Friday, November 27, 2015

100-something Movies You Should See If You Like Movies: T-Z

And here we are, folks.  This is the sixth and final installment in an alphabetical rundown of movies the Author would recommend to anyone who enjoys all kinds of movies.  We will be issuing periodic updates to this list in the future but at a significantly lower rate because I don’t get paid to write about these and whenever I do I inhibit myself from completing stuff I’m actually required to do.  If you want to support TAF’s ongoing efforts to seek out and highlight excellence in cinema, please like, subscribe, share, and donate to our Patreon at – oh, never mind.  Sometime after December 18th I’ll try to post a roundup of all the 2015 films I saw, good and bad, Star Wars and not-Star Wars, as well as my year-end thoughts on America’s brewing intellectual race war.  Aside from movies, I’d also like to do some much shorter series on games, music, television, and literature (one of these would be harder than the rest), and the feedback we get on this post will probably determine which artistic medium we tackle next.

As always, links to the other sections are appended at the bottom, and if there’s a film you hold in high regard, do go ahead and leave any suggestions in the comments.

Taps –

Taps is a relic from the 80s about a military school revolt that quickly escalates into a standoff with the military itself.  Everyone seems to think it’s a liberal antiwar screed and it’s been a while since I’ve seen it, but I thought all the characters got a fair shake from the script.  Watch it cause it’s thought-provoking and features a bunch of really young stars at the top of their game.  Tom Cruise plays a crazy person and Sean Penn plays a caricature of himself.

Teeth –

“Even the PG-13 has heavy making out.”  Teeth is a movie that probably doesn’t deserve to be on any professional Top X Movies List, but fortunately for Teeth, deserving’s got nothing to do with this list.  I could describe the premise of this movie to my readers, but if I did, my synopsis would only mortify the lot of you out of giving it a shot.  Suffice it to say that Teeth is a satire of Purity Culture in contemporary Christianity, a set of practices and youth group platitudes that aren’t entirely extra-Biblical or even wrong but which all too often supplant any other theological topics and sometimes make kids more liable to consider premarital sex than they would be if their mentors trusted them to do the right thing without incessant, obnoxious prodding.  For young and hitherto exhausted Christians who received the purity talk some 50 times or more in high school and are already in on the joke, Teeth makes a really funny mockery of contemporary Christian culture’s overzealous worries about “unclean thoughts/deeds” and the absurd lengths our teachers go to to make sure kids aren’t having any.  For those who haven’t heard the No Sex Before Marriage lecture quite as many times as your own Author, Teeth will probably come across as an offensive, neo-Feminist diatribe against religious traditions written by a proudly irreligious gay guy.  It will strike them as that kind of movie because it actually is that kind of movie.

Maybe it’s nothing more than that kind of movie, but either way you view it, it’s undeniably engrossing and two believers would be hard pressed not to have a good debate afterwards about its worldview.  Concerning Mere Christianity or the immorality of premarital sex, I’ve never tried to obscure what I believe is true and righteous, but at the same time I think there’s something, for lack of a better word, lame about a supposedly Christian college of 18-22 year-olds where sexuality is so stigmatized that almost no undergrad is romantically pursuing another young person, which, morality aside, is just the natural thing to be doing at that age and should be expected at any such institution.  Purity or Modesty Culture honorably aims to arm young believers against temptations to sin, but as an unfortunate byproduct it also ends up arming them against godly, committed relationships rooted in a moral and temperate acceptance of their sexual being.

Since I’ve summarized the thematic point of the film, you should no longer feel obligated to watch it.  It’s kind of really gross and cringeworthy, especially for males, and the length at which I’ve written about it isn’t meant to imply that it’s superior.  On a note completely unrelated to the preceding rant, Teeth ends with a song called Bomp Shooby Dooby Bomp.

