Favorite Pieces of Art – 2018

2018 is drawing to a close. Barring a quick piece on The Tree of Life, I have been utterly useless for writing about art this year, but I’ve still taken in a lot of it, and I wanted to leave a record of the best bits here. Here’s to a more productive 2019!


Phantom Thread (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)


So. This is my favorite movie of all time.

Barry Jenkins put it this way: “PHANTOM THREAD is just exquisite, an unfiltered work; a sublime object. Object in the sense that, when viewed from different angles, in varying moods, it reveals more and more of itself, other emotions and, for a film overrun with aesthetic objects, deepened ideas.” This movie is many things. It’s a horror story, a romantic comedy, a psychological thriller, a Gothic melodrama, a love letter. It’s delightful, chilling, unbearably sad. It’s Vertigo by way of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, or Punch-Drunk Love by way of Gone Girl.

Jonny Greenwood’s score is on a whole other level from anything he’s done before—sinister, aching, operatic. The film grain’s diffusion of the image renders everything as though it were shot through lace. Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps go for each other’s throats with their acting, the former as excellent as ever and the latter a revelation.

I’ve thought about this film every single day since I first saw it in January this year. I suppose you could say it’s haunted me. But, as Reynolds Woodcock would say, “It’s comforting to think the dead are watching over the living. I don’t find that spooky at all.”

Possession (dir. Andrzej Żuławski)


Physically exhausting to sit through. Probably the most singularly nasty movie I’ve ever seen—nearly two solid hours of Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani’s estranged couple ripping each other apart bodily and emotionally. The disintegration of their marriage is so upsetting that I was worried that the appearance of the Lovecraftian, tentacled horror that Adjani is sleeping with would deflate the tension with silliness—instead, it simply ratchets up the film’s perverse aura. It feels cursed, as though we’re watching something genuinely unholy.

The Favourite (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)


Blackly hilarious, deliciously mean-spirited, and ultimately heartbreaking. Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, and Rachel Weisz give their all to hurting each other in increasingly vicious ways, and the script’s off-kilter, acid humor is grounded by the absolutely breathtaking production design, costuming, and cinematography; the latter especially, full of rich blacks, candlelit compositions, and frequent camera movement, is stunning on a theater screen. Lanthimos’ best film to date, and hopefully the one that finally gets him some Oscar gold.

The Man with No Name Trilogy (dir. Sergio Leone)


Filled in one of my biggest cinematic blind spots this year courtesy of Trylon Cinema’s triple screening. A Fistful of Dollars is rough in all senses of the word—its raw quality can be effective, but it doesn’t fully succeed in escaping the constraints of its almost nonexistent budget. For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad & the Ugly, though, are absolutely perfect. The highest highs of the trilogy come during the latter—the final cemetery confrontation is almost otherworldly in its flawlessness—but for my money For a Few Dollars More is the overall best of the lot, perfectly balancing the lean, campy feel of its predecessor and the operatic ambitions of TGTBATU.

Miller’s Crossing (dir. Joel and Ethan Coen)


Wrapped up my journey through the Coens’ filmography with one of their best, among the most perfect cinematic magic tricks I’ve ever seen. Borrowing liberally from Dashiel Hammett and Yojimbo, it’s not a gangster movie so much as a devilishly clever con-artist flick where everyone happens to be wearing trenchcoats. Gabriel Byrne’s Tom joins Llewyn Davis and Mattie Ross as one of the brothers’ finest protagonists.

Bringing Out the Dead (dir. Martin Scorsese)


For the most part, I have the same problem with Scorsese that I have with Guillermo del Toro—I admire his films without having a shred of feeling for them. Taxi DriverGoodfellasThe Wolf of Wall Street—all are wonderfully crafted movies that I care nothing about. Bringing Out the Dead is the exception, a hellish fever dream of death and sickness and the toll that empathy can take on the human psyche. Nicolas Cage is magnificent, his performance full of bone-deep weariness and punctuated by bouts of manic despair.

The Passion of Joan of Arc (dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer)


Watched with Richard Einhorn’s Voices of Light as accompaniment. Even to an unbeliever, it felt like a truly holy experience—I can’t add anything that hasn’t already been said, but Renee Falconetti’s facial expressions are constantly on the verge of bursting out from Dreyer’s constricted frames, the divinely inspired struggling against the confines of the mundane.

The Other Side of the Wind (dir. Orson Welles)

Peter Bogdanovich, John Huston in Orson Wells' "The Other Side Of The Wind"

This would have melted people’s brains if it had been released during Welles’ lifetime. The crazy bastard invented the found footage genre twenty years before the rest of the world caught on, and slapped his edits together in a style that’s best described as F for Fake on speed. All the performers are wonderful, and John Huston is a titan of self-loathing and disgust, but it’s ultimately Peter Bogdanovich who walks away with the picture—the parallels to his real-life relationship with Welles here are kind of devastating. (“What did I do wrong, Daddy?”)

One could argue that it’s not a “true” Welles feature—60% of the editing was done by others, and bits and pieces of dialogue had to be looped forty years later (Bogdanovich’s casual mention of cell phone cameras in the opening narration is jarring)—but Welles’ entire body of work is made up of films that were slashed to pieces by producers or shot in bits across years and countries. By its very incompleteness, The Other Side of the Wind is the perfect capstone to his career. It’s a miracle that we have it, and god bless Bogdanovich and the rest for seeing it through.


Better Call Saul: Season Four (created by Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould)


It’s not over yet (fifth and hopefully final season is on the way), but I’m comfortable in saying that Better Call Saul is a better show than Breaking Bad. Bob Odenkirk hits all-timer levels of good this season; watching the formerly decent Jimmy McGill fully twist himself into an embittered, scumbag Saul Goodman is heartbreaking in a way that Walter White embracing his inner monster never was. There are points where the show embraces its nature as a Breaking Bad prequel too much—all the stuff involving Gus Fring’s drug lab is essentially a different show at this point, and I struggle to see how its thread will intertwine with Saul’s before the end—but it’s still the best thing currently on television.


Blindsight – Peter Watts


Consciousness is a glitch in evolution. Your self is a parasite. Don’t think the rest of the universe doesn’t see it as such. (Absolutely chilling in its implications, and the narrative it’s couched in—Alien as aborted first contact mission—is among the most stylistically sound hard SF ever written. Go in having read Thomas Ligotti’s diatribe of pessimist philosophy The Conspiracy Against the Human Race.)

Sometimes a Great Notion – Ken Kesey


A sprawling American epic that I absolutely hated for the first 100 pages and wound up falling completely in love with. Its admiration for rugged masculine individualism is largely bullshit—and the socialist in me is reluctant to admit they like a book about the heroics of a strikebreaker this much—but Kesey’s ecstatic prose and flair for the melodramatic overcame all my doubts by the end.

The Cipher – Kathe Koja


Reads like a period piece now—from the supremely assholish cast to the videotape MacGuffin, it practically screams 90s—but the central conceit, a perfectly black hole with no bottom that suddenly forms in the main characters’ apartment building, remains primally spooky. It’s a concept that on its face would seem ideally suited to a short story, but Koja manages to spin her tale for almost 400 pages without compromising any of the constantly building dread.

War Crimes for the Home – Liz Jensen


Memory at war with itself, tight-lipped English humor deployed as a weapon against the void of the past. Reminded me constantly of Kazuo Ishiguro, but where his books are perfect jewels of sadness, Jensen relieves pressure with a constant flow of humor, allowing for an experience that’s less oppressive but devastating all the same.

Against Memoir: Complaints, Confessions & Criticisms – Michelle Tea


Whether the topic is art criticism, intersectional feminism, sexuality, or (contra the title) her own past, Michelle Tea consistently brings a discerning eye and a deft pen. Forms a companion of sorts to her novel Black Wave, taking all the tangled-up thematic threads of its preapocalyptic California and separating them to stand alone.

The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism – Edward E. Baptist / Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II – Douglas A. Blackmon


Reading these back-to-back was soul-crushing but necessary. Slavery by Another Name is the more emotionally engaging read—both because the horrors it exposes are less well-known than antebellum slavery and because its momentum is kept up by the courtroom-drama narrative it weaves into its listing of atrocities—but it hits far harder following upon The Half Has Never Been Told, whose dispassion in accounting the millions of black bodies that America’s fortune was built upon is the stuff of nightmares.

The Third Reich Trilogy – Richard J. Evans


Exhaustive in all senses of the word—coming in at almost 3,000 pages, this is a dense but eminently readable history of Nazi Germany from the horrors of the post-WWI economic collapse all the way through the Allied victory. The thing that stuck with me the most after reading was just how wrongheaded the myth of the Nazis as an ultra-efficient regime of terror is. The litany of bungled propaganda campaigns, redundant government offices, and self-sabotage that composes much of The Third Reich in Power would be comical if we weren’t aware how the story ended; that the Nazis got as far as they did was due to luck in the face of incompetence, not any sort of superior planning. It’s a sobering reminder that evil doesn’t have to be smart or even particularly skilled in order to succeed.

You Never Give Me Your Money: The Beatles After the Breakup – Peter Doggett


A grueling account of the Fab Four’s breakup and its aftermath, one in which everyone comes off as an asshole and no chance at reconciliation is left unsquandered. And yet, the magic of the Beatles is that their music is more than the men who composed it—right after I finished this book, I sat down, listened to all of Abbey Road, and was as enchanted as ever. That’s the most miraculous thing about the band—in the midst of what at times came very close to all-out war amongst each other and their legal teams, they were still able to pull it together and give us the best send-off in pop music’s history. (No, Let It Be doesn’t bloody count.)


Dirty Computer – Janelle Monáe


Absolute masterpiece, a blast of pure joy that perfectly melds the personal and the political. Monáe’s previous tendency toward sci-fi sprawl is given focus by the urgency of her coming out—this is an extremely tight record, and every single song is a raised middle finger toward those who would try to keep the marginalized quiet. Nor does its focus on social justice mean that it’s a dour time—from the gleefully in-your-face double entendres of “Screwed” to the Prince-penned synth groove of “Make Me Feel,” Monáe revels in her newly open queerness.

Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus – Charles Mingus


Mingus once infamously punched his trombonist in the mouth, causing him to lose a full octave on the instrument. If you were searching for the sonic equivalent to that punch, Mingus x 5 is it. Not his most important record—Mingus Ah Um and The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady are the pillars there—but I fell in love with the absolute ferocity he and his band bring to this re-recorded selection of his “greatest hits.” It’s encapsulated by the sudden explosion into violence that hits a little after two minutes into “II B.S.,” Walter Perkins hammering so hard on his drums that it sounds as though he’s about to punch right through them—the song seems genuinely dangerous, as though it’s on the verge of breaking out of your speakers and coming for you.

The Goat Rodeo Sessions – Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer & Chris Thile


Four instrumentalists working at the absolute top of their game—Chris Thile and Yo-Yo Ma are literal wizards on the mandolin and cello, respectively, but Meyer’s bass and Duncan’s fiddle are more than up to the challenge. The latter’s run at 1:22 of “Attaboy” is what flying must feel like.

Castor, the Twin – Dessa


Could have been a phoned-in gimmick record—it’s almost entirely re-recordings of old songs with live instrumentation—but instead it’s Dessa’s best album. The organic, smoky quality of the production suits her somewhat quavery voice, and the selection of material is excellent—errs on the side of singing rather than rapping, but balances the lyrics evenly between fiery independence and mournful loneliness.

Life on Earth – Tiny Vipers


A lone, keening voice mumbles and sighs over a spare acoustic guitar, elliptical songs blending into each other in a single apocalyptic dirge. There are moments of warmth amid the gloom, but by the time the album comes to a close there is nothing but regret and fear. A haunting triumph of minimalism.

2 Nice Girls – Two Nice Girls


The transition from “I Spent My Last $10.00 (On Birth Control and Beer),” a tongue-in-cheek honky-tonk lament for lost lesbianism, to “Sweet Jane (With Affection),” an entirely genuine, truly ethereal Velvet Underground cover, is my favorite moment of anything this year.

Video Games

Horizon Zero Dawn – Guerrilla Games


Like any prestige AAA title, this is frequently held up as a masterpiece when it’s anything but. The story is typical tired hero’s journey stuff, and the optics of the very white heroine’s culture being almost wholesale ripped off from Native American culture are cringey at best. That said, God I fell in love with this game. In addition to the sheer stunning beauty of the visuals, the art direction on the robo-dinosaurs is impeccable and full of life, and the fluid combat is a dream. I generally dislike open-world games—I need narrative momentum and linearity too much to enjoy side quests—but I spent fifty hours on this one just bathing in the world.

Doom – id Software


Sometimes you’ve just gotta blow apart literally everything with a shotgun.

Tetris Effect – Monstars Inc. & Resonair


The fusion of music and visuals with the classic Tetris setup is truly enthralling—I’d spend what felt like a little while trying to clear a level only to look at the clock and see that two hours had passed. The more difficult stages are occasionally nightmares to complete, but the overall experience never stops feeling therapeutic.

Honorable Mentions


  • His Girl Friday (dir. Howard Hawks)
  • (dir. Fritz Lang)
  • Network (dir. Sidney Lumet)
  • Shoplifters (dir. Hirokazu Koreeda)
  • Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (dir. Mike Nichols)
  • Blindspotting (dir. Carlos Lopez Estrada)
  • Kiki’s Delivery Service (dir. Hayao Miyazaki)
  • Mission: Impossible—Fallout (dir. Christopher McQuarrie)
  • Wake in Fright (dir. Ted Kotcheff)
  • George Washington (dir. David Gordon Green)
  • First Reformed (dir. Paul Schraeder)
  • The Death of Stalin (dir. Armando Iannucci)
  • Wild at Heart (dir. David Lynch)
  • Deep Cover (dir. Bill Duke)
  • The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (dir. Joel and Ethan Coen)
  • Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (dir. Bob Perischetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman)
  • The Miseducation of Cameron Post (dir. Desiree Akhavan)
  • Naked (dir. Mike Leigh)
  • Hereditary (dir. Ari Aster)
  • Columbus (dir. Kogonada)
  • My Own Private Idaho (dir. Gus Van Sant)


  • Home, Marilynne Robinson
  • The Intuitionist, Colson Whitehead
  • The Will to Battle (Terra Ignota #3), Ada Palmer
  • Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program That Brought Nazi Scientists to America, Annie Jacobsen
  • Middle Passage, Charles Johnson
  • An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
  • Listen, Liberal; Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People, Thomas Frank
  • Without a Net: The Female Experience of Growing Up Working Class, Michelle Tea (ed.)
  • Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture, Roxane Gay (ed.)
  • Nobody Knows My Name, James Baldwin
  • The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath, Leslie Jamison
  • The Pillowman, Martin McDonagh
  • The End of Policing, Alex S. Vitale
  • The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning, Maggie Nelson
  • Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, Julia Serano
  • Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl, Andrea Lawlor
  • An Unkindness of Ghosts, Rivers Solomon
  • The Freeze-Frame Revolution, Peter Watts
  • Gerald’s Game, Stephen King
  • The Monster Baru Cormorant (The Masquerade #2), Seth Dickinson
  • Terrence Malick: Rehearsing the Unexpected, Carlo Hintermann and Danielle Villa (ed.)
  • Devotions, Mary Oliver
  • The Only Harmless Great Thing, Brooke Bolander
  • The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, Alison Bechdel
  • An Artist of the Floating World, Kazuo Ishiguro
  • They Came Before Columbus: The African Presence in Ancient America, Ivan Van Sertima


  • The Raincoats, The Raincoats
  • The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, Charles Mingus
  • Live in San Francisco, Cannonball Adderley Quintet
  • Monk’s Dream, Thelonious Monk Quartet
  • Chime, Dessa
  • Spilt Milk, Jellyfish
  • Smokin’ at the Half Note, Wes Montgomery & The Wynton Kelly Trio
  • The Great Summit: The Master Tapes, Louis Armstrong & Duke Ellington
  • Agharta, Miles Davis
  • John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman
  • Charlie Hunter/Carter McLean Featuring Silvana Estrada, Charlie Hunter & Carter McLean & Silvana Estrada
  • Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau, Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau
  • Shaken by a Low Sound, Crooked Still
  • Victory Lap, Propaghandi
  • The Virginian, Neko Case & Her Boyfriends
  • Bobby Broom Plays for Monk, Bobby Broom


  • The Swapper, Facepalm Games
  • Mass Effect 3, Bioware
  • Bioshock 2, 2K Games
  • Prey, Arkane Studios
  • Dark Souls, From Software
  • Nier Automata, PlatinumGames

The Tree of Life: Thoughts on Narrative Economy

treeoflife_clip4In the last 72 hours, I’ve rewatched Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life twice. The first rewatch was my fifth viewing of the theatrical cut. The second was my first viewing of the just-released extended cut, which adds nearly an hour of footage and forms what Malick has called not an expanded film but a new film.

One of my favorite moments of the theatrical cut (one that was, unfortunately and in my mind inexplicably, altered for the extended cut) comes when twelve-year-old Jack is knelt at his bedside, reciting his prayers. The words he speaks are monotone, droning, and rote. But midway through the ritual, his spoken voice fades out, overlapped by eager internal whispers:

“Help me not to answer my dad . . . Help me not to get dogs in fights . . . Help me to be thankful for everything I’ve got . . .” Where do you live? “Help me not to tell lies . . .” Are you watching me? I want to know what you are. I want to see what you see.

It’s a moment that encapsulates, for me, all that is great about the film—its elliptical, snapshot feel, its narrative economy, its operation on planes both physical and spiritual. And, most important, its deep insight into its characters.

