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.

Saturday, March 11, 2023

Catch-Up, Part 12: The Oscary Edition

I did something like this last year, so I figured I'd gather together my thoughts on as many of the big awards movies I'd seen but hadn't already reviewed elsewhere. This year, that's going to mean movies nominated for either Best Picture or Best Animated Picture. I've now seen all five of the animation nominees, along with seven of the ten Best Picture contenders. I'm also throwing in a couple reviews for last year's Best Picture Nominees I missed at the time. 

To avoid repeating myself, I'm not going to rehash my thoughts on movies I've already reviewed or written up. For the most part, this year that means movies I talked about in my end-of-year retrospective, where I discussed Everything Everywhere All at Once, The Banshees of Inisherin, Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio, and Turning Red (I also reviewed Turning Red on its own back when it came out). I also just posted some thoughts about Elvis over at Mainlining Christmas, so you can read about that there.

I'm going to refrain from ranking, but my current picks are Turning Red for Animated and Everything Everywhere All at Once for Best Picture. That said, I consider both categories extremely competitive this year. The animated, in particular, is incredibly close, with Marcel the Shell With Shoes On so close, I'm still second guessing myself. I didn't like Pinocchio quite as much as some people, but I can absolutely see why they like it. Frankly, all three deserve to win.

On the Best Picture front, I'm definitely in the Everything Everywhere All At Once camp, though to be honest it's less because I think it's the best of the nominees than I think it winning would be the most interesting outcome and would age the best. I have a hard time seriously comparing it against Women Talking, All Quiet on the Western Front, and The Banshees of Inisherin in terms of quality: they're all amazing films in very different styles. Any would be deserving of the prize, frankly. The others I've seen feel are close behind. I might roll my eyes a bit if the prize unexpectedly goes to Elvis or Top Gun Maverick, but I certainly won't be angry.


Belfast (2021)

My thoughts on this movie are going to be a little sparse, because frankly I think the basics are pretty obvious. It's good. It's very good. It does interesting things with shot composition, use of black & white (and even occasional color), and perspective. It's a good movie that delves into difficult subject matter in a novel way.

I enjoyed it.

Do I think it was robbed of the Academy Award? Well, I actually haven't seen Coda yet (it's the only one of the bunch I haven't gotten to, mostly because it's tucked behind an inconvenient paywall), so I can't say for certain. I didn't really think this was appreciably better than the other nominees I watched (excluding Don't Look Up, but being better than that is a low bar to clear), but it wasn't necessarily worse, either. This would have been a fine pick, but then so would have Dune, King Richard, The Power of the Dog, Drive My Car, and (my favorite so far) West Side Story. All really good movies; none so much better than the rest to make a different outcome egregious in my mind. Nightmare Alley strikes me as maybe a hair below (still really good, just not quite on par with the others), and Don't Look Up isn't in the same league as any of them.

I wish I had something worthwhile to say about Belfast, but part of being late to a party like this is knowing when it's best to sit quietly in the corner. I like how the movies and plays the characters watch feel more real than the world they inhabit. I'm almost tempted to argue the holiday segment qualifies this as a Christmas film and write it up for Mainlining Christmas, but I don't actually believe that. It's a cool movie, but I haven't got much to say beyond that.

Licorice Pizza (2022) 

While I enjoyed Licorice Pizza, the truth is I found myself a little lost, and some assumptions I made about the film turned out to be incorrect. I certainly hadn't realized the lead was based on a real person, for example, and that alone makes me reconsider the overall premise. Within that context, the somewhat disjointed structure takes on the feeling of a series of secondhand stories being reassembled into a rough narrative. You're left with something closer to a fairytale than a memory, which is likely the point. The movie's about a time, place, and life that seems fantastical.

Because it's Paul Thomas Anderson, it's all very beautiful and evocative, full of extended takes and gorgeous color. Which is good, because the content, perhaps by design, is less engaging than what we're seeing. I don't want to dismiss this as style over substance, because there's real substance to the style. But for better or worse I wasn't particularly invested in the main characters or their relationship, and I found the humor more charming than funny. Whether any of that's an issue comes down to what you want out of the experience: again, this pulls you into a fascinating world I can best describe as the filmmaker's interpretation of anecdotes told to him by an aging movie producer. While it's technically a romantic comedy, it actively works against ever feeling like one in ways I don't think I've ever seen before. On that level, it's a fascinating experiment.

Is a great film? Maybe. I found it interesting enough to agree the nomination it picked up was deserved, but I'd probably be raising an eyebrow if it had actually won. I haven't seen as many of Anderson's films as I'd like, but I don't think this is at the level of There Will Be Blood or Phantom Thread, though it wouldn't surprise me if viewers with a different perspective on the '70s disagreed. 


Marcel the Shell With Shoes On (2022)

This is one of those times I find myself watching a movie I've heard a thousand people insist is delightful then, as the end credits roll, find myself with the piping hot take of, "that was delightful." So, yeah, if you've heard anyone talk about the fantastically charming "Marcel the Shell With Shoes On" before, you can probably skip my write up, because I'm not challenging the consensus here. It's actually that good. 

I'll offer a few observations that surprised me. First, for some reason I thought this was going to be a road trip movie, which it absolutely wasn't. I think I'm used to movies with similar starting points turning into archetypal Odysseys, so I assumed this would follow suit. Instead, it's a much more intimate exploration of emotion and existentialism. Not at all what you'd expect from a family-friendly expansion of a web series from more than a decade ago, but damned if it doesn't work.

A big part of why it works is the movie's faith in the inherent comedy of talking shells with feet (or at least shoes) openly discussing their fears and hopes. You could actually do a version of this story with all human characters (assuming you replaced the scale and shell specific jokes), but the dialogue would be cloyingly melodramatic. But because they're shells, the movie's able to leverage the audience's already suspended disbelief to explore very big ideas openly and honestly. You're left with the sensation you're seeing something profound. It's a moving and beautiful demonstration of how powerful a silly idea can be in the right hands.

The cinematography here is likewise fantastic. The movie treats its primary location - a small, rundown house - as if it's a vast environment. The use of light and focus give the setting depth and complexity despite its size.

I'm not sure whether I'm rooting for this or Turning Red right now, but it's a hell of a movie. I should also note it's been a good year for Jenny Slate, who co-created, co-wrote, and voices the title character. And on top of all that, she also plays the dog lady in Everything Everywhere All At Once, so either she's doing a hell of a job picking A24 projects or they should start casting her in every movie they make.

The Sea Beast (2022)

This had been on my radar for a while, but kind of fell off after failing to make much of an impact (that's right - impact, not splash: I don't invoke puns lightly). The Oscar nomination bumped it up on the queue, so I gave it a watch. I enjoyed it - particularly the first half - immensely, though I was ultimately left thinking it was better an experience than a movie. And, somewhat awkwardly, it's The Sea Beast's strongest aspects that prevent it from fully working as a film.

To be clear, there was never a point in which I didn't expect this to pivot from "dark fantasy adventure" to "How to Train Your Dragon with sea serpents." Even if it hadn't been clear from the trailer, it was obvious from the start there was a twist coming. And, from an ethical point of view, it did need to be there. You can't make a kids movie where the moral is, "Hate and destroy things that are different, and believe authority without question." When I say I wanted the whole movie to continue with the tone and narrative of the first half, I'm speaking in terms of my emotional reaction and engagement, rather than any kind of serious critique.

That said, there's a reason I felt that way, and it brings us to the catch-22 that is The Sea Beast: they made the first half too good. And, so we're clear, I think that's actually a problem with the movie, at least from a structural point-of-view.

Here's the thing: the stuff about privateers on a fantasy world enlisted to hunt massive sea monsters is handled amazingly well. It draws you into their world and mindset, selling you on the nobility of their profession and romance of their lives. And, on one level, it's supposed to! It's supposed to set up the twist where we learn (surprise, surprise) that the "monsters" aren't evil; they're mostly just defending themselves. It's a good idea on paper, but - again - they did too good a job. So when the inevitable turn comes, you just want to go back to the visceral, grounded adventure that's been taken away.

And, to be frank, the mostly by-the-numbers misunderstood monsters story isn't managed well enough to make up the difference. On top of that, because this is as long as it is, it feels less like a second half and more like the film resets halfway through.

To be fair, there's some good stuff in that second half, including funny sequences, some cool action sequences (including what can only be described as an animated kaiju battle), and an ending with more thematic teeth than I expected (though I worry some of it could be misread as anti-science, rather than anti-hate and anti-capitalism).

But the second half just isn't anywhere near as good as the first, which almost makes you feel like you're on the ship (the visuals are great, but don't overlook the role sound has in creating that illusion). The closest comparison I can think of is Wall-E, which elicited a similar response from viewers, but I think there's a crucial difference. The disconnect between Wall-E's two halves didn't undermine the thematic core of the movie and prevent the story from fully connecting; here, I think it does. The movie as a whole would have been stronger if the first half hadn't been as well executed.

That said, I'm glad it was, because I just loved every second spent on that ship. They sacrificed the whole for the parts, but the first half was so good, I found it worth it for the experience.

Puss in Boots: The Last Wish (2022)

It's a catch-22 - I'd never have bothered seeing a Puss in Boots sequel if I hadn't heard it was amazing, but by the time I watched it, it was never really going to live up to the hype. To be fair, it comes close: The Last Wish does a phenomenal job building compelling emotional journeys for its main characters. And there are more main characters than you'd expect - there's a case to be made this movie belongs as much to a new character (at least I think she's new) who steals the show, just as the titular one did in Shrek 2, the last installment in the Shrek-verse I actually watched.

Which for those of you uncertain when these films came out, means I've never seen the first Puss in Boots movie. That may have been a mistake. Regardless how good or bad it might be, it would have been useful having some background on Kitty Softpaws. I don't feel like it's essential, but it would have been nice to know upfront whether she was a returning character or just being retroactively added into the backstory. It's a situation where I understood and appreciated the arc, but suspect it would be stronger if there's a sense of resonance around her presence.

The plot in The Last Wish meanders a bit and would probably have benefited from a bit of streamlining in the first act (was the cat lady sequence really the best way they could think of to introduce a few characters and conveying Puss's despair?), but on a whole it's nice to see one of these concerned more with an inner journey than saving the world (though technically I suppose there's a bit of that, as well).

Moving on to the animation, we're clearly in the post-Spider-Verse era of the medium. This borrows stylistic elements from that and Mitchells vs. the Machines, though it doesn't use them as effectively. This is using framerate mismatches, 2D shading, hand drawn flourishes, and stylized backgrounds, but it's not as clear what they're going for. I guess it looks like kids books I've seen from the early 2000s - maybe that's the reference? It looks good, but I'm not sure it's actually a better choice for this story than just updating the look of earlier installments.

Ultimately, I don't think this is on par with the top three animated movies of last year. Still, this is a well-written, well-directed exploration of character, which is a hell of a thing to be writing about the sixth theatrical movie in the Shrek franchise. It's absolutely worth seeing, and it may very well play even better to those with more of an investment in this property.


All Quiet on the Western Front (2022)

I assumed from its Best Picture nomination that this adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front would be good, but I wasn't expecting it to be quite this beautiful. I generally expect war movies (or at least antiwar movies) to be intentionally ugly. But the vast majority of the movie was instead hauntingly gorgeous. We're treated to long shots of wintery landscapes, and mountains with mist rolling off. Even the battlefields look colorful and almost magic at times.

You'd think that would undermine the message; instead it highlights the absurdity of war and the senselessness of slaughter in the face of such beauty. The war is an utterly pointless one, and the movie lays the blame at the feet of those who command it be waged in the name of honor. But the movie demonstrates again and again that real honor lies only in compassion, even when compassion is impotent to stem the loss of life.

Top Gun: Maverick (2022)

My thoughts on Maverick are admittedly a bit simplistic. I think I've seen the original once, and that was more than twenty years ago. I recall thinking it was fine, but it didn't leave a lasting impression on me the way it did for some of my generation.

My feelings for the follow-up are somewhat similar: I thought this was pretty good, as far as legacy sequels go, but I wasn't floored by the experience. That said, it's worth acknowledging my experience with Maverick wasn't what the filmmakers intended - I watched this on a television, not a movie screen. And given how much of the movie's appeal is based on the fact the actual actors are filmed in actual fighter jets (with Cruise even flying his), this is obviously going to feel very different on the small screen.

That said, I don't think this would have completely wowed me even if I'd gone to the theater. That's not an indictment of the film, mind you: it's more a "me" thing. I don't have a great deal of context for what real footage taken from inside a fighter jet looks like, so - honestly - it's kind of academic. I know intellectually this was the real deal, but it doesn't actually strike me as more "realistic" than, say, some of the better Star Wars dogfights from the sequel trilogy.

Incidentally, I've had similar reactions to some of the stunts in the recent Mission Impossible movies - I think it's cool that Cruise was strapped to an airplane, but I don't think it made my experience better than if they'd used visual effects. I love the Mission Impossible movies because of tone, pacing, plotting, and genre, not the choice to use practical over visual effects. Hell, I think the HALO jump in Fallout looked kind of cheesy (still a great movie, though).

I realize this isn't a common reaction among action fans, and I truly don't mean to dismiss the incredible accomplishment of pulling some of these stunts off. I understand and respect why Maverick tops so many best-of lists from last year. And, again, I still liked it quite a bit. Just not as much as fans who waited decades or are in awe they managed to film so much of the flying for real.

Tár (2022)

Fair or not, the movie Tár most reminds me of is Joker. Both are impressively shot character studies of anti-heroes centered on phenomenal lead performances, both were nominated for Best Picture, and the narratives in both jump around a lot. Hell, they're even both focused on music.

For the record, I think Tár is the better of the two, though I have a similar issue with the film. My biggest problem with Joker was that it approached an important issue and failed to really say anything. While I certainly don't believe every movie needs to offer a thesis or political stance, I do think there are subjects that really require more than asking questions if you're centering a movie around them. I thought Joker's decision to invoke the health crisis around mental illness then sort of abandon the idea was in questionable taste. I think the same is true of Tár's choice to tell a story where a lesbian abuses her power to take advantage of impressionable young women.

I spent most of the film thinking it was going somewhere. There's a through line implying Tár emulates the old, straight men who dominated her field historically, to the point she sees herself as one of them: I expected the movie to follow through on this idea and perhaps explore the idea that patriarchal systems will produce patriarchal oppressors, even if the person being transformed is a woman. Or perhaps ask whether it's possible for anyone other than an abuser to ascend into power in a system built around abusers. There are fascinating ideas posed by the movie, but they're largely abandoned in the last act. Some viewers may be satisfied with the decision to pose the question: I'd have liked the film to take a stance.

The movie's still very good, mind you. Blanchett's fantastic, the cinematography is gorgeous, and the sound design is evocative. In the interest of full disclosure, I will note that, had this not already been nominated for Best Picture, I'd most likely have a more favorable view of it. Hell, if it had been overlooked entirely, I might be fawning over how good this looked and sounded, and of course how amazing Blanchett is in the role. So take my lukewarm endorsement with a grain of salt: I think this one falls short of what I want from Best Picture winners, but it's still a pretty great film.

Women Talking (2022)

I'm almost more impressed that Women Talking winds up feeling like a movie at all than the fact it's a fantastic one. The script is really closer to a philosophical dialogue than a narrative story, at least for the first two-thirds. It is, quite literally, about a group of women debating ethical, religious, and philosophical issues to determine the best course for them to take in response to a lifetime of trauma and injustice. The inciting incident is over by the time the movie starts, and - while there are individual character arcs - it's less about the individuals than the collective.

Before going on I want to clarify that looking at this as a philosophical dialogue, I'm of the opinion is very good one. Characters represent various evolving viewpoints, they begin with only simple foundational principles, then use reason to construct a compelling philosophical system bringing them to an inevitable conclusion. Frankly, the script would be good addition to college classrooms teaching classical philosophical texts (at least in states where it's still legal to teach such things). This is a great script, but I'm not sure it was a script to a movie.

