At one point in Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer, the next-level weird character Martin (Barry Keoghan) suggests putting on his favorite movie for himself, his mother (Alicia Silverstone), and Dr. Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) to watch. You might reasonably assume the movie to be something like Salò, or Irréversible, but it turns out to be a delightful choice that happens to be one of my favorites too. But this is not a movie of comfort, where you take a sigh because you’ve avoided the bad thing headed your way. In this tale of a family man surgeon’s (Farrell) strange and disastrous mentorship of the son of a former patient (Keoghan), you can’t take a step but for the psychological minefield under your feet.
As the misfit Martin, Barry Keoghan gives a profoundly weird performance. He’s an uncanny valley unto himself, a superficially courteous youth with an unsettling presence. As the movie plays, the viewer wonders if this blank-faced, 21st Century Norman Bates is meant as a comment on mental health issues in some way, but Martin stands apart, in his own pocket universe. Granted, everything of human interaction in this film is off. People talk like automatons (somewhat in the manner of Lanthimos’ previous film The Lobster) and do that thing out of The Room where they switch subjects mid-breath with the imperceptible snap of a finger.
It takes a specific kind of ensemble to pull this off, and so this cast is filled with actors of daring. Colin Farrell, long since breaking out of the “Hollywood leading man” template. Nicole Kidman, who embraces art films, Oscar bait, and blockbusters. Raffey Cassidy, who in Tomorrowland played a literal robot that was much more human, all told. The chameleon Bill Camp. And Alicia Silverstone, who between this and Catfight is starting to make interesting choices.
From the opening shot of the film, meant to shock, it establishes a contract with the audience. The first shot prepares viewers for the many subtler, more insidious shocks that are in store. The sterilized production design makes the whole movie an operating theater of the macabre. And more than that, The Killing of a Sacred Deer returns to a more pagan humanity. There are allusions to Oedipus the King and Hammurabic justice. When Iphigenia comes up, it feels almost too obvious a sign that this contemporary setting is being visited by some stygian shit.
Speaking of signposting, maybe the constant eerie musical stings overplay the movie’s hand. And there is a bit of a tonal issue that comes up with regard to Martin. At first, the other characters warm to Martin and find him charming and personable. But after his true agenda is revealed, the sentiment morphs into “he’s always been weird” despite the other characters’ lack of prior suspicion. It makes the reality of the movie less hermetically sealed, but is overall just a blip in the immersion.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer traffics in grippingly odd dialogue scenes and visual framing, and features some primally upsetting imagery. As animated by Barry Keoghan, Martin’s inimitable strangeness makes him one of the best villains of 2017. You have to be on the film’s wavelength to be engaged with it, and it has the makings of a divisive but major work from Lanthimos. For me, this joins 2001: A Space Odyssey and Dune in a rarefied club of mesmeric movies.
Action Scenes of the Year (SPOILERS) (see below for One-on-One Fights)
10) The Losers’ Club vs. Pennywise, It
9) Shootout, Wind River
8) Foot chase, Baby Driver
7) Finale chase, Monster Trucks
6) Motorcycle surf chase, xXx: Return of Xander Cage
5) Mexican standoff, Logan
4) One-shot brawl, Atomic Blonde
3) Veld, Wonder Woman
2) Escalating finale, The Fate of the Furious
1) The throne room, Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Best Action Films of the Year
The Fate of the Furious
John Wick Chapter Two
Best Non-2017 Films Discovered in 2017
My Favorite () Yet
Battle of the Sexes, my favorite Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris film yet
The Fate of the Furious, my favorite Fast and Furious film yet
Gifted, my favorite Marc Webb film yet (though I haven’t seen (500) Days of Summer)
Logan, my favorite Wolverine film yet
My Cousin Rachel, my favorite Roger Michell film yet
Power Rangers, my favorite Power Rangers film yet
Star Wars: The Last Jedi, my favorite Rian Johnson and (maybe) Star Wars film yet
Thor: Ragnarok, my favorite Thor and Taika Waititi film yet
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, my favorite Martin McDonagh film yet
Wonder Woman, my favorite DCU film yet
xXx: Return of Xander Cage, my favorite xXx film yet (but, sue me, I like State of the Union)
Best Heroes or Antiheroes of the Year
11) Moonie (Brooklynn Prince), The Florida Project
10) Meredith (Jane Levy), Monster Trucks
9) Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), Molly’s Game
8) Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh), Murder on the Orient Express
7) Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Thor: Ragnarok
6) Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya), Get Out
5) Diana (Gal Gadot), Wonder Woman
4) Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri
3) Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), Thor: Ragnarok
2) Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), Star Wars: The Last Jedi
1) Ruth Kimke (Melanie Lynskey), I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore
Worst Heroes or Antiheroes of the Year
Valerian and Laureline (Dane DeHaan and Cara Delavigne), Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), Cars 3
Best Horror Films of the Year
The Girl with All the Gifts
Moments of the Year
20) ATM, Baby Driver
19) “Of course not”, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
18) Churchill’s speech, Dunkirk
17) Olive the Wonder Woman, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women
16) Projector scare, It
15) Riff-off, Pitch Perfect 3
14) “Luck don’t live out here”, Wind River
13) The reversal, Good Time
12) Laura unleashed, Logan
11) The cop car, Get Out
10) Good Morning Missouri broadcast, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri
9) A hypothetical question, The Post
8) The ending, Your Name.
7) Second “Immigrant Song” needle drop, Thor: Ragnarok
6) TIE: “Choose” and “No More Catholics”, T2 Trainspotting
5) “I wish I could put my fist through this whole lousy, beautiful town”, Star Wars: The Last Jedi
4) Diplomacy montage, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
3) Shaw family reunion, The Fate of the Furious
2) This one, Kong: Skull Island
1) No man’s land, Wonder Woman
One-on-One Fights of the Year (SPOILERS)
13) Roland Deschlain vs. Walter, The Dark Tower
12) Eggsy Unwin vs. Charlie Hesketh, Kingsman: The Golden Circle
11) Logan vs. X-24, Logan
10) Letty vs. Russian, The Fate of the Furious
9) Walter vs. David, Alien: Covenant
8) Finn vs. Phasma, Star Wars: The Last Jedi
7) Vincent Downs vs. McFerrin, Sleepless
6) Thor vs. The Hulk, Thor: Ragnarok
5) Nick Morton vs. Edward Hyde, The Mummy
4) Mark Renton vs. Simon Williamson, T2 Trainspotting
3) Ashley Miller vs. Veronica Salt (Round 1), Catfight
2) Gamora vs. Nebula, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
1) John Wick vs. Cassian, John Wick Chapter 2
Best Pop Culture References/Allusions of the Year
10) The Lord of the Rings, Unforgettable
9) Hercules, The Fate of the Furious
8) Monk, The Assignment
7) Star Wars, Spider-Man: Homecoming
6) Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, Thor: Ragnarok
5) On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, T2 Trainspotting
4) Wings of Desire, The Space Between Us
3) Seconds, Get Out
2) A Song of Ice and Fire, Logan Lucky
1) Jerry Maguire, The LEGO Batman Movie
Ranking Disney-Distributed Movies (Worst to Best)
7) Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales
6) Cars 3
4) Beauty and the Beast
3) Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
2) Thor: Ragnarok
1) Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Best School Films of the Year
Best Science Fiction Films of the Year
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Blade Runner 2049
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
The Space Between Us
War for the Planet of the Apes
Cars 3 > Cars 2
The Fate of the Furious > Furious 7
John Wick Chapter 2 > John Wick
Logan > The Wolverine
Star Wars: The Last Jedi > Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Thor: Ragnarok > Thor: The Dark World
xXx: Return of Xander Cage > xXx: State of the Union
Kingsman: The Golden Circle < Kingsman: The Secret Service
Pitch Perfect 3 < Pitch Perfect 2
Transformers: The Last Knight < Transformers: Age of Extinction
Best Sequel (#2 – Second Installment) of the Year
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Blade Runner 2049
John Wick Chapter Two
Best Sequel (#3 – Third Installment) of the Year
War for the Planet of the Apes
xXx: Return of Xander Cage
Best Spinoffs of the Year
Kong: Skull Island
The LEGO Batman Movie
After Godzilla cameos in Moana, King Kong cameos in The LEGO Batman Movie.
