What I’ve Been Watching – January 15-21, 2019

Another week has gone by. This week, I discovered the joys of Batman & Robin and watched some other movies that were better.

The Oscar nominations came out yesterday, and they are what they are. There are some very interesting picks (two actresses for Roma, lots of love for The Favourite, the whole documentary category) and plenty of stuff that I thought should have gotten more love (First Man score, Eight Grade, Widows, Paddington 2). I’m not very happy with the Best Picture field; usually there are one or two films I’m uncomfortable with but this time there are four (A Star is Born, Green Book, Vice, Bohemian Rhapsody). I’m paying attention, but I’m not terribly enthusiastic about this year’s group. It will really come down to what wins.

JAN. 15

BATMAN FOREVER (1995)
Blu-ray

Like the Tim Burton Batman films, the two directed by Joel Schumacher also completely passed me by. I’ve been very happy to watch them for the first time and experience them on my big screen in all their crazy glory, but I wonder how I would have felt about them if I saw them when everybody else did. Val Kilmer is fine if unremarkable as Batman, but the villains steal the movie with Jim Carrey ‘s Riddler and Tommy Lee Jones’s Two-Face both seemingly doing loonier variations on Jack Nicholson’s Joker. The stagey set design and crazy lighting make for a film that has an aesthetic that may be kind of tacky-looking but is definitely distinctive. It’s almost like sitting in the front row at a stunt show at Six Flags. Fun, but not deep.

JAN. 16

BATMAN & ROBIN (1997)
Blu-ray

Incredible. Stunning. Wow. From the opening scene onward, I was pinned to my seat, mesmerized by what I was witnessing. How did I miss this? Batman & Robin is the sort of movie that suffers from bad decisions at almost every conceivable opportunity. The laughable dialogue, the Dutch angles, the completely ridiculous production and costume design, it’s all so much. Clooney is Clooney as Bruce Wayne, and that’s sort of okay, but he looks completely lost when wearing the suit. There’s no denying that Batman & Robin is terrible, but I’ll probably revisit it every now and then since it’s so spectacularly terrible. Bat-butt forever.

JAN. 17

HEIMA (2007)
DVD

I was looking for something interesting to break in my new sound system, and this DVD that’s been sitting on my shelf for 10 years fit the bill perfectly. Heima is a basically a concert film, documenting an Icelandic homecoming tour Sigur Rós embarked okn in 2006. The band traveled to a city or two, but focused on small towns and remote locations and found some truly unique and visually striking performance locations. Sigur Rós might not be everyone’s bag, but if you’re as familiar with the band’s music from that period as I am, it really is a breathtaking experience.

JAN. 18

SPIDER-MAN 2 (2004)
Blu-ray

Spider-Man 2 is one of those movies I saw in theaters and never got around to again, but it made enough of an impression on me that even if the memories were vague, I never really forgot it. Especially with all the talk around Into the Spider-Verse, I felt it a was a good time to look back and not only does it hold up, it still blows away most of the field with ease. It’s very possible that my experience was enriched simply by being surrounded by so much good Spider-Man content between Homecoming, the PS4 game and Into the Spider-Verse, but Spider-Man 2 taps into the themes that drive the best Spider-Man stories: how it sucks to be Spider-Man but it’s a burden that has to be carried. Almost a decade and a half later, this still counts as not only one of the best entries ever in the superhero genre, but a real film that can stand up to almost anything.

JAN. 19

THE BIG SHORT (2015)
Blu-ray

I didn’t really like Vice, and I was wondering how a viewing of The Big Short would hold up after viewing Adam McKay’s latest. I was a little worried about a Neill Blomkamp-like effect where later films sort of demystify the filmmaker’s style and rhythms by echoing them badly. As it turns out, McKay’s quick-cutting, fourth-wall breaking style of montage simply makes a lot more sense for this material than for a biopic about Dick Cheney, at least in this instance. The financial crisis is tricky material to try and adapt, and the almost nonstop barrage of explanation is necessary for the audience to understand the outcome. You can argue that the approach is abrasive and will serve some audiences better than others, but it pretty much works. The cast is broad and compelling, and they may be playing real people (or composites) but it’s nobody we’ve heard of.

Vice, on the other hand, is a parade of events we largely know of involving people we’ve heard of, along with sardonic running commentary telling us how bad everything we’re seeing is. Little is left for the audience to arrive at themselves. It’s arguably more gonzo, when the source material and the “character” of Dick Cheney might have led you to believe that might not be the case. Movies are manipulative by their very nature, but it shouldn’t be this obvious. The Big Short is much more effective.

JAN. 20

GREEN BOOK (2018)
Theatrical – DCP

How would I have reacted to this movie a few months ago? That question, and the potentially scary answer, took up a lot of my thoughts while I was watching Green Book. Being a fairly close observer of Film Twitter and someone who generally likes to know what’s going on in the film world, I went into Green Book very aware of its problems and with my guard up. With that stance, of course I found plenty to dislike about it. Scenes like Viggo Mortenson’s thuggish driver telling Mahershala Ali’s Dr. Don Shirley he’s not black enough because he doesn’t listen to the radio or eat fried chicken, and passing it off as funny, absolutely raised my hackles. I felt similar discomfort watching A Star Is Born as the central relationship felt very wrong, like I was seeing the sort of thing we shouldn’t be promoting as good or romantic anymore, but at least that’s part of the DNA of that story going back to its earliest iterations. Green Book seems to think the relationship between its two main characters is not only good, but a model for others. That’s scary and regressive.

But would I have come to that conclusion with as much certainty if I didn’t have the context? What if I saw Green Book cold at a festival? I do the best I can, but I’m just a twentysomething white guy and occasionally I need to be reminded of my privileged perspective. I might have viewed it through this lens, but what if I wasn’t really paying attention? This movie felt like a trap set for me: Green Book is designed to be pleasant and agreeable to watch and I’m happy to spend time with this cast (I won’t be upset about Mahershala Ali winning Best Supporting Actor). But there’s something insidious going on here that I can’t ignore. If there’s something rotten at the core of this project, no amount of dazzling craft can keep it from being compromised.

CASABLANCA (1942)
Blu-ray

I have a shocking news update: Casablanca is still good. It’s an intimate drama that manages to hold the weight of the world on its shoulders, and no less relevant today. The climate of corruption and tyranny feels familiar. The film looks stunning on Blu-ray; it often amazes me how resilient celluloid is, and how good catalog titles can look on the format.

JAN. 21

INCEPTION (2010)
Blu-ray

Here’s another one that I only saw once (in this case at the shittiest theater in Central Florida that still played first-run movies), but it left a huge impression. Inception does what many of the best movies do: it works because it has such a mastery of film form that the story could not be told as well in any other medium. Inception has to be a film, and it comes from the ultimate mainstream formalist: Christopher Nolan.

Nolan is patient stacking his dominoes. The film is divided roughly in half, between the setup and the heist. The first half is almost straight exposition: there’s a lot of information and concepts that need to be conveyed in order for the back half to work. I don’t find this half particularly difficult to sit through, but your mileage may vary. The setup is worth it, as at its most heightened action is happening on four simultaneous timelines (!) and the rules are rarely brought up again. By the time Joseph Gordon-Levitt is flying around a hotel room in zero-g and punching guys, it makes perfect sense.

I also had a different reading of the heist section after recently watching all the James Bond films: the snowbase setting and ski chase could come from half a dozen Bond flicks. This might be as close as Nolan gets to 007.

There all sorts of movies out there and excellence can be found from anybody and any budget level, but only Christopher Nolan can make this kind of movie with a huge studio budget. It’s almost a miracle that on top of that, Inception is so good.

MORTAL KOMBAT (1995)
Blu-ray

I got a lot of video game vibes from Inception (one of the characters is literally a level designer), so I figured I’d follow up with a video game movie I found in the bargain bin a few days ago, another 90’s movie I’ve never seen. I was unsurprised to find Mortal Kombat was pretty terrible, but it’s got a fun time-capsule quality to it. The script is atrocious, and everyone is hamming it up for the kids. Christopher Lambert is super weird. Anyway, I tend to learn something from bad movies where the mistakes are pretty obvious so this viewing experience was enriching in its own way. Even if the sound mix on the Blu-ray is terrible.

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What I’ve Been Watching – January 8-14, 2019

It’s week 2 of this little experiment, and I’m still at it. I accidentally went on a bit of a modern Godzilla tear, indulged in some political paranoia, and filled in one of my big blind spots by watching Tim Burton’s two Batman films.

