Sunday, January 7, 2018

Year in Review and Best of 2017 Part 1 - Movies



2017 was one for the ages. News cycles became dominated by political stories that would have been deemed too stupid or unlikely to use in fiction. Warner Bros replaced parts of Henry Cavill's face with bad CGI. Nintendo had a surprising comeback with the Switch, rising from the remains of the sadly unloved Wii U.

Most importantly for my family was the birth of my daughter in early January. Being a new parent has been a surreal, wonderful, terrifying experience. Back in March, my wife wrote an essay on David Lynch's Eraserhead and the connection to it that we felt as new parents. Be sure to check it out!

On game development, work on Kaiju Big Battel: Fighto Fantasy continues, inching closer and closer to release. There's a playable demo out now! For more on that, check out my write up here.

Surprisingly, I still managed to check out a whole lot of new movies this year, though more of them were watched at home than in theaters. Here's a look at them, divided into tiered lists and sorted alphabetically. As usual, this is an evolving document which I'll be updating as I see the final movies I missed out on. Let's talk movies!



Top Tier - My favorite films of the year.
 


Blade Runner 2049 - Denis Villeneuve continues his streak at the top of my favorite films list! A dramatic genre shift from 2016's Arrival and 2015's Sicario, Villeneuve impresses with a beautifully shot sequel to Ridley Scott's sci-fi classic 35 years after its release. This isn't a soft reboot sequel in the vein of Star Wars: The Force Awakens or Jurassic World, films that feel like reverent love letters to the originals; rather, 2049 is a film that approaches themes of humanity, sentience, control, and faith in its own distinct way, separating itself from the original film while still remaining closely connected.

World building is largely kept in the background while Villeneuve focuses his film on personal dedication, whether it's to family, to duty, or to self preservation. We're given hints of a greater global resistance movement, but this isn't where the film's interest lies. This isn't a film about saving the world or stopping a maniacal villain, but instead, finding our own place in a world of cold loneliness. It's a world where both our bodies and minds are owned by others, with layers upon layers of ownership and control from human to android to hologram. What we need to know about the world is told to us through gorgeous set design and Roger Deakins' phenomenal cinematography in a film that pays tribute to the original's aesthetic while fully embracing its own.

I'm genuinely surprised that a major studio let Villeneuve make an elaborate sequel to Blade Runner with a nearly three-hour run time, slow pacing when compared to modern blockbusters, minimal action, and extensive scenes where characters just sit and think. The world is dirty and uncomfortable and both its heroes and villains can be morally grotesque. It's a world built on artifice that could, and likely will, crumble any day. Even more so than the original film's world, this is not a happy place to be.

Of course, true to Blade Runner form, the film under-performed at the box office.



The Founder - One of the biggest surprises of John Lee Hancock's story of the founding of the McDonald's franchise is that it's neither critical of fast food nor a commercial for it. Rather, the fast food colossus provides a setting for us to watch Ray Kroc rise from a mild-mannered salesman to a captain of industry. Kroc, played to perfection by Michael Keaton, takes a small hamburger shop run by two good-natured brothers and turns it into the franchise king that McDonald's is today. This is a fascinating film: It's absolutely not a Hoorah Capitalism film, since even though Kroc wins in the end it costs him his friends and family and destroys the careers of some good people. Neither is it a condemnation of the man; Kroc is not a cartoon villain, and his turn from friend to foe is so subtle and natural that the moment's hard to pinpoint.

Beyond McDonald's, The Founder is a fascinating look at the franchise model of business and the struggle it takes to maintain a strong brand while giving customers what they want. Without getting into details of my own career, it's a topic that's immensely relevant to my daily work. The frustration Kroc feels as franchisees go off brand is funnier to me today than it would have been in a previous job. Keaton absolutely nails so many elements of this complicated character, but this one's the angle I most immediately connected to. 


I, Tonya - A farcical comedy-drama biography of figure skater Tonya Harding didn't sound like something particularly compelling, but I was blown away here. Margot Robbie's portrayal of the controversial athlete isn't cheap or mean and doesn't make her the butt of the joke the way so many comedies of the 90's did; instead, she's compellingly human, flawed, and stuck in a series of bad circumstances that would be enough to break anyone.

There's a bit of "the audience is the real monster" at play here as the film mixes fictionalized interviews with more traditional storytelling. The American public is judged more harshly than Harding herself. Fantastic performances all around, but this is really Robbie's show as she gives my favorite performance of the year.
 

