Top Movies You Won’t Find on 2017’s Top Ten Lists

Every year I highlight 3 movies that didn’t end up on any critic’s top ten list. That’s slightly misleading; I survey this Metacritic collection of lists, and if the movie doesn’t appear on 3 or more lists, it gets considered for this post. If I missed a list, it’s all over, the world, everything. For everyone. I’m sorry.

After the Storm: Hirokazu Kore-eda is a celebrated Japanese director who makes small, quiet movies. Ten years ago, his masterpiece, Still Walking, was released here in the states, and its portrayal of a family still struggling to move on after tragedy got at more truths in single scenes than most movies do in their entire running time. After the Storm does the same, even though its primary focus is not grief or regret but addiction and responsibility.

Alien: Covenant:  I’ll forgive you if you didn’t like Ridley Scott’s first Alien prequel from 2012, Prometheus, because it was purposefully ambivalent about providing answers. Covenant is not, and its themes are more contained within the story portrayed onscreen, rather than flailing about at philosophical questions the story cannot quite support. It also gives us another stellar Michael Fassbender performance and some truly chilling horror sequences that belong among the franchise’s best.

The Salesman: Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi burst onto the international scene with 2011’s A Separation, which went onto win the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. That movie provided a window into a family navigating the perilous waters of Iran’s social norms as they underwent a divorce. Farhadi’s subsequent movies (2013’s The Past, 2015’s About Elly) were similarly incisive in their dissection of societal expectations in unusual circumstances, but The Salesman is probably Farhadi’s best since A Separation, taking its situation to its extreme without crossing over into self-parody.

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COCO: Simple, but Beautiful

COCO: Simple, but Beautiful

I cried a lot during this movie. I’m not ashamed of it – I’m not the only grown man I’ve talked to who cried during this movie. I think it’s a chronic thing, an epidemic of sorts among grown men who see Inside Out, and I want all you other grown men to know ahead of time, so you can practice hiding your faces from your significant others and sniffling quietly enough to not attract any attention.

I wrote that two years ago in my last review of a Pixar movie. Replace “Inside Out” with “Coco” and this would be a fitting introduction to Pixar’s newest movie. It’s worth wondering if Pixar is actually good at conjuring emotions at the drop of a musical cue or if I’m just prone to blubbering. I hope you’ll believe me when I say that both are true.

Coco focuses on a boy (the winsome Anthony Gonzalez) of about 12 years who gets trapped in the Land of the Dead and sets off to find his great-great-grandfather to help him cross back over to the living. All signs point to his great-great-grandfather being the most famous Latin singer of all time, Ernesto de la Cruz (a surprising Benjamin Bratt), who is also from the boy’s hometown. The boy happens to love de la Cruz’s music and wants to be a musician himself, but his family despises music and shuns all traces of it from their lives, due to the boy’s great-great-grandfather leaving his wife with a young daughter to pursue his dream of being a musician.

The boy’s name is actually Miguel, not Coco. Coco is Miguel’s great-grandmother, the aforementioned young daughter of Miguel’s great-great-grandfather, and she is still alive, though she barely talks, and when she does, what she says is either incoherent or irrelevant to the conversation. You won’t understand why the movie isn’t named Miguel until you see the whole thing. Coco is the movie’s emotional hinge; the floodgates don’t open without her.

And you’ll see from a mile away that they’re about to open, to be honest. While Coco is an engaging story with good voice work from its cast and a poignant ending, much of the movie is fairly predictable. The middle section of the movie had the potential to be something new, much in the way that Joy’s and Sadness’s journey in Inside Out was wholly original, but the movie is more concerned with hitting the plot beats that get you to the ending you already know it coming. Predictability is not necessarily a fatal flaw; I still enjoyed the movie, and there’s something comfortable about knowing where a movie is going. But you mourn for what might have been.

But oh! How beautiful is the Land of the Dead in Coco! For any regret I had for the story Coco could have been, I had twice the excitement for how it looks. The colors pop, the lines of the architecture stir the spirit, the physics of creating such a world boggle the mind. Pixar has always been ahead of the curve among mainstream studios at treating each screenshot like an individual work of art. Coco’s swirls of brightness and rich detail take this to another level.