After Idris Elba sang the end credits song of Bastille Day, Samuel L. Jackson does the same in The Hitman’s Bodyguard.
After Tilda Swinton played twins in Hail, Caesar!, she does it again in Okja.
The general overuse of “Spirit in the Sky” continues with Life’s end credits, and I Tonya.
In Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a peasant recognizes that Arthur is king because he’s “the only one who hasn’t got shit all over him”. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword has a scene that covers Arthur in shit.
The Belko Experiment and The Circle share one similar plot point, and have the exact same final shot.
Peter Ferdinando plays the main villain’s henchman in both King Arthur: Legend of the Sword and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales.
I’ve seen four versions of The Mummy and this one is the weakest.
The LEGO Ninjago Movie is the second-best Power Rangers movie of the year.
In Battle of the Sexes, Emma Stone appears under a huge sign spelling Aloha, aka the movie where she infamously played the one-quarter Hawaiian Allison Ng.
Best nonverbal acting of the year: Star Wars: The Last Jedi’s Carrie Fisher in the scene where Leia and Kylo Ren feel each other’s presence through the Force.
There are five 2017 movies with the word “Wonder” in the title: Wonder Woman, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, Wonderstruck, Wonder Wheel, and Wonder. Not to mention Logan, Logan Lucky, and Lucky. Plus, Your Name. and Call Me by Your Name.
I could have pretty much filled a legitimate, endorsed-by-me Best Actress category exclusively with people whose last name starts with H: Rebecca Hall in Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, Anne Hathaway in Colossal, Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water, Anne Heche in Catfight.
Tearjerkers of the Year
Dunkirk; Professor Marston and the Wonder Women; Wonder Woman; Murder on the Orient Express; Coco; Star Wars: The Last Jedi; Your Name.; The Post
Most Underrated Films of the Year
Star Wars: The Last Jedi; The Space Between Us; Sleepless…
And Monster Trucks wins my “Pardon One Turkey” award. It’s really good!
Best Villains of the Year
10) Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), The Shape of Water
9) The Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), Thor: Ragnarok
8) Kevin Wendell Crumb/The Horde (James McAvoy), Split
7) Missy Armitage (Catherine Keener), Get Out
6) Hela (Cate Blanchett), Thor: Ragnarok
5) Ego (Kurt Russell), Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
4) The Joker (Zach Galifianakis), The LEGO Batman Movie
3) Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), Spider-Man: Homecoming
2) Francis Begbie (Robert Carlyle), T2 Trainspotting
1) Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Worst Villain of the Year
Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance, Okja
Chicago song at the big dramatic climax, Death Note
Ominous ending, Unforgettable
Mid-credits scene, Wish Upon
Jason Isaacs as Phantom of the Opera meets Frankenstein’s monster, A Cure for Wellness
The notion that people care about the byzantine politics, Underworld: Blood Wars
All of Transformers: The Last Knight
Jump scares, Resident Evil: The Final Chapter
Rambling Anthony Hopkins villain, Collide
Excalibur, The Dark Tower
Fauna, Kong: Skull Island
The world revolves around an adult’s cards game, Girlfriend’s Day
TIE: The breakup scene and The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift crossover, Wish Upon
Nicolas Cage as Unhinged Main Villain #32, Arsenal
Cockney Crowe, The Mummy
The concept of Colossal
Adventureland, Good Time
Uncensored Jeff Goldblum, Thor: Ragnarok
Mid-Credits scene, Split
All of The Fate of the Furious
Best War Films of the Year
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
(ROUGH) Final Ranking of All (111) 2017 Films Seen (Best to Worst)
Get Out; Star Wars: The Last Jedi; The Fate of the Furious; Colossal; The Post; Thor: Ragnarok; Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri; Baby Driver; Your Name.; Wonder Woman; John Wick Chapter 2; Molly’s Game; Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2; I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore; Beauty and the Beast; Battle of the Sexes; T2 Trainspotting; The Disaster Artist; Atomic Blonde; Coco; The Shape of Water; Logan; Murder on the Orient Express; Dunkirk; All the Money in the World; The LEGO Batman Movie; Blade Runner 2049; Darkest Hour; The Big Sick; mother!; Wind River; Loving Vincent; Spider-Man: Homecoming; Lady Bird; Kong: Skull Island; Monster Trucks; The Space Between Us; xXx: Return of Xander Cage; Catfight; Good Time; Phantom Thread; I Tonya; Call Me by Your Name; The Girl with All the Gifts; War for the Planet of the Apes; Free Fire; The Lost City of Z; Professor Marston and the Wonder Women; Raw; Power Rangers; Sleepless; The Hitman’s Bodyguard; Mudbound; It; Logan Lucky; Gifted; Pitch Perfect 3; Ingrid Goes West; American Made; Kingsman: The Golden Circle; Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets; The Breadwinner; Alien: Covenant; Their Finest; Girlfriend’s Day; The Great Wall; War on Everyone; The Florida Project; Personal Shopper; The Assignment; Split; Okja; A Ghost Story; The Greatest Showman; My Cousin Rachel; Aftermath; Cars 3; Gold; The Beguiled; Ghost in the Shell; Gerald’s Game; The Belko Experiment; The Discovery; The Zookeeper’s Wife; The Dark Tower; Justice League; Victoria & Abdul; Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie; The LEGO Ninjago Movie; Sleight; Table 19; Geostorm; Death Note; The Circle; Wonder Wheel; Wilson; Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales; Life; A Cure for Wellness; The Mummy; Wish Upon; The Foreigner; The Wall; Before I Fall; King Arthur: Legend of the Sword; The Book of Henry; Collide; Arsenal; Transformers: The Last Knight; Unforgettable; Underworld: Blood Wars; Resident Evil: The Final Chapter
By the Numbers
7 Monsters with grotesque rows of teeth (Monster Trucks, The Great Wall, Kong: Skull Island, Colossal, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Alien: Covenant, It)
5 Final bosses with skull helmets (King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, Wonder Woman, The LEGO Ninjago Movie, Thor: Ragnarok, Justice League)
4 Jungle treks (Kong: Skull Island, The Lost City of Z, Gold, Kingsman: The Golden Circle)
4 Films featuring sign language (John Wick Chapter Two, Baby Driver, War for the Planet of the Apes, The Shape of Water)
4 Women in a creepy isolated house (mother!, Gerald’s Game, Personal Shopper, A Ghost Story)
4 Wonder Woman appearances (The LEGO Batman Movie, Wonder Woman, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, Justice League)
3 Awful fifth installments (Underworld: Blood Wars, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, Transformers: The Last Knight)
3 Films dealing with the Dunkirk Evacuation (Their Finest, Dunkirk, Darkest Hour)
3 Uses of John Denver’s “Annie’s Song” (Free Fire, Okja, Kingsman: The Golden Circle)
3 Uses of John Denver’s “Take Me Home Country Roads” (Alien: Covenant, Logan Lucky, Kingsman: The Golden Circle) (The latter two films both feature Channing Tatum.)
3 Appearances of King Arthur’s sword Excalibur (King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, Transformers: The Last Knight, The Dark Tower)
3 “Major Tom” songs/references (Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, Atomic Blonde, Geostorm)
3 Films revolving around a one-on-one fight/confrontation (Catfight, Unforgettable, Battle of the Sexes)
3 Samuel L. Jackson appearances where another role of his is referenced (xXx: Return of Xander Cage, Kong: Skull Island, The Hitman’s Bodyguard)
3 Series’ main protagonists turn evil (The Fate of the Furious, Transformers: The Last Knight, Justice League) (With the exception of Justice League, the other films feature at least one scene in Cuba.)