Get Out - Jordan Peele lands an incredibly strong directorial debut with this social horror/satire. Get Out's success comes in part from how well it works as both a pointed, bitter arrow of social commentary and a more universal message of alienation and paranoia. Peele's film looks at the fetishizing of black culture by white Americans through the lens of a young man meeting his girlfriend's parents for the first time, a family that makes sure to tell you how totally not racist they are while delivering one aggression after another, starting micro and growing more openly macro.

Get Out is a horror film that asks you to soak in its atmosphere and its great script rather than wait for the next spooky moment. There are a few jump scares, but they're (intentionally) silly moments that are nowhere near as effective as the overall feeling of dread, a real "The terror of knowing what this world is about" film. There's also great acting all around; I'm happy to see Daniel Kaluuya in a lead role and Caleb Landry Jones is perfectly disgusting as one of the film's antagonists. This is one of those movies that works well the first time and works even better the second, as its more subtle elements become clear. Its blunter messages are unmissable the first time, as they should be.
 

A Ghost Story - When the trailer for A Ghost Story hit, I thought it was pretty funny; a completely serious presentation looking at the meaning of life and death... featuring Casey Affleck as a goofy sheet ghost. It's a testament to director David Lowery that the film actually is poignant, powerful, and incredibly sad, while still starring Casey Affleck as a sheet ghost.

We follow Affleck's ghost throughout the years as he remains anchored to his home after death, even as that people living there and the home itself undergoes massive changes with time. Our ghost doesn't communicate in spoken language, but there's enough body language and careful cinematography that he still feels like a compelling character in spite of that.

Before his death, we meet Affleck as a man in a strained marriage with a wife (played wonderfully by Rooney Mara) who wants to move away and leave this run-down house behind while he refuses to budge. He maintains his stubbornness in both life and death as he struggles to find the peace he needs to move on. I've always felt a deep, spiritual connection to the homes I've lived in, whether it's a family home, a school dorm, or an apartment. Leaving has always been tough for me, even when it's somewhere I don't even particularly want to be. This element of the film hit home for me hard.

Excellent - Great films worth your time.



Baby Driver - Four years after the release of The World's End (and after a few years of struggling to make Marvel's Ant Man film) Edgar Wright returns with an extremely stylish film driven by an exceptional soundtrack and a healthy blend of melodrama, romance, and car chases. This is a lighter film that I don't think is on the same level as Shaun of the Dead / Hot Fuzz / The World's End, but is nonetheless excellent. An innocent film about some horrible people and a good guy stuck in the middle, Baby Driver's style is its substance, and it's a joy to watch.



Brigsby Bear - You would think that a film about a kidnapped child raised in isolation with a family that produces their own outsider art (in the form of a faux-public access TV show) would be horrifying. In spite of its a grim premise, Brigsby Bear treats its lead (Kyle Mooney) with such warmth and hopefulness that it's genuinely touching. Rather than looking at the dark side of what happened, the film focuses on the love and outreach offered by a community of strangers who see something worth loving even when it comes from the weirdest places. Mark Hamill is wonderfully unhinged here, too.


Colossal - Dysfunctional Gloria (Anne Hathaway) deals with alcoholism, unemployment, an unstable relationship, and a psychic connection to a giant monster on the other side of the world. Inner demons are made literal in the form of destructive beasts as our heroine fights back against poisonous men in her life. It's a silly premise played with complete sincerity, with a subtextual layer showing grotesque embodiments of Americans invading foreign lands and leaving a trail of destruction. In a rare move for the giant monster genre, Colossal is a film where you care far more for the human cast than the monsters. Hathaway's great here and her monster counterpart does a pretty good job too.



Kong: Skull Island - Between this film and Gareth Edwards' 2014 Godzilla film, it's nice seeing giant monster movies that are beautifully shot! In contrast to the somber, human Godzilla, Skull Island is a bombastic, insane ride filled with gross monster fights, a cartoonish human cast, and roller coaster action. They're two very different films, but they both totally nail what they're going for. Skull Island is a tonally weird movie, wavering between drama, horror, and farce, but somehow it all comes together in one completely bananas package.


 Lady Bird - 2017 was a good year for debuts! Here we have actress Greta Gerwig's directorial debut, a coming of age film focused on an incredibly real teenager on the verge of graduation in 2002. This was my own graduation year, and so much of this film's culture and look is immediately, intimately familiar. Though we watch the film unfold in present tense, it feels like looking into a memory. It's colored by both bitterness and nostalgia, but both elements come together to form a sense of understanding rather than a yearning for the good old days.

