Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The 25 Best Films of 2017 (So Far)

In a typical year, we don’t get most of the really good movies until after Labor Day. Comparatively speaking, maybe that will still be true of 2017, but the first 2/3 of the year has seen an uncharacteristic embarrassment of riches. Just right now, on Labor Day weekend, at the multiplex a mile from my house, are eight (8!!) films with a Rotten Tomatoes rating of over 80%. That is unheard of for this time of year.

Now, there’s certainly a case to be made that the increased ubiquity of Rotten Tomatoes in determining the choices of moviegoers has led to less dissension among critics (because it singles them out more obviously and calls their against-the-grain opinions into question more savagely), and perhaps great Rotten Tomatoes scores are easier to come by than they ever have been before. But even still, I believe we’ve probably already seen three or four Best Picture nominees this year (rare for pre-September releases), and 2017 has undoubtedly been the best year for action cinema since the heydays of the early-‘90s.

Indeed, I had initially planned on just writing a Top 20 of the year so far, but my initial list of 38 possibilities meant cutting down to 20 was just too difficult.

1.    Get Out
I won’t bury the lead; Get Out is the most interesting movie about race that I’ve ever seen. It’s also among the movies I’ve spent the most time wrestling with in my head. At its most uncomfortable core, it’s a film about white fascination with the bodies of black men, and the need to evaluate and control those bodies for our own use—be it sports, labor, or even the pervasive fantasies of “bbc” porn (*not* a reference to the British Broadcasting Corporation). I’m confident in saying Get Out will be studied and dissected for generations.

2.    The Big Sick
When I saw this at Sundance, I heard a packed theater in Utah laugh hysterically at a Pakistani immigrant making a 9/11 joke. That’s how I knew I was watching something special. The Big Sick works so well because it hits on so many elements and themes that are universal to the human experience—love, family, tradition, immigrants, forgiveness, parental expectations, healthcare, and having to spend time with your ex-girlfriend’s parents while she’s in a coma. We’ve all been there. This true story is funny, sad, touching, and uplifting.

3.    Good Time
As a big believer that the last ten minutes of The Last of the Mohicans are as utterly perfect as cinema gets, it makes sense that Good Time would so enrapture me. It’s all propulsive score, kinetic editing, and adrenalized characters running across New York. But in this case, the score is electronic (and incredible), and the New York we get is a dirty part of Queens. This is as stylish as a crime movie can get without sacrificing its lowlife authenticity.

4.    Atomic Blonde
2017 had already given us Baby Driver’s incredible action soundtrack and John Wick: Chapter 2’s incredible neon action set pieces (read about both a little further down), but Atomic Blonde somehow combined both. Charlize Theron, as a spy in Cold War–era Berlin, in fight scenes choreographed as impossible long takes and tracking shots, set to ‘80s Europop songs (New Order, Depeche Mode, Bowie, etc.). Yes please. I only wish the totally superfluous lesbian sex scene had been cut so I don’t feel quite as predictable for loving this movie so much.

5.    Detroit
At the heart of Detroit is a centerpiece scene of police interrogation and brutality that’s probably over an hour long, and despite how harrowing it is to watch, it’s so equally intense that turning away didn’t even occur to me. I was too locked in its thrall. Most filmmakers wouldn’t have the confidence to hold a movie’s collective breath for that long, but Kathryn Bigelow is as much “not most filmmakers” as anyone can get. This movie will anger some people, but that’s okay. Provocative art should be divisive sometimes.

6.    Baby Driver
After Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and Shaun of the Dead, director Edgar Wright clearly has a knack for making me fall in love with movies that I wasn’t sure would be my cup of tea. Baby Driver’s genius is all in the tunes, and Wright perfectly nails making them not seem too cool for their own good. More than anything, the movie sounds like someone with great taste just left their iPod on shuffle—there’re a few classics, several deep cuts, and a few kitschy things that absolutely aren’t getting apologized for. Nor should they be.

7.    Spider-Man: Homecoming
We’d already gotten two Spider-Man movies this decade—in 2012 and 2014—and the second one felt so stale that the series was prematurely cancelled. Seeing Marvel resurrect the franchise just three years later, and somehow making the freshest, liveliest superhero film in years, is a mini-miracle. What Homecoming gets so right (and what none of the five previous Spidey films really attempted) is that it’s a high school movie more than anything. It’s Marvel’s best attempt yet at fusing a superhero flick with a traditional movie genre.

8.    Wind River
After writing two great films, Sicario and Hell or High Water, Taylor Sheridan completes his trilogy on the American frontier with this, his directorial debut. Like its predecessors, Wind River is principally about a place (in this case, a Wyoming Indian reservation), and the crime that develops from the collective struggles of its inhabitants. Sheridan’s work explores how differing concepts of justice manifest across disparate places, and that’s on full display here. He’s already a contender for the best screenwriter of his generation.

9.    John Wick: Chapter 2
As a piece of pure entertainment, Chapter 2 ups its predecessor with better fights and better locales. But John Wick: Chapter 2 also manages to function as a sneaky piece of art cinema—most of it’s fights and chases are filmed amid neon accent lights and reflective surfaces, making this (maybe) the most interestingly shot mainstream action movie ever. One scene particularly reminded me of Enter the Dragon’s climactic mirror sequence.

10.  Lady Macbeth
For as long as I can remember, my least favorite film genre has always been British period pieces in which aristocratic characters wallow in ennui about their boring, privileged lives. If you feel the same, then Lady Macbeth is absolutely the movie for you. It’s basically Breaking Bad: “19th century English countryside edition.” Or, think of it as the first Game of Thrones prequel; watch a normal girl turn into Cersei Lannister in a brisk 90 minutes.

11.  Columbus
The concept seems like pure Linklater—two people at a personal crossroad meet in a city famous for its architecture, and then they walk around, look at the buildings, and talk about life. But the execution is much more like classic art house cinema—Ozu or Bresson. The frames are perfectly composed, the camera barely moves, and the film is quiet, pensive, and lyrical. It’s almost a visual work of modernist theory, but done as a non-experimental, traditional narrative. That won’t be an endorsement for everyone, but it’s really lovely.

12.  A Ghost Story
Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara play a married couple living in a small house. Then, he dies. He returns to their house as a ghost (with a sheet over his head). As time passes, he silently observes his wife, and, eventually, new tenants in the property. If this doesn’t sound interesting to you, then it probably won’t be. A Ghost Story is a meditation on the passage of time, and part of its arsenal is making you, the viewer, fully experience that feeling of time passing. It’s slow, but that’s the point. It’s also profound and beautiful.

