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Monday
Apr292019

Marvel Cinematic Universe REVIEWS...Ranked

Every once in awhile, a listicle emerges that is so pointless and self-serving as to render an entire genre of Internet content unnecessary. I humbly submit this piece as a contender.

The following is not my ranking of MCU films, but rather my commentary about them. Some are podcast episodes; some are exhausting exhaustive reviews; others are fake transcripts of real meetings.* In assembling this list, I realized that I've neither written about nor formally discussed the movie that started it all, 2008's Iron Man.

I'll have to right that wrong someday. For now, please enjoy Kicking the Seat's road to Endgame.

1. Doctor Strange

2. Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2

3. Iron Man 2

4. Captain America: Civil War

5. Captain Marvel

6. Black Panther (and the conclusion of that discussion)

7. Avengers Endgame

8. Avengers: Infinity War 

9. Ant-Man and the Wasp

10. Spider-Man: Homecoming

11. Avengers: Age of Ultron

12. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

13. Captain America: The First Avenger

14. The Avengers

15. Guardians of the Galaxy

16. Iron Man 3

17. Ant-Man

18. Thor: The Dark World

19. Thor: Ragnarok

20. Thor

21. The Incredible Hulk 

*I assume.

Wednesday
Jan232019

Kicking the Seat's Top 18 Films of 2018

No Particular Order. Very Particular Reasons.

Cold War is trash. Roma is a pretty waste of time. I still haven't seen Minding the Gap.

The table is set.

Let's go.

Deadpool 2 was one of the year's biggest box office successes, but I can't find anyone who, like me, thinks it's better than the original. The sequel expands on 2016's meta-comics-movie sleeper hit with a genuinely exciting and smart update on Terminator 2 and Looper (Hey, if you're gonna steal, steal from the best). Josh Brolin's time-traveling assassin, Cable, and Zazie Beetz's charmed mutant, Domino, provide balance to the Level 10 antics of Ryan Reynolds' titular invincible hit man, who squeezes out some tears amid the exhausting torrents of one-liners.

Speaking of movies nobody loves, the critical and financial ravaging of Solo: A Star Wars Story still baffles me seven months later. Only a trip to the alternate universe next door will reveal whether the Han Solo origin story tanked due to rotten press surrounding production troubles, anti-SJW boycotts, and/or franchise fatigue--or if the movie really was bad enough to keep everyone away. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and am more than a little bummed that this iteration of the swashbuckling space serial has been jettisoned to a galaxy far, far, far, far away.

Then there's the movie everyone saw. Ryan Coogler's landmark epic Black Panther continued Marvel's tradition of building story-and-effects-driven powerhouses around obscure characters. Chadwick Boseman's performance was not as interesting as his character's ultra-nationalistic leanings--or the globalist motivations of arch-nemesis Killmonger (played with three-dimensional intensity by MVP Michael B. Jordan). Despite some detours into genre cliché, Black Panther is remarkably substantive--unlike its calorie-rich, nutritionally deficient summer follow-up, Avengers: Infinity War.

How did this happen? How can one explain explain why Upgrade flopped, when the lesser version of it (Marvel Comics-based Venom, starring an identical actor in an identical role) became one of 2018's most head-scratching successes? Logan Marshall Green plays a mechanic who receives an A.I. implant following an attack that killed his girlfriend and left him paralyzed. Imbued with a cybernetic brain-butler and an arsenal of lethal moves, he embarks on a bloody revenge mission that ends darkly and honestly. Never mind. I just answered my own questions.

Seeing A Quiet Place was the most remarkable moviegoing experience I had in 2018. The film proves to be an effective yet glaringly episodic theme park ride in the harsh light of day. But in the moment, in a packed theatre surrounded by equally entranced audience members, John Krasinski's thriller about murderous, sound-sensitive aliens terrorizing a rural family provided a real-world example of movies as a religious experience. No crinkling candy wrappers. No whispered scene summaries from one texting idiot to another. We were all engaged, silent, and open to being amazed.

Like the athletes featured in In Search of Greatness, director Gabe Polsky did the impossible: he made me care about sports. This is more than a talking-heads doc about legends like Wayne Gretzky, Pele, and Jerry Rice. It's a look at what it takes to succeed in sports and in life, and an exposé of society's role in shaping those metrics from one generation to the next (not always for the better). If you want ninety minutes of underdog stories, down-to-the-buzzer drama, and well-worn highlight reels, look elsewhere. Polsky cares more about perfecting the viewer's head-heart coordination.

