The 2015 Watch List

Fell short of the ambitious list of the 200+ films I hoped to watch this year. I wrote at least a sentence about every film I did watch (125), and loosely ranked them from best to worst. No changes to the ordering, some small edits to the writing.

The List:

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The Grey (2011) & commentary

I’m going to start beating the shit out of you in the next five seconds. And you’re going to swallow a lot of blood for a fucking billfold.

Neeson reads verses at the beginning and end, and they’re sturdy lines. Above is the real poetry. Outside of a moment or two, The Grey isn’t like other 00s Neeson. But it remembers how it got you here, and it takes the time to smile before it rips you apart.

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Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993)

Along with Apollo 13 and Empire Strikes Back, one of three films I watched over and over growing up. Setting it apart from those two, this is a spot-on look at an upbringing I recognize (more or less). This might be the best depiction of a comfortable middle-class childhood, apparent in every room and every gesture.

I know there are flaws and seams here. Still my favorite.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Angels commune in the stars, talking about big things while watching small things. It would take a cold heart not to find the opening charming, but it would be a mistake to think it puts sentimentality in the driver’s seat. A short time later our young protagonist is getting beaten around by a bereaved alcoholic for stopping a murder. Lives here are not lived in the clouds.

The sense of humor, for its part, is the devil’s wit—”he’s making violent love to me, mother” is a terrific one-liner right at home in the world. The surroundings here feel lived in and defined, the community real and thought through, the same practiced eye toward local definitions on display in Coppola’s Godfather. The villain asserts himself only after the first hour has wrapped, foreshadowed yet bracing. Romance and family and the hope in people’s hearts all commingle, and all risk being torn asunder, each a thread in one hell of a yarn.

Cultural memory focuses on the last half hour. But the hour and forty five before it earn their place all on their own. Even our angel takes his time in arriving, and you can forgive him. He must have been entranced. There is a human drama here before the entrance of the divine, and it recasts the rhythms of the Christmas story in the garments of an American fable. Secular and religious in equal measure, at home in the high and the low, all of it magnificent.

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Sicario (2015)

My favorite new release, even after the months of criticism it’s absorbed. Everyone respects the work from Deakins and the three leads. But the text has been treated like a loose and shambling embarrassment. I find myself respecting the actual thing more than the alternate paths proposed by those disappointed. Certain things are jarring, no doubt: this is Emily Blunt’s movie, until it’s not. Mike D’Angelo has carefully demonstrated why that is a feature, not a bug, for a feminist commentary. But there is a more brutal check to underlying assumptions, and one worth bringing out.

“Being involved in something greater than yourself” promises inspiration, and nurtures resolve. When higher government extends a hand to Kate and invites her to help make a difference, she, and the audience, are primed to expect that her happiness and the goals at hand will rise and fall together. We forget they don’t have to. And the expectation that meaningful systemic results must be satisfying to the people involved in accomplishing them cannot and should not survive mature scrutiny.

When the dust clears, she has been destroyed, and progress marches on. The merciless, mechanical Special Forces who have become a recurring character of several Obama-era thrillers here do what they always do: they get to work. Blessed with the approval of this fictional Administration, they seek to change one structural factor piling up dead bodies. Reducing levels of violence is a worthy goal, and by the end of the story the process has begun.

Sicario isn’t long enough to know if the attempt will prove successful. But to the extent we can know, they won, and even if they have not, efforts like this are worth pursuing. There are questions of means, and of the rule of law, and of the judgment in crafting such approaches. But those aren’t usually questions that a ground-level operative has the responsibility to answer, and we shouldn’t want that to change. Paranoia thrillers of the 1970s employed similar structures, though with a far more certain sense that those above were wrong and those below were wronged. Sicario allows for a reading that this confidence may no longer apply.

This is hardly a civics lesson, though, and Sicario at best an attenuated relationship to substantive policy; nothing from the creators feels like real commentary, which is for the better. But the thing being depicted is unmistakable. And this emphatically uninspiring movie provides a perspective you hardly ever see, that few are willing to dramatize—in part because such a work runs the risk, here realized, of being dramatically unsatisfying.

I prefer “unsettling,” and if this were Kubrick, I’d trust the creators intended these effects. Here, in these storytelling hands, that’s likely not the case. But there’s no rule that says a film can’t be smarter than its creators, and no doubt that those involved at least know how to bring the goods moment to moment. In our last moments with her, the lens returns to the broken women once at the center, now cast aside to the periphery. She served her purpose, an unwitting tugboat to an ocean liner heading out somewhere specific and unknowable. She doesn’t get to follow.

Her final protest is the first thing she does for herself alone, after her involvement in things beyond herself has been taken from her. She makes a defiant gesture toward a character who has shamed her, who has promised that any further attempt to shame him will be met with death.

There’s dignity in what she does. But it isn’t the self-worth of being a part of something great. It’s the fragile heroism of personhood, a value society can’t always honor but that art will so often urgently defend. Like the efforts she played a tertiary part in, the results of what Kate does lie in the future, past the final frame. The whole picture isn’t ours to grasp.

Collateral (2004)

Three favorite scenes in here—the nightclub, Max’s impersonation of Vincent, and the argument about fixing one’s life—are all past the hour mark. You can slow-burn and be riveting at the same time.

Music drives so much of this. Annie asks Max to turn up the radio, and knows Max because he likes the classics. “Ready Steady Go,” made ubiquitous by Dance Dance Revolution, soundtracks a shootout between three factions. Audioslave kicks in with a wolf and tracks a man’s assertion of self. The final turn to slasher logic echoes in the score. And pieces of other films, everything from Infernal Affairs (a body crashing into a car introducing the threat of violence) to Fight Club (the staging and pacing of the final twenty minutes, shattered glass and skyscrapers and off-kilter romance) to Carlito’s Way (an old soul confronting his fate in a subway). A “final girl” set up that works both in plot and structure. Foxx exiting the film like he could go out and found a limo company, or go out and hunt down everyone who ever wronged him.

And through it all, the grey-haired wonder, running like he’s Robert Patrick, embodying menace and contempt for people, respecting only his own capacities. “I do this for a living.” When a Michael Mann character says that, you pay attention. When Tom Cruise does, you hardly need to be told.

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

A good legal thriller, a great look at an unjust society, and a wonderful story of childhood.

A morality tale easy to ignore until you remember its lessons aren’t close to absorbed. It would read trite if it weren’t so inarguably contemporary.

No Country for Old Men (2007)

Someone’s ill at ease, in every scene. People not okay with what’s happening. Not up to it. Not filled in. Pressed past their limits. Physically broken. “I feel overmatched.”

A narrative where paths intersect in space though not in time. The meaning of that is fleeting. When you catch it, or retrace it, maybe it’s profound. And maybe a distraction. It’s not clear. A life can slip through your grasp, and that can mean many things. Of the several options, none of them are reassuring. None of them are meant to be. That would be far too easy.

