Sunday, December 31, 2023

2023 Retrospective

Compared to the seventy new movies and shows I got on my list last year, 2023 is going to be a bit light. There are a couple reasons for this, the first being that Nintendo released a Zelda game, which took up a great deal of my time over the past year. In addition, I only wound up seeing a handful of new Christmas movies in 2023 - this year was more about exploring older films - so the list isn't anywhere near as padded as last year's.

That also means there's a lot I didn't get to. I've literally got a stack of blu-rays beside my TV of movies I still need to see, in addition to a massive watchlist of stuff that's streaming or that I'm waiting to hit streaming. I've spent the last week doing my best to catch up, but there's much I haven't gotten to. And that's not even considering God knows how many things that aren't even on my radar. If I were to redo my lists of the past five years, more than half would have new films in the top spot, in some cases ones I hadn't heard of while making the original lists (including the science-fairytale Vesper, which is now my favorite movie of 2022).

So, you know, grains of salt and all that.

As always, the basic premise remains the same: the following list of movies and shows is ranked from least to most favorite, which isn't the same as how they'd be ranked if I were going from worst to best. For example, if I were trying to rank these according to quality, I'd give up, delete the article, and not do the whole "end of year retrospective" at all.

And where would be the fun in that.

Before I even start with the list, I want to acknowledge a couple things I'm not ranking but was still floored by. First, Lindsay Ellis's video essay, The Ballad of John and Yoko, is an incredible work absolutely worth checking out. Similarly, Patrick H. Willems's Bollywood essay is wonderful. These are arguably the two best internet video essayists alive, each with career bests - check them out.

53. Secret Invasion

In their defense, they were clearly trying to make something different. This miniseries aims for a much darker tone than the MCU is known for, and they deserve credit for the attempt. But, more than anything else still part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (so exempting apocrypha like Iron Fist and The Inhumans), this just doesn't work.

The main issue, in my opinion, comes down to the premise making it all a little too easy to juggle identities. We know upfront that anyone could at any moment be a shapeshifting alien, so we're never at all surprised when it turns out to be true. The show is structured around a series of twists and shocks, and none of them pack much impact.

Okay, to be fair, there was one fake-out I actually loved, and unsurprisingly it wasn't related to secret identities or shapeshifting. And some of the Fury/Talos banter was fun. But beyond that, this was a bit of a slog I'd have abandoned after the first episode if it hadn't been part of the MCU. In aping the Netflix Marvel shows' tone it sacrifices almost all of the lighthearted fun that makes most Marvel stuff work, and couldn't manage to import any of the emotional weight that characterized the better Netflix installments.

The unfortunate part of this is they'll no doubt learn the wrong lesson from the blowback the show's receiving and rein in attempts to experiment with new tones and styles. It wasn't the desire to innovate that made this one disappointing - it was the failed execution.

52. 65

Was this supposed to be a video game? The movie's premise feels like it's tailor-made for that medium, between the minimal cast size, ticking clock, and omnipresent threats. The direction follows suit, with action sequences that oscillate between those of shooters and moments that feel more like quicktime events than most actual video game quicktime events.

There's nothing inherently wrong with drawing on games (or any other medium) for inspiration (watch Kong: Skull Island to see it done right), but co-writer/directors Scott Beck and Bryan Woods struggle to find anything other than the initial "...but with dinosaurs" hook to make their movie stand out. Pitch Black, more than anything else, feels like the template they're trying to replicate, but that offered surprising twists and great B-movie character work - this does not.

That's not to say this is entirely awful, mind you: some of the creature designs are pretty good, there are some solid action sequences, and whether or not they knew what to do with him, Adam Driver is still Adam Driver. It's not a total waste, and depending on how much you like dinosaurs and how bored you are, this might even be worth sitting through - far be it for me to suggest there shouldn't be a place for disposable genre entertainment in the world.

But make no mistake, this is about as disposable as movies come. The emotional beats are cliché and obvious from the start, the premise is even more ridiculous than the trailer suggests, and the dour tone holds it back from being anywhere near as fun as it should be.

51. Genie

I like Melissa McCarthy's performance here, but as a whole this was a really bad idea. The 1991 movie this is remaking, Bernard and the Genie, holds up pretty well (or at least the comedy does - the stereotypes, not so much). This tries too hard to differentiate and update the story and in the process breaks the tone entirely.

50. The Flash

The first ten minutes or so were actually pretty good as a live-action comedic take in the vein of Batman: Brave and the Bold. I felt the same way about the theatrical cut of Justice League, with the caveat no ten minutes of that movie were anywhere near as well constructed as the opening of this. Unfortunately, the rest of The Flash is more or less on par with Justice League.

The main problem is a disconnect between what Ezra Miller's doing and the tone the movie settles into (to the limited extent it ever settles into a tone at all). Miller's basically playing their characters as throwbacks to '80s and '90s adventure/comedy, and - to be fair - I think the script is pointing that way (the Back to the Future nods feel like a hint). Whether director Muschietti dropped the ball or Warner Bros executives broke this in post-production will have to remain an open question, but either way the movie just doesn't work.

Part of me thinks that's a pity - there are some good ideas and moments sprinkled throughout, and Sasha Calle was robbed of a chance to shine. At the same, it's hard to mourn too deeply given the disturbing allegations surrounding Miller.

49. Red, White & Royal Blue

There's a lot to appreciate in this. Personally, I found the decision to openly acknowledge the politics refreshing - there's sort of a tradition to obfuscate who the bad guys are in this subgenre to avoid offending half the country, and I appreciate them just outright taking a stand here. The cast is good, as well (Uma Thurman is fantastic in a supporting role).

But the movie also makes some baffling choices around tone and setting I found off-putting. I understand this isn't supposed to be realistic, but when you're playing with aspects of the politics that are widely understood, you need to take care not to come across as insulting the audience's intelligence. When this casually asserts that American voters care about a trade deal with Great Britain, for example, I raised an eyebrow. And again when they showed a snow-covered New Year's Eve in Washington, DC. Or when Secret Service kept being conveniently absent.

I'm also not sold on way the movie juggled subgenres. I'm not certain this was a mistake - the styles shift in a way I think was intentional - but it still makes it difficult to wrap your head around the world and get pulled into the story.

48. The Velveteen Rabbit

While reviewing this, I had to struggle to try and separate my own reaction to the material from my assessment of its quality. Fortunately, that's not an issue here, as this list is simply based on how much I enjoyed each piece of media.

And overall this one left me a little cold. I like moments and aspects (some quite a bit), but I couldn't shake the feeling I was seeing something where too many crucial decisions were made by whatever committee of executives greenlit the project.

47. It's a Wonderful Knife

Even compared to other uneven films, this one's really uneven. The prologue is fantastic as a mini-slasher and there are some great characters (and even greater performances), but there are far too many twists for a movie that's already built on a twist. The movie becomes so focused on what it wants each scene to be, it loses sight of the story and goes off the rails.

Still, there are some really good moments and character beats, plus at least one joke that bumped this up two or three spots. It's a long way from being a total loss, but it's even a longer way from working as a movie.

46. Thunivu

Like a lot of movie geeks, RRR was something of a wakeup call to the fact there's a wealth of Indian genre cinema worth exploring. Thunivu was easily accessible and sounded interesting, so I gave it a shot.

The movie is, in a nutshell, bonkers. The best description I can offer is a mashup of heist, superhero, and (light) suspense; it's a lot to take in and process. Tonally, the movie is all over the place, shifting from serious reflections on economic injustice and political corruption to comedically over-the-top action sequences and musical numbers at the drop of a hat. I realize a similar observation could be made about RRR, but that felt much more balanced and deliberate in the way it combined its desperate elements. Thunivu comes across as a bit more patchwork.

I want to pause and clarify that's not necessarily a bad thing. Or, more accurately, that I lack the cultural background to say whether it's good or bad. My knowledge of South Indian action cinema consists of two movies as of writing this, so the context of genre conventions and artistic decisions is liable to go over my head.

What I can talk about is the way these play to similar viewers. Clearly, I found the experience odd, but not at all unpleasant. I was reminded of '90s American action flicks, which likewise tended to mix political and cultural themes with silly action. That said, this goes a lot further with that action: the superhero comparison isn't an exaggeration. While the main character is ostensibly a mortal man, he's capable of taking on dozens of opponents, and both his strength and resilience are on par with, say, Captain America's. Based on clips I've seen, this seems to be pretty normal in action movies coming out of India.

I found these fights delightful, though I worry some of that enjoyment could border on a lack of cultural awareness. I'm sure a great deal of the absurdity of the fights is self-aware, but without fully comprehending the cinematic language, the line between laughing with and at a movie can get blurry. Compounding the issue this time are several sequences where limitations in the visual effects are apparent. There's a mix of practical and CG explosions in the film, and some of the latter don't measure up.

Likewise, I'm unsure how to approach the plot, which seems like a nearly endless string of reveals and twists on twists. Excluding some sincere sequences, it plays like a parody of American heist movies, which I'm guessing was the intent. On one hand, it's all very silly and fun. On the other, I wasn't invested in the economic aspects of the movie, nor was I engaging emotionally with the characters. Again, I can't say whether this disconnect was due to a lack of cultural understanding or actual flaws in the movie; only that there's a pretty good chance other American viewers will have a similar experience.

And ultimately none of it was a deal-breaker. As a campy action flick with some ludicrous fight sequences, it makes for a fun time. Whether that's at all a fair summation of the film is a question for people far more familiar with the subgenre to answer. 

45. Elemental

To its credit, Elemental is a gorgeous movie, beautiful both to look at and listen to. Divorced from story and even premise, what's physically on screen is an artistic and technical achievement, and that should count for something. Unfortunately, the movie just doesn't work as... well, as a movie, and the main reasons for this boil down to some profoundly bad choices around genre and structure.

