Those ’80s Films… Even the Best of Them

Quentin Tarantino is solid. He doesn’t let the PC police faze him, or ideology get in the way of his art. Recently he’s gone after ’80s films, much in the same way I have; I’m convinced now that he and I are kindred souls. From two of his recent interviews, he says:

“The ’50s and the ’80s were the worst time for American movies. In the ’50s it was just the way society was. In the ’80s it was self-censorship, in response to the ’70s, where film makers went as far as they could. Everything in the ’80s was suddenly watered down. In ’70s films characters weren’t necessarily the heroes, but they were compelling and interesting. In the ’80s you couldn’t say shit if you had a mouthful. In the ’80s the most important thing about main characters was that they were likeable. And even a film that pushed the envelope and tried to do chancy things, it could do so for only part of the film before it pulled back and ‘apologized’ for it…”

“The decade of the ’80s was the decade of ‘they won’t let you do that’. We’re going through the ’80s Part 2 now [in the 21st century], except there’s more of a McCarthy-esque blacklist aspect to it. In the ’80s film makers just did it to themselves, whereas today people are doing it to you as a film maker. And it was only happening in America in the ’80s; everywhere else in the world was bold cinema. And that’s the kind of film I wanted to make when starting my career [in the early ’90s]. When I was told ‘they won’t let you do that’, I said, ‘Well, who are they?’ And I never let that stop me, and by doing that, I and others changed film making in the ’90s. [Starting with Reservoir Dogs.] The ’90s films stopped being ‘politically correct’ [by ’80s standards], and started taking risks again.”

I came of age in the ’80s and simply can’t watch most of the films I grew up on. They’ve aged horribly and I wonder how I ever enjoyed them. By pre- or post-’80s standards they come off as censored or sanitized in the way Tarantino describes, with facilely (and predictably) happy endings. They tend to be family friendly, aligning with the family-value era of Ronald Reagan. Chris Maltezos wrote a dissertation called “The Return of the 1950s Nuclear Family in the Films of the 1980s”, in which he focuses on two particular ’80s films, Ordinary People and E.T., noting the re-emerging importance of father figures, and the lasting bonds between children and their parents. I’ll make similar observations in my case studies below.

But let me preface this by saying that obviously not everything from the ’80s was bad. The rot hadn’t fully set in until ’83. Some films from ’80-’82 were brilliant extensions of ’70s-style cinema. Think of The Shining (1980), Escape from New York (1981), The Evil Dead (1981), Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981), Conan the Barbarian (1982), and Blade Runner (1982). Many of those are masterpieces, and all are ’70s films at heart. (Whereas Conan the Destroyer (1984), Mad Max 3: Beyond Thunderdome (1985), and The Evil Dead 2 (1987) are “pure ’80s”, and as awful as their predecessors were excellent.)

There were good films between ’83-’89 too, but they were exceptional, and not entirely free of ’80s tropes. Even the best film makers couldn’t escape the baggage. The self-censorship that Tarantino speaks of is quite evident when you watch them today. I’ll focus on three films I deeply admire (Near Dark, Blue Velvet, and After Hours) and then one that almost everyone loves but I don’t (Aliens).

Near Dark (1987)

Kathryn Bigelow’s horror-western is the perfect vampire film — or almost. There’s no seductive glamorizing of the bloodsuckers; it’s a very violent and nihilistic tale and holds up well against the typical dreck horror of the ’80s. But there is the happy ending that sticks out: Caleb has been given a blood transfusion by his father (who does transfusions with farm animals) which saves him and makes him human again. After the nasty showdown with the other vamps — and Mae almost burns to ash in the sun — she too is given a transfusion by Caleb and returns to humanity. The epilogue points to their happy future under the roof of Caleb’s father, where vampire horrors will be a distant memory.

Had Bigelow made this film in any other decade, I guarantee she would not have conceived this cheesy ending. In a ’70s horror film like this Caleb and Mae would have stayed vampires, and one (or both) of them likely met a tragic end — dying in the sun, stake through the heart, whatever. As a ’90s film, Caleb and Mae would have also stayed vampires, and perhaps left the other vamps that had been Mae’s family, to go rogue as a lover duo. The film is so great that you can forgive the conclusion catering to nuclear family values, but it does stand out awkwardly from a post-’80s perspective.

Blue Velvet (1986)

The darkest and most perverse anti-’80s film of the ’80s is, for my money, Blue Velvet. If there’s any director who refuses to self-censor in any time, it’s David Lynch. And yet even he — in even this hideous tale of mean sexual brutality that pulls no punches — ends Blue Velvet in a non-Lynchian way that panders to the nuclear family. After the mystery is solved and Frank Booth is killed, all is well that ends well. In the epilogue, everyone is gathered on a sunny day at the home of Jeffrey’s father. Jeffrey’s girlfriend Sandy looks out the window and sees that the robins of her dreams have come to the yard. She has forgiven Jeffrey for all his subterfuge. This scene is juxtaposed with Dorothy, who after her captivity and sexual abuse under Frank is now free and reunited with her young boy: happy for the first time in ages, restored to motherhood and mental health.

I should emphasize that I like Blue Velvet‘s ending. Not all happy endings are bad; some are well earned, and unlike Near Dark’s, Blue Velvet‘s is genuinely moving. It’s an earned payoff to all the suffocating despair that came before. Nonetheless, I doubt that Lynch would have written this ending had he made Blue Velvet in any other decade. Had it been a film of the ’70s or ’90s, Jeffrey would have walked away at the end, alone and shattered by everything he’d experienced. Lynch’s track record speaks for itself: Blue Velvet is his only film with “all is well that ends well”.

Consider: Eraserhead (1977) was ’70s nihilism from start to finish. Wild at Heart (1990) and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) were flat repudiations of the family-centric ’80s. In Wild at Heart, Lula’s mother tries to have Lula’s boyfriend killed, and in the end, Lula is finally able to reject her mother as she reunites with her boyfriend Sailor; the photograph of her mother sizzles and vanishes, signaling Lula’s liberation from the woes of her biological family. Fire Walk With Me is about Laura Palmer’s sexual abuse at the hands of her father, who in the final terrible scene murders Laura. (Laura’s mother is dysfunctional too.) These films are impossible to imagine on screen in the ’80s.

Next came Lost Highway (1997), with a nihilistic ending about a man’s permanent imprisonment in denial. Soon after that Mulholland Drive (2001), which finished on Diane being terrorized by hallucinations of her parents, causing her to shoot herself in her own bed. That’s about as anti-nuclear family as one can imagine, and the kind of depressing ending we expect from Lynch.

Even Lynch’s G-rated Straight Story (1999) (G-rated films are family-friendly by definition, so this one would hardly count much anyway), while ending on a man reunited with his brother after years of estrangement, doesn’t portray that ending as exactly happy. His brother looks at him but is unable to say anything; and the film abruptly ends. The Straight Story is an odyssey; the ending is an ambiguous epilogue that leaves questions open about the possibility of a reconciliation.

After Hours (1985)

In Martin Scorsese’s case the self-censorship involves a genre shift. Never in the ’80s did he make anything like Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), or Raging Bull (1980) (the last of which was a 70s film to the core, despite its release in 1980). We’d have to wait for the ’90s and beyond to get Goodfellas (1990), Cape Fear (1991), Casino (1995), Bringing Out the Dead (1999), Gangs of New York, (2002), The Departed (2006), Shutter Island (2010), and The Irishman (2019).

What we got instead from Scorsese was what the ’80s had in abundance: comedy and sports: The King of Comedy (1982), After Hours (1985), and (for sports) The Color of Money (1986). These were capped off by a horrible imagination of the historical Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ (1989) (which should have been a comedy like The Life of Brian). The ’80s decade was the undeniable nadir of Scorsese’s career. The Color of Money was especially mainstream for him, showing Tom Cruise playing billiards in the blandest most conventional narrative.

But I do like After Hours. It’s a comedy that hits my sweet spot; a very dark one about a guy who gets sucked into a surrealist nightmare. He loses his money, causes a suicide, becomes a suspect in a bunch of robberies, and turns the neighborhood against him. It’s edgy and nervy by ’80s standards, though hardly by Scorsese’s own standards. But these are the limits he apparently allowed himself. He couldn’t have made a Goodfellas or a Cape Fear in the ’80s. Cinema was too sanitized for that stuff.

Aliens (1986) — as compared to Alien (1979) and Alien 3 (1992)

And now for a film I don’t like: Aliens. It’s really just Alien on steroids, throwing umpteen of the horrors against a bunch of mercenaries who sign on to risk their lives anyway. Alien was a masterpiece of ’70s sci-fic terror. Aliens is a crowd pleaser with a happy ending (by Alien-franchise standards), with its most likeable characters — Ripley, Hicks, and Newt — surviving against every odd. Ripley is a maternal figure in Aliens who saves the innocent child.

Alien 3, for all its problems, is at least a return to ’70s seriousness. It’s bleak and misanthropic, with no likeable figure save Ripley, and even she’s a bit hard to warm to this time around. The opening scene — right from this starting point, I knew I’d like Alien 3 — reverses the happy ending of Aliens, by killing off Hicks and the child Newt whom Ripley went through Hell and back to save. As if to give the ’80s a deliberate finger, Ripley’s surrogate family is obliterated from the get. The ugly depths of the human condition are on display everywhere in the film. Charles Dutton plays a rapist and killer of women whose faith makes him a very unlikely hero, though a very interesting one. Ripley herself dies at the end.

To the repeated claims that Aliens is the rare sequel that’s better than the first film, I say hogwash. It’s not even close, and I even prefer Alien 3 to Aliens. David Fincher is leagues ahead of James Cameron, and he made his film a stalk-and-slash horror in the same vein as Alien,‭ ‬with Ripley having few weapons to rely on. He tried to bring back menace to the franchise, and while he only half succeeded (the dog-like alien wasn’t especially scary), he still made a decent film. All Cameron made was a blockbuster tailored for ’80s sensibilities.

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

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

1970s

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

1980s

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

1990s

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

2000s

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

2010s

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

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

Even 'Godfather' Films Merit Re-evaluation | by Warm3wind | Medium

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hard Candy (2005) - Men Tied Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

https://rossonl.files.wordpress.com/2016/02/the-pact_shadow.jpg43. The Pact, Nicholas McCarthy, 2012. Way underrated, this tale of a haunted house contains a truly terrorizing twist. It turns out there is indeed a ghost in the house, but also a real-life psychopath living in the cellar, and he has been there the whole damn time. When you learn this and reflect back to the start of the movie when some of the “ghostly” assaults began — the open closet door, the jar of food on the floor, Annie being levitated and thrown against the walls, the other girls disappearing altogether — you realize that only some of this was the ghost. That’s frightening on many levels, and the sort of thing Peter Straub pulled off brilliantly in his novel Lost Boy, Lost Girl, especially with the secret room with spyholes, and the room of caged torment. McCarthy blends psychopathic and supernatural horror like a master.

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

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

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

 

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

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


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

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

Ranking the Top 3’s

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

1970s

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

1980s

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

1990s

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

2000s

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

2010s

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

The Best Films of 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

(See also: The Best Films of 2006 The Best Films of 2007, The Best Films of 2008, The Best Films of 2009, The Best Films of 2010, The Best Films of 2011, The Best Films of 2012, The Best Films of 2013, The Best Films of 2014, The Best Films of 2015, The Best Films of 2016, The Best Films of 2017, The Best Films of 2018, The Best Films of 2019.)

The Best Filmmakers Alive (in North America)

I’m confining myself to American/Canadian filmmakers. Otherwise I’d include many other directors, like Danny Boyle, Gaspar Noe, and Park Chan-wook, and there’s no way I can do such  global justice on a top-10 list.

1. David Lynch. The best filmmaker alive (from any country) has been showing us film’s unlimited potential since his Eraserhead debut. It was a conversion experience for me when I saw Blue Velvet in the ’80s and his latest masterpiece, Twin Peaks: The Return (considered an extended film as much as a TV miniseries), is cinema at its stunningly purist. Lynch would top this list even if I were considering filmmakers no longer alive (like Kubrick).

2. William Friedkin. He practically reinvented cinema in the 70s, fell from grace a bit in the 80s, then got his second wind afterwards. He ruined my 11-year old psyche with The Exorcist, but no matter, it’s still my favorite film. His induced-documentary styled films, his intense adaptations of stage plays, all tap into a uniquely raw energy. He also remade 12 Angry Men better than the classic, and that’s saying something. He’s one arrogant son of a bitch, and I feel for some of the actors who suffered under him, but then pain is temporary and film is forever.

3. Terrence Malick. The characters in his films play second fiddle to the main character of Nature itself, and he makes that work without being pretentious. His films preserve a still in almost every frame that you’d be proud to hang in your living room. There aren’t many directors who can get away with picturesque styles and meditative voice-overs, but Malick has full command of these techniques. Tree of Life and A Hidden Life are his masterpieces.

4. Kathryn Bigelow. She’s a Jack of all Trades and master of all, having done police thrillers (Blue Steel, Detroit), industrial sci-fic (Strange Days), war films (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty), and on top of that the best vampire film of all time (Near Dark) — a horror western with serious attitude. She’s as good as her ex-boyfriend (James Cameron) is bad… and that’s saying loads. I laughed for days when she rightly won an award for The Hurt Locker while Cameron was snubbed that same year for Avatar.

5. Quentin Tarantino. Most directors have at least one or two stinkers to their name, but Tarantino has never made a bad film. (His worst, Kill Bill, is still pretty good.) His contributions to nonlinear storytelling, cathartic violence, and insanely compulsive dialogue are unrivaled. He never went to film school and didn’t need to. He has a brilliant ear for music and scoring, and for sounds to use for violence. And he can make you laugh at horrible things that no one else can.

6. Martin Scorsese. A bone of contention among his fans who argue endlessly about what the masterpieces are. I say his five best are Taxi Driver, The Silence, Casino, Goodfellas, and Shutter Island, in that order (yes, Casino before Goodfellas, sue me), and I believe Raging Bull to be obscenely overrated. He has made a few duds (Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun the worst offenders), but in many ways his greatness is unparalleled, and his influence on other film makers can’t be exaggerated.

7. Richard Linklater. His characters are as real as Friedkin’s, and he’s a master of the interplay between story, documentary, and experience. His greatest success is writing a trilogy in which the sequel is better than an already excellent first, and third is even better than the second. No other trilogy in cinematic history can boast such a progression of excellence. I’m speaking, of course, of the Before trilogy. Other great stuff from him too.

8. Denis Villeneuve. His early efforts (Polytechnique, Incendies) are as underrated as his recent masterpieces (Blade Runner 2049) which did rather poorly at the box office. His films are patiently plotted, with atmospheric scores and staggering use of color. They hint at a voyeuristic obsessiveness with the camera, used to mighty effect. I may be inflating him a bit high without Dune having its say yet, but I’m confident it will deliver. David Lynch is the film making god, but his Dune sucked balls.

9. David O. Russell. He makes films about topics I have no interest in (boxing, football & ballroom dancing, household cleaning products) but become immersed in the manic worlds of dysfunctional characters who find salvation in themselves from the oddest places. I’ve seen Joy so many times it’s ridiculous; and The Boxer and American Hustle multiple times each. I wouldn’t want to work for this guy — judging from some reports he ages his actors ten years from the stress he puts them through — in this sense he reminds of Friedkin.

10. Paul Thomas Anderson. I’m not the biggest fan of this giant, but his highs are so high (especially There Will Be Blood and Magnolia) that I have to include him. As far as I’m concerned, There Will Be Blood is to the 21st century what Citizen Kane was to the 20th: the film of all films. Punch Drunk Love, on the other hand, may be one of the most offensively steaming piles of artistic shit I’ve suffered through.

Honorable mentions: Darren Aronofsky, Joel and Ethan Coen, David Cronenberg, David Fincher, Chris Nolan, Peter Jackson, Steven Soderbergh.

Way overrated (WO) or downright shitty (DS): Woody Allen (WO), Wes Anderson (WO), Tim Burton (WO), James Cameron (DS), Alfonso Cuarón (WO), Ron Howard (DS), George Lucas (DS), M. Night Shyamalan (WO), Stephen Spielberg (WO), Oliver Stone (WO), Joss Whedon (DS).

Hereditary Revisited

I understand why Hereditary went straight to Amazon Prime. It doesn’t earn its critical praise, though many disagree with me, and in the last two days I was made aware/reminded of such disagreements by three different friends. Since I never actually reviewed Hereditary I will now by way of reply.

It could have been a good film, I’ll grant it that. Up until you start to realize what’s really going on, the film shows promise, depicting a family tragedy that turns into a nightmare, involving the grisly decapitation of a child who was socially awkward from the day she was born. The child’s spirit seems to haunt the family members and their home afterwards, with a deft blurring of the psychological and supernatural. The parents and older brother rage at at each other, and inwardly at themselves. They retreat into silence, unable to bridge the chasms of grief. Then, in the third act, the film switches gears; the supernatural becomes overt; and the drama devolves into, well, a crock to say the least.

This devolution is all the more frustrating since Hereditary is that rare horror film that has the balls to end on a note of pure hopelessness. Every member of the family is killed. The forces of evil have their ways with this family, just as those forces have planned all along. I love that premise of inevitable despair which mocks free will. But when the scares aren’t that scary, when the themes clash, and when the plot somersaults on its ass, there’s kind of a problem. Here, specifically, is how the third act torpedoes the film:

1. From the subtle to the cliche. The final act robs shamelessly from countless classics: Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, The Exorcist III: Legion, The Omen, The Amityville Horror, The Wicker Man, The Witch, and still more. One critic has amusingly suggested that the title “Hereditary” could just as well refer to all these blatant rip-offs. (To say “homages” would be too polite and conciliatory.) And these rip-offs, in context, aren’t very scary — considerably less so than the subtle moves of the first act.

2. From psychosis to the occult. The film begins by exploring (or at least seeming to explore) the hereditary angle of mental health — that people inherit psychosis and neurosis from their alienated sires. But when the third act takes a hard left into the occult, the mental health angle is either dropped or wedged into a Satanic theme (which effectively trivializes or demonizes those with mental health issues), resulting in a clash of subgenres.

3. From Annie to Peter. Annie is the main character — and played very convincingly by Toni Collette — but it turns out that Hereditary isn’t her story. It’s Peter’s story, and when the focus switches to him, his “ascension” feels wholly unearned. Not to mention confusing: we are to understand that he is the male vessel needed for the Devil-King Paimon. But if Paimon has been liberated from the female host (Charlie) that confined him, then why does Joan address Peter as Charlie? Does she now reside within Peter as well? For that matter, it’s not even clear why Paimon needed a male to manifest, as he had been possessing Charlie (and doing creepy things through her) since she was born.

The final act in the treehouse — despite the wonderfully grotesque imagery of decapitated worshipers — fell flat for me, because the whole concept felt intrusive. It evokes Rosemary’s Baby and The Witch, but Hereditary doesn’t earn its stripes as an occult film. It should have been what it began as, and I wish Director Ari Aster had had the courage of his convictions to play out a psycho-horror story to an organic conclusion. There’s certainly nothing wrong with occult/supernatural films (I love them, believe me), only that the transition to that material doesn’t work in Hereditary.

Aster is at his best in the early part of the film, when he mines the family for despair and dysfunctional dynamics. I was pumped for Ordinary People meets Twin Peaks meets something original. Instead I got muddled & murky meets every supernatural classic I’ve seen.

I know I’m in the minority here. So have at me and say why I’m so wrong.

Rating: 2 stars out of 5.

The Past Five Decades Ranked

In ranking the decades I have lived through (not counting the 60s, for which I was an infant at the tail end), it became clear that each era had its strengths. It’s not so easy to say which is best and worst — or at least not as easy as I used to think before working it through. I’ve had a love-hate relationship with the 80s; though it ranks last, I’m glad I grew up in that period. Here’s how they line up.

The 70s: Rank #1

This was a gloomy and nihilistic decade, so it’s no surprise it’s my favorite. But I was too young to take it all in as it deserved.

It was the Golden Age of cinema, giving us masterpieces like The Godfather, The Exorcist, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, and Alien. Even when a film wasn’t great, chances are that it was at least good. Blockbusters weren’t a thing yet, and scriptwriters actually had to come up with good stories; and they weren’t afraid to go dark. No decade has celebrated pushing the boundaries of free expression to its uttermost limit, thanks mostly to the consequences of ’60s liberation and outrage over the Vietnam War. Thus horror films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Last House on the Left.

These were the days when liberals stood for free speech, and when leftists were conversationalists, not snowflakes. Transgressive TV shows like All in the Family and films like The Exorcist could only have been made in the 70s — and will never, ever, be made again, let alone deemed acceptable in the mainstream. All in the Family‘s comedy reached many people and turned them away from their prejudices; it worked precisely because the comedy was so offensive. It remains the best comedy of all time, a withering social satire, but try posting clips of it on Youtube today, and they’ll be removed, by thought police who are catering to the feelings of the very people All in the Family was defending.

For music, the 70s was the best decade by far. It was the time of progressive rock — Genesis, before they sold out in the mid-80s; Led Zeppelin; Pink Floyd; Rush; Fleetwood Mac; and David Bowie. The music of this era was cerebral and not the most accessible, but it sure grew on you when you gave it half a chance, and it has aged better than any rock music in history, going back to the 50s.

Other stuff: Dungeons & Dragons was born in the 70s, ushering in D&D’s Golden Age (74-82) — the age of pulp fantasy involving morally ambiguous heroes like Conan, Elric, and Fafhrd & Grey Mouser. Parenting was hands-off, and kids had their independence. The only thing really bad about the 70s was fashion, and it was admittedly quite bad: the hair and dress styles were ghastly.

On the downside, it certainly wasn’t the decade of peace and prosperity. This was thanks to Vietnam and the economic purgatory left in its wake. Nixon was a beast in Southeast Asia, and when he left office, his sins (and those of his predecessor Johnson) caught up and pummeled the American people with stagflation — something never seen before or since — as unemployment, stagnant growth, and inflation came together at once, and contradicted what everyone believed: that inflation correlated with growth, and that unemployment led to less inflation. Economics 101 went out the window, and no one knew what to do.

No wonder the 70s saw so much artistic creativity. It was the era of disillusion, cynicism, paranoia, and frustrated rage. Thus the existential tone of so much of the entertainment. Films were about dirty cops, shady leaders, conspiracies, isolation, and loneliness. Rock lyrics were about individuals trying desperately to connect to others, to themselves, and to the world around them. In sum, the decade was about ruined innocence — and while many people find that despairing, I believe it sourced a boundless creativity.

Best cinematic portrayal of coming of age in the 70s: The Ice Storm, Ang Lee, 1997.

The 80s: Rank #4

I came of age in this era, so it’s “my” decade, but it ranks last. On the plus side, kids still had their independence; I never had to deal with helicopter parenting. There was no social media or internet, and while I enjoy online activities as an adult, I’m glad I didn’t have them growing up. It made me get outside. I played at the sand dunes, biked in the woods, and roamed the wilderness. I would have turned out a very different person (and not for the better) had I been micromanaged by a parent and stayed at home all day surfing the web. It’s true that as a D&D addict I spent a lot of time playing inside too, but it was old-school tabletop and fostered imagination and creativity. All that was the good part of the ’80s.

The bad was almost everything else. Aside from a few exceptions — and ’70s-styled layovers released during the early years of ’80-’82, like Road Warrior, Blade Runner, and Conan — film was awful. TV shows were even worse, Miami Vice being the singular exception. The music of the 80s was painful to the ear, and it’s aged even worse, aside from timeless bands like U2 and Peter Gabriel, and the more gothic artists like The Cure, Depeche Mode, The Mission UK. As for hair and dress, it’s embarrassing to look back on, and everyone makes fun of it today, though to be fair, anything after the ’70s was a fashion improvement. At the time, I admit I loved the light-colored pastels, and even bought a couple of Miami-Vice style suits.

It was a socially conservative decade to say the least — the era of Reaganomics, homophobia, the religious right, the cold war, the drug war (D&D players like me recall the fundamentalist war on D&D with particular disgust) and a “family-friendly” outlook that harked back to the ’50s. We almost lost the right to burn the American flag. All of this was opposite the transgressive ’70s, which the Reagan era “corrected” by resurrecting ’50s mores: the importance of the nuclear family, and a collective spirit to oppose the individualism that encouraged thinking too deeply for oneself. The 80s was also the “be all you can be” decade, promoting a naive optimism that being the lowest underdog was no obstacle to achieving your dreams no matter the odds. (How else could films like Karate Kid be all the rage and taken so seriously?) The despairing cynicism of the previous decade required medicine, and the 80s had an endless artificial supply.

And though I rank it last, I’m actually glad that I grew up in the 80s. I was able to come of age without the helicopter parenting and social media, and then live long enough to appreciate, as an adult, the results of the tech and artistry booms when they arrived in the 21st century.

Best cinematic portrayal of coming of age in the ’80s: Stranger Things, The Duffer Brothers, 2016-17-19.

The 90s: Rank #2

The era of good feelings and abundance, and also the tech boom. It didn’t start so well, with the Gulf War and the recession of 90-92, but soon after Clinton took office, times were grand.

Film started getting good again: gone was the corny humor that suffused so many ’80s dramas; filmmakers went dark, and turned out instant classics like Goodfellas, Silence of the Lambs, Seven, and Bound. Quentin Tarantino became a thing, and indie films became a viable alternative to the mainstream. TV wasn’t great, but it was an improvement over the ’80s. There was the brilliant Twin Peaks, the hilariously anti-PC South Park, and other game changers that showed thinking outside the box. For fashion, the 90s was basically an anti-fashion decade, with comfort trumping style: ripped jeans, bike shorts even for walking, windbreakers, bandannas, etc. Still, the anti-fashion of the 90s was an improvement on what passed for fashion in the 70s and 80s.

It was the absolute worst decade for D&D. Modules were railroady and uninspired. The best efforts came in recapitulations of products from the 70s and 80s — desperate attempts to relive the old glory. TSR died at the end of the decade, and by then I had lost interest in D&D to the extent I almost trashed all my rule books and modules. (Thankfully I didn’t.) As for music, the popular stuff was an improvement over the 80s, the good stuff about equal. The highlights were Pearl Jam, Radiohead, The Cranberries, and The Smashing Pumpkins.

Thanks to Clinton, the mid- and late 90s were some of the best years of American existence, full of peace, prosperity, and good will. It was the start of the tech boom, before technology enslaved people in the 21st century. The handwriting was on the wall for helicopter parenting — as parents become more territorial and paranoid about letting their kids explore and play on their own — but there remained a semblance of childhood independence.

The 90s saw many people shed prejudices without regressing into social justice warriors. When people were called bigots, it’s often because they really were bigots. The idea was that everyone should be treated the same regardless of sex and ethnicity, but you didn’t have to be hyper-aware of these issues at every moment, nor have everything traced back to male white privilege. Gay marriage was still in the future, and homophobia still a big problem, but the conversation was open; it was becoming increasingly uncool to be a homophobe. There was an LGB community, at least.

I can understand why those who grew up in the 90s defend the era so passionately. It was a time you could think life was great even when it threw its worst at you.

Best cinematic portrayal of coming of age in the 90s: Perks of Being a Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky, 2012.

The 00s-10s: Rank #3

I’m sure there’s a school of thought that insists on major differences between the aughts and the tens, but whoever says that is spitballing. The aughts never ended; we’re still living them. (Though I suspect the impact of Covid will bring about a genuinely new era.) The present era has been going on for 20 years, shaped by a gaudy media landscape that has radically altered how we get and process information. 9/11 was the catalyst, and technology made it all possible, but these were just the ingredients that gave release to intense tribal feelings that had been building on both sides of the left-right divide. It’s been the age of echo chambers, alternate facts, walls of intolerance… and the blurring and utter failure of the two-party political system.

Make no mistake: There was no substantial difference between the Bush (2001-08) and Obama (2009-16) eras, despite that one wore the Republican label and the other Democrat. This was a first in American history, when a changing of the party guard amounted to no real change at all. Obama was a slight improvement granted (he did some good for the environment), but certainly not much. Under both presidents, peace was elusive; both waged war and got people killed for no good reason; they toppled dictators and made things worse, leaving the Mid-East in shambles; both used the failed Keynesian methods of bailouts and stimulus packages to “jumpstart” the economy, and analysts (well before Covid) had been predicting the bursting of another housing bubble with another recession; both Bush and Obama infringed on civil liberties, especially the 4th Amendment. Then came Donald Trump (2017-2020), a demagogue whose success owed largely to Obama’s failure in helping the middle class, but also as a fed-up reaction to the woke left that has become as puritanical as the religious right was in the 80s. Trump stopped us from waging war but otherwise served us disaster. To put it mildly, we haven’t had a halfway decent president since Clinton in the 90s, nor a good president since Carter in the 70s. The 21st century has been an uninterrupted steamroll of shitty politics, with still no relief in sight.

Artists, on the other hand, have pushed themselves to new heights in the past 20 years, almost as if to prove that artistry can atone for political sins. Right out the gate came Lord of the Rings, which single-handedly redeemed the fantasy genre that had made a laughing stock of itself in the 80s. More gritty and dark fantasies would follow, including Pan’s Labyrinth. Westerns were also revived in the 20th century, with results just as marvelous. In fact, every single genre has shined in the theaters, whether drama, romance, mysteries, or thrillers. Acting standards have come a long way; special effects are staggering; narrative plotting and storytelling techniques are now very sophisticated. There are way too many good films to name from the last 20 years; both mainstream and independent films have had plenty to offer.

As for television, who could have predicted that TV drama would ever be as good (and often better) than film itself? It’s been nothing less than a 20-year golden age of TV, which began with The Sopranos in 1999, and since then has cranked a stream of top-notch series, like Breaking Bad, Hannibal, Game of Thrones, Stranger Things, Twin Peaks: The Return, Tales from the Loop, Channel Zero, Dexter, Regenesis, The Fall, The Man in the High Castle, The Wire, and many others. TV now holds its own with cinema, and in some ways even outshines it.

Music has been a mixed bag. The popular stuff is bad as pop music has ever been, but alongside this, indie artists have exploded everywhere. Thanks to social media their music is easily accessible, and this makes music about an even wash for the 00s-10s. The highlights of this era are The Killers, The Walkmen, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Taylor Swift (her post-country stuff anyway), and Arcade Fire. But there are many, many great indie bands, some that are almost never heard of: Old Abram Brown, Tan Vampires, Mines Falls, to name a few. This has been the major boon of social media: musical talent that would otherwise go unnoticed.

On the D&D front: At first the game saw an impressive revival, the Gilded Age of 00-02, as Wizards of the Coast launched the 3rd edition that harked back to the Golden Age of 74-82. It rekindled interests in those who had given up on D&D in disgust in the 90s, including myself. However, this was followed by a downward spiral: first with the release of 3.5 in 2003, which injected more rule complexities than necessary; then with 4.0 in 2008, which was so combat focused it drowned the role-playing experience; and most recently with 5.0 in 2014, which millennials and the Gen-Z’ers love but I despise for (a) making things ridiculously easy on PCs (giving them almost limitless hit points), (b) leaning on a high-fantasy approach and none of the pulp influences that made 1e so good, (c) pandering to the generations which have grown up on video games and cheesy superhero films, and (d) allowing woke revisionists to kill the spirit of the game.

I’m glad I didn’t come of age in the 21st century; I would have killed myself under suffocating parents who never let me out of sight. I’m also grateful that I was schooled to learn from those I disagree with. The 00s-10s has been the era of conversational retreat from anyone having rival opinions. Tribalism is found everywhere, but especially on the left I’m sad to say. For the last 20 years I’ve felt increasingly alien among my own liberal-leaning associates. The cultural scene is simply a travesty: between the woke left and a Trump-loving right, I wonder if America can ever be great again. One can hardly differentiate between satire and real news (see here for example). Which pretty much mirrors the political canvass of the 00s-10s: there wasn’t much to distinguish a Bush from an Obama, any more than real facts from the “facts” we prefer.

The Score Chart

70s (30 pts)
80s (22 pts)
90s (26 pts)
00s-10s (23 pts)
Hair/Dress
        0         2         3             4
Film
        5         2         4             5
TV
        3         1         3             5
Tabletop D&D
        5         4         1             2
Music
        5         3         3             4
Parenting/Childhood
        5         5         3             1
Cultural Mores         5         2         4             1
Peace/Prosperity         2         3         5             1

#1: 70s
#2: 90s
#3: 00s-10s
#4: 80s

Paul’s Holy War in Dune: Jihad or Crusade?

“There’s a crusade coming.”

Paul Atreides says that at the start of the Dune trailer, and some fans (including myself) are in varying degrees concerned. Has Denis Villeneuve pulled a “Sum of all Fears”, and catered to woke culture by censoring the idea of jihad from Frank Herbert’s story? Add to this that no Arabs were cast for the Fremen characters (Stilgar played by Javiar Bardem is Hispanic, and Chani played by Zendaya is African American), and one might wonder if Villeneuve is trying to keep Dune‘s holy war free of any implied Muslim and/or Arab association. (Which would be ironic, since other fans have been complaining about the lack of Arab representation among the cast; you can’t win with the woke crowd.) After all, it’s perfectly PC to portray barbaric warfare and devastation as the result of crusades. But leave the jihad out of it, you bigot!

In Herbert’s novels, of course, the Fremen are close analogs to Muslim Arabs. They’re a patriarchal warrior culture of the desert; they have a monopoly on a prized commodity (spice instead of oil); and their religion derives from an amalgam of religions emerging out of old Earth, the most influential being Sunni Islam. Under Paul’s messianic leadership they rise against the oppressive Corrino empire (and the Harkonnen lackeys) to lead a jihad across the galaxy — slaughtering over 60 billion people and sterilizing all life on over 90 planets. It’s a monstrous holy war that Paul agonizes over, and then rationalizes as a necessary or lesser evil, but few readers seriously buy that. The jihad results in devastation and a uniformly oppressive way of life that is far worse than anything experienced under the previous 10,000 years of Corrino rule.

By turning Paul’s jihad into a crusade, and (perhaps) leaving Arabs completely out of the cast, it looks as if Villeneuve could be trying to make a Dune adaptation that will pass the PC litmus test. If this turns out to be the case — that he has removed all references to jihad in his film for fear of stereotyping Muslims — then I will join the chorus of condemnation. But I think this is probably not the case. In Herbert’s books the term “crusade” is actually used as a loose equivalent of the jihad on a couple of occasions. Maybe the trailer just happened to include Herbert’s rare phrase instead of his common one.

But before going any further with the Dune universe, let’s review the differences and similarities between the Christian crusades and the Islamic jihad in our real world, since in reality “crusade” and “jihad” are not interchangeable.

The Christian crusades vs. the Islamic jihad

Here are the differences:

  • The crusades emerged (in the 11th century) as a response to the Islamic jihad and had no basis in the tenets of Christianity. It was a hijacking of the Christian religion. Reactively (defensively), the crusades were a long overdue counter to 300 years of jihadist warfare which had ripped away two-thirds of the Christian world, and was still pushing deeper into Christian lands. Proactively (offensively), the crusades introduced (what was for Christianity) a radical concept of sacred violence, effecting the remission of a knight’s sins for killing infidels. The profession of medieval knighthood didn’t allow for peace, and knights had been taught by monks that they led an inherently sinful life; now they were taught they could channel that sinful aggression into a sacred cause.
  • The jihad, on the other hand, under Islamic law, is derived from the Qur’an and has always been mandatory on all able-bodied male members of the Muslim community. This remains true to this day, in all four schools of Sunni Islam (Hanbali, Maliki, Shafi’i, Hanafi) and Shi’ite schools as well. Unlike the crusades, the jihad takes two forms, the greater (al-jihad al-akbar) internal struggle to achieve personal purity, and the lesser (al-jihad al-asghar) military struggle to subjugate infidels (and eventually the whole world) under Islamic law. Both jihads are obligatory, the lesser as much as the greater. Unlike the Christian crusades of the medieval period, which were voluntary and non-essential to the faith, the Islamic jihad has always been a faith fundamental.

What the crusades and the jihad do have in common is the drive of religious zeal. For whatever strange reason, modern academics have difficulty accepting that people find holy war attractive on the strength of religiosity — that ideas about martyrdom and paradise can be in and of themselves psychologically rewarding, irrespective of social or economic factors. Rational people are capable of believing things which a lot of us consider crazy, especially when it comes to beliefs about the afterlife. Specifically:

  • Claims that the crusaders were mostly disenfranchised second sons disaffected with their lot in life, or that crusaders in general were colonizers intent on acquiring land abroad, are the products of dated and uninformed scholarship. Many crusaders were wealthy first-born sons, and most crusaders expected to be bankrupt by the cost of crusading, and to return home to Europe immediately after. Simply put: one did not improve one’s lot in life by going on crusade; just the opposite. Crusaders believed in the virtues of sacred violence for its own sake (despite and against the long-standing tradition of their savior’s pacifism). Holy war was a penitential act offering the warrior a way to bypass purgatory on his way to heaven. Medieval Christians were anxious about suffering in purgatory, however silly that seems to us.
  • Claims that jihadists are mostly poor and uneducated are PC fantasies. There is no correlation whatsoever between poverty and jihad. No evidence supports the idea that jihadists are unusually maladjusted, poor, or badly schooled. For jihadists, slaying infidels is a fundamental guarantee to paradise. To many Muslims — wealthy as much as poor — that is a psychologically appealing belief.

There hasn’t been a crusade in centuries. The Christian holy wars were foreordained to pass, never having a proper grounding to begin with. They had always cut against the pacifism of the New Testament, and the church knew it. Europe became more globalized and cosmopolitan, and it’s hard to do business with people while slaughtering them. (Capitalism has its faults, but religious war-mongering isn’t one of them; warfare is engaged rather for economic advantage.) In the secular state, crusading seemed archaic to secularists, religiously wrong-headed to religionists, and anti-Christian to Christians.

Jihadists, on the other hand, have remained routinely active since the 7th century, because of beliefs endemic to Islam. But no one likes to admit that for fear of stereotyping Muslims, and Islamic groups like CAIR have made a career of lobbying the movie industry to remove portrayals of jihad. Especially since The Sum of all Fears.

The Sum of all Woke Fears: Portraying Jihadists in Film

Hollywood bends over backwards for busybody groups like CAIR, the Council on American Islamic Relations. In 2002 the jihadist plot of Tom Clancy’s Sum of All Fears was, absurdly, turned into a neo-Nazi plot under pressure from CAIR. Obviously there are no neo-Nazis running around Europe blowing things up like Islamic jihadists are. The film was made acceptable to Hollywood sensibilities and the Arab lobby, but it was silly and unrealistic. Once you subordinate artistry to politics, you may as well quit your job as a filmmaker (Bob Kruger writes plenty about this). I never read The Sum of all Fears, but my father did, and I remember seeing the film with him, and he couldn’t believe how ridiculously the plot was changed for fears of prejudice. (And my father was a very liberal guy.)

Whether or not Villeneuve has pulled a “Sum of All Fears” in Dune is difficult to predict at this time. For now I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt. For one, he has proven himself to be a damn good filmmaker, uninterested in genuflecting at the woke altar. His masterpiece Blade Runner 2049 pissed off the PC-police for supposedly objectifying women with “porno” images and the hologram character Joi. Commendably he never flinched. I suspect we’re going to get plenty of the jihad in Dune.

But the fact is, I’m just not sure. Even the best director can bend under too much pressure, and Villeneuve has already made one casting choice that I find bewildering: the character of Liet-Kynes, who has been turned into a female, which makes no sense at all (unless you’re just trying to score woke points). Liet-Kynes is the leader of the patriarchal Fremen; making a gender swap with this role is weird to say the least.

Even if Herbert used the term “crusade” as a rare equivalent with “jihad”, it was the latter term that so obviously summed up the spirit of his epic. That’s why he used it. From the desert planet comes the jihad, sweeping across the galaxy, waged by a people whose harsh culture and beliefs mirror those of Islamists. That doesn’t make Dune a signpost to bigotry anymore than a novel like Shogun is.

Ten Films that scared Mark Kermode

I enjoy Mark Kermode’s film reviews and share a lot of his tastes, especially in horror films. What others find scary, he often finds banal and silly. There are no cheap-thrill blockbusters like The Conjuring and It Chapter 2 on his list of 10 films that really scared him.

Here they are. He excludes The Exorcist from consideration, which would be his #1, since he has analyzed the film to death many times.

1. The Vanishing (1988). (The Dutch film, not the ’93 American remake.) The final scene had Kermode in a state of abject panic that no other film (save The Exorcist) has ever achieved. It “scared the life out of him and scarred him”. Just talking about the film freaks him out. It involves being buried alive.

2. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). Kermode calls it as close to pure terror as you’ll ever find in a film (save The Exorcist).

3. The Haunting (1963). Unlike the ’99 remake, this haunted house classic nails it. It’s all to do with understatement and what you don’t see, which is an art lost in most of today’s horror films that drown in the overt.

4. Onibaba (1964). This Japanese historical horror drama terrified not only Kermode, but William Friedkin, who made The Exorcist, so that says something right there. It’s a nightmare vision of psycho-sexual bestiality, set in a 14th-century Japan of feuding warlords, where a woman and her daughter-in-law are forced to murder and loot weakened soldiers to survive. Then the older woman starts forcing her daughter-in-law into ugly carnal acts while wearing a demonic mask. The film has been interpreted over the years as a karmic tale, Buddhist parable, or Hiroshima parable, and all three are valid; it’s also bloody terrifying.

5. The Babadook (2014). The croaking noise made by the Babadook. (This was true of The Grudge too, which I thought scarier than The Babadook.)

6. Audition (1999). One critic was so scared at what he was seeing on screen that he said the police should investigate the circumstances of the film’s creation; that’s how much it freaked him out. I agree with Kermode that Audition is a great film, but it didn’t really scare me or have me panic-stricken in any way.

7. The Descent (2005). People in confined spaces in underground caves. Kermode has never been so claustrophobic as in watching the crawl-through scenes in this film. I agree with him entirely.

8. The Witch (2015). The demonic goat rising up on its legs really got under Kermode’s skin.

9. Nosferatu (1922). The image of the shadowy figure going up the stairs gave him nightmares.

10. Buried (2010). The rising panic that you get from seeing this guy trapped in a confined space throughout the whole film builds and builds.

 

Here are mine, also excluding The Exorcist, but The Shining too. Those two are in a class all by themselves.

Revisiting The Importance of Fire Walk With Me In A Post Season 3 World1. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, David Lynch, 1992. David Lynch’s darkest film contains scenes in Laura’s bedroom so terrifying they make parts of The Shining look tame. It was misjudged in the ’90s based on expectations from the TV series, and anyone who still doesn’t like it should listen to Mark Kermode, who rightly calls it a masterpiece. The question of whether Leland is an innocent man possessed by an evil spirit, or a garden variety sexual molester is ambiguous: “Bob” could be a hallucination or an actual demon. Fire Walk With Me is brilliant psychological horror and a character piece in contrast to the TV series’ focus on town intrigue and multiple-character dynamics. It’s an intensely personal film and a switch in tone that works wonders in the context of a two-hour prequel. The key is getting a distance from the TV series before watching it.

Official "Channel Zero: No-End House" Trailer Messes With Reality - Bloody Disgusting
2. Channel Zero: “The No-End House”. Season 2, 2017. This anthology series starts over each season with an entirely new plot and cast of characters. The stories are really weird and demented, well scripted, brilliantly directed, and they don’t flinch at all from showing horrible acts. Season one’s “Candle Cove” is about a puppet show that only little kids can see on TV, and which turns them into homicidal killers. Season two’s “No-End House” is about a haunted house with each room scarier than the previous. And season three’s “Butcher’s Block” is about two young women who join a family of religious butchers (they eat human beings) who live in a perverse version of Alice’s wonderland. Season two is the one that gets me. The college kids enter the haunted house looking for cheap thrills, but it turns into a prolonged nightmare that yields some of the most scary and disturbing material I’ve seen on TV.

https://rossonl.files.wordpress.com/2016/02/the-pact_shadow.jpg3. The Pact, Nicholas McCarthy, 2012. This is way underrated. It’s about a haunted house, but with a truly terrorizing twist. It turns out there is indeed a ghost in the house, but also a real-life psychopath living in the cellar, and he has been there the whole goddamn time. When you learn this and reflect back to the start of the movie when some of the “ghostly” assaults began — the open closet door, the jar of food on the floor, Annie being levitated and thrown against the walls, the other girls disappearing altogether — you realize that only some of this was the ghost. That’s frightening on many levels, and the sort of thing Peter Straub pulled off in his novel Lost Boy, Lost Girl, especially with the secret room with spyholes, and the room of caged torment. Psychopathic horror usually doesn’t scare me (classics like Psycho are suspenseful but they don’t give me nightmares), but McCarthy blends the psycho with the supernatural in ways that are unnerving in the extreme.

Image result for the exorcist iii legion jason miller4. The Exorcist III: Legion, William Peter Blatty, 1990. When I saw the film in the theater, I remember being so terrified by Lieutenant Kinderman’s first sight of Patient X that I was panic stricken. We see the wasted figure of Jason Miller (Father Karras) who we know from the first film should be dead; the sight of the possessed priest is a horrifying revelation. An acquaintance of mine once made the following comment: “The Exorcist III and Event Horizon are the two absolutely most creepy movies I’ve ever seen, because you can’t imagine anyone making these films if they didn’t 100% believe in manifest evil. They pull no punches whatsoever and carry a tone which says, ‘This is not entertainment. This is a glimpse into the dark side.’ I cannot say that other films have struck me this way.” That’s a very insightful observation. While I don’t believe Legion is scarier than the first Exorcist, in some ways it’s more deeply unnerving, and yes, Event Horizon (below) falls into that same category. The fact that these films did poorly at the box office says something about the mainstream preference for cheap thrills over true terror.

https://rossonl.files.wordpress.com/2016/02/event-horizon.jpg5. Event Horizon, Paul Anderson, 1997. This was panned by critics who had the wrong expectations for a sci-fic film. Today it has a major cult following. It’s basically The Shining in outer space, set on a ship that’s equipped with a gravity drive that sends you to hell. As the crew explores the ship, an evil presence begins to exploit their darkest personal secrets and torture them with hallucinations. The scientist who created the Event Horizon soon realizes that it’s penetrated beyond the boundaries of the universe and in to hell itself. The crew members stumble on incredibly frightening footage of the ship’s previous crew, which shows them killing and cannibalizing each other in some kind of demonic fury. This is by far the most terrifying sci-fic horror film — more than even Alien — and a bold depiction of inter-dimensional evil.

https://rossonl.files.wordpress.com/2016/02/evil-dead-19811.jpg6. The Evil Dead, Sam Raimi, 1981. This low-budget classic (avoid the remake at all costs) may have some laughable acting, but it doesn’t matter. In terms of relentless pulverizing terror, few films have ever matched it. Demonic possession is my #1 scare anyway, and the trio of ladies are basically adult Linda Blairs, with voices and makeup jobs straight out of hell. The legendary scene in which Cheryl gets raped by a tree still brings my jaw to the floor. Linda eating her own hand is another unspeakable that today’s scriptwriters could learn from. The Evil Dead sequels had better budgets and special effects to prop them up, but they’re essentially comedy-horrors. The first film is dead-serious and doesn’t make you laugh at all. It came out in ’81 but it’s a ’70s film at heart — in some ways a triumphant last gasp of hard-core horror before Freddy Krueger became a hit.

Related image7. The Witch, Robert Eggers, 2016. I agree with Kermode here. Critics love it and audiences hate it, but that’s because today’s audiences are so stupid they think Hereditary and The Conjuring are the scariest things since The Exorcist. It’s set in Colonial New England (1630s) before the Salem Witch trials, and establishes the reality of the witch right away, so there is no possibility of misunderstanding the terror as being all in the mind. The film is about a girl whose baby brother is snatched (and killed), her other young brother molested and possessed (and killed), a freaky black goat which her younger siblings bond with (and which kills her father), and a wretched mother who blames her for everything (and whom she is forced to kill). All of this is carried on a Puritanical atmosphere of isolation and hideous shame. The Witch is organically terrifying, and relishes in the delights of hidden evil. It’s stingy in its sightings of the title baddie, relying on oppressive environment and mental torment. My full review here.

Sarah Michelle Gellar in The Grudge (2004) - Horror Actresses Photo (43438316) - Fanpop8. The Grudge, Takashi Shimizu, 2004. For a PG-13 film The Grudge is downright pulverizing. I sat in my theater seat literally cowering with fear. By the final scene I’d reached the point that if the damn movie didn’t end, I’d become a gibbering lunatic. And it’s strange, because The Grudge isn’t the kind of movie you’d expect to be genuinely scary. Production-wise it’s not the most impressive, and I thought it would be like The Ring, which didn’t scare me at all. And Sarah Michelle Gellar? “Buffy” doesn’t inspire confidence in quality horror. But it sure did a number on me. The premise is a haunted house, that once you come into contact with it, the revenant haunting it will never stop hunting you down.

The Descent's Multiple Endings Explained | Screen Rant9. The Descent, Neil Marshall, 2005. I felt the same way as Kermode. There are claustrophobic scenes in this film that had me panic-stricken. The first 40 minutes are the best and scariest part, showing these women clambering through choking tunnels, swinging across bottomless chasms. Then it turns into a creature horror, which isn’t bad, but not nearly as effective as it’s first half.


10. The Man from Nowhere. James Hill, 1975. In the year 1976 I watched Once Upon a Classic, hosted by Bill Bixby. I was seven years old, long before I even knew what a horror film or TV show was. This “kids” horror story scared the fucking shit out of me, and for years I have wanted to watch it again to see how my adult mind processes it. (The DVD is only available in the U.K.) It’s set in 1860 England with a very effective Gothic atmosphere, and tells of a young orphaned girl who is sent to live with her uncle in his castle. When she arrives, she is stalked by a man in black who appears and disappears, telling her in threatening tones to leave. She is terrorized by this figure, and so was I. He stalks her everywhere and eventually even manages to break into her room in the castle, where he corners her. Another scene that gave me nightmares is where the man in black appears under Alice’s bedroom window around midnight whispering up to her in menacing rasps, “Alice! Alice!” Neither her uncle nor the housekeeper believe her when she cries to them hysterically, and it gradually becomes apparent that the housekeeper is using the man in black to scare Alice away in order to prevent her from inheriting her uncle’s fortune. Here’s a clip of Alice’s first encounter with the man.

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.

Blue Is the Warmest Color movie review (2013) | Roger Ebert
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.

Juno - Plugged In
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.

Blue Valentine | Netflix
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.