Is The Second One Really Better?: A Brief Look at Some Acclaimed Sequels

We’re just under three weeks until the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Expectations are quite high considering LucasFilm already signed writer/director Rian Johnson to develop his own trilogy. For no other reason than I’m bored I decided to take a look at some of the most acclaimed movie sequels ever and ask myself if they’re actually better than the film that preceded them.

Is The Empire Strikes Back really better than Star Wars?

Despite receiving middling reviews on its release in 1980, Empire has gone on to not just be widely regarded as the finest Star Wars movie, but seen as the archetypal blockbuster sequel. It’s bigger, longer, and darker than its predecessor. With less expository responsibility, the film is able to dive deeper into the characters. George Lucas stepped back a bit, allowing others to actually script and direct the film so he could focus more on the complicated financial and special-effects development aspects that went into such an unprecedented production. Sci-fi author Leigh Brackett was hired to pen the film, and then Lucas’ Raiders of the Lost Ark colleague Lawrence Kasdan was brought in to redraft Brackett’s script. Lucas hired indie maestro (and his USC former professor) Irwin Kershner to direct, though there’s still some doubt as to who handled which scenes, as Lucas was reportedly heavily involved in the day-to-day operations of the film.

Regardless of whomever is chiefly responsible, the result is a true masterpiece. Empire is a narratively ambitious and visually stunning the film. The ending alone is unlike anything that came before it, with Luke losing his hand and Han being frozen. Star Wars was a great film; a landmark moment in cinema. But it was fairly lighthearted and driven by imagination more than anything else. Empire is an undeniable classic even the most cynical Star Wars hater has to acknowledge as special. The scene of Han being frozen is the high point in the entire saga. Exceptional mise-en-scene. Vader in control. Chewy pleading for Han to be spared. C-3PO, strapped to Chewy’s back and unable to see anything, providing comic relief. Gorgeously lit and colored, emphasizing the reds that the franchise has has always used to represent evil. Then of course there’s “I love you.”………”I know.”

Verdict: Yes, Empire is the better movie. There’s a reason it’s the film that great sequels are always compared to.

Is The Godfather Part 2 really better than The Godfather?

Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 crime epic The Godfather is near the top of every “best movies ever” list for good reason. It transcended just about everything people thought they knew about cinema at that point in time with its own uniquely American aesthetic, and its thematic handling of gangsters (portraying them as a counterculture to a corrupt world rather than a collection of angry villains). The cast is of course exceptional, and nearly every scene of the film has become iconic in its own right. It breezes through its three-hour runtime. So while it’s a bit tiring to hear it always talked about, that’s not the movie’s fault.

The Godfather Part 2, released two years later, was actually the first sequel to draw real acclaim, going on to win the Oscar for Best Picture (like its predecessor). It shares many stylistic similarities with the first film, but a divided narrative (a subplot focusing on the rise of Young Vito) made it very different. Nowadays, many consider Part 2 to be the better film, and a perfect film. I just can’t get on board with that. While Pacino, Duvall, Cazale, Keaton and De Niro are exceptional…the film’s real-time narrative with Michael in Havana is, frankly, sort of boring and insignificant within the context of what makes the film compelling otherwise. During those scenes, I find myself begging to return to De Niro, or to Pacino interacting with his family members. Part 2 is just a bit too ambitious politically for its own good.

Verdict: The Godfather is a perfect film. Every scene matters. The sequel, while very much an amazing work of art, just isn’t as tight or self-aware. So, no, the sequel is not better in this case.

Is Aliens really better than Alien?

For two films that share Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and the same species of terrifying extraterrestrial, Alien (dir. Ridley Scott, 1979) and Aliens (dir. James Cameron, 1986) couldn’t be more different. Alien is a close-quarters horror film, drawing much of its tension from its ambiance and what it *doesn’t* show you. Aliens is a balls-to-the-wall action film, preferring to wow you with spectacle and kineticism. Alien is a slow burn while Aliens moves quickly, as any great action movie should. Both films are very much products of their directors. Ridley Scott is a master of careful design. He understands how seemingly minor details such as single musical notes or shadows or close-ups of faces can make a film terrifying. James Cameron is an ambitious innovator. He wants to make the impossible into reality through moviemaking technology and sheer will, certainly proving himself capable of such time and time again.

I have a hard time saying which approach is better for these films, and therefore have a hard time deciding which is the better final product. I probably prefer Scott’s take, maybe because I’ve seen so many movies like Aliens but so few like Alien. But that’s just a personal taste thing.

Verdict: Too close to call, and the aforementioned reasons make this such an odd comparison. Therefore I find it silly to vehemently argue this one either way.

Is Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior really better than Mad Max?

The Mad Max franchise is my favorite collection of movies ever. All four of George Miller’s dystopian action films, including 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road, are exceptional. The first film, 1979’s Mad Max, accomplished an awful lot. A huge and surprising financial success worldwide, it established Australia as a hotbed for filmmaking talent and also made Mel Gibson into a global superstar (he’d go on to become one of the most successful action stars ever). The vehicular stunts look spectacular even through a modern lens.

But The Road Warrior is something else; something more. It doubles down on the survivalist mayhem. The vehicles are bigger and louder. The dialogue is more sparse. The desert photography is more epic. The leather costumes now feature a great deal of bondage. The overall punk aesthetic of the film influenced an entire generation of artists. It’s also truly a film of nonstop action, perhaps only matched in raw intensity by Fury Road (if we’re comparing Fury Road to the original trilogy, it certainly bears the most resemblance with The Road Warrior). The Road Warrior is the rare film that actually put a bigger budget to good use. It’s unapologetic action pornography.

Verdict: Mad Max will always hold a place in my heart, but The Road Warrior is, for my money, the greatest action film of all-time. So, yes, the sequel is better.

Is The Dark Knight really better than Batman Begins?

Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins remains the finest superhero origin story captured on film. Visually creative and loaded with narrative heft, it really is a thinking man’s Batman movie. While the Tim Burton-Michael Keaton rendition of the classic character was certainly very good, the Nolan-Christian Bale version is something truly major. This was the first comic-book blockbuster to be taken seriously by a cinephile community that is frustratingly pretentious at times (I’m allowed to say that because I’m part of that frustratingly pretentious community).

But let’s not overthink it. The Dark Knight is better. It’s basically Heat but topped with comic-book verve. Gorgeously shot and tightly plotted, the first two hours of TDK never let up. The opening bank robbery and vehicle chase shot on the lower level of Chicago’s Wacker Drive make for two of the finest action sequences ever staged. The story is loaded with moral and emotional complexity. Every performer breathes life into their characters. Heath Ledger deservedly received most of the praise, but how good is Aaron Eckhardt in this movie? The Dark Knight is so fucking good that when it missed out on a Best Picture nomination, public backlash forced the Academy to open the category up to as many as ten nominees.

Verdict: The sequel is better. Don’t be an Armond White. The Dark Knight is as incredible as everyone says.

Quick Hits:

 

  • T2: Judgement Day is NOT better than The Terminator. It may be bigger and more action-packed and loaded with groundbreaking VFX work, but it lacks the intelligence of the first film.
  • As far as the X-Men go, X2: X-Men United (while very good) is not better than X-Men, and Days of Future Past certainly isn’t better than First Class.
  • This one is probably obvious, but Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 is one of the great superhero films ever and a major step up from the first film.
  • Not sure if it counts since the entire trilogy was shot together, but The Two Towers is by far the best Lord of the Rings film. It’s one of the best-edited films ever.
  • The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Blade II, and Superman II are all significantly better than their predecessors.
  • I will probably die alone on this hill but I think The Temple of Doom is the best Indiana Jones movie.
  • As far as the Marvel Cinematic Universe goes, both Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier are much-improved sequels. They’re also the two best movies in the entire franchise thus far.
  • The Color of Money is harmless but it doesn’t touch The Hustler, and I say that as the world’s biggest Scorsese fan.
  • It’s damn near impossible to top Jurassic Park, and while The Lost World didn’t come close, I’d be mad at myself if I didn’t mention that insane “trailer hanging over the edge of the cliff” scene, the most brilliant and original action staging since the titular Thunderdome in the third Mad Max movie.
  • Mostly thanks to a better villain, J.J. Abrams topped his own solid reboot with Star Trek Into Darkness (despite that terrible title).

Oscars: Taking stock of a wide-open Best Picture race.

As awards season heats up, with the first batch of critics prizes already done and SAG ballots out, I take stock of a Best Picture race that’s without a clear frontrunner. That’s not to say it’s a weak field, there’s just no clear battle at the top like there has been the last few years. No Birdman vs Boyhood. No Spotlight vs The Revenant vs The Big Short. No La La Land vs Moonlight. We’ll learn more over the coming weeks as precursors start but it’s already Thanksgiving and Oscar pundits everywhere seem lost.

For full predictions in every category, updated every week or so, check here.

Despite the wide open nature of the race there are four films that appear to be near-locks for at least a nomination, so I’d like to run through those first and explain why they’re such safe bets. Nine out of the last ten years the people’s choice prize winner at the Toronto International Film Festival has gone on to score a Best Picture nom, and the one that didn’t was a foreign language film. It’s become the most significant Oscar forecaster. This year, in a relative surprise, Martin McDonagh’s black comedy Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri took home the prize. While it’s far from your typical Oscar film and the Academy hasn’t responded to McDonagh’s past work, Fox Searchlight is campaigning it across nearly every major category as their primary pony and it looks like a major threat to win Actress (Frances McDormand), Supporting Actor (Sam Rockwell), Original Screenplay (McDonagh), Film Editing (Jon Gregory), and even Original Score (Carter Burwell). If you had to peg a Best Picture frontrunner right now, Three Billboards is the smart choice.

