Author Archives: Kyle Kizu

‘La La Land’ and the love that fades

Mia and Seb don’t end up together.

For all of its swoon-inducing musical numbers and fantastical visions of romance, La La Land is a tale about how love doesn’t always work out. The film is a tender warning, but it’s not pessimistic. It’s empathetic, not just for love faded, but for people with passion. In fact, the first two minutes of La La Land, during the enchanting number “Another Day of Sun,” are about a break up, and a young woman’s drive to make it as an actress.

The entertainment industry is ruthless, and writer-director Damien Chazelle introduces us to this conflict immediately, as Mia gives everything to an audition — a monologue that hints at its own heartbreak — only to be interrupted in the middle of it.

Sebastian’s introduction is of the same note. His sister chastises him for his countless unpacked boxes, joking that it seems like he’s just gone through a breakup before trying to set him up with someone. But Seb stays stubborn. He’s waiting to unpack his boxes in his club and doesn’t think he’ll like her if she doesn’t like jazz. He defends his untidy space by saying that he had a serious plan, but was “shanghaied.” His sister retorts that he was just ripped off by some shady guy, suggesting that “shanghaied” is too romantic.

“Why do you say romantic like it’s a dirty word?”

At first, the line oozes with the cliche of a typical romantic, searching for love. But this mention of the word is not in regard to some past relationship or some goal for the perfect someone. It’s in relation to an idea of oneself as an artist doing everything they can to make it. Seb embraces a romance with music, unashamed.

And Mia wants to be an actress. Those are the goals that La La Land starts with. Those are the lives that it envisions from the start.

Yet, those are the lives that can so easily fall into one another, the people that can so easily fall in love with each other. Mia and Seb officially meet at a party, as she networks and he plays a crap gig. The meeting seems almost too full of fate, too romantic, but people with passion tend to fringe familiar space.

And immediately, within three minutes of their introduction, Damien Chazelle indulges in the magical with “A Lovely Night.”

Chazelle truly understands how otherworldly love can be, even when it’s simply the awkward, playful first sparks. Mia and Seb’s first song-and-dance is almost entirely about their initial rejection of the sparks. But Chazelle, composer Justin Hurwitz, choreographer Mandy Moore, and cinematographer Linus Sandgren inject the scene with a levity that makes it feel as though the two could float into the sky at any minute. A simple Los Angeles hillside is rendered as dazzling as a dream.

They start to embrace those sparks through support of each other’s passions. Artists know an artist’s inner fire better than anyone else ever could, so when one lifts up another in their pursuit of dreams, it means something.

Those sparks almost die out, but Mia finally makes the decision to light them. The two meet up again at a movie theater, and as the film stock of the movie they watch bubbles and burns out, it becomes abundantly clear what Chazelle is doing.

He’s not only suggesting that Mia and Seb’s love has become its own movie in that world, the film stock burning out just as they’re just about to kiss for the first time and their drive to Griffith Observatory replicating that from Rebel Without a Cause, but he’s utilizing the tools of cinema to accomplish this himself with his movie. He’s using his own passion to pay tribute to, to do true justice to love between passionate people. And when Mia and Seb run off to Griffith Observatory, there, finally, they both float into the sky

But no matter the feeling of love, or the feeling that cinema leaves us with, there is a reality underneath. And that’s the reality of two people with passion trying to pursue their goals as they pursue their love.

It’s difficult. There’s an incredibly thin line of balance where both people are able to make both parts of their lives work. Rather simply, Mia and Seb could not find that balance. They both compromised too much for them not to crack. As we saw at the beginning, Seb is a stubborn guy. He was prone to say something he’d regret with the stress of excessive compromise, like at the heartbreaking dinner scene. And in the whiplash of that realization, Seb responds by not compromising enough, missing Mia’s play and solidifying the crack.

In the fallout, the most crucial moment of delivering on the film’s themes, Damien Chazelle remains empathetic. While there may be a crack in the romantic love that had formed, the two hold onto love for each other as people, which includes a support for each other’s passions. Through that, Mia is finally able to break through. And with that comes the film’s most emotionally raw number, “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” — a song about love for art and love for artists.

La La Land comes to a close, the film’s final musical number perhaps its most transfixing, precisely because it’s the embodiment of the film’s empathy for people with a passion and for love faded. The fairytale that is “Epilogue” is simultaneously a magical cinematic commemoration to a love that was true and a what if for a love that could have been.

There was a chance for the film to end tragically, with Mia simply walking out of Seb’s. But a simple smile acknowledges and becomes everything that “Epilogue” represents.

Mia and Seb don’t end up together. But love sometimes doesn’t work out. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. And that doesn’t mean it has to be reflected on as something sad.

Mia and Seb don’t end up together. And that’s okay.

 

Featured image via Lionsgate.

10 Most Anticipated Films of the Summer

The summer season is notorious for its blockbusters, both the good and the bad (often the bad). But smaller films that release between May and August should not be overlooked. As the best of Sundance start to trickle out and the best of Cannes sneak in later, summer often shapes up to be fun of all sizes. Here are our 10 most anticipated films of summer 2018:

10. Hotel Artemis

Global Road/Courtesy

Directed by: Drew Pearce
Written by: Drew Pearce
Starring: Jodie Foster, Sterling K. Brown, Sofia Boutella, Jeff Goldblum, Dave Bautista
Release Date: June 8, 2018

On concept alone, Hotel Artemis sounds like a blast: Jodie Foster plays a nurse who runs a secret hospital for criminals. It’s the kind of genre fare we need more of, and the film is stacked with brilliant actors to play these exaggerated parts. But the man behind the screenplay and behind the camera, Drew Pearce, has subtly built a strong resume, with writing credits on Iron Man 3 and Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation — two fantastic genre films. If Pearce brings that level of wit and suspense to this film, we could be in for a hell of a time.

9. Leave No Trace

Bleecker Street/Courtesy

Directed by: Debra Granik
Written by: Debra Granik
Starring: Thomasin McKenzie, Ben Foster
Release Date: June 29, 2018

Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone was the quiet film that snuck up on people. Not only was it a gripping showcase for the soon-to-be-star Jennifer Lawrence, but it displayed Granik’s immense writing and directing talents. Her next film, which already premiered at Sundance to rave reviews, is said to offer two outstanding performances from Ben Foster and primed-to-breakout Thomasin McKenzie, as well as more of Granik’s quiet power.

8. Eighth Grade

A24/Courtesy

Directed by: Bo Burnham
Written by: Bo Burnham
Starring: Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson
Release Date: July 13, 2018

Bo Burnham is a comedian unlike any other. His wit is quick and awkward, and sometimes bracingly real. His directorial debut, Eighth Grade, which also premiered at Sundance, is a synthesis of those qualities, except through the eyes of an eighth grade girl. Few coming of age stories truly embrace the awkwardness of youth, and even fewer take on social media and the digital well, but reviews say that Burnham has something special that accomplishes both.

7. Incredibles 2

Pixar/Courtesy

Directed by: Brad Bird
Written by: Brad Bird
Starring: Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Samuel L. Jackson, Bob Odenkirk, Catherine Keener
Release Date: June 15, 2018

Even Pixar’s weaker efforts are mostly fun animated adventures, so any movie from the animation giant would make this list. But this is not just any movie, nor is it any Pixar movie. This is a movie 14 years in the making, a sequel to one of the most beloved animated films of all time and, truly, one of the best superhero movies of all time. And with Brad Bird back writing and directing, this family follow-up will surely hold onto the heart that made the first one so memorable.

6. BlacKkKlansman

David Lee/Focus Features/Courtesy

Directed by: Spike Lee
Written by: Spike Lee, David Rabinowitz, Charlie Wachtel, Kevin Willmott
Starring: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Topher Grace, Laura Harrier, Corey Hawkins
Release Date: August 10, 2018

The basic story of BlacKkKlansman is harrowing: a young black police officer infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan. And there’s certainly no doubt that co-writer and director Spike Lee will not only hit hard on how sickening things were back then, but how sickening things still are now. The first footage, however, suggests that the film will actually be a buddy comedy of sorts. And after thinking about it for a moment, it makes complete sense. Lee’s comedy could easily convey the level of atrocious stupidity of the KKK while maintaining the seriousness of the impact of them. It’ll be a tight balancing act, but if Lee pulls it off — and we’ll see rather soon, as it premieres at Cannes — it’ll be a film to rally around.