The Terminator –

The original Terminator has a couple glaring problems: as satisfying as it is to see a stoic and invincible Arnold Schwarzenegger marching through a police station and gunning down thirty guys with a weapon in each hand, in actuality he wouldn’t be able to obtain a fully automatic Uzi rifle from a gun store, nor would he be able to shoot the storekeeper in the chest because he left some shotgun shells on the counter.  Silly James Cameron.  At least you can say you made a really fun and well-paced action movie, minus the awful-looking stop-motion Terminator puppet.  What are you gonna do if you don’t have hundreds of millions of dollars to blow on pretty, blue aliens or the evil machines that are wrecking their ecosystem?

The Thing –

Much like The Fly, this 30-year-old classic remains top of the line in credible and disgusting effects work without a hint of CGI, but it also tells a tense and compact story tinged with political themes of paranoia and the way in which fear of the unseen enemy disintegrates trust between comrades.

Thirst (u1) 

A few words I would use to describe Thirst: humorous, violent, playful, seductive, erotic, extravagant, elegant, mesmerizing, gonzo.  A tale about a struggling religious man that never fully commits to its religious underbelly (Park Chan-Wook is not, as far as anyone knows, a Christian), it nonetheless draws upon the legend of the vampire as a metaphor for the baser primal instincts latent in all men, the id which wages a savage war for dominance with the hero’s waning Catholicism.  It employs special effects rarely but effectively, has the best, most justified sex scene ever for what that’s worth, and couldn’t possibly close in more spectacular fashion.

Three Amigos –

“Will you kiss me on the verandah?”  “Lips are fine.”

Top Secret! –

Old review here.  Top Secret! makes Monty Python’s Holy Grail look slow and dull and dated.  No other film has such a sustained and rapid onslaught of visual jokes except for maybe Scott Pilgrim, which undercuts its own appeal by aiming so much humor squarely at nerds and hipsters.

Transformers –

People masquerading as critical consumers of media automatically (and quite stupidly) dismiss this as a stupid Michael Bay movie, but nobody rolls out a slicker Bayhem movie than the Bay himself, and Transformers undeniably crushes all alternatives in straight-up, effects-driven action movies.  Just see the highway chase with Bonecrusher barreling through a truck, the opening assault on the Qatar base, or the shot of Ironhide blasting himself off the ground to avoid incoming missiles and a screaming woman.  Even the cheesy and very well-worn subplot of dorky nerd Sam Witwicky trying to impress hot car mechanic Megan Fox has grown on me with repeated viewings.  All this is topped off with one of the most epic-sounding, dramatic, woefully underrated scores ever.  You’d have to wear a Decepticon sticker on your car to not appreciate this modern classic in waiting.

The Tree of Life –

The Tree of Life isn’t as easily explained as most of the other movies on this list.  It’s certainly a lot harder to explain than Teeth, and it’ll probably take some repeat viewings before I finally feel I get it.  Terrence Malick gives us a deeply spiritual and artsy piece that ignores our thirst for rational understanding and doesn’t resemble any other film aesthetically.  Movies like this are why I can no longer really enjoy The Avengers.

Tron: Legacy –

Tron has gained something of a legacy as that protracted Daft Punk music video which was commercially designed to be as exhilarating and visually gigantic as possible, and you can certainly watch it that way if you want.  Or you can flex your brain muscles a little harder and try identifying all the Jesus, Holocaust, and Creation story symbols the writers cleverly wormed into their huge, flashy Ultimate Frisbee fantasy film. You do you. No hate. Sorry.

True Grit (2010) –

Just a good, old-fashioned revenge yarn brought to you by the Coen Brothers and a brilliant ensemble.  Ever stalwart.

The Truman Show –

A funny thinking person’s movie, not just prophetic of reality television trends but filled with religious subtext, kind of like it’s slicing, dicing, and peeling all at once.  Someday I’ll get around to reviewing it, but I don’t necessarily like using my brain on long, detailed, philosophical blog posts that no one reads in full, so that’ll be a while.

12 Monkeys –

A Terry Gilliam-directed sci-fi movie that’s a little off all the way through, and not only in the best and craziest role Brad Pitt has ever played.

