Best Movies of 2020

Movies suffered this year, with the continual push back of tentpole releases leading to the effective shrug-releases onto VOD where Hollywood’s biggest and best blockbusters could now first be experienced on your iPhone. Because of this, I decided to leave this as a running list, finalizing it the week of our delayed Oscars in April. Here are the films I feel comfortable citing as the best of 2020 as of this moment (as well as a list of what I still need to watch).

Still need to watch: Promising Young Woman; Martin Eden; Another Round; The Nest; A Sun; The Forty-Year Old Version; One Night in Miami; News of the World; Shirley; Kajillionaire

10. Emma.

Another in the trend of painting the Victorian-era and its most famous novels as wryly funny farces that showcase the selfish, awkward, and petty actions of its elegantly-clad characters. Autumn de Wild’s take on Jane Austen’s Emma. is sharp-witted, charming, and gorgeous to look at (even on my not so large television at home). Each color is vibrant and each insult pierces as Emma et al deal with the complicated romances of the era.

9. Bacurau

A weird film set “a few years from now” in a small Brazilian town, so inconsequential you may not notice if it disappeared off the map. This movie has the low-budget strangeness that exists in the first Mad Max movie, with characters acting in ways you don’t understand but merely accept as the way their world is. The second half brings the metaphor a little too into view, but what results is a walloping strike at colonialism, the divide between the haves and have nots, and the agency of the people who exist in forgotten worlds.

8. Wolfwalkers

This might be the best-looking animated film I’ve ever seen, designed with a feel similar to a pop-up book, with shades of green abounding. The story is similar to those we’ve heard before, colonialists overtake an area, but one of them befriends their enemy, leading to increased understanding of the other and the position of their loved ones. The story works, each beat hits all the right emotions, but where it truly thrives is in it dazzling visuals.

7. Nomadland

Ebert has an oft-quoted phrase that movies are an empathy creating machine and I think Nomadland really gets at the heart of this, telling the stories of those who choose to exist outside societal norms. Nomadland is about the drifters of the world. Groups of people who live by themselves in vans, working seasonal jobs before traveling on. Chloe Zao films this lifestyle in its difficulties and its poeticism. Sometimes it feels like the world has no place for these nomads, but at other times they have no place for the world.

6. Minari

Director Lee Isaac Chung’s personal story of a family who moves across the country to start a farm is both thoughtful and funny in its depiction of what it means to be a family, all the sacrifices, the selfish desires, and the quirks we deal with it. It’s also uniquely American, capturing the Korean immigrant experience with all its promised dreams and absurdities.

5. The Sound of Metal

I almost dreaded watching this movie, thinking it would be the person goes through a hard time Oscar-bait we get every year that lead to impressive performances, but altogether mediocre movies. This has an impressive performance at its heart, Riz Ahmed will hopefully become the first person of Muslim faith to get an acting nomination, but the rest of the film is just as good, offering such a deeply sympathetic portrait of each of its characters.

4. Lover’s Rock (A Small Axe film)

One of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series of films about London’s West Indian community across the 60s, 70s, and 80s, Lover’s Rock is pure joy. A cathartic experience that takes place at a house party, filled with reggae music, dancing, and food. The air is thick with romance, with sensuality. In a year in which intimacy and collective joy have been naught, when Black Americans faced continued injustice at the hands of the state, Lovers Rock was an antidote, a completely joyous occasion.

3. Da 5 Bloods

Spike Lee’s latest feature film was released at the height of an intense summer, focused on four Black Vietnam veterans returning to the country to search for something they left behind. It’s a messy film, Lee throws a lot at the viewer, but Da 5 Bloods hits heavy on both action and emotion. Centered around a tour de force performance from Delroy Lindo, the film showcases America’s long history of colonialist and discriminatory behavior, offering a transcendent experience.

2. Dick Johnson is Dead

Documentary filmmaker Katherine Johnson wanted to spend time processing her father’s increasing dementia, acknowledging the fact that he will likely die soon. To do so she works with him on a project where they simulate how his death could ultimately happen, having him play himself in these scenarios. Dick Johnson is Dead is about the impossible task of accepting a loved one’s death, but it succeeds most as a celebration of life.

1 First Cow

Kelly Reichardt’s latest is about two men trying to make their way through the wild western frontier, a land filled with hard men trying to find their way in a new world. When the richest man in town decides to bring in a cow, a luxury no one else can afford, Cookie and King-Lu hatch a scheme to steal milk to make oily cakes which they can then sell to others. It’s a beautiful, poetic, and tender vision of what humanity can be even in the midst of our most brutal tendencies.

Honorable mentions: Time; I’m Thinking of Ending Things; Boys State; Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Best Films of 2019

They say having a kid forces you to stop watching the movies you want. This is true. But not in the way that I thought it once was. The assumption is that babies will take all of your time and then dominate your media consumption. This is also true. But you can still get around it if you prioritize it (and have a generous, flexible partner). Where you run into trouble is that by the time you sit down at 8:00 after putting your child to bed, the 2.75 hour Tarantino flick is a time barrier that even the most ardent cinephile will struggle to overcome. This exhaustion was a difficult barrier this year and I pushed back films I might have otherwise enjoyed by this point. Nevertheless, I managed to see almost everything I wanted to, a decent enough number of what are widely regarded as the best films of the year. This is my ranking of those movies.

Before I give you my favorites, here are those I haven’t seen yet: Portrait of a Lady on Fire; Pain & Glory; The Nightingale; Monos; Transit; Clemency; Tigers Are Not Afraid; 1917; Jojo Rabbit

My favorite movies of the decade list will be coming soon. I again blame being a parent for my tardiness.

10. Ash is Purest White (Zhangke)

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The personal and political overlap as the story of Qiao (played by Zhao Tao) unfolds over decades. Jia Zhangke’ s gangster drama is a slow burn, walking the line between how much our personal choices affect who we become and how much the system forces us into it. Tao is marvelous here as a forlorned lover seeking answers about what happened to her life after she is imprisoned for her involvement in a crime. The club scene involving crowds of people doing the YMCA and the motorbike fight are two of the best shot sequences of the year in what is a gorgeous, subtle, and complex film.

9. Uncut Gems (Safdies)

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The Safdie brothers latest is like if you combined the zany nonstop movement of a screwball comedy with a tense thriller. Every scene features constant motion as Sandler’s Howard Ratner concocts and re-concocts plans to “win”. It’s a jaw clenching movie, stuffed to the brim with great performances from the strangest cast of the year (Sandler playing off-brand! Kevin Garnett giving a good performance as himself! Lakeith Stanfield! Broadway star Idina Menzel! The Weeknd as himself! Julia Fox’s debut!). This movie is airtight, there’s no false note to be found, no wonder the Academy blanked them!

8. Birds of Passage (Gallego / Guerra)

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This is ostensibly a gangster film, it’s about the rise of the drug trade in Colombia, particularly amongst tribal peoples, and how this forces them into modernity. Directors Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra focus on the specificity of this setting, allowing the traditions and practices to speak first, while gorgeously showcasing them in ways that make for revelatory cinema. It’s a gangster film, but one that spends time in this specific setting, allowing the tensions that rise and all that breaks after it to truly mean something.

7. Marriage Story (Bambauch)

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Twitter memes may have ruined the reputation of this movie, highlighting images out of context in ways that seem silly, yet Bambauch’s divorce story is fantastically written and more subtly executed than the internet would have you believe. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson are both great as a couple experiencing the messy fallout of a split. Bambauch adds his devastating wit and a musical moment from another famous story about relationships in what is a wholly satisfying drama.

6. Parasite (Joon-Ho)

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The breakout film of the year lives up to all the hype surrounding it. Like many Joon-Ho projects it’s darkly funny, nails genre conventions, and critiques capitalism with a strong conviction. This story about a poor family who con their way into working for wealthy socialites twists and turns until the very nature of humanity is laid bare. We’re all selfish at  heart, it’s just that some of us can pay our way out of ever having to feel that way.

5. The Lighthouse (Eggers)

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This is a wild film. Eggers again dives into a period with such passion, writing a script that so replicates its characters way of speaking, that it becomes difficult to understand the dialogue at times. It’s 1.19:1 aspect ratio forces you to feel the claustrophobia present in the small island that Dafoe and Pattinson occupy, while the black and white images evoke old mythologies. Their hysteria soon becomes your own and your mind becomes hallucinatory. Did you actually see that on screen or is it just a trick played by Dafoe? This movie delivers, fully encapsulating you in its era, in its characters crazed brains, and its seagull infested location.

4. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (Heller)

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While watching this I wondered if it might be the best biopic ever made. I’m not sure if it’s there, only time will tell, but Marielle Heller has come up with the best biopic convention ever. Heller places you within an imagined episode of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, to introduce you to Lloyd and how he will come to have his life changed by the ethereal man. A Beautiful Day tells the story of Lloyd Vogel and Fred Rogers, but it also serves as a guide to doing the hard work of being kind. It’s beautiful and honest and will make you a better person.