A somewhat baffling choice I feel bad disparaging is the decision not to make this a comedy. The reason I feel bad is that, in principle, it's the kind of wild, outside-the-box twist I should love: rather than structure Elemental as a series of jokes, the movie sidelines the humor and instead tells a fairly straightforward drama. Sure, there's still a bunch of comedic relief tossed in, but it's always secondary to the story (or more accurately, stories, but we'll get to that).

Again, in theory that's the kind of ambitious approach I usually love, but here it completely falls flat for three reasons. First, because this is a kid's movie, a fact that undermines any attempt to sell the drama as serious or believable. The movie just doesn't deliver complex, believable emotion, without which drama never works. The movie leans into visual and auditory cues to imply what's happening has real depth, but there's really not enough there.

Reason number two concerns the central conceit and metaphor at the heart of the film - the whole "elementals" thing. Part of this connects with the first issue, in the way the movie wants you to think the whole mixed elements/mixed-ethnic relationship idea is profound when it just isn't. But even beyond this, the world of Elemental is distractingly weird. I'm more than willing to suspend disbelief for stuff like this, but nothing here feels sufficiently thought out. Laws of physics, biology, and - hell - just actual laws seem to change on a whim. That's forgivable if there are resonant emotional connections driving the shifts, or if the movie uses them stylistically, but neither is the case here.

Finally, the drama in the A- and B-plots don't work because there's also a C-plot. I strongly suspect this issue was introduced in the movie's development - my guess is the original pitch was happy to leave the conflict limited to a Romeo and Juliet style romance between the elemental pair, along with Ember's complex relationship with her father. But instead of giving that space to breathe, they added an intrusive generic Pixar adventure plot concerning a water leak that makes absolutely no sense and kills the last chance the movie had of ever being taken seriously.

Again, the animation looks really good, which buys this some goodwill. But that's somewhat mitigated by the realization that replacing the vocal soundtrack with, say, a random Enya album would result in a more fulfilling experience.

This is one of only three Pixar movies I mostly find boring, which is why - despite its merits - it's buried this far back on this list.

44. The Super Mario Bros. Movie

Someone get Illumination a participation trophy or something: this was fine. It was lazy, of course, and had more payoffs tied to old video games than anything substantive in the movie, but it was diverting enough for the most part. The visuals were generally good. I liked Peach and really liked Toad. Pratt voicing Mario didn't annoy the hell out of me, which alone is more than I expected.

It's disposable, but in the scheme of things, that's probably as good as it could ever seriously have aspired to be.

43. Renfield

This was fine, but to leave an impression it needed to either be a lot funnier or, you know, actually good. It's leaning too hard on the premise to make up the difference, and that premise isn't anywhere near as interesting as they seem to think it is.

There are solid elements - Cage is fun, as usual, and Hoult and Awkwafina do good work. But the homages feel hollow, and the movie comes off more reminiscent of films from the early 2000s than the eras it's supposedly referencing.

Also - and I realize this is a dumb thing to complain about - but it really bothered me that Dracula existed in world as a known cultural icon, while name "Renfield" seemed to mean nothing. I'm sure we're supposed to assume that books (and maybe movies) about Dracula exist without the character of Renfield, but the surface-level contradiction pulled me out of the narrative. It felt like the movie's problems in a nutshell: they were invoking the history of the story to attract fans, but then crafted a story watered down for audiences more familiar with superhero movies.

42. A Biltmore Christmas

The first of a couple Hallmark time-travel romcoms on this list. For the most part, this was decent - a better ending would have pushed it up a few spaces. Not much further, though, as this was a bit too ambitious for the what the studio was willing to invest, even with whatever money or accommodations the Biltmore estate was willing to kick in for the somewhat absurd advertising.

41. Round and Round

I realize calling something "not bad" is kind of damning with faint praise, but all things considered, I'd say this Hallmark movie isn't in an awful spot. Frankly, it's impressive any TV movies are outperforming "real" movies, let alone some big budget productions. Round and Round has plenty of flaws and shortcomings (the jokes weren't quite funny enough, the drama doesn't hit quite hard enough, and so on), but all things considered it's got a lot of heart. I enjoyed this one well enough and respect it even more... but you really need to make more of an impression to move further up the list.

40. EXMas

I know we're still in the back half of this list, but I think it's worth taking a moment to acknowledge how incredible it is this made it as far as it did. Frankly, when I put this on, I expected it to be awful - after all, we're talking about a low-budget Christmas romcom with a gimmicky title and premise almost certainly rushed through production to finish filming before the strikes and released on Freevee. I'm not sure how many more warning flags you can possibly add to a single movie.

But despite all that, this was (for the most part) funny and endearing. It had its share of issues, of course (awkward greenscreening, haphazard set decorations, and the usual assortment of sequences that just don't work), but at the end of the say I was genuinely shocked by how solid it was acted, directed, and shot.

39. The Bad Batch, Season 2

Overall, I liked the second season of The Bad Batch more than the first, though that's not saying all that much. The premise of this show never entirely worked for me: I find most of the characters a bit simplistic. This is essentially a throwback to '80s and '90s Saturday morning cartoon dynamics, both in terms of gender distribution and character archetypes. I respect what they're trying to accomplish, but it still feels weirdly antiquated.

That said, the show has its moments. Every third or fourth episode delivers something unexpectedly clever and/or shockingly effective, and it's worth sitting through just to reach those payoffs. It's odd the best stories seem to center around a character who's mainly been portrayed as the bad guy (though that may be shifting), but who cares as long as it works?

38. Kizazi Moto: Generation Fire

Visually, this anthology is nothing short of breathtaking: gorgeous animation defines all ten installments. But given where this shows up on this list, you can probably guess I wasn't as smitten with the stories themselves. I don't think the writing here is bad, mind you. Each fifteen minute episode is a standalone sci-fi/fantasy piece set within its own world, and each story is first and foremost structured as a vessel for the animation.

While that's a good starting point, I kept feeling like the individual pieces left me wanting more. The worlds were intricately constructed, but - with maybe one or two exceptions - I felt like we were fast-forwarding through them. Most of these were trying to tell an elaborate, epic tale in fifteen minutes, and it just wasn't enough time to add much depth.

As an animation showcase, this is still more than worthwhile, but any of these shorts expanded to feature length would have been infinitely more satisfying than what we got.

37. Star Wars: Visions, Season 2

My thoughts on the second season of Visions are similar to those from the first - how effective each short is comes down to whether the individual studio reimagining Star Wars has a "vision" that enhances the source material or just kind of flounders. In this case, there were two that worked so well they made the entire collection (or volume or whatever we're supposed to call this) worthwhile: "Screecher's Reach" from Cartoon Saloon and "I am Your Mother" from Aardman. Tonally, these couldn't have been more different, with Cartoon Saloon delivering something deceptively dark and Aardman producing a comical (but nevertheless emotionally resonant) story. I loved these completely.

There were a number of others where I loved aspects - El Guiri's "Sith", Punkrobot's "In the Stars", and Studio La Cachette's "Spy Dancer" all spring to mind - but I always felt like a few aspects were off, or at the very least not quite what I was looking for. I wouldn't be at all surprised if every episode has its champions, though - even the ones that didn't connect with me were interesting and featured gorgeous animation.

The nature of compilations more or less guarantees they'll be uneven, but there's enough here to ensure I'll keep watching these as long as Disney keeps commissioning them. 

36. Shazam: Fury of the Gods

I really like approximately 95% of this movie. In fact, let me raise the stakes here: I think ~95% of Fury of the Gods deserves to be called good. Maybe even really good, despite some obvious flaws. Sure, the compositing needed work, but that's kind of a silly thing to get upset over. Likewise, the tonal shifts get awkward as this tries to be a fun kids' movie and a dark action flick at the same time, but that's more a marketing problem than an artistic one.

The real reason I think this wasn't better received is that the last ten minutes were just godawful. The Wonder Woman cameo was the largest offender of course - maybe the single worst cameo of its type I've ever seen. And that's with the caveat I'm half convinced the deus ex machina inherent in her arrival might have been an intentional nod to the fact the device has its roots in the same mythological tradition this movie (as well as Diana herself) reference. But even if that was a conscious choice, it still undercuts any emotional catharsis they might have gotten from a resolution with a proper setup.

How much that matters depends on how much weight you place on the destination compared to the journey. I know that sounds like a loaded statement, but endings leave an impression on movies, even when the climax of the story has already passed. And, while I liked the preceding film well enough, the laughable (in a bad way) closing moments had an impact.

Fortunately it wasn't enough to ruin the experience entirely. The cheesy, cartoonish superhero stuff was a lot of fun, and that counts for a lot, too. I like a lot of the choices made around the villains, particularly the decision to complicate questions over who was and wasn't ultimately a villain. The fantasy creatures were tons of fun, as well, and (while it might have landed a little better with less lampshading) I kind of love that the movie paid off an advertising campaign decades old.

35. Ahsoka, Season 1

I find myself more than a little conflicted on this one. I really didn't like the first episode, but I enjoyed every subsequent one. I found this version of the title character bland compared with earlier incarnations, but it was delightful seeing these characters in live action, at all. I found the plot a little boring, but the new ideas (at least as far as live-action Star Wars is concerned) were great. Perhaps more importantly, I really liked the villains, all of whom felt like they had points of view and objectives more nuanced than "be evil."

At the end of the day, there are a lot things I wish had been done differently, but I'm not NOT going to like a show with space witches.

34. The Naughty Nine

I spent a lot of the runtime unsure where exactly my opinion was going to fall. The movie started strong but faltered as it moved into the second act. The ending was mixed - I liked how the primary character arcs played out but found myself bothered by an almost authoritarian subtext. It really wasn't until the closing shot that my opinion coalesced.

Specifically, it was when the movie teased the possibility of a sequel, and I realized just how much I wanted them to make it. This has issues (quite a few, in fact), but I enjoyed it on the whole. For a silly TV kids' movie, that's about all you can ask for.

