Data, Join Me in Stellar Cartography: Part 1 (Film, 2017)

“Tell them. Tell them all. Whoever comes, whoever it is. I'll kill them. I'll kill them all.”

- John Wick, John Wick: Chapter 2

As the world watched America climb up onto the cross and crucify itself this year, as they saw us clumsily bang the nails into our wrists in slow motion with a cheap Chinese-made hammer, I had what some experts might call a “good year.” Sure, corporations are taking over the Earth while we fatten, poison, and murder one another. And yeah, we’re all starting to figure out that we’ll probably never be able to retire or own homes or go one day without hearing what Taylor Swift is doing. But there’s much more to life than just surviving it, right? 

So, here we are again. One year gone. One year closer to death. And this is what I have to show for it:

I present to you Part 1 of my notes on every single thing that I watched, read, listened to, played, and wrote in the year of our Holy Space Lord Jesus Henry Christ Two Thousand and Seventeen. It is the only way I know how to truly tell you something about me, the only way I can explain what a year looks like from my little corner of the universe. I hope it leaves an impression.

And if you’d like to hit the eject button now and be spared the incessant editorializing below, take a look at the barebones list here. And then scram. 

(* = Top 5 film)

1. Film

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(2017)

John Wick: Chapter 2*, Baby Driver* & Brawl in Cell Block 99* -- James Bond, John McClane, Martin Riggs, Snake Plissken, any character who Wesley Snipes has ever played. Who are they but MEN? Men who fight, men who survive, men who kill. I propose that we add John Wick to that list. Because when we talk about killing, we need to talk about Mr. Wick.

John Wick: Chapter 2* is a modern masterclass in action storytelling. It seems self-evident but action films require the expertise of men and women who actually know how to stage and film ACTION. And unfortunately we don't get a lot of that expertise in modern blockbuster films, which only really masquerade as action movies anyway. Chad Stahelski and his team of combat magicians are definitely those experts. 

And while I'm going on about A-C-T-I-O-N, let me mention that Baby Driver* had some of the most innovative action scenes I've seen all year. And I'm not just talking about the car sequences, which are all great and about a million times more exciting and realistic than anything from the Fast & Furious franchise, but also the way the entire movie is choreographed to the protagonist's (Baby? Baby. Baby!) personal playlist. 

Bullets fly and cars zoom by in these films, but there's a slower, more brutal style of murder that I'm also a fan of. That kind of thing can be found in heavy doses in Brawl in Cell Block 99*, S. Craig Zahler's follow up to the excellent Bone Tomahawk. I'm really digging what Vince Vaughn is doing with his career right now. True Detective Season 2, while fatally flawed, had its moments of brilliance, and Vaughn was at the center of a handful of them. He's even better in Brawl--his character is a giant meat monster who breaks men into pieces in the service of a reward he will never be able to share in. He commits himself to violence in the same way that any other man might pour his coffee in the morning. And that's the trick. He doesn't seem to enjoy any of it, even though he's good at it. He just has to do it.

Wind River -- Jeremy Renner hasn’t really found his footing as a leading man, and that’s fine. As long as he continues to work with talented directors like Katheryn Bigelow, Ben Affleck, or in the case of Wind River, Taylor Sheridan, I’ll be satisfied. Sheridan even manages to get a great performance from Third Olson Person, so additional points awarded.

American Made -- While I unapologetically love Tom Cruise and have enjoyed some of Doug Liman’s work, this movie didn’t meet the expectations set forth by the pair’s previous collaboration: Live Die Repeat or Edge of Tomorrow or whatever the hell it’s called. Some nice stylistic camera/production work for sure, but a little empty in the content department. And I must say, filmmakers have got to find some actresses closer to Cruise’s age to pair him with. Sarah Wright, who plays protagonist Barry Seal’s (Cruise) wife, is twenty years Cruise’s junior.