Fox Searchlight has another strong player with Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water. A passion project for GDT, said to be a blend of Creature from the Black Lagoon and Beauty and the Beast, it’s played the festival circuit very well and even won the Golden Lion at Venice. Guillermo has always flexed his visual muscle, and he appears to have crafted a story that pulls at the heartstrings as well. However, there is certainly some genre stigma to overcome with it being a blend of fantasy, horror, and classical romance. Its chances of actually winning could come down to how popular it proves once it actually comes out. It’ll pick up at least five nominations nominations, both in major categories and “below-the-line” technical categories, and that could lead to Guillermo winning Best Director while something else wins Best Picture (there’s been a Director/Picture split four of the last five years). Another film that looks like a lock for a nomination in both those categories and a real chance to win in Director is Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. The most significant Oscar player from the summer, Nolan’s film is arguably his best work yet as a director and will hit with most technical branches, making it a possibility to pick up the most overall nominations on Oscar morning. Support from those branches combined with the overdue narrative from Nolan never having been nominated as a director before could catapult him to a win. Warner Bros is also giving it a December re-release in IMAX 70mm to ensure that all interested parties see the film in its intended format. I don’t see any scenario where it wins Best Picture, however. The acting branch is the largest of the Academy. Not since Braveheart in 1995 has a film won Best Picture without getting a SAG Ensemble nom. Dunkirk is simply not an “actor’s film”. Perhaps veteran and recent winner Mark Rylance scores a nom. But even then, the film won’t have the passionate support from the most important branch necessary to win.

My final “lock” would be Lady Bird, the exceptional directorial debut of Greta Gerwig. Critically-adored (a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes with 146 reviews) and a huge hit with audiences so far, the coming-of-age film is looking like another force to be reckoned with from A24 Films, the hot indie studio who won the big one last year with Moonlight. The film will score two acting nominations (Saoirse Ronan & Laurie Metcalf) and an Original Screenplay nod. It’s also very much a player in editing, cinematography, and director. Maybe it feels too small to win Best Picture, but so did Moonlight.

After those four, there are a handful of really strong bets, but strong bets that have one potentially fatal flaw as far as awards makeup goes. First is Darkest Hour, the film the everyone assumes Gary Oldman (playing Winston Churchill) will win Best Actor for. It has the traditional Oscar DNA as a talky period piece with a juicy performance that’ll resonate both with older voters and the oft-overlooked British sect of the Academy. But the Academy is getting younger and less traditional. I still believe the film will have a strong box office and drum up enough support to get in, but the days of stuff like The King’s Speech dominating the night are over. On the opposite end of this spectrum is the surprising smash hit Get Out, which could make for the most subversive Best Picture nominee ever. There are certainly concerns -genre stigma for both horror and comedy, lack of buzz in the acting categories- but the film’s momentum has held strong throughout the year. It should continue to pick up a ton of critics prizes and will probably win Best Comedy/Musical at the Globes. It’s hard to pick out any places where it’s a real threat outside of screenplay, but this is hugely popular film getting a giant push from a major studio. It doesn’t need to take the traditional path to a nomination.

Call Me By Your Name has been a critical favorite since Sundance, and Sony Pictures Classics believes they may have a winner on their hands. I don’t buy people’s concerns over the subject matter (both the romance between a 24 y/o & 17 y/o being problematic & another “gay” film the year after Moonlight). If voters love the film none of that will matter. But it remains to be seen how the film plays with mass American audiences and Oscar voters. Critics don’t matter as much as we often pretend they do when it comes to industry awards. Another critical darling is The Florida Project, which I have seen and think is very strong, but feels small for a Best Picture run, especially considering A24 has Lady Bird as well. The brilliant but understated filmmaking may not jump out at voters, and the only place it feels like a threat to win is Best Supporting Actor (Willem Dafoe). It certainly could have a nice run with critics prizes and precursors, but other indies seem to have much more buzz right now so I don’t feel too comfortable predicting it despite the fact that it plays as a crowd-pleaser.

The biggest mysteries right now are The Post from Steven Spielberg and Phantom Thread from Paul Thomas Anderson. They won’t hit theatres until the end of December, but will screen for guilds beforehand and are getting screeners sent out in time to qualify for critics awards and major industry precursors like SAG and DGA. Spielberg saw Bridge of Spies score six nominations, and The Post is a more timely historical story given our current president and that it deals with freedom of the press. He has both Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks in tow this time. There were early rumors of the film having problems in the editing room, but with it getting screeners out in time for SAG, those rumors don’t appear to have any basis in reality. Phantom Thread is a tougher film to assess with Oscar until reviews start rolling in, as Paul Thomas Anderson’s work doesn’t always resonate with the Academy. Inherent Vice didn’t really land with Oscar, and The Master missed out in Best Picture despite THREE acting nominations. But he’s back with Academy favorite Daniel Day-Lewis this time around. Their previous collaboration, There Will Be Blood, scored eight nominations including Best Picture and saw Day-Lewis win. Phantom Thread looks very unique, to say the least, but I don’t doubt PTA or DDL. It’s also the only pony Focus Features has this year, so it’ll surely get an aggressive campaign.

Then there’s All the Money in the World, Ridley Scott’s film that formerly starred Kevin Spacey but saw him replaced with Christopher Plummer and is currently re-shooting hoping to make its Dec. 22nd qualifying release. This is an unprecedented move from Sony, to say the least. I have no idea how to look at it. If it’s good, will it matter? Does the fact that it originally starred Spacey damn it entirely, or will that have the reverse impact and give the film bonus good will? All I know is that he original trailer looked great and that while Ridley is hit-or-miss with Oscar, he hit big as recently as two years ago with The Martian.

There are other films from major studios getting campaigns. Blade Runner 2049 (Warner Bros) received strong reviews but the box office was simply terrible, and genre films really need to emerge as popular hits to have a chance (Arrival, also from Denis Villeneuve, doesn’t get in last year if it doesn’t surprise and put up big numbers). But it’s going to pick up some technical noms and will probably win Roger Deakins his long-deserved cinematography Oscar so you can’t rule it out. Fox is pushing War for the Planet of the Apes. I personally think it’s deserving of a great many noms, but its Oscar upside is likely limited to a victory in Best Visual Effects. The Academy has ignored the franchise to this point. Fox also has a musical starring Hugh Jackman and Michelle Williams in The Greatest Showman. While that seems Oscar friendly, early buzz surrounding the film is dreadful.

On the superhero front, there’s been talk about how Logan and Wonder Woman could break through genre stigma and land with Oscar. I don’t buy it as anything more than clickbait fodder, personally. Both films appear much more likely to hit a couple Globe noms and maybe score with PGA like Deadpool did last year. Wonder Woman remains a talking point though and I wouldn’t completely rule it out with Oscar. Love for the film could spill over to a nom in Visual Effects (not deserving imo) or Costume Design (very deserving imo). There’s also an added and very legitimate female empowerment narrative surrounding the film that’s only made more relevant every time a sexual harasser within the industry is exposed. If it wasn’t such a loaded Best Actress race this year, I’d consider Gal Gadot a real threat, which would really help the films chances overall. Logan seems relatively forgotten at this point.

The big wildcard is Star Wars: The Last Jedi. The Force Awakens was much closer to getting a Best Picture nom than you think. It scored five nominations including the very important Best Film Editing, and was a PGA nominee as well. If TLJ ends up being the improved sequel most expect it to be, it certainly is a contender. At the very least it’ll pick up a handful of technical noms like its predecessor. Disney doesn’t have to push it hard. Everyone will see it regardless and it campaigns itself.

Among the dark horses are a few films hoping to ride lead acting contenders to overall Oscar love. A24 Films is already making a strong effort to campaign James Franco for The Disaster Artist, which he also directed. While the film -a comedy telling the story of cult midnight film The Room– is far from traditional Oscar material, it’s in part a love letter to filmmaking that folks in the industry should relate to. Critics already love it. We’ll see if audiences respond. Stronger did not have the box office Lionsgate was hoping for but Jake Gyllenhaal is probably getting nominated and there’s some real love for the film as a whole. It’ll need to surprise with precursors, but I wouldn’t stick a fork in it just yet. Molly’s Game, the directorial debut of Aaron Sorkin featuring an acclaimed Jessica Chastain performance, played well at Toronto and is now closing AFI Fest. It could be a late riser like Lion and Hidden Figures last year, or it could be just a screenplay contender. Wonder may be overly sentimental but that hasn’t stopped a great many films from hitting with Oscar. It had a huge opening weekend and Lionsgate should recognize what they have and push the film and Julia Roberts as this year’s Lion/Nicole Kidman.

Some lesser-known distributors are hoping to break through. NEON is a new company but they seem to have a real contender in I, Tonya, which is likely looking at nominations for both Margot Robbie and Allison Janney. The Tonya Harding biopic is another film that surprised on the festival circuit and it’s stylistically different from anything else in the race this year. Can NEON score the film a SAG Ensemble nom? Getting the actors to bite is key. Hostiles, a challenging and violent western from rising director Scott Cooper, was picked up last minute by Entertainment Studios. It isn’t typical Oscar material but it features an acclaimed Christian Bale performance and Oscar absolutely loves him. Also, Netflix has their best chance yet at major nominations with Dee Rees’ Mudbound, but there’s still a huge hurdle for the company to jump and the film doesn’t appear to be playing as well with general audiences as it did with critics at Sundance. I’ll believe it’s got a real shot if it gets a SAG Ensemble nom.

