14 December 2018

Twenty GREATteen: Best Films That I Saw, Regardless of Year

We have a couple weeks left to go in 2018 but I'm not sure any film I see will crack this Top Ten, so here we go.

Each year in addition to our traditional end of year lists that every website ever makes, we take some time for personal evaluation of any and all movies seen for the first time in the Calendar Year 2018. We've been at this for a while now, and it's more a cool motivation to think critically about all movies you watch, catch up on some old ones that you've never seen, and for you, the viewer to gain some insight into my madness.

First, let's recap the last few years:

2017: Blade Runner 2049 (2017): I was really into BR2049. I still am. It was my #1 anticipated movie, the best of the year, and the best of anything I saw that year.
2016: Seven Samurai (1954): A great example of catching up with a classic that I had never seen and it totally blowing me away. I encourage you to check it out!
2015: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014): This was me getting into a film from the previous year that I had simply missed before 2014 was over. It was still great.

And, because I'm insane I also did this at the mid-year break. To be fair, without looking at that I made the following list, and amazingly, I kept five of my top six, in roughly the same order.

So, regardless of year, let's dip into the Top Ten of 20GREATTeen. I just copied this from the mega-list, we'll keep the method of viewing because that's always interesting. Also, sign up for Netflix DVD service.

#10: Boyz N the Hood (1991) - Netflix DVD

Why It's Here: When you watch upwards of 240 movies a year what matters most by December is what stands out. This was the first of a wave of early 90s Ghetto films that have never really stopped, but it's still the best. The cast is a who's who of 90s Black Actors, most of whom have become great 2010s Black Actors like Cuba, Angela Bassett, Ice Cube, Morpheus, Morris Chestnut, and Nia Long. It tightens its grip on your and never lets go, while never necessarily fetishizing, glamourizing, or exploiting hood gang violence like it easily could have.

Why Did I Watch This? This had been in my DVD queue for a while because it's just a notable movie, but certainly riding that post-Straight Outta Compton (2015) wave of gangsta films my interest was peaked in seeing something a little more authentic and focused. It also clued me into a lot of 90s references, from Eek the Cat! to Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood (1996).

#9: mother! (2017) - Netflix DVD

Why It's Here: Okay, this is a divisive movie that most people hated, but I think it's bloody brilliant. As soon as I realized the whole thing was a parable I was super on board, sussing out the layers of metaphor. The final fifteen minutes is one of the most amazing tour de forces of cinema I've ever seen. There are few who agree with me.

Why Did I Watch This? All the controversy, insanity, and hype, both negative and positive, coming off the recent release the previous Autumn.

#8: Good Time (2017) - Netflix DVD

Why It's Here: There are a lot of "night gone bad" movies out there, but few with such immediate and visceral action and reaction as Good Time. Robert Pattinson has done incredible post-Twilight work just about everywhere and he endures nonsense here from beginning to end as his character can't quite shake the criminal he is at heart despite being pulled in tragic other paths of family, poverty, and neglected redemption. It's really engaging stuff.

Why Did I Watch This? It showed up on a lot of Best of 2017 lists, but what pushed me over the edge was Pete Davidson just LOVING this movie. He knows his stuff.

#7: Thelma & Louise (1991) - Hulu

Why It's Here: The great irony of this movie is that it's totally a fitting movie for 2018 yet you get the sense that it would never be released in 2018. I weirdly watched a solid number of Geena Davis movies in 2018 (I think three of them, two are on this list). This movie just kept unfurling and I was awestruck how spot on every single line of dialogue was for a film made nearly thirty years ago. It was really depressing. This movie was crazy popular, too! It was a film that has etched itself in pop culture lore and well worth catching up on.

Why Did I Watch This? At the time it filled a niche both on expiring soon from Hulu and me needing a 1991 movie to fill one film from every year. But that could have been any film - from my more familiar Simpsons knowledge to the definitive relevancy, this was a good pick.

#6: The Death of Stalin (2018) - Theater

Why It's Here: I miss witty, conniving comedies so much, and this was the wittiest, most conniving comedy I've seen in a long long time. Consistently hilarious, dark, brutal, timely, and really well-shot, this just hit all the right buttons for me. Armando Iannucci is a masterful screenwriter, but I also feel like this film isn't getting nearly its just dues come December. I watched it and knew it'd immediately be at or near the top of my 2018 list.

Why Did I Watch This? I had heard about the production years ago and it seemed interesting, then got far more interesting when I learned it was a comedy. The trailer sealed it for me, a local theater was playing it, and there we go.

