Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Remembering Len Wein, 1948-2017

Last month while I was at the Toronto International Film Festival, one of the great figures in comic book history died, and I didn't have the chance to say anything about him. I'd like to fix that. 
Len Wein died on September 10. If you heard about that at all, you probably heard that he was the co-creator of Wolverine, Storm, Nightcrawler, Colossus, and Swamp Thing. That's true, he was those things, and he was also a very good comic book writer, particularly in the 1970s. 
But what I want to talk about is how he was one of the five best comic book editors ever, and maybe even #2 (behind Stan Lee, with Jim Shooter, Karen Berger, and Joe Quesada being the others in the Top 5 conversation). When we talk about the history of comics, and the creators we love, it's almost always a conversation that hinges on writers and artists, and rarely on editors. But in comics (and in several publications), the major editors do so much more than just copy edit--they're the people choosing the creative arcs of the entire company. They're the people hiring the writers and artists, and essentially choosing which comics exist and which don't. They're the people responsible for recognizing and cultivating talent--which is, itself, a major talent. And Len Wein was one of the best ever at it. 
If we look at the history of comics from that perspective--what existed and why--then Len Wein is clearly one of the most important figures in the medium since 1970. He might even be #1. In the modern history of comics, two dominant forces stand out--superhero franchises, and creator-owned comics and graphic novels. It could be argued (and I'm arguing it) that each of these forces derived from two single moments, 30 or 40 years ago, when Len Wein hired the right person at the right time, and encouraged them to follow their creative muse. 
The first moment came in 1975. Len Wein had just relaunched Marvel's long-dormant X-Men series. The series had been cancelled five years earlier and most of the characters were barely being used. Len Wein (with artist Dave Cockrum) created a group of new members for the team (Wolverine, Nightcrawler, Storm, Colossus) and relaunched the series. When the first issue of the relaunch was a success, Wein quickly realized he didn't have the time to keep writing it (because he had just been promoted to one of Marvel's top editors), so with the second issue of the new series, Wein passed the writing reins onto a young writer named Chris Claremont, who had done a handful of fill-in work for Marvel but had never had a permanent writing assignment on any title. Wein stayed on as editor of the new X-Men title for a time and encouraged Claremont to write the characters how he wanted to. At the time, X-Men was still a bi-monthly title (meaning it only came out six times per year), and it stayed that way for the first few years of Claremont's tenure, as he slowly built an audience for the new group of characters. 
Claremont would end up writing X-Men for 16 consecutive years, 1975-1991. During that time, the X-Men went from one title coming out six times per year, to, at the time of his 1991 departure, six monthly titles that were regularly shattering comic book sales records. For most of those 16 years, Claremont was virtually the only writer on any mutant titles (though he eventually ceded some of them to other writers, such as his editorial partner Louise Simonson, when he couldn't keep up with the demand for so many books). To say that the X-Men--as a franchise, an institution, and one of the biggest reasons so many kids got into comics in the 1980s and 1990s--would not have ever been what they were without Claremont is a gross understatement. He built almost the entire X-Men mythos, which led to Marvel adopting the idea of franchises built around closely connected groups of titles which would frequently crossover with one another, which is now virtually the entire superhero publishing model. And don't forget, the 2000 X-Men movie is what launched the modern superhero film craze. None of that happens without Claremont, which really means none of it happens without Len Wein hiring the right person at the right time. 
And that was only the first time. 
The second time happened in 1983. Wein was now at DC, and was an editor on Swamp Thing, a character he had co-created 10 years earlier. The title had relaunched the year before to coincide with a Wes Craven movie, but now sales were lagging again and the writer, Martin Pasko, wanted to move on. Wein had to hire someone else. He was intrigued by a young British comic writer named Alan Moore, who was extremely heralded. But at the time, there was virtually no precedent for a British comic creator working for an American comic company. The appetites of British and American audiences were seen as too different. But Wein hired Alan Moore anyway, and, in what was an extremely bold move at the time, Wein allowed Moore to completely change every aspect of the character--his origin, his identity, his abilities, his motivations--in just his second issue. Moore had never written an American comic book before. Not only did Wein hire him, but Wein gave this person, a total unknown to American comic audiences, complete freedom to write what he wanted, even though it all went 180 degrees against the entire publishing history of the character. Moore's brilliance cannot be overstated--that second issue of Swamp Thing that he wrote is my single favorite comic book ever. But Wein giving Moore that opportunity really cannot be overstated either. 

