Song to Song (no spoilers)

Song to Song is revelatory.  There’s something Malick has been trying to do for a while now, and I feel like he’s finally done it.

There are a number of tropes that are distinctive of his recent work: extreme angle shots, fisheye lens, aggressively subjective camerawork,  TWIRLING, bed sheets, couples chasing each other through sparsely decorated houses.  A lot of tomato critics respond with open mockery.   MORE TWIRLING FROM MALICK!  This doesn’t surprise me, really.  If you are unwilling or unable to engage with Malick’s recent work on its own terms, I can certainly see how it could come across as a parody of a pretentious art film.  Personally, I appreciate Malick’s not giving a fuck about what anyone thinks of the twirling.  He just keeps doubling down on it.

Song to Song reveals something deeper about what he’s trying to do with these tropes and also why many react to it so harshly.  He’s trying to capture private, intimate moments.  The sorts of things you only do when no one is watching.  This is very hard to do, because what makes a moment private and intimate is precisely its utter particularity and idiosyncrasy.  Romantic love is typically portrayed on film through more general representational categories.  To represent one character falling in love with another, a filmmaker might show the one surreptitiously watching the other doing something quietly remarkable, or might show the couple staring longingly into each other’s eyes , or might show the two triumphing over adversity as a team and then falling into each other’s arms.  The sorts of private, intimate moments that constitute the emotional progression of actual relationships are too peculiar, too uncomfortable, too illegible to be readily translated to the screen.  Song to Song is like 40% composed of exactly these sorts of moments, and I suspect that it makes a lot of viewers uncomfortable.   To engage with it on its own terms requires a level of vulnerability and openness from the viewer that many will be unwilling or unable to muster.  It’s just so fucking sincere.

I’m going to stay away from discussing too many details of the film.  I only just saw it yesterday.  Like all of Malick’s films, it needs to be seen more than once before one can even really begin to digest it.   I’ll say it’s clearly the best new release I’ve seen this year, and it’s better than anything I saw last year.  It bears a lot of structural similarities to To the Wonder.  I love To the Wonder, please don’t confuse me for a hater, but I would say this is much more fully realized work.  The acting is uniformly perfect, even Natalie Portman.  Michael Fassbender plays a sort of Lucifer character brilliantly.  Patti Fucking Smith is in the movie.  Iggy Pop is in the movie.  He films both moshing and twerking in full-on Malick style.

He says this is the last movie he’ll film without a script.  He’s got a war film coming out next. This I think corroborates my central evaluative thought: this movie is a culmination of this last phase of his career.  I am eagerly looking forward to watching it several more times over the next few months.

Reflections on Twin Peaks S03E08 (spoilers)

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It’s worth taking a minute to put S03E08 in a broader cultural context.  This week, Disney made news by firing directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller from the new Han Solo origin film.  Lord and Miller are very distinct comedic directors who no doubt were putting an auteurist stamp on the film.  Disney claimed that they were fired due to “creative differences,” which is a euphemism for “they refused to produce something suitably generic.”  Who did they hire to replace them?  Opie.  Ron “Never Made a Good Movie” Howard.  This actually puts me in a bind, as I swore a solemn vow many years ago to never watch another Ron Howard movie, and yet I don’t see myself skipping a Star Wars movie, no matter how deliberately mediocre.

This scenario echoes the firing of Edgar Wright from Ant-Man in 2015.  They hired someone with a very distinctive artistic vision, and then fired him because he was making a movie that expressed that vision.  Warner Bros. confirmed all our worst fears this week when they came out and explicitly said that they are going to try to avoid working with auteurist directors who insist on final cut.  They want tighter studio control over the creative process, precisely so that they can calibrate their productions for maximum profitability.

It is against this increasingly dystopian cultural milieu that Twin Peaks S03E08 aired.  The show’s audience—including me—had been lulled into complacency by four straight episodes that more or less followed the same set of characters with very deliberate pacing, punctuated by moments of acute horror.  I think most of us expected a slight escalation but pretty much more of the same.  What we got instead was the most avant garde thing in the history of television.   I want to take a minute to really appreciate Showtime for facilitating the rapturous aesthetic experience I had last night.  That episode couldn’t have been cheap.  Maybe Showtime has some sort of long game business plan where word of mouth Twin Peaks buzz leads to lots of new subscribers who then decide to sample Homeland but of course get hooked (because Homeland is amazing) and keep subscribing even after Twin Peaks ends.  Maybe.  But I want to believe that at some level this is just old school patronage.  Some well-situated people fought to just let David Lynch do whatever he wants and these heroes won out over the bean counters.  This wasn’t a business decision.  This was service to humanity.   Or so I’d like to think.

There was so much going on in this episode that I don’t even know where to start.  The White Lodge and Black Lodge apparently exist in an alternate dimension.  There is a long-standing “two worlds” motif in Lynch that began with his unproduced Ronnie Rocket screenplay, where electricity is in some manner the medium to pass between worlds.  We found this idea iterated in Lost Highway, where Fred Madison and Pete Dayton appear to switch places across parallel worlds through an electrical disturbance.   We get something similar in Mulholland Drive, with the waking world/dream world dichotomy.  The motif becomes very abstract in Inland Empire, but it’s still there.   Multiple Laura Derns.  Even in Blue Velvet you have the idealized suburban world/rotting underworld dichotomy.   Twin Peaks: The Return is shaping up like a summative work, where we are getting a more direct look at the nuts and bolts of the metaphysics that pervade Lynch’s whole corpus.

The idea doesn’t sound amazing on paper: the Trinity nuclear bomb test opened up a portal to the other dimension (or something like that).  (Edit for hindsight: electromagnetic pulse fuels an explosion of fertility in the Mother?)  But the execution!  Holy shit!  It would be impossible to overstate how incredible a sequence this was.  Again, part of what’s important here is that we were all lulled into complacency.  The show had established a rhythm and a rough trajectory.  The episode started out more or less on track.  Our expectations were reinforced.  Then we get a badass Nine Inch Nails performance in the middle of the episode, and all of a sudden all hell breaks lose and we dive into the heart of the mushroom cloud and get like 11 minutes of Stan Brakhage set to Penderecki’s infinitely haunting “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima.”  It felt like Lynch was making contact with Kubrick here.  For one thing, Kubrick uses several Penderecki pieces in The Shining for similar emotional effect.  More directly, there’s an obvious connection with Dr. Strangelove and also with the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which continues in the following sequence where the Experiment—seen previously in the glass box—spews forth a bunch of evil spirits, including BOB.