#5: Sorry to Bother You (2018) - Theater

Why It's Here: I knew I'd fall in love with this. Similar to Death of Stalin this is right up my alley with its dark but clever humour. That's always the key - this film gets outlandish, more outlandish than just about any other movie I've ever seen, but the satire is always purposeful, stuffed with metaphor and relevant. It's uncanny. The cast is full of hot young actors from LaKeith Stanfield, who should be in everything, Steven Yeun, to Tessa Thompson who WAS in everything this year, and Armie Hammer, who I think is the most underrated actor in anything he shows up in. Did I mention how nuts this film gets? It's best not to spoil anything and let the magical realism take you in.

Why Did I Watch This? The trailer really sealed the deal, but knowing LaKeith from Atlanta and Get Out (2017) and Straight Outta Compton (2015) helps. Also Boots Reilly from The Coup as director was really intriguing. Mostly I heard this film was bonkers and it reliably was, which made me happy.

#4: City of God (2002) - Netflix Streaming

Why It's Here: This is a truly epic piece of filmmaking. There is hardly another film made that captures an entire generation of an entire city in two hours, but City of God destroys all competitors. I give the film a tremendous amount of credit for introducing dozens of characters played by unknown or even non-actors but imbuing all of them with a personality, function, actions, and reactions that reverberate throughout the city and the film itself. The protagonist may not even be the main character. It's a fantastic achievement.

Why Did I Watch This? I heard about this film years ago but didn't know much about it, only that it was notable but I think I read it in a big 1001 Movies to Watch Before You Die book, and it also helped me get a 2002 film. Netflix Streaming helps.

#3: Shin Godzilla (2016) - Netflix DVD

Why It's Here: In the wake of a long span of time with no Godzilla, and then a lot of spins on the Kaiju but no real innovation, Toho decided to completely reinvent their own creation. We've had the American version - Godzilla (2014), which was by and large pretty good, the animated Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters (2017) which is nigh unwatchable, and sure, let's through in the Pacific Rim movies to round out our recent Kaiju splurge. But no film was as flat out excellent as Shin Godzilla, which recrafts the Godzilla mythos into a disaster relief film in the wake of Fukujima. Godzilla is weird, deathly, and truly terrifying. His atomic ray is purple and shoots out of his back, tail, and a horrifying separating jaw. The human drama is actually compelling and casts a critical eye on Japan-US relations, self-reliance, relief, and prevention. It's top to bottom amazing and far beyond any mindless Kaiju Beat 'em up. Okay, I'm still looking forward to Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019), though.

Why Did I Watch This? I heard it was good a while ago, and wanted to catch it, especially after watching this video essay. It was also October and I sorta justified it as a Halloween Monster film.

#2: They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969) - Netflix DVD

Why It's Here: Yeah, this is an obscure one. It was actually nominated for nine Academy Awards but only won one. It is truly a bizarre film, taking place almost solely in a brutal 1000+ hour long dance competition in the Depression Era, when people were just desperate enough to submit their minds and bodies to grueling spectacle for a quick buck. It's a real bleak film full of madness and despair disguised as a fun romp. It's precise, the acting is sublime by Jane Fonda, Gig Young, and many more, and you feel every bit the pain they go through until it becomes a meaningless exercise as futile as their misguided hope was in the first place. It's rad, man.

Why Did I Watch This? I forget how I got into it, but there is this weird sector of old entertainment of like, people putting hands on cars the longest, or dancing the longest and the insanity that ensued. It's a weird forgotten corner of our pop culture history. Also that Always Sunny episode. I think I just saw the title of this on a Wikipedia list or something and thought, "Damn, that's a weird title." It is and damn it's brutal. So metal! But I like exploring these subaltern, forgotten zones. Also, this wasn't even available on Netflix DVD for the longest time, I had to literally wait years.

#1: The Fly (1986) - Hulu

Why It's Here: It starts perfectly in media res, has an incredibly focused and limited cast of characters, believes in science, hubris, love, regret, body horror, it's so good. In 2018 Geena Davis' boss / stalker coming to save her is troubling, but the film works out that he gets some pretty rough comeuppance and she ends up being her own hero. Then again, this is a film without any real heroes - only complicated characters full of dreams, danger, and gross acne. From the slow transformation both physically and mentally to the doomed love story, this is a brilliantly constructed screenplay. Could have used a monkey-cat though.

Why Did I Watch This? I'm a big Goldblum fan and the pop culture relevancy of this is strong. Again, mostly Simpsons tho that's mostly the 1958 version. I watched this pretty recently because it was leaving Hulu, and I knew it'd be good, but damn I was blown away.

What did you watch this year? Am I too big on The Fly? Bet you didn't see that one coming.

