Blockbusters, film-festival entries, and everything (good) in between. Plus, bowties.
The following picks are not numbered or ranked, but the recommendations get better and better from bottom to top.
It’s hard to believe, but 2017 started with a thrilling, enjoyable surprise in the form of a new xXx film that was actually equal parts fun and clever. Ars editor-at-large Annalee Newitz and I vociferously agreed that Vin Diesel had possibly turned in his best “himbo” or “male Barbie” performance yet in a film that might have otherwise played out like a cheap, mindless entry in the Chinese-action-snoozer pantheon. From her January review:
“Jam-packed with fantastic character actors, full of ridiculously insane fight scenes, and centered on a functionally impossible piece of technology, xXx: Return of Xander Cage is everything you need from an action flick. There’s a thin scrim of a plot involving an evil laptop called Pandora’s Box, whose superpowers involve ‘spying on everybody,’ ‘controlling satellites,’ and injecting hostile poop emojis into Web sessions. Just kidding about that last bit. This movie does not know about Web sessions. But I’m not kidding about how Vin Diesel’s performance as ‘underground blogger’ Xander Cage is goofily badass, and the hijinks of his crew are equally fun.
“xXx: Return of Xander Cage is a delightful action flick with a heart of gold. There’s no complexity. The good guys are obviously going to win. Everybody in the diverse cast looks hot and tough. Characters express their feelings with lines like ‘that was fucking awesome!’ It’s the perfect weekend diversion for the middle of darkest winter.”
Meanwhile, Valerian just barely crosses the threshold for deserving a year-end nod. This gorgeous, silly, wooden-acting burst through countless sci-fi clichés has a dumb beginning, some dumb parts in the middle, and a painfully dumb ending.
And yet! From my July review:
“Even with its issues, I still had a blast. I went into my Valerian screening hoping to get ‘Luc Besson sci-fi,’ with elaborate, beautifully illustrated sequences, tongue-in-cheek schlock, and a weirdly French skew on high-octane cinema. Those expectations were met. I laughed, cheered, and roared both at and with the film. Valerian comes packed with just enough Fifth Element flavor to make it worth a solid, low-expectations trip to the movie theater.
“Valerian plays out like Besson’s thank-you gift to the original comic series, which he (and many other sci-fi authors and filmmakers) have paid uncredited homage to for decades. His trippy, uncompromised vision takes enough chances to make this uneven film stand out above other ho-hum sci-fi, and I’ll take ambition and giant failures in my popcorn fare over paint-by-numbers action films any day of the week.”
Before Ars Technica’s expansive, comprehensive Apollo video series went live, the documentarians behind Mission Control brought together many of the Apollo program’s primary players to talk exhaustively about NASA’s most insane efforts. From Eric Berger’s April review:
“The 100-minute documentary is a fantastic way to relive the glory days of America’s space program through the eyes of those sitting behind the consoles, poring over data, and making difficult calls. One of the best aspects of the film is its homage to Chris Kraft, the nation’s first flight director, who used his experience in flight testing at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics to conceive of, and develop plans for, tracking and controlling the flight of spacecraft into outer space. Kraft tells some of the story of mission control’s origin in his own words, saying that he became notorious for ‘saying what he thought.’
“The film excels in other ways, at least from my perspective as a space buff, space writer, and amateur space historian. It puts the spotlight on a group of men from varying backgrounds, many of them quite humble, and then shows the evolution of mission control from a basic operation into the complex organization that led to human landings on the Moon.”
Listing image by Disney