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Best Movies of 2017

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The Envelope is Never Wrong Lots of Genre and Sci-Fi in this year's list.

My picks for the best movies of 2017, ranked in ascending order of preference. There's a lot more genre films in here than typically in one of my lists, this was a year where comics/sci-fi cinema was on par with prestige dramas and indie flicks.

Grand Jury Prizes

Taking a cue from the great Roger Ebert, who took his cue from film festivals, this year I'm adding a new category for a handful of films that didn't quite make the final list - but I still wanted to recognize. My list's already more than ten, so this is another way to cheat and pad the total.

  • Baby Driver
    Edgar Wright's film opens with the most exciting car chase I've ever seen on screen. The soundtrack is propulsive fun. Stock heist characters given life and flair by energetic performances.
  • Spider-Man Homecoming
    A Marvel movie as if John Hughes had directed it. High school and superheroics; the new kid finally nails a characterization of Spidey in all his key dimensions: his wit, his moral struggles, and his acrobatics.
  • The Post
    Spielberg's painstaking detailed telling of the publication of the Pentagon Papers, anchored by Meryl Streep, whose excellence we may sometimes take for granted. This is among her best.
  • The Disaster Artist
    James Franco channels the demented, yet somehow endearing, Tommy Wiseau in the funniest movie in quite some time.
  • Darkest Hour
    Oldman manages to convey a world-historic figure, not as a marble bust sculpture, but as a fully three-dimensional, flawed human, confronting a terror of immense complexity.

13. Atomic Blonde

One could imagine at any given time in cinematic history, the undisputed bad-ass of action movies could be a revered title, passed around like a boxer's championship belt. The belt would've been worn by Clint, Arnold, Chow Yun-Fat, so many others, but all of them likely would've been men. With Mad Max: Fury Road and now Atomic Blonde, I think at this moment the belt's one true claimant is Charlize Theron.

Beyond its visceral action scenes, Atomic Blonde has a distinct aesthetic, rendering a unique (if not exactly period-authentic) re-imagination of Cold War espionage on the borders of divided Germany.

12. Trainspotting T2

A good rule of thumb for aging artists is: don't get the band back together. It never works. It inevitably disappoints. You can't recapture the magic. You'll risk ruining the enjoyment of the original.

Trainspotting T2 defies those odds by steering into the trap of nostalgia and confronting it head-on. It's a meditation on the sense of being trapped in place, held back by a past you cannot escape. Our trainspotters have changed some habits, and the world around them is almost unrecognizable. Renton updates his rant of contemporary pet-peeves in a thrillingly executed call-back sequence, another manifesto for a corrupted age. They caught lightning in a bottle for a second time, paid homage to the original, and brought something new and cathartic.

11. Logan

Over 17 years in 9 feature films, Hugh Jackman has not only portrayed the mutant Wolverine with the requisite intensity, brooding, and sarcastic wit, but he's been an ideal custodian of the character. At countless occasions in public, Jackman has gone out of his way to pay homage and recognize the original creators of the character.

Mangold's Logan brings a noir sensibility to a fitting conclusion for this epic cinematic journey. An amazing send-off both for Logan and Jackman.

10. The Big Sick

Kumail Nanjiani's been on my radar ever since he had a show-stealing role in the horror movie Bad Milo, and his character on HBO's Silicon Valley is a consistent source of laughter and empathy. But I was unprepared for the complexity of cross-cultural experience and deep human empathy smuggled inside of what was originally advertised as another fun Apatow-branded rom-com.

The screenplay by Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon retelling the story of how they became a couple manages to both conform to the fundamentals of rom-com structure yet does so with originality.

9. Get Out

Jordan Peele's Get Out has frequently been compared to The Twilight Zone and I can think of no higher compliment that is also entirely appropriate. In the tradition of Rod Serling, Peele manages to suffuse a speculative horror tale with several dimensions of social commentary.

The cast is extraordinary. Daniel Kaluuya's eyes communicate an incredible sense of skepticism, intelligence, horror, and soul-crushing entrapment. Allison Williams becomes the perfect version for every layer of her character. Kieth Stanfield's shock and trauma are vivid. I had the good fortune of catching this on opening weekend, before its twists and turns and impact on the culture were known, and it was an unexpected thrill ride of the highest order.

8. Call Me By Your Name

One of my favorite moviewatchers out there chose this as her pick for the best movie of the year weeks before I had a chance to see it, so I walked out of the cinema slightly disappointed I hadn't seen a movie that would vault to the top of my list - but this is one of those films that stays with you for days after you see it.

This is a deliberately paced film that soaks in every detail of the lush romantic summer in 1980's Italian countryside. The central relationship of the story builds like a symphonic structure, slow and sweet at the start, culminating in an emotional crescendo. Near the end of the flim, Michael Stuhlbarg, who's becoming perhaps my favorite supporting actor, gives a wrenching monologue of human kindness and understanding. Call Me By Your Name contains one of the most powerful long takes I've ever seen an actor give on screen.

7. Phantom Thread

The ensemble trio of Daniel Day-Lewis, Lesley Manville, and Vicky Krieps - I don't even know what to say; their achievement is breathtaking and extraordinary. This group of actors create a drama of intense emotional violence wrapped inside a world of obsessively crafted fashions.

