Category Archives: Independent

“American Animals” Movie Review

This is likely going to turn into a scenario where the people who keep demanding something new or innovative in cinema will reject this movie as “too arthouse” or “too weird.” If that happens, that means the filmmakers are on the right track for a solid career in the industry. This highly unconventional heist thriller premiered as part of the official competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, getting picked up by both The Orchard and the newly formed distributor MoviePass Ventures. Entering a limited theatrical release on June 1st, the film expanded into more theaters and has managed to gross nearly $3 million at the box office. Written and directed by Bart Layton, the film marks his first foray into narrative features, following his breakout with the 2012 documentary The Imposter. Layton virtually expands the elements on atmospheric reenactments from that film to feature-length here. Based on a crazy true story, the film follows 4 college students- Warren Lipka, Spencer Reinhard, Chas Allen, and Eric Borsuk -attending Transylvania University in Kentucky. The college library there is home to several priceless antique books, including two filled with very famous animal paintings by John James Audubon. In the 2003-2004 academic year, for reasons that still remain unclear, the men start joking about robbing the library blind. But they soon become serious about it, researching crime movies for help on their endeavor, setting up potential buyers for the books, and ultimately get ready to pull off one of the most daring heists in recent U.S. history. Movies centered on heists are hardly anything new in cinema these days, there are just so many of them. Any time a new one comes out, they have to REALLY work hard to impress me or stand out from the crowd in any way. And a former documentarian deciding to take on the story of 4 privileged white dudes pulling off a particularly stupid crime on a college campus? Interesting angle, but I’m still not entirely convinced that it’ll be anything special or memorable. And just because it premiered and competed at Sundance or any other festival doesn’t necessarily mean that it will always be worth the trouble of seeing in theaters, let alone worth reviewing. So take that as a sign of how much I liked Amercian Animals; I really had a lot of fun watching this movie. And trust me when I say that no reader here has ever seen any film quite like this in their whole life. Bart Layton may be working primarily with professional actors, but that doesn’t stop him from using his docudrama expertise to his advantage. While most of the film is told in a narrative fashion, it is directly followed by talking head interviews from the real-life subjects. They offer unique reflections on how everything went down, from first meeting one another to the sweat-inducing heist itself. But rather than just have them explain everything exactly as it happened, the filmmakers smartly decide to just let them provide more context as to their actions and motivations. Even better, each of them remembers certain scenarios or actions differently than others, providing both a slick comedic edge and some unreliable narrator shenanigans. Admittedly, it’s a little frustrating because it’s still left unclear why these 4 men did what they did. But I definitely enjoyed watching Layton try to add more thematic depth to the story. Errol Morris would be proud. Agents, studios, and cinephiles all need to start paying more attention to the 4 main actors in this movie. Jared Abrahamson and Blake Jenner do great in their respective roles, but Evan Peters and Barry Keoghan play Warren and Spencer, the ringleaders of the operation, and do particularly fantastic work together. Keoghan, who had a wonderful breakout last year with Dunkirk and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, plays Spencer as a decent, naive kid who seems unsure of what he wants in life, a quality many can relate to. Peters, meanwhile, is a total revelation as Warren. This is wholly different from his turn as Quicksilver in the new X-Men movies. He’s unpredictable, brazenly entitled, manipulative, profane, but also spiteful for no reason. His flawed logic for stealing the antique books is both insane and tragic, painting himself as more than just a sociopathic narcissist. It becomes disorderly and honestly somewhat unsettling when he becomes convinced that he can be just like a smooth criminal from the movies. From a purely technical point of view, there is an amazing amount of skill and confidence behind the camera. Ole Bratt Birkeland’s widescreen cinematography skillfully captures each environment and tone of each scene with grace. In some of the students’ imagined scenarios’, it’s all taken on slick, dynamic single-take shots. Other instances, like when things don’t seem to be going according to plan, it becomes very unsteady and shaky, at times a little disorienting. It also nails the atmosphere, which becomes increasingly darker and more hard-edged as the film goes along. The editing is a collaborative effort between Nick Fenton, Chris Gill, Luke Dunkley, and Julian Hart. It uses very precise cuts, moving back and forth from the acting portrayal to the real criminals themselves. For example, in one scene, Spencer begins a sentence, only to be finished by the real Spencer. It also works to create interesting visual contradictions between the subjects. A few hard cuts elicited a good laugh or two out of me. The musical score here is composed and conducted by Anne Nikitin, who had previously worked with Layton on The Imposter. The score is decidedly modern and appropriately moody for the material at hand, utilizing a number of synthesizers and severely low strings that would (hopefully) bring Johann Johannson back to life. She also uses some neat percussive instruments to wring out the tension in the viewer and softer electric guitar strums to provide an emotional through line. In some ways, it felt like a neverending crescendo as we watch the situation get more and more complicated. There are also a number of obscure songs from bygone rock and folk artists. It’s weird to say that songs by both Mobb Deep and The Doors fit perfectly in the same movie, but that’s how it is. Just like the original tracks, at times it’s playful and others it’s dead serious. I feel like this has a broader appeal than most audiences might think at first. Regular moviegoers will get to see an unconventional heist thriller, cinephiles will get to pick apart the various movie references laying about, and documentary fans will be satisfied with its taught approach. In other directors’ hands, this could have felt extremely forced or unappealing. Thankfully, with enough dramatic heft to match the stylish fun presented throughout, American Animals blends fact and fiction seamlessly into unique entertainment. Bart Layton is highly talented as a documentary filmmaker, but this shows he’s just as confident and comfortable with a narrative feature. Let’s hope both he and Evan Peters have amazing careers ahead of them.

