Midwest Film Journal 2017 Roundtable — Part Two

Although each member of the Midwest Film Journal is encouraged to publish an individual Year in Review, we thought that the structure of a traditional list or top 10 alone was limiting. Every year, there are at least half-dozen movies that everybody wants to include on their lists and some additionally interesting choices get left by the wayside.

So we’re starting a tradition here at MFJ, a roundtable where questions selected through discussion are answered by every member of the team who has an answer. (Read Part One.)

Today’s post covers:

  • Best Theatre Experience
  • Worst Theatre Experience
  • Favorite Performance
  • Favorite Soundtrack
  • Best Netflix Release
  • Biggest Disappointment

Best Theatre Experience

 

Usually when seeing a movie in theaters, I tune out the people around me and immerse myself in what I’m seeing on screen. This is why I don’t have an answer for Worst Theatre Experience because even when people talk through a movie, I get mad in the moment but I do my best to ignore it; by the time I leave, I’ve already forgotten it. I tend not to remember “best” experiences either, though, and I only have an answer for this one thanks to recency bias. Seeing Star Wars: The Last Jedi with one of my sisters-in-law was a true joy this month, because her reactions were so genuine and unrestrained that I couldn’t help but smile every time she gasped and laughed and bounced in her seat. I’m not a very demonstrative person, so it’s always a treat to see a movie with someone who lets movies elicit reactions that I don’t let myself express. If nothing else, it’s a small reminder of the magic movies can work on a captivated audience. (Aly Caviness)

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Nick’s least favorite movie of the year is Daddy’s Home 2, but I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed myself more in a theatre. Don’t get me wrong, the movie is dogshit. But watching it at 10 a.m. on a Sunday morning without anyone but Nick and I in the theatre created an unparalleled interactive experience. I think Nick kicked a seat in frustration. (Nick’s note: He did.) Best moviegoing experience with a good movie? Probably Pearl Jam: Let’s Play Two. Being friends with Nick for a few years has opened my eyes to Pearl Jam’s massive following; I’ve always enjoyed their music, but never on that level. Seeing Let’s Play Two at its one-night only engagement at Keystone Art Cinema with Nick, Sam Watermeier and a crowd full of loud, excited Pearl Jam / Cubs fans was a delight. (Evan Dossey)

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Easy to say any of 10 visits to the Indiana State Museum IMAX Theatre. Even Geostorm. Especially Geostorm. OK, maybe not Justice League. But that’s no fault of Craig Mince and crew, who last summer gained clearance to screen first-run IMAX features on the regular. Each time is a wondrous, soul-filling pilgrimage for presentation and prestige. If you haven’t been, what the shit are you waiting for? I also enjoyed the universal WTF response from everybody at the Keystone Art Cinema for The Killing of a Sacred Deer. (#Pubes) But yet nothing beats the near-full opening-day matinee of Jordan Peele’s unique, ubiquitous feature directorial debut, Get Out. People clap after promo screenings constantly, a sort of thanks for the freebie. It had been years since I heard non-Marvel-or-Star-Wars applause in regular release … until February. Deservedly so. Among Get Out’s sundry pleasures: It’s but a slight pivot away from a viral skit you could enjoy alone. Instead, it’s a terrific and tough-minded communal experience – clever, compelling, chilling, and comic in ways that had all of us roaring, gasping and gleefully confabbing afterward. Also, the Bing search typed by one character had every last person howling with laughter. Bravo, Mr. Peele. (Nick Rogers)

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Seeing Dunkirk at the Indiana State Museum IMAX Theatre reminded me why I go to the movies. I gazed upon the screen the same way a child looks up at a blanket of stars – with pure, wide-eyed wonder. But nothing thrilled me quite like witnessing the Keystone Art Cinema manager refuse to eat shit from a rude customer. He was clearly busy when an entitled old fart asked him to drop what we was doing and prepare a plate of pita chips and hummus. As Nick suggests in another category here, seniors are apparently forgetting how to behave at the movies. This theatre manager made sure one of them remembered his name and learned not to mess with him ever again. (Sam Watermeier)

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Worst Theatre Experience

 

