Brandon’s Top Genre Gems & Trashy Treasures of 2017

1. Power Rangers – The last thing I would have expected from a superhero origin story that’s simultaneously a reboot of a 90s nostalgia property and a long-form Krispy Kreme commercial is that would bring a tear to my eye, but it happened several times throughout the latest Power Rangers film. Long before Power Rangers is overrun with alien sorcery, robot dinosaurs, and corporate-made donuts, it shines as a measured, well-constructed character study for a group of teenage outsiders longing for a sense of camaraderie, whether terrestrial or otherwise. Isolated by their sexuality, their position “on the spectrum,” their responsibility of caring for ailing parents​, and their past bone-headed mistakes, the teens who eventually morph into the titular Power Rangers are a broken, lonely lot. Still, this is a nostalgia-minded camp fest that’s not at all above cheap pops like briefly playing the 90s “Go Go Power Rangers” theme during its climactic battle. Its greatest strength is in the tension between those tones.

2. Monster Trucks – The rare camp cinema gem that’s both fascinating in the deep ugliness of its creature design and genuinely amusing in its whole-hearted dedication to children’s film inanity. It isn’t often that camp cinema this wonderfully idiotic springs up naturally without winking at the camera; it’s a gift to be cherished.  Monster Trucks feels like a relic of the 1990s, its existence as an overbudget $125 million production being entirely baffling in a 2017 context. It may be a good few years before any Hollywood studio goofs up this badly again and lets something as interesting-looking & instantly entertaining as Creech see the light of day, so enjoy this misshapen beast while you can.

3. IT – An excellent wake-up call to the value of mainstream horror filmmaking done right. IT is an Event Film dependent on the jump scares, CGI monsters, and blatant nostalgia pandering (even casting one of the Stranger Things kids to drive that last point home) that its indie cinema competition has been consciously undermining to surprising financial success in recent years. What’s impressive is how the film prominently, even aggressively relies on these features without at all feeling insulting, lifeless, or dull. While indie filmmakers search for metaphorical & atmospheric modes of “elevated” horror, IT stands as a declarative, back to the basics return to mainstream horror past, a utilitarian approach with payoffs that somehow far outweigh its muted artistic ambitions, which tend to lurk at the edges of the frame.

 

4. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2/ Thor: Ragnarok – Apparently, all of the MCU’s tendencies to squash auteurist voices with a collective House Style go out the window when they launch their franchises into space. Hip nerds James Gunn & Taika Waititi were both allowed to deliver the most aggressively bizarre, personal entries in the MCU yet with their respective space operas. Thor: Ragnarok‘s Planet Trash buffoonery (complete with off-the-wall contributions from eternal freaks Jeff Goldblum & Mark Mothersbaugh) was particularly idiosyncratic, like Pure Waititi doing Flash Gordon in the best way. Gunn’s film is much more emotionally grounded, somehow pulling off a genuinely touching climax after two full hours of cartoonishly violent, darkly comic id. Both works deserve kudos for excelling as intensely creative, memorable feats in blockbuster filmmaking.

5. XX –  Four concise, slickly directed, but stylistically varied horror shorts that each take chances on premises rich enough to justify an 80 minute feature’s leg room, but are instead boiled down to digestible, bite-sized morsels. As a contribution to the horror anthology as a medium & a tradition, XX is a winning success in two significant ways: each individual segment stands on its own as a worthwhile sketch of a larger idea & the collection as a whole functions only to provide breathing room for those short-form experiments. On top of all that, it also boasts the added bonus of employing five women in directorial roles, something that’s sadly rare in any cinematic tradition, not just horror anthologies.

6. Logan – There’s a lot to be excited about here: a superhero narrative that tries its hand in genre contexts outside the action blockbuster (even though I’m not particularly a fan of Westerns), the throat-ripping hyperviolence, a Wolverine Who Cusses, a Lil’ Wolverine you can fit in your pocket, etc. What really won me over in Logan, though, was how deeply weird the movie felt. Aesthetically, the closest reference point I could conjure for its mixture of childlike imagination & dispiriting grime is Terry Gilliam’s Tideland, which is a much more challenging vibe than what we’re used to seeing in superhero fare. The fact that it (accidentally) offers a legitimate glimpse into the future of Trump’s America in the process makes it all the more bizarre & worth seeking out.

7. The Fate of the FuriousThe Fast and the Amnesious is a universe without a center. It’s a series that continually retcons stories, characters, and even deaths to serve the plot du jour. That’s why it’s a brilliant move to shake up the sense of normalcy that’s been in-groove since the fifth installment in the series by giving Daddy Dom a reason to walk away from his Family, whom he loves so dearly.  F. Gary Gray brings the same sense of monstrously explosive fun to this franchise entry as he did to the exceptional N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton. He strays from past tonal choices and character traits, but ultimately sticks to the core of the only things that have remained consistent in the series: there’s no problem in the world that can’t be solved by a deadly, explosion-heavy street race and even the most horrific of Familial tragedies can be undone by a backyard barbeque, where grace is said before every meal and Coronas, um, I mean Budweisers are proudly lifted into the air for a communal toast. There’s something beautiful about that (and also something sublimely silly).

8. Free Fire – In its earliest, broadest brushstrokes, Free Fire is disguised as a return to the over-written, vulgar shoot-em-ups that flooded indie cinemas with their macho mediocrity in the years immediately following Quentin Tarantino’s first few features. Thankfully, things get much stranger from there. What’s fascinating is the way High-Rise director Ben Wheatley pushes a bare-bones premise, which is essentially a feature-length shoot-out, past the point of mediocre Tarantino-riffing into something much more transcendently absurd. By the film’s third act, its stubborn dedication to a single, bombastic bit becomes so punishingly relentless that it’s sublimely (and hilariously) surreal. It’s the shoot-em-up equivalent of a parent forcing their child to smoke an entire pack of cigarettes. I’m not sure I ever want to see a gun fired in a movie again.

9. Wheelman – There weren’t many action movies last year leaner & meaner than this direct-to-streaming sleeper. The heist-gone-wrong plot is lizard brain simple, leaving plenty of room for the slickly edited camera trickery & city-wide mountain of paranoia that drive the film’s action. It’s as if the opening getaway sequence of Drive was stretched out for a full 80 minutes and packed to the gills with explosively dangerous testosterone. The majority of the film is shot from inside a car, even the conflict-inciting bank robbery, so that the audience feels like they were shoved in the back seat against their will and taken on a reckless ride into the night.

10. Atomic Blonde – One of the more bizarre aspects of this Charlize Theron action vehicle is the way it hops on the 80s nostalgia train, yet somehow its pop culture throwbacks feel oddly curated and not quite part of the Stranger Things & Ready Player One trend. Set on both sides of The Berlin Wall in 1989, the film’s estimation of 80s pop culture include references like David Hasselhoff, Tetris, skateboarding, grafitti, neon lights, etc. In one indicative scene, Theron beats up a horde of faceless goons in front of a movie screen at a cinema that happens to be projecting Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Atomic Blonde is a weird little nerd pretending to fit in with the popular kids. As nerdy as its 80s pop culture references can be, though, its basic pleasures are universally apparent. This is a summertime popcorn picture that banks on the central hook that its audience will never tire of watching Charlize Theron beat down men while wearing slick fashion creations & listening to synthpop. It’s not wrong.

11. Girls Trip – An unashamedly maudlin comedy about adult sisterhood that drowns its audience in melodramatic cheese in its reflections on motherhood, religious Faith, adultery, betrayal, and falling out of touch with loved ones. Also one of the bawdiest, most aggressively horny comedies of the year, with a turn from breakout star Tiffany Haddish steering the ship out of Hallmark Channel waters towards the prankish filth of Divine’s turn in Pink Flamingos every opportunity she’s allowed at the helm. These two warring halves– the raunchy & the sentimental– make for a wholly unpredictable, tonally chaotic summertime comedy with gleeful participation in overt, oversexed filth that plays directly to my raccoonish tastes.

12. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets – Objectively speaking, this  horrible excuse for a space opera is a colossally goofy embarrassment. But I think I loved it? Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element somewhat passes as a normal movie if you squint at it from the right angle. This spiritual follow-up never had a chance, thanks largely to its titular lead. Dane DeHaan pretty much delivers a feature-length Keanu Reeves impersonation as the space-traveling swashbuckler Valerian, doing as much as he can to suck all the fun out of the film’s weirdo indulgences in grotesque creatures & alien planet dreamscapes. The movie persists as a misshapen good time anyway and I was oddly won over by DeHaan’s charisma vacuum as the story recklessly barreled along, despite myself.

13. Happy Death Day – Its defining gimmick may be dutifully reimagining the 1990s comedy Groundhog Day as a violent teen slasher, but what’s most surprising is that the slasher end of that gimmick is very much tied to the second wave slasher boom that arrived in the nü metal days of the late 90s & early 00s. Happy Death Day‘s depictions of PG-13 acceptable violence echo the big budget action & comedy beats that tinged post-Scream slashers like Urban Legend & I Know What You Did Last Summer. There’s a masked killer who murders our (deeply flawed) protagonist dozens & dozens of times on her birthday as she relives the same time loop on endless repeat, but outside a few jump scares & moments of horror tradition teen-stalking, the film doesn’t truly aim to terrorize.  Repetition allows the doomed sorority girl to adjust to her supernaturally morbid predicament and Happy Death Day gradually evolves into a girly (even if mean-girly) comedy that employs horror more as a setting than as an ethos.

14. Friend Request – When this dirt cheap supernatural slasher was first released in its native Germany, it was originally titled Unfriend. To avoid confusion with the modern found footage classic Unfriended (known as Unknown User in Germany), the title was later switched to Friend Request in its move to the US. This uninteded comparison does Friend Request no favors, really, as it’s the Bucky Larson: Born to be a Porn Star to Unfriended’s Boogie Nights, the Corky Romano to its Goodfellas. As the sillier, more formulaic entry into the social media-age technophobia horror canon, the film only stands a chance to excel as a campy, over-the-top novelty. Thankfully, as an airheaded jump scare fest about a Faceboook witch, it delivers on that entertainment potential (in)competently.

15. Death Race 2050 – Not much more than an R-rated version of straight-to-SyFy Channel schlock, but makes its cheap camp aesthetic count when it can and survives comfortably on its off-putting tone of deeply strange “bad”-on-purpose black comedy. Much more closely in line with the Paul Bartel-directed/Roger Corman-produced original film Death Race 2000 than its gritty, self-serious Paul W.S. Anderson remake, Death Race 2050 is a cheap cash-in on the combined popularity of Hunger Games & Fury Road and makes no apologies for that light-hearted transgression. The original Death Race 2000, along with countless other Corman productions, surely had an influence on both the Mad Max & Hunger Games franchises and it’s hilarious to see the tirelessly self-cannibalizing film producer still willing to borrow from his own spiritual descendants for a quick buck all these years later.

16. Alien: Covenant -Instead of aiming for the arty pulp of Prometheus, Covenant drags the Alien series’ newfound philosophical themes down to the level of a pure Roger Corman creature feature. This prequel-sequel is much more of a paint-by-numbers space horror genre picture than its predecessor, but that’s not necessarily a quality that ruins its premise. Through horrific cruelty, striking production design, and the strangest villainous performance to hit a mainstream movie in years (it really should be retitled Michael Fassbender: Sex Robot), Covenant easily gets by as a memorably entertaining entry in its series. If it could be considered middling, it’s only because the Alien franchise has a better hit-to-miss ratio than seemingly any other decades-old horror brand typically has eight films into its catalog.

17. Kuso -How do you feel about the idea of watching Parliament Funkadelic mastermind George Clinton play a doctor who cures a patient of their fear of breasts by allowing a giant cockroach to crawl out of his ass & puke a milky bile all over their face? Your answer to that question should more or less establish your interest level in the gross-out horror comedy Kuso, in which that visual detail is just one minor curio in the larger freak show gestalt. With his debut feature as a director, Steve Ellison (who produces music under the monikers Flying Lotus & Captain Murphy) has made a Pink Flamingos for the Adult Swim era, a shock value comedy that aims to disgust a generation of degenerates who’ve already Seen It All, as they’ve grown up with internet access. Most audiences will likely find that exercise pointless & spiritually hollow, but I admired Kuso both as a feature length prank with Looney Tunes sound effects and as a practical effects visual achievement horror show.

18. The Babysitter – McG might finally found a proper outlet for his directorial style’s music video kineticism: bubblegum pop horror. The director’s tacky, over-energized breakfast cereal commercial aesthetic tested audiences’ patience in his Charlie’s Angels adaptations. The unbearably dour Terminator: Salvation proved that tonally sober seriousness would never be his forte either. The straight-to-Netflix horror comedy The Babysitter might be proof, however, that there is a perfect place in this world for McG’s hyperactive tastelessness. Essentially Home Alone 6(?!): Invasion of the Teenage Satanists, The Babysitter turns the cheerleader uniforms, spin-the-bottle games, and babysitting gigs of horny teen archetypes into a screwball comedy of violent terrors, an excellent backdrop for the tacky live action cartoon energy of McG’s crude, auteurist tendencies.

19. The Book of Henry – An unintended camp pleasure, entirely due to the unfathomably poor writing behind Naomi Watt’s mother figure, whose complete deferment to her 12-year-old son for every single adult decision is comically bizarre. In the film’s funniest moment, Watts’s protagonist is visibly frustrated that she can’t ask her son Henry for permission to sign medical documents because he’s in the middle of having a seizure. Her narrative trajectory of gradually figuring out that maybe she shouldn’t get all of her life advice from a precocious 12-year-old, not to mention a (spoiler) dead precocious 12 year old, is treated like a grand scale life lesson we all must learn in due time, when it’s something that’s already obvious from the outset. It’s also a scenario that only exists in this ludicrous screenplay anyway. She’s the most ridiculously mishandled adult female character I can remember seeing since Bryce Dallas Howard’s starring role in Colin Trevorrow’s last abomination, Jurassic World, another performance I’d place firmly in the so-bad-it’s-good camp.

20. Pottersville – Plays a lot like a Christmas-themed, kink-shaming episode of Pushing Daisies, with its plot’s overarching sweetness more or less amounting to It’s a Wonderful Yiff.  I wouldn’t suggest entering Pottersville if you’re not looking for a campy, tonally bizarre holiday comedy, but its novelty subversion of the Hallmark Channel Christmas Movie formula is both deliberate and surprisingly successful. Considering that Michael Shannon stars as an undercover Bigfoot hoaxer drunkenly attempting to infiltrate a community of small town furries in a modern retelling of It’s a Wonderful Life, I have to assume everyone involved knew exactly what they were doing in achieving this aesthetic imbalance. You don’t stumble into that kind of absurdity completely by mistake no more than you can accidentally wander into yuletide yiffing.

-Brandon Ledet

Boomer’s Top Films of 2017

What a year it’s been! 2017 was a pretty mixed bag, all things considered. I had a pretty bad fall and busted my arm so bad that I had to have four screws put in, and that forced me to miss a few releases. On the other hand, between the Alamo Drafthouse showing Inferno back in January and closing out the last Terror Tuesday at the Ritz with the mildly-Christmasy Deep Red, plus the 4K remaster of Suspiria that screened at Austin Film Society, I got to see three Dario Argento films on the big screen last year, which is nice. On top of that, for the first time in my life I can say that I was definitively both smarter than the president and more attractive than the “Sexiest” Man “Alive” (surely I wasn’t the only person who read that news and was immediately concerned that Michael B. Jordan had died, right?).

