Monthly Archives: December 2017

Cinema of 2017 has reminded us that we’re still enough

“That’s enough.”

Two words spoken by a blind man to a young soldier returning home from a hellscape of endless gunfire and explosions. This young soldier, evacuated from a “colossal military disaster,” feels shameful for his cowardice, that he let his people down. But a blind man out late it the cold, handing blankets to these boys, speaks truth to what really happened.

This young soldier survived. And that’s enough.

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In a year that’s been hell-bent on breaking us, it’s difficult to feel as though we’re enough. Our hope that goodness will still prevail dims. Our attempts to steer our course back on track often feel futile. So, we need that reminder: that, maybe, survival is enough.

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk leaves us with that lingering idea. But, in fact, it seems as though all of cinema in 2017 has been about some form, shade or side of the notion that we’re still enough.

That’s what stories are really meant to do — reinvigorate us when we’re low, open up new paths of thinking when we feel trapped, help us understand ourselves when we just can’t.

Love, and not just some passing idea of it, but true love, is hard to come by when we’ve been so numbed by hate. When we’ve been nearly forced to feel nothing so as not to feel so much negativity, it’s hard to feel as though we can seek love out.

But Call Me by Your Name reminds us that we’re still enough.

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Through the soft, vulnerable, yet fiery passionate words of Mr. Perlman, we confront the fact that feeling, especially feeling the bad, is necessary to help us hold onto the reality of love, even when passed or lost. We’re reminded that we’re enough for love, that we deserve it in our lives and should never lose grasp of what it means. And for the LGBTQ+ folks who see themselves, this story has the chance to be powerful visibility and hold genuine truths that remind them that, despite the world that continues to subject them to hatred, their love is still enough.

Hatred does seem to be everywhere, though, and it’s difficult to avoid it with it so rampant. It’s difficult not to let hatred invade us, and it’s difficult to feel as though there’s a future without it in some shape or form, in ourselves or in others.

But Hostiles mends a bridge between hatred and empathy, and forces us to reconcile our differences and our pasts.

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In the face of true tragedy, hatred is overwhelming, but it can be overcome. As shown by the journey that Joseph Blocker and Yellow Hawk take together, hatred can be left behind by the realization that those that so many have deemed “the other,” in truth, share a simple goal: to live and survive. The film forces us to confront a genocide by white men, and to see a future where we protect survival. It takes us through hell and back, and asks us to reflect on hatred in our world today by positing that going through hell can lead to, instead of hatred, stronger bonds of understanding.

Not everyone suffers from direct hatred, though. So much of our society and so much of a certain sector of people’s internalized thinking are built to slowly prey on and subject others. That subjectification can be so difficult to combat because it is not only everywhere, but seemingly hidden everywhere. And it’s difficult to feel like you’re enough when you live in that world.

But Jordan Peele, with Get Out, sees a world where that base is broken, and its effects are overcome.

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In a stunning moment, Chris picks cotton out of the chair he’s bound to and stuffs it in his ears to save him from the Armitages. America built itself on slavery, which left generational trauma. But Black folks have found so much in how they’ve overcome and how they’ve turned that history into power to fight the remnants of it. And it’s the very power that helps Chris that can help others cope, to find a similar power that reminds them that, in this world, they’re still enough.

There are many aspects of the institutions that must be reshaped, as the entire country and many parts of the world have confronted over the past few months of women, and men, breaking the silence on sexual harassment and sexual assault. It’s a poison that’s everywhere and we’re not finished breaking that silence. We likely won’t be for a long time, and to encounter such massive, widespread pain that feels neverending is difficult. It’s tough to feel like we’re enough to eradicate this problem.

But Wonder Woman envisions every woman as a warrior, and the rest of us as people that can aid in her fight.

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In the film, the evil of mankind — keyword “man” — is not caused by some spell and it’s not something that will just go away, either. Yet, through the everlasting hope and fight of Diana, we see that there is something better ahead. Patty Jenkins helps us see that, with love, we’re enough to counteract evil.

It will, however, take all of us, and that’s a tall order. This year has beaten us brutally, every part of us drained to some degree, which has made it hard to feel as though we’re enough to band together, to feel that we can exert that last breath to be a part of something bigger.

And that’s where Star Wars comes in.

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Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi envisions a new type of hero, a hero that’s in every one of us, even and especially those who come from so little amidst galactic-sized oppression. We don’t need special parents. We don’t need to be on the front lines. We don’t need to always be attacking. What we need and what we all have, even in a small boy who sweeps stables, is a little bit of hope.

After the hellscape that was 2017, we survived. And right now, that’s enough. But that’s not all. Moving forward, we will continue our defiance.

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“We must expect another blow to be struck almost immediately.” But “we shall go on to the end.”

“We shall never surrender.”

We may feel small, like nameless and faceless people that history won’t remember if we do make it out. But Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk believes in the nameless, in the faceless, as that’s where heroics come from. Winston Churchill’s words were a rallying cry, but they’re far more powerful when read by someone for whom they were intended: a young soldier who just survived the unimaginable. That’s where heroics come from.

And cinema can remind us of that. Stories are a part of human history and have only become a bigger part of our lives because of their unending power. They remind us to feel, to love, to leave hate behind, to find strength in ourselves, both individual and collective — and not just the ones mentioned above. Films like The Shape of Water, Mudbound, Logan and, a bit more explicitly, The Post all carry a similar vitality.

Right when we needed it most, film of 2017 reminded us that we’re still enough.

 

Featured image via Warner Bros./Universal Pictures/Lucasfilm/Courtesy

‘The Shape of Water’ Review: A fantasy as rich emotionally as it is visually

When a film has a fantastical premise, it must naturalize that concept in order to sell it to an audience that doesn’t come from that world. It’s an achievement that’s often underappreciated and overlooked, but, when done well, it can result in cinematic magic.

Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water follows Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute woman working in an underground government facility, and the facility’s captured amphibian man (Doug Jones) with whom she falls in love. And due to cohesive, visually beautiful and thematically rich work from all departments, the film is perhaps the epitome of that kind of magic.

The most emotionally moving layer of The Shape of Water is its theme of the other. del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor pace out Elisa’s growing attachment to the creature so smoothly and precisely, and center it on moments personally meaningful to the characters. The creature is a being that doesn’t communicate with language the way humans do and grows a bond with Elisa through action and sign language. And in a stunning scene from Hawkins, Elisa explains that she feels so close to this creature because he can’t understand that she’s mute — or how she is, as she says, “incomplete.”

The framing of character, mainly in regard to Elisa, but also in how the same might be true for the creature, grabs the viewer’s heart with full force as it relies on vulnerability forced upon these two by a world unaccepting. The scenes with only these two are transcendent, concoctions of Alexandre Desplat’s floating score, Dan Laustsen’s swimming cinematography, visually arresting craft work from the likes of makeup and production design, and just the beauty of the concept of the moments in the first place.

Much of it wouldn’t work, though, if Sally Hawkins weren’t a powerhouse. Dialogue can often be a cop out in explaining a character’s traits and motivations, so the fact that we understand Elisa as well as we do any other character in film this year is an accomplishment nearly beyond words. Hawkins leverages physicality, not just in sign language, but in how she signs, in how her eyes communicate with the other character in the scene, in how she moves through rooms and hallways with a levity and wonder that tell us exactly what Elisa is thinking.

Yet, the rest of the cast is also magnificent. Richard Jenkins’ performance as Giles is lived in, an almost foil to Hawkins’ mute character as his is full of words. But we get the same sense — of course, individualized in its specifics — of how Giles himself feels incomplete, of how he’s been othered. And his chemistry with Hawkins is just delightful, resulting in an onscreen friendship that is so depthful and lovely.

Michael Shannon also thrives as the film’s antagonist, Richard Strickland. For some storytellers, there might’ve been an inclination to offer Strickland less development than he receives here, and it would’ve been understandable, which is why it’s so refreshing that del Toro and Taylor dive deep into his psychology. We get a sense of his motivations and see those expanded upon, and Shannon’s growling sneer is the perfect device to take it all even further.

In fact, there’s so much going on in every minute of The Shape of Water. Beneath everything, Guillermo del Toro offers a love letter to cinema of the past, similarly to La La Land, and two particular scenes, one being a tender musical ode and the other a striking and gritty noir sequence, are delicious.

But what sticks with us about this film is that empathy that’s offered to its characters. The visuals are stunning — no one does fantasy and truly sells it and layers it into every corner of the frame quite like del Toro — but those visuals are even more memorable because of the tone of empathy that del Toro injects into it all.

The Shape of Water asks us to care for one another, to listen to those who feel incomplete and not only help them feel otherwise, but fully support the life they want to live. And that is a kind of story worth championing.

Grade: 8.6/10

 

Featured image via Fox Searchlight Pictures.

‘Hostiles’ Review: A haunting, meditative Western ruminating on duty and hatred

Great contemporary Westerns are few and far in between. They either come from a big time director like Quentin Tarantino with Django Unchained, are remade from classics like the Coens’ True Grit and James Mangold’s 3:10 to Yuma or strike at just the right time like David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water.

Writer-director Scott Cooper has neared the genre with the tangentially related Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace, so it’s not much of a surprise that he’s the next to deliver.

Hostiles, following Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) as he escorts Cheyenne chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) across the country despite hating him for killing many of his comrades, is brutal from minute one until the very end. But the brutality, the soul crushing violence serves narrative purpose. The film ruminates on the hatred that builds between these intruding white men and the Native Americans fighting for their lands, and Cooper pulls off a tricky moral balance in placing a white man, full of hate, at the head of his story.

Cooper evokes empathy for Blocker and for Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) through the unfathomable violence that we see them encounter, while periodically and carefully invoking a sense of history to temper viewers’ full allegiance to these characters and force audiences to confront the long term, less visible violence that Yellow Hawk, his family and his people have faced.

The turn of Blocker’s morality is a fascinating one. Another of the underlying themes of the film is in how we follow duty, where duty leads us and where duty ends. The army men are often given direct orders to further the genocide of the Native Americans, and Blocker believes that this separates him from the others who just kill to kill.

