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11-28 Drunk
Season 3
Here's the thing: I still really love Drunk History. I've often commented that Drunk History is proof that a single-joke premise can work if you run with it well enough, and now that I've watched three seasons of that joke, I can attest that the idea of actors re-enacting drunken history tales by comedians never gets less funny. And as the show has embraced its cheapness, it's only gotten funnier, tossing in tiny airplanes, badly labeled props, and so much more. More than that, this season brought by Kyle Kinane, who may be the best drunk storyteller the show's ever had, only to maybe match him with Paul F. Tompkins's amazing work. So why am I so glad the season's over? Maybe it's just the length. Each season of Drunk History keeps getting longer - 8 episodes the first season, then 10 the next, and now 13 - and it ends up running the joke into the ground, turning what's normally hilarious into a bit of a "been there, done that" instead. Do I still enjoy the show? Without a doubt - and I'd argue that Tompkins and Kinane delivered what will easily go down as two of the best segments the show's ever done, with the Harriet Tubman story from earlier in the season right up there. But I can't help but feel that it would all be better if it the seasons were allowed to be short, or maybe split a la South Park.
11-28 The Good
Let's get this out of the way: The Good Dinosaur is absolutely, unquestionably astonishing to look at. Even with a company that's so often pushed the boundaries of computer animation, The Good Dinosaur is absolutely phenomenal work, creating a landscape that's nearly indistinguishable from reality, a river that's photorealistic, and does so while making the beauty as much a part of the film as anything else. Now, if only the script was anywhere near as ready. It's not that The Good Dinosaur is ever actively bad, per se; to date, Pixar's only made one truly bad film (Cars 2). But excepting that one failure, it's hard to argue that The Good Dinosaur is their weakest, most disappointing effort. The story never feels organic or coherent; instead, it feels like a slew of disconnected scenes sort of tied together, with a protagonist who only lurches among them because the script demands it. The film's villains feel like an afterthought, the supporting cast bland (with the exception of Sam Elliott, but that's really only because of Elliott's presence, not the character), many of the sequences dull. Worse than that, it's heavy-handed and didactic, hammering the same points again and again with blunt dialogue instead of relying on imagery and more indirect means like Pixar does when it's at the top of its game (Inside Out being the most recent and obvious example). It's just sort of an overstuffed, rambling mess, and while it never quite got bad enough to be a complete failure, it still gets frustrating - especially because it's still capable of some great sequences that are as good as anything Pixar's done (there's a nighttime conversation about family that's beautiful and done without more than a word or two of dialogue). If you want a longer, more fleshed out review of the film that both nails its weaknesses and admits its strengths, I can't recommend Tasha Robinson's great piece enough; the short version, though, is that it's a Franken-script made up of lots of good moments than never coalesce into a satisfying, or even good, whole. (That all being said, the short "Sanjay's Super Team" beforehand, which tells the story of a young Hindu boy's daydreams while his father prays? Absolutely loved it - imaginative, stylish, and fun. More than made up for "Lava".)
11-25 Minions
Look, I know that as a parent, it's apparently my obligation to hate the Minions. But for whatever reason, I don't really. Maybe it's just that my kids haven't really gone ga-ga over them like so many others; maybe it's just that I find them pretty harmless. Whatever the case, the Minions never really bothered me, and having seen the feature film about them, they still don't, mainly because the filmmakers know exactly what they're doing. This isn't a sappy story with a Big Important Message to convey; this isn't a treacly story about lost loves or anything like that. This is a story about creatures (which are kind of dumb) trying to help a supervillain steal the crown jewel, and it's part adventure, but mostly comedy. There's physical jokes, a nice 60's-rock soundtrack, a lot of silliness, and just a general sense of fun that I couldn't deny. Are there better animated movies out there? Sure. But Minions fills a great void, delivering a kid's movie that's more about silliness and fun than it is some deep message or some emotional journey, and based off of my kids' giggling throughout (okay, and some of mine), it does its job well. Does that mean I have to turn in my parenting card now?
11-22 Last Week
Tonight with
John Oliver
Season 2 (2015)
It's kind of amazing how quickly Last Week Tonight became such an essential part of my week. It's not like I didn't already love Oliver, and it's not like I wasn't a fan of the show already. But as the show began to grow in popularity, it grew in guts, doing things far beyond what anyone expected any cable news show to do. Why only complain about cigarette ads when you can make a mascot of a diseased lung and market that in other countries? Why just talk about the loopholes in religious laws when you can create your own church and explain it all that way? And best of all, why just give the highlights about government surveillance when you can fly to Russia and interview Edward Snowden? But while the stunts were attention grabbing, it was Oliver who held it all together, delivering insight, outrage, commentary, and comedy in equal parts, and turning his spotlight onto issues worthy of debate but not always getting the coverage they deserved. Felons re-entering the workplace, the bail system, the abuse of the municipal violations system, and even chicken farming - Oliver covered it all with wit, intelligence, thoughtfulness, and concern. Yes, Trevor Noah has guided The Daily Show well after the departure of Jon Stewart, allowing the show to remain both relevant and effective. But in many ways, Oliver has taken the place of his mentor, becoming a public conscience with a sense of humor, an educator with a relentless tenacity, and just a welcome presence on my television.
11-14 The Peanuts
For the second time within a year, an ad campaign for a children's movie does the film a disservice, leading you to expect something terrible and instead covering up a gentle, charming, irony-free film that feels joyous and happy in a way many films never manage. The first was Paddington, and now there's The Peanuts Movie, which showed every sign of desecrating the legacy of Charles Schulz's beloved strip. Instead, what you get is a gentle updating of the classic Charlie Brown cartoons; while the characters may be CGI, the style is kept simple and mostly unmoving, the jazz soundtrack (and trombone-speaking adults) kept intact, the voices genuinely childlike, and the writing snark-free. The storyline is simplicity - Charlie Brown tries to impress the red-haired girl (and worries about his constant tendency toward failure); meanwhile, Snoopy enjoys a fantasy life involving his ongoing duels with the Red Baron. Dealing with something as beloved as the Peanuts characters couldn't have been easy, but The Peanuts Movie manages somehow, keeping the spirit of every character alive, maintaining the big heart and gentle soul of the strip, never dodging the genuinely funny jokes or moments, and somehow just working on almost every level. It's a reminder that as much as I love Pixar films, with their stories that work as both exciting adventures and metaphors for adults, that a simple children's story can still work, if told well, and told with respect, and The Peanuts Movie manages that difficult task with seemingly effortless grace. I laughed - a lot - but more than that, I just plain enjoyed the film. It's a wonderful little piece of work, and I can't recommend it enough if you have kids. And if you don't? You could probably go anyway.
11-13 Hotel Transylvania 2 (2015)
Late in Hotel Transylvania 2, there's an action sequence (don't ask why; it already feels pretty tacked on as it is, so let's just enjoy the fact that it exists) that finds the characters actually using their monster powers. Vampires are turning into bats, bricks are being thrown with telekinetic powers, super strength is being used, and it's all done with a great sense of choreography, kinetic energy, and style. And for a brief moment, you'll remember that for some reason, Hotel Transylvania 2 is being helmed by Genndy Tartakovsky, who created the magnificent animated series Samurai Jack (and ran most of the beloved Clone Wars series) and is more than capable of bringing style and interesting substance to the table. Then again, you could be forgiven for forgetting that, because the rest of the film wastes those talents in favor of listening to Adam Sandler phone in his "Dracula man" voice alongside a bunch of other people who all sound like they had many, many better things to do. The screenplay is filled with weak attempts at gags, complete with the by-now requisite "animated character dance party," and the underlying messages - which basically boil down to "we should quit coddling kids today, because my day was better" - are better off left disregarded. For all of that, at least it mostly looks good, thanks to Tartakovsky, who brings some nice style and occasionally makes it feel sort of alive. Apart from that, though...let's just say you're not missing much.
11-7 The Room
At this point, I've seen The Room far more often than any reasonable person should. This screening made for my tenth viewing, about eight of which have been in the theater for midnight screenings, complete with yelled responses, thrown spoons, and assorted madness. It's a movie that I truly love, for all its ineptness; there's something incredibly pure and unadulterated about it, and its weird, utterly off base and yet recognizably human take on human relationships never fails to fascinate me. Making this screening all the better? Having it preceded by an appearance by Greg Sestero, co-star of the film and author of the behind-the-scenes tale The Disaster Artist. Shackling yourself to The Room can't be an entirely joyous task, but Sestero made the best of it, bringing with him the screenplay for The Room back when it was in its original incarnation as a stage play. The resulting love reading (done by Nashville actors) was a gloriously insane treat, somehow making the movie make more and less sense simultaneously. (The original version of the infamous red dress scene near the film's climax still gives me shudders to think about.) It was a great kickoff to the evening's festivities, and a good way to break in my now double-digit number of viewings
11-1 Hocus
I'd somehow never seen Hocus Pocus until now, and I'll be honest and say it wasn't a void I was particularly worried about. It's wasn't as though it was a film I was actively avoiding, but there wasn't much that looked all that appealing about it; I basically assumed that the cult fanbase around it was mainly about nostalgia more than an indication of the film's quality (or lack thereof). And, having seen it...well, it feels like I was pretty right in my assumptions. Hocus Pocus apparently started life as a Disney Channel original movie before executives decided that it might be good enough to release in theaters and make some money off of. That's as may be, but the fact remains that Hocus Pocus still basically feels like that Disney Channel original, only with a better cast than you might expect. It's all harmless fun, following a trio of witches brought back from the dead and the efforts of some local kids who are trying to stop their revenge plan; there's some kid-friendly spookiness, a lot of pratfalls and physical comedy, and that sort of thing. All of it is done well enough, but really, the main draw here is Midler as the head witch. Playing well off of Najimy and Parker, all of whom are clearly having a blast, Midler gives the film most of its fun, bringing with her a better (or maybe just bigger) performance than the movie really deserves. This all sounds like I'm being pretty harsh, and I don't really mean to be; there's nothing really wrong with Hocus Pocus. It's a fun kids movie, and it would be perfectly at home among that channel's programming (well, apart from the absurdly high number of comments and jokes about virginity, which led to some hopefully dodged questions from my children). As an adult, no, I can't say it did that much for me, but it didn't really do anything wrong, either. Yes, it's manic and over the top and cheesy, but aren't most of the movies made by that network? And it sure works for their age group. Had I watched it years ago, maybe I'd love it the same way so many do; as it is, I thought it was adequate, forgot most of it within minutes, and moved on.
10-31 Night of
the Living
What better way to spend Halloween night than with a double feature of two of the best horror films ever made? (Indeed, if I had to pick my top three horror films of all time, I'd be hard pressed not to put both The Shining and Night of the Living Dead in there before rounding it all out with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.) Well, you could see them both in a crowded theater, projected on a big screen, with a crowd who can't wait to be there. Of course, you might also remember halfway through just what a bad idea it might be to pair these two films, as it's hard to think of two more bleak and haunting horror films offhand. It may sound snobby, but if you've never gotten to see The Shining on the big screen, you may have never really experienced it; there's something about being immersed in its huge world, watching those slow steadicam shots down those long hallways, tracking your way behind the tricycle, that makes you forget your place in the world and give yourself over to Kubrick's waking nightmare. It's a masterpiece of oppressive mood and subtle, creeping horror, one that pushes you into a malevolent, angry environment and doesn't even let you leave or feel like you've had a victory. And while Night of the Living Dead may start off feeling like a goofy, silly 50's monster flick, that starts to fade quickly, slowly increasing the pressure and the tension until you realize that this stopped being fun and started being unforgiving. It's an incredible film, one that lulls you in before suddenly hitting the gas and never letting up, all before delivering one of the best endings in horror film history. (You could hear the intake of breath when it happened, even among people who'd clearly seen the film before. And yes, I was probably one of them.) It was a pretty intense four hours, but as a horror fan, it was impossible to miss the chance to see both of these on the big screen, and a reminder of why I love the genre so passionately.
10-31 The Shining
10-28 Crimson
"It's not a ghost story; it's a story with a ghost in it." So says the heroine of Crimson Peak early in the film, and you can almost feel writer-director Guillermo del Toro insisting that the audience note the line so they won't miss the foreshadowing. Despite its gothic trappings and its spectral visions, Crimson Peak is at its core a Gothic romance in the truest sense of the word, drawing as much or more on books like Jane Eyre and less on horror films. It's the story of a young writer who falls in love with a visiting nobleman, marries him, and then moves out to his isolated estate, only to find that there are dark secrets in this family that need to be exposed. And if that sounds familiar in some ways, that's fine; del Toro recognizes it and uses that to his advantage, drawing on the rich history of the genre but adding in his own touches to create a satisfying storyline. But really, few who walk away from Crimson Peak will be talking about the story. No, they'll be talking about the jaw-dropping visual style, from rich costume work to incredibly crafted ghosts. And more than either of those, they'll talk about the estate itself, crafted as one of the most striking sets I've ever seen in a film, and then emphasized with too many touches to count. (The best is the red clay that provides the family with its money, only to constantly seep in the house like blood pouring down the walls.) The story of Crimson Peak may be pure Gothic romance, but the style is Gothic in the vein of Poe, with rich shadows, crumbling walls, desolate fields, roofs that have given way to dead leaves, and so much more, creating one of the most vivid and astonishing worlds that I've seen in years. And del Toro uses the style perfectly, underlining the story's beats and letting it constantly reflect the crumbling world of the characters, shifting as the story moves through its paces. Yes, Crimson Peak is more style than substance. But here, the style is the substance, telling the story every bit as well as any of the dialogue, creating a mood and tone that shape every aspect of the world and the characters, and demonstrating just how and why del Toro has won such a cult following. It's an astonishing, beautiful piece of filmmaking, and if it's not that scary, maybe, and if the story is a little predictable, I didn't care a bit - I could have spent hours in the world it created and never gotten bored in the least.
10-6 Sicario
I haven't seen much of Denis Villeneuve's work so far; I first saw his breakthrough film Incendies, which I thought was really solid but undone by an over-the-top twist, and then saw his American debut, the gripping and powerful Prisoners. Over the course of those two movies, though, it's become hard to deny Villeneuve's directorial skills, taking his thriller plots and turning them into something more affecting, more powerful, more thoughtful. And now comes Sicario, which plays to his strengths beautifully and minimizes the plot missteps of those previous films, turning what could have been a simple thriller about drug cartels into a tense, draining, intense experience that often floored me with its skill. Sicario doesn't waste time, opening with a SWAT raid on a drug house that turns out to be hiding a nightmarish secret; from there, the film follows the squad leader (played beautifully by the reliably great Emily Blunt) as she gets involved with a shady operation to "shake up" the cartels and get to those making the decisions. And as things get more and more chaotic, the question is constantly raised of where we draw the line between following the law and doing what needs to be done - or if such a line should be drawn at all. It's a question that gets raised in many movies, but Sicario handles it perfectly, asking the right questions, refusing to give easy answers, and forcing us to look at the realities of both situations. Even apart from the weighty questions, though, Sicario works on a more visceral, effective level, delivering at least three flawless set pieces that left me unbearably tense, and rarely - if ever - letting that tension ease throughout. The great performances only help things along; along with Blunt as the tough, honest newcomer, there's Josh Brolin as the smug, uncomfortably funny head of the operation, and Benicio del Toro as a mysterious consultant whose very presence lends unease to the situation. Sicario has a couple of minor missteps - a plot thread about a Mexican policeman does what it needs to but never feels less than tacked on, and a couple of plot revelations are treated as more surprising than they really are - but the emphasis there should be on "minor." As a whole, it's an intense, astonishing piece of work, one that's absolutely beautifully filmed (what else do you expect from cinematographer Roger Deakins?), solidly acted, and morally complex; that it takes on real world issues so directly and still makes for such a great piece of entertainment is just testament to the skill of everyone involved.
10-3 The Big Lebowski (1998)
Over the weekend, my wife and I joined a few old friends for a weekend out in a cabin for a nice vacation from life and the kids. And sometimes, when you spend a weekend with friends, you don't always watch great films, which is why I brought Shakedown for everyone to watch. (I would have brought The Room had I known that many of the crew hadn't seen it yet; alas, I was unaware until too late.) Shakedown isn't a particularly great movie, or even that good at times, but it's certainly a fun one, with police thug squads intimidating people with choreographed dance moves, people hanging off of landing gear, men with spring-loaded knife launchers, and Sam Elliott with a sweet mullet. It's a fun movie about corrupt cops, and even if parts are pretty ridiculous, it's a fun piece of schlock. As for Lebowski (which has been a favorite of this crew since, quite literally, opening day of the film back in 1998), what is there to say? Still funny, still rich, still incredibly written, still well-acted, still perfect. You'd think that after all these viewings, it would start to lose some magic for me, but somehow, that still hasn't happened, even now that I can basically recite the whole film.
10-3 Shakedown (1988)
10-2 Review:
Season 2
It's not like the first season of Review wasn't dark. This was a show that took a simple premise - a man reviews life events, ranging from babysitting to eating an unhealthy amount of pancakes, on a 1-5 star scale for a TV show - and managed to turn it into the saga of a man blowing up his life in almost every conceivable way. So you can forgive me - and a lot of people - for wondering exactly how they were going to top all of that for the second season. And then, within fifteen minutes of the season debut, Forrest MacNeil (the reviewer) had already been shot and lay in a coma, and I think we already realized that the show was not only going to match the first season's darkness - it was going to blow it out of the water and then some. And, oh, did it ever, bringing cults, explosions, lost boats, prison, and so much more to the table. It all goes to insanely dark places, but none of that would matter if the show weren't also hilariously, insanely funny. Luckily, it is, leaving me in tears nearly every week, thanks in no small part to Andy Daly's performance as the indomitably cheery Forrest. He's helped by a great supporting cast (James Urbaniak as his producer does so much with silence and a look), but the show works thanks to Daly, who somehow elicits both sympathy and frustration, as he engineers his own destruction and yet remains gleefully oblivious to it all. It all combines to be one of the darkest, funniest shows on television, and that's a combination we don't often see, and definitely not to this degree. It also makes the show, inevitably, a cult phenomenon; not everyone can find the humor in this plunge into insanity, and not everyone can keep watching as the show turns the screws on Forrest more and more. But for me, it's one of my favorite shows, delivering comedy beyond the boundaries of just about anyone else, but working not just as something "edgy" or new, but just plain working. And if you can't imagine how a naked, steroid-abusing madman running around during a shootout between a cult and the FBI could be funny, well, have I got a show for you.
9-24 The General (1926)
I've really become a big Buster Keaton aficionado over the past few years, devouring his short films and some of his features whenever I can and loving almost all of them. Sure, there's something intrinsically hilarious about Keaton's impassive, calm demeanor, which never cracks even in the most astonishing circumstances. But what I've really come to love about Keaton is his gift for setpieces, taking something as simple as a steamboat or a house connected by secret passages and crafting intricate, jaw-dropping sequences that manage to inspire both awe and loud, constant laughter. And so, given the chance to rewatch The General for the first time in years, see it on the big screen, and have it accompanied by the always wonderful Alloy Orchestra (who travel the country providing original live scores for silent films), how could I pass up the chance? Widely regarded as Keaton's masterpiece (which is hard to argue, even though I think Sherlock Jr. is perfection for every minute of its brief running time), The General finds Keaton running a railroad during the Civil War, trying his best to enlist in the Confederate army, foiling a group of Union spies, and trying to rescue his girlfriend and prove his bravery. That sounds like a lot to pack into The General's 67 minutes, but in Keaton's hands, it all somehow works, and feels less like chaos and more like constant, boundless energy. Picking up beams as a train neatly hits him, destroying a bridge as a locomotive barrels down it, leaping from car to car on a moving train, Keaton constantly leaves you both admiring his acrobatic ability and timing and wondering how on earth he managed to never die doing the things he did. (If you've ever wanted to see a silent film where the audience can't help but burst into applause at some of the stunt work, go see The General with a crowd.) But if all The General offered were stunts, it would be good; what makes it work, and what makes it a masterpiece, is that it's so riotously, constantly funny, and that the humor is shared by the whole crew. (Keaton's love interest, for instance, about steals the show in the film's final third.) And, of course, seeing it with the Alloy Orchestra is a treat; with a score that beautifully complements the film and even adds in occasional sound effects as needed, they made an already great film into a truly wonderful experience, something hard to encapsulate. In short, it was a joy of an evening, and it's not hard to see why for any serious film fan.
9-19 Queen of
It seems almost appropriate that I saw Queen of Earth back to back with Phoenix. It's not really that the two films have anything in common on almost any level; while Phoenix is the story of a Holocaust survivor trying to rebuild her life, Queen of Earth is a breakup film by way of Repulsion, as a young woman (Elisabeth Moss, of Mad Men fame) retreats to a cabin with her best friend and begins to unravel. No, the comparison comes from the fact that both films work a bit better on a metaphorical level than on a literal one. But while Phoenix still gripped me even on a literal basis, I found myself getting a little frustrated with Queen of Earth, which often lets Moss go way over the top in her madness, and reduces its supporting characters to archetypes that don't quite work for the story. And yet, for all of that, it's hard to deny the intensity and mood of Queen of Earth, which uses a dread-inducing score, some wonderful long takes, and great performances to constantly leave the viewer feel a sense of mounting unease. More than that, writer-director Alex Ross Perry does fantastic work when it comes to Moss's character, letting her madness slowly reveal itself as being much more complex and difficult than a simple reaction to a breakup. Nonetheless, the lack of restraint hurts the film at points, especially as it goes along, making Moss feel like she's going full on Jack Nicholson rather than truly living the character; combine that with Patrick Fugit's character increasingly turning into a one-dimensional heel (and without the subjective and unreliable perspective that excuses some of the same issues with Repulsion), and it feels a bit as if the film gets away from itself, turning into a showy play and losing its grip on the rich emotional damage underneath. Even so, I can't argue that Queen of Earth didn't get under my skin, immersing me in this toxic relationship and plunging us so far into Moss's increasingly fracturing psyche that it becomes easy to understand why she reacts the way she does. Add to that a few doses of pitch-black comedy to move things along, and you have a very good film that isn't quite as great as it could be with a little more restraint and focus to help it stay grounded.
9-19 Phoenix
In its brief American run so far, Phoenix has earned comparisons to Hitchcock and gained near-universal acclaim for its final scene. Between that and the film's plot - which follows a Holocaust survivor who, after recovering from facial reconstruction surgery that leaves her not quite recognizable, sets out to find the husband who might or might not have betrayed her - you might expect Phoenix to be a tense, unnerving psychological thriller, one that builds to an iconic confrontation. What you get, though, is very different - and that's not entirely a bad thing. Phoenix works better as a character/psychological study than it does as a literal story; indeed, those who dislike the film seem to largely be hung up on some of the difficulties of the story, which never really bothered me. The reason? Phoenix works masterfully as a study of this character, a woman desperate to rebuild her life and set the past behind her, only to find that there's little way to ignore what happened. That theme - a desire to ignore the past - fits neatly into the world of Phoenix, whose 1945 Berlin setting finds a whole population ready to ignore what's happened and revise the past, only to have it constantly return when they can least handle it. As for those Hitchcock comparisons, they make sense when you realize how much of Vertigo there is in this film, as women are forced to re-enact roles of lost lovers and reshape themselves for the desire of men around them. Phoenix is a quiet, haunting film, one that earns a lot of tension from its premise but uses it to explore the psychology of denial and loss beautifully. And while the final scene isn't the blowup I kind of expected, it's no less effective for what it is, which is a beautiful cap to the film that nicely draws everything together without so much as a word. My first reaction to Phoenix was a little bit of disappointment that it wasn't going to be the suspenseful thriller that I expected; as it played, though, I was entranced by what it was - something far richer and more complex, a study of love, loss, guilt, and historical shame that plays as both metaphor and painful love story. It's a gripping, beautiful piece of filmmaking, and if the final scene is more low-key than you might expect after all the praise, it's no less perfect for all of that.
9-3 Tom at the
As I sit and think about Tom at the Farm, I really wonder how much of my frustration comes from my expectations and how much comes from the film itself. Make no mistake - I think Tom at the Farm is being fairly badly represented in its trailers and in the discussion about it, which seems to want to sell it as a Hitchcock homage, or a psychological thriller in that tradition. (Indeed, even director/star Xavier Dolan seems to be selling it that way in interviews, which didn't help my expectations.) Instead, Tom at the Farm is something more subtle and infinitely more peculiar, a film about a young man (the titular Tom) who travels out to an isolated farm to attend the funeral of his boyfriend. When he gets there, though, he learns that his late lover's mother had no idea about her son's sexual orientation; more to the point, he learns that her older son has worked hard to cover up his brother's homosexuality, and isn't about to have that ruined by some mourning lover. What follows from there is a strange journey, with Tom essentially forced back into the closet, only to find that his lover's older brother is far more violent, controlling, and possibly more complex than he expected. From what I've read, Tom at the Farm is based off of a play, one that orbits around the double life so many gay people - and maybe especially gay men - are forced into throughout their lives, and as a sort of allegorical exploration of that concept, there's a lot of interesting stuff going on in Tom at the Farm. The problem, though, is that the film seems to want to be something darker and more menacing, and that never quite works out as well as it should. Dolan builds some great moments, but the film as a whole seems like it should be building to something - a big confrontation, a hidden secret, something. Instead, things just kind of happen for a while, and the film ends up taking weird jags that only really make sense on an allegorical level (I'm thinking especially here of Tom's brief sojourn into a sort of Stockholm syndrome); while some of them might have worked on the stage (especially given the way the play reportedly spends more time immersing you into Tom's perspective and thoughts), in a film, they feel disjointed and often bewildering, making the characters feel more like a collection of ideas than a whole person. The result is a frustrating film, one that I wish I liked more than I did; as it stands, it comes close to working, but ultimately never quite finds a way to stand on its own terms and tell a cohesive, single story.
8-31 Nashville
When I first saw Nashville some 15+ years ago, I hadn't really watched much Robert Altman, and what little I'd seen hadn't sunk in much. So maybe Nashville wasn't the best starting point for an Altman newcomer; it's possibly the most extreme version of the "Altman film," with more than 20 main characters, an overarching plot that's tenuous at best, and a length that can be exhausting if you're not enjoying yourself. So, at the time, I wasn't a fan...but as time passed, I saw more and more Altman, and loved more and more of it. And so, I finally revisited the film, and found myself staggered by its greatness, its accomplishments, and its astonishing skill. Trying to summarize the film is an impossible task, as anyone who's seen it can attest; it's about politics and entertainment and the ever-blurring lines between the two; it's about love and betrayal and the compromises we make to make ourselves happy; it's about our dreams and the ugly reality that often comes when we get them; it's about shallow people who reveal depth and deep people who reveal their shallowness. It's a film that, as I mentioned, has more than 20 main characters, all of whom get an arc. That's a staggering thing to think about, especially when I see films that can't even manage to have a compelling journey for one character. But Altman manages to tell all of these stories, and tells them all beautifully, juggling the characters and letting all of them develop and have their moments, until you realize just how rich the tapestry he's created has become. It's a thoughtful film, one that may eschew anything approaching a traditional plot, but has more to say than most films ever could. Altman avoids easy platitudes, too; look, for example, at how Henry Gibson's flashy country music icon reveals not that he's a shallow hypocrite, but that he truly believes the things he says, the way he acts. Look at how Lily Tomlin's loving mother makes a choice that could easily make her a villain or fill her with regret, and then watch as Altman gives her a richer, more surprising ending. And then watch as Altman delivers scenes that overwhelmed me with emotion - a slow breakdown on a music stage that breaks your heart, a club performance that evolves into something far more unpleasant, a concert that veers into tragedy before filling with something closer to triumph. In short, then, it's Altman at his best, juggling dozens of characters, an improvisatory style, a sprawling story that ends up being richer than you expect, and making a portrait of a city that's both more sincere and more mercenary than outsiders might expect. Nashville may not be my favorite Altman film - that would still probably be McCabe and Mrs. Miller - but it may well be his best.
8-30 Hannibal: Season 3
It's hard to write a single review for the final season of Hannibal, given how neatly split the season is into two very different segments. The first half of the season (I think it's actually slightly more than half, but you get the idea) is like a bizarre, gloriously over-the-top horror art film, as the survivor's of last season's massacre heal, regroup, and begin to track down the escaped Hannibal Lecter. There's no arguing that the early going of the season got pretentious and slow-paced; the issue really is whether you think that's a bad thing or a great thing. You can count me in the latter camp; while I totally empathize with anyone who got frustrated with the season in the early going and gave up (and don't really blame them), I loved the show's devil-may-care attitude, refusing to compromise itself for anyone and instead doubling down on all its most inaccessible qualities as it plunged into a weird landscape of psychic scar tissue, wounded victims, brainwashed captives, and more. It either worked for you or it didn't, but you certainly can't accuse showrunner Bryan Fuller of ever compromising his vision for that show. And then, just when he had pushed everyone to the limit of their tolerance (and probably pushed a lot of people beyond that), he shifted everything, turning the last half of the season into his take on Red Dragon. Taking on a familiar story like this (which has been told in three different versions even before this) could have been the ruin of the show; instead, it became some of the best, most intense, disturbing work the show had ever done, immersing itself in a killer like it had rarely been able to do and truly letting us see the world through the eyes of the disturbed, fractured Francis Dolarhyde. Fuller made the material his own, letting it serve as both an exciting and intense story on its own terms, but also using it to explore the themes he's been fascinated by from the beginning - the dangers of madness, the way empathy can blind us to the danger we're in, and the complex, fascinating relationship between Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter. And it all builds to a jaw-dropping finale that took the book and turned it on its head, letting it become the perfect send-off for the show. I'm not sure if Hannibal will ever return at this point; I certainly hope it does, and if it does, I'll be there and excited. But if it doesn't, I can't help but feel that Fuller and company sent us off perfectly, giving us a final moment (excepting the stinger) that wraps up every plot thread, every psychological scar, in wonderful fashion. And whatever else you say about the show - whatever its excesses or absurdities - it certainly wasn't like anything else on television, and that alone means I'll be missing it for a long time to come.
8-6 The Daily
Show with
Jon Stewart
(1999 - 2015)
You can count me among those who were skeptical when some guy named Jon Stewart took over The Daily Show back in 1999. I had quite enjoyed Craig Kilborn's take on the show, which was a pretty broad comedy show that spent a lot of time mocking people's dumber behavior. And when Stewart took over, I drifted in and out for a while as he found his voice, more or less enjoying the show but realizing it wasn't quite what it had been when I started watching it. But sometime not long after 9/11, I found myself watching The Daily Show and realizing that it had become essential viewing for me, and that's a habit that I kept until Jon Stewart's final broadcast last week, not missing an episode in more than 12 years. It's hard to overstate how much Jon Stewart influenced me politically; he took a vague interest and fanned it, diving into policies, political figures, platforms, and so much more, managing somehow to both inform and constantly entertain. But more than that, he was reassuring in a way that no traditional piece of journalism could be. As the Bush presidency got more and more nauseating, or as elections became more and more of a circus, Stewart's rage, satire, and commentary hit home with me, reminding me that I wasn't alone in my frustration with the process and the outcomes. He was a reminder that you weren't alone in your anger and your disgust, and as he got more and more famous, the fact that he was allowed to say the things so many of us thought was a relief, a sense that someone was in our corner. More than anything else, Jon Stewart was a comforting figure to have in politics: part conscience, part watchdog, part commentator, part clown, and he could take nearly any event and make it palatable and understandable, or at least mollify your outrage and help you cope. And no matter how strident he became, you knew that he was a man who constantly spoke from the heart, who always spoke his mind and believed in the things he said. (It's the reason that the Rally to Restore Sanity spoke so much to me; as much as people complained that he shouldn't treat the sides fairly, it spoke to Stewart's essential sense of fairness and refusal to give one side a pass for its behavior just because he agreed with them.) Now he's gone, and his successor starts soon. I have no doubt Trevor Noah will do a good job, and while the show will take a while to find its rhythm and its voice, I bet it'll be a must watch for me too. But it won't be Stewart, and it's hard not to think that television and public discourse will be so much lesser for his absence, no matter how much he richly deserves the break from it all.
8-1 Mission: Impossible -
Rogue Nation
How on earth did the Mission: Impossible franchise get to be so great? With only one real misfire to be had, it's the rare series that seems able to deliver nearly every time, and does so without feeling like it's just regurgitating old films. Indeed, by giving every film a fairly interesting director, the result is a series of films that's constantly reshaping themselves in new ways, and Rogue Nation is no different. Reuniting Tom Cruise with Jack Reacher director Christopher McQuarrie, Rogue Nation never quite achieves the dizzying heights of Ghost Protocol (still probably my favorite of the series), but it may be more consistent, delivering a compelling plot, an interesting villain, and a constant rhythm of dazzling setpieces that never disappoint. After all, this is a movie that opens with its leading man hanging off of a plane as it takes off, and manages to keep topping itself from there. (And, of course, the fact that Cruise is so willing to do his own stunts gives so many of the scenes a visceral impact that's hard to ignore; even beyond the plane, there's an underwater sequence that genuinely shocked me when I learned about Cruise holding his breath to make it work.) The opera stalking/shootout, a fantastic car chase, the underwater heist...the film never lets up, and uses the supporting players nicely, bringing some great humor and nice tension breaks to the film as needed. It's engaging, fun, exciting, and just a great piece of popcorn filmmaking; it tells an interesting story, does it well, and delivers stylish, interesting action that feels fresh and crisp. I had a blast with it; yeah, it may not match Ghost Protocol, but it's still incredibly solid - it's hard to imagine anyone not being entertained by it.
7-22 Apur Sansar (1959)
I watched Pather Panchali last year and really loved it; even so, I wasn't prepared for how much more I loved it on a second watch as part of the full Apu trilogy. Each of the three films follows a period of time in the life of a young man named Apu: Pather follows his childhood, Aparajito his adolescence, and Apur Sansar his early steps into adulthood. Each of the films is inextricably linked to a time and place: Pather takes place in a small rural Indian village right after the turn of the century, Aparajito moves to a larger city, and Apur Sansar moves between the city and the wilderness of India. And yet, while the films are unmistakably about life in India, they're far more than that, touching into universal rites of passage and experiences that instantly resonate, no matter where you live. Struggling to make ends meet, taking care of your children, balancing your parents and your newfound independence as you age, the conflict between faith and science, first loves - the Apu trilogy touches on them all and more, making the story of this one person something far more universal while never letting him be anyone other than himself. The result is a set of films that both capture a time and place perfectly while also making something more fundamentally human, and watching them together makes for a profoundly moving experience. And if that's not enough for you, there's the astonishing filmmaking on display. When Satiyajit Ray started filming Pather Panchali, he had never touched a camera in his life, but that's not something you would ever know from the astonishing camerawork, the beautiful images, the natural performances. And over the course of these three films, we watch Ray the director grow, becoming more and more confident and making more and more striking images, crafting perfect performances, and creating a work of such subtlety and intelligence that even with all the movies I've seen in my life, it's hard not to think of these as among the all-time best films I've ever seen in my life. And if you've never seen them, you get the experience of your first exposure being the pristine, crisp Criterion restoration, which cleans up these seminal films in a way that lets American audiences see them as we never have before. I could go on for pages and pages about the Apu films - the heartrendingly beautiful picture of young romance, the flawless evocation of a mother's love and a son's dependency, the ability to let these characters never feel like the creations of a filmmaker but only as real people - but the best I can say is that the films linger and haunt you in a way that's hard to shake - and I'm okay with that. They're films I'd be fine with never leaving, and films that let you feel like you've gotten a window into another world and lives of people you genuinely love by the end of it all.
7-21 Aparajito
7-21 Pather