And in the end, it didn’t matter that I saw the ending coming, because I cried like a baby anyway. If you’ve ever witnessed an older relative begin to disappear within themselves, you will too. I expect a lot from Pixar movies, and even when the studio stumbles in its storytelling, it still has a better handle than anyone else on the emotional connections at the heart of families. So who cares if Coco took a conventional approach? The conventional approach worked.

With THOR: RAGNAROK, Marvel Is Learning, and We Are Winning

With THOR: RAGNAROK, Marvel Is Learning, and We Are Winning

Without fail, upon the release of a new Marvel movie, critical cynicism reaches a new peak. Make no mistake, Thor: Ragnarok has gotten good reviews. But even the favorable reviews seem skeptical this gigantic Marvel experiment. An otherwise positive notice at Vox notes the “current glut of superhero TV shows and movies.” The writer isn’t wrong- it feels like there’s too much of everything at this point- but the phrase is a microcosm of critical feeling about Marvel movies: there’s too many of these things, and we’re tired of watching them.

It’s an understandable feeling, but audiences don’t seem to agree. The three Marvel Cinematic Universe movies released this year (including Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Spider-Man: Homecoming) are all in the top half of all the franchise’s opening weekend totals (17 in all), which suggests audience interest is still high. And when people see the movies, they’ve told other people they like them; all three are now in the franchise’s top ten grosses (and Ragnarok will likely rise into the top half), suggesting word of mouth continues to be strong for Marvel’s movies.

Of course, if you’re looking at my use of the movies’ popularity as an argument for their quality and about to tell me that popularity isn’t an indicator of quality, I’m way ahead of you. A lot of movies make a lot of money and are still bad movies. What I’m pointing out is the discrepancy between the appetites of audiences and critics. Critics want to be thoughtful about movies, and many people in the general populace couldn’t care less about thinking about movies.

One of the reasons it’s hard to be think critically about a Marvel movie is that many of them have been tied to setting up the next one, especially a lot of them between the first Avengers and the second. Movies that don’t stand alone don’t stand up well to critical thought. But the three Marvel movies released this year suggest Marvel may be changing its model, and critics and audiences both win as a result.

For one, Marvel appears to be relaxing its grip on the tone of its movies. Thor: Ragnarok is the most extreme example of this yet. Taika Waititi, celebrated in indie circles for What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, strikes a much lighter chord in this direction than any Marvel director yet. Even James Gunn with his Guardians movies and Peyton Reed with Ant-Man were a little more beholden than Waititi to the Marvel tone, which allows for humor but never allows it to be the point of a scene. Humor is the whole point of Thor: Ragnarok’s entirety.

That’s not to say Waititi doesn’t take these characters seriously. There are real arcs to all the main players: Thor (a Chris Hemsworth who finally gets to really let his comedy chops loose) gradually comes to accept his role as Asgard’s protector, Hulk (a manic Mark Ruffalo) finds belonging, Valkyrie (a scene-stealing Tessa Thompson) regains her purpose. These are legitimate plotlines given weight by a director who cares about these characters. But part of their growth involves flying into a wormhole named the Devil’s Anus. The humor is baked into the plot, which makes for a movie with joy and delight at its core.

Marvel also appears more willing to allow its movies to function on their own without constant callbacks to the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That’s not to say Thor: Ragnarok is completed devoid of references to the other Avengers. But Ragnarok’s plot appears to be unconnected to the main thrust of Marvel’s current phase, allowing Waititi to tell a complete story from beginning to end. The movie’s themes are the better for it: a nation-state’s value lying in its people and not its land, a hero learning to take ownership of his fate, coming to terms with the sins of our fathers, etc. None of these would have been better served by a movie beholden to other plots outside of its own, without a true beginning or end.

Of course, if you know anything at all about the comics, it’s not hard to draw the lines from Ragnarok to the rest of the MCU. Hela (Cate Blanchett, devouring the CGI scenery), Thor’s sister, is the goddess of death, and upcoming MCU villain Thanos commits many of his most heinous acts in the comics to impress Death. Also, apparently Thanos and Hela recently made out in the comics. So the lines are there, but unlike in previous MCU installments, you aren’t forced to look at them. Ragnarok feels like a movie that shapes the MCU rather than one shaped by it.