3 Stephen King adaptations (The Dark Tower, It, Gerald’s Game)
3 Villains whose name is scoffed/laughed at (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie, The Dark Tower)
2 Ape films heavily referencing Apocalypse Now (Kong: Skull Island, War for the Planet of the Apes)
2 February horror films in which a car hits a deer (Get Out, A Cure for Wellness)
2 Characters who make a big deal about aiming a weapon with his heart (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, The Dark Tower)
2 Coney Island appearances (Spider-Man: Homecoming, Wonder Wheel)
2 Eighth installments (The Fate of the Furious, Star Wars: The Last Jedi)
2 Uses of Elton John’s “Rocket Man” (Kingsman: The Golden Circle, Battle of the Sexes)
2 Uses of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, I Tonya)
2 Genius-level gifted kids (Gifted, The Book of Henry)
2 Giant animals in South Korea (Colossal, Okja)
2 Good remakes (Beauty and the Beast, Sleepless)
2 High school films with the female lead being run over by a car at the end (Wish Upon, Before I Fall)
2 Hopeful futures for the International Space Station (Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, Geostorm)
2 of Jaeden Lieberher’s friends being abused by her single-parent father (The Book of Henry, It)
2 King Kong sightings (The LEGO Batman Movie, Kong: Skull Island)
2 Instances of life on Mars (Life, The Space Between Us)
2 Films where people ask someone what their mother was like and the answer is “fearless” (Beauty and the Beast, The Space Between Us)
2 Tom Cruise plane crashes (The Mummy, American Made)
2 Villainous absentee fathers who play catch with their son (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, The LEGO Ninjago Movie)
Curtain Call Cast Credits (xXx: Return of Xander Cage, The LEGO Batman Movie, The Great Wall, Beauty and the Beast, Sleepless, Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie, Spider-Man: Homecoming, The Assignment, Collide, Death Note*, The LEGO Ninjago Movie, Loving Vincent, Thor: Ragnarok)
Epilogue Text (The Zookeeper’s Wife, The Lost City of Z, The Assignment, The Big Sick*, Wind River, American Made, Battle of the Sexes, Victoria & Abdul, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, Loving Vincent, The Disaster Artist, Darkest Hour, All the Money in the World, The Greatest Showman, I Tonya)
Mid-Credits Scenes (Split, Power Rangers, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie, Transformers: The Last Knight, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Wish Upon, Good Time*, The LEGO Ninjago Movie, Thor: Ragnarok, Justice League, Pitch Perfect 3*, Call Me by Your Name*, Phantom Thread*)
Post-Credits Scenes (Kong: Skull Island, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, Cars 3, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Okja, Thor: Ragnarok, Justice League, The Disaster Artist)
Best Supporting Actress
Betty Gabriel, Get Out
Holly Hunter, The Big Sick
Allison Janney, I Tonya
Catherine Keener, Get Out
Andrea Riseborough, Battle of the Sexes
Best Supporting Actor
Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri
Adam Driver, Logan Lucky
Gary Oldman, The Space Between Us
Christopher Plummer, All the Money in the World
Elijah Wood, I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore
Best Original Song
“Evermore”, Beauty and the Beast
“Days in the Sun”, Beauty and the Beast
“The Greatest Show”, The Greatest Showman
“Remember Me”, Coco
“When We’re Together”, Olaf’s Frozen Adventure
Roger Deakins, Blade Runner 2049
Larry Fong, Kong: Skull Island
Dan Laustsen, John Wick Chapter 2
Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, Call Me by Your Name
Vittorio Storaro, Wonder Wheel
Best Adapted Screenplay
Rian Johnson, Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Michael Green, Murder on the Orient Express
Liz Hannah & Josh Singer, The Post
Kumail Nanjiani & Emily V. Gordon, The Big Sick
Aaron Sorkin, Molly’s Game
Jonathan Amos & Paul Machliss, Baby Driver
Gregory Plotkin, Get Out
Evan Schiff, John Wick Chapter 2
Lee Smith, Dunkirk
Christian Wagner & Paul Rubell, The Fate of the Furious
Best Original Score
John Williams, Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Jonny Greenwood, Phantom Thread
Clint Mansell, Loving Vincent
Mark Mothersbaugh, Thor: Ragnarok
Oneohtrix Point Never, Good Time
Best Production Design
Dan Hennah & Ra Vincent, Thor: Ragnarok
Stefan Dechant, Kong: Skull Island
Sarah Greenwood, Beauty and the Beast
Rick Heinrichs, Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Hugues Tissandier, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
Best Animated Feature
The LEGO Batman Movie
Best Original Screenplay
Jordan Peele, Get Out
Michael McDonagh, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri
Onur Tukel, Catfight
Nacho Vigalondo, Colossal
Edgar Wright, Baby Driver
Darren Aronofsky, mother!
Rian Johnson, Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Jordan Peele, Get Out
Nacho Vigalondo, Colossal
Edgar Wright, Baby Driver
Robert Pattinson, Good Time
Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out
James McAvoy, Split
Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour
Jeremy Renner, Wind River
Michelle Williams, All the Money in the World
Vicky Krieps, Phantom Thread
Melanie Lynskey, I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore
Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri
Meryl Streep, The Post
The Fate of the Furious
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
19) Atomic Blonde
A case of style over substance if ever there was one, but what style! One of the most aesthetically complete movies of the year, Atomic Blonde is a neon dream of a Cold War espionage thrill ride. The plot can twist itself in knots a bit, but observe the masterful hallway fight (part of a larger one-shot wonder-sequence) and you’ll understand the film’s priorities. Hopefully Charlize Theron’s ice cool spy Lorraine Broughton can carry the story into a sequel.
18) The Disaster Artist
This chronicle of the making of “the best worst movie ever made” will play differently depending on whether you’ve entered The Room, but regardless, laughs will be had. The Disaster Artist is a brisk and likable comedy, sometimes truly hilarious, propelled by an engine of eccentricity in James Franco’s take on mysterious auteur Tommy Wiseau. Early scenes where Dave Franco’s Greg (and thus the audience) first gets to know Tommy are comedy gold, and actually outshine later scenes of the film production (some sequences require tonal gymnastics that the film isn’t quite limber enough to land). Anyway, how’s your sex life?
17) T2 Trainspotting
Nostalgia sequels are nothing new, but T2 Trainspotting asks, “What if those good ol’ days we’re nostalgic for were actually shit?” This 21-years-on sequel finds the ensemble in various stages of repeating old mistakes and breaking out of old cycles, with a big heart to go along with its old cynicism. Add in a new chill-inducing “choose…” montage, a hilarious musical number, and a bona fide slasher movie finale, and director Danny Boyle has done the film that made his name proud.
16) Battle of the Sexes
For me, this was a wonderful bait-and-switch. Rather than following by rote the titular tennis match between humbly trailblazing feminist Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and showy self-styled misogynist Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), Battle of the Sexes transcends the true-life sports movie by prioritizing the personal. A rose-eyed and bittersweet romance between King and a radiant Andrea Riseborough gives the film its beating heart, even as it still builds to some terrific tennis action for the finale.
When it comes to the updates made by this remake of the beloved animated film, all I see are positives. The romance, the music, the production, it all comes together for something quite elegant – in particular, two of the new songs rule hard. While not flawless, 2017’s Beauty and the Beast is a movie I’ll be revisiting for a while.
14) I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore
There was no main character I liked more this year than Melanie Lynskey’s Ruth Kimke. She’s got more bad days than good, a hilarious sidekick (Elijah Wood), and a vigilante’s sense of moral indignation. The film, like director Macon Blair’s childhood friend Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room before it, feels like it was made to subtly comment on Trump’s America even before it was a reality. This left-of-center indie taps into something primal, even as it ambles down its own path.
Leaning hard on spoofery, if this sequel to one of Marvel’s biggest sleeper hits had its tongue any more firmly in its cheek, it’d eat through the flesh. Free (for better or worse) from the traditional beats of an action movie, writer/director James Gunn digs deep with character (side characters Nebula and Yondu are given golden material here) and makes a grand cosmic daddy issues film – the spectacle has expanded, the focus has contracted. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 may laugh at its own jokes a little more than warranted, but its freewheeling nature and stealth emotional gut-punches save the day.
