My Top 10 Movies of 2017

From travels across the stars and home renovations of biblical proportion, to a different kind of hormonal craving for flesh.


Another year, another list that I’ll probably regret immediately, partially because I still haven’t seen so so many of the movies I want to see from last year, and partially because I’m sure that I’ll see some of these a second time and demand a recount. I did manage to catch a fair chunk of my hit list though, and some distinct patterns emerged, with a full five sci-fi movies making the list (including three that could be characterized as space westerns), three horror movies, and two maybe-autobiographical dramas about asshole artists. And while I’m sure there are tens (tens!) of gems I haven’t seen, there was plenty of magic I did manage to catch.

10. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (Rotten Tomatoes 49%, IMDb 6.5)

Apparently I made one very good choice in how I watched Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets: I didn’t bother seeing it in English, instead settling for a German-dubbed showing where I understood maybe 10% of the dialogue. Based on the mainstream reception to the movie, I think the remainder was pretty unnecessary. Valerian‘s visual inventiveness and childlike sense of fantasy joy require no translation, setting its space-agents off from one wacky scenario to another and casting Ethan Hawke as someone named Jolly the Pimp. It was a huge flop, of course, but if someone is still willing to give Luc Besson a hundred million dollars to mess around in space again, I’m there.

Recommended pairing: The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.

9. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 (Rotten Tomatoes 93%, IMDb 7.7)

We’ve reached superhero saturation. When 2008 gave us two high-quality comic book movies in Iron Man and The Dark Knight, it felt like lightening striking twice. Now, well, that seems to be the definition of summer movie season. And it’d be so much easier to hate if most of the movies, particularly the Marvel ones, weren’t so damn good. Sure, they’re all products, but Spiderman Homecoming and Wonder Woman were both fantastically polished entertainment, and while they missed the mark a little for me, Logan and Thor Ragnarok managed to play with the formula in some very clever ways. The only one this year to really provide on both fronts was also one of the first. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is no doubt indebted to its predecessor, but if the first was a much-needed change-up to the Marvel formula, the second shows how that same formula can be used to give low-budget charm a big-budget sheen. Director James Gunn relishes in some gross-out tendencies and over-the-top violence that would fit in more at a midnight showing. We’re still a far cry here from Batman Returns-levels of auteurism, but dammit, its a hell of a start.

Recommended pairing: Sure, Batman Returns.

8. Gerald’s Game (Rotten Tomatoes 91%, IMDb 6.7)

Man, do I wish the last five minutes of Gerald’s Game didn’t exist. The epilogue to this tense, single-location Stephen King thriller nearly turned me against the movie. But the ninety minutes beforehand can’t be overlooked, providing the single nastiest scene in any movie I saw this year and delicate moments of quiet, visual terror that stuck with me after I turned out the lights. Netflix has been trying its hand at bringing in big names and big budgets, but the best film it produced by far last year was this well-crafted, small-scale nailbiter.

Recommended pairing: The Ring.

7. Raw (Rotten Tomatoes 90%, IMDb 7.0)

Like Valerian above, I wasn’t able to watch Raw in English, settling for French audio and German subtitles, hence the lack of a writeup. But Raw told its graphic coming of age story with such visual flair that it enraptured me all the same. At its base, Raw is an effectively nervy cannibalism story, but it sells it through specific links to sexual awakening, the college experience, and familial role models. And it uses its colour palette and soundscape wonderfully, the former perhaps no more starkly than a moment where a blue-and-yellow painted face has a sudden vicious splash of red added.

Recommended pairing: It Follows.

6. Blade Runner 2049 (Rotten Tomatoes 87%, IMDb 8.2)

Can I just say “It was really pretty” and be done with it? It’s obvious from the trailer that Blade Runner 2049 is visually stunning, adding to the original’s unmistakable sci-fi noir aesthetic with sweeping vistas and a dusty, forgotten Las Vegas, complete with a half-functioning Elvis hologram. But many mistook the original for a solely technical achievement when it came out, only later (after many edited releases) being recognized as a significant work of storytelling as well. At almost three-hours long, Blade Runner 2049 packs in enough sci-fi gristle to chew on that a second viewing is probably necessary for me to form a solid opinion on whether it reaches the same heights. But damn if I’m not looking forward to sinking myself back into it to find out.

