It’s not easy coming up with a list of the ten best movies of any year, let alone one as rich in worthies as 2017. Still, nothing gets a good film debate going like a ranking, and so we here at Goomba Stomp have finalized* our picks for the cream of 2017’s crop. We’ve covered a ton of films this year, from major theatrical releases to the plethora of film festivals, like Sundance, TIFF, and Fantasia, so there were some tough choices to be made. No list is perfect of course, and there will always be some disagreements, but in the end this list is a fairly accurate reflection of our staff favorites. Enjoy, and if you haven’t seen some of the film’s below, what are you waiting for?!
*In case you’re wondering, the content and order was determined by polling our Sordid Cinema staff writers, then compiling the data by assigning points depending on a film’s rank within each personal list. Rest assured, it’s a highly scientific process that delivers solid, unbiased results.
Editor’s Note: While it is impossible for our writers to see every movie released this year, I felt we should mention that although we are all huge fans of Paul Thomas Anderson, none of us have had the chance to yet see Phantom Thread, since it has not yet been released where we reside.
10 (Tie) – The Shape of Water
For years, a distinction has existed between the English language and Spanish language films of Guillermo del Toro. The American works are either direct adaptations of comic books (Hellboy, Blade II), or so outlandish that they might as well have been (Pacific Rim, Mimic). The Spanish and Mexican films are more austere films that combine del Toro’s love of the macabre and the fantastic with an unabashed sense of love. With his newest film, The Shape of Water, del Toro has managed to synthesize his impulses to create one of his most satisfying works to date.
The ever-charming Sally Hawkins plays Elisa Esposito, a mute woman who works on the night-shift cleaning staff of a government research center in the midst of the Cold War. Zelda (Octavia Spencer) is her only friend among the janitors, as well as her sign language interpreter to the rest of the world. When Elisa comes across a mysterious amphibian man (del Toro regular Doug Jones) who is being experimented on by the malicious Strickland (a gloriously over-the-top Michael Shannon), she at first feels compassion, then desire.
A lesser filmmaker would have portrayed Elisa as a tragic figure robbed of her voice, but del Toro and co-screenwriter Vanessa Taylor wisely depict a woman perfectly at ease with her life — she has all the voice she needs, but it’s up to others to listen. Hawkins is augmented by a fantastic cast, including an excellent (if small) role from Michael Stuhlbarg (Call Me by Your Name).
Del Toro was inspired to make The Shape of Water because of his childhood disappointment with Creature from the Black Lagoon, in which an inter-species love story is cut short by bloodthirsty humans. His new film works as a corrective, and his passion is evident (he depicts Baltimore in the early 1960s with as much love and care as he does the amphibian man). The Shape of Water is a fairy tale, and like the best fairy tales, it reminds us of our own childhood wonder and hope. (Brian Marks)
10 (Tie) – Baby Driver
Like every Edgar Wright movie, the director’s latest feature takes a ludicrous concept and runs wild with it. Six movies into his career, he delivers a wildly energetic movie that not only entertains from start to finish, but follows its own set of rules without ever losing focus on what matters the most: characters. The result is brilliant, an unexpected mishmash of genres that shouldn’t blend so well together, but does. Baby Driver is the director’s most ambitious work to date — a wildly successful romantic heist comedy fueled by a killer soundtrack.
Here Wright’s use of music has a reason to exist, since the titular character needs his melodies for practical reasons. After surviving a traumatic car crash in childhood (killing his parents), Baby is left with permanent tinnitus, and in order to counteract this condition, he scores his everyday life. Baby Driver has it all: non-stop action, comedy, suspense, romance, a star-making performance from Ansel Elgort, and all the twists and turns of a classic heist movie. Credit Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss for the razor-sharp editing, and Bill Pope for his luscious photography! This is Hollywood craftsmanship of the highest order. (Ricky D)
10 (Tie) – mother!
Darren Aronofsky’s mother! is quite possibly the most controversial film of 2017. Many critics called it the worst movie of the year, while others who sung its praise defended the film tooth and nail. Awash in both religious and contemporary political imagery, Darren Aronofsky’s allusive film opens itself to a number of allegorical readings, and depending on what you take away, you’ll either love it or hate it. The press release promised a home-invasion thriller “about love, devotion, and sacrifice,” and in several interviews Aronofsky referenced climate change, war, famine and how awful humans not only treat each other, but the planet we live on. It’s also a surreal, feverish nightmare about relationships and the creative process centered around a dysfunctional couple.