12) Molly’s Game
A movie after my own heart – my favorite actress Jessica Chastain headlining my favorite writer Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut! This engaging believe-it-or-not true-life account of lucrative underground poker has much to recommend it, but I actually prefer last year’s Chastain-starring Sorkin ripoff Miss Sloane (which is really a testament to how good Miss Sloane is rather than an indictment of Molly’s Game!). To an extent Molly’s Game exists now as a screenwriting opus to be revisited on home video, where each of its mile-a-minute witticisms can be extracted and appreciated at one’s own pace.
11) John Wick Chapter 2
It wasn’t enough for the filmmakers behind John Wick Chapter 2 to fill another 90 minutes with gorgeously balletic gun-fu choreography and regularly paced headshots, although they’ve succeeded in that. What makes this sequel special is how it builds out this bizarre world of assassin subcultures and operatic vengeance. The film is an action touchstone while also delighting us with the context for that violence.
10) Wonder Woman
It’s hard to imagine a lower bar to clear than the rest of the current DC cinematic universe, but Wonder Woman is more than just the best (read: only good) movie of the pack, it’s a genuinely great film. The No Man’s Land sequence is the moment of the year, an unironic crystallization so clear of why we as a culture mythologize superheroes that it seems destined to do for this generation what Superman: The Movie did for another.
9) Your Name.
The best animated film of the year, Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name will make your heart feel a great many things. Breathtaking 2D animation comes in service of an evolving story that at first seems like just a silly bodyswap comedy but in due time becomes something mind-expanding. City boy Taki and small town girl Mitsuha are just lines on a page and voices in a stereo mix, but this is the magic of animation, that they become much more.
8) Baby Driver
An audacious technical exercise, a swaggering experiment in formal editing, a jukebox musical heist, a kickass car chase flick, Baby Driver is master filmmaker Edgar Wright’s latest, making us all grateful for the concept of a passion project. Just as Baby (Ansel Elgort) syncs his getaway driving to the songs on his iPod, the film edits to the beats as well. As much a movie to be studied, as it is one to be swept away by while in the passenger seat.
7) Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
An unflinchingly funny, vulgar, and emotional small-town saga unfolds when Mildred Hayes (a terrific Frances McDormand) uses three billboards to protest the lack of progress in solving her daughter’s rape/murder case. A great cast (of which Sam Rockwell is the other major highlight) and an unpredictable story make Ebbing, Missouri a darn good place to spend a couple hours.
6) Thor: Ragnarok
Exactly what I wanted out of a Taika Waititi Marvel movie and more, Thor: Ragnarok is an incredible spectacle and a well-rounded blockbuster. Hilarious but not vapid, outrageous but not alienating, the good stuff keeps popping off the screen like fireworks. Uncensored Jeff Goldblum, Chris Hemsworth’s comedy chops unleashed, a sadistic-as-Hel Cate Blanchett, a revelatory performance from Tessa Thompson, musical callbacks to other Marvel movies, bright pastel colors, one of the most exciting finales of the year, and Led Zeppelin!
5) The Post
Going into Steven Spielberg’s The Post I was thinking a lot of its value would come from its lightning-rod topicality as a White House spits on the free press, but I came out pleasantly surprised by its considerable cinematic power. Once it gets in its groove, scene after scene becomes exquisite, quietly powerful drama, as characters come to terms with painful truths about people they considered friends, and the choice between easy hypocrisy and hard idealism. This is a beautiful American movie, and proof that the Beard is not to be underestimated (here’s looking at Ready Player One…?). Also, The Post teases Watergate the way some movies tease Thanos’ invasion of Earth.
How to explain Colossal? Basically, a kaiju devastates Seoul and Anne Hathaway’s Gloria figures out that it mimics her own movements while at a certain location, and that it’s most likely a manifestation of her drinking problems. But you only have the see the movie to know that’s not the whole story at all. Colossal is a thematically rich character study unafraid to go to some dark places, and watching it unfold is one of the most rewarding cinematic journeys of the year.
Between this and a certain other little movie, it sure was a good year for eighth installments in franchises, and the Fast and Furious series shows no signs of slowing down in quality after the turning point of Fast Five. While not without drawbacks, The Fate of the Furious is an immensely entertaining, beautifully edited action extravaganza that pushes the buttons so well it’s hard to imagine how a ninth film will top it. The way things are going, it’ll find a way.
The best blockbuster of the year, bar none, Star Wars: The Last Jedi is a thrilling affirmation of everything Star Wars was and is and should be, filled with charismatic performances, sensitive character development, and a great spirit of desperate adventure. And on a technical level, how about gorgeous production design, a wonderful John Williams score, and courtesy of Rian Johnson, the most whip smart direction Star Wars has seen. Send me to the Coruscant insane asylum if you will, but I think The Last Jedi is the most flawless, if not the best, installment in this storied franchise.
1) Get Out
The movie of 2017, the most important movie of the year, etc, etc. Get Out’s depiction of a different class of racism has rightly started a yearlong conversation. But beyond the real sociological concerns animating the film, Get Out is a perfect genre movie, moving from tension to joke to shock like clockwork. An uncannily assured debut feature from Jordan Peele, the film features expert editing, a fiendishly clever screenplay, and a murderer’s row of fantastic performances (Daniel Kaluuya, Catherine Keener, Betty Gabriel, Bradley Whitford, and Lil Rel Howery are all terrific). It takes a special talent to make an instantly iconic movie, but Jordan Peele obviously has a lot to get out of his system, and we should all be glad that he did.
Contains full spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
“Something inside me has always been there… but now it’s awake.” – Star Wars
Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the longest film in the franchise, appropriately has a lot on its mind, but also uses its cinematic flair for an exciting popcorn ride. More than just a good eighth installment, it’s the type of sequel that reignites the appeal of what came before. It does this by giving itself wholly over to the core appeal of Star Wars, while expanding our understanding of those basic elements.
What’s quickly apparent is that The Last Jedi puts the Wars in Star Wars. Never before have detailed military tactics and big picture strategic chess moves played such a big part in these films. Attention is paid to the interacting dynamics of shields, propulsion, maneuverability, fuel reserves, and the role of fighters versus the role of bombers. When Paige Tico desperately tries to reach a detonator (an easy ask of a Force user), it feels like something out of World War II. Forget Rogue One, this is a star war. So, the core martial aspect of Star Wars is laid out with clear stakes and a greater detail than ever before.
This film’s portrayal of the heroic Resistance actually stands somewhat in contrast to the other Disney-era films. Whereas The Force Awakens reframed the Rebellion vs. Empire conflict into the Resistance vs. First Order because that underdog setup is just what works, The Last Jedi leans into that echo hard. With their backs constantly up against the wall, the Resistance is simply referred to as the Rebellion several times (the literalization of this being when the Resistance sets up shop with analog Rebel Alliance technology on Crait, including barely-hanging-together ski speeders), and the alt-right, neo-Nazi, fragile-egoed white supremacist-type character Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) is a young man trying to live up to the glory of the old Empire. Rogue One was all about complicating the central conflict, with corruption in the Rebellion facing off against a long-suffering middle manager in the form of Krennic, but The Last Jedi decisively returns to simplicity while also making the conflict dramatically engaging. We know the black-and-white, good vs. evil storytelling of the original Star Wars – here it is again, familiar and reinvented at the same time.
On a related note, The Last Jedi further defines the spirit of rebellion, this idea we’ve cheered for ever since an overly excited Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) asked C-3PO if he knew of the rebellion against the Empire. As the trip to casino city Canto Bight illustrates, rebellion is not just about fighting “evil”, but injustice. And this is why Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) is so vital to the movie.
An introverted gearhead with a passionate sense of right and wrong and an affinity for the underdog, Rose converts Finn (John Boyega) to the Cause. Because before, Finn was swept up in events for the sake of his friends, having “imprinted” on Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) as the first people to treat him like one. Arriving at Canto Bight, Finn learns from Rose that you don’t have to wear First Order jackboots to be one of the bad guys. The menagerie of wining and dining war profiteers make this a very clear class fable – when Rose shows an abused stableboy that her ring carries the symbol of the Rebellion, we are given a rare and welcome indication of just who the good guys are fighting for.