But it turns out Sarah Polley's as good a director as a philosopher, because she manages to make this feel like a film. She's not alone in deserving praise here - the cinematography, editing, and performances all go a long way to giving a movie where nothing really happens the gravitas of an epic - but she brings this together in a way that's stunning to behold. Women Talking is gorgeous to watch, emotionally engaging, and viscerally powerful: pulling that out of an extended philosophical debate is one hell of a magic trick. Frankly, it's a crime Polley wasn't nominated for Best Director.

Sunday, February 26, 2023

Catch-Up, Part 11: Sequels, Prequels, Reboots, and Spin-Offs

For those just joining us, this series is where I catch up on all the movies I'm not reviewing as they're released for various reasons. Everything here is mostly recent, but not so recent I could justify an actual review.

Today's theme is franchises. All the movies I'm looking at are part of established franchises. The vast majority are superheroes, but I'm also including a number of other genre films that fit the broader definition.

Before I get to those, I actually want to back up and talk a little about a movie I reviewed a while ago that would have qualified under this topic. I recently rewatched Black Widow and discovered I liked it significantly more than on my initial viewing. I more or less stand by my critiques, but not so much the weight given to them or their effect on the whole. On rewatch, I found the themes worked better and the story was more impactful. I still wouldn't list this among my favorite MCU movies, but I expect I'd rank it in the top half - maybe even top third. It's not uncommon for me to respond to movies differently after seeing them a few times, but it's rare for my opinion to shift this much (and even rarer in this direction). And who knows: maybe I'll watch it again a year from now and find it's climbed even higher.

Now then. Let's get to the new reviews.

Snake Eyes: GI Joe Origins (2021)

First, I need to partially retract something I've said a few times in the past. While discussing recent Fast and Furious movies, I've repeated variations of the idea that franchise was a better approximation of GI Joe cartoons than the actual GI Joe franchise could ever hope be in live-action. While I still think F&F offers a delightfully updated spin on one aspect of GI Joe, it certainly doesn't reflect the whole experience.

Neither does Snake Eyes, to be honest, but that's at least partly by design. This isn't a particularly tech heavy story, and as such we're not treated to all the silly toy vehicles that form a major component of Joe. But you know what this does have? Magic rocks and mystical snakes. That's right: this has the ridiculous fantasy aspect covered.

Also, we get ninja with inexplicably superhuman abilities, including the titular character. Where did he get these abilities? We never find out, nor should we care. This is a movie about cartoonish characters with cartoonish abilities doing cartoonish things. It's a dumb, campy, cheesy adventure... and it is so damn refreshing.

I hate that this bombed at the box office. I blame the marketing, which made it look mostly grounded. I suppose critics deserve a little more credit, as this is the highest rated film in the series on Rotten Tomatoes: it's at 35%.

I'm guessing they'll reboot again rather than continue this iteration of the franchise, which is a shame. This feels like the start to a version of GI Joe that would eventually get to Serpentor and do the character justice. It's pure, unapologetic Saturday morning fun that's willing to be stupid in order to be entertaining. Precisely 0% of this movie is boring, and I can't think of a better compliment to anything in this franchise.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022)

It's kind of fascinating seeing a Ryan Coogler movie that has fundamental structural flaws, in part because it has the counterintuitive effect of highlighting just how good a director he is. Wakanda Forever is the first film from Coogler that doesn't feel like an instant classic. There are characters and subplots that should have been cut, sequences that are out of place, and moments that feel contrived. And yet, the stuff that does work - character moments, emotional beats, and beautifully framed sequences - still feels like it's been crafted by a master. Usually when comic book movies don't work, everything feels slapdash: here, you can see the care and love poured into the story. And, frankly, the majority of the movie's pretty great.

Having Shuri's arc mirror that of her brother in Civil War was clever, and I love the scenes between her and her mother, as well as her interactions with Namor. And speaking of Namor, the MCU's first actual anti-hero is incredible here. I'm not sure any other comics character has pulled off this radical of a reimagining while still capturing everything significant about the source material. This is simultaneously completely new and a perfect adaptation of one of Marvel's first characters: that's a hell of an accomplishment.

I'm not sure how the scene in the Ancestral Plane didn't get spoiled for me, but I'm thrilled it wasn't: that was incredible, both from a conceptual standpoint and as an experience. It was exciting and unnerving at once: I absolutely loved it.

But for all its merits, the movie is definitely a case of the whole being less than the sum of its parts, mostly because some of those parts don't work with the larger narrative. Specifically, the three American characters - Riri Williams, Everett Ross, and Valentina - feel like distractions rather than additions. For what it's worth, I love all these characters, but they just didn't fit in this movie. Ironheart, in particular, feels like she's been wedged in: her motives keep changing from scene to scene and never really make sense in context. My guess is she's here to set up her Disney+ series (which, to be fair, I am excited about). But the subplot to chase her down just draws attention away from Shuri, Queen Ramonda, and Namor, who are really the core of the movie. And they were already competing for screen time with Okoye and Nakia.

Sorry, quick side note. I think this movie has issues, but it's cool as hell to see a superhero team-up where all the principal protagonists are women of color. 

Now back to those issues. I think Okoye and Nakia's stories would have worked better if they'd removed the subplot in America. Both characters are still fun as it is, but this never quite comes together the way the first one did. The first Black Panther managed to juggle a huge number of characters and plot threads, but because everything came back to the central theme and plot, Coogler made it work. That wasn't really the case here: Ironheart, Nakia, Okoye, and Ross all have their own mini-arcs, but connections to the central story feel forced. Pulling out the American characters wouldn't entirely have fixed this, but it would have made it much less noticeable.

There were also a handful of times compositing fell short of the otherwise beautiful effects, though this is both an ongoing issue with Marvel and with movies completed during the pandemic in general. It's not a huge issue, but considering how much of Wakanda Forever was jaw-dropping, the occasional sequence where an actor was superimposed into a scene where they clearly weren't present became annoyingly obvious.

Overall, this one was mixed, though the good stuff in the mix was better than we generally get from genre movies that aren't obvious homeruns. I wish there'd been less focus on setting up future installments (assuming that's what happened here), but overall the good definitely outweighed the bad.  

No Time to Die (2021)

I grew up watching the Bond movies with my father (we were particularly fond of the Connery era). I wouldn't say it was ever my favorite franchise, but this series will always have a place in my heart. My wife is a fan of the books - I've read a handful myself. We also own every movie in the franchise, with the exception of Spectre (which, despite what I write below, I intend to rectify).

I love Casino Royale and even had a generally positive reaction to Quantum of Solace (though I last saw it in the theater). I like Skyfall despite some major reservations about the script. As for Spectre, I consider it one of the five worst films in the franchise (the others being Diamonds Are Forever, Live and Let Die, Moonraker, and Octopussy). Spectre took the series' most interesting antagonist and reimagined him in the least interesting way possible. Everything about the movie was uninspired, and the film as a whole was astonishingly boring.

One thing I'll say about No Time to Die is I never found it boring. Frankly, there was always more than enough going to hold my attention and keep me emotionally engaged throughout. The problem is the emotion I had wasn't what they were going for. I spent the entirety of No Time to Die on the verge of bursting out laughing.

In theory, this was supposed to be a somber, serious film about legacy and sacrifice. It's a mirror image of On Her Majesty's Secret Service, a fact it broadcasts loudly and clearly in a myriad different ways. It wants to be powerful and have a lasting impact. And it is hilariously, comically, unbelievably clumsy in its attempt.

For the record, that's far preferable to boring. But it approaches Her Majesty's Secret Service the way Star Trek Into Darkness does Wrath of Khan, only Into Darkness managed basic elements of filmmaking, such as shot-to-shot continuity and character motivation. No Time to Die is just an incoherent mess that left me surprised there were only seven credited writers. 

I'm not kidding when I say I had fun watching this. It didn't take long for me to realize what kind of movie I was seeing, and then I just sat back and enjoyed the ridiculous absurdity of the script, coupled with some legitimately great action sequences. It's between $250 and $300 million dollars spent to conclude a franchise (or at least this iteration of that franchise) in something best described as "so bad it's good."

But, hey, at least we didn't get another Spectre.

Hellboy (2019)

This benefits from comically low expectations, but overall... I didn't hate this. It's a long way from good, mind you. Structurally, it's a mess of sequences, characters, and ideas tossed together in a halfhearted attempt to touch on as many "greatest hits" from the comics as possible, regardless of whether any of them actually belonged in this story. It's more or less a by-the-numbers remake of the first del Toro film, minus the competency.

And yet there's still a lot of good stuff tossed in. The effects may be inconsistent, but when they're good (which usually equates to when they're practical), they're really quite ingenious. The short bits, considered out of context, hit as often as they miss.

If this had delivered a halfway decent ending, I think I'd actually defend it as a pretty solid entry in its genre. It... didn't do that, opting instead to mimic the 2004 ending with a few minor, dumb alterations, resulting in an almost comically inane conclusion. But, again, this isn't a "greater than the sum of its parts" kind of movie.

This isn't good, but as a throwback to the early 00's hastily thrown-together genre flicks, it's diverting enough to be better than it's 18% on Rotten Tomatoes would suggest. Not much better, mind you, but maybe a hair (or, if you're feeling generous, maybe even a horn).

Glass (2019)

I know I'm in the minority here, but I loved this. Honestly, I think it's one of may favorite Shyamalan films, right up there with Signs. I like it more than Unbreakable and far more than Split.

It's not perfect, of course: Shyamalan movies never are. Some of the dialogue feels unnatural, and Anya Taylor-Joy's arc was in questionable taste. But the movie as a whole just worked for me. I loved the twist, despite suspecting it early on. As a fan of superhero movies, I found the three main characters fascinating. And the ending felt right for this series. I understand why some fans were upset, but I really enjoyed it.

Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021)

It's fine. Parts are better than fine: the mini-marshmallow men sequence was great. I also liked the gag with Sigourney at the end. And Phoebe's great - I liked her character a lot. I also thought this did a good job recreating the flavor of the original.

But, God, the pacing drags. There are extraneous plot lines and characters who only seem to be present so the Ghostbusters count can add up to four. The brother should have been cut entirely.

Overall, it's fun enough as a throwback, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed. This could have and definitely should have been better.

I find it astonishing anyone ranks this above the 2016 reboot, which took the franchise in new directions. I didn't hate this, but it's nowhere near the same league. It's closer to Ghostbusters 2, and even then falls a little short.

The Craft Legacy (2020)

Something went terribly, terribly wrong here.

At least that's my guess, because when I actually take a step back, the underlying framework to this seems like a solid starting point. You've got a plot that appears to be mirroring that of the original with a big twist at the end of the second act. You've got a protagonist secretly connected to said original in an interesting (albeit kind of played out) way. You've got a completely different source of conflict...

But not only does none of that add up to a satisfying film, the way it's presented undercuts the individual elements so completely, you have to deconstruct it to realize there was ever something good here at all.

Let's take another step back and talk about what this is. That's... kind of hard, actually, because "what it is" is watered down to the point it's barely anything. It's not horror. It's not comedy. It's not drama. I suppose it's technically fantasy, but just barely.

If anything, I'd describe the experience as analogous to watching an overlong CW pilot. Compare that to the original, which...

Okay, honestly, the original also kind of feels like a CW pilot, but it's got a bit of an edge to it. So, maybe a better CW pilot? Legacy just doesn't work as a movie. The finale is laughably cheap - I'm not exaggerating when I say it would have felt cheap for television in the 90's.

I'm astonished this was released in its current form. The Craft franchise isn't exactly the most valuable one out there, but it deserves better than this. Whether this got kneecapped by the studio (looking at you, Black Christmas) or the director made some serious miscalculations, the end result is a movie that neither works as a satisfying continuation or as a standalone picture reimagined for a new generation.

Simply put, this is a bad movie.

Venom: Let There Be Carnage (2021)

I think it's kind of good?

It's honestly difficult to gauge. The movie is leaning into the absurd contradictions of 1990's comics. For all the dark, brooding, violent appearance, most comics from that era were silly, campy things. They were childish stories pretending to be what kids thought "grown-up" stuff was.

Let There Be Carnage seems to understand this and embraces the flavor of the time. It's completely absurd, and intentionally stupid. And, largely because it's not putting on airs of anything else, it's a great deal of cartoonish fun.

In some ways, it feels like a good version of the comic book movies that came out in droves in the early 2000's: think Ghost Rider, Daredevil, Catwoman, or Green Lantern... only better. I'm not a big fan of that era (though I've always had a soft spot in my heart for the first Ghost Rider), but that's mainly because it grated on me that the source material was complicated and nuanced, while studios at the time seemed embarrassed to be adapting them.

Venom doesn't really have that issue. The concept was always silly - a more serious approach wouldn't suit it.

Let There Be Carnage is basically a comedy (and a romantic comedy, at that), and on that level it absolutely works. I almost wish they'd just skipped Carnage altogether and made this entirely about the relationship between Eddie and the symbiote. Not that Carnage doesn't have his moments, too.

You almost get the impression they set out to make the most fun bad movie they could, and mostly succeeded. Does that add up to a good film? Why get bogged down with semantics - the movie's enjoyable as an intentionally juvenile comedy adventure, and I recommend it on that level.

Eternals (2021)

Well, I guess I'm in the minority, because I kind of love this. Tonally, it's very different than where the bulk of MCU movies fall, but I have no issue with that. Frankly, the Marvel movies have gotten a bit monotone recently, at least for my tastes. It's nice to get something a bit more operatic.

This definitely felt more like what we've come to associate with DC than Marvel, though that's more a case of the movie franchises doubling down on certain styles and tones than anything inherent in the source material. Regardless, I've seen this described as more or less similar to a Zack Snyder film (I believe the director even cited Man of Steel as an influence). And I definitely see it: Chloe Zhao approaches superheroes in a similar way.

Only - and I say this as someone who will still defend Man of Steel - she's so much better at this than he is. For one thing, Zack Snyder gravitates towards edgy content, while Zhao goes for drama and emotion. If Eternals is a DC movie in disguise, it's DC circa 2010, while Zack Snyder's stuck in the 90's. Also, for my money the aesthetics in this are far better than what we got in The Snyder Cut (though I'll carve out an exception for The Flash - I thought Zack Snyder did some extremely cool things with that power set).

There were aspects of this I'd have liked changed, sure. A few scenes were unnecessary, some elements and ideas didn't entirely make sense, and some of the non-effects sequences looked off to me, but overall... I just really enjoyed this. I'm not sure whether they're actually going to deliver on their promise these characters will return given the movie's lackluster reception, but if they can justify a sequel, I'll gladly watch it.

Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021)

Remember when people used to believe superhero movies couldn't work if they featured more than two villains? Proud to say I never bought that hypothesis: if you get the script right, you can fit almost any number of significant characters - heroes or villains - and deliver a good product. That doesn't mean you're not making it harder on yourself, but the people behind the MCU Spider-Man movies have never been afraid of a challenge.

This is an impressive movie, particularly if we're focusing on the script. It juggles a lot of characters, relationships, and ideas, and it does so surprisingly well. That's not to say it never fumbles - there are certainly moments it chooses fan service over a satisfying emotional arc - but it works far more often than not.

I will say some of the effects fall short of the writing. You can see where the limitations of shooting during a pandemic results in a product less polished than the material deserves. For what amounts to an Endgame-level event for the Spider-franchise, some key sequences really feel a generation behind in terms of production value.

But at the end of the day, the writing and acting pulls it through. It's really a fantastically made homage to the character's onscreen history, as well as an exploration of what makes Peter Parker compelling as a hero.

On a personal note, I have some reservations about the resolution, particularly as it pertains to relationships from past MCU installments. I understand and respect the choices made here, but I question whether the added flexibility for future solo Spider-Man movies counterbalances the lost connections and unanswered questions for the MCU as a whole.

That's all nerdy conjecture, though, and it doesn't really pertain to this movie on its own. No Way Home is an effective, funny, emotional Spider-Man story that wraps up a number of loose ends most of us wrote off years ago. It's a great movie despite some compositing mishaps and effects limitations. Overall, I enjoyed this.

Teen Titans Go! & DC Super Hero Girls: Mayhem in the Multiverse (2022)

The first and most surprising thing about this crossover team-up is it's not really a crossover or a superhero team-up. I mean, technically there's a crossover in it, and the two groups do briefly team-up, but the significance and screen time given to the Titans is grossly overstated. This is a Super Hero Girls movie with what's best described as an extended cameo from the Titans. Honestly, I suspect there was an earlier draft that didn't include them at all.

