Monthly Archives: October 2017

Trial: What is the best horror film of the past 5 years?

*Trials is a weekly series in which two writers tackle a proposed question or task. After they’ve written their opening statements, the writers will offer rebuttal arguments against the other’s and for their own, and a third writer will come in to make the verdict.*

This week’s question: What is the most effective horror film of the past 5 years?

Writers: Harrison Tunggal and Sanjay Nimmagudda
Judge: Kyle Kizu

*Warning: Spoilers for ‘The VVitch’ and for ‘It Follows.’*

Northern Lights/Animal Kingdom/Courtesy

Sanjay’s argument:

Contemporary horror movies are burdened with the stigma of excess. Whether it be excess in the form of jump scares, clichéd storylines or, more often than not, gore, recent scary movies fail to make a lasting impression of pure terror on the minds of their viewers. This is the cinematic landscape into which writer-director David Robert Mitchell introduced his 2014 horror sleeper hit, It Follows, simultaneously reinvigorating the genre while cementing the film’s place as certified nightmare fuel.

What sets It Follows apart is the film’s ability to gradually instill dread into its audience through sheer simplicity. Mitchell builds suspense and conjures up uneasiness via a basic narrative that has far-reaching real-world applicability. Gone are the chainsaw-wielding rednecks, demonic poltergeists and invincible masked killers, but the terror their histories carry with them is here in buckets. The film brilliantly supplants the cheap, and non-lasting, scares that these horror archetypes induce with a more primal and intrinsic fear present in every man, woman and child at some point in his or her life.

Northern Lights/Animal Kingdom/Courtesy

By simply having the ostensible ‘final girl’ Jay (Maika Monroe) relentlessly stalked by an indescribable force of evil, It Follows engages audiences on a more personable, and relatable, level. ‘When was the last time you felt as though someone or something was following you?’ the film posits. This inherently natural and ubiquitous fear is more effective and lingering because it can happen to and overcome anyone. Mitchell does not bog the film down with backstory or pad the runtime with a high body count, no. Instead, both director and production progress with the confidence that the most terrifying things in life are the inexplicable.

That’s not to say It Follows is without its subplots — a staple of the horror movie game — but the fashion in which it incorporates its motifs anxiously underscores the terror which the main narrative produces. The young adults who comprise the main cast are not trite caricatures of teenagers as audiences have come to expect within the genre, but rather, they act naturalistically, organically so to speak, and subtly convey moments of grief, trauma, sexual repression and mental illness on screen as actual teenagers would.

They are shameful, scared and unsure of what to do, but concurrently, they are not just bodies on the screen waiting to be picked off one by one. The realism in their portrayals as well as how well the film intertwines these socially taboo subjects creates an atmosphere of shame and guilt which only serves to emphasize the weight of the situation these people have found themselves in. Mitchell makes these kids likeable, empathetic and real, rendering their predicament all the more personally horrific.

Northern Lights/Animal Kingdom/Courtesy

What’s more, It Follows understands that what makes a horror film truly frighteningly is not simply what’s onscreen (though that is a large part of it), but rather the atmosphere established about the entire film. With a score that is both unbelievably disturbing and a beautiful callback to the iconic sinister tracks in films like Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th, composer Disasterpiece constructs an auditory dialogue between new age synthetic tones and classic horror film melodies which unsettles, intrigues and works beautifully in cohesion with DP Mike Gioulakis’ minimalist cinematographic style. Gioulakis boils down each shot to the bare essentials whether it be a simple car parked in an abandoned lot or the frequent, but no less harrowing, extreme long-shot of a small figure slowly inching its way toward the foreground. This is horror filmmaking without the frills and ostentatiousness of its contemporary counterparts and more terrifying because of it.

By excising the excess of modern horror while ameliorating the trope-ish tendencies of horror past, It Follows manages to deliver an innovative and, necessarily, simple story which harks on the fears and insecurities present in all of us, that never truly leave. It is the best horror film of not just the past 5 years, but of the 21st century.

A24/Courtesy

Harrison’s argument:

Robert Eggers’ The VVitch isn’t scary in the traditional sense. But everything about it is unsettling. It is a film that is meticulously designed to flay one’s nerves for 93 minutes by any means possible, right down to the spelling of the title, an aesthetic choice that elicits existential dread from my computer’s spell check software.

The VVitch barely has any jump scares (the ones in the film are damn effective though), preferring instead to escalate the viewer’s sense of unease through the language of cinema. Immediately, we’re introduced to a world drenched in darkness; cinematographer Jarin Blaschke’s use of only natural light (or lack thereof) suggests that there is neither a shred of brightness to be found nor hoped for. The visual aesthetic of The VVitch instantly communicates dreariness to the viewer, establishing the unease of what’s to come. This sense of unease is continued when we’re introduced to the farm where the main characters reside. It’s in an open field, completely vulnerable to the sinister, hungry maw of the surrounding forests. We’re constantly worrying that the titular witch will emerge from the woods and descend upon the exposed farm. Additionally, the farm is completely cutoff from society, and the isolation that imbues the film is akin to films like The Shining. In this sense, the world of the film is one that constantly and inherently invites tension.

A24/Courtesy

Of course, setting alone can’t invite the full-scale unease that the film achieves, and that’s where the characters come in. The film centers around a family of 17th century New England Puritans, who experience typical household troubles, which ground them in reality. So when that sense of reality is swept away by the supernatural — literally, when baby Samuel is snatched by a witch and ground to bits — we’re invested in the well-being of the family. Mostly though, we’re most invested in the character of Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), the family’s eldest daughter, who may or may not be the supernatural source of the family’s troubles. As the film progresses, we see how Thomasin is simply caught up in a family that is slowly caving into itself through their isolation, seemingly without any help from the supernatural. Thomasin never intends her family harm, and when she is consistently getting blamed for the family’s misfortunes, our unease stems from the sense that disaster is looming, despite Thomasin’s innocence.

Then, there’s the music, composed by Mark Korven. Whereas most horror films are content to blast pounding waves of noise, Korven crafts a signature sound for The VVitch by turning to period-accurate instruments such as the nyckelharpa. The string melody of “What Went We” is at once beautiful, but also intuitively evil — not unlike the film’s depiction of Satan himself. The vocal chanting of “Witch’s Coven” likewise bears an inherently sinister quality. This isn’t “avada kedavra,” but something that feels real, as if the sharp, angry chanting comes from a real coven of witches. The music of The VVitch turns an already tense film into an utterly bone-chilling one.

A24/Courtesy

Regarding the religious horror on which The VVitch is based on, there’s something tactile and authentic in the way that the film approaches witches and satanic lore. It certainly comes as no small sign of approval when real Satanists lend their support to the film. The film posits the threat of Satan as a constant one for Thomasin and her family — present in the mundane, the extraordinary and everything in between — which also makes such a threat feel salient for the viewer. When Satan’s influence is posited as inevitable, maybe even condonable, that’s when the viewer truly becomes unnerved.

Ultimately, The VVitch is a thoroughly unsettling experience, one which leverages filmic language and storytelling to create an aesthetic experience of pure dread. If nothing else, the film deserves all of its plaudits for launching the career of Black Phillip, the most talented, savvy and charismatic actor of his generation.  

Northern Lights/Animal Kingdom/Courtesy

Sanjay’s rebuttal:

I have to concede to Harrison that Eggers does implement painstaking detail in recreating the puritanical homestead upon which The VVitch takes place. The mood evoked by the film’s fixation on isolation, familial disputes and the unpredictability of the eponymous witch does contribute to an overwhelming amount of tension that envelops the film as a whole. It’s clear that the film’s existence as a period piece sets it apart from cinematic peers, but I would argue that said peers are not of the horror genre. What the movie accomplishes with the aforementioned plot beats, aesthetic and auditory choices and overall unnerving atmosphere is not necessarily indicative of horror so much as a drama or even thriller. The VVitch is most informed by how it captures the trial of Thomasin as a victim of historical patriarchal oppression.

Thomasin’s ascension to fully-realized autonomy is what drives the film as she is constantly belittled, disparaged and generally disregarded by her family. The film relies on her perpetual disenfranchisement as a woman in Puritan society and a daughter to a distrustful family to achieve its ultimate conclusion. I would assert that the “dreariness” and “uneas[iness]” of the movie, while undoubtedly generating fear, is not primarily meant to do so in service of fear, but rather to elicit sympathy for Thomasin’s plight.

