Chuck’s Top Ten Movies of 2018

Folks, you know what this is, you know what it’s about. It’s late, I’m tired, and I want to enjoy what’s left of my time off. Let’s rock and roll.

Actually, wait, I should open with a caveat: I live in the suburbs and have been a little busier than usual this year, so there are plenty of movies I haven’t seen that might have made this list if I was able to carve out the time or otherwise had means to get to them. So my apologies to: Assassination Nation, Beautiful Boy, Ben Is Back, Blindspotting, Boy Erased, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Colette, Destroyer, Fahrenheit 11/9, The Front Runner, The Hate U Give, If Beale Street Could Talk, Mary Poppins Returns, Mary Queen of Scots, The Oath, The Old Man and the Gun, Roma, The Sisters Brothers, Suspira, Thoroughbreds, White Boy Rick, Whitney, and many others.

Also, how about some runners up?

25 – 11

25.) Mandy
24.) Upgrade
23.) Searching
22.) A Star is Born
21.) Mission: Impossible – Fallout
20.) First Man
19.) Revenge
18.) Black Panther
17.) You Were Never Really Here
16.) Annihilation
15.) Mid90s
14.) Won’t You Be My Neighbor
13.) Hearts Beat Loud
12.) Eighth Grade
11.) Disobedience

Yeah, Disobedience was a hard one to lose in this list; it’s strong, empathic filmmaking set in a world we don’t see too often, shot through with a whole lot of love for its subjects. But searching my heart, I felt like…well, it just didn’t connect with me the way these next ten films did.

…my God I’m about to light what little credibility I have on fire

10.) Ready Player One

Ready Player One works on a couple of levels. On one, it’s a striking exaggeration of our current world, where corporations are tacitly running the show, everything seems to be getting worse, and we can’t help but seek refuge in entertainment; more specifically, the past, in times when things didn’t seem so complicated or horrific and we just had to worry about never missing an episode of G.I. Joe or Jem and the Holograms. Rather than condemning our fixation on this brand of bread and circuses, Steven Spielberg celebrates our love of and need for escapism, showing it as a way for loners and outcasts to relax, recharge, find common ground, and ultimately organize against forces that would change the world for the worse. This isn’t always a good thing; the last few years on Twitter have taught me that too many white people think the world is worse off with blacks, Latinxs, Asians, Muslims, Jews, and women with opinions, and it turns out they’re pretty good at organizing. But it’s become common for science-fiction to highlight the evils of our fascination with technology—what’s up, almost every episode of Black Mirror?—so it’s refreshing to see a movie that’s excited about the possibilities of technology despite being cognizant and cautious of its drawbacks.

On the other, it’s a bit of self-reflection for Spielberg as well, who grew from a geeky, socially-awkward kid with a strong fixation on movies into a man responsible for so many other people’s passions. As he hits that age where trades start pre-writing obituaries for people, it’s hard not to compare him to the autistic-coded James Halliday, reflecting on the things he may have missed out on and gently warning those who might worship him not to go down the same path. The films he directed are rarely (if ever) referenced here, but it’s little wonder that a film which embraces the wonders of a virtual life and the joys of human connection builds one of its key set pieces around a film made by one of the director’s best friends.

Admittedly, the film has problems originating back to the inherently consumerist and ultimately chauvinistic source material. (The chauvinism was mainly in the romance between leads Wade/Parzival and Sam/Art3mis; it was smartly refigured for the movie but subtle traces still exist.) It was enough to make me consider leaving the film off the list and giving it a Maguire, but in the end, I feel like this is a deeply if understandably misunderstood film that says more about our world and ourselves than “Gee Robert Zemeckis was cool” (especially if you’ve been paying attention to some of the abhorrent fall-of-Rome shit that “AAA” video game publishers like Electronic Arts, Take-Two Interactive, and Ubisoft are up to), and it’ll ultimately be an important point of fascination for anyone studying Spielberg’s significant body of work.

