Friday, June 22, 2018

"Carnal Knowledge" Still Provokes

"Carnal Knowledge" is one of those films that has gained a reputation over the years. It's infamous for being at the center of a major obscenity case that went all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ultimately deemed its contents not obscene. Offering multiple instances of nudity, simulated sex, several four-letter words, and plenty of very frank discussion of sex and sexuality, "Carnal Knowledge" was simply too much for many audiences in 1971 to handle.

Nearly half a century later, social mores are very different, and there's no longer much about the movie that's very shocking. There's still content that's a little distasteful, and plenty that still touches a nerve. As the title and the controversy suggest, "Carnal Knowledge" is all about sex, specifically the attitudes of a pair of men, Sandy (Art Garfunkle) and Jonathan (Jack Nicholson), toward sex and the various women in their lives over a period of fifteen years. The first part of the film deals with their relationships with Susan (Candice Bergen), who dates Sandy and cheats with Jonathan. The second part follows Jonathan's relationship with a woman named Bobbie (Ann-Margret) several years later.

We first hear our leads talking over the title credits as a pair of young college students, eagerly discussing what they're looking for in the opposite sex. Jonathan's interest is strictly physical while Sandy has more high-minded ideas. Their language is often crude, demeaning, and misogynistic, especially on Jonathan's part. He calls his exes "ballbusters," and the older he gets, the more he has, and the more bitter he becomes toward women in general. The movie understands that Jonathan is a lout, and his awful attitudes are what cause him so much misery in his relationships. However, it's still rare to see any kind of media address this head on, and portray a man like Jonathan so candidly.

The performances are a big part of why the movie is so effective. Jack Nicholson does some of his best work as Jonathan, somehow remaining sympathetic even after betraying Sandy, and treating every woman he meets terribly. He shouts and menaces, but his insecurity is apparent in every frame, and in the end his worst victim is himself. Art Garfunkel's nebbishy Sandy stands in for the average schlub, whose romantic idealism seems to point toward happiness, but then finds himself beaten down by domesticity and monogamy. There's a priceless monologue where he clinically relays the state of his moribund marital sex life that is simultaneously hilarious and tragic.

And what of the women of "Carnal Knowledge"? More prurient viewers will cherish being able to see Candice Bergen and Ann-Marget in various states of undress. However, as the POV stays with the men, we only learn a little about their partners. Ann-Marget's Bobbie comes off as the most well-rounded, a sweet woman who initially seems to be Jonathan's perfect match, but grows increasingly dissatisfied and listless within the relationship. Bergen does a lot with a very abbreviated part. Carol Kane and Cynthia O'Neal play other romantic interests, and then there's Rita Moreno, who appears in a single, chilling scene as the representation of what Jonathan actually wants in a woman.

In the age of Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein, "Carnal Knowledge" feels more timely than ever as it explores the ins and outs of toxic masculinity, skewering the self-delusion and vanities of its two hapless protagonists. There have been other films that have similarly mocked such immature attitudes toward sex and relationships, but rarely have they been so biting, or relayed in such frankly sexual terms. And it's so fitting that director Mike Nichols is the one who brought this to the screen, having also helmed "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," and "The Graduate," with "Closer" still waiting in the future.

It's fascinating that Americans still don't like to talk about sex, or see it onscreen in anything other than a titillating fashion. A film like "Carnal Knowledge" probably has less of a chance of being made today, even though the audience has long been desensitized to expletives and partial nudity. Those who seek it out now for its racier content may end up getting far more than they bargained for.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Rank 'Em: The Jason Bourne Movies

I don't think that we've seen the last of super spy Jason Bourne in movie theaters, but it's probably going to be a while until the next installment of his adventures. The spinoff didn't garner much interest, it's too early to reboot the series, and Matt Damon, despite his recent box office troubles, doesn't seem keen on coming back to "Bourne" any time soon - and nobody's going to risk recasting the part. So, this is as good time to take stock of the five theatrical films in the franchise to date (which means I'm leaving out the Richard Chamberlain TV movie adaptation of "The Bourne Identity" made in 1988). I've ranked them from best to worst below. There will be some minor spoilers ahead.

