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The Ringer’s Midyear Movie Awards

With half of 2017 in the rearview mirror, we’re giving out awards for the most intriguing movie happenings of the year

(Ringer illustration)
(Ringer illustration)

We’re still months away from next year’s Oscar rush, and we have plenty of summer blockbusters left to see. But that doesn’t mean that the first few months of 2017 have been an uneventful time for movies. With plenty of good, bad, and weird in the rearview mirror, The Ringer is giving out awards for everything and anything that caught our eyes from January through June. And the winners are …

Best Fan Service: ‘Long Strange Trip’

Sean Fennessey: Amir Bar-Lev’s massive portrait of the Grateful Dead isn’t so much definitive as it is definitional. There’s hardly a new insight provided by the living members of the band, and Jerry Garcia has been dead for more than two decades. And yet, Bar-Lev’s movie captures the fog that engulfed the group — the culture, the sound, the structure, and most especially the fans. "Deadheads" is the name of one of the film’s chapters, and it is a periscope up through that fog of smoke with a clear view of what compelled people to not just follow the Dead, but to commit to the group’s perceived ethic so fully. Deadheads get a bad rap — the barnacles of the baby boomers — either undermined for or underestimated due to a lackadaisical lifestyle. Neither is right; Deadheads are the priests of a religion of their own design. Every day they go to church.

Least-Hot Heartthrobs: ‘The Lost City of Z’

Ben Lindbergh: Like many movies shot in the jungle, James Gray’s The Lost City of Z subjected its cast and crew to a litany of horrors one wouldn’t encounter on an L.A. backlot, among them malaria and dengue fever; viper bites; and beetles that burrowed into ears. But nothing the jungle threw at Gray could compare to the task he undertook willingly: making past, present, and future heartthrobs as physically unappealing as possible.

This movie buries Robert Pattinson behind a bushy beard and spectacles. It makes Tom Holland wear a wispy mustache. And it not only hides Charlie Hunnam’s beautiful face under a bushy mustache, aggressively slicked and combed hair, and (in the last leg of the story) artificial wrinkles, but confines his physique under Edwardian garb, despite his sweltering surroundings. From Platoon to First Blood, jungle settings have served as excuses for serial shirtlessness, but here Hunnam approaches the all-time Hollywood record for least flesh flashed by a beefcake. His torso got more screen time in Pacific Rim, a movie in which he wore a suit so restrictive that it initially prevented him from peeing. As a last blow to his vanity, Z forces Hunnam to play Percy Fawcett, snapping a streak of hunky character names like Jax Teller, Raleigh Becket, and Gavin Nichols.

Add jungle grime, exhaustion, sweatiness, festering sores, and significant weight loss, and The Lost City of Z sacrifices most of the sex appeal that its IMDb page promises. Obscuring its handsome stars may not have been the best strategy from a financial perspective. (The movie made only $8.5 million.) But it may have helped Gray land those stars in the first place; according to the director, Hunnam signed on partly because he "felt inadequate on a creative level" and "needed to prove himself," presumably in a role where he couldn’t coast on his looks. On that level, Lost City thrives; it’s an acting showcase for leads who demonstrate that smoldering is only one aspect of their skill set.

Even after camouflaging the features of Hunnam, Holland, and RPatz, Gray isn’t satisfied: For his next challenge, he’ll try to make Brad Pitt look less suave in Ad Astra.

Best Reminder That Molly Shannon Should Be in More Movies: ‘The Little Hours’

Kate Knibbs: I did not know I would find a sex farce about 14th-century clergy members funny, but here I am. I loved The Little Hours. Aubrey Plaza has the showiest role as a rotten-hearted nun, and Alison Brie and Kate Micucci are terrific as her fellow foul-mouthed and horny sisters. Molly Shannon has a lot less to work with as the permanently chagrined Sister Marea, but while I initially wished that she’d been given the same sort of scenery-chomping maniac role as Plaza or Micucci, the more I think about it, the more I love Shannon’s small but precise work conveying tenderness and moral horror with just a few glances. Shannon rose to fame for her bombastic SNL characters, but her more recent work, on HBO’s Divorce and the excellent drama Other People, have made it clear that she’s a far more subtle and surprising actor than she’s been given credit for. She can even be the gentle center of a shambling, slapstick film. Let’s see what else she can do.

Best Ad for a Future Theme Park That I Would Actually Visit: Themyscira, ‘Wonder Woman’

Amanda Dobbins: I liked many aspects of Wonder Woman: Gal Godot, naked Chris Pine, the World War I scenes that made sense, the makeover sequence. But the opening 20 minutes — a Mediterranean-inspired island, populated only by Amazon women who can speak hundreds of languages and kill a man whenever necessary — was the highlight, and also, funnily enough, the blueprint for my next vacation. Fantasy worlds, especially in the modern blockbuster, are so often dark and vicious and ugly (in all senses of the word) places, with few women and fewer chances for them to do anything. It was a small revelation to see a place I’d actually wish to be real — and people I’d actually want to be. Also, it’s hard to argue with this:

Best Use of New York City Public Transportation: ‘John Wick: Chapter 2’

Robert Mays: Any truly great sequel has to feel worth it. Replicating the things that made the original great is never enough. With the world already established and the tone already set, an effective follow-up is all about building up that world and digging further into what everybody liked in the first place. That’s exactly what we got with John Wick: Chapter 2.