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“The Death of Stalin” Movie Review

The universe is under no obligation to make any sense to us, no matter how ludicrous something may seem. This philosophy allows me to better comprehend politics, whether it be in the Kremlin, the White House, or elsewhere. This dark political satire was initially screened at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival before finally releasing in theaters on March 9th, 2018. While it has grossed over $14 million at the worldwide box office, the film caused significant controversy and was officially banned from Russia, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan. (No surprise here) Directed and co-written by Armando Iannucci, the man behind the HBO comedy Veep, the film was apparently born out of a visit the filmmaker made to a hotel in Moscow. He was particularly fascinated by how former Soviet leaders still had portraits up on walls while someone like Hitler was trying to be forgotten by history. He’s also made clear that he had to tone down a lot of real-life facts because they were just too unbelievable to put in a movie. Beginning in 1953 Moscow, the film mostly focuses on the political machinations within the Soviet Union. At the height of the U.S.S.R.’s powers, their revolutionary leader Joseph Stalin unexpectedly suffers a cerebral hemorrhage and dies. Soon after, it primarily becomes a power battle between Minister of Internal Affairs Lavrentiy Beria and Communist Party Head Nikita Khrushchev. The well-being of Russia is caught up in the fight and soon both the military and the NKVD secret police clash heads as well. Although I haven’t watched Veep in its entirety, the handful of random episodes I have seen made me burst out laughing. Armando Iannucci had no fears about heightening the ridiculousness of American partisanship for both ends of the spectrum, creating some pretty hilarious moments. So the prospect of that show’s creator making a feature-length satire about Russian politics being released in theaters? That could be more appealing to someone like me. Especially with the ongoing controversy about their alleged interference in the 2016 presidential elections, it felt like we needed something to give us a little better insight. Thankfully, The Death of Stalin delivers that in spades. However, I feel the need to let you know that this film isn’t just line after line of nonstop, suffocation-inducing laughter. The trailers may make it look like a slapstick farce, but it’s actually a lot more serious than I anticipated. Iannucci holds absolutely nothing back here, allowing the audience to become awed by the utter lunacy of Communism. Yes, this does produce some pretty big laughs, some of which you’ll probably end up hating yourself for. But as far as the true context of the story goes, it’s surprisingly grim, nihilistic even. Obviously, there are a number of historical inaccuracies due to the satirical nature but is smart enough on its own to justify certain creative licenses. The funniest (And most absurd) license taken is that the whole cast speaks in English with their natural accents. This ultimately becomes a gold mine, especially when it comes to Khrushchev and Beria. Portrayed by Steve Buscemi and Simon Russell Beale, respectively, the two feel completely natural in their roles and manage to deliver some hysterical dialogue effortlessly. For the most part, we’re meant to be rooting for Khrushchev in the film, who actually draws a lot of similarities to another Buscemi role as Nucky Thompson on the HBO drama Boardwalk Empire. Other standouts include Monty Python alum Michael Palin as a staunch supporter of Stalinism, Rupert Friend and Andrea Riseborough as Joseph’s two volatile children, and Olga Kurylenko as a disgruntled concert pianist. My favorite one is Jason Isaacs as Field Marshal Georgy Zhukov, a key military player in the game. He’s heavily accented and looks like he’s having a blast playing an over-the-top general. And, continuing a trend started this year by Game Night, Iannucci is able to keep the audience’s interest and attention thanks to unique filmmaking. Zac Nicholson’s dynamic cinematography is much in the same style as Iannucci’s work on Veep, which frequently uses handheld cameras or sudden close-ups. This kind of vérité perspective does a great job of always keeping the audience involved in what’s happening, almost as if they’re a fly on the wall watching these events play out. A handful of scenes, such as mass soldier movement or the introduction of new characters, are shown on steady, fluid full shots. This makes a great pairing with the editing job by Peter Lambert, which knows just when to cut a shot. Rather than just doing a jump cut for every comedic punchline in the movie, we follow the subject and get great context at the horrors of the Soviet Union, such as citizens who are killed just off-screen in the background. The musical score is composed by Christopher Willis, whose previous work includes Veep and, strangely enough, the Disney Mickey Mouse House Shorts. His score is a fitting one for its era because it combines huge classical orchestras with deep vocals. Willis’ specialty with 18th-century music shows off in the big arrangements of strings and bellowing horns. Often, the tracks either match the grim imagery of the Communist regime or starkly contrasts it for hilarity. Although it’s early in the year, I am already willing to put this forth as a frontrunner for Best Original Score come next January. My predictions can often be wrong this early, but this soundtrack truly is that great. With ingenious direction, period-accurate costumes and sets, a fantastic cast, and a director that’s unafraid to hold back, The Death of Stalin is an uncomfortably relevant satire that spares no one. Even though it was undoubtedly hilarious, the fact that it dove into dark territory with its subject matter made me love it all the more. In case you ever doubted how ridiculous politics are, just watch this film.