Unforgiven –

“It's a hell of a thing, killing a man.  Take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.”  Yeah.

The Vengeance Trilogy (u1)

Taken collectively, these are the best films I’ve ever seen in terms of film form.  Orson Welles is always credited with inventing the cinematic toolbox, but Park Chan-Wook has built much greater wonders using the same tools.  Like Welles, Park underwent no formal film schooling, studying philosophy in college, and actually busied himself outside of directing with writing essays and film critiques.  Knowing nothing of his personal background while watching the trilogy, it didn’t surprise me to learn afterwards that he counts Shakespeare, Sophocles, and Vonnegut among his major influences, as all three movies deal in the kind of high drama, dark comedy, and flexible narration those older writers mastered.  To say a brief word about each film, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is a tightly scripted, starkly photographed thriller wherein every character action is justified, makes perfect sense, and contributes to an escalating trail of violence. Oldboy is the comic-book movie to end all lazy comic-book movies, running circles around American action flicks with parallel imagery, in-camera transitions, stunning long takes, and almost every other trick in the book.  Lady Vengeance falls somewhere between them both, starting out as perhaps the most confusing and stylized of the bunch before transfiguring into the most contemplative, harrowing film of the series.  I could write pages upon pages about every aspect I loved in each one’s framing, editing, scoring, cinematography, and writing, but for now I’ll simply exhort you to order the Blu-ray or pull Oldboy up on Netflix, which looks about the same.  Since they’re not a trilogy proper but an accidental sequence of thematically related dramas, you can really watch them in whatever order pleases you – alone, without your kids or friends, because they’re rated R for many, many reasons.

Victoria (u1)

Would Victoria be as impressive a film if it wasn’t captured in an unbroken two-hour take and just shot traditionally?  As to this we can only speculate, but it is marvelously structured as a thriller and I wouldn’t expect it to weaken on repeat viewings, unlike Birdman, which uses its faux-one-shot grandstanding as a smokescreen for an insufferably masturbatory script.  The flashing lights and drowning bass of a transportive nightclub beckon viewer and young heroine alike into a sensual underworld, demanding to be seen and heard in the same darkness that engulfs the characters.

The Village –

Full review here.  At the time I called it the most vividly first-person film I’ve seen, and I’d stand by that assessment today.  In his prime, Shyamalan utilized sensations of sound and color more fully than almost any other filmmaker, and The Village embodies the perfect marriage of cinematic and symbolical depth. The Village also marked the turning point in critical reception of Shyamalan’s works, and it marked that point because the majority of movie critics are communists.  I don’t know if M. Night Shyamalan is a communist, but he sure made one hell of an anti-communism horror film, much better than The Giver – the movie, which was the original anti-communism story about a village where all is not as it seems.  Would that that movie had never been released from its community.

Walk the Line –

Walk the Line doesn’t break any new ground in how to structure an artistic genius story: you’ve got the detached husband who dreams of making it big and the wife who wants him to choose a safer, family-centered career, montage sequences of said husband rising into stardom, drug addiction, infidelity, beautiful romantic interest who’s “too afraid to fall in love”, lots of movie-ish stuff we’ve seen before.  Rarely are these stock components executed as movingly as they are in Walk the Line.  I’m not sure how much of it is factual, but given that it’s based on Johnny Cash’s autobiography, I doubt that any of it was meant to besmirch his legacy.  I would recommend this film to anyone who thinks that country music has always sucked, or who thinks that Straight Outta Compton or Pitch Perfect were aca-effing-mazing.  Not only would they hear a splendid recreation of the sound of Johnny Cash and June Carter, but they’d also get to see one of the most versatile actors ever, Joaquin Phoenix, turn into a complete and utter wreck on camera.  And people think that Leo gets cheated at the Oscars.

Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Wererabbit –

Still a better love story than Twilight, and the cool thing is that Aardman Studios actually took a story about a wererabbit somewhat seriously.  “I have two – one golden bullet left.”