If the original film was all about establishing Keanu Reeves as a worthwhile bogeyman, introducing the close-quarters fighting style, and creating a new, relatively straightforward masterpiece, the successor was an attempt to dive headfirst into the staggering universe that Wick inhabited before leaving his life as a hitman. It also helps when a good chunk of that work is done with some of the most creative, enthralling fight sequences possible.

Wick 2 has plenty of memorable visuals, but none sticks with you longer than Reeves strolling through New York as he’s forced to pick off assassins of all shapes and sizes. This sequence culminates in Reeves and Common brawling on a train, a fight that lasts a good five minutes, and because it’s the MTA, it’s barely enough to get the other passengers to look up. Like everything else about the Wick franchise to date, it’s all beautifully staged and paced — ya know, delivered with actual thought — in a way action movies just aren’t anymore.

Most Surreal Conversation in a Documentary Film: Lady Gaga Interviewing Julian Assange in Laura Poitras’s ‘Risk’

Lindsay Zoladz: Frost/Nixon. Walters/Lewinsky. Couric/Weezy. And now, thanks to Laura Poitras’s fascinating WikiLeaks documentary Risk, we must add another pair of names to this list of the most harrowing conversations in the history of televisual journalism: Gaga/Assange.

Here is a thing I swear to god really happened: On October 7, 2012, Lady Gaga was promoting her latest fragrance, Fame, at Harrods department store in London. M.I.A. — the agit-pop provocateur who’d become friends with the WikiLeaks founder, then exiled in the Ecuadorian embassy — tweeted this at Lady Gaga.

Gaga not only took her up on the invite, but she showed up in a chic witch’s hat and talked to Assange for five hours in a Guy Ritchie–era-Madonna famous-person accent. No rapper has yet sampled the audio of Lady Gaga asking, with the flair of a Bond villain, "Who is after you, Mr. Assange?", an omission I’m pretty sure counts as a cyber crime.

It is undoubtedly the most bizarro moment in Poitras’s film (she has a knack for catching elusive subjects in moments of jaw-dropping candor; she also made the excellent, Oscar-winning Edward Snowden doc Citizenfour), and she’s skilled enough to know how to make the scene feel not like a tangent so much as a fragment of a complicated whole. Risk is a portrait of Assange assembled like a mosaic from shards of broken glass, and over its course Poitras captures both her growing ambivalence toward her controversial subject and the deep contradictions at the heart of his personality. Like, you know, the fact that while in exile he still allowed a camera crew to follow him, and invited one of the world’s most famous celebrities over for tea and cake.

"Do you ever feel like just fucking crying — even when you’re happy?" Gaga asks Assange at one point. Maybe it’s not the most geopolitically incisive question he’s ever been asked, but Assange’s self-abnegating answer ("Why … does it matter how I feel?") is as revealing of his character as any other moment in the film. My only complaint is that, although Gaga is an outspoken advocate for victims of sexual violence, she doesn’t take the opportunity to grill Assange on the sexual assault and coercion charges (for which investigations into have since been dropped) from which he sought asylum in the first place — or at least not in the cut of the conversation we see. But I could honestly watch an entire miniseries of this shit. So Assange, if you’re reading this: LEAK THE FIVE-HOUR GAGA TAPES. The world is waiting.

Best Surprisingly Tolerable Kids Movie: ‘The Boss Baby’

Rob Harvilla: A very strange aspect of having both a Twitter account and two young children is that kids movies serve as both hilarious sources of dank memes and convenient ways to get those children out of the goddamn house for a couple of hours. Childless internet denizens experienced the Minions movie, for example, as an exhausting marketing blitz and an even more exhausting fount of bewildering internet content. But parents also got to experience it as a trash movie.

The Boss Baby, Alec Baldwin’s best film since It’s Complicated, almost by default, was a far more enjoyable experience, both on the internet (yikes, though) and in the theater, even though the seat backs in this particular theater were too high, so my kids had to sit on me the whole time just to see the screen. To be honest, that is the only concrete detail I’ve retained about The Boss Baby. But speaking vaguely, I’m pretty sure it was a mildly creative and un-smarmy critique of capitalism that didn’t overdose on pop culture references (à la The Lego Batman Movie) or Pixar-type weeping-parents gravitas. It was 97 minutes of Be nice to your brother, basically, and I’ve endured much worse. You shouldn’t go see this movie if you don’t have to, but it won’t kill you if you do.

Best Comedy (Yes, Really): ‘The Beguiled’

Alison Herman: I can’t think of a movie its trailer has prepared me for less than The Beguiled, which was marketed like The Hateful Eight with Southern women and plays out like Love and Friendship during wartime. What I thought was going to be a harrowing psychological thriller is, in fact, a pitch-perfect comedy of manners that may culminate in violence, but hastens through it all with deliberate speed — Sofia Coppola knows what she’s good at, which is wringing laughs out of Corporal John McBurney’s slimeball seduction techniques and the flustered reactions they elicit from the students and staff of the Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies.

