50 Film Picks from the Last 50 Years (1970-2019)

In compiling this list of film picks, I limited myself in certain ways to make the exercise meaningful. Otherwise over half the list would be dominated by my favorite film makers — Lynch, Kubrick, Friedkin, Malick, Tarantino, Scorsese, etc. So I set a rule of using a director no more than twice, and even twice only if it couldn’t be avoided. This isn’t a ranking of the films, rather a chronological review of the past five decades. At the end, I do rank what I consider the top 3 from each decade.

1970s

1. Harold and Maude. Hal Ashby, 1971.
2. The Godfather. Francis Ford Coppola, 1972.
3. Cries and Whispers. Ingmar Bergman, 1972.
4. Heavy Traffic. Ralph Bakshi, 1973.
5. Badlands. Terrence Malick, 1973.
6. The Exorcist. William Friedkin, 1973.
7. Chinatown. Roman Polanski, 1974.
8. Taxi Driver. Martin Scorsese, 1976.
9. Eraserhead. David Lynch, 1977.
10. Alien. Ridley Scott, 1979.

1980s

11. Christiane F. Uli Edel, 1981.
12. The Evil Dead. Sam Raimi, 1981.
13. The Road Warrior. George Miller, 1981.
14. Conan the Barbarian. John Milius, 1982.
15. Fanny and Alexander. Ingmar Bergman, 1982.
16. The Meaning of Life. Terry Jones, 1983.
17. Crossroads. Walter Hill, 1986.
18. Near Dark. Kathryn Bigelow, 1987.
19. Jesus of Montreal. Denys Arcand, 1989.
20. The Cook, the Thief, his Wife, and her Lover. Peter Greenaway, 1989.

1990s

21. The Exorcist III: Legion. William Peter Blatty, 1990.
22. Fire Walk With Me. David Lynch, 1992.
23. Leon the Professional. Luc Besson, 1994.
24. Pulp Fiction. Quentin Tarantino, 1994.
25. Seven. David Fincher, 1995.
26. Casino. Martin Scorsese, 1995.
27. From Dusk till Dawn. Robert Rodriguez, 1996.
28. Crash. David Cronenberg, 1996.
29. The Ice Storm. Ang Lee, 1997.
30. Eyes Wide Shut. Stanley Kubrick, 1999.

2000s

31. The Lord of the Rings. Peter Jackson, 2001-2002-2003.
32. Storytelling. Todd Solondz, 2002.
33. City of God. Fernando Meirelles, 2002.
34. Hard Candy. David Slade, 2006.
35. United 93. Paul Greengrass, 2006.
36. Deja Vu. Tony Scott, 2006.
37. Sunshine. Danny Boyle, 2007.
38. There Will Be Blood. Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007.
39. Doubt. John Patrick Shanley, 2008.
40. Love Exposure. Sion Sono, 2009.

2010s

41. The Tree of Life. Terrence Malick, 2010.
42. The Divide. Xavier Gens, 2011.
43. The Pact. Nicholas McCarthy, 2012.
44. Blue is the Warmest Color. Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013.
45. The Walk. Robert Zemeckis, 2015.
46. Little Men. Ira Sachs, 2016.
47. Mother! Darren Aronofsky, 2017.
48. Blade Runner 2049. Denis Villeneuve, 2017.
49. First Reformed. Paul Schrader, 2018.
50. The Painted Bird. Václav Marhoul, 2019.

Harold And Maude - Faux Suicides — Reel SF
1. Harold and Maude. Hal Ashby, 1971. Most of my selections from the ’70s are films that couldn’t have been conceived in any other decade, and that’s especially true for Harold and Maude. A morbid love affair between a suicidal teen and a 79-year old woman was widely panned at the time of its release, but much more appreciated now as it deserves. Harold is a suicide addict who tries killing himself in a variety of ways — seppuku, hanging, drowning, self-immolation, self-mutilation, driving his car off a cliff — to the exasperation of a mother who can hardly be moved to care beyond her exasperations. Maude, as a Holocaust survivor, is a born soul mate for Harold, age difference be damned. One of the darkest comedies ever made, and a fitting start to the ’70s era of cynical nihilism.

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2. The Godfather. Francis Ford Coppola, 1972. Please note that I include only Part I on my list. Part 2 is a very good film, but, contrary to the pronouncements of almost every critic, it is not a sequel that surpasses the original. Not only does it lack the presence of iconic characters like James Caan’s Sonny and Marlon Brando’s Vito (DeNiro, for all his genius as the younger Vito in Part 2, does not beat Brando), but Michael’s pivotal transformation in the first film is what the Godfather tragedy is all about. Michael Corleone has one of the most compelling story arcs in cinematic history. All he does in Part 2 is continue his downward spiral. I even prefer Godfather Part 3 over Part 2, for its focus on Michael’s move in the other direction, and the question of his redemption. In any case, The Godfather is the film that heralded the ’70s Golden Age of cinema.

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3. Cries and Whispers. Ingmar Bergman, 1972. Possibly the most painful film I’ve endured: the hurt on display is relentless; facial contortions, gasps, and screams so awful it doesn’t seem like acting. The use of red color permeates everything and accentuates the world of hurt. And there’s plenty of emotional trauma to match the physical assault of Agnes’ cancer: the sisters feed off each others faults with raging insecurity. Believe it or not, this film is basically The Exorcist — it was released only a year before, and its influence on that film is hardly subtle — except the demon is the disease of cancer from which there is no liberation; Agnes dies in the end. You can see how clearly Friedkin was inspired by Bergman — the clock imagery, house atmosphere, bed agony, and self-harm. Cries and Whispers resonates for me on these levels, and in the wake of my father’s death helped me face my mortality for the first time.

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4. Heavy Traffic. Ralph Bakshi, 1973. Before he wrecked The Lord of the Rings (1978), Ralph Bakshi scored big with x-rated animation, most notably Fritz the Cat. But Heavy Traffic is his masterpiece in my opinion, for using black humor and racial stereotypes that don’t let anyone off the hook. It’s bold and discomfiting as it should be, and a celebration of urban decay that satirically explores what it means to be a young and frustrated artist in New York. The artist’s name is Michael Corleone, whose story loosely parodies the family betrayals of The Godfather, but only superficially. Bakshi is less interested in mafia crime drama and more in sordid life on the street, and he pulls no punches depicting reality which is far from politically correct. It’s the sort of refreshing bravery we seldom see anymore, aside from rare exceptions like South Park. And yet amidst all the grotesque imagery, there are moments of unexpected beauty.

Badlands (1973)5. Badlands. Terrence Malick, 1973. Malick’s first film is in every way a ’70s work par excellence, and one that only obliquely distinguishes itself as a Terrence Malick film per se. Like so many productions of this time, Badlands epitomizes the ideological emptiness of America after Vietnam and the social upheavals of the ’60s. Malick takes an amoral stance, refusing to either condemn his delinquent Bonnie-and-Clyde killers or cheer them on as anti-heroes. Malick is clearly trying to underscore the way characters react and relate to meaningless violence, and what I find most disturbing about it is the tone of disinterest and nonchalance; the duo don’t relish killing, nor do they murder with any real purpose; it’s just a way of life that comes naturally to them given their circumstances.

https://rossonl.files.wordpress.com/2014/01/5f4e7-exorcist2.jpg6. The Exorcist. William Friedkin, 1973. This was a Christmas release in ’73, and it must have ruined many holidays. I was only five at the time. When I saw it on TV in ’79, it devastated my 11-year-old psyche. For years afterwards, images from The Exorcist would assault me at unexpected moments, the worst being at night, leaving me paralyzed and terrified of my own existence. It was a shameful, hideous secret I spoke to no one about because I couldn’t give it voice. Somehow Friedkin came up with exactly what you’d imagine a demon to look and sound and act like, as it tears up a 12-year old girl from the inside out. Worth noting is that only a month after its release (January 27, 1974) the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons was released. That the best game of all time followed hot on the heels of the best film of all time is a testimony to the creative legacy of the early ’70s.

Chinatown (1974, Roman Polanski) / Cinematography by John A. Alonzo | Cinematography, Chinatown, Roman polanski7. Chinatown. Roman Polanski, 1974. Critics can point to any number of reasons for the film’s greatness, but for me it’s the way it begins as a crime mystery and ends as a personal tragedy. The mystery involves a scam to dry up the San Fernando valley by diverting water away from it, buying up the land cheaply, then re-diverting the water back to the valley so the property becomes valuable again. Jack Nicholson is the private eye investigating the conspiracy, but his investigations lead to romantic entanglements, and a climax that focuses on the perverted incestuous relationship between key characters. A ’70s film entirely, unencumbered by action sequences or artificial thrills.

