Summer Movie Wager 2018

The /Filmcast does this thing every year where they pick what they each think will be the top 10 movies of the summer in terms of domestic box office performance. One enterprising listener created a website to coordinate the whole Summer Movie Wager and opened it up to everyone, so this year I figured I'd play along. I didn't spend a ton of time on it, but I've been following the /Filmcast for a long time, so I had some idea of how its played. I made my picks before I listened to their picks this year, and now that I've listened to their episode, I had some mild regret for some of my choices, but ultimately, I think I did alright. Here's my picks, along with some comments:
  1. Avengers: Infinity War - Duh. Pretty much everyone has this pegged as the winner this summer. I'm sure someone is making a calculated bet to pick something else, and if they wind up correct, they'll have a big advantage over the whole field. But it still seems like a big longshot.
  2. Incredibles 2 - I have this much higher than most, but I think this is going to be the "Animated Kids Movie" of choice this summer, and those always do much better than expected. I worry that my love for the original film has skewed my thoughts here though, and if I were doing this again, I might bump it down a spot or two.
  3. Deadpool 2 - Seems like a big deal, but the /Filmcast did worry me a bit, as it does feel like the sort of thing that isn't quite repeatable. The rated R superhero comedy was kinda new last time around, it'll be difficult to recapture the novelty here. Then again, there's always a rated R movie that does better than expected in the summer, the first movie was hugely popular, and I think most are genuinely looking forward to this one.
  4. Solo: A Star Wars Story - This is honestly a pretty big question mark. It's Star Wars, so it will definitely make the top 10, but its performance could vary wildly. Are people getting Star Wars fatigue? Is anyone really looking forward to the concept of this one? Will Last Jedi haters drive down performance? Only time will tell. This slot doesn't seem overly ambitious or pessimistic.
  5. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom - Everyone was blindsided by Jurassic World a few years ago, which did an obscene $650 million. No one expected that much love for the franchise, and the movie was frankly kinda crappy, so it was a big surprise. Most folks seem to be putting this latest iteration at number 2. I may be overly pessimistic about its chances, but I'm thinking that the trailers look bad and those who didn't love the last movie will not turn up this time. I don't know, maybe Jeff Goldblum fans will turn out in droves? There's no way it gets close to its predecessor, but it'll almost certainly be top 5. I have it a little low, but I don't think this is completely unwarranted.
  6. Ant-Man and the Wasp - And here I'm being a bit optimistic. I'm betting that Avengers loev will spill over to this and drive this to perform a little better than the first film. I'm definitely taking a chance here, but this seems feasible. This is where the list starts to get a bit wonky and unpredictable. It's reasonable to think my top 5 will be the top 5 (if not in the exact order I picked), but 6-10 are much more of a toss up.
  7. Ocean's 8 - Here I'm betting that this will do better than the other Ocean's sequels. Who knows if I'm right, but this somehow feels kinda like counter-programming during the summer blockbuster season, and the female-led cast will also appeal to audiences. It also comes out early in June and will have plenty of time to keep making money (this becomes a problem with below picks).
  8. Mission: Impossible - Fallout - If this does similar numbers to the last two installments, it probably deserves to be higher on this list... but it's release at the very end of July means that some of its gross won't count towards this contest. On the other hand, releases are still front-loaded and this will have plenty of time to build up sales. This should almost certainly be one or two spots up higher on this list. Dammit.
  9. Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again - I mean, who the hell knows once we get down to this area. The first movie was a surprise hit, and again, the counter-programming aspect of this might auger for some level of success. But I could be way off.
  10. The Meg - I might have been swayed by the internet response to the first trailer, which looks like a ton of dumb fun... The big problem with this is the release date, which only allows for 3-4 weeks to make money. Then again, August is usually a wasteland for movies, so there won't be as much competition as there will be early in the season.
Outside the top 10, we get three "Dark Horse" picks:
  • Christopher Robin - I don't know. It's Disney, so it'll do ok, but I picked this without really knowing much about it. Finding out more, I'm not sure it was a wise choice...
  • Skyscraper - The Rock is just so unpredictable in terms of both quality and performance that I'm not sure what to make of this movie. It could very well earn a spot in the top 10, but this marks the 3rd movie that The Rock has had in theaters this year. Just not sure about it. It could be big, it could bomb.
  • Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation - These movies do well, right? Again, kids movies tend to do better than expected. I probably should have put this one at #10 in place of The Meg, but again, who knows.
I think I did alright. If I were to do it again, I'd definitely make some changes... but it would still be a similar list.
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Link Dump

As per usual, interesting links from the depths of ye olde interwebs: And that's all for now.
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Hugo Awards: Raven Stratagem

Yoon Ha Lee's Ninefox Gambit was a dense, sometimes gruesome Space Opera. I really enjoyed it, and it was nominated for a Hugo Award last year. Raven Stratagem is the follow up, second in a trilogy, and yes, I enjoyed this one too, despite it succumbing to traditional middle entry in a trilogy syndrome.

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I was initially a little hesitant to pick up this sequel. As much as I enjoyed it, I remember the first novel being a bit difficult to follow at parts, and I didn't entirely remember what had happened (I read it almost two years ago) except in broad strokes. Fortunately, Raven Stratagem presents itself in a much more accessible manner than its predecessor, which allows you to ease back into the universe without too much strain.

We continue to follow the bleshed personalities of Kel Cheris and Shuos Jedao, quasi-successful at retaking the Fortress of Shattered Needles in the first book, as they now set out to defend the Hexarchate from an invading enemy, the Hafn. Cheris is a gifted mathematician and infantry captain for the subservient Kel faction. She's been possessed by the "ghost" of long-dead military genius, madman, and mass murderer, Jedao, of the Machiavellian Shuos faction. The Hexarchate being an oppressive tyrannical semi-dystopia, the leaders/dictator aren't sure if they can trust Jedao and his stated intention to simply repel the Hafn. For that matter, neither is the fleet that Jedao has taken over for that purpose. General Kel Khiruev even attempts to assassinate Jedao, but eventually succumbs to Jedao's, er, charms? That's not the quite the right word, but it gets the job done, I guess.