We learn that Laura Palmer is a manifestation (or host?) of a spirit of light that is created in the White Lodge as a counterpoint to BOB.  This revelation is mind-blowing, even if the details are still very unclear.  It sheds new light on the tagline “It’s happening again.”  My inference is that just as the BOB spirit jumps from host to host, so too does the Laura spirit.  The BOB spirit continuously hunts the Laura spirit in her newest manifestation.  The predatory relationship between the dark, evil appetites that BOB embodies and the light and love that Laura embodies is represented as part of the spiritual fabric of the world.  BOB’s cyclical predation of Laura is a horror we unleashed through our collective monstrousness, reaching a crescendo with the atomic bomb.

And then there’s the Woodsmen.  The radio broadcast of “This is the water and this is the well…” reminded me of Rob Zombie’s Lords of Salem.  I doubt there’s a deliberate connection there, but it was pretty vivid for me.  The audiovisual onslaught of the whole last part of the episode was enthralling.  I felt it in my bones.  It was nightmarish in the best possible way.

The soot-covered Woodsmen clearly evoke the blackened alley dweller from Mulholland Drive, about whom we are told in the Winkie’s diner scene, “he’s the one who’s doing it.”  One of Lynch’s most distinctive tropes is the byzantine web of shadowy figures pulling the levers of power behind the scenes.  In Mulholland Drive this is memorably represented through a bizarre set of characters holed up in weird little rooms relaying phone calls until they reach the kingpin figure, who is perched like a Bond villain as he awaits the call.  Or in Wild at Heart there’s the network of twisted assassins who commission hits with ceremonial silver dollars.  What’s emerging in Twin Peaks: The Return is a sort of origin story for the evil spirits that ultimately lie behind these webs of power.  It’s the soot-covered man in the alley–an agent of the Black Lodge– who’s really pulling the levers.

Sometimes Lynch’s shadowy figures are given motives—typically highly particular and very dark appetites, like Frank Booth’s mommy fixation.  But these motives are in a way just McGuffins.  What really drives these characters is the pure joy of evil, and BOB is the distilled essence of this drive.  Last night we witnessed his creation.  And it was the best thing ever.

 

Scattered Remarks on Twin Peaks: The Return (spoilers)

I’m really, really not interested in nitpicking Twin Peaks: The Return.  It’s too good.  Having a new hour of David Lynch every week is a gift, and it’s inappropriate to subject a gift to nitpicking.  Even if I tried to nitpick, I would fail, because I am totally incapable of seeing any flaws in this work.  Maybe they’re there, probably they’re not, but I’m enjoying it too much to notice or care.  I also don’t really want to defend the show against its detractors, because it boggles my mind that they even exist.  I’m more inclined to be like “fine, have it your way, more Twin Peaks: The Return for me.”  I am going to do a bit of defending anyways, against my inclination, because I can’t even handle living in the same world with people who don’t like Dougie Jones.  I told Angela that there’s allegedly a good deal of dislike for Dougie and she looked at me like she couldn’t understand the words coming out of my mouth.  Some remarks and observations:

  • Dougie Jones couldn’t be done more succinctly.  The central idea realized by the Dougie arc necessarily requires a lengthy development. Dougie wakes up in a suburban nightmare maze of imposing highrise office buildings and an ever expanding network of cul-de-sacs lined with prefabricated houses.  Like a more extreme version of John From Cincinnati, he isn’t able to form original thoughts, just repeat things he’s heard (typically the thing that has just been said to him).  There’s a degree of realism: it’s not like anyone thinks that Dougie is acting normally.  But the idea that comes into view is that this mode of functioning actually works reasonably well–it’s a passable strategy for navigating the suburban maze.  Josh suggested that we can think of him as a postmodern M. Hulot.  I have thoroughly enjoyed every bit of Dougie and I almost felt like something was missing in episode 7, where we only got a little bit of a Dougie fix.  Also, NB, Naomi Watts’ performance is brilliant.  She is sooooooo funny, and I love the way she plays off of MacLachlan’s Dougie.

 

  • I’m noticing quite a few references to Lynch’s films. Some clear examples: The Spike’s office hit that dominoes into a second hit is a reference to the black book/vacuum cleaner scene in Mulholland Drive.  The scene where we meet Richard Horne in the Bang Bang Bar and he aggressively gropes and threatens the girl who asks him for a light is a reference Bobby Peru’s introduction to Lula in Wild at Heart. Evil Coop’s creepy utterance “at your house” is a reference to Robert Blake’s creepy utterance of the same line in Lost Highway.  It’s a little bit more of a stretch but I had an urge to connect Balthazar Getty’s local crime kingpin to Frank Booth in Blue Velvet.  Let me know if you’ve noticed something I haven’t.  I haven’t found this aspect of new Twin Peaks too winky or gimmicky.  Rather, it helps promote this sense that this is a cumulative, career-encapsulating work.

 

  • Is Richard Horne the son of Evil Coop and Audrey Horne? I kinda got that implication from the revelation that Coop visited Audrey after leaving the Black Lodge 25 years earlier.  NB, I just googled this and it’s a fairly widespread fan theory.  Fuck fan theories in general, by the way.  Nothing is more antithetical to Lynchian aesthetics than trying to crack the code, especially in advance.  I do think that we are being invited to wonder about Richard’s parentage, though.

 

  • Laura Dern is a national treasure and I’m relishing her recent wave of activity. I watched Big Little Lies and thought she was more impressive than the rest of the cast combined, including the over-hyped Reese Witherspoon.  That show was all about Laura Dern, as far as I’m concerned.  Her scene with Evil Coop in Twin Peaks episode 7 was a tour de force and maybe the high point of the new series so far.