A great many assumed contenders appear dead in the water. Wind River has strong box office, solid reviews, and features a powerhouse Jeremy Renner performance…but it’s mostly been forgotten and no matter how hard writer/director Taylor Sheridan tries, it’s tough to separate the film from Harvey Weinstein. Annapurna Pictures is trying to get Detroit back in play with a re-release, but the passion for the film just isn’t there and it’s got some potentially messy racial commentary attached to its third act. Richard Linklater’s Last Flag Flying has a big-name cast but hasn’t opened well or sparked much passion with anyone. It’ll need a surprising late boost. Along with that film, Amazon Studios co-distributed The Big Sick, which proved surprisingly popular on top of critical acclaim. It’s a crowd-pleaser but the momentum seems to have really slowed down and I don’t see it competing anywhere outside of screenplay. Maybe critics groups can push it back into the discussion over the next few weeks. We’ll see. Breathe has not received good reviews and is being called pure Oscar bait. Wonder Wheel has not received good reviews and is directed by Woody Allen. Downsizing and Wonderstruck are ambitious films from beloved directors (Alexander Payne and Todd Haynes, respectively) but neither are said to be anything special as experiments. Battle of the Sexes has Emma Stone and Steve Carrel, and it certainly tried on the festival circuit, but the reviews are just okay and Fox Searchlight already seems to be forgetting about it in favor of Three Billboards and The Shape of Water. Darren Aronofsky has hit before with Oscar, but mother! has proven very divisive and didn’t do anything at the box office. It has Jennifer Lawrence and I think it’s possible the DGA will acknowledge the ambition and cite Aronofsky. Maybe it can get some late momentum but it’ll be awfully difficult for Paramount to get it major love.

Anyways, that’s my commentary for now. I’ll do a similar post looking at the acting categories sometime over the next week.

Chekhov’s Cock: ‘Boogie Nights’ turns 20.

September 11, 1997.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. Buzz was palpable before anybody saw a single frame. Anderson’s wholly original and lively script had been circulating the desks of Hollywood players for years*, with William H. Macy even calling it the best thing he’d ever read and saying he’d “read the yellow pages if Anderson was directing”. The film was an instant success. Reviewers praised it as one of the most groundbreaking films of the 90’s, something akin to Pulp Fiction or Sex, Lies, and Videotape. Anderson was hailed as a wunderkind; comparisons to names like Altman and Kubrick and Scorsese didn’t seem too far-fetched. The ensemble cast was lauded as well, with particular praise going to Burt Reynolds and Julianne Moore (both of whom would go on to receive Oscar nominations for the film).

*For more on the development of the film and a script that almost became an urban legend, check out this exceptional oral history of the film from Grantland (R.I.P.)

Boogie Nights was a smash hit with audiences as well. It grossed $43M (nearly 3x its budget) despite being a 150+ minute film with a hard-R rating that lacked both an established star in the lead and the backing of a major studio. It’s only grown in stature in the two decades since.

It’s easy to see why. For a film with so much thematic weight and so many big ideas, Boogie Nights never sacrifices entertainment value (the same can’t be said for Magnolia, Anderson’s brilliant but challenging follow-up). Much of that is thanks to Anderson’s script being really funny. I often think back on the scene when Dirk (Mark Wahlberg) goes to a party at Jack’s house and first meets Reed (John C. Reilly). Reilly is used perfectly. The character wants to impress everyone, but nothing about him is particularly impressive. He claims to look like Han Solo, but obviously lacks Harrison Ford’s handsomeness. He claims to work out a lot, but doesn’t seem to be in good shape. He attempts a flip off a diving board, but all he does is hurt himself.

As the drugs flow more and more, Reed’s detachment from reality only grows, bringing Dirk along as well. If you’ve ever had any experiences with cocaine or witnessed the experiences of others, you know that when someone is geeking they’re confident to a fault. No scene I’m aware of captures this as brilliantly as the recording studio scene in Boogie Nights. Dirk and Reed, coked-up to the point where their legs are restless and the cigarettes burn at a rapid rate, wholeheartedly believe they’re making the next hit single with “Feel My Heat”. Only, it’s awful. Unbelievably awful. Hilariously awful. The engineer in the studio can hardly keep a straight face. It’s a very funny scene, but also somewhat of a tragic turning point in the film. Dirk and Reed are so far gone off the drugs and their own egos that they can’t see how ridiculous they look/sound.

Scotty (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) sees it though, only he’s too bashful to speak up. He truly loves Dirk, and his overall timidity stems from the fact that he’s a relatively flamboyant gay man living in a time and working in an industry not exactly open to such lifestyles. He’s a great tragic character. The most heartbreaking moment in a film filled with heartbreaking moments comes at the New Year’s party when Scotty arrives and shows Dirk his new car. Dirk couldn’t care less, but he’s too nice to let Scotty know it. Scotty bought the care with the sole purpose of impressing Dirk, even as going as far as saying he’ll return it if Dirk doesn’t think it’s cool. Then he tries to kiss Dirk. Dirk’s very polite about turning down the advance, but it still crushes Scotty. Dirk goes back to the party, while Scotty gets in his car and bawls his eyes out. This was Scotty’s most significant moment in the film but probably something Dirk forgot about the next morning. A minor scene in the larger context of the movie, but a monumental moment for Scotty, and a nice reminder that what’s insignificant for some is often life-or-death for others.


The entire New Year’s party, welcoming the 1980’s, is an important thematic moment in a film that’s very much about the ending of eras. Now, this turn-of-the-decade may not mark the clear cultural shift that the previous one did (which Anderson would go on to explore in Inherent Vice), but it functions that way in the film as from here on out things get really dark. The energy and optimism of the films first half ends abruptly. Every character hits rock bottom, and those moments are cut together perfectly. Kicking it off is Little Bill (William H. Macy), who again witnesses his promiscuous wife (played by none other than porn superstar Nina Hartley) fucking another dude without even making a real effort to conceal it. This is the third time we see this. Bill has reached his breaking point. In what makes for one of the most iconic extended shots in cinematic history, Bill walks in on his wife, then emotionlessly walks through the party out to his car, gets his gun, walks back through the party, murders his wife and her lover, and then kills himself in front of the whole party. Boom. The gunshot brings in the 1980’s, and functions as the moment when Boogie Nights starts to become a tragedy. 

Sticking with the “end of an era” theme, Anderson works some meta-commentary on the film industry in. Famed porn director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) is resistant when his financier insists he begin making the switch from film to video, which is cheaper to shoot on and distribute. Jack considers himself a filmmaker and an artist, and to make this compromise is to surrender his integrity. The same transition was happening with Hollywood at the time of Boogie Nights’ release, and the fight would continue. It’s over now. Almost everything is shot and projected digitally. But Anderson is still a champion of film. It’s funny to see him arguing for the merits of shooting on film stock via a story about the pornography industry in the 70’s. It wasn’t an accident that this bit was included.

I can’t believe I’ve written 1,000 words on Boogie Nights without talking about Dirk Diggler’s penis. From the very first scene we’re told it’s quite the penis, something capable of inspiring awe even in folks who work around big penises everyday. Many of the film’s most memorable images are of other characters seeing Dirk’s package for the first time. Anderson has fun teasing us. Everyone in the movie gets to see it, but the audience doesn’t, at least not until the film’s final scene. It’s remarkable visual storytelling by Anderson. I’m heterosexual (I swear it), yet when watching the film for the first time I was emotionally invested in seeing it. After all, this penis is the catalyst for the whole film. We never get to meet this eccentric cast of characters Dirk’s now legendary prosthetic dick doesn’t entice Jack.


As Boogie Nights tumbles to a close -I say “tumbles” because once 1980 hits it’s really all downhill for these characters- we get to an uncomfortably intense scene that has our characters wondering what went wrong to get to this point. I’m of course talking about when Dirk, Reed, and Todd (Thomas Jane) visit the home of Rahad (Alfred Molina) for a drug deal. Unbeknownst to Dirk and Reed at first, Todd brought along a gun and plans to rip the dealer off. We know something bad is going to happen, so during the deal, when Rahman dances and air-guitars to “Sister Christian”, we should be laughing at how ridiculous Molina makes it look. But we can’t, because of the black cloud hanging over the scene. Exceptional acting from all involved and a testament to Anderson’s ability as an atmospheric director. He’s toying with us. Again. You can’t help but be completely acquiescent to Anderson’s cinematic whims.

A big part of what makes the film so endearing is the lead turn of Wahlberg*, who would go from underwear model to serous movie star overnight. The raw, unhinged sexuality he brings to the role fits perfectly. When he freaks out and his voice gets high, we remember Dirk is really still a kid (he’s 16 at the start of the movie). Wahlberg nails every emotional note the script calls for, which is an awful lot of range for such an inexperienced actor to show off. It remains the best performance of his career.

*Oddly enough, Anderson originally wanted Wahlberg’s ‘The Basketball Diaries’ co-star Leonardo DiCaprio, but Leo chose ‘Titanic’ instead. Then Anderson wanted Joaquin Phoenix, but he had reservations about playing a porn star. Ultimately, after being referred to Anderson by Leo, Wahlberg won the role.

For all the film’s formal merits -groovy costumes and set design, stunning photography courtesy of Bob Elswitt- it’s not the film’s technical achievements that make people come back to Boogie Nights after all these years. It’s the characters. We return to see Amber Waves (Julianne Moore) unofficially adopt Rollergirl (Heather Graham) over a great many lines of coke. We return to see Buck’s (Don Cheadle) dream of premium stereo equipment at discount prices become a reality. We return to see Maurice (Luis Guzmán) endlessly beg Jack to put him in a porno despite his hairy beer belly. Anderson loves all his characters, and he loves all their flaws. He forces us to love them too.

Homework, Hormones, & Happy Hogan: The balancing act of ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’

Jon Watts is just 36, a baby by filmmaker standards. His first two films were Clown, a tiny body horror film that grossed just $2 million, and Cop Car, a very good but sparsely seen Kevin Bacon thriller that didn’t even gross $150K. I’m not sure what would make Marvel Studios boss Kevin Feige pin him as the director capable of the very difficult balancing act that is Spider-Man: Homecoming, but that’s why Feige gets paid a lot of money to make these decisions and I get paid no money to react to them.

