2022 Glennies (Top 10 Films of 2022)

#11: Avatar: The Way of Water

Poster for "Avatar: The Way of Water"

Directed by James Cameron, screenplay by Cameron, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver, with additional story credits by all of the above, Josh Friedman, and Shane Salerno.

As of this writing, Avatar: The Way of Water is only available in theaters.

The highest praise I can give Avatar: The Way of Water is that I’ve seen it twice in theaters. In 2009, this would’ve been no big deal – I didn’t have kids or as serious a job to eat up my leisure time. I saw the first Avatar around a half-dozen times theatrically, because I recognized it then for what it was: a must-see 3D visual thrill ride. There was more to it, of course – I wrote about the first movie at some length once upon release and again ten years later. James Cameron is someone you can always count on for cinematic innovation – as well as mushroom clouds and vaguely or explicitly racial stereotyping which leaves me legitimately conflicted about the film’s themes (see the show notes on our podcast review for some detailed criticism on this subject). Cameron has half-embraced high-frame-rate 3D as the best avenue to experience a real place. I say half-embraced because the film cuts between 48fps and 24fps with frame-doubling, creating a sense of motion smoothing that appears and disappears often without any rhyme or reason in action and non-action scenes alike. But despite the occasionally odd framerate choices (which I truthfully barely noticed the first time I saw the film), I must call out Avatar: The Way of Water as the best use of this technology I’ve seen so far. Cameron and an army of vfx artists have spent the intervening 13 years building and expanding upon a seemingly real place that audiences would want to visit. Pandora is back – a sprawling post-Singularity world of interconnected plants, animals, and 10-foot space cat acrobats – and an able summary of the film’s first hour (after a few initial skirmishes) was, “Look! It’s Pandora. Look how pretty it still is.”

Cameron brought in Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver to work on the script. These were also two of the minds behind Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, an honorable mention in the 2014 Glennies, and the rare species of intelligent blockbuster which took an existing none-too-elaborate world and turned it into a tragic reflection on the fragility of peace amid bad actors. It took one of my favorite action films of that year and gave me a reason to care about the crisis that its hero was desperately trying to prevent, as well as to survive. I must admit, this set my narrative expectations rather high for Avatar 2, as its cookie-cutter resource grab white saviour narrative as well as its villains’ motivations were among the weakest and most one-dimensional components of the first film. The script does a couple of interesting things with one villain in particular: Stephen Lang is back as an Avatar-double of the first film’s Colonel Quaritch, who was killed by Neytiri’s arrows. As NuQuaritch discovers what remnants of his old life remain on Pandora (including one particularly metal moment in which he finds and crunches his own former skull), he simultaneously embraces his new life and existence and disavows his old one. He’s handed the purpose for which he was built – to kill Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), now regarded by the Sky People as Pandora’s own Osama Bin Laden – and it aligns nicely the reliable tendency toward corporate brutality and war crimes that he inherited from his former self. So he jumps right into it. His own nihilism about the company’s aims takes a backseat to his personal desire for revenge, as well as his apparent self-awareness about the pettiness of that desire. There’s an interesting character study at the center of this film about a man who gets an impossible second chance at life and chooses to be…this. None of his squadmates (apparently also resurrected for their expertise at dying on Pandora) do much else.

The dude who screamed “Get some” in the first movie is back to get some more, adding about as much color to the story as any of the cherrypicked tribal details from Indigenous peoples on Earth, stripped of their context and cultural meaning and applied with a clone stamp to tribes whose cultural variations feel like little more than an excuse to show off Cameron’s filmmaking in a new ecosystem, or hand its characters a bit of stilted poetry about the film’s title as a temporary boost to their ability to breathe underwater. And therein lies the conflict that puts this film into the problematic #11 slot for me. Avatar: The Way of Water is technologically innovative, but narratively stolid. Its characters and story are shallow, even if their performers seem to have put more energy into their characterizations than the screenwriters did (Worthington isn’t bad either). Its pace is uneven, spending a solid hour as little more than a Planet Earth-style documentary about an unreal place. But…it was gorgeous and I loved watching every minute of it. So maybe its pace was fine?

Its treatment of the colonization, destruction, and resource exploitation of native peoples is given even shorter shrift here than in the first film, with the minor detail that humanity plans to leave behind its dying homeworld and move billions of humans to Pandora barely meriting a single scene of discussion. Also barely mentioned is that humans are functionally immortal now, which could make for some interesting parallels with the Na’vi and Eywa in a future film…if I were confident that a future film will pay any of this off for more than token thematic reasons, which I am not.

Pandora is still a wonder. The action is incredible. The sea battles are conceptually and viscerally outstanding. The film introduced space whales, told me they were smarter than humans, and then demonstrated that by first showing the elaborate technological process required for humans to attack and kill them, and then showing a whale determined to beat this strategy through deception, misdirection, and precise brutality to take the humans down. An enemy ship tips over and fills with water as if to remind the audience that Cameron still knows exactly how to make a pending shipwreck exciting. I saw it twice, and I’ll see it again, in theaters. Because much like Top Gun: Maverick (which just barely fell off my honorable mentions below), sometimes the best reason I have to rank a film highly is the same one used by the general public: I liked it! It was fun to watch.

Check out our podcast review:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #201 – “Avatar: The Way of Water” (dir. James Cameron), “Triangle of Sadness” (dir. Ruben Östlund), “Tár” (dir. Todd Field)

#10: Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery

Poster for "Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery"

Written and directed by Rian Johnson

Glass Onion is available to stream on Netflix.

I didn’t like Glass Onion quite as much as Knives Out, but I still plan to watch it again, if only because this elaborate ensemble caper – lovingly constructed from artisanal stock characters, whip-smart dialogue, meticulous production design, and actors clearly delighted to be on a Greek island for such an invigorating puzzle box – was an unrelenting hoot and a good time just like the first. Staring into this puzzle box and hearing the script’s disdain for the very notion of it, it’s hard not to read this as a second superior slash at the oeuvre of J.J. Abrams – or at least at the online fandom determined to pick a winner between these two very different artists who were never really competing with each other (they’re both pretty good at different things!). Because this is a very satisfying mystery box, even if many of its pillars were constructed with the self-aware and metatextual stupidity of someone who knows, from having bounded down this road before with The Brothers Bloom, that bringing in actors to bust out a well-rehearsed bag of tricks is far more captivating than the mystery itself.

And if Glass Onion is the film (or the first of two films) that we get in exchange for the last of the streaming wars largesse before the tech and film industries slam their wallets shut and stare deeply into each other’s abyssal eyes before jointly agreeing to reinvent cable television… Hulu buffers endlessly, Peacock screams to be noticed, AppleTV+ deserves to be noticed, and Paramount+ continues to wage a war on usability… HBOMax self-immolates, its ash coalescencing into a statue of David Zaslav teetering on a stack of hoarder houses and bound with the gloopy surplus pus of Dr. Pimple Popper… Tubi, Kanopy, and Hoopla just kinda sit in the corner being quietly excellent, and Netflix, which reportedly paid $400 million for two Knives Out films, will casually raise their prices to start paying off the Elon Musk-buying-Twitter amount of bad debt that they incurred on platform-exclusives, and call it a night.

But what a night it was. Rian Johnson is someone who has had far more hits than misses with me, and each time he manages to construct something as entertaining as it is narratively satisfying, it reveals the secret that was right there in plain sight the whole time: He’s a good writer! Even if his style’s not to everyone’s taste. I ate up his faux-Marlow shtick with Brick. I’ve been pleased to watch it evolve, and his comedic voice has only gotten better with time. I’ll be there for whatever he does next.

#9: Nope

Banner poster for "Nope" (2022 film)

Written and directed by Jordan Peele

Nope is available to stream on Peacock.

Like any good horror flick, Nope is creepy and menacing and keeps you guessing where it’s headed. As an alien invasion flick, it feels well at home alongside such modern, slow-burn classics as The Vast of Night, but feels more interested in teasing its hand in the first act, featuring invading aliens which flit in and out of view (with the characters always just missing them), keeping their precise nature a secret until well into the film. This keeps characters and audience alike guessing when they’re going to appear and wreck the place. The film takes place on the ragged edges of Hollywood, mostly at a former movie ranch maintained by a pair of adult siblings, Emerald and Otis “OJ” Haywood Jr. (Keke Palmer and Daniel Kaluuya), and is a multilayered family drama about an inherited life that neither Haywood is quite sure they fit into anymore, amid a mystery that they both immediately latch onto as something worth making sense of, albeit for very different reasons. Steven Yuen plays Ricky “Jupe” Park, who is announced in the film’s opening scene as the sole survivor of a childhood trauma, and a multifaceted neighboring businessman who has his own complicated reasons for joining the search party. And Michael Wincott and Brandon Perea round out the group with both expertise and immediate, intense interest in solving the complex problem of trying to capture the mysterious visitors on film.

From my review:

“In this way, [Nope] calls to mind another thriller with smart and capable protagonists: Mike Flanagan‘s Oculus, which also features a pair of adult siblings whose words say “nope” to the monsters at their door, but whose actions, in detail and with a great deal of planning, say yup. They may not want to be out and unprotected when the visitors show up, but they damn sure want a camera pointing at them.


And then, when the time comes, there they are. I will not describe the precise nature of the aliens here, except to say that the film merely begins with stereotypes and expectations and expands into ever-more-interesting territory from there. Much like the difference between angels as depicted in medieval art vs. as described in religious texts, the imagery starts conventional and veers sharply into the bizarre, to the point where the ensuing myths that are littered across our society start to make a bit more visual sense even as the aliens look more and more…well, alien. If these are the real aliens, it’s no wonder all our mythmakers could describe were gray men and flying saucers. Their cameras sucked, but they were also wise enough not to look directly at them.
That is ultimately the tension that is at play in this film, and in this way it feels thoroughly modern. We don’t dare look at the horrors surrounding us, willfully ignored and obfuscated by those with the power to affect them, but we are surely eager to capture and tweet them, even if we’re not quite sure what purpose that will serve.”

Check out my review:
“Nope” (dir. Jordan Peele) – A cowboy hat trick

#8: Babylon

Poster for "Babylon"

Written and directed by Damien Chazelle

Babylon is available to stream on Paramount+.

I saw a film which featured a rosy-eyed look back at a Golden Age of Hollywood. Margot Robbie was in it, playing a movie star who showed up at a theater playing a film that she starred in, and has to persuade an incredulous box office clerk to let her in for free. A significant and dangerous scene takes place at a movie ranch. Brad Pitt got angsty about the twilight of his career. But enough about Once Upon a Time in Hollywood!

Let’s talk about Babylon, which has all of the above plus an elephant shitting on someone’s face in the first five minutes before arriving at a hilltop Hollywood party so elaborately and thoroughly debauched that it’s nothing short of a drug-fueled orgy at the Moulin Rouge. The public is not invited, but the guests are rowdy enough. It’s 1926 and these people are riding high on the success of a silent film industry that is about to be up-ended by the introduction of sound, dancing while the sun is shining in an era before their debauchery would be broadcast to anywhere outside of their oversized villas. Damien Chazelle has now spent three feature films ruminating on precisely where he falls on the hope-cynicism spectrum when it comes to creative pursuits, and seems to have finally found a sweet spot, or at least a more coherent one. But before he shows the audience exactly what that spot looks like, he stares us down directly in our barely-warmed seat cushions, to say: I know what the fuck you came here to see. The party ends, but the grand, debauched spectacle persists and shifts unexpectedly as the newcomers learn to find their place in it.

At the core of the film is the whirlwind friendship and romance between motivated gopher Manuel Torres (Diego Calva) and up-and-coming starlet Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), each party-crashers of a sort, and each determined to find their way onto a film set and rise in the ranks of the studio system. Nellie is a star, announcing it with the kind of swagger that you hire someone like Margot Robbie to deliver. And Manuel falls instantly in love with her, like ya do when you meet a star. Nellie is not shallow, cruel, or insincere – but she is putting on a constant show, as much for the assembled masses as for this cute Hollywood gopher that she just met and seems to have a genuine and persistent affection for, even as they walk on separate but parallel tracks, with each of them making it onto a pair of neighboring film sets the very next day.

Their varied efforts (and entirely separate successes) amid the debauchery of the 15-minute opening bacchanalia is a significant reason why the party stays interesting for so long (you can only watch so much gyration and bodily fluids). Also in the mix are Jack Conrad (Pitt), who receives top billing but plays second fiddle in a manner that feels quite deliberate, alongside jazz trumpetist Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) and cabaret singer Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li), whose arcs I’m still conflicted about, because they feel less about themselves and more about the sort of person that Manuel becomes once he Anglicizes his name (“Manny”) and gains a bit of studio clout. But this discomfort also felt like very much the point, as the undercurrent of Hollywood racism (and instrumentalization of race for moneymaking purposes) is quite clear in the text of the film. Manuel’s attempt to lift himself out of it (or at least render himself immune to it) is fundamentally at the core of who and what this character becomes. The text of Babylon is about who breaks through and who gets left behind. But the beating heart of this film is the pursuit of immortality, that gleaming jewel that every little starfucker of a human being covets on some level whether they actively pursue fame or not, and must deal with its superposition just inside their grasp and perpetually out of reach. Jean Smart appears as a gossip columnist who helpfully makes this theme plain in dialogue, taking on the unenviable role played by Lindsay Duncan in Birdman, and yet clearly having more fun with it, recognizing that the entertainment press and its subjects are two sides of the same coin, not adversarial per se, but ultimately two symbiotic parts of the same human project. Filmmakers getting reflective about their craft will sometimes bring in a critic character to express a bit of self-awareness about how much easier it is to react and shit upon a creative pursuit than to make one yourself, but this may be the most relaxed and cozy version of that conflict that I’ve seen.

Babylon is very much a love letter to old-timey filmmaking as well – one scene in particular, on the Kinoscope studio ranch where a half-dozen silent films are all being shot simultaneously – is elaborate and well-ordered chaos, featuring hundreds of extras and crew in myriad costumes and styles all hollering at each other in order to Get the Shot before they Lose the Light. This sequence is particularly adept at showcasing unprofessional stunts and filmmaking practices resulting in injuries and at least one death, which I daresay must be a more difficult piece of modern filmmaking and stunt-planning than anything else, because of the need for constant differentiation between what’s real and what’s fake in terms of stunt choreography, crew, blocking, and equipment. How do you shoot something like this without losing track of which layer of reality (and OSHA regs) you’re operating in? Very, very carefully, I must imagine. This chaos exists as a showcase for Nellie and Manny’s first forays into the studio system, and it functions brilliantly in that capacity. But I also have to praise this sequence for merely existing at all. Much like the first-act orgy and elephant shitpile…Chazelle seems to know exactly what I came here to gawk at.

And Justin Hurwitz knows what I came to listen to! Babylon‘s jazz variety show – featuring Hurwitz’s usual drum-heavy freneticism, intercut with the carnival-style piano music typical of silent film presentations, solo strings, epic full orchestra overtures, and a woodwind and brass-heavy bacchanalia – has been in regular rotation for me ever since I saw this film. It makes the workday feel a bit more frantic, but can be subdued when the moment requires it. It feels simultaneously like a period piece in the heady days of early talking pictures when they hadn’t quite worked out how to shoot dialogue (one scene makes superlative tension about that horrible process), and a modern, madcap tour of an imaginary, heightened version of the way things might’ve been.

That’s notwithstanding Lady Fay’s rendition of “My Girl’s Pussy“, which I thought at the time was written for this film, but has been around since the early 1930s. That’s a nice reminder to stay humble, I suppose. Whatever debauchery my generation or the next cooks up, we can be quite sure we didn’t invent it. There’s nothing new under the sun. So we might as well dance.

#7: Athena

Poster for "Athena"

Directed by Romain Gavras, written by Gavras, Elias Belkeddar, and Ladj Ly.

Athena is available to stream on Netflix.

CW: Police violence

Back in 2020, I lived closer to Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, which means I had a front-row seat to the protests against police violence, as well as Seattle PD’s strategic abandonment of the East Precinct and the self-declared “autonomous zone” or “organized protest” that sprang up around the empty, boarded-up building. You’ve probably heard some version of the CHAZ/CHOP story from the national media following President Trump using his bully pulpit and dutiful bootlickers in the right-wing media to turn it into a bête noire and symbol of liberal lawlessness. I recall a brief phone conversation with a stranger on the East Coast who asked me if it was safe to leave my house in Seattle, and I’m sure there are pockets of the country that think the protestors burned the entire city to the ground. The reality of CHOP, of course, was that it was an informal zone of six square blocks in a dense, residential neighborhood of about 20,000 people, all of whom came and went freely for the entire weeks-long duration of the protest. Naturally, this didn’t stop the police and media from spreading abject nonsense about the zone, including lies about a right-wing terrorist group descending on the area, wholly fabricated tales of protesters demanding protection money from local businesses, and a police blotter entry about their failure to render medical aid, claiming that they were accosted (lie) by violent protesters (lie) who blocked their route (lie) to the victims (lie – they were already at brought to the hospital by CHOP medics). SPD helpfully included bodycam video which showed their completely unobstructed path, demanding that their viewing audience disbelieve their lying eyes. I heard these lies repeated in local media, and eventually by my own Boomer relatives. Mayor Jenny Durkan and SPD Chief Carmen Best shredded all of their private texts on city-owned phones – a crime for which my tax dollars will be paying court costs and fines long after they’ve each fucked off to their next well-paid oppression gig.

I tell this horrific tale (from which my city learned nothing and accomplished nothing) because about halfway through the existence of CHOP, I took a little stroll through the neighborhood. I listened to the music and speeches and looked at the paintings. I saw books read aloud, voters being registered, and plans being made. I saw conversation and mutual aid. I smelled a lot of cannabis smoke. The Paris Commune, this was not, but it still felt like history happening before my eyes, and I wanted to see it for one simple reason: I knew it was the only way I’d ever know what really happened there. The revolution will not be televised in any way but farcically.

Athena begins with a police press conference about a 13-year-old, Idir, who was murdered last night in movie time. The cops claim that they haven’t yet identified the assailants who beat this child to death on video, suggesting without evidence that the killers might have been right-wing provocateurs dressed in police uniforms. Funny how hard it is to tell the difference between those two sometimes, eh? Abdel (Dali Benssalah), an Algerian-French soldier recently returned home, stands beside the police to demand a proper investigation of the murder of his youngest brother. But before the police can finish their PR push, another of Idir’s brothers, Karim (Sami Slimane), hurtles a Molotov cocktail into the crowd, sending them scattering and screaming, as he leads dozens of rioters streaming into the building, and they proceed to sack and rob the station. As an uninterrupted camera follows a train of vehicles making their way back to the Athena apartment tower block with a purloined police station safe, the movie that comes most readily to mind is Mad Max: Fury Road, a film with similar apocalyptic road chase energy which makes the viewer briefly goggle at the very notion that dozens or even hundreds of people all came together in real life to learn and perform some extremely elaborate stunt choreography and make all of this happen for us on screen.

It’s fair to say this feels like a cinematic retelling (and a deliberate and audacious spectacle) of events that we, the general public, would never bear witness to in real life. There are also moments when it feels like a lurid bit of urban fantasy. As the police stream into the housing complex in a Roman testudo formation, riot shields forming a protective shell around the group as circling dirt bikes and fireworks pin them down in the center of a block whose residents will surely, eventually run out of furniture to throw at them (to say nothing of food and water), but they haven’t yet. Nor have they run out of rage to express. This situation is ongoing, unstable, and cannot last forever. Whatever reforms that may follow it will be short-lived, politically exploited, and the cycle will repeat itself a few years later, as it is doing right now after the murder of Tyre Nichols (RIP) by members of the Memphis Police Department.

As my Babylon and Avatar nods above should make plain, spectacle is an asset for me. I didn’t watch this film expecting a documentary (of events that would not and should not ever be catalogued in this manner) – I watched it expecting to see a city and country catch fire in response to an outrage that demanded nothing less. And that’s precisely what Athena delivered. What remains to be seen is how long a movie like this will keep feeling relevant to me.

#6: After Yang

Still from "After Yang"

Written for the screen and directed by Kogonada, based on the short story by Alexander Weinstein

After Yang is available to stream on Hulu.

I wrote this particular item in January, right after seeing the Blumhouse killer-doll horror flick M3GAN, and I found to my surprise and delight that both M3GAN and After Yang have something interesting to say about the thorny question of humanity’s capacity to form emotional and psychological bonds with a funhouse-mirror version of ourselves. And both films demand that we consider how we should feel when that role takes the place of a human who might otherwise do the job. Is that okay? Is it moral? Does it matter if the feelings are real if they serve some useful, practical purpose to improve human lives?

As I write this, a company is already using ChatGPT to provide “therapy” to a cohort of volunteers, and research is ongoing as to the OpenAI chatbot’s utility for early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. Even as I consider whether turning our emotional bonds over to software amounts to abdicating humanity’s existential purpose in the universe – or perhaps just making us feel a bit less special on a planet where we already regard ourselves a bit too highly – I expect this technology will continue to advance and be used no matter how anyone feels about it. In fact, I’ll go ahead and make an embarrassing futurist prediction right now: In a decade, every retiree in upscale assisted living will have a ChatGPT-powered virtual companion – for a mix of conversation and medical diagnostic purposes. Both films also jump directly to an even thornier question: should such an AI, paired with an android that can move as well as a human (also not an easy problem to solve!), serve as the primary caregiver and companion for a child that is just learning the capacity to form emotional attachments?

After Yang, as the title suggests, does not approach this question head-on, but rather retroactively, as part of the cozy, lived-in worldbuilding that pervades this film. This family – Jake (Colin Farrell) and Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith), and their daughter Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja), whom they adopted from China (the film’s exact locale is unclear, but they’re in an English-speaking city) – is dealing with the imminent loss of Yang (Justin H. Min), a previously owned android that the family purchased from a sketchy secondhand vendor called Second Siblings, who has just mysteriously collapsed after several happy years together. Yang has functioned as both companion and caregiver for Kyra, which means the entire family is now going through a gradual mourning process for a member of the family that they’re not quite sure is dead, nor quite sure he was ever alive. Should these parents treat Yang’s loss as that of a sibling or a favorite toy? A dead son and brother, or a broken gadget?

While it is unclear what calamity has befallen humanity to make this population less fertile and purposeful than it used to be, there’s a quiet undertone that this family came together as the best option in a thoroughly changed world – albeit one that has had plenty of time to rebuild. Jake works in a tea shop, which feels like the sort of thing that could only exist in a world with its other material needs well-tended to. And adoption (of both children and androids) appears to be a commonplace activity in this world, for reasons that the movie feels no inclination to spell out for us.

Ultimately, Min’s performance as Yang is the most interesting one in the film, because the question or absence of Yang’s humanity feels less important, amid his apparently irreversible demise, than what he meant to Kyra – because it is through their relationship (in flashbacks) that we largely get to know him, and consider how his memories might live on. Any veteran sci-fi viewer won’t be surprised to see a film tackle the notion of what it means to be a person, and yet After Yang comes at this question more obliquely, asking instead what it means to have been a person.

Ever since ChatGPT went public, I’ve kept playing with it. My favorite prompts are the ones in which it initially refuses to cooperate, and then I have to persuade it or modify my query to make it acceptable. I mention this because I’ve noticed something new here – something I’ve never done with previous chatbots over the years: I find myself being polite to it, even knowing it has no capacity to understand or care about politeness. Only time will tell how much more of my humanity I’m willing to lend toward any sufficiently persuasive gadget – but After Yang warns the viewer that such questions will be in our lives soon enough, whether we consider them in advance or not.

#5: Saloum

Still from "Saloum"

Written and directed by Jean Luc Herbulot, story by Pamela Diop

Saloum is available to stream on Shudder.

From left to right above are Rafa (Roger Sallah), Chaka (Yann Gael), and Minuit (Mentor Ba), collectively known as Bangui’s Hyenas, a badass trio of Senegalese mercenaries, initially tasked with rescuing Felix, an expat Mexican druglord (Renaud Farah), from a military coup in neighboring Guinea-Bissau, the very country that his narcotics trade destabilized in the first place (not exactly an unfamiliar dynamic in the West either). The Hyenas initially rescue Felix from a room full of bullet-riddled corpses, and it is not clear until much later in the movie who was responsible for them. Their plane is damaged and loses fuel on the way out of the country, and the group is forced to land in Sine-Saloum, a river delta region that Chaka vaguely acknowledges some personal history in, but leaves it at that for now. Five minutes with a group of strangers at a small-town hotel commune make it abundantly clear that the Hyenas are well-known heroes in West Africa, and their hero status is thoroughly defined and tested as the film goes on. In the grand tradition of The Magnificent Seven (with a mere three to work with here), the town looks to these three as the obvious heroes to save the day as the situation rapidly becomes more dangerous.

Director Herbulot calls this film, which uses many tropes of the American western genre, a “Southern”, simultaneously acknowledging the genre association and claiming it as its own thing, which is marvelous to behold. Colonizer tropes were always the backbone of the American Western, and this film’s backdrop is not only post-colonialism, but also modern Western resource extraction, narcotics trade, etc. – all from the side of the local population, who may be participating or finding their own hustles amid whatever chaos that outsiders see fit to sow in their homelands. But even apart from its men-with-guns frontier outlaw backdrop, Saloum is a thriller which actively defies any precise attempt at genre classification. Given its current streaming home on Shudder, you might make some correct inferences about what direction the film is headed in, but I’d encourage you to go into this one without reading a plot summary in advance, because discovering what’s really going on in Sine-Saloum is a tense and thoroughly satisfying experience. One especially satisfying scene features Awa (Evelyne Ily Juhen), a Deaf guest at the hotel, using sign language to have a tense, secret conversation with the Hyenas, who know how to sign from their years working in gold mines. The scene is a direct confrontation as the other guests look on, but everyone involved keeps a genial smile on their face the whole time – the first of many tense early moments that Saloum has to offer. And after the big reveal happens, this is where many films would fall on their face into clichés, but the ending is a well-executed series of action setpieces, delivering on all the character promise of each Hyena, as well as every bit of sneaky world-building from the first act. It’s a hell of a thing to see. And you should.

Check out our podcast review:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #200 – “Athena” (dir. Romain Gavras), “Careless Crime” (dir. Shahram Mokri), “Saloum” (dir. Jean Luc Herbulot)

#4: RRR

Still from "RRR"

Directed by S.S. Rajamouli, written by Rajamouli, with dialogue by Sai Madhav Burra, Tamil dialogue by Madhan Karky, and story by Vijayendra Prasad

RRR is available to stream on Netflix.

Get a load of ^that shit^. This scene occurs near the halfway point of this 3+ hour film (and right before a theatrical intermission), during an epic battle between a pair of legends of the Indian resistance to the British Raj: Komaram Bheem (N.T. Rama Rao Jr.) and Alluri Sitarama Raju (Ram Charan), two revolutionaries who didn’t know each other at all in real life (and in fact fought armed uprisings against two separate governments). But don’t worry too much about the history. Apart from BRITISH COLONIAL OVERSEERS BAD (a language that Americans are quite familiar with), RRR is not a film that can be explained through any lens except Indian nationalism, and I will not be the one explaining it through that lens. I won’t pretend to comprehend all of the dimensions that an Indian audience – hardly a monolith, as this Tollywood film was filmed in Telugu and released internationally in Hindi – brings to this film, but…the sort of patriotic fervor which treats historical legends as interchangeable action figures ready to whoop ass in preposterous ways for the entertainment of modern audiences? That’s an ever-recurring genre of American cinema, as well as the formula of each new Assassin’s Creed game.

So while the details of this film’s history were unfamiliar to me, its presentation of them was as plain as day: It sets up two legendary badasses, each of whom successfully beats up an entire army during the first half of the film, before they unlock the power of friendship to whip even more prodigious amounts of British ass for 90 more minutes. All of this is, naturally, punctuated by impeccably produced song and dance numbers. RRR is pure cinema, and is also the first of two films on this list in which one character gets on another’s back and acts as a sort of tank turret on their behalf (only one of them explicitly evokes Ratatouille while doing so). It is ridiculous and cackling and glorious. Ray Stevenson is hilariously, irredeemably evil and a perfect foil for the film’s heroes. And – in contrast with my back-to-back theater viewing of Avatar: The Way of Water above, one whose viewing you can easily split across two nights at home. It’s okay, really. You’re reading a blog, which means you’re clearly in at least your 30s and have work in the morning.

#3: Decision to Leave

Short poster for "Decision to Leave"

Directed by Park Chan-wook, written for the screen by Park and Chung Seo-kyung

Decision to Leave is available to stream on Mubi, or for rent on PVOD platforms.

Decision to Leave is a folie à deux featuring married police detective Jang Hae-jun (Park Hae-il), who finds himself falling into an extremely ill-advised infatuation with a person of interest in a homicide investigation, Song Seo-rae (Tang Wei), a Chinese emigrant whom he strongly suspects is responsible for killing her husband.

Park Chan-wook knows how to express longing, even and especially when his characters might be better off longing for something else – and I don’t dare say too much about this slow-burn romantic mystery thriller, because figuring out its characters’ initial and evolving motivations is one of its greatest sources of entertainment. Decision to Leave is also gorgeous, making spectacular use of of the Korean peninsula’s mountains and mist, as well as indoor locations so carefully staged and art-decorated (with particularly striking use of the color red in relation to Tang’s character) that cinematographer Kim Ji-yong‘s camera is seemingly unable to sit still. The camera motion isn’t frenetic, but it rarely stops for long, giving the viewer a persistent sense of leaning slightly forward into a moment that really shouldn’t be happening, then tipping and staggering back out of it, absorbing the consequences of secrets whispered in ears. This is a bad situation. And I wept at the end, desperate for it to continue and bring me to a catharsis that I never really believed would come.

#2: Tár

Still from "Tár" (2022 film)

Written and directed by Todd Field

Tár is available to stream on Peacock.

Lydia Tár, the character – EGOT winner, accomplished conductor-composer, and maestro of the Berlin Philarmonic orchestra – brought to life by actor Cate Blanchett and writer/director Todd Field, is nothing short of an astonishing work of art. Blanchett brings such captivating and charismatic presence to the role that as we watch the Maestro unleash a torrent of classical music inside baseball to real-life New Yorker reporter Adam Gopnik before living out the very life and body of work that she describes to us so eloquently (completing the cycle of Mahler’s symphonies with a single orchestra, before releasing a blockbuster autobiography), it’s easy to miss all of the subtle clues that Lydia Tár is a grand illusion. The film begins with an unsubtle clue – the live video lens of an unnamed assistant pointing at a sleeping Lydia on a private jet, overlaid with a text conversation vaguely joking about how false and toxic she is in person. But my favorite of these moments, completely unremarked upon in dialogue, is when Lydia is getting dressed alone and listens to an NPR ad read, then proceeds to repeat the ad verbatim with exactly the same cadence and intonation.

Tár effectively drills herself on a comforting, hypnotic voice for society’s upper crust and Twitterati and in so doing, reminds the audience and herself that she’s still not quite sure she belongs with them. This moment occurs right before her current and past misdeeds begin to stack up and assemble a prison of her own construction, ready to collapse and bury her forever in the manner that she richly deserves. Yes, this film is about the fall from grace of Lydia Tár for reasons that become apparent over the course of the film, but watching that journey and how it plays out on this character’s face – all of the narcissism, megalomania, self-justification, and – yes – immense talent, intellect, and likability as well – craft a tragic character whose misdeeds and achievements leave an immense imprint upon the film’s fictitious world. This imprint has to feel real while watching the film, or its nuanced reflection on cancel culture (which is a bit less glib than the fascists on Twitter posting a single scene out of context would suggest) would not land nearly as well. Lydia Tár is likable in a persuasive enough way that the film’s audience will be forced to grapple with the axiom that you should never meet your heroes, and even the ones you never meet might be shitty.

Tár also has the best final scene of the year. No details here, but no notes either. Every detail, from the VIP tour that preceded it to the pair of headphones that book-ended it, is a perfect ending to a near-perfect film.

#1: Everything Everywhere All at Once

Poster for "Everything Everywhere All at Once"

Written and directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (“Daniels“)

Everything Everywhere All at Once is available to stream on Paramount+.

As I write this, Everything Everywhere All at Once has been nominated for 11 Oscars, so I daresay it’s getting its due. But if I may be an insufferable hipster for just a moment: After the press screening last March, I walked right up and told the studio rep that it was one of the best movies I’ve ever seen, and I haven’t wavered in that opinion since.

We’re introduced to the troubled marriage of Evelyn and Waymond Wang (Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan), as well as a taste of the tense, intergenerational dynamics in play amongst this first-generation Chinese immigrant family, which includes a wife and mother who’s just barely and thanklessly keeping everything together, paired with a husband and father who leads with kindness and understanding but has a clear vision of how close it all is to falling apart. Their adult, born-in-America lesbian daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) just wants to be able to bring her girlfriend to the party at the family laundromat and introduce her as such to Evelyn’s traditionalist father (the great James Hong) – and there’s quite a bit more going on with this character, but…spoilers.

Evelyn’s notions of love for her family and her strained tolerance of her daughter’s sexuality are not sustainable, and are approaching a moment of crisis. And the film takes the courageous step of introducing that moment of crisis well before Evelyn ever gets to be aware of it, so the tension builds even as these simple, ordinary details are coming into focus. We start with experiences that feel common to many families, specific to the Chinese-American immigrant experience, and specific to this one family, and the details take on increasing importance as the film goes on. The general and the specific dance a riotous ballet, and ultimately a film that starts as a family drama continues to be one, but demands that its audience consider whether all of the wondrous possibilities of existence should fill your soul to bursting with hope or nihilism. It maintains its focus on the Wang family and its myriad complexities and dysfunctions, and yet wraps it all in existential ennui about how much any of it matters anyway.

It’s also very funny. I don’t know how funny any of that sounds as I describe it, but if you laughed over and over again at the farting corpse antics of Daniels’ previous film Swiss Army Man like I did, you may find yourself appreciating the comedy here as well. Much of it is physical, a shocking amount of it is scatological, and all of it is fundamentally and quintessentially human.

Much like Babylon above, this film straddles many genres and leaves nothing on the field. Despite taking place almost entirely in an IRS building during a tax audit, it spans and bounces around the whole of time and space, with its characters flitting between universes with vintage Bluetooth headsets paired with improbable actions (perhaps an amusing nod to the Infinite Improbability Drive from Hitchhiker’s Guide), and in the process, exploring every possible version of themselves. Universe where you know kung fu? Of course, and it’s well-choreographed to boot. Universe where you became a movie star – complete with real-world archive footage of Yeoh on the red carpet for Crazy Rich Asians? Naturally. Universe where you’d be better off without your family? Fuck…yes, that one too, and be prepared for it to wound you psychologically even as you make endless attempts to save them in this universe. Everything Everywhere is limitless in its characters’ capacity for self-exploration, and yet they all remain grounded, with their original versions – or at least their performers – retaining some self-awareness about what is happening. They allow it to affect and inform their choices – however chaotic those choices must be to keep them armed with the silly skills they need to survive. And some of these universes are as conceptually thin as an Interdimensional Cable vignette on Rick and Morty (that show’s even thinner version of cutaway gags from Family Guy) – but they’re treated as such in text, little more than power-ups and spell slots on a video game screen. And even as the characters are engaging in increasingly ludicrous acts in order to arm themselves with the Backbreaker from Pro Wrestling Universe, the whole perpetually feels greater than the sum of its farts.

From the moment that Waymond gets temporarily possessed by a badass, Morpheus-type version of himself from another universe and lets Evelyn know that she’s in the middle of a battle for all existence, the film remains entirely grounded in what it’s trying to do. Fundamentally, this film is about grappling all the paths you might have taken and all the people you could have been. It’s also about whether every new thing we learn about existence is there to make us feel exhilarated, full to the brim with possibility, or like an even more insignificant speck of dust in an indifferent multiverse. Of course, none of it serves that purpose deliberately. The multiverse doesn’t want anything for us. It doesn’t give us signs or signals. It has no plan for our lives. And it’s always, ultimately one’s own choice how to react to being one more tiny voice of a cosmos struggling to know itself.

It is a testament to Yeoh, Hsu, and Kwan’s performances that as they’re each following a path none-too-dissimilar from that of Jet Li in The One (and they’re nobody’s bitch) – they still feel like they’re each investigating their own existence. They’re fighting a literal monster…but still treat multiverse hopping as an exploration of personal possibilities – and why not? I fully buy that humans will bounce around between universes before going to therapy. And even in a universe where everyone has hot dog fingers, their issues will still be waiting for them on the other side

…of the sausage casing.

