What the? The year is half over? Let’s get caught up.
Cleveland won a championship!!!
But back to movies…
Batman v. Superman wasn’t that bad, Civil War wasn’t that good, and two Gerard Butler flicks are clubhouse leaders for worst of the year. But let’s focus on the positive.
With honorable mentions going to Finding Dory, Love and Friendship, Keanu, Everybody Wants Some!!, Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising and Viva, here are our picks for the top of the mid-year report card:
10) The Nice Guys
Hey girl, guess what – Ryan Gosling is a hoot! And if you found his scene-stealing performance in last year’s gem The Big Short a refreshing and joyous change of pace for the award-bedecked actor, you will surely enjoy this masterpiece of comic timing and physicality.
Gosling plays Holland March, an alcoholic PI with questionable parenting skills who reluctantly teams up with muscle-for-hire Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe). What begins as a low-rent missing persons case snowballs into an enormous conspiracy involving porn, the government, and the all-powerful auto industry.
Aah, 1977 – when everybody smoked, ogled women, and found alcoholism a laugh riot. Writer/director Shane Black puts this time machine quality to excellent use in a film that would have felt stale and rote during his Eighties heyday, but today it serves as an endlessly entertaining riff on all that was so wrong and so right about the Seventies.
9) 10 Cloverfield Lane
Less a sequel than a tangentially related piece, 10 Cloverfield Lane amplifies tensions with genuine filmmaking craftsmanship, unveiling more than one kind of monster.
Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wakes from a car crash handcuffed to a pipe in a bunker. Howard (John Goodman, top-notch as usual), may simply be saving her from herself and the apocalypse outside. Good natured Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.) certainly thinks so.
Goodman is phenomenal, but Winstead and Gallagher prove, once again, to be among the strongest young actors working in independent film today.
Talented newcomer Dan Trachtenberg toys with tensions as well as claustrophobia in a film that finds often terrifying relevance in the most mundane moments, each leading through a mystery to a hell of a climax.
A thug with a quick wit, foul mouth, a likeminded girl, and quite possibly a ring pop up his ass, Wade Wilson has it all – including inoperable cancer, which sends him into the arms of some very bad doctors. The rest of the film – in energetically non-chronological order – is the revenge plot.
An utterly unbridled Ryan Reynolds returns as the titular Super (yes) Hero (no), and though the actor’s reserve of talent has long been debated, few disagree that his brand of self-referential sarcasm and quippage beautifully suits this character.
All the sarcastic cuteness can wear thin, but Deadpool does not stoop to hard won lessons or self-sacrificing victories. It flips the bird at the Marvel formula, turns Ryan Reynolds into an avocado, and offers the most agreeably childish R-rated film of the year.
Krisha is not only a powerful character study awash in piercing intimacy, it is a stunning feature debut for Trey Edward Shults, a young writer/director with seemingly dizzying potential.
And then there’s the startling turn from Krisha Fairchild, Shults’s real-life Aunt, who after decades of scattershot film and voice work, delivers a jaw-dropping lead performance full of such raw authenticity you begin to feel you are treading where you don’t belong.
Expanding his own short film from 2014, Shults is remarkably assured in constructing his narrative. Nothing is spoon fed, rather we grasp what we know about Krisha and her family through guarded conversations and quiet, private moments. From the awkwardness of forced holiday small talk to the inevitable request for the “techy” relative to fix a computer, the scene is unmistakably real. Then, as old wounds become new, the film strikes with a humanity so deeply felt we expect to see our own faces in those family albums left out on the table.
Krisha is a timely reminder what undiscovered talents can achieve despite their limitations of budget, cast or location.
Here’s hoping we discover these two again soon.
With Zootopia, Disney – not Pixar, not Dreamworks, but Disney proper – spins an amazingly relevant and of-the-moment political tale with real merit, and they do it with a frenetically paced, visually dazzling, perfectly cast movie.
In this astoundingly detailed, brilliantly conceived, and visually glorious urban mecca, prey and predator have long since given up their archaic, bloodthirsty ways in favor of peaceful coexistence. And while the adventure that follows is a vibrantly animated buddy cop mystery – smartly told and filled with laughs – the boldly expressed themes of diversity, prejudice, and empowerment are even more jaw dropping than the spectacular set pieces.
If you worry that Zootopia is a preachy liberal finger-wagger, fear not. It is simply the most relevant Disney film to come along in at least a generation.
5) Green Room
The tragic loss of 27-year-old talent Anton Yelchin makes this one bittersweet. Young punk band the Ain’t Rights is in desperate need of a paying gig, even if it is at a rough private club for the “boots and braces” crowd (i.e. white power skinheads). Bass guitarist Pat (Yelchin) eschews social media promotion for the “time and aggression” of live shows, and when he accidentally witnesses a murder in the club’s makeshift green room, Pat and his band find plenty of both.