Their weapons of this psychological warfare: glances, pauses, raised eyebrows, shrugs, outbursts, smiles, tears. The simplest of human gestures, under the command of these performers, can bring about pain, or release, or affirmation, or any number of complicated deeply held feelings.

6. The Florida Project

This year, I find myself much more in agreement with the Oscar nominations than usual, but the absence of this film is more than an oversight. It should've been nominated for Best Picture. The performances by Willem Dafoe and Brooklynn Prince were among the best of the year.

Willem Dafoe brings a pained humanity to the desparate everyday struggles of a manager of a bottom-tier long-term-stay hotel property. Solely on the basis of his "soda machine" scene, Dafoe should've earned a nomination. The 7-year-old Brooklynn Prince is outstanding. Finding a good child actor at that age is nearly impossible, but she manages to shoulder the film with heartbreaking honesty and innocence.

5. Blade Runner 2049

Writers Hampton Fancher and Michael Green found an ingeniuos solution to revisiting the world of Blade Runner - they recaptured the central question at the heart of the original: do replicants have souls? In the original, that question was explored with a human/replicant relationship, and in this sequel, by exploring the relationship of a replicant and an A.I.

Director Denis Villeneuve had the unenviable task of stepping into the shoes of Ridley Scott, who defined the cinematic cyberpunk aesthetic: the neon-lit Asian-influenced rainy streets that have become so iconic, they're still referenced in works as recent as Netflix's Altered Carbon series.

Villeneuve and legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins create their own aesthetic for this installment, building upon those templates but dumping atmospheric waste on them: clouds, rust, dust, haze: a climate-adjusted dystopic land and cityscape.

4. Lady Bird

Starting with her work as co-writer on Frances Ha, but now maturing into a more distinct form in Lady Bird, Gerwig has created a filmmaking style that suggests a new cinematic grammar. The fundamental units of composition: shot, scene, sequence, montage, in Gerwig's hands, they take on new meanings.

Gerwig frequently employs a techinque that is montage-as-scene, almost a meta-scene: cutting together moments of (partially improvised?) performance, organized around a theme or idea, allowing audiences to fill in a number of gaps. Several of these meta-scenes in Lady Bird suggest they could've sustained an entire Act or even a standalone film. That's why, at a brisk 93 minutes, the film manages to seem like it covers more story and character depth than many films capture in three hours. I'd be thoroughly delighted if she pulls an upset and her film wins either Best Picture or Best Director at the Oscars.

3. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Frances McDormand can be a force of nature when channeled into the right role, and this film provides her with another perfect opportunity to do what she does best: portray a flawed woman of conviction, with laser-focused eyes and a spine of pure fuckin' steel.

I've long been a fan of Sam Rockwell, who can go a bit off the rails sometimes with his glee and zany peculiarities, but this character allows him to bring the quirk and the melancholy in just the right proportion. Woody Harrelson's laconic lawman is an example of brilliant casting: Woody's innate Texas bearing and world-hardened skepticism come thorugh in a brief yet dense work of character acting.

Writer-Director Martin McDonagh has a knack for elevating tales of crime, revenge, depression; his characters stride through sadness and chaos, struggling to keep it together in a world they can no longer recognize.

2. Your Name

When I walked into the cinema to see Your Name I didn't know much about it other than the fact it had been one of the top-5 grossing films in Japanese box office history. I hadn't seen a trailer. I wish I could see more films this way because going in with zero knowledge and a vague sense of optimism allowed every single detail of the movie to be fresh and pack full impact.

I won't reveal the central conceit of the flim: it follows a trope that's been a used a lot in live-action comedies over the years, but the way in which that trope is revealed in the early stages of the film is surprising and brings an original riff on the format. To set expectations, it's a romantic drama with limited elements of science fiction.

Your Name is filled with gorgeous artwork: nearly every frame has a painterly obsession and beauty. Some sequences have visuals that combine the best aspects of hand-drawn animation with the advanced camera techniques allowed by computer animation, synthesizing a hybrid visual aesthetic which paints gorgeous horizons, looks to the stars, lingers on quiet moments and details of contemporary life in Japan.

1. Star Wars: The Last Jedi

When Kathleen Kennedy took over Lucasfilm, I had a wish-list of things I wanted to see come to a new Star Wars film. As an avid fan of the Star Wars franchise, after The Empire Strikes Back, there have been a number of missteps and gargantuan fuck-ups, but they were correctible.

More than anything, the series needed to get back to its deepest roots. And by those roots, I'm not referring to the imagination of George Lucas, but the timeless mythological structure explored in the studies of Joseph Campbell - not just the oft-cited "Hero's journey," but the mosaic of the world's mythic traditions.

Those roots are best embodied in the character of Yoda. Ever since his appearances in the original trilogy, Star Wars films, comics, tv shows, and books have tried to emulate the wise master but failed spectaculary. The wisdom of a seeker in the mysteries of the force had been reduced time and again into cliché fortune-cookie bullshit. Nothing of substance or earnest grappling.

Rian Johnson restores a genuine moral and spiritual conflict, reuniting the ultimate student/master pair of Luke and Yoda to tell one last important lesson: the lesson of failure.

Failure is experienced by every character in The Last Jedi. Every step of the way the Resistance, Leia, Poe, Rose, and Finn - they fail. Luke's removed himself from the struggle because of an all-encompassing surrender to the fear of failure.