Northern Lights/Animal Kingdom/Courtesy

Therein lies the delineation between classifying The VVitch as horror or drama/thriller, while a film may contain all the tell-tale signs of your run-of-the-mill scary movie, those signs are just a means to an end. And unless that end is to frighten, to horrify, to scare an audience, then that film cannot fully be classified as a horror film. The VVitch appropriates elements of horror which Harrison describes, such as Blaschke’s specific use of natural light and Korven’s string-based score, not to directly terrify but rather to emphasize the severity of Thomasin’s indescribably traumatic life.

Though scares do exist within its runtime, The VVitch functions best as a portrayal of the hardships and eventual retrieval of agency of its main character. The frights and scares, while very real, exist as tools to support and accent the journey of its central protagonist. While one might try and accuse It Follows of a similar feat, the difference is, It Follows’ narrative and thematic through lines of sex, disease etc. never overpower the film’s scares. Thomasin’s arc, on the other hand, becomes more compelling and deserving of our attention as the film progresses. It surpasses even the looming threat of the titular witch, that is, until Thomasin becomes her. In fact, when compared to It Follows’ straight-forward narrative, the intricacy of The VVitch’s storyline and the stark lens it casts on the familial dynamic as well as Thomasin’s identity make it a better film. Just not a better or scarier horror film.

A24/Courtesy

Harrison’s rebuttal:

Arguing that The VVitch is a better horror film than It Follows is no easy task, especially when Sanjay makes his point as thoroughly as he did. I can’t deny that It Follows is one of my favorite recent films, not least because its simple, atmospheric scares capture the anxiety of being followed, and of teenage sexuality.

Still, I would argue that the scares in The VVitch work in the same ways that those of It Follows do, but more effectively. It Follows leverages Mike Gioulakis camera work to create scares, in particular through the long takes that create a sense of anxiety for the viewer. But The VVitch makes the same play. The final scene of Thomasin walking into the woods lingers on her slow departure, going further and further away from the camera. This shot follows the same methodology as the cinematography in It Follows, but the anxiety of the shot is heightened because of the way that the film consistently escalates tension. The VVitch allows its viewer no time to breathe, no escape from the film’s ever tightening grasp on the viewer. Quite frankly, there’s hope for the characters in It Follows; they have the chance to pass on the specter of death that follows them. Thomasin, in The VVitch, has no such luxury. Her entire world crumbles away, and the shot of her walking into the forest — a climactic moment — only serves to highlight this fact. Sure, she might be better off with the witch’s coven, but nowhere in the film does the viewer not feel tense.

A24/Courtesy

In regard to atmosphere, The VVitch is arguably more hauntingly atmospheric than It Follows. Robert Eggers’ experience as a production designer comes out in full force: the film’s color palette, eerie music, blunt but mysterious approach to the supernatural and utilization of 17th-century aesthetics all create an atmosphere that coalesces to haunt and unnerve the viewer. In this sense, the atmosphere of The VVitch is more unified and purposeful than that of It Follows.

Ultimately though, both It Follows and The VVitch are two of the best recent horror films. Yet, the constant tension and unique aesthetic atmosphere of The VVitch give it an edge that It Follows lacks.

Kyle’s ruling:

The arguments are exactly what I hoped for out of this specific trial. They’re rather different. Harrison focuses on the complexity of production and the viscerally unsettling experience, while Sanjay focuses on the incredibly efficient, effective and simple story. Both are cases made well, cases that show how incredible the horror genre can be and, if all to base a judgment off of, impossible to pick between.

But there’s a clear winner, and it’s because someone shot themselves in the foot in the rebuttals. Sanjay seems to take the route of arguing for why The VVitch isn’t even primarily a horror film in the first place. It’s a bold strategy, but it doesn’t pay off. He makes the case for how the tension and unease are in service of a dramatic idea in regard to the film’s main character, which he believes makes it more of a dramatic film than a horror one. It’s an idea, sure. But I never understood why that meant that The VVitch‘s scares and fright aren’t indicative of horror, of rather good horror. Wouldn’t that make it a better horror film? That its scares and frights are in service of story and character and not just there for horror’s sake? Isn’t that the very idea you present in your own argument for It Follows? That it isn’t cheap? And if It Follow‘s themes are in service of the horror, and not the other way around, wouldn’t that make it cheap?

It was too bold of an attempt, and not one that had to be made.

In Harrison’s rebuttal, he uses the angle that Sanjay does in his very own argument for It Follows to take down that film — talk about effectivity, and how The VVitch is more so.

Winner: Harrison

 

Do you agree with Kyle’s verdict? Or would you have picked a different horror film as the best of recent years? Sound off in the comments.

Staff records:

Harrison Tunggal: 3-1

Levi Hill: 1-0

Kyle Kizu: 0-2

Sanjay Nimmagudda: 0-1

 

Featured image via Northern Lights/Animal Kingdom/A24.

Top 15 directorial debuts since 2010

The following list of directorial debuts sets a particularly high bar for first forays into cinema. These directors have created films that offer deeply human portraits of their subjects — films like Fruitvale Station, Swiss Army Man, Beasts of the Southern Wild and The Edge of Seventeen. Some directors boldly push the boundaries of genre, as with some of the horror entries on this list. Some others have simply created works of pure badassery like John Wick. While each of the following directors might seem different from the next, they all accept the challenge of carving out their own space in cinema — a challenge that will inspire many to follow in their footsteps. As Jason Hall make his own mark with his directorial debut Thank You For Your Service, here are our picks of some of the best debuts since 2010:

15. Marielle Heller, The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Sony Pictures Classics/Courtesy

Marielle Heller’s debut, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, remains a wonderfully singular entrance into cinema, a film that candidly explores a girl’s sexual exploration in a balancing act of filmmaking that, as many have pointed out, could’ve easily gone wrong. But it didn’t, and that’s to credit of Heller, whose unconventional approach, intertwining animation into the film, nails a pitch perfect tone that is, at once, audacious, explicit, sensitive and never judgmental. That’s where Heller pulls it off — that she doesn’t ask this story to bend for what most might think it should, and rather commits to telling the story from the main character’s distinctive perspective. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s meant to be, which makes it all the more profound.

— Kyle Kizu

14. Drew Goddard, The Cabin in the Woods

Lionsgate/Courtesy

Genre satire is incredibly difficult to pull off for any filmmaker, new or seasoned. There’s always a threat of jokes and subversion missing the mark, and of tone falling out of balance. Not only did Drew Goddard avoid all of those pitfalls with his directorial debut The Cabin in the Woods, he was nearly pitch perfect in all regards. His comedic chops, as well as those of co-writer Joss Whedon, are on full display as the film takes conventional characters and turns their roles and the story’s arc on their heads. But like the best horror comedies, Shaun of the Dead principle among them, this film has its moments of genuine scares. When done right, these types of films become adored cult classics, and it’s clear that The Cabin in the Woods is on its way there.

— Kyle Kizu

13. Jennifer Kent, The Babadook

IFC Films/Courtesy

The most affecting horror films are the ones that reflect the darkest corners of our own interiorities, and that’s exactly the elevation of genre which Jennifer Kent’s terrifying, emotionally wrenching debut The Babadook accomplishes. The film’s horror finds its epicenter in Amelia (Essie Davis), whose grief over her husband’s death manifests itself in a conflicting mixture of love and resentment for her son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). This sense of emotional complexity speaks to the humanity of the film — every parent has at some point felt enraged at their child, even though that child is the one person they love most above all else. The Babadook offers reconciliation for this conflict, and it’s all a credit to Kent’s masterful direction.

— Harrison Tunggal

12. Dan Trachtenberg, 10 Cloverfield Lane

Paramount Pictures/Courtesy

In 10 Cloverfield Lane, director Dan Trachtenberg gives us a film surrounded by the element of surprise — nobody was expecting a Cloverfield sequel, much less a confined, claustrophobic thriller, much much less one hell of a directorial debut. Arguably, this sequel is an improvement on the original film. For one thing, being trapped in an underground bunker and dealing with its two other inhabitants is a more tension-filled premise than the found-footage story of the first film. More importantly though, Trachtenberg gives us a whole slew of better monsters — specifically John Goodman’s post-apocalyptic creep and the actual aliens that, against all expectations, finally, gloriously show up. As Trachtenberg moves forward with yet another mysterious sci-fi project, we can’t help but expect great things.