It’s all you can do, carrying on. And it can mean a lot, or nothing. You don’t know. You can’t. Tommy Lee Jones gets this all across in one flash of his eyes, closing it out. The achievement is to allow that. To let the discomfort out. To make it the viewers’ own. Undeniable, and present.

And then, when you have it? The slim comfort of memory, of a reminder: what you got ain’t nothing new.

The Apartment (1960)

Charm and decency can be enough.

The Rock (1996)

I can be tired and in no mood to even watch a five-minute YouTube, or read a case, and still watch this one through without stopping. It makes it easy.

I don’t think much could improve on Chris Ready’s archaeology of the creative voices at work. The high-water mark of a certain ethic. The wave crashed pretty damn high.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower, cast commentary (2012)

Nothing to say, other than I couldn’t bear revisiting the source text without a shield, and it still wrecked me. A good film, in its heart, and I’ll dare say a great one.

For a Few Dollars More (1965)

A heist film where the prize is a human life. I’m amazed how fresh this feels. It should have been stolen so often as to be invisible, the reverse derivative quality afflicting many other on-paper classics.

The first twenty minutes alone: stylized opening credits setting a tone; the introduction to one lead; and the introduction to the other. Then the two hunters fixate on the same target, and the film locks firmly into place, early and without ever again jumping the tracks.

Really adored this.

The Kid (1921)

The Tramp flouts municipal ordinances, beats a man senseless with a brick, knocks a police officer of a roof, drop-kicks someone out of a moving car, and abducts a child from lawful government custody. And, in his most audacious crime, he steals our hearts.

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Fast Five (2011), Fast & Furious Six (2013)

The argument for Five is that you’ll never see a film with more unbridled glee in everything it’s getting away with showing. The argument for Six is that the fourth-best – fourth-best – action sequence is the Temple of Doom/Dark Knight synthesis modern action coup-de-grace of the London flip-car chase.

Six will later give you an intercut fight sequence mash-up of a half-dozen modern films in close quarters, built on real stakes and engineered for one-liner punctuation; a simply unbelievable open-highway sequence upping every similar attempt; and finally something so thoroughly in its own vocabulary that it defies any contemporary comparison. That’s one through four, and Dragon Army-style, that’s what… four of the top twenty action sequences of the 00s? Again, this is a perfunctory entry in a high-box-office-franchise where no one involved has been nominated for an Oscar (itself, today, impossible, when you consider the longevity). It’s insane work by lunatics bent on accomplishing stupid things and getting paid for it. This is all anyone should want.

Still, Five gives you nothing but confidence, and in a package tough to beat for its sheer winning charm. The arcs of the characters make more sense, the emotional moments aren’t cut with a certain discomfort, and the point it’s making about family doesn’t emphasize the nature of hard in- and out- group lines.

Tensions aside, these films really are complementary pairs, Five probably inclining more toward Walker and Six more toward Diesel and, of course, perfectly balanced around the central friendship of the two leads.

These two films are a special and linked pair, the highest form of dumb action cinema and a tandem so transcendent as to separate those smart about liking it from those too dumb to catch on. I’d be happy with a future where I’m stuck criticizing these films as “somewhat flawed” before a churning mass of fawning reverence. Would that we get there sooner.

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The Abyss (1989)

If the making-of short scrapes the surface of what it was like to work on this one, then completing the film was a miracle.

Early last year I was flipping around on cable and The Abyss came on, and I watched about thirty minutes. I found it amazing, but I made myself turn it off so that I could come back someday and experience it properly. I’m glad I waited. This is an unbelievable film. The ending might stretch too far, but in the theatrical cut it reads oblique rather than didactic. You don’t need to really dwell on it to find meaning in what came beforehand.

Cameron seems like he wrote a Kubrick screenplay but made a Spielberg film, and it finds its own curious rhythm. For all the technical accomplishment of the underwater exteriors, both the miniatures and the stunt-work, the way he shoots the cramped interiors of the station is what sticks with you long after. It’s a neat trick to be at equal comfort in evoking claustrophobic confinement and the wonder of the open unknown, but they balance each other nicely. The spaces you see feel right, and once you know what different places look like it gives the film a geography it can use more and more in telling the story.

The thing Cameron does better than any other director, and better than should really be possible, is to craft a final stretch where cascading action proceeds with a merciless lack of breathing room. The last thirty or forty minutes of a Cameron film is a genre in its own right; there’s a reason he was the perfect person for sinking an ocean liner. Things are going to happen in the early going, but action isn’t dominating. Then at a certain point he pulls a switch, and the train isn’t stopping. Aliens is nothing but screaming trauma for the last half-hour. Avatar brings the high and the low of a massive, multi-stage and -tier battle for about as long. The Terminator films hit the final leg and carry forward in crashes and chases and hard impacts. It takes years and years and years for him to construct these endless things, longer than the word “sequence” or “act” can cover, and they always work.

The Abyss‘ variation on his signature high-wire act might be the most impressive. It takes a longer pause than most, in the time between when one character is saved and when one character heads for their certain end. But it brings you the furthest. The twenty minutes or so between when the two subermersibles head out and a person gasps for air is the most impressive stretch of action storytelling I’ve ever seen in my life. The grueling shoot gives the director the images to sell what happens. The demands of the material push the actors past the point they can handle. And the three successive climaxes make it difficult for the viewer even to take in. What’s actually happening, though, is two people finding their way back to each other. Love grows through cooperation and intuitive communication, love means something when you trust someone enough to die for them, and love is foolish and heartbreaking and needy and wanting until the moment when it makes something impossible come to life.

Cameron snuck the most personal statement of his career into blood and water and the primordial breath. Accept no substitutes.

Jaws (1975)

The mayor changes his heart, and Brody might be said to overcome his fears. Beyond that, no one has an arc in this. And neither transition really matters.

Remarkable, that the birth of modern blockbuster filmmaking breaks what would otherwise be considered the one rule. And that it works so much better.

Steve Jobs (2015)

Sorkin’s most adult screenplay, and perhaps his best. Credit to Boyle for getting out of the way.

Spy Game (2001)

Any film inspires a running list of problems, and the script here renders every judgment on those premature. Far more than it first appears.

Also: at a critical moment, the hero accidentally falls asleep. Can’t remember ever seeing that before.

The Insider (1999)

Worth longer writing someday. Rooted in faxes, yellow pages, home phones, and newspapers, it still has more to offer in the present day then whatever you’d find in the vestiges of broadcasts.

Paper Moon (1973)

Rian Johnson’s favorite film. Strong threads between this and Coen Brothers projects, even glimpses of Rushmore.

Knowing what you are and being confident in what you’re doing: equally exhilarating in film and in life, though only essential to the former.

Creed (2015)

Jordan we knew about already, but Coogler’s arrived.

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

Made me realize I’m a Great Escape person, though that takes nothing away from this one’s accomplishment.

Max Max: Fury Road (2015)

This is cautious, probably should be higher. For a first watch, this is the right place.