9.) Game Night

We can talk all we’d like about the important films of the year, but a well-made, rip-roaring comedy will always bring us together and leave a big impact regardless of whether or not it’s secretly “about” anything. Game Night has The Stuff; I’ll put it up there with Animal House, Ghostbusters, The Blues Brothers, Groundhog Day, Anchorman, The Hangover and others any hour of the day, any day of the week, any month of the year. It is brilliant, hysterical, and compulsively rewatchable, and it’s got just as much to do with how John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein direct the film as it does with the talent in front of the camera (including a breakout performance from Billy Magnussen and a no-shit Oscar-caliber one by Jesse Plemons) and the funny lines in the script.

Daley and Goldstein smartly make the filmcraft part of the joke, eschewing the flat cinematography and bouncy music that comes standard with most studio comedies in favor of a legit action-thriller score from frequent Steven Soderbergh collaborator Cliff Martinez and a dark Fincher-inspired look that’s alternately grimy and pristine—I wouldn’t be at all surprised to hear that Daley, Goldstein, DP Barry Peterson (21 Jump Street), and production designer Michael Corenblith (Frost/Nixon) studied the hell out of The Game or The Social Network during pre-production. Along with some appropriate-yet-surprising casting—including Kyle Chandler in a wonderfully against-type turn and Danny Huston in a glorified and quietly glorious cameo—this grounds the film’s tangible life-or-death stakes in a way that enhances the absurdity of its antics. A game of Keep-Away with a Faberge Egg might sound like a fun scene on its own, but it’s elevated to unexpected heights when it’s shot/edited as a oner in a gorgeous mansion set backed by a propulsive electronic score.

Most if not all of the other films on this list have something to say about our world or ourselves; all of them bet big and went the extra mile to say it. Game Night goes big in its own way, and while the result is merely fun, it’s in no way disposable. Game Night is going to be a tradition for a lot of people, and I’m betting will be viewed as just as vital to 2018 as Caddyshack was to the year of Ordinary People and Return of the Jedi.

8.) Widows

Between his effusive review from TIFF and his unapologetic stanning of Elizabeth Debicki, this will likely be one of the few films my list has in common with Jaime’s. I’ve had my own review of the film sitting in my drafts folder for over a month now, but I’ve never been entirely happy with it. I’ll probably try again with a more spoiler-filled breakdown shortly after the film’s home release.

For now, it’s enough to say that Steve McQueen’s first genre exercise, adapting Lydia La Plante’s BBC series with screenwriter/novelist Gillian Flynn, is methodical, patient, and quietly complex. It uses the heist film structure to paint a powerful portrait of modern patriarchal rule; how men are poisoned by it and how women survive under it, for better or worse. It also finds room to touch on race relations and power dynamics in the Black Lives Matter era, and the general growing divide between rich and poor. Shamefully, this is the first film of McQueen’s I’ve seen, but it’s a hell of an introduction, as he demonstrates an astonishing level of control over a slow-paced narrative in a genre that’s normally known for snappy banter and/or regular intervals of wanton violence. And damn if it doesn’t do my heart good to see long-underrated actresses like Debicki and Michelle Rodriguez get roles that make full use of their individual skillsets, while Viola Davis and Colin Farrell do their reliably outstanding work and Cynthia Erivo and Molly Kunz deliver some strong calling-card performances of their own.

Strong, searing, and deeply intelligent, Widows is a must-watch.

7.) Bodied

Bodied, the new film from Detention director Joseph Kahn, takes a sports underdog story and applies it to the world of battle rap in a way that turns the traditional narrative on its head. Its protagonist, Adam Merkin (Calum Worthy, American Vandal), is both hero and villain, a directionless young man whom many of us have been able to relate to at one point or another who wants to understand something that he’s probably not supposed to understand; specifically, “Gee, why do battle rappers get away with saying the ‘N’ word a lot? If I, a college-educated white man, said it, my life would be ruined, but for Them, it’s just another word!” His fascination gets him pushed into an impromptu battle, where he utterly destroys his opponent and garners interest from local battle rap organizers. Suddenly, this white college student from the highly politically correct UC Berkeley is thrust headlong into the highly politically incorrect world of battle rap, setting up a full-throated attack on performative wokeness and forcing the viewer to confront their own fascinations with transgression.