JAN. 8

SHIN GODZILLA (2016)
Blu-ray

One night a few months ago, I popped in Shin Godzilla while half-asleep, immediately got overwhelmed and put it away again. I decided to get in the right mindset and give it a shot again, and I was thoroughly amused and entertained by this bizarre take at a Godzilla movie. This was Toho’s first pass at a live-action Godzilla following the 2014 American effort, and the result is something much less conventional. The film is presented like a top-down look at what the the government response to a kaiju event would be, sort of like an Armando Ianucci film with Godzilla. I might not know anything about Japanese government, but the allegory and satire about the absurdity of government bureaucracy were still clear.

When there is monster action, it’s striking for how visceral and gross it is. This version of Godzilla appears to have slithered out of the sea still mostly in fish form, with terrifying, bulbous, lidless eyes and gills that leak huge quantities of dark viscous liquid. It’s also a huge confused animal that can start off doing little more than dragging itself around and running into things. It evolves into increasingly dangerous forms and the ending hints at bizarre possibilities that will never be explored, as Toho will not be pursuing a sequel.

Shin Godzilla is an incredibly dense film, and and the occasional cutaways to Godzilla come close to serving as a relief from the onslaught of densely-packed dialogue and a parade of important-sounding speaking characters that numbers in the hundreds. I wouldn’t normally mention this, but for those of us who don’t speak Japanese this subtitle track is makes for a lot of quick reading as the dialogue at the bottom of the screen is supplemented with an almost constant stream of names, titles and locations that, in a rare occurrence, almost made me wish I was watching on a smaller screen.

JAN. 9

GODZILLA (1998)
Blu-ray

I missed this one growing up, but I used to have a weird thing for Roland Emmerich so I picked this up from a bargain bin out of curiosity and now seemed like as good a time as any. In almost every respect, I was not very impressed. The script is *quite bad* and gets bogged down with way too many subplots that don’t really involve Godzilla, and like most Emmerich epics this film is far too long for its own good. The special effects are a mixed bag, but the weird mix of intricate (if often unconvincing) city model work is blended with a CG Godzilla that’s a little too far ahead of its time. Even two decades removed, the raptor chase baby Gozilla chase is too close to Jurassic Park for comfort and comes off as deficient.

There was one element of this film that did stick out to me though, and it had nothing to do with Godzilla. One of the more frivolous subplots involves a power struggle between the female lead, a staff member at a TV station who is manipulated by a superior, a reported played by Harry Shearer. An early scene features Shearer trying to arrange a very Harvey Weinstein-like meeting with his subordinate that is way too close to what we know now to be coincidental. It’s a chilling, uncomfortable moment in an otherwise limp affair.

JAN. 10

GODZILLA (2014)
Blu-ray 3D

Gareth Edwards’s take on Godzilla gets a lot of shit for not doing much of meaning with any of the characters, and while I agree that the human stakes evaporate in the second half once Bryan Cranston bows out, I view that as more of a feature than a bug. The titular creature is largely withheld from our view for more than half the film (the cutaway from the airport fight is still one of my favorite uses of film grammar for comedy in an ostensibly serious movie), and the more we see of Godzilla the less we see of the humans. In fact, people have no effect on the main plot by the end and the only thing the humans accomplish is distracting a monster for a second by blowing up a nest, and retrieving a nuclear bomb that a monster stole. That’s it. Other than that, it’s all about Godzilla and a couple other monsters that look like blown-up versions of the bugs from Starship Troopers.

From a both a thematic and chronological standpoint I think watched this little series of Godzilla movies in the wrong order, but it was good to finish with a movie where Godzilla actually fights giant monsters. The fighting is pretty cool, too, once you get to it. The second MUTO kill involving atomic breath was maybe my favorite cinematic moment of that year, for what it’s worth.

As an A/V note, this is not my favorite 3D Blu-ray. The separation and depth and everything is good, but this is such an oppressively dark film at times that my equipment couldn’t really pull off enough contrast with glasses on to see everything at times. Some of these super-dark scenes would test the limits of any projector, even without dark glasses.

JAN. 11

THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962)
Blu-ray

Of course, I went into this with the thought in the back of my mind to read this in a kind of Trump-centric way but I ended up mostly being rewarded in other ways. Certainly, Senator Iselen’s spouting of red scare propaganda has all sorts of echoes to today’s climate of fake news and information warfare, but more interesting are the other performances and the artistry at work. This certainly isn’t a scandalous picture today, but the wild, dreamlike cinematography and a constant, gripping feeling of dread make The Manchurian Candidate just as arresting as ever.

JAN. 12

TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY (2011)
Blu-ray

I guess I’m just not quick enough for this one. I saw Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy shortly after its release ,largely on the strength of serious accolades from my friends. I didn’t really get it, and while I liked the showcase of performances from an amazing cast and dug the musty, smoke-filled atmosphere, I was usually distracted by just how lost I felt in the story. Several years later with a few more years of movie watching and life experience under my belt, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy still confounds me. I never really felt like I knew what was going on beyond what was right in front of me, and by the end I wasn’t really moved because I still didn’t know what the hell had happened or how we got there. There’s a lot to like about Tinker Tailor, but watching it sort of feels like going to a concert where I don’t know the band.

JAN. 13

BATMAN (1989)
Blu-ray

Oddly enough, I had a similarly disconnected feeling watching Tim Burton’s Batman. Here’s another one I did not grow up on (I had this hipster thing in middle and high school where I was too cool for Tim Burton) and was only vaguely aware of via its reputation. Upon watching it for the first time I didn’t really know what to make of it. Batman seems to be a bit at odds with itself, with Burton weirdness tugging away at schlocky studio conventions. Michael Keaton has really strange energy and rocks a hairdo for the ages. This is also a real visual feast with the sort of huge sets that don’t get built anymore and some impressive matte paintings. However, for whatever reason I rarely vibed with it when I was watching it. Maybe I still have some resistance to Burton I haven’t un-learned. Maybe I needed a little more context. This is one where listening to the Blank Check afterward made a big difference and connected some dots I was missing.

JAN. 14

BATMAN RETURNS
Blu-ray

Maybe my resistance was dropping after processing Batman for a bit or maybe it’s just a better movie, but I had a much better time with Batman Returns. It’s always fun to see Christopher Walken in things, but Danny DeVito really steals the show with a truly revolting performance. Michelle Pfeiffer is definitely doing some sort of thing. Returns seems to have more of its own groove than Batman, it’s generally a lot darker, kinkier and slimier. I’m also down for that weird 90’s shit like the clown fight. This is one of those sequels that feels much more locked-in and sure of itself.

I’m fascinated by the production design in these Batman movies, particularly the massive sets. They’re incredibly impressive, so much so it’s almost distracting. Maybe that’s just because I’m so used to how modern movies look, with CG augmentation everywhere, that it’s almost shocking to see that much construction.

What I’ve Been Watching – January 1-7, 2019

Welcome to the newly-rebooted Worrying About Film! I may not have been posting, but I’m watching more movies than ever before and want to start talking about them.

The format is going to be a little different going forward, as I’m going to be using this page in addition to my Letterboxd page to keep track of my ambitious (and very silly) goal of watching 500 movies in 2019. These aren’t really going to be reviews and I’m not aiming for a deep level of critical analysis, there just isn’t time. Consider this more my public-facing film journal, at least for now.

A note on film selection: if I don’t go to the theater, the vast majority of the movies I’m watching come from my burgeoning Blu-ray collection. I use a 1080p projector, and at large screen sizes the difference in quality between streaming and disc is much more obvious than on, say, a 50-inch TV. There are some downsides to this, including that for those following along at home, any streaming availability of many of these titles is purely coincidental. Also, due to the sheer volume of titles I want to watch, I do a lot of my movie shopping at big-box stores and I always check bargain bins and look for sales which ends up steering my selection of titles mainly towards American studio movies. And yes, I know my taste in movies is boy-ish. I get it.

Let’s begin!

JAN. 1

AQUAMAN (2018)
IMAX with Laser, 2D

This was a rewatch, largely out of curiosity to see what this crazy-ass movie looked like in the tallest open-matte format possible. When I saw a flurry of stories in late November of last year that the vast majority of Aquaman would be shown in “full-screen IMAX,” I was skeptical at best. Warner Bros. and the DC comics movies do have a history of tinkering with the format, but the film was not shot with 15/70 IMAX film cameras. I was initially disappointed when the IMAX countdown was shown in 1.90:1, the standard IMAX Digital aspect ratio, and then the first 15-20 minutes were in scope. When the frame finally opened up, I was intrigued by what I saw: the IMAX with Laser version is definitely taller than 1.90:1, but it doesn’t quite fill the screen. This is a sneaky-cool large format event that’s not getting enough attention.