The first page of the legendary Swamp Thing #21, Alan Moore's second issue, and my all-time favorite single comic issue

Within three years, Swamp Thing was the first American comic by Marvel or DC to carry a "Mature Readers" label. Around the same time, Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons launched Watchmen at DC, which is still regarded as the greatest graphic novel ever made. Len Wein was the editor on the series, and he's the one that allowed Moore and Gibbons the creative freedom to make such an industry-defining masterpiece. By the end of the 1980s, American comics were being flooded with a wave of British writers and artists that completely changed the medium, such as Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison. In 1993, DC turned six of their mature readers comics (including Swamp Thing) into a new imprint called Vertigo, which led to modern graphic novels and creator-owned comics as we know them. The literary success of Vertigo books like Sandman are also what led places like Borders and Barnes & Noble to start carrying graphic novels. And again, it all happened because Len Wein hired the right person at the right moment. 
So much of modern comic book history can be traced back to these two Len Wein decisions. It also so happens that my two absolute favorite comic series ever are Chris Claremont's X-Men run and Alan Moore's Swamp Thing run, and I'm eternally grateful to Len Wein for being the decision maker that provided me with so many rewarding reading experiences in my life. The creative works that Len Wein helped birth into the universe profoundly shaped who I am. 
And now I'm a professional editor. Huh. I wonder who I got it from?

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

20 Things I Loved at TIFF 2017 (and 5 Things I Didn’t Love)

TIFF ’17 is over (it’s been over for over a week, I’m just slow), so it’s time to take stock of the best and worst that the Festival offered. I saw 38 films (37 that I was conscious for at least most of), and 26 of them are mentioned here in one capacity or another. I missed some of the fest’s major titles (Molly’s Game, Battle of the Sexes, The Disaster Artist, The Current War, Call Me By Your Name, and I, Tonya), but saw several others, including four that have vaulted prominently into the Oscar conversation (Darkest Hour, Lady Bird, The Shape of Water, and the People’s Choice Award winner, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri). In other words, there’s still plenty to talk about. The first five entries on the list are the five best films I saw. After that, I dig deeper into the specifics of what really struck me about several films.

1.  Foxtrot
Something no one has ever accused me of is avoiding hyperbole. I love cinema, I always get excited when I see great cinema, and my excitement has traditionally involved throwing lots of excitable words around. In any given year, I usually see between three and six films that I don’t hesitate to call masterpieces, and I’ve been trying to get better about that. I realized I’ve become the moviegoer equivalent of the guy that just says “I love you” to everyone that sleeps with him. Are there really that many masterpieces? Can there even be that many? So I’ve been trying to get a little more conservative with my praise, and so far in 2017, I had only said it about one film (Get Out).

Well, here’s number 2—Foxtrot is a masterpiece. The simplest, non-spoiler-y way to describe Foxtrot is that it’s about a tragedy in the Israeli military, and the film alternates between revealing what might’ve happened, what didn’t happen, and what did happen. Like Moonlight, it has three distinctly separate acts. But unlike Moonlight, each act has a different tone and style, and a very different role in revealing what the hell kind of movie Foxtrot even is. The first act is domestic tragedy—Manchester by the Sea-like familial weight meets P.T. Anderson-styled long takes of devastating close-up acting. Then the second act is Kubrick-ian satire. Both acts have a dance scene. And the third act begins with an animated sequence involving masturbation. None of it should work, but it does, beautifully so. It was recently announced that Foxtrot is Israel’s entry for the foreign language film Academy Award. I think it has a great chance to win.