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“Amelie” Movie Review

After solving a crime thriller, wallowing in a prison drama, reading a storybook romance, descending into the madness of war, and going back in time in a DeLorean, it’s time to look at a story from across the Atlantic. And no better a place to look for that than in France. Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s romantic-comedy was infamously rejected from the Cannes Film Festival in 2001. However, the film found a home in other French-speaking countries in April and August before releasing in America later that year. Despite a relatively limited run, it remains the highest-grossing French film ever to be released in the United States, with a total intake of $174.2 million at the box office worldwide. Nominated for 5 Academy Awards, including Best Original Screenplay, Jeunet was said to have based the story, at least partially, on an experience from his early life. The titular role had originally been written for English actress Emily Watson, but changed his mind when her French wasn’t strong enough. Audrey Tautou stars as Amelie Poulain, a painfully shy twenty-something waitress at a tiny cafe in Paris. One day she comes home to something unexpected, which she uses for a satisfying good deed. She then spends the rest of the film working to change the lives of those around her for the better, all the while searching for meaning and love. Perhaps it’s the fault of Hollywood, but I’m really not all that familiar with the cinema of France. Sure, the French New Wave is a monumental period of innovation for filmmaking and auteurs like Francois Truffaut, Jacques Demy, and Jean-Luc Godard all deserve to have their works studied in film school. But even so, it has been hard for me to gain access to French cinema outside the confines of Netflix, and I can’t find a single place in the Austin area that sells Criterion Collection DVDs or Blu-Rays. (If you have a suggestion, please comment) After watching 2017’s Raw, I made it a tangible goal to hunt down other films in the language that were available to me. Thank you, Amazon Prime, for allowing me a chance to watch a beautiful movie like Amelie. And no, before you click the exit button because you’re not interested, please hear me out. This movie is totally unlike anything else that came from any period of French cinema. You won’t find any of the graphic (re: gratuitous) sex or violence common in the New Extremity canon. Nor is there any fourth-wall breaking monologue or camera speech drenched in the vérité black-and-white photography of the New Wave. Instead, Jean-Pierre Jeunet crafts an almost fairytale-like romance, dripping with innocence and lightheartedness. Yet there’s still an inimitable panache or style that distinguishes it from anything in America. In other words, it might just be the most perfect and accessible foreign language film of the 21st century. Even though it was written for Emily Watson, it’s seriously hard to imagine any other actress playing the titular role than Audrey Tautou. She perfectly embodies the naive, innocent qualities of Amelie and effortlessly brings a charm to a character that should never work. Portraying the younger version of the character, Flora Guiet is perhaps even cuter than Tautou herself in the opening moments. Together, the two pull off a part that they both seemed born to play. While most of the supporting cast are ones whom Amelie interacts with on a daily basis and are all great, the standout among them is actor-director Mathieu Kasovitz. As quirky as he is intriguingly mysterious, he might just turn out to be the love of Amelie’s life- if either of them can muster up the courage. Speaking of courage, from a technical standpoint, Jean-Pierre Jeunet shows no fear in letting his style flourish all over the screen. With the help of cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, Paris is given a saturation fitted for a fantasy world. He employs just about every technique you can imagine; the sudden zoom-in-or-out, a whip pan, handheld moments. Each one helps to bring out a definite personality in the characters and story. It also helps to bring out bright, beautiful colors, particularly green and red, to identify virtually every single place or person our hero has touched. Combined with Herve Schneid’s editing, Jeunet knows exactly when to execute a moment of comedy. More often than not, the narrator will lament on something serious in an extremely mundane way, which is than punctuated by an abrupt cut to a fourth-wall-breaking character. He maintains complete mastery of dynamic visual storytelling. Meanwhile, multi-instrumentalist Yann Tiersen composes a musical score worthy of the whimsical adventure taking place in the film. The main theme is a piano melody that neither sounds saccharine or sappy but provides a gorgeous backdrop for the action taking place. It’s an ambient yet surprisingly evocative soundtrack that’ll probably get you wanting to learn how to play the piano just so you can figure out this song. In short, it’s the perfect tune for the movie; pleasant, cheerful, and infectiously lovable- much like the protagonist herself. Come a few years, Tiersen may even start getting comparisons to the likes of Frederick Chopin or Johnny Greenwood. There’s honestly nothing really to hate about this movie. It’s the type of movie that pretty much any person, no matter how heartless they may seem, can fall in love with. It provides a complete, perfect bubble of escapism for 2 hours but is still filled with life and devoid of any cynicism. Amelie is an adorable, vibrant, and relatable rom-com for all film fans. It may have just become my new favorite romance film of all time, simply because it is able to visualize heartbreak and renewal without the slightest ounce of emotional manipulation. It may even inspire you to reach out to the people around you and change their lives for the better. We don’t deserve someone so sweet and innocent as Amelie, let alone movies of them- but the world is better for it.

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My Final Oscar Predictions

The 90th Academy Awards ceremony is nigh upon us and now every cinephile around the Internet are putting in their last predictions for the winners and losers. This is the first year that I’ve done this, as previous years have had me bogged down by busy work and unavailability for some of the nominees. However, I’ve seen more of the Oscar hopefuls this year than I thought, possibly because the race has been seriously unpredictable. After last year’s unprecedented Best Picture debacle, there’s no clear frontrunner for the biggest prize. That being said I would like to throw in some of my own predictions about what will, could, and should win in each major category. I also wanted to include some films or players whom I feel were snubbed and deserved some recognition. No matter what, we’ll all have the same answers on Sunday, March 4th.

Best Picture

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Will Win: The Shape of Water

Could Win: Get Out

Should Win: Dunkirk

Should Have Been Nominated: Mudbound

 

Best Director

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Will Win: Guillermo del Toro for The Shape of Water

Could Win: Christopher Nolan for Dunkirk

Should Win: Christopher Nolan for Dunkirk

Should Have Been Nominated: Denis Villeneuve for Blade Runner 2049

 

Best Actor

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Will Win: Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour

Could Win: Timothee Chalamet in Call Me By Your Name

Should Win: Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour

Should Have Been Nominated: Hugh Jackman in Logan

 

Best Actress

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Will Win: Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Could Win: Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water

Should Win: Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Should Have Been Nominated: Carla Gugino in Gerald’s Game

 

Best Supporting Actor

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Will Win: Sam Rockwell in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Could Win: Willem Dafoe in The Florida Project

Should Win: Sam Rockwell in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Should Have Been Nominated: Gil Birmingham in Wind River

 

Best Supporting Actress

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Will Win: Laurie Metcalf in Lady Bird

