Saturday, May 8, 2021

Catch-Up, Part 6: Awards Bait

This is the sixth installment in my ongoing series of mini-reviews of newish movies I missed in the theater, because I literally haven't been to a movie theater in close to two years.

The movies I'm looking at today were all well received and with good reason: to the extent the word "objectively" means anything in this context, they're all objectively great films.

I hadn't meant to do a "movies for grown-ups" installment - I'm a strong believer that "good" and "genre" aren't mutually exclusive labels, and further that most "awards contenders" can be accurately classified under various genre labels. But I basically spent the last five articles siphoning off all the conventional genre movies - good and bad - I've seen, leaving... well... mostly a bunch of high quality films that didn't fit elsewhere. I don't want to sit on these forever - I saw one of the movies below back in January 2020 - so here we are.

Nomadland (2020)
Not a lot to say here aside from the obvious: it's beautifully shot and edited into something that feels closer to a cross between a documentary and poetry than a narrative film. This is already blurring the line between reality, adaptation, and story - it doesn't fit neatly in any bucket. On one hand, it's a moving and simple character study; on another, it probes into some darker aspects of how our nation operates.

It's a fantastic movie, so I feel bad admitting my main takeaway is that Eternals is in great hands.

Jojo Rabbit (2019)
I hate that I don't love more of Taika Waititi's movies. For the record, I did love Hunt for the Wilderpeople. And I've been getting into the series, What We Do in the Shadows, but the movie it was based on didn't really work for me. Same goes for the rest of his filmography - I liked them fine, but I didn't love them.

The weird thing is I should love them. I'm generally a sucker for this kind of humor, and I love absurdist settings and situations. His approach should be right up my alley. And it's not like I think the love he gets is unearned - I can watch these and appreciate how well they're crafted. He's a phenomenal filmmaker.

I think it comes down to a minor stylistic quibble. His movies are made to keep the audience at arm's length. He wants you to be conscious of the fact you're watching a movie, and he uses the fourth wall accordingly. He doesn't want the audience pulled so far into the film they get lost in the story.

Again, this isn't a good or bad thing, just a choice. But it's a choice that clashes with my personal preferences regarding movies (especially these kinds of movies).

I want to stress, this is a great film. The characters are fantastic, the direction is wonderful, the story is timely... it's fantastic. I'm not criticizing any aspect. I honestly wish I could toggle the part of my brain that kept me from enjoying this more.

Little Women (2019)
I'm a geeky man who generally prefers movies about spaceships and superheroes. If I'd been living in the world of Little Women, I'd have been one of the readers who was sad Jo's violent genre stories disappeared. This movie isn't from a genre I seek out.

A few years ago, someone convinced me to give the 1994 adaptation (that's the one with Winona Ryder) a shot. Their pitch may have involved overselling its holiday credentials (I've got a relatively liberal outlook on what constitutes a Christmas movie, and Little Women doesn't check enough boxes). At any rate, I watched that and was bored to tears. Nothing about the story or characters clicked with me.

So why in the world did I give another adaptation a shot? Simple. Because all the geeky reviewers I listen to who also like spaceships and superheroes swore this was one of the best movies of last year. So I gave it a chance, and...

Yeah, this movie rules. It just totally rules.

I'm not going to sit here and write at length about how amazing the cast was or how beautiful the film was. I'm not going to go in depth about how brilliant the structural changes were or how cleverly the movie explored the book's relationship to the author's life or any of that. I'd just be rehashing what a billion critics already said. And besides, while those aspects are a big part of what I appreciated this adaptation, they're not why I loved it.

What I actually loved about it was the humor and warmth. Moments that bored me in the 1994 version felt fresh and real here. It didn't matter that I knew the story or even that I had negative associations with it - I was riveted. 

That's a hell of an achievement. Check this out if you haven't already.

Spaceship Earth (2020)
Do I include documentaries in these things? Have I ever talked about a documentary on this blog in any context? Damned if I remember. But I want to say a few things about this one, mainly because it was a lot of fun. Also, while it isn't technically science fiction, it's science fiction adjacent to a degree that's absurdly rare.

The subject of the documentary is the 1991 "experiment" where eight people were sealed (well, mostly sealed - there were complications) in an airtight complex for two years. The goal was to create a sustainable environment made up of habitats from all over the planet. The idea was both inspired by science fiction and motivated by a similar drive: if we ever want to set up colonies on other worlds, this is what they'll need to look like.

The first third largely centers on the group behind the project, and they're hard to categorize. Part-hippie, part commune, part corporate think tank... I kept feeling conflicting reactions where part of me wanted to laugh at them while another part wishes I was alive back then and could have joined them. They're a fascinating group.