7-22 Arrested
Season 1
Yes, I know. I should have gotten to this sooner. And in my defense, the episodes I've seen of Arrested Development over the years have been pretty great, but it's always been a show I felt like I needed to watch in order to fully appreciate it. And having finally managed to sit and watch the entire first season, a) I was right to wait, and b) everyone was right in telling me I would love it. Arrested Development is silly, absurd television for smart people, layering in dozens of jokes, setting up punchlines episodes in advance, relying on people to know the characters and pay attention, and being more than willing to let some of the jokes only work if you notice them. (Lucille Bluth's "Guess who's coming to dinner!" line is a great example of this.) But as much as that sounds like brainy stuff, Arrested Development is gleefully silly, tossing in physical comedy, cutaway gags (which set the stage for Family Guy's non sequiturs in years to come, although they're far better done here - more character driven, more committed), sight gags, and so much more. Yes, you can feel the tension between the showrunners and the sitcom model, and sometimes the "happy endings" of the episodes feel a little forced. But that's completely forgivable when you have something as absurdly funny as Tobias's silent infiltration of a house, or Gob's battle with a sheet of paper, or Buster's sugar rush...the list goes on and on. The short version is, it's every bit as funny as I've always heard and then some; yes, I loved it; yes, I plan on starting season 2 as soon as I can; yes, you were all right.
7-16 The Piano
As I've thought about it over the last couple of days, I've come to feel that The Piano is a pretty great movie that I admired more than I liked. That's not to say that I disliked the movie; indeed, The Piano is strikingly beautiful throughout, and if it sometimes seems to be so laden with symbolism that it becomes a bit turgid, that's balanced by the performances, which add life and zest to the scenes. And let's be fair: the metaphor is rich, forming a story of a woman whose voice is literally controlled by two men, only to find her creating her own way through life. Add to that some rich scenes of life among the Maori and you have a movie that's got a lot of substance, thought, and even some humor to it...and yet, as much as I liked it, I didn't quite love it the way so many do. I'm sure no small part of it is the film's reputation as one of the modern greats, meaning that the film has its own shadow to compete against. But The Piano isn't interested in being a sweeping epic or a profound statement (though there are elements of that in its approach to its female characters). Instead, it's a quiet story, one filled with odd characters who surpass what could be quirks and turn them into personalities, a setting that becomes part of the tale, and much more. It's a movie I liked quite a bit, and in some ways, I think it achieves its greatness in a quiet sort of way. For all that, though, it's a movie that I still can't adore with the fervor of so many.
7-16 Knightriders
I really don't know what to make of Knightriders, which is such a bizarre movie that it's hard to explain. It's a movie about Renaissance Fair jousters...only they ride motorcycles. It's filled with battles and fights between the jousters...but it's really a drama. It's set in the modern era...but it's about a man who feels that he's the King Arthur of this group, and holds to traditional values, while his group contemplates selling out for more popular ventures. It's a really strange movie, and that doesn't even get into the subplots about one team member accepting his homosexuality, or another involving a young woman trying to escape her home life. There's a rumor that one early cut of the film ran nearly 17 hours, and you can almost believe that; what we get is this weird, sprawling, uneven story that feels like some miniseries cut down to fit in a running time that's already too long. And yet, for all of that, it's a heartfelt movie, one about the conflict between higher ideals and more simple pleasures, about art versus commerce. And though the anachronistic elements, cheap production values, and sprawling script all make it frequently more baffling than successful, it's never really boring; it's just all over the map. It's not a successful movie by any means, but that doesn't mean it's "bad." It's the perfect kind of cult movie, one that's deeply flawed and yet has such a personal feel to it that you can easily see it drawing a devoted following (which, apparently, it has). It's certainly a wonderfully weird experience, if nothing else.
7-15 The Jinx:
The Life and
Deaths of
Robert Durst
First of all, if you don't know about The Jinx, here's what you need to do: don't Google it. Don't look up Robert Durst. Just watch this incredible series cold, and revel in the insanity of the story that unfolds. If, on the other hand, you're like me, and you've heard about how the series ends...well, don't worry. I wish I hadn't known about the jaw-dropping final moment of the series, but even knowing it was coming didn't detract from the power of the television I was watching, and it certainly didn't prepare me for how wild the rest of the story turned out to be. The Jinx tells the story of Robert Durst, a man whose wife disappeared in 1982 under what could generously be termed mysterious circumstances; if that's not enough, some years later, Durst was arrested for the murder and dismemberment of an elderly neighbor in Galveston, TX, in a story that only gets weirder as you learn more about. That's a compelling enough story to unfold, but what makes The Jinx truly remarkable is the fact that Durst asks to be interviewed for this series, and that interview forms the heart of the episodes. Durst is an incredible interview subject; at times, he's remarkably charming, and yet his nearly pitch-black eyes, heavy blinking, and cold mannerisms make him a chilling figure, and leave you constantly questioning his guilt or innocence. And that's before Durst's bizarre life begins to be unfolded for you, delivering no shortage of shocks, twists, and astonishing reveals that frequently left my jaw hanging open or me laughing in disbelief. The Jinx is riveting television, a true life crime story with a magnetic, compelling figure at its core, and an addictive tale to tell. And even if you know some of the stops along the way, it never detracts from the series' power or compelling nature. It's not hard to see how this became such a phenomenon, and it left me both dying to know more and wanting to talk out so many of the issues it raises and touches on.
7-15 I Am
It's really hard to rate I Am Cuba on any sort of conventional scale. As a story, I Am Cuba falls pretty flat, and that's probably not entirely by accident; this is propaganda, pure and simple, and it's trading in archetypes and broad symbols in the guise of people. Using four short sections, I Am Cuba seeks to portray Cuba before the revolution, as it's being exploited by capitalists and foreigners, and then follows the rise of the revolution. It's all done without much nuance or interest in complexity; the Russian backers of the film didn't want a story, they wanted an endorsement of their way of life. So, yeah, at times, I Am Cuba is pretty uninvolving, and the fact that it's over two hours certainly doesn't help things. And yet, if you can set aside the story, it's an astonishing piece of filmmaking, containing some of the most jaw-dropping camerawork I've ever seen. Look, for instance, at this incredible shot, which starts on the roof of a building before descending through multiple levels and then following a woman through a crowd as she steps into a swimming pool. Even by today's standards, it's awe-inspiring; to imagine it filmed in 1964 is to have your mind flummoxed by how it could possibly be done. The fact that that's maybe not even the best shot in the film speaks to why I Am Cuba has become such a staple among cinephiles, and why it's become so adored by filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Spike Lee. There's not a scene in the film without some incredible tracking shot that defies belief, some beautiful close up that's striking in every way, some use of contrast or camera movement that doesn't move you perfectly more than you're prepared for. (Indeed, you can't help but feel that the film is often more moving without any dialogue at all.) If you approach it as a conventional piece of work, you'll be bored, and disappointed, and bewildered. If you approach it for its technical achievements, for its visual storytelling, for its astonishing camerawork and photography, you'll be more riveted than you ever expected you could be by a piece of propaganda.
7-15 Gone Girl
It's hard to think of a better pairing than director David Fincher and Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn's wildly entertaining tale of a disappearance that becomes something far, far more complicated. Flynn's book is gleefully twisted and fairly misanthropic, reveling in its awful characters and having a blast through all of the wonderfully unexpected twists it doles out. David Fincher brings to the table a masterful visual style that's cold and calculating, filming it all with a malicious smile, and it couldn't accentuate Flynn's story more. The result is an absolute blast, bringing out the black humor of the book, emphasizing the satirical depiction of our shallow media, and managing to make the characters come to life wonderfully, maybe even more so than the book. Much of that, of course, has to be laid at the feet of the cast, where there's never a sour note. Tyler Perry - yes, that Tyler Perry - nearly steals the show as the slick, intelligent lawyer who's made a career of defending guilty looking husbands, but he's matched by Kim Dickens as a careful police detective and Carrie Coon as the loyal twin sister of our "hero." In the end, though, the film belongs to Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike as the couple at the core. Without getting too much into the story, the film needs great performances to work - it requires us to constantly shift our sympathies, question our assumptions, and be willing to follow these characters even as we're left wondering who, if anyone, is supposed to be the hero of this story. And both of them pull it off beautifully. Affleck uses his usual smug personality to magnificent effect, making Nick equally charismatic and off-putting, and using our assumptions against him beautifully. But Pike is the real revelation, taking what could be a simple part and investing it with depth and intelligence. Add to that Fincher's perfect atmosphere (helped in no small part by the great scoring work by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross), and you have the rare film that doesn't just do the book justice; it may even be a little better. It's viciously, trenchantly funny, gleefully twisted, undeniably thrilling, beautifully staged, and all around just a dynamite piece of filmmaking. I loved the book, and I had high hopes upon learning that Fincher was helming the adaptation; not only did it live up to them, it exceeded them and then some.
7-15 Kurt Cobain:
Montage of
Montage of Heck isn't your standard documentary, and that's really what makes it worth watching. As the title implies, it's less of a talking head-driven look at Cobain's career and influence and more of a collage that seeks to create an impression of Cobain himself, flaws and all. At its best moments (the first half especially), Montage is powerfully moving, mixing home videos, Cobain's sketches and drawings, recollections of family, and occasional animated recreations into powerful sequences that convey more about Cobain than any simple interview ever could. (The animated recreations, it has to be said, work astonishingly well; they're used sparingly, but the choices about when to use them are solid, plunging you into formative stories of Kurt's life, often narrated by the man himself.) And by focusing on Cobain over his career, the film becomes more about Cobain and less about the music or his influence, giving the film an emotional focus that sets it apart from other films. But as Cobain deals with success, marries Courtney Love, and becomes a father, the film loses its momentum and begins to drag a bit, losing some of the propulsive pacing that drives the first half of the film so nicely and spending more and more time on home videos of Kurt and Courtney's home life, filled with their daughter and their drug addiction issues. Some of the footage is definitely effective - there's a sequence of an obviously high Kurt dealing with his daughter that's truly horrifying (when Courtney Love is scolding you for your drug use and behavior, you've done something deeply wrong) - but the sheer length of them robs the film of the strengths that make the first half so good. All that being said, the film is still an effective look at Cobain, and an excellent dive into the man himself, rather than the frontman and musician. And though the second half is far weaker, it's still a fascinating window into one of the most iconic figures in music in my own lifetime.
7-14 Blue is the
In the time since its release, Blue is the Warmest Color has gone from critical darling to something more controversial, with accusations of cruel behavior by the director, miserable experiences for the actresses, and lots of comments about the inauthentic nature of its love story, which has been accused of being less a lesbian love story and more the straight male version of that story. I can't comment on much of that; it's not like other directors haven't put people through hell to get great performances (Kubrick, Friedkin), and as a straight white male myself, I can't comment on whether it's an accurate view of a lesbian love affair. What I can do is look at Blue as a film and as a document of a relationship, and on that level, it's a beautiful, intimate, heartbreaking film, one that allows its two key figures to develop as people, not just archetypes, and gives them both the room to breathe and come to life that so many films fail to do. Blue uses its three hour running time perfectly, giving scenes time to play out and the actors the ability to live in their personas, and the result feels less like a scripted story and more like a window into a young love story. Watching Adèle as she starts to realize her attraction to Emma, their early interactions, their hesitant flirting, their abandon as they realize their love for each's beautiful, moving material, and the film brings it to life magnificently, giving us an honest portrait of young love that's instantly familiar to anyone who's gone through it. And while I felt the film could have handled the time jumps better (it frequently felt a little jarring to me, and I wish the transitions had been clearer), the fact that they're there is wonderful; it allows us to watch as the relationship develops over time, as love becomes familiarity and comfort, as the freshness of new love gives way to anxiety or distrust or comfort. Which leaves, inevitably, the infamous sex scenes, which are every bit as explicit and lengthy as you've heard. In some ways, it's appropriate for the film; it's further window into the intimacy and excitement of new love, and the passion and emotion the actresses bring to the scenes help that aspect. At the same time, their sheer length and explicit nature can't help but distract from the film, and at times, they stop the film in its tracks, breaking the wonderful atmosphere it's worked so hard to build. But, ultimately, the can't break the beautiful story of the film, nor its ability to depict this relationship. And whatever issues others may have, for myself? I found it beautifully told, astonishingly moving, and wonderfully universal in some ways - as much as it's undeniably the story of these girls, it's also the story of so many relationships, and there's something there we can all relate to.
7-14 World on a
World on a Wire is a two-part TV movie, which means that it lasts nearly three and a half hours. Luckily, it generally wears that length well, even if the pacing sometimes drags more than you'd like it to. It helps, of course, that World on a Wire boasts such a phenomenal story, telling the story of a scientific company that's created a virtual world in order to make economic predictions, only for the real world to start undergoing its own surreal changes. Done on a TV movie budget, World on a Wire makes up for its lack of effects by packing in the ideas, allowing its characters to explore questions about reality, free will, control, and so much more. Made nearly 25 years before The Matrix hit the mainstream, World on a Wire marries a crime story to a science-fiction thriller, creating something that - at its best moments - feels like a Philip K. Dick novel captured on screen. And if some of the reveals along the way feel a little familiar these days, well, I can forgive that; this came first, and does the ideas justice, never skimping on a chance to explore the deep ramifications of its philosophy and allow the characters to react in an honest, heartfelt manner. Yes, World on a Wire gets a little long at points, and sometimes belabors the points it's trying to make. But it's still a great story, one that feels exciting and rich and groundbreaking, even if it's been revisited in the years to come. (Indeed, maybe because it's been revisited, but not with such thoughtfulness and attention to detail.) It takes a little bit of patience at times, but if you like your science-fiction to have ideas and creativity, you'll find a lot to love here.
7-13 O Lucky
It's hard to describe O Lucky Man!, given how wildly unconventional it is. Even the story is hard to summarize, opening with our protagonist working as a coffee salesman before he becomes a political prisoner, a test subject, a corporate assistant, a preacher, and more. But if that's not enough, there's the film itself, which contains silent movie sections, musical interludes (with a band in a studio acting as a sort of Greek chorus for the film), stark political commentary, wildly comic touches, surreal sequences, and so much more. It all adds up to a pretty marvelously entertaining 3 hours, and it's to the film's credit that while it doesn't entirely cohere as much as you'd like it to, you're never bored, and constantly entertained. Anchoring it all, of course, is Malcolm McDowell, who takes a somewhat autobiographical tale and manages to make it both personal and universal simultaneously, letting his character come to life while always remaining a bit allegorical and blank. And if all that sounds a bit contradictory, well, maybe it does, but the film still works on the whole. It's ambitious, sure, and it occasionally overreaches its goals. But it does it all with a huge sense of fun instead of a thudding sense of self-importance, and its willingness to be silly makes it wonderfully palatable and enjoyable in a way many three-hour epics can't always manage. And if it's overambitious, at least it has things to say - comments about the prison system, about British colonialism, about the dangers of capitalism, and more - which automatically sets it apart from less interesting films. It's a blast of a movie, one that moves wonderfully, constantly entertained, brings a lot to the table, and defies your expectations and the rules. That's more than enough to hook me, and more than enough to make me love the experience.
7-10 All the
Colors of the
It's not like you watch giallo films for their plot, I know. But even by the weird, bizarre standards of the genre, All the Colors of the Dark is pretty incoherent, plunging into dream logic so far that even David Lynch would be fed up with the final result. It doesn't help that All the Colors of the Dark opens with a pretty far over-the-top dream sequence that feels a bit laughably bad; thankfully, the film doesn't dive back into that level of silliness often. Instead, it wanders into Satanic cults with long-nailed leaders, blue-eyed killers who appear constantly, a glancing knowledge of psychotherapy, and lots and lots of dream logic that leaves you constantly wondering what's going on. All of that would be a lot more tolerable if it was better filmed or had the type of style that a master could bring to bear, but instead All the Colors feels pretty uninteresting visually, rarely bringing the visual panache you'd expect from the highlights of the genre. It says something when I preferred the sleaze and violence of New York Ripper to this, but at least New York Ripper was well-made and striking. This? This just...well, it was there.
7-10 The

