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).

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Why I keep going back to THE FORCE AWAKENS

As of this writing, I’ve seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens six times. I know that’s weird, but this film is special and I have an obsessive personality, so I’ve decided not to give myself a hard time about it. And I mean come on, there’s a new Star Wars movie out and it’s really, really good.

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS.

Even after many viewings, I’m amazed at how well the thing operates on a minute-to-minute basis. It’s tight and it’s fast, no second is wasted and unlike the ponderous prequels is stuffed to the gills with character and almost devoid of bullshit. It’s not perfect, there are some structural issues and there are little touches here and there that are a bit too obvious, but these are minor criticisms of a thoroughly successful project.

‘Successful’ may be the best descriptor of The Force Awakens. It gets a ton right, gets very little wrong, and has made almost everybody happy. What else could you possibly ask of it? A conscious creative decision was clearly made to echo the structure of the first film instead of getting too radical or esoteric, and we should not have expected anything different when J. J. Abrams was brought on board (if you want a crazy, unrestrained flight of fancy in the Star Wars universe, you can go ahead and watch Episode I)In terms of filmmaking craft, however, the new film is a far different beast than any of the George Lucas films.

Whenever I watch A New Hope and then put on Empire right aafter, I’m always struck by the jarring aesthetic shift between the two films. The first Star Wars film is mythic, archetypal, and arguably even simple. Luke’s character arc follows the Hero’s Journey taken straight out of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces. The good guys are good, the bad guys are bad. By today’s standards, it feels slow. A lot of the dialogue is very on-the-nose. It’s almost like a children’s book. After that, The Empire Strikes Back is like a breath of fresh air. It feels like a film. I haven’t found a better way to describe it, but I’ll bet you’ve had that experience too. To me, The Force Awakens represents a similar aesthetic leap forward. Abrams’ films have always been sprightly and this one is no exception; the film possesses a kind of manic energy not found in the original trilogy or prequels. Actual good dialogue, too!

The first act is close to perfect. From the opening titles until the Millenium Falcon leaves Jakku’s atmosphere, I could watch that every day. The pacing is spot-on, we’re given precisely enough information about each character, the actors have a great rapport, it nails so many moments. Rey’s introduction up until she rescue BB-8 is almost wordless, reminding me in a pleasant way of the legendary first act of WALL-E. We’re left with no doubt the First Order is both really evil and really dangerous. BB-8 is The King. There are three separate action set pieces. By the time Rey and Finn congratulate each other on their heroics after escaping two TIE Fighters, we want to give each of them a high-five, too.

So much of what makes The Force Awakens great isn’t written explicitly in the text of the dialogue. The whole ensemble has tremendous chemistry and bounce lines and gestures back and forth with aplomb. Certain character dynamics, like Finn’s horn-dog attraction to Rey or the adversarial relationship between Kylo Ren and General Hux, are strongly implied through action and body language instead of mentioned explicitly. In fact, many of the most powerful moments in The Force Awakens (Han Solo entering the Millennium Falcon’s cockpit, Rey’s encounter with Luke) are told completely without dialogue.

Once Rey and Finn escape Jakku and Han Solo enters the picture, the whole affair inevitably gets a bit more complicated as the movie more closely intertwines with the original films. You could definitely argue that Han Solo still being up to his old tricks is a little tired, and it doesn’t do the film much good having him owe space gangsters money again (plus rathtars why?), but spending more time with Harrison Ford playing his most iconic character (and having fun, to boot) is not something I’m going to complain about.

If we’re continuing to nitpick, Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron can feel shoehorned in to many of his scenes after Finn loses him on Jakku. Like Luke in A New Hope, Poe is the only X-Wing pilot we really care about, but unlike Luke he doesn’t have a full character arc to make us care about the guy in the pilot’s seat. Because of this, Poe’s trench run, though very fun, feels disconnected from everything else going on. Also, the spatial relationships between various settings on the planet (in particular the distance between the forest and the oscillator) are not particularly clear.

These criticisms are all very minor; overall The Force Awakens is great. But why is it so great I’ve already seen it six times? First, and most importantly, it’s Star Wars. That is never something to be discounted. Besides that, it’s a really great ride, fun and compulsively watchable. Seeing the film with a big audience is a riot, watching the audience reactions can be almost as much fun as watching the movie. It’s a big movie that should be seen on the biggest screen possible, IMAX Laser or 70mm if possible. I’ve also seen the movie in a D-Box motion seat, and that experience was far more fun than it had any right to be (though the motion can distracting on a first viewing).

If you’re going to see The Force Awakens again (and you probably are,) see it in the best presentation you can. Find an IMAX dome with a 70mm print (note to my New England friends: the Jordan’s Furniture IMAX theater is a laser setup) or see it in D-Box. The release of this film is the motion picture event of our generation, enjoy it while it lasts like I have.

