California Food Odyssey

Strohltopia will always be cinema-centric, but I’m going to try to incorporate occasional food writing, including this report on my recent trip to California.

By an incredible stroke of good fortune, the Pacific meeting of the American Society for Aesthetics happened to fall immediately before my spring break this year. I thought about the prospect for two seconds and spoke the words aloud: California food odyssey!

As far as I’m concerned, LA is by far the best place in the USA to eat food. It’s not even close. Sure, there are some particular categories that are superior in other places: NYC for pizza and bagels, NJ for Indian food, Seattle for oysters, Texas for BBQ. But no place has anywhere near the breadth and depth of amazingness that LA does.

The plan was to drive along with my wife Angela to Berkeley for the conference, hang out an extra day or two in San Francisco, drive down the coast, and then spend a few days doing some world class eating in LA, punctuated by a quick trip down to San Diego to visit the Riggles.

We had to narrow down our food agenda. LA is just too overwhelming, and I knew that rubber necking would be a bad strategy. We decided to totally cut Mexican food out of the picture. We spent two weeks in Oaxaca last year eating everything in sight and I spent another 5 days in San Diego, during which time I ate like 40 tacos. That itch has been scratched. We decided to focus on two other categories that are particularly well represented in LA: Chinese and Korean. I ate a ton of Chinese food in Flushing last fall and I’m headed to Vancouver/Richmond BC soon, and so I will have visited the three best places to eat Chinese food in North America within one year. We decided we would also fit in one or two Thai meals and a single Persian lunch, and I figured that since it’s Angela’s first visit to California I absolutely had to get her to In-N-Out Burger and Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles. She was appropriately impressed by both.

Here’s a trip report with up-to-date California food recommendations, followed by a brief excursus on my methodology for culinary tourism.

Berkeley

We ate well in Berkeley! Better than I expected, honestly.

Top recommendations:

Royal Egyptian Cuisine

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This is by far my top recommendation for the Bay area. I have to thank my friend Autumn for sending us to this place.  It’s a food truck that sets up by a sketchy little park on Folger Ave. You have to check twitter in the morning to see if he’s going to be there or not: https://twitter.com/EgyptianCuisine?ref_src=twsrc%5Egoogle%7Ctwcamp%5Eserp%7Ctwgr%5Eauthor

If you catch him, the trick is to show up and just say “I’m hungry, Chef Elmy, please feed me,” and then specify any dietary restrictions. I went with Angela and Anthony Cross and it was the best damn food truck omakase we’ve ever had. Elmy himself is hilarious and utterly charming, and the food he served us was a uniformly delicious mix of traditional and bizarre. He served fried polenta seasoned like a samosa. There was a rice and grain pilaf with fucking Roquefort on it. He gave each of us a gyro with fresh flatbread. There were freshly made dolmas and fried peppers and falafel. It was a feast, and it was obscenely cheap. He basically said that he likes to undercharge so that you know that he’s cooking for you out of love rather than a desire for profit. Elmy is a being of pure culinary light. Bask in it. And tip well.

Fournée Bakery

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This was way the hell out of the way but I’m glad I tried it. I had a couple croissant variations and a canelé. The canelé was just okay but the croissants were some of the best I’ve ever had. I started eating the fruit croissant above and then realized I’d better document it. Look at that fucking lamination! This place had a long, annoying line on Saturday morning and it’s in a very inconvenient location but they seemed to have tons of extra trays of each item, so at least you don’t have to race there first thing in the morning lest they sell out. I took two Ubers to get these croissants and I’d do it again without hesitation

Others:

Udupi Palace

This is a fantastic little south Indian place close to campus. I will try to have lunch here every time I come to Berkeley from now on.

Chengdu Style

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This is an absolutely perfect place to take a big group after a conference.  Big tables in a big room with a delightful cafeteria feel. The menu is super legit and we ordered a feast. It was all really good and very inexpensive. Highlights: husband and wife cold beef slices, toothpick lamb, stir fried cabbage, and a gruesome crimson bowl of various innards and cubes of duck blood bobbing in molten chili oil that Thi ate like half of himself before I realized what he was up to and commandeered the remains.

Pyeong Chang Tofu

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Super legit Korean soft tofu joint. I believe it’s an outpost of a popular spot in Oakland. Very spicy broth, beautiful tofu texture, good banchan. Not too expensive. Highly recommended.

Tacos Sinaloa

Mediocre taco joint near campus. The al pastor was alright but definitely not worth wasting a meal on this place.

Chaat Café

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Fish pakoras were a hit and the chaat was solid. Close to campus, recommended.

KoJa Kitchen

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I wound up here with the motley crew of Angela, Susan Feagin, Corey Reed and John Dyck after Saturday’s talks. We chose this place because Angela was super hungry and we needed something fast. KoJa stands for “Korean-Japanese” which would have ordinarily deterred me, given my distrust of all things fusion, but I’m glad I bracketed my skepticism because this shit is delicious. The main event is what they call a KoJA: a sandwich where the “buns” are lightly deep fried garlic rice cakes and the filling is Korean BBQ. Holy shit, these Berkeley undergrads are lucky. If I had access to this place late at night in my undergrad days I would have massacred some KoJa. We also had Kamikaze waffle fries topped with bbq beef, kimchi, hot sauce, and Japanese mayo. Very craveable food.

Royal Rangoon

I had in mind to go to Burma Superstar, but a friend of a friend suggested this place as a less-hipster and lower key Burmese alternative run by former affiliates of Burma Superstar. There were some good starters but the curries were boring and the noodles were bad. Seemed like the food could have benefited from some hipsterization? In any case, not recommended.

Rainbow Donuts

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This place is far from campus but near where we stayed and it’s hella good, though not worth a big expedition if it’s out of the way.

San Francisco

San Francisco sucks now! Wow, does it suck. I remember when there was a legitimate conversation to be had about whether SF or LA is better (I certainly always thought LA), but that conversation is over. San Francisco is tech douchebag purgatory. Everything is outrageously expensive and everyone sucks. Anecdotally, we shared an Uber with some Trader Joe’s shopper who refused to put her groceries in the back because “it’s dirty back there.” The driver, Muhammad, protested, “but the food is completely contained within a grocery bag!” She insisted on bringing three full bags of groceries into the front seat with her, “it’s food, and I don’t want it to get dirty, does that make sense?” Much to my pleasure, Muhammad held onto the truth despite the imminent threat of a bad review: “To me, this does NOT make sense.” No, it certainly doesn’t. We did have some good dim sum, though.

Top Recommendation:

Yank Sing

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Famous dim sum place in a central location, on the expensive side but super amazing. I think it’s justifiable to pay a little extra to eat here if you’re in this part of town rather than schlepping out to a cheaper dim sum place in the environs. I went with Angela and John Dyck and we frickin’ loved it. The highlight for me was the seafood and basil dumpling. Angela went nuts over the honey walnut shrimp and the baked pork bao.

Other:

State Bird Provisions

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This was the splurgiest meal we went for. I was intrigued by the concept: dim sum style service, dim sum inspired dishes, but localvore seasonal farm-to-table Michelin star kinda shit. Alas, I can’t say I’m too surprised to report that it was a bit underwhelming. It wasn’t crazy expensive but you could eat at Yank Sing two or three times for the price of eating here once, and Yank Sing is way better. This is a fun place to eat with friends, though, (in my case, Angela, Samantha Matherne, and Thi) and it’s entertaining to see surprising things roll out of the kitchen and conduct quick negotiations about what to order. I thought the food was generally weak when it tried to imitate dim sum (e.g., the dumpling skins were too thick and a bit under-cooked) and much better when it went off into left field. In retrospect, the most memorable dish was definitely a cube of pork belly that was crispy on the outside and silky on the inside, served with fish sauce vinaigrette and fresh fruit.

Golden Gate Bakery

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Famous egg tarts. The pastry is incredible, the filling is unremarkable. The other pastries they sell are at least as good so don’t stop at the tarts. Overall, I wasn’t as thrilled by this place as I was by the New Flushing Bakery in NY.

Barnzu Korean

We had dinner with an old friend of mine here (the one and only Gary Tsifrin). The sweet and spicy Korean fried chicken was great (skip the garlic soy variant) but this place was just okay overall. It’s the sort of newfangled hipster Korean restaurant where they don’t give you banchan by default. In addition to the chicken, we had a big braised pork hock, which was good but nothing special, a nice seafood pancake, and some very disappointing salty Brussels sprouts.

LA part 1: Koreatown and West LA

We started the Southern California portion of the trip with a brief stay in Koreatown, then hopped down to San Diego for one night, and then spent the last stretch of the trip in the San Gabriel Valley. I totally recommend both Koreatown and the SGV as places to stay. They were cheaper than other areas and you are totally surrounded by amazing food and boba joints. Koreatown also features the famous, fully amazing 24 hour Korean Wi Spa where you can get totally naked (on gender segregated floors) and then sit in a 200 degree sauna (!) before plunging in an ice bath. I love this place: it has just the right mix of shamelessness and extremity for me.

Top Recommendations:

Eighth Street Soondae

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This was a deeply soul satisfying meal. I love everything about this place. You walk into a disconcertingly large, mostly empty room but are immediately beckoned through a door to the cramped backroom dining area. There isn’t much on the menu—mostly variations of soondae and broth—but it all sounds hella good. We ordered a combo platter for me and a bowl of tofu for Angela. The banchan were tremendous. The combo platter turned out to be enough food for four people. There was a big stack of soondae (vermicelli, blood, onions, seasoning, etc stuffed into a casing) and then there were generous piles of intestines and sliced heart, tongue, and liver. I found the overcooked liver unpleasant but everything else was amazing, especially the silky, luscious, mild soondae. If I had to eat one meal for all of eternity this would be a strong contender. The ladies who run the place were impressed by the zeal with which I attacked the family-sized portion.  “You like it?!” “Why yes, I most certainly do.”

Naan Hut

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Sangak bread from the gods. I was going to skip this place but my eating associate Thi Nguyen absolutely insisted that I eat here and then he brought it up five times reminding me to make sure I don’t miss it. I was a bit dismissive at first: how good could naan be? But I decided that Thi is at that highest echelon of aesthetic trustworthiness where I would be a fool not to take such an insistent recommendation from him. I was told to get sangak with kashk and eggplant. And yeah, Thi was right. Do not miss this place. Make sure you try the bread both toasted and untoasted. Toasting brings out more depth of flavor but one also needs to experience the impossibly stretchy texture of the untoasted bread.

Saffron & Rose

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Persian ice cream place not too far from Naan Hut serving some of the best ice cream we’ve ever had. Normally I’m ambivalent about floral ice cream but this is on another level. Angela and I both thought Orange Blossom was the best. Stick with the Persian flavors, I sampled a couple others and they were nowhere near as good.

Others:

Dan Sung Sa

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This is a dark, atmospheric bar with tasty grilled skewers, open late. It isn’t an ideal place to sit down and eat dinner but it would be a great place to party with friends.

Oakobing

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What is this sorcery? I don’t even know. It seemed like some sort of lighter-than-air shaved ice construction but it’s not shaved ice in any normal sense, it’s some ethereal but painfully cold substance from another dimension.

