Film and the Apocalypse

Lynne Boss Mahr has written up a list of apocalyptic films, which include post-apocalyptic entries too, and I thought I’d serve up my own picks. I choose seven of each, plus one film that qualifies as both, for a total of 15.

By apocalyptic, I mean a film set during a catastrophe that spells the end of civilization, will do so if not averted, or is perceived to carry this threat in some way. The catastrophe could be anything, and represented on my list are divine punishment (Noah, The Rapture), resource depletion (Sunshine), nuclear devastation (Threads), nature (The Birds), existential (The Seventh Seal, Tree of Life), and disease (Contagion).

By post-apocalyptic, I mean a film set after the end of civilization or its dramatic upheaval due to catastrophe. Again, the catastrophe could be anything, and represented on my list are nuclear devastation (The Divide, Threads), resource depletion (The Road Warrior), environmental (Snowpiercer), technological takeover (The Matrix), dysgenics (Children of Men), the breakdown of law and order (Escape from New York), and unknown (The Road).

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1. The Divide, Xavier Gens. 2012. Post-apocalyptic. This nasty film is set in the basement of a New York high rise apartment, where nine strangers gather to survive a nuclear holocaust. Despite uneasiness and distrust, they try working together at first, and do pretty well until cabin fever, radiation sickness, and their own base humanity take over. There’s torture, rape, sex slavery, and full-blown lunacy on display, and there’s no light at the end of the tunnel — which in this case happens to be, literally, a tunnel of shit. The Divide holds humanity completely captive to misanthropy and is the best Lord of the Flies-themed film I’ve ever seen. The performances are brilliant; even I was deeply chilled by what Gens believes people are really like under our societal conditioning.

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2. Sunshine, Danny Boyle. 2007. Apocalyptic. Set in a future where the sun is dying, and people can barely stay warm and alive, a space crew of eight embarks on a mission to deliver a thermo-nuclear payload that will re-ignite the sun’s fire. To get through one disaster after another, the crew members have to sacrifice themselves, and at one point they even contemplate murdering the one of them “least fit” in order to save oxygen. On top of all this, there is the subplot of a hideously disfigured religious fanatic who believes God wants humanity to die, and does everything he can to slaughter the crew. The theme of the apocalypse is woven in on multiple levels. Sunshine is Danny Boyle’s best work — far better than his overrated post-apocalyptic zombie-fest 28 Days Later — and besides a top-notch apocalyptic film, it’s also my favorite outer-space drama.

https://rossonl.files.wordpress.com/2020/02/road-warr.jpg3. The Road Warrior, George Miller. 1981. Post-apocalyptic. The best movie sequel ever made plays more like a ’70s film. Like Snake Plissken (see #13 below), Mad Max is an anti-hero out of pulp escapism, something Edgar Rice Burroughs could have created, and his solitary wanderings across a wasteland remain an incredibly inspiring archetype. There’s so much about this classic impossible to forget: the feral kid with the boomerang who narrates the story as an adult, the amazing road stunts for pre-CGI days, and the idea of gasoline being the most precious commodity — which resonates rather loudly in the 21st century. The Road Warrior has a high rewatch value, and I’ve probably seen it more than 20 times since my coming of age years in the ’80s.

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4. The Seventh Seal, Ingmar Bergman. 1957. Apocalyptic. As a knight plays chess with Death, he journeys through a land struck by plague and fanaticism, and attempts to penetrate God’s mysteries. The film 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, and in his masterpiece he ties the theme with mortality, existential dread, and apocalyptic fears. The film is set in the 14th century, as the crusades were becoming obsolete, and when modern anxieties queried even more basic aspects of the Christian faith. There are bar brawls, apocalyptic tirades, insult contests, self-mutilation — and a witch-burning to top it off — and 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.

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5. Threads, Mick Jackson. 1984. Apocalyptic and Post-apocalyptic. This British TV-film was born of the same intent as the American The Day After (1983), but it’s much better — and far, far more traumatizing. And keep in mind The Day After upset Americans so much that people were telephoning the government to ask if this is what a nuclear attack would really do. Threads takes place in the town of Sheffield, and when the bombs strike, things are as ugly as it gets; the aftermath sends humanity hurtling back into a primitive age of famine, lawlessness, and mental retardation. It’s a completely miserable film to watch. It’s well done, but you don’t enjoy any aspect of it at all; you simply suffer through it as an educational exercise that was very necessary back in the Reagan years.

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6. Noah, Darren Aronofsky. 2014. Apocalyptic. Here’s the story of Noah’s Ark served up Lord of the Rings style, which works because the first eleven chapters of Genesis are myth; the same sort of mythic pre-history that Tolkien intended by Middle-Earth. So when we see giant rock creatures (the Watchers) and bits of magic here and there, it somehow makes the story of Gen 6-9 seem as it should. It’s a sweeping epic that doesn’t soft-peddle God’s act of genocide. Don’t listen to complaints that this theme of divine vengeance has been anachronistically aligned with pagan environmentalism or vegetarianism. If Christians knew their bibles, they would know that God didn’t add meat to the human diet until after the flood (Gen 9:3). And while Noah plays on gnostic myths, it isn’t quite that either. But it does portray the Creator as monstrously cruel as Noah hardens himself to slaughter his baby grandchildren.

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7. Snowpiercer, Bong Joon-Ho. 2013. Post-apocalyptic. The U.S. release coincided with that of Noah (the winter of 2014), and I saw them back to back as a weirdly surreal double-feature. Noah is of course apocalyptic, telling the biblical story of the flood: a righteous man and his family are spared the global holocaust, and are commissioned to preserve the animal creation while humanity is wiped out; Noah goes homicidal on the Ark and barely stops himself from butchering his newborn granddaughters. Snowpiercer is post-apocalyptic, set in 2031, long after a sudden ice age froze the planet. The only survivors boarded a train called (yes) the Rattling Ark, which after 17 years is still keeping people alive in a perverse state of affairs. As in Noah, the lead protagonist fights urges to kill babies, and the cause of righteousness is under a question mark. The film is many things: a social class war, a claustrophobic horror piece, and bat-shit insanity that would make David Lynch envious.

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8. The Birds, Alfred Hitchcock. 1963. Apocalyptic. Not many people think of this classic as an apocalyptic film, but it absolutely fits the bill. It portrays unstoppable biological forces that have suddenly decided to sweep down on a humanity minding its own business, for reasons we never learn. The coastal setting works wonders, and while at first blush it looks like a localized apocalypse, the implication is that birds are attacking elsewhere in the world. By ’60s standards the attack sequences remain terrifying. When nature comes after us, says Hitchcock, things aren’t going to turn out okay, and I think he’s probably right. The Birds is nihilistic to the core and unapologetic about nature’s savagery. And like the great horror films rarely seen anymore, it has the patience to let its characters breathe and become people we care about before terrorizing and killing them.

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9. The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick. 2011. Apocalyptic. It seems that 2011 was the year of abstract apocalyptic films. There was Melancholia, an apocalypse that accompanied a woman’s psychological anguish; Take Shelter, a hallucinated apocalypse of a schizophrenic; and finally The Tree of Life, an existential apocalypse, and one of my favorite films of all time. Malick portrays an apocalypse experienced in the “now”, as both wish fulfillment and transcendent reality. A man reflects on his childhood within the grand context of the universe’s life cycle, from Big Bang to Absolute End; the latter intrudes on the present through visions of a dead and barren Earth, a white dwarf sun above it, desert shores with waves rolling in, and dead souls walking the shores. I don’t care what your religious convictions are: if this film doesn’t move you, you aren’t alive.

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10. The Road, John Hillcoat. 2009. Post-apocalyptic. Dispiriting in the way only Cormac McCarthy novel adaptations are, and the only entry on this list where the cause of humanity’s devastation isn’t explained. In a dead wasteland of marauding cannibals I would probably do as the lead character’s wife and just kill myself. Nothing promises to get better, and it’s impossible to survive in any way that makes life meaningful. Even the goodness inside the best of people isn’t always so resilient: the father played by Viggo Mortenson sinks to some ugly depths to protect his son. Precisely because of this, The Road is so uplifting, especially when the two lone protagonists reach their destination at the eastern sea, and the father dies. I watched this film a second time after the death of my own father in 2010, and it was helpful in the grieving process. It’s a powerful and noble work.

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11. The Matrix, Andy & Lana Wachowski. 1999. Post-apocalyptic. What hasn’t been said about The Matrix? I will say this: it got me hooked on going to the theater to see movies instead of relying almost exclusively on the VCR. (Chucking the VCR and embracing DVDs would soon follow.) The Wachowski brothers managed to work in everything: martial arts, realities inside the mind (Doctor Who’s Deadly Assassin from the ’70s was actually the first to use the matrix), with as much philosophy as action, even neo-gnosticism, and all in the context of a horrifying future where machines rule and people are nothing more than chemical batteries. And never mind that Keanu Reeves can’t act to save himself. Here he doesn’t need to. But skip the lousy sequels.