The film is all this and more, but in my eyes mother! is first and foremost a horror film, and like any good horror film, it’s one that gets a rise out of you — makes your palms sweat, your eyes widen, your jaw drop, and your hands grip on tight to the armrest. It’s a piece of taboo-breaking cinematic insanity, and something you’re sure not to forget. And like all great horror movies, it’s a movie that grabs your attention and dares you to look away. (Ricky D)
9 – It
Stephen King’s 1986 magnum opus about a deranged murdering clown named Pennywise who haunts the children of Derry, Maine has now been adapted twice, to varying degrees of success. The latest adaptation, which lingered for a half-decade in pre-production, represents the first time It has been brought to the big screen (the first was a television mini-series) and it’s among the best Stephen King adaptations ever made — not because it is scary (because, truthfully, it isn’t), but because director Andrés Muschietti’s vision is extremely funny, entertaining, and most importantly, heartwarming. At 135 minutes, It covers only the childhood half of the book, saving the adult portion for the upcoming sequel, set 27 years later. The decision to split the movie in two was a wise move on the part of the studio, as it allows the filmmakers more time to flesh out both the story and the large cast of characters. As with Stand By Me, another Stephen King adaptation, what sets It apart from most modern Hollywood horror films is the stellar cast. In fact, the best parts of It have nothing to do with the cackling manifestations of the murderous Pennywise, but with the camaraderie, bickering, and curiosity among these kids, who unlike many on-screen teenagers, actually seem like real kids.
It is far from a perfect film, but the underlying allegory of these characters facing their deepest fears as they enter adulthood gives the movie emotional weight — and regardless of if we get to know these characters or not, It is a chilling examination of what it’s like to grow up living in fear, be it the onset of puberty, or something deeper and far more disturbing, such as neglect, abuse, discrimination, poverty, and/or violence. In fact, the film’s true villains — older kids like Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton), and adults like Beverly’s abusive father or Eddie’s controlling mother — are monstrous themselves. Of course, this is still a horror movie, and when the children begin to disappear, our group of young heroes is faced with their biggest inner demons when they square off against Pennywise, whose history of murder and violence dates back for centuries. Emerging from the long shadow of Tim Curry (whose interpretation of Pennywise is the biggest highlight of the TV mini-series) is Bill Skarsgard who does a marvelous job stepping in as the creepy, dancing clown with outsize yellow teeth, a high-pitched squeak of a voice, and a knack for terrifying kids. Thanks to the combination of these performances and Muschietti’s direction, It is not only one of the best movies of 2017, but one of the best horror movies ever made. (Ricky D)
8 – Blade Runner 2049
Though coming off a bit more replicant than human, Denis Villeneuve’s gorgeous and mesmerizing vision of the near future couldn’t help but stand out from from its 2017 peers. Making a sequel to one of cinema’s all-time science fiction masterpieces must have been a daunting task, but Blade Runner 2049 does an admirable job picking up where Deckard left off, even if it doesn’t quite meet its predecessors lofty ambitions. Set 30 years later, 2049 follows Ryan Gosling’s K as he slowly uncovers a secret about the nature of replicants that may change the world. Along the way there is a bit of mystery, smatterings of existentialist philosophy, and a smorgasbord of visuals to feast one’s eyes upon.
The extraordinary sights and sounds of Blade Runner 2049 are more than enough to sustain the film through its methodical approach. Villeneuve, cinematographer Roger Deakins, and a talented team of art designers have outdone themselves, painting a rich, colorful world of decay, the oppressive gloom masked by orange sandstorms and holographic neon billboards. This is not the gritty Los Angeles of the original; a slick veneer projects surface beauty, but it doesn’t take long for the rotten insides to stink. Special mention must also be made of Hans Zimmer’s pulsing score, a mix of synthesizers and what sound like revving engines — it’s a sensory experience like almost no other in recent memory. The potency of the story will probably fade, but the images and ambiance will likely stick. Blade Runner 2049 may not quite reach for the sci-fi stars, but it certainly shines like one. (Patrick Murphy)
7 – The Florida Project
The Florida Project continues director Sean Baker’s realistic depiction of the unfortunate, but with a heartfelt look at the way our futures are shaped. The film pushes Brooklynn Prince into the limelight as another child star that hopefully maintains the same bravado throughout her career that she embodies in this. All the while, Baker captures the innocence of a child, as well as the factors that influence the person they’ll become — and whether that’s a good or bad result is up to you. Anchored by a brilliant performance by Willem Dafoe as a motel owner reining in a community of the lower class and less fortunate, The Florida Project shows the depravity and the goodness that can be found within the cracks of society. Utilizing bright colors in frequently ignored locations gives the film its sense of hope, where it would otherwise be easy to grab hold of desperation and let it drag you to your lowest lows.
