The Doctor Who Christmas Specials Ranked

Be warned: this is a bah-humbug list. With a trio of exceptions, Doctor Who Christmas specials have been mainstream attempts to indulgence the worst aspects of the new series. And it’s criminal that the holiday season has become an essential ingredient for regenerations. The Christmas Invasion was a fine introduction to the tenth Doctor, but The End of Time and The Time of the Doctor were horrible send-offs. Regenerations are too important to be ruined by cheap holiday redundancies.

That being said, three of the Christmas specials are very good, and I suppose they are enough to justify the tradition. That leaves seven stinkers, though Moffat’s (4-6) are slightly less offensive than Davies’ (7-10). Moffat struck gold twice (1-2) and Davies managed to do right by his first effort (3).

DOCTOR WHO CHRISTMAS SPECIAL1. A Christmas Carol. 5 jelly babies. This is a masterpiece, and I do mean flawless. The sets and lighting with purplish-black hues set a perfect tone, haunting yet mystical, and Michael Gambon as the tormented Scrooge character is one of the best guest performances of the new series. The Doctor’s unethically manipulations in trying to save his soul remind of the seventh Doctor: there’s no reason he couldn’t have gone back in time to prevent the Starliner from taking off in the first place instead of jumping through hoops to rewrite a man’s life on the slim hope that he’ll change his mind. He seems to be getting off on using people as pawns, rewriting their lives — as the Scrooge character rightly charges — “to suit himself”. The ending shows that Moffat can actually discipline himself, for a change, so that not “everyone lives”. Abigail must die, and her final sky-ride marks a perfect closing.

sleigh ride2. Last Christmas. 5 jelly babies. I consider this one a masterpiece as well, and it’s easily one of the most terrifying stories of the new series. You would never predict that from the first fifteen minutes: Santa Claus in Doctor Who?? Talk about jumping the shark. So of course, this had better be a goddamn dream — and the trope works, because as in Inception, the nightmares impact reality in deadly earnest. You can die in these dreams, age monstrously, or never wake up. The dream crabs are the scariest aliens seen since the weeping angels, and in this case you should look away from them and blink, and stop thinking about them altogether. They are the facehuggers of Alien, “Inceptionized” to weaponize dreams against people as the crabs feed on the host’s brain. When everyone’s subconscious fights back, it comes in the form of Santa Claus, and the juxtaposition of a fairy-tale figure with the worst horror imaginable is what makes this episode so against-the-odds utterly compelling.

christmas invasion3. The Christmas Invasion. 4 jelly babies. The first and only good Christmas special penned by Russell Davies. It’s a solid introduction to the tenth Doctor, and the worn out invasion-of-earth formula works for rather than against it. Even ludicrous elements like the killer-Christmas trees gel in a good way. The dramatic tension builds well in the first half due to the Doctor being out of commission as he recovers from regenerating, and when he finally emerges from those TARDIS doors, we almost want to clap like kids. He gets in a good sword fight with the alien-king before banishing his race from earth, and the best scene is his hand getting chopped off then immediately regenerating. And the “Song for Ten” at the end is perfect. The Christmas Invasion is a lot like The Eleventh Hour: a pedestrian story done really, really well.

wardrobe4. The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe. 2 jelly babies. This one could have been terrific and should have been. It looks gorgeous and spins off a great classic. By rights it should have been another Christmas Carol, but Moffat forsook subdued artistry, not to mention tragedy, in favor of cheap kiddie tales, with the outrageous (but unfortunately predictable) ending of the mother using her emotional pain as a beacon to call back the father from death. If A Christmas Carol was written for sincere Doctor Who fans, this story was tailored for the everyday kid tuning into any Christmas special on TV. Still, I have to applaud the beautiful aesthetics — the wintry forests and the tree house — and the idea of the tree souls had great potential if delivering somewhat hollow results.

snowmen5. The Snowmen. 2 jelly babies. By this point in the series, Doctor Who was running on empty, but for reasons that puzzle me, The Snowmen is widely regarded as one of the best Christmas specials. It was praised at the time for being scary (I disagree) and for picking up on the arc of the new companion Clara begun in Asylum of the Daleks (which was frankly a bad episode). The series-seven Clara was atrocious, and nothing about her series-eight awesomeness can erase that. Another strike against this story is the trio of Vastra, Jenny, and Strax, whom I could never warm to. I admitthat  I liked the smoke-fashioned staircase straight out of Mary Poppins, with the Doctor’s new Tardis floating above town on a bed of ultra-dense water vapor. And a few other supplements. But this is easily the most overrated Christmas special.

time of the doctor6. The Time of the Doctor. 2 jelly babies. This one is especially disappointing when judged by what preceded it. The Day of the Doctor was the home-run anniversary special that scored in all the right ways, and even the resets worked. The two episodes surrounding it, on the other hand — The Name of the Doctor and this Christmas special — show Moffat being devoured by himself. His cleverness, surplus of narrative debts, and hollow character and plotting throughout series seven end in a crash, leaving us with window dressing of past successes — weeping angels, fish fingers and custard, the crack in the wall, the Silence falling (whose mystery was never even resolved) — and nothing original. The Time of the Doctor was the capstone of a horrible season that showed the need for a new producer, and definitely a new companion. (I was proved wrong on both counts, but that’s another story…)

Runaway_Bride_(Doctor_Who)7. The Runaway Bride. 1 jelly baby. After the unassailable series two (it remains the best of the new series, in my opinion), and Rose’s wonderful closure, we get kicked in the teeth with this dross. It dumps a screeching bride inside the TARDIS and a pantload of nonsense that’s supposed to serve as a Christmas special, but the only thing special is an all-time low for Doctor Who — easily the worst story up to this point in the series. (The Dalek double-bill in Manhattan would soon rectify this.) The bride has been infected with a strange energy (that whisked her to the TARDIS) as part of an alien plan to take over earth, and that’s only the start of the silliness. It was impossible to predict how good Donna would turn out in series four based on her abysmal performance here, and The Runaway Bride has only gotten worse with age.

