Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, January 19, 2018

Director Report Card: Spike Jonze (2009)

3. Where the Wild Things Are

For a picture book that is exactly ten sentences long, Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” has inspired many adaptations. The book's lively but simple prose and immediately recognizable illustrations have been adapted into a 1974 animated short, a successful series of commercials, a balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, an opera, and quite a lot of merchandise. A film adaptation was first bandied about in the early eighties, with Disney wanting to make a traditional animation/computer animated feature. This evolved into a fully CGI feature in 2001, which was also abandoned. Instead, Sendak’s book would come to the big screen in live action, directed by Spike Jonze. That is probably not the first person you’d think of to adapt a beloved children’s book. Accordingly, Jonze’s film did poorly at the box office and alienated its audience... Except for the people who loved it.

Max is seven years old. He doesn’t have many friends and is prone to emotional outbursts. His big sister is growing older and more distant from him. His mother loves him dearly but is reeling from a recent divorce, a demanding job, and a search for new romance. Fed up, Max puts on a wolf costume, rants and screams at his mom, before running away from home. He hops on a boat, sails across the ocean, and lands on an island inhabited by monsters. The Wild Things accept the rowdy Max as their king and he quickly becomes one of them. However, this peace only lasts for so long.

In the lead-up to its release, “Where the Wild Things Are” was repeatedly clarified – by its director, writers, and studio – as not really a children’s movie. It’s an intense, melancholy movie and it’s hard to say whether kids, raised on more hyperactive entertainment, would respond to it. Instead, Jonze has called “Where the Wild Things Are” a movie about childhood. And not the perpetually sunny, sanitized version of childhood too often presented. Emotions run high in the film’s world. There is room for happiness, adventure, and glee. There is also room for anger, sadness, and loneliness.

This is most apparent in Max himself. He is not your typical movie kid. He doesn’t always have a snide remark at his disposal. He also isn’t a source of wisdom far beyond his years. Instead, he’s as much a Wild Thing as any of the creatures on the island. He’s incredibly rambunctious, introduced in the first scene wrestling with his dog. He’s a source of constant imagination, as he makes up crazy, funny stories off the top of his head. He’s also ruled by his wildest emotions, impulsive, angry, and self-centered. (This is apparent in the opening credits, where Max’s own name has been scrawled over the production logos.) In many ways, this whimsical fantasy film is one of the more accurate depictions of how kids really act.

In addition to its overly downbeat tone, there’s another reason “Where the Wild Things” probably wouldn’t appeal to kids much. Most children are probably not interested in psychology and narrative symbolism. As in Jonze’s collaborations with Charlie Kaufman, the director is not especially subtle about this. The Wild Things clearly correlate to Max’s family members and his feelings about himself. So does the story. The event that spark Max’s rebellion is his sister’s new friends destroying his winter fort. On the island, Max leads the Wild Things in a mission to build an elaborate fort. This structure also ends up imperiled, by changes in Max’s life that he can’t control.

For more specific examples: Catherine Keener plays Max’s mother in the prologue and epilogue. She also voices Judith, a Wild Thing that is alternatively caring and nurturing but also acts upset and irrational in ways the boy doesn’t understand. There’s Ira, a soft-spoken creature Judith is always hanging around, seemingly representing Max’s absent father. Meanwhile, there’s K.W., another female Wild Thing who Max is very close to. However, she also brings new friends into his secret world – a pair of owls Max literally can’t understand – making the boy fearful that she’s outgrowing him. Like his sister.

Most of the Wild Things represent something about Max himself. The bearded, stripped Wild Thing is named Carol. He is the most like Max. He has fits of intense anger, striking out at those around him, destroying things. He doesn’t understand why he does this. He has dreams of reaching out to people but always ends up hurt. Carol is usually accompanied by Douglas, a bird-like Wild Thing that seems to represent an ideal friend to Max. Douglas is always understanding and compassionate towards Carol, even when he’s hurt. There’s Alexander, a goat-like Wild Thing who is physically smaller than the others. He’s never respected by his friends, who ignore, belittle, and disregard him. This must be how Max feels the world treats him. Lastly, there’s the largely quiet bull, a figure that frightens Max somewhat. He seems representative of a quiet, inner turmoil that Max can’t quite face up to yet.

Translating Sendak’s distinctive illustrations into live action must’ve been a challenge. Jonze’s team manages to put their own spin on the characters while remaining true to their spirit. The Wild Things were brought to life with a combination of large, animatronic suits and computer animation. The result is highly effective. They have the weight of practical effects but the range of digital animation. The Wild Things are odd to look at, maybe even a little scary. They are imposing but still look like the kind of monsters a young child would draw. Yet their faces are expressive. They are fully formed characters, with body languages and quirks all of their own.

The Wild Things would not be as well realized without the cast. James Gandolfini probably seems like an odd choice for a children’s book adaptation. Yet his ability to be deeply vulnerable and animalisitcally intense made him perfect for Carol. Paul Dano is funny, sweet and put-upon as Alexander. Chris Cooper, going in a very different direction than his “Adaptation” character, is the very ideal of calm compassion as Douglas. Keener is alternatively funny and prickly, as Max’s mom and Judith. The film’s greatest find is Max Records, a child performer of boundless energy who was exactly right as this story’s Max.

Jonze’s visual direction is not typical of kid’s movies either. He employs a handheld approach occasionally, getting low and to the ground with his characters. This approach is never shaky or unfocused but instead intimate and immediate. Jonze’s greatest trademark is in the film’s tone. The humor tends to be absurd and cynical. Such as the bleating owls who tell knock-knock jokes, the sudden appearance of a giant dog, or the surreal comments from the Wild Things and Max. Jonze also incorporates some gleefully weird imagery in this thing. Such as Carol tearing off Douglas’ arms and the Wild Thing bleeding sawdust. (He later replaces the arm with a stick.) Or K.W. swallowing Max to keep him safe, the boy dropping into a shaggy and slimy stomach.

By concerning itself with such intense emotions, “Where the Wild Things Are” nearly becomes an exhausting experience. Watching Carol lash out at the people/things that love him is difficult and upsetting. The eventual conclusion leaves the monsters in a less-than-settled place. The final exchange between Max and Carol is an intuitive act of belonging and understanding. As in Sendak’s book – where Max returns to his bedroom, his still warm dinner waiting for him – the cinematic Max returns home, a place where he is loved and accepted. This is the root of the work: People yell and cry sometimes but those that love you forgive all.

It’s not shocking that something like this would leave a lot of people baffled. “Where the Wild Things” are is essentially a 100 million dollar art movie, based on a beloved children’s classic. Audiences that went in expecting typical kid movie shenanigans, fart jokes and covers of pop songs, were surely horrified. (Notably, most complaints like this came from parents, not their children) The soundtrack is not even that routine. Karen O., of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, provides several original songs. They have a quirky, home-made, and utterly sincere feeling to them. The film and musician could not be better matched.

Watching “Where the Wild Things Are” has always been an emotional experience for me. I saw the film in theaters with my mom, a few days before I moved out of my childhood home. She started crying before the opening titles came up and we were both bawling before the film ended. (Mom found the film a bit too prickly and downbeat on that first viewing but has grown to like it more over later viewings.) A movie that makes me cry that much, that really earns those tears, can’t help but get a high rating from me. It’s an astute motion picture, beautifully realized with some powerful things to say about how tumultuous childhood can be. [Grade: A-]

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Director Report Card: Spike Jonze (2002)

2. Adaptation.

Describing anything as the most original something in however many years is a loaded statement. Because, really, who decides such things? Yet “Being John Malkovich” was surely a candidate for most original something in however many years when it came out. That must’ve been a hard act to follow. That successor was an adaptation of “The Orchid Thief,” a non-fiction book Charlie Kaufman had been hired to adapt in 1997. The project mutated into something very different as he wrote it though. It’s hard not to imagine Jonze being attracted to the script, wanting to re-team with his “Being John Malkovich” scribe on a project that pushed into meta territory in a challenging, funny way.

Because “Adaptation” isn’t really about telling the story of “The Orchid Thief,” a tale of a rogue botanist hunting a rare orchid in Floridan swampland. Instead, it’s about Hollywood screenwriter Charlie Kaufman – fat, balding, greatly lacking confidence and social skills – attempting to adapt Susan Orlean’s book. His struggles with his self-doubt, trying to find a way to tell a story about flowers without betraying the book’s spirit. At the same time, Charlie’s far more confident twin brother Donald also decides to pursue screenwriting. When Donald’s high-concept thriller script receives studio attention, Charlie has a crisis. He decides to collaborate with his brother on adapting Orlean’s story. This also means confronting Susan, who Charlie has fallen in love with.

In concept, “Adaptation” sounds like the most narcissistic, self-indulgent bullshit imaginable. A movie about screenwriting, in which the real screenwriter is the main character? That’s some Guy in M.F.A. nonsense right there. Or, at least, it would’ve been from anyone other than Charlie Kaufman. “Adaptation” is about exactly that, the struggles of turning one person’s work of art into another work of art. Kaufman, however, casts his net even wider. “Adaptation” is also about evolution, of something changing form. Animals changing to survive, a book becoming a movie, people changing. This mostly emerges through the fictional Kaufman’s struggles to do something new, to change how he sees screenwriting and movie making.