It's kind of a shame they conducted their experiment when they did. I feel like the concept could be executed much more effectively now using hydroponics and an improved understanding of biology. But good luck getting the funding together - I suspect that was a one-time deal, at least in this country.

At any rate, the documentary is worth a watch, just be prepared for the twist ending, when [spoiler alert] Steve Bannon shows up and takes over. Seriously - Steve Bannon. It feels like the studio interfered and made the director wedge him into the movie to set up a sequel, until you remember you're watching historical footage and all this really happened.

Hustlers (2019)
Hustlers is the kind of movie I'd typically ignore entirely, despite being able to hear every critic in the country hollering its praises at the top of their lungs. At a glance, it just doesn't sound like a genre I'd be interested in.

But, okay, funny story. A few years ago I got bored and watched "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World," a movie that received lukewarm reviews. And once I finished watching it, I vowed to watch basically anything else the mad genius behind it made for the rest of her career. Damn, that movie is good.

I wasn't disappointed in The Meddler, and I sure as hell wasn't disappointed in Hustlers. Lorene Scafaria is a master at juggling genres and balancing tones. Hustlers is more or less a mafia movie spliced with a drama about friendship, all delivered with humor. It's the kind of thing that shouldn't work, but Scafaria makes it look easy.

Track this down if you haven't seen it. And, for the love of God, also watch Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. Seriously. It's one of the most underrated genre films of all time.

Dolemite is My Name (2019)
After watching Dolemite is My Name, I tried explaining the premise to my wife and was mostly at a loss. In some ways, it's closest to Ed Wood, but that's not a fair comparison. If anything, this movie seems intent on dismissing just that sort of characterization of Rudy Ray Moore. The film is ultimately a comedy, but it's not an especially funny one. It's more interested in celebrating its subject's unique place in cinema and pop culture than in making jokes.

This is, at the end of the day, a character study. It's a biopic about a man who realized there was a untapped market for a particular type of entertainment producers didn't understand or take seriously. While I don't have a background with this character or the genre he worked in, I'm more than familiar with that theme - it's somewhat universal in film and television. And this movie handles it masterfully.

And that's not even getting into the fantastic character work and the beautiful visuals (this looks more like a movie made in the '70s than most movies made in the '70s).

If you've got a few hours and a Netflix subscription, this one's more than worth the time.

The Farewell (2019)
This is the sort of movie I rarely watch unless it’s set at Christmas, but my sister gave it a strong recommendation. And… yeah, it’s pretty great. It’s a dramedy about cultural differences, family relationships, and difficult moments. There’s not a great deal of story beyond the premise (which I’m not spoiling for a reason), but this winds up feeling like a feature rather than a bug. Characters behave realistically, which means growth and development are more subtle and internal than you’d typically get in this genre. I spent the movie waiting for “the big moment” and was pleasantly surprised when it went in another direction (it kind of had to – the movie’s based on a true story).

Beyond the fantastic character work, amazing acting, and nuanced look at cultural differences, the movie also features some stunning cinematography. It’s beautifully shot, to the point I’d recommend it on that fact alone (or at least I would if everything else wasn’t even better).

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Movie Review: Mortal Kombat

The 2021 Mortal Kombat movie is the movie they should have made in 1995. Swear to God, this movie would have seemed awesome twenty-six years ago. I know we all have fond memories of the campy, cheesy, stupid, bloodless flick that dropped back then, but nostalgia's doing that movie a lot of favors. What the 90's needed was a campy, cheesy, stupid flick with blood, and now... here it is, a few decades late.

Is it too late? Maybe. Probably. Depends how generous you're feeling.

This is... it's fine. Not good, mind you, but fine. The movie does a solid job adapting the core of the game and a passable job assembling that into a format resembling an actual movie. Mostly passable. Sort of passable. It comes a lot closer than most video game adaptations, anyway. But structurally, this is still more like a fighting game than a movie. Was that intentional? Probably. Was it advisable? Probably not.

I'm tempted to say this is likely the best version of this premise we could have hoped for on the big screen, but the truth is a version of this with interesting character dynamics wouldn't have been all that difficult. I'm not saying we needed awards-caliber writing, but the reason, say, Infinity War works without much of a story is that the banter is fun and the relationships are engaging. Here, it's mostly just filler and exposition between fights. Only a few characters have relationships to each other, and those are clich├ęs. When the most compelling character is the video game equivalent of Captain Boomerang, you've got a problem.