 

  • The story behind the Evolution of the Arm is amazing. Michael J. Anderson, the actor who played the Arm in the original series, has gone off the deep end.  He demanded a ridiculous amount of money to return in the new series, claiming that they couldn’t do Twin Peaks without him.  Lynch declined, which led to Anderson making all sorts of repulsive, unsubstantiated accusations on social media.  Lynch replaced him with a stick with a wad of bubblegum (or whatever it is) shaped like a brain stuck on top of it.   I guess they can do Twin Peaks without him after all.

 

  • I’ve seen a number of articles where people are trying to litigate which is better, old Twin Peaks or new Twin Peaks. This is a stupid question.  Old Twin Peaks was watered down with all sorts of non-Lynch creative input.  There are some great episodes that Lynch himself didn’t direct, but by far the best episodes are the ones that he did.  Only those episodes are anywhere near the quality of new Twin Peaks.  There’s a *ton* of disposable filler.  New Twin Peaks reflects a vastly more mature and developed artistic vision, and it is unadulterated and unrestrained by network censorship.  Nothing is disposable, it’s a unified work.  OF COURSE IT’S WAY THE FUCK BETTER.  OF COURSE.

 

  • Did anyone notice Andy wearing a Rolex? I’m sure there’s a surfeit of fan theories about that.  I’m not going to even hypothesize about what’s going on there, but it’s a bit of foreshadowing that I expect will be worth keeping in mind.  Side note:  Michael Cera as Wally Brando, dressed up like the damn Wild One, doing a damn Godfather accent, is one of the greatest little tangential moments of Lynch’s entire career.

 

  • One more thought about Dougie: there’s interesting continuity between his being guided by little lights (in the Mr. Jackpots scene and when he reviews the insurance files) and pre-lodge Coop’s mysticism.

 

 

Twin Peaks: The Return, initial reaction

Having watched the first three episodes of the Twin Peaks return late last night, I feel compelled to record my reaction before being exposed to anyone else’s thoughts.  I am saving the fourth episode for late tonight (the first four episodes are currently available on the showtime anytime app.  I guess that means I’ll have to wait two weeks for more?).  There are no major spoilers and I barely mention any details or particulars, but I personally wouldn’t want to read what follows before seeing at least the first two episodes for myself.

First, my expectations:

To borrow Alexander Nehamas’ metaphor, if the new Fast and Furious movie is the aesthetic equivalent of a one night stand, the recent work of Refn is casual dating, and Claire Denis is a long term relationship, then David Lynch is a marriage.  There are few artists whose work I’ve engaged with so extensively.  I remember well obsessing over Lost Highway with my brother Josh for pretty much the entirety of 1997.  Two of the most memorable cinematic experiences of my life were attending an early viewing of Mulholland Drive at Cornell Cinema with all my friends in a theater totally packed with people who could not fucking  handle it and seeing Inland Empire on Christmas day sitting between the illustrious Jacob Collins and the even more illustrious Wallace Shawn.  I couldn’t count how many times I’ve revisited his major works.  And if there’s one thing I know about David Lynch, it’s that he wouldn’t have done this if he didn’t have totally new ways of combining image and sound locked and loaded.  He is not an artist who repeats himself.  We all thought he was done after Inland Empire.  My sense was that he always felt restrained by the limitations and expenses of film and the studio production system, and that once he was finally liberated by digital video, this freedom enabled him to price himself out of the market.  That is, he was finally able to put down a totally unadulterated, uncompromised rendering of his vision, and it left him with nowhere to go.  UNTIL NOW, MOTHERFUCKERS!

What I expect to be the most remarkable about the Twin Peaks return is the scope.  We’ve always heard how he wanted Dune and Fire Walk With Me to each be 4+ hours long but the studio interfered.  With Inland Empire we finally got to see what he could do with a long running time, and it’s staggering.  I can’t even conceive of what 18 hours is going to look like.

There are three basic Lynch tones: weird fun, blissful serenity, and visceral nightmare.  His aesthetic depends on the juxtaposition and intermingling of the three.   The original Twin Peaks series was like 80% weird fun, 10% blissful serenity and 10% visceral nightmare.   I expect an inversion to 10% weird fun, 10% blissful serenity and 80% visceral nightmare.  I expect that viewers who like the original Twin Peaks series and Mulholland Drive but can’t handle Fire Walk With Me and Inland Empire are going to struggle.  And by “struggle” I mean they are going to have the inside of their skulls rearranged and wake up with night terrors.  I expect hard surrealist horror.

AND THAT’S EXACTLY WHAT I GOT.  It would be impossible to overstate how much I liked those first three episodes.  I arrived home from a conference in SLC having not gotten a decent night’s sleep in 5 days and totally strung out on strenuous mental activity and more socializing than I’ve done over the rest of my sabbatical combined (which was awesome, in case any of my aesthetic normativity peeps are reading this).  I saw my spacey, vaguely depressed mental state as more of an asset than a liability for approaching these episodes.  Lynch demands to be watched in the dark.  I decided to wait till the middle of the night, drink coffee, and pro-actively court delirium.  I wanted to experience these episodes like nightmares.  I wanted them to bleed into actual nightmares once I finally went to bed.  It was exactly the right thing to do.  I was up till 4am.  I got 5 hours of fitful sleep.  I had nightmares.  I kept waking up to vivid memories of some of the new images I had seen.  It was fantastic.

This is straight David Lynch black tar heroin.  I wasn’t in any way concerned that he’d let me down.  What would have been bad, and what I definitely didn’t think he’d do, is a nostalgia bomb.  I really, really, really did not want to see an easy lapse into the damn fine coffee/cherry pie routine.  I certainly did not want to hear about a fish in a percolator.  My confidence was rewarded when I heard the gloriously stilted Inland Empire-style dialogue between Andy and Lucy. And the fucking evolution of The Arm! Good god.

I am going to stop there and let this soak in further as I eagerly anticipate getting back into Lynch’s universe with the fourth episode late tonight.  I plan to blog about the Twin Peaks return throughout the season.  Stay tuned.

The Vampire Diaries and Billions

No spoilers.