3. Her Smell (Ross Perry)

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Some slight spoilers will follow so for those of you who don’t want to know the direction this movie takes please avoid, but I feel it’s necessary to talk about what Her Smell is able to accomplish. Her Smell stars Elizabeth Moss as aging rock star Becky Something. We meet Becky at her most destructive, she’s drug fueled, self sabotaging, and a new mother as unfit to accomplish this job as any that’s ever graced the screen. Alex Ross Perry films her as if he’s shooting a horror movie, it’s claustrophobic, often following her from room to room as she makes horrid decisions and ruins her relationships with anyone who cares for her. The first half to two thirds of this movie are almost nauseating in their intensity. BUT! But, Ross Perry allows room for growth. He allows Becky to change. It’s not easy, but we see Becky slowly break her addictions, break her self-destructive habits, open up to being a mother. What Ross Perry (and Moss) are able to accomplish here, moving from the horrific to a truly grace filled ending is truly astonishing.

2. Knives Out (Johnson)

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Rian Johnson is the best working genre filmmaker. He’s done noir, time travel, Star Wars, the con movie, and now the whodunnit. Knives Out is so much fun. It’s funny, clever, well shot, well acted, filled with twists and turns, tackles the political and class tensions of our modern era, and actually has a satisfying conclusion! It’s the kind of movie I will throw on for years to come, just to watch it all unfold again. Ana de Armas is a revelation, Chris Evans’ sweaters are perfect, and Daniel Craig proves his comedic chops once again. I can’t think of a single person I wouldn’t recommend this movie to.

  1. Little Women (Gerwig)

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Greta Gerwig’s sophomore picture only further elevates her genius as a director and screenwriter. I’ve never seen or read Little Women (my mistake), so going into it cold I didn’t know what to expect, but what Gerwig (and Louisa May Alcott) delivered blew me away with its charm and its grace. I know they have been treasures for hundreds of years, but the March sisters are utterly delightful. Their rebelliousness, creativity, and compassion are a trio of characteristics that I hope and pray are instilled into my own family. I get the feeling that this movie will be a comfort to me for years to come, it’s warm without being easy, a celebration of life in all its complexities.

The Oscar’s “Best Popular Movie”: Picking the Would-Be Winners Across the Past Ten Years

The Academy of Motion Pictures Association recently announced a few changes to their format, the most notable announcement, drawing the ire of film critics everywhere, was the introduction of an “Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film” (or what we’ll refer to as”Best Popular Movie” from here on out) award. The move seems to be done with the hope of drawing larger ratings, a likely misguided strategy that will offer muddled takes on “popular” movies, the best of which were already being nominated anyway (InceptionLord of the Rings). The more cynical take comes with Variety’s reporting that ABC pushed the Academy to increase ratings, sparking these changes (the most cynical take of all comes when you note that ABC is owned by Disney, who owns Marvel, Lucas Arts, and Pixar, three studios likely to benefit from an award like this). This award will likely do little to increase interest in the ceremony, instead it will somehow hurt both small and large movies — taking attention away from the small ones, while making successful ones less likely to be voted into the Best Picture category.

Despite this being a ridiculous idea, it’s a fun exercise to think back to what would have won in the past. I recently redid the Best Picture winners of the last ten years, so why not go back and imagine what could have won Best Popular Movie in the past?

The Academy did not announce what the parameters of this award would be, so we’ll have to figure this out ourselves. The two ideas that instantly come to mind are:

  1. Based on total box office statistics of the year.
  2. Based on largest opening weekend statistics.

The first idea would make sense, but it instantly gets complicated by time constrictions. Your Star Wars movie, typically released in December, would have a huge opening, but likely wouldn’t qualify because movies released earlier in the year would have had a chance to accumulate across the entire year. You could get around this by finagling the award so that the movies that movies could qualify across a two year period, depending on which year they made a bulk of their money, but that would only cause further disinterest rendering the award as meaningless as the word “new” in the Grammy’s “Best New Artist” award.

I think the solution is the second option, which bases a movie’s popularity in its opening weekend, averaging the scores and allowing your late-in-the-year hits to qualify. The problem here is that it’s not a true representation of what was popular in the year, there are plenty of movies that opened huge, but quickly fell off after people actually saw it. In that same vein, there are movies that opened slow to become some of the biggest hits of the year (The Greatest Showman did this last year, American Sniper a couple of years ago, and classically My Big Fat Greek Wedding is did this). For this exercise we’ll have to neglect the surprise hits in favor of the movies that were successful from the start.

Here’s how it will work: The movies with the top 25 opening weekends of the year will qualify to be nominated by the Academy. The assumption is that they will pick the five nominees from those movies they think are the best. We don’t know exactly how the Academy will word the language of the award–should voters truly vote on what they think is the best of the qualified or should they focus more on the popular aspect? This affects movies like Gravity and Mad Max: Fury Road both of which were beloved critically and were nominated for Best Picture, but still qualify for this award. We can’t know for sure the way the Academy will swing, but we’ll do our best to select something representative of the best popular movie.

The other issue is whether a film nominated for Best Picture will be able to qualify for Best Popular Movie. We’re gonna go yes here, playing by the rules of Best Animated Feature and Best Foreign Film which allow a film to be nominated by both. These are prime examples of why a popular movie might actually get hurt by this award, as Best Animated Feature has only had two movies cross over into Best Picture since its inception (Up and Toy Story 3) and Best Foreign Language Film has only had eight (including Crouching Tiger, Hidden DragonAmourLife is Beautiful; Bergman’s Cries and Whispers; and Le Grande Illusion ). Voters perceive these movies as already receiving accolade and are less likely to vote them in even if they are one of the top five movies of the year, but there’s an off-chance something could sweep it entirely.

Let’s get to it:

2008:
The nominees:
The Dark Knight
Iron Man
Step Brothers
Quantum of Solace
Wall-E
Noteworthy snubs: Cloverfield, Hellboy II, Kung Fu Panda, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Twilight 
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The winner: The Dark Knight – This is literally why we’re doing this exercise right (other than Black Panther, which is the #1 reason)? The Dark Knight revolutionized the movie industry, even as Marvel was introducing their corporate strategy to us, Dark Knight grabbed everyone’s attention with the combination of populist entertainment and Christopher Nolan’s artistic flare. This is a strong year otherwise, Wall-E not getting nominated had some outcry as well (it is one of the best movies of all time, after all…), while Iron Man remains one of the strongest Marvel movies, and Step Brothers is considered one of the best Will Ferrell/Adam McKay features, the type of movie that stands to benefit from an award like this.
2009:
The nominees:
Avatar
The Blind Side
The Hangover
Star Trek
Up
Noteworthy snubs: Inglourious Basterds, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Fast & Furious, District 9, Sherlock Holmes, Twilight: New Moon, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
The winner: Avatar – One of the most successful movies of all time, it was already this close to taking Best Picture–Avatar is an obvious choice here. This was a year that increased the nominees to ten, so three of the nominees (AvatarThe Blind Side; Up) were already nominated for Best Picture. The biggest benefactor here is The Hangover, which was already making a push for Best Picture during that year. It seemed like a possibility at the time, but when’s the last time you heard anyone talk about that movie? Maybe an award like this would keep it in conversation for the years to come.
2010:
The nominees:
Alice in Wonderland
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallow pt. I
Inception
Shutter Island
Toy Story 3
Noteworthy snubs: Despicable Me, How to Train Your Dragon, Iron Man 2
The winner: Inception – I can imagine the battle now, Toy Story 3 taking on Inception for Best Popular Film. Of course, Toy Story 3 would also be pushing for Best Picture and Best Animated Feature, which, again, makes this whole thing so weird. Inception is the perfect movie for this, a successful genre film with some smarts to it, that also developed the kind of following and zeitgeist that is worth pandering to–in fact, Christopher Nolan might actually benefit more from this award being added than Marvel/Disney/Lucas Films.
2011:
The nominees:
Fast Five
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallow pt. II
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Super 8
X-Men: First Class
Noteworthy snubs: Captain America: First Avenger, The unholy trilogy of sequels in the Twilight, Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean series of movies.
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The winner: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows pt. II – I stan for Rise and First Class and I think Fast Five would get votes with the spark it brought to that franchise, but Deathly Hallows II gets it in a Lord of the Rings style nod to the finale of films that were quite good and well respected. Nowadays First Avenger gets a lot of love, but back in the day it wasn’t as hot, so I think it would have missed out on a nomination in this strong field–then again Disney probably works their magic and forces its way in there, but we’re envisioning a more pure world…
2012:
The nominees:
The Avengers
The Dark Knight Rises
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
The Hunger Games
Skyfall
Noteworthy snubs: 21 Jump Street, Brave, The Amazing Spiderman, Wreck-it-Ralph, Magic Mike
The winner: The Avengers – There’s no way anything beats Avengers here, it was a lauded cultural phenomenon. Personally, I think Skyfall is the deserving winner, it’s a beautifully shot and artistic Bond flick and what I’d hope would win in this new category, but, it’s Avengers so it has to win.
2013:
The nominees:
Fast & Furious 6
Gravity
The Great Gatsby
Pacific Rim
World War Z
Noteworthy snubs: Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Iron Man 3, Man of Steel, The Conjuring, Monsters University, Thor: The Dark World 
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The winner: Gravity – This is a really difficult year to predict, both nominations-wise and winner-wise. Gravity was successful at the box office (though I don’t remember anyone talking about it at all) and nearly won Best Picture anyway, so I imagine voters would give it this award, especially in a year where great, popular movies were so few and far between.
2014:
The nominees:
Captain America: Winter Soldier
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes 
Guardians of the Galaxy
Interstellar
The Lego Movie
Noteworthy snubs: X-Men: Days of Future Past, Big Hero 6, Neighbors, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part I
The winner: Guardians of the Galaxy – 2013 was weak, but 2014 features five of the strongest contenders yet. Interstellar was a hit that provided the classic pop-psychology Christopher Nolan is famous for. The Lego Movie was considered one of the funniest movies of the year and truly delighted audiences and critics. Winter Soldier got everyone on board the Captain America train. Dawn was a true artistic achievement. But ultimately it goes to Guardians, which blew up, getting Star Wars comparisons, and launching characters nobody had ever heard of into the pop culture as mainstays (after all, they have their own ride at Disneyland now!).
2015:
The nominees:
Inside Out
Jurassic World
Mad Max: Fury Road
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Noteworthy snubs: The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Cinderella, Ant-Man, The Martian, 50 Shades of Grey, Spectre, Furious 7, Minions
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The winner: Mad Max: Fury Road – This is a really tough year, because if the academy loved Inside Out they likely would have nominated it for Best Picture (regrettably, they did not). People liked Rogue Nation a lot, but I don’t think it would be able to take it. The new The Force Awakens is number two here, but I think enough people were mixed on it that Fury Road would take it on the crossover votes it might have received from already being Best Picture nominated.
2016:
The nominees:
Captain America: Civil War
Deadpool
Finding Dory
The Jungle Book
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Noteworthy snubs: Moana, Zootopia, Dr. Strange, (DC Comic crossover movies)
The winner: Deadpool – I originally put The Jungle Book, which captivated audiences with its gorgeous graphic effects, but I think Deadpool might take it here, if only for the fact that they were already pushing so hard to win Best Picture anyway. It was a solid year for animation, but I think those things tend to cancel each other out, rather than help.
2017:
The nominees:
Coco
Dunkirk
Logan
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Wonder Woman 
Noteworthy snubs: It, War For the Planet of the Apes, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok, Beauty and the Beast, Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2
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The winner: Wonder Woman – This might be the most solid year out of all them, with much liked sequels like Planet of the Apes, Spider-Man, and Thor all missing out on nominations. Dunkirk somehow made enough money to qualify and gets the crossover nomination. People loved Coco and there’s a weightiness to it that it qualifies too. Star Wars was beloved enough by film critics that it would survive its racist and misogynist backlash for a nomination. Logan was respected enough by the Academy to get a screenplay nom. But Wonder Woman was really well regarded and would have been the perfect choice during an Oscar’s where the Time’s Up and Me Too movements were at the forefront.