Homecoming is an experiment in genre. Within its superhero responsibilities -thrusting one of the two or three most iconic characters in American comics into the biggest franchise in American cinema- it also sets out to be a genuine coming-of-age high school film. Call it “Perks of Being a Wall-Climber”. It’s the first time in multiple big-screen iterations of the character that Peter Parker’s conflict is just as important to the film, if not more important, than Spidey’s conflict. Yes, Spider-Man wants to impress Tony Stark, officially become an Avenger, and stop the bad guy. But just as important to the film’s narrative is Peter wanting to impress his crush. Throughout the film Peter is forced to make decisions. Does he follow the van full of alien weapons? Or does he go to his crushes’ party? These decisions drive his character arc. Again, this is a true coming-of-age film, and a very good one. Peter is stuck in limbo between who he’s been and who he wants to be, both as a teenager and a superhero.

A hilarious early sequence shows us some events from Captain America: Civil War from Spidey’s perspective, via cell phone footage. It communicates Peter’s excitement perfectly. When the timeline fast-forwards to the present day, Peter is back in Queens, going to school, and fighting small-time crime after school, all under the watchful eye of Tony Stark’s bodyguard Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau). Peter thinks he could be doing a lot more, but neither Stark nor Happy are returning his calls. He’s clearly not ready yet. His skills aren’t polished. He doesn’t even really know to use his fancy suit.

At school, Peter is a bit of a classic geek. He’s on the academic decathlon team. He and his best friend Ned (a hilarious Jacob Batalon) are the types who still get excited over a Death Star LEGO set. His crush, Liz (Laura Harrier), doesn’t seem to know he exists. While these dynamics may seem like clichés at first, they’re explored in real detail. There’s depth to the adolescent conflicts Peter goes through.

That’s a lot to balance in what’s supposed to be a lighthearted summer blockbuster. Thankfully, Watts and his exceptional cast were up to the challenge.

It all starts with Tom Holland, who almost instantly establishes himself as the best Spidey and Peter yet. He actually looks like a high schooler, for one. He also carries an effortless charm that makes his learning curve throughout the film heartwarming rather than annoying. There’s a concerned effort to capture the youthful exuberance of Peter in this film, and Holland proves the perfect muse for such a task. Physically, he has a real pep in his step. Whether in the suit or in typical milennial teenage attire, you can see Peter’s enthusiasm in the way Holland moves. There are even a few scenes that require some real dramatic acting, going as far as bringing the character to tears, and Holland nails it.

As for the villain, something that has plagued even the stronger MCU films, Homecoming succeeds effortlessly. Michael Keaton plays Adrian Toomes (aka The Vulture), a government-contracted metal salvager turned arms dealer who builds himself a winged suit. He has a real, believable, even relatable conflict. He’s not concerned with world domination. He doesn’t have some weird personal vendetta against the Avengers. He’s just a dude who gets screwed out of work and wants to provide for his family and the family of employees. The film has a few surprises with the character that I won’t spoil but are handled perfectly. There’s a scene where Toomes is in a car with Peter and a simple conversation makes for the most intense moment in the movie. Such is the power of Keaton, an actor of seemingly unlimited talent, capable of both finding the humanity in the character but also being genuinely creepy when the script calls for it. He steals every scene he is in. It’s a truly marvelous performance from one of our finest actors.

Another neat thing about Homecoming that sets it above other Spidey movies is it’s authentic New York flavor. There’s the diversity, for starters. Peter’s high school peers look like you’d expect them to given that Queens is one of the most ethnically diverse urban hubs in America. But the film never goes out of its way to highlight this diversity. It’s just there, natural for all the characters. The film’s biggest action set piece takes place on the Staten Island ferry. Peter even has a favorite bodega. Being a teenager in New York is a huge part of Peter’s identity, and this is ultimately a film about his identity, so capturing that was important.

Homecoming, credited to a whopping six screenwriters and edited by Dan Lebental and Debbie Berman, is structured in a way so the dueling narratives unfold simultaneously. This isn’t a film that begins as a high school story and then becomes standard superhero fare halfway through. Both sides move forward with equal pacing, which really helps Peter’s character arc. Salvatore Totino’s photography is very smart. During major action scenes featuring the Vulture, who’s questionable CGI is the film’s one true weakness, Totino lights them dimly so that the questionable CGI is tougher to notice. And the editing team makes use of rapid cuts. It’s a very clever film, technically speaking. Do I wish some of the VFX work looked better? Sure. But here, unlike the countless films that feature middling VFX work, it doesn’t really get in the way. Watts and his team know this film’s strength is its characters, and that’s what is shown off.

As heavily as Robert Downey Jr. was featured in promotional material (which is understandable), he’s not as a big a part of the film as you’d expect. He pops in here and there to give Peter fatherly advice and criticism, lending trademark Downeyisms to the film, but never overstays his welcome. Happy Hogan is his surrogate in a sense, but even Happy doesn’t overpopulate things. This film is very much a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but its obligations to the larger story never get in the way. If anything, the presence of the Avengers in the world of this film helps Peter as a character.

Everything in Homecoming works. Watts directs most scenes with an improvisational nature, fitting given the often comedic tone and the fact that most of the characters are just teenagers. His influences are clear; John Hughes, most notably. There’s a visual reference to Hughes’ Ferris Bueller’s Day Off  that’s maybe a bit heavy-handed but so charming that you’ll forgive its lack of subtlety.

This is *probably* the best Spider-Man film to date. It’s also one of the best MCU films, and perhaps the strongest blockbuster of a frustrating summer season thus far. A crowd-pleaser that’ll surely be a smash hit and reward repeated viewings, Spider-Man: Homecoming is a triumph in popcorn movie-making. More of this, please.

 

The Top 100 Films of the 21st Century, Part 1

I’m not sure when or where it began, but the online film community has recently become obsessed with debating the best films of the century so far. Perhaps the discussion began when the BBC published a massive critics poll. Then the New York Times did one. And then everybody started doing it. I joined in on a the fun a few nights ago, half-inebriated, on twitter, sharing a quickly made top 25 list.

I immediately hated myself for my exclusions. A top 25 list of films since the year 2000 is impossible for me given to how much content the global industry puts out now. So I changed my list and extended to 100, figuring I’d leave some commentary on my choices here. I still hate myself. There are countless films I love and consider to be damn near perfect that I had to omit. But whatever, this is just for shits and giggles.

And for the sake of making this easier on myself, I’m not including documentaries or animated features.

This is part 1.

#100) The Fighter (dir. David O. Russell)

Skillfully navigating the potential pitfalls that often accompany sports and addiction dramas, the film focuses on community and family. It’s carried by exceptional acting across-the-board, most notably from the always-dedicated Christian Bale, who finally won an Oscar for his work.

#99) Dogville (dir. Lars von Trier)

Experimental in its literal staging, Lars von Trier’s bold parable of inherent human misery is oddly hilarious, thoroughly thought-provoking, and arguably anti-American. Added bonus, it features Nicole Kidman at her very best.

#98) Martha Marcy May Marlene (dir. Sean Durkin)

Behind a bravura turn from Elizabeth Olsen, Durkin’s film intends to disturb. It also shows off a filmmaker in complete control, utilizing visual and narrative tricks that could seem gimmicky in a film school sort of way if not for the haunting psychological subtext beneath every scene.

#97) Creed (dir. Ryan Coogler)

So much better than it had any right to be. Ryan Coogler’s subtle touch and mastery of naturalistic dialogue turn what should’ve been a campy cash grab into crowd-pleasing tale of various loves hiding behind the guise of one of Hollywood’s iconic franchises.

#96) The End of the Tour (dir. James Ponsoldt)

One of the great conversation films ever made, and a treat for any David Foster Wallace fan. Ponsoldt’s understated direction is perfect for this interviewer-interviewee story. Jason Segel knocks it out of the park as the late, aforementioned author.

#95) The Prestige (dir. Christopher Nolan)

Nolan’s attempts to bend your mind often work to the detriment of his films, but here, thanks to a genuinely captivating story that fits his ambitions, all those Nolanisms feel right at home. It’s also a beautiful film, complete with expansive period detail and more great work from DoP Wally Pfister.

#94) Hot Fuzz (dir. Edgar Wright)

Edgar Wright’s films play like they’re made by an eccentric movie geek trying to riff on his genre favorites, because that’s exactly what they are. But his writing never allows that love be mistaken for cynicism. Hot Fuzz is strongest of his “trilogy”.

#93) Punch-Drunk Love (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

We don’t deserve PTA, a former wunderkind who’s more than lived up to our gargantuan expectations. Maybe Punch-Drunk Love is a minor work from him, but it’s a cute and hilarious rom-com unafraid of embracing its weirdness. A real treat and testament to Anderson’s ability.

#92) Mystic River (dir. Clint Eastwood)

Eastwood’s mystery is much like Ben Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone in its attempt to show a Boston community through a grisly crime. Both come from the same author, actually. Eastwood’s reigns supreme though thanks to the strength of its leads and ability to keep you guessing.

#91) District 9 (dir. Neil Blomkamp)

The allegory is hardly subtle, but it needn’t be. The film is a poignant and visually inventive sci-fi drama that lands all of its punches. Blomkamp hasn’t topped it yet. I doubt he ever will.

#90) Where the Wild Things Are (dir. Spike Jonze)

Maybe not the adaptation that the kids (or Warner Bros) wanted, but it’s gorgeous to look at and the melancholic tone actually lifts up the source material. Spike Jonze was given a lot of money to make a film about childhood. The result is astounding.

#89) Whiplash (dir. Damien Chazelle)

You can feel how personal of a film this is for Chazelle by the details he chooses to emphasize. It’s a sharply edited collage of scenes showing relentless dedication and the issues it can cause. J.K. Simmons won a much-deserved Oscar, but it’s young Miles Teller’s nuanced turn that carries the film.