Slide 1 of 17: Taxi Driver
8. Taxi Driver. Martin Scorsese, 1976. What can be said about this masterpiece that hasn’t been obsessed? Nothing probably, but I’ll offer this: that there is some of Travis Bickle in all of us. The misanthrope who thinks, with no conscious malice, that society is degenerate and beneath contempt. The sociopath driven to loneliness after failing to connect with people. The frustrated citizen who thinks his country needs an enema, and will assist in this regard by using violence. Travis is as relevant in the 21st century as he was in the ’70s. America has become the nation of increased income inequality, alternate facts, social media bubbles. Only very rarely do I cheapen a cinematic masterpiece by reducing it to a political metaphor, but the metaphor in this case is very much the point of why the Travis Bickles devolve as they do.

Eraserhead and Me – This Is Horror
9. Eraserhead. David Lynch, 1977. Lynch’s first film represents the purest tuning of the dream-consciousness style he’s become known for. To watch Eraserhead is to watch someone’s nightmare caught on tape. A man’s boring career of label-making is interrupted by his girlfriend’s news that they have a baby: a hideously deformed tadpole that cries day and night, resisting food and comfort, until his girlfriend abandons them both. While it’s tempting to wring out metaphors pertaining to fears about parenthood, it’s really impossible to describe what Eraserhead is getting at. Like real nightmares, this one unfolds as it pleases in every bizarre direction. It’s no accident that David Lynch — currently the best film maker alive — started his career in the unrestrained creativity of the ’70s.

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10. Alien. Ridley Scott, 1979. Just as there will (surely) never be a scarier supernatural film than The Exorcist, there will (doubtfully) ever be a scarier sci-fic film than Alien. Such was ’70s film making. Kubrick’s Space Odyssey had showed space travel to be an awe-inspiring wonder; Scott now showed the underside of space travel, with claustrophobia, isolation, and invincible savagery. I never cease to be amazed at those who insist that James Cameron’s sequel is superior. Aliens is just Alien on steroids, not even a fifth as scary, a cheap blockbuster involving military personnel whose job to die defending others. In the perfect original we feel the raw terror of six civilians stranded in space, hunted and devoured one by one, between nerve-wracking pauses.

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11. Christiane F. Uli Edel, 1981. This unpleasant portrait of drug addiction is based on the real-life Christiane Felscherinow, who became a heroin addict and prostitute between ages 13-15. It’s a German film that would have probably been destined to the obscurity of arthouse theaters in America, if not for the cameo from David Bowie, whose music is also used, notably in the powerful scene where kids are running through the mall to “Heroes”. (I’m sure this scene was the inspiration for the tunnel rides in Perks of Being a Wallflower, where the song is similarly deployed in the context of teens whooshing through tunnels and reaching for existential freedom.) It deserves its cult status even apart from Bowie, though it’s a very hard watch. It’s an ’80s film but with ’70s soul, as it’s set in ’70s Berlin and suffused with the isolated hopeless despair of the decade.

The Black Dahlia Murder Have Been "Raped in Hatred by Vines of Thorn" | MetalSucks12. The Evil Dead, Sam Raimi, 1981. It’s low-budget with laughable acting, but that doesn’t matter. In terms of relentless demonic terror, few films have ever matched it. The trio of ladies are basically adult Linda Blairs; their voices and makeup jobs alone scare the shit out of you. Then there’s the legendary scene in which Cheryl gets raped by a tree. 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 were comedy-horrors. The first film is dead-serious. It came out in ’81 but is a ’70s film at heart — in some ways a triumphant last gasp of hard-core horror before Freddy Krueger and other slashers took over.


13. The Road Warrior. George Miller, 1981. Unlike the Evil Dead sequels, The Road Warrior outdid the first Mad Max movie and remains the best post-apocalyptic film ever made. Like Conan (#14 below) and Snake Plissken in Escape from New York (1981), Mad Max is an amoral anti-hero straight out of pulp escapism, and his solitary wanderings across a wasteland remain an incredibly inspiring archetype. There’s so much about this film impossible to forget: the feral kid with the boomerang who narrates the story as an adult, the amazing road stunts for pre-CGI days, and the idea of gasoline being the most precious commodity — which resonates rather loudly in the 21st century. The Road Warrior is from the strong early years of the ’80s (’80-’82) before film lost a lot of its edge.

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14. Conan the Barbarian. John Milius, 1982. This is the first film on this list that I saw in the theater, and it did a number on my 13 year-old sensibilities. Unlike most ’80s fantasies, the world of Conan was done justice by an R-rating, and so we’re treated to Conan’s coupling with a vampire who goes rabid on him at the moment of orgasm, and an appropriate deluge of blood and gore in the battle scenes. The score is the best of any movie I’ve ever seen: thundering brass and Latin chants roll over grim battle sequences, while variations of the main theme play at just the right moments. By this point in my life, the first two Star Wars and Jaws films, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, had wowed most of the kids my age. Not me. Conan was my movie; it made me fall in love with film, and it deserves immense praise. It holds up incredibly well today unlike other ’80s fantasies. Not until Lord of the Rings 20 years later would a worthy fantasy come to the screens.

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15. Fanny and Alexander. Ingmar Bergman, 1982. This Swedish masterpiece is diminished by accolades; it has to be experienced to feel the magic, and despite the three-hour length (or even five-hour, if you see the extended version), you won’t want it to end. It’s a Dickens-like wonder, populated by ghosts and magical surrealism, the stuff of rare epic, weaved around a boy’s imagination that helps him deal with the death of his father and an abusive new one. There is the wild Christmas party of the first part, the tyranny and bloody lashings of the second, the dazzling dream-flight of the third. What stands out most is the optimistic ending, unique for Bergman. It was intended to be his last film, and I imagine him wanting to leave something more uplifting in his legacy. Fanny and Alexander is pure enchantment, pure storytelling, and its triumphant conclusion is richly earned.

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16. The Meaning of Life. Terry Jones, 1983. The year ’83 was when a lot of rot set into American film, but in the UK, Monty Python served up their best. Most favor Holy Grail or Life of Brian, but for me The Meaning of Life is better than those classics. It’s obviously the darkest Python film, as it charts life from birth to death in a series of crude and gross skits, and really pushes the bounds of decency. That’s why it’s so good. Comedy is at its best when boundaries are smashed to the limit. (Witness All in the Family and South Park.) John Cleese’s sex education class remains one of the most hysterical things I’ve seen. Meaning of Life was the last time all the Pythons worked together, and they went out offensively as possible.

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17. Crossroads. Walter Hill, 1986. I was a high school senior when this came out, and I remember it bombing at the box office. In hindsight I’m not surprised. It was a very unusual film for the ’80s, a mainstream effort that dealt in issues outside the mainstream: bargains with the Devil in order to achieve fame; the world of blues subculture of the deep south. The final guitar showdown in Hell holds up after all these years; the guitars of Eugene and Butler seem weaponized as they alternate their riffs, then play at the same time, get in each others faces, and desperately try to one-up the others notes. With the challenges of portraying music as a dangerous force, the Devil as a southern black, and an unbalanced friendship that ends with appropriate payoff, Crossroads does far a remarkable job than its reputation suggests, and I still adore it. For me, it’s the Huckleberry Finn of films.

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18. Near Dark. Kathryn Bigelow, 1987. Vampires are hard to do right by, especially when romance is involved, but Near Dark is the perfect vampire film. (Ironically the word “vampire” is never even used.) There is no seductive glamorizing of the bloodsuckers; it’s a very violent and nihilistic tale; and yet the romance between Caleb and Mae remains one of the most tender in any vampire story. The happy ending and return to the nuclear family betray the ’80s period; had this been made in the ’70s, Caleb and Mae would have stayed vampires, and one of them likely met some tragic end. But the film is so awesome that you can forgive the optimistic conclusion. Post-script: many of the Aliens cast are found here: Bill Paxton, Lance Henriksen, and Jenette Goldstein. Near Dark is far superior to Cameron’s blockbuster.