— Harrison Tunggal

11. Kelly Fremon Craig, The Edge of Seventeen

STX Entertainment/Courtesy

The Edge of Seventeen is a coming of age film that’s powerful, controlled and extremely engaging all at once. It’s not just a stereotypical picture within the genre, not just a film that panders to its young adult demographic. The film takes youth seriously, recognizing that the blissful, fun freedom of teens and the awkward, genuinely difficult pains are intertwined. And the execution of this all comes down to Kelly Fremon Craig’s brilliant direction. Her script is wonderful, but not a simple one to translate to screen, and Fremon Craig jumps out of the gate with a seemingly inherent strength in guiding pace, character arc and tone. On top of that, The Edge of Seventeen is also a really affecting study of grief. It’s a film that truly works on all levels.

— Kyle Kizu

10. Robert Eggers, The Witch

A24/Courtesy

With The Witch, first time director Robert Eggers leverages his experience as a former production designer to create a vision of 17th century New England where satanic forces pervade daily life; there’s something evil in the film’s bleak natural lighting, the hungry woods and the restrictive costumes. Beyond mere aesthetics though, The Witch, in every respect, is one of the most unsettling film experiences that horror has to offer. Right from the moment characters speak, the period-accurate dialogue feels off-kilter, and if things weren’t stressful enough, the film quickly dials up the tension to precipitous heights in a scene involving a hag, a baby and a mortar and pestle (no, they’re not making hummus). Of course, The Witch might be Eggers’ first step in a career that is bound to be bright — or rather, dark, like a moonless New England night in the stiff clutches of winter, when witches’ howls pierce the silence and the Enemy stalks the earth — but his real accomplishment is introducing the world to the enigmatic, effortlessly cool Black Philip.

— Harrison Tunggal

9. Jayro Bustamante, Ixcanul

Kino Lorber/Courtesy

In his profound first feature, Ixcanul, director Jayro Bustamante creates a uniquely Mayan film — he cast non-professional Mayan actors, wrote the film’s dialogue in the Mayan language of Kaqchikel and shot the film under the looming gaze of the titular Guatemalan volcano. Bustamante’s attention and respect for the indigenous Mayan culture results in a film that is deeply immersive, a film whose realism is akin to cinema verite, but which never ventures into intrusion. For all of the film’s realist qualities, Bustamante ensures that Ixcanul retains a warm humanity — especially through the saturation of color that pervades the film, but most strikingly, through the strength of its protagonist, Maria (María Mercedes Coroy). Through Maria, Bustamante suggests that female agency is the only true linkage between tradition and “modernity.” In all respects, Ixcanul is a triumph of representation in cinema, one that we can only hope continues as Bustamante’s career flourishes.

— Harrison Tunggal

8. Michaël Dudok de Wit, The Red Turtle

Sony Pictures Classics/Courtesy

The Red Turtle is an 80 minute, almost dialogue-free, two dimensional animated film. However, it’s one of the most profoundly human films of recent memory. There’s something quite jaw dropping about the animation here, simple yet mesmerizingly gorgeous, and filled with lush, stunning colors. And that’s where its humanity comes from: imagery. Cinema is, first and foremost, a visual medium, and we follow our protagonist’s journey by almost purely visual means — how struggle, love, heartbreak, anger, regret, desperation and more are visualized in a story of a man stuck on an island. As we follow along, we realize how our protagonist is humbled, humbled by nature of all kinds and made to realize both that not everything revolves around human beings as well as how that can bring the best out of those very human beings. All of this also comes without mention of Laurent Perez Del Mar’s transfixing score, a soaring, tragic journey on its own.

The Red Turtle stunning and breathtaking, and one not to miss. That it’s Michaël Dudok de Wit’s directorial debut is mind-boggling.

— Kyle Kizu

7. Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild

Fox Searchlight Pictures/Courtesy

A fantastical, majestic tale of wonder and joy, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a film that sticks with you long after you’ve seen it. Not only is Quvenzhané Wallis an absolute revelation, but the film itself is a spirited triumph of independent filmmaking, a scraps kind of project composed with the utmost brilliance by Benh Zeitlin in his directorial debut. Almost dreamlike in that composition, the film crafts a community so crisply and so lively, and an explosion of a world through the eyes of its innocent protagonist, toned with an overwhelmingly affecting score to create an emotional profundity in its parallels to tragedy-struck communities like New Orleans, where Dwight Henry, who plays Wallis’ character’s father, comes from. In short, the film is poetic and transcendent.

— Kyle Kizu

6. David Leitch & Chad Stahelski, John Wick

Summit Entertainment/Courtesy

John Wick might have been the directorial debut for David Leitch and Chad Stahelski, but you couldn’t tell by watching it. In an action genre landscape where quick cuts and stunt doubles can get a pass from audiences, former stuntmen Leitch and Stahelski deliver some of the smoothest, most organic fight sequences in years — sure, it comes at the expense of John Wick’s dog, but when Keanu Reeves is kicking this much ass, it’s something we’re willing to forgive. Stahelski later doubles down on John Wick’s clean-cut action in the film’s sequel (one of the rare second installments that improves on the first), and Leitch recently directed Atomic Blonde, and has Deadpool 2 next on his plate, so it’s safe to say that John Wick represents both a landmark in the action genre and a stellar debut for two exciting new directors. Until Deadpool 2 or John Wick: Chapter 3 arrive in theaters, though, we’ll just have to be content with these five minutes of Peak Keanu.

— Harrison Tunggal

5. Alex Garland, Ex Machina

A24/Courtesy

As Ex Machina starts, we can tell that there’s something far more complex beneath the surface. We don’t really absorb it in its entirety until the end, but it’s there and we can feel it. Like many other directors on this list, Alex Garland pulls off that affect because of his composition of tone. There’s a bluntness to his story, a confrontational honesty within Oscar Isaac’s Nathan juxtaposed next to a startlingly direct tenderness in Alicia Vikander’s AI Ava. But that’s all for manipulation. Garland places us, the audience, in our very own Turing test alongside Domhnall Gleeson’s Caleb. He positions his camera, his characters and his dialogue in ways that work into our head and manipulate us into admiring Nathan, empathizing with Caleb and believing in Ava. What better way to tell a story about artificial intelligence and consciousness? But Ex Machina also uses those angles to subtly posit an idea of voyeurism and of man’s manipulation of the female body. With seamless, unparalleled visual effects, steely cool production design, Alicia Vikander’s magnetic, landmark performance and a hell of a creepy dance scene, Ex Machina immediately becomes one of the greats of contemporary sci-fi, and it’s only Alex Garland’s directorial debut.

— Kyle Kizu

4. Daniel Kwan & Daniel Scheinert, Swiss Army Man

A24/Courtesy

In terms of pure singularity, there is no film on this list more imaginative than Swiss Army Man. Dreamt up by the minds of former music video directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, Swiss Army Man should be the definition of an original film, unlike anything we’ve ever gotten and ever will — unless they make another. We can see Kwan and Scheinert’s intrinsic music video sensibilities, as scenes of montage or action are, on a technical level, composed masterfully. But what makes the film so special is the human spirit within its veins, or should we say within its farts. Swiss Army Man is about weirdness, about strangeness, about idiosyncrasies, but it’s also about the importance of embracing those qualities. Kwan and Scheinert give us a perspective on these two main characters that allow us to understand their vulnerabilities in the most raw sense. Amidst gorgeous and eccentric production and costume design, we still feel a sense of what drives these people to want to live. In that, Swiss Army Man is profoundly sincere and strangely, hauntingly beautiful in the most awkward of ways.

— Kyle Kizu

3. Dan Gilroy, Nightcrawler

Open Road Films/Courtesy

Rarely does a film, let alone a directorial debut, master tone, atmosphere and tension as thoroughly as Dan Gilroy did with Nightcrawler. And rarely does a film blend social commentary — in this case, of the quite literal horrors of video news — and character study so fluidly and so affectingly like Nightcrawler does. In this thriller, Gilroy crafts his setting, Los Angeles, as another character itself, as essential and vital to Jake Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom as video news is. The energy within each scene is stunningly pulsating, injected with vigor and vital to the film’s ideas about sacrifice, hard work and persistence. Nightcrawler will make viewers feel uncomfortable and creeped out. It’s an insidious film, and Gyllenhaal’s performance will go down as one of the best of the 21st century. But there’s something so satisfying about its polish, about its razor sharp edge. Like Lou Bloom, our eyes bulge at the progression of events, and like the best films about anti-heroes, we understand what we should come away from it with, while also basking in that insidious deliciousness that is Bloom’s success. There’s are very few character studies before and since that come close to Nightcrawler‘s unsettling brilliance.

