Danny Bowes

Filmmaker, critic.

Filtering by Tag: film

LET'S PARLEY LIKE IT'S 1999: A YEAR AT THE MOVIES

In the moment, the main thing 1999 had going for it was that it wasn't 1998. While there were some bright spots—Out of Sight, the Yankees being good—overall '98 was a rough year, personally. In brief: I almost flunked out of college after crashing and burning out of the film department, endured numerous ludicrous melodramas involving a circle of friends to which I was frequently unsure I even belonged, and came to a belated realization about the cause of both of these conundra, namely that I was doing entirely too many drugs. Due to loneliness, existential anxiety, and being a young dumbass, I dropped acid every weekend all fall, on top of the galaxy brain decision that speed was healthier for me than coffee and considering weed and beer to be two of the four food groups. I was a mess. And my alienation from the cinema in general, while seemingly minor compared to the rest of this rampant stupidity, was actually the worst part. I had a really hard time watching movies after flaming out as a film student, and for a few months just wasn't really going to the movie theater, except for Out of Sight but that was church (Clooney, Jenny, Soderbergh, Elmore Leonard, come on, ennui or no ennui, that's essential). But, after that time away, over winter break, somewhere around New Year's 1999, a lot of fog of various types lifted and I decided to start really going to the movies again.

What follows is a partial reconstruction of the next year; these were not the only movies I saw that year (there was plenty of rep, plenty of rewatches, etc), but these were the new releases I saw in theaters, in between acting in East German communist-inspired Shakespeare productions, stonewalling Kim Gordon in her attempts to buy the third Harry Potter book early, and foolishly believing the Knicks had a shot against San Antonio:


January: End of 1998 catch-up, the highlight of which was the foreboding realization, had while freezing my balls off somewhere in Queens, that I liked Shakespeare in Love more than Saving Private Ryan. No new releases, mainly because they all looked like shit, but also because time was limited what with the end-of-'98 catch-up and the diligent socializing with what friends I had in New York that month.



February: Back at school, limited free time, BUT: Payback came out. Now, I know Mel's canceled now (though the fact that he's in a new movie kind of makes one question the efficacy of cancellation), and even then it was known that he was at best a little weird, but his contributions to the field of ownage are undeniable, and here he was playing Richard Stark's Parker. Enough other friends were sufficiently motivated that we all went and had a jolly old time watching Mel get every bone in his body crunched to fuck while quipping wryly, and eventually through stubbornly not dying he owned all the bad guys and rode off into the moonlight with Maria Bello. Payback still rules. I still rewatch it, even if watching Mel brutalize his onscreen avatar feels weird sometimes. It felt a little weird then, too,.

Later in February, on an unfortunate night, I was roped into going to see Office Space under various false pretenses and was too annoyed by sobering up over the course of its run time to properly appreciate it, which, through the gift of VHS, I was later able to do. It happens. The experience matters.


March:: Headassing my way through the above-mentioned East German Midsummer Night's Dream where the fairies were in fetish garb and the director was openly trying to fuck half the girls in the cast even though (because?) his wife was pregnant with twins. It was all very dramatic, to coin a phrase, and one day I was telling my mom about all this on the phone and she said, “Wait, wait, I'm coming up this weekend to take you to the movies. This really great British movie just came out, you need it to take your mind off all this.” So she drove the couple hours upstate and took me to Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, which she'd seen a couple weeks before. And holy shit was it ever what I needed. It's the reason I subsequently saw a lot of bad Guy Ritchie movies, but there was no way of knowing that at the time. Granted, at the time I thought the guy who played Eddy was going to be the big star of the four main friends, and the other three have been working steadily ever since (one of whom, it should be said in condemnation of my ability to predict fucking anything, is Jason Statham, about whom, at the time, I thought, “yeah, the guy who played Bacon is all right but he doesn't have Eddy's charisma” because trepanation is too good for the likes of me). It was one of the times in my life when one movie has completely erased my anxiety and given me the strength to pull through.


Somewhere in here, Chow Yun-Fat obligations involved a couple hours watching The Collector.

Now, the other big March movie that year, whose 20th anniversary you may have seen commemorated a bit lately, was The Matrix. I'd seen a trailer for it a couple months prior, which was basically just the rooftop bullet-time shot, a whole lot of pleather cyberpunk goodness, and Keanu as Jesus, but you have to remember before anyone had seen The Matrix that was the dopest shit anyone had seen maybe ever. I certainly thought so, although I distinctly remember thinking “nothing that weird and beautiful is going to stay in theaters more than a week so I better hop to,” and carefully made plans so as to not miss it. It did not disappoint, to put it mildly, and thus was begun a beautiful journey with the Wachowskis and their work that involved, among other things, them literally saving my life in 2012, but that's a whole other story.


April:: For some reason, despite Cookie's Fortune, Go, and Election all coming out this month the only things I saw in theaters were Pushing Tin and Entrapment. Win some, lose some, although I did spent a few weeks saying “That'sh entrapment” at every possibly opportunity. I think all the East German communism and sleazy old guy drama was over by this point, but I was probably still complaining about it.


I did meet a very good friend of mine for the first time this month, and we watched Blue Velvet and Dead Man, which consecrated a bond, as it cannot but.


May: To bring the whole Midsummer Night's Dream saga to a close, I went to see Michael Hoffman's film of it once school was out, and mentally compared every performance in it to the ones in our version, leading to my conclusion that I'd fucking smoked Roger Rees.

I also went and saw Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, which was a weird experience because to that point I'd only ever seen part of Star Wars (1977) on VHS my freshman year of college and Return of the Jedi, with my dad when I was four because he wanted to see it. I retained exactly as much as one might imagine. But, as you all know, Star Wars is not a thing one can entirely avoid in our culture. I wrote a bit about this, years later, and have gradually come around to an understanding that Star Wars is a thing other people love very much and that there is no point to belaboring my not loving it as much. In 1999 I had not yet grasped this, and my initial “what the fuck is this shit” reaction displeased a number of people, partly because I wouldn't shut up about it. Actually, entirely because I wouldn't shut up about it.


June: Wherein I saw and absolutely loved South Park: Bigger, Longer, & Uncut. I was never a South Park completist, and eventually got a bit impatient with the boys as satirists, but completely own up to loving the movie. I also got to tell some kids to shut the fuck up as the movie was starting, and I think they were so impressed that I said “fuck” that they stayed quiet throughout the whole movie. Like I said, the experience matters.

The rest of the month I mostly spent working and reading the cheap and occasionally free books I picked up there, so unfortunately no dazzling takes on The General's Daughter or Wild, Wild West will make their way into this reminiscence.


July: A busier month at the movies, kicked off by going to see Arlington Road with my mom because Jeff Bridges, only to mutually find it to be one of the worst pieces of shit we'd ever seen. A well-known film critic acquaintance once scathingly lectured me over this take, and while I'm sorry he was upset I must speak my truth.


I fared better with the two pictures I saw on my own this month (see previous month with regards to working and reading). First up, The Blair Witch Project, which I knew nothing whatsoever about before it came out, and which utterly fucking ruled. The first time watching that movie, pretty much alone in the theater, with maybe eight other people, without knowing what the hell's going on, and watching the characters gradually lose their shit in the woods while not knowing whether anything supernatural's going on and they abruptly lose the rest of their shit and all that weird shit starts happening more frequently and THEN THEY FIND THE FUCKING HOUSE AND WHAT THE FUCK FUCK FUCK HOLY SHIT WAIT THAT'S HOW IT ENDS??? HOLY FUCK. That whole thing. Not bad. Not bad at all.


The second time I saw this, in a packed theater shortly after, not by choice, it wasn't the same. Part of the problem was a lot of the other people in the packed theater were people who, like me, had seen it before, and were with their friends who hadn't seen it yet. So the people who'd already seen it were sort of muted, and our friends all caught our vibe and they were kind of underwhelmed, so it was this whole theater of people all self-conscious about not feeling the “right” thing, which sucks.


The third time I saw it, at home, on video, high, that was fun. Being baked threw me just enough that all the creepy stuff was creepy again.


In summation, I quite like The Blair Witch Project.


Next up: Eyes Wide Shut. I've had a rich journey with this one, to the point of having several wholly contradictory takes on it floating around with my byline on them in the digital demimonde, which I won't link to because this piece is all the proof you need that I'm a flighty shithead, there's no need to hammer the point home with more receipts.

Stanley Kubrick is the ruin of many young men, me included, not because he isn't great—he is—but because young men see certain aspects of his movies and think, “aha, I've cracked the case!” while missing enormous, and crucial, ones. You eventually realize, in letting your understanding of his films evolve, that he's not a cold formalist, or some titanic intellectual who transcends mortal definition or any of that fucking bullshit. There’s no case to crack. He was a bright young man who was into photography and chess who managed to parlay skill and ambition into a unique and not reproducible career, during which he became an older man who worked slowly and deliberately and didn't always get along with people, but got along very well with those he did. Eyes Wide Shut was not intended (I don't think) to be his farewell, nor was it intended (I don't think) to be part of a continuum of any sort with Basic Instinct or the erotic thriller at all, but in summer 1999 it was released with a whole lot of extremely dumb fanfare about how a great titan of cinema had released the sexiest movie of all time, which I knew in the moment was total horseshit, but that whole cacophony still bled into the experience. I did not walk out of Eyes Wide Shut knowing what I'd just seen, although I knew nitpicking details like the mock-up New York Post in the movie having a headline in British English was foolish. But still, I misunderstood a lot of what I'd seen, and at that point in my life, I regarded most things I didn't understand as dumb and bad. Still, I had enough presence of mind to not dismiss the movie entirely. So I thought about it, and re-watched it a few times, and thought about it some more, and in the process of all that thinking and watching, I learned a lot more about how to watch movies and think about them than I did when I started.

In summation, I did not particularly like Eyes Wide Shut in 1999, but I do now, very much.


August: Something I realized watching The Sixth Sense: I am the ideal audience for any thriller with plot twists in it, because literally every time they spring the reveal I'm sitting there with my jaw on the floor in pure, gullible astonishment. So, no, I did not know he was dead the whole time. (A recent rewatch revealed that, as the guy in Ocean's Twelve tells Bruce Willis, “It still totally worked for me.”)

Right before going back for year four of college, I saw Bowfinger and laughed enough of my ass off I barely had any left when I got back to school. “Where's your ass?” I was asked. “Blame the Fake Purse Ninjas scene,” was my only reply.


One of those things you remember remembering but don't actually remember: seeing Mickey Blue Eyes. I found a ticket stub once, so I guess I saw it.


I also saw The 13th Warrior this month, which I'd been looking forward to ever since an early-teens Michael Crichton binge where I'd enjoyed Eaters of the Dead, a title I sort of wish they'd kept. But I understand it was a troubled production.