But in taking on a duty that is in such direct tension with his hatred, one that the film contextualizes with violence, Blocker almost becomes like the audience, slowly forced to confront his shortsightedness of simply following duty ordered by men — and Cooper’s climactic moment for Blocker is precise and perfect in regard to the character’s arc.

Hostiles is slow and meditative, but there’s still a fire in its pacing. The beats are perfectly doled out and hit hard, creating a pulsating feel to the film’s progression. And when those moments hit, they’re shot hauntingly by cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, whether that be in low angle close-ups of broken men or in Deakins-esque long shots of heart-wrenching sights. Layer in Max Richter’s swelling score, and the film becomes emotionally overwhelming in a very effective way.

At times, though, Cooper does overwrite beats. So much of Hostiles works, and sticks with us long after we’ve left the theater, because of how quiet and subtle it all is — and it seems that Cooper is, sometimes, not confident in his ability to sell those quiet moments, causing him to indulge in laying out his point a bit too clearly.

But even then, that doesn’t become much of an issue due to every single actor performing at the top of their game. Rosamund Pike plays the character who encounters the most, and the most shocking tragedy in the film, and she turns all of herself over to the role to portray the trauma that the violence causes. Wes Studi’s role is, in terms of dialogue, small, but Cooper often frames him in close-up and Studi commands the screen.

And Christian Bale turns in one of his greatest performances, which is saying something when considering the career that he’s had. Similarly to Studi, Bale is riveting in his quietude, as he’s somehow able to portray his character’s interiority without saying a word. And when he speaks, it’s often soft and subdued, but there’s a consistent underlying intensity, achieved through how Bale interacts physically with his counterpart in the scene and how he often pushes the emotional work from his mouth to his eyes. It’s truly the sign of a master, and it’s a performance that renders Hostiles a brilliant Western.

Grade: 8.7/10

 

Featured image via Entertainment Studios.

25 most anticipated films of 2018

As each year ends, it’s customary to look back on our favorite films, to spend hours on lists of the best that we saw. But it’s also a hell of a time to look forward at the films releasing in the coming year and start to build anticipation. The ones that immediately pop into mind are the blockbusters, the landmark events of the year like Solo: A Star Wars Story and the early Black Panther. They’re beyond exciting, not only for us, but for millions of people. The real fun for us film writers, though, comes with the research, with digging deep to find which prestige, Oscar-nominated or, simply, personal favorite storytellers (actors, directors or writers) have movies coming out that are currently under-the-radar to most people — and then going even deeper to find the films that even us film writers would miss on a first go around of digging.

What immediately became apparent after finishing our research and sitting down to pick our top 25 is that 2018 is going to be a spectacular year for film — hence our honorable mentions list being so long.

We thought 2017 was a never-ending ride of greatness, from Get Out back in February all the way to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread today. 2018 should be just the same. Whether it be the aforementioned blockbusters, or the return of both Barry Jenkins and Damien Chazelle, or Martin Scorsese pairing up with Netflix, or French female filmmakers taking on science fiction, 2018 films need to get going already.

25. Bios

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Directed by: Miguel Sapochnik

Written by: Craig Luck, Ivor Powell

Starring: Tom Hanks

Release date: Possibly 2018, currently in pre-production, expected start shooting early 2018

This film might’ve been ranked higher on the list were it further along in production and guaranteed for 2018. With production meant to start in early 2018, there’s a definite possibility, considering the star power of Tom Hanks, that we could see it toward the end of the year, especially as an awards contender, which is why we’re including it. But there’s also a definite possibility that it won’t, as we never really know in regard to a film like this until the cameras start rolling.

Regardless, the team behind BIOS, a sci-fi story that follows a robot “built to protect the life of his dying creator’s beloved dog” on a post-apocalyptic Earth, is a heavyweight one. There’s the obvious, consistent, dependable brilliance of Tom Hanks. Then, there’s a Black List (a list of the best unproduced scripts in Hollywood) script from writers Craig Luck and Ivor Powell. And finally, there’s director Miguel Sapochnik, best known for the final two episodes, Battle of the Bastards and The Winds of Winter, of season 6 of Game of Thrones. He also directed the season 5 action heavy episode Hardhome. All three are all timers for the series, but Battle of the Bastards is a special piece of visual storytelling, as it features what is arguably the best directed, most viscerally brilliant war sequences in all of TV or film. The episode is truly a landmark piece of direction, one that rightfully won Sapochnik the Emmy and Directors Guild Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in a Drama Series. It was only a matter of time before he got the opportunity to direct a massive, visual-heavy film, and BIOS sounds like a film that could prove Sapochnik as an equally brilliant film director.

— Kyle Kizu

24. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

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Directed by: Peter Ramsey, Bob Persichetti, Rodney Rothman

Written by: Phil Lord

Starring: Shameik Moore, Mahershala Ali, Brian Tyree Henry, Liev Schreiber

Release date: December 14, 2018

Finally, Miles Morales is coming to a theater near you. Sony Pictures hasn’t always done right by the webhead (2.5/5 ain’t bad), but bringing on the tonally unique duo Phil Lord and Chris Miller to oversee an animated theatrical Spider-Man release that introduces general audiences to Miles f$@#ing Morales as well as the breadth of alternate-earth Spider-Men is, well, amends enough. Although the first teaser only dropped recently, a photorealistic NYC in the background juxtaposed with the imaginative and malleable hand-drawn imagery of the protagonist himself makes Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse an aesthetic and, hopefully, narrative treat for comic book fan and casual moviegoer alike.

— Sanjay Nimmagudda

23. A Wrinkle in Time

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Directed by: Ava DuVernay

Written by: Jennifer Lee

Starring: Storm Reid, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Chris Pine, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, Oprah Winfrey, Zach Galifianakis, Andrè Holland

Release date: March 9, 2018

If there’s one incontrovertible truth about Ava DuVernay’s career thus far, it’s that all of her films are imbued with an unbridled sense of passion from a creative standpoint, and A Wrinkle in Time appears to continue that trend. Ever since its first trailer set to the tune of the Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This), DuVernay’s take on Madeleine L’Engle’s iconic fantasy novel has seemed visually distinct, naturalistically cast and rousingly written and executed. The past few years have provided us with some fairly poor YA novel adaptations, but from what we’ve seen thus far, A Wrinkle in Time is set to break the mold.

— Sanjay Nimmagudda

22. At Eternity’s Gate

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Directed by: Julian Schnabel

Written by: Jean-Claude Carrière, Julian Schnabel

Starring: Willem Dafoe, Oscar Isaac

Release date: Expected in 2018, currently filming

What’s poised to be a incisive look at renowned painter Vincent van Gogh’s life while he lived in Arles and Auvers-sur-Oise, France, benefits greatly from its principal starrers, Willem Dafoe and Oscar Isaac as van Gogh and fellow famous painter Paul Gauguin, respectively. Combine Dafoe’s range with Isaac’s intensity and both with director and co-writer Julian Schnabel’s unabashed reverential directorial stylings à la The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and an eternity is just how far away this film’s release feels.

— Sanjay Nimmagudda

21. Creed II

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Directed by: Steven Caple Jr.

Written by: Cheo Hodari Coker, Sylvester Stallone

Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren

Release date: November 21, 2018

Though admittedly hesitant to re-enter the ring after its predecessor’s knockout performance and conclusion (puns intended and necessary), we’d be fools to not want to see Adonis Creed again on the big screen for another fight of his life in Creed II. Now with Dolph Lundgren in the mix, hopefully Ivan Drago finally gets what’s coming to him.

— Sanjay Nimmagudda

20. Proxima

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Directed by: Alice Winocour

Written by: Alice Winocour

Starring: Eva Green, Lars Eidinger

Release date: Expected in 2018, currently in pre-production

Alice Winocour, co-writer of the Oscar-nominated Mustang, for which she also won Best Original Screenplay at the Cèsar Awards (essentially, the French Oscars), will dive into science fiction with her upcoming film Proxima. However, the film sounds as though it’s heavily based in reality. Proxima will follow a mother just before her departure on a year-long mission at the International Space Station, as she physically trains for space and prepares to say goodbye to her young daughter. The story seems incredibly emotional, and has basis, as she says, in Winocour’s own feelings of separation from her daughter when she shoots a movie — ringing a similar bell to the inspiration behind Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. Such a basis should bring such genuine weight to the story, one that will explore a side of an astronaut’s life that not many films get into, and offer Eva Green material for a powerhouse performance. And to see a female astronaut who is also a mother as the lead character is necessary and empowering visibility. Oh, and the film will be in French.

— Kyle Kizu

19. Newsflash

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Directed by: David Gordon Green

Written by: Ben Jacoby

Starring: Seth Rogen

Release date: November 22, 2018

David Gordon Green has had a rather interesting career, breaking out with the incredibly small independent film George Washington, flourishing in the comedy genre with Pineapple Express, giving Nicolas Cage a platform to actually excel in Joe and devastating us with the powerful, human Stronger. Just a month before Newsflash, Gordon Green will release Halloween, another film in the Halloween franchise, and showcase yet another side of his directorial skill set with horror.

He can really do everything, which intensifies our anticipation of the recently announced Newsflash, a film about Walter Cronkite, who, on November 22, 1963, reported on live TV about the assassination of JFK.

The obvious thematic relevance of the film — the power of journalism (this time broadcast) — is enough to grip onto. But the specifics of the story offer it utterly dynamic potential; it could end up as much a story about the power of journalism as it is a study of that terrible moment in American history as well as a character study of Cronkite himself. The choice of Seth Rogen to lead the film is, initially, a bit jarring — but not in a bad way, as it very quickly turns into excitement at the thought of Rogen expanding his dramatic chops, after a very serviceable performance as Steve Wozniak in Steve Jobs, and showcasing the charisma we all know he has. Newsflash could very well play a similar role in 2018 that The Post is playing in 2017.