— Kyle Kizu

2. Jordan Peele, Get Out

Universal Pictures/Courtesy

Between the creepy one take opening, the visually-driven social commentary of the Sunken Place, stellar acting and an incisive blend of horror and satire, Get Out is easily one of the year’s best directed films, and a guaranteed staple in any critic’s top 10 list. The fact that Get Out is Jordan Peele’s first feature makes the film even more special, heralding a career that is bound to establish Peele as a modern master of genre, a career that is already taking shape. Right after Get Out’s release, Peele was offered the reigns to a big budget Akira remake, but he turned it down, preferring to work on original projects like the upcoming thriller Black Klansmen (which he will co-direct and co-produce with Spike Lee) and a Nazi-hunter TV drama called The Hunt, which he will produce. After Get Out, we can’t wait to see either of those projects.

— Harrison Tunggal

1. Ryan Coogler, Fruitvale Station

Forest Whitaker’s Significant Productions/OG Project/Courtesy

With Fruitvale Station, director Ryan Coogler portrays the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, who is determined to be the man his girlfriend and daughter need him to be, but is tragically killed by BART police. Coogler’s directorial debut is a story driven by the humanity of its subject, a film that elicits the utmost empathy from the viewer, as only the greatest films can. With Fruitvale Station, Coogler demonstrates a profound, comprehensive understanding of character, something he would continue to explore with Creed, which took the Rocky franchise to new heights and even earned Sylvester Stallone a Best Supporting Actor nomination. As the release of his next film, Black Panther, approaches, we can’t help but be excited for Coogler’s inevitably compelling portrait of the titular king of Wakanda.

— Harrison Tunggal

 

Featured image via Open Road Films.

Box Office Report: ‘Jigsaw’ saws its way to the top in slow weekend

In an expectedly slow weekend before the release of Thor: RagnarokJigsaw took the top spot at the box office with an estimated $16.25 million. As seen by Happy Death Day in the weeks prior, horror films, especially around Halloween, tend to do well — although Lionsgate likely hoped that for a better result with this being the last weekend of October. Regardless, the film, which sits at $25.75 million worldwide, has already crossed even on a budget of $10 million.

In second place was last weekend’s winner, Tyler Perry’s Boo 2! A Madea Halloween. With an additional $10 million, the 7th Madea film climbed past a domestic total of $35.5 million. International numbers are currently low, but the film should still cross even within the next week.

Geostorm earned an estimated $5.675 million for the third spot, a 58.6% fall from its opening weekend. These numbers are abysmal, and even though the film is over $136 million worldwide, it’s one of the bigger flops of the year considering its $120 million price tag.

Happy Death Day and Blade Runner 2049 also stayed in order, shifting down just one spot to 4th and 5th. The Groundhog Day-esque horror film added over 200 theaters, and made $5.099 million. The sci-fi sequel made only $3.965 million, and left 782 screens. The film will not cross $100 million domestically, and needs a huge run in China — of over $60-$70 million — to cross even, which is doable.

The second new release in the top 10 was Thank You For Your Service, which took home an estimated $3.702 million for 6th place. The film follows soldiers as they return home from war and deal with the effects of PTSD, and is the directorial debut of American Sniper screenwriter Jason Hall. Right now, the film sits at 78% on RottenTomatoes after 72 reviews, and is one of the few favorably received new releases.

The third new release in the top 10 was the Matt Damon starring Suburbicon, which essentially bombed with only $2.8 million. The film has been panned by critics as well as fans, currently standing at 26% on RottenTomatoes and receiving a D- on CinemaScore.

Next weekend should blow up massively with the third Thor film and many critically acclaimed pictures, such as The Killing of a Sacred Deer and Lady Bird, either releasing, releasing limited or expanding.

*All weekend numbers are domestic, meaning that they’re from theaters in the US and Canada, and are also estimates, reported by Box Office Mojo, with actuals coming out in the next few days.*

 

Featured image via Brooke Palmer/Lionsgate.

Top 10 war films since 2010

Cinema thrives when it comes to war films. These are events that many regular civilians would never understand on any level other than statistics and classroom lessons. So, that’s where cinema’s job comes in — to transport us, to help us understand. And recently, war films have gone beyond that. But we don’t like to confine the genre to just those of generals, political machinations and battlefields involving some form of Western force. Those are outstanding, but war is more than that. War drags children into conflict in countries that can’t defend them. War is the deeply human and deeply empathetic look at those not necessarily fighting, but suffering — either those subject to enemies and without the ability to fight back, like Holocaust victims, or those struggling in the aftermath of what they’ve had to do, like PTSD victims. Even genre films, superhero or otherwise, have utilized war and wartime settings to comment, in immensely effective ways, on violence. So, let’s extend the perceived boundaries of the war film. Releasing this Friday, Oct. 27, Thank You For Your Service looks to do just that, mostly leaving the battlefield to extend Jason Hall’s investigation into PTSD that started with American Sniper. Who’s to say that that’s not as much of a war film as any? Here are our top ten war films, both traditional and subversive, since 2010:

10. First They Killed My Father (2017)

Netflix/Courtesy

While Beasts of No Nation and First They Killed My Father confront the topic of the child soldiers whose lives are consumed by the wars surrounding them, Angelina Jolie’s First They Killed My Father is unique in how it paints a portrait of a country’s history, and how it derives such a portrait from following its young lead (Sareum Srey Moch). Beyond being an affecting historicization of Cambodian history, it is a deeply beautiful film despite the horrors that it depicts — some of the dream sequences and the film’s multiple overhead shots transcend the vileness of war, suggesting that Cambodia’s own beauty as a country triumphs against the Khmer Rouge regime.

— Harrison Tunggal

9. ‘71 (2015)

Roadside Attractions/Courtesy

Yann Demange’s directorial debut is a breathtakingly intense look at more of a guerrilla war than a typical war, following the “Troubles,” a conflict which centered around Northern Ireland’s status as either a part of the UK or part of a united Ireland. And that’s what’s so special about this film — that you can feel that distinction from the opening scene. Demange’s construction of tone through editing and cinematography that build tension in the streets of Ireland is masterful. Similar to Dunkirk, ‘71 is almost a silent film, a chase film filled with frightening stakes. It’s one of the better war films of recent times because it succeeds in spades in portraying a region under duress, not from enemies outside, but from fellow people within.

— Kyle Kizu

8. Lincoln (2012)

Touchstone Pictures/Courtesy

With a little bit of make-up, a sizeable amount of screentime and a lot of method acting, is there really any role Sir Daniel Day-Lewis can’t play? In Lincoln, the prolific actor practically becomes Abraham Lincoln as the renowned and revered president navigates a unique time period within the context of the American Civil War — its final few months and the repercussions of its aftermath on American slavery. Helmed by Steven Spielberg in, arguably, one of his best films in the past decade, Lincoln takes an incisive look at the intricacies behind not only Lincoln himself, but the president’s impact on shaping the United States’ perception of race-based politics into the modern era. Not only does Spielberg’s direction manage to entertain through a sheer cinematographic fixation on the enigmatic and truly revolutionary mind of Abraham Lincoln, but the film’s incredibly talented supporting cast, including a possibly show-stealing performance by Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, ensures that the film goes down as one of the most compelling and meticulously recreated historical war dramas to ever appear on screen. There’s a sense of artistic passion that oozes from Day-Lewis’ portrayal of the strong-willed yet holistically perceptive Lincoln, one that envelops every scene he’s in (spoiler: with a name like Lincoln, it’s a lot of ‘em) but that never grows stagnant. Leave it to Day-Lewis and Spielberg to make a high school reading requirement into war cinema royalty.

— Sanjay Nimmagudda

7. Wonder Woman (2017)

Warner Bros./Courtesy

Sure, on an instinctual level, Wonder Woman is a superhero film, but it uses its wartime setting as effectively as any other film on this list. The film posits that war is a product of man’s own destructive ways, and that it’s up to a woman to bring the compassion (and kickassery) that precipitates peace. If nothing else, the film’s argument makes it a unique entry in this list of war films, but the level of craft that director Patty Jenkins brings to Wonder Woman lends the film an edge that its peers lack — Jenkins does Zack Snyder action better than Zack Snyder, the production design alone is worth the price of admission and the “No Man’s Land” scene will go down in cinema history as one of the most inspiring moments ever filmed. Truly, where most war films claim to depict heroism, Wonder Woman defines the standard to which such heroism should be held. As Wonder Woman, Gal Gadot channels Christopher Reeves’ Superman to give audiences a figure of hope they can aspire to — she is the hero the world needs and the one it deserves. But in Wonder Woman’s words, “It’s not about deserve; it’s about what you believe. And I believe in love.”