Jitlada Thai Restaurant

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I ate at Jitlada like a decade ago and remember feeling so overwhelmed by the menu that no matter how indulgently we ordered I was never going to be satisfied. I vowed to go back and order completely different things. I’ve finally lived up to that vow, but I still feel like I have to go back a half a dozen more times before I’ll even begin to make headway on that damn menu. This is vibrant, gorgeous southern Thai food, with a lot of unusual regional preparations that you’re not likely to see anywhere else in the US. I’m still dreaming of the pomelo salad. The pork and jackfruit curry was spicy and pungent and the Dungeness crab with chili-garlic sauce was delicious (though they didn’t even attempt to retain any of the delicacy of the crab).

Night + Market

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This is the other really famous Thai restaurant in LA. I had never eaten here before. This place does two totally different things: crowd-pleasing party food and aggressive pork-centric regional food from Northern Thailand. You can only get the really aggressive dishes at dinner time. I was fighting with myself over whether we should spend a dinner slot on this place over Chinese, and I was finally deterred by a trusted friend who told me he had ordered much of the menu and was unimpressed. As it turned out, we drove right by this place at lunchtime and made a snap decision to try out the party favorites. Some of it was pretty good, like sweet and salty wings and a fried chicken sandwich piled with papaya slaw, but this stuff was also quite predictable. The very spicy grilled pork salad was more adventurous but way the hell out of balance: too much acid and salt. It seemed like it had been seasoned indiscriminately. The crispy rice salad was both boring and too acidic.

Attari Sandwich Shop

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Good Persian lunch spot but would not recommend over Naan Hut. Bland but pleasant osh, tender sliced tongue sandwiches. The star is the super interesting kuku sandwich, which contains a frittata-like egg filling that’s about 50% herbs.

Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles

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As Thi rightly put it, there are places with better fried chicken and places with better waffles, but no place with better chicken-waffle gestalt. The soft, fluffy waffles demand to be wrapped around shreds of meat, skin, and syrup like a little taco.

LA part 2: San Gabriel Valley

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There’s not as much to do in this area aside from food but if you’re out this way definitely hit the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena. It has a small but densely wonderful collection and– best of all– it’s not crowded. There were no kids and very few selfie-taking philistines.  We also enjoyed visiting Imen at Tea Habitat (pictured above) to sample the best Dancong oolong collection outside of China. This is very advanced and expensive tea, but if you’re into this kind of thing it shouldn’t be missed.

Top Recommendations:

101 Noodle Express
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The best bite of food I ate on the entire trip was the beef roll at 101 Noodle Express. If aliens visited the Earth and were like “Earthling, show us your most delicious Earth food.” I would be like “yo get that beef roll at 101 Noodle Express.” This paragon of human culinary achievement consists of a thin pancake, lightly smeared with the world’s best sweet bean paste, judiciously studded with shreds of five spice-scented braised beef, generously piled with cilantro, rolled up and fried crisp. It looks intimidating but is actually light, airy, and herb-forward. It’s a crispy, crackly umami bomb of profound deliciousness. I cocked my head back and bellowed “yuuuuuuuuummm.” I’m told their dumplings are also great but I had no eating capability left after the late night beef roll.

Chengdu Taste

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This is widely thought to be the gold  standard for Sichuan restaurants in North America and I don’t disagree. It’s awesome. It will make you sweat and thoroughly anesthetize your mouth, but at the same time it is very refined. The husband and wife beef slices are the best I’ve ever had (though I have to dissent on the dan dan noodles: good but I still think I prefer the ones at Han Dynasty in Philadelphia). One absolutely must order the green pepper fish, which is a nuclear Sichuan bomb. The broth is generously seasoned with green Sichuan peppercorns and raw green chilies and loaded with tender fish slices and crunchy bean sprouts. It’s intensely grassy and floral and it will definitely clear out your sinuses.

Huge Tree Pastry

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Taiwanese breakfast joint, not to be missed. I frickin loved the fan tuan: it’s a savory donut, some fried pork fluff, an egg, and some pickled mustard greens wrapped in rice. The layered textures and balanced, mild flavors made my heart sing.

Beijing Pie House

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These are really damn good Northern Chinese meat “pies.” The shell is thin and light but effective at containing the juices, which dramatically squirt out when the pie is bitten into without appropriate caution. We had lamb with squash and pork with leek and they were stellar.

Others:

Savoy Kitchen

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A longtime institution, serving Hainan chicken in a tiny little corner spot. Hainan chicken is a simple dish of plain poached chicken and rice cooked in the resulting chicken broth, served with three condiments: soy sauce, ginger sauce, and chili sauce. The simplicity of the dish lets the main points stand out: the texture of the chicken, the savory unctuousness of the rice, and the bracing pungency of the condiments. This was a very nice version of the dish, though didn’t stand out among the wealth of SGV treasures.

Hui Tou Xiang Noodles House

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The thing to get here are the hui tou, which are the rectangular pork dumplings pictured above. They have a perfect crispy texture and the oniony filling is delicious.

Shaanxi Garden

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We ate here in honor of my beloved Jia Zhangke (who hails from Shaanxi) after seeing Ash is Purest White (which is an extraordinary film). The specials here are the biang biang noodles and the rou jia mo, which they refer to as a “Chinese hamburger.” It’s a crispy bun filled with braised pork. The noodles had a nice toothsome texture and were long enough to be served with scissors, which is always a good sign. I’d pass on the wontons in hot sauce next time. Angela particularly liked the noodles.

Phoenix Desserts

Hong Kong dessert chain with a couple locations in the SGV. Definitely enjoyed it but I admit I struggled with the Durian mochi rolls.

Banh Mi My Tho

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Anthony Cross absolutely insisted I try this place. It was low commitment to split one with Angela and it was indeed extremely good, though we had even better Banh Mi at Dakao Sandwiches in Vegas on the way home.

Miscellaneous:

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The Riggles have been known to set a damn fine table! Great to see them.

The Griddle

If you ever find yourself in Winnemucca, NV, eat breakfast here.

Fiesta Mexicana

Always delighted to get a chance to swing by the much-loved Dillon, MT taco bus. Some of the best food in the state of Montana.

Nomad Donut

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Made a brief stop in the morning after visiting Riggle in San Diego, and I continue to be impressed by these donuts (which I had a couple times the last time I was in San Diego).

Dakao Sandwiches

A few miles off the highway in Vegas but totally worth it. The best baguette texture of any banh mi I’ve ever had.

Methodology:

I do a fair amount of research for trips like this, and I think in general I get good results. Here’s a few notes on the various resources that are available.

Yelp/Tripadvisor/Google reviews

Borderline useless, especially Yelp. Yelp is so reliably bad that you can almost use it as a reverse predictor. There are many problems with these aggregators. They are too democratic.  Most people who post reviews just don’t know what they’re talking about. Typical reviewers harbor a preference for crowd-pleasing, Instagram-optimized, inoffensive, boring food. People who use these platforms tend to weigh service and cleanliness too highly, giving preference to over-attentive, obsequious service. Very, very often when there are two places in the same category and one place has 4.5 stars on Yelp while the other place has 3 stars, the 3 star place serves better food and doesn’t give a shit what you think of the service. Of the three I think Google reviews tends to be the most useful (the content of particular reviews, not the aggregate) and Tripadvisor is much better than Yelp.

Chowhound

Vastly more useful than Yelp et al, but still unreliable, attracts annoying self-styled foodies, and you have to wade through a lot of useless and outdated content to find useful tips. It can be a goldmine when you find someone who really knows what they’re talking about, though, and there are a lot of people on Chowhound who really know what they’re talking about. In general, negative reviews should trump positive reviews. Everyone wants to think their $200 dinner was good, it takes courage to admit that it wasn’t. Chowhound is California-centric and thus the California discussion threads are particularly overloaded. I only used Chowhound on this trip for cross-referencing recommendations from other sources, but I’ve used it extensively for visits to other cities and gotten very good results.

Asking random locals: Airbnb hosts, taxi drivers, etc.

I know some people who swear by this. It’s high risk but high reward. A lot of people like things that are bad, and it’s not easy to determine how much to trust an individual. If you get lucky with who you ask, though, you can get some of the most up to date and under the radar info.

Food critics

Publications like Eater, The Infatuation, Serious Eats, etc. provide a good starting point but they are extremely fallible and need to be cross-referenced with Chowhound or a friend. A lot of the listicles that these outlets put out (e.g. “15 Best Dumpling Joints in the SGV” or “22 Foods You Have to Try in San Francisco Before You Die”) are composed without much thought or care as ephemeral clickbait, but others are actually quite helpful. Unfortunately, many the critics working for these publications (let alone regional newspapers) are from my experience just unreliable. I’ll never forgive Kenji López-Alt for sending me way the hell out of my way for a mediocre Cuban pork sandwich. If you find someone whose sensibility works for you, it can be a godsend, but it’s a double-edged sword. LA of course long benefited from the work of one of the best and most reliable food critics of all time, Jonathan Gold, but anyplace he raved about was propelled into super popularity and as a result may no longer be as good as it was when he reviewed it. Still, his lists and guides (e.g., the wonderful Koreatown guide) are the best place to start for LA trip planning.

Friends

I don’t tend to crowd-source food recommendations, especially for big cities. You may get some good recs but it generates too much noise. People with limited knowledge of a city will recommend the two things they liked out of the four things they tried. And people are more likely to recommend farm-to-table small plates shit rather than the kind of stuff I like. I try to single out friends whose sensibility I trust and who have extensive knowledge of a given city.  I’m acquainted with some pretty hardcore food enthusiasts, and they are often sources of the very best information, but for a city as big as LA all individuals have blind spots and friends need to be supplemented with other sources.

So, then, my overall methodological recommendation is:

Narrow down your agenda to a few categories; use google, listicles, critics, and Chowhound to generate an initial list; cross reference questionable options with Chowhound and/or by Googling to find food bloggers; and then if you have a friend or two with knowledge of the area run everything by them to eliminate some places and add things you may have missed. Or you can just show up and ask a taxi driver what’s good and not be such a nerd about it.

Recommended on Netflix: Lady J


As someone who ragged on Netflix relentlessly for years, I’ve gotta keep giving credit where credit is due: they have been been killing it with proprietary content lately. This time I’m here to rave about Emmanuel Mouret’s Lady J (aka Mademoiselle de Joncquières).

It’s based on the same Diderot story as Bresson and Cocteau’s collaboration Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne. A widow resists the advances of a womanizing Marquis until he eventually persuades her that his intentions are honorable. When he betrays her faith, she plots revenge by enlisting an unfortunate woman born to noble parents out of wedlock and her ethereal young daughter.

I love this movie. It scratched the itch that I hoped The Favourite would scratch. It’s got that “polite on the surface but oh so deliciously nasty and wicked underneath” Dangerous Liaisons thing going on. The Favourite was a near complete failure for me: the emotions are too close to the surface, it’s missing the tension that accrues when passions are left to seethe beneath oppressive social norms. And Emma Stone just doesn’t have the range to pull it off. Cécile de France, on the other hand, is a stone cold genius. She is immaculately perfect in this movie.