I saw a lot of bullshit in 2017 but the worst experience at a theatre was when Nick and I each drove an hour to Kokomo, Indiana, to see a free advance screening of King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. We invited our friend Sy, who lives in the area, to join us. For whatever reason, the management was reluctant to let Sy into the theatre, and maybe it would have been for the best if he hadn’t come in. This remains the only movie during which I actively tried to take a nap. It’s dreck. Unmitigated shit. The entire audience was bored. Woe. (Evan Dossey)

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Senior citizens are a scourge on the theatrical experience. Mean? I don’t care. This year alone, they have coughed on me, snored in my ear, scolded their wives like assholes when called on said snoring, asked me to scoot down twice at a film after it started, and talked back to the screen in 11.1 multidirectional sound. Polite shushes and scowls were met with an implied “Fuck you, young’un.” Nothing worse, though, than my mid-Saturday matinee of The Beguiled. Yes, I sat seven rows in front of anyone else. No, that did not stop two odious octogenarians who arrived late from plopping down directly behind me to loudly eat, drink, burp and fart for the duration. Hear also: Their baffling inability to discern Nicole Kidman from Kirsten Dunst or Elle Fanning (“Is that the one who kissed him? “NO, THAT’S NICOLE KIDMAN!” “Oh … (faaaaaaaart).”) A different seat? Impossible, for I could hear pockets of elderly chit-chat everywhere else. Tack on another senior citizen wandering into my row confused with 30 seconds left and ruining the final shot — while the people he was with screamed at him to come back! come back! to them. Keep recliners. Give me the dome(Nick Rogers)

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Favorite Performance

 

A lot of people have been putting Twin Peaks: The Return on their year-end movie lists. I’m firmly in the “Twin Peaks is a perfectly distilled TV show, idiots” camp, which means I, unfortunately, can’t be a hypocrite here and choose Laura Dern’s performance as Diane Evans in The Return as my favorite of 2017. However, I can choose Laura Dern’s performance as Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, so, why not? Holdo isn’t quite as dynamic or memorable as Diane, but she represents a kind of feminine power that isn’t often seen in science-fiction, let alone Star Wars. Too often this genre simplifies feminism into genericized badassery, where women can do everything men can do, wearing the same things men wear. Snooze. It’s much more interesting and powerful to me when they do it backwards and in heels, which is Holdo — and Dern’s performance — in a nutshell. Holdo’s serenity in the face of mutiny from her allies and dogged pursuit from her enemies was among my favorite character work in Rian Johnson’s masterpiece, and I can’t imagine anyone else pulling it off but Dern. Even if I do wish she had uttered a, “Fuck you, Poe” once or twice. (Aly Caviness)

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Michael Keaton’s portrayal of the Vulture in Spider-Man: Homecoming was in a league of its own. We’re now seeing at least three Marvel films a year, and while I’m their most ardent defender, there is some truth to the complaint that their villains don’t always hit the mark as well as their heroes. The Vulture is the first big-budget supervillain to feel like a real person. That final speech he gives about how the rich get away with what the poor are punished for? It’s true, and it makes him infinitely more interesting than the usual “take over the universe” antagonists. Keaton’s performance is dazzling. His growl of “good ol’ Spider-Man” is imbued with enough corniness and cruelty that I sit rapt waiting for it every time I watch the movie. Homecoming has many problems, and the lack of more Keaton is its biggest. (Evan Dossey)

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You have to hand it to the Twilight films: not only did they give us the gift of vampire baseball, but the franchise also forged the careers of Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson, actors who not only gave career-best performances in 2017, and remain two of the most compelling leads in the biz. Slightly edging out Stewart for my favorite performance of the year is Pattinson’s turn as lowlife Connie Nikas in the grimy, New York crime tale Good Time. From the time we meet Connie, pulling a hasty and ill-conceived bank robbery, he’s already reeking of sweat and desperation. Over the course of one very bad night, we watch that desperation grow as he pulls despicable stunts to come up with bail money for his brother. Pattinson is all nervous, manic energy that’s consistently in sync with the propulsive style of writers / directors the Safdie Brothers. The camera never takes its focus off Connie, and even as you wince at his downward spiral, you won’t want to, either. (Mitch Ringenberg)