— Kyle Kizu

18. Mission: Impossible 6

Christopher McQuarrie/Paramount/Courtesy

Directed by: Christopher McQuarrie

Written by: Christopher McQuarrie

Starring: Tom Cruise, Rebecca Ferguson, Henry Cavill, Vanessa Kirby, Michelle Monaghan, Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames, Angela Bassett

Release date: July 27, 2018

We appreciated the first. We drank to forget the second. We reluctantly saw the third. We cheered for the fourth. And we were in awe of the fifth. If Mission Impossible has proven anything up to this point, it’s that, much like lead actor Tom Cruise, this franchise has got legs. Mission: Impossible 6 has Christopher McQuarrie back at the helm (a series first) along with much of its predecessor’s cast in what is to be, hopefully, another enthralling action-adventure defined by its practically-performed death-defying stunts. Most of the film’s plot is still under wraps, but one thing is certain: Henry Cavill will be sporting a mustache that — if digitally removed — gives him uncanny valley face.

— Sanjay Nimmagudda

17. On the Basis of Sex

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Directed by: Mimi Leder

Written by: Daniel Stiepleman

Starring: Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Kathy Bates

Release date: 2018, currently in post-production

The story of On the Basis of Sex, following Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s fight for equality and journey to become a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, is fascinating and deeply needed in this moment in time, as well as reason enough, alone, for this film to make this list. But the pieces around the story are absolutely brilliant. Felicity Jones is one of the more emotionally powerful actresses working today; just look at her raw, moving performance in The Theory of Everything. Armie Hammer is resurfacing — to our delight — as a true acting talent, also channeling raw emotion in this year’s Call Me by Your Name. And the director behind it all, Mimi Leder — who has been sorely and unjustly underappreciated in Hollywood, but has become one of TV’s greatest directors, especially after her work on The Leftovers — will show everyone what they’ve been missing when she nails this film.

— Kyle Kizu

16. If Beale Street Could Talk

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Directed by: Barry Jenkins

Written by: Barry Jenkins

Starring: Regina King, Pedro Pascal, Dave Franco, Ed Skrein, Emily Rios, Aunjanue Ellis, Teyonah Parris, Brian Tyree Henry, Finn Wittrock, Michael Beach, Colman Domingo, Stephan James

Release date: 2018, currently in post-production

Moonlight’s ethereally cathartic narrative and characters earned it the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2017, so it should come as no surprise that we’re eagerly awaiting writer-director Barry Jenkins’ Oscar-winning follow-up, If Beale Street Could Talk. If Jenkins can invoke the same emotionally complex yet superficially subtle and restrained atmosphere when adapting James Baldwin’s novel of the same name for the silver screen, then the filmmaker could be looking at another critical darling in his filmography in the not-too-distant future.

— Sanjay Nimmagudda

15. Suspiria

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Directed by: Luca Guadagnino

Written by: David Kajganich

Starring: Chloë Grace Moretz, Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Mia Goth, Jessica Harper

Release date: 2018, currently in post-production

A remake of legend Dario Argento’s supernatural Italian classic gallo film from one of the most talented directors working today, who just blew us away with Call Me by Your Name and has built some kind of career with films like I Am Love and A Bigger Splash? With a cast of Chloë Grace Moretz, Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton and Mia Goth? With the first original score from Thom Yorke, the frontman of Radiohead? With an appearance from the original film’s star, Jessica Harper?

There’s no way that this film won’t be a gorgeous, gory descent into madness.

— Levi Hill

14. High Life

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Directed by: Claire Denis

Written by: Claire Denis, Jean Pol-Fargeau, Nick Laird, Zadie Smith

Starring: Robert Pattinson, Mia Goth, Juliette Binoche

Release date: Expected in 2018, currently in post-production

Another French filmmaker is leaping into science fiction. Claire Denis, director of Beau Travail, White Material and 35 Shots of Rum, will simultaneously make her English language debut with High Life, a sci-fi story that Denis has been developing for nearly two years now. The concept, alone, is the stuff of sci-fi dreams: Monte, a criminal who chose to participate in a government project rather than serve jail time, is sent out into space with other convicts to find alternative energy as well as to participate in human reproduction experiments. Now headed toward a black hole, Monte must connect with his daughter Willow, who was born out of one of the experiments.

That Denis is experimenting, herself, with science fiction after a career of careful character studies is riveting — and likely means that this film will also end up being a complex character study in the setting of space. But that she’s doing it with such an original story and a lead actor like Robert Pattinson, who just turned everyone’s head with his performance in Good Time, makes High Life one of the most compelling projects of the upcoming year.

— Kyle Kizu

13. Roma

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Directed by: Alfonso Cuarón

Written by: Alfonso Cuarón

Starring: Marina de Tavira, Daniela Demesa, Marco Graf, Yalitza Aparicio

Release date: 2018, currently in post-production

Not much is known about Roma, except that it’s Oscar-winning director Alfonso Cuarón’s first film set in Mexico since his breakout masterpiece Y Tu Mamá También and his direct follow up to Gravity, the film for which he won that Oscar. With a cast of, to American audiences, unknowns and Cuarón’s distinct ability with setting, showcased in Children of Men, Roma will have an authenticity unlike many other films. We’re beyond excited to see whatever this incredible filmmaker can concoct.

— Levi Hill

12. Untitled Adam McKay directed, Christian Bale starring Dick Cheney biopic

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Directed by: Adam McKay

Written by: Adam McKay

Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Sam Rockwell, Steve Carell, Bill Pullman

Release date: 2018, currently in post-production

Who knew that Adam McKay, the man behind Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and Step Brothers, is a magnificent drama director. Perhaps it should’ve been more obvious that McKay could make a film like The Big Short, a searing and sharp film dissecting a complex moment in recent history; his success in comedy shows that he’s a deeply intelligent storyteller as comedy is the hardest genre to pull off and pull off well. That McKay is continuing in this direction, this time dissecting ex-vice president Dick Cheney, is exciting on multiple levels. But that he’s also teaming up with Christian Bale, who is, arguably, the greatest method actor of our time outside of Daniel Day-Lewis and whose transformation for this role has been mind-boggling, and Amy Adams, one of the most underappreciated actresses in the game and someone who should have Oscar gold on her mantle already, is a near dream. Throw in Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush and what will surely be a script that does not hold back at critiquing that administration’s failures, and this film, rumored to be titled Backseat, will certainly be a knockout.

— Kyle Kizu

11. Wildlife

Eva Rinaldi/Courtesy

Directed by: Paul Dano

Written by: Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan

Starring: Carey Mulligan, Jake Gyllenhaal, Ed Oxenbould

Release date: Premiering at Sundance Film Festival in January 2018, will see a 2018 release date if, as expected, it is picked up by a distributor

Time will tell how Paul Dano’s directorial debut shapes up, because it’s premiering at Sundance within a few weeks. But Dano, as an actor who always chooses interesting projects, getting behind the camera is an intriguing proposition. Throw in the excellent starring duo of Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal, and Wildlife, based on a true story adapted by Dano and his talented actress-writer-wife Zoe Kazan, might be the Sundance breakout of 2018 — at least on paper.

— Levi Hill

10. Ad Astra

Maximilian Bühn/Courtesy

Directed by: James Gray

Written by: James Gray, Ethan Gross

Starring: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Donald Sutherland

Release date: January 11, 2019, with an expected limited release in late 2018

After Two Lovers, The Immigrant and The Lost City of Z, James Gray has proven himself as a respectable filmmaker, a traditionalist with such refined filmmaking talent. The move, alone, into heavy sci-fi is fascinating; Ad Astra will follow an “Army Corps engineer (Brad Pitt) [searching] across the galaxy for his father (Tommy Lee Jones), who had disappeared on a mission to find alien life 20 years prior.” The concept sounds harrowing, like the perfect opportunity for more gripping traditional storytelling in such a visually wondrous setting. Shot by Hoyte van Hoytema (Her, Interstellar, Dunkirk) and produced by Plan B Entertainment team Pitt, Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner (12 Years a Slave, Selma, The Big Short, Moonlight), Ad Astra is shaping up to be an absolute heavyweight production, and one that will surely have a limited release in December 2018 to compete for awards or change its official release date to late 2018.

— Kyle Kizu

9. Widows

Chris Cheung/Courtesy

Directed by: Steve McQueen

Written by: Gillian Flynn, Steve McQueen

Starring: Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, Michelle Rodriguez, Carrie Coon, Liam Neeson, Colin Farrell, Jon Bernthal, Daniel Kaluuya

Release date: November 16, 2018

Seriously, though, look at this cast — including the now Oscar-winning Viola Davis, she’s-everywhere Carrie Coon, the very underrated Michelle Rodriguez, the reforming-back-into-drama Liam Neeson, the breakout Get Out star Daniel Kaluuya, and the multi-faceted and always interesting Colin Farrell — and tell us you’re not excited. Throw in Steve McQueen, the director of the Best Picture-winning 12 Years a Slave — who, to us, in only three films, has proved to be one of the most exciting directors today — and Gillian Flynn, the author and adapting screenwriter of Gone Girl, and Widows might just be the most prestigious film coming in 2018.

— Levi Hill

8. Solo: A Star Wars Story

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Even with all of the production troubles that Solo: A Star Wars Story has gone through, this film is still an entry in the Star Wars franchise, which is, perhaps unfairly, enough to anticipate it anyway. To be fair to the film, Alden Ehrenreich is a wonderful choice to play a young Han Solo — his performance in Hail, Caesar! a testament to his talent — and the rest of the cast is filled with major players, Donald Glover being a badass choice for young Lando Calrissian. Co-writer Lawrence Kasdan deserves a lifetime of trust after writing The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark and, while a seemingly safe choice, Ron Howard is by no means a bad director. We’ll be there opening night.

— Kyle Kizu

7. Annihilation

Paramount Pictures/Courtesy

Directed by: Alex Garland

Written by: Alex Garland

Starring: Natalie Portman, Tessa Thompson, Oscar Isaac, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez

Release date: February 23, 2018

Alex Garland stunned with his feature debut Ex Machina, which is already being hailed by most as one of the best sci-fi films of the 21st century. The film was not only written with careful, complex intelligence, but it was also directed with visuals that matched the story’s intrigue. To see Garland venture into sci-fi yet again, especially into what seems to be horror-sci-fi, considering that he’s also written 28 Days Later and Sunshine, is salivating. Based on a beloved novel and with a star-studded cast, Annihilation is, despite its shift to a February release date, a film that we cannot wait for, and one that we know, at least, will be a visual treat.