 

Let’s do some early 2018 predictions.

Nominees: A Quiet Place, Avengers: Infinity War, Black Panther, Incredibles II, Mission: Impossible – Fallout

Noteworthy snubs: Ant-Man & the Wasp, Ready Player One

The winner: Black Panther – There’s actually a solid five here, but there’s no way Black Panther wouldn’t take it.

Did I miss anything? What do you think would have won? What do you think of the new award in general?

Redoing the Best Picture Winners

The Shape of Water took home best picture last weekend, a pick that I’m not sure anyone was satisfied with. The movie is good, but easily inspires hate, featuring all sorts of quirks and a woman who falls in love with a fish creature as its main story.

There’s obviously a lot of debate when it comes to what should win Best Picture and Academy voters tend to pick movies that have trendy marketing for the year over something that will age well over time.

There’s a type of movie that should win Best Picture year by year and I don’t think it’s necessarily your personal favorite, but what’s considered the movie of the year, like an MVP of sorts. It shouldn’t be something that’s slight, but something that truly does feel important. And not important like it fits a certain theme of the year—though I think that can be good in capturing our moment—it should be something that’s cinematic, cinematically excellent on the widest scale. It doesn’t need to be avant-garde like the picks from the British Film Institute’s Sight and Sound (though perhaps more along those lines), but something that people will agree upon for years as being good. In this way it should be a little populist, the kind of movie that regular movie goers will say oh that’s a good movie without causing critics to roll their eyes (think Saving Private Ryan or Pulp Fiction).

This being said I thought it would be fun to go back and look through the last eleven years of best picture winners, replacing them with a movie that fits this description. Older years will be easier because there is an ability to see what has aged well and what hasn’t, but we’ll do recent years as well.

Years will be listed as the movie year and not the ceremony year.

2007

Winner: No Country For Old Men

 

What should have won from nominees: No Country For Old Men (There Will Be Blood is the more critically acclaimed and might be my favorite movie of all time, but we’ll give No Country the title here because it fits into that perfect mold of something critics and the people will both agree as good.)

What should have won from non-nominated movies: I’d still go with No Country, but Zodiac maintains a really high reputation all these years later and would be satisfying.

2008

Winner: Slumdog Millionaire 

What should have won from nominees: I haven’t watched Slumdog  in a while, but I do think it’s a pretty fun movie though it definitely does not work as the “important” work of art the Academy bestowed upon it this year. It’s a kind of silly love story about fate, not a serious reflection on poverty. 2008 was one of the worst years for best picture nominees and none of the nominees really fit the criteria. That being said, I pick Milk, Gus Van Sant deserves an Oscar, so he gets it.

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What should have won from non-nominated movies: The Dark Knight and Wall-E are both cited as the reason the Oscars increased their nominations. Wall-E is one of my favorite movies and is not only an amazing cinematic experience, but it increasingly looks like the future we are making for ourselves.

2009

Winner: The Hurt Locker

What should have won from nominees: The Hurt Locker also nicely fits the mold here, thank God it beat out Avatar which only holds up as a kind of laughing stock, if I could pick a number two it’d probably be Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds which is arguably his best movie.

HungerWhat should have won from non-nominated movies: Hurt Locker deserves and to come up with a non-nominated movie we’ve got to go toward the avant grade here. There’s Assayas’ Summer Hours, Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum, You the Living, and the one we’ll go with, Hunger—future Oscar winner Steve McQueen’s film about the Irish hunger strike, featuring a tour-de-force rise to acting fame by none other than Michael Fassbender.

2010

Winner: The King’s Speech

What should have won from nominees: Almost any of the other nominees would have been good, but The Social Network will be talked about for years and years to come.

What should have won from non-nominated movies: The Social Network is the definitive pick here, but if we had to pick another it would be Dogtooth, Yorgos Lanthimos’ creepy and wacky tale of a familial cult.

2011

Winner: The Artist

What should have won from nominees: Roger Ebert had The Tree of Life in his top 10 films of all time shortly after it was released, what else needs to be said. tree-of-life1

What should have won from non-nominated movies: The Tree of Life will always be in the discussion of best movies ever, but 2011 also had a lot of films that will be considered for time to come: Drive was a great experimental genre flick, Melancholia has an avid fan base, Take Shelter will continue to rise in estimation, and there are other beloved more genre-centric picks like Fast Five, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Attack the Block, Martha Marcy May Marlene, The Interrupters, and The Skin I Live In. A Separation is really the only one that competes with Malick though, so it gets the pick here.

2012

Winner: Argo

What should have won from nominees: It’s crazy that the Oscar’s got it so wrong three years in a row, picking movies that literally nobody talks about other than in Oscar mistake discussions. Lincoln could easily fit, but Zero Dark Thirty is excellent and captured America with a tight precision.

What should have won from non-nominated movies: The Avengers and Skyfall compete as populist picks, Looper and Moonrise Kingdom are two of my favorites, Holy Motors was beloved by critics, but it’s Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master that maintains all the buzz.

2013

Winner: 12 Years a Slave

What should have won from nominees: I haven’t rewatched 12 Years, but I thought it was an amazing movie the first time I saw it and I imagine it will continue to hold up. Her is the definitive number two here.

What should have won from non-nominated movies: Nothing stands out like 12 Years or Her, but you can’t go wrong with picking Linklater’s (final?) Before movie Before Midnight.

2014

Winner: Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

What should have won from nominees: Boyhood was such a fun experiment and it was executed so well. It details that time period perfectly, but should also hold up for years for the way it literally shows what growing up is like.

What should have won from non-nominated movies: It’s kind of strange looking back now that Interstellar was not nominated. Any time you have that thought it likely means that it should have been when looking back years later. People were mixed on it years back, but it does seem like it has only grown in estimation as the years have went on.

2015

Winner: Spotlight 

What should have won from nominees: Spotlight is actually a pretty good pick, but I have to go with the most exciting action movie in years, Mad Max: Fury Road, which will likely be considered amongst the best action films ever. mad max

What should have won from non-nominated movies: Inside Out was absolutely spectacular, Creed was way better than it had any right to be, Tangerine introduced us to characters rarely seen on screen, but it’s Carol’s lush winter romance that was most beloved and will likely grow with audiences.