#88) Memories of Murder (dir. Bong Joon-ho)

Bong Joon-ho’s crime drama is every bit as stylized and beautifully perverse as you’d expect from the auteur. He loves playing with the audience and finding captivating images in unexpected places. I am so grateful for his weirdness.

#87) Shutter Island (dir. Martin Scorsese)

Scorsese pulls out all the genre tricks he usually avoids to craft this carefully paced thriller. It’s so much more than just a twist ending. It’s a major filmmaker stepping far outside his usual bounds with a gripping piece of commercial entertainment. Robert Richardson’s photography is mesmerizing.

#86) The Wrestler (dir. Darren Aronofsky)

A welcome return to form for Mickey Rourke; the film finds serious emotional weight despite the narrative clichés. It’s wisely cut together in a way that emphasizes the thematic contrasts between the lead character’s professional life and personal life.

#85) Road to Perdition (dir. Sam Mendes)

The cinematography is staggering throughout, and it’s very fun to watch Tom Hanks play a hitman. This is a generally joyless film about fathers and sons stylized as a pulp-noir. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

#84) Monster (dir. Patty Jenkins)

It’s hard to put into words just how exceptional Charlize Theron is in this movie. More than just the jaw-dropping physical transformation, she communicates her character’s dark anxieties through glares. Jenkins perfectly handles a character impossible to love but hard to consciously root against in the timeline of the film.

#83) Gosford Park (dir. Robert Altman)

A study of post-WW1 the English class and peerage systems disguised as a dinner party murder mystery, Altman’s film loves its characters; all of them. The camera moves smoothly and functions as a character itself. This is remarkable filmmaking on every level, a testament to Altman as one of the all-time greats.

#82) Gravity (dir. Alfonso Cuarón)

It made for one of the great in-theater experiences I’ve ever had. And beyond the technical mastery, it’s a strong survival story. Sandra Bullock gives what had to be difficult performance. This is the type of risk I wish studios would take more often.

#81) 3:10 to Yuma (dir. James Mangold)

Mangold’s action-packed remake is irresistible. The performances are so much fun, and the action sequences are staged in a loud, fast manner that’s never really been done in a Western before. It’s a joy throughout.

#80) Carol (dir. Todd Haynes)

Haynes’ camera understands human emotion so much. It knows that a simple gaze can say much more than a line of dialogue. And there may not be two better actresses at selling emotion through gazes than Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara.

#79) Anomalisa (dir. Charlie Kaufman)

Leave it to Charlie Kaufman to create one of the most wholly human films ever out of stop-motion animation. The film’s brand of melancholy is as hilarious as it is creepy. It’s a story about apathy, and the infamous sex scene is perhaps my favorite ever.

#78) Y Tu Mamá También (dir. Alfonso Cuarón)

Erotic and funny and more aware of its social ideas than it was originally credited for, Cuaron’s often explicit road movie upends the genre. Who knew teenage hedonism set amidst socioeconomic issues in turn of the millennium Mexico could make for such a fascinating story?

#77) In Bruges (dir. Martin McDonagh)

You’ll laugh out loud, hate yourself for laughing, and then laugh some more. Such is the writing of Martin McDonagh, a man who’s a blend of Wilde and Tarantino. This is a fun and at times genuinely moving film, an exciting directorial debut that reaffirmed the idea that McDonagh’s stage work could transition to the screen seamlessly.

#76) Birth (dir. Jonathan Glazer)

An ominous film, maybe even a film bordering on sadism. But it’s so artfully done. Kidman’s performance is one of her very best, the minimalist cinematography is striking, and the film takes its time rather than going for the easy horror thrills its premise could’ve allowed for.

#75) Casino Royale (dir. Martin Campbell)

A reinventing of Bond. Daniel Craig gives the character more nuance than thought possible. The film also includes some of the the best action sequences in any Bond. Eva Green and Mads Mikkelsen make the Bond girl and villain more than archetypes.

#74) Traffic (dir. Steven Soderbergh)

Soderbergh’s crime epic lets its various subplots play out in distinctive visual ways, and refuses to place simple moral judgements on its characters. The ensemble cast is fantastic. And nobody does hand-held camerawork better than Soderbergh.

#73) Minority Report (dir. Steven Spielberg)

A unique aesthetic thanks to Spielberg’s visualization of Philip K. Dick’s future and DoP Janusz Kaminski’s experimental take on a noir look by bleach-bypassing the film negatives. The story is also engaging and well-paced; consisting of some inventive action sequences.

#72) The Hateful Eight (dir. Quentin Tarantino)

Tarantino’s latest experiment is perhaps his most mature film. A gimmick-free and leisurely paced whodunnit capable of finding tension in every frame. The cast is great, and Tarantino’s unapologetic handling of racial tension has never had more depth or historical awareness.

#71) Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (dir. Chan-wook Park)

The strongest in Park’s trilogy (and yes, that includes Oldboy), this film shows off the director’s exquisite tastes when it comes to cinematography and production design. Like its sister films, it’s rather violent and twisted, but this one actually has some interesting ideas about violent revenge as an idea.

#70) Inception (dir. Christopher Nolan)

It’s not the complex mindfuck some pretend it is. Rather, it’s a thoroughly entertaining blockbuster filled with visual grandeur and strong performances. There are some incredible set pieces as well, proving that Nolan didn’t need the backdrop of Batman to create stimulating commercial entertainment.

#69) Starred Up (dir. David Mackenzie)

It is perhaps the best prison film ever made, a bleak and sober character piece featuring exceptional performances from Jack O’Connell & Ben Mendelsohn. There’s some subtext about rehabilitation and the British penal system, but everything comes back to a rather moving short story about a father and son.

#68) Capote (dir. Bennett Miller)

Benefiting from a timeless turn by Philip Seymour-Hoffman as the titular author, Miller’s film is complex enough to look beyond the murder sensationalism, to look at a man who wanted to be (and thought he was) better than everyone else at what he did. Was Capote’s peculiar personality required to write something like In Cold Blood? That’s what the film explores, and wisely refuses to answer.

#67) We Need to Talk About Kevin (dir. Lynne Ramsay)

Lynne Ramsay is a filmmaker who refuses to put all her cards on the table too early. This is an eery film throughout, but its nonlinear narrative builds slowly to a climax that begins to feel inevitable. That doesn’t make it less powerful, however, since the most disturbing moments are simply gazes from Tilda Swinton. Ramsay and her team even work in horror tropes, creating a unique style that fits the subject matter perfectly.

#66) Looper (dir. Rian Johnson)

What a pleasant surprise this was. A smart sci-fi film that uses a time-travel premise to the benefit of its characters and world, rather than for cheap conflict. It also works well on the simplest of action movie terms. I now believe Rian Johnson can do anything.

#65) Ex Machina (dir. Alex Garland)

Garland’s film is much more than simple artificial-intelligence ponderings; what does it mean to be alive and all that jazz. It’s actually a film about male sexual fantasy just as much as it is a film about technology. A trio of great performances and a sleek visual style aided by strong color contrasts and fun production design make it hard to look away from. Its ending lacks real payoff, but that’s intentional.

#64) Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (dir. James Gunn)

Gunn’s sequel will age well. It’s funnier, contains more emotional heft, and is more bonkers visually than its predecessor. His irreverent style is essential to this offbeat group of characters. A perfect director-intellectual property match.

#63) Elephant (dir. Gus Van Sant)

Gus’ Palme d’Or winning is so sparse, refusing to stylize really anything. Given that the film concerns a school shooting, the directorial choices have a powerful impact. Many films that try to condemn violence do the opposite by making it extremely cinematic. Elephant does no such thing.

#62) Bamako (dir. Abderrahmane Sissako)

A thrilling courtroom drama on one hand, and on the other a detailed look at everyday life for various people in the titular Malian capital. Sissako would deservedly go on to receive serious international attention for Timbuktu, but this remains his best work.

#61) The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (dir. Peter Jackson)

The entire trilogy is a marvelous technical achievement that inspired millions, but it’s this middle chapter that shines brightest as a standalone film, thanks to wise editing choices with its various subplots that culminate in perhaps the greatest battle in cinematic history.

#60) The Intruder (dir. Claire Denis)

It’s perhaps Denis’ most original film thanks to its story, which says a lot considering she’s a wildly original filmmaker whose camera loves to focus on bodies and emphasize sounds. It also features a powerhouse lead turn from Michel Subor.

#59) Moneyball (dir. Bennett Miller)

Within this story of changing schools of thought in baseball, Miller made a delicate film about personal perseverance. Brad Pitt gives one of his very best performances, and Sorkin’s script surprisingly finds the human element within Michael Lewis’ book.

#58) Synecdoche, New York (dir. Charlie Kaufman)

It’s strangely haunting, dabbling in magical realism as it shows a man putting quite literally everything into his work. It feels a bit meta for Kaufman, but never becomes too self-absorbed thanks to Philip Seymour Hoffman in the lead. It has fun with its at times trippy visuals as well.

#57) Inherent Vice (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

You’re not supposed to really be able to follow what’s going on in Inherent Vice. It’s a film about a good-natured but perpetually stoned P.I. struggling in a turn-of-the-decade world that’s mostly left his counterculture ideals in the past. It’s much heavier thematically than it was given credit for, and it’s easily PTA’s funniest film, a subtle treat that rewards repeated viewings.

#56) Prisoners (dir. Denis Villeneuve)

It’s a very heavy and depressing film. But Villeneuve can manufacture tension on a dime and with Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal he found two actors capable of aiding him in that. Roger Deakins’ photography is also perhaps the most impressive work of his legendary career. Prisoners was never going to have a happy ending. There’s nothing wrong with that.

#55) John Wick (dir. Chad Stahelski)

This is almost a prestige action film. It’s framed and lit like something experimental with European roots. It’s incredible action choreography is gun-fu to the beat of electronic music. The film also manages to build its own interesting criminal underworld. What a pleasant surprise this was. I hope we get five more.