Good Time* -- This film came in under the wire to knock Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 off my Top 5 list (I watched it this week). Why aren’t more people talking about Robert Pattinson’s post-Twilight career? He’s been turning out some great performances in small films like Good Time, The Lost City of Z, and Cosmopolis. And the Safdie Brothers have won me over with this film. I couldn’t sit through Heaven Knows What, but Good Time says it all in the name--the Safdie's have crafted a disturbing, nail-biting piece of entertainment. Movie trivia: The Adventureland sequence in the second half of this film takes place at the actual Adventureland of my youth.

Logan Lucky -- Steven Soderbergh is all over my list this year--I realized he was one of my favorite directors while compiling it. Logan Lucky contributed to that realization. While it is by no means a masterpiece, it is a finely constructed, funny, and heartfelt film with a great cast. I didn't need this confirmed for me, but Adam Driver and Daniel Craig are simply master performers, and many of the laughs in this film come from their characters Clyde Logan and Joe Bang.

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Get Out -- I would love to see a Siskel and Ebert style review of this movie from Donald Trump and Mike Pence.

It -- I got in trouble for saying this last year, but I'm not a huge horror guy. So many of these movies, with names like Paralaxia, Fear Town, or Oculariarity, are utterly lacking in character, which I think is the number one necessity for horror to work. Unless you want me to root for the killer, and I often do, then I need characters to latch onto. Thankfully It has great characters and a great story and some really innovative scares, like when Pennywise pops out of the projection screen in the garage. 

The Babysitter -- McG should should be sent to jail. Now, I don't mean Hollywood Director Jail, I mean a literal prison. Somewhere without windows. The Babysitter was easily the worst movie I saw this year. No wonder Netflix is one bajillion dollars in debt. They're wasting money on clowns like McG.

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Going to the theater as much as I did this year, it's hard to not see a superhero movie or seven. I'm not one of those people who complains about the absolute domination of cinema by the likes of Captain America or Batman--although I do wonder if Spielberg and Soderbergh's prophecy of an impending general blockbuster bubble collapse will come to pass--nor have I ever read the words "superhero fatigue" and not scoffed. 

Sure, there are people who have seen a few too many superhero films and want something else. But there is no indication that this is true for audiences as a whole. And guess what? Superheroes, in the way we mean Avengers or Justice Leaguers, have been around since the 30s. If we got tired of them somewhere along the way then I must have not noticed. The argument that I do find valid however, is that superhero movies tend to all feel like they're cut from the same cloth. That's a real issue.

Logan -- Thankfully, Logan is easily one of the most unique superhero films of the 21st century. A violent "on the road" Western with a character who was never used properly in the X-Men films of the past. It is also notable for being the only good X-Men movie. I wrote about it earlier in the year.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 -- This is the first Marvel movie that dares to not go anywhere, and I love it for that reason. For me, the whole draw of the GotG movies, besides the killer soundtracks, are the characters. The scifi stuff, the action, the story (something about fucking gems, I don’t know)--that stuff is all ancillary to the complex, zany characters that James Gunn has brought to life. And Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 gives us this giant second act that is more or less a chill sesh with your bros. We get to learn about everyone and see what makes them tick and why they belong together. It’s delightful. 

Wonder Woman -- Let this be a lesson to all of us. Just because Chris Pine was born with leading man features does not mean he should be a leading man. His turn as Captain Kirk has been a trial for me, one that I may never recover from. But in Wonder Woman he's found his stride playing second fiddle to the buoyant, charming Gal Gadot. This movie and its resulting box office success should have been reason enough to fire Zack Snyder--it's clear that his vision for the larger DC Cinematic Universe, such as it is, has amounted to very little. Although I still believe the DC Movie Universe should be nuked from orbit, Warner Brothers could have done a lot worse than letting Patty Jenkins take the wheel for a movie or two, even if she didn't have the good sense to get rid of Wonder Woman's heels.

Spider-Man: Homecoming -- Everyone and the mothers loved this movie. So of course Sony took that as a sign that they should make an R-rated Venom movie with Tom Hardy. Three cheers for them.