While the film is primarily focused on Brooklynn Prince’s character and how she spends her days, the greatest impact comes from how her mother’s actions and behaviors influence and affect her daughter. You learn to dread the moments spent with the mom, but realize that decisions she makes are born out of a place of perceived desperation. And at the same time, you learn to love the relationship between the mom and daughter because it’s pure and real. The complications exist within their lives, but they power through them, even if it means dragging each other through the mud to get to the endpoint. The Florida Project mines the mother-daughter relationship for those brief moments that are relatable. It lets you care about its characters without having to like them, in a situation that is sometimes difficult to find joy within. The movie then caps itself off with one of the happiest tearjerker moments of the year, which is why it stands as Sean Baker’s most fully realized film. (Christopher Cross)
6 – Good Time
Good Time had the best score of the year — that’s not debatable. Brooklyn composer Oneohtrix Point Never amplifies both the grime and the tension of the Safdie Brothers’ film, supplying a droning, screeching backdrop that is both tripped out and deathly urgent. Which makes sense; Good Time, and Robert Pattinson’s performance specifically, has a druggy unreality that seems tailored to the Adderall generation. It is purely energetic, propulsive, and unrelenting.
Not that Connie, Pattinson’s idiot-savant wannabe bank robber, would know anything about drugs. A defining wrinkle of the character is his inflated sense of superiority, the way that —for instance, after botching a bank robbery — Connie will lecture others about behavioral standards. He is, in actuality, a completely unlikable character, beyond even his pretensions. He is toxic, dragging his disabled brother into criminal schemes and preying on anyone he can to avoid the consequences of those schemes when they inevitably fail. This is who the Safdie’s align us with, asking us to stay with Connie has he spirals downward into the New York City night. If not truly pleasurable, the film is compelling in the way that a high wire act mixed with a car accident would be compelling.
Pattinson meets the bar set by Oneohtrix Point Never, transforming his lithe physicality into something more jagged. His movements lack grace and veer toward the arbitrary; he either can’t or won’t sit still. His face fills the frame throughout much of the movie, allowing us to see every dumb new idea dawn in his eyes as he hatches them. Good Time is the realization of the Safdie Brothers’ sensibilities, but it flows through Pattinson, who encapsulates the film’s live-wire energy with his performance.
There were bigger films, more optimistic films, more rousing films, and films with more to say than Good Time in 2017, but the Safdies’ movie, more than any other in the year — Dunkirk included — moved me to the literal edge of my seat early and refused to relent. It is experiential; you live through Good Time, rather than watching it. (Michael Haigis)
5 – Call Me By Your Name
Director Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name stirs the senses, breathing life into first love and heartbreak. Timothée Chalamet (Miss Stevens) is Elio, a young man adrift in the summer of 1983, before Oliver (Armie Hammer of The Social Network) comes to intern for his professor father (Michael Stuhlbarg) in Italy. The film’s playful decadence flows with an enchanting ease, as well as an enveloping score that brings us into the moment. Chalamet whips the teasing, temptation, and frustration of early flirtations into a mesmerizing enthusiasm, while Hammer’s assertive charm knocks down the audience’s guard. A knowing intimacy creeps into their interactions, and Elio’s interest transforms into confusion, euphoria, borrowed time, and inevitable heartbreak. Chalamet’s eager affection and dynamic emotional articulation define the movie, drawing us ever further into a world that briefly belongs to them.
Hammer and Chalamet expertly channel two men magnetically drawn to one another, lost in the physical and mental freedom of youth that is yet to be completely tethered to commitment or expectations. They are shown to be deliberate, intellectual, and aware of the complexity of their feelings for one another — traits not readily associated with romance. Call Me By Your Name embraces the fervor of an insatiable sexual pull, while skillfully honing in on what makes Elio and Oliver’s relationship something special. As Elio’s father, Stuhlbarg vividly delivers tender insights that are as uplifting as they are wrenching. Guadagnino (I Am Love, A Bigger Splash) lovingly builds a serious film about meaningful attraction and the tenuous control we have over circumstance. (Lane Scarberry)
4 – Lady Bird
Portraits of youthful aspiration rarely come so authentic and honest as the sometimes touching, often funny, and always charming Lady Bird. Set in the Sacramento of her teenage youth, Greta Gerwig’s semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story contains the types of off-beat observations and unflattering comic scenarios she has written into previous leading roles, but never has this offbeat “character” worked so well; perhaps because this time it isn’t Gerwig performing it. That task instead belongs to Saorise Ronan, who goes beyond merely doing her best Gerwig impression, and crafts a bitingly sharp version of an aspiring young artist who deeply believes herself to be something greater than what she currently is — or may even be capable of.
