Hollywood has been adapting a wide variety of Young Adult teen romance stories lately, but in my opinion, Love, Simon is the first one to score a genuine home run. This is just such a likable movie, filled with winning performances, a big heart, and a great sense of humor that aids the drama of the main character's situation, instead of conflicting with it. It's the kind of movie that you want to tell your friends to see as soon as it's over, and possibly see again yourself.
If I may nitpick (I am a critic, after all. It comes with the territory.), the movie is a bit conventional at times, and certain plot elements and the way the film wraps itself up is a bit too neat and tidy. But these faults are minor in comparison to just how much this movie works. And the reason why it works is because the screenplay (credited to Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger from TV's This is Us, adapting from the novel by Becky Albertalli) knows the teen comedy-drama genre inside out. There are the smart, well-spoken teen heroes, the sweet but somewhat out of touch parents, the kind of clueless Vice Principal, the big party scene, the hidden feelings and secret longings...Yes, we've seen it all before, but seldom this well. This movie loves these characters, and knows how to make it so that their personality comes through rather than the cliches. These are all fascinating characters, right down to the minor supporting ones who manage to stand out bigger than you expect. This is simply one of the most sweetly funny and sharp teen movies I've seen in a while.
At the center is Simon Spier, who is played with endless charm by Nick Robinson from Jurassic World. Simon is a High School Senior living a pretty average life in an Atlanta suburb. His mom and dad (Josh Duhamel and Jennifer Garner) are happily married after 20 years, and are just as much in love as they were when they met back in college. His little sister (Talitha Bateman) is an aspiring chef, and frequently uses her family as guinea pigs for her culinary experiments. Simon enjoys hanging out with his best friends, drinks too much ice coffee (his own admission in the film's opening narration), loves watching bad movies from the 90s and collecting vinyl music. Simon comes across as a perfectly well-adjusted kid, but he's hiding a secret from everyone, in that he is gay, and just doesn't know how to properly come out and express how he feels. He's certain his parents would understand, he just doesn't know the right way to break the news to them. Plus, he just doesn't want to shake up his ideal life.
We see how Simon learned he was gay in a sweetly funny flashback when he was 13, and became obsessed with Daniel Radcliffe in the Harry Potter films. It's been four years since then, and he's been unable to tell anyone. His three best friends are the sweet Leah (Katherine Langford), soccer jock Nick (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) and the new girl Abby (Alexandra Shipp), who moved to town just last year, but has already become so close to Simon that he feels like he's known her his whole life. Again, Simon is not afraid that his secret would affect their friendship. He just is unsure of how and the proper time to tell them. But then, he sees a posting on a message board by an anonymous classmate identified as "Blue", who opens up on line about his sexuality. This sparks something within Simon. He has to get in touch with this kid, and share his own personal feelings about coming out.
Simon and "Blue" begin communicating through e-mails, and both begin expressing things that they have never told anyone. This leads to the film's key mystery, as Simon tries to figure out the identity of his online friend. He has some hunches as to who "Blue" might be, and when he reads the e-mails in his head, he can sometimes visualize who he thinks the person is behind the e-mails sitting at their desk and writing to him. At different times, Simon visualizes "Blue" as a kid in his class, a cute waiter at the local Waffle House, or perhaps the guy who plays the piano for the school musical production of Cabaret. However, both are afraid to reveal their identities to one another, or to meet in person. Simon seems a bit more sure in meeting face-to-face, but even he has some doubts. Where the movie goes from here, I will not reveal, but it does involve the one character in the film that does not work - a social outcast (Logan Miller) who becomes kind of a bully to Simon, and whose character arc is a bit too all over the place to work, as the movie never seems sure if we are supposed to hate him or sympathize with him.
But again, it's hard to complain here, because there's just so much about Love, Simon that works so effortlessly. All of the other performances hit the perfect note, and there's hardly a wrong step among them. And while the romantic mystery is the main drive, it's the light comedy that keeps us entertained. Of particular note is Tony Hale as a Vice Principal who comes across as a bit of a buffoon at first, but he gradually develops into a truly funny and charming character as the film goes on. Also very funny is the priceless Natasha Rothwell, who plays the school's frustrated drama teacher. It's characters like these that keep things interesting outside of the central plot, and prevent the film from being too heavy-handed or cliched at times.
But above all else, this is a joyful film filled with life. As Simon grows in self-awareness about his situation, all of the freedom and confusion that he feels is wonderfully portrayed by both Robinson in his performance and the sharp dialogue that the script provides him with. Even when the movie relies on sitcom devices, such as fantasy sequences where Simon visualizes what college life will be like with him having come out, it still remains entertaining because the cast and director Greg Berlanti treat the material with respect. You can tell that a lot of thought and care has gone into bringing these people to life, as well as in the creative process, and it shows in nearly every scene. Even if it stumbles from time to time, we're still smiling, because we love these people. When you see as many movies as I do, you start to cherish the ones that are filled with people you actually would like to know in real life.
Love, Simon is getting a lot of attention for being the first mainstream Hollywood movie about a gay teenage relationship, and while that alone is impressive, it fortunately doesn't have to fall back on that to grab our attention. It's filled with wit, heart and emotion, and is genuinely enthralling in so many ways. Maybe the movie plays it a bit too safe in some ways, but when you smile this much while watching a movie, nothing else really matters.
There is a great moment about halfway through Tomb Raider. The young heroine Lara Croft (played here wonderfully by Alicia Vikander) finds herself in a life or death situation when a villain jumps her, and is going to lead her to her potential end. She must fight back, and she does, but she also ends up taking the villain's life. What's great about this scene is what comes afterward. We see Lara's horrified reaction to what she has done as she stares at the lifeless body before her. It is not overplayed. There is no screaming, and no dramatic music. We are simply watching the dawn of realization spread over her face over what she has done.