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Oliver is a movement Elio struggles to resolve, much like the classical music he pores over – pursuing perfect dynamics of control, tempo and volume to transform dissonant lust into harmonious affection. Love is, of course, subjective truth, just as awakening passion is a high-velocity orbit around a heavenly body from which you can only hope to return whole. Call Me By Your Name’s screenplay need not literalize this emotional tumult. As Elio, Timothée Chalamet embodies it with supernatural clarity. Awards are often meaningless, but I hope Chalamet usurps Adrien Brody as Oscar’s youngest Best Actor winner. Chalamet’s imprints Elio’s conflicts as intensely as the love-fantasy scribbles on his writing pad and his delicacy as naturally as a seaside breeze. (It bears mentioning that Armie Hammer, in a career-best turn, perfectly complements him.) I could extract any number of immaculate moments from Chalamet’s work, but here are four: Elio’s simulation of Oliver’s dance moves turning into performative peacocking; how Elio feels like a plasma ball about to explode as Oliver first puts hands on him; Elio’s physical collapse into Oliver, ecstatic and exhausted as his racing mind eases; and an end-credits gaze from which you can not turn away and that you will never forget. (Nick Rogers)

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A devastatingly beautiful portrait of a man knocking on heaven’s door, Harry Dean Stanton’s performance in Lucky is one for the ages. Much like Willem Dafoe’s character in The Florida Project, Lucky is at once down to earth and larger than life. He’s the kind of everyday folk hero to which Johnny Cash would dedicate a song. Stanton’s performance isn’t just a great swan song – it’s a great performance, period. He makes you feel the weight of this man’s long, rocky life. And he leaves you with a newfound appreciation for your own. (Sam Watermeier)

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Favorite Soundtrack

 

Mark Mothersbaugh’s original score for Thor: Ragnarok was certainly the kick in the pants the MCU music department needed, wasn’t it? I’ve long heard the criticism that none of the Marvel movies has an iconic score quite like the DC movies do — no recognizable themes, no tracks you can jam to in the car like I used to with “Why So Serious?” off Hans Zimmer’s The Dark Knight soundtrack. That criticism was certainly valid in the early days of the MCU, but honestly it was Mothersbaugh’s score that showed me we’ve had iconic themes all along. They just weren’t the in-your-face electronic symphonies DC prefers to deploy, so we didn’t even know they were there. Mothersbaugh’s score is more similar to Michael Giacchino’s for Doctor Strange than anything else that came before in that it’s more tailored to the quirks of the film than it is to an overall sound for the MCU, and it helps make Ragnarok a stronger movie. The transition from traditional score to funky synthesizers as Thor crash lands on Sakaar helps the audience expect, and acclimate to, a pretty drastic shift in tone, while the incorporation of Patrick Doyle’s original triumphant theme from Thor in the last scene brings us full circle in Thor’s journey from an unworthy and aborted coronation to one he has finally earned. Too many film scores these days are either annoying or forgettable, but Mothersbaugh’s contribution to the MCU is a standout feature in a movie that is already outstanding from start to finish. (Aly Caviness)

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Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 could’ve rested on its laurels and provided a second “Awesome Mix” full of hits and nostalgia. I have some quibbles with the pacing of the movie, but no problem with James Gunn’s song choices — such as the sequence when Kurt Russell relates himself and Star-Lord to “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl),” the Milano taking off to “Lake Shore Drive,” and the Sovereign arriving to “Wham Bam Shang a Lang.”

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I’ve left other “obvious” choices to fellow MFJ-ers. I wanted the likely pick here. Goddamn. I wanted it. I’ve seen Baby Driver three times. I want it again. I want it now. I want to live in it. Especially given that Kevin Spacey’s character’s head has been summarily, indisputably popped like a grape. If I could choose any career, I’d be a music supervisor coordinating needle-drops for movies. I’ve also always ached to see a dialogue-free action film with modern accoutrements. With a holy text of hot-damn cues and the closest thing I’ve seen to my dream, Edgar Wright gave me life this year. As I write this, T. Rex’s “Debora” just serendipitously shuffled to Beck’s “Debra.” People. I. Am. Telling. You. LIFE. Apart from the obvious brilliance of its musical-choreography editing (and its 16th-note precision), Baby Driver thrills young Nick (Young MC, Queen, Simon & Garfunkel), teenage Nick (Dave Brubeck, Blur, Jon Spencer, Beck), cover-skeptic Nick (Sky Ferreira doing the Commodores), exceeding-the-posted-speed-limit Nick (Run the Jewels, Golden Earring, Focus), sample-source-loving Nick (Bob & Earl, David McCallum), and musical-excavator Nick (every other great song used here). I’ll do something irresponsible on the road to “Hocus Pocus” tonight. Join me, won’t you? (Nick Rogers)