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19. Jesus of Montreal. Denys Arcand, 1989. This reinvention of the passion play is a critique of orthodox Christianity but fires especially on secularist evils — fame, the media, and the contempt actors suffer in the commercial industry. It takes place in ’80s Montreal where a Catholic priest hires a talented actor to direct the annual passion play, but he wants him to get creative and rework the stations of the cross for a more modern consumption. The priest gets more than he bargained for. Using the latest of biblical scholarship, the actor (Daniel) casts himself as Jesus and with four other actors turns out a passion play in which Jesus is an illegitimate bastard sired by a Roman soldier, and less interested in making people feel good than terrifying them with lines from the Abomination of Desolation (Mark 13). Of the zillions of Jesus films flooding the market, this is the one to watch.

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989)
20. The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover. Peter Greenaway, 1989. At the end of the ’80s came this splendid set piece, hosted by an infamous character played by Michael Gambon. Albert Spica is the sort of despicable person you can’t believe makes it from day to day without being murdered. He presides over a banquet in a restaurant every night, eating and acting like a hog, demeaning his wife, the cook, customers, and even his thug colleagues. It’s an obscene display, but for all the repugnance this film is dazzling eye-candy. Every room of the restaurant is saturated in arresting color (red dining room, green kitchen, white bathrooms), and the characters’ clothes change color accordingly as they walk from one place to the next. The final act of cannibalism (forced on Spica) is a sweet poetic justice.

Image result for the exorcist iii legion jason miller21. The Exorcist III: Legion. William Peter Blatty, 1990. The true sequel to The Exorcist (which doesn’t acknowledge the travesty of Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977)) is adapted from Blatty’s sequel novel Legion, and it’s a very unusual horror film. When I saw it in the theater, I remember being so terrified by Lieutenant Kinderman’s first sight of Patient X that I was panic stricken. We see the wasted figure of Father Karras who we know from the first film should be dead; the sight of the possessed priest is a horrifying revelation. While Legion isn’t scarier than the first Exorcist, in some ways it’s more unsettling, because it’s the kind of film you can’t imagine anyone making if they didn’t completely believe in manifest evil. The fact that it did poorly at the box office says plenty about the mainstream preference for cheap thrills over true terror.

Revisiting The Importance of Fire Walk With Me In A Post Season 3 World22. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, David Lynch, 1992. This masterpiece — and yes, it is one — continues to have a bad reputation even among Lynch fans, and I used to have my own reservations when judging it as a Twin Peaks prequel. When you distance yourself from TV seasons 1 and 2, and treat it as a standalone piece, a much different film emerges, one of the greatest horror movies of all time. The scoring is brilliant, the acting flawless, and it’s by far Lynch’s cruelest film, more so than even Blue Velvet — containing scenes in Laura’s bedroom so terrifying they make parts of The Shining look tame. Fire Walk With Me is about Laura Palmer’s last week on earth, how she has processed years of rape at the hands of her father, and her choice of death rather than allow herself to be possessed by a hideous spirit.

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23. Leon the Professional. Luc Besson, 1994. This controversial film took the child sidekick trope and had the nerve to turn it into a love story, but the American version censored the love-story part — 25 minutes worth of scenes that show a 12-year old girl lusting for a guy in his 40s. That of course is the whole damn point of the story. Obviously a film like this stands or falls on the child’s performance, and Natalie Portman nailed it. Her character, Mathilda, is a girl whose family gets gunned down by corrupt DEA agents, and so she hooks up with the hitman Leon in her distress. She gets an instant crush on him and he doesn’t know how to handle it, but before long, he’s training her how to kill and taking her along on his hit jobs, while she takes every blatant opportunity to hit on him. I love this film to pieces. Needless to say, don’t watch the censored version.

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24. Pulp Fiction. Quentin Tarantino, 1994. Tarantino’s impact on the ’90s can’t be overstated, and this film in particular showed how sickeningly hilarious artistry can be. When I first saw it, I laughed so hard I was choking. No one can write bickering and bitching around so much violence like Tarantino. Sequences like the adrenaline needle into Mia’s heart, and Vince accidentally blowing Marvin’s brains out in the car, are scenes you can replay forever. The non-linear storytelling inspired a flood of lesser efforts, but you have to be Tarantino to write like this, and in the case of Pulp Fiction, every stroke of the pen was inspired by his magic.

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25. Seven. David Fincher, 1995. What elevates Seven above greatness to masterpiece is the way John Doe wins in the end. “The box” has become an icon of our collective mindset almost like “Rosebud”. That comparison may sound absurd, but I do believe that Seven is as perfect a film as Citizen Kane. (Fincher’s Mank, on the other hand, which aspired to Kane’s greatness, didn’t even come close.) There’s nothing to fault in this film: the atmosphere (always either dark or raining), the scoring (the prologue’s Nine Inch Nails song, and the library scene’s Air on the G-String in particular), the casting (Morgan Freeman’s and Kevin Spacey’s best roles), and above all for its dramatic tunnel into the eye of hell and the meticulously crafted climax, all of which combine to suggest a hopeless world, an ugly humanity, but with enough heroes like Somerset and Mills who for their flaws are willing to fight on regardless.

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26. Casino. Martin Scorsese, 1995. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: Casino is superior to Goodfellas. It’s more epic in the characters’ rise and fall. It elevates Scorsese’s favorite themes above the street corner and into the sanctum of America’s Sodom. Whenever I watch Casino I’m completely swept up in this dark vision of Las Vegas and people driving themselves to disaster. Sharon Stone’s performance (raging alcoholic tantrums and all) is way underrated, and Joe Pesci’s psychotic mob enforcer, though a repeat from Goodfellas, is less comical and more terrifying for it. Robert De Niro offers a more sympathetic character than he did in Goodfellas. Casino uses the mob world to speak to our fallen state and makes me feel like an insider to that world — that I share more in common with these thugs and pathetic people than I care to admit.

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27. From Dusk Till Dawn. Robert Rodriguez, 1996. This is the best genre busting film I know of, and if you go into it knowing nothing (as I did), you will be richly and stupefyingly rewarded. The first half plays like a Quentin Tarantino film, showing two despicable bank robbers (one of whom is actually played by Tarantino) kidnapping and tormenting a man and his two teenage kids. They flee across the border into Mexico, and come to a strip bar; the two scumbags raise hell in the bar with asshole behavior, and they force the man and his kids to drink with them and enjoy all the sleazy “fun”. Then, out of nowhere, the film goes batshit crazy — the employees of the bar turn into vampires and begin slaughtering and feasting on the customers. By rights this baby-switcher shouldn’t work, but it does thanks to Rodriguez’s talents. The rewatch value is immense.

Crash (1996) - Sexploitation Movie Review - SCARED STIFF REVIEWS28. Crash. David Cronenberg, 1996. Cronenberg’s most fucked up film — and I mean that in a good way — is a bit like Pink Floyd’s The Wall: just watching it is a drug trip. It explores esoteric fetishism, in this case people who are sexually aroused by car crashes, even fatal ones, and study and ritually reenact the car accidents of celebrities. For all the racy material, it doesn’t come across as sensational, in fact, just the opposite: it’s incredibly subdued and polished. The cold blue look works wonders in this regard, and dialogue seems to be spoken through a dream-like filter. In the hands of another director, Crash would have been a cheap Basic Instinct type of thriller; in Cronenberg’s it approaches the artistic nihilism of Ingmar Bergman.

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29. The Ice Storm. Ang Lee, 1997. If some of the most visceral transgressive films were produced in the year 1973 (Heavy Traffic, Badlands, The Exorcist), The Ice Storm is the best film set in 1973. Ang Lee didn’t speak English well when he made it, but that was no obstacle given his astonishing talents. He nailed the sexual-political revolution of ’73 perfectly through the looking glass of two suburban dysfunctional families. The spouses cheat on each other and are clueless about raising children properly; everyone is well provided for, but they don’t have common ground or any real purpose in life outside of marriage-swapping parties. I continue to be awed over Lee’s command of ’70s introspection given the fact that he learned most about American life by watching films in Taiwan. He’s a rare genius who never needed much help to see into the heart of people, wherever and whenever they’re from.

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30. Eyes Wide Shut. Stanley Kubrick, 1999. If a director like David Lynch can make audiences feel like they are inside a dream, Eyes Wide Shut accomplishes the more ambitious task of making life itself seem like a dream. Every weird thing that happens to Dr. Bill on his night out — professions of love next to a patient’s corpse, a young girl’s seductions at a costume shop, and finally the orgy of masked performers — is real but hardly feels it. It struck me as an oblique Christmas Carol spin-off, as Dr. Bill wanders around New York encountering “ghosts” of sexual temptation, barely avoiding one disaster after the next, weighing the value of what he lusts for against the wedge that has come between him and his wife. There’s a Christmas tree in every other scene, and the aesthetic is gorgeous, surreal, and eerie. But there’s not a slice of artistic pretension. Kubrick’s final film is his best, and it’s a shame he died before it’s theatrical release.