It Follows (2014)

The score. The swimming pool. The way you wind up paying rapt attention to out-of-focus areas of the frame. You can find details, reasons, and you can use words to make sense and to justify. This is all fine.

The only honest assessment of a horror film is the walk home.

(1931)

A societal portrait. A careful and discerning look at the cost of keeping order, of the pressures on the state for maintaining legitimacy. Amid the multiple strata unearthed, dissected, and brought to the viewer—the government, the public, the criminal underground— there is the reveal of one villain. He’s a scared murderer before a mob after his head.

We never find the hero.

All About Eve (1950)

Every character in here feels like a real person. Moods, shades, attention to the actual relationships between different selves. Specifically, the contrasting opinions various people might hold toward someone within their mutual orbit. Channels the potential of the nineteenth-century novel and delivers on it, all the more impressive given cinema’s comparative paucity of detail and interior life. Everyone here surprises, the way people actually do. Beautifully constructed and realized.

Except the last character, and that hurts the film more than I first thought. The world summoned up turns a bit too schematic. The hand of the author now heavily visible, the shot communicating with a wink, the illusion collapses. A classic novelistic approach can afford to be didactic. That’s part of what being a novel is. But it’s advisable to make the message the form, not the content.

John Wick (2014)

The best stuff in here beats nearly anything else.

Total Recall (1990)

Stories that question whether their fiction is a dream are best consumed with caution. They wear thin on the patience, dull the mind, and lead to an infatuation with mediocre art. This is a rare exception, though for the life of me, I don’t know why. It’s affirming, and challenging, and holds just the right amount of ambiguity at just the right remove.

Maybe this is the secret: it’s more insane than any dream.

Quantum of Solace (2008)

So many moments and scenes in here I love, even with the short running time.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973)

Gripping, start to finish. One of the better adaptations of a novel to screen. Perhaps the task was easier because the source text is, itself, so stripped-down. If you’re just relying on gears and wrenches, one shop is as good as the next.

If watchmakers and car mechanics rely on similar techniques and approaches, though, they are still crafting. A car, a watch, this film—they’re immaculate. Draper would be the first to tell you. But no matter how wonderfully evocative the face selling it, I’m not sure these things mean anything. That’s not fatal, but it’s limiting. Maybe that’s the true discipline, what separates something genuinely minimal from again exhuming Hemingway’s corpse. The core has to be hollowed out entirely. Fine line, that, separating art that leaves you gutted and art that leaves you feeling empty. The knife-edge between bereft and bleeding out.

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Selma (2014)

Excellent writers remain capable of major errors. When Darryl Pinckney says that “a film based on a historical subject, even a beautifully shot one, can remind us without meaning to that although reading in the US is a minority activity, the book is still the only medium in which you can make a complicated argument,” he reminds us only of a limiting assumption. Even if you constrain the view to arguments about history, this is simply wrong. The compression of two hours to tell a story does raise the margin of error. But poems are compressed and formally limited creatures, too, and few would accuse them of being incapable of saying something rigorous and nuanced and correct about the world. Conflicting impulses and curious resonances are both the stuff of film and, definitionally, complex phenomena. A sure hand can make them say a great many valuable things.

Does this mean Selma makes a complex argument? To my mind, no. Is it generally accurate about history? Mostly, yes. I defy someone to find much distance at all between what we see on screen and the events laid out in this Louis Menand article on the voting rights struggle. (I’ll go ahead and say that I think the screenplay relied on that article). Yet neither complexity nor accuracy is necessary for a successful historical film. Selma has raised a lot of confused and tired arguments about the idea that there is such a thing as “fictional truth,” or “the essence of history,” all thin defenses for an argument the film itself has forfeited. When Avu DuVernay integrated historical footage and expositional text into the final minutes, I saw no asterisk.

What Selma does provide is a far more rich and complex picture than anything previously available. Most evidently, through the visual craft everyone has righly credited DuVernay with bringing to the table: a commitment to negative space in the frame, the attention to the lighting of dark complexions, the placement of King to anchor crowds and tableaus. Yet far more importantly, in the choices made, and the details included, and the way in which they all add up, not into a history, but into a narrative. If you think about the theory of historical depiction in film I’ve laid out before, Selma addresses the major challenges perfectly. It has a coherent vision of the world in which the characters are living, and how it might change and move through their actions. It adopts the methodology of social history. And it has the confidence to recognize its most meaningful political statement comes through placing a camera in this time and this place, and in front of these faces.

DuVernay makes a thousand fascinating decisions throughout, and miraculously, only a few of them don’t land. We don’t have a space right now where these small details can be the subject of real conversation. Yet they make the case for Selma‘s power and quality far more than any ode to its historical significance.

In this, I keep returning to the two women walking together, which brought tears to my eyes. I wasn’t moved by the correspondence of this moment to our history. I didn’t need a film to remind me of who we are, bad and good. I saw someone caring for someone else, and the impact was shattering all on its own. DuVernay saw it too, when it was nothing but an idea.

History is a giant thing, borne past us by an energy we have yet to conclusively identify, lumbering and impossible to capture. It overwhelms us to think about it, and it should overwhelm anyone to be involved in it. What better and more fitting encapsulation of this than a woman reassuring her friend that they are “descendants of a mighty people, who gave civilization to the world.” She says this to let her know she has the strength to keep going, not in the face of firehoses and dogs, but along a quiet garden path. And she does.

We are all small before history. In its midst, swamped in its wake, people can stand on two feet, and walk, and sit, and their triumph is none the lesser, their impact all the greater. On the other side of a bridge, we should be able to tell the difference between the steps and the look back. And in those small things, there are lessons for our feet, and for our eyes. What is beautiful can teach, what has happened can remind, and what we recall can carry us forward. Cinema knows, and needs, nothing more.

It’s Such a Beautiful Day (2012)

I watched this far before trying to write about it. And I thought about it. And I am still not sure what to say. Hertzfeldt is like that – I have a post that may or may not ever materialize relating to “World of Tomorrow” and a well-reviewed 2015 album. Maybe I can’t read the man right. Maybe I can’t get what he’s saying. Maybe I’m scared of dishonoring his work. None of these are good emotions to have leading in to any attempt at honest criticism, laudatory or not.

Where I’m at right now is that there are two different ways to talk about this film. Both are kind. The first is to point to the incredible imagination and craft of the animation. That’s throughout. The second is to note the unimaginable and unexpected power of its accumulated impact. And that’s really about the last fifteen minutes.

The first kind of accomplishment is so different from the second as to defy accurate description even in the form of precise comparison. The one doesn’t relate to the other. The craft-level explanation neither excuses my indifference toward most of it nor explains the heights it reaches. The end-stretch story relies a lot on pointing toward an indecipherable feeling and saying “see?,” which is hardly an achievement of technique. The descriptions don’t feel right.

