When Arrival first came out in the aftermath of a deeply traumatizing, hyperbolic election, critics hailed it as a globalist science-fiction parable specifically for our times; however, it’d really be more accurate to call it a science-fiction story unstuck in time, which suddenly veers into a strange and beautiful love story for all times. Certain scenes early on drag more than necessary and there’s arguably an overuse of media montages. If I could see the whole film front to back, I can’t say I wouldn’t change anything, but I’d definitely still go through with seeing it. Since November, I’ve somehow watched it thrice with three different sets of people and it has affected me on every occasion. The soundtrack is phenomenal.
“I know what my passion taking hold feels like!”
There’s a scene in Borat where Sacha Baron Cohen is grilling a group of middle-aged feminists on social equality or something stupid like that, and one of the women scolds, “You’re laughing. That is the problem.” Unbeknownst to her, she’s bound to be one of the biggest problems in the movie. Borat (and its sequel Bruno, on a less grand scale) is an unapologetic ode to every kind of forbidden laughter, one enlisting real, oblivious Americans to expose the cultural biases other films don’t dare to broach, and one that had me howling almost every minute. The fact that Cohen, who never once breaks from character during actual, unrepeatable encounters, doesn’t hold an acting trophy while Leonardo Dicaprio does says all one needs to know about the validity of the So White Oscars. If Cohen wasn’t playing a Middle-Eastern, Muslim-looking dictator, would he have gotten more accolades?
Falling on the cheaper end of the post-apocalypse dystopian spectrum, A Boy and His Dog feels ironically expansive and open to exploration, more Fallout, less The Book of Eli. Factions and distant pastures are suggested but not shown, and the foundational customs of the underground oligarchy in the latter half are left largely to the viewer’s abstraction. The movie goes whatever dark places it wants to go and doesn’t tarry for general audiences to catch up. Because it so respected the intelligence and moral discernment of everyone who would happen upon it, A Boy and His Dog inevitably bared itself to accusations of “misogyny” and “nihilism”, two buzzwords no one in critical media knows how to use properly. Regardless, it serves as a valuable and well-aged reminder a) that a protagonist doesn’t need to be likeable or just, and b) that representing something is not the same as endorsing it. Would A Boy and His Dog be a better or more virtuous film if the dog turned to the camera and lectured us that pound sign Rape Is Rape, and one should never, ever think to rape? On the contrary, I assume that director L.Q. Jones already knew that rape was wrong, and he probably assumed that moviegoers would have known as much.
Byzantium isn’t made of the same technical caliber as some of the other horror movies on this list, but it does have an abnormally challenging story structure and tackles head-on questions of good and evil and the value of life, which is more than one can say about a lot of recent films in my favorite genre. I formerly wrote a short essay about its sly euthanasia criticism and moral philosophy, which you can read here.
As of the first update, my favorite film is generally a toss-up between this and Memento and Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance. When I say Mr. Vengeance, it’s usually because I’m trying to confuse somebody; when I say Memento, because I’m trying to bond with another Christopher Nolan fanboy; but when I say Dancer in the Dark, it’s just because I’m being honest. Never before I have found a film so alternately beautiful and bleak, believable and fantastical, and so emotionally crushing throughout. It really can be referred to as The Björk Movie, which is reason enough for people who appreciate her music to seek it out, but it’s also an unimpeachable Lars Von Trier film, masterfully channeling his dogmatic resolve for art imitating reality while reining in the lurid indulgences of his later, much less watchable movies (hello Depression Trilogy). I could write pages upon pages about how intelligent every aspect of its production is – the varying shooting styles, the way in which Selma’s industrial world creeps into her internal music, the use of the songs in general – and someday I hope to find the time to fully expound its brilliance.
Abounding in Jesus symbolism, long-suffering, and eloquent narration by the late, great John Hurt, Dogville ranks among the most emotionally draining and anti-humanist of Lars Von Trier’s works. The movie builds impeccably to a dramatic precipice like no other, a roughly 10-minute argument between an Old and a New Testament god figure over the merits of freely giving grace to those intractably given to sin. The meaning of the title isn’t fully explicated until the final shot, and even if one doesn’t agree with Trier’s pessimism, Dogville is a parabolic town well worth visiting, as is the follow-up movie Manderlay, which is in many ways more incendiary and provocative, sometimes to its detriment.
I can’t for the life of me fathom how this movie wasn’t lavished with more awards. Dredd was dabbling in the tough-as-nails, beautiful chick who isn’t overtly sexualized and steals the spotlight away from the titular hero well before Mad Max: Fury Road, and arguably does a better job at imbuing Anderson with distinctly feminine, lenient traits than does the latter film with Furiosa. Dredd masterfully balances character development and themes of justice with comic book panache, unique music, and weighty action, but also feels like an earnest, unadulterated sci-fi movie from the era of Terminator or Robocop that was preserved in a warehouse until 2012.
