So rarely would I wake myself up at 5 a.m. but here we are at my second favorite day of the year: Oscar nominations!! (The first being Oscar Sunday, obviously). This year’s contenders will be known to us in a few short hours, and here are my predictions in all 24 categories.
The usual notes: predictions for nominees are harder than winners, of course, so I included one “surprise” to cover my own ass. I can’t wait to see what curveballs the Academy throws! As long as I don’t hate them. Just kidding… sort of. Also these are numbered but they are in no particular order. Vive le cinema!
Call Me By Your Name
The Shape of Water
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
The Florida Project
Surprise (or in this case, just the 10th pick): Darkest Hour
Christopher Nolan (Dunkirk)
Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird)
Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water)
Martin McDonagh (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)
Jordan Peele (Get Out)
Surprise: Sean Baker (The Florida Project)
Daniel Day-Lewis (Phantom Thread)
Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out)
Gary Oldman (Darkest Hour)
Timothée Chalamet (Call Me By Your Name)
James Franco (The Disaster Artist)
Surprise: Denzel Washington (Roman J. Israel, Esq)
**WARNING: THIS ESSAY CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI**
Depending on how well you know me, you may know that I am a massive Star Wars fan. I have been for years, and in the lead up to 2015’s continuation of the saga, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” I was as excited as anyone. It turned out to be a very enjoyable movie and one that introduced two fascinating central characters to this trilogy: Rey and Kylo Ren (aka Ben Solo).
Introduced as “protagonist” and “antagonist”, “The Force Awakens” took small steps to introduce us to the wider stories of these characters. What “The Last Jedi” then does so brilliantly is it expands on those backstories while forging new links and exploring new themes. Over time we learn that although they are introduced as enemies from either side of the Force, they are actually two sides of the same coin, and together represent the Balance the Jedi have long sought to re-establish.
In “The Force Awakens” we didn’t learn too much about these characters but the glimmers were fascinating. We were there to be introduced, to watch as they leapt through certain “Star Wars” set pieces. Enter our villain, Kylo Ren, wannabe Darth Vader and ruthless leader. Oh but yeah hey, he’s the son of Han Solo and Leia Organa and he is subservient to a man named Snoke who calls himself Supreme Leader. He’s wild, impulsive, and pure evil. Or… is he?
Thus enter: our protagonist, Rey. She’s a scavenger from Jakku, abandoned by her family at a young age and forced to fend for herself. Her daily life is drudgery until she discovers a droid that will lead her on a madcap adventure across the galaxy. She is strong in the Force, bright and intelligent. She is the pure essence of goodness. Or… is she?
“The Force Awakens” brought us these tidbits but left us wondering where these characters might go. “The Last Jedi” brought us a lot of answers and so much character development that I’m still left reeling from how connected these two characters are. When we see them first in this new installment there is, of course, resentment. Rey bested Kylo Ren in the forest of Starkiller Base and proved herself to be a match for his lightsaber abilities. He has since been working to track the Resistance, still determined to bring it down in the name of the First Order. But when we see them first together what strikes us is the unique and wholly intimate way in which they are communicating: through a Force bond that pulls them together and literally makes the rest of the world go still and quiet. We haven’t seen the likes of this in Star Wars and it’s a really, really great way for these two characters to converse: forced to learn something about the other.
Despite initial animosity they quickly don’t have trouble speaking to one another and it becomes clear how synced they are, not just in the Force but as people.