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31. The Lord of the Rings. Peter Jackson, 2001-2002-2003. Jackson accomplished the impossible. I thought he would massacre Tolkien beyond repair, but five minutes into Fellowship of the Ring I was eating crow and spellbound, and for the next three hours I forgot everything about my life as I was swept into this spectacular incarnation of Middle-Earth. Two years later I was still awed: Return of the King is tragic on a biblical level, and the tragic feel never lets up in the last 45 minutes — from the point of Frodo’s collapse on Mount Doom (“Do you remember the Shire, Mr. Frodo?”), to Aragorn leading the hopeless charge on the Black Gate, to Frodo and Sam resigned to dying before the eagles come, to the hobbit reunion in the Houses of Healing, to finally the aching departure at the Grey Havens. Jackson showed that fantasy could be taken very seriously. It’s a shame he didn’t follow his own example when making The Hobbit.

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32. Storytelling. Todd Solondz, 2002. I’m not on board with the majority opinion that judges Welcome to the Dollhouse (1996) and Happiness (1998) to be Solondz’s best films. I like Palindromes (2004) even better than those, and I consider Storytelling his finest work. The first skit is a skewering of college undergrads who parrot all the PC dogmas of the liberal left. A fiction writing class is led by an arrogant African American professor (played by Robert Wisdom, known from the TV series The Wire), who humiliates the students in front of everyone when they read their fiction-writing assignments (to a low-esteem student who has cerebral palsy, for example, he tells him that his story is “a piece of shit”), and who also likes to have sex with the young white women he teaches. The film deals with taboos of interracial curiosity and racial fetishism, and no one comes out looking good. All the students, and their self-righteous judgments, are revealed to be hollow. A suitable film for the 21st century.

City of God (2002)33. City of God. Fernando Meirelles, 2002. This is a Lord-of-the-Flies gangster film, in which boys kill not just out of need, but because it’s fun. The City of God is of course Rio de Janeiro, where in the slums there’s no electricity or paved streets. But this is no social commentary on the poor of Brazil; it’s one of the most spellbinding efforts at cinematic style. Meirelles is a gifted filmmaker — as good as Scorsese or Friedkin — who uses camera, soundtrack, and heady dialogue to make a locale like the City of God come alive in a way seldom achieved in cinema. At heart, it’s the kids who really sell the drama. Their acting is so organic you feel like you’re watching reality, and there are scenes you’ll never forget, like the one in which two young kids must decide whether they want to be shot in the hand or the foot.

Hard Candy (2005) - Men Tied Up

34. Hard Candy. David Slade, 2006. This film is so many things: a dialogue drama, revenge thriller, enacted domination fantasy, and morality puzzle. I see a different film every time I watch it, and in the sum of those viewing experiences the faults become strengths. The first time it was a Lolita set-up which turned into castration revenge. On second viewing I knew what was coming, and since Hayley was faking the castration her torture seemed a cop-out, and Jeff’s suicide silly and unbelievable. But on third and later viewings I saw an enacted domination fantasy: a man’s guilt-ridden wet-dream of being tormented by a 14-year old fantasy figure, and ending in his “noble” agreement to kill himself. Hard Candy works brilliantly on these meshed levels of reality and fantasy.

United 93 parents guide

35. United 93. Paul Greengrass, 2006. You feel helpless watching it, but it makes you think about 9/11 for the right reasons. There are no hindsight politics in play. It’s skillfully directed without a single exploitive frame. Ben Sliney plays himself, and to this day I can’t fathom how he got slammed with 9/11 his first day on the job as the FAA’s National Operation Manager. He’s sort of the film’s hero, as he makes the right decisions with minimal information, grounding over 4,000 American aircraft to the tune of millions lost in dollars. United 93 is one of the greatest pieces of cinematic catharsis I’ve seen (I saw it in the theater), giving an unflinching portrayal of what it must have been like for the passengers under jihadist captivity before dying.

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36. Deja Vu. Tony Scott, 2006. This is a film I could talk about all day. It’s a digital version of Hitchcock’s Vertigo — exploring obsession and fractured identity — grounded in a time travel plot. Considering the terrorist theme, Déjà Vu is surprisingly apolitical, and unlike Scott’s other films (like Man on Fire), it finds its solution not in revenge, but in the obsessive desire to go back in time and prevent the whole thing from happening — to save hundreds of lives, especially the one person you can’t stop thinking about, even if you don’t stand much chance of surviving the trip. And who else to play such a hero than Denzel Washington? He is to Tony Scott as Robert DeNiro is to Martin Scorsese; as Jennifer Lawrence is to David O. Russell; as Samuel Jackson is to Quentin Tarantino. Some actors get recycled and reused over and over again by the same director because they’re attuned to the director’s needs and deliver exactly as required each time; and in the case of Deja Vu, Washington delivers his best performance ever.

Glaringly obvious… - Durable Window Films
37. Sunshine. Danny Boyle, 2007. After seeing Sunshine I bought another ticket and saw it again right away, which is something I’ve never done with any other film. It’s strange that of the zillions of outer-space films, none besides Sunshine have bothered to focus on the sun, which is after all the most important and dangerous body in our solar system. Here the sun is dying, and so a space crew embarks on a mission to drop a nuclear bomb into the core of the sun, which will hopefully reignite it. Right from the start the mission becomes one calamity after the next, and the crew members have to sacrifice themselves to save oxygen. There is also the subplot of a hideously disfigured religious fanatic who believes God wants humanity to die, and does everything he can to slaughter the crew. There are homages to Alien and outer space claustrophobia, and in the end the crew die as they must to save planet earth.

Image result for there will be blood
38. There Will Be Blood. Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007. This blistering attack on the prosperity gospel was almost enough to make me renounce my capitalist convictions (yeah, right). Set in 1911, it’s about a man’s rise from poverty (a miner) to riches (an oilman), and his relationship with a young pastor who offers faith-healing and hypocrisy to those who dare the doors of his grim church. Daniel is a mean and hateful man, who has no friends and just wants to become filthy rich. The pastor is Eli, who is just as greedy but doesn’t want to get his hands dirty; Daniel scorns religion but has no problems using it as a means to an end. Blood spills from everywhere throughout this film — from the land (oil), people, and the Lamb Himself — and critics are right to call it a masterpiece of rare vision. It’s about greed and evangelism eating each others tails.

Image result for doubt mrs. miller
39. Doubt. John Patrick Shanley, 2008. When a liberal priest is accused of having an erotic interest in one of his altar boys, one nun becomes convinced of his innocence while another is certain otherwise. We aren’t sure what to believe or how to feel, because the evidence is murky and the priest a sympathetic character. He’s progressive for the year 1964, while the inquisitorial nun laments the reforms of Vatican II. The pivotal scene is the conversation between Aloysius and the boy’s mother, who basically tells the nun to just let the priest have his way with her son, in a jaw-dropping and surprisingly compelling argument, given her limited options as an African-American woman of the time period. She isn’t wild about her son’s friendship with the priest, but thinks it’s a refuge from life at home under a violently abusive father. That’s a hard idea in our world today which pathologizes eroticism between adults and youths, and that is doubtlessly part of Doubt’s challenge.

Japachickyburgers: Love Exposure
40. Love Exposure. Sion Sono, 2009. To celebrate sexual deviance in a context of religious dogma is a bold strike, and Love Exposure pushes envelopes and then some. It’s a four-hour sprawl of religious guilt, sexual frustration, family feuds, industrial pornography, and peek-a-panty photography — the last involving street boys who look up girls’ skirts while camouflaging their camera shots with hilarious martial-arts acrobatics. It’s impossible to summarize without sounding ludicrous, but be assured that critics and audiences love it. I fell absolutely in love with Yu and his quest for the right girl — his “Virgin Mary” as it were. I felt like all the characters were my family by the end of four hours (which seemed more like two and a half), and for all the absurdist comedy, the message about Catholic dogma, new wave cults, and the ultimate nobility of perversion is a very serious one.

Image result for tree of life malick eternity
41. The Tree of Life. Terrence Malick, 2011. Like Kubrick’s Space Odyssey, this is a picture-perfect film showing humanity dwarfed by celestial mysteries. It spotlights an American Catholic family within a macrocosm of evolution, and an implied dialectic of nature vs. grace. But grace emerges not as something which contradicts nature (even if it’s its conceptual opposite), rather something inherently part of it, or complementing it, or mutating from it. Every frame depends on just the right camera angle, scoring, and particular subtleties around snippets of dialogue you can barely hear. It ends on a spiritual apocalypse that could move an atheist: the yearning for reunion in some form of afterlife, a hopeless fantasy we cling to in order to cope with pain and loss.