We’re in a troubled time for studio comedies, and particularly the female-led kind that’s forced to answer for its failings in a way Hot Tub Time Machine 2 never will. Ghostbusters became a culture war; Snatched is best forgotten, for Goldie’s sake; Rough Night tragically underperformed relative to its A-list cast. Never in a million years would I have expected my favorite communal laughter experience in months to come from an art-house Civil War drama, but maybe that’s the point: Pre-programmed laughs are destined to fail, especially when the movies that aim to inspire them are all playing Mad Libs with the same gutted Bridesmaids script. It’s the jokes that sneak up on you that hit the hardest.

Best/Most Maddening Use of Ambiguity: ‘It Comes at Night’

Fennessey: I’ve had more conversations about the facts of It Comes at Night than any other movie in 2017, mostly because the facts are a bit hazy. The movie — a small-scale portrait of a family trying to survive what appears to be a worldwide plague — doesn’t answer questions so much as bury them with a creeping dread. In May, when I interviewed director Trey Edward Shults, he answered a question about explaining the structure of world he’d created with a simple but effective credo: "We can only know what the characters know." It isn’t a spoiler to say that at the end of It Comes at Night, the characters don’t appear to know much more than we do. Shults is banking on the power of a timeless question. What’s scarier — an awful truth, or the possibility of one?

Loosest Understanding of How Instagram Works: Mandy Moore in ‘47 Meters Down’

Andrew Gruttadaro: 2017 has seen the rise of a new minigenre that I’m going to call "When Doing It for the ’Gram Goes Wrong" movies. There have been two such films in the first six months of this year: Snatched, in which Amy Schumer is too busy getting off IGs of her glamorous South American vacation to realize that she’s a mark, and 47 Meters Down, in which Mandy Moore finds herself terrorized by sharks after plummeting to the ocean floor in a rickety cage. (You could argue Kong: Skull Island is a WDIFTGGWM, if you pretend Brie Larson’s character used an iPhone camera rather than a Leica.)

47 Meters Down is a better movie than Snatched, but certainly not due to any thorough understanding of how Instagram actually functions. The app is the sole reason that Moore’s character, Lisa, decides to cage-dive with sharks while on vacation in Mexico. You see, she was just broken up with by a man named Stuart (that’s gotta hurt), potentially because she doesn’t take enough risks in life. So, her more adventurous sister persuades her to get on a boat with four strangers and hop into a cage that is very obviously going to break by repeating one line: "Just imagine what Stuart will think when he sees all these photos of you on Instagram." That’s kind of silly — I doubt when they were breaking up Stuart was like, "You need to cage-dive with sharks more" — but it’s not nearly the silliest thing Lisa does when executing her plan of Instagram-fueled jealousy. No, that’d be when she gets into the cage with a DISPOSABLE WATERPROOF CAMERA.

That means, if the whole cage-diving thing didn’t turn into a disaster, Lisa would have had to get the film from the disposable camera developed, then scan the photos onto a computer, and then likely upload the photos to Instagram from her desktop (something that requires you to jump through a bunch of hoops, by the way). I don’t think Stuart dumped Lisa because she was boring; I think they broke up because she had zero understanding of modern technology.

Also? Lisa drops the disposable camera almost immediately after getting into the shark cage. What I’m trying to say is 47 Meters Down is fantastic.

Best Superhero Villain Who Should Have Also Been an ‘Eastbound & Down’ Character: Boyd Holbrook, ‘Logan’

Chris Ryan: Logan: great movie, not a fun movie. Here is a ranking of people in Logan based on how much fun they had:

7. Eriq La Salle

6. Stephen Merchant (taking into account how much fun he usually is versus how much makeup he had to wear and how most of his scenes are inside of a big tin can)

5. Hugh Jackman

4. Patrick Stewart

3. Dafne Keen

2. Richard E. Grant (not entirely sure he’s aware that he’s in Logan)

1. This dude right here:

Boyd Holbrook, the thinking man’s Joel Kinnaman, brought multiple Southern accents and an incredibly high facial-expressions-per-second-on-screen average to what was, for all its charms, a pretty dire and drab movie. Fatherhood, redemption, yadda, yadda. You need to have a deformed one-liner machine as your villain to liven things up. Here’s what Holbrook is good at: entering a room and saying the name of the person he is talking to ("CHARRRLES XAVIERRR, America’s most wanted octogenarian.") in very dramatic fashion, showing off a completely unnecessary gold tooth that was 100 percent his idea, and actually going toe-to-toe with Jackman, despite this being the Aussie’s show.

There’s a fun thread running through the movie with Holbrook’s Donald Pierce character repeatedly telling other characters what a big fan of theirs he is, and you can feel that the same must have been true for the actor himself. He seems delighted to be on screen with Stewart and Jackman and Merchant and Keen.

There is one person in Logan who is having fun with the fact that this is a movie about an old-man Wolverine and a young-girl Wolverine. Give that person all the awards.