Ben Solo is a man scared of everything: his past, what it’s done to him, and how he might be derailed from his mission. “He’s just whiny! His family loved him!” some misguided people love to cry. Yes, I’m sure his family did love him. That same family never showed him that love, however, and they left him alone in the world. His mother was busy in the Senate from the time he was born. In a noble effort to help repair the galaxy she was unintentionally abandoning her son. His father was, as we know, never good at facing his problems and ran back to smuggling the instant his son grew up and needed him and his wife distanced herself. He too put his own affairs before his son’s wellbeing. With only one option left, Ben Solo was placed in Luke Skywalker’s care. But our heroes aren’t always who they seem, and sensing darkness rising in the young Ben Solo, Luke contemplated killing the boy and ending the darkness before it began. Though he regretted his fleeting decision, Ben had already seen the saber in his hands and read the thoughts that made him fearful. Assuming the last of his family had rejected him, it made it all the easier to reach out to the darkness. Before this he had likely only shown an inclination to it, but an inclination is not a commitment for evil. The betrayal of his family, the judgment from them at the merest hint of a Dark side (which we all, as humans, have) and the constant manipulation from a Supreme Leader led Ben Solo to embrace the only thing that seemed to accept him. And so he became Kylo Ren.
To say that Kylo Ren is an “emo kid” or a “whiny bitch” is to ignore all of the strong characterization he’s undergone through these two films, but particularly in “The Last Jedi”. His heartfelt, honest interactions with Rey show us the compassion inside the human. The fact that these tender moments can almost make us forget that this is the man who killed Han Solo is powerful stuff, and shows how far he’s come (as well as how incredible an actor Adam Driver is).
Some also like to call any potential relationship with Rey an “abusive” one. I think to do this also ignores his development. People who say this usually point out two scenes: his interrogation of Rey on Starkiller Base in “The Force Awakens” and the way in which he tells her “You are nothing. But not to me,” in “The Last Jedi”.
To both examples, the argument is tenuous. It assumes Kylo Ren is still a villain, it assumes they have only a tepid connection, and it assumes that they are already in a relationship. While they certainly have a relationship they are not in a relationship. Could they one day? Sure, and I’ll state the case for why they’re one of the best romantic dramas I’ve seen in years a little later. But as of now, they’re not. Further to the point I just don’t believe a potential romantic relationship between them would be abusive. His interrogation of her on Starkiller base was an act of war, and established at a time when Kylo Ren was firmly the enemy. Though he did enter her mind without her permission, I think that was again an act of war, one that neither of them saw as a personal attack, but a means to an end for the First Order. Kylo needed to size up his opponent, but he was scared by what he found there: raw power to rival his own.
Furthermore in “The Last Jedi” people are choosing to willfully ignore the meaning behind what he actually tells her in the throne room scene: “You come from nothing. You’re nothing. But not to me.” These words sound emotionally manipulative on the surface, sure, I can see that. But you have to understand their context and what transpired before he uttered them. The entire movie is focused around the connection they share, an incredible bond through the Force that draws them together and allows them to feel the others emotions and see the others thoughts. They learn they are both inherently lonely, aching for affection and understanding, longing for a family and a purpose beyond what they’ve come to know. This bestows a greater meaning to his words to Rey, indeed he seems to be even projecting a bit of himself in there. He’s offering her comfort and safety, reassuring her that he cares for her and longs to be close to her. Additionally, these words are important because of how Ben Solo grew up. He was raised in a world of Skywalkers, Solos, and Organas. Of legend, infamy, and family ties. In his world, who you knew and were related to was likely very important and determined the path you would take in life. Defying this has been his undoing but also his strength, trying to discover who he is but losing his sense of belonging along the way. In his words to Rey he is conveying that unlike those who surrounded him, where she comes from is not important: that she is still worthy of love and acceptance despite an ignoble background. Additionally with the connection we know they share we can safely assume that “you are nothing, but not to me” also equals “you are everything to me”. He’s not manipulating Rey to stay with him, though he longs for it. He’s just conveying to her the extent of how much he’s grown to care for her and that she can find a new path with him, free of what she used to be.
