Tag Archives: Star Wars

10 Things I Thought While (Re)Watching “Tron: Legacy”

Tron Legacy Lightcycles

by Gabriel Valdez

1. I have a synesthetic reaction to Tron: Legacy. There are scenes that are filmed in an almost black-and-white fashion, except the tones are blue-and-orange. The whole design is built out of LED-influenced grids, neon angles, and laser lights. I have the same reaction to director Joseph Kosinski’s second film, Oblivion, although that is designed as differently as you could imagine. The thing with Kosinski is that he doesn’t just design his films well, he designs them unconventionally. Rather than the more-more-more philosophy of many modern fantasy and science-fiction films, Kosinski is unafraid to let his designers create boldly spare architectures and sets.

2. Rather than overly rely on green-screen, Kosinski has entire sets built. This allows his actors to more fully inhabit their scenes. Good actors know how to use the space around them, how to use the walls and the dirt. You need to act big in front of a green-screen, to shout so the back row of the theater believes you (like Gerard Butler in 300). When there’s a real set involved, you can still communicate quiet moments. Make no mistake, Tron: Legacy absolutely abuses green screens, but for the key moments – the quiet moments – it relies on sets.

Tron Legacy Olivia Wilde 2

3. You know who would’ve made a GREAT Anakin Skywalker? Olivia Wilde. Sure, that’d throw some mythology off, but…gender, whatever. Garret Hedlund makes a fine protagonist in Tron: Legacy and Jeff Bridges is having a lot of fun playing dual mentor and villain roles, but Wilde is the one who steals the show as the older Flynn’s protege. It would be easy to say a film like this lacks good performances, but the truth is it’s not built to have them – it favors big stylistic moments and experienced scenery chewers like Michael Sheen (who plays a nightclub owner drinking from the Tim Curry well). Hedlund doesn’t hold our attention as a protagonist. Wilde pretty immediately overtakes him.

This also brings up another note. Given Wilde’s history and popularity, I can’t help but wonder if she were a man, would she be a leading action star by now? She’s hardly unemployed, but when she’s finding her best roles in direct-to-DVD indies like Better Living Through Chemistry, and she’s awkwardly relegated to “leading girlfriend” in big budget films like Rush, something’s very wrong.

4. Relying on restrictions in CGI makes your visual effects last longer. Tron: Legacy doesn’t aim for graphical fidelity. Instead, it limits the scope of its style. Ridley Scott used to practice a form of this, choosing moments in Alien and Blade Runner to hint – rather than show – the viewer toward worlds full of astonishing sights. (Since then, Scott occasionally jumps the shark on CGI.) Kosinski doesn’t follow quite the same path – times have changed – but in adhering to design philosophies instead of a pursuit of overall visual fidelity, the visual effects in his films take on a similar quality of aging very slowly. The CGI in other 2010 films doesn’t hold up as well as this.

One reason for this is that the visual effects artists for Tron: Legacy are often only making something look real using a few colors, not thousands. This is far easier, and allows the artists to re-prioritize how they spend their time (and your budget).

Tron Legacy Bridges Hedlund knocking on the sky

5. There’s a scene between Hedlund and Bridges, soaring across the sky on a freighter, where they catch up on all the advancements the elder Flynn has missed while stuck inside his computer program. It involves a neon-highlighted walkway, fog, and just a hint of stars. Never forget that, in the middle of your effects-heavy movie, it is the simplest scenes – Luke sharing a last moment with a dying Yoda, for instance – that anchor the emotions that make the crazy setpieces worth a damn.

6. The score. It’s the best thing Daft Punk’s ever done. Kosinski doesn’t sign up classic-styled composers. Instead, he chooses an electronica band whose tone he believes he can fit to the film, and enlists them to compose the score. Daft Punk created film music that uses orchestral components in a hard-edged, electronica manner. It creates a full orchestra out of aggressive violins, walking feedback lines, gentle harps, violent brass highlights, and voobing synth tones. There are moments where they harken to the deeply emotive, early experimental electronic music of Tangerine Dream and Vangelis, moments where they push the envelope of modern electronica, and moments when it sounds more like a Hans Zimmer-like triumphal film score. I’ll make no arguments that Tron: Legacy is a great film – it’s not – but this score is one of the best in the last decade. It was my score of the year for 2010, with apologies to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (The Social Network) and Zimmer himself (Inception).

Deus Ex Human Revolution apartment

7. Should the powers that be ever get around to making a movie out of the Deus Ex video game franchise, there would be no better choice than Kosinski, especially now that the franchise’s most recent entry has gone so New Renaissance in its design philosophy. I’d push him for the long-gestating Mass Effect movie, too, since Oblivion showed off how well-versed in multiple eras of science-fiction Kosinski is.

8. Personally, I think Disney’s missing a huge chance to get Kosinski in the director’s seat of a Star Wars movie. I’ve written why I do like J.J. Abrams for the job, and Rian Johnson is an inspired choice to direct a more character-driven Star Wars. Gareth Edwards, however, has yet to prove he’s suitable for the job – Godzilla (read the review) had some moments, but it was a narrative and emotional disaster.