Voyage_of_the_Damned8. The Voyage of the Damned. 1 jelly baby. Damned in every sense, this one offends like The Runaway Bride but twice as garishly. The Doctor finds himself on a floating spaceship, caught between corporate greed, sabotage, and robotic angels armed with killer halos. It sounds impressive but it’s entirely not: there’s comedy in every line, but nothing funny; noise and action in every other sequence, but no excitement. It’s a sign of how bad a story is when the body count is so commendably high (as in classic Who) but you just don’t care about who dies. Ironically, we have this episode to thank for Midnight, the inverse story in which Davies wrote this one all over again but did everything right for a change. Was he making fun of himself and produced a work of art by accident?

next doctor9. The Next Doctor. 1 jelly baby. The Cyberking may be badass, but this story is still a steaming pile of manure. Just as the Daleks were used abominably in the series-four finale, the Cybermen are abused in a horrendous follow-up, as if Davies were determined to ruin every single aspect of Doctor Who before turning the reins over to Moffat. Let alone that it makes no sense that the Cybermen are able to unleash their own King Kong when they’ve been stuck in the Void. That’s a triviality compared to the preposterous handling of the story’s deeper theme about loss and what happens to the mind when it tries to cope with it. Applied to a traumatized guy who thinks he’s the Doctor (with his own sonic screwdriver and all) just doesn’t work, and indeed “The Next Doctor” served purely as a cheap ploy at the time to make viewers think that Tennant’s regeneration would happen in this story.

end of time10. The End of Time. 1 jelly baby. I don’t even like talking about this one. David Tennant did a great job as the Doctor and deserved better than an excremental swan song that not only brings back a comic-book Master, but also resurrects the Time Lords in a cheap plot, while making sure to plumb the worst aspects of kitchen-sink opera with Donna and her family. Payoffs are abysmal and the trappings are as bad as they get in a Davies script, from a medical fix-it machine, to silly cactus-people, to the Master flying with his bare hands, to a climax which can barely be called that — just the three leads talking to each other in a ballroom. Things get even worse in the long and saccharine denouement, as the Doctor revisits all his previous companions before he regenerates, and while Davies is obviously trying to honor Tennant, the result is way too self-indulgent. It’s a horrible, horrible end to the era of the tenth Doctor.

“Waking Up”: Meditation, Psychedelics, and Spirituality

typeChristmas Day I spent meditating. That’s right. Something I’ve never had use for, and often disdained as a profound waste of time. Of course, I’ve known of its uses to reduce stress, but I’m not prone to anxiety. I’ve simply never had the inclination to sit for long durations, focus on breathing, and empty the mind of thought. Thinking is too rich and fun for that.

Or at least sometimes. In Waking Up, Sam Harris underscores the dark side to thinking. From the moment we get out of bed we’re thinking and talking to ourselves non-stop, and by these self-conversations we engineer our suffering — ranging from our dissatisfaction with the mediocrity of daily existence to relentless, full-blown misery. Thought is the culprit of despair.

I’d never thought of “thought” as being so treacherous, probably because I find the life of the mind exciting, but also since I’m a relatively happy person. I count myself fortunate to have a satisfying career and hobbies I can make time for. But Harris points out that even for people who enjoy life (or think they do), happiness is transitory. The happiness we get comes only by reiterating pleasures — good food and sex, bonding with friends and family, enjoying our hobbies or careers or passions or whatever fulfills us — and the happiness is fleeting. It doesn’t last. Pleasures need to be repeated. In the meantime, we’re held hostage by thoughts: our self-ruminations covering fears and insecurities and worries and doubts.

Waking Up suggests that we can be happy outside of the usual pleasures: before anything happens to make us happy. The exercise involves ceasing thought altogether, which is far more difficult than it sounds, but when successful apparently breaks the illusion of the self and pulls our psyches fully into the present:

“The reality of your life is always now. And to realize this is liberating. In fact, I think there is nothing more important to understand if you want to be happy in this world. But we spend most of our lives forgetting this truth — overlooking it, fleeing it, repudiating it. And the horror is that we succeed. We manage to avoid being happy while struggling to become happy, fulfilling one desire after the next. As a consequence, we spend our lives being far less content than we might otherwise be.”