Another area where Lady J triumphs while The Favourite fails is
mise-en-scène. As I’ve said, The Favourite looks to me like shitty Barry Lyndon. Lanthimos just throws the camera down in the corner with a fisheye lens. Those compositions are neither pleasing nor interesting. Lady J, on the other hand, doesn’t waste a single shot. Every composition is purposeful. Every image is appealing. The use of sunlight is vibrant without being cloying. The blocking highlights the subtle brilliance of the acting and conveys overwhelming lust without ever being vulgar or heavy-handed. As a bonus, there are some delightful nods to Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad. Rivette’s The Duchess of Langeais is another clear influence.

I am tempted to go on raving about how much I love this, but I think you’d be better served if I just insist that you go watch it. It’s a rare instance of a truly great costume drama.

State of the Cinema 2018

This was a very strange year. At first we thought it was pretty bad, mostly because of the glut of topical indie movies for the Twitter crowd and the diminishing returns of the franchise blockbuster. But this was also a year when we saw world-historic masterpieces from a number of legendary directors, including momentous posthumous releases from Abbas Kiarostami and Orson Welles, as well as very fine films from Claire Denis, Spike Lee, Steven Spielberg, Alan Rudolph, Paul Schrader, Steven Soderbergh, and Hirokazu Kore-eda. The Strohl brothers agree on the best five films of the year (which is a first, even given how much we tend to agree). We also agree that the MVP of 2018 was 88 year old Clint Eastwood, who made two of the most formally audacious films of his career. He redefined gonzo casting with his own daughter playing the estranged daughter who hates him in The Mule and the actual guys who stopped a terrorist attack playing themselves in The 15:17 to Paris. He challenged his own legacy with brutal honesty and graceful poetry. He examined the mechanics of white privilege with surprising nuance. He had two threesomes in the same movie. He broke our hearts with that Dianne Wiest scene. Clint Eastwood: we salute you.

This year we did things a little differently. Josh is incorporating comments throughout his post wherever he has something to say. Matt watched a lot more new releases than usual after Filmstruck was snatched away from him and decided to copy Josh and just rank them all. He gave every film a brief comment. Isabel and Angela did not want to include commentary or full ranked lists.

Joshua Strohl

 