It's hard to imagine Charles Bronson becoming a movie star today. He's older, he doesn't have the right look, his dialogue comes out in what sounds like a constant smirk, perhaps...and yet, he brings something to the screen, something impossible to ignore, something that makes him a magnetic presence. And when he's in action, Bronson is remarkable, bringing a physical intensity to his actions that suggests a man who's dangerous and not to be underestimated. It's hard to think of a better showcase for Bronson than the first 15 minutes of The Mechanic, in which Bronson wordlessly sets up a man's death carefully, cautiously, and patiently, making the final arrival of the assassination all the more effective. And while the rest of The Mechanic doesn't quite ever match that first 15 minutes, it's still a dynamite piece of work, matching Bronson's old professional hitman with a young apprentice who's eager to learn the trade. It's a film that makes outstanding use of Bronson, letting him rely as much on his presence and charisma as his dialogue, and letting him bring the character to life in the way he acts - and reacts. And Jan-Michael Vincent plays against him perfectly, giving Bronson a young protege who's eager to learn even this darkest of trades, and bringing to the film a fascinating dynamic. This being a 70's film, it's all pretty wonderfully bleak and honest; this is a man doing a job, and rather than questioning it or his lot in life, he simply accepts that this is his lot in life, and he's going to do a great job with it. It ends up feeling like a little bit of character study, a little bit of an action movie, and a little bit of a thriller, and it's all a blast - it's exciting, engaging, and reminds you how Bronson became the icon that he became, unlikely ascendance though it was.
7-10 The New
York Ripper