Harris recommends meditation techniques derived from eastern religious practices, as the safest path to this liberating “now”. He also entertains the use of psychedelic drugs (like MDMA and LSD), though with extreme caution. The results are framed in the context of “spirituality”, and I was initially shocked that an atheist and scientist of Harris’ reputation would want to co-opt this new age buzz word. He anticipates the objection:

“Yes, to walk the aisles of any ‘spiritual’ bookstore is to confront the yearning and credulity of our species by the yard, but there is no other term — apart from the even more problematic ‘mystical’ or the more restrictive ‘contemplative’ — with which to discuss the efforts people make, through meditation, psychedelics, or other means, to fully bring their minds into the present or to induce non-ordinary states of consciousness. And no other word links this spectrum of experience to our ethical lives.”

I concede he’s probably right. By the end of the book, I still couldn’t come up with a better word for these processes.

The meditation techniques come from Buddhism and Hinduism, sans mythology, remolded for secular consumption. The process (click here if you want Harris to talk you through it) involves sitting still, focusing on your breathing, and trying to stop thinking. It’s easy to describe, hard as nails to do. I haven’t succeeded yet.

By the testimony of those who succeed, when you’re able to cease all thought — even if only for a few moments — you can break the illusion of your “I” self, and see things as if in another dimension. Thoughts appear as discrete objects. Sounds can be tasted, sights heard. Emotions are accentuated and untainted, like love — boundless love even for strangers. You are in a state of “clear, nonjudgmental, and undistracted attention to the contents of your consciousness”. Rather than being “lost in thought”, you are actually seeing thoughts (or hearing them, or feeling them, or smelling them). You no longer feel like there is an “I” perched in your head behind your eyes, looking out of a body you control; the illusion of the self is broken.

If this sounds like a drug-trip, it’s because it is. As a teenager Harris had the following experience on ecstasy with his best friend:

“Unlike other drugs with which we were by then familiar (marijuana and alcohol), MDMA [ecstasy] produced no feeling of distortion in our senses. Our minds seemed completely clear. In the midst of this ordinariness, however, I was suddenly struck by the knowledge that I loved my friend. This shouldn’t have surprised me — he was, after all, one of my best friends. However, at that age I was not in the habit of dwelling on how much I loved the men in my life. Now I could feel that I loved him, and this feeling had ethical implications that suddenly seemed as profound as they now sound pedestrian on the page: I wanted him to be happy.

“That conviction came crashing down with such force that something seemed to give way inside me. In fact, the insight appeared to restructure my mind. My capacity for envy, for instance — the sense of being diminished by the happiness or success of another person — seemed like a symptom of mental illness that had vanished without a trace. I could no more have felt envy at that moment than I could have wanted to poke out my own eyes. What did I care if my friend was better looking or a better athlete than I was? If I could have bestowed those gifts on him, I would have. Truly wanting him to be happy made his happiness my own.

“And then came the insight that irrevocably transformed my sense of how good human life could be. I was feeling boundless love for one of my best friends, and I suddenly realized that if a stranger had walked through the door at that moment, he or she would have been fully included in this love. Love was at bottom impersonal [italics mine]. I was not overwhelmed by a new feeling of love. The insight had more the character of a geometric proof: It was as if, having glimpsed the properties of one set of parallel lines, I suddenly understood what must be common to them all.”

Harris urges caution, however. He considers the altered state of consciousness induced by a psychedelic drug “one of the most important rites of passage a human being can experience” — if you’re lucky to have the right bio-chemistry for it. Psychedelics can also be ferociously damaging.

I want to cite his full commentary on the subject of drugs, even though it comes almost as a footnote in the book’s final chapter. Everything he says here — on the drug war, use of drugs, and potential dangers — is perfectly stated. If only Americans (especially our politicians and law makers) could “wake up” to these truths, we’d make progress on many levels aside from the spiritual one.

“The ‘war on drugs’ has been lost and should never have been waged. I can think of no right more fundamental than the right to peacefully steward the contents of one’s own consciousness. The fact that we pointlessly ruin the lives of nonviolent drug users by incarcerating them, at enormous expense, constitutes one of the great moral failures of our time. (And the fact that we make room for them in our prisons by paroling murderers, rapists, and child molesters makes one wonder whether civilization isn’t simply doomed.)

“I have two daughters who will one day take drugs. Of course, I will do everything in my power to see that they choose their drugs wisely, but a life lived entirely without drugs is neither foreseeable nor, I think, desirable. I hope they someday enjoy a morning cup of tea or coffee as much as I do. If they drink alcohol as adults, as they probably will, I will encourage them to do it safely. If they choose to smoke marijuana, I will urge moderation. Tobacco should be shunned, and I will do everything within the bounds of decent parenting to steer them away from it. Needless to say, if I knew that either of my daughters would eventually develop a fondness for methamphetamine or heroin, I might never sleep again. But if they don’t try a psychedelic like psilocybin or LSD at least once in their adult lives, I will wonder whether they had missed one of the most important rites of passage a human being can experience.

“This is not to say that everyone should take psychedelics. As I will make clear below, these drugs pose certain dangers. Undoubtedly, some people cannot afford to give the anchor of sanity even the slightest tug. It has been many years since I took psychedelics myself, and my abstinence is born of a healthy respect for the risks involved. However, there was a period in my early twenties when I found psilocybin and LSD to be indispensable tools, and some of the most important hours of my life were spent under their influence. Without them, I might never have discovered that there was an inner landscape of mind worth exploring.