You know, maybe I’m giving Kaufman too much credit. “Adaptation” probably wouldn’t have worked without Nicholas Cage either. Years before he became a walking internet meme, Cage was an occasionally great actor. “Adaptation” sees the actor casting aside his action hero theatrics and returning to his twitchier, earlier days. Cage’s Kaufman is a ball of neurosis. “Adaptation’s” first scene showcases Kaufman’s neurotic faults, attempting to build himself up only to tear himself down again. His mind is frantic and unfocused, terrified of appearing badly and barely able to function. Cage successfully directs his trademark manic energy inward, creating an image of Charlie Kaufman as someone practically torn apart by the war in his head.

It might not seem like the kind of performance you’d expect from the star of “Con Air” and “Ghost Rider.” Then again, “Adaptation’s” central gimmick allows Cage to show off too. He also plays Kaufman’s fictional twin brother, Donald. Donald is the inverse of Charlie. Where Charlie is anxious, Donald is overly confident. While Charlie struggles to impress women, Donald easily talks to girls. Charlie is eager to create a new kind of screenplay. Donald takes a screenwriting course and happily learns the standard rubric to Hollywood screenwriting. Despite the characters looking the same, Cage easily makes Donald a distinct character. His body language, spoken words, and personality creates two separate, compelling characters.

“Being John Malkovich – which “Adaptation” partially takes place during the filming of – gently ribbed Hollywood culture. “Adaptation” turns away from the egos of actors and focuses on the triteness of hacky screenwriting. Donald’s hit script is “The Three,” a cop-chases-serial-killer thriller. The script has the bonus of a totally asinine twist, its hero, villain, and damsel all being revealed to be the same person. It’s naturally well received by talent scouts. Yet “The Three” also reflects on “Adaptation.” When Donald is describing a story about one person with multiple personality, it’s during a conversation with his brother. Donald is, of course, totally fictional. Meaning, when writing that scene, Kaufman was having a conversation of sorts with himself. That same conversation features Charlie asking his brother how he’ll pull off the story’s logistic, a question that writer of “Adaptation” also surely asked himself.

If Jonze and Kaufman happily sacrificed John Malkovich’s ego in their last film, “Adaptation” proves it was nothing personal. Kaufman does it to himself here. He writes himself as pathetic, a word he uses to describe himself repeatedly. The fictional Kaufman is fatter and balder than the real deal. The real Kaufman has a wife and daughter. The fictional Kaufman is too afraid to even talk to a woman. “Adaptation” roasts its writer the hardest by repeatedly depicting Charlie’s masturbatory habits. He builds erotic fantasies off the smallest interactions. By the time he’s jerking off to Susan Orlean’s jacket photo, the character seems to be bottoming out. Yet this reflects on the struggles of the creative minds. In order to complete any project, a writer has to fall in love with his story. “Adaptation” literalizes this choice.

“Adaptation” was going to receive a lot of attention, as the highly anticipated follow-up to a well received movie. It was also going to get a lot of attention because it co-stars Meryl Streep, that beloved mainstay of award season. I’ve said some not-so-nice things about Streep before, as I’m constantly baffled and exhausted by the Academy’s undying love for her. Yet I’ll admit she’s really good in “Adaptation.” Early on, a character says Orlean projects sadness. So she does, as Streep hides an inner turmoil behind a smiling face. Streep sacrifices a bit of ego too, as (the fictional) Orlean’s quest to be passionate about something leads her down some less than dignified paths.

Streep, naturally, was nominated for an Oscar for “Adaptation.” So was Nic Cage and Kaufman’s script. Chris Cooper, however, was the films only nominee to win. Cooper plays John Laroche, the titular orchid thief. It’s a flashy part, on the surface. Laroche is repeatedly described as a colorful character, a man with very Floridian dentistry and a ranting personality. Cooper happily hams it up during these sequences, creating a memorably colorful character. Yet the scenes exploring Laroche’s background, especially his loss, realize the power of Cooper’s performance, showing a man capable of great passion and insight despite what he’s been through. The supporting cast also features a great appearance from Brian Cox as notorious screenwriting guru Robert McKee.

I’ve talked a lot about Charlie Kaufman in this review, which is unavoidable given “Adaptation’s” subject. What about the director? Donald Kaufman and Robert McKee both make references to crossing genres, blending different tones of story into one. Spike Jonze’s direction accomplishes this visually. “Adaptation’s” visual design leaps from frantic to still. Long montages, showing the history of life on Earth, contrast with shots of Kaufman sitting at his computer. Kaufman’s erotic fantasies are brightly lit, while his home life is dreary and dark. His frantic creative process is displayed in quickly assembled scenes, cutting back and forth between people and places. Historical sequences, about Darwin and orchid thieves throughout history, are brought to life with accurate details. In other words, Jonze is perfectly on the script’s level.

Like “Being John Malkovich,” describing “Adaptation” as a comedy is tricky. The laughs are often tinged with a deeply melancholy side, while the film veers closer to thriller as it nears its conclusion. Yet “Adaptation” is extremely funny at times. Charlie’s blunt dismissals of Donald’s hacky story antics always lead to a clueless response from the brother. The peak of Donald’s odd hilarity is when he describes a chase scene in “The Three,” a battle between technology and… Horse. Other, small lines become laughers. Such as Laroche’s excitement upon meeting Kaufman at the end or an agent bragging about his sexual conquest for no reason.

The narrative switcharoo “Adaptation” performs in its last act is well known. Early on, Charlie dismisses Donald’s storytelling, with its emphasis on car crashes, drugs, sex, violence, and characters learning important life lessons. He hopes to avoid these things. After asking Donald to collaborate with him on the film’s script – the script of the film you’re watching – “Adaptation” immediately begins to feature these things. Some dismiss this turn as being too clever, the movie becoming the ouroboros it namedropped earlier. And maybe it is a meta bridge too far. But I fucking love it. It rewards the viewer for paying attention earlier in the film, bringing events full circle, and certainly leads to a highly memorable conclusion.

Taking its metaficitonal tight-rope walk all the way, “Adaptation” was not credited simply to Charlie Kaufman. Donald Kaufman is listed as co-writer. The film is dedicated to his memory and concludes with a quote from his script, “The Three.” (Amusingly, Donald’s “The Three” would practically become a real movie, with shoddy pseudo-Christian thriller “Th3ee.”) Jonze and Kaufman’s mastery of tone, along with the phenomenal cast, makes every tricky move “Adaptation” makes land successfully. It’s brilliantly provides insight into the creative process while commenting on screenwriting conventions, all while being consistently hilarious and moving. [Grade: A]

Monday, January 15, 2018

Director Report Card: Spike Jonze (1999)

I first discovered Spike Jonze as a director of music videos. Many music video directors endeavor to create little movies but Jonze truly embraced that. He brought wildly imaginative ideas to the format. Some of them were fairly elaborate, like inserting Weezer into "Happy Days" or making the Beastie Boys the stars of an old cop show. Others were seemingly simple, such as having Sofia Coppela perform a gymnastic routine, an extreme close-up of a man on fire, or - in maybe the greatest music video of all time - Christopher Walken dancing through an empty hotel lobby. Sometimes, the song wasn't even the true attraction of the music video, as in the clip for Daft Punk's "Da Funk," which uses the song as the backing track for a short film about a dog-man trying to find love in the city.

So when Jonze made the transition to feature films, he brought that imagination and surreal humor with him. He's only directed four movies so far but each one has become something of a modern classic, showing the director's obvious unique outlook and raw talent. Half of Jonze's films have been collaborations with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, who I will be talking about a lot too in the next few days. Despite my completest urges, I am not including Jozne's feature-length skateboard videos, as I have no interest in the sport and no idea where to locate them.

1. Being John Malkovich

I don't know how they did it. Charlie Kaufman was a screenwriter whose only prior credits were a string of failed TV shows. Spike Jonze was highly regarded as a music video director but had never mounted a feature film before. The two came together to create a very strange film, an absurdist comedy about inhabiting the mind of John Malkovich, a well respected character actor that was hardly a box office draw. Not only did they get this bizarre movie made but it went on to become a huge success, making back its budget at the box office and being nominated for three Academy Awards. Nineteen years later, the movie is considered a classic and Kaufman and Jonze are highly regarded filmmakers.

Craig calls himself as a puppeteer but “unemployed” is a more accurate description. His pet shop owner/animal psychologist wife, Lotte, encourages him to find work. He gets a job as a file clerk at an office building, working on the 7½ floor. While attempting to seduce Maxine, a co-worker, he uncovers a small door behind a cabinet. Crawling into the door, Craig suddenly finds himself inhabiting the body of famous actor John Malkovich. A few minutes afterwards, he's spat out in a ditch alongside the New Jersey turnpike, left feeling elated. Craig and Maxine turn this into a business. Things get more complicated from there.