The New York Ripper is what happens when you let Lucio Fulci helm a slasher flick, and the results are almost exactly what you'd expect from that union: a wandering, somewhat incoherent story; absolutely beautiful visuals; heavy amounts of gore; a great giallo-esque score; and so forth. New York Ripper isn't a great movie by any means, and watching Fulci helm what might otherwise be a generic slasher feels a bit like a waste of his talent. But that talent is also what makes the movie so watchable, with astonishing use of color, a knack for staging the kills so that even their gruesome nature aids in the building of tension, a gift for framing and pacing that keeps things moving. The whole thing is undeniably sleazy and nasty, even by slasher standards, and it definitely times. (I mean, this is the kind of movie where the killer taunts the police by calling them and using a Donald Duck voice.) So, yeah, it's trash, and nasty trash at that. But it's really wonderfully filmed trash, and if you're wanting some gore and horror, you could do far worse than this.
7-10 Maniac
Maniac has a reputation as being a grimy, disturbing, gory, and just generally nasty little slasher film. And yes, it's all of those things; the pre-cleanup New York setting, the blood splattered killings, the disturbing mental state of the title all makes for the kind of movie that makes you feel a little dirtier for having watched it. And yet, for all of that, Maniac's smarter than I expected, finding a lot of its horror not through stalking and murder (although there's definitely some of that), but through the damaged psyche of its killer, which becomes the film's main focus. As acted by Joe Spinell, Frank Zito is as pathetic as he is brutal - a victim of abuse and his own insanity, a profoundly damaged man unable to relate to the outside world and women in general. That gives Maniac a more disturbing feel than a simple slasher, plunging us deeply into this twisted, nightmare world and never really giving us a way out - and that's before we start questioning the reality we're seeing around us. Maniac is every bit as low-budget and violent as I've heard, but in its creation of Frank Zito, it makes a truly fascinating killer at its core, one that's far, far more nuanced and complex than the genre usually allowed. And in doing so, it makes itself something more than the B-movie fare it's usually held to be. And more than anything, it's a shame that the film's reputation keeps people from giving it - and Spinell - more credit. It's definitely disturbing and grimy, but it's also more psychological than I had any idea it would be.
7-9 Transsiberian (2008)
Brad Anderson has made a name for himself as a solid thriller director; between his wonderfully unsettling horror film Session 9 and a lot of good TV work (especially his solid run on Fringe), I'm willing to give most of what he does a shot. And he does nice work on Transsiberian, a decent thriller about two Americans on the titular train; unfortunately, the script's overly convoluted nature ultimately overwhelms what starts as a nice, taut suspense tale. The setup is great - a young American couple (Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer) board a train crossing Siberia and make friends with their suite mates, only to have everything start unraveling from there. How it all ends up unfolding, and what it has to do with an opening scene with a Russian narcotics detective, is best left for the viewer to discover; suffice to say, there's some great surprises along the way...and then a few too many surprises, as everything gets too complicated for its own good in the final act. There's still some solid stuff in Transsiberian, including a wonderful use of the train's tight quarters, some solid performances that end up investing us in our heroes more than I expected, and some wonderfully executed reveals that definitely get your tension. (A late film trip to the dining car is definitely the highlight here; even if what happens there doesn't end up making much sense, it's an utterly fantastic moment.) Sadly, Transsiberian gets overly complicated, and the slew of twists and reversals end up losing a lot of the tension the film wrings from a pretty simple setup, and it all ends up losing its way a bit, and definitely losing some of its nice focus on the characters that drives the early going. It's not a bad film, really, but it's a great first 2 acts undermined by a failure to stick the landing, and in a thriller, that's always going to be a bit of a letdown.
7-9 Undisputed
A solid B-movie that deserves more of a following than it's got, Undisputed boasts a pretty simple premise: a heavyweight champion goes to prison, where a imprisoned mobster pushes for a fight between he and the local prison champ. That's it - no big twists, nothing terrifically shocking, just some great direction, a great script that's got a good dark sense of humor, a big batch of nice performances by character actors, and a fight that's genuinely engaging and exciting to watch unfold. Much of that comes down to the fact that the movie doesn't make any of its characters heroes or even all that sympathetic; Ving Rhames's heavyweight champ is arrogant, obnoxious, and probably a rapist; meanwhile, the prison champ (as played by Wesley Snipes) is aloof, violent, and antisocial, to put it mildly. But that ends up working for the film beautifully, creating a real sense of uncertainty about how things are going to unfold; if there's no hero, then anything can happen. And the supporting cast is great across the board, but you've got to single out Peter Falk as the mobster, who delivers all of his dialogue in that inimitable way, relishing every profanity, every insult, every monologue. It's a really fun movie, in pretty much every way, one done by professionals who know how to build characters, tell a story, and give everyone stakes, and do it all as simply and economically as possible. But would you really expect anything less from underrated auteur Walter Hill? It's a great little watch, and a wonderful piece of boxing pulp.
7-9 Gimme
One of my all-time favorite pieces of writing comes from Hunter S. Thompson, who discussed that point in history where the tide rolled back - where the idealism of the 60's began to roll back and the bleak realities of the Nixon era began to take hold. It's a quote that came to mind while watching Gimme Shelter, which tells the story of what was intended as a wonderful free music festival and instead became one of the darkest days of music history, as Hell's Angels attacked and killed an audience members. In the hands of the Maysles brothers, though, blame is hard to assign; as they watch the day unfold in all of its complexity, it becomes clear that Altamont was going bad early in the day, and continued to spin out of control as time went on. Was it the band, riling people up too much? Was it the crowd, losing control of themselves? Was it the Angels, who came loaded to bear and ready to fight? Maybe it was all of those things and more; maybe it was simply a change in the zeitgeist, and the beginning of the end for the hopefulness and idealism of the 1960's. The Maysles make no claims, and neither does the band, who watch the film unfold and are filmed themselves, incorporated into the final cut; watching them as the events play out, powerless to change things, leads to some unforgettable moments. But more than anything else, what Gimme Shelter is remembered for is Altamont. Though more than half of the film is spent in the lead up to the concert - earlier shows, the negotiations, and so forth - an air of dread hangs over the early goings, and once the show begins, it becomes nearly suffocating. I've seen horror films that didn't disturb and bother me as deeply as Gimme Shelter, and knowing where things end makes every moment of violence along the way all the more unsettling, as they become signs of what's to come. It all works together to make one of the most harrowing and viscerally upsetting documentaries I've ever seen, unblinkingly filming what's become universally known as one of the death knells of the 1960's. And having seen it, it's hard not to agree; what begins as a document of a band celebrating their success becomes instead a nightmare that left a scar over so many of the years to come.
7-8 Body Double
More De Palma doing his Hitchcock thing here, only without even the style and flair he can usually be counted on to bring to the table. With the exception of a brief musical interlude that caught me pretty off guard, Body Double feels pretty flat and uninspired, mixing together equal parts of Rear Window and Vertigo to make a surprisingly dull story about an actor who starts spying on his attractive neighbor only to get caught up in a much larger story. Like he did with Dressed to Kill, De Palma puts a lot of time and effort into setting up a big reveal, only it's so painfully obvious early on that it makes getting there a bit of a drag. And while the odd Vertigo section of the film adds a little bit of clever life to the film, it's not enough to make it really work, and ultimately feels like a weird afterthought. Normally I can at least enjoy De Palma on a technical level, but Body Double doesn't even have much there, meaning that all you have is overheated Hitchcock leftovers. Yawn.
7-8 La Haine
It's troubling, really, that La Haine feels as relevant and timely today as it did 20 years ago when it was made. It's a film about riots and social/economic tension after those riots - riots caused by excessive police brutality and the harassment/abuse of minorities. And while it may be set in Paris, circa 1995, there's no way of escaping the sense that it feels like it could just as much be about American issues in 2015. That queasy feeling of relevance makes it hard to dismiss La Haine as just a heavily stylized homage or piece of American-influenced cinema, even though that's definitely the case - it's impossible not to see how heavily Spike Lee influenced and inspired this. And yet, La Haine isn't just that; it's much more than just its style. Like Do the Right Thing, La Haine taps into the voices of a minority - here, more economic than racial, although that's undoubtedly a part of the film - and lets them speak their anger, their resentment, their frustration, their disenfranchisement. And yes, again, much like Do the Right Thing, the film feels a little aimless, willing to follow its characters as they drift throughout their day, entertain themselves, banter with each other and their friends, get into disagreements and fights with the cops...but gradually, as the tension rises, so does the threat - and promise - of violence. It's to La Haine's credit that even if it does feel obviously inspired by Lee's great film, it ultimately stands entirely on its own, drawing on French angers and resentments and creating a different voice for its youths than what we see in Do the Right Thing. That also gives La Haine the chance to make its own mistakes, as it does in the final moments, when it oversteps the boundaries of naturalism that have so nicely driven the film until then in favor of making sure the point gets hammered home. Still, it's an honest and good point to hammer, and it's of a piece with the rest of the film's feelings, which means it's a flaw, not a deal breaker, in this otherwise strong, angry film.
7-8 The Past
Asghar Farhadi burst onto the scene with the incredible film A Separation, which depicted an Iranian couple in the early stages of a divorce and the awful tragedy that spun out inexorably from that decision. There's little way for The Past not to get compared to A Separation; both are films that begin with the ending of a marriage, both beautifully create fully realized characters whose personalities lead to the conflicts of the film, both refuse to give us easy villains or heroes and instead look at the nuance of people's lives. Indeed, even if The Past is a weaker film than A Separation - and it is, for reasons I'll get into - it's further testament to Farhadi's astonishing gif for creating verisimilitude in his films, making his dialogue feel natural, the interactions recognizable, the characters compelling and human. No matter what the scene, we know where these people are coming from, how their perceptions will lead them into conflicts and fighting, and how their pasts shape their presents. And yet, even with all of that, The Past feels a bit less natural than A Separation, as its story seems to hinge less on natural developments and more on a slightly too convoluted backstory that sometimes feels like it's taking precedence over the character interaction that's so compelling throughout. Nevertheless, it's a small mark against The Past, one that's easy to forgive given how great every other aspect of the film is. The family relationships are rich and effective, and as we start to see how each character is shaped by their pasts together and the way their lives have gone, it all comes together to create a beautifully human film about love, guilt, passion, and pain. And if that sounds overblown, don't let it; much of the film's beauty is in its simplicity and grace, and the way it never overplays its hand or pushes too hard. Farhadi knows the power of evoking life and avoiding melodrama, and his ability to do so makes him truly a director to watch for (hopefully) years to come.
7-8 Forbidden
It's hard to explain Forbidden Games and why it works so well. It's a film about coping with death, about the horrors of war; it's a film in which two children - a farmer boy and a little girl orphaned in a plane attack - create a cemetery for animals and fill it with crosses and markers as a way of coping with the death all around them. It sounds grim and horrifying, and make no mistake: it's a quietly heartbreaking film at so many points. And yet, "grim and horrifying" isn't the phrase you'd first come up with to describe it. Part of that, I think, is that the film so deeply immerses us in the perspective of these children, leaving us seeing the world through their innocent eyes. We're never clear, for instance, how much they truly understand about the death around them,now much the girl has truly coped with the loss of her parents. And while we understand the purpose of their game, the film never forces the issue, never makes the point explicit, instead simply depicting the children and their simple happiness as they provide for the animals who have died. There are other aspects to the film - a pair of feuding families, a romance between young lovers - but what resonates is this evocation of a child's world, of the simplicity with which they view the world and the way they're shaped by the environment in which they live. And the result is far more moving and involving than any number of monologues or more explicit explorations of the ideas could ever be, thanks to the beautiful performances by the children and the way that the film captures so perfectly their relationship and their joys. It's a deceptively simple film; it's never showy, never manipulative, never goes for the tearjerking moment. But that's what makes it work so well and what makes it so effective. It's a beautiful look at what war can do to the most innocent of us, and the way that all of us find our lives shaped by such horrors. That it does so beautifully and gracefully makes it the simple, wonderful masterpiece that it is.
7-7 Fargo:
Season 1
There was no reason to expect anything much from a TV series of Fargo. First of all, why even make a series based off of one of the all-time great films? And if the story had nothing to do with the film other than the setting, what was the point? I expected maybe a cheap homage, or maybe a bad remake. But instead, what I got was one of the best single seasons of television I've ever seen, a show that combined the film's fascinating with people's good and evil, Breaking Bad's exploration of people giving way to their own inner monster, and a more fundamental hope for the order of the universe, and came up with something beautiful. Where do you even begin? Fargo the series is funny, terrifying, exciting, profound, unsettling, moving, intelligent, and just plain great. Some of it is the plotting, which spins a complex story about murder, organized crime, love, justice, and more; it's a story that starts with a chance meeting in a hospital waiting room and ends with a double digit body count in a small Midwestern town, and countless lives changed forever. But as gripping as the story is, the writing of that story is no small part of its greatness, with the show always willing to let its characters come to rich life or dwell on the moral complexities of their lives. And in a time where every TV show is doing its best to be as grim as possible, the fundamental optimism at the core of Fargo - the hope that justice can prevail, that evil is the exception and not the rule, that people can overcome their own selfishness - is a welcome relief. And nowhere is that embodied more than in the brilliant, show-making performance of Allison Tolman as Molly Solverson, the police officer who becomes our protagonist for the show. In a show absolutely packed with brilliant performances - Keith Carradine as a caring father, Adam Goldberg and Russell Harvard as a pair of fascinating hitter, Bob Odenkirk as a deputy whose seemingly clueless exterior gives way to something richer, Martin Freeman as a put upon schmuck who taps into his inner monster in horrifying ways, and most of all, Billy Bob Thornton as a nearly supernatural force of evil nature - Tolman still manages to steal the show with her optimism, intelligence, sweet presence, and refusal to back down. She takes what could have been just an homage to the film's Marge Gunderson and makes it her own, creating one of my favorite characters in recent memory. It all works together to make astonishing, magnificent television that constantly surprises you, invests you in its characters, makes you think about the world, shocks you with its violence before moving you with its heart, and tells a great story that ends up doing the movie proud. My first thought, when I heard about the Fargo series, was wondering what the point was; now that I've seen it, it deserves the name, and it works as both a thematic follow up to the film and its own wondrous, fantastic creation.
7-1 Elysium
I was a big fan of Neill Blomkamp's District 9, which married rich social commentary to spectacular action and inventive science-fiction, and I was eager to see Elysium, which promised more of the same. But a lackluster reaction led me to push it off, and maybe that's for the best; going in with lowered expectations allowed me to see that Elysium actually does a lot of stuff right, even as it's crippled by some serious flaws and setbacks that keep it from being as good as you want it to be. As much as Elysium got attacked for being bludgeoning with its points, I actually didn't find it too bad in broad strokes; the idea of this society split between a poor underclass tuck on an overpopulated earth and an upper class who's literally separated themselves from the world doesn't seem all that far-fetched, and while you'd often like a little more depth and a little more detailed exploration of these worlds, Elysium actually works pretty well as metaphor. Indeed, the early going of the film is fantastic, pushing our hero (Matt Damon, who does a good job but leaves you thinking about how much more effective the film's points might be with a minority cast in the lead instead of a straight white male, especially given the diversity on display elsewhere) more and more into a desperate place by simply depicting the difficulty of living life paycheck to paycheck, struggling with the baggage of a past life, and the temptation of easy money all around him. And once the action hits, Blomkamp delivers some fantastic stuff, mixing style, a knack for composition, and a willingness to go brutal into a nice and potent mix. So why does Elysium fall short, if it does so much I like? A lot of it comes down to the acting and the writing. Sharlto Copley is wasted as the increasingly cartoonish Kruger, who loses what little nuance he might have in favor of increasingly insane and illogical violence. (And while Copley's accent might be natural, it's pretty distractingly over the top for American ears, often rendering his dialogue absolutely incomprehensible.) And even the great Jodie Foster can't do much with her role, which feels disappointingly one-note and runs out of steam about halfway through the film (and, again, is hampered by an accent, this one distractingly bizarre in its artificiality). And even some of the film's neater ideas - like, for instance, Damon needing to make use of an exo-suit - feel neglected and forgotten about, as though they came from an older draft and never quite got erased. Elysium doesn't really entirely work, but it's not without its merits; it just feels like a film that needed another draft or two before release and never got it. Blomkamp seems to agree, and that's promising; here's hoping his understanding of his own flaws leads him to step things up as he moves on on his career, and marries the style and ideas he uses so well here to scripting and character work that support them.
7-1 John Wick (2014)
"Personality goes a long way," as Samuel L. Jackson pointed out in Pulp Fiction. And while he was talking about animals, the same goes for movies. In broad strokes, you've seen movies like John Wick before. A man suffers a brutal attack, and decides to take his revenge - a revenge that's more dangerous because his attackers have no idea who they're messing with. That's John Wick's story, and while the details are a little different than usual (the victim of the attack: a dog, albeit a very emotionally resonant dog), the plot doesn't go anywhere particularly inventive. And yet, the plot isn't what makes John Wick such a fantastic, entertaining, and enjoyable movie. Much of it comes from the fantastic underworld that John Wick creates, which involves favors exchanged for golden coins, hotels full of assassins looking for sanctuary, and a slew of great characters played by some top notch character actors who bring interesting variations and life to what could be forgettable roles. That world is a lot of what makes John Wick so great, allowing the movie to feel more unique and inventive than the basic story might suggest, and giving you a great sense of originality and personality that gives the movie a healthy batch of interesting places to go. And if that's not enough, there's the fantastically efficient and brutal action. John Wick is directed by the stunt coordinators behind the solid action film Haywire, and they once again bring a focus on efficiency to bear, resulting in more head shots than I may have ever seen in a film and a killer whose deadliness never feels like it's in doubt. John Wick is a complete blast, bringing personality and style to a simple story and filling it with interesting characters - not archetypes, but genuinely interesting personalities that make even the smallest interactions richer than you'd expect. It's a pretty great little gem, and definitely worth the rapidly growing cult following that it's gaining.
6-30 Home (2015)
I'll say this for Home: it wasn't the painful, excruciating experience I was dreading it was going to be. In fact, Home was pretty harmless, if incredibly generic; I'll say that there's not much that stuck out as exceptionally awful, but there's absolutely nothing very inspired, interesting, or even that entertaining to speak of. I don't think I can blame Jim Parsons (although I'm not a big fan of his to begin with) or really any of the cast members; the issues seemed to come more from an oh-so-wacky script and some bland design work, and the result, I think, would be hard for anyone to do much with. Yes, there are some nice touches - is this really one of the only animated movies I can think of with a black female lead? - but they're not enough to save you from wacky forced dialect and a thudding plot that feels less like a story and more like a bunch of random scenes sort of forced together. My daughter, of course, says she liked it, but it's worth noting that when I asked her what her favorite parts were, she mostly relied on lines from the trailer, and then went back to talking about how much she liked Monkey Kingdom. I'll say that at least Home wasn't full of smirking double entendres; it told a pretty harmless adventure story about an outcast alien, a human girl looking for her mother, and their unlikely friendship, and if it never really went anywhere interesting or funny, at least it never got awful, shrill, or too annoying. I guess I'll take that over the execrable Mr. Peabody and Sherman.
6-29 Monkey

By this point, you pretty much know what you're going to get from a Disney Nature film, and Monkey Kingdom turns out to be no exception. Absolutely beautiful, frequently astonishing footage? Check. Overbearing narration that relies on overly anthropomorphizing the animals? Check. Immersive, if obviously sanitized, view of nature? Check. And yet, Monkey Kingdom works better than the other films the series has brought us so far - and far better than the treacly Bears - if only because the quality of all of those elements seems to be at a higher level than usual. Monkey Kingdom features no end of astonishing footage, but the setting of Monkey Kingdom - an abandoned city in Sri Lanka that's become a home for macaque monkeys - is especially beautiful, and the built-in atmosphere created by the contrast between this abandoned world and nature makes for some rich viewing. (And that's before the film follows the monkeys on their forays into more civilized areas, which results in some really incredible shots that are both beautiful, interesting, and surprisingly entertaining on a fundamental level.) Yes, the film still relies on imposing a "human" narrative on the story, but for whatever reason - maybe because monkeys are so much closer to us than African cats or bears, maybe because Tina Fey is a better narrator, maybe because it's dialed back a bit - it works better than usual, and ends up working more often than not. And if the film occasionally goes a little heavy on things - especially in some music cues - it also features some really funny moments that don't feel so much like "wacky animal bloopers" so much as genuinely funny moments in the world. I genuinely liked Monkey Kingdom, and it's probably the first of the Disney Nature movies that worked for me this well. Maybe it's the genuinely fascinating story the filmmakers stumbled upon; maybe it's the footage; maybe it's everyone stepping up their game. But it's a pretty wonderful nature documentary, and by the end, I had a five-year-old daughter talking about how she could make movies like that someday. Cool enough for me.
6-21 Orphan
Season 3
As much as I enjoy Orphan Black, I was rapidly losing track of all the various threads going on in the show sometime during season 2. But while season 3 was still a bit of a mess, to be sure, it felt like movement in the right direction, as we got a few answers, and the finale ended up simplifying things a lot, leaving us with a single "villain" to face, rather than the slew of competing factions we had during season 2. And while I still spent chunks of this season a bit frustrated at times, it felt more character-driven than season 2 often did, as the show runners seemed to remember that ultimately, what makes us watch Orphan Black isn't the story, but the "sisters" at the core of it all. Indeed, all of my favorite moments of this season are character beats, whether it's Cosima struggling with trust issues, Helena jamming out to pop songs in a garage, or - best of all - Alison's entire storyline this season, which somehow managed to contain a school board election, drug dealing, ex-boyfriends, and more, all of which was constantly hilarious and wonderfully anarchic. Orphan Black definitely feels like it's gotten more complicated than it needs to be, and I hope the finale is indicative of the show working to simplify itself. But even with that issue, I can't deny that I still really enjoy it all, if only for the sisters (and, of course, Maslany's astonishing performance, which is so absurdly good that it's shamefully easy to take for granted at this point). And the fact that this season seems to remember that we care more about these people than we do any conspiracy shows me that it's a series I'll continue to stick with as it goes forward.
6-21 Song of the
I saw Song of the Sea earlier this year at the Chattanooga Film Festival, and was instantly in love with it in just about every imaginable way. So of course, as soon as we could, I got it on Blu-ray and shared it with my family, all of whom loved it as well. For my son, there's the beautiful and astonishing artwork, which feels stylish without being distracting, original while never neglecting its roots, and always supports the story. For my wife, there's the wonderful Irish music and mythology that thread throughout the film, creating something infused with the culture that still lives on its own terms. And for my daughter, there's the story itself, about a young girl who discovers her own magical powers and her struggle to save the fairy kingdom and magical beings. As for me, I loved it all, and loved how tightly interwoven it all is. Indeed, it ended up making a perfect double feature with Inside Out: both films tie an adventure story to a much more personal tale of grief and emotional depth; both are films about the necessity of "negative" emotions in our lives; both are about growing up and seeing all the richness of life. It's a truly wonderful film, and I hope its home release leads to it finding the audience it so deserves.
6-19 Inside Out
I've been a fan of Pixar since the beginning, and while I don't think they've ever made a truly bad movie (with the possible exception of Cars 2), it's been the commonly accepted wisdom that they've been in a bit of a slump for a while. And even though I've liked just about all of their recent output, watching Inside Out reminds you that while they've been doing fine for a while, when they're at the top of their game, Pixar isn't just "fine"; they're incredible. Inside Out starts with a simple enough premise - personifying the emotions in a young girl's head and watching as they guide her development - and turns it into a profound, thoughtful exploration on growing up and maturing. Indeed, one of the many great things about Inside Out is the way it eschews easy or cliched lessons in favor of something far more complex, something that resonated with me deeply and left me moved. (The fact that the film does so much of this through its visuals instead of explaining every detail is even better.) But if that makes Inside Out sounds like some deeply sad thought piece, it shouldn't. What Pixar's done here is what they're capable of at their best: marrying these thoughtful explorations to an exciting, engaging, charming adventure, one that allows Pixar to show off its wild imagination in a way they haven't been able to for some time (between sequels and "real" movies, it's been harder for them to be as inventive as they often are). And if all that's not enough for you, it's frequently hilarious, using its exceptional casting choices and willingness to be silly to keep the tone just right. It all combines to make the best family movie in recent memory, and reminds me why I fell in love with Pixar in the first place: when they're at this level, they make movies that aren't just good family fare, but great movies, period - ones that charm, leave you entertained, make you think, and do it all with style, imagination, and grace.

