Tag Archives: Godzilla

The ‘Animaniacs’ of Monster Movies — “Godzilla vs. Kong”

“Godzilla vs. Kong” basks in the ridiculous. It’s hell-bent on being as much of a good-bad movie as it is a good one. It’s smart enough to know exactly how to be a fun one.

This approach isn’t a given. The new Monsterverse, as it’s called, kicked off with 2014’s “Godzilla”. It wanted to present the mythic beast like a Cthulhian horror, a giant lurking in the darkness through most of the film. Those moments worked well, but it couldn’t really figure out anything else. It was undercut by inert writing and a near-complete lack of emotional connection to its lead characters.

“Kong: Skull Island” gave us our first glimpse of the new King Kong in 2017. It turned out to be a shockingly good anti-war film in monster movie clothing. There was immense life and tension to it, and it understood how to compose character-focused action sequences. It felt new and fresh, which is exceptionally rare in a big-budget action landscape that’s increasingly overfull.

“Godzilla: King of the Monsters” is a personal favorite. It’s big and unwieldy, the lead is lacking, and it loses grasp of whatever ecological point it wants to make very early on. Why do I like it? The supporting cast is diverse, surpasses the leads, and really bites into their roles. The universe feels genuinely inhabited. The film treats these movie monsters with a sense of awe and wonder. It often makes them beautiful, and it achieves a level of iconography that does as much to make them terrifying as any visual effect can. It’s savvy enough to show us the destruction of these giant monster fights at ground level, which helps us believe their sheer size and scale.

That gets us to “Godzilla vs. Kong”. It does almost none of this. It is easily the biggest piece of nonsense of the bunch. Why shouldn’t it be? I don’t think you can make a Godzilla vs. King Kong movie any other way. It’s inherently ridiculous, so you may as well swing for the fences.

This is why you go out and get a director like Adam Wingard – for his ability to blend genre to joke. The first film of his I saw was 2011’s “You’re Next”. It was a horror movie where a family gets attacked by masked assailants, seemingly for no reason. Unfortunately for their attackers, one of the guests was raised as an Australian survivalist; i.e. not the kind that breaks the minute they discover they can’t get haircuts. She goes a mix of MacGyver and John Wick on them.

“You’re Next” piled cleverness on cleverness. It was a deeply effective horror movie with chilling moments of suspense and suggestion. It was also a satire of horror movies that rarely missed an opportunity for a wry sight gag or incredulous one-liner. But wait, that’s not all! It was also a mumblecore take on “The Lion in Winter”, that ultra-Millennial indie-style where every actor talks over each other in a natural way and you only half-catch the best lines thinking, “Did I hear that right?” It threw together so many disparate elements into one pot, mixing the retro with the trendy in a way that understood our love for each deeply, without treating either as sacred. It is an overlooked cult horror classic, and if you like horror movies, it’s a better use of your time than “Godzilla vs. Kong”.

That said, I really enjoyed “Godzilla vs. Kong”. It is pure nonsense. It is also exceptionally clever. It packs in countless cinematic references, often in ways that are effective within genre and intentionally hilarious out of it. The fights can be both tense and ludicrous. In one, Godzilla and Kong square off over a fleet of ships. Godzilla swims up from beneath, while Kong hops from one to the other. At one point, Godzilla gets half a ship hooked on his tail. The next shot where he drags it down beneath the waves is a shout-out to the Great White in “Jaws” impossibly dragging three barrels underwater with him. It’s simultaneously an effective moment of tension in the fight, and a genuinely funny sight gag.

In another scene, Kong and some futuristic hovering ships are falling through the air in a place where gravity inverts itself. The shot becomes a direct callback to the famous paratrooper scene in 2014’s “Godzilla”, where paratroopers streak red smoke trails through the air as they descend through the gloom into a wrecked San Francisco.

These are just two examples, but “Godzilla vs. Kong” is overflowing with these references and sight gags. I generally don’t like this approach. I thought “Ready Player One” was the worst thing I’ve read in my life because its references often felt like checklists, came across as narcissistic, and made up the entire landscape of the book. The read felt self-serving to the author, which is fine – go do you. As a reader, it felt like being stuck in a room with someone who wants to explain the complete discography of Nickelback to you: if the topic doesn’t hook you initially, nothing subsequent about it will.