All of the buoyant energy and awkward ugliness of formative years are on display, from the social politics of high school to the ever-increasing urge to break free from the cage of parental control. Lady Bird (as she has pretentiously dubbed herself) can be both magnetic and repulsive in a span of seconds, but Ronan plays scenes of selfishness and egotism with the same matter-of-fact approach as those when she is more considerate of others, and the frankness captivates — even when eliciting winces. Writer-director Gerwig beautifully takes advantage with a script that unveils poignant yearning and tender nostalgia cloaked in quirky wit and uncomfortably real confrontation, while wisely shooting in a straightforward manner that doesn’t draw attention away with shallow indie flash. Bold, brave, and never less than sincere, Lady Bird hits all the right notes without compromising its own song — one of the most melodious of the year. (Patrick Murphy)
3 – Logan
A melancholic treatise on aging is not what one would expect from any corner of the cinematic comic book canon, let alone from a property with the Marvel logo preceding it, but James Mangold’s Logan is just that, a modern day Western that takes a lens to one of the most iconic action heroes of all time. Hugh Jackman’s last go-around as the near-immortal mutant with generations of pain and suffering caked on his metallic claws finds the loner unburdened by the X-Men (a freak accident wiped them and mutant kind out), and burdened with caring for an ailing Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart, providing a giant performance of confusion and intimacy). Logan’s will to live is minuscule until a chance encounter brings him close to Laura (Dafne Keene), a mutant child with remarkable skills of her own.
Liberated from universe building and a 4-quadrant marketing mandate, the film is almost overwhelming in its violence (the farm sequence is expert in its mounting horrific tension), while providing a profound look at how wanton killing dilutes a person’s soul. In part, it’s a meta-commentary on the X-Men and comic book films themselves, deconstructing how heroes are made, remembered and forgotten in broad strokes, rarely allowed to have the complexities that we mortals ponder day to day. Logan is the anti-comic book film — patient, meticulous, and not eager to please. It’s a heavy experience where the stabs make you cringe, the blood runs a little too real, and the notion of the next chapter is not etched in ink. Logan reminds us that our favorite things end, and that finality can be its own reward. (Shane Ramirez)
2 – Dunkirk
No film in 2017 captured the pure magic of cinema better than Christopher Nolan’s exquisitely crafted thriller about the evacuation of the British and other Allied forces from the French coast during World War II. Dunkirk jettisons many of the storytelling crutches so many war movies have come to rely on, replacing those blunt philosophical speeches and manufactured character moments with the kind of exacting visuals and visceral sound design that communicate precisely everything an audience needs to know about the terror depicted. Not a minute is wasted in exposition; the images tell the tale, taking the medium back to its roots. Through pictures Nolan builds an army of genuine people, their mouths ominously silent, but their eyes and actions instantly relating volumes. His frame then constricts their freedom (and ours), ramping up unease by showing us packed lines of men desperate to escape, crammed onto piers just waiting, looking out to the vast ocean of blue skies and open water that offers something so close, yet so far.
Once it has us wound up, Dunkirk yanks on the thread, unspooling in a furious assembly of bullet pops, swooping dogfights, and fiery sea battles, all working in harmony to support each other. Rarely have I felt so utterly helpless in response to something so simple as the whine of an airplane engine, but Nolan pulls the strings perfectly, effortlessly navigating the peaks and valleys of tension and release. That he does this without a more traditional dialogue-heavy script is especially impressive — a reminder of how affecting cinema can be in its purest form. Dunkirk pushes the action genre forward by looking back, a triumph of filmmaking that dares to believe in the core fundamentals of movies. (Patrick Murphy)
1 – Get Out
In the great annals of horror movie history, there are plenty of examples of backward, racist Southerners being used to amp up the terror in otherwise unremarkable places like small towns or nice Suburban neighborhoods. Get Out seeks to utilize this same strategy, but in a different way. By making the racist bad guys liberals who genuinely think they’re doing a service to the black community, Get Out supplants the idea that racism only exists on the right — or in the South — and forces wearers of the “Good Guy Badge” to take a closer look at their reflection.
With stand-out performances from Daniel Kaluuya (Black Mirror), Allison Williams (Girls), and Catherine Keener (Being John Malkovich), Get Out is a surprisingly tight suspense-thriller that ratchets up the tension with great success throughout the entirety of its swift run time.
From Jordan Peele of all people (best known for his sketch comedy series, co-created with Keegan-Michael Key), a film like Get Out is a genuine surprise, and one that has been welcomed by audiences and critics almost unanimously. These kinds of new takes on racism as a plot device — and the place of the horror canon in general — are just what the genre needs every few years to remind folks that there’s still new ground waiting to be uncovered in this well-worn world of recurring horror tropes. (Mike Worby)
‘Weathering With You’ Isn’t Quite the Storm It Wanted to Be
Makoto Shinkai’s Weathering With You delivers a gorgeous film that doesn’t quite resonate as much as it wanted to.
Climate change and global warming have been topics of concern and discussion for years now, with melting ice caps and rising ocean temperatures being some of many signs. Director Makoto Shinkai — acclaimed the world over for his 2016 work Your Name — aims to show just how at the mercy humans are to the weather with his newest animated film, Weathering With You. Although he presents a visually stunning depiction of Mother Nature in all her various moods, Weathering With You ultimately lacks the storming power it seeks to bear upon its audience.