13.  Whose Streets?
There are (basically) two kinds of documentaries—those that capture something as it’s happening, and those that illuminate the past. Films of the first type rarely capture major events that shake a nation, because you can’t normally plan for such things and filmmaking takes preparation. Whose Streets?, a first-hand account of the Ferguson riots following the shooting of Michael Brown, is an exception. It’s an intense, heartbreaking, and monumental piece of history. If you don’t understand the Black Lives Matter movement, please please see this.

14.  The LEGO Batman Movie
It’s hopelessly and depressingly ironic that, while DC won’t allow their characters to be funny in their official films, when their parent company, Warner Bros., makes a LEGO movie out of DC characters, it’s the funniest movie of the year. DC wants their films to be unrelentingly dark, but The LEGO Batman Movie fully takes the piss out of that darkness, and out of Batman’s entire (fictional) psyche. It’s as epic a takedown of the character as could be imagined, but it’s done in an incredibly loving, hilarious, and creative way.

15.  Dunkirk
I fall in the minority who did not think Dunkirk was an utter masterpiece of cinema. It’s a survival story in which I didn’t care about who actually survived, because the film only used its characters as props. It’s the first Christopher Nolan film that didn’t care deeply about psychology, and when the denouement came, I felt nothing. However, as a piece of technical craftsmanship, Dunkirk truly is a masterpiece, which is why I couldn’t possibly leave it off this list. The air battles alone are worth the price of admission.

16.  Raw
Seriously, I was the last person that ever thought I might like a cannibal horror film. Raw premiered at two different major festivals I attended and I stayed the hell away. Only after great reviews and friends’ recommendations made me feel obligated to see it did I begrudgingly do so. But damn, it’s great stuff. Really, it’s less of a cannibal flick and more like David Cronenberg (in classic, pseudo-erotic body-horror mode) directing a Chemical Brothers music video. It’s not for the weakest of stomachs, but I handled it just fine.

17.  Colossal
For a plot description of Colossal, I’ll leave it to how the director, Nacho Vigalondo, first described it to co-star Jason Sudeikis (please try to read this in a thick Spanish accent): “It’s about a woman who, every time she drinks, a monster attacks South Korea.” In terms of plot, yep, that’s Colossal. But what it’s really *about* are the ways jealous men attempt to control women, and how the women can break free. It’s strange and kinda ridiculous, but it’s the best (only?) feminist monster movie since Aliens. Anne Hathaway kills it.

18.  Wonder Woman
In some ways, because of the stakes, the best thing about Wonder Woman is that it doesn’t suck. But that shouldn’t diminish the fact that it’s also really good! Every Marvel superhero movie seemingly doubles as a comedy, and the other DC superhero movies just represent a corporation’s idea of a 14-year-old boy’s idea of psychological complexity. But Wonder Woman succeeds at something that’s become a complete afterthought in comic book movies—it’s actually inspiring. It allows its hero to feel purely heroic. In 2017, we all need that.

19.  Ingrid Goes West
When a disturbed young woman (played by Aubrey Plaza) becomes obsessed with an Instagram “influencer,” she decides to seek her out IRL and be her friend. Ingrid is hard to nail down into a genre. It’s not so much a black comedy as it’s just a depressing comedy. Like the great “Nosedive” episode of Black Mirror, Ingrid Goes West is an exploration of what the need for social media “Likes” is doing to us, and the psychological problems that can emanate from it. At the very least, it’s a film that might make you put your phone down for a bit.

20.  I, Daniel Blake
When the titular Daniel Blake, a carpenter in New Castle, can no longer work because of a heart condition, he discovers the British welfare system is designed less to help people than to deter people from receiving help. The winner of the 2016 Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, this isn’t a movie with a happy ending, but it reflects reality all too clearly. As we watch our own government continue to dehumanize us, I, Daniel Blake is a heartbreakingly relevant film about not letting the system steal your dignity from you.

21.  Patti Cake$
There are elements of Patti Cake$—about an overweight Jersey girl with the talent and dreams of becoming a rap star—that feel overly familiar. It’s an underdog story, and a story about attempting to belong in a subculture that doesn’t want you. But Patti Cake$ knocks it out of the park in two prime areas: the tunes are wonderful and potent, and the characters (and actors) have a genuine earnestness in their search for acceptance that’s truly affecting. If you’re looking for a crowd-pleaser, this is it.

22.  Logan Lucky
After directing three Ocean’s movies, and three movies with Channing Tatum, Steven Soderbergh came out of his self-imposed feature-film retirement to combine his two favorite pastimes. But somehow, Logan Lucky, which is basically a redneck version of an Ocean’s movie (set at a West Virginia NASCAR race instead of a Vegas casino), feels more like a Coen Brothers movie—it’s all about the characters’ local dialect and amusing drawl. But hey, anytime you can see a movie that combines Soderbergh and the Coens (kind of), what are you waiting for?

23.  Band Aid
At first glance, Band Aid seems like one of those indie movies; you know, the kind where you read the plot and just think it arrived off of a bearded hipster assembly line. A husband and wife who can’t stop fighting decide to turn their fights into songs and form an indie-pop band. With Fred Armisen on drums, natch. But Band Aid isn’t merely cutesy-funny (though it is that, too). There’s real emotion, pathos, and pain explored here, and writer/director/star Zoe Lister-Jones is a revelation of talent.

24.  Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
It’s a misconception that the government didn’t go after any banks after the 2008 financial crisis. They did actually go after *one*: a small bank in New York’s Chinatown called Abacus. But why was this tiny, family-run operation being prosecuted while the Wall Street executives behind the crash were just cashing their bonus checks? That’s what documentary filmmaker Steve James (Hoop Dreams, Life Itself) explores here, in a powerful story about a small immigrant family literally taking on the government. Telling stories like this is why great documentaries remain so vital.

25.  The Hounds of Love
When I say this movie might not be for you, I mean it *really* might not be for you. It’s an Aussie movie about a teenage girl who gets kidnapped by a couple to be their temporary sex slave, but she starts playing her captors against each other. It’s not a pleasant film (at all), but its style and use of music is hypnotic. Yes, I know how awful it is to laud the style of a movie that’s basically about rape and torture. But you have to love anything that does to “Nights in White Satin” what Reservoir Dogs did to “Stuck in the Middle with You.”  