So now it’s a month later and I still lack any explanation. Adding to the fun, I think if I had one film to show someone before an important decision I’d go with this. Yet I don’t think it’s didactic. Which makes one ask, again: what the hell is this film?

Sometimes you mark a provisional space for timeless things, and await the explanation. Not the best approach, but in this case, permit me the indulgence.

Friday (1995)

A world-class hangout movie. One of the few comedies I can recall where the camera moves and visual choices show care and effort in equal measure to the jokes and the story. Which is saying something when you’re getting this many laughs and standing above even the best “one-day” peers. Reminded me more than anything else of La Haine, though less resigned to the world and putting more faith in dumb luck.

Magic Mike XXL (2015)

Love beyond compare how devoted the film is to portraying a version of the American South utterly unlike, and markedly more authentic than, any other modern studio offering. We live in a big country and this actually knows that.

The first film only looks stronger with time, and I suspect this one will hold up, too. The trailer is brilliant. A close tie for favorite moment, between Channing’s head rising up under the heat mask and Joe Manganiello yelling about “vampire shit.”

There’s boundless empathy here, and it’s appropriately devoid of a single villain.

Brooklyn (2015)

A young woman does a very brave thing and then does a very foolish thing. That’s all there is, and the story makes restraint feel boundless.

The Duellists (1977)

Not quite a deep cut, but a pleasant enough surprise to feel like one. A reminder that historical storytelling needs not only to summon the past but to interrogate it for answers.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

You can tell how this lit a fire in a generation of filmmakers, everyone from Lucas to Kubrick. The range and variety of influence, the long running time, the vistas: it’s exactly as advertised.

Digging for Fire (2015)

Liked it for some of the same reasons as Drinking Buddies, the naturalism of the dialogue making it more easy and fun to watch than damn near any other drama on offer. The plots still aren’t embodying the same authenticity, but the portrait of a marriage here is bracing and powerful, and one or two conveniences can’t stand in its way.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 (2015)

Really impressed. I want to call it a spiritual successor to Paul Verhoeven’s Hollywood output, though don’t tell anyone I said that. There are appearances to keep up.

Phoenix (2015)

I still think Gone Girl is a more interesting update on Vertigo. And I question if this had to be set when it was.

That last scene, though.

Sleeping with Other People (2015)

A great surprise. And in a year with Creed, this has the most satisfying punch.

A Fistful of Dollars (1964)

Strong, no question, but the sequels reach, and grab hold of, something much higher.

Inside Out (2015)

Miyazaki in its stakes and scale. A distressing trend toward a certain schematic precision, at times worryingly reminiscent of Dreamworks, or the most manipulative Disney.

The visuals here are unbelievably beautiful, and I wonder if the story might have benefited from the discipline to cut half of the dialogue. Little details throughout breathe with life, even in places of death: the valley where one character winds up stranded feels more authentic, in our ten minutes there, then the endless amount of time in Smaug’s dungeon. The union of blue and yellow in the marble at the end gets everything important across.

The concern I flagged only really winds up distressing when it infects the otherwise quiet visuals. The over-determined family portrait intrudes on the last remaining plane the company felt like it had a pure grasp on. The exact service of image to story, having reached its theoretical maximum correspondence, turns out to drain a certain joy from both.

The Pianist (2002), The Hunt (2012)

Harrowing films anchored to one character, closing with an earned but uneasy catharsis.

The Hunt for Red October (1990)

Categorically better than Crimson Tide. (And I suspect, Bigelow’s K-19). Which makes this quite a feather in McTiernan’s cap. The staging and pacing, though, might disguise the real engine. More screenwriters should look to the story here. A classic prisoner’s dilemma has more narrative potential than we ever thought.

A man has an idea. It should work, yet he puts his odds less than a coin flip, because he suspects others will misinterpret what he’s after. That’s all there is. The overt antagonist, if any, is massive and formless. There are hardly even any significant obstacles in our man’s path; the threat of the “rival” captain registers so dimly the film itself forgets about him. Most of what could stop the submarine is left behind by the first act.

All that remains is the tension of whether a sensible explanation might actually exist, danger in the operation of natural tendencies. Lurking here is an observation close to my heart: looking at our world can affect it, but in different ways. Analysis in aid of action betrays itself; analysis to harness action births it anew.

Cool Hand Luke (1967)

Good-faith stabs at modern myth making, the eggs scene especially. Affecting and charming almost the whole way. At times suffers from ham or obviousness. A character more Christ-like in his “well” drawl than in his overdone crucifixion pose.

What I’ll remember for years: Newman crawling up from a ditch, wrapping his arms around someone’s legs, and pleading for them to stop.

Rocky (1976)

Way more of a 70s character piece than I’d been led to believe. Best scene is Stallone in his apartment, hollering through the door at an old man walking down the stairs, and then re-connecting with him in the distance of a long shot.

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The Last Stand (2013)

Criminal designs advance with merciless force and high-concept flair, and those near fight uphill battles for dignity. Cormac McCarthy translated to airplane paperback, no less sincere and far more fun.

Deja Vu (2006)

“We held hands once.”

Bone Tomahawk (2015)

Many things to love; Kurt Russell near the end delivers the best line of the year.

The Hateful Eight (2015)

Tarantino’s never boring, and the length of some of his work is usually more justified than his peers. But the flashback in the second half went beyond an indulgence. It felt obscene. And though I usually trust him to understand why things are being shown, on that one, I’m not sure.

All the craft and precision in the world can’t save this one if that was what it looked like.

Get Shorty (1995)

Elmore Leonard is already a charming place to set up shop, and that’s before the throwback enjoyment of a 90s flick at the Venn Diagram of True Romance and The Last Boy Scout. Not mean, and nothing as dark as those two.

May be Travolta’s best performance.

The Savages (2007)

I waged a holy war against my newly-purchased budget television set while watching this one, trying to adjust the colors to something approaching real life. I couldn’t have picked a better or more frustrating film for that process. The Savages contrasts color palettes and lighting approaches wildly from scene to scene, in a way that cannot be accidental. Characters wake up to rooms that look entirely different from when they fell asleep, far beyond some light from the windows; phone conversations take place between yellow-red hotel rooms and blue-green outdoors.

One possible explanation for what Tamara Jenkins was after is to keep things “interesting,” and to ensure a slow film about a dying father never lost your attention. But Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman are on-board for this one, and they really don’t need the help. More satisfying is the idea that Jenkins was trying to bring home through the shifts and transitions the actual character of living through a disorienting family event. Arizona looks like Arizona, and upstate New York looks like upstate New York, and sometimes you’re asked to just take it in stride. Moving from place to place, spending time in new environments, dealing with the mundane details of keeping lives together: these aren’t experiences defined by consistency. The Savages really looks like a month in a few peoples’ lives.

It takes careful thought to commit to something like that heading into a shooting schedule for an independent film. Holistic disorientation requires a great deal more effort than a stable temperature. It asks time and effort of the crew, patience from the actors, and challenges the resources available for other things. And it’s a scary decision, narrowing the options available to fashion a tone or theme in the editing room.

