Archive | Lists RSS feed for this section

Annihilation (2018)

23 Feb

Adapted from Jeff VanderMeer’s novel of the same name, Annihilation cements director Alex Garland as one of the most ambitious talents in contemporary sci-fi. Starring Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, and Benedict Wong, the film tells the story of Lena and Kane (Portman and Isaac, respectively), a military couple who become caught up in investigating a government-restricted ecological disaster zone titled “Area X,” where a series of mysterious events have been puzzling authorities for the past several years.  Things go from bad to worse as Lena, a microbiologist by trade and academic by profession, gradually discovers the horrific details of failed missions designed to mine Area X for clues explaining its perplexing nature.

Alex Garland, who previously wrote and directed 2015’s superb techno-thriller Ex Machinadisplays much more confidence the second time around. As with his first feature, Garland plays heavy into big philosophical ideas about the nature of mankind, only now things feel bigger, less sterile and more experimental. In the film’s first half, you get a strong sense that individual scenes have a chimerical and visionary purpose to them, one that gradually builds up to overwhelming feelings of anxiety and dread. There is a slow, meditative transition from fantasy towards nightmare in Annihilation, as characters slowly realize – along with the audience – that things in the environment aren’t quite right. Though most of the film is subtle in its examination of psychological unease, parts of the film’s latter half go into full-bore survival horror with surprisingly effective results.

Performance-wise, almost everyone is solid with Garland’s script, and thankfully many of the scientist-type movie tropes are left aside. Isaac, who previously starred in Ex Machina, is fantastic and Portman might be even better. The weak character moment comes with Jennifer Jason Leigh – an actress I’d long associated with energy and flamboyance – playing Dr. Ventress, the subdued and jaded government psychologist who is supposed to be seen as some sort of character foil to our emotionally-driven protagonist. Even more out of place is the film’s bizzare score which mixes subtle synth-work with… folksy blues guitar? Whatever shortcomings the film has on the audio side are more than made up for with Annihilation‘s unique visuals which, at times, boast some of the best sci-fi production design and visual effects since Under the Skin. 

Garland has obviously shifted away from the science-based, tech-conscious realism of Ex Machina towards something more transcendental and abstract. While I think I would have appreciated it if the film were more grounded in its dialogue, the story is wildly imaginative and itches that sweet spot in a way that only great cinema can.  Annihilation is a terribly ambitious film that was designed to inspire – and it hits the right notes more often than not.

Bottom Line: Annihilation feels a bit too weighted in fantasy rather than the gritty realism it’s aching for, but the film’s atmosphere, visuals, and ambition prove director Alex Garland has raw talent for telling engaging, thought-provoking sci-fi. 

Rating: 9.2 /10 

Film Recipe: Stalker (1979) + Arrival + The Fountain + The Thing


Sorry To Bother You (Sundance 2018)

11 Feb

After spending years in development hell, rapper-turned-director Boots Riley‘s dark satire Sorry To Bother You finally hit the big screen at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and quickly became one of the buzziest titles of the festival.

Set in a not-too-distant-future of Oakland, the film follows Cassius (Lakeith Stanfield) and his activist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) as they try to save up cash with plans to finally move out of Cassius’ uncle’s garage. Cassius takes up a job as a telemarketer, where he struggles to make sales until he discovers the magic secret: putting on his “white voice” when talking with potential customers.  Cue the post-Obama racial satire as Cassius quickly climbs the ranks of telemarketing and begins to unravel a string of dark secrets brought on by corporate figurehead Mr. Lift (Armie Hammer).

Shot on a minimal budget and produced with the self-described “stone-soup” method (every new crew member brings something big to the table to collaborate on) Sorry To Bother You has a renegade punk vibe embedded within its DNA. Thompson and Stanfield both give incredibly bold performances and help the more outlandish lines of dialogue seem grounded within the film’s unique reality.  A supporting cast with Danny Glover, Terry Crews, Steven Yeun, and voicework by Patton Oswalt and David Cross help create the vividly colorful world the film lives in.

It becomes apparent during the first 15 minutes that writer/director Boots Riley has stacked his script full of details that lift the film above a cultural pedestal and into a world of its own. The story goes from being socially provocative to radically ambitious to levels of Charlie Kauffman-esc meta-satire referencing everything from social activist culture to gentrification to celebrity status in the digital age to the meme-ification of fake news to the ever-present display of corporate America. Seriously, there are more ideas floated around in the first act of Sorry To Bother You than you will find in the most viral of Ted Talks.  Not all of the cultural commentary sticks however, and some ideas feel senselessly shoehorned into the plot for little or no reason. Still, Riley clearly has a passion for his chaotic mess, and even in its most confusing or cartoonish moments Sorry To Bother You thrives off its ever-emanating creative energy and ambition. Coincidentally, this unique gem ends up being a lot of fun in the process.