The Bourne Supremacy (2004) - I find it difficult to distinguish between "The Bourne Supremacy" and "The Bourne Ultimatum" because they're stylistically so similar and they feel like two parts of the same narrative. However, "Supremacy" wins the top spot for establishing so many of the elements that I associate with the "Bourne" films - Paul Greengrass's iconic shakeycam chase scenes, Pam Landry being a stone cold badass, and all the cloak and dagger business around Project Treadstone. It also has my favorite ending out of any of the films - apparently a last minute addition that Greengrass and Damon came up with two weeks before the film's release.

The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) - This movie gives up all the answers to the questions asked in the first two films, and does so in a very satisfying fashion. The character getting a sense of closure and an endpoint to his character arc is something that James Bond never had. It's also a lot of fun to see all the ways that Paul Greengrass found to tie all three of the existing "Bourne" films together, really making them feel like one narrative. While I find "Ultimatum" has the best story of any of the films, and the critical notices definitely reflect this, the use of the shakeycam got to be too much for me at times. So it'll have to settle for second place, but only by a hair.

The Bourne Identity (2002) - The first "Bourne" film, directed by Doug Liman, is a perfectly good action adventure blockbuster. It feels a little generic in retrospect, with its romantic subplot and superspy with amnesia gimmick, but it proved that Matt Damon could be a very compelling action hero. I also enjoy Franka Potente here as Marie, and was always a little sorry that she didn't get to play much of a role in the sequels. "Identity," however, was a very different kind of film than its sequels, much lighter and more fantastical in its construction. Poor Marie simply didn't fit into the grimmer tone of the later, more ambitious "Bourne" installments.

The Bourne Legacy (2012) - The unsung hero of the "Bourne" franchise is Tony Gilroy, who scripted all the movies except for the most recent one. For the spinoff, he takes on directing duties with Jeremy Renner as the new leading man. Everyone does a very good job, and I was disappointed when it became clear that we weren't going to be getting any sequels to continue the Operation Outcome storyline. Aaron Cross is an interesting character and the new baddie played by Edward Norton has a lot of potential. The ending is a little weak, but I love some of the other sequences, especially the shootout with Zeljko Ivanek at the research lab.

Jason Bourne (2016) - I don't know what went wrong here, but it went very wrong. Maybe it was because Tony Gilroy wasn't involved. Maybe it was because the Treadstone and Blackbriar villains were replaced with the much weaker Alicia Vikander and Tommy Lee Jones characters. Maybe there just wasn't enough creative fuel left after the spectacular finale of "Ultimatum." Maybe everyone just waited too long. Anyhow, Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass couldn't get Jason Bourne back in fighting shape. The film made plenty of money, but felt creatively dead. It's a shame that the series had to end with its worst entry, but then most franchises inevitably do.


Sunday, June 17, 2018

"The X-files," Year Eleven (Or Twenty-Five)

Minor spoilers ahead.

After the previous season of "The X-files," I wasn't expecting much from this one. The monster-of-the-week episodes were fine, but the Chris Carter penned "mythology" episodes that bookended the season were both inept and absurd. That pretty much holds true for this year too, with "My Struggle III" and "My Struggle IV" continuing the increasingly ridiculous alien conspiracy storyline that involves several soap opera twists, endless chase scenes, and some really horrendous dialogue. Fortunately, the eight episodes that take place between them are much, much better.

Aside from one quasi-mythology episode that Chris Carter mercifully didn't write, the middle episodes are all stand-alone monster-of-the-week cases. Varying wildly in tone and content, they feature monsters, doppelgangers, killer robots, witches, and all kinds of other supernatural business. While last year's Darin Morgan episode was the only one I'd really call memorable, this year boasts at least three stronger episodes - one of which was also written by Darin Morgan. Best of all, many of these episodes feel like the old "X-files" in a way that the previous season didn't. The actors feel more engaged, the writing more relaxed, and the show is on steadier ground as a whole. Having an extra couple of episodes for this order clearly gave the creators some breathing room.

It also helps that the status quo has been more firmly established. Mulder and Scully are romantically involved, but that side of their lives stays firmly in the background. None of the shenanigans with the "mythology" episodes carries over to the individual cases, making the season feel more like an anthology of their various adventures. This is especially apparent in episodes like "Rm9sbG93ZXJz," a surreal technophobic story that feels like it takes place in an entirely different universe than the others, and would make a good "Black Mirror" installment. Or there's "The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat," Darin Morgan's self-parody episode that confronts the silliness of the "X-files" concept in the age of Trump and fake news. It's definitely one of the season's highlights.

The writing staff was noticeably expanded, with several episodes being scripted by newcomers. Also, though Carter clearly retains a good amount of creative control, everyone seems to have realized that many of his contributions really were not working, and took steps to minimize them. So the new FBI agent characters played by Robbie Amell and Lauren Ambrose only have cameos, and the show retconned some of the events of the last season finale. The world is back to being on the verge of ending, rather than halfway there. Mulder and Scully's long lost son William, now a teenager played by Miles Robbins, takes a central role in the mythology episodes here. He's not all that bad, but feels like he belongs in a very different kind of show. Maybe on the CW.

Other familiar faces like Agent Spender, Agent Kersh, and Agent Reyes make appearances, but they're brief and mostly inconsequential. The one significant character from the show's past I was glad to see was Langly the Lone Gunman, who features in the stand-alone episode "This." They found a way to bring him back from the dead that was pretty clever. However, much more enjoyable were the return of the autopsy scenes, Mulder's snarky quipping, creepy character actors like Jere Burns coming over to play, and generally all the stuff that I liked about "The X-files" back in the '90s. All of it still works just fine, even though there's a lot more winking at the camera and everyone complaining about getting older.

I think "The X-files" probably could come back for another few seasons after seeing how well this year turned out, but I certainly don't want it to. Even with the improvements, I can't say bringing the show back was worth it. Also, Gillian Anderson says she's finished. We've seen what the series looks like without her and it isn't pretty. The last episode doesn't end on a great note, but it ends decently enough that I didn't come away from it feeling too badly, unlike last tine. I'm hoping FOX decides to leave well enough alone, and the whole "The X-files" revival experiment can finally come to a close.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Anime on PBS

It's the twentieth anniversary of "Cowboy Bebop" this year, notable for being the gateway anime series for a lot of American anime fans. It was definitely one of the titles that got me to go full otaku way back in 1999-2000. However, a much bigger influence was the existence of my local PBS station's Sunday science fiction nights, the one of the only places in the U.S. at the time that was showing uncut anime, often subtitled.

KTEH was Silicon Valley's PBS station, based out of San Jose. Starting in the '80s, it showed imported episodes of "Doctor Who," and the station built a geeky evening of genre television around it over the years. "Red Dwarf," "The Prisoner," and "Blake's 7" featured regularly, and I know this was the first place I saw the 1980 version of "The Lathe of Heaven." Under programming director Karen Roberts, KTEH was known for going outside the usual channels to acquire broadcast rights for niche shows that nobody else was interested in. Starting in the mid-'90s, anime started appearing in the lineup, supported by the local otaku community via pledge drives. "Tenchi Muyo" and "Urusei Yatsura!" were some of the early titles.

The programming decisions were often fan driven to a surprising degree. The majority of the anime acquisitions were shown with subtitles because the donors were polled and that's what they wanted. I remember during a pledge drive in 2002, you could vote for which series would be licensed and aired next. I voted for the "Generator Gawl" OAV, but "All Purpose Cultural Catgirl Nuku-Nuku" won. However, there always seemed to be restrictions and complications behind the scenes. The pledge drive hosts would talk about titles that they were trying to get the rights to, but negotiations often fell through. When dubbed anime was shown, it was usually because the American rights holders refused to licensed the subtitled versions. Occasionally we'd only see a few episodes of certain series like "Bubblegum Crisis" make it to air because the rest ended up licensed to a different network.

Still, for a couple of years the 10PM hour on Sunday night on KTEH was reserved for anime. It reminded me of a proto-"Adult Swim" in many ways, because the selections were very eclectic, the scheduling was a little chaotic, and it was never guaranteed what was going to show up there. Some offerings, like the "Ranma ½" movies, were really a stretch to call science-fiction. However, the anime always ran uncut, which was highly unusual for the time. A silly sex comedy with the occasional nudie shot like "Urusei Yatsura" or a violent techno thriller like "Serial Experiments Lain" could air on KTEH without the censoring that most other broadcasters demanded. Only a few premium cable operators like Encore and STARZ were willing to air anything unedited.

Easily the highest profile anime to ever run on KTEH was "Neon Genesis Evangelion," the notorious, controversial 1996 giant robot series that pitted three teenagers in giant robots against the apocalypse. It was bloody, it was traumatic, it was unapologetically for mature audiences, and all twenty-six episodes aired on a succession of Sundays on KTEH starting in March of 2000, completely uncut and subtitled. During the accompanying pledge event, viewers were polled on the correct way to pronounce the title. I don't remember which one won, though I remain a proponent of "EvanJELLYon." The anime fandom circles I was active in at the time were jubilant about KTEH pulling off the deal. However, the American anime ecosystem was already in the middle of drastic changes, and the particular confluence of factors that put anime on PBS were evaporating quickly.

Literally the day after "Neon Genesis Evangelion" had its US premiere on KTEH, "Mobile Suit Gundam Wing" premiered on Cartoon Network's Toonami block and became a massive hit. Suddenly there was fierce competition to license anime for American consumption by both cable and terrestrial networks, and KTEH never really managed to land any titles as large as "Evangelion" in the following years. Instead, we got increasingly obscure things like "Sakura Wars" and "Ruin Explorers" for a while, and then anime quietly disappeared from their schedules after 2003. And then KTEH merged with nearby station KQED in 2006, and that was the end of Sunday science-fiction nights.

I always found it surprising that KTEH's anime broadcasts were largely unknown among most anime fans. But then, KTEH didn't have an especially large audience, and most of the shows it aired remain pretty niche. Today's anime fans tend to skew younger and less nerdy. Cartoon Network's "Adult Swim" carries on where KTEH's Sunday science-fiction night left off, though, and they even showed all of "Evangelion" uncut in 2005 and 2006. It aired on PBS first though, five years earlier and with its credit sequences intact.


Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The Ambitious "Annihilation"

It really takes a filmmaker with some guts to attempt a film as high-concept and potentially alienating as "Annihilation." Fortunately we have Alex Garland, hot off the success of "Ex Machina," directing his strangest and most ambitious project to date.

Based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer, "Annihilation" is about a group of five female scientists who journey into a place called Area X on the Gulf coast that has been affected by an unknown force called "The Shimmer." Natalie Portman stars as Lena, a biologist whose husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), was part of the last mission into the Shimmer. He returned alone and disoriented before falling deathly ill. Lena is joined by a psychologist, Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a physicist, Radek (Tessa Thompson), a paramedic, Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), and a geologist/surveyor, Sheppard (Tuva Novotny).

This is a hard science fiction film, heavy on ideas and light on action. There are some scenes of suspense and horror, but mostly of the existential kind. That's not to say that the film is ever a bore. It's quite the opposite. From the moment the team passes the iridescent soap bubble borders of the Shimmer, we're inundated with fantastic, otherworldly images. The colors are saturated, the atmosphere is tense, and there's this lingering sense of dread that hangs over the whole picture. There are several nods to Andrei Tarkovsky's "Stalker," which has some plot similarities to "Annihilation," but this is a very different kind of story. Its metaphors are more specific and its storytelling is much easier to parse. Audiences will still need to have some patience with it, and be willing to put some pieces together themselves, but the narrative is ultimately pretty conventional.

On the other hand, the story often feels beside the point. "Annihilation" works best as a sensory experience. The filmmakers went to great lengths to create this fascinating, nightmarish place where it seems like nature has gone mad, and the characters are constantly battling the urge to go mad along with it. Mutated plant and animal life, abandoned and overgrown structures, and even the light filtered through the Shimmer all look uniquely strange and unnerving. There are long stretches of silence or very limited music to really help all that atmosphere soak in. We know from very early on that the majority of the characters are going to fall victim to the Shimmer, just not when or how or in what horrifically phantasmagorical fashion.

I also appreciate that the ideas that the film tackles are thoughtful ones, and handled in a fairly detached and ambivalent manner. The Shimmer could represent a lot of different things, but the film compares its destructive powers to the spread of cancer and the self-destructive impulses of its heroine. It argues that these are things that are better understood through scientific observation, without trying to impose a system of morality on their function. The film also leaves us without many concrete answers, suggesting that there is much about the Shimmer that is simply inexplicable. And frankly, not enough media is brave enough to do that.

In a film like this the characters are pretty thinly drawn by necessity. Still, I found the performances of Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac, and Jennifer Jason Leigh very effective. All of them have to sell some very outlandish material, but they do sell it. We see enough of Lena and Kane's relationship in flashbacks to give Lena's present day actions some emotional weight. Jennifer Jason Leigh's performance is as disturbing as any of the creepy Shimmer critters. "Annihilation" is ultimately as much about the characters' motivations as it is about the phenomena that they investigate, and we're left with a lot of ambiguity here too.

In short, "Annihilation" is determined to make the viewer engage with its themes and ideas, to follow the patterns and pick apart the details in search of meaning. It's one of those films that rewards multiple viewings, but is certainly impressive enough after only a single one. It's a film too cold and cerebral to really love, but it succeeded in getting under my skin. And it did get me to think and wonder and second guess myself in a way that few films have.


Monday, June 11, 2018

Trailers! Trailers! Fall 2018 and Beyond

A big batch of trailers premiered over the past few days, so I've decided to write a bit about the ones I found interesting. All links below lead to Trailer Addict, because those little pre-trailer trailers on Youtube are really starting to irk me.

Mortal Engines - It's good to find that Peter Jackson is still working after the whole debacle with "The Hobbit." However, as interesting as the idea of these mobile cities are, the actual plotting and characters ping as pretty typical YA fantasy. And the YA fantasy genre is supposed to be on its way out, right? There are enough glimpses of good worldbuilding here that I'll give this one a watch eventually, but I'm tempering expectations.

The Lego Movie 2 - I love the whole idea of the "Lego" universe turning into a wasteland - did the kid grow up and abandon them? Are they in storage or lost, maybe? The return of Chris Pratt as super-peppy Emmett was the best bit though. Chris Pratt is so good as that character, I keep forgetting that it's Chris Pratt. After the underperformance of the other "Lego" movies, I hope this one does better, because we really could use more kids' films in this vein.

Widows - Well, there's no confusing this one with "Ocean's 8." I am very excited that this appears to be the most audience-friendly film that Steve McQueen has made yet, and just look at that cast! Look at who's playing the villains! I also can't help comparing this to all those slick action movies where Liam Neeson has played an action hero recently. This time around, he gets bumped off in he first act, and has to be avenged by the female leads. Of all the films on this post, this is the one I'm the most excited to see by far.

Suspiria - I confess that I'm not a big fan of the original Argento "Suspiria," and I'm hoping that the Gudagnino version might be more to my tastes. With the appearance of Tilda Swinton, it's certainly looking that way. I'm very interested to see how Gudagnino is going to handle a horror film - or even if this is going to properly be a horror film. The trailer is wonderfully moody and atmospheric, but tells us almost nothing about any story or character specifics. And that's perfect.