If so, I kind of wish they'd make that version. The Titans bits are funny, but they clash with the tone and focus of the movie. Aside from the Titans stuff, this is an unusually serious Super Hero Girls story. Granted, that's speaking relatively: the Super Hero Girls only get so serious, but this does walk up to that line. It's clearly intended as an extension of the series building on established character arcs and plot threads.

Each of the six heroines (actually, make that seven, due to... never mind: that'd be spoiling) has a story arc here, and they're all good. In contrast, none of the Titans do (at least not really), though Raven is given a good moment. 

One thing worth noting is that you should really catch up with the series before tracking down the movie. I'm a season behind, and it actually did matter a bit. There were developments I wasn't aware of, though it wasn't hard to catch up.

Regardless, it's a strong movie with some great moments and jokes. I just think it would have hit a lot harder without the occasional cutaways to the Titans' antics, most of which felt tacked on and unnecessary.

Monday, February 20, 2023

Ten Recent-ish Movies You Need to See but Haven't

This is sort of an installment in my "Catch-Up" series of short reviews, but rather than filtering by genre, I'm highlighting some of the best movies of the past five or six years I suspect slipped under your radar. That means, I'm intentionally leaving off anything that did remotely well in theaters - to be eligible a movie basically needs to either have bombed, been released to a hilariously small number of screens, or gone right to streaming. And if it's the latter, it better not have been a major cultural milestone (e.g., Happiest Season isn't on this list, because everyone knows about it and most everyone's seen it). Likewise, no movies that already won dozens of major awards or franchise installments appear below. The point of this is to gather up the stuff I suspect you either haven't heard of or skipped and forgot about.

A few of these are movies I've discussed here in the past. They're not in any particular order - they're not ranked or anything - but all are worth checking out.

Vesper (2022)

Technically, Vesper is a Lithuanian science-fiction film from last year, but it's difficult to convey how little that actually communicates about the experience of watching this fascinating, unique film. Imagine a live-action Miyazaki movie, fused with Terry Gilliam, centered around something from Grimm's Fairy Tales, and set in post-apocalyptic medieval Europe. Now picture that getting shipped into Area X from Annihilation. Vesper is basically the movie you'd expect to emerge a few weeks later.

Sounds pretty damn good, right? Yeah, well, it is.

Throw in some innovative visual effects (mostly practical) that are evocative, creepy, and hauntingly beautiful, and you've got something extraordinary. The setting and tone are so good, I barely even cared that the story was effective, the theme timely, the cast really good, and the characters all interesting: that stuff felt like icing. I'd be recommending this even if it weren't smart and well constructed, but as a nice bonus, it's both those things.

I should mention there's some disturbing imagery in here. Nothing too bad; just be aware there's some gnarly R-rated stuff in this that might make you squirm. And, for what it's worth, it belongs here. The freaky stuff enhances the world, and is eerily beautiful, like everything else in this film.

I didn't watch and review this in time to make my 2022 ranking, but if I had it would be in either the 2nd or 1st place. I really love this one, and strongly encourage fans of science-fiction or fantasy to check it out. It's truly special.

Cyrano (2022)

I never know whether to date these by technical release dates or US openings. If you prefer the former, than this was 2021, not 2022. But - despite being an absolutely fantastic musical reimagining of the classic story - Cyrano's release didn't really make much of a dent in either year. Pity. I really like this one.

I hardly know what to highlight. Everything from the costumes to the cinematography to the cast (Dinklage, in particular) is fantastic. But maybe the most memorable aspect is the music: I'd listen to these songs on their own. Stylistically, they lean towards pop/rock, and they're well written, well sung, and cleverly shot in ways blending the period of the setting with musical videos from eras being referenced. Think MTV meets Shakespeare in Love: it's a blast to watch and hear.

The closest thing I have to a criticism is the movie feels like it's being held back by the simplicity of the story it's telling. The psychology just doesn't hit as hard as the music, acting, or directing. But if the biggest problem I have with your adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac is that it's still "just" Cyrano de Bergerac... well... that's not actually a shortcoming.

This is absolutely worth seeing if you haven't already. I wish a few of these fantastic musicals would make money - we're living through a renaissance in the genre, but it seems unlikely to last if these keep bombing at the box office. 

The Little Hours (2017)

I watched this having no idea what it was, when it took place, or what the tone was going to be. If you, too, don't know what "The Little Hours" is, go to Amazon (it's playing on Prime) and start watching (assuming there are no young children around). Do it now. Don't read the rest of this review, don't look at the synopsis, and FOR THE LOVE OF GOD do not watch the trailer.

Seriously. Avoid the trailer like the plague until you see the movie. Feel free to check it out after - it works well as a fun recap - but the real joy of The Little Hours comes from experiencing its surprises as they're offered. There are moments in the movie that had me howling with laughter in absolute delight - they wouldn't have had anywhere near the same impact if I'd been anticipating them. And the trailer gives them all away.

I'm going to avoid spoiling as much as possible, but - again - I highly recommend you watch this knowing as little as possible. I already feel bad revealing it's a comedy: the movie is built out of surprises, and that extends to the genre.

A big part of what makes this work for me is the style. It's a comedy, but it isn't at all filmed like one. Everything in this, from the color palette to the lettering in the credits, evokes period dramas made in the 1960s and 70s, and - despite a cast of legendary comedians - this doesn't really wink or acknowledge that. It's shot very seriously and edited with straightforward music choices, and all of that highlights the absolute joyful absurdity of the film itself.

Only in some ways that description isn't doing the movie justice. The movie's comical approach hides the fact that, at least on occasion, it's absurd recreation of the past is likely more historically accurate than many of the self-serious dramas out there. One scene in particular (again, I'm really trying not to give anything away) had me in awe at how much more believable the characters' behavior was than perhaps any other movie I've seen set in a similar time.

I hope you stopped reading this a paragraph or two in and rushed to check it out. The Little Hours slipped under the radar in 2017 and seems to have largely disappeared since, and that's a tragedy. I'd easily rank this within the top 5 best comedies of the past decade I've seen, at least in terms of the overall joy I experienced watching it. Please, do yourself a favor and give this a chance.

The House (2022)

Further eroding the line between movies and miniseries, I suspect Netflix's release, The House, was conceived as the latter but presented as the former. But the sake of simplicity, this was released as a single, movie-length anthology, so I'm going to take it as such. 

Complicating issues around classification, this is officially a "dark comedy," but I don't see that at all. The first two stories are horror, while the third is sort of a surreal post-apocalyptic yarn. Sure, there are some comedic moments tossed in, but no more than you'd expect from the average horror flick (quite a bit less, in my opinion). I'm assuming this got labeled as comedy because two of the three parts feature anthropomorphic animals. But that's a feature of style, not of genre, and in this case it's liable to be misleading.

I should also note this one isn't for kids. The stories are actually kind of scary, and - while it pulls a few punches - things don't end particularly well for most of the main characters. Also, if you give a fuck about naughty words, this has a few. If you're looking to calibrate, I'd say you'd want to wait a few years for this after your kid's old enough to watch something like Coraline without nightmares. It's creepy, disturbing, and more mature than most people are used to seeing in this medium.

Whatever this is, it's absolutely breathtaking, a gorgeously animated stop-motion production exploring some very dark concepts. This explores the dangers of materialism, capitalism, and obsession. But at the same time, it's beautiful. Each of the three stories looks and feels unique. The first features characters and objects made of felt, similar to what Robin Robin used but to quite literally the opposite effect. The second looks the most like something Laika might do if they wanted to traumatize their younger viewers (more than usual, I mean). And the third almost feels like it's channeling Wes Anderson via The Fantastic Mr. Fox.

I loved them all. The artistry on display is really incredible, and the tone is a good reminder that stop motion has applications beyond "kid's stuff." For those of you familiar with the 1988 Czech film, Něco z Alenky (you might know this as the adaptation of Alice in Wonderland with stop-motion taxidermy), this has a similar vibe. I'm really happy to see something this weird and pretty popping up on Netflix. What a treat.

See You Yesterday (2019)

While it could have used a bit more money, time, and maybe an additional draft to punch up a few key scenes, See You Yesterday is still a fascinating entry in the time-travel subgenre. It uses the concept of fate vs. will as a metaphor that's both effective and original, which is alone enough of a reason to check this out on Netflix. On top of that, it's well made and engaging as a genre flick, even setting aside the larger questions it's asking.

It's worth noting this is a bit deceptive. The movie begins as a sort of silly adventure, before ultimately veering into darker, heavier territory. I don't think this is a problem, but I suspect the tonal shift will be off-putting to audiences looking for easy answers and happy endings.

Which brings us into spoiler territory, because I don't think any discussion of See You Yesterday can proceed without touching on the resolution. Or perhaps lack thereof? I go back and forth on whether the last shot is tragic, optimistic, or ambiguous, which is likely the point. This is a movie about the sense of vertigo communities feel reliving what must feel like the same tragedies again and again. Structurally, the movie tells us Claudette's refusal to accept this is a tragic flaw. One interpretation of the ending is that she'll inevitably destroy herself trying to stop inevitable tragedy. In a sense, this is the easiest interpretation, as it adheres to traditional tropes and character archetypes. In a "normal" time travel story, a character who behaves as the protagonist does and ignores the warnings she refuses to accept is typically doomed.

But this isn't just a time travel story, and the thing Claudette trying to change isn't trivial or selfishly motivated. If anything, it feels like the movie is setting up the idea that fate should be accepted in order to dare us to confront the ramifications of apathy. In context, Claudette's response is the noble one, despite going against the conventional moral of the genre.

But the movie doesn't ultimately reward this with a happy ending. Instead, it closes with her continuing her mission, very possibly indefinitely or until it destroys her. Or, perhaps, until her refusal to accept the world as is overcomes the forces of inertia opposing her. In a sense, the movie is asking us which will win in the end: is the will to change greater than the cycle of loss?

And I wish I could say I found that ending uplifting. Perhaps it was supposed to be, but watching this four years later, I feel like the intervening time provided an answer. It's heartbreaking in retrospect, whether that was intended or not.

Barb and Star go to Vista del Mar (2021)

I was completely unprepared for this movie.

I'm not sure where I got the idea that this was a light comedy with some drama, but that's what I was expecting: a conventional comedy. A simple movie built on tone. Nothing too extreme.

Imagine my surprise three minutes in when the supervillain showed up. This is a completely absurd, over-the-top farce. Imagine a middle-aged women's answer to Harold and Kumar, Bill and Ted, or... whatever the names of the characters were in Dude, Where's My Car.

Only those comparisons aren't exact. All of those movies are centered around young men and have fairly similar tones. Barb and Star are in their forties. That alone is game-changing, but this also looks and feels completely different. It's cartoonishly bright, with elaborate musical numbers. There are sequences that almost look like Wes Anderson with the saturation turned up. 

All of which is to say that while this feels like a spiritual cousin to the films listed above, it's not really in the same genre. If those are essentially stoner comedies, maybe this is a mimosa farce. Call it whatever you want, it feels fresh and new, which is extraordinarily rare. On its own, that's already enough a reason to recommend it.

But also... it's completely hilarious. Just a riot, start to finish. I loved it.

The one caveat I might offer is that it's a lot to take in. I ended up watching this in two parts, which was a good way to experience it: at almost two hours, it's a bit overwhelming without a break. I wouldn't call that a flaw - the movie never stops being funny - but I'm glad I saw this at home rather than in a theater.

To be clear, if the biggest issue with your comedy is it's too much fun for one sitting... that's a pretty good sign. Definitely check this one out.

Pig (2021)

It's admittedly a stretch including this here, as it picked up a fair number of awards and has been widely promoted by movie fans online. But it was snubbed at the Oscars, and it made virtually nothing in theaters (though, to be fair, it cost almost nothing to make, too).

And it is really fantastic. If you haven't seen it and know nothing about it, just stop reading now. The less you know, the better: this plays with your expectations and subverts your genre expectations in ways I never imagined.

Even aside from that, it's fantastic. This is one of Nicholas Cage's best performances, right up with Mandy (side note: I'm assuming you've all seen Mandy - otherwise, consider that an eleventh row on this list). Pig is an emotionally complex, philosophically moving film everyone should see.  

Petite Maman (2021)

I'm going to stagger how I describe this in the hopes anyone reading this review will stop as soon as possible then watch the movie before I even touch on the premise or genre. Let's start with the three pieces of information that convinced me to watch this the same day I heard it existed. First, it's written and directed by Céline Sciamma, the visionary who made Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which if you somehow haven't seen it... go watch that now, because it raises the bar for how good movies can look and be. Second, it's 72 minutes long, so it's not going to eat up your evening. Third, it's streaming on Kanopy, a service you most likely have free access to if you have a library card in your wallet.

If that's enough, great, we're done here, at least until you've seen it, which - again - will only take an hour and change. It's not so much that I think knowing details about the movie will spoil it (this isn't that kind of movie), but there's no reason to rob yourself of the enjoyment of allowing the story to unfold in its own time. Because pacing and tone are major components in what makes this special. But you probably already figured that out from the "written and directed by Céline Sciamma" part.

I'll also add, for those still around, this one's appropriate for kids, provided they're old enough to manage the subtitles. Actually, a more accurate description would be "appropriate for adults," because (surprise) this is a kid's movie. As in, told from a child's point of view in ways that will resonate with a child and doesn't include objectionable material. Petite Maman is more or less G-rated.

But it's a kid's movie with depth, sincerity, and nuance. Think Prancer, as a reference point, or just go with the movies the director herself cited as inspiration: the works of Miyazaki.

Okay, see, now we're drifting dangerously close to revealing the genre, because this isn't just a beautifully told drama about a young girl coping with a difficult time and struggling to understand her mother. I mean, it's also that, and that'd be enough in the hands of a director like Sciamma, but...

It's also a time-travel story. Tonally, more fantasy time-travel than science-fiction, in that it doesn't care how or why it's occurring, doesn't contend with the usual tropes, and is instead only interested in the way the kids react to the magic around them. Which in this case can more or less be summed up as quiet amusement. She understands what's happening, appreciates the opportunity, and eventually discusses it with her mother's younger self, but neither express amazement or wonder at what's going on. It's just another thing they don't really understand in a world that's already more complicated than adults admit. So they do what kids do: they become friends, play, and talk.

Of course there are themes of growing up, of exploring the past, of coming to understand your parents as changing beings... and all that's really great. But what I found the most refreshing was a live-action movie with a realistic tone where kids just kind of casually explore a classic genre trope as if it's just another interesting path in the woods.

Blow the Man Down (2020)

This does for my home state of Maine what I imagine the Coen Brothers did for the Midwest: remind me why I left.

Okay, that's at least half a joke (I still love you, Maine), but this captures something about my home state in the months tourists stay away. It's a Maine of old buildings and towns built around industries that have been gone a generation. It's a ghost story where the ghost is the entire setting, where the people inhabit a spirit rather than the other way around.

This one came and went without garnering much attention, but it stayed with me.

Shadow in the Cloud (2020)

Yeah, I'm recommending this again. Probably not for the last time, either: I just love the hell out of this movie. It's weird and fascinating in ways horror and action movies never are. It pivots between genres brilliantly, exploiting a change in tone to enhance its story rather than break it. And the entire last act is just perfection, culminating in a final fight that breaks every rule in every book, delivering something that surprised and delighted me.

Be aware the credited writer is a horrible human being, but don't hold this against the movie. Based on some interviews I've read, it sounds like Director Roseanne Liang more or less rewrote the entire thing anyway.

Please, track this down. It's amazing.

Tuesday, January 3, 2023

Movie Review: Roald Dahl's Matilda the Musical

The thing that kept running through my head at a crucial yet objectively silly moment in the middle of this objectively silly story is there must have been a point when this was being planned and various members of the cast and crew were meeting with the director to ask how he wanted to handle the sequence in question. The design of the movie is fundamentally whimsical with flourishes of expressionism, it's all of course based on a children's book, and - I really can't stress this enough - the crux of the story hinges on the sort of ridiculous, bizarre revelation that defines Dahl's writing. And all I can imagine watching the finished film is director Matthew Warchus must have thought about for a moment and said something along the lines of, "Fuck it. Act like it's Shakespeare."