42. The Divide. Xavier Gens, 2011. This nasty film is set in the basement of a New York high rise apartment, where nine strangers gather to survive a nuclear holocaust. Despite uneasiness and distrust, they try working together at first, and do pretty well until cabin fever, radiation sickness, and their own base humanity take over. There’s torture, rape, sex slavery, and full-blown lunacy on display, and there’s no light at the end of the tunnel — which in this case happens to be, literally, a tunnel of shit. The Divide holds humanity completely captive to misanthropy and one of the most convincing Lord of the Flies-themed films ever made. The performances are brilliant; even I was deeply chilled by what Gens believes people are really like under our societal conditioning.

https://rossonl.files.wordpress.com/2016/02/the-pact_shadow.jpg43. The Pact, Nicholas McCarthy, 2012. Way underrated, this tale of a haunted house contains 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 damn 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 brilliantly in his novel Lost Boy, Lost Girl, especially with the secret room with spyholes, and the room of caged torment. McCarthy blends psychopathic and supernatural horror like a master.

A-Z Movie Reviews: 'Blue Is The Warmest Color' | Fangirlish44. Blue is the Warmest Color. Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013. It’s a bit sad that this has gained notoriety for the graphic lesbian scenes, which for the record are tasteful and well used. The pornographic tone fits the early part of the story where the young Adele is discovering herself, and seeing herself, in wildly adolescent terms. The film isn’t about sex anyway, but the searing power of love which becomes destructive, but with room for healing afterwards. After the break up Emma is able to forgive, and Adele obtain at least some measure of closure. The film is three hours long but I wanted it to go longer and keep following the lives of these young women.

Image result for the walk film
45. The Walk. Robert Zemeckis, 2015. I can only imagine the harm my psyche would have suffered had I seen this in 3D. Audiences suffered extreme vertigo, and even in front of my computer I was sweating and shaking. How anyone could want to do what Philippe Petit did on that morning of August 7, 1974, is well beyond the reach of my understanding. He walked back and forth over that wire between one tower and the next, eight times, for over 45 minutes, while spectators and police officers could only look on aghast. The Walk shows an artist who lived for his art to the fullest extent. Unlike novelists, painters, musicians, and film makers, Petit was unable to record his miraculous walk for posterity to enjoy. Zemeckis rectified that for us with this incredible film.

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46. Little Men. Ira Sachs, 2016. Along with the TV series Stranger Things, this film is a salute to the freedom of youth. Stranger Things does this in a science-fiction/horror context; Little Men achieves it in a social parable. I have a strong attachment to Jake because he reminds me of my own friendship at that age with an uninhibited extrovert like Tony. When I moved out of town I never really saw him again, so the unpleasant separation of these two at the end hit close to home. Little Men celebrates difference despite the avalanche of parental roadblocks. Jake is Caucasian and middle-class, Tony is Chilean and poor, and their friendship grows the more their parents become enemies. Taplitz and Barbieri are allowed to play their roles with simple and understated tones that makes you feel you’re watching the everyday lives of real people, and for me it’s a very special film.

 

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47. Mother! Darren Aronofsky, 2017. The reason people hate it isn’t because it’s a bad film, but because it was deceitfully marketed, with the trailer implying a more mainstream thriller. If you don’t like indie horror films that offend on the deepest levels, then avoid Mother! at all costs. It’s about a man and woman in a countryside home, where the woman suffers intrusions from guests who gratify her husband’s ego. The intrusions get increasingly outrageous, until hell breaks loose. The indoor house becomes a battlefield of crazed strangers who commit unspeakable acts, and in the end seize the woman’s newborn infant, rip it apart into dozens of pieces, and eat it as if it were a sacrificial lamb. This is Aronofsky at his most audacious, but also at his best, and it helps that Jennifer Lawrence’s performance is so visceral and sympathetic.

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48. Blade Runner 2049. Denis Villeneuve, 2017. Not only does Blade Runner 2049 live up to its predecessor, it supersedes it as a stunning visual aesthetic with more ambitious concepts, and taking them at the slow pace they deserve, so patiently that it feels like a ’70s film. I’m not surprised it bombed at the box office. Few people these days have the wherewithal — and by that I mean the intellectual wherewithal from above, and the physical fortitude from below — to sit still on their sweet asses for 2-3 hours and enjoy good artistry. The best character is the hologram Joi, and she serves an oblique existential function: if software can fall in love and fear death, then the objection to replicants having these soul-like traits becomes even more strained. Her merging with the woman for K’s sexual pleasure is an incredible piece of choreography, as is virtually every other scene in this masterpiece. By rights a film this good shouldn’t have been made in the 21st century; I don’t why or how it came to be. I’m just glad it did.


49. First Reformed. Paul Schraeder, 2018. Not exactly a remake of Bergman’s Winter Light (1962), it does spin off the Bergman classic, and for the most part very well. It also mimics Diary of a Country Priest (1951) with the role of the elder pastor who mentors the Ethan Hawke character. But First Reformed goes for the jugular in some mighty surprising ways, and it’s also a parable about the apocalypse, with Bergman’s atomic warfare theme being changed to environmental catastrophe. I’ve seen the film many times. The only thing that sticks in my craw is the scene that replays Tomas’ cruel treatment of Marta in Winter Light, which went on for a patient ten minutes, but in First Reformed was zipped through in the blink of an eye. But that’s a small quibble. In all the ways that matter this is a near perfect film.

Buy tickets for The Painted Bird | BFI London Film Festival 2019
50. The Painted Bird. Václav Marhoul, 2019. If there was ever a film that depicted hell on earth through the eyes of a single individual, it’s surely The Painted Bird. Set during the Holocaust in an unspecified Eastern European country (the language spoken by the characters is Interslavic), it shows the odyssey of a Jewish boy, as he wanders from village to village and is subjected to every kind of depravity. He’s beaten; he’s buried to his neck, and the crows come to feast. Eventually he is seized and given to the Nazis, and while he escapes execution, he winds up in the hands of a pedophile. Then it’s out of that frying pan into the fire of a female pedophile, who molests him around acts of bestiality; at one point she has intercourse with a goat. And so forth and so on. There are moments of fleeting compassion in this godawful road journey, and you will certainly need them. The Painted Bird shames the human species as it examines the worst of our impulses in the darkest scenarios, and yet strangely it offers the most authentic rays of hope in its rare moments of grace. It’s a 2019 film that was released in America in 2020, and very suitably: it’s the perfect film for this disastrous year now coming to a close.

Ranking the Top 3’s

From each of the ten films per decade, I will now rank the top 3, for what I consider to be the 15 best films of the past 50 years:

1970s

1. The Exorcist. William Friedkin, 1973.
2. Eraserhead. David Lynch, 1977.
3. The Godfather. Francis Ford Coppola, 1972.

1980s

1. Fanny and Alexander. Ingmar Bergman, 1982.
2. Conan the Barbarian. John Milius, 1982.
3. Jesus of Montreal. Denys Arcand, 1989.

1990s

1. Eyes Wide Shut. Stanley Kubrick, 1999.
2. Pulp Fiction. Quentin Tarantino, 1994.
3. Seven. David Fincher, 1995.

2000s

1. The Lord of the Rings. Peter Jackson, 2001-2002-2003.
2. City of God. Fernando Meirelles, 2002.
3. There Will Be Blood. Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007.

2010s

1. Blade Runner 2049. Denis Villeneuve, 2017.
2. The Painted Bird. Václav Marhoul, 2019.
3. The Tree of Life. Terrence Malick, 2010.

Reading Roundup: 2020

Most of my reading this year was rereads of novels I enjoyed long ago — the prescribed medicine for Covid quarantine. But there were new items too, five in particular, and by far the best of that handful was the expose of the Jesus-Wife hoax. You should read Veritas if nothing else on this list.

1. Veritas, Ariel Sabar. I don’t care what else was published in 2020 that was good and I didn’t read. Veritas is the book of the year, a piece of detective work that shows rare command of so many specialties — early Christian texts, canonical and gnostic; papyrology; peer review processes; online pornography; the fine line between liberal theology and academic study. Sometimes the hardest lie to refute is the Big Lie, since it requires so much ground to cover — even when the lie is obvious from start. Veritas shows the depths to which professionals sink in willful naivete, and the lengths to which forgers will go to bamboozle the academy. I’m wiser than ever before about what drives forgers, and why certain scholars get easily played. Walter Fritz succeeded thanks to a divinity school in crisis. Harvard was on the brink of creating a secular religious studies department, and the divinity department (and Karen King’s status) was in jeopardy. The Jesus-Wife fragment came as a godsend to Karen King, for keeping progressive liberal theology married to academic scholarship. Full review here.