Bumblebee - This looks better than the Michael Bay "Transformers" films, which is not a high bar. Still, I like that the series is going back to its roots with the old VW bug design for Bumblebee and what appears to be the original Starscream as the villain. Hailee Steinfeld has left me a little cold on her previous outings, but she's looking much more surefooted here. And John Cena's involvement is always welcome. As much beef as I've had with the series over the years, I hope this one turns out well for them.

The Old Man & the Gun - Reportedly Robert Redford's final acting performance. Everything about the marketing is referencing Redford's films from the '70s, from the posters to the title font. I've had mixed reactions to David Lowery's films, but this project looks like a good fit for his sensibilities. And it's certainly always nice to see Sissy Spacek. This is likely being primed to be an awards contender, so we'll probably be hearing a lot more about it in the months to come.

The Girl in the Spider's Web - Claire Foy has definitely shown why she got the role of Lisbeth Salander. The look, the accent - all of it works. I haven't seen either of Fede Álvarez's previous films, but he seems to have a good handle on the tone and the visuals here. It's been long enough since the David Fincher film that a quasi-reboot of the Millennium series makes a certain amount of sense. I still have some misgivings, but this looks a lot better than I was expecting.

Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse - This looks so different from every other cinematic take on Spider-man, and I mean that in the best way. I love the style of the animation, the shady older Peter Parker, and the Lord & Miller humor. If the tug-of-war between Sony and Marvel for the Spidey rights was good for nothing else, at least it meant that an alternate universe project like this could get off the ground.

A Star is Born - I'm still a little disappointed that the Clint Eastwood version of this project never got off the ground, but I'm willing to give Bradley Cooper's a shot. There are a lot of questions that remain unanswered. Can he sing? Can Lady Gaga act? The trailer suggests they can, but trailers can be misleading. We'll just have to wait and see.

Bad Times at the El Royale - I feel that I might have already seen too much here. Drew Goddard's latest is supposedly filled with neat twists and double-crosses, and the trailer appears to give away several key pieces of information it probably shouldn't have. I definitely want to see this movie, but will be avoiding all further marketing from this point on.


Saturday, June 9, 2018

Look Back in Anticipation

I've been writing lists of my most anticipated films for several years now as a matter of habit. However, it occurred to me that part of the purpose of these lists was going back at the end of the year and seeing how the reality matched up. I haven't been doing this, and I think it's high time I remedied that. So I'm going to use this post to go back over the lists from the last six years, from 2012 onward, and see what these picks look like in the rearview mirror.


The Picks: "John Carter," "Moonrise Kingdom," "Gravity," "Django Unchained," "The Master," "Prometheus," "Life of Pi," "The We and the I," "Seven Psychopaths," and "Cloud Atlas."

This actually turned out pretty decently. "Gravity" didn't come out until 2013, as ambitious movies getting delayed is pretty common. And though some of the others underperformed at the box office, I wouldn't say there's a single bad one in the bunch. "Seven Psychopaths" was probably the most disappointing, and "The We and the I" turned out to be one of those little Michel Gondry experiment films that was interesting, but didn't really work.

2013 - Part I and Part II

The Picks, Part I: "Iron Man 3," "Star Trek Into Darkness," "Man of Steel," "This is the End," "The World's End," "Pacific Rim," "Elysium," "Ender's Game," "Frozen," and "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug"

The Picks, Part II: "Upstream Color," "Gravity," "Captain Phillips," "Snowpiercer," "Mood Indigo," "Fruitvale Station," "Labor Day," "Foxcatcher," "Her," and "12 Years A Slave."

From 2013 onwards, I essentially wrote two lists, one for mainstream blockbusters and one for the prestige pics and indie films. I picked some real stinkers for the blockbuster list here, including "Into Darkness," "Elysium," and "This is the End." And boy was I misguided about the prospects of "Man of Steel" and "Ender's Game." The smaller films mostly came out well, with "Upstream Color," "Her," and "12 Years a Slave" all making my Top Ten for the year. The one major misfire is "Labor Day," which was a Jason Reitman melodrama from right when he started to go off the rails.