If 42 Grams were about food and not sports, it might be called The Price of Greatness. Jack C. Newell's uncompromising look at chef Jake Bickelhaupt and his beleaguered wife/business partner Alexa Welsh's journey from underground chefs to feted restaurateurs is a five-star blend of food porn and cautionary tale, which will someday serve as the "Welcome to" video for a "Spouses of Artists" support group. Bickelhaupt's relentless pursuit of a restaurant, then a Michelin Star, then more Michelin Stars is the kind of real-life horror movie that necessitated nervous eating.

My kryptonite: franchise pictures, remakes, and every other attempt to push familiar product on audiences. That said, studios are getting better at making their risk-aversion tentpoles at least feel unique. A Star is Born should be awful. In this gazillion-dollar, third-iteration story, Bradley Cooper plays a country superstar who discovers a sensation-in-the-making (Lady Gaga) while on the way to flaming out. I almost believed these glamorous people were ugly, tormented, and doomed, thanks to strong performances and a soundtrack that won't make you want to hang yourself.

On the other end of the fame spectrum is King Cohen: The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen. Steve Mitchell's documentary about the cult writer/director is a testament to art and guts. If you've never heard of Cohen, and would never deign to watch a movie called The Stuff, check out this story of a New York dreamer whose climb up the entertainment ladder resulted not only in B-grade entertainment that would inspire the likes of Martin Scorsese and J.J. Abrams, but also gave us TV Westerns, cop shows, and Blacksploitation. Wild, huh?

First Reformed isn't just another Mid-life Meltdown Movie. It's a prayer set to film, a desperate cry for answers from a force that writer/director Paul Schrader hopes is tending the light at the end of the tunnel (props to Hunter Thompson). Ethan Hawke transcends the Morose-Alcoholic-Man-of-Faith archetype in a career-best performance. Sure, things go haywire in Act Three--especially with that Sopranos-finale ending. But few films so boldly marry form and function, allowing the assured path of religious devotion to erode into the inscrutable chaos that attends man's twilight fears.

Speaking of Hawke, his latest directorial effort, Blaze, is a new spin on the doomed-musician biopic. Ben Dickey plays cult Austin singer-songwriter Blaze Foley, an unhinged beast who lives in the woods with his wife (Alia Shawkat) and plays rambling sets in dive bars. Hawke and co-writer Sybil Rosen use a radio interview with Foley's contemporaries to bookend their sprawling vignettes (Charlie Sexton as Townes Van Zandt narrowly robs the picture from Dickey). The result is a tall tale about a man born to become a myth that’s also a well-guarded secret.

There's nothing funny about urban legends, if they happen to be true. Remember those creepy-clown sightings a few years back? They started with the short-film version of Gags, Adam Krause's found-footage horror movie about Wisconsinites who encounter an other-worldly clown. An ambitious news reporter, a militant right-wing YouTuber, and an assortment of hapless youth all get face time with the silent killer and his eerie black balloons. Yeah, the genre is played out, but Krause and writer John Pata put the scares and humor first, and slam a cream pie in the face of gimmickry.

I wasn't impressed with the dreary, pretentious art film about a European dance troupe in thrall to dark spells that bring out the worst in its members. But I promised myself I'd stop ragging on Cold War. Luca Guadagnino's remake of Suspiria is a remarkable bit of otherworldly entertainment, an update of the 1977 Dario Argento fright fest that manages to expand on familiar themes while conjuring up new avenues involving the struggle between hell's minions and their clueless pawns here on Earth. Beautiful. Gross. Indelible. Not even Dakota Johnson can knock this film out of step.

To quote those bards of late-90s pop, Hanson, "Where's the Love"? It's a cosmic injustice that Kin never found a wider audience in theatres. Maybe it was the uncertainty of an off-brand-property-in-the-making. Maybe the lousy trailers lulled potential moviegoers into thinking they'd pegged the film before having watched it. Those that gave Jonathan and Josh Baker's wild, family-bonding-and-aliens-and-drug-dealers-and-strippers road movie a chance, though, were privy to a touching and imaginative underground classic--this generation's ultimate sleepover flick. 