33. The Last of Us, Season 1

This certainly isn't a situation where I've got any kind of hot take to share. The Last of Us is really good. The cast is great, the effects (and more importantly the overall visual design and execution) are great, it's cleverly adapted... basically, every aspect is really good. If this were a genre I was more invested in, it might be making a run for the top third of my list. Hell, if I didn't already know the plot through cultural osmosis, that might be enough.

But I did know the plot (or at least the main beats). And while I like the genres this was combining, they're not near and dear to my heart. This show wowed me, and I really liked it... but it didn't leave me floored the way my favorite shows do.

32. Cunk on Earth

I realize this was released overseas in 2022, but it didn't come out on Netflix until this January, so I'm including it here. I should also note that, like virtually everyone else in America, I haven't seen Cunk on Britain or Charlie Brooker's Weekly Wipe, and further am taking it on faith that those are real shows and not something someone added to Wikipedia as a joke.

This miniseries is a great deal of fun, offering a pitch-perfect parody of documentaries about the history of civilization. Diane Morgan, the actress playing Cunk, nails every line with a perfect blend of sincerity masking the utter absurdity of the questions she's asking and statements she's making. If she'd ever acknowledged her jokes were jokes, this would have fallen flat: her consistency and skill at striking the right tone is the reason this works.

Credit should also go to the team behind the camera, who manage to make this visually identical to the genre its mocking. Also, whoever wrote the subtitled "facts" for the Pump Up the Jam bits is a genius.

Arguably, the series might be one episode longer than it should have been. I think the jokes in the fourth installment weren't quite up to par with the rest, but even then I was laughing.

It's hard to imagine any way this could have been better. That said, this is by design more limited in actual substance. It exists to make you laugh, but - aside from pointing out how superficial many documentaries are - there's not much of a point to the whole thing. It gets in some good jabs at real issues, but it's not trying to say anything particularly meaningful.

Which is fine! Not everything has to be a pointed, political statement or an experiment in alternative narrative structure. Cunk on Earth is trying to be silly, and it succeeds masterfully: I have no complaints. But as fun as this was, it doesn't feel like the kind of thing that's going to stay with me. I'd be happy to watch more, though. 

31. The Mandalorian, Season 3

The ending is buying this season a lot of goodwill. Don't get me wrong: I'll always watch Star Wars stuff. Plus I loved the episode with Lizzo, Black, and Lloyd. And that crazy alien pterosaur they fought that was rendered to look like stop-motion was incredible.

But this is a two-sided lightsaber. The plotting was contrived and convoluted, the dialogue was awkward, and as patient as I was with a lead wearing a mask, when it's damn near everyone on screen it starts to feel like the people behind the camera aren't entirely clear what medium they're working in.

But then we got that ending. That beautiful, ridiculous, cheesy, exciting ending, complete with a brisk pace and cool effects. Hell, they even tossed in some decent character development and some really sweet moments with Din and... other Din, I guess. The finale alone bumped this up several spaces.

I just hope future Star Wars shows learn a few lessons from what's working and what isn't. Like I said, I'll keep watching regardless, but I'd rather have less ambiguous thoughts. 

30. Loki, Season 2

The strength of this season lies in Loki's arc - particularly the end of that arc. The weakness lies mostly in everyone else's stories, which feel superfluous. I wouldn't describe the experience as bad - the pace was fast, the cast was fun, and the dialogue amusing, so it all breezed by. I basically enjoyed the entire season as I was watching, but as soon as each episode ended (excluding the finale, of course) I found myself feeling like it was spinning its wheels. That ended with the last installment, which revealed the season had actually been building to something, and further that something was astonishingly cool. The shot of Loki quite literally embracing destiny might be one of my favorite visual moments in the entirety of the MCU, in a single instant justifying why both seasons of this show featured Loki as the protagonist of this particular story.

What it doesn't accomplish is justifying this story being told as a TV season. The medium was appropriate to the first season, since that was structured around various mini-adventures to different eras and places. But the bulk of the second season was a single story, and - again - that story could have been a lot more streamlined. We didn't need this many side-characters, most of whom weren't all that interesting (the main exception being Ouroboros, who's consistently delightful).

Really, this season should have been a movie. Loki's story was the interesting part, and that could have been covered in a fraction of the time.

29. I'm a Virgo

Boots Riley's surreal deconstruction of a superhero world (and more pointedly of the capitalist police state) is fascinating, though after Sorry to Bother You, I feel like "fascinating" is a given when Riley's involved. Beyond that, it's virtually indescribable, mainly because its sensibilities and pacing don't align with entries in virtually any of the genres or mediums it slides into. This almost feels like a kids' show, but only insofar as its visuals, structure, and humor aren't restrained by conventions that make the vast majority of "grown up TV" relatively homogenous in ways that aren't apparent until you see something like I'm a Virgo actually do something truly and unmistakably different.

For the first two or three episodes, I was completely transfixed by the experience. As the show went on and I became more accustomed to the style, I basically settled into "just" liking it. I found myself oscillating between finding moments and images brilliant and finding others kind of underdeveloped. For better or worst, the series is more an experiment in worldbuilding than a unified story. I found myself wishing a few of the side plots had been cut and we'd spent more time on others. But that could entirely be preference - even the stuff that didn't click with me still seemed clever.

It's also worth reiterating that the stuff I liked, I really liked. This featured moments of brilliance bordering on transcendence, and I'm not sure those would have hit as hard in a more focused story. Beyond that, the visuals alone were incredibly inspired.

Like Sorry to Bother You, this left me intrigued and eager to see what madness Riley prepares next. He's one of the most original creators in live-action film or TV, and that alone makes everything he makes exciting.

28. Peter Pan & Wendy

At present, this is my third favorite live-action Disney remake, after The Jungle Book and Cruella. I don't think it's a coincidence all three are less remakes than entirely new adaptations that use their corresponding classic animated counterparts as inspiration, rather than blueprints. I'm quite a bit more forgiving towards The Lion King remake than most (I think it's a fascinating technical experiment), but I'd never claim it establishes itself as a film in its own right. But love them or hate them, these three are new stories, as are the live-action Dumbo and Maleficent movies (the latter of which probably holds the #4 spot and the former is a good reminder that "new" doesn't automatically equate to "good").

I really liked Peter Pan & Wendy, despite... well, despite a lot of things. The visual effects and design were hit-or-miss, the whole thing was tinted far too dark, and several subplots felt rushed or shoehorned in. I'm not saying this was a perfect film, nor am I suggesting its critics are in some way wrong. This is divisive for a reason - it's a flawed movie, and releasing it on Disney+ rather than the theaters was probably a smart move.

But for everything wrong with it, there's a great deal that works and - in my opinion - justifies going through the trouble of making yet another Peter Pan movie, which is no small feat in own right. Unlike most Disney classics the studios been recycling, there's no shortage of attempts to reboot Peter Pan as a modern fantasy. We had Hook in the '90s, the 2003 version from P. J. Hogan, and the 2015 movie from Joe Wright. I still have a soft spot for Hook, but its flaws make this version's seem trivial in comparison. I should probably give the 2003 version a rewatch - I was extremely disappointed when I saw it in the theaters and haven't returned since. As for the 2015 movie, it's easily the worst of the bunch and still serves as one of my go-to examples for mismanaged blockbusters. Frankly, the attempts to make Peter Pan work in modern movies mirror those that have plagued Robin Hood and King Arthur - these are concepts that should still work, but after a while it starts to feel like Hollywood is incapable of getting them right.

But Peter Pan & Wendy threads the needle - for me at least - by drawing inspiration from some of the source material's strongest aspects that are almost uniformly overlooked for being too dark. This is the first version I've come across that's at least willing to explore Barrie's dissection of the idea innocence is inherently good. It's unwilling to fully embrace the dark aspects of his work and depict all children as inherently cruel, but it takes Hook's suggestion to that effect seriously. For me, that's enough to establish this as movie worth seeing.

But it wasn't enough for David Lowery apparently, because there's a lot more to recommend here. The casting is absolutely fantastic (Alexander Molony was particularly good, but I was impressed with all the kids), and the movie offers some real gravitas at key moments. And while there are sequences where the combination of effects and visuals fail to sell what's on screen, there are others where we're treated to something special (the flying pirate ship at the end looked great).

27. Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny

This was, of course, a particularly divisive film. For a lot of people, that opening section was a dealbreaker, which I certainly understand. Personally, I found it at once technically impressive but emotionally empty - I sort of compartmentalized the disconnect, focused on the pulpy adventure, and was able to keep it from ruining the experience for me. That said, if I'd seen this unaware it was destined to flop, I'm not sure I'd have been able to ignore the fact the lead was largely a digital creation in that sequence and still enjoy the rest of the film.

But luckily I was watching this on Disney+ and not in a theater, so I had the hindsight of knowing Disney's trial run of using CG to bottle stars and freeze their IP went over like a WWII bomber with a ballista bolt through an engine. If anything it was kind of delightful watching one of history's most cynical studio experiments crash and burn in slow motion, so I wasn't bothered.

At any rate, studio executives take note: no one gives a shit about digital actors masquerading as the real deal.

I thought the rest of the movie was solid for what it was - a fairly silly (if slightly overlong) adventure, coupled with a decent father-daughter (well, god-daughter, but it's all the same template) character story. The action was fun enough, with the caveat it was virtually impossible to buy into the idea a man in his '80s was actually capable of anything Jones is doing. But this franchise has always required a suspension of disbelief, and Mangold does good work setting up the intricate Rube Goldberg set pieces these movies require.

This isn't in the same league as the original three, of course, but I never really expected it would be. Despite bringing back Ford one last time (unless, God forbid, Disney decides they need to try the whole "legacy sequel" thing a third time sometime in the late 2030s), this feels more akin to something like Solo than, say, The Force Awakens or Last Jedi. And my feelings towards Dial of Destiny are fairly similar to my feelings towards Solo: I enjoyed watching both, but not so much I have any trouble putting myself into the shoes of those who hate them.