9. Hedlund is fully capable of battling out the action scenes himself, but I keep counts in films that have both a male and female action star. There are hints toward romance between them, and there’s the problem of her being his “reward” for his adventure…I don’t think that’s what the film’s initially trying to say, but it soon follows the beats of that trope and implies it in the ending.

Anyway, I keep counts of how often the man saves the woman and how often the woman saves the man. Wilde saves Hedlund several times. He saves her once. There’s even a later scene where she literally swoops to his defense, and she stands guard in multiple scenes between Hedlund and various villains. That’s usually the male role in science-fiction and fantasy films.

Furthermore, Hedlund isn’t exactly the special one who can save the world here, she is. Tron: Legacy isn’t a great film or a complete film when it comes to women – it doesn’t even pass the second or third rule of the Bechdel Test – but it does do some very nice things that aren’t often seen in big budget films.

Tron Legacy visuals

10. Tron: Legacy isn’t great but it is fantastic. When I decide to sit and watch a favorite scene, that favorite scene ends up lasting until the end credits. I never feel frustrated or like I wasted my time for having watched more than I intended because I’m always so incredibly engaged with it. Again, this goes back to the synesthesia. I don’t just admire the visuals and music, I feel them. I’m not someone you could describe as a synesthete. I don’t feel that effect often. That’s why I value Tron: Legacy so much – it can trigger a euphoric multisensory response that’s foreign to me, like a visual drug.

Not everyone’s going to feel that watching Tron: Legacy – some people will feel it for other films that I might not. I’ve read about the synesthetic reactions some people have to 300 and, while I enjoy its visuals, I’m hardly experiencing referred sensory responses from them. I recognize Tron: Legacy isn’t a great film, but it does (along with the much better Oblivion) represent something unique and special in my own personal viewing experience, something that I really can’t get from anything else.

Mila Kunis vs. Space Vampires or: Bad Movie, Great Art — “Jupiter Ascending”

Jupiter Ascending antigrav boots chase

by Gabriel Valdez

Action movies are often criticized as being “color by numbers” and following the same, basic plot we’ve seen dozens of times before. What happens if you take all the color by numbers pages you have, crumple them together, and glue like a madman? Some parts might be recognizable, but the seams where the pages meet won’t make any sense.

It’ll be a surreal mess, but it might still be fun to look at. This is the approach Jupiter Ascending takes. It follows Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), a young girl with a tragic past who works as a house cleaner, but is really the reincarnation of one of the universe’s most powerful CEOs. Before we get the chance to know her, she’s targeted by bounty hunters and saved by a hunky space wolf played by Channing Tatum. We take it on faith he’s a space wolf despite the only evidence being pointy ears and the occasional growl, but everyone in the movie keeps telling us he is, so why not? Oh, and he has anti-gravity boots that let him speed skate through the air at jet speed.

Have you seen Underworld, Stargate, Dune, The Fifth Element, or Star Wars? Read any Douglas Adams? Seen any Disney princess animation ever? Good, because they’re all smashed in here. Do you want a movie that makes a lot of sense? This isn’t the place. Do you want one that crazily shoves every sci-fi cliché into a blender and holds on for dear life? Welcome to Jupiter Ascending.

You can’t take the movie’s surface seriously. It’s thoroughly B-grade. There’s a sequence where Tatum fights aliens on earth, hops onto their frigate, rides a wormhole through space, and then raids an intergalactic thunder palace – all without putting on a shirt. The number of costume changes Kunis undergoes, from hospital gown to space jumpsuit to ever more extravagant and revealing evening gowns, becomes a running joke.

Jupiter Ascending space vampires

Jupiter Ascending is trolling science-fiction and our expectations of it, trying to get a rise by being like everything and nothing all at once. It’s more along the lines of directors The Wachowskis’ Speed Racer than The Matrix. Does that make it as good as either? That’s complicated. It’s constantly skirting the line between clever and disastrous. It’s a worse movie. It’s better art.

Kunis anchors the film by playing straight man to the film’s zany antics, and she’s better than expected. Tatum is too glum for the kind of chances the film is taking and Sean Bean nods and winks his way through a paper-thin mentor role. The biggest shortcoming is Eddie Redmayne, currently up for an Oscar for The Theory of Everything. It’s difficult to overact without being campy, but he finds a way, mumbling half his lines away.

The movie’s biggest problem is a lack of signifiers in the action scenes. We need to know where everyone is so we can marvel at the amazing visual effects and feats of heroism taking place. When our heroes hijack an alien fighter over Chicago, for instance, we’re treated to a few minutes of high-speed chase. The only problem is that all the fighters look exactly the same and have extra moving parts that distract the eye. This is Grade-A Transformers disease: which fighter are we rooting for in the mess of fantastic visual effects? Who knows? We’re rooting for the effects, I guess.

The solution is as simple as painting a red streak on the side of our heroes’ fighter, or lighting the cockpit a different color. Audiences thrive on context, and lacking it is a mistake Jupiter Ascending makes repeatedly. The movie gets a pass on being zany; it doesn’t get a pass on bad fundamentals.