As for the movie, it’s still ridiculously entertaining a second time even as the seams become more obvious. It’s balls-ass crazy from start to finish, and I go to sleep feeling better knowing that something this gleefully unrestrained was given big studio money. Jason Momoa’s character was one of the few beacons of hope in last year’s soulless, depressing Justice League and this time around he loses none of his appeal without having to say “my man!” once. This is a movie that features an army of fish people riding laser sharks fights an army of anthropomorphized crab people. And there’s an octopus playing drums. And a character who calls himself OCEAN MASTER.

The script is broad enough to appeal to international audiences, with a startling amount of screen time dedicated to characters spouting some very detailed exposition and an overall sense of levity that doesn’t translate to the film being all that funny, at least in the text. This film also possibly invents its own trope, with no less than four separate conversations being interrupted by explosions. It would be easy to call this a bad movie, but what would the fun in that be?

JAN. 2

A SIMPLE FAVOR (2018)
Blu-ray

One of my favorite little surprises of 2018 doesn’t hold up quite as well on a repeat viewing a few months later (for spoilery reasons, mostly involving Anna Kendrick’s character), but it was still pleasure to revisit. A Simple Favor is weird mish-mash of tones and veers between broad, adult-ish comedy and dark crime drama, mostly settling on the former. This was marketed as something different from Paul Feig, and I guess it is, but it’s still aimed at the same audience. The easiest thing to say is that this movie is an awful lot of fun to watch, especially with the right company.

CASINO ROYALE (2006)
Blu-ray

I got the complete James Bond Blu-ray box set a few months ago, and I’ve been slowly working my way through it since, watching many of the 007 movies for the first time. The 007 series never really entered my home as a child, and Casino Royale was the first Bond film in which I took an active interest and the first I saw in a theater. It blew me away then, and it’s even better now.

Casino Royale introduces a new Bond in Daniel Craig along with a darker tone and it reboots the series chronology, but on watching it after going through the entire 007 series, I was struck by how much it is still very much a classically-structured Bond film with so many of the familiar beats where you’d expect them, like the cold open, Bond girl, opening credits, M, various chases, etc., but are transformed when given a certain amount of weight and seriousness.

Also, Daniel Craig may be the best Bond but Jeffrey Wright is definitely the best Felix.

JAN. 3

GOOD TIME (2017)
Blu-ray

There were films I liked more in 2017, but few memories of my movie watching that year have stuck with me more than watching Good Time. This is a 100-minute panic attack of a movie that never lets up and never allows the viewer any distance from the action. This film was released around the same time as Darren Aronofsky’s mother! and while both films are extremely different they share a similar aura of dread and claustrophobia. Good Time may not display the same level of strict discipline when it comes to camera placement as Aronofsky’s film, but it spends just as much time in close-up right in the main character’s face and leaves the audience just as little room to wriggle away from the deeply unsettling shit happening on-screen.

In this film Robert Pattinson is an absolute terror, a toxic void of a character who displays a remarkable lack of empathy, hurting anyone he gets close to and moving on too quickly to give it another thought. As he rushes to scrounge for bail money after leaving his mentally disabled brother behind during a bank robbery gone bad, we watch his character seize and exploit every drop of human kindness he can find and turn it into something awful. The experience of watching Good Time is stressful and deeply uncomfortable, but also intensely powerful and impossible to forget. Props must also go to the thrilling and sometimes, intentionally overpowering synth score from Oneohtrix Point Never that both totally rocks on its own and seriously amps up the panic. A great watch next time you’re feeling adventurous.

QUANTUM OF SOLACE (2008)
Blu-ray

Quantum of Solace is a thoroughly strange beast. For one thing, it’s the first Bond film to be a direct sequel and takes place immediately after the events of Casino Royale. It’s also a part of that peculiar class of films and TV shows compromised beyond repair by the 2007-08 writer’s strike; Quantum shot without a finished script. The consequences are clear: this film is 45 minutes shorter than Casino Royale and must have twice as much action, and almost every second of screen time that isn’t action feels like an afterthought at best. In a similarly anomalous twist, the action cinematography is shaky, zoomed-in and cut up within an inch of its life in a fashion similar to the then-popular Bourne series and can border on nonsensical at worst.

That being said, this is a vicious, snarling monster of an action movie that almost never lets up from the first scene onward. Few movies have started faster or louder. For what it lacks in on-screen blood, it compensates for with aggressive camera work and a booming, brutal sound mix that might make this release worth it for budding home theater enthusiasts like myself strictly on the technical merits. Quantum of Solace might not have shaken my soul, but it definitely shook the house.

JAN. 4

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON (2010)
Blu-ray 3D

Like many folks I wrote off How to Train Your Dragon before it came out, mostly on account of its dumb-ass title and the (what I still consider to be) bizarre casting of Jay Baruchel in the lead part. How wrong I felt when I finally discovered it a few years later, and it’s still a joy to revisit before the trilogy-capper comes out in a few months. While the plot and characters of this film may not be the most memorable or distinctive on their own, this is a thoroughly entertaining effort that is solid in almost every respect.

JAN. 5

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – FALLOUT (2018)
Blu-ray

I’m not afraid to say the newest Mission Impossible was one of my absolute favorite films of 2018. When you stop and think about it, in today’s climate we see very few truly high-performing action movies that aren’t green-screen CGI spectacles with little grounding in reality. I can’t think of another film this year that really applies (with the exception of The Night Comes For Us, which was a Netflix release), and the only films I can think of that qualify from 2017 were John Wick Chapter 2 and Baby Driver, neither of which are really competing at this level. Of course there’s a ton of CG and visual-effects trickery happening in Fallout, but a sense of real weight and a grounding in reality achieved by doing real location shooting and stunt work (personally performed by Tom Cruise) elevate the whole affair to a level that it really demands to be taken seriously alongside other prestige fare that is less steeped in genre.

DREDD (2012)
Blu-ray 3D

In a lot of ways, action movies don’t get a lot purer than Dredd (okay, maybe Aquaman). It’s a unique kind of comic book adaptation that dispenses with any kind of origin story or really almost anything in the way of plot or character development. It feels like a single issue in the middle of a run: the characters and the world are established, and the viewer is dropped into what feels like just another story among many. The waters are almost never muddied with any kind of nuance, and there are no significant revelations. However, Judge Dredd kills a lot of people in interesting ways, has some killer one-liners and everyone has a good time.

It’s also worth noting that this is one of my favorite 3D discs. Dredd was shot natively in 3D and is obviously designed around the format with demo-worthy shots abounding. Movies like this are a big reason I invested in a projector.

JAN. 6

SKYFALL (2012)
Blu-ray

When I first saw Skyfall, my exposure to James Bond was mostly via the previous two Daniel Craig films. Walking out of the theater, of course I was first overwhelmed by how good it was, and I had a hard time believing that many of the other Bond movies could possibly operate at that high level of filmmaking proficiency. Having seen all the Bonds recently, I can confirm that even (and especially) among its peers, Skyfall is exceptional. Perhaps most immediately obvious is the film’s look; Roger Deakins shoots the film like a prestige picture and the results are jaw-dropping (I’m sad that I’ll never get to see the IMAX 1.90:1 version again). We probably won’t see the likes of the bold, stripped-down third act again. and while not every beat in the conclusion lands perfectly it certainly is the most substantial single act in any 007 film. When he’s on-screen Javier Bardem instantly cements himself as one of the most captivating Bond villains. I love Skyfall, and it’s one of the few Bond films I’d be tempted to revisit out of continuity.

JAN. 7

SPECTRE (2015)
Blu-ray

I normally hold a soft spot for movies that swing for the fences only to to fall over spectacularly, but Spectre mostly makes me sad. Things start off well enough with a fairly impressive opening setpiece in Mexico City that always tricks me into thinking the movie will be better next time, but by the end I’m left feeling hollow and disappointed. The swing Spectre takes is a big one, as it attempts to connect all the Daniel Craig-era 007 films together with the big shocking twist of bringing back the original 007 Big Bad, Blofeld. Sort of like Star Trek Into Darkness, it doesn’t really work on audience members who are familiar with the original material and makes no sense in the context of the movie. The best twists reframe and inform what came before, the reveal in Spectre adds nothing to the overall series. The thing I felt most sure of by the end is that Bond is eventually going to have to reboot itself again as the new continuity staggers under its own weight. You can only break a character so many times.

Every New Movie I Watched in 2017, Ranked!

I apologize for staying away from this blog for so long, but I have still been watching movies! To prove it, I’ve ranked almost every film I watched that was released in 2017, along with a little review for each. I’ve excluded a few documentaries and some Indian films that you may notice in my Letterboxd diary, and there are several big awards contenders that are still in limited release (Phantom Thread, I, Tonya, and The Post immediately come to mind) that I have not seen yet but would likely be in my top 10 or 20.