Recommended pairing: Her.

5. The Shape of Water (Rotten Tomatoes 92%, IMDb 7.7)

If Pan’s Labyrinth was Guillermo del Toro’s perfect dark fairy tale, The Shape of Water is his adult fairy tale, fully awake with life’s complications but surprisingly and unabashedly fantastical. It delivers visually from frame one and carries itself with a grace that doesn’t immediately scream “fish-man romance”. It’s pulpier elements are carried out with flair (the fact that its an often-violent cold-war noir half the time is a little underadvertised), but it manages to provide real heart to its silent central duo, giving us the Creature-from-the-Black-Lagoon dance sequence we never knew we needed along the way.

Recommended pairing: A full playthrough of Bioshock.

4. Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (Rotten Tomatoes 90%, IMDb 7.5)

The Last Jedi is the only movie on this list I had the opportunity to see twice, and it turned out to be a very important second viewing. At first, I took The Last Jedi to be narratively innovative but lacking in big moments or a sense of adventure. But the second time, it struck me that I was looking for big moments in all the wrong places, because we get tons of them, from the way the film uses silence to a beautiful, haunting effect, to the incredibly striking paths of red sand under layer of salt leading to a line of AT-ATs that have never looked more imposing, or the sheer audacity and thoughtfulness of its arc for Luke Skywalker. The chemistry of the leads that carried The Force Awakens is what I expected to keep carrying this trilogy, and The Last Jedi shows that this generation has so much more to offer.

Recommended pairing: The Road Warrior.

3. Phantom Thread (Rotten Tomatoes 91%, IMDb 7.9)

Phantom Thread, being a film about silk and lace, has a quiet and delicate look from the outside. But it quickly proves to be much more, succeeding as a chamber drama about social power struggles but also as damn funny entertainment that you want to crawl into and live inside for a while. Also, its as much about breakfast as it is about fashion, which is a surefire way into my heart.

Recommended pairing: mother!

2. Get Out (Rotten Tomatoes 99%, IMDb 7.7)

Get Out is the perfect horror movie for an alternate-universe 2017 where the new cycle isn’t swamped by barely-disguised white supremacy, where it was pretty easy to live in the suburbs and assume that we were basically in a post-racial society. Get Out‘s commentary is still slick and highly relevant, but perhaps less subversive than it would have been in that other timeline. Regardless, the commentary is what everyone who saw Get Out was well primed for. What I was less prepared for was how masterfully Get Out is crafted, legitimately scary and consistently tense. Jordan Peele got his training in parody, but Get Out is incisive and original.

Recommended pairing: The Invitation.

1. mother! (Rotten Tomatoes 69%, IMDb 6.7)

mother!‘s divisiveness must have been expected in the editing room. If you don’t find its wavelength immediately, it’s either a confused mess or an over-obvious sledgehammer. For whatever reason, mother! grabbed me early and didn’t let go, providing by far the most visceral response I had to a film this year. Part of the fun was teasing out each and every analogy it lays out (very, very bluntly), but this distracted me just enough that when its final act came crashing down, I was unexpectedly carried away by the sheer mayhem of it all. It’s an incredibly forceful tour de force from Aronofsky, and love-it-or-hate-it, its the least compromising wide release in many years.

Recommended pairing: Phantom Thread.

Honourable mentions to the synchronized mayhem of Baby Driver, the slow-motion disaster of The Beguiled, the cocaine-fueled fun of American Made, the sheer oddity of The Killing of a Sacred Deer, the underrated crowd-pleaser Battle of the Sexes, the Southern gothic Mudbound, and whatever was going on in Colossal.