26. Skull Island, Season 1

I sincerely hope whoever's in charge of the next Monsterverse movie watches this and pays close attention to how the characters are written, because this is the first thing in this franchise I've seen where I wanted more time with the humans.

Granted, this is an animated show, rather than a live-action movie, so the rules are a little different, but I'm convinced the basic concept would translate: make the people effective pulp adventurers. And also make them completely unhinged.

That last part's important - these things are more interesting when the people are running towards the monsters than away. The movies have typically tried to contrive plot-based reasons necessitating characters to move towards the action - they need some MacGuffin or something - but that gets old fast. The truth is we're watching these things because we love the monsters, and it's far more entertaining when the POV characters share our affection. 

All that said, I should probably note Skull Island isn't exactly a kaiju series - it's more a comedy/adventure with a couple kaiju tossed into the mix. You could honestly write out Kong with only slight alterations to the overall plot, and if anything the show might be a little better for it.

But would anyone have seen it? Would I? Probably not, given the volume of entertainment out there, and that would have been a shame because this really was a great deal of fun. The show's breakout character, Annie, a teenage girl raised among monsters, is more than enough to make this worthwhile. Really, all the characters are likeable, including several you'd expect to be otherwise. This show plays with and subverts your expectations.

By the time we build up to the episodes about King Kong - which are still pretty great - I find myself wishing we were still focusing on the main characters. That's pretty damn impressive, if you ask me. 

25. Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, Season 2

You have no idea how many spots this jumped solely because of the Lower Decks crossover. Like, take your best guess, then double it. God, I love that episode.

The season as a whole is pretty good, too, though it's still not what I really want. Personally, I want this show to be the version of Star Trek that wasn't made in the 60's, with as much as that entails as possible. I want the ship to look like it did, I want the characters to act like they acted in the original series, and most of all I want the structure to be episodic adventures with character development a secondary consideration.

And there is absolutely nothing wrong with not giving me what I want, particularly because if they did the series probably wouldn't have maintained enough fans to justify even a second season.

Instead, they're essentially taking plot elements and character traits implied in the original and adding in copious amounts of fan service, to the degree some elements are essentially fan fiction. And, just so we're clear, that is not a criticism. If anything, it's a smart approach that justifies revisiting characters like Spock and Uhura in the first place.

But because it's not what I personally want, this is as far up the list as it gets, despite the fact the aforementioned crossover is probably my favorite standalone live-action episode of Star Trek since DS9's Trials and Tribble-ations.

This might have made it a few spots higher still if it weren't for the musical episode leaving me a little cold. The songs were good, and the production values were impressive, but I just didn't feel like it delivered a premise and story that intertwined Star Trek and the format as well as it could have.

24. Good Omens 2

The second season of Good Omens - to the limited extent the term "season" applies - is very different than the first. That shouldn't be entirely surprising: the first season was an adaptation of the novel by Gaiman and Pratchett, while the second was a new story inspired by the show and its leads. Because of this, the sequel feels like it's set in an entirely different world, one that's notably less dangerous and where even the denizens of hell tend to be a bit nicer in the long run. The first season was sort of a metaphysical satire, while this leaned towards romantic comedy. In context, it almost feels like fan fiction (and seems to borrow freely from tropes associated with that genre).

Not only is there's nothing wrong with that, it was probably the best approach. The first season didn't need a sequel, so trying to match the tone and style would have likely resulted in something redundant. Focusing instead on implied character facets and relationships offered the freedom to actually deliver something different.

And what we got was a funny, engaging, breezy story about angels and demons navigating a cold war between heaven and hell while falling in love. Did part of me wish they'd leaned a little more into the serious side of the genre? Maybe - this isn't my ideal mix of tones - but I still found the whole thing pretty delightful.

23. Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves

I like Honor Among Thieves a great deal, but maybe not quite as much as I expected to. Yeah, this is partly another case of unreasonable expectations setting the bar too high, but - for everything the movie does right (and there's a great deal of that) - there are also some missed opportunities.

This is at its best when it embraces madcap heist antics in its world, but - despite being centered on precisely those kinds of characters - the movie underutilizes those genre elements. It wants to be a comedic Mission: Impossible movie set in Forgotten Realms, but it keeps pausing this to explore its fantasy roots. To be fair, some of that's great, too - the jokes and Easter Eggs were a lot of fun, and the tongue-in-cheek generic fantasy score might by the film's best asset (I'm not joking when I say I want the score nominated for an Oscar) - but the reason this hits me like a three-and-a-half star movie rather than four or five comes down to it treating what should be its primary genre as a side thought.

Likewise, I felt like the movie's balance of comedy and serious moments was a little off. The Disney+ Willow show struck a very similar tone, and managed to pull it off quite a bit better, in my opinion, delivering moments that had actual weight. The scene where Pine's character reveals the missing piece of his backstory gives us a taste of that, but the film's ending struck me as kind of childish and formulaic. That's not to say the writing and direction was at all bad; just that it could have been a lot better during crucial moments.

And again, I still really enjoyed this. The whole cast was great, with Michelle Rodriguez and Sophia Lillis standing out. The action sequences were fantastically inventive, as well, and the high speed polymorphing chase was absolutely delightful. If the choice comes down to more installments exactly like this or nothing at all, make no mistake: I'll take as much of this as they're willing to give me. But if they can punch this up a bit, the blueprint they're using has the potential to be something truly special.

Let's just hope the lackluster box-office numbers didn't sink the chances of any follow-ups.

22. Cocaine Bear

Every decision this movie makes is right. That sentence, coupled with the premise of the movie (which is already succinctly summed up in its name) would serve as a complete review, so feel free to skip the rest of this if you've got anything better to do.

The wisest decision director Elizabeth Banks makes here is not to try and elevate the material or turn this into anything more than the sum of its parts. Cocaine Bear isn't a cautionary tale about climate change, a thoughtful deconstruction of failed US drug policy, or a surprisingly impactful emotional exploration of any of its characters. It is instead exactly what's advertised, and I think that's commendable.

Specifically, this is a comedy, albeit one with escalating degrees of gore. It's a throwback to old b-horror with a higher budget, actual production values, and a sense of self-awareness. It wants to recreate the thrill of watching a laughably bad movie while actually being good. To this end, Banks casts comedians and has them play 2-dimensional characters, none of whom get enough screen time to build up any real empathetic connection.

Again, these are features, not bugs. The point is to avoid lasting attachment or emotional connection that undercuts the silly fun of the thing. Structurally, this is closer to parodies of the '80s and '90s, albeit with enough love for the genre being targeted to qualify as an installment rather than lampooning them. Also, unlike most of those, Cocaine Bear is actually funny.

It's essentially a near-perfect execution of a very simple, intentionally stupid premise. It would be easy to dismiss this as a movie that sets out with modest ambitions and achieves them, but that ignores the fact that there are so few movies like this that are any good. There's an art to turning a ridiculous premise into a fun movie that's not just an overlong trailer, and while Cocaine Bear makes it look easy, it requires intricately balanced genre conventions, a wry sense of humor, and careful planning. This is worth checking out, assuming you can handle a bit of gore.

21. Transformers: Rise of the Beasts

It's difficult to say whether or not Rise of the Beasts actually clears the bar to count as a good movie or not. For the record, I think it does, albeit barely, though frankly it's difficult to care.

Before you interpret that as a criticism, let's take a moment and remember this is the sequel to the prequel (which may or may not be a reboot) to five movies by Michael Bay based on a cartoon show based on toys, but also based on a sequel cartoon series from the '90s that was simultaneously sillier and thematically darker.

The point is, "ridiculous and fun" should be the goal here, more than "good." Bumblebee did pull off a pretty incredible feat and deliver a truly great movie on top of everything else, but it'd be unreasonable to expect them to repeat that. And of course this isn't on par with its immediate predecessor, but damn if it isn't a joy to watch.

I enjoyed this one a lot, and not just because I've got find memories of watching Beast Machines with friends in the hall lounge in college.

But that certainly doesn't hurt.

20. Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania

I know this is one of the Marvel installments that's widely derided, but as a retro fantasy adventure with some great comedic beats and a genuinely unnerving antagonist, I really liked it. The movie is inventive and weird, with visuals that prioritize imagination over realism. In a sense, this feels like Marvel's answer to Aquaman more than anything else, and - in my book at least - that's a good thing.

I can nitpick various aspects, of course. Some jokes land better than others, not every character arc connects, and they may have pushed some of the intentionally silly effects a little too far (everyone gets that M.O.D.O.K. looking like an effect composited using '90s technology was a choice, right?), but at the end of the day this delivers what I feel has been missing from most of the last round of MCU productions: new, bizarre, imaginative worlds. The MCU's main danger at this point is feeling stale, which is why I suspect a lot of the Phase 4 movies haven't landed the same way, despite being more or less on par with earlier installments in terms of quality. Quantumania succeeds in shaking things up and showing us something different and truly bizarre, and it does so with whimsical characters, cool action, and great jokes.

More please.

19. Creed III

Creed III isn't as good as the first Creed. It's also not as good as Citizen Kane, Casablanca, or The Godfather.

Shocking, I know.

But if we're through comparing it to movies nothing should ever be compared to, maybe it's worth noting this is incredibly well made, the performances are all fantastic, the characters' journeys are effective, and the surreal fight sequence was damn near perfect.

In a lot of ways, Creed III was a smaller movie than its predecessors - the stakes feel more reined in, the story is less epic, and the ending has a lighter touch. The downside of this is that it doesn't leave as big an impression as, say, Creed II, but that doesn't mean it's not an improvement (and Creed II was already pretty good).

I really like this one. Of course it isn't as good as Creed, but then again not a lot of movies are. But this closes out the trilogy (or at least first three films of whatever this turns into) strong, which is a hell of an achievement in its own right.