The Vampire Diaries

The Vampire Diaries concluded on Friday with its 171st episode.   After bingeing the first season on Netflix I started watching the show regularly in 2010, and have kept up with it ever since.   I found it far, far, far superior to its sleazy HBO cousin, True Blood, which I also watched.   I don’t think there’s a single show out there that I’ve spent more time watching than The Vampire Diaries (I’d have to do some math on The Simpsons, but I doubt it).   With its 22 episode seasons, the show was on about half the year, and it’s been tremendously comforting to so often have a new VD episode waiting.

The Vampire Diaries has a large roster of endearing characters that anyone who makes it through all 8 seasons will surely think of as old friends.  That’s not what makes the show so special, though.  The Young Adult Serial Melodrama (YASM) is an afflicted genre.  YASMs frequently start out intriguing, with a mysterious new guy or girl moving to town to escape a dark past and two or more love triangles rapidly ensuing.  The problem, though, is that these shows almost invariably run into a brick wall once they’ve exhausted the available love triangle permutations.  First she’s with Dawson, then she’s with Pacey, and then what?  The initially wonderful Gossip Girl fell into repetition and became hard for me to take less than halfway through its run.  The O.C. may be the only pure instance of the genre that didn’t ever really suck.

The key, I think, is to combine the YASM with some other genre.  Veronica Mars knocked YASM/mystery fusion out of the park.  I don’t think there’s any question that the first two seasons of VM are the best young adult TV of all time.  The Vampire Diaries fused the YASM with supernatural fantasy and, while it didn’t burn as brightly as Veronica Mars, it was consistently great for 8 seasons.  I can’t recall as single bad episode.  There were certainly lulls, and it did get a tiny bit repetitive to be facing so many different versions of The Most Powerful Being in the Universe, but it always maintained its core appeal.  It benefited above all else from extremely clever writing by Kevin Williamson and Julie Plec.  Rather than repeat love triangle permutations to move the story forward, they dug ever deeper into the past for material.  It’s quite a resource for a writer to have 150 years of backstory available for the main characters along with thousands of years of background, and Williamson and Plec made effective use of it.  The distinctive merit of The Vampire Diaries is how expansively creative their writing has been.

Certainly, it gets ridiculous.  For one thing, death means nothing in The Vampire Diaries.  Characters die or are entrapped in prison dimensions only to be brought back a couple seasons later as a matter of routine.  There’s always an emotional goodbye featuring an indie-rock montage and a lot of hand-holding, and then an emotional welcome back featuring an indie-rock montage and a lot of hand-holding.   But the show knows how to be just cheeky enough about its own ridiculousness to make it fun rather than grating.  Enzo’s dead.  Don’t worry, he’ll be back, as soon as Bonnie can track down an ancient dagger made from the bones of one of his ancestors and then perform a summoning ritual during a lunar eclipse while a descendant of the city’s founder strikes a magical bell with a hammer enchanted by an ancient sorceress to open a portal to another dimension where Damon must free Enzo and then stab an evil warlock with the dagger and escape back through the portal before it closes.   Yes, another primary pleasure of the VD is its hilariously byzantine mythology.  There are a lot of rules, and a lot of deus ex machina solutions that bypass these rules.  It’s all great fun.  I’ll miss it.  Usually I would watch new episodes first thing in the morning, by myself, with a cup of coffee.  I frequently cackled with delight.  I even went along as best as I could with the prescribed emotional responses to the many, many, many indie rock montages.  I doubt I’ll ever find another show quite so comforting.

Billions

Naomi Klein hates Billions.  She tweeted (I paraphrase), “Is there a shittier show than Billions?  I mean besides the RNC in Cleveland.”

There’s no question that if you think steadfast adherence to “correct” progressive attitudes is a precondition for aesthetic value, then you will hate Billions.  Billions revels in brash immoralism.  It introduces you to some of the worst people in the world, and then coaxes you to root for them by pitting them against even worse people.  In season 2, we finally meet a likable character.  Taylor, a non-binary, super-genius intern who announces upon initial greeting that their pronouns are “they, them, and their,” is subjected to a non-stop gauntlet of macho office harassment while showing superlative talent.  Taylor is motivated by sincere, academic interest in market analysis as opposed to greed and narcissism, and one of the primary arcs of season 2 features Axe (the show’s billionaire hedge fund manager protagonist, played by Brody from Homeland) feeding Taylor’s most competitive urges and seeking to undermine their integrity.  The pleasure of Billions depends in large part on the ability to bracket one’s moral sensibility and relish the sinister dastardliness of it all.

So how does the show manage to generate sympathy for its supervillain protagonist?  By pitting him against the one thing more repulsive than a corrupt hedge fund manager: a corrupt federal prosecutor, played by the brilliant Paul Giamatti.  I used to be a Giamatti detractor (Sideways-era), but he’s really grown on me, and his work in Billions as U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhodes makes the show.  Rhodes is hell bent on bringing down Axe, not out of any concern for the greater good, but as part of a multi-generational vendetta spiced up by deep insecurity over his dominatrix wife’s personal connection with Axe, who employs her (!) as a workplace psychologist/performance coach.  Without giving anything away, I’ll say that Giamatti’s chess soliloquy late in season 1 is a high point of the show.

Billions approaches the world of the elite scumbag without irony or satire.  It certainly doesn’t attempt to valorize or defend its characters, but it also doesn’t judge them.  It doesn’t go in for the manic hysteria of The Wolf of Wall Street, but like Scorsese’s film, it wants to be caught up in the exhilaration of greed rather than to stand above it.  It has no interest in offering a trite critique of something we all already know is destroying human civilization.  Taken together these two works signal a reorientation of the gangster genre.  We’ve always enjoyed rooting for the bad guy in the right context.  Who didn’t root for Michael Corleone to get away clean after assassinating a crooked cop in an Italian restaurant?  The new gangsters are on Wall Street, and Billions gives us a chance to root for them against uncharismatic rivals and crooked prosecutors alike.  There’s backstabbing and out-maneuvering aplenty, and even a guest appearance by Metallica.  I can definitely understand where Naomi Klein is coming from, but I personally don’t plan on missing any episodes of Billions. 