So yeah, that brief description kinda captures the density of the worldbuilding, but again, Raven Stratagem is more accessible at laying this out than Ninefox Gambit. This is a best-of-both-worlds situation here. I appreciate dense worldbuilding, and Lee was able to make it more approachable without losing anything. Shuos Jedao, despite frequent reminders of atrocities he's committed in the past, remains a fascinating character and indeed, things tend to bog down a bit whenever we're not following him (and I should add her, as Cheris is a woman). I found myself much less interested in the Hexarchate politics side of the story, which comprises a large portion of the second act, though it's clearly a necessary part of the story.

There are some twists and turns along the way. One of them, which I think is played as a twist, was actually something that I thought I had just misremembered from the first book, but which it turns out, I remembered correctly*. But the final revelation sets up a genuinely interesting premise for the third book to tackle. Unfortunately, that leaves this book in a sorta limbo, as a lot of middle entries in a series feel. This is excellent, but it's not self-contained, and that always makes Hugo voting a little tricky. Of course, the Hugo context is a bit unfair - as middle entries go, this is a good one, and it moves the story along briskly (which is more than can be said about a lot of middle novels). In any case, Lee's worldbuilding is solid, but quite dark and sometimes gruesome. Fortunately, he doesn't wallow in the misery in the way that other books tackling similar themes seem to do.

As Science Fiction, I'm not entirely sure the whole Calendrical Math thing feels grounded enough; it feels more like a metaphorical representation of the way the Hexarchate is controlled than an actual mathematical thing. That not a terrible thing, and it does seem to be played with an internal consistency that I appreciate. Again, Cheris and Jedao are interesting, and their immediate surroundings work, but as mentioned above, once you get beyond that, the story falters a bit.

This is a good book, and Lee's skill is worth rewarding with a Hugo Award, but I don't think this is the book to do it. As the second in a series, it feels incomplete (again, not in a way that is bad outside of the Hugo context), which makes it difficult to judge against other books. On the other hand, I expect this will actually do well when it comes time to put in my ballot - I like this work, so I suspect it will come out ahead of several other nominees that I'm unsure about. Fortunately, Lee also has a novelette that's been nominated, Extracurricular Activities, which is self-contained and excellent. It follows Jedao back when he was a young officer, and bears a sorta Bujold-esque feel to it, which I naturally love (this is high praise, people). I haven't read any of the other novelette finalists, but I suspect this one will top my ballot. Ultimately, I will most likely pick up the final book in this trilogy, which says a lot, and I greatly look forward to whatever Lee tackles next.

* (Spoilers) I had assumed that Jedao's ghost had died in the betrayal at the end of Ninefox Gambit, but for most of this book, Cheris is basically just pretending to be Jedao, and since she still has all of his memories implanted in her consciousness, she can pull it off. Lee can get away with this because we mostly see Jedao from the perspective of others, like Khiruev, and Cheris has no reason to let on that she is using Jedao's reputation for her own purposes (which, to be fair, were also Jedao's).

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The 2018 Hugo Award Finalists were announced yesterday, so it's time for moaning and whinging about the nominees. Assorted thoughts below:
  • The novel ballot looks interesting enough. Only half are part of a series! Arguably. One of the series entries is the first (and reasonably self-contained), but one of the non-series is set in a universe the author had already established. So I guess it evens out.

    John Scalzi's The Collapsing Empire is that reasonably self-contained first entry in a series, and it's a lot of fun, my favorite Scalzi since The Human Division. I don't expect it to win. New York 2140 seems like a pretty standard Kim Stanley Robinson offering, an extension of many of his usual themes. Again, I don't expect it to win. Provenance, by Ann Leckie is the aforementioned standalone novel set in Leckie's Imperial Radch universe. It seems like a heist story, but the writeups emphasize that it's about "power, theft, privilege and birthright" which is pretty well tread ground for the past few years of nominees (and for which Leckie has already been recognized), but then, this seems to be what current voters like. I don't see it winning, but what do I know. I really enjoyed Raven Stratagem but Yoon Ha Lee's second Machineries of Empire novel suffers from middle-novel-in-a-trilogy syndrome, so it did not make my nominating ballot (Yoon Ha Lee has been a mainstay of my nominating ballots for years, and as we'll see, there's another option for him that I think works better in an awards context). Then again, Jemison's Obelisk Gate also suffered from middle novel syndrome and managed to win last year, so once again, I know nothing. Six Wakes, by Mur Lafferty represents the only new-to-me author nominated (she won the Campbell a few years back, so not a completely new name), and the novel sounds like a neat closed room mystery... in space! I never managed to catch up with it before the nominating period ended, but it was something I wanted to read. Who knows if it has any chance? The Stone Sky, by N.K. Jemisin is the conclusion to her trilogy, of which the first two entries have already won Hugos. For any other series or author, I'd say that means this one has less of a chance of winning, but despite my hesitations with the previous two books, people seem to really love these novels, so there's a fair chance it'll win again this year. Not sure what that augurs for the health of the awards, but I guess nothing is decided yet.