Along with concertgoer Amber (a terrific Imogen Poots), they’re held at gunpoint while the club manager (Macon Blair from Blue Ruin) fetches the mysterious Darcy (Patrick Stewart, gloriously grim) to sort things out. Though Darcy is full of calm reassurances, it quickly becomes clear the captives will have to fight for their lives.
As he did with Blue Ruin, writer/director Jeremy Saulnier plunges unprepared characters into a world of casual savagery, finding out just what they have to offer in a nasty backwoods standoff. It’s a path worn by Straw Dogs, Deliverance, and plenty more, but Saulnier again shows a knack for establishing his own thoughtful thumbprint. What Green Room lacks in depth, it makes up in commitment to genre.
Only a flirtation with contrivance keeps Green Room from classic status. It’s lean, mean, loud and grisly, and a ton of bloody fun.
4) The Jungle Book
Much like the “man-cub” Mowgli prancing gracefully on a thin tree branch, director Jon Favreau’s new live action version of Disney’s The Jungle Book finds an artful balance between modern wizardry and beloved tradition.
The film looks utterly amazing, and feels nearly as special.
Based on the stories of Rudyard Kipling, Disney’s 1967 animated feature showcased impeccable voice casting and memorable songs to carve its way into the hearts of countless children (myself included). Clearly, Favreau is also one of the faithful, as he gives the reboot a loving treatment with sincere, effective tweaks more in line with Kipling’s vision, and just the right amount of homage to the original film.
All the elements blend seamlessly, never giving the impression that the CGI is just for flash or the brilliant voice cast merely here for star power. The characters are rich, the story engrossing and the suspense heartfelt. Credit Favreau for having impressive fun with all these fancy toys, while not forgetting where the magic of this tale truly lives.
3) Midnight Special
Get to know Jeff Nichols. The Arkansas native is batting 1000, writing and directing among the most beautiful and compelling American films being made. His latest, Midnight Special, is no different. But then again, it is very, very different.
Nichols mainstay Michael Shannon, as well as Joel Edgerton, are armed men in a seedy motel. They have a child in tow (Jaeden Lieberher – wonderful). Local news casts a dark image of the trio, but there’s also a Waco-esque religious community looking for the boy, not to mention the FBI. So, what the hell is going on?
Nichols knows, and he invites your curiosity as he upends expectations.
Midnight Special is just another gem of a film that allows Nichols and his extraordinary cast to find exceptional moments in both the outlandish and the terribly mundane, and that’s probably the skill that sets this filmmaker above nearly anyone else working today. He sees beyond expectations and asks you to do it, too.
2) The Lobster
How to describe The Lobster?
Imagining how Charlie Kaufman might direct a mashup of 1984 and Logan’s Run would get you in the area code, but still couldn’t quite capture director Yorgos Lanthimos’s darkly comic trip to a future where it’s a crime to be single.
Lanthimos, who also co-wrote the screenplay, crafts a film which ends up feeling like a minor miracle. The Lobster builds on themes we’ve seen before (most recently in Kaufman’s Anomalisa) but bursts with originality, while every setting looks at once familiar and yet like nothing we’ve ever known.
The ensemble cast is uniformly terrific, each actor finding subtle but important variations in delivering the script’s wonderfully intelligent takedown of societal expectations.
It’s a captivating experience full of humor, tenderness, and longing, even before Lanthimos starts to bring a subversive beauty into soft focus. The Lobster pokes wicked fun at the rules of attraction, but finds its lasting power in asking disquieting questions about the very nature of our motives when following them.
1) The Witch
The unerring authenticity of The Witch makes it the most unnerving horror film in years.
Ideas of gender inequality, sexual awakening, slavish devotion to dogma, and isolationism roil beneath the surface of the film, yet the tale itself is deceptively simple. One family, fresh off the boat from England in 1630 and expelled from their puritanical village, sets up house and farm in a clearing near a wood.
As a series of grim catastrophes befalls the family, members turn on members with ever-heightening hysteria. The Witch creates an atmosphere of the most intimate and unpleasant tension, a sense of anxiety that builds relentlessly and traps you along with this helpless, miserable family.
As frenzy and paranoia feed on ignorance and helplessness, tensions balloon to bursting. You are trapped as they are trapped in this inescapable mess, where man’s overanxious attempt to purge himself absolutely of his capacity for sin only opens him up to the true evil lurking, as it always is, in the woods.
Bones to pick? Join the conversation on twitter @maddwolf!