The best way Marvel shows in Thor: Ragnarok that it is learning is Tessa Thompson. Of course, there’s the fact that she’s a black actress integral to the plot, which is a nice change of pace from blockbusters in general, not to mention from the largely white, male MCU. But the comic-book character her role is based on, Valkyrie, is a blonde, blue-eyed woman from a clan filled with blonde, blue-eyed women. Seeing as all of these characters are derived from Norse mythology, their complexion and hair color makes sense. So Marvel’s decision to cast Thompson in the role feels like a deliberate statement about what they value in their characters (at least going forward), and it’s not their race.

Waititi surely had a lot to do with the decision, as did the fact that Thompson has proven herself to be among the best actresses of her generation already in multiple roles. But whoever’s decision it was, Marvel had to approve it. They also had to approve Waititi’s conscious effort to include the aboriginal people of Australia in the production crew and cast, seeing as much of the film was made there. This isn’t Marvel’s normal way of doing things, and the willingness to allow modifications to their process is encouraging.

Marvel could keep doing the same thing and would likely make a lot of people happy and continue making a lot of money. But they are gradually changing how they function as a creative organization, and it’s showing in the quality of the movies. Critical cynicism may never go away, but if Marvel continues in this direction, it will undoubtedly decline. And we will undoubtedly win.

Quick Take: The Big Sick

If we have to keep watching Judd Apatow movies, I pray he continues embracing a diversity of voices. Trainwreck wasn’t much more than that, but at least it wasn’t a schlubby, white, male comedian telling the same story Apatow has been telling since The 40-Year-Old Virgin- essentially a romantic comedy from the perspective of a child stuck in the body of a man. Some of those have been worthwhile (Virgin, Knocked Up) and others have been not (Funny People).

The Big Sick, from Pakistani-American comedian and Silicon Valley star Kumail Nanjiani, has more ground to cover than a man who can’t get his life together in time to hold on to the right girl (in this case, played by Zoe Kazan, who kind of runs away with the movie). Kumail is afraid his family will disown him if he commits to a white girl rather than one of the Pakistani girls his mother keeps trying to set him up with. Oh, and that white girl goes into a coma after a rare condition exacerbates an infection.

The movie is always more than its conceit. Meaning, it’s never just “that rom-com where the girl goes into a coma.” This is probably because the story is based on Nanjiani’s real-life relationship with his real-life wife and co-screenwriter, Emily V. Gordon. There are a lot of laughs, especially once Emily’s parents (played by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter, both pitch perfect) show up. But it’s the drama, not the comedy, that sticks with you. Like most romantic comedies, you’re never unsure of how it will end, especially since Kumail and Emily are still married. But unlike most romantic comedies, The Big Sick fills out its edges with who these characters really are. And, equally as rare, the movie uncovers some truths about the messy relationship between time, healing, and love.

TL;DR: Worthy of the upcoming sequel, The Big Sick 2: Bigger and Sicker (unconfirmed).

Blade Runner 2049, the Art-House Movie Trying to Be a Blockbuster

Blade Runner 2049, the Art-House Movie Trying to Be a Blockbuster

The headlines surrounding the Blade Runner sequel right now are about how it bombed at the box office. Blade Runner 2049 made about $9 million less than it was expected to, which wouldn’t be a big deal, except that a $31 million opening doesn’t bode well for its chances to recoup its $150 million budget. I don’t think anyone outside of the studio that released it was surprised. It baffled me that they were treating a sequel to an uber-genre box office bomb from 1982 as if it were going to be a blockbuster. Sure, the original Blade Runner became a cult hit after a long history of LaserDisc success, director’s cuts, and retrospective critical acclaim. But they’re called cult hits for a reason, and it’s not because everyone wants to be in the cult.

Though Blade Runner 2049 may be mimicking its predecessor in box office non-success, its critical success upon release is far outpacing the original’s. When the original came out, critics hated the voiceover that the studio forced director Ridley Scott to add after they decided audiences needed to identify more with Harrison Ford’s Deckard. In contrast, 2049 has an 88% on Rotten Tomatoes and a Metascore of 81. Critics have especially high praise for Roger Deakins’s cinematography and the way director Denis Villenueve expands on the original’s themes of identity and reality.