5. Sorry to Bother You

Annapurna/Courtesy

Directed by: Boots Riley
Written by: Boots Riley
Starring: Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Armie Hammer, Terry Crews, Steven Yeun
Release Date: July 6, 2018

Bay Area activist-artist Boots Riley puts on the writer-director cap for the first time for Sorry to Bother You. The kind of perspective that Riley has offered in other forms of art is desperately needed in the film world, and it seems as though his directorial debut is making quite an impact even prior to its release. Sorry to Bother You already has fantastic reviews, having premiered at Sundance, and its trailer showcases a visual flare and energy that’re not quite like anything else out there. And with a brilliant cast, fronted by Lakeith Stanfield and Tessa Thompson, the film will not be one we forget any time soon.

4. Under the Silver Lake

A24/Courtesy

Directed by: David Robert Mitchell
Written by: David Robert Mitchell
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Riley Keough, Jimmi Simpson, Topher Grace
Release Date: June 22, 2018

David Robert Mitchell broke through with It Follows, a horror film already considered among the best of the 21st century in its genre. So, anything Mitchell did next would be something to seek out. What he’s cooked up, however, looks utterly enchanting. Under the Silver Lake, distributed by the powerhouse that is A24 and premiering soon at Cannes, seems to be a surrealist stoner noir, a subgenre that offers endless possibilities for a wild visual trip, led by a shaggy and paranoid performance from Andrew Garfield.

3. Mission: Impossible – Fallout

Paramount Pictures/Courtesy

Directed by: Christopher McQuarrie
Written by: Christopher McQuarrie
Starring: Tom Cruise, Rebecca Ferguson, Henry Cavill, Simon Pegg, Michelle Monaghan, Ving Rhames
Release Date: July 27, 2018

Ghost Protocol reinvigorated the franchise, but it was Rogue Nation that truly showed how high the series could climb. And, thanks to an absolute banger of a trailer, it seems that Rogue Nation writer-director Christopher McQuarrie has taken the franchise, and Tom Cruise, even higher with Mission: Impossible – Fallout. From the physical beast of Henry Cavill to the return of Rogue Nation standout Rebecca Ferguson to the mind boggling practical stunts of Tom Cruise (he’s actually flying that helicopter?!), Fallout is primed to be a spy thriller on par with the best of Bond and Bourne. And, if for nothing else, Fallout will also give us a glimpse at the infamous Cavill mustache we’ve all heard too much about.

2. Hereditary

A24/Courtesy

Directed by: Ari Aster
Written by: Ari Aster
Starring: Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Gabriel Byrne, Milly Shapiro
Release Date: June 8, 2018

When reviews call Hereditary “a new generation’s The Exorcist” (Time Out) and describe it as “emotional terrorism” (The A.V. Club), it’s difficult not to start anticipating it. With Hereditary distributed by A24 and said to host a revelatory performance from Toni Collette, it’s impossible not to feel a paradoxical sense of need to see the film immediately, even if people who’ve seen it out of Sundance and South by Southwest say that it scarred them. This is the sick game that spectacular horror films can play, but we’re here for it.

1. Solo: A Star Wars Story

Lucasfilm/Courtesy

Directed by: Ron Howard
Written by: Lawrence Kasdan, Jon Kasdan
Starring: Alden Ehrenreich, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Woody Harrelson, Thandie Newton
Release Date: May 25, 2018

Solo: A Star Wars Story may have gone through hell during production, enduring a director firing that has understandably left many rather nervous. But this is still Star Wars, folks. Movies are meant to take us to galaxies far, far away, and we don’t get that, on this scale, too often elsewhere. While the film was reshot under Ron Howard to a point where Lord and Miller didn’t even try for director credits, the trailers have been surprisingly exciting. Ehrenreich absolutely nails his comedic lines and at least looks the part in regard to the drama and action; anyone who’s seen Hail, Caesar! knows that this guy can act just fine. This backstory may not be entirely necessary, but it’s hard not to feel giddy seeing Han Solo and Lando Calrissian meet and fly the Falcon together, and it’s hard not to feel intrigued at the gritty underbelly that this film looks to explore. In fact, it’s that exact aspect that may be the most enticing part of the film. Oscar-nominated cinematographer Bradford Young (A Most Violent Year, Selma, Arrival) brings his trademark darkness to the film’s interiors and injects a stark beauty into each landscape. So, Solo: A Star Wars Story might be familiar company, but it’s unexplored territory.

 

Featured image via Annapurna/Pixar/A24/Lucasfilm.

‘Blockers’ Review: A comedy as raunchy as it is heartfelt

The primary narrative strand in Blockers follows Lisa (Leslie Mann), Mitchell (John Cena) and Hunter (Ike Barinholtz) as they try to stop their daughters — Julie (Kathryn Newton), Kayla (Geraldine Viswanathan) and Sam (Gideon Adlon) — from losing their virginity on prom night. Immediately, it sounds like a comedy we’ve seen before.

What makes Blockers so refreshing and delightful, though, is that this point-of-view is not the location of our heroes, who are the daughters, but it’s also an entirely necessary point-of-view to pull off what the film sets out to.

Blockers is littered with its share of awfully raunchy, unambiguously absurdist moments of comedy, and director Kay Cannon injects an infectious energy into each one, primarily through razor sharp pacing. But Cannon also utilizes nearly every single one of these moments to develop character. Comedies can run themselves into the ground when the humor exists for the sake of itself, but Blockers dedicates itself to its story and never falters.

Most of these moments, in fact, challenge the parents and their perceptions of their children. Is it right for these parents to try to “save” their daughters? Would they do the same if it were about their sons? The trio are framed as anti-heroes, but are still allowed sympathy, leaving the door open for redemption.

As these parents learn to accept their daughters, the daughters are learning to accept themselves, but not necessarily from a starting point of negative. Cannon brings a tone of sensitivity to these women’s explorations of their sexuality, affirming them rather than shaming them, while still offering them their own hilarious bits.

It truly is an outstanding balancing act from Cannon, who is aided by an equally outstanding ensemble. Mann, in the leading role, is as steady as she ever has been. Barinholtz both plays into type as the over-the-top idiot, while also playing against type as a surprisingly progressive father. Cena capitalizes on the tough guy persona, rendering his sensitive moments hysterical in juxtaposition. Newton is certainly serviceable, but Adlon shines with her vulnerability and Viswanathan nearly steals the whole show.

And when Blockers brings the families together toward the end, that dedication to the story the film set out to tell from the beginning pays off, leaving us with some genuinely powerful quiet moments.

Grade: 8.0/10

 

Featured image via Universal Pictures.

‘Chappaquiddick’ Review: An unsettling portrait of political gaslighting

Political scandals are nothing new, or quite surprising, in today’s world. And as possible, even likely, as it is that Chappaquiddick was made without the specifics of today’s world in mind, its release at this moment in time colors the film in a deeply unsettling way.

The film picks up with Senator Ted Kennedy (Jason Clarke), brother to the assassinated John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, at a turning point in his life. After a party and some drinks, he takes a drive with Mary Jo Kopechne — a drive that ends with the car flipped off of a bridge into the water off Chappaquiddick island, and Mary Jo dead by drowning.

But Chappaquiddick doesn’t choose to focus on the event itself for too long. A majority of the story revolves around the aftermath, around Ted Kennedy’s attempts to turn himself from a possible criminal into another victim of the event. And that is where the film reaches into the filth of politics.

Rather early on, the film takes a side. Ted, on his way back to mainland, is advised by his cousin Joseph Gargan (Ed Helms) to immediately notify the police the night of the accident, and director John Curran chooses to crosscut between Ted ignoring Gargan’s advice and Mary Jo screaming for help, clinging onto the sliver of air left in the car as it sinks. The sequence is incredibly uncomfortable and infuriating to watch, but that’s purposeful and effective to the story the film tells.

Much of the visual look of Chappaquiddick, in regard to the costume design and production design, is rather standard, and risks rendering the film dull. But Curran’s composition of the film continues to work to reveal political filth. As Ted and the powerhouse publicity/legal team put together by his father plan their “version of the truth,” Curran chooses to literally manifest and show the type of story that they plan to feed to the American people, granting the film an almost dry-yet-unnerving humor in the immorality of it all. At a point, the film’s use of visual juxtaposition becomes almost cruel in its effectiveness, such as when the edit reveals that the manipulation is working on, of all people, Mary Jo’s parents.

