Saturday, December 25, 2021

My Top 5 Movies of 2021

My movie viewing habits have changed in recent times. In years past, I tried to see as many movies as I possibly could in a given year. Nowadays though, I've become a lot pickier in what I choose to watch. I'm not going to see something just because it's a major tentpole movie that everyone else is seeing, or because it's some awards contender that everyone's buzzing about. No, I've reached the point where I just want to watch what genuinely interests me. And as such, I've actually watched a lot fewer movies in recent years.

And yes, I'm aware that that does mean that I've very likely missed some key releases in a given year. But, you know, I'm okay with that. I don't have nearly as much free time these days to watch nearly as many movies as I once did, and even then, I've also grown quite burned by the sheer number of underwhelming releases in more recent years as well, which contributes to why I've been less willing to make the time to see more stuff. So with that out of the way, of the movies that genuinely caught my eye and intrigued me enough to give them a chance, here is what I consider to be my favorites from the past year.


Last Night In Soho
(Edgar Wright)

Edgar Wright's first foray into horror is largely a success. We follow a girl as she's able to slip into the mind of someone from the past and essentially experience life through their eyes in her sleep. I love how this movie really takes its time, and isn't afraid to let us get sucked into this world and the glamour of this fantastical situation before it even begins to introduce the true horror lying underneath. But once that happens, this movie gets seriously intense, and there are scenes where I was left with my eyes bulging and my breath caught in my chest at the sheer intensity on display. This movie offers a phenomenal concept with effective execution that has stayed with me long after I've awakened from its trance.


(Pablo Larraín)

This Princess Diana biopic starring Kristen Stewart was more than I honestly expected. I really only saw the film because of Kristen Stewart, and she turns out yet another outstanding performance, and a charismatic and transformative one that possibly stands among her best in a film yet. And as we followed along in a single weekend in the life of Princess Diana, we're taken on a psychological journey that often leaves us feeling just as trapped as our lead does in her own life. Certainly not what I was expecting going in, but I love what this film turned out to be, and it's one that left me feeling inspired by its craftsmanship.


The Green Knight
(David Lowery)

I'll be honest, I really wasn't a big fan of this film immediately. But even so, I found this movie refusing to leave my head afterwards, and it left me pondering its deeper themes and meanings. Almost as if the film presented a puzzle to the viewer, but one that it didn't expect you to completely put all together by the time the credits roll. The pieces are all there though, you just had to toy with it a little, and figure it out on your own. And the more I thought about this film, and started connecting those pieces in my head, the more I grew to love it, and what it was trying to say.

And I especially appreciate how it's not just we the viewer who are left pondering over the greater messages at hand, but the main lead himself, played by Dev Patel, is often asking himself these same questions, almost as if we're in the same boat as he. But in the end, I loved this movie's message, and feel it's an important one, especially in these more dire times we live in. At its core, it's about honor, and living true to your word. And it's about the dark path that leads should you decide instead to live your life in fear and shame. And I think there's something profound in these themes and how they're explored all throughout this film.


Zack Snyder's Justice League
(Zack Snyder)

As someone who was campaigning for the Snyder Cut since before #ReleaseTheSnyderCut was even a movement yet, words cannot truly express just how thrilled I am that this film actually got released. And sure enough, the difference between this film and the theatrical version from 2017 are night and day. In fact, it's almost incredible just how severely different the two cuts of the movie are, despite telling more or less the exact same story. And it's baffling to ever think that anyone thought it was a good idea to release the Joss Whedon cut of the film in theaters at all, especially given that they had this magnificent monster of a movie available for them to put out there instead.

Simply put, Zack Snyder's Justice League is god damn cinema. A grand sweeping epic of a motion picture, and essentially DC's equivalent to a Lord of the Rings film. Why anyone would ever want to shelve this beautiful picture is anyone's guess, especially when the version they originally threw out there is just forgettable, throw-away nonsense in comparison. This version has a certain gravitas that's totally absent in the other cut, and as such, this story and these characters truly feel larger than life on the screen. Granted, I wish I could say the big screen, but sadly, this one wasn't released theatrically, though I would love to see this film on a huge IMAX screen one day, as it was clearly intended.

And at four hours in length, this film is an absolute breeze, and doesn't feel a second longer than three hours, so I would definitely include it along the likes of Interstellar and Blue is the Warmest Color as one of the champions of pacing in longer films.