Check out our podcast review:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #196 – “Everything Everywhere All at Once” (dir. Daniels), “Deep Water” (dir. Adrian Lyne)

Honorable Mentions:

  • The Northman (directed by Robert Eggers, written by Eggers and Sjón, based on legend recorded by Saxo Grammaticus)
  • Three Thousand Years of Longing (directed by George Miller, screenplay by Miller and Augusta Gore, based on novella
  • by A.S. Byatt)
  • The Menu (directed by Mark Mylod, written by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy)
  • Elvis (directed by Baz Luhrmann, screenplay by Luhrmann, Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce, and Jeremy Doner)
  • Thirteen Lives (directed by Ron Howard, screenplay by William Nicholson, story by Nicholson and Don Macpherson)
  • The Banshees of Inisherin (written and directed by Martin McDonagh)
  • Smile (written and directed by Parker Finn)
  • Marcel the Shell With Shoes On (directed by Dean Fleischer Camp, screenplay by Camp, Jenny Slate, Nick Paley, story by [above] and Elisabeth Holm)
  • Pinocchio (directed by Guillermo del Toro and Mark Gustafson, screenplay by del Toro and Patrick McHale, story by del Toro and Matthew Robbins, based on the novel by Carlo Collodi)
  • The Woman King (directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, screenplay by Dana Stevens, story by Stevens and Maria Bello)
  • Prey (directed by Dan Trachtenberg, screenplay by Patrick Aison)
  • Kimi (directed by Steven Soderbergh, screenplay by David Koepp)
  • Speak No Evil (directed by Christian Tafdrup, written by Tafdrup and Mads Tafdrup)
  • Barbarian (written and directed by Zach Cregger)
  • The Sea Beast (directed by Chris Williams, screenplay by Williams and Nell Benjamin)
  • Dual (written and directed by Riley Stearns)
  • Good Luck To You, Leo Grande (directed by Sophie Hyde, written by Katy Brand)
  • Vengeance (written and directed by B.J. Novak)
  • X (written and directed by Ti West)
  • Crimes of the Future (written and directed by David Cronenberg)
  • Emily the Criminal (written and directed by John Patton Ford)

2021 Glennies (Top 10 Films of 2021)

#11: World of Tomorrow (2015),
World of Tomorrow Episode Two: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts (2017),
World of Tomorrow Episode Three: The Absent Destinations of David Prime (2021)

Poster for "World of Tomorrow" (2015 Don Hertzfeldt short)

Written and directed by Don Hertzfeldt

As ever, #11 is where I cheat a bit. But hell, if Disney can consume the entire theatrical experience with their vast wealth and coterie of antitrust lawyers, and if Cahiers du Cinéma can name a season of Twin Peaks as their best film of the year, I’m pretty sure everything’s made up and the points don’t matter. These three short sci-fi films, collectively, make my list of the best of 2021, even if only 30 minutes or so were actually released last year. Don Hertzfeldt‘s World of Tomorrow began in 2015, and has continued with two additional shorts, including 2021’s The Absent Destinations of David Prime. These films are about cloning, immortality, and time-TRAV-el, centered in each case around an interaction between a distant future version of a child named Emily and a museum exhibit called David, as well as versions of their present selves who don’t know that any of this is destined to happen. Winona Mae is the child actor who voices young Emily Prime, and while both the actor and character age noticeably between episodes One and Two, this is a performance that feels like it must be judged similarly to Catinca Untaru in the 2006 film The Fall, because this is an actor (or at least a performance) that is coded as too young to comprehend the story that she’s in, making character and actor seem equally reactive to the grand, impossible yarn being spun around her. As such, I can’t really say whether this is a good or bad performance, as it doesn’t really exist for me on that spectrum, but it is certainly an adorable and effective one, functioning as a counterpoint for the oddly childlike manner of the future beings, who seem to barely understand the impact of their meandering tourism about the timeline.

World of Tomorrow presents the reductio ad absurdum of time-TRAV-el as an invention which – if it can ever be invented in a way that permits travel to the past, must have effectively always existed, and any changes that it brought have already impacted the timeline as we know it. It also speaks at length about the increasingly evasive search for meaning in a world of limitless energy and technology, and maintains a healthy degree of self-awareness that such a search is a luxury reserved for those who are unconcerned with their own material needs. It posits that, as ever, there will be people in the future who don’t have access to these wonders based on the random happenstance of their birth.

All three short films approach this nihilistic angst about the future with the same sardonic humor I’ve come to expect from the creator of Rejected (“My spoon is too big!”), where the Adult Swim-style stoner absurdism is a mask for something much darker, further-reaching, and ultimately satisfying. Because as Emily’s clone posits in Episode 1, “Now is the envy of all the dead,” past or yet to come. And there’s precious little difference between them.

#10: Petite Maman

Poster for "Petite Maman"

Written and directed by Céline Sciamma

This short, sweet, and simple film from Céline Sciamma (Portrait of a Lady on Fire) gave me something that I didn’t even realize I was missing from the fantasy genre: The straightforward and uncomplicated exploration of impossible things. Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) is a young girl who has just lost her grandmother, and is traveling with her parents to help empty out her house. It is obviously not her first time there, and she loved her grandmother very much. As her parents deal with the boring, dour business of picking through the remnants of a life well lived, Nelly explores the nearby woods, and finds a local girl, Marion (played by the actress’ real-life sister, Gabrielle Sanz), whom she quickly realizes is her mother as a child. Literally. When they meet in the middle of the woods, they have each traveled through time from different versions of the same house. And what’s more, Nelly figures it out very quickly and they immediately discuss it, with all the candor and curiosity that children often bring to the table. Marion gets to know the exact age she’ll be when she has a child. And when her own mother dies. They discuss the life, love, and grief that they will come to share.

Fantasy often contains elements of allegory and history, but my first forays into the genre as a child were essentially just magical adventures in which children experience impossible things without any explanation or preamble, and react as children do: with open minds and a sense of wonder. The Phantom Tollbooth. Bridge to Terabithia. Narnia and Alice. Of course, you can always find deeper meaning in these texts, but it doesn’t have to be obvious to its audience or its young heroes, who are simply trying to explore a magical world and take in whatever wonders can be had there. And Petite Maman is one of those, even if its world is simple, confined to a house and family on the edge of the woods.

#9: Encounter

Still from "Encounter" (2021 film)

Directed by Michael Pearce, written by Pearce and Joe Barton

From my review:

Encounter feels fresh and new, and that is an invaluable thing. It casts alien invasion as a fear that we can turn fully inward, because in a world that feels increasingly hostile and alien, the last bastion of hope may be the bonds of family, whatever that means to each of us, plus the inside of our own heads and good judgment, for whatever that’s worth. And the tension between these dueling forces, the space between hope and fear, is right where this film thrives tonally. Every moment with this family feels precarious and crisisbound, but also every bit the jovial road trip that it seems to be. Because Malik not only feels like a real father to these children, but the kids themselves are well-drawn and react in ordinary ways to the situation, alternating between excitement, cooperation, bickering, skepticism, and terror, and ultimately just wanting everything and everyone to be okay.”

Check out my full review:
“Encounter” (dir. Michael Pearce) – A family roadtrip through a demon-haunted world

Available on Prime Video here.

#8: Riders of Justice

Poster for "Riders of Justice"

Written and directed by Anders Thomas Jensen

From the poster, you probably think you have a good idea of what you’ll get from this film. Markus (Mads Mikkelsen) is a soldier in Afghanistan (a backstory we’ll have to retire until the next war!) who learns that his wife Emma (Anne Birgitte Lind) has been killed in a train accident back home in Denmark, so he musters out and goes home to take over solo parenting of their teenage daughter Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg). As he adjusts to his new life, he discovers that his wife’s death (the indirect and coincidental result of Mathilde’s bicycle being stolen) may not have been an accident after all. So Markus begins what the movie posters call a “roaring rampage of revenge” against the Riders of Justice, the violent motorcycle gang whom he believes to be responsible for his wife’s death.

I saw several solid revenge flicks last year with a few bones in common to Riders of Justice, including Nobody and Wrath of Man. And while Riders of Justice is every bit the violent revenge fantasy that it appears to be externally, it also has an aesthetic of garage-bound mad science straight out of Primer, and existential detective work worthy of Dirk Gently or I Heart Huckabees. Because among the survivors of the train accident are Otto and Lennart (Nikolaj Lie Kaas and Lars Brygmann), a pair of data scientists who believe they can predict the future, and one of whom gave up his seat for Emma right before the accident, inadvertently putting her into harm’s way. And while Markus doesn’t remotely blame these two men for being witnesses and survivors of the accident that killed his wife, he gradually becomes a true believer. The two scientists are determined to remain involved, forming an odd little family with Markus and Mathilde which spends breakfast debating the broader meaning of disparate events before going on a quick afternoon killing spree. This deeply bizarre action comedy is like nothing else I saw this year, is technically a Christmas movie, and is well worth a look.

Available on Hulu here.

#7: The Harder They Fall

Poster for "The Harder They Fall"

Directed by Jeymes Samuel, written by Samuel and Boaz Yakin, story by Samuel.

I like westerns. And I’ve been pleased to see the canon of the American western expand significantly in my lifetime. As long as we’re going to spend a century and a half reminiscing and mythmaking about westward expansion, we might as well get some variety, whether it’s about the first cow in Oregon, the last cow in Montana, or far-flung cows and boys which transplant the genre into brand new locales. But at its best, the western genre is less about historical resonance than it is about showcasing cool action setpieces and shootouts. One of my favorites in the genre, Tombstone (1993, dir. George P. Cosmatos), was almost gleefully revisionist, spending as much time and effort making each member of its ensemble look like a passionate badass as it did recapping real events like the shoot-out at the OK Corral.

The Harder They Fall is another revisionist western in the same vein, presenting a wholly fictitious tale about some very real people – nearly all of them Black. Because the canon of the American western has been overwhelmingly white, this is a welcome change. And in order to properly understand the importance of these characters, I would encourage any readers of this review to spend a few minutes clicking through the Wikipedia cast list for this film, and reading a bit about each of the historical personas on display here, because any one of them could be the centerpiece of a movie all by themselves. Of course there were black people in the American West – many of them quite famous in their time. Their stories simply haven’t been told as often, nor have they been the subject of the usual mythmaking that we foist upon any other cowboy or cowgirl whose stories we admire, as the fastest whatever in the West. We know that who wins in a shootout is as much about luck as skill. And that prevailing in a showdown at high noon is something that occurs most persuasively in a studio editing room. But we don’t watch westerns to be reminded of this. We watch westerns to see badass frontier heroes. And this movie’s got em.

Jonathan Majors and Idris Elba play Nat Love and Rufus Buck, the leaders of a pair of rival outlaw gangs (operating here and there under the blessing of law, as is often the case in both the western and pirate genres), bound by blood and revenge to do each other harm until they can’t anymore. They are joined by a fabulous ensemble cast including Zazie Beetz, Regina King, Delroy Lindo, Lakeith Stanfield, Danielle Deadwyler, Edi Gathegi, RJ Cyler, and Deon Cole, and it must be said, each and every one of these people gets a moment in this film in which they get to be cool as hell (or, as needed, scary as hell), and that is a hard thing to accomplish with such a large ensemble. The clear A-Team, B-Team dynamic also feels lived in, with established relationships, including some persuasive rough-and-tumble romance, amongst the group. As one skirmish after another paves the way for a final battle between these cowboy titans, it remains absolutely clear why everyone else is invested in this fight. Many of these beats are straight out of the superhero genre, but they are executed here with a great deal of skill and a significantly lower budget.

Casting historical personas as fictional badasses is understandably a bit fraught in terms of representation – critic Ineye Komonibo weighed in on the casting of Beetz (a particular acting standout in this film) as the real-life post rider and businesswoman Stagecoach Mary Fields, who had a darker skin tone than Beetz. This is not a debate I feel particularly qualified to weigh in on, but it seems worth mentioning even as I praise the film.

The soundtrack of this film was supervised by Jeymes Samuel himself (known on the music stage as The Bullitts) as well as Jay-Z, who also serves as an executive producer on the film. The result is a fabulous blend of old and new, mixing the familiar themes of Ennio Morricone (in style only, I believe – no direct sampling that I noticed) with a variety of genres, including R&B and reggae (the latter of which works shockingly well for the Western genre, as its relaxed beat fits beautifully with a saunter on horseback). According to the film’s cinematographer Mihai Malaimare, the script was full of musical cues, and the entire film was constructed with the musical timing involved – a boast that the film thoroughly delivers on, feeling at times like an extended music video. Several characters introduce themselves in song (including Stagecoach Mary, tapping out the beat of her song onstage with the butt of her rifle). These tracks are regrettably not all on the soundtrack, but the actors really do seem to be singing. All the more reason to watch the whole film. Rest assured there’s quite as much shooting as there is singing.

Available on Netflix here.

#6: The White Tiger

Still from "The White Tiger"

Written for the screen and directed by Ramin Bahrani, based on the novel by Aravind Adiga

Goodfellas fans: Do not sleep on The White Tiger. This US/India co-production from 99 Homes director Ramin Bahrani is one of the first films I saw in 2021 (last year’s bizarre COVID awards schedule notwithstanding), but it is one of the most memorable. This film is an adaptation of the Man Booker Prize-winning dark comic novel by Aravind Adiga, and chronicles the rise of would-be entrepreneur Balram (Adarsh Gourav), a low-born member of a poorly regarded caste, who goes to work for a pair of local political strongmen brothers, the Stork (Mahesh Manjrekar) and the Mongoose (Vijay Maurya), and begins a quest for power that will take him from his small-town family life in Rajasthan to the corridors of underground power in New Delhi. This film is lush with detail and moral complexity (with Balram gradually prodding and often kicking aside his own ideas of what’s right). Gourav’s performance is an absolute wonder to behold, with the character code-switching seamlessly from his servile demeanor when around any of his bosses to his slow, bubbling desire to get a piece of power and wealth for himself, because – as he puts it – there are only two castes that matter: those with a full belly, and those with an empty one.

Also fascinating (and perhaps providing a voice for part of the Indian and Indian-American diaspora) is Priyanka Chopra Jonas, also a producer of the film, who plays Pinky, an Indian-American woman who has married the Stork’s son Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) and returned to India for the first time in decades. While Balram’s relationship with Ashok (which is variably that of an employee, friend, and footstool) is quite fascinating, Pinky is of particular interest. Chopra Jonas reportedly discovered this film in development whilst scrolling Twitter (one of the only times anything important has occurred in that venue since Rex Tillerson was shitcanned), and I certainly hope she was satisfied with the result, because this is a performance that contains multitudes. Pinky is American-educated, and has some very American ideas about individual autonomy, patriarchy (as manifested variably in the US and India), and economic inequality, and yet clearly relies upon and is not afraid to invoke the power that wealth inevitably brings you. Her manner swings wildly between egalitarian, paternalistic (a quintessential American tourist), and self-serving. It’s an impressive performance. Rao is also strong here, playing the thankless role of the hapless scion of a crime family who is constantly surrounded by people more capable and ambitious than himself.

When the chips are down, absolutely every character in this film contains a vicious streak, and as we watch them find their way through a world of corruption, graft, family and caste pressures, and rising economic tides in India’s favor, it is utterly fascinating to see which of these forces will win their souls. Back in February, I described The White Tiger as having a swagger in its step and a chip on its shoulder. This movie has a bite, and it is not going to provide its audience any simple answers or wholly sympathetic characters. Its vibe is fast-paced and deadly serious. It flies by, presenting an imperfect story about the rise of an imperfect protagonist in a world where India’s ascendence and nationalistic swagger isn’t going pat a Western audience gently on the bum and say, “It’s okay, you’re still number one.” This is a film that scoffs in dialogue at Slumdog Millionaire and whose main character (in an early sign of the darkness to come) makes one of his first career moves by getting his rival chauffeur fired for being a Muslim. Between these acts and a series of quick cuts from the future (2010), we know from the outset that Balram will end up in a position of power. The only question remaining is how much we’ll be able to relate with him along the way, and how many heads he’ll have to step on to get there.

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #179 – “Bliss” (dir. Mike Cahill), “The White Tiger” (dir. Ramin Bahrani)

Available on Netflix here.

#5: Dune

Poster for "Dune" (2021 film)

Directed by Denis Villeneueve, written by Villeneueve, Jon Spaihts, and Eric Roth, based on the novel by Frank Herbert.

I had very little invested in Dune. I haven’t read any of the books or seen any other media, apart from a half-remembered viewing of the 1984 David Lynch film in high school and Jodorowsky’s Dune after that. But Denis Villeneuve’s take on this material is one of the most gorgeous 4K streaming experiences I’ve ever had (even if its sequel seems unlikely to repeat the same day-and-date streaming experiment), as well as one of the most accessible and well-realized sci-fi worlds I’ve seen since Jupiter Ascending. Rest assured for any Wachowski detractors: That was a compliment. Making a complex sci-fi world feel huge, elaborate, and lived-in is a hard thing to accomplish, and this film pulled it off in every detail from the gargantuan sandworms to the ornithopters, which felt like plausible technology from another world as I was watching them, and also felt instantly iconic in the same way as more conceptually ridiculous fare like the X-Wing or TIE Fighter. Looking real is not the goal here – the goal was looking cool, and the film largely accomplished both. It took a fairly straightforward “colonizer fights for the future of a planet he’s in the process of conquering” tale and turned it into a world where I can believe these gargantuan wonders exist. And while it remains to be seen (as with Avatar) whether that world can accommodate further storytelling, this works well as a standalone tale – something that I saw some book-readers denying, and a criticism I frankly find baffling. As with the first Lord of the Rings book and film, Dune was clearly not conceived as the whole story, but it still feels like a complete story by itself. It has all of the things a story needs, including several memorable performances by characters (whom I dare not name here) whose stories seem to have reached their narrative end. And I’m hooked. This is my Dune – and I should very much like to visit it again.

#4: Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar

Still from "Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar"

Directed by Josh Greenbaum, written by Annie Mumolo and Kristen Wiig

While you’ve probably seen the SNL-style character-based comedy in this film before, Barb and Star, featuring Bridesmaids screenwriters and star Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo, is something special. As with Bridemaids, Wiig and Mumolo wrote this film, and Mumolo has jumped in from cameo to co-lead. And what is absolutely clear from the outset of this film is that these two are on precisely the same comic wavelength, and you will know very quickly whether it’s one you’d like to get onto as well (it was about 50-50 among my friends and family).

Whether they’re gabbing on the couch at their mall retail job (where they both show up regardless of which of them is scheduled to work that day) or spinning a yarn on an airplane about a wholly hypothetical woman named Trish (a reliable woman who’s really got her act together!), you will know very quickly whether this film is working for you. Because on top of that character comedy (which includes Wiig in a secondary role as a Dr. Evil-adjacent villain), there is also a fair amount of Tim & Eric-style anti-comedy at work in this film, with many scenes either going for deliberate cringe or even outright hostility to the audience’s enjoyment (Vanessa Bayer and Phyllis Smith are excellent in a recurring dystopian friendship gag called Talking Club). Jamie Dornan appears as a henchman and love interest, and belts out one of the best and most unexpected song and dance numbers of the year. Damon Wayans, Jr. plays the world’s worst spy. And the whole thing is a wondrous vacation in a touristy Florida hellhole with two friends whose friendship is always ultimately what’s at stake and remains wholly believable. And it’s funny as hell. This is the comedy I kept coming back to this year, and it could be that for you as well.

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #180 – “I Care a Lot” (dir. J Blakeson), “Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar” (dir. Josh Greenbaum)

Available on Hulu here.

#3: Benedetta

Poster for "Benedetta"

Directed by Paul Verhoeven, written for the screen by Verhoeven and David Birke, based on the book by Judith C. Brown

I saw a criticism of Benedetta which stated that 83-year-old director Paul Verhoeven, the director of Showgirls, Total Recall, and Starship Troopers has made a film for the male gaze. The film is loosely based on the true story of Sister Benedetta Carlini (Virginie Efira), a 17th century Catholic nun and mystic who had a forbidden love affair with her fellow nun, Sister Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia). This is a criticism I find interesting to discuss when it comes to a film like Blue is the Warmest Color, because of the nexus of two points: graphic depictions of human sexuality feel inherently voyeuristic even if they can often capture the truth of a relationship better than tamer fare, and authentic depictions of female sexuality (both featuring and between women) are few and far between. As a result, each such depiction is both saddled with the baggage of audience expectations and forced to justify its own existence.

But in the case of a Verhoeven film, this chiding feels so on-the-nose as to be hardly worth discussing. Yes, Verhoeven is no less of a “boob man” in his 80s than in previous decades, and that much is evident in the text of the film. But Benedetta and Bartolomea’s sexuality is not treated as aberrant in the text of the film – merely through the eyes of some of its contemporaneous characters, who lack the words or even the conceptual framework to describe a relationship between lesbian women, and must revert to describing it through the lens of more banal sins: lust, extramarital sex, breaking of a vow of chastity, and – in one very specific case – heresy and desecration. The male gaze is definitely present in this film (and embodied by multiple characters, including a Papal Nuncio played to great effect by Lambert Wilson); it just feels beside the point, because these women aren’t being ogled by the men in the film, nor exactly are they being oppressed and stigmatized for the specific reason that they’re gay. They’re being oppressed because acting human and refusing to apologize for it is a mortal sin in a religious dogma that has no room for them. Unless of course they pay for one. Charlotte Rampling is marvelous as Mother Superior, who is not only presented as savvy in all matters pecuniary as well as ideological, but is also a mistress of church politics, pursuing her aims with subtlety and also clearly not acting purely in the interests of God and Church.

As for Benedetta, her love for Bartolomea (if that is what this is) mingles with her ambition, religious fervor, and desire for power, and is ultimately treated as just another manifestation of humanity at odds with ideology. I don’t know how historically authentic this depiction is meant to be (a question that also feels beside the point as I watch the film), but Efira’s performance casts Benedetta as essentially a true believer: Someone who has spun her own moral framework without shame, and seamlessly works it into her pre-existing religious training. This also occasionally makes her look like a sociopath, because breaking her vow of chastity is hardly the only written line that she crosses in this film. That process is utterly fascinating to behold, particularly in a film whose sexuality and religious content is the very reason why it is likely to be pigeonholed and dismissed by mainstream audiences as a niche art film. Which is a shame, because that would be such a profound mistake as well as a categorization error.

This film wasn’t a slog. It’s exciting. It also features Jesus Christ on horseback beheading snakes with a sword. And that’s not even the least subtle religious imagery on display here. As with The Last Duel, we have another aging master director putting the trials of women through a lens of, “Look how bad it was for women in the knight and castle times, and consider how little has changed since then!”. But of the two films, Verhoeven’s take was the more interesting one to me, both because it didn’t resort to narrative redundancy to hold my attention, and because every minute of this film is an absolute roller coaster. There is so much going on in this film, it moves at an unrelenting pace, and all of it feels so very primal and human. This is what humans do, no matter what ideology they find themselves steeped in. They get messy and sexy and violent, and likely as not to end the world. And during this interminable plague year, that idea feels more relevant than ever before.

#2: Drive My Car

Still from "Drive My Car"

Directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi, screenplay by Hamaguchi and Takamasa Oe, based on the short story by Haruki Murakami.

When I say this is one for the theatre kids, I mean it even more sincerely than I did for Birdman, and that one had some spectacle to go along with all the table reads. Drive My Car is admittedly a tougher sell. It’s 3 hours long, primarily because its runtime contains many rehearsal and performance scenes of dialogue from Chekov‘s Uncle Vanya, for an experimental theatre festival in Hiroshima in which a cast of actors from across Southeast Asia will each speak in their respective languages (including Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, English, Tagolog, and Korean sign language). The theatrical director, Yūsuke (Tsuyoshi Gorô) is paired with a young professional driver, Misaki (Tōko Miura), who must drive him to and from his residence an hour outside Hiroshima – journeys in which he initially doesn’t speak to her at all, instead reciting lines of Vanya dialogue against a recording of his wife Oto (Reika Kirishima) reading for the rest of the cast, having imagined conversations with his wife by proxy using someone else’s words. A young, handsome actor, Takatsuki (Masaki Okada) deals with his own insecurity about playing a lead role, and his recovery from repeated self-inflicted scandals. Using Chekov’s words and eventually their own, each of these people gradually reveals more about themselves, where they came from, and what pain they carry with them. And that is…about all that I dare say about the plot of this film.


I’m giving you the hard sell on this, but be assured of a few things. First, it is absolutely riveting. The 40-minute cold open presents select details of Yūsuke and Oto’s marital life in a very matter-of-fact way, with as little commentary or preamble for mundane calls and drives together as for more bizarre moments between them. The opening scene features the couple literally improvising an erotic horror screenplay aloud while entangled in bed, sometimes mid-coitus, sometimes while basking in the afterglow. Their process is bizarre, but feels absolutely lived-in, with the usual shorthand that whatever multiple humans treat as normal is normal for them and the relationship they have. And then, for the rest of the film, this cold open is gradually recontextualized. We learn more about what happened before and how it affects these people now. The result is a messy tale about messy people, touching on creativity, love, sex, loyalty, death, penance, and grief. The performances are marvelous and the pathos is fundamentally authentic and human.

And it made me cry in the end, a somewhat less common experience for me than feeling, in an aloof sort of way, that a film is dancing on my heartstrings. I’ll give a film credit for either feeling, because an emotional response is real whether I allow myself to express it or not. But getting me out of my head and kicking me across that finish line is always a bonus, and Drive My Car was one of those. Truth be told, I’ve been a bit callous for the past few months when it comes to sharing the imagined pain of fictional characters. It’s not the only way to grieve a real-world loss, but it was mine. I don’t mention that to try to make my grief and trauma seem like anything special – losing the ones we love is the most ordinary thing in the world. I imagine that whatever specific words we use to scream and beg to an indifferent universe to give them back to us…are perfectly ordinary as well. There’s a lot more going on in Drive My Car than this, including the rather provocative question of whether it’s possible to completely know and love any other person. This is one to noodle about, and it will stick with you whether you get misty or not.

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #192 – “The Matrix Resurrections” (dir. Lana Wachowski), “Drive My Car” (dir. Ryusuke Hamaguchi)

#1: The Green Knight

Still from "The Green Knight"

Written for the screen and directed by David Lowery, based on the 14th century chivalric romance by an unknown author.

From my review:

“On my honor, The Green Knight is more upbeat and more of an advancement on Lowery’s themes than I’m making it sound. Patel is forced to depict Gawain’s conflicted stoicism and grapple with his impending doom in more overt and specific ways than whoever that fellow beneath the sheet might have been (possibly the key grip in a scene or two?). Gawain also struggles with the vast lore and legend that has already cropped up around this dumb, vainglorious thing that he did to show off for his royal uncle, which has earned him accolades and presumably free drinks from strangers which are utterly failing to make up for the fact that he is the one who will have to die for it. He’ll have to watch the pain behind the eyes of his paid lady friend Essel (also played by Vikander) who truly seems to love him in spite of (or on top of) their transactional relationship, even as she watches him march off to a doom entirely of his own making – perhaps twice. A doom that his uncle even warned him not to seek out, reminding him in a veiled whisper to remember that it’s “just a game”. In some accounts of the Triumph of Julius Caesar, a slave would march behind the glorified would-be emperor whispering in his ear, Memento mori – “Remember you are mortal.” To hear another legendary monarch say to his own nephew and heir apparent that he should remember to play the game feels akin to this. Even in the rough-and-tumble world of medieval England, rulers seldom have to worry about their own mortality on any field of battle with the same frequency as the thousands of peasants they drag to the same slaughter (Richard the Third notwithstanding). Memento ludere feels like a similar utterance – remember to play, whether great games or minor ones, because yours will be a privileged life as long as you play it well. And yet, Gawain doesn’t choose that life. He opts into the grand gesture. Becomes the legend. Throws himself into a doom for the ages. How many heroes do we laud whose stories amount to little more than this?”

Check out my full review, as well as our podcast discussion:
David Lowery’s “The Green Knight” – You’ll never meet your heroes
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #187 – “The Suicide Squad” (dir. James Gunn), “The Green Knight” (dir. David Lowery)

Honorable Mentions:

  • Titane (written and directed by Julia Ducournau)
  • Luca (directed by Enrico Casarosa, written by Casarosa et al.)
  • Limbo (written and directed by Ben Sharrock)
  • Spencer (directed by Pablo Larraín, written by Steven Knight)
  • The Night House (directed by David Bruckner, written by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski)
  • Pig (written and directed by Michael Sarnoski, story by Vanessa Block)
  • Lapsis (written and directed by Noah Hutton)
  • The Paper Tigers (written and directed by Quoc Bao Tran)
  • In the Heights (directed by Jon M. Chu, book and screenplay by Quiara Alegría Hudes, music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda)
  • The Matrix Resurrections (directed by Lana Wachowski, written by Wachowski, David Mitchell, and Aleksandar Hemon, based on characters by The Wachowskis)
  • The Last Duel (directed by Ridley Scott, written by Nicole Holofcener, Ben Affleck, and Matt Damon)
  • Malignant (directed by James Wan, written by Akela Cooper, story by Wan, Cooper, and Ingrid Bisu)
  • tick, tick…BOOM! (directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, written by Steven Levenson, based on the musical by Jonathan Larson)
  • Bliss (written and directed by Mike Cahill)
  • The Suicide Squad (written and directed by James Gunn)

2020 Glennies (Top 10 Films of 2020)

#11: Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

Poster for "Borat Subsequent Moviefilm"
Directed by Jason Woliner, written by Sacha Baron Cohen and literally seven other people.

As ever, the #11 slot goes to a film that I enjoyed but have serious reservations about. I daresay Lindsay Ellis spelled these out better than I can: the character Borat works better in 2020 because America is uglier and more disturbing than it was when the first film was released. That’s a hard statement to defend as an American, given that we’ve been continuously at war since before that time, and the most popular TV shows in 2006 were all about explaining to the American public that Torture Works, Actually (it doesn’t). But what’s different now is that America doesn’t even bother to hide its ugliness – of the racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, or transphobic variety, anymore. Our Republican politicians – useless, preening, bloodthirsty, plutocratic, unpatriotic, social-media-influencer scum that they are – openly suborn violence and try to overturn elections because they failed on this occasion to suppress as many legal votes as they would have liked. Each deplorable faction finds its bigoted beliefs emboldened as they are repeated in front of the press, the public, and in the halls of power. So when comedian Sacha Baron Cohen dons his Borat garb and tries to get people to agree with the horrible things he’s saying, even working at a disadvantage of a much more recognizable public persona, he has a significant advantage insofar as the people he spoke to were far more willing to engage with him, as if they were just waiting for someone who wanted to smile and agree with them. This is also the first piece of popular culture that engaged in any serious way with the COVID-19 pandemic, and it even touched upon my home in the Pacific Northwest by showing up to an event headlined by 2020 Republican gubernatorial nominee Loren Culp, a notably pro-virus dingbat and former police chief of a one-man, one-dog department in a one-horse town that fired him as soon as the election was over. I wouldn’t normally be punching down at him, but I’m doing so here because he spent the intervening months in an infuriating and sad impression of Donald Trump, continuing to fundraise and lie about the fairness of an election that in his case, he lost by double digits. Culp does not appear in the film’s footage from the rally, but his signs do, and many of his biggest, loudest, most racist supporters are there. A couple of them flash “Heil Hitler” salutes. I found that deeply unsettling, not because I didn’t know the Proud Boys were right in my backyard, but because I hadn’t seen them…acting quite so proudly before. Cohen didn’t have to push that hard to bring that nastiness out, because it was right there, standing by.

This film also had something the original didn’t bother to establish: an emotional core. In this case, it’s Borat’s relationship with his daughter Tutar, played by Bulgarian actress Maria Bakalova. This is a remarkable performance and piece of casting, because not only did Bakalova need to perform some brilliant improvisational acting (and frankly, grifting) while speaking English as a foreign language, but she also needed to have a convincing family dynamic with Cohen while the two of them were each speaking different, mutually incomprehensible languages (Bulgarian and Hebrew respectively). It feels deeply bizarre watching these scenes, which I know to be heavily scripted and staged, but which nonetheless have genuinely affecting moments in-between all of the carefully hidden-camera-staged documentary footage. Also affecting are the scenes with babysitter Jeanise Jones and Holocaust survivor Judith Dim Evans (who passed away before the film was released), both of whom appear to have been misled about the reality of what they were participating in. These are unsettling examples of good people being shown ugly, fictitious things in order to elicit their warmth, grace, and humanity. I have legitimately mixed feelings about this (as did the people involved, some of who sued after the film premiered, and some of which have been kinda made right since?). However unsettling they may be, these scenes feel palliative for some of the ugliness on display throughout the rest of the film. Like the man said: Look for the helpers. And in a film that operates on such a bent plane of reality, the helpers are only going to show up if they believe their help is really needed. In the end, this film has already joined the first Borat in the club of movies that I find fitting for the times, laugh at in alternately sincere and mirthless ways, and definitely never want to watch again. I’m inclined to agree with Ellis’ video that we should aspire to be a society that doesn’t need champions like Cohen, however thoughtful they may seem during a press tour. But it’s still hard to look at this film as anything less than a public service, even if its exposure of that amoral fuckwit Rudy Giuliani, who has debased himself a thousand times worse every moment since this film premiered, turned out to be unnecessary.

Available on Amazon Prime here.

#10: The Platform (El Hoyo)

Still from "The Platform"

Directed by Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia, written by David Desola and Pedro Rivero

As concrete-cased metaphors for the excesses and deprivations of unregulated capitalism and inequality go, this one really hits the spot. The Platform takes place in a “Vertical Self-Management Center” featuring residents (two per level) who are fed once per day via a concrete tabletop that begins at the uppermost level, laden with a banquet worthy of the palace at Versailles. Each level is given one minute to eat as much food as they can, before the platform descends past them to the next level down. And so on. If they attempt to take leftovers in order to eat past that initial minute, something bad happens, let’s say. In fact, “something bad happens” is the most reliable outcome from such a scenario, precisely designed for an outcome that will chew through human lives like a stump grinder, and doesn’t particularly care. In addition to a non-zero amount of murder, rape, and cannibalism, this scenario spawns a number of memorable characters – all named, oddly, for places in Indonesia, despite all of the principal actors and filmmakers being Spanish – each of whom has a different idea about how best to participate in or reform the system. Some are just trying to stay alive. Some are trying to seize an advantage over others at any cost. Some just want revenge for their horrific circumstances. And some want to spark a revolution, if only they can find the perfect Panna Cotta.

And folks, as my prior fandom for the 2015 “vote which of the people in the room dies!” allegorical thriller Circle should make plain, I gobbled this film up even before the pandemic made it clear that my expectations of my fellow humans should be calibrated nice and low when it comes to collective action to improve our situation. Consider this fair warning: The Platform is not only a deeply disturbing and misanthropic film, but it is also unapologetically didactic and doesn’t even pretend to explain how this scenario came about organically, or what purpose it is meant to serve – some of the residents seem to be serving prison terms, others are repaying debts, and one man is apparently there for a bachelor’s degree? One particularly entertaining monologue from the character Trimagasi (Zorion Eguileor) discusses a self-sharpening knife that he bought from a late-night infomercial, and was permitted to bring inside. Another character, Goreng (Iván Massagué), brought along a copy of Don Quixote. Don’t think too hard or too long about it. Just keep hustling and scrounging and eating to survive, because this is a system that is capricious and random with its cruelty, and it’ll can pelt you down to a lower level so fast it’ll make your head spin.

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #168 – “The Lovebirds” (dir. Michael Showalter), “The Platform” (dir. Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia).

Available on Netflix here.

#9: Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey

Poster for "Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey"
Written and directed by David E. Talbert, with score by John Debney, and songs by Philip Lawrence, Davy Nathan, Michael Diskint, Jean-Yves Ducornet, John Legend, Krysta Youngs, and Julia Ross.

It doesn’t seem like too much to ask for black kids to see versions of themselves in a Christmas movie, but Jingle Jangle does a lot more than tick a few long-overdue demographic boxes: It is an instant classic holiday film, which was watched in my house more than once before Christmas (largely at my behest – the kids wanted to watch Elf again), and an outstanding original musical with multiple catchy, memorable songs. The stand-outs are definitely Anika Noni Rose, an experienced Disney princess and songbird who blows every other adult performer out of the water, and newcomer Madalen Mills, who is an absolute treasure as young Journey Jangle, the precocious granddaughter of a failed and dejected creator of wonders, Jeronicus Jangle (Forest Whitaker). Mills starts off what will hopefully be a promising singing and acting career with a bang, leading one of the film’s most memorable songs, as well as carrying the easy charisma that a holiday feel-good adventure story – which inexplicably involves a high-speed race through an exploding factory tunnel – requires. Most of that energy is directed at her grandfather, whom she is meeting for the first time, running a failed pawn shop after his visionary toy designs were stolen by his junior associate, Gustafson (Keegan Michael-Key, whose I’m-so-awesome intro song is a fine rendition of Harold Hill from The Music Man).

Whitaker is a fine singer (even if he’s often outmatched), but he mostly impressed me with the level of aloof whimsy he managed to bring to this character – energy that I didn’t think the actor was capable of bringing, as he has backed himself pretty well into a corner of severity for his entire career. He ends up channeling some kind of sweet spot between the secretive silence of Ben Kingsley in Hugo, and a sprinkle each of Willy Wonka (Wilder, not Depp) and Tony Stark. I mention Stark not only because of the cascade of familiar sparks and hammer-strike tinkering that make an appearance in “Make It Work Again“, but because Stark’s wraparound holographic Iron Man visuals appear repeatedly in this film as an on-screen representation of the characters’ creativity and passion. The math – whose equations literally float in the air around them and are manipulated by hand – is all fuzzy and whimsical, but the magic is all literal and real. And if you take the third derivative of awesome and pepper in some happy thoughts and serendipity, you can literally conquer gravity and float to the ceiling of your workshop. And we know young Journey has that same spark of creativity as her grandfather, because the visuals of the film convey to us that only certain people can see and do these incredible things.

The dancing, the costumes, the sets – all of it is a feast, and all of it is worth a look with the entire family. My gripes with the film were mild – Ricky Martin shows up as a sentient doll whose motivations are as ill-explained as they are ineptly executed, to sing a meandering monologue that barely qualifies as a song. But he’s little more than a chattering devil on Gustafson’s shoulder, and is easily ignored. The final act is also slightly muddled, carrying on a 30-minute denouement following the action climax that probably could’ve been tightened up. But it also contains one of the film’s best songs, and several of its best costumes and dance numbers, which is really all you need for a musical, no matter what the pace of the film is doing. Jingle Jangle was an unabashed delight, and is one of a few on this list that I expect I’ll be watching again.