18. The Holdovers

Got this in just under the wire! The Holdovers is a great film, and one of this year's best examples of a movie poorly served by the framing of this kind of list. By it's nature, The Holdovers isn't the kind of movie most people - myself included - are going to be knocked head-over-heels over. If you're better versed in 70's cinema than I am, you might disagree, but for the rest of us this is more a movie we appreciate and enjoy than fall deeply in love with.

That's not a criticism, just an explanation for why a movie that's damn near perfect is only scraping the top third of a list arranged according to the admittedly vague concept of "favorite." The Holdovers is a film that prioritizes simple, grounded moments over big, dramatic gestures. It's got a lot of heart and a great sense of humor, but it's wants you to ache rather than cry and chuckle rather than fall out of your seat. Everything about the movie is as intentionally muted as the color palette, including payoffs and emotional beats. It's a measured film that deserves the accolades it's receiving and whatever awards are coming its way. I only hope the inevitable Oscar nominations offer the filmmakers some consolation over not being ranked higher on some random nerd's end-of-year list.

17. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem

The fact this isn't a serious contender for best animated picture is a reminder of just how good the medium has gotten. Everything about this movie is great, starting with the phenomenal animation style, which transforms sketch marks, smudged ink, and paint into a three-dimensional world. Sure, it's a continuation of the philosophy driving Spider-Verse and Mitchells Vs. the Machines, but it takes that in a new and unique direction. Animation has rarely looked this cool.

On top of that, the movie offers fantastic, reimagined versions of the characters, great comedy, and real heart. This is a wonderful movie - everything you could ask for from an animated picture and more. But the bar for best animated movie of the year seems to have risen to the level of "transcendent," and I don't think Mutant Mayhem quite clears that hurdle.

Though, honestly, it comes close at times.

16. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3

If you'd given me six guesses before I watched the movie as to how many Guardians would die, you'd have gotten six wrong answers. Maybe it's because Gunn kept insisting this would be the absolute finale for this version of the team, maybe it's because Dave Bautista was adamant he wouldn't be back, or maybe it's because the first two installments end with an emotional sacrifice, but I'd have bet money not everyone was walking away.

But I kind of think that's the reason they did. Gunn seems a little more self-conscious of his writing patterns than most people making these kinds of movies, so maybe he took the less obvious path to avoid being predictable. Regardless, he delivers a emotionally fulfilling conclusion without relying on what's become the genre's default dramatic shortcut. Likewise, while it may have cost him a bit among critics, Gunn shies away from some of the supposed pacing and structural rules dominating Hollywood blockbusters. 

And, of course, the movie's also as fun as a barrel of raccoons. The weird settings, inventive action, and quirky humor are all dialed up about as far as they'll go. The giant space organism is gnarly and gleefully gross, the villain is terrifying, and Knowhere just keeps getting cooler. These are among the best looking superhero movies out there.

I can understand why this one's divisive, but count me among those who think Vol. 3 is a worthy successor to the franchise. I'm sorry we won't see more Guardians movies from Gunn, but damned if I'm not looking forward to whatever he's got planned for Superman and the rest of the DC Universe.

15. Bottoms

I dug this bizarre comedy, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a tad disappointed after hearing it hyped for months. Don't get me wrong: it's hilarious and entertaining as hell, and I love the way it blends a style of comedy from the 80's and 90's with the sensibilities of the present. I also love the fact this gives Heathers a run for its money as far as body counts are concerned - I'm not sure why zany teenage comedies are better when people die violently, but the rule of thumb seems to have held.

As entertaining as this is, it doesn't have much to say beyond the inherent statement it makes by existing in the first place (which, to be clear, is still quite a powerful statement). Not that it needs to deliver some kind of thesis or anything to be good, mind you. Comedies need to be funny, which this absolutely is. Plus it includes a sequence in which a bunch of teenage girls fight a football team to the death, which is of course icing on the cake.

14. Merry Little Batman

Remarkably good, this is one of two animated movie on this list we almost didn't get to see due to studio mergers and subsequent executive meddling. Merry Little Batman certainly isn't like any incarnation of the character in prior adaptations and - to be frank - is a long way from the version I'd have described wanting next. But there's no arguing with results: everything about this from the comedy to the surprisingly effective emotional core just works. This one's really good.

13. Willow, Season 1

I realize I've said this before, but it's true here, as well: three or four episodes in, I was convinced this was going to make it to the top of my year-end list, only for the show to come up short in the second half of the season. This time, it's a little complicated, however, as I either wanted more or less from the series. I better elaborate.

Willow is ultimately a campy, ridiculous adventure that refreshingly refuses to treat its predecessor as some sort of hallowed, serious masterpiece. The movie it's based on, if we're being honest, has some serious tonal issues: half of it is kind of dark and bleak, while the other half is basically a farce. When I heard they were making a legacy sequel, I naturally assumed it'd be the serious stuff getting highlighted. Instead, the show leaned into the absurdity of the world and characters. It's not entirely comedy, but tonally that's the aspect that wins out. And the series is much better for it.

But unsurprisingly, it's still trying to inject pathos into its characters and story. I'm not certain whether Avatar: The Last Airbender was an influence on the show's development, but I wouldn't be surprised - it really feels like it's trying for a similar effect where the humor gets you invested in characters, only to make their emotional pain all the more impactful.

It's a really good approach. The problem is, it doesn't quite pull it off here. I like these characters, but their arcs kind of feel like they're meandering, their growth largely feels forced and simplistic, and their pain comes across muted. The cast is doing good work, but the larger stories the show's telling needed work. I'm hesitant to come down too harshly on the writers, because the same team did stellar work building the characters to begin with, to say nothing of delivering some truly delightful dialogue. But if this wanted to be "more than a comedy," I wanted better arcs than we got.

Alternatively, maybe this shouldn't try so hard. That's why I said at the start I wanted either more or less: I think this would work if it just dropped the pretense of pathos and embraced the "friendship is magic" side of the franchise. Willow delivers a line to more or less that effect at one point, and it's a satisfying moment. There's nothing wrong with something like this being a little childish.

Nitpicks aside, I absolutely enjoyed this and wish we were getting more.

12. Lower Decks, Season 4

The downside to ranking a show that's as consistently good as Lower Decks is that it isn't likely to surprise you after a while. Yet again Lower Decks delivered something wonderful. I loved every episode and had a blast. But because it really has been consistently good, it really doesn't have any room to astonish me. That's not a problem, but it does mean there's a roof on how high it's going to climb on this kind of list.

11. Poker Face

It's fascinating to see a throwback to classic, episodic mystery series appear in the present landscape of intricately plotted shows driven by season- or series-long arcs. For the record, I'm a believer that neither approach is inherently good or bad. Ideally, showrunners should adopt the format best for each show, but that's clearly not a given: I've lost track of the number of shows I've seen in the last decade which blatantly followed in Stranger Things' footprints because of some mandate rather than artistic choice. If the only thing Poker Face accomplishes is getting us a little closer to a world where artistic decisions are made for artistic reasons, it would already be worth it.

But if course that's far from the show's only merit. Poker Face offers quirky humor, genuine suspense, and an endless supply of fun. The episodes vary in quality, but that's to be expected. Frankly, it's nice to be constantly surprised, even if the surprise in question occasionally turns out to be some variation of "this episode is good but not great."

And the great episodes are REALLY great. On top of that, the best two of the season (in my opinion, at least) were near the end, implying the trajectory is on the right course.

10. The Muppets Mayhem

I want to be a little careful while comparing this against other Muppet productions, because it's a little too easy to trip up and undersell some phenomenal installments from the last few decades. I'm not certain this is the best Muppet production of the past few decades, or even necessarily my favorite (I'd at least need to re-watch both the 2011 movie and 2015 series to rank the three). The stance I am prepared to make is a bit more specific: I think this understands the underlying concept of the Muppets better than any show, movie, or special since we lost Henson. The approach here is pitch-perfect, even on episodes where jokes and relationships don't entirely connect.

What's particularly interesting to me is that it gets to that point by dialing back the franchise's manic energy and edgy content. Rather than treating The Muppets like a larger-than-life concept with bizarre metaphysical properties, it just kind of approaches them as characters. Weird characters, of course, but still characters, with insecurities, hopes, and failings. It's the opposite approach I'd have expected or would have thought I'd want for a series exclusively about the Electric Mayhem, but now I find myself wanting similar spin-offs about as many classic Muppet characters as they're willing to produce.

I'll add that the best installments - episodes 5 through 8, if I'm remembering right - were absolutely phenomenal. If every episode had been as good as those, this would be in the top three; if they'd all been at the quality of episode 7, this would have handed in the #1 spot. But few shows if any can maintain that level of quality, particularly right out of the gate, and it's not like the rest of the series was ever short of "really good."

Please give me more like this. Not necessarily more of this specific series (though I'd take more Mayhem if it's in the cards), but more Muppets produced with this philosophy. This really feels right.

9. Blue Beetle

By my count, there are five truly great movies in the now defunct DCEU: Wonder Woman, Birds of Prey, Shazam!, The Suicide Squad, and - you guessed it - Blue Beetle. I really wasn't expecting that, by the way, which is why it took me so long to actually see it (December 26th, in case you were wondering). Blue Beetle has its diehard proponents, but the overall consensus is fairly lackluster. Well, count me among the proponents: I loved it.

Granted, I may have been partly swayed by the movie's decision to heavily homage Speed Racer throughout the first act. And while, yes, the Amblin vibe of the third act is getting a bit passé, its execution here felt fresh.

Was the movie flawless? Of course not. It's bizarre the movie never circled back to the widespread devastation caused by the suit's "power test" (I'm guessing there was supposed to be a scene establishing the villain was able to use that to get authorization for her assault on the family - maybe it'll be on the blu-ray I just ordered). Also, a few of the fart and butt jokes were a tad childish, even for a family movie. 