— Kyle Kizu

6. The Irishman

The Peabody Awards/Courtesy

Directed by: Martin Scorsese

Written by: Steve Zaillian

Starring: Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel, Jesse Plemons, Anna Paquin, Ray Romano

Release date: 2018, currently filming

While Bright might have been Netflix’s first foray into big budget filmmaking, Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman looks to be the first unqualified success into big budget filmmaking. Starring Scorsese regulars from his ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s heyday, like Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel, and featuring the gangster narrative trappings Scorsese has made classic after classic in, The Irishman seems to be Scorsese doing everything he loves, and Netflix’s willingness to allow Scorsese an unchecked or unquestioned vision might just convince more filmmakers to follow in his footsteps.

— Levi Hill

5. First Man

Gage Skidmore/Courtesy

Directed by: Damien Chazelle

Written by: Josh Singer, Nicole Perlman

Starring: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jon Bernthal, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler

Release date: October 12, 2018

With La La Land, Damien Chazelle ventured to the stars metaphorically and musically. So, it was only appropriate that he make a movie that actually visits the stars. Re-teaming with Ryan Gosling, Chazelle will direct the story of Neil Armstrong. The character work should be fantastic, not only on an acting and directing side, but also based in great writing as Chazelle is directing a script from Guardians of the Galaxy co-writer Nicole Perlman and Spotlight and The Post co-writer Josh Singer. But no matter the story, after two spectacular films in a row, anything Chazelle does is something to look forward to.

— Kyle Kizu

4. Incredibles 2

Pixar/Courtesy

Directed by: Brad Bird

Written by: Brad Bird

Starring: Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Samuel L. Jackson, Catherine Keener, Bob Odenkirk

Release date: June 15, 2018

14 years in the making (and not a moment too late), Incredibles 2 is the latest in Pixar’s fairly recent string of sequels to its critically-acclaimed films. As we catch up with the Parrs immediately after the conclusion of The Incredibles, hopefully we’re treated to answers of some of the first film’s long gestating questions such as: “What are the limits of Jack-Jack’s powers?” or “Will Edna Mode ever officially get back into the super heroic fashion business?” but most importantly, “Where WAS his super-suit?”

— Sanjay Nimmagudda

3. Black Panther

Marvel/Courtesy

Directed by: Ryan Coogler

Written by: Ryan Coogler, Joe Robert Cole

Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Andy Serkis, Daniel Kaluuya, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Sterling K. Brown

Release date: February 16, 2018

Housing a sterling directorial record comprised of 2013’s harrowing Fruitvale Station and 2015’s uplifting and invigorating Creed under his belt, Ryan Coogler enters the ever-expanding comic book genre with the newest, and arguably most exhilarating, solo film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Black Panther. While Captain America: Civil War solidly introduced T’Challa into an eclectic world beset by self-aware robots, mirror dimensions and wall-crawlers, Coogler’s Black Panther has distinguished itself so far by its fixation on the racial and cultural foundations at the core of the character. With trailers scored to the beat of RTJ and Vince Staples, a cast primarily made up of people of color and ideas like afro-futurism, monarchic injustice and the relationship between heritage/identity in play, it’s not physically possible to articulate how hotly we’re anticipating this cinematic landmark.

— Sanjay Nimmagudda

2. Isle of Dogs

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Directed by: Wes Anderson

Written by: Wes Anderson

Starring: Bryan Cranston, Scarlett Johansson, Greta Gerwig, Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray

Release date: March 23, 2018

Wes Anderson has become one of the most idiosyncratic working directors, but, also, one of the most successful. His last film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, was his biggest box-office success, as well being his first film to gather not only an Oscar nomination for Best Picture,  but win multiple craft awards.

Adding new faces like Bryan Cranston, Ken Watanabe, Greta Gerwig, Courtney B. Vance and Scarlett Johansson next to Anderson regulars like Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton, Jeff Goldblum and Frances McDormand, Isle of Dogs takes Anderson back to stop-motion animation, where he’s scored an Oscar nomination for Fantastic Mr. Fox. Yet unlike Fox, Dogs looks to be a darker, if still charming tale.

Set in a near apocalyptic, dystopian future, Isle of Dogs premise is fascinating: all dogs of Japan are cast away to a deserted island due to a “canine flu” that has wiped away a good portion of the population. The young son of the Japanese president wants to get his dog back, though, so against all of his family’s wishes, he makes an epic journey to the island to get his trusted companion back. Along the way, the young boy is aided by fellow dogs.

With Anderson’s typical blend of whimsy, and potential heartache, Dogs looks to be a story that will surely make us all weep over the animals that give their lives to us.

— Levi Hill

1. Avengers: Infinity War

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Directed by: Joe Russo, Anthony Russo

Written by: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chadwick Boseman, Chris Pratt, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Zoe Saldana, Josh Brolin, Tom Holland, Elizabeth Olsen, Tom Hiddleston

Release date: May 4, 2018

It’s all been building up to this, the arrival of Thanos to Earth. Ever since 2012, we’ve been waiting for that big purple guy in the post credits scene of Marvel’s The Avengers to show up. We saw glimpses of him in Guardians of the Galaxy and during the mid-credits scene of Avengers: Age of Ultron. And now, he’s here.

But he’s also arriving to a vastly different landscape than what was there in 2012. Both Iron Man and Captain America have seen fascinating character development throughout their trilogy of films, culminating in last year’s Captain America: Civil War. The Guardians of the Galaxy crew will finally join our heroes in the fight, crossing paths with our other galactic and now, apparently, hilarious hero Thor. Spider-Man and Black Panther are welcome additions to the team, with the former being a wonderfully interpreted younger version of Peter Parker and the latter being a badass, refreshing, layered hero from a different background that we will see more of in our #3 on this list, prior to Infinity War’s release. And while more female-led films need to come, Infinity War will bring together the many powerful women of Marvel: Black Widow, Gamora, Mantis, Nebula, Scarlet Witch, Okoye and, hopefully, Valkyrie.

As the trailer for Infinity War showed, this film has been 10 years in the making and it’s hard not to be swept up in the epic culmination of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a phenomenon in modern cinema. Each film, alone, has been anywhere from modestly enjoyable to the pinnacle of blockbuster filmmaking, and Infinity War is the climax of everything. While there are other event films coming out in 2018, this is the event film, the film everyone will be talking about.

And we’re hopeful for it. There may be upwards of 30 — yes, 30 — characters in this film. But jumping over from Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War are directors Joe and Anthony Russo, as well as screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, and if anyone can handle this massive undertaking, it’s them.

Some major characters will surely die, which is devastating, but also ups the stakes massively and takes Marvel to a darker place that they’ve been far too afraid to explore.

Our heroes’ fight will be a valiant one to the end, the epitome of epic and an absolute treasure on the big screen.

— Kyle Kizu

 

Honorable mentions:

As said above, there are too many intriguing films coming out in 2018 to just list our top 25. We struggled to cross films off, so we felt that we had to mention many of the hardest ones to cut, compiling a list that, itself, would be a great top 25.

After delivering the best male lead performance of 2017, Timothèe Chalamet will be back, garnering an equally heavy role as a recovering meth addict with Steve Carell playing his father in Beautiful Boy. Denis Villeneuve’s brilliant Sicario will, strangely, receive a sequel with Soldado, which sees the return of Josh Brolin, Benicio del Toro and writer Taylor Sheridan. Lynne Ramsay’s Cannes-premiering You Were Never Really Here, which already has outstanding reviews and won Joaquin Phoenix the Best Actor award at the French film festival, will finally screen in Spring 2018. Steven Spielberg will take on the “holy grail of pop culture” with Ready Player One. David Robert Mitchell, writer-director of It Follows, will team up with A24 for an underbelly Los Angeles-set neo-noir starring Andrew Garfield. Terrence Malick will return to the setting of war in his, apparently, more traditional film Radegund — that is, if he finishes his edit when expected, which is never expected. Gareth Evans, director of The Raid: Redemption and The Raid 2 — deemed two of the best action films of the 21st century — will shift over to English language film with the religious cult drama Apostle, starring Dan Stevens and Michael Sheen.

We could go on and on throughout the whole list because each one genuinely is something we’ll be first in line to see. From David Lowery following up A Ghost Story with Old Man and the Gun, to Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie facing off in Mary, Queen of Scots, to Drew Goddard directing for the first time since The Cabin in the Woods with Bad Times at the El Royale, to two extraordinarily talented female directors in Jennifer Kent and Michelle MacLaren both making films titled The Nightingale, to Marielle Heller following up The Diary of a Teenage Girl with Can You Ever Forgive Me?, to performance capture master Andy Serkis stepping behind and in front of the camera for Jungle Book, to Terry Gilliam’s decades-in-the-making The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, these honorable mentions should still be on everyone’s radar.

 

Beautiful Boy

Soldado

You Were Never Really Here

Ready Player One

Under the Silver Lake

Radegund

Apostle

Fahrenheit 451

Halloween

Venom

Black Klansman

Maya

The Beach Bum

Mary, Queen of Scots

Old Man and the Gun

Bad Times at the El Royale

Mary Poppins Returns

The Nightingale (Michelle MacLaren)

The Nightingale (Jennifer Kent)

The Favourite

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

Jungle Book

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Destroyer

Outlaw King

 

Featured image via Marvel/Disney/Paramount/Universal.

‘The Post’ Review: Steven Spielberg delivers a prescient drama that lacks subtlety

With The Post, which follows Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) and editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) during the leak and coverage of the Pentagon Papers, director Steven Spielberg employs immersive filmmaking techniques to evoke the feeling that we’re a fellow journalist amid this madness. He and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski opt to shoot many of the scenes handheld, constantly moving as they follow those in the newsroom. A particular sequence, with journalists packed into Bradlee’s house, is riveting in its composition, the camera panning to the different reporters as they make discoveries, the editing fluid and the chemistry between the actors magnetic. Even when the key players are motionless, the camera is often moving, slowly tracking and observing — like during a discovery — or in close-up.

Both Hanks and Streep lead this film brilliantly with charisma and charm, particularly in Hanks’ all American gravitas. He’s not particularly masterful in anyway, but his take on Ben Bradlee, with a slightly cocked East coast accent, is entirely engaging and just plain fun to watch.