Make no mistake, Blade Runner 2049 is often breathtaking to look at, and its themes are thoughtfully presented in the screenplay and the movie’s visuals. The original focused on Ford’s detective and his hunt for escaped replicants (what this world calls its androids), while leaving it up in the air through the end of the movie whether or not Deckard is himself a replicant. 2049, on the other hand, erases any ambiguity from the beginning by establishing in the first scene that Ryan Gosling’s detective, K, is a replicant. The audience knowing K’s status allows Villenueve to expand on the original’s themes rather than simply replicate them.

If you don’t like science fiction or if you don’t like slow movies, Blade Runner 2049 probably isn’t going to do it for you. It’s beautifully shot, and there are some compelling moments of action, but this is an art movie disguised by blockbuster marketing. I love genre movies and films that take their time, so it would seem that Blade Runner 2049 was tailor-made for me. And I liked it. But as much as the first movie is sewn into the seams of 2049, the new ultimately suffers from comparison to the old.

The original movie, by keeping Deckard’s identity a mystery, mirrored real-life questions about human origin. Rutger Hauer’s replicant villain, Roy Batty, provides the movie’s climax with his death and his breathless description of the miraculous sights he had seen in space. This is one of the great scenes in all of cinematic science fiction, Batty clearly articulating why being designed doesn’t mean he deserves to live any less than a human, all while Scott lights Hauer almost as if he were an angel. And this, after he saves Deckard’s life, knowing he will die regardless. But the movie continues after that and ends without Deckard discovering what he is, a human or an android. He runs off anyway with the replicant he loves (Sean Young). There are no easy answers regarding our existence, but that’s no reason to forego living life.

2049, by making his identity clear from the beginning, there is ultimately no mystery about K’s origins. His purpose is up in the air for much of the movie, but 2049 does not leave this ambiguous the way the original did with Deckard. The ending is purposely similar to the 1982 ending, but the wonder is gone. Instead, everything is cold, pragmatic, full of purpose rather than spirit.

That’s not to say the movie is heartless; I was quite moved. But where Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner raised its eyes to the heavens in the end, Denis Villenueve’s remains grounded. I like Villenueve’s; but I’d honestly rather look up.

Movie Bummys: Best Movies of 2016

Movie Bummys: Best Movies of 2016

Top Ten

10. Hell or High Water: I saw someone write last year that Hell or High Water was a movie about “Trump country”, which is one of the more annoying phrases you could include in a thinkpiece. Their point was that the movie is about the sufferings of flyover country, which is fair, but Trump doesn’t come to mind when I watch this. Obviously there are people with big names that have screwed over a lot of people, but watching the taut filmmaking and intimate story of Hell or High Water is a reminder that corruption runs from the top of the totem pole all the way down.

9. Everybody Wants Some!!: Everybody Wants Some!!, Richard Linklater’s spiritual sequel to his 1993 classic Dazed and Confused, is more of a college movie than a baseball movie, but both aspects are crucial to appreciating it. As a college movie, Everybody is rambling and aimless, in a good way; as a baseball movie, Everybody captures the looming uncertainty of a prospect’s future. The combination of the two manages to concoct a rare formula of haphazard poignancy.

8. La La Land: At this point, I’ve mostly forgotten what the backlash was even about. I mostly just remember how wrecked I was after the final scene, one of the most effective endings to a mainstream movie in recent memory. And I mostly just want to watch La La Land again as soon as possible and lets its musical and visual beauty just wash over me.

7. Kubo and the Two Strings: There are franchises and sequels in the honorable mention section of this post, but it’s telling that the Top Ten is made of up of original movies. Kubo and the Two Strings, a fable from the stop-motion masters at Laika, may be the most original of them all. Kubo, a young boy with a musical gift, must team up with a snow monkey and a giant beetle to confront his grandfather (the moon) and his aunts to retrieve his left eye and avenge his- listen, it’s good, I promise.

