Tag Archives: Ryan Gosling

‘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.

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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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 

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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

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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

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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

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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 — 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

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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

A24/Courtesy

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

Warner Bros./Courtesy

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.

Top 10 underappreciated performances of 2017

Each year sees hundreds of new films, many of them filled with great performances. But as the year wraps up, the conversation around performances often becomes too focused on those that end up competing for awards, and those that many feel should be competing for awards.

With those hundreds of films, however, there are, genuinely, hundreds of performances that are worthy of praise, and it is the job of us film writers to make sure that they are given their fair share.

Here are our top 10 underappreciated performances of 2017:

10. Kirsten Dunst — The Beguiled

Focus Features/Courtesy

The explicit emotions in The Beguiled come from Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman. And Elle Fanning is rather good too in defining another, more youthful space, complimented by the other young actresses around her. But Kirsten Dunst adds a layer that no other player does.

Throughout, in quiet moments where Dunst’s eyes do much of the work in how softly expressive they are, we get a sense that the character is depressed and emotionally weathered due to the situation of being stuck during the war. The material allows Dunst to be both explorative and harrowingly frozen, and her performance evokes that grander scope of the war, specifically from the perspective of women.

— Kyle Kizu

9. Cillian Murphy — Dunkirk

Warner Bros./Melinda Sue Gordon/Courtesy

To many, Dunkirk is not necessarily a character-driven film, propelled more so by the visual experience. But we’d like to push back on that notion. Mark Rylance is usually the stand-out in conversations, his character being, truly, the emotional center and guide of the film.

Yet, perhaps the more haunting performance comes from Cillian Murphy as The Shivering Soldier. Murphy’s job is deceptively physical. Rylance’s Mr. Dawson describes him as shell-shocked, which is easily taken for granted. However, under close observation, Murphy is doing so much to sell that role. There are so many small moments that would’ve taken away so many layers from the film were they not there, such as toward the end when Murphy’s character cowers in fear at one last incoming German plane and has to be escorted inside the ship by Mr. Dawson.

And then, quite clearly, there’s his outburst toward the middle, which is one of the most tragic displays of the terrors of war in the entire film. While the editing does fascinating work, cutting from his character days prior, the immense panic is so palpable because of, again, Murphy’s physicality and precisely how that physicality pushes the panicked words out of his character.

— Kyle Kizu

8. Colin Farrell — The Killing of a Sacred Deer

A24/Courtesy

Writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos and actor Colin Farrell followed up the wonderfully unique The Lobster with The Killing of a Sacred Deer and, once again, have a darkly comedic — mostly dark — movie on their hands. It’s hard not to think of Funny Games when watching it.

Farrell, who’s making a career of starring in small-scale films, is excellent in this one as Steven, a father and doctor faced with a harrowing decision: kill one of his children or his wife, or they all die. Farrell plays the obvious horror of the situation convincingly. As an audience, it’s hard not to side with him at first — after all, this seems random, sadistic even. But as the plot unveils, so too does Steven’s brashness and, beyond that, his cowardice.

Perhaps helped by his experience with Lanthimos’ scripts, Farrell delivers the lines perfectly, without his tongue too firmly planted in his cheek. There’s certainly humor in his deadpan performance, but there’s realism too. There’s shock, pain and denial. Beyond all, Steven has a seeming desire to end conversations as quickly as possible, before we learn too much about him.

— Hooman Yazdanian

7. Woody Harrelson — The Glass Castle

Lionsgate/Courtesy

It’s funny because we’d argue that Woody Harrelson had a better performance than the one that got him an Oscar nomination. In plenty of his roles, it’s often simply just ‘Woody being Woody,’ which is, by no means, a bad thing. He’s one of the most enjoyable actors in the business when he’s simply just Woody.