“There is no getting around the role of luck here. If you are lucky, and you take the right drug, you will know what it is to be enlightened (or to be close enough to persuade you that enlightenment is possible). If you are unlucky, you will know what it is to be clinically insane. While I do not recommend the latter experience, it does increase one’s respect for the tenuous condition of sanity, as well as one’s compassion for people who suffer from mental illness.

“Many people wonder about the difference between meditation (and other contemplative practices) and psychedelics. Are these drugs a form of cheating, or are they the only means of authentic awakening? They are neither. All psychoactive drugs modulate the existing neurochemistry of the brain — either by mimicking specific neurotransmitters or by causing the neurotransmitters themselves to be more or less active. Everything that one can experience on a drug is, at some level, an expression of the brain’s potential. Hence, whatever one has seen or felt after ingesting LSD is likely to have been seen or felt by someone, somewhere, without it.

“However, it cannot be denied that psychedelics are a uniquely potent means of altering consciousness. Teach a person to meditate, pray, chant, or do yoga, and there is no guarantee that anything will happen. Depending upon his aptitude or interest, the only reward for his efforts may be boredom and a sore back. If, however, a person ingests 100 micrograms of LSD, what happens next will depend on a variety of factors, but there is no question that something will happen. And boredom is simply not in the cards. Within the hour, the significance of his existence will bear down upon him like an avalanche. This guarantee of profound effect, for better or worse, is what separates psychedelics from every other method of spiritual inquiry.

“Ingesting a powerful dose of a psychedelic drug is like strapping oneself to a rocket without a guidance system. One might wind up somewhere worth going, and, depending on the compound and one’s ‘set and setting,’ certain trajectories are more likely than others. But however methodically one prepares for the voyage, one can still be hurled into states of mind so painful and confusing as to be indistinguishable from psychosis.

“I have visited both extremes on the psychedelic continuum. The positive experiences were more sublime than I could ever have imagined or than I can now faithfully recall. These chemicals disclose layers of beauty that art is powerless to capture and for which the beauty of nature itself is a mere simulacrum. It is one thing to be awestruck by the sight of a giant redwood and amazed at the details of its history and underlying biology. It is quite another to spend an apparent eternity in egoless communion with it. Positive psychedelic experiences often reveal how wondrously at ease in the universe a human being can be — and for most of us, normal waking consciousness does not offer so much as a glimmer of those deeper possibilities.”

Years ago I had a college floor mate who related similar experiences of profound enlightenment under LSD. If I could know in advance that a psychedelic drug wouldn’t do me harm, I’d try it in a heartbeat, but I’m too paranoid about these things. It’s a choice every adult must make for him or herself, and yes, it should be legal to make that decision.

Obviously Waking Up favors an eastern view of spirituality. Harris judges the Abrahamic religions deficient in this regard. He notes, quite rightly, the way people resist acknowledging differences in religions: Jainism is a religion of peace; Islam is a religion of violence. Buddhism offers a sound approach to understanding the human mind; Christianity impedes such an understanding.

Though to be fair, I don’t know that it’s saying much to define spirituality by eastern standards, and then fault the Abrahamic religions for not being eastern. I agree that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are poorly equipped to help us understand the self, mind, and consciousness. (Islam is decrepit in more virulent ways, but that’s a whole other newsflash.) But exploring states of consciousness isn’t the only way to be spiritual.

Spirituality simply refers to personal transformation in accordance with some set of ideals. The ideals are usually religious, but as Waking Up shows, they can just as easily be secular. From the Buddhist point of view, transformation happens in the present (the “now”) rather than the future (the focus of our tormenting thoughts). The world is an illusion, and while we know this to be absurd, there’s at least some truth to it. Neuroscience shows that our view of the “I” self is an illusion; this is the fundamental premise of Waking Up.

From the Christian point of view, transformation happens in the future, at the apocalypse and resurrection. There is a present (or “realized”) dimension, but it requires the faith-commitment of baptizing into Christ’s death and even being crucified with him (Rom 6). (I’m not sure if any Christians experience an empirical transformation by uniting with their savior in the mystical way Paul describes.) The world is real but marred, and needs to be destroyed and made new before true happiness and peace can be fully realized.

In other words, while Harris is stacking the deck in favor of eastern spirituality, it makes sense to do this from a secular point of view, since eastern spirituality (transformation) doesn’t depend on religious faith, nor on waiting for a new world. I can’t speak to the efficacy of it, as I’ve only begun meditation and never taken a psychedelic drug.

But I have no reason to disbelieve its potentials. There are many new-age quacks; Harris has no truck with them. His bullshit radar is impeccable as always. Breaking the illusion of the self, and experiencing consciousness through a different filter, seems genuinely possible. If it can produce such egoless communion, good will, and unconditional happiness — well, that could be a skill worth honing.

The Best Films of 2014

This may have been the year of the ape, dinosaur, and dragon, but you won’t find Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Godzilla, and The Hobbit: Battle of Five Armies in what follows. Nor did I care for Interstellar, which was scientifically bonkers and philosophical cheese. These are the true gems of 2014, with ’71 at top beyond criticism.