2016

Winner: Moonlight

a24-A24_Moonlight-Full-Image_GalleryBackground-en-US-1501867156317._RI_SX940_What should have won from nominees: Moonlight definitely deserved it (even if I actually did like La La Land better on first watch, at least), but if we have to pick another I think Manchester By the Sea’s sad ruminations on loss will grow in affection more than La La Land will, though I do think Arrival will also be remembered fondly.

What should have won from non-nominated movies: There’s not an obvious pick here, of Zootopia, Paterson, The Handmaiden, Silence, Everybody Wants Some!!, and American Honey, I think I’m going to go with Silence, because the people who like it, really like it.

2017

Winner: The Shape of Water

What should have won from nominees: Get Out slightly over Lady Bird.

What should have won from non-nominated movies: The Florida Project will also be watched for years and years to come, there’s just so much life in that movie.

And now, the definitive list of movies that deserve to be named as the Best Picture of the year:

2007: No Country For Old Men

2008: Wall-E

2009: The Hurt Locker

2010: The Social Network

2011: The Tree of Life

2012: Zero Dark Thirty

2013: 12 Years a Slave

2014: Boyhood

2015: Mad Max: Fury Road

2016: Moonlight

2017: Get Out

What are your thoughts? Any movies you think deserve the title of Best Picture of the year?

120 Days: Iraq and Underexposure

I’ve decided in response to the current administration’s decision to ban refugees from Libya, Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, I am going to watch (and maybe write about) a movie by or about one of those seven places. Movies are among the easiest and most popular form of escape in our world, giving us the ability to transport ourselves to all sorts of places and, perhaps most importantly, into the perspective of another. While they only paint small visions of the world we live in, they expand what we think is possible and what we know of people.

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My second viewing in this series is Underexposure, a 2005 Iraqi film. I am discovering that the film culture in a lot of these places is not as prevalent as I might have hoped for an exercise such as this, but in a way this makes it almost better. The story of this movie coming to be is almost as exciting as the movie itself. The filmmakers got the film used to shoot the movie from looters in the wake of America’s occupation in Iraq. It’s expired, something they note in the movie’s title, and it gives the whole thing a yellowish tint throughout. They had to sell their possessions to raise enough money to complete the movie, which would end up being the first film to be made after the fall of Sadam Hussein.

Works of art can serve as a purging of oneself. The film features a group of guys trying to make a documentary about their town in the midst of occupation. Its main character, Hassan, speaks in long voiceovers, using poetic language to express the pain that appears with every bomb or from every person he learns has passed. For him the film serves as a way to free himself from it all, to reckon with his surroundings–to purge this great sorrow. The great lengths the actual filmmakers went to in order to get this movie made cannot be separated from the visions Hassan has, it’s all too meta not to be. This is how everyone involved in this production chose to find meaning in their lives.

Hassan grapples with the suffering and death that surrounds him, small people in his life pass on and you cannot help but note that this could be anyone, your neighbor, those acquaintances you once had. This is truly the empathetic power of movies, they drop you into an experience, giving a perspective of someone you’ll never know. You escape your worldview, if for but a moment, relating to and even siding with those opposite of ourselves.

As noted above, most of the characters in the film are commoners, they’re apolitical, trying to make a living in their town which has been destroyed by an irredeemable government and a group of outsiders who don’t like or trust them. There is no common sentiment displayed by the film, other than sorrow, yet resentment rides high, the logical reaction to those who have wrecked all you know. This is both us and them, though. Humanity is wont to act in self-preservation, grabbing onto to the narratives we are given and using them as motivation to get through our lives. And in this is the deepest of commonalities. We live in a world of imagined divides, with walls that we have been told exist, but exist solely in our collective social constructions as those above us gain off our broken backs.

Best Films of 2016

My last list in the best of the year lists is always the movies, because the end of the year is always loaded with films getting their debuts in last minute in order to qualify for varying awards runs. That being said, there are quite a few films that I either missed their run in my town or they have yet to make it here. Some of these films include: Toni Erdmann, Paterson, Silence, 20th Century Women, The Handmaiden, Certain Women, Elle, Camera Person, Things to Come. I plan on updating this list as I see these films, so expect it to be fluid (and keep checking it out because you’ll never know if there’ll be a new number 1!).

One other note I wanted to make before beginning this list was to acknowledge the lack of diversity amongst the stars and directors in my top 15. Last year’s #Oscarssowhite controversy certainly didn’t seem to really affect the hype train among critics, whose opinions I usually try to keep up with. Only Pablo Larrain (from Chile) and Hirokazu Koreeda (of Japan) are non-white males in my top 10. Some of you may roll your eyes at my acknowledgement of this and others of you may care, but I think it’s important to watch films by people who are not white males and I will try to be more cognizant of this moving forward. My 16 through 22 picks are all about or directed by people outside this realm, but just couldn’t crack into the movies that impacted me most (an arbitrary process, I know, but I try to rank them according to what I felt was the best combination of skill and personal impact). Movies are meant to transport you into someone else’s experience and it’s so important to make that experience be told by someone outside of the the small viewpoint it is so often told from. Here’s to more films by people of color and women going into 2017.

25. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

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24. Krisha

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23. High-Rise

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22. Moonlight

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21. The Club

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20. Moana

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19 Divines

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18. American Honey

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17. The Fits

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16. Kicks

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15. Embrace of the Serpent

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14. Love & Friendship

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Whit Stilman takes his dialogue-heavy wit to the Victorian era in what is a pretty straightforward period adaptation of a Jane Austen short story. It’s one of the most cleverly written scripts of the year, using the complex social dynamics of the time to craft what almost becomes a sort of screwball comedy. Kate Beckinsale gives one of the best performances of the year as a manipulative socialite making her way through the world. If you can keep up with it’s sharp dialogue you’re bound to enjoy it.

13. Midnight Specialmidnight-special

Jeff Nichols is one of my favorite working directors and his first feature of 2016 (he also made the respectable civil rights tale Loving) was a sci-fi thriller that doubled down on Nichols’ consistent exploration of family and manhood. The film follows a father (Michael Shannon) as he tries to protect his son from both the government and a cult of religious obsessives as they try to figure out the strange powers his son has. The central mystery of this boy’s purpose is intriguing, the chase aspects are thrilling, but ultimately the film is most interesting in what it means to be a family with Nichols’ putting his characters in unique situations to examine this question (as he also did brilliantly in Take Shelter).

12. Everybody Wants Some!!

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Everybody Wants Some!!, on its face, seems like an effort to try to recapture the magic of Dazed and Confused, but in reality it’s so good that there’s no way anyone can accuse Linklater of trying to capitalize off of old successes. It takes place in the 80s, following a group of baseball players in their first few days before college begins. Linklater is a master of having his characters sit around a discuss ideas, allowing for dumb jocks to be the smartest people in the room, and capturing in totality the excitement and uncertainty of youth. No other director is better at making you feel like you’re sitting around chilling with your pals.

11. Hell or High Water

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This is essentially ‘Texas: The Movie’ and perhaps the most representative story of what is now Donald Trump’s America. It follows two brothers (played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster) as they try to save their family’s ranch by stealing from the bank that’s about to foreclose on them. Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham star as two cops trying to catch the brothers, their tenuous but loving relationship guiding them along. The film follows both sets until its final culmination of complicated and unfortunate violence. Director David Mackenzie captures a certain American spirit, one of disparaged people caught in a bad place and desperate for a wave of goodwill to move through their lives. It’s a distortion of the American dream, one filled with plenty of laughs, and that will leave you dumbfounded as to how we got here and where we go next.

10. 10 Cloverfield Lane

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This prequel to Cloverfield was shrouded in mystery, with little known about its plot or that it was even coming out. The team behind this film were satisfied to take a fairly successful existing property and create something within its world without really caring about the world of the existing property. The known entity of there being some sort of monster attack brilliantly exists in the background while Dan Trachtenberg chooses to heighten tension within the house where Mary Elizabeth Winstead finds herself. It’s more psychological thriller than monster movie and Winstead (and the viewer) have no idea whether to be terrified or thankful for John Goodman’s presence (he’s terrifying, and great). It was one of the biggest surprises of the year for me and it pays off brilliantly.

9. Our Little Sister

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Hirokazu Koreeda is one of my favorite working filmmakers, he crafts small scale family stories where tensions run low, but spirits often run high. This isn’t to say his characters don’t go through a lot, they certainly face situations with high stakes, but the viewer never feels like these characters won’t be anything other than alright. Our Little Sister is about three sisters whose father, who had abandoned them years earlier for another woman, passes away. At the funeral they learn of their step-sister and eventually decide to take her in. The film then fairly simply follows the four of them as they reside together, experiencing those pieces of life that are most important–small disappointing and joyful moments that when placed together make up one’s being. It’s beautiful, like a cup of green tea warming you from the inside out.

8. Manchester By the Sea

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Early on Manchester By the Sea decides it’s going to wreck you, with Casey Affleck’s brother dying and the introduction of Affleck’s nephew who he is now in charge of. From there Kenneth Lonergan puts you through heart break after heart break as the circumstances of Affleck’s morose Lee Chandler are slowly revealed. This would all be utterly devastating (and it still is) if Lonergan didn’t make the film equally as funny as it is depressing. Lee’s relationship with his nephew Chandler is often ostentatious–they are two depressed people trying to get by, neither afraid to say how they feel–leading to often vicious and brutal snipes that actually help to relieve the tension quite well. The ubiquitous phrase all the feelings has never felt more appropriate than it has here, for good reason, Manchester will likely exist in our collective vernacular for quite a while.