Could Win: Allison Janney in I, Tonya

Should Win: Laurie Metcalf in Lady Bird

Should Have Been Nominated: Holly Hunter in The Big Sick

 

Best Original Screenplay

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Will Win: Get Out

Could Win: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Should Win: Get Out

Should Have Been Nominated: The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

 

Best Adapted Screenplay

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Will Win: Call Me By Your Name

Could Win: Mudbound

Should Win: Logan

Should Have Been Nominated: The Lost City of Z

 

Best Animated Feature Film

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Will Win: Coco

Could Win: Coco

Should Win: ONLY Coco

Should Have Been Nominated: The Lego Batman Movie

 

Best Foreign Language Film

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Will Win: A Fantastic Woman (Chile)

Could Win: Loveless (Russia)

Should Win: The Square (Sweden)

Should Have Been Nominated: First They Killed My Father (Cambodia)

 

Best Documentary- Feature

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Will Win: Last Man in Aleppo

Could Win: Strong Island

Should Win: Icarus

Should Have Been Nominated: Jane or City of Ghosts

 

Best Documentary- Short Subject

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Will Win: Edith & Eddie

Could Win: Traffic Stop

Should Win: Heroin(e)

Should Have Been Nominated: Long Shot

 

Best Live-Action Short Film

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Will Win: DeKalb Elementary 

Could Win: My Nephew Emmett

Should Win: DeKalb Elementary

Should Have Been Nominated: Auditorium 6

 

Best Animated Short Film

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Will Win: Lou

Could Win: Negative Space

Should Win: Revolting Rhymes

Should Have Been Nominated: In a Heartbeat

 

Best Original Score

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Will Win: The Shape of Water by Alexandre Desplat

Could Win: Dunkirk by Hans Zimmer

Should Win: The Shape of Water by Alexandre Desplat

Should Have Been Nominated: Good Time by Daniel Lopatin

 

Best Original Song

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Will Win: “Remember Me” from Coco

Could Win: “Mystery of Love” from Call Me By Your Name

Should Win: “Mystery of Love” from Call Me By Your Name

Should Have Been Nominated: “To Be Human” from Wonder Woman

 

Best Visual Effects

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Will Win: Blade Runner 2049

Could Win: War for the Planet of the Apes

Should Win: War for the Planet of the Apes

Should Have Been Nominated: Okja

 

Best Cinematography

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Will Win: Blade Runner 2049

Could Win: Dunkirk

Should Win: Blade Runner 2049

Should Have Been Nominated: The Lost City of Z

 

Best Costume Design

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Will Win: Phantom Thread

Could Win: Beauty and the Beast

Should Win: Phantom Thread

Should Have Been Nominated: Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi

 

Best Makeup and Hairstyle

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Will Win: Darkest Hour

Could Win: Wonder

Should Win: Darkest Hour

Should Have Been Nominated: The Shape of Water

 

Best Production Design

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Will Win: The Shape of Water

Could Win: Blade Runner 2049

Should Win: Blade Runner 2049

Should Have Been Nominated: The Post

 

Best Film Editing

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Will Win: Dunkirk

Could Win: Baby Driver

Should Win: Dunkirk

Should Have Been Nominated: Get Out

 

Best Sound Mixing

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Will Win: Dunkirk

Could Win: Baby Driver

Should Win: Dunkirk

Should Have Been Nominated: John Wick Chapter 2

 

Best Sound Editing

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Will Win: Dunkirk

Could Win: Baby Driver

Should Win: Dunkirk

Should Have Been Nominated: John Wick Chapter 2

 

How say you? What film do you believe should, could, or will win the top prize? Be sure to leave you thoughts in the Comments, and as always if you want to see more interesting content like the one on this list, be sure to like and Follow my blog.