“Being John Malkovich” is, ultimately, a story about taking control. The film begins with one of Craig's puppet, in close-up, performing the Dance of Despair and Disillusionment. Craig is desperate to take control, made obvious by his interest in puppetry. Those skills eventually allows him to take control of Malkovich. He then redirects the actor's entire career towards his dream: Of being the greatest puppeteer in the world. It turns out, another force is conspiring to take control of Malkovich. After traveling inside the actor, Lotte discovers transgender desires. She wants to radically redirect her life. When she falls in love with Maxine, and she is rejected, she becomes violent. Maxine does a lot of underhanded things for fame and fortune. It's after Lotte and Maxine let go of their desire for control, and submit to love, that they find happiness. Craig's desperate need for control, over his own life and everyone else's, is his undoing. He's ultimately left without any control at all.

The film's visual design is also concerned with two aspects of life: Birth and death. Jonze fills the movie with images of doors and tunnels. Doors – the one leading to Malkovich's mind, the elevator doors in the office building – represent an exit from one world into another. The tunnel leading into Malkovich's mind is directly compared to the birth canal. Craig and Lotte's apartment is crowded and dark. Womb-like. So is the room where the secret society has tracked Malkovich's development, which is painted in fleshy reds. The film ends with a pregnancy. “Being John Malkovich” is a movie obsessed with the details of bringing life into the world.

It's also obsessed with how life leaves the world. For all the doors that open in “Being John Malkovich,” they also close. After entering the actor's mind, the door leading to the tunnel closes on its own, with a sense of finality. The first images in the movie are of closed curtains on a stage. Like a curtain call. As in, the end. The cabal responsible for the tunnel into Malkovich's brain have done it all in order to avoid dying, to stay young and live again. All of us are trying to find ways to avoid death, to take control over our lives, tying into the film's ultimate theme of control. 

Wrapped up inside all these heavy themes is a quirky take on celebrity obsession. This is, after all, literally a film about people crawling into a famous person’s body. Oddly, Charlie Kaufman’s script doesn’t really address obsessive fandom very much. The main characters have heard of Malkovich but don’t seem to be big fans of him. Most of the people who pay to crawl inside his head just want to be someone else, not Malkovich specifically. So why did Kaufman pick a moderately well known character actor as the subject of his strange story? Probably because it’s funny. The title, and the premise built around it, is such a specific and absurd notice. It makes for a good joke.

Any jokes about celebrity status are strictly at the expense of Mr. Malkovich himself. Even by agreeing to star in this movie, John Malkovich showed that he had a good sense of humor about himself. Yet the script delights in tearing down his public persona as an intellectual performer. He’s friends with Charlie Sheen and the two talk about being high all the time. He uses his fame to have sex with strange women. He bitches about towels and is constantly assumed to have started in a jewel thief movie. One comedic highlight has a beer can being tossed at his head. Malkovich, the character, is ultimately brutalized by the story, loosing his very soul over and over again. Perhaps there’s some irony in the most famous person in the film’s universe being the one with the least control. Malkovich, the actor, shows zero ego as he totally takes the piss out of himself, playing a slightly manic and tormented (and presumably exaggerated) version of himself.

The movie’s absurdist sense of humor peaks during three phenomenal moments, honestly three of the funniest scenes I’ve seen in any movie. What happens when John Malkovich crawls into his own head? The actor’s ego completely overtakes the world, spilling into a hilarious, surreal nightmare of mirrors within mirrors. Later, we see the opposite of Malkovich’s self-obsessed inner-universe. Maxine and Lotte chase each other through Malkovich’s subculture, the character’s repressed memories playing out in the background. This makes really dark memories – the Primal Scene, humiliated at school, humiliated by lovers, moments of debased self-agony – comedic contrasts to the story’s climax. Lastly, there’s a flashback told from a chimp’s perspective, a moment hilarious strictly because of how unexpected and how oddly sincere it is.

Yet despite being really, really funny, “Being John Malkovich” is ultimately revealed as a deeply sad movie. The characters are deeply human, consumed by flaws and making many mistakes. A sense of melancholy floats over the film as it approaches its ending, human lives falling apart due to selfishness. The film makes sure to root its villain’s motivations in understandable failings. “Being John Malkovich” even becomes a thriller of sorts, guns being fired and characters’ lives being endangered. All of these tonal shifts mix together successfully, Jonze and Kaufman’s film managing to be about many different things all at the same time.

Beyond Malkovich himself, a really talented cast is assembled. John Cusack covers himself in stubble, becoming almost unrecognizable. Craig begins the film as a pathetic anti-hero. He seeks romance with a woman woefully out of his league. He’s a dreamer, hopelessly attempting to be taken seriously in an art form mostly confined to children’s entertainment. Yet, the moment he gets a ounce of power, Craig transforms into a scumbag. He immediately uses the Malkovich door as a way to win over Maxine. Soon, he’s threatening his wife, locking her up, and tormenting her. What he does to Malkovich amounts to psychic rape. He is punished accordingly. Cusack understands this aspect of the character but maintains a certain level of vulnerability.

“Being John Malkovich” was a surprising film upon its release in 1999. Another surprising aspect of the film was Cameron Diaz’ performance. Diaz, at the time and still really, was mostly confined to comedic roles as bubble-headed blondes. As Lotte, she plumes her abilities and gives a fantastic performance. (She also uglies up, playing into a well-known technique for glamorous actresses to get critical attention.) She’s funny in a really sincere way, never laughing at Lotte’s changing desires or understandings. The character eventually becomes the unlikely hero of the movie, despite a short-lived veer towards the homicidal.

One of the film’s most critically acclaimed performances, the only one to receive an Oscar nomination, is one of its most inscrutable. Catherine Keener is hilarious as Maxine, a deeply sardonic woman that can cut anyone down to size with a few words. She has no time for Craig’s bullshit, at least at first. Yet the character’s willingness to go along with his scheme, once he takes over Malkovich, is a harder to read. As is her eventual redemption. I guess that Keener’s performance is still so strong, despite the character getting the rockiest characterization, is a testament to her skills.

What a fantastic surprise that “Being John Malkovich” would become a critical and box office success. A movie this fucking weird, I figured this would’ve been confined to strictly cult status going forward. Instead, the movie was rightly recognized as an innovative masterpiece and became a widely loved classic of sorts. It’s director and screenwriter weren’t dismissed as one-off weirdoes, but instead rightfully received as mad geniuses. In short, it’s a really good movie that I like a lot. Malkovich! [Grade: A]

Thursday, January 4, 2018

The Last Bangers n' Mash Episode

Well, the time has finally come. JD and I have made the decision to end regular production on the Bangers n' Mash Show. There's a lot of reasons for this. Most boil down to burn-out and general feeling that the show has never been and will never be as popular as I wanted it to be. JD and I have been struggling with getting regular episodes out for most of the last year. Our heart really hasn't been in it recently. Thus, the decision to call it quits.

For the most part. In the episode, we explain that we'll continue to produce the occasional on-off special, like the Phantom Awards - which are coming soon! - and convention reports. Maybe a Nerd Vomit every once and a while.

As for the last episode, we mostly spend it talking about the various things we wanted to get to but didn't, the origins and history of the show, our experience making it, and thanking the fans. Really, that last part is essential.

To any Bangers n' Mash listeners here, thank you from the most sincere corner of my heart for the years of support. 

Monday, January 1, 2018

2018 Film Preview:

I'm going to be thirty this year. That's a terrifying thought to me, one of those goddamn millennials, forever stuck in a state of arrested development. I'm beginning my third decade on this planet and I feel like there's still so much I haven't accomplished, still so many things I've screwed up. I can feel myself getting older. I have aches and pains that weren't there before. I'm tired all the time. The hours slip away and there's always so much to do.

Even as my latest existential crisis mounts, one thing has never abandoned me: The movies. I feel myself getting older in that regard too. It's getting harder to muster enthusiasm for the constant cycle of blockbuster cinema. (Not like that will stop me from seeing them...) Yet that's just one part of the spectrum that cinema offers me. Films from all corners of the country and world beckon to me, each one offering new possibilities and experiences.

I haven't spent nearly thirty years looking up at the big screen for no reason. I love the movies and, more often than not, they give that love back. So here's ten (plus many more) movies I'm excited for in 2018. Some will disappoint, some will impress, some will probably disappear without getting made. But there's always that chance that a new favorite will emerge. So here's to this year.

My Top Ten Most Anticipated Films of 2018:

1. The Nightingale

In 2015, “The Babadook” blew me away, a terrifying and emotionally cathartic horror film that still hasn't been topped. Since then, I've been eagerly anticipating director Jennifer Kent's follow-up. And it sounds fucking amazing. Set in Tasmania in 1825, it follows a woman going on a hellish journey through the countryside, seeking revenge for her family with the help of an Aboriginal tracker.

Kent has described the movie as a brutal story, dealing with Australia's historical treatment of native people and women.  It sounds exactly like the uncompromising and emotional rending story Kent specializes in and I can't wait.

2. The Incredibles 2

And I've been waiting even longer for this one. Pixar and Disney began making unnecessary sequels to their films a while ago, with the Mouse Factory rolling out “Wreck-It Ralph 2” this year as well. Meanwhile, the only one of their films that actually cried out for a continuation remained a stand alone story.

