My top films of 2020

To say that 2020 was a transitional year for film would be a massive understatement. All anyone could seem to talk about when it came to entertainment news was the Coronavirus pandemic. The ensuring confusion caused theaters to shut down and forced studios to either postpone their expensive blockbusters or attempt a digital mode of distribution in the hopes of drawing people to pay for streaming platforms (Mulan on Disney+ and WW1984 on HBO Max being the most notable examples).

The relative disappearance of high-profile event cinema throughout the year caused many movie fans to bemoan a perceived lack of quality content. Thankfully, the reality is that 2020 was a terrific year for cinema, if not for “movies” in the traditional sense. There was so much to celebrate in the cinematic-year-that-was. For one, stellar documentaries gained widespread acclaim on many streaming platforms, running the gamut from indie oddities like “My Octopus Teacher” and “Dick Johnson is Dead” to highly anticipated events like “Crip Camp” and “Boy’s State.” Not to mention that my favorite film of 2020 happens to be a documentary (see more below).

Another highlight of 2020 was the number of female directors stealing the spotlight and dominating the awards conversations. Yes, women got some blockbuster love with Niki Caro helming Disney’s “Mulan” live-action remake, but female-led efforts also dominated the critical conversation. For example, Emerald Fennell’s “Promising Young Woman,” Kelly Reichardt’s “First Cow,” Regina King’s “One Night in Miami,” Chloe Zhao’s “Nomadland,” and Radha Blank’s “The Forty-Year-Old Version,” to name just a few.

But perhaps the most important highlight of 2020 was the sheer amount of quality black voices. In a year that featured massive civil unrest as protests against unjust treatment of black men at the hands of police reached a fever pitch, the movies kept pace by giving us soulful, emotional black stories, ones that defied easy categorization and thankfully steered clear of “black Oscar bait” or “white savior” tropes. Special recognition should go to Steve McQueen for his sensational “Small Axe” anthology, released on Amazon Prime. But compelling stories from people of color were everywhere. I’m thinking of the tragic passing of Chadwick Boseman and his blistering performance in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” almost certain to win him a posthumous Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Other standouts include the devastating documentary “Time,” Spike Lee’s magnum opus “Da 5 Bloods,” Kemp Powers’ one-two punch co-writing both “Soul” and “One Night in Miami,” Aaron Sorkin’s sensitive treatment of the Black Panthers in “Trial of the Chicago 7,” and the fight against black voter suppression documented so powerfully in “All In: The Fight for Democracy” and “Slay the Dragon.”

2020 was a chaotic year for Hollywood. But, out of that chaos, lovers of cinema had almost unprecedented access to a variety of voices and perspectives, making the year a rich cinematic journey for those willing to seek out its many treasures.

And now, my 10 favorite films of 2020, along with my 11-20 picks at the end. I hope you enjoy!

10. The Invisible Man

Thanks to the lack of available theatres to screen them, this was a sad year for traditional genre films. Thankfully, The Invisible Man came out in February, so a few folks still got to see it on a big screen (or on demand, where it hit shortly after theaters shut down). And this one was more than worth checking out for fans of quality horror/thriller movies. Helmed by actor-turned-director Leigh Whannel who made a name for himself with the severely underrated action flick “Upgrade,” this modern update of the classic universal monster story is heart-pounding nail-biter from its terrifying opening scene to its savagely brutal and cathartic ending. It should be no surprise that Elisabeth Moss is amazing in this, but the way she imbues Cecilia with a weighty determination to not only survive, but get revenge on her murderous ex-lover makes her a feminist badass almost on par with the likes of Ripley from “Alien.” This is one of those “water cooler” movies, where everyone who sees it must talk to someone else about just how cool the whole thing was. This is the unfortunately rare thriller that just simply works, and works with style, from beginning to end.

9. First Cow

Writer-director Kelly Reichardt has earned herself a small but vocal following among cinephiles who swoon over her richly drawn characters and slavish attention to period detail in films like “Meek’s Cutoff,” “Wendy and Lucy” and “Certain Women.” Though I hesitate to say that “First Cow” will win her tons of new fans, it is certainly the best film she has made to date. The script, adapted from a novel by Jonathan Raymond, is so fascinating that it you almost forget you aren’t really watching much “happen” in terms of plot. But no film this year has felt more richly lived-in than this; the grimy re-creation of 19th century Oregon is a stark reminder of the savagery and poverty that drew such a stark contrast with the stunning natural beauty of the land. At her best, Reichardt draws favorable comparisons to Terrence Malick, and that comparison fits here.

But, what really makes “First Cow” such a memorable experience is the relationship at its center. No, not between man and cow, although such a bond is present. I’m talking about the unlikely friendship between traveling chef Cookie (a quietly compelling John Magaro) and Chinese immigrant King-Lu (Orion Lee). The film telegraphs early on that these two will form a strong bond, but the actors sell that idea and draw us ever closer to the intimacies of the story, little by little. This is a film that speaks with a quiet and reverent voice, which somehow makes its impact even more powerful. Sometimes, we need to slow down and appreciate the beauty of a simple story, exquisitely told.

8. Dick Johnson is Dead

What a kooky, heady, weird, profound delight this film is. Kirsten Johnson’s strange tribute to her father is both a love letter to a man and a mourning, as that man slowly suffers from the effects of dementia. This somber meditation sets director Johnson’s mind on the inevitability of death, and she has an interesting mode of therapy: theater. That is, dressing her father up and “killing” him in various ways. He falls down a flight of stairs. He is struck by falling debris. He acts out his own funeral and a fantasy sequence where he enters Heaven’s gates. The humor is, obviously, pretty dark, and the behind-the-scenes footage of how the “kills” were set up, complete with stunt doubles and squib packs, doesn’t lessen the shock of seeing Dick die over and over.

But the movie works mostly because it is so funny. Richard Johnson is an absolute character, and I’m thankful that Kirsten decided to share him with the world. His ability to so willingly go along with his daughter’s bizarre experiments reveal a sweet and tender man who is also absolutely down for pretty much anything. You will cackle with laughter, but watch out, because the very next scene may have you reaching for tissues, as it did me. This movie is weird, but, much like “The Act of Killing,” the artifice of the drama allows us to approach some heady topics in a way that doesn’t feel like a manipulative chore. Leave it do a “dead” man to teach us all what it means to live.

7. Sound of Metal

“’Sound of Metal’ is the kind of riveting drama you have to unglue your eyes from the screen after watching. I felt such a special connection to the characters and themes of this film, and I appreciate everyone involved for making such a raw, compassionate dramatization of the experience of being deaf.

Riz Ahmed’s award-worthy performance as Ruben, a drummer in a metal band who quite suddenly and inexplicably loses his hearing, gives us a unique outsider’s perspective into coming to terms with a disability and the prospect of a radically changed life. Ruben, like many of us would, I suppose, does not transition gracefully into his disability. In fact, he is constantly scheming to raise money for a costly procedure that he believes will restore his hearing and allow him to resume a semblance of a normal life with his faithful girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke). But Ruben is also a recovering drug addict, and so he ends up in a recovery center run by a man named Joe (a scene-stealing Paul Raci), who has plans for Ruben to integrate into the community and accept his disability as part of his new normal. But Ruben still has other plans for his future.

Along with the phenomenal performances, the film is also particularly noteworthy for its sound design, which is some of the best I have ever heard in a movie. The sound really immerses us into what Ruben is hearing at any given moment, as conversations become muted muddles and we struggle and strain to hear something, anything that sounds like normal. The cumulative effect is overwhelming, and it speaks to the power of cinema to take a very familiar redemptive story arc and imbue it with new life. I wouldn’t call the ending of the film happy, per se, but it does feel true, and I so badly want Ruben to be happy that I will follow him anywhere. It takes a special film to engender that kind of emotion, and “Sound of Metal” is certainly that.

6. Da 5 Bloods

Veteran director Spike Lee’s follow up to his incredible “BlacKkKlansman” is another oddly titled and extraordinarily unsubtle examination of the legacy of violence. Infused with Lee’s singular and urgent voice, “Da 5 Bloods” did not disappoint.

Following a squad of black U.S. Army Veterans as they reunite in Vietnam in the hopes of digging up some buried gold, the film, in both playful and serious ways, powerfully explores the issues of black patriotism and the ways in which PTSD affects the machismo of the soldier who is either unable or unwilling to move on from the sins of the past. These themes are fleshed out with fascinating details, such as the fact that Paul (an amazing Delroy Lindo) wears a MAGA hat and gets ribbed by his fellow vets for being a Trump supporter. As the film moves on, the violence becomes surprisingly graphic, as the injustice of unexploded land mines serves as another visual reminder of the horrors of war being passed down through the generations.

It should be noted that much of the film’s power lies on the shoulders of the late Chadwick Boseman. Along with his astonishing performance in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” his performance here as the heroic Stormin’ Norman was one of his last, and best. Although Norman was killed in the war, the legacy of everything he meant to his squad mates permeates almost every scene, and Boseman’s presence hangs heavy over the entire film. In a film full of provocative themes and stellar performances, his stands out as something truly special. He is, undeniably, a legend.

5. Boys State

As an alumnus of the California Boys’ State 2008, I eagerly awaited the arrival of this intimate documentary. I was even more excited when I realized that this exhaustively deep dive into the intricacies of mock politics was being brought to us by Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss, who graced us with one of my top 10 (maybe even top 5) documentaries of all time, “The Overnighters.” And I’m glad my excitement was not overblown, because this one is pretty damn good, too.