Bottom Line: While Sorry To Bother You makes more sense as a haphazard cultural collage than a narrative film, the ideological soup the film creates is impressively ambitious and wildly entertaining. 

Rating: 8.2/10 

Film Recipe: Get Out + Being John Malkovich + Office Space + Dear White People


2 Jan

After looking back on last year, and with the Sundance Film Festival right around the corner, it’s time to look ahead and see what stuff is on the horizon helping to establish 2018 as another great year in cinema. Here are the top ten films that I’m looking forward to seeing. You can check out last year’s list here.

10 – Untitled Suspiria remake/sequel 

Why? As an avid fan of the original I was one of many who rolled their eyes at the idea of yet another classic horror being remade (you can thank 2012’s The Thing, 2013’s Evil Dead and Carrie, 2015’s Poltergeist, among others). But then I heard the new project was being directed by Italian arthouse favorite Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name, A Bigger Splash) and it’s allegedly not so much a direct remake as it is a new take on something “inspired by the same story”. Color me intrigued.

Principal Cast: Tilda Swinton, Dakota Johnson, Chloë Grace Moretz, Mia Goth

Release Date:  TBA 

9 –  The Nightingale 

Why? After terrorizing audiences with the surprisingly-great Babadook, director Jennifer Kent is back with another horror thriller up her sleeves. This one is supposedly a revenge tale set in 18th century Tasmania.

Principal Cast: Aisling Franciosi and Sam Claflin

Release Date: August 10

8 – Isle of Dogs 

Why? Everyone and their dog loves Wes Anderson (Moonrise Kingdom, Rushmore) and based on the trailer, we can expect another bone-fide crowd pleaser. Get ready for a barking good time.

Principal Cast: Greta Gerwig, Bryan Cranston, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray probably.

Release Date: March 23

7 – Piercing 

Why? Just when I thought I had become desensitized and jaded towards genre films, Nicolas Pesce comes along with the beautifully haunting Eyes of My Mother. While on paper this looks like another great entry into the 2018 horror slate, my gut tells me this might end up being more on the artsy side. Both Mia Wasikowska and Chris Abbot have a solid repertoire with these types of indie films and the fact it’s playing in Sundance’s Midnight section gives me solid hope.

Principal Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Chris Abbot, Laia Costa

Release Date: Sundance

6 – The Irishman

Why? Netflix is hosting the long-awaited reunion of Scorsese and De Niro (It’s been 20+ years!). While the streaming giant doesn’t have the greatest reputation of quality when it comes to original movies (looking at you Bright and War Machine), this mob drama looks like it has all the neccisary ingredients to become a major awards contender.

Principal Cast: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel, Bobby Cannevale and other associated wiseguys

Release Date: Late 2018 or early 2019

5 – Widows 

Why? After directing one of the most powerful films of the decade (12 Years a slavebritish auteur Steve McQueen is back with a script co-written by Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl).

Principal cast: Liam Neeson, Viola Davis, Robert DuVall, Colin Farrell

Release date: An awards-friendly November 16

4 – The House That Jack Built 

Why? Because it’s a Lars Von Trier (Melancholia, Dogville) film about serial killer(s?). Count me in.

Principal Cast: Matt Dillon, Uma Thurman, Riley Keough

Release Date: TBA 

3 – Hold the Dark 

Why? Because Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin) and Macon Blair (I Don’t Feel At Home in This World Anymore) have proven to be THE most badass team of genre filmmakers working today.

Principal Cast: Riley Keough, Alexander Skarsgard, Jeffery Wright, James Badge Dale

Release Date: TBA

2 – You Were Never Really Here 

Why? After seeing We Need To Talk About Kevin and having my soul sucked out, I was convinced Lynne Ramsay was one of the best and boldest in a new wave of dramatic directors (along with Denis Villeneuve, Michael Haneke, Steve McQueen and Paul Thomas Anderson) whose sensibilities lie somewhere in the uncomfortable middle of European neo-realism and arthouse psychodrama. Her latest received nothing but rave reviews out of Cannes where it premiered and it’s always refreshing to Joaquin Phoenix in his post-hip-hop-career.

Principal Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov, Alessandro Nivola

Release Date: Sundance, and then everywhere April 6

1 – Annihilation 

Why? Ex Machina became the surprise sci-fi mindmelter and one of my favorite films of 2015, and so I’ve been eagerly waiting for whatever director Alex Garland does next.  A stellar cast and intriguing premise make this an absolute must see.

Principal Cast: Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac, Tessa Thompson, Jennifer Jason Leigh

Release Date: Feb 23

Of course, 2018 will likely be filled with surprises and many great unknown films I’ve yet to hear about.  Let me know what you are looking forward to seeing this year in the comments.


22 Dec

Another year, another list.

With the end of 2017 comes the close of another solid year in cinema. Here is a video counting down my personal favorites from the year:

A few observations:

  • Altogether I saw 92 “new” films this year (not including stuff I saw at Sundance that hasn’t been released yet or older stuff I discovered released from previous years).
  • I only saw 13 documentaries and 12 foreign-language films this year.
  • The actor to appear the most times across the board was Caleb Landry Jones who appeared in 3 movies (Macon Blair, Amanda Warren, Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell, and Kathryn Newton each appear in 2).
  • Of course, I didn’t get to see all I wanted to from this year e.g. Lost City of Z, Song to Song, Kong Skull Island, Downsizing, John Wick 2, Girls Trip, Battle of the Sexes, Spiderman Homecoming, Flag of Our Fathers, Lego Batman, A Fantastic Woman, Greatest Showman, Coco, Stronger, Darkest Hour, Murder on the Orient Express, and the documentaries Risk, Step, Jane, and Faces Places.
  • As far as distribution goes A24 had another stellar year with 6 entries cracking my top 25. Netflix and The Orchid each had 3 and Magnolia and Focus Features each had 2.
  • Including my honorable mentions, 10 films directed by women made the list this year – the idea of quality filmmaking being a boys-only club is total bullshit.
  • Only in 2017 can an Adam Sandler movie be good.



Best of 2017 (So far)

27 Aug

Yes, I know it’s well past the halfway point of the year, but I’m lazy and have been splurging too much on TV instead of at the cinema so have patience with me. Looking back on the year we have seen a lot of good, bad, and ugly films hit theatres (looking at you, Emoji Movie) and so now it’s time to separate the wheat from the tares and give a rundown on what has stood out for me so far.  I’m not taking into account documentaries here – just narrative stuff and, as always, I’m counting anything that had a widespread theatrical release this year (so you might see some stuff leftover from late-2016 awards season):


10 –  Silence (Director: Martin Scorsese

Scorsese again brings his A-game to the table and creates a meditative, profoundly moving drama about the nature of faith. 7/10 


9 – Okja (Director: Bong Joon-Ho

Director Bong Joon-Ho puts a fresh spin on the human vs animal story trope and gets amazing performances from Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Seo Hyun-Ahn. 7/10 

8 – Raw (Director: Julia Ducournau)  

Blistering performances delicately combine with top-notch direction and impressive visuals to create a compelling and intimate take on teenage sexuality. Not for the faint of heart. 7/10 

7 – Wind River (Director: Taylor Sheridan)

A western thriller set deep within a Native American reservation, Wind River delivers the goods and once again proves Taylor Sheridan as one of the most powerful storytellers in the genre. 8/10 

6 – Free Fire (Director: Ben Wheatley

I haven’t had this much fun watching a shoot em’ up since I first saw the epic finale from The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. Director Ben Wheatley heats up the action gradually over the film’s run time, but the juicy dialogue and impressive action never take a backseat to the consistent suspense and well-timed bits of humor. 8/10 


5 – Get Out (Director: Jordan Peele) 

It would be so, easy for this film to go bad. Creating an original and genuinely spooky horror flick is tricky enough, but Jordan peele outdid himself with his directorial debut and dared to spice up the genre with just the right amount of nuanced racial satire. Looking forward to seeing what Peele does next.

4 – It Comes At Night (Director: Trey Edward Shults) 

Speaking of horror, nothing all year had quite the same terrifying effect on me as It Comes At Night. A post-apocalyptic psychological drama that seems deep into your skull with the help of it’s claustrophobic cinematography and eerie-but-subtle score. 8/10 

3 – I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore (Director: Macon Blair

There are few things everyone can seem to agree on in 2017, but one of them is the notion that people are becoming less and less nice to each other. A genre-infused piece that shows Macon Blair’s inherent directorial sensibilities,  I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore is a deliciously clever and innovative take on the vigilante revenge story. It’s also incredibly suspenseful and drop-dead hilarious.