All this to say that when I first watched “The Last Jedi” I was in awe of the interactions between Rey and Ben but it never occurred to me to have a romantic subtext. Going in to the film I was hoping to see them interact more, having realized they’re two sides of one character, really. And I was blown away by what we got: strong interactions filled with emotion, two lonely people realizing they fit together. They both have the capacity for good and evil in them; they both carry the dark and light sides of the Force. Neither needs to be stuck on the path they’ve chosen. Together they represent balance, the only two beings in the galaxy that can stabilize each other. We see a great deal of earnestness and tenderness grow between them. Rey learns that despite his awful actions under Snoke and the First Order, Ben still struggles and feels called to the light. He is not inherently a bad person, and he has a capacity for goodness. Rey herself is drawn first to the darkness, still learning to embrace that side of herself. Her loneliness and heartache pull her there and she is impulsive and can act rashly. Together they are more than just pieces, they’re the Force balance and the ultimate lesson in the fact that humans operate inside a moral grey area.
So although I did not initially envision a romance, and would still be happy with their bond if it was just platonic, I realized after rewatches and numerous articles about their bond that actually it’s even greater when you understand that there is quite a lot of romantic and sexual subtext between them.
After all, the best romance stories emerge from a friendship, or at least a getting to know each other period. We’ve never believed the stories of people who fall in love after a day, and it’s the bond that is forged before the romance that makes the love stronger. While what Rey and Ben share is by no means a friendship (they are still on opposite sides of a galactic war), they have taken their first steps into truly knowing each other. They see the memories embedded in them and every painful, joyous, lonely moment in between. They understand each other. They help ease the feelings of isolation. Each interaction between them in the Force bond scenes as they move along is nothing but tender – a young man and a young woman who can clearly regard one another. The tension between them is palpable and shows their burgeoning comfort and trust, as well as their attraction. The scene in which Ben observes the water sliding off his black glove after speaking with Rey? Resembles a charged moment in “Pride & Prejudice” in which Mr. Darcy’s hand flexes as he walks away from Elizabeth, overwhelmed by the touch of someone who means so much. The red throne room in which the two do battle side by side and back to back? Red has often been called the color of sexual desire but it can also mean danger. This connection they share could be their undoing if they let it, but it could also be the greatest romance of all, one born of shared passion and true, honest desire. Also that scene is just, like, super fucking hot.
There’s a really great video I watched the other day that discussed Rey and Ben in-depth as related to several other theories and works of entertainment. It made a lot of sense, and I’ll reference it here. While I’m not going to speak (for now) on some of those parallels, I will say the one I particularly liked was that Rey and Ben will do what Padmé and Anakin never could get right – make their love last. This trilogy may give us an opposite dynamic, a man who gives up his power for love instead of the reverse. This love, as we have seen already presented in its beginnings so well, will be the balance the Force and the galaxy truly need.
I’m on and off of Marvel’s hype train pretty frequently. One minute they’re producing thought-provoking and thrilling content like “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (still my favorite Marvel movie), then other times they’re producing un-interesting and only mildly enjoyable action set pieces like “Thor: The Dark World”. Sometimes it’s just garbage… “Iron Man 2”, anyone?
But 2014’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” was a fun and refreshing new take on the well-loved superhero genre. While it suffered a bit from an inconsequential villain, its rag-tag group of lovable if slightly insane heroes more than made up for any ineptitude and delivered a rollicking good time at the movies. For these reasons, I was stoked about the follow-up and I have to say it mostly lived up.
This time around Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and his merry band of misfits Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and a now pint-sized Groot (Vin Diesel) are cocky about their world saving abilities and searching for meaning in their galaxy. They’ve been acting as hired hands to protect valuable objects, but when this goes awry as it must, they escape to a planet where nothing is quite as it seems.
I just have to say that Baby Groot is everything. Other than every excellent frame that includes him, the movie was pretty good. It definitely got better as it got into its groove, and while the jokes are more laugh out loud funny, I’m not sure if it’s as outright enjoyable as the first. Understandably, it’s hard to recreate the freshness of the original. Something so unique is hard to duplicate, but the filmmakers worked hard here to make sure that what we loved about the first one still worked, even if it just couldn’t be quite as creative.
I like that the villain here had a bit more connection to the characters this time around, but in the end he still was mostly just a “I want to rule the world” type of guy – the Marvel standard baddie. The final battle had just a little too much going on to be hugely thrilling, but it was entertaining. There was a lot more emotional connection and themes of family and trust that tied everything together, and I found those very intriguing. I quite liked this overall, so the Guardians can continue to save the Galaxy as they please.