7. The Nice Guys

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This is the funniest movie that came out this year, even if on its face it’s not a straightforward comedy. The Nice Guys follows Ryan Gosling’s private detective Holland and Russell Crowe’s fixer, Jackson, as circumstances force them to come together. Shane Black is able to pull off perfectly constructed slapstick as the two bumble their way throughout Los Angeles trying to find a missing girl. Gosling is surprisingly a comedic genius here. Ultimately, and similar to Inherent Vice, the movie is about decency, the idea that goodness exists in the world even if it is found in the seedy places one wouldn’t expect. The world is a corrupt place, but somewhere out there is an awful detective who really just wants to make things good for people.

6. Sing Street

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Sing Street is a frontrunner for the movie I’m most likely to put on during a Sunday evening when I just want to be comforted. It’s a John Hughes-esque teen comedy directed by the guy who gave us Once and featuring some outstanding original music. Cosmos is a teenager in Ireland, he’s just been forced to change schools, his parent’s marriage is falling apart, and he’s reached that age where his identity is beginning to be discovered. And then he sees a girl and decides to commit everything to impressing this girl. Following his brother’s advice he starts a band, inviting the girl to star in his music video, and through the new wave bands he sees on MTV, his interactions with this girl, and his keen ability to actually write songs, he begins to reach self-discovery. It’s fun, sentimental, and is actually able to capture all the excitement and importance of music–particularly to the lost teenager.

5. Jackie

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“Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” is a lyric and the main theme in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. This is the quote that most profoundly ran throughout my head while watching Pablo Larrain’s Jackie, his English-language debut, which follows Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy in the aftermath of her husband’s death. It’s a tale of personal tragedy, Jackie is dealing with the loss of her husband, the father of her children. But it’s so much more than this, she must deal with the legacy of who her husband is, not only her personal and complicated relationship with him, but how the entire country will view him for years to come. Larrain portrays all of this with a meandering camera, his grainy cinematography is probably more beautiful than anything else I saw on the big screen this year. The personal and the national intertwine in an absolutely devastating tale of loss.

4. La La Land

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From its opening moments, featuring a Los Angeles traffic standstill that quickly turns into a stage for a giant musical number, I was hooked by La La Land. It’s simultaneously a throwback to Hollywood musicals, while also capturing  a modern feel. That opening number, which makes a celebration out of the most tumultuous parts of Hollywood–the never-ending traffic and sunshine that won’t go away–captures the dreamlike notion of the movies. And boy does it do so, vibrant colors splash off the screen, characters are always exquisitely dressed, and perhaps most importantly it stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone who will charm the socks off of you. Damien Chazelle lets us believe in the unbelievable bliss of romance. Yet, things can never be all good and Chazelle brings us back to reality. As the characters dreams come true, their romance slowly dissipates, but, lest we forget all the magic that preceded it, we get treated to one final glorious sequence that utterly nails everything that could have been, all the dreams that we experience and the magic that lies therein, whether or not they come true.

3. Hail, Caesar

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Hail, Caesar is a tribute film to films and this, while on its face is fairly annoying, is pulled off brilliantly here. The Coen brothers tell the story of their love of cinema through the lens of a crisis of faith. Josh Brolin stars as a old timey Hollywood fixer who must consider if the work he does (mostly trying to make sure his ill-tempered movie stars do what they’re supposed to do) is worth it. He’s been offered another job, one that will pay more and be easier, but there’s just something about movies… The Coens lovingly pay tribute to all sorts of films as we see Scarlett Johansson in a water set piece, Channing Tatum tap dance his way through a musical number, and breakout star Alden Ehrenreich try to transition from cowboy pictures to a prestige drama. At the center also lies a comical mystery in the disappearance of George Clooney’s Baird Whitlock, which helps tie together the existentialism that Brolin faces. While the crisis facing Brolin is about the power of movies, it also doubles as an affirmation that movies do have a spiritual worth that can lead us into a better well being–good thing too, because I keep watching them.

2. The Lobster

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Yorgos Lanthimos’ English language debut offers up a wacky dystopian world, one in which people without romantic partners are forced to live together in a hotel and if they do not find love within 30 days they are turned into an animal of their choosing. It’s a subtle and often dark comedy that parodies our Bachelor watching culture that is obsessed with finding “the one”. As the film progresses though, the nature of the parody changes a little, showing that the opposite of a ridiculous belief, when taken to the extreme, can also be awful. It’s a strange movie to be sure, but was one of the most fun stories to watch play out.

  1. The VVitch

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The Witch succeeds not by giving us supernatural frights (though that is there), but by heightening tensions in what is, at its core, a family drama. Robert Eggers’ horror flick shows us a horror not brought about by explicit evil, but by bringing us into hyper-religious colonial America, a world devoid of grace. In this world where blame out signifies love true terror is allowed to breed like wildfire. The film could almost be titled “How to turn your child into a witch” for it so perfectly captures the idea of how something like this could come to be. To boost, the film is beautifully shot and Anya-Taylor Joy gives an outstanding performance. The ending is extremely dark, let that be known, but it hammers home that idea that when we don’t allow for grace in our lives, it is the most horrid of all evils.

Best Films of 2015

 

I still have a lot left to watch this year, like every year the prestige films get flooded upon us throughout December and mid-January leaving the unprofessional cinephile without extra cash or Friday evenings. There was a lot of stuff that was highly acclaimed that I was pretty meh on (It FollowsThe Duke of BurgundyLove & MercySpotlightTangerine) and quite a few movies that I recognize as flawed but excited me enough to ignore those flaws (DopeSicarioSlow WestStraight Outta Compton). I think I’ve become less willing to accept the merits of the “average” film, meaning that a movie better do something to excite me or I’m not having it. This probably happens after so many years and is probably why I haven’t made time to watch Oscar bait like The Danish Girl or Steve Jobs or super hero movies like Ant Man; they just don’t cut it for me anymore.

Another trend you may notice is that in nine out of the top ten, a woman is the most important character in the film. This wasn’t intentional by any means, but shows what could be an exciting new trend in cinema.

This is a list of films that did excite me this year, one that I will continue to update as I see more and more (so check back!).

Before we start, a list of things I haven’t seen (embarrassing, I know): Son of SaulThe TribeBridge of SpiesThe Big ShortThe MartianChi-Raq99 Homes45 YearsThe AssassinMustangHeaven Knows What

20. The Stanford Prison Experiment

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A thrilling movie that captures the debated prison guard/prisoner experiment that took place in the 70s on Stanford’s campus. There is a lot out there about the validity of the experiment and its results, but I think that’s inessential when talking about the quality of this film. Sure it get’s a lot out of its wow, this actually happened premise, but it’s a compelling piece of movie making, with great performances from its young cast, and reflects on the nature of power and violence really well.

19. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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This might be a low placement for some, a high placement for others, but I think it perfectly encapsulates Star Wars in 2016. It deserves credit for being as good as it is, but its flaws should also be recognized. Daisy Ridley deserves 95% of the credit here, even if the rest of the film was awfully cast and there were terrible plot choices throughout, but Ridley was still the film’s star, I would have enjoyed it. Plus I’m really into what they did with Kylo Ren, where even if every moment didn’t work, they’ve created something more unique than anyone’s talking about: a villains whose conscience is haunted by the good in him.

18. Creed

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Like Star WarsCreed shows just how important casting is to a reboot. Sure Stallone is pretty good in what will likely be an Oscar winning performance, but this film goes nowhere without Michael B. Jordan. Jordan’s charm drives this film, whether it be his desire to follow in the footsteps of his father, his interactions with Rocky, or (especially) his blooming love story with Tessa Thompson’s Bianca. Add to this Ryan Coogler’s great direction (that first fight scene!) and you’ve got something great. I can only see this growing in my estimation for years to come.

17. Timbuktu

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Timbuktu tells the tale of a fictionalized terrorist group has taking over a small town in West Africa. It’s timely in portraying how an all-encompassing and corrupt religion can destroy a culture. There are moments of deep distress at the injustice that occurs when certain powers take over. Perhaps more importantly there are scenes of heartbreaking beauty showing slight rebellion in the form of playing music or pretending to play soccer. No other film shows just how essential mercy is to the systems we create.

16. Sicario

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Sicario features the most thrilling experiences I had in a theater this year. Emily Blunt takes the lead and is our entry into the dark and politically muddled world of the drug war where she quickly learns the rules don’t matter. I actually don’t think the film really has any interesting insight on the drug war, but those big action scenes left me white-knuckled.

15. Dope

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The last third or so of this film completely undermines the tone by throwing in a strange plot twist, but for most of it Dope feels so fresh. It’s about a group of kids out of place in Inglewood, not only trying to tackle poverty’s obstacles, but also what it means to be an outsider in that situation. It’s got a great aesthetic, a great soundtrack, and tackles identity.