  1. The Other Side of the Wind (Welles) The Other Side of the WindThis melted my face. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into when I turned this on. I’m a big Orson Welles fan, and the legend of the movie preceded it, but I never really understood what it was. As soon as I started it I was totally captivated, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since. It creates its own ecosystem of maddening controlled chaos. The movie-within-the-movie is like silk, but it’s always just out of reach for the viewer. It’s a lost burning ember of elemental cinema floating in a world of shit: media consultants and paparazzi and publicists and vultures. John Huston towers over the proceedings with his built-in legendary stature. Not for most people, but if you’re seriously interested in film history, it’s a must watch.
  2. First Reformed (Schrader)first reformedWe’ve been digging late Paul Schrader movies for a while and it’s a weird feeling that suddenly everyone is on board. This is a movie that worms itself into your brain. It’s great to see someone working in this controlled, precise register. The ending left me breathless.
  3. The Mule (Eastwood)muleI like all of Clint’s movies, but every now and then he has a burst of intense creativity, such as when he made White Hunter Black Heart, UnforgivenA Perfect World, and The Bridges of Madison County at the start of the 90’s. This is one of those times. This is the year when he started channeling Kiarostami, which is a very unexpected and most welcome development. He also gave us the most surprising Harmony Korine inspired booty party of all time. I thought The Mule was beautiful, heartbreaking and hilarious and I can’t wait to watch it many, many more times.
  4. 24 Frames (Kiarostami)24 FramesA peaceful and achingly beautiful experience. I love this in the simplest way possible, but it is not at all a simple movie.
  5. Unsane (Soderbergh)Unsane 3Soderbergh channels Frankenheimer through an iPhone. This movie is jagged and nasty and effective. It’s a rare topical movie with sharp teeth. His cinematography is the best of the year.
  6. Ready Player One (Spielberg)RP1Spielberg’s most meta film is a slyly subversive critique of the nostalgia machine and searching examination of his own legacy. Halliday is a high-tech Willy Wonka and Spielberg stand-in. The moment where Wade Watts walks in to meet the final avatar and finds Halliday/Spielberg’s childhood self playing Atari is extremely poignant and peak Spielberg. I think a whole lot of people missed the forest for the trees here. This movie also just straight up bangs. It moves between the real world and the virtual world with the kind of fluidity that only Spielberg is capable of. The rewatchability factory is at the level of Spaceballs and Goodfellas for me.
  7. Double Lover (Ozon)Double loverAfter I watched this, the first thing I did was watch ten other Ozon movies. I had only seen Swimming Pool, which I thought was alright, but I didn’t realize what an enfant terrible he is. This movie is completely nuts, in the best possible way. It tickled me.
  8. First Man (Chazelle)first manAlright Damien Chazelle, now you’re showing me something. I can’t believe the La La Land guy made this movie. As a new father myself, I found its depiction of fatherhood extremely moving– even overwhelming. The movie is a technical marvel and it has an almost Eastwoodian focus. Ryan Gosling is really good, and I don’t easily hand out Ryan Gosling compliments.
  9. The 15:17 to Paris (Eastwood)15 17 to ParisOne of the most radical movies to come out of a major studio in recent memory. Critics didn’t know what to do with it. I think they missed the boat.
  10. BlacKkKlansman (Lee)BlackKklansmanIt’s great to see Spike Lee in the spotlight again. His technique and storytelling are in top form. It’s a masterful and very entertaining movie that hits poignant grace notes with Spike’s distinctive wild tonal shifts. It’s potent, playful, and ultimately devastating.
  11. Welcome to Marwen (Zemeckis)
  12. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Coen Bros.) Pan shot!
  13. Let the Sunshine In (Denis) Juliette Binoche is stunning in this woozy and gorgeous Denis film.
  14. If Beale Street Could Talk (Jenkins) Pure cinema, the strong Jonathan Demme influence is very touching to me.
  15. Burning (Lee) Like Lee’s other films, it uses the grammar of the mystery genre in an abstract way to get at something haunting and just out of reach.
  16. Zama (Martel) Finally, a movie that understands the comedic potential of llamas.
  17. Shoplifters (Kore-eda) Kore-eda doing what he does best: he’s the master of the quiet, tender moment. Major affection for this.
  18. Cam (Goldhaber) A lot of fun. Wicked, witty, wacky cam girl thriller. Madeline Brewer gives the breakthrough performance of the year.
  19. Ray Meets Helen (Rudolph) Alan Rudolph returns after 15 years and he’s bonkers as ever. This movie sticks out like a diamond in the rough amidst all the unimaginative cookie cutter junk. It is *weird*.
  20. Custody (Legrand)  A waking nightmare that starts off like your average family drama and freefalls into something truly terrifying. Some of the finest suspense in recent memory. Parental horror of the highest order.
  21. The Day After (Hong) Another playful Hong Sang-soo movie about a guy who has an affair. This has an interesting rhythm and plays more like French new wave than typical Asian festival fare.
  22. Venom (Fleischer) That lobster tank scene stole my heart.
  23. The Commuter (Collett-Serra) Awesome editing, fun plot.
  24. Looking Glass (Hunter) The Nicolas Cage movie of the year is also a welcome return of Tim Hunter. Wildly unpredictable and fun.
  25. Mission Impossible: Fallout (McQuarrie) Mind-blowing stunts, breakneck speed, Tom Cruise in full gonzo Tom Cruise mode running like a gazelle on top of motorcycles and shit, the best fight scene since Eastern Promises. For me this is a rock solid addition to the franchise.
  26. Creed 2 (Caples Jr.) Another great fatherhood movie that moved me. Don’t overlook how great the acting is in this across the board.
  27. Upgrade (Whanell)
  28. Support the Girls (Bujalski)
  29. Ant-Man and the Wasp (Reed) Here’s a novel concept: a superhero movie that’s fun. I like this way, way more than any other Marvel Studios movie.
  30. Isle of Dogs (Anderson) It makes a few missteps but I found a lot of delight in the details and I’m a sucker for a Man’s Best Friend movie.
  31. Vox Lux (Corbett)
  32. Incredibles 2 (Bird) Best raccoon fight scene ever.
  33. Green Book (Farrelly) It’s amazing how much ire this stirred up. I get it, but I think people miss how much work this movie does critiquing the very things about it that piss people off.  It’s too complicated to dismiss on the basis of its synopsis. It’s sweet and lovable and it has some very funny food scenes. I am a big fan of the Farrelly brothers and I think Peter has a distinct humanist touch: clumsy but sincere.
  34. Paddington 2 (King) I love that talking bear but Hugh Grant puts this over the top.
  35. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Persichetti, Ramsey, Rothman) Won over my Spider-Man weary heart.
  36. Roma (Cuaron) One of the hardest movies for me to rank. I was really impressed by it but it left me cold. I haven’t had a chance to revisit it yet, but I have respect for it and I think it’s worth another look.
  37. Western (Grisebach)
  38. May The Devil Take You (Tjajhanto)
  39. Bodied (Kahn)
  40. The Endless (Benson and Moorhead)
  41. Between Worlds (Pulera)
  42. Soller’s Point (Porterfield)
  43. Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot (Van Sant) This moved me far more than I anticipated.
  44. Love, Simon (Berlanti) This has a good heart.
  45. Annihilation (Garland)
  46. The Night Comes for Us (Tjajhanto) A bit repetitive for me but when this is in full force, it’s a sight to behold.
  47. Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami (Fiennes)
  48. Blockers (Cannon) Apparently our society is done with comedy, so seeing a movie that is actually funny is like seeing a dog walking around on its hind legs.
  49. Mom and Dad (Taylor)
  50. Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc (Dumont) So much head banging. Bring on the sequel.
  51. Blumhouse’s Truth or Dare (Wadlow) My favorite junk food.
  52. Halloween (Green) As a Green fan, I wanted this to be better. I don’t think he’s a natural horror director, unfortunately, but I appreciate the spirit of the movie and it has some nice directorial touches.
  53. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (Bayona) I hated the first Jurassic World but was delighted to find out how campy and ridiculous this one was. It’s a dinosaur/volcano disaster hybrid movie that morphs into a dinosaur/gothic haunted house hybrid movie complete with a Republican dinosaur auction. Can’t say I’ve seen that before!
  54. A Star is Born (Cooper) It’s a weepy, sappy affair and it falls apart in the second half but whatever, sue me, I like it anyways.
  55. Blindspotting (Estrada)
  56. Den of Thieves (Gudegast) Sleazy sweaty Gerard Butler shit.
  57. A Simple Favor (Feig)
  58. Instant Family (Anders)
  59. At Eternity’s Gate (Schnabel) Lots of Dafoe rolling around in fields of wheat. It had a startling immediacy that I responded to.
  60. Wildlife (Dano)
  61. Thunder Road (Cummings)
  62. The Wild Boys (Mandico)
  63. Hold the Dark (Saulnier) This movie is dark.
  64. Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun (Wilkerson)
  65. The Nun (Hardy) I don’t like this as much as Matt and Angela do, but I appreciated seeing a horror movie with some craft and panache. It got a little muddled toward the end.
  66. The Rider (Zhao)
  67. The Strangers: Prey at Night (Roberts) I enjoyed this as a nice flipside of the first one.
  68. Super Troopers 2 (Chandrasekhar) There is some comedy gold in this after a shaky start.
  69. Bumblebee (Knight)
  70. Hereditary (Aster) It has major flaws, but also moments of great inspiration. Hard to shake, awesome Toni Collette performance.
  71. The Favourite (Lanthimos) Lanthimos’ weakest movie but there’s still plenty to enjoy. I’m looking forward to his upcoming detective noir.
  72. American Animals (Layton)
  73. King Cohen (Mitchell) Another recent documentary about one of my favorite filmmakers. Generally I think of these movies as extended special features, but this Larry Cohen doc has enough crazy stories and interviews to elevate it above the pack, including the great Yaphet Kotto proclaiming that Larry Cohen was “The white Martin Luther King Jr. for black movies.” I’ve been rewatching Larry Cohen movies since I saw this and they are every bit as great as I remember them. We need more Larry Cohens. We need more renegades.
  74. The Legacy of a White Tail Deer Hunter (Hill)
  75. Claire’s Camera (Hong) Slight but interesting
  76. Bird Box (Bier) I had a lot of fun with this and I particularly enjoyed Malkovich’s version of the guy’s who’s just in it for himself. A fun B movie, it’s what A Quiet Place should have been.
  77. Game Night (Daley, Goldstein)
  78. Juliet, Naked (Peretz)
  79. Unfriended: Dark Web (Susco) I’m digging the screen capture genre. I hope it can keep developing without repeating itself.
  80. Skyscraper (Thurber) You had me at “The Rock has one leg.”
  81. Searching (Chaganty)
  82. The First Purge (McMurray) A fun hybrid of the Purge and Blaxploitation, but it’s clearly the weakest Purge movie.
  83. The Predator (Black) Two words: Predator dogs.
  84. Before I Wake (Flanagan)
  85. You Were Never Really Here (Ramsay)
  86. Golden Exits (Perry) This is why we need Woody back.
  87. Rodin (Doillon)
  88. Apostle (Evans) Some good horror imagery but what a mess.
  89. Adrift (Kormakur)
  90. Milla (Massadian)
  91. Revenge (Fargeat)
  92. Andre the Giant (Hehir) This movie gets three stars just for Ric Flair’s dick jokes.
  93. The Devil and Father Amorth (Friedkin) I love Friedkin but I can only appreciate this because of his delightful narration.
  94. The Equalizer 2 (Fuqua)
  95. Boy Erased (Edgerton) What is with Joel Edgerton making nasty movies and casting himself in the most unappealing roles imaginable.
  96. Fahrenheit 11/9 (Moore) For a Michael Moore movie, it gets into more interesting corners of the current political climate than you would expect. Believe it or not, I found it funny and insightful. But it’s still a Michael Moore movie and has all the faults that come with that.
  97. Hal (Scott)
  98. The Meg (Turteltaub)
  99. Uncle Drew (Stone lll)
  100. Tomb Raider (Uthaug)
  101. Won’t You Be My Neighbor (Neville)
  102. We the Animals (Zager)
  103. Arizona (Watson)
  104. Galveston (Laurent)
  105. Mandy (Cosmatos) The most disappointing movie this year. Cheddar Goblin was tight though.
  106. Gotti (Connelly) Of all the bad movies this year, this is the one I find myself drawn to the most. I have affection for it.
  107. Mile 22 (Berg) Murky and dumb but with great action and some solid violence.
  108. Death Wish (Roth)
  109. The Girl in the Spider Web (Alvarez)
  110. Flower (Winkler) 
  111. Leave No Trace (Granik)
  112. Crazy Rich Asians (Chu) I like this more than than my strohltopia colleagues and I’m very ashamed of it.
  113. Solo: A Star Wars Story (Howard)
  114. 211 (Shackleton)
  115. Tully (Reitman) The parenthood aspect resonated for me and Theron is good but the twist ruins the whole thing.
  116. Tales from the Hood 2 (Cundieff, Scott)
  117. Black Panther (Coogler) It just didn’t do it for me. I just don’t like most Marvel movies.
  118. How to Talk to Girls at Parties (Mitchell)
  119. Fifty Shades Freed (Foley) This is the first one of these I didn’t totally hate. It has some good sex scenes and the camp factor is enjoyable.
  120. Skate Kitchen (Moselle)
  121. Hotel Artemis (Pearce)
  122. Ralph Break the Internet (Moore, Johnson)
  123. Can You Ever Forgive Me (Heller) Melissa McCarthy is pretty bad in this, but it works best when it focuses on middle-aged queer lady dating dynamics. Richard E. Grant is great, as always.
  124. Alpha (Hughes)
  125. Hale County This Morning, This Evening (Ross)
  126. Sicario: Day of the Soldado (Sollima) Well, apparently Trump liked it.
  127. The Old Man and the Gun (Lowery) How did you mess up this “elderly Robert Redford robs banks for fun” movie? How can this not be good?
  128. The House with a Clock in its Walls (Roth) Eli needs to go back to the grindhouse. No bueno.
  129. The Sisters Brothers (Audiard)
  130. Widows (McQueen) This movie is lucky that Ocean’s Eight came out this year or it would feature the lamest heist in movie history.
  131. Bad Times at the El Royale (Goddard)
  132. Mid 90’s (Hill)
  133. Rampage (Peyton) Giant monkeys, giant crocodile, giant wolf, The Rock: the rest should take care of itself, but somehow they messed it up. Terrible screenplay. Some of the laziest writing in recent memory misses an easy slam dunk.
  134. Three Identical Strangers (Wardle)
  135. Madeline’s Madeline (Decker) Some really interesting and unique qualities in a movie that is insufferable and annoying.
  136. Breaking In (McTiegue)
  137. Kin (Baker Bros.)
  138. A Prayer Before Dawn (Sauvaire)
  139. Assassination Nation (Levison) 
  140. The Grinch (Cheney, Mosier)
  141. Bohemian Rhapsody (Singer) Where to even begin with this debacle. It’s like a car crash you can’t look away from. I didn’t hate it: I kind of enjoyed it as a bad movie, but the awards attention is concerning. In what universe is this up for Best Editing? It’s the movie they will use in editing classes for generations as an example of how not to edit.
  142. The Wife (Runge) This is so lame.
  143. Suspiria (Guadagnino) At least no one else will remake it now.
  144. A Quiet Place (Krasinski) Really good concept. Really dumb execution. IT’S SOUND!!!
  145. The Death of Stalin (Iannucci) Really bad concept. Really unfunny movie.
  146. I Feel Pretty (Kohn, Silverstein) This movie needed to be way more offensive. Made me wish the Farrellys would get back to their roots.
  147. Overboard (Greenberg) Overboard (1986) has to have the most fucked-up premise in all of romantic-comedy history. And they made a REMAKE. A GENDER-SWAP REMAKE!
  148. Pacific Rim Uprising (DeKnight) Why’d you have to go and ruin a good thing?
  149. Eighth Grade (Burnham) Creepy, Todd-Solondz wanna-be-movie that has real disdain for its characters, unlike actual Todd Solondz movies.
  150. Sorry to Bother You (Riley) None of this worked for me. I don’t think it had any interesting things to say and the jokes all fell flat. Overrated.
  151. The Oath (Barinholtz) Like reading annoying, progressive Twitter for 100 minutes.
  152. Avengers: Infinity War (Russo Brothers) This really made me sad for the state of blockbuster cinema.
  153. Escape Plan 2: Hades (Miller) I should have known better…
  154. Christopher Robin (Forster) Where Pooh gives Christopher Robin a two hour guilt trip.
  155. Thoroughbreds (Finley) Pretentious, boring, and depressing. No thanks.
  156. The Happytime Murders (Henson) I really wanted to like the raunchy puppet movie. It’s really bad.
  157. Deadpool 2 (Leitch) I don’t get the appeal of these.
  158. Tag (Tomsic) This is so bad it’s jaw-dropping. The ending is an all time WTF.
  159. Peppermint (Morel) You can’t be serious with this. Pierre Morel is a shadow of his former self in this painful-to-watch slog that expects me to buy that Jennifer Garner is Liam Neeson.
  160. Ocean’s Eight (Ross) I’m not trying to hate on female reboots, but c’mon you gotta do better than this. They had the idea, “Ocean’s 11, but with women,” and stopped there.
  161. Vice (McKay) Ugly, ghoulish, smug, morbid, obnoxious, cynical, and dumb.

I seriously regret not getting to see Welcome to Marwen. I love Zemeckis and I will review it and/or update the list when I see it.

Best Performances (top ten): 

John Huston (The Other Side of the Wind), Ethan Hawke (First Reformed), Clint Eastwood (The Mule), Sakura Ando (Shoplifters), Madeline Brewer (Cam), Tom Hardy (Venom), Claire Foy (Unsane), Juliette Binoche (Let the Sunshine In), Steven Yeun (Burning), Tom Waits (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs)

Best Director: Paul Schrader- First Reformed

Best Cinematography: Steven Soderbergh – Unsane

Best Editing: Bob Murkawski and Orson Welles  – The Other Side of the Wind

Best Original Screenplay: Paul Schrader – First Reformed

Best Adapted Screenplay: Sam Dolnick- The Mule

Isabel Garcia

  1. First Reformed (Schrader) 
  2. Ready Player One (Spielberg) 
  3. BlacKkKlansman (Lee) 
  4. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (Neville)
  5. Upgrade (Whannell) 
  6. First Man (Chazelle) 
  7. Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami (Fiennes)
  8. Sollers Point (Porterfield)
  9. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse  (Persichetti, Ramsey, Rothman) 
  10. The 15:17 to Paris (Eastwood) 

Honorable Mentions: Creed II (Steven Caple Jr.) / Incredibles 2 (Bird) / Mission: Impossible – Fallout (McQuarrie) / Bodied (Kahn) / The Rider (Zhao) / Green Book (Farrelly) / Roma (Cuaron)

Worst Of: Avengers: Infinity War (Russo Brothers) / A Quiet Place (Krasinski) 

Matt Strohl

The first three are tremendous and I don’t think I can meaningfully rank them at this point, but I tried anyways. The movie that I most regret not getting to see in time for this list is If Beale Street Could Talk. NB, Josh included Lover for a Day on his list last year, but it’s technically a 2018 USA release.