Yet, in The Glass Castle, Harrelson is magnetic and truly crafts a character that extends beyond the man behind it. There’s much of the trademark Woody here, his gigantic personality fitting right into the character of Rex. But there’s an added layer of the character’s self-loathing, his eccentric beliefs and his great love for his family that Harrelson works into every scene. And when they come to the surface, such as when Rex tells his daughter Jeannette, a child, that her burn scar is not ugly or when he voices his regrets in life to her, now an adult, Harrelson heartbreakingly channels and brings out the emotional truth of such a complexly flawed, yet deeply feeling man.

— Kyle Kizu

6. Ryan Gosling — Blade Runner 2049

Warner Bros./Courtesy

Ryan Gosling’s performance in Blade Runner 2049 was perhaps too spot on. He seamlessly disappears into the role as Agent K, a replicant Blade Runner whose mental and emotional stability is slowly challenged throughout the entirety of the film’s 164 minutes. Granted, there’s plenty of character work being done in the music and editing, but Gosling absolutely nails the expressionless faces and soft line delivery that hint at so much more going on underneath. In that regard, two scenes stand out in particular: K approaching the furnace in which he hid his toy horse, suggesting that his memories may be real, and K meeting Dr. Ana Stelline (Carla Juri) for the first time where she does confirm that the memories are real. In both, Gosling says next to nothing, but optimizes his eyes, body and facial muscles to render those character moments utterly haunting. And as the film wraps up, and it’s revealed (spoilers) that K was not Deckard’s child, but simply had the memories of Deckard’s real kid, we see a change in K’s eyes that evokes such profound tragedy.

Gosling’s performance is subtle. And his casting may have been too perfect for his turn to be appreciated to its fullest; the man is simply too good looking and his behavior too charmingly composed that it wouldn’t be a stretch if he was revealed, in real life, to be an android.

But he is truly doing so much work in every frame, every close-up, and the film rests entirely on him pulling it all off.

— Kyle Kizu

5. Dafne Keen — Logan

Ben Rothstein/20th Century Fox/Courtesy

There’s often an age bias when judging child performances in relation to those of adults, which becomes all the more frustrating when one deserves to stand tall next to the actors that eventually receive awards. And this year, Dafne Keen fits right into that unfortunate circumstance in regard to her nearly unbelievable turn in Logan.

Next to one of Hugh Jackman’s greatest performance, Keen holds her own in every regard. Her ferocity is untamed, but distinctly human. Her chemistry with Jackman is fluid and dynamic, as she even takes hold of scenes with him, such as the one in the car when she lists the names of her friends that are in danger. For much of her screentime, Keen has no dialogue, but she lends a searching quality to Laura that perfectly underscores the growing relationship between her and Logan.

Too many take for granted that the ending relies so heavily on her nailing the monologue from Shane. But Keen is emotionally raw and brave in the moment, both paving beautiful space for her character moving forward and allowing such perfect, profound reflection on the life of Logan, which was a monumental task considering that Jackman’s character had been present for seventeen years before Keen showed up.

— Kyle Kizu

4. Beanie Feldstein — Lady Bird

A24/Courtesy

Most of the hype surrounding the performances in the much-beloved Lady Bird has been around the leading daughter-mother combo of Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) and Marion (Laurie Metcalf). But Beanie Feldstein ensures Julie, Lady Bird’s best friend, still stands out.

Feldstein strikes an emotional nerve, stealing scenes and believably delivering what may be the film’s most powerful line: “Some people aren’t built happy, you know?” She balances this moment with savvy comedic timing and a take on love and jealousy in friendships that resonates deeply. As Lady Bird is clearly about to get in trouble at the assembly, Julie’s face contorts with concern and she clutches the bleacher seats, all in the midst of a fight with her best friend. Lady Bird and Julie’s conversation about where they’ll be after high school are believable and familiar, like peering through a window at every friend group’s conversations in the waning months of high school — it’s no surprise that Feldstein and Ronan apparently became close friends in real life.

In a year of worthy additions to the pantheon of cinematic best friends (here’s looking at you, Lil Rel Howery), Feldstein’s Julie may be the very best.