Through his critique of the corrupted Jedi order, the character of Luke rescues the mystery and wonder of the force as presented in the original trilogy that was mangled by the "midi-chlorian" mistakes of the prequels, democratizing the force, making it accessible again: once again, the characters in Star Wars can serve as inspiration to everyone, not just stand as an elite royal bloodline.

The grandeur and wonder of the mysteries of the universe as communicated through the Force had become occasionally formulaic in the multitude of spin-offs: the Jedi and Sith's tricks starting to have the vague whiff of magic tricks as opposed to revealing the foundation of all life in the galaxy. The Last Jedi presents a new use of the Force - in spectacular fashion - suggesting that maybe we're only scratching the surface of what's capable in this realm.

The conflicts at the heart of the original triology were pure and stark. In this era, they can seem a bit removed and less able to speak to the conflicts of this time. Re-calibrating the heroes and antagonists with less moral clarity and bringing in some shades of gray were just what this story and franchise needed.

Once the choice was made to bring back Mark Hamill and Luke Skywalker, an enormous challenge was presented: how to bring back an icon, and not have it be redundant, a repeat of Sir Alec Guiness in A New Hope? I love the answer: give the unsullied hero of the galaxy, the man we last saw in ultimate triumph, a crippling experience of failure, a chance to be redeemed when he had once been a redeemer of others.

Luke's final actions, his final monologe, allowed moviegoers to experience one last time a genuine miracle of inspiration, on par with his signature bullseye at the Death Star. Goosebumps and tears. Quite an extraordinary achievement by Rian Johnson. It's no wonder they signed him up to do three more once they saw this one.

This movie brought my Star Wars fan wish-list to life, better than I could've imagined.

I am aware of contrary views on this film. I've glanced them in your tweets. I've heard them on your pods. I've read them in your blogs. Heard them at the bar. After careful consideration:

Trust Her, She's The Doctor

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Jodie Whittaker The 13th Doctor

When I think of the qualities of The Doctor, there are a number of essential traits that come to mind. The Doctor is a multi-layered character, full of contradictions: young and old, wise and reckless, constantly changing and remaining the same. But there are some core qualities that span every incarnation of the role.

I can already see most of these aspects of The Doctor in Jodie Whittaker the performer and the individual. The Doctor has a biting wit: in Attack the Block, Whittaker delivered cutting remarks with ease. The Doctor has a melancholic streak, confronting the endless faces of suffering: in Broadchurch, Whittaker emanates a deep reservoir of grief and anguish. The Doctor has moral authority and conviction. In the following clip of her stage performance in Antigone, she's magnificent:

There are many other qualities of our favorite Gallifreyan: kindness, intelligence, and curiosity. And of course there's the eccentric quirks individual to each performer who's taken the role. In interviews, Whittaker reveals herself to contain these attributes the role needs: she's smart, charming, and funny.

But perhaps the most important qualities of the Doctor are courage and an expansion of the humanist outlook to span an infinite universe: valuing all living beings, regardless of point of origin or surface details. This casting affirms the very fibre of the Doctor.

The 25 best films of the 21st Century (so far)

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Another List... The century's 17% done, so, why not rank what's the best (so far)?

Art by @RentonHawkey

This week, NY Times film critics A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis posted a feature article, picking their choices for the best films of the 21st century. Many others have joined the fun.

Here's mine:

  1. Almost Famous
    Crowe’s autobiographical backstage pass is the film from this young century that I’ve watched more than any other. What do I love most about this film? To begin with, everything. "The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you're uncool.”
  2. Children of Men
    Alfonso Cuaron’s chilling dystopian prophecy of a future that seems imminent represented one of the century’s most vital filmmakers at the top of his game.
  3. City of God
    Crime cinema pulsing with the dark rhythms of the streets of Rio de Janeiro. Colorful characters. Evocative period details.
  4. The Social Network
    Aaron Sorkin’s frantic dialogue and David Fincher’s performance-serving direction serve the fascinating character study of a Charles Foster Kane of the Silicon Valley startup era.
  5. Kill Bill Vols. 1 and 2
    The height of Tarantino’s creativity, a filmmaker whose style is singular, perhaps the most influential of the period; but it’s a film like Kill Bill that proves the hollow futility in emulating him. As much as he wears his influences on his sleeve, his cinematic voice is unmistakable.
  6. Lord of the Rings Trilogy
    An overwhelming exercise in scale and world-building, the likes of which the silver screen rarely sees done so well. Ground-breaking with Andy Serkis’s performance capture genius.
  7. Mad Max Fury Road
    Pure action adrenaline and kinetic moviemaking - the perfect blend of practical stunt work aided by clever computer technology.
  8. Boyhood
    Richard Linklater is perhaps the most audacious filmmaker of the century, committing to a project with such an vast dimension of time.
  9. Michael Clayton
    A focused corporate thriller, beautiful cinematography, smart dialogue, great performances.
  10. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
    The film manages to take a speculative premise that, near the start of this century, seemed implausible in a technical sense but all-too believable on the human scale. In the years hence, its sci-fi premise doesn’t look so unthinkable anymore, and its heart beats with contemporary resonance.
  11. Lost in Translation
    Whenever this film gets referenced, I’m instantly transported to back to its moods and sounds. It set such a specific a tone, creating a geometry of time and space in my mind it feels like a vacation I took at a time I needed that kind of trip.
  12. Inception
    In this period of movie history, Christopher Nolan is the leading architect of massive movie spectacles - a sprawling imagination unburdened by the laws of physics, limited only by what he can dream onto the screen.
  13. Wolf of Wall Street
    Scorsese had two incredible films of this period, this and The Aviator, but he won the long-sought Best Picture for perhaps the least interesting film in his canon. DiCaprio’s Qualuude-crazed performance is one for the ages.
  14. Little Miss Sunshine
    The best “Star Wars” film since “Empire Strikes Back,” in which a plucky band of rebels pack into an iconic vehicle and bring their talents to an assault on the epicenter of an evil enterprise.
  15. A Separation
    I wish every American would see this film about an Iranian couple, experience this culture with the intimacy, sophistication and complexity that Asghar Farhadi brings to this deeply human tale.
  16. Spirited Away
    Miyazaki’s lyrical visual poetry, his boundless imagination, his childlike wonder, are all on display in one of the greatest animated films ever made.
  17. The Hangover
    A comedy that actually delivers laughs consistently from beginning to end. Two hours of non-stop roaring joy and doofusry.
  18. Before Sunset / Before Sunrise
    I tried to limit this list to one per director, but an exception must be granted for Linklater, who’s managed to synthesize the passage of realtime and cinema-time to explore stories with grander scope. This ongoing journey with loquacious lovers manages to compress a decade of living and evolving into each two-hour installment.
  19. The Avengers
    As a lifelong comics fan, it was a thrill to see the legendary team of heroes unite in a thrill ride that was true to its origins.
  20. Sideways
    Paul Giamatti’s midlife crisis wine tour is perhaps an elder cousin of Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation,” both films dealing with a sense of paralyzation at a crucial pivot point in one’s life, set against a beautiful environment. Giamatti’s anguish and melancholy left an indelible impression.
  21. The New World
    Terrence Malick’s meditations on the intersection of civilization and nature, of humanity’s higher yearnings contrasting its natural instincts, are rendered in exquisite frames, every shot a visual wonder.
  22. There Will Be Blood
    The forceful lead character of this film is an oil-man to his core. He bleeds dark crude from his veins. No single performance of the century has quite captured the intensity of Daniel Day-Lewis’s incandescent Daniel Plainview. And he's fueled by drinking your milkshake.
  23. No Country For Old Men
    The Coens have a perfected the cinematic expression of crime stories built upon coincidences, mistakes and bad timing for its eccentric characters. With “No Country” they darkened the experience with a sense of existential and inevitable dread.
  24. In The Mood For Love
    Wong Kar-Wai’s beautiful framing of gorgeously-lit actors Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung is filled with longing and repressed passion, each image given a painterly touch, a soul-wrenching portrayal of hearts in conflict with themselves.
  25. Looper
    Not since the original “Blade Runner” has a dark vision of the future had such an original aesthetic. This elliptical journey, depicting the struggles of the millennial generation versus the boomers via metaphor, is my choice for the most underrated film of the 21st century - one which should be revisited and appreciated.

Honorable mentions:

  1. A.I.
  2. The Pianist
  3. La La Land
  4. In the Bedroom

All-media best of 2016

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2016 All-media Review The best in books, movies, tv and more

My picks for the best in media for 2016. I pared the list down to as small as I could make it but still ended up with 26 items. Here they are, unranked, but roughly in order of preference.

BoJack Horseman - “Fish out of Water”

The fourth episode of BoJack Horseman’s third season was an inspired journey. The underwater setting for this story - claustrophobic, isolating, weighed by a pervasive pressure - was the perfect metaphor for the stifling mental territory traveled by BoJack. This series is astounding in its emotional depth, and this episode in particular brings a pathos and poignancy you’d never expect from an animated show about a sitcom star with a kiddie art style. With its second and third seasons, BoJack joins the likes of Don Draper and Walter White as one of the most psychologically compelling antiheroes of television.

Mr. Robot VR short film / Comic-Con experience

I already posted at length about this, but, the TL;DR version: the Mr. Robot VR experience opened my eyes to a new world of cinematic possibilities for virtual reality filmmaking. Like the transition from silent cinema to the sound era, or black and white to color, seeing a smart filmmaker take advantage of a new storytelling medium was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Atlanta - Season One

No show on television took more risks than this one, and audiences were rewarded with a fully-realized world that’s just a bit off. With a David Lynchian view, where the ‘normal’ world is shifted to an askew angle, ‘Atlanta’ is populated by oddities - but familiar ones. Brian Tyree Henry should win every acting award possible this year, with his stellar supporting role as the underground rapper Paper Boi. Not since James Gandolfini’s portrayal of Tony Soprano has an actor been able to convey so much with the slightest of eye-rolls or eyebrow-furrows.

Game of Thrones - Season Six

For a show that’s garnered a reputation for events so shocking that it’s become common for people to record their reactions on video, the finale for this season, titled “The Winds of Winter,” opened with a jaw-dropping sequence of horror executed with unparalleled aesthetic beauty. The “Battle of the Bastards” showcased some of the best stunts and war-choreography ever captured in moving images. “The Door” delivered an emotional wallop that unleashed thousands of Tumblr memes.

Stranger Things - Season One

I just loved everything about this Netflix series. The kids. The period details. The geeky homages. David Harbour’s incredible performance as Chief Hopper, the pained, rumpled and reluctant hero. Millie Bobby Brown, the casting find of the year, a prodigy with a debut performance of mystery, innocence and supernatural fury as Eleven.