“Phantom Thread” Movie Review

A feature-length advertisement for joining (Or not joining, depending on your interpretation) the fashion industry. That’s what this is essentially. The latest historical romantic drama from writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson saw a sneaky limited release in the United States on Christmas Day of 2017. It has received largely positive critical response, but has yet to recoup its $35 million budget at the box office, a common problem for Anderson’s films. Though many assumed that it was coming in too late to qualify for awards season, the film surprised the industry when it gained nominations for 6 Academy Awards. According to the director, the idea for the story came to him while he was incredibly sick in bed and became convinced his wife was trying to poison him. It’s also gained even more press in the last few months because Daniel Day-Lewis announced his retirement from acting and this would be his last performance. Set in post-World War II London circa the 1950’s, the story follows Reynolds Woodcock, played by Day-Lewis, an obsessive fashion designer for members of high society. Along with his sister Cyril, played by Lesley Manville, he spends all his time crafting beautiful haute couture dresses while managing his controlling personality. Then, he meets a young waitress named Alma, played by Vicky Krieps, whom he instantly falls in love with. Over the course of the next few months, their toxic relationship oscillates between hatred, forgiveness, distance, and passion. Okay, let’s make this clear from the get-go: Phantom Thread is an arthouse film through and through. That niche genre already has its own built-in audience that love challenging, “serious” cinema. They will be called “pretentious” by fans of more mainstream fare, who in turn will be accused of just wanting mindless consumption. Like it or not, that’s the situation and we have to deal with it. As a fan of some of Paul Thomas Anderson’s previous works, especially There Will Be Blood, I tried to approach his newest picture objectively. And while I’m pretty sure that I didn’t “get” it all, there’s still some elements of the movie that I do appreciate. Among the strongest elements is the surprising dose of dark humor present. One of the prevailing problems in some of PTA’s past films is that he spends so much time building an intricate, introspective plot that the rest of the movie suffocates in its emotion. Make no mistake, this film doesn’t have much room too breathe (Although it is noticeably shorter than PTA’s previous epics) and could leave a lot of audiences feeling cold. But this is the first time I think I’ve ever laughed out loud during one of his films, with the main trio dolling out wry wit in several instances. Sometimes, it was caused by a random outburst by the artist himself, others it was someone delivering a line of dialogue in an understated manner. Daniel Day-Lewis has given us many transcendent performances over his career and while his turn as Reynolds Woodcock isn’t his best, it’s clear to see why he chose it as his last. He plays an artist who takes his work extremely seriously, and his obsession with it fractures his relationship with everyone else around him. He’s a man who likes to have certain things in his life in exact spots like a chess board and loses it when something gets out of line. Vicky Krieps, meanwhile, does fine work as Alma. A lot of people will probably take issue with the fact that she stays with Reynolds even though he constantly either ignores or verbally abuses her. But I (At least try to) see her as a strong woman who is tired of being invisible to everyone in the world. The best performer, though, is Lesley Manville as the Woodcock sister Cyril. Aside from Alma, she is the only one to be able to get through to Reynolds and actually holds the power in all of her relationships. She is a force to be reckoned with, but she is still very fond of Alma and even sympathizes with her. From a pure filmmaking perspective, Paul Thomas Anderson sings his own voice with this film. Without his regular collaborator Robert Elswitt, he essentially served as his own cinematographer but denies credit for it. Shot on actual celluloid, the film expertly captures 1950’s London with a grainy precision. Many scenes consist of lingering still shots that rarely move around, somehow creating the feeling of a classic film production. There’s even cross-dissolves for various scenes. The grainy effect brings out saturation in the beautiful costumes by Mark Bridges. Each dress and outfit, whether worn by the characters or put in just for show, looked as though a tailor as obsessive as Reynolds himself made them in real life. Former Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood returns to score his 4th film with PTA, which drives home the classical feeling. The soundtrack largely consists of seemingly neverending piano melodies, adding a near-seductive quality to the film. In some instances, Greenwood stretches his muscles as a multi-instrumentalist for ambient percussion and harsh strings. While this would normally be a relaxing composition, it actually gives a dark and surreal feeling to what is otherwise a mundane story. Most of the time, though, the score is relegated to the background in order for this to be more of a “performance-driven” film. How you react to the film as a whole and interpret its themes depends almost entirely on your capacity for patience. It has a deliberately slow pace and virtually none of the characters have any arc changes or even redeeming qualities. Phantom Thread is a showy exercise in art and acting. Overall, I didn’t particularly care for this movie and certainly isn’t one I will be clamoring to watch again immediately. But I do appreciate some of the things that Paul Thomas Anderson was trying to say here. Daniel Day-Lewis is one of the most brilliant actors ever to grace us, and seeing him retire is an end to an era.

“The Hurt Locker” Movie Review

One of the most common adages of modern writing or storytelling is that “War is Hell.” This movie takes that concept and inverts it into something completely different and unexpected. This independently produced contemporary war thriller premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2008. However, it wasn’t distributed in American theaters until the following July. It went on to win 6 Academy Awards, including the coveted Best Picture prize. And yet, it’s the lowest grossing film ever to win the award, with a worldwide intake of $49.2 million against a $15 million budget. Directed by Katherine Bigelow, the first (And thus far, only) woman to ever win the Oscar for Best Director, the film is believed to be loosely based on screenwriter Mark Boal’s personal experiences. A former war journalist, he was embedded with several military task forces during the early stages of what seems to be a contrived, drawn-out war. Set primarily around 2003 and 2004, the film focuses on an Iraq War bomb disposal team, initially composed of Sergeant J.T. Sanborn and Specialist Owen Eldridge. Following a freak accident, a new member, Staff Sergeant William James, joins their operations in places like Baghdad and brings an incredibly reckless yet dedicated behavior to the team. The film traces the squad’s actions during their tour throughout various parts of Iraq and Afghanistan, some able to deal with the stress of combat better than others. It seems impossible these days to make a contemporary war film, let along talk about one, without the possibility of controversy. Some get accused of glorifying the United States’ wartime actions, others are called out for demonizing enemy nations, and the rest are criticized for so-called cowardice in addressing the subject matter. Films like American Sniper, Zero Dark Thirty, Thank You For Your Service, 13 Hours, 12 Strong, and just recently The 15:17 to Paris have all fallen under this controversy and some of it is justified. Now, is Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker the early 21st-century masterpiece everyone is touting it as? Probably not. However, I won’t deny that it is a great film worth watching. Interestingly enough, this movie did receive some controversy, but not the kind you would expect. Some of the most pointed critiques come from veterans of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and other embedded journalists. Many of them claim that the film is not a realistic or accurate depiction of wartime conditions. Having read them, a number of them are just technical absurdities that only they would be able to notice- such as wrong uniforms or unbelievable weapon range. But they do have a point in criticizing the team’s misbehavior as being very irrational and reckless; to the best of my knowledge, no soldier would ever make decisions like the ones in this movie. At times, it can be as frustrating as watching dumb characters in a horror movie. But I’ll admit that it didn’t detract from the sheer relentlessness of certain scenes, especially when a bomb may potentially be involved. I’ve been a fan of Jeremy Renner for a while now, but this Oscar-nominated role may be his best performance to date. As James, he’s incredibly off the hook yet brilliant when the moment calls for it, perhaps the only one who truly knows how war works. Future Avengers co-star Anthony Mackie also does great work as his level-headed superior Sgt. Sanborn. His headbutting with James is essentially the story’s backbone, with his by-the-numbers input is nearly thrown out the window on numerous occasions in favor of improvisation. Meanwhile, Brian Geraghty is arguably the most “natural” is his role as Eldridge, an insecure but well-meaning teammate. Other actors, like Ralph Fiennes as the profane leader of a British PMC group and Guy Pearce as another bomb disposal guy, do excellent work and leave nothing to complain about. On the technical side of things, it becomes clear why this one was an awards season favorite. The cinematography by Barry Ackroyd opts for a handheld style that almost imitates a documentary, similar to his work on United 93. In fact, the way it constantly moves and zooms in makes it feel incredibly immersive in a raw setting like the Middle East. Several scenes were filmed with multiple cameras at the same time, which allows for new perspectives to be found in each moment. But the editing job by Chris Innis and Bob Murawski is what truly sets the picture apart. Putting together hours of footage from Super 16 mm film is no easy task, but add the asymmetrical structure of the script and things seem almost impossible. During an early bomb sequence, the film breaks out into slow-motion and cuts constantly between the explosion itself and the impact it has on various surrounding surfaces. The musical score here is composed and conducted by both Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders. While not one of the 21st century’s best, it’s still a pretty memorable soundtrack. The tracks are largely made up of electric guitars on constant riffs and melodies. Instrumental in building all of the tension and anxiety in the film, it often sounded like a neverending crescendo. It also features some choir-like voices which help to provide a great background for the cacophony of war. But both Bigelow and Boal’s greatest accomplishment with this film is its examination of how these soldiers react differently to the Iraq War. While most war films spend their time showing us that “War is Hell,” the team behind The Hurt Locker find it to be something else: an addiction. A potent drug, even. The main character is essentially an adrenaline junky, always searching for the next bomb to defuse. That was by far the most interesting thing this film had to offer. Whenever it goes off into something else, it just feels like nothing is happening. The Hurt Locker is a marvel of technical realism and character frustration. A tense and unpredictable war thriller, I appreciated the unique approach it took to the perspective of war while being annoyed by some other decisions. Nevertheless, it’s a truly great film, if not a particularly rewatchable one.