6. Green Room: Sadly, Green Room ended up being more relevant than I’m sure director Jeremy Saulnier wanted. Featuring an eerie Patrick Stewart performance and the best work of the late Anton Yelchin’s career, Green Room is scary as hell, and not just because it’s a horror movie where white supremacists are the monsters. It also includes some of the most suspenseful scenes of the year with a soundtrack that ratchets up the intensity.

5. Jackie: Jackie is not a traditional biopic. Directed by Chilean director Pablo Larraín, Jackie gives us a truly intimate portrait of the former First Lady by showing us days following the death of her husband. One could be frustrated with not seeing more of her life, but biopics that attempt to show the subject’s whole life often try to do too much. By showing us only a small glimpse of Jackie Kennedy at her most vulnerable time, Larraín and star Natalie Portman paint a complex picture of a woman who also happened to be an icon. Jackie contains multitudes.

4. Arrival: Science fiction does not have to dabble in the realm of ideas. Cool lasers and aliens are often enough to satisfy me. Yet the genre lends itself so well to the exploration of the themes of discovery and progress, it is hard to find a science fiction movie that does not touch on them. Arrival may surpass them all. With a simple conceit, but a remarkably intricate inner structure, Arrival hits on all levels intellectual and emotional.

3. American Honey: When I first saw director Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, I tweeted that it was the best American indie movie I’d seen since 2008’s Chop Shop, which was clearly not true, even at the time, since I had already seen the two movies above American Honey on this list. What American Honey and Chop Shop do have in common is that they both personify the fight to survive in the midst of the American dream. Sasha Lane’s character in Honey, Star, joins up with a traveling magazine sales team partly because she needs to make some money. Jake (Shia LeBeouf), the man who recruits her, is a part of the team because he thinks he will hustle his way to prosperity. Everyone on the team is either forgotten by society or used by others as a foothold to a future they will never see, but Arnold finds triumph in the life they build anyway.

2. The Witch: There are three horror movies that have created a ripple in the structure of my Christian faith. I don’t mean to say that they shook my faith, only caused me to think differently about my God and His will. The first was The Exorcist, which is so effective in its terrifying portrayal of the random corruption of innocence that I was forced to consider what the existence of demons truly means. The second was The Exorcism of Emily Rose, which is not a particularly good movie, but which so directly faces the idea that God allows awful things to happen to the people who love Him. The third is The Witch, which deals with the seductive power of the devil in the face of a cold, godless world. The Witch was marketed as a horror movie, and it is certainly creepy and suspenseful, but it is not a traditional horror movie in the slightest. It is horrifying, but more for its ideas than for its jump scares. The ending alone would place The Witch among the horror movie greats, but it’s the slowly unraveling journey there that gives the ending its power and ultimately makes The Witch among the best movies of the year.

1. Moonlight: In the Oscars’ entire 89-year history, there had never been a mistake like the one at the 2017 Academy Awards. Moonlight will always be associated with everything surrounding that error: Warren Beatty’s confusion, the grace and pain of the La La Land producers, the wild applause that greeted Moonlight’s announcement, and the revelation later that one of the accountants messed up because he was trying to get a freaking selfie with Emma Stone. It truly was a historic moment, so if Moonlight forever brings up that memory, that’s okay.

But its win was historic for other reasons too: the least expensive Best Picture winner (by far), the first with all African-American actors in its starring roles, the first with an explicitly LGBTQ character as its main character (you could count 1969’s Midnight Cowboy, but because that film basically treats Jon Voight’s character’s sexuality as a pathology, I don’t think you should).

Even if Moonlight was not a historic Best Picture winner, it would have deserved to be remembered. I find myself wanting to tell people they should see it, that they have to see it, even if they don’t care about movies or awards or the red carpet. My Bible Belt, Oklahoma world often rejects people like Moonlight’s main character, Chiron, both for his blackness and his homosexuality. And if we don’t reject him, we pigeonhole him, we have low expectations for him, we forget about him, or maybe we feel sorry for him. What Moonlight does so well, is that it asks its actors not to be black or gay, but to be human. And when a movie presents actual people to us rather than characters, it’s a must-see.