Much of this film focuses on identities both discovered and created, as our lead (played wonderfully by Saoirse Ronan) moves from friend group to friend group, inventing and reinventing herself to be who she thinks she needs to be at any given time. Both vulnerable and strong, Ronan's Lady Bird struggles to define herself to her friends, her teachers, and her family, as she clashes again and again with her mother. It's a journey that looks so small in retrospect, but feels so enormous to anyone living it.



Logan - In a decade where more or less the same superhero story gets retold every three months (with wildly varying degrees of quality) Fox is actually doing something new. In spite of X-Men Apocalypse being a flimsy rehash, they've been branching out in different directions with films like Deadpool and Logan and, on TV, this year's wonderful Legion.

Logan approaches the comic book medium as a Western and opens up a lot of metanarrative bits, from questions of the legitimacy and purpose of faithfulness in adaptation to the horrors of rebooting a character with a younger actor (in spite of the X-Men: First Class series doing this to great success.) It's a film where characters in its world have read X-Men comics and have X-Men toys, celebrating cartoon versions of the mutants while the real ones are being wiped out. Ethnic cleansing is happening while capitalism pumps out silly stories about these people. There's a lot more going on here than the average comic book movie: Fear of fatherhood from a violent man who doesn't want a child to follow in his footsteps, losing a parent to dementia, questions of why God is absent in suffering. It ends with a mediocre, typical action movie finale, but the quiet parts are so good that I can overlook that.
 

The Love Witch - A gorgeous film drenched in rich colors, The Love Witch is the vision of Anna Biller, whose credits on the film are director, producer, writer, editor, production designer, costume designer, and composer. She made a film that looks and sounds beautiful, with an endearingly campy performance by Samantha Robinson as a modern day witch looking for love with a penchant for passionate murder. It's so heavily stylized that it's off-putting at times, but if you're into style-as-substance it's well worth your time. The storytelling isn't the film's strong point, but it's so wonderfully designed that I had no problem with that. I love the costume design here; Robinson's outfits, makeup, and wigs are all amazing, my favorite of the year.



My Friend Dahmer - An adaptation of Backderf's 2012 graphic novel, the film follows young Jeffrey Dahmer in his final year of high school before he would become one of America's most notorious serial killers. It neither sensationalizes nor redeems Dahmer, and while the film doesn't do as good of a job capturing a moment in time the way the novel does, the film version tells a strong story with elements that may be uncomfortably familiar for anyone who felt like or was close to an outsider in high school. Ross Lynch's performance as Dahmer is exceptionally good and deserved more recognition than it got.
 

Roman J. Israel, Esq. - Denzel Washington's always great but this is definitely a different sort of role for him, turning in a fantastic performance as a savant law mega nerd who can't quite grasp his place in time. This is the second film Dan Gilroy's directed and it's very different from Nightcrawler but they share the same setting, a gold-drenched LA with some fantastic shots. Both films are so strongly told from the point of view of their lead characters that it infects the entire film; with Nightcrawler, we listen to heroic swells of music as Jake Gyllenhaal's sociopathic media mogul rises to power. With Roman J. Israel, we take a visual trip to the 1970's, with lighting and texture to the film that makes it feel like a period piece even as modern creations intrude on the dream. It's a little alarming and perfectly gets us inside of the head of Washington's awkward but well-intended lawyer.



Wonder Woman - In contrast to Logan, Wonder Woman is a film that follows most of the standard beats of the superhero film trend, but does it so well and with such energy that it's captivating. It's a great looking film in the same style as Zack Snyder's Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman, but director Patty Jenkins absolutely makes it her own. I'd have rather seen the film end in a way that more logically connected to Diana's dissolution with mankind when BvS begins, but time works in funny ways in these films anyway. Check out my previous review for a more in depth look.

Very Good - Strong films with standout elements.