Releasing the exploited fathiers at Canto Bight is save-the-cat screenwriting at its best. Rose’s purity of heart contrasts other characters’ cynicism very well, but there is bitterness and pain as well. She has the line of the movie (hell, a contender for line of the saga) when she says, “I wish I could put my fist through this lousy, beautiful town”. Rose wears her heart, and the symbol of rebellion, on her sleeve.
Also at the nexus of Canto Bight, the greying of the central galactic conflict is represented by DJ (Benicio del Toro). This free agent neither good nor evil (“It’s all a machine – don’t join”) brings up some valid points but is ultimately portrayed as a villain. His selfishness is instructive for Finn, who has his hero moment, motivated positively by Rose and negatively by DJ, to proudly call himself “Rebel scum”. Now we feel even more what this means.
Even in small ways, central tenets of Star Wars are reinforced. When Rey reaches out with her feelings we are given a poetic Terrence Malick-ian montage that portrays the Force more completely than before. And speaking of the Force, let’s talk about our hero and villain, so dangerously strong with it. The teasing of Rey to the dark and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) to the light could not have been handled any better. The cinematic device of their long-distance Force phone calls they want to hide from dad (Luke and Snoke) is genius, allowing true connection. After the fantastic dark side mirror cave sequence, Rey confides her deep-seated need to see her parents not to Luke but to Kylo Ren.
But Rey and Kylo Ren each end the film disappointed in the other. Rey correctly foresaw Kylo Ren kill Snoke and took this as evidence of light, and Kylo Ren thought that when he revealed the truth of Rey’s parents to her she would join him, but each was mistaken. It’s that old chestnut, “from a certain point of view”. (We even get a Rashomon-style triptych story of the night Kylo Ren destroyed Luke’s old Jedi temple, so the tradition of Star Wars referencing Kurosawa is still alive.) What we have here with Rey and Ren’s kind of dance is a fresh take on that familiar Star Wars trope of “turning” people to the light or dark side. We can experience that thrilling glimmer of hope for Kylo Ren as he kills Snoke – and the language of Star Wars says, that’s it, he’s on the side of good now – but it’s not that simple. Again, the same, but richer.
It should be noted that this part of the movie contains one of the most badass action sequences in the franchise, the two-on-eight Praetorian guard dustup. (Rey and Kylo Ren each briefly use the other’s lightsaber, which has shades of Obi-Wan using Asajj Ventress’ red lightsaber in The Clone Wars TV series.) And after the dust settles, we learn that Rey’s parents were, in the grand scheme of things, nobodies. This is how Star Wars grows beyond the Skywalker Saga, beyond the idea of dynasty. If a powerful Force user, but more pertinently a great hero, can come from the humblest beginnings, there is hope for the galaxy.
So Kylo Ren takes over as Supreme Leader of the First Order, and if you thought his temper tantrums were bad before… He comes face-to-face with Luke, and Kylo Ren figures after Han Solo and Snoke, it’s time to kill the final father figure, the one who failed him all those years ago. When he and Luke face off, they don’t need to trade blows and hack off each other’s limbs for it to be thrilling. The wide-shot of their samurai standoff is stunningly beautiful, Luke a picture of determined calm and Ren a coiled lion in a cage. It turns out that Luke is projecting his image through the Force, and it’s vital that he’s not there; Kylo Ren can never get the satisfaction of finally killing this man he hates. Luke projects himself as a younger man, exactly as Kylo Ren remembers him. That’s salt in the wound. If Luke had been there and been killed by Ren, that’s a semblance of closure. As it is, Luke looks up at twin suns and becomes one with the Force, Rey finds her place with friends and fugitive heroes, and Kylo Ren has all the power he could want except the means to be rid of his pain.
Over and over The Last Jedi recontextualizes but also celebrates the building blocks of Star Wars. Far from a deconstruction, it adds vital detail and nuance to the elements that have always been there. But beyond all the themes and deep character work, just look at the moment when the Millennium Falcon takes a hard turn into the crystalline underground on Crait and John Williams deploys his classic dogfighting music. The Last Jedi shows an instinctive understanding of Star Wars in that instant. It clicks with our lizard brains. So The Last Jedi is also funny, exciting, pretty-looking blockbuster entertainment. If it wasn’t that, it just wouldn’t be good Star Wars.
If you’re a villain in the Fast and Furious franchise, odds are you will be redeemed. After all, Dominic Toretto himself (Vin Diesel) started out as a criminal in the sights of the FBI. So observe the pre-titles sequence of The Fate of the Furious (the eighth in a series now moving from strength to ridiculously muscle-powered strength, long may it continue). In Havana (a filming location coup), Dom and Letty Ortiz (Michelle Rodriguez) are visiting a cousin when a street-racing asshole named Fernando decides to mark his territory. An involved wager becomes a contract of the street, and Dom and the beard-twirling villain rev their engines for a street race. Even though Dom rides in a vintage wreck of a car, the odds are even. Even though the asshole cheats a couple times, the odds are even. Dom wins in a close but clean finish, and gains Fernando’s respect, and later, his vitally important help. It’s redemption in a nutshell; after one fateful race, Fernando is redeemed.
Also brought onto the side of the angels this time? Jason Statham’s Deckard Shaw, last seen cutting a swath through Dom’s family in the previous installment. Last year, Superman of all people observed, “no one stays good in this world”. The unexpected humanism of Fast and Furious might counter with “no one stays bad in this world.”
But what raises the stakes this time is that the villain threatening the team seems unredeemable, the cyberterrorist Cipher (Charlize Theron). Her method of tearing the family apart is bold: turning Dom against them. How will Dom’s crew (Rodriguez as series MVP Letty, Dwayne Johnson as DSS super-agent Luke Hobbs, Tyrese Gibson as comic relief Roman Pierce, Ludacris as tech support Tej Parker, Nathalie Emmanuel as hacker Ramsey) take down their former leader? And what has led Dom to such villainy?
Promotional material suggested a somber, murkier Fast movie. There’s a bit of a bait-and-switch there, because that dour material is just the backbone for another high-octane blast of fun. Granted, this creates a disconnect when one side of the story has heavy dramatic pretensions while the rest of it is more like a romp. Getting my one criticism out of the way first, post-heel turn Dom’s thread of the story in Cipher’s lair sometimes gets the wrong balance of melodrama. The operatics of this story bleed over into outright cruelty at one point, and it doesn’t help that Vin Diesel’s only way to emote is to shout. Charlize Theron sells Cipher’s long coiled-serpent monologues, but even she can’t save “Why live your life a quarter mile at a time when you can live your whole life that way?” It’s clear from the context of the scene what Cipher means, but that is one clunker of a line. But this speedbump aside, the movie works like gangbusters.
When I reviewed Furious 7, it was my first experience with this franchise. Having familiarized myself with it since then, I love how every latter-day installment is a continuity extravaganza. Cipher is retconned into being behind a couple minor villains in previous movies. Sound familiar? She’s Blofeld from Spectre done right! (Also, I literally squeed in the theater when [REDACTED] shows up.) The Shaw family is portrayed beautifully, headed by matriarch Helen Mirren (!). Jason Statham is fantastic as reformed villain Deckard Shaw, and the tiny hints of his backstory given here make perfect sense and make him one of the most compelling characters in the series. It’s crazy how much can be extrapolated about his character from the tiniest of moments. He’s also half of a terrific double act with Luke Hobbs. Maybe the best moment of the film is Johnson and Statham laughing after insulting each other in a moment that definitely feels like they broke character – but it’s perfect so director F. Gary Gray keeps it in.
As for the rest of the cast, they’re a delight. Perennial favorite Letty carries a lot of the (admittedly one-note) emotional heavy lifting, and when the tide inevitably turns in the good guys’ favor, her joy is infectious. Even Roman’s comic relief is more on point than it’s ever been. However, Paul Walker’s absence is felt. At first Scott Eastwood as a DSS newbie looks like a third-rate replacement, but he ends up with a fun arc.