By complete contrast, I appreciated what was done with this approach in “Godzilla vs. Kong”. Those references aren’t the landscape here – they contribute to the moment they’re in. If one doesn’t hook you, it doesn’t really matter because the pace of references is so quick. It comes across more like “Animaniacs”. The sight gag is there, you laugh, you’re done with it, let’s move onto the next one. That pace can be fun and rewarding, and you don’t have to get every single one for it to be doing the work of contributing to the scene.

This is all obviously a departure from the previous Monsterverse movies. That sense of looming, incomprehensible yet inevitable, Cthulhian threat in the dark? After an initial attack, it’s out the window. The extraordinary tug-of-war between calm and tension? You catch a brief glimpse of it as you drive past it at 80 mph. That sense of iconic awe and wonder? We could have that, or we can give Kong a big, glowy axe. “Godzilla vs. Kong” has enough of each element to let you know it could do it if it wanted to, before rushing on to the series of dad-joke sight gags it would rather make.

That’s OK, because what Adam Wingard gives us instead is a big, nonsense, Roland Emmerich-style film reminiscent of “2012”, “Independence Day”, or “The Day After Tomorrow”. It’s a throwback that recognizes what it’s throwing back to should never be taken very seriously. Just like those films, there’s a C-plot that means almost nothing – it’s just unfortunate this is what “Stranger Things” actress Millie Bobby Brown, “Atlanta” actor Brian Tyree Henry, and “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” actor Julian Dennison get stuck with. I don’t think that’s a meta Emmerich-reference; it’s just a factor of wanting to keep Brown and her fame involved without finding anything productive for her character to do in the story.

That doesn’t really feel out-of-place. The helpless Navy officers have to be reminded at one point by a civilian that they have depth charges. The ace pilot of a futuristic craft meant to defy gravity wells is a college professor who expressly states he’s never even seen the craft or knows its technology. High-tech labs are broken into with nothing but a can-do spirit. Yeah, it’s ridiculous, it just doesn’t feel strange if you’re a lover of older giant monster movies. There’s something in “Godzilla vs. Kong” to reward just about everybody – from fans of classic monster movies to fans of these new ones, and even those who’ve never seen one before. There’s also something to make each group roll their eyes – often intentionally, sometimes not.

There are a few really beautiful moments for Kong as an animal and the last of his species – they come out of nowhere and leave just as quickly. There are some great, thunderous Godzilla moments. The humans…well, they’re there, I guess.

The film adds up to enjoyable nonsense, which I know I’m supposed to look down at, but sometimes a film is just really good at sticking all that nonsense together in a way that’s undeniably fun. Take Taika Waititi’s “Thor: Ragnarok” or James Wan’s “Aquaman” as solid comparisons. I don’t think this has the writing of “Ragnarok”, nor someone as skillfully self-effacing as Chris Hemsworth, Cate Blanchett, or Jason Momoa holding it all together. Its humor is more reliant on the director and the visuals, which can limit its breadth a bit. I don’t think it’s quite those films’ equal, and it has more failings than either, but it’s close enough to the same territory to offer a similar experience.

I’d still recommend last month’s “Pacific Rim: The Black” series (on Netflix) if you’re looking for something that’s character-focused and well-written. It delivers more faithfully on the intent, terror, and serious themes of a giant monster series. You ask me which project is better and I’m going to say it’s “Pacific Rim: The Black” without hesitation.

“Godzilla vs. Kong” is a fun distraction, especially if you’re a fan of giant monster movies. “Pacific Rim: The Black” carved out a lasting place in my soul as a storyteller.

You can watch “Godzilla vs. Kong” (as well as the previous Monsterverse movies) on HBO Max. I’d encourage you to watch it there as I did, and avoid the theater since we’re still in the middle of a pandemic.

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Does it Pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

This section uses the Bechdel-Wallace Test as a foundation to discuss the representation of women in film.

1. Does “Godzilla vs. Kong” have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Millie Bobby Brown plays Madison Russell, Rebecca Hall plays Dr. Ilene Andrews, Kaylee Hottle plays a child she’s effectively adopted named Jia, and Eiza Gonzalez plays henchwoman Maya.

