Film Review: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019)

Dir: André Øvredal
Starring: Zoe Colletti, Michael Garza, Gabriel Rush, Austin Abrams, Dean Norris, Gil Bellows, Lorraine Toussaint
Runtime: 1hr 47min
Spoiler Level: Light!

When my class had library periods in elementary school, back in the late nineties/early 2000’s, there was one book series that had a waiting list – the Scary Stories books by Alvin Schwartz. Whispers of the terrifying stories and the even more petrifying illustrations (by Stephen Gammel) rippled rampantly through my peers, with many claiming that they had trouble sleeping at night after reading such creepy tales.

When I finally got my hands on the books they did not disappoint, and many of the stories – and legendary artwork – have stuck in my mind and sent shivers down my spine years and years afterward. So when I heard there was going to be a film adaptation, produced by Guillermo del Toro, I was hoping to see the monsters from my childhood come to life.

Scary_Stories_to_Tell_in_the_Dark_film_logoSet in a small Pennsylvania town in the fall of 1968, Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark follows a group of teenagers who accidentally incur the wrath of the spectral Sarah Bellows after removing her book of “scary stories” from the basement of a haunted house on Halloween night. They must find a way to appease Sarah, or become the stars of their own scary stories…with less than pleasant endings.

Since the original books are more or less anthologies featuring ghost stories, cautionary tales, and folklore, the film isn’t a straight-up adaptation. Instead, references are peppered throughout an over-arcing narrative that has been constructed for the film, and many of the most memorable “monsters” and stories make appearances with clear inspiration from Gammel’s original artwork. It’s a decision that works well, because fans of the books get to see characters like “Harold” and experience some of the best tales, with some fresh twists, while the unfamiliar can follow along without feeling lost.

The film employs familiar tropes connected to the horror genre – jump scares, a jarring neck snap or two, straw-spewing, the usual – but it manages to balance telling a well-paced story for the uninitiated while also aiming to please fans of the books. The music builds tension where it needs to without being overwhelming, which can be difficult in films where sound is so critical to the atmosphere. 

The plot – a group of teens aiming to appease a vengeful spirit of sorts or face untimely or maybe even slightly comical deaths – isn’t unfamiliar, but it works, mainly because it never tries to break the boundary and veer into “too much” territory. The cast function like a slightly more sinister version of the Scooby Doo crew, and though some receive more development than others, it’s easy to feel and empathize with the characters as their lives spiral into chaos and their friends start dropping like flies. Sure, the film doesn’t do anything revolutionary in terms of horror. It’s not Hereditary, or Get Out, or A Quiet Place. But it doesn’t have to be – and it’s easy, while watching it, to forget that certain features and characters are gleaned from a series of books intended for children.

Overall, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is not super scary, earning a PG-13 rating. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t jump in my seat a few times, and I’m not easily swayed by the genre, so even if it is a bit tamer than horror films with a higher rating, it can definitely frighten children and might lead to some sleepless nights, though fans of the books may be more affected by the scares than others. Seriously… The Pale Lady was terrifying in the book, and she’s just as scary onscreen, especially knowing that she was created using practical effects. 

If a spooky night at the theater is what you’re after, then Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a solid choice – not too scary, not too long, and not too much.

Overall rating: 8/10

Film Review: Detective Pikachu (2019)

Dir: Rob Letterman
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Justice Smith, Kathryn Newton, Ken Watanabe, Bill Nighy, and more.
Runtime: 1hr 44min
Spoiler Level: Light!