— Hooman Yazdanian

3. Harry Dean Stanton — Lucky

Magnolia Pictures/Courtesy

Harry Dean Stanton, who sadly passed a few weeks before Lucky released, is just an absolute delight in the film. And it’s quite touching to see where the film goes thematically in regard to Stanton’s character. The titular Lucky is coming toward the end of his life and he must deal with the passage of time. Through that material, Stanton is riotously hilarious and equally as moving. Lucky is often alone, going through his daily routine, but Stanton eats up the physical space around him whether that be through his quirky physicality or his sarcastic, sassy comments. But even when the character is saying nothing and everything is quiet, Stanton conveys a rumination on life that pushes the film’s scope beyond what many might expect. It’s characterization that only comes from a masterful actor, and it’ll be difficult to forget his weird, hilarious, tragic, captivating final moments as he comments on the universe: “Blackness… the void!”

— Kyle Kizu

2. Robert Redford — Our Souls at Night

Netflix/Courtesy

The quiet Our Souls at Night was ignored on, essentially, every level. But the film is outstanding, precisely because of how quiet it is. That’s where it finds its emotional drive, in the soft and tender moments.

So many of those moments come from Robert Redford as Louis Waters. The film picks up with him late in his life, and it’s slowly revealed that he’s had quite a long and often sad journey. We’re never offered flashbacks, but Redford still shoulders the weight of that past beautifully. We hear about things that happened to Louis and, through Redford’s small glances and brief words, we can see how all of that has informed who he is now, how all of that has crafted this quiet life we get to observe. In the most emotional scenes, all Redford needs to do is break his composure for a split second, and our hearts nearly shatter. It’s unbelievable work from the legendary actor, much of it being quite difficult to capture in words.

— Kyle Kizu

1. Betty Gabriel — Get Out

Universal Pictures/Courtesy

Betty Gabriel, who plays Georgina in Jordan Peele’s standout directorial debut Get Out, was a revelation. Gabriel’s Georgina, the Armitages’ housekeeper, is often at the crux of the film’s drama and tension, her face revealing more than words ever could, hinting at the central twist and the societal influence behind it.

Gabriel displays the textbook example of how to portray a “conflict within.” Her mannerisms stand out from the moment we see her on screen. Clearly, something is off. Is she evil? Has she been hypnotized? Is she trying to provide a warning? All these contradicting motivations are played perfectly and, somehow, simultaneously by Gabriel.

It’s impossible to keep our eyes off of her for the rest of the movie, whether when she brushes her hair or jump scares Chris (Daniel Kaluuya). Her most famous scene, where she cries, smiles, laughs and exudes terror — again, all at once — is masterful.

Gabriel seemingly came out of nowhere in Get Out (her previous biggest role was in another social thriller, The Purge: Election Year) but she ended up stealing scenes and producing a true standout performance in one of 2017’s very best films. Yet, no one — at least on the awards circuit — seems to have noticed.

— Hooman Yazdanian

 

Sophie-Marie Prime participated in voting for this list.

Featured image via 20th Century Fox/Warner Bros./Magnolia Pictures/A24.

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

Dick Thomas Johnson/Courtesy

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

Sony Pictures/Courtesy

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

Disney/Courtesy

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

Josh Jensen/Courtesy

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

Warner Bros./Courtesy

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

Gage Skidmore/Courtesy

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

Gage Skidmore/Courtesy

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

Dick Thomas Johnson/Courtesy

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

Allan Warren/Courtesy

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

Elena Ringo/Courtesy

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

Nicolas Genin/Courtesy

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

Gage Skidmore/Courtesy

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

Gage Skidmore/Courtesy

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

Lucasfilm/Courtesy

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

Fox Searchlight Pictures/Courtesy

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

Marvel/Courtesy

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.

Trial: What is ‘Blade Runner 2049’ director Denis Villeneuve’s best film?

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

This week’s question: What is director Denis Villeneuve’s best film?