That's the larger issue, at least as far as this thing's entertainment value is concerned. There are some pretty big structural and pacing issues, but to be frank, I think issues like those come off as more academic than fatal flaws in movies like these. They're the kinds of things that don't bother you too much unless you stop and think about them, but whether it was wise or not...

...I stopped and thought about them. So, uh, spoilers.

The weirdest - I don't think "flaw" is even the right word - choice, maybe? The weirdest choice the movie makes, in my opinion, is to not actually do the Mortal Kombat tournament. The tournament is supposed to happen, the lore from the games (or at least my limited understanding of that lore) is largely intact, the main characters spend the first few acts getting ready for said tournament, but instead they just kind of fight all the bad guys one-on-one outside of the tournament. Then no one really explains if the tournament is postponed, if the villains forfeit, if it's still going to happen in a couple days with new or resurrected bad guys, or what's going on.

And here's the thing: the one-on-one fights were shot in a way they could have been the tournament, they just weren't. Like, we weren't watching the tournament on a technicality. My running theory is they originally were part of the "official" tournament, then the movie got recut and streamlined into it's current form. Maybe they couldn't swing some reshoots because of COVID, and this was the workaround?

I also have my suspicions about the "big fight" at the end, mainly because it *wasn't* really a big fight, at all. The movie's climax is a fight between one ninja fighting two ninjas, and the two ninjas win, because [checks notes] there are two of them.

Meanwhile, the main character takes out Goro at the end of the second act. Given how much of the Goro fight is CG, I can't help but wonder if maybe the order of those fights got flipped at some point. Because, as it is, there really isn't a "boss fight" at the end of the movie, which feels wrong for a fighting game adaptation.

Again, none of this is necessarily a major problem; just... weird. The movie feels like it doesn't quite click together, but... does it have to? The fights are pretty good, and that's the selling point of this thing, anyway. I wish they'd held back more from the trailers, but the "good parts" are indeed pretty good. Does a Mortal Kombat movie need to be a coherent, well-made film, or is "people fighting" enough? I'll leave that to philosophers to decide.

Let's talk gore. Yes, there's blood and occasionally guts and brains and stuff, but honestly... I thought there'd be a lot more. This isn't a complaint - I'm squeamish, so I didn't miss it - but it's notable the fatalities in the movie are significantly less gruesome than some I've seen in the more recent games. Again, not a complaint: I was just a little surprised.

Along with Detective Pikachu, this is easily one of the best video game movies I've ever seen, but if that's not damning with faint praise, I don't know what is. I can't imagine spending additional money to see this on a big screen, but if you're already paying for HBO Max... hey, it's right there. That's certainly how I watched it. Not sure this qualifies as a recommendation, but I suppose you need to ask yourself how bored you are.

Sunday, April 4, 2021

Movie Review: Godzilla vs. Kong

I think I've said some version of this every time I've reviewed an installment in this franchise: when the biggest complaint people have about a monster movie is the human characters or the plot or the logic or literally anything other than the monsters... take a bow - you did your job. I hope this won't be read as being synonymous with "turn off your brain" or some kind of attack against people who aren't satisfied with a big, silly adventure movie about a giant ape and a radioactive dragon punching each other - that's not it at all. It's simply an acknowledgement that these movies first and foremost exist to spotlight the monsters, and if they fail to do so, every review in existence is going to harp on that fact.

And, once again, Legendary knocked this out of the park, at least as far as those monsters are concerned. Kong and Godzilla are awesome, as is the "Hollow Earth" we finally get to see. And that other thing they kept secret (but that was kind of in the trailer, anyway)... yeah, that's awesome, too. The movie is visually inventive, exciting, and - above all - about as fun as they come.

But, yes, if you care, the plot is about as dumb as a rock.

I'm honestly not sure that's fair. A more accurate statement might be the film sacrifices story and logic for pace, and if anything I'd say that's a smart decision in this case. But if you want to pick apart the logic of who manages to go where and when, you'll have an easy time doing so. Even suspending disbelief around things like Hollow Earth leave you scratching your head around geography and geometry. It's pretty obvious when the movie just skips over explanations or causality to get back to fights and destruction. I know that's deal-breaker for some people... and that's fine. By now, you probably know whether spectacle and action are enough for you. If not, this probably isn't a genre you enjoy, and Godzilla vs. Kong won't change your mind.

For the rest of us... my God, this thing is great. It's absurd fantasy/adventure pitted against sci-fi destruction. It's silly and awesome and crazy. Like its predecessors, it's an absolute joy to watch. But you probably figured all that from the trailer. If you want to nitpick, there are some moments (particularly in the third act) where the movie starts looking more like a really expensive cartoon than live-action. Even then, it's still a *good* cartoon, so that's at most a minor criticism.