Harrison Tunggal

6. War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

20th Century Fox/Courtesy

There may be less physical conflict shown in War for the Planet of the Apes than Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, but the third Apes film is the first to truly be about war. Not every moment in war is physical conflict. Exemplified by Game of Thrones, war is often about the aura in the air and the disposition of every single person across vast regions, which, in War’s case, genuinely feels to be the entire planet. There is often silence in barren and broken landscapes that are strangely beautiful, and moments of harrowing communal strength in stake out locations. There are factions with warring ideologies, embodied by their leaders, and, most importantly, there’s a sense of history of what’s gotten us to this point. War for the Planet of the Apes holds all of that, and more, and is it arguable the most stunningly crafted of the trilogy. When it does come to physical conflict, it features some of the more viscerally abrasive battles of recent memory, especially the film’s opening. And it’s also host to some searing, haunting imagery akin to the Holocaust, as well as to any other conflict that involves mass imprisonment, such as the Japanese internment camps. War is one of the few war films, in general, to truly understand what “war” means, the implications of it, the often ignored visual and emotional impacts on both the small and wide scale, the ideological divide, the characters that perpetrate it and the characters that uphold the best of humanity — which, in this case, are the apes.

— Kyle Kizu

5. American Sniper (2014)

Warner Bros./Courtesy

American Sniper is a rorschach test of sorts. Some people see this film as a jingoistic piece of propaganda. Others see it as a sobering investigation into post traumatic stress disorder. It lands so high on our list as we mainly fall into the latter. While the film may not have a typical progression of narrative, we follow Chris Kyle, portrayed with unbelievable vulnerability by Bradley Cooper, through this growing sensory and emotional overload. Rather than use a typically inspirational score like Lone Survivor, American Sniper makes use of horrifying sound design that enhances the sounds of bullets and explosions. The film crafts this entrapment, most directly on his tours as gunfire rains down from all over and even hiding places are not so safe, but also in brief moments back in the U.S. as Kyle becomes entrapped in his own head. The brevity of his raw emotional moments shows just how much pressure and silence these soldiers dealing with PTSD feel like they have to put on themselves, making them all the more powerful — exemplified by the bar scene when Kyle arrives back to the U.S. without telling his wife and, when she calls, he breaks down and can only say “I guess I just needed a minute.” American Sniper is a war film that digs into you without you really noticing, so when you get to those points, you still feel all of what Kyle feels. It’s a necessary look at what war does to human beings.

— Kyle Kizu

4. Son of Saul (2015)

Sony Pictures Classics/Courtesy

The Holocaust is a subject that is often focused on in World War II films. There have been a multitude of movies exploring the horrors and atrocities committed during this moment of history, with notable examples being the eight-hour documentary Shoah or the Best Picture winning Schindler’s List. The topic has been explored by filmmakers like George Stevens, Otto Preminger, Stanley Kramer, Vittorio de Sica, Quentin Tarantino and Paul Verhoeven. With all of these major filmmakers being vital and their films classics, it may be hard for anyone to feel that cinema needs to retouch one of the worst crimes against humanity ever committed. Yet, László Nemes’ directing debut Son of Saul might just be the most stunning from both a filmmaking and pathos standpoint. The film follows Saul (Géza Röhrig), who is a Jewish Sonderkommando, as he goes by his day-to-day activities, which includes the truly demoralizing jobs of being both the person who leads fellow Jewish people into the gas chambers, and then being the one who disposes their bodies afterward. One day, Saul sees a child — after the fact — that resembles what his son would have looked like. From here, the film plunges into the wearied psyche of Saul as he tries to find answers to where his son is, and if that boy was his son. Filming in mostly tight close-ups, Nemes and cinematographer Matyas Erdely create an extremely subjective view on the Holocaust, forcing the audience to rarely see the violence, but instead to hear it, to be surrounded by it, to be as closely immersed in this devastatingly tragic time as any film before it. It may be a grim film, but it’s about as important and courageous as film can get — showing that sometimes in the most dire of circumstances, we can regain our own humanity.

— Levi Hill

3. Beasts of No Nation (2015)

Netflix/Courtesy

Beasts of No Nation represents not just one country, but the many that suffer from the type of atrocities and conflict of war present in this film. And this is where writer-director Cary Joji Fukunaga pulls off a stunning feat of storytelling — we understand that this is the tragedy of many, but we get to know our characters so deeply and so vividly. We become so connected to this idea of a larger devastation because we get such intimacy with the singular devastation we see. Much of that comes from violence. The trauma that Agu (Abraham Attah) encounters is overwhelming in every way, something that we immediately recognize as far too much for a young child. And as Agu falls into his own head, we see the potential for what he can become in the film’s juxtaposition of him next to the Commandant (Idris Elba) — a broken man forced into fighting, addicted to fighting, but only for any semblance of individuality and not for the war’s cause. That’s what makes Beasts of No Nation such a vital war film. Not only is it gorgeously rendered with some arresting cinematography and some viscerally intense filmmaking, and not only is it a film that shows conflict outside of the Western world, but it’s so invested in its humanity, in the brutality that gets us to a point like that and in the psychology of the most psychologically vulnerable during wartime: children.

— Kyle Kizu

2. Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Columbia Pictures/Courtesy

Director Kathryn Bigelow has never been one to shy away from war in cinema. Whether it be her first foray into the genre with 2002’s K-19: The Widowmaker or 2009’s Oscar darling, The Hurt Locker, (which reminded Hollywood, yet again, directing isn’t just a boys’ club) Bigelow has proven time and time again that she is the female authority on war on the silver screen. Combine her directorial prowess in capturing the governmental manipulation behind contemporary conflict along with the moral ambiguity of modern politics and a tour de force performance from Jessica Chastain, and you have Zero Dark Thirty. How does one portray the relentless hunt for the leader of the militant organization that orchestrated the worst terrorist attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor? With an unwavering realism that produces a profound sense of patriotism that is simultaneously overpowered by a sense of conscientious repugnancy, Zero Dark Thirty earns its spot on this list not solely for the gripping fashion in which it fashions an intimate look at the minds integral behind the assassination of Osama bin Laden, but the staunch stance it takes in revealing how war affects those that aren’t on the front line, and what they, and we as a nation, are willing to sacrifice to win.

— Sanjay Nimmagudda

1. Dunkirk (2017)

Warner Bros/Courtesy

Statistically speaking, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is, hands down, the film MovieMinis has written most about, by a margin wider than the English channel itself. And for good reason — beyond simply being a great war film, easily one of the best of all time, it is still the best film of 2017 (the ball is in your court, Guillermo del Toro).

You can read all about Dunkirk’s merits as a film here, but as a war film specifically, Dunkirk’s brilliance comes from its comprehensive, thorough subversion of every war movie trope ever put on screen. No character in this film pulls out a photo of his girlfriend back home, we hardly ever see enemy soldiers firing away at our heroes and, quite remarkably, the film maintains its thrills without spilling a drop of blood. In terms of war films, Dunkirk is the anti-Hacksaw Ridge — a film about evacuation rather battle, the empirical engineering of tension over mere spectacle. In this sense, where most war films are happy to indulge in hyper-masculine violence or cliched patriotism, Dunkirk intends to achieve none of it, preferring to blaze a new trail for what a war movie could be. Unlike any other film in the genre, Dunkirk is a purely experiential film, aiming to put viewers on Dunkirk’s beaches, in the skies above it and in the waters of the English Channel. The film’s IMAX format, expert editing, earth-shattering sound design and reliance on practical effects remind us how the language of cinema is a mimetic one. Speaking of Dunkirk, one feels the compulsion to pontificate about how audio and visual immersion is a quality unique to cinema, but let’s face it, such immersion is unique to Dunkirk.

— Harrison Tunggal

 

Featured image via Keith Bernstein/Warner Bros.

‘The Florida Project’ Review: A joyous, visually stunning playground of wonder and humanity

The Florida Project may follow six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her gang of friends at The Magic Castle, the cheap hotel they live at, but it’s truly one of the more hauntingly emotional films of the year.

And it’s a strange concoction that results in that. The film doesn’t shy away from or take shame in childhood, fully delving into the freedom, bliss and almost aimless wandering of young children to a point where the film becomes a free flowing journey that defies standard narrative conventions. Rather than try to make scenes with Prince and the other young actors adult friendly, the film truly comes at it from the perspective of Moonee, and realizes that there’s so much beauty in the eyes of children — that the world, even a run down motel, can become a grand playground, and not necessarily in stereotypically childlike ways. Shot with transfixing, mesmerizing, constant motion by cinematographer Alexis Zabe, who lingers like Lubezki and tracks like Deakins, but almost always places us on a low angle next to the kids, The Florida Project is a visual wonder that embraces its greatest source of imagination.