Writers: Harrison Tunggal and Levi Hill
Judge: Kyle Kizu

*Warning: Spoilers for ‘Blade Runner 2049.’*

Warner Bros./Courtesy

Levi’s argument:

It’s not an easy task to take a beloved science-fiction classic — one that American Film Institute listed as the sixth greatest science fiction film of all-time — then one-up it. But that is exactly what Denis Villeneuve has done with his masterpiece Blade Runner 2049.

In an age of stale, repetitive blockbusters (lesser “replicants” of their former self), Denis uses this very meta-textual set-up to make an outwardly replicant of the original film. The original film followed a blade runner, Agent Deckard (Harrison Ford), as he begins to hunt down replicants that just want to be human. Because of this, the film created a human perspective from the outside looking in of things that just want to be treated equal to the humans they are modeled after. From this perspective, the film was calculated and cold. Ford played a detective tasked with murdering and murdering (mostly) innocent replicants — until he just can’t anymore because he has fallen in love with one, Rachael (Sean Young). All the while, he is increasingly haunted by memories of violence, and an unicorn running free.

The film leaves us cold, if visually enthralled.

Is Deckard a bad guy? Is he a replicant? Are memories only real for humans?

Wisely, Denis has created another cold, calculated story from Ridley Scott’s template, but frames the story entirely from the *spoiler alert* replicant perspective. Agent K (Ryan Gosling) is indeed a replicant (Nexus 9 model), and once again, is tasked with hunting down the Nexus 6s and 7s that can live as long as humans, if not much longer. However, unlike other replicants we have seen, he has a timed life span, unable to live longer than any other human. He also is made to obey orders from the LAPD — facing a strange PTSD test that questions whether he has established any lasting emotional capabilities after each bloody mission of killing his own kind.

Warner Bros./Courtesy

Think A Clockwork Orange’s eyes wide-open scene, but with the humanity removed.

Thus, when K experiences a “miracle” that threatens to “break the world,” Denis’ intelligent placing of the main character as replicant creates an emotional pay-off about the very definition of what constitutes a “human.” The audience’s alignment creates an emotional journey that explores the politics of a rebellion, the cost of human life in a looming war, the power of memories and the sacrifices people make for just wanting to be free.

Acting as a sequel or a “replicant” of the original story, Blade Runner 2049 is the only sequel I can think of that is finally more human than the original — “more human than human.”

Besides this storytelling ambition, that posits itself as a meta-textual statement on how stories can play on established world-building, Denis has also crafted a story more experimental than Enemy, more intense than Sicario, more sprawling than Prisoners and more intellectual than Arrival.

A factory scene, with a grinding, synthetic score rivals the poetic, haunting, surreal beauty of anything Tarkovsky created in Stalker or even in the also lyrically tinged Enemy. A late stand-off between K and a highly-skilled foe adds more bone-crunching intensity than any of Sicario’s many gruesome shoot-outs. The scope of the film, that constantly reimagines what is capable for the medium of film, blows any recent Bond film out of the water and definitely dwarfs the complex, expanding mystery in Prisoners. Then, the very existential question of what it means to be human, and how one becomes “human,” carries more weight here than the equally intellectual questions regarding memory and communication in Arrival.

Warner Bros./Courtesy

With Denis’ controlled direction, each drawn-out, beautifully framed moment stands out as a work of art and the highest class of blockbuster filmmaking. With repeated overview shots of an overpopulated, water-soaked LA, or the orange dust clouds that pervade every frame in the Las Vegas setting, Denis creates a visual structure that only can be registered in all of its majesty on the big screen. It’s the first film Denis has made — and the first film this year, outside of Dunkirk — that visually cannot be truly appreciated without the biggest screen and the loudest sound.

And let’s not forget, this film is following one of the already most visually accomplished works of all-time.

Oh, and Denis proves why Harrison Ford, after many years of taking roles seemingly only for a paycheck, was once considered the most sought after actor. Ford arguably has never been better, and while the actor needs to be praised for bringing an unexpected amount of soul, much also has to be said about the bold choices Denis makes regarding the iconic character.