Chappaquiddick does present us with some sense of identification in the form of Gargan. While the film makes clear in its editing that Gargan is, at the end of the day, complicit, the character creates constant tension at nearly every development. Ed Helms is particularly magnificent, the role playing into the typical good-guy tone that Helms is so good at, while also offering some quiet (and loud) dramatic moments that we don’t see much of from him.

But the film undoubtedly rests on the shoulders of Jason Clarke, and Clarke turns in one of his finest performances. He takes a character so clearly positioned as an anti-hero and doesn’t necessarily make him sympathetic, but makes him intriguing, accentuating the despicable faults of Ted Kennedy with force. Clarke hits on the pressure that the character feels with that last name and, in turn, evokes the whiplash infantilism, masked in the facade of the mysticism of “Kennedy,” that that pressure has resulted in.

And that is precisely why the film succeeds. It doesn’t deny the mysticism of the Kennedy family. It just simply understands that that mysticism can turn very, very ugly.

Grade: 8.3/10

 

Featured image via Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures.

‘A Quiet Place’ Review: A juggernaut of a horror film

About half way into A Quiet Place, which follows a family living in silence due to monsters that track down victims by sound, Evelyn Abbott (Emily Blunt) asks her husband Lee (John Krasinski) a question that defines the entire film. “Who are we if we can’t protect them?”

“Them” refers to the Abbott’s children, Regan (Millicent Simmonds), who is deaf, and Marcus (Noah Jupe). A Quiet Place is, by all means, one of the scariest films of recent memory, but it’s even more effective because it’s a horror film with a gripping emotional basis — that of parenthood and the lengths we go to to protect our kids.

The film is almost entirely silent, with most of the interactions utilizing sign language. That set up leaves co-writer/director John Krasinski — wearing many hats on this project — with the difficult task of achieving the emotional basis through the physicality of the characters, through the actions they take more so than the words they say or sign. But Krasinski pulls it off.

A Quiet Place is a tight, lean picture — every second dedicated not only to Evelyn and Lee trying to protect their kids, but also to the kids learning the bravery necessary to begin to survive on their own. Many of these character moments are elevated immensely by the performances, and each one feels entirely integrated into the world. Movements through space are careful and calculated. And facial expressions are exacerbated excruciatingly, as they would be for people living in such a situation. The clear standout, however, is Emily Blunt, who bears the weight of her character — the weight of love, grief and the worst physical pain of any character — so thoroughly.

While Krasinski is undoubtedly rather strong, with his performance’s emotion sitting right under the surface, his most assured role on this film is as the director, composing every feature into a brilliant whole. The sound design is bare, but brutal. Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s cinematography is stark, but tender. And the production design builds a world far beyond the frame. In fact, it’s the world-building of A Quiet Place that is so astonishingly impressive. Some aspects of the layout of the Abbott’s home exist without explanation (to the film’s benefit) — and are then capitalized on for some harrowing imagery.

Yet, the film isn’t just harrowing and scary. It’s often incredibly invigorating and fun. And as A Quiet Place turns to its end and champions its female characters specifically, especially in a banger of a closing shot, it’s difficult not to walk out with a big, stupid grin on your face.

Grade: 8.6/10

 

Featured image via Paramount Pictures

Editor’s Note: Scaling back, changing approach and preparing for shutdown

This site has been such a significant creative outlet, and the past eight months were incredibly exciting and immensely fulfilling. Unfortunately, however, MovieMinis likely won’t last.

Running this site during my senior year at college has been difficult. The inconsistency of content — and the inability to publicize that content as strategically as I would’ve liked — has resulted in a flat, stunted and almost non-existent readership. A lack of readership means that there won’t be enough money to renew my WordPress business plan. And as I search for jobs post-graduation, I won’t be able to commit to the monstrous task of turning this site into something profitable before the plan runs out in August.

Considering the situation, MovieMinis will be scaling back and changing its approach for the remainder of its existence. We will no longer post any news content and the category will be taken off the front page. Reviews will be the main focus of the site, but there will still be projects and lists here and there.

Rather than continue to try to make this a serious film website, it will revert to being a film blog, which means adopting the approach and format of a film blog. That means that I will become the main source of content, and that it will mainly be about the reviews.

I love every single writer that contributed to this website over the past eight months. I am so grateful for them and beyond honored by their contributions. Growing with them as writers and friends has been a highlight of this year and the last. Spending hours putting together the MovieMini Awards was a hilarious and painful journey that I’m glad I had with them.

Many of them will still contribute in some capacity. But it will no longer be a “team” per se. I want this blog to be a platform for them to write and show off their writing, so their contributions are welcome for as long as MovieMinis still exits, but we won’t necessarily be rallying together as a “staff.” In fact, there won’t be a “staff” anymore — only a set of contributors.

And like I mentioned before, the business plan runs out in August. Unless this site gets enough readers in that time to make enough money not only to renew it, but to warrant further time and effort put into it, I won’t renew it. I don’t know what happens to a site when the plan is not renewed. But, after that, I will be going back to a basic free blog for personal reviews and projects. I might even switch over to another platform, such as Medium.

While readership has been almost non-existent, there are certainly those of you who tuned in for a lot of our content. So, I want to say thank you. Writing is an art form, a form of personal and creative expression. It takes a lot of energy to “write something.” But when someone reads it, when even one person reads it, it means something. If you’re reading this and have tuned into our content before — and even to the people not reading this who have tuned into our content — thank you. You have helped make these eight months mean something.

 

Featured image via Warner Bros.

March Madness of Movies: Best Big Budget Directing of the 21st Century — Round 3

These matchups were vote on by the MovieMinis Staff.

This final four is a bit different than the rest of the brackets. While “Best Superhero Villains” did have subcategories, the entries from each were mixed from the beginning. With “Best Big Budget Directing,” the subcategories were laid out as the four sections of the brackets, so these final four are the winners of their specific subcategories.

In the superhero directing subcategory, Ryan Coogler came out on top for his direction of Black Panther, upsetting Christopher Nolan’s work on The Dark Knight, which many thought deserved a Best Director nomination ten years ago. While there was some heated disagreement among the staff, and while the vote was very tight, it’s difficult to say that Coogler isn’t deserving. He bested both of the Russo brothers outings in the MCU before taking on and taking down Nolan. Ryan Coogler is our official winner of the best superhero directing subcategory.

In the franchise directing subcategory, #1 seed Peter Jackson for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King easily beat #2 seed Matt Reeves for War for the Planet of the Apes. As the only person in this bracket to have won the Best Director Oscar — four other contenders (in another subcategory) were nominated — this was expected. Peter Jackson is our official winner of the best franchise directing subcategory.

In the original/prestige/non-franchise studio directing subcategory, George Miller beat Christopher Nolan (Inception) for a second time, after beating Nolan’s Dunkirk direction last round, to earn a spot in the final four. That leaves Nolan, the director with the most entries in this bracket, entirely out of the top four. But it is quite hard to argue against Miller’s efforts for Mad Max: Fury Road, one of the best action films of all time. And after #1 seed David Fincher was knocked out in the first round, Miller was the highest seed left. George Miller is our official winner of the best original/prestige/non-franchise studio directing subcategory. (We know that Mad Max is a franchise, but Fury Road is a slightly separated story, the only film of the series released in the 21st century and more tonally consistent with the entries of the subcategory.)

In the animated directing subcategory, Up stepped forward as the clear favorite. After Pixar dominated the entries with six, it was clear that it was going to come down to a Pixar film. The only question was which one. And after Up beat WALL-E and Toy Story 3 didn’t make it to the Elite Eight, it all seemed wrapped up. Pete Docter and Bob Peterson are our official winners of the best animated directing subcategory.

Now for the fun part, the mixing of the subcategories. Ryan Coogler will have some terribly tough competition in Peter Jackson. And how fun of a matchup is Mad Max: Fury Road vs. Up? We bet you never put those two in the same sentence.

Stay tuned for the round 4 results, which will be posted next week on Friday, April 6!

 

Featured image via Marvel/New Line Cinema/Pixar/Warner Bros.

March Madness of Movies: Introducing the Brackets

Now that it’s March and the NCAA will be hosting its annual March Madness tournament soon, we at MovieMinis thought to have our own tournaments, but, of course, with movies.