14. Room

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No other movie left me as wrecked as this one did and while usually this is a good sign, the happenings of Room were mostly presented in a way that I wouldn’t want to really watch them again. It’s a movie that brutally captures your imagination as it tells the tale of a mom (played by Brie Larson) and her young son being held captive in a room together. Luckily the movie isn’t all explicit heartbreak, the boy’s angelic voiceovers about  all he knows of the world offer a poetic beauty. I’m just not sure I’d want to experience it all again.

13. Slow West

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A movie I was mixed on while watching it that has grown on me ever since. It stars Kodi Smit-McPhee as a Scottish immigrant who is trying to find his love who has recently fled to the Wild West. He’s in way over his head and is soon joined by a bounty hunter (played by Michael Fassbender) who begins to guide him with mixed motives. It’s a Western that allows itself to be weird, showcasing little quirks and a dry sense of humor. McPhee’s naivety drives the film, especially when placed in the midst of the self-serving evil the chaos of the West inspired. It’s a gorgeously shot film and features one of the best endings of the year.

12. The Hateful Eight

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I think this is Tarantino’s most nihilistic film, each of its characters don’t really seem to have any bit of good within them as they express their violent, misogynist, and racist tendencies. But throw eight of these people in a room together with Tarantino at the helm and you’re bound to get something worthwhile. Unlike most, and perhaps in spite of what I just wrote, I do think Tarantino has a conscience of justice that he expresses throughout (there are literally speeches about justice in this movie!). I do think it’s a little long and not quite as fun as his last couple of films were (as strange as that is to say about movies about slavery and the Holocaust).

11. Straight Outta Compton

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While not the most cinematic film of the year, Straight Outta Compton was both a banging music biopic and a treatise on the racial tensions present all throughout 2015. To see the events that inspired “F*ck Tha Police” presented in dramatic fashion at the same time as those sentiments were being expressed in various forms throughout the country due to violent interactions with the police was disheartening, but thrilling. In the midst of capturing this tension, and the effect of the group on culture, is a really fun movie that hits every note you’d want from a biopic.

10. Carol

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Todd Haynes’ latest is a gorgeously shot drama set in the 1960’s about two women’s love affair. While most of the dramatic tension lies in the forbidden romance, I think the film’s true thematic tone has to do with those who push against the traditional power structures. Carol’s husband (played by Kyle Chandler) is wrecked by his wife’s true sexual orientation, but he seems more distraught that he cannot control her. Therese is meek and mild-mannered and is inspired by Carol’s dominance as she wrestles with her relationships and career path. It is the system that holds them back more than any explicitly presented social mores. It’s a love story about a girl coming into her own and the love that inspired her to do it.

9. The Diary of a Teenage Girl

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This is a difficult film to recommend or praise because it is about an illicit affair between Minnie, a 15 year old girl played by Bel Powley, and her mother’s boyfriend, played by Alexander Skarsgard, an affair that is never presented as an immoral act. However, I would probably credit the film for this, because instead of moralizing, it shows the whole thing from Minnie’s perspective. She’s mostly thrilled about her newfound relationship and we hear her innermost thoughts through a voice recorded diary and her comics which often come to life throughout. It’s obviously not all daisies and writer/director Marielle Heller portrays her growth in flashes of excitement, confusion, and regret. It’s really well done.

8. Brooklyn

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The best pure romance film I’ve seen in a long while, I can only hope this takes the place of The Notebook as a go-to for romantic dramas. Brooklyn follows Ellis, a discontent Irish girl who seizes on the opportunity to come to America. While in America she struggles with the immigration experience which leaves her timid and uninspired. At an Irish dance she runs into Tony, a plumber from an Italian family who quickly expresses interest in her. The chemistry explodes even with her timidity and the two become a couple. Brooklyn is amazing at how well it pulls off the sincerity of each moment. It could have devolved into dramatic tropes, but instead lets its characters bask in joy; it gives them drama but grounds it in reality. Ellis is forced into a series of decisions that throw everything into question (and bring 2015 all star Domhnall Gleason into the mix) and the film pulls it off, giving us a fitfully beautiful ending.

7. About Elly

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Technically released internationally in 2009, Asghar Farhadi’s drama didn’t get an American release until this year. Like A Separation and The PastAbout Elly centers around a mystery and the gray areas that encapsulate the decisions of each of its characters. A group of friends go away for a vacation, bringing along Elly–a quiet girl with some sort of mysterious past. A serious events occurs that leaves the group traumatized and the leaves the viewer in a clouded knot. Farhadi is the master at showing how each of our decisions is based in a slew of cultural and religious biases that are so complex is becomes near impossible to declare rights and wrongs.

6. Tu Dors Nicole

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Tu Dors Nicole follows Nicole as she navigates her unsatisfying life during the summer in a small Canadian town. It’s about the restlessness of being post-high school, the overwhelming purposelessness that occurs, and the disillusionment that comes as a result. Director Stephane Lafleur guides us by giving the film an airy feel, lead by its black and white cinematography and the dreamlike quirks presented throughout whether overtly or slyly. Ultimately though, the film gets by on the charm of its characters who make every moment engaging.

5. Anamolisa 

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Charlie Kaufman’s latest film presents itself as being fairly straightforward at first, but throughout the opening, which features Michael Stone riding on an airplane, landing, and taking a cab to the airport, everything feels a little bit off. As we learn more about Michael, his experience of the world soon becomes clear, and Kaufman’s latest vision about a man in a midlife crisis all fits together beautifully. Life can be difficult to navigate, especially when it becomes mundane and all the joy gets sucked out of it–Kaufman illustrates this like Kaufman would. He also represents what it’s like to find joy in the midst of this and beautifully brings it to life in shocking and unexpected ways. Ultimately though, Michael is not allowed to be entirely cynical, he’s not allowed to seek joy however he pleases to, because neither of these are fulfilling life choices; Kaufman doesn’t tell us what will satisfy the man lost in his own life, but he does paint a great portrait of what will not.

4. Mistress America

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Noah Bambauch’s latest collaboration with Greta Gerwig is the funniest film of the year. It’s a His Girl Friday style screwball comedy where its throwaway lines are up there with the best written comedy of the year. It’s quick witted and manically paced, following its two female protagonists, Tracy (Lola Kirke) and Brooke (Greta Gerwig), through their lives in New York City. They are very different people and in different places in their lives–Tracy is a timid college freshman trying to figure it all out, while Brooke is a New York socialite with a new plan every minute–they hit it off and their relationship is a catalyst for the film which explores loneliness and personal growth.

3. Mad Max: Fury Road

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This was everyone’s surprise film of the year and I must note it lives up to every bit of hype placed upon it. It’s a progressive post-apocolypitc car chase that nails every action sequence, storytelling device, and emotional beat it throws into the ether. I held my breath for large sections of the movie without noticing that I was doing it. I teared up as Max and Furiosa, two people unable to be vulnerable because of their experiences, slowly open up to one another. I laughed and cringed at the comic and ugly weirdness director George Miller places in the movie, showing at once how disturbing and lived in this world was. It hits on every level.

2. Ex Machina

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Alex Garland deserves so much credit for how he was able to set the mood of this film. It’s  set in a futuristic house where most of what’s happening is happening in conversation between it’s three central characters, but the tension is unbelievably high–evoking dread of whatever the outcome is to be. Domnhall Gleason plays Caleb, a young programmer, who gets sent to his CEO’s house (Nathan played by Oscar Isaac) for a mystery test. He soon learns he will be performing a Turing test on Nathan’s recently created robot Ava (Alicia Vikander). Even as the tension builds, Garland allows for his characters to be themselves, undermining the typical portraits of a mad scientist for one much more bro-ish and allows spontaneous dance scenes. It’s tense, surprising, well-written, and the kind of movie that actively engaged my mind more than anything else this year.

1. Inside Out

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I am an unabashed Pixar fanboy, it’s become my tradition to see each new film the studio makes on its opening day and update my rankings soon after. When I heard about the idea and casting of Inside Out, I could not have been more excited, this was a film that was made purely for me and let me tell you, it did not disappoint. I think this is a masterpiece for the way it portrays our mind so cleverly. I think it’s a masterpiece for being able to capture the complex emotions behind moving to a new place and growing up. I think it’s a masterpiece visually (the abstract thought bit nails it). I think it’s a masterpiece in how it created new classic characters and that all of our children will grow up playing with a toy called Sadness. I think it’s a masterpiece comedically, creating great bits about annoying tunes that come in our head and how we dream. And finally, I think it’s a masterpiece because of the way it embraces sadness, advocating for an emotional complexity, and being able to portray this all on screen.