2017 may have been a terrible year for the world at large, but it was a great year at the movies.  Just because a movie is in the bottom half of this list, doesn’t mean I didn’t like it. This list will be updated periodically throughout January to include the prestige films still in limited release.

And now without any further delay, the list ranked from least to greatest. I’ve included trailers or clips where I felt it was appropriate.

80. THE SNOWMAN

That what is arguably the worst film of the year couldn’t be saved by my predominant male crush (and accomplished actor) Michael Fassbender only better helps to illustrate the true disaster that is The Snowman. The cinematography and atmosphere along with Fassbender and Rebecca Ferguson’s performances aren’t bad when taken on their own, but terrible filmmaking decisions abound in almost every disjointed, nebulous scene (likely caused and compounded by an abbreviated shooting schedule).

79. CHiPS

I don’t know why I went to see this movie. A raunchy, R-rated comedy based on a series I have no familiarity with and written at a third-grade level. Not for me.

78. TULIP FEVER

It is true what you have heard. Tulip Fever is a mess.

I saw this film prior to Weinsteingate and went primarily because of my awareness of this film’s famously troubled history. As many Weinstein projects famously do, this film was reportedly the subject of a lot of post-production tweaking mandated by Harvey Weinstein himself, and what I saw on screen was a disjointed mess that didn’t make any sense; a period sex drama that wasn’t sexy and half a caper film that was missing most of the important information. Bad enough to be notable, certainly not bad enough to recommend; and in today’s media climate, absolutely toxic.

77. TRANSFORMERS: THE LAST KNIGHT

You may want to buy a copy of this film if you have a huge new home theater system you need to show off or test, but apart from that this film has very little entertainment value. The Last Knight continues the Michael Bay franchise’s penchant for being technically ambitious but artistically careless. The fanciest cameras in the world only enable Bay, instead of saving him from himself.

76. THE MUMMY

RIP Dark Universe (2017-2017)

This film was rotten to the core, and never had a chance. The Mummy was designed to serve as a springboard into a new cinematic universe based on the Universal Monsters, and if you think that sounds ridiculous, you’re not the only one. This feels like a shallow corporate product without much of a hint of a personality, designed to hit the beats necessary to set up countless sequels that nobody will ever see. Even Tom Cruise, one of my problematic favorites, brings nothing to this.

75. GEOSTORM

Yes, of course Geostorm is bad. Unfortunately, its horrendous release timing in relation to 2017’s disastrous hurricane season is the most remarkably bad thing about it. Otherwise, this serves mostly as a boring knockoff of the mega-disaster films we saw so much in the 90’s and 00’s. Independence Day (or even The Day After Tomorrow) this ain’t, and what is left instead is a lot of stupid dialogue, thin plotting and useless characters, and not nearly as much geostorm-ing as you would expect. Possibly worth it for the countdown clocks liberally sprinkled throughout the final act screaming “TIME TO GEOSTORM.”

74. PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES

There’s some fun to be had in watching the Pirates franchise try to one-up itself in the Rube Golbergian craziness its action sequences, but once you get past the elaborate physics gags it’s painfully obvious that this hollow franchise is about to crumble into little pieces and be swept out to sea. And eaten by a Kraken. And probably resurrected in 10 years. Alas.

73. THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD

A weird mash-up of buddy comedy and pulpy Euro-action, this film will be most notable for somehow staying at #1 at the American box office for three weeks straight. It’s a moderately entertaining paycheck movie for all involved, and not much more.

72. THE DARK TOWER

The last thing a 90-minute major summer movie should be is boring, but that’s only the first of its myriad sins. The Dark Tower represents an attempt to glom together elements from the entire breadth of Stephen King’s mammoth fantasy series and make it look like a YA movie, which is as awful and pointless as it sounds. Matthew McConaughey hamming it up as the villain and Idris Elba being Idris Elba aren’t near enough to save this confusing mess.

71. TABLE 19

Throughout my life, there have been few things I have hated more than going to weddings. I’ve always hated weddings. If there was ever a low-profile lightweight comedy that was going to land for me, it should have been this one. Unfortunately, Table 19’s cute premise centering around a table of social outcasts at an otherwise chummy wedding is not enough to buoy an entire feature; the quirky and winning cast including Anna Kendrick, Tony Revolori, Stephen Merchant and June Squibb aren’t enough to save what turns into a somewhat joyless exercise. The more bitter you are, the better shot you have at enjoying this awkward tonal clash; I’m just not sure what the point would be.

70. KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD

A very promising first few minutes (embedded above), followed by almost two more hours of predictable Guy Ritchie drudgery. This marks yet another would-be franchise starter that takes time that should be spent telling a story, and instead sets up movies that will never be made. It also reeks of post-production story changes, as a few characters exist in the film with little to nothing to do. This is on top of the fact that the medieval setting and Ritchie’s bro-ish swagger are, at best, strange bedfellows. Watch the opening sequence and continue about your day.

69. THE GREAT WALL

All films are, to some extent or another, a product of commerce. As 2017’s rocky box office performance has indicated, with more options than ever audiences are more fickle and use quality as more of a determinant of how their entertainment dollars will be spent. This paradigm rewards good work, but the sort of high-dollar, CG-heavy, explosion-y by-the-numbers corporate-product blockbusters that Hollywood has been churning out for the past decade or two are not the sure bets they once were. Case in point: The Great Wall.

The premise of this Chinese-American coproduction sounds straight out of an international corporate conference call – Matt Damon, along with a few other recognizable Westerners like Willem Dafoe – go to the Great Wall of China and mostly stand at the sidelines as the might of an ancient Chinese army attempts to hold off an invasion of weird alien dog things. Does that sound generic? Don’t worry, different parts of the Chinese army are decked out in matching primary colors! The Great Wall perhaps stands closest in form and content to the later Transformers or Fast & Furious movies – designed to play as broadly as possible to the widest available international audience – but it’s so broad that it lacks any soul of its own.

68. THE BOSS BABY

This one played fine as I was watching it, but left a bitter aftertaste even before 2017 turned against men.

67. DOWNSIZING

Poor Matt Damon. He stars in the two most tone-deaf, misjudged movies of the year: Suburbicon, a 50’s-set black comedy about crime in the suburbs that was awkwardly saddled with a B-plot about racism that should have stayed on the cutting room floor. Downsizing is equally uncomfortable, but it has just enough self-awareness to make the discordant tone both more bothersome and harder to pin down.

The societal allegory is obvious: in the future, people can shrink themselves down to a tiny fraction of their normal size; this is ostensibly to help the environment, but in reality it is because wealth is magnified at that size and a middle-class schlub can suddenly afford a tiny mansion. This premise is explored a fair bit in the opening act, but once the film quickly jettisons Damon’s downsized everyman from new wealth to a familiarly drab existence, the gear switch to societal commentary is botched terribly and the film stumbles along for another hour and a half with no clear sense of purpose; its big ideas are squandered. Damon plays a character so useless and frustrating he brings the whole film. The film doesn’t even bother making many jokes about scale, a clear missed opportunity.

Whiff.

66. GOING IN STYLE

Going in Style serves as a great way to get Alan Arkin, Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine in the same place and riffing off each other. While this in itself is delightful, it’s not enough to sustain this lightweight comedy that feels tailor-made for your next Delta flight.

65. THE BELKO EXPERIMENT

This one’s for the midnight horror crowd only. If a take on Battle Royale in an office building sounds appealing to you, this movie will probably appeal to you. If you’re on the fence, there is nothing in this movie that will win you over. It’s bloody, ugly, morally bankrupt and, in a bit of a surprise considering the screenplay was written by James Gunn – it’s not even particularly funny. Make the decision that’s best for you, here.

64. JUSTICE LEAGUE

If nothing else, I will grant Justice League this: it could have come out much, much worse.

This film’s fate was likely sealed as soon as Zack Snyder’s name was attached, and several turbulent years, a new director and reportedly $250-300 million later it has crossed the finish line damaged and smoking but somehow intact. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think Justice League is a good movie, but it at least manages to introduce a bunch of characters, throws in a few jokes, come in at two hours and still make sense, and doesn’t take many egregious missteps.

Justice League crossed a low bar, but maybe I should be thankful that it at least did that. The DCEU films that aren’t Wonder Woman all come from a compromised position, and we can only hope that this film serves as the uncomfortable but necessary corrective. Had DC played their cards right from the beginning, Justice League could have been a huge event. Instead, it’s something a little more complicated and less satisfying.