After Brad Bird's trip to “Tomorrowland” failed to divert audiences, he finally returned to his widely beloved superhero family. The sequel will supposedly pick up right where the original left out and focus primarily on baby Jack-Jack. I have no idea if this long awaited follow-up will live up to the original. In fact, considering Pixar's diminishing returns lately, I suspect it won't. Yet the chance to see these beloved characters again is still so exciting.

3. Isle of Dogs

The last time Wes Anderson made a stop-motion directed movie, it was during a slight slump in his career. Anderson's second animated feature is coming off two of the best films of his entire career. Besides, “Isle of Dogs” has a much more interesting story than an adaptation of everyone's sixth favorite Roald Dahl book. Described as an extended homage to Kurosawa, set in a futuristic Japan, it's set on an island inhabited by intelligent dogs who are making their first tentative contact with humans in years. The trailer, gorgeous in that particular Wes Anderson-esque way, promises a quirky, dryly funny, immaculately designed, and softly melancholic experience. Whatever the outcome of this one, I'm sure they will remain good dogs.

4. Summer of '84

“Turbo Kid” appeared to be another nostalgia-baiting, tongue-in-cheek, throwback horror movie. Instead, it was a hilarious, creative, and weirdly touching genuine cult movie item. Now the same trio of directors – François Simard, Anouk Whissell and Yoann-Karl Whissell – have returned with a follow-up.

“Summer of '84” sounds like it will have a darker relationship with eighties nostalgia. About a group of adolescents who discover their next-door-neighbor is a serial killer, the film sounds like an especially dark take on the kids-on-an-adventure movies. This couldn't be more timely, since “Stranger Things” and “It” has led to something of a revival of this subgenre. The premise also reminds me of one of my favorite Purple Stuff Podcast episodes, which might actually be the primary reason I'm excited for this.

5. Love Child

There's no guarantee the next two entries on my list will actually come out in 2018. Considering both haven't even started filming yet, it's actually really unlikely. But this wouldn't be the first time something on my Most Anticipated list wouldn't come out for several more years. If they even come out at all.

So what's “Love Child?” It's the latest film from Todd Solondz, everyone's favorite purveyor of extreme neuroses, suburban misery, and blackly comical sexual depravity. It sounds like “Love Child” will have plenty of all three. It's a modern retelling of the Oedipal story, concerning an eleven year old boy with an unhealthy fixation on his mother, who convinces another man to seduce his mom and murder his abusive father. Penelope Cruz and Edgar Rameriz are set to star, while the key roles of the boy and the dad remain uncast. This is exactly the type of super disturbing psychological disorder that Solondz can spin into deeply humanistic and highly troubling gold.

6. Freak Shift

I'm touch and go on Ben Wheatly, really enjoying some of his films and being underwhelmed by others. His most recent film, “Free Fire,” didn't really work for me. His next project, which also hasn't started filming, sounds one-hundred percent like my kind of shit though. Wheatley has boiled the premise down to “Women with shotguns fighting giant crabs,” which is really enough to sell me. To be more specific, it's set in the future and follows a misfit team of cops hunting monsters underground. Fifties sci-fi, Paul Verhoeven, “Hill Street Blues,” “Doom,” and 2000 A.D. have been cited as influences. Alicia Vikander and Armie Hammer will star and I'm super pumped for it.

7. Apostle

Gareth Evans' “The Raid” series already seems primed to be the defining action films of our time. Evans' next movie sounds like it will similarly mine a simple premise for maximum intensity. Set at the turn of the century, it'll follow a man rescuing his sister from a doomsday cult. Considering cults are a source of fascination for me, that sounds pretty cool already. Adding to my anticipation level is that Dan Stevens, hopefully returning to “The Guest” territory, will be starring. Sounds all around bad-ass.

8. Aquaman

Following the underwhelming response to “Justice League,” DC Comics' cinematic universe is still struggling to obtain their biggest rival's level of success. Nevertheless, I keep getting drawn back. There's an obvious reason for that. Simply put, Aquaman is my favorite superhero. I never thought, in a thousand years, that he would ever be getting his own movie. And yet here we are.

Despite WB/DC's less than stellar track record, there's even some reasons to suspect “Aquaman” will be good! Jason Momoa's cool dude-bro take on the character was a highlight of “Justice League.” Director James Wan has promised “funderwater adventure” and compared the tone to a classic swashbuckler story. Considering Wan's background in horror, I wonder if the Trench or some other aquatic monstrosity will appear. Mostly, it's absolutely mind-blowing to me that characters like Mera, Black Manta, Ocean Master, Vulko and Queen Atlanna will actually be appearing on the big screen. Here's hoping for the best.

9. The Legacy of a Whitetail Deer Hunter

You know, I've never seen “Eastbound and Down” or “Vice Principals,” though both on our my long list of TV shows to catch up with. However, I'm a big fan of creator/director Jody Hill's “Observe and Report,” essentially a rewrite of “Taxi Driver” as a mall-set comedy. Hill is returning to features with the exquisitely entitled “The Legacy of a Whitetail Deer Hunter.”

The film's premise can't help but resonate with me personally. It follows a teenager forced to tag along with his weirdo dad on a hunting trip. Oh boy, I can relate to that concept a little too well. Considering how delightfully fucked-up Hill's antiheroes usually are, I'm preemptively declaring “Legacy of a Whitetail Deer Hunter” the movie about my dad, though presumably with less cocaine and Foghat. Probably.

10. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

Here's another sign that we are inching ever closer to the apocalypse. “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” is actually coming out. I'm not even that big of a fan of Terry Gilliam but this movie's release is a momentous occasion. I'm sure you all know the story about how Gilliam has attempted to make this film at least three times over the last twenty years, only for production to be canceled due to disastrous circumstances.

Somehow, the stars have aligned and the director has managed to finally completely film a movie with this title. The premise has mutated quite a bit over the years – it's now a meta story about a filmmaker making a movie about Don Quixote, instead of the time traveling adventure originally pitched – but it's still amazing Gilliam got as far as he did. The cast is solid too. Adam Driver and Olga Kurylenko are the leads, with Jonathan Pryce playing Quixote.

There's already been at least one lawsuit to halt the current production but that seems to be resolved now. Assuming the hard drives the production company is keeping the film on don't explode or the Toddler-in-Chief doesn't start World War III, we may be watching this legendarily delayed motion picture by this time next year.

Other Upcoming Films of Note:

Alita: Battle Angel
Speaking of long delayed projects! James Cameron has been talking about adapting this relatively obscure anime to film since the mid-nineties. Since he's too busy in “Avatar” land for the foreseeable future, Cameron passed the project onto Robert Rodriguez. We've already seen a teaser trailer and “Battle Angel” looks weird, imaginative, and dynamic in its action. American adaptations of anime rarely turn out well but this has the potential to be one of next summer's biggest surprises.

Anna and the Apocalypse
Just when I think the zombie genre is entirely burned out, here comes a new take on things. “Anna and the Apocalypse” is a horror/comedy set at Christmas, a combination that always appeals to me. It's also a musical. How's that for a combination of styles? The film has already played the festival circuit and the buzz has been highly favorable thus far.

Avengers: Infinity Wars, Black Panther, and Ant-Man and the Wasp
The Marvel machine marches on. Despite generally enjoying the superhero studio's output, I'm finding it difficult to get too excited for their 2018 slate of films. “Black Panther” looks cool but the good trailers are only do so much to counteract my lack of knowledge of the character. “Ant-Man and the Wasp” is probably the Marvel film I'm most looking forward to this year, as the first “Ant-Man” was a lot of fun and I'm hoping the sequel explores the psychedelic microverse some more.

Lastly, there's “Avengers: Infinity Wars,” a massive event movie acting as the culmination of the first ten years of Marvel's movies. Between the gargantuan hype and the enormous cast, I see no way for this film to be anything but disappointing. At least, that's what I'm telling myself.

With the underperformance of last year's “Transformers: The Last Knight,” it seems like control of the robot franchise is finally being wrestled away from Michael Bay. “Bumblebee” is not a straight-up reboot but a eighties-set prequel, so presumably it won't be totally divorced from the nonsensical mythology of Bay's films. However, in the film's favor is Travis Knight, who previously directed “Kubo and the Two Strings,” a fantastically imaginative film. Combined with a decent cast, and we've got a shot at a “Transformers” movie that isn't totally hateful garbage.

Godzilla: Monster Planet
Toho continues to take their 21st century Godzilla series in new directions. The follow-up to “Shin Godzilla” will forego a theatrical release, going straight to Netflix. It also, in another series first, will be animated. At first, the idea of an animated Godzilla movie struck me as fantastic. That could allow the already imaginative series to go to even wilder places! The premise, a far future sci-fi tale of humanity returning to an Earth ruled by kaiju, sounded just right. But then I saw the trailer, with that ugly cell-shaded quasi-CGI animation, and all that enthusiasm dried up. Hopefully it'll be better than I'm thinking.

The latest attempt to reboot the “Halloween” franchise has more going for it than previous iterations, I'll give it that. John Carpenter seems to be more involved, beyond just rubber stamping the use of his characters, and may even compose the music, which would be really cool. I'm only familiar with David Gordon Green's stoner comedies but his more down-to-Earth films suggest he at least knows what he's doing. Say what you will about Blumhouse but they know how to get casual audiences excited for horror movies.