But — not to discount Hanks — The Post, in regard to its actors, is Meryl Streep’s show. Much of the film is about the resolve of Graham as a women leading a newspaper with a board and newsroom full of, almost entirely, men, and Spielberg’s visualization of this is intriguing. Graham is often shot from behind as she walks into a room with a sea of black suits, their heads all turning to her. And Kaminski pushes in close on Graham as we see her try to find the words that she knows, but feels like she can’t say due to the overwhelming men talking over her.

Streep injects Graham, who is comfortable with people yet uncomfortable in her position, with a simultaneous confidence and vulnerability that is incredibly fine tuned. There’s something so controlled about how Streep paces out her dialogue and movement that’s difficult to grasp because it is such an intangible skill to be so precise while maintaining naturalism. While Graham, as a character, may be crowded by these men, Streep herself commands the screen, which renders Graham’s moment of power so satisfying.

The Post, though, is a difficult film to grapple with on multiple levels. Spielberg has, as of late, lacked subtlety and this film is no exception. It seems as though The Post wants to make sure viewers confront its themes directly and explicitly rather than allow the subtlety of the progressing narrative to seep into them, which changes how audiences consume the story. The ending literally states the themes through dialogue spoken in close-up.

While this is a problem for other films, it doesn’t hamper The Post’s effectiveness because of the time during which it’s arrived. For many, championing the press’ first amendment rights has been an everyday scenario for about a year now. Subtlety in narrative would’ve surely made the film a masterpiece. But explicitness, with the topic being something so many agree on and find so prescient now, doesn’t negatively impact the enjoyment of the film even if it doesn’t allow it to be, on a technical level, as good as it had the potential to be.

Regardless of its faults, it’s hard not to appreciate the feat that Spielberg pulled off, delivering the film just under eight months after beginning principal photography. It’s also hard to deny that, since it’s good, The Post is a valuable film in today’s age.

Grade: 8.2/10

 

Featured via 20th Century Fox.

Ranking the Star Wars films

Star Wars films hold the top two spots for the biggest opening weekends at the box office, and are two of only four films to have crossed $200 million in their debuts. While it doesn’t hold the record for the largest worldwide gross, Star Wars: The Force Awakens easily stands with the largest domestic gross, nearing $1 billion, where Avatar is nearly $200 million less and only three other films have ever hit $600 million. And Star Wars: The Last Jedi will very easily join this group, perhaps even beating Avatar’s domestic gross, in due time.

The financial success of Star Wars today is a testament to the power it’s built since 1977. Star Wars films define an entire generation, and have worked their way into not only everyday popular culture, but culture in general in ways that few other pieces of art, in general, ever have. The original trilogy pushed so many of those ‘70s children to become the next great filmmakers, or storytellers of any kind, even defining much of the non-Star Wars art we see today.

To say that Star Wars is special is an incredible understatement. George Lucas’ little $11 million film channeled something in people across the world for decades and certainly many decades to come, something that we may not ever fully understand.

What’s intriguing, though, is that, in our opinion, out of the nine films of the Star Wars universe, only three are truly great films. Then, there are four varying types of good, and two we don’t like to talk about. There’s no doubting these films’ significance in culture — yes, even the bad ones — but taking an analytical deep dive into how they work as movies and how they compare to one another is absolutely fascinating, and will likely be entirely controversial. But here we are, ranking the Star Wars films from worst to best:

9. Star Wars: Attack of the Clones

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Well… what can we say about the worst Star Wars film and, honestly, one of the worst written (at least from a dialogue standpoint) big budget films? This is an actual line of dialogue in the film, played with utmost seriousness by Hayden Christensen’s Anakin to Natalie Portman’s Padme: “I don’t like sand. It’s coarse and rough and irritating and it gets everywhere.”

While Christensen gets a bad rapt for his performances in the last two prequel films, he’s not the main problem with Attack of the Clones. The issues really come from Lucas’ insistence to stay committed to (not great) CGI — instead of the practical effects that made the originals so memorable — and from his poor dialogue (not even the standout Ewan McGregor can make the dialogue sound believable) and overall plotting. While the film features some (necessary to stay awake) thrilling action sequences, Attack of the Clones is the closest thing to a total misfire within the Star Wars series.

— Levi Hill

8. Star Wars: The Phantom Menace

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The prequels, as concepts, are brilliant, but Lucas’ elaboration on the concepts and his particular direction of the them are terrible. And Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, while not as terrible of a film as Attack of the Clones, represents the stink perhaps more potently.

The strange, boring political machinations embarrassingly bog down the plot. The performances of nearly every member are laughable, and even Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor, who, based on acting alone, do a decent job, cannot make up for the horrific dialogue. Much of the Star Wars mythology is damaged by concepts such as midichlorians as well as the over-indulgence in the idea of fate, something that was handled so well in the original trilogy. The style of the worlds and the action is so over-the-top and negatively diverting to a point where features such as lightsaber battles feel like some kind of sick joke. The CGI, while revolutionary at the time for what it could accomplish, is overwhelming and poorly used. And the film is genuinely racist in the many characters who are clear and offensive stereotypes.

As said before, the basic story concept of the prequels is fantastic. But the execution is so botched, so damaging to the universe, so terrible on a technical level that it’s no use to even make the case for the concept.

— Kyle Kizu

7. Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith

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Say what you will about the prequels, but Revenge of the Sith is genuinely a good (not great) movie that gives some needed gravitas and weight to the prior two (near disastrous) additions to the Star Wars saga. Christensen is, thankfully, given his first chance to actually show off some depth as one of the most fascinating characters in Star Wars — Anakin Skywalker, aka Darth Vader and the father of Luke.

And dare I say, Ewan McGregor actually gives an awards worthy performance as the willing-to-do-good Obi-Wan Kenobi, who is also conflicted about is young padawan’s brewing dark side. The ending of Revenge of the Sith may be predictable — I mean, the first three films (or IV through VI) are where we’re headed — but that doesn’t mean the film is any less powerful when we see the final transformation of young Anakin Skywalker into Lord Vader.

— Levi Hill

6. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the first standalone film, perhaps had to take the same approach as Star Wars: The Force Awakens, grounding us in the familiar — the mission of the Rebels that kicks of the events of A New Hope — before taking us where we’ve never been.

And the film kicks off with a fascinating question of morality and cost that this type of story requires, as we’re introduced to Cassian (Diego Luna) murdering a fellow Rebel for the sake of the mission. In fact, all of the characters add dimensions to who the people of this universe can be. Jyn (Felicity Jones) is our first reluctant hero, hiding due to the pain of her childhood. Chirrut (Donnie Yen) takes the Force-as-religion concept to a whole new level. Bodhi (Riz Ahmed) offers another take on the defector narrative. And K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) continues to expand on why droids are the most hilarious characters in Star Wars.

Director Gareth Edwards does an admirable job in setting up these morally ambiguous characters; it truly does feel like fresh ground. And Edwards also directs the hell out of action sequences, imbuing them with a wartime grit due, in part, to Greig Fraser’s stunning cinematography

But the film ultimately only goes so far, and that’s not enough. Jyn’s character arc is handled very sloppily as the film flips between careful development of a reluctant hero and sudden moments of heroism. While plenty of the battle on Scarif is outstanding, much of the specific retrieval of the Death Star plans, in the interior tower, feels lazily conceived and lazily executed. Finally, the film is too often hampered by fan service. Fan service doesn’t necessarily mean bad, but it ends up being so when it takes away from the efficiency and effectiveness of the film, such as much of the Darth Vader work and plenty of references.

— Kyle Kizu

5. Return of the Jedi

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There’s a darker, more thematically committed version of Return of the Jedi beneath the one we ended up getting. The confrontation between Luke, Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine is fittingly epic and a gripping payoff to the buildup that the first two installments set forth. The clash of these characters in one room, battling it out both physically and mentally, indulging deeply in the classically simple light vs. dark conflict, is pulled off with grace (in the original version, not the special edition re-release) and gravitas.

The characters of Han and Leia are also given new ground to explore, some of the action sequences are the epitome of Star Wars entertainment and Endor is rendered a visually dynamic new world.

But Endor is also where Return of the Jedi falls. It’s been said a thousand times, but Ewoks had no place in this film, or at least how they’re depicted serves little purpose. Essentially, director Richard Marquand offers the most kid-friendly version of Star Wars, and the most silly version. It’s a happy, joyous ending to our characters’ journeys, which is a nice note in retrospect. But there’s no reason that that note could not have been reached by taking the opportunity to conclude this story a bit more seriously.

— Kyle Kizu

4. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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That Star Wars: The Force Awakens successfully revived such a monumental franchise buried in such monumental crap is an achievement in its own right, and genuinely a framework by which to judge the film. While the tone and story beats may feel familiar, they fluidly situate us into a galaxy decades removed with new types of characters. On closer inspection, JJ Abrams and co-writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt take an assured storytelling approach that, in its specifics, is rather different than the original Star Wars.

And those characters are exactly where The Force Awakens shines so brightly. Luke had stories of his parents that turned out to be lies. Rey has nothing, but Daisy Ridley gives her a lively vigor that so many can identify with and adore. Her performance is explorative and searching, and while her pain may be under the surface, we can detect it in her yearning for journey and purpose.

The defector origins of Finn (John Boyega) are an immensely fascinating starting point that immediately allow us to latch onto him, and Poe (Oscar Isaac) is truly the closest a Star Wars character has ever gotten to being as badass as Han Solo. Then there’s Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who is, essentially, a successful version of the young, manipulable, emotional, light-dark conflicted character that failed so spectacularly with Anakin Skywalker. And the context of his parentage and mentor renders him one of the better villains in recent blockbusters.

Throw in an actually committed Harrison Ford, a quieter, more subtle, but equally as brilliant score by John Williams and some traditional, refined filmmaking, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, despite its familiarities, is a welcome and entertaining entry that does work outside of itself that most of the other films didn’t have to.