September: While history teaches us that the best major studio film to come out this month was Double Jeopardy, an unimpeachable masterpiece and, due to starring Ashley Judd, a sacrament, I did not see it at the time as school was keeping me busy enough that the only new movie I saw all month was American Beauty when I was in the city on some highly questionable personal business.


I saw American Beauty four times in the theater, over the next couple months. I loudly and publicly proclaimed American Beauty to be a masterpiece, and a defining film of its age. I had my head so far up my ass I found lost civilizations. But, to be fair, a lot of people believed in 1999 that we were at the end of history and that everything was going to stay the way it was forever until flying cars were invented or something. And so it was that this movie that, two decades hence, has insurmountable extratextual baggage (it was Kevin Spacey's second Oscar role) and even then is lumbered with a general style that screams “off-season HBO drama your wackest friend loves,” was called by reasonably intelligent, if excitable, cinephiles (who were more clear-headed than usual because they'd decided acid granted them supernatural powers that were irresponsible to wield and that Ecstasy and cocaine were “fuckin pyramid scheme drugs”) a masterpiece and the defining film of its age. Hey, no one bats a thousand, what can I say.

At this point, I'll leave this subject with the observation that history sometimes changes art, because history always changes us. Peter Gallagher still owns in American Beauty, though, that's immutable and eternal.

October:The month's biggest pleasant surprise, besides not being kidnapped by two itinerant pot dealers on my 21st birthday, was Three Kings. I went in expecting a dumbass war movie, came out saying “that was not a dumbass war movie.”


Because I didn't see The Limey, The Straight Story or Bringing Out The Dead until much later, this month's main event was Fight Club, of which I was initially a little excessively enamored for the same reasons as American Beauty, which I was still not shutting the fuck up about, to wit the critiques of cultural conformity and soporific capitalism. I was aware in the moment that Fight Club had more substantive things to say about these things, was the work of a wildly superior director, and starred Brad Pitt, a crush as old as my bisexuality itself. But I still relentlessly compared it to American Beauty and for reasons that I couldn't quite articulate that ultimately amounted to a lack of faith in my own education, taste, and sense, was convinced that Fight Club was somehow inferior.

The surprise end-of-act-two plot twist, though, is that Fight Club is an often entertaining provocation without great depth, and as such it's actually the kind of major-studio pop entertainment that (at the script level at least) it purports to critique. I have a feeling David Fincher realizes this on some level, and it's an irony that actually makes this more the defining film of its age than its (in my addled mind) rival. (I don't think either of them really are anymore. I no longer give a shit.)


November: Somehow Gina Gershon was in a Michael Mann movie and it wasn't my favorite movie of all time. I do like The Insider and always have, and I do think it's good, and always have, but it's always been missing that little extra zhuzh all-time favorites have. In this case I'm freely willing to accept it might be my fault.

At some point this month, Dogma happened in my presence. Less said the better. If this was a 1997 retro there'd be about 2000 words just about Chasing Amy, but this is not that.


I think I spent half of The World Is Not Enough giggling about the name “Christmas Jones” but remember literally nothing else.


Oh, and because I saw it late but still managed to catch it in a theater, this is when I saw Being John Malkovich, which I adored, but which was almost ruined for me by one of those stupid college dude movie arguments where each side adopts an intractable stance about their respective movie and proceeds to completely drain all the energy, bonhomie, and will to live out of everyone in the fucking room. If memory serves, a guy who was not as smart as me insisted Being John Malkovich was the only relevant movie all year and I fell into his trap by having seen other movies (and, remember, this was during my “American Beauty is the Sistine Chapel” phase), so it was a goddamn bloodbath.

December: Not feeling burdened by awards season completism, and because I was confident that I'd already seen the year's best film (sigh) I saw three things in theaters this month: one was Anna and the King of Siam because of Chow Yun-Fat obligations.

The second was Magnolia, which despite the heroic deeds recounted here, may very well be responsible for the most insufferable act of my life. There's a guy I met in early 2000 with whom I had a conversation that lasted at least two years (not exaggerating) where I mounted the fucking Battle of the fucking Somme arguing that Paul Thomas Anderson made Robert Altman obsolete. I know. Yes. I said it was the most insufferable act of my life for a reason. Here's the kicker: the whole thing was mounted on the idea that because PTA wrote his own scripts he was the superior artist.

I should retract the claim that Magnolia was responsible for any of this. It may be, by PTA's own admission, a bit too long, but it's got lovely bits in it, and it certainly shouldn't be forced to account for the ignorance of its young fans. Suffice to say, I was wrong, and long, long ago apologized to the poor bastard who had to spend two fucking years listening to me bang on.


No such baggage or self-recrimination attend my final movie theater visit of 1999, The Talented Mr. Ripley, that splendidly gay, nasty, luxuriant sprawl. I knew while I was watching it that I'd appreciate it more upon rewatch, and for once in this sordid narrative I was right. I love The Talented Mr. Ripley so much I started caping for The English Patient even though I hadn't seen it since the theater and hadn't even really thought about it all that much. Didn't matter. I snuck in a rewatch and was relieved that it was also good, because to be otherwise would've besmirched The Talented Mr. Ripley, and that wouldn't do.


We come at last to our conclusion. 1999 was a long time ago. A lot of good movies came out that year. I saw a lot of them, and a lot of the rest later. The idea that it's the greatest movie year of all time was a lot more appealing to me in the moment than it is now, when I've seen several movies (most notably The Limey and Beau Travail) that rank roughly above many of these worthies. The problem with “best movie year of all time” declarations is that 1939's right there. So is 1925. So is 1927. So are the Pre-Code years. So is 1941. 1975. 2007. I find, as the years fly by, both in the passage of time and in arguments about the “best movie year of all time,” that I'm a lot more apt to weigh numerous choices, assess their strengths, historical context, all that, and that the certainty of youth has left me. And thank God.

THE BEST MOVIES OF 2018 (THAT I SAW)

2018 was a momentous year in the cinema. From the introduction of sound, to the breakup of the classical studio system, to the cascades of New Waves in national cinemas the world around, to the innovations of home video and eventually streaming, why, if you told me that was a hundred years, I'd believe you!


Okay, 2018 wasn't that long. But it was fucking long. It was my first full calendar year as a non-working critic since 2009, due to the slightly precipitous decision to give up film writing in favor of filmmaking (turns out, raising funds for an independent film that isn't horror and has a bunch of stuff you can't shoot on the cheap? Kind of hard! Who knew?) and, on top of my still living a two-hour drive from anywhere with arthouse theaters, this meant I was a bit limited for most of the year in what I could see. As a result, the following list has at least two major oversights: I wasn’t able to see Barry Jenkins' If Beale Street Could Talk, whose absence in my life I feel like an ache, or Lee Chang-dong's Burning. Anything else you see “missing” from the list? Tell it to the marines, pal.


With no further ado, let us proceed to the 18 best movies (I saw) of 2018:



18 (tie): Fighting in the Age of Loneliness / Fake Friends Episode 2


I don't pretend that this is a great revelation, or even an original insight, but the YouTube video has (long since) coalesced into a recognizable cinematic form with its own particular characteristics and quirks. These two pieces, the first a five-part history of mixed martial arts by Felix Biederman and Jon Bois, and the second a feature-length meditation on the online phenomenon of parasocial relationships by Shannon Strucci, each fascinated me. Neither subject is something I'd thought about before for any length of time, but the singularly conversational and intimate nature of this type of cinema absorbed me completely, whether it was Felix describing addled aristocratic Brazilian jujitsu dynasties or Shannon meticulously analyzing the oeuvre of Bo Burnham. Is my calling them “Felix” and “Shannon” instead of “Biederman” and “Strucci” and example of a parasocial relationship? Watch Fake Friends! (And watch Fighting in the Age of Loneliness too.)



16. The Commuter


Someday we won't have a new Jaume Collet-Serra movie where Liam Neeson fucks guys up every couple years, and I for one do not plan to look back and regret not appreciating this gift.



15. Mandy


The rare treat, a Nicolas Cage movie that manages to get on his energy level without exploding into a cloud of adrenaline and sulfur. It comes close, though. It's got chainsaw fights, crazed religious fanatics, Bill Duke, everything. Could have done with more Riseborough, but that critique applies to the entire universe.



14. The Death of Stalin


I wrote a whole fevered thing about this on Letterboxd that I promptly deleted because it was literally the ravings of a madman, and although as with the insufficient Riseborough screen time in Mandy there are some nits to pick here with regards to historicity and tonal inconsistency, but the way I see it is this: if the movie touched something so visceral in me that I immediately had to post a thousand crazed words about it, there's something there. Also, it's one of the greatest movie premises of all time. Of all time. “Stalin's dead . . . what do we do?” That's up there with “Nazis in Morocco,” “holy shit Kim Novak fuck me up,” and “what if jail, but in space.”



13. Annihilation


I wouldn't give an arm or a leg to have been in the screening room the first time Paramount execs saw this, but I'd think about giving up a pinkie joint. They must've shit a brick.



12. Minding the Gap


Great skateboarding footage, better contemplation of masculinity under capitalism. Tough to watch in places, but if it wasn't it wouldn't have been any good.



11. Sorry To Bother You


Oh, hey, more masculinity and capitalism. Boots Riley's first film is very much a first film aesthetically, and it's as subtle as a sledgehammer to the nuts but it's fucking weird, and that wins it a lot of points with me. Also, I used to work in telemarketing, so there are huge stretches of this movie that are basically the calligraphy on the inside of my heart, so I can't be objective. Also Lakeith Stanfield is wonderful in this, and look, capitalism is bad. What's Boots supposed to say, maybe it's not? Fuck that.



10. Shoplifters


The proverbial good Palme winner, and about as good at the whole “build up sympathy for these characters to the point where it becomes familial love and then utterly crush them and, by extension, you” two-step as you'll see. That might not sound fun, and honestly it's not, but it's still a very good movie with some truly astonishing performances, particularly by Sakura Ando as the mother of the family.



9. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs


The Coen Brothers Promise: Your Mileage WILL Vary. (For the record, they're my boys, but I wholly realize why they aren't yours, if they're not yours.)



8. Black Panther


This is probably as good as the MCU movies are ever going to get. And a few of the others have been pretty good recently (like Doctor Strange and Thor: Ragnarok) but Ryan Coogler is a once-in-a-generation pop filmmaker, and he nails this. And, while it may be extratextual, no other movie this year clicked with the culture at large the way Black Panther did. People were saying “Wakanda Forever” for months. Chadwick Boseman had to do the two-armed salute so often his shoulders almost fell off. On a strictly personal level, though, the war rhinos were what really got me. I'm sitting there trying to think some shit like “this is kind of rote structurally” and “is this great cinema or is it just expensive?” and then those fucking war rhinos came through and my mind went blank and I was like, “cool!” Hey, it happens.