Note: As usual, the film's preceded by a short film; what's not the usual here is how weak the short is. Entitled "Lava," it's a disappointingly simple and saccharine love story between two volcanoes without much comedy, originality, or life to it. About the only notable thing is the design of the first volcano, which manages to blend reality and personification nicely, but that's undone with the overly humanized and feminized second character. It's a very weak entry in the Pixar short canon; thankfully, it's washed away by the greatness of the main feature.

6-17 Silicon
Season 2
Sometimes, I think the hardest thing for a comedy to do is to mix plotting with silliness. It's hard to mix something with genuine stakes with out-and-out absurdity; you either end up involved in the story and losing out on some of the comedy (which happened a bit with Veep this year) or the story feels awkwardly tacked on for no reason. It's something Silicon Valley had to deal with this year, as it simultaneously worked us through Pied Piper's desperate attempts to stay alive by any means possible and packed the episodes with goofiness. The usual method employed by the show: keep the storyline in the A-plot for each episode and put a few jokes in, and let the B-story - usually anchored by Kumail Nanjiani and Martin Starr's hilarious banter, with occasional assistance from Zach Woods as the ever-optimistic Jared - bring the silliness. And by and large, that's worked out well this season. Thomas Middleditch has worked well as the show's straight man, and bringing T.J. Miller with him as a raging id works wonders, especially in the early going of the show, as he brings pick-up artist methodology to the corporate world with glorious results. But really, all of my favorite moments this season have come in the B-stories, whether it's a well-thought out chart about whether to let someone die or a wonderfully murderous take on the theory of Schrodinger's cat. And beyond that, the show's started doing better and better at integrating its stories together - look, for instance, at how adroitly it played the two back and forth in the finale in a way that both legitimately raised tension and also made me laugh with its absurdity. Silicon Valley isn't quite the masterpiece for me that it seems to be for so many people, but it's getting better and better with each passing episode. And if sometimes it seems a little adrift, or a little flat, it has a way of making up for it with great performances that bring out more comedy than you'd expect out of their roles. And if nothing else, I have to give it credit: it's managed the difficult feat of making me laugh and genuinely making me invested in the storyline, and that's enough to keep me watching and enjoying it greatly.
6-15 Veep:
Season 4
It's hard to pinpoint exactly what made this season of Veep feel a Was it the choice to have Selina become president, meaning that all of her bad choices felt like they had more weight, instead of simply enjoying her empty and futile existence as a vice-president? Was it the idea to have the team gradually splinter, pushing cast members away from the central crew into other stories? Was it Patton Oswalt's odd storyline, which felt a bit out of place, even for this wonderfully misanthropic show? Or was it just showrunner Armando Ianucci's fatigue with the show, leading to this being his last season? Maybe it was all of them, but the result was a season that often felt like a weaker version of the show I've come to love over the last three seasons. That's not to say that Veep still isn't hilariously funny, nor that I quit enjoying it; even if there was nothing else good this season (and there was plenty), the team of Jonah and Richard single-handedly made me laugh uncontrollably in just about every scene they had together. Add to that the always reliable supporting cast - Kevin Dunn and Gary Cole stole the show this season, really, if you ignore Jonah and Richard - and you've still got a pretty great show, even if it's not quite as rapid-fire and unstoppable as it was in earlier seasons. But by the end, Veep was coming back together, bringing in Hugh Laurie seamlessly into the cast and pulling all of its various threads together to give us a pair of final episodes that were as good as the show ever was. Maybe better - I know a lot of people would argue that "Testimony" is one of the best episodes the show ever did, and I wouldn't entirely disagree. And look, even with the missteps, Veep is still riotously funny, mixing its profane wordsmithery with intelligent, scathing looks at politics and delighting me with its misanthropy every week. I can't ignore my apprehension about Ianucci leaving the show; it seems so in line with his comic sensibilities that the idea of someone else taking over seems absurd. But I'm going to keep watching, no matter what; Veep has become my favorite comedy on television in its four seasons so far, and I'm hoping they can keep that together even in new hands next year.
6-14 Game of
Season 5
I commented at the end of season 4 of Game of Thrones that the show was struggling a bit with the constant scattering of its characters, and in hindsight, I should have realized what that meant. And yet, I was still surprised - pleasantly - as season 5 found the show bringing characters together, resulting in some surprising new pairings that brought out richness in characters I'd previously been growing bored with. Look, for instance, at the scenes between Stannis and Jon Snow in the early going of the season, which gave two increasingly dull characters new life, making me far more interested in both of their storylines than I had been. (A good thing, too, since those storylines resulted in some of the most intense and shocking moments of the season.) Meanwhile, Arya reunited with an old companion in her own gripping, intriguing arc; Cersei enlisted a new character, played beautifully by Jonathan Pryce, in her power play, resulting in a massive shift in the power dynamics of Kings Landing; and best of all, two of my favorite characters united finally, pulling together a pair of storylines that were starting to drift too far away from the body of the show, to say nothing of delivering some dynamite scenes together. Season 5 feels like we're beginning to move towards the end of the series, as though we've crossed the halfway point; more and more storylines are coming together, and more and more characters are finding their arcs either concluding or shifting to something entirely new. More than that, season 5 made the White Walkers more of a threat than ever before, gave us the same king for an entire season (even if he's little more than a figurehead), and gave us a sense of the alliances we may be seeing in the final conflicts of the show. Sure, there were a couple of missteps: Ramsey Bolton remains uninteresting and one-note, and the scenes in Dorne felt like a bit of a waste of time. But those were small marks against what was generally a pretty exciting season, one that kept me pretty surprised throughout and more than happy at what I was seeing. And now, we've apparently reached the end of the books, which means that whatever comes next is going to be new territory for everyone, reader and viewer alike. Here's hoping the year passes quickly, because I'm excited to see what comes next.
6-10 The Long Goodbye (1973)
When I first saw The Long Goodbye seven years ago, I wasn't quite sure what to make of it; I called it "an unholy mess." but commented that it contained a great number of individual pieces that I really liked, even if I didn't think it all fit together. A second viewing, though, has changed my feelings on the film; yes, there are still elements that stick out (Gould's sardonic commentary to himself feels weirdly superfluous, and the fact that it all sounds like bad ADR doesn't help), but the film holds together far better than I remember it being. For all that its a revisionist noir, The Long Goodbye uses its mystery elements exactly like Chandler did: to string together character beats, social observations, and more. And yes, it exchanges the shadowy streets for 1970's sun-drenched California, but in keeping Marlowe essentially the same- a crusader for justice, a cynic who still holds people up for inspection and evaluation - he creates something far richer than I remember it being. And when you realize that Altman is using the noir framework as a way of exploring his characters and their relationship to the modern world, the film falls into sharper focus. The strange beats fit more neatly together: the villains feel less shoehorned in and more like symptoms of a deeply broken society, the strange asides more like windows onto a world that's rapidly changing. But what struck me most on this viewing is how hard the deaths are received; there are three major deaths in the film, along with one shocking act of violence, and all three of them hit hard and deeply affect the mood of the film. Marlowe's banter and jokes always stop, the film always lingers, and the weight of it all - the import - is always allowed to settle. The Long Goodbye is a strange movie, and it's more of an Altman film than a Chandler adaptation. But it's more cohesive and effective than I remembered it being, and in its own way, I think its a fascinating take on the detective story and a great way of bringing it into the modern era.
6-7 MASH
Maybe it's a bit lazy, but it's hard for me to know what more to say about MASH that Roger Ebert didn't say better in his original review of the film. MASH is still riotously funny, even more than 40 years after its initial release. It works thanks to so many factors - thanks to Sutherland and Gould's understated performances, thanks to Altman's meandering direction (without which the film would feel like an aimless, shapeless mess), thanks to the jarring juxtaposition of the film's surgery scenes and the insanity that happens outside of the operating rooms. It works thanks to the Vietnam War counterculture that shaped the film, no matter how much "Korea" may be invoked as the setting. It works thanks to the way that emotional moments are smuggled in quietly and underplayed as moments of despair and rage in the face of all of the other insanity on display. And it works, most of all, because it's funny, because it goes for broke, because it laughs instead of crying at the horrors it bears witness to. And it's there, I think, that modern viewers often react badly to the film, seeing misogyny on display instead of a rejection of social norms. Are the characters awful to women? Sure. But they're awful to everyone. It's not that they hate women; they hate Hot Lips, of course, but not because she's a woman, but because she's an Army professional. In Ebert's words, she "is all Army professionalism and objectivity, is less human because the suffering doesn't reach concerned with protocol, but not with war. And so the surgeons, dancing on the brink of crack-ups, dedicate themselves to making her feel something." That's the movie to me - it's a rejection of any society that could allow this sort of thing to happen, and an effort to act as insane as everything around them.
6-7 Louie:
Season 5
There's a scene late in the fifth season of Louie in which Louis CK is called out for his antagonistic, selfish behavior by a stand-up comedian he's staying with. And, as usual with Louie, the scene ends up reversing our expectations, with Louie admitting that the comedian's got some valid complaints, and tries to explain his behavior away by saying he's been in a depressed place lately. It all fits into the scene, but I couldn't help but feel it was a little bit of meta-commentary on this bizarre, shortened fifth season of Louie, which frequently felt a little flat and uninspired by the high standards this show has set for itself. Maybe CK is a little worn out of his obligations; maybe it has to do with the (admittedly funny) story behind the short season; maybe there's something else going on. But whatever the case, a lot of this season felt a bit perfunctory and tossed-off, without the usual quality and richness Louie usually brings. That's not to say it was an entirely bad season; indeed, there were some really incredible scenes, including a quietly beautiful interlude with a Civil War photograph, and if that's not enough, it's hard to ignore the insanity that was CK's dip into nightmares. And even when you step away from those highlights, the season as a whole wasn't bad at all; it just didn't feel as fresh and vibrant as CK's wonderful show normally does. Look, for instance, as the Michael Rapaport episode, which comes together beautifully in the end, but ultimately ends up feeling like a bit of a retread of the incredible Doug Stanhope episode he's done before. I still love Louie, and I'll still be excited to see the next season. But maybe it's worth giving CK the extra time he took last time to let his muse recharge and to come up with fresh, thoughtful ideas again.
5-23 Sweet Sugar
My close friend Ryan has a deep and abiding love for trash cinema, ranging from exploitation to USA Up All Night fare and beyond, and as of late, we've been enjoying some dives into the depths of his DVD collection. How else to explain why else we'd watch Sweet Sugar, a gloriously dumb exploitation film about busty women a rated for prostitution and forced to work on a sugar plantation amidst sleazy guards? You can probably assume you know where the movie goes, and you're mostly right, but it does it all with a nice sense of fun and silliness that keeps the movie from ever feeling like you need a shower afterward or anything like that. There's jailbreaks, illicit romances, vengeance - everything you want from a dumb, goofy movie like this. As for why we followed it up with The Room, well, when we found out that Ryan's lady friend hadn't seen it, how could we not dive straight into Tommy Wiseau's masterpiece of incompetence? It's the perfect counterpoint to Sweet Sugar; while that film is one kind of bad movie (one that knows what it's about and could care less about being anything more), Wiseau's is something wholly else - it's a film that strives to be a heartfelt cry from the soul and ends up being a far more revealing portrait of its maker than was ever intended. Sure, it's awful, and hilariously so, but it's still endearing and wondrous to me, even after more viewings than any movie in recent memory.
5-23 The Room
5-17 Mad Men: Season 7.2
The final season of Mad Men contained something of a rarity for the show: a truly bad episode ("New Business," which focused on the dull and uninvolving Diana). And given that it came so early into this final stretch, you could forgive me for being worried. After all, Mad Men has always been a show that's taken a few episode into the season to hit a stride, and between the shortened run of episodes, the misbegotten Diana storyline, and some other signs of time-wasting, I was worried Mad Men's final season would be a huge misstep, an ending that left us wanting more. But once Diana was out of the picture, Mad Men came back together nicely, bringing the era of SCDP to a close and giving most of the characters curtain calls and satisfying endings. It was a happier conclusion to the show than I really expected; almost every character ended up in a happier place than we might have dreamed of, and it seems like Matthew Weiner decided that he couldn't quite agree with mentor David Chase's theory that people never change. Instead, Mad Men was about the difficulty of change, but also its necessity; almost every character's happy ending came as a result of them either making changes to their life (Pete) or making their peace with who they are instead of constantly striving to be someone else (Peggy, Roger). And then there's Don, whose enigmatic smile in the show's final moments has already become a fiercely debated point. Is he coming full circle, cynically turning the hope of his commune into a commodity? Or is he making peace with himself, embracing his own talent and realizing that he's more special - and needed - than he likes to believe? It's all up to interpretation, I think, and it's worth noting that both, I think, are valid interpretations based off of your own levels of happiness, cynicism, and hopefulness. Even with the missteps, it was a good final season of Mad Men, giving us enough closure to feel a sense of ending while never being so definitive we felt like the show abandoned its usual subtlety. It's the right ending for Mad Men in so many ways, one that ties in with all of its themes and ideas in a way consistent with the rest of the show - an intelligent, character-driven, complex way that eschews easy answers. And you'd expect nothing else from this finely crafted, intelligent series.
5-15 Mad Max:
Fury Road