— Kyle Kizu

3. Star Wars

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There would be no Star Wars without the original, which is, arguably, the most purely entertaining film and the most memorable from start to finish. From Alec Guinness’ Oscar-nominated turn as the wise and monologue-heavy Obi-Wan Kenobi, to the star-making turn from Harrison Ford, to the sheer imagination on display (seriously, holy shit), Star Wars (now called A New Hope) is a landmark moment in cinema. Not only did it help create the blockbuster era we are still experiencing (remaining the largest and most successful film franchise in the world), but it proved to be a real turning moment in film, where the rules felt like they could once again be broken down and built up again. George Lucas created a storytelling (and marketing) titan, and we are all indebted to the first film in the series. In fact, it wasn’t until The Last Jedi that a film was as willing to match this original’s unbridled ambition.

— Levi Hill

2. The Empire Strikes Back

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“No, I am your father!” declares Darth Vader in one of the most iconic of all cinematic moments, setting Empire Strikes Back as the standard bearer for the largest franchise in the world, but even more so as the de facto comparison that any sequel has to live up to. And not many do.

Both expanding on the Star Wars mythology and increasing the amount of spectacle, The Empire Strikes Back finds its true power in its intense focus on further developing the characters. We see Luke Skywalker struggle to find his place and temper his ambition. We see Han Solo become more than just a wisecracking sidekick and smuggler; we see him become a person who’s trying to do well for those he cares about. Then, Leia is given the required depth through her passion for the rebellion, her will to do well, even if challenging norms, all the while balancing her (odd, in hindsight) love triangle between Luke and Han.

While critically mixed during its day, The Empire Strikes Back stands rightfully at the top of most Star Wars rankings.

— Levi Hill

1. Star Wars: The Last Jedi

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Yes, it may be a tad premature to rank The Last Jedi, which just opened this past weekend, as the best Star Wars film yet. And, according to some fans, we may be crazy for even suggesting that this film is canonical. But here we are, with Star Wars: The Last Jedi easily topping our list.

What makes Episode VIII our pick as the best, though, is actually due to many of the reasons that other fans have written it off: that it breaks the rules, rewrites what “a Star Wars film” entails, puts an emphasis on humor and heartbreak and, ultimately, paints a political portrait that fits next to the anti-Vietnam/Nixon-era politics that George Lucas has said influenced the first film.

Because the film is still fresh in people’s minds and not-yet-seen for others, we’re going to keep plot details to a minimum. But essentially, much of the buildup from The Force Awakens veers into drastically different territory than what many expected. Yet, all decisions are in favor of the populist, “we the people” message Rian Johnson so thrillingly achieves with The Last Jedi. Even outside of just the message, though, The Last Jedi features some of the most engaging action sequences on the big screen, the most dynamic use of lightsabers and, for what it’s worth, the most badass final 45 minutes in a Star Wars film. For further elaboration on the film’s specific brilliance, read our full review.

Call us crazy, but yes, The Last Jedi is already the best Star Wars film.

— Levi Hill

 

Featured image via Lucasfilm.

‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ Review: A humanist, subversive, new kind of ‘Star Wars’ story

With Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the most signficant franchise in popular culture awoke from a deep slumber. However, it did so with a sense of familiarity that, while perhaps necessary, hurts the film in hindsight.

But Star Wars: The Last Jedi takes another necessary step, that of subversion of the very things that The Force Awakens hinged on. And in doing so, The Last Jedi breathes urgent purpose into the new trilogy, purpose it had yet to prove.

What’s immediately evident about The Last Jedi — through a nailbiter of an opening sequence, which includes an absolutely hysterical bit that tops Poe’s opening of “who talks first?” in The Force Awakens — is that this film is interested in people. While some large scale action films focus on the spectacle, writer-director Rian Johnson and cinematographer Steve Yedlin’s camera situates us with the fighting, the sacrificing and the dying that fuel those battles.

When it comes to his focus on our main characters, Johnson succeeds in giving them all heavy, deeply personal character arcs. Finn needs to learn how best to fight for the Resistance. Poe needs to learn leadership that thinks ahead of the enemy, that thinks of everyone that a potential failure in leadership might affect. And John Boyega and Oscar Isaac inject the same kind of charismatic vigor into their characters that made them so lovable in the first place.

But Johnson’s portrayal of Luke Skywalker, this mammoth figure in pop culture, is the film’s most dynamic feature. And that’s because Johnson takes him out of the familiar, out of what we know him to be. Essentially, Johnson dissects “the legend” of Luke Skywalker, questioning that title by focusing in on Kylo Ren’s turn to the dark side years prior while at Luke’s Jedi school. It gives Mark Hamill new space to explore, as a rehash of pure heroism would’ve failed to be profound, and Hamill offers up a hilarious, pained, tired and tender performance. Though the trilogy jumps decades, we still get to feel the weight of those decades because Hamill bares it tangibly and beautifully.

Johnson intertwines Luke’s arc with those of Rey and Kylo in a way that challenges Rey’s almost original-trilogy-Luke sense of purpose, and in a way that cuts straight to the heart of Kylo’s light-dark conflict. It’s a brilliant framework, as the film adds new layers to Kylo, not only in the context of his turn but in the context of his purpose moving forward. Adam Driver ingrains those emotions deep into his performance, rendering him as one of the more complex villains in large scale cinema.

The framework also places Rey at the forefront, mainly through her search for identity now that she’s been thrust into the world of the Force. The film’s answer is decidedly feminist, fitting into Johnson’s overall idea of who heroes are, and Daisy Ridley capitalizes on the material, delivering a performance that is, appropriately, searching, yet also gripping in its painful anger and raw vulnerability.

The film is truly an ensemble piece, even more so than most typical ensembles as there’s a sense of individualized growth within nearly every character. And the performances of the rest of the cast are wholly committed, including vibrant work by newcomer Kelly Marie Tran, a towering presence from Laura Dern and a brave turn by the late Carrie Fisher.

This is, however, where the film slightly falters, as it becomes, at times, too stuffed with so much character work happening at the same time and in different places, which impacts the film’s pacing. Certain moments, such as when the plot needs to catch up, happen too quickly or conveniently and other moments, such as those of thematic significance, feel a bit too drawn out. The film also has four acts, which is not unusual, but it requires an extremely careful sense of flow and progression, perhaps exemplified by The Dark Knight. And while the flow from the third act into the fourth isn’t terrible, it’s unbalanced.

But the film, despite its flaws, is genuinely stunning. Johnson choreographs action — both in space and on the ground — with such rhythmic intensity and fluidity, but also with an underlying grit informed by the film’s humanism. And the settings within which that action takes place are so singular and transfixing, often due to Rick Heinrich’s spellbinding production design and Steve Yedlin’s soaring and awe-striking cinematography, especially in his long shots. 

The story, while not perfectly executed, also holds beauty. As said before, this film is about people. And Johnson engages with the political, shedding light on the First Order’s impact on the poor and forgotten, on those that come from nothing but a little bit of hope. Fascinatingly enough, however, Johnson, while portraying the Resistance lovingly, doesn’t shy away from critiquing the larger notion of the “machine” of the Resistance.

But it’s those like Rose Tico (Marie Tran), someone who works alone in the dirty underbelly of a Resistance ship and is not really a part of any “machine,” who can embody a heroism in the face of tyranny that leaders of the Resistance have yet to fully understand. It’s heroes like Rey who can represent the greatest that hope can stand for.

In that sense, The Last Jedi is a new kind of Star Wars story. Along the way, the film challenges a lot of what we’re familiar with, especially in regard to the mythology of the universe. At points, the film almost feels satirical in how it critiques what we expect a Star Wars film to be.

Therein lies the film’s value. More of the same, especially in a wasteland of traditional, unengaging hero stories, would’ve been a shame. It was necessary for The Force Awakens, for that film to care about what we thought of it.

But The Last Jedi believes in a new kind of hero and, thus, a new kind of Star Wars.

Grade: 8.8/10

 

Featured image via Lucasfilm.

Top 10 coming-of-age films since 2010

The coming-of-age genre has always been an exciting framework through which some of the more fruitful and engaging stories of any given year are told. But those stories also shed some light and visibility upon a section of people that too many films often get wrong or simply don’t care for: the young. Youth is a complex time in one’s life and deserves complex deconstruction that embraces the humor, awkwardness and explicitness that comes with it. And in the past few years, the genre has exploded with landmark tale after landmark tale. From a fantastical take such as Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom to the literal interpretation of the genre with Boyhood, coming-of-age has been a playground, both literally and figuratively, of the utmost profundity.

10. Spider-Man: Homecoming

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Spider-Man: Homecoming truly does wear its John Hughes inspiration on its sleeve, but in a way that feels so right and so natural to the character of Peter Parker. More than most superhero films, Homecoming focuses on youth and what a young teenager might look like as he deals with the responsibilities both of high school as well as of being a hero. The journey is truly about Parker realizing that he has to pass his classes and that he should be having fun with friends, a mindset through which he may realize that, as a hero, he can’t do everything, especially everything that an older hero like Tony Stark can. The film never sacrifices that notion, ending on the perfect note. Director Jon Watts also not only embraces those subjects, but injects the verve of adolescence into the energy of the film itself — the pacing is dynamic and the tone is always genuine, sweet, hilarious and fun. Spider-Man: Homecoming is inarguably a coming-of-age film and a superhero film.

— Kyle Kizu

9. 20th Century Women

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What’s so striking about Mike Mill’s 20th Century Women is that it not only crafts a coming-of age-story specific to the 1970s, but that it also deftly handles multiple characters’ journeys. Focusing on a post-Vietnam age, with the hippie movement almost in full force in California, the film places topics of gender, sexuality and individuality at the forefront, which, with a plethora of youthful characters, means some tensions on those fronts. Yet, the film is never exploitive nor indulgent, instead bringing an authenticity and agency to the young women, Elle Fanning and Greta Gerwig’s characters, and intertwining all of their journeys to lead to a particularly poignant and tranquil end.

— Kyle Kizu

8. American Honey

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Directed by Andrea Arnold, American Honey finds a balance between a road movie and a coming-of-age tale, both of which show a part of America rarely seen on the big screen. Detailing the poverty that strikes much of the midwest and southern parts of the United States, American Honey is not a traditional coming-of-age story where someone finds themselves at the end. Instead, the film is about people, especially young people, who are lost in the world. Through Sasha Lane’s star-making turn as the lost Star, the audience embarks on a journey of forgotten and disrespected millennials, guided by a traveling sales crew leader Jake (Shia LaBeouf’s best performance yet). What the millennials are selling to unsuspecting buyers might be fake, but the honest portrait of teenagers unsure of who they are in this world couldn’t be more real.  