Thor: Ragnarok -- As with several of the films that I did not enjoy this year, Thor: Ragnarok has a kernel of a great idea in it: an Asgardian siege movie. But this concept is dwarfed by non-stop hijinks fuckery, crappy CGI, terrible costumes, and Tom Hiddleston's insufferable face. And who am I kidding, Idris Elba should be the star of these films. He's the only one I care about.

Power Rangers -- Five dinosaur pilots defend a Krispy Kreme from a molten gold demon. That's really all I can say about that.

Fate of the Furious -- I wrote about this movie earlier this year.

Justice League -- Nowadays whenever I think of Zack Snyder I think of the sort of famous Mike Tyson line, “I’m gonna fuck you till you love me.” Snyder’s style of filmmaking is so pathological, so predictable, that the only way I can imagine it taking hold of a viewer is in a way similar to the progression of Stockholm Syndrome. His films must beat you into submission with their macho aggression and misanthropic politics. There's not much else to say about Snyder's approach--he's not a storyteller. He assembles half-thoughts into imagery. I've had some truly odd conversations with fans of his recent work. And I've mentioned this before, but a lot of it smacks of "owning the libs." It's very clear to me that Joss Whedon saved this movie 10-15 Rotten Tomato percentage points and maybe even a few million in the bank.

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Kong: Skull Island, The Lost City of Z & Atomic Blonde -- These films are similar in that they rely heavily on needle drops to let you know they take place in a different decade. With winding plots and characters that go nowhere (I'm thinking specifically of Toby Kebbel's character in Kong--what a shame) there's not much to hold onto, save for some truly spectacular action. If only the stewards of the King Kong license had hired James Grey, the writer and director of The Lost City of Z, to reboot their gorilla based franchise. There's a guy who understands both the horrors and wonders of the jungle. 

Alien: Covenant -- The first twenty minutes of Alien: Covenant handle the intrepid space explorers idiom better than any recent Star Trek film. Even better then that the remainder of the film mutates into a nightmare version of Star Trek, in the best way possible. Michael Fassbender should win an award for this movie. I don't care what the award is. I just want him to know I value him.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi -- There's an interesting, if not good, film nestled inside the two and a half hour run time of The Last Jedi: Luke Skywalker as the disillusioned legendary warrior who wants nothing to do with the future he once sought to protect and newcomers Rey and Kylo Ren stepping in to fill the void, each with their own ideas about moving forward. But as a whole the film simply does not work. It's stuffed to the breaking point with overwrought humor, too many underdeveloped new characters to care about, and some really crappy CGI. The script needed a revision and about 30-40 pages cut out of it. And if the poor writing weren’t enough to deal with, there’s a fuck ton of amateurish filmmaking here: major decisions that should have been revised and shaped into something better or more impactful or thematically coherent. One of the biggest mistakes this film makes is the way it relies on the story of the prequels to give context to the transformation of Luke Skywalker from fabled warrior to bug-eyed hermit. George Lucas was somehow successful in convincing everyone that the Jedi were a bunch of disconnected, bureaucratic super monks, but before 1999 no one thought that way. We were better off ignoring those movies because of the way they soured and narrowed the Star Wars universe. And unfortunately for The Discourse™ the majority of the criticisms leveled against those of us who didn’t think this movie was any good revolve around the notion that we’re rabid fanboys who want the same slop in different cookie cutter shapes year in and year out. This is simply untrue. Even if I were to put aside my personal feelings about Star Wars, which I now do religiously before I step into the theater to watch these new films, TLJ has deeply-situated narrative and technical problems. Blade Runner 2049, as a counter example, is a movie that does exactly what TLJ apologists claim their new movie did for the Star Wars mythology. Speaking of...

Blade Runner 2049* --  This is what I want from a sequel to a beloved scifi film. Besides being a beautiful, unsettling meditation on love, sentience, and reality, this movie provides yet another late period Harrison Ford performance that does not suck. Good for that guy. Denis Villeneuve, Hampton Fancher, and Michael Green also do something The Last Jedi could have really benefitted from--they dispense with their inherited mystery box almost immediately. Is Ryan Gosling's Detective K a replicant? Just wait a few minutes, the answer is coming. No need to keep us guessing for the first two hours of the film. Now, as to the answer of whether Rick Deckard is a replicant...well, any answer would have been unsatisfying at this point. So we never get that. And that's a good thing. Ambiguity is this movie's fuel.