I still really need to catch up on lots, but at the top of my list are Good TimeThe Big SickThe Villainess, Lady Bird, Call Me By Your Name, The Florida Projectand A Ghost Story. If there are any you want to champion, yell at me in the comments!

Oh, and all reviews, 2017 or otherwise, can be found here.

Valerian gets distracted by itself in all the best ways

You don’t really need to understand the words to get a lot out of Valerian und die Stadt der Tausend Planeten

Comprehension can sometimes be disadvantageous, particularly when it comes to fantasy movies. Movies that we might have loved as kids don’t play as well as adults, since we’re aware of the cliches, the bad metaphors, the underlying problematic pieces. It’s easy to overlook how much of a creep Venkman is in Ghostbusters as a kid, but it really threatens to derail the whole thing as an adult (it’s still fun). There’s a pretty boring subplot about corporate theft and lawsuits going on in Jurassic Park that I didn’t comprehend one bit in 1996, but its absence made me enjoy the film more if anything (it’s still great). The Phantom Menace has plenty of eye candy for kids and some seriously interesting visual ideas, but doesn’t work as soon as you hit 12 or 13 and can start recognizing the stiltedness of the dialogue. It seemed that Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets might be more sensitive to these problems of over-comprehension than most, judging by headlines such as “Valerian Would Make a Great Silent Movie“. With a director like Luc Besson (The Fifth ElementLucy), Valerian had a pedigree suggesting an ambitious and thrilling mess lay in wait, so I decided to put this “silent movie” bit to the test.

I live in Germany, and was on vacation for the one English showing of Valerian in the town I live in, so I went to see it in German. My German is awful (bad enough that the teller warned me while I was buying the ticket), so any nuance in the dialogue was entirely lost on me. I could follow the broad strokes of the plot, but any technical details were downright incomprehensible. But it turns out you don’t really need to understand the words to get a lot out of Valerian und die Stadt der Tausend Planeten.

The movie is constantly distracted by its world, bouncing from set piece to set piece that have little to nothing to do with the main plot, and its all for the better. There is an overarching plot about a lost civilization trying to reclaim its riches, which is only notable for the homeworld that it shows, a beautiful beach-laden cartoon reminiscent of the best parts of Avatar (there were good parts!). But the majority of the film sees the space-cowboy agents, Valerian and Laureline, alternating hero roles to save each other from mostly unrelated hostile aliens. The design of the alien species and the fun it has building up the city of a thousand planets is reminiscent of the Star Wars prequels, in that it really does try to fill every frame, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in that it revels in the cartoonishness of it all, but it makes for a lot of fun. Some of the set pieces are crazily inventive, such as an opener taking place in an quasi-virtual marketplace where Valerian’s body gets stuck between two dimensions, or a wacko comic act involving a neanderthal king, a selection of dresses, and a lemon. There are certain pieces whose plot function I couldn’t follow due to the language barrier, but when they involve a submarine pirate re-enacting the “there’s always a bigger fish” bit from The Phantom Menace while heisting a jellyfish, maybe ignorance is best.

There’s also the excellent prologue sequence, showing the first contact and building of the interspecies city set to “Space Oddity”, which really shouldn’t work but does through sheer earnestness. The earnestness maybe gets a hand from the casting of Dane DeHaan and Cara Develingne, who can easily pass for teenagers despite being adults portraying adults, giving it the vibe of a Last Starfighter or Narnia-style preteen adventure. That being said, they have a weird sex thing going on and shoot a fair number of things, and Ethan Hawke plays a character named “Jolly the Pimp,” so maybe it’s not quite The Neverending Story. DeHaan doesn’t exactly light up the screen (and apparently does a Keanu Reeves impression in the English version, which sounds hilarious), but Develinge is a fantasting presence and adds a lot of necessary spark (they really are co-leads, despite only Valerian’s name being in the title). The movie goes on probably twenty minutes too long, and the resolution of the main arc is a total slog, but when Valerian just lets loose and gets weird, it’s one hell of a trip.



Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)
Directed by Luc Besson
Starring Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, and Rihanna

Rotten Tomatoes (51%)

Litmus test: If you like this stupid scene, you’ll find something to enjoy in Valerian. And I love this stupid scene. The eye shimmy with the sound effect at 0:44 kills me.

The Top 9 Movies of 2016

Raising a glass to Green Room, Hell or High Water, and more

For a year that seemed as long as 2016 did, it already feels like it was an eternity ago. In addition to the feeling that glitz just isn’t as enjoyable as it was twelve short months ago, maybe that’s why awards season feels a bit less enticing this year; 2016 happened a lifetime ago, can’t we just put it to rest?

Regardless, there’s a feeling that the movie year truly ends and begins anew with the Oscars. Most of what is in theaters now are the breakout dramas of 2016 that are finally being released to cities other than L.A. and New York, or whatever the studios decided wouldn’t sell in more competitive months. After February, movies get judged as part of 2017, rather than the scraps of the previous year. And by February, thanks to delayed wide releases and conveniently leaked screeners, schmucks like me get a chance to finally catch up on the more elusive films of the previous year. While I didn’t see everything I wanted to, there were nine movies that felt a cut above the rest.

(I set the cutoff at the point where I felt comfortable not giving a shoutout to a film, although there are honorable mentions at the end)

(Oh, and all reviews and ratings, 2016 or otherwise, can be found here)

9. Green Room (RT 90%, IMDb 7.1)


Green Room is a perfect example of what to do when suddenly given a bigger budget. Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin was a low-budget work of wonder, and Green Room uses its extra money to beef up the cast, but maintains its predecessor’s mastery of tension through claustrophobia. Green Room is absolutely brutal stuff, but continually engaging and suspenseful rather than gratuitous. I’m incredibly excited for whatever Saulnier comes up with next.

8. Manchester by the Sea (RT 96%, IMDb 8.0)


At what point is a movie just too damn sad? Manchester by the Sea toes that line, coming very close to plain misery porn, but finds enough humour in its ludicrously dark premise and Casey Affleck provides enough humanity to keep it from falling into absolute melodrama.

7. Little Sister (RT 95%, IMDb 6.3)


A small-scale family drama that ends on a photo montage may seem a bit trite, but Little Sister does a fantastic job of examining how we assign stereotypes even to those we are closest to. It helps that its small cast is plenty charming, and its central brother-sister relationship is just the right kind of feel-good.

6. The Witch (RT 91%, IMDb 6.8)


The Witch is an exercise in atmosphere, mood, and restraint. Taking a lesson from Jaws, the monster is seen early and then rarely afterwards; even when the monsters finally make a tangible impact, they do so often just off camera. But the way The Witch shows a family tear itself apart on paranoia, akin to an actual witch hunt, is a thing of unsettling mastery. The period setting adds to the consistently unnerving nature of the film, tapping into the eeriness of the woods for a constant sense of unknown danger.

5. Hell or High Water (RT 98%, IMDb 7.7)

Jeff Bridges, Ben Foster, and Chris Pine star in Hell or High Water

One of the best qualities a film can have is a colorful and interesting world that nonetheless feels like something you could just walk right into. Hell or High Water does a remarkable thing for a neo-Western, in that it hits all the right Western vibes, but still feels distinctly modern. There’s a big hat and a great one-off scene with a cattle wrangler, but it mixes Western themes and modern rural issues into something entirely of its own. It also stages some of the finest bank robbery scenes this side of Heat, which certainly doesn’t hurt.

4. The Invitation (RT 89%, IMDb 6.7)


Who would have thought that, aside from Manchester by the Sea, the most intriguing film about pain and grief last year would be a horror flick? The Invitation takes a setup mired in loss and turns it into a slow-burning, gut-churning suspense. It effectively asks what we would do in the same situation, asking when suspicion should turn into worry, when worry should warrant action, and what social capital might be associated with action. More than any other movie this year, in a year full of great horror movies and thrillers, The Invitation left me squirming.