Here's a dirty little secret--a reward, if you will, for having read this far: This was initially going to be my final "Best of" list, ever. It's as hard writing recaps of the previous year's movies once the new year has begun as it is wading through the mixed feelings and expectations that come with dreaming up "rankings" in the first place. But if I give this up, I'm also giving up the chance to re-highlight films I hold dear. Jason Coffman's Housesitters is a singular experience, a no-budget horror comedy about porn-loving best friends who get chased by demons while chasing highs. It's funnier than anything you watched last year (and that includes Cold War).

Not all comic-book movies are blockbusters. I Kill Giants has a giant hammer, city-smashing monsters, and world-ending stakes. But the heroics are confined to the mind of a pre-teen girl. Barbara (Madison Wolfe) doesn't belong, except in a fantasy realm where she stands between brutal titans and unsuspecting mankind. Her reality is no less effective after you realize who/what she’s really trying to kill. The filmmakers strike all the right chords, turning the comic’s dour ink washes into a vivid adolescent stepping stone reminiscent of the 1980s’ best coming-of-age flicks.

Not all comic-book movies contribute to "superhero fatigue", but it's fair to say that some characters have outstayed their welcomes. I thought Spider-Man fit that bill until Into The Spider-Verse came out. Miraculously, the teen web-slinger's fourth big-screen incarnation in less than two decades is the franchise's best. The writers have fun with movie and comic-book continuity; the casting offers a bold new perspective on the teen hero in red-and-blue pajamas; and the hyper-kinetic, stop-motion-inspired visuals inject radioactive life into a film that's anything but tired.

The phrase "strong female character" has become as gimmicky and boring as its companion fads, sea salt and MAGA. Writer/director Christian Papierniak upends the trend by giving us a vulnerable, oh-so-messed-up protagonist in Izzy Gets the Fuck Across Town. Izzy (MacKenzie Davis) is determined to stop her ex from getting engaged, despite a series of personal, transportational, and criminal obstacles. This film is an antidote to millennial entitlement and a condemnation of the failing social fabric that created it--a rare mirror that's alternately held by, and up to, the viewer.

Monday
Mar192018

Three Questions with FLOWER's Zoey Deutch

Zoey Deutch is bona fide geek royalty. Her father, Howard Deutch, directed Pretty in Pink, Some Kind of Wonderful, and The Great Outdoors. Her mother, Lea Thompson, kissed Howard the Duck (oh, she was also Marty McFly's mom--and the star of Some King of Wonderful).

But this luminous young actress is on her way to forging a unique path in the movies, with roles in Everybody Wants Some!!, The Disaster Artist, and Rebel in the Rye.

Deutch's performance in Max Winkler's Flower may just put her on the map. She stars as Erika, a seventeen-year-old high schooler who stashes money by sexually blackmailing adults of note in her town (a feat that is depressingly profitable). When her new brother-in-law, Luke (Joey Morgan) moves out of rehab and into the already dysfunctional family home, Erika reaches out in the only way she knows how (Hint: it doesn't involve bonding over video games).

The plot blossoms as the the title suggests, with the bright petals of a teen coming-of-age movie masking the twisty, nefarious weeds of a harrowing (yet oddly tender) adult drama.

I caught up with Zoey Deutch over email a couple weeks ago, and asked her about preparing for Flower, as well as what's next on the horizon.

I spoke with Max Winkler recently, and he said your audition had a spark to it that was missing from the other actresses trying out for the role of “Erica”. Was there something in your real-life experiences that helped connect you with the material and bring out the authenticity that Max (and, later, the audience) responded to?

I just loved how frustrated she was. And how frustrating she was. I responded to that element of the character. I remember so vividly at 17 being so frustrated and being so frustrating. She’s lost and looking for control. At 17, with all the changes that are taking place, the strange hormones running through your body and agents of change, I think that all of Erica ‘s bad behavior comes from the fact that she feels very much out of control, which desperately scares her.

Between her father taking off when she was young, Erica has found her entire identity through her very unhealthy relationship with her mother. Which is more like sisters than an authoritarian relationship. 

Your on-screen chemistry with Dylan Gelula and Maya Eshet is so great. I could watch a whole movie about Erica, Kala, and Claudine just hanging out. How did the three of you bond in preparation for shooting Flower?

Max encouraged us to spend as much time together as possible before we even read through the script. We went to the mall, had meals together, raided vintage stores and started getting clothes that we thought our characters would wear, and a lot that stuff ended up in the movie, which, I think, made us really feel comfortable and felt like an organic way to get into the character.