You'll have to forgive me in advance for gushing as much as I'm going to about Mad Max: Fury Road, which left me more exhilarated, thrilled, in awe, and just plain excited than any movie in years. Where do you even start? Do you start with the astonishing, intense action, which starts within seconds and barely lets up until the end? Director George Miller's decision to largely eschew CGI in favor of practical effects pays off brilliantly, giving every chase and battle an impact that's hard to ignore, and making you increasingly in awe that no one died during some of the more spectacular sequences. (Honestly, it's hard to pick a favorite, though I might lean towards the use of poles on the cars near the end as one of the best.) Is it the plot? The script certainly gives the whole story an emotional heft you might not expect, as Max copes with his past traumas, a series of women need rescuing from horrific circumstances but are more than capable of handling themselves, and everything comes down to survival. (Indeed, it's worth noting how remarkably feminist the movie is, with Max often feeling less like the protagonist and more like one of an ensemble; it could easily be argued that Charlize Theron's riveting, dangerous Furiosa is the film's true hero, and Max might even agree. And the fact that the feminist feel angered a bunch of MRA folks online? That's just icing on the cake.) Maybe it's the absolutely incredible visual style, which ends up giving you one of the most beautiful and colorful action films since Speed Racer, and delivering some truly astonishing compositions along the way. (My favorite: the brief shot of walkers in a swamp, although the fire storm and a blinded machine-gun wielder give their share of beauty.) Really, though, it's all of those things and more: the willingness to let actions speak louder than words, the way the story is told through compositions and visuals, the inventive set and costume design, the intense editing - it's all of it and more, and it delivers the kind of movie that reminds you why you started loving movies in the first place. I really can't express how awesome Mad Max is other than to say this: I plan on seeing it again in theaters, and that's something I almost never do anymore. But this one is worth it and then some.
5-8 The Raid: Redemption (2011)
You could argue, as many have, that The Raid 2 is an inferior sequel to the original Raid, and I probably wouldn't argue with you too harshly. After all, I've long held that part of the beauty of the original Raid is its tightness - it hits the ground running, spends barely ten minutes setting up its action, and then barely takes a breath for the rest of its runtime. Meanwhile, The Raid 2 is over an hour longer than the original, and much of that extra time is spent on a story that, while not uninteresting, ultimately doesn't give you much you haven't seen before. An undercover cop who's losing his boundaries, an ambitious son who desires the respect his father won't give him...they're familiar elements, to be sure, and The Raid 2 doesn't really bring much new to the table. And yet, I don't think it makes any major missteps with them either, which means that, at worst, they're a little dull sometimes, but still manage to bring some depth and pathos to a series that was criticized for its shallowness in the first entry. The other thing The Raid 2 brings, of course, is action, as director Gareth Evans and his cast/crew look at everything done in the first film and try to outdo it, from car chases to hammer-wielding henchmen to brutal brawls in deserted kitchens. And when that action is going, The Raid 2 is everything you want it to be and more, delivering sequences that put just about everything else out there to shame, and do right by the high standard set by the first movie. Yes, The Raid 2 is a little long; yes, it's weirdly edited (particularly with regard to the "Sad Dog" storyline, which feels truncated and ineffective, as though we're missing a lot of its relevance); yes, you could tighten it and make it a superior film. And yes, watching it back to back with the original (which we cued up immediately after the second) makes it clear that the first film is the superior entry. But for all of that, The Raid 2 is still a spectacular action movie, beautifully filmed, incredibly choreographed, and ambitious to address some of the comments made about its predecessor. And if it doesn't live up to the original, well, that's okay - not much does. But any film that delivers anything close to the last 30-45 minutes of this movie can't be all bad, to say nothing of all the other moments throughout.
5-8 The Raid 2:
4-25 Roar (1981)
It's not like I don't watch my share of unique films, so take this sentence with all the impact it deserves: I genuinely have never seen anything like Roar before, and I can't imagine I ever will. There's a quote on the new re-release trailer that says that Roar is like Disney went insane and greenlit a snuff film version of the Swiss Family Robinson, and that quite seriously might be the best way to picture this bizarre attempt at a kid's adventure film that instead looks like someone asked Timothy Treadwell of Grizzly Man fame to make a family movie. Like Treadwell, Noel Marshall and his family seem to have forgotten that being among animals and anthropomorphizing them doesn't make them human, even if you've lived among them for years. So what should be, on the surface, a family film about a researcher living among big cats and his family's trip to see him instead turns into some weird survival horror film, filmed - quite literally - among over 150 untrained wild animals as they jump on the actors, tear up props, charge camera men, and even get into brawls that Marshall insanely feels the need to intervene in. (Seriously. The man attempts to break up a fight between lions.) Even if you didn't know the story behind Roar, the whole thing seems insane and barely coherent; if you know, though, that over 70 crew members were injured in the making of the film (with injuries ranging from gangrene to broken legs to severed scalps to facial injuries so brutal they necessitated facial reconstruction surgery), you can't help but watch the whole thing with equal parts awe and horror. It's as though the movie has no clue of the tone it's actually creating, and no matter how cheerful the music is and how wacky the antics are supposed to be, it's hard to imagine anyone walking away from the film feeling like animals can truly be our friends. And even as a "kid's" movie, this is pretty horrific, with both animals and humans torn apart by wild animals being written into the story. The end result certainly isn't a good film - it's sometimes boring, sometimes rambling, often a little incoherent - but it's rarely less than riveting, and it's often absolutely jaw-dropping in terms of just how insane of an effort the whole thing really is. Like I said at the beginning, I've never really seen anything like it before, and I'm pretty sure I never will again.
4-22 The
Season 3
As much as I loved the third season of The Americans, I can't deny that there are a couple of issues I'd love to see the show work on as it goes forward. The most notable one, of course, is the insane number of storylines the show is juggling at any given point; there came a point in the season where I felt like I had to just give up keeping all of the threads straight in my head, given that we had a slew of agents being strung along by both Philip and Elizabeth, plots being spun out by Stan, Nina off in Russia doing her own thing - and that's all before everything exploded a few episodes before the end of the season. But for as much as that frustrated me sometimes this season, none of it keeps The Americans from being one of the best shows on television right now, if only because while it may struggle with plot beats sometimes, it never misses the emotional ones - and that's what makes the show work. Season 3 of The Americans never let us forget of the emotional toll this war took on us, and it never missed a chance to drill in just how brutal and unforgiving this work could be, whether through the gruesome disposal of a body, an intense do-it-yourself dental work scene, or a harrowing murder that takes place face-to-face over an extended period of time. And all of that doesn't even touch on the element that's going to make this season legendary and a game changer for the series, in which Philip and Elizabeth's relationship with their daughter forever changes in ways we can't begin to fathom. Yes, The Americans occasionally gets overwhelming, and sometimes feels like it's got too much going on at once. But it never misses the essential beats that drive the show, and the way that threads keep pulling together in new and upsetting ways - the parallels between Philip's new informer and his daughter, the constant reminders of the Center's plan that was revealed at the end of the second season, the growing horror as characters come to realize what kind of people the Jennings really are - is just one of the many things that makes this one of the finest shows on television right now. It's intense, upsetting, hard to watch, riveting, thought-provoking, and just generally masterful television, and I'm thrilled FX is letting it keep going for now.
4-14 Justified:
Season 6
You can forgive me for worrying about Justified's final season before it started. After all, here was a show that I really loved and had to watch stumble badly in its fifth season, spinning its wheels and losing its momentum in a meandering, uninvolving story with a weak villain. So the ship was already coming off of a bad season, and as it moved into its final, it threw a big batch of new characters into the mix, instead of focusing down on the Boyd/Raylan showdown we knew it had to build to. And yes, those characters were going to be played by Garrett Dillahunt and Sam Elliott, but you couldn't help but worry the final season would feel bloated, or lose its focus, or steer deeper into the spiral of season 5 and end in a dissatisfying way. And yet, not only was season 6 better than I expected, it was just plain great, bringing back the swagger and fun that Justified was capable of at its best times, interweaving a slew of plot threads effortlessly into a satisfying whole, building perfectly to that showdown with Boyd while making superb use of the season's villains, and, most importantly, delivering a truly beautiful and wonderful final epilogue for the show that stayed true to the characters and the show's spirit. Justified was never a show about its plotting; it was about the dialogue, the set pieces, that wonderful tone, and most importantly, the characters who filled its world; whether it was a central player or a brief bit player, the show invested its characters with personality, wit, and heart. And its final season delivered all of that, whether it was the fantastic banter between Art and Markham, the tension between Raylan and Boon, the constant agony of Ava's situation, or - and doesn't it always return to this? - Raylan Givens and Boyd Crowder, who once dug coal together. Justified never tried to be revolutionary television, and that's fine; what it was was damned good television that entertained, thrilled, and just plain worked, and I hate to see it go. But I'm glad it went out as well as it did, staying true to its spirit and delivering a final season that served as both a closing of the show and a chance to say farewell to the denizens of Harlan.
4-10 Bloodsucking Freaks (1976)
If you didn't know better, it would be easy to assume that Bloodsucking Freaks was made by Herschell Gordon Lewis - after all, it's got all of his usual trademarks. Absurd levels of blood? Check. Surprising amounts of gore? Sure. Bad acting? Definitely. Weak plotting? Oh, god, yes. And is there still a sense of humor somewhere in there? Of course there is. But Bloodsucking Freaks (originally known as The Incredible Torture Show, a title which makes a lot more sense, since no one in the film actually sucks blood) isn't a Lewis film; instead, it's by the mostly forgotten Joel M. Reed, and that shows, given that the film seems to bring a much higher level of misogyny and meanness than Lewis tended to bring to his films. It's not hard to see how it could easily attract a cult following, mind you; it's all kind of cheesy fun, and the kind of thing that's fun to watch with a few friends if you're not taking it all too seriously. But on pretty much every imaginable level, it's not a good film, no matter how much fun you might have with it. And it does say something when even Lloyd Kaufman says that this, of all the movies, is the one he kind of might have second thoughts about releasing...
4-6 Better
Call Saul
Season 1
It's not like there wasn't any reason to have some high hopes for Better Call Saul. After all, Breaking Bad ended its run as one of the only shows to ever manage to never have a bad episode, and with most of the crew - especially on the creative side - coming back together for a show, why wouldn't you have high hopes? At the same time, though, there were many - myself included - who wondered if we really needed a Breaking Bad prequel, even if it did mean more of Saul Goodman (and apparently Mike Ehrmantraut), and wondered if the show wasn't going to end up falling into the curse of prequel-itis. Now that it's all over, though, I guess it's safe to say we didn't need to worry. Better Call Saul wasn't just better than it had any right to be; it was phenomenally good, mixing comedy and drama, character work and backstory, tension and release all effortlessly to make something wholly wonderful out of the alchemy, and delivering one hell of an opening season. Of course, it's not as though Better Call Saul is a typical first season; this is a team essentially evolving their show into something new, giving them a confidence and a built-in fanbase willing to give them the time they needed to set things up properly. Yes, Better Call Saul brought back Saul Goodman, pushing us back to his life as Jimmy McGill, a small-time lawyer struggling to make a name for himself and earn the respect of his older brother, the famed lawyer Chuck McGill (played beautifully by Michael McKean as a man whose sanity is crumbling even as his mind remains sharp). Yes, it brought back Mike Ehrmantraut, giving us the chance to see Jonathan Banks being awesome as well as exploring the events that led Mike to becoming the efficient operator we know him as. But even with the return of these characters, there's no mistaking Better Call Saul for Breaking Bad, despite their shared universes; if Breaking Bad was the story of a bad man coming to realize how evil he could be, Saul is the story of someone desperately trying to do the right thing and being a far better man than he gets credit for being - and being punished for the attempt. The result is sometimes hilarious (between Jimmy's meeting with a toilet inventor and Mike's use of a pimento sandwich, Saul consistently delivered some of the funniest scenes on TV), sometimes crushing (it would have been hard to imagine the show topping Mike's brutal final monologue in "Five-O," but the show managed with Jimmy's realization at the end of the season's penultimate episode), and always absolutely a joy to watch. Just like Breaking Bad, it was beautifully shot, incredibly acted, thematically and morally complex, and just plain brilliant. I may have worried the show wouldn't live up to my hopes, but I'm thrilled to know that it did and then some. And weird though it may sound, I'm almost as excited to be waiting, knowing that there's more goodness to come.
4-3 I Am Thor
A few years ago, a documentary named Anvil! The Story of Anvil was released, telling the story of a metal band that never quite made it big, their continued touring, and their efforts to make their peace with their lot in life. Now comes I Am Thor, which follows another metal icon who never quite made it big, his attempts at a comeback, and the fight to succeed that literally almost kills him. If you liked Anvil! (and I did), you'll love I Am Thor, which paints an affectionate portrait of its larger than life subject even while being willing to laugh at him and acknowledge his faults along the way. (It's pretty evident, for instance, that Thor's lack of success owes a lot to bad luck, but that he's made his own contributions along the way.) The result is frequently hilarious, and it's impossible not to think of This is Spinal Tap while you're watching, even before the band makes the comparison themselves thanks to a particularly bad misunderstanding about some film props. But it's also not hard to see why Thor maintains a cult following, and you'd be hard pressed to finish I Am Thor without wanting to go see the man put on a live show; between the enthusiastic reviews and the brief clips, it looks like it's equal parts GWAR, Marvel comic, and hair metal, and if that doesn't appeal to you, I don't think I want to know you. And if that's not enough for you, there's also the way that parts of I Am Thor recall nothing so much as Darren Aronofsky's phenomenal The Wrestler, following this man as he pours his blood, sweat, and tears into something that seems to be paying less and less dividends as his life continues, and is far from the dreams he once had. It's a really great little documentary, and whether you're a Thor fan, a metal fan, or just a casual movie watcher, you'll have a blast with this one.
4-3 World of

As part of its programming, the Chattanooga Film Festival put together a collection of animated shorts called "From Dusk Till Drawn," giving filmgoers the chance to see a Brakhage homage/knockoff called Ghost Poem, a creepy stop-motion horror tale called Monster, a silly little Hollywood story about a stranded alien and her struggles to find a purpose in life (Myrna the Monster) and more. But the real draw for me was the collection's final entry, a 17-minute piece entitled World of Tomorrow, which is the the latest work from director Don Hertzfeldt. I've been a fan of Hertzfeldt for a long time - longer, in fact, than I realized, as I saw his gleefully silly Genre in my teenage years, long before I knew who he was. But anyone who saw Hertzfeldt's last work the staggeringly beautiful and moving It's Such a Beautiful Day, knows that he's entering a new phase of his career, and the early reaction to World of Tomorrow made me hope that this was more of the same. I needn't have worried. The tale of a four-year-old girl's conversation with her future self (sort of), World of Tomorrow is pure Hertzfeldt, mixing almost crudely drawn figures with humor that walks a fine line between random and silly, but manages to never feel cheap or easy. But more than that, World of Tomorrow finds Hertzfeldt playing with digital animation for the first time, creating a beautiful and slightly abstract landscape for his characters to inhabit, and the result amplifies both the strangeness of the story and the isolation the characters seem to be feeling. And that isolation gets to the core of what makes World of Tomorrow so great. Because, yes, it's funny, frequently hilarious; but it's Hertzfeldt, so what did you expect? No, what makes World of Tomorrow so great is the way it shifts to genuine pathos and insight when you least expect it, finding the beauty of simple memories, or the purpose behind the pain in our lives, or the bond between ourselves and our pasts. That it's all mixed with the random musings of a four-year-old, love affairs with rocks, accidents with time travel, and more only adds to the greatness of the whole thing, which manages to have more impact in its 17 minutes than some feature length movies have. It's another winner from Hertzfeldt, whose work has quickly become essential viewing for me, and doesn't show any signs of letting up soon.
4-3 From Dusk Till
4-3 Kumiko,
the Treasure
One of the more infamous cinema urban legends is that of a Japanese woman who died in Minnesota, supposedly questing for the buried money from the film Fargo after assuming that the film's claim to be a true story was, in fact, true. It turns out, of course, that the woman died for very different reasons, but that hasn't stopped the story from catching people's imagination, and now it comes to life as the enigmatic, moody, and haunting Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter. As played (in an outstanding performance) by Rinko Kikuchi, Kumiko is a tragic figure, out of step with Japanese society, unable to live up to the dreams of her mother, uninterested in the role she's supposed to fill as a Japanese woman, and seemingly unhappy with what life has dealt her. But when she's questing for the treasure of Fargo, she's a woman focused, finding something to live for and perhaps the glory and meaning she needs for her life. Kikuchi's performance is essential for the film, because Kumiko the movie isn't all that interested in making its points or themes all that explicit, leaving the viewer with as many questions as we started with. Kikuchi's physical performance is astonishing, but it's really our only window into Kumiko the character, and that ultimately makes her as enigmatic as the film itself, uninterested in easy answers or explanations. Kumiko is a beautifully crafted film, and its melancholy mood and heartbreaking character notes are hard to shake off. But the whole thing, especially the slightly bewildering epilogue (not on terms of what happens, but why it's important to the film), ultimately leaves you a bit unsure as to what, if anything, it all means.
4-3 Song of the
I've yet to see The Secret of the Kells, the first film from the team behind the animated film Song of the Sea, but if it's even half as charming, funny, moving, and just plain beautiful as this is, I'm going to be thrilled with it. Incorporating a slew of Irish folk tales and legends, Song of the Sea tells the tale of a young girl who may be one of the legendary selkies, her older brother who's trying to both protect her and torment her in the usual brotherly way, and their father, still grieving the loss of his wife and their mother. What the film does, though, is remarkable, combined those disparate elements to make something that's part adventure story, part family drama, part exploration of Irish myths, and part exploration of grief and healing. And that's not even mentioning the incorporation of humor, Irish music, drama, and more. But if the story was all there was to Song of the Sea, it would still be good, but not the incredible achievement that it is. No, Song of the Sea's greatest strength comes from its jaw-droppingly beautiful visual style, creating something that feels like old tapestries come to life, or perhaps a beautiful blend of childlike simplicity and classic elegance. The end effect, though, is that there's not a single frame of the movie you couldn't mount on your wall as a work of art, and the way it constantly underlines the magic and charm of the story can't be overstated. It all comes together to make for a truly wonderful and astonishing experience, one that I loved every minute of and can't wait to show to more people just so I have the excuse to experience it again.
4-2 A Girl Walks
Home Alone
at Night
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is being sold as a "feminist Iranian Western vampire movie," and while that's a pretty fantastic way to sell tickets, it's not really entirely accurate as a description. Yes, the movie is in Farsi and set in a strange, slightly unreal version of Iran, but it's worth noting, I suppose, that it's filmed in California, a fact that kind of bugged me for no real reason I could think of. (Maybe it's just feeling like the marketing stretched the truth a little bit.) Yes, there's sort of a windswept feel to certain scenes in the film, but calling it a Western doesn't feel like a good description of the film. But is it a vampire story? Oh, yes, indeed, and it's a nicely creepy one at times, allowing its creature to be genuinely monstrous and scary sometimes instead of just moody and brooding. And you also can't deny that Girl is absolutely beautifully shot and made, delivering some really astonishing visual compositions and being willing to let the movie slow down and savor its style. The problem, then, is the increasing feeling that there's simply not that much substance to Girl, and that the film's style is all it's really got going for it (to say nothing of the fact that the movie seems a little in love with its own visuals at points and needs to be trimmed down). The story is fine enough, but Girl has a tendency to let scenes play out at a glacial rate with the intention of creating a moody moment, but instead creating a sense of restlessness as the moments just drag on. It's an astonishingly beautiful film, and there are some wonderful scenes scattered throughout, leaving you feeling sometimes that it would make an incredible short film, or a great music video. But as a film, it feels a bit overlong and a bit empty ultimately, and while I'm excited to see what director Ana Lily Amirpour has in her future, this one ultimately feels a beautiful film that's got nothing much to say or offer.
4-2 Sunshine Superman
Part of what can make or break a documentary is your choice of subject, and in telling the story of Carl Boenish, a skydiver who's credited as being one of the pioneers and inventors of BASE jumping, Sunshine Superman is off to a great start. It's not just that Boenish is a good choice for subject, mind you, although he definitely is; even setting aside his life and accomplishments, he's funny, charming, charismatic, and just generally makes for a great subject. No, what really makes Boenish such a great choice for a documentary was his obsessive efforts to film his skydives and jumps, a choice that fills Sunshine Superman with some truly awe-inspiring, vertigo-inducing film work throughout its running time. From sitting on a pole that's jutting out of a cliff to plummeting out of a skyscraper, Boenish's footage is exciting, overwhelming, and beautifully shot, and it's a huge part of what makes Sunshine Superman work as well as it does. As a documentary, the film has some bigger problems, especially an over-reliance on bad re-enactments that work so hard to cover up the faces of their actors that all you can think about is how distracting the obfuscation methods are. But setting that aside, Sunshine Superman is an engaging watch, and even apart from that, its existence is justified by the truly incredible footage it brings to a much wider audience.
4-2 Trainspotting
Turning Trainspotting into a film couldn't have been an easy task. Let's set aside, for the moment, the issues of content; let's just focus on turning a sprawling series of disconnected anecdotes about the lives of a group of junkies into something resembling a coherent narrative. Once you've got that down, how do you manage to convey the impact of the events, since you're losing Irvine Welsh's funny, sharp narration? The answer: you give the film to the then-relatively unknown director Danny Boyle, and let him bring a visual style and momentum to the screen that brings the story to life in a way that no more "traditional" film could ever have done. Yes, in turning Trainspotting into a film, some things are lost. The film feels less essentially Scottish in some ways, sure, and in the combining and weeding of characters, there are occasional moments that bother me (like making Renton one of the air rifle shooters). But that's all forgiven simply due to how amazingly good the movie is, giving you both a sense of the rush these characters get from their drugs, the deadly boredom that's life without them, and the bleak horrors that occasionally manage to work their way in between everything. Indeed, one of the most impressive things about the film is that Boyle manages to handle all of the tone shifts that Welsh does, delivering blackly comic scenes, gloriously disgusting moments, unsettling horror, and brutal emotional pain all equally well. And if there's some nuance from the book missing, that's a fair swap when you look at iconic moments like the cold turkey nightmares or the haunting overdose sequence. Trainspotting works not because it's lavishly faithful to the novel, but because it captures the novel's spirit, and that's no small feat when that spirit is so hard to sum up easily. But Boyle manages, and the film holds its own against the phenomenal novel as a phenomenal movie.
4-1 Richard Pryor:
Live on the
Sunset Strip

I know Richard Pryor's work more by reputation than by actual example. After all, any fan of comedy knows how influential his work has been, simply by how often a lot of today's iconic comedians talk about it. But for the early going of Live on the Sunset Strip, I wondered if this was the kind of thing that was more influential than necessarily interesting or good. The comedy in the opening bits is fine, but there's not much there that feels groundbreaking or new, and I struggled to get into the special. But as it goes, Pryor finds a rhythm, moving into a discussion of his trip to Africa that's witty, silly, and sharp, mixing thoughtful observations about race with goofy thoughts about cheetahs hunting for sport. And from there, Pryor hits a nice stride, segueing into an extended discussion about his time in Mafia clubs and his observations about those in "the life". That section of the film finally gave me a sense of Pryor's style, his humor, his ability to spin a tale. But that's not what makes Sunset Strip such an essential film. No, that comes in the film's closing 20 minutes, as he recounts the story of his drug addiction, his spiral into depravity, and the incident in which he set himself on fire. It's funny, it's brutally honest, it's self-deprecating but never pity-seeking, and it's absolutely riveting. And you can feel it setting groundwork for so much to come, changing what had been a simple stand up special into something more confessional and heartfelt and inspiring a new generation to take stand up in a new direction.
4-1 The Guard
It's almost unfair how talented the McDonagh brothers have turned out to be. Whether you're looking at Martin, who wrote and directed In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, or John Michael, who made Calvary and this spectacular black comedy, the brothers have a way of taking tired premises and turning them into something clever, intelligent, hilarious, moving, and even profoundly thoughtful when you least expect it. And The Guard may be my favorite of the pair's four films (well, maybe second after In Bruges), making me laugh uproariously for much of its running time and packing an emotional punch repeatedly once it gets your guard down. It's all anchored by the lead performance by the reliably brilliant Brendan Gleeson as Gerry Boyle, a cop who's either "really motherfucking dumb or really motherfucking smart," to quote the FBI agent (played by Don Cheadle) who's forced to work with him on a massive drug case. Gleeson is gleefully vulgar, enjoys saying horrible things to bother people, and without a doubt plays fast and loose with the law. But there's an inner core to him that's impossible to miss, and in Gleeson's hands, Boyle becomes never becomes a simple "bad cop," instead becoming something more complex and fully realized - a mass of contradictions and humanity who's equal parts selfish and giving, idealistic and cynical, and cruel and kind-hearted. And while there are no bad parts in the film - McDonagh gives great dialogue and personality to almost every character, no matter how small the role or whether they're villain or hero - it's undeniably Gleeson's film through and through, turning what could easily be a generic cop story into an Irish character study that brings its sharp humor and keen insight to bear and makes something richer, funnier, and more rewarding than the plot would ever lead you to expect. It's another example of what the McDonagh brothers do best, taking threadbare old cliches and making them fresh, thoughtful, funny, and even heartfelt.
3-31 Body Melt
A pharmaceutical company that's trying to come up with the next big wonder drug decides to use a small Australian suburb as its testing ground, and, as the title suggests, things get really gooey quickly. That's the plot of Body Melt, I think, although the film never really seems all that interesting in telling anything approaching a coherent story. Instead, Body Melt is more of a collection of weird anecdotes, ranging from a small gas station full of inbred children to a health club populated by really high-voiced muscle men to a pregnancy that goes horribly wrong. None of it really makes all that much sense, but that's okay, because it's all so manically fun and gleefully weird and splattery that it's hard not to have a good time with it all anyway. Yes, it would be nice if it all tied together a little bit more, especially at the end, when the film just sort of...ends...without any real warning or wrap-up, but any film that finds characters drinking detergent to prevent aliens from dissolving their necks to emerge can't be all bad, can it? Okay, maybe it can be. But it's still a lot of fun, especially if you're a fan of that kind of thing. Which I am.
3-31 The Last