It's the story details that concern me about the latest “Halloween.” It's yet another reboot, in a franchise that doesn't really need anymore of those. The idea of Jamie Lee Curtis coming back is neat but the film risks the chances of simply being a retrend of “Halloween H20,” one of the better sequels. And now Nick Castle, the original Michael Myers, is reprising the role. So we're going to have a senior citizen Shape? I'm really not sure where they're going with this one.

The Happytime Murders
“The Happytime Murders” is a project that Brian Henson has been developing since 2008. It sounds like the film is finally coming out this year. Described as a sex, violence, and drug filled murder mystery that just happens to be about muppets, the film has cycled through several stars during its long developmental process. The latest actor to come aboard is Melissa McCarthy, who has a bad habit of destroying clever comedies with her overly broad mugging. That's what is keeping me from being more excited about this bonkers sounding project.

Hard Powder
Liam Neeson remains the reigning king of the Dadsploitation movie, to the point that his latest entry into the genre almost sounds like a parody. In “Hard Powder,” Neeson plays a snowplow driver seeking revenge for the murder of his son, eventually running afoul of a local crime boss. If that sounds like a typical Dadsploitation flick, keep in mind that Hans Petter Moland is directing. Moland previously made “A Somewhat Gentle Man” and “In Order of Disappearance” (the latter of which this is a remake of), both of which where somewhat sarcastic riffs on the crime genre. I'd love to see Neeson poke fun at his own image a little.

Hold the Dark
I'm very disappointed that Jeremy Saulnier, director of “Blue Ruin” and “Green Room,” didn't include a color out of the title of his latest film. In seriousness, the director sounds like he's bringing his particular brand of intense action to the man vs. wilderness genre. The film is about Jeffrey Wright searching for a missing child in the Alaskan winter, amid rumors that wolves are killing local kids. Sounds dark and intense, which is right up Saulnier's alley.

The House That Jack Built
Lars von Trier, Europe's most irrepressible provocateur, previously made “Nymphomaniac,” a five hour long movie following the history of a woman's sexual misadventures. He follows that up with “The House That Jack Built,” following the history of a man's life as a serial killer. I can't help but think of the two as companion pieces. Something about society encouraging women to be sexually submissive and wanting men to be proactive and violent. This one will presumably not be five hours long though. Matt Dillion is the titular Jack. No word on who is playing the house he builds. 

I Think We're Alone Now and Piercing
It's a good year for willowy blonde waifs having tense, solitary confrontations with men. First off is “I Think We're Alone Now.” The film follows Peter Dinklage as a recluse who welcomes the apocalypse, as a chance to have more alone time. Elle Fanning will presumably play the woman who disrupts his isolation. Yes, I'm expecting either Tiffany or Tommy Shondell to make an appearance.

After that is “Piercing,” which has Mia Wiaskowska playing a prostitute who turns the tables on an abusive john. Which reminds me of “Hard Candy.” I love switcharoo stories like that.

Incident in a Ghost Land
Pascal Laugier exploded onto the indie horror scene with “Martyrs,” a movie which managed to be more disturbing than any American torture horror films while actually being about something. Laugier followed that film up with “The Tall Man,” an uneven thriller derailed by a frustrating twist. Since then, Pascal has been pretty quiet. “Incident in a Ghost Land” is his first feature in seven years. The premise sounds like its mixing a home invasion story with something weirder. Hopefully Laugier hasn't lost any of his spark over the years.

The Kid Who Would Be King
Another director we haven't heard from in a while is Joe Cornish. “Attack the Block” was an impressive debut. Despite being attached to a few other things, Cornish has been picky with his folow-up. He finally returns with “The Kid Who Would Be King.” Sadly, the premise doesn't strike me as especially interesting. The film is described as a family/fantasy flick following a band of teenagers taking down a medieval menace. Not the most unique set-up. Hopefully Wright brings something special to the table.

The New Mutants, Deadpool 2, and X-Men: Dark Phoenix
With Disney speeding ahead the corporate oligarchy by just flat-out buying their competition, the future of Fox's “X-Men” series is in question. The buy-out couldn't have come at a more awkward time either, as the studio has three mutant themed super-flicks on the horizon. First up will be “The New Mutants.” I have zero attachment to the four-color version of this team but the promise that the film will be more horror movie than superhero movie – a promise the trailer seems to uphold –  definitely has me intrigued.

Next up is “Deadpool 2.” I don't object to anyone finding the character or his film annoying, but I was a big fan of the first “Deadpool.” The sequel is introducing some cool new characters and seems to be moving even further into the meta direction. The year caps off with “X-Men: Dark Phoenix.” I was one of the few people to really like “X-Men: Apocalypse” and am looking forward to the series going in a more cosmic direction, though this is clearly the least interesting X-film in 2018.

The Predator
For his follow-up to the amazing entertaining “The Nice Guys,” Shane Black is returning to the franchise he had a previous hand in. It's true that the “Predator” series has never had as much momentum as its sibling “Alien” franchise. The plot details we've gotten about Black's film sound like a very different take on the series. Apparently, it'll be set in the suburbs and prominently feature a young kid, played by Jacob Trembley. I won't say I trust Black implicitly but I imagine he can probably cook up an interesting take on the “Predator” formula.

Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich
Full Moon has been pumping out “Puppet Master” movies for the better part of twenty years. While I have a certain fondness for the earlier entries, the majority of the films are terrible. “Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich,” a studio-backed reboot, offers something the franchise hasn't seen in a long time: An actual budget. It's pretty sad that this will be the first time in years that a “Puppet Master” movie won't have to rely on stock footage and visible rod puppets. In addition to that, “Brawl in Cell Block 99” and "Dragged Across Concrete's" S. Craig Zahler is writing the script, suggesting this may be an extra-brutal entry in the series. The cast is inspired too, with Barbara Crampton returning to the series and Udo Kier playing Toulon, the puppet's creator.

Out of all the video games that could've gotten film adaptations, “Rampage” would not have been my first pick for an adaptation. A game solely devoted to giant monsters wrecking cities and eating toilets doesn't offer much in the way of plot. But I guess the Rock's star power can get anything greenlit. The trailer makes “Rampage” look like a lot of fun, actually. The film seems to embrace the tropes of the kaiju genre and will feature three-way combat between a giant albino ape, a huge wolf, and a crocodile. It'll probably be dumb as hell but hopefully it's fun too.

Ready Player One
Watching the trailers for “Ready Player One” feels like eating at a buffet that only serves chocolate cake. I love chocolate cake but too much of it makes me sick. Here's a movie that will throw together Chun-Li, Freddy Krueger, King Kong, the original Gundam, Chucky, the Iron Giant, Tracer, the Battletoads and probably many more characters I adore. But stringing together a bunch of random pop culture references does not make a compelling story. From what I've read, this is a memo the book's original author did not get. Steven Spielberg has woven less than grand source material into gold before. The trailers for this make it seem like he's embracing the most excessive tendencies of modern day blockbuster filmmaking. If this results in anything worth while, beyond some cool cameos and neat effects, is yet to be seen.

Slaughterhouse Rulez
I'm very fond of Simon Pegg but there's no denying that his films made without Edgar Wright tend to be less than swell. “Slaughterhouse Rulez” has Pegg re-teaming with director Crispian Mills. The two previously made “A Fantastic Fear of Everything,” a movie I actually thought was alright but many people disliked. The film's premise, about a fancy prep school thrown into chaos when a portal to Hell opens up outside, sounds highly amusing. Pegg's main boy, Nick Frost, is joining him on this ride. That's a lot of things in this one's favor. For me, anyway.

The Widow
Neil Jordan has quietly been on a good run with his last few films. I loved both “Ondine” and “Byzantium” but neither were very widely seen. For his latest, Jordan has assembled a strong cast. Isabelle Huppert plays a widow that strikes up a friendship with two teenage girls, played by Chloe Grace Moretz and Maika Monroe. The film is classified as a thriller, so someone presumably has less than friendly intentions in mind. The combination of that cast and Jordan is enough to peak my interests.

Further films I'm looking forward to in 2018 include:

The Art of Self-Defense, Damsel, Destroyer, Domino, The Endless, Gags, Hellboy, Hotel Artemis, The Irishman, Jin-Roh, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Mandy, The Meg, My Abandonment, Nosferatu, Outlaw King, Pacific Rim: Uprising, Poor Agnes, Proud Mary, Revenge, Ruin Me, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Thoroughbred, and Tully.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Zack Clopton's 2017 Film Retrospective

“You had some very bad people in that group. But you also had very fine...


...on both sides.”

We went into 2017 honestly feeling like the world could end at any minute. It's an anxiety that hasn't truly subsided and has occasionally flared up, whenever our dotard of a president would threaten nuclear war. It was a year largely characterized by natural disasters, sexual abuse, and the rich robbing the poor. But there was also protest and some justice. We may be living in a new era of Trumpian dumbness and flagrant corruption but at least some of us are fighting back.