State of the Cinema 2016

I’ve always consumed a massive amount of cinema and television, and I’m always on the hunt for new discoveries. It’s kinda my thing. My brother Matt and I frequently receive criticism from our friends over the sheer quantity of things we get excited about. My taste is generous. But you’ve never really grappled with your own taste until you’ve tried to figure out if Kevin Smith’s Yoga Hosers is your 141st or 142nd favorite movie of the year (I did sort of appreciate its “fuck it” spirit, after all).

This all began with a journal. I decided for the first time to start keeping track of every new film I watch. It quickly became an obsession. I spent mornings at the beginning of 2016 taking care of my sick father. This created a perfect opportunity to watch at least one new movie most days. I decided at a certain point to try to just watch every new release on offer, regardless of whether it’s something I think I’m interested in. I wanted to assess the state of cinema, for better or worse. This led to some really shitty movie watching experiences. Right at the end, I watched my first Tyler Perry movie, Boo! A Madea Halloween (a whole film inspired by a joke in Chris Rock’s Top Five). To summarize, it’s an hour and forty five minutes of child abuse jokes and underage girls/elderly women getting horned up over writer/director/producer/star Tyler Perry. The movie The Forest was so bad I could barely finish it. I took like 30 breaks.

The more I added to the list, the more my own aesthetic priorities became clear to me. The big picture came into view. I started to better understand my own taste and what I value in a work of art. As the list grew I found myself often surprised by how it all landed. I learned, for instance, that as excited as I get about a lot of genre movies, in the end they aren’t my favorite overall. My very favorite movies were the ones that shook me up and overwhelmed me with their ambition or boldness or imaginativeness.

I actually liked most of the films I watched this year (I liked about 150 out of 200 movies). O.J. Made in America was by far the most staggering and accomplished work for me but on the level of pure cinematic ecstasy, it was all about The Handmaiden. Park Chan-wook has always been an interesting filmmaker but with The Handmaiden he made a diabolical and twisted piece of pure cinema with the eye and patience of a true perfectionist madman. Jarmusch’s Paterson struck a very personal chord and I wanted to just go back to it again and again like a song that puts you in a good mood. Scorsese’s Silence is the most underrated film of the year and the most personal and painful film yet from one of the greatest living masters and benefactors of cinema. And Toni Erdmann moved me with its sweet and melancholy take on the absurdity of modern life and the power of stupid jokes as an unconventional expression of fatherly love. I was sad I didn’t get a chance to see several films, especially Julieta, Things to Come and I, Daniel Blake.

Below is the list of the 200 films from the year 2016 that I’ve watched, ranked in the order of how much I liked them.  I also included my Josh’s choice picks to weigh in on tonight’s Oscars.
Thank you to my amazing girlfriend Izzy for sitting through a large number of these films. I promised her that we can just watch Top Chef and Ultimate Beastmaster for a while now that we’ve hit the 200 mark. I’ve included her top ten list as well. Enjoy!