The Big Sick -- I'm Jewish. This means that my parents want me to produce Jewish children. I don't like children and I hate religion. This has created a long-running, low-level conflict that I imagine will eventually end in a burst of powerful disappointment for either party, or both. I'm telling you this because while the Big Sick doesn't really deal with my exact experience, it does talk about the sort of wild, irrational expectations parents have for their children and the kind of stress that those expectations engender. I watched this movie on a plane and cried during several different parts. I'm sure the person sitting across the aisle was disturbed. 

Lady Bird --  I read an article that claimed this movie was about parental abuse. It's pointless to try and refute the never-ending circus theses of modern think piece culture, but man, that's a real fucking stretch. It's almost as if the person who wrote it grew up without parents (and perhaps they did). Look, the relationship between parent and child is pockmarked by psychological warfare. You can deny it all you want, or call it abuse, but even the most loving, healthy families are engaged in never ending battles of ideology or decorum or what fucking movie to watch during Christmas. If that's what we're calling abuse these days, then existence itself is cosmic waterboarding. 

War for the Planet of the Apes -- The movie that precedes this one--I believe it is called The Rise of the Dawn of the Country on the Planet of the Apes Universe--is a masterpiece in my book. I loved its realism, not just in the way the apes were depicted convincingly with technology, but in the way they behaved, in the way they moved, and in the way they spoke. It's magical. War has a lot of that magic but flounders in other areas, namely being fun or interesting outside of the gimmick of living, breathing ape characters.

Dunkirk -- Christopher Nolan should make more ninety minute movies with minimal dialogue and airplanes. 

Ingrid Goes West -- Every single person my age should be required to watch this film. I believe that social media is ruining us in ways we can't fully comprehend but Ingrid Goes West gives us, at the very least, a hint as to the extent of that damage. 

The Disaster Artist -- I tried to watch The Room before I saw the Disaster Artist but unfortunately it is unavailable for streaming. After seeing the hilarious Disaster Artist and learning a bit about Tommy Wiseau, it makes sense to me that you can only buy his movie directly from him. 

Silence -- This movie is the cinematic equivalent of being harassed by a religious person with flyers on the subway. This is some War on Christmas, red Starbucks cup, Christian persecution complex propaganda by a guy who shouldn’t have spent so many of his twilight years wasting his prodigious talents on it. And what great big nuts Martin Scorsese had dedicated the movie to all the Christians and their pastors in Japan. That just made me think he didn’t even understand the movie he was making. Because this is a movie about a foreign power--the church--going into Japan and attempting to destroy Japanese culture from within, and Japan responding in a violent way to that invasion. But it casts the aggressors as the heroes. This is the kind of movie that arises from a culture where white evangelicals truly believe that they are something like an oppressed minority group in America.

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Human Flow -- I think borders are mostly bullshit. In many cases they are literally imaginary. I think letting people who are dire straits cross borders is a nice thing to do. If you don’t agree with me then this movie probably won’t convince you.

Jerry Before Seinfeld -- This is how funny Jerry Seinfeld is: He’s considered one of the all-time greats in comedy, sure, but he also currently enjoys a kind of quasi A-list status that can't really be reconciled with his modern output (hey, I like Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee as much as the next guy). This status is almost completely due to the enjoyment people still get from a show that hasn’t been on the air for nearly twenty years. This comedy special is a good refresher on why a yearly watch through of your favorite Seinfeld episodes is good for the soul.

Spielberg -- This was a fine documentary, but all I really want to say about Stephen Spielberg is that Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is the most enjoyable Indiana Jones movie (if not the best all around), no matter what Ben Moore says.

***

And that's all for Films from 2017, folks. Tune in tomorrow for my notes on the remaining films I watched this year, which span the known reaches of the cinosmos from 1974 to 2016.