To be honest, sometimes the best movies are the ones you enter into blindly. What I mean by this is that maybe you don’t know a lot about the film, maybe you’ve never seen a trailer or read a review and you’re not sure what at all to expect. Sometimes this could end terribly. But in my experience, it usually ends in a more transcendent big screen experience, one that allows you to view a film without preconceived notions or exaggerated expectations. This is exactly what happened for me when I watched “The Lost City of Z”.
I had heard of this movie quite a while before it was finished and released, since a number of stars were attached and I do keep up well on movie news. I had also seen a film from the director, James Gray, before. Side note: I highly recommend that film as well, 2015’s “The Immigrant”. It’s a smart and richly layered character story that very clearly examines people in the light of their era and circumstances, and in many ways so does this film. I was still holding out in order to see whether “The Lost City of Z” would receive good reviews, and when it did I made the time to see this one and so should you, it’s a true gem.
Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) is a British officer called upon by the Royal Geographical Society to lead a surveying party into South America in order to help resolve a border dispute. Fawcett and his team, including a man named Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson), who would come to be a loyal friend and expedition partner, complete the survey despite their jungle obstacles. While there, Fawcett makes ancient discoveries that lead him to believe that native stories about a lost city of gold are true. Convinced of the existence of an ancient vanished civilization, Fawcett makes numerous unsuccessful attempts to find this lost city, including his last in which he ventures once again into the unknown with his son, Jack (Tom Holland).
I went into this knowing very little about the real life subject and came out wanting to know as much as possible. I’ve always loved exploration tales, especially ones set in uncharted lands like the Amazon jungle, and especially ones in which the explorer does their work not for fame and glory but for a real desire and sense of purpose. Yet somehow the story of Percy Fawcett, aside from reading about this film’s development, had escaped me. From opening scene this movie gripped me, and fully immersed me in Fawcett’s worlds – both classical England and native jungle. I hardly knew I was still in an air-conditioned movie theatre after it all, but felt as though I had walked into the jungle (much like the amazing final shot).
James Gray has shown a penchant for world building and attention to detail the likes of which we rarely see anymore. He makes his films feel like epics of cinematic days gone by, and they rarely fit traditional formula, eschewing predictability by examining the unknown about life. Also, Charlie Hunnam gives one hell of a performance in a movie in which everyone is really great. I loved this one a lot, and I hope if you take my advice and see it that you do too.
Sometimes you just have to be the one with the unpopular opinion. It happens to me more often than I’d like! But I’m not afraid to express mine, and one of them happened to be that I wasn’t particularly excited about the remake of “Beauty and the Beast”. It seemed that once Emma Watson was cast, with her perfect Disney princess look, everyone and their mom was on board with rebooting a classic. I was a little more skeptical. I’ve never been a massive fan of Watson’s (despite being a hardcore Potter fanatic), though she is perfectly serviceable and just so gosh darn adorable. I was excited about much of the rest of the cast, as well as the prospect of new musical numbers. But the original animated film is such a lovely work of art and cinema that I wasn’t sure a live action remake would work. And while it’s not a perfect movie, I’m happy to say that I did enjoy it.
While there’s not a ton of new stuff here, we do get some more Beast & Belle back story which is nice, and the Beast himself is a much more well thought out and explained character. I greatly enjoyed his arc much more in this version; his new song “Evermore” is hauntingly beautiful and is a perfect showcase for how far the Beast has come in his patience, acceptance of his fate, and his love for Belle. It’s a beautiful part of the story and nice to see him actually have more screen time.
It did look gorgeous and should easily score some costume/production design nods at the Oscars. Everyone’s singing was actually awesome, and Dan Stevens, despite being CGI’d to oblivion, actually gave more to his character than most others in the movie (as previously stated in my rambling love for the Beast). Watson is just fine here, though again she seems to have a problem with appearing genuine at all times instead of slightly awkward. But she’s cute as a button and a very talented vocalist. Additionally, Luke Evans is perfect casting as Gaston and was awesome to watch. Overall an enjoyable experience, and one I’m glad I gave a chance.
