There’s never a bad time to talk movies.
We’ve reached the halfway point in the year - a perfect opportunity to pick our favourite and least favourite flicks.
The first part shouldn’t be difficult. Of the seven highest grossing movies, only one - the umpteenth Pirates of the Caribbean installment - has been poorly reviewed.
Beauty and the Beast and The Fate of the Furious have both passed the holy billion US dollar check mark, Wonder Woman is the most financially successful film directed by a woman, and there's Get Out, an independent gem that’s impossible not to love.
We also preview what the next six months have in store.
“I feel like I haven’t seen any great movies in awhile.”
“There was Get Out and Wonder Woman. What about Logan?”
“Yeah, but none of those films were, like, great.”
That was essentially the internal dialogue I had while writing this. I turn 28 in a couple of weeks and I swear I sound more like my grumpy dad every day.
The January-to-June dirge is as bad as ever. The best trendy independent directors like Barry Jenkins save their efforts for the end-of-year peak Oscars-buzz. In fact, I’d say the last undisputed early-year home run was Brooklyn, released in January, 2015, still in the nick of time for awards season.
It’s a difficult point to argue considering so many of the year’s biggest blockbusters have been critically acclaimed, but none of those money-spinners are original ideas. I’m sick of reboots, sequels and I’ve got peak-comic book movie fatigue. Everyone wants to see Spider-Man: Homecoming and I can’t understand why.
Now, Despicable Me 3 I liked, but that’s because I’m one of the only adults on the planet who loves minions. More Gru, pls. It doesn’t make my top five, though. As a modern journalist, I have to take lists seriously.
The Lost City of Z isn’t technically out yet in New Zealand, so I should really pretend I haven’t seen it. But if I had, I might say it’s a near-perfect tale of adventure and obsession that lingers well after first viewing. It’s my top pick. Robert Pattinson, who I expect to impress in Good Time - a film fest must-see - really delivers and is quietly building one of Hollywood’s most interesting résumés. As jungle movies go, it’s somewhere between Fitzcarraldo and Apocalypse Now on the awesomeness scale.
Get Out, which transcends a revived horror genre in the same way The Witch did last year, is my number two. It’s not particularly frightening (it doesn’t help I’m a white, middle-class man), but it is damn clever and entertaining. Ben Wheatley’s follow-up to the confused High Rise, Free Fire, is my third choice. It’s more fun than any human can expect to have watching a movie. It’s Resevoir Dogs-lite.
But beyond my top three, it was a major struggle to find movies I really liked. It was cool how everyone in T2 Trainspotting is still a loser, and are still losers at the end, except the one character you least expect to be a loser. Anne Hathaway’s latest, Colossal, is definitely worth checking out. She’s a drunk bum who inhabits a Godzilla-like creature, while Jason Sudeikis plays a nice twist on the perfectly-charming male romantic lead, but the film’s concept might be greater than itself.
As for the duds, there are plenty to choose from. But the really dire - like Monster Trucks, Rings and Underworld: Blood Wars - I’ve managed to avoid. I haven’t seen a Transformers movie since 10 minutes into the second one. My sister insists King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is good, but I don’t believe her.
There are some potentially controversial picks in my not-top five. Perhaps it’s because I like driving my Honda Accord at a responsible, steady pace, but the big-dick contest that is the Fast and Furious franchise just doesn’t appeal. Torture porn flick Life was way too similar to Alien, and John Wick 2 had none of the charm of Free Fire and felt like more of the same.
What am I excited for? I’m all-in on Baby Driver and fully prepared for it to displace The Lost City at the top of my list. That’s out in a week. Seven days later, the world will stop for Dunkirk, which thankfully has a run-time comfortably under two hours - the first serving of trim milk from Christopher Nolan in 15 years.
There are tons of cool, original movies slated for the next few months. The Love Witch and 20th Century Women are showing at the film festival and are two fantastic flicks that smash the male gaze. The writer of Sicario and Hell or High Water, Taylor Sheridan, makes his directorial debut with Wind River, and while it contradicts all the points I made at the top of this long spiel, Blade Runner 2049 will be Denis Villeneuve’s best sci-fi since his last sci-fi, Arrival.
To be honest, I think it's always hard to find really good movies. Every year a lot of movies are bad and every year there’s maybe one or two quite good ones.
To say, then, that it's been a bad year for movies - and not just that there have been some very bad movies this year - doesn’t feel quite right to me. But there are a few things going on that might make it seem that way.
The most obvious thing to happen this year to mainstream US cinema is that the tyranny of the franchise has really set in: the open-endedness of every story means very few can stand alone as truly good pieces of cinema and the dependence on pre-existing intellectual property feels pretty grim. It’s also all super formulaic - I am so sick of origin stories and if I have to go through the tragedy of Spider Man’s bloody Uncle Ben one more time I will probably die.
While that’s going on, viewing and distribution models are changing before our very eyes, as are the mediums through which stories are told. While more and more movies become serialised, episodic and IP-based, TV is increasingly become a place for self-contained, stand-alone and more-or-less original content.
Also the world is falling apart, which puts people in a funny mood I guess.
What’s cool though (not the world falling apart, that isn’t cool), is that for all the boring super-people movies we have to put up with, the filmmakers who are doing interesting things have a totally new landscape to work with, which we’re already seeing with things like Netflix’s Okja or Youtube Red’s Kedi (the latter of which is being shown in the NZIFF).
The franchise thing is already proving less lucrative than apparently expected: Baywatch, The Mummy and Transformers 5 all underperformed box-office wise this year but Get Out did amazingly, which is exactly what should have happened.
In a way, I think it's an interesting, transitional time and, for such a cyclical industry, it's fascinating to watch it negotiate and reconcile that change. And it’s not all bad: Fate of the Furious, Wonder Woman and John Wick 2 were rad; Split was a cool original concept that turned out to be a wacky continuation of a film from 17 years ago; And Twin Peaks: The Return, for which no one had lower expectations than me, is the most amazing thing ever and represents cool and exciting things for the bridging of the gap between TV and film.
Change is hard, but also good and maybe in a couple of years, if the earth is still here, we might look back at this year as a kind of watershed moment for culture and art and ~storytelling~ and it will all make sense.
You can also check out Katie’s picks at the International Film Festival.