Jupiter Ascending makeup

Characters, realizations, and scenes don’t emerge; they crash into the rest of the plot. The film’s latter half revolves around the intergalactic espionage surrounding who owns Earth: it’s Jupiter and her space wolf versus the infighting dynasty of space vampires. Think the shenanigans of Twilight meeting the corporate metaphors of Dune, if you can do so without your brain breaking. The movie starts becoming more solid as it becomes clearer just how big of a riff it all is.

Jupiter Ascending is a one star movie with a four star ability to keep your attention. I want to like it more than I actually do. In this case, that makes the difference. Maybe it’s Kunis’s charm, or the Wachowskis’ kitchen sink approach. It could be the costume drama antics or the blue collar message it trumpets throughout. The movie’s multi-layered anti-oligarchy conceit is brilliant, it’s just not as brilliantly fused together into a cogent whole. Right now, it’s a lot of really good ideas sprinkled around.

It’s just insane enough to make me applaud its ambition. It stands out not because it achieves what it sets out to accomplish, but because it wants to accomplish so much. Falling on its face makes me admire the movie a lot more than if it didn’t try at all. Is it a good film? Absolutely not, but it is relentlessly interesting. You have to know what happens next. It’s a fine line to walk, as if the Wachowskis took the “There is no spoon” line from The Matrix and applied it to a movie instead of silverware.

Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?

This section helps us discuss one aspect of movies that we’d like to see improved – the representation of women. Read why we’re including this section here.

1. Does Jupiter Ascending have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Mila Kunis plays Jupiter. Tuppence Middleton plays space vampire extraordinaire Kalique Abrasax. Nikki Amuka-Bird plays Diomika Tsing, a capable captain in what amounts to the space police. Doona Bae plays bounty hunter Razo. Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Famulus, Lieutenant to one of the space vampire sons. Jupiter’s own immigrant family may be patriarchal, but is dominated by women – her mother and aunt, especially.

2. Do they talk to each other?

Yep.

3. About something other than a man?

They rarely talk about men. The film’s biggest accomplishment is that Jupiter is the same person whether she’s cleaning toilets and getting yelled at by her family, or deciding the fate of Earth. This is a strong female character who always seeks to sacrifice for the greater good, even at the expense of herself or her family. It doesn’t matter if she’s discussing financial woes or intergalactic economics.

On the whole, I oppose character development the way we use it now. We’ve taken an element of storytelling that is a tool and, in Western narratives, we’ve turned it into all but a requirement. It’s like asking we build our houses out of hammers and screwdrivers instead of wood and brick. Character development is a great tool when used in the correct circumstance. It is not the essence of narrative.

The few times when we are gifted with characters who don’t develop, it’s because they’re thrown into a world where their personal strengths are turned from uselessness into dominance: Mel Gibson’s Max in Mad Max, Christian Bale’s Batman in The Dark Knight trilogy, and the progenitor of all these steadfast characters in American film – Clint Eastwood in any Western or Dirty Harry movie.

These are stories where unhealthy traits are suddenly turned into heroic qualities because the nature of their world demands it. It’s no mistake that the unhealthy traits that are presented as heroic almost always belong to male characters.

Rarely, do we see a normal person on film whose world is turned upside down, yet who is healthy enough to end up the same on the other side regardless. Almost never is this character a woman.

When this happens in Jupiter Ascending, it’s not stressing the need for dominance or vengeance or violence as strengths. It’s stressing empathy and confidence, the courage to understand something wholly separate from your own experience and meet it on its own terms rather than trying to conquer it on yours.

Jupiter Ascending Mila Kunis

The ideas inside of Jupiter Ascending, especially as they pertain to gender dynamics, are some of the most exquisite and complex you’ll find on film. Does the film live up to those ideas? Enough to communicate them successfully if you’re willing to watch with an open mind, yes.

Our hunky space wolf does rescue Jupiter on more than one occasion. Sometimes it’s needed, but at least once he bursts in and impressively kills dozens for a rescue that’s completely useless. Jupiter’s perfectly fine. Whoops.

Later, he’ll burst in and rescue Jupiter when she’s already won the day. This isn’t to say she can claim what we think of as a classical movie victory – she’s made the decision to sacrifice herself and others in order to save billions of lives. She makes the right decision in a no-win scenario, and more to the point, she’s made the kind of decision people who clean toilets for a living already make every day, and not the one her aristocratic corporate space vampire opponents can even grasp as a viable option. So yeah, she does win, and in case you don’t get it, she’s given the opportunity to go toe-to-toe with the villain later on anyway.

So the hunky Channing Tatum space wolf (who she’s hitting on from first meeting rather than the other way around) does get to rescue her in classical movie form, often as she’s falling out of buildings, but it’s usually after she’s claimed the kind of victories we rarely get to see in movies, the kind that are far more impressive than all the speed skating anti-gravity boots in the galaxy.

Chris Braak writes more on this in an article that considers the feminism in Jupiter Ascending and how the film’s messages may reflect on co-director Lana Wachowski’s gender transition.