The Tree of Life is often maligned by a select group for what they perceive as a ponderous, over-earnest tone and an overreliance on archetypes and banal voiceover to mask the fact that it has no story. In my mind, these complaints are a complete misreading of the film. Indeed, something that impresses me more and more each time I revisit it is how subtle and dextrous Malick’s narrative economy is, and how he is able to take characters that on their surface could very well have been one-dimensional archetypes and render them wondrously, painfully real through the smallest of touches.

The elliptical editing of the theatrical cut of the film evokes the fragmentary nature of memories. Continuity is thrown to the wind—characters change clothes within a scene from one shot to the next, or start on one side of a room and end up on the other. The image can never stay still—DP Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera is constantly on the move, and even when we land on a relatively restrained close-up, the film will often jump-cut to another take to maintain a sense of momentum. Much of the movie can’t be classified into “scenes” as such—in between interludes of sustained narrative, it’s near-constant montage, the camera catching the bare essentials of one image or interaction before blinking and taking the viewer on to the next impression.

When a story is told in this fashion, every single bit of footage has to count. What a more sedate film could say in a monologue has to be said in the space of a single sentence. Five minutes of footage have to be summed up in a single shot. Backstory has to be reduced to a look.

And those sorts of tiny information conveyers are everywhere in The Tree of Life. The aforementioned moment with Jack kneeling by his bed, through the simple act of layering three lines of voiceover over four lines of dialogue, sums up exactly what it’s like for a child to struggle between the rote legalism of organized religion and the innocent wonder that lies at the heart of their conception of God. Another perfect encapsulation of something that a different filmmaker could have taken pages and pages to say comes after Jack, who’s grown increasingly aggressive and confused over the course of the film, takes advantage of his younger brother’s trust and shoots him with a BB gun. Later, as they both sit in their room, he hands the brother a piece of wood and simply says, “You can hit me if you want.” It’s as pure an apology as I’ve ever seen.

Jessica Chastian’s nurturing mother, who Jack perceives as the embodiment of grace, could easily have been reduced to a one-note allegory for maternal womanhood, but she, too, is given interiority through the briefest of gestures. Her wordless, faceless memory of riding a biplane through the sky as a graduation present. The way the camera swoops up and away from her as she reads a telegram carrying the news of her middle child’s death, putting us inside her vertigo with one yawning pull. The bare, despairing accusation in her voice as her words play over a montage of the birth and death of the universe: Was I false to you? Who are we to you?

The place where these little moments hit hardest for me, though, is in the relationship between Jack and his dictatorial patriarch of a father, played by Brad Pitt in the best performance of his career. There are so many heartbreaking snippets of missed communication and unexpressed desire that pass between the two of them in single shots or exchanges throughout the film.

There’s the moment when Pitt is lecturing Jack for the umpteenth time on the way he’s done the yardwork. Without warning, Jack turns and clutches onto his father in a silent, desperate hug. Pitt simply stands there, then puts his arm around the boy, and for a second you think things will be all right. But then he says, “You’re cropping those too close,” and walks away.

Or the moment when Pitt’s second-eldest son starts accompanying his piano-playing with his guitar practice, and Pitt stares in wonder and deep, deep love—all while Jack looks on from the background of the shot, taking it in and hating both of them.

And then there’s the culmination of their arc. Toward the end of the film, Pitt has been fired from his job at the plant, and has to pull up roots and move the family elsewhere. As the family prepares for the move, he and Jack have an exchange that seems to represent the conclusion of their journey toward an understanding. “Maybe I’ve been tough on you,” Pitt says. “I’m not proud of that . . . you boys are about all I’ve done in life, other than that I’ve drawn zilch. You’re all I have, you’re all I wanna have. My sweet boy.” They embrace, and shake hands, and you feel yourself warm up a little.

In the next scene, the boys are saying their silent, mournful goodbyes to the old house. Jack stands there, holding a suitcase. Pitt brushes by and says dismissively, without looking at him, “You just gonna stand there like a bump on a log?”

It’s his last line in the film.

In a single sentence, every bit of understanding that father and son seem to have worked toward comes crashing down. It breaks my heart every time I see it.

I picked a handful of the moments that burrowed deepest into my mind to spotlight here, but I could have chosen any number of others. After all, the movie plays out like a sudden stream of memories and associations, Sean Penn’s adult Jack traveling through his entire life in the blink of a Proustian eye. In some ways, that’s one of the film’s many theses—that these snapshot moments, hazy images and composite characters and youthful revisions of memory, are more powerful and enduring than any sustained narrative.

Watching the extended cut of the movie is what made the the theatrical cut’s narrative economy truly hit home for me. Strangely enough, this 180-minute version, which Malick assembled at the tail end of his most experimental period to date (the divisive three-picture run of To the WonderKnight of Cups, and Song to Song), plays much more like a “conventional” film than the theatrical cut does. Entire conversations are far more frequent; scenes and setpieces last for lengthy periods of time before moving on to the next. And while a lot of the new material is a joy to watch and contains a host of interesting details, I was struck by how unnecessary so much of it was. Malick had already communicated the essence of these characters and their relationships in the theatrical cut, with almost no direct exposition beyond bits and pieces of voiceover. He’d stripped things down to the barest, rawest essentials, and they were arguably more powerful for their fleeting quality than they would be if he’d shaped them into a traditional story.

The film’s detractors may complain that it devolves into images for images’ sake, that Malick is more interested in capturing light and plants than people, but in the theatrical cut he’s been documenting these characters, painstakingly laying out what makes them tick, all along. He’s just so good at it that we take it for granted.

My Year in Movies – 2017


What a year.

2017 is, without hyperbole, probably the best year for cinema this decade (though 2013—the year we saw HerInside Llewyn DavisGravityShort Term 12, and Upstream Color all hit theatres, is hard to beat). There have been so many truly great movies put out, and even more really good ones. Hell, I even liked two of its six superhero films, something that hasn’t happened for me since 2012. And not only have there been an abundance of great movies, so many of them have been made by new, diverse voices. The two best-reviewed films of the year are both directorial debuts, one a woman’s incredibly empathetic portrait of a young girl’s coming-of-age (Lady Bird) and the other a black man’s genre-bending indictment of the white appropriation of black bodies (Get Out). The most successful superhero movie of the year was directed by and focused on a woman. And what’s likely to end up the highest-grossing movie of the year, the latest chapter in the Star Wars saga, is centered on two women (one Asian-American), a black man, and a Latino man. Besides being important steps forward for equality (though we are far from there yet), these movies are injections of new perspective that are vital, exhilarating, and truly new.

And what’s especially wonderful is that not only were so many great films released, a fair chunk of them got way more exposure than is typical. Get Out made over $250 million on a budget of less than $5 million. Lady Bird became the highest-grossing domestic film in A24’s history. The Big Sick was a word-of-mouth sensation. In a world where the medium is suffocating under an increasingly studio/franchise-dominated business model, to see this level of success for indie films is incredibly heartening.

A24 was the clear winner of the year for me—of my top five films for 2017, three (The Florida ProjectLady Bird20th Century Women) are A24 releases. Their continued willingness to take artistic chances and distribute films that are unique, challenging, and diverse is a true gift, and my gratefulness for them is impossible to express. May 2018 bring them even more success.

Cinema in general has been a lifeline for me this year. The mental exhaustion of post-Trump America takes its toll, and one of the things that most helped me to get some relief in 2017 was the abundance of humane, beautiful, true cinematic experiences I was able to escape to for a couple of hours at a time. Art is so, so vitally important to who we are and who we can be, guys. Don’t let it go.

And now, without further ado, here are my reviews of each of the new films I saw in 2017, with awards and a “best scenes” list following. Each of “The Great” gets two paragraphs; the rest are each granted one. Full warning re: my biggest hot take—A Cure for Wellness and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets > Blade Runner 2049 and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. I REGRET NOTHING

(I wish to God I’d been able to include Phantom Thread on this list, but it doesn’t open in MN until 2018. I’m resigned to placing it on next year’s list, where, knowing my relationship with Paul Thomas Anderson, it will probably earn the top spot.)

The Great

thefloridaprojectThe Florida Project

In trying to describe my reaction to The Florida Project, the closest equivalent I can think of is the first time I saw The Tree of Life. Rather than striving for that movie’s cosmic scale, this film embraces the transcendence of the utterly mundane. There’s no plot to be had, just a series of flashes, impressions, and routine tasks as the characters do their best to eke out a living in and around the squalid motel building that is, to them, nevertheless an almost infinite space. Said characters are achingly well-drawn—six-year-old Brooklyn Price’s brash Moonee, Bria Vinaite’s childlike and increasingly desperate single mother Halley, and Willem Dafoe’s quixotically decent landlord Bobby are as true a set of players as have ever appeared on the big screen. They’re an endearing but hopelessly fucked-up family—Bobby is the only one to realize the unsustainability of their situation, which makes his kindness hurt even more.

Co-writer/director Sean Baker’s frames capture with a perfect mix of dazzle and grit the candy-coated rot that exists on the outskirts of Disney World, a blend of pastel and poverty that feels like a self-contained universe. The film neither condescends to nor manipulates either its audience or its characters; its portrait of American citizens trying to create magic in the direst of straits is free of romance without ever devolving into cynical caricature. Maintaining this precarious balance, it builds and builds into what I can only describe as a spiritual experience—by the final scene, it’s dragged you through a full spectrum of emotions and left you both numb and exhilarated, a window into eternity finally slamming closed. Monumental.  (★★★★★)

lady_birdLady Bird

This movie is a gift. If I were a high-school girl it would have instantly become my favorite film, and even as it is I saw so much of myself and my family in it (mix up the worst aspects of Lady Bird’s twin love interests, played by Lucas Hedges and Timothée Chalamet, and you get a pretty decent picture of me at sixteen). It’s a reflective, adult look at the relationships between parents and children that still never ceases to feel like it was made specifically for teenagers the same age as Lady Bird. There’s so much affection for and insight into both sides of the generational coin, and reducing it to a movie whose moral is “just call your mom” is to do Greta Gerwig’s filmmaking a disservice. From the Polaroid haze of the visuals to the deft juggling of tones to the constant honesty of the script, it transcends the cliches of your typical YA coming-of-age movie time and again.

What’s almost as remarkable as the confidence Gerwig displays in her directorial debut is the trademark verve and humor she manages to bring even though she’s no longer performing her own material. Saoirse Ronan isn’t playing her director, exactly, but she’s the perfect muse for Greta to imbue with her ebullience and unguarded warmth (and her love/hate relationship with “Crash Into Me” continues the tradition of me falling in love with the central song of every Gerwig movie). I dearly hope Greta continues acting for a long time to come—her screen presence is something truly special—but I’m more than happy to be there opening night every time she chooses to remain behind the camera.  (★★★★★)


I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a film as full of seething, all-encompassing hatred as this one. The only thing it despises more than the animals that are humanity is the preening God that allows them to wreak continued havoc because his ego cannot conceive of an existence without worhsipful subjects. Where Aronofsky’s previous metaphysical films, The Fountain and Noah, find comfort in the eternal cycle of death and rebirth, this one raves not at the dying of the light, but at the fact that the light will never be allowed to die. It will continue in unceasing misery forever, raped and murdered again and again to feed a single being’s hubris.

All criticisms of the film’s heavy-handedness are warranted—for those who are familiar with its Biblical subject matter (although a number of critics seem to have missed it altogether, misconstruing the movie as an egocentric apology for the artist’s mistreatment of his loved ones), it’s as blunt an allegory as they come. But there’s something deeply exciting about a piece of art in today’s world that takes religion utterly seriously and refuses to tamp down its sense of importance with irony. Not Aronofsky’s best film, but undoubtedly his most impassioned. And like The Fountain, I’m confident that in a decade it will be viewed as something of a classic.  (★★★★½)


With Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan has accomplished something he’s failed to do since 2006’s The Prestige—make a perfect movie. His epics from The Dark Knight through Interstellar (though I dig them all to varying degrees) had a hard time balancing their cinematic ambitions with fully realized stories and themes, so it’s ironic that the solution came not in focusing more on character but paring it down to the bare minimum. There are almost no names assigned to the film’s players, no memories of far-away lovers or dreams for a postwar future. For 100 minutes, they have one impulse only: survive.

Not since Gravity has a movie functioned so unrelentingly as an anxiety engine—and the swooping vastness of Dunkirk‘s 70mm IMAX footage deserves comparisons to that film’s yawning scope—but Nolan manages to marry that desperation with a gradually increasing sense of patriotism and comradeship that never feels out of place. The film’s denouement gives full voice to the emotional undertone that’s been building as the evacuation’s timepiece winds tighter and tighter, but it escapes the jingoism and manipulation that a lesser story (see Darkest Hour much further down this list) would have smacked of. Dunkirk‘s patriotic pride rests not in cheap nationalism but in the sheer decency displayed by everyone involved in the evacuation’s miracle. It exists regardless of England as an institution or an empire—it’s found instead in nothing more than the extraordinary heroism of neighbor helping neighbor.  (★★★★★)

386079872161fa09fbb819c723b80aa9_300x44220th Century Women

Dandelion Wine for the post-feminist age. Mike Mills’ ode to the women who helped raise him isn’t a perfect movie—it can meander a bit too much for its own good, and the universal nature of the title when applied to a film that would more accurately be called 20th Century (White) Women is troubling—but it’s a pure delight from start to finish, and no movie this year has meant more to me.

The bedrock of the film is its performers—they all do fantastic work, but the standouts are Annette Bening as frazzled single mother Dorothea and Greta Gerwig as punk photographer Abbie. Bening’s Dorothea wants to be warm but can’t bring herself to be vulnerable, has worked so hard to provide for her son that she’s falling further and further behind in knowing who he really is; the rueful sadness she can convey with just a twist of her mouth makes you ache. Gerwig’s Abbie is her finest performance to date—the ebullience of her characters in Frances Ha and Mistress America, which in the hands of a male writer/director could have soured into a manic pixie dream girl cliche, is leavened by anxiety and trauma that she refuses to give into. The sheer life that Gerwig breathes into the role is infectious; she’s absolutely magnetic, elevating every frame she’s in.

Shortly after my third viewing of the film, I went out and dyed my hair to match Abbie’s flaming red, just as she colored hers after David Bowie’s in The Man Who Fell to Earth. She’s a character I’d like to model my life on.  (★★★★½)

john-wick-chapter-2-20170303013804John Wick Chapter 2

The first John Wick consisted of broad swathes of greatness marred by niggling mediocrity—stunning action scenes and world-building weighed down by a clunky screenplay, ugly cinematography, and off-kilter structure. Its sequel fully embraces the magical realism hinted at in the first film and in so doing creates something very close to an action masterpiece, a neon ballet of carnage operating on a plane somewhere above the real world.

Rarely has a sequel taken the universe crafted by its predecessor and built upon it so perfectly. The labyrinthine society of assassins that Keanu Reeves’ Wick has been pulled back into is expanded into a gloriously absurd underworld of near-supernatural henchmen and enemies, one whose rules are as ironclad as its methods are outlandish. Gunfights and brawls attain a quality the Star Wars prequels’ fight scenes aimed for but never attained, full of beauty and grace but possessed of a brutal kineticism. Visuals build and build in stylized beauty until, by the third act, it’s as though we’ve entered Orson Welles by way of Blade Runner. It’s no exaggeration to say that the film taken as a whole is like a Greek tragedy of hitmen, one that dwarfs the first John Wick in nearly every department.  (★★★★½)

p13831327_p_v8_aaThe Big Sick

One of those rare beasts: a rom-com that’s genuinely unconventional and chooses to do more than coast by on the strength of its performances. Not that those performances aren’t fantastic—Holly Hunter and Ray Romano both deserve Oscar nominations, Zoe Kazan is as winning as always, and Kumail Nanjiani does an eminently respectable job of playing himself. But they’re equaled by the razor-sharp screenplay, which line-for-line is the funniest thing I’ve had the fortune to watch in the presence of a packed theatre.

It’s also a movie that’s unafraid to be about more than just a cute love story—unsurprising, considering that Nanjiani and his wife Emily V. Gordon based it on their real-life adventures. Kumail’s fraught emotions as regard his Muslim family are the source of plenty of jokes early on, but midway through the film the subplot transforms into something far more honest and emotionally raw; meanwhile, Romano and Hunter share a fractured love story that earns its pathos without devolving into mawkishness. Kumail’s relationship with Kazan and her parents is the heart of the film, but it’s these side stories of broken bonds and strained identity that elevate The Big Sick from an unusually funny indie joint to a truly remarkable piece of comedy.  (★★★★½)

free_fire_1200x1600_6905d96a-ab18-42b6-ab6c-62269ccdb76d_1024x1024Free Fire

Caustically funny and juvenile in a way that’s crucial to its themes rather than obnoxious, this movie constructs what we expect will unfold into a humdinger of an action setpiece—a gun deal between IRA agents and a South African gun runner goes bad, with both sides drawing sidearms and scattering throughout the warehouse where they’ve met to exchange the goods. And almost immediately, things degenerate into something entirely different from how this sort of thing typically goes.

Geography splinters into a maze of confusing angles and obstacles. Bullets are traded in desperate, pathetic salvos that never allow the characters to relax but neither actually do much to resolve the situation. Alliances form and collapse at will, as panicked and livid people do their best to just get the fuck out of here. All this could result in a film that’s a droningly one-note if reasonably effective skewering of the notion that giving everyone a gun is the way to a polite society. Fortunately, the script’s consistently hysterical (in all senses of the word) sense of humor and a top-notch cast (Armie Hammer is my undisputed MVP, absolutely oozing charisma) mean that Free Fire never feels like a message film even as it’s pounding said message into your head with every shot fired. Instead, it’s a riotous, concussive blast from start to finish.  (★★★★½)

getout_chair_uk-600x888Get Out

“It’s true. All of it.”