The action sequences are the usual spectacular rampages. Remote-controlled drone cars, a kinetic prison break, a submarine chase, the usual array of one-on-one fights. Motorcyclists run interference to clear the way for street racers, the laws of physics are defied as a car turns in mid-air. The third act contains an extended climax that never once flags or becomes monotonous. The stunt and choreography teams are firing on all cylinders, and their quest to keep topping themselves boggles the mind when looking forward to Fast Nine.
The “Feight” of the Furious is entertainment on a grand scale, franchise filmmaking at its best. The pre-titles sequence T&A feels like an obligation, a nod to the roots of this action series that has graduated to genuine greatness. This eighth installment holds the record for highest worldwide opening weekend gross of all time, and the record books could have done a whole lot worse. There are too many fist-pumping moments to count. Can you call some of them ridiculous? Yes, you can – but this is a franchise with its own “Han Seoul-o”; it’s embraced its own rules. While certainly not as emotional as Furious 7’s wake for Paul Walker, I still cried at the ending. The theme of family is hit so hard. The humanism of this franchise rivals Star Trek. The Fate of the Furious is the first Fast film I love as much as the series itself. 9/10.
P.S.: The easy joke is that the presence of Charlize Theron makes this The Fast and the Furiosa. Also, Deckard calls Hobbs “Hercules”, surely referencing The Rock’s starring role in 2014’s Hercules, the shooting of which caused Hobbs to have a reduced role in Furious 7. Hercules – despite being directed by a serial sexual harasser – is a pretty decent movie.
P.P.S.: I can’t write this review without mentioning that a Luke Hobbs/Deckard Shaw buddy movie is on the way. Based on their chemistry in this movie, this is a slam-dunk great idea, whether Tyrese Gibson approves or not.
Contains full spoilers for, and forensic analysis of, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. See the movie, read the essay.
“More of the same, but different.” That’s the balancing act that most sequels are judged by, and it’s hard to think of a clearer example of that axiom in practice than Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. A psychedelic smorgasbord of color, it’s an inwardly focused character movie with the window dressing of a space opera. But the thing is, Vol. 2 is a brazen spoof of that genre, to an extent unheard of in a major summer tentpole. Over and over, the film undercuts elements that would be played straight in most other movies, including its own predecessor. The spine of Vol. 2 is the drama between Peter Quill and his wayward father Ego the Living Planet, as well as the dynamic of the Guardians team. Because the character side of things is established as the core element, elsewhere the film consistently takes the audience into the realm of spoof.
– The violent battle with the many-tentacled Abilisk cedes the foreground to Baby Groot dancing to Electric Light Orchestra.
– A self-described “massive space battle” – or space chase, for the Milano, like Serenity before it, has no weapons – takes a backseat to the alpha male competition of Peter and Rocket Raccoon, fighting over the wheel like some people fight over the TV remote.
– In perhaps the most explicit parody motif, the Guardians are chased by remote-controlled drones, piloted like arcade video game cabinets.
– During the Abilisk fight and Ravager massacre, Rocket insists on playing diegetic 1970s pop-rock as a soundtrack – after all, the Disney-approved slaughter of an entire pirate crew would be laid bare without it.
– Space travel is given a Looney Tunes twist with the hilarious jump point sequence.
– The iconic and overly dignified group shot is quickly subverted.
– And of course, Groot bumps into the camera.
I can imagine a different version of the movie where Nebula’s monologue isn’t undercut, and where Taserface’s name passes without comment. (In Avengers: Infinity War, Nebula’s vengeance won’t lead into a joke about hats.) In fact, going back and rewatching the first Guardians of the Galaxy makes for a shocking contrast. Vol. 1 has unconventional elements in service of a conventional action movie, filled to the brim as it is with one-on-one showdowns, henchmen to punch, and mini-bosses to overcome. With maybe a couple subtle spoof-like moments here and there, Vol. 1 plays out on a much wider (and, I would say, more bloated) canvas, and while Vol. 2 lacks that scale, its intimacy is an asset. And again, it’s because the core of this sequel is laser-focused on character that a lot of the plot stuff is free to go off the reservation and embrace parody.
Indeed, in Vol. 2, the action is just a delivery system for therapy. My favorite scene of the movie is Nebula and Gamora’s fight/extremely violent sisters’ therapy session. In this particular face-off on Ego’s Planet, something mysterious happens where the copious CGI, and the very exaggerated, external things the two sisters are doing become the perfect embodiment of what they’re feeling. When Nebula jaggedly crashes her ship through the cave just to desperately close the distance between her and her hated sibling, all those pixels are in service of something real. When Gamora fires the absurdly large mounted gun, it’s a metaphor for what people feel like they want to do to their family members in moments of frustration. The audience feels this on a primal level. And so Nebula in particular gains the roundedness that was only hinted at in the first film in this most well executed subplot of Vol. 2.
Of course, this movie exists to put Peter Quill through the emotional wringer. The villain is his own father, played with saucy gravitas by Kurt Russell, casually owning up to the murder of Peter’s mother. Peter goes from suspicion of Ego’s true nature, to embracing it, to wrath at Ego’s capricious killing of the woman he claims he loved, to acceptance of space pirate Yondu as his true “daddy”, to grief at Yondu’s sacrifice. When Peter turns on Ego on a dime at the revelation that Ego introduced Meredith Quill’s cancer, he might as well have said “I don’t care – you killed my mom” like another Marvel hero.
However, this moment of high drama gives way to the negative side of spoofery, as in a case of tonal whiplash we go from “you killed my mom” to a David Hasselhoff cameo in a matter of seconds. Similarly, the film’s audaciously intimate final shot (Rocket crying as he realizes that his friends will always love him even after he risks pushing them away by acting like a grade-a asshole) would have had more impact if we didn’t go almost directly to a jokey first credits scene. And fans of Drax in Vol. 1 will be mixed on whether turning him almost exclusively into a comic relief character in Vol. 2 is a change for the better. These examples might show that the parody moments work better when subverting genre tropes and plot mechanics rather than the actual characters we’re here to see, but in the end these are minor demerits.
In fact, desperate as Vol. 2 is to entertain by any means necessary, it’s also another thematically engaging Marvel movie. When Ego identifies as a “small g” god, we are invited to notice he has much more than a “small e” ego. Ego’s evil master plan that threatens the whole universe™ is to make everyone an extension of him, which is an exaggeration of a recognizable impulse. Why can’t other people understand me? Why do they have to see things differently? Mantis, the very embodiment of empathy, is the only thing that can give the pure expression of Ego any form of rest from its apocalyptic egocentrism. And so, Ego’s forced homogenous connection with others comes into conflict with the explicit diversity of the Guardians. The Guardians are the good guys here because they find empathy with other people: when Gamora and Nebula learn to view their dark childhoods from the other’s perspective; when Yondu and Rocket find they recognize the same insecurities in each other even while retaining their own distinct identities. All three villains in the film (Ego; Ayesha, pursuing a grudge across the galaxy to the ruin of her fleet; Taserface, insisting that his judgment as captain is best) are egos out of control. Their justification for evil comes only from their inflated sense of rightness, particularly Ego, who in a pleasingly unusual scene of lyrical analysis uses the song “Brandy” to explain that he will always choose selfishness over other people. Unlike Nebula, Yondu, Mantis, and even Kraglin, a person like Ego would never be “welcome to the frickin’ Guardians of the Galaxy”.
Staying tethered to character-based humor and drama gives Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 license to take a page from the Airplane!/Monty Python and the Holy Grail book and go wild with the tropes of its genre. Its spoof elements feel natural with its world, even if it laughs at its own jokes a bit much, and after the dust settles this sequel makes its predecessor look grounded by comparison. It’s a risky way to thread the needle of “more of the same but different” but I expect nothing less from the franchise peopled by the biggest-hearted a-holes in the galaxy.
P.S.: Guardians of the Galaxy, with its spaced-out aesthetics and unhinged humor, has a kindred spirit in the Australian science fiction TV show Farscape, so it’s only appropriate that Farscape star Ben Browder appears in Vol. 2 as one of the gold-painted Sovereign. Speaking of them, I love that in the finale “Wham Bam Shang a Lang” becomes an absurd villain theme for the Sovereign.