We Need To Talk About Kevin (u1) –

Beautiful, tragic, grim, and more disturbing in a real-world sense than most anything since Silence of the LambsKevin delivers a powerful meditation on pure evil, whether it exists as an entity in itself or is merely inculcated by external causes.  Lynne Ramsay doesn’t make films often, but when she does they are astounding.

Whiplash –

Kind of like this decade’s Karate Kid or Rocky, but with drumming and a million times better directed, acted, and edited.  Makes you want to play an instrument so you too can get the girl of your dreams.  Or maybe not.  Check it out.  Even if you hate jazz.  No, especially if you hate jazz, not because it’ll endow you with a new appreciation for the art of jazz but because you can then tell all your simpleton friends who love jazz that you thought Whiplash was the coolest movie ever and those friends will no longer be able to call you “ignorant” for correctly asserting that jazz is garbage.

Fast-travel to other parts:
M-P
Q-S

Sunday, November 15, 2015

100-something Movies You Should See If You Like Movies: Q-S

Continuing a dynamic and somewhat subjective list of truly excellent movies for people who like all kinds of movies.  For a more thorough explanation of the methodology behind these recommendations, check out part 1 here.  Newer entries will be labeled u1, u2, u3... uX depending on when I add them, so use your internet word searcher and check back in several months to follow my ongoing chronicle of the best that Hollywood has to offer.  Links to other sections are appended at the bottom.

Quiz Show –

Dark and maddening look at game show ethics and reality television in general.  I really ought to watch it again because I haven’t seen it since I was a little, half-formed teen.  Oh well.

The Raid: Redemption –

I’d throw in The Raid 2 as well if it wasn’t so dang long and the storyline binding together the fight scenes wasn’t so dull.  The first Raid movie is about a police force infiltrating a tower full of mobsters and everyone wiping out everyone else in a nearly nonstop sequence of the most brutal martial arts battles captured to date.  There’s scarcely a plot to speak of but the movie’s undeniably entertaining and tense with no clear indicators of which characters are safe.  It’s also one of the only movies to date that I’ve seen utilize shaky camera effectively.  The one downside to viewing The Raid is that you’ll so spoil yourself you won’t be able to enjoy a multitude of other, not-as-awesome martial arts movies.  In the same way that playing Half-life 2 and Halo so early in my life has ruined my ability to truly relish any story-driven shooter game, The Raid: Redemption gutted any shot I may have had at liking a crappy film like 13 Assassins, a tonally inconsistent drama/comedy/action flick that’s weakly shot and edited and choreographed all around.

Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Last Crusade –

I like the third one the most because of the added dynamic between Indy and Pa Jones, though the action of the first remains especially impressive more than thirty years later.  Somehow I managed to cheat my birth date and catch Raiders on the big screen, an unexpected journey well worth the taking.  I haven’t seen Temple of Doom in a long time, and I’m not that motivated to return to it.

Rain Man –

Let me let you in on a little secret.  K. Mart sucks.  You know what else sucks?  Tom Cruise.  That guy is such a douche in Rain Man, but who can blame him when his brother is the neediest, most high-maintenance person alive?  At least he’s not so awful towards the end.  Is there anything wrong with Dustin Hoffman, with Mr. Cruise, with Rain Man?  I don’t know.  I don’t know.

Rango –

Brought to life by Industrial Lights and Magic, Rango commands the most visually detailed, textural, and sometimes psychedelic animation ever in a fully CG film.  Plus it employs a bunch of lofty narrative terms like metaphor, epiphany, vacuum, and irony that make you feel doubleplussmart even though you know you’re watching Chinatown with Johnny Depp and a motley group of nondescript desert critters.  It’s kind of long and the average moviegoer won’t understand what the heck they should be laughing at, but for those who brought a permit for mental prospecting, this is one of animation’s greatest hidden goldmines.

Rec –

Found footage done right, it’s 70 minutes of relentlessly escalating, seamlessly captured insanity that reduced a room of 13-some college dudes to a pack of howling, jittery mutts, screaming at the television reporters not to do this or enter there or get a better shot of that.  Never has a horror movie so masterfully shown the disintegration of a seemingly controlled environment into total, hellish chaos.  Screw the English-language remake Quarantine.  Screw Rec 4 as well.  Screw Netflix for offering Rec 3, Rec 4, Quarantine 2, and a bunch of other lame, low-budget cash-ins but still not having Rec.  I’d expect nothing more.

Requiem for a Dream –

Yeah, it’s kind of a propaganda film made to tell you, “Don’t do drugs,” but it’s still the trippiest and most horrific propaganda film that one could ask from Darren Aronofsky.

Risky Business –

If it’s hard to make a movie that’s all about sex and doesn’t decline into shlock, imagine how hard it is to pull off a decent movie about a home-alone teen who calls a prostitute to lose his virginity, somehow turns into her pimp, and learns life lessons along the way.  And yet Paul Brickman managed to make just such a film, combining a superb cast, fitting synthy music, surprisingly artsy direction, and delightfully weird writing to create a more grown-up kind of Ferris Bueller.  I especially like how complex and full of contradictions Tom Cruise’s character is, on the one hand doing very imprudent, irresponsible, and immaturely rebellious things, on the other doing everything within his power to rectify the consequences of those things when they arise.  Is it just of him to open up a brothel in his parents’ house to pay for the damages to their car, circumventing the law and making easy money off of other people’s immediate impulses?  Can someone who sells her body for a living form a trusting, committed relationship with one of her clients?  Is there even such a thing as casual sex?  Risky Business raises all these ethical queries and more while throwing us for one narrative loop after another.

The Road Warrior –

The only thing I can knock Mad Max 2 for is its soundtrack, which is one of the most dated and generic 80s action soundtracks one could make.  What else can I say about The Road Warrior?  It’s got a crazy-haired Feral Kid with a boomerang in it.  Nothing else has ever had a Feral Kid with a boomerang before.  ROAD WARRIOR!

Robocop (u1)

There’s a sizeable group of people out there who seem to think that Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop is a sage and wickedly satirical attack on capitalism, police militarization, or something else, but if we’re being honest, nobody watches Robocop to this day for any of those reasons.  They watch it because it’s fun to see Robocop stop criminals and say one-liners like, “Come quietly or there will be trouble.”  Because Murphy is a character one can easily root for, and the bad guys get their just deserts in ridiculously violent ways.  Because the world depicted still looks believable and there’s a certain undying charm in the stop-motion ED-209 effects.  I’m also inclined to agree with Red Letter Media that Robocop 2 is underrated, if lacking the heft of the original, and I will never watch Robocop 3.

Rosemary’s Baby (u1)

Possibly the best horror movie ever made in its time still holds up remarkably well today.

Run Lola Run –

Run Lola Run doesn’t belong on a list of history’s greatest movies, as it never really moved my heart to any human sentiment, but seeing as this is a list of (hopefully diverse) movies for people who love all sorts of movies, I can recommend it with all my untouched heart.  Without indulging in gunplay, fistfights, car chases, explosions, showy stunt work, or any other typical action staples, this is simply an exemplary model of how an action movie ought to be constructed.  In Lola Rennt, the mix of low and high camera angles, the driving electronic score, and the energetic editing create the action, turning something as rudimentary as a red-haired girl running through a city into something truly gripping and awesome.  I would juxtapose this favorably with the latest Bond catastrophe Spectre, which has barrel-rolling helicopters, plane crashes, detonating watch bombs, kidnappings at gunpoint, collapsing buildings, no fewer than 4 international locations, and is an absolute bore to watch because of how blandly the director opted to shoot it.  There’s a bit of scattered German swearing, but otherwise Lola is a lot more family-appropriate action-wise than Bond.  It’s certainly more appropriate for your brain.