  1. The Mule (Eastwood) A consummate masterpiece where Clint checks his privilege, reflects on his greatest regrets in life, examines his own mythology, poetically depicts the creative drive, elaborates a Kiarostami-esque existential driving theme, and much, much more.
  2. 24 Frames (Kiarostami) Haunting deathbed meditation from one of the greatest artists of our time, it hasn’t left my thoughts since I watched it.
  3. The Other Side of the Wind (Welles) I specifically do NOT recommend this to most people, it is very aggressive. I will not try to blurb it, I haven’t even begun to comes to terms with it, but I may write a longer piece eventually.
  4. First Reformed (Schrader) Schrader finally makes a film in the transcendental style and it’s glorious, even if rewatching it left me feeling like maybe he borrowed too much directly from other movies.
  5. Unsane (Soderbergh) In the tradition of Shock Corridor, it’s one of the most effective thrillers in recent memory, making spectacular use of the iPhone camera.
  6. Let the Sunshine In (Denis) Lovely freeform character study with gorgeous Agnès Godard cinematography.
  7. Ray Meets Helen (Rudolph) Rudolph’s humor, magic, and romanticism are in peak form and it’s wonderful to see a septuagenarian love story so light on its feet, even if it does lose itself a bit in the final act.
  8. Double Lover (Ozon) Exhilarating, lurid, and gives no fucks about making sense.
  9. Roma (Cuarón) Reaching into the past not with nostalgia, but with agonizing hindsight and futile compassion—technical virtuosity as contrition.
  10. Ready Player One (Spielberg) Masterful, infinitely entertaining pop cinema that I like more every time I watch it (which is already a lot of times); it gets back to some of the themes of A.I., which I consider to be his masterpiece.
  11. The 15:17 to Paris (Eastwood) Clint invents conservative postmodernism.
  12. Lover for a Day (Garrel) The best of Garrel’s recent trilogy, his use of light is in vintage form here.
  13. The Day After (Hong) The purposefully disorienting timeline is fascinating and the social horror is acute.
  14. Milla (Massadian) Bracingly original inside-out storytelling, the opposite of condescending towards its subjects.
  15. Western (Grisebach) Brilliantly acted reappropriation of western archetypes to examine contemporary globalism.
  16. The Night Comes for Us (Tjajhanto) When he broke the guy’s leg in half and used each jagged piece to kill a separate guy I knew this would be in my top 20.
  17.  () So bonkers and fun, it’s easily my favorite comic book blockbuster in years.
  18. The Nun (Hardy) In the year when Guadagnino delivered Italian horror cinema the ultimate insult, this was the movie that celebrated its legacy: part Fulci, part Bava, and the most crucifixes in one movie ever.
  19. The Commuter (Collett-Serra) Everything a thriller should be and also a smart commentary on contemporary urban life.
  20. Bodied (Kahn) Might be hard to take if you don’t like battle rap, but this is relentlessly audacious and insightful and the finale is amazing.
  21. Venom F
  22. Cam (Goldhaber) Smart, scary, erotic technological horror.
  23. Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc (Dumont) Too long but plenty mesmerizing and I love the concept.
  24. Looking Glass (Hunter) Excellent Nicolas Cage creepy hotel voyeur thriller.
  25. Rodin (Doillon) A Rodin biopic more focused on depicting his process and ruminating on the birth of modernism in sculpture than on narrative, and it has the strongest sense of tactility of any movie in recent memory.
  26. Burning (Lee) Elusive, gut-clenching movie that definitely stuck with me.
  27. Zama (Martel) Odd colonial purgatory tale with an impressive sense of misery and some very memorable touches.
  28. BlacKkKlansman (Lee) I was a little disappointed by how conventional it is compared to Chi-Raq, but it really moves and I enjoy how much Spike loves depicting white people leaning into the Klan shit.
  29. Between Worlds (Pulera) Maximally ridiculous new age possession movie, with Nicolas Cage in full comedic excess mode.
  30. May the Devil Take You (Tjajhanto) Energetic Raimi-esque horror.
  31. Mom and Dad (Taylor) Fun, violent, and irreverent.
  32. Den of Thieves (Gudegast) Trash version of Heat that works because Gerard Butler is so utterly committed—you can smell his body odor.
  33. Shoplifters (Kore-eda) Sakura Ando’s performance is deeply moving and the first two acts are beautiful, but the procedural third act is a stylistic letdown.
  34. Upgrade (Whanell) A companion piece to Venom, with less exciting acting but some very cool and weird action scenes.
  35. Creed 2 (Caples Jr.) Holy shit, I did not expect the dramatic punch of following up on Ivan Drago.
  36. Paddington 2 (King) This is the closest we have nowadays to vintage slapstick; Brendan Gleeson and Hugh Grant are amazing.
  37. First Man (Chazelle) Stunningly beautiful, but weighed down by the bad choice to use archival material (especially the sound during the landing).
  38. Love, Simon (Berlanti) I was totally ready to be cynical about this (I watched it on an airplane) but it melted my cold heart and by the end I just really wanted Simon to have a nice boyfriend.
  39. At Eternity’s Gate (Schnabel) Checking off the obligatory van Gogh biopic boxes is painful, Schnabel’s bifocal shots are often annoying, and Oscar Isaac is no Anthony Quinn, but Dafoe is utterly amazing and all the scenes of him painting and basking in nature are enough to sustain this.
  40. Fifty Shades Freed (Foley) Ridiculous, amazing Grade A camp.
  41. Annihilation (Garland) I don’t take this too seriously: it’s a solid genre movie and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
  42. Hold the Dark (Saulnier) Ultra-weird black metal sloooooooooow horror, not for everyone.
  43. Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts (Surya) Uneven but deeply strange in an appealing way and the payoff is worth it.
  44. Blindspotting (Estrada) Stands above most of the other topical indie movies of recent years thanks to its complex outlook and dire intensity.
  45. Blockers (Cannon) Refreshingly raunchy, very funny gender-inverted American Pie.
  46. Support the Girls (Bujalski) Great ensemble cast, sweet and poignant, if slight.
  47. Bird Box (Bier) Very fun if approached as a trashy B movie.
  48. Claire’s Camera (Hong) Minor Hong, but that’s still pretty good.
  49. Super Troopers 2 (Chandrasekhar) Starts out clumsy but once it gets going it feels like a hilarious time capsule from a better era of comedy.
  50. Green Book (Farrelley) Well-acted buddy movie examining issues at the intersection of class and race.
  51. Before We Vanish (Kurosawa) There’s some great material but it plods on too long and lacks bite.
  52. The Rider (Zhao)- I don’t care for Zhao’s visual style but the non-professional acting is amazing.
  53. Hereditary (Aster) Takes itself too seriously in certain ways and botches the finale but peak Toni Collette.
  54. Skyscraper (Thurber) A spectacularly silly B movie with the Rock.
  55. A Simple Favor (Feig) Mostly a fun comedic thriller, but it doesn’t stick the landing and the end title cards are unforgivable.
  56. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Coen Bros.) I appreciate how morbid it is but the vignettes range from delightful to godawful and cringe-inducing (ugh that Liam Neeson one). Pan shot!
  57. Ant-Man and the Wasp (Reed) Unlike most Marvel movies, it has a genuine sense of wonder.
  58. The Endless (Benson and Moorhead) I like the low-budget Lovecraft vibe, but it pulls its punches.
  59. The Meg (Turteltaub) Giant prehistoric shark campfest with all sorts of ridiculous fake science and Jason Statham.
  60. Incredibles 2 (Bird) Good energy and imagination but I would be fine if this turns out to be the last movie I ever see where the world realizes we really do need superheroes.
  61. How to Talk to Girls at Parties (Mitchell) The first part of this is hilarious but it totally loses me well before it’s over.
  62. Mandy (Cosmatos) Try-hard hipster shit, but not without its pleasures.
  63. Revenge (Fargeat) Mostly standard rape-revenge movie that’s overly slick but has a solid finale.
  64. Game Night (Daley and Goldstein) Too much but often funny and the cast is solid.
  65. Rampage (Peyton) Another fun B movie with the Rock.
  66. Halloween (Green) Half-ass Halloween movie that partly redeems itself with a few inspired sequences and an appropriate sense of love for the original.
  67. The Strangers: Prey at Night (Roberts) I appreciate its 80’s heart but it loses what’s special and terrifying about the first one.
  68. Isle of Dogs (Anderson) The high points are high (F. Murray Abraham!) but the Greta Gerwig stuff is a disaster and Wes didn’t really have very many ideas here.
  69. Mission Impossible: Fallout (McQuarrie) There’s no impossible mission, it’s just a generic spy movie.
  70. Tomb Raider (Uthaug) For what this is, it’s actually pretty good, and it’s got Walton Goggins doing his usual thing.
  71. Unfriended: Dark Web (Susco) I like the form but the screenplay is too stupid for the movie to have much grip for me.
  72. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (Bayona) A hot mess that partly redeems itself with its ridiculous genre mashups and amazing Republican dinosaur auction.
  73. Solo: A Star Wars Story (Howard) Donald Glover is great and there are some good set pieces but the dude who plays Han is bad and this isn’t even trying to be better than mediocre.
  74. 211 (Shackleton) So-bad-it’s-good low budget Nicolas Cage cops and robbers movie.
  75. You Were Never Really Here (Ramsay) A grindhouse movie that’s afraid to be what it is.
  76. Happy as Lazzaro (Rohrwacher) Manderlay as a fairy tale– there are some nice ideas but I found it plodding and heavy handed.
  77. Bad Times at the El Royale (Goddard) Too cute for its own good and way bloated, but Chris Hemsworth is amazing.
  78. The First Purge (McMurray) The most generic and unremarkable in the series.
  79. A Star is Born (Cooper) The one thing that works about this is the chemistry between the leads, but that disappears in the second half and all that’s left is Cooper’s amateurish direction, tired musical biopic clichés, and some boring solo numbers from Gaga.
  80. Black Panther (Coogler) I love Michael B. Jordan in this but otherwise it doesn’t interest me.
  81. The Equalizer 2 (Fuqua) Disappointing and tired.
  82. The Favourite (Lanthimos) Emma Stone is terrible, the script (not written by Lanthimos) is tepid, and the movie looks like shitty Barry Lyndon with too much fisheye lens nonsense.
  83. The Girl in the Spider Web (Alvarez) Yo, Claire Foy, that’s not a real accent, but I do sort of enjoy how spectacularly bad this movie is.
  84. Apostle (Evans) This has like a half a movie worth of ideas.
  85. Pacific Rim Uprising (DeKnight) Very disappointing—utterly dumb sequel to a movie that I loved.
  86. Crazy Rich Asians (Chu) So many missed opportunities (you can’t get one joke out of that party boat set piece?), overloaded with cloying bright colors, and how can you unreflectively treat million dollar earrings as authentic self-fulfillment in 2018?
  87. Assassination Nation (Levison) Incompetent, derivative topical pandering.
  88. The Humanity Bureau (King) So tedious I struggled to finish it, but at least its ambition is low.
  89. The Death of Stalin (Iannucci) Godawful concept, not funny aside from Rupert Friend, Jeffery Tambor is as bad as it gets.
  90. Sorry to Bother You (Riley) Painful to watch, not even slightly witty.
  91. Eighth Grade (Burnham) Toothless Welcome to the Dollhouse by way of a hamfisted Sofia Coppola imitation, with a lot of sexualized ogling of the bodies of middle school kids.
  92. Leave No Trace (Granik) Boring Instagram trash that needed a killer bear or a bounty hunter or something.
  93. Avengers: Infinity War (Russo Brothers) To paraphrase our friend Chris Knitter, it’s the cinematic equivalent of the Old Country Buffet.
  94. Widows (McQueen) Pandering topical heist movie without a proper heist.
  95. A Quiet Place (Krasinski) The most inept horror movie in recent memory.
  96. Bohemian Rhapsody (Singer) Reprehensible gay-shaming trash fire featuring the worst Freddie Mercury impression imaginable (for one thing, I don’t want to punch the actual Freddie Mercury in the face) and editing that appears to have been done by a hyperactive toddler.
  97. Suspiria (Guadagnino) Suspiria minus everything that makes it good, plus a lot of pretentious bullshit—it offends me on a personal level.