And now we’re off to the fall “good movie” season! Will any of the above still be around for my end-of-the-year list? Stay tuned.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

It's Mid-August, but We've (Probably) Already Seen 3 or 4 Best Picture Nominees

When the Oscars expanded their Best Picture lineup in 2009, they had a major goal in mind—get popular, acclaimed summer movies into the race. This problem had boiled over earlier in the year, when two of the most critically acclaimed and popular movies of 2008—Wall-E and The Dark Knight—received a combined 14 Oscar nominations but were inexplicably left out of the Best Picture race in favor of films like Milk and Frost/Nixon, which had been largely ignored by audiences. For the Oscars, what had previously just been a ratings problem was suddenly a credibility problem as well.

Ratings for the Oscar telecast had been in a slump for several years, but the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) could (sort of) swallow that as long as they were still (sort of) rewarding the right films. But when suddenly the two best reviewed films of the year, which also happened to be in the top five grossers of the year, couldn’t get invited to the dance, the apparent bias against anything but prestige dramas became too problematic too ignore. So the Best Picture lineup was expanded from five to ten. The theory was that this would allow Academy members to throw real support behind a few mega-populist (summer) films each year, without sacrificing their appetites for weightier fare. And this even worked… for a time.

In the first two years of the expanded Best Picture lineup (‘09 and ‘10), eight films received Best Picture nominations despite opening before Labor Day, including two traditional summer movies each year—2009’s Up and District 9, and 2010’s Inception and Toy Story 3. But Pixar films make for a great case study in how short-lived this change really was. 2008’s Pixar movie, Wall-E, was one of the lightning rods that led to the expansion of the Best Picture pool, and it focused attention on how Pixar was getting screwed. The rewards were immediate; the next two Pixar films, Up and Toy Story 3, both got Best Picture nominations, and it briefly looked like the problem had been solved. But since then, no Pixar film has gotten a Best Picture nomination. Now, to be fair, 2011-2016 wasn’t exactly the company’s hottest qualitative stretch, and I’m certainly not suggesting Cars 2 got robbed. But consider Inside Out: its Rotten Tomatoes score was 98%, its Metacritic score was 94, and it made over 850 million dollars. But it didn’t get a Best Picture nomination. Instead, it had to settle for a Best Original Screenplay nomination and a Best Animated Feature win. Inside Out exemplified absolutely everything the Best Picture category was expanded to include—immense popular success, immense critical success, a traditionally ignored movie season, and a traditionally ignored movie genre—but it still couldn’t get in the race.

So what happened? We have to go back to 2011, when the Best Picture race changed course once again. After two years of the 10-film Best Picture lineup, and an initial ratings bump that had already dissipated, the Academy once again decided that prestige mattered more than populism. In the previous two years, under the 10-nominee system, voters ranked their 10 favorite films of the year, and each numeric ranking carried a different weight in the final tallies. But if a film showed up on enough ballots, even in the bottom few spots, it would probably crack the final 10 nominees. In 2011, that was done away with. Starting that year voters would still rank their 10 favorites, but a film could no longer receive a Best Picture nomination purely on the strength of showing up in the lower rungs of enough ballots. Now, if a film didn’t receive at least 5% of the total first place votes, it wouldn’t receive a Best Picture nomination, regardless of how many total ballots it showed up on. With around 6,000 members in the Academy (at the time), that meant a film must get a minimum of around 300 first-place votes to receive a Best Picture nomination. This also meant that now the number of Best Picture nominees is in constant flux. It can be anywhere from five to ten, purely depending on how the first-place votes shake out.

On face value, this new system made sense—if at least 5% of the Academy doesn’t think you’re the Best Picture of the year, then why should you get a Best Picture nomination? But in practice, this meant that summer movies and non-traditional genres had been kicked out once again. In 2011, the first year of this revised system, only three summer films landed Best Picture nominations and they were a Civil Rights period piece, a Woody Allen movie, and a Terrence Malick art film that provoked theaters to warn patrons about how quickly they need to walk out in order to receive full refunds. (Seriously.) And since then, summer releases have been almost completely ignored; Out of the 43 Best Picture nominees from 2012-2016, a total of five were released before Labor Day, and four of those were indies. Only one out of the last 43 Best Picture nominees—Mad Max: Fury Road—was a true summer movie in the traditional sense of the term.

But 2017 could be the year that upends this pattern. When Moonlight shockingly won Best Picture earlier this year, after nearly two full minutes of La La Land acceptance speeches, there was a collective public temptation to just say, “Well, this has been the year of unlikely endings.” As though, after Brexit, the Cavs, the Cubs, Trump, and the Patriots’ absurd second-half Super Bowl comeback, Moonlight’s win (after many viewers had already turned off the Oscar telecast) could be purely explained away as just the latest in a year of truly bizarre and unlikely victories, and no attempt at logical explanation need be applied. But the ultimate lesson of Moonlight’s win isn’t, “Hey, 2016 was pretty weird, amiright?”, but rather that AMPAS has evolved into a very different group of people, and we shouldn’t expect them to vote in the same old ways.

In the last two years, AMPAS has invited almost 1,500 new members to join, while also removing the voting rights of several older members that haven’t been involved in the film industry for a long time. According to some reports, these new member classes give the Academy a 359% increase in women and a 331% increase in people of color. Yes, the average AMPAS member is still an old white male. But the membership is suddenly a hell of a lot younger, more diverse, and more #woke.

Based partially on what this new-look Academy seems primed to respond to, and partially on what the old-look Academy has always responded to, I think we’ve probably already seen three or four Best Picture nominees—even though Labor Day is still a few weeks away. Let’s look at them individually, in order of release date.

Get Out

Going by any traditional sense of Oscar history, this “social thriller” from Jordan Peele, which is, basically, a horror movie, shouldn’t have much of a chance. Depending on how precisely you want to define the horror genre, the last horror movie to receive a Best Picture nomination was one of the following: The Sixth Sense (1999), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Jaws (1975), or The Exorcist (1973). So it’s either been 18 years, over 20 years, or over 40 years. Not a great track record.

But what those four films have in common is that they all transcended the horror genre to become massive cultural talking points, and nearly everyone saw them. More than anything, that’s why they made it to Oscar night—because they simply couldn’t be ignored. By that metric, Get Out actually looks like a very safe bet. Among post-Exorcist horror films so popular and acclaimed that even non-horror fans saw them in droves, only The Blair Witch Project has failed to get a Best Picture nomination.