2.  Jane
I won’t lie, I wasn’t particularly excited to see Jane, and really only did so because I had a writing gig to cover it. I liked several of Brett Morgen’s previous films (Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, The Kid Stays in the Picture), but even still, I wasn’t sure how much I’d get into a 90-minute film about the primatologist Jane Goodall, built almost solely out of recently recovered footage from the 1960’s. But gods, what a gorgeous film. This is pure cinema in the best way.

To start, the footage from the 1960’s is all shot by Jane’s eventual husband, Hugh van Lawick, who is widely regarded as the greatest wildlife photographer ever, and the imagery is lovely. From that base, the film then overlays narration from Jane Goodall herself (taken from ‘80s recordings of her reading her writing for books on tape), and then overlays that with a stunning new Philip Glass score, which, contrary to Glass’s general oeuvre, actually goes for a grand emotional crescendo. Jane will be in art-house theaters next month, and then will be broadcast on the National Geographic channel next Spring. It’s definitely worth your time.

3.  The Shape of Water
At the TIFF premiere, director Guillermo del Toro said that his Venice-winning film, The Shape of Water, is partially about how, “Every morning, we can choose between fear and love. And love is the answer. Silly as it may fucking sound, it’s the answer to everything.” The Shape of Water is a Beauty and the Beast–esque story of a mute janitor at a top-secret science lab falling in love with the merman being held prisoner there. It’s an unabashedly romantic film, in its sentiment, its 1962 setting, and especially its execution. It reminds me of La La Land in that it’s a movie where you almost have to consciously decide you’re willing to let it sweep you away, or it won’t. If you make even the slightest effort to be immune to the goth-schmaltz it’s selling, then you probably will be. But if you can allow yourself to be lost in the gorgeously stylized romantic grandeur, which I was, then it’s a lovely viewing experience.

4.  Faces Places
What could possibly make for a sweeter, more life-affirming documentary than a legendary French filmmaker (89-year-old Agnès Varda) and a world-renowned street artist (JR, famous for installing large black & white photo images in public locations) teaming up to drive around France and bring public art to the people and towns? The most wonderful thing about Faces Places is that the type of art being created and displayed is hinged upon audience participation. The people receiving these lovely images in their towns are the ones bringing their own likenesses to its creation. As a result, the film ends up as a wonderful meditation on the communal nature of art—why it matters to our public sphere, how creating it brings us together, and how we are all the subject of something beautiful.

5.  Darkest Hour
If you follow film at all, you’ve probably heard by now that Gary Oldman virtually has the Best Actor Oscar in the bag for his portrayal of Winston Churchill. But what you might not have heard is that Darkest Hour is also, actually, a great film. It’s important that this isn’t thought of as a Churchill biopic, because it’s not. It’s a film about a historical event. The whole thing takes place over about 18 days in May of 1940, and it’s about Churchill convincing both the British Government and the Crown that they can’t surrender to Germany while their troops are all stranded at Dunkirk. It’s a brilliantly crafted film, particularly in the lighting and score. But it’s also a great script. It’s a true return to form for Joe Wright (whose Atonement is one of my favorites of the 2000s), after last year’s disastrous Pan.

6.  Greta Gerwig, Writer/Director
Greta Gerwig’s debut as a solo writer/director, Lady Bird, is a film that I really liked, but was one slight notch below loving. In some ways, it’s about such a specific type of high school experience that it might not perfectly resonate for anyone that didn’t come very close to living it. But one thing that the film does make very clear is that Gerwig, as a filmmaker, is the real deal. This isn’t just an actor deciding they can direct now; this feels like the natural artistic progression of what has already been a fascinating young career, full of life and creativity. Sometimes you can just tell from a first film that it’s the beginning of a major voice in cinema. Lady Bird is one of those times.

7.  The Sound Design of The Killing of a Sacred Deer
While I always strongly advocate for the theatrical experience, when people ask me what films they need to see in theaters, I’m less likely to recommend films with big effects or strong visual components than I am to push for films that most benefit from total immersion. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a movie that needs that level of immersion from its viewers. This is a movie where you need to be sitting in the dark, in total silence, and just listening to the bizarre, unsettling noises and disjointed strings that are trying as hard as they possibly can to make you queasy and uncomfortable. It’s a great horror movie, but it only works if you let it completely envelop your sensory experience.