Because as silly as the premise, backstory, and designs are, as absurd as some of the cartoon physics and musical numbers get, the heart of this adaptation keeps returning to emotionally rich sequences built on honest depictions of trauma, hope, and pain. It's the kind of gambit directors rarely make in these kinds of movies, because when they don't work, the result is a mess of conflicting tones and melodrama. But in the rare circumstances it does work, you end up with the sort of bizarre, operatic masterpieces generations remember for the rest of their lives. The Last Unicorn, The Secret of N.I.M.H., Watership Down, Coraline... and now Roald Dahl's Matilda: the Musical.

I'm honestly not sure whether or not this will obtain the kind of cultural saturation to leave that kind of legacy behind, given the transitory nature of Netflix's business model. They don't really do much to promote their films, so this could end up buried in a week or two under the weight of their next eighty additions. But the kids who see this now are going to remember it. This is the right blend of nightmare fuel, honest emotion, and weird visuals that can set up shop inside a kid's head and lead them into a life of art.

Or maybe turn them into revolutionaries, because the politics of this thing aren't subtle. The movie shrugs off the adage "two wrongs can't make a right," then responds with a feature-length metaphor about how all methods of resistance are justified in the fight against fascism. Lies, subterfuge, violence, psychological warfare... whatever it takes. I haven't read the book this is based on since... I don't know... third grade maybe? So I honestly don't know how much of that subtext appeared in the original. My guess is it was there, but for a variety of reasons, it most likely wasn't obvious. Here, it's barely subtext. Kids probably won't entirely understand the message at first, but it could very well stick with them (fingers crossed).

There are several reasons this works, beyond the fact it's directed well. The cast deserves a great deal of credit here, particularly Alisha Weir and Lashana Lynch, who play Matilda and Miss Honey. Together, they form the emotional center of the movie, and this would have failed if either hadn't been able to convey real depth at several key moments. Emma Thompson should also be celebrated, as she delivers a phenomenally over-the-top villainous performance in a mech suit's worth of Oscar-caliber prosthetics and makeup. The movie could probably still have worked without her, but it wouldn't have been as much fun. The whole ensemble is good, really, including a small army of children who sell some elaborate song and dance scenes.

Speaking of, the songs are good. I realize that's a carryover from the play, but that doesn't change the fact it's enjoyable to listen to. More importantly, the music manages to enhance tone, develop themes, and add depth to the characters' emotional journeys: you know, all that stuff songs are supposed to do in musicals.

I should note my wife, who has an actual background in theater, detected artifacts where songs were likely cut down or references were omitted. She still liked the movie, but wasn't quite as impressed as I was.

I should also mention some minor characters felt underutilized. Matilda's classmates, in particular, felt more like references to the book than characters in their own right. I don't consider this a major flaw, but it's one area where the movie could have used more time. Fingers crossed for an extended cut, I suppose.

Regardless, this is a fantastic movie. I really hope kids discover it: this is the kind of movie a generation could watch when they're seven and find themselves discussing in college.

Saturday, December 31, 2022

2022 Retrospective

I know posts here have been pretty sparse. This past year, I largely turned my attention towards another project, watching and reviewing as many versions of A Christmas Carol as I possibly could. Because that took a lot of time, I didn't really review much here.

But that doesn't mean I wasn't watching new stuff and taking notes. And that means it's time for my answer to the annual "best of" tradition. Only I've never really been able to stick to those limitations. I like to show my work and offer context, so here's everything released in 2022 I finished watching, ranked from least favorite to most favorite.

Let me take a minute and reiterate that: least favorite to most favorite. This is how I felt about what's listed below, not my opinion of their quality. In fact, there's something in my bottom 5 this year I think is kind of better than something in my top 10.

I also want to mention I'm doing something very different this year: these aren't just movies. I've got seasons of TV shows and even a few specials in the mix. Television has improved to the point it's able to seriously compete with theatrical films, and it's time to stop pretending there's a meaningful boundary.

Because of the way television works, we're obviously going to need some guidelines. I'm counting seasons as complete works, so the year the final episode airs or is released determines whether it applies. In other words, Willow (which I'm loving so far) will have to wait for next year. Also, I'm only considering shows I've seen in their entirety, which obviously means the bulk of this list is going to skew towards stuff I like (excluding a bunch of Christmas stuff gathered near the bottom).

As a word of warning, this is going to run long, because it's a long list. I'm including quite literally everything I saw that was released in 2022, and it turns out that's a lot. Some of these will be accompanied by short explanations of why they're ranked where they are; others will have more or less complete reviews, so skim accordingly.

Let's get started.


74. Mickey Saves Christmas

I should probably feel bad about including a half hour special on this list, but I don't. Stop-motion, even when it's done cheaply, is still a pretty versatile artform, so there's no reason twenty-four minutes of it can't offer a phenomenal experience. I've seen specials made with less that left me breathless with wonder or falling off my chair laughing. This left me empty.

Actually, "empty" is a good descriptor for this special. Empty, vapid, and soulless, Mickey Saves Christmas is a reminder that stop-motion doesn't have to be good. As a medium, it tends attract great artists who find ways to bring their creations to life. But this wasn't life: it was corporate branding. I've never found this medium or these characters less interesting in my life. They're written and animated without a shred of inspiration or joy. What a waste of effort and talent.

73. A Unicorn for Christmas

Okay, I actually do feel a little bad about this one. A Unicorn for Christmas is here in part because it's a extremely low-budget production that falls short of the mark. Sometimes these manage to overcome their limitations, but this isn't one of those times.

I really don't want to harp on this: I was already mean enough in my review, and frankly it just didn't have the resources to compete. Let's just say I'm including this in the interest of being complete and move on. 

I haven't loved any of Netflix's Christmas princess romcoms, though there have been a few I thought were solid. I realize Falling for Christmas technically doesn't feature a princess, but that "technically" is doing some heavy lifting. At any rate, when these sort of work, it's because they embrace the camp and have fun with the ensuing chaos. Falling for Christmas just isn't fun. The premise, a subdued version of Overboard's, just isn't zany enough to carry one of these.

Meanwhile, the elements that actually are as weird as this needs to be (namely Santa and the rival love interest) fall on the bad end of weird, rather than the endearing.

I know these movies have fans, and I truly wish I saw whatever they see in these.

71. Holiday Heritage

Hallmark's first Kwanzaa movie didn't work as well for me as their first Hanukkah flick (we'll get to that). The issue here is genre: while I've been pleasantly surprised by Hallmark's comedies this year, their dramas haven't been as effective. The network's mandate for exclusively G-rated fare with little -to-no tension just doesn't leave enough room for the writers to build anything compelling.

That's the problem here. The emotional stakes just ring hollow, and without a significant amount of humor to distract you, you're just left bored.

My suggestion is either to drop non-fantasy dramas entirely or (even better) allow these to at least climb up closer to PG. This just doesn't work otherwise.

70. A Christmas Story Christmas

The awkward thing about A Christmas Story Christmas is it's actually pretty good. They set out to mimic the style of the 1983 movie and they pulled it off. The new movie looks, sounds, and feels like a continuation, which couldn't have been easy. What they did is impressive.

But here's the catch: I hate the original, so I'm not too keen on this one, either. I find the jokes unfunny, the characters unlikeable, and the story dull for the exact same reasons I didn't like those the first time.

That doesn't mean I don't respect what was done here - I just don't like it.

69. Christmas at the Golden Dragon

There are things about Christmas at the Golden Dragon I respect, starting with the premise. The idea of centering a Christmas drama around a location typically used as a punchline has merit, and it's genuinely good to see Hallmark actually featuring diversity for a change. I also like how this subverts a number of tropes and stereotypes (though it still checks off a few - this is still a Hallmark flick, after all).

The problem is the movie isn't good. Hell, "bad" might be a generous designation: the dialogue and character work here is just abysmal.

In fact, the only reason this claws its way up this far is there's one scene that at least partially redeems the movie by featuring characters who aren't dressed and acting like normal Hallmark Christmas characters reacting realistically to some who are. It's a surprisingly clever moment in an otherwise dumb film.

68. Kimi

On paper, this must have seemed like a brilliant idea. Take the basic premise of Rear Window (a movie I should probably see one of these days) and update it via modern technology, all set in the uniquely isolated wasteland that is the pandemic: that should add up to a suspenseful, modern noir, right? RIGHT?

It probably should have, but even with a fantastic performance from Zoe Kravitz, Kimi is a disappointment. Rather than deliver something cutting edge or a great throwback, it splits the difference and somehow comes off feeling like something out of the 1990s. More than anything, this reminds me of The Net, a movie I haven't seen or thought about since I watched it on VHS.

Kimi really needed to feel harrowing, and - frankly - it just doesn't. The protagonist is intriguingly flawed in some interesting ways, but none of these actually manifest into meaningful obstacles to her ability to maneuver the plot. Of all the movie's disappointments, this was the most bizarre: there were plenty of opportunities to have her agoraphobia impact the plot. Instead, it just... didn't.

Likewise, there were several poorly timed continuity glitches, both helping and hurting the protagonist. As always, I'm trying to avoid spoilers, but there was a moment towards the end when Kravitz's character conveniently shook off the influence of a powerful sedative. Granted, that facilitated a fairly delightful climactic showdown, which was completely out of place in this movie but more than welcome. 

It's difficult to take anything in this movie seriously, which is a problem given the tone wants you to take everything seriously (at least until the end, I suppose). But between the fuzzy logic, the pedantic lecturing about the dangers of a world without privacy, and the lack of attention to detail in something masquerading as hard SF, I found myself laughing at this in ways I don't believe were intentional.

Again, for what it's worth, Kravitz is great here. And if Soderbergh wanted to pick up a paycheck, he's more than earned to right to phone one of these in. But this definitely felt like just that: a hastily written script calibrated for pandemic filming limitations and made on the cheap for a streaming platform. The ending was fun, and the whole thing was diverting enough, but on the whole this felt closer to an above average TV movie than a "real" movie. I realize films produced for streaming can be either, so maybe I'm being unfair. And I'll be the first to admit it's landing behind quite a few movies far worse (I mean, look at what's next) because I expected more from this given the talent involve. But expectation is a real factor in the experience of watching a movie, and this one really didn't measure up.

67. Morbius

I watched Morbius the way I'm convinced it was meant to be seen: barely conscious and suffering through fever and other side effects of a COVID booster. In the interest of full disclosure, my fever dissipated over the course of the film's runtime. Am I suggesting that Morbius somehow magically cured me?

Yes, that is precisely what I'm suggesting.

The point is, my experience with this movie was not, strictly speaking, typical. Really, I should watch it again to make sure I'm not conflating my reaction to the vaccine with the quality of the film. I should. I know I should. I just... really don't want to.

I actually think I liked this a little better than most people. I thought some of the CG fight effects looked neat, particularly the weird super-speed thing they kept doing. Same goes for the "vampire-face" effect they used with Morbius: it's weird and comic-y, which are ingredients I almost always like.

I also don't think the movie is quite as bad as its reputation, with the caveat the word "quite" is doing some heavy lifting in the first half of this sentence. The story and characters are absolutely bad, but I'd describe them as "Ben Affleck Daredevil-bad," as opposed to "Origins Wolverine-Bad." In other words, it's not good, but I've definitely seen worse.


66. The Santa Clauses

Eh. Honestly, it was better than I thought it would be. I've never liked the movies, and I'm not a huge fan of Tim Allen (and not just because of his politics). But this manages to salvage the franchise with a twist that untwists the original twist defining the movies. By the end, we're left with a take on Santa closer to the default cultural figure than the rules established in the first movie (to say nothing of the sequels). And some of the revamped lore is cool - I really liked the Yuleverse, though it was a little weird La Befana wasn't part of that tradition - and the sequences with the Calvin-Clauses in Chicago were fun. 

Still, most of the jokes failed to land, and I had to slog through two and a half episodes of tedious setup to get to the decent stuff. This isn't good compared to most television today, though it would have been one of the best things on fifteen years ago (TV has gotten really good lately).

At the end of the day, this is passable, which is certainly more than I expected.

65. Three Wise Men and a Baby

This was one of the first 2022 Hallmark Christmas movies I saw, and I was pleasantly surprised. I certainly didn't love it - the movie mostly exists for fan service, and I'm not really a fan - but it's pretty decent compared to what I was expecting. The cast does good work, and the premise is as good a match as any for the glossy, cartoonish Hallmark esthetic. And, for what it's worth, I laughed more than once during the first half of the movie, which ain't nothing.

That said, the last act slows to a crawl, and the emotional punches are weak (kind of a running problem with the company). Still, this was good enough to make it this far, and we've still got several Hallmark movies to go.

It's no surprise this movie wasn't a slam dunk. What was surprising was it kind of came close. As a reimagined take on A Christmas Carol, this was fairly clever in how it updated and transformed the text while retaining both the underlying story, moral, and politics of the original. On top of that, some of the jokes were fantastic.

Note I said "some." Unfortunately, a large number feel even more tired than its dated title. But that's not the real issue here. The reason this doesn't quite manage to thread the needle is it can't seem to decide whether it wants to be a zany parody or a comedic retelling of A Christmas Carol. It kind of oscillates between these extremes, never committing or getting them to coalesce (to be fair, the last section does a decent job at this, but it's not enough to really make the film work).

All that said, the good at least counterbalances the bad: on the whole I thought this movie was pretty decent, which is more than you'd expect from a low-budget holiday comedy named after what's essentially an internet meme. The filmmakers overdelivered here, and deserve credit: this is in no way a failure.

63. Ghosts of Christmas Always

I genuinely enjoyed this, which isn't something I usually say about Hallmark productions. But aside from some issues with the ending, this was surprisingly intelligent, both in terms of dialogue and structure.

It's that ending that holds it back. It's not so much that it goes in a bad direction, as it's not clear what happens or what it means in terms of timelines and reality. On one hand, it's the kind of detail that usually doesn't matter much. But in this case, there's so much continuity and lore tied up in what's going on, someone waving a wand and assuring us it all ended well just doesn't cut it.

62. Scrooge: A Christmas Carol

Despite being a mess of a movie, this CG animated quasi-remake of the 1970 live-action Scrooge musical looks beautiful. The designs are fantastic, and character expressions and physicality convey emotion. It sounds good, too: the songs are revamped (or as often as not outright replaced) to make them fun to listen to.

But while it all looks and sounds good on the surface, there was no real effort made to coalesce the various elements into a coherent movie. You've got clockwork designs, 1970's record album colors, an animal companion, new story elements, and a somewhat dark tone. A lot of the component parts are good on their own, but the whole is less than... well, you know the cliché.

I really think this has merit thanks to the quality of the designs and animation, but it's a deeply flawed film that failed to draw me in any deeper.

61. The Book of Boba Fett

Taken as a whole, this was kind of a mess. The series drops its central narrative four episodes in to pivot to other characters and lore. The weakest episode by far focuses intently on a digitally recreated Skywalker training Grogu. It's all absurd and unnecessary.

And yet... I enjoyed it.

Look, at the end of the day, recycled Star Wars is still Star Wars. I grew up with this stuff - even if I find myself wincing at absurd choreography and mangled plot structure, I can't help but get excited when I return to that galaxy.

That doesn't mean I can't see the flaws, nor does it mean I don't wish for more. This series - hell, everything being done with this franchise even before Disney bought it - feels so much smaller than it should. They're focusing on explanations and backstory rather than wonder. This is supposed to be set in a galaxy, with countless alien species. Why do we keep returning to the same handful of worlds with the same dozen or so creatures?

I'm hoping Disney figures that out soon. They're pouring a lot of money into this, and the creative teams are incredibly talented. I just wish we were seeing more imagination and less rehashing.

60. The Holiday Sitter

Let's just take a moment and appreciate the fact a Hallmark romcom made it higher than one of the Star Wars entries. Yes, there's more Star Wars later, but I still think it's kind of incredible.

The movie itself was sweet and amusing. The comedy was well delivered, though it's the kind of thing that has you chuckling, rather than laughing. The script and directing were fine, but the real MVP here was Jonathan Bennett, who delivers a fantastic comedic performance for the first 95% of the movie before catching you completely off guard with a character twist I found genuinely moving, which feels revolutionary in a Hallmark romcom.