  1. O.J. Made in America (Edelman)
  2. The Handmaiden (Park)
  3. Paterson (Jarmusch)
  4. Silence (Scorsese)
  5. Toni Erdmann (Ade)
  6. Sunset Song (Davies)
  7. Elle (Verhoeven)
  8. Knight of Cups (Malick)
  9. The Neon Demon (Refn)
  10. Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids (Demme)
  11. Wiener-Dog (Solondz)
  12. The Treasure (Porumboiu)
  13. Love & Friendship (Stillman)
  14. Valley of Love (Nicloux)
  15. Certain Women (Reichardt)
  16. Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Waititi)
  17. Dog Eat Dog (Schrader)
  18. The Edge of Seventeen (Craig)
  19. 20th Century Women (Mills)
  20. The Lobster (Lanthimos)
  21. Hacksaw Ridge (Gibson)
  22. The Witch (Eggers)
  23. Manchester by the Sea (Lonergan)
  24. Don’t Breathe (Alvarez)
  25. High Rise (Wheatley)
  26. Cameraperson (Johnson)
  27. The Nice Guys (Black)
  28. 31 (Zombie)
  29. Cafe Society (Allen)
  30. The Shallows (Collet-Serra)
  31. American Honey (Arnold)
  32. Allied (Zemeckis)
  33. The Love Witch (Biller)
  34. Fire at Sea (Rosi)
  35. Army of One (Charles)
  36. Cosmos (Zulawski)
  37. Lion (Davis)
  38. Nocturnal Animals (Ford)
  39. Indignation (Schamus)
  40. Little Sister (Clark)
  41. Into the Inferno (Herzog)
  42. Louder than Bombs (Trier)
  43. Hush (Flanigan)
  44. Eddie The Eagle (Fletcher)
  45. The BFG (Spielberg)
  46. Train to Busan (Yeon)
  47. Sully (Eastwood)
  48. Arrival (Villeneuve)
  49. Morris From America (Hartigan)
  50. Always Shine (Takal)
  51. Moonlight (Jenkins)
  52. Gimme Danger (Jarmusch)
  53. Blood Father (Richet)
  54. The Purge: Election Year (DeMonaco)
  55. Hell or High Water (Mackenzie)
  56. Doctor Strange (Derrickson)
  57. Green Room (Saulinier)
  58. In A Valley of Violence (West)
  59. Microbe and Gasoline (Gondry)
  60. I Am Not Your Negro (Peck)
  61. The Finest Hours (Gillespie)
  62. Sing Street (Carney)
  63. The Mermaid (Chow)
  64. Dheepan (Audiard)
  65. Hail Caesar (Coen Bros.)
  66. Snowden (Stone)
  67. 13th (DuVernay)
  68. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (Burton)
  69. Rules Don’t Apply (Beatty)
  70. Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World (Herzog)
  71. Weiner (Kriegman, Steinberg)
  72. Little Men (Sachs)
  73. Mia Madre (Morretti)
  74. Midnight Special (Nichols)
  75. Under the Shadow (Anvari)
  76. Miss Stevens (Hart)
  77. Patriot’s Day (Berg)
  78. Hidden Figures (Melfi)
  79. The Trust (Brewer)
  80. Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words (Schutte)
  81. Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising (Stoller)
  82. Finding Dory (Stanton)
  83. Pete’s Dragon (Lowery)
  84. De Palma (Baumbach, Paltrow)
  85. Eye in the Sky (Hood)
  86. The Invitation (Kusama)
  87. Pee Wee’s Big Holiday (Lee)
  88. Hello, My Name is Doris (Showalter)
  89. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (Schaffer, Taccone)
  90. Oujia: Origin of Evil (Flanagan)
  91. Barbershop: The Next Cut (Lee)
  92. Bridget Jones Baby (Maguire)
  93. The Monster (Bertino)
  94. A Bigger Splash (Guadagnino)
  95. Deepwater Horizon (Berg)
  96. Central Intelligence (Thurber)
  97. Hardcore Henry (Naishuller)
  98. The Fits (Holmer)
  99. Everybody Wants Some!! (Linklater)
  100. Tickled (Farrier, Reeve)
  101. The Founder (Hancock)
  102. Zootopia (Howard, Moore)
  103. Lights Out (Sandberg)
  104. Gleason (Tweel)
  105. Krisha (Shults)
  106. The Conjuring 2 (Wan)
  107. White Girl (Wood)
  108. Office Christmas Party (Gordon, Speck)
  109. Fences (Washington)
  110. Amanda Knox (Blackhurst, McGinn)
  111. Imperium (Ragussis)
  112. Tower (Maitland)
  113. Moana (Clements)
  114. The Light Between Oceans (Cianfrance)
  115. Loving (Nichols)
  116. Blair Witch (Wingard)
  117. Kate Plays Christine (Greene)
  118. Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice (Snyder)
  119. 13 Hours (Bay)
  120. The Magnificent Seven (Fuqua)
  121. The Legend of Tarzan (Yates)
  122. Keanu (Atencio)
  123. X-Men: Apocalypse (Singer)
  124. Mascots (Guest)
  125. Skiptrace (Harlin)
  126. The Boss (Falcone)
  127. Gods of Egypt (Proyas)
  128. Grimsby (Leterrier)
  129. Why Him? (Hamburg)
  130. Sausage Party (Tiernan, Vernon)
  131. Money Monster (Foster)
  132. Free State of Jones (Ross)
  133. The Program (Frears)
  134. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Lee)
  135. Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (Zwick)
  136. Florence Foster Jenkins (Frears)
  137. Bleed For This (Younger)
  138. Star Trek Beyond (Lin)
  139. Captain Fantastic (Ross)
  140. Swiss Army Man (The Daniels)
  141. Nerve (Joost, Schulman)
  142. 10 Cloverfield Lane (Trachtenberg)
  143. Kung Fu Panda 3 (Carloni, Yuh)
  144. Kubo and the Two Strings (Knight)
  145. Bad Santa 2 (Waters)
  146. Deadpool (Miller)
  147. Yoga Hosers (Smith)
  148. The Jungle Book (Favreau)
  149. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Edwards)
  150. Alice Through The Looking Glass (Bobin)
  151. Criminal (Vroman)
  152. Triple 9 (Hillcoat)
  153. Remember (Egoyan)
  154. Mechanic: Resurrection (Gansel)
  155. The 9th Life of Louis Drax (Aja)
  156. Captain America: Civil War (Russo Bros)
  157. Storks (Stoller)
  158. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Steers)
  159. The Infiltrator (Furman)
  160. Don’t Think Twice (Birbiglia)
  161. A Hologram for the King (Tykwer)
  162. Cell (Williams)
  163. The Bronze (Buckley)
  164. Elvis & Nixon (Johnson)
  165. War Dogs (Philips)
  166. The Meddler (Scafaria)
  167. Masterminds (Hess)
  168. The Birth of a Nation (Parker)
  169. The Secret Lives of Pets (Renaud)
  170. The Huntsman: Winter’s War (Nicolas-Troyan)
  171. The Family Fang (Bateman)
  172. Zoolander 2 (Stiller)
  173. Maggie’s Plan (Miller)
  174. The Girl on the Train (Taylor)
  175. Assassin’s Creed (Kurzel)
  176. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (Yates)
  177. Life, Animated (Williams)
  178. Suicide Squad (Ayer)
  179. La La Land (Chazelle)
  180. The Angry Birds Movie (Kaytis, Reilly)
  181. Ghostbusters (Feig)
  182. Demolition (Vallee)
  183. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (Ficarra, Requa)
  184. Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates (Szymanski)
  185. London Has Fallen (Najafi)
  186. Keeping Up With The Joneses (Mottola)
  187. Blue Jay (Lehmann)
  188. The Darkness (McLean)
  189. Nine Lives (Sonnenfeld)
  190. Jane Got a Gun (O’Connor)
  191. Warcraft (Jones)
  192. Now You See Me 2 (Chu)
  193. Miles Ahead (Cheadle)
  194. Mother’s Day (Marshall)
  195. Bad Moms (Lucas, Moore)
  196. Dirty Grandpa (Mazer)
  197. The Accountant (O’Connor)
  198. Jackie (Larrain)
  199. Independence Day: Resurgence (Emmerich)
  200. Inferno (Howard)
  201. Jason Bourne (Greengrass)
  202. How To Be Single (Ditter)
  203. Passengers (Tyldum)
  204. Ben-Hur (Bekmambetov)
  205. Live by Night (Affleck)
  206. Morgan (Scott)
  207. The Eyes of my Mother (Pesce)
  208. Me Before You (Sharrock)
  209. Collateral Beauty (Frankel)
  210. Boo! A Madea Halloween (Perry)
  211. The Forest (Zada)

Isabel Garcia’s top ten:

  1. Moonlight (Jenkins)
  2. Cameraperson (Johnson)
  3. Into the Inferno (Herzog)
  4. O.J. Made in America (Edelman)
  5. Paterson (Jarmusch)
  6. The Handmaiden (Park)
  7. Elle (Verhoeven)
  8. Fire at Sea (Rosi)
  9. Lion (Davis)
  10. Silence (Scorsese)

JOSH’S CHOICE AWARDS

Best Actor: Gerard Depardieu; Valley of Love 

Runners up: Peter Simonischek; Toni Erdmann /&/ Colin Farrell; The Lobster /&/ Nicholas Cage; Army of One /&/ Casey Affleck; Manchester By The Sea 