Black Mirror - Season Three

This dark series exploring the frontiers of dystopic near-futures grappling with the consequences of technologies run amok continues to amaze. I enjoyed every episode, but there were three classics this year - ‘Nosedive,’ a tale of social-media credit scoring with Bryce Dallas Howard; ‘San Junipero,’ about a virtual world with Mackenzie Davis; and ‘Hated in the Nation,’ a feature-length episode about dystopic social media and terror with Kelly MacDonald.

Hamilton Soundtrack / Hamilton Mix-Tape

OK, technically the soundtrack came out in Fall of 2015 and I was late to the party. I was holding out hope to see the show live before hearing it, but couldn’t wait any longer. The intelligence and passion in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s telling of Alexander Hamilton’s story is a work of genius, imbuing the founders with a contemporary vitality in Shakespearean fashion. Can’t wait to see the show when it comes to Houston.

March: Book Three

This essential American classic concludes with a final chapter filled with power and impact. Congressman John Lewis’s journey in the civil rights movement reaches its destined steps across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma with devastating effect.

A Hundred Thousand Worlds

My favorite novel of the year. A road-trip story with a mother and son, traveling the country navigating the comic-book convention circuit. Its depiction of modern con culture is exceedingly well-observed. Filled with a cast of characters across the comics/sci-fi community, a greek chorus of cosplay girls, but centered on a wonderful and complicated relationship.

La La Land

Up until this year, I think I’d be on record as pretty much hating the musical genre. I could never get past the whole “breaking into song” transition. But this film is a transcendent delight. In a year filled with a pervasive sense of dread, this tale of starry-eyed lovers pursuing their passions is welcome invitation into a world of dreams.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

No chance at an ubiased view here. I’m an unapologetic Star Wars fan and this was one of the best movies in the history of the series. The final 30 minutes are pretty damned flawless; some of the best space battles ever put in a sci-fi movie. And that scene where you-know-who does you-know-what was a heart-pounding thrill.

Blue Monday

This book is gorgeous to look at; fantastic cartooning in service of a delightful period piece about adolescence and musical obsession. If you enjoyed “Scott Pilgrim” you’ll probably love this one.

Tokyo Ghost

This demented Mad Max with a cyberpunkian twist was an orgy of incredible visuals - an onslaught of imagery. This dystopian mix of information-addicted masses exploited by a debauched elite class spoke to the year 2016 perhaps better than anything in entertainment this year.

Deadly Class

Rick Remender and Wes Craig's ongoing series continues to be among the best in comics. The artwork is extraordinary every time. The most recent arc sees a turnover in the main cast and the choices were exciting and unexpected.

Love Addict: Confessions of a Serial Dater

This graphic novel memoir of a young man becoming addicted to contemporary dating apps is darkly humorous, filled with cringe-inducing moments of honesty worthy of a Ricky Gervais or Larry David show.

Fun Family

This book answers a question you never knew that you desperately wanted answered: what if the “Family Circus” cartoon family was real, three-dimensional, filled with ennui, dread, and various mid-life crises? Hilarious and moving.

Moonglow

Michael Chabon’s novel/memoir about his grandfather’s life as a World War II soldier and rocketry enthusiast who was doomed (or gifted?) to fall in love with a mysterious woman with strange behaviors stemming from mental health issues is yet another example of Chabon’s mastery of language and narrative. It’s a slow-building, meandering family drama that culminates in some amazing revelations which illuminate not only Chabon’s family life but several of his themes and obsessions over the course of his literary career.

Company Town

Madeline Ashby’s sci-fi novel about a security agent on a rig city is densely packed with incredible speculative concepts and fascinating transhumanist meditations. The central character navigates a cyberpunk underworld of sex workers from a strong feminist perspective.

Captain Fantastic

Viggo Mortensen is mesmerizing in this film about an uncompromising parent struggling to raise a family off-the-grid. Mortensen brings a sense of righteousness, principle, passion, intelligence - but conflicted by melancholy and doubt.

The Night Of

HBO should have deleted True Detective Season 2 from existence and retitled this mini-series and released it as the real True Detective Season 2. This mini-series managed to breathe life and originality into the tired crime procedural format. Two of the best performances of the year were in this show: Riz Ahmed’s numbed and post-traumatic “Naz,” and John Turturro’s lumbering and eczema-plagued John Stone. The showcase scene in the template for this genre, the defense lawyer final argument, has become so weighted with cliches and terrible examples, it was amazing to see The Night Of reclaim this trope with a truly original, well-earned example that belongs in the final-argument pantheon alongside Gregory Peck’s “To Kill a Mockingbird."

Arrival

Denis Villeneuve has a solid claim as the top-ranked pound-for-pound champion in the arena of cinema, and his musical collaborator Jóhann Jóhannsson brings another hypnotic score. Arrival is a rare sci-fi film that manages to capture what’s best on the literary side of the genre - ideas, mystery, and humanity.

The Nice Guys

Movies are always a delight when Shane Black is at the top of his game, and this is one of the best films written by the Ur-Tarantino. “The Nice Guys” is hilarious, an engaging mystery and authentic period piece rolled into one, anchored by Gosling’s charm and Crowe’s menace.