None of this has anything to do with the focus of this blog: Movies. You'll have to excuse me, I get philosophical at the end of the year. As far as cinema goes, 2017 was a pretty good year. Not for me. I completed fewer Director Report Cards than last year, blogged less in general, and struggled to keep up with my monthly expectations.

But when the movie theaters were packed with such a variety of interesting and exciting films, it's hard to be too upset. I mean, shit, even the big budget blockbusters were really good this year. All together, I saw 81 films, up by all of 1 from last year. So without further ado, here is a complete list of all the new releases I saw in 2017.


1. The Lure
A hugely original horror take on the mermaid premise that links budding sexual desires to a need to eat people. Changing the sirens song to pop music produces uniformly great results. Marat Mazurek brings an undercurrent of sadness and rawness. Michalina Olszanska is wide-eyed and instantly likable. Director Smoczynska maintains the tragedy of her fairy tale inspiration.

2. Ingrid Goes West
As a satire of Instagram, a website I don't use, I'm not sure how successful this is. Mostly, I related to Ingrid. Her loneliness, her desperation, her desire to appear genuine, her fear of being discovered as a fraud, her hatred of Taylor's frat-bro brother. Frequently hilarious but also penetratingly sad, this is an incredibly empathetic film about needing to be loved.

3. Coco
Gorgeous visuals are paired with a touching story. The film expresses the importance of the autumn festivals, how they connect us with our past. The music is great. Many of the characters, like little Dante, are lovable while the humor happily veers towards the surreal. A plot twist concerning a major character is easy to guess but, otherwise, this is another win from Pixar.

4. Boys in the Trees
Ultimately, a story about teenage boys stumbling towards adulthood that uses its fantasy world as a metaphor for growing up, where monsters represent adolescent fears. The Halloween setting is heavy on pumpkins, costumes, candy, and pranks. Bolstering the film are two amazing performances, from a subtle Toby Wallace and deeply sad Gulliver McGrath.

5. Atomic Blonde
From start to finish, pure bad-assery, as every new action scene somehow tops the previous one. Charlize Theron is magnetic as an uncompromising heroine, while the supporting cast is full of likable performers. The plot keeps you guessing while staying out of the action's way. The Cold War setting and new wave soundtrack are totally up my alley.

6. Baby Driver
Maybe the first carsploitation/crime/musical in cinematic history. Ansel Elgort matches his fittingly baby-faced appearance with a youthful energy and a tough, resourceful exterior. Just like its speedy protagonist, “Baby Driver” moves like quickly, building itself around a series of increasingly elaborate vehicular pursuits. Aside from a slightly weak ending, this is aces.

7. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
James Gunn is keeping Marvel weird. His odd ball humor and wild visual easily elevates the film. The cast is separated but the script never feels off-balance. There's a lot of personal stuff about deadbeat dads and loneliness in here that I really responded too. And, of course, the dialogue is hilarious, the action scenes are a blast, and the in-jokes are fantastic.

8. Super Dark Times
I'm a little younger than these characters but it's still obvious how accurate this depiction of being a teenager in the mid-nineties is. Moreover, the film captures the intimate details of teenage boy friendships, prickly and overly vulgar. The direction is moody, especially in several ominous nightmare scenes. The paranoia and tension builds to an unnerving conclusion.

9. Lady MacBeth
Genuinely erotic and deeply disturbing, the film tells the tale of a woman forced to be ruthless but a hateful world. The chilly direction and sparse music emphasizes the protagonist's isolation, the audience sympathizing with her despite her horrible actions. A spellbinding performance from Florence Pugh cements this as a powerful and meaningful thriller and pitch black character study.

10. War for the Planet of the Apes
A summer blockbuster that is thematically complex and emotionally bracing. Andy Serkis' Caesar continues to be deeply thoughtful. The film delves deeply into the cost of vengeance. Woody Harrelson is terrifying. Yet the film goes out of it ways to paint parallels between McCullough and Caesar. Director Matt Reeves seems eager to build deeper references into the film.

11. Spider-Man: Homecoming
Maybe a bit early to call this the best “Spider-Man” movie but this captures the tone you'll want from a modern version, by mixing teenage slice-of-life stories, hilarious and sarcastic humor, with perfectly executed superhero action. The cast is top-notch, with Holland and Keaton shining especially. It integrates the character with the wider Marvel universe without overdoing it.

12. Get Out
Letting horror grow out of sociological anxieties, “Get Out” is a boldly political genre film that builds on the awkwardness of being black in a white community. Effective thriller elements eventually descend into full-blown surreal horror. The cathartic ending has the repressed getting righteous revenge on their tormentors.

13. I Don't Feel At Home in This World Anymore
Essentially two movies in one and I loved both. It begins as the most hilarious, quirky, light-hearted vigilante story you've ever seen. Near the end, it takes a hard right turn into ultraviolent crime thriller, a change that shouldn't work but does so amazingly. At the center is Melanie Lynskey's hilarious frustration, Elijah Woods at his most lovably oddball, and a totally sincere anti-asshole message.


14. Your Name.
Beginning as a really cute romantic comedy, full of funny and sweet moments, that transforms into a powerful meditation on loss, time, tradition and the power of love midway through. Beautifully animated, especially during a key moment that visually illustrates the characters' connection. This is by far Shinkai's most accessible and personable film yet.

15. The Lego Batman Movie
The perfect cast guarantees non-stop laughs, even if the manic pace threatens to burn the audience out. The film embraces Batman's long history, throwing in his goofier villains and attributes. Not to mention the massive crossover that not even the most crazed fanboy might have imagined. The script even explores the loneliness at the root of Bruce's personality, albeit in a sarcastic manner.

16. John Wick: Chapter 2
The action sequences are beautifully choreographed, balletic in their violence. The random mythology references and the building on the first movie's world add depth to this elaborate shoot-em-up. There's also the sense that John is self-destructing, that Keanu's stotic anti-hero is slipping deeper into misery. Which is quite an achievement for what is otherwise pure ownage.

17. The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Yorgos Lanthimos' directorial style – already cold, mannered and off-putting – is perfectly suited to horror. An ominous air hangs over it, which only grows more unsettling as the story becomes stranger. The film progresses with the look and feel of a nightmare. The results is a motion picture that is both tragic and funny in the darkest, weirdest way.

18. Patchwork
Grisly horror/comedy that is also surprising cute, it approaches its Frankenstein'd premise in a novel way. The three-in-one protagonist is brought to life by a lovable, hilarious trio of actresses. The story grows crazier as it goes on, building towards more outrageous acts of hyper-violent action. I wasn't a big fan of a late film plot twist but found this one really likable, overall.

19. Colossal
Beginning as a goofy comedy about a screw-up and the kaiju she controls, the film evolves into a fascinating story about toxic masculinity and self-worth. Hathaway is heartbreakingly human while Sudeikis is a terrifyingly commonplace (but still sympathetic) villain. Even during the more serious moments, the quirky humor and inventive sci-fi spirit is maintained.

20. Thor: Ragnarok
Extends the impish humor of the “Thor” films to its natural conclusion. The cast is in top form and all the new additions are highly lovable. The synth score is fantastic. Cate Blanchette is utterly enchanting as the villain and I honestly wish the film had more of her. Leaping between the different locations does make the story feel a little scattered at times.

21. mother!
Part environmental allegory, characterized by free-floating gender anxiety and religious/cultural symbolism. This stuff is obvious but still powerfully executed. It's also an absurdist nightmare, about personal space being invaded, that ratchets from darkly funny to deeply disturbing. Mostly, I love that Afronosky tricked so many J-Law fans into seeing something this confrontational.

22. Brawl in Cell Block 99
Vince Vaughn is surprisingly convincing as one of the year's most determined bad-asses. The film is a contrast between slow-paced moments of simmering atmosphere and extremely harsh, bone-breaking action scenes. This climaxes in a massively gory final act, the titular brawl. It's too long, and perhaps too stoic on the whole, but extremely satisfying in its own way.

23. Blade Runner 2049
Expands upon the original's world and explores its themes, of what it truly means to be human, in a rich way. The spectacle is visually impressive and the action scenes are tight. The cast, including one of my favorite villains of the year, is fantastic. This is big budget, thoughtful sci-fi with heart and a sense of wonder. It's probably longer than it needed to be though.

24. Cult of Chucky
Don Mancini is insistent on trying new things. This is the most psychological and twisty entry in the franchise yet. The snowy asylum setting is gorgeous. The direction shows an obvious debt to DePalma, bringing a grace and beauty to the murder scenes. He brings back a lot of humor, as Chucky remains a total hoot. It's also peppered with in-jokes and call-backs to previous films.

25. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Shows the series' heroes struggling with their legacies. The returning cast grow while some notable new names are introduced. Rian Johnson returns some of the weirdness to “Star Wars.” Has several moments designed to make viewers cheers, based on skillfully engineered action theatrics. Yet my favorite moments are designed to misdirect expectations.

26. XX
One of the most consistent horror anthologies we've gotten recently. “The Box” is a chilling exercise in existential horror. “The Birthday Cake” is an amusing black comedy with anxiety inducing direction. “Don't Fall” is a spooky creature feature with clever effects. “Her Only Living Son,” meanwhile, may be one of the best films I've seen about being raised by a single mom.