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World –

“I’m going to be needing my own bed tonight.  It’s for sex... I may need it for a year.”  Edgar Wright’s a really pathetic director when he has to come up with his own unique film universe (see Shaun of the Dead), but damned if his style doesn’t lend itself well to comic book movies.  One of my friends confided that there’s something oddly attractive about the character of Ramona Flowers, and I couldn’t second that more highly.  She’s also aggravatingly confusing and hard to read, just like real women.  Bravo, Edgar Wright and crew, here to make me think about love and get sad and stuff.  1, 2, 3, 4…

Secret Sunshine (u1)

Criterion has a fine essay on the spiritual themes of Secret Sunshine that probably does a better job summarizing its merits than I have time to do.  One thing I got out of it as a mere Christian raised in evangelical circles that the Criterion writer probably didn’t is the importance of meeting people where they’re at in their suffering instead of ministering to unreceptive ears.  While told from a secular point of view, the movie doesn’t indiscriminately mock religion or those who seek peace in God, only those most fervent and presumptive proselytizers who think they know exactly why someone thinks the way they do (“Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t real…”) and dish up overused evangelical catchphrases to people who are mired in grief.  I believe it’s an intentional irony that the most Christ-like, loving character in the film is a nonbeliever who starts going to church just for the sake of cozying up to the woman he likes.

A Separation (u1)

The guy who made this movie is a political stuntman and sellout to his countrymen in Iran, but he does make damn fine movies every now and then.  A Separation is totally humorless and depressing but extremely well acted with culturally universal themes of justice, subjectivity of memory, and spirit vs. the letter of the law.

A Serious Man (u1)

A Serious Man may not be the funniest or most technically impressive film in the Coen Brothers’ filmography, but it might just be my favorite, no thanks to Sy Ableman.  Some people have viewed it (and praised it) as a bleak and atheistic movie denying the existence of any grander meaning behind humanity’s suffering, but I think the message of the movie is a whole lot simpler and on the nose: no one is entitled to an explanation from God – after all, He’s God –, and the order behind the universe is like the mathematics behind Schrodinger’s Cat, a perplexing mystery we all have to accept on faith.  Longer review here.

Seven (u1) 

Was there a mainstream movie in the 90s that exuded a more filthy atmosphere and sense of foreboding than Se7en?  “Ernest Hemingway once wrote, ‘The world is a fine place, and worth fighting for.’ I agree with the second part.”

The Shining –

Repeatedly beat up by its author for being so different from the source material, The Shining is a testament to the things a director can achieve when he doesn’t stay true to the book.  If The Shining – the movie had mirrored both the supernatural themes and all the inexplicable scares of The Shining – the book – e.g. the snakelike animate fire hose, the hedge animals, the increasingly perverted, animalistic partygoers –, it would satisfy neither Stephen King readers nor Stephen King viewers, but because Stanley Kubrick deviated so significantly from the book and set Jack Nicholson free to go completely mad as Torrance, people like me can read and watch The Shining with fresh eyes and enjoy both versions for the distinctly creepy images that each portrays.  I wouldn’t say that Shining is a particularly frightening movie because Kubrick’s style combined with elaborate production design is uncommonly whimsical and artsy, but that artsiness of craft is ultimately the primary reason any film lover should see it.  Dat steadicam doe.

Shrek –

That movie I watched 15 or so times as a kid without processing any of the inappropriate humor because I was that innocent.  Putting aside the plentiful raunchy puns, Shrek is the witty and emotional saga of true love, forgiveness, and unconditional friendship that Pixar wishes it could write.  More thoughts on it and Hellboy here, but have you ever heard a person say, “Hell no, I don’t like no Shrek?”  Shrek has got to be the most delicious movie on the whole damn planet.  One of a kind.

The Silence of the Lambs –

Not really a horror movie but still more disturbing than most of the ones I’ve seen.  Perhaps the most disturbing part is all the stupid sequels and spinoffs that came after it just because the movie vaguely sets itself up for such spinoffs.  Notwithstanding those, if I’m ever having an old friend for dinner, this’ll be the last film we discuss around the table.