I love that this film finally got released. And I love even more that it not only met the hype, it far exceeded it. It's an all around outstanding film, and certainly one of the very best that the genre has ever seen.


Raya and the Last Dragon
(Don Hall, Carlos López Estrada)

I not only feel this is the best of the year, I'd also easily consider it the most underrated movie of the year at that, because this movie that was otherwise met with a collective "meh" from everyone else just completely and absolutely floored me.

I actually started writing a full review for this movie shortly after it released, but I was never quite able to get all of my thoughts on it written down, as just my notes for the review alone was becoming even longer than some of the bigger reviews from the past. But I just have so many feelings about this movie, which I'll only be able to briefly cover in this short write up, but feelings which really started after I was driving home after my first viewing, and I found myself struggling to hold back tears just thinking about it. I've since seen the movie two more times in the theater, and in those subsequent viewings, I totally failed at being able to hold back those tears while I watched.

I was just so touched by its message of bringing society together. Of being able to find it within yourself to open up and trust one another again. And even at the admitted naivety of such a concept, as shown throughout the movie. But even so, without that human connection, and without that trust, all that lies ahead is dark times for everyone. And I think it was a telling choice to cast Kelly Marie Tran in the title role, who not only did an outstanding job bringing Raya to life with her voice work, but who can also seemingly relate to such a journey as Raya is traveling, having endured a campaign of harassment after her portrayal in some of the newer Star Wars films. So someone like her would absolutely have every reason to cut people off and keep her head down. Yet here she is putting out a message to do the opposite, and to find it within you to be able to reach out and connect with people again, all without even remotely diminishing just how hard that may be for some.

But even beyond its messaging, I loved this vibrant world that was presented to us, and I loved the unique take on the dragons in general as well. In stark contrast to something like How to Train Your Dragon, in which the dragons there are basically flying cat lizards, here, dragons are closer to something like a fluffy water dog, which I thought was an interesting change from what we usually see, and also added to the naive appeal of our last dragon in question, Sisu.

All in all, I thought this was a beautiful movie that told a beautiful story, and put out a message that I feel the world absolutely needs to hear right now. But while I might personally struggle with the idea that that message will actually connect with the people of the present generation, I also keep in mind that these Disney animated films are primarily targeted at kids, who may well latch onto such a positive message and keep that with them as they grow up into this messed up world that we've all found ourselves in. Maybe. It's a nice thought at least, and one that maybe gives me a little bit of hope for the world of tomorrow.

Friday, September 24, 2021

Alignment Podcast Interview

Check out my recent appearance on the Alignment Podcast, hosted by Thomas Curry and Suzette Sanchez-Martinez. We discuss some of my films and other filmmaking experiences, as well as our thoughts on our favorite directors and favorite films. Enjoy!

Monday, February 15, 2021

For Your Consideration: Babymetal - Legend Metal Galaxy

So at the end of last year, after I had posted my Top 10 Movies of 2020 list, I started paying attention to other people's lists as they started going up. And one thing that I kept noticing was that a number of people were including Hamilton in their lists. And I found this a bit odd, seeing how Hamilton is quite literally not actually a movie, but in fact a recording of a stage production performance, which is an entirely different medium completely. Now, I understand that a lot of films didn't get released last year, so I suppose I can see why some might be making an exception in order to include it in their lists for last year, and hey, if I had chosen to include it, then it would have easily topped out my own list as well.

But now I see that Hamilton's acceptance as a movie has moved beyond just being included in end of year "best of" lists, and is now actually being taken in consideration for film awards, even being nominated in a number of categories already for this year's Golden Globes. And yeah, this is certainly an odd turn of events, but it's one that's got me thinking, if Hamilton can be accepted as a movie, then, why not a Babymetal concert? And so, with that all said, I now present my case for why I think Babymetal's production of Legend Metal Galaxy, which was performed and recorded in January 2020 and formally released in September 2020, should similarly be taken under consideration as one of the best films of 2020.