27. Creep 2
Brilliantly gives Mark Duplass' (still massively entertaining and fascinatingly weird) titular creep a worthy adversary, in the form of the lovable Sara. Maintains the original's unpredictability and double-downs on the humor, which includes a deconstruction on the jump scare. This would've been a four star flick if it had ended two minutes earlier, as the brief epilogue is unnecessary.

28. Better Watch Out
At first, appears to be one type of horror movie. It's well done but turns out to be an elaborate misdirect for where “Better Watch Out” is actually going. In addition to perhaps saying some things about male entitlement, the movie becomes an effective battle of wills. One death scene involves probably the most morbid homage to “Home Alone” you'll ever see.


29. Raw
Frames coming-of-age angst – growing up, discovering sex, sibling rivalry – as gruesome body horror. The film is intimately concerned with the sweaty, up-close, nasty details of the human body. The visceral quality of the gore contrasts intensely with the girl's previously meat-free world. Buoying the film are excellent performances from Garance Marillier and Ella Rumpf.

30. Brigsby Bear
Surprisingly sincere, this works best when commenting on how young people relate to life through pop culture. The oddball, fish-out-of-water story is elevated by a lovable cast and a lot of heart. It's frequently really funny too. I do wish we spent a little more time in James' artificial world at the beginning, as I loved everything about how it looked and felt.

31. Logan
Obviously the best of the “Wolverine” films, the slower pace and more character-based script mark this as a clearly personal film. It also creates a slightly overlong run time. Still the brutally violent action scenes, elegiac tone, western references, and focus on the central trio create an excellently acted, thoughtful, absorbing, even occasionally tear jerking film.

32. Kong: Skull Island
Steeped in the Vietnam era, “Skull Island” directly concerns itself with the weight of war. Deep down, it's a big B-movie. The filmmakers make sure Kong has a personality. The other creatures are equally cool, leading to several notable monster fights. The script could've used some ironing and the excellent cast is mostly underserved. That post-credit scene did get me pumped.

33. The Devil's Candy
Who would've expect a heavy metal/satanic panic-themed serial killer story to feature one of the best depictions of a father/daughter relationship I've ever seen? The horror sequences are tensely directed and unnerving. The cast includes a sympathetic but still terrifying killer and a man struggling with artistic anxiety. Not all the subplots pay off but this was still a pleasant surprise.

34. Okja
I love the floppy-earred hippo-pig and the affection our young heroine feels for her. Joon-ho Bong's latest is a rather shaggy satire, depicting a girl who just wants to take her friend home, torn between corporate evil and self-interested protesters. There's an amazing chase scene, some grotesque overacting, and cute animal antics existing alongside horrifying sequences.

35. Wonder Woman
Exhibits growing pains typical of the first entry in a series. The last act overloads on CGI destruction. The action scenes are a little heavy on the slow-mo. Otherwise, the film captures the spirit of the character, understanding Wonder Woman is both a warrior and someone driven by compassion. An aces supporting cast and strong score makes this easily the best DCEU film yet.

36. Prevenge
A really funny, extremely dark comedy about grief and the anxiety of bringing life into the world.
Star/writer/director Alice Lowe balances the funny scenes with its overtly horrific ones. Throughout, she's dryly hilarious but her convictions are impressive and intense. Ruth's interactions with her potential victims are often awkwardly hilarious.

37. The Transfiguration
Sets out to be the most grounded vampire movie possible and largely succeeds. The naturalistic direction and pacing is effective. The young cast is very talented, especially Eric Ruffin as a young sociopath struggling with his unnatural urges. The film happily engages with the subtext – social and sexual – of the vampire. This kind of low-key horror won't be for most but I dug it.

38. IT
More faithful to the book's spirit than its actual plot, this is a surprisingly fun movie. The scares go for the throat but are balanced with heart and humor. Helping matters greatly is an exceptional cast, Finn Wolfhard and Sophia Lillis being the stand-outs. Bill Skarsgard is suitably creepy but not as good as Tim Curry. The film left me elated but excited, creeped out but comfortable.

39. The Babysitter
Raunchy and a little too self-aware, this horror/comedy succeeds when showing off a surprising sweet side. I like that the killers alternatively attack and encourage the young hero. It's enjoyable watching the kid come into his own. The best gags are wacky digressions from what you'd expected. The cast is solid, especially Samara Weaving, who gives a break-out performance.

40. M.F.A.
Visceral anger boils out of every frame of this feminist reclaiming of the rape/revenge genre. The story is rather thin actually, little more than a collection of tensely shot confrontations. However, an overriding mood of nervous tension holds the film together. Along with a star-making performance from Francesca Eastwood, who is startling and powerful.

41. Gerald's Game
Finds a clever way to make a largely internal novel external. Carla Gugino is so compelling that I wish the inevitable flashback didn't leave her behind. The basic premise is nerve-wrecking enough and leads to a jaw dropping moment of visceral gore. Disappointingly, the film also maintains the book's exposition heavy epilogue, which tarnish an otherwise very good adaptation.

42. 1922
Grisly character study about the weight of guilt, manifesting as a decaying house, flesh-eating rats, and horribly disfigured ghosts. Thomas Jane gives a career-best performance as the weary voice narrating the story. I dug the rustic period setting and slow burn atmosphere. It's a bit too long, thanks to an extended denouncement, and features one unnecessary subplot.

43. The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography
Gives the audience a no-frills impression of Elsa Dorfman. She talks a lot about her background. In older interviews, she talks openly about her work.  By clinging to an bygone piece of technology, it also shows how much technology has changed. This feels like a minor work from Morris but is a pleasant movie that gives us insight into the life of an interesting artistic voice.

44. The Belko Experiment
Mostly concerned with saying some grim things about human nature. The way the employees coldly decide to execute each other is chilling. The intense carnage almost takes on a comedic element. Yet, whenever things get too funny, we snap back with more cruelty. That constant back-and-forth between dark comedy and deeply unnerving violence create a seasawing tone.

45. Split
As a movie, it's solid. The different story threads are juggled nicely, despite an anticlimactic ending. The theme of trauma is potent and the animal symbolism isn't too on the nose. The shift from thriller to horror/supervillain story is handled nicely. As a showcase for James MacAvoy, it's even better, as he conveys several character with only his voice and body language.

46. Alien: Covenant
Sturdier than “Prometheus,” which the sequel actively apologizes for, but not as ambitious. The body horror is fantastic, the monster attacks are extremely well done, and the last act is very tense. But it's not satisfying as a definitive origin of the Xenomorph and includes a predictable twist. In many ways, it feels like an entertaining but shallow retread of previous “Alien” films.

47. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
There are visually gorgeous sequences: The opening - I would watch a whole movie like that - and Valerian's run through the layers of the satellite. The entire world is fascinating. The alien designs are beautiful. But the two leads are pretty terrible and their romance is utterly cringe-worthy. The plot is very episodic, suggesting this was adapted from multiple stand-alone stories.

48. Dig Two Graves
The Southern Gothic atmosphere goes a long way, leading to several creepy moments. The performances, especially Ted Levine's regret-strewn starring turn, are very good. The way the story leaps around in time is interesting. Ultimately, the slightly convoluted plot – which teases a supernatural element that is then discarded – drags the film down a bit.

49. The Void
Obviously beholden to John Carpenter and other eighties horror classics, this is a grim picture about overcoming loss. The hideous monsters are impressively creepy and brought to life with good old fashion latex and rubber. I wish the screenplay and characters had as much meat on their bones as the Lovecraftian abominations do.

50. Justice League
It's fine. Entertaining even! The action beats are good. Cast is solid, with Ezra Miller emerging as the break-out star. The first act is bumpy but, once the League starts kicking ass together, I was sold. The last act features several satisfying moments. It's really obvious which moments are Synder's and which are Whedon's. A lot of stuff was clearly cut out, rewritten or rearranged.

51. Dave Made a Maze
Worth seeing just for the crazy production values. The sets, traps, and creatures show off an amazing imagination. This leads to some really fun sequence, like the bit with the paper bag puppets or blood being replaced with confetti. Sadly, the script doesn't match up with the visual design's creativity, as the story is thin and characters are broad caricatures.

52. A Ghost Story
Follows its premise – a ghost story told from the ghost's perspective – to some unexpected places. 
To start, the film is very still and almost unbearably sluggish. It's going somewhere though and leads to a visually philosophical last act. If nothing else, a white sheet has never been this expressive before.

53. Marjorie Prime
Has some interesting things to say about memory and grief. The near future, sci-fi technology is portrayed in a plausible way. The cast is very strong, especially Jon Hamm's performance as a hologram. However, the script leaps around in time too much, causing us to loose the story's emotional mileage.

54. The Mummy
Met my expectations as a middling popcorn muncher with some minor spooky touches. Sofia Boutella is good. Mr. Hyde is goofy but fun. I did not care about Cruise's love interest, which is sadly what the emotional crux depends on. Action is a little shaky but generally easy to follow. I was digging it until the last 15 minutes, when the film goes to absurd lengths to set up a sequel.