#54) United 93 (dir. Paul Greengrass)

Greengrass’ documentarian style here is essential in a film about regular people thrust into a tragic situation and then displaying true heroism. A more classically cinematic take would’ve played cheesy. But Greengrass, and his all-world editing team, never allow that to happen.

#53) A Seperation (dir. Asghar Farhadi)

Farhadi’s masterpiece is a complicated film about a relationship, for starters. As many of the finest Iranian films do, it cleverly navigates censorship rules. It’s also impeccably performed all around and gorgeously filmed, surprisingly intense as well throughout. An original gem worthy of all the awards it got.

#52) Margaret (dir. Kenneth Lonergan)

It’s a bit bloated and extremely miserable, but it’s stuffed with fascinating ideas and moments. Lonergan’s sheer ambition is admirable, his ability to execute an atmospheric film from that ambition is remarkable.

#51) The New World (dir. Terrence Malick)

Another masterpiece from Malick, a beautiful and poetic take on the Pocahontas story whose messiness should not be confused for lacking in focus. It doesn’t claim to know about everything going on. It just throws image after image at you, letting you respond to those images however you please.

Check back soon for Part 2.

 

 

 

Zak’s Favorite Films: ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’

“I hold it true, whate’er befall;

I feel it when I sorrow most;

‘Tis better to have loved and lost

Than never to have loved at all.”

“In Memoriam A.H.H.”, Canto 27, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

That stanza from Tennyson, specifically its last two lines, is perhaps the most quoted bit from one of the most quoted figures in the history of world literature. It’s easy to see why. It almost argues in favor of heartbreak; suggesting that the pain of bereavement or separation pales in comparison to the hypothetical emotional void caused by that love never being there in the first place. Tennyson’s poem was about and dedicated to his close college friend Arthur Hallam, but most who quote it do so in regards to the untimely end (whether it be via death or breakup) of a romantic relationship. Michael Gondry’s 2004 opus Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind –penned by the always exploratory Charlie Kaufman- is a film that tackles the “better to have loved and lost” idea in an off-kilter, nonlinear, uncomfortably human manner that forces the viewer to take stock of the relationships in their own life, both past and present.

The premise is simple enough. The bashful Joel (Jim Carrey) discovers that his former lover Clementine (Kate Winslet), almost a cliché composite character of free spirited folk, has undergone a memory erasure procedure that had him completely wiped from her memory due to the less than ideal way their relationship ended. He visits Lacuna, Inc., the company that performs this procedure, and decides to endure it himself. After gathering all trinkets that could possibly spark a memory of Clementine, Joel has his memory wiped in his apartment while he sleeps. Employees from Lacuna (played by Mark Ruffalo, Elijah Wood, and Kirsten Dunst) perform the procedure as we experience Joel’s memories of Clementine in reverse order. It gets a bit more complex when sleeping Joel realizes what’s going on and the employees are given tragic relationships of their own, but the meat of the film are the relationship vignettes between Joel and Clem; the highs, the lows, and the details that transcend this single relationship.

Eternal Sunshine does a brilliant job choosing which moments to highlight in a relationship. There’s the initial attraction, where everything is fun and carefree. There’s the apathy that inevitably sets in (“Are we one of those couples at restaurants?”). Then there’s the fighting. The fighting here is so real and anti-cinematic in a sense. Like most fights between loved ones –whether it be a romantic partner, family member, friend, etc.- nothing actually happens to start the fight. Instead, a little slip of the tongue from one party gives the other an excuse to let months of pent up anger come to a boil. Most fights in a relationship aren’t actually about what we pretend they’re about. In Eternal Sunshine, Joel’s subtle comments on Clem’s drinking and her being unfit to be a mother cause her to explode, but her anger doesn’t really come from Joel’s comments. The anger comes from what both realize but are either unable or scared to communicate; that they’re maybe not the picture perfect storybook match they initially thought they were. Of course, storybook matches only exist in, well, storybooks.

Another thing Joel repeatedly does that irks Clem, something I think most of us can relate to, is use the fact that he considers his life to be unspectacular as an excuse for a lack of intimacy. He doesn’t like to talk about himself or how he feels because, as he says multiple times, “My life just isn’t that interesting”. The script positions Clem as an escape from the cyclical nature of Joel’s life. She quickly becomes not just part of his life but the most important thing in his life. So when he says his life isn’t that interesting it, unintentionally, comes off as a slight towards Clem. In fact, nothing Joel or Clem say/do that leads to their breakup is really intentional. That’s how most non-violent, non-adulterous relationships end (I think?).

The film ends on a reasonably happy note considering how depressing it plays at times (I won’t go into any more concrete plot detail in case you haven’t seen it). It’s clear that both Joel and Clem never would’ve undergone the memory erasure if they had a second chance. They make substantial efforts inside Joel’s memories to stop the process, and they both certainly would agree with Tennyson if given the gift of hindsight. These memories are an integral part of who they are. The loose sci-fi story emphasizes that by having the two experience brief moments of remembrance even after they’ve undergone the procedure. It’s not grounded in any real science, but who cares? The film correctly argues that memories of great strength, be they good or bad, are a part of you, and you’re better for it even if you don’t consciously realize so amidst the heartache.

On a purely aesthetic level, the film is something to marvel at. Gondry uses the erasing of memories as an excuse to pull some neat visual tricks. Things disappear and the transitions are trippy (childish diction, I know). DoP Ellen Kuras lights and lens the scenes in a neat way that puts a lot of literal darkness around the characters.

Carrey turns in the best performance of his career. His turn, along with his work in The Truman Show, adds another notch to his “I’m a serious actor and should respected as such” belt. The always outstanding Kate Winslet is at her most unrestrained here, and the supporting players all create real characters despite limited material to chew on.

Perhaps what scares me most about Eternal Sunshine is how close to it I feel despite being just 24 years of age and never having been in a serious, lengthy relationship to the extent of these characters. I can’t begin to imagine how hard this film would hit someone who’s recently undergone a breakup, a divorce, or a death in the family. But that’s the mind of Charlie Kaufman for you. He’s always finding unorthodox ways to tell very personal stories that still manage to be relatable to anyone who tends to deliberately think about why people feel the way the way they do.

Eternal Sunshine is one of those films whose value can’t be fully comprehended during its 108-minute runtime on first viewing. It is what it makes you notice about your own life and relationships, specifically the sad stuff. I both envy and pity anyone who’s never had their heart broken. Experiencing such creates a weary yet learnéd emotional compass with which one navigates future relationships. That’s not to say that heartache leads to cynicism. Heartache leads to a better understanding of human communication, the most integral part of the human condition, and so does Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

2016 in Movies (My Top 10, and Other Stuff)

The general consensus is that 2016 sucked (it did), but you wouldn’t know that from looking at the films of this year. From $200M franchise blockbusters all the way on down to genres films released via video-on-demand, there was a lot of outstanding filmmaking on display. Here I count down my 10 favorite films of the year along with a few other notes. I’ll keep the intro short so to have more space to talk about the films.


This post is broken down into 4 sections.

  • 5 films I liked more than most.
  • 5 films I liked less than most.
  • Honorable Mentions
  • My Top 10 Films of the Year.

For context, my top 10 of 2015 (full post here)

  1. The Lobster
  2. Sicario
  3. Ex Machina
  4. Mad Max: Fury Road
  5. The End of the Tour
  6. Love & Mercy
  7. The Hateful Eight
  8. Beasts of No Nation
  9. Creed
  10. Carol

So let’s begin…

Notable 2016 films I have not yet seen: SilenceFencesPatriots DayLive By NightPassengersAssassin’s Creed


Films I liked more than most.

Blood Father: A thoughtful action film that gets the best out of a late-career Mel Gibson and an outstanding supporting cast, Blood Father is a lean 88-minutes that whips by thanks to its unabashed pulpiness. By no means the first action film to play on the “bad guy plays good in order to protect his family” premise, it works partly because it never extends its scope beyond the father (Gibson) and his daughter (a very good Erin Moriarty). This is the type of film grizzled movie stars such as Gibson excel in.

Pete’s Dragon: Visually dazzling, this live-action remake of Disney’s 1977 animated musical is the perfect family film, and more families should’ve seen it in theaters. Pete’s Dragon is genuinely heartfelt and feels strangely necessary in the reboot era. Credit director David Lowery’s ability to leave all adult cynicism at the door and embrace the tonal notes lost in most non-animated, major studio moviemaking today.

Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates: A raunchy comedy that doubles-down. The bros (Adam Devine and Zac Efron) meet their match and then some with their dates (Aubrey Plaza and Anna Kendrick). Mike and Dave is every bit as refreshing as it is laugh-out-loud funny. Efron and Plaza steal the show. The former continues to prove himself a remarkably gifted comedic actor, while Plaza continues to be the best thing about almost everything she appears in. It’s not without its cheesy rom-com beats, but most of the time, it’s quick to riff on those beats with a visual gag.

mike

Other People: One of the strongest Sundance films of the year, Other People tells the story of struggling N.Y. comedian David (Jesse Plemons) who returns to Sacramento to care for his dying mother (Molly Shannon). Nothing is made simple, as the return home causes problems for David, a gay man from a stoutly religious family. Each character is given depth and handles grieving in their own way. The principle performances from Plemons and Shannon are both exceptional, and the film finds the blend between humor and sorrow so many strive for but rarely capture. It’s a treat (on Netflix now).

Frank & Lola: Behind a creepy powerhouse performance from Michael Shannon, this psychosexual neo-noir from first-time director Matthew Ross is gripping from start to finish even if it’s unsure what it’s really about. Playing on male obsession in a way most films lack the balls to; Frank & Lola is an often romantic, sometimes erotic, and always eerie blend of elements that makes for a fascinating watch. It’s a movie that sticks with you and makes for uncomfortable viewing. It’s challenging. I appreciate that very much.