For all its merits, this is still formulaic and over-reliant on clichés: in other words, it's still a made-for-TV Hallmark romantic comedy. And, in case it wasn't clear, I'm not a huge fan of that niche genre, so this is pretty much the ceiling unless one of these actually bothers subverting and reinventing the conventions of that genre. Don't hold your breath for anything like that - I'm pretty sure Hallmark execs stamp out that kind of dissention. But then they used to stamp out anything without a straight lead, so who knows? Maybe in a few years Hallmark will evolve again and start making great movies. There's really nothing stopping them but themselves.

59. The Adam Project

I know this is damning with faint praise, but The Adam Project really feels like a movie best summed up as "good enough." It's a long way from great, but as far as direct-to-streaming kids/family sci-fi/adventure flicks go... it's fairly enjoyable to watch.

Could it have been better? Sure! A few script revisions, less stunt casting (I can't be the only one who found Ruffalo extremely distracting in this thing), and a moratorium on self-aware references to other movies the stars have been in would have done wonders. With minimal work, this could actually have crossed the line into being actually good.

But for a direct-to-streaming MCU knock-off, this is already so much better than it should be. Whether that qualifies as good or not is more a function of what you're comparing it to than anything else. And at the end of the day, I enjoyed this overall. Not a homerun, by any stretch, but not everything has to be.

58. Black Adam

Better than Morbius, but not as good as Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness... yeah, I think I've got this in more or less the right spot. It's honestly hard to tell sometimes.

Black Adam, to be fair, makes a lot of interesting choices. I like that the Justice Society are effectively co-leads here, though this would have worked much better conceptually if it had been set in the 50's rather than the present day. There are some good performances (I really liked Aldis Hodge as Hawkman), and I love that they made the various powersets look unique.

But the movie has two major flaws that more or less invalidate everything else: it's lacking enough fun characters and moments to anchor the tone, and the whole thing looks and feels like a videogame cutscene.

On the first point, Atom Smasher and Cyclone had potential, but they never got the screen time or focus to feel like anything more than extended cameos. Also, Cyclone's powers, while cool looking, weren't really put to much use - for the most part, she just tossed metal pipes around.

As for the CG, it wasn't exactly bad, so much as overwhelming and lacking realism. That's not automatically a deal breaker (in this space, we honor Speed Racer), but it only works if it fits the movie. And, again, this was going for something of an epic, brooding tone, rather than a zany, campy adventure. If the movie looked like this, the script needed to be more like Aquaman or Thor: Ragnarok and less, well, Thor: The Dark World.

Despite all that, the JSA were entertaining enough to crawl this far up the list. And Adam was pretty good, too - The Rock was always a good fit for the character. But I spent most of this movie in a state of boredom, which is kind of shocking given it features super-wizards and a reincarnated winged space hero fighting a demon.

57. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

All right, we're going to need to look at Multiverse of Madness from a couple different points of view. As a standalone movie, this just doesn't work. The villain, her motivation, and to a lesser extent the plot in general is essentially a continuation of WandaVision, to the point the movie sacrifices any real setup to instead recap the essential story beats that are carrying over. Taken on its own, this is a mess.

That said, if you look at this as an installment in a larger story... it's actually even more of a mess. Because they're not actually picking up from where WandaVision resolved: instead, they're just kind of retconning out her character growth and development, since those wouldn't really be convenient to the story being told instead. It's ostensibly tied together, but you can see where the strings are frayed. You're left with a movie sacrificing internal logic for the connected story, but also sacrificing that for cheap shock value.

Which isn't to say there's nothing of value here. Visually, this delivers some awesome moments. They're also completely cutting loose on the magic end of genre storytelling: no more halfhearted attempts to handwave this as misunderstood technology or energy manipulation or whatever. This is straight up, unapologetic mystic nonsense, and I really appreciate that.

But it's not enough to make up for the shortcomings. Likewise, the cameos were fun, but a host of alt-Earth Marvel characters appearing simply to get brutally killed was obnoxious. Just more shock value that's far less interesting than the movie supposes.

Even with a number of cool moments and images, this firmly lands in last place on the list of MCU films. Congrats to Thor: The Dark World on no longer being the worst.

56. Sonic the Hedgehog 2

According to my rough estimate, around 85% of Sonic 2 is just plain bad. Really bad. Cloying, idiotic humor, bad writing where situations are manufactured by filmmakers trusting their audience isn't paying enough attention to remember characters' superpowers should be more than sufficient to render threats meaningless, side plots that drag out far too long...

Most of the remaining 15% isn't exactly good, either: it's more a mix of "so bad it's good" and "dumb fun."

And yet, for reasons I don't entirely understand, I kind of enjoyed this overall. Maybe the stuff I consider "dumb fun" is just fun enough to overcome my reservations about the cheesy kid's movie junk that eats up most of the runtime. Or maybe I'm just a sucker for cute CG animals forming friendships. I can't really explain it: I had a decent time with enough of this to give it a pass. Barely.

55. Catwoman: Hunted

This was a low-budget direct-to-streaming movie I'm assuming most people never heard of. They make quite a few of these, most of which I get around to years later, if at all. There was a time I lived for this kind of stuff, but over the past fifteen years or so, the quality of animated comic book films has dipped while the live-action stuff has gotten better and better. I'm happy to say this is an exception. Well, more like half an exception.

The animation itself is pretty underwhelming. They clearly didn't pour a great deal of money into it, and it shows. Fortunately, the writing, directing, and voice acting more than makes up for that shortcoming. This is a long way from the top tier of DC Animated films out there (Mask of the Phantasm, The Red Hood, Batman vs. TMNT, New Frontier, etc.), but as a somewhat disposable piece of ridiculous entertainment, it's a great deal of fun.

A lot of credit goes to writer Greg Weisman, who's responsible for Gargoyles, Spectacular Spider-Man, and Young Justice (for those of you who aren't fans of this stuff, those are widely regarded as three of the best animated action/adventure series ever made). This isn't on par with most of his TV work, but it's still quite good as a Catwoman team-up (I'll refrain from spoiling who the other lead is, since it's supposed to be a surprise).

The mediocre quality of the animation along with some obnoxious moments keep this from ranking higher, but I really did have fun with this.

54. Moonshot

Moonshot is not at all an ambitious movie. It sets out to be a breezy, family-friendly romcom with a science fiction setting. It offers very little beyond that premise, but - by virtue of actually bothering to write some solid dialogue and cast good actors - it manages to deliver something fun.

If you're looking for something exceptional, this isn't the movie for you. It's not memorable, it doesn't have much to say, and the emotional beats are all pretty muted. But it's not really trying to do any of that: it just wants to be enjoyable and sweet. In short, it's passable.


53. Belle

I know this technically came out in 2021, but I'm counting it because it had a US release this year.

This was weirder than I expected, and I went in expecting something pretty damn weird. I expected  to see a retelling of Beauty and the Beast set in a virtual world, but - while elements of the classic tale are present - the movie refuses to adhere to the template. I'm not sure if that's a good or bad thing: at the very least, it's more ambitious and surprising. I'm not sure I found the film as satisfying an experience, however, largely because the twists in the second half felt entirely out of left field.

Regardless, the movie is beautiful, and the virtual world - unlike the similar one in Ready Player One - feels like one you'd want to visit.  

52. Chip 'n Dale: Rescue Rangers

The main reason this is as high as it is comes down to world-building, which is an aspect of genre filmmaking I don't think gets enough respect. The story and characters of the Rescue Rangers reboot are pretty simplistic, but the design and execution of a modern world inhabited by characters drawn from a century of diverse styles of animation, CG, puppeteering, and more is engrossing and whimsical. There's real art here, and I think that fact gets lost among the jokes.

It helps this is funny, too. Maybe not as funny as it could or should have been, but still funny. I also think the resolution to the central story arc between the title characters was a success.

That said, there are many, many aspects that just didn't work, beginning with the human co-lead. After managing to blend countless animation styles into the real world, somehow the place they came up short was a human being. On top of that, the story and villain just weren't all that interesting.

Overall, this was a decent movie, far better than it probably had any right to be, but disappointing in spots. I enjoyed it, but it's nowhere near the top of my list. 

51. Lightyear

What an utterly bizarre film. It's not at all bad, but it's also nowhere near good enough to justify its existence. Both after and while watching, I found myself trying and failing to wrap my head around the core idea. Why did anyone at Pixar want to make this in the first place?

My best guess is this started as a fairly straightforward desire to make a tribute to classic science fiction films, or perhaps the genre in its entirety. The movie's full of references and homages, and these are the moments when it feels like the most attention and effort is pouring in. There's stuff here evocative of 2001, Starship Troopers, Star Wars, Star Trek, Galaxy Quest, and more.

But the movie undermines this (at least for me) by opening with a tag explicitly telling us this is a fictional movie released in 1995 within the universe of Toy Story. It's honestly more the 1995 part than the Toy Story stuff, though I'll circle back to that. The opening primed me for a nostalgic '90s sci-fi experience. I was honestly curious how this rather complex setting would be presented.

Then it wasn't. I mean, there were references to some '90s SF movies, along with numerous other eras, but Lightyear feels nothing like a film from that decade. This clearly wasn't actually conceived as a "lost" film from the '90s translated to animation, which might have been an interesting premise.

Likewise, it doesn't really feel like a movie existing within the world of Toy Story. Even setting aside the date, the designs are clearly backwards engineered from Toy Story, rather than the other way around. I'll be the first to admit I'm being pedantic, but things like the toy looking like a relatively faithful recreation isn't accurate to action figures of the time. Buzz Lightyear the action figure looks like toys from the 1990s - Buzz Lightyear the character does not look like the characters those toys are based on.

This shouldn't matter, and to most audiences I doubt they do. But because the premise of this is so tied to a metanarrative, I found myself exploring the details, looking for elements that would have sold the story-within-a-story concept. And frankly, they just weren't there. That bothered me.

All that being said, this was still pretty good. There was some great action, some cool visuals, and - again - some really delightful homages to the history of the genre. But on top of my issues with the premise, the dialogue, comedy, characters, and story were a long way from Pixar's best.  

Wait. Is Hallmark good now? This movie's a late addition, so I might be contradicting things I said elsewhere on this list, but... maybe? The bulk of Hallmark movies I watched this year were at least decent, and this one was genuinely well written. It broke several of Hallmark's self-imposed holiday rules against including tension. Granted, you never doubt the leads are going to end up together, but the path to get there isn't anywhere near as watered down as I'm used to from the studio. That's on top of likeable characters, good jokes, and some thematic resonance.

I have no idea how representative the movies I saw this year are (Hallmark released more than 40 new holiday movies in 2022). But if you'd asked me a year ago if Hallmark made *any* movies this good, I'd have said no.

49. The Sandman, Season 1
My feeling towards this show are mixed, and I really mean that. There's stuff here I truly love, starting with the bulk of the design and effects. It's a gorgeous-looking show that manages to recreate the look of key moments and characters better than I'd expected from something with a TV budget, streaming or not. This isn't trivial, either: the art of Sandman is extremely important to the overall effects, and successfully adapting that is an achievement in its own right.

Likewise, I think the cast in this is largely great. They made some smart decisions when casting this thing, and it shows. Tom Sturridge's voice alone captures the essence of what's on the page, which - in the case of Sandman - is saying something. Throw in the fantastic bonus episode, and you might be forgetting I started this by saying my feelings were mixed, rather than positive.

Here's the thing. As much as I enjoy looking at this, the show just doesn't manage to recreate the elements that make the comic as amazing as it is. Part of me think it's an issue with format: doing this as an hour-long TV series with each episode assigned one or two issues just can't work. Or maybe it's just a case where the showrunners are retreating too quickly to drama. Either way, the flow is off. The comic feels like a fairytale (or perhaps even a dream), and a lot of that's due to the way the story flows. I rarely got the same feeling from the show, and I think a lot of that's due to the pacing. The impact of key moments is diminished in the scope of an hour of television, so lines or dialogue that came across as poetically moving in the comic now feel tacked on and trivial.

I still want more, of course. There's enough "good stuff" for me to latch onto as a fan of the comics to make the experience addicting. But even with a budget this high and talent this good, the show still feels like a lesser version of a great story.

48. Jurassic World: Dominion

When it comes to Jurassic Park, I feel like I've seen a different movie than the rest of the world. Everyone talks about the film like it's a gorgeously produced sci-fi/horror masterpiece with compelling characters and believable stakes. Every time I've watched it, I've just seen a solid B-adventure flick with innovative effects. The world never feels real, the characters feel two-dimensional, and the story comes off as contrived.

I bring that up, because - to my mind at least - Dominion feels exactly like a sequel to the original. Way more so than any of the subsequent installments, aside from maybe The Lost World. It's nowhere near as good as the first, of course (Trevorrow is no Spielberg), but a string of absurd adventure sequences with little connective tissue and less meaning doesn't strike me as a betrayal of the series: with the possible exception of Fallen Kingdom, that's more or less how I'd describe the franchise.

And at the very least, this delivers on quantity. Everything in this movie is silly and over-the-top, but damned if there's not a lot of it. The first half is almost a Bond film, showcasing various locations all over the planet. I'd have preferred if the whole movie had held to this, incidentally, rather than transitioning to yet another high-tech park prone to mishap. But whatever: the game preserve sequences were still fun, despite an utter lack of internal consistency and logic.

To be clear, this is a movie to laugh at rather than with, but the sheer volume of characters and action set pieces kept me entertained. Once I got over the fact this wasn't going to deliver anything serious or even coherent, I just sat back and enjoyed the ride.

47. The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, Season 1

This show has so many positives and negatives, it's difficult to figure out where it balances out. Granted, the positives all boil down to variations on, "They spent a billion dollars to make this look like a movie," but that ain't nothing. I'd actually argue it counts for a great deal, at least as far as the experience of watching is concerned. This is incredible to look at and - as long as you're not paying attention to the dialogue - to listen to, as well. It's beautiful. And that's not simply a factor of budget: the people who designed and built this (both physically and digitally) did fantastic work. There's real art here.

What's missing is, well, a worthwhile premise. To the extent this is adapting Tolkien, it's pulled from what amounts to a handful of pages in the Appendices of Return of the King. And frankly it shows: the story being told is simple, and the methods they've used to pad it out lost their luster fast. I loved the Harfoots when they first appeared, but by the end of the season, I found them as boring as all the other plotlines. Well, almost.

And yet I'm still onboard for season 2, assuming it actually materializes. It really is incredible to look at, and the action sequences are quite good. Here's hoping they find a way to make these characters more compelling.

46. My Father's Dragon

This is definitely taking a hit from expectations, but considering this is the studio behind The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea, The Breadwinner, and Wolfwalkers, I think I can be forgiven from expecting a lot.

What we get here is good, both technically and artistically. The animation is gorgeous (because of course it is), the voice cast does good work, and direction is good. Where it falls apart a little is story and premise. I haven't read the book this is based on, but judging from the movie, I'm not sure it was a good fit for adaptation, particularly for Cartoon Saloon. It all still works well enough, but the whimsical, childhood world clashes with the more cerebral fantasy at the core of the studio: it just feels off.

Again, there's enough to enjoy here to make it more than worth seeing, but each film in the Irish Folklore Trilogy left me in awe. My Father's Dragon doesn't have anything with that kind of emotional power or artistic brilliance. It's a good animated kid's movie, and if it had been any other studio behind it, I'd mostly likely be singing its praises. But that's the problem with producing masterpieces: everyone expects more of you.

45. Paper Girls, Season 1

Sometimes I think about how the last decade has completely broken my expectations for television. This is almost certainly better than at least 95% of the shows I watched prior to streaming, and now... I mean, it's good! Really good! I enjoyed watching this, remained curious where it was headed, found myself engaged by the twists...

But at the end of the journey (or hopefully this leg of the journey), I still found the overall experience less than I wanted. Again, I think that's a factor of expectations more than anything, but I wanted this to be a little more fun. I wanted the characters to feel a little more believable. I wanted the world a little bigger.

44. Love Death and Robots, Volume III

I'm only ranking volume 3, but I actually just binged the entire series. For what it's worth, I'd have ranked the first two volumes a little higher, were they eligible. That's not to say I think Volume 3 is inherently worse, mind you, just not what I was looking for. At least not as consistently.