IN CONCLUSION

This is one of those films that the more I write about it, the more I think about it, the more I find in it. I can tell I’m not done writing about it by a long shot. Roger Ebert once said that you have to rate a film based on its own terms. Not is it good or is it bad. Does it succeed at what it’s trying to be?

It’s very difficult to tell what Jupiter Ascending wants to be. Earlier, I said it’s a one star movie with a four star ability to keep your attention. It’s five star performance art. It’s a six star discussion topic. It’s seven star feminism. It’s an eight star science-fiction conceit. It’s just very hard to get at those other things because it is a one star movie on the surface.

Where does that leave it?

As a box office flop (at least in the U.S.) that mainstream criticism will reject. And you can’t really blame them because their jobs are to rate movies as movies, not as discussion topics or meta commentary or performance art. That’s the critical industry dragging its heels on responding to the way movies are changing, and I’m not about to blame individual critics for rating movies as movies first.

As an inevitable cult classic a few critics will be championing for years, to either be remembered for how ambitious it was in reaching so far beyond the theater, or to be forgotten for how it failed to sell itself well enough inside the theater.

Where does that leave me?

See it. Be prepared to dislike it. Be prepared to love it. Go in with no expectations. Be prepared to not understand how a friend can feel the exact opposite of you after you watch it. Either way, you’ll be discussing it long afterwards. Be prepared to dislike it and love it in the same breath. Be prepared to see it and think I’m an idiot. Be prepared to see it and want to write 2,000 words on it. Be prepared to think it’s genius. Be prepared to think it’s trash.

In the end, do not try and rate the movie. That’s impossible. Instead… only try to realize the truth.

What truth?

There is no movie.

There is no movie?

Then you’ll see, that it is not the movie that’s awesome, it is only yourself.

Or something like that.

The Top 10 Most Anticipated Films of 2015: Terrorist Meryl Streep, Lightsabers & Time Travel

Mad Max Fury Road Tom Hardy

by Gabriel Valdez

The top ten is a mix of big-budget movies and independent-minded films, but two of my top three films feature women directing. This is the kind of thing I think most lists miss when they just stick to Star Wars, Jurassic Park, and Marvel everything. Now, I’ll spoil something – I list Star Wars here – big surprise, but Most Anticipated lists can’t just be the big stuff. They have to mix it up.

You’re not showing anyone anything when you only talk about what they already know.

I don’t want to launch into a diatribe about criticism, but the industry really is threatened by a mass consensus attitude that demands championing anything popular beforehand for the clicks, and then tearing it down afterward for the clicks. And then the industry has the gall to turn around and criticize Hollywood for its lack of imagination.

Moving on:

Hateful Eight

10. THE HATEFUL EIGHT

When I stepped into the theater for Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, I thought to myself, this is the final straw. This is where Tarantino steps up and proves he’s about something more than celebrating style, or the place I can finally bury having to be concerned about him. Coming off the night-and-day halves of Kill Bill and the well-filmed but utterly needless Deathproof, I was really hoping for an excuse to bury him. By the time I walked out, I felt like I’d been sucker punched.

Tarantino’s always been capable of making you laugh even while sending chills up your spine and making you feel guilty about it, but those skills could often find themselves drowned under the weight of his pulp. There wasn’t a balance. His films could really be about something one minute and then waste that opportunity the next. But with Basterds and Django Unchained, Tarantino has hit his stride, creating dramas within satires where the message shapes the film around it more than the style. Rarely have audiences packed theaters to see films that make them this uncomfortable. There’s no reason to believe Tarantino will falter at this point, especially in a Western packed with villains. I just hope he’s able to maintain the balance he’s found, and doesn’t fall into old habits. His old habits made good films, sure, but his new habits make great ones. November 13.

9. STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS

I know, this should be #1, right? Cause Star Wars.

Count me disillusioned by the prequels. Count me wary of how they’re splitting up the Star Wars universe into the Marvel film-a-year approach. I actually like the choice of JJ Abrams to direct, as I’ve written before, and the first trailer looked fantastic.

I’m just a bit worn out. For a franchise that hasn’t had a new movie in 10 years, it’s omnipresent. There’s something to be said for: “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” Star Wars hasn’t been absent. It’s like the guest you invited to your holiday party is still camping out on your couch. And the holiday party was in 2005.

It’s #9 on my list, so I’m excited to see it, but…I think we could use some space before all that, Star Wars. It’s not you, it’s me. Wait, that’s not right, it’s totally you. December 18.

8. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD

Finally, the return of Mel Gibson to the franchise that made him what he was (minus, you know, the racist stuff). In Mad Max, Gibson reprises his- wait, what? He’s been replaced? God, who could they get to replace Mel Gibson in one of the most iconic roles ever created?

It couldn’t be. No, it’s not possible…. They wouldn’t.

Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve just been told that Mel Gibson has been replaced by, er, Tom Hardy. It may come as a shock to you, but I’ve also been informed that I am being replaced by Tom Hardy. As it turns out, we will all be replaced with Tom Hardy by the end of the day. In fact, everyone in the world is now being played by Tom Hardy, with the exception of Werner Herzog, who managed to stave off the transformation with a vial of Klaus Kinski’s bone marrow he tag locked in the jungles of Peru in 1979. On the state of things, Herzog commented that he was “unperturbed but sleepy, with the energy of dreams.”

OK, with five roles in four films on this top 40, you wouldn’t think Hardy has the time, but Tom Hardy and space-time are apparently one and the same. (We’re going to have to re-dub a lot of Star Trek episodes now.)

Actually, Tom Hardy looks like a perfect fit in Mad Max: Fury Road. Watch the incredibly colorful trailer (how do so many post-apocalypse films forget that the natural world is so colorful?) and you’ll even notice how well Hardy picks up the subtle gestures, glances, and weary looks of Gibson.

In summation, Tom Hardy is the best, I’m looking forward to this just a smidgen more than Star Wars, which for whatever reason committed the unending shame of not casting Tom Hardy, and long live our glorious leader Tom Hardy. May 15.

7. TOMORROWLAND

You’ll notice I’m getting the 3 most important big-budget films of the year (to me, at least) out of the way right here, and Tomorrowland is the one that really makes me hope. The director of Pixar animated classics “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille,” Brad Bird tells the story of a young girl (Britt Robertson) who joins an inventor played by George Clooney to travel to a place outside of space and time (I’m sorry, outside of Tom Hardy) in order to to try to set the world right. It feels like a cross between The Wizard of Oz and Amazing Stories. If the trailer’s any indication, it will have a great deal to say about the troubled times in which we live. May 22.

6. KNIGHT OF CUPS

Terrance Malick makes amazing films that force you to consider your lonely place in a vast universe. And then he holds onto them for years and years until everyone’s forgotten he made them. Knight of Cups looks like it’s Malick’s take on the genre of excess, starring one of the most ridiculous casts of the year (Christian Bale, Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett, Imogen Poots, Antonio Banderas, Wes Bentley). Nobody quite knows what to expect. The trailer is pure insanity, and only makes you less sure of what to expect. Such is the way of Malick. December 11.

5. PREDESTINATION

Robert Heinlein is perhaps the greatest science-fiction writer to have ever put pen to page. His most controversial and challenging short story is called “-All You Zombies-”. It’s a story about time travel and influencing the path your former self takes in life. It’s simple to understand, but narratively audacious. It is a masterpiece of storytelling about identity.

It is impossible to film. I mean, there are things that are hard to film, and then there are things that are impossible to film, and then there’s “-All You Zombies-”.

The Spierig brothers aren’t the first directors you’d choose to film something like this. They previously directed moody vampire story Daybreakers, a solid genre piece that unfortunately goes overboard in its last 10 minutes. Still, they have rare style and a relationship with just about the only actor I’d ever trust to play this role – Ethan Hawke. The sheer audacity of adapting this tale is what shoots this to the top of my list. If you’ve read the story, you damn well know why. But if they can pull this off, if they can make it what it ought to be or even come close, it will be the kind of film that makes you unable to move when the credits finally roll. January 9/Out now/Probably going to have to wait until DVD.

4. MIDNIGHT SPECIAL

One of the best and most overlooked films of the past few years is Mud, a coming-of-age tale that recalls Steven Spielberg’s early work, only featuring rural Arkansas and Matthew McConaughey instead of aliens. Writer-director Jeff Nichols follows it up with the story of a father and son on the run after the son develops powers. He’s cited John Carpenter classic Starman as his inspiration. Looking at Nichols’s filmography, including Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter, he has yet to take a wrong step.

Most new American stories feel too generic, too in-service to a brand-name Americana that doesn’t feel real. Nichols’ stories emerge from a classic Americana closer to Jack London, Flannery O’Connor, and Mark Twain. The stakes are simple and personal, the stories organic and unexpected, the world around you wide open, thick with character and atmosphere, and yet always seen through a personal bubble you can never quite escape. He is one of the most important filmmakers just now breaking into the industry.

Midnight Special stars Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, Joel Edgerton, Michael Shannon, and Sam Shepard. November 25.

(Since there are no trailers or promotional images, I’ve posted the trailer for Nichols’s Mud up above. It’s some of the best two hours you can spend watching a movie.)

Suffragette

3. SUFFRAGETTE

Meryl Streep and Helena Bonham Carter as terrorists? Tell me more. They play Emmeline Pankhurst and Edith New, respectively. They were the leaders of Britain’s suffrage movement, which fought for the right of women to vote during the turn of the 20th century. The state condemned them and reacted brutally to their battle for real democracy. The movement turned underground and spent years organizing, enduring and provoking extreme violence in turn.

This is written by BBC mainstay and The Iron Lady scribe Abi Morgan, and directed by a hugely promising up-and-comer: Sarah Gavron. It also stars Carey Mulligan, Ben Whishaw, and Brendan Gleeson.

It’s eery to think that, in many democratic countries (including the U.S.), women have had the right to vote for less than 100 years. September 11.