Kahn has to walk a tough line here if you’re a liberal-minded person like myself; political correctness is a target-rich environment, but it’s also regularly lit up by sociopaths and angry baby boomers, so hitting those targets inevitably draws some unwanted comparisons. Personally, I think Kahn does an admirable job demonstrating how basic decency is and isn’t related to political correctness, and in showing the difference between advocating for said decency and trying to score points off of someone else’s moral failings, all without falling back onto unearned sentimentality. Adam’s journey ends up costing him everything, but how much of what he lost was worth holding onto when he didn’t truly believe in much of it? On top of that, how much should he have believed in? The answers are not as clear cut as you’d expect; once the credits roll, you might have a lot to chew on.

And yet, even with everything going on under the surface, it can still be enjoyed as a rousing, hilarious, R-rated sports underdog movie that’s backed by Kahn’s phenomenal eye (assisted here by DP Matt Wise) and Worthy’s incendiary lead performance. Bodied is loud, crass, and not at all for the faint of heart, but underneath all that, it’s sharp, thoughtful, and deeply refreshing.

6.) Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse

It’s one thing for the movie to be a smartly written, engaging and emotional take on an origin story whose major beats we pretty much know by heart at this point. Phil Lord’s self-aware sense of humor (that he normally shares with writing partner Chris Miller, who sits this one out) is in full effect here, and as usual, it feels less about trying to be hip (a fate that befell many of Lord/Miller’s imitators, like Baywatch) and more of a natural part of the story’s charm. Telling the story of Miles Morales is cool enough; what makes it fascinating is how Miles’ story is supported by the handful of other Spider-Men that cross into his universe, a few with fascinating arcs of their own, without ever forgetting who the star of the show is supposed to be. And it uses that crossover to get at a very important point about the appeal of Spider-Man, one that Miles’ story alone wouldn’t have been able to fully get across: “Anyone can wear the mask.”

And if that was all this movie did, that would be plenty. But it just so happens that this film is remarkably designed; I mean the look of this thing is just astonishing. Into the Spider-Verse brings the medium of animation forward in ways only the most ardent believers in the medium could have imagined. Lord and Miller are clearly believers, as are directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman. And whatever they do next, I’m all about it.

5.) Paddington 2

This is hands down the happiest, purest, most huggable film of the year and possibly even ever. Paddington 2 is so sweet and wholesome and downright winning, from its charming recap in its opening moments to its dynamite mid-credits musical number, that I had to fight back a pang of guilt every time I ranked a movie ahead of it. I’ve thrown serious side-eye in the direction of anyone who calls this movie “just okay.” It is magnificent, bursting with enthusiasm, and damn near guaranteed to leave you smiling no matter your mood.

Anything else I have to say would just be filler. The only other thing that needs to be said is that the world needs more movies like this.

4.) Vice

I had certain expectations of what I was going to see based on director Adam McKay’s previous film, The Big Short, as well as his long history of railing against Republican politics and on Jaime’s review of the film. I had some other expectations based on the extremely divisive overall reception the movie’s been getting within the critical community, that maybe the film was too preachy or talked down to its audience. I squeezed this movie in at the last possible second, thinking that this could either make my top ten or pick up a consolation Maguire for its effort.

Nothing prepared me for what I saw.

The big thing McKay nails here is that he resists the temptation to turn Cheney into a cold, diabolical supervillain for most of the movie. As played by Christian Bale, Cheney’s a loving father who’s able to cast his politics, and politics in general, aside once his daughter comes out as gay. The film even has the balls to suggest that if George W. never asked Cheney to be his VP, he might not have turned out so bad.

But that’s not the world we were lucky enough to live in…and even STILL, there’s a sense that for all of Cheney’s disagreeable views on governance and power, for all the ways he arguably changed this world for the worse, for all the pain and suffering he inflicted on others in his position, be it directly or indirectly, McKay can’t help but admire the son of a bitch. Bale is magnetic in the role, for reasons beyond an extraordinary makeup team; he’s quiet, calculating, choosing his words carefully and waiting for the right openings to make his move. He really does seem to be playing nine-dimensional chess while the people around him are absorbed in their intense little games of hopscotch. And it’s kind of fucking upsetting how amazing it is to watch; it’s hands down the best performance of the year.