Even that's misleading. I find this series simultaneously amazing and frustrating. Visually, it's showcasing some absolutely gorgeous animation, some of which is on par with top-tier CG films. Likewise, the genre is right up my alley.

Where it all falls a little flat for me is the writing and execution. Or, more accurately, those are where it often falls flat: when this show delivers greatness, it really delivers. I'm just not sure anything in Volume 3 managed to juggle said greatness in a form I found appealing. The best episodes in my estimation were Jibaro and Bad Travelling. The first was a little too artsy for my taste, while the latter was grisly and disturbing to a degree I found unpleasant. These aren't flaws, mind you: another phrase for "too artsy" is "work of art," and Bad Travelling was trying to be unpleasant. These were both masterpieces; they just weren't what I was looking for.

The Very Pulse of the Machine was more along my interests. I liked several others, but that was probably my favorite of this bunch.

On another positive note, the episodes felt less obligated to include nudity for the sake of nudity (I can't help but suspect there was a mandate in Volume 1 - only a handful of installments excluded it). That's a huge plus: one of the show's strong suits is the availability of R-rated content, but the forced inclusion is a major weak point.

Overall, another strong collection in the best anthology series we've gotten in decades. Not quite what I was looking for, but I'd love to roll those dice again if they make a fourth volume.

43. Oni: Thunder God's Tale

Standard caveat that comes with dubbed media: I'm taking it on faith that the story I watched was actually the story they produced, because who the hell actually knows? This stop-motion miniseries is four episodes long, each around 40 minutes long. So basically a two-and-a-half hour movie told in chapters. The first two chapters are fine, if a little slow; the third chapter is easily the best of the bunch, featuring an effective (if predictable) twist and some extremely fun hijinks; and the conclusion is a bit generic. The conclusion is also why that caveat is so important: there's a lot of exposition at the end, and I can't help but think some of it's been mangled in translation. At least I hope that's the case: what makes the Netflix dub isn't awful, but it feels kind of simplistic.

On top of that, the animation feels a tad antiquated compared to most modern stop-motion. This may have been a choice, but it's difficult to compare this to the animation in Wendell & Wild and not find it lacking.

That said, the main character has a strong arc, and there's a great to enjoy here, including some delightful comedic sequences and a even a few good fights. It's a fun little series, but the ending left me slightly underwhelmed.

42. Wendell & Wild

This is a movie where less would have been more. Essentially three movies packed together, Wendell & Wild juggles too many storylines and ideas to truly coalesce. I'm not exaggerating in my count: this has three distinct themes, each with its own arc and resolution. Had the movie found a way to resolve them all with a single climactic scene, it would have worked. Instead, it sort of wraps them up one-by-one, with a diminishing impact each time. Its divided focus also prevents them from developing key ideas and elements of the world.

So the question here is why it's as high on this list as it is, and the answer is, for all the structural issues and narrative mishaps, it's still kind of rad as hell. No huge surprise here: this is a collaboration between Henry Selick and Jordan Peele. It's visually incredible, and - while there are far too many ideas for any to be fully developed - what we get are still evocative and fascinating. I also thought Kat's storyline and resolution were fantastic. The sequence where she faces her fears is particularly effective, both visually and conceptually.

I really hate that the more grounded, socially meaningful elements were the ones that fell flat. I agree with the politics driving the movie's third main plot, but cutting the ideas and characters around them would have made for a better overall experience.

Still, it's absolutely worth a watch. If you like stop-motion, there's a lot to love here. I just wish there wasn't also so much more.


41. Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie

I watches this after seeing a few positive reactions online, and I did so having seen nothing in the series this is an extension of. Having grown up in the 80's, I'm of course familiar with the Turtles as a franchise, and I've seen various other incarnations over the years, but at this point I'm several iterations out of the loop. To put it another way, I watched this as a standalone movie.

And... it's kind of great? I won't deny there were moments of confusion at the realization Leonardo's character is now closer to what I associate with Michelangelo. Likewise, the cyber/techno/mystic stuff powering their weapons caught me off guard (I'm sure it makes sense in context). But the emotional journey the Turtles went through over the course of the film was well constructed, the action sequences conveyed tension and excitement, and the reimagined Krang were scary. It was, simply put, good.

That said, there was one weak link for me, and it was the comedy. I didn't think the jokes were bad, but on the whole I didn't find them particularly funny. But the action and drama more than made up the slack. Frankly, I think this is one of the better pieces of media in this franchise I've come across. Considering it's a direct to streaming movie spun off a cartoon series, that's kind of astonishing.

40. Moon Knight, Season 1

Moon Knight was a bit of a roller coaster. The stuff was really good - great even - but too often the rest dragged. Whenever things got weird - truly and utterly so, I mean - I found myself pulled into the world. But then, almost without fail, the series would feel the need to slow down and explain. It wanted to deliver the bizarre surreal moments, but it didn't want to commit to them.

But there's really no denying the joy those moments - and in some cases episodes - conveyed. Moon Knight gave us some genuinely bizarre comic book fun, which is why it's as high on this list as it is.

It's not higher, because it couldn't (or perhaps wouldn't) sustain that energy.

39. The Boys, Season 3

I'm honestly not sure where this belongs. Part of me thinks this show is among the best things on TV, while another part is getting tired of the way characters keep backsliding to justify additional seasons. Characters undergoing the same arcs - or at least variations of those arcs - from previous seasons is a pet peeve of mine when it comes to television, which is a problem, as it's damn near universal on this kind of show. Season 3 of The Boys is no exception, with Hughie and Butcher more or less repeating mistakes and relearning lessons. To be fair, I felt like we got some new material with several other characters (particularly Kimiko).

I think it's worth noting that by now The Boys has entirely crossed over from "superhero parody" to just "superhero," in terms of genre. It's still dark, satiric, and most of the powered characters are horrible people, but enough of the protagonists are powered to nullify the original premise of a world where superheroes don't exist. Annie and Kimiko are superheroes, and Maeve becomes one as she completes (?) her arc. This isn't a world where the hero/villain dynamic is inverted, but rather a world where the majority of superheroes are secretly villains and the true remaining heroes are trying to set things right. That's still a superhero world, albeit a dark one.

Well, darkish. The thing I've loved about The Boys from the start is that it's surprisingly idealistic, with far more heart than the premise and sick sense of humor imply. The series has always been a repudiation of toxic masculinity in all its forms, including several idolized by more mainstream entries in the genre. For all the exploding heads and one-liners, the show elevates healing, honesty, and compassion.

Well, most of the time. I think it falls flat in this respect around a few minor characters who remain one-note jokes and outlets for the audience's distain (looking at you, Deep). Thematically, having characters who are pathetic, ineffective, and beyond redemption undercuts the central idea of the series. It'll be interesting to see whether they take The Deep anywhere interesting in the future. If not, they probably should have killed him off midway through the first season.

I also love the show's willingness to take moral and even political stances. The series is criticized by rightwing fascists upset they're being compared to fascists: I appreciate that this isn't sugarcoated or hidden. The bad guys don't talk like cartoonish exaggerations you'd find on old Saturday morning cartoons: they talk like Fox News commentators and police. Kudos to the showrunners for not taking the easy way out.

The main reason this isn't higher is the aforementioned redundancy in the main characters' arcs. There's also probably a ceiling on this, as some of the humor doesn't align perfectly with my preferences. It's hard to get offended watching anything this tongue-in-cheek, but there were times I got annoyed with the show's attempts to push things too far (though that the disclaimer on the Herogasm episode was hilarious).

I still enjoyed this a great deal, and I plan to continue watching. It remains a very good show, though I question how long they'll be able to keep it going before the premise runs out of gas.

38. The Bad Guys

I'm almost inclined to bump this up a few more spots on the basis of the animation alone: it's a joy just to look at this thing. On top of that, there are some really good characters in this, and the central premise - a kid-friendly, Tarantino-esque crime thriller with the main characters played by iconic cartoon villains - is great.

The problem is they don't adhere quite as closely to that template as I'd like. I'm not talking about the redemption arc - this is a kid's movie, and I respect that comes with limitations. My issue is more with the shift in genre from heist caper to superhero flick. It's admittedly not an "objective" problem, but it undercuts a big part of what makes this really interesting.

What's closer to an objective issue is the movie's central conflict hinges on a very weak premise. The split between the film's two primary protagonists doesn't really work emotionally, so the movie fails to connect on that level.

I'll add that the movie's twists felt absurdly telegraphed, but - again - that's a "me" problem, not an objective issue in a movie intended for kids who've never seen a heist movie in their lives. That said, this is a "me" list.

It's an entertaining enough movie with great animation in the vein of The Peanuts Movie, Spider-Verse, and Mitchells Vs. The Machines: that counts for a lot. But as that list implies, stylized blends of 2D and 3D aren't unique anymore, so that only gets you so far. I had fun with this, but it's far from a great film.

37. Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, Season 1

This is 90% of the way there. The cast is fantastic, the concept of the show is phenomenal, the effects are great.... Like I said, 90%. The issue is structure: for whatever reason, this seems adamant about being more than an "episode of the week" series, and that's holding it back. I want to be clear, that issue doesn't prevent this from being a great show - it clears that bar with room to spare. But it's so close to nailing the Trek formula and taking its place among the best installments of the franchise, and it just doesn't quite get there.

I'm not sure this needs to be entirely episodic, but I'd prefer that to the approach we have. To be fair, it strikes the balance between episodic adventures and ongoing story far better than Discovery ever managed (at least through season 3 - I haven't seen the most recent season yet, which is why it's not on this list). But the ongoing story of Pike contending with the fate established in the Original Series episode The Menagerie and disclosed to him via time travel shenanigans in Discovery just isn't as interesting as the writers seem to believe. I thought the storyline around  M'Benga's daughter had more potential, but damned if I wasn't let down by the episode resolving that (at least for the time being: I assume she'll be back in some capacity later).

The good stuff is the episodic stuff. I loved the pilot, the Gorn episode, and delightfully wacky episode where Spock and T'Pring swap bodies. I feel like these kinds of things are more in line with the show's premise: of getting back to the franchise's roots by visiting "strange new worlds" serving as catalysts for science-fiction stories about culture and society. And yet how many new worlds did they actually visit this season? I only remember two or three.

I'm hoping the next season will deliver more of that. I'm not adverse to character arcs and frame stories, particularly if they're good, but I felt like a lot of what was present here was mainly interested in assuring fans this was a modern show with an interconnected plot. In short, the meta-plot is here for the sake of delivering a meta-plot, rather than because there's a worthwhile story to tell. This is why I drifted away from Discovery and Doctor Who: here's hoping Strange New Worlds either embraces the episodic format or finds something more compelling to drive its season arcs.

36. Star Wars: Tales of the Jedi, Season 1

I know conventional wisdom is that Star Wars has spent too much time focusing on Jedi, but the truth is I just absolutely love samurai space-wizards. In a lot of ways, this is closer to my ideal kind of Star Wars story: the only thing I'd like more is if they shifted the timeline ten thousand years one way or the other. Oh, and also if this were live-action. As technically impressive as the Lucasfilm house style animation is, it's started feeling a little bland to me, sort of like live-action lite.

But I love the simplicity of these stories and how effective the action is. The two duels we got (Ahsoka versus the Inquisitor and Dooku versus Yaddle) were fantastic. I'm also always grateful for Star Wars stories offering shades of grey to the typically black and white morality of the franchise, and we definitely got that while exploring the injustice and corruption at the heart of the Republic that inspired Dooku to turn on the Jedi. He chose wrong, but this offered sympathetic motivation for that choice, something Star Wars rarely provides.

35. What We Do in the Shadows, Season 4

Has any show ever had more success mining drama from farce? What We Do in the Shadows manages an amazing feat, telling what's ultimately a gentle story of broken people struggling to form familial connections in what's objectively an utterly preposterous situation. Even setting aside the fact most of them are vampires, the characters aren't remotely realistic, and yet the show manages to sell their pain. It's a masterclass in empathy.

This season, largely centered around Nadja opening a nightclub and Lazlo raising the next incarnation of Colin Robinson, makes for a solid chapter in the series, but it does feel like a bit of a bridge. The season ends with a sizable cliffhanger which might upend the status quo (or not: last season ended on an even bigger cliffhanger, which kind of fizzled out between seasons). Assuming this does change the trajectory of the show, I think the fourth season will be mostly forgotten, not because it's bad but simply because it's a transition. And that's okay: there's nothing wrong with pacing these things out, especially if it makes for a stronger series overall.

But that does hold this back a bit when viewed on its own. I'm excited for what's (possibly) coming next, and I enjoyed these episodes well enough, but this is my least favorite season to date. To be fair, that's more a reflection of how phenomenal seasons 1 through 3 are: season 4 is still great TV.

34. Night of the Coconut

Quite possibly the weirdest entry on this list, Night of the Coconut is a feature-length science-fiction/comedy film doubling as the season finale for Patrick Willem's ongoing series of YouTube video essays about movies. If you've seen any of those video essays, the concept of a fictional narrative continuation might make a little sense - Patrick has always approached his onscreen persona like a character - but the overall idea is still bonkers even before we get into the substance of the movie.

Fortunately, it's bonkers in a good way. A really good way, in fact: this thing is wildly inventive and extremely entertaining. That's not to say there aren't caveats, the most important being you really need to be familiar with Patrick's video essays to get a great deal of the jokes in this movie. The good news on that front is those video essays are absolutely wonderful, so if you're willing to put in the time, you're in for a real treat.

The other thing worth noting - and this probably goes without saying - is Night of the Coconut is made on a shoestring budget. They pull off some great shots in some impressive locations given what they spent, but you can still tell this doesn't have the resources of a major production. If you expect everything to look like it costs tens of millions of dollars, this might not impress you.

Honestly, though, it still might. This is a great deal of fun for fans of Willems's web series. I really enjoyed it.

33. The Batman

This is a gorgeous movie that finally gives us a great interpretation of both Batman and Gotham at the same time, something no previous live-action film has pulled off (exempting the Adam West movie). Throw in an operatic tone and great casting: this is basically my wish list for a Batman movie.

So why isn't this higher? There are several factors, but the largest is the writing. I don't think the script is bad, but it fails to establish and develop the relationships that would have taken this from a good movie to a great film.

Alternatively, if the action had felt truly inspired or original, I think this would have moved way up my list, even if the script was unchanged. As it is, this is still a welcome change of pace for the franchise. I really enjoyed it and can't wait for more. But as good as it was, it's a long way from my favorite piece of media for the year.  

32. Everything Everywhere All At Once

I know, I know - this deserves to be higher. But this list is dictated by my personal taste, not quality, and while I respect family drama, it doesn't appeal to me the way other genres do. That said, it's refreshing to see a movie actually address this subject matter from the perspective of an immigrant family, touching on real emotion in unreal situations. It explores its main character's relationships in ways that are funny and poignant at the same time: the lead character's relationship with her husband is beautiful, as are her troubled relationships with her father and daughter. This is a great movie - I just wish this genre connected with me more.


31. Ms. Marvel, Season 1

This is hard to rank, because it's a very uneven series. The first and last episode were among my favorite pieces of entertainment of the year. When this focused on Kamala, her friends, her family, and her community, it was Marvel at its best: quirky, funny, touching, and just delightful.

It's the other stuff that holds it back, namely the complex lore, the elaborate mystery concerning alternate dimensions, and the storyline in which the entire world is at risk. Considering the fate-of-the-world stuff is resolved in the second to last episode, while the last pivots back to grounded threats and more relatable stakes, I'm going to go out on a limb and guess the boring stuff was likely studio mandated.

I don't want to imply the middle episodes were bad - they were still solid, with some great moments and characters. But if this had maintained the quality and fun of the first and last episodes throughout, it'd be in my top 10.

30. Archer, Season 13

What's there to say about Archer? It's almost certainly the funniest thing I watched this year and almost every other year it's been on the air. It's cleverly written, with characters you should hate but can't help but find yourself caring about despite their narcissism and lack of awareness. It balances the fun of heists and spies while being an over-the-top parody of those genres, and it's managed to do so for 13 seasons now. It's just great.