I don't want to go into too much detail about which visuals work best, because... well... the joy of watching a movie like this is discovering those moments for yourself. But I also don't want to cut the review off this soon, so I guess I have to talk about the human characters.

I'd argue the MonsterVerse is getting better in that department. The least interesting character from King of the Monsters is relegated to a minor role this time, and we're instead largely following kid adventurers who are invested in the outcome. This still doesn't quite gel into anything I'd call compelling, but it's not tedious, either, which is quite a bit better than par.

I feel for the writers of these movies. The stars are the monsters, not the people, but if you tried putting the monsters on camera for two hours straight, there wouldn't be any suspense or anticipation (also, it would almost certainly be cost-prohibitive). You need people in there to take up time, serve as the audience POV, and maybe (just maybe) add more than they detract. I don't think the humans in Godzilla vs. Kong quite get there, but they come close. Essentially, their presence is a wash, neither enhancing nor hurting the experience.

You can see them drawing from Stranger Things (hell, that was evident in King of the Monsters), which is probably the best path forward. Lean into it and have the human stuff just following a group of absurdly competent kids on an adventure in the middle of a kaiju attack. Make the kids likable enough, and you've got an interesting B-story to go along with the A-list monsters tearing up cities.

I want to stress that, in my opinion at least, these movies don't need to fix anything. The MonsterVerse films are great as is, and this one ranks in the top half. I have no idea if this franchise can keep going, but I really hope it will. These are delightful, fun films that deliver everything they promise and maybe a little more.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Movie Review: Justice League (The Snyder Cut)

I know the studio is technically calling this "Zack Snyder's Justice League," but let's not delude ourselves into pretending this will be remembered as anything other than The Snyder Cut. Besides, the prefix "Zack Snyder's" implies the theatrical cut belonged to someone else, and perhaps the largest reveal of this incarnation is that's not really true. Obviously Snyder (no relation) wasn't happy with the original (who was?), but most of the scenes I assumed had been written and shot by Whedon apparently weren't. Likewise, the paper-thin mulligan hunt forming the narrative backbone remained unchanged. In short, this is less a complete reconstruction of the 2017 flop than a conventional extended edition. It's just... really, really, really extended.

I'm something of an anomaly among film fans and critics, in that I have no issue with movies being long, provided that time is well used. If you're telling a complex story, developing a detailed world, building out interesting themes, or even constructing an elaborate tone, I'm happy to invest almost any amount of time in a project.

Here's the thing, though: The Snyder Cut accomplishes none of these things. Other than a couple expanded arcs, the story is the same as it was in the theatrical. The world, while definitely improved, was still underdeveloped. The themes... don't make me laugh: this is still "Justice League: Friendship is Magic," but now it's Friendship is Magic with the occasional decapitation. Theme is not Zack Snyder's forte. 

That brings us to tone, which I suspect is the aspect most of this movie's fans will point to in order to justify its length. Because it's true the movie does, in fact, have a tone. It does not, however, build that tone, subvert it, or use it to meaningfully enhance its story (again, there's barely a story at all). The tone is present at the start, it doesn't evolve or change much, and it sticks around through the unnecessary epilogue. That same tone could have been easily injected into a two-hour movie, a 60-minute TV show, or a music video (and if you've ever seen a Zack Snyder movie before, you won't be surprised to hear most of this feels like a series of music videos, anyway).

In short, this didn't need to be this long, and it doesn't really gain anything from that length. There is, however, some good news. Taken on its own merits (which, again, is tough to do since it's mostly the same as the theatrical cut), this is largely an improvement. More importantly, it's far, far, far better than Batman v Superman. Infinitely better. That movie was trash.

I glossed over the characters above, but this does a better job with most of its leads. Flash, in particular, is delightful - he was a standout in the theatrical, as well, and most of those scenes made it into this installment, as did some fantastic new ones. Flash's powers work perfectly with Zack Snyder's visual style - if there's a reason to sit through this, it's for the Flash scenes.

I wasn't as head-over-heels in love with the new Cyborg material as some reviewers, but the character is definitely better treated here than in the last version. I do like the sequence where he uses his powers in a Robin Hood capacity. The rest of his arc is fine, but mostly I found it boring. Your millage may vary - like I said, this interpretation of the character is definitely picking up some fans.

After Flash, I actually think Batman benefits the most from this cut. It wasn't so much more material than the fact the darker tone means his optimism shines through a little brighter. A smirk here and there means more in contrast.