But rather than use this humanity and political genius to paint a fair and balanced portrait of Cheney, McKay weaponizes whatever begrudging respect he might have inspired and uses it to damn the former VP and obvious war criminal even more thoroughly than an easy “Cheney Bad” characterization would have done. Beyond that, McKay deploys the same playful edge he brought to The Big Short to thoroughly explain the complicated depths that Cheney sunk to. In particular, the breakdown of how he and his crew positioned themselves to essentially puppetmaster the entire Executive Branch is one of the most propulsive scenes of the year, with no small assist from editor Hank Corwin (who also cut The Big Short and happens to be Terence Malick’s go-to guy).

The Big Short was a huge surprise from the Anchorman director. Vice proves it wasn’t an accident; Adam McKay is a force to be reckoned with.

3.) A Wrinkle in Time

Selma was my favorite movie of 2014 and introduced me to Ava DuVernay as a director I needed to watch. Admittedly, I haven’t done such a good job of that; haven’t seen her first two films (I Will Follow, Middle of Nowhere), haven’t seen her TV show (Queen Sugar), haven’t seen her Netflix documentary about the prison system (13th). But I was excited to hear that she landed a big Disney tentpole and could not wait to hear what she could do with a $100M budget.

I did not expect her to go completely buck-wild and turn in what is essentially an art film that throws several wordy concepts at you with machine-gun quickness that essentially all boil down to “Good and evil are tangible forces, love will save the world.”

To many, that was probably ridiculous and saccharine. To me, that’s just freakin’ awesome; it helps that while I don’t think such a sentiment is literally true, it’s nonetheless important to carry with you, especially as the kind of young person this movie is aimed at. I rewatched this film thinking that maybe I was soft on it and I missed something that other critics saw, something that would make this not work as well as it did when I saw it in theaters. There were a couple of things I wished were different: A couple of the needledrops stood out a little too much. Deric McCabe’s performance (as Meg Murry’s adopted brother, Charles Wallace) falls into that unfortunate “obnoxious kid brother” archetype that’s not always pleasant to watch.

In the end, none of that mattered. As soon as we’re introduced to Mrs. Who this movie just takes off for me and doesn’t choke once. The sheer ambition and nerve of it all is enough to astonish, but the execution is sublime. There’s a story here, but DuVernay takes her time making sure you understand the concepts that are driving this story, keeping the pace slower than one might be prepared for. The final result, however, often feels more like visual poetry than a narrative slog. and the images DuVernay creates and presents with these ideas are utterly breathtaking. I ultimately found myself appreciating the slow pace, just to have time to take in everything I was seeing and realize “THIS IS SO COOL.”

DuVernay called a hell of a shot with this one, and damn if it didn’t connect with me. Once again, I’m psyched to see what she does next—in this case, a Netflix miniseries about The Central Park Five. If I’m smart, maybe this time I’ll look at the work she’s already done while I wait.

I had to think long and hard about these next two movies. Their positions on the list switched from moment to moment as I weighed the merits of each one back and forth. Eventually, I came to a decision: A tie in these lists may seem like a cheat, but when two films are as complimentary as these are, it’s the only thing that seems natural.

Listed alphabetically:

1.) BlacKkKlansman [Tied]

On one hand, here is a veteran filmmaker and provocateur wrestling with the sudden surge of populism and fascism on American soil in levels we never saw before, even if people like him always suspected it might happen. Spike Lee is pissed in a way he’s rarely been since his Malcolm X days, and he takes what might be a cute satirical comedy about a black police officer infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan and flips it into a tense (if fictionalized) police thriller, a powerful examination of how hatred presents itself and poisons others, and a vicious polemic against the ways that hatred continues to propagate today. Unlike most movies about how racist people were in the past, Lee will not allow you to leave the theater thinking “Thank God things aren’t like that anymore,” and if he has to use the footage of Heather Heyer’s murder to do it (with her family’s blessing), by God, that’s what he’s going to do.