Maybe it's the benefits of low expectations, or maybe it's just that any horror film partially inspired by the cult favorite documentary Marjoe automatically is a bit more interesting than you might expect. But whatever the case, The Last Exorcism is a richer and more compelling horror film than you might assume, especially given the increasingly tired found footage conceit. The story of a moneymaking preacher who's quitting after feeling guilt at just how much he's scamming people (thus the Marjoe inspiration), The Last Exorcism follows the preacher through his final exorcism, where he's forced to realize that there may be more to religion and evil than he assumed to be true. The Last Exorcism gets a lot of things right, but you've got to start with the casting of Patrick Fabian (lately of Better Call Saul fame) as the preacher/exorcist/conman. Fabian brings a lot to the role, from the charisma and charm that lend credence to the idea of him being a popular preacher to a willingness to bring out depth and doubt to what could easily be a stock character in a generic horror film. But that willingness to find depth extends to the whole film, which really plays with the ambiguity of the situation - is this a case of demonic possession or horrific child trauma? - almost all the way to the end of the film. That ending, of course, is the source of a lot of contention; while I feel like it's a more solid ending than it gets credit for, and that it nicely ties together a lot of small details in the film, it also undoubtedly removes a lot of the ambiguity that the film has been using well for its length. Nevertheless, it's nice to find a horror film willing to explore its themes and ideas in interesting ways, and doing so while still being scary and intense all the way through. In general, it's a far more interesting and richer horror film than you might expect, and one that I ended up enjoying far more than I was prepared for.
3-31 Rare Exports:
A Christmas
All I knew about Rare Exports was that it was "that horror film about Santa Claus," but I'd be lying if that wasn't enough to pique my interest. Even with that great premise and the foreboding, isolated setting that brought to mind The Thing, I still worried that the film would ultimately be a cute gimmick stretched to feature length, beating its one idea into the ground. Instead, Rare Exports is a lot more clever than I expected, delivering something far more engaging than the one-note joke it could have been. Turns out that the creature the team excavates may not quite be Santa...but that doesn't prevent the film from playing with the Santa legend beautifully and in increasingly demented ways, leading to some fantastic payoffs. The biggest knock on Rare Exports is that it does a lot of things pretty well, but none of them exceptionally well. It's a little scary at times, but never quite wants to run all the way into becoming a pure horror film; at times, it's a black comedy, but tempers that with its horror aspects and dramatic beats. And those dramatic beats work decently well, but they feel at odds with the later shifting tones, especially as the climax becomes part action film, part sly commentary. Even with that, while it might not excel in any one thing, it executes all of its genre shifts satisfyingly and with visual style, and as its plot twists and turns, I was constantly grinning at the wonderfully inventive ways the story found to unfold. Rare Exports is part comedy, part horror film, part action flick, and part drama, but the end result is an engaging, fun little movie for those of us who need a darker edge to our Christmas entertainment.
3-31 Spider
Imagine the family scenes from the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre but played (more) for black comedy, and you come close to capturing the gloriously weird, off-kilter sensibility of Spider Baby, a cult horror film from the 1960's about an inbred, murderous family beset upon by attorneys and family members. Part Night of the Living Dead, part nightmare version of a family sitcom, Spider Baby is a pretty fantastic find for fans of the offbeat and the weird, who'll love the film's willingness to move from comedy to horror to meta-commentary to almost endearing family moments. I certainly was a fan of the whole thing, if only for its absolute refusal to be pigeonholed into any convenient category; at times, it's almost nightmarishly horrifying; at other times, it's absolutely hilarious. And it's to the film's credit that it handles both equally well, and that the performances never feel like they're shifting to meet the needs of the scene. Rather, what plays as charming and sweet in one sequence is creepy and chilling in another, and director Jack Hill manages the film's dark palette so that it either emphasizes the awkward comedy or plays up the unease of the shadows. It's an undeniably weird film, and a lot of people will probably find it unpleasant, so if the idea of Sid Haig playing an overgrown child driven by sexual impulses he doesn't understand, or the idea of young girls whose favorite game is called "spider" and involves a lot of knives...if those don't appeal to you, maybe this isn't for you. If you're up for something off the beaten path, though, you'll love this one in all its low budget and anarchic charm.
3-30 Simon of the
I've really come to love the work of Luis Buñuel over the past few years, and Simon of the Desert reminds me why, delivering a frequently hilarious religious satire that's still thoughtful and more nuanced than you might expect, especially given Buñuel's feelings about religion in general. The story of an ascetic who lives in a desert on the top of a pillar and the temptations he faces, Simon of the Desert is every bit as critical and sniping at organized religion as you might expect from Buñuel, whether it's nonplussed reactions to miracles, blind arguing about dogma without any knowledge, corruption, or more. But Simon is also more respectful and impressed with its title figure than you might assume, with Buñuel almost seeming to find honor in someone who's willing to dedicate his life to purity and to fight against the temptations of the world. Those temptations are most often presented in the form of Satan, played by a flirty, vivacious young woman whose jokes and suggestions do their best to get under Simon's skin. And through it all, there's Simon's mother, living nearby and doing her best to watch over her son, and seeming to possibly represent a form of love that everyone involved should be paying more attention to. It's all sharp and funny and thoughtful, and that's before the strange, unexpected climax, which jars the film out of its rhythm just as you think you've got it figured out. Simon of the Desert was intended as a feature but was ultimately made as a 45 minute short, and in some ways, that may be for the best; it keeps Buñuel from allowing any fat to get into the film, and makes for a more focused impact. As it stands, it's one of Buñuel's best films, no matter how long it may be.
3-30 Valerie and
Her Week of
Oh, you know, just another Czechoslovakian surrealist art film that's part coming of age story, part vampire tale, part weird metaphor for getting your period, and part fairy tale. You know, one of those. Honestly, you'll either love Valerie or get bored with it pretty quickly, and I have to count myself in the latter camp; while I don't mind pure surrealism in small doses, I tend to find myself gravitating towards slightly more "grounded" surreal works (look, for instance, at how Luis Buñuel mixes surrealism with the real world to fantastic effect). Valerie is undeniably astonishing to look at, but after about 15 minutes, it gets to be a bit tedious, just piling strange image on strange image and occasionally feeling more than a tad bit pretentious. There's a sort of story in here somewhere, something that involves Valerie's becoming a woman and her growing recognition of sexuality, but it's also a weird horror film that involves incest, lesbian vampires, demonic figures, and more, all while still being a bit of a fairy tale. Is it wholly unique? Sure...but it's also a bit thudding and not much fun, as opposed to the weird anarchic chaos of something like Hausu. I guess I can see why a lot of people like it, but I spent the running time a bit bored and ready for it to be over with, even with its relatively short running time.
3-30 Dracula
Has Risen
from the
Even as a big horror fan, I've somehow never gotten much exposure to Hammer films, despite their iconic status as part of the genre. So when Turner Classic Movies decided to run a trio of Hammer's Dracula films back to back, it seemed like an essential part of my film education. It didn't take long for me to understand the appeal of Hammer films, either; there's not a one of these that isn't wonderfully gothic and nicely shot, making the best of its sets and its theatricality to make a nicely gripping experience. What's more, they all managed to tell inventive stories, whether it's nicely altering the original Dracula into a hunt to destroy the monster from the get go, following a set of tourists as they're unwittingly forced into playing apart in Dracula's resurrection, or setting up an elaborate plan for Dracula to take his revenge on the desecrator of his castle. And the performances are all solid, taking the material seriously enough to make it all work, while never overcommitting in a way that would jar with the gothic sensibility on display. The standout, of course, is Peter Cushing in Horror of Dracula, but Christopher Lee's intense, intimidating turn as Dracula makes the films work in a way they might not otherwise, often bringing a physicality to Dracula that explains everything more quickly than any dialogue could. (That being said, the films are better when Lee's allowed to speak; it's not a coincidence that Dracula: Prince of Darkness is the weakest film as Lee is forced to do more and more without any dialogue.) And yet, they all share common failings as well, often falling too heavily into melodrama and plotting and meandering through their story to the point of slowness, if not quite tedium. Nevertheless, there's a lot to enjoy here, and the striking visuals (and the infrequent but effective uses of blood and violence) make the films understandably beloved in many circles. You have to be in the right mood for these - they're maybe more akin to a classier, better version of monster movies than "horror" films - but if you are, you'll find a lot to enjoy here. Just be willing to have a little patience.
3-30 Dracula:
Prince of

3-30 Horror of
3-28 Twelve
Even as a fan of Terry Gilliam, and a huge aficionado of his masterful Brazil, it's hard not to feel that Twelve Monkeys might be the man's most "successful" film in many ways. It's pure Gilliam, from the opening moments, and there's hardly a frame where his presence isn't felt, whether it's the off-kilter camera work, the deranged (and, admittedly, excessive) performances, the dark humor, or the sheer weirdness of the whole thing. But it's also a film that creates a complete vision, and whose strange touches work, creating a world of insanity, doubt, confusion, and chaos that all reflects the life of James Cole, a man who probably - but not definitely - is a time traveler, sent back in time not to prevent the apocalypse, but to learn from it. Even among time travel films, Twelve Monkeys stands tall, tying together its plot threads in an astonishing self-contained loop whose complexity only gets more and more impressive as the film comes together in its jaw-dropping climax. But it's never hard to follow - well, not without a purpose, anyways. Even as we jump through at least four different time periods, lose our way in an asylum, deal with a dream that might be a memory or a warning of the future (or both), Gilliam's sure hand keeps us not only following the story but moving beyond it into complex, thematically rich territory. The simple joys of life, questions of sanity in a world that may have no use for it, environmental concerns, and more all mix together to make a potent stew, and it's to the film's credit that it dives into so much heady territory while never forgetting that it's a sci-fi film, and an entertaining one at that. It's helped with that, of course, by some great performances; Willis is an inspired choice for the confused, lost Cole, and he brings out both Cole's fear and his childlike glee in being back in a world that's alive again. And then there's Pitt, who doesn't so much chew scenery as tear it to shreds with his teeth, digest it, and eat it again, but it's so damn entertaining that it's hard not to enjoy every minute of his deranged presence. Twelve Monkeys is pure Gilliam, with all the ambition and strangeness that implies, but it's also the rare Gilliam film that seems to succeed on all of its hopes and dreams, and the result is a fantastic, thoughtful piece of science-fiction that looks and feels like nothing else.
3-28 It Follows

It Follows arrives on a sea of hype, giving horror fans the same vibe we got last year with the exceptional The Babadook. And once you see it, it's not hard to understand why - but you'll also be surprised by what you get. Yes, It Follows is a wonderfully unnerving and unsettling film, following a young girl who's being pursued by a creature that can look like any person it wants to, and will follow her no matter where she goes. In other words, it's like a blend of a zombie film and The Terminator, and the creature's inexplicable and relentless nature makes for a hell of a tense time at the movies. (Indeed, one of the film's best strengths is that it refuses to explain or clarify the creature; it simply is, and that's all we ever really know about it, apart from its means of transmission...but more on that later.) But what may surprise you about It Follows is how relatively low-key it feels. Director David Robert Mitchell has little interest in big scare moments, and even less in gore; indeed, we spend much of the movie convinced that we may be seeing "it" walking towards our heroine, but Mitchell refuses to confirm our suspicions or even clarify his shots; the creature may be the shape we see in the background, or that could just be another person. That approach tends to fit the mood of the film as a whole, which is less about big scares and big stings and more about an oppressive, disturbing, unsettling mood that makes it all feel like an inescapable nightmare. And if that's not enough, there's the film rich subtext - well, at times, it's barely even sub. The creature is passed on through sexual encounter, leaving many to assume that this is an allegory for sexually transmitted diseases, but that's both true and false; there's much more nuance to the film than you might assume from that premise, and it presents sex neither as a sin nor as a good, but as something wholly different, both appealing and horrifying and alien, depending on the scene. Do you want to view "it" as the approach of adulthood, or death? There's plenty of ground for that, or you can take it lots of other ways as well. But what matters more is that It Follows is genuinely unnerving and disturbing, and while its more psychological and subtle approach may let down some who expect something flashier, It Follows has a way of sticking with you and leaving you liking it more and more as you realize how sharply crafted, well-written, and just generally well-made it all is.
3-22 Percy Jackson
and the
You almost have to admire Chris Columbus's reverse Midas touch, where he has the gift to take on rich, funny, engaging children's books and suck all the life out of them, giving you an inert, dull, generally painful film adaptation. With the first two Harry Potter films, Columbus adhered so slavishly to the book that he forgot to make a film at any point, giving us a walking diorama without energy or vibrancy. With The Lightning Thief, Columbus's take on the first Percy Jackson book, he at least avoids the trap of excessive fidelity to the source material, albeit by removing so much of what made the book unique and interesting that you'd be forgiven for assuming the book was garbage if you'd only seen the film. I'm not averse to changes in books when you make a film, but I'm a big believer in keeping the spirit of the book alive, and The Lightning Thief robs the story of the feeling of myth revisited, reducing everything to cliches and sleepwalking performances. And sure, admittedly, that's something you can blame more on the screenwriter than Columbus, but that excuse doesn't cover the lifeless staging that permeates the film, the clunky costumes that feel like bad Renaissance fair outfits, the bored and unengaged performances in every role, the mediocre effects work, and basically every other aspect of the film. The closest thing to a positive comment that I can give the film is that it does manage to nicely handle the book's episodic plotting, giving everything a bit more of a throughline than it otherwise had, but the fact that it's at the expense of anything interesting at all ultimately makes the film a painful chore to sit through.
3-18 What We
Do in the