But between the humor, a fantastic cast of characters, and some inventive action sequences, this was an unusually good entry in the genre that felt offbeat enough to stand out.

8. The Sacrifice Game

I'll put a full write-up on Mainlining Christmas at some point (probably next year, unless I get ambitious), but for the time being I'll say this retro '70s horror throwback with a '90s goth twist is my favorite 2023 Christmas movie to date. While that represents a fairly light sampling, this also ranks pretty well overall. I don't want to spoil any more than necessary here, but I will say I couldn't have loved the ending any more - that goes for the third act in general and the resolution in particular (I'm sure the latter will be at least a bit divisive, but - yeah - I just loved it).

That said, those of you who are squeamish or easily disturbed by violent imagery will want to do your due diligence before watching.

7. Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, Season 1

God, I love this. The show is beautifully designed, lovingly written and animated, and the music... honestly, those musical interludes might be my favorite part of this. I'm kind of struggling for things to say here, because what makes this work is hard to put into words. It's a fun, superhero comedy/drama in the vein of the Spider-Verse movies and the DuckTales reboot. It's stylish, smart, and funny. If you haven't checked this out already, there's no time like the present to correct that.

6. Polite Society

Polite Society kind of feels like the movie Edgar Wright would make, if he'd made movies about women back in his "ridiculous action phase". It feels more like Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World than any other movie I can think of.

Please don't mistake that some sort of criticism or accusation of redundancy - Polite Society arrives at its tone and style through an entirely different set of genre references and ideas, and the story is completely different. But if you're looking for a reference point, Scott Pilgrim is about as close as you're going to get.

That said, I like this a lot more than Wright's video-game fueled movie (sidenote: I haven't seen the animated series yet, but I hear it's fantastic). I know it's sacrilege to speak ill of Pilgrim, but while I love the style and approach, something feels off in the way the absurdist action is woven in. Polite Society, for me at least, does a far better job balancing this and selling the transitions between slightly heightened realism and bonkers martial arts sequences.

Which, incidentally, are absolutely delightful, beautiful, and about as fun as this stuff gets. There are a couple counterexamples (a few sequences near the are a tad underwhelming), but on the whole this is some of the best action you're likely to see this year.

The underlying comedy is pretty great, too. The characters, like the movie they inhabit, are bigger and weirder than life. And, as a bonus, the fact the story centers on a cast of primarily British Pakistani characters means we get to see something different than any of the templates we've gotten a thousand times before.

5. Barbie

Movie critics have come a long way in the last fifteen years. That's how long it's been since Speed Racer came out and was largely lampooned by reviewers who, frankly, just didn't get it. Distracted by surface-level observations of bright colors and comic relief, they approached it like any other kids' movie, and because of this overlooked the depth of artistry, web of influences, and overall achievement the film represented.

This generation of critics is apparently more open to the possibility that art exists in unlikely places. Audiences are, too - Barbie grossed close to 1.5 billion worldwide.

I'm not sure if Barbie is quite as good as Speed Racer - I'll need to rewatch it several times over a few years to see how it holds up. But I do think that's the closest reference we've got: like the Wachowski sisters' masterpiece, Gerwig's film builds a world out of a collage of pop-art imagery, calibrated color, and music. She takes a slightly different path: Speed Racer invokes its more impressionistic elements visually, while Gerwig favors more elaborate story structure to reach a similar end point. But both movies offer surreal experiences reminiscent of cubism (the Wachowskis have cited the movement as an influence; I suspect Gerwig turned to it as well).

The only thing holding this back for me is the movie's decision to explain its references. To be clear, I don't think this is a flaw: Barbie needs to be accessible to a wide audience, including children (especially children, in fact). Pausing to explain various incarnations of the doll or Ruth Handler's identity was almost certainly the right choice. In addition, Gerwig found ways to deliver information that were comical and contributed to the sense the film was pushing the medium in directions that are alien to generic blockbusters. But I've got a history with toy collecting, so - fair or not - I did find those moments a tad distracting. 

Regardless, this is a fantastic movie and yet another reminder that Gretta Gerwig is one of the most exciting directors working today. 

4. They Cloned Tyrone

One of the year's most fascinating releases, They Cloned Tyrone is the rare kind of multi-layered movies that's simultaneously a pleasure to watch and is deceptively complex to break down. Even on the surface, it plays as a fun cross-genre homage to '70s exploitation and science-fiction, with modern comedic sensibilities and thoughtful satire. And, again, that's the surface level.

Because it's also a masterclass in deconstructing the genres it's paying homage to, recontextualizing tropes and character archetypes as the story progresses in ways that add layered meaning to what previously seemed like jokes. This should be in consideration for Best Original Screenplay - it's a brilliant script.

On top of that, it features some fantastic performances (particularly from its three leads), a perfect soundtrack, and retro '70s cinematography tying it all together. I loved every minute of this weird, intricately constructed movie and look forward to whatever Juel Taylor directs next.


Okay, I want to take minute and acknowledge how close these three actually are. The things that follow aren't just those I loved - they all left me breathless, either from laughing, from being emotionally moved, or from sheer shock that the medium I was seeing was delivering work of this caliber. For months I was planning on cheating with a two-way tie, using the fact one was a TV show as justification. But that plan fell apart when a new challenger emerged and squeezed between them. That's how goddamn close this is - the movie in the #2 spot forced me to split the win between #3 and #1.

So, with that in mind, here are the three pieces of entertainment from 2023 I loved most ranked in as accurate a manner as I can muster.

3. Star Trek: Picard, Season 3

This was one of the best seasons of television I've seen in my entire life. Everything about it, from the writing, directing, editing, acting, and scoring was executed at a level movies should aspire to. The premise required a cast of actors in their '70s and '80s to behave like action heroes, and it never once felt absurd - that alone is a hell of a feat.

The tone was tense and suspenseful, the visuals epic and engrossing, and the new villain was the best the franchise has given us since Ricardo Montalban graced the screen. The first four episodes in particular felt unrelenting and as close to perfect as anything I've ever seen produced for the small screen. The rest of the season wavered a hair... but only a hair. Taken as a whole, this is the best Trek I've seen since the Original Series. I'm in absolute awe of what was accomplished here.

2. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse

I enjoyed the first installment in this series well enough, and more than that I was able to clearly see that it was a quantum leap forward in animation. It's a great movie, no question, but I didn't love it the way a lot of comics and animation nerds did. 

This one hit me differently. This time I felt the way the first movie's most passionate fans described feeling. I love every second of this movie.

It deserves that love, incidentally. The animation here is incredible. It's kind of become cliché to describe modern animated movies as still works of art brought to life, but... God, that's the feeling. Backgrounds and foregrounds alike transform seamlessly between two and three-dimensions depending on the emotional needs of the moment, designs break through boundaries of medium, and the story has weight and resonance. It's fantastic.

But honestly I care more about how it made me feel, and it's almost impossible to overstate just how much I enjoyed watching this film. The energy and momentum were palpable, and the experience left me overjoyed.

I know some people are annoyed it's basically half a story, but that doesn't bother me in the slightest. I'm not convinced the old rules regarding structure and self-contained installments really apply anymore now that we're in a world where it's relatively easy to catch up on earlier films or even skim the synopsis on Wikipedia. Frankly, if you've got a story that needs two movies worth of time to play out, I'm fine with having it span two movies. And I can't imagine anyone claiming Across the Spider-Verse was stretched out: every second felt justified. 

This one came so close to the top spot. Hell, I genuinely enjoyed it just as much as everything on here. But in the end, I couldn't justify a tie between two animated movies, so I went with something that meant a hair more to me. But damned it was close....

1. Nimona

What's exceptional about Nimona isn't that it's doing anything particularly new - the character archetypes, plot structure, and even themes are pretty similar to those we've seen countless times in modern animation, and even the fantasy/sci-fi setting is becoming commonplace. Despite that, the movie feels fresh and revolutionary, because while the underlying ideas have been played with before, Nimona leaves you with the sense everything's been turned up to 11.

Some of that's due to the punk aesthetic and the movie's willingness to at least poke at the limits of its rating. There's a mischievousness to some of the dialogue you don't expect from these (think Shrek, only smart and funny). It also helps the movie knows when to draw back the curtain around its metaphors: it's not afraid to acknowledge some of the darker aspects of what its characters are going through, and the emotions actually carry some weight.

But mostly it's just that it's all done as well as it is. 

That's not really why this is up here, though. The real asset of the movie is right in its title: it's Nimona herself.

The character feels genuinely revolutionary. Every line of dialogue she utters packs a punch - we're so used to these characters being watered down it's truly refreshing to hear her talk gleefully about murdering her enemies and overthrowing the government. And it's also more fun than I've had watching a movie in a long, long time.

Nimona is an absolute joy, and we're lucky to have it. Very lucky, in fact - it was nearly lost in the midst of Disney's acquisition of Fox, a reminder that studios aren't motivated by art. Nor are they good at business: Disney could have made a fortune releasing this under their brand, and whatever blowback they hoped to avoid by writing it off hit them nonetheless (once more for the cheap seats: YOU CANNOT APPEASE FASCISTS).

It's that victory in a meta-conceptual sense that edges this one over the line for me, incidentally, into this spot. Both this and Spider-Verse are, in very different ways, incredible artistic achievements, but the path this went through to overcome bigotry and corporate cowardice makes its themes resonate all the louder.


This year, even more than most, I'm left with a sprawling list of movies I didn't get around to. Hell, in some cases I'm literally left with the movies themselves: I've got blu-rays of Fast X, the next Mission Impossible, Asteroid City, and others I picked up on sale in November and just haven't had a chance to watch. And those are on top of a growing list of independent and foreign films I hear great things about. And I haven't even mentioned movies still in theaters such as The Marvels, The Boy and the Heron, and Godzilla Minus One. Or all the TV shows I didn't get to....

So, yeah, this isn't entirely a complete list, nor will it ever be. But it's as close as I was able to scrape together before the end of a busy year.