When it came to time to actually do our "formal rehearsals" if you can call it that, we spent a lot of time just reading the script out loud and putting things in our own words, improvising a lot. Max really wanted it to just feel real and organic, and stuff we would actually say. 

What exciting projects do you have coming up, that you can talk about?

I’m excited about Set it Up, coming out pretty soon. It’s a real fun romantic comedy that I made with Everybody Wants Some co-star Glen Powell. It was written, produced, edited and directed by women and I’m super proud of the film.

To hear Ian's interview with Flower co-writer/director Max Winkler--and to find out you can see Zoey and Max at select Chicago-area screenings this weekend--check out Kicking the Seat Podcast #304!

Wednesday
Feb072018

MISGUIDED Tour: An Interview with Shannon Alexander

Writer/director Shannon Alexander's The Misguided is a truly strange and invigorating indie about two low-life brothers whose relationships with drugs, women, and crime are only slightly more tenuous than their own warped familial bond. The movie plays like a not-quite-found-footage account of restless twenty-somethings alternately looking for meaning in and escape from Perth, Australia.

I caught up with Alexander via email (my first-ever interview of this kind, so be gentle), and he shared some insights into the making of his feature debut.

There was a five-year gap between your first short, The Caravan, and your second, A Fine Stash. Yet you jumped from A Fine Stash right into your first feature, The Misguided. What were you working on in the interim, and what was it about that second short that propelled you to the next level of filmmaking?

Between my short documentary, The Caravan (2010), I was studying cinema, enjoying life, reading and whatnot, working on commissioned directing work in the commercial and video world, and simultaneously working on screenplays. I began writing The Misguided in 2014 and it was completed in 2017, released early 2018.

During the post period in 2017 we shot A Fine Stash which is a companion piece to the feature. So we shot the movie first then created a short, which has completely different characters and narrative, but features both the leads of Caleb [Galati] and Steve [] who play two close-knit thieves and retains the dark comic flavour and circular plot design of the feature.

I don’t want to get too personal here, but the underworld elements of The Misguided feel so strange as to be either the product of a truly demented imagination--or tidbits drawn from first-hand experience. How much of these characters and situations (especially Wendel’s oddball mix of charm, arrogance, and incompetence) did you glean from real-lfie encounters, and how much was you just making stuff up and hoping the audience would buy it?

It’s probably from my demented imagination after a lifetime of watching many warped movies and TV series. It’s not autobiographical at all. Some of the characters' vocabularies and mannerisms were influenced by real people whose paths I’ve crossed in general life; the slang was obviously parochial and something I couldn’t help but be attuned to and probably revealed itself in the script.

In terms of Wendel, Steve and I saw him as a lonely guy with big dreams, ill-equipped to fulfil any of them, due to his bad habits and lack of direction and guidance. He hates to be lonely and loves his brother more than anything and would do anything for him. I like working with actors who can bring their own experiences and spirits and apply it to their characters, so there was no idea that anyone brought that was off limits. The goal was just to create 3D, living, breathing characters and the actors gave me what I wanted. I enjoy working with actors who’ve lived life and experienced pain and joy and everything in between.

Caleb and Steve starred in A Fine Stash and then made the leap with you into The Misguided. Their roles could not have been more different, though, and watching the short after having seen the feature was quite eye-opening. During the audition process, what stood out about each actor that suggested they might not only be right for your goofy heist short, but possibly to carry a more substantive film?

Steve, Caleb, and I have great shorthand and had already commenced working together on the feature when we decided to make a short, which was a snap decision and made over the course of one weekend. It felt like a vacation for us to create a short so spontaneously and it was a blast to rehearse and shoot after the lengthy considerations that went into The Misguided. When we were casting initially, I noticed they had strong screen presence, especially together, and could carry the film.

One of the many things I love about The Misguided is your refusal as a creator to allow your film to be categorized. It’s part small-town-criminal-underworld movie; part sibling-rivalry drama; part lovey-dovey-late-night-driving-around movie--and probably three other things that combine to give the movie its unique (and miraculously balanced voice). How important was referencing, combining, and subverting genre to the writing process--or was this just the way you’d always imagined your bonkers story coming out?

Thank you. The cast recognized this too and gave me a lot of support and trust in my evolving ideas and the confluence of styles. I always thought of it as a hybrid of those standard plots you mentioned and a combination of genres that I drew from a wide range of films and the objective of injecting them into the one movie. We tried to set up the normal realities of the characters first and then defy viewer’s expectations of who these people are. Who’s doing the real manipulation? And is the filmmaker also in on the trickery? Shifting various styles and using certain techniques and motifs throughout needed to feel unified, which was a risk.