Wonder Woman and Aquaman didn't get much out of this - there's some new footage, but I don't feel like it adds up to anything more substantial than we got from the previous installment (besides, they both have solo movies that are far better than either version of Justice League).

Superman is notable in that he gets significantly less screen time here than in the theatrical, which was surprising. For what it's worth, we still get a happier, more hopeful Superman than we saw in Man of Steel or BvS, if only briefly. In other words, this is a truncated version of Superman from the theatrical Justice League.

Steppenwolf is more interesting here, though still underwhelming. He's less a generic villain and more a pitiful, desperate monster trying to get home. This doesn't really go anywhere or pay off, but I guess it counts as an improvement.

The action scenes are generally improved, but get ready for some caveats. The movie has some great moments where the concepts and effects come together and deliver some truly awesome visuals. But it also has a bunch of sequences where actors in bulky costumes cut to obvious CG cartoons, breaking the flow. In addition, the movie continues to mistake brutal for cool, which undersells the value of the characters being adapted. It also drives home the fact that this is not, in fact, a movie for grown-ups.

I could go on, both nitpicking and complimenting various sequences or elements, but I don't feel the need to indulge in a Snyder-cut of my own. Ultimately, the nicest thing I can say is if I were advising someone who'd never seen either version of Justice League which to watch, I'd point them towards this one. The meanest thing I can say is if I were talking to someone who'd already seen the theatrical, I'd tell them they could skip this. It's not awful, but it really just doesn't add that much of value, especially weighed against its runtime.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Movie Review: Flora & Ulysses

Flora & Ulysses is frustrating in that it's enjoyable but - taken as a whole - not actually all that good. That's another way of saying aspects are really good, but the whole is less than the sum of its parts.

What sets it apart is that the good stuff is, well, really good, and there's a lot of it. This isn't a situation where there's a cool moment or two amidst a bad movie: the dialogue is consistently funny, the characters are likable, the casting is far more inspired than you'd expect from the premise, and the direction is solid. It's just there's really not much movie here, as though someone forgot to settle on a premise or point before making it.

In theory, this is the story of a young girl struggling with family troubles who adopts and befriends a superpowered squirrel. Only despite being highly focused on the situation's relationship to comics and superheroes (including a great deal of cross-promotional Marvel references), the superpowers are ultimately superfluous. This isn't really a superhero story, nor is it a deconstruction of superhero stories. It doesn't meaningfully comment on the genre, it doesn't incorporate elements or tropes in a way that builds out the story it's actually telling... the superhero stuff is just kind of there to kill time, fuel jokes, and allow them to reference the MCU from time to time (not that they need an excuse: there are also numerous Star Wars references, along with a bunch of homages to other Disney/Fox properties).

But, again, none of that stops this from being genuinely fun. As disposable entertainment goes, it gets the job done. The CG squirrel is cute enough, provided you're not too sick of this style of animated creature to enjoy it.

The pieces are all there, it just needed an outline. But if you set your expectations appropriately, there's no reason not to have fun with this. I mean, movies like this being at all good is a new phenomenon, one parents of the world owe the Paddington films a huge debt for inspiring.

If Disney's really going to keep cranking these out, it's nice to see they're putting in some effort. This isn't a home run, but it's solid enough I don't regret the time I spent watching... despite the fact it never really went anywhere.

Thursday, December 31, 2020

2020 Retrospective (Just the Movies, I Promise)

So, every year I do one of these "least-to-most-favorite" movie lists, usually using "theatrical release" as a litmus test for inclusion, though I've been slowly relaxing that rule for a while now. But seeing as theaters aren't really a thing right now, I'm going to drop it entirely.

That said, I'm still being somewhat selective in what I include here. I'm trying to maintain some sort of line between "feature film" and "TV movie," even when it's not entirely logical or consistent. I can't rationally defend some of these inclusions when I leave off Phineas and Ferb: Candace Against the Universe, but it feels right. Like these are all "real movies" while that's an extended episode. That's not a statement of quality - Candace Against the Universe would absolutely have landed above some of these - but it feels different.

Likewise, I'm not including documentaries. This mainly just means I'm not ranking Spaceship Earth, which I loved. Again, this is a subjective call - I just don't feel like it makes sense.

Also, in case there's any confusion, this list is entirely based on preference, not quality. 

The designs in Jingle Jangle alone are almost enough to bump this up a spot or two, but not quite. I can forgive the weak story and the dull characters, but the abysmal pacing and massive structural problems are just too egregious. It's a situation where the component pieces are really impressive but the sum total is, well, kind of awful.

I really wanted this to be good, and it just wasn't. 