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Retrospective: The Best Films of 2017

Well, folks, another year, another season of new cinema has officially come to a wrap. While many people felt miserable from all the horrible news pouring out daily, (This critic included) filmmakers were busy giving us films that reminded us what it truly means to be human. The good, the bad, and the gray areas in between. Over the course of the last year, I have watched a personal record total of 124 feature-length pictures released in 2017. In fact, I dare say that this was the best year of the decade so far in terms of newly released movies. Horror cinema broke all sorts of box office records, independent films saw releases in multiplexes, and a number of original films (as well as a few sequels) subverted all expectations. It was such a good and massive year that I had to expand to a Top 20. Here are some honorable mentions before we get started.

Honorable Mentions:

Coco, Only the Brave, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Gerald’s Game, Good Time, Mother!, The Disaster Artist, Darkest Hour, The Girl With All the Gifts, I, Tonya, Icarus, Columbus, Stronger, The Meyerowitz Stories, Spiderman: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok, The Big Sick, It Comes at Night, Okja, The Survivalist

Without further ado, let’s count down my Top 20 Movies of 2017.

#20: “Brawl in Cell Block 99″

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Let’s kick things off with an especially brutal and violent movie that very few people actually saw. In a year chock full of cinematic surprises, S. Craig Zahler’s prison Grindhouse action thriller Brawl in Cell Block 99 is one of the biggest. Having been a fan of his debut Bone Tomahawk, I was curious to see what the burgeoning filmmaker could come up with. A powerful, unapologetic ride of crushed bones and purple punches, absolutely nothing is held back. From the understated style to the simplicity of the story, virtually everything worked. And most of all, we get to see the best work of Vince Vaughn’s entire career on display as he unleashes fury on everyone in his way.

*Read my full review here.

#19: “Wonder Woman”

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The best film out of the DC Extended Universe by at least two country miles, and a charming affirmation of the better sex’s power, Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman gave us something we were all waiting for so long. The most recognizable female superhero on Earth was done incredible justice, due in no small part to Gal Gadot’s charismatic lead performance. But she’s not simply pandering to teenagers or making a politically correct statement. The two them, together with some of the best men and women working in the business, wanted the world to know that humanity is not too far gone. For all the horrible things we see happen every day, it’s this kind of cinematic optimism that we need.

*Read my full review here.

#18: “IT”

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One of the many things that 2017 will be remembered for was the Year of the Stephen King Adaptation. And while Gerald’s Game was a pretty great movie on Netflix, It edges out simply because of fun factor and sheer shock at its success. A movie about a demon clown becoming the highest-grossing horror movie of all time? Speaking of clowns, Bill Skarsgård was a perfect choice to play the terrifying iconic villain, while the kids all give a wonderful personality to the story. Rarely has a horror film made me feel so emotionally involved in its narrative; to feel the terror and sadness that the characters do. By all rights, this shouldn’t have worked. But director Andy Muschietti somehow made me excited for a sequel.

*Read my full review here.

#17: “First They Killed My Father”

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By far the most criminally overlooked film on this list, Angelina Jolie’s First They Killed My Father is a haunting portrait of a period rarely shown in media. The semi-autobiographical story of a young Cambodian girl desperately making her way through the Killing Fields would have already been crushing. But Jolie wisely chooses to show us this truly evil conflict through the innocent eyes of a child, which makes for a path of empathy uncommon in tragedies. The fact that the film was shot on location, has an entire cast made of Cambodians, and the primary language is Khmer is particularly impressive for an American filmmaker. She unflinchingly captures the aftermath of Communist takeover following the Vietnam War. Speaking of which…

*Read my full review here.