3. The Handmaiden (RT 94%, IMDb 8.1)


The Handmaiden is, at its heart, a fun heist romp. Its premise is sheer pulp, and it knows it. Hell, a major set of the characters in the movie are connoisseurs of artful smut, and Park Chan-Wook has made a masterpiece of exactly that. Its unabashedly erotic and unforgettably stylish.

2. Moonlight (RT 98%, IMDb 7.9)


Moonlight is exactly as good as the reviews say it is, and if there is justice in the world, it will walk away with Oscar gold tonight. In a world where identity politics has become a dirty word, Moonlight at once takes intersectionality incredibly seriously and deconstructs it. The main character, Chiron, is black, is gay, is poor. But this isn’t a shortcut for awards or for pity. “Who is you Chiron?”, he’s asked in the third act. “I’m me,” he responds, even if not completely sure what that means. Moonlight explores what self-identity even is with plenty of visual and narrative style, calmly low-key while being innovative in all respects.

1. The Lobster (RT 89%, IMDb 7.1)


While movie worlds may be the most entrancing when they feel tangible, like in Hell or High Water, they’re the most fun when they hold a warped mirror to the real world. The Lobster puts its satire on thick; no one would call its take on couples culture subtle. But it is sharp and multifaceted, inviting drunken dissections that can go on for at least the length of the film itself. It’s also one of the damn funniest deadpan black comedies ever made; poor Biscuit Woman alternatively makes me wince and laugh just thinking about her. For all its batshittery, The Lobster was the best time I had in theaters last year.

Honorable MentionsGhostbusters, Nocturnal Animals, Arrival, La La Land, Don’t Think Twice, Tickled, 10 Cloverfield Lane, Into the Forest, Sleeping Giant, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Christine

Haven’t Yet Seen: Paterson, Jackie, Elle, Lion, Hidden Figures, Hacksaw Ridge, Hush, Zootopia, Moana, Finding Dory, 20th Century Women, Tower, Cameraperson, The Witness, Captain Fantastic, OJ Made in America, The Saleman, Toni Erdmann, Krisha, American Honey, Love & Friendship, Silence, Sing Street, Kubo and the Two Strings

John Wick 2 leans too hard on its mythos, is still awesome

While John Wick 2 isn’t nearly as fresh and original as its predecessor, it more than succeeds in delivering the goods.

One of my favourite details about Kill Bill Vol. 1 is a small one about air transit. When The Bride travels to Tokyo to face O’Ren Ishii, she brings her sword on the plane. She doesn’t check the sword; she just carries it with her to her seat. Kill Bill came it in 2003, near the height of TSA mania, so this was obviously not an oversight, but I also don’t think it was simply a rule-of-cool moment either. I think Tarantino wanted to imply that the world of Kill Bill was one where The Bride’s story was unique, but not unbelievable. One where “assassin” was just a particularly exciting job option, maybe even with a booth at the school fair. In that tiny shot, Tarantino defined the structure of the entire universe of his film.

John Wick, which I’ll go to bat for as one of the best films of 2014, has a similar conceit. Wick is part of none-too-secret assassin’s guild, which has its own currency and lavish hotel. The first film used this for two main reasons, comedic relief and lending some in-universe plausibility to the absolute chaos that Wick creates. It’s a slapdash bit of mythos that allows you to enjoy the headshot ballet without worrying about real-world ramifications, but is entirely tangential to the revenge narrative. John Wick 2, on the other hand, leans entirely on this mythos, relying on it to kick off, propel, and wrap up its plot. In doing so, it reveals just how derivative this conceit is; scenes where Wick uses the guild armory to load up feel like a rehash of Kingsman, of all things, and no new interesting characters are introduced on the management side aside from the returning Ian McShane and Lance Reddick. The mythos provides the bones well enough, but little in terms of narrative muscle.