7. The Rider


Here for the next few decades of Chloe Zhao. This might be the best ensemble of non-professional actors I've ever seen. Yes, better than [whatever movie you skeptically come back at me with].



6. Support the Girls


The fuck is wrong with you? SUPPORT THEM.



5. Madeline's Madeline


Helena Howard's performance in this is really great stuff, if only because playing a character who's kind of an asshole without losing the audience is beyond a lot of really talented actors, but she does that with one hand tied behind her back while doing all kinds of other fascinating stuff. (Also, much like with Sorry to Bother You, this one touched my “weird performance art theater” memories, so I obligingly fulfilled my duty as the target audience with a best-of nod. Josephine Decker, where ya been all my life?)



4. Leave No Trace


Debra Granik coming through like an old friend. Two perfect lead performances by Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie, and it deals with trauma and its generational inheritance about as well as you can. Also, like Shoplifters, very much a “fuck the police” movie.



3. Paddington 2


The most pleasant surprise in movies the last few years is that somehow, someone made two Paddington movies that were each as sublimely perfect as the old books. Do you know how hard it is to compete with fuzzy childhood memories from when your brain was Play-Doh and thought everything was perfect? That's right: very. If that level of praise is too daunting, let this be reassurance: both movies, and particularly this one, were seemingly made as if they knew everyone had been hyping them up incessantly to you, and the first thing they do is reassure you. These movies are pure and wonderful.



2. First Reformed


The essential Paul Schrader film: a lonely man, struggling with religion and existential terror, gets horny and then goes fucking apeshit. This time it's a minister (Ethan Hawke) of a small congregation in upstate New York, whose despair at the looming threat of apocalyptic climate change collides with deeply repressed sexuality and frustration with the corporate megachurch that controls his own. All I'll say is this: I'm actually sorry Ethan Hawke isn't going to win an Oscar for this, and if you remember the days when it was illegal to get laid in 38 states unless you looked like him, you know this is a big deal for me, who did not, in the interests of full disclosure, look like Ethan Hawke at the time.



1. The Other Side of the Wind


Speaking of upset victories, the only thing that could knock First Reformed out of my #1 spot this year was a new Orson Welles movie. The first few minutes of this were rough, being edited like a late-period Orson Welles movie (analogy: not found), but like late-period Welles, and, frankly all other period Welles, once you get on its level, there's just nothing else. I swear Welles spends a full hour just flat-out teabagging Antonioni in this, with the help of co-writer/producer Oja Kodar, who was clearly in on the idea that she be nude for, like, ever. Peter Bogdanovich is running around doing Jimmy Stewart and Jerry Lewis impersonations. John Huston is a fucking tesseract; he's playing himself and Welles and Hemingway and the concept of historiography, and he makes that shit look good. The story of how it got made is the stuff of legend: all the residuals from those wine commercials and shit went right into the movie, and the Iranian revolution in 1979 was involved, and arms dealers. In summary: Orson Welles automatically made everything around him 25% more interesting. And only Orson Welles could shoot from the late 60s to the mid 80s and somehow make the perfect 2018 film. Long live the king.

THE B(OWES)EST MOVIES OF 2016!

Boy, 2016 was swell, huh? I know I spent all year skipping merrily through the golden fields, having a lollipop while the sound of laughter tinkled through the heavens. Just an all-around pleasant fucking year. Mmm mmm.

So, yeah. But there were a lot of good movies! I know a lot of you out there don't ever want to hear about probability statistics again, but the law of averages holds that at the rate they're released, assuming an at least partially artistic motivation for the majority of them, a good 20-30 movies are going to be pretty good in a given year, give or take 10 or so on the high end. That was the biggest surprise for me when I started blogging about movies: more of them are good than I had thought, which was great news, because I love movies.

In that spirit, I come today to celebrate, not to tear down. I don't do worst-of lists, because they just piss me off, and I don't do “overrated” lists because I may be an asshole but I'm not a fucking asshole. Basically, if I don't mention it here, I didn't think it was good, and do remember that telling someone they “forgot” something on a list is the equivalent of shitting in their shoe. With that said, here are my notable/favorite movies of 2016:

 

“I liked it, but let's not get carried away”:

 

The Accountant

Central Intelligence

Deadpool

Ghostbusters

 

You liked it more than I did, and that's fine”:

 

Sully

La La Land

Everybody Wants Some!!

Captain America: Civil War

 

“I didn't see it because I live too far from movie theaters, let alone press screenings”:

 

Silence

Fences

The Edge of Seventeen

Too many foreign pictures to count (though SRK's Fan and Aamir's Dangal stung the worst personally)

 

Honorable Mention:

 

Hidden Figures

Morris From America

SPL 2 (Kill Zone 2)

Fire At Sea

Oasis: Supersonic

My Golden Days

Henry Gamble's Birthday Party

Kate Plays Christine

Doctor Strange

The First Monday In May

Knight of Cups

 

To be clear, I greatly enjoyed all of these wildly divergent movies. (As a side note: Shailene Woodley should have done Wildly Divergent instead of Allegiant, Insurgent, and Detergent. This is why I should be an agent.) I highly recommend all of them.

 

And now . . . numbers 25-11 (note, once we get to around 18 or so every single movie to the end of the list could just as easily be favorite of the year):

 

 

25. Sing Street

 

One horrendous joke, intending to mock racism, but that ends up clanging so bad it's almost sort of racist, is the only thing marring this otherwise delightful story of a dorky kid in 80s Dublin who forms a band to impress a girl and, well, succeeds. One note of warning: you're either going to buy this or you're not, and if Sing Street doesn't do it for you, it's really not going to do it for you. I bought it: the tunes are great, the kids are fabulous, and finally, finally, I liked a John Carney picture. Our long national nightmare is over. That one, anyway.

 

 

24. The Invitation

 

My new favorite subgenre, after Coherence the other year (you know what, scratch that, this goes back to The Exterminating Angel), is “a bunch of well-to-do people get together for a dinner party only a bunch of weird fucking shit happens,” only this is a much slower burn than the other two titles mentioned, to the point where even bringing them up is misleading. If you haven't seen this yet, free up a couple hours, meditate to clear your mind, and go in totally tabula rasa. It's really quite something.

 

 

23. The Witch (or, if you want people on Twitter to climb up your ass, The VVitch)

 

I was totally in the tank for this, for two reasons. One is that my ancestors were the fuckup family on the Mayflower that the stern, religious types on the boat thought were godless lumpen shitheads (talk about genetic determinism, damn), leading to their having to move out into the sticks, although as opposed to The Witch where it was for heresy, in real life it was because my ancestor killed a guy and was hanged and his remaining family decided to put some space between themselves and Plymouth. The second reason is that seemingly without fail, if horror nerds have a huge debate about whether something is really a horror movie, I end up cluelessly wandering in and really liking it six months later. It's gorgeously, sensuously shot—you can taste the fog—and the “wouldst thou like to live deliciously” moment is one of the best things in movies, and it's an incredibly versatile suggestion, useful in daily life.

 

 

22. The Fits

 

Every frame of this picture surges with life. Anna Rose Holmer's debut is the proverbial good microbudget Sundance movie, at once simple and profound, more impact in 70 minutes than damn near every other picture has at twice that length (not to mention hundreds of millions more for budget). We're officially at the part of the list where I'm getting an ulcer because every movie might be fifteen spots too low. More importantly, though, seek this movie out. Support young women filmmakers.

 

 

21. Hail, Caesar!

 

The Coens have been spending their entire career catering to the most whimsical and eccentric neighborhoods of my id, and continue enthusiastically here, doing one of the greatest things an artist can do, which is to put Channing Tatum in a musical. The whole thing isn't Channing Tatum in a musical—there's a bit where George Clooney kicks it with an impeccably curated group of leftist archetypes that had me dying, and that Alden Ehrenreich kid is the truth, and Brolin is still on his seemingly permanent roll—but I can't emphasize enough that putting Channing Tatum in a musical is a great and important thing, and if you put Channing Tatum in a musical, you are a good person who does good deeds and improves the world. So much for the Coens being misanthropes.

 

 

20. De Palma

 

Literally just Brian De Palma sitting around talking about his movies for two hours, but yo, Brian De Palma sitting around talking about his movies for two hours. As the man himself says approximately 8276 times in the movie, “Holy mackerel!”

 

 

19. Jackie

 

There's some appallingly on-the-nose dialogue, and I'm not entirely sold on Portman's performance (though I still think she's picking up a second Oscar this year, Emma Stone notwithstanding), but all of the complimentary stuff I said in my article about this holds.

 

 

18. Krisha

 

A divisive one—boy, the people who hate this movie fucking hate it—but reader, I was moved. It's almost like a domestic drama and a horror movie doing a lot of drugs together and having a “whoa, man, our personalities are merging” experience, complete with the comedown. It's the kind of debut feature where you (okay, me) really want to see what the director does next but also really want him to do something radically different.

 

 

17. The Nice Guys

 

Not even going to pretend like I can be impartial about Shane Black. I'm not. In the slightest. That being said, I kind of wished, as I did with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, that he'd collaborated with another director, but this is a minor quibble. I fucking loved this silly, shaggy, rude-ass movie. Best Gosling performance I've seen yet, and it's the best Crowe's been in a minute, though the kid performances are the best bit (particularly Angourie Rice as Gosling's daughter). “At least you're drinking again.”

 

 

16. No Home Movie

 

Chantal Akerman's last film, and it will make you feel her loss, intensely.

 

 

15. Cameraperson

 

Might make an interesting (and draining) double feature with #16, and the official “fuck, this might be 15 spots too low” picture on this list. Assembled by veteran documentary cinematographer Kristen Johnson from outtakes spanning her whole career, some astonishing moments and images ensue, and what emerges is a singular kind of memoir, a true original. (This could just as easily have been my #1 in a different year, or even a different mood. If you asked me why it's #15 instead, all I'd be able to say is something defensive about ranked lists being bullshit.)

 

 

14. The Shallows

 

As Jean-Luc Godard famously said, “All you need to make a movie is a girl and a shark.” (Why is this ahead of Cameraperson? Look, ranked lists are bullshit.)

 

 

13. Green Room

 

Jeremy Saulnier is really good at brooding, menacing, violent slow burns with colors in the title. This was not at all what I was expecting, and has one of the best endings I've seen in a while.