    I've only read two of these novels, definitely want to read one more, was curious about another two, and am not particularly looking forward to The Stone Sky (but at this point, I feel like I should probably finish out the trilogy). That's a reasonable batting average, I guess. Pour one out for The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. though. I suspect that will remain my favorite novel of the year, even after catching up with these other four nominees.
  • I'm a little surprised that Lois McMaster Bujold didn't get a nod in the novella category, but I'm guessing that releasing three Penric novellas in one year managed to split the vote. I was happy to see All Systems Red by Martha Wells get the nod (it was on my ballot and one my favorite reads of last year). A few other recognizable names on the ballot, but nothing that really grabs me. I skipped the category last year, not sure if I'll manage this year.
  • Novelette has another Yoon Ha Lee story, “Extracurricular Activities”, that was what I nominated instead of Raven Strategem. It takes place in the same universe and features a character from his novels, but is entirely standalone (and more accessible than the novels as well). My other nominee didn't make it, and nothing is jumping out at me for the other nominees.
  • I haven't read any of the nominated Short Stories, but in my experience with these awards, this category is almost always the biggest disaster. I almost never enjoy any of the short stories, for whatever reason.
  • I remain skeptical of the Best Series category on pragmatic, logistical grounds, but think it funny that Lois McMaster Bujold could win the award again this year (and I judge a fair chance of that).
  • The Dramatic Presentation awards look decent enough, considering the venue. Still wish that Colossal and Your Name would have gotten some love, but hey, you can still watch them (go give them a shot - they're both great). In other news, I've actually already seen half the Short Form nominees, which is a rarity.
  • The 1943 Retro Hugo finalists were also announced. I actually nominated a couple of things, and they both made it. Rooting for Hal Clement's short story, "Proof" (a fantastic story, well worth checking out if you can find it - are these included in Hugo Voters Packets? Be on the lookout.) And Asimov's "Foundation" got a nod too (though it's only the Novelette, a subset of what most of us read). The only real surprise is that The Screwtape Letters, by C. S. Lewis didn't get a nod. Or maybe not. Current Hugo voters aren't into Lewis' religiousity, I guess.
And that covers it. I'll most likely be reading and reviewing over the next few months (might take a bit to get going, as I just started a large book that will take a bit to finish)...
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50 Under 50 - Part I

Back in January, I linked to Matt Singer's This Year, Make a Movie-Related New Year's Resolution and noted that the suggested resolution to watch 50 films made before 1950 was a good idea. Looking at my viewing from last year, only five movies qualified (and even then, I'd already seen two of them). I'm still quite behind on this project and didn't really resolve to do it until the last few weeks, but I've already beaten last year's total, which is a win. For posterity, here are the first six entries in my 50 Under 50 challenge:
  • Fallen Angel (1945) - Otto Preminger's noirish tale of a penniless con man who blows into a small town looking to make a buck, falls for a waitress named Stella. She wants nothing to do with him, unless he can find a way to make himself rich, so he hatches a scheme to marry a wealthy heiress for the money. Naturally, he gets more than he bargained for.
    fallenangel.jpg
    It takes a little while to get going, but it gets there, and I must admit that the final twists did work well for me. Of course, the story hinges on some relationships that develop mighty quick, but it's easy enough to go with. The cast is reasonably good and the filmmaking is solid. The writing has some worthy noir zingers, my favorite being the phony medium played by John Carradine: "I hope to see you in my room later, I have a fine collection collection of friendly spirits there, Scotch ancestry." Heh. Not exactly a classic film noir, but a worthy watch. (Watched on Amazon Prime, a solid transfer) **1/2
  • The Golem (1920) (AKA: The Golem: How He Came Into the World) - Writer/Director/Star Paul Wegener actually made three movies about the Golem, but the first two were lost (about 5 minutes were somewhat recently discovered), and this third entry is all that remains. Along with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu, The Golem is considered a classic example of German Expressionism. Of course, those two other movies set a rather high bar that is difficult to clear. The Golem has some great visuals, but nothing quite as stylized as Caligari, nor the deep shadows of Nosferatu. The story concerns Jews who are being persecuted, and a Rabbi who creates a giant golem out of clay to protect the people. It's slow to start (the Golem is initially used to perform menial tasks around town, like chopping wood), but it has its moments later in the story. This is a clear precursor to Frankenstein and worth watching for students of the genre for that alone, but it's also not quite the classic that, well, all the other films listed are. (The Amazon Prime copy is a slightly shortened version with "full sound", meaning a modern soundtrack and terrible voiceovers.) **
  • Secret Agent (1936) - Alfred Hitchcock's follow up to The 39 Steps (arguably his best British effort), Secret Agent is another tale of espionage that bears some of Hitch's trademarks, though perhaps only in embryonic form. Three British agents are ordered to assassinate a mysterious German spy during World War I. While initially thrilled by the adventurous aspects of their mission, two of them grow a conscience, which obviously makes things difficult. A few twists and turns, this does wind up being "minor" Hitchcock, but even his lower tier offerings are worth watching. While not as visually striking as Hitchcock's other efforts, he does seem to have enjoyed playing around with sound, whether it be the snappy reparte between characters, or the loud sounds of the casino, or the booming machinery of a chocolate factory. Hitch was clearly still adjusting to the talkies at this point, but it all works well enough. Some bits work great, and there's some decent zingers here too (one of our spies had their death faked, at which point their superior asks: "Tell me, do you love your country?" and he responds "Well I just died for it!" Heh.) The only thing that really grates is Peter Lorre's womanizing "Mexican General", which is clearly a turn-off for modern audiences, but functional in the story, I guess. Probably only worth it for Hitchcock fanatics, and like I said, you see some of his favored tropes here in their embryonic state, but nowhere near Hitch's best, even in this era. (Watched on Amazon Prime, a solid transfer) **
  • Saboteur (1942) - More minor Hitchcock, this time from his early American period. A man working in an aircraft factory is wrongly accused of sabotaging the plant, causing a fire that killed his best friend. Naturally, he goes on the run and tries to clear his name. Hitch sure did make a killing on wartime espionage stories, and this one is a decent enough example. Probably not the best, but it's a good wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time tale that Hitch is always great at pulling off. I don't think it's the first example of setting a climactic scene at a monument, but this one does go to the Statue of Liberty (which has a nifty symbolic note), a feat only really rivaled by Hitch's later use of Mount Rushmore. Again, this one is probably more of interest to Hitchcock fanatics, but it's definitely a step up from Secret Agent, if not exactly competing with the true classics. (Watched on Blu Ray, though I do think this one's on Amazon Prime too) **1/2
  • The Vampire's Ghost (1945) - Mysterious death's plague a small, African port town. It turns out that the local bar owner is actually a vampire who's grown weary of time's inexorable march. Not the most culturally sensitive and pretty straightforward, it does have enough entertainment value to carry the day. I actually sought this one out because it was co-written by Leigh Brackett, and I wanted to check out some of her earlier work. Again, not a whole lot to it, but I enjoyed it well enough. (Watched a copy from Internet Archive) **
  • The Mystery of Mr. Wong (1939) - Mr. Wong is a fictional Chinese-American detective who appeared in a series of stories in Collier's magazine, which was then adapted into a series of films starring Boris Karloff as the titular character. This is actually the second in that series of films (I stumbled onto it by accident, not realizing it was a series), but it appears to be standalone. It's basically a murder mystery. Mr. Wong attends a dinner party where an antiques collector is murdered under mysterious circumstances. It turns out that he had come into possession of a famously cursed jewel named "The Eye of the Daugther of The Moon." Hijinks ensue. Not exactly high cinema, but the mystery actually works and Karloff is always great. This series of films was put out by Mongram pictures, a low-budget studio who traded in cheap thrills at the theater. They churned out Mr. Wong movies at a 6 month clip, but if this one is any indication, they managed pretty well. I might actually check out more of these. (Watched on Amazon Prime, a solid transfer) **1/2
I should probably gravitate more towards classics here, but I'm actually kinda enjoying this midlist stuff, even if the ratings don't quite bear that out. You'll notice that most of this is available on Amazon Prime, which does have a pretty wide selection of older films (unlike, say, Netflix, which has, like, 10 movies made before 1950). Anway, I'm 5-6 movies behind on this whole project, but that should be simple enough to resolve throughout the rest of the year.
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Link Dump