Films I liked less than most.

American HoneyI didn’t hate this Cannes critical darling, I just didn’t adore it the way most seemed to. From Andrea Arnold, American Honey is filled with fun performances (specifically that of its lead, Sasha Lane). But as a road movie that runs nearly three hours and is filled with strangely edited/scored dreamlike sequences, it wore me out rather quickly. Arnold’s use of the land is important thematically but looks rather cheap at times. This is a decent film, but far from a great one. Not to be a man against auteur filmmaking but this could’ve used a more conservative editor and/or more distributor input on release.

Star Trek Beyond: The Trekkies embraced Star Trek Beyond, NOT directed by J.J. Abrams, because its structure was similar to that of a classic episode, with the Enterprise crew being split up into different subplots that come together in the end. That’s fine, and for the most part the pairings work. But Justin Lin’s take fails to measure up to Abrams’ for two main reasons; his action is sloppy and headache-inducing, his villain is one-note. The best moments in this film are the quiet dialogue scenes between the characters we’ve grown to love. When it extends beyond that it has you wishing for the days of Abrams’ operatic vision, not the metal-meet-metal noisy take of Lin.

Suicide SquadWhile it was by no means a hit with the critics, the comic-book movie masses seemed to like Suicide Squad quite a bit, at least more so than Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Many enjoyed its tone, structure, and the performances of Will Smith and Margot Robbie. I could not disagree more. Suicide Squad is, for my money, the worst superhero film since The Green Lantern. Its story makes absolutely zero sense. It’s a tonal mess. Key action sequences are so underlit and choppily edited that you simply have to blame writer/director David Ayer for not coming up with any usable footage during production. The actors try, but they aren’t given anything substantial. Even the ever-popular Margot Robbie finds herself working too hard to breathe life into an underwritten, overly sexualized character. Whether you look at it as fan service or actual filmmaking, Suicide Squad was a disaster.

ss

Ghostbusters: I understand the urge to defend Ghostbusters. I was rooting for it. In the months leading up to its release, due to both internet trolls prejudging its female cast and self-important journalists anointing it a litmus test for women in Hollywood blockbusters, one’s excitement for Ghostbusters or lack thereof became sort of a political statement. But that was before anyone saw the actual movie, which was a complete creative a commercial misfire. Kate McKinnon is hilarious, as is Chris Hemsworth. But the two are thrown to the side in favor of a Melissa McCarthy-Kristen Wiig friendship that just doesn’t work. Director Paul Feig and McCarthy usually make for one of Hollywood’s most dependable comedic duos, but the jokes don’t land here. McCarthy and Leslie Jones confuse being loud for being funny. And the last act of the film is a complete mess. Ghostbusters stinks. If that opinion puts me on the wrong side of history, so be it.

The Witch: The Witch, written and directed by Robert Eggers, is one of the more successful low  budget horror films of the last five years. It was universally praised for its atmosphere, pacing, and breakout performance from Anya Taylor-Joy. I can get on board with that, to an extent. Taylor-Joy is quite good and the film has fun with its 17-century New England setting. But the thrills/scares are few and far between, due to a script that slows down at weird times to explore themes it never fully realizes. I am generally a fan of slow-pacing. It’s rare that I’m bored by a film as well-shot and well-acted as The Witch. But alas, I was. It took a great deal of effort for me to finish the film, and I don’t mean that in the sense that it was thought-provoking.


Honorable Mentions

10 films I really liked but couldn’t squeeze into my top 10 (ordered alphabetically) 

  • The intimate Christinewhich features career-best work from the always solid Rebecca Hall.
  • Marvel’s trippy and surprisingly hilarious Doctor Strange.
  • Green Room, for its fun performances and visual mayhem.
  • Logan Lerman’s turn and everything else about Indignation, the best film adaptation of Philip Roth yet.
  • Jackie, which is much more than just a good Natalie Portman (though she is THAT good).
  • Best Picture frontrunner La La Land, a dazzling affair, which somehow manages to be both the best musical and romantic comedy in years.
  • Jeff Nichols’ understated but perfectly acted interracial marriage drama Loving.
  • The heartbreaking Manchester by the Sea, which is filled with strong performances and subtly strange humor.
  • The technically masterful and perfectly nostalgic Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
  • And finally, The Jungle Book, a “live-action” film that further proves entirely digital characters can make for some of the most interesting around.

My Top 10 Films of 2016

or, MY 10 FAVORITE films of 2016

#10) In a Valley of Violence

valley

Director: Ti West

Cast: Ethan Hawke, Taissa Farmiga, James Ransome, Karen Gillan, John Travolta

The latest from microbudget master Ti West sees him stepping out of horror confines to embody a different genre, the minimalist western. West’s script loads the dialogue with biting humor honed in by comments on masculinity and purpose. His photography makes great use of the small abandoned town the majority of the film takes place in. The viewer is given an omniscient perspective, we know where everything is relative to everything else. As the characters go on about various things equally grotesque as they are hilarious, a strange mood embodies the film. This is basically a Samuel Beckett story that ends in a standoff.

The cast has fun. Ethan Hawke, who feels so at home in westerns, thrives in a role West supposedly wrote for him specifically. As Paul, the film’s archetypal protagonist, Hawke channels the reluctant hero perfectly. His scenes with Taissa Farmiga (in her best turn yet) are a joy. The Wire alum James Ransone does such a fine job as the film’s antagonist. Too many movies have bad guys you kind of sort of want to root for. Not him. He’s a piece of fucking shit and Ransome nails it. Even the oddly cast John Travolta is in fine form in a role with more grey area around it than I thought him capable of handling.
In a Valley of Violence barely got a theatrical release. Most who saw it did so online or via some on-demand service. Maybe it was marketed poorly following its premiere at South by Southwest. Maybe there’s just little demand for a western that doesn’t feature extravagant set pieces in 2016. Whatever the reason, it’s a shame, because In a Valley of Violence is one of 2016’s best films.


#9) The Nice Guys

nice-guys

Director: Shane Black

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Russell Crowe, Angourie Rice

With The Nice Guys, buddy cop maestro Shane Black convinced a major studio to make an odd film full of 70’s style that pokes fun at the subgenre he more or less invented. The film sees the usually drunk private eye Holland March (Ryan Gosling) team up with professional enforcer Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) to find a missing pornstar, or something like that. The Nice Guys is quick to show you that it’s not really about the story it tells. Its plot is intentionally all-over-the-place, a mere excuse to create situations that lead to hilarity. And boy, does that hilarity work.

Gosling & Crowe are great together. Crowe’s gruffness here compliments Gosling’s ineptitude perfectly. There are countless bits of great physical comedy between the two. The visual gags are shot with a perfect sense of grainy 70’s nostalgia by DoP Philippe Rousselot. Then there’s Angourie Rice, who plays the daughter of Gosling’s character. It’s rare to find a child actor who can hold their own in a film this good, much less steal the show. She’s a revelation here and makes every scene she’s in significantly funnier.

The Nice Guys is a romp. It probably didn’t do well enough to justify a sequel, which stinks, because I’d love to see Gosling & Crowe bicker with each other as these characters again.


#8) Midnight Special

midnight-special

Director: Jeff Nichols

Cast: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Jaeden Lieberher, Adam Driver, Kirsten Dunst, Sam Shepard

One of two Jeff Nichols films this year, Midnight Special adds to his remarkably diverse filmography with a spiritual successor to the works of Spielberg and Carpenter in the 80’s (specifically, E.T. and Starman). The film turned some off by not really answering the questions to its mysteries, but that was an intentional tactic. Nichols knew the film was more the story of a father and son disguised as a chase film than an actual sci-fi mystery. He and editor Julie Monroe keep things moving frame to frame. There’s real tension from the very first shot. The Texas backroads make for an interesting setting to tell the story of a boy (the revelatory Jaeden Leberher) whose special powers entice a cult, and a father (Michael Shannon) willing to protect his son by any means necessary. Again, this is a film about that relationship, not the actual source of the boy’s powers.

Shannon, a usual Nichols collaborator, is outstanding against type here. Another notch on his “great American actor” belt, Midnight Special finds Shannon channeling his trademark intensity to great effect. Joel Edgerton, Adam Driver, and Kirsten Dunst all excel in their roles as well. David Wingo’s synth-heavy score adds to the film’s pacing. Midnight Special isn’t flashy in its style, but it’s damn sure effective.
This isn’t a film that wraps everything up neatly in a bow before the credits roll. Yet, its story is complete. To do that requires a deft writing touch and understanding of what the work is really about. Nichols continues to prove he has just that.


#7) Hacksaw Ridge

hacksaw-ridge

Director: Mel Gibson

Cast: Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey, Teresa Palmer, Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths, Vince Vaughn.

Hacksaw Ridge is a film filled with so many moments that SHOULD be too heavy-handed, only a filmmaker like Mel Gibson who understands spiritual conviction amidst almost fetishized violence could have pulled it off. The fact that it’s done so well despite most critics essentially saying “I didn’t want to like it because it’s Gibson, but…” is a testament to its greatness. I don’t think anyone doubted Gibson’s ability to stage war carnage on a budget. The entire second half of Hacksaw Ridge gut-wrenching. The blood and guts spill while the speakers in the theater sound like they’re about to be blown up. This is all filmed beautifully with some interesting color-grading courtesy of DoP Simon Duggan. And better yet, we never really lose grip of our protagonist, pacifist medic Andrew Doss (Andrew Garfield), even as we’re thrust into the sights and sound of the Pacific theater during WW2.

Garfield gives the performance of his young career here. His abilities allow the film’s quieter moments to register without bordering on unintentional comedy (as many melodramas do). He’s an outstanding actor who’s done some serious work post-Spidey, and the attention he’s getting for both Hacksaw Ridge and Scorsese’s Silence should establish him as someone to watch in anything moving forward.