Yet, co-writer, editor and director Sean Baker realizes that, despite there being a certain sense of innocence within them, children are never free of the difficulties of the world, especially those born in particularly difficult circumstances. Baker expertly layers the growing story of family struggle, always shown from the eyes of Moonee. We see scenes of loving connection, of joyful play — but as Moonee starts to confront more and more, while she may not realize it in full, there comes a point when we understand what’s been happening all along as most that view this film have the adult luxury of inference. It’s a harrowing approach, one that humanizes and empathizes with Moonee and her mother Halley, portrayed with bracing strength by Bria Vinaite. And that’s what elevates The Florida Project — empathy. The film never exploits its characters’ lives, but simply understands them and, in turn, portrays them both sensitively and candidly.

Playing the manager of The Magic Castle, Willem Dafoe is a massive source of empathy. He moves from stiff strictness to overwhelmed frustration to soft, deep care in a way that’s somehow so subtle, yet something we can still feel throughout.

But surprisingly, Dafoe’s performance, despite warranting all the awards talk that he’s getting, is not the biggest one of note in The Florida Project. It’s Brooklynn Prince’s. It’s understandably difficult for young actors to fully envelop themselves in roles, but Prince gives every ounce of herself over to this film. It’s from her that we get the sense of wonder and joy in childhood — her energy infectious and singular and so real. It’s from her that we confront sobering truths. In the final minutes, Prince delivers a scene of emotion that is quite genuinely arresting, that takes the weight of the entire story and lays it bare with an overwhelming vulnerability. Baker composes his climactic moment with such expert, dynamic editing. But Prince is the one who causes this scene’s humanity to reverberate from the screen and dig into our bones. It’s an accomplishment that can’t properly be described, and something even more jaw-dropping when realizing that this is a seven-year-old actress we’re watching.

The Florida Project may be film’s pinnacle representation of childhood. It presents both its most wonderful qualities, without indulging, and its most genuine truths, without exploiting. It’s unlike anything we’ve seen.

Grade: 9.1/10

 

Featured image via A24.

Box Office Report: ‘Boo 2! A Madea Halloween’ scares away competition

This past weekend saw the release of three critically panned films: GeostormTyler Perry’s Boo 2! A Madea Halloween and The Snowman.

With Happy Death Day in its second weekend and Blade Runner 2049 in its third, one of those three critical failures was poised to take the top spot. And with the strangely wide appeal of the franchise, Tyler Perry’s 7th Madea film won the weekend with an estimated $21.65 million. While that is the second worst opening for a Madea film, it’s still a financially impressive weekend as its production budget is only $25 million — which likely means that more Madea films will come.

Coming in second was Geostorm with an estimated $13.3 million. On a production budget of $120 million, it’s a foregone conclusion, and not a surprise at all, that the film will be a box office bomb.

Happy Death Day fell more than expected, however, only pulling in an estimated $9.375 million — a 64% drop from its opening weekend. Regardless, the horror film’s budget is only $4.8 million, meaning that it’s already extremely profitable.

In 4th, and still struggling to make money despite outstanding critical reviews, was Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049, taking home an estimated $7.155. Standing at $194.1 million worldwide on a $150 million budget, the film will also lose money — unless markets it’s yet to be released in, like China, can get it to the approximately $300 million it needs to cross even.

The only critically acclaimed new release of this past weekend, Only the Brave, earned $6.01 million for the 5th spot. The film recounts the true story of the brave team of firefighters who fought the massive Yarnell Hill Fire in June 2013. It currently sits at a 90% on RottenTomatoes.

Jumping past The Foreigner, which made $5.45 million, and It, which made $3.5 million, new release The Snowman, starring Michael Fassbender, only made an estimated $3.442 million. The director has come out to say that the production ran out of time and they weren’t able to shoot 10-15% of the script — as some sort of excuse for its low critic scores. Regardless, the film is shaping up to be a financial failure as well.

*All weekend numbers are domestic, meaning that they’re from theaters in the US and Canada, and are also estimates, reported by Box Office Mojo, with actuals coming out in the next few days.*

 

Featured image via Chip Bergman/Lionsgate.

When Harry Met Movies: The immortal words of Marty McFly — Column

Back to the Future is a film I adore, and I distinctly remember watching it as a senior in high school, laughing along to the jokes, feeling the mental sizzle as iconic lines burned themselves into my memory and wondering why I hadn’t seen it sooner. Unlike many of the films I love, Back to the Future wasn’t something I was brought up on as a child, but something a close friend of mine introduced me to.

We met in the summer between fourth and fifth grade, at a tennis camp which neither of us enjoyed nor attended voluntarily — my parents’ last ditch attempt to inspire some degree of athleticism worthy of three prior generations of swimming, running, tennis ball thrashing Tunggals. The only thing tennis camp inspired was a great deal of sweat and indignation, intensified because I forgot my water bottle on the first day. Andrew gave me one of his.

Seven years later, I was backstage with my band about to perform “Johnny B. Goode” at a school concert. Sure, I had a sunburst-red Les Paul hanging from my shoulder, but I wasn’t Jimmy Page as much as I was Lawrence from School of Rock, before he puts on sunglasses and a cape. The pre-cape Lawrences of the world hardly introduce their bands before an audience, and I sure as hell didn’t know what to say.

“Say, ‘This is an oldie. Well, it’s an oldie where I come from,’” Andrew suggested, sensing my nerves, as friends do after years of classes, choir rehearsals and debate conventions. “You know, like Back to the Future.” It was a reference I didn’t get yet, but I knew that movie was famous enough that it might break the ice for the audience. So I said it, eschewing both Jimmy Page and Lawrence for Marty McFly, and tore into that immortal B flat blues riff.

Some time after, I finally got around to watching Back to the Future. Some time after that, I watched its sequel, the one where franchise-villain Biff Tannen becomes the rich tyrant of Hill Valley. Some time later, Biff Tannen was elected President, and the February after that, Andrew texted me about how jealous he was that Milo Yiannopoulos was going to speak on my campus. To quote Marty McFly, that was heavy.

Back to the Future is Andrew’s favorite film trilogy — not the original Star Wars movies, not The Lord of the Rings, not Toy Story. So it boggles my mind how he, or anyone, could see Biff Tannen as the hero of the story, let alone a valid presidential candidate. The writers of the films certainly don’t, admitting that Biff, who owns a casino, poses in front of a portrait of himself and seizes political power, was based on Donald Trump.

In a video essay about the career of George Lucas, Alejandro Villarreal edits together clips of Lucas’ own interviews to create a retrospective on the Star Wars creator. Lucas says “I only hope that those who have seen Star Wars recognize the Emperor when they see him.” I know for a fact that Andrew has seen Star Wars. We made a fan film for a school project once.

Finding that a friend I’ve known for so long differs from myself on such a basic level is difficult to process, but what’s even more frustrating is how film as a medium seems to betray its own limitations. Films are messages and lessons conveyed through good stories, humor, thrills and tears. Films are empathy machines, as Roger Ebert says, allowing us to see the world from another perspective, filtered through a camera lens. But what if the machine doesn’t work on everybody? What if the message is lost in the machinations of a plot, a good belly laugh or a well-timed scare?

I don’t have any answers, but if there’s a film out there that does, I’m all ears.

‘When Harry Met Movies’ is a bi-weekly column from Associate Editor and Co-Chief Film Critic Harrison Tunggal about movies that shape us and why we love them.

 

Featured image via Universal Pictures.

Revising Oscar nominations from 2010-2016

Whenever Andrew Garfield appears in a film — Garfield’s most recent, Breathe, released this past weekend, and he’s getting Oscar buzz for his performance — it’s hard not to think about how he should’ve been nominated for his supporting role in The Social Network.

And once that ball gets rolling, it’s hard not to think about the other painful snubs across the past few years, of which there are plenty.

The Academy Awards will never, ever get it completely right, but sometimes they get it so wrong that, even years later, we’re still talking about it. Here are a few per year since 2010:

2010

Best Director
Insert: Christopher Nolan, Inception
Remove: David O. Russell, The Fighter

Warner Bros./Courtesy

Inception is one of the best and most significant blockbusters of the 21st century, an unparalleled vision composed with such perfect precision by director Christopher Nolan. The fact that this film works not only on a conceptual level, but also on a story level, is a feat that’s still under-appreciated today. But the technical craftsmanship is too obvious for Nolan’s omission to be understandable at all. While The Fighter is a good film, a really good one even, it’s no match for the achievement of Inception.