This is fascinating for so many reasons, as it's something we so seldom see in action movies, and especially action movies based on video games, where killing your opponent is usually the key to survival. Movies seldom slow down long enough to show the hero's reaction to taking another life. This has special emphasis, as it's the first time Lara has ever killed a person. Yes, this is somewhat of an origin story for the tomb raiding heroine, who has been one of the biggest stars in the video game world since hitting the scene back on the original Playstation in 1996. Fans will no doubt remember the two earlier movies from the early 2000s that featured Angelina Jolie in the title role. Those were relatively harmless and brainless blockbusters that played up the sex angle of Miss Croft, and featured a lot of over the top action.
This new Tomb Raider movie is a much darker and more somber affair. It's more about survival, and it features Lara in her early 20s. She's beautiful, but not confident. She has no idea where she's going in her life, and is not the experienced adventurer that Jolie portrayed in the earlier two movies. She is haunted by the disappearance and presumed death of her father, Lord Richard Croft (Dominic West), who left her seven years ago for reasons unknown. But now, Lara has uncovered information on where he might have gone. In a hidden recording that Richard left behind for his daughter, he tells Lara that he had been leading a double life the whole time. He was not just the wealthy businessman that Lara grew up knowing. He also had a passion for uncovering ancient artifacts and uncovering lost civilizations. His main goal was to uncover information about an ancient Queen of Japan who supposedly possessed supernatural powers that could kill with a single touch. He thought he had finally discovered the location of the Queen's tomb where she was trapped and buried, and that is where he was headed when he disappeared.
Lara sets off for the island her father headed for so long ago with the aid of a fellow adventurer who has a connection to her father (Daniel Wu). A massive storm at sea leaves them shipwrecked on the island, where they find an evil organization known as The Trinity is scouring the island for the exact same tomb that her father went missing looking for. Lara is quickly captured by the group's leader, the charismatic Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins), and when she eventually escapes, she must use survival skills for the first time. This is when we get that great moment where Lara must take a life for the first time, and we see the impact it has on her. We also see her in pain from her struggles to escape, and her barely clinging to life in one moment. It made me stop and realize how seldom we get to see that in movies. With recent films like Wonder Woman or the female soldiers of Wakanda in Black Panther, the heroines are seen as being strong, capable, and almost unbeatable. Here, Lara is not just strong, but also vulnerable and quite close to breaking down. Her determination that drives her to live and keep on fighting is not only admirable, but an interesting angle for an action film.
Had the movie continued in this direction, I would have been completely behind it. Unfortunately, after we get a few moments of this, Tomb Raider all but drops this angle. It stops developing Lara as a sympathetic character, and instead turns her into one of those heroes who is so skilled with a bow and arrow that she can take on an entire group of thugs armed to the teeth with automatic weapons without breaking a sweat. She can also solve ancient riddles and traps that have baffled her fellow tomb raiders for centuries in a matter of seconds, just by glancing at the puzzle. The traps that Lara must survive do seem to be like something out of one of the games (in one memorable sequence, she and some others are trapped in a room where the floor is slowly falling apart, and she has to solve a puzzle surrounding color-based stones to stop it), and given how quickly she solves them, it's like she's using cheat codes or an FAQ.
Here is a movie that simply starts out with a lot of potential, and then sells itself short just when it seems like it's about to go to some interesting places. The early scenes with Lara uncovering the mystery behind her father's disappearance and her fight for survival led me to think that this would be the first movie based on a video game to get it right, and give us a sympathetic hero who was strong as well as emotionally invested. But then the movie just kind of seems to lose interest in this idea, and starts to give us nothing but stunts. And these are impressive stunts, made all the more so by the fact that Alicia Vikander pushed herself to the physical limit and performed them all herself. Best of all, the movie never sexualizes or minimizes her abilities. Not only is she impressive in how she bulked up for her role, but she also brings her strong talent to the film's more dramatic moments.
Unfortunately, Tomb Raider suffers from a common problem with video game adaptations, which is trying to squeeze the plot of a game that lasts around 10 hours or so into a two hour film structure. The plot is a bit too straightforward, and aside from a rather weak twist, there are really no surprises. It is Vikander who carries the film, and when the movie is allowing her to explore Croft's different sides, the movie works. It stops working when she straps on her bow and arrow, and just starts using the villains as target practice. The supporting characters also are not as interesting as they could have been, and seem to be victims of the plot's rushed structure. We never know much about them, outside of basic motivations. A good example would be Lara's main friend and sidekick on the adventure, whom we learn is an alcoholic and has a gambling problem, and then nothing else, as he's basically pushed into the background. He always seems poised to be getting his own subplot at any moment, but the movie keeps on cutting away from him just when it seems like he will take focus for a while.
I have a feeling that fans of the video games will get behind this film, as it does absolutely no disservice to the franchise or its lead heroine. Speaking as someone with little history of the games, I started out liking it quite a lot, but little by little, the movie lost me. I was never bored or dismissive of what I was watching, but I could also sense the moment when the movie stopped working for me. That being said, I would welcome seeing Vikander in the role again, provided the script gives her a full character to play, instead of half of one.
No one will ever mistake Game Night for a great comedy, but it is a very likable one with a game cast and enough genuine laughs to recommend. It's a modest movie, really. It's not trying to be raucous or all that outrageous, but the dialogue is witty, and there are even a few surprises in the plot to keep the audience engaged. I was never entirely enthused, but I wanted to keep watching.