However, he also balances out this rhetoric with a celebration of blackness, as seen through the montage of beautiful black faces throughout Kwame Ture’s speech and little moments of levity like the “Too Late To Turn Back Now” singalong. Lee also wrestles a bit with the difficult relationship between the police and the black community, ultimately suggesting that while the police need reform, we still need them. At the risk of oversimplifying things, this sentiment famously got him into trouble a few months ago with the director of…

1.) Sorry to Bother You [Tied]

Like BlacKkKlansman, Boots Riley’s film has some things to say about the state of American society. But whereas Lee has a few decades of work under his belt, this is Riley’s first film after a long and celebrated rap career with The Coup. And while Lee’s film targeted hatred and how it warps people’s minds, Riley opts to go after the whole crooked capitalist system—of which, by his socialist perspective, the police that Lee tacitly supports are very much a part of.

Riley’s inexperience behind a camera is clear, but it’s the best thing the film has going for it. Nobody, not even Lee in his prime, would have the balls to take what starts off as a modern riff on Putney Swope and turn it into something I refuse to spoil even all these months later. Suffice to say, Riley’s satirical wit is sharp and deadly, and while there’s a sense that he’s barely in control of his narrative, it’s ultimately part of the film’s scrappy and furious appeal.

Ultimately these two films work in concert with each other to paint a scathing and honest picture of where civilization is at today, blinded by the suffering of others through hatred and greed. More importantly, it also shows how we’re getting through it; with a lot of willpower and no small amount of humor.

Thanks for reading! If you’re interested, you can check out the full ranking of the 2018 movies I saw on my Letterboxd page. And don’t forget to come back to check out Jamie’s top 10, which will apparently be published sometime next week.

All in all, 2018 was a solid year for movies; here’s to an even better 2019!


Chuck Winters Presents: The 2018 Maguire Awards

I love him! I love him for the man he wants to be! And I love him for the man he almost is!

Dorothy Boyd, Jerry Maguire; written by Cameron Crowe

Well folks, it’s the end of the year. You may have forgotten what that feels like since this year felt about as long as ten years, but as we all go through our various end-of-year rituals, us critics have to start thinking about the best movies we’ve seen this year so we can pick our horses for the Oscar race and yell at everyone who doesn’t agree with us.

In addition to our best of lists, however, many of us like to publish “Worst Of” lists. Not me. To be clear, I don’t mean to be judgmental of those who do; looking over my Letterboxd Diary it seems I’ve only seen 78 films from this year. There’s one more I’m hoping to squeeze in, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s a little low for someone who calls himself a film critic, and as much as I rag on critics who build careers out of hating movies, I respect the urge to just go “fuck you fuck you fuck you fuck you fuck you” at all the films that wasted your precious life one last time before you have to move on.

I’ve yet to hit that point, though, so dwelling on the stains of the year just doesn’t interest me. What does interest me, however, are movies that missed their mark in whole or in part but still get at something interesting or worth looking at. I don’t think we do enough to acknowledge these interesting, perhaps noble failures, and while I’ve got this platform, I think I’d like to put my money where my mouth is.

Enter The Maguire Awards, a non-sequential list of five movies I saw this year that fell short in various ways but still get my respect and, yeah, my love. Maybe they left it all out on the field, so to speak. Maybe their successes were completely unintentional. Maybe they just had too much nerve to not be respected. Whatever the reason, I think they’re worth saluting as we close the book on 2018.

Enough preamble; let’s jump in.

Ocean’s 8

I actually love this movie; as I said in my review, it’s strangled by some uninspired cinematography and editing in contrast to the original trilogy—which was already going to be impossible to live up to, given that those movies were directed, shot, and edited by a borderline living legend. Gary Ross tries his best, but he doesn’t have Steven Soderbergh’s cool hand; the film’s visual plan feels like a flat diet version of the master filmmaker’s style as a result. It’s disappointing, especially when you consider the multiple female filmmakers out there with dynamic styles of their own who could’ve given this film a more unique and appropriate identity.

Give Ross credit, though: He put together a hell of a crew for this spinoff—I’m tempted to go down the list to pad things out, but for these purposes it’s just easier to say that everyone kills—and he and Olivia Milch gave them a fun, solid script to work from that subtly comments on the patriarchal world these women live under without losing track of the fun heist flick we came to see. (It also winks at the absurd nature of the spinoff. Danny Ocean is supposed to be dead, but Debbie doesn’t believe it, and her denial barely registers as a point of drama because this is Danny F’ing Ocean we’re talking about here.)

