falling head over heels in love with everything these key moments in time offer. Everybody Wants Some!! achieves that message, and while it may not push the director as far as some of his other films have, that message stands as a necessary reminder in this year of all years. While the film doesn’t wax quite as philosophically as some of Linklater’s previous films, some of those larger questions about life and purpose still exist in the background, ready and waiting to be discovered with the hindsight of maturity. Everybody Wants Some!! gives us not only a good time, but one of the best times of the year, and that’s something that can last.

5. La La Land

More than a simple throwback to the grand Hollywood musicals of the 1950s, Damien Chazelle’s La La Land is a film focused on compromise under the bright lights of success. Falling far closer to Whiplash than Singin’ in the Rain, La La Land’s examination of fame and greatness is at times heartbreaking, it’s message sometimes clashing against the bright visual palate and musical numbers of the film. It works as both fanciful tribute and realist warning to those chasing the Hollywood dream. Through its blending of styles and intentions, La La Land effectively becomes a jazz film through which Chazelle risks displaying his own successes and frustrations within the context of a musical. While it’s easy to become distracted by La La Land’s surface level aspects, it’s production design and musical numbers which range from lovely to exceptional, the film is communicating a necessary mixed message of Hollywood. To position the film simply as a feel-good romp, or attempt at reviving Hollywood classicism is to do the film a disservice. Ryan Gosling’s and Emma Stone’s respective performances as Sebastian and Mia are defined by a naturalism we rarely see in musicals. It’s clear that they aren’t stage stars stepping onto the big-screen, and as a result their emotions ground the film, even amidst the dancing and singing. While a frequent criticism of filmic musicals is the spontaneity of characters bursting into song, without the benefit of being live, there’s nothing spontaneous about La La Land. Every beautiful melody from Justin Hurwitz’s haunting and lively score is steadily built, every decision Mia and Sebastian make is carefully considered and weighed. And Chazelle doesn’t simply settle for letting the singing and dancing do their work against an artful production design, he directs the hell out of it. With attention to shot composition, framing, and a balance between image and meaning, Chazelle aims beyond the simple movie musical for something that is artful in its technical skill. For all of its hat tips to another era, few films felt more modern this year than La La Land.

6. Arrival

Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, based on Ted Chiang’s short “Story of Your Life,” is a delicate balance of ideas and sentiments for a world currently teetering due to its communication failures. Complicated human emotions, a dense study of language and thought, and blockbuster-level effects coalesce to become indispensable elements of a science-fiction film we’re desperately in need of at this moment. As we witness a small group of scientists and military personal attempt to communicate with recently landed aliens in an attempt to discover their intentions, Villeneuve lingers on notions of how learning another’s language is to also learn their thought process. He, screenwriter Eric Heisserer, and editor Joe Walker carefully construct the path for a surprising, and haunting ending early in the film. And they do this with a quiet dignity, and refusal to cater to the kinds of action beats, set-pieces, and reveals that we normally encounter in alien arrival films. Villeneuve treats semantics the same way some alien arrival films treat explosions and space battles, thus tempting audience members to find the same kind of excitement in seeing metaphorical bridges built as we do in seeing literal ones destroyed in so many other films. A large part of what makes Arrival work also resides in an incredible, and haunting performance from Amy Adams, who has the greatest effect on the film with quiet moments. She becomes our emotional anchor in a film driven by science and grand-ideas, reminding us that the greatest strength of human is a willingness to learn, embrace change, and ultimately embrace life. Arrival is an immigrant song, but also a call for acceptance, and reminder that the greatest gifts lie in our ability to peacefully communicate. There could not be a more profound and necessary catharsis for our post-election crisis than a film that understands humanity’s greatness in possibility, the tragedy of our limitations, and the needful hope for our continued existence.

7. The Invitation

Karyn Kusama invites us into the world of this film with a mercy killing, an act that sets the tone and theme for the rest of the film that follows. The Invitation begins as a tense bottle drama as Will and his girlfriend attend a party at his ex-wife’s house. As the intentions of the party become clear, the film becomes a full on horror movie that uses friendship, desire, and grief against each of the attendees. Much of the tension and resulting horror is achieved through Kusama’s deliberate use of space. The exterior of the house looks large and spacious, but inside Kusama controls the setting, making it feel tight as she pushes the camera in on character’s faces, and positions them next to walls and doors, constantly making it feel as if the environment is closing in around these characters. The layout of the house becomes deliberately confusing, with too many long hallways, too many doors to keep track of the exits, and the possibilities lurking in the shadows. Logan Marshall-Green’s paranoid performance as Will is one of the strongest of the year, as it constantly leads the viewer to question the veracity of what we encounter but is also one filled with raw emotional hurt over the loss of his child. Will turns every interaction with old-friends into an awkward encounter with a stranger, a constant source of discomfort within the forced comfort of the softly lamp-lit house, until we have no idea who any of these people really are. During the second half of the film a game of “I Want” becomes the film’s standout scene as it reveals the secret tragedy of each guest, and makes every tense allegiance all the more fragile.  Once the ultimate secret is revealed, and Kusama takes us all into full on panic mode, she delivers the most staggering ending of the year. By then it’s all clear, The Invitation is full on emotional assault.

8. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice- Ultimate Edition

There’s nothing gentle about Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Zack Snyder’s film is one that refuses to tone down its lofty thematics and refuses to play its absurd moments for winks. It takes fan and non-fan alike and hurls them head first into what comic books actually are: a collision of the facts and ideas that make up the very bones of storytelling, and the inherent but rarely acknowledged silliness that comes from watching grown men in costumes face pseudo-science and existential identity crises. In Batman v Superman, everything here is presented on a ceremonial pedestal, and why shouldn’t it be when comic book adaptations dominate our news, social media, and pop-cultural atmosphere? Batman v Superman, offers an introspective look at some of the world’s most popular characters, making them matter in today’s socio-political climate, and making them feel like actual human beings with hopes, flaws, and existential considerations. This is The Last Temptation of Christ by way of DC Comics. This is a comic book movie by a director who refuses to just aim for “fun” and be done. Snyder makes it clear that if these heroes and villains are to matter, if they’re going to fill up our news feeds and studio release slates, then they’ve got to be challenged. They’ve got to be retrofitted within the context of a world where guns are problematic symbols of power, immigrants are feared and hated, and the media does make monsters for ratings. Snyder doesn’t change these characters, he simply understands comic book history better than most directors (and most viewers), and chose which elements would mean the most in our currently shifting world. The film leaves us on a note of hope and inspiration, something that had to be worked for, thought about, and earned the hard way by the heroes central to the film. No, Batman v Superman may not be gentle, but in its invitation to work through it, to think about it beyond the theater doors and echo-chamber of social media, it provides one of the most satisfying experience of the year, and hope for the future of the comic book movies.

9. Green Room
Jeremy Saulnier delivers the same authenticity he found in Blue Ruin for his concentrated and deeply discomforting story of a punk rock band forced to fight for their lives against a small army of skinheads. Within the confines of a secluded bar in the middle of the woods, we find chaos as the descendants of two groups made to push back against the changing world (punk-rockers and Nazis) clash, and encounter a desert island of the human spirit. Saulnier uses the film’s visceral violence and the characters’ struggle to survive as an exploration of the nihilistic soul of modern American culture. Punk rock doesn’t just play into the sound and aesthetic of the film, but works within its thematic foundation, as the film uses punk music to explore displacement, isolation, and imitation. Patrick Stewart’s Neo-Nazi leader, Darcy, is the Iggy Pop of his world, an originator and icon of his specialized depravity. His young followers have become more chaotic, more disruptive, and unorganized in comparison to the traditions Darcy founded. They are punks without a sense of purpose or commitment beyond labels. These young Neo-Nazis are ultimately not so different from the Ain’t Rights, who as exemplified in a tremendous performance by the late Anton Yelchin, are on their own quest for purpose within the country’s changing landscape. Imogen Poot’s Amber is on her own quest as she plays witness to the struggle, and a discordant voice of honesty in the other characters’ search for meaning and honor in violence. By Green Room’s end, neither music nor violence can hold the world together, and in the ruins of the things that our characters believed gave them purpose and identity, we’re left with a state of anarchy that our characters could previously only imitate.

10. The Nice Guys

Shane Black’s tricks of the trade have become familiar territory by now. We always have some idea of what to expect when it comes to his odd-couple, buddy cop yarns, set during the most spirited of seasons.  Yet, despite that factor, The Nice Guys is no less engaging, surprising, or skillfully crafted than if this were the first time we were hearing Black’s voice. While Black knows that certain expectations rest on his name, he refuses to rest on them. It’s in The Nice Guys that we see the years of developed skill on both high-profile blockbusters and smaller, cult films at work. Shane Black is only getting better at making movies, and while his name may not bring in the box office numbers of some of his peers, his voice is no less essential to film.  This is a film with energy, a neon colored coke high that’s propelled by its mixture of crime subgenres and the bombastic performances of leads Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling. The mystery, centered around a missing girl, a dead porn star, and the automobile industry is just as expectedly messy as something we’d see in a Chandler novel, only with more edginess and shock value in Black’s hand. While the mystery has pointed political relevancy once solved, it’s the characters on the case who pull us into the movie. Crowe’s Jackson Healy and Gosling’s Holland March are damaged humans, and the case they find themselves mixed up in ultimately isn’t about saving L.A. or the country (despite the stakes that point to that), but saving themselves. The Nice Guys holds the promise of individual happiness in an unhappy world and self-worth through the meaningless struggle to fight against inevitability and a changing world. Wrapped up in a complex LA neo-noir plot, The Nice Guys is a deeply felt, and deeply funny, character study that promises nothing less than fulfillment in the aftermath of failure. 

11. Sing Street
12. 10 Cloverfield Lane
13. Manchester by the Sea
14. Doctor Strange
15. The Edge of Seventeen
16. Kubo an the Two Strings
17. Moana
18. Zootopia
19. Jackie
20. The Lobster

Honerable Mentions: Midnight Special, Don't Breathe, Hell or High Water, In a Valley of Violence, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

2017's Most Anctipated:
1. Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi
2. Justice League
3. Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2
4. Blade Runner 2049
5. Wonder Woman
6. Logan
7. Alien: Covenant
8. War for the Planet of the Apes
9.  Dunkirk
10. The Dark Tower

I'd like to thank everyone who visted my blog this year. Please check out further work from me and my friends at Audueicnes Everywhere. Here's to a great 2017!