Things seen on the internets: That's all for now...
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The Oscars

The Oscars are tonight! Alright, fine, I shouldn't have used an exclamation point there, but for reasons beyond understanding, I do actually enjoy these awards. I mean, of my top 10 movies of the year, only three are nominated for Best Picture... and this is a pretty good year for that metric. But any and all awards processes are subject to bias and flaws. Plus, it seems to me that everyone really loves to whine about this stuff, and the Oscars are prime whinging territory. Ultimately, I like movies, and tonight's a night where I will drink alcohol, make fun of celebrities, and root for movies. I admit that this is a pretty boring stance, but so is yours. I don't think I'll ever top my intro to the Oscars from a few years ago:
The funny thing about the Academy Awards is that your opinion about them is pretty boring. You think the Oscars are just a cynical circle jerk of self-satisfied Hollywood elites? Boring! You're outraged at [insert snub here]? Super fucking boring! You're genuinely excited about seeing films receive the recognition they deserve? You are both naive and boring! But the one thing that unites us all is the abject hatred of the short films categories. I think we can all agree on that.
Oh, and I've heard a lot of people talking about short films this year. In an approving manner! Up is down, cats and dogs, living together, etc... Anyway, I thought last year's ceremony would be mildly more interesting due to the age of Trump, but it mostly fell flat on that front. This year? Well, we're still in the age of Trump, and now we've got #MeToo, TimesUp, and gun control agitation, which I feel like will have to crop up in some way.