 

 

12. Hell or High Water

 

The proverbial good Texas neo-noir with a lot of unsubtle “in this economy?” moments (by the way, “unsubtle” is not a knock coming from me), though it would be one of the best movies of the year solely for how hot Chris Pine is in it. It's absurd. Like, to the point of inducing anger. I've seen this movie compared a lot to Killing Them Softly, but this is way better. This one has Chris Pine.

 

11. Certain Women

 

My first Kelly Reichardt, and damn sure won't be my last. Three chapters, interconnected tangentially, about certain women (hey!) in Montana, each fascinating in their various ways. It's a great reminder that Laura Dern rules, that Kristen Stewart makes people lose their goddamn minds (and is great), and that Michelle Williams can overcome even thinly written, annoying roles. Lily Gladstone, though, walks away with the movie, or, more aptly, slowly canters away on her horse with the movie. The kind of picture that reinforces the fact that “slow” and “quiet” are positive traits in the right hands.

 

 

By the way, we're well-ensconced in “this movie easily could have been #1 if I spent another few weeks overthinking the rankings” territory. Just in time for . . . THE TOP TEN.

 

 

10. Manchester by the Sea

 

This is going to sound weird, and negative, and any extrapolation of the following as a critique of the movie is undertaken without the sanction of the author, but the shot that stuck out the most for me in MbtS is one where, after writer-director Kenneth Lonergan has a brief encounter with leading man Casey “C-Fleck” Affleck where they yell at each other in Noath Shoah accents, there's this brief shot that goes nowhere and is not connected to the preceding scene or anything in the movie in any way, be it textual or geographical, of Lonergan walking up the street. Grab a drink and a snack and get comfortable, because I have a take: this non sequitur shot serves, in a way, as a signature. I am this painting. It is me. Anyway, the rest of the movie is great, and C-Fleck really is spectacular in it. (Also, like #11, an entry in the “Michelle Williams can do no wrong” sub-genre.)

 

 

9. Paterson

 

Jim Jarmusch's least cool movie. And it may be his best. Not a drop of meanness in the whole thing, which is blessedly out of step with real life.

 

 

8. The Love Witch

 

I've been banging the drums for this on awards ballots and such, and wrote an appreciating of Samantha Robinson's terrific lead performance here. This fucking movie is so fucking good. Essential for anyone into 70s Euro-horror-softcore, which if you're not you should be, that's the business right there. Anna Biller's on to something, and her name's gone right on my must-see auteurs list, in ink.

 

 

7. Toni Erdmann

 

The most frequent knock on this I've heard is that it's too long, but it needs to be long, and the build enabled by its considerable length allows it to reach quite spectacular heights by the end. I have no idea how to describe Peter Simonischek's performance in this, because “naturalistic Bouffon” sounds like gibberish to me, except that's all I got. Sandra Hüller sings a version of Whitney's “The Greatest Love of All” at one point that stopped my heart beating, not out of technical skill but out of sheer commitment, which by another apparent contradiction, is a function of the technical mastery of her acting. This is another one that's maybe 15 slots too low, and there aren't even 15 slots above it. Ranked lists are bullshit.

 

 

6. 13th

 

Saying that Ava DuVernay makes pop movies isn't a backhanded compliment, because her working within pop aesthetic modes broadens the reach of her work, and what she has to say is vital. So, 13th is presented in the form of a standard talking-head documentary, but whatever conservatism of form it may be saddled with is outweighed in importance by the fact that the United States never, in any practical sense, fully enforced the 13th Amendment (memory jog: that's the one repealing slavery), and the implications of that failure are devastating. The film simply lays out existing facts, but does so with urgent clarity, and the fact that it exists improves the chances that people unaware of those facts will learn them.

 

 

5. I Am Not Your Negro

 

James Baldwin was one of the greatest American writers, and one of the greatest Americans. My words are inadequate to assess this movie. It's coming to theaters in February, mark your calendars.

 

 

4. Love & Friendship

 

It had my attention at “Whit Stillman adapts Jane Austen.” It had my interest at “Kate Beckinsale turns in an iconic movie star performance.” It had my love with Tom Bennett, though. That fucking guy is light. Every frame of this movie is perfect and I adore it.

 

 

3. Moonlight

 

I've only seen about three negative takes on this—and this is out of hundreds, since I spend way too much goddamn time on Twitter—and none of them are worth a shit. Moonlight is the 2016 movie people are going to be talking about twenty years from now (assuming no World War III and/or equivalent Game Over scenario), and that's because it's an exquisitely rendered piece of cinematic art. There are minor issues, mostly in the writing, that bumped it down to #3 for me, but note “for me.” And also remember anything in the top 15-18 this year could have been my #1. Ranked lists are bullshit.

 

 

2. Elle

 

Paul Verhoeven is one of the greatest masters the cinema has ever known. Paul Verhoeven is fucking batshit. These two statements are symbiotic. “VY DUNT VE DO A FEELM VITH ISABAIL HUPAIR VERE A GUY RAPES HER AND DEN SHE FOCKEENK RUINS HIS LIFE, ZAT SOUNTS LIKE A GOOT FILM.” Well, sure, Paul. In your hands. And Isabelle Huppert's. It's only called Elle because “Trigger Warning: The Motion Picture” took up too much space on the poster. But goddamn it's great.

 

 

1 .The Handmaiden

 

Clearly I was in a mood in 2016. This shit is like a hentai rewrite of The Adventures of Phoebe Zeit-Geist directed by James Ivory, which automatically makes it the b(owes)est movie of any given year, but especially this one. I wrote this about Park Chan-wook's last jawn, Stoker, a couple years ago:

“. . . the great thing about cinema is you can do it all kinds of ways, and the way Park Chan-wook directs Stoker fucking rules. The key is that it's not excess for the sake of excess, there's a steady, assured directorial hand perceptible for every frame of this picture. Park's mastery of tone is complete, never letting the more lurid aspects sink the ship or the slower bits dissipate any of the holy-shit intensity. Richard Pryor had a bit on one of his albums in the 70s where he was talking about a girl who was 'so fine, I'd suck her daddy's dick.' Well, that's how I feel about Stoker.”

The same, and more so, goes for The Handmaiden. It's an experience. Parts of it feel deliberately infuriating, discomforting, and outright annoying, but I would not have it any other way. It's glorious, and for the purely subjective reason that it was the one movie this year whose ending made me stand up and cheer (I was at home, calm down) it's my #1 for 2016.

 

 

Happy New Year! Keep beauty in your eye and joy in your heart. Resist tyranny. Shanti shanti shanti.

NO MORE PARTIES IN L.A.: 2015-16 OSCAR PICKS

(EDIT: 2/29--These picks were wrong and bad.)

The Oscar ballots are in, and all that remains is putting the dresses and tuxes on, popping some SSRIs, and tuning in for the show! (Yeah, I guess the people actually attending will have fancy clothes and drugs, too, but I'm talking about us.) (Oh, and this is also assuming that the racist fustiness of the nomination process and the industry in general hasn't thoroughly alienated you.) (Or that you don't have other plans Sunday.) (Okay fuck it I'm just moving on.)

 

It's kind of the same shit as always: almost none of the best movies of the year were even nominated, and the ones that were have slim to no chance of winning, but unlike a lot of past years, the frontrunners are relatively inoffensive. Though, it should be noted, I deliberately avoided seeing The Revenant to preserve this state. AGI's on a successful run. I say let him cook, but under the condition that I get to sit out his movies. If he gets back together with Guillermo Arriaga, then we can talk. But despite not wanting to see his movies, I'm okay with AGI winning Oscars. Who gives a shit, really? He gets to be happy, the fact that Carol was the best movie this year doesn't change, everyone wins. Sort of.

 

I'm personally curious to see what effect not giving a single fuck at all has on the accuracy of my predictions. To which end:

 

 

Best Visual Effects

 

A surprisingly loaded category this year, and given personal preference I'd have liked to see Ex Machina take this, for pretty much flawless work on a comparatively tiny ($15 million, which is a lot of money, but watching Ex Machina and then finding out what it cost inevitably yields “They made that for $15 million? Damn.”) budget. But there's nothing wrong with Star Wars: The Force Awakens winning. It's Star Wars. The little soccer ball robot was adorable. I would propose that “cute > sexy” in this case isn't puritanism, either, it's that it's harder to make a robot cute than it is to make a robot sexy.

 

 

Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing

 

The differences between these two categories are real, and sometimes they go to different movies but not because of the actual differences between the two. Those jerkoff “Brutally Honest Oscar Voter” things in the Hollywood Reporter are always full of random tanning salon sausages openly bragging about not knowing anything about sound. There are bigger things in the world to get mad about, but pride in ignorance is always irritating. The good news is, a great movie is going to take both of these by accident: Mad Max: Fury Road.

 

 

Best Production Design

 

Another Mad Max: Fury Road win. Man, that movie was great. Wasn't that movie great?

 

 

Best Original Song

 

This will almost certainly be “Til It Happens To You” from The Hunting Ground, Kirby Dick's documentary about campus sexual assault, which is an important subject that things need to be done about. I still, purely artistically, wish the Wiz Khalifa Paul Walker eulogy song from Furious 7 was nominated and the overwhelming favorite.

 

 

Best Original Screenplay

 

Speaking of important subjects, Spotlight has that all covered. It's a very well written and acted movie that venerates not so much journalism as the pursuit of truth and justice, which should be the American way. My quibbles with Spotlight are strictly arcane cinematographic and mise en scene issues that don't mean shit to non-movie people, so I'm actually rooting for this to win as well as thinking it will. Here's to giving the Catholic Church another kick in the shins for their monstrous behavior over the years.

 

 

Best Original Score

 

This one I'm not so sure about. It's possible Star Wars will win, but I think Ennio Morricone's taking this for The Hateful Eight. The Oscars get to have one of their “we're all about history” moments, Morricone gets a big-ass standing ovation. He's Ennio Morricone. Give it up.

 

 

Best Makeup

 

Mad Max: Fury Road. Ride eternal, shiny and chrome.

 

 

Best Live Action Short

 

Ave Maria.

 

 

Best Foreign Language Film

 

It's going to be Son of Saul but I really wish it was Mustang. It's grown on me quite a bit since first viewing, and the last twenty minutes or so are incredible.

 

 

Best Film Editing

 

This might be the biggest layup of all the evening's wins for Mad Max: Fury Road.

 

 

Best Documentary Short

 

Who the fuck knows, really, but I say Body Team 12.

 

 

Best Documentary Feature

 

“Should” be The Look of Silence, probably will be Amy.

 

Best Costume Design

 

This is a little bittersweet, because this the one Oscar Carol, the year's best movie, has any chance of winning. On the other hand, the good news is that it's another Mad Max: Fury Road win. Unless Cinderella takes it.

 

 

Best Cinematography

 

Law of threes: since this'll be Emannuel Lubezki's third win in a row (for The Revenant, following Gravity and Birdman), he has to change his nickname from Chivo to “Triunfador de Oscar” which has the added benefit of also being a pun in English.

 

 

Best Animated Short

 

The truly wise will stay off Twitter for the whole ceremony but even those brave/foolish souls still on will want to log off when World of Tomorrow loses to Sanjay's Super Team. There will be blood.

 

 Best Animated Feature

 

Inside Out.

 

 

Best Adapted Screenplay

 

This'll be The Big Short. If it couldn't be Carol here, it might as well be this, since aesthetic/critical quibbles aside it is about important shit. It's pitched pretty well at people who care about but aren't up on all the details of the shenanigans that caused the not yet fully resolved '08 crisis.

 

 

Best Supporting Actress

 

Despite her being a co-lead, this is most likely going to be Alicia Vikander for The Danish Girl. She edges out lead Rooney Mara, supporting player Kate Winslet, ensemble player Rachel McAdams, and Jennifer Jason Leigh, who in a Vaclav Havel kind of way is the lead in The Hateful Eight. Whatever, we're all crystallized stardust careening through space.

 

 

Best Supporting Actor

 

Not sugar-coating this at all: if you attempt some dude-behind-Woody-in-Annie Hall posed superiority about Sylvester Stallone winning an Oscar for acting, fuck you where you breathe. You do not have the wherewithal to evaluate acting as an art or as a craft. Talking about how lame it is that Sly got a nom but Michael B. Jordan and Ryan Coogler got screwed is a whole other matter. Creed is a great movie, and it's a perfect Hollywood movie, because of all three of them.

 

 

Best Actress

 

There are, for the most part, two kinds of acting Oscar wins. One is the kind Brie Larson has been a shoo-in for for months: the “You Are Here” win where the Academy anoints what they perceive to be an up-and-coming star. In her case, it fits: she's a good actor, people like her, she's a “type” Hollywood finds space for (not that they have a problem with institutional racism or anything), and she's got good publicists. The last two points aren't meant to denigrate her work as an actor—she's very, very good—but reality is reality.

 

 

Best Actor

Here's the other kind of acting Oscar win, the “It's Your Turn” win. It's easy to go sarcastic and do the “Oh, how Leonardo DiCaprio has suffered” aria bemoaning how difficult it is to fuck your way through multiple generations of supermodels while making millions of dollars, but here's why I'm not going to do that:

 

  

1) He gets laid a lot because people want to fuck him.

2) He makes shitloads of money because it's worth shitloads of money to people to have him in movies.

3) He should have won his first Oscar in '97.

  

3a) He should have won his second Oscar in '02

3b) He should have won his third Oscar in '04

    3c) He should have won his fourth Oscar in '13.

      

       

        

      (In order: Titanic, Catch Me If You Can, The Aviator, and The Wolf of Wall Street.)

       

      We can parse “should” until the cows come home, or we can just be like, look, he's a rock-solid actor and has been one of the biggest stars in Hollywood for twenty years. Sure the category's trash this year. Sure the whole bison liver and hyopthermia shit got old six months ago. Leonardo DiCaprio should have an Oscar. If for nothing else, he's over forty, maybe it'll help him get laid.

       

       

      Best Director

       

      In only the third BD repeat in Oscar history (joining John Ford and Joseph L. Mankiewicz), Alejandro González Iñárritu. I haven't see The Revenant yet, and like I said before that's deliberate. Just predicting, not talking about what I want to see win, otherwise I'd be spilling whiskey all over the place sobbing about Todd Haynes not getting nominated. It's fine. I'm fine. Everything will be fine.

       

       

      Best Picture

       

      It's The Revenant, almost surely. People I know liked and compared it to everything from Tarkovsky to Malick to The Edge and there was more than one mention of Bart the Bear, which as a dutiful cinephile I cannot begrudge. I also don't have any particular interest at all in seeing it. IF this means I miss a great movie, so be it, no one sees every movie. There are about eight or nine Best Pictures I've never seen and that number's probably going to stay that way, or increase by the occasional one like this year.

       

       

      Final tally:

      Mad Max: Fury Road: 6

      The Revenant: 4

      Everything else tied at 1

       

       

      Rather than leave on that sigh, revisit the best movies of 2015 here. And enjoy your Sunday, whether it's watching the Oscars or any other fun you have planned.

      THE BEST MOVIES OF 2015, ACCORDING TO A NOTED FILM EXPERT: ME

      2015 was an odd year for me personally, not the least because it was my first full calendar year as a post-New Yorker (the only condition I can think of to explain the origin of this completely alien thought on a November business/personal trip back: “Man, the subway really is dirty and gross. . .”) It was a weird year at the movies, too, with a number of widely-acclaimed pictures that couldn't have been tailored closer to my taste leaving me growling with steam coming out my ears, and a number of both widely-reviled and personally uncharacteristic selections taking me by surprise.

       

      It was also a year of movie-adjunct drama and import on the personal front. I covered my first Sundance, albeit in a secondary capacity, but I was there, man. In the shit. Unrelated, a deeply unpleasant harrassment campaign of which I was the target finally began to wind down (it now seems to be completely over, knock on wood). Then there was a bizarre situation with my apartment management company in Salt Lake City leading to my eviction and a window of several weeks where I wasn't entirely sure I wasn't on the lam from a collection agency (I wasn't, thankfully). The previous two developments (as well as numerous long-simmering frustrations) led me to briefly retire from writing film criticism and thinking I was doing so of sound mind, which was almost certainly my second-funniest lapse of self-awareness ever, the first being when I loudly and indignantly insisted “I'm not dramatic!” after someone broke up with me for being too dramatic.

       

      But fuck all that shit. Let's talk movies. Actually, the reason I got into all that personal derp-de-doo above is to explain a change I'm making in my end-of year list format. The previous years, mostly hosted at my old (now-defunct) blog and then last year at my (now-defunct) Letterboxd, were ranked. This was one of the things that my professional existential crisis led me to leave behind. This year, I'm going to list my favorites in alphabetical order, with the single favorite one (which I, coincidentally, actually have this year) at the end.

       

      A few movies that were quite good and/or that I fully enjoyed that didn't make the “best” list, which should not be held against them: The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Bone Tomahawk, Furious 7, Hard to be a GodMission Impossible: Rogue Nation, MustangStar Wars: The Force Awakens

       

      A few movies others' takes on are probably more accurate quality-wise than mine: Brooklyn, The Hateful Eight, Sicario, Spotlight

       

      A few movies I regretfully wasn't able to see that may have figured into the “best” list: Bombay Velvet, Chi-RaqCrimson PeakThe Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Martian

       

      That's about it for the also-rans. So, without any further preface, one man's favorite 2015 films, mostly addressed to people who haven't seen them yet:

       

       

      3 ½ Minutes, 10 Shots: A gripping, brilliantly edited non-fiction account of the 2012 murder of Jordan Davis and the ensuing trial(s) of his killer, Michael Dunn. Refreshingly eschews talking head interviews for the most part in favor of non-staged footage, and somehow manages in the horrible year 2015 to be a movie about a murder of a black person that actually resulted in justice.

       

      99 Homes: Not a movie I was particularly expecting to enjoy but hey, I guess that's why you actually have to watch movies. Michael Shannon's always worth watching, and while the stylized variety of naturalism is a tricky balance (particularly when, like me, you fucking haaaaaate bad naturalism) Ramin Bahrani pulls it off here, and Andrew Garfield overcomes a rough start to become a compelling axis for this story about the perfidy of modern capitalism, and Laura Dern is excellent in a too-small role (god I miss Laura Dern).

       

      Baahubali: The Beginning: I tweeted “no one in the world embraces the essential unreality of CGI and co-opts it to an artistic end like S.S. Rajamouli,” and it's true. Made in Tollywood for a tenth the budget (or less) something like this would've been made for in America, Baahubali is, among other things, Rajamouli telling Hollywood “fuck your money, I know ownage. Top this if you even dare.” It's big, bold, sexy, mythic, and there are elephants. The only debit is, this is only the first half of the story, but the conclusion is on its way.

       

      Blackhat: I'm beyond trying to recommend this to anyone. Late-period Michael Mann is what it is. I, for one, am in favor.

       

      Clouds of Sils Maria: This is one of those movies where I'm like “do I only like this because I'm an actor and Kristen Stewart is in it and the film-within-a-film and play-within-a-film are so funny? and because the dialogue all reads like subtitles but the actors are all actually speaking English? because that's so perverse as to be kind of hilarious?” You know what, though? It's Assayas. It's near-full Binoche. That's enough.

       

      Creed: Anyone yet to see this may be getting suspicious, because everyone loves this and it's on every top ten list, but let the testament of someone who's always hated Rocky movies (me) sway you: it's everything that was good about the Rocky movies, and none of the things that were bad about them. It's the immaculately conceived and executed Platonic ideal of Hollywood movies. MBJ, Sly, and Tessa T are all utterly glorious. Ryan Coogler joins the ranks of people like Welles and Truffaut who made perfect movies before they even turned 30. Creed cannot be oversold.

       

      The Duke of Burgundy: Hey, kids. Ya like 70s Euro sexploitation films? Meet your new best friend Peter Strickland. His thing, as with giallo in Berberian Sound Studio, is the kind of rigorous genre recreation that Tarantino popularized, only Strickland is like if you sent Tarantino to college/grad school and took away his weed (not a value judgment, note). Not for the squeamish or the particularly vanilla, but if you're the kind of person who was really pissed when Netflix took all their Jean Rollin away this is a must.

       

      Ex Machina: If I hadn't known, I'd have thought this was the screenwriting debut of an established director rather than the directing debut of established screenwriter Alex Garland, because the filmmaking is terrifically accomplished and holistically one with the text here. The architecture of rich mad scientist Oscar Isaac's house is as cold, austere, and accomplished as his work: the creation of robots in the humanoid (specifically, severely attractive women) robots who can pass the Turing test. The philosophical implications are as deep as how much weed you smoke to it, but the movie's gorgeous to look at, very well played (particularly by Alicia Vikander and Domnhall Gleeson), and ends in a quietly satisying fashion.

       

      Experimenter: Speaking of another word that starts with the letters “exp,” I saw this under interesting experiential conditions, namely freezing my balls off during Sundance after thinking “sure, I'll walk over to the venue” and forgetting that it was only unseasonably warm during the day. So I was in a shitty mood and didn't really like Michael Almereyda movies all that much and generally in one of the kind of mood that leads even people who love me the most to say things like “Christ, he's insufferable when he's like this.” And yet I managed to slay the asshole within and appreciate this picture for the marvelously weird blend of non-fiction, artifice, and tall tale that it is. I apologize to the director for all the mean things I've thought about him over the years. Sarsgaard for life. Winona forever.

       

      The Forbidden Room: Guy motherfucking Maddin motherfucker. Get some.

       

      Girlhood: Celine Schiamma's real good, and while not everything in this lands smoothly (or at all), I would be remiss leaving this off any best-of list solely because of the Rihanna “Diamonds” scene. The Rihanna “Diamonds” scene is one of the most glorious thing I've ever seen in a movie. Karidja Touré is spectacular in the lead.

       

      It Follows: I really like John Carpenter, something I was shocked to find did not make me a special snowflake. So does David Robert Mitchell! Despite all the similar use of widescreen and synth score, this never felt overly beholden to the past, at least no more than Carpenter was to Ford and/or Hawks. I don't keep up with horror as well as I should, but when an effective horror movie comes down the pike I always like to wave at it and ask it to introduce me to its friends. So to speak.


      Jupiter Ascending: We have, at this late point, seen any number of movies that feel like they were directed by a precocious, geeky 13 year old boy. What this movie presupposes is, what if a movie felt like it was directed by a precocious, geeky 13 year old girl? Et voila.


      Mad Max: Fury Road: “WHAT A DAY! WHAT A LOVELY DAY!” George Miller reassuming his position in the action pantheon was important, and so was the attention and credit (which is still insufficient, but still) Margaret Sixel got for her editing. And the world is a better place with Furiosa in it, because it was frankly kind of fucking stupid that Charlize Theron hadn't yet had an eternal, iconic role. At least we got that taken care of this year.


      Magic Mike XXL: I have seen the face of God. “Yes, my God is a She.”

       

      The Mend: One of the best New York Movies (not every movie set in New York is A New York Movie, the latter needs to embody the spirit of the place in totality, and this one fucking really does) in recent memory. It's writer-director John Magary's debut, and I cannot wait to see what he's got in store next. Also, the best thing Josh Lucas has ever done.


      Mississippi Grind: A refreshingly low-key shamble with two excellent performances by Ben Mendelsohn and Ryan Reynolds at the center. It only dawned on me an irritatingly long period after I had to file my review that its observational rather than blocked cinematic style and coincidence-driven plot spiritually fit the subject matter, the luck that underlies the entire act of gambling and frequently thwarts the skill of the gambler. When every molecule is the whole itself, you're onto something, and this movie has stuck with me with a rare tenacity.


      Mistress America: Wherein (fellow Bard alum) Lola Kirke becomes a star and Greta Gerwig continues to Gerwig, and all is well. My “Greta Gerwig totally carries Noah Baumbach and deserves 98% of the credit for their collaborations” take might be a little toasty but such is life.


      Paddington: Look, someone made an elegantly blocked and gorgeously designed Paddington movie in 2015, with a top 5 Nicole Kidman performance and a CGI bear that was actually cute and worthy to be voiced by Ben Whishaw. That's stacks on stacks of miracles, okay?


      Results: Can't really put it any better than this.

       

      The Russian Woodpecker: Oh, you had me at “non-fiction film about a performance artist who literally has radiation in his bones trying to unravel a Soviet-era conspiracy.” It is my mission in life to convince as many people see this movie as possible.

       

      Straight Outta Compton: Producers Dre and Cube don't engage in a ton of auto-critique, making this kind of a victory lap, but here's the thing: they won. The vertiginous sweep of their sudden, immediate, literally world-changing success propels the movie past a lot of the parts of the chronology where it's like, “uhh . . . it feels like a few things were elided here.” And there were. But there's also a scene where Jerry Heller hears “No Vaseline” for the first time. And the scene where the gang members board the schoolbus. And that jaw-dropping climactic confrontation. There are a lot of normal biopic things in it, but it pulls them off, and does a lot of other things extraordinarily well.


      Tangerine: So. Earlier this year there was this window of time where I was going to be moving to Los Angeles, and obviously that window closed at a certain point but while that was going on I saw this movie and it was shot in basically the same neighborhood I was probably going to move to and goddammit nothing has ever made me feel more welcomed. I know this has nothing to do with the movie and it's a little bittersweet now that moving to Los Angeles is on hold maybe for good but this feeling will all make sense if/when you've seen the movie. And will probably make you think “Christ, Danny's weird” but if you don't say that five times a day already you simply don't know me.


      Timbuktu: Set during the occupation of Timbuktu by jihadists, the attraction here is less the story (though there is one tying everything together) than the observations Abderrahmane Sissako makes, the patient assembly of all those observations into a fully realized universe, and the faith in the audience to follow everything and process all the observations. One of the rare “important” movies that's also legitimately great cinema as well.

       

      And, my #1 for the entire year of our lord 2015 . . .


       

      Carol: I could do a rambling thing about how crucial Todd Haynes and Patricia Highsmith have been to my personal and cinematic upbringing (to say nothing of Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett), or I could do the thing where I say “this is literally everything I've ever wanted in a film.” The former is certainly true, but beside the point, and the latter is slight hyperbole, because there's no car chase where Blanchett lead-foots it while Mara leans out the side with shades on and a cigarette in her mouth machine-gunning agents of the patriarchy in a trailing car that then explodes but the one of the eight billion reasons why Carol is so wonderful is because it actually, no shit, nods in that direction (the whole business with the gun and the private detective, mild spoiler). I'm digressing, and irrelevantly, but the point is this is my list and Carol is perfect and wonderful and yes.

      THAT WITHOUT WHICH THERE IS NO HEAT

      (Originally written in March 2014, reposted by permission of the author, which is to say I asked myself if I could repost this and was told "sure, why not.")

      The time has come to speak of Heat. One of the most towering feats in the history of ownage, Michael Mann's 1995 heist picture is beloved by both hardcore cinephile and civilian alike. It's full of memorable dialogue, two fantastic late-career performances by Pacino and De Niro, a couple iconic heist sequences, what might be the definitive collection of ownage movie supporting actors (Danny Trejo's character is just named “Trejo” because fuck a character name, he's Danny Trejo), and Michael Mann's uniquely magical ability to make soundtrack tracklists that look fucking horrifying on paper—in this case, the U2 side project Passengers and a fucking Moby cover of Joy Division's “Where Will It End”—into cinematic moments of ferociously transcendent beauty (seriously, the half minute or so of that Moby track? In the freeway scene where Pacino's driving 120 trying to catch up with De Niro? That shit's tight). These things, along with with the central contrast—Pacino's an obsessive, brilliant cop, De Niro's an ascetic, brilliant thief—are what we think of first when we think of Heat. What we rarely consider, and what I didn't realize until quite recently, is that if you delete one character fromHeat, nothing ever happens. That character? The new recruit, Waingro.



      At the beginning of the movie, De Niro and his crew (Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore, Danny Trejo; remember, this was 1995, that was a fuckin all-star team) find themselves with a job that requires an extra man, and director of human resources Tom Sizemore reaches out to his extensive ex-con contacts and comes up with this long-haired bearded biker looking motherfucker named Waingro. As we later see, perceptibly but fleetingly, Waingro is possessed of a seductive ability common to many total fucking psychos. If he wants something from you, he's going to get it one way or the other, and if the best way is for you to want to give it to him, he's going to make you want to give it to him.

      This was something I didn't initially notice. Instead of realizing he must be there for a reason, the first time I saw Heat I (like many others) was like, “If they're such a great crew, why the fuck did they hire that guy in the first place?” Well, Waingro seduced them. It, clearly, happens to the best of us. Of course, Waingro's control over himself only extended so far: once they were in the heat of the moment with the adrenaline pumping and a gun in his hand, he fucked everything up by killing the guard, so they had to had to kill all the guards (because, as Pacino puts it in a devastatingly dry line reading “what difference does it make?”) And that fuckup led to the deaths of three-quarters of the crew, Ted Levine, and a whole bunch of civilians.

      Without Waingro—let's say, Sizemore hired hypothetical steely, efficient pro Russell Wong (I stay trying to get Russell Wong more work), whom he met in the joint doing six months because the cops couldn't make him for any of the real shit he pulled—Heat's a short film about a bunch of guys who pull off a flawless armored car robbery and some cops standing around afterwards going “fuck, that was a good heist” and then credits. Well, okay, there's still the shit with Van Zant. William Fichtner still tries to have De Niro whacked for selling him back his bearer bonds, but without Waingro distracting him De Niro deals with that in like two seconds, the cops never find Van Zant's body, then the movie ends. Unless Michael Mann shows them hitting the precious metals depository just to totally give the cops the finger. They never need to hit the bank, which means no one gets killed. Hell, without Waingro fucking everything up, Al Pacino isn't even in the movie. Instead of a cops-and-robbers saga it's about a 45 minute featurette about a bunch of guys who are good at their jobs. 

      Waingro, who proceeds to murder a series of underage hookers and align himself with William Fichtner, is the fifth business, without whom Heat doesn't happen, but more than that, he's a manifestation of chaos, a personified sense of cynical pessimism. There are hints throughout the picture that De Niro's professionalism and the absolute precision of his operation came to him late in life; he is, after all, an ex-con. Thus, the likelihood of his managing to keep on being a criminal without getting caught were minimal. But what if (I know, I know, bear with me) . . . what if De Niro did actually manage to attain that level of talent at crime where he could manage to keep pulling scores until he accumulated enough to retire on, and then retire? He still meets Amy Brenneman in the Waingro-less timeline, after all, and even in Waingro world (which is to say, the actual movie) the only thing keeping De Niro from riding off into the sunset (well, it's the middle of the night because it's a Michael Mann movie, but you know what I mean) with her is the fact that he needs to make sure Waingro is dead. Because Waingro, taken as a literal psycho, is going to keep popping up in De Niro's life fucking things up no matter what after De Niro humiliated him by owning him in the diner parking lot. And, taken as a symbol of the inherent chaos of life, De Niro as a control freak needs to kill Waingro to persuade himself of the folly that is control. Even then, De Niro is thiiiiiiiiiiiiiiis close to getting away with Amy Brenneman. But there is no escaping Waingro.

      This is one of the reasons why Michael Mann is the best there is right now at exploring masculinity in art. We're in an age where gradually (a little bit too gradually, but still) society and the arts are moving away from the straight white male as a default, and into regarding him as one of many. (This is something I'll be addressing once True Detective, which is a little shakier on this front than Heat, concludes, so stay tuned.) Michael Mann writes about MEN because being one that's what he knows, and he's also a great transitional figure between the old default era and the new/coming one-of-many era because the fact that even his name is “Mann” is kinda funny and heightened. But it's also because he has enough perspective as a writer to realize that a testosterone high is a lot like cocaine: it's a goddamn blast while it lasts, but the comedown's a bitch, and no matter what you might think when you're flying, you are, ultimately, doomed. And his women characters are actual human beings, even if their dialogue is a little wonky from time to time; this is less a “best hustle” Little League trophy than a note that there's nothing in the rules that says that masculinity necessarily has to exist at the expense of femininity. (He is a bit heteronormative, but I'm willing to cut the fuckin guy some degree of slack for getting this far in spite of being in his 70s now, Rome being built in >1 days et cetera.)