Manchester by the Sea

A deeply moving film about loss, Manchester’s drag of melancholic gravity is enlivened with a dark wit. Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams and Lucas Hedges all give Oscar-caliber performances. Lonnergan is almost invisible as a director, never employing camera tricks or edits that bring attention to themselves, managing to bring the intimacy of a dramatic theater performance to cinema.

Orange is the New Black - Season Four

“OitNB” continues its streak of excellence, with each season an arguable contender for best in the series. This year’s was no exception, and culminated in a final trio of devastatingly brilliant episodes.

Everybody Wants Some

Richard Linklater’s latest combines a number of things I love: the ‘80s, baseball, Texas; exploring them in meandering, philosophical conversations about competition and authenticity.

Halt and Catch Fire - Season Three

This season was filled with unexpected turns and bold choices. There’s a lot to love in this show, but I just want to single out supporting actor Toby Huss, the weathered, plain-spoken Texan that provides a calming center to this show’s erratic leads. When he calls bullshit on something, he’s right - and does it with Lone Star style.

The future of filmmaking is V.R.

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Mr. Robot VR episode Mind-blowing experience at SDCC 2016

The clear winner of San Diego Comic-Con 2016 was “Mr. Robot” - with its amazing offsite experience. A retail slot in downtown San Diego was converted to look like the titular company in the television show, filled with vintage computer equipment.


Behind the storefront was a re-creation of Eliot’s apartment, where visitors got to see a glimpse into the future of filmmaking with a 12-minute virtual reality mini-episode.


I considered the prospects for VR to be contained within the realm of videogames and interactive experiences. It seemed like too much of a gimmick to work as an effective medium for cinema.

I was dead wrong. VR filmmaking contains incredible potential.

Early in the “Mr. Robot” VR episode, deft camera placement introduces the viewer into an entirely new cinematic experience: the viewer becomes the editor. Placing a camera between two subjects separated by a distance leaves the viewer in complete control of the ‘edit’ - who are you going to watch? Why? Do you watch the speaker, or the listener reacting? Did you catch everything in the performance?

At one point, the main character goes on one of his lengthy narrations and the camera remains static, placing the viewer in a voyeuristic perspective. The angle is a bit wider than most TV shots like this, and it’s an extremely long take without a cut. The performance has a stage/theatrical quality to it. Paradoxically, the viewer is more distant in physical proximity, but the sensation is more immediate than traditional cinema. The viewer experiences what it’s like to be invisible and eavesdropping on a private moment. As this progresses, the narrator enters an altered mental state, and the VR camera swiftly moves into an unexpected position - creating the illusion for the viewer that they are floating. An immediate transition for the viewer occurs: from a voyeur in the third-person, to a more direct connection with the main character. The viewer seems to occupy two states of being simultaneously: immersive, in that you are still a voyeur present in physical space - but also abstract: your sensation of movement becomes the emotional state of the main character. Godlike powers of observation and experience are there for the viewer to behold.

Later, a pair of characters are placed in a ferris wheel: a confined space, yet semi-transparent, lacking control, as the outside world spins around you. All of which captures the paranoia of the central character. The ferris wheel is also an ideal setting for an awkwardly romantic moment. The VR camera is placed at an unnerving ultra-close position next to one of the characters - creating a sense of intimacy that makes the viewer feel as if they are violating the characters’ personal space. You could just lean in a bit and kiss a character on the neck, or feel like you could read their thoughts just from observing them this closely.

The pair walks along the waterfront, in a moment that seems almost pedestrian in comparison - but then, the moment segues into an impressionistic sequence of silhouettes, shapes, sounds and music. It was wild, thrilling, and fairly simple in construction. Mere scratching of the surface of the potential of VR. The first musical VR film is going to be an incredible trip (Paging: Flaming Lips! See this film! Be inspired! Be next!).

The film concludes with a static camera shot taken, in true Mr Robot fashion, from a skewed Kubrickian high angle, looking down on characters lying down on a bed. Then, a character stands up a takes a seat, effectively changing his axis of orientation by ninety degrees, but the camera remains fixed in its original position. Viewers can try to compensate by tilting their head, but tilting beyond 45 degrees or so becomes uncomfortable, leaving the final images to subjective choices by the viewer - which degree of physical or spatial disorientation do you prefer to experience this moment in?

The best movies of 2015

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These Unusual Suspects Provided the best cinematic wonders of the year.

Art by @RentonHawkey. View large version.

I live in Houston, where we don't get all of the award-contending films until much later. Films like Son of Saul and Anomalisa only recently opened. I count the movie calendar year as beginning and ending w/ the Oscars. The Academy gets to have their say tomorrow; here's mine. I had a blast at the movies this year, but it was a strange year. A lot of the prestige dramas didn't quite live up to their hype or pedigree. As a result, my best-of-year list is filled with more genre films than usual.

12. Carol

Just plain beautiful: gorgeous cinematography, make-up and costume design. Well-executed period-specific production design. Carter Burwell's evocative musical score rounds out a film where every frame pulses with aesthetic pleasures.

11. Brooklyn

Saorise Ronan's fantastic portrayal, fully inhabiting a timeless immigrant tale, brings a vivid sense of the alienation and inner conflict felt on both sides of the Atlantic. Brie Larson was indeed great in Room, but Ronan is my pick for the best actress Oscar (although both of them should've received additional competition from an actress who wasn't nominated but stole the show in the #1 movie of the year).

10. Love and Mercy

Paul Dano and John Cusack's dual portrayal of Brian Wilson spanning decades is one of the strongest acting achievements of the decade and it's a fuckin' felony that they were both overlooked for nominations.

9. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Easily the most surprising delight of the year. Wonderfully affecting. Laugh-out-loud funny. Skin-crawlingly cringe-inducing. Great ensemble performances. Sneaks in several emotional body-blows with the efficiency of a champion boxer - you're braced to expect them coming but they still land hard. As a feature debut for Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, this announces an exciting filmmaker to watch.

8. Creed

2015 was quite the year for 7th-installments in franchises that-are-also-kinda-reboots/remakes. Creed distills the Rocky formula back to its base elements, with remarkable success. Stunning to see that Sly Stallone can still summon up everything that was brilliant about his original portrayal of Rocky Balboa, despite all the baggage that the franchise and Stallone himself accumulated over the years.

7. Sicario

Holy mother of all fuck, those set-piece action sequences. Holy mother of all fuck, that soundtrack. Holy mother of all fuck, the moral darkness. And of course - the man, the myth, the legend: cinematographer Roger Deakins, who still to this date is owed so many Oscars I've lost count.

6. Straight Outta Compton

The most underrated film of the year. Outrageous that it did not get a best picture nomination. The Academy has a long history of drastically over-valuing films with a musical spine, so its absence is even more frustrating. Here is a film exploding with cultural relevance and contemporary resonance, it has an incredible ensemble cast, and yet it is ignored. #OscarsSoWhite indeed.

5. Ex Machina

With its confined single-location structure, this film feels like a stage play. Ex Machina captures the best of science fiction - meditating on the deeper moral consequences of possibilities suggested by current technological trends. Oscar Isaac's eccentric Stanley Kubrickian computer genius is one of the more fascinating performances to observe in recent memory. Ex Machina avoids the genre film convention of ending with a bombastic sequence, pressing the limits of special effects technology and action choreography. Instead, this film concludes with relatively quieter techniques: longer shots, lingering moments, singularity of action - and the results were chilling and transcendent.

4. The Big Short

Steve Carell's performance as Mark Baum is not only my vote for best actor of the year, I'm shortlisting it for best of the decade consideration. Carell embodied the outrage of a generation, the righteous anger that has been suppressed in the wake of the Great Recession. In the 1976 masterpiece Network, actor Peter Finch channeled madness and chaos into his portrayal of Howard Beale. Carell does something equally powerful here - instead of fully expressing that rage, instead of opening the window and shouting that he's mad as hell and can't take it anymore - Carell attempts to put a lid on it, and re-direct his fury into constructive action.

3. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Kudos to Kathleen Kennedy, Lawrence Kasdan and JJ Abrams. They managed to make The Force mysterious and awe-inspiring again. They evolved a narrative for Han Solo that retained the essence of the character and broke fresh territory. They created a trio of new protagonists worthy of continuing in further adventures. Harrison Ford shocked us all by being able to turn on the switch and embody everyone's favorite space pirate as if the past thirty years hadn't happened. Adam Driver gave the Star Wars universe a much-needed bad-ass villain. The mythological structure of Star Wars and its inspiration from Joseph Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces spawned generations of imitators - but Daisy Ridley stepped into the archetype and made it her own. That goosebump-raising moment in the snow - the literal passing of the torch from the old generation to the new - was probably my favorite moment in cinema in 2015.

2. Spotlight

It's hard to praise this film because its brilliance is so evenly distributed across its humble structure. Stellar cast. Every single role played memorably. Subtle fly-on-the-wall camera work. Spotlight matches classic investigative films like All the President's Men and Zodiac for its devotion to process and detail: knocking on doors, scrolling through microfiche, consulting dusty directories stacked in basement archives. Liev Schrieber brings an understated authority. Michael Keaton and John Slattery both manage to convey a creeping sense of dread at realizing institutional failure - both from structures they trusted as well as those they personally participated in. Rachel McAdams and Mark Ruffalo depict the shoe-leather industriousness and dedication of the unsung hero reporters who shocked the world with their revelations.

1. Mad Max: Fury Road

By the time the film reaches the twenty minute mark, when Immortan Joe's vehicle army reveals itself to not only have its own rhythm section, but also its own flame-throwing heavy metal lead guitarist, I knew I had already seen the best movie of the year and it wasn't even half done. Charlize Theron out-Clint-Eastwooded Clint Eastwood. The incessant velocity of action and spectacle was thrilling to behold. Here is a film that lived by its motto: WITNESS ME.

The quiet brilliance of "Tim Ginger"

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Tim Ginger by Artist/Writer Julian Hanshaw

Top Shelf Productions have recently published Tim Ginger by artist-writer Julian Hanshaw, and it's one of the best graphic novels of the year.

What is Tim Ginger about? Well, it's about a lot of things. It's about a test pilot living out his retirement in the quiet plains of New Mexico. It's about the choice to not have children. It's about UFOs and conspiracies. Book tours. Cricket.

The book immerses readers into quiet moments of isolation with an iconic and minimalist cartooning style. The page below renders the rhythms of retirement living in a trailer in the deserts of New Mexico with beautifully observed details: the sound of Lana Del Rey playing on a radio, the flow of water and twist of a faucet knob, the sounds of a mouse trapped in a roach motel.