Again, I will be tying one on and making fun of celebrities on Twitter @mciocco (or, more likely, since I'm pretty boring, I'll be retweeting funnier people than myself). Back in the before time, the long long ago, I used to do this thing called "liveblogging". For the uninitiated, back before Social Media was a thing, we used our stone knives and bearskins to update our blog every 2 minutes and we'd just sit there with a million browser tabs open, hitting F5 to see what people were saying. Twitter makes it much easier and more fun, so I started doing that a while back. I also like to make predictions, which are listed below. It's all vaguely political (and by that I mean, internal Academy politics, not necessarily national politics, though again, there will be some bleed over this year), but it's still fun. If, for some ungodly reason, you want to read a decade plus' worth of previous predictions and commentary on the Oscars, check them out here: [2017] | [2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006 | 2005 | 2004]
  • Best Picture: The Shape of Water has been the odds on favorite for a while, but Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has been charging ahead, despite being problematical with respect to race. But we all know that Hollywood isn't racist, right? Get Out also seems like a likely challenger, but horror movies rarely do well and Shape is still the safest bet at this point. After that, I can't see anything mounting a real challenge. Dunkirk and Darkest Hour will split their vote, Call Me by Your Name and Lady Bird should just be happy to be nominated, and The Post is just the default Spielberg, Streep, Hanks show that always gets nominated, but gets taken for granted and never wins. Phantom Thread is also a movie. I've only seen 6 of these, but it's a decent enough crop, if not exactly the sort of thing that gets the normals going.
  • Best Director: Guillermo Del Toro, The Shape of Water. This one is much more likely than the Best Picture category. In recent years, the Picture/Director awards have been split, but I suspect that could reverse this year. Christopher Nolan probably should win, but he tends to leave the Academy cold. Paul Thomas Anderson will win this someday, but not today. Greta Gerwig should be happy for being nominated (though on a serious note, I do think she's underrated as a director) and is only really there to inoculate the Oscars from the likes of Natalie Portman throwing shade (as she did in the Golden Globes). Similarly, Jordan Peele is another first time director, but horror movies don't tend to be honored here.
  • Best Actress: Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Pretty much a lock. It's actually a pretty strong category this year, and I'd honestly not be very disappointed if pretty much anyone won this category. But it's still McDormand's to lose at this point.
  • Best Actor: Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour. Also pretty much a lock. The rest of the candidates are weak sauce, and Oldman has the sorta lifetime achievement thing going on here, so he's pretty much got it.
  • Best Supporting Actress: Allison Janney, I, Tonya. This award could go anywhere, and I don't really have any strong feelings on the matter. The Academy might want to reward Lady Bird and Laurie Metcalf, maybe? After that, I don't really know.
  • Best Supporting Actor: Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project. Lots of people thought this should have been nominated for a Best Picture award, so that snub might put Dafoe over the top. Or not, as Sam Rockwell might take it for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. But as I understand it, his character is very problematical!? And the Academy totes isn't racist, you guys!
  • Best Original Screenplay: Get Out. The Academy totes isn't racist, you guys! Or they are, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri will win. Or something. It's more or less between those two.
  • Best Adapted Screenplay: Call Me by Your Name. This year's gay romance will need some love, and I'm betting it goes here. Could very well go to Mudbound (because the Academy totes isn't racist, you guys!) but I found that script to be meandering at best. Then again, that movie seems to get a lot of love from the Academy, and this is a good place to reward it...
  • Film Editing: Dunkirk. I mean, it's definitely the most visibly "edited" movie of the year, and I do love that aspect of it, but I suppose there's a chance that someone might think it confusing and give it to one of the other nominees. It might be nice to see Baby Driver take this, but I think it goes to Dunkirk.
  • Cinematography: Roger Deakins for Blade Runner 2049. After many losses, it's finally Roger's year. I hope. These awards often don't go the way I think, but Deakins has the buzz due to the lifetime achievement factor.
  • Visual Effects: War for the Planet of the Apes
  • Makeup: Darkest Hour. Fat suit.
  • Costumes: Phantom Thread. It's literally about a fashion designer. Seems valid.
  • Musical Score: The Shape of Water
  • Best Song: "Remember Me" from Coco
  • Best Animated Film: Coco. Never go in against Pixar when an Oscar is on the line.
  • Best Documentary: Faces Places
  • Best Foreign Language Film: The Square
Phew. There are some missing categories, but these are the ones I pick each year and I don't feel like figuring out which categories I neglected (though I do know that two of them are short film categories, which we've already established are hot garb). Again, follow me on Twitter @mciocco for inane commentary throughout the ceremony.
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Favorite Films of 2017

We continue our recap of the year in movies with a top 10 list, only a month and half late! But I snuck it in before the Oscars, so there is that. This marks the twelfth year I've posted a top ten, which is getting interesting. A dozen years! For reference, previous top 10s are here: [2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006]

Coming up with a cohesive thematic summary of an entire year's worth of movies is something of a fool's errand, but I'm pretty dumb, so let's give it a shot. The big standout for me this year is the rise of streaming exclusives, especially on Netflix. Now, only one of these will actually show up on my top 10, but one reason for my larger-than-normal list of movies watched this year is the large increase in accessibility represented by streaming services. This isn't an unalloyed good, of course, and it would have been great to have seen some of these films on a big screen with an enthusiastic crowd, but on the other hand, there's no way that something like Okja, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), or Mudbound would have hit a wide release. Much more likely is that they would hit the arthouses in a few select markets and then make their way to video/streaming. There's a fair chance I wouldn't have seen any of them at all, had they gone through the traditional distribution process. In any case, the quality of these offerings is decidedly mixed, ranging from artsy to commercial and everywhere inbetween. But it does feel like some progress in reducing the stigma of "direct to streaming" has been made, if only baby steps.

The other theme that stands out is a continuation of last year's decline of the blockbuster, which franchise fatigue settling in on several usually reliable series (i.e. Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean, etc..) Of course, the major exception to this is Marvel, which continues to enjoy near-universal success. Oddly, it seems all attempts to copy Marvel's model are falling flat (The Mummy and Dark Universe), indicating that perhaps Marvel's special sauce is not quite so easily replicated. In a heartening trend, those of us who value new and interesting films scored a modest string of success throughout the year, including the likes of Get Out, Baby Driver, and Dunkirk, all of which seemed to exceed expectations, even if they weren't billion-dollar franchise makers. Hope springs eternal, though it's difficult to get to excited, as there were plenty of films that should have garnered an audience but somehow didn't manage to find one (i.e. Logan Lucky).

I suppose I should add a third theme that I have noticed whilst compiling the below list. Many of these films make moral claims that could be interpreted in multiple ways. As they made my list, I think you can guess that I'm using more generous interpretations (or valuing the thought provoking nature of certain moral dilemmas). One of ways that I feel like I diverge from some (particularly persnickety) critics is that I'm often willing to give movies some latitude, even when I would normally disagree with something it's saying. The world would be a boring place if we all valued and agreed on the same things, not the least of which because I wouldn't like most movies because I could probably find something to disagree with, if I were so inclined to look for it.

As of this moment, I have seen 87 movies that could be considered a 2017 release. While this represents an increase over the past few years and is certainly significantly higher than your average moviegoer, it's still a much smaller number than your typical critic, so keep that in mind. Standard disclaimers apply, but rather than enumerating those boring caveats, let's just get to the party, pal:

Top 10 Movies of 2017
* In roughly reverse order
  • Molly's Game - I have to admit that I'm not entirely sure I buy this movie's moral claims, but it does so in a way that provokes thought, which is admirable enough. However, this Aaron Sorkin written and directed film is just so damn entertaining that it's hard to beat. It's got some of Sorkin's not-so-great ticks (i.e. daddy issues, psychologists, etc...), which is why it ultimately tumbles to the bottom of the top 10 (and on another day, might have been swapped out with one of the honorable mentions below), but again the fun value is high enough that it still deserves recognition.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • Lady Bird - Greta Gerwig's directorial debut (she also provided the script) is a very well-observed slice of life. This is pretty emphatically the sort of thing I don't gravitate towards, so I was surprised by how much I was taken with this film. Funny, moving, and while I have never been a teenage girl, it does feel authentic. The pacing is brisk and the film is short and sweet, which helps tremendously. Great performances from Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf, but don't sleep on pretty much all of the supporting cast, like Tracy Letts and Beanie Feldstein. Not the sort of thing I'd expect on my list and it could easily have fallen into the honorable mentions, but then, here we are!
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore - Quirky with a dry wit and some helpings of explosive violence, Macon Blair's directorial debut (he also wrote the script) feels a bit like a Coen brothers pastiche. It also shares a kinship with Blair's collaborations with Jeremy Saulnier, but it's great to see that he can do it on his own. Or, well, along with an excellent cast and crew. I mean, lead performances by Melanie Lynskey and Elijah Wood are certainly helping for sure. This is the sole direct-to-Netflix film to make the list, and it's a well-deserved win.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Netflix]
  • Colossal - Nacho Vigalondo's "Godzilla meets Lost in Translation" story is another film whose socially relevant moral claims provoke thought (to put it kindly, but that shouldn't be a surprise since I'm a fan of this movie), but again, this is a lot of fun, and it explores its fantastical premise in thoughtful and clever ways.
    Colossal
    Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis lead a pretty great ensemble, and Vigalondo's nervous energy permeates.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • Bad Genius - A straight-A high school student starts an exam-cheating business... and this is somehow the best heist film of 2017 (and there was plenty of competition). Visually energetic and confident in a way that recalls Edgar Wright, this movie is tense, clever, and tight, well-paced with multiple bare-knuckled sequences of suspense. The ending mixes its morals up a bit, but again, it does so in a thought provoking and entertaining way. Still, it's a movie about cheating on tests, and it's the best caper of the year.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Kaedrin Movie Award Winner]
  • Wind River - Writer/Director Taylor Sheridan is quickly becoming a master of a sort of Midwestern Noir. A clear-eye murder mystery tinged with grief and drama, this is a film that recalls Sheridan's Hell or High Water without feeling like he's in a rut. This carves out its own territory, and what a frigid, gripping territory it has found. Sheridan surrounds and encapsulates his relevant social themes without feeling didactic, and while you could drown in the isolation and tension, it's not a slog at all. Recommended!
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • Your Name - This anime feature starts as a sorta rote body swapping drama... and then it turns into something special. I won't describe further than that, but it's a clever script that feints in one direction, lulls you into a sense of security as it executes that part very well, and then pulls the rug out from under you. Entertaining and heartfelt.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Kaedrin Movie Award Winner]
  • The Big Sick - Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani wrote the semi-autobiographical script for this delightful romantic comedy, and the result is genuinely touching. Another movie that manages to be socially relevant without feeling preachy or didactic, it hits many challenging notes perfectly. It's a movie with a 9/11 joke that actually works, for crying out loud.
    The Big Sick
    Funny, romantic, and quite unlike your typical romantic comedy.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Capsule Review]
  • Get Out - A supremely entertaining horror flick on its own, but infused with social relevance in a way that not only doesn't feel preachy, but which actually leverages our expectations to superb effect. Well balanced and calibrated, it's an impressive debut from Jordan Peele, who I think we can expect great things from going forward.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Kaedrin Movie Award Winner]
  • Dunkirk - Christopher Nolan's stirring WWII epic is propulsively paced, harrowing, and gorgeously photographed. It's not a conventional crowd-pleaser, what with its distinct lack of dialog and plot, not to mention it's puzzle-like temporal structure, but it's so well executed that it still manages to come across as rousing and interesting.
    Dunkirk
    It's a film that has only grown in my estimation over time, and any initial qualms have faded away. Just an exceptional film.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Kaedrin Movie Award Winner] [Capsule Review]
Honorable Mention
* In alphabetical order
  • Atomic Blonde - The strongest action flick of the year, with several notable set pieces that are absolutely spectacular. A little heavy on the needle drops and maybe too convoluted, but still very entertaining and thrilling, and Charlize Theron can kick a lot of ass.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Kaedrin Movie Award Winner]
  • Baby Driver - Perhaps the most striking opening sequence of a film all year, an incredibly well orchestrated blend of music and action, the rest of the film unfortunately can't quite live up to that promise. It still ends up being one of the most energetic and entertaining films of the year, even if there are a few plot points that don't feel entirely earned.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Kaedrin Movie Award Winner] [Capsule Review]
  • Better Watch Out - It starts out as a rote home invasion horror flick, but then morphs into something more. It's a movie that has only grown in my estimation over time, and it really is a lot of fun, with a great villain, a neat premise, and intense thrills that build throughout. Well worth checking out for horror fanatics.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • Brawl in Cell Block 99 - Punishingly brutal flick from S. Craig Zahler and starring a surprisingly badass Vince Vaughn (who actually pulls it off), this is perhaps a bit overlong and padded, but makes up for it by punctuating the plot with gruesome action throughout. This is not finely calibrated martial arts execution here; the eponymous "brawl" is much more apt for the fighting that goes on here. Well worth a watch, if you can stomach it.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Kaedrin Movie Award Winner] [Capsule Review]
  • The Girl With All The Gifts - I'm not much of a zombie fan, but I must admit that I found myself taken with this particular example. Sure, it hits a lot of the standard beats, but it puts enough of a spin on the tropes to feel worthwhile. Quite entertaining, will good child performances and a solid ending (something a lot of zombie movies lack).
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Capsule Review]
  • I, Tonya - This bitter black comedy will make you feel sympathy for one of the 90s great real-life villains, Tonya Harding. A riveting lead performance from Margot Robbie anchors the film, and there's a lot here that I wasn't really aware of back in the 90s when this was happening. It's a pretty crazy story in real life, which obviously makes for a good movie.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • It: Chapter One - This partial adaptation of Stephen King's classic novel gets a lot of things right. Amazing child performances certainly help, not to mention Bill Skarsgård's frightening take on Pennywise the clown. It perhaps leans a bit too heavily on the CGI jump scares, it nevertheless manages to get under your skin, evoking some primal fears from time to time.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Review]
  • Logan - A fitting finale for Hugh Jackman's long run as Wolverine, this is one of the more distinctive takes on the superhero film that you're likely to see. No power boxes with beams to the sky here, though it hits plenty of the tropes at the same time. I wasn't as taken with this as a lot of folks, but I can see why it's garnered so much praise.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • Logan Lucky - Steven Soderberg returns to the big screen with an intricate hillbilly heist film that deserved to be seen by more people, this very nearly made it onto the top ten. Clever, intricate, and a little byzantine, this was among the most entertaining flicks of the year and a great time at the theater. It's on Amazon prime right now, so do yourself a favor and go watch it.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • The Post - Unlike my refrain in several of the top ten entries above, this is a movie that is socially relevant while being quite preachy and didactic. That being said, we take Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep, and Tom Hanks for granted these days, and they turn in a mainstream media propaganda film about the publication of classified Pentagon Papers into high drama. Sure, we'll throw them some perfunctory awards nominations, but no one expects them to win. Then again, while this is an entertaining and dramatic film, it is a bit too much of a puff piece to really win. Still, I was quite taken with the film, and it's well worth a watch.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • Spider Man: Homecoming - Notable for being the third big-screen incarnation of the character in only the past decade, this one sets itself apart by not actually being an origin story, while still introducing us to a distinct take on the character. Smaller scale than your typical Marvel flick and featuring perhaps the best villain in the MCU so far (*ahem* at least, until last weekend), the stakes are no less involving. Once again, very entertaining and fun.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Kaedrin Movie Award Winner]
  • Split - M. Night Shyamalan's resurgence continues unabated, this is perhaps lacking in some social graces, but is nonetheless a pretty interesting and almost lurid tale about a man with split personality. It ends well too, and features an unexpected twist ending that works well in the film proper, but implies a sequel that I can't help but feel some apprehension about. Will Shyamalan's current resurgence end here? Time will tell.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • Star Wars: The Last Jedi - This apparently divisive entry into Star Wars canon has cleared the decks and allowed future filmmakers some breathing room to do new and interesting things. The strongest parts of the film are Rey, Kylo, and Luke's story, which pretty much carries the day. Poe and Leia maintain course, while Finn and Rose's story falls flat. I'm still a fan, and for the first time in a long time, I've no idea what to expect next, which I count as a good thing.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Review]
  • Thor: Ragnarok - I've always been fonder of the Thor movies than most everyone else, but this one is certainly an improvement over the previous two entries in the series. It does feel a bit disjointed, with the bulk of the film feeling like a bit of a diversion from the main plot, but then, that trip to a weird trash planet with gladiator battles is clearly the most fun and entertaining part of the film, while the overarching plot feels a bit standard, despite Cate Blanchett's best efforts (alas, she simply wasn't given enough to work with... yet.)
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Capsule Review]
  • The Villainess - Another film whose spectacular opening action sequence sets the bar so high that the rest of the film can't quite measure up. Not for a lack of trying (there's another motorcycle chase later in the film that comes close), but then, the film does fall back onto a weird melodrama plot that doesn't quite fit. And yet, it's still kinda fascinating, and so different from what I'm used to that I very nearly put this on the top ten...
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
The Quantum Jury Prize
Awarded to films that exist only in a quantum superposition of two or more states (like good and bad or like and dislike, and everything inbetween). I'm not sure what that means, but that's kinda the point. Basically, every time I observe my feelings on these movies, I experience something like a wave function collapse and get different results each time. Still confused? Good.
  • Phantom Thread - Severe toast buttering noises. Paul Thomas Anderson is a master filmmaker, but I go back and forth on this one. On the one hand, it is immaculately well composed and has a bleakly dark humor that I found interesting. On the other hand, it feels overlong and bloated, and while I found some of the turns of the story interesting, they also didn't feel entirely baked. Or maybe they were. I don't really know how I feel about this one, hence it's inclusion in this new section.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • A Ghost Story - Look, this is a ten minute long story that is padded out to an hour and a half. And it's worth noting that 5 of those ten minutes is just Rooney Mara housing a pie. Definitely bloated and a little static, but on the other hand, that 10 minute story is worth telling.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • Mother! - Some of the most impressive filmmaking skills in the industry used to bring a simple Biblical allegory to life. Bewildering and confounding while at the same time simplistic and didactic, this is a movie I go back and forth on. Definitely worth a watch for film buffs, but I can't see it appealing to general audiences.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Not a Review]
Just Missed the Cut:
But still worthwhile, in their own way. Presented without comment and in no particular order: Should Have Seen:
Despite having seen around 90 of this year's releases (and listing out 30+ of my favorites in this post), there are a few that got away. Or never made themselves available here. Or that I probably need to watch, but don't wanna because reasons. Regardless, there are several movies here that I probably should have caught up with: It's been quite a year! Stay tuned for the Oscars next weekend, which should be interesting. After that, we will probably return to to some SF book blogging...
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Hugo Award Season 2018