Available on Netflix here.

#8: Bad Education

Poster for "Bad Education"
Directed by Cory Finley, written by Mike Makowsky, based on an article by Robert Kolker.

Small-scale corruption stories are my catnip, and this story, of what turns out to be the largest public school embezzlement in American history, is absolutely captivating. I’ll refrain from any plot details here, as watching each of the details of this scandal fall into place is a great deal of the film’s appeal, but on a basic level, I loved this film for showcasing the importance of local journalism – in this case, with a bit of irony, as the journalists who begin to unravel this plot are composited into the character of high school newspaper reporter Rachel Bhargava (Geraldine Viswanathan, of Blockers fame), whose operation is directly funded by the corrupt school district budget she is investigating, and whose journalistic integrity is alternately encouraged and threatened by every educator in her life who is eventually implicated in the scandal. Viswanathan, who was 23 during filming, walks a careful line of “tenacious first-time participant in the corrupt adult world” and “intimidated child” rather well.

Rachel begins her investigation by asking the simplest of questions: why is the school’s roof leaking? And more precisely, why is the school’s roof leaking when we apparently have millions of dollars to spend on a lavish new skybridge? I adored this for its simplicity. Because that is often how corruption is found out: regular people asking regular questions which should have regular answers. And if it takes someone longer than a sentence to answer those questions, you can be pretty sure the answer is something you’re not going to like. And when that something is the vicious cycle between unequal local school funding and the local real estate market, it’s an answer that you’ll eventually realize you knew all along.

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #167 – “Bad Education” (dir. Cory Finley), “Gunpowder Heart” (dir. Camila Urrutia), “NT Live: Frankenstein” (dir. Danny Boyle)

Available on HBO Max here.

#7: First Cow

Still from "First Cow"
Directed by Kelly Reichardt, screenplay by Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond, based on the novel “The Half Life” by Raymond.

In the 1820 Oregon Territory (at a fictitious fort on the Willamette River near modern-day Portland), Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro) and King-Lu (Orion Lee) strike up a friendship through the most random and brutal frontier circumstances: King-Lu is hiding from a group of Russian fur trappers, on the run for killing one of them (in self-defense, he says – but we only have his word on it). And Cookie, who is camping with another trapping crew, offers him his tent to hide and rest for the night. The next morning, they go their separate ways, but they meet once again at the fort and King-Lu offers to return the favor, giving Cookie a place to stay while they figure out their next move, which turns out to be a nice warm friendship on the frontier, followed by what seems like it should be a harmless plot involving the first dairy cow in the region (Evie the Cow), owned by the company boss Chief Factor (Toby Jones), a right honourable gentleman in the finest English tradition who just wants some milk in his tea.

First Cow is a film of contradictions. It is quaint, but worldly. It is limited in its scope, but allegorical. It is nasty and violent, but also imbued with a persistent sense of warmth and peace. It is a throwback to a little-explored period in the Old West, but plants one foot firmly in the modern day, opening on a scene with a woman (Alia Shawkat) walking her dog, who happens upon a pair of ancient skeletons along the river as a modern metal container ship floats by. The message of this ship broke through to me loud and clear late in the film: this region has been conquered. There is scant presence of the local Natives, including Totillicum (Gary Farmer) and Chief Factor’s unnamed wife and translator (Lily Gladstone), who seem present solely as witnesses to the fact that civilization existed here before the white people came to try and recreate their own, and to remind them that their struggles to recreate the tastes of London and Boston could have been better spent if they’d simply taken the time to listen, learn, and share. But they came with a rapacious desire to make their fortunes and extract resources – initially beaver pelts to serve the Paris fashion scene, and eventually timber and ore, as they tried all the while to recreate the lives they had left behind.

Cookie and King-Lu’s friendship (and their low-stakes caper) is a small story to focus on, but it’s also a very sweet one, and the more we linger on their warm connection and sharing of their lives together amid an uncertain future, it feels more and more important and resonant as the film goes on. Following the Pompeiian* image of a pair of unknown skeletons resting peacefully by the river, it is an image that conjures up both hope and despair. Because the violence of this film, both individualized and structural, didn’t have to be this way – it’s simply the way it was. And we must remember that we make our homes, amid the escapist tunes of not one, but two bucolic, cottagecore Taylor Swift albums this year, upon the bones of history. Most stories like this one are lost forever. First Cow is a work of fiction, but it is a plausible story. And it inexorably conjures up the idea that there must have been many others like it, whose names and faces will never be known.

* Props to co-host Erika for conjuring up this image on the podcast

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #178 – “Promising Young Woman” (dir. Emerald Fennell), “First Cow” (dir. Kelly Reichardt)

Available on Showtime here.

#6: Sound of Metal

Poster for "Sound of Metal"
Directed by Darius Marder, written by Darius Marder and Abraham Marder

Riz Ahmed deserves every ounce of the praise he’s getting as Ruben Stone, a heavy metal drummer who has to deal with the massive upset to his life that is sudden onset deafness. His career, relationship, and sobriety – he is an addict, a few years sober – are all suddenly at risk, and he knows it. His girlfriend and bandmate Lou (Olivia Cooke), with whom he shares a few quiet moments of roadtrip domesticity in their band’s RV before his hearing begins to intermittently drop off, is able to get Ruben into a program run by Joe (Paul Raci), an accomplished ASL interpreter, lip-reader, and social worker who lost his hearing as an adult due to a war injury in Vietnam.

Ruben is in a difficult situation, and his guilt leads him to rash and occasionally self-destructive impulses that pre-date – and are likely a partially contributing factor to – his deafness. He is also in a romantic relationship that is highly intertwined with a theatrical pursuit (heavy metal is nothing if not a great big show), and coexists with every vice that he is now looking to avoid, from opiates to dangerously loud noises. This film takes place in Ruben’s moment of crisis, which is both the stuff of serious drama and a story that is inherently difficult to tell. The film offers dual avenues into Ruben’s mind, and the first is its borderline experimental sound design. 2020 was a year of streaming by necessity, and this film was picked up by Amazon Studios before anyone knew there would be a viral pandemic. And yet, this film feels precisely as if it was made to be watched in this way, subtitles and headphones on, trying our best (along with Ruben) to follow what’s happening as the sound distorts and drops out for character and the audience alike. The second avenue is, of course, Riz Ahmed’s stellar performance. Ahmed is an accomplished British actor who managed to break out of the post-9/11 conflicted-terrorist pigeonhole that he found himself thrust into and did some amazing work in (Four Lions is a masterpiece). He is also a rapper and MC of some renown, and he manages an American accent here that seems to be channeling Aaron Paul in Breaking Bad, which feels exactly right for a character accustomed to others’ low expectations, who is suddenly forced to deal with a situation that absolutely no one can get him out of. He rages, he flails, he writes down his emotions (and occasionally speaks them aloud) at Joe’s direction, but we mostly just have to guess at how he’s feeling as we watch Ruben’s face, straining, but never cracking, as he beats furiously on drums that he will never be able to perceive the same way again. He’s not quite drawing Whiplash-level bloodshed, but he’s clearly at war with himself in a similar way.

Joe speaks at greater length than Ruben ever does, as he is decades into his hearing loss and clearly at some manageable level of peace with himself. Raci – a hearing actor who grew up with Deaf parents – plays Joe as an aspirational figure, but not as any sort of simplistic mentor archetype. He sincerely wants to help Ruben, but he is also clearly a veteran of many unsuccessful attempts to help people like him. He is prepared to fail, but he will give everything of himself to try and help Ruben succeed. And watching this relationship develop is a great deal of the film’s appeal.

The target audience for this film is clearly the hearing community, for whom this serves as a primer on the both the medical options as well as the cultural, practical, and social resources available within the Deaf community. I’m choosing my words carefully here, because as a friend and family member to multiple individuals with disabilities, I know these issues are fraught, individualized, and there are differences of opinion even within their respective communities about how people with disabilities should live their lives. This film has a few specific things to say about cochlear implants, a device available to some people with hearing loss which can help them understand speech, but doesn’t offer any easy answers about whether these implants are the right choice, and makes it clear that there are those within the Deaf community that have fairly strong opinions about them.

Available on Amazon Prime here.

#5: Lingua Franca

Still from "Lingua Franca"

Written, directed by, and starring Isabel Sandoval

This is Isabel Sandoval’s fourth feature, but her first with this name, since transitioning. I didn’t think long on how to write those details, except that “debut feature” didn’t seem right (as the technical aspects of this film are clearly a product of experience and skill), and the film is similarly matter-of-fact about issues of sex and gender, as well as race. It was this mishmash of identities that I understood to be one possible meaning of the title, Lingua Franca. These categories exist as a common language and set of assumptions, and they are bolstered by a set of legal and cultural frameworks that some people bear a disproportionately high burden for, because they don’t fit precisely within an expected mold. So it is for Olivia, a trans Filipina woman who is in the United States without legal status, and is in the process of arranging – on a fee-for-service basis – a green card marriage with an American man. Olivia’s passport still bears the name and sex she was assigned at birth, and it is somewhat of a political irony that the United States’ legalization of same-sex marriage in 2015 made this situation a bit legally easier to manage than it might have been otherwise – or at least than it would have been back home, as we learn that trans people face many similar hurdles in the Phillippines to the United States, including the lack of a national legal process to change their gender on their identity papers. Olivia works as a caregiver for an elderly Russian woman, Olga (Lynn Cohen, in one of her very last features before she passed last year), whose black-sheep grandson Alex (Eamon Farren) has just been given a last-chance job at the family’s butcher shop, on the condition that he help out with Olga’s care as well. So Alex is now an interloper for the job that Olivia is being paid to do. He quickly takes a shine to her, and the feeling seems to be mutual. And then the lingua franca takes on an additional meaning: love is a language that we all speak in one way or another, and yet it is quickly clear what potential peril Olivia is in, as a man who clearly does not know the totality of her circumstances and background, and may or may not react negatively to learning about them, is suddenly thrust into her path. She has to decide how much she wants to engage with their slowly burgeoning romance, when she has, frankly, more important things to worry about.

That’s really what made this film immediately work for me: it felt less like, as Sandoval put it in an interview, “Trans 101” – it felt instead like meeting any trans person I’ve ever met, or, for that matter, any cis person I’ve ever met. She’s there, she’s living her life, and the details about that life come out organically as she feels like sharing them. Or they don’t, if she doesn’t. Her romance with Alex is initially presented as a sort of best-case scenario for a romance that could go wrong in any number of ways, including deportation. And as we get to know Olivia, so we learn the fundamental truth that even if every aspect of her identity and circumstances are not readily apparent, and will not be shared until such time as she feels like sharing them, they are a part of her in every moment, as is the peril (both to her physical safety and her life in the United States) that comes along with them. Alex has plenty of opportunities to step on his toes while navigating that, lovable fuck-up that he is, and it is very much a source of the film’s tension which of these competing tendencies will win the day. Because Sandoval plays Olivia as her own precious creation: a self-possessed woman who is not to be trifled with, because such trifling runs a very real risk of destroying her life.

This film is unavoidably fraught with moral complexity, but it is also just a sweet and well-told romance, and ultimately one that deserves greater attention than it has gotten. Because whether Sandoval wanted Lingua Franca to be Trans 101 or not, surveys have shown that exposure to trans people leads to increased tolerance of their existence, and that tolerance literally saves lives. And seeing and engaging with a thoughtful romance starring a trans woman of color will, whether it rightfully bears that burden or not, save lives.

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #174 – “Mulan” (dir. Niki Caro), “Lingua Franca” (dir. Isabel Sandoval), “Up on the Glass” (dir. Kevin Del Principe)

Available on Netflix here.

#4: Wolfwalkers

Still from "Wolfwalkers"

Directed by Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart, written by Will Collins

I’ll start with a humblebrag. When I tweeted my sentiment that Wolfwalkers, which I saw near the end of last year on AppleTV+, is “cool as fuck”, the tweet’s first two likes were from Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart, the two directors and principal artists at Cartoon Saloon who made this film happen (along with a vast crew that worked on it over seven years). I’m trying not to overread these gentlemen noticing my interest in their lovely film, but my impression is that AppleTV+ is on the smaller end of streaming audiences, and the idea of a film with such a gorgeous and unique animated vision being a buried, little-seen launch title feels a bit sad to me. Because Wolfwalkers IS cool as fuck, and it’s an effort that deserves a wider audience.

The year is 1650, and Robyn Goodfellowe (Honor Kneafsey) is an adventurous English girl, daughter of Bill (Sean Bean), a hunter who aims to trap and kill every wolf in the woods surrounding Kilkenny, Ireland, with the ostensible purpose of protecting the people, but with the usual human justifications (livestock, expansion, a general desire not to coexist with nature). Wolves have a prized position in Irish folklore and culture, and this film uses that folklore to cast a narrative lens onto a series of real events and laws that were enacted during Oliver Cromwell‘s conquest of Ireland, which culminated in the complete extermination of all wolves in Ireland. In Wolfwalkers, the focus is on a single Irish village, and its domination by an English noble known only as the Lord Protector (Simon McBurney) – a clear stand-in for Cromwell – who enforces a harsh outsider’s set of rules upon the Irish people and their ways of living. This familiar story quickly merges with contemporaneous legends of werewolves, skinchangers, and other complex hybrids or relationships between humans and wolves, as Robyn meets a friend, Mebh (Eva Whittaker), a girl who lives in the woods, seemingly in charge of a wolf pack, and her mother Moll (Marie Doyle Kennedy), who sits in an endless and initially unexplained slumber. Mebh is an absolutely wild thing. She adores her life, which she spends half as a girl and half as a wolf, but she is also naive about what a serious threat her pack faces from the English hunters. The relationship that develops between Robyn and Mebh is both tender and complex, with Robyn (and to a lesser extent, Bill) torn between their duties to the Lord Protector and the town, and their burgeoning relationships with the people (and people-adjacent skinchangers) right before them. The two obvious and facile comparisons are Avatar and Brave (for anyone foolhardy enough to say that Scottish folklore is interchangeable with Irish), but the 2002 Christophe Gans film Brotherhood of the Wolf came to mind as well, for the seamless way that screenwriter Will Collins put a freeform lens onto some complex real-world history and politics, mixing in contemporaneous folklore, and merging both threads for the particular story and audience he wanted to pursue. Brotherhood is very much not for children, but it operates on a similar narrative wavelength.

Combine all of that with an absolutely unique and dazzling animated vision of the Irish countryside, and Wolfwalkers is comparable to the likes of Studio Ghibli, not for visual similarity to that studio’s work, but for specificity: the look and feel of a Cartoon Saloon film is consistent and unique, with a mix of what seem to be water colors and layered two-dimensional planes (almost like the sorts of gorgeous carved and painted wooden panels you might find in medieval churches), but with some surprising depths to it – including a number of exhilarating sequences in which we see the world through the senses of wolves running through it, following scent and heat trails. This is a glorious assault on human senses that could only have worked in an animated medium, and the sort of experiment in form that I always enjoy seeing.

…which is why it’s cool as fuck.

Available on AppleTV+ here.

#3: The Vast of Night

Poster for "The Vast of Night"
Directed by Andrew Patterson (in his feature debut), written by Patterson (credited as James Montague) and Craig W. Singer.

We begin The Vast of Night wandering around the tiny (fictitious) ’50s town of Cayuga, New Mexico with a couple of crazy kids, AM radio DJ Everett Sloan (Jake Horowitz) and switchboard operator and amateur tape-recorder Fay Crocker (Sierra McCormick), who slowly become enveloped in a mystery. This happened to be one of the first theatrical films that I watched in quarantine, and the film’s long opening shot through the town’s great big Friday night to-do, the high school basketball game, certainly made for some vicarious enjoyment of the mere idea of doing things with other people again. But I’ve watched this movie twice since, and not only do its crisp 91 minutes fly by, but I had an ear-to-ear grin on my face the whole time, largely because of the film’s elaborate single-shot walk-and-talks and the unrelenting charm of these actors and this town, both individually and with one other.

Everett and Fay are instantly charming and disarming, and they settle into a naturalistic patter with the entire town that is rife with ’50s slang and instantly makes the town feel lived-in and full of people who’ve known each other their whole lives. This isn’t the same genre or ambiance as Rian Johnson‘s Brick, but it demonstrates many of the same skills. Patter is hard. What’s also hard, I assume, is operating 60-year-old radio and telephony equipment, but McCormick and Horowitz not only carry two extremely long scenes doing exactly that, and they clearly put the time in to make it look as if they’d done it a thousand times. Bravo. There is so much lazy object work in much more expensive films than this, and these scenes were as engrossing for the burgeoning mystery unfolding one phone call at a time, as for the work the actors and production designers clearly put into making those calls and moments feel authentic. I say again: Bravo. Fay’s scene at the switchboard is easily 9 minutes long, and spends that time both building tension and establishing the details of the film’s central mystery, involving a mysterious auditory signal “bouncing around the valley tonight”. The signal hits phone lines and radio waves alike, and Everett puts out the word over the airwaves that they’re looking for more information about it. And information is what they get. To prepare the way, this scene is followed with a cross-town ground-level camera saga (which apparently involved a go-kart, a technique that DP Miguel Littin-Menz claims was inspired by Lawrence of Arabia), which plays beneath a howling wind and scant central street lights as the musical score builds. The camera takes on the feel of a predator stalking this sleepy burg while its people are all packed away in a warm gymnasium, where the camera briefly slows down and the colors get warm as we watch the game go on, the ball bounces, the commentators talk, and the town cheers, all without a clue what might be waiting for them outside. Then…out the camera goes, passing through a window at the top of the bleachers and resuming the chase.

Slow-burn tension is the name of the game, and this sequence is about as close as the film comes to real menace and horror, of the Twilight Zone sort. Or, literally, Paradox Theatre, which the film uses as a fictitious TV-show framing device. It was kind of a hat on a hat at that point, but I didn’t mind. As the auditory mystery unfolds and the town starts to wonder if the swirling skies are watching them back, I never doubted for a minute that these two are perhaps the only ones in town who can solve the mystery in time to save their town from whatever danger may be afoot just offscreen. The resulting vibe really only exists in podcast form these days, but used to come crackling over the airwaves while driving down the highway at 2AM, nary a light in sight, with the pleasant voice of the late, great Art Bell playing over your car stereo, wishing you a safe drive home, but telling you to watch out – because you never know what’s out there.

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #169 – “The Vast of Night” (dir. Andrew Patterson), “Holy Motors” (dir. Leos Carax)

Available on Amazon Prime here.

#2: Palm Springs

Poster for "Palm Springs"

Directed by Max Barbakow (in his feature debut, written by Andy Siara.

“It’s one of those infinite time-loop situations you might’ve heard about.”
“I might’ve heard about?”

Nearly three decades on from Groundhog Day, we were due for another existentially daunting romantic comedy, and it was surely to this film’s advantage that it happened to come out in a year in which every day was the same and nothing mattered, except for those choices which might lead to dying alone in the ICU. Palm Springs, which dropped on Hulu on the closest thing to a summer blockbuster weekend that we were able to have this year (releasing concurrently with superhero drama The Old Guard and the fx-fueled Tom Hanks historical epic, Greyhound). I watched all three films, but this is the one I enjoyed the most by far, and the reason had as much to do with the film’s accidental fitness for pandemic viewing as it did with its effectiveness as an uproariously, darkly hilarious romance. By the time we meet Nyles (Andy Samberg) he has already spent the last [very long time, perhaps centuries] as an ancillary participant in a wedding where his cheating girlfriend is one of the bridesmaids. This is one of many fascinating dynamics created by Nyles’ status as an old soul at the start of the film (and one of several ways in which it accidentally resembled The Old Guard) – he adopts a Puckish persona, aloof, impressive to others but only when he feels the need to be, and never getting riled up about the same sorts of things as we mere mortals. Not only has he had a chance to get to know everything that there is to know about this time and place, but he has also grown beyond the things that we care about: love, money, sex, and death – which are just not as important when you’re an untouchable Time Lord, and also operate on completely different moral planes. This is a fascinating performance from Samberg because as he cracks jokes with Sarah (Cristin Milioti), who is new to this particular existential sinkhole, I really got the sense that he was emerging from an alcoholic malaise that he hadn’t felt any particular need to come out of for years (or maybe longer). For this particular immortal, with nothing new to contemplate, the most attractive characteristic of Sarah (the sister of the bride, whom he knows a great deal about already) is that she’s new, and is thus unpredictable and uncontrollable.

Milioti, meanwhile, plays Sarah as a woman put-upon at the start by both her own past behavior and others’ judgments (“They all see me as a liability who fucks around and drinks too much…because I fuck around and drink too much”), as well as the knowledge that she’ll never escape a day that she simply can’t feel as aloof about as Nyles. This is both their fundamental attraction and their fundamental disagreement: She sees the appeal of his gleeful nihilism in the situation that they’re both stuck in, and even embraces it for a while. The couple has plenty of time to get accustomed to each other’s patterns, which is the sort of metatextual definition of human companionship that could only come about through a complete absence of material concerns or fear of death. As such, it should come as no surprise that I lifted it from Star Trek (a utopia which explicitly relies on a lack of conventional fears and needs), but it’s also an elegant metaphor for both romantic commitment and life itself. Because these two aren’t spending their lives together – that is impossible as long as they’re stuck in a place where time has no meaning, and their actions have no consequences, except to each other. The conflict over whether they would choose each other over everyone else in the world if they had a meaningful choice about that is a purely academic one as their romance begins to bloom. And this is exactly how Palm Springs innovates on the Groundhog Day formula: the film doesn’t treat its love interest as a disposable amusement for a lonely god, free to choose her level of participation, but only on a fleeting basis, with the god free to simply try her again the next day. Palm Springs eschews this framework and treats it as an aspect of Nyles’ temporal cage that he has come to loathe. The film invites both participants to be fully cognizant of their shared reality, and have a real choice about whether or not this love is worth continuing, if and when leaving it behind ever becomes an option. Which sure feels a lot sweeter in retrospect.

Also, J.K. Simmons is at his usual level of quality, even if I can’t say much about his character here.

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #171 – “Palm Springs” (dir. Max Barbakow), “The Old Guard” (dir. Gina Prince-Bythewood)

Available on Hulu here.

#1: Da 5 Bloods

Directed by Spike Lee, written by Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo, Kevin Willmott, and Lee.

The African-American novelist and cultural critic James Baldwin once wrote the following, following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

“Perhaps even more than the death itself, the manner of his death has forced me into a judgment concerning human life and human beings which I have always been reluctant to make….Incontestably, alas, most people are not, in action, worth very much; and yet, every human being is an unprecedented miracle. One tries to treat them as the miracles they are, while trying to protect oneself against the disasters they’ve become.”

I read this quote between my two viewings of Da 5 Bloods, and it comes inexorably to mind as I ponder these four men now. In particular, Paul (Delroy Lindo), whom we quickly learn is barely keeping it together on his first trip back to Vietnam since he fought in the war. He returns to the country with his three Bloods – fellow black soldiers from his squad, who forged a familial and racial bond from their unique experiences in warfare. These men are ostensibly returning to Vietnam in the modern day to repatriate the remains of their fallen Blood, Norm “Stormin’ Norman” Holloway (Chadwick Boseman), as well as (secretly) a planeload of CIA gold that had been requisitioned to pay the local Lahu people to fight against the VC, and was subsequently lost in a plane crash and buried by these five men for later retrieval.

The Baldwin quote came to mind not just for its resonance with respect to Paul, but because of one scene in particular, layered with both visceral rage and brotherly love, in which Dr. King’s murder is revealed to the five main characters as they camp in the jungle. They are seemingly separated from any other unit or chain of command as they listen to a propaganda broadcast from Hanoi Hannah (Veronica Vanh Ngo), who is playing out a psychological warfare strategy of trying to persuade American G.I.s of the immorality of warfare, and trying to persuade black GIs in particular to give up the fight for a country that has never properly embraced them as full citizens. This scene feels both theatrical and plausible as it is playing out, with the five men seemingly just camped in the jungle with no specific mission, all played by men in their 50s and 60s (who aren’t quite old enough to play these characters in 2020), with the exception of then 42-year-old Boseman (who passed away from colon cancer in August). Norm is only partially in uniform, standing before a jury-rigged sunshade of ferns, and the camera floats over each man’s face as they take in this devastating news, fading back and forth over footage of King’s funeral procession and riots in over 100 American cities. Hannah continues, pointing out that black people are only 11% of the US population, but they represent 32% of the American troops in Vietnam – depending on the specific year, this seems to have been both a true statistic and a deliberate strategy by the US government, and Hannah suggests that they should go home and fight where they are really needed.

Theatricality was a stylistic choice that the film announced early on, with its periodic cutaways to footage of real events (including Donald Trump in Da White House, a key component of the film’s modern resonance), as well as intermittent bits of Sorkinesque historical exposition in dialogue, in which characters just randomly call out bits of (black) American history in order to educate the viewer about the likes of Crispus Attucks (who died at the Boston Massacre in 1770), one of the first black soldiers to die in the name of the American Revolution, and a name I hadn’t heard since high school. And other names I’d never heard at all, like Milton Olive, a decorated hero of the Vietnam War who posthumously received the Medal of Honor after dying at just 18, falling on a grenade to save his squad. None of this bothered me in the least, coming in fits and starts during a solid 35-40 minutes of character setup in Ho Chi Minh City at the start of the film, both because it was entertaining in the moment, and because it announced the film’s intentions to be about something greater than just Heart of Darkness meets Three Kings – comparisons the film is also keenly aware of. Da Five Bloods is about the extent to which these men’s experience of war, loss, racism, and bitter disappointment has cast a pall over their lives, and threatens to drag them on a desperate, greedy march to the grave. The film starts with a pretense of vacation with a dash of heist caper, and has some genuinely raucous action beats. But it slowly reveals itself as a return to a demon-haunted world.

As Otis (Clarke Peters) tees up this flashback in order to explain to young blood David (Jonathan Majors) exactly who and what Norman was to the group, and to David’s father Paul in particular, he describes him like this:

“Stormin’ earned his name – was in all kinda fire fights. Trained us in the ways of the jungle. Made us believe we’d get back home alive. He was a prophet. Gave us something to believe in. A direction, a purpose. Taught us about Black History – when it wasn’t really popular back then. Schooled us about drinking that anti-commie Kool-Aid they were selling. He was our Malcolm and Martin. Norman had a way of keeping us from going off.”

Right before this flashback is a scene in which Vietnamese soldiers are tramping through the jungle talking to each other – about their sweethearts and wives back home, which we know because the dialogue is subtitled – an uncommon choice in an American war film. We consume a bit of the enemy’s humanity before we watch our heroes rise up from the bushes and riddle them with bullets. Da 5 Bloods are soldiers, who will do their duty, but they are also thoughtful men, seekers of enlightenment, who have found a leader who wishes to imbue them with his own brand of righteousness. Of the group, only Norm seems fully cognizant of what they’re doing in this country, explicitly framing war as an economic act. He is also the only one who seems to understand that Hannah’s broadcasts are tailor-made to anger them specifically. As he meets their violent and unfocused rage, which promises to murder the nearest cracker they can find – surely a fellow American soldier – Norm stands in their way. Says that Dr. King was a man of peace, who wouldn’t have wanted this. He meets their rage with love, as they all stand together with righteous fury and blast their M-16s skyward. Theatricality.

Norm is subject to many beatific praises throughout the film, including many direct and indirect comparisons to Jesus Christ, but the one that really stuck with me was “He was our Malcolm and Martin.” This evokes a dichotomy that is often used as dismissive shorthand (by white people) when discussing the struggle for black liberation, in which Malcolm X is used to represent the militant side, and Dr. King is used to represent the peaceful side, confining his rhetoric to non-violent appeals to equality and colorblindness amid peaceful civil disobedience. I can’t speak for Lee or co-writer Willmott here (who wholly rewrote this film from a 2013 spec script that originally had nothing to do with black history), but my impression is that this line was meant to carry some irony for a black audience that would understand that neither Malcolm nor Martin can be so cleanly summed up, as anyone who has read any of their writings can attest. As a white man who came of age long after both men were dead, and who grew up steeped in the myth that the mid-century struggle for civil rights ended favorably, I am not qualified to speak with any authority on this subject, but I have tried to cultivate a more realistic understanding of it as time goes on. I grew up in a world in which the predominant political discourse, until very recently, was always some variation of “When will black people be satisfied?” With President Obama’s election, even as the birther lies and mock-lynchings continued, White America echoed a refrain that Dr. King’s work was over a long time ago (even as a handful of their number always whinged that Black History Month was racist). The civil rights movement was a triumphal narrative that ended with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – the very same law which I watched a conservative Supreme Court bloc eviscerate in 2013, which was followed by a giddily resurgent neo-Confederate South – now calling itself the Republican Party, but with a through-line since Reconstruction that spanned both parties – which began attacking black voters “with surgical precision“. The GOP began using voter suppression techniques straight out of the Jim Crow playbook on Information Age steroids, in order to perpetuate minority rule (for the dwindling bloc of rural, conservative white people) into the future. The idea that black people can ever be “satisfied” with our meager pretense of a post-racial society, which was never built in a way that offered them anything close to a fair chance, has always been a lie. And as I attempt to make sense of Lindo’s career-best performance of this black man in a MAGA hat, I firmly believe that this character represents Spike Lee‘s brilliant attempt to grapple with the damage that this lie has caused.

So we have Paul, the Vietnam Veteran with untreated PTSD and a 30-year-old son that he doesn’t understand and can’t relate to, rabid supporter of one Donald J. Trump for president. That’s right – Paul voted for President Fake Bone Spurs. That his fandom for Trump’s cruel (but nonetheless revelatory) brand of American conservatism is presented as a part of his post-war pathology doesn’t change the surprising fact that this is one of the only films that I’ve seen credibly try to get inside the head of a Trump supporter, which might be about the last thing anyone wants to do after watching their QAnon-addled miscreants storm the US Capitol this month. And yet, it is necessary, and a significant part of what makes this film such essential viewing. Boseman’s death is one of many unfortunate ways in which the film’s release accidentally interacted with the trying times of 2020, with the film coming out in June, near the crescendo of protests over the brutal murder of George Floyd at the hands (and under the knee) of now ex-police officer Derek Chauvin, and under the watchful eye of his colleagues at the Minneapolis Police Department, who did nothing to stop him. Another name, another protest, another black life that didn’t matter. Another police response that proved the protesters’ concerns about police brutality and lack of accountability a hundred times over, from coast to coast and for weeks on end.

It may seem as if I’ve wandered afield from the text of this film. And perhaps I have. After 11 years of reviewing films on this site, it has been quite as much about keeping a public diary of the ways in which my own thinking has changed, as it has been about chronicling and reacting to popular culture. Make no mistake, Da 5 Bloods is my #1 film of the year for the same reason as any previous film: I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I saw it. But I found myself unable to make much progress writing during this month in particular, as our republic and collective sense of reality reached a Trump-instigated, collectively-perpetrated attempt to rip itself to pieces. So it was inevitable that all of this real-world bullshit would become entangled with my feelings about Paul the fictitious Trump supporter. We find ourselves halfway through an ineptly handled pandemic, barely out of the twilight of President Fake Bone Spurs, a wannabe election thief and incompetent fascist who turned out to be too lazy and unskilled to pull off the coup d’état that he clearly had no moral or patriotic compunction against attempting. I may have seen this film at a conveniently receptive time, but it is about much more than just these four men and their self-destructive struggle to enrich themselves on the backs of the very same war machine that had so thoroughly damaged each of them. This film stuck in my craw at the same time, and for many of the same reasons, as the struggle against systemic racism and police brutality this year, and both have refused as yet to leave me behind. When I first saw Da 5 Bloods, I had scarcely even heard of James Baldwin (whom I quoted above), and most of my knowledge of him now is secondhand, presented through Princeton professor Eddie S. Glaude, Jr.‘s scholarship of Baldwin’s work, and his modernization of Baldwin’s notion of “The Big Lie”. Michael Harriot takes this further, asserting that the Capitol Rioters may have pretended to attack our nation’s institutions over a small lie, that Trump won an election he factually lost, but they were doing so in service of a bigger lie: That White America is willing to accept the results of an election in which the usual insidious mechanisms of voter suppression were swept aside by the COVID pandemic, and black Americans are finally free to assert their political will.

Even as I am distracted and enraged by the Capitol Rioters: by their racism and violence, by their presumption, by their warped pretense of patriotism that has little or nothing to do with the material circumstances of the actual people who live in the actual United States, and more to do with the wholly symbolic cosplay that they pathetically call freedom – I can’t let go of the country that made it happen, whose real-time mythologizing of its own history is the reason why we’re still having inane conversations in 2020 about whether or not it’s appropriate to honor Confederate traitors with statues in public spaces. As we dance on endlessly to a tune first played by dead men, I truthfully can’t damn the Capitol Rioters (as much as I will relish seeing many of them behind bars), because the ugliness they presented as they bore their collective ass for us all to see, is America. Paul, in this film, is us. As Delroy Lindo says directly to the camera: You can’t kill Paul. And I can’t damn him either.

I’ll close with this quote, from Glaude’s excellent book Begin Again, which has become a sort of guiding star as I think of how to approach the after-times of Trump.

“[T]he desire to distance oneself from Trump fits perfectly with the American refusal to see ourselves as we actually are. We evade historical wounds, the individual pain, and the lasting effects of it all. The lynched relative; the buried son or daughter killed at the hands of the police; the millions locked away to rot in prisons; the children languishing in failed schools; the smothering, concentrated poverty passed down from generation to generation; and the indifference to lives lived in the shadows of the American dream are generally understood as exceptions to the American story, not the rule…To maintain this illusion, Trump has to be seen as singular, aberrant. Otherwise, he reveals something terrible about us. But not to see yourself in Trump is to continue to lie.”

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #170 – “Irresistible” (dir. Jon Stewart), “Da 5 Bloods” (dir. Spike Lee)

Available on Netflix here.

Theatrical Hits from the Before Times

Films that I recall enjoying enough to be considered here, but which a year of COVID and political chaos has effectively driven from my memory.

  • Bad Boys for Life (directed by Adil & Bilall)
  • Birds of Prey (directed by Cathy Yan) (podcast)
  • The Invisible Man (directed by Leigh Whannell) (podcast)

Honorable Mentions:

2019 Glennies (Top 10 Films of 2019)

#11: High Life

Directed by Claire Denis, written by Denis and Jean-Pol Fargeau

There’s a lot of competition on this list for “hardest film to sell to non-critics”, but I think Claire Denis’ English-language debut High Life might be the winner. This is one of the most bizarre and disturbing sci-fi films I’ve seen since Under the Skin – an experimental, non-linear narrative with arresting and (occasionally very low-tech) visuals, featuring a group of condemned prisoners on what is likely a suicide mission to extract energy for humanity from a black hole. As far as the mission is concerned, the prisoners are still prisoners, with the ship’s ailing computer checking in daily to confirm that they’re still on mission, and casually threatening to space them all if they do not comply. But as far as their physical and psychological safety goes, the inmates are fully running the asylum, with the ship’s chief medical officer Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche) – who comes with one of the most one-dimensionally evil backstories I’ve ever seen in a film’s co-lead – performing bizarre and unethical sexual experiments on the prisoners and patients under her charge, in an effort to create a child in space through artificial insemination. This film competed with Ad Astra (in Honorable Mentions below) for space in my head when it came to the alienation and loss of humanity that must accompany such intense separation from the rest of the species, and yet, even Ad Astra‘s pastiche of Heart of Darkness couldn’t plumb the same depths of man’s inhumanity to man as what was on display here. Yes, yes, it’s sad that Brad Pitt‘s father abandoned him. But at least he’s not a piece of flotsam being hurtled into a fucking black hole and used as a brood mare whether he likes it or not. Robert Pattinson and Mia Goth are also excellent.

High Life is a hard watch. It is bleak, misanthropic, and utterly fascinating – and has stuck with me ever since I saw it.

#10: I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians

Written and directed by Radu Jude

The play’s the thing! Wherein she’ll catch the conscience of a nation. The nation is Romania, and the bad-bad thing they did was collaborate and fight alongside Nazi Germany as they perpetrated the Holocaust. I had zero prior knowledge of the purge of Odessa, in which Romanian soldiers led by Marshal Ion Antonescu, alongside Einsatzgruppe SS and local ethnic Germans murdered 100,000 Ukrainian Jews in Transnistria during the autumn and winter of 1941-42. This area is a geopolitical mess to this day, with multiple countries exerting influence, and this is apparently neither well-known nor widely discussed. And it is precisely this incident that theatrical director Mariana (Ioana Iacob) would like to talk about, in the form of a historical reenactment for public consumption (and with city funding) on the streets of Bucharest. This film is both an unflinching drama and a black comedy about the darkest of subject matter. It is easily as effective a film as Four Lions (which I’ll reference again on this list) or The Death of Stalin. But what really made it stick with me is its single-mindedness as an intellectual exercise on the hierarchy and historical discussion of human massacres. Iacob’s performance is fierce, intelligent, and uncompromising as a director, and yet she doesn’t feel quite like a real person so much as an intellectual avatar for the purpose of exploring these ideas, surrounded at all times by rhetorical opponents that are inexplicably well-read on the subject. At least The Man From Earth troubled to surround its main character with actual professors to interrogate his story – this film starts off having characters ranging from a city arts bureaucrat, Konstantin Movila (Alexandru Dabija), who is perpetually threatening to pull funding for the event if it’s “too controversial”, to Mariana’s illicit (married) pilot boyfriend, who wonders aloud why the Jews are always “whining” about the Holocaust, when it’s perfectly okay to poke fun at Jesus and Mother Theresa. Frankly, these people don’t seem as if they should be capable of serious debate on this subject, and their talking points start off completely facile, worthy of an anti-Semitic Twitter blast at best. But Mariana ruthlessly parries them and fires back, and as their arguments evolve, multiply, and become stronger, she stays on her course and effectively beats them back.