2 – The 4th (Director: Andre Hyland) 

Besides being the funniest movie of the year so far, The 4th might also be the most honest. Taking place over the course of 24 hours and shot on location in the streets of Los Angeles, the story unfolds around our hero Jamie as he tries to fight the increasingly unlucky happenstances around him in order to throw a cookout for Independence Day.  It’s also a brutal examination of the effects our modern passive-aggressive attitudes have on one another. 8/10

1 – Person to Person (Director: Dustin Guy Defa) 

An interconnecting film structured by many distinct stories and characters, Person to Person is reminiscent of great independent NYC films from the past while still containing a fresh spark of modernity that resonates long after the credits. play 8/10

Get Out (2017)

24 Feb

Let’s say you’re on the road to meet your girlfriend’s parents for the first time. This situation alone is the nightmare of many, but let’s imagine for a second that they might – heaven forbid – be a bit racist. Not the Alabama-redneck, confederate-flag-toting kind of racist, but more like the passive-aggressive, educated white “we voted for Obama, we promise!” kind of racist. This is the premise for the new horror comedy Get Out; the terror here is not sourced from some demonic supernatural entity or schizophrenic masked serial killer but from ol’ fashioned disdain of having a white daughter who is currently dating a black man.

Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is naturally a bit apprehensive to meet Rose’s (Allison Williams) parents after hearing that he is, in fact, the first person of color she has ever dated. Followed by some hilariously awkward conversations with Miss and Mr. Armitage (Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford, respectively) that only confirm Chris’ racial paranoia, and a few weird encounters with missing person Andrew (Lakeith Stanfield) and Rose’s brother (Caleb Landry Jones) seal the deal: something is wayyyy off about the Armitage family.  What starts out as a slow burn psychological thriller soon gives way to a twisty, violent nail biter as Chris peels back the layers of the Armitage family and does his best to survive his weekend away.

Make no mistake: Get Out is a serious-minded horror film, but also one that is self-aware and also manages to pack a biting (and often hilarious) socio-political punch. It’s a very bold film to say the least – especially in a post-Obama America where racial tensions were supposed to be long dissolved. Director Jordan Peele confidently holds his own as a feature-length director, and brings his witty comedic skills to the script.  Though some scenes feels unnecessary at times, most of what we see is a tightly-controlled and well-executed genre piece that plays at length with uncomfortable racial undertones. It’s an incredibly awkward mix that should’ve fallen apart at the seams (I can’t imagine how a major Hollywood studio even found the balls to fund something like this) but in the hands of Peele, everything works out beautifully and leaves me wanting more.

Bottom Line: A highly-entertaining directorial debut by Jordan Peele of Key & Peele fame, Get Out plays out like an extended College Humor skit in the best way possible. 



Rating: 7.5/10 

Film recipe: You’re Next! + Tucker & Dale vs Evil + House of the Devil 

I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore (2017)

23 Feb

It’s a cruel, cruel world. Taking place in what could only be Trump’s America, I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore details the day-to-day life of Ruth (Melanie Lynskey), a jaded medical assistant who seems disgusted by the self-centeredness of a universe where “everyone I see is an asshole.” Ruth lives at home; her only friend is Angie, a busy housewife who has no time to listen when she nearly has an emotional breakdown after becoming a crime victim. It’s enough to push Ruth over the edge and investigate the perpetrators on her own terms, enlisting the help of her violent, short-tempered neighbor Tony (Elijah Wood) who just also happens to be a skilled martial artist.

Macon Blair, a skilled actor making his directorial debut, tightly commands every moment of this pitch-black comedic thriller. The jokes are few and far between, but they are delivered in such sly fashion they have a big impact (the bar scene is awkward enough to rival any episode from The Office). Blair, who comes fresh off of acting in Jeremy Saulnier’s acclaimed indie thrillers Green Room and Blue Ruin, is obviously a big genre fan himself, and his script here takes from a variety of influences (Martin McDonagh and the Coen brothers come to mind) while still feeling fresh and original. Lynskey gives her career-best performance as someone who is constantly weighed by the anxieties of the modern world but still someone who wants to make the altruistic change she wishes she could see in other people.

The story gets bumpy at around the halfway mark, but the few narrative issues are easily put aside when the film dives headfirst into its white-knuckle, absolutely batshit-insane third act. Here Blair’s talent shines like a beacon and he creates enormous amounts of tension in an incredibly tight timeframe. Clocking in at just over 90 minutes, I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore is a taut little thriller that leaves a bigger impression than it should.

Elijah Wood and Melanie Lynskey appear in I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore by Macon Blair, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Allyson Riggs.

Bottom Line: A genre-infused piece that shows Macon Blair’s inherent directorial sensibilities,  I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore is a deliciously clever and innovative take on the vigilante revenge story. It’s also incredibly suspenseful and drop-dead hilarious. 

Rating: 7.7/10 

Film Recipe: Fargo + In Bruges + Straw Dogs + Gran Torino