Tokyo has been having a particularly rainy year, seeing precipitation almost every day and nary a sight of the sun or clear blue skies. It’s during this unusual time that high school boy Hodaka arrives in the metropolis seeking escape from the suffocating life he had on his island. The young teenager naturally has trouble finding his bearings on his own in the oftentimes unforgiving hustle and bustle of the city. It’s in these early scenes that Weathering With You has some of its strongest moments, depicting the uglier side of Japanese society not often seen in anime, while also highlighting Hodaka’s strength of character to make it on his own.
As Hodaka gradually carves out his own place in the city, he eventually has an encounter with a young girl named Hina. Matching her sunny and cheerful disposition, Hina has the ability to make it stop raining and have the sunshine in very localized spots by praying to the sky. In a place where the rain never ceases, it’s easy to see why Hodaka latches onto Hina to use for the greater good (while also making a little pocket change along the way).
“The hand-drawn rain is downright mesmerizing in all its forms — fierce and calm — while the sunshine that follows seems to hang in the air caught by the leftover humidity.”
Gloomy skies and damp grounds can take their toll on one’s mood and psyche, which someone who lives in such a climate can surely relate to. Even the briefest moments of sunshine revitalize us and give a glimpse of the “light at the end of the tunnel.” Hodaka and Hina’s “100% Sunshine Girl” services to those in need of that light boldly underscore that fact, and make for a strong argument for how the weather affects us all beyond its objective physicality, along with providing some much-appreciated levity to the story.
That power of weather is beautifully illustrated by CoMix Wave Films’ stupendous animation efforts. The hand-drawn rain is downright mesmerizing in all its forms — fierce and calm — while the sunshine that follows seems to hang in the air, caught by the leftover humidity. Tokyo itself isn’t to be outdone either, with its streets running the gamut between peaceful neighborhoods to grimy and dark back alleys with dilapidated buildings. The animation is punctuated by the return of Japanese band RADWIMPS, who create numerous memorable tracks to complement the wild swings in mood that weather can elicit.
That makes it all the more unfortunate, however, that the greater narrative is so weak.
The progression of Weathering With You is made painfully obvious right from the outset of the story — so much so that it’s hard to wonder if it’s actually the set-up for a bait-and-switch. As a result, much of the first half of the film is simply waiting for the other shoe to drop, making it difficult to really settle in and become intimate with its characters.
This would be less of an issue if the cast had smaller interactions that were a delight to watch, but they fall short in that regard as well. All of the characters have a charm to them for sure — with Hina’s younger elementary school brother, Nagi, putting modern playboys to shame being a particular standout — but the story never quite makes a compelling case as to why they are as close as they are, especially Hina and Hodaka. They’re fun enough to watch be together, but don’t quite make that emotional attachment with the viewer that the story wants to create.
That lack of an emotional connection is distinctly felt in Weathering With You’s second act, when unnecessary confrontations and bizarre plot directions converge to create an artificial sense of stakes amidst a central conflict that would have been fine on its own. What’s meant to strengthen the impression of the characters’ bonds instead cheapens it, undermining the already faulty progress the first half did make. The result is a narrative that’s hard to care about, although its ending does leave the viewer with some potentially interesting questions to ponder.
Weathering With You is far from a bad movie, however. It has a clear direction and vision with a message to say about our climate crisis. The characters are endearing enough, and there are a handful of heartfelt scenes because of that. It also cannot be understated just how drop-dead gorgeous the animation is. The story, however, is simply too straightforward for its own good, resulting in an experience that is at times enjoyable, and at others plain boring.
And that’s only when being judged in a vacuum on the movie’s own merits. When compared to Shinkai’s recent masterpiece that is Your Name, it’s hard to see Weathering With You as anything but a disappointing follow-up. That’s perhaps the film’s greatest weakness, but fortunately, it’s one that Shinkai’s next work won’t have, and we can still look forward to it because of that fact.
Let’s Remember Why ‘Tremors’ is a Beloved Cult Hit
The monster movie that breaks new ground.
Tremors, 30 Years Later
Thirty years ago, this week, one of the best films of 1990 was released.
Tremors didn’t make a big splash in theaters. The film ended up grossing $16,667,084 at the domestic box office, which while making a profit due to its $11 million budget, was still below projected numbers. To be fair, this was a film about carnivorous subterranean worms— and it didn’t help that it was dumped in the cold of winter during what is arguably the slowest time of the year for the box office. Thankfully, however, Tremors found a second life on VHS where it became one of home video’s biggest success stories. More importantly, Tremors become a beloved cult hit.