Alien: Covenant - Ridley Scott's follow up to 2012's divisive Prometheus gives us way more of the titular Aliens while also doubling up Michael Fassbender's android David, giving us two incarnations of the character with starkly different personalities. The Book of Job symbolism of Prometheus gives way to a much more darkly comic mutation of The Tempest. I'm a big Prometheus fan, and much of that hinges on Fassbender's portrayal of the polite, murderous android with godlike intents. Here, we see him years later, successfully having played God on a now dead planet. The interactions between the two Fassbender-bots are stellar, far and away Covenant's high point. Unfortunately, it's also burdened by a lot of uninteresting action scenes, particularly in the final act. I'm not really interested in seeing more Aliens murdering and getting murdered; just give me more David waxing philosophical and getting more and more unhinged as we go.


Beauty and the Beast - Disney's latest remake of one of their animated classics, an enormously better film than last year's lifeless Jungle Book. This film expands on the world of the animated version and tries to close some plot holes that didn't really matter. Otherwise, it's an extremely faithful adaptation that doesn't do enough to differentiate itself, but it's still well made, well acted, and Belle's relationship with the Beast feels a little less disturbing this time around. The songs are all good, but not quite as good as the animated version, and I would have rather seen a giant wall of beef play Gaston, even though I like Luke Evans. What I'm saying is that he should have been played by The Rock.



Fate of the Furious - Speaking of The Rock! The 8th Furious film is the most Bond-like yet, even if it opens with the first genuine street race the series has seen in a while. These movies remain massively charming and spectacularly dumb, but there's such a disconnect between the Rock/Jason Statham plot and the rest of the cast's drama that it feels like two different scripts cobbled together. It's still ludicrous, it's still a ton of fun, and I'm still totally into the bombastically macho soap opera, but I don't really know where they can go from here. While Paul Walker's character was never the most interesting, the grounding he brought to the zanier sequels is missed. Huge points for the best title/sequel pun of the year, though.
 

Good Time - A desperate man struggles to break his handicapped brother out of jail through any means necessary. It's a heartbreaking and remarkably tense film that throws in a twist midway through that turns the whole thing into a bizarre farce. Both halves of the film are good, but they're driven by such different emotions that it's shocking and hard to reconcile. We've got a solid bumbling crime caper, but I was way more interested in the tense personal drama that fades away until the end. Either way, Robert Pattinson is great here and the movie's pretty throughout.


IT - In spite of opening with the death of an innocent child, IT is of the most optimistic horror films I've seen in recent years. Stephen King's coming of age/trauma story is moved from the 50's to the 80's and split into two parts, with this first film dealing entirely with the childhood days. It doesn't overplay the setting and isn't a nostalgia trip, which is a nice surprise; the film is an earnest look at using love and friendship to overcome struggles both spiritual and all too real. It ends a little too easily, but we'll see where the sequel goes with that. Bill SkarsgÄrd's take on the murder-clown villain Pennywise is a campy delight.


The LEGO Batman Movie - The follow up to 2014's LEGO Movie does away with the poignant real-world framing device and focuses entirely on the craziness of its own world. It's a fun ride and it cuts down the Batman mythology, showing him as a broken mess who's just making his life worse, in a much warmer way than Batman v. Superman did, so you're more likely to buy into it. It's not as interesting, but it's a movie about a LEGO Batman, so I can't really expect it to be. Lovably stupid, the film is driven by quality voice acting and a parade of weirdos from Batman's history. The non-Batman cameos feel bizarre here, but I still laughed.


Lucky - A meditation on growing old and facing down death focused on a man who strongly believes there's nothing else beyond. This was Harry Dean Stanton's final role before his death last year. Lucky is an emotional slice of life rather than a narrative plot, following the late days of Stanton's character as he goes about his routines, makes his peace with letting go, and gets some good, angry rants in. The film approaches death in an emotionally complex manner and doesn't look for any easy answers. Stanton is completely fantastic and we even have David Lynch showing up in a supporting role to offer a more cosmic philosophy in contrast to Stanton's character's nihilism. 2017's best performance by a turtle/tortoise.
 

Mother! - Expertly crafted; phenomenal, dizzying sound design and great camera work that never allows you to settle and get comfortable, with strong performances by both Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem. In spite of that, it's a very, very hard film to recommend. Its first act is immensely uncomfortable, but in a very approachable way, catching you off guard for just how off the rails it goes, showcasing some of the most awful violence I've seen in a film in years.

It's a religious allegory, a sort of zombie film, a war movie, etc. that focuses on Man consuming Woman in the name of art, painting the artist/muse relationship as a monstrous act and creativity as a place that exists on the border of life and death. There are a lot of interesting pieces to dig through, but it's so actively repellent that it's hard to even consider going back to do so.