Every choice Denis makes here — in storytelling, composition, editing, sound, score, acting and design — acts as a culmination of what he has done before.

Not-so-simply-put, in every single facet of filmmaking, this is Denis’ home-run. This is his masterpiece. This is his classic.

Paramount/Courtesy

Harrison’s argument:

Arrival is Denis Villeneuve’s best film because it is the sole entry in his filmography that will define and inform our national conscience for years to come. The film released in the US the weekend after the 2016 election, and it was a clarion call for empathy and rationality, and a denouncement of violence and xenophobia — all of these qualities coalesce to become, at once, a warning against belligerence and a message of consolation in the face of vitriol. There hasn’t been a more timely film in recent memory, a film that speaks to our hearts so frankly, elegantly and warmly. The film’s screenwriter Eric Heisserer himself admitted that writing Arrival came from a place of necessity, the need to invite people to empathize and communicate with each other. It was a cinematic invitation that won him the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

On the level of craft, Arrival is made with precision and purpose, all of which make it yet more profound (especially when paired with Jóhann Jóhannsson’s ethereal score). Bradford Young’s cinematography is utterly jaw dropping, and while he might not have the experience of the seasoned Roger Deakins, Villeneuve’s frequent collaborator, Young delivers shots that are just as jaw dropping as any of Villeneuve’s Deakins-shot films — particularly Dr. Louise Banks’ (Amy Adams) first glimpse at the heptapod spaceships, as clouds roll away.

Paramount/Courtesy

Choosing a mellow, soft color palette of blues and grays to reflect the film’s message of nonviolence was an inspired choice by Young, who shot the film digitally, leveraging the color grading that such a format allows. Arrival is an example of what humanity can strive for, but it is also a fine example of what digital filmmaking should aspire toward.

Then, the production design, the look of the heptapods and their language are astounding feats of design. The towering alien figures are as majestic as whales, but with just a touch of humanity. Their language is beautiful to behold, an example of how design mirrors theme, since the heptapod view of time is nonlinear. The meticulousness and originality that went into creating the heptapod language is itself worth the price of admission.

Ultimately though, Arrival is the story of a mother and her daughter, and we see how time spent with someone, no matter how brief, is worth it if there is love. That’s a message that, regardless of political era, is resonant and timeless. Beneath the film’s linguistic theory is a warm, beating heart, featuring arguably the most emotional climax in any Villeneuve film. Though Arrival is a film of our time, it is also one that prevails throughout cinema henceforth.

Warner Bros./Courtesy

Levi’s rebuttal:

Harrison, I don’t disagree with anything you have mentioned above, except that Arrival is Denis’ best film. Rather, it is his second best film, as Blade Runner 2049 took everything that made Arrival a modern landmark, and then one-upped it by giving each of those themes (xenophobia, communication between different species, rationale before violence, familial bonds) a greater sense of purpose and clarity in Blade Runner 2049, albeit with the bigger risk of following up a top ten science fiction masterpiece, while maintaining the very pointed political critique.

Plus, it doesn’t have the most atrociously handled line of dialogue in an otherwise excellently written film — “let’s make a baby” — or the asinine plot contrivances of the Chinese General Shang telling Louise Banks, in the future, that her former/present self should tell his former/present self his wife’s dying words to create world peace. It still doesn’t make sense to me, how a film that did so well for 95% of its run time, can botch the last 15 minutes so severely. Should have it been powerful? Yes. Was it? If you like your movies overly sentimental and don’t fret about plot holes completely untouched, maybe it was — but not for me.

As for Blade Runner 2049, it’s hard to discuss the story at all, but the plot holes that might be present in the film are meant to be there. It’s not a conclusive picture of an entirely built world, but rather, it operates as a conclusive story for Agent K and in some ways, Agent Deckard. The audience is left to ponder real ideas, without given either/or answers. Arrival poses big questions, but rarely allows ambiguity to remain once the final frames brace us. If there is a flaw in Arrival, it’s that.