2. Do they talk to each other?


3. About something other than a man?

Yes. Ilene and Jia talk about each other. They also talk about Kong, as an animal under their care. Jia is Deaf, so she speaks with sign language. Ilene speaks to her using a mix of sign language and spoken dialogue, since Jia can lipread. Jia’s actress Kaylee Hottle is Deaf and comes from an all-Deaf family. I appreciated seeing that representation on film.

(As a note, Millie Bobby Brown is Deaf in one ear, but I’m unfamiliar with what kind of representation this holds in the Deaf community. It’s not mentioned as a facet of her character.)

Ilene and Maya share a few blink-and-you’ll-miss-them quips. Madison is essentially isolated from the rest of the plot with two male comic relief characters, so her plot doesn’t pass questions 2 or 3.

This is a weird one because most of the supporting cast is men, but two of the three whose perspectives we’re asked to engage and feel most alongside are Ilene (Rebecca Hall) and Madison (Millie Bobby Brown). That said, I don’t think “Godzilla vs. Kong” has much lasting interest in any of its characters. Dialogue is mostly plot set-up. Scenes are episodic without many interstitial “talking-while-we-get-there” moments. Characters are consistent, but their knowledge, qualifications, and who’s in charge of what seems to veer wildly from scene to scene.

I’d say it technically gets by because of Rebecca Hall’s scenes with Kaylee Hottle, but the most focus is put onto scenes with Rebecca Hall and Alexander Skarsgard, Millie Bobby Brown and her comic relief, and Skarsgard and the obvious villains.

Trailers of the Week — A Good Week for Cthulhu, Australians, Drug Lords

Monsters Dark Continent

Look, I’m not saying that Cthulhu, Australians, and drug lords are interconnected. I’m just saying they all enjoyed terrific trailers this week. Coincidence? Decide for yourself. I’m not your mother. (Or am I?)

The great thing about this week is that nearly all the films are ones I hadn’t known of or had only heard about in passing. While it was a tremendous week for the Cthulhustralian conspiracy, I’m going to make it wait a moment.


This is the trailer of the week. I’ve tried writing on it now a few times, but I take the subject matter too personally. I’ll save the lectures for another day.

Suffice to say that films by, starring, or about Native Americans and First Nations peoples are far too few. It’s a rare thing when the voices of a few artists can contribute to speak not just on an endangered culture, but one we’re responsible for eliminating. It’s special to me because those few voices were once joined by tens of millions, and when stories are told by the few surviving, you can sometimes sense the power of those tens of millions in every word.


Wow. In two minutes, Spring does what The Strain has failed to do in a season – send chills up my spine. If you’ve read two words from me, you know I’m a horror movie fan, but if you’ve read more than two words, you know I’m pretty elitist about it. I want my horror smart, psychological, otherworldly or supernatural, based on complex characters. I want to be scared to the point I’m a heartbeat away from laughing. I want to be terrified to the point where I’m begging you for a jump scare, just for the adrenaline release.

Spring looks disturbing in all the best ways, with hints of the quiet build and uncluttered presentation of Scandinavian horror, the color and alluring romanticism of Italian horror, the body horror and catharsis narrative of American horror, and the social malaise metaphors of Lovecraft. If it all comes together, this could be a special horror movie.


Gareth Edwards helmed the first Monsters, and his use of clever, low-budget trickery and knack for brilliant visuals nabbed him the director’s chair for this year’s Godzilla. What’d I think of Godzilla? It has some of the best trickery and brilliant visuals you’ll see this year, paired with godawful story delivery and acting.

Tom Green (no, not that Tom Green) takes over for the Monsters sequel and what could’ve been a direct-to-DVD mess looks like the Godzilla movie I wish I’d seen, but with 1,000% more Cthulhu goodness. Lines of giant tentacle beasts combing the dusty land, overpowering our modern armies. Tiny Cthulhuraptors engaging in desert jeep chases and being tackled by army dogs.