Much has been said about the cast of Tremors which I’ll get to shortly, but what stood out the most watching it again, is the screenplay from S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock, who both previously penned Short Circuit and Batteries Not Included. Sure, Tremors is a B movie, but it also boasts a tightly-knit script in which every scene; every action; every story beat; and every line of dialogue sets up a chain of events that gives every character a motive and reason to react the way they do. And despite one poorly executed sequence (I’m referring to the pole-vaulting montage), Tremors is a lean, mean movie without an ounce of fat to be found anywhere else.
The plot isn’t complex per se, but there’s something oddly comforting in the simplicity of it all. Tremors takes place in the Nevada desert near a small town called Perfection with a population of only 14 residents who are left to defend themselves against the deadly subterranean creatures. It’s the perfect setting for a monster film since the town itself is isolated. And with only one road leading to civilization, the openness of the desert landscape enhances the desolation of it all. And since the town of Perfection is so far removed from the rest of society, it soon becomes clear that nobody will ever come and save them. Instead, the townsfolk must work together; overcome the odds, and destroy the creatures. And when that fails, they must attempt to scale the rocky mountaintop where the worms are unable to travel underground. It’s getting there that becomes the problem.
Val and Earl
At the heart, and at the center of the eccentric cast of characters is Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward playing Valentine McKee and Earl Bass, a pair of modern-day cowboys working as handymen who become would-be heroes when they stumble upon the shock-sensitive killer worms. Over the years, the two actors have become less renowned for their comedic roles, but Tremors if anything, showcases their talent and range. And while Kevin Bacon with his sexy smile and pretty boy looks is by far the biggest star; it’s their irresistible chemistry that brings their characters to life. They make such a great comedic team and if you replaced Ward with any other actor at the time, there’s no guarantee that Tremors would have been this much fun to watch.
In fact, the two actors work so well together that Fred Ward provides a much better foil for Kevin Bacon than Finn Carter’s Rhonda, a.k.a. the underwritten love interest who is assigned to travel to the town and monitor the seismology readings in the desert. Not long after Rhonda arrives, the people in the town start disappearing – or worse, they end up dead, leaving very little time to establish any chemistry between her and Val— thus making the big kiss, in the end, feel a little out-of-place. But don’t blame the screenplay writers— the original ending of Tremors featured Val and Earl riding off into the sunset, with no hint at any potential romance between Val and Rhonda. Unfortunately, test audiences were not pleased and somehow the producers convinced the filmmakers to quickly reshoot the final scene— just another one of many examples of why studios should not rely on any focus group to provide feedback. In the end, the love interest feels somewhat lost in the shuffle.
The Gummer Family
It doesn’t take long before it becomes apparent that there’s something unnatural roaming the desert and feeding on human flesh. Once Rhonda checks her readings and determines that the threat is coming from underground, Tremors begins to slowly open up and introduce us to the supporting cast which includes Reba McEntire and Michael Gross as the Gummer family, a pair of overzealous, gun-crazy survivalists. McEntire and Gross are so good here, they essentially steal the spotlight from the rest of the cast. In one of their most memorable scenes, the two are forced to take shelter in their basement and defend themselves against one of the giant man-eating worms— and just when it looks like they are going to run out of ammunition, the camera pans left to reveal the bunker holds enough guns and firepower to accommodate a small army. It’s just one of many examples of how Tremors takes a simple concept and maximizes it for full effect.
As much as Tremors is remembered today for the performances of Bacon and Ward, it’s the work of the entire cast that brings the movie to life. It really is great casting considering the small budget, and everyone pulls their weight, serving up the quick-witted dialogue in a way that makes it all feel more natural– and yes that even includes Robert Jayne as the annoying teenage brat, Melvin Plug. I especially like the performance by Victor Wong, a character actor who had roles in films like 3 Ninjas and Big Trouble in Little China. Here he plays the ill-fated Walter Chang who is killed in a scene that features some of the film’s best special effects.
Director Ron Underwood
Tremors was the first movie Ron Underwood directed and by far his best. Now known as a go-to director for many successful TV shows, Underwood keeps things moving briskly and finds new clever ways to draw out tension with impressive camera work, especially the shots that show the point of view of the creatures as they stalk their victims. Along with Cinematographer Alexander Gruszynski, Underwood frames his exterior shots in a way that constantly reminds viewers how small the town is and how isolated it is. It’s also worth noting how difficult it is to shoot a horror movie outside in the middle of the desert where you can never truly escape the sunlight, and yet director Ron Underwood uses the setting to his advantage and frames his actors in such a manner that the landscape emits a general feeling of emptiness, which both mirrors the town’s small population and the people themselves who are desperate for a change.