The Silence of the Lambs makes for a particularly interesting comparison. Like Get Out, it opened in mid-February, before the previous year’s Oscar ceremony had even happened. And like Get Out, it’s a film that’s far less interested in momentary jump scares than it is in just wanting to deeply disturb and unsettle you, even after the credits roll. That’s the most important element that carried The Silence of the Lambs to Oscar night more than a year after its theatrical release—it stayed with people. It wrapped itself up into voter’s guts and didn’t let go. Can Get Out do the same thing? In 2017, yes, I think it can.  

Get Out is the exact type of movie primed to be recognized by the diverse new Academy members. It is one of the most fascinating and original commentaries on race in recent history (and, honestly, perhaps ever). It became a major talking point of the zeitgeist, and the Los Angeles Times declared it a “cultural phenomenon,” at a time where it’s virtually impossible for any film not based on pre-existing properties to ever achieve such an impact. Critically, Get Out is only the ninth American film to ever receive at least a 99% rating on Rotten Tomatoes with over 100 reviews factored in, and six of the other eight won Oscars. It had a reported $4.5 million budget and made over $250 million. It also became the highest grossing film by a black filmmaker in American box office history. So Get Out wasn’t merely a success with critics and audiences, it was a profound and unprecedented success in both arenas.

And remember, because of the new Best Picture voting rules, it doesn’t matter if the older members of the Academy resoundingly hate (or worse, don’t understand) the movie. It only needs 350-ish first place votes to get a nomination, and it could get that many just from this year’s new member class. Unless Universal declines to mount a campaign for it (which would be insane), hitting that number will almost certainly not be a problem.

The Big Sick

When predicting Oscar results, pundits often like to try and game out which groups or quadrants of voters a movie will appeal to. The huge advantage The Big Sick will have is that there’s almost no segment of voter it won’t appeal to.

The Big Sick is both very funny and very dramatic. It’s a beautiful, true story that manages to feel like an “Oscar movie” (for voters that care about that kind of thing—and they’re out there), but it also doesn’t remotely feel like a movie that was birthed into existence for the sake of winning Oscars (which is equally important to other voters). It’s a film about so many things—modern romance, family, tradition, multiculturalism, comedy, immigrants, healthcare, love, forgiveness, acceptance—all of which will have strong appeal to different sets of people. It stars two generations of main characters, and has intelligently written male and female leads, so it won’t be un-relatable to voters of any certain age or gender. It actually passes the Bechdel Test. For Academy members that like to make pseudo-political statements** with their votes, it offers a more pleasant, less edgy alternative to Get Out (which older voters simply may not see the appeal of). And, as far as indies go, it’s been a strong financial success, making over $40 million (and counting), against a reported $5 million budget. So voters who need to feel like they’re backing something that truly connected with audiences—and again, they’re out there—can still see The Big Sick as worthy.

**Note: As the film’s star, Kumail Nanjiani, has said, The Big Sick is only a film with a political statement if you believe “Muslims are humans” is somehow a political statement. I agree that The Big Sick doesn't even remotely have a political message. But that’s also not the point; the point is whether any members of the Academy may view supporting the film as a politicized action, regardless of how fair that is. And yes, I think some will.


The only type of Oscar voter that likely won’t enjoy The Big Sick is the “steak eater,” a term coined by Anne Thompson to describe the type of AMPAS member—usually older, usually male—who wants their Best Picture pick to feel like the Best Pictures of old. Even though the Academy is rapidly changing, these are the voters who aren’t changing with it. These voters want spectacle, heroes, high-budget production craft, period settings and costumes, and proof that Hollywood actually still does make ‘em like they used to. And truly, there is nothing the steak eaters love more than a damn good war movie.

Generally speaking, when a widely acclaimed filmmaker makes a widely acclaimed WWII movie, it’s getting one of the Best Picture slots. We saw it just last year with Hacksaw Ridge, and previously with Inglourious Basterds, Saving Private Ryan, and The Thin Red Line. And remember, prior to those films, it had been at least a decade since Mel Gibson, Quentin Tarantino, and Terrence Malick had made a film that got even a single Oscar nomination, so it’s not like new work by any of them seemed like obvious Oscar bait. That’s just how strongly voters respond to good WWII movies. But Dunkirk is actually even more of a shoo-in than you might think, for two reasons.

First off, Dunkirk has been phenomenally successful on all fronts. It has both a higher Rotten Tomatoes ranking and a higher Metacritic score than all of the aforementioned WWII films, and, somehow, after only four weeks in release, it’s already made more money than all of those films except for Saving Private Ryan.

But perhaps more importantly, Dunkirk is by Christopher Nolan, who is arguably the most snubbed A-list director currently working, and nothing gets Academy blood boiling like a great “He’s due” narrative. Nolan’s nine previous films received a combined 26 Oscar nominations, but he’s never been nominated as a director. He has received three other Oscar nominations—two for Original Screenplay (for Memento and Inception), and one for producing (Inception)—but they all somehow felt like consolation prizes. Even though Inception did get a Best Picture nomination, Nolan’s films are largely viewed as having been shunned by the major categories. That will end with this year’s nominations.


Of the films spotlighted here, Detroit is the one I feel least confident about—it’s definitely the “or four” of my “we’ve probably already seen three or four Best Picture nominees” declaration. Though it’s certainly still early, it hasn’t been a financial success yet. And perhaps more importantly, it hasn’t been without controversy. When Oscar season truly ramps up, every possible nominee gets picked apart from every possible angle, and Detroit may simply be susceptible to too many angles of scrutiny. It’s provocative in the most controversial sense—among some, it will provoke visceral, antagonistic reactions, and that’s not helpful.

But having said that, there are still several reasons Detroit could find itself among the final group of nominees. Some of them are even good reasons, so we’ll start with one of those: Kathryn Bigelow is an absolute master filmmaker, and she is at her apex. After The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty (both Best Picture nominees, with the former having won), Detroit is her third arguable-masterpiece in a row, which is an incredibly rare feat for a filmmaker (or artist of any kind, really). Awards-giving bodies have a propensity to respond to extreme hot streaks, and this certainly qualifies. And because Bigelow went (shockingly) un-nominated as a director for Zero Dark Thirty, she has the benefit of voters potentially responding to her hot streak without also feeling voter fatigue, because they’re also responding to the perception that she got screwed the last time around.

Going to the less-fair side of things in Detroit’s favor, we’re (thankfully) in an era with an added awareness of women’s opportunities, and an extremely heightened desire to spotlight women filmmakers. For voters that want to get behind a film by a woman, sadly, Detroit may be their only decent choice without feeling like they’re throwing their vote away on a film with no shot.