Call this a safe, boring indie if you want. More filmmakers should be this brave.

thief-vault-break-in-michael-mann

Thief (1981)

When Frank talks about his time in prison, when he launches a tirade at an adoption worker, when he lays out the way he thinks about money, the story moves forward, and our understanding of its center grows. Leo, who thinks he has his man figured out, thought wrong. By the final leg, we know better.

For all the time and attention here on power and crime in an urban environment, there is a reason the final shootout is in the suburbs. Frank wants to get there, and stay there, and he can’t. And when things end, he isn’t the type of man to leave a goodbye note and disappear. He tells you in person.

Despite his drive, he is not stoic. Things get to him, and he rarely feels at home in the world. He only ever looks relaxed when he’s carving his way through metal. It has to be this way: everything must feel wrong for him, so when we watch, everything will feel right. Michael Mann’s faith is in process, and it’s why he makes such satisfying films about unsatisfied people.

The Big Chill (1983)

I grew up reading old Doonesbury comics. Never thought I’d see them staged so well.

American Sniper (2014)

This one did heroic work in exposing how broken, reductive, and uncreative our cultural arguments are getting. If you want to see a film that is actually morally troubling in its conclusions and staging, try Mystic River or Million-Dollar Baby; and if you want to get after a film for saying all kinds of fucked-up things about war and ethics, try Fury.

I’m not even going to bother stepping into that wreckage, though. I’m ready to come home” and the dust-storm is where this really works. Glad I saw it, want to never hear about it again.

Yojimbo (1961)

Justifiably credited for its influence on storytelling in a host of direct descendants, though it might have a broader expanse than we think. The rhythms here, the shifts from punchlines to dark moments, you could find glimmers of everywhere from Shane Black to Wes Anderson. Even if it’s tough to say where the line is between direct and indirect influence, the vein this one unearthed has made fortunes for more than just the first Western prospectors.

Given the “importance,” the director, and the lack of any identifiable problems, I should have this higher. I don’t want to upset the canonical enforcers. But there’s something about Kurosawa’s conception of an emotional climax that doesn’t work for me. The way he crafts films earns affection and respect, but the crescendos don’t register at all. Rashomon has the same problem, much more acutely.

I can’t tell if this is arbitrary taste on my part, or whether it’s something he shifts up from film to film that I can’t identify. I share everyone else’s opinion of Seven Samurai, and High and Low I like even more than most, so it’s not something unique to time or genre. Who knows.

Regardless, Toshiro Mifune in an elevated chair, laughing ringside at carnage he set in motion: that’s fun.

Hollywood Shuffle (1987)

An actor tries to find work in a film studio system that treats him like an accomplished prop. And in his daydreams a half-dozen sketch comedy segments play out, where Robert Townsend gets to play every role he knows he will never be offered.

The sketches must have made an impression on the up-and-coming comics of this time, since the sensibility behind them would reappear throughout the 90s. Smart, absurd, and committed turns out to get you pretty far. And while the main story brings its own laughs, the interludes make the same argument far more effectively.

Capturing the Friedmans (2003)

Documentaries raise questions about ethics and methodology so often because they run up against inherent limitations of film as a medium. Unlike historical fiction, which can make for successes, however rarely, I am tempted to think that documentaries are, categorically, doomed to fail. They simply cannot be the most efficient or accurate means of conveying the information they seek to provide, and therefore always represent a second-best solution to an alternate presentation. And this is before considering that, so often, they elide and distort the truth, which is quite a problem for nominal “non-fiction.”

The energy behind this one, the twists and turns, the way in which it nurtures and brings forth a deep and profound doubt and ambiguity about both its details and its foundations, presents a strong counter-argument. What I read about what I saw indicates it probably has some holes. But this is quite a way to spend two hours. It is tough to call that a failure; hence the conflict. So let’s leave it here: whatever documentaries are, and whatever they can and cannot do, Capturing the Friedmans pulls it off.

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

This film is on acid.

Where Eagles Dare (1968)

Richard Burton is the baddest.

Goon (2011)

Sully from Worcester is the perfection of a certain joke.

The Intouchables (2011)

Charming, and appropriately enamored with physical sensation. At its best in its first and last sequences, and in the dance scene.

The Great Dictator (1940)

Chaplin out for blood.

The man was basically post-Episode IV George Lucas in his autonomy and creative control. And he came close to switching mediums entirely, with not a step lost. The skill set overlap between performing in silent film and a talkie is less than one might think. A voice is an instrument. That Chaplin gets the bulk of the laughs in this one from his delivery of the lines—especially the insane gibberish German—winds up seamless and unsurprising. But when you take a step back, this is Bo Jackson-level two-spot All-Star versatility. That same stunning adaptation to a new medium is present in the writing of the film. The comedic timing in the contrast between his speech and the television announcer’s commentary and translation draws on a different set of skills entirely from the vaudeville physical performance. And it works just as well to get you to laugh.

Chaplin as a person seems to have been a complete monster. But this is one of the most impressive individual accomplishments in the history of film. Funny, brutal, and beautiful.

Oblivion (2013)

Full of odd notes and strange choices, lifts from so much source material without ever synthesizing or commenting, adding to the surreal story walked through in its plot.

Moving, though? That I’d never have expected, and amid the twists in service of reproduction, it’s the one welcome surprise.

Unstoppable (2010)

Slight, from one view, full and robust, from another. Fun as hell to watch.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

If this list proves nothing else, it’s that writing about film can be really stupid. You have to wonder if modern audiences, me included, are getting high-maintenance: most of the time, movies are about fulfilling basic needs. I like lightsabers, and I like to see people using lightsabers. I got to see people fight with lightsabers, and it was in beautiful snow. The world outside the theater tries to make these things heavy demands on our collective conscience, a proxy battlefield to end-around impregnable trenches. Let the Wookie win.

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

Sequence of turning out the lights in the house is an all-timer.

Three Days of the Condor (1975)

The ethos on display in certain 1970s films, which we simplify under the “post-Watergate” heading, is difficult to look at with a clear view. The films influenced by it have refracted the vision, making it ubiquitous. Subsequent political developments have rendered some of the paranoia in a different light. You just can’t get an eye on the thing, beyond grouping it under a general heading.

That does a disservice to the work, which has the craft and focus to deserve actual engagement with the text, and not its second existence as a well-cited footnote. But I wonder on the other hand if it had too much engagement with the assumptions and attitudes of its time, rendering the substance of the thing ethereal.

The question remains: can you trust it?

The Martian (2015)

Apollo 13 is a far better version of this story, but still quite fun.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)

A great time, but I couldn’t read anything about this one where I recognized the film I actually saw. A lot of projection going on.