As is my personal tradition (see here and here), let’s start out with a look back on the year, and specifically mention the things I wish I had seen so that this list could be more complete, but which I (for whatever reason) missed. Austin was lucky enough to be one of the premiere cities for The Square, but my roommate passed out at a friend’s house and his phone died the night before we were supposed to see it, and it ended up being only a one week engagement. Call Me By Your Name has yet to appear in my market (and Beach Rats completely passed me by while I was laid up with a broken arm for most of the summer), and although Austin Film Society hosted screenings of both Dolores and Carpinteros, both films were gone before I could get my ducks in a row. I kept putting off watching Brian Jordan Alvarez’s Everything is Free (I loved The Gay and Wondrous Life of Caleb Gallo) because it didn’t seem like it was going anywhere, but an attempt at a recent viewing party with friends was thwarted when it turned out the film had been removed from YouTube. I am keeping my fingers crossed that this means it’s getting an actual release, because that would be lovely. A Ghost Story, Baby Driver, The Lego Batman Movie, Beatriz at Dinner, and especially I Am Not Your Negro were all movies that I planned to see, but it’s been a long, weird year, and some things are bound to fall through the cracks. Brandon didn’t care for The Bad Batch, but given that he and I have vastly different opinions of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, I would likely have ended up giving Ana Lily Amirpour’s latest a more favorable rating, or at least a place on this list. As it is, however, I missed it (and my roommate, who responds to the mere mention of A Girl Walks… with a fervent hatred that is the only rift between us, is unwilling to give it a try despite the fact that it is on Netflix). And, unfortunately, I completely forgot Professor Marston and the Wonder Women was going to be a thing before it came to theaters. Finally, it should be noted that I’m composing this list prior seeing The Last Jedi or the released-at-the-very-end-of-the-year-for-some-reason of Downsizing, which I’m pretty excited about given how much I love Alexander Payne. But let’s get to it!

Movies I saw but you won’t be seeing on this list in any form, so let’s put them here now so that you’re not holding your breath:

1. Alien: Covenant: I didn’t hate this movie. It would have had to make me feel something in order to hate it. Instead, I feel mostly indifference and disappointment at the wasted potential, and I hate what it represents. You can read a more in-depth discussion of the film’s faults here. An excerpt: “Before Scott dreamed up a reason to call it an ‘Engineer,’ the Space Jockey was just one more part of an unsolvable riddle: a giant dead body from an unknown race, seemingly eviscerated with its chest open, fossilized. It’s a tableau that induces anxiety because the riddle doesn’t seem like it can be solved, with the perpetrator and the victim both lost to time immemorial–or so it seems until the monster is born again when a group of little humans, completely unprepared for the horrors that exist beyond the fragile atmosphere of their world, stumble into the killing fields of an implacable star beast they cannot comprehend or reason with. Until Prometheus came along, there was no reason to believe that the Space Jockey had anything to do with the creation of the xenomorph; instead, he seemed to represent a previous incarnation of the cycle of violence, another innocent stargazer who happened upon a living nightmare in an earlier time and succumbed to it, its titanic stature further cementing just how fucked Ripley and her comrades are.”

2. Blade Runner 2049: I love the original Blade Runner, despite all of what the modern audience might consider faults, both inaccurately (i.e., introspective pacing) and accurately (i.e., the fact that Deckard is a straight up sexual assailant). When the sequel was announced, my reaction was more “Whyyyyyy? And why now?” than excitement; over time, though, as Denis Villeneuve was announced as director and more news came out, I came around on the idea of a Blade Runner sequel, even building up a modicum of excitement for it. But for all of this film’s beautiful vistas, stunning colors, and strong acting, I was left completely cold by it. Maybe it’s the largely unfocused nature of its narrative, or the fact that I find the idea of considering Rachael and Deckard to be endgame to be gross, or that I could live the rest of my life without another “born to be the chosen one” narrative. I’ve never seen a prettier film that left me feeling so empty.

3. I really wanted to like XX. I really, really wanted to. While the overall quality averaged much higher than other recent anthology horror films like Holidays or The ABCs of Death, it had neither the highs nor lows that made those films so memorable. Considering Holidays in particular, XX never plumbs the depths of bad storytelling and stupidity like the former film does in shorts like Halloween, Christmas, or New Year’s Eve, but neither does a single frame of it have the same staying power as the images in Mother’s Day, Easter, or especially St. Patrick’s Day. While XX’s The Box is a small, personal story that haunts you, it’s impossible to say that it’s not at least a little narratively unsatisfying. The short Her Only Living Son can take credit for giving me a really strange dream while under the influence of painkillers after my arm surgery last summer (the plot of which was basically the same as that of the short, but also starred Tyne Daly as a desert mystic and leader), but while its creep factor is decent, it was still underwhelming. Most disappointing is the short Don’t Fall, as it contains not a single frame of film you haven’t seen before, and doesn’t do anything really inventive with its bare-bones premise.

4. Justice League: It’s big, loud, inexplicably cheap looking, and completely absurd! I may have given this a relatively decent star rating (with the Camp Stamp, of course), but no way does it belong anywhere on the list of best films of the year. You can read my review here. Here’s an excerpt: “I’m not going to lie to you: this movie is clearly half-baked and it makes a lot of mistakes. When you think that it’s being clever, it’s actually just a goof. […] The most important thing I can tell you if I’m trying to give you an idea as to whether or not you should see this film is this: Justice League works, if you accept it not as part of this franchise, but as an entry into the larger cultural understanding of Superman specifically and DC in general.”

Honorable Mentions:

1. I was a big fan of Train to Busan. It technically didn’t get a release in the US until 2017, so in some ways, it could fit on this list, but it would be a bit of a cheat since it was produced and released in 2016. Starring a literal train’s worth of very attractive folks to fit everyone’s type, the film is a pretty great watch. Here’s an excerpt from my review: “Train to Busan doesn’t reinvent the wheel; in fact, there’s an awful lot of 28 Days Later in its DNA, what with the Rage-like zombies, the urban environments, the involvement of military forces (although there’s no unsettling discussion about repopulating the earth by force here as there is in Days), and the ending. Still, placing the action on a train puts a new spin on things, as when one group of survivors is trying to reach another group in a distant compartment, with the horde between them. The interplay of light and darkness, the addition of color, and a child character who’s actually quite likable (serving as her father’s conscience) are all touches that this genre was missing. It’s such an obviously great idea that I’m honestly surprised it was never done before (despite searching my memory and the internet, I can find no evidence of previous zombies-on-a-train films). It’s worth checking out at the earliest opportunity.”

2. Like its predecessor, John Wick: Chapter 2 comes blazing right out of the gates and barely lets you catch your breath. I missed the first John Wick when it came out because I couldn’t be bothered, frankly. No one expected the movie to be such a fantastic return to form both for Keanu Reeves and the action genre as a whole. Fifteen years ago, no one could have predicted that the shaky-cam aesthetic that The Bourne Identity introduced to the world and which made that film feel so fresh would eventually become the de facto shorthand for “This is action!” Since then, that style has been beaten into the ground, buried, resurrected, and beaten again, and the first film brought us back to the good old days of yore, with extensively choreographed action sequences and beautifully balanced camera movement that never distracts or tries to hide any flaws (of which there are none). This second film builds on the first’s strange but rewarding decision to create an underworld society of high class assassins, enlarging the scope of this world and taking it international. It’s definitely worth seeing, especially as a double feature with the original.

3. I can’t in good conscience say that this was one of the best films of the year, but I will say that the first ten minutes of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (and just the first ten minutes) makes for a perfectly composed short film about an idealized human future in space. The rest of the film doesn’t live up to those expectations, unfortunately. You can read my review here, and here’s an excerpt: “The effects in Valerian are so effective at rendering a beautiful world that you can’t help but get lost in it. It’s so engrossing that, when a supposedly emotional moment is happening between Laureline and Valerian near the end of the film, you forget to pay attention to the plot, such as it is. Combine that with some heavy-handed (and questionable) use of the Noble Savage trope, a dramatic “reveal” of the film’s villain that is anything but, and a notable lack of chemistry every time DeHaan and DeLevigne are on screen together, and you’ve got a beautifully imagined world captured in a fairly lackluster film.”