Lastly, and getting to the ugly side of these speculations, Detroit may pull through because it triggers a more easily recognizable type of white guilt. I think Get Out is nearly assured of a Best Picture nomination partially because of how the huge influx of black voters will support it. But I’m not sure how white voters will react to it. It might make them uncomfortable in a way that isn’t even within the comfort zone of discomfort (if that makes sense), while Detroit hits in a more obvious way that people think white guilt is supposed to feel like. For as utterly gut-wrenching as it is, Detroit is gut-wrenching in a way that people are (kind of) emotionally prepared to feel. It asks white people to think about racism in a way that they’re (more or less) used to thinking about it. Get Out doesn’t do that; it wants us to think about racism in a way that’s simply too radical and uncomfortable for a lot of people to broach.

Put simply, the older, white Academy members that voted for either The Hurt Locker or 12 Years a Slave because of what those films politically stood forwomen filmmakers and non-Hollywood-ified portrayals of our racial history, respectivelymay equally respond to Detroit.

*   *   *   *   *

As is true of any year, we simply don’t know what the Oscar race will even remotely look like until after the fall festivals—Telluride and Venice over Labor Day weekend, Toronto the following week, and then New York a few weeks after that. Voters always have short memories, and any or all of these four movies might drop out if the fall slate is unusually strong. At this moment, and like every August, we start to see trailers for the fall releases and think they all look incredible. But inevitably, many of them won’t be. As explained at the beginning, it’s been very hard for summer (or earlier) releases to make it into the Best Picture race. However, I think the enduring lesson of Moonlight’s win won’t merely be that last year was weird. It’ll also be that the Academy is very different now, and the old rules of what kinds of movies get Oscar attention will be less and less applicable every year.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

The (25 or so) Best Films of 2016

Travel back with me to 2016, the long-gone days where we still held a smidgen of hope for our country, and when we were treated to, arguably, the best two films of the last five years. I always resist making annual top ten lists because I hate the implication that the discussion for the year in film ends at #10. I found 2016 to be such an enjoyable year for film that I was compelled to write about 39 of them. (Yes, you get 14 bonus picks after my Top 25. You lucky dog.) Somewhere in the following five thousand words you’ll find a thought or four about nearly all of the year’s most acclaimed films, except for the four I didn’t like: Fences (it was a stage play done in front of a camera, with virtually no resemblance to cinematic art), Hacksaw Ridge (too fetishizing of its violence and too religious in its allegory), Paterson (too sedate), and Silence (I can’t figure out what that movie was even trying to say, or, frankly, why it needed to exist). And, because I’m writing this four months late (of course), 17 of the films have already made their way onto streaming services, which I make sure to point out.

Without further adieu, we’ll kick things off with the prevailing reason that my taste allegedly sucks.  

1.  La La Land (Directed by Damien Chazelle)
The most difficult film-related question I’ve had to field over the last six months is why I like La La Land better than Moonlight. I’ve struggled with it. There seems to be an unsaid implication that this opinion exposes me as an un-fully woke human. “He likes the movie about white people explaining jazz more than the movie about the abused gay black kid seeking acceptance.” Yes, I suppose I do. Moonlight is (probably) a more insightful work about the human condition than La La Land, but La La is both more joyous and, to me, a (slightly) more amazing display of cinema craft. You’re not wrong if you think that the human meaning inherent in Moonlight makes it a greater work, or that excellence in message is a higher calling for a work of art than excellence in technique. Under most circumstances, and in most years, I’d probably agree.

And yet, La La Land’s craft didn’t just amaze me, it helped me understand why I fell in love with cinema all over again. It’s use of color and lighting; it’s composition of frames; it’s choreography not just of humans, but also of camera movement; it’s appropriation of A Flock of Seagulls that somehow makes them retroactively cool; the way its production design uses false surfaces as a visual motif (which I didn’t even notice until my girlfriend pointed it out to me); the unabashed love of a nearly-extinct film genre and a nearly-extinct music genre to comment on how great art must move forward, but also sort of doesn’t always have to; and that tour de force final sequence that creatively gave me everything I could possibly want even as it was about the importance of not narratively giving us what we want. For a movie whose financial success largely depends on the perception that it will be a crowd pleaser, don’t underestimate how daring it is to so defiantly take a hard turn against pleasing the crowd.

Since the Oscar nominations first came out and La La Land tied the all-time record, it’s become cliché to call it grossly overrated, or to say that the singing and dancing were sub-par, therefore it sucked. You know, as though those are the only two metrics by which we judge films or something. The worst, most reductive thing you can possibly do to La La Land is say some equivalent of “Meh, they’re no Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.” Really, who else are Astaire and Rogers? Do we look at every great acting performance and say, “Meh, it’s no Brando or Daniel Day-Lewis”? Somehow, because La La Land is a musical, there’s a temptation to only judge it as such, as though it ceases to be a film in any other sense, or with any other calling. But make no mistake; La La Land is one of the most perfectly created films I’ve ever seen. And three viewings in, I only appreciate it more and more.  

2.  Moonlight (Directed by Barry Jenkins)
The least difficult film-related question I’ve had to field over the last six months is when someone, upon finding out I like La La Land better than Moonlight, asks me why I hate Moonlight. I don’t hate Moonlight, I think it’s a masterpiece. I just think it was the second-best masterpiece of 2016. Some years have more than one. I love Moonlight for so many things—its triptych structure; the devastating power in showing a child fearfully asking “Am I a faggot?”; the way it alternates between having a camera walking behind its characters to sometimes bathing their faces in dark light; its distinctive, jagged violin score that sounds emotionally combative yet utterly beautiful; the way it steadfastly refuses to resolve or reconcile its most painful moments. Indeed, the only thing I don’t love about Moonlight is the belief it ingrains in others that I’m supposed to love it the most. Our tastes are fickle, and no one’s opinionative history displays a perfect thru-line to universal objectivity. But man, do I fucking try.  