2. Rating America’s Presidents, Robert Spencer. Most historians tend to favor presidents who were charismatics, goal-oriented managers, foreign interventionists, and heavy into top-down government. But just because a leader is charismatic and can move you with speeches, doesn’t say anything about his policies and how good he was. That he accomplished his goals says nothing about how good those goals were. That he intervened militarily abroad and economically at home are just as likely bad signs as good ones. Robert Spencer grades the American presidents on the basis of their actual policies and their Constitutional fidelity. Were they good for America, or were they not? In most cases (26 presidents), I agree closely with Spencer’s rankings, aside from minor quibbles. And even in the other 14 cases, only 6 represent dramatic disagreements on my part (Spencer scores Jackson, Lincoln, and Trump high, where I score them low. He scores Hayes, Carter, and Clinton low, where I score them high.) We agree in any case on what matters most in a president’s policy-making decisions: the dangers of entangling alliances, the superiority of fiscal conservatism, and the importance of liberty. Full review here.

3. Age of Monsters, Robert Kruger. I read the draft for this novel in 2019 but it was published this year. It tells two stories — the aches and twists of teen love in the ’80s and a gaming campaign that loudens the relationship. An eighth-grade student in Portland Oregon falls for the new girl in town, and hooks her into his role-playing fantasies (the RPG sort, not S&M). The dark-priestess character she plays is a vessel of her real-world baggage, and together the teens use their imagination to confront real-world problems at school and home. There are Stranger Things vibes but it’s very much its own thing; Kruger started writing the story long before the Netflix series landed. It’s hard to make table-top narratives engaging as they are immersive, but Age of Monsters taps into the fire that made us grognards so passionate for old-school D&D in the ’80s.

4. Heroes of the Fourth Turning, Will Arbery. I saw this play dramatized over Zoom and it was brilliantly acted. Four graduates of a Catholic college in Wyoming have returned to campus for a weekend event, and spend an evening arguing with each other about a lot of things — abortion, divorce, the LGBT community, hate speech, to name a few. Justin laments the fading power of Christianity in the world. Kevin is a pathetic whiner who can’t shit or get off the pot. Emily is tormented by a painful chronic illness. And Teresa (by far the most entertaining character) is practically a clone of Ann Coulter who writes polemical essays for a right-wing publication. These four voted for Donald Trump in 2016 but had reservations about doing so. Their mindset is alien to those of a liberal or secular audience (like myself), but the play has been hailed as compelling by many viewers. It’s a fascinating stretch of dialogue between friends trying to make sense of entrenched values. Arbery neither endorses nor condemns them. He writes about them because it’s what he knows, having been raised as a conservative Catholic. See this review for more.

5. Presidential Elections and Majority Rule, Edward Foley. Since the 2016 election especially, people have demanded that we abolish the electoral college in favor of a national popular vote. But the electoral college is a very good if flawed system. A national popular vote carries the danger of mob rule — like the reign of tyranny during the French revolution, or the Brexit vote, when 51% or 52% of the people imposed their will on 49% or 48%. The American founders wanted more than just a simple majority rule; they wanted a compound form of majority rule, or a “majority of the majorities” — in other words, a majority of the electoral votes compiled from states in which the victor also achieved a majority of the statewide popular vote. That system works like a gem in two-party elections, where the winner by necessity obtains a compound majority of the vote, but when third-party or independent candidates are involved, they can rob another candidate of an honest victory. The solution, as Foley argues, isn’t to abolish the electoral college, but to establish rank choice voting (or some run-off equivalent) in all the states. Full review here.

PC Compass

I was experimenting with online quiz makers, and this one evolved into something more than I’d intended. I post it below for any who wish to take it. I’m not going to be disingenuous and say there are no wrong answers, for I obviously believe there are, and I designed the quiz on that premise. Have at it, and score yourself at the bottom. Or, if you want the computer to score you, take the quiz directly here.

1. Racism is prejudice plus power; prejudice alone is not racism.

a. Strongly agree
b. Agree
c. Disagree
d. Strongly disagree

2. The classic film Song of the South should be released on DVD and for streaming, irrespective of claims that it promotes the myth of the happy slave.

a. Strongly agree
b. Agree
c. Disagree
d. Strongly disagree

3. The terms “biologically male” and “biologically female” are problematic descriptors, which should be dropped in favor of “designated male at birth” or “designated female at birth”.

a. Strongly agree
b. Agree
c. Disagree
d. Strongly disagree

4. Promoting safe spaces in an academic environment does more harm than help to a student’s intellect.

a. Strongly agree
b. Agree
c. Disagree
d. Strongly disagree

5. How do you feel about this image? (Click to enlarge)

 

a. Deeply offensive
b. Inappropriate
c. Mildly amusing
d. Genuinely funny

6. To say that Islam is a religion of violence is bigoted.

a. Strongly agree
b. Agree
c. Disagree
d. Strongly disagree

7. Whether one says “Merry Christmas” or “Happy holidays” doesn’t matter. It’s the thought of well-wishing that counts.

a. Strongly agree
b. Agree
c. Disagree
d. Strongly disagree

8. It’s inappropriate for Caucasians to wear dreadlocks, for non-Scots to wear kilts, and for whites to wear Native American headdresses.

a. Strongly agree
b. Agree
c. Disagree
d. Strongly disagree

9. Literary and/or cinematic figures like Paul Atreides (Dune), Danaerys Targaryen (Game of Thrones), and Neo (The Matrix) are “white saviors” whose narratives reinforce an implied superiority of whites over non-whites.

a. Strongly agree
b. Agree
c. Disagree
d. Strongly disagree

10. Consider the following image, in which Jesus is high-fiving Moses, as they’re jacked off by Ganesha, who in turn pounds Buddha up the ass:

How do you feel about the absence of Muhammad from this image?

a. Approve the absence of Muhammad. People should not draw pictures of Muhammad, because it provokes Muslims to kill. To a large degree, the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists who were assassinated got what they asked for.

b. Doesn’t faze me.

c. Dismayed by the typical exemption of Muhammad from pictorial satires. Western liberals are reinforcing Islamic blasphemy laws when they do this. Standing for free expression isn’t a provocation (much less a bigotry or phobia) but a moral obligation.

11. While a private business owner (like a baker) must provide equal access to all products and commodities (so as not to discriminate on the basis of gender, race, or sexual orientation), the private business owner should be under no obligation to create or design a product in a way that violates his or her conscience or religious beliefs (such as wedding cakes for gay couples).

a. Strongly agree
b. Agree
c. Disagree
d. Strongly disagree

12. A person’s biological sex isn’t objectively bimodal; it’s subjectively determined by the individual, and on a spectrum.

a. Strongly agree
b. Agree
c. Disagree
d. Strongly disagree

13. It is wrong-headed to criticize a particular religion and claim that it is more dangerous and oppressive than other religions. All religions have the same potential for good and harm.

a. Strongly agree
b. Agree
c. Disagree
d. Strongly disagree

14. The word “bitch” should be used (in a name-calling sense) only by women or transgendered people, as a reclaimed term in referring to their close friends.

a. Strongly agree
b. Agree
c. Disagree
d. Strongly disagree

15. How do you feel about this image? (Click to enlarge)

a. A mesmerizing piece of art
b. Fine with it
c. A bit sexist
d. Extremely sexist

16. Comedies like All in the Family and South Park are funny precisely because they are so offensive, by their satirical use of sexist, racist, and homophobic slurs.

a. Strongly agree
b. Agree
c. Disagree
d. Strongly disagree

17. The theory that women’s rape fantasies reflect a need to surrender to male dominance is sexist.

a. Strongly agree
b. Agree
c. Disagree
d. Strongly disagree

18. Consider the following statement made by a film critic: “I have blind spots when it comes to historical dramas.” The critic’s statement is offensive for its use of ableist language.

a. Strongly agree
b. Agree
c. Disagree
d. Strongly disagree

19. Hate speech should be protected by law.

a. Strongly agree
b. Agree
c. Disagree
d. Strongly disagree

20. A man should generally defer to a woman’s opinion on gender and abortion issues, and a white person should generally defer to a person of color’s opinion on racial issues.

a. Strongly agree
b. Agree
c. Disagree
d. Strongly disagree

 

Assign points to your answers as follows

1.

a = -2 points
b = -1 point
c = +1 point
d = +2 points

Racism doesn’t require a power imbalance to be what it is.