The plot centers on buttoned-down suburban couple Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams). They met a few years ago while participating in a trivia contest, and fell in love over their shared passion for games of any kind (charades, board games, video games, etc.). Now married, they host a weekly game night where they invite their couples friends over for friendly competition. They share a happy life together, but Max has been stressed lately over the arrival of his much wealthier and more handsome brother, Brooks (Kyle Chandler), who has always demanded attention and usually outshines Max in just about every single way. True to form, when it is Brooks' turn to host game night, he holds it in an expensive mansion that he has rented, and has decided to spare no expense.
Brooks' idea of game night is to stage an elaborate murder mystery game. He hires actors to play a detective and even kidnappers who are supposed to leave behind clues that the various couples must unravel in order to win a grand prize - a classic luxury car that Brooks recently bought. But the kidnappers who show up at the house are not the actors that Brooks hired. They are actual thugs, and they snatch Brooks away in front of everyone, who sit and watch while enjoying the cheese plate laid out before them, thinking that the crime is all a staged event. The screenplay by Mark Perez cleverly feeds us information about what's really going on, and gets a lot of laughs out of how Max and Annie (as well as the other couples participating in the game night) think that this is all an elaborate set up, and slowly dawn upon the realization that what's going on is very real, and that Brooks' life is at stake.
Game Night earns a lot of its laughs due to the interaction between the different couples who get wrapped up in the kidnapping/murder plot. Aside from Max and Annie, we also have Kevin and Michelle (Lamorne Morris and Kylie Bunbury), who have been in love since middle school, and find their faith in each other tested when it's revealed that Michelle may have had a fling with a famous celebrity (whom she will not name) during a brief lull in their relationship. Kevin spends the night fixated on what famous person his wife may have slept with as much as on the kidnapping situation. Another participant in the game is Ryan (Billy Magnussen), a dim-witted sort who shows up to every game night with a different woman (usually a very beautiful but clueless supermodel), but on this particular evening shows up with a co-worker from work named Sarah (Sharon Horgan), who is not only smarter than him, but finds herself increasingly exasperated with him as the night wears on.
All of the couples have a part to play, and the way that the movie gives each of them something to do and play off of each other is probably its greatest strength. Bateman and McAdams are the regular couple who find themselves in over their heads, and maybe secretly enjoy having their lives turned upside down. McAdams, in particular, gets a lot of comic mileage out of how much she gets into handling a gun, and having to perform emergency surgery on her husband after he accidentally gets shot in the arm. Morris and Banbury have wisely not been written as a bickering couple, and have an easy and very sweet chemistry. He is more curious than angry about his wife having had a fling with a big celebrity, and genuinely wants to know who it was. As for Magnussen and Horgan, they have a number of great comic exchanges where he never seems to know much of what's going on, and she seems to increasingly wonder how she got talked into this particular date.
But of the supporting characters, it is Jesse Plemons who steals the show as Gary, a cop and neighbor of Max and Annie. He used to participate in the couple's game night when he was married, but after his wife left him, he has become increasingly sullen and weird to the point that the couple now do their best to avoid him, and no longer invite him over. He takes an increasingly important role in the night's events as things unfold, and he gives a wonderfully bizarre and deadpan performance that gets some of the biggest laughs in the film. He's the kind of character who easily could have been annoying with his sad sack nature, but the movie always manages to find a new and funny angle to make him interesting.
At only about 100 minutes, Game Night is a brisk comedy, and the directing team of John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (2015's Vacation) keep things constantly moving and never get bogged down in unnecessary subplots. This is a lively film that never quite loses focus on the main situation, or lets the characters get drown out by the action set pieces and car stunts as the movie turns more into a comedic action thriller as it goes on. I think the fact that it never loses sight on their characters or their relationships is what makes the movie successful. This could have easily been yet another movie about ordinary suburban people who find themselves in a world they don't understand, but the movie is much smarter than that. This is a movie that gives these characters smart and funny dialogue, and never loses sight of what makes them interesting.
Even if this is never a great comedy, it is a smarter one than I expected walking in, and it manages to build to some genuine laughs. The action and stunts here never really thrill, but I don't think that was the main focus. The main cast and the dialogue are the real draw here, and as always, that is more than enough.
Every Day has a fantastic premise for a romantic drama, and then squanders it on a plot where not a whole lot happens, and on people who are not that interesting. Oh, the teens at the center of the romance are likable enough, and they are played by good actors. In fact, one of the lovers is played by several good actors, both men and women. (You'll understand in a minute.) But they've been written in a way so that they are not that interesting, and only the charm and screen presence of the young actors carries us through.
I have not read the novel by David Levithan that inspired the screenplay by Jesse Andrews, so I don't know if the book has the same problems. All I know is that I was left with a constant sense that given its premise, this movie should be so much more involving than it is. Its premise is intriguing. A high school girl named Rhiannon (Angourie Rice) falls in love with someone who wakes up in the body of a different person every day. This person (or perhaps a spirit) goes only by the name of "A", and is constantly switching bodies when the clock strikes midnight. It can be a man or a woman, and even A is not sure of what its true sex is, as this unexplained phenomenon has been happening its entire life. The bodies that A enters for a 24 hour period are always around the same age as it, and always in the same area. A is careful not to interfere too much with the lives of the people it inhabits for one day. When A leaves the body and goes to another one, the person he was previously inhabiting has no memories of the previous day when A was in control.