A Simple Plan –

… isn’t nearly as simple as the planners first anticipated. The most terrible consequence of sin uncorrected is living with the knowledge that one is a sinner.

Sleeper (u1)

Woody Allen envisions an intellectually degraded, hedonistic future wherein people don’t even have the patience for sexual flings unless it’s a group activity, getting into mechanical cylinders that simulate intercourse quickly and efficiently.  Of all the collaborations between the two actors, Diane Keaton was most attractive in Sleeper, which seems like an odd thing to mention regarding a 44-year-old movie, but so it goes.  It’s a mix of Brave New World, slapstick comedy, and general zaniness that should be recognized more as the weird departure from his formula that Allen actually pulled off to great success.

Snowpiercer –

Wow. I was leaning towards hating this because most every critic had hyped it up as a pro-Occupy, Rah Rah Wealth Redistribution allegory, but the political undertones of Snowpiercer are so nuanced that one could read it as the total opposite.  Class warfare and social justice are definitely woven into Snowpiercer’s thematic fabric, but one of the film’s many implications is that upper and lower classes are unavoidable in any stable society, egalitarian and socialistic or free-market.  It’s also visually dazzling and immaculately directed, using something as simple as a character’s body positioning to convey more information than dialogue could relate (Tony Zhou’s Every Frame A Painting has a fascinating breakdown of Snowpiercer’s cinematic language).  Far and away one of the best science-fiction movies ever made.

The Social Network (u1) –

The Social Network is an exhilarating, cynical tour guide through all of Generation Y’s newfound ways of flexing their human depravity, corruption, dishonesty, arrogance, gluttony, lust, and betrayal.  It’s basically the story of mankind crunched into a raging 2-hour firestorm of filmic, Fincherian drama, and while some of the figures depicted therein have denounced the story’s theatrics, it undoubtedly stands with the most captivating film stories of our time.  It’s also a compelling psychoanalysis of one of the most powerful corporate machines alive today, why young people latched onto it in droves (SPOILER: It was all about Sex), and how its founder shrewdly nurtured it into a powerhouse of explicit and surreptitious advertising. Fake, but accurate.  On top of that it’s simply brilliant filmmaking, as you can see in this underrated video essay on how Fincher shoots phone conversations.

Splice (u1)

A lot of people seem to hate this movie because the creature (cruelly named Dren by its creators) performs rather graphic coitus with one of the humans in a later stage of her development, and this is understandable.  Of all the sins that should repel us in enlightened society, making love to non-existent, genetically engineered bipeds definitely ranks near the top, certainly on par with or worse than abortion, terrorism, corruption, coercion, and bald-faced lying.  Within the context of Splice, I found this part one of the more imaginative and warranted love scenes I’ve come across, yet that’s not mainly why I enjoyed Vincenzo Natali’s film.  Even if for nothing else, Splice deserves a spot on this list just for better utilizing computer animation than pretty much any mainstream sci-fi to date; much like Ex Machina, it blends makeup, the actor’s physicality, and strategic CG elements to create a more believable and empathetic character than could be achieved solely through one of those tools.  Also clever is the way the priorities and ethics of the two scientists’ unfold over time, the one who seemed more caring and maternal at first being exposed as the more clinical and selfish person all along.  Unfortunately, the ending confrontation takes a needlessly icky and exploitative turn, relegating Splice to the unenviable Abyss Society of movies I love until the director just gave up and scrambled to finish the damn thing.

Spring (u1)

The DVD cover of Spring sells it as a monster movie disguised as a love story.  This is false advertising. It’s actually a love story disguised as a monster movie, one that uses wacky rules of immortality, rebirth, and oxytocin-generation to ponder about living out life to the fullest.  The cinematography is pretty but indie-movie cheap, which adds to its charm for me, and the dialogue feels natural as in the “Before” movies without being utterly boring.  The first 18 minutes are foul and unrepresentative of the movie and you should skip them.