55. Aftermath
Dour drama about grief, responsibility, and revenge. Schwarzenegger's performance is the primary reason to see this. Arnold is a raw nerve, intensely sympathetic one moment, glowering and frightening the next. I understand why the movie told the air traffic controller's story but wish it could've focused on Arnold exclusively. The ending simplifies the themes a bit too much.


56. Blood Money
You can see Lucky McKee trying to put his mark on the undistinguished material, mostly in the fleshed out female anti-hero driving the story. Add a quick pace, a sarcastic John Cusack, and some brutal violence, and you've got a movie that almost rises above its inglorious roots. The premise is still derivative and there's far too much bickering in the woods.

57. Pottersville
Frequently pulled between a very cheesy type of sentimentality and rather crude streak of broad comedy. And then there's that furry business. The cast is wildly overqualified. Still, the film is way too weird not to be a little bit charming. I mean, shit, where else are you going to see a Christmas movie about Bigfoot and furries?

58. Monster Trucks
Creech, the meme-tastic monstrosity in “Monster Trucks,” is genuinely cute. The film is thankfully free of the shrill humor that characterizes too many kid's flicks. Some of the action scenes are even cool! The script is unquestionably inane, the movie's too long, and Lucas Till isn't the most engaging lead. However, it's clear the filmmakers were trying to create something neat.

59. Free Fire
Feature length Mexican stand-off and a dark comedy about how many bullets the human body can adsorb. The cast is colorful, as are their varied accents, but the characters are ultimately underwritten. The music is clever and the direction is dynamic. However, it's all a distraction from a film that is build entirely around loud confrontations, one gun fight after another.

60. Mayhem
Starts with smarmy narration and asshole characters, before escalating into a series of brutal, almost cartoonish action scenes. However, the endless carnage becomes monotonous before the end. Eventually, you do start to warm towards the protagonists, especially during their irrelevant digressions about pop culture. I liked the use of music too.

61. We are the Flesh
Is there any point to the film's in-your-face sexual violence beyond pure provocation? I'm not sure. Hedonism is a main theme. The messed-up family kind of appeal to me. The performances help sell this unusual dynamic, especially Maria Evoli. Visually interesting, there's a strong color palette. I'm not entirely sure what to think but “We are the Flesh” is, if nothing else, interesting.

62. Cars 3
Faith praise incoming: “Cars 3” might be the best of the “Cars” movies! The themes of aging, obsolescence, and easing into retirement with dignity are interesting. The relationship between Lightning and Cruz is cute and develops in a satisfying way. There's still some wacky broadness but the irritating elements – like Mater and the country-bumpkins – are reeled way back.

63. Killing Gunther
Watching the cartoonish characters being constantly outmatched by their target. The cast is fairly likable. Schwarzenegger's performance as the asshole villain is especially amusing. The mockumentary angle was probably unnecessary, though it does lead to some clever action beats near the end. It's definitely way too broad at times and super minor but I liked it alright.

64. The Bad Batch
As a post-apocalyptic mood piece, this is fairly interesting. The muscle-freak cannibals, trailer trash crazies, and EDM cults are fascinatingly assembled. Yet the film is practically plotless and the characters are thinly written, their motivations and inner lives remaining mysterious and unexplored. I did like the soundtrack.

65. Hounds of Love
Dear Australia, while I enjoy your brutal, true crime inspired serial killer films as much as is possible, I object to their continued use of violent animal deaths for shock value. That moment, along with the script's repetitive nature, is what made me turn on this one a little. (Also, the lack of Kate Bush.) The cast is strong and the ending is earned but this one didn't quite work for me.

66. Happy Death Day
The audience never quite gets over the initial impression of the protagonist as a bitchy sorority girl, even though she gets better. Despite this, it's a fun little mystery, functioning like a whodunit for most of its run time... At least until the decoy ending that the momentum never quite recovers from. The kills are clever but the mayhem too often proves literally and figuratively bloodless.

67. Power Rangers
I admire how much time is spent developing the teens. There's a number of fun call-backs. Once the Rangers get in their Zords, this becomes entertaining. That doesn't happen until the last half-hour, thanks to a slow pace. Some of the changes made to the mythology are questionable. The direction and soundtrack are often obnoxious, leading to a middle-of-the-road reboot.

68. It Comes at Night
A post-apocalyptic, light-on-plot drama with light horror elements. A looming sense of dread floats over the entire film, climaxing in terrifying nightmares. This threatening atmosphere boils over into a senseless act of violence. Unfortunately, I didn't care about any of these characters. The film keeps its commitment to being vague up through its unsatisfying conclusion.

69. Ghost in the Shell
Visually, the film's cyberpunk world is quite cool. Those giant hologram advertisements go a long way. The action is decently organized, if a bit unmemorable. Scarlet Johannson has certainly cornered the market on vaguely inhuman action heroine roles. Yet the story is nothing special, featuring a lame villain reveal and lacking any of the source material's far-out ideas.

70. Leatherface
Frustrating. In some ways, it's the first reboot that feels like it respects the original. Yet it takes a while to circle back to this point. The bloody effects are vivid. Disappointingly, the duo leans on that most dreaded of cinematic styles – shaky-cam – a little too much as well. A big mid-film twist is bugged me a lot. Ultimately, it doesn't feel much like “Texas Chain Saw Massacre.”


71. Lake Alice
Very much a slow burn, interchangeably tense and tedious. If you're expecting a gore-fest, you're going to be disappointed. Too often, the murderer sneaks up on the victim in an obvious way. The short run time and minimalist plot combines to make a movie that doesn't offer much. The choice of favoring suspense over gore is an admirable one. It doesn't quite work though.

72. The Untamed
Full disclosure: I think this one went over my head. The thread of sexual frustration running through the film is interesting and its eventual pay-off – tentacles are involved – is certainly unexpected. However, how the various threads connect and what it all means is beyond me. The distant atmosphere makes this one even harder to crack.

73. The Blackcoat's Daughter
Well, it's got a sustained atmosphere of moody dread. That's about the only thing this overly vague, difficult to follow, and ultimately hollow demonic thriller has going for it. The performances may be solid but the script is so undefined, you can't get a bead on any of the characters. A time shifting twist adds nothing to the story, which is otherwise extremely thin.

74. Welcome to Willits
Backwoods tweakers vs. aliens is a dynamite premise which, in a far too clever turn, is undone quickly. The shaggy slasher set-up is charming at first but soon degrades into a loose collection of scenes. The special effects are solid but under-utilized. The cast is decent but the script is directionless. In other words, it's another flawed attempt to expand a short to feature length.

75. Flatliners
Despite some minor moves forward, this is as exactly mediocre as the original. I found the cast to be likable and not just Ellen Page. It rolls along decently until it has to become a horror movie. Eventually leans on CGI too hard, while the scares are lame and worn out. There's a moral about self-forgiveness that couldn't be more unearned.

76. Beauty and the Beast
So unerringly faithful to the cartoon that the new additions feel unnecessary at best and distracting at worst. The new songs, in particular, are all awful. The CGI/3D pageantry, extending many of the musical numbers, is simply excessive. The cast is solid, even if Emma Watson clearly can't sing, but this remake has no clear reason to exist.

77. Kill 'Em All
Should've been a straight-forward potboiler. Instead, the screenwriters had something more elaborate in mind. The constantly shifting timeline is distracting. Van Damme seems very tired.
The potentially colorful supporting cast is underutilized. This is probably most worth seeing for Van Damme and Daniel Bernhardt's fight scene. Sadly, the rest of the action is disappointing.


78. It Stains the Sand Red
The horror cliché of “Stupid characters making stupid decisions” is alive and well in this indie. The film doesn't commit to its admittedly clever one girl vs. one zombie premise. The plot gets dumber, including an insultingly graphic sexual assault, before becoming a standard zombie flick in the last act. Also, the zombies roar for some reason, which really bugged me.

79. Amityville: The Awakening
Long-delayed meta reboot that is somehow more exploitative than any previous “Amityville” movie. This is a typical jump scare/CGI-fest that becomes unintentional hilarious as it heads into a preposterous last act. Jennifer Jason Leigh gives an uncharacteristically terrible performance. I did relate to the horror nerd character lusting after his disproportionately attractive female friends.

80. The Bye Bye Man
Dumb jump scares and increasingly ridiculous scenarios make it impossible for the audience to take a potentially creepy premise seriously. Heavy-handed direction turns screams into laughs. The acting is stiff, even from Carrie Anne Moss and Faye Dunaway. Despite the silly title, you see how this could've been good. Instead, it's a Babadook/Slenderman mash-up for morons.


81. Gun Shy
Dire attempt at an action/comedy. The jokes – peeing statues, lecherous Australians, vomiting llamas, snakes biting penises – are utterly desperate. Antonio Banderas embarrasses himself by committing to the lousy material. The violent action scenes come off as hopelessly mean-spirited. It also doesn't know when to end, the film dragging on through the credits.


Say so long, 2017. I wish I could say I'll miss you. If you actually read all the way through this list, thank you so much. If you're a regular Film Thoughts reader, thank you even more.

Come back tomorrow for my annual list of my most anticipated new releases of the new year.  Thank you once again.