I don't really think this has many flaws in the conventional sense, but the reason I'm not placing this higher is the experience is fleeting. Despite some legitimately great writing around character arcs and emotional growth, what stays with you are the punchlines. That's by design, and it's the right choice for this series (as evidenced by the fact we're on season 13), but it does kind of place a ceiling on how high this can climb.

That ceiling was still supposed to be five or six spots lower, mind you - this fun enough to break through (insert "Danger Zone" joke here).

29. The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special

Wonderful in its simplicity, the Guardians Holiday special commits to being, quite simply, that: an hour-long Christmas special set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There are no galactic threats, supervillains, or really any serious danger. It's a short story about these characters interacting (in some cases badly) with the holidays. And it's simply wonderful.

A couple song choices felt uncharacteristically lazy to me (Gunn's usually so good at that), but as a whole he just knocks it out of the park. I enjoyed this a great deal, and the only reason it's not higher is this has been a really good year.

28. Werewolf by Night

I fully acknowledge this is at an unfair advantage. When I set out to include TV on this list, I was thinking in terms of TV series, which are longer and paced slower than movies. Werewolf by Night is a special: at less than an hour total, it doesn't have to sustain its tone or energy as long. There are episodes of shows I've ranked below this that I absolutely enjoyed better than Werewolf by Night, but the series on average fell behind.

Is that fair? No. Does it matter? Also no. This is subjective, so if shorter sometimes works better, the ranking can reflect it. Also, there's no prize or anything, so who cares one way or the other?

I do think this deserves some credit for pushing the envelope a bit. Disney+ is clearly experimenting with as many different permutations of episode length, number of installments, and tones as they can think of. After the Netflix Marvel shows wore out their welcome trying to copy the same old template, it's refreshing to see this kind of variety.

And this one's about as far outside of the box as they come, stylized after classic monster movies, with more violence and gore than I ever expected from the "family friendly" streamer. And on top of everything else, it's still loads of fun.

I'd love to see more from these characters and this side of Marvel Universe, but even more so I want to see more one-offs. I'd love an anthology showcasing obscure (or even not-so-obscure) Marvel characters teaming up and going on weird adventures.

Despite my general optimism about the MCU, the truth is a lot of their recent movies and shows - including ones I generally like - make me wish there was a little less. Yeah, I'm getting a little tired. But this one made me want more. That counts for a lot.

27. Lost Ollie

There's a lot to appreciate about Lost Ollie, a Netflix miniseries about a lost toy trying to sift through his own fragmented memories and navigate a hostile world to return to the child he loves. I'll start with something that seems trivial but might be the show's secret weapon: its brevity. It's only four episodes long, each clocking in forty-five minutes, give or take, so we're really talking about a cumulative runtime on par with with a long movie. But unlike some streaming miniseries, this isn't just a movie carved into chunks: it actually bothers to use the format it's presented in to structure the story. The individual episodes really are chapters in the longer tale, permitting the show time to explore side characters and ideas that wouldn't work in a film.

That's not even touching on the tone, which goes to some dark places. The turns the story takes are never gratuitous - everything here is present for a reason - but it doesn't pull its punches, either. This thing's dark. When people point to movies like Secret of N.I.M.H. or Watership Down and say they don't make them like that anymore... well, turns out they do.

On a technical level, this is a marvel, as well. At least to my eye, the light values looked spot-on, to the point it was easy to forget several main characters were computer generated. This is nothing we haven't seen in movies, but it's rare to see a television show pull it off this flawlessly. 

I struggled with just where I wanted to place this. Part of me wanted to push it even higher - I think there's a case to be made it's about as close to flawless as these things get. But there were a few minor pacing issues (particularly in the first episode) that held this back a bit. On top of that, while this might deserve to be loved more, it wasn't quite a perfect fit for my own genre preferences. Again, subjective placement; subjective list. But make no mistake: this is a fantastic fantasy drama. If you missed it last summer, it's absolutely worth checking out.

26. Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio

My assumptions going into this were that it would be a relatively straightforward adaptation of Pinocchio that looked at felt like a Guillermo del Toro movie, and it turns out I drastically underestimated how much of del Toro would make it into the finished project. First, it's worth noting this borrows its overall structure from the Disney classic: the serial it's based on includes numerous stories, most of which aren't in the major adaptations. Like the Disney movie, this also keeps the cricket alive for Pinocchio's adventure, though it changes the character and sends him with Geppetto for the second half of the story. It's also worth noting that while most of the story beats are retained, everything is heavily transformed. Fairies become nightmarish spectral entities, the carnival is now a fascist training camp, most of the talking animals are fascists... there's a lot of fascism in this version.

Which brings me to one aspect that kind of held this back for me. One of the movie's central metaphors was a comparison between fairytale rules and fascist authoritarianism. The idea and execution are handled well here, but he did the exact same thing in Pan's Labyrinth. There's nothing wrong with that, mind you: there's no law that says you can't explore ideas and themes multiple times, but seeing the same trick made parts feel like a repeat and pulled me out of the movie.

That said, the ending of this pays off those themes even better than his earlier work. It also subverts expectations you have for this story and makes the movie extremely relevant to contemporary rights struggles and almost certainly applicable to future ones.

Oh, and as a side note I should probably mention this is one of the best looking animated movies of the year, and the "one of" qualifier is only necessary because this has been a fantastic year for animation. Definitely worth checking out if you haven't already done so.

25. Thor: Love and Thunder

I know this was divisive, but I absolutely loved Love and Thunder. And, just for context, I'll mention I wasn't a huge fan of Ragnarok. Stylistically, I felt like Love and Thunder did a better job shuffling the various tones and ideas into a more compelling story. It's ultimately silly but also bittersweet and deeply sad in a way that feels thoughtful. I found the ending genuinely moving in a way only a few of these movies have managed to pull off.

I also really liked how this looked. Sequences truly felt as though they were set on different worlds or even different universes. Styles changes completely from scene to scene, giving each fight a decidedly unique feel. Some were silly, while others were breathtaking. The variety worked for me here.  

Sure, if you want to go searching for plot holes, this movie has plenty to find. But plot holes are generally a side-effect of fast-paced storytelling. Dock them points if you like, but I'd rather shrug off how characters suddenly have access to teleportation or whatever than deal with a five minute explanation that leads nowhere.

24. Our Flag Means Death, Season 1

A large aspect of what makes this show work as well as it does comes from the decision to conceal critical aspects of both its genre and its premise in ads. I have no idea whether this was done as an intricate strategy or if HBO Max lacked faith a romantic comedy centered around gay pirates would attract viewers and subscriptions. Whatever the rationale, it made the experience of discovering the show all the more delightful.

Throw in an extremely impressive cast that includes a number of top-tier comedic actors, and you've got something special. So special, in fact, I was tempted to bump it higher on this list.

Obviously, there's "but" coming.

The area the show comes up short is in the season finale. I understand the temptation to end these on cliffhangers, but I think it's a mistake here. Honestly, I think it might generally be a mistake to end almost any modern streaming serialized show without at least some sense of closure. The story doesn't need to be "over," but I feel like it should feel more like the end of an arc than the beginning, particularly since there's no guarantee the next arc will ever materialize.

It's not the biggest issue in the world, but it does factor into my overall impression of the show, and I sincerely doubt I'm alone here. Regardless, the season was still funny and touching, even if the last few minutes were a tad frustrating.

23. Peacemaker, Season 1

I hope to God this is the future of television.

Not necessarily the R-rating (though it certainly worked here), but the simple fact the series was in the hands of a talented filmmaker who was given the resources and time to make something exceptional. I feel like we were conditioned for decades to accept the TV quality could never be in the same ballpark as a movie. And it turns out that isn't true.

The series is funny, touching, and exciting, with fantastic fight scenes and great character moments. Every performance is great - I honestly don't feel like I can pick standouts, because no one comes up short.

The closest I can come to a complaint is that I felt like the last episode bit off a little more than it could chew, and the big fight felt a little small. It was a rare moment when this reminded me it was being made in a TV budget and schedule. But even that was more than mitigated by focusing on character rather than spectacle. And also because the "cow" looked like something you'd see in a Guardians of the Galaxy movie.

This show delivered and proved superhero television doesn't need to feel like a cheep knockoff of the movies.

22. Weird: The Al Yankovic Story

The main joke in Weird, of course, is that it plays out like an actual biopic (at least for the most part). There are plenty of silly side-jokes and absurd moments, but Radcliffe plays Yankovic as a tormented artist, rather than a cartoonish joke. It essentially shifts the punchline from individual scenes to the film as a whole. It's all silly, of course, but it's surprisingly intelligent at the same, asking the audience to consider how its relationship with reality mirrors that of the genre its parodying.

I had a lot of fun with this one. Granted, I've got a soft spot for Yankovic. I'm part of the generation that grew up listening to his music as it was released, so this is all nostalgia for me (despite being entirely fictitious). I can't imagine this plays well to people who aren't fans, but for those who are... it's absolutely wonderful.

21. Station Eleven

Most of Station Eleven aired in 2021, but the last few episodes landed early in 2022, so this qualifies for the list.

To be honest, I'm still working through my feelings towards this. On one hand, it was somewhat frustrating in its refusal to commit to a subgenre and tone. On the other... I'm pretty sure that was intentional. It outright refused to give us the ending we expected, as if mocking us for believing humans could ultimately be as simple and one-dimensional as cliché heroes and villains who resolve their differences through acts of violence. And if we consider a nonviolent resolution unsatisfying, what's that say about us?

Or me. I'm not certain. I'm not even certain I consider the ending unsatisfying, so much as surprising. And while I was watching, I remember feeling fascinated and entertained. There's a whimsy to Station Eleven that's admirable.

But at times it overstays its welcome. It feels like the show is trying to be too clever in its fixation on theme over plot. I found the experience enjoyable enough, but I was left wanting a bit more than I got. 

That said, the longer I sit with this, the higher my opinion creeps. I'm adding this paragraph right before publishing, as it jumps another four or five spaces, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if I look back on this and wonder why it isn't higher still. This is a series that sticks with you.

20. Everything Everywhere All At Once

It's exciting to see comedy making a comeback. The genre's been more or less dead for ages, but Everything Everywhere All At Once brings it back, front and center. And make no mistake, this film is hilarious, thanks to one of the funniest scripts in ages, an absolutely phenomenal cast, and editing that puts virtually every other film released this year to shame. This film is woven together with an eye towards comic timing that's incredible to behold.

And the raccoon gag alone... I mean, I'm speechless. 

I'm truly in awe of what they accomplished here. But as much as I love comedy, it's not quite my favorite genre, which is why I can't rank this any higher.

19. The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent

The majority of these don't work. I'm referring of course to the micro-genre of comedies where the lead character is an actor playing a fictionalized, exaggerated version of themself, in the vein of Being John Malkovich (possibly one of all my all-time top 10 favorite movies, depending on the time of day and weather). Maybe Malkovich set the bar too high: movies like Cold Souls and The Congress tried recreating the dark tone and cerebral premise, and it never seems to work (at least not for me).

But I wasn't reminded of any of those while watching The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (aside from one absolutely phenomenal deleted sequence that is a little like the inner-worldly chase sequence in the third act of Malkovich). If anything, the movie feels more like Galaxy Quest, of all things. The genre is different, obviously, as this is a comedic homage to Cage's career, as opposed to sci-fi, but the relationship between the fictional Cage and his real-life counterpart is closer to that between Jason Nesmith and William Shatner than any of the movies mentioned above. His arc is certainly closer.

Which is a way of saying Cage isn't just a punchline of point or point-of-view here: he's the protagonist. And the movie's runtime isn't solely devoted to ironically making fun of its own concept (though there's plenty of that). Story, character, and relationships are the driving forces here - the fact Cage is playing himself (as well as several characters from his past) is just facilitating those elements. To put it another way, this same movie could have been made with Cage playing an actor with a fictional name, the references could have been tweaked, and the movie would have been just as good and just as effective (though maybe not quite as much fun).

Because - with apologies for buying the lead here - The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is an absolute blast. Even if you're not familiar enough with Cage's filmography to catch all the references (I'm sure I missed a bunch), this works as a straightforward buddy comedy. Pascal and Cage are wonderful here: it's genuinely delightful seeing them bond on screen. And that's setting aside this movie's value as a celebration of Cage's career, as well as the film's meditations on the Hollywood machine. Is it borrowing from Adaptation in that respect? A bit, though - for my money, at least - I think Unbearable offers a more satisfying exploration of that idea by not sacrificing the surface level story in service of conceptual themes (I still love you, Adaptation).

The short of all that is this one may be clever, but most movies doing this sort of thing are clever. What sets this apart is it manages to be a fun, light-hearted comedy at the same time. Definitely worth seeing if you haven't already. And once you're done watching, check out the deleted scenes, because the one I mentioned above is awesome.

18. Obi-Wan Kenobi

Endings count for a lot. I think that's something people making movies understand, while those making TV shows... not so much. To be fair, television show endings didn't used to be quite as important, largely because for the bulk of their existence, the goal was to never end. But that's changed with the advent of streaming, where the structural lines between movies and shows have become blurred. I think some of the studios have been quicker to figure this out. Disney has been frustratingly slow. Possibly setting aside the first season of The Mandalorian, every live action Marvel and Star Wars season before Kenobi kind of fell flat in the last episode. That's not to say all the last episodes have been bad, but they've consistently been among the least satisfying of their respective seasons, and as a result you're left feeling let down. Underwhelmed. Disappointed.

The finale of Obi-Wan Kenobi is the opposite. It wraps up its main arcs in ways that make the preceding series, the Star Wars prequel trilogy, and - hell - even the original films better in retrospect. It delivers some emotional punches you feel.

Sure, I could nitpick a few choices that bugged me (the Qui-Gon thing felt extraneous), but overall this is damn near the best version of this we could have hoped for. I enjoyed this throughout, and the ending gave it the resonance needed to make it feel like something bigger than just another generic franchise installment.

17. Everything Everywhere All At Once

How often does a low-budget science-fiction film appear and outshine everything the big studios are doing? I'm not just talking about the ideas or dialogue: this is visually more interesting than movies with budgets ten times as high. It's incredible to behold, and yet it never allows what you're seeing to overshadowing what you're thinking about or feeling. The effects weave into the story, the characters, and the ideas. This is what science-fiction should be. I loved it.

16. Andor, Season 1

Periodic reminder this list is based on preference, not quality, which is the one and only reason this isn't significantly higher. Andor was, by any metric I can imagine, phenomenal. It's the most mature, thoughtful incarnation of Star Wars we've gotten ever. It's great storytelling, and there damn well better be more on the way.

But here's the thing: part of its brilliance is tied in the decision to drop the space wizards with laser swords, dial back the silly aliens, and deliver a show with a serious tone. I like gritty, realistic science-fiction, but what I love is space fantasy. Hell, I almost put Obi-Wan ahead of this for that reason, despite this being a far superior show. But, I mean, this was so much better (and Obi-Wan was already good).

This is the sort of quality television creators should reach for. I'll watch as many seasons of Andor as they're willing to give me and be grateful. But if they ever give me a live-action fantasy about Jedi this good, you might just see a TV show take the top spot.

15. The Banshees of Inisherin

It's almost too tempting to focus on the aspects of Martin McDonagh's movies that carry over from his background as a playwright - his grasp of character is incredible, and I'm not sure anyone working in film can match his dialogue - but while watching The Banshees of Inisherin I found myself equally drawn to the subtlety of facial expressions, the movements of animals, and the evocative landscapes. There are plenty of classical Hollywood productions that really feel like plays on film, including some absolute masterpieces. But McDonagh isn't just doing that: he's taking the best aspects of stage plays and combining those with everything movies bring to the table.

I should note I've yet to see a film from McDonagh I didn't love (I know Seven Psychopaths is widely regarded as a misstep, but I found it delightful). Banshees of Inisherin is no exception. In Bruges remains my favorite of his movies (it appeals to my sensibilities), though part of me thinks Inisherin is probably the better work. Given how good In Bruges already was, that's saying a great deal.

14. Russian Doll, Season 2

It must be hard making a sequel season for something like Russian Doll. While everything about the first season was phenomenal by any measure, it was also one of those pieces of media you watch and wonder where the hell it came from. A lot of the appeal was how fresh and unexpected it felt, a smart genre show that seemed uninterested in the usual conventions. It took old tropes in new directions, which transformed something already great into a work of art that felt revolutionary.