High point: The Fincher- or Cameron-esque decision to stage three successive action sequences in direct chronological succession. A minute for the character to catch their breath, a minute for us, and then back to it, twice in a row. Subtly done, distinguishing it from Cameron; Ethan Hunt’s approach is methodical, procedural. This is just another day for him, the flow of being on the job.

Low point: When the villain commands the screen based solely on the tenor and cadence of his voice, maybe not the best idea to stage the finale to have him speak through someone else.

Stalag 17 (1953)

The reveal of the traitor in the ranks and the cold, mean conclusion reach an impressive intensity. The rest, charmingly, acts if there’s barely a war on. William Holden is at home in both registers, and it makes him a valuable man to have around. His films always reach the same conclusion.

The Host (2006)

Godzilla’s younger cousin runs amok in Seoul, and a family fights to rescue their daughter from its clutches. The film has verve, the climactic sequence especially, and you recognize the same energy across its shifting tones. Restraint arrives at the right moment, too, sparing the last scene from this furious rush of activity, the film coming to rest in a refuge it has given everything to protect. Like the director’s later Snowpiercer, the commentary doesn’t land because the world doesn’t convince. The family does, and you feel for them.

Bicycle Thieves (1948)

I’ll give this one another chance someday.

The Big Short (2015)

A high-budget civics lesson, but they forgot the story.

Spotlight (2015)

Fine for what it is. Liked that Ruffalo’s Oscar shouting scene was treated by his co-workers as a breach of professional decorum. Goals of the filmmakers aside, the internal logic of these people retains an integrity.

Double Indemnity (1944)

One lesson here: don’t murder Stanford grads. We’ve got a network.

City Lights (1931)

A touch too episodic, a series of set-pieces too confident in its own narrative through-line. Every scene affirms that Chaplin may still be unmatched as a performer. It’s not quite enough, when everything fails to line up. Too many calories for a thin frame to accommodate.

Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

Everything good in this involves Charles Laughton. The thirty-minute stretch where it seems like it’s going to be High and Low-style one-location hits a peak; the backflips of the final stretch land on a low.

Bad Boys 2 (2003)

An action movie becoming sentient and going off on its own volition – I’d love a ninety minute cut of this. Problem is it’s 147 minutes long. Sometimes pure id needs a superego.

A Woman Under the Influence (1974)

An interesting test case for what exactly I’m after here. I watch quite a lot and even write some. No one’s telling me to do this. I can’t define the methodology. There’s no coherent logic to the curriculum, beyond stealing from all available canons. And seeing something like this almost vindicates it. This is an indelible, distinctive, and incredibly accomplished piece of cinema.

It still felt like work. Work’s a tough thing to motivate yourself for when there’s little meaning to the labor and no boss to spur you on. And for something I’m doing in my free time, for no discernible reason, work’s not a lot of fun. I can do all I can to tease out how the side-project connects to the main concern. But even the rationalized explanations fall short when all I want is for the damn thing to be over.

Sometimes it’s a nice day outside, and cinema that can meet that head-on and win deserves more credit than what reaches you through obligation.

The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)

A story told by set designs. Different from writing the story on set, though not by much.

Leaving Las Vegas (1995)

Should have rendered a whole genre obsolete. A damn shame it didn’t.

Furious 7 (2015)

A significant step down from its immediate predecessors, and one that leaves me with no confidence in the series’ future.

It’s a shame, especially when the first act seems to understand what additional cylinders might be available. Jason Statham’s introduction is Nelvedine/Taylor in the best possible way, and by the time he’s throwing down with The Rock the goal seems clear. Where the series can go no further on its own terms, it can wage war against other genre rules. Statham’s at the power levels of his own films, and that in itself is a considerable challenge.

And for most of the running time, the setpieces are still held in a firm grasp. The convoy on the mountain sings in a way no other series could manage. The distinctive visual vocabulary the technical crew has developed, the beats refined and mastered, provide something impossible to find anywhere else.

The Fast & Furious films developed such a sure hand with these scenes because Justin Lin stole liberally from everything happening around him, whether American wrestling or French parkour or Indonesian martial arts. Wan’s entry also has its eye on the action franchises progressing alongside it, but he mostly draws on the concerns and fashions of their storytelling. And this is the disastrous misstep.

Suddenly, a series staking out its own lunatic place in the mainstream firmament slides into the same milieu being explored at the other showtimes. Mass surveillance, hacking, drones, shadowy secret societies, geopolitics, elaborate prisons; the close and vigorous contest between fetishizing screens and military hardware.

“This is not what we do” was a laugh line in Six, and a perfect thesis for that entry’s trailer. Maybe we should have read into it a hint of caution. Chris Ready correctly points out that after Paul Walker’s death there was no appetite for shedding blood of the main players. But it’s harder to maintain sympathy for them when they bring to bear on their hometown a level of mass destruction appropriate for a superhero film. Dimly lit, less about motion than collapse, Seven feels utterly unlike its direct siblings. Except for feeling akin to everything else. Where once F&F had evolved and borrowed and integrated, its storytelling finally acquiesces, and we’re left to watch the descent into the murky, depressing CGI hell plaguing its peers.

I don’t want to spend any more time in that world, and I adored these movies because I didn’t have to. And this series about comprehensive objectification loses its way for the most unexpected reason: a failure of taste.

Blackhat (2015)

Sometime a few years from now this one will go flying up or down on everyone’s mental lists, and the direction is unpredictable. The many clever and frustrating choices add up to an uneasy whole. Either there’s a purposeful structure here, or there isn’t. Will take some time to know for sure.

The final take-down in this one isn’t going away, though, whatever happens to the rest of it. That right there is something special.

The Kingsman (2014)

Reactionary politics define themselves against an underclass, and The Kingsman is far from shy about doing so. Two involved setpieces find a man of impeccable taste dealing out punishment to the uncultured. Matthew Vaughn saves his real irreverence, though, for a segment of the elite. An aristocracy willing to sell itself out to the nouveau riche no longer deserves its station. Better someone able to milk an opportunity for all it’s worth, walking away with the keys to the castle.

You have to hand it the old ways: in front of the camera or behind the lens, they do tend to find their man.

Ex Machina (2015)

I liked that the industrial design lab room here matched up closely to what we know about Jonathan Ive’s workspace. I liked that Oscar Isaac’s character was brilliant without playing into Hollywood tropes about intelligence, and that he felt like a varsity-athlete upgrade on cinematic Zuckerbergs or, god forbird, Brins or Pages.

I dug everything Isaac did, actually. And I loved how this one ended.

Are there a thousand ways I’d have preferred for how they handled the other characters? Yes. Are there ambiguities to the ending that, upon arguing out with a good friend, I realized laid some serious doubt onto the attempted conclusion? Sure.

Still, nailing the key things counts. A finger on the pulse and an actor going for it is what most sci-fi seeks to do and what few attempts attain. Sometimes, the greatest accomplishment is what similarly ambitious peers fail to accomplish. And if it’s not quite a proxy for quality, it does show you the limits of caring.