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Best Netflix Release

 

I’m pretty sure the only Netflix releases I actually caught this year were Little Evil and A Christmas Prince, so, uh. I’ll politely abstain from this one. (Aly Caviness)

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Mudbound has the tenor of a 1940s class-drama masterpiece. Probably Garrett Hedlund’s best role ever, and Mary J. Blige is maybe the only Netflix star worthy of an Academy Award nomination. The only problem with Mudbound is – get this – that it’s too short. All of the beats of a great film are present and almost all of them land, but there’s the nagging sense than an extra hour would have only added power. I’m rarely a proponent of a sprawling film, but the team behind this one could have pulled it off. As is, however, it’s the best movie Netflix has released thus far. (Evan Dossey)

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Like all of Bong Joon-Ho’s work, Okja is nearly impossible to categorize. Think along the lines of an R-rated Free Willy as written by Kurt Vonnegut at his most vitriolic, and you might be somewhere close. Usually, a film this tonally all-over-the-place ends up being an incoherent mess, but miraculously that ends up being one of Okja’s primary strengths. Veering from heartfelt to horrific to hilarious, this is about as unpredictable as movies get. Sometimes Netflix’s trend of giving filmmakers total creative freedom ends with embarrassing results (see, or don’t see, Bright), but in this case it produced the kind of risk-taking movie that may not have been made without the streaming service’s backing. Oh, and it features Jake Gyllenhaal going full Nicolas Cage in one of the year’s most amusing performances. (Mitch Ringenberg)

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At some point, Evan and I will codify our ongoing discourse about how many Netflix films don’t feel like films. Yeah, they run two hours and spend a lot of money to snag Brad Pitt or pfffffft, but connective tissue often feels off in ways that have nothing to do with a lack of big screens. Business as usual for most of 2017. And then Deidra & Laney Rob a Train, First They Killed My Father, Gerald’s Game, Mudbound, Okja (even if it disappointed me) and even Wheelman. All of a sudden, Netflix is a major player. The best is The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), Noah Baumbach’s continued shift from someone whose work made me cringe to a filmmaker I now welcome with open arms. (He learned as much, if not more, from Greta Gerwig as she from him.) Adam Sandler’s best performance yet (yes, yet) – shrunken, gun-shy, sad, proud, registering barely perceptible heartbreak and strength. Dustin Hoffman’s best role in years, too (even if he’s on the Hollywood Dirtbag Perp Walk), reconciling youthful rebelliousness with octogenarian frailty. Ephemera calcifies into brittle ennui here, with the grit and texture of film the verve of real-life conversation. Does it feel like Wes Anderson? Sometimes, but at least Harold Meyerowitz meets Royal Tenenbaum head-on.
 (Nick Rogers)

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I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore is a gem. The delightful shaggy-dog detective story follows a nursing assistant (Melanie Lynskey) as she hunts down the crooks who robbed her house. The burglary is the last straw for Ruth, who feels like humanity has turned against her. “Everyone is an asshole,” she says in a line that sums up the social climate of 2017. A dazzling debut from writer-director Macon Blair, this film keeps its finger firmly on the pulse of America even as it flies off the rails into absurdist territory. I can’t wait to see what Blair does next. (Sam Watermeier)

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Biggest Surprise

 