3.  Toni Erdmann (Directed by Maren Ade)
When I first saw Toni Erdmann at Toronto last fall, I did so purely out of a sense of duty; it was, after all, the best reviewed film at Cannes a few months earlier, by quite a wide margin. I definitely wouldn’t say I was excited for the movie. Toni Erdmann is a nearly 3-hour German comedy about a businesswoman’s strained relationship with her eccentric father, and his efforts to force himself back into her life. So tell me, after reading that description, how excited are you to see Toni Erdmann? And yet, what a film! First of all, it’s the funniest film of the year. It is undoubtedly the longest comedy I’ve ever seen (comedies are almost never over two hours), but I was still laughing uproariously in the final 20 minutes. It also has a show-stopping moment set to a Whitney Houston song, and it has the most, ummm… unique nude scene I’ve probably ever seen. (Borat aside.) But above all else, it is, simply, an unforgettable portrait of a father trying to show his daughter he cares, in every terrible, hopelessly misguided way he can think of.

4.  I Am Not Your Negro (Directed by Raoul Peck)
I Am Not Your Negro isn’t as much a documentary as it is a visual essay. It seeks not to educate its audience about the facts or events of a topic, but rather to present ideas and provoke mental interaction with them. In this case, the ideas come from unfinished James Baldwin writings about the presentation of black people in (then) modern society. With Samuel L. Jackson (in the most subtly measured performance he’s ever given) narrating James Baldwin’s words, the film portrays contemporary thoughts and ideas of what society believes and expects black people to be, and attempts to ask why those same thoughts and ideas exist. What drives those expectations, and why do we need them? What do their perpetuated existence say about us? Ultimately, Baldwin tells us the answers must come from within ourselves, but only if we’re willing to truly ask the questions. This is a necessary film for anyone that seeks to understand race in America.

5.  Hell or High Water (Directed by David Mackenzie)
There’s a scene midway through Hell or High Water where two characters go to a restaurant in a small Texas town and encounter a very old, very ornery waitress, and she proceeds to rudely tell them what they’re going to order. It’s a funny scene, but the film isn’t a comedy. The scene has no bearing on the plot whatsoever. Rather, the scene is only there to immerse us into the world of the characters. Most films only care to do this at the beginning, before getting on with the story, but most films never feel as authentic as Hell or High Water. Written by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) and directed by David Mackenzie (of the criminally under-seen Starred Up), the film is, on the surface, about two brothers who start robbing banks in small towns across the Texas countryside. But what’s really being dealt with are the universal themes of how our lot in life can define our opportunities, and how the past ain’t ever truly done with us—both of which will haunt you in the film’s incredible, unconventional denouement.

6.  Captain Fantastic (Directed by Matt Ross)
      Currently streaming on Amazon Prime
First thing’s first: No, this is not a superhero or comic book movie. It’s just a poorly titled film about (vaguely) realistic people. Viggo Mortensen stars as a father of six, raising his kids in the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest, teaching them to live off the land, as well as teaching them multiple languages, history, literature, philosophy, mountain-climbing, that “interesting” is a terrible adjective, and that “Noam Chomsky Day” is a less-capitalist alternative to Christmas. Then the kids are forced back into society and are confronted with how unprepared for the real world they really are. The funniest joke I heard about Captain Fantastic is that it’s “the origin story for the most annoying kid in your freshman dorm.” That’s probably true, but it’s also too reductive for a story that really has a lot to say about the range of choices parents make, good and bad, and how no matter what you do, no matter how noble, your kids are always losing something in the equation. You’re always, directly or indirectly, making them bad at something. Other than La La Land, no 2016 movie purely delighted me as much as Captain Fantastic.

7.  Manchester by the Sea (Directed by Kenneth Longergan)
Only once every few years do we see an acting performance that will get watched and studied for generations. Casey Affleck’s portrayal of a Boston janitor harboring a tragic past in Manchester by the Sea is that kind of performance. As an emotional journey into the way pain shapes us, Manchester by the Sea is every bit the equal of Moonlight, and maybe even its better. But Moonlight, through its craft (shot composition, color, score, lighting, editing), allows you to watch it in such a way that you can be dazzled by what it’s doing independent from the story that it’s telling. Manchester doesn’t do that; it doesn’t ornament its story with any stylistic flourishes (other than a few moments of humor) that allow the pain to come in second place. It’s just there, gurgling up from the center, ready to consume you. That doesn’t make it an objectively worse film, but it does make it a film I’ll have less interest in revisiting over the years.

8.  Don’t Think Twice (Directed by Mike Birbiglia)
Sometimes the simplest stories are the ones that deal with the widest, most complex sets of emotions. When a tight-knit NYC improv troupe sees one of their members get hired by Saturday Night Live, the rest of the group are left to question why they aren’t the ones getting the big break. Don’t Think Twice is really an exploration of the various reasons that people don’t “make it.” For some it’s self-sabotage and fear of success. For some it’s laziness. For some it might simply be bad luck. And for some, it’s facing the hard truth that they just aren’t quite good enough. Don’t Think Twice stays fairly light-hearted, and it avoids getting too philosophical or preachy about any of the avenues it travels. That’s because this isn’t a movie interested in telling you what to think as much as it wants to just remind you that those thoughts and fears are lurking within you.

9.  Arrival (Directed by Denis Villeneuve)
Few films feel more important in Trump’s America than one about a woman solving an international crisis through her intellectual expertise and her unwavering compassion. Villeneuve’s Prisoners and Sicario were two of my favorite films in the last few years, so I felt confident he was primed to break out as a major director. And yet, Arrival represents a major change in theme from his other work. Villeneuve’s previous films have largely been about people justifying their worst natures to themselves. Arrival, on the other hand, is about everyone else doing that, while the main character finds her best self at the moment she can do the most good. It’s almost like, after years of exploring humanity’s worst tendencies, Villeneuve emerged through the other side with a renewed belief in our capacity to love one another and do the right thing. Hey, I guess that’s another reason we needed this story in 2016.

10.  The Nice Guys (Directed by Shane Black)
Currently streaming on HBOGo and HBONow
Like Woody Allen, Shane Black doesn’t make new movies as much as he just rewrites his old ones. The Nice Guys is every Shane Black movie—it takes place in LA; it involves mismatched partners who only begrudgingly tolerate each other; there’s an investigation into a missing girl; it inevitably involves the porn industry and a huge party at a mansion in the Hollywood Hills; and nearly every major plot development happens by accident or coincidence. Black even made an Iron Man movie and still (mostly) fit it to his singular formula. So yeah, The Nice Guys isn’t showing us anything new. But it is showing us the best possible version of something we’ve seen (and loved) before. Ryan Gosling has never been funnier (it’s his best acting performance of the year, and yes, I realize what film I placed #1 on this list), the fashion and facial hair have never been more questionable, and the coincidences that drive the story have never been more ludicrous. The Nice Guys is the most purely fun movie of 2016.