Crimson Peak Wasikowska

2. CRIMSON PEAK

Guillermo Del Toro is the best horror director working today. With Crimson Peak, he’s stepping into new territory. Telling what he calls a “ghost story and gothic romance,” the film stars genre wunderkid Mia Wasikowska as a young woman who marries a man who isn’t quite what he appears to be. That man is played by everyone’s favorite Loki, Tom Hiddleston.

The prospect of seeing these two play off actors like Jessica Chastain and Doug Jones (who has played more Del Toro creatures than any other actor – think of him as Del Toro’s Andy Serkis)…it’s all too enticing to put anywhere else but right near the top of this list. October 16.

1. GIRLHOOD

To quote Alessia Palanti on her review of Boyhood, “After so many years the final result is dotted with formulaic plot points, cliches, a number of feel-good heteronormative Americana stereotypes, and an uninteresting family…I can see why it would capture an audience’s attention, and how its middle class familiar life scenarios could forge mutual understanding between film and viewer. But is this what boyhood really is? And if so, should we really be so celebratory?”

Palanti concluded her review by asking for a Girlhood version of Boyhood.

I’ll answer her with a quote from Daily Beast critic Molly Hannon in her review for Celine Sciamma’s Girlhood: “Sciamma’s film effectively captures the painful realities of young African-French girls living in the French projects who are marginalized by society, mistreated by their families, and preyed upon by unscrupulous characters. The girls only have each other, and it is their banded friendship that empowers them, gives them the security they crave while also giving them a safe place to remain young.”

Before we go on, the film Girlhood has nothing to do with the film Boyhood. It’s more accurately translated as Gang of Girls, but this would carry unfortunate connotations in English. Girlhood is not #1 on this list to riff on Boyhood or be snarky. Yet the comparison is there because of the Americanized title, so let me tell you why it’s number one by telling you why Boyhood doesn’t make my year-end lists: because I can’t see any of the characters in Boyhood really caring that much about the characters in Girlhood. That doesn’t mean they’re bad people, it just means they enjoy a certain privilege not to have to face responsibility for what’s outside the ken of their own lives.

They’re able to participate in rites of passage that don’t necessarily engender healthy people, and yet those rites of passage are celebrated as part of being an average, normal American. There are moments of Boyhood that don’t ring true for people who faced those moments from a different perspective, or simply declined to participate in them.

So why is Girlhood first on my list when it will also present a perspective I have not inhabited? These are the most popular comments to the trailers for Girlhood on YouTube. I apologize for the language, but these are direct quotes:

“Niggers being niggers….. that’s all.”

“I wonder how many wigs are in this movie.”

“Might I dare to suggest a slight change in title to Hood Girls.”

“So they made a movie out of black female flash mobs. So what. Who cares. I don’t.”

“That weave tho…smh.”

“fucking racist negroes taking over France”

Boyhood is a fine film but, to me, it carries with it the luxury of not caring. There’s an Americana to it that is lovely and sentimental, but also narcissistic and illusory. Give me instead the film that takes that luxury away, that offers me a perspective that feels real and unique instead of averaged and branded as “normal.”

Girlhood arrives at a time when civil rights are at issue once more both in the United States and in France, when police violence is untenable in both, when here the voting rights that formed the very core that marchers died for (as was recounted in 2014’s Selma) have been undermined on the state level and by the Supreme Court, and after years of France similarly legislating lesser lives with lesser rights for minority groups including French-Africans.

What film do I want to see the most? I want to see the most technically accomplished, yes. I want to see something emotional, no doubt. But more than anything else, I want to see something that takes on the world unafraid, that can tell a story and make a point, that makes me face the worst of the world and still find beauty. What movies do just a hair better than any other storytelling medium is put you in somebody else’s shoes, give you access to seeing the world and thinking of it from another person’s perspective, so that you might come out a little differently than you went in. Of all the movies on this list, Girlhood is the one that makes me feel like it could be all of those things. January 30.

That’s the list! I’ll put up a recap in coming days, so you can see everything #40 through #1 lined up together.

In the meantime, if you missed #40-31, didn’t see #30-21, or want to know what #20-11 are, I just linked them all in this sentence. Behold, the magic of the internet.

That “Star Wars” Trailer — In Defense of J.J. Abrams

by Gabriel Valdez

It’s a safe announcement trailer, built not to sell a story but rather to shore up a fan base. J.J. Abrams was not a popular choice among fans to direct Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens. The new Star Wars trailer had to show some visual muscle, and it did. If it had relied solely on a mysterious tease, fans would have blown up about what mistakes Abrams had made that Disney was hiding. Millions of voices would have cried out in terror, but they would have never shut the hell up. We needed a safe trailer that nonetheless got our pulses racing and, well, that’s exactly what we got.

Why does so much negativity swirl around Abrams anyway? His Star Trek reboot was viewed as being clever and respectful of the original material among many fans. As someone raised on a steady diet of Next Gen, DS9, and Voyager, it felt playful and loving, featuring some visual moments that I hadn’t realized I’d always wished for from the franchise until I saw them.