I have a long history of despising the original Blade Runner. I’ve seen it several times, and no one can convince me to like it, not even my husband or his very persistent brother who more or less quotes it daily. Despite this, I loved Blade Runner 2049. I went in expecting a visually pleasing movie — what could be a better combination of aesthetics than Denis Villeneuve and Roger Deakins? — and found an unexpectedly profound movie about the harm men cause when they try to procreate without women, and when they overestimate their place in history. I’m a sucker for a Frankenstein story (see: Alien: Covenant), and I’m infinitely grateful that the writers of 2049 realized that an exploration of those themes was something noticeably absent from the original. That plus the reassessment of women’s place in the world of Blade Runner, whether they are human, replicant, AI, or somewhere in between, made 2049 one of 2017’s highlights for me. I never could have predicted that. (Aly Caviness)

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I was told The Book of Henry, Colin Trevorrow’s “kid teaching his mom how to kill a pedophile from beyond the grave” family film was the worst of the year. Nah. The worst movies of the year are boring movies. For what it’s worth, The Book of Henry is so absurd it never feels like a waste of time. The whole cast seems in on the joke, especially Naomi Watts as little Henry’s comically stupid and incompetent mother. The whole bit with Sarah Silverman wearing revealing tops and flirting with a 10-year-old is super funny, too. I’ve never been a fan of Trevorrow, but this is by far his best film. (Evan Dossey)

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After 2012’s gorgeous, but completely pointless, Prometheus, Ridley Scott returns to the Alien universe to make Alien: Covenant, his first compelling film since Matchstick Men. Look, this thing has flaws out the wazoo, and I’m still not entirely sold on CG xenomorphs, but between this and Star Wars: The Last Jedi, 2017 has produced some wonderfully idiosyncratic blockbusters. Although the gruesome xenomorph horror in the third act feels inert and tacked on, what comes before it is a strange Gothic haunted house movie in space, anchored by two great Michael Fassbender performances. It’s a downright weird exercise in intergalactic horror and while some of the prequel-ish questions it asks may be unnecessary, it answers them in uniquely memorable fashion. (Mitch Ringenberg)

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Joseph Kosinski takes a monumentally unfair amount of shit. First, he wrestled with then-terrible de-aging effects to deliver a better Tron sequel than we deserved. Then, he directed Tom Cruise’s second-best science-fiction film a year before the one everyone thinks is Tom Cruise’s second-best science-fiction film. Is it a surprise I liked Only the Brave, a criminally unsuccessful band-of-brothers true story about men fighting wildfires? No. My surprises were: loving it; watching Kosinski so confidently tackle naturalism, nuance, restraint and character; and the amount of allergens pumped in at the two-hour mark. I half-expected Kosinski to direct it in the manner of the music these men listen to – hero porn, classic-rock style, as a concession to comfort. I feel terrible for ever thinking that. Instead, it’s a unique story about the absolution and addiction of a job. How work alters the way you see your world, yourself and those you love. That not every woman in these movies must be Worried Wife on Phone (bless you, Jennifer Connelly). Yeah, Kosinski has Top Gun, Twilight Zone and Gran Turismo on the docket. I’m excited for them to make truckloads of money … if it will let him make more films like this.
 (Nick Rogers)

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I didn’t want to see Stronger, the story of Boston Marathon bombing survivor Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal). I worried that it would be insufferably depressing or corny. But it ended up affecting me more than any other film this year. The story flooded me with memories of my dad’s battle with cancer. I could practically smell the hand sanitizer from his hospital room again as I watched Bauman hooked up to tubes and monitors. And during the physical therapy scenes, I remembered the long, quiet drives to the rehab center, where I often winced as I watched my dad in a more vulnerable place than I had ever seen him before. My father’s homecoming was much like Bauman’s – bittersweet, awkward, as if he were a foreigner in a place that used to be familiar. As “Stronger” shows, the hurdles don’t stop at home. Every day is a search for a new normal that seems to be nowhere in sight. That journey never plays out in the maudlin way you’d expect from a film like this. Even the last scene, in which Bauman walks with his prosthetic legs, comes as a surprise. There’s no rousing music to lift your spirits – only the sound of Bauman breathing heavily as he slowly but surely makes his way across the street and toward a new life. (Sam Watermeier)

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Biggest Disappointment

 

Can a movie really be a disappointment if you expected a letdown going into it? I can usually tell when I’m not going to like a movie, and sometimes it’s those confirmed disappointments that get me down the most. As such, the two I keep coming back to for this category are mother! and I, Tonya. I had a feeling going into both that they might be my next Wolf of Wall Street, which was a film I hated from start to finish. Neither elicited quite as much ire in me as Wolf, but boy, they were close. mother! is so heavy-handed and egotistical, while I, Tonya settles on a tone that is insanely off from the get-go; you know what’s not hilarious, even in a black comedy? Brutal spousal abuse! But, ultimately, the most disappointing thing about both films is that they probably would’ve landed with me better if they’d had a woman’s clear creative input at any point during the filmmaking process … although mother! might be a lost cause, considering it’s Darren Aronofsky’s bizarre vehicle for processing his divorce from Rachel Weisz, his on-again / off-again relationship with Jennifer Lawrence and his own internalized misogyny. But I, Tonya? That film desperately needed a woman in the director’s chair, if only to keep Tonya Harding from being the punchline (pun regretfully intended) in her own story. Without a woman’s perspective, I, Tonya simply feels cruel. (Aly Caviness)

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I’ve been a fan of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower canon since my teens. I’ve often said it’s my foundational text, the story that brought me into adulthood thanks to the friends it gained me and the habits those friendships formed. I never expected a film version would live up to my baggage, but I was nonetheless disappointed by just how lazy it was. The casting was good, but nothing else felt like it had any amount of conviction behind it. I’ll always have the books and what they brought me, but it would’ve been fun to have a movie to show new fans as a way of introducing them to something that means so much to me. Oh, well. (Evan Dossey)

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Stephen King’s novel It is a singular work of horror fiction. Combining a bittersweet tale of childhood innocence lost with interdimensional, Lovecraftian terror into a 1,000-plus-page opus, it’s difficult to imagine any filmmaker without the pedigree of someone like Stanley Kubrick adapting it to any avail. Naturally, Hollywood’s answer was to cram the first half of King’s novel into a Conjuring-universe clone, complete with an overreliance on jump scares and questionable computer-generated effects. Rather than feeling like the wholly distinct beast that it should, this feels like a movie riding on current crazes like Stranger Things and Annabelle, and the result is merely competent. (Mitch Ringenberg)

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Each year, I make a list of 25 films to which I’m most looking forward. From 2017, I’ve seen 24. (DDL and PTA, you’re my only “nope.”) Were The Great Wall and The Dark Tower worse? Obviously, but over time I sort of expected them to suck and left them on my list because hardcore people live with their choices. War for the Planet of the Apes, Matt Reeves’ last gasp before his inevitable DC suffocation and hopeful repatriation into the realm of real filmmaking, was the most dispiriting experience for me this year because I loved the two previous films. WftPotA (at least a fun acronym to type) is badly paced, poorly written and tragically miscast. This Kurtz-Kilgore mashup is the worst role Woody Harrelson had all year. (Oh, yes. Believe me. I saw that Halloween City LBJ mask Rob Reiner made him wear.) WftPotA (see?) also actively and furiously undoes the complexities that made the franchise unexpectedly special – namely forcing Caesar into a ridiculously risible fallen hero / redemption arc. The act that pushes him is contingent on characters we barely know. They might as well have turned Caesar into Rick Grimes for chrissakes. What Reeves and company thought was Unforgiven was instead just unforgivable. (Nick Rogers)

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The trailers for The Killing of a Sacred Deer intrigued me to no end. The cryptic dialogue, the Kubrickian tracking shots, the creepy cover of Ellie Goulding’s “Burn.” Plus, the premise of a family suddenly struck with paralysis seemed ripe with potential for grand tragedy. Unfortunately, for the most part, the film fell flat on the screen. The ominous atmosphere engaged me for a while, but I found myself wishing I cared more about these characters facing such dire circumstances. The dry, deadpan tone works in Yorgos Lanthimos’ previous film, The Lobster, because its story is partly about emotional distance. But I’m not sure what the point of that tone is in this film. #Pubes (Sam Watermeier)

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Administrator of Midwest Film Journal. Previously a staff writer for TheFilmYap.com, Evan has been writing film criticism in the Indianapolis area for over half a decade. He is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. He also reviews Oreos.


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