#16: “The Post”

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I get the idea that putting up an Oscar Bait-y movie like The Post on my Best Films of the Year list makes my tastes look cheap and predictable. I understand that. I also don’t care. Steven Spielberg continues his hot streak into his early 70s with this relevant historical drama concerning newspapers that tried to uncover government deception in the 1970’s. Anchored by incredible performances from Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, and an enormous supporting cast, the movie looks and feels like a master at his craft working to tell an immediate story with actors who know exactly what they’re doing. Regardless of how forced the message may seem, there’s no denying the importance of the freedom of the press which Spielberg and his collaborators saw when they first read Liz Hannah’s script 9 months ago.

*Read my full review here.

#15: “The Lost City of Z”

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I bet a lot of people forgot about this movie back when it was released in April. I didn’t, though. James Gray’s musty, jungle-obsessed historical drama is a hallucinogenic throwback to the grand epics of filmmakers like David Lean. A sweeping story about one of the most mysterious treks in British history in the unknown Amazon, someone could easily be fooled into thinking that this was a 35 mm print only discovered recently. While the character of Percy Fawcett is softened up a bit, Charlie Hunnam does excellent work as the complex explorer who became obsessed with a small idea of civilization by the Natives. It’s definitely a slower movie than most audiences are probably used to, which probably explains why it bombed at the box office. But it’s still just brilliant and glorious in scale.

*Read my full review here.

#14: “Lady Bird” 

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The little festival indie that absolutely could, Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird is not the last directorial debut you’ll find on this list. While the story of a young woman wanting to escape her confined small-town life may sound familiar, every single frame of the movie is fleshed out into a three-dimensional object or person. Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf do magnificent work as a daughter and mother whose relationship is increasingly strained as the day comes when the titular girl has to leave for college. But Gerwig fills in many moments with great levity and humor that solidify its honesty, keeping it from being a stressful affair. We all reach our time to fly sooner or later.

*Read my full review here.

#13: “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

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Aside from having a highly unconventional title and a bevy of veteran actors at his disposal, writer-director Martin McDonagh also chooses to navigate taboo territory. By focusing on a mother who takes a militant stand against the authorities for failing to solve her daughter’s 8-month-old murder, he manages to walk on thin ice with grace. It also helps that Frances McDormand gives one of the best and most vulgar performances I’ve seen all year long while Sam Rockwell is total dynamite as the virulent racist of a cop. And while the film could have easily been drenched in misery and depression, McDonagh bombards the audience with unexpected doses of bleak humor that you really shouldn’t be laughing at. Excellent writing and acting come together perfectly.

*Read my full review here.

#12: “John Wick Chapter 2”

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John Wick Chapter 2 was awesome! It combined slick, stylistic filmmaking techniques with beautifully choreographed action sequences. Even something that simple is hard to come by these days. But still, Chapter 2 builds upon the original film’s worldbuilding by giving us an even bigger peek into the world of assassins. How are they organized? What involvement do the governments have? And whenever something like that isn’t happening, all of the actors are delivering the unsubtle dialogue with complete Shakespearean authority. What more could you want from an action movie?

*Read my full review here.

#11: “Raw”

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Easily my favorite foreign language film of the year, and one that feels absolutely foreign in many different ways, Raw is really a movie that lives up to its title. It’s quite often that horror movies tend to revolve around scenarios or circumstances that could never happen in reality. The horrifying beauty of Julie Docournau’s Cannes debut is how believable every instance of gore and lust is presented, which arguably makes it even more uncomfortable to watch. A lurid coming-of-age tale of budding sexuality with no easy emotions or cop-outs, those with a weak stomach are sure to have a panic attack during Raw. (Just research its screening at TIFF) But it’s a prime example of modern directors still finding little wrinkles of fresh air and forming their own distinctive voices.

*Read my full review here.

#10: “Wind River”

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Top 10 territory now! Wind River was one of the most realistic films I saw in 2017 of any genre. Taylor Sheridan proves that he’s just as capable in the director’s chair as he is a gifted scribe, proved in Sicario and last year’s Hell or High Water. A murder mystery set on a Native American reservation in Wyoming, Sheridan balances sober commentary on an undervalued issue with a big heart at the center. Jeremy Renner and Gil Birmingham give some of their finest performances as two fathers searching for closure on the deaths of their daughters while highlighting the cold, unforgiving frontier of the titular reservation. One of the most intense films of the year as well as one of the most satisfying, it’s movies like this that major studios should come around to making more often. These voices need to be heard.

*Read my full review here.

#9: “Mudbound”

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Don’t let the Netflix logo at the beginning of this movie deter you; Mudbound is as artful a film as anything released in theaters. Dee Rees’ stunning, complex epic is a 2-hour and 15-minute Southern ballet of family drama and suppressed hatred. It speaks to the relevant, deeply rooted problem of racism that ceaselessly dogs America with subtle storytelling and highly mature writing. An able-bodied cast of either color give shades to what could have easily been archetypes in a feel-good historical fantasy. But both they and Rees refuse to let the audience have any easy answers to the issue, leaving us immersed in the dirty farmlands of rural Mississippi. An essential piece of literary cinema, Mudbound may take place in the time of Jim Crow but it still holds truths for today.

*Read my full review here.

#8: “War for the Planet of the Apes”

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A stunning piece of visual storytelling and one of the few concluding chapters that is actually satisfying, the franchise with increasingly long titles reaches a bleak end. War didn’t just offer more proof that Andy Serkis deserves Oscar recognition as the ever-so conflicted ape leader Caesar. This ninth installment also showed us dark themes rarely seen in a summer blockbuster, including an indictment of the audience’s capacity for enjoying brutal violence portrayed on-screen. A barrage of intense emotions and hard choices hit the viewer with beautiful imagery that will haunt me for weeks. And considering that only one scene of verbal exposition was included here, that’s especially impressive. Also, Steve Zahn as Bad Ape provided some good levity for an otherwise completely dark and harsh story.

*Read my full review here.