Sure, the sequel Into Darkness was a misstep that succeeded in the impossible task of miscasting Benedict Cumberbatch. Abrams first went after Benicio del Toro, however, so his initial instinct was on the nose. Mainly, the whole affair just made me yearn for Dr. McCoy to ditch the bunch of them and adventure through space on his own, healing bodies and sniping egos as he went. Sort of like Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, but with Karl Urban, sharp one-liners instead of heavy breathing, and more phaser fire. “Dammit Jim, I’m a doctor, not a Kay Jewelers spokesmodel.”

Into Darkness made mistakes, but looking at the rest of Abrams’s catalogue…how is this guy so viciously hated? As a TV producer, he’s brought us Felicity, Alias, Lost, and Fringe, each one a show that stands near the top of its genre. The short-lived Almost Human was briefly among the best programs on television and gave us a Karl Urban-Michael Ealy odd couple more rewarding than most relationships on TV. Revolution and Person of Interest aren’t too shabby either.

There’s a reason subsequent espionage programs like Blacklist, Chuck, and even NCIS stole vast swathes of plot from Alias, which deftly translated the Greek tragic form while giving us some of the best fight choreography ever put to television.

Lost was the best show on TV for a few years, inspiring rabid loyalty among fans. Ten years ago, it was THE cultural touchstone. Even though it lost its way a few times, it maintained its mystery without compromising its hard sci-fi values. It lasted seven seasons this way. No show that copied its Twilight Zone-gone-large storytelling lasted more than a handful. Most didn’t make it a season, which makes Abrams the only producer who’s successfully pulled it off.

As for Fringe? Name for me another show that came as close to living up to The X-Files‘ combination of science-fiction and supernatural horror. In terms of Golden Age science-fiction, Fringe even equaled its predecessor in heartbreaking standalone episodes like “Johari Window” and “White Tulip.”

As a director, Abrams changed the direction of the quickly sinking Mission: Impossible franchise, successfully remixed Star Trek before his too-clever-for-its-own-good sequel, and gave us the phenomenal Super 8. The last of these is sometimes criticized as being too much of a riff on Steven Spielberg’s early career, which focused on the intimate story of a broken family juxtaposed against world-changing events. I’ll tell you what: Super 8. Mud. The Devil’s Backbone. Those are the three films since 2000 that have most successfully melded coming-of-age stories into an epic framework. J.J. Abrams, Jeff Nichols, Guillermo Del Toro. That’s pretty good company.

As a film producer, he gave us Cloverfield, among the best found footage films, the severely underrated Rachel McAdams-Harrison Ford comedy Morning Glory, and Brad Bird’s follow-up to Abrams’s own Mission: Impossible entry, Ghost Protocol.

Abrams also changed TV in another important way. It often gets overlooked as a simple inevitability of history, but Felicity, Alias, Lost, and Fringe all shared one thing – women as protagonists, asskickers, and leaders. Keri Russell, Jennifer Garner, Evangeline Lilly, Yunjin Kim, and Anna Torv all led their shows as equals or superiors. TV history was meandering this way already with shows like Ally McBeal and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but Abrams gave the medium a hard shove in the right direction that sped the process up. Without Russell and Garner in particular, television wouldn’t be so brave about running shows led solely by female protagonists.

Abrams has a high floor for quality. His missteps are rare. He can find the personal and quiet moment inside the larger, chaotic scheme of plot. He can back up and find the epic moment that frames us in another world. He can translate classic and mythic forms of storytelling while infusing his work with the style of other directors. Most importantly, he shows inventiveness within the storytelling restrictions of a variety of forms. While not all of his films have put women and minorities front and center, all of his TV shows have. I can’t help but notice his Force Awakens trailer primarily features an African-American man (John Boyega) and a woman (Daisy Ridley).

Is Abrams the best choice? No, but I don’t think David Fincher’s going to do a Star Wars, Ridley Scott turned the offer down in the 90s (and may’ve jumped the shark since), and Guillermo Del Toro turned the offer down a few years back.

I don’t know that Brad Bird would have been better, and I’d rather have him working on Tomorrowland. If you saw the up-and-down Elysium then you know that Neill Blomkamp simply isn’t there as a director yet. Davids Cronenberg and Lynch turned Return of the Jedi down in the 80s and, by the way, have you seen Dune? I mean, I like it better than most, but is this really what you want Star Wars to be?

George Lucas? Empire‘s Irvin Kershner? Jedi‘s Richard Marquand? I might love some of their films, but let’s face it: J.J. Abrams is the best director who’s ever taken the helm on a Star Wars movie. Period.

At least Lucas isn’t doing it again, or we might have this:

Orphans of the Sky — “Guardians of the Galaxy”

Guardians Knowhere

Beginnings. If you get those right, the rest of your film can sing. If you get them wrong, you spend two hours playing catch-up. Guardians of the Galaxy has a beautiful beginning.

Young Peter Quill is in a hospital, losing his mother. He shares a last moment with her. She slips away, and he runs. Outside, in the dark, foggy night, he is abducted by a UFO.