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Best Actress: Isabelle Huppert; Elle /&/ Valley of Love (haven’t seen Things to Come)

Runners up: Hailee Steinfeld; The Edge of Seventeen /&/ Kate Beckinsale; Love & Friendship /&/ Kim Min-hee and Kim Tae-ri; The Handmaiden 

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Best Cinematography: Chung Chung-hoon;  The Handmaiden

Runners up: Rodrigo Prieto; Silence /&/ Natasha Braier; The Neon Demon /&/ Emmanuel Lubezki; Knight of Cups /&/ Declan Quinn; Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids

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Best Editing: Matthew Newman; The Neon Demon 

Runners up: Bret Granato, Maya Mumma, Ben Sozanski; OJ: Made in America /&/ Kim Jae-bum & Kim Sang-beom; The Handmaiden /&/ Affonso Gonçalves; Paterson /&/ Roxana Szel; The Treasure 

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Best Director: Park Chan-wook; The Handmaiden 

Runners up: Martin Scorsese; Silence /&/ Jim Jarmusch; Paterson /&/ Maren Ade; Toni Erdmann /&/ Paul Verhoeven; Elle 

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Best Film: OJ: Made in America 

Runners up: The Handmaiden /&/ Paterson /&/ Silence /&/ Toni Erdmann

OJ: Made in America

When I first heard of its existence, few things sounded less appealing to me than a nearly 8 hour long documentary about OJ Simpson.  I didn’t see the need for a rehash of a story that has already been done to death a hundred times over.  I was wrong.  This is an extremely important movie, and the story of OJ is more relevant than ever.  Don’t be deceived by the ESPN: Films label.  This is no shoddy sports biography, and it’s no true crime exploitation fodder, and it’s no mere rehash.  It is many things, but first and foremost it is an epic examination of the last 50 years of race relations in America, viewed through the lens of OJ’s life.  It is not bogged down with every tiresome detail of the murder trial.  Kato Kaelin is barely mentioned.  Much more time is spent on the Rodney King beating and LA riots.  The film strives to provide the OJ story with the fullest possible context for understanding its significance in American history.   It deals extensively in details, but these details are curated for relevance to the big picture.  I can’t think of a film that deals with race in contemporary America more insightfully.

I refer to it as a film, but there has been some controversy about whether it is a film or a television miniseries.  This controversy seems based in confusion.  It needn’t be the case that it belongs determinately to either category.  It has features of both, and evaluating it as an instance of either is legitimate.  I definitely experienced it as more a film than a miniseries.  I think of a TV documentary miniseries as utilitarian in composition: we are being delivered information, and the style of delivery is less important than its efficiency for achieving that purpose.  This work is highly stylized and creates an immersive experience. Moreover, I think of a miniseries as divided into parts that are separated by some break in continuity.   OJ: Made in America flows.  Its five partitions are set at natural transition points in the story, but there are no breaks in continuity.  If the partition titles were removed, I never would think of the film as consisting of five discrete parts.  If my viewing companion hadn’t fallen asleep, I would have stayed up all night and watched the whole thing in one sitting.  I ended up watching it over two sittings.

The film does a remarkable job highlighting what a twisted coil of irony the whole shitshow has been.  OJ, the film argues, was the first black celebrity to fully adopt—and be adopted by—the myth of a colorblind, post-racial America.   White sports fans loved OJ, and they loved to say that OJ “transcended” race.   The movie presents a rich and insightful examination of what that bullshit is supposed to mean, and of OJ himself as a black man who bought the bootstrapping narrative hook, line and sinker, and did everything he could to disassociate his identity from blackness until he found himself in the clutches of the justice system.

The brilliant, brutal irony at the film’s core is the way in which OJ’s trial completely inverted the generic black American experience of the justice system, while at the same time being apprehended as standing in for the generic black experience.   By the time the trial reached its conclusion, what was really being litigated was the failure of the justice system for black people in America, while the man on trial didn’t for most of his life think of himself as black, didn’t live a life that was representative of the experience of the majority of black Americans, had millions of dollars to hire a dream team of lawyers, and had his case heard by an almost entirely black jury in a predominately black district.    But The Postman Always Rings Twice, and the ultimate layer of irony leaves OJ to finally to be treated like any old black man by the justice system as he ends up on trial in Santa Monica (i.e., before a white jury and white judge) for a bizarre sports memorabilia robbery years after being acquitted for murder.  He was sentenced to a vastly disproportionate 33 years that he is still serving today.

Towards the end of Part 3 of OJ: Made in America, there’s an extended examination of a particularly striking moment from the omnibus hearing.  Christopher Darden, a black attorney asked to join the prosecution team once it had been established that the jury would be mostly black, is seeking to disallow evidence relating to Mark Fuhrman’s use of the ‘n’ word.  He argues that black jurors will have a visceral reaction to the officer’s use of the word, and this visceral reaction will predispose them to believe that he framed Simpson.   Johnnie Cochran responds with personal indignation, acknowledging Darden as a friend and then taking him to task not as the prosecutor of the case, but rather as a brother who’s just sold out to The Man.   The presentation of this episode and the overlain analysis is impressively nuanced.  How can Cochran adopt such stark indignation when he is in fact doing everything he can to turn the case into a referendum on the LAPD’s race problems and this is exactly why he wants the officer’s use of slurs presented as evidence?  Because Darden’s argument imagines that black people are affected by the ‘n’ word in a way that white people are never affected by any word: they are rendered unable to reason objectively–unable to bring any considerations to bear except raw mistrust of law enforcement.