In the bracket style of March Madness, we will run through four different topics in what we’re calling the March Madness of Movies.

But rather than stick to general topics, such as Best Superhero Movie or Best Animated Movie, we wanted to get specific, to vote on aspects of film that could potentially make for a much more fascinating tournament.

The four topics we ended up on are:

  • Best A24 Films
  • Best Superhero Villain of the 21st Century
  • Best Big Budget Directing of the 21st Century (cutoff at a $75 million production budget)
  • Best Cinematography Since 2010

In this write-up, we’re introducing the brackets, and in subsequent weeks, we will release the results of each round.

For each bracket, we laid out tons of potential contenders, and after a week of painful voting, we seeded each bracket. We must note that, in working through the seeding process, we were reminded of a terrible reality in the film industry.

In the potential contenders for Best Big Budget Directing of the 21st Century, with a cutoff at a $75 million production budget, there were only nine films directed by women, many of them with male co-directors. Only one ended up making our bracket, certainly not as a representation of talent, but as a magnification and emphasis of the problem. For perspective, there were literally hundreds directed by men, and the men were mostly white. This is a rampant problem in Hollywood. Women and people of color — and above all, women of color — are not only not given many chances, but when they are, failure, in any way, results in horribly unfair consequences; in essence, they’re less likely to get another chance than a white man is. This problem applies to cinematography too. In the potential contenders for that bracket, there was a proportionally similar compilation. While female cinematographers received votes, none made our bracket — again, not as a representation of talent, but as a magnification and emphasis of the problem. Hollywood must change, and part of that change comes from not ignoring the problem anymore. We need more big budget films directed by women and people of color, and we need more films, in general, lensed by women and people of color. We need women and people of color involved in every level of pre-production, production and post-production. For more statistics on female directors of big budget films, read Terry Huang’s piece on The Black List blog.

With that in mind, let’s move into how the brackets shaped up:

Best A24 Films

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Moonlight and Lady Bird earned #1 seeds. Joining them were The Florida Project and A Ghost Story. Those four films will face off against #8 seeds Green RoomMorris From AmericaDe Palma and Menashe.

The next set of top films, the #2 seeds, were Swiss Army Man20th Century WomenThe Lobster and Ex Machina, which will face off against #7 seeds The LoversWhile We’re YoungKrisha and Spring Breakers.

The #3 seeds were a mix of widely awarded films and incredibly acclaimed genre/indie pictures: LockeRoomThe Witch and Good Time. The #6 seeds that they’ll compete against leaned more toward the indie darling: The Spectacular NowThe Bling RingUnder the Skin and Enemy.

Finally, in the middle of the pack were #4 seeds American Honey, Obvious ChildA Most Violent Year and It Comes At Night, as well as #5 seeds AmyThe End of the TourThe Disaster Artist and The Killing of a Sacred Deer.

Best Superhero Villain of the 21st Century

This bracket is made up of four subcategories — MCU villains, DC villains, X-Men villains and villains from other properties — and we pulled eight contenders from each subcategory to compete. Instead of leaving them in their own sections, however, we then mixed them up and seeded from there. And we kept it to just eight per subcategory because it seemed more interesting than a likely lopsided MCU bunch had we not had that limit.

And this bracket is not just about performances. It’s about the villain, the character. That involves the writing and the directing of that character too.

With that said, the first three #1 seeds were rather simple to come to: Heath Ledger’s The Joker from The Dark Knight, Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger from Black Panther and Ian McKellen’s Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto from X-MenX2 and X-Men: The Last Stand

Perhaps surprisingly to some who dislike the character, our staff showed strong support for Tom Hardy’s Bane from The Dark Knight Rises, who took that final #1 seed.

Those four will take on #8 seeds Kevin Bacon’s Sebastian Shaw from X-Men: First Class, Ed Skrein’s Francis/Ajax from Deadpool, Mark Strong’s Frank D’Amico from Kickass and Kurt Russell’s Ego from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.

The #2 seeds went to Tom Hiddleston’s Loki from various MCU films, Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock from Spider-Man 2, the other Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (played by Michael Fassbender) from the most recent X-Men trilogy and the second The Dark Knight inclusion, Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent/Two Face.

The #7 seeds who will battle these four are Zach Galifianakis’ The Joker from The LEGO Batman Movie, Hugh Jackman’s X-24 from Logan, James Franco’s Harry Osborn/New Goblin from Spider-Man 3 and Michael Shannon’s General Zod from Man of Steel.

Two of the #3 seeds went to the last two Captain America films; Daniel Brühl’s Helmut Zemo from Civil War and Sebastian Stan’s The Winter Soldier (not Bucky Barnes) from The Winter Soldier. Liam Neeson’s Ra’s al Ghul from Batman Begins and Jason Lee’s Buddy Pine/Syndrome from The Incredibles earned the other two #3 seeds. 

Competing against them are #6 seeds James Cromwell’s Professor Robert Callaghan from Big Hero 6, Dane DeHaan’s Andrew Detmer from Chronicle, Peter Dinklage’s Bolivar Trask from X-Men: Days of Future Past and the Sentinels that Trask unleashed onto the X-Men, also from X-Men: Days of Future Past.

In the middle of the pack, earning #4 seeds, were Cillian Murphy’s Dr. Jonathan Crane/Scarecrow from the entire The Dark Knight trilogy, Willem Dafoe’s Norman Osborn/Green Goblin from Spider-Man, Samuel L. Jackson’s Mr. Glass from Unbreakable and Andy Serkis’ Ulysses Klaue from Avengers: Age of Ultron and Black Panther. They’ll match up against #5 seeds Hugo Weaving’s Johann Schmidt/Red Skull from Captain America: The First Avenger, Brian Cox’s Col. William Stryker from X2, Michael Keaton’s Adrian Toomes/Vulture from Spider-Man: Homecoming and Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor from Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Best Big Budget Directing of the 21st Century

This bracket was split up into four different subcategories. Those were “Superhero Directing” (in the upper left), “Franchise Directing” (in the lower left), “Prestige/Original/Non-Studio Franchise Directing” (in the upper right) and “Animated Directing” (in the lower right). We took some liberties with this. Mad Max: Fury Road is a part of a franchise, but we concluded that it felt more in line with its current group than it would’ve among the franchise contenders.

In Superhero Directing:

Christopher Nolan easily earned a #1 seed; many even believe that he should’ve gotten an Oscar nomination for his efforts on The Dark Knight. He’ll face off against #8 seed Tim Miller for the subversive Deadpool.

Coming in behind Nolan in the #2 seed was Ryan Coogler for Black Panther, a cultural phenomenon that many believe could become the first superhero film nominated for Best Picture.

The #3 seed went to Joe Russo and Anthony Russo for Captain America: Civil War; the Russo brothers also placed in the #7 seed for Captain America: Civil War. James Gunn will take on the Civil War Russos with #6 seed Guardians of the Galaxy.

The middle match-up comes from 2017 films: the #4 seed James Mangold for Logan and the #5 seed Patty Jenkins for Wonder Woman.

In Franchise Directing:

Peter Jackson quite easily snagged the #1 seed for his directing job on The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. He’s the only Best Director winner out of five nominated efforts in this bracket. Facing of against him is #8 seed Martin Campbell for the first Daniel Craig James Bond film Casino Royale.

Sam Mendes, director of another Craig Bond film, Skyfall, made the bracket as the #6 seed. He’ll compete with #3 seed Matt Reeves for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

Like Bond, Matt Reeves made his subcategory twice, earning the #2 seed for War for the Planet of the Apes. He’ll take on our perhaps surprising Star Wars inclusion, #7 seed Gareth Edwards for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

Finally, with some of the most acclaimed films of the subcategory, #4 seed Alfonso Cuarón for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban will battle #5 seed Denis Villeneuve for Blade Runner 2049.

In Prestige/Original/Non-Franchise Studio Directing

David Fincher’s Zodiac has become regarded as on the best films, in general, of the 21st century, so he glided into a #1 seed pretty smoothly. But his contender is a tough one: #8 seed Alfonso Cuarón for landmark sci-fi film Children of Men.

George Miller earned the #2 seed for his masterful work on Mad Max: Fury Road, and will face of against legendary director and #7 seed Martin Scorsese for The Wolf of Wall Street.