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12. Contagion, Stephen Soderbergh. 2011. As in his brilliant drug-trade drama Traffic (2000), Soderbergh uses a geographical network narrative to connect people under crisis, but this time the crisis is apocalyptic. Millions of people die in weeks from a super-virus originating God-knows-how-or-where, and unlike many medical thrillers, this one is grounded in good science, which makes it very scary. It also makes it effectively a horror film, though it wasn’t marketed as such. The epilogue is one of the most brilliant unsettling explanatory flashbacks I’ve seen in a film — where we see the cause of the virus traced back to poorly prepared meat that one of the main characters ate on her business trip to Hong Kong.

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13. Escape from New York, John Carpenter. 1981. Post-apocalyptic. Some deny this qualifies as post-apocalyptic, since it’s just New York City (set in 1997) turned into a prison. But the background in the untruncated script involves global chemical warfare, and gas released on a massive scale causing people to go crazy and criminal everywhere, so it fits the bill. I’m amazed how well it holds up, and what the production team accomplished on such a low budget. The criminal world of Manhattan is compelling, and the terrorist plane crash near the World Trade Center is downright chilling to watch after 9/11, not to mention Snake Plissken’s risky landing on top of WTC itself. It’s no accident this film debuted months after The Road Warrior (see #3 above); Plissken is a lot like Mad Max, a perfect amoral anti-hero.

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14. Children of Men, Alfonso Cuarón. 2006. Post-apocalyptic. This is an adaptation of the P.D. James’ novel, except that women are infertile instead of the men. It’s a future where people can’t reproduce, immigration is criminal, terrorism runs rampant, religious nut-cases flagellate themselves, and law officials treat people like beasts. A pregnant woman suddenly offers hope for humanity, but it’s not terribly clear why, anymore than how women lost their fertility to begin with. Cuaron’s dislike for back-story and clear exposition seems to have led him to use the concept of infertility as a vague metaphor for the fading of human hope; yet the film ends on a note that plays into one’s predispositions, so that optimists will sense at least some hope for humanity, others not so much. Whether this means Children of Men is unsure of its vision or profoundly polysemous, I’m not sure, but there’s no denying its mythic power.

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15. The Rapture, Michael Tolkin. 1991. Apocalyptic. This one is too much for some people, but I found it compelling in a very awful way, and I was completely fooled by the end. Throughout the story I thought Sharon was a typical nut-job who found Christ and prayed for the apocalypse, but didn’t think the film would take her expectations seriously. Especially when she goes out into the desert to wait for the rapture, and ends up (yes) shooting her little daughter to force God’s hand. I mean, she blows her crying kid’s brains out. For which she’s rightfully thrown in jail; obviously the kingdom isn’t coming for perverse born-again Christians. Except that it does. The horsemen of Revelation make a stunning literal appearance out of nowhere, jail prisoners are liberated… God, it turns out, is real and ushering in the end times. Tolkin treats his subject matter with a respect it doesn’t seem to deserve — indeed he portrays the outrageous at complete face value — and in so doing, makes the rapture seem oddly plausible. In this sense, The Rapture is a lot like Frailty (2001), another film that had the balls to take the world-view of an unsympathetic Christian fanatic seriously… and come out surprisingly stronger for it. That’s good film making, no matter how much it may upset you.

My Valentine Film List — Non-Sappy, Unconventional Romances

These are the cinematic couples who have most moved me, for better or worse. Most of them have unhappy endings. Have a very nice Valentine’s Day.


1. Clarence and Alabama. True Romance, 1993. Quentin Tarantino wrote these sweethearts, and Scott directed them with his usual flare, combining an extremely violent tale with morbid humor. A cocky reckless drifter and a ditzy bimbo end up in over their heads with drug dealers, but the story is about their unconditional love-at-first-sight, and I dare say their final scene on the beach is one of the most well earned epilogues in any romance. No question, Clarence and Alabama take the #1 slot.


2. Adele and Emma. Blue is the Warmest Color, 2013. They gained notoriety for graphic lesbian scenes (which are actually tasteful and well used) instead of the love story, which is a bit sad. The film isn’t about sex, but the searing power of love which becomes destructive, but with room for healing afterwards. Blue is a romance film that has the nerve to ask what comes after a nasty breakup, and give that part just as much attention. It’s three hours long but I could have watched Adele and Emma’s lives play out for three hours more.


3. Jesse and Celine. Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004), Before Midnight (2013). I love the trilogy of conversational exercises between Jesse and Celine, and by the time we know them in the last film, they’ve been in a steady relationship for nine years. But their reflections on how they met and how their lives have changed, are just as compelling as the original outing when they were young and took bold risks. It adds up to a very rare trilogy — in fact, I cannot think of any other trilogy — in which the excellent first is followed by an even better second and then (against every odd) the third which is best of all.

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4. Caleb and Mae. Near Dark, 1987. There is certainly no seductive glamorizing of these two vampires — this is a very violent and nihilistic tale — and yet the romance between Caleb and Mae remains one of the most tender in any vampire story. The happy ending and return to the nuclear family betray the ’80s period; had this been made in the ’70s, Caleb and Mae would have stayed vampires, and one of them likely met some tragic end. But the film is so awesome you can forgive the ending.

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5. Monika and Harry. Summer with Monika, 1953. This Bergman classic is a tale of youthful escapism everyone has fantasized about at some point: two lovers abandon their jobs and families, and run away in a motorboat to spend weeks on an isolated beach in the Stockholm archipelago. They dream the dreams of children, of a blissful married life ahead of them… and then return to the cold reality of poverty, dissatisfied adultery, and unwanted babies.

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6. Juno and Bleeker. Juno, 2007. The romance between these two kids is just one of the many endearing things about this comedy about a teen who contemplates abortion but wants to have the baby and give it to a wealthy couple. (And no, it doesn’t glorify teen pregnancy or serve an anti-abortionist agenda.) Maybe I’m sappy after all, because I love the final scene.

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7. Elio and Oliver. Call Me By Your Name, 2017. Some have actually accused this film of promoting pedophilia — I kid you not, a romance between 24-year old and a 17-year old — but what happens between Elio and Oliver is neither illegal (the age of consent in the film’s setting is 16) nor immoral (since there is no manipulation or abuse of any power on the part of Oliver, the 24-year old). America has become an overprotective zone which condescends to 15-17 year olds as if they’re 10-12. As a sexual coming of age story, the story between these two guys one of the most moving I’ve seen of its kind.

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8. C.S. Lewis and Joy Gresham. Shadowlands, 1993. I’m not usually fond of dramas 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. Shadowlands is the rare romantic tearjerker without melodrama, and a brutal look at how a Christian theologian was broken by his own lessons.

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9. Carol and Therese. Carol, 2015. A love affair between two women was unspeakable in the ‘50s, and that era provides the perfect canvass for an examination of feminine hungers and pains. Watching Carol is like being pulled through a looking glass and tasting forbidden love in an austere time. I’ve always been in awe of Cate Blanchett, and this is probably her best performance. Which is saying a lot.


10. Dean and Cindy. Blue Valentine, 2010. By far the most depressing romance I’ve ever seen captures the start and end points of a hopeless relationship begun in puppy love followed by stagnation. The film flashes between past and present, but sheds no light as to what caused the decay, which is much the point. People marry on impulse, and then before they know it, they can’t remember what they wanted in the first place.

Top-Notch War Films

If you want good war films, check these out. You won’t find Saving Private Ryan here, nor any of Oliver Stone’s screeds against Vietnam (Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, etc.). I used to like the Civil War film Glory, but that one hasn’t aged well. For more recent efforts, I found American Sniper and Dunkirk to be overrated. The following are superior.

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1. Shame. Unknown setting. In my survey of “best war films” lists online, I have found none which includes Shame, which is beyond shame. Released in 1968, it remains the definitive war film, in my opinion, and is unsparing in its examination of the soul. Ingmar Bergman shot it off the small island of Farö, but it’s not clear that the setting is intended as Swedish. Whatever this nation is, it’s either at war with an invading country or engaged in a civil war — left deliberately hazy to suggest a war that symbolizes all war without any political axe to grind. Its focus is on a simple married couple who are uprooted from home, falsely accused of bad allegiances, then freed on the condition that Eva performs sexual favors for a government official. Things escalate to the point of such humiliation that Jan, a pacifist by nature, snaps and becomes a moral monster. We share Eva and Jan’s intimacies and hopelessness on a level not matched in any other war film. Shame speaks deeply about the human psyche and the will to survive. The final scene of the exodus into a sea of corpses still haunts me.

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2. Paths of Glory. France, 1915-16; World War I. Stanley Kubrick’s anti-war film is presented with an uncompromising polemic but no sanctimony, and remains a lesson Oliver Stone could have learned. Paths of Glory is about the suicidal attack on an impregnable fortress captured by the Germans, inspired by the six-month bloodbath during the Battle of Verdun for Fort Douamont. It holds up well after so many decades (much as Spielberg tried, he didn’t surpass this brutal intensity in the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan, a film I dislike), and the court marshal of the second part remains a convincing piece of courtroom drama. And then there’s the final scene: the poor ridiculed stage-singer who manages to shatter everyone’s soul, a moment’s epiphany in a cruel uncaring world. Against the terrible backdrop of the first world war, soldier grunts emerge as worthless pawns, to be thrown away for the sake of their superiors’ aggrandizement, and military tribunals stand as parodies of justice.


3. The Thin Red Line. Solomon Islands, 1942-43; World War II. This masterpiece was overshadowed by Saving Private Ryan (also released in 1998), when it should have been the other way around. Terrence Malick is a genius in all the ways Stephen Spielberg is Mr. Cheese. The Thin Red Line laments warfare through naturalist philosophy, and it’s both horrific and uplifting in a completely organic way. I believe that anti-war films have strong difficulty doing right by the viewer. They must get their message across loud and clear, but without resorting to college-campus screed, political innuendo, or hollow contrivances. What Bergman did at the level of personal intimacy (Shame) and Kubrick along the ladder of military hierarchy (Paths of Glory), Malick expands to the broadest level possible, examining life and death in cosmic terms. He finds beauty in each, yet an undeniable rage at the way the latter is reached. It’s a brilliant film, and the exotic setting of Melanesia somehow aligns perfectly with the tone of what Malick aims for.

Come and See
4. Come and See. Russia, 1943; World War II. Unheard of by many, this bleak Russian film (made in 1985) shows the Nazi massacre of a Belarusian village through the eyes of a young boy. It’s as anti-Hollywood as films get, though it does oddly remind of Apocalypse Now, in its hallucinatory visions involving blood and mud, and increasing madness. As I understand it, the 14-year old was a non-actor but his performances are visceral. The title “Come and see” apparently derives from Revelation 6 (verses 1,3,5,7), which is John’s invitation to look on the destruction caused by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. This part in particular supposedly inspired Kilmov: “And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see! And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death.” That’s certainly a perfect metaphor for Come and See.


5. Lone Survivor. Afghanistan, 2005; Afghanistan War. If you want a true-story set in the Middle-East, this is the one to see. (What’s fact and fiction is explained here.) It tells of four navy seals on a covert operation in the Hindu Kush mountain range, spying on a Taliban hideout. When they’re spotted by a random group of goat herders, the seals make the kind (but very stupid) decision to let them go instead of killing them on the spot. From that point they fend off an unrelenting assault, as Taliban soldiers chase them through the mountains, surround them, appear suddenly from behind trees, entirely at ease in native territory. This is probably the most emotionally draining military sequence I’ve seen, and shows how much damage the human body can absorb before giving up the ghost. Lone Survivor honors the seals who died in this operation, but also the Afghan villagers who sheltered the lone survivor of the four, when it was basically suicide for them to oppose the Taliban in this way. The film is also acclaimed by military personnel as being one of the most realistic war films ever made, despite some of the dramatic license in the plot.

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6. Full Metal Jacket. Vietnam, late 1960s; Vietnam War. There are zillions of films about the Vietnam War, many of them by Oliver Stone, most of them not very good. Even Kubrick’s has its problems, but I’ve seen the boot-camp part so many times it’s ridiculous. Gunnery Sergeant Hartman is one of the most entertaining film characters of all time, and he completely owns Full Metal Jacket. As a nineteen-year old, I remember thinking he went over-the-top for sake of theater, but quickly learned that actor R. Lee Ermey had been a real-life drill instructor, and that Kubrick allowed him to edit his own dialogue and improvise as he saw fit. I also remember my father saying he experienced some of these degradations heaped on the privates (and he was only in the Air Force, not the Marines). The film’s middle part is its weakest (where it feels like Europe more than Vietnam), but the sniper sequence at the end pulls it back on its feet. The first part alone earns it the sixth slot on this list.

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7. 1917. France, 1917; World War I. The story begins on the fateful day Woodrow Wilson brought America into World War I (April 6, 1917), though there are no Americans portrayed in the film. It’s about two British soldiers ordered to deliver a message to a colonel who is sending his battalion into a nasty trap. The battalion is chasing after the Germans who only appear to be fleeing but are really about to unload an ass-pounding on the unsuspecting Brits. One of the two soldiers has a lot at stake in delivering the message since his brother is part of the battalion. What distinguishes 1917 is the immersive experience it offers through its entire “single shot” in which the camera never cuts. You feel like you’re there, in the rat-infested trenches, the underground bunker that collapses on the two guys (they barely escape), the desolate fields and ravaged towns. Unlike the incredibly overrated Dunkirk, this film lives up to the hype.


8. Fury. Germany, 1945; World War II. Few war films capture soldier camaraderie with Fury’s plain authenticity that makes you alternate between hating and loving these guys by the minute. The story is set in the final days of WWII; an American tank crew of five plow across Germany, and while they know American victory is guaranteed by this point, they sure don’t feel it; the Nazis dig in to the end. The tank battles are nightmares; the Germans resist every step of the way. The best scene comes at the film’s midpoint, right after the tankers conquer a German town. Two of the tank crew barge into an apartment where two women are hiding; sex results, but it’s not rape, and the unexpected tenderness on display is entirely real. Then the other three members barge in drunk, and a thoroughly unpleasant (and surreal) dinner ensues. The tank battles are spectacular and thoroughly realistic. Fury is defined by them.


9. Black Hawk Down. Mogadishu, 1993; Somalian Intervention. Never has the chaos of battle been depicted so effectively as in Black Hawk Down. What should have been a simple seizing of Somalian lieutenants turned into a nightmare of 18 soldier deaths across an overnight standoff, with another soldier being captured as well. All things considered, it’s amazing the rangers and special forces were able to fight off an entire city as they did. I was actually in Africa the year of this event, and remember hearing of warlord Aidid. His weapon was hunger: capturing all the food coming into Mogadishu. The American intervention was long delayed and frustrating, and when finally put into effect was blown to smithereens by unforeseen blunders. Small mistakes and cruel acts of fate — these more than anything else are what left the soldiers stranded in the city teeming with Aidid’s thugs around every corner, well into the next day.

The Hurt Locker
10. The Hurt Locker. Baghdad, 2004; Iraq War. Neither anti- nor pro-military, it’s a respectful sobering lesson in what bomb deactivation squads go through. This is basically the film American Sniper tried lamely to repeat: special-skilled soldiers, battle addiction, and the toll taken on wives back home. The title refers to shell shock, or the physical trauma of being continually close to the blast of an explosion: the horrible noise and prelude of compressed silence encasing you in a locker of pain. Kathryn Bigelow deserved to take best picture for this. The Hurt Locker is an adrenaline rush, but also a professional depiction of the Iraq War that refuses to plant a flag on either side of the conflict. It’s a thoughtful film about what it means to have skills that set a soldier above his peers, without glamorizing the role.

Terrence Malick Ranked

With Malick’s return to form last year, this ranking is overdue. I ignore the recent string of efforts that made me wonder if someone was ghost filming for him. To the Wonder (2012) explored the ethereality of love in what felt like a cheesy imitation of Malick’s style. Knight of Cups (2015) showed the excesses of Hollywood through the pain of an empty character. And Song to Song (2017) told of relationships in the music industry with nothing remotely interesting to say. On to the real Malick films.

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1. The Tree of Life. 2011. 5 stars. Like Kubrick’s Space Odyssey, this is a picture-perfect film attaining heights out of reach to all but the most gifted filmmakers. It spotlights an American Catholic family within a macrocosm of evolution, and an implied dialectic of nature vs. grace. If there ever was a case to be made for religionless Christianity, this is it. It pivots around a man reliving his childhood (in hindsight both wondrous and grim) while reflecting on his own place in the universe (negligible on one level, having everything to do with it on another). In particular, grace emerges not as something which contradicts nature (even if it’s its conceptual opposite), but something inherently part of it, or complementing it, or mutating from it. It’s an incredible film, with each frame depending on just the right camera angle, scoring, and particular subtleties around snippets of dialogue you can barely hear. And it ends on a spiritual apocalypse that can strike to the heart of even the most unyielding atheist: the yearning for reunion in some form of afterlife, a hopeless fantasy we cling to in order to cope with pain and loss, gelling splendidly with the evolutionary framework of the film. I’ve seen The Tree of Life more than any other Malick film, and have been turned by new surprises each time.


2. A Hidden Life. 2019. 5 stars. This is a return to form after the trilogy of cheap existential perfume (To the Wonder, Knight of Cups, and Song to Song) which caused me to think Malick was either being imitated by an acolyte, or that he had lost his chops. A Hidden Life is the real deal, and a testimony to achieving a style and substance in perfect tandem. It’s about the unsung Austrian hero, Franz Jägerstätter, who refused to fight for the Nazis in World War II, executed for it, and was later declared a martyr and beatified by the Catholic Church. Like classic Malick, geographical beauty is the canvas on which human ugliness is painted and interrogated. The Austrian backdrop is breathtaking; the plight of Jägerstätter and his wife almost hard to credit in a world that can yield such beauty. Most filmmakers would make this story about hot-button moral superiority: the courageous farmer vs. a regime of monstrous evil. But Malick doesn’t let us off the hook with the existential questions: Is it morally acceptable to allow one’s wife and children to suffer by opposing evil like the Nazis? The cosmos doesn’t care about righteousness.

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3. Badlands. 1973. 5 stars. Released the same year as The Exorcist, Malick’s first film is in every way a ’70s work par excellence, and one that only obliquely distinguishes itself as a Terrence Malick film. That’s not a bad thing: the ’70s were the Golden Age of filmmaking, and Badlands, like so many productions of this era, epitomizes the ideological emptiness of America after Vietnam and social upheaval of the ’60s. Like many artists of the time, Malick takes an amoral stance, refusing to either condemn his delinquent killers or cheer them on as anti-heroes. The visuals of the American Midwest landscape are breathtaking — on this point, the Malickian thumb-prints become evident — but Badlands is the one film on this list where characters don’t play second fiddle to nature, or at least that nature isn’t as much as character as it is in the others. Malick is clearly trying to underscore the way characters react and relate to meaningless violence, and what I find most disturbing about it is the tone of disinterest and nonchalance; the duo don’t relish killing, nor do they murder with any real purpose; it’s just a way of life that came naturally to them given their circumstances. Of the umpteen Bonnie-and-Clyde films, Badlands is my choice, with with Larry Clark’s Another Day in Paradise a close second.

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4. Days of Heaven. 1978. 5 stars. Quintessential Malick, gorgeous as it is simple, Days of Heaven preserves a still in every frame that you’d be proud to hang in your living room. As with Tree of Life, it’s the kind of film that takes just the right director to make work. Or least for me, because I’m big on character, and here the characters are kept at arm’s length even by Malick’s standards. Nature is of course the lead in most of his work, but in Days of Heaven the horses, wheat, locusts, and pastures eclipse Bill and Abby to the extent we almost don’t care a whit about their story with the dying farmer, yet remain hooked to the overall tapestry. There’s nothing romantic in this vision: it shows nature like it is, completely indifferent to humanity, a theme strongly revisited in The Thin Red Line. Interesting is that Malick reportedly trashed his own screen-play during the production, deciding instead to allow the actors to improvise and find the story in their own way. And it shows, because nothing feels rehearsed — it’s as if you’re watching something real through a painting come to life.

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5. The Thin Red Line. 1998. 4 ½ stars. There are two films I can’t avoid comparing to Saving Private Ryan, a film I never cared for. One is Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, for the suicidal attempt to take the hill; it retains a brutal intensity that Spielberg couldn’t match in the opening act of his overpraised film, much as he tried. The other is Malick’s Thin Red Line, for the time of its release, the same year as Spielberg’s but sadly overshadowed by it. This film laments warfare through naturalist philosophy, and it’s horrific and uplifting in a completely organic way (as opposed to the manipulative cheap-story way of Saving Private Ryan). I maintain that anti-war films have the strongest difficulty doing right by the viewer. They must get their message across loud and clear, but without resorting to college-campus screed, political innuendo, or hollow contrivances. Bergman’s Shame, Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, and Malick’s Thin Red Line are my trilogy of exhibits proving this is possible. What Bergman did at the level of personal intimacy, and Kubrick did along the ladder of military hierarchy, Malick expands to the broadest level possible, examining life and death in cosmic terms, finding beauty in each, yet an undeniable rage at the way the latter is reached. It’s sheer genius.

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6. The New World. 2005. 3 ½ stars. For all its stunning aesthetic, there’s something fundamental about New World that irks me: this isn’t the way I like historicals. I don’t want figures like Pocahontas painted over Terrence Malick style, I want them delivered on a platter of artistic simplicity (as in A Man for all Seasons), induced documentary (as in Gospel According to St. Matthew), or even action-adventure brutality (as in Rob Roy). When nature is the main character — as is almost always the case in a Malick film — it distracts from what an historical epic should be about. Credit must be given for the way New World rescues Pocahontas from sissified Disney versions and portrays the love affair between her and Smith with subtle poetry. Most commendably, this isn’t a slam against the White Man, nor a condescending, racist reverence for fantasy “noble savages” (who must nonetheless be saved by a whitey who grows to loathe himself — per Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai, Avatar, ad nauseum). Objectively, there’s a lot to admire about this film. But I respect it from an emotional distance, because the historical genre is just not one I find suitable for Malick’s style. I’m not surprised that most rankings of Malick put it at bottom (above only the three duds that I’m not acknowledging on this list).

The Top 40 Films of the Twenty-Tens (2010-2019)

Here we go: my top 40 film picks of the 20-10s. It was a smashing decade of cinema, and as you’ll see from my top two choices, 2017 was a very special year. I could have gone with either Blade Runner or Twin Peaks for my number one pick.

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1. Blade Runner 2049. 2017. Not only does Blade Runner 2049 live up to its predecessor, it supersedes it in ways you wouldn’t expect. It’s a stunning visual aesthetic, and has the ambitious concepts of the original, taking them at the slow pace they deserve, so patiently that it feels like a ’70s film. I’m not surprised it bombed at the box office. Few people these days have the wherewithal — and by that I mean the intellectual wherewithal from above, and the physical fortitude from below — to sit still on their sweet asses for 2-3 hours and enjoy good artistry. There are certain plot holes which leave coincidences unexplained. For example, from the start K is investigating the farmer replicant whose home supplies the clues for Rachael, while K already has memories implanted in him that relate to those very clues. But even here the holes seem more part of the overarching Blade Runner mystique. The best character is the hologram Joi, and she serves an oblique existential function: if software can fall in love and fear death, then the objection to replicants having these soul-like traits becomes even more strained. Her merging with the woman for K’s sexual pleasure is an incredible piece of choreography, as is virtually every other scene in this masterpiece. By rights a film this good shouldn’t have been in the 21st century, and the box-office bomb proves it. I don’t why or how it came to be. I’m just glad it exists.

Al Strobel as Mike aka The One-Armed Man, Kyle MacLachlan as Agent Dale Cooper, and the evolution of The Arm in Twin Peaks: The Return (2017)2. Twin Peaks: The Return. 2017. The third season of Twin Peaks is David Lynch’s absolute crowning achievement. It counts as a film as much as a TV series, ranking on various lists as one of the best films of 2017, and screened as a film over the course of three days at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. David Lynch himself claimed that The Return is better understood as an 18-hour long film, and it was certainly shot, funded, and edited like a film. Lynch had total control, directing every episode, unlike in seasons one and two, in which he directed only six of the 30 episodes; for all the experimental innovation in those two seasons, they ultimately adhered to a series formula of cliffhangers needing resolution in following episodes. The Return is like nothing I will ever see again, and everything Lynch had been building to in his career. The fingerprints of all the mighty films are present: the road trails and character reinventions of Lost Highway, the brutal misogyny of Blue Velvet, the dreamscapes of Mullholland Drive, and a particularly stunning masterpiece episode that feels like Eraserhead in every frame. And yet this isn’t Lynch just repeating himself. Ultimately, The Return is about Dale Cooper’s attempt to rewrite the past and stop Laura Palmer from ever being killed. Whether he succeeds for better or worse (I say it’s for the worse) has been furiously debated, and will continue to be for a long time. I am completely in awe of The Return, and if you want to see how I assess each episode, see here.

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3. Little Men. 2016. I’ve seen this many times. It explores a close friendship in a social parable about gentrification. Jake’s parents are new landlords who threaten to evict Tony’s mother who can’t keep up with rising rents, but the boys’ friendship only grows the more the parents become enemies. The film doesn’t demonize the landlords (who are decent enough people and have their own financial problems) or over-extend sympathy for the poor Chilean tenant, but rather holds the adults at arms length so we can latch on to the boys and see things through their eyes. Jake is the shy introvert, Tony the bold extrovert (take a wild guess who’s who from the above picture), and it may even be that Jake is smitten by Tony. Their final scene together makes me cry every time, with Jake, who futilely begs his father not to go through with the eviction, and the epilogue is even more heartbreaking, showing that sometimes there is no way back to recover the most intimate friendships. It’s a critical masterpiece (96% on Rotten Tomatoes) for every good reason. I reviewed Little Men fully here.

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

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

https://rossonl.files.wordpress.com/2016/08/true305.jpg6. True Grit. 2010. My favorite Western (even more than Tarantino’s films, see #7 and #12) is a remake of the John Wayne classic. The character of Mattie Ross is the film. Hailee Steinfeld’s performance is about the best 14-year old’s I’ve seen, second only to Ellen Page’s Hayley Stark in Hard Candy. I completely fell in love with this girl. She takes the law into her own hands after her father is murdered in 1878, and none of the Arkansas authorities are willing to go after the killer into Indian territory. And Jeff Bridges is far better than John Wayne. The final shoot-out in the open field is orgasmic; and Mattie’s loss of her arm to the rattlesnake bite the perfect ending which could never be happy anyway, given the revenge premise.

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7. Django Unchained. 2012. Tarantino was born to revive the spaghetti Western. The Italians who made spaghettis weren’t trying to glorify the American ethos, and so the civilizing forces were often portrayed as corrupt, and the American frontier a place of devastation and racism. Django Unchained harks back to this effort of destroying frontier myths, especially that of southern hospitality and the genteel antebellum. It’s set in the years of 1858-59, when Mississippi plantation owners never dreamed their world was about to end. Tarantino runs parallel the realistic violence done to slaves with the cathartic violence of overblown revenge, a dualism that he has tamed to near perfection. I honestly don’t know whose performance I like better, Leo DiCaprio as the despicable plantation owner or (as my gut tells me) Samuel Jackson as his collaborationist slave, a cranked up Uncle Tom. Then there’s Don Johnson (another plantation owner) who gets in some of the most amusing lines, as he waxes wroth over a black man who dares to ride a horse.


8. A Hidden Life. 2019. Terrence Malick had a total of five films this decade, but the three in between Tree of Life (see #4) and A Hidden Life were kind of navel-gazing films that I think arthouse critics tend to praise just because Terrence Malick made them. A Hidden Life is my #1 pick of the 2019, as Tree of Life was for 2011. Both, in very different ways, are a testimony to achieving a cinematic style that matches transcendent goals that most directors only dream of. This one is about the real-life unsung Austrian hero, Franz Jägerstätter, who refused to fight for the Nazis in World War II, executed for it, and was later declared a martyr and beatified by the Catholic Church. And like other Malick films, geographical beauty is the canvas on which human ugliness is painted and interrogated. The Austrian backdrop is breathtaking; the plight of Jägerstätter and his wife almost hard to credit in a world that can yield such beauty.


9. First Man. 2018. Like Blade Runner 2049 the year before, it stars Ryan Gosling, and was released in the month of October to high critical praise but low box office performance. Today’s audiences are simply not 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 achievement.


10. First Reformed. 2018. 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. But that’s a small quibble. In all the ways that matter this is a near perfect film.

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11. mother! 2017. The reason people hate it isn’t because it’s a bad film, but because it was deceitfully marketed, with the trailer implying a more mainstream thriller. If you don’t like indie horror films that offend on the deepest levels, then avoid mother! at all costs. It’s about a man and woman in a countryside home, where the woman suffers intrusions from guests who gratify her husband’s ego. The intrusions get increasingly outrageous, until hell breaks loose — quite literally — and one critic has made an analogy with Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, which suffocates the audience in torture to capture the immensity of Jesus’ sacrifice. mother! does a similar sort of thing to convey the “passion” of womankind, and the things they tolerate for the sake of men’s vanity. The indoor house becomes a battlefield of crazed strangers who commit unspeakable acts, and in the end seize the woman’s newborn infant, rip it apart into dozens of pieces, and eat it as if it were a sacrificial lamb. This is Aronofsky at his most audacious, but also at his best, and it helps that Jennifer Lawrence’s performance is so visceral and sympathetic.

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12. Silence. 2016. 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.

https://rossonl.files.wordpress.com/2019/12/8.png13. The Hateful Eight. 2015. A bottle drama, slow burn, and murder mystery that explodes into the usual Tarantino stew. Think Twelve Angry Men, except these men will do exactly what Juror #3 pretended on Juror #8 with the knife. They are despicable killers, trapped together in a roadhouse during a blizzard; only two are alive by the end, and even those two just barely. It’s not a political film, by any means, but there is implied commentary on race relations after the Civil War, and a shocking use of the female lead as a blood-drenched punching bag. At a certain point there is a shift from a heavy deployment of the n-word to a vengeful use of the b-word, the subtext being that while men may be divided by racism, they can at least bond over a shared contempt of a woman. Naysayers are calling it Tarantino’s most indulgent film, which it certainly is, but the indulgence works for rather than against.

14. The Divide. 2012. It’s fascinating how this was made independently of The Grey (see #26) and released in the same year at almost the same time, neither having any knowledge of each other. Both are survivalist stories and both are tuned around haunting piano themes that recur at just the right moments. (Listen to The Grey’s and The Divide’s.) But where the former locates “evil” as external and impersonal (the cruel forces of nature), this one looks within. It’s set in the basement of a New York high rise apartment where nine strangers have gathered after a nuclear holocaust. They start out okay until cabin fever and radiation sickness — and their own base humanity — take over, and the cellar becomes a claustrophobic nightmare of torture, rape, sex slavery, and overblown lunacy. The Divide holds humanity completely captive to misanthropy; even I was deeply chilled by what Gens believes people are really like under our societal conditioning.

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15. The Walk. 2015. The Exorcist affected me physically more than any other film, but The Walk is a close second in this regard. Audiences suffered extreme vertigo, and I was sweating and shaking non-stop during the final act. Obviously I have an extreme fear of heights, and I can only imagine the harm my psyche would have suffered had I seen it in 3D. I still have a hard time with the fact that this story is entirely true. How anyone could want to do what Philippe Petit did on that morning of August 7, 1974, is well beyond the reach of my understanding. He walked back and forth over that wire between one tower and the next, eight times, for over 45 minutes, while spectators and police officers could only look on aghast. This man was (is: he’s still alive) an artist in the purest sense.


16. Parasite. 2019. Ever since Snowpiercer, I have vowed to see every film made by Bong Joon-ho. Snowpiecer was set on a train in a post-apocalyptic ice age, and portrayed a social class war as David Lynch might imagine it. In Parasite, there is again social skewering, showing how the rich survive on the backs of the less advantaged. But as always, Joon-ho isn’t being didactic. He’s an artist, not a preacher, and pays off viewers as they deserve, this time with a story of a family who live in a cellar and fold pizza boxes for a living. Then they get the bright idea to pose as sophisticated skilled workers (an English tutor; an art therapist; a chauffeur; and a housekeeper) and insert themselves into the lives of the wealthy, on whom they wreak mischief. Things get out of control and spiral into calamity, with twists and turns you won’t expect. Parasite is outstanding and has incredible rewatch value.

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17. ’71. 2014. This taut thriller is set in west Belfast in the early years of the Irish Troubles — a year before Bloody Sunday – but it’s less a political thriller and more a horror/suspense piece that exploits the political background to remarkable effect. I knew Jack O’Connell would become a brilliant actor (his performance as the psychopathic teen in Eden Lake, 2008, was mind-blowing), and here he plays Gary Hook, a British soldier who gets separated from his company during a street riot. He is pursued by angry Belfast residents, and runs deeper into enemy territory, barely escaping murder at every turn, and finding help in unlikely places. One character who leaves a particular impression is the young boy who brings Hook to a pub, and gets blown to pieces when a bomb goes off. This is incredibly nail-biting suspense “behind enemy lines”, with superb control of action and pacing.

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


19. Joker. 2019. Ignore the protests that Joker is grossly insensitive to the mentally ill. I honestly don’t know what kind of film the easily-offended were expecting. It portrays mental illness in the unpleasant way that it should be. Joaquin Phoenix’s incarnation of the Joker is much different from Heath Ledger’s, but just as powerful, and works well in a drama without the Batman, that focuses like a laser on what mental illness does to people in an uncaring world. It’s set in 1981 (Ronald Reagan’s first year), in the time of increased governmental neglect for the mentally ill. Funding cuts to social services leave Arthur without access to meds, and he slides deeper into the identity he carves for himself. Phoenix plays it so convincingly, and the repeated fits of compulsive laughter must have been exhausting on an actor. There are heavy shades of both Taxi Driver and King of Comedy; Todd Phillips has made a Joker film in the most Martin Scorsese way possible, and it’s a noble heartbreaking achievement.

https://rossonl.files.wordpress.com/2016/03/victoria4.jpg20. Victoria. 2015. The entire 2 hours and 15 minutes was shot in a single take and it’s not a gimmick; it’s immersive as hell. In the first hour, a Spanish woman bonds with a group of troublesome but affectionate German guys on the streets of Berlin. Frankly I could have watched their casual conversation forever; the characters are that compelling. But the second part is even better in full throttle: one of the guys passes out drunk, and Victoria gets recruited to fill his role in a bank heist which the guys are being blackmailed into doing. The best scene is their celebration after the heist in a dance club, with the loud rock music fading in favor of a minimalist piano score playing over their manic frivolity. It makes Victoria seem trapped in a naively dangerous bliss, but is strangely precious. The final sequence is the police chase on foot, and while an unhappy ending is guaranteed, it’s impossible to predict. My full review of Victoria is here.

21. Europa Report. 2013. This outer-space drama takes a quasi-documentary approach, but don’t worry, the film is neither stingy nor confusing in its visuals, and it exudes the appropriate wonder and terror. A mission to Europa inevitably falls in Kubrick’s shadow, but Cordero’s approach is his own, more gritty and less visionary than Space Odyssey. Even though all six astronauts end up dying, it’s uplifting by what they witness, recorded for posterity. Their mission was to look for organisms, and the luminous octopus-creature revealed in the last frame will forever change the context of how scientists view life in the galaxy. This film really made me want to walk on the ice moon, and to hell with the radiation levels.

22. Before Midnight. 2013. I love the conversational exercises between Jesse and Celine. They first met in Before Sunrise (1995) and then found each other again in Before Sunset (2004). Now they’ve been in a relationship for nine years. But their reflections on how they met and how their lives have changed, are just as compelling, and so organically delivered by Hawke and Delpy it’s dazzling. Here they arrive at a hotel and have a nasty argument, fearing their direction in life, entertaining break-up, and as twice before the conclusion is the right amount of open-ended. It adds up to a very rare trilogy — in fact, I cannot think of any other trilogy — in which the excellent first is followed by an even better second and then (against every odd) the third which is best of all.

23. Zero Dark Thirty. 2012. Part of me is still astonished by the vitriol that has been hurled on this film, but then nothing should surprise me anymore. After all, Spike Lee leveled ridiculous complaints about Django Unchained‘s supposed racial insensitivity, so it only follows that Zero Dark Thirty must be (wait for it) an apologia for waterboarding and other forms of torture used by the CIA in the days following 9/11. Nothing, of course, is further from the truth. The torture under the Bush administration is simply shown for what it is. It wasn’t the magic key to unlocking Bin Laden’s hideout, and even if it was, the film doesn’t imply that the ends would justify the means. By far the most impressive feature is Jessica Chastain, who since Tree of Life has become for me a new Cate Blanchett, an understated actor who compels with subtleties. Zero Dark Thirty is a lot like United 93, devoid of political bias and never preaching. That’s the way to make a 9/11-themed film.


24. The Nightingale. 2019. This isn’t a rape-revenge movie. It is about a woman who is raped (graphically, more than once) and at first seeks revenge, but finds something different that actually feels like grace. The film is by Jennifer Kent, the director of The Babadook, and she proves she can do a historical piece even better than indie horror. It’s set in 1825 in an Australian British penal colony, and holds an unpleasant spotlight on the way the Brits treated their subjects. It could have gone wrong in so many ways, not just by becoming a hollow rape revenge, but by the way Clare teams up with the aborigine. The Nightingale is no Hollywood parable of a “feminist and a black”. The guarded relationship between this Irish woman and her servant is nailed right in every scene, and doesn’t feel anachronistic. The ending on the beach is simply transcendent.

25. Room. 2015. The power of this film has to do with the way it sets fire to the imagination. The acting performances are fine (the child actor quite excellent for his age), the script adequate, and the escape scene at the midpoint incredibly intense. But I don’t think any of these elements are responsible for Room’s massive acclaim. The emotion and pain I felt for the mother and child had as much to do with imagining every possible consequence on their psyches, especially the boy’s. The five-year old Jack has lived his entire existence inside a single room (a shed) with his captive mother, believing “Room” to be the entire universe. Suddenly freed, she is reunited with family in the real world to which he is shockingly introduced for the first time. It hurts to watch this play out, but it’s worth it, and the film does end on the triumph of the human spirit.

campfire26. The Grey. 2012. First things first: wolves are outrageously misrepresented in this film. In reality the poor things are wimps, so you need to suspend disbelief and just pretend this film takes place on an alternate Earth where wolves evolved with nasty temperaments more akin to grizzly bears. The distortion makes it feel more of a horror picture, which in many ways it is, like The Birds. Demonic wolves, like Hitch’s pterodactyl-birds, are effective devices in showing our helplessness against primal and savage forces. Like the great survivalist films rarely seen anymore, The Grey has the patience to let its characters breathe and become people we care about (an even more impressive feat given the rather unlikeable group aside from Liam Neeson) before they all go down in carnage.

'Once Upon A Time in Hollywood'
27. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. 2019. This love letter to Hollywood is one of Tarantino’s most emotionally honest films. It takes place in 1969 around the plot of a has-been actor, and revises events of the Manson family, so that instead of Sharon Tate getting killed, it’s the Manson killers who die. And they die brutally: they pass over Sharon Tate’s home and crash the home of the story’s heroes played by Leo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. The slaughter that ensues is pure over-the-top Tarantino; one of the Manson sisters gets her face bashed and pounded in twenty times over; the other gets eaten alive by a dog and roasted by a flamethrower. But leading up to this twenty-minute end-game is a sprawling two-hour walk-though of late ’60s Hollywood, when spaghetti Westerns were becoming a thing and hippies were invading Hollywood.


28. The Witch. 2016. It’s loved by critics and hated by audiences, and you need to trust the former. It was misleadingly marketed to give the impression of horror movie with loud bangs and cheap thrills, instead of a period piece. Kubrick could have easily scored this, Bergman could have shaped the characters, and either could have landed the cinematography that captures stunning wide shots. But the director owns his unique narrative about a Puritan family who leave their plantation and settle miles away in isolation from the rest of Colonial America. This forest border happens to be the home of a witch, who wastes no time lashing out at her new “neighbors”, 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 in near orgasmic ecstasy. 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. I reviewed The Witch fully here.

Image result for autumn blood film
29. Autumn Blood. 2013. This underrated piece goes a long way to redeeming the rape revenge genre. Even though the girl kills her rapist, there is no glorifying of the retribution, and on top of that, she refuses to execute the man who killed her father, and whom she has loathed for many years. What really sells Autumn Blood, however, is its silent approach set in a breathtaking Austrian landscape. There is very little dialogue; the vast geography speaks instead. I posted a review in pictures.

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30. Suspiria. 2018. 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.

31. Stake Land. 2010. A post-apocalyptic drama and one of the best vampire films of all time, Stake Land gives the middle finger to both the aristocratic version (Dracula) and juvenile pop model (Blade, Underworld, Buffy, Twilight). These are vamps as they should be, mindless savages. The story centers around a young man whose family is slaughtered; he’s taken under the wing of a hunter who now slays vampires as they can only be killed, by pounding stakes through the bastards’ hearts. The two embark on a Road-like odyssey to find a mythical refuge up in Canada, and run afoul a nasty religious cult along the way. This is the proper way to do an undead pandemic.

32. Fury. 2014. The best war movie made in a long time. Few capture soldier camaraderie with Fury’s plain authenticity that makes you alternate between hating and loving these guys by the minute. In the final days of WWII, an American tank crew of five plow across Germany, and while they know American victory is guaranteed by this point, they sure don’t feel it. The tank battles are bloody nightmares; the Nazis resist every step of the way. My favorite scene comes in the film’s midpoint, right after the tankers conquer a German town. Two of the tank crew barge into an apartment where two women are hiding; sex results, but it’s not rape, and the unexpected tenderness on display is entirely real. Then the other three members barge in, and a thoroughly unpleasant dinner ensues. Fury is my favorite war film after the sacred trilogy of Bergman (Shame), Malick (The Thin Red Line), and Kubrick (Paths of Glory). And it buries Saving Private Ryan, which I didn’t like at all.

Doctor Sleep Box Office
33. Doctor Sleep. 2019. It’s certainly no Kubrick classic, but it is a rare adaptation of a Stephen King novel that is very good. Better yet, it’s a sequel to both King’s novel and Kubrick’s film, taking the best of both worlds. Kubrick’s ending to The Shining was better than King’s. Instead of the Overlook Hotel dying and Dick Hallorann surviving, Kubrick killed off Hallorann and allowed the evil Overlook to live on (the final shot of Jack Torrance in the 1921 painting is far creepier and scarier than the explosive melodrama penned by King). So Hallorann visits Danny in visions now, and Danny makes quite a momentous return to the Overlook, where he destroys the hotel as his father did in the novel. Filling this framework is the plot of psychic vampires who prey on people, including children, and I was surprised by some of the bold risks taken. Thumbs way up to Doctor Sleep, and let’s hope more filmmakers will take cue on how to adapt King’s work. (The It movies this decade were awful.)

This film image released by Paramount Pictures shows Denzel Washington portraying Whip Whitaker in a scene from "Flight." (AP Photo/Paramount Pictures, Robert Zuckerman)34. Flight. 2012. I wish there were more films where an opening scene of heart-stopping terror becomes the base for a slow-paced introspective character film. Washington plays an exceptional air pilot who is also an alcoholic, and on one of his typically drunk mornings suffers an aircraft malfunction but manages miraculous maneuvers and softens the plane’s crash landing. The genius of the film relies in putting the moral spotlight on his addiction even though it has nothing whatsoever to do with the plane crash, nor even the cause of the six deaths (out of 102 passengers). The story makes clear that if any other pilot had been flying, everyone would have died. Washington’s character must come to terms with his disease despite his savior-like status which only fuels his pride and denial and the horrible way he treats those around him.

Denzel Washington catches a bad brake
35. Unstoppable. 2010. Tony Scott’s last film before he killed himself is easily his best work after Crimson Tide and Deja Vu. And it wouldn’t be a Tony Scott film without Denzel Washington, playing his more usual heroic role than in Flight (#34, above). There’s the usual fast-paced camerawork, raw energy, and frenetic cutting, on top of searing dramatic conflict despite the lack of villains. The runaway freight train carrying explosive cargo is more than enough villain, a missile barreling ahead at 70 miles/hour straight to Stanton PA, as two hostlers engage in a desperate plan to stop it. Based loosely on an actual event in Cleveland, believe it or not.


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


37. Bone Tomahawk. 2015. This Western is a horror piece. That approach had been tried twice before, with Dead Birds (2004) and The Burrowers (2008), but with unimpressive results. Bone Tomahawk goes for the jugular and hits a home run. Not only is it savage and terrifying, it makes us care about the characters. As a result, the third act is extremely upsetting when we see people split down their middles and torn apart before being eaten by a clan of cannibal Indians. These Indians are so fearsome and obscene that they are hardly acknowledged as distant kin by other Indian groups. It’s set in a frontier town in the 1890s, where a woman is abducted by the cannibals and taken away. Four men pursue — the sheriff, his deputy, the woman’s husband, and another man who feels responsible for making the abduction possible. When they get to the Indian caves, the face-off is like nothing you’ve ever seen in the Western genre.

Image result for cracks film38. Cracks. 2011. I’m a sucker for students under the tutelage of nefarious instructors, and I’m surprised this one fell under the radar. An aristocratic Spanish girl comes to board at an Irish school off the coast of northern England in 1934, and without even trying incites jealousy and rage amongst her peers. They all crave the approval of a teacher who has eyes (and loins) for this newcomer. Things get unpleasant, naturally, and don’t end well. Jordan Scott, directs, and yes, she’s related to the great Tony (above) and the dreadful Ridley who hasn’t done anything decent since Alien and Blade Runner.

Hugh Jackman as Wolverine in 'Logan'
39. Logan. 2017. Like The Dark Knight this is a rare superhero film that’s excellent, which is a way of saying that it’s not really a superhero film. Logan is more like a post-apocalyptic western, inspired by the X-Men series rather than a part of it. The year is 2029, and Logan is 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 a masterpiece and the perfect farewell to this iconic X-Men character.

Daniel Craig.
40. Knives Out. 2019. This is one of the most honest-to-God fun films I have ever laughed through. Rian Johnson uses an A-list cast to produce fun in every scene of this mansion-based who-dunnit. An old rich guy kills himself, or so it seems, and his family are less interested in grieving than planning on how to spend the fortune they will surely inherit. They get a rude surprise: he left everything — every single penny, and the mansion too — to his young Latina nurse who is an immigrant. When detectives and a private eye show up and won’t leave, it starts to look like the old man’s death may not have been suicide. These family members are all so hollowly shitty, and racist in varying degrees, but it’s easy to love them when they’re played with relish by actors like Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Michael Shannon, and Jamie Lee Curtis. But it’s Daniel Craig who steals the show — with a preposterous Foghorn-Leghorn accent — and when he finally fingers the guilty party in the end, it’s as satisfying as it is sad that the entertainment is over. I wish that Knives Out were a six-hour film, frankly; these characters are too wonderfully played to close the curtain on them any sooner.

The Best Films of 2019

This was a good year for film. In recent years I’ve had only a handful of films to recommend by the year’s end. This year I have a full top 10, plus a bonus.


1. A Hidden Life. 5 stars. I thought Terrence Malick was washed up after Tree of Life (2011). To the Wonder (2012), Knight of Cups (2016), and Song to Song (2017) were the kind of navel-gazing films that arthouse critics praise just because Terrence Malick made them, but I’ve got some news for those critics, even the best directors stumble and fall. Thankfully Malick picked himself up again. A Hidden Life is not only my film pick of the year, it’s a testimony to achieving a cinematic style that matches transcendent goals that most directors only dream of. It’s about the real-life unsung Austrian hero, Franz Jägerstätter, who refused to fight for the Nazis in World War II, executed for it, and was later declared a martyr and beatified by the Catholic Church. As in other Malick films, geographical beauty is the canvas on which human ugliness is painted and interrogated. The Austrian backdrop is breathtaking; the plight of Jägerstätter and his wife almost hard to credit in a world that can yield such beauty.


2. Parasite. 5 stars. Ever since Snowpiercer, I have vowed to see every film made by Bong Joon-ho. Snowpiecer was set on a train in a post-apocalyptic ice age, and portrayed a social class war as David Lynch might imagine it. In Parasite, there is again social skewering, showing how the rich survive on the backs of the less advantaged. But as always, Joon-ho isn’t being didactic. He’s an artist, not a preacher, and pays off viewers as they deserve, this time with a story of a family who live in a cellar and fold pizza boxes for a living. Then they get the bright idea to pose as sophisticated skilled workers (an English tutor; an art therapist; a chauffeur; and a housekeeper) and insert themselves into the lives of the wealthy, on whom they wreak mischief. Things get out of control and spiral into calamity, with twists and turns you won’t expect. Parasite is outstanding and has incredible rewatch value.


3. Joker. 5 stars. I can’t believe I once said that no one could ever top Jack Nicholson’s performance as Joker, but by ’80s standards, Tim Burton’s Batman was a work of art. Today it’s pure camp. Then I said the same thing about Heath Ledger’s Joker, and he does still hold up. But Joaquin Phoenix’s incarnation is as good as Ledger’s in a much different way, and fits like a glove in a drama without the Batman, that focuses like a laser on what mental illness can do to a person in a cruel cold world. It’s set in 1981 (Ronald Reagan’s first year), in the time of increased governmental neglect for the mentally ill. Funding cuts to social services leave Arthur without access to meds, and he slides deeper into the identity he carves for himself. Phoenix plays it so convincingly, and the repeated fits of compulsive laughter must have been exhausting on an actor. There are heavy shades of both Taxi Driver and King of Comedy; Todd Phillips has made a Joker film in the most Martin Scorsese way possible, and it’s a noble heartbreaking achievement.


4. The Nightingale. 4 ½ stars. This isn’t a rape-revenge movie, despite the claims of some. It’s about a woman who is raped (graphically, more than once) and at first seeks revenge, but finds something different that actually feels like grace. The film is by Jennifer Kent, the director of The Babadook, and she proves she can do a historical piece even better than indie horror. It’s set in 1825 in an Australian British penal colony, and holds an unpleasant spotlight on the way the Brits treated their subjects. It could have gone wrong in so many ways, not just by becoming a hollow rape revenge, but by the way Clare teams up with the aborigine. The Nightingale is no Hollywood parable of a “feminist and a black”. The guarded relationship between this Irish woman and her servant is nailed right in every scene, and doesn’t feel anachronistic. The ending on the beach is simply transcendent.

'Once Upon A Time in Hollywood'
5. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. 4 ½ stars. This love letter to Hollywood is one of Tarantino’s most emotionally honest films. It takes place in 1969 around the plot of a has-been actor, and revises events of the Manson family, so that instead of Sharon Tate getting killed, it’s the Manson killers who die. And they die brutally: they pass over Sharon Tate’s home and crash the home of the story’s heroes played by Leo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. The slaughter that ensues is pure over-the-top Tarantino; one of the Manson sisters gets her face bashed and pounded in twenty times over; the other gets eaten alive by a dog and roasted by a flamethrower. But leading up to this twenty-minute end-game is a sprawling two-hour walk-though of late ’60s Hollywood, when spaghetti Westerns were becoming a thing and hippies were invading Hollywood. To think I was only four months old when the movie industry was like this.

Doctor Sleep Box Office
6. Doctor Sleep. 4 ½ stars. It’s certainly no Kubrick classic, but it is a rare adaptation of a Stephen King novel that is very good. Better yet, it’s a sequel to both King’s novel and Kubrick’s film, taking the best of both worlds. Kubrick’s ending to The Shining was better than King’s. Instead of the Overlook Hotel dying and Dick Hallorann surviving, Kubrick killed off Hallorann and allowed the evil Overlook to live on (the final shot of Jack Torrance in the 1921 painting is far creepier and scarier than the explosive melodrama penned by King). So Hallorann visits Danny in visions now, and Danny makes quite a momentous return to the Overlook, where he destroys the hotel as his father did in the novel. Filling this framework is the plot of psychic vampires who prey on people, including children, and I was surprised by some of the bold risks taken, not least the gang murder of the little boy. Thumbs way up to Doctor Sleep. I love it.

Daniel Craig.
7. Knives Out. 4 ½ stars. It takes courage to play the Agatha Christie card when you really just want to have fun, but Rian Johnson uses an A-list cast to produce fun in every scene of this mansion-based who-dunnit. An old rich guy kills himself, or so it seems, and his family are less interested in grieving than planning on how to spend the fortune they will surely inherit. They get a rude surprise: he left everything — every single penny, and the mansion too — to his young Latina nurse who is an immigrant. When detectives and a private eye show up and won’t leave, it starts to look like the old man’s death may not have been suicide. These family members are all so hollowly shitty, and racist in varying degrees, but it’s easy to love them when they’re played with relish by actors like Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Michael Shannon, and Jamie Lee Curtis. But it’s Daniel Craig who steals the show — with a preposterous Foghorn-Leghorn accent — and when he finally fingers the guilty party in the end, it’s as satisfying as it is sad that the entertainment is over. I wish that Knives Out were a six-hour film, frankly; these characters are too wonderfully played to close the curtain on them any sooner.


8. The Irishman. 4 stars. Scorsese brings back De Niro and Pesci, throws in Pacino, and tells a story of Jimmy Hoffa with a revisionism that assumes the worst of its characters. It has pinched the hemorrhoids of a more than a few Hoffa buffs, but it didn’t bother me; I just don’t know enough about Jimmy Hoffa enough to care about the historical blasphemies. Basically The Irishman covers the mid ’40s to the early aughts, with Frank Sheeran (De Niro) narrating his rise from a low-level thug to the right hand of Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino). Sheeran claims to have killed Hoffa in 1975 at the behest of Russell Bufalino (Pesci), in the union-mafia climate of the ’60s and ’70s. Make no mistake, Goodfellas and Casino this is not. Hell, it doesn’t even make my top 10 Scorsese films list. But it’s still a solid effort.


9. Climax. 4 stars. This is the dance party from hell, apparently based on a true story, and something you have to see to believe, like all of Gaspar Noe’s films. Set in France in 1996, the party is attended by dancers of alternate dance styles and ethnicities, who want to express unity in power of art. They talk about love, race, and sexuality, and why they need to dance. Then they drink punch spiked with acid, and everyone loses their almighty shit. They turn on each other, nasty and ultra-violent, and by the next morning people will be found dead. The music keeps racing through it all. I doubt this film is as profound as Noe might want us to think it is, but there’s no denying it’s a hell of a ride.

Dragged Across Concrete
10. Dragged Across Concrete. 3 ½ stars. I was pleasantly surprised by this one, half-expecting a garden variety crime drama of disaffected, down on their luck cops who don’t draw much sympathy. The Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn characters are actually quite sympathetic, and the claims that this is a right-wing action flick can be dismissed. Here the good-will beliefs about race and social class are taken as phony, by criminals and cops alike, white and black, all of whom know that liberal fantasies can only be indulged by those who can afford to be naive. The two cops are put on suspension for excessive use of violence, and in their time off without badges they get drawn into witnessing an ugly crime as they are trying to commit their own. It’s a slow burn until the very end, and it rewards in ways I didn’t expect.

Reactions to Rey and Kylo's Kiss in The Rise of Skywalker
11. The Rise of Skywalker. 3 stars. Yes, I’m including this as a bonus, just to show you how open-minded I can be during certain phases of the moon. But also because it’s not as bad as the critics say, and certainly not “the worst Star Wars film since Phantom Menace” by a long shot. It’s weakness is that it feels like an apology for The Last Jedi, which, despite the PC overtones, actually took the franchise in some interesting directions. J.J. Abrams reverts to the derivative approach of The Force Awakens, and serves up fanwank that’s enjoyable if you just say the hell with it and go along for the ride. Look at it this way: The Rise of Skywalker caps off a trilogy better than either a muppet movie or Hayden-Brat Darth Vader.

(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 2018.)

The Star Wars films ranked… and some are very rank indeed

Though I have spared you the rank installment of Solo. I haven’t seen that one and probably never will. Here are the other ten films, in proper descending order. The order is bound to infuriate many fans. This is Star Wars after all.

father1. The Empire Strikes Back. 5 stars. This is the Star Wars film that engages me on all the right levels. It’s important to remember that Irvin Kershner directed it, not Lucas, who is always the problem. There’s never a dull moment in Empire, whether in its action scenes or pregnant pauses. It introduces Yoda, and the drama on the jungle planet is transcendent. For an ’80s blockbuster it’s dark as hell: the rebels get slaughtered at the battle of Hoth, which is brilliantly shot; Luke faces his dark side and loses a hand; Han Solo is kidnapped and frozen in carbonite. And of course it’s capped off by the brilliant reveal of Vader as Luke’s father, over a vertigo hang that still makes me sweat. It almost seems like Empire is an accidental masterpiece, sandwiched in between two films into which Lucas poured his more misguided efforts.

2. Rogue One. 4 ½ stars. You can actually make a case for this being the best entry in the franchise, but there’s some choppy pacing throughout the first half. Rogue One is Star Wars for adults, which is how I wish the franchise had been done from the start. The third act is a whopper, unquestionably the best battle of the franchise, and ends on the appropriate tragedy of all the Rogue One crew dying for their efforts. Had Disney not given the green light for all the heroes to die, this would have been a wasted film and insincere. It’s the foreordained conclusion that makes us appreciate what the rebels went through to get those Death Star plans. And, as if Jyn dying wasn’t a perfect enough ending, it’s improved on with the surprise “second ending” of Darth Vader kicking ass with his lightsaber and telekinetic abilities on the rebels escaping with the plans, seguing perfectly into the very first scenes of A New Hope.

3. The Last Jedi. 4 stars. I had high hopes for this installment given the director Rian Johnson’s work on other projects like Breaking Bad, and his talents pay off, though not quite to the insane degree implied by the critics. It’s no masterpiece. This isn’t the best Star Wars film since Empire but it does take rewarding risks. Where The Force Awakens plagiarized the hell out of the past, The Last Jedi breaks new ground in impressive ways and delivers some of the most dramatic scenes of the franchise. There are offenses like the porgs, and Leia using the Force to fly, but they’re few and far between. The best performance is Mark Hamill’s, who in the classic trilogy was a poor actor who played a whiny bitch. This chapter finally justifies Luke’s existence. He’s that good, and even outdoes Han Solo in Force Awakens.

star-wars-force-awakens-teaser-lightsaber-promo4. The Force Awakens. 4 stars. It recycles more plot points than any other film I know of. Another Death Star. Rey, the “new Luke”, climbing around inside it. She watches Han Solo’s death by lightsaber, as Luke saw Obi-Wan’s. She locates the hermit Luke, as Luke found Obi-Wan. BB-8, replaying R2-D2, carries crucial information for which the baddies hunt him down. Jakku is the new Tatooine; the winter planet evokes Hoth. The repeats fill pages. But the derivative material works for it rather than against. I was never wild about A New Hope, and so to me Force Awakens felt like the first Star Wars film that I’d always wanted; and also because Han Solo’s death is so moving. Rey is believable and likable in every way that the young Luke was not. There is none of the Flash Gordon feel of A New Hope; only first-rate performances by all involved.

star-wars-episode-iv5. A New Hope. 3 ½ stars. As I said, I never fell in love with Star Wars as a kid, and as a young adult I blamed the franchise for killing the Golden Age of ’70s cinema. A New Hope may have been “unlike anything before”, as people claimed, but it was a pastiche of tropes and storytelling techniques that certainly had come before (throughout the ’30s-’50s), and it all meshed for me artificially. It felt like a kid’s story putting on adult airs. The whiny character of Luke is frankly almost as embarrassing as Hayden Christensen’s Anakin in the prequels. Still, I can’t deny the epic sweep, and there are impressive sequences — the Tusken raiders in the desert, conversations on board the Millenium Falcon, the infiltration of the Death Star, and of course the final attack on it. The Olympics-medal epilogue is offensive beyond words.

6. The Rise of Skywalker. 3 stars. In the classic trilogy, the third film was the worst. In the prequel trilogy, it was the best, but still awful. In the final trilogy, it is again the worst — but not as bad as the critics say, and certainly not “the worst Star Wars film since Phantom Menace” by a long shot. It’s weakness is that it feels like an apology for The Last Jedi, about which some fans were so obnoxiously pissed that they signed a petition to get it excluded from the canon. That’s Star Wars fans for you: once the franchise improves on itself, they cry foul. J.J. Abrams reverts to derivative material, but where in The Force Awakens, his derivative material worked to the film’s advantage, in Rise of Skywalker it actually feels derivative. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the way Rey and Kylo’s arcs play out, and even the fanwank of everyone “coming back to life” – Han, Luke, and (Jesus Christ) Palpatine – worked for me on a guilty-pleasure level. Look at it this way: The Rise of Skywalker caps things off better than either a muppet movie or Hayden-Brat Darth Vader. Those two are next…

jabba7. Return of the Jedi. 2 ½ stars. The first 45 minutes of Jedi are actually not bad. Jabba the Hut is a wonderfully obscene character and Princess Leia his implicit sex slave. The metal bikini is so trashy and politically incorrect, and a refreshing reminder of the days before such elements would be decried by regressive leftists. Yoda’s passing on the jungle planet is also fine. But from that point on, Jedi is a complete wreck — nothing like A New Hope and workaday as Empire is grand. And it’s not just the damn Ewoks, though they’re obviously the lead offenders. The entire tone is juvenile. The dialogue could have been scripted by a high-school sophomore. There is no vision, just a lazy Death Star repeat.

anakin-obi-wan-fighting-mustafar8. Revenge of the Sith. 2 stars. It’s the best of the prequels though that’s not saying much. Consider how good it could have been: Anakin turns to the dark side, helps the Emperor take control of the galaxy, and destroys the Jedi Knights. His transformation into Darth Vader, in parallel with the dying Padme giving birth to Luke and Leia, is the stuff of classic tragedy. The tone is as dark as Empire’s, sometimes even more so. The slaughter of the kids in the Jedi temple (granted it happens off screen) is an admittedly shocking move that I never expected from Lucas. Sith could have been a masterpiece in the hands of a competent director. In the end, Hayden Christensen is a horrible casting for Darth Vader, and the cheesy prequel elements remain — lame dialogue, cardboard plotting, and digitally overwrought battle scenes. This is the story that needed soul, and it’s not there.

Attack-of-the-clones-Yoda-mbjr9cjdjugbly26nfauyr8906wnmv9tfr0qqzykfs9. Attack of the Clones. 1 ½ stars. This one is pretty dire, but something of a guilty pleasure because of Yoda. He’s always been the best Star Wars character, and Clones milks him for all he’s worth. His grammar goes hilariously off the scales, as in imperatives like “Around the survivors a perimeter create”. Worth the price of admission alone is his lightsaber duel with Count Dooku, which begins with him hobbling into the room like an old geezer to then explode into CGI acrobatics. There’s some other decent stuff too, like Obi-Wan’s investigation that takes him to visually impressive worlds, Anakin’s encounter with the Sand People, and the plot conspiracy of the clone army. I realize I’m damning with faint praise, but I would watch this film over Phantom Menace any day.

star-wars-episode-1-the-phantom-menace10. The Phantom Menace. 1 star. One thing can be said for the prequel trilogy. Many of the light-saber duels are superior to those of the classic. And the best one comes in the worst entry of the franchise. The face off between Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, and Darth Maul is extremely well done. Which makes it all the more tragic that the rest of this film is so abysmal that nothing can keep it from a rock-bottom rating. This isn’t just a bad movie, it’s a movie that goes out of its way to be bad, indeed to shit down the throats of fandom. Jar Jar is the foulest to swallow, but like the Ewoks of Jedi he simply encapsulates an overall texture that channels the Force of Disney. What a mess.