      It's kind of odd, even for me, to realize that the best part of a great movie is its fatalistic recognition that everything and everyone is fucked no matter what we do, but what do you want, it's the truth. In this sense, Heat is a fairly decent representation (structurally, at least) of a well-lived life. It takes its time getting to the finish line, it's full of event, characters are constantly taking little detours because what the fuck—a well-lived life should always feature little detours because what the fuck, period, point blank, -30-, end of fucking discussion—and Tone Lōc is in it. But like life, it's the little things that keep it from being a grim march to the final credits. Eccentric Pacino line readings. Atypically good Moby songs. Cool cinematography. Danny Trejo just existing. Knowing that sometimes the troubled teenager grows up to be Natalie Portman. One of the last great De Niro performances.

      Well, the little things, and all that massive fucking ownage. That's another thing about life, sometimes critical through-lines don't hold up for whole essays. The irrefutable larger, encompassing point is, Heat owns. QED.

      "I'M MAGIC."

      Things being what they are in The Modern Cinema, remakes and sequels abound, and while most are made purely for money, there is an art to the remake and/or sequel. Without getting sidetracked by theory and so forth, there is a (deceptively) simple principle involved: if in the business of producing “more of the same,” then refine the “same” to as fine and pure a version possible. How exactly this refinement is to be compassed must be determined case by case, but it was achieved to absolute perfection in Magic Mike XXL.

       

      Now, I really liked the first Magic Mike. Claiming to be the first to predict its becoming a massive hit is impossible (also self-aggrandizing and beside the point), but it was obvious to me from a very early point that it was going to go over very well, because it was a movie made by talented people and starring beautiful (and talented) people, preoccupied in every meaningful way with pleasure. Not guilty pleasure, not transgressive or sinful pleasure, but pure, sensual, physical pleasure. There is a certain amount of attention paid to the context—there is a plot, some cogent rumination on the commodification of beauty, and the like—but the most memorable aspects of the movie were the ones involving Channing Tatum and friends dancing to entertain women.

       

      The genius of the sequel is in realizing that everyone who wants to see a Magic Mike sequel wants to see beautiful men dancing, women's desires being satisfied, and, well, beautiful men satisfying women's desires, mostly by dancing. So that's the whole movie. The guys are on their way to a stripper convention a ways up I-95, and they go there, making a handful of stops solely focused on making women happy. Perfectly so.

       

      The human condition consists, to put it in perhaps overly harsh terms, in attempting to perceive the world through an organic cloud, encased in a mortal body of flesh and blood and roiling chemicals, all of which primarily serve, in their undirected and undirectable way, to mute the light of the (for the lack of secular synonym) divine. Every so often, the sun breaks through and we see a limitless light and warmth, an extraordinary and glorious and overwhelming “yes” that envelops all we can perceive. These glimpses are mainly just that, to our mortal and finite way of reckoning, and because what the glimpse is of is something indescribable by normal means, the scientific attempts to get at the empirical nature of the feeling are too prosaic and literal, inadequate in scope. Breaking through to that level of complete and utter joy is for the most part a matter of trial and error, but the arts, and specifically the arts focused on entertaining, are on the task. The creators of Magic Mike XXL seem to have it sorted out, though, because the whole fucking movie is basically a gently guided tour through realms of pure pleasure.

       

      Upon its initial release, a lot of very good words were written about the way Magic Mike XXL upends gender, fucks with it, repurposes masculinity, exalts the feminine while never separating it from the human, and so on. I would maintain that it does something even more profound and simple, in putting forth the proposition that it is better to love each other and derive pleasure from giving pleasure, and to dwell in a positive and optimistic realm than it is to do otherwise. I think this movie's ability to get at something as elemental and wholly positive as this is something not to be taken lightly, and indeed to be revered. Few movies I've ever seen have ever, with equal care and abandoned, stripped away the shrouds of mortal care and danced forth nakedly into the sublime as this one. It is a pure glowing orb of absolute fucking ecstasy.

       

      God bless everyone involved with making this thing exist.

      EULOGY FOR A CHARACTER ACTOR

      I always called him Trudeau, because these are the things that happen when Die Hard 2 comes out when you're eleven and his particular brand of authoritative competence imprints on you as the embodiment of that particular concept. Fred Thompson was many things in life—minor Watergate figure, politician, lobbyist—but his successful run as a character actor in popular thrillers was my first association with him, and I think he did what he did better than nearly anyone else.

       

      One mark of a successful character actor is to define a “type” in your own image. I submit that there was, for a considerable length of time, a “Fred Thompson type” in the popular cinema, and while it's a very specific thing—roughly “mid-level DC functionary” of a certain age and Southernness—there was a time when it was unthinkable to cast anyone other than Fred Thompson as that guy.

       

      Four roles of his (among many others; please, for the love of God, do not tell me I “forgot” about one) have stuck with me for many years. The first, both in terms of its mention above and it being the one that on its own would have made him an indelible figure to me, was as the air-traffic controller Trudeau. He's introduced in the middle of what most people would consider a rough day at the office: it's Christmas Eve and snowing with a Renny Harlin-esque lack of subtlety, and as if that's not enough William Sadler and a ferociously unpleasant retinue take the entire fucking airport hostage. Some characters would resort to bluster, or decompensate into a frazzled mess, but not Trudeau. The whole mess clearly affects him, but he never allows it to interfere with both the proper execution of his job nor his responsibility to project strength as a leader of men. In the wrong hands that kind of thing can come across as insufferable, but one of Thompson's great strengths as an actor was his ability to inherently project that kind of authority, that which when aspirational is always an inch out of reach. Trudeau's calm, more than John McClane running around cursing and killing people, is the bedrock of assurance that justice will, in the end, prevail.

       

      In a smaller role as the CIA director in No Way Out, Thompson was responsible for what I've always maintained is one of the more layered line readings in cinema. The bulk of the movie involves the fallout resulting from Secretary of Defense Gene Hackman accidentally killing mistress Sean Young for having excessively satisfying sex with Naval officer Kevin Costner, which leads to a discussion between Fred Thompson and his subordinate who's been liaising (platonically) with Costner, where they're trying to figure out who killed Sean Young. The subordinate suggests Will Patton, Gene Hackman's creepy right hand man. Thompson dismisses this: “[H]e's homosexual.” The subordinate replies, “I'll be damned.” Thompson then gives forth with the reply, “So will he, if you believe the Old Testament.” Now, as a non-heterosexual who is often confronted with said passage of the Old Testament as justification for being denied various basic rights, I find that line on one level to be kind of awful. But I've always marveled at the particular note Thompson strikes with it, which isn't so much a note as a chord: you can take it as meaning “I do believe the Old Testament and think he'll be damned,” or “some people, perhaps you, may believe this, while I as a high-ranking intelligence official naturally keep my own views close to the vest,” or even “some silly motherfuckers think this and I just feel like flashing the old rapier-like wit.” Or even, because life is complicated, some elements of all of these things. The point being, the richness and multivalence with which Thompson imbued what is ultimately a throwaway line in a movie that has little to do with either his character or the conversation is the hallmark of a master.

       

      Thompson's work as an admiral in the symphony of intelligent competence that is The Hunt For Red October is the one crucial elision (for space) in this piece I wrote on the movie, but when he shows up in an admiral's uniform telling Alec Baldwin to cut the bullshit and come up with a useful plan, there is no questioning that of course he's the admiral and of course he provides Alec Baldwin the impetus to figure shit out and of course he can't just tell Alec Baldwin what he should do, because he's got shit to do. This, in a nutshell, is the compleat Fred Thompson character: He has a job. It's important. He doesn't have time for your bullshit.

       

      Which is why I conclude with a minor role of his, but one that elucidates a truth about cinema to me that is at its absolute core. On season two of Wiseguy when they were trying to figure out some new organization that wasn't the Mafia or a multinational diversified vice syndicate presided over by a Malthusian psychopath (you can only go to the first well so many times, but let's keep it real: you can only go to the latter once if you're lucky) for Vinnie Terranova to infiltrate, Fred Thompson was brought in as a charismatic white supremacist. As it transpires, Thompson's character is a used car salesman and con man who latched onto white supremacy as a growth industry, rather than a true believer (this disappoints his right hand man rather severely). I was watching this episode on VHS at a rather alarming hour of the early morning once, in the state of receptiveness to profundity that so often accompanies the hour, and realized, vividly and with the aid of Fred Thompson's magisterial delivery, that the cinema itself is a con, flickering shadows on a screen masquerading as reality.

       

      This may seem a fatalistic and cynical way to end what is meant to be a celebration of a great talent, but the point is that even something as harsh as “fiction is, on a certain level, a lie” sounded both more convincing and palatable when related by unwitting medium Fred Thompson. His acting shaped the way I see life and movies in a fundamental way, and for this I will always hold his artistic work in my heart.

      AN END TO "SNOBBERY."

      The advent of a new Marvel (in this instance standing in for “geek” in the same way “Xerox” does for “photocopy”) movie, joyous occasion though it is for many, is a time when the discourse among film critics, journalists, and fans crystallizes into a particularly nasty and distorted battlefield. While it's actually not often—in fact, rarely—true that both sides share proportionate blame, in this instance the animosity does derive from rhetorical tendencies in both camps. Fans, who by this point constitute a majority, have an ugly tendency to attack anyone who dares to deviate from across-the-board unilateral praise. Non-fans, who in the main favor increasingly marginalized forms of cinema and are thus on the defensive (particularly in the summer), tend to make the mistake of condescending to fandoms of various stripes, lumping them all in under an umbrella categorization of easy-to-please herd creatures of lesser intellect. It is, to put it mildly, an ugly situation.

       

      I personally find myself in a very difficult position in these times, holding as I do something like dual citizenship in both warring nations. For several years, my primary outlet writing about film was a site, Tor.com, that specifically hired me to write about science-fiction/fantasy films from a science-fiction/fantasy film fan perspective. There was some rockiness, as I started getting better at analyzing and discussing things specific to cinema in the movies I was writing about, though it was my fierce loathing of the culture surrounding trailers and the way they're treated in modern film that signaled the beginning of the end of my time there. I still love all the people at Tor dearly, and certainly realized that my gradual and eventually total phasing-out there (well, almost total; there was never an official talk severing my ties over there, things just kind of died out) was just as much me as it was them, if not more so.