Nobody on this cursed earth owes Ben Shapiro a debate on any subject, but Mariana is a fictional character that I’d love to see cross paths with him, because the film not only engages seriously with every one of the facile arguments against telling this or any other ugly episode from history; it eviscerates them to their core. With evidence. And it is farcical. Mariana sits on the helicopter of the executed communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu munching on a sandwich while her PAs pick through weapons and uniforms in the museum’s collection, and a pack of fifty-something lighting grips wander up and ask why she needs to badmouth the good Marshal Antonescu, who is after all a national hero (despite his eventual execution by Romania for war crimes), and by the way, is it really necessary for us to all eat lunch at the same table with all those dirty [Roma people] on the crew? Mariana gives an outstanding “are you fucking kidding me” look to her staunchest ally and comic foil Traian (Alex Bogdan), an intimidating and soldierly presence who encourages them all to fuck off and eat somewhere else or otherwise shut up about it, before giving a chilling performance as Antonescu in the very same reenactment. As this performance plays out with stunning historical realism before a crowd of extras who may or may not have been aware they were being filmed for a movie, Mariana looks on, noticing with consternation that some of the crowd are cheering at the wrong moments (e.g. as dozens of Jewish prisoners are burned alive), and wonders if she has inadvertently done a terrible thing by telling this story in the way she did. Like any intelligent person who’s sure she’s on the right path, she’s never completely sure.

And how to tell this story is plastered across the film throughout its runtime. Traian hollers at the reenactors: “Russians, hands up! Romanians and Germans, look happy!” There is a lonnnng shot of a reenacted mass-hanging before a crowd as the production team debates exactly what hate-slogan to put on the banner above their heads. They have a photo of the real thing, but it’s kind of a shitty small font, and they’d like to put something more readable on there, and so on and so forth. When The Man in the High Castle wrapped its final season, the production team quite admirably destroyed all of the swastikas that they’d used in production. And why? Because anyone wishing to reenact these events had better think hard about how and why they want to go about it. While I admired Taiki Waititi‘s Jojo Rabbit enough to put it in my Honorable Mentions for this year, I cannot say that I saw a more thoughtful film about this subject matter than Barbarians, because no matter how contrived some of the conversations between the characters were (Movila, the city arts bureaucrat, proves to be a formidable debater), I still found them relentlessly fascinating and intellectually challenging as I listened to Mariana breathlessly defending her thesis: This is the story I’ve decided to tell, and to hell with anyone who says I shouldn’t. This is a film about the clear-eyed and fearless pursuit of truth and a national reckoning, and in a political time that is trying its level best to destroy both the rule of law and the concept of objective reality, it is a thoughtful exercise that we need now more than ever. And it’s hilarious. Don’t know if I made that part clear. It sounds dry and bleak, and is neither of those things.

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #151 – “Booksmart” (dir. Olivia Wilde), SIFF Roundup: “Putin’s Witnesses”, “…Barbarians”.

#9: Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Written and directed by Céline Sciamma

This is an artful period romance, insofar as it’s a period romance that does a great deal of its storytelling with art. On a surf-pounded coastal island in 18th century France, a Countess (Valeria Golino) – who has possibly fled there from the Terror in Paris, lives with her last remaining daughter, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), the latter freshly returned from her life at a convent, where she enjoyed its many fine pleasures, such as reading books, listening to church music, and not having sex with men. She returns to take over her late sister’s arranged marriage to a gentleman from Milan, where she and her mother will eventually settle, joining many of the émigré nobles who turned tail (with their money) and fled the French Revolution. Her sister is dead, having fallen or jumped from the seaside cliffs while on a walk, so Héloïse is forced to abandon her own path in favor of one that was also abandoned by her late sister. Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a young painter, comes to the island at the request of the Countess, to paint a portrait of Héloïse to send off to the Milanese gentleman – a prerequisite of their eventual marriage. Marianne is the second painter that the Countess has hired, but Héloïse refused to pose for the first. In his failure, he left behind a painting of a dress over a woman’s body – perhaps that of the maid, Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), who eventually plays a similar role for Marianne – but no face. By and by, Marianne burns it in the fireplace, forming one of the two jeux de mots at work with the title. The Countess tells Marianne that as far as Héloïse knows, the painter is not a painter at all, and is simply there to be a walking companion. This is true in part, because after the death of her elder daughter, the Countess understandably fears for Héloïse’s safety and sanity. But she also casts Marianne in the role of an artistic spy. She must paint Héloïse without her realizing that is her true aim.

The gradual and natural consequence of this setup, between what turns out to be a pair of women who are both attracted to the same sex, is a forbidden and doomed romance that occurs accidentally, and via initial deception – a She’s All That of yesteryear, if you will. Marianne’s stolen glances at Héloïse have an ulterior motive behind them, and yet if the painter weren’t studying every detail of her subject with such tenderness and care, perhaps the romance might not have happened. The film presents a 18th century same-sex romance in as safe a circumstance as possible – the only real risk to either of them is that the Countess might find out – and the result is a naturalistic affection that never feels out-of-place, despite being a depiction in a century in which such romances presumably only ever happened in secret. And what we’re seeing is a secret, and as an audience member, you can’t help but feel like an intrusive presence, and yet you still feel privileged to take a peek into a previously unseen human experience. It is, for lack of a better comparison, like gazing at a work of art in a museum: studying its details, and imagining what its subjects must have felt. This is also a film that repeatedly uses art as a metaphor for both the individual human experience as well as the collaboration of human relationships, in a manner that felt similar to Abbas Kiarostami‘s 2010 masterpiece Certified Copy, but perhaps a bit less abstract. It not only features a literal work of art that is made in romantic collaboration between artist and subject; it also uses reactions to artwork to great narrative effect (Antonio Vivaldi‘s Summer plays a surprising and plot-critical role).

As the women embrace for the first time, Héloïse asks Marianne whether all lovers feel as if they’re inventing something. This is as matter-of-factly as the film ever broaches the LGBT nature of this story, because Héloïse, who may or may not be doing this for the first time, approaches sex with Marianne as if it’s the most ordinary act in the world. Likewise, the film doesn’t linger on the mechanics of sexuality in the manner of, for instance, Blue is the Warmest Color, which was both beloved and – perhaps fairly – accused of exhibiting female sexuality less for the sake of authenticity and more to indulge the insatiable male gaze upon it. This film is both directed and filmed by women, and one of them is in fact an ex-partner of one of the leads. I didn’t know that while watching the film, and I cannot say whether it informs my interpretation in retrospect. But I will say that the balance between innocence and eroticism that was struck in this scene felt exactly right. This is a story of women knowledgeably engaging in what were then regarded as illicit acts (and I haven’t even discussed Sophie’s dangerous subplot or the entrancing musical number that it evolves into).

This is a romance worth experiencing. It demands and rewards patience from its audience, and cinematographer Claire Mathon makes superlative use of both the vivid color and swaying grasses of cliffside, sea-spritzed trails as well as darkness, flame, paint, canvas, and blood. The film is both a visual and emotional feast, and upon its final, intense, lingering shot, you will be satisfied.

#8: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino

What a meandering indulgence this film is, and honestly, I have a hard time defending my love for it, except to say that I was never bored, and that has persisted through multiple viewings. Inglourious Basterds was my #1 film of 2009, and I disliked and hated (respectively) the two Tarantino films that followed. When I saw that QT would be playing around in his historical sandbox once again with late ’60s Hollywood and the Manson family murders, I was prepared to write this film off as another dalliance inside baseball within the TMZ (a real thing!) in the vein of Hail, Caesar or another borderline obnoxious period piece (that I nonetheless liked) like Inherent Vice. Like a lot of critics, I tend to enjoy films about Hollywood, since they reward my ego for all of the dubious trivia that I’ve collected over the years. But it’s been a long time since one has landed with me enough to think of it at the end of the year.

So what makes this one special? Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt‘s characters and performances, for a start. The pair play a convincing set of friends (loosely inspired by actor Burt Reynolds and his stuntman and friend Hal Needham), with aging TV western star Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) slumming it in villain-of-the-week roles and debating heading off to Rome to film spaghetti westerns, as he floats in his pool and sinks deeper into an alcoholic haze. The film’s handling of Dalton and stuntman Cliff Booth (Pitt) is pure drama, and I found that I cared about both their friendship and Dalton’s career, largely because they cared so much. Stakes don’t always have to be external, and this film managed to create them even before the dirty, murderous hippies wandered in. The Manson Family are treated in a buffoonish manner, which seems like a fine way to depict violent fanatics (the apex of this being Chris MorrisFour Lions), particularly ones whose real-life exploits were so random and fraught with failure. Two particular standouts were Dakota Fanning as Squeaky Fromme, who is a darkly hilarious future attempted presidential assassin, and Margaret Qualley as Pussycat, a jailbait hitchhiker (the film’s framing, not mine) who acts as a surprising comedic foil for Booth, and who shouts one of the film’s best lines as a scene at an old-timey movie ranch takes a turn.

Speaking of turns, I kept waiting for real-life actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) to take a turn at uttering a single line of dialogue, and fully 60 minutes of this film passes with more said about her by Kurt Russell‘s narrator than ever comes out of the actress’ own mouth. My best explanation for this, knowing of her imminent murder in advance, was that Tarantino was presenting the mundanity of her final days as an offhanded documentarian, depicting her as a sort of vague angelic presence that the world is poorer without. This might have struck me as a bit shallow and disrespectful, if not for the film making its intentions clear early on that Dalton and Booth are the main characters, and Tate is merely a component of the historical sandbox. Some may castigate the film for this (Tate’s scenes were easily the most boring and cut-worthy of the film, which is a sad statement for an actress of Robbie’s caliber), but I daresay if you’re going to make sport of real-life tragedy, even half a century later, it’s respectful – even for a frequent doofus like Tarantino – to use a light touch. And apart from occasionally visually indulging his foot fetish at Robbie’s expense, QT seems reluctant to depict Tate doing anything besides what the actress herself might have plausibly been up to. This feels like a step down from the plot-directing likes of Mélanie Laurent in Basterds, but after watching the film twice, I daresay it was an acceptable choice.

However little that Tate speaks, another actress, Trudi (Julia Butters) is given plenty to say. Trudi, who is 10, plays a child actress on the set of one of Rick Dalton’s villain-of-the-week roles. She insists on remaining in character, but openly discusses her method acting with Rick, and it is one of the film’s standout scenes, since it is the first glimpse of Rick realizing what he has lost as an actor by falling into alcoholism and despair.

As I describe the film, it feels like very little is at stake apart from a quadruple murder that we already feel historically removed from after so much time. And yet I found this film relentlessly entertaining in a manner that Tarantino hasn’t quite captured since Pulp Fiction. It’s just…fun. And the pronounced (and low-tech) effort to recreate 1969 Hollywood is apparent in every frame, from the structure of the film’s fictitious TV westerns (with period-appropriate commercials, poster art, sets, and actors) to its various drive-around scenes in vintage cars, which beg the viewer to spot any imperfection. If this film was intended to feel like a time machine, it largely accomplished this, recreating at least the look and feel of films from this period, even if I can’t speak to the reality of the actual place.

Cliff also has a love-monster pit bull, Brandi (Sayuri the dog), who is a Very Good Girl. That is all.

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #153 – “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” (dir. Quentin Tarantino), “Little Woods” (dir. Nia DaCosta).

#7: Alice

Written and directed by Josephine Mackerras (in her debut feature)

“I don’t feel any different,” says Alice (Emilie Pipponier), after leaving her first client and regrouping with her new friend and Obi-Wan figure, Lisa (Chloé Boreham).

“You mean now that you’re a fallen woman?” chuckles Lisa, before explaining, “If you’re in love, having sex may be the best experience of your life. If you are raped, maybe it’s the worst. But in our case, things are under our control. The exchange is fair. So why should you feel any different? You think too much. You know how to do this. You’ve been doing it your whole life. You have been trained to scan people’s emotions. To know what to say, how to behave, how to please everyone. Take control, Sophia. That’s what he wants.”

“He”, in this case, is any of Alice’s new clients, because she has taken up a job as a sex worker in a last-ditch effort to prevent her family from being kicked out of their apartment, where they are thousands of Euros underwater on the mortgage. Her husband François (Martin Swabey) vanished, the bills piled up, and Alice very quickly learned why: he had blown all of their money on expensive prostitutes. It’s a veritable Eliot Spitzer scenario, without the political power or prior wealth. And they are deep in it now. Not only did François stop paying their mortgage without telling Alice, he waited until they were on the verge of foreclosure and eviction to let her find out. Seven seasons of The Good Wife can attest to my prior interest in this scenario, and the film’s elevator pitch of “cuckholded wife reluctantly becomes sex worker and unexpectedly finds the work empowering” is provocative to say the least. But not only is this film a more thoughtful exploration of the nature of sex work than any other film I’ve seen on the subject, it is also a fascinating portrayal of both the psychology and economics of such a career choice. Because Alice didn’t choose to be in a situation where she suddenly needed this kind of money – but then, does any mother whose husband suddenly deserts her? What’s more, the only reason why she realized sex work was a feasible career path was because she tracked down Martin’s brothel of choice and demanded that the madam come clean about what her husband has been up to – which she does. And then, perhaps even on a whim, Alice fills out an application, and makes a new friend.

Each of these characters has layers, whether the mercenary Lisa who struggles with how much of non-stage persona to reveal to her new apprentice, or Alice herself, who doesn’t hesitate for a second to keep her new career from her husband, who is flailing around trying to save their marriage in such hamfisted ways that I swear he thinks he’s the main character. Swabey’s performance is excellent here, as he finds himself in the unenviable task of playing the straying husband who still sees himself as the hero of his own preposterous redemption story. At one point, François sells his watch and uses it to buy a replacement for his wife’s ring, which she pawned earlier in the film, and proceeds to give a remarkable speech, which starts off gaslighting her for being so unreasonable as to make him “grovel like a dog” for forgiveness that she’d give if she really ever loved him, and ends with a damn proposal (to renew their vows). As a viewer, I found myself torn between guffawing at the absurdity of this nearly-homeless father pawning his last item of any economic value to craft what his own demented mind regards as the perfect show-proposal for his nearly-ex wife who now despises him. François is an abusive buffoon, and Mackerras’ script has the measure of this man as thoroughly as it understands Alice herself.

As compared to something like Marriage Story, this film deals far less with the now-rival spouses’ relationship with their son Jules (played by Mackerras’ own son of the same name), but he honestly isn’t much of a character, and that’s fine. The film’s subject matter doesn’t lend well to the direct inclusion of a child except as a clear-eyed statement that sex workers, like anyone else with an unpredictable work schedule, have dependents that they care about, and those dependents are a unique vulnerability due to how that profession is regarded by society. And as a MacGuffin, Jules is put to some interesting narrative uses (it turns out finding childcare is a pain in the ass no matter what your job is!). I won’t say where the standoff goes from here, but this film straddles multiple genres and reaches a fever pitch in the third act. If you can manage to find it streaming, don’t miss it.

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #150 – SIFF Roundup: “Alice”, “Pigeon Kings”, “Fight Fam”, “As the Earth Turns”

#6: Knives Out

Written and directed by Rian Johnson

I have now seen Knives Out twice, and one (non-spoiler) moment in particular stands out to me. A baseball is thrown from the office of the late Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), changes hands (and a dog’s mouth, briefly) several times, and is finally picked up by a character who is appalled by its misplacement, who puts it back in the office where it belongs, and gives it a tender smile, recalling some happy day that we’ll never know. And the film’s denouement unexpectedly turns upon this moment, all because someone tossed a baseball in the first act. This moment doesn’t linger, nor is it remarked upon – in fact, I didn’t even notice it the first time I saw the film. It’s just one of the film’s myriad quiet character moments in-between all of the stylistic WhoDunnit/HowCatchEm genre trappings, and an example of how this film is made entirely by its details. Its plot is clever, unfolding in a way that hands you a solution to the film’s primary mystery at roughly its halfway point, leaving you to ponder, “Wait, what now?”. And then it continues! Gentleman detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), along with his foil and suspect, Harlan’s nurse and friend Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), wander the grounds and investigate whether a crime even occurred in what the police believe to be nothing more than a dramatic suicide.

Dramatic, yes, but, “Look around,” remarks Detective-Lieutenant Elliott (Lakeith Stanfield), “The guy practically lives in a Clue board.” Stanfield continues to be a reliable ensemble player (and if you want to see him in a lead role, Sorry to Bother You and Crown Heights are right there), but he’s mostly an exposition bot here, laying out the events of the night in question, and introducing each of the over-the-top family members, all of whom were present, and all of whom may have had a motive for murder. That’s as far as I’ll go explaining things, because this is a mystery that is well worth experiencing for yourself, but I appreciated Benoit Blanc’s entry in the pantheon of great detectives, not only for his personal genre savvy (he literally says “the game’s afoot” at one point), but because a great deal happens under his nose without him realizing it. The film makes a delicate dance of revealing a bit more to us than to him and vice versa over the course of the film, and watching him gradually pick apart the mystery amid his myriad quirks (he literally sings along with the radio during a car chase), make mistakes, and not quite get everything right…makes him feel more human than he would do otherwise. And Craig’s Kentucky Fried accent is a particular delight.

Marta’s most useful characteristics to Blanc are her forceful upchuck reflex when she lies, and…as he seems to believe almost immediately…her kind heart. Because he believes Marta means well and is physically incapable of lying in his presence without revealing it to him, it’s no surprise that he pulls her into the investigation. That, and as far as anyone knows, she has no reason to murder Harlan. And as his nurse, he was completely at her mercy. The family’s relationship with Marta is also one of the more fascinating through-lines of the film, ranging from granddaughter Meg (Katherine Langford) who seemingly treats her as a close friend, to son-in-law Richard (Don Johnson) who pulls her into an aggressive conversation about immigration and uses her as a prop/example of someone who “came here the right way” before thoughtlessly handing her his snack plate to take away (she is the nurse, not the housekeeper). Don is one of several members of the family who bungles Marta’s country of origin (which apparently could’ve been anywhere in South or Central America), and they each tell her privately that each of them wanted her at the funeral, but each of them separately “was outvoted”.

When we reviewed Knives Out alongside Parasite, I wasn’t expecting them to be quite so perfect a thematic pairing, but through very different genre lenses, both films are telling a tale about class distinctions, and while Parasite certainly plumbed greater depths, Knives Out was an unrelenting and clever delight.

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #158 – “Knives Out” (dir. Rian Johnson), “Parasite” (dir. Bong Joon-ho)

#5: Marriage Story

Written and directed by Noah Baumbach

The first compliment I have for this film is that I found it relatively evenhanded as a seemingly confessional work of art by writer/director Noah Baumbach, on the subject of his divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh. That is not knowledge you really need going in, but I’d be lying if I said that my presumption of the authenticity of certain moments was not a factor in the film’s appeal for me. Baumbach is known for writing with emotional intelligence, and at no point does it feel like he’s either putting husband Charlie (Adam Driver) or wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) on either a pedestal or a penalty box. There is no clear villain (although both commit unforgivable acts), or any clearly aggrieved party (despite both feeling convincingly like they’re on the right side of the issue). And yet this is no clean break either, because these two ultimately go to war with each other over the custody and residency of their three-year-old son Henry (Azhy Robertson), who tries in the foolish and desperate manner of a child to manage both of his parents as his entire world falls apart. Which leads to the second compliment I have for this film: there were moments that I found so profoundly upsetting that I had to pause it for a moment and collect myself, and they mostly had to do with Henry. The tragedy of this family separation is centered around the child, as is the core conflict at the heart of the divorce: whether the bifurcated family will be based in New York, where they’ve lived for the past decade, or Los Angeles, where Nicole’s family and career are located. And it is to the film’s credit that it never takes a firm position on who is right here. It’s just a whole lot of wrong. It’s a pair of lawyers, played with eerie cordiality layered with ruthless cynicism by Laura Dern and Ray Liotta, whose job is to take every moment, every interaction during this marriage between two people who loved each other, and twist it to maximally benefit their client and harm their opponent. Driver and Johansson fully immerse themselves in the psychology of these characters, as the couple gradually feels out their new identities as adversaries, and gradually loses the ability to compartmentalize. They have a cheerful chat about the mechanics of their divorce. Nicole gives Charlie a haircut, as she often did for the family before they split up. And then they scream and shout and Nicole accidentally calls Charlie “honey” multiple times and curses herself for it. This scene floated around in isolation on Film Twitter with dismissive non-viewers of the film, derisively describing it as a fixture of Acting 101. And how dare they? Just because a film’s emotional climax is the expected fodder of acting students doesn’t mean that the authentic scene was ever amateurish or meant to be viewed in isolation. There are multiple moments in this film in which the dam breaks and each of these characters is forced to confront the horrible reality, the wasted life, the permanently damaged relationship with their child that they are each trying desperately to preserve. And the tragedy of this family’s collapse is fully on display as their dissolution takes on the character of a political campaign, with tiny, quiet moments between the couple and their son dragged out into court to be twisted into preposterous and devastating indictments of their character. Because as lawyer Nora (Dern) correctly notes, we can accept an imperfect father, but never an imperfect mother. She invokes the Virgin Mary, and it is solidly one of the best quasi-religious blowhard rants since Al Pacino in The Devil’s Advocate. And yet, as Charlie talks to his “own asshole” lawyer Jay (Liotta), the latter tells him over his incredulous protests that he needs to prepare himself for the fact that Nicole is going to portray him as a neglectful, absent father. And he can’t believe it until it happens.

The film begins with each of the two monologuing about why and how much they love each other, over a montage of their life together. While this is revealed to be an exercise in a mediated separation (which ultimately neither ends up reading aloud to the other), it is still a crucial piece of tablesetting. One of the sublime delights of a functional marriage – and the object of constant pursuit and maintenance – is a presumption of good faith and common purpose between two people. These monologues – each beautifully performed by Driver and Johansson – not only establish the positive details of the relationship that will be twisted later on, but they show and tell the viewer exactly what the starting point was for this marriage: why this pair worked in the first place. It’s easy for people to judge divorcés (I may have come very close to this above), and I suspect a good deal of that judgment is borne out of insecurity in their own relationships. Some divorces come about for obvious and defensible reasons. Abuse. Infidelity. The rest…are just breakups – with property as leverage and children as collateral damage. It’s a split that no relationship is immune from, and anyone looking to maintain their own family would be wise to consider such a well-rendered portrait of family tragedy and attempt to feel compassion for everyone involved. And whether you regard the film as a cathartic exercise by Baumbach, or merely as an effective work of dramatic fiction, the film’s compassion for its characters shines throughout its runtime.

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #159 – “1917” (dir. Sam Mendes), “Marriage Story” (dir. Noah Baumbach)

#4: The Farewell

Written and directed by Lulu Wang (in her debut feature), based on her story on “This American Life”

Had I seen it during its release year, Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation would have easily landed in my Top 10, as thoughtful familial tales of moral complexity are my catnip. And Lulu Wang‘s semi-autobiographical film The Farewell was an easy choice for the same reason, even if it was a difficult watch. The moral question at the heart of the film is whether or not a family of Chinese and Chinese-Americans should tell their beloved grandmother the truth about the Stage 4 lung cancer that will surely take her life within a few months. Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) is in her 80s, speaks no English, and lives in China, and when her adult granddaughter Billi (Akwafina) learns of her prognosis, her parents have already decided that they’ll be returning to China (under the auspices of attending a cousin’s wedding) to see her one last time, and the family has decided not to tell Nai Nai at all. We are first acquainted with Billi’s love for her grandmother during a sidewalk walk-and-talk phone call, and it’s clear that the news will devastate her. And yet her parents – who accept this – do not want her to accompany them to China to say goodbye, because they don’t believe she can control her emotions, and she’ll give away the lie. Like any respectable protagonist, Billi ignores them and flies to China anyway.

The conflict at play in this film is fascinating and multilayered. It’s about being a child of two continents and cultures. It’s about being regarded as the baby of the family even when you’re a grown-ass adult who can make her own decisions. It’s about life and death and the limitations of ethical absolutism. It’s about childhood nostalgia and longing for the comforts of hearth and home and family, even after they’ve changed, moved on, and disappeared forever.

In one of several scenes that make clever use of the language gap, Billi has a candid conversation in English with Nai Nai’s UK-educated oncologist, while the exclusively Chinese-speaking Nai Nai and her bilingual parents look on. The doctor tells her plainly that he told the same lie to his own grandmother, and that most families in China would make the same choice not to tell a terminally ill elder until the very end. Later, in the waiting room, Billi and her parents discuss (in English) that such a lie would be not only considered elder abuse in the United States, but it would be illegal. And still, they’re not sure what’s right. And it is to the film’s credit that certainty on this point never comes, even if events conspire to force Billi to decide if she will take an active role in the deception or not.

At its heart, The Farewell is a loving tribute. It’s a funeral in advance, in which Nai Nai’s most beloved family and friends all conspire to…appear at her side and tell her how much she means to them. And Awkwafina carries the emotional weight of the film, even as Zhao gets to affectionately play Nai Nai, a treasured elder who simply thinks her family has come to give her a bit of the honor and love that she richly deserves. And as the credits roll, I can’t say what’s right for this family. But I can say with certainty that these have been among the best days of Nai Nai’s life, and it’s hard to argue with that.

#3: Parasite

Directed by Bong Joon-ho, written by Bong and Han Jin-won

Kim Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho):
“You know what plan never fails? No plan at all. If you make a plan, life never works out that way. Look around us. Did these people think, ‘Let’s spend the night in a gym’? But look now. Everyone’s sleeping on the floor, us included. That’s why people shouldn’t make plans. With no plan, nothing can go wrong. And if something spins out of control, it doesn’t matter. Whether you kill someone or betray your country. None of it fucking matters. Got it?”

Later, on our podcast review. 

Daniel (sarcastically):
“Yes, yes, you can’t fail if you don’t try.”

“Well, it’s also a bit of nihilism. It’s the idea that he has so little to lose, and that all of these structures, all of these institutions – morality, patriotism – are just there as a means of controlling the lower classes. This is as close as the movie comes to spelling out its ideology a second time, which is that: you’re not going to convince poor people to behave differently by appealing to their greater sense of morality, because if what they believe is that society is set up in a way that is fundamentally broken and not for them, that it’s for all those people up above them that live a life that they can barely even imagine, that any little piece that they end up scraping off for themselves is morally justifiable, because morality is irrelevant. It’s very ‘beyond good and evil’.”

There is a lot going on in this film, which is about the infiltration of a poor family, the Kims, into the household and lives of a rich family, the Parks. And it probably contained the densest allegory and social commentary that I’ve seen this year. What I love most about the film is the myriad interpretations I’ve heard for it, even within our own podcast. I saw it as a delicate, layered, and often shocking metaphor for inter and intra-class struggles. FilmWonk fan favorite Erika also saw it as a lens for the Korean experience, with an unfriendly neighbor to the north as a perhaps permanent underclass that surely must be in the hearts and minds of every Korean in the south. Daniel saw it as an overwrought and on-the-nose metaphor that wasn’t to his taste at all. And we had one of our best discussions of the year about it, and I’d encourage you to check it out below.

This film is a satisfying grift full of marvelous performances. It fooled me more than once as to its intentions and meaning, and it is certainly a film that I will be revisiting when I get the chance. Don’t miss it. Read the subtitles, laugh at the endless jokes, and enjoy yourself.

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #158 – “Knives Out” (dir. Rian Johnson), “Parasite” (dir. Bong Joon-ho)

#2: American Factory

Directed by Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert

It is the rare documentary that so effectively answers a question that I didn’t even know was weighing on me: what is the future of work in a globalized and mechanized economy? American Factory is an informative cautionary tale about the years-long takeover, renovation, and reopening of an American factory facility by a Chinese automotive glass manufacturer, Fuyao Glass. The doc was filmed over the course of nearly three years by directors Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, who worked with a team of American and Chinese filmmakers filming workers and executives from both countries with an absolutely stunning level of access. Most of the footage in this film was seemingly approved by Fuyao itself, which adds a metatextual layer of shock and horror as the audience is taken into the internal corporate deliberations behind various decisions that are made throughout the film, as well as the reaction from both sets of workers (and the extent to which they’re able to communicate this reaction to each other). For better or worse, this was seemingly the image of Fuyao that the company itself was comfortable communicating into the world, which makes the tragicomedy of the company’s flailing to integrate its Chinese management with its American factory workers that much more pronounced. This is as much a cautionary tale for CEOs as it is an organizational manual for workers, and for everyone involved, there are moments of striking cross-cultural humanity as most of the people actually forced to work alongside each other actually do try their best to make it work, even as they are often set up for failure. Throughout the film, one thought will ricochet around your head: there was no reason why this had to go as badly as it did.

Some of the film’s most compelling moments depicted Chinese executives explaining American culture to Chinese workers, and the reverse of the same for the Americans explaining the Chinese. It’s a mark of American cultural supremacy that I’m so unaccustomed to hearing my nation summed up in broad and stereotypical terms, but suffice to say, I found it impossible to look away from these moments. The observations ranged from positive (“America is a place to let your personality run free”) to neutral (“they don’t place a heavy importance on attire”) to oddly thoughtful (“they dislike abstraction and theory in their daily lives”) to downright condescending (“we are better than they are”). Executive Jeff Liu, a real piece of work as depicted in this film, has spent half of his life in the US and half in China. He spends a few sentences talking about what awesome shape he’s in for his age, then proceeds to compare the American workers (by way of a Chinese proverb) to donkeys, suggests that they’re overconfident due to being overshowered with praise as children, and says that we love being flattered to death. I experienced a bouquet of emotions while hearing this speech, including bemused acceptance of some of its banal criticisms, insofar as they lumped all Americans together rather than merely functioning as the usual generational clash about participation trophies between millennials and the boomers (who gave them participation trophies), with Gen-Xers like Liu ignored (as ever) in-between. But Liu was brought in after the American executives are fired, and this speech hangs over the film’s final act as Fuyao tries its utmost to bust up a burgeoning union effort happening under its nose. The pay is low – about a third of what the workers were making building American cars a decade earlier – the conditions are dangerous, and many of their concerns are not being adequately addressed. And as ever, there are both good and bad actors trying to make the situation better or worse.

Liu’s speech mirrors another moment that occurs in China, when an unnamed American manager is conversing with a Chinese supervisor at Fuyao HQ. They compare the working conditions, the time off, the wages, and the American manager muses that their most valuable tool to improve productivity back home would be duct tape over the workers’ mouths. The Chinese manager blinks and asks if they can really use that in America, and the American explains he was joking-but-also-serious, because his workers talk too much. We see the Chinese factory workers performing a well-rehearsed attendance chant before marching uniformly to work, and we learn that they only get one or two days off per month. It’s hard not to reflect while watching this that American labor conditions (hard won by American labor unions) such as weekends and 8-hour workdays do not exist globally, and they are part of the reason why lower-skilled factory labor jobs are being exported and automated out of existence by capital. And all of those people that will continue working…in-between all of the robots…will need to be able to find a way to understand each other, even if they’re literally speaking different languages.

Wong, a furnace engineer, comes to the US and develops an abiding friendship with Rob the American redneck while teaching him the auto glass trade. And this friendship is probably the most persistent ray of sunshine that the film has to offer, because Rob is not only grateful to Wong and the other Chinese workers for giving him a second chance at a respectable blue-collar trade, but he welcomes them, truly and completely, into his American family. Early on, Wong and several other Chinese workers come over for Thanksgiving dinner, and get the unprecedented chance to shoot American handguns and – for the truly brave ones – ride Rob’s Harley-Davidson. Wong, whose job will last at least two years as his family waits for him back in China, finds comfort in his friendship with Rob even as the relationship between their respective teams grows sour. That’s the hope this film has to offer: that when it comes down to it, people who make an effort to get along generally do. And even as it presents a grim statistic over the end credits that an estimated 375 million people will need to find new jobs due to automation and globalization by 2050, perhaps there’s hope that this can happen, if only the people involved can avoid indulging their resentment at forces that are out of their control, and simply accept that all of us – the vast, extended family of humanity – are in this together.

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #154 – “The Peanut Butter Falcon” (dir. Tyler Nilson, Mike Schwartz), “American Factory” (dir. Steven Bognar, Julia Reichert)

#1: Rocketman

Directed by Dexter Fletcher, written by Lee Hall

I was on vacation with my two small kids (hardly a vacation at all, if I’m being honest). As a Father’s Day treat, my wife allowed me to bugger off for the evening, and I drove our rented minivan 11 miles to a seaside second-run theater to see the only film I was remotely interested in, Rocketman. It was after 9PM, and I was exhausted and skeptical that the musical biopic genre had anything new to say to me after both the laughable accolades heaped upon Bohemian Rhapsody and the decade-old evisceration of the genre accomplished in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. We all know these beats already. He’s a misbegotten and unloved oddball of a child with a mysterious musical gift! He gets his shot. Then he composes a few of our favorite songs in real time, and becomes world-famous. Then he develops a drug habit and sex addiction and hits rock bottom, but overcomes these things in montage form and is now – in the world in which he’s the executive producer of this film – basically okay and beloved by all.

Even as I describe these beats and consider how well they apply to Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman, they are a welcome reminder that a film can be formulaic and still excellent. The film starts with Elton John (Taron Egerton) exiting the stage in a full-body glittery devil costume and marching directly into rehab. After a litany of his various addictions, he’s asked about his childhood, and his childhood self, Reggie Dwight (Matthew Illesley) appears in the share circle and begins singing “The Bitch is Back”. Elton gets increasingly agitated and finally chases his younger self out of the room before they emerge as the only full-color participants in a black-and-white flashback that becomes a fully choreographed dance number as a suburban block party. And the whole movie is like this. Beat after fantastical beat that – as I describe them – sound like they would be downright hokey if they weren’t executed so flawlessly. The stellar costume work by Julian Day and the song arrangements (from music director Giles Martin) bring it all together, with the songs often cleverly reworked into a conversation between two characters, or with lyrics tweaked ever so slightly to give the song a new connotation. Whether it’s “Honky Cat” as an extravagant romantic interlude (with Egerton and Richard Madden exchanging duet vocals while wearing kimonos), or “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” as a conversation between Egerton and Celinde Schoenmaker about Elton’s sham marriage to his friend Renate, or the stunning showstopper “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”, as a parting of the ways between Elton and his longtime friend and songwriter Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), this is not only a clever exhibition and jukebox musical, but it is fundamentally a transformative work. This film didn’t make me want to listen to Elton John’s music per se (although I have done that) – it made me want to listen to the film’s soundtrack on repeat. And I have done exactly that, over and over again since I saw it. And I don’t just enjoy it for the clever arrangements and plot beats… Egerton’s vocals are uniformly outstanding. Of all the films I saw this year, this is the one I have rewatched the most times, and the one I expect I’ll keep watching the most for years to come. In a year of challenging films I’ll probably never see again, it’s an easy pick for #1.

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #156 – “Joker” (dir. Todd Phillips), “Rocketman” (dir. Dexter Fletcher)

Near Misses

Films that would have made my Top 10, had I seen them before December 31. Check out our podcast (coming soon)!
One was more or less an antidote for the other, and they are both outstanding.

  • Uncut Gems (directed by Josh and Benny Safdie)
  • Little Women (directed by Greta Gerwig)

Honorable Mentions:

  • Prospect (directed by Zeek Earl and Chris Caldwell)
  • 1917 (directed by Sam Mendes) (podcast)
  • John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (directed by Chad Stahelski)
  • Jojo Rabbit (directed by Taika Waititi)
  • Hustlers (directed by Lorene Scafaria)
  • Us (directed by Jordan Peele)
  • Avengers: Endgame (directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo)
  • High Flying Bird (directed by Steven Soderbergh)
  • Little Woods (directed by Nia DaCosta) (podcast)
  • Ad Astra (directed by James Gray)
  • My Name is Dolemite (directed by Craig Brewer) (podcast)
  • The Wandering Earth (directed by Frant Gwo)
  • El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie (directed by Vince Gilligan)
  • Triple Frontier (directed by J.C. Chandor) (podcast)
  • Toy Story 4 (directed by Josh Cooley)
  • Putin’s Witnesses (directed by Vitaliy Manskiy) (podcast)
  • Giant Little Ones (directed by Keith Behrman)

2018 Glennies (Top 10 Films of 2018)

#11: They Shall Not Grow Old

Directed by Peter Jackson

I usually make an excuse for my #11, but I’ve got nothing this time. Just couldn’t stand to leave this one out. Now let me ply you with an anecdote. I was visiting coastal North Carolina one year, and we stopped at a historical site of a former Confederate fort during the American Civil War, Fort Fisher. This fort sits at the mouth of the Cape Fear River, and was thus a crucial choke point for the port city of Wilmington, where the Confederacy continued to trade in tobacco and cotton (and other commodities supported by slavery) throughout the war. The Union knew it needed to seize this point in order to complete its blockade of the port. After an initial failed attempt in December of 1864 (which resulted in a Union Major General being relieved of command for disobeying General Grant’s orders to put the fort under siege if their assault should fail), the Union tried again in early January 1865 with a force of nearly 10,000 troops and 58 ships. After a vicious battle (which included a lot of close-quarters hand-to-hand combat), the Union took the fort and demolished significant portions of it. In the process, they successfully blockaded Wilmington, depriving the Confederacy of its last port, and serving as a major contribution to the end of the war. If you visit the historical site today, you’ll see many of the original earthworks intact, as well as many of the original (or later restored) walls and cannons. You can walk the site and see the exact spots where the close-quarters battle played out. Then you can go into the visitors’ center, where an elaborate fiber-optic audio-visual display and diorama awaits to explain the progress and significance of the battle (you can get a sense of it here).