In fact, the whole first half is a bit of a slog. A high-ranking guild financier calls in an old favor from Wick, asking him to assassinate a rival for a position on the guild board. Wick then ends up the enemy of both factions, each represented in action sequences by their dragons, played Common and Ruby Rose. The machinations behind this are related to the simple but arcane guild rules, and never feel as urgent or intimate as the revenge motivation of the first film. It has its villain pose a similar moment of personal affront to Wick early on, but it feels like a weaker retread of “kill dog, steal car”. The villain throughout the whole movie is pretty weak and unmemorable, highlighting just how underappreciated Michael Nyqvist was in the original. For a fair portion of the first half, it becomes a bit difficult to agree with Wick, and when he mows down a group of guards that he provoked himself, its almost enough to call the movie on its nihilism.

But when it comes together, hot damn does it come together. Around the halfway mark, the shoe finally drops, starting with an absolutely thrilling catacomb shootout and not stopping until the credits roll. At this point, the universe comes to life, including a magnificent extended sequence where seemingly everyone everywhere on the streets is out to get Wick. Even though the main villain never quite works, Common and Ruby Rose are both good presences, managing to come across as genuine threats to the nigh-invulnerable Wick and also injecting some much-needed personality. The camerawork clicks too, with a museum providing a consistently interesting and unique backdrop to Wick’s violent opera, in addition to the aforementioned catacombs. Director Chad Stahelski still opts for relatively long (for a modern action movie), smoothly swerving takes, allowing us to appreciate every detail of the fight choreography even as it flies past us. While John Wick 2 isn’t nearly as fresh and original as its predecessor, it more than succeeds in delivering the goods.



John Wick: Chapter Two (2017)
Directed by Chad Stahelski
Starring Keanu Reeves, Common, Ruby Rose, and Ian McShane

Rotten Tomatoes (90%)

  • I called Wick nigh-invulnerable, but he does get shot and stabbed more than once. However, after a quick bandage, he’s back on his feet and back to kicking ass. Die Hard this is not (nor does it have to be!).
  • SPOILERS: The point I’m getting at with losing Wick’s sympathy is when he kills Gianna, and then takes out a group of her guards. He’s acting as an unprovoked assassin here, so it’s tough to not sympathize with the guards, and also makes Common’s Cassian seem briefly like a potential side-hero. The movie seems aware of this, as it throws in a scene where Gianna threatens a competitor’s children to make sure we have no sympathy for her, but it still feels morally a bit uneasy momentarily. Thankfully, Ruby Rose’s Areas comes along to betray Wick immediately afterwards and give him enough moral high ground to kill about fifty people and keep our sympathy afterwords.
  • SPOILERS: I’m still a little upset that Wick and Cassian never teamed up; Cassian understands that Wick was the tool, not the brain, behind the assassination, and Wick was going after the guy who put the wheels in motion. While I’m sure he would have turned down a team-up, I was waiting the whole damn movie for one of them to at least bring up the possibility.

La La Land is a destination worth the journey

In that final act, Chazelle brings together two hours of somewhat meandering story and turns what looks like a curtain call into an emotional crescendo.

Hot damn, Damien Chazelle knows how to end a movie. Whiplash, the best movie of 2014, ended with one hell of a bang, a rebellious drumming extravaganza that hit an insane number of climactic character beats while also working incredibly well of sheer spectacle alone. Chazelle’s latest, La La Land, similarly sticks the landing, and its final ten minutes left me an absolute wreck. In that final act, Chazelle brings together two hours of somewhat meandering story and turns what looks like a curtain call into an emotional crescendo. If you subscribe to the school of moments-make-a-movie, La La Land is probably the best picture of the year. But while the rest of the movie builds beautifully to that last hurrah, its less engaging than one might expect, with most of the musical numbers working just well enough and the plot mechanics feeling all too familiar.