No movie this year captured our current political moment quite as potently as “Boy’s State.” Following a Texas delegation of high school juniors, chosen by the American Legion, to gather at the state capitol for a week and create their own mock government from the ground up, the film expertly threads the needle between giving viewers both hope and horror for the future of our nation. We watch as idealism is quickly overrun by blind party loyalty, as teenagers espouse values to a crowd that they themselves admit in private to not believing in. We watch the cutthroat use of social media to demonize “the other side,” taking them out of context and mocking them for their perceived hypocrisies. It’s all rather exhausting.

And yet, the film reminds us that there is hope for the future in those who find things worth fighting for. This hope is exemplified most clearly in Steven Garza, a passionate advocate for gun reform who tries to mollify a rabidly pro-second amendment populace in his race to become the “governor” of Texas over the brilliant and fiery conservative Ben Feinstein. It is a cutthroat competition, but when the dust settles, many of the boys are surprisingly reflective about how it all went down, and how easily they reverted to their baser instincts and abandoned their better angels to win. This is all presented through breathtakingly thorough camerawork and brilliant editing and music. It’s truly the documentary as art form, and also as democratic self-reflection—chances are, though, that you may not like what you find staring back at you.

4. I’m Thinking of Ending Things

It’s safe to say that writer-director Charlie Kaufman is an acquired taste. From generally beloved weird classics like “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “Being John Malkovich” to more impenetrable head-scratchers like “Synecdoche, New York,” the groundbreaking auteur has garnered his share of diehard fans as well as naysayers. His latest effort, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” based on the book by Iain Reid, is unlikely to change many hearts and minds. And yet, for the Kaufman diehards (and the adventurous cinema fan), it’s an absolutely rapturous experience.

Kaufman’s scripts tend to excel at conveying the interior life of the mind through both trippy visuals and idiosyncratic dialogue, and this is perhaps the most purely entertaining and clear use of those elements. From the long, heady car-ride conversations between a “young woman” (played by a never-better Jessie Buckley—and yes, that’s really the character’s name) and her eccentric boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemmons), to unforgettable images like an ice cream stand in the middle of nowhere and an animated, maggot-infested pig, the film is designed to sear into your memory, regardless of whether you really understand all that is going on by the end.

Here, I think, is an important distinction between “Ending Things” and, say, Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet,” another highly anticipated 2020 film. “Tenet” is a headscratcher wrapped inside of an enigma, and it’s hard to shake the feeling that, while you need to watch it twice to comprehend everything that happens, you’re not sure there’s much “there” there to chew on. With this film, I got to a point where I was enjoying the journey more than the destination, and I would gladly watch it again to help myself unravel some of those threads. There’s a difference between complex and complicated and I think Kaufman walks that line brilliantly here.

“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” comes with many caveats. Watch it without having any idea what it’s about. Immerse yourself in the stellar performances and rapturous cinematography (brought to us by the wonderful Polish cinematographer Lukasz Zal). Don’t watch the film if you’re dealing with depression, because, as enjoyable as it is, it is also existentially bleak and immensely heavy. You may find yourself needing a nap when it’s all over. But oh, the dreams you will have!

3. Soul/Wolfwalkers

This past year graced us with two animated classics. I loved them both so much, I decided to give them a shared spot.

“Wolfwalkers” is the true masterpiece of Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon’s impressive body of work. The third of director Tomm Moore’s unofficial “Irish folklore” trilogy, it is, put bluntly, the most beautiful animated film ever made. Cartoon Saloon has always excelled at invigorating traditional hand-drawn animation with an M.C. Escher-like energy, but the advances in technology, along with the gorgeous lines and vibrant colors, give the film the feeling of a painting come to life. There’s no way the story would have had the same impact if it was done with CGI animation, and it’s a testament to the power of the medium that a traditional 2D animated feature can still inspire such awe and wonder.

The story is not exactly revolutionary. A sheltered city girl who befriends a half-human, half-wolf, helps her tribe fight back against encroaching industrialization that threatens their home and their ancient connection to the land. At times, it reminded me very much of Hayao Miyazaki’s “Princess Mononoke.” But “Mononoke” is my all-time favorite animated film, so I guess if you’re going to borrow, it might as well be from the best. Regardless of its inspirations, “Wolfwalkers” should rightly be considered a classic, thanks to its stunningly beautiful animation and richly defined characters.

While we’re on the subject of beautiful animation, let’s talk about “Soul,” Pixar’s latest original stunner. The great Pete Doctor (who helmed such favorites as “Monster’s Inc.,” “Inside Out” and “Up,”) returns for another ambitious, joyful and thoroughly profound film. From first frame to last, “Soul” is bursting with creativity, imagination, and heart. Of course, we’ve come to expect nothing less from the geniuses at Pixar, but they have hit a few snags in recent years. This is no snag.

This is the kind of flick that, were you to watch the trailers, you think you would have figured out, or at least understand the general direction it was going. Thankfully, Doctor and co-writer Kemp Powers manage to blindside us at every turn as the tale of jazz musician Joe Gardner and his increasingly desperate efforts to re-unite his spirit with his body after “dying” take on more elaborate and profound implications. Much as Docter did with “Inside Out,” he is obviously grasping for topics, emotions and themes that are way outside the bounds of traditional kids’ movies. Even for a company known for taking risks, it’s somewhat of a miracle that this ever got the green light. It is a weird movie, and I mean that as the highest compliment. I’d also make the argument that, like much of Docter’s other work, it’s not really a very good “kids” movie. Many of the ideas the film delves into are not exactly ones you want babysitting your child, prone as they are to reflecting on the afterlife, religion, art, and the meaning of life. But then, Pixar doesn’t often make movies to occupy kids’ imaginations. Instead, they desire to challenge them in ways that a parent should probably be on hand to discuss afterwards. All I can say for the adults in the audience is that “Soul” is everything I want in an animated movie. The fact that it is drop-dead gorgeous and features a superb score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (along with compositions by the great Jon Batiste), make it even more endearing. For those who love art, music, or life in general, “Soul” is a deeply moving adventure that may just help you discover your purpose in life. How many animated movies can you say that about?

2. Small Axe Anthology

The question has bounced back and forth across the internet: Is Steve McQueen’s five-film “Small Axe” anthology series, released on Amazon, a movie, or a limited TV series? When we have stories this personal and inspiring, who really cares?

McQueen has gifted lovers of quality filmmaking five beautiful stories of celebration and resilience, focused upon the struggles and the victories of the West Indian Immigrant community in London between the 1960s and the 1980s. All five films, while distinct from one another, are woven together in a broad tapestry that celebrates the importance of community and brotherhood in the fight for liberation and equality.

There are so many moments to celebrate in McQueen’s impeccably crafted and deeply emotional stories. The highlight, to my mind, is “Lovers Rock,” a near-perfect shout of joy that preaches the beauty of West Indian culture as a cast of memorable characters meet up at a house in West London. The swooning camerawork and incredible soundtrack are hypnotic in their celebration of black pride and the way that music is explicitly tied to the fight for people of color to let loose and be themselves.  

McQueen also tackles the struggle for racial justice as he chronicles the trial of the “Mangrove” 9 in the 1970s, where black freedom fighters must come up against an entire justice system designed to oppress them. The film is brilliantly written and anchored by stellar performances from Letitia Wright and Shaun Parkes. The struggle for justice continues with “Red, White and Blue,” which stars a riveting John Boyega as Leroy Logan, a black officer with the London Metropolitan Police who attempted to reform the racist attitudes of the organization from within.

The fight for black equality is given much funnier and lighter treatment in “Education,” which dramatizes the efforts of West Indian parents to get their children to receive academically equitable schooling, rather than resigning them to so-called “schools” for the “educationally subnormal.” It’s hard not to draw parallels to more modern strands of racism in education systems around the world, and some of the revelations of the film are indeed shocking. But it’s all handled with such a wonderfully light and humorous hand, and is anchored by a spirited Kenyah Sandy, one of the best child actors in recent memory.

Finally, there is the true story of “Alex Wheatle,” which chronicles the British novelist’s life, from his childhood in a mostly white institutional care home to his embracing of West Indian community in Brixton, to his incarceration during the Brixton Uprising in 1981. The film continues the theme of music as a unifying force in the anthology, as Wheatle gains a passion for music and DJing that imbue him with a sense of purpose and connection to his true ancestry. The film is lively and graces us with another bright young actor in lead Sheyi Cole.

Taken as a whole, “Small Axe” feels like a vital piece of art in a year where black people were faced anew with the struggle for equality. It may not seem like the George Floyd protests have anything to do with West Indian communities in London decades ago. With his trademark craftmanship and slavish attention to detail, McQueen has gifted us with an artistic statement on the ways that the cry for freedom rings throughout the generations, and how true loving community is the major healing force for oppressed minorities to find true liberation and purpose.

1. Time

This past year has been one of tremendous loss and grief for many. As we begin to pick ourselves up and put back the pieces, we begin to wonder how we account for the time we have lost. Garrett Bradley’s masterful documentary “Time” is a profoundly moving examination of one family’s struggle with that same dilemma.

Bradley combines extensive home video with original footage to give his audience an achingly accurate snapshot of what true loss looks like. Through this, we get to know the daily life of Fox Rich, an inspiring woman fighting for prison reform as she struggles to commute the 60-year prison sentence of her husband Rob, serving time in the Louisiana State Penitentiary for bank robbery.

Through Rich’s eyes, we see the exhausting struggle to fight what the world might call a losing battle, as Rich balances her mission of determination with her career and raising her children. In this process, we get an intimate glimpse into the injustices of the prison industrial complex and the devastation it can have on ordinary families, particularly families of color.

What makes the film even more intriguing is the fact that Rich robbed the bank with her husband and served time herself. These are not innocent or wrongfully convicted people. Thus, the film occupies a unique space in confronting these issues head-on: what does it mean to “repay a debt” to society, and how is that debt viewed by those who hold the keys to freedom?