13 December 2018

Reconciling The Stuff We Wanted to See in 2018

Hey Folks, I promise that we will have the normal flurry of end-of-year posts and that yes, this website does still exist. How could I have gone so long without talking about Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)? Anyway, each and every January we countdown a bunch of crap we're pumped up about. By Decembery time it's time to stroll down that long dark hallway of self-loathing as we realize that everything we look forward to sucks ass. Let's begin!

For the record, here is our original post.

Slice (2018)

Oof I wanted this to be good. So much. It's very original and a great premise that should have been a slam-dunk. Instead it felt rushed and choppy, full of awkward make-up effects, and not nearly enough Chance the Rapper being a cool, casual werewolf. The cast is still incredible, but there's not really enough catharsis for anyone involved. It's also 83 minutes.

Verdict: SUCKED

Hotel Artemis (2018)

I did not get a chance to see this one and it's looking like I won't by the time the year is over. Still, this landed with a surprising thud. Audiences responded with a resounding "That was okay" and despite a dream cast it seemed to miss the mark. I won't fully judge until I watch it with my own eyes, but after expecting a John Wick (2014) and getting anything less, it feels generally disappointing.

Verdict: Probably Sucked

Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)

Kind of in that same vein of a Hotel shoot 'em up premise, this film is actually far from that and a steady directorial hand by Drew Goddard sees it through. It's far too long for its own good and not everything pays off, but it's an all around exciting caper and entertaining flick. Chris Hemsworth is surprisingly vile and Cynthia Ervio combines this with Widows (2018) in a breakout year. At the end though, it comes off as Tarantino-Lite and the story framing doesn't totally work.

Verdict: Good

Infinity War (2018)

This was pretty good. I don't know how you'd follow along if you aren't as well-versed in MCU lore as I am, but I couldn't expect anything better than the product Feige and the Russos threw up on the screen. There are flaws of course, but in a movie like this it's more about feeling (and selling toys) and this had plenty.

Verdict: RULED

Deadpool 2 (2018)

There are some big issues with murdering Morena Baccarin in the first scene and then oddly undoing the whole movie at the end, this was top to bottom a better Deadpool movie. It wasn't nearly as funny or catchy, but no comedy sequel really is. The cast is brilliant and having a ton of fun and the parachute scene works perfect. Celine Dion should be GaGa for the Best Original Song Oscar.

Verdict: Pretty Good

Hold the Dark (2018)

This sucked so hard. Actually the Iraq scene was amazing, but the rest of this film was boring as hell. After Jeremy Saulnier hit the tension and steady progression of action so well in Green Room (2015) I had high expectations. I weirdly like Alexander Skarsgard in anything he's in these days and Jeffrey Wright is always reliable but this film was far too plodding for what should have been a pretty engaging Alaskan Frontier Wolf Murder Mystery movie.

Verdict: SUCKED

Annihilation (2018)

Finally a film that justified my anticipation. Annihilation was full of crazy sci-fi Lovecraftian body horror that was half-Under the Skin (2014) and half-Stargate (1994). Not only that, but it was full of competent female military scientists like it was no big deal. It's not hard to make this work.

Verdict: RULED

The Beach Bum (2019)

Not out yet but we got a trailer!

This looks... like a Harmony Korine film. I'm still down. Whenever it comes out.

Verdict: Looks okay

Widows (2018)

I didn't quite know what to make of this premise and am about to write about this film extensively because there is A LOT to unpack here. It rejuvenates heist films, robbery films, political films, racial films - it's quite an accomplishment that I feel is already slipping under the radar. But well worth it.

Verdict: RULED

Isle of Dogs (2018)

With any kind of movie that elicits controversy we have to acknowledge problematic issues before we dive in. As far as Japanese racism there is a little bit of fetishization here and legitimately no reason for the American exchange student character to even exist, much less have the leadership role she has, but centered on the dogs this is a heartwarming story. There are some plot turns that don't quite make sense, and honestly some puppy characters who could have been consolidated. Also weirdly the female pups are horribly underwritten prizes for the male pups. Alright, there are some issues here. But a lot of cuteness too.

Verdict: Just Watch Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

Aquaman (2018)

Have not seen this and probably won't by the time the year ends, but it looks bonkers and I'm so unnaturally pumped for Black Manta. Jason Mamoa is doing crazy publicity rounds and appears like the chillest bro ever. Early reviews and vibe are that this is pretty good, or at least self-aware good, which is good.

Verdict: Probably Okay

The New Mutants (2019)

Whelp. A lot has happened since January 2018. Fox is now Disney and who the hell knows where this possible gem will end up. The X-Men were mature enough that the company was really spinning them in some crazy and creative ways and that's probably over now. This ought to come out next year sometime and with the current Horror Revival going on right now it'll probably turn out alright.