The nomination period for the 2018 Hugo Awards is open, so it's time to get out the vote before the requisite whining and bitter recriminations start in earnest. I've read a bunch of eligible works, but of course not all will make the cut. Here's where I'm at right now: A much better list than last year, when I was only really able to muster a couple of nominations. I'm betting at least one or two will make the finalists, but short fiction is always so impossible to predict. I have a few novels on the bubble as well:
  • Artemis by Andy Weir - It's a fun book, but it doesn't hang together as well as The Martian and the story doesn't feel entirely baked. Some things about this just didn't sit so well with me, but I wouldn't be opposed to a nomination (and indeed, it would probably fair well when compared against the last few years' finalists).
  • The Caledonian Gambit by Dan Moren - I'm about halfway through this one, which seems like a pretty straightforward space opera/spy thriller type of thing. Great start, but it's bogged down in the midsection. A strong finish could certainly put this on my ballot though.
  • Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee - I'm a fan of Yoon Ha Lee's work (see above referenced novelette), and I liked the first novel in this series quite a bit. I will definitely read this before the nomination period closes, but as the second in a series, I'm not sure how likely it is that I'll put this on my list, even if I love it.
I haven't looked at Best Series in detail, but an initial glance reveals that Steven Brust's Vlad Taltos Series is eligible, which would work. I still think the entire concept of the award is flawed due to logistical considerations (for example, Brust has 15 Vlad Taltos novels, with almost as many additional short fiction entries - how does one read enough of that, along with all the other nominees in order to make an informed decision?)