Warner Bros./Courtesy

Say what you will about the lengthy run time of Blade Runner 2049, but if you take any individual scene out, the aura of the mystery, the power of the last 45 minutes and entire grandeur of the project are lost, like tears in the rain. Can you imagine if Lawrence of Arabia was condensed? 2001: A Space Odyssey? The Godfather? Lord of the Rings: Return of the King? Hell, even Interstellar cannot be trimmed and fully be seen as the experience it needs to be. Some films need that time to work us over and create new visual and audial scapes for us to experience. Blade Runner 2049 is one of those films.

Then Leto, yes, he sort of seems off in the film (to some, not me), as a less dimensional villain. However, isn’t that the point? He is one of the only human characters in the world given significant screen time, and humans have created this travesty of the earth where the ice caps have melted and we’ve become so overpopulated that people are crammed in high rises living in hallways, not rooms.

With this, does it not make sense to make the incomparably privileged and wealthy Wallace (Leto) an egotistical, calculated, business-is-cutthroat monster, hell-bent on seeing his own agendas accomplished? Great or fine, Leto’s performance here is not bad, and in fact, it works for the film’s message.

Warner Bros./Courtesy

This is a film that even refuses to paint the main antagonist of the film, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), as anything resembling simple. While a replicant and forced to obey Niander Wallace (Leto) at all cost, Luv even finds a sense of depth in her constructed humanity that Marvel, D.C. or any comparable blockbusters haven’t come close to since the Joker (Heath Ledger) in The Dark Knight.

Add in the symbolism of Wallace’s blindness, unable to see the world for what it is, and Luv’s uncontrollable tears when near him, and the duality of the two characters comment on how seeing is believing within Blade Runner — whether you are a human or a replicant.

There’s an immense sense of complexity in every frame, the most minute of details matter here. The opening shot of a green iris of an eye, followed by a match cut of the barren landscape of the outskirts of Los Angeles say more about the world and tone and theme of Blade Runner than most filmmakers accomplish in a career. And that’s not taking into account the more experimental flourishes that appear in Blade Runner — and are absent from Arrival — such as when Joi malfunctions in San Diego and, instead of quickly cutting, we see an extended take of her heartbreaking malfunction in stop-motion, as the world around her remains shot in real-time.

Warner Bros./Courtesy

I haven’t even touched on the fact that, somehow, Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch may have outdone the original Vangelis score by adding more bombast to giddily jarring purposes, or that every female role in the film creates the agency and urgency in the story, or the other big fact THAT HARRISON FORD IS ACTUALLY 100% ACTING AGAIN, which, considering the potential of him showing up here simply being a fan service-y extended cameo, like what some have argued his scenes in Star Wars: The Force Awakens are, says a lot about Denis’ care to make sure that every element of the film operates as a soulful, humanistic, impressionistic exploration of the fundamental question to existence: what does it mean to be alive?

Designed from beginning to end to be enrapturing, Blade Runner 2049 is one of the most accomplished directorial visions we’ve ever seen — taking an already highly touted vision and making it fresh, unique and cinematically groundbreaking all over again.

If that isn’t enough to convince someone Blade Runner 2049 is the greatest Denis Villeneuve film (so far), a film that not only excels with the given template of blockbuster cinema, but truly advances what is capable for big-budgeted storytelling, then I don’t know what is.

Blade Runner 2049 is what it looks like when the highest of art has finally perfectly synchronized with the spectacle of $150 million of pure, crowd-pleasing imagination. Seriously, the fact that an esteemed film critic has compared Blade Runner 2049 to an Andrei Tarkovsky film says a lot about this film’s poetic, epic beauty.

Take a bow, Denis.