These questions are driven home through stunning black and white cinematography, and astonishing camerawork, as Bradley lingers on faces and images that convey the anguish of waiting. This culminates in a breathtaking climax that delves into the fantasy of what it would look like to buy back time, recognizing, of course, that such a thing is impossible. “Time” reminds us that the passage of time is something we have no control over. What we do with that time, however? That is up to us.  

Honorable mention: Hamilton

I went back and forth on Disney’s filmed version of Lin Manuel Miranda’s Broadway smash hit “Hamilton.” Is this a movie? If so, it’s far and away the best I saw this year. But, in so many ways, it’s not a movie. Ultimately, I didn’t feel like it was fair to award something that has essentially been around for years—albeit, now, to a much larger audience—with a spot on my top 10 list. But I think it’s important to include a shout-out to it neverthless, because “Hamilton” is an absolutely incredible experience that shouldn’t be missed by anyone with a pulse. Look on YouTube any given day and you will see hundreds, if not thousands, of “Hamilton” parody videos. It’s a certified cultural phenomenon, and it deserves all of the accolades it has received and more. Shows like this come along rarely, so enjoy the brilliance for yourself. “Hamilton” is available to stream on Disney+.

My 11—20 picks:

  • 11. The Trial of the Chicago 7
  • 12. Crip Camp
  • 13. One Night in Miami
  • 14. The Forty-Year-Old Version
  • 15. The Social Dilemma
  • 16. Palm Springs
  • 17. My Octopus Teacher
  • 18. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
  • 19. The Vast of Night
  • 20. Mank

Blind spots:

2020 was a strange year; films that I would have likely gotten to see ended up being pushed back due to extended eligibility windows for awards. And so, several of the most celebrated movies of the year are absolutely nowhere to be found for the average moviegoer. With that being said, both “Nomadland” and “Minari” are to be considered 2021 movies for my purposes, since I can’t see them until February at the earliest.

Other films of note I have yet to see as of this writing include “Collective,” “Beanpole,” “Athlete A,” “Saint Frances,” “Bacurau,” “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets,” “The Assistant,” “Kajillionaire,” “The Painter and the Thief,” “The Personal History of David Copperfield,” “The True History of the Kelly Gang,” “Color Out of Space,” “The King of Staten Island,” “News of the World,” “Promising Young Woman,” “Tigertail” and “Bill & Ted Face the Music.” Let me know which of these are worth checking out!

Isle of Dogs review

It’s no secret that I and many others have decried the decline of traditional hand-drawn 2D animation.  Although 3D computer animation is often visually stunning and technically accomplished, it’s hard to replicate that endearing hand-crafted feel. But, while hand-drawn animation is now more often the purview of indie and foreign films, alternative animation styles have been experiencing a much-welcome renaissance in the western world, thanks to the painstaking process known as stop motion animation. Stop motion, and its sibling, Claymation, have resulted in modern classics like Aardman’s Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit and Laika’s Kubo and the Two Strings.

But stop motion has also become the passion of specific American directors. Most notably, Tim Burton has adopted the painstaking process, where elaborate figurines are photographed frame by frame, for Corpse Bride and Frankenweenie. Wes Anderson, America’s indie darling, adapted a children’s book for Fantastic Mister Fox. Now, Anderson has returned to stop motion for his allegorical adventure Isle of Dogs, and the results should please both Anderson acolytes and fans of thought-provoking, visually stunning animation.

The film takes place in a futuristic Japanese town where an outbreak of disease has threatened the dog population. To prevent the disease from spreading to humans, Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) banishes all dogs to a large, elaborate landfill, where all the other unwanted refuse of society goes to rest. Here, in this stark but oddly beautiful wasteland, a roving pack of dogs fights to survive. The pack is supposedly led by surly stray Chief (Bryan Cranston), but he frequently clashes with the strong-willed Rex (Edward Norton) and his posse of former house pets (voiced by Bob Balaban, Bill Murray and Jeff Goldblum).

Their hardscrabble existence is upended when a makeshift airplane crash-lands on the island, carrying a boy named Atari (Koyu Rankin). The boy has stolen the plane and traveled to the island in search of his lost dog, Spots, but he is soon followed by the high-tech hounds of the Kobayashi empire. You see, Atari is Mayor Kobayashi’s nephew/Ward, and the suspiciously cat-loving mayor can’t have Atari wandering about spoiling his plans. Another fly in the mayor’s ointment: American foreign exchange student Tracy (Greta Gerwig), an intrepid news reporter with an unshakable hunch that there is a deeper conspiracy going on. Is all of pet kind really at stake? If so, Chief, Rex and the gang may have bitten off more than they can chew.

Isle of Dogs is a movie filled with risky decisions, even for a filmmaker as in love with risk as Anderson. The first risk is making a good chunk of the human dialogue in Japanese, while giving the dogs English voices. What at first seems a strange disconnect soon turns into a bold and frequently entertaining creative risk. I love all the tactics Anderson comes up with to interpret for the audience: sometimes it’s on-screen text, sometimes it’s an on-screen interpreter (yes, that is Frances McDormand as Kobayashi’s official interpreter), sometimes it’s nothing at all (we never, for example, get subtitles for Atari’s frequent dialogue, and even the dogs are confused, since none of them speak Japanese). Anderson and the actors do a terrific job of mining the lack of communication for big laughs, and also leave room for a potent statement about modern communication and the ways in which we talk past one another.

The gorgeous animation and memorable characters of Isle of Dogs should make this colorful confection irresistible to just about anyone.

Similar to the dialogue, the visuals of the film also cobbled together in a way that somehow still feels impeccably crafted and deliberate. There’s just something so endearing and heartfelt about a film entirely crafted by hand, and it’s a joy as a viewer to recognize the extreme attention to the detail the filmmakers bring to the project. Is that cloud made of cotton? Is that parachute made of tinfoil? How many days of painstaking work did it take to film that very brief sumo wrestling scene? Or that miniscule cherry blossom wafting onto a dog’s cheek? Make no mistake: Isle of Dogs is a true game-changer from a visual perspective. It’s at the same level as Kubo and the Two Strings in terms of pushing stop motion animation forward, and like Kubo its filled with vibrant colors and details inspired by Japanese culture and myth. But, while Kubo was designed to look more like paper craft, this film feels more like a 3D felt board played upon by the most wild imagination in all of film-making. There are even sequences that transition to vibrant, traditional hand-drawn animation, showing that Anderson and company are aware of and grateful for the films of the past that inspired them.

One of the main reasons I’ve been so ambivalent to Wes Anderson as a filmmaker in the past is that his characters can often feel more like caricatures than flesh-and-blood creations. It has nothing to do with style: Anderson creates fantasies and fables, and “realism” is not in his cinematic language. Rather, I feel as though his characters are often reduced to catchphrases and quirks, and the more odd chaps he adds to his elaborate dollhouses, the less they make an impact. While I enjoyed Fantastic Mr. Fox, it still mostly felt like a traditional Anderson movie with a different coat of paint.

Thankfully, Isle of Dogs sidesteps many of those concerns by giving us richly drawn characters and a timeless fable about the bond between a boy and his pet. I love the film’s use of flashback scenes to flesh out its characters and, while not all of them get this treatment, the story’s most important players do. This context gives the film an emotional resonance that I feel Anderson’s work often lacks, as do the subtle-but-effective themes of death, racism, prejudice and government corruption.

Isle of Dogs is, in many ways, a movie for adults. It’s certainly sad and disturbing enough to turn away little kids. But, for older kids and teens especially, I think there is an irresistible undercurrent of melancholy behind all the colorful visuals and adorable dogs (seriously, they’re cute) that many may find irresistible. And, along the way, they might get a valuable lesson on the importance of treating “the other” with dignity and respect (and, while we’re at it, the importance of a free and independent press in holding politicians accountable). Come to think of it, these are lessons many of us adults need to learn as well.

Wes Anderson is no revolutionary when it comes to politics, and unlike recent animated efforts like Zootopia, Isle of Dogs isn’t at all didactic or heavy handed in its messaging. It’s simply a sweet, creative story, told with impeccable craftsmanship by a filmmaker at his creative peak. This is one of the more memorable animated films of recent years, and certainly one of Anderson’s best. The eccentric and beloved auteur may have finally (literally) crafted a film that anyone can enjoy.

Ready Player One review

Few people have more of a reason to be nostalgic for the 1980s and 90s than Steven Spielberg. The veteran filmmaker filled those decades to the brim with his most crowdpleasing hits (Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., Jurassic Park) as well as his most critically acclaimed and well-respected work (Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List).

It seems like a match made in heaven, then, for Spielberg to bring an adaptation of Earnest Cline’s nostalgia-fueled novel Ready Player One to the big screen. And, for the most part, that assumption proves correct. Like the book itself, Spielberg’s latest sci-fi extravaganza is equal parts breathtaking, cheesy, self-indulgent and deeply geeky. Most importantly, however, it’s a ton of fun.

The fairly boilerplate story is set in a futuristic, dilapidated version of Columbus, Ohio, the hometown of the legendary gamemaker James Halliday (Mark Rylance), where acolytes have flocked to gain some wisdom from the man who redefined their existence through his creation called The Oasis. Think of it as a virtual reality version of an MMO, with people plugging in to tune out of their semi-apocalyptic existence. In The Oasis, you can be whoever you want to be, go wherever you want to go and do whatever you want to do.

Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is one of those acolytes, and like many others he is hoping to gain access to Halliday’s ultimate easter egg. Upon his passing, Halliday left announcement claiming that he hid three keys across The Oasis. Finding the keys leads to a door, which leads to a golden egg, which represents complete control over The Oasis and access to Halliday’s vast riches. In order to improve their real-life existence, thousands of people must obsessively pore over pop culture history and spend most of their days inside The Oasis in order to crack the code and overtake the most powerful company on earth.