       

      One thing I was spared, through the relative civility and sophistication of the Tor.com comments section, were accusations of snobbery and pretentiousness, a dual slur which nearly every other writer who tries to write seriously about film encounters frequently. (The raging misogyny women critics invariably face when doing anything but anointing geek movies with holy water is a separate issue, as misogyny is not a geek-exclusive property.) The slightest demurral that Marvel (and their competitors in the comics game frantically playing for the silver medal) movies lack textual depth, are visually homogenous, are preceded by ecosystem-dominating anhedonia-causing ad campaigns, and one is immediately branded a “snob.”

       

      Modern discourse has a snobbery problem, but it's not the kind people complaining about Guardians of the Galaxy losing a 100% Rotten Tomatoes rating would have you believe. I've always hated the categorization of (great) movies like Animal House and Caddyshack as “slobs vs. snobs.” The term was coined after the fact and does far more to dehumanize the frequently working class protagonists than it does to wave its ass at the upper-crust villains, and it substitutes glibness for accuracy. Snobbery is not synonymous with considering certain aspects of culture lesser than others. Snobbery is the state of considering certain aspects of culture lesser than others by default, and for no legitimate reason. A snob is someone who does not actually know what they're talking about, and hides behind the critical reputations established by people who actually do know what they're talking about as a means of avoiding a discussion. Pretentiousness, by definition, is a pretense to a higher level of intellect and cultural fluency than one actually possesses, and like snobbery, is a house of cards that collapses the second an actual smart person shows up.

       

      That being said, a preference for or against a given thing is not ipso facto proof of snobbery and pretentiousness, and absent a prohibitively exalted facility with language and a complete familiarity with the other party's cultural worldview, the words “snob” and “pretentious” and their derivations should be used incredibly sparingly. Most of the people being accused of snobbery for not liking comic book movies simply prefer other kinds of movies. Most of the people accused of being “pretentious” for liking subtitles, alinearity, and existentialism aren't pretending. I woke up the other morning, watched, and thoroughly enjoyed Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries on Hulu Plus while I drank coffee and ate breakfast. There was no one here to impress. I didn't pretend to like it to seem cool. (If I had, I would've failed anyway; Bergman's later films starring an agonized Liv Ullman have much more cachet.) And, most importantly, I'm not going to walk around with my nose up and my zipper down accusing anyone who doesn't watch landmark Swedish cinema with their corn flakes of being a lesser being.

       

      If we're to achieve a more civil discourse around this needlessly contentious subject, some ground rules are in order: fans of Marvel movies should be given the benefit of the doubt that they enjoy themselves in good faith just as someone not particularly interested in rushing out opening night should be given the benefit of the doubt that it simply isn't their thing. Neither has any correlation with intelligence or sophistication; I saw The Avengers three times and my intellect can melt planets (which is why I'm in talks to show up as Galactus in some sequel or other). I met a guy at a cocktail party in Williamsburg once who claimed to have “never read a 'B-novel,'” a statement dripping with such (actual) pretentiousness that I needed him to define what that meant; it turned out that it essentially meant he only read novels by white people who'd been dead for over a hundred years and considered cinema to be an inferior, mongrel art form. (The conversation ended with us outside smoking a joint and me, accurately but with a regrettable lack of diplomacy, telling him “you're fuckin stupid, man.”) These are both personal examples, but hopefully illustrative of the larger point, which is one of the largest points there is: generalizations all too often do nothing but breed unnecessary enmity.

       

      We're never all going to like the same things, but liking different things is not an automatic call to arms. It is possible to (figuratively) shake hands and agree to mutual respect. If geek culture can learn to more gracefully accept their victory and dominion over popular culture (part of which is ceasing the demand for universal adulation), we can go far, and if more critical parties can weather the advertising onslaughts with thicker skins and attempt to not regard Marvel as the death of cinema—cinema cannot be killed—we can go even farther. Now let us have a summit and sign this accord. For fuck's sake.

      THIS MOVIE WOULD HAVE TOTALLY SUCKED WITH DANNY DEVITO AND EDDIE MURPHY

      Before beginning, I must shamefully break a vow I made to myself years ago when I first started writing about movies, to wit: never, under any circumstances, refer to a picture's Rotten Tomatoes rating as if it was a thing with any legitimate meaning. It has not been difficult, and this breach may very well be the only one, only because it distinctly flew in the face of the way I remember things. Here goes: Heart Condition, a movie I watched multiple times in the early 90s, that I taped off cable and watched a few more times, has a 0% Fresh rating, meaning no one whatsoever gave it a positive review.


      This came as a shock not because Heart Condition is any great profundity, any forgotten masterwork of the cinema, anything at all really except a buddy comedy at a time when buddy comedies were legion, elevated by the performances of leads Bob Hoskins and Denzel Washington. I primarily remember it for an observation my mom made after we saw it in the theater: “That would have totally sucked if it had starred Danny DeVito and Eddie Murphy.” That stuck with me, because I was just old enough that, huge fan of both Danny DeVito and Eddie Murphy though I was, I knew she was right.


      Revisiting Heart Condition for the first time in many years recently, it remains as it ever was, as nearly every one of those critics giving mixed-to-negative reviews pointed out: the entire thing functions to the degree that it even does based on the remarkably nuanced performance Bob Hoskins turns in, and on the equally nuanced, almost classical, work Denzel puts in as Hoskins' bête noire-cum-best buddy. The scenario they're thrown into is the kind of thing where you can almost feel the cocaine dripping down the back of the screenwriter's throat as he pitches it: a toughcopwhodoesn'tplaybytherules suffers a near-fatal heart attack, only to have his life saved by the only available donor, the recently deceased lawyer who'd stolen his girlfriend away. Who, to the mortal (and vividly so) disgust of the (white) toughcopwhodoesn'tplaybytherules, is black. And a ghost.


      LET THE HIJINKS ENSUE!!!


      The never-ending signifiers of the year 1989 (the movie was released in early 1990 after a bit of a delay)—from the self-conscious white jazz/R&B score to the yuppie pimp/smack dealer villain's laptop-sized cell phone to Denzel's custom-made loose-cut Armani suits and on and on and on—are good for entertainment value 25 years later, if a very mild variety. Writer-director James D. Parriott, a TV veteran, observes rather than comments, and only superficially at that. The significance of the movie's central relationship is solely in its ability to get laughs and somewhat soften the white cop's racial prejudices.


      What Hoskins does with that character is really amazing considering what an eyeroll/j.o. the movie as a whole is; he digs deep into the self-destructive pathos of a rigidly rules-oriented cop who despises everything he can't control, chain-smoking cigarette after cigarette, such a falling-down drunk he invests the “cute” gesture of giving his pet cat a splash of Jim Beam in his milk with a follow-up pouring almost a whole shot in, which is really fucked up if you think about it for too long, but it's a brilliant touch to show how debased his character is.


      He similarly does not half-ass the character's racial hangups, playing them to the absolute hilt. He kicks Denzel Washington in the balls and calls him the n-word in public. And is not turned into a pillar of salt (the movie's biggest credibility lapse). He is, however, suspended from duty by his cackling superior officer (“You called him the n-word?”) Roger E. Moseley, himself black and an additional target of Hoskins' race-based rage. Without his badge and gun, utterly powerless against his most despised enemies, Hoskins goes home and has his heart attack.


      When he wakes up—after an admittedly very funny bit where his fellow cops tweak his race hatred by serenading him with a terrible rendition of “Can't Get Enough of You, Babe” after placing what appears to be a 24'' black dildo directly in his line of sight so it'll be the first thing he sees when he wakes up—Hoskins is faced with the ultimatum: eat healthy and avoid stress, or die. Hoskins says fuck it, because this movie dates from the era when real men smoked, drank, ate red meat, and then had a smoke afterward. At which point the same Ladysmith Black Mombazo cue that played upon the reveal that he had Denzel's heart recurs, and we're introduced to Ghost Denzel.


      The ghost business is actually handled with pretty good internal consistency, and considering that he is the only one who can see and interact with Denzel, affords Bob Hoskins the opportunity display some more of the impressive physical comedy skills he showed as Eddie Valiant in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. But Denzel has not returned from the dead solely to screw around: his fatal car crash was no accident, and he wants Hoskins to find out who murdered him.


      As a whodunit, this ain't much, since we meet the bad guy right after the opening credits, after assassinating a U.S. senator with tainted crack, as one does. The meat of the movie is in the developing relationship between Hoskins and Denzel, both of whom wring every last bit of dramatic weight out of every scene, even the ones where their text is nothing but schticky comic banter. The total commitment they individually and collectively make to this weirdly inconsistent material is the sum of Heart Condition's value. Parriott can't seem to make up his mind whether he's making a serious cop movie, a romantic comedy (Chloe Webb plays the woman in both leads' lives, who being a woman plays a hooker with a precis where her inner life should be), a romantic drama, a buddy comedy, a ham-fisted commentary about racism (“RACISM BAD BUT RACIST MAN FUNNY AND STILL GOOD GUY”), an obliviously racist stereotype fest (some of Hoskins' and even Denzel's dialogue is cringe-making, not to mention the hip-hop bowling alley, yikes), an urban fantasy, or an analysis of the Lakers' inability to win a title after the departure of white knight Kurt Rambis. It is each of these things—yes, even the bit about the Lakers—but not proportionately, and without the same “what the hell” attitude toward genre hopping and tonal gear-grinding as Indian masala, which inevitably comes to mind when watching a two-hero reincarnation/ghost story.


      The most bizarre thing about Heart Condition is that in spite of the laundry list of things wrong with it (not least among which is one of the dumbest title-as-dialogue lines on record), it's still a compelling and entertaining movie, solely on the basis of Hoskins and Denzel, as by their light the supporting cast has something to support. The story's bullshit, but by the end, in spite of what a fucker he is I still want Hoskins to win, to kill the bad guys, save his girl, and live happily ever after with ghost Denzel occasionally popping in to affectionately annoy him with new quiche recipes and stuff. It's not a perfect movie, or even a good movie, or even something I can recommend. But it's really hard to stay mad at. Unless you're Denzel, who fired his agent for talking him into doing this movie and then went another twenty years before starring in another comedy. But he's Denzel, and we're not.


      And now, in the spirit of Denzel torturing Hoskins by making him jog and get his nails done and all that, here's Bonnie Raitt's closing song from the credits (don't forget, in 1989 Bonnie Raitt, of all people, was damn near as big a pop star as Madonna), which will now be in your head for days, too:


      Copyright © 2014 Danny Bowes     All rights reserved
      Photos copyright  © 2014 Kent Meister Photography
      Website design by Pete Boisvert