As per usual, I'll continue to avoid the most mainstream choices for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form (i.e. Star Wars and Marvel don't need my help here and will most likely make the ballot, but these movies are worthy of consideration): There's a fair chance that Your Name would be judged ineligible because it came out n Japan in 2016, but it didn't really hit the US until 2017. Otherwise, there's a fair chance that one or two of these movies might sneak onto the ballot. Fingers crossed.

Also of note is that Retro Hugos for works published in 1942 are being held this year, and there are a few classics there, notably Asimov's initial Foundation story and CS Lewis' The Screwtape Letters, but the one I really want to nominate is a short story by Hal Clement called "Proof" (it's not available online, but it's in tons of collections - the one I read it in was The Ascent of Wonder). It's an awesome story, and it's tale of creatures living in the sun has long legs and influence.

Any recommendations or suggestions are welcome! I'm curious to see how the nominations go this time around. Will the novels be dominated by series/sequels to previous nominees? Will the reduced puppy contingent have any impact? Do I really care that much? I don't know, but there's only one way to find out.
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I announced the official 2017 Kaedrin Movie Award winners last week. The basic purpose of these awards is to recognize aspects of films that aren't reflected in more traditional, quality focused awards like a Top 10 list or something. However, sometimes even those awards can't capture everything, so we come to the Arbitrary Awards, an opportunity to recognize movies that are weird or flawed in ways that don't conform to normal standards. A few of these "awards" have become an annual tradition, but most are just, well, arbitrary.
  • The "You know what happens when a toad gets struck by lightning? The same thing that happens to everything else" Award for Worst Dialogue: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. A good portion of this award is perhaps due to dreadful miscasting, but the dialog, particularly the "banter" between Valerian and Laureline, just doesn't work. Thanks to the visuals and some of the action, the dialogue doesn't sink the film, but still. As a notable runner up: Bright features the line: "Faerie lives matter" which is pretty bad.
  • The Proximity to Jason Vorhees Award for Heroic Stupidity: Alien: Covenant. It follows in the footsteps of its predecessor, which is probably more stupid, but this one doesn't even pretend to be smart.
  • Best Monster with a Sense of Humor: Korg, voiced by Taika Waititi in Thor: Ragnarok. So great.
  • This Monster Fucks Award: The Shape of Water. I love that this is a movie whose genesis was probably Guillermo del Toro watching Creature from the Black Lagoon and thinking "This guy fucks."
  • Most Unfortunate Facial Hair: Kenneth Branagh in Murder on the Orient Express. I mean, it's glorious. But also stupid.
  • Achievement in the Field of Gratuitous Violence: Brawl in Cell Block 99. This one requires no real explanation, does it?
  • Most Extreme Toast-Buttering Sound Design: Phantom Thread. The extent to which I like this movie is the extent to which I like these handful of scenes, which are utterly brilliant.
  • John Carpenter Memorial Award: The Void. Yeah, yeah, Carpenter isn't actually dead yet, but he's not making movies like this anymore either, so here we are. Great practical effects, solid compositions, weird, horrific stuff.
  • The Breaking News Award for Most Action Packed Long Take: Three. God bless Johnnie To. There's not a lot to this movie, but it builds to a ridiculous single take that utilizes that Matrix-style bullet cam thing that justifies the entire exercise.
  • Fictional Business Chain of the Year: The Continental, John Wick: Chapter 2. So great.
  • Most Needlessly Lurid Method of Surveillance: Kingsman: The Golden Circle. It's like they heard the complaints about certain juvenile elements of the first movie and were like, let's lean into that.
  • The Scarlett Johansson in Her Award for Best Virtual Girlfriend: Ana de Armas as Joi in Blade Runner 2049. I mean, she actually appears on screen, so it's not as tough as Scarlett's role, but still.
  • Most Excessive Needledrops of the Year: Atomic Blonde. I mean, they're great, and all, but there's like, I dunno, 20 too many of them.
  • Best FPS Sequence of the Year: The Villainess. Various films have attempted to ape the First Person Shooter aesthetic over the years, but none as successfully as the opening scene in The Villainess, which is utterly amazing.
  • Most Needlessly Mean Spirited Hazing Rituals: Raw. Man, veterinary school in France is intense.
  • Best Movie With 10 Minutes of Plot Stretched Out To Feature Length: A Ghost Story. The award title says most of it, but it's worth noting that 5 minutes of the 10-minute plot is just Roony Mara eating a pie. I kinda like this movie, but I kinda hate it too.
  • Worst Publicist in the World Award: Herald, played by Kristen Wiig in Mother!. I mean, sure, I guess she's good at her job, kinda, but not really.
Coming down the homestretch, with only the Top 10 and Oscars commentary remaining. Stay tuned...
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