This is such a smart, assured movie, and the fact that it’s Peele’s directorial debut is downright intimidating.  He effortlessly weaves the terrors of white supremacy into a nuanced horror framework, and manages to maintain a substantial percentage of his usual humor without ever overplaying his hand and dissipating the relentlessly mounting tension. Daniel Kaluuya’s performance as Chris is largely thankless, but he does an incredible job of conveying repressed frustration, anger, fear, and grief, the complexity of his emotions matching the depth of his director’s social commentary. Even after two viewings, I don’t think I spotted all the different signifiers and emblems Peele snuck into the script, the set design, the cinematography—it’s clear that he’d been making this movie in his head for years before he shot it, and every single element serves a thematic purpose.

The final scene might be the best film moment of 2017 [SPOILERS AHEAD]. When those police lights show up, the audience’s hearts plummet, knowing full well what’s about to happen to Chris. And in that moment, before anyone can think to rationalize the sickening instant of realization to themselves, the truth of white America is laid bare. A perfect ending to one of the best horror films of the century so far.  (★★★★½)

toni-erdmann-posterToni Erdmann

That this is being remade as a Hollywood production baffles me; it’s the kind of movie that could never have been made in America. A three-hour, multi-language comedy epic about the impossibility of family connection and the alienation of modern life? Even Scorsese couldn’t get it off the ground.

It’s such a distinctly odd movie, and one that I imagine plays far better to European audiences than it does to the States, but even so my theatre was howling for most of the third act, whose climax is the stuff of legend. The runtime coupled with subtitles can feel daunting before going in, but I wouldn’t have wanted it a second shorter.  (★★★★½)

good_time_xlgGood Time

A ticking time-bomb of a movie, one whose neon jitters quickly seep under the viewer’s skin. Our anxiety is not for Robert Pattinson’s Connie (a performance that, as with Personal Shopper and Kristen Stewart, should put to rest any doubts that existed about the former vampire’s acting capabilities). He’s such a miserable piece of shit that we quickly learn to be far more concerned for the innocents pulled into his orbit, who he’s all too happy to turn into collateral damage if it means staying one step ahead of the law. The patina of filth that sticks to Connie covers the rest of the cast as well—everyone is in some form or another pathetic, whether they’re compatriots of the two-bit sociopath or bystanders brought low by him.

I walked out of the film feeling dirty, jumpy, and exhausted. It’s a singularly nasty piece of art, its absurdist sense of humor doing little to mitigate the crawling sensation it leaves you with. And I mean that in the best possible way.  (★★★★½)

in-this-corner-of-the-world-600x889In This Corner of the World

Bought this, the first anime film in my library, blind on a recommendation. I was not prepared. Why can’t we in the West have wide-release 2D animation anymore? Why?! This thing is more gorgeous than any Pixar film on a crowdfunded budget equivalent to $2.2 million. The watercolor background of each frame is just prettier than any of us deserve.

You’d expect the premise—a young woman and her family live day in and day out on the outskirts of Hiroshima as August 1945 draws ever closer—to stray heavily into grimdark territory, but while things do get appropriately somber in the back half, for the most part this is an elegant slice-of-life family drama. That’s not to say it’s overly schmaltzy or twee in the face of trauma, which would destroy it entirely. But life goes on, even in wartime, until the horrible moment when it can’t. And even moments lived on the verge of violence can be full of grace.  (★★★★½)

The Very Good

  • djputcvvwaaflwwLast Flag Flying
    • Was worried that this would veer toward ra-ra military dreck, and there are still isolated choices that make me wince—uses of “raghead” by soldiers who’ve deployed to Iraq are period-appropriate, I suppose, but c’mon. These jarring moments aside, though, Last Flag Flying is a low-key pleasure to sit through. It leans heavily on its players, but you’d have to be soulless to not love Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne taking each other on in full ham-to-ham combat (and Steve Carell anchoring them in an almost eerily quiet performance). While the cast goes for broke, Linklater keeps his direction restrained, his leisurely editing letting the script breathe and his muted color palette keeping Carell’s grief in the back of the audience’s mind. This isn’t a movie calculated to awe with its ambition a la the Before trilogy or Boyhood, but I think that’s why I like it so much.  (★★★★)
  • the-meyerowitz-stories-2017The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)
    • Wouldn’t have started out this year predicting that Adam Sandler would outperform Dustin Hoffman in the same film but here we are. Baumbach gets career-best work out of both him and Ben Stiller, and though the white-guy daddy issues premise has been done to death elsewhere (and arguably better, at least as far as skewering self-absorbed Rothian artists goes, in Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up, Philip), the film has more than enough warmth and wit to justify its existence. I miss Greta’s presence, but hey, at least she showed up via Skype call.  (★★★★)
  • ddi9fwxxkaav6xbBaby Driver
    • It’s no masterpiece. Characters are underdeveloped, plot is formulaic, and the ending just doesn’t work (save as an unintentional commentary on our justice system’s willingness to let white people slide through circumstances that would leave black suspects gunned down on the pavement). But god damn if it’s not impossible to resist this movie’s charm. It has exactly one trick—the editing of its action sequences to line up precisely with the songs that play over them—but it pulls that trick off time and time again without the fun ever wearing off. And that final “Brighton Rock” scene? CINEMA.  (★★★★)
  • silence-posterSilence
    • Shusaku Endo’s novel, in which two Portugese priests arrive on the shores of Japan and find themselves in mortal spiritual and physical peril, is one of the great works of literary theology of the 20th century. At times it feels like Scorsese is barely scratching the surface of the his source material’s spiritual depth—there’s only so much one can do in translating inner monologue to spoken dialogue, even in a three-hour film. But this is still a harrowing, wholly admirable adaptation, which makes up in beauty what it can sometimes lack in faithfulness to the text. Andrew Garfield does career-best work; it’s predictable but still incredibly frustrating that the Academy decided his performance in Hacksaw Ridge was more deserving of a nomination. His increasing desperation as he realizes just how much his journey to Japan may cost him is agonizing to watch.  (★★★★)
  • paterson-20170303013604Paterson
    • Just pure loveliness—one of the many movies this year that portray the mundane beauty of working-class life with affection and warmth. The titular character, a bus driver and aspiring poet, simply lives under our scrutiny for a week, his routines and relationships unspectacular but a sort of utopia nonetheless. We should all be blessed with an Adam Driver in our lives—the film hangs on his performance, which is understated but full of kindness and nuance.  (★★★★)
  • the-last-jedi-theatrical-blogStar Wars: The Last Jedi
    • An absolute hot mess of a movie, which is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. For every wildly unique scene there’s a jarring tonal shift; for every structural weakness there’s a new idea. What you get out of it will largely depend on which parts of the mishmash you choose to focus on. I’ll take The Force Awakens‘ unity of purpose and theme over this one’s gonzo carnival, but there’s no denying there’s an abundance of compelling material here even if it leaves the trilogy in a very uncertain place. Contains some of the most breathtaking visuals of the franchise, and is certainly its best-acted installment—Adam Driver continues to kill it (“Blow that piece of junk OUT OF THE SKY” is the single greatest line reading of the year) and Mark Hamill delivers the best performance of his career.  (★★★★)
  • nullCall Me By Your Name
    • A languorous, turbid first act that’s little more than a bunch of obscenely privileged people being vaguely snippy to each other amid gorgeous surroundings gives way to a love story that made me feel a tangible swooping in my gut at multiple points. Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer are each outstanding, but Michael Stuhlbarg’s supporting performance deserves an equal amount of praise—the level of empathy he brings is a bit staggering. The movie is at its best when it allows that emotional honesty to take center stage rather than the (admittedly heavenly) sun-drenched Italian scenery.  (★★★★)
  • hgn8jpfThe Disaster Artist
    • I have no way of knowing how much mileage people who’ve never seen the so-bad-it’s-good masterpiece The Room will get out of this. The source material, Greg Sestero’s chronicle of his relationship with would-be auteur and superlative weirdo Tommy Wiseau, is a much darker, surprisingly nuanced account of a struggling actor slowly realizing that not only is he making the worst movie of all time, he’s befriended a monster. The movie, which could have been a classic if it had plumbed similar depths, is instead content to remain a largely surface-level farce, and its depiction of Wiseau’s magnum opus as an off-beat success story is not only sugarcoated but downright morally questionable in light of the sustained abuse the director/writer/star/producer put his cast and crew through. That said, as an ardent fan of The Room I was still delighted. Because while this does render itself a lesser film in giving up the book’s darkness, it’s devastatingly funny. It gets a lot of mileage out of not much more than Franco’s impersonation of Wiseau, but said impersonation is so uncannily good that my fellow premiere audience was howling for a good half of the runtime. So while it falls short of being a masterpiece, as a fan’s labor of love it’s a joy.  (★★★★)
  • Transfiguration03The Transfiguration
    • Gave this one a whirl on Netflix after seeing some positive buzz and was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed it. Owes a lot to Let the Right One In, but it’s more than just a reimagining of that tale of vampire preadolescence; more important than the setting change (from Sweden to New York) is the choice to have the audience view the world through the (possible) undead creature’s eyes rather than those of its new best friend. The resulting mix of slice-of-life friendship story and ambiguous portrait of supernatural/mental illness consistently exceeds expectations, painting a picture that’s nuanced and often gripping.  (★★★★)
  • a-cure-for-wellness-2017A Cure for Wellness
    • If it weren’t for the fact that mother! came out the same year, this would be the absolute craziest studio release of 2017. That Gore Verbinski managed to convince Fox to greenlight his batshit mashup of Bioshock, Lovecraft, and “The Fall of the House of Usher” for a budget of $40 million after his Lone Ranger was one of the biggest bombs in film history is an unbelievable achievement, and even if I didn’t like the film I’d have to respect him for it. Fortunately, I continue to disbelieve how much I do like it. It’s uneven, and the digital photography can be distractingly plastic at times, but the sheer Gothic insanity that Verbinski keeps hurling at the screen with abandon is just delightfully bonkers—it’s as if he knew this was gonna be his last big(ish)-budget feature for the foreseeable future and just poured everything he had into it. Leading man Dane DeHaan, between this and Valerian, is the year’s MVP for his willingness to just go for it in utterly bizarre auteur-driven tentpoles.  (★★★★)
  • logan-2017-poster-2Logan
    • The first superhero movie I’ve really liked since The Dark Knight Rises. Mangold shakes off the consequence-free, snappy shackles of his MCU brethren and dares to craft what’s almost purely a character piece, one whose violence carries unbearable weight and whose harsh, sun-bleached cinematography looks like a movie as opposed to a greyed-out TV show. Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart give their absolute all, both reduced to worn-out wrecks of their former selves but carrying meaning in that weariness rather than giving in to the adolescent nihilism of a Frank Miller comic. There are some missteps throughout, mostly in the number of villains that square off against our clawed hero, but it’s the first one of these things to even approach greatness in nearly a decade.  (★★★★)
  • 04gicwdksulzThe Shape of Water
    • The rapture so many people feel watching Guillermo del Toro’s films always seems to pass me by—I respect much of his work but love little of it. The same is true here—Sally Hawkins’ performance as the mute heroine Elisa is a thing of grace and passion, Alexandre Desplat’s score is full of sweeping romance, and every aspect of the art direction and production design (especially the absolutely seamless bringing-to-life of Doug Jones as the Creature) is perfection. But I don’t feel the dazzling love that Del Toro is trying so hard to induce—perhaps because he’s trying so hard to generate delight in his audience, I’m left feeling that I’ve been told I’m swept off my feet without any sweeping occurring. This is a lovely film, a film whose heart is entirely in the right place, and I enjoyed it more than any other Del Toro flick I’ve seen besides The Devil’s Backbone. But alas, that deep connection still eludes me.  (★★★★)
  • 2adad826a68b21d29ae9b48e617b96e6371b0a7bIcarus
    • One of this year’s most disorienting turns in subject matter—what started as director Bryan Fogel’s investigation into sneaking through doping tests in cycling turns into an espionage thriller that uncovers a Russian state-sponsored athletic conspiracy decades in the making. Not a whole lot happens on-camera—the doc consists largely of interviews, news footage, and the occasional computer-graphic sequence—but it’s still engrossing. The central tragedy of Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, who was forced to flee Russia for his cooperation with the documentary/the Olympic authorities and remains in hiding, is heartbreaking, anchoring the broader political implications of the film with a thoroughly human center.  (★★★★)
  • mv5bmzcyntc1odqzmf5bml5banbnxkftztgwntgzmzy4mti-_v1_uy1200_cr9006301200_al_A Ghost Story
    • Casey Affleck is trash, but he did this movie for free and spends most of it under a sheet so I was able to pay to see it guilt-free. Its reach occasionally exceeds its grasp—that house-party monologue on Beethoven and the impermanence of humanity is as heavyhanded as any Tyler Durden speech minus the wry humor—but on the whole it’s a moving examination of transience, time, and memory. Come for the existential anxiety, stay for Rooney Mara eating pie for the first time.  (★★★★)
  • beguiled-posterThe Beguiled
    • Almost palpably humid with morning mist, claustrophobic space, and sexual tension, Sofia Coppola’s hazy, sweltering hothouse potboiler is bathed in stifling, dreamlike atmosphere. As a look at the gender politics of the Confederacy it’s a failure—it’s ridiculous that a movie like this can simply ignore the existence of black women, especially when one was present in its source material—but as a piece of psychosexual tension it’s often superb. The photography and production design are the MVPs, but close behind them are Nicole Kidman’s icy matriarch and Colin Farrell’s slimy silver fox of a Yankee deserter. That accent just keeps getting sexier.  (★★★★)
  • found-footage-3d-posterFound Footage 3D
    • Figures that the genre-savvy parody of the found-footage conceit would also be one of the few times it’s truly worked—this “behind-the-scenes” look at the making of the world’s first 3D found-footage film is a cynicism-free love letter, but its subversion of its format’s pitfalls means it mostly rises above its source material (besides twin pillars The Blair Witch Project and [REC]). It falls down when it gets too nudge-nudge-wink-wink (the third-act intrusion of horror critic Scott Weinberg as himself is hilarious but diminishes tension far more than it’s worth), but for the most part strikes an admirable balance between self-aware satire and genuine suspense. Too inside-baseball to stand completely apart from the films it riffs on, but for fans of the genre’s heights and victims of its lows it’s a great time. (★★★★)
  • personalshopper_keyart1_fmhrPersonal Shopper
    • Are we all on the same page now re: Kristen Stewart actually being great? I sincerely hope so. She turns in one of the year’s best performances here, as a reluctant medium who’s struggling to commune with her dead brother’s spectre only to find that the spirit realm could be out to get her. A kind of Vertigo for the cell-phone age, but where that film is operatic this one turns inward, threatening speeches reduced to onscreen text messages and broad emotions distilled to fleeting microexpressions. Stewart communicates more in a handful of facial twitches than many actors do in whole monologues.  (★★★★)
  • jim-andy-the-great-beyond-600x890Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond – Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Appearance by Tony Clifton
    • Jim Carrey seems to think this is an ultimately uplifting meditation on the nature of identity, in which everyone involved in shooting Man in the Moon bonded over his quirky-but-endearing method portrayal of Andy Kaufman. The far more engrossing reality is that this is a downright disturbing testament to what he put an entire film crew through in his attempts to channel the late comic’s spirit. I felt genuinely sick whenever we were shown footage of Carrey interacting in-character with Kaufman’s family—what he sees as a beautiful act of healing is so emotionally manipulative it gives me the shivers. A harrowing glimpse of what must have felt like a living hell for everyone on-set but Carrey.  (★★★★)
  • ksd_1sheet_alt_curzon_hrThe Killing of a Sacred Deer
    • More consistent than The Lobster, although it never reaches the highs of that movie’s first half. Lanthimos’ knee-jerk urge to throw in casually delivered shock lines can wear a little thin at times—and isn’t justified here the way it is in Lobster—but his compositions and use of music are exquisite, and the kitchen shouting match between Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman is one of the year’s great scenes.  (★★★★)
  • 0702446Imperial Dreams
    • This one was filmed in 2014 and then languished until Netflix picked it up. It’s mostly a vehicle for John Boyega’s performance as an ex-con returned to the ghetto, but he takes the material and elevates it far beyond what a lesser actor would have been capable of. The desperation in his eyes as he struggles to make a life for himself and his son is heartbreaking.  (★★★★)