Best Supporting Actor
Insert: Andrew Garfield, The Social Network
Remove: Jeremy Renner, The Town

Columbia/Courtesy

Jeremy Renner is just fine in The Town. Is he Oscar worthy? Not entirely. How the Academy overlooked Andrew Garfield’s amazingly committed turn as Eduardo Saverin in The Social Network is shocking. Garfield is the heart of that film, embodying the source of its fascination and the weight of its humanity — a far more impressive accomplishment than even the film’s lead, Jesse Eisenberg, who was nominated. When we think of the powerhouse scenes, we think of Garfield’s high intensity back-and-forths with the rest of the actors portraying Facebook founders, an intensity that is almost wholly missing without him. Garfield should’ve even competed for the win, and could’ve taken it had Christian Bale been correctly nominated in the lead category for The Fighter.

2011

Best Director
Insert: Bennett Miller, Moneyball
Remove: Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris

Columbia/Courtesy

Bennett Miller was nominated for Best Director for Foxcatcher. While that was deserved, his best directing job came with Moneyball. Similar to Adam McKay with The Big Short, Miller takes a niche and incredibly complex topic — baseball statistics and their implementation by the front office — and renders it palatable and human. The control of tone, the fluidity of pace and the composition of scenes — the trading for Ricardo Rincon comes to mind — are all signs of a director at his most refined. And while Brad Pitt did deserve a Best Lead Actor nomination, it’s Bennett Miller who makes the character of Billy Beane so utterly affecting. The juxtaposition of flashbacks, the editing and more all define the character of Beane in ways that other directors should study. Woody Allen may have deserved a spot on an objective, merit-based level, but Hollywood has to realize that the Oscars aren’t just based on merit. The Oscars celebrate figures, artists, and Allen is not one who should be celebrated.

Best Original Screenplay
Insert: Will Reiser, 50/50
Remove: Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris

Summit Entertainment/Courtesy

The reasons to remove Allen are the same. Will Reiser, writer of the Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen comedy-drama about cancer, would be next in line, and arguably deserved a spot anyway. The year offered a nomination to Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo for the comedy Bridesmaids, and rightfully so, but 50/50 is just as brilliant of a script. The comedy is sharp, the plotting is incredibly spirited and the character work is powerfully vulnerable. It’s a comedy that realizes that horrible situations need humor, that they often spark humor, and that that humor comes from a very human place.

2012

Best Picture
Insert: The Master
Remove: Les Misérables

Annapurna/Courtesy

It was difficult to see how Paul Thomas Anderson could follow up There Will Be Blood, easily one of the greatest films of the 21st century and possibly ever. At first, many felt that he whiffed with The Master. But looking back, one can quickly realize that, somehow, The Master comes close to TWBB. A seering, haunting, strange and mesmerizing look at (allegedly) scientology, the film is a masterpiece on every front, a distinctly American tale that melds the best of prestige, arthouse and flare while remaining unpretentious. The screenplay is one of the most intelligently crafted of recent memory, with scientology’s ideology deeply rooted in every single detail, and the duo of Joaquin Phoenix and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman is genuinely unmatched, with Phoenix’s performance seriously rivaling Daniel Day-Lewis’ in PTA’s previous film. Evidently, it didn’t need recognition for us to come to this current conclusion of its greatness, but it’s a bit silly to suggest that Les Misérables is in the same league.

Best Director
Insert: Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty
Remove: David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook

Columbia/Courtesy

Kathryn Bigelow won Best Director for The Hurt Locker. She deserved it. And then she followed that up with as viscerally affecting of a film in Zero Dark Thirty. She didn’t even get nominated. David O. Russell did just fine with Silver Linings Playbook, but no where in that film is there anything special about its direction. With Zero Dark Thirty, Bigelow traverses years, complex political machinations, an unbelievable character arc and one of the most tense military operations of our time, and pulls each aspect off in such expert fashion. It’s a film that showcases the best of her directorial chops, not for their own sake, but for the sake of the film itself.

2013

Best Picture
Insert: Fruitvale Station
Remove: Philomena

Forest Whitaker’s Significant Productions/OG Project/Courtesy

Oscar bait is a problematic term that shouldn’t be used. It’s difficult to find the right phrase to replace it. Whatever it is, though, Philomena is a film that represents it. It’s a fine movie, an enjoyable one, a harmless one, one that tells an emotional true story. But there’s nothing about the film that makes it one of the 10 best of its year, and it’s infuriating how the Academy, time and time again, goes for this kind of safe, standard and, quite honestly, boring type of picture. The best films of the year — granted, a problematic term itself — shouldn’t necessarily go to the most well-polished, but rather to the films that transcend the art. And Fruitvale Station is, undoubtedly, one of those films. Recounting the day leading up to the tragic killing of Oscar Grant by police, Ryan Coogler’s directorial debut breathes with life. It clearly has a message, but it injects that message into the veins of the film, bases and builds it organically, crafting empathy, joy and intimacy with such pressing reality. We’re not told an idea up front or too explicitly, but when we encounter that harrowing, soul-crushing final act, we understand it, without needing to say anything. The life built into the film vanishes, purposefully, and we’re moved in intangible ways. Coming a year after the killing of Trayvon Martin, Fruitvale Station is a necessary film that should be remembered, and the type of film the Oscars need to start recognizing if they actually want to honor the art of film.

Best Lead Actor
Insert: Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis
Remove: Christian Bale, American Hustle

CBS Films/Courtesy

It’s hard to remove Christian Bale, one of the best and most dedicated actors of our time. And in most other years, we couldn’t remove him. Yet, there are quite a few performances in 2013 that deserved that final spot more than he did. Tom Hardy in Locke is one of them. But Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis is one that not only should’ve been nominated, but one that should’ve made a serious run for the win. His character, Llewyn Davis, is a grumpy, tired asshole, which makes it so shocking that he ends up being one of the most soulful and human we’ve seen this decade. That’s all Oscar Isaac. Isaac brings a tired physicality, one that can be tangibly understood and seen in his body and his face, in the tonal quality of his voice. And not just that — Isaac performs his own songs, not only bringing immense musical talent but thoroughly adapting the character of Davis musically. Like The MasterInside Llewyn Davis is a distinctly American film, and like Joaquin Phoenix’s work, Isaac’s performance elevates that quality immeasurably, defining a face of the American psyche.

2014

Best Lead Actor
Insert: Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler
Remove: Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game

Open Road Films/Courtesy

Benedict Cumberbatch is great in The Imitation Game, and offers a performance that makes it hard to imagine anyone else in the role. Removing him here doesn’t deny any of that. It simply recognizes that Jake Gyllenhaal’s transformation for Nightcrawler is one of the best of the 21st century. Other than hairstyling, Gyllenhaal looks like himself in the movie. And yet, as Lou Bloom, we see nothing of the actor, and that’s because the transformation is of every facet of acting. Gyllenhaal’s tonal level isn’t changed, but his vocal pacing is entirely intrinsic to the character. His bulging eyes, quick movements and physical rapport with other actors are not only invasively terrifying, crafting awe-strikingly gripping scenes, but they’re informative of who the character is — such detailed work only the most masterful actors pull off. Nightcrawler is both a character study and a film about the terrible culture of video news, but those two aspects compliment and augment each other, and because of Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance, every bit of its collective impact is enhanced.

Best Director
Insert: Ava DuVernay, Selma
Remove: Morten Tyldum, The Imitation Game

Paramount/Courtesy

While we don’t have to deny how good Cumberbatch is in his film, we must refute any association of Morten Tyldum with the Best Director category. The Imitation Game is a fine film. It’s a crowd-pleaser. But it’s unfortunately reserved, and otherwise standard, suppressing a lot of the humanity that is actually there in this story. A film that is not reserved nor standard, and elevates its humanity, through the work of its director, is Ava DuVernay’s Selma. The technical craftswomanship here is stunning, with bone-shakingly rousing scenes of both action and conversation. There’s a liveliness, a humanity that’s extended to each facet of filmmaking — a testament to her guiding hand. On the intangible side, though, DuVernay’s grasp of the spirit at the story’s core can be felt in every scene, doing such profound justice to such an important story.

Best Animated Feature
It should’ve won: The LEGO Movie

Warner Bros./Courtesy

The audible gasps at the announcement ceremony when The LEGO Movie was not nominated for Best Animated Feature will haunt us indefinitely. If it was rules that caused its omission, as the film did feature a few live-action scenes, screw the rules. However, we don’t even want to think of what the reason might be, though, if not rules. Thankfully, everyone already knew that the film was the best animated picture of 2014, even before nominations. So there’s no case that needs to be made other than to point it out, and keep pointing it out.