La La Land opens with a big musical number, as commuters hop out of their cars in L.A. to sing a sunny ditty about their dreams to make it big, putting a smile on their professional anxiety. It’s a fun sequence, if not a bit over-hyped, but after that and an opening number for Stone at a Hollywood party, La La Land turns into much less of a theatrical musical than advertised. It wouldn’t be a Chazelle film without a reliance on music, but only on four or so occasions throughout does it call on its characters to sing (at least in a non-diegetic fashion; on a related note, word of the day: Diegesis). This might disappoint some of the musical theater fans out there, but it works for the film. In their first real meeting, stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone get to connect through singing in an adorable and adorably rickety meet-cute (they aren’t quite Rogers and Astaire). But their second big coupley moment is entirely instrumental, and finds Chazelle at his most directorially creative. And it works perfectly for Gosling and Stone, who have an immediate chemistry that the entire film is built around. Stone in particular fleshes out a familiar character type in interesting ways, becoming the true beating heart of the film. Even though the title portends to be about Hollywood as a whole, the film is intimately focused on these two characters, to the point where the third-billed actor has maybe two minutes of screen time. The tight focus helps, as even when the movie loses its grip here and there, the core relationship at the centre is always believable and worth rooting for.

La La Land is nakedly in love with the past, and some of its more interesting moments come from mixing old-fashioned tropes with the new (such as key fob woes translating to spontaneous tap dancing). Chazelle also has occasional unromanticized streaks, letting his camera focus on the cracked sidewalks that could come from anywhere in the world (and, you know, that whole traffic jam musical number). But this is a movie where an attempt to modernize jazz is mocked (if not utterly dismissed), and Chazelle seems to take that sentiment to heart. While it modernizes some old tropes, it doesn’t reinvent them, and comes up a bit short of a revolution (which is a lot to ask of any movie, but the buzz around La La Land earns the request). It takes more time in the middle than it should, and by the end, maybe believes in the dream of Hollywood a bit too much itself. While not as optimistic as its cast of commuters, this is certainly a less cynical film than Whiplash was. But, once again, I keep coming back to that final act in my head. Even if its a bit of an uneven journey, the destination is an absolute triumph.



La La Land (2016)
Directed by Damien Chazelle
Starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone
Rotten Tomatoes (93%)

The Handmaiden is extremely artful pulp

Even if a bit exploitative, The Handmaiden is a sharp, stylistic, and engaging piece of liar’s fiction.

Non-English movie trailers will sometimes go very far out of their way to hide the fact that their film isn’t in English. The trailer for Park Chan-wook’s latest film, The Handmaiden, follows this tradition, and is incomprehensible as a result. It is, however, one of the most striking trailers of the year, and promises a pretty visually distinct piece of film. I’m happy to say that, while The Handmaiden is not what I expected based on the trailer alone, it lives up to that promise, marrying arresting film-making with a twisty narrative.

Park Chan-wook’s films, in a way, feel like a distant cousin of Quentin Tarantino’s (who championed his breakout, Oldboy). The Handmaiden at it’s best contains similar stylistic touches, such as denoted act breaks and nonlinear narratives, and it’s plot certainly has a lot in common with Western con movies. Effectively, the movie concerns itself with the relationship between three characters in 1930s Japan-occupied Korea: wealthy isolated heiress Hideko, grifter posing-as-noble Fujiwara, and petty thief turned handmaid Sook-hee. Fujiwara enlists Sook-hee to be his eyes and ears as he tries to marry Hideko from under her abusive uncle’s nose, but Sook-hee and Hideko soon find themselves drawn more towards each other. It’s fun to watch it all unfold, although those expecting a mind-blowing twist in the vein of Oldboy may be let down; while the movie is quite far from traditional, its plot machinations are fairly traditional (although very engaging).