The nature of the characters also veered the story in the direction it went and I wanted to strike a balance between the regular and larger-than-life characters that showed different aspects of the subculture. These are real kids who are living a movie-like life.

Talk about the scene late in the film, where Wendel and Levi rough each other up on the playground. It’s The Misguided’s harshest scene in terms of physical violence, but your cutting away to the metal rocking horses reminds us that these monsters were once innocent boys who went astray at some point--which adds an element of tragedy to all the face-smashing. Did you have this in mind when putting the scene together; did this element reveal itself in the edit; or is my pretentious critic-mind just digging for meaning where there is none?

It was a well-rehearsed scene, and we didn’t want any real physical contact to be made initially, but we shot the scene and saw the rushes and realised how fake it looked so we decided to re-choreograph it and do it for real. Caleb was getting punched in the head by Steve because they both agreed it would make the scene more believable.

I was amazed by their total commitment throughout the entire process. As for the rocking horse, I’m happy you caught that. It’s definitely the play between the brothers' innocence and their corruption. At some point they were children, they’ve played together at that very park hundreds of times, and now they’ve returned twenty years later in such a violent but still playful way. At one point Levi is smiling and looking like he’s really into his self-imposed bashing.

They’re kids lacking strong familial discipline and influence, they’re battlers. I also wanted to cut away similarly to the cat glaring at Levi from afar earlier; I wanted some voyeuristic off-screen space of suggesting "someone watching"; that’s how schemes get unravelled. And, of course, it’s a funny contrasting image. It’s only a two/three-second shot but I’m glad you brought it up because it’s there for a reason.

Filmmaking can be a fiercely time-consuming, expensive, and collaborative effort, especially in the realm of low-budget indies. What was the greatest hurdle you had to overcome while making The Misguided? Also, what advice would you give to yourself if you could tap pre-production Shannon on the shoulder?

It was a constant hurdle. I assumed many production roles. The commitment to the task dawned on me just before the shoot and I thought there was a high chance it wouldn’t get made. I wasn’t even sure if the cast would turn up on the way to location on the first day, but I felt a sense of confidence, maybe because Zimmer’s score from Gladiator was playing in the car at the time.

The plan was to stay fit, healthy, no consumption of hard stimulants or anything to stay in it for the long haul. Post-production was a challenge. The hardware and the recorded sound had issues; next time a bit more cash would be ideal. It took a long time finessing the technicalities in post without a high-end set up.

Otherwise, no regrets. I feel well versed in most aspects of the long-form process now.

Once you’d finished The Misguided, how did you decide what to do with it? In this content-saturated creative landscape, did you have difficulty getting eyes on your film?

I approached distributors’ direct and sent screeners. Lucky that an Australian distributor and
an American one agreed to release in their respective territories.

Wendel and Levi are one of the most unique and darkly charismatic movie duos I’ve seen in years. The Misguided ends as it needed to, wrapping up their arc (sort of), but I got the feeling that their misadventures in miscommunication would continue for the rest of their lives. Any thoughts on revisiting these characters down the road?

Ambiguous and open endings create curiosity that make stories live on. Hopefully the viewer comes to their own conclusions of where they go in the short term. A spin-off or sequel would be a trip. I love these characters.

What has been the most surprising reaction you’ve received to The Misguided?

I hope the viewer either loves it or hates it. So far it seems to have brought out a response in people--savageness or praise, haha.

What’s next on the horizon? In addition to promoting The Misguided, are there any projects percolating that you’re eager to start working on?

I have another two or three scripts that I started outlining along with The Misguided that need to get done next.

And thanks for your time, I appreciate the opportunity to chat!

Sunday
Dec312017

Kicking the Seat's Top 17 Films of 2017!

It's as hard to nail down a theme for the films of 2017 as it is to pick a favorite, so let's not bother. Look for a common thread in my choices for the year's "best" movies, and you'll wind up sorting through a brightly colored fistful of mismatched yarn. There's more horror here than I'd expected, along with two documentaries about musicians, and a heaping helping of dramas confronting existential dread. There are as many films featuring accused sex offenders as there are pictures that may never see the light of day (for very different reasons).

But there's hope here, too.