Honorable mentions: Shaun the SheepWild TalesPhoenixPitch Perfect 2Spy

 

Rewatch: The Fifth Element

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One of my favorite genres of movies is what I like to call the Sunday Evening Flick. This is a movie that most of the time you don’t think about watching and you probably wouldn’t rave about it very often, but when that Sunday evening comes and you’re presented with various movie choices, this is the one you’re choosing. This can either be something that is playing on television or something that you’ve already bought just for this occasion. I pretty much only buy five dollar movies from Target on this principle alone, otherwise it’s not worth it. I would at times rather buy a Sunday Evening Flick than something that I think is a far superior film (which brings up the debate about which is the actual superior one…). I would rather watch George Clooney and Michelle Pfeifer in One Fine Day most Sunday evenings over Jeff Nichols’ 2007 drama Shotgun Stories though I think the latter is the far better film. It’s a genre (and yes I’m calling this a genre, though it is quite subjective) that defies logic often by pulling at some sort of bias in you–sappy love stories, cheesy comedy, nostalgia, etc…

The film presented in this month’s rewatch is not one that I would usually place into my Sunday Evening Flick category, but it shows just how fickle these things can be. I associate it with Sunday Evenings, because I would watch it on Sunday evenings. I never owned or rented this movie, but several times a year it would appear on some channel playing movies (I’m gonna guess TBS) and if it was on I would watch it. The combination of brightly colored costumes, sci-fi action, and Bruce Willis probably attracted me to it and I grew very fond of it even though I’m not quite sure I had actually seen it from start to finish in one sitting. I probably hadn’t seen it for at least five years and I always wondered whether it would make any sort of impact on my more sophisticated mind all these years later. Was I clouded by bright colors and Milla Jovovich running around in skimpy outfits or is this film actually good?

Let’s start off by saying that this movie is definitely not cool. I talked about how The Matrix retains some of its cool despite its outdated cyber-punk internet age in a previous post, but The Fifth Element does not have any of that despite being released just two years prior (1997). This was a strange time for those releases and The Fifth Element proceeded both The Matrix and Star Wars: The Phantom Menace two of its genre and style compatriots. Element lines up more with Menace, though that is perhaps because Menace turned out so unintentionally campy, while Element brings on the full force camp. This movie is definitely not cool–it’s not trying to be.

I’m not sure if I liked or disliked most of the film. It’s knowingly goofy while showcasing parts that would typically be seen as “cool” action set pieces and sci-fi costuming. It doesn’t take itself seriously (I read someone compare it to Burton’s Batman and I think that is an apt comparison, though I don’t like that movie) and that allows you to distance yourself from the crazy things that are happening on the screen. It’s such a mish-mash of tone, but that doesn’t kill the film and that’s probably why I liked it as a kid (I was someone who would mix all the sodas from the soda fountain in what we called a “Suicide”).


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The performances here are mostly ridiculous from its fairly star-studded cast. Gary Oldman takes on the villain role, sporting a long black comb-over along with high collared suits and a soul patch. He’s the kind of villain that is quite silly in his maniacal ways without ever crossing over into full comic book parody. Ian Holm is a priest–one who has all of the answers–but never seems to be able to put everything together due to his sort of clumsy demeanor. And then there’s Chris Tucker doing Chris Tucker times a million all while dressed in futuristic women’s clothes. It’s hard to say whether his character: Ruby Rhod, an effeminate futuristic entertainment host, is progressive or archaic; unique or embarrassing. He’s somewhat funny–his radio narration of the final battle scenes are charming–but his high pitched ramblings grate. I think that he contributes to a more realized setting, showcasing celebrity life in the sci-fi future. He’s a sideshow that never becomes an interesting character, while still adding to the film.

Milla Jovovich of course stars at the titular Fifth Elementa supreme being who takes the form of a human woman. I remember her character being an epic representation of a dominant female character, from her ability to retain information to fighting off those trying to destroy the earth she was ingrained in me as an action hero. I thought I would love her character once again, but I was left sorely disappointed. For the most part she stumbles around speaking gibberish in a half confused state, while director Luc Besson seems to want to use her for her sensuality rather than her capabilities to dominate (I mean, she is literally the key to saving humanity). It’s disappointing because in my memory I had seen her as a Furiosa-type, but she doesn’t live up to this. I still think she is iconic (mostly due to her costuming and makeup) and she becomes more and more autonomous by the end of the film, redeeming herself and the human race.

The most grounded character and true hero of the film is Bruce Willis. He takes all the hyperbole and brings it back to reality. He’s a former military hero who is now barely getting by as a cab driver do to his brash personality. It’s a character we’ve seen Willis do time and time again, but it’s an essential role to the film. Willis is a charming tough guy and he steadies the movie while surrounded by cartoonish characters. It’s obvious that he will save the world and get the girl–who else is there to do it? But who else would you want to do it?

The plot is semi-convoluted with its ancient mythologies, villains and heroes whose motivations are never quite clear, and lots of pieces that seem to come together out of convenience rather than logic, but none of that really matters. All that needs to be known is that the world is about to be destroyed, this is the person who can save it, this is how they can save it, and that Bruce Willis will ultimately come to be the hero. This isn’t a Christopher Nolan movie where the pieces fit together like a perfect jigsaw puzzle–there’s a bunch of stuff that doesn’t matter, but all of that stuff is the most gratuitous fun.

In the end I think we really have to go back to Phantom Menace. I wonder if it wasn’t a prequel if it would be a more fun experience like this film was for me. Both are frivolous forays into strange fantasy worlds where weird creatures interact with humans and people have strange powers. Element succeeds without the pressure to say much or to contribute to a larger world (it also uses practical effects and CGI better than Menace in my opinion). This brings up questions as to whether Menace would hold up, being erased from the rest of the Star Wars canon, and this is a question that one day I will come back to; for now I’m too busy reeling from the (excuse the cheesy saying, but it a movie like this makes you use awful sayings in complete sincerity, because the movie itself is awfully sincere in the most fun and cheesy way) rollicking good time I had watching The Fifth Element.

Rating: 3.5/5

Rewatch: (500) Days of Summer

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This is the third entry in what has so far been a monthly series of rewatching old movies and judging them comparitively against my first reactions and how they have grown into pieces of wider culture. So far the series has included High School Musical and The Matrix click here to find them.

This movie came out in 2009–the height of my personal Zooey Deschanel fandom. Deschanel had adored our hearts (but mostly mine) in the Will Ferrell Christmas classic Elf and I had tracked her career ever since. I had watched her in David Gordon Green’s neo-realism relationship drama All the Real Girls and paid particular attention to the McConaughey/Jessica Parker relationship drama Failure to Launch where she plays the rom-com best friend role. After 2009 her career soared as my affections waned–her unique voice grew tiresome with each subsequent She & Him album and then The New Girl appeared. The New Girl took Deschanel’s charms and pushed them to 11 in an absolute quirk-fest that SNL found they could mine for comedy. Likewise, (500) Days of Summer, while largely critically acclaimed, was criticized for being an overly quirky take on the romantic comedy. It throws in a lot of extra touches, for some elevating it to a clever film about romance–for others perhaps a grating annoyance. On a rewatch would Deschanel’s performance be akin to The New Girl or would I find the charm that adored my 13 year old heart?

More on Deschanel to come, but we must also talk about the way I adored this movie upon first watch. I saw it in theaters after anticipating it for quite a while and that year I believe I had it at number two on my best films of the year list, just ahead of Inglorious Basterds and just behind Up. I have watched it several times since then and it has always held up for me, but I feel as if critically it increasingly gets derided for breaking Deschanel into the mainstream in a way most people did not want. This time I intended to be extra critical of the film, trying to find faults in it that I may have glanced over in the past.

The film uses unique editing to showcase this relationship–one that it very intentionally states is trying to subvert the standard portrayal of romance in film. Its use of whimsy can either be taken as clever or as off-putting. People often grow tired of stories of hip, white, city-dwelling kids and their “troubles”. I certainly understand why this would be the case for some–even its pop cultural awareness can grow tiring if one doesn’t believe that the film stands apart from its references. But I do believe that it comes together to make something grander than cute editing tricks and references to The Graduate and The Smiths. Sure it’s a very specific tale of modern romance, but the film leaves itself open to interpretation–like a great work of art would–allowing room for debate and inviting viewers to feel different things about it depending on their own experience.

It opens with two introductions, interplaying the stories of our two protagonists, Summer and Tom, and sharing their two viewpoints on love bound to intertwine in this messy relationship that will soon total 500 days. Though the story is told very specifically through Joseph Gordon Levitt’s Tom, the opening shots include photos of both characters’ childhoods. Both of their back stories matter as both will come together to form this complicated relationship that is about to unveil. And the film lets you know just how diametrically opposed these two are–essentially concluding that there is a duality of perspectives: true love is a fated thing or it doesn’t exist at all.

This is where I think the film speaks profoundly; in life this debate truly exists and I have wholeheartedly come down on both sides of it. I once believed that love was a destined thing, chasing after the “one”, and knowing that two people were especially bound to one another. I’ve also believed that there is no fate like love, people are only tied together by their own choice. The film plays off of this tension and depending on your beliefs you tend to root for one character over the other.

When I first watched it I was on Summer’s side and thought Tom to be near-laughable. I was shocked to hear the reactions of others as they saw her as a manipulative heart breaker. Since then I’ve bridled my pro-Summer stance, noticing how broken of a character she is while still somewhat siding with her beginning views on life.