8.  Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
The third film by Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) was somewhat of a surprise winner for TIFF’s People’s Choice Award, which is a pretty major Oscar-predictor (eight of the previous nine winners have gone on to receive Best Picture nominations). But perhaps the win shouldn’t have been that surprising; one thing the Award has been an especially great predictor of in recent years is the Best Actress Oscar. La La Land, Room, and Silver Linings Playbook all won the TIFF People’s Choice Award, and they all eventually vaulted their female lead onto the Oscar acceptance stage. Given how wonderfully profane and deceptively vulnerable Frances McDormand is in Three Billboards, we may be looking at a continuation of that trend. And Sam Rockwell, in a meaty and hilarious supporting role, has the goods to join her in the Oscar hunt.

9.  The Veep-Meets-Fascism of The Death of Stalin
Armando Iannucci, the creator of Veep (and a screenplay Oscar nominee for his 2009 film, In the Loop), has been a true expert at chronicling the hysterical inanities of democratic systems. But with The Death of Stalin (which takes place over the few days during and following that titular event), Iannucci turns his focus to fascism. If you think the power grabs in Veep were hilarious, where everything is about maximizing voter optics, just wait ‘til you see how absurd the power grabs look when they involve actual grabbing of actual power, and the people in the way don’t merely lose elections.

10. Thinking About the implications of On Chesil Beach and I Love You, Daddy
With some films, it’s not necessarily the quality or style of the artistry that stands out to you, but the ideas presented in the film. This was especially the case with On Chesil Beach, an Ian McEwan adaptation that I thought was only a decent film, but has stayed with me really well despite being the first film I saw of the fest. It has two major takeaways that I’ve been thinking a lot about—the perils of crafting narratives about what sexual experiences are supposed to be like, and the ways in which people in long-term relationships can almost feel like they’ve been victims of false advertisement when they find out something new about their partner

I liked Louie C.K.’s I Love You, Daddy a lot better—it was one of my favorites of the fest—but even still, it’s the ideas in the story that I can’t stop thinking about. It’s basically a commentary on how we should react to Woody Allen as a filmmaker, knowing what we (probably) know about him. Meanwhile, the movie looks and feels almost identical to Woody’s 1979 classic, Manhattan. So there’s a lot to unpack there, and I can’t wait to see how people react to it when it’s released next year.

11. The Sexy Feminism of Professor Marston and the Wonder Women
William Moulton Marston, who created Wonder Woman in 1941, was quite an interesting figure. He was a Harvard-trained psychology professor, he invented the lie detector test, and he was in a long-term, functional relationship with two women. Even though Marston died young, in 1947, his two partners still stayed together for the rest of their lives. The story of Marston’s relationship with these two women—and their relationship with each other—and how they inspired the creation of a feminist icon superhero, is a movie that achieves the balance of being really sexy without ever feeling exploitative. Some of us have always known that feminism is sexy, but for those that still don’t realize it, this is the movie they need.

12. Vince Vaughn, Action Star
Sometimes one starring role in a good action flick is all it takes to completely reframe someone’s career. Once upon a time, no one had ever thought of Bruce Willis, Nicholas Cage, or Liam Neeson as action stars. But then Die Hard, The Rock, and Taken came along, and none of their careers have ever been the same since. To be fair, Brawl in Cell Block 99, the prison revenge epic that Vince Vaughn brought to TIFF, has virtually no chance at lighting box offices on fire like those three aforementioned films. But the people that cast action movies will see it, and they’re going to love what they see. Vince Vaughn is about to be reinvented as an action star, and he’s going to be pretty damn great at it.

13. The Final Shots of Hostiles and What Will People Say
I’ve always been fascinated by the way a great final shot can frame how we think about a film, and two that I saw at TIFF displayed that perfectly. Hostiles, a bleak western by Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) and starring Christian Bale, had a surprising final image, deployed in slow motion, that was basically a reverse Searchers. What Will People Say—a powerful Norwegian drama about Pakistani immigrants—ended on a stark set of two silent facial expressions, acknowledging everything that the characters had experienced and learned about themselves over the entire film. In both cases, the ways I’ve thought about these movies have been predicated by the final images they left me with.