P.P.S.: Something that bothered me when hinted in Vol. 1, and becomes even more deflating now that it’s confirmed in Vol. 2, was that Peter was only able to hold an Infinity Stone because he’s part Celestial. In Vol. 1, Peter and the other Guardians contained the Power Stone with the power of friendship. This colossal monument to their constructed family is now a plot point for Peter’s biological one. For a movie so attuned to theme over plot, this stands out as a poor retcon.
For about five minutes at the beginning of Luc Besson’s latest gonzo science fiction romp, we are shown the building of a utopia. A montage of diplomacy, this opening shows how earthbound nations begin to cooperate in the arena of space, and then without skipping a beat, how humanity goes on to welcome various alien races as friends. The International Space Station gradually becomes bigger and bigger as more and more cultures add to its diversity; the core of the City of a Thousand Planets is already in Earth orbit. It’s a sequence of humanism to rival anything in the Star Trek archive (recalling as it does the show Enterprise’s title sequence chronicling the progression of space travel). And while Valerian goes on to dazzle with visual wonders, the opening title sequence is so much the standout that you can be forgiven for walking out right then and there.
The case for the rest of the film is weakened quite a bit by the vapid lead characters. Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevigne play agents Valerian and Laureline, titular heroes of a vintage French comic strip now adapted into this $175 million-plus-budgeted blockbuster. Their corny sub-pulp fiction banter and flirtation feels like the throwback it was intended to be, but rests entirely on a chemistry that isn’t there, and absent emotions. Co-star Rihanna may not be a professional actor, but she still shows more humanity in 10 seconds than either lead does throughout the entire movie. DeHaan is much more at home navigating sinister sanatoriums and playing the antihero than he is as a Buck Rogers-esque action hero, and Delevigne continues her quest to convincingly show an emotion on screen. At least Jane Fonda as Barbarella, who shows that there’s precedent for bizarre 1960s French pulp heroes to translate to film, had screen presence and was more in on the cosmic joke.
Trailers for Valerian billed it as based on the “legendary graphic novel”, but it’s more accurately a comic strip. And to match that, the film has a very episodic structure, all the better to slideshow its various spaced-out visual ideas and high-concept action scenes (interdimensional shopping!), all falling out of a very big and French piñata. This is the raison d’être of the movie, and the splendor of the world(s) is undeniable. It’s just a shame that a film so production designed to death didn’t invest the time to create characters worth caring about, and while there are interesting thematic elements to the plot (disrespect to one sentient race – incidentally with a coded transgender Emperor – becomes a nameless darkness that threatens the entire utopia), a story tying it all with a bow. There have been other significantly flawed but visually stunning movies this year, such as Kong: Skull Island and Ghost in the Shell. Let’s hope that future efforts balance the equation.
P.S.: Other aesthetic notes: As you can see above, long stretches of the film resemble nothing so much as a live-action take on René Laloux’ Fantastic Planet. Besson’s own Fifth Element gets a couple nods here in the form of a restaurant name and an equivalent sequence to the legendary “diva dance”. And in an ADR fail, I’m almost certain that for one important line, Laureline speaks while her mouth stays completely still.
P.P.S.: This is a semi-new category of review for the site, alongside the larger-scale film reviews with pretty pictures, editorials, franchise flashback, TV talk, and end-of-year review stuff. Mini-reviews are designed to take less time out of my schedule and hopefully a lot more are coming soon. As I see more and more movies every year (at time of writing, I’ve seen 55 2017 releases), my review productivity has gotten worse and worse. Mini-reviews are a new way to get more movie thoughts up on the site efficiently, but at the same time not just for new releases. And I know it’s a bit odd that this is the movie with which I’m coming back; there’ve been some heavy hitters I’ve missed reviewing. Perhaps pieces on some recent big names will turn up eventually; right now I’m at work on a big full-scale Fate of the Furious review. Happy viewing!
Music is the key. A while ago, I argued that to grow in quality, Disney’s live-action remakes should embrace more and more of their source material’s music. Cue an all-singing, all-dancing take on the studio’s landmark Beauty and the Beast from 1991, with that animation’s composer Alan Menken back to update the movie’s musical repertoire. Remaking the first animated Best Picture nominee is a major throwing down of the gauntlet, but this Beauty and the Beast has captured the spirit of the original, while also making smart and significant changes to craft an impressive new experience.
In 18th Century France, a Prince (Dan Stevens) selfishly rejects hospitality for an old woman, who turns out to be an enchantress. In so doing, he dooms himself to a seeming eternity as a Beast, his servants to transformation into household objects, his castle to an eternal winter, and his rule to be forgotten by his subjects. But his isolated world intersects with one of them, the bookish Belle (Emma Watson), and for the first time there’s a sliver of hope that the enchantress’ curse can be lifted. As Belle meets Prince Charming but won’t discover that it’s him until Act 3, will the Beast let this sharp-witted inventor steal into his melancholy heart? And will the castle finally see days in the sun again?
The whole picture falls apart without the foundation of Belle and the Beast’s romance, and it’s more convincing here than it’s ever been before. The key is the library scene. In the original, the Beast presenting Belle with the library was a grand romantic gesture suggested by Lumiére, whereas here, the Beast opens this world of letters to Belle with the casual manner of a boy showing a girl his back catalog of National Geographics. The two bookworms, charmingly played by Watson and Stevens, forge a genuine connection by the end of the movie.
Director Bill Condon (Chicago, vivid and a total blast) and co-screenwriter Stephen Chbosky (Rent, fun but lacking any storytelling spine) have both written movie musicals before, and that experience yields smart touches throughout. Like Love Actually or Hugo, there are several romantic subplots to track, maximizing the payoff for the inevitable happy ending. Plot holes from the original are swiftly papered over. Belle is a bit more of a modern hero. Characters in interracial relationships and others questioning their sexuality are represented without fanfare or comment. This Beauty and the Beast invites comparison with its animated predecessor, but while the two are kindred they move to profoundly different rhythms, and it’s details like these that enrich this telling.
Another great detail is that in the “Gaston” musical number, there’s a moment where people struggle to sync up their dancing. So, realism within a fantasy setting is what the filmmakers are reaching for, and what they achieve. But that also means that the most zonked out elements, chiefly the Busby Berkeley acid trip that is “Be Our Guest”, feel oddly disconnected from everything. What is there to the visuals in the sequence beyond the celluloid equivalent of drowning in confetti? The setpiece’s gimmick is that Belle is repeatedly presented with food that is whisked away before she raises a fork. Sure, that’s a tried-and-true comedy routine found in everything from A Hard Day’s Night to Spider-Man 2, but it doesn’t make any sense here. It doesn’t fit the story being told. I’m about to commit Disney heresy here, but maybe “Be Our Guest” should have been scrapped in favor of the other vintage household object showcase “Human Again” – or maybe a medley of the two. At least then a helping of humanity would fly at the audience along with the trays of bon fromage.
Yeah, that sequence isn’t my favorite. And just as a guideline, the two wolf attacks bookend what’s probably the clunkiest part of the film. But even in the weeds of these (relatively) rough patches, the cast is outstanding. (They better be, because the movie sort of gives them two curtain calls.) Emma Watson’s Belle is warm, but not soft – it’s satisfying to see how she cuts through her little “Madame Gaston” number with palpable fire. Dan Stevens’ striking eyes fit the Beast, and the character’s journey from full-on Krampus to romantic hero is sketched pretty well. (A nitpick, though: There’s a big moment where the Beast/Prince yells, “I am not a Beast!” Okay. But the film never gives him a name!) The household object characters are voiced by an impressive repertory company, of which Ian McKellen and Emma Thompson are only two. Luke Evans’ Gaston is both more appealing than his animated counterpart, and more villainous, with Evans adept at milking the comedic and threatening aspects of the role. Both Maurice and LeFou are clownish characters from the original given a humanity transplant. But the real breakout is Josh Gad as LeFou, given an entirely new arc ranging from broad comedy to soul-searching redemption.