What I find so brilliant about all of this is that the film never takes either character’s side. In fact, it smartly switches each character’s position on the love debate and when Summer and Tom meet for that final conversation, each tells the other that they were the ones who were right. And both characters were right to an extent, each needed to gain the perspective of the other to come out as a whole person ready to take on the commitment of love. Summer needed to understand that long-term relationships were possible, while Tom needed to learn that “just because she likes the same bizzaro crap you do doesn’t mean she’s your soul mate.” The film works as a mirror, one that reflects back to you your beliefs on love, constantly shifting as you yourself mature, but is always able to provide something insightful.


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Beyond this I do believe the film is really capable of showing the ups and downs of a relationship (though probably from a particularly male perspective). Director Marc Webb and screenwriting duo Scott Eric Neustadter and Michael H. Weber really do work together here to create something unique. It expresses those relationship beats wonderfully. The back to back IKEA scenes showing the desperate attempt to spark romance by recreating something that worked early on. The song and dance that comes after Tom and Summer sleep together for the first time. How Tom analyzes each and every moment leading up to their first kiss. The parallel descriptions of Summer’s attributes. And finally, the expectations vs. reality dual scene where Tom thinks he can get Summer back. These are all wonderfully rendered scenes that truly express what it is like to be in a relationship on par with just about any other movie I’ve seen.

There are parts of this movie that don’t work, but even at my most critical I cannot truly be bothered by them. The jump around nature of the film isn’t necessary, but does serve the story fairly well. The documentary interviews that randomly show up should probably be cut from the film. The scenes with the sister (played by a young Chloe Grace Moretz) are the most irksome of anything in the film, but they really are minimally used and don’t drag it down by any means.

That brings us back to Deschanel. She is definitely at her most Deschanel here, but it’s in a way that serves her character–the manic pixie dream girl that breaks a heart instead of mending it. She is the girl that the type like Tom will infatuate over, but proves that she is something more than someone to serve his story. Her wants and desires are expressed and when they don’t line up with his she is given the agency to go her own way (even if this does, unfortunately, take place off screen). Before New Girl took her quirks and amplified them, 500 used them to subvert the modern indie romance and ultimately made a pretty perfect film.

Rating: 5/5

Rewatch: The Matrix

thematrix I have distinct memories of being the only person in sixth grade who had not seen The Matrix–well actually there was one other girl if we’re being honest–point being this film enraptured everyone entering into the 2000s. I was a sixth grader in 2002 and not having seen the 1999 film was a minor crime and I surely felt it. I don’t remember when I first saw it, but I certainly did enjoy it as well as its sequel (I never saw the third film for whatever reason, I guess it didn’t come on TV at the right time.) Going into this rewatch I wondered if it would be outdated or cheesy; if the mind blowing special effects (which are still talked about whenever somebody does some sort of dodge) wouldn’t live up to our modern CGI or whatever.

I’ll come right out and say it, this film certainly holds up. The action sequences still deliver in ways that are exciting. Though I imagine it (along with Tarantino’s 2003 release Kill Bill) owes a lot to old martial arts films that I am just entirely unfamiliar with, the action here is still some of the most exciting stuff I’ve ever seen. From Trinity’s opening wall running scene to Neo’s bullet dodging lean (which I must point out that though this is the most famous action moment in the entire film, the way this move ends is with him ultimately getting shot. Nobody remembers that this was ineffective, while all the other parts of that scene are fantastic and actually work).

When Neo comes into his calling as “the one” and starts just wiping away bullet after bullet and defeats Agent Smith in slow motion, no lie I had chills. I think this is a testament that the rest of the movie also works, all effects aside. I’ve long been a proponent that action films must have a solid story or ten years into the future they can end up as outdated boring spectacle (looking at you Avatar). The Matrix dodges this problem in two ways, by using inventive imagery and by shoving its standard storytelling devices under layers and layers of post-apocalyptic plot.

I’m a sucker for movie worlds that feel fresh, I fell head over heels for Wreck it Ralph upon first viewing because its real life video game world was the stuff of my greatest childhood imaginings. The Matrix invented an exciting new world–one that wasn’t all that different from previous stories (the computers win story of The Terminator franchis + the chosen one in pretty much any movie), we’ll go into this more later, but the world is built upon both very established rules as well as a repeated aesthetic and this is what ultimately allows it to thrive.

When Neo first chooses the red pill Morpheus guides both him and us through a set of rules for the new world. Our eyes are unveiled, we find out that “the matrix” is a computer system that every human believes themselves to be a part of (also a thought experiment that now gets The Matrix into most Film and Philosophy programs), there is a loading zone where computer programmers can write code to teach them or give them things to take into the new world, they can download Kung Fu into their brains, etc… Even as I was watching it, knowing what was to come and mostly remembering each of the rules, Morpheus’ revelations are exciting.

The rules establishment is met by an aesthetic and a repetition of symbols that fully establish the whole thing. Repeated symbols draw us in and connect us quickly with subject matter. This is why religious liturgies and reality show production design (big leap there, I know) draw us in even when their content isn’t great. The Matrix has its phone booths which are entirely unnecessary to the plot (the way that they get transported back to consciousness in their ship is via telephone booth?!? They have some extremely special way of getting transported into the world, but the way they get out is entirely reliant on a working telephone booth! They could have used anything to get them back!) yet it entirely works because of the aesthetic it adds. Watching characters rush to the phone booth and disappear just before an agent attempts to crush the booth adds something tangible to the film.

Let’s not forget how the actual matrix itself looks either, its green lines of code running down sideways that certain people can read and see exactly what is happening. This is a brilliant image, forever ingrained into my memory as ‘the matrix’, akin to Star Wars‘ light sabers or Storm Trooper costumes (or the Darth Vader Mask or the X-Wing or anything from those films basically!), Terminator 2‘s shape-shifting T-1000, or Jurassic Park‘s ripples in the glass of water. Having creative imagery that viewers can remember, like a liturgy gets repeated, can turn a film into a classic.

The Matrix takes place two hundred years into the future, but its costuming very much feels like 1999. The Wachowskis do their best to create some futuristic world, but as is often the case with trying to create futuristic visions, their ideas get caught up with modern notions of cool. Here, this is very much caught up in a rising internet culture with Neo a part of an internet subculture that existed at the time. It’s strange to think that the internet was barely even a thing upon the film’s release or even better that the Wachowski’s chose a weakly internet hacker to become a sort of super hero. Its cyberpunk, techno loving self does feel very much like a 1999 sort of idea of the future. This was a year in which Britney Spears was huge, Eiffel 65’s “Blue” dominated the charts, and Limp Bizkit was a thing. I think for the most part you can ignore the film’s 1999-ness, unlike what I remember from the sequel which I believe features giant techno dance parties (this is how the world will end, not with a bang, but with a rave!). It’s not 2199 yet, but I somehow doubt future stylings will consist only of skintight leather and long black trench coats, but hey, I am coming from my very 2015 perspective.


dodge The storyline is mostly follows archetypes of those before it, in fact I distinctly remember my sophomore English teacher using The Matrix as an example to teach us what an archetype was (is The Matrix an archetype of archetypes!?!), telling us (and spoiling the ending for me) that it followed the Christ figure archetype. I think this is true and the rest of the movie’s oracles, AI computer enemies, betrayals from trusted figures, and finding redemption upon true belief aren’t really anything new, but then again most stories aren’t. The Wachowski’s put the whole thing under the veil of something exciting and it’s not like it straight up steals whole plot lines like Avatar did with Pocahontas.

On a different note, I was impressed by how much diversity the Wachowski’s place in the film. The Nebuchadnezzar crew features eight members, three of them black and two of them women. The oracle is also a black woman, making four of the film’s featured characters black; I challenge you to try to come up with another film that has that off the top of your head–it’s a rarity.

Even so, the film has not escaped criticism. Last year, Tasha Robinson of The Dissolve, came up with something that she called “Trinity Syndrome”. Essentially the idea was that female characters are being created that at first seem strong, but are still relegated to serving the main character’s (often a male) purposes. It’s interesting that she uses Trinity as the main example, but it makes a lot of sense. Trinity comes off strong right out the gate–she’s a mysterious character who exhibits flashes of action brilliance–running along walls and beating up unknowing policemen left and right. As the film progresses she loses her importance while retaining an aura of mystery, but then the Wachowski’s take her character and turn her into someone whose job is only to advance Neo (literally, the Oracle has prophesied that her life’s purpose is to fall in love with “the one”). The scene where she kisses Neo back to life is no doubt the worst part of the movie on so many levels, taking everything she has built into and turning her into a pretty lame love interest device. It’s so unnecessary, plus Keanu’s Neo is so (soooooooo) much less interesting than Carrie Ann-Moss’s Trinity. She really deserves better.

Overall, rewatching it and doing these rewatches is really to determine whether the films that were cultural touchstones in their time are any good. The Matrix is deserving to be in the cultural canon, referenced here and there, occasionally parodied, and remembered fondly. But now the question, is it any good?

Previously I had given the film five stars on my Letterboxd account, I don’t know if I would quite do that. It isn’t a cinematic masterpiece, not deserving of a spot at the top of the Sight and Sound list of best films. But I do think that within its genre (action/sci-fi) it is one of the best, and excels as a genre picture and a piece of cinema. It may not be a cinematic masterpiece, but it is a very good film. 4.5/5