As someone who was around back in the late nineties, when the Pokemon sensation swept the globe, I remember the craze when it was at full glory. Not only that, but I actively participated in it. I had a poster of the original 151 Pokemon over my bed, so I could look at them all every night before I went to sleep. I wore my favorite shirt, emblazoned with a Pikachu, until it was too ratty to wear. I’ve played every game since the Blue and Red era, and I forced my poor mother (love you, Mom!) to take me to see Pokemon: Mewtwo Strikes Back! back in 1999. Needless to say, she did not take me to see Pokemon The Movie 2000 – which I still contend is a great movie, but that’s beside the point…

Pokémon_Detective_Pikachu_teaser_poster.jpgDetective Pikachu follows 21-year-old Tim Goodman (Smith) as he attempts to solve the circumstances behind his father’s disappearance with assistance from a caffeine-addicted, wisecracking, deerstalker-hat-wearing Pikachu. But the search for clues leads the unlikely duo into a mystery more intricate than either could have anticipated, and finding answers could save or condemn all of Ryme City.

Honestly, the biggest surprise in this film is that it’s good. And I don’t mean that it’s just a good Pokemon movie – it is a legitimately good movie overall. It works on a level that many other video-game or anime or cartoon adaptations have failed to achieve… because it doesn’t rely solely on nostalgia or fan-service to make a quick buck, nor does it neglect the source material so not to alienate new viewers. Instead, Detective Pikachu balances well-placed nods to the fans (both old and new) while presenting a film with believable characters and motivations, a story that is intriguing to follow, and it takes great care in bringing everyone’s favorite pocket monsters to life onscreen in a way that fans have been yearning for since 1999, or even earlier.

Despite the fact that Pikachu himself is CGI, the chemistry between the leads is superb, especially their banter and the evolution of their relationship as the story develops. Justice Smith is easy to root for, Pikachu/Reynolds offers steady doses of both heart and humor, Kathryn Newton (and her Psyduck) is a charming reporter eager for the truth, and both Ken Watanabe and Bill Nighy, known for their decidedly more “serious” work, give solid performances.

I haven’t played the Detective Pikachu game – I’ve stuck to the main games – so I knew basically nothing about the plot going into the film. The story flows well, and there are parts of it that are predictable and familiar – it is a “kids” movie, after all – but I was genuinely surprised and impressed by a couple of twists. As in, my jaw dropped and I said, “Oh my GOD” to my friend at one point. It’s not Sherlockian-level sleuthing taking place, but it’s also not Blue’s Clues level, if you catch my drift. The dialogue isn’t dumbed down, it’s sharp and won’t give adults a headache. And it feels like the people who made this film actually know Pokemon. As a longtime fan, it is awesome to see Charizard’s flamethrower come to life, Pidgeotto soaring in the air, Loudred beat-boxing in a club, and Magikarp flapping uselessly on the ground. The Pokemon aren’t crammed into the film to try and appease fans, thrown in wherever for throwback or nostalgia reasons; they have purpose, are immersed in the world, the effects are impressive, and their design does true justice to the originals. No, that’s not a dig at Sonic… or maybe it is

Now, does this mean this film will be able to lure non-Pokemon fans into seats? Maybe not – though a few might make the venture based on the adorable titular character, voiced expertly and hilariously by Reynolds. However, it’s definitely the sort of film that won’t bore parents being dragged to the theater by their Poke-crazed kids. If this had come out when I was ten, my mom would have taken me to see the sequel. It has a cohesive narrative, a snappy script, and doesn’t delve so deeply into fan-service that the uninitiated can’t follow what’s going on. It’s one of the first films of this nature that feels like it can make the cross-medium jump without crashing and burning. It’s a solid mystery film for Pokefans young, old, and new, and though it hits familiar beats, it doesn’t feel tired or overdone, and might even generate interest for a new era of fans. 

Sure, non-fans might not be able to pick out their favorite Pokemon puttering about in the background – I got treated to Gengar and Blastoise, two of my favorites, though I missed my beloved Alakazam – but that doesn’t diminish the quality of the film. References may fly over the heads of Poke-novices, but will warm the hearts of wannabe champions from Kanto to Unova. Let’s face it folks – we all live in a Pokemon world. And it terms of video-game film adaptations, Detective Pikachu might just be the greatest master of them all.

Overall rating: 8/10

Best Picture Countdown #5: Dunkirk

“There’s no hiding from this, son. We have a job to do.” – Mark Rylance as Mr. Dawson, Dunkirk (2017).

Dir: Chris Nolan
Starring: Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Fionn Whitehead, James D’Arcy, Harry Styles, etc.
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 1hr 47min

Dunkirk is a war film that utilizes three different perspectives (land, air, and sea) and a trio of timelines to depict the events of the Dunkirk evacuation during WWII. Over the course of the film, the three viewpoints gradually sync up and the characters collide with one another as a brave fleet of civilian boats seeks to rescue the stranded soldiers.

This film is probably higher on my list than on most, but it’s not just because I’m a Chris Nolan fangirl with a penchant for war films. I mean, as much as I admire him, I don’t think he’s going to take home the Best Director award, though I was pleased to see him get his first nod. I’m actually stunned he’s never been nominated before, but that’s a convo for another time…

Dunkirk_Film_posterOne of the film’s greatest strengths is in what it lacks: dialogue. The tension builds in conjunction with the cinematography, sound effects, and pulse-pounding music, not the words and conversations of the characters. The whine of the planes and the rat-a-tat of dogfights, the crashing of bombs on a beach, the yells of frazzled soldiers and the unnerving creak of a ship about to sink, all combine with the vivid imagery of bleak sands, the dour grey of a morning sky, the bobbing of civilian ships forging a path across the waves, and a shivering soldier stranded on floating debris. Seeing this film in IMAX was a cinematic experience unlike any I’ve seen before, and I was so engrossed the entire time I forgot to eat my candy – something I can safely say has never happened before. This film came out in wide release months ago, long before most of the other nominated films, and I can still clearly visualize several scenes because of how much of an impact they had and how brilliantly they stood out onscreen.

While the entire cast is great, Dunkirk is truly an ensemble effort; I found myself invested in each character’s journey, as a significant portion of time is spent on each of the three perspectives, giving each story the chance to unfold without feeling rushed or drawn out. The timelines weave in and out from one another, but do not come together until the very end, which forces the viewer to put some pieces together and heightens the suspense in crucial moments. And the presence of Harry Styles isn’t a major distraction.

As immersed as I was by the performances and atmosphere of this film – and the apparent historical accuracy in comparison to Darkest Hour – I doubt it will take home the ultimate award on March 4th. I’m not putting money on Nolan either, though Dunkirk might be the best example of his directing chops to date. It’s a dark horse for Best Cinematography, but I actually have another favorite in mind for that race, and though it’s my personal favorite for Original Score (as in, Zimmer’s score seriously enhanced the film, arguably more so than the others) I don’t see it taking that one home either. But, as with the BAFTAs, I think it has an excellent shot at the other technical awards, both sound mixing and sound editing, and has a good chance at film editing as well.

The events of WWII have been depicted countless times across various media and in countless films over the years, but Dunkirk still manages to present something refreshing and new. Nolan may get flak for being “pretentious” and “cerebral” with his films (the end of Interstellar comes to mind…) but in this outing, his experimentation with new narrative styles, his striving for authenticity, the intense focus on visual elements, and the reliance on generating an intense atmosphere with limited dialogue and mostly nameless characters is a cinematic triumph worth seeing on the big screen, and well-deserving of a Best Picture nomination.

Oscar Nominations
Best Director (Nolan)
Best Cinematography
Best Original Score
Best Production Design
Best Sound Mixing
Best Sound Editing
Best Film Editing 
Best Picture 

My full review of Dunkirk from July 2017 is available HERE

Film Review: Dunkirk (2017)

Dir: Chris Nolan
Starring: Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Fionn Whitehead, James D’Arcy, Harry Styles, etc.
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 1hr 47min
Spoiler Level: Light

A lot of the early buzz about the latest WWII drama Dunkirk has called it Christopher Nolan’s best film to date. Considering he’s the man who brought us both critically-acclaimed Inception (2010) and widely-lauded The Dark Knight (2008), that’s a statement that isn’t to be taken lightly. Now that I’ve seen it, I have one thing to say about the monumental praise this film’s gotten thus far; it is 100% deserved, and Dunkirk may well be Nolan’s best so far.

Dunkirk_Film_poster.jpgBased on true events, Dunkirk presents three different timelines (land, sea, and air) within a non-linear narrative that chronicles the journeys of various characters – from struggling soldiers to stalwart civilians – during the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940.

Story-wise, I didn’t find the three different timelines too difficult to follow – it was compelling to see land, air, and sea diverge from and intersect with one another. The timelines are a bit disjointed, and it might take a bit to get used to the switching between perspectives (at one point it’s day, then night, then day again, though less than 24 hours have passed) but the narrative is consistently captivating, and as the timelines merge, it’s intriguing to see how certain characters meet and interact with one another.

The entire cast is strong; newcomer Fionn Whitehead delivers a mesmerizing performance as an Army private desperately trying to survive a relentless wave of peril, Tom Hardy, a Royal Airforce Pilot, evokes powerful emotion even while most of his face is concealed, and Mark Rylance is solid as a civilian mariner heading to Dunkirk to try and save some of the stranded soldiers. No one really stood head or shoulders above the rest, but in that same vein, I don’t think there was a weak link among the cast. Performances all around were impressive, especially considering the sparse dialogue, as great acting speaks much louder when there are no words at all. The narrative is carried by everyone, and even though about 90% of the character’s names don’t get spoken onscreen, it’s easy to get invested.

And for those of you wondering, Harry Styles is fine in it – definitely holds his own against the talented veterans. From what I’ve seen browsing around the internet, I imagine a significant chunk of this film’s box office will come from 1D fangirls, because anytime I’ve looked up anything about this film I have to slog through pages upon pages of Harry Styles swooning before getting anything of use, and there were as many middle-aged history professor type men in the theater last night as there were middle-school and high-school 1D fangirls. That’s not a criticism, though; it was actually awesome to see the IMAX theater in my local cinema close to full for a film that isn’t from Marvel. But I find the voracious media attention Styles has received simply for being in a popular boy band prior to this film is unfortunate because Dunkirk is an ensemble effort, and the other actors all deserve just as much, if not more, attention and praise for their performance.

Visually, the film is absolutely stunning – that’s an odd thing to say about a war film, I suppose, but the cinematography (per usual for Nolan) is gorgeous and the film is beautifully shot and edited. Dunkirk is also Nolan’s tightest film to date, as it offers nothing in excess; it’s clean and concise, presenting a well-balanced narrative and a clear picture without delving too deep or dragging too long. Sure, the film doesn’t show too much in the way of blood or gore, but it also didn’t need crimson spills in the sea or severed limbs splayed around craters to convey the horror and cost of conflict, nor does the lack of blood and guts glorify the idea of war in any way. The unseen enemy threat closing in, the stark faces of fear, a foot sticking out from a sandy grave, and the dead bodies floating in with the tide, are all images that stand out long after the credits have rolled.

The music (by Hans Zimmer) and the sound weave together to enhance the intense, knuckle-biting atmosphere. The scream of sirens, the whine of engines, the creak of sinking ships, the wails of dying men, the boom of torpedoes and crash of bombs and the ticking of precious time running out – and at times, silence – all serve to make the events of the film more visceral, more engrossing. The sound of bullets made me jump out of my seat on more than one occasion and honestly, I was so stressed out and tense throughout this film that I forgot to eat my Reeses Pieces. (I’m eating them now, don’t worry).

If it is possible for you to see this film in IMAX, you MUST do so – it’s worth splurging for the price of the ticket. The sound is incredible (VERY loud, but not deafening) and the sweeping shots of the beach and the sea and the dogfights in the air are best seen on a massive screen. My only quibble with the IMAX experience was the dialogue, as it was difficult to discern at times. It didn’t detract too much, since the gist of the narrative is easy to follow, but there were times that I genuinely had no idea what the characters were saying and wish I could have picked it up better. This might be different for the standard version, as it usually is.

I don’t know if this is Nolan’s best, but it is certainly a contender for the spot, and well worth seeing for fans of Nolan and war cinema alike. A sprawling film with a strangely intimate feel, Dunkirk shares bleakness and hope in equal measure, and though countless war films have been made, especially about WWII, there are still so many stories to be told, and Nolan’s put a unique stamp on this one. There’s not much bravado, virtually no soap-boxing, no victory-touting, no medals doled out, and the film doesn’t offer a lot of chit-chat about the horrors and toll of war; it simply shows it, along with the dedication and perseverance of the soldiers who yearn for home, and the civilians striving to get them there. It’s not as gory as Saving Private Ryan or as in-depth as Band of Brothers, but it certainly deserves a place among the memorable high-tier war films.

Overall Rating: 9/10

Top 10 Books and Films 2016 Edition!

After 113 books, 28,731 pages, and 30 trips to the movie theater for 26 films this past year, it is difficult to narrow down my favorites. But, after some careful consideration and introspection, I have pared the lists to my top 10 favorites in each category, and here they are! For the full list of books and films I consumed over the course of 2016, click HERE.

1.) Girl of Fire and Thorns SeriesRae Carson
I’ll admit, I initially figured that I’d be able to predict what happens in this series pretty easily, and ended up staying up til 2AM one night to finish the last book in this series because I couldn’t wait to see what happened next. Elisa was a different sort of heroine; I found her voice and experiences to be refreshing and enjoyed seeing her grow and change over the course of the novels. This series features a unique fantasy world, intriguing characters/relationships, a fair amount of action and surprises, and it presents interesting thoughts on faith/service/religion. All in all, I found it to be a solid trilogy.

2.) RookSharon Cameron
The thing that stood out to me the most from this book was the unconventional setting/plot, largely for how unique/intriguing they were, but also due to how the story unfolded so naturally and smoothly without the use of excessive exposition and massive amounts of backstory in order to make sense of things. It provided a new type of “dystopian” future, so to speak. Plus, the characters were outstanding; Rene might be my favorite male lead of the year, and I appreciate finding a love triangle in YA that isn’t really  a triangle in the typical sense, and avoids falling on overused tropes.

3.) Front LinesMichael Grant
The idea of this novel – presenting an alternate reality where girls/women were drafted into WWII the same as boys/men – drew me in right from the beginning, and the cast of characters kept me engaged. I enjoyed all of the perspectives of the various characters, though Rainy’s might have been my favorite. Definitely a standout for a unique concept and compelling, interwoven stories. The sequel is coming out soon (this month, I believe,) and I look forward to seeing how the story continues to unfold.

4.) This Dark EndeavorKenneth Oppel
I mentioned this in a previous post, but I was a HUGE fan of Oppel’s Silverwing series when I was younger, and read through it several times, so when I stumbled across this title in the Nook shop, I decided to give it a go. And now, I have been charmed once more by his sort of spinoff to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which explores Victor’s teenage years and delves deeper into his personal history and mindset. I haven’t bought the sequel yet, but I look forward to reading it as well.

5.) RuinedAmy Tintera
I have read a lot of fantasy, but this one stood out to me because although it uses familiar concepts that are somewhat “traditional” or common in the genre, this book does them well, and also adds in a lot of nuances and differences that make it stand out from the norm. It throws you into the action straight away, not relying on lots of exposition and narration to explain, and the characters reveal their personalities and motivations in a very organic way. I liked both Em and Cas’s perspectives, and look forward to seeing their adventures unfold in the following installments.

6.) Thirteen Little Blue Envelopes and The Last Little Blue EnvelopeMaureen Johnson
As someone who spent a small portion of my late teens traveling throughout England, these two books really resonated with me. It was a realistic story that hit on a lot of touching and emotional notes, and I enjoyed following the lead character, Ginny, on her journey of self-discovery across Europe, inspired by a challenge delivered from her deceased aunt. The characters – mainly Ginny, but also the supporting cast – are so well-written to the point where they feel like real characters, and I think this is one of a handful of books/series I read this year where I enjoyed the sequel just a tad bit more than the first, as I loved seeing the characters grow and change across the two stories, or, in some cases, not change much at all.