And finally, the music in this musical. Newcomers Watson and Stevens hold their own alongside musical veterans like Evans and Gad, and the songbook itself has gotten an update. Incorporating lost lyrics from the late Howard Ashman into “Gaston” and the title song, composer Alan Menken honors his former collaborator’s legacy while also penning three original songs. (No songs are retained from the Broadway musical.) “How Does a Moment Last Forever” is poignant and sweet. “Days in the Sun” is a catchy check-in-on-all-the-characters number. And the third…
Earlier I committed Disney heresy and I think it’s time for more. I don’t think the animated Beauty and the Beast quite has a signature standout song. For me, it doesn’t have a “Let it Go” or a “Part of Your World”. But incredibly, in 2017, Alan Menken gives it one. “Evermore” is an utter showstopper, an operatic swing for the fences. In the Beast’s new and vital turn in the spotlight, Dan Stevens sells the low feelings and high notes, and Menken’s baritone ballad becomes the jewel in Beauty and the Beast’s musical crown.
I know I ragged on the “Be Our Guest” sequence before, but I approve the song itself for the iPod playlist. The slowed-down tempo is an improvement, and Ewan McGregor as Lumiére chews into the lyrics with gusto. In fact, it’s a microcosm of the contrast between the original animated feature and this retelling; the new film is slower, making for a fulfilling opportunity to see the sights. I like how several songs are given reprises to keep them in the minds of the audience, and the other original songs are present and correct, with my favorite of the classics being the elongated introductory piece simply titled “Belle”.
With an appealing cast, convincing romance, beautiful production design (I love how the design of the castle is opened up, exposed stairways and all), lavish music, and a commitment to storytelling, the Beauty and the Beast remake is in good health. As it respects the original while weaving new magic of its own, it continues Disney’s streak of live-action remakes embracing the musical landscapes of their predecessors. (But word on the street is the next one, Mulan, is dispensing with the songs!?) Be its guest, and keeping the original in mind, you might find there’s something there that wasn’t there before. 8/10.
P.S.: The influence of Jean Cocteau’s striking and dreamlike 1946 version of the story is there from time to time. The most noticeable touch: the hands affixed to the castle, holding torches. And because the end titles are translated to French, the title card is framed by the Cocteau-alike La Belle et la Bête.
P.P.S.: In the animated version, LeFou poses as a snowman at one point. Now, LeFou actor Josh Gad is most well known for voicing the snowman Olaf in Frozen. Coincidence? Also, the Beast reads a book about the forbidden love between Lancelot and Guinevere at one point, and Beast actor Dan Stevens played Lancelot in Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb. Finally, Luke Evans (uber-skilled archer Bard in The Hobbit films) plays Gaston, whose preferred weapon in the animated film is a bow and arrow. Here, war veteran Gaston opts for a pistol.
Perhaps as soon as two years from now, China will surpass the United States as the biggest, most lucrative film market in the world. This is happening. And as it does, movies produced in the spirit of something like Zhang Yimou’s The Great Wall will become more common. So what appears to be an easily dismissed monster flick actually stands on the vanguard of a new globalist film industry. It’s entering uncharted territory, being the first Hollywood-sourced film produced in China. Put in other terms, this is a truly collaborative production – Universal provides most of the funding, the marquee movie star Matt Damon, a couple other supporting cast members, and part of the crew; China provides the director, most of the cast, the filming locations, and the rest of the crew. And at a cool $150 million, The Great Wall is also the most expensive movie ever made in China. So given the overwhelming context swirling around, what does this landmark international cooperation have to offer?
In the 11th Century, mercenary soldiers William Garin (Matt Damon) and Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal) find their way to northern China in search of the “black powder” (gunpowder), with the intent to take the substance west and sell to the highest bidder. But they are caught up in a mythical war between China’s watchers on the Great Wall called the Nameless Order, and the monsters they repel, the gargoyle-esque Tao Tei. With Commander Lin Mei (Jing Tian) forbidding the vagabonds from journeying back to the west, William and Pero must decide between following their desire for riches or taking up a new cause.
Unsurprisingly, the backbone of the drama comes not only from the sickly green hell-beasts barreling down on the Wall, but also from the culture clash between the Nameless Order and the western outsiders. Excepting a couple throwaway characters confined to the first ten minutes, there are only three non-Chinese characters, so few that they become avatars. They clearly stand out; as the Order moves like a single organism, western characters long for the black powder (reminiscent of the euphemistic “red flower” from The Jungle Book), and must be humbled by the selfless unity of the Order. There’s no balance to this portrayal. One westerner inevitably screws the other over for personal gain. When that character is blown up by the very gunpowder he intended to hawk, it doesn’t feel so much like a person has died, but rather a stand-in for capitalism.
Unlike every other western character in the film, our hero William quickly comes around to the cause of slaughtering monsters. Contrary to appearances, Matt Damon’s character is not so much the white savior of China as he is the white convert to Chinese communism. And why wouldn’t he be? The thousands-strong Order’s competence and unflinching loyalty is contrasted with two lone outsiders’ doomed quest for profit. When the (significantly labeled) Nameless Order speaks Mandarin, the subtitles are presented in the most straightforward font possible: a prosaic font for a prosaic people. This solidity gets results. At every turn, communism is implicitly championed over capitalism. Strictly within the context of the story it makes sense, but as the blunt theme of this co-production it feels cowardly. I’m not railing against The Great Wall’s politics as some kind of America-fuck-yeah statement. The problem is that these politics feel so corporately mandated. Back in the 1950s, at the height of McCarthyism and the Blacklist, putting communist themes in a Hollywood movie was transgressive, subversive, and risky. Now, it’s just pandering.
The character work is functional if colorless. The film stars Matt Damon and his variable accent, toggling between his normal voice, a southern drawl, and a posh take on Irish. Game of Thrones’ Pedro Pascal is fun in his role as a wandering and weary scoundrel, and his double act with Damon makes for stilted but amiable banter. According to director Zhang, he insisted at the script level that the clichéd romance between William and Commander Lin be removed, and that’s to his credit. But in the finished product, all the setup for that romance makes it to the screen! The seams are visible, so the matter-of-fact statement of mutual respect is diluted a bit.
The production design is striking. As is Zhang’s signature, strong color contrasts are used in the costumes, with each Corps within the Nameless Order corresponding to a clearly defined color: red for archers, black for infantry, sky blue for spears, etc. The large-scale production utilizes visual effects well, if not outstandingly, even though the opening sequence looks like a PlayStation 3 cutscene. The Tao Tei beasts are always given heft and weight when interacting directly with human characters. The visuals are mostly aiming for a specific kind of unreality, and on balance they’re the best aspect of The Great Wall.
But the opening gambit of the film doesn’t take encouraging first steps. The awkwardly edited prologue, filled with mile-wide close-ups, contains a moment of night-shrouded action in which several characters are meant to be killed. But the editing is so confusing I could only surmise they had died by their absence in the next scene. It feels like every once in a while Zhang aims for horror, and in this opening at least, he misses wide of the mark. The action throughout is engaging enough but never really catches fire. It’s consistently competent, miles away from the dazzling action on display in Zhang’s previous work like House of Flying Daggers. Rounding out the production, composer Ramin Djawadi uses thrumming martial tones familiar from his Warcraft score, ethnic motifs, and even a couple cues reminiscent of his Game of Thrones work in a middle-of-the-road effort.
The Great Wall is weird and sort of uncomfortably timely. This is a movie that glorifies the border patrol of a massive wall, that panders to the Chinese, and in which a Spaniard is portrayed as greedy and selfish. Not such great stuff there. But the action is competently staged, and the visuals are sometimes big-screen bonkers. Even though the themes are problematic, and there are myriad things, let’s say, off about this one, the film comes out more or less okay. So, this review is not advocacy for an underrated gem (Monster Trucks), or praise for a well-oiled machine firing on all cylinders (John Wick Chapter 2). It’s an acknowledgement that aside from all the baggage, The Great Wall is an adequate but flawed medieval fantasy war movie where people blow up a bunch of grotesque monsters real good. 5/10.
P.S.: Edward Zwick was the original director attached, and retains a story credit. His Tom Cruise/Ken Watanabe-starrer The Last Samurai has superficial parallels with this film, but The Great Wall has not an ounce of the empathy and grounded grandeur of that superior movie.