Another potent segment revolves around the way DNA evidence figured in the case.  The DNA evidence against Simpson was overwhelming. As I recall, and as the film presents, once this evidence was presented the media and the majority of white people in America believed he was guilty.  His blood was all over the crime scene, dispersed in a manner consistent with an injury on his hand, and the blood of the victims was all over his car and home.  There’s a fucked up moment during the jury selection when present-day Marcia Clark explains that part  of the reason the prosecution was unhappy about the case being heard in downtown LA was that more intelligent jurors tended to be more open to DNA evidence (i.e., black  people  don’t understand DNA).   Her remarks on this matter, as well as the remarks of most of the other talking heads from law enforcement, strongly imply that the black jurors must have been so irrationally distrustful of police that they were prone to gullibly favor the defense’s conspiracy theories over hard scientific proof.  The film brilliantly undermines this narrative by developing extensive context regarding the history of relations between the LAPD and black communities to help the viewer understand that it didn’t require gullibility in this context to believe that cops would frame a black man for murdering a white woman. The film here delves into impressive detail about the power of a skilled lawyer.  F. Lee Bailey’s evisceration of Mark Fuhrman makes for great cinema.  As Chris Darden had preemptively complained about in the above-mentioned omnibus hearing, Bailey made a deliberate effort to evoke a visceral reaction from black jurors.  Standing before them as a gray haired, upper class white guy, he really fucking leaned into the word “NI__ER” over and over again as he questioned Fuhrman.  “Have you ever said ‘NI__ER’?  Are you sure you haven’t said ‘NI__ER’?  Are you absolutely positive you’ve never once uttered the word ‘NI__ER’?” Fuhrman was absolutely confident he was a good man.  And he believed that a good man couldn’t be a racist.  And so he concluded that he couldn’t be racist.  But only a racist would say that word, and so he clearly hadn’t said it.  The only problem was that there were recordings of him saying it. Bailey knew that this line of questioning would coax him to lie.  He knew that Fuhrman’s self-conception wouldn’t allow him to admit to his use of the word.  And he knew that catching him in a lie would–QUITE JUSTIFIABLY—plant the strong suspicion in the jurors that Fuhrman had framed OJ and lied about it.

At the same time, the film does not neglect to observe that only a lucky handful of black defendants could afford a defense like OJ’s, and so we are left with the suggestion that all of the abundant outrage that white America felt over OJ’s getting away with murder might better be directed at a justice system where the result frequently depends more on the defendant’s budget than the facts of the case.   If OJ were broke, F. Lee Bailey wouldn’t have given half a shit about his fate.

The Fuhrman tapes are quite something.  I had forgotten how vile they truly were.  Many of the talking heads in the film–and many people who I’ve heard remark on the case over the years—refer to OJ’s defense team as having played the “race card.”  These days this phrase is a social media bludgeon used to dismiss any explanatory relevance of race.   My sense is that this usage evolved from the way the term was deployed to deride Johnnie Cochran’s closing statement and the overall defense strategy.  I find this infuriating.  The race card wasn’t “played.”  Race was relevant!  The fucking detective is on tape espousing genocidal racism and bragging about wanton, racially motivated assault on the bodies and civil liberties of black people.  He bragged about framing black suspects!   The job of the defense attorney is to establish a reasonable doubt.  It would be grotesquely unethical NOT to argue that there is a plausible scenario where OJ was framed by a cop who bragged on tape about framing black people.  There’s a lot of disgust among the film’s pro-law enforcement talking heads about Cochran’s comparison of Fuhrman to Hitler.  I don’t think this was the best way to make the relevant point, but Cochran’s critics here misrepresent what he said.  He didn’t simply compare Fuhrman to Hitler.  He said that the threat of Hitler was underestimated.  No one did anything about it because they didn’t take it seriously enough.  Cochran suggested that the tendency to give law enforcement the benefit of the doubt is analogous to early complacence about the threat of Hitler.  He argued that if we give cops like Fuhrman the benefit of the doubt, we are complicit in an atrocity that will continue to grow.  AND HE WAS RIGHT!   This is not to say that OJ was framed or even that he should have been found not guilty, but rather that Cochran’s general point—abstracting from the hyperbolic Godwinian invocation of Hitler—has turned out to be quite accurate.  Law enforcement has continued to receive the benefit of the doubt.  Overwhelming evidence of vast racial inequality in our justice system has been flatly ignored and we find ourselves in a position where we have by far the most extensive carceral state of any nation in the history of the world and black citizens suffer the brunt of it.   Today Mark Fuhrman is a paid commentator on Fox News, brought in by Megyn Kelly and others to preach to the choir about how if a dead black man had simply complied with a cop’s illegal order he would still be alive and it’s as simple as that.  Given that what Mark Fuhrman is famous for is being caught on tape saying horribly racist shit and bragging about being able to mistreat black citizens with impunity it’s worth thinking about why Fox puts him in this role.  White resentment towards OJ runs deep.  That motherfucker played the race card and he got away with murder because of it.  The race card was played against Mark Fuhrman in particular, and so spite towards OJ leads to sympathy with his antagonist.  A Fox viewer shakes his head and passes judgment on the Baltimore riot, “It’s just so tragic to burn down your own community, MLK Jr. must be rolling in his grave.”  Mark Fuhrman is a living symbol of police brutality.  Someone who believes there is no such thing as police brutality is given the opportunity to express this belief simply by sitting on the couch and nodding along with Fuhrman.  The politically correct thing to do is treat Fuhrman as a pariah.  Fox presents its viewers with an opportunity to rebel against political correctness. Treating someone who has been so aggressively demonized as a racist as though they are a valuable commentator on law enforcement and race in America is way of rejecting the public consciousness that branded him a racist.

Towards the end of the film’s portrayal of the trial, a remarkable statistic is presented.  By the end of the trial, about 75% of black Americans believed OJ was innocent, whereas about 75% of white Americans believe he was guilty.  As the film highlights, widespread belief in his innocence among black Americans was not explained by ignorance about DNA and gullibility as much as it was by a long, traumatic history of being mistreated by law enforcement and the justice system.  The film suggests that after he was acquitted, a lot of OJ’s black supporters were fine with the possibility that he was actually guilty, and were overjoyed that this time a black man was the one getting away with it.  It was cultural payback for the Rodney King verdict and the long history of injustice that it came to represent.  The film also reminds us of how intense the vitriol towards OJ from white America has been.  Lots of obviously guilty murderers are running around free, but usually no one takes time out of their day to go protest them while they play golf.  They did for OJ.  For years after the trial he couldn’t go anywhere without a horde of angry white ladies putting signs in his face about how he’s a murderer and wife-beater.   Why did OJ in particular hit such a nerve?  The film’s answer is that it’s because of the singular, central position his story occupies in the clusterfuck of American identity politics.