Okja - A coming of age story of a young girl who goes on a global adventure to save her gigantic, genetically engineered pig. The tone is baffling, teetering from a PG adventure story to a foul-mouthed, grim R film. Jake Gyllenhaal gets plenty weird here, playing a nature show host who feels like a live-action take on Nintendo's Waluigi. It's a well made film that never quite landed as well for me as I wanted it to, but its standout moments are strong enough to make it a film worth checking out.



Paterson - A week in the life of a poet/bus driver drifting through his day to day life. Adam Driver's wonderful and subtle here as our lead, watching the daily routines of the people he meets and using this to inspire his private writing. It's a very slow, deliberately paced film that effectively gets the audience into the head of a man living in mild malaise. Features a good dog who makes a very bad decision.



The Shape of Water - Guillermo del Toro's best film since Pan's Labyrinth in 2006, The Shape of Water is a hard film to define. It's a dark comedy horror romance driven by the love between a mute woman and a Creature From the Black Lagoon in the heart of a secret government lab. With great art design and a wonderful cast of eccentric characters, this is an immediately endearing film in spite of what sounds like an outlandish premise. On the side of Love, we have a variety of minority characters trying to find their place in the world; on the side of Hate, we have Michael Shannon as an All-American Grotesque, abusing and embodying the worst elements of power. There's a lot of focus on the magic of classic Hollywood that fans of such films will enjoy, but this isn't my area of expertise.
 

Silence - A long, tough film that I ended up sort of hypnotized by, unable to look away, just letting every image, argument, and sound flow around me. It's the way I've seen people describe Lynch's Inland Empire, which I've never quite been able to connect with. You probably have to catch this at just the right mood and moment for it to really work, but once it got me it kept a hard hold. There are a couple of cheesy visual choices and some unnecessary voice over that felt redundant to the visual information we were already given and I would have liked to have seen more of Adam Driver's character, but otherwise this is a solid film. An examination of the border between faith and egotism that's only slightly marred by Andrew Garfield's struggles with his character's accent. A big focus in the second half is on the formative connections between religion and language and that was my favorite element here.
 

Spider-Man: Homecoming - I loved the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films, even the much maligned third movie. I was a big fan of the Marc Webb Amazing Spider-Man reboot series, but enjoyed them less than the Raimi films and am still bummed out that the series ended the way it did. I enjoyed Homecoming too, though less than Webb's films; maybe there's just a series of diminishing Spider-Returns here. I'm not interested in seeing Spider-Man fight alongside the Avengers at all, but I was happy to see this film actually address the idea that Tony Stark/Iron Man isn't worth idolizing. Michael Keaton is the high point here, playing the film's villain with complete sympathy, a good family man driven to crime by Stark Industries ruining his livelihood. It's not as well shot as either Raimi or Webb's films, but it's one of the best films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and one of the only ones to have a well-written villain.



Split - I had stopped paying attention to his films, but M. Night Shyamalan won me back in 2015 with the ludicrous dark comedy The Visit and the pilot episode of Wayward Pines. While Split isn't quite as good as those two, it's fun to watch James McAvoy ham it up as hard as possible, playing a series of different characters inside one body, eventually giving way to a monster within. Like The Visit, we get a remarkably oddball dance scene. Like the Wayward Pines pilot, dialogue is deliberately unnatural and off putting at first, and it all makes sense when you get to the end and realize we're in an over the top comic book universe, with the film revealing that it's a stealth sequel to 2000's Unbreakable. Anya Taylor-Joy continues to be excellent.
 

Star Wars: The Last Jedi -  A bloated follow-up to The Force Awakens, Last Jedi is nonetheless a better film. There may be way, way too many shots of the New Rebellion worrying about fuel levels in the galaxy's slowest chase scene and Finn and Rose's side adventure feels remarkably detached from the rest of the film, but I so completely love every scene with Luke. Rey and Kylo Ren's journey's are also quite well done, and it features more satisfying action than the hollow space battles in Force Awakens.

Thematically, Last Jedi continues examining a struggle for legacy, with Rey and Ren literally tearing a relic of the Skywalker legacy in two, while the other characters all fall into disaster by refusing to listen to one another. The galaxy of this film still feels too small and its politics nonsensical, but I feel personally vindicated seeing Luke address the failure of the Jedi Order and was so happy that he never picked up a weapon to do harm ever again. My biggest fear going into this movie was how Rian Johnson would handle Luke following the wonderful ending of his story in Return of the Jedi, and in spite of the problems I have with this film Luke is so well done that I can overlook them.