Yeah, it’s more military hoo-ra-ism, but we really do some nice hoo-ra-ism. [I’ll be honest, Re-reading that last sentence gives me pause after talking about Rhymes for Young Ghouls.] I worry about the acting and the staying power of the visual effects – for modestly budgeted sci-fi films, you usually have to choose one or the other, and it’s possible the trailer contains all the best shots. Still, there’s a visual confidence here, and it looks closer to the Godzilla reboot I wish I’d seen than the one that came out. As a trailer alone, this generates real buzz for a film that has next to none.


Ooh, but this looks good. The setup is fairly basic – a hero cop (Joel Edgerton) has a few beers and accidentally hits a teenager on his way home. A veteran detective (Tom Wilkinson) takes it upon himself to clean up the incident and make sure the right questions aren’t asked. A crusader (Jai Courtney) decides it doesn’t all add up, and pursues his own investigation.

That’s a million straight-to-DVD plots right there, but the difference is this pedigree – Wilkinson’s ability to play real-world fearsome is rare, while Courtney and Edgerton are two of Australia’s best up-and-coming actors. Edgerton has shown a chameleon quality you wouldn’t expect by looking at him, and he also had a hand in writing one of my films of the year thus far, The Rover.

It doesn’t hurt that Felony has already came out in Australia to rave reviews.


Emily Browning, 25, will probably be playing teenagers until she’s 35. She just has that look. This is a problem, since the Australian actress has been on the verge of breaking through as a mature, complex performer for years now. At some point, something like her Sleeping Beauty, brutally experimental and tonally haunting, is going to break through into the mainstream and serve notice that she’s a powerhouse talent.

Until that point, if she’s going to play a high schooler, let’s hope it’s at least in indie films like God Help the Girl. Director Stuart Murdoch, of chamber pop band Belle & Sebastian, seems to have found a colorful, energetic visual style that reflects the baroque, yesteryear tone of his music. I’m not expecting this to blow the doors off the theater, but if it can convey the bouncy yet melancholic tone unique to Murdoch’s band and achieve the same lullaby quality through its visuals and Browning’s performance, we’re in for something charming and – dare I hope – reassuring. And reassuring isn’t often a priority in movies at the moment.


I’m glad Jeremy Renner’s getting back to some character acting. He’s the kind of actor who you have play Carmine Polito in American Hustle, or San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb here, not on whose shoulders you rest an entire franchise (hi, Bourne, Mission: Impossible, potential Hawkeye movie).

Who was Webb? He was a reporter who revealed that the Reagan Administration had shielded drug dealers on U.S. soil from prosecution, as a way of funding their suppliers, the Contras, in their CIA-backed coup of Nicaragua. And 20-odd years later, we wonder why the children of Central America are showing up on our doorstep, and act like they aren’t our direct responsibility for what we did to their countries in the name of the Cold War.

Though he was torn apart by mainstream media in the 1990s for his claims, much of Webb’s research was later vindicated. He died in 2004, having committed what was ruled a suicide. By shooting himself. In the back of the head. Execution style. Twice.

I fully expect, and hope, for Renner to nail this to the wall.

Paradise Lost is the other drug lord movie, starring Josh Hutcherson (The Hunger Games) and Benicio Del Toro (Che) as Pablo Escobar. In truth, it looks pretty iffy, and I’d much rather leave you wanting to go learn more about Gary Webb.

Massive Success and/or Giant Failure — “Godzilla”

Park all the tanks on that bridge

A fin coming out of the water and a two-note anthem. A velociraptor tapping her claw impatiently on the floor as she hunts two children in a hotel kitchen. These are some of the most terrifying moments on film, but why? It’s not the fin that frightens, but the monster it suggests, gliding underwater through Jaws. Yes, we’re scared of the raptor’s scythe-like killing claw in Jurassic Park, but the eeriest moment happens when she impatiently taps it on the tile – as if to say finding you is inevitable, so why keep her waiting? And so it is in Godzilla, in which monsters loom out of the midnight fog and detach from the shadows themselves. We’ve reached a point in filmmaking where it’s very difficult to scare audiences through complex visual effects. But the simple shadow of a monster around the corner? That will always set hearts and minds racing.