Top ten performances not by Nicolas Cage:

  1. Sakura Ando in Shoplifters
  2. Tom Hardy in Venom
  3. Gerard Butler in Den of Thieves
  4. Willem Dafoe in At Eternity’s Gate
  5. John Huston in The Other Side of the Wind
  6. Selma Blair in Mom and Dad
  7. Toni Collette in Hereditary
  8. Meinhard Neumann in Western
  9. Keith Carradine in Ray Meets Helen
  10. Kim Min-hee in The Day After

Angela Shope

  1. First Reformed (Schrader)
  2. Rodin (Doillon)
  3. Taylor Swift Reputation Stadium Tour (Åkerlund)
  4. The Rider (Zhao)
  5. Den of Thieves (Gudegast)
  6. Roma (Cuaron)
  7. 50 Shades Freed (Foley)
  8. Milla (Massadian)
  9. First Man (Chazelle)
  10. Lover for a Day (Garrel)
  11. At Eternity’s Gate (Schnabel)
  12. Let the Sunshine In (Denis)
  13. Upgrade (Whanell)
  14. The Favourite (Lanthimos)
  15. A Star is Born (Cooper)

Worst of the year:

  1. Sorry to Bother You (Riley)
  2. A Quiet Place (Krasinski)
  3. Isle of Dogs (Anderson)
  4. Avengers: Infinity War (Russo Brothers)
  5. Widows (McQueen)
  6. Black Panther (Coogler)
  7. Crazy Rich Asians (Chu)
  8. The 15:17 to Paris (Eastwood)
  9. The Death of Stalin (Iannucci)
  10. Zama (Martel)

 

Nicolas Cage year in review: 2018

This was a busy year for Nicolas Cage. He was in 8 movies, including smaller voice-acting parts in two animated movies (Spiderverse and Teen Titans). I didn’t see either of them, but Josh says he’s funny in Spiderverse.  We’re only including movies that he starred in.

The Cage movie everyone was talking about this year was Mandy. To be frank, as longtime Cage diehards who have eagerly watched every damn direct-to-video crime movie he’s ever done, our feeling is that Mandy is for posers. The key to the latter-day Nicolas Cage movie is that it’s just a regular movie that Cage took in some extraordinary direction. Cage is most often at his best when he’s out of proportion with everything else. Mandy is too self-consciously a Nicolas Cage movie, and it teeters on the brink of self-parody. If Cage made two other movies like Mandy, it would be time to declare him on the decline. Thank god, he did not. He made three movies that were considerably better and a couple others that were trash (which we are fine with: it can’t all be fine dining, and wading through trash makes it all the more gratifying when he hits one out of the park).

Without further ado, our ranking of the six movies that Cage starred in this year:

1) Looking Glass (Hunter)

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Tim Hunter! You’d probably know him from River’s Edge, but he also directed episodes of many popular TV shows (Twin Peaks, Breaking Bad, Riverdale, and lots of others). Looking Glass is pure sleaze and we love it. It opens with credits in David Lynch font and some ominous driving. We soon learn that married couple Nicolas Cage and Robin Tunney are struggling after losing their only daughter and have purchased a scuzzy motel off Craigslist in hopes of starting a new life. The hook is: Cage finds a secret passageway to a two-way mirror where he can spy on guests! It’s a bit like Bad Times at the El Royale, but good. His performance is brilliant throughout, and he’s doing something that he’s never done before. It’s a relatively understated performance, without a lot of screaming and shouting, but it is totally batshit. Three things especially stand out. First: for most of the movie, whenever he’s not looking through the spy mirror, he’s thinking about looking through the spy mirror. The distracting obsession is all over his face. Second: his reactions! There are dozens of meme-worthy reactions in this movie. Certainly all the scenes where he’s perving out at the spy mirror are pure gold, but his reaction to his own messed up dream is priceless. Third: the sex scenes with Robin Tunney are magnificent.

2) Between Worlds (Pulera)

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If it were just me writing this, I probably would have put this first, but Josh feels strongly about Looking Glass and he makes a strong enough case that I decided to concede this one. Looking Glass has Cage doing something we’ve never seen him do before, whereas this is another in a long line of balls-to-the-wall Cage explosions. But what an explosion it is. I mean look: he’s wearing a shark tooth necklace. It’s hard to describe this, but basically: Cage is a truck driver who has lost his wife and daughter. He meets a woman with psychic powers (Franka Potente, from Run Lola Run) who wants him to help guide her comatose daughter’s soul back to her body, but Cage’s wife’s soul ends up possessing the daughter. It’s completely insane throughout, with Cage leaning into the white trash angle. There’s lots of weird sex shit and the movie savors every morsel of luridness. Director Maria Pulera is someone to watch.

3) Mom and Dad (Taylor)

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We love Brian Taylor and this movie is a ton of fun. It’s a fairly straightforward extrapolation of an excellent premise: parents everywhere are overtaken with an uncontrollable urge to murder their children. Cage here is very clearly paying homage to Jack Nicholson. It’s a blast, even if his performance is predictable. Mom and Dad loses some Cage factor points because Selma Blair soundly upstages him.

4) Mandy (Cosmatos)

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Ah, Mandy. Look, we wanted to love this. We thought we would love this. But we just didn’t. It’s a glorified music video, remixing tropes that have been done so much better before (you want a scary satanic sex cult? Let me direct you to Sergio Martino’s All the Colors of the Dark, which eats Mandy for breakfast). The storytelling is inept in a bad way (it’s too pretentious to enjoy its ineptness as such). The part that irked me the most was when he sets out to track down the cult, with only one lead about where they might be, and we cut *immediately* to him having them in his crosshairs. I mean c’mon, how can there be tension when you don’t even try? Also, to borrow an observation from Brazilian critic Filipe Furtado, it takes a special kind of mediocrity to render a meeting between Nicolas Cage and Bill Duke underwhelming. And yet that’s what Cosmatos has done here. We don’t hate Mandy, though, we just think it’s overrated and for posers. We have to admit that it has two scenes that immediately join the Cage pantheon: vodka-chugging and axe-forging.

5) 211 (Shackleton)

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This is deep in the bottom of the bargain bin. It does, however, work on the good-bad level. What makes it fun is that the bank robbers are total psychopaths who kill people indiscriminately rather than professionals who only resort to violence if they have to. Cage loses it only once, but there are lots of fun shots of him casually shooting a pistol in the general direction of a building full of hostages. One of the main arcs in this is “bullied black teenager learns that white cops are his friends,” and so A+ for “Not ALL white cops. Not Nic Cage, for instance.”

6) The Humanity Bureau (King)

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Alas, this one has basically no redeeming value. It starts off with a promising setup: it’s the near future, and climate change, etc.. has messed everything up real bad so that there’s not enough to go around in the US anymore. There’s a dystopian state with a policy of deporting anyone who produces less than they consume to the euphemistically-named “New Eden.” The Humanity Bureau is like the new I.C.E., but now they’re scooping up derelict Trump supporters (yes, Trump is explicitly referenced). Anyways, it quickly loses any semblance of interest and becomes a tedious slog. No Cage factor to speak of.

 

 

 

 

 

Why I loved 24 Frames and hated Widows

24 Frames

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When Abbas Kiarostami died in 2016, we lost one of the greatest artists of our time, but he did leave behind one last film. He was still working on it on his deathbed and left his son instructions for finishing it. And what a film it is.

24 Frames is not the place to start with Kiarostami (I’d suggest Taste of Cherry), but to paraphrase his son, it’s the perfect place to end. It’s at once confoundingly simple and profoundly challenging, and a film that I look forward to watching over and over again throughout the rest of my life.

Here’s the basic idea: the film is composed of 24 short films, or “frames,” each of which is four and a half minutes long (note that 24 is the number of frames per second for traditional film projection). Each frame is based on a still image, which Kiarostami manipulates in various ways (superimposition, digital animation) to turn into a moving picture. The first frame is based on Pieter Brueghel’s famous painting “The Hunters in the Snow.” He tells us in an opening title card that he wanted to fill in what he imagined might have happened a couple minutes before and after the moment captured in the painting. This was how he first got started on the project, but he soon proceeded to his own photographs, which serve as the static images for the remaining 23 frames.

Typically, the action depicted is sparse. A boat washed up on shore is batted about by the waves. A group of pigeons is repeatedly dispersed by passing traffic. Two lions mate in the rain. There are some recurrent themes, like human activity as an intrusion into nature, but no one theme is touched on in all 24 frames. A recurrent visual motif is looking out into the world from some interior space (a car, a house, etc.), but again, this is not true of every frame.

There are many layers to be unpacked through repeated viewing, but my initial take is that one of the things Kiarostami is doing is meditating on the nature of cinema as an art form by connecting present digital filmmaking techniques with early cinema (as in late 19th and very early 20th century cinema). Early films were thought of as “moving pictures.” Photography and drawing were already established media, and cinema was understood in reference to these media. The magic and wonder of early film was seeing a picture– something that’s normally static– move on its own. Early films were just short snippets: a train passing, a horse running. But these simple moving images were awe-inspiring. We’ve lost this sense of awe as cinema has progressed and we have gained the ability to manipulate images digitally and portray pretty much anything we want to. Giant alien robot emerging from the sea floor and propelling itself into the cosmos? No problem. Kiarostami is rediscovering the bygone joy and wonder of film, and he’s doing it on his damn deathbed. He’s taking still images and making them come alive– returning in the digital age to the original manifestation of cinema as moving pictures. A very accomplished photographer in his own right, he’s also exploring the relationship between the media of painting, photography, and film and elaborating on how this relationship informs his own creative process.

I just find this deeply moving as the swan song of one of my favorite artists. Especially coupled with the knowledge that he bequeathed the unfinished project to his son to bring to movie theaters as his final statement.

24 Frames (2017)

I want to turn now to the single worst film review I’ve ever read, from Indiewire darling David Ehrlich, known for his best-of-the-year video edits. I haven’t always minded Ehrlich: back when I wasn’t paying very close attention, I often noticed he’d include a movie in his yearly round up that I thought was generally underappreciated. But after reading this review and then looking at what else he’s had to say lately, he’s come to embody for me the worst of contemporary film criticism. Here’s the review: https://www.indiewire.com/2017/05/24-frames-abbas-kiarostami-review-cannes-2017-1201833244/

I have a problem with nearly every sentence here, but I want to focus on the most appalling through line, which is his absurd, self-serving, and utterly offensive interpretation of Kiarostami’s quote: “Some films have made me doze off in the theater, but the same films have made me stay up at night, wake up thinking about them in the morning, and keep on thinking about them for for weeks.”