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1. ’71. 5 stars. This taut thriller is set in west Belfast in the early years of the Irish Troubles — a year before Bloody Sunday – but it’s less a political thriller and more a horror/suspense piece that exploits the political background to remarkable effect. I knew Jack O’Connell would become a brilliant actor (his performance as the psychopathic teen in Eden Lake, 2008, was mind-blowing), and here he plays Gary Hook, a British soldier who gets separated from his company during a street riot. He is pursued by angry Belfast residents, and runs deeper into enemy territory, barely escaping murder at every turn, and finding help in unlikely places. One character who leaves a particular impression is the young boy who brings Hook to a pub, and gets blown to pieces when a bomb goes off. This is incredibly nail-biting suspense “behind enemy lines”, with superb control of action and pacing. My favorite of the year hands down.

2. Fury. 5 stars. The best war movie made in a long time. Few capture soldier camaraderie with Fury’s plain authenticity that makes you alternate between hating and loving these guys by the minute. In the final days of WWII, an American tank crew of five plow across Germany, and while they know American victory is guaranteed by this point, they sure don’t feel it. The tank battles are bloody nightmares; the Nazis resist every step of the way. My favorite scene comes in the film’s midpoint, right after the tankers conquer a German town. Two of the tank crew barge into an apartment where two women are hiding; sex results, but it’s not rape, and the unexpected tenderness on display is entirely real. Then the other three members barge in, and a thoroughly unpleasant dinner ensues. Fury is my favorite war film after the sacred trilogy of Bergman (Shame), Malick (The Thin Red Line), and Kubrick (Paths of Glory). And it buries Saving Private Ryan, which I didn’t like at all.

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3. The Babadook. 4 ½ stars. When Friedkin called this the most terrifying film he’d ever seen, that got my attention. Scarier than his own Exorcist? I don’t think so, but you can make a case for it. Some parts nearly gave me a heart attack. The performances are as operatic and visceral as those in Fire Walk With Me, and as in Twin Peaks, we never know for sure whether the monster is real or imagined. In some scenes Amelia appears to be hallucinating as she breaks down, but in others reacting to a real presence in the home. Heavy shades of The Shining, as this deranged parent tries to kill her over-imaginative child. Critics even compare it to Polanski’s Repulsion. But there’s no derivative feel at all. It’s the kind of horror film I’d given up hope for ever seeing again, engaging us with characters we deeply care about.

Related image4. Noah. 4 ½ stars. The story of the Flood served up Lord of the Rings style. It works, because the first eleven chapters of Genesis are complete myth; the same sort of mythic pre-history that Tolkien intended by Middle-Earth. So when we see giant rock creatures (the Watchers) and bits of magic here and there, it somehow makes the story of Gen 6-9 seem as it should. It’s a sweeping epic that doesn’t soft-peddle God’s act of genocide. Don’t listen to complaints that this theme of divine vengeance has been anachronistically aligned with pagan environmentalism or vegetarianism. If Christians knew their bibles, they would know that a significant amount of “environmentalism” can be derived from scripture; and if we’re going to be proper fundies, we would acknowledge that God didn’t add meat to the human diet until after the flood (Gen 9:3). Noah isn’t pro-environmental in any true modern sense, though it can resonate with some viewers on that level. Reviewed here.

5. Snowpiercer. 4 ½ stars. The U.S. release coincided with that of Noah, and I saw them back to back as a bleak double-feature. Noah is of course apocalyptic, telling the biblical story of the flood: a righteous man and his family are spared the global holocaust, and are commissioned to preserve the animal creation while humanity is wiped out; Noah goes homicidal on the Ark and barely stops himself from butchering his newborn granddaughters. Snowpiercer is post-apocalyptic, set in 2031, long after a sudden ice age froze the planet. The only survivors boarded a train called (yes) the Rattling Ark, which after 17 years is still keeping people alive in a perverse state of affairs. As in Noah, the lead protagonist fights urges to kill babies, and the cause of righteousness is under a question mark. The film is many things: a social class war, a claustrophobic horror piece, and bat-shit insanity that would make David Lynch envious. It’s truly brilliant.


6. The Homesman (2014). 4 ½ stars. This Western is a road journey and spiritual odyssey that ends with a resourcefully independent woman killing herself and a useless man getting his second wind in life. They are transporting three crazy women from Nebraska to Iowa (it’s set in the 1850s, when the former was a territory and the latter a state), but really everyone is a bit crazy, to the extent that the mythic West feels like an alternate world where nothing really clicks. By far the strangest scene is the stop-over at a hotel in the middle of nowhere, run by an eccentric Irishman played by James Spader. The hotel is empty and chock full of gourmet food and drink, but the Irishman adamantly denies room and board to Briggs and the three women who are now starving (even though Briggs can pay) by making bullshit excuses that every single room is reserved. This weird Lynchian scene defines The Homesman for me. The West is portrayed as an unforgiving place with rare epiphanies; a horrible place for humanity to flourish, yet with the power to fire the soul — for better or worse.

7. Spring. 4 ½ stars. A back-seat horror treasure. We never learn if Louise is a vampire or some kind of alien, mostly because that element is circumstantial. Spring is a romance that has been endlessly compared to Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy. If you love the conversations between Jesse and Celine (as I do), and if you’re a horror fan too, then you’ll eat up Evan and Louise. Their relationship evolves out of witty and entirely organic dialogue, and on the occasions when Louise’s body rebels and transforms, and she has to go out and kill, it seems like we’re suddenly in a different movie. The clash works wonderfully, and it’s the kind of cinematic daring I’d like to see more often.