Wade enlists the help of a team of misfits including his best friend Aech (Lena Waithe) and a mysterious resistance fighter known in the virtual world as Art3mis (Olivia Cooke). After Wade, whose digital handle is Parzival, finds the first key, he becomes a celebrity, drawing the attention of adoring fans but also the murderous ire of Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn). Sorrento leads a powerful corporation hell-bent on solving Halliday’s puzzle and using the Oasis to sell advertising, but their ownership of the company could have nefarious real-world implications as well.

Ready Player One has gotten a lot of attention in recent weeks, not all of it positive. The backlash to the book has been severe, with many calling it glorified nostalgia bait, a series of references in search of a story. The same complaint could theoretically be leveled at the film version. Adapted by Cline himself along with Zak Penn, the script spends a great deal of time calling out pop culture references both visual and verbal. But, like the book, I think the film does a good job of tying said references into the main thread of the story. After all, to win Halliday’s challenge our heroes must obsessively geek out over small, minute details of pop culture past. I for one think it’s rather brilliant to essentially ask the audience to do the same thing along with the characters. Are there references for the sake of references? Sure, but they fit well into a virtual world where everything is a walking advertisement. I understand folks who despise the idea of a movie concocting a reason to show us a bunch of other stuff, but how many of these critics have stepped foot inside a comic convention, where every booth is pandering to our fondness for things we already like in order to sell us a product?

Ready Player One is a visually stunning and fun tribute to pop culture past.

That’s not to say that the film is flawlessly written. It’s definitely too long, and Spielberg struggles to make the real-world action match the intensity and thrills of the virtual set-pieces. Also lost in adaptation are some of Cline’s richly drawn characters. Parzival and Art3mis’ relationship is given enough depth, as is Art3mis’ complex reasons for desiring the egg. But Aech is less fleshed out than the character deserves, acting more as a walking set of references and phobias than an actual person. And Sorrento is a typical walking suit, obsessed with money and prestige and little else.

I love seeing some of my favorite young actors working on such a massive project, but my favorite performance and character in the film is Rylance as Halliday. He brings a subtlety and a sadness to a story that doesn’t have enough of either. On the other side of the coin, I absolutely loved T.J. Miller’s I-R0k, a powerful shaman inside the Oasis who provides the film’s best comic relief. His one-liners are golden, and I’d put money down for a spin-off film starring him (especially since we don’t ever get to see his real-world identity here).

One advantage the film adaptation has over the book is its visual design, and this is truly the movie’s selling point. This is a technological stunner, perhaps the biggest leap forward visually since Avatar or Rise of the Planet of the Apes. It’s often difficult for movies to convey the full visual weight of a universe where choice is at the center, but this is an easy exception. Every frame is bursting with color, every shot filled with something to dazzle the eye (were those Battletoads charging into battle alongside the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?). So many of the references are fun precisely because you can’t catch them all. Half-second flashes of favorite characters fit nicely alongside the more blatant references, keeping us on our toes as we scan the screens for glimpses of our favorite character.

Ready Player One is essentially half-animated, and thankfully Spielberg handily avoids the uncanny valley, with fun character designs inside The Oasis and expressive facial animations that rarely look creepy or unnatural (not anymore than intended, at least). However, it’s the action set pieces that truly knock this one out of the park. Check out the twisting car race that leads to the first key, featuring shifting courses, King Kong and a giant T-Rex. Or my favorite scene, a gripping bravura set piece set inside Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. The epic final battle feels less engrossing, but perhaps that’s because, aside from the sheer variety of characters that fill the screen, it’s nothing we haven’t seen before.

Ready Player One is pretty much exactly what most people will expect going in. It’s ambitious, silly, over-the-top and a total blast. Those who scoff at the film’s very premise are not going to be swayed. Those anticipating a good time will certainly find it here. But, at its core, the film has a genuinely good heart and a sprinkling of that inexplicable Spielberg magic. Think of it as a really long roller coaster ride: fun while it lasts, not exactly life changing, but something I can’t wait to ride again. This is one easter egg worth cracking.

Black Panther review

There was a time in not-so-distant film history when making a comic-based superhero movie would have been a major gamble. Think about movies like Tim Burton’s Batman, Dick Tracy or Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man series. But, in the span of little more than a decade, a superhero movie seems like one of the surest bets in Hollywood. Even seemingly unmarketable properties like Guardians of the Galaxy or Doctor Strange have seen incredible critical and commercial success.

The ubiquity of the superhero sub-genre is an obvious win for Hollywood studios, but a potential hazard for movie fans. After all, what quicker way is there to spoil innovation and risk then the promise that sticking to the status quo will result in mountains of money? Marvel Studios, the Disney-owned harbinger of the modern comic book film era, has found itself at this crossroads in recent years, cranking out so many sequels and mash ups that the movies start to blur together. Their projects can sometimes feel as though they were directed by committee, rather than guided by any distinct artistic vision.

Then, something, well, marvelous happened. The juggernaut studio started to give its franchises to successful independent filmmakers, the kinds of unique voices who in most circumstances probably wouldn’t step anywhere near a superhero flick. This risk has paid off handsomely, resulting in a renaissance of sorts within the Marvel brand. Think of the hallucinatory insanity of Scott Derrickson’s Doctor Strange, or Taika Waititi’s comedically subversive Thor: Ragnarok. An easy addition to that list: Black Panther, Ryan Coogler’s riotous and engrossing new movie, one that takes the Marvel brand and pushes it to new heights, resulting in one of the finest comic book flicks ever made.

Part of what makes Black Panther stand out is the fact that it doesn’t really feel like a Marvel movie at all. Sure, there are some returning characters and references to the events of Captain America: Civil War, but they are in service to a story that reaches far deeper than most comic-based fare. This is one of the only Marvel flicks that feels like it takes place in the real world.

We catch up with the panther, aka T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) as he prepares to take the throne after the death of his father, T’Chaka in Civil War. He returns to the African kingdom of Wakanda, hidden from the outside world for centuries and filled with futuristic technology gifted to the people when a meteor containing the indestructible metal vibranium crashed to earth centuries earlier. The kingdom of Wakanda ranks with Asgard, the home of Thor, as the most fully realized and visually stunning locales in the MCU. Its deep hues of blue and purple contain a fascinating mix of high tech and African tribalism, where high-speed bullet trains and remote-controlled spaceships can exist alongside African tribal divisions, complete with colorful garb and other identifiers such as piercings, lip discs and dreadlocks.

T’Challa returns to this complex ecosystem to perform in the ceremony where he will be crowned king of Wakanda. He is joined by his grieving but proud mother (Angela Bassett), his tech wizard sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), potential love interest Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and a royal entourage that also doubles as a who’s-who of great black actors (Danai Gurira, Daniel Kaluuya, Forest Whitaker and Florence Kasumba, to name a few).

But T’Challa’s new rule is soon thrown into chaos, as the Wakandans race to stop some of their vibranium from falling into the hands of mercenary Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis, in full un-CG’d glory) and a mysterious outsider who goes by the name Eric Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), who has his own reasons for wanting Wakandan technology to be unleashed upon the world. Such sentiment stirs up conflict among the Wakandans; with their people being oppressed around the globe, might it not be wise to share this wonderous technology with others of African descent and take up arms against anyone who would oppress or demean their people?

Black Panther transcends its genre trappings thanks to excellent acting and a profoundly social conscience.

The conflicts at the center of Black Panther are incredibly compelling, and they’re conflicts that director Coogler has taken an interest exploring throughout his body of work (his first two films were Fruitvale Station and Rocky franchise re-starter Creed). Tradition versus progress. Isolationism versus globalism. Peaceful, political protest versus violent revolt. The films touch deeply on subject matter that matters more to black communities than ever, and the result could not be timelier. It’s amazing that a superhero film with a predominately black cast would seem so revolutionary in 2018, but then again it we didn’t get a Wonder Woman movie until last year.

But the film is more than just a showcase for great black actors; it’s also a film that is boldly, unapologetically African. From the vibrant costume and makeup design to the pulsating tribal score and Rachel Morrison’s gorgeous cinematography, this is the very rare blockbuster that aesthetically embraces the black experience, and that makes it completely refreshing in a film universe that has been sadly lacking in diversity.

Thankfully, the film sails past simple eye candy. Like Marvel’s terrific Netflix series Luke Cage, it tackles head-on modern issues of black identity such as racial injustice and absentee fathers. I don’t know that a superhero flick has felt this necessary since The Dark Knight encapsulated America’s post-9/11 anxieties, and that potent realism helps the film to feel thrillingly current and alive.

Speaking of lively, it’s certainly worth mentioning that Black Panther features some of the finest acting seen in the sub-genre. You can tell the actors knew they were making more than a fun popcorn flick: they were making something important, and it shows. I love Danai Gurira’s work on The Walking Dead, but her ferocious warrior Okoye is a marvelous creation on a whole different level. Particular praise should also go to Letitia Wright, whose Shuri should an inspiration to black women everywhere. Here’s a gorgeous young woman who is also a super-genius, leagues ahead of, say, Tony Stark; the implication that the Wakandans are the holders of ultimate knowledge and power is a brilliant and liberating reversal of reality, when black people are often the ones in positions of vulnerability.

But the highest praise must go to the main leads. Boseman’s Panther was a highlight of Civil War, and here he’s given the depth he deserves. Boseman is an amazing actor who always seems to give his all to his work, and that shows here. T’Challa is a fascinatingly complex hero, burdened with a responsibility he doesn’t quite know how to bear, and often brought to his knees by his perceived failures. The brilliant Michael B. Jordan gives us the best villain in the MCU. Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole easily side-step Marvel’s villain problem by making Killmonger equal parts ferocious and vulnerable. His motivations are complex but understandable, and he’s the victim of an egregious past wrong that ignites the central conflict and gains the character a certain amount of sympathy. There were times when I felt I sided more with Killmonger’s perspective than T’Challa’s, and that’s a remarkable step in the right direction, especially when you have an actor as good as Jordan in front of the camera.