And now… Boomer’s Top 15 Films of 2017

15. Nothing pleased me more this year than when Brandon sent me a screenshot of a tweet from one of his podcaster friends complimenting my review of Killing of a Sacred Deer. You can read my review here; here’s an excerpt: “The emotional distance evident in dialogue is a resounding success here, as the cold world of surgeons and diagnoses, children getting slapped (and worse), long walks with ice cream, and even awkward sexual advances are all treated with the same clinical dispassion, instilling the film with a feeling of extreme detachment that resonates in every scene. This only increases the mood of growing tension that is intentionally invoked, as the audience feels their anxiety rising like a tide while the characters observe the changes in their world and worldview with infuriatingly cold tempers.”

14. No one is more surprised than I am that an X-Film about my least favorite popular mutant was not only a great movie, but actually a favorite for the year. Logan the comic book character is, as I described him in my review, a straight white male power fantasy for people with aggressive tendencies. Logan the film, on the other hand, is a somber meditation on age, obsolescence, loss, and death. This is a neo-western in a dystopian, dusty, economically depressed future in which life is cheap, crossing the border into Mexico is an ordeal, and Canada provides asylum to those on the run from an authoritarian government that hates them because they are different, all while said government not only condones but supports the imprisonment of and experimentation on children of color and treats Mexico like its dumping ground. It’s perhaps the starkest look into our likeliest future that came out all year, and demands to be seen for that reason if no other.

13. I will let my opening lines for my review of Kingsman: The Golden Circle speak for themselves: “I approached this sequel with a fair amount of trepidation. The first Kingsman was an anomaly in that it seemed to fly under most people’s radar (it was in its third week when I saw it, on a Thursday afternoon, and there was not another soul in the entire theater) but was successful enough via word of mouth (after all, there is a sequel now) that it became a bit of a cult film almost instantaneously. The press for the film has been overwhelmingly negative, and I had reservations about seeing how far a follow-up to one of my favorite films of 2015 could possibly stray into territory that garnered such negative feelings. And frankly, I just don’t get it. This movie is awesome.”

12. I recently finished Haruki Murakami’s infamously long novel 1Q84 after letting it sit on my shelf for nearly five years; I simply never felt ready to tackle its 1157 page girth. That’s about 20 pages more than most editions of Stephen King’s novel of IT, but never during the reading of Murakami’s work did it ever feel like the book was desperately in need of an editor, as I did when reading IT, even as a teenager. Even if you’ve never read it, you were undoubtedly assaulted last year by dozens of thinkpieces about the film and the novel on which it was based (and every single one of them seemed to think they were the first one to be reporting the hot scoop about the book’s creepy sex scene, even though Cracked was all over that more than a year ago). If you managed to somehow dodge all of those slings and arrows, then you should know that IT is a lengthy screed about friendship and the loss of innocence (and other things) upon the road to maturity, and also that I’ve never in my life read anything that could compete with the book for “Product Most Obviously Created by a Coked-Up Lunatic.” It’s not King’s best work (for my money, that’s The Dead Zone), but last year’s adaptation finds the kernel of perfection in that work and brings it to life, and I couldn’t recommend it more. Read Brandon’s review here.

11. When people have asked me about my 2.5 star review of mother!, the question that I get most often is if I really thought it was that bad. After all, it’s certainly a much more technically proficient film than a lot of things that I’ve given higher reviews. And there’s no mistaking that this is a sumptuous movie with intriguing visuals, haunting imagery, strong performances, an excellent cinematic eye, and an amazing cast. Even as I was writing my piece on it, I knew that I was going to be giving the film a negative rating but also that it would be on my list of 2017’s best films; this is a movie about which it’s impossible to be apathetic but completely acceptable to feel ambivalence, the perfect execution of an utterly flawed concept, and the most highly budgeted student film of all time, with all the heavy philosophical implications and themes that are so important to sophomores who just smoked weed for the first time after school with their tree-hugger friend. Those are all backhanded compliments, but they’re also completely sincere. Normally, you could call something like this a “pretentious pile of shit,” but it’s not; it’s a pretentious pile of razorblades masquerading as… diamonds? I hate it, but I also love it.

10. The Netflix original flick Clinical is one of my favorites for the year. As I wrote in my review: “Response to this film has been overwhelmingly negative, which is both disappointing and a demonstration of just what a negative and profound impact the past decade of ‘jump scare’ horror has had on western film consciousness and casual criticism. It’s not a good sign that every armchair critic is complaining about how ‘slow’ and ‘dull’ this throwback gem is, or bragging about how early they caught on to the ‘twist.’” Brandon tells me that my review of the film is currently its highest rating on Letterbox, and I couldn’t be prouder. It also prompted me to send him my impression of the kind of person I assume wrote such negative reviews, which I’ll reproduce here for posterity: “Hi, my name’s Chet and my favorite horror movies are Insidious, Insidious 2, and the last 8 years of Obummer lol jk but not really. My favorite movie is Boondock Saints (seen it 50 times!!!). I wish I could give Clinical ZERO stars because it’s soooo boring af!1!! The only hot chick in the movie is covered in blood the whole time and there are no jump scares or tits. Avoid this movie!”

9. I first saw this film on a date (yay!) with someone who later ghosted (boo!), but as with Winter Soldier, any movie that accompanies a personal tale of woe but upon which I can look back with fondness has a special place of reverence. That’s the case for Baahubali 2: The Conclusion. At the time I went to see this sequel, I hadn’t seen the first film, although my date had (albeit without subtitles). There was a valiant attempt to explain the backstory, but this one holds up enough on its own that I don’t think an understanding of the first film is strictly necessary. The movie is a completely new story set in a magical fantasy India of the past, although when I first saw the film I was under the impression that it was an epic film adaptation of a classic Indian myth, like a Tollywood The Ten Commandments, although I was later disabused of this notion. The story follows the journey of Amarendra Baahubali (Prabhas), the nephew and foster son of the Queen Mother Sivagami (Ramya Krishnan) and heir apparent of the real ancient city Mahishmati, much to the dismay of her trueborn son Bhallaladeva (Rana Daggubati) and his wicked, conniving father Bijjaladeva (Nassar). Although he possesses superhuman strength, Baahubali is sent to wander the kingdoms in order to better learn to be a great leader, accompanied by Kattappa (Sathyaraj), a slave and leader of the Kingsguard; Baahubali chooses to pretend to be a simpleton in order to see how the people of various areas treat those who are “lowest” in society. While on this journey, he meets and falls in love with Princess Devasena (Anushka Shetty), but his evil uncle manipulates things back home so that she is betrothed to his cousin instead, resulting in a schism between Baahubali and the Queen Mother when he returns and leading to tragedy. Imagine a colorful, fanciful, and a little bit over-the-top amalgamation of King Arthur, Moses, and Hercules, but originating in the culture of the subcontinent instead of the western or Judaic traditions, and you’ve got the right idea. Both the original film and this sequel are currently available on Netflix (in three different languages!), so if you’ve got 5 (or just 2.5) hours to spare, check out this modern epic. Also, as we enter 2018, make it your resolution to have some decency and don’t ghost people; that’s just rude.