Scorsese made this subcategory twice, taking the #3 seed for his directing job on The Aviator. His opponent is #6 seed Christopher Nolan for Dunkirk, who also made this subcategory twice, placing as the #4 seed for Inception. He’ll take on #5 seed Peter Jackson for King Kong.

In Animated Directing:

Quite predictably, Pixar dominated this bracket, with #1 seeds Pete Docter and Bob Peterson for Up, #2 seed Brad Bird for The Incredibles, #3 seed Lee Unkrich for Toy Story 3, #4 seed Andrew Stanton for WALL-E, #6 seeds Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen for Inside Out and #8 seeds Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina for Coco.

But other animation directors made it through with their beloved films. Rounding out the eight were #5 seeds Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders for How to Train Your Dragon, and #7 seeds Ron Clements, John Musker, Don Hall and Chris Williams for Disney’s Moana.

Best Cinematography Since 2010

Even with setting the parameter of cinematography since 2010, there were still an overwhelming number of potential contenders and our votes were widely varied, resulting in a bracket that truly represents a mix of our opinions.

The #1 seeds did stand out, however: Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s lensing of The Master, Andrew Droz Palermo’s work on A Ghost Story, Roger Deakins Oscar-winning efforts on Blade Runner 2049 and Hoyte van Hoytema’s unforgettable photography on Her.

In fact, both Deakins and van Hoytema made this bracket three times. Deakins also earned a #3 seed for Skyfall and a #6 seed for Sicario. van Hoytema’s other two were Christopher Nolan films, a #2 seed for Dunkirk and a #6 seed for Interstellar.

Bradford Young also made this bracket three times, taking a #2 seed for Arrival, a #7 seed for A Most Violent Year and a #8 seed for Mother of George.

But, of course, 3-time Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki placed more than everyone with four spots: a #2 seed for The Tree of Life, a #3 seed for Gravity, a #5 seed for The Revenant and a #7 seed for Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).

The rest of the bracket is filled with stunning photography. Oscar winner Linus Sandgren earned a #2 seed for his work on La La Land. Other cinematographers of 2016 took spots as well, with James Laxton earning a #4 seed for Moonlight and Rodrigo Prieto earning a #4 seed for Silence.

Work from 2015 films rounded out the #3 seeds: Dick Pope for Mr. Turner and John Seale for Mad Max: Fury Road. The other #4 seeds were Luca Bigazzi for The Great Beauty and Bruno Delbonnel for Inside Llewyn Davis.

While Hoyte van Hoytema may have two Nolan films on this bracket, Nolan’s former cinematographer, Wally Pfister, earned a #5 for his Oscar-winning work on Inception. Rather recent photography also seeded #5: Rob Hardy for Annihilation and Sayombhu Mukdeeprom for Call Me by Your Name.

In fact, a couple of Roberts placed here. Robert D. Yeoman placed in the #6 seed for The Grand Budapest Hotel and the #7 seed for Moonrise Kingdom. Robert Richardson also seeded #6 for Django Unchained, while Robert Elswit was another Paul Thomas Anderson cinematographer to place, earning a #8 seed for Inherent Vice..

Finally, the last few contenders are #7 seed Masanobu Takayanagi for Hostiles, #8 seed Darius Khondji for The Lost City of Z and #8 seed Seamus McGarvey for Godzilla.

 

Follow along throughout March as we vote on these brackets and determine the best of each topic!

 

Featured image via Marvel Studios/Warner Bros./A24.

Kyle Kizu’s Favorite Scene of 2017: The Oil — ‘Dunkirk’

It’s hard to know where and how to start writing about the climax of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. There is so much going on, not only in what’s happening on screen, but also in how everything builds to that point — and that doesn’t even take into account that much of the scene jumps around in time. That it all works, that it all coalesces into an absolutely mesmerizing sight of overwhelming intensity is beyond astonishing.

I define the climax as everything that happens once Hans Zimmer’s “The Oil” starts playing and until it stops. So, that starts right after the little ships arrive, when those on the Moonstone first see the destroyer bombed, and ends when Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) is finally pulled up onto the Moonstone as it flees the water on fire.

The climax folds the three storylines on top of each other, amplifying the tension that they’ve individually held throughout the first two-thirds of the movie and producing pure exhilaration immediately. The whole film is essentially crafted as a climax, so this moment is the climax of the climax. It’s almost unfair.

The most effective work the sequence does is a bit subtle, but it’s present from its very first shot: there’s a constant negotiation between the intimate, personal perspective and the massive event, full of masses of people.

As the Moonstone approaches the bombed destroyer, we, through the camera, stand on the boat with them, seeing the huge army ship go down far off in the distance. It’s a raw, human, gripping perspective, the framing of the destroyer through the front window of the Moonstone as terrifying and transfixing for us as it is for Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), whose distraught face we cut to.

The sequence then cuts to shots of the masses of soldiers loading onto the little ships from the beaches. The shots are strangely tranquil, nearly still and holding longer than most shots do, allowing the pure process of the evacuation, and how truly massive it is, to sink in without romanticizing it.

The rest of the sequence is much of the same. If we get, for example, a perspective shot from behind Tommy as he swims through the water to try to find safety on the destroyer, only to realize that it’s sinking — a 12 second shot, which is far longer than most action shots — we get a shot of the tens of soldiers trying to find their way off, sliding down the side of the ship or jumping off before getting trapped underwater.

There are multiple intimate perspectives throughout the sequence: that of Tommy, the Moonstone and Farrier. And there are multiple large scale portions: the soldiers loading from the beach, the soldiers on the sinking destroyer, the soldiers in the water and the soldiers loading onto the boats near the destroyer.

We, the viewer, are disoriented on multiple occasions, seeing the destroyer sink at the beginning of the scene from the Moonstone’s perspective before jumping back in time to see it again from Tommy’s — not to mention that we saw it sink from Farrier’s perspective earlier in the film.

It’s all jarring and chaotic — frantic, desperate bodies filling the screen as they fight to survive. And Hans Zimmer’s “The Oil” only makes it more so, leveraging the Shepard Tone, the illusion of rising tension, while also actually adding layers and volume as the music builds to its own climax. The piece feels invasive, as though it’s taking control of our own bodies, throwing them into the water and forcing them to fight too.

It’s so chaotic because it’s meant to be. It’s so chaotic because the filmmaking is not. Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography is all-encompassing, immersive, breathtaking and, as said before, perspective-based, placing us into the water, onto the boats and within the cockpit. The sound design is absolutely haunting, a brutalist atmosphere of bodies splashing in water, creaking ships, gunfire, explosions and, most impactfully, screaming voices. The editing is almost balletic, cutting with intensity, but also with fluidity at each turn, rendering the entire sequence into a beauty of movement both in-frame and between frames. And the structural give-and-take is stunning — particularly at the sequence’s climax, when Farrier stops the German bomber only for it to crash into the water and cause the fire, and at the sequence’s release, when a soldier’s life is violently taken in the midst of crackling fire just as Tommy’s life is saved as he’s revealed as the soldier being dragged alongside the escaping Moonstone.

Even with all that’s been said, it’s hard to feel as though I’ve done the sequence justice. There are so many intangible, particularly visual layers to it that can only be absorbed by watching it. I hope that I’ve been able to unpack some aspects of it. But what I’ve written this all for, anyway, is for you to revisit it, for you to give it another watch.

 

Featured image via Warner Bros.

Kyle Kizu’s Top 25 Films of 2017

While 2016 limped through the Spring and Summer seasons before finishing strong, 2017 proved to be a brilliant year for film since the first few months.

Spring films such as Get Out and Logan evoked profound conversation about genre pictures, their potential and their impact. Summer studio films reinvigorated the term “blockbuster” with some actual weight. And the Fall/Winter awards contenders might be, as a whole, even more plentiful than last year.

Essentially, I had a blast at the movies in 2017. The cinematic experience is special and there were so many different times when I felt a sense of immersion, engagement and/or excitement that I hadn’t ever felt before. Thus, I couldn’t simply list a top 10 when I had upwards of 50 films I thoroughly enjoyed. So, I tasked myself to come down to 25.

To be very clear, this is a list of my personal favorites of the year. I am not suggesting that these are the best films of the year. Those are two rather different conversations. These 25 films are ranked based on how I personally responded to them, and I do recognize that some not in my top 10 favorites are among the top 10 best of the year.