If there’s a complaint to level at the film, it’s a minor one, and one of preference. It’s easy to see that Coogler and company put less priority the traditional superhero antics and action scenes than they did the story, characters and social parallels. In my mind, that’s an easily acceptable trade, especially because any shmuck can blow stuff up. And yet, apart from an awesome car chase sequence, the film lacks the gorgeously choreographed action of Thor: Ragnarok or the epic scale of the Captain America series. For a film with this much on its mind and heart, I can accept a downgrade when it comes to the action, but Marvel fans looking for extremely memorable fight sequences might be a tad disappointed.

Despite being based upon a decades-old property, Black Panther is very much a movie of the moment. In all the ways that count, it’s the finest example of its sub-genre since The Dark Knight. It’s vibrant, searing, and just plain fun. But even its most superfluous moments are cut with the undercurrent of profound social commentary that binds the film together. Coogler and company have crafted something special and, in some ways, groundbreaking here. There’s a new king in town, and I say “hail, hail!”

Ranking the Stephen King adaptations of 2017

Legendary author Stephen King has written so many books and short stories, in such a wide variety of genres, it’s easy to see why a year rarely passes by without some form of movie or TV adaptation of his work. Hollywood’s King obsession has resulted in classic films like Carrie, The Shining Stand By Me and The Shawshank Redemption, but it’s also given us experiences we’d rather forget; see The Langoliers, Dreamcatcher or Maximum Overdrive or, rather, don’t.

This past year was a particularly prolific one for King adaptations. We had six opportunities to get lost in King’s dark, twisted and often very entertaining world. But not everyone has the luxury of watching every King adaptation that comes into being, which is why I’ve decided to rank each adaptation from the past year, from worst to best. Which ones are most worth your time? Find out below.

* Note: I have not read much of King’s work, so (with the exception of The Dark Tower), I will be judging the work on its own terms, not in how faithful it is to its source material.* 

 

6. THE MIST 

Spike TV’s adaptation of King’s 1980 novella (which itself received a fairly well-liked Fran Darabont-directed film in 2007) is one of the more frustrating shows I’ve seen in recent years. That’s not because it’s bad. On the contrary, quite often it’s close to riveting. It’s got solid acting, great atmosphere and decent visual effects. So, what’s the problem? Well, it’s also frequently maudlin, preachy and just…stupid.

An eerie Mist rolls into a small town, and those who remain unprotected from its fumes experience hallucinations and, soon after, a gruesome death. The Mist acts as sort of a righteous judge, one that came before as “the black spring” in the 1800s to cleanse the populace of sin. Or, so says Nathalie Raven (Frances Conroy), who proclaims she is nature’s messenger and that The Mist is telling her what must be done to appease it. The film follows several interlocking storylines: in addition to Raven’s power struggle with a priest who believes The Mist is the beginning of the divine judgment foretold in Revelations, there is the Copeland family, who is separated early in the series; an amnesiac soldier; a recovering drug addict; the manager of a local mall; and Alex Copeland’s gay BFF Adrian.

These characters range from intriguing (Adrian, played by Russell Posner, might be my favorite in the entire show, and the priest character is surprisingly complex and sympathetic) to flat-out annoying. I lost count of how many times I wanted to punch Raven in the face, yet her apocalyptic rambling might end up being the town’s only salvation.

And that’s the show in a nutshell—an intriguing mystery undone by inconsistent characters and an undeniable mean streak. I feel like The Mist often punishes the good characters while the evil ones get to continue surviving. Characters do reprehensible things to each other, and, for my money, the show views them with a much too objective lens. For this, the show fails on a fundamental moral level.

The internal logic of The Mist isn’t even consistent. Characters The Mist seems to “avoid” for unexplained reasons are later attacked by it, with no explanation of the sentient atmosphere’s change of heart. But the biggest flaw is not exactly the show’s fault; Spike cancelled the series after the first season, meaning many of the big questions (such as where The Mist came from) will not be answered anytime soon. I will say the last episode of the season is super messed up and all kinds of batshit crazy. I loved it, because it took risks and went places I didn’t expect. Sadly, you’ll have to sit through 9 sluggish episodes to get there. I might recommend this show if I knew there was another season coming, but as it stands, it’s just not worth it.

5. THE DARK TOWER

Oh man. What can I say about The Dark Tower? This long-in-gestation adaptation of King’s seminal sci-fi/fantasy/western series of novels (Ron Howard was originally attached to direct) has “troubled development” written all over it. And man, does it show. It’s hard to believe such a bad-ass epic could be reduced to such dull drivel, but here we are. The titular gunslinger, Roland Deschain, is played here by Idris Elba, which seems all around to be a smart casting choice. I love the decision to cast a black actor in this role; I don’t know if King ever envisioned Roland as black, but I sure didn’t. His paths cross with adolescent Jake (Tom Taylor), who begins having visions of a gunslinger, a large tower and a man dressed in black. Soon he finds a portal that transports him to Midworld, a sort of hub that connects different parallel universes and realities. It turns out Jake might have special abilities that will help Roland defeat the nefarious Walter, aka the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey), who intends to destroy the dark tower at the center of all worlds, one that holds together the very fabric of reality itself.

It’s hard to guess who this movie was made for. Fans of the books would notice vague similarities, but the film adds some strange sci-fi elements and plot points that are far removed from the world King created. Those who haven’t read the books will likely be scratching their heads, as the film attempts to squeeze in King’s complex, 7-book universe into 90 minutes. Hey, at least it’s short. 

Elba is great here, but McConaughey seems completely miscast, and I can’t think of a more phoned-in performance he’s given in recent years. He almost looks like he’s sleepwalking through most of the movie, which doesn’t make for a very menacing villain.

On the plus side, the film is nice to look at, and several of the bullet-whizzing actions sequences are impressively choreographed. But, the film’s biggest sin is not that it is bad, but that it is dull. I never really felt connected to these characters or this universe, and Roland’s mission is ultimately reduced to the most generic “save the world” plot imaginable. And, for an adaptation of such innovative, bizarre and frequently breathtaking source material, that is the biggest sin of all.

4. 1922

One of two Netflix produced King adaptations released in 2017, 1922 is a gripping, disturbing little nightmare, anchored by an excellent lead performance from Thomas Jane. Jane stars as Wilfred James, a simple farmer desperate to hold onto his land. His cold and distant wife, Arlette (Molly Parker) is intent on selling the land and moving to the city. In the center of the conflict is the couple’s son, Henry (Dylan Schmid), who is ready to side with his mother until he falls in love. Arlette, Wilfred suggests, would soon tear Henry away from her, and he thinks there’s only one thing left to do: murder Arlette and take hold of what’s rightfully theirs.

It’s a nasty little premise, and the opening minutes of the film are indeed shocking. Thankfully, the film doesn’t relent during its entire runtime. As Wilfred deals with the consequences of his decisions, he begins to devolve into a hellish nightmare that contains equal parts regret and rodents (seriously, this movie has a disturbing obsession with rats).

The film is well shot and doesn’t overstay its welcome. It’s nothing groundbreaking or mind blowing, and some might be disappointed at the lack of major twists in the story. But, for those looking for a gruesome little thriller, this is an easy recommendation for your Netflix watch list.

3. MR. MERCEDES

Released exclusively on the AT&T Audience Network, this TV adaptation of King’s 2014 novel likely remains underseen. Which is a shame, because it’s excellent. The always-brilliant Brendan Gleeson plays Detective Bill Hodges, who has turned to alcohol and isolation following his inability to capture the Mercedes killer, so named because he drove a Mercedes into a crowd of people, killing many. Hodges is reeling from his perceived failure when the killer begins to reach out to him, sending him sadistic messages and emails. The killer is a local nobody named Brady Hartsfield (a smarmy and creepy Harry Treadway) who lives with his addict mother (Kelly Lynch) and works a dead-end job at a regional electronics store.

He gets a reprieve from his dull life when he begins to torture Hodges. But how far is he willing to take this at the risk of potentially getting caught? And, can Hodges find the justice that has so long eluded him? The psychological interplay between these two characters is fascinating, and both actors are riveting to watch. What makes the film even better is how much attention is given to the supporting characters, including Brady’s mother, Bill’s neighbors and a new friend and possible romantic interest (the great Mary Louise-Parker).

I wouldn’t call this show “enjoyable.” It’s easily the most dark, disturbing and adult of this year’s King adaptations. But, despite some sluggish pacing in the middle, it’s well worth the time of anyone looking for a gruesome, psychologically fascinating character study. If there is a second season coming (I thought it was conceived as a limited series, but the ending suggests otherwise), I’m on board for this wild ride.

2. IT

The second adaptation of King’s infamous “killer clown” epic (the first was the memorably terrible 1990 miniseries starring Tim Curry), was a smash hit at the box office, and it’s easy to see why. The movie is a total crowd pleaser, and an absolute blast from start to finish.

The film is anchored by sensational performances from a young group of actors, including Jaden Lieberher as Bill, Jeremy Ray Taylor as Ben, Sophia Lillis as Beverly, Finn Wolfhard as Richie and Jack Dylan Grazer as the frequently foul-mouthed Eddie. Together, these friends investigate the disappearance of Bill’s little brother, who’s not the only kid in town to disappear recently. Soon, they discover the terrifying monster known as Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard), a shape-shifting clown who lives under the sewers of Derry, Maine, abducting children and scaring them by manifesting himself as their greatest fears.