No, it doesn’t live up to its progenitor, but it goes the distance, and god bless it.

A Futile and Stupid Gesture

It’s a biopic, with all the good and bad that comes with: the high highs of success, the low lows of drug use (there’s always drugs somewhere and it’s always bad), and the plot beats that you can set your watch to, especially after a quick Wikipedia lookup of the subject. If you wanted to be cheeky, you could say that A Futile and Stupid Gesture is aptly named, celebrating the genius of Doug Kenney and mourning his damage without really digging into how the two were linked and using his story to teach us anything beyond “Yeah, apparently even brilliant, funny people can have depression, it really sucks.” Arguably, if you can’t do that, what’s the point?

Damn if David Wain doesn’t try to do his subject justice, though. The director of Wet Hot American Summer can’t dig into Kenney, but he still did his damnedest to tell the National Lampoon co-founder’s story in a way that would have made Kenney proud. Whether he succeeds at that or not, I’m in no position to say. But the movie is genuinely hysterical, in ways that feel right at home with what I know of Kenney’s sense of humor (going off Caddyshack and Animal House). Key to that: An inspired framing device of an older alternate reality Kenney (played by Martin Mull) narrating the story and popping in every so often to crack wise at the necessary sanitization and even outright invention that comes with the biopic format.

Beyond that, Wain has a blast recreating the little-dramatized comedy scene of the 70s. Watching this, there’s no doubt that he feels a great debt to Kenney and everyone involved with the Lampoon for inspiring his own work; the film is shot through with reverence for the subject. This can be dangerous, but considering the sheer number of outright legends that came from this era, such reverence feels appropriate and warranted (even if, by the film’s own admission, “everyone was a lot more sexist and racist than they appear to be”). Wain also gets excellent performances from his cast. As Kenney, Will Forte is in prime form, and Domhnall Gleeson is a great foil for him as Henry Beard. But nearly walking away with the whole show is Thomas Lennon’s utterly bonkers turn as Michael O’Donoghue. This is the versatile State alumnus’ best performance to date; wherever he pulled that from, I want more of it.

Ultimately, the film doesn’t stick with you the way it probably should have. But it’s funny enough and just unique enough to more than justify its own existence.

Mile 22

“You wanna talk about Russian interference? You wanna talk about election hacking? Pay attention dipshit: Peter Berg’s always been a smarter filmmaker than most of the mindless sheep of this world give him credit for, but my motherfucker lives in two worlds. In one world he’s a good liberal boy—maybe neoliberal or centrist but who gives a flying fuck unless you’re a goddamn commie or something, I dunno—who once fuckbarreled Mitt Romney for using ‘Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose’ in his presidential campaign. In the other, he’s a dude that comes from a Navy family who gets off on watching this country’s military and police flex on rude fucks who step out of line. So you get movies like The Kingdom and Battleship and Lone Survivor that revel in war but are also cheekily anti-war, you could write a whole fuckin’ book about that shit really, but he goes out and makes this movie, where all his characters are badass spec-ops types that seriously talk and swear just like this, like fuckin’ Lenny Bruce stubbing his toe on a cop’s dick while suckin’ on your momma’s titty. And they talk like this because they think if they make even one mistake it could literally be the end of western civilization, which simultaneously puts them under some real fuckin’ pressure while inflating their egos to the size of a meteor that could wipe out life on Earth. And it’s possible that the whole goddamn fuckin’ point of this movie as underlined by its twist ending is that these sad fucks and their ‘fuck you I’ll smoke you and your whole fuckin’ family if you step in my fuckin’ area you fuckin’ fuck-ass fuck’ approach to life might actually be a net negative for the world. It sure as fuck ain’t good for their interpersonal lives.

“But—partly because Berg’s working with noted Southie hate crime perpetrator Mark Wahlberg, who got to be the big fuckin’ hero in Berg’s three back-to-back movies about real-life tragedies—any meaningful message gets drowned out by basic-ass ‘hoo-rah’ Call of Duty Black Ops bullshit, Poe’s Law One-Oh-Motherfucking-One. Couple this with the decision to show much of the action on security cams that are constantly shaking, leaving you with no sense of geography in a movie with action phenom Iko Motherbitching Uwais, and you’ve got a real five-alarm four-star shitshow starring Brian D’Arcy James in a limited engagement at the Shubert Fucking Theatre. But that doesn’t mean you just wipe your ass with it like your three-year-old’s drawing of the family dog because my dude Peter Berg is a smart motherfucker and when smart motherfuckers fail, it’s still worth watching unless you’re gonna be a punk-ass bitch about it.”