2015

Best Supporting Actress
Insert: Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina
Remove: Rachel McAdams, Spotlight

A24/Courtesy

Rachel McAdams may be impressively committed in Spotlight. And if Alicia Vikander’s Oscar-winning performance in The Danish Girl was rightfully nominated in the Best Lead Actress category, removing McAdams would be unnecessary. That’s all semantics, however, as, regardless, Alicia Vikander’s other performance of 2015, as the AI Ava in Ex Machina, deserved a nomination. It may have gone unrecognized due to the artifice of the character hiding the true merit of the performance, but her turn is so utterly controlled and precise, nuanced and minutely accentuated in service of that artifice. Similar to Domhnall Gleeson’s character in reaction to Ava, we don’t immediately recognize the immense complexities of Vikander’s performance, and that’s purposeful. Ideally, Vikander would’ve won the lead category for The Danish Girl and the supporting category for Ex Machina. But ignoring a nomination for the latter altogether is frustratingly puzzling.

Best Supporting Actor
Insert: Idris Elba, Beasts of No Nation
Remove: Mark Ruffalo, Spotlight

Netflix/Courtesy

How does an actor win the SAG, but not even get nominated at the Oscars? Well, sadly for Idris Elba, forces outside of the film and his performance resulted in that. At the time, Netflix was rather new to film production/distribution, with Beasts of No Nation being its first fictional narrative endeavor, and many hated the idea of what the streaming company might do to the film industry. While it’s technically speculative, those factors likely pushed Elba out. In a just world, though, Elba is inarguably nominated. His command of the screen is transfixing, his definition of character quite tragic. As much as we find heart, the humanity impacted by these wars, in lead actor Abraham Attah, we find the other end of that heart in Elba, a quality formed by his unforgiving take. It’s a performance we must encounter uncomfortably, but one we understand as necessary by the end of the film.

Best Adapted Screenplay
It should’ve won: Aaron Sorkin, Steve Jobs

Universal/Courtesy

Some contend with the portrayal of its central figure, but it’s ridiculous to ignore the brilliance of Aaron Sorkin’s Steve Jobs screenplay. The dialogue is arguably Sorkin’s best, rapidly sharp and biting, reminiscent of The Social Network, yet wholly organic to the subject matter. The control of character and the composition of the many face-offs with the likes of Steve Wozniak and John Sculley are dynamic, electric and spellbinding. The script truly shows how there’s no one quite like Sorkin, and it does everything that The Big Short screenplay does, yet even more polished. How it was not even nominated will forever be a mystery.

2016

Best Lead Actress
Insert: Amy Adams, Arrival
Remove: Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins

Paramount/Courtesy

Florence Foster Jenkins is a problematic film, wholly unaware of the white privilege at its core and played for sympathy in rather off-putting ways. And Meryl Streep isn’t even good in it! It’s hard to call the performance impressive and impossible to point to any of her scenes as particularly engaging. It’s so bad that it makes the snub of Amy Adams even more difficult to stomach. In Arrival, Adams is tender and unknowing, lively and explorative. We sense something so real about her character’s bravery, and feel such raw, overwhelming heartbreak at her monologue in the final act. Adams doesn’t have a powerhouse scene of direct, overt emotion, but she delivers so many subtle scenes that are just as moving precisely because we can feel so much weight in what’s withheld and beneath the surface. Arrival is an incredibly important film about the need for communication, empathy and love, but it wouldn’t be that in its entirety without Amy Adams embodying each aspect.

Best Supporting Actress
Insert: Greta Gerwig, 20th Century Women
Remove: Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures

A24/Courtesy

Greta Gerwig’s performance in 20th Century Women can be defined by many of the same qualities of Amy Adams’ performance — tender, unknowing, lively, explorative. Her character’s power comes from this willingness to embrace life in ways others don’t, toned simultaneously by a courage to take hold of life’s potential and by an honest vulnerability when some of that potential is taken away from her — all coming, distinctly and lovingly, from the eyes of an American woman in the 70s. Gerwig delivers a full picture of her character and is quite mesmerizing throughout. Octavia Spencer isn’t bad in Hidden Figures — she’s never not brilliant in anything — but, in terms of acting, there’s just not enough there to genuinely warrant the nomination over Gerwig. In a career full of wonderful performances, Gerwig’s turn in 20th Century Women might just be her best.

 

Featured image via Columbia Pictures.

Box Office Report: ‘Happy Death Day’ kills ‘Blade Runner 2049’ for top spot

Blade Runner 2049 had a chance at repeating at the top spot in its second weekend, considering its outstanding reception from both the critics and the general public. However, financially, the sci-fi blockbuster is fairing similarly to the original: not well. It only made an estimated $15.1 million this past weekend, bringing its domestic total to just over $60 million. Worldwide, Blade Runner 2049 has taken in $158.5 million, and, with a budget of $150 million, it’s looking as though the film’s best hope is to barely break even. It would have to make approximately $300 million worldwide to do so.

What ended up killing the Denis Villeneuve film was the new Groundhog Day-esque horror film Happy Death Day, which won the weekend with an estimated $26.5 million. Horror films are often successful in their opening weekend, and this was no exception. Add in the relatively favorable reviews, and the film should stay in the top five for at least another weekend, but likely longer.

Behind Blade Runner 2049 was the Jackie Chan action flick The Foreigner, which took home an estimated $12.84 million in its opening weekend. Overseas, the film has already made an additional $88.4 million for a $101.24 million total. On a $35 million production budget, The Foreigner is already profitable.

Rounding out the top 5 were It, making an estimated $6.05 million, and The Mountain Between Us, earning approximately $5.65 million. The Stephen King adaptation continues its dominance, with just over $630 million worldwide, while the Idris Elba and Kate Winslet romantic adventure thriller is struggling intensely.

One of the other new releases, Professor Marston & the Wonder Women, failed historically this past weekend. The film made only $737,000, one of the worst debuts for a release in over 1,000 theaters. With a fantastic 87% on RottenTomatoes, its financial disappointment may point to failures in marketing. Granted, it still is only its opening weekend, and things could change with word of mouth and expansion.

However, A24’s The Florida Project, which opened in just 4 theaters last weekend and expanded to 33 this weekend, took home an estimated $401,141 for a total of $623,949. Assumedly, the small independent film should have a rather small budget, meaning that it’s shaping up to turn profitable as it continues to expand. It’s also one of the most critically acclaimed films of the year, and a hot contender for Best Picture at the Oscars.

*All weekend numbers are domestic, meaning that they’re from theaters in the US and Canada, and are also estimates, reported by Box Office Mojo, with actuals coming out in the next few days.*

 

Featured image via Universal Pictures.

‘The Foreigner’ review: Jackie Chan is criminally underused in this passable political thriller

In The Foreigner, director Martin Campbell — savior of the James Bond franchise and the reason why Deadpool had a Green Lantern joke — dares to pose the question: “Why on earth would you make a Jackie Chan movie without Jackie Chan?”

Even though the marketing of The Foreigner suggests a Jackie Chan revenge-thriller, don’t go into the film expecting The Legend of Drunken Master by way of Taken. We see Chan’s Quan use his very particular set of skills, but not nearly as much as we’d like. For every minute of Quan kicking ass and taking names, we see eight minutes of Pierce Brosnan’s ex-IRA politician drink, demean and describe Quan as “the Chinaman,” when in fact we Chinamen prefer the term “Financiers Of This Let-Down.”

To be fair, Quan isn’t the film’s main character, doing very little to move the story forward. The film is about Brosnan’s character identifying the IRA bombers who killed Quan’s daughter. Quan pops in every now and then to hurry him along — blowing up bathrooms, beating up henchmen and generally prodding him whenever he feels slightly unmotivated. Quan is Gordon Ramsay, and Brosnan is the chef who gets called an “idiot sandwich.”

While The Foreigner makes the mistake of underusing its most bankable star, Chan proves that, at 63, he’s still film’s ultimate martial arts legend. Campbell doesn’t have to resort to quick cutting to obscure a stunt double during the film’s action scenes — we know that it’s Chan himself punching goons, bursting through windows and falling down stairs. To Campbell’s credit, he knows how to direct an action scene. The energy and pace of the film’s set pieces make The Foreigner entertaining, though only for a fraction of the film’s runtime.

Ultimately, while The Foreigner might please some, it isn’t necessarily worth seeking out, especially when The Legend of Drunken Master is on Netflix.

Grade: 6.0/10

 

Featured image via STX Entertainment.

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