2.

a = +2 points
b = +1 point
c = -1 point
d = -2 points

The Song of the South is a cherished classic, and there’s no reason for the company to not meet the demands of its consumers who have been long awaiting its release. Even if it promotes a myth, so what? The market is flooded with films that promote wrong or bad ideas.

3.

a = -2 points
b = -1 point
c = +1 point
d = +2 points

The terms “biologically male” and “biologically female” are objectively valid categories.

4.

a = +2 points
b = +1 point
c = -1 point
d = -2 points

Safe spaces are anathema to a healthy undergraduate environment. College is the place to have one’s beliefs questioned and mercilessly skewered, to prepare for the real world, and to cultivate a healthy intellect.

5.

a = -2 points
b = -1 point
c = +1 point
d = +2 points

In the image shown, Ben Carson is being satirized more for his ideas than for his skin color.

6.

a = -2 points
b = -1 point
c = +1 point
d = +2 points

Saying that Islam is a religion of violence, regardless of how accurate that claim is (I believe it is accurate), does not constitute bigotry. Bigotry is about people. And just as no people are beneath dignity, no idea is above scrutiny. Especially when it comes to religious ideas.

7.

a = +2 points
b = +1 point
c = -1 point
d = -2 points

Consider the spirit in which things are said, and you’ll get through life a lot happier.

8.

a = -2 points
b = -1 point
c = +1 point
d = +2 points

Of all the PC tropes, none is more sadly absurd than “cultural appropriation”. If one adopts certain elements of another culture, then wonderful. No one needs the blessing of the people who belong to that culture, anymore than someone from that culture needs any vice-versa blessings.

9.

a = -2 points
b = -1 point
c = +1 point
d = +2 points

In the examples listed, the heroic figures do not reinforce the negative tropes of white savior narratives. Had different heroes been listed — such as John Dunbar from Dances With Wolves, Nathan Algren from The Last Samurai, and Jake Sully from Avatar — that would be a different matter.

10.

a = -2 points
b = -1 point
c = +2 points

This also calls to mind the South Park creators, who got away with depicting Muhammad (alongside Moses, Joseph Smith, Jesus, Buddha, and Krishna) in season 5 (top image), but were later required by Comedy Central to block him out with a bar labelled “censored” in season 14 (bottom image).

11.

a = +2 points
b = +1 point
c = -1 point
d = -2 points

The Supreme Court correctly decided (7-2) that a private business owner cannot be compelled to create or design a product in a particular way. The atheist bakers in question could refuse to design wedding cakes decorated with homophobic sayings, and the Christian baker in question could refuse to design a wedding cake decorated for a gay couple’s union. If you don’t like the fact that a business owner doesn’t create or design products in a particular way that you want, then tough rocks. Go elsewhere.

12.

a = -2 points
b = -1 point
c = +1 point
d = +2 points

If a biological female can declare herself to be a man, then I, as a human being, can just as easily declare myself to be a member of a different species. Those who believe that sex isn’t bimodal live in a world of alternative facts. Gender may be a social construct, but biology is biology.

13.

a = -2 points
b = -1 point
c = +1 point
d = +2 points

The claim that all religious systems have equal potential for good and harm makes about as much sense as the idea that all political systems — capitalism, communism, fascism, socialism — have equivalent potential. Ideas matter, and the ideas across different systems can vary dramatically.

14.

a = -2 points
b = -1 point
c = +1 point
d = +2 points

Reclaimed words set a problematic double standard.

15.

a = +2 points
b = +1 point
c = -1 point
d = -2 points

Pornography itself doesn’t reduce women (or men) to sex objects. It highlights an aspect of women (or men), and in this sense similar to fashion modeling. If a drawing like this is seen as sexist, the problem lies with the viewer, not the art.

16.

a = +2 points
b = +1 point
c = -1 point
d = -2 points

Praise All in the Family, which did as much for the cause of social progressives in the ’70s as the hippie movement did in the ’60s. It was genuinely funny, because it was allowed to be funny, and to push the bounds as satire must. South Park is similar.

17.

a = -2 points
b = -1 point
c = +1 point
d = +2 points

To whatever degree evolutionary theory accounts for rape fantasies (on which see here, theory #7 out of 9), claims about dominance and submissiveness being hardwired in our genes are devoid of value judgment and are thus not sexist. They only become sexist when the objective claims are used to justify or excuse sexist behavior.

18.

a = -2 points
b = -1 point
c = +1 point
d = +2 points

I almost didn’t include this question, because it’s rather hard to take seriously, but there you have it. (One person I tested the quiz on thought it was so dumb it should be removed, and he was probably right.)

19.

a = +2 points
b = +1 point
c = -1 point
d = -2 points

Hate speech has to be legal for many reasons: (1) One person’s hate speech is another’s protest against oppression and social injustice (witness Aayan Hirsi Ali and Maajid Nawaz). (2) What is deemed hateful is often not hateful at all, but simply disagreeable opinions that are unpopular and inconvenient. (3) Even when something is genuinely hateful, and there is wide agreement about it, it is terrible policy to silence or criminalize it, as it only makes martyrs of the bigots who are being denied the basic right to speak their minds. (4) On general principle, the solution to hateful ideas isn’t silencing or criminalizing, but countering them with better ideas, and to set a good example in a free society.

20.

a = -2 points
b = -1 point
c = +1 point
d = +2 points

Minorities don’t get to pull rank like this. As a member of the LGBT community, I may have first-hand insights to LGBT issues that a straight person would miss, but I should not as a rule be deferred to by a straight person on LGBT issues. We should all listen to a multitude of voices and treat each other’s arguments on their merits.

 

The Score Chart

Score Profile
31 to 40
Not a PC bone in your body
21 to 30
Solidly anti-PC
11 to 20 PC skeptic
-10 to 10
PC as often as not
-20 to -11
PC friendly
-30 to -21
Proudly PC
-40 to -31
PC to the core

(My score: +36)

The Best Films of 2020

I was expecting Dune to steal the spotlight this year, but Covid took care of that. The next disappointment was that Mank didn’t come close to making up for Dune‘s delay. Still, there were good films in this catastrophic year of 2020, if you knew where to look. The Painted Bird blew me away; see that one if none of the others.

Buy tickets for The Painted Bird | BFI London Film Festival 2019
1. The Painted Bird. 5 stars. If there was ever a film that depicted hell on earth through the eyes of a single individual, it’s surely The Painted Bird. Set during the Holocaust in an unspecified Eastern European country (the language spoken by the characters is Interslavic), it shows the odyssey of a Jewish boy, as he wanders from village to village and is subjected to every kind of depravity. He’s beaten; he’s buried to his neck (and the crows come to feast). Eventually he is seized and given to the Nazis, and while he escapes execution, he winds up in the hands of a pedophile. Then it’s out of that frying pan into the fire of a female pedophile, who molests him around acts of bestiality; at one point she has intercourse with a goat. And so forth and so on. There are moments of fleeting compassion in this godawful road journey, and you will certainly need them. The Painted Bird shames the human species as it examines the worst of our impulses in the darkest scenarios, and yet strangely it offers the most authentic rays of hope in its rare moments of grace.

CALM WITH HORSES Movie Clip - video dailymotion
2. Calm with Horses. 4 stars. This Irish gangster piece immerses you in the headspace of its protagonist — a failed father, man of few words, broken and abused from his boxing years, and now an attack dog for a vicious clan. The clan treats him nominally as family but really like their pit bull. When a friend of the clan molests one of their teenage daughters, it’s decided that “justice” must be done. Calm With Horses suggests a lot about cycles of violence that are handed down by generation, but which may also, just perhaps, be escaped. The visuals of this film are as staggering as the acting performances: it’s shot in red and black nocturnal hues contrasting with bleak daytime shots. The violence is nasty; the character moments are utterly compelling; there’s a great car chase that gives the one in The French Connection a run for its money. I was inside this drama at every moment.

Possessor Uncut (2020)
3. Possessor. 4 stars. The son of David Cronenberg does his father proud it in this demented sci-fi thriller, about an assassin who kills her targets by possessing bodies with brain implants. For prep work she has to study how the host talks and communicates with his friends and associates, and there’s also a lot she has to wing on the fly once she’s inside the host; sometimes it seems the host is taking back control of himself. And when she leaves the host body, she has to deal with identity problems returning to her own. Possessor is psychologically searing, but also physically: the violence is unsparing, and doesn’t hold back the gruesomeness of the kills. It’s Inception meets Ghost in the Shell meets Demonlover — with buckets of body-horror thrown in. This film seemed to come out of nowhere and was for me a pleasant surprise.