The Good

  • lightbox_194552_1497869652Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
    • A swamp of a screenplay full of wooden dialogue and meandering structure can’t hope to dull the manic energy and furious creativity that propel Valerian and the Overlong Title along. Possesses all the color and enthusiasm of Guardians of the Galaxy and none of its cynicism, along with one or two of the most riotously original SF/F action setpieces in years. The casting of Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne at first feels like a baffling misstep, but their adolescent attempts at badassery and charisma feel so much like children playing pretend that it ultimately just adds to the off-kilter charm. Joy-inducing in a way the genre rarely is these days.  (★★★½)
  • war-for-planet-of-the-apes-poster-5War for the Planet of the Apes
    • Doesn’t reach the dramatic or philosophical heights of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (a truly impressive piece of stakes and character), but sends off the trilogy with enough directorial panache and elegiac mood that the depiction of chimpanzees as concentration camp inmates manages to mostly avoid crossing the line into unintentional hilarity. (Would that this occasionally clumsy but always earnest examination of human nature were a baseline for franchise films rather than a rarity.) The visual effects are the most impressive of their kind to ever grace the big screen—there isn’t a frame of mocap primate that isn’t completely convincing—and Andy Serkis turns in a career-best performance. It’s high time the Academy changed the rules for eligibility—he deserves a Best Actor nomination, and if this trilogy hasn’t proved that nothing will.  (★★★½)
  • logan-lucky-poster-4597-600x890Logan Lucky
    • Considered purely as a heist movie it doesn’t approach the heights of Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven, but as a loving portrait of the eccentricities and nobility of the West Virginian working class it’s a winner. Daniel Craig is having fun onscreen for the first time in years, Channing Tatum and Adam Driver are as stalwart a leading pair as any of 2017, and Katherine Waterston has far too little screentime but remains a joy. There’s a Game of Thrones gag midway through that won’t be understood by anyone in a couple of decades, but until that point it will remain the absolute funniest joke of 2017.  (★★★★)
  • 6cbb943a8973ec66de94483295d2135cCoco
    • A decade ago this would have been subpar Pixar, but these days it’s a welcome relief from a string of duds and cash-grab sequels that, with the exception of the genuinely great Inside Out, has been ongoing since 2011’s Cars 2. Stunning animation—the neon metropolis of the Land of the Dead may be a high-water mark for the studio—elevates but can’t quite save a story that starts to noticeably lose steam as it approaches the third act. It’s right around this point that a tiresomely mustache-twirling villain thrusts himself into what’s otherwise a relatively nuanced, mature look at family responsibility and the impermanence of memory, watering it down pretty severely. Still, the drag didn’t stop me from almost tearing up at the end—Pixar may have lost a good deal of their touch, but not that one.  (★★★★)
  • whose-streets-posterWhose Streets?
    • Suffers from its compact length, which keeps its engagement with much of what happened in Ferguson, MO pretty surface-level, but it chooses its images well. It’s kind of unfathomably weird to watch a documentary that regularly cuts footage and tweets I saw unfold live three years ago—it simultaneously feels as if it had just happened and as if it were an eternity ago.  (★★★★)
  • largeposterIt
    • A wretched adaptation that works quite well when taken on its own merits. Pitch-perfect casting, which was always going to be the key to success here. Never even attempts to tackle the book’s genuinely epic meditation on childhood, aging, memory, and friendship, but hits the lesser target of Stand by Me/horror hybrid in consistently crowd-pleasing fashion (the audience I saw it with was riveted). And if this, rather than the godawful 90s miniseries, is a new generation’s way into the novel, I’ll take it. The kids are all great (though both Mike and Stan are rather unforgivably watered down from their literary counterparts), but Sophia Lillis in particular is one to watch.  (★★★½)
  • rawRaw
    • You know what they say about hazing—it ain’t great. (Nowhere near as shocking as festival buzz made it out to be—granted, this is coming from the Hannibal fan—but there are a few good squirmy moments in addition to a lot of genuinely funny black comedy. Quite an impressive first-time effort from both writer/director Julia Ducournau and lead Garance Marillier.)  (★★★★)
  • 71yqgyuakol-_sy550_I Am Not Your Negro
    • As a portrait of James Baldwin it’s scattershot, and downright irresponsible in the way it near-completely ignores his sexuality. But the screenplay is largely his own words, and no documentary that’s built on that basis could ever be classed a total failure. The contrast between Sam Jackson’s narration and period footage of the man himself is striking—Jackson is gravelly and somber, while Baldwin’s jumpy eloquence remains electrifying some sixty years later.  (★★★★)

The Mixed

  • bb_launch_a4posterBrigsby Bear
    • I probably would have preferred this if it were a deconstruction of the toxicity of fan culture and cheap nostalgia—especially in the wake of the internet’s absolutely bonkers rage toward Mark Hamill’s other big movie this year—but the movie’s so sincere in its love for the positive impact our childhood media consumption can have on us that it feels uncharitable to find fault with its approach. Come for the Lonely Island production logo, stay for Luke Skywalker as an evil sentient moon-creature.  (★★★½)
  • blade_runner_2049_posterBlade Runner 2049
    • Beautiful but sterile visuals (Roger Deakins has seldom been this majestic but seldom as plastic either) reflect the soul of the film at large. Villenueve has little to offer but stale repackaging of ideas from better films (HerEx Machina, and the original Blade Runner chief among these), even if those repackagings are exquisitely crafted. Throw in some absolutely abysmal treatment of its female and POC characters (the two of which almost entirely fail to overlap—it’s ridiculous that thirty-five years after the original we’ve actively regressed in representation), and we’re left with a movie that’s satisfying enough on its own terms but falls down as both a worthy sequel to its predecessor and a truly thoughtful piece of SF.  (★★★)
  • mollys-game-film-posterMolly’s Game
    • At this point in his career, Aaron Sorkin’s writing has retreated from attempts at deeper thematic resonance; his one remaining trick is to have characters deliver rapid-fire repartee full of facts that serve no narrative purpose beyond showing off how smart the screenwriter is. Said repartee is still entertaining enough to make for a consistently fun two hours—and Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba are fantastic at delivering it—but when compared to prior Sorkin scripts like The Social Network and Moneyball, which were both more disciplined in their displays of authorial ego and more restrained by talented directors, Molly’s Game can’t help but feel self-indulgent and slight. This isn’t helped by Sorkin’s slack gestures toward feminism, which never make it further than “I can be just as good a rich criminal as these men!” and ultimately collapse into an embarrassing daddy-issues emotional resolution.  (★★★)
  • lrg-png__650x935_q70Wonder Woman
    • As much as I’d like to truly love this one, I can’t. The first and third acts are messes (the former stiff and talky, the latter a confused jumble of plot and CGI), and the cartoonish treatment of WWI Germans as Nazi stand-ins is both juvenile and worryingly ignorant of history. That said, seeing honest-to-god color onscreen is delightful, the middle act’s focus on character and relationships feels like such a breath of fresh goddamn air, and seeing a female superhero dominating the screen solo for the first time in my life was properly exciting. Mr. Pine remains the pinnacle of the Hollywood Chrises.  (★★★½)
  • 59a462129e241Hidden Figures
    • Fits the standard Hollywood race-biopic subgenre to a t—complete with obligatory white-saviorism—but there’s something so incredibly satisfying about watching the story of these women finally being told in spite of the predictability. And there are moments where it rises above the moral two-dimensionality usually associated with this subgenre to become a more nuanced indictment of white supremacy—Ocatavia Spencer’s weary “I’m sure you believe that” to Kirsten Dunst’s white supervisor speaks volumes. Janelle Monáe is a literal goddess.  (★★★½)
  • 3bb_key_1sheet_101_f3_smThree Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
    • Gets so close to being good that its bummer of a third act leaves even more of a sour taste. Said third act, in which [SPOILERS] a key antagonist who we’ve seen brutally torture an innocent person just for kicks (and who we’re told has a history of racial violence) turns good on a dime for no particular reason other than someone telling him to love more [/SPOILERS], feels like a betrayal of the movie’s first 70 or 80 minutes. Said beginning section, which features tremendous performances from everyone involved (especially Frances McDormand as our righteously angry protagonist), is caustically funny and for the most part manages to avoid smothering genuine emotion with flippancy. It’s unfortunate that this devolves into something far broader, cheaper, and more sentimental, losing its bite and honesty and exacerbating early representational flaws into full-on apologism for police violence.  (★★★)
  • mv5byzu5ywflyzktmmjjmc00nwe3lwiwnwmtmjg2ztzmzwy3mdyzxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymtqzotywmzc-_v1_uy1200_cr9006301200_al_Detroit
    • An unbearably tense middle section that unfortunately veers into white-on-black torture porn is bracketed by first and third acts that fail to provide the macro-level context necessary for the movie to function as the citywide portrait its title promises. The central confrontation between police and black victims is admirably crafted on a pure suspense level, but I have to wonder what such a sustained depiction of black pain in a vacuum is supposed to offer artistically or politically. I’ll take Get Out‘s signifier-rich pulp thrills over this one’s vacuous self-seriousness any day.  (★★★)
  • abl-rtdadv1sheet-rgb-1-5938474674f1c-1Atomic Blonde
    • Icy neon visuals, gloriously obvious 80s needle drops, Charlize Theron and James McAvoy, and a few extraordinary action scenes—including a genuinely astonishing one-take stairwell brawl— elevate what’s otherwise a pretty tepid, convoluted espionage drama too mired in twisting in on itself to ever become interesting. Director David Leitch, who co-directed the first John Wick film with Chad Stahelski, shares his former collaborator’s enthusiasm for bright colors but lacks his eye for truly unique visuals; it’s all surface-level aesthetic, though that surface has its isolated moments of badassery.  (★★★)
  • mudboundMudbound
    • A staid, lifeless first hour whose Ken Burns narration has a soporific effect eventually gives way to a film that’s just as brutal as Detroit but has at least a hope for redemption where that film offered nothing but black pain. It’s mostly a disappointment coming off the heels of director Dee Rees’ near-perfect Pariah, but there’s enough good here to make its duller bits worth the slog. Its cinematography, dusky and atmospheric, is probably the best of any Netflix original to date.  (★★★)
  • one-sheetIt Comes at Night
    • Not much more than a 90-minute episode of The Walking Dead minus the zombies, but its grimdark “humans are the real monsters” story is performed, shot, and structured well enough to feel at least somewhat worthwhile. Disappointing for an A24 joint, but a perfectly decent if forgettable postapocalyptic flick otherwise.  (★★★)
  • mv5bmtrhyjyxntetnzu3zs00ngrklwjimzutzwi2otu1yzmxnmewxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvynzq0mtcymju-_v1_sy1000_cr006971000_al_Lady Macbeth
    • Florence Pugh is the only true standout here—it often feels as though we’re watching an unusually pretty direct-to-television film—but this nasty remix of Wuthering Heights is still consistently tense and grim without becoming dull, Pugh’s dead-eyed hatred taking over every frame it’s present in. Men are trash, Victorian men even moreso.  (★★★)
  • i_don27t_feel_at_home_in_this_world_anymoreI Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore
    • At its strongest when first-time director Macon Blair channels memories of his work with Jeremy Saulnier of Green Room fame. In terms of lasting impact, this comedy-thriller is of little consequence, but it’s endearing to me if for no other reason than giving stars Melanie Lynsky and Elijah Wood a much-needed chance to shine.  (★★★)
  • manifesto-movie-poster-1Manifesto
    • Its collage of art treatises is less the draw than Cate Blanchett playing thirteen different people, but Julian Rosefeldt was humble enough to realize that and hire her anyway so bravo to him. (This never stops feeling like the art-museum installation it started off as, but its star is incapable of being boring.)  (★★★)
  • murder-on-the-orient-expressMurder on the Orient Express
    • The great joy of Branagh’s Shakespeare films is how exhilaratingly alive they are—the directorial choices he makes in them aren’t always the best, but the conviction and enthusiasm of the performers and the energy of his guiding hand were a revelation for me when I first experienced his Hamlet and Henry VMurder on the Orient Express, by contrast, is frequently plodding and airless, characters reduced to a handful of tics and Branagh’s usual passion succumbing to the canned accent and massive mustache he’s forced to bear. It’s not offensively bad, though—the richly saturated 70mm photography is an absolute pleasure to take in, and watching Johnny Depp get stabbed in the chest over and over will never be the wrong move.  (★★★)
  • wonderstruck-first-posterWonderstruck
    • A visually immaculate construction that left me completely cold. Haynes’ sumptuous photography and wondrous art direction are bogged down by characters that never even rise to the level of assembled quirks—they’re all blank slates wandering through a fantastical world that dazzles without ever moving (perhaps a result of Brian Selznick of Hugo fame penning the overcautious adaptation of his own novel). Even more disappointing coming off the masterpiece that was Carol, it’s a children’s fantasy that’s not engaging enough for the kids (though Carter Burwell’s score, the best of the year, does everything it can to generate momentum) and has nothing substantial for adults to hold onto.  (★★★)
  • song-to-song-20170711104326Song to Song
    • Like To the Wonder and Knight of Cups before it, some absolutely breathtaking visuals and scenes—one sequence of Rooney Mara dancing alone in her bedroom is perhaps my favorite purely visual moment of the year—in search of a decent anchor. Malick’s increasing distaste for story and character in favor of elliptical fragments isn’t in and of itself a bad thing, but his attempts to create a narrative throughline through constant voiceover actively hinder the experience he’s aiming for—the naked, revealing monologues that propel Badlands and Days of Heaven and the minimalist, elemental thoughts that pervade The New World and The Tree of Life have been replaced by lifeless platitudes that distract rather than immerse.  (★★½)
  • nocturama-paris-is-happening-posterNocturama
    • An hour’s worth of remarkable, nearly wordless tension bookends a middle section of adolescent terrorists acting out The Neon Demon inside an abandoned Parisian shopping mall as they wait for the inevitable to fall upon them. Just as uneven and frustrating as that description makes it sound.  (★★½)
  • 661820936_ztkyvpkz_eba08ceb8d94ed8c9c-ec98a5ec9e90Okja
    • At its core is a reasonably effective satire on the absurdity of neoliberal ethics and corporate morality, but this movie is so goddamn shrill that its sharper points of critique are almost completely obscured. Paul Dano is the only adult lead to escape with his dignity intact—Gyllenhaal and Swinton are absolutely insufferable cartoon characters made flesh, which might be more acceptable if director Bong-Joon Ho had shaped the whole film as a kid’s fantasy rather than including rape and slaughterhouse scenes deliberately designed to evoke Holocaust associations. The resulting tonal mishmash contains several worthy scenes, but the obnoxiousness they’re mired in is so exhausting to wade through that it’s hard to summon much interest when they arrive.  (★★½)
  • all-these-sleepless-nights-posterAll These Sleepless Nights
    • Explores similar structural territory as Song to Song, but possesses neither Malick’s visual panache nor his sense of the spiritual. What starts off as a promising portrait of wandering youth in that netherworld that exists between 1 and 5 in the morning crumbles into a repetitive, monotonous look at aimless debauchery.  (★★½)

The Poor

  • eda5gozhwyawqu1xkqe5The Void
    • Populated with dodgy acting and an abundance of tired horror tropes thrown into a nonsensical blender, this one’s sole selling point is the practical effects used to form its Lovecraftian creatures. Said effects are quite good—it’s just a pity the amateur cinematography and lighting mean that we barely get a glimpse of them. Watch a John Carpenter movie instead.  (★★½)
  • battle-of-the-sexes-2017-04Battle of the Sexes
    • It can’t decide whether it wants to be the movie its title suggests or The Billie Jean King Story, and ends up being a satisfactory version of neither. Stone and Carrell are likable as ever, but their performances and some pretty film grain can’t rescue the movie from its bizarrely lopsided structure and its inability to commit to which story it’s going to tell—it’s too interested in other aspects of King’s life (and too pedestrian in its shooting and editing) to be a tense sports drama, but also too committed to giving Carrell’s Bobby Riggs as much screentime as possible to turn into a biopic of its heroine.  (★★½)
  • jcwn2t9x3gozDarkest Hour
    • Rests solely on the shoulders of Gary Oldman’s performance as Winston Churchill, which in the best of circumstances would mean a forgettable, tepid chamber drama with some memorable character work. Unfortunately, these aren’t the best of circumstances. Oldman is on autopilot—he lisps, brays, and sprays spittle at the screen in what isn’t a performance so much as the same shtick played at varying degrees. Add to that the fact that neither Churchill nor any of his fellow players are given any sort of interior life—one never gets the sense that these are people living their lives, just orators exchanging lines—and what results is an utterly hollow, empty bit of drama. If Oldman, after decades of Oscar snubs, finally nabs the golden man for this, in the same year as Daniel Day-Lewis’ final performance, Timothée Chalamet’s breakthrough, and Willem Dafoe’s career-best work on The Florida Project, it’ll be a sad if predictable state of affairs.  (★★½)
  • suburbicon586Suburbicon
    • I should have known this wasn’t going to turn out well as soon as I learned that Clooney had rewritten the original Coens script that allegedly forms the basis of the movie. Painfully unfunny and annoyingly sanctimonious in its attempts to weld a half-baked civil rights subplot onto what’s otherwise a cynical farce, it limps through every single scene save the two that weren’t altered from the original draft. Said scenes are fortunately the ones that include Oscar Isaac, whose presence in that hat should be a requirement for every movie forthwith.  (★★½)
  • 527496The Discovery
    • Rooney Mara does her best to breathe some life into what’s otherwise a tiringly dull and overlong extrapolation of an SF premise—what if we had definitive proof of the afterlife?—that in its execution is neither thoughtful nor thought-provoking. No worse than a second-rate episode of Black Mirror, but most definitely no better.  (★★)