 
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri - A revenge story powered by emotional pain and disobedience both civil and criminal, Three Billboards focuses on a grieving mother aiming her fury at a local police force who has failed to solve her daughter's murder. It's a film filled with fantastic performances, from Frances McDormand's powerful lead role to supporting roles by Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, and Caleb Landry Jones. The town of Ebbing is presented as a sort of purgatory, a stagnant town untouched by justice either human or divine. Our cast is filled with characters that absolutely don't fit into simple Good Guy/Bad Guy dichotomies (mostly everyone we meet behaves horribly) and this is neither a  redemption nor a damnation story for anyone involved. It's a bleak film that hides its nihilism under a warmly lit (and surprisingly funny) surface. It's a film with an outsider (Irish director Martin McDonagh) looking at small town America and declaring the entire thing rotten.

Average - Some flawed, some decent films.


The Bad Batch - I was very excited for this one, but in spite of it being a film featuring cannibalistic, post-apocalyptic bodybuilders, it's just kind of boring. There are a few really great scenes and Keanu Reeves (with his sleaziest mustache yet) and Jason Mamoa are solid, but lead actress Suki Waterhouse is the weakest link and it doesn't really amount to a whole lot. I loved how it looked, but much of the film just rings hollow.


The Blackcoat's Daughter - A strong first half, with horror that focuses on loneliness and isolation, showing elements of The Shining. Then the second half happens and it becomes a bad slasher that makes a lot of the first half feel pointless. The final scene's good but the movie lost my interest by that point.



Dunkirk - It's not really fair to call this one average; it's got exceptionally good sound design, it's very well shot, and it never glorifies war. I just couldn't connect to it. I'm a Christopher Nolan fan but I've never enjoyed his action scenes, and this film focuses very heavily on them. The quieter moments are very nice, but none of the three plots hooked me the way I hoped they would.



It Comes At Night - Anyone who's seen a zombie movie before has seen this kind of paranoid story before, but it's exceptionally well shot and acted and focuses on discomfort over action or scares. If you're looking for something to make you jump, or if you're looking for sick zombie kills, you're not going to like this movie. Lots of focus on dreams, but very little blurring the lines of what's real. I liked that the film's aspect ratio got narrower and narrower as the film went on, it felt like it was trying to expel me personally from watching it. You're not watching a narrative as much as playing voyeur into the end of days, directly relating us to Travis, the point of view character. It's a good, tense movie, but it doesn't do anything revolutionary.
 

Stronger -  A mostly fine movie that doesn't have a lot to say. There's some criticism of the way media treats victims, false hero worship, the pain of being alienated in your own family, the stigmas of mental trauma, the commercialism of patriotism, etc., but it doesn't go strongly enough in any of these directions. Gylenhaal's fine, but not as great as he usually is. Excellent physical acting, though! Tatiana Maslaney is the best performer here, selling every scene with total authenticity.

Local complaint: Everyone in Chelmsford, MA in this movie speaks like a cartoon Bostonian and the Chelmsford bars really feel 100 percent like Boston ones. Chelmsford is treated as if it were part of Boston and while it doesn't detract from the film's quality it feels absolutely weird on a personal level.


Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets - I loved Lucy, so I was pumped to see what Luc Besson would do with his next film, an adaptation of a 1960's French comic book series. What we ended up with was basically a weaker version of The Fifth Element, minus the insane, gaudy joy that Chris Tucker brought to that film. The action scenes are endless and uninteresting, but the art design is on point, with Cara Delevingne wearing the year's biggest hat. So much of the film feels disconnected and episodic and our lead, played by the normally excellent Dane DeHaan, is just too unlikable to make what's meant to be a fun film work. I did like Rihanna's bizarre burlesque scene, but her character is almost immediately thrown away. Lots of good ideas here, possibly too many, and it doesn't cohere in an interesting way.


Below Average - Films flawed in significant ways.
 

A Monster Calls - A young boy, angry at the loss of his mother, releases a destructive force of nature that embodies his inner pain and rage. It's a solid premise not dissimilar to Colossal, but the execution is unfortunately lifeless. Way too much of the film focuses on stories within the story, with The Monster reading parables to us rather than showing our lead character living his life. The film's trailer is a more effective, emotional short film than the actual feature film.