But it comes back to Gibson, whose set pieces can make the unimaginable seem almost visceral. Gibson is an ambitious filmmaker who possesses the gifts necessary to make the unfilmable a reality. Is Hacksaw Ridge his best film? Probably not, that still goes to Apocalypto in my book. But this is one of the best war films ever made. In a time where quality apolitical war films have become increasingly rare, that’s an achievement.


#6) Paterson

paterson

Director: Jim Jarmusch

Cast: Adam Driver, Golshifteh Farahani

I’ve never loved Jim Jarmusch’s films, to be honest. Some of them play a bit pretentious, some are filled with experimental choices I just don’t understand. But Paterson is a gem; it feels so realistic that it’s uncomfortable. The film stars Adam Driver as a bus driver carrying out the most unspectacular cinematic daily routine imaginable. He goes to work. He people-watches. He walks his wife’s dog. He has a single beer at a local bar. He scribbles poetry. Jarmusch finds intimacy within this minimalism. His ability to make you notice things about everyday life that you already notice but don’t consciously think about noticing is his greatest gift as a storyteller.

Adam Driver is exceptional here. He understands the subtleties the script calls for. He encapsulates both the blue-collar worker at peace with his simple life and the unheralded creative perfectly. Driver has quietly become one of the most reliable working actors, a versatile performer who can bring the human element into any role.
Paterson celebrates creativity, regardless of the creator. It could have easily ended with its subject striking it big with his writing, but Paterson is too real for that. If what you do matters to one other person, or even just yourself, it’s worth the time and struggle. That’s what Paterson argues. The fact that it does so through such a regular lens makes it even more effective.


#5) Arrival

arrival

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma

Denis Villeneuve has been responsible for many of the 2010’s best films. He absorbs genres. He lets his cinematographers and composers experiment, gets intense performances out of his actors, all the while moving his stories forward quickly. Eric Heisserer’s script takes many liberties with the Ted Chiang story on which it’s based, but those changes are for the better. The film shrouds itself in mystery; mystery that’s used more for character purposes than anything else. That’s a surprising relief. You go into Arrival expecting a completely different movie than you get, but in a good way.

Amy Adams, as a linguist tasked to communicate with extraterrestrials, gives perhaps the best performance of her impressive career. The entire film rests on her shoulders. As it transitions from sci-fi thriller to personal tragedy, so does Adams’ performance. The film certainly has its fair share of intellectual ponderings, but they’re honed in. Villeneuve creates a thinking-man’s sci-fi film that also stands on its own as a character piece.

Arrival benefits from some gorgeous photography courtesy of Bradford Young. He’s very good at lighting conversation scenes, using shadows to cover parts of characters faces as they offer exposition. It adds intrigue to even the quietest of scenes. It’s the details within Arrival that make it so fascinating. It rewards close viewing, as all of Villeneuve’s films do.


#4) Moonlight

moonlight

Director: Barry Jenkins

Cast: Trevante Rhodes, André Holland, Janelle Monáe, Naomie Harris, Ashton Sanders, Jharrel Jerome, Mahershala Ali

The rush to label Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight as a “gay film” or a “black film” makes light of both those labels and the film itself. Moonlight tells the story of a boy/man named Chiron over three parts. His story is one of identity. This is a tender film about a person searching for belonging, but it never feels too baity or heavy-handed. The exceptional cast never allows for that. From likely Oscar winner Mahershala Ali all the way down to Alex Hibbert (who plays young Chiron), every performer makes the most with the limited screentime they’re given.

Jenkins’ style is a bit muted. It’s a very pretty film thanks to James Laxton’s photography but Jenkins is sure to never let its filmmaking artistry distract from the story. Its most powerful moments are its quietest ones. It takes a real understanding of how your film will resonate with viewers to pull that off. It feels like Jenkins is a writer first and director second. Not critiquing his directorial chops in any way, but there’s a condensed novelistic nature in which Moonlight moves. Something as simple as a young boy asking a drug dealer “What’s a faggot?” becomes an almost climactic moment in the film’s first act.

Moonlight is the first film PRODUCED by proven indie distributor A24 Films. The company’s confidence in Jenkins’ vision has proved fruitful. Moonlight is the critical darling of year and for good reason. It probably won’t win Best Picture. Hollywood isn’t *quite* there yet. But the impressive limited box office proves a film like Moonlight can be a big thing.


#3) The Handmaiden

handmaiden

Director: Park Chan-wook

Cast: Kim Min-hee, Ha Jung-woo, Cho Jin-woon, Kim Tae-ri

Park Chan-wook is something else. He finds beauty in the grotesque. With The Handmaiden, a loose adaptation of Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith, Park crafts a film so aesthetically accomplished that it can contort your emotions three ways within a single scene. It’s an erotic thriller in the truest sense of the overused umbrella term. The Handmaiden actually springs its story from its eroticism. When it looks like it’s going one way, its raw sexuality is quick to change the narrative. And after that, it has more tricks to keep you guessing. Just as you begin to think you understand the relationship between the wealthy heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) and a pickpocket-turned con artist-turned lover Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), the very basis of the narrative switches and you’re forced to reexamine the way you viewed the first half of the film.

Park and his DoP Cho Young-wuk romanticize sex, which is unique given how movies generally seem to romanticize everything except sex, the one thing that should actually be romanticized. The love scenes between Lady Hideko and Sook-hee are set up to be perfectly awkward given their wrongness within the context of the film. But then, during the moments of physical manifestation, they’re filmed with such symmetry and grace that what’s said to be wrong feels right, thus making the film’s true conflict resonate even deeper once its twist is revealed.  

Whether inside the mansion where much of the film takes place or in the woods, every scene manufactures tension. Something always seems a little off in The Handmaiden; like we’re observing what’s about to explode but never actually does. Rather, The Handmaiden has fun with the slow burn. All the deception and taboo happenings make for a thrilling film from start to finish. I couldn’t look away.


#2) Hell or High Water

hohw

Director: David Mackenzie

Cast: Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham

Hell or High Water features one of the very best scripts of the year (from Sicario writer Taylor Sheridan). In Texas, two very different brothers (Chris Pine & Ben Foster) are robbing banks for the most noble of reasons. Two rangers, one of them nearing retirement (Jeff Bridges), are hunting them down. It’s a simple and solid premise for a heist film, a chase film, and a modern western. But Hell or High Water is more than any of those genres. Within the script is a rich family story of two brothers who chose very different paths and also some often hilarious commentary on generational differences coming to boil in the modern world. On top of the obvious intensity from robbery sequences, Hell or High Water is loaded with little quips (“Only assholes drink Mr. Pibb”, “I’m gonna go have a beer and watch the Aggies game”) that make its characters authentic. The dialogue is sharp throughout. It draws you in.

Director David Mackenzie has proven himself a great overseer of actors. The three principle performances here are exceptional. Nobody plays a hothead better than Ben Foster and Bridges is of course a master who injects everyman pain into his characters. Both give great physical turns here. Foster’s movements are dramatic, he uses his body to add to his character’s unpredictability. Bridges, as an aging and slightly overweight cop, is conservative with his movements. There’s not a wasted effort. Mackenzie blocks the scenes in a way that Bridges is always quick to take a seat. You see his age in the performance. Then there’s Chris Pine as the film’s true lead, giving the best turn of his career and one that suggests his true calling may be these grizzled roles as opposed to being the pretty guy in multiple franchise installments.

Both the opening and closing of Hell or High Water make for some of the best filmmaking I’ve ever seen. We start with a bank robbery, no context yet, just a bank robbery. Mackenzie and DoP Giles Nuttgens use long takes and extended camera movements to show us where everything and everyone is in relation to everything else. There’s real perspective. At the end of the film, after a big climactic shootout, we’re left with a simple conversation. But the entire story was leading up to this conversation. It’s both the most intense and reserved moment in the film. A remarkable writing achievement that finds much of its power in what the characters DON’T say.

Hell or High Water is a gem.


#1) Hunt for the Wilderpeople

hunt

Director: Taika Waititi

Cast: Sam Neill, Julian Dennison

Leave it to Taika Waititi to craft a story that has the DNA of a cliched muddle but through sheer power of tone becomes something unique, just as heartbreaking as it is hilarious. Hunt for the Wilderpeople concerns Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), a smartass 2pac-loving juvenile delinquent abandoned by his mother. He’s bounced around foster homes before he comes to live with a simple couple on a remote mountain farm. Ricky is a kid whose brash nature is clearly both a call for help and generational thing. His new guardians are the type of people to hunt for their own food. Tragedy strikes, some things happen, and Ricky finds himself on the run in the wilderness along with “Uncle” Hec (Sam Neill) in what becomes a national manhunt. It’s not a coming-of-age film, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is too smart for that genre’s tropes.

The dynamic between Ricky and Hec is perfect. Both seem to learn a bit about themselves through one another, but it’s littered with jokes and some genuinely tense moments so to not play as cheesy. Along with Waititi’s sharp script, much of the credit has to go Dennison and Neill. Both play parts that have certainly been done before (wisecracking orphan, grumpy old man) but are able to transcend those archetypes. Their bond tightens but never quite hits that storybook level where it becomes unrealistic. The two love and care for each other, but they’re each the type of person that hates admitting they care about someone.

The film makes great use of the New Zealand landscape. Numerous montages emerge from wide shots of mountains and forests cut together with physical comedy from Dennison and Neill. It’s an absolute joy to behold. You’ll catch all the feels while also finding yourself struggling for breath amidst laughter. I highly, highly recommend streaming Hunt for the Wilderpeople somewhere. It’s my favorite film of 2016 and something that already is a part of my personal canon. The next Thor film is in good hands with Waititi.