Paramount/Courtesy

Harrison’s rebuttal:

Without a doubt, Blade Runner 2049 is proving to be not just a great sci-fi film, but one of the greatest sequels of all time, deserving a place alongside Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back and The Dark Knight. However, it is by no means a perfect film. For starters, Jared Leto has yet to wipe his take on the Joker from our memories, and his portrayal of Niander Wallace doesn’t do him any favors. He continues to harp about his method acting, which gives the character a built-in invitation for dislike. Even without such promotional antics though, his portrayal of Wallace is neither threatening, nor as profound as the rest of the film. In contrast, there isn’t a character in Arrival that is the least bit distracting. An ancillary performance from Forest Whitaker lends the film with a gravitas that Leto can’t pull off, while Stuhlbarg highlights the baser elements of our humanity. Leto might gesture toward grander ideas, but doesn’t succeed as well at conveying them as Arrival.

Additionally, while Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s score is noteworthy, it doesn’t pick up the baton from Vangelis as elegantly as it could have. Much of their score in Blade Runner 2049 veers toward bombastic sound design, and while this approach worked for Zimmer in Dunkirk, it feels jarring when the expectation is the melancholic synth-jazz riffs of Vangelis.

Paramount/Courtesy

Moreover, when it comes down to picking the best Denis Villeneuve film, choosing Arrival feels like the best representation of Villeneuve as a director. The aesthetic choices, production design and the internal logic of the world feel more unique to Villeneuve, whereas in Blade Runner 2049, Villeneuve is forced to play in a sandbox created by Ridley Scott. While Villeneuve succeeds in conforming to the rules of Scott’s universe, the originality present in Arrival makes it a better candidate for choosing Villeneuve’s best film. The endings of both Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 are very emotional, but while the latter film incorporates imagery and musical cues from its predecessor to elicit emotion, Arrival does not have such a reliance. Instead, the emotional finale of Arrival is achieved solely by the characters crafted within it, lending it a sense of originality that just slightly puts it ahead of Blade Runner 2049.

Even though Arrival is based on a short story by Ted Chiang, the characters onscreen and the subversion of sci-fi is still a wholly original cinematic experience. For once, we see a strong female intellectual be the hero of a film. Sure, we’ve seen various professors lead their respective films, but how often is it that a female professor is the star of a film, let alone a female humanities professor? It’s impossible to understate how significant it is that the humanities save the world in Arrival. Ultimately, Arrival boils down to a story about mothers and daughters, and when the box-office of Blade Runner 2049 is partly due to a lack of female audiences, Dr. Louise Banks, and the film she inhabits, is worth celebrating.

Kyle’s decision:

Both arguments are intensely passionate, informed and well-crafted. And this has proven to be one of the better Trials as the arguments and rebuttals are rather different. Levi jumps in with an expansive, overwhelming (in a good way) comprehension of film itself while arguing for Blade Runner 2049, placing it not only within Villeneuve’s filmography and not only in conversation with the landmark original, but within the landscape of film today and in harmony with the history it fits into. It’s an extensive but fluid argument — one that makes me feel the need to put a word limit on Trials as it becomes difficult to not be persuaded by so much excellent argumentation.

But Harrison fights back with fervor, making a more humanistic case for Arrival, a case that pleads for the importance of film outside of the boundaries of film itself. The parallels between Arrival’s themes and today’s problems are harrowingly emotional, and you brilliantly lay out how affecting Arrival is through not just the presence of those parallels, but through how expertly they’re pulled off. You also do a better job in your opening at pointing out the coherency of those intangible elements of the film, theme and emotion and humanistic importance, and how the color palette, the design and the subject matter exist truly as veins of the film, rather than just facets.

Warner Bros./Courtesy

After reading the openings, I realized that these arguments may be calling into question what “best” really means. Levi made the better case for Blade Runner 2049 as Denis Villeneuve’s most brilliantly crafted film, while Harrison made the better case for Arrival as Denis Villeneuve’s most important film. In the rebuttal, I needed more from Levi about Blade Runner 2049’s importance outside of film. I got more about the brilliance of it as a film in film history, in comparison to the original and in Denis’ filmography. I got some small rebuts of Arrival as a film. I got some superfluous detail that didn’t need to be there and threatened the stability of the argument. But I did end up getting that idea of the film’s importance outside of the art form it comes in, how it also has many of the relevant, pressing humanistic themes that Arrival has — not just ideas of humanity in general — and makes use of them well within its own story.