 Another Fifteen

13th
Captain America: Civil War
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
The Fits
Hail, Caesar!
I Am Not Your Negro
The Lobster
Manchester by the Sea
Moana
Paterson
Pete’s Dragon
Silence
Sunset Song
Tower
Zootopia

Past Top Tens

2015

Mad Max: Fury Road
Inside Out
The Look of Silence
It Follows
Creed
Ex Machina
Phoenix
The Big Short
Sicario
Spotlight

2014

Selma
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Whiplash
Inherent Vice
Two Days, One Night
Boyhood
Guardians of the Galaxy
Ida
Snowpiercer
Blue Ruin

2013

12 Years a Slave
Before Midnight
Her
Inside Llewyn Davis
Gravity
Captain Phillips
The World’s End
Short Term 12
American Hustle
The Past

2012

Zero Dark Thirty
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
The Dark Knight Rises
Silver Linings Playbook
Amour
Chronicle
Django Unchained
Moonrise Kingdom
Holy Motors
Life of Pi

2011

Rango
Take Shelter
Kinyarwanda
The Tree of Life
The Artist
A Separation
Warrior
Battle Royale
Drive
Super 8

Stephen King’s It, Brought to Frightening Life

Stephen King’s It, Brought to Frightening Life

Studio horror movies are in something of a renaissance right now. It wasn’t that long ago that Hollywood’s idea of a scary movie stretched from cheap J-horror knockoffs to uninspired remakes of iconic classics. Good horror movies have always thrived along the edges of the industry, finding cheap ways to make audiences jump while functioning as metaphors for reality’s ills. That is still the case today, but mainstream studios have caught on to a formula that works too.

This year has been especially great, what with Get Out becoming a veritable phenomenon, Annabelle: Creation overperforming critical expectations, and mother! sparking conversational controversy. But It dwarfs them all in terms of success, seeing as it just became the highest-grossing horror movie of all time this last week. It is poised to cross the $300 million mark within the next 2 weeks, which is insane for a movie without a name actor or director. On top of all that, its word-of-mouth has not slowed down, which means It will stay near the top of the box office for a great length of time.

Bad movies make a lot of money all the time. But It avoided falling into easy horror movie pitfalls by following a formula established in the early 2010s by Insidious and Conjuring director James Wan: tell a character-driven story and let the scares grow organically from there. Other mainstream directors who have successfully pulled this off this decade are Scott Derrickson (Sinister, Deliver Us from Evil, and then Doctor Strange) and Andy Muschietti (Mama and, whaddaya know, It). These men have taken an approach that has worked forever in indie horror and applied a slick studio budget. Surprise! Movies are better when they not only look expensive but care about their characters.

It, based on the 1986 book by Stephen King (which is 1116 pages, by the way- 1116 pages!), introduces us to a group of seven kids growing up in the town of Derry, Maine, in 1988. The town is under a curfew, due to the recent disappearances of several children. Our seven protagonists are all social outcasts at their high school; they call themselves the Losers Club. One by one, they have encounters with a terrifying evil force in the town. The force, which they call It and which often manifests as a malevolent clown named Pennywise, preys on their fears, taking the form of whatever will frighten them the most.

It also targets their problems at home to break them down and divide them. The main character, Bill, has a brother, Georgie, who was taken by It; It manifests as Georgie throughout the movie, taunting Bill’s helplessness to save him. Mike’s parents died in a fire, so It takes the form of disembodied arms reaching around doors engulfed in flames. Beverly, the lone girl, has an abusive father, so It plays with her emotions surrounding his perverse feelings for her.

The movie is at its best here, at the intersection of the kids’ insecurities as high schoolers and It’s terrifying presence. Horror movies are usually better and scarier when they are about something, and It, for all of its jump scares and horrifying imagery and the extreme levels of gore, is ultimately about growing up. A lot of movies are about growing up, but It makes growing up seem absolutely petrifying. It’s horrors are supernatural, but the supernatural scares of It expose the natural scares of adolescence in a world where evil is real and doesn’t look like a clown.

I read It when I was in high school and related to its portrayal of outsider kids. I would not have called myself a loser back then, but I definitely wasn’t a part of any cool crowd either. The book put into words that in-between feeling I had as a teenager, scared that people would see me for who I really was, still a child yet not a man. The movie captures this too, in images rather than words. The best horror movies are about something, and It is one of the best.