The Godawful

  • woodshockWoodshock
    • Neither shocking nor woody. Wants to be Upstream Color so badly, but where that film runs purely on emotion this one decided to take a few really banal characters and their hour of story and tack on thirty minutes of double-exposed shots and elliptical editing. Kirsten Dunst does her best, in a performance that’s basically a hazier version of Melancholia‘s Justine, but with the material she’s given she can’t achieve much more than strolling through pretty lights looking vacant.  (★½)
  • brawl_cb99_teaser_2764x4096-1-e1503427449280Brawl in Cell Block 99
    • A first half that’s atrociously color-graded and amateurishly structured slides into a second half that wants to be a visceral descent into hell but instead is simply a perversely gleeful dive into grindhouse schlock. The audience is offered little more than some split-second shock at the cartoonish brutality on display; the characters less than that.  (★½)
  • c8f7pflvwaayhkpThe Book of Henry
    • Too entertaining in its baffling incompetence to be genuinely hated. This truly bizarre attempt at imitating human behavior feels like a slightly more sapient Tommy Wiseau joined forces with Gus van Sant to produce a monstrosity that slides from sickeningly twee to hilariously sociopathic—Sarah Silverman making out with a ten-year-old cancer patient is one of the less weird things that it features. It probably contributed to getting Colin Trevorrow kicked off Star Wars Episode IX, so we’re eternally in its debt. Poor Naomi Watts deserves better, though.  (½)
  • the-snowman-first-posterThe Snowman
    • Too dull in its baffling incompetence to be genuinely entertaining. (What I did there? You see it?) Bewildering in its editing choices, its pointless subplots, its basic character motivations, and its choice to name its protagonist Harry Hole (three of which became clearer when the director admitted his crew had forgotten to shoot 15% of the script), it’s a good forty minutes shorter than David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo but feels twice as long. In a cast that includes Michael Fassbender, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and J. K. Simmons, not a single person manages to walk away looking good.  (½)
  • ho00004153Beauty and the Beast
    • Feels like the most purely useless movie ever made. A cynical mishmash that’s made up entirely of scenes that either rehash their animated counterparts in inferior fashion or “expand” the story in a way that makes it actively worse. The Gothic beauty of the 1991 film is degraded into ugliness almost everywhere—the slipshod, “gritty” CG reimagining of the enchanted castle and its inhabitants; the audible pitch correction slathered over nearly every singer’s voice; the wooden, cringing acting of anyone who isn’t Gaston or LeFou. The fact that this narrowly avoided being my most-loathed picture of the decade speaks to how ghastly the final candidate on this list is. (For more thoughts, see my long-form review.)  (½)
  • the-dark-tower-posterThe Dark Tower
    • An utter abortion of an adaptation, one that takes the insanity of a book series that’s a dimension-hopping fantasy/SF/western metafiction epic and turns it into a seemingly autocorrect-generated screenplay whose visuals and characters have all the life of a screensaver. Its 90 minutes feel like an eternity, and Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey’s heroic attempts to bring something of the source material’s fire just make it hurt even worse. I pity the viewers who watch this movie and as a result are turned off from the books forever. It has forgotten the face of its father.  (½)

The Awards

  • Best Picture
    • Sean Baker, The Florida Project
  • Best Foreign Language Film
    • Maren Ade, Toni Erdmann
  • Best Animated Feature
    • Sunao Katabuchi, In This Corner of the World
  • Best Documentary Feature
    • Bryan Fogel, Icarus
  • Best Director
    • Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk
  • Best Original Screenplay
    • Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird / Emily V. Gordon & Kumail Nanjiani, The Big Sick
  • Best Adapted Screenplay
    • Richard Linklater & Darryl Ponicsan, Last Flag Flying
  • Best Actor in a Leading Role
    • Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project
  • Best Actress in a Leading Role
    • Bria Vinaite, The Florida Project / Annette Bening, 20th Century Women
  • Best Actor in a Supporting Role
    • Adam Driver, Star Wars: The Last Jedi / Michael Stuhlbarg, Call Me By Your Name
  • Best Actress in a Supporting Role
    • Greta Gerwig, 20th Century Women
  • Best Cinematography
    • Hoyte van Hoytema, Dunkirk
  • Best Editing
    • Lee Smith, Dunkirk
  • Best Visual Effects
    • Weta Digital, War for the Planet of the Apes
  • Best Original Score
    • Carter Burwell, Wonderstruck
  • Best Original Song
    • Dark Rooms, “I Get Overwhelmed,” A Ghost Story
  • Best Stuntwork
    • John Wick Chapter 2
  • Best Production Design/Art Direction
    • Star Wars: The Last Jedi
  • Best Costume Design/Makeup and Hairstyling
    • A Cure for Wellness
  • Best Sound Editing and Mixing
    • Dunkirk

The Best Scenes of the Year

  • prom, Lady Bird
  • communion, mother!
  • fish in a barrel, Dunkirk
  • menstruation, 20th Century Women
  • shootout in the catacombs, John Wick Chapter 2
  • 9/11, The Big Sick
  • hands up, Get Out
  • house party, Toni Erdmann
  • the blast, In This Corner of the World
  • “Brighton Rock,” Baby Driver
  • poetry forum, Paterson
  • sunset, Star Wars: The Last Jedi
  • clearing the air, Call Me By Your Name
  • kitchen shouting match, The Killing of a Sacred Deer
  • interdimensional firefight, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
  • napkin of demands, Logan Lucky
  • the memory maker, Blade Runner 2049
  • stairwell brawl, Atomic Blonde
  • bedroom dance, Song to Song
  • the inevitable, Nocturama


My Year in Books — 2017

I wish I could do my usual writeup, in which ten or twenty books get their own individual reviews, but it’s 2017 and I’m tired. (Plus I have a forthcoming end-of-year post in which every one of the 70 movies I saw in the theatre this year gets a capsule review, so.) So, a more compact writeup before my list of the year’s best below.

8467013Wallace Stegner’s The Big Rock Candy Mountain was my favorite book of the year. A sprawling, semi-autobiographical epic of rum-running in the American Northwest, it’s ambitious and overstuffed and completely absorbing. Where similar family-saga books like Carsten Jensen’s We, the Drowned (another favorite of mine) can end up sacrificing some central narrative in favor of a bird’s-eye view of the multiple generations they cover, Stegner’s novel has as its lynchpin the central figure of Bo Mason, a husband and father whose avarice and frustration constantly battle with his love for his family. His shadow hangs over everyone in the book, and it’s a credit to Stegner’s characterization that he’s a nuanced and heartbreaking figure rather than a simple patriarchal tyrant. I’ll take him over Jay Gatsby as a personification of the American Dream any day.

51ckn9mhyfl-_sx331_bo1204203200_o-amelia-gray-900A Fine and Private Place sent me into paroxysms of jealousy. Peter S. Beagle wrote it when he was only nineteen, and it’s as fine a fantasy novel as I’ve ever read, full of affection for and understanding of its characters both dead and living. His We Never Talk About My Brother was also one of a myriad of excellent short fiction collections I read this year, the two best of which were Amelia Gray’s Gutshot and Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties. The former is a loaded magazine of a book, full of stories that are little capsules of violence and abuse; the latter an elegant, haunting deconstruction of patriarchal power and the male gaze through updates of fantastic and folkloric staples.

blackwaveThere was all manner of reading that for better or worse resonated stronger than it otherwise would due to the current existential-political hellhole in which we’re currently living. For fiction, Michelle Tea’s Black Wave is reminiscent of Dhalgren in its vision of a city going about its business as the apocalypse looms, 33916061though it jettisons that book’s Joycean complexity for a more elegiac tone; Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream, a pulp SF novel-within-a-novel written by none other than Adolf Hitler, is exhaustingly prescient in its deconstruction of toxic tendencies within the fandom that have most recently manifested themselves in Vox Day and his alt-right henchmen. Nearly every single nonfiction book I read touched on our current crisis of civics in some form or fashion; of them, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power is the most damning, particularly in its conclusion, which chronicles the rise of Trump as America’s first white president. Meanwhile, John Michael Greer’s back-to-back Decline and Fall and Dark Age America are almost comforting in their reminders that as bad as things currently look, we can rest assured that they will be getting much, much worse in the decades to come.

karrNearly all of my favorite creative nonfiction this year was memoir. The most stylistically straightforward of the lot, Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club/Cherry/Lit trilogy, was also the best of them, funny and poignant and candid in a way that seems as though she’s just telling you her life story over drinks despite the years of craft and effort that went into the nearly 1,000 pages. Maggie Nelson’s The Red PartsBluets, and The Argonauts also form a trilogy of sorts, albeit a much looser one—the first volume is the closest to memoir in the traditional sense, while the latter two 51vz1irzo2bl-_sx331_bo1204203200_are syntheses of memoir, essay, prose poetry, and philosophy that touch on grief, love, memory, language, and sense perception in quietly devastating fashion. Roxane Gay’s Hunger, a brutal account of the rape she suffered as a child interwoven with the subsequent cultural and personal abuse she’s suffered as a result of obesity, is heartbreaking, probably the best thing she’s ever written. Outside of memoir, The Empathy Exams is my favorite creative nonfiction title of the year. The titular essay, which uses author Leslie Jamison’s stint as a medical actor to look at how we perceive and respond to pain, is a springboard into a wider study of empathy, trauma, and human interaction. It’s a brilliant collection.

pid_23793Adam Kotsko’s The Prince of This World deserves individual mention here as well. A political history of the concepts of Satan and hell, it’s theologically engrossing and morally devastating. Its indictment of the Christian church—specifically the doctrinal shift from identifying Satan with hierarchical power and God with the marginalized and oppressed to viewing minorites as diabolical agents and the powerful as agents of God’s will—is all the more damning in the aftermath of large swathes of evangelicals’ devil’s bargain with Donald Trump and his movement.

I read 150 books for my Goodreads challenge this year; I think this will be the last year I participate in it to such a competitive extent. It’s far too easy to fall into the attitude of reading for the sake of meeting a number rather than for learning and personal enjoyment, and I don’t want that mindset to dominate my activity in the future. Link to my full challenge is here, for those who want to see the full list of books I read.

Below is a list of my personal favorite reads of the year, which the above writeup only sampled. Goodreads pages for each title are linked.


Creative Nonfiction


God Will Cut You Down

grit-51Watching the Coen brothers’ rendition of True Grit is akin to watching something Shakespeare might have written, had Shakespeare been born in 19th-century America. There’s always a level of unreality to the dialogue in the Coens’ films, but True Grit is unique in just how bizarre its characters’ speech is. There is perhaps no better example of this than a jibe Rooster Cogburn, the drunken, grizzled U. S. marshal, makes at the expense of the foppish Texas Ranger LaBouef:

I’m struck that LaBoeuf has been shot, trampled, and nearly severed his tongue, and not only does not cease to talk but spills the banks of English.

The marshal scoffs at his companion’s highfalutin speech, yet he himself talks in a manner far above that of a redneck, near-illiterate Wild-West gunslinger; “severed,” “cease,” and “spills the banks” are not common turns of phrase in such circles. This commingling of high and low speech is the basis of another joke earlier in the film; Mattie Ross irritably informs Rooster, who’s attempted to leave her high and dry while he and LaBeouf seek out Tom Chaney:

And ‘futile’, Marshal Cogburn, ‘pursuit would be futile’? It’s not spelled ‘f-u-d-e-l.’

The world of the film’s script is one of blatant unreality. No matter a character’s education or station, they are capable of spouting verbiage that carries more poetic lilt in one line than most screenplays do in their entire text. They will likely as not, however, do so in a manner that’s as rife with vernacular turns of phrase and grammatical errors as Rooster’s correspondence with Mattie is rife with misspellings.

A large portion of this off-kilter speech originates not with the Coens but with Charles Portis, the author of the novel on which True Grit is based. Nonetheless, only the Coens could have pulled it off in a film setting with the kind of richness it deserves. Witness by comparison the 1969 True Grit film; it’s a decent Western for another cinematic day and age, but Portis’ words are as flat and clumsy in the mouths of its actors as one of Rooster’s corn dodgers. Whenever one of those absurdly elegant sentences is read, that’s what it feels like—a line reading and nothing more. When the actors in the 2010 True Grit speak their lines, it’s as though torrents of verbiage flow from their mouths. Their frontier poetry is electric, full of texture, and if we don’t always grasp the individual syllables—particularly from Jeff Bridges’ slurring Rooster—we always have a firm hold on the meaning.

When the film was released in 2010, it received overwhelming critical acclaim, but the consensus seemed to be that it just wasn’t a Coens film. Roger Ebert, in his review for the Chicago Sun-Times, put it thus:

What strikes me is that I’m describing the story and the film as if it were simply, if admirably, a good Western. That’s a surprise to me, because this is a film by the Coen Brothers, and this is the first straight genre exercise in their career. It’s a loving one. Their craftsmanship is a wonder. [. . .] But this isn’t a Coen Brothers film in the sense that we usually use those words. It’s not eccentric, quirky, wry or flaky.

I find this sentiment more than a little puzzling. I opened this piece with observations on the film’s dialogue because it’s the most obvious sign that True Grit is anything but a straight genre exercise. There are very few films period whose scripts walk a similar tightrope between the vernacular and the poetic, much less Western films. But it’s more than just the words the characters say. What makes True Grit a Coens film is the even narrower tightrope it navigates: that of tone. The aura of the film is a mix of the heroic and the banal, the noble and the farcical, that is the signature of its makers’ oeuvre.

Joel and Ethan Coen are often painted as cynics whose creations feature characters for the purposes of pointing and laughing rather than empathizing. This holds true for a few of their films—Barton Fink is filled with a loathing for its protagonist that becomes more and more obvious as its story unfolds, and when I recently revisited Burn After Reading I was exhausted from the sheer contempt it holds for its entire cast. But more often than not it’s a reductive claim.

It’s more accurate to say that the brothers make films whose worlds point and laugh at their inhabitants but whose stories ultimately admire their characters’ refusal to give up in their struggles, futile or undignified as they may be. The titular folk singer of Inside Llewyn Davis spends the entirety of the film in a Sisyphean fight to break out of his rut, one that’s as funny as it is heartbreakingly cruel; but the movie ends on an astonishing note of empathy for its reluctant hero, who vents his demons in a song and—just maybe—opens up the possibility of breaking the cycle. The Big Lebowski takes an unholy amount of delight in hammering the junior Lebowski with break-ins, injuries, burnt cars, and dead friends, but in the end the Dude abides, taking it easy for all us sinners. The Hollywood of Hail, Caesar! is as far from meaningful as it’s possible to get, but when Eddie Mannix thunders to disgraced star Baird Whitlock about the sacredness of their business, you can see the Coens mean it as much as he does.

The best example of this cruelty overcome by affection is Fargo. Even those who have never seen the film are familiar with its broad satire on the Midwest—the thickheaded goodnaturedness of its inhabitants provides constant comic fodder throughout the movie’s runtime. More than that, Joel and Ethan take active glee in wresting control away from characters who are determined that things go exactly according to their plans, particularly would-be criminal mastermind Jerry Lundegaard and his bumbling pair of kidnappers-for-hire. But the film possesses a genuine respect for its heroine, pregnant police officer Marge Gunderson. More than that, it refuses to poke fun at her Midwestern sense of decency in the way it does with others’.

There’s more to life than a little money, ya know. Don’tcha know that? And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well. I just don’t understand it.

You get the sense that, even if the Coens don’t really believe this sentiment themselves, they want to.

True Grit is in many ways a stunningly cruel piece of cinema. The drab browns and yellows of its vegetation and the frequent drifts of snow that waft through its frames set the tone for its Wild West—elegiac, cold, and harsh. Attempted sentimentality constantly has the rug pulled from underneath its feet. Rooster caps off a dying man’s pious anticipation of walking the streets of glory with the advice not to go looking for his killer. At a public hanging, the two white men present are allowed to finish their speeches; when the lone Indian begins his, a hood is placed over his head and the lever is pulled. The undertaker in charge of Mattie’s father idly tells her that if she’d like to spend the night in a coffin, “it would be alright.” Hardly a maudlin or sugary moment is allowed to exist before being brutally cut short.

More than any of these little moments, though, it’s the central journey of Mattie Ross that often feels as though it’s actively punishing its heroine. Mattie opens the film coming into town to collect her dead father. When she attempts to recruit men to come with her and go after after his killer, Tom Chaney, she is met not just with rejection but contempt; LaBeouf makes crude sexual comments and Rooster steals her money before giving her the slip. Shortly after this, there’s a sequence that initially plays out like a standard heroic-Hollywood moment; Mattie, undeterred by the roaring river standing between her and the two lawmen, urges her horse through the water while Carter Burwell’s strings swell. As soon as she gets to shore, LaBeouf snatches her from her horse and spanks her; ultimately, she has to be rescued by Rooster.

When Mattie does get to Chaney, she finds to her vexation that he fails to recognize he has done anything wrong and greets her like an old friend. She manages to shoot him in the short ribs only after he instructs her in how to cock her gun properly; when she tries to fire a second time, the gun fails and Chaney takes her away. When our hero finally manages to bag her man, the recoil of the gun sends her sprawling backward into a pit filled with rattlesnakes. She loses an arm for her trouble, and Rooster rides her horse to death getting her to the doctor.

Nor is even this the last time the film twists the knife. A quarter-century after her arm is removed, Mattie, a spinster after all these years, receives a letter from Rooster asking her to visit him. She makes the journey. She arrives a few days after the ex-marshal dies of “night hoss.” All she can do is bury him.

The above three paragraphs read like nothing so much as a 19th-century book of Job. In isolation, this flat description makes it seem as though the Coens have an overwhelming amount of sadistic disregard for their protagonist. But what’s remarkable about True Grit is how much the opposite is true.

Ethan, in a 2010 interview, says of Mattie that she’s “a pill [. . .] but there is something deeply admirable about her in the book that we were drawn to.” And while the film portrays her in constant states of indignity or frustration, the viewer never feels a directorial delight in Mattie’s suffering. In many ways, she’s a fierier, more Old-Testament version of Marge Gunderson. She is hell-bent on judgment by violence, and will not see anything less for Tom Chaney than death—specifically for his murder of her father, not the state senator he shot under the name Chelmsford—but this bloodthirst comes not from any personal inclination toward violence but from a deeply ingrained sense of decency and justice. Just as the world of Fargo belies Marge’s conviction that a day can be truly beautiful, the world Mattie inhabits frequently punishes her for her unwavering principles, and works its hardest to show her that life is not as simple as what’s fair and what’s not. She never wavers, however, and if that’s a kind of blindness, it’s a blindness that the Coens respect, not the kind of arrogance or stupidity that draws their ire in characters such as Barton Fink or Burn After Reading‘s Linda Litzke.

The most profound marker of the directors’ affection for their heroine is that they ultimately do let her have her way. In both Portis’ novel and the 1969 film, Mattie fails to kill Tom Chaney. She fires at him and is flung back into the snake pit; he leans over the edge to taunt her, at which point Rooster disposes of him. It’s a death that’s anticlimactic, cruel, and the precise opposite of catharsis. If the Coens truly felt any sort of contempt for Mattie, they would have kept it this way. But in a change that is crucial to the ultimate tone of their True Grit, they let Mattie have her justice. She looks her man dead in the eyes, grins, and cries, “Stand up, Tom Chaney!” And as the realization of what’s to come dawns in Chaney’s expression, she pulls the trigger. Over the cliff he goes.