This film, which sticks to half of King’s story (the other half, following the kids as they return to Derry as adults 30 years later, is already in development for a sequel), is a well-paced and terrifying affair, but it’s best moments have nothing to do with killer clowns. At times, the film resembles King’s coming-of-age classic Stand By Me, as the kids deal with love, loss and puberty. The writing is impeccable, and the actors bring it home all the way. Derry is a strange place where every adult seems wicked, almost as if we’re viewing everything from the distorted lens of childhood. And that means that everything is a potential threat.

That’s not to say that the clown at the center is nothing to sneeze at. Skarsgard takes a very different approach to Pennywise than Curry did. He’s much more menacing and deranged, which makes him more effective. There are a couple of legitimately terrifying moments that made me jump out of my seat, but that smile of his is something that will stick with you long after the credits roll. Alas, Pennywise, like Jaws, gets less scary the more we see him. And we see too much of him at the end. The film’s horror elements rarely match the perfect pacing and haunting brutality of the opening sewer sequence, but the film’s quieter moments more than make up for its sometimes-goofy Pennywise scenes and occasionally cheesy effects. It’s a fantastic film, and an easy recommendation for anyone without too much of a clown complex.

1. GERALD’S GAME 

Netflix’s other King adaptation from this year, Gerald’s Game is an astonishingly effective and nail-biting thriller based on King’s 1992 novel. From start to finish, the film grabs you and doesn’t let go. When done correctly, I’m a sucker for single-location thrillers. They often come off as gimmicky, but this one never does.

Carla Gugino gives one of her fiercest performances as Jessie, who travels to a remote lake house for a little getaway with her husband Gerald (the always great Bruce Greenwood). Their goal: to spice up their marriage with some new sexual fantasies. Gerald ties Jessie to the bed, but Jessie, feeling uncomfortable, changes her mind, much to the chagrin of her husband, who proceeds with the affair. Suddenly, in the heat of the moment, and with his wife protesting, Gerald has a heart attack and dies. Jessie, still handcuffed to the bed, is forced to attempt an escape as time runs short. How long can she survive without food and water, and will she make it out alive?

Most of the film takes place in the bedroom, and everything is perfectly manufactured to give Jessie the hardest time possible. Simple, everyday objects like a phone, a glass of water, a straw and one very memorable dog suddenly become characters in the story, items which, if used the right way, might spell salvation for Jessie. It’s a relentlessly stressful experience, and one made all the better by writer-director Mike Flanagan’s decision to view the story through the lens of a feminist psychological thriller. Both Jessie and Gerald show up as different parts of Jessie’s psyche; one speaking empowerment and one condemnation. Through this internal dialogue, we get a unique perspective into Jessie’s character and her history with Gerald. This turns a very simplistic concept into something much more memorable and engaging. Here’s a woman who’s had quite enough of felling trapped and controlled by a man, thank you very much.

Gerald’s Game is, in its own way, a pretty perfect little movie. It’s nothing earth-shattering, but it nails both its thriller elements and its larger social message. I know this won’t be leaving my Netflix rotation anytime soon, and it should be on yours immediately.

 

The Shape of Water review

One of the many things I love about the cinema is the way it can effectively convey human longing for meaning, for connection, for passion through primarily visual means. Film is, first and foremost, a visual medium, and the best films recognize the old adage that a picture is indeed worth a thousand words.

Prolific director Guillermo Del Toro understands this film making rule better than most, and his new strange concoction, The Shape of Water, is perhaps his most polished and profound meditation on the power of the moving image yet.

Del Toro highlights this theme in bold font by introducing us to Eliza Esposito (played by an extraordinary Sally Hawkins), a woman incapable of speech since she was a little girl. In Cold War-era Baltimore, she spends her days in rigid routine, riding the bus to her job as a custodian at the high-tech Occam Aerospace Research Center. Her only friends in the world seem to be her sarcastic co-worker Zelda (who talks as much as Eliza doesn’t) and her eccentric artist next-door neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins). But relationships generally don’t come easy for Eliza; no one wants to talk to a mute woman, and learning how to do so takes valuable time. Eliza seems to be drifting through life, taking pleasure and solace in masturbating and eating a borderline-unhealthy amount of hard boiled eggs.

But Eliza’s life changes when the mysterious Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) arrives at the facility with a pod containing a mysterious creature (played by Doug Jones). Strickland discovered this “Asset” in the rivers of South America, where it was apparently worshiped as a god, and now the American government is eager to figure out if it can be used as a weapon to turn the tide of the Cold War against Russia. Naturally, these folks don’t care much for the creature’s opinion on all of this, but Strickland is an especially cruel captor. Humans are made in God’s image, he says, and this thing doesn’t look like any human he’s ever seen. It’s an abomination, a tool to be used and discarded, nothing more.

But Eliza and head research scientist Robert Hoffstetler (the always welcome Michael Stuhlbarg), disagree. Hoffstetler sees the creature as a thing of beauty that should be protected, and, for Eliza, the creature is something more. As she sneaks into the containment facility to see the creature, she forms an undeniable bond with it (him?). Soon, she is spending her lunch breaks feeding the Asset hard boiled eggs, introducing him to music and enjoying the quiet company of someone who finally seems to understand her. But Eliza also overhears some troubling things: it seems that Strickland’s plans for the monster might be even more nefarious, and she soon decides he must be rescued from the highly guarded facility and taken to a nearby canal, where he can swim free again. Can the silent woman, going so long unnoticed, save her friend and perhaps, in the process, find a voice of her own?

The Shape of Water is the kind of film that swims in atmosphere. This is an intoxicating world, filled with deep shades of green and dark, warm tones. Del Toro’s films have always been visually spectacular, but this is surely his best looking film to date. The director reunites with Crimson Peak cinematographer Dan Lausten, and the results are breathtaking. That film was definitely a case of style over substance, but here, the gorgeous visuals are in service of a story worthy of them.

The Shape of Water is a love letter to cinema, as well as to the power of nonverbal communication and nontraditional community.

The Shape of Water could have easily been a fairly simple fable, told with visual flair and accomplished style. That could have been enough to make this work. But, much like Del Toro’s legendary fantasy Pan’s Labyrinth, this film is seeking something much deeper. At heart, this is a tale about people without a voice finding a way to make themselves heard in a world that isn’t interested in listening. Eliza and the Asset are both incapable of speech, sure, but Zelda, a black woman and Giles, a closeted gay man, often feel equally voiceless and lonely. These outsiders rally together around what they see as one of their own, a poignant take on what a non-traditional community can look like. Few films have more effectively conveyed the existential loneliness that threatens to drown those who feel marginalized. One of the film’s most powerful scenes takes place in a local diner over a piece of pie, where a conversation gone wrong forces Giles to confront a heart-rending revelation. It’s soul-searing, tear-inducing stuff.

What really knocks the picture into the stratosphere are the performances. This is one of the best acting ensembles in recent memory, without a weak link in sight. I love Shannon’s perfect mix of menace and humor and Jenkins’ soulfully sad performance. But, this is Hawkins’ show, and she is amazing. It’s difficult to convey the gamut of human emotions without dialogue, but Hawkins does it all with her face and body. The joy of discovering something new exists alongside the sadness and desperation of her deep longing and loneliness. But Eliza is always, at heart, an optimistic dreamer, and somehow, we get to know all of that without her ever saying anything (not vocally at least; she often uses sign language to communicate). It’s one of the best performances in recent memory, maybe ever, and it deserves a truckload of awards.

Like he did with his undisputed masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth, Del Toro has once again taken a tumultuous historical period and infused it with an intriguing and wholly original sci-fi/fantasy twist. Unlike that film, The Shape of Water is not perfect. I feel that Del Toro could have easily cut out a lot of the unnecessary nudity, and the fact that the relationship between Eliza and the Asset is not exactly platonic is…odd, to say the least. And yet, even the more overtly sexual aspects of the film result in some of it’s most beautiful scenes, (keep an eye out for a scene that involves a bathroom and a lot of water–it’s stunning), so the film does a good job overall of thematically earning its more outlandish moments.

For those willing to get lost in its bizarre and beautiful vision, The Shape of Water simply cannot be missed. I’m still not sure if it can be called a fantasy, a romance or a Cold War thriller; maybe it’s a bunch of genres mashed together. Whatever it is, it’s beyond wonderful, and one of cinema’s finest examples of the mysterious cosmic rule that love is best expressed not in word, but in deed. That’s a message we all should pay attention to.

Mudbound review

I have a confession to make. I’ve grown a little weary of “racially sensitive” dramas. They’re often heavy-handed, obvious and rarely convey much of a meaningful message beyond “racism is bad.” But look at the headlines any given day and you’ll see that, in some way or another, we need these stories and these conversations. I’m all for that, but the art that spurs such conversations needs to be engaging and unique enough to continue to draw audiences. Jordan Peele showed how you can make a film about race relations in America while delivering something new and special with his breakout hit Get Out earlier this year. Now comes Mudbound, Dee Rees’ new Netflix drama based upon Hillary Jordan’s novel. Set in Jim Crow-era Mississippi during WWII, the film could have easily been another dry period piece. Instead, it’s a vibrant, moving, essential work of art, one that no fan of film or history should miss.

Mudbound is the cinematic equivalent of a great American novel—epic and sweeping in scope, yet acutely aware of how a single choice can have effects that ripple across generations. The film opens on rural farmer Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) digging a grave for his deceased father alongside his younger brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund). Tagging along for the simple wake is Henry’s wife Laura (Carey Mulligan) and their children. Through the rain-drenched mist comes a black family riding a carriage, including Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan) and his wife Florence (an excellent, almost unrecognizable Mary J. Blige). Henry asks Hap to help get the coffin into the grave, and the look he responds with is ice cold. He begrudgingly assists, but Florence doesn’t move a muscle, refusing to even acknowledge the white folks’ existence.