Does Godzilla reach the peaks of those epic Steven Spielberg monster tales? In terms of visual tension, absolutely. One of the biggest keys to creating a successful suspense film lies in withholding the payoff an audience expects. You can’t answer every moment of tension with a release. If you do, a movie becomes formulaic. You have to make a game out of when that inevitable jump scare or action scene will occur. Earning an audience’s trust while constantly betraying their expectations is what makes horror and suspense such difficult genres, but Godzilla director Gareth Edwards has obviously watched those Spielberg movies many, many times.

Get used to this expression

Even the opening credits of Godzilla build its mystery, redacting text in black marker as faux-historical footage plays in the background. From here, we’re offered a tragic prologue involving nuclear engineer Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston from TV’s Breaking Bad) and an apparent earthquake. Years later, we pick up the plot with his son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who’s lured to Japan when Joe gets arrested. Godzilla spends a lot of love and care setting up these characters and their history, which is why it’s so strange that it all becomes immaterial once monsters start hatching and destroying the countryside.

There are considerable problems here. The biggest is Taylor-Johnson, who may look the part of a typical leading hero, but who fails to elicit much emotion. Tell him a loved one’s dead, inform him of prehistoric beasts the size of skyscrapers, and even have one gnash its gigantic jaws feet from his head, and he only ever looks like he’s waiting very courteously for the camera to start rolling. It’s a shame; when the monsters are this big, it doesn’t matter if your hero’s as tall as The Rock if he can’t manage the curiosity and wonder of Richard Dreyfuss. In a cast featuring Cranston as a conspiracy nut and character actors Ken Watanabe (Inception) and Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine) as scientists with a near-religious fervor for the giant beasts they hunt, Taylor-Johnson’s perpetual lack of emotion is glaring and begins seeping into the audience. Elizabeth Olsen plays Ford’s wife Elle, and all it takes is one conversation – on the phone, no less – to make you realize who you’d rather see facing off against giant monsters.

Olsen shows you how to do a reaction shot

The plot is incredibly uneven. We don’t expect Shakespeare from Godzilla, but after the lush and detailed opening half-hour is chucked to the side, narrative developments later on are rushed so badly that, at one point, a character literally washes up into the next scene. Disaster-movie cliches – will the dog outrun the tsunami, will the hero find the lost boy’s parents – are answered with such coincidental ease that it’s easy to start distrusting any emotional investment we’re asked to make. These cliches are always manipulative, but they should never feel that way.

There’s a lot that’s right about Godzilla and a lot that misses the mark. It’s visually clever in a way few films are, but combine an illogical story and an unengaged lead and you have one strangely apathetic movie. What we’re left with is something that works exquisitely on the primal level – seeing the fin in the water – but that fails in giving it personal consequence. It’s half-a Spielberg movie, visually awe-inducing but without that crucial human element. Call it the inversion of Super 8 or Cloverfield, both of which I preferred more. In the end, though, I can’t remember the last time a movie had acting and a plot this bad and I still came out liking it. The visuals really are that striking, but I have to admit that little else about Godzilla is. It’s rated PG-13 for destruction and creature violence.

Godzilla imagines a better colead

We Need You, Godzilla

Godzilla 2

What drove Japanese film in the 1950s was a national shame at having blindly followed the ruling class into a decade of war and social disrepair. Yes, Godzilla was a manifestation of the fear of atomic weaponry and the lasting repercussions it would have, but he also represented a sort of angry god.

America in the ’50s made monster movies so that we could demonstrate how capable we were at overcoming anything and everything (hint, hint Russia). It was patriotic jingoism and boasting. Japan, on the other hand, has a longstanding tradition of creating monsters that reflect its cultural fears and demons. I think it comes from having so much Animist tradition that made it into their current religion (sort of like Mexican Catholicism’s treatment of spirits and ghosts). In the ’50s, Japan translated that tradition into oversize, culture-wide vengeance demons.

A new American Godzilla comes out on May 16. It’s directed by Gareth Edwards, a bold choice by Legendary Pictures. His only previous feature film cost $400,000 to make; this Godzilla cost $160 million. Early trailers look and sound phenomenal, exciting, artistic…but can he adapt that core spirit of Godzilla (at least in his initial outing) that is so difficult to communicate to Western audiences?