It evokes those two sides of the Spielbergian coin – fear of loss and the magical possibility of the unknown. Do that in the first three minutes of your film, and I’m yours. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got a gun-toting raccoon or a talking tree or a bald, robot Karen Gillan, I’m on board. Where do you want to take me?

We rejoin Peter (Chris Pratt) 26 years later. He’s now a spacefaring rogue plucking a mysterious orb from the ruins of a vanished civilization. He’s not the only party interested in the orb, though – the armies of Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) are hot on his tail, as is the fleet of his ex-partner in crime Yondu (Michael Rooker), the aforementioned pair of raccoon-and-tree bounty hunters, and the traitorous assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana).

Assassin, raccoon, tree, and Peter are captured as they fight over the orb. They’re sent to one of those high-tech space prisons that only ever seem to be able to hold protagonists for a day (I call them Kirk Specials). All four characters need each other: Gamora needs Peter for the orb, Peter needs Gamora for her buyer, and Rocket & Groot (the raccoon and tree I) need Peter for his bounty. Toss in the prisoner Drax (wrestler Dave Bautista), who wants revenge on Ronan, and you’ve got an unlikely band of heroes that makes the Avengers seem downright functional.

Guardians Assemble

There’s an easier way to understand these five characters as they race across the galaxy – they’re all orphans. We saw Peter’s mother die in the first scene, and he never knew his father. Gamora’s parents were killed. Rocket the Raccoon was seized from earth, torn apart, and reassembled with cybernetics as someone’s cruel experiment. As a sentient tree who can grow limbs at will, Groot is the last of his kind. Drax might not technically be an orphan, but his family was murdered and we strongly suspect he’s the last of his kind as well.

Bands of misfits aren’t anything new to adventure filmmaking, but what makes this group feel unique is that none of them has a particularly good moral compass…until they’re stuck together. They bring out expectations in each other that they’ve never had in themselves. Guardians shares some good habits with Star Wars (including colorful world building and intricate spaceship battles), but if there’s a film Guardians really takes after, it’s 80s classic The Goonies. They’re both centered on a group of wisecracking, immature kids. It’s just, in Guardians, the kids are older and never grew up. How could they? There was never anyone to teach them how.

Even before the adventure starts, their circumstances are dire. In The Goonies, it was their families’ financial desperation – fear of loss –  that drove them to seek out the mythical and magical for an answer. Here, the Guardians are aimless, tortured, or desperate because of loss they couldn’t stop as children. Beginnings…if you get those right, your film can sing. It’s only in each other that they finally find some guidance. They’re not people (or trees, or raccoons) who will ever amount to much apart. In finding others who’ve been jettisoned from their families, each is finally able to identify with someone beyond him or herself.

Guardians Saldana

None of them is courageous enough in themselves to do what’s right, but they each have the courage missing in the person next to them. It’s a remarkable idea for a film like this, and credit should be given to writer-director James Gunn and writer Nicole Perlman for calling on these notions. This is the year that comic book movies need to be seriously considered for best screenplay Oscar nominations.

Inevitably, you have to compare it to Marvel’s other films. Guardians is hilarious, surpassing Thor: The Dark World as Marvel’s funniest movie. It may lack the grittier spirit and social commentary that Captain America: The Winter Soldier possessed, but Marvel’s success lies in allowing its various franchises to take on different tones and inhabit other genres (be warned as you toy around with your 50 Shades of Blue versions of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, Zack Snyder).

The closest Marvel comparison to Guardians is Joss Whedon’s The Avengers and, honestly, Guardians is the better movie. Its action isn’t as elaborate – in fact, the action in Guardians has to be a bit deliberate in order to include so many jokes and sight gags – but it’s the more poignant science-fiction film, a more colorful adventure, and a better comedy.

Guardians Gillan

While it lacks the Robert Downey Jr/Scarlett Johansson/Samuel L. Jackson triumvirate of star power, Guardians offers Marvel’s best Easter eggs yet for the practiced cinephile. If you’re familiar with the supporting players, you’re in for a treat. Lee Pace (Pushing Daisies; The Fall) is an absolute joy to watch in full-throated villain mode as Ronan. I mentioned a bald Karen Gillan (popular, redheaded companion Amy Pond in Doctor Who), who is nearly unrecognizable as fractious robot assassin Nebula. Benicio Del Toro’s overacting as The Collector simultaneously makes you laugh as he makes your skin crawl. Josh Brolin (a former Goonie himself) voices the ubervillain Thanos, while Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel voice Rocket and Groot. John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Djimon Honsou, and Gregg Henry feature in prominent roles, not to mention blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cameos from Whedon alum Nathan Fillion, Seth Green, and Alexis Denisoff, heavy metal rocker Rob Zombie, and of course Stan Lee.

Just…go see it. If you’ve been staying away from the theater, then you’ve been missing the best summer for movies since before this reviewer was born. Guardians is one of those films so full of event, color, and joyous spectacle, it’s meant to be seen 50 feet tall. Stop reading, leave work, call your friends, ditch school*, whatever, just go see it.

*Stay in school, you guys. There are evening shows.