11.  The Founder (Directed by John Lee Hancock)
One of the true mysteries of the 2016 awards season, at least to me, is why the Weinstein Company declined to mount an Oscar campaign for Michael Keaton and The Founder. While the story of Ray Kroc, the man who brought McDonalds to the world, might not seem like the most cinematic tale, I found it to be one of the great depictions of that specific, sinister breed of totalitarian capitalism that only seems to come from America. Keaton, in his inimitable “Come on, let’s get nuts!” kind of way, perfectly captures the subtle pathos of Kroc, whose Mid-western grit and earnestness inspire you to root for him, right until he stands revealed as the Michael Corleone of the fast food industry. The Founder is also a deceptively visual film; the scene where the McDonald brothers tell Kroc how they designed their kitchen is brilliantly staged.

12.  Hidden Figures (Directed by Ted Melfi)
Similar to The Martian last year, Hidden Figures is one of those rare movies that show what modern Hollywood can still do when it’s really firing on all cylinders. It’s a wonderful, rousing piece of entertainment, with movie stars at the top of their game, snappy dialogue, and a feel-good depiction of brilliant people using their brilliance in inspiring ways. Hidden Figures is a crowd pleaser in the truest, most honorable sense of the term.  

13.  Green Room (Directed by Jeremy Saulnier)
      Currently streaming on Amazon Prime
When a hardcore band witnesses a murder after being unwittingly duped into playing a white supremacist rally in the woods, they’re suddenly trying to escape with their lives. The high concept boils down to punks vs. neo-Nazis, but there’s never a single moment in Green Room where you’ll feel like you’re watching something contrived, or even something that’s trying to rely on an unearned sense of edgy coolness. After 2014’s underrated Blue Ruin showed us the torture that Jeremy Saulnier was capable of inflicting on just one main character, he clearly enjoys the wider net of sadistic possibilities afforded to him by a large ensemble cast. But everything that happens feels completely logical within the context of the film. Green Room is the most intense film of the year, and no one, including the viewer, comes through unscathed.

14.  Indignation (Directed by James Schamus)
      Currently streaming on HBOGo and HBONow
Indignation, based on the Philip Roth novel, is sort of about being an atheist at a small college in the 1950s, and it’s kind of about getting a blowjob on the first date. With both circumstances, the film explores the way we brand behaviors as uncouth and attribute labels to their perpetrators. And these pigeonholings have consequences upon us. They alter our lives and they sap our dignity. Logan Lerman gives the year’s best “I didn’t know he had it in him” performance—I now expect him to be a major actor of his generation. There’s a long, show-stopping scene in the center of the film where Lerman goes toe-to-toe with Tracy Letts (the Pulitzer-winning playwright, here playing a college dean) that’s as good as nearly any other scene from 2016.

15.  The Edge of Seventeen (Directed by Kelly Fremon Craig)
It took nearly ten years of waiting, but the Superbad-for-girls comedy we’ve all been pining for is finally here. And I don’t mean a raunchy comedy where the high school girls talk about what porn subscriptions they’ll order once they’re in college; No, I mean a movie from a teen girl’s perspective that, like Superbad, depicts the exact moment where your best friend lets you down in order to pursue the opposite sex. Writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig, in her directorial debut, announces herself as a major filmmaker to watch, and Hailee Steinfeld finally comes through on the immense potential she showed in True Grit.

16.  A Monster Calls (J.A. Bayona)
This pseudo-fantasy story, about a bullied British boy who imagines a giant monster to help him cope with his rage at his mother dying of cancer, doesn’t always work; it’s probably the most flawed film on this list. But it also has scenes that are so gorgeous (the animated sequences that portray allegorical tales the monster tells him) and so devastating (the finale) that it demands recognition as one of the year’s best. While Manchester by the Sea is one of the greatest portrayals of an adult dealing with insurmountable pain, A Monster Calls is nearly its equal in portraying how a child deals with it.

17.  The Witch (Directed by Robert Eggers)
      Currently streaming on Amazon Prime
I believe great horror must do two things—immerse you in the world, and then take its damn time. In The Shining, for example, by the time Jack Torrance loses his shit, you can just about draw the entire blueprint of the Overlook Hotel. So it is with The Witch, a film with a 17th century New England setting so meticulously researched and created that it almost feels like a documentary at times. And unlike most horror, The Witch spends much of its time in daylight (though always overcast and dreary), and in wide-open spaces. It doesn’t rely on the cheap thrills of corners and darkness; instead, it convinces you that knowing your surroundings, yet still feeling unmistakably that something menacing is out there, is the scariest circumstance of all.

18.  Land of Mine (Directed by Martin Zandvliet)
Just when you think there couldn’t possibly be new angles for an anti-war film, Land of Mine presents a great one, and it’s a true story: in the summer of 1945, just after the Nazi surrender, German POWs in Denmark were forced to defuse the two million landmines the Nazis had planted along the Danish coast. Many of the POWs tasked to do this were teenagers, and about half of them lost their lives in the process. The film takes the perspective of a Danish sergeant in charge of the POWs, who begins to question the barbarism of his orders, and the senseless loss of life still resulting from a war that had theoretically ended. While the narrative is fairly straightforward, the imagery and pacing straddles a delicate emotional line which neither milks the deaths, nor desensitizes the viewer to their consequence.

19.  Jackie (Directed by Pablo Larraín)
Don’t think of Jackie as a biopic of the titular icon. Rather, it’s an attempt to see the hours and days following JFK’s assassination through the eyes and emotions of someone who was always present, but not really given a voice or any semblance of control during the ensuing maelstrom. It reminded me a lot of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (a film I liked far more than most), just without the punk soundtrack. Both films are about the emotional interiors of theoretically rich and powerful women who actually felt no power at all.

20.  The Lobster (Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos)
Currently streaming on Amazon Prime
The Greek absurdist behind 2008’s Oscar-nominated Dogtooth made his English-language debut with The Lobster, which tells the story of a near-future society that sends its single people to an isolated hotel in the woods, where they’re obligated to find a romantic partner within 45 days or be turned into an animal of their choice and released into the wild. What ensues defies pretty much any explanation, and must be seen firsthand. I wasn’t quite as high on the film as several people—the second half lost a lot of steam, and I thought the film would have been better served by ending about two minutes earlier than it did. But even still, The Lobster is one of the most unique films of the decade, and it will give you plenty to dwell on about the concessions we make to our individuality for the sake of pairing up, and the ways in which we convince ourselves we’ve found the “right” person.