8. Gone Girl. 4 ½ stars. Two entries on my list involve preposterous plots weaved through a dark mesmerizing surrealism. Gone Girl is the first, and it’s David Fincher’s best film since Seven. The direction is immaculate; the editing flawless; at two and a half hours, I wanted it to go on longer. The forensic intrigue of Zodiac is mixed with the mind-fucking glee of The Game to keep us clueless, and since I was ignorant of the book and steered clear of reviews, I was truly that. The genius of the film lies in the way it shuttles back and forth between the pre- and post-disappearance of Amy, with events ringing hollow in both periods even when they unfold as revelations. Fincher doesn’t yank us around or abuse our trust. Nor does he exactly distort the events he portrays. He just frames them in a clever way that gives new meaning to the polysemous nature of truth. That’s the true ride, more than the plotting itself.

9. X-Men: Days of Future Past. 4 ½ stars. Of the seven X-Men films to date, this one is the best. Here we finally get the all-out war between mutants and humanity, requiring time travel to save the day but without cheap resets — so we get to have our cake and eat it as X-Men die but live again. The time warping also bridges the cast of the first three films with their younger versions from the First Class prequel. Things are so dire that Magneto teams up with Xavier, but as in the second film it’s a fragile alliance. Ellen Page reprises her role as Kitty Pryde (from the awful Last Stand), and this time she’s actually an important character: it’s her powers that make the time travel mission possible. The Catch-22’s are brilliant: Magneto was right all along that humanity would eventually commit genocide on the mutants; but that’s only because of his own aggressive policies, which caused Mystique to set the genocidal plan in motion.

10. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. 4 stars. A feminist spin from the Muslim world is what we need in today’s climate, and this Iranian piece is pure feminine defiance. It’s not preachy; it doesn’t let its message get in the way of a good story. It’s set in a remote town full of pimps and thieves, where a young man is trying to rise above the depraved, and the vampire preys at night. She’s endearing like the girl of Let the Right One In, a lover of music and skateboarding, and her victims tend to be abusive males. Dress attire serves a brilliant inversion. The Iranian chador keeps women stifled, but here it looks like a “Dracula cape” symbolizing the girl’s ferocious liberation. If the movie is light on plot it’s filled with atmosphere, and the Farsi language is a big part of that.

11. Lone Survivor. 4 stars. Based on the true account (see what’s fact and fiction here) of four navy seals on a covert operation in Afghanistan 2005. As they invade a Taliban hideout, they’re spotted by goat herders and make the kind but stupid decision to let them go rather than kill them on the spot. From that point it’s the four seals fending off unrelenting assault, as Taliban soldiers chase them through the mountains, surround them, and appear suddenly from behind trees. This is one of the most emotionally draining military sequences ever filmed, showing how much damage the human body can actually absorb before giving up the ghost. The film honors the seals who died in Operation Red Wings, but also the Afghan villagers who sheltered the lone survivor of the four, when it was basically suicide for them to oppose the Taliban in this way.

12. Boyhood. 4 stars. It boasts a near perfect (99%) critical approval on Rotten Tomatoes, and while I certainly wouldn’t call it that good — it’s not a masterpiece like the “Before Sunrise” trilogy — it does what Richard Linklater films do best, mining truths out of the minutia of everyday life. The conceit has been way over-hyped: Linklater shot the film over 12 years, once every year for three or four days of shooting, so the characters literally grow before our eyes without the enhancements of makeup, special effects or use of different actors. If we didn’t know this in advance, I suspect Boyhood would have been closer to a non-event. The film could have been made the standard way and no worse for it. Boyhood speaks to the human condition in mundane events, which should but never come across boring in a Linklater film.

13. Grand Piano. 4 stars. My second entry involving a ludicrous premise that works for rather than against. If Gone Girl is about keeping a husband glued to his wife through the most perverse blackmail conceivable, Grand Piano is about keeping a musician glued to the piano — lest he be shot by a sniper for playing a single wrong note. This sniper speaks to the pianist through an earpiece, as the poor guy performs in front of a crowd expecting him to fail. The style reminds of Brian DePalma, though more polished and less trashy. It’s Elijah Wood’s best outing since Frodo days, and he’s well suited in his nerdy victimized role. This is a film you savor for style, not substance, wondering how you could have possibly loved it so much as the credits start rolling.

14. The Den. 4 stars. The found-footage genre is awful, but The Den uses it to great effect. The plot is standard enough: a young woman witnesses a gruesome murder online, and she eventually becomes the killers’ next target. It’s the way everything unfolds via the webcams, Skype, surveillance cameras, and moving cursors that makes the results so effective. In short order, the killer hacks into Elizabeth’s computer and makes her life hell. It starts with pranks (like forwarding of a homemade sex tape to her academic supervisor and getting her fired), then escalates to things far worse. The film succeeds in making us feel vulnerable, because of the terrifying ease with which virtual threats and cyber-home invasions can be executed. In the final act, Elizabeth wakes up in the den — a grim warehouse containing victims tied to chairs — and she, naturally, becomes the next featured online murder; a foreordained ending which pulls no punches.