Now, you might argue that one is a concert, and the other a play. But to that I say, the two honestly have a lot more in common than you might think, which I'll be tackling on a point by point basis. But first, let's start out with the plot. And yes, despite being a concert, Babymetal's shows oftentimes include storyline elements which carry over from show to show, and this one was no different. While Hamilton may follow the story of the title character's life and his involvement in the Revolutionary War and the subsequent development of the American government, Legend Metal Galaxy sets us off on an adventure as we follow Babymetal on their journey traveling the Metal Galaxy in order to acquire both the light force and the dark force and ultimately become The One.

The two shows are even split up into two distinct halves, with the first half of Hamilton focusing on the Revolutionary War aspect, and the second half with his governmental duties, while Babymetal's show is in fact split into two different nights, where the first night saw them exploring the light side of the Metal Galaxy, and night two the dark side. So already we can see the similarities from a narrative perspective between these two wildly different shows.

But even beyond the story, the two shows also present an expanded and revolving cast of characters. In Hamilton, we meet a great many number of historical figures that he encounters along the way. But one of the things I love about Babymetal is that, over the years, the cast of characters in their own storyline has continued to expand, and they're on full display in Legend Metal Galaxy. In addition to our stars Su-metal and Moametal, they've brought along on this latest journey their three rotating backup dancers, the Avengers, their live backing bands the Kami Band and their newly introduced counterparts, the Gods of the West, a surprise return of the Babybones, and guest pre-recorded appearances by F. Hero and the "Winterland Metal Warrior" Joakim Brodén.

But speaking of the pre-recorded aspect of those last two, one other element to the Hamilton release that I've seen some people argue should qualify it as a movie is the fact that it also includes rehearsal footage edited in to help give it a more cinematic feel and offer angles that they wouldn't otherwise be able to capture while filming in front of a live audience. Well, Legend Metal Galaxy also includes this element, and not just with the performances from Joakim and F. Hero. The backing visuals quite often feature pre-recorded elements as well, such as when we see Su-metal commanding the audience with her eyes and her fingers during Distortion, and that's not to mention Future Metal, which is an entirely pre-recorded opening to the whole show.

And then there's of course the obvious comparison, that being that they're both musicals. Su-metal herself has mentioned how she views Babymetal as an ongoing musical, and watching their shows which often feel more like stage productions certainly gives off the feel more in line with watching a musical as opposed to a typical concert. And while the story in Legend Metal Galaxy plays out almost entirely through song from start to finish, Hamilton is in fact quite similar in that regard, as it's one of those musicals which is start to finish non-stop music, as opposed to one that sees them playing the story straight until the action stops for a quick musical number. So Hamilton itself has quite a bit of a concert feel in how it plays out as well, similar to how Babymetal's show has a musical feel to itself.

(And if I can add an aside, let me just say that, as a writer myself, watching Hamilton was almost overwhelming from a writer's perspective, as my mind was simply blown away that they managed to pull off a near three hour long non-stop lyrical musical that covers such complex topic matter in a manner that flows so smoothly while managing to be so easy to follow along!)

And as I mentioned with Babymetal's shows often feeling like stage productions, this much is quite evident in their unique stage set-ups, which often feature moving pieces that come into play in different ways throughout the show. On this occasion, they were going with a bit of a combination of their space ship design from earlier in 2019, as well as their giant triangular design they had used during their bigger Japan shows in the fall of 2019, resulting in a massive triangular ship stage that would at times move into the audience area and back again, and featured platforms that would also elevate into the air to different effect given the song. But we also saw similar with Hamilton, which also had quite a number of moving pieces in their own stage design, including a circular floor that would spin around with the actors on it to genius, almost cinematic effect at times.

For Your Consideration:
Best Production Design

So you see, Babymetal's Legend Metal Galaxy has quite a bit in common with Hamilton from a production standpoint. But then, how does Legend Metal Galaxy compare from a place of quality? Well, for me at least, while I said that if we were to count Hamilton as a movie, it would've easily topped out my list, if we were to then also include Legend Metal Galaxy as a movie, then it would easily take the top spot over even Hamilton at that.

The show is simply outstanding, one of the best shows that Babymetal has ever put on, and features not only a number of debuts for some of their newer songs, but also a number of the best performances we've seen yet for even some of their older classics. But to start off looking at Day 1, the light side, we saw three new songs being performed for the first time ever, and I'd say that these debuts were easily among the night's highlights, with Oh! Majinai being the biggest standout of the bunch. It's just such a wild and fantastically boisterous performance, and the choreography is so infectiously fun that it's impossible not to smile while watching it.