Without further ado, here are my top 25 films of 2017, with some honorable mentions since narrowing down was too difficult:

Honorable mention: Columbus

Superlative Films/Courtesy

Video essayist Kogonada’s feature directorial debut, Columbus, which he also wrote and edited, is visually fascinating, beautiful and tranquil. While the story is about architecture, the film, itself, almost becomes a piece of architecture in its exquisite shot construction that reflects character interiority unlike any other film.

Honorable mention: Their Finest

Nicola Dove/STX Entertainment/Courtesy

Their Finest is one of the more refreshing stories of the year. Gemma Arterton leads the film with verve, complimented by Bill Nighy’s hilarious wit and Sam Claflin’s dashing charm. By the film’s end, after traversing the frightening setting of WWII Britain and the inspiring efforts of the British film division in inspiring its country, we come away with a lovely ode to the immense importance of the female perspective in storytelling.

Honorable mention: The Big Sick

Amazon/Courtesy

The Big Sick is almost more about family, perspective and culture, until the central romance gets its time to shine again and tugs at our hearts. That’s what makes the film so special, that it has so many different sides to it. There’s the budding relationship between Kumail and Emily, but also the conflict between Kumail and Emily’s parents, the conflict between Emily’s parents, the calls of friends in search of a career and the struggle of cultures clashing. The screenplay integrates ever aspect into a wonderful whole, and the actors all turn in such deeply felt performances.

Honorable mention: Abacus: Small Enough to Jail

PBS/Courtesy

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail follows the small bank Abacus, founded by a Chinese family in a U.S. Chinese community, as it is sued by the U.S. government in relation to the wide scale fraud that caused the 2008 financial crash. In fact, Abacus is the only U.S. bank to face charges. The immediate sense of injustice that that simple description evokes drives the entire emotional undercurrent of the documentary. But the doc goes even further, diving deeply into the cultural significance that Abacus played and still plays in its community as well as the cultural work ethic of the Chinese family behind it. The continuous conversation between the intimate small scale and the epic large scale makes this easy to both invest in and be fascinated by.

Honorable mention: Get Out

Universal Pictures/Courtesy

Allow me to explain. I do fully understand that Get Out is among the ten best films of the year and, while I disagree, I believe in the validity of arguments that call it the best. The leveraging of genre allows writer-director Jordan Peele to tell not only one of the most biting and invasive horror stories, but simply one of the most astonishingly polished narratives of any kind. But that brings me to why it can’t quite break my top 25. It’s tightly constructed. In my personal viewing experience, it was almost too tight to allow the film to take me over in ways that the 25 below did, even though I was mesmerized by the filmmaking on display.

 

25. Okja

Netflix/Courtesy

Okja is such a sublime film, one glowing with a sense of care for its originality and not just originality for its own sake. The titular super pig is an adorable blend of a pig, dog and hippo, rendered stunningly by the visual effects team, and the relationship Okja has with Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) is one of the most authentic animal-human relationships in film of recent memory. Throw in inspiration from French and screwball comedy cinema, such tightly controlled storytelling from Bong Joon-ho and wacky delightful performances across the board, and Okja is nothing short of a joy to watch.

24. The Post

20th Century Fox/Courtesy

For obvious reasons, The Post is gripping and engaging. It reflects the unsettling world we’re encountering today. But the film is also rather uplifting. Director Steven Spielberg injects a purely journalistic energy into the camera and the pacing, and frames an emotionally moving feminist story around Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, whom Meryl Streep plays with the utmost nuance.

23. Spider-Man: Homecoming

Marvel/Sony/Courtesy

When Marvel acquired rights to include Spider-Man in the MCU, one couldn’t help but fear that the web-slinger would fall into the studio’s generic formula. But, surprisingly, Spider-Man: Homecoming turned into one of the universe’s most enjoyable films precisely because of how it treated Peter Parker as a singular character with his own journey. And that journey is one filled with thoroughly realized conflict of youth/adolescence. In reality, Homecoming is a coming-of-age film, and one of the better ones. Parker is imagined brilliantly and his character’s arc is intertwined with the plot in ways that do the character so much justice.

22. Logan

20th Century Fox/Courtesy

A film about coming to terms with death and finding our true hearts, Logan is as much a modern Western as it is an X-Men flick. Like everything else in the picture, Hugh Jackman turns in a raw, weathered performance that truly situates Logan as depressed and suicidal. But it’s the very character work of the screenplay, the first superhero film Oscar nominated in writing, and the extremely tight direction of James Mangold that makes that journey an endlessly satisfying and emotional one.

21. Our Souls at Night

Netflix/Courtesy

Our Souls at Night could be described as a “dawning-of-age” film. It’s quiet and soulful, told from a perspective that holds the past close to heart without ever necessarily being explicit about it. And every part of the film takes on that idea, from the pacing to the dialogue to the actors. Leads Jane Fonda and Robert Redford turn in performances that are both wholly lived in and, thus, sneakily profound. The film does not necessarily state its existence like most of the art form does, and that’s exactly why it’s so good.

20. The Shape of Water

Fox Searchlight Pictures/Courtesy

It’s hard not to get wrapped up in Guillermo del Toro’s fantastical, magical vision. The world-building production design, almost balletic cinematography and the empathetic, truthful performances of Sally Hawkins and Richard Jenkins grab us by our hearts and just don’t let go. And it’s exactly that empathy that makes this film so special. The story is a touching reflection on the Other, on those that feel out of place and as though they don’t belong. Even though Sally Hawkins’ Elisa doesn’t speak, the emotional strains in her face as she expresses herself shows us that she is, in a way, the most human of us all.

19. Lucky

Magnolia Pictures/Courtesy

Oh Harry Dean Stanton, you legend. In Lucky, the late actor delivers a performance that is equally as hilarious as it is profound. He owns the screen, especially when on it alone, and imagines both the physicality and mentality of the titular Lucky so deeply. And while the film is, essentially, a vehicle for his performance, that focus allows its story to evoke some weighty ideas about life and when it’s coming to an end. Through some totally bizarre yet awesome moments, the film reminds us that both making connections and living freely is what will make the most of our lives.

18. The Breadwinner

Gkids/Courtesy

The Breadwinner may be one of the most carefully executed stories of the year. The film deals with such heavy subject matter, painting the image of women in a culture that so often suppresses them. But it also contextualizes the brilliant strength that these women build out of it, and the beautiful family bonds that so many form. There are moments, visually arresting ones, that do justice to the harsh truths at the film’s core, but the filmmakers also opt to make use of elements of innocence and wonder, specifically in its children, to complement. The result is a majestic, culturally-infused fable of bravery and love, delivered with such power by the voice performances, the score, the animation work and director Nora Twomey guiding it all so wonderfully.

17. Molly’s Game

Michael Gibson/STX Entertainment/Courtesy

Most of the time, an Aaron Sorkin film demands and earns a level of entertained engagement that few other films do. His writing is so utterly electric, and Molly’s Game is more of such, but also a platform on which he shows that his directing work can also accomplish the same. Structurally brilliant, ebbing and flowing with immense energy and building to unexpected levels of emotion, Molly’s Game is also a reminder that Jessica Chastain is one of the best in the business, period. She chews on Sorkin’s words so smoothly and effectively, producing a spark in her character that few other films of the year have.

16. The Florida Project

A24/Courtesy

What might perfectly describe Sean Baker’s The Florida Project is empathy. The film is, quite obviously, so much more than just that, but it does seem like every feature also adds to the film’s wholesome, beautiful sense of empathy. Every part of the filmmaking works to situate the viewer with Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), whether that be the oft low angle, vibrant cinematography, the free flowing narrative structure or the endlessly playful character moments. And as the situation surrounding Moonee gets tougher and tougher, we stick with her, not necessarily confronting everything, but growing an attachment to her and a need to see her come out of it all okay.

While every bit of that is such brilliant, perspective-based filmmaking, the full execution of it all rested on Prince’s shoulders, and the seven-year-old actress is a jaw-dropping force of nature. The spirit in her character emanates off of the screen at every minute, and she pulls off a scene at the end that is just unexplainably masterful.

15. Phantom Thread

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Phantom Thread is like a lovely dream. It’s so odd, yet it feels undeniably real in the moment. It floats and fades before pronouncing itself again. And as we leave it behind, as we leave the theater, it’s tough not to long for it.