Yes, Godzilla looks a certain way and roars a certain way, but to achieve what the monster initially meant in Japan, he has to be a judgment against our cultural transgressions. He’s not just a monster; he’s corporal punishment on a nationwide scale. Being big and eating trains and making noise didn’t make him terrifying. There was an underlying, creeping sense that no one in particular had earned his wrath, and so no one in particular could beat him. An entire culture had earned him through the hubris of imperialism and turning a blind eye to the actions of their own country. An entire culture could only avoid his wrath again by changing its values.

It’s a unique point in time for the American psyche to have a monster that reflects that. How you translate that sense of fear and responsibility for Godzilla…that’s achievable. How you translate that national sense of shame…well, we’re not a culture that considers shame a valuable emotion. The most overwhelming component of Japanese film in the ’50s was a shame so deep that penance was more often an unattainable pursuit than an achievable goal. When it was reached, it could only be measured in lifetimes (a theme constantly revisited in Akira Kurosawa films like Stray Dog and The Silent Duel, and explored repeatedly by the Zatoichi blind swordsman movies).

If you can get that sense across to a Western audience in a blockbuster film, let alone a Western monster movie, then you’ve stayed true to the original 1954 film. That may be a tall order, but I’d rather see a failed attempt at one of the most impossible cultural translations in cinema than just another monster vs. military ordeal with no real terror to it. I guess we’ll find out soon.

Good luck, Godzilla. We could use you at a time like this.

Lois Lowry, Monsters, and Sex: The Films of 2014, #20-11

Godzilla 2

20. Godzilla

May 16 — America in the ’50s made monster movies so that we could demonstrate how capable we were at overcoming anything and everything (hint, hint Russia). It was patriotic jingoism and boasting. Japan was coming off a much different experience. A longstanding tradition of creating demons was translated into an oversize, culture-wide god of vengeance meant to punish a country that was possessed by national shame for its actions in World War 2. In the beginning, before Godzilla became the 28-film, constantly reincarnated, Japanese James Bond, he wasn’t just a monster – he was a judgment.

Being big and eating trains and making noise didn’t make him terrifying. There was an underlying, creeping sense that no one in particular had earned his wrath, and so no one in particular could beat him. An entire culture had earned him through the hubris of imperialism and turning a blind eye to the actions of their own country. An entire culture could only avoid his wrath again by changing its values.

Now is a unique point in time for the American psyche to have a monster that reflects that, but it’s what director Gareth Edwards has stated he wants to do. How you translate that sense of fear and responsibility for Godzilla…that’s achievable. How you translate a national sense of shame…well, we’re not a culture that considers shame a valuable emotion. The most overwhelming component of Japanese film in the ’50s was a shame so deep that penance was more often an unattainable pursuit than an achievable goal. Reaching it could only be measured in lifetimes. If you can get that across to a Western audience in a blockbuster film, let alone a Western monster movie, then you’ve stayed true to the original 1954 film. Watch the trailer here.

Good luck, Godzilla. We could use you at a time like this.


19. Omar

February 21 — Palestine’s second Oscar nominee concerns a Palestinian freedom fighter coerced into becoming an Israeli informant. The academic side of me is fascinated with the last decade’s evolution of the Thai and Indonesian film industries, and wonders which culture will be next to dive headfirst into the medium. Palestine’s has as much to say as any culture out there. The humanitarian part of me, that had years-long access to a Native American library and its historical records as a kid (and is likely to piss off a few friends by saying this), thinks those 1.7 million Palestinians who were kicked off their land shouldn’t be forced to live in a guarded, walled ghetto. Watch the trailer here.

The Hobbit There and Back Again

18. The Hobbit: There and Back Again

December 17 — If the first Hobbit was an episodic road picture centered on its characters and the second was fantasy tourism focused on its locations, what will the third one be? Based on the book and how many loose threads there are to tie up, I’m guessing it’s the action movie of the bunch. That’s good and bad. I’m a sucker for swordplay, but no matter how good the action, nothing holds up to that scenery. I really wouldn’t mind seeing Bilbo and his entourage go on another hike or two instead, or stop off to enjoy a pint in some tucked-away pub. How much to get Anthony Bourdain to Middle-earth?