The Squid and the Whale (u1)

Perhaps the most unsentimental and uncomfortably riotous movie ever to deal with divorce, The Squid and the Whale finds self-reflective comedy in the miseries of wretched and despicable people.  Each family member exhibits uniquely loathsome tendencies and bears legitimate grudges against the rest, but Noah Baumbach remarkably prevents any of them from emerging as moral champion, a tact he kind of abandoned in While We’re Young, where Ben Stiller clearly espouses the director’s own beliefs and Adam Driver evolves into an antagonist.  Squid being based in some part on his own childhood, I imagine Baumbach purposely projected more ignoble aspects of himself, his colleagues, and his kin onto all the characters, resulting in an extraordinarily balanced, if not conclusive or typically satisfying script.  I also must give props to any film that references Risky Business, Pink Floyd, and other 80s artifacts as vigorously as this one.  A snobbish and elitist movie that isn’t above ridiculing intellectual snobbery, The Squid and the Whale shrewdly depicts humans’ arrogant propensity to blame everything that’s going wrong in their own lives on individuals other than themselves.

Starship Troopers (u1)

Starship Troopers is a movie about bloodthirsty, indoctrinated young skulls full of mush killing giant bugs to gain their citizenship that makes one want to think twice about going to war, which is quite an achievement for what it is.  I watched this with several college students, one of whom said that it was “basically the cheesiest sci-fi movie ever made” and another of whom had difficulty accepting it was a “real movie, like released in theaters”.  Contrary to their disdain, Starship Troopers is played almost completely straight except for some scattered propaganda videos, and its seamless CGI still tramples a lot of movies made today.

Straw Dogs (u1)

Straw Dogs blew me away, and in the interest of letting it blow you away too, I refrain from giving away anything about the plot except to say I wouldn’t recommend it to the sensitive or to most women.  Dustin Hoffman is incredibly layered, the editing perfect but for a couple fast sequences at the end, and almost no prop or character is set up that isn’t put to some very memorable use.  You also shouldn’t watch Straw Dogs alone, since it begs to be discussed afterwards.

Submarine (u1)

This is the coming-of-age teen movie for those who can’t stand teen movies.  Submarine frequently breaks from conventions but not in a way that narcissistically calls attention to its breaking from conventions, which is itself a convention (see The Spectacular Now or Me and Earl and the Dying Girl). For example, the token school bully of the film is not an obstacle to the protagonist pursuing his love interest because the bully character actually is the love interest, nor does writer/director Richard Aoyade ever condescend his audience by sermonizing about how bullying is wrong.  The lovely cinematography makes strong use of yellows and reds, Alex Turner contributes several wistful songs to an all-original soundtrack, and film generally does a good job not spelling out the moral of the story that stupid kids should apply to their own lives.  It’s sweet and sad and funny and possibly better the second time around.

Sunshine (u1)

Thrilling space-fiction that doesn’t rely on too many twists or frills, features a fantastic score, and incorporates some cool themes about God or immortality or something.  The DVD I have access to is broken and it’s been a while since I’ve seen it, so I can’t really say much more.  Maybe this annotation will be replaced somewhere down the line, but I wouldn’t count on it.

Surfs Up –

There was a short spell in Hollywood starting around 2005 when everybody wanted to make a talking penguin and/or wild animals movie.  Surf’s Up is by far the most original, detailed, and well written of the bunch.  Everybody talks exactly the way you would expect a surfing penguin to talk, and the shaky camerawork (somehow emulated through motion capture) is similarly true to the documentary form.  But it’s really just a fun movie with a great soundtrack that’s all about learning to enjoy the simpler pleasures of life.  Radical.

Synecdoche, New York (u1)

At the point of writing this, I have only seen Synecdoche, New York once and do not have a very firm idea of what its plot signifies, other than that Charlie Kaufmann is a screenwriting genius.  The movie only runs two hours long but by the end you feel as though it has lasted a lifetime, which was probably the point.  An exhausting film, mentally and emotionally, that I hope to revisit sometime down the line after I’ve watched Your Movie Sucks’ feature-length analysis of the feature.

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