— Levi Hill

7. Moonrise Kingdom

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While it can be argued that every Wes Anderson movie is a coming-of-age story (even for the middle age sort), Moonrise Kingdom takes its spot next to Rushmore as one of the most idiosyncratic, but beautifully crafted coming-of-age films. The film, in a way that only Anderson can, takes the feelings of first-love and creates a relatable, if unrealistic tale about a community chasing after two young eloping lovers (Kaya Hayward and Jared Gilman). Throw in a starry cast including Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton and Edward Norton, a wonderful score from Alexandre Desplat, the typically gorgeous production design found in an Anderson film and a story about how love comes in many shapes and age groups, and Moonrise Kingdom is a whimsical and delightful coming-of-age story.

— Levi Hill

6. Dope

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Dope is refreshing in many ways, not the least that it gives its coming-of-age trappings an unique point of view. Relying on a star-making turn from Shameik Moore, Dope’s main success comes from its ability to subvert stereotypes. Unlike most Hollywood produced coming-of-age stories, Dope is strictly about an intelligent, young African American high school student as he juggles college applications, the SAT and academic interviews — all in the hopes of getting into Harvard. Even when it turns into a fast-paced caper film of Malcolm (Moore) being in the wrong place at the wrong time — explicitly opening dialogue around urban Black stereotypes and such — writer-director Rick Famuyiwa refreshingly plays against expectations. Malcolm is a brilliant, quick-witted, handsome young man and he’s not going to let society tell him differently. Because of this, Dope stands apart from 95% of modern-day youth stories.

— Levi Hill

5. The Edge of Seventeen

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Kelly Fremon Craig’s directorial debut, The Edge of Seventeen, is vibrant, hilarious, truthful and different. The film overcomes its potential genre pitfalls by embracing the bluntness of its main character Nadine (an outstanding Hailee Steinfeld). While Nadine may be shy among strangers, the film itself, with pitch perfect editing, writing and performances from its ensemble, tackles high school life with a similar head-on strength that she shows when among friends. Whether it be through typical high school hijinx, through the oddly specific situation of Nadine’s best friend dating her brother and through the grief in all of Nadine’s family after her father’s death, The Edge of Seventeen takes youth seriously both in its fun and its struggles, realizing that every side of youth is intertwined.

— Kyle Kizu

4. Moonlight

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Moonlight is a singular coming-of-age tale. While it may explore sexuality and individuality as many other films do, the way in which those aspects are understood and the particulars of those aspects, that this is a story about a gay Black man, stand apart. Structured almost like a play in three literal acts (it was based on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue), Moonlight crafts a story that’s both quiet and pulsating, as it’s in the silence, in the soft glances and pained reactions, where the film says most. It allows us to absorb, through its cinematography, its breezy sound design, its unbelievable performances and more, the complex pains of a young boy/young man, Chiron, constantly having to reconcile himself with his city, his family, his community and himself when all seem to actively work to suppress. The film is simultaneously about Chiron understanding his sexuality and about him understanding his masculinity. We see him hide behind masks throughout, but we also see him yearn to be himself, which renders his quiet vocalization of truth at the end, to the one man he loved, so utterly powerful.

— Kyle Kizu

3. Lady Bird

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More so than maybe any film on this list, there’s a universal specificity to what Lady Bird accomplishes. All coming-of-age stories are deeply personal, as they chart (typically) an individual’s realization of their own personhood — who they are going to be in this world. But Lady Bird doubles down on this, acting as a photo album of a year (a senior year in high school) for Christine “Lady Bird” Mcpherson (Saoirse Ronan) in the sleepy town of Sacramento, California. Within this year, she dates some boys, meets new friends, joins theater, leaves theater, loses her virginity, learns of her dad’s depression, gets accepted to a college 3000 miles away and argues with her domineering, but ultimately caring mother (the Oscar-worthy Laurie Metcalf). While some of this may sound sad, or almost too specific, writer-director Greta Gerwig makes sure that this personal story is filled with grace and warmth. Whether in a small scene of her father giving Lady Bird a cupcake on her birthday morning, or when she crushes on a boy at a garage show, or when she argues with her mother about if she should just go to the nearby UC Davis rather than a school in New York, Lady Bird captures that very important year in all of our lives with more authenticity than nearly any other film.

— Levi Hill

2. Boyhood

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Boyhood is a landmark film for a multitude of reasons. While the 12-years-in-the-making component is one of the first — if not the first — for a fictional feature, it’s how the story reconciles these 12 passing years. Using the same actors, with most of the same locations, writer-director Richard Linklater wisely focuses on how time, and thus age, affects us all. In a literal sense of coming-of-age, we see Mason (Ellar Coltrane) go from childhood to the fringe of adulthood. Linklater never magnifies the scale more than exactly what time gives us. Instead, for nearly three hours, the audience is asked to quietly ruminate on life experiences. To split time between divorced parents. To watch your mom go in a different career. To move from one city to the next. To make new friends. To have your first feelings of love. To smoking weed for the first time. To going off to college. In Boyhood, 12 years of a lived life happen, which create the most epic, yet intimate film on this list.

— Levi Hill

1. Call Me by Your Name

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Call Me by Your Name is not just about the central relationship. Yes, it’s a stunningly tender portrait of two young men exploring their sexuality together, but it’s also a very raw look at two young men grappling with their individual insecurities and their inadequacy. And writer James Ivory and director Luca Guadagnino accomplish this through their focus on the quiet, minute, almost untraceably intimate moments that end up building to something so tangible and real.

The actors adopt this method, finding truth in every aspect of their performance. Timothée Chalamet, as Elio, is a revelation, evoking playfulness, but behind a guarded exterior. We see the struggle Elio traverses in realizing his attraction to Armie Hammer’s character, Oliver, and — through Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s erotic cinematography — we’re guided along as he slowly opens up to the idea. Next to that, Hammer’s character is purposefully elusive, rendering the moments of contemplation, particularly one in a hotel room, all the more emotional.

And at the end, Call Me by Your Name unveils its coming-of-age narrative. Through Michael Stuhlbarg’s character, as Stuhlbarg delivers the most profound monologue of the year, we understand that Elio and Oliver helped each other be themselves and feel good about themselves. Stuhlbarg’s monologue emphasizes the difficult notion that, too often, we hide from our feelings, especially those of pain — and as Elio grows and becomes an adult, he has to make sure to feel even if it hurts.

— Kyle Kizu

 

Featured image via IFC Films.

‘Darkest Hour’ Review: A rousing, vigorous yet excessive chamber piece

Darkest Hour, in a way, is the other end of the story that Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk tells. While that film steers clear of political machinations, Darkest Hour indulges in them, specifically in those of Winston Churchill’s early days as Prime Minister while he orchestrates the evacuation at Dunkirk.

Thus, with such a story, the film had the potential to amount to not much more than typical British TV movie-esque extravagance. But Darkest Hour rises above, mostly due to Gary Oldman’s unbelievable transformation, yet also because of Joe Wright’s vivid, firmly controlled direction.

There’s an energy behind each frame that nearly mirrors the physical energy of Oldman’s performance. Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography is particularly striking in how it lights interiors. Much of the film takes place in halls and chambers, and there’s a persistent haze that’s as equally eerie as it is strangely invigorating. Delbonnel and Wright also venture into the slightly experimental, shooting long shots of the interiors of rooms with complete darkness outlining the room’s edges, and often framing Oldman’s face in enclosed boxes to mirror the trapped nature of Churchill’s position.

When such visual splendor combines with perfectly paced editing and Dario Marianelli’s stirring, pulsing score, Darkest Hour is electric.

There are moments, however, when the film veers into excessiveness. Churchill, at least this film’s version of him, is a man of far too many words, and focusing so often on his speeches — there are roughly seven or eight speeches made by Churchill throughout Darkest Hour — and on Churchill’s character itself causes the narrative’s energy to waver. To be fair, pulling off such a balance of energy is incredibly difficult, but the film does end up, in a way, adopting the faults of Churchill in its own structure.

But the film is never without the raw power of Gary Oldman, who disappears into the role in every way, literal and mental. We can see a precise, specific and consistent physicality in the way that Oldman delivers dialogue, in his physical interactions with both space and people and in his command of the frame as he marches across it. It’s a towering performance, quite literally at times when the film shoots him from a low angle, and one of the best of the year. Without it, or one like it, Darkest Hour would’ve likely been a dull two hours.

Grade: 8.3/10

 

Featured image via Focus Features.

Top 10 DC films

Even though the superhero genre, with its cinematic universes and CGI moustache removal, feels like a modern invention, it’s worth remembering that DC films have been around since 1978, with the release of Richard Donner’s Superman. Since then, DC has left numerous, indelible marks on comic book filmmaking — the Academy Award-winning Suicide Squad, multiple sets of Bat-nips and this scene from Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, just to name a few. Oh, and The Dark Knight too. All jokes aside, DC’s filmography includes some of the best comic book adaptations of all time. Here are ten of them.

10. Superman

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Richard Donner’s Superman defined the superhero film and its sterling illustration of optimism, idealism and sacrifice on screen has yet to be recreated in a similar comic book property, and for good reason. The genuineness with which each actor portrays their character, the reverent aura beget by Donner’s steadfast direction and John Williams’ iconically melodious score all work in cohesion to portray the quintessential cinematic take on the Man of Steel. Make no mistake, Christopher Reeve is Superman, and from the moment he exits a revolving door clad in red, blue and yellow, no one can deny that the presence he exudes is inspiring beyond belief. While Zack Snyder and David S. Goyer might think that the character needs to be deconstructed and morally-conflicted to be interesting, Donner knows that Superman is captivating in how his selflessness is innate, ingrained in his very being and staunch at the expense of a normal life. Simply put, he’s Superman because he wants to be and not solely out of a sense of duty to his adopted homeworld. It may have been released in the ‘70s, but Superman is timeless. No matter when you watch it, “You’ll believe a man can fly.”