8. It wouldn’t really be fair to the rest of the films on this list to break the MCU’s output this year into separate segments, as that could end up pushing out a pretty worthy competitor. The year started strong with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, which followed up on the threads left by the previous film while also being the most successful MCU follow-up since Winter Soldier. Further, it features an improvement over much of the franchise’s output by creating a film that is motivated entirely by character development, rather than having a plot that relies on setpieces, action sequences, and character familiarity to produce audience investment: Peter and Rocket, Gamora and Nebula, Peter and Ego, Peter and Yondu, Rocket and Groot, even Mantis and Drax. Spider-Man: Homecoming followed up on this ably, with a plot that showed us the motivations of villain and hero alike and went in depth to show how a world really would be altered by the consequences of the kinds of earth-shattering events we’ve seen in previous films. It didn’t hurt that it was charming and hilarious, either, or that every actor was charismatic as all hell (except for Downey, who I never really like, although he was used perfectly here). Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok closed out the year on another light-hearted, fun note. Check out my reviews of each of these movies for more information, and be on the lookout for our continuation of the Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. now that we’ve built up enough of a backlog for it to be fun to proceed again.

7. I wrote my review for The Shape of Water less than a week before submitting this list, so all of my ideas on the film are already on paper and too recent for me to have any additional insights, other than to say that I loved this movie and I don’t care who knows it. So, allow me to present this excerpt in lieu of a new blurb: “Strickland is a villain in the vein of Pan’s Labyrinth‘s Captain Vidal: a terrifyingly familiar figure of fascistic adherence to a nationalistic, ethnocentric, exploitative, and phallocentric worldview. Whereas Vidal was the embodiment of Fascist Spain and its ideals, Strickland is the ideal embodiment of sixties-era Red Pill morality: a racist, self-possessed sexual predator empowered by his workplace superiority. Strickland is a man who professes Christian values out of the left side of his mouth while joking about cheating on his wife and threatening to sexually assault his underlings out of the right side. He mansplains the biblical origins of Delilah’s name to her while, for the sake of her job and perhaps her safety, she plays along with his assumptions of her ignorance. This is above and beyond his inhumane (and pointless) torture of the Asset, an intelligent being that he cannot recognize as sentient because of his own prejudices and assumptions about the world.”

6. In his review of I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore, Brandon referenced Falling Down, a film about an unhinged person who goes on a spree following a traumatic event and triggered by the kind of acts of aggression that most of us see but ignore in our everyday life (with a few exceptions). When I saw I Don’t Feel at Home, I felt it was more of a spiritual successor to Bobcat Goldthwaite’s 2011 opus God Bless America, in which an unassuming insurance salaryman learns he has a brain tumor and spends the rest of the film tracking down and doling out justice to those individuals he believes are responsible for the ills of society. His is a sporadic cross-country trek that involves the destruction of Super Sweet 16 brats, reality TV judges who destroy people on national television, and the occasional real monster. Our heroine in I Don’t Feel at Home isn’t on quite that level, and her pursuit–not of justice but of an apology–is much more reasonably presented and linear, and thus favorably compares to Goldthwaite’s picture. There’s the same vacillation between grave-dark humor and truly grotesque outbursts of violence that Bless has, but there’s also more heart and more subversiveness. I also love that Elijah Wood is essentially playing a gender flipped Manic Pixie Dream Girl in this movie, with his bizarre fashion sense, eccentric behavior, and lack of any apparent life outside of assisting the protagonist in reaching his, or in this case her, potential. It’s refreshing but also highlights how real people would consider such a person to be, as he says he has been accused of being, “obnoxious.”

5. In her review of Wonder Woman, Alli wrote “I’m going to admit up front that this movie was not made for me.” That’s reflected in the film’s 3.5 star rating, which will haunt me to my grave. If there’s one superhero movie that came out in 2017 that belongs in the Swampflix canon, Wonder Woman is it. Not only is it visually stunning, hilarious, exciting, empowering, and overall just a hell of a lot of fun, it actually manages to bring the overall average of DC’s output up by several points. I loved this movie. I loved, loved, loved it. It was everything I wanted and more. As I noted in my Justice League review, when I was a kid, the DC comics characters were much dearer to me than Marvel’s, and it’s for that reason that I’ve been so disappointed by DC’s attempts to ape the success of the House of Ideas, not out of any loyalty to Marvel. In fact, when I was a kid, my favorite character was Batman. I never wanted to be Batman, though, I wanted to be Wonder Woman, because she was the coolest. With her lasso, jet, magical creation (I’m not about these retcons that she wasn’t made from clay), royal heritage, tiara, bullet-deflecting bracelets, and her personality as the living embodiment of compassion, truth, and justice, she was an amazing model of citizenship and a role model that one could aspire to be. Gal Gadot is perfection in this role, and she perfectly encapsulates all the traits of Diana, Princess of Themyscira, that made my childhood heart soar. Every actor in this film is perfectly cast, and I have never been happier to see an actress have a career renaissance than I am every time I see Robin Wright on screen. In almost any other year, this would be my number one movie, despite the fact that the ending does peter out a bit (the climactic finale gets a little first-draft nonsensical, but that hardly drags it down).

4. Every single trailer for Lady Bird made it look like exactly the kind of cloying, overly sentimental coming of age piece that I could live the rest of my life without ever seeing again. When we saw the preview as part of the coming attractions at our screening of Killing of a Sacred Deer, my roommate and I turned to each other in unison and made the “finger at the throat means puke” gesture, and made a rude noise or four. I wouldn’t have even given the movie a chance except that a friend I don’t get to see enough desperately wanted to go, so I joined him. Never let it be said that I cannot admit when I’m wrong: this movie was beautiful. I cried three times, big beautiful tears rolling down my face. Saoirse Ronan is fantastic, but the real MVP here is Laurie Metcalf, who’s been hiding out of sight for too long. Every performance is pitch perfect, and Greta Gerwig captures the honesty and earnestness of youthful dreams and the anxieties of class distinction (and how that distinction affects families at every level, and how class reverberates through a person’s whole life regardless of talent, brilliance, or desire). I want to wrap myself inside of this movie like a warm blanket for days on end. The cynic in me is sick to the point of near death when it comes to narratives about people who want to move to New York; I honestly feel that people whose sole desire in life is to move to The City are shallow people with unimaginative dreams. Sure, every one of us has had that desire at some point in their life, but even a deeply entrenched cinephile like me who can’t have a single conversation that doesn’t involve pop culture knows better than to let television and movies make my choices for me, and I’m not an idiot so I’m deeply conscious of the fact that the “New York” that everyone dreams of moving to hasn’t existed since the Giuliani administration Disneyfied the whole place. But in this movie, as the shallow dream of a deeply real, flawed teenage girl who doesn’t understand just how good she has it, it works for me, against all odds. No one needs to be told that this is one of the best movies of 2017, as it’s been all over the place, but if you’re feeling contrary like I was, listen to a coal-hearted Grinch like me: it’s worth it. (You can also read Brandon’s review here.)

3. Lady Bird wasn’t the only major feature to star Lois Smith last year. Smith is also featured as the title character in Marjorie Prime, a deeply introspective and meditative film about the nature of grief, memory, loss, and family. I can’t recommend it more highly without going too deep into the film and revealing more than I should, so I suggest reading my review for a clearer picture of whether or not this film will touch you as it touched me. Perhaps it’s that my grandmother, who passed away last Christmas, was very much like Marjorie in her own last days, but there’s a verisimilitude to this story that transcends personal experience as much as it is informed by it.  “As Tess (Geena Davis) points out, when we remember an event, what we’re actually remembering is the last time we remembered the event, back and back and back, like a series of photographs slowly fading out of focus in a recursive loop. Or, as underlined in another of the film’s conversations that mirrors the plot, one of Tess recounts how one of her students had inherited their father’s parrot, which sometimes still spoke with the dead man’s voice, even twenty years after his death. Love and grief have a profound effect on the way that our memories evolve and devolve and undergo a metamorphosis as we age, and the ravages of time on the human body and mind also contribute to this imperfect personal narrative.”

2. I’ll try not to repeat what I already wrote in my review of Raw (original French title Grave). I recently rewatched the film with a different group of friends following its release on home video, and loved it even more the second time around. We ordered a pizza, and I asked if they were still down to watch Raw even though we were eating. Friend 1: “Wait, is the movie gross?” Me: “I think that we’ll be finished eating before it gets gross.” And boy, does it! Friend 2 had to turn away from the screen during a certain scene (at the risk of giving too much away for those who haven’t seen it, it’s the scene with Alex’s finger), which was also the point in the film that infamously prompted audience members at Cannes to flee, vomit, or faint, all of which are completely reasonable reactions. Roommate of Boomer was delighted, however; he had also seen the trailer for Raw at the Alamo Drafthouse many times and assumed it was going to be a basic horror movie with delusions of grandeur, and was pleasantly surprised to find that, although there are horror elements at play, the primary genre the movie fits into is that of dark (dark, dark) comedy. Raw is gross, but it’s also hilarious, and surprisingly endearing and sweet at certain moments. It’s also now streaming on Netflix, so check it out while you can (and if you think your stomach can handle it).

1. What else is there to say about Get Out that hasn’t already been said? What tiny pieces of information could I pick up, turn over, and inspect for a deeper meaning that haven’t already been inspected to the point of total knowledge by various other critics, people talking about their lived experience, the black twittersphere and blogospheres, and every other person under the sun? This is the best movie of 2017. There’s not much more to say about it that you haven’t read elsewhere and from a better writer than I am. If you haven’t seen it, watch it. Let it flow through you and inform you about the daily experiences of people of color in our country. Let it teach you a lesson about the power of cell phone video as a liberator, and about the frequent hypocrisy of white liberalism. Let it be the light for you in dark (and sunken) places. Let its truth live in you and affect your daily life, teaching you to recognize the toxicity within yourself. Live it.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

The gang is back with a few new faces this time around in Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2, with director James Gunn returning to the helm of the weirdest series in the MCU franchise. Although there are a few missteps this outing, including a lack of screentime for some of your old favorites, violence that is at turns disturbingly unexamined in its brutality when it’s not cartoonish, and hit-or-miss emotional resonance, this second installment reminds us that Guardians is still the funniest and most charming Marvel property currently being produced.

After a flashback opening sequence that shows a CGI de-aged Kurt Russell planting a strange alien plant on Earth in 1980s Missouri while romancing Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) mother, the film finds the team performing a mission to protect the extremely powerful batteries of a race known as the Sovereign from theft by a gross, fleshy tentacle monster (its essentially Caucasian flesh tones and stubble make the thing quite nauseating to gaze upon, as it looks like a scrotum come to life). This first action sequence felt a little off to me, as the obsession Rocket (Bradley Cooper) has with getting Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) music ready before they fight seemed a rather on-the-nose tip of the hat to the popularity of the first movie’s soundtrack. As the action primarily occurs in the background, the camera follows Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) around the platform in a one-shot that’s impressive despite being largely CGI.

We then meet our decoy antgonist, the High Priestess of the Sovereign (Elizabeth Debicki), as she presents the Guardians with their payment for the successful defense of their batteries, a captured Nebula (Karen Gillam), who is to be taken back to Xandar by her sister Gamora (Zoe Saldana) for the bounty on her head. The team is pursued by the Sovereign as Rocket, unable to control his kleptomania, made off with Sovereign tech; as a result, the team is forced to crash land in a forest after taking heavy damage and ultimately being rescued by Ego (Russell) and his servant Mantis (Pom Klementieff), an empath who helps the powerful being sleep. After revealing his familiar connection to Peter, Ego offers to take him, Gamora, and Drax (Dave Bautista) to his planet to explain his abnormal existence, and present Peter with a unique opportunity.

Elsewhere, Yondu (Michael Rooker) faces an existential dilemma when it is revealed that he and his squad are outcasts in the greater Ravager community, in a way that ties back to his essentially having raised Peter after abducting him, moments after the boy watched his mother die. He accepts a bounty for the Guardians from the Sovereign, but when his crew learns that he did so in order to protect them rather than hunt them, they mutiny, taking over his ship and freeing Nebula, who goes after Gamora in pursuit of revenge. Rocket, Groot, and Yondu must then attempt escape, with a little help from everybody’s favorite Stars Hollow weirdo (Sean Gunn, whose character’s name is irrelevant, and we all know it).

There’s no Infinity Stone MacGuffin here, and it’s a real break from the MCU’s usual storytelling machine that the narrative of GotG 2 isn’t motivated by set pieces, action sequences, or even plot, but by character. The only real example of this in the franchise thus far has been Winter Soldier, which was motivated by Cap’s desires to save one friend and avenge another, but even that film was organized around the plot of a conspiracy thriller as much as (if not more than) character motivation. Here, however, every choice and conflict is about character. The conflict between Peter and Rocket centers around Rocket’s insecurities about whether or not he deserves to be part of a family, even if that family is a group of outlaws who found each other. The violence Nebula seeks against Gamora comes from an obsession with besting her sister out of misplaced jealousy and rage, without realizing that they are both survivors of the same abuse but who have allowed that past to push them in different directions. The interaction between Peter and his father gives rise to the film’s climax (although it feels the weakest to me, despite being the primary conflict). Yondu’s desire to right the moral failings of his past give him the longest character arc of the film, and even the comedy bits between Mantis and Drax, both fish out of water but from very different worlds, is display of character, rather than the needs of pushing the narrative forward.

This is an elegantly constructed movie, and it moves with such precision and humor that you’ll never feel bored. Still, it is odd that this is a movie with a protagonist character who readily admits to a lust not only for violence, but specifically of killing others, and he’s never really called out on it. I’m not necessarily opposed to the whimsical way one particular scene of what’s essentially a mass murder is treated, since this is a James Gunn movie that we’re talking about, but it feels odd, if not exactly wrong. The fact that this sequence follows another that has a distinct Looney Tunes feel to the violence simply makes it feel like something is out of place.

I’ll save my thoughts on the more spoilery content and the way that this film interacts with the rest of the MCU for our Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. review, but Guardians 2 gets an endorsement from me. It’s still the weird sci-fi comedy that you can recommend to your friend who doesn’t like superheroes. Also, be on the lookout for a cameo from Ben Browder, who portrayed the protagonist of Farscape (which was mentioned as a spiritual predecessor of Guardians in our Agents review), playing a member of the Sovereign and using his best Peacekeeper voice.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.: Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

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Superhero Watching: Alternating Marvel Perspectives, Fresh and Longterm, Ignoring X-Men, or S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X., is a feature in which Boomer (who reads superhero comics & is well versed in the MCU) & Brandon (who reads alternative comics & had, at the start of this project, seen less than 25% of the MCU’s output) revisit the films that make up the Marvel Cinematic Universe from the perspective of someone who knows what they’re talking about & someone who doesn’t have the slightest clue.

Boomer: There was a great deal of consternation in the nerd and mainstream communities when Guardians of the Galaxy was first announced. Eagle-eyed viewers (and readers of Wizard) had already spotted an appearance by the Infinity Gauntlet in Odin’s weapons locker in Thor, and many had correctly guessed that the Tesseract that appeared in Captain America was one of the Infinity Gems, meaning that an adaptation or re-imagining of Marvel’s Infinity War storyline would eventually be on its way. With that in mind, there had to be a way to incorporate more of Marvel’s cosmic mythology into the MCU, but no one was certain which form this would take. Within the comics, space-based plotlines generally revolved around either the Shi’ar Empire or the Kree-Skrull War; neither of these two elements lent themselves to the MCU, however, because of the rights issues surrounding each. The Shi’ar are mostly linked to the mythology of the Phoenix Force (and thus the X-Men) and the Skrulls were a longtime recurring enemy of the Fantastic Four; with the film rights for both of those teams tied up at Twentieth Century Fox, there was much debate as to how the MCU would be able to address interstellar plots. Notably, Avengers had taken the Skrull stand-ins from the Ultimate books, the Chitauri, and made them the alien invaders in that film. Ultimately (no pun intended), the Kree play a role in this film, although the Skrulls go unmentioned.

Kevin Feige hinted in 2010 that a film bearing this title could be on its way, and confirmed in 2012 that the film was in production. Initial announcements named Peyton Reed as the director, although at that point his biggest successes were over ten years behind him, having helmed a few episodes of the last season of HBO’s terrific Mr. Show with Bob and David and 2000’s underrated Bring It On. Writing/Directing duo Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden (the team behind Ryan Gosling vehicle Half Nelson) were also in talks to create the film and its world, but the project eventually found its way into the capable hands of James Gunn. Gunn only had two features under his belt as director, horror satire Slither and Rainn Wilson’s superhero pastiche dramedy Super, but the majority of his work was in writing, including the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake. Joss Whedon, director of The Avengers, was kept on by Marvel as a consultant for the films leading up to the (then untitled) sequel to the team-up film, and he was vocal in his excitement about Gunn’s hiring, citing the director’s enthusiasm and cinematic eye.

A virtual unknown, Nicole Perlman, was later announced as the film’s screenwriter. She had previously acted as an uncredited script doctor on a draft of Thor, and she was given free reign to choose which Marvel property she wanted to draft a script for, choosing Guardians because of her fondness for space opera. Although Disney’s screenwriting program no longer exists, Perlman was one of the last to graduate from it, and her script for Guardians was the only reason the film ended up being made, according to Variety in 2012; Senior Editor Marc Graser wrote at the time that Marvel “was high on” her initial script treatment. Since then, Perlman has admitted that she’s also written a draft of a potential Black Widow script that has yet to see the light of day, and she has also been announced as the screenwriter for the upcoming Captain Marvel film due out in 2019. Perlman’s name is also frequently banded about as the potential writer of a rumored reboot of Jim Henson cult classic Labyrinth (although talk of a reboot has largely died down in the wake of David Bowie’s recent passing). In the meantime, however, she has not one single IMDb entry that does not relate to the MCU, which is heartening considering what a boys club the franchise can seem to be at times.

Casting for the film’s default lead, Star Lord, began in September 2012, with a laundry list of people who tested or read for the role: Eddie Redmayne, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Joel Edgerton, Jack Huston, Michael Rosenbaum, and many, many others. Lee Pace also auditioned for the role, ending up instead slotted into the role of Ronan, the film’s main antagonist. Five months later, Marvel finally announced that they had found their man in Chris Pratt. Jason Momoa auditioned for the role of Drax, but he was passed over in favor of Dave Bautista (Momoa, of course, is slated to appear as Aquaman in DC’s upcoming attempted franchise). The nature of this new film meant that none of the MCU’s previously appearing characters could not reasonably make cameos in this film, although Buffyverse alum Alexis Denisof reprised his role as The Other, Thanos’s emissary who gave Loki his marching orders in Avengers. There was little publication surrounding other roles and testing for them, but the film’s cast was finalized by mid-2013 (minus Vin Diesel, whose vocal acting for Groot was only confirmed after the end of principal photography), and filming began in July of that year.

For those of you who have forgotten everything about the film except for a wisecracking raccoon and freshly-buff Chris Pratt being hosed down while flouncing about in underwear, a quick refresher: Young Peter Quill fled the hospital where his mother was dying in 1988 and was picked up by an alien ship. Years later, Quill (Pratt) acts as a scavenger in a fleet led by Yondu (Michael Rooker), a blue alien with an inexplicable Southern accent; he finds and takes a valuable item from a space tomb and ends up on the run from Kree radical Ronan (Pace). Multiple bounty hunters are sent to apprehend Quill, including Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and his partner Groot (Diesel) and assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), who was kidnapped from her home by intergalactic warlord Thanos (Josh Brolin) and trained as a killer. These four untethered people are eventually captured and detained in a space prison; when they escape, they are joined by fellow inmate Drax (Bautista), who has his own axe to grind with Ronan and Thanos. They are opposed by Ronan and Gamora’s warrior “sister” Nebula (Karen Gillan) and the police-like Nova Corps, led by Nova Prime (Glenn Close). These decidedly-not-team-players reluctantly accept that no one else is in a position to save the galaxy from total annihilation and rise to the challenge.

Brandon, what did you think about Guardians of the Galaxy? If I remember correctly, this was one of the MCU flicks that you had seen before starting this project; does it fare better or worse now with more of a background in this world? Or, given that this film that lies outside of the MCU’s reach for the most part, does that context change your opinion at all?

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Brandon: I’m starting to feel extremely foolish about how I received Guardians of the Galaxy at the time of its release a couple years ago. I liked the film well enough as a loud, vibrant action comedy that provided a much-deserved starring role for America’s affable older brother (or boy toy sex symbol, depending who you are) Chris Pratt. However, I remember buying into the idea that the Marvel “house style” had significantly put a damper on the over-the-top exuberance of madman schlock director James Gunn. Gunn was familiar to me as the dark soul behind depraved camp titles like Slither and Tromeo & Juliet, so it was weird to see his style somewhat homogenized into a Luc Besson-style space epic. The truth is, though, that Gunn’s version of an uninhibited MCU entry probably would’ve turned out more like the grotesquely asinine Deadpool film I’ve spent the last month brooding over. In fact, Gunn already directed a nastily misanthropic superhero film, simply titled Super, that I generally enjoyed, but also found difficult to stomach at times due to the lighthearted way it depicts sexual assault. I don’t know if this is me getting increasingly sensitive with age, but another The Fifth Element, Star Wars-style space epic with Kevin Feige & company keeping Gunn’s sadistic id in check actually sounds preferable now to what might’ve been delivered otherwise. It might also be the case that the act of catching up with the rest of the MCU’s output in recent months has helped me realize just how unique Guardians is as a modern superhero popcorn flick & just how much of Gunn’s personality is noticeably present on the screen.

In any case, returning to Guardians of the Galaxy with fresh eyes was a revelation. This is a fantastic work of crowd-pleasing action cinema, the exact kind of delirious spectacle I look for in blockbusters. In that respect, the only film that might‘ve topped it in the year or so since its release is Mad Max: Fury Road & I mean that with full sincerity. The film’s detailed, lived-in version of space opera is literally worlds away from the rest of the MCU. Its superheroes aren’t truly heroic or even all that super. They’re mostly thieves, murderers, aliens, and the bi-products of cruel science experiments. Something that largely got by me the first time I watched Guardians of the Galaxy was just how emotionally damaged its central crew of space pirates are. Their families are dead. They’ve never known true friendship. They’re sometimes prone to drunkenly curse their own very existence. The film’s tendency for 80s nostalgia & crowd-pleasing action set pieces are really fun in an overwhelming way that I think often distract from just how devastatingly sad its emotional core can be. I never knew an anthropomorphic raccoon grimly complaining, “I didn’t ask to get made!” could make me so teary-eyed, but Guardians has a way of making the emotional pain of its damaged, nonhuman non-heroes feel just as real as the physical space they populate looks. That’s no small feat.

That’s obviously not to say that all of Guardians is deep-seated emotional pain. The film is mostly a riotously fun action comedy with broken hearts & bruised egos only peppering its blockbuster thrills. I love how inane its outer space worldbuilding is. Blue people, green people, purple people, and purple people eaters all roam about as if they are on a silly 60s sci-fi television show. Villains are known to say absurd things like “Nebula, go to Xandar and get me the Orb.” The MCU’s ultimate MacGuffin, the Infinity Stones, actually feel at home in this kind of space age gobbledy gook. It’s also fun to watch this atmosphere clash with Pratt’s womanizing bro humor as Star Lord, as I feel like I’ve lived in this kind of space adventure before, but I’ve never met anyone I could describe as a “space bro” as comfortably as Star Lord. I particularly enjoyed the line when describing the filth of his space ship/bachelor pad he confesses, “If I had a black light these walls would look like a Jackson Pollock painting.” The kicker is that Guardians not only has the most successful humor of the MCU’s output so far; it also has some of the most exhilarating action sequences in the franchise. The Kyln prison break in particular is a beaut & watching Rocket Raccoon operate his homemade weaponry gives me the same thrill I caught watching primates operate automatic machine guns in 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

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I could probably prattle on about how my favorite two MCU entries so far, Guardians of the Galaxy & Captain America: The First Avenger, thrive on their own strengths by distancing themselves from the rest of the franchise, but I don’t believe that best captures what makes Guardians so special. Honestly, the film’s own mixtape gimmick is a better access point to understanding its wide appeal. A mix of crowd-pleasing songs like “I Want You Back” & Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” and offbeat essentials like “Cherry Bomb” & “Moonage Daydream“, the film’s mixtape soundtrack mirrors its larger mashup of action comedy marketability & cult film tendencies. In retrospect the marriage of James Gunn’s mean nerd exuberance & the MCU’s action comedy accessibility is a match made in blockbuster heaven. It delights me to no end that you can actually purchase a copy of Star Lord’s beloved mixtape cassette. That piece of comic book movie ephemera actually seems more to the heart of the film’s appeal than a Rocket Raccoon figurine or even a Blu-ray copy of the film could ever be.

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fourstar

Boomer: Last time we were here, I mentioned how much Captain America: Winter Soldier reminded me of Star Trek VI and how that only made me love the former all the more. I have to admit that I was one of the naysayers with little hope for Guardians. By the time it came out, I was sick to death of the endless stream of advertisements for the movie; in every commercial break and before every YouTube there was a clip of Chris Pratt slowly flipping off John C. Reilly. But what I found when I saw the film was that I actually loved it, but mostly because it was the closest I felt we would ever come to having a Farscape feature.

The parallels don’t track perfectly, but they are obvious. We have the wise-cracking American thrust into an interstellar society made up of various societies and factions (Peter Quill/John Crichton), who has a relationship with a woman who was taken at birth and trained to be a deadly soldier and assassin (Gamora/Aeryn Sun). They’re joined by a large warrior with ritual scarrification and tattoos (Drax/D’Argo), a pint-sized wiseass (Rocket Racoon/Rygel), and a living plant (Groot/Zhaan). Farscape’s premiere episode even involves a prison break in which many of the main characters escape captivity, and both ragtag crews eventually find themselves drawn into the greater war going on around them in spite of their individual desires to simply overcome the traumas of their past. Both Drax and D’Argo have lost their wife and child (although D’Argo’s son is still alive, albeit enslaved), and both Gamora and Aeryn slowly warm to the human crewmate that helps them feel closer to their (in)humanity. The sequence in which the titular Guardians visit a mining colony inside of a once-living giant is even reminiscent of the episode in which the crew of Moya find a mining colony inside of the budong, an ancient spacefaring being of humongous proportions.

For the most part, the similarities end there, however. Although Groot and Zhaan are both plant people, the former lacks the metaphysical wisdom and spirituality of the latter. Although Rocket is full of himself, he lacks the imperial pomposity of the dethroned Rygel. Still, once can’t help but feel that Guardians is a spiritual sequel to Farscape, and that greatly contributes to my enjoyment of the film. I have to admit, however, that this rewatch wasn’t the thrill ride that I remembered fro my first few viewings. Guardians is undoubtedly the coolest of the MCU flicks so far, but the repetition of the jokes from the film in the real world has stolen some of the luster from their enjoyment. There’s still a lot to enjoy here, but Guardians doesn’t hold the endless rewatchability for me that Winter Soldier does, despite being much more fun than the comparably dour Captain America sequel. It was a smart move on Marvel’s part to follow up a somber MCU installment with a film that was exhilarating in a different way and for different reasons, but Guardians has a problem that the other films don’t have.Whereas the previous ensemble in The Avengers had the luxury of multiple individual films to flesh out the members of the team (minus the characters who were supporting players in previous installments, with Hawkeye never being fully realized as a character until Age of Ultron), Guardians has the unenviable task of introducing all five of its mains as well as their world and the ramifications thereof in a very short amount of time. The script is excellent in that the film doesn’t feel overloaded, but reflection upon the movie does lead to some questions that feel unanswered. We know that the Kree and the Xandarians have recently reached a peace accord, but what was their relationship beforehand? Are many of the Kree fanatics like Ronan, or is he an outlier, and, if so, why does Nova Prime have such difficulty getting the Kree ambassador(?) that she contacts late in the film to make a political statement decrying Ronan? And why wouldn’t the Kree condemn a terrorist anyway? This scene and others blow past so quickly that viewers may not realize just how much information is needed, but scenes like this have a way of niggling the subconscious.

Still, Guardians is a lot of fun. When I first saw it in theatres, I would have given it five stars, but time and distance have made me a bit more critical of it. Maybe I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind this time around, but the film just doesn’t have the magic for me that it did in 2014.

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Lagniappe

Brandon: It’s impossible to talk about Guardians‘ likability without addressing the absurd strength of its cast. Besides the appeal of Chris Pratt’s affable bro humor & “pelvic sorcery”, watching James Gunn regulars like Michael Rooker & Lloyd Kaufman appear among Hollywood heavyweights like Benicio Del Toro & Josh Brolin is a strange delight. Goofball comedic actor John C. Reilly interacting with Glenn Close is equally enjoyable as novelty. Bradley Cooper appears as a CG raccoon wearing people clothes. Vin Diesel outs himself as a huge D&D-oriented nerd as a talking tree. Bautista & the much-hated (among cinephiles, anyway) comic book prankster Howard the Duck both make a massive impact, which combine to make it feel as if this film were aimed to please my own particular nerdy obsessions: bad movies & pro wrestling.

The only complaint I might have about Guardians‘ insanely stacked cast of always welcome faces is the way it largely wastes the eternally-underutilized Lee Pace. I enjoyed Pace’s turn as impossibly cruel Ronan the Accuser more than I did the first time around but I do still think it was a huge mistake to cover up his luscious eyebrows with the alien makeup. Those might be the most handsome eyebrows in Hollywood. They deserve to run free.

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Boomer: For anyone reading this who is still mourning the loss of Farscape, I recommend current sci-fi series Dark Matter. It has fewer obvious commonalities with Farscape than Guardians, but its tone is the closest thing to Farscape’s that I’ve been able to find in a long time, even if it lacks the older series’s humor.

When joking in our earlier review about the fact that the Ninth Doctor appeared in Thor 2 and that the Tenth Doctor had played the villain of Jessica Jones, I had completely forgotten about the fact that Karen Gillam, who played the Eleventh Doctor’s companion Amy Pond, played Nebula in this film. There’s also the fact that Tobey Jones, who portrayed a nightmare version of the Doctor a few years back in “Amy’s Choice,” portrayed the evil Doctor Zola in both Cap flicks. Were it not that Jenna Coleman (who portrayed Clara Oswald, companion to the Eleventh and Twelfth Doctors) played a minor role in Captain America, all the Doctor Who alums who have thus far appeared in the MCU would have portrayed villains.

Regarding how the film plays into the larger mythos of the franchise, the plot elements from Guardians have largely only been important in how they affect Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Just as one of the main characters on the program was revealed to be a Hydra mole near the end of the first season, the second season featured major developments in the form of the revelation of the existence of the Inhumans and that another member of the squad was one such being. The Inhumans, for those who understandably gave up on Agents early on, are a subspecies of humanity who possess abnormal physiological traits as the result of a Kree genetic engineering campaign in Earth’s distant past. It’s also an easy way for the MCU to introduce large numbers of super-powered individuals despite not having the right to use the term “mutant,” what with the rights to the X-Men franchise still tied up at Fox. For those of you playing along at home, there is also a planned Inhumans film slated for release in 2019.

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Combined S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. Rating for Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

fourhalfstar

-Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.