“Sir, this is a Wendy’s.”



(Zhui bu)

There are two ways to look at John Woo’s big return to popcorn filmmaking. One way, it’s an absurd, cornball half-measure of a film with a plot that doesn’t seem to make any sense helmed by an unengaged director cashing in on his considerable reputation. The other is that Woo, even at his best, has always had an absurd cornball streak and is having a blast dusting off all his old tropes and twisting them in fun ways. For instance, his signature doves return, but this time Woo really leans into the spiritual symbolism of their presence by having them literally save the lives of our main characters through not one, but two freak coincidences, one after the other. The akimbo gunfighting style Woo popularized? Returns for a scene with a brilliant innovation that pays homage to Hitchcock, Woo’s favorite director. Just about all his old films and tropes get referenced at some point, right down to the final line of Broken Arrow—and then just for the hell of it, he drops “A Better Tomorrow” into a line of dialogue at the last minute.

As far as I’m concerned, this is The Maestro having fun with his own legend in the hopefully-long winter of his life. Does it work as a movie? Hell no. As mentioned, the plot goes completely off the rails, with a lot of disparate elements that, while not necessarily boring, probably could’ve been cut or reworked to streamline things without losing too much. Still, it’s a blast to watch; even if all it does is remind the world that nobody does Woo like Woo, it’s more than enough to get my thumbs up.

(Note: As you can see from the poster, this film was released in China in November of 2017 after bowing at that year’s Toronto International Film Festival. However, I’m counting it as a 2018 film as that’s when most of the world—and more importantly, I—got to see it.)

Bad Times at the El Royale

If this movie was somehow 30 minutes shorter, we’d probably be talking about a stone classic. Two and a half hours is way too long to be sitting for such a nasty little neo-noir like this, even one that takes such clear inspiration from Quentin Tarantino. I was in a weird position at the 100-minute mark of the movie, thinking to myself “Wow, this is great…but shouldn’t they be wrapping up soon? My butt’s kind of hurting.”

There’s a lot of strong elements here that can’t quite congeal into a strong overall package for whatever reason. Drew Goddard shoots a hell of a film with DP Seamus McGarvey, and his script, pacing issues aside, keeps throwing new surprises at you, even after you think he’d be tapped out. His ensemble is stellar; as (most of) the established names in this cast, Jeff Bridges, Jon Hamm, and Dakota Johnson are rock solid, giving ample room for relative newcomers Cynthia Erivo, Lewis Pullman, and Cailee Spaeny to break out with some juicy, ferocious roles of their own. Then there’s Chris Hemsworth, giving an outstanding against-type performance as a murderous cult leader who seems to dance in from a whole other movie to turn this one completely on its head. Now add in some gorgeous late 60s production design and a badass soundtrack, including score from the reliable-at-worst Michael Giacchino and a collection of 60s standards that fit the movie like a glove. I’ll probably associate Deep Purple’s “Hush” with this movie’s heart-stopping roulette scene for the rest of my life, and I’m more than a little mad that Erivo’s cover of Sam & Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Coming” isn’t available anywhere.

All the individual pieces of this movie are so, so, so good, which is why I wish it didn’t feel almost like a chore to sit through it the first time. Turns out you probably can have too much of a good thing.

(Note: Jaime Rebanal loved this movie a little more than I did.)

So there you have it: Five films that don’t quite fall into greatness but still deserve to be admired for what they are and perhaps almost were. I’ll be back on Monday with my top ten of the year, but for the weekend, I’m throwing it over to you: I want you to tweet me @DivisionPost with five films from this year that you respect more than you actually like. Films that went big but fell short for you. Films with problems you recognize but don’t give a damn about. Because sometimes, the movies that demand our passion are the ones with the most glaring weaknesses to defend against.

So tell me: What were your Maguires this year?