The standouts for me in 2023 so far were of course animated films. I should note that animated movies have an advantage in that I'm less likely to overlook them before the end of the year: because there are fewer released, the great ones rarely escape my notice. It's entirely possible I'll stumble across a new favorite in the coming months, the way I found Vesper last January. Regardless, I remain excited by the revolution we're seeing in animation. New animation styles keep pushing boundaries and merging mediums to fantastic effect. I really hope this continues evolving in new directions.

It'll also be interesting to see where television goes, though I suspect we're coming to the end of the era of unlimited ambitious programming. Streaming executives finally seem to have caught on to the fact they can't make money by producing infinite content competing against a slew of other studios doing the same, as there's no reason for anyone to pay for more than one subscription at a time. So everyone is finally pulling back on expenses, which... okay, that's probably more sustainable. My hope is that they'll focus on producing a smaller number of great shows. My fear is they'll focus on mass-producing cheap reality TV. Guess we'll have to wait and see what wins out.

2024 will probably be a light year in terms of Hollywood, as we'll see the aftereffects of the strikes. Perhaps we'll see more foreign films brought in to take up the slack now that they've demonstrated an appeal to American audiences. That would be a nice change of pace, as would more independent and low-budget genre pictures getting better distribution.

Sunday, July 2, 2023

Movie Review: Nimona

This is going to be more a rant than a review, because... well, frankly my thoughts on the artistic aspects of this movie are less complicated than my thoughts about the business end. Note I said less complicated, not less intense. But if you follow me on any of 6 social media platforms (unfortunately I'm not exaggerating - for the love of God, can something just replace Twitter already?), you already know I love the hell out of this movie.

So let's get a little of that out of the way. This is good. Strike that - great. Strike that, too - this is metal. The comedy isn't just hilarious, it's hilarious in ways family and kids movies never are, because Hollywood executives don't have the guts to follow through. This movie is what every "edgy" kids movie for the last 20 years has been cosplaying as, but this time the tone is coming from a real place of anger, and everything from the style to the writing to the voice acting convey that in every frame. This is the best animated feature I've seen in a long time. It's funny, emotionally resonant, and the titular character is the stuff of legends. It features meaningful representation that's interwoven into the themes and premise. It's a phenomenal film, and the only reason it's not a 10/10 is because the dial goes up to 11. In case it's not clear, I am recommending you head over to Netflix right now to watch this, and if anyone tries to stop you from doing so, you should knock them unconscious and shove their unconscious body in the trunk of a stolen car.

So if it's that good, why am I pissed off? Well, there are two reasons. First, Nimona kind of primes you to want to break something, but more importantly because....

We almost didn't get to see this. See, this movie was made by Blue Sky, which is another way of saying it was made by Fox. And that of course means it was passed off to Disney as part of the acquisition, and Disney's leadership took one look at the mostly completed film and decided they were better off shelving it. As far as I can tell, this came a hair's breadth from being written off the way Warner Bros./Discovery wrote off Batgirl.

(Side-note: fuck David Zaslav).

Sorry. Where were we?

Oh, yes. Disney was ready to throw out the nearly finished animated film, because they thought it made more sense than completing and releasing it. The main rumor for this seems centered on the movie's queer content. It's worth noting these decisions would have been made prior to Disney winding up the target of right-wing grifters going after the corporation.

Let that be a lesson to businesses - you can't placate bigots. If anything, they're more likely to come after you if they think you care what they think. Relative to other companies, Disney's a decade behind the times when it comes to lgbt+ representation in kids' media, but you don't see the right openly trying to weaponize government in retaliation against, say, Cartoon Network or Netflix (both of which have been far more progressive in this respect). If you reach out to bigots angry that gay or trans people exist, they take it as a sign of weakness and double their efforts.

Fortunately, enough people who believed in the project (i.e.: people with some goddamn clue what this movie actually was) convinced the right parties at Netflix and Disney there was a mutually beneficial solution, and a deal was struck. Like countless films before it, Nimona was sold, completed by Netflix, and released on that platform following a one-week limited release (almost certainly to qualify it for awards).

And, to be clear, I'm elated it was finished and released at all, which is more than I can say for several films caught in the Discovery-Warner Bros. merger (again, fuck David Zaslav). But, to be clear, it's infuriating it came close to not seeing the light. This movie is artistically valuable, will be deeply meaningful to a generation of kids who grow up with it, and - with apologies for belaboring the point - is rad as hell. It's virtually guaranteed a Best Animated Picture nomination.

Let that sink in for a second: a nearly-completed Oscar-caliber movie almost got trashed, because an executive thought it wouldn't be convenient to release it. What the hell is wrong with this industry?

But there's one silver lining of all this, for me at least: I don't own stock in Disney. Because if I did, I'd really be furious right now. So far, I've been focusing on the artistic and cultural aspects, but considered from a business context the decision is even more idiotic.

I'm pretty certain Disney just pissed away billions of dollars.

That's not an exaggeration. I think this movie, coupled with the right marketing campaign and (ironically) Disney's branding, could have been huge. Like, Frozen huge.

The title character in Nimona is basically a better version of Deadpool with a (sometimes literal) axe to grind against an uptight society that's essentially a blend of the default Disney fairytale kingdom, present day, and a touch of sci-fi. She's more transgressive than Shrek, and in ways that feel authentic rather than manufactured (because, again, the emotion that drove the creation of this character was authentic). As a result, the movie feels - and actually is - subversive. Oh, and she's a child, meaning she functions as a POV power fantasy for the key demographic.

Kids would have eaten this up with a spoon soaked in the milky blood of a cereal-breathing dragon. I'm sure the ones who find it on Netflix still will, and I have no doubt this will be a success for Netflix. But Netflix isn't built to capitalize on movies like this the way the House of Mouse is. If Disney had released it in the theaters with ads showcasing Nimona's gleeful bloodthirsty lines while playing up the fact she was going after a kingdom superficially resembling classic Disney (i.e.: actually delivering on that thing they've been half-assing in every other Disney movie of the past twenty years), they'd be dragging their parents to the theaters to see it an eighth time. They'd be selling a fifth talking Nimona doll asking who they wanted to kill to replace the fourth one confiscated by the school principal. Add in sequels and television shows, and my earlier estimate in the billions starts sounding conservative.

Disney pissed away good money (at a time they actually need it, for a change), because they were afraid they might offend the worst people in the country, and - because reality seems to have a sense of humor - those same people spent the last year fixated on destroying them anyway.

Wednesday, May 3, 2023

Movie Review: Peter Pan & Wendy

I'm not entirely sure whether calling David Lowery's divisive new take on Peter Pan a remake is entirely accurate. Scenes and aspects are inspired by the 1953 animated film - they mimicked some of the flying sequences, for example - but setting aside superficial similarities, this is no closer to the story in that movie than it is to most of the other scores of live-action Pan films. The plot and characters have been overhauled, the source material revisited, and the result really is its own creation.

On its own, this isn't entirely surprising. The Disney "remakes" all exist on a spectrum between straight forward recreations and complete reimaginings. Or, to put it another way, you've got Beauty and the Beast and Lion King on one end and, Maleficent and Cruella on the other. Neither philosophy necessarily results in good or bad movies, though I tend to find the more extreme reworkings more interesting, regardless of quality. But while Dumbo and Jungle Book are both new stories, one is far, far better than the other (I trust I don't need to specify which is which).

So the real question you're probably asking is where this falls on that spectrum: is it good or not? And the answer you'll get there depends on who you ask. I dropped the adjective "divisive" in the opening sentence for a reason - Peter Pan & Wendy seems to be eliciting a wide range of opinions.

For what it's worth, I loved it, for a host of reasons I'll get to in a moment. That said, this is also a case where I understand where the other side's coming from. At times, Peter Pan & Wendy feels like a movie that made simultaneously by a fantastic director and a committee of executives, with the former managing character moments and the latter ensuring a quota of reference shots and generic kid's fantasy adventure sequences made it into the finished product.

I have no idea whether that's what occurred here, but it wouldn't at all surprise me. There's a notable shift in tone and quality between, say, the generic London flight sequence lazily failing to recreate the feel of the animated film, and complex relationships and themes explored throughout. I found it pretty easy to ignore the former in this case and enjoy the latter on its own terms, but I can absolutely imagine having a different reaction. Particularly because a great deal of my affection for this traces back to the source material.

Not the animated movie - honestly, Peter Pan ranks pretty close to my least favorite of the Disney classics. And not the 1904 play, either: according to the credits, this was instead inspired by Peter and Wendy, J.M. Barrie's 1911 novelization of that play. And I've got some strong feelings about that book, in no small part because it was hugely influential on me while writing my first novel.

While there are no shortage of live-action adaptations that play with dark ideas, most frame Peter heroically and use either the antagonists or setting to push things darker. But that's not at all how the book works (or the original play, if memory serves, though good luck finding a staging that doesn't water it down for young audiences). While we're of course encouraged to root for the boy who never grows up, he's ultimately as much a monster as Hook, if not more so. To a degree, all the kids are, which is ultimately the point. Children can be exceedingly cruel, so the primal manifestation of childhood would be unimaginably so.

The brilliance of the novel is how differently it will be interpreted by kids and adults. To a young audience, the adventure shines through, while the darkness plays as comedy. But as a grown-up you'll relate to the Darling parents and - to a limited degree - even with Hook.

David Lowery's adaptation doesn't go this far, of course. Barrie was willing to pen an epilogue in which Peter effectively abandons Wendy as she ages and has forgotten the long dead Tinker Bell, but no one is going to make a big-budget kid's movie with that kind of ending, least of all Disney. Instead, Lowery draws inspiration from this version of Pan, as well as a few lines making Hook into more than a generic villain. James Hook is a pitiful, aging man, alone and desperate for emotional connection.