Right off the bat, your mind is probably racing with possibilities of where a story like this could go. We never fully know who or what A truly is, or what has caused this to happen. It's probably best this way, and A most likely does not understand. But still, think of what a writer could do with a story where one of its central characters inhabits a different body every day. What would happen if A woke up one day to find himself in the body of someone who had no legs? Would he know how to get around for the 24 hours he found himself trapped in that particular body? Or what if he wound up in the body of someone who was comatose? The movie does actually hint at these intriguing possibilities, such as when he wakes up once in the body of a blind teen, and later we learn that he was once in the body of someone who was undergoing surgery. But the movie treats this as throwaway details, and does not truly explore what it would be like for someone to experience such a situation. The movie also never addresses what happens to the person's actual personality or soul during the one day A is inhabiting them. If A has control of the body, does he push the actual person out somehow? After all, when A is inhabiting them, they take on his personality and mannerisms. This opens up a whole other issue that the movie somehow dodges.
Rhiannon first encounters A when it happens to inhabit the body of her usually shallow and jealous lunkhead of a boyfriend, Justin (Justice Smith). During the one day that A inhabits Justin's body, he is kind and respectful toward Rhiannon, and they spend a great day together. Rhiannon sees a kinder and gentler side that she has never seen before in Justin, and seems to fall in love with him all over again. While inhabiting Justin, A falls for Rhiannon as well. From that point on, whenever he enters a new body, he tracks down Rhiannon and tries to get close to her again. It's the first time he's felt a human connection to anyone. Of course, first A has to convince Rhiannon about what is happening. You would think this would be difficult, but she seems to go along with the idea about the whole body swapping business after about five minutes of denial. Yes, A knows intimate details about her and what they talked about when they spent the day together when he was Justin. But, you still think Rhiannon would be just a little more doubtful.
During the course of the film, A takes the form of a heavyset yet gentle kid (Jacob Batalon from Spider-Man: Homecoming), a transgender teen named Vic (Ian Alexander), a black kid who is homeschooled and lives with a domineering and controlling mother (Sean Jones), and at one point, even wakes up in the body of a troubled teen who has cuts on her arms from failed suicide attempts. When A is in this girl's body, it wants to figure out how to stay in the body longer than 24 hours so that it can help this girl get the attention and care that she needs. Can A stay in a body longer than 24 hours, and is it right to interfere with a person's life, even if it is to save their life? Again, intriguing possibilities, and again the screenplay chooses to sidestep just about every one for the easiest and most trite answer possible. It all leads up to a forced climax and conclusion that manages to be both melodramatic and head-scratching at the same time.
Every Day, while never an unwatchable movie, simply infuriated me with how it seemed determined to ignore every possibility its premise presents itself. There is so much that could have been done with its idea, and with the character of A. Heck, multiple movies could probably be made about this idea. I don't even object to the movie being a teen romance, as you could still fit these intriguing ideas into the formula. Not only that, but Angourie Rice is fantastic as Rhiannon, and carries a screen presence that immediately grabs your attention. By all accounts, this should have been a smashing success. I was fascinated early on as the story began to open up numerous possibilities, only to have it focus on the most banal and trivial teen romance imaginable. I wanted to feel things while I was watching this, but the emotion that entered my mind the most was disappointment.
Maybe some people will be able to lose themselves in the romantic fantasy that this movie creates. More power to them. I wish I could join them. But all I could think about is that I wanted a different writer to have another crack at this script, and truly exploit its potential. Again, for all I know, the movie is just being faithful to the book. If that's the case, the screenwriter should have gone in a different direction.
Alex Garland's Annihilation has stirred up some pre-release hype the past few weeks over the fact that its studio, Paramount Pictures, doubts its chances at the box office, and are not only doing little to promote it, but are also completely skipping a theatrical release in some areas outside of the US, and putting it straight to Netflix. My guess is that they're still feeling sore from the response Mother! got when it came out last fall, and are mentally preparing for another audience backlash.
This is, of course, ridiculous. This might be a challenging and polarizing film that is hard to label (I guess it could technically be labeled a Sci-Fi drama with elements of a thriller, but that sounds a bit too basic), and of course audiences will likely be divided on it. That's the whole point of the film. I'm sure the studio execs knew this when they greenlit the script. Now, likely because of a past film's performance at the box office, they are trying to squash this one before it even gets a chance for the public to make up its mind. Instead of letting people see for themselves, they are slowly pushing this out like they're embarrassed by it. They even withheld it from critics until just a few days before release. (As of this writing, the film is sitting at a 88% critic score and a respectable 72% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes.) If this movie bombs at the box office, the studio will only have itself to blame, and certain people will have missed out on a great and thought-provoking film experience.
And this is a great movie, falling just short of an amazing one. The only thing holding it back with me is that it employs a story-telling device that I seldom find successful. That would be telling the whole story in flashback, with the film opening near the end of the story, and having the main character recount everything that happened. In this case, a woman named Lena (Natalie Portman) is being questioned in a secure room by a man in a bio hazard suit. There are multiple people standing just outside of the room, watching through the windows, also in protective masks. The man questioning her asks about her mission, and what happened to those who were with her. She tells him and us, so we already know the fates of the characters before the story proper has even begun. I have never been a big fan of this story structure. It can be used successfully, but most of the time, this approach of starting at the end and going backwards always kills a tiny bit of the mystery for me. It's a personal thing, really.
As Lena tells her story, we flashback to the events that led up to this interrogation. At the start, she's a successful biologist who has been grieving over the disappearance and presumed death of her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), a soldier with the army who was sent away on a secret mission one year ago, and has not been heard from since. Lena was in the very tentative stages of moving on, when Kane suddenly appears in their home with no memory of how he got there, or even what's happened to him or where he's been for the past year. He is dead-eyed, distant, and then he starts spitting up blood. In further flashbacks, we see how Kane was once a passionate and lively man. That's right, we have flashbacks within flashbacks here, which is another personal pet peeve of mine. It's not that the story is hard to follow. Garland's screenplay actually pieces the story out very clearly, and even though it jumps around to different time periods, it's never confusing where the current scene we're watching is set. Again, it's just a personal thing, and I'm not a fan of when filmmakers employ multiple flashbacks to tell the story.
Both Lena and Kane are sent to a research facility where Kane is placed under quarantine, and Lena slowly learns of the facility's purpose. On the outskirts of the walls of the building, there is a glowing wall of light that the scientists at the facility refer to as The Shimmer. It appeared when a meteor fell from space and struck a nearby lighthouse a few years ago. Now, the wall of light is growing. At the moment, it is mostly covering the surrounding swampland, but in time, it will grow large enough to engulf the facility, and eventually spread across the state and possibly even the nation. No one knows the purpose of The Shimmer. Field teams and soldiers have been sent through the wall of light to investigate, but nobody has come back out, and all radio communication goes dead. Lena soon learns from a head scientist at the facility, Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), that her husband's secret mission involved entering the area within The Shimmer, and that he is the first person to come out of it. It is presumed that anyone that goes within the wall of light either goes crazy and kills each other, or are killed by something or someone that may be within it.
Learning all of this and wanting to know about what happened to her husband, Lena signs up to join the next team that is going to venture inside The Shimmer. The team is made up of female scientists from the facility, and include the tough Anya (Gina Rodriguez), the shy and timid Josie (Tessa Thompson) and the gentle Cass (Tuva Novotny). The team is led by Dr. Ventress, and as they step through the wall of light and try to make it to the lighthouse where all of this originated, the movie expertly feeds us information while constantly keeping us intrigued. We are still on Earth, and yet there is something very foreign and alien about the surrounding landscape, and some of the events that the team discover, which I will not reveal. We also learn small tidbits of info about what happened to the previous teams (including Kane's) through writings that have been left behind, as well as video diaries and journals that hint at something truly horrifying.
Annihilation does an excellent job of not only earning out interest with the clues it doles out, but paying it off with some spectacular and truly suspenseful set pieces. This is just as much a thriller as it is a Sci-Fi drama that asks important questions about humanity and how we may be viewed by a force or life not our own. One of the more immersive ways that the movie creates tension is with the tremendous sound design. There are two moments that come to mind, one is when the team of women come face-to-face with something that mimics the sounds of its victims, and another is during the climactic moments, which creates sounds so unearthly, it's enough to set you on edge. Another aspect is the visual design, which can be beautiful and foreign all at once. We are drawn in by the splendor of some of the settings within The Shimmer, because they do not seem of this Earth, even though we know they are.
I am certain that a lot of the answers the film arrives at are likely to spark debate within anyone who watches it, and there is never anything wrong with that. If anything, it should guarantee that the film gets multiple viewings by those who appreciate the film. (I, for one, am looking forward to see if I like the film even more with repeated viewings.) This is a dense film, but it is not impossible to decipher. It gives you enough information to make your own opinion as to what exactly is inside The Shimmer, while at the same time leaving enough open that it can spark imagination and conversation. This is not a movie that provides more questions or confusion than answers. It is not frustrating, vague or even that confusing. It is dense in the best ways, and while we may not understand everything, we know more than enough that we walk out feeling engaged and fascinated rather than cheated.
Despite my personal gripes about the story structure, which is easy to forgive in the face of everything the movie does so well, Annihilation is a rewarding experience for anyone who is willing to give it the time it needs to process in their minds. Unlike Mother!, this is not a film full of ideas that almost seems to be daring the audience to make a connection or figure it out. It's challenging, but not impenetrable. It's a shame that Paramount does not see this, and I hope their lack of faith in the project does not keep people away.
Well, seeing as though everybody else has had their "best of the year"
list out since December, I guess I should get off my lazy behind, and
get one out also, shouldn't I? As always, I have a good excuse. As a
regular paying filmgoer, I choose to hold off on this list until I
can see as many of the year's films as I can. And since many of the big
end of the year films usually expand slowly (sometimes very slowly)
into wide release around January-February, I choose to wait. I did get to see most of the major end of the year releases (the only big ones that I never got to see were Call Me by Your Name and The Disaster Artist), so I feel the time is ready to make the list. I apologize to those of you who were looking forward to my views on the two films I missed, but they never came close enough to my area.
As usual, I will be naming my favorite film of the year, followed by
what I felt were the great films of 2017. The great films can be
anything that truly grabbed my attention, so they can be dramas,
comedies, kid's films, whatever. Then I'll be listing the "honorable
mentions" (the runner ups), followed by my 10 favorite actor and actress
performances of the year. Aside from Best Film, all of these choices
will be listed in alphabetical order.
So, with that out of the way, let's get down to the important stuff - the movies.
THE BEST FILM OF 2017
THE POST - This is not the rough and shocking Spielberg of Saving Private Ryan or Schindler's List.
This movie is a melodrama, and a soft one at that. Where the greatness
comes from is from the performances, and the way that Spielberg frames
the story kind of like a great 1930s drama, filled with great actors in
just about every role, and whip-smart writing that not only offers
killer lines and monologues, but also fills in all the details we need,
without giving us any unnecessary subplots or scenes. Everything is
connected beautifully, and no one can deny what an effortlessly crowd-pleasing movie this is. It's
a great entertainment that manages to tell the story swiftly without
losing any of the power of the story. It's impossible not to think of the current war going on between the
current Administration and the Press while you watch this, and no matter
what your thoughts on that situation may be, The Post gives a
lot of food for thought. This is a film to be remembered, and I highly
doubt anything will be able to diminish the power that it holds.
THE GREAT FILMS OF 2017 (IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER)
BABY DRIVER - Edgar Wright's Baby Driver is not just the best all-out action movie since Mad Max: Fury Road,
it's a reminder of what summer blockbusters used to be before
superheroes largely took over. Fast-paced, plenty of kinetic stunts, a
few breathless chase and action scenes, some laughs, a romantic angle,
and a soundtrack that would become just as famous as the movie itself.
This movie is all of the above and more. If the Fast and Furious movies were half this good, I'd be counting down the days to the next installment. Baby Driver is the one of the very few times when music
video-style editing and rhythm has been pulled off successfully in a
feature film. Every sound is perfectly timed with the music on the
soundtrack, from the screeching of tires on the pavement, to the
gunshots, right down to the sound of bundles of money being dropped on a
desk. This might lead you to think that the film is a gimmick, or
perhaps an empty spectacle, but Wright allows us not just to be
mesmerized by the choreography, but also drawn in by the characters and
their individual quirks and relationships. This is a high-concept film
with heart to go along with the boundless style. It's also simply one of those small cinematic miracles where everything just works.
THE BIG SICK - This is the best romantic comedy I have seen in a very long time. Like the
best films of the genre, we don't only root for the couple at the center
of the story and want to see them get together, but it is also filled
with undeniable truths about relationships to go with the laughs. It
has moments of sadness, sweetness and joy. This is easily one of the most
uplifting film of 2017, and helped clear the air a little after a
string of stinker comedies aimed at adults that came during the year, such as CHIPs, Baywatch, Rough Night, and The House. The film is loosely based on the real life relationship between the
film's writers, Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon. They met some 10
years ago, when Nanjiani was a stand up comic working in Chicago, and
Gordon was a therapist. They fell in love, but eight months into their
relationship, Emily got sick and had to be placed into a
medically-induced coma. The film uses this simple premise to create
such a heartfelt and funny film that works on every level. There is no forced sentiment, no situations that a
real couple cannot relate to, and nothing feels artificial here. With
Kumail Nanjiani playing himself, and Zoe Kazan filling in for Emily up
on the screen, they create a natural chemistry. The Big Sick made me happier than just about any
other movie so far this year, and is not only the funniest
movie of the year, but also the sweetest and most charming.
THE BREADWINNER -More than any other film I've seen recently, The Breadwinner is a
reminder of just how powerful an artform animation can be. But maybe it's not so surprising when you realize that the director
behind this film is Nora Twomey, who is one of the founders of the
Kilkenny, Ireland-based Cartoon Saloon, and was a key player in the
group's pair of Oscar-nominated features, The Secret of
Kells and Song of the Sea. Instead of Ireland, this film is
set in Afghanistan's capital city of Kabul, taking place during the last
days of Taliban rule. However, just like their previous works, this
film shares a love of the culture of where the story is set, as well as
love of storytelling and striking images. The Breadwinner is often a harrowing story of survival, but it is also one of hope. What I admired most about the film is despite the fact that it is
animated, it never backs away from the harsh cruelty of the Taliban, and
the cultural injustices that Parvana and other women face everyday.
There are some scenes of violence that can be surprisingly brutal, but
are never flashy. We are witnessing cruelty, and the movie never lets
us forget it. The Breadwinner is powerful both in its story and in the
artwork. Accompanied by a lush Afghan-themed music score by Mychael and
Jeff Danna, this movie is truly transporting, and shows us a part of
the world many seldom see. The story itself is about bravery, but the
movie itself is pretty brave as well.
COCO -With its cast of skeletons and somewhat gentle macabre tone, this may be
one of the riskiest and certainly the strangest film Pixar has ever
done. This represents the studio doing something that they have never
done before, and doing so in a way that is certain to delight just about
anyone who watches it. It's not just the most visually stylish film
that they have attempted, but it's also quite frequently funny and
highly emotional, as all the best films to come out of Pixar are. Even
if this year had been a high watermark for the animation industry, Coco would still stand out as one of the best of the year. What the directing team of Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3) and Adrian
Molina have done is given us a story that starts out being simple and
effective, but gradually grows in complexity, and even tackles some
fairly heavy and dark themes as a young boy journeys to the World of the Dead to learn about his ancestors. Beyond the story, however, Coco is simply a joy to watch. This
is easily the most colorful and complex looking film to come out of
Pixar, and just about every scene is awash in color, detail and
imagination. As soon as Miguel enters the World of the Dead, the movie
never stops coming up with images that we have never seen before. Coco has all the humor, heart and emotion that we have come to
expect from Pixar, and seldom get from some of their recent efforts like
the Cars sequels. It's a lush and lavish love letter to Mexican
culture, but it's also a genuinely involving and at times powerful
experience. This is the kind of animated feature that adults should
seek out even if they don't have kids to go with them. But this is more
than just a great animated film. It's simply a great movie in general,
and one of the best of the year.
THE FOUNDER - The Founder was, at one time, being groomed by The Weinstein
Company as a big Award Season movie for 2016. But, for whatever reason, the
studio got cold feet, and instead dumped it in January of last year with little
fanfare. I honestly can't imagine why. This is a great little movie,
with a captivating lead performance by Michael Keaton. It tells the true story of Ray Kroc (Keaton), a middle-aged
fast-talking salesman who in 1954 had his life and his fortunes take a turn when he discovered a
revolutionary little burger stand in California run by two
forward-thinking, but naive, brothers. Their restaurant, called
McDonald's, was unlike anything at the time, creating a streamlined
cooking process that could have your order in seconds instead of a half
hour, and dreaming up many ideas that would become staples of the fast
food world, such as having the food packed in wrappers, and a walk up
window to order food from. The film tells the story of how Ray appealed
to the brothers to franchise the business, and then slowly but surely
took total control of their empire by doing things on his terms, and
generally rewriting history. In a way, The Founder is not far removed from The Social Network,
which also told the story of someone who had the ambition to take an
idea like Facebook and fly with it. Ray saw the "Golden Arches" logo
(which one of the brothers had dreamed up) as a sign that could be as
American as the flag, and he knew how to capitalize on it. As Ray's
ambition grew, and he started placing McDonald's restaurants all across
the Midwest and eventually the U.S., he also found himself wanting to
work away from the McDonalds Brothers themselves, and turn the franchise into
something entirely his own. The Founder inhabits a gray area with its subject matter. It pulls no punches in showing that
Kroc was essentially a crook who took a lot of people for a ride, and
wound up laughing all the way to the bank. Still, it is wise not to
entirely vilify him, and to essentially make him the all around story of
the American Dream. How through hard work and determination, this man
who thought life had passed him by was able to make it in the world.
The tone of the film seems to both admire and be just a little bit
horrified by its topic, and I think the movie finds the right
balance. It gives the movie a certain darkly comic edge that we don't
usually find in a lot of "based on a true story" films, which usually
try to paint their subject in as grand a light as possible.
I, TONYA - Here is one of the most entertaining bio-pics I have ever seen. It
simultaneously managed to make me laugh, cringe, anger me, make me
tearful, and ultimately make me feel completely and utterly enthralled.
Based on "irony-free, wildly contradictory and totally true interviews
with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly" (as the opening credits inform
us), the movie is a whirlwind telling of Harding's life, leading up to
the infamous 1994 knee-bashing of Nancy Kerrigan, Harding’s Olympic
skating teammate and rival, and the aftermath that followed. The movie is told using both dramatic recreations, and "interview"
segments with the actors portraying the characters talking to the camera
in documentary-style clips. The genius of the film is how even though the film is told mostly from
Tonya Harding's point of view, we also get the viewpoints of the other
people in her life, and their contradicting opinions on what really
happened. Sometimes, the movie will go split screen, with Harding
(played here in a career-topping performance by Margot Robbie) and her
ex-husband Jeff (Sebastian Stan) giving us their personal view of what
happened, and acting as bickering narrators. I, Tonya is electric as it races through different points in
Harding's life. We see the awkward early moments of her relationship
with Jeff, and how
that relationship eventually became abusive. Again, the genius here is
that we get the point of view of both characters, with Jeff taking a
kind of victim mentality, saying that he was the one abused instead of
Tonya's narrative of him being a controlling monster. The film works both as a pitch black comedy, and also as a tragedy, as we witness Tonya's constant and desperate need for acceptance. It is this tricky balance that the film pulls off so flawlessly which makes it so memorable, combined with the fantastic performances from Robbie and Allison Janney, who portrays Tonya's chain-smoking, abrasive, physically and verbally abusive mother, LaVona Golden.
LADY BIRD - This is a coming of age story that perfectly captures the intensity and
honesty of teenage years. It remembers the time when everything is just
so important and all-consuming. Every crush, every heartbreak, every
betrayal - It all just feels so massive when you are at a certain age.
Gerwig is an actress who has worked behind the camera before, but this
is her solo directing debut, and it shows her as a filmmaker who is able
to not just be able to capture a voice from a certain period of life,
but also a specific time and place. (The film is set around 2002 and
2003.) This is not a plot heavy film. The heroine at the center of the
film does not go on an amazing adventure, and there's really no
manufactured elements or contrived crises to drive the story. It's
simply about a young girl experiencing high school and family. Lady Bird really is a movie made up out of small moments. Yes,
we do get some scenes that are typical in the teenage film genre, such
as when the heroine ditches her geeky best friend for some much cooler
kids. But that's really not what the film is about. It is about her
individual discoveries, her desires (she plots out exactly how and when
she will lose her virginity), and how those can change at a drop of a
hat. Saoirse Ronan is excellent at portraying all of these angles of the lead role, and making her seem not so much like a written character, but
rather a fleshed out girl that you have probably known or met before at
some point. Lady Bird is a small, independent film, but I think it has all
the makings of a huge crowd pleaser. Girls the same age as the main
character will see someone they can relate to, and adults will find a
lot of honesty and reflection in the film of their own past. Gerwig
proves herself here of not just being a great filmmaker, but also one
who knows how to speak to audiences. This is the kind of movie where
everyone who watches it will walk away recognizing something in
THE SHAPE OF WATER - Guillermo del Toro shows a supremely deft hand with The Shape of Water, a beautiful film that manages to be an adult fairy tale, mixing in elements of Beauty and the Beast, The Creature From the Black Lagoon,
Hollywood musicals, 1950s cinema, Shirley Temple movies, and a Cold War
spy story. It sounds ludicrous, and perhaps in the wrong hands, it
would have been a bloated disaster. But del Toro shows early on that he
knows how to tell this story, and though there are a couple bumps along
the way, he never loses his vision, which is to essentially make an
unabashed love story. The movie immediately grabs our attention with its heroine, Elisa,
played with incredible grace by the wonderful Sally Hawkins. She is
easily one of the more unforgettable lead characters in recent cinema. From there, it builds into a bizarre tale of this woman slowly caring and eventually falling for an aquatic sea monster man who is being held captive in a lab where she works as a janitor. The movie also works as a giant love letter to classic Hollywood, with references to classic movies. I feel I must stress again that I understand how bizarre this all
sounds, but del Toro makes this work by creating a whimsical world where
we can buy this stuff happening. He is also aided by an exceptional
cast who find the right balance of realism and fantastical charm in
order to sell this material. But it is the sentimental, strong and overall emotional performance by
Sally Hawkins that not only grounds the fantastical story into some kind
of reality, but is also whimsical enough that we are willing to follow
where the movie goes. She is what holds The Shape of Water together, and is a big part of what makes the film the magical and romantic experience that it is.
THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI - Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is not just a great
movie, it's a surprising one. The path that the plot and the characters
go are not what we are expect. There are so many small surprises here
that I will have to do my best to not reveal too much. This is the kind
of movie where you're better off knowing as little as possible walking
in. The characters who inhabit this strange, sometimes funny, and
occasionally heartbreaking story include Mildred Hayes (Frances
McDormand), a grieving and divorced mother who lost her teenage daughter
about eight months ago when she was discovered raped and murdered. The
police investigation has since gone cold, and Mildred is determined to
keep them focused on finding the man responsible.
The police are represented by Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), who
can be foul-mouthed and hot tempered at times, but is also a family man
and genuinely seems to care about finding justice for Mildred. There is
also his officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), who is racist, violent,
not very bright, and lives with his mother, who shares all of the same
qualities, only stronger. We accept these people, and think we know where they are headed. But then, writer-director Martin McDonagh (In Bruges)
starts throwing in twists to all of these characters, and we realize
that we are not going to be able to predict the path that the movie is
going to take us. Not only is the plot not easy to predict, but so is
the ultimate fate of these characters. This alone is rare enough in
just about any movie. But when you throw in the fantastic performances,
powerful moments, and even genuinely hilarious moments of dark comedy,
you instantly get one of the best films of the year. The murder of Mildred's daughter is constantly at the center of many of
the film's scenes, and yet the movie manages to never be depressing and
overbearing, while not trivializing the situation. It has a wonderfully
dark comedic sensibility to a lot of the scenes, with laughs that come
naturally from a lot of the scenarios that these people find themselves
in. This movie draws you in, catches
you off guard, and then draws you in even further with the different
directions that it takes. It's the rare film that captivates and
surprises, and it deserves to be seen. Just do your best to walk into
it knowing as little as possible. The experience will be richer for it.
YOUR NAME - Just like The Breadwinner, here is Your Name
to remind me of the real power of animation. This import from Japan
(which was the biggest money maker at the box office in its home country in 2016) is a beautiful, poignant and ultimately powerful story that
really sneaks up on you. At first, the movie seems like kind of a cute
body-swapping lark. But, writer-director Makoto Shinkai (adapting from
his own novel) lets his characters and the drama build, until it grows
into an ultimately moving and heartfelt experience. The plot centers on two high school students (a boy and a girl) who live on the opposite
sides of Japan, but become connected due to a supernatural event that
allows them to share each other's lives, and wake up in the other person's body seemingly at random. As the two try to figure out what is going on, they also become
fascinated by the other person that they are inhabiting. They start
leaving messages for each other to discover when they return to their
rightful bodies, wanting to learn about each other, and their lives. From that point on, Your Name stops being your standard and cute body swapping comedy, and becomes something much more. But even before the story starts to take some unique and interesting
directions, we are already drawn in by the artistry of the film, as well
as the way that Shinkai has written his two lead characters. The eye
for detail that the artists display here is something to truly admire,
to the point that there were many moments sitting in the theater where I
wished I could pause the film and study what I was seeing. From the
skyscrapers of Tokyo, to the small homes in the country village,
everything has the feel that it was lovingly crafted and designed. Despite its heavy supernatural tone, this is a deeply human story, and
one that leads to some surprisingly thought provoking moments near the
end. This movie is the perfect blend of the honest and the fantastic. It's
genuine and heartfelt, but has a real sense of wonder. It's rare to see
such a balance pulled off this well, but Shinkai has done just that. Your Name is a subtle film that ends up being capable of enormous emotional power.
John Wick: Chapter 2, The Lego Batman Movie, Fist Fight, Get Out, Logan,
Before I Fall, Kong: Skull Island, Going in Style, Phoenix Forgotten,
The Promise, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Everything Everything,
Wonder Woman, Captain Underpants, It Comes at Night, 47 Meters Down,
Spider-Man: Homecoming, War for the Planet of the Apes, Dunkirk, Girls
Trip, Detroit, Logan Lucky, The Hitman's Bodyguard, Wind River, It,
Mother!, American Made, Blade Runner 2049, Brad's Status, Battle of the
Sexes, The Foreigner, Happy Death Day, Professor Marsten and the Wonder
Women, Victoria & Abdul, Only the Brave, Thor: Ragnarok, Murder on
the Orient Express, Last Flag Flying, Wonder, Marshall, Star Wars:
Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, Ferdinand, Darkest Hour, All the Money
in the World, Molly's Game
MY TOP 10 PERFORMANCES BY AN ACTOR (IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER)
Daniel Day-Lewis in Phantom Thread
Tom Hanks in The Post
Woody Harrelson in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Richard Jenkins in The Shape of Water
Kumail Nanjiani in The Big Sick
Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour
Christopher Plummer in All the Money in the World
Sam Rockwell in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Ray Romano in The Big Sick
Andy Serkis in War for the Planet of the Apes
MY TOP 10 PERFORMANCES BY AN ACTRESS (IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER)
Ana de Armas in Blade Runner 2049
Jessica Chastain in Molly's Game
Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water
Allison Janney in I, Tonya
Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Laurie Metcalf in Lady Bird
Margot Robbie in I, Tonya Saoirse Ronan in Lady Bird Octavia Spencer in The Shape of Water Meryl Streep in The Post
So, those are my favorites of 2017 in a nutshell! Hopefully, as we go
further into 2018, we will get many more bright moments to come in the
I am a rabid movie fan since 1984 who calls them as he sees them. Sometimes harsh, but always honest, I offer my 'reel opinions' on today's films. I don't get money for my reviews, and I have to pay to get into every movie I see (even the really awful ones), so what you will see here is the true reaction of a man who is passionate about film. - Ryan Cullen