63. THE GREATEST SHOWMAN

I’m pretty sure I asked myself, “what the fuck am I watching?” more during The Greatest Showman than any other film this year. This movie is bonkers- an original film musical, a period piece with modern music that sounds like it was written for a theme park with messaging that sounds like it was cooked up in a corporate boardroom, and a glistening vehicle for the shining beacon of humanity that is Hugh Jackman. The musical sequences are sort of worth seeing, and everything in between is disposable mush. Even though this is new material, the film is nonsensical and feels like a three-hour production shoehorned into a 100-minute movie. I was both entertained and bewildered.

62. THE FATE OF THE FURIOUS

One of my most gaping cinematic blind spots is the back portion of the ‘Fast & Furious’ film franchise. I’ve seen the first three installments (The Fast… 2 Fast… Tokyo Drift). but from what I’ve heard, the rest that I skipped are the good ones. Perhaps I went into the eighth chapter in Universal’s cash-machine franchise underserved by not having a better knowledge of the franchise’s convoluted soap-opera plot or what it looks like when the action is really firing on all cylinders. Maybe I wasn’t in the right headspace, but I never connected with this film.

I used to work at theme parks, and 8 Fast 8 Furious reminds me a lot of the rides and shows you see there: very loud, very obvious; everything and everyone is playing big and broad and to the back of the room for the biggest possible (global) audience. This broad aim is what makes the franchise financially successful, but it’s also what makes it so impersonal: the F&F series is the wedding DJ of the movie world.

61. SUBURBICON

I normally like to give points for ambition, but Suburbicon should have aimed a little lower. Originating as a long-shelved Coen Brothers script, in the hands of George Clooney it has arrived in the world as a snarling, two-headed Frankenmovie; the Coens story of a suburban family falling apart at the seams competes with a side story about racial unrest that effectively derails the film with its obliviousness. These stories might have had a chance as separate films, but awkwardly mashed together they don’t amount to much of anything besides a tonal disaster.

NEXT PAGE: #60-36

Now in Theaters: March 2017

The Oscars may be over and the nominees are gradually retreating from your local multiplex, but there are still a surprisingly large number of good offerings playing in wide release right now (plus, of course, some crap). Here’s a rundown of some of your options this week.

JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2

The original John Wick came out of nowhere and almost immediately placed itself among my favorite action movies to be released in the past decade, alongside the likes of DreddEdge of Tomorrow, both The Raid films and Mad Max: Fury Road. The action was kinetic and intense, the story was only as complicated as it had to be, the world-building was fascinating but stayed at the fringes and practically every frame looked like it could have been transposed from a graphic novel. John Wick came into the world confident and fully formed; while it may not have had a staggering theatrical run it gained new life upon its home release.

So how does Chapter 2 fare by comparison? Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s bigger without necessarily being better. The scope has been greatly expanded as befits this film’s larger budget: there are more locations and characters, the body count is a lot higher, Laurence Fishburne shows up in a scenery-chewing bit part just because he can. The whole thing is still a ton of fun (and, correcting one of the few sins of the first film, doesn’t run out of steam at the end), but suffers a bit without being able to ride on the first film’s novelty.

One of the original John Wick‘s biggest strengths was its restraint in regards to telling its backstory: the depths of the Continental’s assassin underground was only hinted at, but viewers got the idea well enough. Appearing to lay the groundwork for a potential (and, given this picture’s box office performance, likely) Chapter 3, John Wick: Chapter 2 starts filling in gaps in the film world and, unlike the original, feels like it has some work to do. Also, event though I was not personally bothered it is worth observing that this franchise’s gun fetishism is starting to feel a little problematic.

It may suffer a bit given some consideration, but John Wick: Chapter 2 still plays well in the theater and, if you care about this sort of thing, absolutely deserves to be seen on the big screen. The bonkers gun-fu is still as fast and furious (and well-shot and -edited, too), and there are a few wildly creative action beats that merit the price of admission by themselves; if you liked the first John Wick there’s no reason not to show up for this one.

THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE

Expectations are a tricky thing, but I can’t think of any film that blew them away more in recent years than The LEGO Movie. What could have been merely a crass promotional vehicle for a system of interlocking plastic bricks (and Warner Bros.’ stable of intellectual properties) was instead a manic, joyous meta-commentary on creativity and conformity (and a bunch of other things) with a surprising breakout appearance by LEGO Batman (Will Arnett). Could this small but potent comedic force steer an entire movie?

The short answer is yes, with some caveats.

In The LEGO Movie, Batman’s role was mostly to serve as a character’s insecure jerk boyfriend, (sometimes literally) crashing into and commandeering every scene he was in. In his own film LEGO Batman is still an oblivious force of ego, but he’s also revealed to be crippled by his solitude and emotionally stunted. This film gets the character of Batman as well as well as any of its flesh-and-blood cinematic counterparts, and mines that for comedy in a fairly brilliant first act.

As things progress the film begins to lose the thread, or at least run on LEGO autopilot. Even if this is only the second LEGO-related theatrical release, the brand’s sense of humor has been established on TV and in video games for years. The LEGO Batman Movie at times seems confused as to whether it’s about LEGOs or Batman without successfully splitting the difference. The interlocking-brick-based jokes are sometimes funny, but they get in the way an otherwise perfectly good Batman movie instead of enhancing it (particularly towards the ending). Without The LEGO Movie‘s fairly nuanced additional meta layer, the physics jokes sometimes feel overbearing.

Relatively cerebral criticisms aside, The LEGO Batman Movie mostly works well, and is more successful than most of the “straight” Batman films. Every corner of the frame is constantly crammed with detail; the big screen is a more useful ally to this film than you might expect (the IMAX release would have been justified, if only it hadn’t been released the same week as John Wick: Chapter 2, denying the large format-ready actioner the platform). Worth a watch.

 

GET OUT

Get Out is this year’s compulsory horror movie. Every year, there’s usually one horror movie that breaks out of its genre bubble and demands attention from the mainstream (The WitchIt Follows and The Babadook immediately come to mind), and Get Out confidently steps into this slot with its quick and sparing wit, foreboding atmosphere and searing social commentary. The film was written and directed by Jordan Peele of Keye and Peele fame, and marks Peele’s directorial debut. If Get Out is any indication, the wildly swerving genre plays of the sketch show have honed Peele into an assured and versatile filmmaker, and if this is his first I can only imagine what will come next.

If you managed to avoid the super spoiler-y trailers, keep doing that as they give away pretty much everything. For purposes of our discussion, I’ll say the story revolves around a black man who goes with his white girlfriend to meet her parents at a ritzy backwoods estate. Get Out tackles issues of modern race relations in America with as much bluntness as any film I can remember, especially for a mainstream-ish genre film. This is probably the first horror movie specifically about microaggressions.

There are jolts and the whole thing is scary enough, but the film’s real selling point is its deft navigation of tones between horror and comedy. Get Out is cognizant of its place in genre, with its trappings and audience expectations. “Get out” isn’t just a line of dialogue from the film, it’s what audiences are expected to be yelling at the screen. The protagonist, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), isn’t stupid and doesn’t make typical horror movie Final Girl mistakes. Another black character, TSA agent and Chris’s friend (comedian Lil Rel Howery) plays an able audience surrogate who provides most of the film’s comic relief but, smartly, is not overutilized.

As a rule I don’t like horror movies, but I saw Get Out twice on its opening weekend and it only improved on the rewatch. This is different and better than your typical studio horror film, and demands to be seen.

LOGAN

This is the X-Men movie I’ve been waiting for.

The complaint I usually lodge against tentpole superhero movies is that they’re way too big and sprawling for their own good, and many of the better ones succeed in spite of their needlessly large stakes (i.e. the first Avengers); however, many get dragged down by the weight of their accumulated nonsense (I couldn’t tell you what happened in X-Men Apocalypse, I mostly recall a bunch of debris flying around and some yelling).

Logan succeeds in part because it stays within a set of limits. It’s still a comic book movie so there are cybernetic limbs and mutant powers and clones and stuff, but Logan is grounded by a certain sense of reality and plausibility whose absence in the main X-Men films and most MCU films keeps their emotional currency at arms length. Running time notwithstanding, Logan is relatively compact in terms of its cast of characters, scale of action sequences and economy of storytelling. The film doesn’t waste moments, or overstuff them.

The fact that Logan is rated R is not immaterial. Blood and gore is of course not necessary for on-screen violence to be effective, but the visceral and grisly nature of Wolverine’s power set always felt a little neutered in a PG-13 setting (I mean, blades come out of the dude’s knuckles for chrissakes). Setting aside the home-release-only R-rated cut of The Wolverine, the level of violence exercised by the character feels thematically appropriate. To the film’s credit the violence is strong without being gratuitous or exploitative, ramping up considerably over the course of the runtime but not distracting from other important things going on.