(See also: The Best Films of 2006, The Best Films of 2007, The Best Films of 2008, The Best Films of 2009, The Best Films of 2010, The Best Films of 2011, The Best Films of 2012, The Best Films of 2013, The Best Films of 2015, The Best Films of 2016.)

“He who saves/destroys one life, saves/destroys humanity” (The Talmud vs. The Qur’an)

At a speech in Cairo on June 4, 2009, President Barack Obama proclaimed, “The Holy Qur’an teaches that ‘Whoever kills an innocent, it is as if he has killed all mankind; and whoever saves a person, it is as if he has saved all mankind.'” Obama, like Bush before him, believes that Islam is a religion of peace, and he cited Qur’an 5:32 to prove the point.

Unfortunately, his citation is misleading. Qur’an 5:32 actually says, in full:

“We ordained for the Children of Israel that if any one killed a person — unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land — it would be as if he killed the whole people: and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people.”

Note the exception: “unless for murder or mischief.” This is explained further in the next verse, Qur’an 5:33:

“Indeed, the penalty for those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger and strive upon earth to make mischief is none but that they be killed or crucified or that their hands and feet be cut off from opposite sides or that they be exiled from the land. That is for them a disgrace in this world; and for them in the Hereafter is a grievous punishment.”

In other words, while taking a life may be equivalent to killing all humanity (or an entire people), if one is spreading “mischief in the land” then one should indeed be “killed or crucified or have their hands and feet be cut off from opposite sides or that they be exiled from the land.” And that’s exactly how jihadists often justify their behavior: that their victims were “making mischief” or spreading corruption, which of course is conveniently elastic enough that it can mean almost anything.

It’s also worth noting that the saying of Qur’an 5:32 originates in the Talmud, in Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 and Babylonian Talmud Tractate Sanhedrin 37a. It’s a rabbinical commentary on the Cain and Abel story, and neither text contains the qualifier about making mischief.

Qur’an 5:32 thus derives from the Talmud, and even the Qur’an acknowledges that the injunction was first given to the Jews (“the Children of Israel”). But the Qur’an adds a clause, and follows it with a verse, which dramatically changes (or corrects) the Talmudic meaning. This is blatantly ignored by those who cite 5:32 to prove Islam is a religion of peace, when it indicates the opposite.

Ten Films that Terrorized Me

I don’t scare easily, but these films that went well beyond their mandate in terrorizing me. There’s demonic horror (#1, #5), paranormal horror (#4, #6, #9), psychological horror (#3, #8), supernatural plus the psychological (#2, #7), and alien horror (#10).

(Click on the images to be terrorized.)

1. The Exorcist, William Friedkin. 1973. Critical approval: 87%. It destroyed my 11-year old psyche. It still gives me nightmares. It’s the mother of all horror films. Somehow Friedkin came up with exactly what you’d imagine a demon to look and sound and act like, as it beats the shit out of a 12-year old girl from the inside out. She speaks like the damned, pukes buckets of green, and reams herself bloody with crucifixes. Two priests intervene with a long ritual that kills them both. The girl is saved, but the power of good over evil is far from clear. Some continue to insist that The Exorcist is unspeakable, and I respect why. It couldn’t have made in a decade other than the ’70s (the influence of Bergman’s Cries and Whispers is astonishing), and it is a simple fact that there will ever again be a movie so frightening and well done. For all these reasons, it’s my favorite film of all time, let alone horror film.

firewalkwithme2. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, David Lynch. 1992. Critical approval: 62%. David Lynch’s darkest film contains scenes in Laura’s bedroom so terrifying they make parts of The Shining look tame. It was misjudged in the ’90s based on expectations from the TV series, and anyone who still doesn’t like it should listen to Mark Kermode, who rightly pronounces it a masterpiece. The question of whether Leland is an innocent man possessed by an evil spirit, or a garden variety sexual molester is ambiguous: “Bob” could be a hallucination or an actual demon. Fire Walk With Me is a merciless piece of psychological horror and a character piece in contrast to the TV series’ focus on town intrigue and multiple-character dynamics. It’s an intensely personal film and a switch in tone that works wonders in the context of a two-hour prequel. The key is getting a distance from the TV series before watching it.

3. The Shining, Stanley Kubrick. 1980. Critical approval: 92%. Stephen King hated it so much he made a “corrective” version for TV, but not half as good. Kubrick hit a home run because he took the skeleton of a haunted hotel story and fleshed it out with more uncompromising terrors and a unique tone that doesn’t let you tell yourself things are going to be okay. The result may be more minimalist than what King intended, but it’s sure as hell more effective. Scenes I took to bed too often: Danny’s vision of the two hacked-up little girls in the hallway, the look on Wendy’s face when she discovers Jack has been typing the same sentence over and over for weeks, Jack’s face appearing in a hotel painting in the final shot after he dies. Especially that last. Every frame of this film, every intonation of the score, is part of a brutal overarching terror.

the-pact-official-poster4. The Pact, Nicholas McCarthy. 2012. Critical approval: 67%. This is way underrated. It’s about a haunted house, but with a truly terrorizing twist. It turns out there is indeed a ghost in the house, but also a real-life psychopath living in the cellar, and he has been there the whole goddamn time. When you learn this and reflect back to the start of the movie when some of the “ghostly” assaults began — the open closet door, the jar of food on the floor, Annie being levitated and thrown against the walls, the other girls disappearing altogether — you realize that only some of this was the ghost. That’s frightening on many levels, and the sort of thing Peter Straub pulled off in his novel Lost Boy, Lost Girl, especially with the secret room with spyholes, and the room of caged torment. Psychopathic horror usually doesn’t scare me (classics like Psycho are suspenseful but they don’t give me nightmares), but McCarthy blends the psycho with the supernatural in ways that are unnerving in the extreme.