Netflix's Cuties: Has Netflix Gone Too Far By Promoting Paedophilia?
4. Cuties. 4 stars. I wish I had a nickel for every film that’s been condemned for celebrating what it’s really critiquing. But then people are triggered by everything these days, so the outrage over Cuties was a given. Let’s be clear: this film doesn’t glorify child twerking. It examines the hardships faced by deprived girls in a sexualized media culture. The story is Amy’s (the girl in the above center), an 11-year old Muslim in France who has no use for the Qur’an-reading/prayer gatherings of her wooden-minded family, and understandably wants to get out and have fun. She ends up bonding with a group of girls who are into twerking, which Amy finds alluring, and becomes determined for them all to compete in a contest. We see what it’s like for young girls to emulate what they see adults do in music videos, and the consequences for wanting to grow up too fast. Ignore the naysayers. Cuties is a sharp societal critique and we need more like it.

The Outpost movie review & film summary (2020) | Roger Ebert
5. Outpost. 4 stars. As war films go this one is impressive, and rather distressing as this nightmarish debacle really happened. It’s a dramatization of the Battle of Kamdesh (2009), when a group of U.S. soldiers defended themselves against raiding Taliban in northern Afghanistan. They tried as best they could in a hopeless environment. The Kamdesh outpost is an appalling example of how the U.S. often fails to properly support its military personnel, leaving them stranded at sites that should never have been chosen to begin with. The first hour allows us to get to know the characters around sporadic Taliban attacks and horrible wilderness accidents. The second hour puts the pedal to the floor, and never lets up, in depicting the 12-hour battle of October 3, 2009. The long and uninterrupted takes in hand-held camera shots put you right on the soil with these soldiers who were boxed in and fighting hopelessly for their lives. You’ll need to unwind after this one.


6. Host. 3 ½ stars. This surprisingly effective horror piece delivers more scares than what I’ve come to expect from the found-footage format. (Full disclosure: I hate Blair Witch.) It takes place over a Zoom chat, during pandemic lockdown, and these gals engage in a seance. One of them makes lite of the proceedings, which calls forth an angry spirit that proceeds to assault each of the women in various ways. Furniture is thrown, crashes are heard… and you better believe there’s a body count. A remarkable film for doing what it does with minimal resources.

The Devil All the Time' Review: Waging the War Within - WSJ
7. The Devil All the Time. 3 ½ stars. The second film on my list about generational violence (Calm with Horses is the other) is set in a Southern Gothic context, flitting back and forth between characters in Ohio and West Virginia (throughout the 50s and 60s) who have shit going for themselves in life. One way or another, they find comfort in religious zeal. One guy, plagued by nightmares of a crucifixion he witnessed during World War II, believes he can force God’s will by screaming his prayers, forcing his son to scream too, and shooting his son’s dog as a blood sacrifice. This guy eventually kills himself, and passes his violence down to his son. A fire-and-brimstone preacher becomes convinced that he can resurrect people, and so shoots his wife to try proving it. Another preacher molests a teen girl, exhorting her to show herself to him “as God created her”, then causes her to kill herself when she gets pregnant. There’s much more, and how all these characters relate and connect across the two states is well handled.

Netflix The Platform: The new messed up horror film
8. The Platform. 3 stars. This Spanish horror piece takes place in an experimental prison hundreds of floors tall, with two volunteers placed on each floor. They have volunteered blind for this hideous experiment, not knowing what they were getting into. Each day, once a day, a huge platform of food descends through the central shaft — the only chance for the people on each level to eat. On level 1 (the very top), the two captives have access to a gourmet feast of all sorts of dishes, deserts, and drink including booze. If everyone ate a modest amount, the platform would make it all the way to the bottom with something for each prisoner, but it never does. The people on the lower levels survive by very unpleasant means, often by killing and then feasting on their own cell mate. The Platform is a social parable about haves and have-nots, and the end bloodbath is pretty visceral.

Gary Oldman and Amanda Seyfriend Star in First Trailer for Mank | PEOPLE.com
9. Mank. 3 stars. I admire Mank only so much. I love Citizen Kane; I don’t give a tinker’s damn who wrote it. Scholars of cinema will naturally care, but this film is aimed at a wide audience, and for those who do care, it doesn’t help that Fincher follows the debunked theory that Herman Mankiewicz almost single-handedly wrote Citizen Kane. (It was almost certainly a collaboration between him and Welles.) Mank is a gorgeously dreamy tribute to Citizen Kane, brought down by Oliver-Stone-like revisionism and a failure to carry much conviction. I enjoyed watching Charles Dance’s performance, but most of the characters, and the story, don’t matter as they should. Some critics are claiming that this will become a classic like Citizen Kane itself. Not.

Continuing at the Ross are 'Yes, God, Yes' and 'The Nest' | Nebraska Today | University of Nebraska–Lincoln
10. Yes, God, Yes. 3 stars. The Catholic school in this film takes the following passage as its core doctrine: “As for the faithless and the sexually immoral, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur.” (Rev 21:8) The students are taught that any sex outside of marriage, including with oneself, is guaranteed damnation, and it’s reinforced with infuriating fascist hypocrisy — in the classrooms, halls, and retreat centers. Stranger Things star Natalia Dyer (aka Nancy Wheeler) does a great job in her role as Alice, a teenager torn between this repressive piety and her blazing carnal urges. When she discovers masturbation on a filthy IM chat with a stranger, she starts pissing off everyone — her prudish best friend, a guy who’s appalled when she makes a move on him, the school priest — on her mission to enjoy orgasms. Dyer was a good fit for this role.

(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 2014, The Best Films of 2015, The Best Films of 2016, The Best Films of 2017, The Best Films of 2018, The Best Films of 2019.)

Ellen/Elliot Page and the Declining Numbers of Lesbians

Yesterday the buzz was that Ellen Page is now Elliot Page. Page had come out lesbian in a moving speech on Valentine’s Day in 2014, and yesterday came out as transgender. What’s interesting is that only a few days before there were online discussions about the fading of lesbianism. It does make me wonder if Page’s second coming out has something to do with this trendiness or any social contagion factor.

Katie Herzog and Andrew Sullivan’s article (from four days ago), “Where Have All the Lesbians Gone?”, covers how the term “lesbian” is rapidly disappearing and wonders if “gay” will be next to go. That may sound crazy (because it is crazy), but in the minds of the ultra-woke, the term “homosexual” assumes a binary view of sex and can thus be construed as a bigoted term:

After Portland’s last lesbian bar closed in 2010, as Ellena Rosenthal explored in the Willamette Week, there were attempts to start lesbian-specific nights at various venues, but most avoided the L-word to appear inclusive of trans and nonbinary people. One event, called Temporary Lesbian Bar, apologized after being accused of condoning “trans women exterminationism” for using the labrys — a double-headed ax that symbolizes female strength and has long been a part of lesbian iconography — in their logo. That event still exists, but the organizers make sure to advertise that, despite the name, it’s “open, inclusive, and welcoming to all people.” The flight from “lesbian” has accelerated since. An academic in the Southeast, who asked to remain anonymous, told me that when she mentioned to a colleague that she’s a lesbian, the colleague “reacted like I’d confessed to being a Confederate Lost-Causer. She told me that the term is outdated and problematic, and I shouldn’t use it.” So the lesbian keeps quiet about her identity: “It’s like living in a second closet.” Not long ago, it would have been the Christian right stigmatizing homosexual women. Today, it’s also from people who call themselves queer.

The discussion was then picked up the following day on Jerry Coyne’s ““Why Evolution is True” blog, where Coyne discussed the increased social contagion factor that makes it cooler these days to be trans than lesbian.

Readers know that I was a fan of Page’s acting performances in his early career. These days he’s okay but not quite as on fire (I tried watching The Umbrella Academy but couldn’t get into it). I wish him the best and hope that this second coming out is authentic and not born of any discomfort with identifying as lesbian. Biological sex may not be binary, but it’s certainly bimodal (with very rare exceptions due to genetic/physical disorders), and not on a “spectrum” as many of the woke crowd insist. And it’s pathetically sad — though not in the least bit surprising — when some lesbians have to fear the left as much as the right when identifying as lesbian.