What pushes the film up quite a bit is Park’s style. Most of the film takes place in Hideko’s mansion, which crosses English and Japanese architecture much like Park wears his English and Asian filmmaking influences on his sleeve. The movie threatens to be a haunted house flick briefly, and many times evokes Park’s early gothic drama Stoker. But Park and production designer Ryu Seong-hee give the film a vibe of its own, selling the oppressive opulence of Hideko’s life. Moments of pitch-black humour help to cut the tension effectively, including the best noose gag ever filmed. Where Park’s instincts falter a bit is when it seemingly exploits the Sook-hee/Hideko relationship for pure titillation value. To its credit, even the exploitation isn’t without thematic relevance; a subset of characters in the movie are connoisseurs of artful smut, and the closing moments cement the idea that Park set out to make exactly that. But the narration and interaction sells the attraction between the two well enough, which leaves the explicit scenes feeling a bit superfluous.

Even if a bit exploitative, The Handmaiden is a sharp, stylistic, and engaging piece of liar’s fiction. It successfully creates a universe of its own and fills it with memorable images, characters, and moments. It has plenty of bite, but also an underlying sweetness that’s a bit surprising from Park. I can’t wait to watch it again.



The Handmaiden [Agassi] (2016)
Dir. Park Chan-wook
Starring Min-hee Kim, Tae-ri Kim, Jim-woong Jo, and Jung-woong Ha
Rotten Tomatoes (94%)

Sully is a toothless tribute

Its a hard movie to get upset about, but its also completely devoid of dramatic tension.

Movies about recent events that use still-living people as their basis can be tricky, as its natural to try to celebrate their best qualities and not smear the name of anyone who’s still around to be upset. Sully, Clint Eastwood’s new film celebrating the Miracle on the Hudson and the pilot (Chelsey Sullenberger) who successfully ditched the passenger plane in the river, certainly paints a kind portrait of every person involved, from the crew of the jet to seemingly the entire city of New York. Its a hard movie to get upset about, but its also completely devoid of dramatic tension, and while it flirts with some thematically interesting  bits on gaslighting and hero worship, it ultimately has no more insight and asks no more questions than the news coverage of the event already did.

The movie doesn’t open with the actual events of the miracle on the Hudson, and for a moment it seemed as if it would trust its audience enough to not bother re-enacting them. However, halfway through, the movie flashes back to the incident, showing it through the eyes of the air traffic controllers, the boats on the river, the passengers, and the crew, but there’s no revelation in any of this. Since the movie has already told us that everyone made it out safely, there’s no dramatic tension even for those who know nothing of the real story. It doesn’t provide insight into Sully’s character, as the first act and the mere casting of Tom Hanks already tells us that he’s capable, relatable, and good-hearted. Instead, the main event is rendered a pointless sideshow that distracts from the only interesting plot point in the movie: Sully’s self-doubt. A safety board investigation runs throughout the movie, doubting whether Sully had to ditch the plane or if a safe landing was possible. There’s no doubt that the board will eventually see things Sully’s way, but there is very briefly doubt that Sully believes in himself. There’s just not enough material in that to mine for drama without allowing for a bit of bite, or at least a less hagiographic tribute to Sully.

Even at 96 minutes, it quickly runs out of things to say, ending on the equivalent of a rimshot and an “oh you!”. As a reenaction, Sully is at least well filmed. Eastwood stages some striking shots during the flashbacks, particularly once the plane is afloat, and its evocations of 9/11 are certainly no accident. Hanks is warm and likable, but its the kind of role he could play in his sleep. Aaron Eckhart is a nice presence as first officer Jeff Skiles, whose relative lack of fame next to Sully gives Eckhart a bit more room to maneuver. He exudes a low-key charm, and puts up a strong claim for Mustache of the Year. That being said, the positivity of the movie is refreshing, celebrating the coming together of a city and unqualified triumph in the face of disaster. It’s unchallenging and often hackneyed, but surely watchable, and an effective-enough time capsule of one of the most dramatic near-misses in aviation history.



Sully (2016)
Dir. Clint Eastwood
Starring Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Anna Gunn, and Laura Linney
Rotten Tomatoes (83%)