7.) Life As We Knew ItSusan Beth Pfeffer
This is one of those books that caught me by surprise. The premise intrigued me – it’s told in a journal style, and follows the life and perspective of a girl named Miranda after the moon is struck by an asteroid and knocked closer to Earth, resulting in dramatic changes to the entire world. At first, it sounded absurd to me… but I found the writing enchanting and engaging and the characters felt very real, especially the protagonist. It’s certainly a bleak story, at times, but never really loses charm or sense of hope, even as the situations of the character(s) shift along with the condition of the world.

8.) The Scorpio RacesMaggie Stiefvater
While I was never a “Horse Girl” (I knew several, however) this book captivated me from start to finish. The novel follows a unique concept (about what is essentially a life-or-death annual horse race) and features an interesting cast… both human and equine. It’s a well-paced story and it’s easy to feel invested in the lives and actions of the characters, to the point where I didn’t even know who I wanted to win the race in the end.

9.) Confessions of Georgia Nicolson SeriesLouise Rennison
This series was absolutely hilarious, with one of the most unique narrators/voices I’ve encountered in a long while. It took me about a book and a half to really get into this series, but they’re quick reads, and extremely entertaining. I think I plowed through the entire series in about a week. Georgia is a character/narrator who is easy to hate or get frustrated with at times, but it’s also pretty easy to relate to her and laugh at the antics of her and her friends. I mean, there’s viking hats, a cat the size of a Labrador, and consistent references to nunga-nungas… it’s definitely a wild ride.

10.) RemembranceMeg Cabot
I read the entirety of Cabot’s Mediator series last year because I was late to the Meg Cabot party, so I had much less time to wait for her final installment than those who read the books at their original publication. Of all of Meg Cabot’s series/books, I might like this series the most, and I think this book was a solid conclusion to the story of Suze and Jesse and their friends/family. It’s definitely more mature than the other installments plot-wise, but not distressingly so… the characters feel as though they’ve grown and changed naturally from teens to adults (or, in Jesse’s case, ghost to human) and the story reflects that. Despite a few differences, they’re the same voices and characters and retain the same charm and quirks from the previous novels. I am so glad Cabot decided to add this story to the series.

Films

1.) Kubo and the Two Strings
This film better be nominated for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars; it might be the best animated film I’ve seen in the last couple of years. I loved Laika’s previous work on ParaNorman, but felt that Kubo took their style and film-making to new heights. The character designs were stellar, the voice cast was great, the stop-motion and puppetry was superb, and it told an engaging, unique story, laced with touching themes about love and family with elements of Japanese mythology/folklore. I almost enjoyed watching behind-the-scenes videos as much as the film itself, and definitely recommend that anyone who is interested in these movies to take a look at how much work and effort goes into these projects, because it is truly mind-blowing.

2.) Hello, My Name is Doris
My tiny Pennsylvania town occasionally gets limited release films at one of our two local theaters, so luckily, my mom and I were able to see this movie early in the year. Sally Field was brilliant in her role as quirky office-worker Doris, who fantasizes about a relationship with a younger coworker and attempts to completely alter her lifestyle in order to win him over. It’s a small, intimate film, and I found myself really feeling for and sympathizing with Doris, even though I found some of her actions frustrating; a testament to a well-written and well-acted protagonist. The supporting cast is excellent, as well.

3.) Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice
HEAR ME OUT, OKAY? I in no way believe this to be a great film. But for all it’s flaws, it’s still visually stunning, the action was fantastic, Batfleck was BRILLIANT, and it was an overall intense experience, especially in IMAX. I also personally like Cavill/Snyder’s interpretation of Superman, which I know is a contentious point for some… though for a movie that is technically about him, he should have had more screen-time. The introduction of Wonder Woman was handled well and her scenes stole the show, along with Bruce Wayne/Batman. The plot was definitely bloated; it felt like they were cramming a 4 hour movie into 2.5 hours. However, I also don’t think it was as awful as several critics claimed it was. The Ultimate Edition of the film is significantly better, but I don’t think the theatrical edition should be crucified. I had a good time, and I’ll be watching it again.

4.) Doctor Strange
…That said, I think both Marvel offerings from this year were superior superhero films. I enjoyed Doctor Strange far more than I thought I would, since I was mostly unfamiliar with the material beforehand. This film manages to stay true to the MCU, adhering to familiar tropes, humor, and plot, but there are some significant differences, especially in the climax of the film, which I thought was a very unique and dynamic change. Also, the visual effects were unlike anything I’ve seen from Marvel thus far. The cast was wonderful, and it was nice to see a non-hero female lead (Rachel McAdams) who isn’t completely dependent on the hero saving her life, and I’m also predicting a Best Supporting Actor nod for the brilliant performance of the Cloak of Levitation. I easily consider this one of my favorite installments in the MCU thus far, and I look forward to seeing the snark of Steven Strange in future films. If he meets the Avengers, as it seems he will, his interactions with Iron Man should be very, very interesting.

5.) Captain America: Civil War
I won’t drone on about what I loved in this film, but for the record, I certainly could. For a movie that easily could have been an absolute mess, with so many characters/personalities and an intricate plot, the execution was stellar. It’s a standard Marvel film, but it also breaks new ground because it is adding more and more without losing the qualities that fans come to expect of these movies, which are growing bigger and bigger by the year. Even though it’s meant to be a primarily Captain America film, I think the highlights for me were the introduction of Black Panther, Ant-Man meeting the crew, Falcon and Bucky’s hostile bromance, and the amazing airport fight sequence. Now that “phase 3” of the MCU has begun, the upcoming films have a strong legacy to continue and to live up to.

6.) The Lady in the Van
Maggie Smith is one of those actresses who, in my eyes, can do (almost) no wrong. This movie is worth seeing just for her, to be honest, but it fires on all cylinders. The film, based on the true story of Mary Shepherd, a woman who spent a considerable amount of time “living” in a van on the property of writer Alan Bennet, is charming and touching, with excellent characters and writing. Bennet’s narration, provided by actor Alex Jennings, is the heart of the film. It’s hilarious one second and deeply emotional the next, but with seamless transitions and a natural flow. One of the last scenes in the film is so strange and unexpected that I burst out laughing at the absurdity, and yet, it still seemed to fit.

7.) The Jungle Book
The animated version is not one of my favorites (though I love the music) but I thoroughly enjoyed the live-action version. The visuals were astounding, and I thought it built well on the original Disney-fied story; staying somewhat true to the animated version while still making changes. I loved hearing snippets of “The Bear Necessities” and Christopher Walken’s version of “I Wanna Be Like You,” and thought the voices were done extremely well. In particular, Ben Kingsley absolutely killed it as Bagheera and Bill Murray was a wonderful Baloo. Newcomer Neel Sethi was also the perfect Mowgli – I can’t imagine having to act against so much green/blue screen and CGI as the only “real” character in the film, and still manage to give a convincing performance.

8.) Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
I’m a Harry Potter fan through and through, having read all the original books and seen all the movies, but I must admit… I may have liked Fantastic Beasts more than I liked the Potter films. I fell off the Hogwarts Express before The Cursed Child, so I’m unfamiliar with some of the new material and books and such, but this film has made me excited for new installments in this side of the franchise. I liked seeing a new side of the Wizarding World, with fresh, interesting characters, a well thought-out story and a captivating new setting, and I can’t wait to see how it expands in the future.

9.) Manchester by the Sea
*cries forever* This movie is wrenching. Heart-wrenching, soul-wrenching, gut-wrenching. Brilliant cast, astounding cinematography, and beautiful writing. Definitely not a movie you want to see if you need a cheerful boost, or if you’re looking for something action-packed and fast-paced. It’s a movie that feels very, very real, and the emotions seem so raw. Throughout the entire thing I just wanted someone to give Casey Affleck a hug. Some might consider it a bit slow at times, but it certainly deserves the acclaim and recognition it’s been getting as the award season starts to pick up traction, and I hope to see it get some statues in the future.

10.) Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Since I loved TFA enough to see it three times in theaters, I went into this film with high expectations, and even though I had some idea of what was going to happen (given the start and some of the content from A New Hope) I still anticipated some surprises from the first of these “standalone,” anthology films. Rogue One is easily the darkest and grittiest film in the franchise, but also features some of the best action/space fight scenes the films have offered thus far and a litany of unique settings and characters. It really puts the “war” in Star Wars, so to speak, and with no Jedi in the film (technically) it shows a new side of the rebellion that we’ve not really seen before. My main gripe is that the characters could have all been fleshed out more, including the two “leads,” but I only say that because I found them so intriguing and I loved what I did see of them, so it made me wish they had more depth than what we were given in the constraints of a 2+ hour film. The performances were all great, however – and I suppose the lack of “knowing” them contributes to their unsung hero quality. However, as far as characterization goes, a brilliant scene near the end of this film will reinforce the idea that one should be very, very afraid of Darth Vader. Absolutely badass. And, not to spoil anything, the film connects to A New Hope in a very poignant way – it was great to see how the two stories eventually collide to kick off the much beloved and lauded original trilogy. From now on, when things get tough, I will remember… I am one with the force, and the force is with me.

BONUS:
Top Shows of 2016:
Game of Thrones (HBO)
Westworld (HBO)
American Horror Story: Roanoke (FX)

*Minor Spoilers Ahead*
I’m not much of a TV watcher these days, but Game of Thrones is a consistent favorite of mine, and this past season was no exception. It’s been a long wait for the next book, but the show is so brilliant it makes the wait easier. Standout episodes were The Door (I CRIED LIKE AN INFANT), Battle of the Bastards, and The Winds of Winter, all of which received well-deserved Emmy nods. I still think Season 4 is the best thus far, but with the hype-meter climbing ever-higher with each season, the show continues to deliver episodes that pluck at your heartstrings while simultaneously making you feel like you’ve been stabbed in the gut. The cast is stellar, as always, with particularly amazing performances this year from Kristian Nairn (still crying, btw), Sophie Turner, Kit Harington, Maisie Williams, Lena Headey, Liam Cunningham, Natalie Dormer… the list goes on, and on. The Winds of Winter might be the best 69 minutes of television I’ve seen, so far. I look forward to the new season (even though it’s shorter AND delayed) and I can’t wait to go to the Game of Thrones Concert Experience in March!

It’s new sister show, Westworld, is also fantastic and had probably one of the best seasons I’ve ever seen for a freshman show. I started watching because the trailer snagged my attention and I needed something to make the wait for new Thrones easier, and I’m glad I gave it a go, because I was hooked from episode 1. When Dolores smacks the fly at the end of the first episode, I audibly gasped and said “Holy shit.” The entire season kept me guessing, but none of the twists and turns (and there are plenty) felt gimmicky or forced; proof of how well the show is written and all the intricate planning that must have gone into it. The cast was stellar, too – each character was distinct and there were way too many standout performances to list. I am sad that we have to wait for 2018 for the next season, but if that means they’re putting in their best efforts to deliver a new season that will live up to the first, then that’s fine by me.

This might be an unpopular opinion, but I enjoyed the latest season of American Horror Story. That said, I started watching in season 4 (loved it) and thought season 5 was lukewarm, so I can’t compare the latest installment, Roanoke, to the first three. In truth I think Roanoke really killed it during the ‘documentary’ style portion of the season, which lasted for the first 5-6 episodes, but the latter half of the season was a bit too gory. In fact, blood, violence, torture, and gore seemed to take the place of actual plot at some points, which made it drag a little. But still, I  found the premise exciting and unique, the acting was great, and it made me look forward to next season to see what AHS has planned for the future.