For the first time in the franchise (and for Marvel-branded movies in general), this is a movie aimed squarely at smart adult audiences. If this is really how Hugh Jackman is going to hang up his claws, he’s gone out on the highest note possible.

Best Picture Nominee Round-Up

Today is the big day! I’ll admit, with everything else going on in the world I haven’t been thinking about the Oscars that much either, but the ceremony is still happening and this year’s field is relatively strong. Most of these films are worth watching regardless of whether you’re a cinephile or not, and all have gotten an easy-to-find wide release at some point before the ceremony. Just in case you missed a few, here are my thoughts on the nine films nominated for this year’s Academy Award for Best Picture, arranged alphabetically:

ARRIVAL

It’s always nice to see a sci-fi movie make an appearance in the Best Picture race, and Arrival is no lightweight. Denis Villeneuve has, in a matter of a few short years, proven himself to be one of Hollywood’s most exciting up-and-coming filmmakers and one has to think that after the critical and commercial success of this film we’ll continue hearing from him for a long time.

Arrival is gorgeous, evocative, and tense; the Kubrick parallels are easy to draw but on their own don’t paint a complete picture. Some of Villeneuve’s projects in the past have appeared to prioritize visual panache over making a film that functions as well on all levels (*coughPRISONERScough*) and yet Arrival manages to hit a home run with source material that should have been unadaptable, Ted Chiang’s decidedly uncinematic short story “The Story of Your Life.” It tackles some heady sci-fi themes and expects the audience to keep up, and the film’s central themes of time and language bring a completely different reading to subsequent viewings; Arrival demands to be seen multiple times and rewards the effort. Unlikely to win the big prize, but easily among the best films of 2016 and one of my personal favorites.

FENCES

Fences is almost as literal as an act of cinematic adaptation can get: the only way the experience of watching Fences, the movie could be more like seeing a live production of Fences, the play is if it were filmed stage performance. As such, the film feels profoundly different in terms of pace and structure from pretty much anything else currently in theaters. Fences is not breaking new cinematic ground, but the directorial discipline and modesty exhibited from actor/filmmaker Denzel Washington may still be what really sets it apart.

Fences is as much an actor’s showcase as anything on this list. Denzel Washington and Viola Davis both turn in powerful performances that are serious prospects in their respective categories. It’s good that this kind of movie got an accessible wide release, but it’s worth noting that this is a pretty serious sit for a casual moviegoer.

HACKSAW RIDGE

Out of the entire field, Hacksaw Ridge felt the most like homework to me. If you’ve seen any of Mel Gibson’s other war movies, you’ve got a pretty good idea of what you’re getting here: it’s made competently, is very complementary to a certain strain of American masculinity, and is tremendously violent. The film, based on the true story of a conscientious objector who served as a combat medic during WWII, hits on all the themes of valor and human goodness and American derring-do that you would expect. The whole thing is fine. Feels like a lot of the super-violent war movies we were getting around 2000 (Saving Private RyanWe Were Soldiers, etc). You already know if you like this sort of thing.

HELL OR HIGH WATER

I didn’t want to take this reading too far over the summer when Hell or High Water was released, but it’s now quite difficult not to view this film at least partly as a commentary on the state of American unrest in the build-up to the election. While it’s not explicitly labeled as such, this is as much a commentary on the desperation of Red America as anything else. The screenplay comes from rising talent Taylor Sheridan (Sicario), who has demonstrated his ability to, among many other things, successfully capture a sense of modern American masculinity without drowning in machismo or getting too sentimental.

Social commentary notwithstanding, Hell or High Water is an efficient, effective Western thriller that has the good sense to know its limits and smartly subvert expectations. All this, and Jeff Bridges steals every scene he’s in playing an over-the-hill Texas detective who might have more depth that it would initially seem. Hell or High Water is a sly, sneaky kind of great.

HIDDEN FIGURES

Hidden Figures may be as mainstream as it gets when it comes to its visual and storytelling aesthetics, but it deserves to be applauded for being wildly successful in what it sets out to do. You know where it’s going, you can practically see the plot strings being pulled, but the overall package is so strong and it gets so many little things right that it’s hard to resist applauding anyway.

We don’t get nearly enough prestige pictures like this that (current politics notwithstanding) really should appeal to the whole family: it’s rated PG and doesn’t really contain anything objectionable, but doesn’t shy away from the thorny racial politics that drive the story and, for the most part, doesn’t just give the white characters a pass. A culturally important film that comes at a crucial moment.

LA LA LAND

For me, La La Land might count as the year’s biggest disappointment. On paper, in its publicity, it looks great: a throwback Hollywood musical starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone and directed by the exciting young talent Damien Chazelle, most notable responsible for the fantastic Whiplash, easily one of the best films of 2015. La La Land and Whiplash share plenty of stylistic DNA, but many of the similarities (especially in terms of cinematography) only highlight La La Land’s relative thematic bankruptcy.

La La Land is technically impressive and I would assume it’s coming from a genuine place, but I’ve seen the film twice and still don’t know what it’s trying to say in terms of its characters and their motivations. The ambiguity feels sloppy, not intentional. One gets a serious desperate-theater-student vibe from this production. It will be too bad if this film wins everything, but last year’s big win for Spotlight might have have served as an inoculation, giving the Academy a pass to go back to their usual practice of choosing something self-congratulatory.

LION

Lion was not really on my radar when the Best Picture nominees were announced last month, and while I doubt it can make much of a dent in the actual ceremony I see no need to begrudge its presence, either. It’s more prickly and interesting than its source material and medium would initially suggest and, in a wise move for an international film with a Hollywood sheen, keeps its priorities on its main character rather than his surroundings and doesn’t get bound in feel-good schlock. Lion wants you to cry at the end, and you’ll probably at least sniffle a little, but the whole production has the decency to not be too cloying.

Based on the memoir by Saroo Brierly, Lion unfolds over two parts: the first follows a young Saroo as he is separated from his family and is eventually adopted by an Australian family, and his quest as a young adult to find his birthplace and family, armed with the internet and his limited childhood memories. The first half is especially powerful and viscerally transporting in its portrayal of the chaos of daily Indian life; the second half which spends much of its time with (Oscar-nominated) Dev Patel sequestered in cramped apartments with cell phones and laptop screens is a bit more functional.

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA

If you’re looking to be emotionally devastated, Manchester by the Sea is the best pick on this list for you. Kenneth Lonergan’s meditation on family and grieving is the sort of movie most people will only want to watch once (it’s hard not to find something in this film you can relate to), but its masterful performances and handle of tone make a potentially brutal viewing experience more than just watchable. The whole affair is almost uniformly somber and Casey Affleck is an expert brooder, but Manchester by the Sea is also surprisingly funny and is filled with wonderfully human moments.

This film will be historically notable for being the first Best Picture nominee released by a streaming service (Amazon), and if you have Prime it’s worth checking out when it eventually drops into the service. I’m also delighted to add Manchester by the Sea to the small pantheon of movies who really understand life in southern and coastal New England (other entrants include Spotlight and Mystic River).

MOONLIGHT

It’s a rare film whose greatness is so apparent it radiates off the screen. Moonlight was the film in 2016 that came closest to capturing that feeling. Moonlight‘s three acts follow a young black man living in Miami during three phases of his burgeoning adulthood: as a child, a teenager and a young man. The central character is played by three different actors who don’t bear a particularly striking physical resemblance, but stay consistent in the soul of their performances in a truly stunning way. Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris both turn in stellar Oscar-nominated performances that have a shot. Barry Jenkins also appears to be in direct contention with Damien Chazelle for Best Director.

This film falls into the slot occupied last year by Spotlight: the should-win. Since things went so well last year, I doubt we’ll be so lucky this year, too. Regardless, Moonlight should be seen no matter how many awards it wins tonight. It requires some active viewing and its gifts may not be completely apparent on a first viewing, but make no mistake: Moonlight is a great film, and the closest a film in this year’s Oscars comes to an all-time classic.

Every Movie I Saw in 2016, Annotated List

UPDATED 12/31/16

2016 may have been an armpit of a year, but at least I kept one of my resolutions: maintaining a film diary. Below is every movie I watched this year, with some thoughts. Mostly based off this year’s wide release calendar, there are several likely awards contenders I haven’t gotten to yet. 2016 theatrical releases are in bold.

*new release, streaming platform

JANUARY

01 – STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS

04 – STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS

07 – STAR WARS: THE CLONE WARS – a tough sit. for like a week i thought i was going to be a completist and watch all of the clone wars, including the movie. this convinced me not to go down that path and instead i’ll now cherrypick episodes relevant to my interests (like the stuff with yoda’s vision quest, onderon, etc). maybe someday.

09 – KILL BILL: VOL. 1

10 – KILL BILL: VOL. 2 – i haven’t seen the super-duper four-hour mashed-together cut, but in my experience it’s just as interesting putting a little distance between watching the two films instead of a double feature. they really are very different, vol. 1 all blood and fury and mise-en-scene and vol. 2 being enough movie to make up for it.

11 – CAROL, THEY CAME TOGETHER – there’s a lot of things to love about CAROL, especially the glorious 16mm cinematography and one of the best scores of 2015.

17 – THE REVENANT – i lost sleep last year worrying about whether i liked BIRDMAN OR: THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE or not, and what kind of person that made me. well, not this year. fuck this movie.

20 – THE BIG SHORT

21 – BROOKLYN – i found this movie to be a delightful little surprise, and judging by their reactions the other two people in the theater did too.

28 – STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS – ok, so maybe i should explain myself a little here. this movie was a big deal, and i am a star wars nerd. i made it my goal to see this movie in every format i could, and i managed to see it in 2d, 3d (w/ and w/o dolby atmos, w/ d-box), liemax (sorry, imax digital), and 70mm 2d imax dome. did not get to see this in a standard full-size imax theater, which i regret.

 

FEBRUARY

04- HAIL, CAESAR! – too bad this got passed by so quickly. as much as i love THE LADYKILLERS, this is a lot better.

07 – ANOMALISA

09 – LOVE, THE SIGNAL – william eubank double feature. i like this guy’s style and want to see what he’s up to next, even if neither of these films are actually all that successful. LOVE is very odd.

11 – DEADPOOL – i was a little disappointed in this.

15 – DEADPOOL – i went back to check and make sure i didn’t miss anything. maybe the gonzo subversive deconstructionist movie i really wanted was in there somewhere? not really.

22- THE WITCHTHE WITCH – i don’t know what it was (i don’t even like horror movies usually), but this movie fucking spoke to me. the whole thing is spectacularly disquieting and viciously confident, especially for a first-time filmmaker. maybe still my #1 film of the year?

 

MARCH

02 – GODS OF EGYPT – if you have hbo, you should go and watch like the first 10 minutes of this movie. insane and profoundly misguided on basically every level, but you have to give it points for managing to exist in spite of itself.

03 – ZOOTOPIA, BORAT: CULTURAL LEARNINGS OF AMERICA FOR MAKE BENEFIT GLORIOUS NATION OF KAZAKHSTAN, TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE – commentary on modern american society triple feature.

08 – ZOOTOPIA – it’s no secret that the process of creating a modern disney animated movie is the polar opposite of what you’d call the standard auteur-based mode of filmmaking; every conceivable thing from the overall plot to the way an elephant’s tail, poking out from a little hole near the bottom of a modest floral-print dress, jiggles as the elephant shifts its weight from foot to foot, standing upright as an elephant is typically not wont to do, is taken into meticulous account. this relentless collective workshopping has the potential to snuff the soul out of a film, but in this case disney has wrought a near-immaculate construction that zips forward with tireless efficiency and bursts at the seams with catch-it-on-your-third-or-fourth-viewing-level detail.

11 – ZOOTOPIA

15 – 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE – quite effective, and promising as a working example of how to make a quality product like this in the studio system for not a ton of money. a little chamber piece that almost convinces you it’s something bigger.

20 – SHAOLIN SOCCER

24 – 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA

25 – BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE – everything that was not good about this movie compounded itself even further in SUICIDE SQUAD. dc needs to cut it with the macho bullshit and really examine why all of disney’s various franchises are not only printing money but inspiring devotion in snobs like me while dc is left trying to manhandle its way in while shouting nonsense and wondering why nobody wants to be its friend. dare i say, trumpist?

29 – ELECTION – every time i watch this, i always forget just how vicious it is. has also proved spookily relevant to our current political situation.

30 – BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE – tried it again to make sure i didn’t miss something. nope, this movie is not good.

 

APRIL

06- HELLO, MY NAME IS DORIS – awkward indie comedies about sad loners make me uncomfortable. sally field was great. i wanted to run away screaming.

07- HARDCORE HENRY – more interesting for what it symbolizes perhaps than what it is. it’s been a long time coming, but artifacts of video gaming are starting to imprint themselves in other forms of pop culture, in particular tv and movies. there hasn’t been a good movie based on a video game yet (maybe have j. c. chandor tackle half-life?), but there have been some interesting projects that have mined some tropes very familiar to video gamers. EDGE OF TOMORROW (or perhaps more relevant in this discussion, LIVE/DIE/REPEAT) replicates the experience of playing an action game probably more explicitly than any other movie, and to fantastic ends. WESTWORLD is largely a fetch quest, complete with npc’s. in terms of cinematic merit, HARDCORE HENRY sort of feels like a duke nukem 3d to WESTWORLD’s bioshock with crazy visual ideas up the wazoo but not much of a movie to hang them on.

08 – MIDNIGHT SPECIAL – bold in the ways it allows big things to go unexplained, and lets some of the most memorable moments also be the quietest ones. the kid telling joel edgerton to sit down is the best moment in any movie this year.

11 – MIDNIGHT SPECIAL

14 – THE JUNGLE BOOK – looks terrifically expensive, but that’s sort of the problem. more a fancy tech-demo than a movie and plods alog in jon favreau’s blithely auteur-ish way. in some ways i like the original better for not even attempting to hold itself together cohesively, this one has a fiery third act because i guess they felt they had to. there’s only one practical element in the film, the kid, and the digital rotoscoping (or whatever you call it) of the kid in with all the digital elements, the effect around which the entire film revolves- still looks like it’s in beta. sort of a waste. cool in imax, not much point watching it at home. i did like that all of the animals on the savannah were apparently jewish curmudgeons.

 

MAY

03 – EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!!! – in retrospect relatively minor linklater, pleasant and fleeting and out of time in more ways than one.

04 – MINIONS

05 – CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR – the perfect capstone to the mcu if you’ve been playing along, sort of impenetrable if this isn’t your type of party. i dug it quite a bit.

06 – CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR

15- AIRPLANE II: THE SEQUEL

23 – CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR

24 – THE NICE GUYS – a wonderful little caper that got lost in the shuffle. surprising amount of iron man 3 dna evident.

25 – NEIGHBORS 2: SORORITY RISING

27- X-MEN: APOCALYPSE – the x-men movies have always had a sort of plot-soup element to them that made it hard for me to get into, and this is the same. something about pyramids, and that thing at auschwitz, and wolverine shows up for 30 seconds, it’s all sort of foggy. truly comic book-y in its intense pathos and convulsive plot structure, but with nothing to ground it.

31 – AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD

 

JUNE

02 – A PIGEON SAT ON A BRANCH REFLECTING ON EXISTENCE

03 – THE LOBSTER – i’m still bitter at this movie for mining comedy from my personal wells of pain.

07 – POPSTAR: NEVER STOP NEVER STOPPING – i’ve been delighted to see this showing up on some end-of-year lists, this movie is occasionally really funny and is more knowing than it looks. very inside baseball.

11 – WARCRAFT – did well in china, so we’re probably getting more. cinematic mush.

14 – NOW YOU SEE ME 2 – a pointless sequel to a movie that was frivolous in the first place. daniel radcliffe shows up, though, and he’s good.

15 – SING STREET – a peppy little new film from the guy that brought you ONCE, pertaining to a genre of music i really don’t care about. perfectly good little quasi-musical that you’ll probably like more than me.

17 – FINDING DORY – competent fare from pixar that i liked while i was watching, but i just can’t get over how it treats poor gerald. kind of goes against the entire message of the movie, when you think about it. if disney cares so much about being inclusive, what about the geralds of the world? i’m getting ahead of my skis here.

21 – HOPSCOTCH – i go back to this one almost every year. an impish little espionage comedy with a globehopping walter matthau being lanky but still weirdly magnetic and causing trouble while sam waterston half-heartedly chases him around with kind of an ‘aw-shucks’ attitude. fun for the whole family, especially if you’re the youngest.

22 – WEINER – boy, this has managed to stay relevant. the laptop definitely makes a cameo. really though, this is one of the best movies of the year (documentary or not) and is a fascinating look not only at new york politics and a deeply flawed man but also the toxic and potentially self-destructive consequences of a particular strain of american masculinity. unexpectedly intimate portrait of an almost impossibly frustrating person.

23 – ZOOTOPIA

27 – INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE – brief flashes of brilliant ideas half-realized amid an otherwise powerfully smelly turd of a film. i want a spin-off that’s only about the african commandos.

29 – THE NEON DEMON – if you’re tuned into nicolas winding refn’s frequency, this will resonate very pleasurably. had me completely from the opening credits. the artifice is the whole point.

 

JULY

02 – SWISS ARMY MAN – the daniel radcliffe farting corpse movie is more than just the daniel  radcliffe farting corpse movie. does a pretty good job of walking the twee tightrope, and notable for its sheer nerve.

07 – THE NICE GUYS

09 – THE BFG – notable for spending most of its runtime building up to a very well-executed fart joke. is that enough? maybe if you have kids.

10 – JURASSIC PARK

11 – THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS – watchable knockoff of toy story, but as is typical of illumination, seems to exist more to market itself that actually make anyone happy.

14 – GHOSTBUSTERS (2016) – the story around this movie was a much bigger deal than the movie itself. surprisingly good imax version.

15 – GHOSTBUSTERS (1984) – i didn’t grow up with this movie, which makes its unabashed consumerism, iffy gender politics and plot holes harder to look past.

23 – STAR TREK BEYOND – many of this year’s blockbusters were watchable and pleasant but somewhat unmemorable, and this film may be the best example of this. proves the franchise can manage just fine without all the j.j. abrams whooshiness.

29 – JASON BOURNE – bourne-lite. passed the time, but really why did they bother.

30 – IN THE LOOP – searing satire of bush-era foreign policy, sort of british veep. dense, wicked and thoroughly rewarding if you put in the effort. they’re probably speaking english, but best turn the subtitles on for this one anyway.

 

AUGUST

04- SUICIDE SQUAD – not good. this scream of being released purely because it was on the schedule. dour, doesn’t earn any of its character moments, tacky overuse of basic pop songs, cobbled together haphazardly. sometimes just showing up to work isn’t enough.

06 – THE LITTLE PRINCE* – originally slated for a theatrical release before being scooped up by netflix, this great little family movie cleverly sidesteps a straightforward adaptation of the book and instead uses it as a framing device to tell a somewhat more modern story. it couldn’t be easier to watch this film, you really have no excuse.

11 – SAUSAGE PARTY – we now live in a world where under the right circumstances some truly wild stuff can end up in wide release. that the two romantic leads are a hot dog and a bun tells you a lot. the bun’s character design tells you the rest. the future of stoner comedy?

13 – HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE

14 – PETE’S DRAGON – lovely little modern american pastoral that also happens to be a remake of an obscure disney movie whose only notoriety came from a parade float.

18 – KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS

20 – HELL OR HIGH WATER, THE LICKERISH QUARTET

30 – THE JUNGLE BOOKCAFE SOCIETY – this year’s woody allen effort is skippable.

 

SEPTEMBER

10 – DON’T THINK TWICE

11 – SULLY – i feel like they keep letting clint eastwood make movies mostly because he comes in on-time and under-budget. this story was not begging to become a film, and it’s telling how much it has to stretch just to reach 90 minutes. it still holds itself together in my memory based on some very effective individual beats, but at times this doesn’t feel like a real movie.

18 – DR. STRANGELOVE OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB – given the circumstances, more terrifying than ever.

19 – SNOWDEN 

23 – THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (2016) – an antoine fuqua joint that didn’t have me retching halfway through, so that’s something. benefits from the automatic sideways novelty that comes with being a modern western. chris pratt is miscast.

25 – NINE LIVES – by all appearances, a straight-up paycheck movie for those involved. little to no cinematic merit, even for cat people. veers wildly back and forth between more pedestrian blandness and some truly appalling decision-making both in front of and behind the camera. i thought for maybe a second i did, but i do not want to see a cg cat get black-out shit-faced. made for a weird night at the dollar theater.

 

OCTOBER

05 – STORKS – we’ve quietly entered an exciting new time for mainstream animation, with several studios all sort of fashioning their own distinctive (or not-so-distinctive) takes on the form. the most apt adjective to describe the work fromthe relative upstart warner animation group (WAG) would seem to be “manic,” as evidenced by this one and THE LEGO MOVIE.  “wolves! form wolf submarine!”

08 – THE BIRTH OF A NATION – this movie’s ‘fuck-you’ attitude isn’t necessarily its downfall, but it makes its plethora of sins less forgivable. angry and sloppy, aimlessly confrontational. not a strong enough movie to shoulder its agressive racial politics.

13 – VOYAGE OF TIME: THE IMAX EXPERIENCE – terrence malick makes an imax short, what’s not to like?

23 – THE ACCOUNTANT – i was willing to give this movie’s admittedly shaky premise (autistic assassin!) a shot, but was not really rewarded. this movie is a nothing burger. not aggressively bad enough to distinguish itself either.

25 – STORKS

28 – INFERNO – it stuns me that not only was this movie released released in its current state, but in imax to boot. there was no reason for this film to be this inept, considering who was involved. this movie actually ends with a bunch of people splashing around in waist-deep water fighting over a box. it’s as sad as you’re picturing.

30 – MICHAEL MOORE IN TRUMPLAND – it’s gonna hurt to go back and watch this in a few years, watching michael moore try (and apparently fail) to get a roomful of trump supporters in michigan to do the right thing.

 

NOVEMBER

02 – MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN – watchable but way too busy, predictably. and who is this for, exactly?

04 – DOCTOR STRANGE – all of this film’s novel ideas are visual, but you can only expect a marvel movie to break so many molds at once. thoroughly fun, and a nice little break from what the avengers are up to.

10 – ARRIVAL – one of the best movies of the year, a must-watch if you’re even marginally interested in hard sci-fi. great work from amy adams, probably this year’s most arresting score and filled with fascinating concepts about time and language, as well as an examination of human behavior when confronted with the unknown. denis villeneuve has become a filmmaker it’s important to keep an eye on. demands a rewatch.

13 – ARRIVAL, DOCTOR STRANGE

20 – QUEEN OF KATWE – is anyone else making this type of movie but disney right now? great little family movie about an underprivileged but ferocious ugandan girl who kicks everyone’s ass at chess. a refreshingly uncynical little project that disney gets a lot of props for greenlighting.

22 – MOANA – i liked it, but apparently not as much as everyone else. felt a little sparse maybe? i don’t examine my feelings too much when i’m not in love with a musical. plus there’s something i’ve always found annoyingly precious about lin manuel miranda’s songwriting.

 

DECEMBER

01 – ARRIVAL

09 – SPIRITED AWAY

11 – MOONLIGHT – i need to see this one again. i spent much of this film feeling like i was watching something great that was just beyond my grasp.

15 – ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY

16 – ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY

18 – ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY – you can probably tell i liked it. this one is more prickly and interesting than i thought it would be. coming at it from the angle of a star wars nerd, it has everything i thought i would never see in a star wars movie, in a star wars movie. you can argue that it breezes through some iffy plotting mostly on momentum, but seeing things like an x-wing crashing into a shield or a star destroyer decapitating another star destroyer or darth vader slaughtering a room full of redshirts make up for pretty much any faults this movie otherwise might have. it might still be a little too early for me to be objective about this film, but it’s hard to deny that ROGUE ONE is very successful in what it sets out to do.

20 – ASSASSIN’S CREED – i’m not opposed to the idea of making movies out of video games, but this won’t be the first good one. i was hoping the levels of sheer insanity and my near-constant boner for michael fassbender would be enough to pull this one through, but alas. as someone who played an hour of assassin’s creed 2 one time i think five years ago, i had absolutely no clue what was going on. why is everyone jumping off buildings all the time? apparently in the game you land in bales of hay? that’s not what happens in the movie. admirable for its bizarre commitment to an unfilmable premise, but not enough to save it.

22 – PASSENGERS – the underlying moral conflict of this movie was kept out of the marketing, probably wisely. i have no objection to a film hanging its hat on a morally dubious premise, but why this supposedly mainstream sci-fi blockbuster? i was cringing in discomfort for much of this film.

25 – LA LA LAND – i’ve been jonesing for this all year and maybe that was the problem: i don’t know exactly what i wanted out of this movie, but it was not what i got. i like musicals very selectively but i like damien chazelle so i went in with an open mind. what i got was the thing i privately dreaded most: a BIRDMAN-like self-reflexive artifice most concerned with its own greatness. halfway-deconstructing the golden-age hollywood musical template into something simultaneously more and less. very smart kids playing with things they don’t fully understand. the whole affair is a little off. emma stone is typically enigmatic while ryan gosling makes it transparently clear that he practiced, a lot. overall, i was never quite sure what this movie wanted to be.

28 – ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY

30 – MANCHESTER BY THE SEA – this is a fantastic family drama, but so overwhelmingly tragic that i think it could be a potentially tough sell. realistic, humanistic, pleasantly shaggy around the edges. one of the year’s best. also, i’m a sucker for pretty much any movie that gets new england right (see: SPOTLIGHT).