5. The Evil Dead, Sam Raimi. 1981. Critical approval: 96%. This low-budget classic (avoid the remake) may have some laughable acting, but it doesn’t matter. In terms of relentless pulverizing terror, nothing has ever matched it. Demonic possession is my #1 scare anyway, and the trio of ladies are basically adult Linda Blairs, with voices and makeup jobs straight out of hell. The legendary scene in which Cheryl gets raped by a tree still brings my jaw to the floor. Linda eating her own hand is another unspeakable that today’s scriptwriters could learn from. The Evil Dead sequels had better budgets and special effects to prop them up, but they’re essentially comedy-horrors. The first film is dead-serious and doesn’t make you laugh at all. It came out in ’81 but it’s a ’70s film at heart — in some ways a triumphant last gasp of hard-core horror before Freddy Krueger became a hit.

THEWITCH_PAYOFF_WEB1-691x10246. The Witch, Robert Eggers. 2016. Critical approval: 88%. Critics love it and audiences hate it, but that’s because today’s audiences are so stupid they think The Conjuring is the scariest thing since The Exorcist. It’s set in Colonial New England (1630s) before the Salem Witch trials, and establishes the reality of the witch right away, so there is no possibility of misunderstanding the terror as being all in the mind. The film is about a girl whose baby brother is snatched (and killed), her other young brother molested and possessed (and killed), a freaky black goat which her younger siblings bond with (and which kills her father), and a wretched mother who blames her for everything (and whom she is forced to kill). All of this is carried on an atmosphere of isolation, hopelessness, and hideous shame. The Witch is organically terrifying, and relishes in the delights of hidden evil. Like The Babadook, it’s stingy in its sightings of the title villain, relying on oppressive environment and mental decay of the characters.

MPW-533887. Event Horizon, Paul Anderson. 1997. Critical approval: 24%. This was panned by critics who had the wrong expectations for a sci-fic film. Today it has a major cult following. It’s basically The Shining in outer space, set on a ship that’s equipped with a gravity drive that sends you to hell. As the crew explores the ship, an evil presence begins to exploit their darkest personal secrets and torture them with hallucinations. The scientist who created the Event Horizon soon realizes that it’s penetrated beyond the boundaries of the universe and in to hell itself. The crew members stumble on incredibly frightening footage of the ship’s previous crew, which shows them killing and cannibalizing each other in some kind of demonic fury (click on right image). This is by far the most terrifying sci-fic horror film (even more than Alien), and a bold depiction of inter-dimensional evil.

8. The Babadook, Jennifer Kent. 2014. Critical approval: 98%. When Friedkin called this the most terrifying film he’d ever seen, that got my attention. Scarier than his own Exorcist? I don’t think so, but some parts indeed nearly gave me a heart attack. The performances are as operatic and visceral as those in Fire Walk With Me, and as in Twin Peaks, we never know for sure whether the monster is real or imagined. In some scenes Amelia appears to be hallucinating as she breaks down, but in others reacting to a real presence in the home. Heavy shades of The Shining, as this deranged parent tries to kill her over-imaginative child. Critics even compare it to Polanski’s Repulsion. But there’s no derivative feel at all. It’s the kind of horror film I’d given up hope for ever seeing again, engaging us with characters we care about as they collapse under fear.

wearestillhere9. We are Still Here, Todd Geoghegan. 2015. Critical approval: 95%. This is set in the ’70s, and actually shot like a ’70s horror film. The first half is an incredibly slow burn that gets us familiar with the town and characters, with lots of lingering shots of New England winter scenery. This is a remote snowy town in Massachusetts, and the characters are a married couple who move in to a house with a nasty legacy. Soon they believe they can hear the voice of their dead son (who was killed months ago in a car accident months), but they’re being fooled by the spirits of the previous residents who are starving for torment and slaughter. When one of their guests holds an impromptu séance, the slow burn is suddenly over, the shit hits the fan, and Hell comes to this little home and tears people apart.

10. Alien, Ridley Scott. 1979. Critical approval: 97%. A horror film with science-fiction dressing, and like The Exorcist a ’70s film in every way. It’s completely unlike Cameron’s sequel (an ’80s film in every way), which was an action blockbuster and made the mistake of altering the most terrifying aspect of the alien: its ability to cocoon a victim and cause it to morph into an egg/facehugger. In the sequel the eggs come from a queen alien, but Scott had envisioned a truly horrifying process by which any alien “laid eggs” by transforming captives. Cameron’s film also involved military personnel going after the alien threat, and while it’s not pleasant that they all die, that’s their job. In Alien we feel the raw terror of six civilians stranded alone in space, hunted and devoured one by one. That’s after Kane’s chestbursting, which is possibly the most insanely terrifying scene in the history of cinema.