Alien 3 (1992)

Fincher may have disowned this film. But it’s difficult to think of a prominent director who’s traveled more ground in a couple decades without any significant compromise or alteration in concerns, style, or technique. Reconstructing the lineage between this thing and the slick and sociopathic Gone Girl is, somehow, not a dishonest fabrication. There’s real connective thread.

I don’t think this film has much to say at all. I’m not sure Fincher does either. But films don’t have to say anything to succeed, and this one’s commentary at least makes itself necessary to reading the two predecessors.

Best to view this as a research expedition doomed to fail for lack of funding.

Sunshine (2007)

A musical cue 16 minutes from the close in Sunshine closely resembles the score for the final scene of 2011’s The Grey, one of the more odd musical lifts I can recall (and one I don’t think I’m imagining). Religious extremists do not pursue courses of action conducive to broadly shared human welfare. These are my two main takeaways.

The way the plot turns here is less an innovation in genre storytelling than a failure of nerve. The visuals, though, move forward audaciously, the pristine grandeur of what happens outside the craft giving way to a chopped and screwed fight to the death. The camera lens accrues the retinal damage the scientists avoid, with Boyle blending a mixture of Tony Scott brush-strokes and Nelvedine/Taylor aerosols into something at the limits of comprehension. Amid the disintegration, you can’t blame a character for mistaking hell for heaven. Diving into a star, the red flame and the holy light must look awful similar.

Carrie (1976)

“Why am I here?” And then twenty perfect minutes. You can see why someone could talk themself into a remake: there are obvious opportunities to renovate. Yet those twenty minutes were all that was ever necessary, and they could never be handled better.

The End of the Tour (2015)

I still think the Franzen essay should have been the end of talking about Wallace. This reminds me in an awful way of Bodganovich’s cooption of Orson Welles. Also violates the reliable rule of “distrust films about writers that avoid written language.”

Still beautifully done. And I resent the impulse in myself, and in others watching, to connect this to the silly Internet meta-meta-debate over a man who chose to kill himself several years back. Every think piece on Wallace confirms his judgment about our weaknesses. It’s really a better approach to address the thing itself.

I’m going to be there for every James Ponsoldt film from here on out. To stage something this wordy with the visual vocabulary of Laurel and Hardy takes a certain gift. It’s not surprising with the chops he’s shown. The actors are here for this, they aren’t backing off. Rigorous commitment to mundane, small stakes, without ever once shouting significance in capital letters, without manufacturing more than the normal and petty conflicts of everyday interaction. Just observing. I want more of this. If Ponsoldt can ever get the right script he’ll make something unstoppable.

The Lives of Others (2006)

If a film can be both subtle and didactic at the same time, then the balance is struck here. A film nominally about a playwright writing an essay, with the message embedded in the process of their creation (and his preservation) rather than in the content of the work.

One of those where you can write yourself into liking it more than you actually did.

Bridge of Spies (2015)

All claims of location shooting aside, 90% of this resembles Sky Captain-esque-green-screen. The first half should have been cut heavily and the back half expanded slightly.

For obvious personal reasons, I like the main character.

Love Actually (2003)

Baseball players like Chris Carter and Adam Dunn can earn a solid living over time with a fairly predictable set of outputs. They strike out at the highest rates in the league, and they don’t hit for average, or even walk all that often. They do hit the ball out of the park, though, and the slugging percentage makes them reliable, imperfect contributors. Everyone would like to employ Barry Bonds or Mike Trout, but if you want 30 home runs there are only a limited number of places you can find them.

Anyways. Striking out 200 times in a season is shameful and embarrassing, like the Colin Firth subplot. And leading the National League in home runs is just as impressive as eluding airport security to see someone you care about.

Moneyball‘s true adaptation came out a few short months after it was released.

The Avengers (2012)

Really competent, though the ending sequence remains depressing and deadening. How this one ages will be fascinating.

The Killing Fields (1984)

Really strong stretches in here. And some really poor choices. Typing this in mid-May, and the toughest one so far to rank.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

Arnie Hammer does a great Terminator impression in the first chase scene. The commitment here to everyone speaking out of their natural accent and making a complete hash of doing so is almost endearing.

’71 (2014)

A domestic insurgency in a Western nation shouldn’t be an excuse for off-brand crime film. ’71 makes a categorical error in its interest, and one from which it never recovers. It’s hurt all the more by the comparison points.

Still, ten minutes of live-action Splinter Cell prove their worth. Pulling the rope tight this expertly only makes you question why the setting was necessary at all. Or is restaging everything like gang warfare the only thing it has to say?

Reign of Fire (2002)

Not quite a lost classic, though it was fair for me to hope. And British and American guys disagreeing will always work.

The rare world-building exercise where the ground rules seem devised to generate opportunities for the actors. They aren’t hanging around until the effects show up; they’re being worn down and brought to the breaking point by precisely applied pressures. Any effort to provide an excuse for dragons deserves praise. But if anything, it’s the fire-breathing and the wing-beats that prove superfluous.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

Impressive how well it weaves together all its pieces and obligations into a coherent narrative through-line. The degree of difficulty to achieve that must have been extraordinary. What it’s really in service of, beyond keeping release dates on-track? I couldn’t begin to tell you.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

I loved the Young Indiana Jones series when I was a little kid, and Raiders is scripture. I don’t know why this and Doom leave me so cold.

Fast & Furious (2009)

The CGI reformation of the chase scene geography and mechanics turned out to have no predictive value for where the series would go. Yet amidst the music video aesthetics, the tunnels trade equally on Return of the Jedi and Temple of Doom. Setting up shop in familiar touchpoints turned out to be more of a guide to where things would lead, though the hand grew surer and the references more subtle.

Everything you’d want in a reboot and a refashioning, actually. Might be the ceiling for realistic expectations of the JJ Abrams Star Wars: not immediately offensive and laying the seeds for actual charm. A blind date, its merit evaluable only in retrospect.

House of Games (1987)

Ricky Jay and Joe Mantegna in the poker scene is special.

I was ready to write this one off entirely about two-thirds in. It stakes a lot on a transparent manipulation, and watching the story go through the motions isn’t any fun. But the real twist here turns out to have nothing to do with the plot, or with elaborate turnabouts. There was more Chandler or Hammett in here than at first glance. A walk-off homer, and an ice cold trot.

Prince of Egypt (1998)

Some incredibly beautiful material in here, and the animation shines. But the jarring tonal shifts and the strange approach to plotting sink this one.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

Monsters (2010)

Oblique beats obscure or opaque, every time. Edwards might have set up shop too far from the main event to reap the real rewards, but it’s worlds better than works that can’t figure out what they’re doing, or the ones that blame you for it.

Focus (2015)

Somewhere between classical and revisionist, though never quite finding a balance. Energy to spare, and great choices about cuts and compositions. Neither reawakening nor updating, it can coast only on charm, and the story needlessly tries to supply it when Smith is already on hand.