From that, Lowery builds a new story seemingly aware of its state as one of an endless number of adaptations. The fourth wall isn't broken, but it's certainly prodded on more than one occasion, such as when the audience is all but dared to object to the (wise) decision to include girls among the lost boys' ranks. Likewise, the story consistently tries to invert sexist and racist elements within Barrie's work. I'm not at all qualified to state whether these attempts are sufficient, but I can say from a story and thematic standpoint, I found them satisfying. 

But the real payoff here is within the character relationships. I don't love the choice to revamp Hook's origin here, but I found the payoffs effective, and I do love the way this plays into some of the aforementioned aspects of Pan's character from the book. This isn't that Pan, and his arc certainly isn't the same, but I think the ideas are rooted in the source material enough to make for a compelling direction for an adaptation.

Again, this is far from a perfect film. The effects are hit-or-miss (though the pirate ship sequence at the end looked great), the color palette is far too dark, and we really didn't need that last shot (God forbid one of these ends on even a hint of tragedy, I suppose). But despite the flaws, this one really worked for me. The characters had depth, the story recontextualized the origin in fascinating ways, and the performances were all fantastic. The casting on the kids was particularly good.

For the record, that's enough to cement this as my favorite movie adaptation of Peter Pan. Honestly, that's not the highest bar to clear - again, I don't think much of the Disney classic, and I really haven't liked the other two big-budget live-action attempts - but I really did enjoy this. Just know your mileage may vary.

Saturday, April 22, 2023

Finale Frontier Extravaganza!

This week brought us three season finales for three separate space-related series in genre franchises comprising the past, present, and future. I don't generally chime in for TV these days, mainly because the bulk of television I consume isn't new, or at least not "new enough" to warrant a review. But, as you may have guessed, this is an exception to that rule: all three of these are shows I was following, and all strike me as worthy of reflection for different reasons.

The Mandalorian: Season 3

My relationship with this show has grown a tad complicated over the past few years. Back in season one, it felt like a breath of fresh air. The production values were light-years ahead of its contemporaries, and the episodic format delivered weekly was a nice change of pace from the Netflix model which had become almost ubiquitous in streaming.

But by the second season, it felt like something had shifted. The focus moved from self-contained weekly stories to a larger narrative. To be fair, episodes in the first season had always been connected, and most of the individual chapters in season 2 continued to function as relatively complete stories, but the emphasis was now on a bigger picture. On its own, this isn't inherently bad, provided the larger arc is written well. But of course that was the rub: the writing in The Mandalorian was never the show's strong suit, so the whole thing became frustrating.

That issue carried through The Book of Boba Fett, which... we all understand that was the actual third season of The Mandalorian in all but name, right? Hell, I'm convinced it was supposed to be season three in name as well, at one point, with the implication being that the titular Mandalorian wasn't any specific character, but rather an ideal. They actually came out and announced this pertaining to Bo Katan's growing significance in season 3, but if it ever seemed weird they put their most popular show on hold for a year to make another show with a guy dressed basically the same way, then had their main characters from the previous show appear in the third act to resolve a lingering cliffhanger... yeah. Change "Book of Boba Fett" to a subtitle on season 2.5 of The Mandalorian, and it all makes a lot more sense, doesn't it?

Regardless, the issue persisted - and in my opinion escalated - in The Mandalorian season 3. The storyline felt like it was running in place, to the point the last two episodes could essentially be moved right after Fett, with only minor corrections to fix a few obstacles introduced at the end of season 2. The plot of season 3 largely felt contrived to pad out the episode count and set up future spin-offs. Meanwhile, as the amount of screen time given to characters compulsively wearing helmets increased, issues around the lack of facial expression did as well. I was mostly okay with the main character's face being hidden for almost the entire series, but there were episodes this season where that was the case with almost everyone. I know it was an artistic choice, but - in my opinion, at least - it was a bad one in a live-action visual medium. Sequences that should have been harrowing or tense felt silly.

However... there's a twist: this isn't a negative review. For all my issues with the season, several things redeemed the experience. First, the visual elements of the show continue to impress me. Every episode includes breathtaking sequences and creatures. At the risk of showing my age, when I was young I'd go see genre movies that couldn't match what this show delivers weekly in terms of design and execution. And, if I'm being honest, most of those movies weren't any better written. It's astonishing to me shows with these kinds of production values exist and are seldom discussed in this context.

In addition, the sixth episode (that's the one with Jack Black, Lizzo, and Christopher Lloyd) felt like a return to the episodic fun the show had been lacking. It was a huge improvement over the trajectory of the season and a reminder that Star Wars is at its best when it's weird, unexpected, and unconstrained by genre conventions.

In fact, my least favorite episode, the one spent chasing down a side story on Coruscant, deserves props for experimenting. I wish the outcome had been more interesting, but I do appreciate they tried. For all my problems with this installment, I kind of wish more episodes had operated under a similar philosophy (just preferably with characters we actually care about).

But all of that's appetizer, because the real reason I'm finishing season three with a positive impression comes down to that finale. Because... uh... it was awesome?

I don't have a lot of additional depth to add to that. It's not that the script brought everything full circle or anything. It's just the pacing of what amounted to an extended battle sequence delivered something energetic and immensely satisfying. It was a big, action-packed conclusion with some really sweet moments between Din Djarin and Grogu. I loved it.

I have no idea what the future holds for these characters. I'm hoping the show gets more room to play without having to worry about connecting dots and setting up spin-offs, but the truth is I'd stick around for the visuals and vibes alone. For better or worse, this franchise grabbed hold of me when I was five and never really let go. I'd love to see the writing improve closer to what we got in Andor and Kenobi, but even if it doesn't, I'll keep watching.

After all, even the frustrating stuff is still fun.

Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, Season 1

What concerns me about this show is that, due to its release strategy, subject matter, and young target demographic, it seems like the bulk of the population may not be aware that it's a goddamn masterpiece.

That's not hyperbole - this show is funny, emotional, and artistic, with catchy musical numbers and fantastic characters. It draws from the best animated works for inspiration - it's not hard to catch ideas and design elements reminiscent of Spider-Verse, Powerpuff Girls, and a host of other works - but they're all combined and remixed in ways that feel fresh and new. The series isn't afraid to alter its tone from episode to episode, either, with some feeling silly and light and others packing a punch.

On top of all that, this fits in some surprising guest stars from the MCU, to the point I find myself wondering (hoping, really) if it's secretly officially part of that world. How great would it be if Moon Girl and friends showed up in Secret War or something?

Regardless, this is a really exciting show combining music, animation, and great writing into something genuinely fantastic. It's one of the best new animated shows I've seen in ages and is absolutely worth checking out.

Star Trek: Picard: Season 3

I'm going to cut to the chase - this season of Picard is the best Star Trek I've seen since at least the original series, and that includes movies. This isn't merely good; it's phenomenally good. Inexplicably good. Weirdly good.

Weirdly, in part, because the first two seasons were nowhere near this level of quality. I say that as someone who enjoyed the first season of Picard quite a bit, too. Hell, I even mostly liked the second, despite it being a bit of a fiasco. But this is on a whole other level.

To put this in a little more context, I'm not actually a huge fan of The Next Generation. I've got some nostalgia for the characters, but when I rewatched the series about a decade ago, I thought it was fairly mediocre overall, with maybe a half-dozen great episodes spread out over the series. This wasn't going to be an automatic slam dunk with me.

But God, did this deliver. The show is broken into three arcs: two four-episodes long, then a 2-part finale. The first of these is the strongest, delivering what amounts to a movie-length adventure that incorporates the best aspects of the first two original series Trek movies. It lampshades its references, too - at times it feels like it's remaking those films with Next Gen characters, an idea that probably shouldn't work, and yet....

There are a couple reasons they get away with it. First, this looks and feels fantastic. Particularly the first four episodes are, start to finish, movie quality. Everything looks polished and planned out, the editing is on point, and the music choices are constantly inspired. The pace and tone deliver tension and suspense you rarely get from TV.

But all that can only take you so far. You also need writing, and that might be the season's strongest asset. I might quibble with some structural choices in the story, but the dialogue is pitch perfect. Every line feels like it's being written by people who spent decades obsessing over these characters. This isn't simply rehashing old relationships and character beats, either - we're exploring new facets of the bridge crew that emerged later in life. We're seeing aspects that have changed and curtains that have peeled away. And it's cathartic, funny, and touching. Early on, the show introduces a beat that any other series would have treated as a generic twist with a run-of-the-mill reveal. But instead, we're not treated like we're stupid, and neither are the characters. Rather than building to a cliché conversation, the key moment is handled with a silent exchange of expressions. And in no small part because these actors are fantastic, we're treated to something truly special. The twist is it's not a twist, but instead a touching moment of humanity and growth.

The second arc can't quite maintain the force of the first, but it's still fantastic. It's still tense, exciting, and funny, but you start occasionally remembering you're watching TV rather than a movie. The last two episodes swap out the new villain introduced for the season in favor of a returning nemesis, which is both a bit of a letdown and a testament to just how good this season is. When the return of a fan-favorite villain is less interesting than a new one... that's pretty high praise for the writing, acting, and directing that went into that new villain right?

But, yes, the last few episodes feel like the end of most big budget movie trilogies: technically well executed with great character moments, but a little light on emotional depth. Again, still good - very good, in fact - but best moments in the season aren't found there.

I also feel like I should mention the last couple episodes hinge on a potentially unfortunate plot device that could - and I suspect will - be read as an endorsement of right-wing politics. I don't think that was the intention, but it's far too easy to see the story as a sort of literal "woke" mind virus controlling the youth. While I think this was just an unintended side-effect of trying to write around the realities of the characters' ages and the story, it works way too well as a metaphor working against everything Star Trek stands for.

But I can't fault them too much for this misstep. The season, in its entirety, is the sort of achievement that raises the bar for the franchise and its competitors. It delivers everything fans of the characters could dream of, along with production values beyond anything I'd expected. This is absolutely fantastic stuff.