That’s the power that Paul Thomas Anderson has as a storyteller. With his most recent, he draws us into this delirious and delightful world, making us swoon and then shocking us, making us scratch our heads and then drawing us in so intensely. There’s a clear sense that, although the film might not seem easy to process at points, because it all ties in so efficiently at the end, Anderson had such purposed drive in every choice, in every line of dialogue.

And with that, as with every other PTA film, comes magnetic performances. Day-Lewis is wickedly delicious, but so is Lesley Manville, and Vicky Krieps takes control of every frame with eyes as fierce as any.

14. Kedi

Oscilloscope/Courtesy

A documentary about cats was, quite clearly, too simple of an expectation. It should’ve been more evident that the film would be something so much more layered.

Kedi is, for the lack of a better word, beautiful. For cat lovers, it’s irresistible. The simple image of them throughout the film yanks out more smiles than most movie experiences ever will. But the cats are placed into context. They’re not simply cute animals; they’re a part of the Turkish culture and, thus, a part of the Turkish people’s lives.

For some, these cats are close friends. For others, these cats are family. And for a few, these cats are the difference between life and death. What’s most surprising about Kedi is its mental health aspect, lovingly depicting stories of people whose faith was confirmed or whose depression was helped by them.

And its through this image that the film becomes a profound statement on life. One line toward the end of the film says it better than any analysis can: “A cat meowing at your feet, looking up at you is life smiling at you. Those are moments when we’re lucky. They remind us that we’re alive.”

13. The Lost City of Z

Amazon Studios/Courtesy

The Lost City of Z, at least today, is a type of film that we rarely get. It’s an exploration epic that truly earns the epic through exactly how it explores.

Writer-director James Gray takes his time. The film is slowly paced, at first searching. But with fully immersive and mesmerizing sound design, production design and cinematography, we become invested in the world. Thus, when a journey is taken up by Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), we’re committed alongside him.

It’s brilliant character alignment that a polished, efficient storyteller like Gray thrives on. But what he does with the journey itself is truly special, placing us in the obsessive head of Fawcett so that we also end up overcome by the wondrous possibilities of the jungle. By foregrounding the personal to evoke the mythical, The Lost City of Z can accomplish both an emotional story and a fascinating one. It’s an experience that we likely won’t get from anyone else.

12Icarus 

Netflix/Courtesy

With Icarus, director Bryan Fogel accidentally struck gold, and what starts as a documentary about the potential for cycling drug tests to be undermined turns into a geopolitical thriller about how Russia has had a vast history of doping in sports and how wildly powerful people, like Putin himself, worked to cover it up.

The fascination levels are off the charts, perhaps exceeding that of any film of the year. And while the situation may have been accidental, Fogel tracks, orchestrates and constructs it all so that the fascination we viewers have is no accident. We are guided to fall into the circumstance with jarring force, but also with such perfectly precise pacing, which carries on throughout the rest of the film as the layers expand and expand.

And, in the filmmaking’s regard, Icarus also functions as a gripping character piece. Grigory Rodchenkov is, at first, simply the quirky doctor who guides Fogel through his doping regimen. But Rodchenkov is at the center of the scandal as it all kicks off. As we follow along, his story becomes filled with a profound history, toned by the current personal pain and fear for his life that the weight of an entire government rejecting his claims and putting him down causes. Yet, Fogel also makes sure to capture the fact that, through it all, Rodchenkov retains his delightful sense of humor.

Icarus truly is a wonder of storytelling that could only come through the documentary medium.

11. Jane

Abramorama/Courtesy

Jane is a sneaky documentary. It starts with plenty of intrigue — over 100 hours of footage of Jane Goodall’s first journeys has resurfaced. And the first half of the film is appropriately fascinating, operating almost as a silent film with the lack of words from Goodall in the footage, but elevated greatly by both the sound from the footage and the sound design added to it.

Yet, the whole time, due to director Brett Morgen’s calculated construction of footage, narration from an interview with Goodall and other aspects such as that sound design or Philip Glass’ outstanding score, the film genuinely captures the life lived by Goodall.

And once the final half hour starts, we become consumed by the fact that we’ve just seen an expansive, singular, epic life on screen. The film evokes journey, but it also evokes nostalgic reflection, without regrets and filled with appreciation. It’s rare to feel the intangible weight of a person’s life. Cinema, the place where that can be accomplished, doesn’t always pull it off. But Jane does.

10. Lady Bird

A24/Courtesy

The phrase “lived in” may apply here and there, but Lady Bird is, arguably, the epitome of what it truly means. There’s so much specificity not only in every scene, but in every frame. And while such intense specificity may seem as though it would be alienating, it actually casts a net of details so wide that the film becomes more universal than it would be were it not so specific.

With these details that writer-director Greta Gerwig puts into her film comes the truths behind them, and with so many truths, every single viewer has the potential to find their own truth reflected back at them. We may not have had a mother like Laurie Metcalf’s character, but we had a best friend like Beanie Feldstein’s character. We may not have struggled with depression like Tracy Letts’ character does, but we struggled with depression like Stephen McKinley Henderson’s character does. We may not have fallen for a guy like Timothée Chalamet’s character, but we feared the future like Saoirse Ronan’s Lady Bird does. And even if we didn’t experience certain aspects, Gerwig renders everything with such empathy that it’s hard to, ourselves, not feel deeply for every single character.

9. Loving Vincent

BreakThru Films/Trademark Films/Courtesy

It’s a bit unfair, as the film is the first to ever be made entirely of paintings, but Loving Vincent is, by far, the most visually stunning film of the year. The material quality that the paint lends to the image creates, in the transition between frames, such transfixing, majestic, enchanting visual movement that is singularly cinematic.

For a good portion of the film, the visual element is most of what there is to latch onto. And that’s because the true storytelling work that Loving Vincent is doing is not fully realized until the final act, in which the film establishes itself as a story about mental health.

The story follows Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth) as he comes across people who knew Vincent van Gogh before he killed himself. Each has a different story to tell. van Gogh was either a cold, distant and rude man or a soft, gentle-hearted and shy one. He was either a humble painter or visionary genius.

Yet, no one really knew van Gogh, or why exactly he took his own life — except for the other artist he lived with before he died. van Gogh was struggling with depression. No one else understood, and so, everyone else made judgments. It’s a film about impressionism, until it suggests that impressions are flawed.

And the film clearly differentiates the perspectives of these perceivers and the perspective of truth, pushing the idea that van Gogh lived his life for no one other than those he loved and for nothing other than his mode of expression — his paintings. In that sense, Loving Vincent is one of the more distinctly human films of the year.

8. Mudbound

Netflix/Courtesy

Mudbound is rich in every sense of the word. It is both literary and cinematic, combining beautiful visuals with profound symbolism to heighten its emotional impact. Director and co-writer Dee Rees tackles race relations in the South during and after WWII with such wholesome yet restrained storytelling. But she also investigates the many different sides of these characters and their stories at the same time, such as a mother fearing for her son at war, soldiers struggling with PTSD, a woman at the will of a husband in the mid-20th century and more.

Mudbound‘s cinematography is breathtaking, as is its sound, production and costume design, and its score. These elements add to the rich narrative intangibly, but also directly locate the film in the South and as a Southern family epic. And each performance is firm, controlled and empathetic — specifically those from Garrett Hedlund, Jason Mitchell and Mary J. Blige — coalescing into the true ensemble of the year.

Mudbound is all-encompassing and tragic for that very reason. Rees subtly makes the forces of society at the time so sneakily overbearing, before showing them as fully and truly horrifying as they were.

Yet, the film leaves us on an uplifting note, crafting one of the most powerful endings of the year.

7. Star Wars: The Last Jedi

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Where Star Wars: The Last Jedi diverts is exactly where it becomes so enthralling. As much as it worked for the original trilogy, that idea of a hero, fated to save the galaxy, was never going to work again for these new films. And so, writer-director Rian Johnson envisioned a new type of hero while deconstructing that old one.

Luke was always going to be at the center of such deconstruction. But the approach, rather than undermine the character, actually expands upon him. In The Last Jedi, Luke confronts the flaws of what he once considered his fate. He confronts old age and the traumatic scars that a perfect past ruined by the more immediate past leave, and Mark Hamill embraces these vulnerabilities entirely.