This won't look like a lot of other Year End lists you're likely to read. Nothing new there. I didn't see everything 2017 had to offer (Phantom Thread, The Post, All the Money in the World). And much of the buzzed-about marquee stuff I did see registered only as half-decent swings and misses (Wonder Woman, Get Out, The Big SickCall Me By Your Name).

The only connective tissue is purely subjective: these seventeen films, plus the honorable mentions that follow, knocked me out and provided, to varying degrees, unparalleled movie-watching experiences. They challenged me. They made me re-think life, death, art, and criticism. Above all, they led to some unforgettable conversations, which are linked to in the hyperlinked titles of each blurb. 

Seek these out, and be enriched. Or confused and pissed off. There's little difference.

Before watching Colin Hay: Waiting for My Real Life, I knew very little about the Men at Work front man. This documentary by Nate Gowtham and Aaron Faulls follows Hay's magnificent second act as a humbled, soul-searching road musician whose journey from pop powerhouse to lyrical shaman serves as both cautionary tale and inspiration. Hay is a master storyteller whose wistful and often humorous tales of heartache electrify venues all over the world, from sold-out clubs to sparsely populated, middle-of-nowhere dive bars.

Character actor John Carroll Lynch makes one of the warmest directorial debuts in recent memory, helming a movie about an aged atheist (Harry Dean Stanton) grappling with an existential crisis. Lucky asks the Big Questions, and doesn't let the audience or its characters off the hook. I was so shaken by Stanton's performance, and by the words of writers Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja, that I've neither reviewed nor revisited the film since seeing it this summer--hence my first resolution of 2018.

 

The year's biggest "event movie" involved neither comic-book characters nor Jedi, and released in January. Woody Harrelson's Lost in London was a truly one-night-only experience, live-streamed to theatres across the country in a single-take, multi-location performance that has yet to play again or hit home video. Technical difficulties, actor gaffes, and a sunrise-skirting climax were minor hiccups in Harrelson's semi-autobiographical narrative comedy. There's rarely anything new under the marquee these days, and it was refreshing to spend two hours on the edge of my seat.

It's not fair to bag on comic-book movies, especially especially when they're as oddball and surprisingly moving as Guardians of the Galaxy Volume Two. James Gunn's follow-up has more heart, brains, and laughs than its pop culture-regurgitating predecessor, and even the Empire Strikes Back-aping themes are expanded upon instead of merely presented for laughs of recognition. All hail Kurt Russell as Star Lord's (Chris Pratt) celestial-god dad. And can we get Michael Rooker some kind of award for making us give a shit about Yondu?

While we're sucking off the Mouse, let's look at Disney's other gargantuan 2017 blockbuster. With Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson deconstructs forty years of beloved mythos as only a true fanboy could. Ironically, the Internet wants his head. Between petitions to have Episode 8 stricken from canon and the contradictory claim that Disney has "played it safe" by letting Johnson "destroy" Star Wars, it's clear that the writer/director has struck a nerve. Unclear the future is. Giddy about this am I.

 

You could easily mistake Ana Lily Amirpour's The Bad Batch for a half-dozen other Post-Apocalypse movies, but don't be fooled by the aesthetics. This trippy, unforgiving, and oh-so-imaginative trek through desert wastelands controlled by cannibals and zen messiahs doesn't hold a mirror up to a society that could be--but to one that, in many ways, already is. As a bonus, you get the big-screen Jason Momoa acting showcase that failed to materialize in Justice League!

 

Speaking of acting showcases, who knew that Parks and Recreation's Jim O'Heir was such a dark and twisted dude? Friend and collaborator Ned Crowley, apparently, who put O'Heir front and center in Middle Man, a black-comedy/horror road trip about an aspiring comedian who picks up the wrong hitchhiker while driving to Vegas. Powered by tragicomic turns from O'Heir, Anne Dudek, and Andrew J. West, this supernatural spin on The King of Comedy offers a devilish critique of show-business and the seemingly endless procession of bodies eager to feed it.

Fame and horror went to prom in 2017, chaperoned by Tyler MacIntyre's brilliant horror comedy, Tragedy Girls. With seductively savage performances from Alexandra Shipp and Brianna Hildebrand and a wry, uncompromising script by MacIntyre, Chris Lee Hill, and Justin Olson, this story of social-media-obsessed high school psychos belongs in the pantheon of relentless teen-angst masterpieces like Scream an Heathers.