21.  Nocturnal Animals (Directed by Tom Ford)
Fashion icon Tom Ford made one of the best directorial debuts in recent film history with 2009’s A Single Man, but no one expected to wait seven years for a follow-up, let alone one that was so dark. Nocturnal Animals seems to have divided critics (The New York Times’ Wesley Morris said it was the worst movie he saw in 2016), and I’m not convinced it’ll retain its power on a second viewing, but I found it to be an utterly hypnotic descent into the darkest Lynch-ian corners of the mind. And, to the surprise of no one, Ford sure knows how to compose a great visual.

22.  20th Century Women (Directed by Mike Mills)
Something Mike Mills does better than any other contemporary filmmaker is figure out how to visually contextualize how his characters were shaped by when they grew up. I’ve been harping for five years that Mills’ previous film, 2011’s Beginners, is the best film of the decade that almost no one saw. Beginners was about Mills’ father coming out of the closet in his ‘70s, while 20th Century Women is about the way Mills’ mother raised him. In both cases, Mills contrasts his parents’ perceptions of normalcy with his own using historical footage, old Polaroid photos, and sociological facts of the day. That probably sounds sufficiently unexciting, but Mills deftly figures out how to keep the proceedings lighthearted with great lines and great tunes (there are multiple Talking Heads ear-sightings). While 20th Century Women doesn’t come together in quite as lovely a way as Beginners did, Mills has forged himself a unique niche that feels almost like Wes Anderson embracing realism.   

23.  The Eagle Huntress (Directed by Otto Bell)
In the desolation of rural Mongolia, nomadic tribes have selected and trained men to hunt with eagles for hundreds of years. But in this uplifting documentary, a 13-year-old girl named Aisholpan convinces her father to train her (against the wishes of the tribe elders). She then becomes the first female to enter the competition at the annual Golden Eagle Festival, and I know you won’t believe this, but she wins. I make the proceedings sound formulaic, but this wasn’t dreamt up in a Disney boardroom. The Eagle Huntress is a documentary, and it’s an incredibly inspiring one. Every man with a daughter between the ages of 7 and 15 should be required to watch this movie together.

24.  Sing Street (Directed by John Carney)
Currently streaming on Netflix
John Carney already won our music hearts with 2007’s Once, and then proved he wasn’t a one-hit wonder with 2014’s underrated Begin Again. Sing Street, about a teenager in ‘80s Dublin who forms a band to impress a girl, finds a middle ground between Carney’s two previous musical gems—it’s as bright, fun, and lively as Begin Again (actually more so), and it takes us back to the personal setting of Once. But what Sing Street does best is give us a wonderful set of songs. As the band cycles through different ‘80s pop influences (Duran Duran, A-ha, The Cure, etc.), the songs they write legitimately sound like they could have been hits from the bands they’re emulating. Indeed, the year’s biggest Oscar tragedy is that the climactic song, “Drive It Like You Stole It,” wasn’t among the Best Original Song nominees.

25.  Rams (Directed by Grímur Hákonarson)
Currently streaming on Netflix
In this comedy set in the wilds of rural Iceland, two rival sheepherders live next door to each other and haven’t spoken in 40 years. Oh, they also happen to be brothers. When a disease breaks out amid the area’s livestock, the ensuing ridiculous behavior is all kinds of stubborn, but also full of honest familial emotion.

14 Other Films I Recommend (alphabetically)

The 13th (Directed by Ava DuVernay)
     Currently streaming on Netflix
Our country’s over-incarceration of African-Americans won’t (or at least shouldn’t) come as a surprise to you, but the way this documentary tells the story—and the numbers it throws at you—will sear into your brain.
Denial (Directed by Mick Jackson)
2016 was the perfect year for a dramatization of a real British libel trial from the ‘90s brought by an infamous Holocaust denier. The film acts as an interesting, and timely, commentary on how we prove the existence of fact.
Everybody Wants Some!! (Directed by Richard Linklater)
     Currently streaming on Amazon Prime and Hulu
This pseudo-sequel to Dazed and Confused isn’t as revelatory as its predecessor, but it’s nearly as fun.
Eye in the Sky (Directed by Gavin Hood) 
     Currently streaming on Amazon Prime
Films about drone strikes are becoming a bit tiresome, but this is the best one so far—a nearly real-time thriller that features Helen Mirren and the late Alan Rickman, in one of his final performances.
The Handmaiden (Directed by Chan-wook Park)
     Currently streaming on Amazon Prime
It’s the year’s best Korean lesbian period piece sex mystery. And it had one of the best trailers ever.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Directed by Taiki Waititi)
     Currently streaming on Hulu
Kiwi accents make everything better, especially in this tale of a fat orphan on the run in the woods with his crazy foster uncle (a never-better Sam Neill) and their dog, Tupac.
Jason Bourne (Directed by Paul Greengrass)
The Damon/Greengrass/Bourne combo has me at hello.
Lion (Directed by Garth Davis)
This classic weepy defies you not to fall for it, and reminds us all of technology’s capacity to bring us together.
The Man Who Knew Infinity (Directed by Matthew Brown)
     Currently streaming on Hulu
It’s a stuffy British period drama about mathematicians. Yet, somehow, quite good.
Miles Ahead (Directed by Don Cheadle)
     Currently streaming on STARZ
Not exactly a biopic (of Miles Davis), and probably not even remotely true, but it’s an interesting approach to capturing a legend.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Directed by Gareth Edwards)
It’s very slow to get going, but once you get through the not-particularly-well-handled character intros, it turns into the year’s most rousing adventure flick. And the last 20 minutes are nearly everything you could want from a Star Wars yarn.
Star Trek Beyond (Directed by Justin Lin)
Three films into the reboot and the series continues to be exciting, sophisticated entertainment. Plus, it features the best use of a Beastie Boys song you’ll ever see in a movie.

Tickled (Directed by David Farrier & Dylan Reeve)
     Currently streaking on HBOGo and HBONow
In the strangest documentary you will ever see, a journalist from New Zealand gets caught up in the secret underground world of “competitive endurance tickling,” and finds himself an unwitting target of the shadowy leader of a secret tickling-fetish empire. You’ll have to remind yourself several times while watching this film, Yes, this really happened.
Under the Shadow (Directed by Babak Anvari)
     Currently streaming on Netflix
Exorcist/Rosemary’s Baby–style mother/child horror, but set in 1988 Tehran against the backdrop of the Iran/Iraq war.