While this is dead last on this list, I do want to acknowledge that's as much because its production values were enough to give it a place. I saw at least four other holiday movies I'm not including that would have gone behind this, but it felt unfair to include them at all.

19. Over the Moon
The hardest thing about Over the Moon is it's incredibly impressive as a visual showcase. This really does look at times like a Pixar movie, and that's no small accomplishment. But the problem with looking like a Pixar movie is it's going to make me want to be watching a Pixar movie, and the script for Over the Moon just isn't up to the job.

About a third of this movie is actually pretty good, but the other two-thirds are just a mess. Honestly, I considered leaving this all the way at the bottom of the list until I remembered the raccoon and bumped it up a few spots.

17. Timmy Failure: Mistakes were Made
It's weird looking back at movies released to Disney+ that were actually intended to be released that way. Timmy Failure is an example of a movie that's enjoyable to watch but doesn't really go anywhere. It's got some good characters and a great setting, but it could really have used a story.

16. Enola Holmes
This was fine. Like Timmy Failure, the production values were solid enough and the casting was inspired. But also like Timmy Failure, the plotting was unstructured, and it left me feeling unsatisfied.

15. Mulan
So, it's 8PM on New Year's Eve, this retrospective has been live for a few hours, and I just finished watching... this. I guess... maybe it goes here? Damned if I know.

I can forgive the stupidity, the awful dialogue, and the baffling premise... But most of this movie is just so boring. That said, there's some cool fight scenes, a bunch of ninja, and a couple warrior witches, so it's not a total loss. And for what it's worth, it's far from the worst of the Disney live-action remakes. Plus, I never actually liked the original, so it's not like I care a phoenix crapped on its legacy (was the phoenix actually there, or... never mind - forget I asked).

This was a bad movie, but unless you were dumb enough to pay Disney thirty bucks for the privilege of seeing it early, it's fine as a diversion they tossed on their streaming service.

14. The Willoughbys
I think this may have the rare distinction of being the only movie where I wish the baby had more screen time. I have to give The Willoughbys credit for putting in the effort. The movie throws a lot at you - a lot of B-plots, a lot of weird designs, strange details, story twists...

After a while it starts feeling like they're just tossing ideas at the screen in the hopes you'll like enough to keep watching. I'd say about a third worked for me, but then again I watched to the end, so... mission accomplished?

It was good enough, particularly for streaming, but I wish it had been better.

13. The Old Guard
The "not my boyfriend" monologue almost pushes this up a few spaces, but overall I found too much of this movie boring to sit through. While I like the idea of telling a story about a two-thousand year-old warrior's midlife crisis, the execution didn't work for me. Whenever they relaxed the drama, that changed, but the balance was off. This needed to be more fun and less self-important.

So... if the pandemic hadn't happened... they were going to release this to theaters? It's probably for the best this was streamed - I think the small screen experience probably helped, to be honest. I watched this with the lights out and without pausing, but - honestly - I think even that was a mistake. This might play better broken into chunks - say, a third at a time.

I respect the movie's decision to shift the tone closer to the 70's show and the Donner Superman series, and I really respect their decision to have Diana adopt a "no killing" rule. I'm less keen on the creative decision to make this a bad movie.

The structure and pace are a mess, the love story feels rehashed, Diana's arc feels forced... For me, though, I think the larger issue was the villains. They just weren't compelling, but the movie gave each of them a substantial story arc.

That said, there were some standout moments, like the invisible jet flying through fireworks or Minerva beating that guy to death. But as a whole, this movie was a disappointment.

11. Palm Springs
While I enjoyed Palm Springs, the ending left me a little underwhelmed. After subverting the genre for the first two-thirds, the movie changed gears and fell into typical romantic comedy tropes and patterns.

That said, I love how wholeheartedly it embraced its SF elements, exploring a more complex version of time travel than we typically seen on film. Ultimately, this was a good movie, but I wanted more.

10. Onward
This was a solid animated offering, but something felt a little off. Actually, make that "some things" - this movie had quite a few elements that didn't connect with me, starting with the baffling decision to cast two instantly recognizable Marvel stars in the lead roles. And don't get me started on recycling Star Lord's last moments with his mom. I'm still shocked that made it into the movie.

But it was still mostly fun and occasionally touching. Not to mention Guinevere's last ride: that moment was amazing.

This was ultimately a flawed film that was well served by events forcing the studio to move it directly from theaters to streaming, where it belongs.

This would be higher if it had stuck the landing. Even with underwhelming finale, the movie was still a fun, engaging adventure. Given that it was (I'm assuming) made on a shoestring budget, that's pretty impressive.