2014 - Part I and Part II

The Picks, Part I: "Godzilla," "Guardians of the Galaxy," "The Boxtrolls," "Big Hero 6," "Annie," and "Into the Woods"

The Picks, Part II: "The Grand Budapest Hotel," "The Cobbler," "Ex Machina," "Whiplash," "The Voices," "A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence," "Gone Girl," and "Inherent Vice"

After they overwhelmed my lists the previous year, I tried to cut back on the blockbusters. All the ones I did pick turned out to be pretty meh. I still have very mixed feelings on "Godzilla" and "Guardians," and view the musicals as wasted opportunities. The smaller films were a mixed bag. I admit that I skipped "The Cobbler" after the terrible reviews, and didn't think much of "The Voices" or "A Pigeon Sat on a Branch…" "The Grand Budapest Hotel" and "Gone Girl" were winners though, along with "Ex Machina." Also, three of these films ended up delayed to 2015.

2015 - Part I and Part II

The Picks, Part I: "Mad Max: Fury Road," "Tomorrowland," "Fantastic Four," "The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,"
"Crimson Peak," "Spectre," "The Martian," and "Star Wars: The Force Awakens"

The Picks, Part II: "99 Homes," "See You Tomorrow," "The End of the Tour," "Sicario," "Queen of the Desert," "The Lobster," "Spotlight," and "The Other Side of the Wind."

Good grief, I really did pick "Fantastic Four," didn't I? Well, both lists turned out to have films of roughly comparable quality. 2015 saw some surprisingly good genre films like "Fury Road" and "The Martian," while directors like Werner Herzog made some notable stinkers. Because of a title change, I didn't even realize that "See You Tomorrow," produced rather than directed by Wong Kar-Wai, was actually completed. There were also some massive disappointments like "Tomorrowland" and "Spectre." I'm glad Tom McCarthy recovered from "The Cobbler" quickly, however, and "The Other Side of the Wind" is still MIA.

2016 - Part I and Part II

The Picks, Part I: "Money Monster," "The BFG," "Doctor Strange," "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them," "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story," "Assassin's Creed," "Passengers," and "The Light Between Oceans."

The Picks, Part II: "Certain Women," "Hail Caeser!" "A United Kingdom," "High Rise," "Personal Shopper," "Raiders!" "Birth of a Nation," "The Circle," "The Red Turtle," and "Arrival."

Well, this was a bad year for predictions all around. "Assassin's Creed," "Passengers, and "The Circle" were among the year's worst misfires. Others simply weren't much to talk about, like "Certain Women," "Raiders!" and "Money Monster." Even the better films like "Arrival" and "The Red Turtle" were ones I found I appreciated more than I really enjoyed. It felt like an off year in general, with a lot of familiar auteurs out of commission, and others turning in only mediocre work. My biggest disappointment was actually "Doctor Strange" for not doing much with its fantastic cast.

2017 - Part I and Part II

The Picks, Part I: "Ghost in the Shell," "War for the Planet of the Apes," "Dunkirk," "Blade Runner 2049," "Thor: Ragnarok," "Murder on the Orient Express," and "Star Wars: Episode VIII" "Downsizing."

The Picks, Part II: "Annihilation," "Dark River," "Free Fire," "Mute," "The Death of Stalin," "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri," "mother!" "Roma," and "Detroit."

"Ghost in the "Shell" aside, the blockbusters all came out pretty well. "Downsizing" was a mess, but at least is was an interesting mess. The smaller films, however, saw a lot of delays and disappointments. "Roma" and "Dark River" are still pending, "Free Fire" and "The Death of Stalin" underwhelmed," and the less said about the long-gestating "Mute" the better. I'm happy with the films that did arrive on schedule, though, including "Three Billboards" and "mother!"