Pictured above: Basically the same thing!

But then we see a little later on with Brand New Day as they add a real atmospheric aesthetic to things, and put on a performance unlike any other we've ever seen out of them before, cast in silhouette while the massive screen being them plays to the mood of the song with images of the sun and rain.

The Kami Band was also given free reign to play around a little bit with their sound, as we saw with the classic Gimme Chocolate, which was performed in a unique manner compared to how it's usually played, and which helped freshen it up and make it feel just as new as the songs we were hearing for the first time. And to add to that freshened up feeling, they even brought back the original Japanese version of The One, as opposed to the English version with the Unfinished opening, as we had become accustomed to seeing for the past number of years now. And I gotta say, seeing this back-to-basics version of the song being performed again for the first time in such a long time almost felt like seeing an old friend for the first time in forever, and definitely left a warm feeling in my heart.

Top off the night with an epic performance of Road of Resistance, in which the Gods of the West joined the Kami Band on stage, and all three Avengers stood behind Babymetal on stage, as Su-metal stood in the front looking like the true leader of a fully coherent team that had come together to win this fight and win this night and fully acquire the forces of light, and yeah, the first half of this show ended things off in a wholly satisfying manner.

Key figures through American history;
And key figures through time and space,
for lightyears to come.

And yet, the best was still to come.

Day 2 saw our girls now traversing the dark side of the Metal Galaxy, and featured some of the most appropriately dark and atmospheric performances of that batch of songs that we've seen yet. It was the Gods of the West performing the instrumentals on this night, and they were clearly given the go-ahead to let loose and do their thing just as the Kami Band was the night prior, which helped make for some of the best performances we've seen yet if purely from an instrumental standpoint, with key highlights in this regard being seen in Syncopation, Headbanger, and Karate. And while only one new song was debuted on this night as opposed to the previous day's three, it was a hell of a debut, as they tore the house down with BxMxC, in what was only the start of one of the greatest stretches of back-to-back songs we've seen in any of their sets, as they moved on to Syncopation next, and then followed up with the best performance of the whole two night event with Headbanger.

For Your Consideration:
Best Cinematography

Their performance of Headbanger on this evening was just something else entirely, and isn't just the best performance of the show, but also ranks among the best ever that the band's put on, and one that certainly belongs in the same conversation as Ijime, Dame, Zettai from Sonisphere and Road of Resistance from Legend 2015. Like, it's one of those performances where every time it comes on, you just sort of brace yourself for what you're about to experience, and I'm just left shaking my head at what they accomplish here, getting the whole massive audience involved in their bowing to Su-metal as they build and build and build the atmosphere. And you can hear the motivated enthusiasm of the audience's roaring response as the song continues and they chant along, and by the end of it, I can't help but let out a satisfied breath of air. Like, I don't smoke, but even I need a damn cigarette after watching that performance!

Follow this up with the first and to date only time they've ever performed the Trilogy of Lights (Starlight, Shine, and Arkadia) together and in album order, all leading to what's come to be quite possibly my favorite Babymetal song yet with Arkadia, in its own best performance to date yet. They managed to pull off here what they didn't quite capture entirely with their performance of this song at The Forum, and put on an epic spectacle that brings me to tears literally every single time.

I don't usually rate movies,
but I'd say this show is an easy five stars!

But we're not finished yet, as now that Babymetal has achieved their goal of acquiring both the light force and the dark force, they all come back out one last time along with all the Avengers and both of their Kami Bands in order to truly become The One, in a surprise performance of Ijime, Dame, Zettai, being performed for the first time in over two years. And by the end of it, you can see the gleeful look of satisfaction on Su-metal's face, after having successfully pulled off one of their best and most ambitious shows to date, and one that I've gone back and revisited many many times already in order to relive this emotional journey through the vast Metal Galaxy and all it has to offer.

So, from a quality standpoint, does it compare? I mean, do I really need to say any more? So then, with that all said, I'd like to think that I've made a compelling enough argument for why I feel that Babymetal - Legend Metal Galaxy should be taken into consideration for 2020's movie awards season. At least, so long as we're counting Hamilton, despite being from a different medium, I think Legend Metal Galaxy absolutely deserves to be taken at least as seriously, and I'll readily defend that position.