— Sanjay Nimmagudda

9. Superman II

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What presents more of a threat to the Superman than a villainous plot revolving around the California real estate market? Three revenge-driven Kryptonians, an escaped arch-enemy and an introspective dilemma between want and responsibility — that’s what. Despite the uphill battle it was fighting after the character’s first stellar outing, Superman ll differentiates itself from its predecessor by grounding the Last Son of Krypton while upping the narrative ante. Superman’s hard to empathize with, given the, y’know, God-like powers and such, but director Richard Lester (and Richard Donner with his, arguably, better cut of the film) captures the mortality of the character by stripping him of his abilities and reminding audiences what truly makes him so super. Combine such a personally conflicted performance by Christopher Reeve as a now de-powered Clark with the mad zealotry of Terence Stamp’s Zod, and the film beautifully depicts two sides of a moralistic spectrum. Returning favorites such as Lois Lane, Lex Luthor, Perry White and Eve Teschmacher round out one of the few great examples of a sequel done right.

— Sanjay Nimmagudda

8. Road to Perdition

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Tom Hanks, Paul Newman, Jude Law, Daniel Craig, Stanley Tucci, Jennifer Jason Leigh, a young Tyler Hoechlin, director Sam Mendes and legendary cinematographer Conrad Hall? Road to Perdition is, surely, the most starry DC production ever.

Thankfully, it’s also one of the best. The film wisely uses everyman Tom Hanks against type as a ruthless mob enforcer seeking vengeance for the murder of his whole family, except for his young son played by Tyler Hoechlin. Like A History of Violence, the film asks the viewer to confront how violence becomes embedded within our families and, ultimately, creates the downfall of many people’s lives. Featuring Oscar-winning, exquisitely framed, lit and shot cinematography by Hall — this ended up being his last film prior to passing away — Road to Perdition is the most beautifully designed film on this list.

— Levi Hill

7. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm

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As this list makes evident, there are more great Batman films than there are canonical Robins. The Nolan films are genius interpretations of classic characters, and the Burton films helped define what a cinematic Batman could be, but only one film on this list definitively represents a truly comic-accurate version of Batman; only one film here makes a deep dive into the psychology of the Dark Knight. That film, of course, is Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, the cinematic extension of the classic Batman: The Animated Series. The creative team from the television show, including Bruce Timm and Paul Dini, lend their iconic art style and mature storytelling to this film, which coalesce to dramatically redefine Batman’s origin story with heaping amounts of genuine pathos. Just as he’s making his first forays into vigilantism, Bruce Wayne finds true love in Andrea Beaumont (voiced by Dana Delany), and we see a Batman who is conflicted. “I didn’t count on being happy,” he says, as he crumbles in front of his parents’ graves. In this sense, the film pits past and present against each other, each vying to consume Batman. Thematically, this film is as rich as The Dark Knight, and arguably much more emotional — whereas most Batman films are content to let the Caped Crusader brood for the entire runtime, this film translates mere gloom to a nuanced, emotional sense of melancholy. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill voice Batman and the Joker, respectively, cementing their statuses as the definitive portrayals of both characters. Much has already been said about this film by more articulate fans than myself, so I’ll just link one of my favorite analyses here. Check it out, or better yet, just go watch this absolute gem of a movie.

— Harrison Tunggal

6. A History of Violence

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Who would have thought that David Cronenberg’s best (arguably) and most humanistic (not as arguable) film would be an adaption of a graphic novel about the nature of violence? Yes, most of Cronenberg’s films tend to explore society’s obsession with violence, but typically with surreal trappings. For example, think of Videodrome’s satirical takedown of TV’s reliance on sex and murder to get audience’s invested, or the sex-crazed car crash survivors in Crash.

A History of Violence strips away most of the pretense, and focuses on how one small-town man who lives an upright life with his family can be haunted by violence. After a group of gangsters come to the town, threatening to hurt him or others, Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) acts without hesitation with a stunning amount of brutal violence, killing the gangsters before they harm any innocent bystanders. While heralded as a hero by the local community, what happens after, though, is the quick realization that Tom was a former gangster himself, with a deep past of horrific crimes that are going to catch up to him. Using the deeper ruminations of the source material, A History of Violence is likely the most mature DC-adaption yet.

— Levi Hill

5. The Dark Knight Rises

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Christopher Nolan’s final Batman film has received plenty of flack, but it’s hard, in retrospect, to feel as though the intense derision is fully warranted. We don’t view a film in a vacuum; The Dark Knight Rises followed not only arguably the greatest superhero movie of all time, but also one of the most influential films, period, of its era. The lens with which Rises has been viewed is different than most, the standards higher than most.

With that said, The Dark Knight Rises is an undoubtedly epic finale, expanding the scope and scale immensely while maintaining a firm grasp on the gritty realism that is thematically central to Nolan’s take. While The Dark Knight was more about Batman/the Bruce that’s behind the mask, this final installment places a raw Bruce front and center — and Christian Bale embraces the vulnerability and pain. This Bruce wants death; we can see the weight of his life on his tired face, and, when he finally can let go of the anger, it’s an immeasurably joyous feeling to see him at peace.

On top of all of that, The Dark Knight Rises deftly avoids the pitfall of bigger-but-emptier. The thematic idea behind Bane, a sort of re-emergence of the League of Shadows, but also a slight shift in its principles, is consistently engaging, and a layered look at the political manipulations that would allow for Bane to take over Gotham as he does. And while many complain about Tom Hardy’s voice, Bane is one of the better comic book villains of recent memory. Due mostly to Hardy, he’s physically intimidating unlike most antagonists we’ve seen, and his strange, almost Eastern European accent lends an aura of gravitas to the character too.

The detractors likely won’t sway too far from their positions, and that’s their right. But, no matter how flawed, The Dark Knight Rises still succeeds in capping the arc of the trilogy and of Bruce in a thematic and emotionally satisfying way, an absolutely massive and underappreciated accomplishment that few comic book trilogies, let alone trilogies in general, have accomplished.

— Kyle Kizu

4. Batman

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When it was first announced, 1989’s Batman received its fair share of skepticism from fans and general audiences alike. Can you blame them? The director of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and the lead of Mr. Mom (what a decade the ‘80’s was) aren’t the first duo to come to mind when bringing Batman to cinematic life. However, with a certain teaser trailer, Warner Bros. was able to bide time and assuage moviegoers that this was going to be a dark, epic take on the Caped Crusader: how right they were. From its visually resplendent gothic aesthetic to Danny Elfman’s classic, rousing yet somber score, Batman ‘89 established a filmic experience for the character like never before. Tim Burton’s sets a simultaneously adventurous and tragic environment, anchored with committed character work by Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson, which infuses the film with a larger-than-life attitude that’s both entertaining and narratively fulfilling. Burton and company don’t shy away from their comic book roots, but, at the same time, don’t simply execute fan service scene after scene. This is a movie where the Joker realizes his appearance is both an extension of his own subconscious identity and a tool with which he can shift the status quo in Gotham City. This is also a movie where the Batwing flies in front of and recreates the Bat Signal against the moonlight. This is Batman ‘89.     

— Sanjay Nimmagudda

3. Batman Begins

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Christopher Nolan’s first Batman film quickly became the landmark superhero origin story, and for good reason. Grounding Bruce Wayne in our world and committing to an intertwined idea of story, character, setting and theme — all living and breathing as one — Batman Begins is a gripping drama about grief, fear and justice. Applying his trademark sense of nonlinear structure to the beginning of the film, Nolan thoroughly impresses upon us one of the most three-dimensional characters the genre has seen, and proceeds to surround Wayne with nearly as equally defined supporting characters in Fox, Gordon and Alfred.

Batman Begins has influenced countless films after it, with many directly citing the film and Nolan in their approach. But what so many fail to understand is that the brooding darkness and gritty realism alone are not what make this film so special. It’s that both of those aspects are informed for what the story holds intrinsically. Bruce Wayne is just a man with no real powers, so of course his equipment would come from the military. He’s just a man with no real powers, so of course he would get bruised and beaten quite easily and extensively.

We’ve yet to get another origin story like it and it might be a while before we do.

— Kyle Kizu

2. Wonder Woman

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Just as Wonder Woman saved Batman from becoming bat-toast in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, her first solo film saved the DCEU (for the time being, at least) when it needed it most. Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman gives us a hero that kicks as much ass as Batman, and still embodies the sense of hope that defines Superman — a combination that made Wonder Woman the commercial and critical hit that the DCEU needed.

Essentially, Wonder Woman is a film about empowerment, and it’s downright inspirational, which, ironically, isn’t an adjective that’s often bandied about when speaking of superhero films. The immense impact of the film on younger viewers is already evident — you can click here to have your heart warmed, or just rewatch the film, or do both.

— Harrison Tunggal

1. The Dark Knight

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The Dark Knight is not only the best DC film of all time, but it’s also arguably the best superhero film of all time and one of the best films, in general, of all time.

On a craft level, the film is masterful. So often do all of the elements coalesce — the score, the editing, the sound design, the cinematography and more — to create astounding action sequences that leave us absolutely breathless, like the opening bank heist and the underground police chase.

But where The Dark Knight steps to the next level is in how its craft executes its story. The film has four main characters — Bruce Wayne/Batman, Harvey Dent, Commissioner Gordon and the Joker — and works them all into an immensely profound narrative of morality and sacrifice, especially in our post-9/11 society. We see our heroes manipulated by the Joker, and forced to bend their rules to stop him, but we also see that something is lost every time a rule is broken. The film has no hardline stance on morality, what’s just and what’s worth it, which ends up being for the better as it truly dimensionalizes these characters in ways that other films don’t. It also ends up making the Joker such an terrifying, effective and memorable villain.

Heath Ledger’s turn is one for the ages. It is the definition of transformation; every aspect of physical, verbal and mental performance is taken advantage of to leave us with a being that feels so abrasive, tangible and real — something made all the more stunning considering that the character is offered no backstory. Ledger’s Joker is the face of terror in the 21st century, and it’s one we won’t soon forget.

The Dark Knight is one of the great films of our time. It’s a film about a guy who dresses up as a bat, but it’s also a city crime drama as epic as The Godfather. It’s a superhero film that embraces the best of its genre, but also transcends it in every way imaginable.

— Kyle Kizu

 

Featured image via New Line Cinema/Warner Bros.