A different technique is employed in the page below to similarly immersive effect. In a small diner, the kind of dive the titular character visits while on a low-budget book tour, individual panels frame details of the diner amidst snippets of conversation, continuing the quiet rhythms of Tim Ginger's post-retirement life:


This page in particular conveys one of the major themes of Tim Ginger, a pervasive feeling of solitude. Details in the panels stand alone: a napkin dispenser, a toaster, a checkout register, and finally a pair of characters who have been separated by years and geography are now brought together but the perception is still tinged with a feeling of disconnection.

The understated color palette of the artwork establishes a temperature for the scenes - the heat of the desert, the quiet of a small hotel room at dusk, and the contrast between events in the present day and the past.

There's also a book-within-the-book, in a series of pages rendered in an alternate black-and-white style, which illustrate the theme of childlessness and the reasons why people make that choice.

Tim's experiences as a test pilot are rendered in a stark black-and-white style, occasionally juxtaposed with sequences of surreal images that are Felliniesque.

There is a dreamlike quality to the meandering threads of Tim Ginger; the narrative courses with unexpected bends that may seem random and disconnected in the moment - but artist/writer Julian Hanshaw weaves all of its disparate threads into a unified tapestry that concludes with a wonderfully effective and cathartic ending.

Jonathan Hickman asks: "What should I do next?"

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Jonathan Hickman At his spotlight panel SDCC 2015

Jonathan Hickman posed a question to the room as he opened his spotlight panel at San Diego Comic-Con 2015: "Should I stay at Marvel, go to DC, or go exclusively with Image?" He asked each person who stepped to the mic at the Q&A portion of the panel to weigh in on his career path.

The first person to the mic said Hickman should stay at Marvel. There was some small applause. The next person said Image, and the applause was definitely louder. As the discussion continued, with a few exceptions, the overwhelming majority of fans said he should go exclusively with Image.

Almost all of Hickman's works were touched upon in the discussion, ranging from SHIELD to Secret Warriors, FF, Avengers, Ultimates - but the clear favorites among those in the room were Hickman's Image titles, with many citing East of West as his best work.

Hickman kept a tally of each person's vote and at the end of the panel said that he was probably going to go in the Image direction anyway, but he wanted to see where his readers preferences were. He stressed the creative freedom at Image and said that ownership has changed the lives of many of his comic creator friends. He had nothing but great things to say about Marvel, and he said that he's simply been too overwhelmed with work to know too much about the books that are launching after Secret Wars, but he said that he's looking forward to Jason Aaron's Doctor Strange.

Hickman said his next will work include something he will write and draw himself, and be in the experimental vein, more akin to works like The Nightly News.

In his closing remarks, Hickman said that because of the readership engaging with creator-owned comics and vaulting Image into a 10% market-share, there's not only great work now, but he looks into the near future and believes that in the next five years, this transformed marketplace will free creators even more, and the next five years of books could be extraordinary.

Live from San Diego Comic-Con

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@SDCC '15
Bloggingheads.TV Culturally Determined with Aryeh Cohen-Wade

While at San Diego Comic-Con 2015, I made an appearance on the Culturally Determined show on Bloggingheads.tv. We talked about the convention, breaking into comics, the state of the industry, and title recommendations:

The Alan Sepinwall / Dan Feinberg podcast

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Feinberg & Sepinwall The Siskel & Ebert of the 21st Century

Today I caught up on the latest episode of the Alan Sepinwall / Dan Feinberg podcast, Firewall and Iceberg. At the top of the show, they announced that Dan Feinberg will be leaving HitFix.com soon, and this departure leaves the future of the show in doubt. They plan to continue it in some fashion. Here's hoping they do so.

If you haven't experienced their show, you should visit the archives. There, you will find the best criticism of television available on the Internet. You'll find lots of great humor, intelligence and recommendations for things you should've been watching.

Dan Feinberg in particular is an essential critical voice. He engages with material on a level that few critics ever reach: he broadens an audience's understanding of a work, he has an almost superheroic ability to compartmentalize: if a show's got major problems but excels in a small detail: Feinberg will excavate that detail, and appreciate every hidden gem.

Feinberg is also the absolute master of the art of damning with faint praise. But the funny thing about when he employs this technique - it isn't malicious or mean-spirited. He seems to genuinely wish that every time his praise is faint, he's grasping at any opportunity to raise the praise-o-meter but, alas, the work just fell short.

The duo of Sepinwall and Feinberg have the best banter and complementary critical insights since Siskel and Ebert. Among the many things their show is commendable for is the simple fact that they give every show a fair shot. Networks, directors, writers, actors - anyone who's got a new project - even if Feinberg/Sepinwall have loathed their work in the past, you can tell they get a fair shot. Their relentless commitment to finding great stuff - no matter from what platform it arises on - is how they manage to be essential. Several times a year, they'll unearth something unexpected and if I've learned anything listening to their show, if they recommend something, you should give it a shot. This commitment also makes for an entertaining listen each week. They delve deeply into shows and genres that I'd never bother watching, and yet, even when discussing a show I have no interest in, I always find their analysis entertaining and enlightening in and of itself.

Here's to hoping they find a new venue and continue the show for many years to come.

Milton Lawson

Milton is a writer living in Houston. Comics, travelogues. Go Astros. Go Texans.

A short comic about an indie music shop written by Milton Lawson with art by Dave Chisholm

A travelogue about four friends taking their first trip to Europe. Now available on Amazon.com.