Here’s the full context where he said this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HxukX96bqAU&feature=youtu.be&t=1m33s

He draws a contrast between on the one hand films that take you hostage, take command of your attention, and provoke you but then you forget about them the next day, and on the other hand, films that give you the freedom to drift away, that lull you into a meditative state, that don’t take forceful possession of your attention, but that burrow into your thoughts and stay there long after they are over. You may even doze off watching the latter kind of film, but it will chase you into your dreams.

Here’s where Ehrlich goes with this quote (I’ll quote all the relevant bits at once here):

“So while I passed out (and passed out hard) roughly 15 minutes into “24 Frames,” the fascinating, posthumously completed non-narrative project that will serve as Kiarostami’s final farewell, I suspect that he wouldn’t take my unconsciousness as a criticism or a show of disrespect. On the contrary, I imagine that he would have been delighted to see the dozens of nodding heads that dotted the film’s final Cannes screening, where the narcotic quality of Kiarostami’s cinema was compounded by the sheer exhaustion of simply coming to see it. He would have loved the low rumble of snores that filled the auditorium in surround sound. To some extent, he might have even appreciated the steady stream of walk-outs, or my decision to take a short walk halfway through and then watch the rest of the film while standing at the back of the room.”

“Kiarostami corrupted the tyranny of time and space, he dissolved the wall that separates present and past. He made Schrödinger’s cinema, and — as “24 Frames” so poignantly confirms — he is both dead and alive, as all great artists will always be. But yeah, it’s still one hell of an endurance test. Arguably better suited as a museum installation than as a theatrical experience (the context of the former might help encourage people to engage with the project on Kiarostami’s terms)….”

“And, in the end, patience is a virtue. After walking back into the theater to shift and stir through the final five tableaux, I was rewarded with a beguiling experience that doubles as a perfect — and perfectly self-reflexive — tribute to the defining pursuits of Abbas Kiarostami’s working life…. So what of the unconscious girl, there but not present, who misses out on a great filmmaker’s dying flare of genius? She’s just one last person who Kiarostami had the satisfaction of putting to sleep.”

In the middle of all this, he slips in that he considers Close-Up to be his favorite film. That’s certainly a respectable choice– the film is a masterpiece– but I find it extraordinarily off-putting that a professional film critic who is posturing as a great lover of Kiarostami could at the same time say such incredibly disrespectful shit, giving himself a free pass on the basis of a very extreme interpretation of a single quote taken out of context. An endurance test? Seriously: a fucking endurance test??? Maybe if you’re someone who goes in cold with no familiarity with Kiarostami or experimental film it might be a tough sit. But it boggles my mind that someone who claims Close-Up as their favorite film could see 24 Frames as an endurance test. The frames are four and a half damn minutes a piece. The film is less than two hours long. On a typical visit to a photography exhibit, plenty of people spend at least 4-5 minutes a piece on the photos that interest them. Here the photos fucking move and somehow it becomes an endurance test? And look, when Kiarostami said that some films that have made him doze off have also been the ones that have kept him up at night, he did not mean that these films made him “pass out hard” after a mere 15 minutes and then get up and walk around, restlessly stir, and then stand in the fucking back for the last bit. A Cannes audience was snoring and there were a steady stream of walkouts? Everyone knows that Cannes audiences are revered for their good etiquette.

Sorry, but it’s offensive as hell that you slept through this movie, got up and walked around, made a pronunciation on its merits without actually watching it, and then claimed Kiarostami would have approved. And, sorry, but the museum exhibit line is the worst thing you say in the entire godawful piece. Have you ever seen a video installation in a museum? People talk, use their phones, kids misbehave, walk in and out without any regard for whether they’re at a natural starting or stopping point. A museum video installation has to be designed to withstand this awful setting. This film was not. It was designed to be shown in a theater, and for people to see the entire thing from start to finish, with maybe a brief doze or two. There are 24 frames, you’re supposed to see all 24 of them, not the second half of one frame and first half of another as you make your way through a museum.

Widows

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This one I hated and Ehrlich loved. Plenty of people loved it, so I’m not interested in singling him out here (though he is at the center of the current trend of fawning on films like Widows that substitute progressive signaling for cinematic ideas), but I’ve got some thoughts about the film:

Let’s say you want to make a heist movie with an all-female team of crooks featuring Viola Davis, Cynthia Ervio, Michelle Rodriguez, and Elizabeth Debicki. That sounds super rad. One of the first things you should probably think about is how to make the heist itself cool as hell. Don’t want to go for the cheeky flash of Oceans 11 or the massive scope and harsh brutality of Heat? There’s always the quiet tension of Rififi. Just give me SOMETHING. Make the heist interesting in some way or other.

This question doesn’t seem to have occurred to anyone involved with Widows. The result is perhaps the most boring heist movie ever made. What special obstacles do the women face when planning the heist? What occasion do they have for ingenuity? Money is heavy and they’re women so it’s hard to carry. I’m not making this up: that’s really all this movie has up its sleeve. It takes about an hour and 40 minutes for anything to happen and when it does it could hardly be less interesting. There are a couple additional minor obstacles when the heist is in progress, but they are very conventional and easily dealt with. This is a heist movie where no one even tried to make the heist interesting. It’s so cynical: it tries to get by on the most superficial possible social justice pandering and a few topical references. But can’t they be a diverse crew of women *and* pull off a cool caper?

The wonderful cast is terribly wasted. How can you not give Michelle Rodriguez any scenes to steal?? Cynthia Ervio is an electric screen presence, but she gets jack shit to say or do. She’s supposed to be The Driver and she doesn’t even do any noteworthy driving. It’s insulting: ogling her biceps is the prescribed mode of admiring her female strength. Even Viola Davis in the lead is rendered paper thin— she’s reduced to a gesture in the direction of the grieving black mother media fetish object. The police violence topical reference is perhaps the most cynical element of this movie: it’s substituted for more robust character development, as though it tells us most of what we need to know about this woman all by itself. There’s an empowerment arc, and it centers on the agonizing cliche of female strength as a self-conscious imitation of masculinity. This is exactly the bullshit Rivette critiqued in Gang of Four: find a way of portraying female strength that isn’t just acting like men and delivering shitty dialogue about having enough balls.

Everyone praising Widows (including our friend Ehrlich) focuses on how great Elizabeth Debicki is, and they are right about this: she’s by far the best part of the movie, followed by Daniel Kaluuya, Colin Farrell and a couple surprising shots where McQueen imitates Kiarostami (the reverse POV driving shots, especially the one where we can’t see into the car). But doesn’t anyone see the irony here? We’ve got a black woman in the lead, a black woman as the badass driver, and frickin’ Michelle Rodriguez, and the best role goes to the tall, slender blonde woman?

 

M. Night Shyamalan reconsidered

There are two common critical lines on Shyamalan. Mainstream critics generally say that he peaked with The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable and is now a joke. Deeper down the rabbit hole of blackbelt cinephilia, one finds a lot of hardcore Shyamalan cultists. There are several people I read regularly who think most of his films are masterpieces and many others who revere a subset of his Certified Rotten output. I occupy probably the least populous quadrant of Shyamalan critical opinion: I think The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable are two of his weakest movies and that he didn’t really come into his own until he started tanking on the Tomatometer. I’m not going out of my way to be a contrarian here: these are my honest views, settled only after revisiting Shyamalan’s body of work and reflecting on it a great deal.

Shyamalan is not for everyone. He’s certainly not for The Bookkeeper. The Bookkeeper is the viewer who is preoccupied with continuity and plot rationality. The Bookkeeper hates Bird Box and The Last Jedi. I’m happy to live and let live in matters of taste, but I generally don’t enjoy discussing movies with The Bookkeeper and there’s very little chance we are going to converge at all on this one. Shyamalan is also not for The Irony Skeptic. The Irony Skeptic doubts that Shyamalan knew exactly what he was doing when he cast Mark Wahlberg as a science teacher. The Irony Skeptic laughs derisively at goofy, wonky dialogue and thinks it’s trying and failing to be serious rather than assuming it’s supposed to be funny.

This stuff is more likely to appeal to the viewer who is happy to put style and craft first, who enjoys the ridiculous and goofy, and who isn’t put off by big, dumb (often metafictional) themes delivered with a superlatively heavy hand. I should qualify this characterization by mentioning that there are some very advanced contrarians out there who find all sorts of fascinating things to say about Shyamalan’s themes. See, for instance, the writings of Mike Thorn. I have great admiration for this sort of highbrow Shyamalan criticism, but this is not the primary level at which I personally enjoy most of this stuff. I’m more interested in the execution than in what he’s trying to say.

Now, I shall rank and comment on his filmography:

12) Wide Awake (1998) and Praying with Anger (1992)

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These are the two Shyamalan films that predate The Sixth Sense. I tried watching both of them and found both to be unwatchable. Praying with Anger feels like a student film and is only available as a horrendous VHS rip. Wide Awake got destroyed by Harvey Weinstein, but it never had a chance: an annoying kid struggles with his Christian faith and forms a friendship with a kindly nun played by Rosie O’Donnell. You lost me at “kindly nun played by Rosie O’Donnell.” It’s saccharin to the point of being unbearable.

11) The Sixth Sense (1999)

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I never liked this movie. Along with The Usual Suspects, it’s a pinnacle of the late 90’s twist-gimmick cycle that I fundamentally hate. I know some people found it scary back in the day, but I certainly wasn’t one of them. I revisited it recently and my opinion hasn’t changed. I hate the gimmick, the kid is extraordinarily annoying, Bruce Willis is a blank, and the central romance is so underdeveloped that I’m unable to find the Olivia Williams’ grief as moving as it should be (though her performance is the bright spot of the movie).

10) Unbreakable (2000) 

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I like the concept: a superhero origin story that’s set in the “real world,” i.e., the nearest possible world where there are superheroes. I also like the metafictional themes that emerge through making the supervillain a comic book obsessive. Samuel L. Jackson is very good. Where this falls apart for me is in the details. One of the central, driving questions in Bruce Willis’ investigation into whether he may in fact be a superhero is whether he’s ever been sick. I’m no Bookkeeper, but this just makes so little sense that it’s hard for the investigation to sustain interest: how could he possibly be in doubt about whether he’d ever been sick? He wouldn’t even know what it’s like to be sick! Unbreakable is way too front-heavy with this tedious, poorly written investigation material and when we finally get around to the superhero ascendancy it feels rushed. When he goes out into public to be a hero he finds a serial killer *immediately* and dispatches with him in like four minutes, and then we get those godawful anticlimactic closing title cards. It’s so dissatisfying.