Verdict: Who knows

Others: I predicted Scorcese's The Irishman and Gilliams The Man Who Killed Don Quixote out this year. Well, to be fair I said there's no way either of these are coming out this year. Neither did. The former is, I don't know, still somewhere, and the latter is embroiled in a legal dispute preventing distribution. If we ever watch either it'll be grand.

04 November 2018

First Impressions: BlacKkKlansman

Hey folks! I watched BlacKkKlansman (2018) about two months ago - right before my life went totally crazy and I moved like three states away and started a ridiculous new job. But ever since 2009 every single film I've seen in theaters has received an impression. Eventually. This definitely takes the cake for longest drought. I wonder what happened in that movie...Adam Driver seemed good.

Wide nose breathin all the white man's air
BlacKkKlansman comes from Spike Lee, and aligns well with the common critique that this is his best, most timely film in years, a return to vintage Spike and the cunning political attitude that he made his career on. This is very much true, although that kind of attitude tends to ignore the fact that Chi-Raq (2015) exists and he's been back on the map since at least that film. For sure it seemed like he was sliding into mainstream fare for a while there, but he's always a competent filmmaker and storyteller. There will def be SPOILERS for the film from here on out, so go watch it.

This film joins a slew of 2018 Black Film efforts trying to find their way in a world with shifting racism. Black Panther (2018) called out black hypocrisy in a world designed against them. Sorry to Bother You (2018) found this intersection between selling out to capitalism and the exploitation of the Black American Dream. BlacKkKlansman builds on this idea of the acceptance of white voices over black ones and creates what amounts to a moment of moral victory amidst a sea of unchanging racial attitudes.

The film tracks a fledgling black detective in Colorado in the 1970s, played by John David Washington. He's the son of Denzel, but you'd never really know it by watching the film and even though Denzel and Spike have a history that probably got John on Spike's radar, he earns his spot here with a terrific performance. He's always walking a line between his responsibility to his people and the Black Power movement and his role as a police officer, often at odds with his fellow brothers and sisters. It's a difficult position to be in, especially as along the way there's plenty of vile cop behavior, misguided black protest, system and institution failure regarding both, and of course, the constant undercurrent of violent racism disguised as throwing back to core American values.

The movie concerns Ron Stallworth (Washington) posing as a white man trying to apply for membership in the Ku Klux Klan. A white surrogate (Adam Driver) contacts the Organization in-person and hijinks ensue. There are moments of supreme tension as either police officer is on the verge of being discovered and you get the sense that every white character involved doesn't see this investigation as a big deal. They're more concerned with investigating Kwame Ture and young black power movements. As Stallworth finds actual seeds of a nefarious bombing plot against said Black Youth, shit gets real.

This all leads to one of the more perfect movie endings in recent memory. The idiot white nationalists blow themselves up, which is both satisfying and prevents Stallworth from becoming a vengeful black murdercop. We also get a taste of perfection when he finally reveals himself to Grand Wizard David Duke in a brilliant vocal tic that exposes Duke's complete bullshit claim to phrenology-style black voice analysis. Then of course, there's the simple fact that after the bomb plot is revealed, the case just sort of... ends. I can't think of a better metaphor for our current racial strife. We're on to the next controversy without really solving anything.

Like many period pieces, or at least the best ones, this takes place in the 70s as a placeholder for our current day, and the fact that you can see a lot of the same things happening today is exactly the message Spike wants to deliver. He's never all that subtle, and says as much by throwing in footage from the Charlottesville, VA murders of a year ago. Stallworth's final moment of triumph is bastardized by none of the white folk really caring. He wants to keep investigating because, obviously the KKK is still bad news, but in White Society, it's time to move on to the next thing. It's tragic and awful, but feels pretty real. It's a film filled with coded racism bookended by more overt messages from people in White Power. When that veil is unlifted, it's powerful.

Along the way there are a handful of indulgent Spike Lee moments. There's an extended soul music dance scene that feels a bit too long and a few scenes drag on. The cast mostly has it together, and smaller moments from relative no-names like Jasper Pääkkönen and Ryan Eggold as Klansman sell the danger of the film. It's also one of Spike's best looking films. Cinematographer Chayse Irvin doesn't have too many credits to his name (Beyonce's "Lemonade" video may be his biggest), but he does great work with the colors here, making everything both pop and muted at the same time, fitting the film's slightly comic sensibility.

When they first announced this film, I immediately thought it ridiculous that they were making the greatest Chappelle Show sketch into a feature film. This turned into a lot more than Clayton Bigsby: The Movie, though, and it accomplishes a lot of themes at once and remains a movie that's stuck with me these past two months.
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