Tremors evokes the populist spirit of ‘50s and ’60s B-movies without ever resorting to parody, nor does it ever feel familiar. Instead, Underwood reinvigorates its genre tropes with a finely balanced combination of horror and humor— and despite its tongue-in-cheek script, Underwood never allows it to venture into full-on camp. There is tension and suspense in every one of the action scenes and like many classics that came before it, Tremors focuses less on its oversized monsters and more on their victims and how these people react to attacks by these giant creatures. Even in the bright daylight, Tremors manages to create enough suspense to keep viewers at the edge of their seats.
Apart from taking inspiration from classic monster movies, Tremors owes a lot to Steven Spielberg’s Jaws— so much so, that the original title for Tremors was actually Land Sharks. Much like how the shark in Jaws travels underwater while stalking its prey, in Tremors, the 30-foot-long carnivorous worms known as Graboids, travel underground. And like Jaws (arguably the quintessential B movie), the creatures in Tremors are rarely seen. Instead, the largely invisible creatures can burrow fast enough to devour the entire town if given the opportunity— making them deadly and genuinely menacing.
Another clever inclusion by the screenplay writers was the idea to have these Graboids respond to seismic vibrations. While blind and unable to track their prey’s scent, they do have acute hearing, which means any slight movement or sound can cost you your life. In arguably the best scene of the entire film, Kevin Bacon’s Val is left to stand completely still and silent while the worm-like creatures who circle his feet reveal their razor-sharp fangs as they desperately search for their next victim.
It’s a credit to the creature design that I never once questioned the reality of the Graboids. Along with a team of over 50 visual effects wizards, the filmmakers were able to bring their creations to life with a mix of old school prosthetics, animatronics, and computer-generated imagery. Tremors may be at times funny, but this isn’t the sort of film that has viewers pointing at the screen and laughing at obviously cheesy effects. Make no mistake about it: the monster effects by Tom Woodruff and Alec Gillis (who previously worked on Alien and The Terminator) is truly impressive, especially given the limited budget they had to work with.
The one and only aspect of Tremors that I’ve never liked was the music heard at the start and at the end of the film. To my surprise, I later learned that composer Ernest Troaost’s musical score for the film went mostly unused since the studio didn’t like it and, later they hired composer Robert Folk to write a new score. Only a few of Troost’s country-themed songs made it into the final cut and sure enough, they are the songs I dislike. That said, Folk’s compositions perfectly match the visuals and heighten the suspense during the film’s most action-packed scenes.
Tremors wasn’t in any way groundbreaking since it borrowed liberally from many other monster movies, yet somehow the film became such a hit, that it spawned four direct-to-video sequels (Tremors 2: Aftershocks, Tremors 3: Back to Perfection, Tremors 5: Bloodlines and Tremors: A Cold Day in Hell)— a direct-to-video prequel (Tremors 4: The Legend Begins), and even a television series. More so, the success of Tremors resulted in many copycats but none of them (save for James Gunn’s Slither) have been able to perfectly match the potent mixture of sharp dialogue, deadpan humour, and horror.
It’s easy to see why Tremors ultimately became a success and why it remains a fun and engaging experience, decades later. The plot is fully realized constantly keeping things exciting. It has plenty of spectacular set-pieces, thrilling action scenes, and plenty of quotable throwaway dialogue. Along with the charismatic cast, superb direction, great script and terrifyingly real effects, Tremors stands the test of time. Many have tried to match Tremors but most have ultimately come up short. Movies like this come around once every few years.
- Ricky D
The Career of Tony Scott and His Influence on the Film Industry
In the late 1970s and 1980s, composer Giorgio Moroder was often accused of trying to replace the orchestral movie soundtrack with high-energy, synthesizer-heavy disco-pop laid on with a trowel in movies like Thank God It’s Friday (1978), Flashdance (1983), Scarface (1983), and Top Gun (1986). I remember a magazine story on Moroder which quoted one of his many critics as saying, “The day the music died, Giorgio Moroder was brought in for questioning.”
I think some people had the same opinion about movies and Tony Scott. Full disclosure: I’m one of them. But it would be greatly unfair to Scott, who died in 2012, not to admit that, for good or for ill, his 1980s feature work had an enormous impact on commercial filmmaking.
The younger brother of Ridley Scott by seven years, he was gifted – like his brother – with an outrageously good eye; a taste for the visual strong enough to earn him his master’s degree from London’s Royal College of Art (which he’d attended on scholarship no less). But painting didn’t pay well, so he joined with his brother in Ridley Scott Associates where, from the 1970s into the 1980s, he applied that eye to moving pictures, directing thousands of commercials, some of them still-talked-about all-time classics in the U.K.
His first feature was the visually sumptuous, dramatically wispy attempt at erotic vampirica, The Hunger (1983), and it was such a lambasted flop it’s a surprise Scott’s feature career didn’t end right there. But three years later, producer Jerry Bruckheimer tapped him to direct Top Gun and movies would never be the same.