Mattie still plunges into the pit of snakes and loses her arm. Her victory is not easy, and cannot simply be handed to her without consequence. But she still gets a split second of unequivocal triumph before she takes that fall. Blind belief in justice is perhaps deserving of punishment, the film says. But in the case of someone like Mattie—a girl who is capable, intelligent, and determined to get her job done—it is also deserving of reward.

The 2010 rendition, then, is a cruel film that never fully descends into sadism. It’s a heroic quest that never allows its main character more than a few isolated moments of heroism. It’s a movie that walks a constant knife’s-edge of philosophy and tone, and a lesser director would have turned it to the mush that the 1969 film all too often is. But to Joel and Ethan, this kind of juggling is second nature.

True Grit is often overlooked in discussions of the Coens’ 21st-century output. It doesn’t possess the raw intensity of No Country for Old Men, the personal investment of A Serious Man, or the forlorn majesty of Inside Llewyn Davis, true. But besides the latter film, it’s my favorite of their movies, and I maintain that attempts to exclude it from the conversation on the basis that it “isn’t a Coens movie” are fundamentally misguided. Not only is it a Coens movie through and through, it could only ever have been that.

A genre picture it may be, but merely a “straight genre exercise”? Not on your life. (Stand up, Roger Ebert.)

The Blood Cries Out to Me from the Ground

joshI’ve been thinking a lot lately about a particular episode of VeggieTales.

For those who aren’t familiar, VeggieTales is a computer-animated children’s video series that originally ran from 1993-2000 (it’s gone through a number of iterations since). The premise is simple, if a bit bizarre to think about if one didn’t grow up with it: anthropomorphic vegetables and fruits get together to retell Bible stories to a young audience, with various skits and songs throughout. Lessons are learned, laughs are had. Fin. The series was something of a staple for a certain generation of us who grew up evangelical, and it’s actually not at all bad. It’s often quite funny, and unlike a lot of lesser religious children’s media it’s genuinely concerned with storytelling in addition to didacticism. And while it is overtly religious, many of the moral lessons it imparts are universal enough that kids growing up secular can learn a thing or two from it as well.

But then there’s “Josh and the Big Wall.”

This particular episode is, as the title implies, the vegetables’ retelling of the story of Joshua and the Israelites at Jericho. The Israelites are played by most of the main vegetable characters (Joshua himself by Larry the Cucumber); the citizens of Jericho by the villainous, eminently mockable French Peas. When the Israelites attempt to enter the city—they explain to the Peas that God has given them the land, so there’s really no other option—they are rebuffed by a torrent of hurled slushies. Several minutes of further slapstick and such ensue before, inevitably, the troops rally around Jericho and the walls are brought down by a divine force. The Peas—no worse for wear after the collapse of their city besides a little bit of dust peppering their faces—turn and run. The Israelites have won their first victory in the conquest of Canaan. The End.

All in all a fairly innocuous, fairly amusing retelling of the Biblical story. Right?

That’s what my memories of it were for the last decade or so, anyway. It’s been about that long since I’ve actively watched a VeggieTales episode, so my recollections of it aren’t exactly sharp. It’s all sort of faded away into a vaguely pleasant melange of scenes and gags in the back of my mind, my fondness for it remaining despite my departure from the church.

But recently, for no particular reason that I can figure out, I started turning over “Josh and the Big Wall” in my mind again. And to my dismay, I realized:

This is an absolutely horrific way to tell a Bible story. To anyone, but especially to children.

* * * * *

In order for this essay to continue, there are a couple of basic premises we’re going to have to agree on.

1.) The Israelite conquest of Canaan as described in the later books of the Pentateuch and the book of Joshua is an attempted genocide against the inhabitants of that land in order to make way for God’s chosen people.

2.) This genocide mandated the killing not just of fighting men, but of women, children, and infants. Virgin women were spared to be raped.

Note that I’m not passing any moral judgment on the conquest of Canaan in stating these two premises. I’m not interested in writing a post about whether or not the acts described in these books are unconscionable atrocities—full disclosure, that is what I think (divine command morality can quite frankly go fuck itself), but there’s a whole literature devoted to just that point and I don’t think I’m capable of adding anything new there. So, Christian readers of this essay, I’m not asking you to accept my opinion that the Old Testament describes immoral, unforgivable acts of genocide mandated by God. But if this essay is going to be of any value to you, you’re going to have to accept that the premises above are both true.

It shouldn’t be hard, honestly. Those premises are pretty literal, neutral interpretations of what the Old Testament has to say on the matter. I’ll restrict my citations here to two, one for each premise:

But in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall devote them to complete destruction, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as the Lord your God has commanded. that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices that they have done for their gods, and so you sin against the Lord your God.

—Deuteronomy 20:16-18

They warred against Midian, as the Lord commanded Moses, and killed every male. [. . .] And the people of Israel took captive the women of Midian and their little ones, and they took as plunder all their cattle, their flocks, and all their goods. [. . .] And Moses was angry with the officers of the army, the commanders of thousands and the commanders of hundreds, who had come from service in the war. Moses said to them, “Have you let all the women live? Behold, these, on Balaam’s advice, caused the people of Israel to act treacherously against the Lord in the incident of Peor, and so the plague came among the congregation of the Lord. Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man by lying with him. But all the young girls who have not known man by lying with him keep alive for yourselves.

—Numbers 31:7, 9, 14-18 (ESV)

There isn’t really any getting around these passages. Not that evangelicals necessarily feel the need to! A good portion of the apologetics field is devoted to explaining how these acts are perfectly morally justified because of x reasons.

Again, I want to reiterate: I’m not here to combat those apologetics. But I do find it interesting that many evangelicals, though they’re perfectly happy to explain why these killings and rapes weren’t really wrong, are probably made profoundly uncomfortable by referring to them as a genocide. I’m sure a fair number of my Christian readers felt an initial urge to disagree with the two premises I listed above specifically because of that word.

Why is that?

* * * * *

Christian media really likes to erase certain terrible Biblical things from its consciousness.

It’s right there in that VeggieTales episode, where the complete slaughter of Jericho is turned into a food fight that ends with the losers simply running off into the distance. It’s there in innumerable retellings of Noah’s Ark, which are full of smiling animals and lovely talk of God’s promise with the rainbow and show no pictures of floating corpses. It’s there in the ways Christians love to tell their kids these Bible stories and mine them for examples of positive lessons—look how good God is, look at what can happen if we obey him, etc.—without ever dwelling on the darker side that’s plainly there in the actual Biblical text.

And I think that as Christians, parents should stop and think about the consequences of doing this.

I do not think that these are stories that should be told to children. And I think that when they are told to believers for the first time, it needs to be in a way that respects the full weight and consequence of the Biblical texts themselves. If that doesn’t happen, the cycle of erasure of troubling things from our perception of the Bible repeats itself.

One Bible story that definitely isn’t told to children is that of Jephthah and his daughter in the book of Judges. I’ll quote the relevant portion in full here:

 Then the Spirit of the Lord was upon Jephthah, and he passed through Gilead and Manasseh and passed on to Mizpah of Gilead, and from Mizpah of Gilead he passed on to the Ammonites. And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord and said, “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand,  then whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the Lord‘s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.” So Jephthah crossed over to the Ammonites to fight against them, and the Lord gave them into his hand. And he struck them from Aroer to the neighborhood of Minnith, twenty cities, and as far as Abel-keramim, with a great blow. So the Ammonites were subdued before the people of Israel.

Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah. And behold, his daughter came out to meet him with tambourines and with dances. She was his only child; besides her he had neither son nor daughter. And as soon as he saw her, he tore his clothes and said, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow.” And she said to him, “My father, you have opened your mouth to the Lord; do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth, now that the Lord has avenged you on your enemies, on the Ammonites.” So she said to her father, “Let this thing be done for me: leave me alone two months, that I may go up and down on the mountains and weep for my virginity, I and my companions.” So he said, “Go.” Then he sent her away for two months, and she departed, she and her companions, and wept for her virginity on the mountains. And at the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to his vow that he had made. She had never known a man, and it became a custom in Israel that the daughters of Israel went year by year to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in the year.

—Judges 11:29-40 (ESV)

The first thing that needs to be accepted about this story is that God lets it happen. One could argue that His hands were tied in this situation because Jephthah had already made a binding oath, but that’s a flimsy reading for a number of reasons. First of all, God is conceived of as absolutely sovereign; if He does not wish something to happen, that something cannot happen. Second, God is conceived of as absolutely just; in this situation, it doesn’t take an ethical genius to work out that, if someone must die in this instance, it would be more just for the father to be wiped out for making a flippant oath than his innocent daughter to be wiped out for no wrong of her own. Third, and most obvious, we already know of at least one previous time in which God explicitly prevented the killing of an innocent child despite a divine command: the story of Abraham and the binding of Isaac. If God had truly wished for Jephthah’s daughter to be spared, He would have made it so. He did not. This is not an instance of a hand-wringing God; the burnt offering of the girl is endorsed by Him.

The above, rather laboriously made point is simply a necessary prologue to my real point, which is this: the text does not gloss over the horror of this situation. That’s the key to its power. The story of Jephthah and his daughter is pretty remarkably similar to a Greek tragedy; an inevitable doom awaits one of its key players, and she willingly embraces it knowing that there is no other option. It’s a beautiful story, and it’s beautiful precisely because of its willingness to recognize its own consequences. This nameless girl will never share her bed with a man, a man she may very well have loved when he came into her life. She will never bear children. She will never comfort her father in his old age, or be comforted by her own daughter in turn. She is a candle snuffed out, and she embraces this dying of the light because she knows there is no other choice.

These are the implications, fully present in the text, of a single death ordained by God. Now think back to the Canaanite genocide.

An invading force has been ravaging the surrounding land, killing left and right. The inhabitants of the city are terrified. They have heard that a supernatural force impossible to beat lends this invader strength, and now that supernatural force has commanded that this city’s people are next.

This is their home. It has been since before they can remember. And so, the men go out and fight. They tremble with fear, they shake as they move into battle position, but they have to give their families a chance. They are brave for their wives, for their children, and they all bleed out on the sand, throats torn out, limbs removed, heads severed.

The mothers do their best to crawl into the corners of their homes, to squeeze into shadows with their babies in their arms so that these terrifying strangers will pass over them. It does no good. Infants are torn from blankets and smashed against stones, their blood so inconceivably great a torrent from such small bodies. Little children, wailing, with no comprehension of what has swooped down upon them, are stabbed and strangled and torn to pieces. Young girls, no more than twelve, are led away by men two times their age to strange tents where unspeakable things will happen to them.

The invaders move on to the next city.

I hate to repeat myself again, but I want to emphasize: I am not passing moral judgment here. This is simply, if you believe the story, what would have happened.

This is what happened at Jericho. It’s what happened at dozens of other cities throughout the region. It’s what happened to the Amalekites centuries later when they had committed no crime except to descend from a city that had refused to let the Israelites through generations before. And all this pales in comparison to the watery deluge that sent everyone on earth to a screaming, choking grave, from infants to the oldest of men and women.

This is what God commanded.

And if you choose to look away from these implications—to simply brush past all of the human pain, terror, and anguish that are the direct results of stories whose main theme is usually distilled to a variant on “Trust in God to achieve great victory”—you are robbing the Biblical story of something that’s inextricably a part of it.

Now, the stories as I’ve summarized them in the above paragraphs can’t be told to children, I’m sure many of you are thinking. I agree. They can’t. But I also maintain that to teach children the sanitized versions that evangelicals have all grown up with—the smiling animals, the rousing songs of victory at Jericho, the amusing vegetables launching frozen drinks at each other—is an obscenity.

Whether or not you believe that what happened to the Canaanites was morally justified, there’s no denying that it was a terrible thing. Terrible in its classical sense: Awesome. Fearful. Horrifying to behold. Someone may believe that dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima was necessary; they will probably also readily admit that the scale and horror of the destruction were sobering and unfathomable. They’d have to be a completely emotionless shell not to. They’d also have to be a complete nut to show their child a picture of a smiling atomic bomb as it merrily laid waste to thousands of invisible, unnamed Japanese citizens, or to act as though the explosion was nothing more than a scary noise that caused the residents of Hiroshima to flee to the next town with no harm done.

* * * * *

When the movie Noah was released, one of the chief criticisms directed at it by evangelicals was an objection to what was perceived as a certain sordid quality. People in the film are shown clambering over each other to reach high ground, clinging to rocks in piles to avoid succumbing to the watery depths. Noah himself almost kills an innocent baby. This is immoral, was the cry. There is no excuse for this darkness.

Now, those objectors are in a sense right. These events are lurid and sordid and tragic and horrifying. And they’re the exact kind of thing that would have happened on an immense scale during the stories of the Old Testament, over and over and over again. But because our culture has been fed the sanitized versions of these stories since childhood, a good portion of us are unable to emotionally come to terms with the fact that these terrors are part and parcel of what God commands to his people.

It’s impossible to obtain the Bible’s full beauty without the horrific, the tragic, the awesome, the terrible. God is a fearful combination of love and wrath. “He sends flies to wounds that he should heal,” as Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life puts it; that sentence itself is a microcosm of the Book of Job, probably the most stunning poem ever written. The power of the Bible, the Old Testament especially, is found in its paradoxes. A constant concern for the vulnerable juxtaposed with the divine order of the slaughter of infants. The tenderness of God’s still, small voice paired with with the desolation of the Ten Plagues. The healing power of the prophets alongside a massacre of young men by bears who tear them to pieces. And so on, and so on, and so on.

Whether or not we think these latter events were morally justified, they give us pause. They trouble us. They are the parts of the Bible that are ultimately the most moving, even as they disturb their readers.

Christians need to recognize the power of this paradox. They need to embrace it, and respect it. And part of doing so is realizing when the time is right to expose the next generation to the full weight of that power. Showing them only one side will not do. Infantilizing what the Bible itself is careful to depict as fearful won’t either.

If we’re going to be faithful to the Bible—atheists and believers both—we need to accept it for what it is, and to pass it on as such. And only when those it’s passed on to are ready to accept it in their turn.

Skeletal Rot: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and the Bungling of Structure

beauty_and_the_beast_ver2There’s a separate grammar to movie musicals than there is to stage musicals—at least, there is to the type of movie musical that Disney makes. Classic stage musicals are pervaded with song. Many of them are almost/entirely sung-through—Les Miserables, Sweeney Todd, The Phantom of the Opera, etc.—and even those that aren’t will have musical numbers peppered liberally throughout their runtime. In this type of musical, songs are the default mode of expression—not every song will be as important as every other, simply because there are so many of them present. They’re not events in and of themselves, though some of them will contain events.

The musical format of the Disney Renaissance film, by contrast, weighs its songs carefully. Of the three animated musicals that Alan Menken and Howard Ashman collaborated on prior to Ashman’s death—The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin—none has more than half a dozen songs, reprises included. This scarcity in and of itself would amplify the impact that each song has, but it’s not the only thing that does. Every single song in Menken and Ashman’s animated collaborations is designed to crystallize a specific emotion or theme that’s crucial to its film’s narrative. In Les Miserables, when a character sings it is because music is their default mode of expression; in a Disney Renaissance musical, when a character sings we had better pay attention, because something important is happening.

For brevity’s sake, I’ll confine examples to the 1991 Beauty and the Beast:

  • “Belle”—the opening number. It establishes perfectly not only its titular character’s nature and desires but the circumstances that render her unable (as of yet) to attain her desires and that will later enable Gaston to stir up a mob against the Beast.
  • “Gaston”—what the former track does for its titular character this one does for its own, and then some. Its initial appearance firmly cements our impressions of Gaston and shows us just how enamored of him the town is; its reprise, following shortly thereafter, sets off his transformation from boor to outright villain.
  • “Be Our Guest”—an explosion of color and kinetic motion that transforms the castle from solely foreboding to a place that has the potential to be wondrous and cause happiness.
  • “Something There”—basically the crucial song of the entire movie, as it ultimately has to convince the audience that Belle and the Beast are organically moving from adversaries to friends.
  • “Beauty and the Beast”—is almost equally crucial in that it has to give the final push from friendship to something more.
  • “The Mob Song”—brings the themes of bigotry and, well, mob rule firmly to the fore and completes Gaston’s transformation into a villain.

Sure, it’s pedantic of me to lay out what anyone who’s seen the film already knows, but my point is this: every single emotional and thematic beat that builds to the climax of the 1991 Beauty and the Beast is embedded in a song. It’s possible to remove any number of songs from a sung-through musical and still have its narrative as a whole stay upright. If you remove any single song from Beauty and the Beast, IT CANNOT BE A SUCCESSFUL NARRATIVE.

Why am I hammering so heavily on this point? Because the fact that those half-dozen songs are the emotional and thematic skeleton of Beauty and the Beast means that there’s only a very certain way in which that film can proceed. Events have to unfold in a certain order across a certain timespan in order to match the emotional/thematic journey; if they don’t, the film’s narrative body doesn’t match its skeleton, which is a painful place to be in.

Fortunately for all involved, the narrative totality of the 1991 Beauty and the Beast hangs on its musical skeleton pretty damn near perfectly. It’s compact and it’s balanced, progressing events just enough in between musical beats that we feel we’ve undergone a complete emotional journey without having had our time wasted. However, that’s a really tough tightrope to walk successfully, and any deviations, no matter how slight, risk sending the film tumbling from on high.

So when I heard that the live-action Beauty and the Beast would be using the Menken-Ashman songs, I got nervous. Because there are really only two possible outcomes once you’ve committed to that creative decision. Either you follow basically to the letter the path of the 1991 film—in which case, why are you making a new movie at all? or you start to drift further and further away from your skeleton—which doesn’t feel good and can leave you falling limply all over the ground.