#7: “Baby Driver”

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Having wrapped up his Three Flavors Cornetto Trilogy 4 years ago and after walking away angrily form Ant-Man, it’s safe to say that most film lovers were curious about what Edgar Wright could come up with next. But none of us could have predicted him bringing such an exhilarating and stylish film quite like Baby Driver. A clear homage to old gangster heist movies from the 1930’s and 1970’s, Ansel Elgort stars as a getaway driver who’s coerced into one final job by his criminal bosses before falling in love with an innocent waitress. Filled with Wright’s trademark kinetic editing and gorgeously precise camera work, the killer soundtrack never misses a beat. Presenting us with a colorful variety of characters, including the deaf J.D. or the profane murderer Bats, this was just a blast.

*Read my full review here.

#6: “The Shape of Water”

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Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is this year’s only worthwhile movie about the romance between a mute woman and a humanoid amphibian creature. Joking aside, this was a genuinely great and enthralling picture built as a passionate loveletter to classical cinema. (Wipe transition included) Sally Hawkins does phenomenal work in a role dominated by silence and sign language while Doug Jones proves his worth as a brilliant chameleon of an actor. But the real star is del Toro, who weaves together a beautiful love story which, despite the Cold War backdrop, still feels relevant today. Some may feel a little cold, but there’s no denying the brilliance behind the camera, not the least of which is Alexandre Desplat’s whimsical score. It truly is a “Fairytale for Troubled Times.”

*Read my full review here.

#5: “Logan”

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No matter how long I’m a film critic and no matter how many superhero movies I watch down the road- and there are a LOT coming down the pipe -I will never forget Logan. By stripping down a comic book icon like Wolverine to his bare essence, without any superhero spectacle or save-the-world stakes, director Jame Mangold gives us a gritty Western character drama. Not since The Dark Knight has a superhero movie felt so different from both a thematic and technical standpoint. Hugh Jackman and Sir Patrick Stewart sink deep into their iconic roles, finding new corners not yet explored with two men- or in this case, mutants -tired of the violent world around them. A rollercoaster of R-rated action and capped off by an emotionally gut-wrenching finale, it’s films like Logan that give me true hope for the future of the genre.

*Read my full review here.

#4: “Get Out”

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Who on Earth could have possibly predicted the pop culture phenomenon that Get Out would become when it was released? Jordan Peele’s stunning directorial debut made waves back in February and the buzz just never let up from there. A searing satire of how white people respond to accusations of racism, Peele drops subtle hints left and right only to reveal the frightening horror behind it all. Daniel Kaluuya proves that his one-episode stint on Black Mirror wasn’t a hoax by playing Chris, an African-American stuck in one of the most bizarre situations imaginable. Few films moved the national conversation of race quite like this, spreading like a wildfire in multiplexes. Upon rewatches, you’ll find new details that feed further into the subtextual richness of Get Out. Unpredictable, hilarious, and wholly original, if I told you there was a single movie from 2017 that I had more fun watching in a packed theater than Get Out, I would be lying to you.

*Read my full review here.

#3: “Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi”

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In the four years that I’ve run my blog here on WordPress, I don’t think any year was as cinematically divisive as 2017. Few films illustrated that more widely or intensely than the latest entry in the Star Wars franchise. Unlike a lot of fans, I do understand some of the hate this movie has received, but at the same time, I love it all the more for it. You’d be hardpressed to find a modern blockbuster that is as bold or risk-taking as Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, which sees much of the iconic mythology questioned by our beloved heroes. While the action sequences, especially a beautiful lightsaber duel involving Rey, Kylo Ren, and the Praetorian Guard, are truly extravagant, it’s the storytelling and development of Luke’s character arc that really grabbed me. Some rewatches are probably mandatory, but I’m still in awe of what Disney let Johnson do.

*Read my full review here.

#2: “Dunkirk”

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When I first said this in my review, it felt like a great hyperbole. But it’s been about 6 months since I first watched the film and I still feel quite confident: Dunkirk is the most patriotic British film ever made. Having had little knowledge of the actual history of the titular event, involving 400,000 troops stuck on a beach in 1940 France, I went into this movie expecting a straightforward war movie. But instead, Christopher Nolan immersed me and the auditorium in a 70 mm simulation of what it was like to live that moment; from the land, the air, and the sea. Because of this, many have complained about the severe lack of character development or emotional involvement. I get that criticism, but the attachment shouldn’t come from a monologue about a girl back home. Personally, I didn’t think that was necessary to feel the immense fear, anxiety, and relief of the soldiers in each story. I swore to God it was going to be my best film of the year. Until I saw…

*Read my full review here.

#1: “Blade Runner 2049”

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I get the hate for Dunkirk, The Shape of Water, and even Star Wars. However, I genuinely don’t understand how anyone could hate Blade Runner 2049. For the second year in a row, Denis Villeneuve has directed my favorite film of the year and rightly so. Maybe it was the IMAX syndrome. Maybe it was the jaw-dropping, immaculate cinematography by the legendary Roger Deakins. But I wholeheartedly believe that this sequel is better than Ridley Scott’s 1982 original, with a sprawling story bolstered by impeccable visuals and a solid beating heart at the center. In fact, this could be the movie that convinces some people to switch over to 4K. Ryan Gosling proves his worth as one of the finest actors around as Officer K, but it’s Harrison Ford that steals the show. No real easy explanations are dolled out, just strong storytelling driving the mystery of Rick Deckard forward. Blade Runner 2049 is a complete technical masterpiece and one that will hopefully come to inspire a new crop of aspiring filmmakers.

*Read my full review here.

So there’s my list! Do you agree with my picks? What was your favorite movie from 2017? Leave a comment below, and if you’re interested to see more content like this, be sure to Like and Follow my Blog. Bring on 2018!