Harrison bounces back with a very fine rebuttal. Unfortunately, it doesn’t present enough in terms of Arrival’s brilliance within the scope of film nor does it take down Blade Runner 2049 in regard to those elements, only offering rebuts of a performance and the score. The rebuttal, however, solidified that, if this were an argument of “importance” rather than “best,” Harrison would be the winner.

But Levi does too well to be overcome. While you may slightly lose out in the “importance” battle (and “slightly” is the important word as anything more severe might’ve cost you), you are undeniably convincing in every other area in regard to defining what “best” is and placing Blade Runner 2049 into that.

Winner: Levi Hill

 

Do you agree with Kyle’s verdict? Or would you have picked a different Denis Villeneuve film as his best? Sound off in the comments.

Staff records:

Harrison Tunggal: 2-1

Levi Hill: 1-0

Kyle Kizu: 0-2

Sanjay Nimmagudda: 0-0

 

Featured image via Warner Bros. and Paramount.

‘Blade Runner 2049’ Review: Sci-fi sequel is a masterpiece that questions the constitution of humanity

What does it mean to be human? Is it the capacity to feel emotions? To feel sadness? Happiness? Fear? Is it the ability to live with a purpose? To die? To remember your past?

If so, then can replicants be the next evolution of mankind?

These are all questions the landmark 1982 Blade Runner wisely posed, but refused to answer in simple measures. This year’s follow up, Denis Villeneuve’s visual masterpiece Blade Runner 2049, brings all of these questions back to the forefront, only to magnify the stakes, in an event that multiple characters either say will “break the world,” or be a “miracle.”

Agent K (Ryan Gosling) is tasked with getting to the bottom of this event, slowly uncovering the hidden truths from the world. Gosling, in full Drive-mode, stoic and commanding for the entire run time, carries this complex, intellectual film with ease. With a performance that starts as closed-off from portraying emotions (a battle-hardened blade runner), he, over the course the film, sells his character’s quiet, but moving arc about a man placed in a burgeoning war between man and its closest competitor: the replicants.

In fact, all of the actors bring their A-game, with Ana de Armas (War Dogs) and Carla Juri (Wetlands) making the most of their relatively small screen-time. However, outside of Gosling, it really is Harrison Ford — reprising his role of Deckard — who steals the show. Where Ford’s performance in Star Wars: The Force Awakens was pure fan service, his role in BR2049 is much more demanding, much more emotional. In every scene Ford inhabits, the camera and the other actors are as glued to him as the audience is, watching this withering, soul-crushed character coping with memories lost in time. Whether it’ll gain awards traction or not is a different debate, but seeing Ford this committed to bearing his heart and mind is stunning.

What else is stunning is the incredible craft work on display. The production design, the score, the sound and the editing, despite its nearly three hour run time, are consistently spectacular. Yet, it is Roger Deakins and his mastery of light and composition that dominate the film. It’s arguably his most showy cinematography ever, yet it’s all in service of the film’s controlled atmospherics. With straight line designs, piercing rays of light through the darkest of locations, or an extended take involving a crashing vehicle, BR2049 is inarguably the showcase for all of Deakins’ exquisite powers behind the camera. After 13 Oscar nominations and no wins, it appears it’s finally his time.

Regardless of awards though, Blade Runner 2049’s insistence on posing the biggest of big existential questions, and powerfully refusing to offer simple answers, makes this a modern science fiction masterpiece. Denis Villeneuve, much like Christopher Nolan, takes his spot alongside the pantheon of great cinematic artists who push big budget filmmaking to another level — finally making blockbusters “more human than human.”

Grade: 9.6/10

 

Featured image via Warner Bros./Columbia/Sony.