First Impressions of STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS

THE SPOILERS ARE STRONG WITH THIS ONE.  IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS YET, DO NOT READ THIS. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

It’s here. The hype train has reached the station and Star Wars: The Force Awakens is now in theaters. Because it’s a Star Wars movie, the opening week is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to our discussion and we’re going to be living with this film for a long time. We still talk about the prequels, after all.

We would all see The Force Awakens even if it was terrible, but fortunately, it’s good! In fact, it’s really good. Episode VII is, remarkably, the first non-sucky Star Wars movie to be released in 32 years (or longer, depending on who you ask). Considering the series’ place in pop culture, that is not to be taken lightly. One of the few big criticisms that can be leveled at the movie is that it plays it too safe and banks on sure-bet imagery and moments from the original trilogy, but we’ve seen what happens when big creative risks are taken with Star Wars, and I’ll take this thank you very much.

YO! SPOILERS! LAST CHANCE TO EXIT! YOU WILL GET WET!

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So yes, let’s get this out of the way. The plot of The Force Awakens hews pretty closely to A New Hope. This approach to crafting the story places certain limitations on where the plot can go and prevents the film from being truly surprising. It may not be the most creatively daring experience, but it’s a great popcorn romp. The three new lead characters, played ably by Oscar Isaac, Daisy Ridley and John Boyega, reflect many of the traits of the original trilogy’s leading trio but not in the obvious ways you might expect. Each character is an amalgam of things we’ve seen before, for example Rey has shades of Luke and most closely follows his arc but has all the feisty energy that made Leia such a forward-thinking character. Finn has some of Han’s reluctance, A New Hope Luke’s pluckiness, and some droid-like dopiness thrown in for good measure. Poe Dameron has Solo’s acerbic wit and lazy confidence, but also Luke’s wholesome earnestness for the cause of the light side.

It deserves a moments’ notice to say the cast of The Force Awakens is spot-on across the board, both new and old. Harrison Ford falls back into the role of Han Solo more comfortably I allowed myself to hope for. John Boyega is wonderfully dippy. Adam Driver continues his streak of making every scene he’s in, no matter the role, a lot weirder. As Rey, newcomer Daisy Ridley hits it out of the park and with the help of a snappy script helps create an exciting new kind of female action hero for our ever-more-progressive times (and who is sure to be a role model for millions of kids of both genders going forward).

The Force Awakens occupies a unique place in pop culture; there’s never really been a release like this one. As such, the film is just as meta as you would expect. Everything you could reasonably expect to see as a Star Wars fan is in there, from the ships to the characters to the production design. It’s even got a cantina scene! And a Death Star! The overtly referential nature of the whole affair looks a bit tired on paper, but for whatever reason none of the similarities really bothered me in the theater, and became less worrisome on subsequent viewings. The film is simply good enough to make up for it.

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It helps that The Force Awakens is compulsively rewatchable. It’s dense and packed to the gills with fun throwaway details, but ditches a lot of the prequels’ visual clutter. Star Wars has always been more than just a movie franchise, with the films dictating big plot events to be expanded upon in other media like books and games. The Force Awakens is the first look into a big new storytelling universe we’ll be living with, presumably, for the rest of our lives. There will always be new details to mine. Beyond the interests of Star Wars fandom, the film is rewatchable because it’s so damn fun. It’s easily the funniest Star Wars movie, and it’s also the tightest. Cut at the breakneck pace for which J. J. Abrams is known, the film zooms along too fast for any cringeworthy moments (“HEY!!! THAT’S MINE!!!!!!”) to really stick. It just keeps coming, and every scene has something new and crazy to look at.

The Force Awakens is not perfect. Most of the  film’s bigger issues stem from the 30-year sequel gap and a lack of definition about the current state of the story universe.  The Starkiller planet destruction scene is the one big moment that really falls flat, we don’t have enough information to know what the stakes are; at least we knew Alderaan had some political importance and we understood Leia’s personal stake. I know nothing about the Hosnian system. I don’t even know if I spelled that right. Really, once the current political landscape of the Star Wars universe is laid out in the opening crawl it’s not brought up in detail again and that was probably the right decision for the movie. This is the biggest movie event ever, it was only going to be so dorky. Also, in a somewhat disappointing footnote John Williams’ score works effectively in the context of the movie, but lacks the next “Imperial March” or “Duel of the Fates.” Rey’s new theme is as close as the score comes to a memorable new idea, but it took several viewings and listening to the soundtrack to really get it. The new trilogy’s musical motifs are currently a little foggy, and that was unexpected.

After seeing The Force Awakens (several times), I’m more excited than ever for the future of Star Wars. Was Episode VII a little basic in its plotting? Maybe. Does it get a bit too on-the-nose with its references to the lore? You could argue that. Did I openly weep when the Star Wars logo appeared on screen? I tried to keep it together.

Little gripes don’t really matter. The fact is, we’re going to get a Star Wars movie every year until the end of time. The next one can be weird, this one just had to be good. And it is. It’s way better that just good. There truly has been an awakening.

In advance of The Force Awakens…

  
If you’re anything like me, you’ve spent the last few days processing the new trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I haven’t been fretting over the details and plot specifics (the footage is vague for a reason), I’ve been marveling at the accomplishment of what the trailer represents. The footage is great and the trailer as a whole is tremendously exciting, but more importantly it caps off what might be the best and most important marketing campaign in the history of modern mass media.  Even though The Force Awakens doesn’t open for another two months, it’s already been a major ongoing cultural event for the entire past year and I think it’s been one really worth savoring. 

I don’t normally call advertisements “art,” but the three trailers and perhaps most importantly the Comic-Con reel have a lot going on that’s worth exploring and acknowledging. Over the past year, Disney and Lucasfilm have been carefully threading a meta-narrative through the footage about this film’s place inhistory and sending the most important message they possibly can: we’re not going to fuck it up this time.

The footage

Disney’s media rollout of the film has been very slow and carefully measured, and all in all we still don’t know very much. However, whenever anything new is released the results are seismic. Why is this? The easy answer is “because it’s fucking Star Wars,” but that undercuts the incredible quality of what we have been shown. These are not normal trailers. They assume a high familiarity with the brand, and are designed meticulously to evoke a certain set of feelings on their intended audience. They reveal basically no plot information. They exist in the unique position of selling a product that sells itself, and don’t have many uninitiated to convince. They are truly for the fans, and possess a certain sparcity and delicacy rarely seen in mass marketing. They also get deeper and more exciting with each viewing.

The trailers form a progression, each getting more detailed and esoteric as December 18 approaches. The first teaser from late 2014 is strikingly bare: a series of simple, unconnected but incredibly striking images. A harried stormtrooper removing his helmet. A jangly, homemade-looking light saber. BB-8. The Millenium Falcon being chased by TIE fighters as the Star Wars fanfare blares in the background. Each of these images is both evocative of what has come before and an enticing tease of what is to come. I cried.

  

In the subsequent trailers, the main fanfare is not used again. It’s not necessary. The first teaser was a shot across the bow and basically achieved the goal of acknowledging that the new film will draw heavily from the iconography of the original trilogy. The second teaser provides some new images, most importantly establishing the post-Jedi film universe, and the big Han Solo money shot. Like the first teaser, it’s much more regal than frenetic, allowing the viewer time to digest what they are seeing and begin to grasp the significance of each shot. And while “Chewie, we’re home” may be a bit on-the nose, it works. I cried.

As Star Wars took over Comic-Con, the behind-the-scenes reel provided a great look at lots of new things, but was more about establishing an overall narrative for the project. Each of the trailers is its own mood piece, and the the mood evoked by the reel is one of unbridled optimism and joy. It’s probably the most earnest piece of publicity for a movie I’ve ever seen. However, just because it isn’t a trailer doesn’t mean the Comic-Con reel is any less meticulous in its construction. Footage of real sets, real vehicles, serious character makeup. A lively creature shop. 35mm film running through a Panavision camera. For film dweebs, it’s heady stuff. I cried.

  
The final trailer is a bit more conventional than the other footage, but no less thrilling. There’s still virtually no plot, but this time we’re treated to a barrage of images, an embarrassment of riches that will keep folks guessing all the way up to opening night. The pacing and arc of this trailer are as flawless as the previous trailers, and the two minutes greatly expand the scope of what we’ve seen, and Han Solo’s dialogue give us an idea of the mythic scale the storytelling aspires to. In a brilliant moment, at the end of the trailer the music, shots and cutting escalate to a tremendous crescendo, before the screen cuts to black and film’s logo appears resting above the soundtrack that’s gone almost silent. It’s striking and ballsy, and plays to an audience that is paying rapt attention. It’s about as good as a trailer’s going to get. You can probably guess my reaction.

The narrative

The Star Wars franchise occupies a unique space in film history both in terms of its near-universal cultural acceptance and its troubled filmography. Few, if any other films are as ingrained into the collective American psyche as the three films that make up the original trilogy and it’s easy to make the case that the original Star Wars is one of, if not the most, culturally important movies ever made. To many of us, we grew up on the original trilogy and got close to wearing out the VHS tapes.

  
Then the prequels happened. All three films are deeply flawed, and while upon some detached examination they do have some merit and on the whole are not terrible, it’s too late. The only reason people still watch the prequels, and the only reason they got made, was because they are Star Wars films. The Phantom Menace came out when I was 9 years old, and I still have memories of seeing it in a theater, and I still have a lot of the toys, and I know it back-to-front. This is not because it’s good, it’s because it’s Star Wars.

Whether The Force Awakens is good or not, as a culture we will absorb it just the same. Kids will get to grow up playing with BB-8 toys instead of Jar Jar figures. They’ll think black X-Wings are just a normal thing. Everybody will know who John Boyega is. Just as we’ve learned to live with the prequels, elements of Episode VII will enter our standard pop culture lexicon. We’re going to get a new Star Wars film every year too, so it’s possible we’ll be soon be living in a future where the prequels are just a weird footnote. That alone is something to celebrate. So enjoy this moment of anticipation, and get your tickets. December 18 is going to be a very big day.