Twenty Great Religious Films

Better understood as a list of religiously themed films, since “religious films” have a reputation for poor design and cheesy acting in favor of pushing dogma. There is excellent cinema that explores religiosity without necessarily advocating for it, and here they are, in my view: twenty great religious — or religiously themed, or spiritual — films of all time.

(Note: this expands on a previous list of ten.)

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1. The Seventh Seal. Ingmar Bergman, 1957. If there was only one religious film I could save, it would be this. It sounds boring when described (a knight plays chess with Death), but it’s the knight’s journey around the game’s intervals, through a land struck by plague and fanaticism, and his attempts to penetrate God’s mysteries, that drive the story. It opens with the citation of Revelation 8:1: “When he broke open the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour”. Bergman was obsessed with the silence of God in the world (see also entries 11-13 on this list), and in The Seventh Seal he ties that theme with mortality, existential dread, and apocalyptic fears. It’s set in the 14th century, as the crusades were becoming obsolete, and when modern anxieties queried even more basic aspects of the Christian faith. For example, in his futile quest for meaning, the knight’s best reach comes by enjoying a simple meal of wild strawberries and milk in the countryside with a peasant man and wife. The strawberries meal seems to contrast with the ritualized Eucharist liturgy. There’s also huge entertainment in The Seventh Seal — bar brawls, apocalyptic tirades, insult contests, self-mutilation, and a witch-burning to top it off — that the theological side helpings make it one of the most balanced arthouse films I know. The final scene (above image) is my favorite frame from any film: the Dance of Death. If it is indeed this nihilistic dance that awaits us all, at least Bergman allows us to enjoy some comforts and unexpected epiphanies, and through a great cast of characters, before we get there.

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2. The Tree of Life. Terrence Malick, 2011. This meditation on suffering was inspired by the book of Job, in which God replies to his servant’s anguish not by having the courtesy to answer the question, but by hubristically displaying His creation: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. (Job 38:4) This is what the 20-minute cosmos sequence is about, a stunning Big-Bang/evolution snapshot that makes the viewer feel humbled by celestial mysteries. While it didn’t exactly make me feel better about the problem of theodicy (why the innocent suffer), the amazing visual canvass with Lacrimosa playing over it (you can watch the sequence here) helps put the matter in perspective in a way that words off the scriptural page can hardly match. Our tragedies look admittedly small in the grand scheme of things. Basically, Malick takes an American Catholic family of the 1950s and frames them within this macrocosm of evolution, and also within a dialectic of nature vs. grace: “Grace doesn’t try to please itself. It accepts being slighted, insults, and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself, to get others to please it too, and to find reasons to be unhappy.” What’s interesting is that grace emerges in this film not as something which contradicts nature (even if it is its conceptual opposite), but rather something inherently part of it, or complementing it, or mutating from it. The film ends on a spiritual apocalypse that could move an atheist: the yearning for reunion in some form of afterlife, even if that’s a fantasy we cling to in order to cope with our losses.

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3. There Will Be Blood. Paul Anderson, 2007. This blistering attack on the prosperity gospel was almost enough to make me renounce my capitalist convictions. 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. The middle and final scenes define this relationship. In the first, Daniel arrives at the Church of the Third Revelation and suffers a humiliating baptism which involves him screaming his confessions at the congregation and Eli slapping his face: “You will never be saved if you reject the blood,” warns Eli, a statement loaded with irony since there is plenty of real blood on Daniel’s hands. The final scene sixteen years later reverses the humiliation. Eli has become a failure and needs money, and Daniel (now an obscenely rich drunk and more mean-spirited than ever) says he will give Eli money if his admits that he’s a false prophet and God is a fiction. Eli confesses this, and Daniel finishes his revenge by clubbing him to death. 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.

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4. The Exorcist. William Friedkin, 1973. As my favorite film of all time it was difficult to rank on its strength as a religious film, but the fourth slot feels about right. As a horror film it’s the best ever made; as a religious film it’s a treatise on the mystery of faith. Friedkin describes it thus: “Life is such a gift and and yet a mystery, and I don’t think we make movies about that stuff anymore. If you believe that the world is a dark and evil place, that’s what you will take out of The Exorcist. But if you believe that there is a force of good in the world that is forever combating evil, sometimes winning victories over evil, but never an ultimate victory — if you believe as I do that that’s the case, then you will take that away from The Exorcist.” You can make a case for the historical Jesus being an exorcist more than anything else. If his teachings and parables have endured famously, his healings and exorcisms are probably what made people listen to him in the first place. However, some of the people Jesus exorcised may have been just mentally ill, even if understood to be possessed. This film inverts the assumption. All the doctors and shrinks insist that Regan is mentally ill after the somatic causes are ruled out. Even the priest Father Karras believes this, and it’s only after the most harrowing confrontations in Regan’s bedroom that he finds his faith again, under instruction of the elder exorcist. It took an agnostic director like William Friedkin to make a film about faith this compelling, let alone so terrifying.

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5. Love Exposure. Sion Sono, 2009. To celebrate sexual deviance in a context of religious dogma is a bold strike, and Love Exposure pushes more envelopes than South Park and Borat combined. 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. He’s a genuinely good kid, but driven by the need to sin in retaliation against his repressive father, a Catholic priest who treats him horribly in the confessional booth. On the street he finds his dream girl, Yoko, who unfortunately despises men, and yet falls in love with Yu anyway because she thinks he’s a woman since he’s dressed in drag (again: it all sounds too absurd to make time for, but trust me, it works). Things get even crazier when another girl, Koike, comes between them and manipulates them in psychotic ways. While Yu is a product of religious repression, Koike is the product of religious abuse (repeatedly raped by her father until she castrated him) and a destructive sociopath. I felt like these 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.

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6. Silence. Martin Scorsese, 2017. Scorsese’s occasional forays into religion — The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Kundun (1997) — have been so bad that I set my expectations low for this one, but he finally hit a home run. Silence is as good as his gangster films, and a special treat for someone like myself who loves Shogun. That novel is set in 1600, in the middle of Japan’s “Christian century” (1543-1635), and portrays the complex history of the Portuguese Jesuit missionaries. Oda Nobunaga had welcomed them in 1568 in order to obtain guns and cannons for his military campaigns (though he was also genuinely impressed by the rigors of Jesuit life, while despising the hypocrisies of the Buddhist clergy); Toyotomi Hideyoshi was the next unifier who loathed Christians, issuing an edict to expel them in 1587, and then crucifying a whole bunch of them in 1597; with the ascension of Ieysu Tokugawa and the establishment of his shogunate in 1600 (to last until 1868), attitudes towards Christians became ambivalent, until finally in 1635 Christianity was banned and inquisitorial methods were devised to root out practicing Catholics. It is this “post-Christian” period in the late 1630s that Silence draws us into, and Scorsese is just as good as Clavell in resisting sides. The film is no more a liberal critique of western colonial power than it is a Mel-Gibson-like glorification of Christian martyrdom. The priests are decent and have treated the peasants with dignity in a feudal state that was hostile to the poor; yet their work for God incited massacre. Like Clavell, Scorsese shows courageous people going under the sword of honor and shame, and essentially reaped what they sowed.

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7. Seven. David Fincher, 1995. I realize I’m being cute by putting this at the seventh slot, but I wouldn’t rank it lower than ninth in any case, so it may as well go here. Seven is a mainstream masterpiece that continues to feed my fascination with Christian sins and the contrapasso punishments of Dante’s Inferno. What elevates it 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. There’s nothing to fault here: 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 depths 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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8. Doubt. 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 (Sister Aloysius, above image) laments 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, who hates and beats the boy for “his nature” (apparently the boy’s gay orientation is being signaled at an early age). That’s a hard idea in our world today which pathologizes eroticism between adults and youths, and that is part of Doubt’s challenge. It’s easy to like the priest for many reasons, not least his fantastic sermons — the opening one on doubt (being “a bond as creative and sustaining as certainty”) and the middle one on gossip (which skewers the two nuns wonderfully).

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9. 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). The priest is outraged and does his damnedest to stop the project, but Daniel and his group persist and continue to draw crowds. Not only that, but Daniel’s personal life begins to strangely mimic Jesus’, especially in two pivotal scenes. The first summons the moneylenders in the temple, when an actress auditions for a TV commercial and is told to remove her clothes simply because the casting director wants to humiliate her. Daniel bounds to his feet and tells her to leave, and then overturns the lights, cameras, and tables. The second scene comes at the end, where Daniel delivers an incredibly haunting version of the Markan Apocalypse before collapsing on the subway station. Most Jesus films are lame; Jesus of Montreal is genius — the best Jesus film of all time.

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10. Mother! Darren Aronofsky, 2017. If you don’t like being offended on the deepest levels, then you should probably avoid Mother! at all costs. On the surface it portrays 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 literally 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 batshit craziness is an allegory every step of the way: Before God created humanity, there was paradise, represented by the house. Jennifer Lawrence is Gaia, or Mother Earth, who defends the living organism that is the house (we see mouths appear in the floor, flesh gurgling in the toilet, etc.). She is baffled as to why people disrespect her home. Javier Bardem is God, her husband, who is a writer (a “creator”). Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer are the Adam and Eve equivalents who invade the house of Mother’s perfect world, and the writer’s study (the Garden of Eden), which holds God’s perfect crystal (the forbidden fruit). Their unruly children are the Cain and Abel analogs, and the former kills the latter right in front of Mother who is aghast. The writer eventually acquires multitudes of fans who swarm into the house (feeding God’s need for worship). The intruders keep sitting on Mother’s sink, causing the pipes to burst and bringing about the Flood. God finally impregnates Mother, who gives birth to the messiah, who is adulated, seized, ripped apart, and eaten. She snaps at long last and attacks the crowd in fury (nature’s wrath). Mother! is the one of the angriest films I’ve ever seen, about humanity’s abuse of the Earth which prompts Her retaliation.

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11-13. The “Silence of God” Trilogy. Ingmar Bergman, 1961-63. It was a guarantee that Bergman would have multiple slots on this list. His “Silence of God” trilogy is sometimes called the “Faith Trilogy”, but that’s rather misleading considering that Bergman is always about the impotence of faith. Each film stands on its own, but it’s helpful to watch them sequentially as they escalate the riddle of God’s existence: from the spiritual frustration suggesting God as sinister (Through a Glass Darkly), to the anger questioning his existence (Winter Light), to finally accepting there are no answers, though the search for answers remains important (The Silence). The first is a character examination of incest and psychological breakdown; it was my first Bergman film and I fell in love with Harriet Anderson (above image) completely. The second is a theological interrogation that shows a pastor, furious at God’s indifference, breaking his own “silence” towards the kindest woman with an avalanche of brutality. The third carries the theme of silence to its symbolic extreme, with non-communication pervading every level: two sisters stay at a grotesque hotel and retreat into their own silences/dysfunctions of sexual promiscuity and alcoholism. It adds up to a brilliant symphony which reflects Bergman’s evolution away from a doubtful Christianity. All the more ironic is that his secular humanism became even more doubtful, and I find myself revisiting these chamber pieces to get a handle on my own schizophrenic tensions between religion and humanism.


14. First Reformed. Paul Schrader, 2018. Less a remake of Winter Light (the twelfth slot, above) and more a spin-off, it nonetheless follows Bergman to a tee in refusing to answer the questions it raises and bruises us as we search for meaning in a world going to hell. In Winter Light the parishioner killed himself over the fear of nuclear war. In First Reformed the suicide is caused by the specter of environmental catastrophe. In the wake of this, the priest is so shaken that he finds himself drawn to martyring himself. Schrader brings the theme of God’s silence into the modern era, making Bergman themes accessible without compromising them. It asks what happens when you build your life on the premise of God’s existence, and then God turns out to be silent, his Son’s teachings impotent in a world of environmental devastation, corporate power, disease, torn relationships, and ruined dreams. At no point does First Reformed pander to the mainstream by sacrificing its artistic vision. And when Schrader goes for the jugular, it’s in ways that surprise; the final scene still blows my mind. My only reservation is the sequence that replays Tomas’s cruel treatment of Marta in Winter Light, which went on for a patient ten minutes, but here is zipped through in the blink of an eye. Aside from that, First Reformed is the rare remake/spin-off of a mighty classic that has every right to exist, and it grows on you with subsequent viewings.

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15. Thirst. Park Chan-wook, 2009. Spiritual on the basest level, Thirst is about the purity of desire — the desire for sex and blood, but also for something more elusive, like a supernal righteousness or sinfulness. It’s about two vampire lovers who deal with their needs on opposite ends of the moral compass. The priest is a good man who becomes a vampire at the start of the film, by accident. Having volunteered to be injected with a trial vaccine for a rotting disease, he dies in the trial, but unlike the other guinea pigs he comes back to life; one of the transfusions has turned him into a vampire. Only fresh blood can stop the return of his skin boils, but he does all he can to avoid killing people, mostly by sneaking through hospitals and slurping the intravenous tubes of comatose patients. But when he turns a woman he falls in love with — the wife of his best friend, whom they both end up murdering — it’s not long before she brings out the worst in him. The film explores the duality between blood-feeding as a sacrament, and its Satanic counterpart which revels in the glory of the hunt. Few vampire films explore the suffocating pain of being a vampire, and those that try usually leave much to be desired (like Interview with the Vampire). Thirst succeeds in this largely because of its religious framework.


16. Of Gods and Men. Xavier Beauvois, 2010. I was only vaguely familiar with the true account behind this film before watching it. In 1996 a group of French Cistercian monks in Algeria were taken hostage by Islamic jihadists and then beheaded. They could have easily avoided their fate and returned to France, and some of them wished to do just that, but as a group they elected to stay and minister to the surrounding Muslim villagers who were coming under fire — girls getting killed on buses for refusing to wear the hijab, others getting their throats slit for various violations of sharia law. The film maintains an extraordinary sense of detachment as the monks wrestle with their faith and their conscience. They have no interest in converting anyone to Catholicism, only following Jesus’s dictum to help the oppressed even if that means martyrdom; which in the end, of course, it does. The contrast between Jesus’s injunctions (to help the poor and dispossessed at whatever cost to oneself) and Muhammad’s (slay unbelievers) isn’t the point of the film; Beauvois is no triumphalist preacher. But the contrast emerges just the same, and if that’s not politically correct, it’s certainly accurate. Christians continue to be killed like this throughout the Muslim world. It’s noteworthy that while both the peaceful Muslims villagers and jihadis cite the Qur’an, it’s the peaceful ones who paraphrase or generalize without precision, and the jihadis who recognize specific texts; indeed one of them finishes a quotation carelessly parroted at them.

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17. The Witch. Robert Eggers, 2016. This horror film was misleadingly marketed to give the impression of a mainstream effort with loud bangs and cheap thrills. It’s far better than that, and I think a religious film primarily, as the characters obsess God and their purity of purpose. Set in 1630s Colonial America (interestingly, the same period of Scorsese’s Silence), decades before the Salem Witch trials, the story tells of a Puritan family who leave their plantation and settle miles away in isolation from other people. This forest border happens to be the home of a witch, who wastes no time lashing out at them, first by snatching their newborn infant under a game of peek-a-boo and stabbing it to death, and eventually by possessing the 11-year old son who dies screaming a prayer by John Winthrop (one of the Puritan founders of New England) in near orgasmic ecstasy. Not being familiar with the writings of Winthrop, I thought this was some kind of pagan perversion of a Christian prayer, given the erotic overtones (which I should have known better as derived from the Song of Songs). The boy is still in thrall to the witch’s possession at this point, but it’s not clear how much, and it’s scary. He dies after shouting this litany, and it’s pretty much heads or tails whether he’s saved or damned. The film doesn’t exactly choose sides between Christian zeal and pagan blood rites. If there’s any moral contrast, it’s between the misery and liberation of the eldest daughter, who is falsely accused by her family for being a witch, and then in the end becomes one. There is much to admire in the Puritan zeal, and much not to, as it turns out.

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18. Palindromes. Todd Solondz, 2005. This satire on abortion plays no favorites, and you will feel painfully skewered by it whether you’re for life or choice. It tells of a thirteen-year old girl (Aviva) who is forced against her will to have an abortion by her mother, who advances the most pathetic reasons to have the abortion, clearly robbing her daughter of the “choice” she claims to espouse. Aviva runs away from home, and eventually joins a Christian communal family whose patriarch kills abortion doctors. Some of the ballsiest scenes are found at the Christian home, where physically and mentally disabled kids shuck and jive to Jesus songs, and are cared for under the genuine but perverse love of Mama Sunshine. The film suggests that both anti- and pro-abortionists wind up in the same morass of contradictions, regardless of their starting point — like palindromes, which are words reading the same backward as forward. I’m also intrigued by the film’s secondary message, a parable for the book of Ecclesiastes, that there is “nothing new under the sun”. The key dialogue for this comes at the end from the character of Mark, when he tells Aviva: “People always end up the way they started out. No one ever changes. They think they do but they don’t. If you’re the depressed type now that’s the way you’ll always be. If you’re the mindless happy type now, that’s the way you’ll be when you grow up. There’s no freewill. Ultimately, we’re all just robots programmed abritrarily by nature’s genetic code. We hope or despair because of the way we’ve been programmed. Genes and randomness, that’s all there is and none of it matters.” Well, there you have it.

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19. Shadowlands. Richard Attenborough, 1993. To make a film about C.S. Lewis runs the risk of evangelizing as the man himself did, but Attenborough tells a professional biography, and one that is utterly heartbreaking. I’m not usually fond of romances in which one of the pair gets bad news from the doctor and ends up dying in horrendous agony, but Shadowlands filters the tragedy through the lens of a famous theologian who had written so much on the necessity of human suffering. Confronted with it personally, he finds himself mocked by his own wisdom. Before meeting Joy Gresham, C.S. Lewis had always been confident about the purpose of pain and suffering: “It’s God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world,” he thunders in his lectures, when we first see him. The idea is that pain and suffering is God’s way of perfecting people and enabling them to learn from cruel experience — to grow up, in other words. The problem is that Lewis never really experienced pain and suffering. He had an easy life in his academic tower, teaching students who near worshiped him for his fame. When Joy gets cancer, it virtually emasculates him. Shadowlands is a tearjerker, but without a sliver of cheap melodrama; a brutal look at how a Christian theologian was broken by his own lessons.

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20. Noah. Darren Aronofsky, 2014. Before the allegorical Mother! came Aronofsky’s literal adaptation of a biblical narrative, and the story I’ve always wanted to see made into a mighty epic. In some ways Noah is a boilerplate blockbuster, but I love it to pieces for the way it reinterprets the flood through Gnostic and Judeo-Christian filters almost impartially. And if it channels Lord of the Rings grandiosity, that works too, 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, but a grim one that doesn’t soft-peddle God’s act of genocide. Noah and his family are commissioned to preserve the animal creation while humanity is wiped out — because people, in God’s eyes, deserve nothing less. Noah turns homicidal like his Creator, as he plans to murder his daughter-in-law’s babies. Don’t listen to complaints that the 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. It is a dark chapter of the bible come to life, with a great realization of the Ark and epic battle scene that rivals Peter Jackson’s Ents. But it also forces the hard issues of Job, the Saul and David stories, and the apocalypse of Revelation.

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The Best Films of 2018

I couldn’t come up with ten films to recommend for this year. I was disappointed with Hereditary, didn’t waste my time on Solo, and found Eighth Grade obscenely over-hyped. I expected Ready Player One to be a guilty pleasure, but it wasn’t even that. Not a strong year to say the least. But the following five are very good.

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1. First Man. 5 stars. The year’s best film is a repeat of my top choice for last year, which was Blade Runner 2049. Each stars Ryan Gosling, and was released in the month of October to high critical praise but low box office performance. It’s sad that today’s audiences aren’t equipped to sit still for long periods of quality storytelling. First Man isn’t a space-race thriller. We do catch glimpses of the historical background (that space exploration was driven by the need to show up the Communists more than for any laudable scientific goals), just as we get some of the social fury over the perceived waste of taxpayer dollars (as when Gil Scott-Heron, played by Leon Bridges, recites his famous “Whitey on the Moon” poem to crowds suffering in poverty). But the film is primarily a meditation on grief. Neil Armstrong lost his two-year old daughter to a brain tumor, and his persistence in braving the dangers of space emerges as a desire to escape the world into a cold perilous silence. Whether or not he really left his daughter’s bracelet on the moon hardly matters; it’s cinematic and does no violence to history. That he is not portrayed as planting the American flag is also irrelevant. People watch films like this with the wrong eyes. First Man is a near perfect film, and one that I will be watching again many times.


2. First Reformed. 5 stars. Not exactly a remake of 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. Then too I have heard it compared to Martin Scorsese’s Silence (2016). According to critic Alissa Wilkinson, both films revolve around the same question: “What if you predicated your life on God’s existence, and then God turned out to be silent, crowded out by bodily discomfort, broken relationships, plundered dreams, and external forces more interested in their own power than the unsettling implications of Jesus’s teachings?” But First Reformed goes for the jugular in some mighty surprising ways, unlike the more subdued approach of Silence. It’s also a parable about the apocalypse, with Bergman’s atomic warfare theme being changed to environmental catastrophe. I’ve seen this film three 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. If Schrader didn’t want to take that scene seriously, then he should have just omitted it altogether.

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3. Suspiria. 5 stars. This one is a remake, and a good example what remakes should do, by paying homage to a great classic while telling a completely different story. The result is something much better (IMO) than the original Suspiria (1977). There is a young American woman who moves to Germany to attend a dance academy run by witches, and there are mysterious disappearances and weird behaviors in its halls. The similarities between the two films don’t extend beyond this framework. The major twist is that Helena Markos (played by Tilda Swinton) turns out not to be the Mother of Sighs, just a wannabe-witch. It is the student Suzy herself who is the reincarnation of the Mother of Sighs, and she’s been using her training with the Swinton character to come into a very horrible power. The film’s ending — a celebration of gore and orgy — stays with you forever.

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4. The Public. 4 stars. I, of all people, was skeptical going into this one. Librarians have been subject to ludicrous caricatures, and the premise of The Public sounds a bit silly. But it turns out to be a decent love letter to libraries and the diverse people they are supposed to serve, especially the poor and mentally-ill. The plot centers around an act of civil disobedience when a band of homeless patrons refuse to leave the Cincinnati Public Library at closing time. It’s sub-zero weather outside and they’ve had it with being cold. A librarian decides to turn the library into an overnight sanctuary for these patrons, and the situation escalates into a stand-off between those inside the library and the police outside. This may sound rather silly, but the film functions as a parable that interrogates the values which public servants nominally stand for, and on this level it works pretty well. Those who work in public libraries, like myself, will get mileage from the behavior patterns of certain patrons.

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5. Revenge. 4 stars. Rape-revenge is a problem genre, seldom rewarding the viewer beyond cheap payback. The Virgin Spring (1960) is a classic exception that doesn’t glorify retribution; the father’s revenge against the rapists and killers of his daughter is portrayed as ugly and self-righteous. Autumn Blood (2013) is another exception, ending with the girl choosing not to execute the man she loathes. This year’s Revenge is certainly not like these films; it celebrates retribution without apology. But it also is to be taken with a pound of salt. The plot involves a married man having an affair with a young woman, who is then raped by one of his two visiting friends. Then she is pushed off a cliff (by her boyfriend, the married man) so she won’t tell the police. She survives the fall in a most incredible way, and it’s from this point that Revenge becomes a chase throughout a no man’s land, that clearly favors style over substance. Where this city girl acquired wilderness survival skills, let alone proficiency with a rifle, is anyone’s guess. But that’s what gives Revenge a pass; you can glorify retribution when leaning on such an extreme style that winks at the audience. The girl’s acid trip in the cave is my favorite scene; it basically defines the tone of Revenge.

(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.)

Halloween Sequel Marathon

Here’s what I have planned for a Halloween marathon. All of these are sequels, so that’s the theme this year. Including my own novella mentioned at the bottom.

Friday-Monday, October 26-29: Stranger Things, Season 2. (2017) It was released last Halloween, and with the huge delay of season 3, it’s a suitable time to rewatch it. Fans continue to debate whether season 1 or 2 is better, and for me it’s clearly the second, as it goes darker and deeper in ways I didn’t expect. With the innocence of Hawkins lost, the previous year’s events have taken a toll on everyone, especially Mike Wheeler. Most directors wouldn’t have scripted an Emo Mike; they would have facsimiled the season-1 Mike in a pointless sequel. In order for Eleven’s sacrifice to be felt, it had to hurt Mike Wheeler and cause him to stagnate. He’s no longer the spirited leader of last year, and that’s as it should be. His sister Nancy is also dispirited, which is another refreshing bit of realism. Barb may have been a minor character in season 1, but she certainly wasn’t minor to Nancy. Noah Schnapp and Millie Bobby Brown practically carry the season in their ferocious performances, and it’s honestly some of the best child acting I’ve ever seen. The biggest challenge of the season was how to reintroduce Eleven, and the Duffers nailed it. If they had reunited Eleven with the other kids too quickly, it would have cheapened her season-1 sacrifice. Saving her re-entry for the finale was the right decision, and few scriptwriters have the balls to make such decisions. Season 1 made us long for the simpler times of youth when kids were more independent. There’s some of that still in season 2, but it’s much more character driven, and focused on the inner turmoils of the kids, Hopper, and Joyce as they confront a much worse threat from the Upside Down. Mix all that with the Halloween theme, and this sequel season should become your #1 marathon priority.

Tuesday, October 30: The Exorcist III: Legion. (1990) Everyone knows The Exorcist II: The Heretic is the worst horror sequel ever made, and it’s also the worst horror film I’ve seen period. The Exorcist III is the true sequel, based on the novel Legion written by William Peter Blatty, who also wrote and directed the film adaptation. I can’t imagine Legion as the product of a film maker, no matter how talented, who isn’t also a novelist. It’s approach is patient. I remember when I first saw it in the theater (in 1990), and there were two scenes in particular that had me panic stricken: the Gemini Killer’s hideous recounting of his sins in the confessional booth before he kills the priest, and Lieutenant Kinderman’s first sight of Patient X in the psychiatric ward, who is revealed to be the wasted figure of Father Karras, who died in the first film. There are some who even think Legion is a scarier and better film than The Exorcist itself, and though I don’t agree with that, I do acknowledge that you can make a case for it. An acquaintance of mine described the film this way: “You can’t imagine anyone making this film who doesn’t 100% believe in manifest evil. It pull no punches and carries a tone which says, ‘This is not entertainment. This is a glimpse into the dark side.’ ” Of course, I would say that statement applies to The Exorcist, and yet in some ways I find Legion more deeply chilling. It’s way underappreciated, and I plan to be terrorized by it on the night before Halloween.

Wednesday, October 31: Halloween II. (2009) I’m not kidding when I say this is the best entry in the Halloween franchise. Carpenter’s classic (1978) and Zombie’s remake (2007) are usually the ones praised, and they are good, but the Carpenter original hasn’t aged well on me (a major reason being the use of actors in their late 20s to play high-school teenagers, which I find insufferable), while Zombie’s remake is a very mixed bag. It gave Halloween more bite for a 21st-century audience, but it tried to be too many things at once — a prequel, a remake, and a Rob Zombie film. In the sequel to his own remake, Zombie finally did everything on his own terms. This is not a remake of the original Halloween II, which was a shitty film in every way, like most of the Halloween franchise. It’s Zombie continuing where his remake left off, but going in a different direction taken by the ’80s sequels. It panders to no one, and Zombie doesn’t care whom he offends with scenes of nasty brutality. He gives serious attention to the trauma suffered by Laurie from events in Halloween, making Halloween II the rare slasher that shows what mindless killing really does to people. The character of Dr. Loomis almost steals the show: Malcolm McDowell is able to go places he could only touch in Halloween given the constraints of the remake. Here he’s a complete asshole, in love with himself as a celebrity, and no longer gives a damn about Laurie Strode or Michael Myers. He attends promotional events for his book, goes on tirades when when audience members don’t fawn over him, and repeatedly insults his assistant for offering him kind but unwanted opinions. I’ve seen Halloween II many times, and I’m going to enjoy it again this Halloween night.

Reading Material

On this front, allow me to shamelessly plug my fan-fiction novella, Stranger Things: The New Generation, which is the sequel to Stranger Things: The College Years. I will start posting the chapters to The New Generation on Sunday, October 28. Like the second season of Stranger Things, it’s set during Halloween, and I tried milking the theme for all its worth.

Four Models of Time Travel

Now that I’ve written a time travel story, I have a deeper appreciation of the genre’s challenges. It’s hard to make time travel work logistically and still have compelling drama. So here are my thoughts on the good and bad ways time travel has been handled on screen. I’ll focus on four models: (a) the single timeline, (b) multiple timelines, (c) the repeated loop, and (d) the universe fights back.

A. Single Timeline (Everything Predestined)

The most elegant model is the single timeline, or time stream, or universe, which amounts to a closed loop. In its simplest terms: the future time traveler was always in the past. Any “changes” made to the past are not changes at all, because they already occurred. It’s impossible to change the past, since the past has already happened. Which came first, chicken or egg?

A famous example of this model is used in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004). In the story Harry and his friends are saved from dying by their futures selves, and so Harry later realizes that he has to go back in time to save his past self. Everything plays out exactly as before, and there’s no change on the timeline.

A more obscure example is the romance Somewhere in Time (1980), which uses the trope of self-hypnosis as the means of time travel. A playwright named Richard Collier travels from 1980 back to 1912, after being haunted by an encounter with an old woman who approached him out of the blue and told him to “Come back to me”, then disappeared. He later learned that she was a stage actress named Elise McKenna. Through self-hypnosis he sends himself back to 1912, where he meets Elise and they fall in love; their romance is later interrupted when he unintentionally transports himself back to 1980. Like the Harry Potter story, this forms a closed loop: Richard sends himself back in time because Elise tells him to; but Elise can only tell him to because she has already lived through their love affair when he sent himself back in time.

The following three films are my favorite examples of the single timeline model, in which everything is predestined. When I say “predestined”, I don’t mean that in a philosophical or religious sense. Single timelines have nothing to do with the issue of free will. I mean simply that everything has already happened: the future self was always in the past to begin with. The future self is not changing anything or creating new events by traveling to the past; it’s impossible to change the past.

1. Predestination (2014). The gold standard of the single timeline model is based on a short story written by Robert Heinlein, and portrays what sounds impossible: four characters of different genders and living in different times are the exact same person: Jane from 1945-1963; John from 1963-1970, and then 1985-1992; the Barkeep from 1992+; and a terrorist known as the Fizzle Bomber sometime in 21st century. Again, they are literally the same person. (In the above photo, Barkeep John is on the left, speaking to younger John on the right, in 1970.)

This single person interacts with him/herself as follows: The Barkeep is from the late ’90s, but he has a time machine, and he bases himself in the year 1970, to await a meeting with his younger self. After listening to his younger self vent rage against a world that has treated him unfairly, the Barkeep takes him back to 1963, and drops him off for a night, where he impregnates Jane who is himself. She has the baby who is her own self, but there are complications with the birth that require a sex change surgery. After the operation, she takes the name of John. The Barkeep travels from the future to steal the baby after she is born, and he then takes her back in time to the year 1945, and leaves her at an orphanage, so that she can start growing up from the year 1945. The Barkeep takes John to the year 1985, where he becomes a counter-terror agent. In 1992 John encounters the Fizzle Bomber, and his face is maimed in an explosion. John now looks totally different — he has the face of the Barkeep. He acquires a time machine from his employer, and retires, traveling back to the year 1970 where he bases himself, to await the younger John, and fulfill the above cycle of events. Barkeep John returns to his time in the future, and at some point in the 21st century encounters the Fizzle Bomber again, but this time he sees that it is himself, much older, with grey hair and a beard. He vows that he will never become a terrorist and shoots the Fizzle Bomber on the spot. The movie ends with the clear implication that he will eventually become the Fizzle Bomber, as he is being slowly driven crazy by all the jumps he has taken through time.

Here’s how it maps out:

 

I don’t think any writer has ever outdone Heinlein on this concept — that four people of different genders can be the same person in four different time periods, and all from the same (closed) time stream. The filmmakers adapted it superbly.

2. Timecrimes (2007). A rustic Spanish countryside isn’t a typical setting for a time travel story, and the novelty is refreshing. A man named Hector travels back one hour in time, and then does so again, so that there are three versions of himself for the duration of that hour. During that hour, the second and third versions of himself uphold the initial sequence of events, sometimes intentionally, sometimes by accident. The only exception is when the third version of Hector tries to kill the second version (thinking that he’s protecting his wife from himself), but fails in the attempt. Everything plays out as before, and nothing is changed. It’s a fatalist drama of the single time stream, but it delivers plenty of surprises nonetheless.

The key is to understand that throughout the film there are always three Hectors in the hour duration. Hector 3 was always in the background, plotting his shenanigans against Hector 2. He fails to kill Hector 2, but he does injure him (as he himself had been injured in the same way), which causes Hector 2 to bandage his face and enter the forest with a woman whom he assaults. This prompts Hector 1 to investigate, which is what we see towards the start of the film: The first version of Hector sits on his house lawn looking into the forest with a pair of binoculars; he sees a woman being attacked by a “stranger” in a head bandage, and so goes to investigate, gets stabbed by the “stranger” (who is himself), and then flees up the forest path. He comes to an isolated shed where a scientist has created a time travel bath. The bath can only send people back in time for as long as it has been turned on, and Hector 1 hides inside it, not knowing what it is, and gets sent back in time one hour, where he becomes Hector 2. And so forth. The following diagram maps out the hour’s events:

 

What’s interesting is that Hectors 2 and 3 go out of their way to uphold the original events they’ve experienced (with the single exception of Hector 3’s failed attempt to kill Hector 2). On some level, the Hectors understand that changing time, if it were even possible, would wreak havoc by killing his own self. There is brilliant tragedy in the way Hector 2 finally returns home still bandaged and accidentally causes his wife (or who appears to be his wife from a distance) to fall off the roof of their house and die. This is why he goes back in time again, to become Hector 3: to kill Hector 2, even though this would result in his own death. Hector 3 fails, but he manages to save his wife by sacrificing another innocent woman in her place — who of course was really the one killed all along. Timecrimes is an underappreciated effort, and my second favorite of the closed loop model.

3. The Terminator (1984). Forget the lousy sequels — and yes, I’m including Terminator 2 in that indictment — the first is the only good one. Not surprisingly, it’s also the only one that forms a singular timeline in which nothing changes. In the far future, machines have taken over the world and are warring on humankind. A man named John Connor leads the resistance against them, and he stands a good chance of turning the tide. The machines become desperate, and decide to send back a terminator in time, to kill John Connor’s mother in the year 1984, so that she will never give birth to John — a preemptive abortion, in effect, before she even gets pregnant. However, the humans in the future learn what the machines are trying, and so they too send back a man, Kyle Reese, to protect Sarah Connor from being assassinated by the terminator. It turns out that Reese is John Connor’s father, but Reese doesn’t know this. In the past, while protecting Sarah against the terminator, he falls in love with her and gets her pregnant. The terminator eventually kills him, and Sarah succeeds in killing the terminator. Sarah knows she will have to teach her son someday that he is destined to lead the war against the machines, and that he will have to send Kyle Reese back to protect her, so that he (John) can be born. The spare robot parts left behind by the dead terminator ensured that machine technology will evolve in such a way that will allow the machines to take over some day. All of this forms a closed loop: neither past nor future is changed.

Unfortunately, the franchise ruined a good thing (as franchises often do), serving up sequel after sequel in which history changes in cheesy and non-compelling ways. In Terminator 2 we learn that the arm and chip of the first terminator technology was improved dramatically. Most significantly, the protagonists are able stop the apocalypse of Judgment Day — which means that not only will John Connor never lead a war against the machines (in the present timeline), he will never have been born (in any future timelines), since he has no reason to send Kyle Reese back in time. Films 3-5 try salvaging new drama from this, and the result is a mess. Here’s the plotting of all five films:

It’s not that there is anything wrong with the multiple timeline approach — as I explain below, I actually think it’s the superior model — only that the Terminator franchise didn’t use it well; the stories of T2-5 are lame. Let’s look now at the better ways the model has been used.

B. Multiple Timelines (Changing History)

Changing history is fun and offers high-stakes drama, but it’s hard to do right by. Most filmmakers blunder at some point. The idea is simple enough: the act of time travel automatically changes the past and forces the universe on to a different trajectory. It creates a new timeline, or an alternate history, a new causal chain, or a parallel universe — whatever you want to call it (see right diagram). Because it is a new timeline, it operates independently of the original one. That last part is what often gets muddled.

The most celebrated example of this model is Back to the Future (1985). Marty McFly goes back in time, and when he returns to the present, he finds that his parents are much more enjoyable people. For the most part the logistics are handled well, but there are some silly elements, as when for example Marty’s body starts to fade as he intervenes in the past, and starts to prevent his parents from falling in love. This misses the whole point of new time streams. Marty can’t possibly erase himself, because he comes from a time stream in which those threats to his existence never happened. If his parents don’t hook up, all that means is that there won’t be a version of himself born in the new timeline; it has no bearing on any versions of himself in or from other timelines.

Another fan favorite is Looper (2012), a thriller about time-traveling hit men. As a film it’s pretty good, but it gets hopelessly lost up its ass in mixing the two models. On the one hand, sending someone to the past creates a new timeline. On the other hand, that new timeline is treated as singular and closed, as when we see older versions of time travelers effected by what’s happening to their younger counterparts. So for example, when Young Joe carves “Beatrix” into his arm, it instantly appears on Old Joe as a scar. The problem is that Looper is supposed to be about a closed time loop when it’s really about a malleable future. On top of that, Joe’s sacrifice at the end is for nothing, because it won’t necessarily do anything to stop the Rainmaker’s creation. Looper does okay as a dramatic thriller, but it fails as a time travel story.

Here are two films which use the multiple timelines model flawlessly. And they’re excellent drama besides.

1. Deja Vu (2006). Arguably Tony Scott’s best film, Deja Vu is a film I could talk about all day. One critic has called it a digital version of Vertigo, for the way it explores obsession, fractured identity, and time travel. 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. Who else to play such a hero than Denzel Washington?

Denzel is Doug Carlin, a law official who has been recruited by a team of government agents who use a time machine to look into the past and solve difficult crimes. But Doug’s ambitions exceed theirs, and he persuades them to use the machine for time traveling purposes, so as to change events and prevent a ferry bombing from ever happening. First he sends a note back to himself, and when that fails (doing far more harm than good), he sends himself back, saving Claire and the hundreds of people from being killed.

People have criticized Deja Vu as if it aspires to the single timeline model. They say it’s impossible for Doug to have gone back in time, because he ends up saving the day. Since he prevents the ferry explosion, there is no crime to investigate, and so he will never be recruited by the surveillance team who use the time machine, and will never be sent back in time; the new future isn’t the old one. That’s missing the colossal point. The new future isn’t supposed to be the old one. Doug changed the past in order to save lives. This isn’t the predestination model; it’s the multiverse model, and the film clearly telegraphs that when the team of scientists debate the nature of time, and Shanti starts talking about divergent time streams.

Here’s a map of the time streams in Deja Vu:

It’s an excellent map, though hard to read; you have to click on it twice, then scroll around. I’ll summarize the timelines, and highlight in blue the events we see play out in the film.

There need to be at least four streams to account for all the nuances in Deja Vu, though there could obviously be more; we simply don’t know how many times Doug had to send himself back in time until he finally saved the day. But at a bare minimum:

  • In Timeline 1, the terrorist calls Claire about the availability of her Bronco van on Sunday evening, but because she can’t meet his deadline, he buys a Blazer van from someone else instead. He uses the Blazer to blow up the ferry Tuesday morning at 10:50 AM, and Claire remains safe and alive in this timeline. When Doug comes on the scene, he is recruited by the team with the time machine, and they use the machine to send a note back in time, to warn himself about the ferry bomber who is casing the ferry early Monday morning. Sending back this note in time creates Timeline 2.
  • In Timeline 2, the terrorist calls Claire about the availability of her Bronco on Sunday evening, but because she can’t meet his deadline, he buys a Blazer from someone else instead, just as in Timeline 1. However, the note sent by Doug to himself from the future (in Timeline 1) arrives on his desk early Monday morning around 4:00 AM, and his partner Larry sees it. Larry takes action and goes to the ferry, where the terrorist shoots him, but not before Larry puts enough bullet holes in the Blazer that causes the terrorist to seek out Claire after all. On Tuesday morning he steals Claire’s Bronco, kidnaps her, takes her to his house, and then kills her, burning her alive and dumping her in the river. He then uses the Bronco to blow up the ferry at 10:50 AM. When Doug comes on the scene, he goes to the coroner’s and sees Claire’s body (not in a red dress), and when he investigates her home, there is no message for him on the fridge. As in Timeline 1, he and his team use the time machine to send a note back in time, to warn himself about the ferry bomber casing the ferry early Monday morning. But later, he also demands that he be sent back in time (to Monday evening), so that he can try to save Claire. Sending back the note and himself creates Timeline 3.
  • In Timeline 3, the events start out exactly as in Timeline 2, but now Future Doug (from Timeline 2) arrives in a hospital on Monday night at 7:00 PM, where he is barely resuscitated. He wakes up on Tuesday morning at 8:05 AM, steals an ambulance, and goes to the terrorist’s home; he rescues Claire but gets shot by the terrorist, who gets away in Claire’s Bronco. Future Doug then takes Claire back to her house, where she changes into a red dress, and helps bandage him. In case he fails, he writes a message to himself on the fridge: “u can save her”. He leaves Claire at the house and goes to the ferry alone at 9:45 AM. The terrorist returns to Claire’s house, kills her, and dumps her body in the river. He then proceeds to the ferry, where Future Doug fails to stop him and is killed. The terrorist uses the Bronco to blow up the ferry at 10:50 AM. When Doug — Present Doug, who belongs to this timeline, and the Doug we first see in the film — comes on the scene, he goes to the coroner’s and sees Claire’s body, in a red dress, and when he investigates her home, there is a message left by his future self (from Timeline 2), saying “u can save her”. As before, he and his team use the time machine to send a note back in time, to warn himself about the ferry bomber casing the ferry early Monday morning. Later, he demands that he be sent back in time (to Monday evening), so that he can try to save Claire. Sending back the note and himself creates Timeline 4.
  • In Timeline 4, the events proceed exactly as in Timeline 3, up to the point that Future Doug (from Timeline 3) rescues Claire and takes her back to her house, where she changes into a red dress, helps bandage him, and he leaves the note to himself on the fridge. But this time he does not leave Claire at the house; he takes her with him at 9:45 AM to the ferry, even though he doesn’t want to. He does this because he remembers seeing the blood swabs in Claire’s trash bins in Timeline 3, which look exactly like his own right now from being bandaged; he realizes that if he doesn’t do something different, or against what he wants to do, events will simply repeat as before. The terrorist goes back to Claire’s house to kill her, but she isn’t there. He then proceeds to the ferry, where Future Doug and Claire both stop him and save the day, though Doug is killed in the process. The film ends at this point: The new Present Doug comes on the scene, and he will have no crime to investigate and so will not be recruited by the surveillance team. He won’t see the clues left for him by his future self on Claire’s fridge; and he won’t need them. In saving the day, his future self finally closed the loop. All he will have to account for is a dead body — his own — when it is found. He sees Claire on the ferry and gets an odd feeling of deja vu, as if they’ve met before.

That’s how you write a good time travel story. And it raises interesting questions about the phenomenon of deja vu. When we experience it, is it because we’re “remembering” things that happened or are happening to ourselves in different time streams in different ways?

2. Primer (2004). It’s the most realistic time travel film ever made, and not surprisingly, since it was scripted by a scientist. The plot centers around two young geniuses, Aaron and Abe, who accidentally create a time machine in their garage. They can use the machine to go into the past, but only as far back as when the machine was first turned on. This is actually how a time machine would probably work if we ever succeeded in creating one. A physics professor at the University of Connecticut, Ronald Mallett, has been trying to create a device like this for years now — by using a series of circulating laser beams that swirl into a time tunnel. Walking into this tunnel would allow someone to go back in time, as long as it was to a point after the machine was switched on. So if you turned on the machine on September 1 and left it continually running to December 31, you could go back four months, but no more. That’s how the time machine works in Primer, and also how the time bath works in Timecrimes, which I covered above.

The first time Aaraon and Abe use the machine, they go back six hours (which takes six hours to do, sitting in the box of the machine), and make good money for themselves in stock trades since they know how the market will perform. That’s the easy trip to understand, shown in the first chart below. By the end of the film, things have become so complex that it’s virtually impossible to keep up with all the multiple versions of the characters intersecting multiple timelines. To understand the full picture — which may take four or five viewings — click on the larger chart below the first one.

 

 

The logistics in Primer are handled with an incredible level of precision, and even if you can never keep all the details straight, it’s an amazing viewing experience, one that I keep finding myself drawn back to.

Anything goes?

It’s worth noting that while the multiverse theory is the one increasingly embraced by scientists, for others it seems like an inelegant solution. Steven Lloyd Wilson is one such curmudgeon, expressing his dislike as follows:

“While the multiple timelines model has the appeal of being logically consistent, it has a glaring problem. It’s a brute force hammer of solving the problem, like multiplying by zero to demonstrate both sides of the equation are equal. It’s just plain inelegant. It also has the story flaw of essentially rendering time travel moot. If anything that can happen, has happened in an alternate timeline, then the actions of the characters do not matter one bit. Going back in time and killing Hitler as a baby doesn’t change anything, because there is still an original timeline in which he doesn’t die.”

I fail to see how time travel is rendered moot by the fact that there are other timelines — millions of them, probably — in which events proceed either slightly differently or very differently. This is what scientists talk about all the time, even aside from the question of time travel. And to say that the actions of the characters don’t matter is nonsense. If I can go back and save the life of a friend by creating a new reality, that obviously matters to me. I don’t care how many alternate realities there are in which my friend dies, because I’m able to experience the new reality in which he lives. The actions of the characters matter to themselves, even if they don’t matter to critics like Wilson who want the “elegance” of all time streams producing the same result (which is ridiculous). Or as Doug Carlin says in Deja Vu, “You can be wrong a million times, but you only have to be right once.”

I believe the multiple timelines model is the superior model. It’s the harder one to nail down and make dramatically effective, but when done right, the result is sublime.

C. The Repeated Loop (The Do-Over)

In the do-over, scenarios are repeated until the protagonist triggers a reset, usually by dying, going to sleep, or getting knocked unconscious. The protagonist then wakes up and repeats the scenario again, making different choices, until he or she can finally escape the loop.

For whatever reason, do-overs are often saturated with comedy. Perhaps it’s because repeating yourself over and over again is something you have to roll with and play for laughs in order to keep your wits. In Groundhog Day (1993), the Bill Murray character relives the same day over again, until he finally obtains love and happiness. In The Edge of Tomorrow (2014), Tom Cruise gets dropped on the field of battle after brutal training sessions, continually killed and reset until he destroys a monster alien. In Happy Death Day (2017), the Jessica Rothe character keeps waking up on her birthday and getting murdered later in the day, until she figures out who the killer is (her sorority roommate). In all of these examples, the tone asks us to not take the story too seriously.

My favorite examples of the do-over are one that almost no one has heard of, and another that everyone knows.

1. All the Time in the World (2017). This episode from Dark Matter (season 3, episode 4) runs the gamut with hilarious comedy, emotional poignancy, and dark tragedy. For my money, it’s the best do-over ever scripted. One of the Raza’s crew members starts living the same day over and over again, and half the battle is trying to convince his fellow crew members that they are caught in the same loop, even though he’s the only one who can remember reliving the events. They never believe him, even though he can predict every little thing each one of them is about to say and do. Finally he persuades the ship’s android to teach him French, so that when the crew hear him speak a language he’s never known or studied, they’ll start taking him seriously. There is also a serious side to this episode, as the crew are able to use his foreknowledge of the day’s events to foil an attack on the ship. And once the source of the time loop is discovered (a device confiscated from a scientist), the android tries an experiment, and in the process, she experiences a tragic future where all the crew are dead except the girl Five, who is now aged and offers dire prophecies. Five also tells the android how to break the time loop. I have made a video-clip of Three’s French tutorial and his hilarious breakthrough in persuading Two. And also the end clip — Five’s doomsday prophecy of the far future — for a complete switch in tone.

2. A Christmas Carol (1843). Dickens’ classic is a variation of the do-over. Scrooge gets to visit the future of his current timeline, and even though he can’t affect the timeline directly, he observes things which allow him to change his actions in the present. So instead of the timeline he’s on which results in Tiny Tim’s death, he’s able to make a different choice, and create a new timeline in which Tiny Tim lives. A Christmas Carol is probably the best do-over ever written, though few people think of it as a time-travel story.

D. The Universe Fights Back

This is technically a multiple timelines model, because it is possible to change the past. But doing so results in cosmic disaster. The universe resists any attempts to reorder it, and nasty shit happens when those attempts succeed. That implicitly appeals to the single timeline model: the timeline “must be protected from change” at all costs — or else.

A famous example is Stephen King’s 11/22/63, in which Jake Epping goes back to prevent JFK from being assassinated. He finds it extremely hard to do; the closer he draws to saving Kennedy, things work strangely against him. He manages to save Kennedy, but the world eventually goes to hell as it’s torn apart by world wars. It’s a fatalist view, and a lot like the single time stream model: the past is destined to stay the past; if it doesn’t, then calamity rains down. So Jake undoes his mistake and allows JFK to die after all; this gets the universe back on track.

It’s a silly idea — that the cosmos would “care” about altered events so as to “react” against them — but it produces potent drama if done right. As in this story:

Father’s Day (2005). The plot is simple, and the resolution predictable, but only in way the tragedy often is; the drama is brilliant, and the acting Oscar-worthy. Rose persuades the Doctor to take her back in time to when her father was killed by a motorist, and despite being forbidden to alter the past, she saves him anyway, ushering in Doomsday. Everywhere on earth people are suddenly assaulted by Reapers, winged parasites that act like antibodies, destroying everything in wounded time until the paradox is gone. Rose’s father, realizing he should be dead, sacrifices himself to get the world back on its proper course.

As I said, the premise is silly, and it doesn’t help that script writer Paul Cornell can’t seem to decide whether he wants his story to be a multiple timeline or single. In a scathing review of Father’s Day, Martin Izsak writes:

“People today don’t seem to appreciate how ridiculous it is to try to protect a past timeline as if it’s the only one in existence, and will let the boogeyman out of the closet if it’s messed with. You can experience as many other versions [of a person, or an event] as you can time-travel back to, and it would be nearly impossible to make all the ‘right’ choices to re-live any of them exactly as you remember them. So the Doctor, sadly, makes an ass of himself trying to defend Cornell’s model of time, and rightly gets tripped up when Rose confronts him for being hypocritical about the heroics he proudly displays in almost every other setting he lands in… I officially present Father’s Day with the Wooden Turkey Award for being the stinker of the 2005 Doctor Who season.”

I actually believe that Father’s Day holds up as one of the best Doctor Who episodes of all time, despite the accuracy of Izsak’s criticisms.

Darkness Unto Light. The Cinema of Ingmar Bergman

If you live in the Boston area, mark your calendar this fall for the Ingmar Bergman centennial tribute. Carson Lund has written up the program notes for Harvard, and I can’t imagine anyone better suited to the task. He and I ranked Bergman’s films in a blogathon six years ago. (See his list here and mine here.) The centennial will be covering all the essentials.

Darkness Unto Light. The Cinema of Ingmar Bergman (September 7 – October 14, 2018)

“Of all the iconic images that Ingmar Bergman forged in his long career, the one that sits in the public imagination most potently as a totem of his imposing, death-obsessed oeuvre is that of Bengt Ekerot’s pasty grim reaper staring down Max von Sydow’s dumbfounded knight on a stygian coastline sometime after the sputtering of the Crusades in The Seventh Seal, his arm outstretched to reveal the great black expanse of his shawl and his stark expression all but ensuring an unfortunate verdict. As a composition, it is formidable, and as an encapsulation of the confrontational directness with which Bergman’s films tackle mortality and other unpleasant human inevitabilities, it’s hard to beat. But another image from later in the same film, equally as unforgettable, manages to better distill the complex weave of contradictory feelings that his films evoke—the idea that in death and illness and madness there is also always humanity and light and memory. That, of course, would be the money shot in the film’s coda, a distant sunset view of silhouetted figures passing from one life to the next atop a hill, not trudging to their demise but dancing, hands interlocked.

“Such evocations of communal solidarity are rare in Bergman’s ruthlessly combative world, and so it’s fitting that this particular shot occurs in a liminal state beyond the narrative proper. With that said, Bergman’s characters, however wracked with doubt and despair they may be, could almost never be accused of apathy or complete surrender, and the crucibles they endure in pursuit of connection or just basic contentedness echo those of the filmmaker himself, whose six decades of cinematic production demonstrate a man fiercely contending with his demons through his art, occasionally pulling ahead and locating beauty if only to be dragged down yet again…”

Read the whole thing here.

The Spell of Cobra Kai

In the days before I discovered real cinema, I watched the Karate Kid movies as part of my high-school obsession with martial arts. Mostly I watched the Sho Kosugi ninja flicks, which were non-stop adrenaline stunts filled with high body-counts and piss-poor acting. The Karate Kid films didn’t have the former but plenty of the latter. They were family films that made you feel warm and fuzzy when underdogs triumphed against bullies in the safe arenas of tournaments. They were campy and cheesy in the extreme, had laughable dialogue, a painful top-40 soundtrack, and embarrassingly contrived scenarios. I never saw the third and fourth films in the franchise (which were apparently so bad that even the core audience heaped scorn on them), nor the 2006 remake. But when Cobra Kai was announced last week as a worthy successor to the first two Karate Kid movies — it has a 100% approval on Rotten Tomatoes — I had to see for myself what the fuss was.

I will say this for Cobra Kai. If it’s still the same Karate-Kid animal, it shakes things up enough to make it a watchable and in some ways even impressive miniseries. The Karate Kid I & II have aged terribly, even aside from the cheesy elements I mentioned. As ’80s underdog films they were facilely one dimensional. The bad guys were ciphers with no backstories — Johnny Lawrence and his Cobra Kai gang completely unsympathetic jerks. The good guy was an endearing character, but he didn’t work very well as a karate protagonist. For one thing, Daniel LaRusso was a supreme light-weight, clocking in at about 120 pounds. His indentured servitude to Mr. Miyagi — waxing cars, sanding floors, and painting fences — was impossible to take seriously a way of learning karate techniques. (There is an amusing swipe at this in Cobra Kai, where Johnny uses Miguel as his own slave, having him wash the windows, mop the floors, and clean the toilets of the Cobra Kai dojo. When Miguel asks if there’s any particular way he should be doing these tasks, Johnny says it doesn’t matter.) As for Daniel’s crane kick, it was the sort of last-minute melodrama that won the day in other sports films of this era (like the quarterback sacking of Sean Astin’s character in Rudy, or the final hoop shot in Hoosiers). The Karate Kid was essentially a poster child for the Reagan years, optimistic about the underdog’s potential to “be all you can be”, really to the point of absurdity. Cobra Kai inverts this premise, so that the underdogs become the assholes — and the previous underdog becomes an even bigger asshole. That’s at least a story.

By making Johnny Lawrence the inverted underdog, and a surprisingly likeable one, the writers of Cobra Kai have brought the franchise into a post Game of Thrones era. And by making Daniel LaRusso the bigger asshole — a Miyagi wannabe undermined by hypocrisy and self-righteousness — they’ve taken the original hero in an unexpected direction. Part of it is the social class reversal. Daniel grew up dirt poor but has done well for himself as a wealthy car dealer who can treat his family to country club outings. Johnny, for his part, has fallen out with his rich stepfather and lives hand to mouth in the shitty neighborhood of Reseda where Daniel used to live. This reversal alone pays dividends.

But aside from even that, Daniel is astonishingly judgmental. He condescends to Johnny, kicks him when he’s down, tries to ban Cobra Kai from participating in the local tournament, and launches a pathetic crusade to shut down the dojo. He does this by manipulating a business associate into doubling the rent in the strip mall where the new Cobra Kai has just opened, which shafts not only Johnny but all the other mall renters. This is a supremely asshole move, and Daniel’s wife calls him on it. But I was frankly put off by the entire LaRusso clan. Daniel’s wife sounds like she’s always talking down to people, his cousin is a useless twit, and his daughter a priss. The LaRusso home gives off a superficial Miyagi vibe, and at work Daniel has turned some of the best things Mr. Miyagi taught him into cheap gimmicks — karate chops in car commercials, and the bonsai trees he gives away free to car buyers. Daniel does revere his deceased mentor, but has little to show that he actually understands the “balance” that he lectures others (his daughter, Robby) to strive for.

It’s the Cobra Kai losers who sell the series. As actors they have the better performances, and as characters the better balance. Yes, they learn the merciless version of karate that teaches beating the shit out of people — even fighting dirty when necessary — but that is tempered by their empathy as victims who have taken their own heaps of nasty abuse. Aisha is particularly well scripted, driven to take karate after being cruelly bullied by classmates over her weight. Johnny at first refuses her, on the politically incorrect wisdom that “no girls are allowed at Cobra Kai”, until Aisha proves her potential by slamming his best student on his ass and almost breaking his ribs (mostly on the strength of her fat-ass weight for which she has been relentlessly teased). She soon becomes one of the best Cobra Kai students, and certainly one of the series’ best characters.

The very best however is Miguel. He’s what Daniel LaRusso should have first looked like, but of course that would have never happened in an ’80s film. Instead of finding a sage-like Mr. Miyagi to rescue him from his bullies, Miguel comes under the punishing tutelage of Johnny, and they play off each other wonderfully. As far as I’m concerned, Johnny is the true hero of Cobra Kai, in thrall to a harsh version of karate but unwilling to sink to the depths Kreese did. He has a vulnerable side, so he’s not just an asshole. His upbringing was less than kind, and his son Robby wants nothing to do with him. He’s politically incorrect (and, amusingly, a stone-age Luddite who doesn’t know what “a Facebook” is), showing hints of racism, sexism, and homophobia, while proving that in practice he’s really none of these things — as long as his students keep up. (He reminds me of Full Metal Jacket‘s Sergeant Hartmann: “I am hard, you will not like me. But I am fair. There is no racial bigotry here. I do not look down on niggers, kikes, wops, or greasers. Here you are all equally worthless.”) Miguel takes his sensei’s flaws in stride, and Johnny comes to think of him as a son.

As for Johnny’s actual son, Robby, he’s the new Daniel, but again an inverted one, a troublemaker instead of a bullied victim. He’s a delinquent who steals for a living, and despises his father so much that he applies for a job at Daniel’s car dealership just to piss Johnny off. He gets the job, and rather predictably, he soon becomes Daniel’s reformed karate student. This happens by a very contrived chain of events, and is the weaker narrative arc of Cobra Kai. Daniel basically takes Robby on as a way to atone for his sanctimony throughout the first six episodes, and in short order he’s having Robby “wax on, wax off” every car in the lot (that shit is no more convincing as a way to teach karate today than it was in the ’80s), and then taking him on field trips out in the wilderness to practice dramatic kicks while balancing on perilously thin tree limbs.

Everything builds to the tournament finale and solid payoff. It’s better than the Karate Kid competition for a number of reasons, mostly because of the inversions which make viewers unsure of their allegiances. The Cobra Kais fight dirty, but they are still sympathetic, and frankly they were the ones I was rooting for, even over Robby. When Daniel and Johnny faced off in the ’80s, it was cookie-cutter good vs. evil. With Miguel and Robby in the final round, there’s no such duality this time. Each is an asshole; each is likeable. And I have to give the writers credit for having Miguel take the trophy, which I didn’t expect at all. Surely Daniel’s protege would win, as Daniel always did in the films? But no: Miguel kicks the shit out of him, and in a very Cobra Kai fashion — by taking full advantage of Robby’s shoulder injury, hitting him in his wounds repeatedly with “no mercy”. A sleazy move, and yet somehow Miguel (unlike the ’80s Johnny) doesn’t come across as despicable for it.

The epilogue scores for continuing to portray Daniel in a less than flattering light. On the drive home from the tournament, Robby remarks that with Miguel’s victory Cobra Kai is now back on the map and will soon take over the region. Daniel retorts, “Over my dead body,” and then takes a detour to what looks like an abandoned home. He leads Robby inside, throws on the lights… and Mr. Miyagi’s old home is unveiled, for the purpose, as Daniel explains it, of training more students in order to combat the rise of Cobra Kai. As soon as Daniel said “over my dead body”, I saw the Prince of Sanctimony again; and with the foreshadowing of what will surely be a Miyagi dojo in season 2, it’s obvious that Daniel is gearing up with more self-righteous measures against Johnny. And as if Johnny doesn’t have enough to worry about from that corner, the biggest surprise of all comes in the final frame: the return of John Kreese, who has all along been presumed dead. He strolls into Johnny’s dojo, congratulates him on his victory, and tells him they have “much to do” now that Cobra Kai is back. That sounds like a hostile takeover, and Johnny looks appalled; he’s been fighting Kreese’s ghost for years. Trapped between Daniel and the Devil, he has ugly challenges ahead of him, and season 2 has a lot to deliver on.

I don’t want to oversell Cobra Kai. It’s really the same thing as before: a campy family drama with a godawful soundtrack and situations that make you roll your eyes and smirk. But if you were invested in Karate Kid I & II in your coming of age years, and now find them embarrassingly unwatchable, you may just find yourself falling under Cobra Kai‘s hideous spell.