It was a perfect marriage of sensibilities (along with Michael Bay, Scott would remain one of Bruckheimer’s go-to directors). Bruckheimer, whose youthful interest in photography had led him to his own career in commercials before turning to movies, had the same affinity for striking imagery as Scott.
The timing of the union was just right, too. MTV was only five years old, and the non-stop near-abstract visuals of music video were not only still hypnotically novel, but on their way to becoming the defining visual sensibility for a new movie-going generation. With Giorgio Moroder (another ideal wedding of sensibilities) supplying a Pop’s Top Ten-nish soundtrack, Scott put together montages that were, essentially, music videos woven into the narrative of the film (some critics carped that the whole movie was little more than an extended music video).
Striking visuals, a pulsing, toe-tapping score, and a super-patriotic story that made a hero of a young, cocky, mouthy, go-my-own-way fighter jock made for a flick which hit a big, fat sweet spot with MTV’s first generation of ticket-buyers: Top Gun scored a whopping $176.7 million domestic. I did the math: at today’s ticket prices, that would translate to almost $390 million. Love it or hate it, you have to respect that kind of box office muscle.
Top Gun set the template for Scott: high-octane visuals, rapid-fire editing (often at the hands of Chris Lebenzon), an MTV-friendly soundtrack, and a story simple enough to absorb without having to pay too much attention.
It also set the template for so many of the box office winners of the next few decades, movies that moved fast, piled on the action, featured characters who were often little more than catchphrases with biceps, offered music video fodder (at least back when MTV still played music videos), and where plausibility – even under Hollywood’s extremely elastic definition of the concept – was irrelevant. Think Lethal Weapon, Speed (1994), Twister (1996), and anything by Michael Bay.
Though his brother Ridley often took the same rap of favoring looks over substance, their styles, though both highly visual, were strikingly different.
Ridley’s films — good and bad – play out like classical music: stately, elegant, unrushed, somber.
Tony’s movies are rock ‘n’ roll: fast, loud, exhausting, sometimes painfully bright.
It’s hard to imagine Tony doing something as subdued as Ridley’s Napoleonic-era The Duelists (1977), or even pulling off the brooding sci-fi Gothicism of Alien (1979). By the same token, Ridley would have seemed a poor fit for Top Gun or all the running back and forth in Crimson Tide (1995).
Despite being regularly slammed for his storytelling, Scott did care about plot and character. Explaining the failure of Days of Thunder (1990) – Top Gun cloned to the NASCAR circuit – Scott diagnosed the problem as having started production without a finished script. “(You) always have to get a story,” he said, “and you’ve got to get character first…”
But it wasn’t a sentiment that quite squared with his execution. In an Entertainment Weekly story about a trending flimsiness in big-screen storytelling, The Fan (1996) screenwriter Phoef Sutton told the story of shooting the movie’s climactic baseball game in a torrential downpour. Sutton and others tried to argue Scott out of it pointing out that baseball games are called on account of such weather. The rain stayed. Said Sutton: “…I don’t think Tony cared about the plausibility of it.”
In his later years, he seemed to be trying to reach for the kind of substance his early films were often accused of lacking, but he remained better at taking a good picture than giving it meaning. Enemy of the State (1998) was entertaining enough, but it was like Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) with the poetry removed and replaced with explosions and chases; Spy Game (2001) was an anemic John LeCarre wannabe; The Taking of Pelham 123 replaced the local color which had made the original so memorable with a needlessly busy yet flavorless plot.
Like his brother, Tony also produced, and in those projects, one could sense an ambition to do something of substance. There were such laudable efforts as the HBO movie RKO 281 (1999) about Orson Welles’ fight to make Citizen Kane; The Gathering Storm (2002), another HBO feature, this about Churchill’s attempts to prep England for WW II; Gettysburg (2001), a cable documentary about one of the most pivotal battles of the Civil War; and the lovely, elegiac (if sadly little-seen) Western, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
Though Scott would continue to turn out some respectable earners in his later years (Déjà vu , The Taking of Pelham 123, Unstoppable ), after the 1980s, he’d never hit Top Gun heights again, and, in fact, after Beverly Hills Cop II (1987) only ever crossed the $100 million domestic mark one more time with Enemy of the State (1998). Perhaps the problem was that Scott’s eye-tickling rat-a-tat-tat style had, by the 1990s, become so widely copied that his often dramatically weak films had little else to offer; the trendsetter had become just another member of the pack.
But give him this. Few filmmakers make a lasting impact. Most directors and most films come and go, cinematic mayflies fluttering around the box office for a few weeks before disappearing. The same can’t be said of Tony Scott. Love ‘im or hate ‘im, it’ll be a long time before anyone forgets him.
– Bill Mesce
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