On the other end, Rey confronts the fact that her need for destiny could never be fulfilled, that she was convincing herself of the presence of one to hide from the fear that comes with confronting the world alone, and Daisy Ridley realizes this conflict thoroughly.

Rian Johnson empathizes with that fear, and the story that he crafts, in leading from fear to bravery, powerfully announces the purpose of this new trilogy. Where The Force Awakens is familiar, The Last Jedi is jarringly, but effectively different. And as Johnson also envisions visual elements that we’ve never seen before in one of these movies, as well as visual perfection of what we have seen, The Last Jedi marks itself as a the new era of Star Wars.

6. Hostiles

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Hostiles starts with Joseph Blocker, an army captain filled with hatred for the Native Americans who’ve killed his friends. And writer-director Scott Cooper unforgivingly foregrounds the brutality that pushes Blocker to feel that way.

But slowly, Cooper guides us along the methodical, quiet, bruised journey Blocker takes in escorting a terminally ill Native American chief, who’d killed his friends in their past encounters, back home to die on his lands — a journey that asks Blocker to give up hatred.

Not many films take hatred head on like this one does, especially because one misstep in characterization or arc could result in something troubling. But Cooper handles his narrative with perfect construction. As he foregrounds the brutality that drives the white man’s hatred, he continually reminds us of the background of a Native American genocide that has been taking place. While Blocker experiences such explicit violence in the moment, these Native Americans have been subject to less visible, more long term violence.

In that way, Cooper does not set out to redeem Blocker, but to display the process of an understanding that both Blocker and the Native American chief come to. And Cooper succeeds in doing so through not only his perfectly paced out, heartbeat-like moments of development, but through the slow shift in emotional energy from aggression to spiritual contemplation.

With Christian Bale bringing Blocker to life so viscerally and intensely through his captivating use of his eyes, delivering his best performance yet, Hostiles is an unforgettable and haunting Western that becomes even more so in retrospect.

5. War for the Planet of the Apes

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After Rise and DawnWar for the Planet of the Apes had the opportunity to turn Caesar into a truly biblical figure in future ape history. And the film accomplishes that enormous task.

Director and co-writer Matt Reeves pulls this off through an intimate focus on character within war rather than war around character, and not only narratively, but visually too. Close-ups in this movie are just as beautiful in the visual work they do as they are in the character work they do.

Reeves’ approach to Caesar is not to idealize him, but to morally challenge him. The oppression of the apes becomes so intense that it literally manifests in Holocaust-esque imagery. Thus, its difficult not to understand the hatred that builds in Caesar, who, again, is rendered absolutely masterfully by Andy Serkis.  And since it’s difficult not to sympathize, it becomes all the more profound when Caesar steps painfully in the right direction, capped in utter perfection with one of the most powerful character climaxes of the year. Yet, Reeves also understands that good villains are reasonable, and makes the fall of this film’s antagonist more so tragic than triumphant.

War for the Planet of the Apes stands out among the blockbuster field for these very reasons. It understands, more than even most that also do, that such a massive canvas can be so effective if based in character.

4. Blade Runner 2049

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Blade Runner 2049 had no business working as well as it does. But all it took was a simple shift in perspective, from human to android. And with that shift, director Denis Villeneuve composes a tale that exceeds the profundity of even the original.

The film is a visual masterpiece, full of absolutely arresting cinematography from Roger Deakins and jaw-dropping production design, both of which leverage light in stunning fashion. And these technical elements add to the story, which builds and focuses on a world void of natural life, of natural light and of natural color. Essentially, everything is digitally constructed. So how can humanity still exist and move forward?

Through challenging the notions of humanity that humans have adopted for their entire existence. Through ruminating on exactly what it means to have a soul. Villeneuve deftly paces out this journey that Ryan Gosling’s K takes, allowing for long stretches of quiet, hypnotic development. And through that approach, Blade Runner 2049 establishes that humanity does not come from birth nor from purpose bestowed upon someone. Rather, it comes from the purpose one creates for himself, from establishing a sense of self precisely through a sense of others. Villeneuve’s film is prescient, especially in today’s world and considering the society we’re building to. It’s tragic, yet the necessary humanist touch that large canvases need more of.

3. Call Me by Your Name

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Call Me by Your Name is about bodies, and how bodies fall into and embody love. That’s why the many shots of stretched arms, toes touching, mouths meeting and more are so powerful in this film. Each is so sensually evocative because they represent how the feelings created in our minds are made real, tangible and accessible to another.

The atmosphere within which this all occurs is just as drunkenly alluring as the bodies themselves. The dream-like quality of a summer full of freedom is masterfully achieved by director Luca Guadagnino, and realized with painterly beauty by cinematographer Swayambhu Mukdeeprom. Moments aren’t necessarily connected, but still flow into one another with an unparalleled fluidity. 

The film risked indulging in the dream-like. But actors Timothée Chalamet, Armie Hammer and Michael Stuhlbarg all breathe their characters to life. Chalamet, particularly, lends Elio Perlman a physicality that perfectly represents the conflict between the summer’s freedom and the frightening feelings that his body aches to express. And as that conflict releases into love, and that love is then cut off, Elio encounters another bodily conflict, that of pain in no longer being able to express through his body. This gives Chalamet the scene of the year, as he stares into a fire in a long, single take, traversing a slew of unbearable emotions hauntingly.

Call Me by Your Name, in its entirety, is the love story of the year.

2. A Ghost Story

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A photograph. A song. A poem. A film. Each one of these mediums of art feels like an appropriate description of David Lowery’s A Ghost Story, and that might be because the film makes use of qualities of each. In long, uncut, still shots, the film stresses framing and the importance of sitting with a moment in time. Narratively and thematically, the film suggests that music is the art through which we express and through which hold onto expression. In its rumination on time, navigating this world on entirely spiritual terms, the film seems to almost speak, and speak rhythmically. And the composition of this all is specifically cinematic.

A Ghost Story is one of the few films of the year, and truly of any year, to so bravely confront time. How Lowery constructs it within the film is fascinating, and helps us to be able to inhabit the ghost, even if just for a moment. As said before, the film contemplates the importance of the still moment, played out in its entirety. Five minutes uninterrupted seem like an eternity. And yet, years can also flick by in an instant. Why is that so?

Time, especially for those who have passed, challenges our existence. Do we still exist after we die? Do we still need to? And Lowery pulls off a miracle in directing this arc of the ghost, an almost comically looking figure with no mode of expression, with such emotional perfection.

A Ghost Story is simple and minimal, and yet, it feels galactic. It’s often lacking the sight of a human being, and yet, it so profoundly ponders humanity. It’s hard for the film not to feel personal, for it not to feel invasive in how vulnerable it asks us to be.

1. Dunkirk

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It may be because I’ve written nearly five thousand words for this list up to this point, and I’m tired. It may be because, for anyone who knows me or has read my work, this comes as no surprise. It may be because I’ve already written at length about Dunkirk elsewhere, like in my full review of the film. It may be because I’m unsure of whether or not I can do the film justice considering how strongly I feel about it. It may be because I’m finally realizing the extent to which a “favorite film” is personal.

Dunkirk is my favorite film of 2017. In a slightly egocentric and naive point of view, I feel that staying guarded of a personal favorite allows me to still feel as though it’s mine.

In reality, though, it’s mostly because I’m tired. But I won’t be writing anything about Dunkirk here.

Thanks for reading.

 

Featured image via Amazon Studios/Netflix.

 

*Writer’s note: Of course, I am aware of the previous allegations made against Casey Affleck, who appears in A Ghost Story, and it’s my responsibility to explicitly address them. In no way do I condone, make excuse for or ignore Affleck. My support is and will always be with not only the women affected by Affleck, but the entire #MeToo and #TimesUp movements — the silence breakers — that have so bravely led this cultural shift we so desperately need. I would like to consider myself a part of those movements, and I will continue to fight for them.

I include A Ghost Story in this list because it is a personal list and it would be a lie to say that it’s not my second favorite film of the year. I responded to it so strongly and on such a personal level. But I know that there’s also a difference between having it as a personal favorite and writing about it as a personal favorite. I don’t feel as though I could write this list, which I feel I have a right to write, without it, so I wanted to hit a middle ground: write about it, but address Affleck. I hope that I’ve handled this with respect.

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