 

High school horror makes another appearance on the "Best of" list, but don't look to My Friend Dahmer to deliver the kind of lurid thrills implicit in its title. Marc Meyers' adaptation of John "Derf" Backderf's graphic novel presents Jeffrey Dahmer's teen years as the kind of overwhelmingly sad experience that might turn some to suicide, and others to murder. In a star-making lead performance, Ross Lynch creates a troubled youth who you may even root for--until the final moments when Dahmer crosses the point of no return. Tragic. Real. Unforgettable.

Speaking of real, I have seen few contemporary filmmakers as keenly observant of the human condition as Michael Glover Smith. Mercury in Retrograde follows three couples during a wooded weekend retreat that puts their friendships and romances to the test. Smith pushes his cast, script, and budget to the very limit, delivering the kind of polished, literate, and heartfelt drama that cinephiles and film critics crave whenever the house lights come down--and which mainstream audiences would likely devour, if given the chance.

In my ideal world, multiplexes would play Mercury in Retrograde on a double bill with Columbus. Kogonada's walkabout drama centers on the son of a famous architect (John Cho) who gets sidelined in the titular Indiana town after his dad suffers a stroke. He meets a local girl (Haley Lu Richardson) whose ambitions have been stifled by time and circumstance. Their chats are deep, their emotions are complicated, and their path is unconventional by Hollywood standards. By the time the credits roll, you'll swear you've visited Columbus and met its top misfits.

I'd never thought of Sammy Davis, Jr. as a misfit until watching Samuel D. Pollard's eye-opening documentary: Sammy Davis, Jr.: I've Gotta Be Me. This intimate look at Davis as artist, activist, and cultural icon always tap-dancing between the shifting plates of pop taste is guaranteed to create a new generation of fans. And I promise you won't be able to shake "Mr. Bojangles" out of your ears for at least a week afterwards; its significance has haunted me for months.

 

We turn now from mid-century social unrest to the barely contained madness of modern-day business. Joe Lynch's Mayhem is the better of the two "Battle Royale in the Workplace" thrillers that came out this year. Samara Weaving's performance will imprint on your soul, as will the unstoppable momentum with which director Joe Lynch propels Matias Caruso's deranged screenplay. Steven Yuen stars as a lawyer locked down with the rest of his firm during a viral outbreak that sets everyone's darkest impulses free. Mayhem smashes skulls while keeping brains and hearts intact.

Edgar Wright ignited a different kind of powder keg with Baby Driver, which also tackles shady business with a violent flourish. This unconventional musical/heist flick/car-fetish extravaganza reminds us why practical stunts will always reign supreme, and why it's a goddamned tragedy Kevin Spacey turned out to be a an accused sex criminal. I didn't think the phrase "Ansel Elgort has never been cooler" would have reason to exist in 2017. But, well, here we are.

 

Speaking of fallen geniuses, Louis C.K.'S I Love You, Daddy is an overlooked victim of the 2017 sex scandals that began with Harvey Weinstein and ended with [INSERT NAME AT THE END OF TIME]. This funny, thoughtful, and indefinitely shelved look at creativity, fame, and ego is the product of so many layers of id that psychologists could spend a century breaking it apart. C.K. plays a Woody Allen-esque dad whose teen daughter falls for a septuagenarian director accused of inappropriate behavior. Confession? Contrition? You decide--if you ever get to see it.

The Tiger Hunter is an antidote to perversion, as well as a brainier alternative to The Big Sick. Lena Khan's disarming family comedy stars Danny Pudi as Sami, a young Indian immigrant hoping to find success in America in the 1970s. Where The Big Sick treated Kumail Nanjiani's Pakistani heritage as both a gimmick and questionable point of self-loathing, Khan presents Sami as a character who is eager to elevate himself, his friends, and his family, as well as the country that welcomes him.

We close out the year with the mother! of all movies: Darren Aronofsky's gonzo Biblical allegory/asshole-artist confession. Whether you read this film as a modern reworking of Christian mythos; as a treatise on environmentalism; or simply as Jennifer Lawrence going nuts in a country house because her husband (Javier Bardem) keeps opening the door to chaos, it's impossible to watch mother! all the way through without appreciating the unflinching vision of a twisted master at play. In a year of singular moviegoing experiences, this shook me to the core.

Also Not to Be Missed:

Emerald City

Lady Bird

My Egg Boy

Dunkirk

Princess Cyd

Band Aid

A Ghost Story

A Quiet Passion