I may not know much about the work of Taika Waititi, one of the co-directors of the hilarious new vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows, but I'm very familiar with - and a fan of - his partner, Jemaine Clement, of Flight of the Conchords. Conchords was a gloriously silly show, but one that worked thanks to its lowkey, deadpan delivery and its utter commitment to whatever it attempted, and it's clear that Clement brings a similar sensibility to Shadows. A mockumentary about a quartet of vampires living in a small house, Shadows may remind you of Christopher Guest's films, and that's not a bad thing. Both acknowledge their framing devices and run with them, allowing the characters to be a little awkward in front of the camera, to perform a little bit, but also allowing them to just be, no matter what that results in. But there's a lot more silliness on display here than Guest often allows, and a willingness to play to seriously dark comedy when you least expect it. Sometimes that means neck bitings that go terribly wrong; sometimes that means encounters with a pack of werewolves (led by Rhys Darby, a.k.a. Murray of Conchords fame) very focused on maintaining their decorum and their behavior. Shadows isn't really attempting to do anything groundbreaking; it's not really interested in the heart that Guest sometimes brings to his characters, or in upending our feelings about vampires. It's just interested in being very funny, and that makes it a treat, because it succeeds and then some. It may take you a bit to be sold on Shadows, as it has a way of letting you warm up to it, but as it develops, you'll find yourself falling into its shaggy charms and its mellow feeling; by the time that a modern vampire moves in with the group and starts changing up their routines (and bringing a human companion with him), the film hits a stride that it never really loses again. Shadows has all the making of a cult hit; it's not gonzo enough to really be a breakthrough, but it's a complete blast to watch, and it has a way of drawing out your affection for it without ever striving for it. But more importantly, it's really, really funny, and that's more than enough in this case.
3-17 The High
A trio of Buster Keaton short films is a great way to spend an empty hour, and while these early efforts from the silent comedian feel very much like the first steps that they are, they're still frequently hilarious, and anchored by Keaton's usual wonderful presence. The weakest of the three, The Paleface, spends a bit too much time setting up its story. which involves oil barons attempting to take land from a Native American tribe. But once Keaton finally arrives, the film finds a decent enough groove, letting Keaton upset the tribe wonderfully before becoming their savior...well, sort of. The Paleface feels a bit thinly spread at times, and while there's a couple of great sequences (a burning at the stake, and a fantastic showdown on a rickety rope bridge), this one's mainly for Keaton aficionados. Daydreams is slightly better, even in the incomplete form that survives today; it follows Keaton through a series of jobs, none of which he's particularly good at, and the episodic nature of the whole thing allows him to work his way through a series of quick setups and punchlines beautifully. And, as usual with Keaton, it all builds to more and more madcap adventures, culminating in a spectacular sequence involving Keaton's inability to get out of a steamboat wheel. But the best of the three, and the one that's most worth checking out even if you're new to Keaton, is The High Sign, which somehow involves a sharp shooting job, a criminal organization, deeply flawed bodyguard work, and a jaw-dropping brawl that flows through four rooms of a booby-trapped house, all of which are visible at the same time. It's The High Sign that best shows off what I love about Keaton, starting off with a simple gag involving a newspaper that only gets funnier and funnier as it goes along, moves to a sharp-shooting sequence that finds Keaton involving a dog in his plan to look like a great shooter, and then moves into that gloriously astonishing brawl. And by the time you hit that climax, you're wrapped up in equal parts hilarity and awe at Keaton's ability to choreograph these intricate sequences that hold up to this day. Few comics of the silent era, I think, had the physicality that Keaton did, to say nothing of the uncanny ability to know how to mix comedy and action so well, and The High Sign is a prime example of that. It's not the all-time best Keaton short - that would probably still have to be Sherlock Jr., maybe - but it's still a great one and a reminder of Keaton's talent.
3-17 The Paleface
3-17 Daydreams
3-13 The Iron
In the widest possible sense, you could accuse The Iron Giant of being a retelling of E.T. There's the alien creature that lands on earth (here, the titular Iron Giant, a massive robot that lands in the ocean and comes ashore), the young boy who finds him and takes him in, the government agents trying to hunt him down, the boyish feel of adventure against the world. But as Roger Ebert always said, a movie is not about what it is about; it's about how it goes about it, and it's in those details that The Iron Giant becomes something truly wonderful. There's the Cold War-infused dread of the 1950's setting, which plays wonderfully not only off of the fears of nuclear war that inform the story, but also of the pulp sci-fi so often associated with the decade's films. There's the medium of animation, which gives the film a charming feel that makes it impossible to imagine the story told any other way. And there's the thematic depth of the whole thing, which finds the Giant struggling to understand his role in the universe and realizing that being a weapon and a fighter isn't necessarily something to aspire to. Indeed, in many ways, The Iron Giant is a response to so many other children's films, with violence becoming the problem, not the solution. (Look, for instance, at how most of the military figures of the film have no interest in violence, and those that do are triggered almost entirely by fear or a lack of understanding.) Yes, it's a sharply funny film, and yes, that climactic scene never fails to make me tear up a little bit with the beauty and simplicity of its sacrifice. But it's all of those things together that combine to make The Iron Giant such a wonderful film, one that takes what could have been a knockoff of a great film and makes its own great film instead, one that ends up resembling nothing so much as it resembles itself.
3-11 Alien (1979)
For as much as Alien casts a long shadow over the world of science-fiction, it's undeniably a horror film first and foremost, no matter what sci-fi trappings it might have. Oh, there's a lot of Star Wars on display here, from the dirty, lived in spaceships to the cluttered displays, and there are hints of the visual splendor that Ridley Scott would push to its limits with Blade Runner. But for all of that, Alien is a slowly building nightmare, delivering a truly unsettling, unstoppable horror and pacing its scares out to the point where you end the film deeply afraid to look under any cabinet or into any opening. True, Alien takes a little while to get going, especially once you've seen it already, but watching it unfold on the big screen in a gorgeous 35mm print allows you to take in Scott's world-building - the coffee cups hanging above the sink, the terminals whirring and clicking in the silence, the beds filled with sleeping astronauts. And that's before you even get to the alien ship, which remains unsettlingly enigmatic even all these years, no matter what gaps Prometheus tried to fill in. But once the creature gets loose, all hell breaks loose, and even all these years later, watching Alien reminds me of the first time seeing it and the absolute terror it evoked in me. Yes, Aliens is a great sequel, but it's hard for me to not prefer the "purity" of the original, to steal from Ash. It's a focused, pure nightmare, one that uses its science-fiction trappings to enhance its mood, rather than simply making them feel tacked on.
3-1 The Venture Bros., "All
That and
Maybe it's cheating to write about "All This and Gargantua-2"; after all, it's a standalone special episode of The Venture Bros., not a long-awaited new season (which is teased at the end of "Gargantua-2"). But I've waited almost two years for new episodes of The Venture Bros., and when they come back with something this satisfying, funny, exciting, engaging, and just great, well, you can believe I'm not going to miss the chance to write about this show when I can. Trying to describe the plot of "All This and Gargantua-2" is a bit of a struggle; suffice to say, a massive number of characters from the show have been invited to a new space station, a batch of villains plans on attacking, the Villain's Guild deals with some internal betrayal, The Monarch gets a new house, a major character reveals that he's dying...and that's not even scratching the surface. What matters more than the story (which all makes sense while you're watching it, even if it's impossible to summarize later) is how it's all executed, and it turns out that The Venture Bros. hasn't missed a beat in its long hiatus. The show has always excelled at mixing comedy, sci-fi, action, and character work seamlessly, and "All This and Gargantua-2" is no exception, somehow making time for both a light saber battle against a murderous Mary Poppins homage and bonding moments amongst the notoriously prickly Venture family. There's jokes that pay off on storylines we've watched for years, and lines of dialogue that nearly break your heart, and jokes about everything from pop culture to obscure 80's magicians, and it all somehow lands and all somehow works. In other words, it's pure Venture Bros., and my hope is that this special and the tease for season 6 (which was done in a must-watch epilogue released on, which also contains maybe my favorite moment of the whole episode) means the show will be back soon, because there's nothing quite like it anywhere else. And while that's understandable, it just means that "All This and Gargantua-2" reminds me that I need this show back in my life, and soon.
2-28 Chimes at
When you watch a late period Orson Welles film, you know you're going to have to meet the film halfway. In his later years, Welles often struggled to get his films made, filming them over the course of years in a piecemeal fashion, raising money and filming scenes until his money ran out, and then starting again. And that sometimes means that they feel a little strung together...but at the same time, there's never any denying Welles' gift for cinema, from astonishing filming to his undeniable presence at all times. And even given all that, and given that I've quite liked Welles' other forays into Shakespeare, I wasn't prepared at all for the staggering accomplishment that Chimes at Midnight is. Essentially extracting the Falstaff sequences from Shakespeare's histories and turning it into an independent story, Chimes at Midnight follows Falstaff from his first appearances as young Henry's companion and constant troublemaker to his rejection and pathetic death, giving the character a full arc without changing a word of Shakespeare's dialogue. As you'd expect from Welles, the performances are top notch, especially the man himself - but really, is there a better role for Welles than Falstaff, an obese teller of tall-tales and self-aggrandizing anti-hero? But what truly staggers about Chimes is the visual style Welles brings to bear, creating something that shows off his love of noir while also showing an ambition that Welles wasn't often capable of in his later years. And nowhere is that more evident than in the justly revered battle sequence, where Welles takes reportedly less than 100 extras and created a sweeping, astonishing battle full of brutality, shocking violence, and true impact. And through it all, there's Falstaff, cutting a figure who's equal parts hilarious, pitiful, and charming despite all of his faults. Chimes is a remarkable film, one that feels deeply true to Welles' spirit - the tale of a charming man who's well loved but rejected by the respectable world, despite all that he's capable of. And Chimes reminds you just what Welles could do, from his wonderful presence to his gift for direction and visual flair, creating a Shakespeare film for the ages and one of Welles' masterpieces, hands down.
2-26 The Nightly Show
with Larry
I stuck with The Nightly Show for about a month, and a large part of me hopes that I'm just taking a hiatus, not giving up on the show forever. I really enjoy Larry Wiltmore, whose segments on the Daily Show as Senior Black Correspondent always demonstrated a sharp sense of humor, great timing, and a strong presence, and the idea of giving him his own show seems like a no-brainer. It would prevent him from trying to take on the in-character shtick that Colbert made so iconic, and the announced idea of the show - to focus on minority issues - made sure that the show would have its own identity beyond riffing on the news, Stewart-style. But the execution of The Nightly Show has been a bit of a letdown. Wiltmore's monologues are fine, but he lacks some of the snappiness and tightness he often brought to his routines on The Daily Show. But the big issue is the panel discussion format, which feels like it's trying to do too many things and pleases no one in the end. Mixing comedians and legitimate experts is a weird choice; is the panel there to entertain or to debate? Moreover, by confining it to a single segment, it always feels shallow; it ends up feeling like everyone gets in about a single line or two without much follow up. (As proof of this, check out the episode on black fatherhood, which features an extended panel that works far better.) And then there's "Keep It 100," a good idea that's rapidly become little more than an extended "Would You Rather" with no follow up or conversation being provoked. I still like Wiltmore, and I'm hoping that the show improves; if I hear that it has, I'm quite likely to jump back in and give it another shot. But for now, The Nightly Show is a bit of a disappointment, and with the impending loss of Stewart, I can't help but feel like we're coming up on the end of an iconic comedy dynasty that I've loved for more than a decade
2-14 The Duke of


Expectations can really shift your opinion of a film, and for a bit, I wasn't sure if I liked The Duke of Burgundy merely because it was so far from what I expected. That's understandable, though; the previous film by director Peter Strickland, Berberian Sound Studio, was a strange homage to giallo films that became an unsettling psychological nightmare. And with Burgundy kicking off with credits that could have been ripped from 70's erotic trash, I expected something similar here, with Strickland doing an homage to the genre that became something darker. And it turns out, I was half right. Yes, Duke of Burgundy takes some of its feel from 70's erotic dramas, orbiting around the sadomasochistic role play between a lesbian couple that ends up shaping much of their life. But rather than using this as a gateway to dark nightmares, Strickland goes the other way, using it to explore how relationships have to include give and take as partners do their best to accommodate each other's needs, whether that be attending dull academic lectures or bizarre fantasies involving household furniture. In other words, it's a far sweeter and more romantic film than you might expect, and despite how racy and explicit my description might sound, Strickland's never interested in turning this into pornography; indeed, there's basically no real nudity in the film, and little explicit sex. Instead, it's all about the play between these two people as they strive to accommodate each other and make each other happy, and the toll that can take on a partner who feels that they constantly have to give without ever necessarily getting back in return. And if that sounds a little more thoughtful and emotional than you might expect given the film's concept, well, you might understand my initial somewhat baffled reaction. But the more I think on the film, the more impressed I am with it. Yes, it's unmistakably from the director of Berberian Sound Studio (a late-film dream sequence will erase any doubts you had on that score), but it's a very different film, one more focused on emotional beats and the difficulties of building a relationship, and one that uses its "adult" trapping to make a film that's truly for adults - not because it's racy, but because it's so complex, thoughtful, and honest about what it takes to make a relationship work.
2-8 Goodfellas
It's not like Martin Scorsese makes a whole lot of bad films. I mean, even the man's weakest efforts are still bravura pieces of filmmaking, clinics on how music, visuals, editing, and acting can come together to make something transcendent. But even among a lifetime's worth of knockout films, Goodfellas stands apart as perhaps Scorsese's finest film - and that's no small feat. Everyone knows the story - that it's the tale of Henry Hill, who "always wanted to be a gangster," and his rise through the ranks of the Mafia. But as gripping as the story is, the greatness of Goodfellas is inextricably tied to its technique. The "Layla" montage. The Copa tracking shot. That astonishing fourth-wall break near the film's end. The helicopter sequence. The brutal beatdowns. The perfect final shot. The list could go on and on, and you'd never run out of things to talk about here, and watching it in a 35mm print where you can savor every detail, every shot, every moment only makes it all the better. And even with all of that, there's Scorsese's compelling approach to the material, which doesn't shy away from glamorizing the best parts of the Mafia life, but never lets you look away from the darker side of the whole thing. (It's an approach Scorsese would use again in The Wolf of Wall Street, and with similar impact, even if I think Scorsese admires - or at least understands - the gangsters of Goodfellas far more than the greed-driven Jordan Belfort.) And the result is impossible to pigeonhole. It's frequently hilariously funny, and then shifts to deeply horrifying. It's intense and will inspire paranoia, and then it'll fill you with envy and desire. It'll make you miss the days when De Niro actually cared about acting, wonder why no one else could find something this great in Ray Liotta, and truly make you miss Joe Pesci being in films at all. And more than anything else, it'll leave you in awe as you watch what may be one of the finest films ever made, as you make it through nearly two and a half hours of perfect filmmaking. Hyperbole? Not really, as anyone who's seen it knows. I mean, it's Goodfellas. What else could I possibly say about it?
2-6 Trailer Apocalypse
The wonderful souls at Drafthouse Films put together Trailer Apocalypse for the Belcourt's midnight movie series, and it's a perfect idea for the audience. Where else would you find the kind of people willing to sit through nearly two hours of 60's and 70's movie trailers for gore flicks, exploitation of all stripes, horror schlock, mondo documentaries, vintage commercials, and more? And sporadically, it was a pretty great experience - it was a blast to see these in all their ragged celluloid glory, and to get glimpses of films that truly boggled the mind so often. Gay motorcycle gangs, murderous drug addicts who turn into turkeys, uncomfortable sexploitation set among the world of oil sheiks, grungy gangster films, and more all added up to an often overwhelming plunge into an era that I really enjoy. For all that, though, I was left a little let down; maybe it's that the trailers weren't quite as weird as I sometimes hoped they would be, maybe it's that I've watched so much schlock in the past few years that my bar has raised, or maybe it's some combination of the two. I still enjoyed the evening, and there were a few moments of truly revelatory stuff in there...but given the resources and reputation of Drafthouse films, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little let down.
1-31 Whiplash
I've been a fan of J.K. Simmons for a long time; he's one of those character actors who's always a joy to have in your film, and who always brings some absolutely crackling energy to whatever role he plays. So the fact that Whiplash not only gave Simmons a big role, but that it was enough to get him so much awards attention, already made me excited to see Whiplash. But was I ever unprepared for just how intense and riveting Whiplash really is. The story of a freshman music student (Miles Teller) who's taken under the wing of a tough, cruel teacher (Simmons), the outline of Whiplash might make you think you're getting some generic inspirational teacher film, but that couldn't be farther from the truth. Instead, Whiplash is like some twisted, satirical take on the genre, as both characters' obsession with excellence and perfection drive them to further and further extremes. Simmons is walking away with the lion's share of the praise for the film, and it's not a surprise; he's riveting in every frame of the film in which he appears, bringing an unnerving intensity to even his smallest actions (the way he hangs up his hat and coat alone is a master class in the power of gestures) - and that doesn't begin to prepare you for his more, shall we say, unhinged moments. But Teller is great as well, and not simply because he holds his own against Simmons. Indeed, without Teller's willingness to make his character's obsession every bit as intense and somewhat horrifying as Simmons', the film simply doesn't work; with it, it becomes an inspirational teacher film by way of Wolf of Wall Street, where anything goes as long as it makes you successful, and anyone who's not helping you is dead weight. Finally, there's another figure who deserves acclaim, and that's writer-director Damien Chazelle, whose work here wrings every bit of tension out of the twisted relationship between these two men, and whose skill brings the film together in a climax that ranks among the most intense sequences you've seen in a theater in some time. It all combines to make a riveting, intense drama that's about the drive for perfection and greatness, the danger of obsession, and the power of creating something truly great, all delivered as a knockout piece of cinema that gripped me from the first scene to the last.
1-31 Paddington (2014)
Look, I know that Paddington looks awful. There was the "Creepy Paddington" meme that seemed almost too dead on to be funny; there were the awful trailers; there was the last minute voice changes that seemed troubling. And yet, Paddington is genuinely one of the more charming, winning, wonderful family films I've seen in a long time, one that works thanks to a gentle sense of humor, a surprisingly rich visual style, and a generally low-key mood that just makes the whole thing easy to love. Yes, there are a couple of sour notes; for instance, no matter how much fun Nicole Kidman is having as the film's taxidermist villain, her part seems a little much for the film (that's less a knock on Kidman, who's pretty fun to watch and really makes the role work better than it should, and more a comment on the fact that the film doesn't really seem to need a big villain part), and there's a moment or two here and there that reeks of the "going too big" issue that so often plagues kids films. But those are the exception, not the rule, and most of Paddington plays out wonderfully calmly, letting gags play out slowly, letting the understated humor work for itself, and going for the silly and absurd rather than the racy/adult jokes and pop culture references that ruin so many kids movies. But more than that, Paddington brings a touch of visual charm and style to its family palette, whether it's a shot of the family's house unfolding like a dollhouse (in a shot that'll remind film fans of Wes Anderson) or a beautifully realized flashback that's segued into magically. It's a really wonderful little film, one that kept me smiling and laughing throughout, sometimes surprisingly hard. And rather than focusing on a big "save the world" story or big sweeping moments, it's a movie that's all about its heart and charm, and that's something we could use more of. It's a really great little family film, bad previews and all, and I can't recommend it enough to families who are tired of hyperactive, exhausting kids fare.
1-25 The Overnighters (2014)
There's an oil boom in North Dakota, thanks to fracking, and that means there's a slew of jobs for those who need them. And in this economy, word of jobs can result in a modern migration akin to something from The Grapes of Wrath, as workers leave their homes and families behind in the hopes of finding work and some money to get them through tough times. But where do you live when you've left everything behind and have nothing to your name? That's the situation faced by workers swarming to a small North Dakota town in search of work, and there they found Jay Reinke, a pastor who felt that it was the duty of the church to look after those in need, only to find himself facing incredible opposition from his congregation and the community. If all The Overnighters had to offer was a documentary of that situation, it would be enough; that's rich ground, as faith collides with reality and forces people to confront whether they truly believe in the ideas of the gospels and can practice the things they preach. Like I said, that's compelling enough. But add to that all of the richness that The Overnighters brings with it - a devastating look at the effects of our crashed economy, a painful look at the toll that criminal records and sexual offences can take on people desperate for redemption, and even some passing thoughts on fracking and the environment, all of which are touched on while never overwhelming the film - and you have something truly rich and powerful, a film that started looking at a given situation and then becoming about much more than a single town. And then, just when you have a handle on the film, and you're wrapped up in all of the pain and drama on display...just then, the film drops a piece of information that completely changes everything you've known about the film and leaves you replaying dozens of scenes in a whole new light. If there's a fault to The Overnighters, it's that that piece of information comes so late in the game, and the film ends so quickly afterward, that's it almost jarring; it feels as though there's much more story to tell in the wake of what we learn near the film's end. And yet, if the film continued, it would rob us of the absolutely stunning irony of the film's final moments, which couldn't be topped for a perfect ending for the film. The Overnighters may rush its ending (even if it's understandable, for reasons I can't get into here), but that doesn't really detract from the power of the overall film, which will leave you thinking about its ramifications for a long, long time to come.
1-4 The Princess
The Princess Bride is one of those movies that so defined my childhood and adolescence that to this day, even with more than a decade since my last viewing, I still find myself able to recite most of it - the pauses, the comedic beats, the musical stings, the whole thing. But watching the movie with my children forces me to look at it in a whole different light, and wonder how much it's aged and how well it might hold up. And the wonderful answer is that it hasn't been hurt at all over the years; it's still funny, still wonderful, still charming, and still a blast. Sure, the score has some moments of 80's cheese (but not as many as you might dread; this isn't Ladyhawke, which is nearly ruined by its over-reliance on synthesizer score); sure, there are a couple of moments where the comedy beats are hit a little harder than they need to be (Billy Crystal's scene, unsurprisingly, might be the biggest offender). But none of that really matters, not when the whole thing has such a wonderful fairytale atmosphere and a keen sense of its own silliness and fun. Rob Reiner and writer William Goldman do a superb job blending the fairytale world with a modern sensibility, allowing the actors to bring the characters to life and create a real sense of warmth and affection that you need, and allowing the "present day" framework to comment on the action in a satisfying way that still works well (especially for an 8-year-old boy who hates the "kissy" parts, just like Fred Savage's character in the film). I doubt I can objectively rate The Princess Bride at this point in my life; it's too special to me and too much a part of my life. But it still warms my heart to watch, still makes me laugh, and still just charms me to no end. And watching my kids fall in love with it is even more wonderful for me to have happen.
1-4 Village of
the Damned

A fantastically creepy horror film that works almost entirely without effects work or gore, Village of the Damned starts simply enough, with an entire village suddenly passing out in unison. It's a weirdly unsettling scene, and Village of the Damned plays it out beautifully, using silence and long camera shots to emphasize the unreality of what we're seeing. It makes the eventual awakening of the village almost a disappointment, as we fear that the rest of the movie can't quite live up to that strange opening, and to some degree, that's true. As the plot continues and the women in the town start turning up pregnant, the film in some ways goes in a more conventional fashion. And yet, that's never quite the case with Village of the Damned, which always feels slightly off and unreal, in an unsettling way. The strange children of the town are disturbing, but never terrifying; the acts they commit are menacing, and yet they remain somewhat sympathetic, in a bizarre way that's hard to place. All of that helps make the film work as well as it does, making it a horror film that's hard to pin down. Are the children the monsters they seem to be? Are they a predator, or simply a new creation defending itself? And what of that strange opening - is it an ominous omen of the danger to come, or simply a side effect of dealing with something we don't understand? Village of the Damned gets a lot of mileage out of its unease and its questions, and it makes for a gloriously strange and unsettling film that works thanks to its performances (especially George Saunders as one of the "fathers" of the town) and its low-key mood, not in spite of them. It's a great little horror gem, and one that works by being more complicated and interesting than I expected - to say nothing of being far moodier and unsettling than I expected at all.
1-3 The Most
One of the most famous short stories ever written gets its first - and still most well-regarded - adaptation in this fantastic little pre-Code thriller. It's a solid adaptation of the story, adding a few characters to help flesh out the dialogue and storytelling (the original story is mainly from the hero's perspective, so we get his running monologue) but still focusing on that killer hook: the survivor of a shipwreck washes onto an island, only to find himself hunted by a master hunter and struggling to fight back. Sure, the performances are a bit over the top, especially Leslie Banks as Zaroff, but it's all just enough to work, turning what could be campy into a nicely deranged performance. And while the movie takes a little too long to get to the hunt, the buildup is worth the wait, as every reversal and moment is played out to the utmost. Add to that some spectacular scenery and sets (especially Zaroff's wonderfully gothic mansion) and you've got a fun thriller that holds up nicely after all these years. And the short length works to the film's advantage, making it feel tighter and leaner than a lot of bloated short story adaptations I've seen; after all, when the story is this good, why add to it more than you need to? All in all, it's a great little thriller, one that does justice to its source material but still works well as a film on its own terms.