I kept shaking my head the deeper into the movie I got, because the 2017 Beauty and the Beast has absolutely no idea what to do with its story beats. It already has a very narrowly defined path to walk in order to keep the beats that the songs encapsulate maximally effective, but it can’t walk that path because it’s trying to simultaneously ape its source material in order to trigger audience nostalgia AND to be its own thing. And rather than take a look at how important, how fucking crucial, the narrative structure of its source material is, and realize it has to either confine itself solely to that structure or drastically rethink how it’s going to approach this remake, the film makes the worst possible compromise and tries to be “its own thing” by stretching its namesake’s 84 minutes to 129 and trying to shove additional material into that extra space.

Now, even just shoving simple filler in between song-beats would be enough to collapse the movie. Those songs depend on a very precise rhythm in order to be effective, and interrupting that rhythm with longer lengths of time dilutes its power just as much as if you were to take your favorite pop song and insert random blank spaces between every few drumbeats. But what Beauty and the Beast does is even more disruptive than that. Rather than simply injecting blank spaces into a pre-existing drum track, it starts running its own track on the off-beat, to fully complete this strained metaphor. It starts duplicating beats that have already been covered in the original narrative structure, or it starts throwing in new beats without encoding them in songs. And it’s just. Disastrous.

We’ve already seen (well, we’re supposed to have seen—more often than not the remake is shockingly incompetent when it comes to eliciting the same feelings as its source material) everything we need to know about the relationship between Belle and the townspeople in “Belle” the song—that emotional beat has been hit, and it’s time to move on. Instead, the 2017 film inserts an additional scene of her teaching a little girl to read, only to have her laundry upset by angry neighbors. This is immediately followed by another duplicate beat in which Gaston is in general a boor about this matter of uppity women’s book-larnin’, which already occurred immediately following “Belle.” Indeed, Gaston is the source of subsequent redundant beats throughout the film—where the animated movie establishes his slide into scheming villain with the end of the “Gaston” reprise, this one makes the frankly baffling decision to have him delay this moment to follow Maurice into the woods to look for Belle, then again repeat his being a boor about Belle, only this time with Maurice. We then, finally, get the moment of his slide from buffoonery to villainy when he ties Maurice to a tree and leaves him for dead, but wait! Maurice escapes and returns to the village, so his rejection by the townspeople for being crazy can happen again and Gaston’s turn to wickedness can also happen again when he turns his reluctant father-in-law over to the madhouse.

There is so little purpose to these repeated beats that it’s frankly baffling that they made it into the screenplay—until we remember that the film needs something to cut to in the midst of new Belle/Beast material. The problem is, not only can the film not come up with anything better to do to fill this space than to repeat itself over and over, the new Belle/Beast material is equally as disastrous because it can’t inject itself properly into the original narrative skeleton established by the 1991 musical’s songs. The biggest addition to the B/B story is a long scene in which the two of them travel to Paris via enchanted book so they can come to the realization that each has suffered the childhood loss of a mother. This is intended to further strengthen their relationship, but it’s a jarringly false note for a number of reasons.

First is that the enchanted book itself, which appeared nowhere in the animated film, is also nowhere in this film except the one scene in which it’s featured, and it’s so clearly a clumsy bit of handwaving by a screenwriter who couldn’t find an organic way to work the information about Our Couple’s mothers into the script that it’s frankly insulting. More important, however, the emotional payoff of that information is nonexistent. “Belle” the song features no information about the loss of Belle’s mother being an important part of her character; she is defined by her love of learning and adventure and by the opposition to her surroundings that this causes. The film doesn’t alter the song to include her absent mother as something that’s been important to her, and it doesn’t add a new song to cover that information either. Not that the latter would have been all that great either, because then we’d have yet another instance of a redundant beat—we’ve already defined Belle’s character, why are we doing so again?

Indeed, inserting a new song to cover an emotional beat is something that the film does later on, when the Beast has a long and angsty soliloquy after he lets Belle leave the castle. The instinct here on the filmmakers’ part is closer to correct, because they’ve at least recognized that the connection between emotion/theme and music is important. But it still falls flat, because it’s interrupting the carefully established rhythm set by the 1991 movie. As the animated film rushes to its climax, its rhythm increases pace, with the “Mob Song” following close on the heels of “Beauty and the Beast” to ratchet up tension in the viewer. The Beast’s anguish is communicated through a single roar because there’s no time for anything more—not only would his launching into a song be a more overblown way of saying what can be communicated through a wordless scream, it would stop the film’s escalating pace dead in the water. The 2017 film chooses to have the overblown monologue for drama’s sake, and in the process achieves completely the opposite of what it wants to.

The same thing happens in a slighter, non-musical manner at the film’s emotional climax, when the Beast lies dying, the rose loses its last petal, and the castle’s servants transform fully into inanimate objects. There’s a fine balance to be maintained here—if you’re going to show the servants losing themselves, you have to do so quickly before cutting back to the dying Beast in order to maintain urgency. Instead, in a microcosm of the problem that cripples its entire narrative structure, the film chooses to give each of the key servants a dying monologue of sorts as he or she slowly becomes inanimate. It’s an artificial way of increasing “drama” and adding “difference” from the source material that serves to completely undermine the emotion it’s trying to convey. The same kind of microcosm can be found in numerous instances within the modified Menken-Ashman songs, which are subjected to added dance breaks and dramatic tempo changes for no real reason other than creating more spectacle. All these modifications end up doing is, Simmons-like, beating a cowbell out of time in order to disrupt a carefully established sequence of building events.

There are many other things wrong with the 2017 Beauty and the Beast. Its singing is pitch-shifted to hell and back; its aesthetic is a pretty unbearably ugly attempt to combine the gorgeous Gothic animation of the 1991 film with a modern, “realistic” look; it exchanges Howard Ashman’s lyrics for inferior replacements for no discernible reason; its screenplay is on a line-to-line basis a godawful travesty that’s maybe 1% subtext; the way it chooses to kill off Gaston transforms the moment from a death rooted in the character’s nature to a needless deus ex machina. And of course there’s the remarkably and frankly appallingly cynical decision on Disney’s part to take a character who is coded with negative gay stereotypes, claim they’re making him their FIRST OPENLY GAY CHARACTER in order to gather clicks, and then reduce the only instant of his actually being openly gay to a literally blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot in the midst of the film’s conclusion, thus simultaneously rendering that character a case of shitty representation and for all intents and purposes not really representation at all.

But for me the single biggest problem for the film, the one that completely undoes its ability to function as a successful narrative, is its inability to understand successful rhythm. On a moment-to-moment basis, it robs scenes of their dramatic potential and drags songs down to no real purpose; when viewed as a totality, it takes what was a perfectly structured movie musical and turns it to boneless sludge.

Films of 2016, Ranked

All told, I’ve seen 31 of the movies given a non-festival release in 2016, 21 of them in the theatre. It was a wretched year for blockbusters, but full of wonderful indie films. A24 in particular dominated the field, with The Witch, Moonlight, Green Room, and The Lobster all flying under their banner. It is a reflection of the general mood of 2016 that the best of these releases tend to be far more dour than those of 2015; my top ten in particular aren’t exactly a bastion of cheerfulness. Capsule reviews for each film are below.

The Great


THE WITCH – An overwhelming air of perversion pervades a movie that’s simultaneously one of the most unnerving horror films ever made, an incredibly well-researched period piece, and a scathing indictment of the truly evil Puritan God as well as his occult counterparts. I woke up screaming the night after I first saw it, and its unholy power hasn’t faded much with time. It feels deeply, viscerally *wrong* in the act of watching, an experience I’ve never quite had with any other representative of its genre. (★★★★½)

JACKIE – String ostinatos yawn steadily downward in the sonic equivalent of Dali’s clocks, ushering in a bottomless nightmare. The feverish vertigo of loss, the panic-stricken numbness of grief and displacement, swirl around and around with no sign of dissipation. Portman’s performance and Mica Levi’s hellish score are the twin pillars that hold this moldering dream upright, and neither a framing device too many nor a bum line here and there can even think of weakening that support. The ending shows superficial signs of resolution, but the audience knows the deeper truth. There’s no escape from this, and there never will be. (★★★★½)

MOONLIGHT – An indigo-tinged odyssey of pain, identity, and the possibility of healing set to hypnotic strings, Barry Jenkins’ sophomore film is a titanic achievement for both black and LGBT cinema and a highlight of A24’s already towering filmography. Every single performer in it deserves a nomination, and Jenkins is the natural frontrunner for Best Director—this had better be the year that #OscarsSoWhite is broken. (★★★★½)

13TH – Absolutely required viewing. A more accessible version of Michelle Alexander’s monumental book THE NEW JIM CROW, this documentary calmly and devastatingly deconstructs the war on drugs and exposes the United States penal system for what it really is: a new form of slavery and disenfranchisement for the black population. (★★★★★)

LEMONADE – If the universe were just, this thing would be in the running for about half a dozen different Oscars. The best album of the year by a country mile is equaled by a film that’s at once a hell of a lot of fun and a stunning meditation on grief in the black community. Never knew I’d be counting an extended Beyonce music video as one of the greatest movies of the decade, but here we are. (★★★★½)

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA – I spent the first twenty minutes of my viewing wondering what the fuss was about and the next two hours absolutely riveted. A raw, aching portrait of the spiral of grief that’s made all the more wrenching by the contrast its frequent moments of humor provide. Casey Affleck is a rightful lock for Best Actor at this year’s Oscars—his performance is at once subdued and titanic in its effect. (★★★★½)

KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS – A fount of constant visual imagination and emotional power. My issues with its mostly whitewashed voice cast aside, there’s no arguing with either the spectacle and beauty of Laika’s stop-motion or the poignancy that pervades the movie’s thematic and human core. (★★★★½)

GREEN ROOM – Almost like a snuff film in its incredibly disquieting sense of realism—nothing in this film is predictable, and yet things play out exactly the way we know they would in real life. Probably *the* exploitation thriller for our times, what with its exploration of the banality of evil and the seething mass of ugliness that lies beneath neo-fascism’s veneer of respectability. (★★★★½)

10 CLOVERFIELD LANE – What begins as a Twilight Zone-esque look at the irony of a doomsday prepper who could in fact be right in his paranoia ultimately transforms into a remarkable parable of escaping abuse and empowering oneself to fight monsters. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is Ripley and MacGyver in one. Give John Goodman a statue. (★★★★½)

The Very Good


THE LOBSTER – A near-perfect and shockingly cruel first half gives way to an overlong and thematically muddled second half that’s redeemed by Lea Seydoux’s imperious presence—as a satire on relationships in the internet age it’s sharp, mean-spirited, and hysterical, but when it turns to skewering loners as if to grant both sides equal time, its target becomes ill-defined and its goals unclear. Nonetheless, its twisted humor, nerve-rattling score, and anxious performances gel to form the closest we’re likely to come to Wes Anderson on a Schopenhauer kick. (★★★★)

FENCES – It’s essentially a film-of-the-play rather than a piece of cinema in its own right, and it stretches things out a good twenty minutes longer than it should. But hoo boy, the performances. Washington and Davis deliver absolutely titanic renditions of their Tony-award winning characters, spouting August Wilson’s dialogue in a rapid-fire vernacular poetry that’s dense and exhilarating. The longer the film runs, the more both characters simultaneously stretch to larger-than-life proportions and collapse in on themselves. (★★★★)

LA LA LAND – Damien Chazelle, you crazy bastard, you somehow got a studio to hand you $30 million to make this. (It’s not the life-changing musical of our time everyone says it is—Chazelle is misguided in his villainization of new art forms over the old, and there are startlingly few songs, of which only “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” is truly memorable. But good God is it pretty. Especially the ending, which is just *unreal*.) (★★★★)

ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY – In an inversion of THE LOBSTER, two relatively lackluster if moderately enjoyable acts give way to one of the greatest sequences of sustained action in recent memory, replete with some of the most beautiful digital imagery ever to hit the big screen. Riz Ahmed is the best of us. CG Tarkin is and will always be an aesthetic and ethical abomination of the highest order. (★★★★)

ARRIVAL – Ted Chiang is one of the masters of his field, but I was worried that a big-screen adaptation of a short story that features linguistics as a key element would be impossible to render cinematic. I needn’t have worried. Amy Adams continues to turn in excellent, understated work, while the cinematography, sound design, and score are at once chilly and intimate. Would that this were the baseline for popcorn SF movies. (★★★★½)

THE REVENANT – There is no way in hell Alejandro Inarritu should have gotten a second Best Director Oscar for this over George Miller and MAD MAX. No way. I am still bitter. (It’s quite good, though, up until the non sequitur of an ending, even if its director is disturbingly fixated on brutalizing his characters at the expense of all else. Certainly the handsomest movie on this list, thanks to Lubezki salvaging Inarritu’s movie from his more ignoble impulses.) (★★★★)

VOYAGE OF TIME: THE IMAX EXPERIENCE – Maybe Terrence has decided to stop embarrassing his fans and make good movies again. This cut, at forty minutes compared to the 90-minute 35mm cut that will eventually be released, inevitably feels truncated, but is a welcome return to the well of nature-as-divinity that produced such breathtaking results in THE NEW WORLD and THE TREE OF LIFE. (★★★★)

The Good


DON’T BREATHE – The screenplay is clumsy, there’s no greater thematic depth to be had, and there are couple of (fortunately brief) moments where the film crosses the line from enjoyably creepy to repugnantly exploitative. But the cumulative effect of these things can’t outweigh the sheer *fun* to be had as Fede Alvarez gleefully explores the premise of a home invasion whose perpetrators quickly realize they’re in over their heads. (★★★★)

HAIL, CAESAR! – Second-tier Coen Brothers, to be sure, but as a love letter to Old Hollywood it’s a delight, Roger Deakins’ gorgeous cinematography and Carter Burwell’s gloriously pompous score anchoring a whirlwind of famous faces doing their best to out-ham each other (first place goes to Ralph Fiennes as a put-upon director of manners who’s forced to work with a cowboy song-and-dance man). (★★★½)

THE INVITATION – If one holds to the Hitchcockian tenet that suspense is not the bang but the anticipation of the bang, this film is somewhat of a masterclass. (★★★½)

LAST DAYS IN THE DESERT – This one wants to be profound but winds up merely intriguing. No more white Jesuses, please, but Ewan MacGregor does a great job in his dual role as the Savior and his tempter. Stop comparing this to Malick just because Lubezki’s the DP. (★★★½)

THE NEON DEMON – Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, but what entrancing sound and fury. Worth picking up on Blu-Ray just for the pretty colors, ice-cold synth score, and pederast Keanu Reeves. (★★★)

ZOOTOPIA – Predictable and somewhat stale, but this gets *huge* points for a surprisingly (for a billion-dollar kids’ flick, anyway) well-executed exploration of culturally-ingrained racism and white privilege, even if the metaphor of predators and prey falls apart once looked at too closely. (★★★½)

PATTON OSWALT: TALKING FOR CLAPPING – The hilarity is dampened somewhat by the viewer’s knowledge that Michelle McNamara died on the day of its release, but Oswalt’s melange of pop culture riffs and relationship stories remains a welcome break from the outside world for an hour. (★★★★)

STAR TREK BEYOND – Diverting fun, with all the attendant strengths and weaknesses that brings—a welcome return to form after the cynical nadir that was INTO DARKNESS, even if it doesn’t hit the heights of Abrams’ original reboot. Definite plusses include McCoy’s finally being reinstated to the main-character status he held in the Original Series and the introduction of Jayleh to the crew. RIP, Anton. (★★★)

The Mixed


AUDRIE & DAISY – This doc’s narrow focus is to its detriment—its subject, the sexual assault of the titular girls, is horrifying, but it doesn’t build enough of a case for such events’ everyday occurrence for the sheer scale of the problem to truly hit home. (★★★)

KNIGHT OF CUPS – Malick’s latest narrative movies are everything that people wrongly complain THE TREE OF LIFE is—absent of characters and emotion, full of buzzword-laden narration that tries to generate meaning out of endless banalities, concerned almost entirely with author rather than audience. I would say at least watch it for Imogen Poots, but we have GREEN ROOM for that. (★★½)

SECRETS OF STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS – As a peek into the pre-production of the biggest cinematic event of our generation, it’s interesting enough. As a documentary on how the film was actually made, it’s an abject failure. (★★★)

The Godawful


DEADPOOL – About 30% of the jokes are funny, but these land amidst a morass of middle-school level humor that’s even more teeth-gritting due to how “edgy” it thinks it is. What’s most annoying is the way it follows the Marvel formula to the letter while trying to distract the viewer from this by mocking itself; rather than actually trying to be genuinely subversive or innovative, it relies on misdirection to convince you that it is those things. (★★)

BLAIR WITCH – One of those sequels that not only spectacularly ignores all that was effective about its predecessor but actually manages to damage the original with its incredibly stupid storytelling choices. Useful as a means of illustrating by contrast just how ingenious THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT truly is. (★½)

RISEN – I don’t know what I expected, really. The one emotion I felt other than overwhelming annoyance at the level of condescension being thrown my way was a fair bit of sympathy for Tom Felton, who’s been reduced from one of the highest-grossing film series of all time to this. (★)

FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM – At once overstuffed and empty, full to bursting with plotlines but never endeavoring to *mean* anything substantial. Even Katherine Waterston and Colin Farrell can’t rescue what’s at once the ugliest and the worst-structured movie of the year, a drab, dim slog that’s near-completely void of humanity and succeeds in sucking almost all the emotional and visual magic out of a film universe that was already a mere shadow of its source material. And we have four more of these to look forward to? (★)

BEST PICTURE: Robert Eggers and A24, The Witch

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE: Travis Knight and Laika, Kubo and the Two Strings

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE: Ava Duvernay and Netflix, 13th

BEST DIRECTOR: Barry Jenkins, Moonlight

BEST ACTOR: Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea

BEST ACTRESS: Natalie Portman, Jackie/Viola Davis, Fences

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: John Goodman, 10 Cloverfield Lane

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Naomie Harris, Moonlight

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea


BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY: James Laxton, Moonlight/Linus Sandgren, La La Land

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE: Mark Korven, The Witch/Mica Levi, Jackie

BEST ORIGINAL SONG: Beyonce, “All Night”, Lemonade

BEST EDITING: Stefan Grube, 10 Cloverfield Lane

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS: Industrial Light and Magic, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

BEST SOUND DESIGN/MIXING/EDITING: Sylvain Bellemare and Pierre-Jules Audet, Arrival


BEST MAKEUP/HAIRSTYLING/COSTUMING: Erin Benach, Erin Ayanian, and Shandra Page-Edwars, The Neon Demon

Obituary for 2016

We didn’t beat 2016. There will be no victory marches, no celebratory gatherings, no cheering in the streets. Or rather, there will be all these things—the New Year will be celebrated, appropriateness be damned—but they will be hollow, and we will know that they are even as we pantomime them and wait for the ball to drop and for this year to just end.