The Guest

17. The Guest

No date set — I don’t like slashers. The scares are too simplistic. Horror works best when it operates by its own logic. “Crazy murderer is crazy” isn’t logic; it’s an excuse. You’re Next was easily the best horror movie of 2013. It was also the most intelligent slasher I’ve seen, by turns darkly comedic and plotted with character-driven cross-purposes. It could’ve made a stage play. The Guest is Adam Wingard’s follow-up in a year that looks to be sorely lacking in good horror. Wingard’s only made one film, but already I’m a loyal fan.


16. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part One

The Hunger Games still retains a certain campiness in how certain plot points are achieved, but it has something important and crucial to say about how we live our lives today. I’ve heard bad things about the last book, on which this year’s entry into the franchise is based, but based on Francis Lawrence’s direction and Jennifer Lawrence’s monumental performance in Catching Fire, I have more than enough faith in this cast and crew to keep the odds in its favor.

Wish I Was Here

15. Wish I Was Here

September — Despite the Kickstarter controversy Zach Braff underwent to fund this, the early word out of Sundance is that it’s a masterpiece. I haven’t revisited Scrubs or Garden State in years, and I’m very curious as to whether they were artifacts of my early twenties or if they’d hold up just as well today. I’m a little afraid to see which, but I’m hoping Braff is still only getting started as a storyteller.

The Giver

14. The Giver

August 15 — The United States is a bit like the city in Logan’s Run, except once you reach a certain age you aren’t disintegrated. Instead, you’re made to read Lois Lowry’s The Giver. It’s a much more humane approach. Considered one of those novels that’s impossible to adapt into film, I couldn’t think of a better director to try anyway. Phillip Noyce (Rabbit-Proof Fence, The Quiet American) puts character first, damn everything else, and with Jeff Bridges starring as the titular Giver, keeper of a dystopian society’s memories, and Meryl Streep as the Chief Elder, I have an incredible amount of hope for this film.

Edge of Tomorrow

13. Edge of Tomorrow

June 6 — Tom Cruise has always had a good head for science-fiction projects: Minority Report, War of the Worlds, and one of my top 5 films of 2013, Oblivion. This last featured a small cast and the kind of plot you’d find in the ’70s era of literary science-fiction. I don’t know that director Doug Liman  (Mr. and Mrs. Smith) is capable of as fresh a perspective on the genre as Oblivion‘s Joseph Kosinski, but Edge of Tomorrow is based on the [much better titled] Japanese novel All You Need is Kill and adapted by Christopher McQuarrie, who also wrote The Usual Suspects. The trailer and its “Live, Die, Repeat” motif shows that Groundhog Day would not have been as much fun if Bill Murray were repeating D-Day against aliens instead of a day in the suburbs. It’s striking, and Emily Blunt’s turn as Cruise’s anchor-in-time is one of the roles I anticipate most in 2014. Watch the trailer here.


12. Nymphomaniac: Volumes 1 and 2

March 21 & April 18 — The capstone to Lars Von Trier’s “Trilogy of Depression,” that started with “Antichrist” and continued with “Melancholia.” While he’s no stranger to controversy, Von Trier doesn’t make films just for the argument. He’s made triumphs and messes, but his movies are always full of ideas. Nymphomaniac is an epistolary film in which two people (Charlotte Gainsbourg & Stellan Skarsgard) recount their past intimate encounters. Already referred to as FILTH by more people than have had a chance to see it, it may be just that, or it may be yet be an artful and important portal into two characters’ loneliness and egoism.

Only Lovers 2

11. Only Lovers Left Alive

April 11 — Tom Hiddleston plays Loki in the Thor movies. Here, he’s an underground vampire rocker named Adam. Tilda Swinton is an indie darling who played the White Witch, the best bit in the Narnia films. Here, she’s Adam’s vampire lover of the past several centuries, Eve. Mia Wasikowska was Alice in Tim Burton’s unfortunate adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. She’s been paying penance by doing far more interesting movies ever since. She’s Eve’s little sister, Ava, and provides the trouble between the other two. Jim Jarmusch is a director who makes deeply personal films about reclusive characters. This looks like his best. Watch the trailer here.