8. We Bare Bears: The Movie
This is a made-for-streaming movie wrapping up the fantastic animated series, We Bare Bears. I expected something good, but I'm not sure I was ready for something this brave. The movie explores xenophobia, racism, family separation, and the use of excessive force - pretty heavy subject matter for a kid's movie.

It's still funny, sweet, and ultimately optimistic, but the path to the happy ending goes through some dark territory. I'm not sure the impact would hit as hard if you haven't seen the series first, so that's one of the two reasons I'm suggesting you hold off on the movie until you've watched through the rest.

The other reason is that the show, like the movie, is damn good. Check them both out.

7. Soul
I'm having a hard time ranking this, because... well... it's damn near perfect. And I suspect it's not higher because I'm so used to Pixar churning out damn near perfect films (Onward notwithstanding) that this didn't hit harder.

But I think it's more than that. Soul is almost perfect for its premise, but that premise doesn't leave quite as much room for emotional highs and lows as we're used to from the company. I realize that sounds odd, considering it's fairly somber subject matter, but the story and themes are constructed in such a way the movie feels light and breezy. It's a feature, not a bug, that a movie about life, death, and purpose seems to have some of the lowest stakes we've encountered from the company, but it does mean the movie lacked the typical highs and lows. Again, not a problem, but it's the highs and lows that hit hardest and make a movie truly memorable.

The artistry in Soul is incredible, and the movie is an accomplishment... but it doesn't quite make it to the top of this list.

6. Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga
This is probably benefiting from low expectations, but that's how it works sometimes. From the limited marketing, I was expecting a one-joke vehicle for Will Ferrell to make fun of the Eurovision Song Contest. Instead, I got a loving tribute celebrating the joy of singing and camp. The movie was a pleasure to watch.

5. Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn
I won't pretend I wasn't bothered by the movie reinventing characters who maybe shouldn't be reinvented (I really want a comic accurate Cass Cain, in particular, and this moves us further away from getting that). Likewise, I'm not going to sit here and claim the last half didn't lose some energy.

But... wow. Just wow. The action, the style, the humor, the visuals... this was a hell of a movie, and I'm having a hard time thinking of anything to compare it to. This was an entertaining, engaging, and most of all unique film. I have a handful of quibbles, but I was glued to the screen. I loved it.

Favorite Films of the Year

I'm not going to cheat with a four-way tie, but know I seriously considered it. Everything left is a movie I seriously considered for the top spot.

4. Hamilton
I haven't written anything about Hamilton until now, not even a short blurb in any of my "catch-up" posts. You can probably guess why - the play has been around for a while, and the version released this year is literally just the play with a couple swears cut out. Everything everyone's said about the play is true of the recorded version, with the caveat that seeing these live always has more of an impact.

In other words, the only thing I have to say about Hamilton is that everyone's right - this thing is awesome.

By rights, I shouldn't be including this on a list of movies. It's at a massive disadvantage, since it's being plucked out of its medium. It has to make do with the limitations of a real set, an audience, live performances, and so on and so forth). It shouldn't be expected to compete "as a movie" with actual movies.

But here we are. Because despite those setbacks, and despite absurdly high expectations, it was that [expletive removed by Disney's censors] good.

3. Blow the Man Down
Okay, I... I think this counts as 2020? When I stuck it in one of my "Catch Up" posts, I listed it as 2019, because that's when it technically came out. But that was just a festival premiere: the movie wasn't available to a wide audience until last March, when it started streaming on Amazon. If this had gone from festival to theatrical, I'd use the theatrical release date, so I think it counts.

And damned if it doesn't matter, because this was one of my favorite movies I saw last year. Honestly, depending on when you ask me, it might even slide up another spot.

Some of that might be because I grew up in Maine. This doesn't get the accents right (no one ever does), but it captures something more important. I captures the sense of existing in a place built for an age that's past, the feeling of living in a ghost town that never realized it was dead.

The movie builds a sense of the supernatural without ever so much as touching that barrier. I have no idea how this will play to people who didn't grow up in the Northeast (though I suspect it'll still be a really enjoyable film), but for me... it was magic. Dark magic, to be sure, but still magic nonetheless.

Speaking of magic, Cartoon Saloon created a beautiful, haunting, incredible film inspired by Irish lore. Again, I mean. They've done that twice already, and this is a third.

Stylistically, the movie is gorgeous. Auditorily, it is gorgeous. Olfactorily, it is... okay, I can't actually smell the movie, but it does manage to depict smell visually really well, so I'm assuming that's gorgeous, too.