You would think we’d have learned by now. If nothing else, this year has been a spectacular lesson in allowing our smug assurances to blow up in our faces. We knew there was no way enough British citizens could be taken in by thinly veiled white nationalist bluster to leave the EU, and then they did. We got our Clinton victory parties ready, secure in the knowledge that surely an admitted sexual assaultant could never win the White House, and then he did. We tweeted photos of Princess Leia strangling Jabba the Hutt, confident that Carrie Fisher would never let something as trivial as a heart attack at age sixty take her down, and then she did.

The internet has done its best to trivialize the idea that there’s been something worse about 2016 than other years within our lifetimes—churned out memes, created hashtags, and rendered the phrase “God damn it, 2016,” a near-reflexive response to negative occurrences. But the year won’t be transformed into something banal despite our best efforts to normalize it. There is a tangible weight that humanity has carried on its shoulders for the last twelve months, and whether it’s unique to this year or 2016 simply happened to be the breaking point for the majority of us as we realized where exactly humanity currently stands is ultimately academic. It is there, and it is heavy.

It’s the weight of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling’s corpses as they’re slowly lowered into the ground, leaving their loved ones and their communities doubled over with an anger that’s slowly eating them apart; the weight of even a silent protest at a football game being too much a disruption of the white world to be tolerated by those who pride themselves on never seeing color.

It’s the weight of every single brick that’s been displaced from its fellows in Aleppo, every single mother who has no child left to bury and every single child who has no parent to bury them once they run out of places to hide. It’s the weight of reading last messages thrust into the void by people who are utterly powerless, who know their last screams to a world that could stop this will very likely accomplish nothing.

It’s the weight of staring numbly at our television screens and our cell phones as we watch neo-fascists and white nationalists across the globe thrust themselves into positions of power; the weight of witnessing the concept of satire die before our eyes as with each tweet, each appointment, each new unutterable thing uttered, these bigots and tinpot dictators render themselves immune to parody and yet go on grabbing power.

It’s the weight of each trans man and woman being told they are a danger to society and can’t be trusted to do so much as use a public restroom without preying on children.

It’s the weight of all the melted ice that’s slowly washing over our coasts, of the frozen water drenching protesters who ask that if we’re going to continue killing the planet, can we at least avoid desecrating yet more native graves to do so?

It’s the weight of watching our heroes slowly being taken away from us. David Bowie, Prince, Gene Wilder, Alan Rickman, Carrie Fisher, Leonard Cohen, Richard Adams, Kenny Baker, George Martin, Anton Yelchin, and on and on and on. With each last breath taken, another chip is dashed from this multilith we call “culture”. We have stopped being able to see the world in the new ways these people would have seen it; we have lost poets, and titans, and artists, and with each of them humanity has lost a means of expressing itself. Leonard Cohen will never write a song that cuts Donald Trump down to size. We will never see Alan Rickman give us a new way to interpret a character from Shakespeare. Anton Yelchin will never shoot his directorial debut. Untold numbers of screenplays will never be shaped and molded by the same mind who rewrote her own lines for The Empire Strikes Back.

Perhaps most of all, it’s the weight of watching the concept of truth slowly disintegrate. It’s the weight of knowing that expert consensus is only worth something to those who would have agreed with that consensus beforehand. Facts are only facts if they align with the narrative that makes us the most comfortable. A public figure can say one thing and his followers will swallow it; he can deny it fifteen minutes later and they’ll swallow that too. There is no such thing as facts anymore, someone said toward the end of this cesspool of a year; and while this was decried, those of us who decried it did so knowing that our protests would be futile.

There have been some brief moments of respite. Good art was made. Bob Dylan took home a Nobel Prize. The murderer of Philando Castile was actually indicted, the first time such a thing has happened in Minnesota in over three decades. The DAPL was delayed, for now. But as Jenny Lewis wrote, the lows are so extreme that the good seems fucking cheap. When we look back on 2016, we won’t think of the times we came up for air. We’ll think of all the time we spent underwater, our lungs like stones as they filled with rancid fluid.

If there’s one thing we must take away from this year—this flaming conglomerate of rubble and refuse, this shit-stained rictus grin, this idiot god of destruction—it’s that passivity is not an option. The universe does not bend toward justice. There is no cosmic balance striving to restore order, no transcendent being who’s going to work things out according exactly to their plan. There is no one and nothing that gives a single damn about this moisture-flecked hunk of rock except its inhabitants. We had best start acting like it.

Because, while 2016 has been uniquely awful, it is not some sort of anomaly. It’s a harbinger, not the main event. We cannot afford to let ourselves relax once December 31st fades away. We can no longer indulge in the luxury that is passivity.

Love everyone around you. Actively love them. Hold your friends close to you, and spend more time with them than you can afford. There’s no guarantee that they’ll make it through the next year any more than there is that you will.

Fight for causes you believe in. Advocate, put time in, spend what you can spare, whether you’re battling for good art or social justice or the existence of truth in the face of meaninglessness.

Never tell yourself that someone else can solve this problem, or create this work of art, or help these people, or speak this truth to power. Because, as 2016 has taught us, “someone else”—that vague formulation, that abstract notion of others that never once latches onto actual individuals—can’t and won’t. It’s up to us. Those of us who are privileged with the ability to be complacent have the power to make or break the world through our decision whether or not to exercise that privilege.

2016 will soon be dead. We will not have killed it. It will destroy itself in one final blaze of ignobility, smothering us in the detritus. We are Ozymandias, and we have looked upon our works and despaired. But low and level sands, if they have left us half-sunk, do not yet stretch far away. And if we choose not to wallow in our despair—if we choose to take action—we may yet stave off the incursion of that infinite, silent desert.

And so, good-bye, 2016, you festering mass of putrescence, you blistered carcass, you sadistic, inbred court jester. You have conquered, and your avatars have been given power to roam the earth for a time. And there’s no guarantee that this will not remain the state of affairs. But it’s my dearest hope that in bringing humanity this low, all you’ve ultimately done is somehow taught us how to keep our feet once we’ve regained them.

The Crude Human Animal: H. P. Lovecraft and “The Descent”

thedescentvertThere are many films that can be considered Lovecraftian horror on a surface level—John Carpenter’s The Thing, what with its preponderance of tentacled limbs and its Antarctic setting, probably chief among them—but if I had to pick which movie best represents Lovecraft’s thematic concerns, artistic trappings, and general aura, it wouldn’t be one of these pseudopod-wriggling entities (admirable as I find many of them). Rather, my choice is a film that, at a superficial glance, doesn’t seem to have much to do with the aesthetic sensibilities of the Cthulhu mythos at all.

Neil Marshall’s The Descent is first and foremost about grief. Much like The Babadook, an equally excellent film that explores similar subject matter from quite a different angle, its central horror operates on multiple levels, both as an imminent physical threat and as a representation of the psychological trauma that the protagonist, Sarah, has endured and continues to endure. However, the movie’s underlying themes don’t stop with this metaphor. If they did, it would nonetheless be a fine horror film, but the reason The Descent truly resonates is because of its fascination with territory that lies deep within Lovecraft’s purview. It’s about grief, but it’s also about terrors far more abstract and communal than individual trauma—the violation of de-evolution and the perverse infinity of the universe that surrounds us.

Darwin’s monsters

It’s well known that Lovecraft was a particularly vicious racist even for his own time. His distaste for races he perceived as subhuman went beyond cruel humor (though this was often employed, as in his deplorable just-so story “On the Creation of Niggers”) and entered into a sort of paranoid loathing that remains skin-crawling to read. I’ll directly quote only one example, from a letter Lovecraft sent to Frank Belknap Long (I am indebted to Phenderson Djeli Clark’s piece “The ‘N’ Word Through the Ages: The ‘Madness’ of H. P. Lovecraft” for pointing me toward this passage):

How in Heaven’s name sensitive and self-respecting white men can continue to live in the stew of Asiatic filth which the region has become—with marks and reminders of the locust-plague on every hand—is absolutely beyond me. […] There is here a grave and mighty problem beside which the negro problem is a jest—for in this case we have to deal not with childlike half-gorillas, but with yellow, soulless enemies whose repulsive carcasses house dangerous mental machines warped culturelessly in the single direction of material gain at any cost. I hope the end will be warfare.

Throughout his body of fictional work, he continually utilizes such adjectives as “negroid” and “mongoloid” to describe races he views as subhuman brutes, fixating on their “hulking” shapes, their “ape-like” appearance, etc. etc.

I’ll spare the reader any further belaboring of this point, but it’s an important one to make because of how deeply this xenophobia is ingrained in Lovecraft’s mythos. It’s completely impossible to separate his short stories from his loathing for this idea of the subhuman, the alien, the Other whose presence violates and degrades the purity of the white race. And one concern that surfaces again and again in his writings is the idea of de-evolution—the idea that even “pure” white men are not immune to corruption by outside influences.

The most famous instance of this fear surfacing in Lovecraft’s work comes in “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family”. The deplorable tale of a man who digs too far into his family’s past, it concludes with the bizarre revelation that the titular Jermyn’s mother was not, in fact, a human but a species of massive white ape. Jermyn, upon the realization that he, his siblings and his children are all only subhuman, immolates himself. The story concludes:

The reason why Arthur Jermyn’s charred fragments were not collected and buried lies in what was found afterward, principally the thing in the box. The stuffed goddess was a nauseous sight, withered and eaten away, but it was clearly a mummified white ape of some unknown species, less hairy than any recorded variety, and infinitely nearer mankind—quite shockingly so. Detailed description would be rather unpleasant, but two salient particulars must be told, for they fit in revoltingly with certain notes of Sir Wade Jermyn’s African expeditions and with the Congolese legends of the white god and the ape-princess. The two particulars in question are these: the arms on the golden locket about the creature’s neck were the Jermyn arms, and the jocose suggestion of M. Verhaeren about a certain resemblance as connected with the shrivelled face applied with vivid, ghastly, and unnatural horror to none other than the sensitive Arthur Jermyn, great-great-great-grandson of Sir Wade Jermyn and an unknown wife. Members of the Royal Anthropological Institute burned the thing and threw the locket into a well, and some of them do not admit that Arthur Jermyn ever existed.

Campy and absurd, to be sure, but there is a part of one’s mind that recoils at the thought. The idea that humanity shares a common ancestor with the great apes was a hard enough one to be accepted (and indeed still is in certain quarters)—the fearful implication that we could perhaps revert back to an animal state, dragged back into the wilderness and losing what we once were, itches at the back of our brains once it’s been planted. Of course, it couldn’t happen in any of the ways Lovecraft was terrified of—it’s impossible for humans to mate with apes, and the idea that interracial partnerships could somehow mongrelize their progeny is a piece of bigotry not worth entertaining for moral as well as scientific reasons. And yet…

It’s that “And yet” that The Descent makes so terrifyingly real in its portrayal of the crawlers that prey upon our unfortunate spelunkers. The crawlers would be terrifying enough were they purely animalistic, but the revelation that they’re actually a strain of humanity gone sour generates an existential horror that seems to be felt in one’s bones. The idea that, were we to be sunk down in the dark long enough, we too could lose our vision and with it our sense of self is both seemingly impossible and just plausible enough to fester.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the film’s portrayal of de-evolution is that it manages to stay completely true to Lovecraft’s fears while completely rejecting the bigoted mindset that lies beneath them. The crawlers are not the result of interbreeding between species—humans did not enter the cave and produce a strain of bastard children with non-sentient Gollums. They began their existence completely human, and despite this “purity” found their skin growing sallow, their pupils hardening to marble, their minds turning solely to an insatiable hunger. All it took was a few thousand years of isolation and good old natural selection to do the trick. This approach is both more plausible than Lovecraft’s and more horrifying—not only has such adaptation to the dark been observed in other animals, we know that there is no scapegoat upon whom “pure” white humans could blame this violation were it to happen to them. They had the potential within them all along.

The Descent plays up this truth through the gradual degradation of its characters, protagonist Sarah most especially. As soon as she plunges into the literal pool of blood that sits at the center of the crawlers’ feeding place, she is reduced to the single base instinct of self-preservation. Her violence against the attacking creatures becomes more and more brutal, her eyes more and more deranged, her pale skin bathed in crusting blood. By the time she cripples Juno and leaves her to die, she has ceased to speak entirely, the only sounds she makes enraged roars and screams. In the final scene of the uncut film, as she rises from unconsciousness only to find herself still trapped deep beneath the earth, she unconsciously adopts the physicality of the creatures that have hunted her, slithering forward on all fours. Grief for her dead family began this downward spiral, and it has taken only a matter of hours in the dark to complete it.

The alternate ending of the film’s U. S. cut offers a glimmer of hope—Sarah escapes the cave, sanity worse for wear but still recognizably human—but the true ending offers no such reassurance. The cave has consumed her, body and soul, and though she doesn’t resemble the crawlers in all particulars the likeness is far too close for comfort.

Black seas of infinity

If there’s one theme more prevalent in Lovecraft’s work than that of corrupted humanity, it’s the utter indifference of a universe whose vastness would cripple our minds were we to recognize the truth of it. The opening paragraph of “The Call of Cthulhu” remains the best microcosm of this attitude:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

This tale and others like it are so integral to the genre of cosmic horror that I won’t discuss their philosophical underpinnings further. Suffice to say that for Lovecraft, reality is indifferent at absolute best and at worst actively malicious toward the unfortunates who find themselves trapped in its workings. Depth both physical and temporal is an obsession for him and his characters; the universe is unfathomably larger and unfathomably older than we could ever hope to comprehend.

It’s perhaps paradoxical to assert that The Descent is an ideal embodiment of this fear of depth. After all, one of the inherent terrors of a cave is claustrophobia—indeed, the movie exploits this characteristic to its fullest, wedging its characters through a passage just barely big enough to progress through only for it to collapse. But just after this terrifying usage of suffocating closeness, Marshall reverses the film’s spatial dynamics, forcing his characters to string themselves from one ledge to another with a gaping chasm in between. The muted lighting of the spelunkers’ crimson flares is swallowed by the ebony void of the cavern around them, and the viewer realizes that when the only light you have extends but a few feet in front of your face, everything around you is a yawning pit.

For the rest of the film, this limited visibility is used both to hide the limitations of the cave sets that Marshall shoots and to keep both the viewer and the characters consistently off-balance. Anything the light fails to touch could be a hole waiting for a flailing body to plunge through, a shadow concealing a crawler with its teeth bared. Being hurled from claustrophobia to agoraphobia on a shot-to-shot basis not only renders things terrifyingly unpredictable, it emphasizes the limitations of human perceptions. The cave, unknown and unmapped, does not muffle the characters’ senses so much as swallow them whole.

Along with this inherent confounding of perceptions, the cave carries an intrinsic sense of deep time. The eons required for water to tear its way through rock, miles and miles beneath the earth, may not be at the forefront of the viewer’s conscious thoughts, but unconsciously it’s understood that these tunnels have existed for lifetime upon lifetime. Add to this the length of time required for natural selection to twist Homo sapiens into the blind shrieking demons of the film, and the implicit sense of time reaching out and smothering the film’s characters is palpable.

To these subconscious symbols, Marshall adds two explicit pieces. The younger of the two is the century-old caving equipment that the characters encounter while making their way across the first chasm. More disturbing is the painting that seems to indicate a way out of the cave system, obviously thousands upon thousands of years old. Our spelunkers see this a cause for hope, but once the crawlers make their entrance we can only assume one of two things.

Either the society that spawned this painting abandoned their home, at which point the crawlers took up residence; or, more likely, this second entrance collapsed on itself just as the first one did, and the painters, trapped and helpless, themselves became the feral creatures. Regardless, this cave has been claiming lives for perhaps nearly as long as the human race has existed. As it was, so it will be.

The descent of man

Popular culture chiefly associates H. P. Lovecraft with tentacles and protoplasm, unpronounceable names and ice-cold climates. The Descent bears none of these superficial trappings of the Lovecraftian, but in its central thematic concerns it is as true to his vision as anything that has found its way to the silver screen. And where Lovecraft left an enormous black mark upon his body of work with his repulsive, festering racism, Marshall’s film places his fear of de-evolution in an entirely new and ultimately more frightening context, ridding it of that stain. In this and in its terrifying grip on the nature of infinity, The Descent remains the high-water mark for Lovecraftian film, taking the most resonant aspects of his work and making them new.

It’s far from the only successful work of cosmic horror to be put to film. But for my money, its ebon depth has yet to be bettered.