But that's a double-edged sword, because the very nature of a sequel requires it to retread its own steps. It literally can't be as fresh a second time. But it turns out it can still be great. And, more impressively, it proves you can make a logical follow-up that doesn't feel like a rehash. The second season retains its leads and the broader genre elements, but it takes them in very different directions. The decision to stick with time travel but abandon the Groundhog Day-style loop was a good one: it gave the writers room to explore while still feeling like a continuation.

If the season has a flaw, it's the same as the one in the first season: the ending sacrifices logic for emotional impression. And if you're thinking that hardly sounds like a flaw at all, well... I'm right there with you (this paragraph starts with the word, "if" for a reason). It's difficult to do something new with time travel (believe me, I know), and I admire them for leaning more towards fairytale than traditional science-fiction. But this list isn't ranked by admiration, and I found myself feeling the tiniest bit let down by the ending.

To be clear, this is a reaction, not a criticism. I think this was absolutely the right choice for the show. Hell, I'm not even able to offer some sort of "here's the ending I wanted" blueprint. I'm not sure what would have completely satisfied me. Maybe nothing could have.

And all this is just a longwinded explanation for why one of the best acted, best written genre shows ever made is only near the top of my list for the year. I still loved this thing.

13. Prey

Back in the '90s, Dark Horse Comics produced a ton of comics based on popular movie franchises. The three most prolific - or at least the three I recall seeing most often - were Alien, Star Wars, and Predator. I actually read more from the first two properties, but my understanding is the quality and approach were largely consistent. While there were certainly arcs that attempted to build out lore or threaten the galaxy or whatever, the best were contained adventures that set out to tell a contained, intelligent story using elements from the source material.

Thus felt like the cinematic version of one of those, and it was incredibly refreshing. We didn't learn about the Predator's religion or political faction or any of the other nonsense that dragged down the last installment. And the Predator wasn't threatening the world the main character inhabited (how could it - we know her world is already doomed). It's ultimately a story about a woman setting out to prove herself a warrior and coming face to face with a monster. Also, there's a Predator.

I love the simplicity. I also love that the Comanche are depicted realistically, while the white traders are essentially two-dimensional savages incapable of introspection or reason, flipping the dynamic from traditional westerns.

Likewise, the action is fantastic, the design for the new Predator is a series best, and the cast is phenomenal. Do I wish the CG was a little better? Sure. The CG animals look rushed to me: a little more time and money would almost certainly have fixed that. But it's a trivial matter in a great movie.

12. Glass Onion

All right. This one's new, so *spoilers* or whatever.

I feel like Rian Johnson is playing a game with us. Knives Out subverted our expectations around who the main character would be and whether the story being told was a mystery or suspense. We all knew Glass Onion might do the same thing. Or not. Maybe it would just be a conventional murder mystery.

And clearly Rian Johnson knew that we knew. So he dangled the possibility we were watching a straightforward mystery this time in front of us. Then, when he pulled that back around the halfway point, he dared us to start second-guessing him. And I briefly got the better of him! I figured out, well... I don't want to say what I figured out in case someone ignored the spoiler warning, but I picked up on something important.

But maybe Rian wanted me to, because there were a bunch of twists waiting in the wings, and by the time I realized I was watching a stealth revenge flick concealed within layers of murder mysteries, I wasn't sure how he he'd pulled off that slight-of-hand. I'm still not.

These movies are kind of zany. They're absurd and surprisingly upbeat, and the politics behind them somehow make them delightful instead of depressing.

I can't wait to watch whatever Johnson's got planned for the third installment of this franchise.

11. Derry Girls, Season 3

I'm including the series finale, "The Agreement," here, despite it being ambiguously a separate special that aired directly after the season as a cap to the show in its entirety. And here's the thing: if I weren't including it, this would jump up a few spaces.

The Agreement isn't at all bad: quite the contrary, when taken on its own merits. I'm sure it's even better if you lived in Ireland in 1998. But as a fan of the show, it left me feeling cheated in the exact same way I felt a bit let down after watching the Firefly sequel, Serenity. Both featured time jumps and felt like conclusions to seasons we hadn't gotten, rather than what had actually been shown to us. Characters had developed in the intervening time and seemingly undergone significant arcs.

The finale showed us the characters had grown into intelligent adults, ready to think about politics and the world through a mature lens. They still retained their impetuous energy, propensity for mischief, and self-centered inclinations, but they'd grown beyond the inability to think beyond that. I'd have liked to see that happen rather than skipping right to the result.

I'd also have liked some resolution to the arcs started in this season. Erin and James's relationship and Michelle's insecurity around it were dropped entirely. The episode before the finale seemingly sets up multiple storylines for Clare, but these evaporate in the time-jump and she's reduced to a minor character in the finale.

I was invested in all that. The series pulled off a remarkable feat in setting up shallow, self-centered leads then, without sacrificing that premise, making them sympathetic by building out their relationships in ways they themselves don't understand. It's also one of the funniest shows I've seen in years, and this season contains one of the best episodes in the series (see my list of favorite episodes below). I loved it.

I just wish we'd gotten a fourth season between the penultimate episode and The Agreement. There was a lot left to do and a lot more worth setting up.


10. The House

This stop motion anthology is weird, quirky, and legitimately creepy. All three stories were fantastic, though I do think it would have benefited from a either tying them together or having the second and third feel a bit more distinct. That's splitting hairs, though - I loved this thing, start to finish. If Netflix wants to keep paying for tonally dark animated pieces that actually feel artistic, I'm more than happy to keep watching.

9. Spirited

It's tragic that the business end of the musical genre seems to crashing and burning at the same time there's an artistic Renaissance in the genre. Last year there was In the Heights and West Side Story, both amazing films, and both box office failures. I'm not sure if Spirited was sent direct-to-streaming (no, I don't count limited runs) as a result, but it sure feels like it. And it also feels absurd. This was fantastic: if I were at a place in my life where going to theaters was practical, this is the kind of movie I'd want to see. Big, bombastic, fun... it would have been been amazing on the big screen.

On the small screen, however... actually, it's still pretty damn amazing. The songs are great, the jokes land, the cast is phenomenal... this is great.

Of course, I'm also watching this as a Christmas junkie. And, even more specifically, a Christmas Carol one this year. This was approximately the fiftieth adaptation (or quasi-adaptation) I watched in 2022, so when I say it's the most fun I've seen, that means something. "Most fun" isn't the same as best, mind you (that's still the 1935), but this pulls off comedy, spectacle, and character at the same time. A lot of recent versions have attempted that trifecta, none have come close. Spirited, on the other hand, makes it look easy. 

8. The Princess

I've seen people complain The Princess doesn't have enough of a story - personally, I think it's got too much. This movie would seriously have had a shot at the top of the list if it weren't for the dull backstory and the resolution in which she [checks notes] wins the approval of the patriarchy (for fuck's sake, Hollywood, hire an actual feminist to proof your feminist action movie scripts, and this wouldn't happen). And, yes, I know without the backstory you'd have legions of men lining up to prove they don't know what the phrase "Mary Sue" actually means, but fuck 'em. The Princess is a ridiculous power fantasy, and pausing the fun to assure us the protagonist was adequately trained to explain her abilities doesn't help anyone.

But when the movie gets into its rhythm, the volume's cranked up to the eleventh century. It's a comically absurd and immensely satisfying experience. The iconography of seeing a storybook princess turn into a gruff, pissed-off scrapper in the vein of Wolverine is delightful. The script to The Princess may be idiotic, but the premise - and more important the way that premise is communicated visually - is nothing short of brilliant. Women almost never get to play this kind of fighter. In the rare case when they're cast as action leads, they're almost always presented as elegant and graceful, so seeing an actress turning pain into anger and relishing brutality - all while ostensibly in the role of the literal archetype for feminine refinement - carries a great deal of meaning (again, assuming you can look past the script).

Also, this is likely a better Dungeons & Dragons movie than the upcoming Dungeons & Dragons movie will be. Just saying.

7. Only Murders in the Building, Season 2

There's something hauntingly effective about this show. Tonally, it whips back and forth between farce and existential drama, but it does so without ever feeling jarring or forced. It's kind of miraculous to watch: I almost wish I was less invested, so I could study the technique.

With one key exception, I liked season two even more than season one, and that's saying something: I absolutely loved season one. That exception, sadly, is the story's culmination. While still great, the actual resolution wasn't shocking or emotionally impactful this time. To be clear, I'm not saying it has to be: they went for something sillier in the finale, and peppered their emotional gut punches throughout instead. Nothing inherently wrong with leaving the audience smiling, but it's the only reason this is *near* the top of this list, rather than *at* the top.

I'm of course really looking forward to season three. The series remains among my favorite shows in the middle of what may be the best era in the medium's history. Just a phenomenal blend of comedy, mystery, and drama.

6. She-Hulk: Attorney at Law, Season 1

On one level, this should have been a 26 episode season. To really pull off the effect they were going for, we needed more courtroom-centered episodes, more time with Jen's character arc, and more of whatever else they wanted to pour into this.

But of course that would have been impossible. This must have been absurdly expensive to produce as it was, to say nothing of the time required to prep, stage, and shoot a series where the main character is nine feet tall and green. Frankly, it's incredible this got made at all. And another miracle it was great.

And it was absolutely great. It captured aspects of the comics better than I could have hoped. Not just She-Hulk comics, either - though it was more or less a perfect encapsulation of those - this brought in tones and ideas that have until now been absent from the MCU. This establishes a world where the spectacular and absurd really is becoming mundane. That's funny, but it's also a basis for kinds of stories they haven't been able to tell up until now. We've never really seen street-level villains like Man-Bull before. For everything Marvel's done right, the MCU has tended to err on the side of realism. But this changes that, and it is incredibly refreshing.

And that's not even touching on the ending. Or Madisynn, for that matter. Start to finish, this show was delightful. I want more.

5. RRR

I really need to see more Indian movies. RRR was just incredible to behold, a gorgeous unironic period action movie unfettered by realism or other limitations holding American productions back. The fight sequences were inventive, funny, and exhilarating on a level that puts our film industry to shame. Same goes for the musical numbers: I absolutely loved this.

In fact, I loved it so much, the main thing I feel I need to explain is why this isn't in the top spot. Because part of me thinks it should be.

What holds it back is the turn its politics seemed to take in the last few minutes of the film. I say "seemed to take" because I want to acknowledge this is all based on my reading. I've done a little research to confirm I'm not entirely off-base on what I'm about to say, but I don't want anyone to think I'm claiming to be an expert on Indian culture, history, or politics.

After rightly focusing on the evils of imperialism and colonialism, the movie took a turn towards nationalism. That's not entirely unexpected, given the history being referenced, but the extent and tone of that shift left me uncomfortable. The line between national pride and extreme right-wing nationalism (or even fascism) is blurry.

Without doing far more research than I have time to get involved in, I can't really discuss whether this was justified in context, nor can I weigh in on other cultural controversies the movie is being criticized for. However, from a subjective point-of-view, I can say elements, particularly in the closing musical number, tempered an otherwise universally positive reaction.

4. The Northman

Deconstructed revenge flicks aren't a new concept, but as a rule of thumb there's a price. By their nature, if you're challenging the genre itself, you're sacrificing the visceral thrill these movies offer. You can't very well create a movie critical of the genre that maintains the same levels of energy and excitement.

Only... The Northman does. By creating a truly immersive experience, it pulls you into the world and worldview of the main character. You're treated to an experience reminiscent of Conan: The Barbarian in all its glory. It's thrilling and engaging and wonderful.

But not stupid. The movie understands how toxic that worldview is, and it's not shy about explaining that. The hero isn't a hero, his quest is clearly not righteous, and the things he does in the name of that quest are objectively awful.

You're pulled in two different directions throughout the movie, and by rights one should give, yet neither ever does. 

3. Wednesday, Season 1

This almost took the top spot. At the end of episode 7, I really thought it was going to. Because I love this show. I just absolutely, completely love it. Until the last episode, that is.

The season finale isn't even bad. It's grandiose, with great effects, solid fights, and some wonderful moments. But it's also... well... it's all very generic fantasy adventure. Because, once again, we're let down by the writers or producers scared they won't be taken seriously if the lead lacks an arc. If she doesn't display weakness. If she doesn't grow and change as a person.

I know, I know. Conventional wisdom holds the best stories adhere to this formula. And to a degree, that's generally been true for much of cinema and television. But the sheer volume of shows - genre shows, in particular - conforming to this template has rendered the Hero's Journey trite. And, while I could see them setting up Wednesday's transformation throughout, I also saw them pushing back on convention.

For the majority of the show, Wednesday was the anthesis of the standard heroine. While she never came close to fulfilling the actual definition of a "Mary Sue," she seemed to defiantly embody the now common use of the term... and it was glorious. Every time she unveiled a new skill and seemed invincible was a delight. For seven episodes, she was fearless, and I've never been happier. It was an unapologetic power fantasy, and I rejoiced in it.

Then, at the very end, it offered a bit of an apology. She showed fear. Her enemies drew blood. She made obvious mistakes and took them to heart. Then it all concluded in a big, typical fight against the bad guy. A parody of Harry Potter turned into Harry Potter for the final act. And it was still solid, particularly for television.

But until that moment, it was so much more. 

2. Turning Red

This is my favorite Pixar movie since at least Toy Story 4, and even then it's close. More importantly, Turning Red represents the sort of original, out-of-the-box creative thinking the studio was in danger of replacing with house-styles and script formulas. You can still see Pixar's fingerprints on this, but it feels new and exciting in a way Pixar movies haven't in a while.

It's also just really damn good. The situation is funny, the characters are relatable, and the world is gorgeous to look at. And, of course, the kaiju in the third act is just delightful. I'm not certain what Domee Shi does next, but I can't wait to find out.

1. Everything Everywhere All At Once

I don't usually rate martial arts films this high, but... damn. DAMN. This thing is incredible. The imagination alone in the fights rivals the best sequences in action. Every fight is incredible to behold, and yet each is unique and fascinating. During one sequence, I was reminded of the bar stool fight in World's End. Others made me think of Kung Fu Hustle. And still others were borderline indescribable. And yet every one serves the story and characters, a feat which... huh. I suddenly had a sense of deja vu. Weird.

At any rate, this action film was really special. The fights were memorable and engrossing. They were funny without sacrificing excitement. I have no idea what the legacy of Everything Everywhere At Once will be, if this will be a turning point that future movies emulate or if it'll be a unique movie held up as the only example of its kind. Regardless, watching was an absolutely incredible experience. 

Closing Thoughts

With apologies to anyone confused, I won't be using this space to explain why this list is three items longer than it technically should be. I will, however, offer some thoughts on the process of making this list and why I think the exercise has at least a little value.

Ranking pieces of entertainment - or really any art - is always awkward, regardless of how the list is framed. If you're trying to quantify quality, you're going to run into issues around whether the ideal should be perfection or difficulty, because these are opposing forces. The simpler the goal, the easier it is to approach flawlessness, so you're always going to find yourself balancing the two. I'm of course ranking based on preference, but even within a subjective context this isn't always clear. Am I prioritizing my enjoyment, the degree to which I was emotionally invested, or my intellectual engagement? Am I focusing on my reaction to the most impactful moments of a piece of media, some sort of average of the whole, or am I conversely focusing on the low points and favoring shows or movies that have the fewest? These questions are difficult enough to navigate when looking solely at films, but tossing television shows into the mix makes it all the more complicated.

I hope I'm not disappointing anyone by admitting I don't have simple answers to any of those questions. There's no universal rubric I used, but I spent a great deal of time considering these shows and movies from the various perspectives suggested by these approaches. And to me that's a big part of the value of going through all this: it forces me to consider the media I'm consuming from different angles.

For anyone reading (is anyone still reading this?) I assume the value of this article more boils down to seeing how your favorites fared on my list (and presumably other lists as well), and maybe using it to find movies and TV shows you might have missed. That's certainly why I look at various critics' lists every year.

If anyone made it to the end of all that, I hope you found a few to add to your list, or at the very least found the experience amusing in some way.