I’m not sure what I expected from the 100000000th adaptation of the King Kong story, but I’m not sure this was it. All the trailers looked bonkers in the best way, and I was hoping for an ultra-cool, ultra-badass 70’s version of Kong where we got wartime politics, rock n’ roll, and giant monkeys. We got most of those things, but not really in the cohesive package I’d imagined.
This movie isn’t bad by any means, there’s stuff to like here. But it’s not really great either and that saddens me when it could have been so much more. “Skull Island” operates at its best when it’s embracing its B-movie action and tone. In typical B-movie fashion, the dialogue is mostly bad (or at least forgettable), and the characters are poorly written and expanded upon (I thought when Brie Larson won her Oscar movies would finally stop criminally underusing her but here we are). But there is also the dedication to action and craft, and its absolute devotedness to its subject, the beast himself.
For sheer awe, spectacle, and fun, Skull Island is a riot. It embraces its natural habitat and exposes creatures from the underworld that looks both nightmarish and fantastic. While some are a little less impressive (giant stick insect anyone?), Kong himself and a few other of his natural foes look amazing, and watching them fight each other provides a hint of how adrenaline inducing the fight between Kong and… well, another monster, will be.
It’s not a very good movie, I wish it had a bit more flair to it, but it does its job serviceably and seems to have fun doing it. I came for the ape action and stayed for the aesthetic, and was perfectly pleased with the outcome. Would need to be a much deeper movie tonally for it to work on all fronts, but the end result is a thrilling creature feature with a nice nostalgic spin on the King of the Apes.
Despite having seen every X-Men film (aside from the recent “Apocalypse”), I had never seen either of the two Wolverine standalone films. I had heard enough negative reviews to have simply avoided them, not because I was averse to the idea of Wolverine in his own movie – he is truly one of the most well written comic book characters around, but more because I just hadn’t seen an example of a successful idea for the character of Wolverine on his own. Then along came “Logan”.
I’ll go ahead and tell you right now that if you’re one of those people who likes to think themselves “above” comic book movies, you would still dig this. I have seen many a superhero flick and there was almost no resemblance to those here. Sure, it’s about a superhero and there are great action sequences, but it doesn’t follow conventional blockbuster tropes. It’s actually a modern Western, gritty and down-to-earth, steeped in old filmmaking lore. What director James Mangold & co. were able to do here is hearken back to the good old days of filmmaking – sparse locations and sets, more character focus, simple but effective antagonists, and disguise it all in a way that also appeals to comic book fans and general movie audiences. It’s brilliant and a joy to behold.
I won’t go too much into the plot details of the film, because I feel they’re better left experienced and also because it’s better if you at least have a working knowledge of Wolverine and the X-Men going in and I’m not going to assume that everyone reading this has that. But even though prior knowledge will enhance your enjoyment and understanding, what I also liked about this film was that it is very much independent. It doesn’t concern itself with Easter eggs or setting up for a myriad of future sequels. It is content to exist on its own, in its own space.
Camera work is sublime thanks to Mangold and cinematographer John Mathieson. Gorgeous Southwestern landscapes are brought to full life, although there is an alternate black and white version called “Logan Noir” that I’m anxious to see as well. Story is concise, filled with emotion – mostly due to the fantastic camaraderie of the ever excellent Hugh Jackman and newcomer Dafne Keen who absolutely 100% steals the show here. Although the movie is indeed called “Logan” and it’s the title character we revolve around, Keen is very much central to the film’s plot and ideas and she is astounding. One of the finest young performances I’ve seen (just after Millie Bobby Brown), and one of the finest performances period I’ll see this year. Patrick Stewart and Stephen Merchant give very fine turns here as well. This movie is so wholly enjoyable and I can’t thank James Mangold enough for all the effort he and his team put in to make such an enduring and bold work of filmmaking.