The Dark Tower - In an age where two and a half to three hour films aren't uncommon and books are often split into multiple parts when adapted, how do you handle Stephen King's seven book series? Do you just adapt The Gunslinger as a standalone film and build on that if it's a success? Do you focus on the story of Roland, the Last Gunslinger, in the days of his youth? Do you do something entirely new?

Apparently, the answer Columbia Pictures found was "Write one hour and a half story that contains pieces of all seven books and call it a day." This film has absolutely no room to breathe, features action that looks and feels like a poor Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, and turns a story of a grim, dying world into an ultra-sanitized Young Adult novel. I have no idea who the target audience is here; viewers unfamiliar with the books will find it completely incoherent, with next to no motivation driving any of the characters, and long-time fans will find a film that pays only the slimmest lip service to King's work.

These books aren't perfect, and often do veer into poor writing choices, but they're energetic and filled with wonderfully bizarre images and surreal landscapes and monsters. The film adaptation does the worst thing it could do: It takes everything weird and wonderful and makes it ordinary. This story deserved better.




The Girl With All the Gifts - This is basically a greatest hits zombie movie, mixing The Last of Us, Dawn of the Dead, and 28 Days Later, but without the strength of direction and strong characterization that made those so good. The action is standard, it doesn't really try to be scary, and the premise is good but just lacks a special touch to make it something unique. World's ended, zombies everywhere, children born during the apocalypse are intelligent but hungry for blood. It's told from the point of view of a Not Zombie, accompanied by some Soldier Guys, a doctor who wants to dissect her to immediately find an instant cure, and a teacher who becomes a mother figure. The perspective change is interesting, but if you're tired of zombie stuff this isn't going to change your mind. I've seen this too many times.
 


Justice League - Man of Steel gave us a Superman driven to do good but pained by the burden of trying to find his place in the world. Batman v. Superman gave us a Batman so traumatized by a national disaster that a good man turned toward the vile allure of fascism. Wonder Woman gave us a strong woman driven by her desire to end war.

Justice League is a sequel to all these films that gives us a bored Batman who begs Wonder Woman to be the Team Mom. Lois Lane goes from a strong voice in the world to a sad sack who's the butt of a bad sex joke. The Amazons go from ornate, armored warriors to fighters in leather bikinis. The film cuts between nicely framed shots by Zack Snyder and quick and sloppy reshoots by Joss Whedon. It's one of the most corporately driven sequels I've ever seen, expelling anything of interest from the previous films.

It's hard to blame either director, but this isn't up to par for either one of them. Superman coming back to life and saying "I feel itchy" is all on Whedon though. It's not the worst film I saw this year, and parts of it are still a lot of fun. I like the new characters; Flash, Cyborg, and Aquaman are all entertaining, even if Cyborg's story feels weirdly truncated. There's zero coherence between the Superman of this film and the character Henry Cavill played in his previous appearances. His burdens have been lifted, his struggles thrown out the window, and we're left with a tremendously boring character who never has to struggle to win. It's a trashy, dumb way to throw out multiple films worth of development.

Replacing Cavill's good looks with a smoothed out, CGI mess in order to hide the mustache the actor grew for a different film before coming back to this one for reshoots sounds like a bad joke. It sounds too stupid to be true, but here we are. This is 2017.




XX - An anthology film featuring four horror shorts by female directors. I love the idea of XX, but the problem with anthology films is that one bad one can bring down the whole project. In this case, we've got two bad ones: The Box is a story about how motherhood eats you alive, told in a way that varies between absolutely mundane and pointlessly gross, and Don't Fall is a very standard werewolf story with unremarkable direction. Her Only Living Son, a short in which we see a young boy growing into a demon, is the most well directed of the group, and The Birthday Party is the most unique, a pitch-black comedy by Annie Clark/St. Vincent. It's a grotesque farce that just keeps topping itself and it's far and away the most interesting of the batch. Rather than watch the whole film, I recommend just checking out these two and ignoring the others.

Awful - Films with no redeeming qualities.




What Happened to Monday? -This will probably be a trash-film cult classic in some circles. If you're as absolutely in love with Noomi Rapace as this film's director is, you'll get seven copies of her here, each with their own paper-thin personality. Unfortunately they're all stuck in the dumbest, least exciting action film I've seen in years. Awful in every sense.


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That's all for this year, until I see another film and go back and stealthily edit this article! Let me know what you thought of these films and any I missed, I'd love to know your favorites of 2017.


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