14. The Subtleties of Chappaquiddick
I didn’t know what to expect of Chappaquiddick, a film that arrived in Toronto with very little buzz and was by a director, John Curran, whose films I’ve really liked (Tracks), really hated (Stone), or been completely indifferent to (The Painted Veil). But Chappaquiddick—starring Jason Clarke as Ted Kennedy, Kate Mara as the campaign worker that died in his car, Ed Helms as his closest advisor, and Bruce Dern as his father—was a nice surprise. What works so well about it is that it doesn’t go for sensationalism. It’s about your entire life building and pressurizing a narrative of impending greatness, and how you might react when you see it start to spiral away. If there’s a major flaw, it’s that the film doesn’t care enough about a tragically dead girl. But Chappaquiddick is about the realities of America’s relationship to scandal and moral compartmentalization, and it’s a film that keenly (and sadly) knows, America never really cares about the dead girl.

15. The Norwegian Non-Horror Version of Carrie
With all content ideas being constantly re-farmed into reboots or new mediums, Thelma (Norway’s official Oscar entry) is something I haven’t quite seen yet—a film remade into a different genre. To be fair, Thelma isn’t actually a credited remake of Carrie, but like Carrie, it’s also about an eponymous, sheltered young virgin discovering she has a strange control over her surroundings. However, Thelma isn’t a horror movie; it’s a psychological drama with this discovery treated as a powerful element of sexual awakening, rather than the igniter of a killing spree.

16. Charlie Hunnam, Movie Star
In 1973, Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman starred in a prison escape drama called Papillon, and it was a huge hit. I watched it recently and struggled to get through it. It’s only watchable because McQueen and Hoffman are so compulsively watchable. So when I saw the new remake, starring Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek, I was dubious of whether Hunnam could evoke the effortlessly cool masculinity of McQueen. As a movie, the new Papillon is fine. Pretty good, even. But what impressed me about it was Hunnam. He truly does pull off being as much of a cool alpha male as Steve McQueen. I’m not sure yet what movie will be the one that does it (doubtful it’s this one), but I’m now confident that Charlie Hunnam will be a movie star. And deservedly so.

17. The Non-White-Savior-ness of Woman Walks Ahead
I was a little worried going into Woman Walks Ahead, in which Jessica Chastain plays a woman who travels west to paint a portrait of Chief Sitting Bull and finds herself in the middle of a major conflict between the Sioux and the U.S. Military. It seemed like an obvious and egregious White Savior trope with a movie built around it. But I also trusted Chastain, who has great taste and tact in choosing roles, so I was cautiously optimistic. Chastain chose well. It’s a pretty good film, with beautiful landscapes and a moving story. But what I was most impressed by is how defiantly it *isn’t* a White Savior film. First of all, Chastain’s character is mostly on the sidelines for the climactic scenes. Secondly—and more depressingly—she doesn’t succeed in saving anyone. (I guess spoiler alert for those that don’t know their late-19th-century American genocides.)

18. The Held Shots of Loveless
Russian filmmaker Andrey Zvyagintsev’s previous film, Leviathan, was a foreign language film Oscar nominee two years ago. Leviathan and his new film, Loveless, are both heavy, slow movies, but they’re also incredibly powerful, and part of that power comes from the way Zvyagintsev tends to hold his shots for a few seconds longer, or start them a few seconds earlier (or both), than most directors would. It adds an almost voyeuristic quality to the films where you feel like you’re watching real lives unfold, and of course you see more of the dull moments of those lives than in the tightly compacted Hollywood editing we’re used to. But the added realism is palpable.