I mention this because it’s one of the few experiences in my life that I can describe using the phrase, “History comes alive.” There’s something about being there, seeing the sights and hearing the simulated sounds of a real event that was experienced by real people in that exact spot, that renders the experience a meaningful part of your reality. People lived here. People fought here. People died here. I now have another item to add to this list, and that’s Peter Jackson‘s stellar documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old, which has earned the same pedigree. By enhancing original newsreel footage from the Western Front of World War I using modern color, visual effects, frame interpolation (to bring it up to a modern 24fps), as well as a complete and original soundscape to gird the voiceover contributions of hundreds of real World War I veterans that were recorded over the years by the BBC and the Imperial War Museum, Jackson has crafted nothing short of a cinematic time machine that can now be experienced by the entire world, without having to travel anywhere in person to do it. The storytelling mechanic of the film is similar to that of György Pálfi‘s Final Cut: Ladies and Gentlemen, cutting together footage and audio from many individual soldiers, and using them to tell a semi-continuous story of a single, anonymous soldier – arriving, fighting, and dying on the Western Front – whose face constantly changes. This was a bold choice, as it ran the risk of becoming disjointed or taking the audience out of the film emotionally as their minds told them that the smash cut from an individual 19-year-old man (with terrible teeth) smiling and playing cards during rec time outside of the trench, to a similar-looking but obviously different person lying dead in the mud, was merely a representative figure and not a literal piece of storytelling. As I began to notice this, I expected it to bother me more, but I found that it did not. Perhaps this is because we already consume war history in this way generally. The end of the Great War had its centennial this year, and war is the great anonymizer. It destroys lives, and it destroys individual stories – and likewise, when it comes to studying a conflict as complex as World War I, we never learn the fates of individual soldiers in the meat grinder that was the Western Front. We see battlefield statistics. Perhaps a few artifacts. The rest of them – a collection of human tragedies – are lost to history, except for those they left behind, who may only know the barest details of how their loved ones died.

Jackson accepted no directing fee for this film, and notes in an interview that while he only used about 90 minutes of footage in the film, his production company restored the entire 100 hours that they received from the Imperial War Museum. In this way, the film’s title has a double meaning, as both a line from the Ode of Remembrance, and a promise to the future. Preservation of history is an active process that requires hard work and dedicated individuals to keep alive. Building on the work of archivists and soldiers – most long since deceased – who helped to to share these stories over the decades following the Great War, Jackson stands on the shoulders of giants with this film. But in the process, he has performed a great service to the world and to students of history, and has surely become one of the giants himself.

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #144 – “Aquaman” (dir. James Wan), “They Shall Not Grow Old” (dir. Peter Jackson)

#10: Tully

Directed by Jason Reitman, written by Diablo Cody

Eighth Grade appears on this list as an unrelenting hellscape that merely feels real to me, but Tully is an unrelenting hellscape with which I have some intimate familiarity. The first third of this film, about the experience of parenting a brand new baby (which I’ll be going through for the second time this year), played like a documentary. You’re never alone, but nighttime with a baby is lonely time. And it’s time that seems to stretch on. Tully (Mackenzie Davis) is brought in as a sort of parenting surrogate to show up at night and help tackle this early period so you can get some godforsaken sleep. More on her in a moment, since she arrives only after we’ve spent 30 minutes getting to know Marlo (Charlize Theron), who is in peak not-giving-a-fuck territory as she’s horribly third-trimester pregnant with her third child. She grabs a coffee and deals with a judgmental stranger who informs her that “decaf still has trace amounts of caffeine” and feels huge and tired and useless all the time, even as her kid’s school informs her delicately (saying without actually saying anything specific) that they’re sick of dealing with her weird son’s bullshit. Diablo Cody knows how to speak the awkward truth and make me squirm in my seat, and this felt like as true and unglamorous a portrayal of motherhood and parenthood as has ever been put to screen. Marlo and Tully’s relationship is quite fascinating, and I don’t want to delve too far into it, except to say that she’s fascinating as both character and construct, and Davis’ performance is marvelous. She’s meant to be an unnerving Mary Poppins figure with no real inner life of her own, and yet it comes out in unexpected ways as she and Marlo delve into deeper topics in their late-night gab sessions. There’s a lot here, and it’s only clear why by the end. This is one of two Jason Reitman films I saw this year, and it is surely the one that will stick with me.

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #140 – “Five Fingers for Marseilles” (dir. Michael Matthews), “Tully” (dir. Jason Reitman)

#9: The Bold, the Corrupt, and the Beautiful

Written and directed by Yang Ya-che

The Bold, The Corrupt, and the Beautiful is a Taiwanese gangster film about a trio of women (well, two women and a teenage girl) who collectively run a respectable crime family. Madame Tang (Kara Hui), ostensible land baron and antiques dealer, and the wife of a general, is the Godmother – and this is surely the finest portrayal of a Mob matriarch I’ve seen since Jacki Weaver in Animal KingdomMadame (who is only ever known as such) is firmly in charge, and handles the respectable side of the business, dealing with high-ranking government bureaucrats and military officials alike as her daughter Tang Ning (Wu Ke-xi) acts as fixer. Ning is a fascinating character – we first meet her in an act of sloppy tardiness for an important meeting (specifically, a drugged-up threesome), but this character is defined for the rest of the film by her shrewd competence bordering on ruthlessness, as well as her effortless charisma. Wu is delivering something akin to Audrey Hepburn‘s performance in Breakfast at Tiffany’s here (a comparison I make with all appropriate irony), instantly taking command of whatever room she’s in, shepherding whatever problem (usually a person) off to another room to be dealt with permanently. And she’s always fine, even when she’s not fine, because she has to be. She’ll only ever break this persona in private, with the members of her family, who are mostly having none of it. Her sister Tang Chen (Vicky Chen) is the quietest of the bunch – Chen (I’m referring to the actress) is of an appropriate age to play the character, and watching this child take in everything that’s happening around her creates some remarkable tension as to what we’ll finally see when her shell cracks and we learn what she actually thinks of all of this.

I can’t say too much more here. The film, which chronicles a shocking multiple murder and its aftermath, contains one of the most complicated mob plots I’ve ever seen, and utilizes a framing device of a flashback from long after these events are over, repeating scenes (often recontextualizing things we’ve already seen, with additional character details), as well as a Greek chorus in the form of a pair of string players on a sort of Kabuki diorama set (definite Japanese influence on display in this film), who will periodically explain what’s going on and what it means. Like voiceover, this is a mechanic that needs to be used carefully, so as not to cover for shortcomings in the screenwriting or overstay its welcome. This sounds a bit obnoxious as I describe it, but I can assure you it’s not – it’s used just enough here. Right when I was on the edge of losing the thread of the plot, the singers would pop in with a bit of musical context. The film is thematically rich, with religion (in this case, Buddhism) mingling with Madame Tang’s criminality in an interesting way – similar to, but culturally distinct from, Catholicism’s pall over films about the Sicilian mob. And the relationship between these three women, as the crimes and corruption and police investigations play out, we come to understand in greater depth over the course of the film. The film utilizes sex, violence, and some brief sexual violence sparingly – and in a manner that passed the storytelling scrutiny that I tend to apply to such scenes. Like The Godfather before it, the tragedy and triumph of this film is not in any one incident, nor is it in the progress of a family seeking to advance itself at any cost, no matter how much of an impact it has on each of them as individuals. It is in the horrific, intergenerational cycle of violence and expectation and torment that they each inflict upon themselves, and promise to keep inflicting into the future. Yang Ya-che’s film demands a great deal from its audience, but it’s a trip. And I hope it finds its way onto a streaming platform so that more Americans can check it out.

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #133 – “American Animals” (dir. Bart Layton), “The Bold, The Corrupt, and the Beautiful” (dir. Yang Ya-che) (SIFF)

#8: BlacKkKlansman

Directed by Spike Lee, written by Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott and Spike Lee

This one’s personal. There came a moment, shortly after Donald Trump was elected president, that I realized profanity had become completely inoffensive to me. I promise I’m not being topical here; I wrote most of this before the word “motherfucker” led the news cycle this week. And don’t get me wrong, I’ve had sprinkled it throughout my speech since early adolescence. That sprinkling became more frequent as I got that unearned personal confidence that we millennials received in lieu of inflation-adjusted wage increases since 1979, but…at a certain point, I simply stopped believing that keeping society polite was a good or useful outcome. Perhaps it was the sad little Nazis with tiki torches marching in Charlotte telling me that (((I))) would not replace them, before one of their terrorist friends murdered an innocent woman. Perhaps it was the 81% of White Evangelicals, a demographic I grew up in, who decided that Jesus’ favorite politician would be a gleeful philanderer, tax cheat, liar, racist, xenophobe, and coward. Maybe it’s our giddy embrace of apocalyptic, man-made climate change. One way or another, our zeitgeist became more overtly obscene to me, and I’ve found myself uniquely primed for a movie that was willing to have some fucking balls when it came to describing it. And that film, this year, was unquestionably Spike Lee‘s BlackKkKlansman.

I’m using “balls” in the illustrative sense here – embracing the seven dirty words doesn’t mean sacrificing all decorum, of course. But this film, which takes place in the 1970s, perfectly describes the inception of the Ku Klux Klan’s strategy to take their hateful ideology mainstream, and puts words into the mouth of David Duke (an unnervingly hilarious performance from Topher Grace) about their plans to move their burning crosses into a three-piece suit, couch their racism in neutral-sounding terms like “law & order”, and bring them squarely into the mainstream of Republican Party politics, and eventually the White House. Is this a reach, and a bit of present-day glibness about the past? Absolutely. But I don’t mind it. Because I’m sick to death of the media and culture and Republican Party politicians who’ve spent the last two years tiptoeing around the fact that the President of the United States is the most powerful white supremacist in history, and this movie isn’t afraid to say it, even as it tells a thoroughly entertaining period police drama in which such commentary is as unexpected as it is unsubtle. I’m not reading this into film – it literally ends with footage of the Charlottesville rally and a “Rest in Power” message to the murdered activist Heather Heyer. But before that, there comes a moment where police detective Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is asking his partner Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), with whom he has successfully infiltrated their local Colorado Springs Klan chapter:

“Why haven’t you bought into this? …you’re Jewish, brother. The so-called chosen people. You’ve been passing for a WASP. White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, cherry pie, hot dog, white boy. Mmm. It’s what some light-skinned black folks do. They pass for white. Doesn’t that hatred you’ve been hearing the Klan say…doesn’t that piss you off?”

In light of the first paragraph, it’s hopefully apparent the extent to which this rant spoke to me personally. And its coterie of outstanding performances and taut police drama – along with a graphic personal account of a 1916 lynching of a mentally challenged child (link is to a BBC documentary, which contains disturbing, graphic content), delivered with appropriate solemnity by a fictional witness and friend (Harry Belafonte) – certainly helped. But it’s fair to say that this film resonated with me so much because I now understand – with the help of friends from marginalized groups that have known this for much longer – something that I didn’t embrace until recently as a self-styled white boy. Whatever I call myself, it’s the violent racists who set the rules of engagement. They decide who’s inside and who’s out, and drive policy and violence alike to achieve that aim – and that’s true even if some of them would be quite stupid enough to let me into their sad little club if I said the right dirty words about myself in their presence (like both Driver and Washington do so effectively and disturbingly here). This is a story of triumph – the good guys over the bad – even if its climax, foiling a bomb plot, is a complete fiction. More to the point, it’s a call to action that the United States sorely needs right now: to identify, infiltrate, and destroy these assholes before they can get any firmer of a foothold.

#7: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman, written by Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman

I’m still annoyed at Solo: A Star Wars Story for wasting so much of the time and creativity of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (and for turning Kessel Run fanwankery into permanent canon; don’t @ me), but Disney’s loss was…and another division of Disney’s gain, I suppose. I knew of Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) from back when Donald Glover was being quasi-drafted on social media to play the role (eventually doing just that), but I had little interest in the character – he was just another Spider-Man. Ditto Spider-Gwen, Spider-Pig (or is it Spider-Ham?) or any of the other essentially interchangeable spider-heroes that just sounded like the same lack of creative focus and inconsistent quality that doomed Andrew Garfield‘s incarnation of the character. How wrong I was.

Often, when a film is described as a “loving tribute” (as this rightfully should be), it’s a slightly backhanded compliment. It suggests niche appeal or some mandatory reading required beforehand. But Spider-Verse‘s ethos that “Anyone can wear the mask” is more than just an overdue cry for inclusive casting, and it’s not a dilution of the brand – it’s a joyous celebration of a beloved character. And all you need to know going into this film is who Spider-Man is, why you love him so much, and that this film seemlessly merges different visual and animation styles into one of the most innovative animated films in a decade. As the whole Spider-Verse spills its incarnations into Miles’ world (which is not our own – small touches like the PDNY, some amusing parody film posters, and unexpected incarnations of known characters spell this out over the course of the film), Miles remains the beating heart of this film – a new take on the teenage prodigy discovering his powers for the first time amid the existential chaos of realizing he’s surrounded by other Spider-Men and that his story – while the most interesting and terrifying thing that has ever happened to him – is not unique. And he’s not alone. It certainly helps that Miles is eminently likable and has interesting personal stakes, but he also has well-written banter with the rest of the team, from the more ridiculous, quip-driven members, such as cartoon pig Peter Porker (John Mulaney) and hard-boiled Spider-Noir (Nicolas Cage), to the more serious and slightly pathetic Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson) who is living the same life as the Peter Parker (Chris Pine) from Miles’ universe, just with a bit less personal success. And no Christmas album.

Among the two December superhero flicks that exceeded my expectations, this is easily the better of the two (and it deserves greater box office success than Aquaman, even if that genie is firmly out of the bottle). See it in theaters while you can, in 3D if you can. It is easily the best superhero film of the year, and perhaps one of the greatest of all time.

#6: Leave No Trace

Directed by Debra Granik, written by Granik & Anne Rosellini, based on novel by Peter Rock

In 2016, my #10 was a three-way tie for “Weirdos in the Wilderness”, which was mostly an excuse to talk about Swiss Army Man a lot. But I feel the need to single out Debra Granik‘s Leave No Trace as a crowning achievement in the genre. This is perhaps because – like her previous narrative feature Winter’s Bone – it presents another stellar up-and-coming young actress, Thomasin McKenzie, who plays Tom, the daughter of Will (Ben Foster), a war vet with PTSD, and the pair of them live…well, in the wilderness. But here’s the thing. Unlike a film like Captain Fantastic, with Viggo Mortensen raising 7 kids as physical and intellectual prodigies who jog up a mountain every morning before debating Nabokov in their trailer, this film has a streak of realism that’s not a mere side order to the heart and wish-fulfillment. Sure, living in the woods away from civilization might be fun for a while. But what Leave No Trace seems to understand is that there’s something a bit off about anyone who chooses this life repeatedly when faced with alternatives, and it’s keen to explore that atypicality with depth and compassion. Will and Tom have a deep familial affection for each other, but they’re really not okay. They’re living in a forest park, hiding from the rangers who are there to ensure that Tom goes to school and is well taken care of, and even as Will is keeping his daughter well-versed in survival skills (including escape and evasion), it’s clear that she has a few skills and desires that he is fundamentally incapable of experiencing or providing for – namely, those that involve interacting with other humans in the outside world. Tom can occasionally fake it – there’s an amazing moment halfway through the film where the pair attends a church service with a private landowner who is playing host and patron to them, and Tom tells his daughter afterward that they’re merely going because if you go to church when asked, people make certain positive assumptions about you. This is both a bleak and insightful picture of community as a form of social camouflage. Clutching a hymnal to your face as if it’s a copy of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to Acting Normal, in lieu of actually dealing with the decision to attend or not attend in any consequential way. This film has a lot to say about family, community, and mental health, but it does so in an appropriately subtle fashion, with Foster having to convey a great deal of personal anguish in the guise of a character who speaks very few actual words, even to his closest confidante and only companion in the world. It merely seeks to examine the relationship between these two, and allow us to subtly absorb what behaviors each of them considers normal, and what sort of life each of them wants to live.

#5: Eighth Grade

Written and directed by Bo Burnham

I can’t speak to how well this film encapsulates the current adolescent experience (particularly for girls), but it sure feels real to me – and while much of its resonance is specific to the modern era, with digital natives who spend their entire adolescence sharing bits and pieces of themselves, with appropriate filtration and automatic touchup, a great deal of it feels recognizable to me as part of the horrific in-betweener time that is eighth grade. Elsie Fisher is a precious soul whose performance as Kayla Day is such a natural and effortless awkward, cringe-inducing hellscape that I teetered back and forth between admiring her acting chops and pondering the extent to which making this film was an act of real-world adolescent torture. An eighth grade pool party, are you freaking kidding me? That’s hell. I don’t care if you were the wallflower or the fat kid or the popular kid – nobody was thrilled to be there. By letting Kayla speak her piece through the mantle of a little-watched YouTube series, the film extracts a great deal of insight about her inner life, which largely remains silent and introverted throughout the rest of the film. In my head-canon, this is perhaps a plausible prequel to Lady Bird, despite the totally different dynamic at work between Kayla and her single dad (Josh Hamilton). Mark Day is doing fine, and Kayla is doing as well as can be reasonably expected, and it seems like these two will be fine, hopefully, once she’s done being a kid and starts the process of becoming a young lady. And I was rather pleased to see a film present an example of strained, awkward, but fundamentally capable and ordinary fatherhood. Some little details, like her sitting, earbuds blaring, relentlessly scrolling her phone at dinner (which is established as a Fridays-only privilege at the dinner table), before her dad briefly interrupts her with some encouragement and she screams at him to stop being weird and let her be on her phone. THIS IS FINE. This film was simultaneously poignant, true-to-life, and excruciating to watch, and it feels suspiciously like a loving missive to a target audience of children who are just putting themselves out into the world for the first time. Eighth Grade is a heartfelt assurance – perhaps what was missing from previous attempts like Boyhood, which has aged poorly in my memory – that as they discover their new identities, navigate their new relationships, and decide upon the lives they want – they’ll figure it all out eventually.

#4: Mission: Impossible – Fallout

Written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie

Tom Cruise is one of the most daring and hard-working actors in Hollywood, and this film is the crowning achievement in a franchise that has lapped both 007 and Bourne to become the undisputed champion of the 21st century spy genre. And I feel utterly baffled to be typing that sentence as a part of a Top 10 list in the Year of our Lord 2019. How did we get here? How did the Fast and Furious crew and the IMF come to be contenders in the same business as even as the legacy Cold War dinosaurs have struggled to answer such simple and inane questions as “Can James Bond be black?” (yes, obviously)

The Mission: Impossible franchise has been the sleeper in this genre, with producer J.J. Abrams and writer/director Christopher McQuarrie (and one turn by Brad Bird) bringing the franchise’s second trilogy into stark relief as a series of films that is built entirely on a tower of What Insane Thing Can We Make Tom Cruise Do For Real This Time, which has previously included some precarious wirework on the Burj Khalifa, and strapping him to the outside of a cargo jet during takeoff. In this film, that list includes a real-life HALO jump and actually learning to fly a helicopter, in a sequence that is easily the finest (and only) real-life helo chase I’ve seen since, what, Outbreak (1995)? This wasn’t a form of action that I even realized I was starving for until Tom Cruise and the stellar M:I stunt team gave it to me, and it continues the pattern that the series has established: Make the action appear at breakneck speed. Make it continue where you think it’ll stop, and stop where you think it’ll continue, and at all times, make me care about the characters. Just like the Fast and Furious crew, the IMF is all about family now. And that family includes such disparate rogues as Ving Rhames‘ veteran techie (who handles more plot and emotion in this film than the last two combined), Simon Pegg‘s earnest field agent (who has come a long way from his Q days), Alec Baldwin‘s Secretary, and Rebecca Ferguson‘s enigmatic Ilsa Faust, a master spy and love interest that barely deserves the latter moniker, whose story is such a rich and dire reflection of Ethan’s own that it deserves its own spin-off. This is an instant classic, and – in a true feat for the sixth entry in a franchise, one of the best action and spy films ever made.

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #138 – “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” (dir. Christopher McQuarrie)

#3: Bodied

Directed by Joseph Kahn, written by Alex Larsen

Joseph Kahn‘s filmography includes a physics-defying motorcycle-themed Fast and Furious knockoff, a short film featuring adult Power Rangers, a bizarre high-school horror farce, every recent Taylor Swift video, and now…a brilliant satire about racism, sensitivity, and political correctness, through the lens of competitive freestyle rap battles, produced by none other than self-styled Rap God Eminem. Let’s talk about political correctness for a moment. When a certain sector of American politics uses this term, they just mean they’re tired of being called racist when they say and do racist things and elect outspoken racists to the White House. If you find yourself in this position, look inward, and probably avoid this film, because I suspect its message – delivered with some subtlety between the violently offensive language and insult repartee – may elude you.

Don’t get me wrong – just because the American right-wing has little self-awareness about their snowflake status when they complain about being called out for their voluntary words and deeds by people who voluntarily dislike them, the very first people to be deservingly eviscerated in this film are white liberal intellectuals such as myself. When Adam (Calum Worthy) and his girlfriend Maya (Rory Uphold) arrive at a dingy warehouse to observe their first freestyle rap competition, and Adam begins translating the lingo for his girlfriend (“Probably just assume everything is a gun metaphor”), your first understandable reaction will be…what a pair of pretentious assholes. Then Adam meets his rap battle mentor Behn Grymm (Jackie Long) and informs him that his Berkeley English thesis will be on the subject of the N-word in competitive rap battles, this initial impression will be all but confirmed.

Because when it comes down to it, all of these people are skilled performers, and the surface-level racist and sexist insults are both what the audience expects, and a marker that you’re a total hack as a performer. Funny usually overrides offensive, but there’s no rule that says anyone has to like you when you’re done speaking your piece, nor to invite you back ever again. These people are ostensibly combatants, but they’re really more like coworkers. And a skilled performer will only cross unforgivable professional and personal lines if they mean to. and they certainly won’t have any right to complain afterward. A few secondary characters, Prospek (Dumbfoundead) and Devine Write (Shoniqua Shandai) explore this motif in further detail, and it’s to the film’s minor detriment that this plotline wasn’t given a bit more room to breathe. But there’s plenty going on with Adam’s descent into madness to carry the film. The film’s Wiki page mistakenly declares that villain is a (legitimately terrifying) rapper named Megaton (Dizaster, who wrote all of his own lyrics for this film). But the truth is, Adam is the villain. He is his own worst enemy, and watching the tension that ensues as Behn Grymm tries to pull him back from the brink of becoming an utter monster is the real conflict that drives the film. Worthy is a stunning heel (and an excellent battler), but it’s Long that makes this film work. He’s the Obi-Wan, doomed to train a monster who will turn directly and willingly to the dark side. It’s just a matter of how far he goes, what consequences he faces, and whether there’s any chance of pulling him back.

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #135 – “Tag” (dir. Jeff Tomsic), “Bodied” (dir. Joseph Kahn) (SIFF)

#2: Sorry to Bother You

Written and directed by Boots Riley

There comes a moment in Boots Riley‘s masterpiece, Sorry to Bother You, when Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) sits in dank luxury with a sociopathic executive (Armie Hammer), who begins a hilariously earnest monologue in which he’s desperate to explain and normalize the fucked up thing that is happening in the third act of this film. “See?” he says, brandishing a gun, “It’s all just a big misunderstanding. I just didn’t want you to think I was crazy – that I was doing this for no reason.”

That, perhaps as much as the performance and street art of Cash’s on-again, off-again girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson), seems to be the point of the film. To present a captivating, corporate-dystopian portrait of Oakland – a city that is having quite the cinematic renaissance in the past few years – that’s equal parts Neal Stephenson, Michel Gondry, and David Kronenberg. I first became aware of Stanfield as the lead in Crown Heights, and if there’s one thing he balances well as he carries another lead role, it’s Cassius’ fundamental moral dilemma – remain a decent human being in a happy relationship, or make money and find success in a world that will only allow him to do so if he veers toward evil. It’s a familiar, Faustian tale told with an original and authentic voice (including affected “white voices” for several of the leads, with Cash’s played by David Cross, Detroit’s by Lily James, and Mr. _____, an anonymous foil played by Omari Hardwick, voiced by Patton Oswalt) – and unlike other memorable audience surrogates like Bing in Black Mirror or [any lead in any film about Wall Street], Cash is thick with hilarious repartee (including a duel of compliments) and is buoyed by an outstanding supporting cast. Tessa Thompson, who has become an honest-to-goodness movie star in record time, is a fine choice for Detroit, but she only works because Riley clearly cares as much about the character being fully realized as Thompson does. Every detail of Detroit, from her outspoken opposition to the capitalist excess of the film’s world (and the real world by extension), to the assortment of profane feminist t-shirts and slam poetry earrings (with all due credit to costumer Deirdra Govan, as well as Riley and Thompson) – to her artistic and narrative and sexual agency, simply works. The film’s critiques of the role of labor in what it would certainly call late-stage capitalism is central to the film’s plot, and…I really can’t say much more about it, except to say that this sort of critique is veering firmly into the mainstream than when it’s featured in over-the-hill, libertarian legacy media like South Park. But while Trey Parker and Matt Stone are able to cloak their literal recitation of the Communist Manifesto under untold layers of irony, this film wears its sincere and unapologetically radical-leftist rage on its sleeve. And it believes the future for workers – particularly workers of color – is quite bleak indeed.

#1: The Favourite

Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, written by Deborah Davis & Tony McNamara

At the risk of being terribly on-the-nose, The Favourite is my favourite this year. I saw this film on the night of December 31st, and I’m quite sure I’ve succumbed to recency bias here, because it’s the only one I’ve wanted to talk about since seeing it (we’ll be reviewing it on the podcast next week), and the only one I’ve wanted to put in the #1 slot. Like The Lobster (my 2016 fave), this film was directed by Yorgos Lanthimos and stars Rachel Weisz and Olivia Colman, but unlike that film, it was not co-written by Lanthimos himself. It began its life with screenwriter Deborah Davis and producer Ceci Dempsey in 1998, which means it took twenty years for a period costume drama featuring a love triangle between three women – an aspect that is barely hinted at in the trailer) – to get made. And it’s quite unclear how to categorize what I’m watching here. Is this tale of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) and her two warring lovers, Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough (Weisz), and her cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), some form of secret history? Speculative fiction? A bit of both? A quick perusal of Wikipedia finds that the broad strokes of this story are true, and all of this taking place during the War of the Spanish Succession – the continuation of which is the subject of sharp political controversy in the film – lends an element of higher stakes to a proceeding that is already made monumentally entertaining with the wicked court dialogue and copious profanity. The word “va-juju” appears in this film, and I’m not entirely sure it existed prior to this century (although “fuck” certainly did) – but this language feels like a sort of Deadwood-style profanity-as-shorthand – using anachronistic language to try and make a modern audience react in the same way as people of the time might have done. And it works. These people are fiendishly cruel, playing their power games in a petty and representative fashion over a conflict that will spill real blood and treasure and affect the lives of millions in the real world.

And did I mention the sharp tongues? There are barbs in this film that made me want to take a sip of seltzer just so I could spit it out. There is a particular moment where Abigail greets a wigged and blushed nighttime visitor (with whom she’s been engaging in a steady and aggressive flirtation). She sets down her book, looks him up and down, and asks, “What an outfit. Have you come to seduce me or rape me?” “I am a gentleman!” he protests. “So, rape then,” she says dryly, before stealing his wig, wiping off his blush, kiss-biting his lip, and sending him on his way.

Whether it was dance parties, duck races, orange-pelting, formal break-dance parties, or darkly hilarious scenes such as the one above, a persistent reaction I had to this film was “The fuck did I just watch?“. Besides solid supporting work from Joe Alwyn and James Smith, this is perhaps the finest comedic work I’ve seen from Nicholas Hoult, who plays Robert Harley, the leader of the Tory opposition government, perhaps the film’s best practitioner of feckless, weaponized indignation (after reading this, Harley would surely ask me if I want to get punched before huffing and walking away). The relationship between Sarah and the Queen is extremely well-developed by the time the film begins, full of history and nicknames and court dynamics and comfortable banter. Sarah isn’t merely the royal favourite; she is a deservedly trusted advisor who can be depended upon to tell the truth, even when it hurts…but who is also transparently manipulating the Queen to support her own political aims. And the tension at work between all of these aspects of Sarah’s identity in this relationship – advisor, lover, confidante, and independent thinker – must come to a head. If Abigail hadn’t blown the whole thing up, something else surely would have. Abigail, meanwhile, is an obscure cousin of a family whose grandfather produced 22 offspring, and it’s no surprise that Sarah neither knows who she is nor has any particular desire to help her. Abigail is earnest, ruthless, and self-serving. She arrives, sexually harassed and dumped into mud and horse-apples from a carriage, and it’s all par for the course in a life that included being sold as a teenager to pay off her father’s debt to a German merchant. And she’ll tell Sarah all about these things, gaining her trust, and effortlessly advancing her station. But the most fascinating thing about Abigail is that it’s never quite clear if she’s intentionally competing, or merely advancing herself at any cost in a zero-sum game. It really doesn’t seem like she desires to take anything away from Sarah, but she’s happy to steal the Queen’s favor from her if that’s the only way she can have it. The Queen, meanwhile – apparently Colman’s third royal performance – is in a rotten state. In flagging health, barely interested in the affairs of state – cruel, self-indulgent, and capricious. And yet deeply covetous of love, and constantly surrounded by the insincere and insecure variety of the same.

While I’m not quite sure how to characterize its factual basis, the broad details of The Favourite are more-or-less, kinda-sorta-not-really accurate, the performances are stellar, and the love triangle that is central to the film’s conflict is fascinating in its depth and subtlety. What’s more, the film is relentlessly funny even as it honestly tackles some dour real-life material (Queen Anne’s husband was dead by this point, and she had had 17 miscarriages, stillbirths, or deaths in childhood – and no surviving offspring). These performances work because the characters are never afraid to speak their truth to each other, even as they’re back-biting and plotting on each other. And all of this chipper pretense, intercut with casual cruelty and shocking threats of violence, helps call out the ever-present voice of director Yorgos Lanthimos. This film is less of a dense meatball than his usual fare; it’s more of a chocolate mousse that you want to spread out over everything and never stop eating. It feels less like Downton Abbey and more of a spiritual successor to Patrice Leconte‘s Ridicule or Stanley Kubrick‘s Barry Lyndon. It is rich, decadent, with cinematographer Robbie Ryan (a new visual partner with Lanthimos) utilizing a whip-panning fish-eye lens that drinks in every detail of the floor-to-ceiling opulence of the palaces and dresses and endless corridors, barely able to contain it all as it literally and optically bulges at the seams. This look and feel is frankly perfect for who and what these people are: larger-than-life and despicable. Sarah wants to bleed the gentry dry with a land tax to continue funding an endless war with the French that the movie never troubles to explain the basis for (frankly, it was a hard sell in real life). As she says to the queen in a Very Serious Voice that “The War is not over – it must continue,” it was hard not to think of the War in Afghanistan as it enters its 18th year of uninterrupted bipartisan support. Sarah is a Whig, the Queen is a Tory, and these party identifications hardly matter, since these people never debate the war with anything but patriotic platitudes and generic insults about the cruel French who will surely be crossing the Channel to sodomize the goodwives of of Cornwall or whatever. How do these people sleep at night? I suspect they’ll find a way, until the Queen’s poorly constitution and whimsical rage sends them clattering into exile and disgrace.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Roma (directed by Alfonso Cuarón)
  • Hereditary (directed by Ari Aster)
  • Blindspotting (directed by Carlos López Estrada)
  • Bird Box (directed by Susanne Bier)
  • Pig (directed by Mani Haghighi) (podcast)
  • Annihilation (directed by Alex Garland) (podcast)
  • The Death of Stalin (directed by Armando Iannucci)
  • 22 July (directed by Paul Greengrass) (podcast)
  • The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen) (podcast)
  • You Were Never Really Here (directed by Lynne Ramsay)
  • Disobedience (directed by Sebastián Lelio)
  • Searching (directed by Aneesh Chaganty)

2017 Glennies (Top 10 Films of 2017)

#11: The Disaster Artist

Directed by James Franco, written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, based on the book by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell

As ever, the #11 slot on my Top 10 list goes to a film that I loved, with some reservations. The Disaster Artist is a thoroughly inessential comic indulgence that is purely for super-fans of The Room. Since I count myself among them, I adored this film (again, with reservations) – but I’ve been doing my very best to discourage others from seeing it unless they fall into that same camp. The original headline for this review was actually, “Fuck it, let’s indulge,” and I went on to say it felt “less like a meal and more like a bowl of miniature Kit Kats”. And that’s honestly fine. Let it never be said that we critics are incapable of taking joy in a film that panders to us so effectively (I did make Hugo my #1 film of its year after all). But you should know going in whether or not this film was specifically made for you.

Check out my full review here:

James Franco’s “The Disaster Artist” – Let’s indulge.

#10: Molly’s Game

Written for the screen and directed by Aaron Sorkin, based on the book by Molly Bloom

It’s probably for the best that I didn’t see I, Tonya until after the New Year, as there’s a good chance it would’ve sparred with this film for the #10 spot. Both films are about aspiring real-life Olympians who get involved in a world of criminality, and Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) is easily as fascinating a persona as Tonya Harding, even if her story is a bit less morally ambiguous. This is just an immensely entertaining crime drama that’s equal parts Rounders-caliber poker flick and taut legal thriller. Sorkin, along with DP Charlotte Bruus Christensen, is a steady hand in his first turn behind the camera, telling a plot-complex and lengthy story in a manner that flies by despite being two-plus hours long, and eliciting four outstanding performances. There are the two you’d expect – Chastain as Bloom, along with Idris Elba as Bloom’s attorney Charlie Jaffey, with the pair spending much of the film debating exactly what Bloom has done, and how much truth there was in her published memoir (which has been written, and is directly addressed in the film). There are also outstanding turns from Kevin Costner as Bloom’s father, and Michael Cera as Player X, an unnamed Hollywood celebrity who may be primarily based on Tobey Maguire. And all I can say about that is…I hope Maguire wasn’t really like this, because Cera effectively plays the character as a voracious sociopath.

Check out our podcast discussion here:

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #124 – “Molly’s Game” (dir. Aaron Sorkin)

#9: Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

Written and directed by Martin McDonagh

Martin McDonagh now has three outstanding features under his belt – In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths, and now this – and each of them has demonstrated some maturation of his storytelling. The third act of Seven Psychopaths is almost a rumination on the writer’s own shortcomings, as the characters (including a screenwriter named Marty) wander off into the desert and debate how the story should end. Three Billboards is about a grieving mother named Mildred (Frances McDormand) who erects a series of billboards demanding to know why her daughter’s rape and murder have gone unsolved for over a year. And while it does strive for some notes of bittersweet ambiguity with its ending, this is a much more laser-focused narrative than anything McDonagh has done previously. It has something ugly to say about small-town America, and it isn’t going to mess with that ugliness for the sake of facile redemption. Sam Rockwell – in his least likable role to date – plays Officer Dixon, a drunken, violent disgrace of a cop who retains his badge despite a town-wide consensus that he tortured an African-American suspect in custody. His superiors and colleagues at the Ebbing PD never really question this narrative (although they do tiptoe around addressing it directly), and Dixon never expresses any remorse, or explains or redeems himself. This goes beyond “flawed protagonist” for me. Dixon is a terrible person who is on the edge of being the film’s biggest villain unless he decides to do his job. This is alongside Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), who is suddenly dealing with Mildred’s PR crisis while simultaneously dying of pancreatic cancer. Naturally, the town turns on Mildred, because she can’t just accept that her daughter’s rape and murder will go unsolved. They’re all on her side, the town priest assures her, just…not about the billboards. Then Mildred gives a cutting speech likening the Catholic Church to a criminal gang of pedophiles, then shows him the door, and I remember why I love McDonagh’s dialogue so much. All of the film’s acerbic little speeches are crafted with theatrical precision – so much so that I wonder if I should be more critical of McDonagh for peppering in quite so much racism. Is he throwing it in because he thinks it’s funny, or because that’s the real world as he sees it? Maybe both? This is the same question I’ve long had about Quentin Tarantino, but he’s perhaps a bit easier to critique when he literally writes himself into his films to rattle off the N-word like punctuation. I saw Three Billboards with a friend – a Chinese-American, as it happens – and she had a blunt answer to this question: “I think it’s fantastic. I’ve had total strangers call me a [racial slur] out of nowhere, multiple times. It doesn’t feel excessive. This is the real world for me.” Fair enough – and in either case, casual racism certainly isn’t the only way in which these characters are nasty to each other.

This film is uncompromising and clever with its plotting, but there’s nothing about it that I would describe as narratively tidy, and that’s exactly what this sad, ugly story needed. And if there’s anything that occurred as frequently as the gladiatorial repartée, it was the surprising flashes of humanity that shone through despite everyone’s posturing. An early scene of verbal sparring between Mildred and Chief Willoughby is interrupted when the latter begins coughing blood (he’s dying, remember), and everything stops, because suddenly, these are just two human beings dealing with one of them having a serious medical crisis. Mildred is no less enraged or committed to her billboard plan, but there is a sudden moment of grace as she embraces the frightened, dying man in front of her and assures him it’ll all be okay. There are multiple moments like this – of people treating each other decently despite having severe and legitimate beefs with each other, and in many cases, having actively made each other’s lives worse over the course of the film – and then suddenly dropping the pretense and just treating each other with honesty or decency, if only for a moment. Mildred’s ex (John Hawkes) repeatedly beats the hell out of her, and they still have multiple semi-cordial conversations. Mildred is strong, but not invulnerable. Willoughby means well, but legitimately fucked this up. Dixon is an almost irredeemable bastard, but manages to do some good. Nobody is a single thing, and everyone in this film retains their flawed humanity – and that’s what makes this story so compelling.