9) The Last Airbender (2010)

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I don’t know the source material and I don’t generally like this sort of kids movie but this isn’t all that bad. The narrative is a total mess and there’s some ridiculous dialogue and acting but Shyamalan is way, way better at using CGI than most directors and I thought for the most part this movie looked cool as hell. Don’t go out of your way, but it has its pleasures.

8) After Earth (2013)

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There’s a lot to like here. This is a tight, tense sci-fi survival-adventure movie with one glaring flaw: Jaden Smith. Will Smith is actually pretty good in this but his kid is a train wreck. Recast this with Michael B. Jordan and you’ve got a very solid movie. The action scenes are great.

7) Signs (2002)

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From here on up everything is excellent. Signs is probably Shyamalan’s most conventionally well-executed movie. It works on multiple levels: as a thriller, a parable about faith, a character-driven family drama. The whole cast is great. Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix are standouts, but even the kids are really good in this one. I prefer Shyamalan’s crazier movies, but I’ve got nothing bad to say about Signs. 

6) Glass (2019)

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I went to see Glass and I loved it, but I am going to be conservative with ranking it because I have much less confidence in my appraisal than I do for the ones I’ve seen multiple times. My initial opinion is that it has second act pacing problems but is otherwise thrilling. I love low-budget digital Shyamalan. It’s very evident that he feels freed rather constrained by this mode of filmmaking. Glass’s greatest merits are the seamless, masterful direction and two brilliant complementary performances from James McAvoy and Anya Taylor-Joy. If you couldn’t stand McAvoy in Split, you won’t be able to stand him here, but if you’re like me, there’s no such thing as too much McAvoy (NB, I did not like him until I saw Split). I find Anya Taylor-Joy’s blurring of the line between Stockholm Syndrome and profound Christian compassion deeply moving (more below re: Split). If you haven’t seen Split, see that first. If you like it, definitely see Glass. If you don’t, there’s not much of a chance you’ll like this.

5) The Village (2004)

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The Village is arguably Shyamalan’s greatest accomplishment of mise-en-scène, and it’s probably his most revered film among blackbelt cinephiles. It was widely dismissed in the US when it was first released, though Cahiers du cinema had it on their top ten of the year (Shyamalan usually makes their list). I certainly dismissed it; I was in a very anti-twist mindset and I found the ending to be a real groaner. But I was young and I didn’t know very much and I was wrong to dismiss the film. Revisiting it, I found it worked much better already knowing the twist. Having the big picture in mind helped me appreciate the rich details of Shyamalan’s direction, and also let me understand what the hell Adrien Brody is up to. The acting is wall-to-wall amazing throughout (not to mention the dialogue!). The score is top notch. I plan to revisit The Village again and I think it’s entirely possible that it will grow even more in my esteem. If you skipped it or haven’t seen it since its initial release, I recommend giving it a fresh look. It’s aged well.

4) The Visit (2015)

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Grandparents horror! What glorious subject matter. Watching this, one wonders why more filmmakers haven’t tapped into the vast horror possibilities that grandparents present. Aging, illness, incontinence, mental dissolution: this is the terrifying reality of grandparents. The Visit was Shyamalan’s first low-budget digital movie, and his glee at being able to do whatever he wants shines through. He inverts his usual high polish aesthetic, going for a grimy found-footage approach, but the Shyamalan metafictional wonkery is present in full force, with the young girl as the diegetic filmmaker and the young boy as a freestyle rapper. The rapping is very cringey but I admire how Shyamalan just totally goes for it. The tone is so wildly uneven (in a good way) that I can accept the absurd insistence on giving the 13 year old ample rapping time. Also: the jump scares are far superior to those found in typical found-footage horror.

3) Split (2016)

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Split is not for everyone, but it’s definitely for me. I delayed watching this for a long time because I wasn’t at all interested in yet another horror villain with Dissociative Identity Disorder. I had no idea. This is a giant James McAvoy atomic bomb. I can TOTALLY imagine finding him unbearable in this but for me his performance is an absolute joy. He frickin’ lets it rip. This is R-rated, low-budget, off-the-leash Shyamalan and it is remarkably insane for a movie that made 280 million dollars. It goes to some extremely dark places, with bold shifts in tone that are even more jarring than those in The Visit. This is not a politically correct movie: the subject matter is volatile and unsanitized. But I think it’s got what it takes to roll with high stakes content. It builds surprising weight by the end and McAvoy and the phenomenal Anya Taylor-Joy absolutely crush oceans of feeling.

2) The Happening (2008) 

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The Happening is a modern day cult classic. Watching Bird Box recently (which I liked), I was struck by how much more mileage Shyamalan got out of the spontaneous suicide premise. This was his first R-rated movie, and it’s a great delight in the age of PG-13 horror. He doesn’t waste any suicides: they are imaginative and often disturbing. He’s said in interviews that he was going for a B-movie in the vein of The Blob, and admitted that he may have punched too high at times and misled the audience about what he was going for. I don’t really see how so many people were misled when the central thematic exposition is delegated to Hotdog Guy, but there is a level of seriousness to the movie’s environmentalism that clashes with the overall ridiculousness of the whole affair (which for me just adds to the ridiculousness). There is camp value throughout, thanks in no small part to the ridiculous casting choices (Wahlberg as a science teacher and Leguizamo as a math teacher), but it’s also genuinely frightening. I’ve watched The Happening lots of times but I had two major new insights on my last viewing. The first is that it’s picked up a new resonance: middle class refugee crisis. The second relates to my own biography. I lived in the northeast until I was 26, when I moved to Montana. I spent five years in NJ, not far from where this movie is set. Part of what generates the horror of The Happening is being trapped in the all-consuming maze of suburban sprawl as the menace strikes smaller and smaller population centers. The path to safety for the protagonists is to stay away from people, but this is impossible in that part of the world. I relate very strongly to the movie’s Northeast claustrophobia. There’s just no way to get to wide open spaces, and anyplace that’s even a little open is bound to be full of people. I’ve lived this shit: once I drove to damn North Carolina and back just to try to find some open space. Once I drove to Ithaca, NY just to go swimming. Endless suburban sprawl messes with your mind, and this movie nails the horror of being trapped in it.

1) Lady in the Water (2006)

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To be forthcoming: I am definitely an outlier on this one, but I feel very strongly about my stance. Lady in the Water is Shyamalan’s masterpiece. I loved it back when I first saw it, and revisiting it more than a decade later I loved it even more. It’s definitely not for people who are on the fence about Shyamalan: it is his most extreme work with respect to metafictional mayhem and he goes right ahead and casts himself as the messiah figure. Lady in the Water announces its primary theme through Bob Balaban’s grumpy film critic, who makes the familiar postmodern complaint that there’s nothing new under the sun and cinema is doomed to rehash its past ad nauseum. Shyamalan is like “Hold my beer, ’cause Uncle M. Night’s gonna tell you a bedtime story.”

The nature of a bedtime story is to make it up as you go along, piecing together an ad hoc mythology that generates continuous conflict while facilitating the desired conclusion. Shyamalan builds this methodology into the structure of the film, as an antidote to the postmodern death of originality. It’s an optimistic film that aims to reveal the boundlessness of the imagination. The meta-fictional material and the first-order narrative work seemlessly together. The result is by turns hilarious, moving, suspenseful, and exhilarating in its unbridled creativity. Giamatti is incredible, as is the rest of the cast. I love Lady in the Water with my whole heart, and I’m not ashamed to shout it from the rooftop.

The day I stumbled into one of the best TV shows I’ve ever seen and my Netflix cynicism finally cracked

The last couple years I’ve been watching about 700 movies a year, probably 90% of which are from the 20th century. I made a deliberate decision to stop trying to keep up on new releases (I let my brother filter those for me) and focus on deep canon dives. I’ve also cut way, way back on TV and I’ve been brutal about quitting shows if they don’t totally grip me. As one might expect, given my frame of mind I’ve been very down on Netflix, which is all about the next new insubstantial audience-pandering thing. Lately, though, I’ve been feeling like their algorithm picked up on the fact that some people like things that are good, because they have been sorta killing it. Two Timo Tjahjanto genre movies, CAMThe Haunting of Hill House: this is some excellent shit. I was definitely a thumbs up on Bird Box, which is way more fun than most thrillers of the same ilk.  They also ponied up a massive budget for Martin Scorsese, and I’m damn excited to see the results of that. I haven’t watched Roma yet but I intend to… I’ve heard very mixed things. Some people whose taste I admire thought it was a masterpiece, a lot of others shrugged. Netflix also wrote a check for Bogdanovich to finally finish editing the long lost Orson Welles holy grail The Other Side of the Wind, which is a MASSIVE service to the world. I haven’t watched it yet, because I’m saving it for the perfect day and because I want to finish ticking off the other late Welles films I haven’t seen first (I’ve made a lot of joyful progress on this task). They’ve also been greatly expanding their collection of Hong Kong flicks in the original language with subtitles: lots of Johnnie To and Shaw Bros.

So I was browsing Netflix with a new sense of optimism. Then, yesterday, I got my face melted. I’ve been very sick all week and I haven’t really felt like watching too many heavy duty movies, so I’ve been watching more TV. I saw You featured on Netflix and was mildly intrigued: ooh, Dan from Gossip Girl… stalker… sounds like a black comedy. But how the hell is it a Lifetime show?? I didn’t even know they did anything with high production value. I was slightly deterred by the way I was seeing it hyped on social media: clickbait articles from trashy entertainment publications that I only follow for the sake of hate-reading touting it as “the bonkers, out of this world show you just HAVE to binge watch!” The last time I fell for that line I wasted a couple hours of my life on the Jonah Hill and Emma Stone shitfest Maniac, which is horrendously awful. But I was sick and I needed another show and it does have Dan from Gossip Girl. I ended up watching the entire season in one sitting and it’s one of the best TV shows I’ve ever seen.

The comparisons that come to mind: Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Veronica Mars, Dexter, Nip/Tuck. There’s so much Hitchcock! Suspicion, Strangers on a Train, Rope, Shadow of a Doubt, Psycho, Rear Window, Rebecca. And a whole lot of Lang’s M and Secret Beyond the Door. The show does an absolutely masterful job of getting you to sympathize with and even involuntarily root for the sociopathic monster at its center… so much delicious cognitive dissonance. It’s also extremely funny, with a sense of joy in its nastiness that rivals Nip/Tuck. It manages to hit a lot of very salient themes re: MeToo, nice guys of OkCupid, shitty allies, etc., without being cloying or preachy. Believe me: if it were cloying or preachy I would definitely be writing a savage diss right now. Throw in some funny MFA creative writing satire and a totally solid cast top to bottom (that alcoholic neighbor guy! whoever that actor is, he’s amazing). And they totally stick the landing: what an ending. I am absolutely with the viral TV trend of the moment: run, don’t walk. Avoid spoilers. Enjoy.

The show bombed on Lifetime but it’s Netflix’s most popular show right now (I just read). They are taking over and bringing us a season 2. I hope they don’t mess it up they way they messed up Black Mirror (badly enough that I now dislike the original series because I can’t get the horrible Netflix-produced episodes I watched out of my head). If they do that, maybe I’ll go back off the Netflix wagon, but for now: feeeeeeeeed me.