Macgruber (2010)

Both hyper-specific parody and committed character piece. The highlights serve both obligations: the saxophone in the opening credits, the van and its aftermath, the animus toward intact bodies. Most other times, the two responsibilities don’t line up that neatly. Unyielding faith in an incoherent vision, generating a tension best let out in too-rare punchlines.

Mississippi Grind (2015)

Mendelsohn is heartbreaking.

Spectre (2015)

They claim that it had many writers working on it, poring over iterations and tweaks. I remember hearing that from partners in group projects. All I see is a first draft.

The Green Mile (1999)

Really disappointing, and interminably long. This would have been bringing up the rear on this list if not for the final stretch. Mainly for Hanks’ expressions, especially in the sustained shot with the sparks flying behind him.

Odd because outside of that shot, there’s nothing visually interesting. Darabont should have figured out if there was a compelling frame somewhere within the jail block before spending three fucking hours there. Set visits, storyboarding: these things are useful.

Wet Hot American Summer (2001)

H. Jon Benjamin and Christopher Meroni do the Lord’s work while a lot of talented people accomplish somewhat less than you’d expect. Gold medal to Paul Rudd.

Lords of Salem (2012)

Sean Witzke’s review is a fascinating way to read this film, and has to be correct. But this wasn’t the right time to watch something so schematic.

Layer Cake (2004)

The garden murder.

Slap Shot (1977)

Sports movies divide into two camps, comedic and dramatic. This is the former. If you squint hard enough, you can see the apathy toward the plot that would culminate in Baseketball‘s unparalleled shrug. Sometimes things are there because they’re there.

Few people will witness the most moving real-life events, and audiences have a reason to look to films for a version of what they can never directly apprehend. Theaters can be places where you can see something that’s impossible, or altogether inaccessible.

It’s hard to think of a genre more committed to supplying something the real world provides for ready viewing, especially when the organic narratives of sports prove more exciting and improbable than what a screenwriter can envision. It’s sensible that so many of the enjoyable sports films are about marginal characters, semi-pro leagues and screw-ups and hangers-on for the main event. Maybe that’s enough. But established actors playing dress-up with working-class roles where they get to moonlight as another class of revered cultural figures… I have to wonder. Sports films are a suspicious enterprise. Though sometimes, things are just there because they’re there.

The Jackal (1997)

Powerfully stupid, but the structure saves it some.

Bad Boys (1995)

The two leads playing to their strengths, riffing their best amid inexplicable references to Vertigo. Michael Bay’s under-funded debut made in the gears of the studio system—the Alien 3 comparisons might be interesting to tease out.

May be the single worst script ever filmed. Long stretches play like a dying open-mic night, the script failing at every attempt to sell the central comic premise.

Halloween (2007)

One impressive aspect of Zombie’s work here: the violence is awful to take in. This disturbing and admirable through-line runs through a story that becomes progressively less interesting.

Shutter Island (2010)

Immaculate dressing of an empty set.

Last Action Hero (1993)

The visuals and even the storytelling call to mind music videos later in the decade more than the earlier films ostensibly being commented on. Knowing or not, no muscle film can get by being this thin.

The Gambler (2014)

How can something find this many notes for Michael K. Williams to play and still waste Brie Larson? Uninterested in gambling, verisimilitude, stylistic coherence, or anything before or after the particular five minutes any scene takes up, The Gambler wants only to make a case for the genuineness and dignity of anyone’s individual suffering on the least sympathetic ground imaginable. At its better moments, it almost convinces you. Most of the time it’s a man who’s heard it all before and can’t bring himself to care, getting lightly roughed up by life, asking for worse, and being politely but insistently refused. Roundabout self-expression delivered through glancing blows, appropriately soundtracked by a series of covers.

Casino (1995)

A tedious layover between Goodfellas and Boogie Nights, casting the strengths of the former into sharp enough relief for wholesale importation into the latter. Other than that, three hours with nothing to show for it, save profane trivialities, trivia-worthy profanity, and one of the most disturbing execution scenes you will ever encounter.

House of 1000 Corpses (2003)

I don’t even dislike this. I knew going in. No one’s to blame here but me.

The still seconds before a trigger on a flare-gun is by far the best moment in here, a haunting heft and weight that the sequel would carry to a far more disturbing place.

The Other Guys (2010)

Another reason to consider Step Brothers a masterpiece.

Pawn Sacrifice (2015)

Why did I do this?

National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983)

More than showing its age by this point.

Equilibrium (2002)

Couldn’t imagine a less convincing sci-fi universe. Even if you gift it the benefit of the doubt, though, hard to see what the thing would be saying. The human spirit is all well and good, but our conduit to it is through human beings in a world we process as real. If what you have to say about your capital-letter Theme requires abstracting away anything binding you to lived experience, then maybe it isn’t an important thing to say. And if you’re going to set up a universe just to provide ground rules for fight sequences—which is great!—then you really should bring them out more. The nicest thing you can say about Equilbrium is that it’s genuinely unclear what it’s trying to do. The certain thing is it doesn’t get there.

End of Days (1999)

Films like this provide a strong reminder of why The Matrix deserved the praise it got on first reception. This was not a good time.

On one level, I get it. Christian myth tends to get the job done, and faking knowledge of things under time pressure is something few avoid. We all have our last-minute presentations, the Powerpoints we pray do not contain typos.

This goes beyond that. Many, many people worked on this for a sustained period of time. Screenwriters, plural, fashioned this, and were compensated for doing so. Production designers, the crew handling the costumes and researching the locations, all of them had jobs to do. And yet despite the labors of several hundred hands, barely a plausible detail about Christian doctrine or mythology makes it into the final picture.

I’d understand erring on theology; who doesn’t? But the basic details necessary to give a thing like this a veneer of authenticity are all available in the public record. Or the many, many films previously made. It’s unclear how they eluded the filmmakers’ grasp.

I may never want to sit this through again, but I would love to know every detail of how this was written and produced. Accomplishing this level of stupidity by omission would be a miracle. It’s too convenient. Someone actively planned this. And if dark forces sometimes make themselves known, who would question their choice of medium?

Mistress America (2015) (first 14 minutes)

I saw The Squid and the Whale ten years ago. Outside of the Wes Anderson films he co-wrote, that’s my only prior time with Noah Baumbach. All the trailers, all the writing, all the praise for Francis Ha, all Gerwig’s charm, it never could get me to the point of watching.

I turned this one off. Gerwig’s character here made me think of who I saw Squid with, and I like her better as a real person. I like New York better as a real place. I like not spending time with Baumbach more than I like yelling at a screen. I’m confident this film never stops being bullshit. But I’ll never have the appetite to go back and see whether this was a one-off screw-up or a reveal of how empty this dude was along. It’s his job to assure me that the first is even possible, and I can’t imagine anything more miserable than doing work Baumbach himself hasn’t even put in.

One thought on “The 2015 Watch List

  1. Pingback: December Notebook | Accidental Jellyfish

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