Officially, this wraps up Tomm Moore's trilogy, but I really hope he just says screw it and makes like a dozen more of these.

Back in the golden age of cinema, some of Hollywood's best movies were romantic comedies. That didn't last - really, by the 60's or 70's, they'd faded, and the 80's and 90's mostly offered pale imitations. The romcoms I grew up watching were mostly campy, poorly, conceived dreck. There were a handful of exceptions, the most notable being When Harry Met Sally, but overall, the genre seemed to be dying. Then it seemed to be dead.

I'm not surprised it's making a comeback. The rise of streaming platforms has opened the door for mid-budget productions that no longer made sense on the big screen. I've been expecting them to start showing up again. I'm not even surprised to see some good or great ones.

But if you told me a year ago a Christmas romantic comedy would come out that was on par with the ones from Hollywood's golden age, I'd have told you that you were crazy. But here we are.

Look, I say it every year - this isn't a 'best of' list. This is based entirely on personal preferences, and I'm a guy who likes giant monsters, superheroes, wizards, spaceships, and all that. Do you have any idea how good a romantic comedy has to be to show up here? To not just impress me but outright win me over?

Yeah. This good.

I understand this movie is controversial in some circles. A lot of fans (or would-be fans) wanted something less complicated, less nuanced. They wanted a simple story about simple characters with simple problems - basically a generic romantic comedy where the leads are both women.

And those fans absolutely deserve that movie. They deserve ten of that movie and ten where both leads are men. This genre has been dominated by heteronormative depictions of love for far too long (see also every other genre, but it's even more egregious when the genre in question is defined by romance).

But that's not an issue with Happiest Season - it's an issue with Hollywood. Taken on its own terms, this movie is incredible, and I sincerely hope it gets the accolades it deserves, preferably sooner rather than later.

Movie Review: Wolfwalkers

Cartoon Saloon has kind of been flying under the radar, but if you ignore a handful of TV shows and low budget co-productions and just focus on their four feature films, Saloon's batting average looks a lot like what we saw from Studio Ghibli, Laika, or early Pixar. Their first three films - Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea, and The Breadwinner - were masterpieces.

Scratch that. Their first four films are masterpieces: Wolfwalkers keeps the run going.

Visually, the movie is incredible. Some stylistic elements from Kells and Sea reappear, but this almost has the feel of an old picture book come to life. Sketch lines highlight the forms of living beings, color disappears at the edge of the screen, and distant locations are depicted as if existing in a world without perspective. The movie's story is as much set in its media as its historical location.

Think Disney's Winnie the Pooh, but less far silly. Or, if you'd prefer, apply some of the lessons of Spider-Verse to a storybook. I'm not sure if these were points of inspiration, nor does it matter. However they got to this style, it's enchanting.

And speaking of enchanting, if Disney would kindly instruct their animators to study Cartoon Saloon's depictions of magic, that'd be swell. I'm not naming names, but I can think of several recent Disney flicks which sided with spectacle over substance in ways that neither told a story nor enhanced the tone. Cartoon Saloon adds depth and wonder with magic: everyone else should be taking notes.

The movie's story goes in directions American animation companies wouldn't dare. Like The Secret of Kells, Wolfwalkers's themes include the relationship between paganism and Christianity in Irish history and myth. Unlike Kells, Wolfwalkers is more than happy to lay blame. On a side note, have religious groups started boycotting this yet?

I joked after watching that it was based on the ancient Irish myth, "Princess Mononoke," but while there are definitely some similarities, they're ultimately superficial. Wolfwalkers starts with a vaguely similar premise and crosses over a few similar plot points, but the path it takes is its own. The movie is more concerned with character and theme than plot, anyway.

Like its predecessors, Wolfwalkers leans heavily on music to build tone. Both Kells and Song of the Sea included evocative lullabies which add a great deal of texture to their respective films. The centerpiece in Wolfwalkers is quite different: they went with a sort of pop-folk song reminiscent of America's music from The Last Unicorn. It's a good song, though I'd be lying if I said it hit me as hard as the songs from the other two films (but then again I'd list at least one of those on my top five favorite musical numbers in all cinema, so maybe that's an unreasonably high bar). At any rate, the score for this is really, really good - Cartoon Saloon knows not to cut corners.

While I obviously haven't seen every animated film released this year, Wolfwalkers is easily my favorite for 2020. That's not meant as a slight against Soul, which was also excellent, but I found this one a little more effective.

For the time being, this is available through Apple TV+, which offers free 1-week trials. I'm not saying you should sign up, watch this, then cancel, but... no, wait. I am absolutely saying that. You can watch this right now for free: what are you waiting for?