A couple basic things I learned about filmmaking from watching Evil Dead II: 1. Cutting scenes on action can be very startling and effective; 2. POV shots are sorely underutilized in modern cinema; 3. Practical effects can look really cheesy, and sometimes that is charming; 4. Humor and horror are a lot less separate than one might think. Both rely on setting up and subverting expectations, and a great director will allow his viewers sufficient leeway to laugh or recoil as they will. This is what separates a political comedy like Borat from a TV sitcom like Friends, or a Sam Raimi horror film from the latest chapter in the Insidious-Conjuring saga.
Densely philosophical science-fiction that’s animated immaculately and often strains one’s ability to follow the plot. Treads a lot of the same ground since covered by Ex Machina, Snowpiercer, and of course The Matrix, and I maintain a weird theory that the art team of the game Mirror’s Edge must have spent a lot of time pouring over Ghost’s future Hong Kong. I actually prefer the second movie for its more involving narrative and action, so if you find the original too plodding and unapproachable, give Innocence a shot. Or go watch the Scarjo remake soon to hit theaters that looks like generic, PG-13, robot-fighting-for-its-freedom trash.
Hard Candy –
Allow me to cut the tension: Hard Candy is an extraordinarily unrelenting and stylized experiment in generating empathy for a really messed-up guy, propelled by powerhouse acting and luscious, ethereal filmmaking. Its centerpiece, which stretches on for at least 15 minutes in several shots that bleed into each other, has to be the most uncomfortable scene for male viewers in modern American cinema. Simply put, it took a lot of balls to make this movie, and I definitely wouldn’t recommend it to feminists. Or maybe I would. I don’t know.
I’ve swayed back and forth in my mind on whether Hardcore Henry belongs on a list of movies for people who like movies. It’s certainly a movie for those who like video games, and for those who, recognizing the numerous faults of modern first-person shooters, criticize such perversions of gaming form with knowledge and passionate urgency. The majority of mainstream critics, having attained the age or elitist sophistication that apparently precludes one from recognizing interactive storytelling as art, don’t hate Hardcore Henry’s inspirations with knowledge or with passion or with urgency, which led nearly half of them to dismiss it as dumb, mindless fun instead of crediting it for what it is: an intelligent and pointed parody that one can also passively enjoy as an extremely fun and over-the-top action movie. In truth, Hardcore Henry skewers nearly every gaming cliché imaginable – formulaic level design, in-game tutorials, bad NPC lines, overlapping dialogue, boss battles, a silent protagonist, equestrian transportation, scantily clad warriors – and does so through a highly entertaining POV presentation that hasn’t been executed so well by the artiest of art films. But I suppose you wouldn’t know that if you’ve never held a video game controller.
They just don’t make high-school movies like this anymore, movies that gleefully revel and find humor in the kind of hot-button topics that Millennials’ mollycoddled and puritanical culture has anointed not to be questioned or transgressed. Upon consideration, I don’t think that any mainstream teen movie has succeeded the irreverence of Heathers, which owes in part to the patronizing notion that movies about or aimed at young people should have an explicitly moralizing function. Believing high-schoolers haven’t yet developed the moral compass to discern independently that Winona Ryder and Christian Slater are playing really unethical and depraved people, studios prudishly refrain from OK’ing any script starring a teenage starlet as an anti-hero unless it verbally labels her an anti-hero and reforms her through her experiences.
In a time when campuses like the regrettably-named Emerson College actively discourage misandrist, brainwashed youths from using neutral qualifiers like “alleged” or “accused” in reference to sexual assault, the themes of this uncommon Danish movie seem all the more poignant and vital. Intentionally or not, The Hunt feels like a convicted rebuttal to the all the most trumpeted tenets of rape culture ideology: the severity of the claim doesn’t inherently give it credence, people lie for a multitude of reasons, even about rape/assault/harassment, and persecuting someone found innocent in the name of justice is just about the most unjust, uncharitable thing one can do.
The story of Incendies probably doesn’t look all that incredible laid out front to back on paper, but the genius of Denis Villeneuve’s possible magnum opus is that he doesn’t tell it front to back, staging what could have been a tiring melodrama or anti-war polemic as a gripping mystery. The final moments are at once tragic, sobering, hopeful, and cathartic, but the movie lingers most for a four-minute, devastating scene in the middle, which stands alone as a complete story in itself and represents the unforgettable capacity of film.