19. Spending Some Much-Needed Time With the Obama State Department
The last film I saw at TIFF’17 was a documentary called The Final Year, which is an inside look at John Kerry, Samantha Power, Ben Rhodes, and the Obama State Department’s actions and goals throughout 2016. The doc covers the entire year, which started with so much hope, and ended with so little. But seeing these people try so hard and believe so strongly in the global message of peace and tolerance they were advocating for proved especially inspiring, no matter how distant that sentiment seems now.

20. The “Eight Kinds of Fucks” Americans Give
Downsizing was an interesting and pretty good movie, though definitely not up to the standard of the rest of Alexander Payne’s work. But there was one line, toward the end, that probably elicited the biggest laugh from me of the entire 11-day festival, about the “eight kinds of fucks” Americans give. And I won’t spoil the rest of it here.

…And 5 Things I Didn’t Love

1. Kings
Two years ago, Turkish director Deniz Gamze Ergüven received a foreign film Oscar nomination for her lovely and powerful film Mustang, about the rebellious sexual awakenings of five young sisters in modern day Turkey. When I heard her English language debut—about the 1992 L.A. Riots and starring Halle Berry and Daniel Craig—would be at TIFF, it leapt to the top of my Must See List. But, sadly, Kings was my biggest disappointment of the festival. The film is a disaster, and I try really hard to not use that term lightly when discussing art that people spent years on. But here are the opening two scenes of the film: in the first scene, a teenage black girl gets fatally shot in the back while trying to buy orange juice; in the second scene, a teenage boy is trying to masturbate while his younger siblings are banging on the door yelling for breakfast. It’s just not possible to screw up tone more than that.

2. The Square
The Palme d’Or winner from the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, this Swedish film about the absurdities of the modern art world (by the director of 2014’s excellent Force Majeure) is expected to be a contender for the foreign language film Oscar. But after Force Majeure was such a tight narrative about the moral fallout of one action, The Square is so all over the place that it utterly forgets where it’s been and where it was going. Yes, there are some great sequences. But for something partially about the seemingly inane meaninglessness of contemporary art, the film kind of forgot to hone in on a meaning of its own.

3. Unicorn Store
Brie Larson’s directorial debut is something I really wanted to love, but it’s kind of a mess. The best way I can describe my disappointment is, I was wishfully thinking the title was a metaphor. But nope, it’s not. I was happy to find out that Brie at least didn’t write the script, because that would have made me feel much worse for her creative future. As a director, she does show a decent knack for comic timing, and the thematic motivation behind the project comes from a good place. But it mostly just left me feeling like I’d been suckered into seeing a Lifetime movie meant for pre-teen girls.

4. Eric Clapton: A Life in 12 Bars
During TIFF I got the chance to interview Brett Morgen, the director of Jane, and we talked for a while about his process in crafting his films. One thing he mentioned was how little he cares for typical factoids like when someone was born, and that he just wants to get inside them. Eric Clapton: A Life in 12 Bars (which will air soon on Showtime) is the exact kind of documentary that Morgen could care less about. Over the course of 135 minutes (which feel like 200), it painstakingly goes through every era of Clapton’s life, starting with his birth and childhood pictures and interviews with his family, and it offers very little that Clapton fans wouldn’t already be familiar with, in the way of facts, interviews, or even music. This is as cookie-cutter as music docs get, and is basically just a really long episode of Behind the Music.

5. TIFF’s New Ticket Scanning Issues

You may have heard that lines were especially bad this year, and films consistently started 15-30 minutes late at the large venues. Well, there’s an easy explanation for that. This is the first year that tickets were kept (for most people) on the TIFF phone app instead of printed physical copies. I thought this would be great, because it meant forgoing the wonderful tradition of standing in a three-hour line to pick up my tickets on Day One. (And yeah, it was nice to skip that.) But here’s the downside—the ticket scanners used at the theaters had a difficult time reading phone screens. This meant that the lines of two and three thousand people that TIFF used to be able to shuffle into theaters in 20 minutes now took double or triple the time, because each person had to wait for the scanners to take seven tries to read the ticket, while we were instructed to change our brightness levels, stand at different distances to the scanner, and basically perform a rain dance just to get in. It was a daily disaster that caused me to miss the premiere of Molly’s Game.

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.