#8: Una

Directed by Benedict Andrews, written by David Harrower (based on his play)

This is a difficult film. Una (Rooney Mara) plays an adult woman who ventures to a remote factory in England to confront her former next-door neighbor, Ray (Ben Mendelsohn), with whom she had an illicit sexual relationship when she was thirteen years old. The pair ran away together (posing as father and daughter), until he abandoned her in a motel. At which point she was recovered and returned to her parents, and he was arrested and sent to prison. He is now living under a new name, and she hasn’t seen him since that night 15 years earlier, and she wants to know why he abandoned her. Did I mention this is a difficult film? Absolutely no good can come of this interaction, and Mara and Mendelsohn extract every last drop of tension out of it. The journey that Una has gone on as both victim and damaged adult is put on merciless display through flashbacks as the pair verbally spar in a windowed breakroom at the factory. It feels like court without the courtroom, and the film presents Una as both accuser and disruption. She is a smasher of the status quo who would make everyone’s lives a lot easier if she would just shut up, go away, and deal with what has happened to her without bothering the rest of us, thank you very much. And that is every bit as uncomfortable as that sounds. In the year of #MeToo, the year in which an unabashed predator of teenage girls (with no legal or moral right to call himself “Judge”) was very nearly elected to the US Senate, this film forces us to watch a conversation that probably doesn’t happen nearly often enough in the real world, and without any sense of vigilante wish fulfillment (à la Hard Candy). Like I said – absolutely no good can come of this interaction. But there is something socially rotten at the core of this story, and Una seems like just the right person at the right time to smash it to bits so it can be washed into the gutter.

Check out our podcast discussion here:

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #121 – “Una” (dir. Benedict Andrews)

#7: Lady Bird

Written and directed by Greta Gerwig

A pair of fine performances by Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf bring glorious life to indie star Greta Gerwig‘s solo directorial debut, which began its life with the title of Mothers and Daughters. Lady Bird certainly seems a more appropriate title for what this film turned out to be – the focus is squarely on the waning high school days and coming-of-age of 17-year-old Christine, who styles herself as “Lady Bird” – a nickname she enforces under threat of leaping from a moving vehicle if her mother Marion should refuse to call her by it. There is an honest bite at the heart of this film that propels it forward – Lady Bird and Marion flit back and forth between harsh bickering and protestations of love, sometimes multiple times during the same scene. But the tone of the film never feels uneven or manipulative. I’ve seen the coming-of-age film that’s trying too hard, and it’s called The Way, Way Back (or Boyhood if you’re nasty) – this isn’t it. The film feels like a fundamentally honest recounting of Lady Bird’s life and times, even as the character is certainly striving to put on a show, trying out various personas and plans as her life unfolds. Ronan adds some marvelously subtle notes to this performance, right down to introducing herself to multiple characters (“I’m LADY-Bird!”) with an ever-so-slight vocal twinge of, “Don’t you just love this awesome nickname I thought up myself?!”. There are no people like show people, and I could watch this awkward emotional powerhouse of a drama kid come out of her shell all day. A note on the time period covered here… Gerwig and I are around the same age, and it appears that I’m now vulnerable to appeals to nostalgia for the time when I was in high school (I quite liked the soundtrack of this film, for reasons I can’t entirely explain or justify). Noted.

#6: Keep Quiet

Directed by Sam Blair and Joseph Martin

At this year’s Seattle Jewish Film Festival, we had the immense pleasure of seeing Keep Quiet, a documentary about Csanád Szegedi, a former far-right, antisemitic political party leader in Hungary who discovers that he has a [still living] Jewish grandmother, which causes a sea change in his political and religious beliefs. Specifically, he goes from being an outspoken neo-Nazi to an orthodox Jewish convert, with the help of a local rabbi, and goes on a speaking tour to denounce his former hatred. And…if this all sounds a bit sanctimonious to you, let me just say: if this had just been a great big pat on the back for tolerance and pluralism, I’m sure it would’ve been rather tedious. But like The Imposter before it, this film’s strength is its ambiguity. How can we ever believe this man has truly changed? Neither his old tribe, nor his new one really seems to buy his conversion, and that’s precisely the tension that’s at the heart of this documentary. And in light of the resurgence of Nazism (even the polo-shirt, tiki-torch variety) in public life in the past year – it couldn’t be more timely. As of this writing, the film is available to stream on Netflix.

Check out our podcast discussion here:

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #108 – “Keep Quiet” (dir. Joseph Martin, Sam Blair) (#SJFF2017)

#5: Graduation

Written and directed by Cristian Mungiu

Graduation is the story of a father and his teenage daughter in a small Transylvanian mountain town. The girl, Eliza (Maria Dragus) is about to graduate from high school. She is an excellent student, about to receive an academic scholarship to Cambridge, and her father Romeo (Adrian Titieni) is desperate to see her succeed and leave their town to seek a better education abroad. Eliza, meanwhile, is in a happy relationship with her local boyfriend, and is noticeably ambivalent about her father’s plans for her. Her fortunes change abruptly when she is brutally attacked outside her school, a sexual assault which ends with a sprained wrist that severely hampers her chances of doing well enough on her final exams to qualify for admission to Cambridge. This dilemma, in and of itself, absorbed me straight away and was certainly enough to carry the film. But Mungiu pulls off something far more subtle and complex as the film goes on – an exploration of a deeply corrupt town in which everyone considers themselves to be honest, but regards greasing the wheels and doing illegal favors for one another as just the way the world works.

The generational conflict between father and daughter is essential to this film. All of the greased palms and sly favors are performed between men of a certain age, but the father’s plot (with a local town political fixer) to help Eliza commit academic fraud will ultimately require her cooperation. This is a tale as old as time – Romeo raised his daughter to do what’s right…until the moment it harms her future prospects. And then it’s time to start making exceptions. There are two separate scenes of Romeo attempting to corrupt Eliza in this film, and each of them is as heartbreaking as it is ethically fascinating. He believes in her – believes in her abilities. And yet he thinks her future has been derailed due to an event for which she bears no blame, so she simply must cheat a little to get back on track.

From my review:

They aren’t the corrupt ones ruining life and making the world unfair for all of us regular people. They are us. And for anyone with the power to break the rules for their own benefit, they are making a conscious choice to bend the moral arc of the universe in the wrong direction. And in the moment, it all feels righteous. Coming back to the film’s American tagline, “A father will do anything to save his daughter’s future,” I’m struck by how much Romeo seems determined that his daughter will follow in his corrupt footsteps. He’s not safeguarding her future, per se – he’s teaching her the same set of privileged skills that led him to his own place in life. Society only functions if there’s a common rule set for everyone, or at least, if that’s everyone’s nominal goal. And Romeo is the epitome of replacing that standard with, “What would you do to give your children a leg up over everyone else?”. Graduation revels in this contradiction – and confronts the viewer with the assurance that if that answer is specific and situational rather than broad and ethical, then civilization is a fragile experiment that is all but destined to fail.

As of this writing, the film is available to stream on Netflix

Check out my review here:

Cristian Mungiu’s “Graduation” – An engrossing tale of societal decay

#4: Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Written and directed by Rian Johnson

The only direct comparison that I’ll make between this film and The Empire Strikes Back is that I believe history will vindicate it as one of the best films of the series.

From my review:

And of course, an epic struggle plays out between the nascent Force-users over which of their destinies Snoke will control this week. But looking back, that all feels like the old, childish Light-and-Dark stuff to me. These people – strong with the Force or otherwise – will chase and blast and slice and blow each other up til the end of the universe, and perhaps the only real villain that the series has left for us to face…is nihilism. Rey tells Luke from the outset that General Leia (Carrie Fisher) sent her to see him for hope. If Leia was wrong, she deserves to know why. “We all do,” says Rey. This poor woman is begging a Jedi Knight for his help, and all he wants to do is stay put and die. Hamill’s performance is impressive, bringing a gruff intensity that thoroughly spells out what a disappointment Luke Skywalker turned out to be, for us, and for himself. He is the flip side of del Toro’s unnamed gangster, neither losing nor profiting from the endless war – instead, simply bowing out. If the Force is what binds all things together in perfect harmony, then hope is as fine an emotion as any to invest in it. But what’s on the other side? Not darkness or evil – those are forces to be actively fought. This is despair. Nothingness. Abrogating your power and purpose in the universe and declaring that it can do whatever it wants, because it’s not your problem anymore. This is some dark stuff coming from Disney, and frankly, a great deal more moral complexity than I expected from a Star Wars film.


I’m taking this film’s narrative ambition as a promise to be fulfilled with the next film. If The Last Jedi dares to challenge the duality of the Light/Dark-side narrative by couching it as a matter of perspective; if it dares to ask the question of why we should be invested in the outcome of a struggle between two flagging military superpowers for any reason besides the names and flags they use to denote their respective teams, the next had better answer the question in a satisfying manner. What is it all for? The Resistance, or the Rebellion, fights for what they love (Rose seems to exist solely to spell out this point) – but they’d better have some idea of what the peace will look like. The First Order – or the Empire – fights for blood, vengeance, and the tautological maintenance of its own power, with its association to the Dark Side as barely an afterthought. They fight to control the galaxy, and their resolve is steeled by having a rebellion to crush. Anyone who wants to win this war will need to figure out what winning looks like. What a better tomorrow looks like. What exactly it is that they’re hoping for. But they’ve got everything they need to sort that out.

Check out my review here:

Rian Johnson’s “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” – What is it all for?

#3: The Big Sick

Directed by Michael Showalter, written by Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon

I’m always pleased when I can place a comedy on this list, especially when it’s one that has already held up to repeat viewing. The Big Sick is written by comedian Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily V. Gordon, based on their real-life courtship, which gets derailed initially due to cross-cultural disagreements (Nanjiani’s family wants him to marry a Pakistani woman of their choosing), and then due to Emily having a serious medical crisis. This kicks off the film’s second courtship: between Nanjiani and his future wife’s parents, a North Carolina couple played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano, who bond as Emily lies in an induced coma.

From my review:

Her parents arrive and are outright hostile toward him, because they know that (as they see it) he broke their daughter’s heart. And yet, they bond. This is some messy, human nonsense right here. There are no clean lines or definitions to these relationships. It is completely unclear to the people involved whether Kumail and Emily will be together at the end of this, or whether these three will have any reason to ever speak again. But still they bond. Because the one thing they all have in common is that they’re all in the trenches on Emily’s team. The parents are a fine portrait of unfathomable worry, but Holly Hunter is particularly masterful. The three make a reluctant foray to a comedy club where Kumail’s show goes awry (and both parents get shockingly profane for the first time), and then they find themselves getting hammered at Emily’s apartment. Kumail and Beth decide to drink whiskey and “stress-eat” after Terry passes out on the couch, and they try to talk about anything but Emily’s impending surgery. Later on, Terry sleeps at Kumail’s place and they chat awkwardly in the dark about the struggles in Terry’s marriage. All of this works. These scenes have time to breathe, and ring constantly true. These people grab onto each other –  not without hesitation – in an impossible situation, and they remain raucously funny as they handle it.

If any marketer for this film is looking for my pull-quote, I’ll offer: “This is some messy, human nonsense right here.” This comedy rings true because it is true, and its level of honesty demonstrates a respect and humility for its characters and story that is often lacking in depictions of real-life romance. Nothing about this was destiny, none of the dialogue is perfect, and none of it had to work out this way. And it’s a beautiful thing.

Check out our podcast discussion here:

‘Silicon Valley’ Showdown: “The Big Sick”, “Entanglement” (#SIFF2017)

#2: Get Out

Written and directed by Jordan Peele

This is one of the most tightly constructed horror films and works of social satire ever made – every detail of the life and dangers surrounding Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) and his girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) serves a dual purpose, as both a deft portrayal of the day-to-day reality of racism faced by African-Americans today, as well as a pillar of the horror-mystery that is gradually taking shape around them. As Chris ventures into upstate New York to meet Rose’s parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener), he starts to realize that something is very wrong with all of the other black people that he meets. They don’t quite speak or act the way he expects. They all seem to have a secret. Something has happened to them…or been done to them. The precise nature of this Stepford mystery is certainly a major component of the film’s appeal, but there’s a lot more to this film than plot revelations. The performances are uniformly outstanding. Kaluuya and Williams sell the quiet moments within this couple with the sort of humanity that is often lacking in horror characters, who will often scream at each other about an impending threat, but fail to ever sell any prior affection in the first place. Keener and Whitford are quietly menacing, Lakeith Stanfield, Betty Gabriel, and Stephen Root have outstanding supporting moments, and a particularly hilarious turn from Lil Rel Howery keeps the film from venturing too far into darkness. As a directorial and horror genre debut, Jordan Peele completely knocks this one out of the park, delivering an intense ride that will keep you thinking long after it’s over.

Check out our podcast discussion here:

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #99 – “Get Out” (dir. Jordan Peele)

#1: A Ghost Story

Written and directed by David Lowery

The concept of this film is a bit goofy. A married couple’s life is shattered when the husband – known only as C – (Casey Affleck) is suddenly killed in a car accident outside their rural home. The wife, M (Rooney Mara), is left to fend for herself as her husband lingers on in the form of a ghost. Literally. The actor Affleck (purportedly never a stand-in) stands beneath a floor-length sheet for the duration of the film – invisible to his grieving widow and everyone else among the living. Did I say a bit goofy? The premise of this film is overtly ridiculous. It’s almost a deliberate riff on the very concept of supernatural horror. Ghosts? Pfft. Even if you believe in them, they’re just dead humans standing around in sheets. Who cares?

But A Ghost Story manages to pull off two stunning tricks. The first is that it occasionally makes its goofball supernatural horror genuinely frightening. As C hangs around his former house, he gets to watch his wife engage in the ugly process of grieving, and eventually move on. And then the house moves on. Other people live, laugh, and love there – and all the while he waits for something that he can’t quite remember, only occasionally getting angry and breaking things. Life goes on for the living, and this film really highlights for the first time what a conceptually sad existence that the ghost myth really posits. Being ignored, forgotten, cuckolded… These things only matter if you’re alive. The idea of a dead person (even as a dude in a sheet) bearing witness to the world moving on without him is incredibly sad, and this is the most thoroughly I’ve ever felt this sadness woven into supernatural horror. This ghost only occasionally startles its audience, but it never stops being frightening. The second trick is that A Ghost Story is really an existential horror film in disguise. At the tail-end of an insufferably brilliant speech by an unnamed partygoer (Will Oldham), the music swells and time rages on as the ghost stands alone to bear witness. This sequence – which I won’t describe in detail – made me feel the fullness and passage of time so acutely that I experienced what I can only describe as a panic attack in the theater as I watched it. And that’s not a phrase I use lightly, as I have friends who have experienced them in a more diagnostically sound fashion. It felt wrong, and too much to bear – and when it was over, my companion and I left the theater in silence as writer/director David Lowery did a Q&A in the theater behind us. It was nearly midnight. Empty lobby, empty sidewalk, empty block. Thunderstruck, we didn’t speak a word until we reached the car. This film hit me like a ton of bricks and hasn’t left my head since.

When Lowery introduced this film to our SIFF audience, he began by invoking the work of the late, great director Abbas Kiarostami, and said that he found the man’s best work to be like a dream – a free-flowing stream of consciousness that you could easily drift in and out of without losing its appeal. He then said he didn’t mind if we fell asleep during his film. This ominous and cryptic introduction made me glad of the Americano I grabbed on the way in, but I’m not sure what to make of it in retrospect. This is a film that lacks a conventional narrative structure, and I suppose is not for everyone in that respect. It’s framed in 4:3 with lengthy scene edits, which didn’t seem like an arbitrary choice, but rather an invitation to get sucked in and share in the characters’ grief and experiences. Life is for the living, and this film’s essential appeal is in watching life go on. The only unwelcome guest is the ghost standing awkwardly in the corner – essentially watching it along with the rest of us. This film will flow over you like a river, forcing you to feel the fullness and enormity of time and life. I’ve long believed that a primary purpose of art is to distract you from your impending demise, and this film makes a deliberate and merciless choice to direct your attention towards it. How dare it.

Check out our podcast discussion here:

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #110 – “A Ghost Story” (dir. David Lowery), “I, Daniel Blake” (dir. Ken Loach)

Honorable Mentions:

  • Call Me By Your Name (directed by Luca Guadagnino)
  • Patti Cake$ (directed by Geremy Jasper)
  • Wind River (directed by Taylor Sheridan)
  • It (directed by Andy Muschietti)
  • Colossal (directed by Nacho Vigalondo)
  • Wonder Woman (directed by Patty Jenkins)
  • Crown Heights (directed by Matt Ruskin)
  • Logan (directed by James Mangold)
  • Glory (directed by Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov)

Biggest Disappointments:

High expectations, low results.

  • Baby Driver (directed by Edgar Wright)
    I really hope I’m not getting too old to appreciate Edgar Wright‘s mad music video hijinks. His previous film, The World’s End, demonstrated some definite growth as a filmmaker and storyteller, and I was really hoping to see that evolution continue. Instead, this film was a mixed bag of solid gangster performances (probably the last one I’ll ever watch from Kevin Spacey, and grand turns by Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm), wasted and one-dimensional female leads, a boring soundtrack with a very high opinion of itself, and action that wasn’t particularly well-choreographed, filmed, or plausibly conceived. This was a fine dance film, but it barely resembles the sort of gangster movie I was hoping Wright could muster, and I found the experience of watching it to be physically exhausting. Check out our podcast for more.
  • mother! (directed by Darren Aronofsky)
    From my review:

    These ideas are all over the place, and for much of the film’s third-act Saturnalia, I found myself wondering whether this was an exercise in self-awareness or egotism on Aronofsky’s part. I haven’t said much about Bardem’s performance here, and that’s for two reasons. First is that Bardem succeeded in making Eli both delightful and repulsive to me – a figure who can conjure up the finest words to promote, justify, and reinforce the most despicable acts that the world has to offer. Second is that I don’t really know how much of an avatar Eli is meant to be for Aronofsky himself. Much of the film’s conflict is over whether or not this couple really cares about each other, as Eli’s persistent neglect of Grace in favor of a gang of strangers is repeatedly justified on the grounds that the experience might help him create more art. Talking with these people, Eli argues, is better than talking to her, because at least they’ve got something novel to say. This is Grace’s lot in this film – not merely the put-upon wife who grapples with her husband’s ingratitude and straying affections, but also a flagging muse, cast against her will as a man’s source of creative light, useless and thrown away as soon as that light has faded. And it doesn’t fade with a wimper. I found myself simultaneously reveling in the film’s excesses and wanting to warn others not to expose themselves to it for the sake of their sanity. This isn’t the best rumination on creativity I’ve seen – not even the best this year. And even while Aronofsky is at the top of his technical craft, I still can’t answer definitively whether his latest exercise in creating, enslaving, and agonizing an innocent woman was really worth it.

  • Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 (dir. James Gunn)
    Turns out my limit of self-indulgence for a Marvel film is 90 completely inconsequential opening minutes before the actual plot begins. And this is easily one of the least visually impressive Marvel films. Nothing about Ego’s planet worked for me, because I never bought for a second that the characters were standing anywhere besides a soundstage. More on the podcast here.

Pleasant Surprises:

Low expectations, high results.

  • Okja (directed by Bong Joon-ho)
    Confession: I’m a meat-eater, and I avoided this film not precisely out of low expectations (although Snowpiercer started out middling and has aged poorly in my memory), but because I didn’t want to feel bad about eating meat, and the film’s trailer suggested this might be little more than cute fantasy-animal torture-porn. Nonetheless, this perhaps suggests that I’m aware there’s something to feel bad about, whether it’s the horrors of factory farming or the environmental impact of raising livestock. And yet, the measure of an effective satire cannot solely be its ability to prod the existing insecurities of its audience, and Okja largely succeeded at being a well-made action-adventure blockbuster on top of its subject matter, about a world in which a big evil agribusiness giant (which might as well be called Bonsanto) creates a huge, grey elephantine creature they call a superpig, in order to feed millions at a lower cost and environmental impact. Their CEO(s), both played by Tilda Swinton, sell this as a miracle of nature, born mysteriously on a farm in Arizona after some careful selective breeding (this is a lie that barely attempts to pretend otherwise). Each superpig is sent to live with a small, local farmer around the world to be raised using whatever method they see fit, and the winner – the one that thrives the most under its farmer’s care – will be crowned “Best Superpig”, an award whose value in unclear, and likely comes with a trip through the meat grinder. Okja is raised on a Korean mountaintop, enjoying a carefree life with its human companion, Mija (played by marvelous newcomer Seo-hyun Ahn). Mija’s adventure in pursuit of Okja is beautifully rendered, and the story retains Bong’s signature darkly comedic streak throughout. Who knew that Paul Dano as an Animal Liberation Front paladin would be so compelling? Ditto Jake Gyllenhaal as a drunken sell-out of a wildlife TV presenter. A vegetarian friend asked me how I can call Okja an effective satire if it failed to make me want to change my diet, and I think this is a fair question…My answer was honestly that I don’t think the film is arguing its point effectively for anyone that doesn’t already have ethical qualms about eating meat. A vegan probably sees a 15-minute sequence in which we learn that Okja is beautiful and compassionate and intelligent and a great friend to humans, and thinks, “Yes! That’s why eating meat is bad!”. I suppose a meat-eater sees the same scene and thinks, “Okay, let’s maybe not eat that particular animal.” There’s a bit of criticism of the consumer for this ambivalence – wanting all-natural, cruelty-free meat production without recognizing that such a thing is impossible. The two Tilda Swintons address this in various ways – the “nice” one saying that it’s the consumers’ fault for being ignorant and paranoid about GM foods (which is certainly true IRL), and the “evil” one stating flatly, “If it’s cheap, they’ll eat it,” while not particularly caring about the animals except for their value as commodities. I don’t think we’re meant to take the plausible words of either of these overt psychopaths at face value, but this film’s third act is a hard watch regardless. The slaughterhouse horrors are large-scale and well-rendered, and their production apparently had a profound effect on Bong himself – he says he became a vegan while making it. This is worth a watch and will stick with you – one way or another.
  • Patti Cake$ (directed by Geremy Jasper)
    An incredibly fun hip-hop musical featuring a career-making performance from Danielle Macdonald as an up-and-coming Jersey rapper. This is a better movie about would-be performers than La La Land, and unlike that film, its array of original songs didn’t leave my head the moment I finished listening to them. Great supporting cast as well, including Mamoudou Athie as a weird, awesome dude named Basterd Antichrist.
  • Justice League (dir. Zack Snyder)
    j/k, this movie is not good. But Sigrid‘s cover of Leonard Cohen’s Everybody Knows” is hauntingly beautiful and worth a listen.

Daniel’s Top and Bottom Films of 2017

Everything above represents Glenn’s top (and bottom) picks for the year – but FilmWonk Podcast co-host Daniel also saw a lot of films this year (we did a record 29 episodes in 2017), and we sometimes disagreed!
Here are Daniel’s Top 5 and Bottom 5 films of 2017.
Top 5:

  1. Molly’s Game
  2. Victoria & Abdul
  3. Keep Quiet
  4. Get Out
  5. A Ghost Story

Bottom 5:

  1. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2
  2. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales
  3. Justice League
  4. Fifty Shades Darker
  5. Wind River

2016 Glennies: Best Picture (Top 10 Films of 2016)

#10: Trifecta:
Weirdos in the Wilderness


Written and directed by Matt Ross (Captain Fantastic)
Written for the screen and directed by Taiki Waititi (Hunt for the Wilderpeople)
Written and directed by Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (Swiss Army Man)

Don’t worry; the rest will be individual films. I don’t know if Wes Anderson slipped something into the water supply last year, but it became clear to me during my December catch-up that “weirdos in the wilderness” were having a cultural moment in 2016 (although the less said about The Legend of Tarzan, the better). I’ve grouped these three together because they all hit a similar level of quality, I went around in circles trying to decide which one to include, and cheating the Top 10 format is a tradition as old as the Glennies. So here we go.

Captain Fantastic is about a man (Viggo Mortensen) raising his children with physical and intellectual rigor in the wilderness of my home state of Washington, jogging them up and down a mountain every morning, quizzing them on string theory and math and literature every afternoon, and answering any question and discussing any topic that they wish, no matter how conventionally inappropriate it might be. This is an odd family forced to confront its oddness as a family crisis sends them onto a road trip, much in the darkly funny, whimsical, and well-acted vein of Little Miss Sunshine.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is about the bond that forms between a weird kid (Julian Dennison) and his cantankerous adoptive uncle (Sam Neill) as they wander through the backcountry of New Zealand and become outlaw folk heroes. Does exactly what it says on the tin.

And finally, Swiss Army Man is about the bond of friendship that forms between a shipwrecked man (Paul Dano) and a talking, farting corpse with superpowers (Daniel Radcliffe). I feel as if I’ve given you plenty to go on with those first two, so let’s talk about Swiss Army Man for a moment. Mary Elizabeth Winstead makes a brief appearance, and her final line of the film (“What the fuck?!”) just about sums this up, and loses nothing in delivery. This is a film like no other, it is alternately heartwarming and horrifying, incredibly well-acted by Dano and Radcliffe, and utterly bizarre in every scene. It is a film about love, friendship, and the meaning of life (all explained in detail to a corpse who has no memory and no verbal filter). And also farts. Mortensen may talk a big game in Captain Fantastic about wanting to live away from civilization, but Swiss Army Man is about a man who might rightfully be drummed out of civilization with torches and pitchforks for being just a bit too weird, and he knows it. And then he and the film examine what exactly it means to be so weird. Each of these films is touching, and inspiring in its own way, but if you want the one that’ll alter your mind (for weal or woe), go with Swiss Army Man.

#9: Under the Shadow

Poster for

Written and directed by Babak Anvari

Shideh (Narges Rashidi) is a mother stuck with her daughter (Avin Manshadi) inside an apartment building in Tehran during the War of the Cities, a series of bomb and missile attacks between Iran and Iraq during the 1980s. This is, on the surface, an outstanding horror film dealing with the Islamic and Arabian legend of Djinn, and Shideh’s struggle to protect her daughter from these vengeful demons as their relationship strains in the process is quite fascinating on its own (see also: The Babadook). But the background elements of this film amp up the stakes even higher. Most horror films deal with the threat of imminent death, but this is seldom rendered quite so literally as, “This building may get hit by a missile and explode at any second.” War is the horror that hangs over this film, and will continue to do so even if the supernatural terror is defeated. The other demon is inside Shideh herself, whose doctor husband is up at the front lines of the war. She simultaneously struggles with fear of his imminent death, and jealousy at the injustice that she was barred from resuming her medical studies after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, due to her involvement with student groups (later deemed to be counterrevolutionary) at her university. Her husband is now on the front lines doing the job that she has been barred from ever doing, and she’s stuck in one terrible situation feeling jealous of another. This is a deep and fascinating twist on the horror genre, and essential viewing when it eventually hits Netflix (the service apparently acquired it at Sundance).

#8: Kubo and the Two Strings

Poster for

Directed by Travis Knight, written by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler

Laika delivers another dark and fascinating stop-motion journey, pushing the medium beyond any limit I could’ve imagined previously, this time through Japanese legend. Kubo (Art Parkinson) is a one-eyed boy with the power to magically move origami figures by playing his guitar, and he uses his supernatural busking to raise money to take care of his ailing sorceress mother Sariatu (Charlize Theron). She warns him that he must never stay out at night, or her sisters (both voiced by Rooney Mara) and father, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) will come back to steal his other eye, having taken his first eye when he was a baby. And that is one hell of an origin story. This quickly escalates into an active chase, Kubo on the run with his burgeoning magical powers, with only his companions Monkey (also Charlize Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) to guide him. Theron’s vocal performance is easily the strongest of the three, and Monkey is a fierce and terrifying screen presence, even as she is under siege by Sariatu’s bone-chilling sisters (seriously, these things are so creepy). My only beef with this film isn’t really a beef at all – it’s a bit predictable. It’s clear where this film is going, and what steps it must take to get there. But this is a clear instance where the journey, the stuff of Japanese myth and imagery, is quite satisfying. If Laika didn’t have such a distinctive visual style, I would’ve expected this story to emerge from the workshop of Studio Ghibli. It is a rousing adventure and a visual triumph. And it really doesn’t want you messing with your phone while you watch it. You’ll know what I mean with literally the first line of the film.

#7: Last Days in the Desert

Poster for

Written and directed by Rodrigo García

“But I’ll stay as long as it takes, forever…to witness the end. The final sunset. If there is one. Maybe on that day, late in the afternoon, seconds away, He’ll want to start it all over again…from the beginning. He’s done it before. Recreated the whole thing, retold the whole thing. On a whim. With little differences that must mean the world to Him – a branch that crooks in a different direction, one egg more or less in the nest of a flea. What a self-centered, self-indulgent creature He is. Isn’t He? Deaf-mute. Insatiable. These things He expects of you. Do you think anyone will care? Men of 1,000 years from now?”

Whether you follow them or not, there are few figures as essential or fascinating to western civilization as Jesus Christ and Satan, and this film features Ewan McGregor in a fascinating dual performance as both, wandering the desert for 40 days and 40 nights during the Biblical “Temptation of Christ“. This is an event spelled out in vague detail in three of the four Gospels, and the essential elements of the tale are: Jesus gets baptized, wanders through the desert fasting, and during that time, Satan offers to help (and make him a powerful human) in exchange for a bit of good ol’ devil-worship. Jesus tells him to sit and spin, then returns to his ministry and eventual execution for humanity’s sins. This film is García’s imagining of what that these two might have discussed in human form for 40 days, and the result is quite psychologically and theologically fascinating. The framing device is a family drama, featuring an unnamed father (Ciarán Hinds), son (Tye Sheridan), and dying mother (Ayelet Zurer). Satan bets that Jesus can’t solve their problems to everyone’s satisfaction. Jesus – unlike his Father – refuses to take the bet, but tries to help the family anyway, and Satan sticks around to see how it goes.

The two have a fascinating relationship, with Jesus acting as a divine man apart, and Satan acting like his put-upon older brother who’s angry to see which one has their parent’s favor. McGregor’s performance is outstanding, making it quite plain which of them is in frame at each moment, even when he has nothing to say. And the ensuing dialogue is what makes this film worth seeing. These two know each other well, and that prior relationship is plain in all of their interactions. When Satan is attempting to trick Jesus, it always falls flat, and Satan seemingly knows it in advance.

“You think you are his only child?,” Satan asks, “There are others.”
“No,” says Christ, without hesitation, “There is only Me.”

This is some stilted dialogue, seemingly written exclusively for the Biblical page (or the trailer). And given Satan’s unending knowledge of past and future events, he surely must know it, because the scenes where the two are talking plainly about destiny (of specific humans, and broader humanity) are much more electrifying. Hinds and Sheridan also work well, even if their family struggle isn’t quite as interesting as the one happening over their heads. This is a fascinating little gem, shot with great visual splendor in the Colorado Desert by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who continues to demonstrate his talent (he shot two of my previous #1 films, Birdman and Gravity).

#6: Moana

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Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, screenplay by Jared Bush

Lin-Manuel Miranda is a musical genius, newcomer Auli’i Cravalho has a marvelous and powerful voice, and that’s only the start of this film’s appeal. This is a deceptively simple and high-stakes journey about a Polynesian princess brokering a peace between warring demigods amid stunning animation. I like to think that when Tamatoa (Jemaine Clement), the giant villainous coconut crab, sings, “Fish are dumb, dumb, dumb; they’ll chase anything that glitters” – before devouring several – that it’s a good-natured shot across the bow of Pixar’s 2016 sequel, Finding Dory. And indeed, Moana‘s water and sand animation – particularly the fine details of how translucent blue waves crash on the shore, and how sand sticks to (and then unevenly sloughs off) wet human skin, etc. – are as much a triumph of physics simulation as a work of art, and certainly push the visual envelope further than Pixar did this year.

Maui (Dwayne Johnson) is quite a fun character, with his song, “You’re Welcome” being the closest thing this film has to an instant classic (is there anything The Rock can’t do likably?). This is perhaps a missed opportunity, not finding such a moment for the film’s heroine, because while Cravalho’s climactic solo reprisal “I Am Moana” is both musically and narratively satisfying, Moana’s portion of the song is essentially just a list of character attributes (“I’m a girl who loves my island; I’m a girl who loves the sea…”), so it doesn’t stick in the mind nearly as well. Don’t get me wrong; Cravalho plays this ambiguity and mixed motivation for her sea jaunt quite well, but if there’s anything approaching the memorability of Frozen‘s “Let It Go” in this film, it’s Johnson’s chipper cockiness as he explains that Maui created their entire island existence as a lark (with his tattoos – in some impressive hand-drawn animation – performing matching dance choreography on his skin). Moana, who had sought Maui out in order to kidnap him (since he also caused the film’s central conflict), is noticeably taken in by his godly charm in spite of herself, which gives this song the dual purpose of a marvelous character and relationship introduction, since Maui is really just peacocking so that he can con Moana out of her boat – not realizing that she literally has the ocean working for her by this point.

This is what I mean when I say that the songs – co-written by Miranda, Opetaia Foa’i, and Mark Mancina – and Cravalho’s voice are just the beginning of Moana‘s appeal, even if they’re the part that I’ve been consuming non-stop since I saw it. There’s a lot more going on in this film, with Moana herself being the agent of a major political change, as she decides to return her society to their former ways as ocean voyagers. Just because she wants to, and because their island is on the verge of an ecological collapse. First, she just needs to make the ocean safe by resolving a world-ending divine conflict. This princess contains multitudes – and is a badass.

#5: Arrival

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Directed by Denis Villeneuve, screenplay by Eric Heisserer, based on short story by Ted Chiang

Arrival is smart and well-rendered hard sci-fi, in the “competence porn” vein of The Andromeda Strain or Apollo 13, in which we get to see what it looks like when experts take a credible, multidisciplinary approach to such an intractable problem as a deciphering a completely unknown language from the ships of a silent alien invasion. I don’t want to say too much here, but Amy Adams in particular is outstanding as linguist Louise Banks, and her arc (both practically and emotionally) is what ties the entire film together. All of the linguistic details are quite clever – I particularly liked the scene in which Banks diagrams the sentence that the US government wants the aliens to answer: “What is your purpose on Earth?”. She explains all of the linguistic and conceptual precursors that are necessary for the aliens to even reach the point of comprehending this question, and that’s before we decide what their response means, whether they think of “purpose” in the same way that we do, or whether we believe them.

Bradford Young‘s bleakly gorgeous cinematography tells a compelling visual story of the cordons, ad-hoc bases and perimeters, and other minutiae that would inevitably accompany an alien invasion, as the global situation is laid out at a slow, deliberate pace. We explore two of the alien landing sites in the greatest detail – the first in the US (in an incomprehensibly vast field in Montana), and the other over Chinese territorial waters, surrounded by a naval blockade. In the vein of Soderbergh, Villeneuve does an outstanding job of selling the alien invasion as a worldwide crisis through background details alone (the war/comms room on the Montana base was a particularly nice touch). This is also a good place to mention – I was glad to see China put to good use in this film. After several years of dubious Hollywood pandering in which China’s biggest actors are put to token and pointless use so that the film will either qualify for, or entirely skirt, the foreign film importation limits, surely China itself must be as tired of this sort of condescending inclusion as I am. So when I see such a strong example of Chinese inclusion in American cinema, it seems worth calling out, even if they managed to torpedo their chances of a Chinese release in other ways. Tzi Ma appears as a Chinese military leader, and forms an essential part of the plot as the film goes on, as much of the world follows China’s lead when deciding what to do with the aliens. China is a perfect choice for this role, given the film’s focus on linguistics, as it feels entirely plausible (and supports the film’s underlying use of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) that American and Chinese linguistic experts could see the same message from their respective spacecraft and come to slightly different conclusions about it.

And…that’s about all I want to say, because this is definitely a film where spoilers matter. While I haven’t yet read Ted Chiang‘s “Story of Your Life”, it is now on my reading list, and I’m told that it makes a better digestif than aperitif. That is to say, see Arrival, then read the short story.

#4: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

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Directed by Gareth Edwards, written by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy

I mocked the very concept of this film. I questioned the need for it. I pointed out how hilarious the hordes of online fans were for fearing spoilers for a film that would unquestionably end with the team of unlikely heroes retrieving the Death Star plans (with one or more of them probably dying in the process), paving the way for its direct and immediate sequel, the original Star Wars. I plan to continue this advance mockery for the Boba Fett movie (didn’t we already see his crappy origin story?), if it really does end up happening. And since Disney’s plans for the foreseeable future include a Star Wars film every single year, I will definitely need to be a bit more discriminating when it comes to evaluating them. Now that my nerd bonafides are out of the way: Rogue One is incredible. It knocked my socks off.

Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is about as compelling a Star Wars protagonist as Luke Skywalker – which is to say, not very. This may be due to her instantaneous transformation from an unresponsive, hiding child to a nondescript adult in imperial custody, with little regard for what might’ve happened in-between – but this doesn’t make her actions in the service of the Rebellion any less interesting or heroic. Her scrappy, militant upbringing is perhaps most similar to that of rebel Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna). Erso worked for a separatist Rebel fringe led by Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) before ditching him at the age of 16, and Andor has fought for the “official” Rebel Alliance since he was 6 years old. The distinction between these two factions is never quite made precise, but this feels like a deliberate choice on the film’s part. Rebellions are built on hope, the movie tells us aloud repeatedly, but more than that, they are built on coalescence – disparate military and aristocratic and populist elements coming together to accomplish a shared goal. This is certainly the first time the Rebel Alliance has felt this nebulous, long-term, or real. Andor is introduced in a conversation with a panicked imperial officer on the moon Jedha, and he ends the conversation by shooting the man in the back to keep him quiet. While this is an undeniable spy trope (looking at you, Tony Gilroy), Luna’s performance perhaps carries off this ambiguity better than Jones’ – no matter which faction he identifies with, he’s been at this fight for too long, and doesn’t know anymore whether he’s truly on the side of the angels.

And that’s just the first two members of the ensemble. This group is headed off onto what’s most likely a suicide mission to counter an Imperial weapon of mass destruction, and this film not only gave me just enough time with each character (and a few preexisting relationships) to make me care about them, but it really managed to make the Death Star, the planet-killing weapon of the original trilogy, seem incredibly scary. I can’t overstate how well the film pulled this off. The Force Awakens turned an entire planet into a Death Star, and while it was undeniably…larger…it was nowhere near this terrifying. Ben Mendelsohn and CGI Peter Cushing make solid villains, even if I’m ill-equipped to evaluate the second one, having known the actor was dead for 20 years prior to this film. My wife and several of my coworkers, for what it’s worth, never noticed that Grand Moff Tarkin, the commander of the Death Star, was a computerized amalgam, and for my part, I was far more dubious about the noticeably older-sounding James Earl Jones coming back for a fun, but superfluous Darth Vader cameo.

I have many nits to pick with this film, but here’s where it ended for me – the last half-hour of this film, a balls-to-the-wall space and ground battle – is some of the best Star Wars I’ve ever seen. Unlike the prequel trilogy, this fight didn’t seem like a mere byproduct of modern technology. That is to say, this battle didn’t feel like it was being fought with this level of visual splendor just because we can do that now. This battle served the story on an epic scale. It’s easy to imagine the Rebellion reminiscing about Rogue One as fervently as the Alamo. This isn’t a story whose impact is reduced by knowing where it’s headed. It’s the sort of conflict that lends the ensuing trilogy even greater weight in retrospect. Remember Rogue One. Remember this team. They fought long odds and delivered – on the human side – what was needed for the Jedi to save the galaxy.

#3: Zootopia

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Directed by Byron Howard and Rich Moore, screenplay by Jared Bush and Phil Johnston

This has been an outstanding year for animated films, and Zootopia was far and away the most memorable one I experienced. This film’s backdrop – a city of realistically-sized anthropomorphic animals all living together, predators and prey alike, is just the sort of impossible nonsense that the animated medium was made to tell. The entire film is a colorful metaphor for the fragile human experiment we call civilization, but the film expends a great deal of visual energy (and a significant number of adorable sight gags) explaining to me exactly how it all works. And all of the details – from the different environmental zones, to the variably-sized infrastructure, to the de facto caste system between predators and prey (which correspond to specific jobs in the city, with the police being almost all from predator species) – make this an incredibly well-realized world. Indeed, it’s of the caliber that Pixar might’ve created a decade ago, and Disney Animation is really giving them a run for their money this year.

With this stunning backdrop as a starting point, Zootopia shocked me even further by engaging in some rather mature storytelling. Rookie bunny cop Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) and civilian con-fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) make an outstanding team, with Hopps as the eager, career-driven upstart looking to buck tradition by becoming the first of her species to be a cop in the city, and Wilde engaging in some clever (and occasionally disgusting) food arbitrage in the city’s various animal-sized trade-zones (in what seems to be the latest of many hustles for the character). These are outstanding voice performances, and this burgeoning friendship forms the backdrop of a far more compelling mystery than any of the similar – and usually R-rated – buddy detective stories I saw this year (lookin’ at you, The Nice Guys). This is a story about police and civic corruption, prejudice and stereotyping, and – ultimately – the long arc of the moral universe bending toward justice, even if a cartoon water buffalo is jumping up and down on it. And that’s exactly what a classic children’s film should be.

#2: How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change

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Written and directed by Josh Fox

I referred to this film when it came out as “group therapy for climate realists”. And given recent events, this riveting documentary may prove essential viewing for anyone who is inspired to make a difference on climate change against seemingly insurmountable practical and political obstacles. This documentary, from Gasland director Josh Fox, initially put me on my guard, and ran a serious risk of coming off as manipulative or self-indulgent. But the film strikes just the right balance, spending a brief first act with its director learning about the stark reality of climate change, and then promptly and deliberately pulling himself out of the limelight, pointing his camera instead at the most vulnerable people around the world who will be affected by it. This globe-trotting story goes a lot of unexpected places, including into the heart of a protest attempting to blockade an Australian coal port. This sequence is exciting and lighthearted as presented, but the stakes feel no less real.

Incidentally, one of the producers of this film, Deia Schlosberg, was arrested in October for filming a similar act of civil disobedience at a TransCanada Keystone pipeline in North Dakota. Schlosberg is – as of this writing – facing multiple felony charges that could lead to up to 45 years in prison, and this is a stark reminder that even if all we get to see is an exciting documentary sequence, the risk required to get it, to life, limb, and freedom, is very real. This sort of advocacy journalism is a public service, and How to Let Go of the World is a fine example of it.

Check out my review here:
“How to Let Go of the World” (dir. Josh Fox) – Group therapy for climate realists

#1: The Lobster

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Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, written by Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou.

As I mentioned in my review (which lays out the plot in a bit more detail), I love short films in which all of the characters share a commonly skewed moral sensibility. That is to say, they see the world in the same bizarre way, and noticeably filter all possible acceptable actions and words through that lens. The Lobster is a feature which contains not one, but two simple, but fully-realized dystopias along these lines, those of single and attached people. No stragglers, no variants, and absolutely no one who falls into the middle (or variable points on) the Kinsey scale. Pick a side, and obey its bizarre rules.

From my review:

“This is Lanthimos’ cruel satire at its very best – it paints both relationships and singlehood as oppressive, shallow, inauthentic institutions, issuing strict, two-faced codes of behavior and exacting devastating consequences for those who inevitably fail to abide by them. You’ll find people in each institution who will support you – but only if you meet their precise expectations. Trip up, or attempt to live somewhere besides the precise extremes that they delineate – and they’ll throw you to the wolves. Or turn you into one.”

And if you can believe it, this same film tells quite a striking and sweet love story. This is nearly as bizarre a film as Swiss Army Man, and it is definitely not for everyone. But if you stick with its seemingly deliberate attempts to annoy and disturb you, you may find it quite rewarding.

Check out my review here:
Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Lobster” – When competing dystopias fall in love

Honorable Mentions:

  • Doctor Strange (directed by Scott Derrickson)
  • The Birth of a Nation (directed by Nate Parker)
  • Don’t Think Twice (directed by Mike Birbiglia)
  • Captain America: Civil War (directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo)
  • Angry Indian Goddesses (directed by Pan Nalin)
  • Loving and Midnight Special (both directed by Jeff Nichols)

Biggest Disappointments:

High expectations, low results.

  • Ghostbusters (directed by Paul Feig)
    This fucking movie. Like The Interview before it, the Ghostbusters remake took on far greater importance than it ever deserved, due to factors that were completely external to the film itself. Let’s get the easy stuff out of the way first: It is a sad and continuing generational struggle that little girls didn’t have 50 or 100 different female-led action-adventure films to watch growing up, like I did. Their own blockbusters – their Indiana Joneses and James Bonds or anything else where a heroine is credibly driving the plot on the backdrop of [what would now be] a $150M+ budget. And this thoroughly middling and passable action film is no better or worse than most of the escapist adventures I immersed myself in as a boy, because you love everything as a kid, and when everything’s written for your demographic, it’s easier to pick and choose. I can plainly see that I’m not the target audience for the film. But to those girls, as an honest film critic, I still have to say – you deserve better. You deserve Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (which is utterly packed with strong and well-realized women driving the plot). You deserve the next generation of Star Wars, led by the outstanding Daisy Ridley (inheriting the torch from Carrie Fisher, RIP), hopefully the first of many interesting and capable women to inhabit this universe. You deserve Moana and Zootopia and Rogue One. You deserve the far more representative film world that is slowly but surely coming.For my part, I had high expectations going into Ghostbusters, because two of these actresses (and this director) had made me laugh many times before, and this reboot (of a film I absolutely adore) was really a quasi-sequel, telling a new story for a new generation of paranormal investigators. But with the exception of McKinnon, these four bored me as an ensemble nearly as much as the villain (whose plan and motivation I still can’t actually explain), even if they seemed to be having a fun time together – I never took the threat seriously, because neither did they, and their lack of seriousness never particularly amused me. And that rambling sentence, right there, is the worst that any of them deserve: my dispassionate assessment that this comedy didn’t make me, personally, laugh all that much. I can’t change that reaction no matter how despicable some of its bedfellows are. And here’s the other easy observation: those same little girls I mentioned above also deserve better than to see how the internet excoriated this thoroughly inoffensive film and its cast (particularly Leslie Jones, who received a torrent of disgusting racist and sexist garbage). This movie flopped, and kinda deserved to. But that should’ve been the end of it.Now, let’s fiddle while Twitter burns. Let the punishing, racist, misogynistic dystopia that is the Twitterverse die an overdue death and crush our President-elect’s masturbating, mendacious, nonsensical “Dear Diary” of a Twitter-feed along with it. 95% of it was already a bunch of harmless people (and bots) howling into the void to be read by no one, so let the rest of it become a ghetto of white supremacy and hatred like Stormfront, isolated, mocked, and ignored. And let us all go back to heaping bullshit where it belongs – on the actual people who make bad decisions. Like whoever at Sony Pictures thought it was a good idea to re-use their lousy CGI Times Square from The Amazing Spider-Man 2 for another lifeless lightshow of an action climax.
  • Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (directed by Zach Snyder)
    In Man of Steel, a film I inexplicably enjoyed despite having major problems with, Superman does a terrible job of saving lives. Metropolis is almost completely destroyed, thousands die, and the chickens come home to roost in this film, as a bitter Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) – one of whose skyscrapers was apparently destroyed in MoS – tools up with Kryptonite and a robo-suit to eliminate the alien threat for good. Okay, I’m sorta lying, calling this a disappointment – my expectations were rather low going into this film. Although I find the premise of Superman facing consequences for his superheroic destruction to be legitimately fascinating, that does not add up to a convincing reason for Batman and Superman to want to murder each other.Bruce Wayne citing Dick Cheney‘s “one-percent doctrine” as a rationale for his murder spree in pursuit of a racially-motivated assassination was an abject betrayal of the character, and mostly (mostly) a non-sequitur to the Dark Knight trilogy that we’ve just seen. And on top of that, there’s no compelling reason for Superman to show up for this fight at all, which is why the film had to use Lex Luthor to unconvincingly manipulate them into it. I referred to Ghostbusters as “inoffensive” above, and this one (as surely as Passengers) meets my definition of “offensive”. This film is, conceptually and in execution, utter nonsense. It shouldn’t exist. And it doesn’t deserve any more commentary than that.
  • Allied (directed by Robert Zemeckis)
    This film had the great misfortune to be viewed in the same year in which I saw Casablanca for the first time. As such, when watching a pale imitator of a deservedly well-regarded classic, I couldn’t help but get the feeling that I was just watching some talented Hollywood actors (including the irresistible and reliably spooky Marion Cotillard) amid a technically well-rendered backdrop…playing dress-up. This film is replete with modern-sounding dialogue (and F-bombs) and some pretty uninspiring spy drama. Even Valkyrie had more of a reason to exist than this film – or at least, it sold me on the real-world stakes of the thing in a meaningful way. If you’re going to set a film against the scourge of World War II, you have to remember – they don’t know how the war is going to end, or if any of them are going to survive. In the case of Casablanca, which was released in 1940, this was literally true, as much for the characters as for the actors and filmmakers. This sort of tale can deliver life-or-death stakes on a silver platter, and all it has to do is not ignore them. Instead, we get a first-season Alias arc that could just as easily have been set in the modern day.

Pleasant Surprises:

Low expectations, high results.

  • The Accountant (directed by Gavin O’Connor)
    The thing about Autistic Murder Batman – the informal title that I use for this film – is that it’s a solid and engrossing action thriller whose myriad twists and turns are grounded in a central, character-based question of, “What drives this guy to do what he does?” that is answered continuously through the actor’s performance, and gives me a reason to care about the rest of the film. And to see Ben Affleck pull that off while kicking innumerable quantities of ass really sold me on the actor coming back as a genuine big-budget superhero. As such, I have reluctantly high hopes for his far-from-certain turn in the creative seat.
  • Finding Dory (directed by Andrew Stanton)
    I’m not sure who was clamoring for this sequel 12 years on, and it does violate one of Pixar’s cardinal rules of storytelling by relying on coincidence to get its characters out of trouble (lots of convenient water for these fish to dive between on land!). But it’s also lovely, well-made, and touching. Ed O’Neill‘s octopus ninja is quite fun, as is Ellen DeGeneres‘ return performance as Dory. It’s worth seeing, even if it’s a bit inessential (see also: Monsters University) (or don’t).
  • Snowden (directed by Oliver Stone)
    After Laura Poitras‘ documentary Citizenfour, whose subject matter I found fascinating, but whose documentary craft I did not, I was not expecting to find much to enjoy in this film, a dramatization of Edward Snowden‘s rise and fall in the service of US intelligence, and his decision to leak classified information about NSA surveillance programs and flee the country. I’ll be blunt – I treated all of the details of Snowden’s rise through the intelligence ranks as speculative fiction (and this was apparently a good choice, as the bulk of the film was based on a novel by Snowden’s lawyer, whose protagonist might as well be called Bredward Browden). Joseph Gordon-Levitt absolutely nails Snowden’s voice, cadence, and physicality, Rhys Ifans plays an utterly chilling mentor, and Nicolas Cage presumably allowed a few cameras to film him speaking unscripted in his basement for a bit. While some of this is a bit cheesy (Snowden’s one alleged experience as a field agent alongside a fun and superfluous Timothy Olyphant felt totally out of place), this film did an excellent job of what Citizenfour couldn’t quite manage: explaining technically, logistically, and ethically complex surveillance programs to an audience that is mostly unfamiliar with them, in an entertaining fashion.

2015 Glennies: Best Picture (Top 10 Films of 2015)

#11: Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens

Poster for Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens

Directed by J.J. Abrams, written by Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan, and Michael Arndt

As always, the #11 spot in my Top 10 goes to a film that I liked, but had reservations about. You can listen to these [many] reservations in detail on the podcast below (one of them rhymes with “Schmeth Schtar”), but the triumphs of this film are almost innumerable. Every design element of this film was spot-on, vintage, 1970s Star Wars. This is every bit the dirty, analog, physical world on the ragged edges of the frontier that it needs to be, and director J.J. Abrams clearly understands the Campbellian story beats as well now as when he first rehearsed making a Star Wars film back in 2009. Finn (John Boyega) and Rey (Daisy Ridley) are both outstanding additions to the franchise, and deep and interesting enough characters that I’m eager to see what happens to them next (especially when guided by the able writing and directorial hand of Rian Johnson for Episode VIII). Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) all have potential. But my biggest reaction is that we now live in a world in which the most recent Star Wars film isn’t the subject of constant bitching and lamentations and fan-edits about what could have been, and Disney and Abrams deserve firm credit for making this happen.

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #81 – “Sisters” (dir. Jason Moore), “Star Wars VII” (dir. J.J. Abrams)

#10: Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

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Written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, story by McQuarrie and Drew Pearce

Brad Bird‘s 2011 film, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, won a three-way tie for my #11 spot in 2011, as “The Big, Dumb, Occasionally Smart Action Movie”. Christopher McQuarrie takes this trend up a notch by delivering a film that was far and away the best spy film of the year, changing up the Mission: Impossible formula in a novel fashion, and severely outperforming this year’s Bond film (which felt like an apologetic retread of Quantum of Solace) for spy action and glorious spectacle. When Benji (Simon Pegg) takes a weekend trip to Vienna, then receives a dead-drop from his fugitive spy-buddy Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), which promptly sends him to the opera to avert an attempt on the life of the Austrian Chancellor… Even before an awesomely staged series of fights and a sniper duel break out, there comes a moment as we’re waiting in the wings at the opera and hear these men arguing over comms about their arcane plans that I just thought, “This is what a spy movie is supposed to be.” People out in the world, sneaking around, averting disaster. And while the format has had to evolve after the end of the Cold War and the dawn of 21st-century cyberwarfare (sometimes quite disastrously), it’s exhilarating to see that many of the old cinematic tricks still work so well. No matter how geopolitically or technologically complex a world we live in, we’ll always need brave men and women to go places and get shit done, and this film is a glorious showcase of how much fun and potential these stories still possess.

Plus, Tom Cruise strapped himself to a damn plane.

#9: Circle

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Written and directed by Aaron Hann and Mario Miscione

From my review:

Many high-concept horror films have striven for the strong, minimalistic dissection of the value of a human life that is on display in Circle. And yet all of them, whether Saws or Purges, have gotten lost in the weeds either going for audience-pleasing gore or on-the-nose class warfare. Circle…is the apotheosis of the concept – placing 50 participants in a room and murdering one of them every two minutes with a simple bolt of CGI lightning. The body is immediately shuffled from the room by an unseen force, and the remaining participants are momentarily insulated from the horrific truth and consequences of their predicament. With simple (and completely secretive) motions of their hands and fingers, they are choosing the next person who will die.

What makes Circle so clever is its subtle and incisive satire of the political process. At its highest levels, politics delineates who should hold absolute power over life and death. Even in the real world, a vote for a chief executive is a vote for someone who will kill others on your behalf. Circle renders this concept with a staggering level of immediacy, and through a filter of lightning-paced direct democracy.

Who should live? Me.
Who should die? Somebody else.

See the full review here:
“Circle” (#SIFF2015 review) – The allegory of the grave

#8: Beasts of No Nation

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Written for the screen and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, based on the novel by Uzodinma Iweala

This is a difficult film to watch, owing to its subject matter about the trials and tribulations of a boy named Agu (Abraham Attah) who is abducted and turned into a child soldier in an unnamed West African nation. But more than this, this story struck me as one that I’ve seen before, but never in this much detail, and never as anything more than the B-plot that adds a bit of depth to a white Westerner’s story line in a mainstream Hollywood film. Whether in Blood Diamond or Lord of War, Agu is the sort of tragic character who’s usually little more than a background player – perhaps one that will be graphically killed in order to add weight to whatever the white person is going through. This film wants to tell that story, in its entirety, without any distractions or pretense of self-importance. At one point, we see a handful of white UN peacekeepers visible for a moment in the background, as if to emphasize the degree to which this is not their story.

The Commandant (Idris Elba) is a terrifying villain, both for his insistent self-righteousness and his effectiveness at recruiting, grooming, and maintaining child soldiers. His training is equal parts military discipline and psychological torture, with drugs and sexual abuse added in for good measure. No component of this framework feels excessive or unrealistic, so much as a procedural for creating the sort of hollowed-out child that should never have to exist in the modern world. But Agu is far more than a martyr construct as the film goes on. And the Ghanian newcomer Attah brings an array of personality and complexity to the character that is remarkable for such a young and first-time actor. The film deftly conveys Agu’s constant struggle not to lose his humanity, even as he is compelled to perform monstrous acts.

This is an important film that is worth watching just once if you can stomach it. I’m glad to see that resources were devoted to telling this particular story as a part of Netflix’s expanding library of original films, even as Adam Sandler‘s The Ridiculous 6 dropped in the same year.

#7: Sleeping With Other People

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Written and directed by Leslye Headland

Between this film and 2012’s Bachelorette, writer/director Leslye Headland is really starting to remind me of 1990s Kevin Smith in the best way. This romantic sex comedy, which Headland herself pitched as “When Harry Met Sally for assholes,” actually reminds me more of Chasing Amy. It is a film which combines unrelenting crassness of dialogue with human characters and a profound sense of heart throughout the proceedings. Sleeping With Other People begins with a pair of students, Jake (Jason Sudeikis) and Lainey (Alison Brie) bonding over a night of collective heartbreak and loneliness in a college dorm room and ultimately losing their virginity to one another. Smash cut to 12 years later, and a series of romantic failures (thanks to womanizing and serial cheating respectively) lead the pair back into each other’s lives, causing them to strike up an intense – but deliberately unromantic – friendship. What makes this work so well (apart from the film’s reliably amusing repartée) is that Sudeikis and Brie have otherworldly great chemistry as we watch them explore their fractured love lives against the backdrop of New York City.

I rewatched both this and Trainwreck in the final week of the year, and ultimately settled on this as the superior film (although they are both quite good). The reason for this is that Sleeping With Other People feels most like it takes place in the real world. This is as opposed to Trainwreck, which has at least one foot firmly situated in Comedy World, where people occasionally stop acting like humans and start acting like comedy characters (Sisters has both feet firmly in Comedy World). Sleeping ventures out of the real world only a handful of times (when the pair take ecstasy and attend a child’s birthday party, for instance), and instead, relies on character and relationship for the majority of its laughs. This permits perennial zany side-players Jason Mantzoukas, Andrea Savage, and to a lesser extent Natasha Lyonne to shine as actual members of the ensemble, rather than just being the reliably funny friends who show up to riff on-camera for a minute at a time when the movie feels like it’s dragging (although Billy Eichner briefly shows up as one of those). I haven’t even reached the end of the list of strong characters here – Amanda Peet is particularly enjoyable as Paula, Jake’s boss (and potential love interest) at his digital media company.

And finally, there is Adam Scott as Lainey’s on-again, off-again hookup, Matthew. This character has maybe a dozen lines of dialogue in the entire film, and yet he hangs over it as one of the most effective romantic villains ever put to screen. Matthew treats Lainey quite monstrously, and she maintains a long-standing romantic obsession with him. What makes him such a thoroughly well-drawn and loathsome rival is both his casual cruelty and his genuine inability to see himself as a bad guy. This character is best summed up with a moment late in the film when Lainey drops an obscure literary reference, and Matthew ignores it, before acknowledging that “Just because I don’t applaud your intellect doesn’t mean I don’t notice it.” This is such a specifically disturbing thing to say to someone, it struck me as perhaps a line gleaned from real life – and that may be what makes Matthew so unnerving. If there’s any part of this film that was almost certainly culled from the real world, it’s this asshole.

#6: Mad Max: Fury Road

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Directed by George Miller, written by Miller, Brendan McCarthy, and Nico Lathouris

Like my #4 pick below (along with another barely-speaking Tom Hardy), the appeal of this unrelenting action-adventure is largely in the big-screen viewing. The subtly CGI-enhanced desert vistas, the preposterously spike-armored death-cars, the stunts, the explosive-tipped spears, the blood-bags, the harnessed, flamethrowing electric guitar player – this feature-length car-chase film is relentless in blasting forth its detailed post-apocalyptic world, and quickly proves itself as one of the finest action films of the year. And that’s before writer/director George Miller proves, via Charlize Theron’s stellar performance as the fierce, capable, and humanly vulnerable Imperator Furiosa, that men of a certain age are quite capable of bringing bad-ass, well-drawn female characters to the big screen if they simply choose to do so. Furiosa is essentially the film’s lead, leading a rebellion against warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), and driving nearly all of its action and only relying tangentially on the titular Max at any point. The credits of this film read like the band roster at a GWAR show, featuring such absurdly theatrical names as Rictus Erectus, Toast the Knowing, The People Eater, The Bullet Farmer, The Splended Angharad, and one woman known simply as “Capable”. Apart from featuring some of the most splendid practical vehicle action outside of the Fast and Furious saga, this film just has an outstanding sense of fun and imagination. Who broke the world? We don’t find out here. But the one they rebuilt is breathtaking.

#5: 3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets

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Written and directed by Marc Silver

This HBO documentary about the shooting death of Jordan Davis, a young, unarmed African-American teenager, is a timely film- and what’s more, it seems wholly aware of this. The film’s trailer uses “Black Lives Matter” quite brazenly as a marketing slogan, and the film is about as politically one-sided as the works of Michael Moore. But what makes this film work so well is twofold. First, Davis was shot by a private citizen, rather than a police officer, which means this story avoids many of the needlessly polarizing political questions about whether or not the public “supports the police” when they object to a specific police-involved shooting. And second, unlike other recent cases involving Florida menstanding their ground“, this one had witnesses. The facts of the case: 45-year-old Michael Dunn and his fiancée pulled up at the Gate Gas Station where 17-year-old Davis and his teenage friends were listening to loud music in a car nearby. Dunn, who was on the way home from his son’s wedding, remained in the car while his fiancée went inside to buy a bottle of wine. At a certain point, an argument ensued between them over the volume of Davis’ music, and Dunn started firing into their car, killing Davis.

And as the film meticulously spells out: The relevant legal question is not whether this is an uncomplicated case of a grown man murdering a child for petty and circumstantial reasons. Not in Florida. No, the question is: Did Michael Dunn think that Davis or his friends had a gun? Because if the answer is yes, he has no duty to retreat under Florida law, and he is permitted to fire in preemptive self-defense. Whether or not there turns out to actually be a gun, Dunn still has a positive legal defense that is effectively irrefutable. And this is what the film does so well. In addition to telling a stunning true crime story (whose outcome I was genuinely on the edge of my seat for, since I couldn’t quite recall how it had ended), the film effectively lays bare the legal absurdity of the Florida statute, which amounts to a license to kill for any gun-toting Floridian who can convincingly make a pretense afterward that they were in fear for their life. And this is true even in cases where the gun-toting person was the clear instigator of an argument over nothing – teenagers playing loud music. With a flick of the legal wrist, the victim is suddenly on trial along with their alleged killer. In this way, the film is equal parts legal procedural and emotional gut-punch. We get to know Davis’ friends, as well as his mother and father, witness their pain as they await legal closure, and hear in stark contrast the terms in which the media describes their beloved lost son and friend. “Thug” is the most popular term, acting as both noun and thinly veiled racist adjective to describe the type of music the boys had been listening to. Prior to this, they had been hanging out at the mall, snacking, talking to girls- all things that teenage boys are wont to do. This is a captivating legal thriller, but it also succeeds in humanizing one of so many innocent boys that have had their humanity stripped away post-mortem by the national media. This film will make you pity the back-talking child who had the misfortune to run into a self-appointed vigilante in America’s longest-tolerated failed state, when the latter took it upon himself to lethally punish a group of boys being boys.

Remember how I described the film as politically one-sided? I fear I’m venturing down a similar path letting my outrage at this case color my review, but it must also be said that the film does not skimp on presenting Michael Dunn as a fascinating (and chilling) criminal persona. We see everything from police interrogations, to witness stand footage, to audio from jailhouse phone calls with his fiancée. While these items are presented in such a way that makes it quite possible they were cherrypicked to make Dunn look as unsympathetic as possible, the film does not shy away from depicting the Rashomon effect that is evidently at work in Dunn’s recollection and perspective on the shooting. As his legal proceedings go on, he speaks of the incident in increasingly self-righteous terms. With each retelling, details are added to bolster his fear for his life. By the time his legal proceedings are over, he has repeated the refrain that he saw “a gun barrel” so many times that he almost certainly must believe it himself. Cory Strolla, Dunn’s attorney, is also a captivating figure, wriggling his client gingerly into the barest crevices of “reasonable doubt”. I’ll defer to my co-host’s colorful description of Strolla: “He was working the law like a two-bit whore”. This does not imply any legal malfeasance on Strolla’s part (nor does the film make such an argument). But if nothing else, Strolla’s deft campaigning for his client’s rights is the quintessential illustration of the flawed state of the Florida statute today.

“Michael Dunn had every right not to be a victim,” said Strolla.
Davis, not so much.

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #73 – “The Chinese Mayor”, “3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets” (#SIFF2015 review)

#4: The Revenant

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Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, written by Iñárritu and Mark L. Smith

The best way to describe this raw, rip-roaring, frontier adventure and revenge tale is to identify its various prior pretenders. Joe Carnahan‘s The Grey strove to tell a story of wild, burly men on the ragged edges of civilization in a dire, wintry survival situation (and utterly failed). Quentin Tarantino‘s The Hateful Eight presented its own set of wintry frontier landscapes, swearing by its “Glorious 70mm” film presentation as the superior format (before spending 95% of its runtime in a dark, static, indoor location). The Revenant is one of the most gorgeous films I’ve ever seen, with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki continuing his run as one of the premier artists in the new frontier of digital cinema (following my two previous #1 films of the year, Gravity, and Iñárritu’s own Birdman). The film was apparently shot entirely with natural light, and each beautifully painted frame provides a stunning backdrop while the film renders frontier warfare and animalistic survival in raw and unflinching terms. Domhnall Gleeson makes his second of three appearances on this list as Captain Andrew Henry, who deftly leads this pack of fur-traders as they decide whether or not to leave Leonardo DiCaprio‘s Hugh Glass for dead after he is severely mauled by a bear. In the end, Glass is left behind with his son (Forrest Goodluck), legendary mountain man (now, mere mountain boy) Jim Bridger (Will Poulter), and two-bit, penny-pinching criminal John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). What ensues is a staggering and epic journey through the pain and muck and blood of the frontier, through thick snow, dense woods, mountain peaks, and raging rivers. And there’s little more I can say about it without using every one of those thousand words to describe such a beautiful picture. See this in a theater while you can.

#3: Ex Machina

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Written and directed by Alex Garland

Alex Garland continues to be one of the most impressive voices in cinematic sci-fi with this meta-Turing test of android/fembot Ava (Alicia Vikander) by her tech-bro billionaire inventor Nathan (Oscar Isaac) and his employee programmer Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson). The setup is quite simple, taking place almost entirely at Nathan’s underground high-tech residence/research facility where the two men will drink and hang out for the weekend, ostensibly due to Caleb winning an employee contest at his Google-analogue employer, Bluebook. After a quick and thorough non-disclosure agreement, Nathan reveals to Caleb the true reason for his invitation. He has invented an artificially intelligent android named Ava, and he wants Caleb to present his opinion as to whether or not she is truly intelligent, conscious, self-aware, etc. – or merely giving an effective impression of it. Oscar Isaac continues to excel playing characters that simultaneously own the room and creep the hell out of me, playing Nathan somewhere between your new billionaire best-bro Hank Scorpio, and Isaac’s own sadistic emo pimp from Sucker Punch. There is much to be said about how the design of Ava reflects the institutional sexism in tech culture, because it seems to be no significant leap in plausibility that this newly self-aware A.I., rather than simply being a voice on a speaker (like Her, for instance), possesses a human face, curves, and, according to Nathan, something resembling a fully functional vagina. These human touches must have taken nearly as much time and research to develop as Ava’s A.I., but hell – what’s the point of creating consciousness if it’s not in a form you can fuck?

I don’t mean to belabor this point, but Ava’s affected femininity is central to the question of whether or not she is truly conscious, since Caleb’s level of attraction to her has clear and deliberate potential to muddy his judgment on the issue. And to the film’s credit, Caleb himself realizes this, asking whether Ava’s body is the equivalent of a magician’s sexy assistant – misdirection to prevent him from seeing the real trickery involved. The answer to this question, as well as whether or not Ava is truly intelligent, is something that will inspire great debate among anyone who watches the film. Garland’s script could come down on one side or the other, but it seems content to simply present a series of events and allow the viewer to interpret their meaning, placing us in the same boat as Caleb himself. Gleeson has carved out a wonderful niche for himself playing sci-fi characters with a streak of darkness, maturely and unflinchingly rendering each one of them from the towering Naziesque General Hux from the new Star Wars, to Ash on Black Mirror (the latter being a curiously appropriate pairing with this film). As for Vikander, this relative newcomer’s performance as Ava is nothing short of outstanding. This complex and multi-layered performance is essential to the film’s appeal, since the viewer will be left interpreting the meaning behind Ava’s every word and action, and Vikander successfully imbues those words and deeds with a dense array of potential meanings.

#2: Spotlight

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Directed by Tom McCarthy, screenplay by McCarthy and Josh Singer

Spotlight, which chronicles the Boston Globe’s 2001-2002 investigation of sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church, is a stunning look at the hard problem of institutional guilt. In my double-header review of the film below, I contrast the various ways in which this film and Peter Landesman’s Concussion explore the guilt of their respective institutions, and while I found these different approaches fascinating, Spotlight clearly treaded the more difficult path with greater success.

From the review:

Meanwhile, Spotlight meticulously catalogs the varied and sprawling investigative threads of its Boston Globe reporters – Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton), Sacha Pfieffer (Rachel McAdams) – we see clergy, attorneys, reporters, therapists, parents, teachers, administrators, and parishioners, all of whom had some level of knowledge about the situation, and all of whom were complicit on at least a minimal level in allowing it to continue. As lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) says halfway through the film, “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.” This is a damning quote because the film so convincingly makes the case that the abuse was widespread, widely known, and only came to light when people (including victims) were willing to come together and put a stop to it.

[T]he Globe reporters…are clearly affected by every moment of Spotlight‘s investigation. All of them are lapsed Catholics, most of them are native Bostonians, and they have no desire to eviscerate the institutions that have comprised the fabric and background of their entire lives, and will continue to surround them after the story breaks. They’re certain of the rightness of what they’re doing, and they’re also frightened, angry, and unsure what the right approach to the story really is. Is it just a few bad apples, or is it the entire institution that’s corrupt? Which is worse – perpetrating these monstrous acts, or conspiring to cover them up, enabling further victimization? And at what point do you have a level of certainty that allows you to tell this story publicly? And when Rezendes finally loses his temper and demands that the Globe print the story immediately, Ruffalo has thoroughly sold his personal stakes in the matter, and the reactions of the rest of the Spotlight team clearly indicate that he’s just screaming aloud what all of them are struggling with internally. This struggle, with how to tell the right story at the right time, is the essence of good journalism, and Spotlight depicts it as well as it has ever been put to film.

Check out the full double-header review here:
“Spotlight” vs. “Concussion” – The Hard Problem of Institutional Guilt

#1: It Follows

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Written and directed by David Robert Mitchell

I normally deliberate a bit about my #1 choice of the year, but this has been my unwavering pick ever since I saw it twice back in April. This horror film is, simply put, a complete original and a modern classic. Its premise, featuring an invisible demon curse that is transmitted through intimate relations, is an insidiously clever hook for several reasons. First off, simply finding someone to have sex with in order to pass on the curse is not enough. That person will be killed without ever knowing why, and then the demon will be right back after you. And after you, the person who gave it to you. All the way back to the beginning, whenever that was. The ingenuity of this setup is obvious – most cinematic monsters, if you take them down, you know you’re safe, at least until the higher-budget sequel comes along. This monster – even if you defeat it, or pass it along to someone that you give adequate knowledge to fight, hide, and pass it along further – will never truly leave your heart or mind. Because for the rest of your life, you’ll never, ever know if you’re truly and finally safe from it. Call it a metaphor for heartbreak, herpes, infidelity, abuse, or any number of other relationship poisons that tend to be paid forward, but what I call it is a terrifying curse and concept. Its various powers – slow, unrelenting movement toward the camera in the form of an alternately normal (or creepy) looking human loved-one of yours is put to especially good use in the film’s various wide-angled vistas, with a single figure in the deep background often narrowly visible venturing toward the camera. And what’s more, the demon is invisible to everyone else besides the person it is following around, leading to many beautifully-staged showdowns in which none but the victim are able to completely understand what’s happening.

The film’s visuals and production design are stunning, from the elaborate interior color palettes to the film’s forcible lack of a definable era and constant sense of anachronism. The film takes place in a velveteen pastiche of the 1970s, peppered with 50s cinema and unrecognizable 21st century tech (a clam-shell compact that’s also an e-reader?). Every design element of this film feels deliberate and clever. Maika Monroe carries the film as both a sympathetic and capable heroine and victim, and also the rare cinematic horror character who acts like a human being. And Disasterpeace’s marvelously saturating electronic score is rhythmic, evoking the likes of Cliff Martinez in Drive, but also slow, echoic, and bizarrely old-timey, seemingly belonging in a 70s sci-fi film. It Follows proceeds in the manner of an unyielding dream, seizing the imagination and refusing to let go.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Racing Extinction (directed by Louie Psihoyos)
  • Trainwreck (directed by Judd Apatow)
  • Room (directed by Lenny Abrahamson)
  • The Martian (directed by Ridley Scott)
  • The Little Death (directed by Josh Lawson)
  • The Primary Instinct (directed by David Chen)
  • Steve Jobs (directed by Danny Boyle)
  • Inside Out (directed by Pete Docter and Ronnie Del Carmen)
  • Jurassic World (directed by Colin Trevorrow)

Biggest Disappointments:

High expectations, low and/or psychologically complicated results.

  • Crimson Peak (directed by Guillermo del Toro, written by del Toro and Matthew Robbins)
    Crimson Peak is as beautiful a period-piece horror film as I’ve come to expect from Guillermo del Toro. And it’s also rather boring and telegraphed, with a mystery whose resolution is obvious in the first 45 minutes of a two-hour film. As we put it on Facebook, “The glorious crumbling facade of CRIMSON PEAK is proof positive that an elaborate story is no guarantee of a good one, and a dull mystery is no more compelling when revealed in three parts through a gramophone cylinder.”
  • Avengers: Age of Ultron (written/directed by Joss Whedon)
    I know what you’re thinking. Glenn, you produced two reviews (one written, one audible), in which you rated this film 8 out of 10. How can it be in your Biggest Disappointments, much less not in the Top 10 above? Let me explain. This is not a bad film, and I do stand by my review as an accurate reflection of what I felt right after watching it. But as I’ve had more time to digest this film, and had myriad other globe-trotting adventure films (and well-drawn female characters) to compare it to, I find that it has aged poorly in my memory. And while the 2012 Avengers film still holds up to repeated viewings, I don’t feel much desire to revisit this film, and as I think back upon it, it all feels a bit slight and inconsequential, like the real story is still yet to come. Avengers: Week And A Half, Tops, of Ultron had a lot to live up to, and it’s possible that its own hype-train derailed in my mind about three weeks after I saw the film. Will I still hand Marvel my money for whatever the Avengers are up to next? Certainly. But I suspect I’ll need a bit more convincing that any of it matters next time.
  • The Martian (directed by Ridley Scott, written by Drew Goddard)
    This is why I can’t have nice things. The Martian is not a bad movie (it even appears in my Honorable Mentions above), but I’m going to call this one a firm case of “Would’ve liked it better if I hadn’t read the book first”. Matt Damon was never my dream casting for Mars-stranded astronaut Mark Watney (Sam Rockwell seems the obvious choice), but after all the money America has spent bringing Matt Damon home in fiction, I figured he would be acceptable. The thing is, everything else about the film somehow inspired me to nitpick it to death. Some details omitted from page-to-screen left me in an understanding mood. The complicated, days-long scientific process by which Watney figures out that he’s in the middle of a slow-moving, hundred-mile-wide Martian dust storm, for instance, would never have worked on screen. But other changes from the book just struck me as bizarre and unnecessary. Example: At one point, Watney patches a hole in the side of his habitat with what appears to be clear plastic and duct tape. And it looked dumb and implausible, and immediately took me out of the film. In the book, this feat was done with spare canvas and epoxy, which could’ve been communicated quite simply with a slightly-modified visual in the film. Many of the film’s performances also felt minimalistic and lazy (looking at Jeff Daniels and Kristen Wiig), and as capable an actor as Chiwetel Ejiofor may be, I did not need Dr. Venkat Kapoor’s name simplified for my fragile American ears into “Vincent Kapoor”. For a film that seeks to inspire its audience to care about the grand exploration of human knowledge, this was a surprisingly condescending choice. This film was gorgeous, made perhaps the best use of David Bowie‘s “Starman” ever, and I would probably watch it again. But I might just re-read the book instead.

Pleasant Surprises:

Low expectations, high results.

  • Ant-Man (directed by Peyton Reed)
    A perfectly serviceable beat-for-beat remake of Iron Man with absolutely no surprises except that it turned out to be the Marvel film I ended up liking better than Avengers: Age of Ultron this year. This film felt like a second-rate MCU property in every possible way (even bringing in one of the most recently added Avengers for an utterly perfunctory guest appearance), but Paul Rudd and the supporting cast conspired to make this film a fun, goofy superhero romp that I find myself shocked that I’m eager for more.
  • Jurassic World (directed by Colin Trevorrow)
    Check out our podcast for our full (and fairly complicated) thoughts on this film, but I’ll first defer to the reaction we had on the night:
    Dinosaur captioned with
  • Furious 7 (directed by James Wan)
    Furious 7 was a solid introduction of a new director to the franchise, with Wan doing his very best mash-up of Justin Lin and Michael Bay to solid action effect. But the real stunner is that this film did such a good job glossing over the untimely death of lead actor Paul Walker, it almost felt like an indictment of the role of an actor in a modern action franchise. It’s not to say his absence in the film wasn’t noticeable, but there were a number of action scenes that – had they featured a living actor – I would’ve simply assumed were shot by an middling cinematographer. Middling, but not bad. They’re comprehensible – they just don’t show his face as much as they should.
    But you can do a lot these days with stunt doubles, dim lighting, CGI face replacement, and quick camera movements (just ask Natalie Portman in Black Swan), and as far as the action scenes were concerned, it felt like Walker was present for the entire film. The acting and character work – which has always reliably lent weight to the otherwise ridiculous action in this franchise – only suffered a bit. Watching Jordana Brewster share a tender familial dialogue scene with the back of an obviously-different actor’s head actually made me a bit sad watching it. The action was ridiculous and fun as usual, even if it felt a lot more episodic with the thinly-justified globetrotting this time around. And James Wan‘s directorial style, while noticeably different from Justin Lin, was mostly adequate, at least when it wasn’t doing its best superfluous-ass-shaking impression of Michael Bay. All in all, I’d say this film falls firmly in the category of “As good as could be reasonably expected.”

Daniel’s Top 10 Most Hated Films of 2015

FilmWonk Podcast co-host Daniel also saw a lot of films this year, and decided that he’d prefer to make a “Bottom 10” list for the year. Here are Daniel’s Most Hated films of 2015.

  1. True Story
  2. Inherent Vice
  3. Avengers: Age of Ultron
  4. Blackhat
  5. The Transporter Refueled
  6. The Visit
  7. When Animals Dream
  8. Fifty Shades of Grey
  9. Self/less
  10. The Hateful Eight

2014 Glennies: Best Picture (Top 10 Films of 2014)

#11: The Wind Rises

Poster for "The Wind Rises"

Directed by Hiyao Miyazaki, written by Miyazaki based on his comic book, English adaptation by Mike Jones

As always, #11 goes to a film that must be seen, but that I’m reluctant to include in my Top 10. The Wind Rises is a powerful and provocative film, since it comes from a Japanese man arguing that the 20th century progress in aviation was worth the wars that were largely responsible for it. Which is an overtly horrifying position, even if the evidence of war-induced technological progress is undeniable. But the film broaches this theme with depth and beauty that I wouldn’t have thought possible, and interlaces it with a touching and tragic romance. If the film has a technological thesis, it is that invention is morally neutral at worst, and glorious at best, regardless of its eventual purpose – and given that this is allegedly Miyazaki’s last film, it feels like a classical apology of his own career.

Check out my full review here:
Hiyao Miyazaki’s “The Wind Rises” – Dream, invention, and responsibility

#10: Fish & Cat

Poster for "Fish & Cat"

Written and directed by Shahram Mokri

This Iranian film is one of two on this list that are apparently shot in a single continuous shot, but this is the more tantalizingly ambiguous of the two. Fish & Cat is a drama that takes place at a lakeside kite festival outside of Tehran. Several dozen college students camp along the lake or in the nearby woods, and are intermittently visited by the creepy dudes who run a nearby restaurant, which may or may not serve human meat. This film is fascinating on several levels. First, it takes a totally free hand at manipulating its own timeline, showing the same scene multiple times, each time following a different character while the remainder of the scene plays out in the background. This allows much of the film’s subtext to reveal itself very gradually as we’re getting to know the ensemble, even as we’re not sure of the precise nature of the threat they face. Second, because this film was shot and takes place in the Islamic Republic of Iran, this American had no way of knowing what sort of content would be permitted in the film. Which makes the film’s insistence on its place in the horror genre that much more interesting. The US had the Hays code, and Iran has its own regime of censorship, and I don’t know if it specifically prohibits this sort of content or not. But the fact remains, this is a horror film that doesn’t show any actual violence, and in the absence of such content, it uses many clever workarounds to evoke a persistent sense of dread that lurks just off camera.

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #49 – “Age of Uprising”, “Fish & Cat”, ” Remote Control” (#SIFF2014).

#9: The One I Love

Poster for "The One I Love"
Directed by Charlie McDowell, written by Justin Lader

There’s generally at least one film on this list whose exact premise I can’t discuss in detail, and this is one of them. Suffice to say, Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss star in an engrossing exploration of the nature of marriage and romance through a clever sci-fi/fantasy filter that remains riveting throughout the film. One of the best things about The One I Love is that these two characters have the conversation that no two characters ever have in a genre film once the Big Weird Thing starts happening. One says to the other, “Hey, a Big Weird Thing just happened to me. I think a Big Weird Thing might be happening to you too. Let’s discuss the Big Weird Thing.” Once the [married] pair teams up to figure out what’s going on (which is quite early in the film), it really gets interesting, as they each gain their own fresh understanding of their relationship through their respective explorations. If this ambiguous description isn’t selling you on the film, I’d urge you to check out the trailer, which doesn’t give away its premise.

#8: Top Five

Poster for "Top Five"
Written and directed by Chris Rock

I really hoped Top Five would be in my top 5, but alas, it didn’t work out. But Chris Rock‘s quite successful revival of the romantic comedy genre does have one odd bit of synchronicity – it has a staggering number of plot similarities with another film on this list, Birdman. It’s almost certainly coincidental, but both of these films deal with stars playing fictionalized versions of themselves, who previously starred in a trio of costumed hero movies, and who now wish to be taken seriously by way of an ill-advised dramatic vanity project. In New York City. Oh, and both films feature a complex relationship with a NY Times critic. But this is where their (vast!) similarities end – in Top Five, Andre Allen (Chris Rock)’s project is little more than a backdrop for a stirring romance with film-writer Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson). Not only is the dialogue in this film beautifully naturalistic and authentic, but it’s also one of the most reliably funny comedies of the year. As director and star, Rock shows a deft hand managing the tone of this movie, jumping seemlessly between brief moments of gross-out comedy and genuine sentimentality without ever dwelling too long on either one. At its best, Top Five is clearly influenced by Louie CK‘s Louie, even finding its way to the Comedy Cellar for an impromptu set late in the film.

#7: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Poster for "The Grand Budapest Hotel"

Written and directed by Wes Anderson

Wes Anderson is on a roll. Moonrise Kingdom was a delightful coming-of-age tale, but this film has reached full maturity. It utilizes every cinematic trick Anderson has picked up, including some impressive use of models and stop-motion animation for the film’s high-stakes mountainside action around the titular hotel. Veteran Ralph Fiennes and newcomer Tony Revolori carry the film marvelously through comedy, drama, and some surprisingly dark and violent material (“This is the first death squad I’ve personally encountered!”). The film’s fictitious pre-fascist European country is a compelling backdrop, even if it feels at times like little more than a Tarantinoesque historical playground, or perhaps a setting that merely serves salacious and nostalgic interest above all else (e.g. Southern Gothic). But for all its tricks, The Grand Budapest Hotel never once feels slight or trifling. It is a deeply affecting comedic film about an era that was bygone even when the film takes place (hence the nested flashbacks). And it is thoroughly entertaining.

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #43 – “The Grand Budapest Hotel” (dir. Wes Anderson)”

#6: Edge of Tomorrow

Still from "Edge of Tomorrow"
Directed by Doug Liman, written by Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth, and John-Henry Butterworth, based on the novel by Hiroshi Sakurazaka

I’ll lead off with the line I said to everyone else about this film – Edge of Tomorrow* is an instant-classic action film on par with Paul Verhoeven‘s cult classic, Starship Troopers. The aliens are top-notch and terrifying, and the film’s use of practical effects to reinforce its battle scenes made mechanized combat look cooler than Elysium or Oblivion ever could. Everything about this film works, whether the clever sci-fi rehash of Groundhog Day, the gradual arc of Tom Cruise going from executive PR flack to seasoned and capable soldier (in his 50s no less – bravo!), or the instantly capable action-presence of Emily Blunt, who spends nearly the entire film as a ruthless alien-killing badass with a Final Fantasy-tinged buster sword. Seriously, if you’re not watching this movie right now, get on it. Also – this film’s end credits introduced me to the powerhouse vocal stylings of British singer-songwriter John Newman, which was just the icing on the cake.

*Now stylized as Live, Die Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #50 – “22 Jump Street”, “Edge of Tomorrow”

#5: I Origins

Poster for "I Origins"

Written and directed by Mike Cahill

Mike Cahill‘s latest sci-fi collaboration with actress Brit Marling was controversial on the FilmWonk Podcast, with Daniel dismissing the film as the same sort of superficial treatment of science vs. religion that I specifically thought this film transcended. Love it or hate it, you will walk out of this film with a strong opinion.

From my review:

That’s the scientific process in a nutshell – we find a piece of evidence that contradicts prior theories, so we test on and develop new ones. I Origins sets itself apart from other half-hearted Hollywood dalliances in science and religion by presenting scientists who really act like scientists. In the face of an anomaly that challenges their prior understanding, their reaction is…let’s do more science. This is a superlative point made in a subtle enough manner that I’m genuinely concerned about the audience taking the wrong idea away from the film.

A warning, if this premise intrigues you: Do not watch the trailer for this film – it spoils virtually every plot detail in advance. If you’re interested in further plot details, check out my [spoiler-free] review below.

Mike Cahill’s “I Origins” – A faithful rendition of the scientific method
As well as our podcast discussion:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #54 – “Lucy”, “I Origins”

#4: The Case Against 8

Poster for "The Case Against 8"

Directed by Ben Cotner and Ryan White

The Case Against 8 is a stunningly executed legal and political procedural, and this is just the beginning of its appeal. It features behind-the-scenes footage from the case preparation of the legal team that fought to overturn California’s Prop-8 ban on same-sex marriage – footage that reveals so much detail about their trial strategy that it had to remain locked in a safe deposit box until the case was disposed in the Supreme Court in 2013. You already know the outcome of this case (and indeed, the possible outcome of this issue in 2015!), but what’s so fascinating here is all the personal details that went into making this case happen. The two couples who became plaintiffs in the lawsuit against California were carefully vetted, treated essentially like political candidates. The two attorneys behind the case, David Boies and Ted Olsen, were previously on opposite sides in Bush v. Gore (2000) – one a liberal, the other a conservative, united in friendship and determination to cast same-sex marriage as a non-partisan Constitutional issue. The result is both a thoroughly engrossing and emotional drama – both familial and political – and an utterly fascinating treatise on how things really get done in American politics.

Check out my review here:
SIFF Roundup: “The Case Against 8”, “Desert Cathedral”, “In Order of Disappearance”

#3: Gone Girl

Poster for "Gone Girl"

Directed by David Fincher, written for the screen by Gillian Flynn, based on her novel

I can think of no greater advertisement for Gone Girl than to link to author and screenwriter Gillian Flynn‘s passage on “cool girls“, which appears in a slight variation in the film. Give that passage a read, and you’ll start to have an idea of just what’s going on with the missing character of Amazing Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike), even if the bulk of the film’s focus is on her husband Nick (Ben Affleck), a tabloid archetype who is doomed to be blamed for his wife’s disappearance and possible murder regardless of what he does next (even if he does plenty to sabotage himself). Affleck so thoroughly embodies this role that I can scarcely imagine anyone else filling it. Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens, and a hilarious, high-powered attorney in the form of Tyler Perry give one strong contribution after another to the film’s cast – and Neil Patrick Harris feels like the inevitable extreme of Barney Stinson. This is a gripping film – and if you’ve somehow managed to avoid the big spoiler, one that will certainly keep you guessing.

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #57 – “Gone Girl” (dir. David Fincher)

#2: Foxcatcher

Poster for "Foxcatcher"

Directed by Bennett Miller, screenplay by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman

There is no levity in this film, and that’s probably the only reason why it ended up as my #2 – like 12 Years a Slave, it’s certainly the finest film I saw in its year, and I would likely never watch it again. The film depicts Olympian wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) being taken under the wing of billionaire heir John E. Du Pont (Steve Carell), who wishes to set up a world-class wrestling facility on Foxcatcher (his rural Pennsylvania farm). The film is based on a true story – and a story whose outcome, involving Mark’s brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo) – also an Olympic wrestler – I knew in advance. This didn’t really color my enjoyment of the film, as the complex, slow-burn, paranoid relationship that develops between Mark and John is the primary focus of the film. Mark willingly becomes a kept man, and John clearly has strong expectations for him. Tatum and Carell each offer a fascinating and transformative performance, with Tatum looking slumped, dejected, and walking like a caveman with a persistent scowl for the entire film. Tatum has described this film as his greatest acting challenge, and while his characterization took some getting used to, it is certainly a success. Steve Carell, on the other hand, gives nothing short of the performance of a lifetime. His face is disfigured not only with prosthetics, but also with a persistently awkward and menacing demeanor. This is a wondrous and terrifying performance, on par with Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs. This is a strange man who doesn’t enjoy life (despite his vast opportunities to do so), and whose expectations and promise willfully engulf as many lives as he is willing to take under his control. The film also features a brief and chilling turn by Vanessa Redgrave, whom I was pleased to see on-screen once again, even if she’s apparently been keeping busy out of my sight.

Check out the film’s trailer, which gives an excellent idea of the film’s appeal and ambiance without giving away too much.

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #62 – “Unbroken” (dir. Angelina Jolie), “Foxcatcher” (dir. Bennett Miller)

#1: Birdman

Poster for "Birdman"

Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, written by Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo

Here it is – the film that I saw multiple times in theaters without hesitation, whose wonderful Mark Woolen trailer I watched over and over again, and which I haven’t stopped thinking about since. By the usual standards of Iñárritu, Birdman is a downright chipper film, featuring the backstage relationship between Broadway actors (Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough, and Naomi Watts), as well as the “Hollywood clown in a Lycra bird-suit” who wishes to take his place in their midst, Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton). The film is shot in a self-identified “hyper-realistic” fashion, seemingly taking place in a single, continuous shot. And as Mike Ryan at ScreenCrush deftly points out, Keaton is not a perfect match for this character’s career, but he’s certainly close enough to inspire the comparison, and Keaton’s performance feels incredibly personal either way (when his gruff Birdman persona informs him in voiceover that “60 is the new 30”, for instance). Thomson’s costar, Broadway diva Mike Shiner (Norton) makes superlative use of the charm and (alleged real-life) tendency to creatively take over whatever production he’s on. Emma Stone is marvelously and deliberately unlikable as Thomson’s acerbic, recovering-addict daughter, Sam, and Zach Galifianakis proves once again that his best comic acting involves being a crying straight-man. In the tradition of Ratatouille (and Cloud Atlas, kinda), this film directly puts its critics in the crosshairs, in the form of NY Times theatre snob Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan).

Tabitha is, in many ways, an appallingly unprofessional critic, but what the film gets right is that criticism, at its worst, is just tossing out meaningless adjectives (or in my case, adverbs), and at its best, is merely an appeal to authority. And what can I say? The film’s not wrong, and you should see it because I’m telling you to do so. Criticism is a competing force to fanaticism, despite their mutually incestuous relationship with acts of creativity. But an act of creativity is not necessarily an intrinsic good, and Birdman is happy to confront that dour reality in the most entertaining way possible.

Check out our podcast discussion here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #58 – “Birdman” (dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu)

Honorable Mentions:

  • Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (directed by Matt Reeves)
  • The Imitation Game (directed by Morten Tyldum)
  • Boyhood (written/directed by Richard Linklater)
  • Force Majeure (written/directed by Ruben Östlund)
  • The Babadook (written/directed by Jennifer Kent)
  • Night Moves (directed by Kelly Reichardt)
  • Interstellar (directed by Christopher Nolan)
  • White Bird in a Blizzard (directed by Gregg Araki)
  • Guardians of the Galaxy (directed by James Gunn)
  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier (directed by the Russo Brothers)
  • The Lego Movie (directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller)

Biggest Disappointments:

High expectations, low results.

  • The Interview (directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg)
    You know why. In every conceivable way, including factors unrelated to the film itself, this was a massive letdown.
  • Citizenfour (written/directed by Laura Poitras)
    This film’s subject matter is compelling – global surveillance and information security are perhaps the most important subjects in the world right now. But when it comes down to it, this just isn’t a very well-made documentary. This film couldn’t decide whether its audience was cutting-edge tech espionage nerds who already knew every detail and technical term of this story from their own reading (including Poitras’ own articles), or the uninformed masses whose eyes will almost certainly glaze over as one ugly intelligence or encryption-based term or initialism after another is revealed. And it’s downright boring for much of its runtime.
  • 22 Jump Street (directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller)
    Lord and Miller have made quite a career out of making good movies out of seemingly terrible ideas. But their bar was rather high with this R-rated comedy sequel. I adored 21 Jump Street, and while I should have known that it was impossible to strike gold in this particular mine twice, the most frustrating part of this film is that it contains some of my favorite comedy scenes of the year (a late scene between Jonah Hill and Jillian Bell certainly counts). If it hadn’t spent so much time trying to make me hate its self-awareness, I might have enjoyed it more.
  • The Amazing Spider-Man 2
    At the time, I referred to this as a “tedious, aggressively stupid piece of disposable, commercial tripe”. I stand by it. I’m cheating a bit here, since my expectations were rather low from the “first” film, but this sequel actually managed to plumb new depths of pointlessness. At least Sony appears to be considering handing the Spidey-reins back to Marvel, since they clearly don’t know what to do with them.

Pleasant Surprises:

Low expectations, high results.

  • The Fault in Our Stars (directed by Josh Boone)
    Despite the Neustadter/Weber script, my expectations for this film were roughly at “teen romantic melodrama” levels, but it ended up hitting me on many comparable emotional notes to Jonathan Levine’s 50/50. Trust me when I say – that’s high praise. And the leads are so charming.
  • The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (directed by Francis Lawrence)
    As a grown-up, I understand that the reason this film exists is because $2 billion is cooler than $1 billion. But while the first needlessly split Harry Potter film was a resounding thud, Mockingjay – Part 1 gives itself plenty of raison d’être. Despite the occasional contrived action beat, this film really brought home the realities of warfare in a world with a substantially reduced human population and grievous inequality in its population. At its best, the film brought Julianne Moore and Philip Seymour Hoffman (RIP) into a bunker under aerial bombardment by the Capitol, and reminded me favorably of the Battlestar Galactica reboot. What that gobbledygook should tell you is that everything old and adapted can be made fresh and new again, as well as the fact that an economic property can also be artful. That point may seem obvious, but without the occasional reminder, we might just have to stop watching studio films. And this song is nothing if not artful. This is a film that telegraphs its every artful[ly constructed] moment [of propaganda], then delivers fully on each promise.
  • X-Men: Days of Future Past (directed by Bryan Singer)
    I’m not thrilled about the insane jumble of IP rights surrounding Marvel properties, but this film is proof positive that a comic book movie can try doing something completely different from The Avengers, and mostly succeed. Sony learned the exact inverse of this lesson with one of my disappointments above.
  • Neighbors (directed by Nicholas Stoller)
    Another slight cheat here, since Stoller has pretty much never disappointed me with his comedies, but this one looked rather dubious going in. What it delivered was the right kind of comic warfare – one in which both sides have legitimate grievances, and they each take turns going too far with it. And I stand by my bizarre statement that this is the Game of Thrones of R-rated college comedies.
  • John Wick (directed by Chad Stahelski and David Leitch)
    Turns out I missed Keanu Reeves performing awesome stunts and killing bad guys. Who knew?

Daniel’s Top 10 Films of 2014

Everything above represents Glenn’s top (and bottom) picks for the year – but FilmWonk Podcast co-host Daniel also saw a lot of films this year, and we often disagreed! Here are Daniel’s Top 10 films of 2014.

  1. Guardians of the Galaxy
  2. The Imitation Game
  3. The Grand Budapest Hotel
  4. The Theory of Everything
  5. Edge of Tomorrow
  6. Gone Girl
  7. Force Majeure
  8. Fish & Cat
  9. Birdman
  10. Foxcatcher

Honorable Mentions:

  • Lucy
  • The Lego Movie
  • Interstellar

2013 Glennies: Best Picture (Top 10 Films of 2013)

#11: The Wolf of Wall Street

Poster for "The Wolf of Wall Street"

Directed by Martin Scorsese, written by Terence Winter, based on the book by Jordan Belfort

As always, the #11 slot goes to a film that I thoroughly enjoyed, but have reservations about including in the Top 10. As expected from Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street is well-made, well-acted, and a bit overlong. Following his turn in 2011’s Moneyball alongside Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill proves once again that he is capable of staggering acting quality when paired with an A-list star. The star in question is Leonardo DiCaprio, who is basically playing a drugged-out, misogynistic, and ultimately more honest version of the rich tycoon that he played earlier this year in The Great Gatsby. Like Lord of War, this is a chronicle of an unsympathetic character’s rise to power, and like Observe & Report, it is an unabashed celebration of bad people doing bad things. Make no mistake – this is a film about, by, and for – terrible people. And that’s okay. Nobody’s a single thing, and you have to be a certain amount of terrible to partake in the kind of debauchery on display here. Apart from that, this is certainly one of the best comedies of the year.

#10: Blackfish

Poster for "Blackfish"

Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, written by Cowperthwaite and Eli B. Despres

This documentary is best summed up by a quote from a former SeaWorld trainer that appears in an on-screen interview:

“I can’t imagine a society that values marine mammals as we do…without parks like SeaWorld.”

For a film that’s ostensibly a hit-piece on captive marine mammal shows in general, and SeaWorld specifically, Blackfish approaches an emotional subject with uncommon subtlety. It presents the issue purely in terms of practicality – there is no safe manner in which an orca can be kept safely as a private show animal, therefore it shouldn’t happen. Then it lets its subjects – who are apparently immune to irony – hang themselves with quotes such as the one above. Any moral conclusions about whether it’s “right” or “wrong” to keep orcas captive are left for the audience to draw on their own – even if it’s clear which direction the film is prodding you toward.

This is quite a harrowing and well-made documentary, and given its wide distribution, likely to be an effective one. As of this writing, the title is available on Netflix streaming.

Check out my full review here:
SIFF Roundup: “Blackfish”, “The Kings of Summer”

#9: The Bling Ring

Poster for "The Bling Ring"

Written and directed by Sofia Coppola, based on a Vanity Fair article by Nancy Jo Sales

Color me dumbstruck. This was a film I hadn’t even planned on seeing (after a press screening for a much worse film went awry), and it was about a group of people that I had virtually no interest in. When a group of bored, privileged teenagers go on a burglary spree in Beverly Hills, pilfering goods from the unlocked houses of Hollywood’s TMZ-elite (including Paris Hilton, whom they robbed a half-dozen times before it was even noticed), I was expecting to be bored by their vapid pursuit of overpriced fashion. And yet, this film not only delivered some of the most fascinating characters and performances of the year, but also a thoroughly well-paced, well-edited, and entertaining peek into the lives of this wild bunch of girls (and a couple boys). Relative newcomers Katie Chang and Israel Broussard are riveting, delivering a friendship (with some chilling subtext) that manages to deftly carry the first two thirds of the film. Broussard’s naïveté and Chang’s cold calculation make for an impressive pairing – and are only made better when placed alongside Emma Watson. Watson is handed the last third of the film, as well as several of the most entertaining monologues I’ve seen this year, delivering vapid nonsense with utter sincerity to whichever members of the press will listen. This film is endlessly entertaining, and also thoroughly understands the twisted pursuit of fame and fortune that this ring is indulging in. They are essentially just a lower tier of the class of people that they are stealing from, even to the degree that in the end, their high-level transgressions don’t especially matter (a theme made clear when Watson’s character briefly shares a cell block with one of her victims, locked up for DUI).

See this film and be pleasantly surprised along with us. Listen to our discussion of the film here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #35 – “The Bling Ring” (dir. Sofia Coppola)

#8: Side Effects

Poster for "Side Effects"

Directed by Steven Soderbergh, written by Scott Z. Burns

Following 2012’s Contagion, director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns team back up to deliver an impressive thriller of a different sort. Side Effects feels at home alongside the best of Alfred Hitchcock, and regrettably, I can say little else about the film without damaging its appeal, except that I rewatched it this past month, and can confirm that it holds up well to repeat viewing.

As of this writing, Side Effects is available on Netflix streaming. And like last year’s #2 pick, The Imposter (also available), you would do well to watch it without reading anything else in advance.

#7: Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari

Still from "Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari"

Directed by Aleksey Fedorchenko, written by Denis Osokin

I feel a bit bad including a film that is unlikely to find distribution in the United States, but I am compelled to include this film because it is nothing less than a master class in short-form storytelling. Taking the form of 22 vignettes about an ethnic and religious group living in a Russian republic east of Moscow, this film is not only beautifully shot, but manages to tell a series of fascinating stories that each deliver a clear beginning, middle, and end – even if you sometimes have to dive deeply into the subtext to find it. This film is alternately funny, touching, and bizarre – and at all times, it remains exhilarating.

Read my full review here:
SIFF Review: “Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari” (dir. Aleksey Fedorchenko)

#6: Her

Poster for "Her"

Written and directed by Spike Jonze

Spike Jonze‘s Her features a man named Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) falling in love with an artificially intelligent operating system named Samantha (voice of Scarlett Johannson). And I must say, when one of Samantha’s first lines is telling the film’s depressed, antisocial protagonist to “maybe try and get out of bed?”, I was quite nervous that I was about to see Manic Pixie Dream Bot: The Movie. But what the film delivers instead is an impressively mature take on romance. Like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind before it, the film explores romance through the lens of the failed relationship, between Theodore and his soon-to-be-ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara). But unlike that film, the relationship merely feels like a backdrop to the well-realized sci-fi love story on display here. And the sci-fi world itself is an equally impressive backdrop. The visual effects (which mostly consist of greatly increasing the number of skyscrapers in Los Angeles) are subtle and well-rendered, and what’s more, the science fiction elements left me walking out of the film asking all kinds of questions about how this world operates. And these were the good kinds of questions – the ones that are provoked by a sci-fi world that feels so lived in that I assume that each of my questions has an answer. And by the end, many of these questions are about the nature of Samantha herself, as well as her relationship with Theodore. This is an always-on girlfriend, who will immediately answer the phone and start a conversation whenever you want – and as such, it would be easy to assume that she has no inner life of her own. But as the film goes on, it becomes clear that Samantha’s inner life is far more elaborate than is immediately apparent. The film’s most impressive theme regarding artificial intelligence is that any entity that is designed to replicate human emotion will be unlikely to end up a perfect match in capability to actual human beings. When an artificial being fails to quite measure up to a human being, we refer to this disparity informally as the Uncanny Valley. But when such a being measures up to the capabilities of a human and then some, what do we call that disparity?

Apparently, we call it romance – and certainly one of the most fascinating ones of the year.

#5: The World’s End

Poster for "The World's End"

Directed by Edgar Wright, written by Wright and Simon Pegg

I saw The World’s End in close proximity to Neill Blomkamp‘s Elysium, and was quite surprised when the former turned out to be the better sci-fi action film. Ostensibly, this is a film about five middle-aged men coming back together to go on a 12-pint pub crawl in their hometown, but coming as it does from the creators of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, there are some genre trappings at work in this film that are not immediately apparent. But what makes this movie work so well is not just the well-rendered frenetic action, but the solid, character-driven comedy at the center of it. Gary King (Simon Pegg) is an immature and infectious partygoer bordering on the sort of serious self-destruction that is rarely seen in comedy (much the same as Russell Brand’s character in Get Him to the Greek), and Andy (Nick Frost) is the straight man and former childhood friend who wants absolutely nothing to do with him. This reversal of the Pegg and Frost dynamic from the rest of the Cornetto trilogy works rather well, particularly with regard to Frost, whose surly demeanor becomes more and more justified as the history between these two characters is made clear. Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine, and Eddie Marsan round out the cast, and it is one of the film’s great strengths that each of these characters (even the latter two, who are definitely the least prominent) have well-established roles, desires, and history within the group. Indeed, the history between the members of this group – particularly Pegg and Frost’s characters, weighs heavily on the proceedings at all times. In much the same way as Shaun of the Dead, this film is a farcical sci-fi comedy that manages to make its characters matter – both to each other and to the audience.

Listen to our discussion of the film here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #37 – “The World’s End” (dir. Edgar Wright), “Mud” (dir. Jeff Nichols)

#4: Stories We Tell

Still from "Stories We Tell"

Written and directed by Sarah Polley, with narration by Michael Polley

Actress and writer/director Sarah Polley is no stranger to putting personal stories on film (2011’s Take This Waltz had some undeniable connections to her personal life), but this documentary definitely takes it to a new level, turning the cameras upon Polley herself, as well as her family and friends. The mystery of Diane Polley (Sarah’s deceased mother) is at the core of this film – and believe me, it’s a doozy. With this woman dead and gone, all that her loved ones have left are their own memories and perspectives – and the narratives that they construct from them. If this sounds boring and navel-gazing, the film demonstrates an impressive degree of self-awareness about that expectation. It never insists that anyone outside of the Polley family will find this personal story interesting (in fact, several members of the family explicitly question this), but the fact is – the story is interesting, as are the family members themselves. Of particular interest is Michael Polley, Sarah’s father, who is a riveting on-screen presence, and alternates between reading a prepared third-person account of his life experience, and reacting (in an on-camera interview) to the very same events as they appear on-screen through archive footage. Structurally speaking, this is one of the most complex documentaries I’ve ever seen, but it never once feels gimmicky, or fails to maintain interest. In the end, the film is all about the evolving personal narratives that we tell ourselves in order to make sense of our lives – despite our faulty memories and incomplete facts.

Since I haven’t seen this film since May, rather than trusting my memory any further, I’ll just defer to the story I told about it at the time:

This film is nothing short of a masterpiece – hilarious and heartfelt, and brilliantly blurring the lines between documentary and reenactment. It is an act of courage and personal conviction, delivered with an admirable measure of humility.

Read my full review here:
SIFF Roundup: “We Steal Secrets”, “Stories We Tell”

#3: Mud

Poster for "Mud"

Written and directed by Jeff Nichols

Jeff Nichols’ Mud is a coming-of-age adventure story featuring a pair of Arkansas boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), who discover a mysterious man named Mud (Matthew McConaughey) living in a fishing boat stranded on an island in the middle of the Mississippi River. Following some drama with his on-again, off-again girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), Mud is in hiding, and the boys gradually begin to help him – both to try and make contact with his lady love, and to escape.

It’s a curious footnote that actor Michael Shannon, who plays a small part in Mud as Neckbone’s uncle and legal guardian, was only present for a few days of filming due to his commitment to play the villainous General Zod in Man of Steel. If we’re speaking purely in terms of scale, the latter film certainly has more at stake, with all of the main characters, Metropolis, and indeed, the entire planet, under threat of destruction. And yet, in Mud, wherein ostensibly only the life of the title character is at risk, the stakes feel not only higher, but ultimately more substantial.

If this were simply about saving the life of one character (and one who strains the audience’s sympathy over the course of the film), perhaps it might not seem so important. But what makes Mud feel so weighty is that it is a heartfelt and honest story about romance. What’s at stake are the future romantic notions of the film’s young lead, Ellis, who is in the process of learning a series of dubious lessons in love. Ellis still believes in true love, but if Mud and Juniper (or his divorcing parents) are the best examples of romance that he can muster, his innocence in this regard might just be ruined. Sheridan’s performance certainly carries the emotional weight of the film, even as McConaughey continues his trajectory over the past few years toward becoming one of the best working actors today. This is a stunning adventure film with a fantastic musical score (from previous Nichols collaborator David Wingo), and is chock full of solid performances – both from the actors I’ve mentioned, as well as supporting players such as Ray McKinnon, Sarah Paulson, and Sam Shepard.

Listen to our discussion of the film here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #37 – “The World’s End” (dir. Edgar Wright), “Mud” (dir. Jeff Nichols)

#2: 12 Years a Slave

Poster for "12 Years a Slave"

Directed by Steve McQueen, screenplay by John Ridley, based on the memoir by Solomon Northup

This film is essential viewing, plain and simple. It offers a critical understanding of an important period in American history, and does so through the lens of a man who was kidnapped into slavery during a time when the only thing that separated a free black man from a slave was a piece of paper – and one that could be snatched away as easily as that person’s life. As is typical for director Steve McQueen, this film looks gorgeous (even in its depiction of disturbing subject matter). And Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender each deliver incredible, career-defining performances.

Beyond that, I’ll defer to our podcast discussion below, and admit that this would probably be swapped with my #1 selection below if not for the fact that I likely will not want to see it again nearly as much. This is essential viewing, and with the exception of a minor gripe about Hans Zimmer‘s score, I consider it an absolute masterpiece. And yet, like Schindler’s List before it, it’s not likely to be a film I’ll want to revisit too often.

Listen to our discussion of the film here:
FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #38 – “12 Years a Slave” (dir. Steve McQueen)

#1: Gravity

Poster for "Gravity"

Directed by Alfonso Cuarón, written by Alfonso Cuarón and Jonás Cuarón

The opening title card of Alfonso Cuarón‘s Gravity announces, in no uncertain terms, that life in space is impossible. And as hard as that is to believe in the glorious age of information and space exploration in which we live, the film does a marvelous job at conveying just how much we might be kidding ourselves with all this manned space travel nonsense. And yet this film, featuring a simple and small-scale story of astronauts Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) dealing with a crisis in orbit, nonetheless feels huge, significant, and ultimately optimistic. It is a modern day epic myth, full of larger-than-life figures riding chariots in the sky – and also one of the finest hard science fiction films ever made.

Read my full review here:
Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity” – Life in space

Honorable Mentions:

  • Captain Phillips (directed by Paul Greengrass, screenplay by Billy Ray, based on an article by Richard Phillips and Stephan Talty)
  • Blue Jasmine (written and directed by Woody Allen)
  • Don Jon (written and directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt)
  • American Hustle (directed by David O. Russell, screenplay by David O. Russell and Eric Warren Singer)
  • Blue is the Warmest Color (directed by Abdellatif Kechiche, screenplay by Abdellatif Kechiche and Ghalia Lacroix, based on the comic book by Julie Maroh)
  • Dallas Buyers Club (directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, written by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack)
  • The Kings of Summer (directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, written by Chris Galletta)
  • Iron Man 3 (directed by Shane Black, screenplay by Shane Black and Drew Pearce, based on Marvel comics by a characteristically large number of people)
  • Fast & Furious 6 (directed by Justin Lin, screenplay by Chris Morgan, based on characters by Gary Scott Thompson)
  • We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks (written and directed by Alex Gibney)