An earlier and less expensive entry in the Christopher Nolan canon, Insomnia doesn’t depend on a mindblowing, 3rd act twist or IMAX spectacles to capture audiences, which has led to the woeful popular appraisal that it’s one of his weaker films. Between it and Memento, Nolan proves his deftness at telling smaller stories with depth and grandeur, and Insomnia will make great supplementary viewing for any budding philosopher who’s struggling to understand Kant. Edited to near-perfection (one shootout briefly exposes Nolan’s then-ungainliness with action), acted superbly by all, and shot in several beautiful northwestern locations, the movie deserves a lot more recognition than it’s received, which is why it’s going on the prestigious 100-Something Movies List.
In which Steve Martin is raised a poor, black child. The Jerk may also feature my favorite usage of a ukulele in a movie.
The soundtrack is terrible, but this is action movie gold, so pure in fact that given the state of current American action I would call it required viewing.
Lady Snowblood –
Is pretty much what you could envision from the title, with copious amounts of all three present. Lady Snowblood looks gorgeous, especially on the Criterion Collection restoration, and bests many more traditional samurai pictures for sheer entertainment and practical blood gushing effects. Whether or not it surpasses Kill Bill, its affectionately made rip-off, is a matter of personal taste, although I consider the absence of Tarantino’s vulgar dialogue a plus. Lady Snowblood 2 also merits viewing, though its more political and complicated story probably impairs Americans’ ability to relate to it.
Watching Lars and the Real Girl, I kept thinking about three things in the back of my head: pornography, my generation’s fear of long-term commitments, and trannies. At least one of these was probably intended by writer Nancy Oliver, while others are natural byproducts of Lars being a generally well-written, layered movie that, much like Citizen Kane’s brazen invective of a contemporary, uber-wealthy businessman whom no one thinks upon or trembles at anymore, only gets richer with age. Perhaps its greatest accomplishment is getting me to feel sad (and rather mad) over Lars and his predicament at the beginning, then bringing me around to feel sad together with him by the end. Enthusiastically recommended to Christian congregations which don’t watch anything unless it’s animated or paints all Christians in an unambiguously flattering light, to those who liked Her or May or I’m A Cyborg But That’s OK, and to really any human being.
Holy Grail will always be the most popular Monty Python venture, but Life of Brian is my pick for their smartest. Watching the latter for the first time in 2016, it’s hard to fathom why churches in Europe once condemned it with such defensive fervor. Maybe it had something to do with humans’ tendency to echo, like, or retweet what they hear about a subject rather than investigating it for themselves, which is much harder and doesn’t grant the same immediacy of satisfaction. Whatever the case, Life of Brian ironically is little more than a hilarious story about thinking for yourself and not blindly following charismatic speakers because of a crowd. It may even teach the uninitiated a thing or two about Latin and Biggus Dikkus, though there’s absolutely nothing funny about the latter individual. Americanes, rident non!
The Lobster –
My selection as of this writing for the movie of 2016, The Lobster has enough big ideas within it to inspire several essays on the role of government, the symbolic significance of marriage, and the authenticity of reality TV dating or social media presence. With any luck someday I will get around to writing one of those essays, but for now I’ll just say that Yorgos Lanthimos’ film feels like a purely dystopian story, which is probably why it hasn’t resonated that much with the general population looking for something to entertain them on Amazon Prime (where this currently boasts a 2.4/5). The Lobster isn’t meant to serve as entertainment, though it’s often humorous in a sickly way, and the onerous length of certain slow-motion scenes is the one thing in my mind that holds it back from perfection, making subsequent viewings more of a slog than necessary. The performances are cold and stilted across the board, but in the universe of The Lobster, one can think of several good reasons why the bachelors and bachelorettes would want or have to suppress outward displays of emotion. In an era where insipid action movies are dressed up as “dystopian fiction” and marketed to young adults who don’t know the roots of the genre, it was so satisfying to observe a film that had assurance in the strength of its philosophy and didn’t peddle breakneck parkour sequences, irredeemable government stormtroopers, or a teenage rebel who “can change everything”.
Tom Hardy is great per usual as well as the unique, reflection-heavy cinematography, but what raises Locke from improvisational, stage play experiment to cinematic wonder is its themes of manhood and responsibility. This is one of the manliest movies I’ve ever seen, not because of Ivan Locke’s outer feats of strength or masculinity or stubbornness, but because he more clearly and concisely embodies what it means to be a grown man than any beefy action hero. Locke owns the mistakes he makes in life and works to rectify them no matter the consequences to himself, and by the denouement he has left us both profoundly moved and devastated.
Update continued here.
The rest of the list:
Update continued here.
The rest of the list: