Great Performances from Kids

It’s hard for kids to act naturally, but some are truly born for it. These are my ten acting picks from young actors, by which “young” means the actor was no older than 14 when playing the role. So for example, one performance that didn’t qualify is Ellen Page as the 14-year old Hayley Stark in Hard Candy, since Ellen was actually 17 (believe it or not) and thus had more resources to draw on than a younger actor. (Ellen does make the cut for another role.) Natalie Portman takes the top slot in a slam dunk.

Mathilda (Click for video)

1. Natalie Portman (12), as Mathilda in Leon the Professional (1994). If Natalie Portman killed her image in the Star Wars prequels, she made up for it a thousand times before in Leon. I’m glad I missed the film when it first came out, because the American version wrecked it by removing 25 minutes that are the whole point of the love story. Alas, Americans aren’t equipped to handle that sort of thing between a 12-year old girl and a man in his 40s. The international version of the film is an uncensored masterpiece. Portman plays a girl whose parents, older sister, and 4-year old brother get gunned down by corrupt DEA agents, and so she hooks up with a hitman in her distress. She gets an instant crush on him and he doesn’t quite 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. Mathilda is Portman’s best performance (which is saying something, given Black Swan) and I’m in awe of the emotional range she summons here. She’s vulnerable and tender, sensuous, moved by inner furies, and none of it ever goes over the top. You believe her in every frame.

The kids of Stranger Things (Click for video)

2. Finn Wolfhard (12), Caleb McLaughlin (14), Gaten Matarazzo (13), and Millie Bobby Brown (12), as Mike, Lucas, Dustin, and Eleven in Stranger Things (2016). All four of these kids come in at a close #2. They’re incredibly natural actors and the boys represent my ’80s childhood — the hours-long D&D campaigns being the obvious point of contact. It’s almost impossible to say whose performance is the best as they complement each other with personas just as striking. Mike is the group leader, the most sensitive, and the soul of Stranger Things; Lucas the pragmatic skeptic; Dustin a non-stop riot ruled by his appetites. The chemistry between them is extraordinary to watch. Their most iconic scene is probably their prepubescent horror at Eleven when she starts to take off her clothes in front of them. Mike handles himself with the decorum fitting his leadership role, but the reactions of Lucas and Dustin are gut-busting hilarious. (Lucas: “She tried to get naked!” Dustin: indignantly mimics her taking off her dress.) Eleven herself is no less brilliant, and she conveys far more in her silences than most gifted actors do speaking. Simply put, there has never been a group of kids who set the screen on fire like the quartet of Stranger Things.

Mattie (Click for video)

3. Hailee Steinfeld (13), as Mattie in True Grit (2010). The role of Mattie Ross, like Mathilda in Leon, depends on just the right casting that makes or breaks a film. Which is ironic considering the two characters are so opposite. Mattie is completely unsexualized and humorless, living by a stern Presbyterian ethic which allows her to hold her ground in the face of adults who are otherwise inclined to dismiss her. Young characters who bark orders at adults are usually a fail in cinema, and scenes like Mattie running roughshod over a colonel in a horse-trading transaction by rights shouldn’t work. And yet they astonishingly do; at no point is Mattie anything less than 100% believable. When she and Rooster go off into Indian territory to hunt down the bad guy, the result is one of the best sidekick-adult relationships in movie history. Think how awful Short Round was in Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom. He gave youthful side-kicks a silly reputation. Steinfeld proved that kids can hold their own as the right-hands of heroes on missions of dirty work.

Danny (Click for video)

4. Danny Lloyd (6), as Danny in The Shining (1980). The youngest entry on my list places high. Lloyd was perfect in this horror classic, able to focus beyond what most six-year olds are capable of. Jack Nicholson may be the star of The Shining, and obviously very good, but he did go over the top; I always thought Danny Lloyd and Shelley Duvall were the true stars for the way they acted (reacted) to their maniacal father/husband, but especially Lloyd. Duvall gave an emotional performance that wiped her out; Lloyd portrayed the inner terror of a child so convincingly and under Kubrick’s careful guidance didn’t for a moment overact as kids this young inevitably do. It’s interesting that Lloyd was apparently not aware he was acting in a horror film — told by Kubrick that this was a “family drama” — which I find rather hard to believe given some of his lines and action sequences. Like when he’s being chased by the ax-wielding Jack, or when he conveys how terrified he is to his imaginary friend Tony, or when he’s shaken by his crying mother who wonders why he’s battered and bruised.

Jake and Tony (Click for video)

5. Theo Taplitz (13) and Michael Barbieri (13), as Jake and Tony in Little Men (2016). I have strong attachment to these boys, because I watched Little Men the day after the election (Nov 9), when I was feeling suicidal over Donald Trump’s victory. This was just the movie I needed to see — a film that celebrates difference despite the avalanche of parental roadblocks. Taplitz plays the shy Jake, Barbieri the uninhibited Tony; Jake is Caucasian and middle-class, Tony is Chilean and poor. The boys are allowed to play their roles with simple and understated tones that makes you feel you’re watching the everyday lives of real people. Their friendship grows the more their parents become enemies — they go so far as to boycott their parents by refusing to speak to them — but in the end, Tony and his mother are evicted for not being able to keep up with rising rents. I cried with Jake at the end; after election day this film was a serious trigger for me in light of Trump’s screeds against Hispanic people.

Iris (Click for video)

6. Jodie Foster (12), as Iris in Taxi Driver (1976). It’s funny how Foster has played against the very best and been terrified for her efforts. In Silence of the Lambs she never spoke to Anthony Hopkins off-camera (until the last day of shooting) because he scared her so badly in his Hannibal Lecter role. And that was when she was an adult. As a kid in Taxi Driver she was intimidated by Robert DeNiro — as she tells it today, he was “even quieter and more strange” back then — but I suspect it’s precisely this sort of thing that has always summoned the best out of Jodie Foster. After all, her roles as Iris and Clarice Starling are her best, and she deserves extra accolades for Iris given that she was only twelve. Both her real and in-character attempts to act and appear older as befitting a prostitute underscore all the more that she’s a child.

Maggie (Click for video)

7. Ellen Page (11), as Maggie in Pit Pony (1999). Here’s a family-friendly entry, just to prove I have a soft spot: Ellen Page’s first role on Canadian TV. I wish I’d grown up on Pit Pony instead of Little House on the Prairie, which was made insufferable by the self-righteous figure of Michael Landon’s Pa. The parental figures in Pit Pony are fallible and likeable. The locale is better too, set in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, in the time before unions (1901) when men and boys — and ponies — had a rather nasty time working in the coal mines. Ellen Page is the hidden gem, playing the younger sister of the boy who does more than his share in the mines. It’s amazing to watch her before she became famous as the castrating psychopath of Hard Candy and the pregnant teen of Juno. In this series she’s positively endearing — and even more tiny, as if possible — and I chose a clip from the episode where she runs away from her aunt and comes home to find that things have changed, which she doesn’t handle well.

Jack (Click for video)

8. Jacob Tremblay (7), as Jack in Room (2015). Like Danny Lloyd (#4), Tremblay played a five-year old confined in a horrible place, though I think I’d take the 400-plus room haunted hotel over a one-room tool shed. Tremblay had a tall order in Room. He had to convey a belief that the entire universe consisted of a single room that he never left, and then, in the second half, a child’s reaction to the real world never seen before and zillions of people living in it besides his mother. He nailed it; when Jack sees the sky for the first time, Tremblay looks genuinely poleaxed. Even more convincing and disturbing is the deeper sense he conveys at having been deprived of life’s necessities for the first five years of his life, he doesn’t want them when they finally come. They’re just too overwhelming for him — living in a big house with toys and a backyard — and it’s heartbreaking when he asks his mother if they can go back to live in “Room”.

Regan (Click for video)

9. Linda Blair (13), as Regan in The Exorcist (1973). It’s easy to overlook this one, but Linda Blair did a lot of Regan’s scenes. Her stunt double (Eileen Deitz) only stepped in at a few points. Even the crucifixion masturbation scene was done mostly by Blair. And she did, after all, win a Golden Globe, a People’s Choice Award, and an Oscar nomination. So even if most of her performance comes filtered through the mask of demonic makeup in the latter half, she deserves high praise. And some of her early scenes are frankly as disturbing without the demon involved, as notably when she is strapped down in the hospital getting an arteriogram. Friedkin used real doctors to get the arteriogram procedure exactly right, and it’s just as painful for real-life patients as it looks for Linda Blair. It requires the patient to be conscious. And doctors have actually used that footage to train radiologists who will perform arteriograms, because the procedure — and Linda Blair’s tormented reaction — are so accurately depicted.

Alexander (Click for video)

10. Bertil Guve (10), as Alexander in Fanny and Alexander (1982). I have difficulty assessing performances in foreign films, because when I don’t know the language I’m often clueless as to whether or not the actor is using poor inflection or overacting. But I’ll say this about Bertil Guve: he was obviously a natural. Bergman chose him because he “acted with his eyes”, and I never needed to understand Swedish to see that. And any boy who can act the Ishmael scene is top notch. It’s the pivotal scene where the androgynous figure physically caresses Alexander, encloses the boy in his arms, and together they will the death of Alexander’s abusive stepfather. Speaking of which, the scene in which Alexander defies him and gets beaten for it is also a stand-out, for his non-verbal cues as much as verbal. Because the film is ultimately about what Alexander perceives is happening, it depends on Guve being able to make us believe in the magic — that ghosts and such really exist. That’s what he does, and it’s a first-rate performance.

The X-Men Films Ranked: All 10 of Them

Seventeen years ago saw the dawn of a millennium and a reboot of the superhero genre. Many consider the first X-Men film the most important superhero film ever made, and everyone is saying that Logan is the best in the franchise. I agree with both assessments. Here’s how I rank the franchise.

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1. Logan, James Mangold. 2017. 5 stars. This is one of two superhero films I award a 5-star rating, the other being The Dark Knight. Which is obviously a way of saying that I’m not the biggest superhero fan, because these are “anti-superhero” films for adults. (Deadpool also falls into this realm of adult cinema but in a satirical way: a potty-mouthed anti-hero attracts pretty much the usual audience of nerdy guys.) The year is 2029, and Logan is now trying to live a normal life in Mexico as a limo driver while taking care of Charles Xavier. Then a young girl shows up brandishing adamantium claws, evidently created to be a soldier like he was. She’s being hunted and Logan naturally wants no part of her until his heart wins out. (Heavy shades of Leon the Professional here.) The two of them proceed to slice and dice the baddies on a level of ultra-violence which has never been seen before in a superhero film. Logan is an undeniable masterpiece that fuses a trilogy of genres — superhero, western, and post-apocalyptic — much in the same indie vein as The Wolverine (also directed by Mangold), but three times as good, and the perfect farewell to this iconic X-Men character.

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2. X-Men: Days of Future Past, Bryan Singer. 2014. 4 ½ stars. It’s difficult choosing between this one and United for the second and third slots. As a film United is more polished and objectively better. But I go with Days of Future Past for the emotional power and high stakes. From the start, the X-Men series has been pointing to an all-out war between mutants and humanity, and we finally get that. The time travel plot is handled well and without cheap resets, and so we have our cake and eat it as X-Men die but live to fight another day. The time warping also bridges the cast of the first three films with their younger versions from the First Class prequel. Things are so dire that Magneto teams up with Xavier, but as in the second film it’s a fragile alliance. The Catch-22’s are exploited for maximum effect: Magneto was right all along that humanity would eventually commit genocide on the mutants; but that’s only because of his own aggressive policies, which caused Mystique to set the genocidal plan in motion; Xavier is paralyzed in both the past and present, ashamed that Magneto was right, ineffectual to do much about it, even as he clings to an altruistic morality. I remain annoyed, however, that we never find out how Xavier came back to life after being killed by Jean Grey in The Last Stand.

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3. X-Men: United, Bryan Singer. 2003. 4 ½ stars. It was overshadowed by The Return of the King, but in that year X-Men: United emerged as the best superhero film ever made. It was The Dark Knight of its day. It took the dark themes of the first X-Men film and expanded the scope with confidence. Xavier and Magneto join forces to stop a military colonel intent on wiping out all mutants from the planet, though of course Magneto has his own counter-agenda to reverse the colonel’s purpose and wipe out all human beings instead. The White House assassination attempt is still one of the best opening sequences of any superhero film, and an adrenaline-rush no matter how many times you see it. Magneto’s escape from his plastic prison (above image) is pure genius, as he sucks the iron out the guard’s bursting skin, and fashions it into levitating plates and bullets. Jean Grey’s death is a noble sacrifice, and the final act in the Oval Office may well be my favorite conclusion to a superhero film, as Xavier, backed by his fellow mutants, schools the president on accepting others in a civilized nation.

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4. X-Men: First Class, Matthew Vaughn. 2011. 4 ½ stars. Many consider this the best X-Men film, and I can understand why. It’s superbly acted and exploits the historical event of the Cuban missile crisis to nail-biting effect. The missing ingredient is the dark brooding feel which is the point of the X-Men franchise. Matthew Vaughn was having a blast at the expense of Singer’s subversive tone. Critic Darren Finch has noted that First Class comes off as a “dude movie” against its own grain. Mystique has to choose between two handsome men — the young swaggering versions of Xavier and Magneto — and she’s now played by Jennifer Lawrence, who looks like a classic all-American blonde. Singer portrayed unambiguously weird kids, but with Vaughn they come off as “cool kids with problems”. First Class is a great film but it’s not very good at being an X-Men film. What it misses in mood, it more than makes up for in emotional power. We see Charles and Erik in the days of their friendship, and that Erik is the one who crippled Charles; and how Mystique began with Charles and grew up for many years with him before joining Erik.

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5. The Wolverine, James Mangold. 2013. 4 stars. This is how you focus on a single X-Men character. Not by going back to his origins, but by moving forward to another level. The Wolverine feels less like a superhero film and more like indie martial arts. If you like dark films suffused with existential turmoil (as I do) and if you love honor dramas set in Japan which are upended by an intruding western “barbarian” (as I do), then chances are this one will work for you. Logan has left the X-Men and rejected his Wolverine identity after being forced to kill Jean Grey (the Phoenix) in The Last Stand. It turns out he also has baggage from being a POW in Nagasaki when the bombs dropped. He’s not up against the high-stakes threats of political bigotry or rogue mutants. Now he’s in exile embroiled in a family feud. Ultimately this film is about death — Logan wanting to die to escape his guilt, his Japanese “friend” wanting to conquer death but at Logan’s expense, Jean Grey speaking from the grave in his nightmares. I’m not surprised that Mangold returned to focus on Wolverine again in Logan, which is hailed by everyone and their mother as the best film in the franchise.

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6. Deadpool, Tim Miller. 2016. 4 stars. Immensely entertaining, yes, but it needs saying that Deadpool isn’t quite as anarchistic as it thinks it is. Super is a more transgressive and better film that remains woefully underrated. Nonetheless, this standalone X-Men piece is very good. The hero-villain we cheer is a potty-mouthed contract killer whose black-market treatment for cancer has made him into a super-powered mutant. He’s hunting the guy responsible for his facial ruin, and he has graphic flashbacks to a failed relationship with a prostitute. You would think that ceaseless swearing and redundant violence would soon wear out its welcome, but Deadpool remains enjoyable from start to finish. For an adolescent fantasy about torture and sick revenge, that turns out to be precisely its strength — a purposeful shallowness that would be diminished by any toned down supplements. The character made his first appearance in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, but as I say in that entry below, you should avoid seeing that film at all costs. This film works perfectly fine on its own.

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7. X-Men: The Last Stand, Brett Ratner. 2006. 3 ½ stars. For reasons that escape me, this one gets a lot of hate, and some lists rank it below even Wolverine’s Origins. That’s just wrong. It’s true that Ratner is a commercial director given to flash and dazzle and lame dialogue, and when he gets things right it’s more by accident. But the fact is that The Last Stand does do a lot of things right — things I wish more superhero films would have the balls to do. The glaring one is the point that pissed off so many fans: the death of Professor Xavier. Ratner killed off the most important character of the franchise, as well as Cyclops, both in the first half of the story. Frankly, I think the entire Jean Grey/Phoenix story arc pays off wonderfully. The tender Jean has returned to life as a hideous killer, and it’s downright tragic when she begs Logan to kill her in the end. I also like the film’s premise involving a medical cure which some mutants want and others are naturally offended by. Rogue for example chooses the cure for understandable reasons (she can’t even kiss a boyfriend without harming him), while Mystique becomes human against her will, and is shockingly rejected by Magneto whom she saved. There’s good payoff all around in the character arcs, even if the central plot is hollow.

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8. X-Men, Bryan Singer. 2000. 3 stars. It’s difficult to rank the first X-Men film objectively. On the one hand, I consider it the most important superhero film ever made. It rebooted the genre and saved it from probable extinction. Batman & Robin made people embarrassed to express any interest in superheroes, but even aside from the ’90s travesties, most comic-book films that predate 2000 look lame and horribly dated. Bryan Singer found a way to connect with nerdy material in a serious way, offering darker and morally complex heroes, and playing up to social commentary (civil and gay rights) without being preachy. X-Men marked a huge step forward. But in retrospect it’s just not a hugely impressive film. It was finding its way as the first of its kind; the budget was modest; the action scenes show their age; green-screen backgrounds are a bit obvious (this was 2000, but still a year before the Lord of the Rings revolution); the plot not terribly ambitious. If I were grading this in the year 2000, I’d give it 4 stars unreservedly, but today it’s competing with too much advancement in the genre. It’s still decent and enjoyable, but feels like an extended prologue to the rest of the franchise.

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9. X-Men: Apocalypse, Bryan Singer. 2016. 2 ½ stars. There’s no polite way of saying for all its ambition and great ideas, X-Men: Apocalypse is an artificial bloated mess. It’s too many stories crammed into an overarching plot that doesn’t feel anchored in any conviction. And it’s too bad, because this really could have been as good as Days of Future Past. The scale is just as huge and the stakes as high. The lead villain is the world’s first mutant, En Sabah Nur, ruler of ancient Egypt who was sealed in his pyramid tomb and has now risen in 1983 to ravage the planet and rule in a new age of mutants. To do so, he has rounded up his Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, one of whom (as we’d expect) is Magneto, the others being Storm (whom I certainly did not expect), Archangel, and Psylocke. A solid premise, but it’s just window-dressing for a mess that takes its first hour to set up loads of new characters who are never used well. Sophie Turner as the young Jean Grey, for example, is a brilliant casting choice but her moment of truth in the end doesn’t pay off well because of the story’s deficiencies. I give Apocalypse A for its ideas and ambition, a D for the results, which lands the 2 ½ star rating.

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10. X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Gavin Hood. 2009. 1 star. Most everyone agrees this is the worst X-Men film, and some even say it’s the worst superhero film ever made. I’m not confident that it’s worse than Superman III and Batman & Robin, but you get the point: it’s really, really bad. The script is atrocious, the direction worse than amateur, and the acting so dreadful… it’s as if Gavin Hood was trying to make the worst film conceivable. The idea of exploring a single mutant’s origins was a good one but went to waste. This is a film I would urge not seeing under any circumstances, even if you’re a die-hard X-Men fan. Not only because it makes you laugh (or cry) at every ridiculous thing that happens next, but for the continuity problems it creates: it’s supposed to lead up to the events of the first X-Men movie, and while it lamely explains why Wolverine won’t remember any of the X-Men when he meets them “for the first time”, it certainly doesn’t explain why they won’t remember him.

The Critics

These are the rankings by Rotten Tomatoes scores. They coincide pretty closely with my rankings.

1. Logan: 92%
2. X-Men: Days of Future Past: 91%
3. X-Men: United: 86%
4. X-Men: First Class: 86%
5. Deadpool: 84%
6. X-Men: 81%
7. The Wolverine: 69%
8. X-Men: The Last Stand: 58%
9. X-Men: Apocalypse: 48%
10. X-Men Origins: Wolverine: 38%

Viewing Order

This is the best viewing order of the franchise (ignoring Wolverine Origins which shouldn’t be seen at all, and Deadpool which is self-standing):

The first series:

X-Men (2000)
X-Men: United (2003)
X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
The Wolverine (2013)

The “prequel” series:

X-Men: First Class (2011)
X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)
Logan (2017)

Cinematic Milestones: From Childhood to the Present

This is a personal chronicle of films that had the strongest impact on me, going back to my early childhood. It’s not necessarily a list of “favorite” films, though most of them obviously are. It’s more a reflection of what changed me — my approach to film and sometimes even life itself.

Childhood/Teen Years (Age 8-17)

I saw my first three films when I was eight: Across the Great Divide (1977), a family western about two orphans trying to get to Oregon in 1876 with the help of a shady gambler; The Rescuers (1977) a Disney animation about which I forget almost everything except for Evinrude the dragonfly, who transported people by pushing them in river-boats to the point of exhaustion (my family and I got endless mileage out of Evinrude); and then Star Wars: A New Hope (1977), which blew everyone’s mind it seems except mine. These were my cinematic foundations — narratives of adventure, hope, and the triumph of good will — and I would see many more like them in my years growing up. But they were never my thing. I was drawn to darker and tragic material from a very early point.

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1. The Exorcist, in 1979. I saw this unspeakable movie on TV, and it devastated my 11-year-old psyche. Groomed on family films like Across the Great Divide, I was beyond unprepared for the most terrifying movie of all time — even the censored version for TV is the scariest thing you could ask for — and it’s a good thing I was staying over my best friend’s house that night. There’s no way I could have slept alone in a room right after watching The Exorcist, and I remember waking up and walking down the stairs in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, and then walking back up — it was the hardest thing I’d ever had to do in life up to that point. 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. Just thinking of The Exorcist upset me. Movies weren’t supposed to violate you like this. For the first time I felt the real power a film could have on its viewer (with a vengeance), and while it would eventually become my favorite film of all time, it left psychological scars that I carry to this day.

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2. Conan the Barbarian, in 1982. The film that made me fall in love with film was my first R-rated theatrical outing, and it did a number on my 13 year-old sensibilities. Between scenes of graphic sex — especially Conan’s coupling with a vampire who goes rabid on him at the moment of orgasm — and a deluge of blood and gore, I was for the first time immersed in the world of cinematic adulthood. (Not counting The Exorcist, which I was still trying to suppress memory of.) But Conan also felt like a real-life Dungeons and Dragons game come to life. This was high adventure in which thieves robbed the temples of evil priests, rescued their victims, battled giant snakes, and stumbled on forgotten swords held in the clutches of cobwebbed skeletons. I was seeing the hobby that defined my life, come to life. The score showed me how important music is in film. Thundering brass and Latin chants roll over grim battle sequences, while variations of the main theme play at just the right moments; and the waltz for the orgy scene fits perfectly over the sex and cannibalism. 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, and it holds up incredibly well today unlike other ’80s fantasies.

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3. Revenge of the Ninja, in 1983. Laugh it up. Yes, the ninja flicks of the ’80s haven’t aged well, and many of them were pretty bad to begin with. But Revenge of the Ninja was the godfather of ninja films, and despite the cheesy elements (which my 14-year old self was blind to), I would sooner watch it today than any of the Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Superman, and Jaws movies that were cherished back in the day. Not only are the martial-arts fight sequences amazing by ’80s standards, they are worked into a powerful story of redemption. Sho Kosugi plays a warrior who has come to America and given up fighting, but takes it up again of necessity when his mother is killed and his son’s life threatened. The street fight/road chase, and final duel between the two ninjas on top of the skyscraper — using every martial arts stunt in the book — blew my mind and set the bar for what I looked for in fights and showdowns. Not until the martial arts battle in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill would these scenes be surpassed. Revenge of the Ninja was a milestone for its non-stop action which never fatigues, and that’s no mean feat in a genre like this. When I bought the VHS a year later I got more re-watch out of it than any other film.

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4. The Shining, in 1984. The reason I could survive The Exorcist and stay sane was my love for all things scary — Halloween dress-up, Edgar Allen Poe, and TV movies like This House Possessed. When I saw The Shining, my psyche was again put to the test. I was too young to critically analyze what made Kubrick’s film an effective piece of terror. On some level I took in the one-point perspectives gliding the viewer through hotel halls, around hedge-maze paths, and over mountain roads; Jack Nicholson’s ferocious performances, Shelly Duvall’s hysterical ones, and Danny Lloyd’s incredibly believable reactions as a child; the nihilistic tone that (unlike Stephen King’s novel) didn’t let me tell myself things would turn out okay. My heart stopped at many points: Danny’s vision of the hacked-up girls in the hallway, the look on Wendy’s face when she discovers Jack has been typing the same sentence over and over for weeks, and — especially this one — Jack’s face in the hotel painting at the end. That last frame is far more scary than King’s explosive climax. The film leaves no doubt that the “Caretaker” Jack Torrence lives on as the Overlook does. The Shining spoiled me (The Exorcist went beyond that; it broke me), and since then I’ve waited years for another film to come along and affect me on that level. In vain.

Early Adulthood (Age 18-30)

When I entered college in the fall of ’87, I thought that films like Scarface, The Terminator, and The Fly were top of the line. How naive. There was a whole world of film I would soon be exposed to, not least classics from the ’70s Golden Age, like The Godfather, Chinatown, and Taxi Driver. But it was the following six that were my epiphanies in my early adulthood years.

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5. Blue Velvet, in 1987. I didn’t see this on big screen, but even on VCR Blue Velvet was nothing less than a conversion experience. Until this point I watched movies mostly to be thrilled. Now I saw that I could be thrilled, stimulated, provoked, distressed, and awed on multiple levels. It was the critical controversy that drew me into it. Roger Ebert’s nasty review is still talked about today and contrasted with other critics proclaiming it one of the best films of all time. My best friend was firmly on Ebert’s side, so we experienced the joy of controversy in our own disagreements. I started to understand what critical analysis was, and the power of the independent film. Blue Velvet assaulted me with sadism, sadomasochism, and full-blown lunacy, but around all the depravity is worked a stunning beauty, and like all of David Lynch’s films (as I would later discover) made me feel like I was inside a dream. It’s not even my favorite Lynch film (Fire Walk With Me and Mulholland Drive are the superior masterpieces), but it’s the one that most impacted me, and of all the milestones on this list it’s one of the most important. It showed me film’s almost limitless potential.

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6. Pulp Fiction, in 1994. When I returned from Peace Corps service in Africa, I was starving to catch up on all the great cinema I’d missed since November ’91 — Unforgiven, Fire Walk With Me, Last of the Mohicans, to name a few gems. Then came this landmine no one expected, which my friend and I saw on a whim. I laughed so hard in the theater that day I was choking, hardly able to believe what Pulp Fiction‘s characters were saying and doing. Hilarious bickering sessions accompanied acts of overblown violence, scenes that were instant classics — the pounding of the adrenaline needle into Mia’s heart (image above); Vince accidentally blowing Marvin’s brains out in the car, which he and Jules proceed to argue about as if they’d just been inconvenienced by spilling milk; and the infamous Ezekiel 25:17 killing. Pulp Fiction taught me many things: that absurdist theater works in the hands of a good director; that non-linear storytelling can be a great technique; that anything can be funny (even rape) if handled right; and above all, that writer-directors like Tarantino have an easier time pushing envelopes and upping the ante without going off the cliff. Tarantino has done even better since Pulp Fiction, but this is his film that educated me and then some.

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7. Seven, in 1995. Sue me for heresy, but I believe that Silence of the Lambs is overrated. (Especially compared to brilliant TV series Hannibal.) Seven is the serial-killer masterpiece which continues to impress me at the level it did at age twenty-seven. I felt like the film was written for me, as it fed my fascination with the seven deadly sins and the contrapasso punishments of Dante’s Inferno. What elevates Fincher’s film above greatness to masterpiece is the way John Doe wins in the end — “the box” has become an icon of our collective mindset like “Rosebud”. And even if the comparison seems absurd, Seven is pretty much perfect like 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 (I say 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. Casino, in 1995. Here’s another heresy on my part: Casino is superior to Goodfellas. It’s more epic in the characters’ rise and fall. As critic Natasha Varga-Cooper puts it: “In GoodFellas, the hoods, even with all their cheerful sociopathy, get progressively smaller and pettier as the movie progresses. It is, after all, about the grind of small timers. Casino, on the other hand, elevates Scorsese’s favorite themes — greed, hubris, the primal lure of violence — above the street corner and into the inner working’s of America’s Sodom.” When I saw Casino I was swept up in this dark vision of Las Vegas and people driving themselves to disaster. Sharon Stone’s portrayal of a hustler given to raging alcoholic tantrums is underrated, and Joe Pesci’s psychotic mob enforcer, though a repeat from Goodfellas, is less comical and more terrifying for it. The Godfather made gangsters sympathetic, and Goodfellas showed them despicable; Casino does both in depicting the tragedy of a man who had the keys to the kingdom but couldn’t hold them. It used the mob world to speak to our fallen state, and for the first time ever I felt like a true insider to that world — that I shared more in common with these thugs and pathetic people than I cared to admit.

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9. Rope, in 1997. This was the year I went on a Hitchcock craze. Vertigo is easily his most cinematic effort, his ultimate masterpiece, and certainly my favorite. Rope, however, left a deeper imprint. Some have called it a dark mirror to Rear Window, which also features Jimmy Stewart in a city apartment, but instead of being a spying outsider, he’s an insider to the crime scene. For me it’s the reason I fell in love with bottle dramas. It’s set in real time and uses incredibly long (10 minute) camera takes, and milks all its tension from the hideous secret lying in the chest on which dinner is being served. Two college students have killed a classmate for the sheer thrill of it, and are hosting a party to celebrate their act while the corpse lies hidden under everyone’s noses. We feel its crushing presence every moment, especially when conversations turn morbid, and Brandon and Rupert espouse theories of intellectual superiority and the killing of stupid people, to the astonishment of the other guests. Rope is based on the Leopold and Loeb case of 1924, and it was ballsy of Hitchcock to portray a gay couple as lead characters in the ’40s, and make one of them sympathetic to boot. Jimmy Stewart’s final thundering indictment comes as nighttime descends, neon lights flash in from the outside, and makes me want to punch the air every time.

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10. Eyes Wide Shut, in 1999. Kubrick’s final work proved to me that a snails-paced film could carry excitement in every frame, and it completed the process started by Blue Velvet twelve years before in turning me from a casual moviegoer into a cinephile. I can’t stress enough how it effected me and made me query my deepest, wildest desires. If David Lynch made me feel like I was inside a dream, Eyes Wide Shut accomplished 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. (She had described a fantasy of cheating on him and he can’t stop imagining her fucking the man’s brains out.) There’s a Christmas tree in every other scene, and the aesthetic is staggering. But there’s not a slice of artistic pretension, unlike the Kubrick copycats who have so desperately tried to crack his code to cinematic purity.

The New Millenium (Age 31-40)

By the turn of the millenium I had given up on blockbusters and was shunning mainstream films with a snobby superiority that I didn’t have much right to. I’d be reversing myself in short order. The Fellowship of the Ring came out in Christmas of 2001, and for the next three years I was consumed by everything Lord of the Rings. I reread Tolkien, dug out my Middle-Earth RPG modules, and saw each of Peter Jackson’s films in the theaters over ten times. When the extended DVD versions were released the following years, I obsessed those too, as well as the DVD extras and audio commentaries. By around 2005 I came up for air again. But before all of that came another stage of my childhood nightmare.

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11. The Exorcist (Revisited), in 2000. News of the theatrical re-release made me wary. Of course, I had seen The Exorcist on VCR many times by now; I’d worked up the courage to tame my trauma back in ’85 when I was 16. But even at age 31, seeing this in a huge theater with deafening surround sound diminished me. I sat in my seat (all alone; I had the theater to myself, which was both good and bad) utterly petrified. In fact, I remember becoming so panic-stricken when the priests went up the stairs to begin the exorcism that I actually cried out. But while The Exorcist still scared the shit out of me, I could also process it as a film deserves and be awed by Friedkin’s flawless direction. It’s an artistic masterpiece in the style of an induced documentary, and a searing examination of the mystery of faith. It remains the mother of all horror films because it presents exactly what you imagine a demon to be as it pulverizes a girl from the inside out. Regan is saved in the end, but at the expense of the priests, and the power of good over evil is far from clear. I came out of the theater visibly shaken. Before going to my car I just stood for a minute and soaked in the sun, acutely aware of my limitations, grateful for my sanity.

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12. The Fellowship of the Ring, in 2001. When I heard that my favorite story was being adapted for a blockbuster, I cursed Peter Jackson, whoever he was, sure that he would massacre Tolkien beyond repair. Five minutes into The 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. The Shire, Rivendell, and Lothlorien were all perfectly realized. The Nazgul were fearsome in the extreme, and I was blown away by their assault on Weathertop and ferocious chase of Arwen — my adrenaline rush matched the flood she unleashed on them. I cried with Frodo when Gandalf fell to the Balrog, and shared his awe of Galadriel’s ethereal might. I thought Boromir’s death and the breaking of the fellowship were so moving that they surpassed the book. This is the film that taught me blockbusters can have soul when in good hands. I have never been so alive in a theater as when watching The Fellowship of the Ring (twelve times throughout Dec ’01 and Jan ’02) and for that reason I consider it the most profound cinematic experience of my life. Though the next one is mighty close…

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13. The Return of the King, in 2003. This is an even better film than Fellowship, because it’s tragic on a biblical level and so emotional that I cried through 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. Even before all of this, The Return of the King is on another scale from the previous two films. The Battle of the Pelennor Fields remains the best war sequence ever filmed, and though it lasts for about an hour, it never fatigues (unlike Helm’s Deep), with catapult stones that look like they’re about to fly out of the screen and pulverize you, winged Nazgul swooping down and snatching people up, the charge of Theoden’s Rohirrim, and the incredible Oliphant attack. It’s really close as to whether Fellowship or Return is more precious to me, though I give the slight edge to Fellowship for the sheer wonder I wasn’t prepared for. Return of the King is the miracle that does lasting justice to Tolkien’s heroes, who are noble failures and inspire for that reason.

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14. Sunshine, in 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 an underrated suspense masterpiece, and ten years later still hasn’t undergone any serious reassessment. It’s strange that of the zillions of outer-space films, none have bothered to focus on the sun — 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, even to the point of contemplating murdering the one of them “least fit” in order 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, but for my money, Sunshine is (yes) better than Alien, and I adore that masterpiece to begin with.


15. Juno, in 2007. This one might cause a double-take. It should be obvious by now that I’m no fan of comedies. But Juno is so good that I watched it three times when I rented it, and then bought the DVD the next day. I had a crush on Ellen Page anyway, and she was born to play this snarky teen who contemplates abortion but decides to have the baby despite her take-it-for-granted feminism, and give it to a wealthy couple. It’s not only the best comedy I’ve seen, but also the best film involving the abortion question, for the way it has confounded and misled people who think it promotes an anti-abortion agenda. It does nothing of the sort. Against the pro-choice objectors, Juno doesn’t glorify teen pregnancy; against the pro-life crowd it doesn’t present an exemplar in its lead character. It’s about a particular girl’s choice, clearly established, and how that choice affects others for better and worse. You can watch the film many times; there’s none of the cheesy sentimentality that mars most comedies like this. Even supporting characters like the stepmother (stepmothers are usually unsympathetic and awfully stereotyped) are genuinely likeable. It showed me that comedies can be endearing when they don’t try so damn hard.

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16. Doubt, in 2008. When a film refuses certainty about anything and everything it runs the risk of copping out, but Doubt gains conviction the more it pushes its theme to every possible extreme. We never find out for sure if the priest had an affair with his altar boy. When things point alarmingly in that direction, we get smacked with a mother who thinks that isn’t so bad: through tears she insists to an inquisitorial nun that Father Flynn is a good refuge for her son, who seems to be gay and beaten for it at home by an abusive father. Scenes like that are upsetting and test hard ideas in a world that pathologizes eroticism between adults and youths. And we’re never sure what to believe or how to feel, because the evidence is murky and the priest is a sympathetic character. He’s a progressive Vatican II thinker (the film is set in 1964), while the nun who thinks he’s a predator is antiquated and feared by the students for her disciplinary methods. The four pivotal scenes of extended dialogue are brilliant; every line of that dialogue earns its keep; and Doubt shows that a stage-play based film can produce more searing tension than the best action thrillers.

Midlife (Age 41+)

The current decade has been excellent for film. To name a few gems, the Coen Brothers remade True Grit; Quentin Tarantino gave the awesome westerns Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight (both of which surpass even Pulp Fiction, in my opinion); Abdellatif Kechiche portrayed a powerful love story between two girls in Blue is the Warmest Color; and Robert Zemeckis managed a visceral re-enactment of Philippe Petit’s wire-walk between the towers of the World Trade Center in The Walk. The following four, however, were the milestones for me, two of which are older films.

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17. Cries and Whispers, in 2010. Soon after my father died I began obsessing the films of Ingmar Bergman. They made me confront the worst in myself, but especially Cries and Whispers. It’s about a woman dying of cancer in her home, tended to by her maid and two sisters who loathe each other. When I saw it I was struck by two things. First is that I’ve never found a movie so painful to watch. 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. Second is that 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 resonated for me on these levels and helped me face my mortality for the first time.

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18. The Tree of Life, in 2011. For years I’d wanted to see a cinematic meditation on the book of Job, and The Tree of Life gave me more than I bargained for. The 20-minute cosmos sequence accomplished what the text of Job 38:4 tried. I felt truly humbled by celestial mysteries. It didn’t exactly make me feel better about the problem of theodicy (why the innocent suffer), but the visual canvass with Lacrimosa playing over it triggers a perspective: our tragedies look admittedly small in the grand scheme of things. The film examines an American family of the ’50s within this macrocosm of evolution, and also within a dialectic of nature vs. grace: “Grace doesn’t try to please itself,” comes the mother’s voice-over at crucial juncture: “It accepts being slighted, insults, and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself, and to get others to please it.” And yet graces emerges 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 final sequence is an afterlife vision — something that wasn’t available to Job’s author — a fantasy we cling to in order to cope with our losses, though not necessarily an unhealthy one. I felt God’s breath in The Tree of Life, and that’s no light praise from a secular agnostic.

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19. Little Men, in 2016. Along with the TV series Stranger Things, this film was last year’s salutation to the freedom of youth. Stranger Things did this in a science-fiction/horror context; Little Men did 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. Also, I watched Little Men the day after the election (Nov 9), when I was feeling rather suicidal over Donald Trump’s victory. This was the movie I needed to see: a film that 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. In the end Tony and his mother are evicted for not being able to keep up with rising rents, and I cried with Jake; after election day this film was a serious trigger for me in light of Trump’s screeds against Hispanic people. 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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20. Leon the Professional, in 2017. My latest milestone was actually released in the ’90s, but I’m glad that for whatever reason I missed it in the theaters. It took the child sidekick trope and had the nerve to turn it into a love story, but the American version removed the love-story part — 25 minutes worth of scenes that show a 12-year old girl lusting for a guy in his 40s — which is the whole damn point. The international version was later made available on DVD, and it’s an uncensored masterpiece. Obviously a film like this stands or falls on the child, and Natalie Portman nailed it in what I consider the best kid performance of all time. 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. This film showed me that even the wildest ideas can succeed under a good script and amazing acting talent. I love Leon to pieces.

Ten Great Religious Films

Religious films have a reputation for poor design and cheesy acting, but there are good ones if you know where to look. People have asked me for a religious pick list in the past, and Martin Scorsese’s Silence finally inspired me to write one up. Here they are, in my opinion, ten truly great religious films of all time.

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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 one. It sounds a bit 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 entry #10 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. But 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 us 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 cannot do so well. 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, however, 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 hopeless 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.


4. 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) are brilliant. Everyone has doubts to the end. Whatever the precise relationship between the priest and boy, it may not be a predatory one, though my guess is that it probably is, given the way the priest gets overly defensive about the obscure reason why he had to leave a previous parish.

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5. 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 brilliant 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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6. 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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7. 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 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, to be sure, still in thrall to the witch’s possession at this point, but it’s not clear how much, and it’s incredibly 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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8. Noah. Darren Aronofsky, 2014. 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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9. Jesus of Montreal. Denys Arcand, 1989. This reinvention of the passion play is, to be sure, 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. The “Silence of God” Trilogy. Ingmar Bergman, 1961-63. I didn’t want to use any film director more than once, but there’s no escaping it with Bergman. 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.

David Lynch: Looking Back

David Lynch is the one responsible for showing me film’s boundless potential. It was a near conversion experience for me when I saw Blue Velvet thirty years ago, and I remember being taken aback by the controversy. It taught me that when films polarize people to the point that critics are yelling at each other, the haters are more likely the problem. I’m revisiting his work in celebration of Blue Velvet‘s 30th anniversary. To watch these films is to be inside the most unnerving dreams.

1. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. 1992. 5 stars. This has a bad reputation even among Lynch fans, and I used to have my own reservations when judging it as a Twin Peaks prequel. It’s essential to get a distance from the TV show and treat it as a standalone piece, and when you do, an entirely different film emerges. The scoring is brilliant and the acting flawless. It’s 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. Basically Laura has processed years of rape at the hands of her father by creating a delusional mythology: the TV series implied that Leland is innocent and possessed by an evil spirit, but the film exposes that for a lie: he’s a monstrous scumbag. This is an extremely terrifying horror film (my second favorite after The Exorcist) and a character piece in contrast to the TV series’ focus on mystery and town dynamics.

Image result for mulholland drive2. Mulholland Drive. 2001. 5 stars. If Blue Velvet threw me into a new world of cinema I could barely begin to define, Mulholland Drive reinforced the magic 15 years later, at the exact moment Peter Jackson was giving magic a new name. It parades a brilliant understanding of projection in the context of frustrated wish-fulfillment. Diane is the reality, Betty the dream; the first comes last, and makes devastating sense of the second; this reinvented figure is loved by everyone, a starry-eyed Hollywood star, and she gets off great lesbo sex with the woman who in life barely returns her affections. This manner in which people from Diane’s life fill their dream-roles is a brilliant recontextualization of a go-nowhere actress drowning in criminal guilt, and it’s one of the most intimate experiences I get out of any film. I feel like I am the dual character of Diane/Betty when I watch this, though I have few commonalities with them. The best scene is the lip-synced Llorando, which precipitates the intrusion of reality at the two-thirds point, in the above image.

Related image3. Blue Velvet. 1986. 5 stars. This film was my introduction to David Lynch, back when I was transitioning from high school to college, and it was my best friend who actually warned me against it. He loved disturbing movies as much as I, but he sure didn’t like Blue Velvet; in fact he despised it as much as Roger Ebert, whose legendary TV review is still talked about today and contrasts with Entertainment Weekly‘s awarding it the 37th Best Film of all Time. I’m with EW. But what’s fascinating is that this dramatic polarization, which I experienced personally, emerged when it did: the ’80s were the worst decade for American cinema. (Seriously, how many films from 1983-1989 hold up today?) Blue Velvet seemed to oppose the faddish malaise with an insistence on aesthetic that matched its transgressive content. It takes the rot-under-the-small-town theme and injects heavy doses of sadism, sadomasochism, and full-blown lunacy; yes. But around all the suffocating depravity is worked a stunning beauty, particularly in the relationship between the Kyle Maclachlan and Laura Dern characters.

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4. Eraserhead. 1977. 5 stars. If this film is about parental fear, then maybe it’s why I got a vasectomy. And I’m not surprised that Stanley Kubrick forced his actors on The Shining to watch it. Like the haunted hotel picture, Eraserhead traps you in a dreadful atmosphere where the walls keep closing in. It’s interesting how Kubrick and Lynch tend to work in opposite directions, one’s stories leading to head-trips, the other’s head-trips building to stories if you can make sense of them. I’ve even read that Eraserhead’s tadpole-baby is the antithesis of Space Odyssey’s Star-Child who smiled down on humanity’s technological progress; tadpole-baby rages against humanity, a diseased product of our industrial “progress”. What I still want to know is the Old Testament text which suddenly hit Lynch like an epiphany and cemented his vision for the film; to this day he refuses to come clean about it. My bet is on chapter 3 of Job, perhaps the most existentially spiritual book of the bible, and I can indeed see why Lynch calls Eraserhead his most spiritual film. Not only is it his most profound work, and his most unnerving, it’s also his purest tuning of the dream-consciousness style he’s known for.

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5. Lost Highway. 1997. 4 ½ stars. This one is moderately underrated, but still too much so, and I remember wanting to shoot Siskel and Ebert for giving it two thumbs down. There are shades of all the masterpieces here: the atmospheric horror of Eraserhead, the small-town suburbia (and underground sexual deviations) of Blue Velvet, and the character reinventions of Mulholland Drive. The best parts are the start and finish, the Bill Pullman parts, showing a jealous man who kills his wife and then resurfaces when his dream-identity breaks down. The German voice-overs to the porno shots are so creepy they’re terrifying — as much as the initial murder, also seen on video. When he comes full circle at the end and rings his own doorbell, announcing what he (and we) heard at the start, the cycle is set in motion again, implying that in his attempt to escape reality, he becomes permanently imprisoned in denial. That’s what the “lost highway” is, and while not exactly a masterpiece, it’s still a work of art.

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6. The Elephant Man. 1980. 3 ½ stars. With a moral structure and even sentimental thrust, The Elephant Man isn’t especially recognizable as David Lynch, but it’s a fine piece of work nonetheless. Instead of a surrealist dreamscape, this is practically a documentary. But the subject is gross enough to be out of a nightmare: John Merrick (1862-1890), who was so deformed that his parents rejected him and he became a traveling-circus freak. Also, there is some of Eraserhead to be obliquely found here, most notably in the theme of birth mutation, a horrifying concept that was clearly on Lynch’s mind at this early stage of his career. The Victorian atmosphere with smog and clanging machinery is reminiscent of Henry Spencer’s industrially polluted world. If The Elephant Man waxes melodramatic at points, it also preserves a wonderful ambiguity about Merrick’s caretakers: Bytes’ treatment of Merrick was horrible, but he arguably loved him, if in the way we love our pets. Treves’ humane approach is the one we more approve, but ultimately he’s using Merrick for his own benefit.

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7. The Straight Story. 1999. 3 stars. I suspect that Lynch danced with Disney just to show the world he could do G-rated. His family-friendly film is based on the true account of a 73-year old man who drove his, yes, tractor-style lawn mower all the way from Iowa to Wisconsin, in order to visit an ailing brother. Which means it’s a slow-paced odyssey, taking us through rural Midwest towns populated by the sort of endearing characters we see (on the surface, at least) in most of Lynch’s films. We keep waiting for the NC-17 sideshows, but The Straight Story stays out of the netherworld and dwells on tranquility — extended rests between the snail-paced road travel (the lawnmower doesn’t putt over 5 miles/hour), and scenes of vast corn fields. Think Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, with its beautifully slow camera glides over yellowish landscapes, mix in light doses of small town culture, and you’ve got The Straight Story. It’s a decent film, and a refreshing exercise for a director who usually revels in the dark and sordid, but nothing exceptional.

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8. Inland Empire. 2006. 2 stars. If Fire Walk With Me and Lost Highway are underrated gems in the Lynch canon, Inland Empire is the most bloated and overrated. It basically recycles the seedy mystery plots of Blue Velvet and the identity-blurring of Mulholland Drive, but with a sense that Lynch was just throwing darts. He admitted that he wasn’t even working from a script, and it shows: unlike Mulholland Drive which balanced ambiguity and explanation perfectly, Inland Empire traces crazy-8’s non-stop. To those who respond that this is much the point, I call the critic’s competence into question. When all you really have are non-sequiturs and pseudo clues, that’s called spitballing, not artistry. I wanted to like these parallel stories of a “woman in trouble”, not least for Laura Dern’s ferocious performances, both as the actress and the damaged prostitute. And there’s no denying the aesthetic. But Lynch seems to have been intent on simply making the longest feature possible (it’s over three hours) with no substance behind the surrealism we love him for. The result is a kaleidoscope, little more.

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9. Dune. 1984. 1 star. This steaming pile of manure by rights belongs at the very bottom, but I’ll cut Lynch a sliver of slack since I think any director would have failed with Dune. (Also, I retain a special hatred for Wild at Heart — but more on that below.) Half the novel is inside people’s heads, and Herbert had such command of inner turmoil that it’s where the story’s true excitement is. Lynch tried his best with internal monologues, but they’re frankly abominable, and no one wants to watch stationary characters process thought for long periods of screen time. On top of this, the characters never come a fraction to life as they do in the book, and events whisk by criminally fast. Dune may not be Lord of the Rings, but it needed more than two hours to do it justice. But as I said, I think it was doomed regardless, which is why even the 4-hour TV mini-series years later was scarcely an improvement.

Related image10. Wild at Heart. 1990. 1 star. Some might accuse me of a jaded perspective, going into my second Lynch film expecting another Blue Velvet. I remember that summer of 1990 too well: it was a late night showing at the crummy Premiere 8 in Nashua, and only two others were in attendance, a woman to the left of me, and a guy all the way down in front as crazy as Dafoe’s Bobby Peru; he laughed like a hyena all the way through, at all the sick parts — hell, he was practically part of the show. But that lunatic made me wonder if that’s exactly what Lynch was doing as he filmed this travesty: laughing at us and just having fun. Wild at Heart is the product of a genius who’s not applying himself. And I’ve revisited it enough times to be confident of my objective distance from that loopy experience at the cinema. The dialogue is a farce (Nicholas Cage’s “this here alligator-jacket is a symbol of my individuality” is exemplary); the transgressive content gratuitous (unlike Blue Velvet’s); the Wizard-of-Oz imagery obtuse. Lynch was out to lunch on this one.

Who are the Libertarians of Star Wars – the Jedi or the Sith?

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As a libertarian (the left-wing breed, not right) I’m intrigued by the politics of Star Wars. Many have noted that Star Wars is libertarian, especially the classic trilogy of episodes 4-6 (and now the spin-off Rogue One). The Rebel Alliance believe in a small limited government, and are freedom fighters against the fascist Empire. The prequel trilogy of episodes 1-3 are also libertarian in showing how that Empire came to be. Senator Palpatine (the future emperor) manufactures a war against the Trade Federation in order to scare people into giving up their freedoms. It works: the Republic hands power over to the Emperor “for their own protection” and “the common good”.

It isn’t quite that simple, however, because in the prequel trilogy it’s the Sith who come across as libertarian, and the Jedi quite the opposite. In theory, the Jedi Order use the Force to defend the weak and preserve peace in the galaxy, in line with their ethical code of self-sacrifice and service. In theory, the Sith are kraterocratic (their agenda is galactic domination), and believe that passion instead of meditative calm is the way to channel the Force — the passion of anger, fear, aggression, and hate. But in the pre-Empire days things are rather complicated. As David Houghton puts it:

“While they might be merry old samurai hippies in the original trilogy, the organized, prolific, altogether more militarized Jedi of the prequel period are a hardcore conservative faction, incredibly rigid in their doctrine, code and methods. They are ubiquitous, unchallenged, and if anything, slightly too powerful. They have restrictions on sexuality, a strict religious code, make free use of mind control for [yes] the greater good, and enforce stoicism to the point of detachment. They demand utter devotion, are run by an oligarchy, and almost entirely cut themselves off from the outside world. Sound a bit cultish? It is. The Sith, on the other hand, are staunch libertarians. They accept no oversight or control from the state, practice a self-centred philosophy, and value personal freedom over social responsibility.”

If the Jedi aren’t villains, they’re hardly better than the Sith. Mace Windu is a dogmatic hardliner, and Yoda is clueless and ineffectual. And if the Sith are malevolent, they are enlightened and superior in other ways. Libertarianism comes easy to those not in power, and is discarded by those who obtain it.

That’s why the prequels could have been great films — if George Lucas had only seen what was right in front of him. But he ignored his own groundwork and gave us unworthy Jedi heroes, cartoon Sith villains, and a complete betrayal of the character of Darth Vader. Anakin Skywalker should not have been a bitter sulking teenager who was basically tricked into choosing the dark side. He was born to be the first truly “moderate” Jedi, seeking the Balance which the Jedi Order claims to seek while in truth purposing to eradicate the Sith and oppose the dark side altogether. Anakin’s turn to the dark side, by rights, should have been a mature one that we could approve. As Houghton says:

“While the hardline of the Sith is philosophically no better than the hardline of the Jedi, by that same note, it is no worse. Anakin understandably makes a very human decision, and goes for the option that looks to help his real, personal situation. It’s a move we can sympathize with, and rather beautifully, one that parallels philosophically with the Sith’s libertarian ways. All of this would make Darth Vader stronger, not weaker. [Instead, the prequels] turn the biggest, most interesting, most enigmatic bad guy in the galaxy into a sniveling, mopey teenager, blighted by angsty, adolescent grumbles and mistakes.”

Vader didn’t get the backstory he deserved because Lucas can’t tell a story; he can only serve up special effects. Had he exploited the libertarian ambiguity, blurred the lines between the Force’s light and dark sides — and hired a director who could make this all come together — the prequels, for my money, would have likely superseded the classic trilogy. It’s hard to predict how the libertarian theme will play out in the new trilogy. In The Force Awakens, the Jedi are gone, and the First Order seems to carry on the unambiguous fascism of the old Empire, even if they are technically rebels against the New Republic. With Luke back, things will surely get interesting.

Little Men: A Much-Needed Catharsis after the Election

little_menLittle Men was just the film I needed after the election. I’m usually good at not letting politics depress me, but Trump’s victory was a toxic pill to swallow. If the escapist Arrival soothed other Americans, I required something more cathartic. Little Men‘s low-key realism elevates the uplifting parts and then magnifies them when the heartbreak finally comes.

The film is a social parable refracted through the friendship of two boys. Jake is shy and genteel, Tony is bold and uninhibited; one Caucasian and middle-class, the other Chilean and poor. Different in every way, save for their shared love of art and theater (and videogames), they dream of attending LaGuardia High School together, until the evils of gentrification crush their friendship. Jake’s parents are landlords trying to evict Tony’s mother who can’t keep up with rising rents. For a while the boys’ friendship grows stronger the more the parents become enemies — they go so far as to boycott their parents by refusing to speak to them — but in the end, Tony and his mother are kicked out.

We glimpse a purity of spirit in this friendship. Some of the most affecting scenes show Tony scootering and Jake rollerblading down the sidewalks of Brooklyn together, as the score supplies musical notes suggesting, I don’t know… freedom? escape? a soulmate relationship hard to define? The relationship is ultimately torpedoed by the parental need to “take care of one’s own”. It’s not that Jake’s parents are bad people. Their self-interest is more pragmatic and survivalist; they have financial problems of their own. And it’s certainly not that Tony’s victimized mother is beyond criticism herself. She has a rather malicious and passive-aggressive streak. The only evil in the drama is the systematic one of income inequality mixed with urban revival projects and a vanishing middle class. I think of how Donald Trump got one third of the Hispanic vote. That’s right. People like Tony’s mother actually voted for their persecutor thinking he would be their savior from these kind of economic hardships.

On rare occasion I find that a review in pictures conveys the essence of a film better than a standard review, and so I will let the following images speak for themselves. The last three are the epilogue a year later, with Jake having made it into LaGuardia High School. He spies Tony (who of course did not get in) at a distance, on a class tour of the school. They haven’t seen or spoken to each other since their separation… nor do they speak to each other now. I broke down and wept for them, and for things no doubt to come.

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