We soon find out this intense scene is a flash forward, but thematically it echoes of things to come. This is a film of people talking past each other, often ignoring each other because to acknowledge someone else, especially someone different, often means digging up something in our own souls that we’d rather not unearth.

The remainder of the film focuses on the relationship between these two families. The Jacksons, it turns out, are (paid) servants for the McAllans, but Henry’s father Pappy (Jonathan Banks, excellent as always) isn’t too thrilled about having black people anywhere near him. In his world, black folks have to use the back door, should never ride in the front seat, and sure as hell should never copulate with or even befriend a white person. Tensions continue to rise as Laura enlists Florence’s midwifing skills to help take care of her children’s’ whooping cough.

Then, of course, there’s the boys. Jamie McAllan and Hap’s son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) both return from the war disillusioned and ill-at-ease in the America they thought they knew. Jamie soon turns to the bottle and Ronsel attempts to push down his anger over returning to a country he served faithfully whose citizens still see him as something sub-human. These boys seem to be the only two who understand each other anymore, and a friendship quickly blossoms. Such a relationship would all be well and good if they were in a different time and place than 1940s Mississippi.

Mudbound is an urgent, essential, skillfully told tale that ranks among the year’s best films.

Mudbound tells its story through layered voiceovers, creating a kaleidoscopic tapestry of voices and perspectives. It’s a technique very reminiscent of Terrence Malick, and indeed this feels like the type of film Malick used to make. Rees, who co-wrote the script with Virgil Williams, seems painstakingly committed to ensuring every voice is heard. This is one of the major effects that make the film extraordinary. This isn’t a simple story of poor mistreated blacks and white villains. It’s as much about the plight of the white rural farmer as it is the black man who can’t even look at a white man sideways for fear of physical harm or death.

This is a historically important film, because it does such an incredible job at pulling us into a palpable sense of time and space. It’s hard to imagine an America like this existed, and yet it was not so long ago. Rachel Morrison’s moody cinematography along with the soulful performances draw the audience in and don’t let go. Every scene is filled with tension, because one look, one word, even one moment of silence can change everything.

Particular praise should go to Mulligan, who acts as somewhat of a neutral audience surrogate, and Hedlund and Mitchell, whose characters’ relationship anchors the film’s emotions. Their scenes together are among the most moving I’ve seen this year. A simple conversation between two men who have much in common if you can look past the color of their skin. A scandalous act of kindness, camaraderie and affection in an environment where such virtues are in short supply.

In less delicate hands, the film’s climactic eruption into violence could topple the emotional high-wire act the rest of the story so expertly balanced. But Rees’ hand is so deft, her characters so richly drawn, that I was more than willing to go with it.

Mudbound is a tough, gritty, tragic film, but its ending is unexpectedly hopeful and moving. It says that we don’t have to continue to talk past each other, that people can change. Actions are ultimately more important than words, but we tend to have an abundance of the latter and precious little of the former. In an America that is still quite far from “post racial,” it’s far past time for that to change.

Dunkirk review

It’s hard to make a good World War II movie, and even harder to make a great one. It’s easy to see what would draw a filmmaker to this storied sub-genre: ready-made dramatic conflict, easily defined heroes and villains and inspiring stories of courage and valor are often the name of the game. But everyone seems to make one at some point, and such ventures are often lacking in originality or new ideas.

With Dunkirk, however, the veteran filmmaker Christopher Nolan manages to make a war picture feel fresh again. He pulls this off with a combination of pure craftsmanship and creative storytelling and sound design, resulting in the best war film since, at least, Letters from Iwo Jima, and one that may go down as one of the best ever made.

Nolan takes no time dropping us into the heart of the conflict (at a surprisingly brief 106 minutes, it’s his shortest movie besides Following, his very first film). Hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers are stranded on the beach and Dunkirk, awaiting rescue. The British troops can see their homeland across the waters, so close and yet so far away. But the conflict is not over yet: German airplanes are bombing the beaches and making it difficult for any large military vessels to get close. Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) is leading the effort to evacuate the troops, but time is running out, and he resigns himself to the possibility that only a handful of troops will ever leave Dunkirk.

We also spend some time with a group of young soldiers trying desperately to survive. These lads are played by some very strong unknowns, including Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, Tom Glynn-Carney and a surprisingly good Harry Styles (yes, THAT Harry Styles).

For a while, it seems as though Nolan is going to have the audience view the conflict mostly from the perspective of Whitehead’s Tommy. This type of painfully intimate style has been used to great effect in foreign classics like Come and See and the recent holocaust film Son of Saul. But it’s soon clear that Nolan is reaching for a much grander scope, something more along the lines of The Longest Day or The Thin Red Line.

Nolan utilizes three intersecting perspectives and timelines to give us a full scope of the conflict. In addition to the soldiers on the beach, we also spend some time inside the cockpit of pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) and in a schooner manned by Dawson (Mark Rylance). While Farrier tries desperately to take down the German planes bombing the beach, Dawson is one of dozens called by the military to man their personal vessels to get as many soldiers off the beach as possible.

Dunkirk is a gripping experience, and another masterpiece from director Christopher Nolan.

This twisting structure gives us bits and pieces of the full picture at a time, and allows us to see the same events, such as a plane crash and a sinking ship, from multiple perspectives. This is a risky way to structure a film, and an easy way to confuse your audience, but Nolan is a master at pulling multiple threads without letting any of them go, and his script is air tight and perfectly paced.

Speaking of masters, Hans Zimmer provides one of the film’s most memorable characters. His musical score is an active instigator in the action, providing ominous heavy bass and tight strings that slowly rise in speed and intensity until the effect is almost unbearable. It’s a brilliant piece of work, and one that contributes a great deal of the film’s emotional heft.

Along with the gripping score, the overall sound design is some of the best ever put to screen. I watched the film in IMAX, and I jumped in my seat every time a bullet was shot. Every sound element is designed to drop us directly into the conflict, and, in one unbearably tense scene in particular, I felt like an actual soldier whose escape vessel was slowly being riddled with gunfire.

This immersion extends to the cinematography, which is breathtaking. Nolan and Hoyte Van Hoytema shot the film with IMAX cameras, and the result is a sense of realism and scope that is unparalleled in modern cinema. The camera may have us inside the cockpit of a fighter plane one moment, and then in the air, taking in the beauty of the landscape the next. The claustrophobia underneath the decks of a sinking battleship, as water slowly rises and soldiers gasp for their final breaths, is quickly juxtaposed with sweeping shots of the beach and the vast ocean that laps its shores.

All of these elements combine to make for one relentlessly intense viewing experience. Theaters should post a warning outside conveying the risk of heart failure. The cumulative effect is almost unbearable, and I’ve never seen a war film that has done a more effective job at immersing me in its time and space.

Thankfully, Dunkirk isn’t the type of experience you endure and then forget. Like most of Nolan’s work, it reaches much farther into the guts of what it means to sacrifice. Seeing dozens of civilian boats come to the aid of desperate soldiers is inspiring, but the scenes that most grabbed me were the ones of quiet redemption. Without giving much away, a scene where Dawson decides to avoid telling a rescued soldier the most heartbreaking news imaginable reminded me of the grace and beauty of everyday acts of kindness. There is just as much honor and heroism in forgiving your enemy as there is in saving yourself from them.

Don’t let the July release fool you: Dunkirk is a powerful work of art, and Nolan’s least commercially palatable film since Memento. His contemplative, poetic approach will not be for everyone. In both scale and theme, it very much recalls Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, which is my all-time favorite war film. The fact that any movie could begin to approach the brilliance of Malick’s masterpiece shows just what a rare and wonderful experience Dunkirk really is, and what a true visionary we have in Christopher Nolan.

Spider-Man: Homecoming review

Peter Parker sure has been through a lot. Since Sam Raimi’s original 2002 take on the character known to the world as Spider-Man, the wall crawler has survived two sequels and a failed two-film franchise reboot. Now, as an official part of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, the third take on the character in 15 years arrives on the big screen. Originally introduced in last year’s Captain America: Civil War, this version of the hero, played by Tom Holland, is a young, inexperienced fanboy, one who doesn’t exactly cut an imposing figure. Holland’s cameo was a highlight, but can this new version of Spidey anchor his own film, especially since audiences seem to have grown so weary of his antics?

I’m happy to say that the answer is a big “yes.” In the competent hands of Marvel Studios, this Spidey manages to be fresh and fun, and offers a different take on the character that is compelling in its own right without copying what has come before.

One of the smartest decisions director Jon Watts and his cavalcade of writers made when re-booting this property yet again was to avoid another origin story. We’ve seen that already. Twice. It’s old, and every time a new superhero is introduced, we’re forced to weather the same old clichés, though often in very different clothing. This film, however, takes place right where Civil War left off, seeing 15-year-old Parker geeking out after returning home from that film’s epic brawl (we revisit some of this through Parker’s adorable home videos). Recruited to the battle by Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Parker is now placed under the care of Happy Hogan (an always great Jon Favreau), and left with a high-tech Spidey suit. Parker returns home to his surprisingly hot Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) to await his next big mission.

Alas, such a mission appears to be nowhere in sight. Peter waits for month for a call that may never come, and he has difficulty adjusting to the life of a normal high schooler after such a high (homecoming dances and Academic Decathlon tournaments don’t seem so exciting when you’ve met Captain America). Then there’s the normal teen problems, such as putting up with bullies like Flash (Tony Revolori) and nursing a crush on brainy-but-beautiful Liz (Laura Harrier).

But Peter’s alter-ego isn’t staying hidden. He’s out there being a friendly-neighborhood type of hero, busting car thieves and bank robbers alike. His humble story quickly changes, however, when he encounters dangerous explosive alien weaponry being sold on the black market. Thirsting for a truly heroic adventure, Spidey follows the breadcrumbs back to Adrien Toomes (Michael Keaton), a brilliant inventor and entrepreneur whose business took a major hit after his company was abruptly booted from the cleanup efforts of the original alien attack from The Avengers, a cosmic clash referred to as “the event.” He was shown the door by none other than The Avengers themselves, who founded their own clean-up crew in order to properly handle the foreign tech. Years later, Toomes is still holding a grudge, and taking matters (and dangerous technology) into his own hands, no matter who gets hurt along the way. Peter, with the help of his web-slinging prowess, cutting-edge suit and best friend Ned (a scene-stealing Jacob Batalon), hopes to get the guns off the streets and keep New York City safe.

Homecoming borrows as much from the John Hughes playbook as it does the world of comics, and this is a very good thing. The last thing we want is another self-serious, introspective do-gooder. This Spidey is light on his feet, fast and quippy, his voice almost cracking with pubescent, over-eager excitement. Peter is having fun, and we feel that joy of discovery, something the filmmakers smartly convey without resorting to training montages or flights of power-discovery fancy (we don’t see how Peter got his powers, no Uncle Ben or Mary Jane or Gwen Stacy). We get the emotions of an origin story while being treated to something new.

Homecoming is a great spider-Man film, giving us a fun and relatable version of the classic character.

Speaking of new, while Tom Holland may not be the best actor to ever sling a web cartridge, he is certainly the most appropriate. The 21-year-old actor looks like he could past for 15 (no one ever bought Tobey McGuire as a high schooler, right?), and he brings the youthful charm and awkwardness that helped define the early days of Spider-Man’s comic exploits. Our most relatable superhero is grounded here by a relatable and charming performer, and I’m looking forward to seeing where Holland takes the character in the future.

Holland is helped by the smart writing, which grounds Peter in real-world issues. This is no billionaire or alien from another planet. This is a kid, dealing with the angst and confusion of adolescence, forced into nigh-impossible circumstances. One of the most impactful lines in the film is uttered by Ned after Peter rails against Tony Stark for treating him like a kid. “But you are a kid,” Ned replies, something that’s easy to forget when Spidey’s acrobatic antics are in full swing. This is the kind of flick that dares to offer its hero a high tech super suit before the plot’s events force him to weather the climactic battle in his homemade crime fighting undies. A ballsy move, but it’s choices like this that help to make this screen version of Spidey the most relatable and likeable we’ve yet seen.

This is still a superhero movie though, and the action here doesn’t disappoint. There may not be as much of it as some fans hope for, but the set piece moments are uniquely thrilling. In particular, a bravura sequence set aboard a Staten Island Ferry will go down as one of the most exciting in any Spidey film to date. Holland is a trained dancer, and his finesse on the battlefield gives his hero an appropriate sense of speed and fluidity.

What really knocks this film up a notch, in my mind, is its humor. This isn’t necessarily a laugh-out-loud knee-slapper (not nearly at the level of Guardians of the Galaxy, anyways), but I loved getting to know these characters, their quirks and ticks and foibles. It’s gentle, amusing and tons of fun, and the most kid-friendly version of the property yet.

The film’s flaws mostly have to do with Marvel’s multi-film world-building. This is not really a stand-alone Spidey flick; much of its plot centers on events from previous Marvel films. If you’re a franchise fan, this is no trouble, but it’s a tad less approachable for people who just want to see a Spider-Man film. It’s not that intimidating, but it is worth noting. I suppose Keaton’s Toomes/Vulture isn’t quite as well-developed as I would have liked. Keaton is marvelous (and quite terrifying), a perfect casting choice, but his motivations aren’t probed with the depth and sensitivity given to many other characters. The same can be said for Aunt May, who doesn’t hold a candle to previous screen incarnations (Tomei barely even registers in this, sadly).

Marvel had to pack a lot into this re-booted Spidey story, and you can tell they’re thrilled to have him on the team (after Sony agreed to share the rights following their own somewhat disastrous re-boot starring Andrew Garfield). Not everything works, but for the most part the result is a rousing success. As a Spidey fan, I appreciated this light-hearted and unique approach to the character. Spider-Man: Homecoming lacks the operatic grandeur of Raimi’s original trilogy, but it’s closer in spirit to the comics. It’s a fast and fun thrill ride, and proof that the ol’ web-head still has a few surprises up his web cartridge.

Baby Driver review

It’s hard to find a truly original action movie these days. The vast majority are some sort of variation on Rambo or The Fugitive. Like songs featuring the word “baby,” they all tend to start feeling the same. But, every so often, the world of cinema is blessed with a truly original and refreshing action voice. Think of Luc Besson’s Leon: The Professional, Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, The Wachowskis’ The Matrix or Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive.

Add to that list writer/director Edgar Wright, who apparently didn’t get the memo when it comes to the action movie playbook. The British filmmaker has spent his career crafting wildly original and completely delightful comedy-action combos like Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. His films often combine action thrills, quirky laughs and even some profound cultural commentary.

Wright’s first film in four years, Baby Driver easily overcomes its odd title by exuding Wright’s patented blend of nerdy-cool. It’s also, in all the ways that count, his most accomplished film to date, blending jaw-dropping car stunts with an infectious soundtrack, whip-smart dialogue and memorable characters.

The titular driver is one Baby (Ansel Elgort, never better), a charming street rat and music junkie who frequently indulges his penchant for fast cars. When he is caught red-handed by Doc (Kevin Spacey) during one of his escapades, he is compelled to work for Doc to pay off his debt. Unfortunately, Doc’s line of work is of the…less than legal variety. Specifically, he is the mastermind behind a series of bank heists. Nonetheless, he takes Baby under his wing, and is soon a sort of father figure to the young rascal, who, as a child, lost his parents in a car accident and suffers a hearing disorder as a result of the crash (music drowns out the humming, apparently, so Baby just keeps his earbuds in at all times).

When we meet Baby in the film, he is one score away from settling his debt with Doc and wining his freedom. But his deaf adoptive father (CJ Jones) fears for his safety, and Baby is forced to keep new love interest, Debora (Lily James) in the dark about his shady associations.

Doc employs a variety of experienced thugs to pull off these increasingly ambitious heists, including Griff (Jon Bernthal), Darling (Eliza Gonzalez), Buddy (Jon Hamm) and the murderously unhinged Bats (Jaime Foxx). But none is more important that the getaway driver. Behind the wheel, Baby is in his element, a combination of Steve McQueen’s Bullitt and Vin Diesel’s Dom. He pulls off his final heist in spectacular fashion, but will Doc really let his number one driver off so easy? And will the kind-hearted Baby be able to stomach Bats’ increasingly risky acts of extreme violence? He dreams of riding off into the sunset with Debora, no destination in mind, but Baby soon finds that reality is a bit messier than his sepia-toned reveries.

Baby Driver is a wildly original and completely successful action-comedy.

The thing that immediately draws you into Baby Driver’s world is just how cool it is. Effortlessly so. It feels like Wright and company barely even tried. Considering how many action flicks try and fail to be “hip,” that is no small feat. The film owes its vibe, largely, to the soundtrack. This is the kind of flick that wouldn’t be possible without its music. Like Guardians of the Galaxy, the movie uses every opportunity to let music do the bulk of the heavy lifting. Even more so than Galaxy, it integrates the music into the story in ways both big and small. Obviously, thanks to Baby’s hearing condition, music plays a huge part in how he views the world. This dude is frankly obsessed. Who else would create mixtapes based on samplings of random conversations he has throughout the day? Who else would, after a successful heist, refuse to drive away until the song playing hits the right section?

Baby’s musical obsession also transfers over to the film’s visual style. Several scenes would feel at home in a musical, as machine guns pop to the beat during an intense shootout, or stacks of cash hit a table with rhythmic precision. It’s an editing technique unlike any I’ve ever seen, and Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss should be given major kudos (and an Oscar) for their pioneering work.

The tunes themselves are fantastic, ranging from retro R&B to the current indie scene. Baby’s tastes are eclectic, and so are Wright’s. It’s always fun to see a filmmaker geeking out about something they have passion for, and Wright is clearly the music junkie to end all music junkies.

Sure, the film has style to spare, but thankfully everything else in the film is equally impressive. These are, simply, some of the finest car chases ever put on film, and they’re only heightened by the kinetic energy of the soundtrack and energy. Seeing a sports car drive up a multi-level parking garage backwards at high speed is one for the books.

Wright also assembled an enviable cast, and everyone here is fantastic. I especially loves seeing Jon Hamm’s suave criminal turn into an unhinged psycho, but Jamie Foxx’s one-note, over-the-top baddie is also entertaining. But Elgort is the true star, and here he shows he can be a truly engaging actor. I wasn’t much of a fan of his previous work, but maybe he just needed the right project to allow him to shine.

Baby Driver is a fire-on-all-cylinders thrill ride. Much like Wright’s previous films, it can be hard to recognize what a brilliant piece of craftsmanship it is when you’re having so much fun watching it. But brilliant it is. For a good chunk of the film, I was disappointed that the film didn’t feel like a signature Wright flick, but when the last third kicks in, we’re treated to the insane, balls-to-the-wall chaos we expect him to deliver.

There’s no use pretending that Baby Driver has much of a rich subtext or deep social commentary. It’s a fairly simple but engaging story told with no small amount of style. But there’s something to be said about a pure genre flick made with this much passion and artistry. This was clearly a labor of love, and it shows in every frame. From beginning to end, Baby Driver ranks with Mad Max: Fury Road as one of the finest action films of recent years. Don’t miss it.