Darkness Unto Light. The Cinema of Ingmar Bergman

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

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

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

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

Read the whole thing here.

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The Spell of Cobra Kai

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Best Films of 2017

The worst movie I saw this year was the over-hyped It, and I didn’t even bother with the Flatliners remake, which had a whopping 0% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes during its first week of release. Blade Runner 2049 was the masterpiece, and mother! the hidden gem.

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1. Blade Runner 2049. 5 stars. I was worried this would be another Mad Max: Fury Road, but not only does Blade Runner 2049 live up to its predecessor, it supersedes it. It’s a stunning visual aesthetic, and has the ambitious concepts of the original, taking them at the slow pace they deserve, so patiently that it feels like a ’70s film. I’m not surprised it bombed at the box office. Few people these days have the wherewithal — and by that I mean the intellectual wherewithal from above, and the physical fortitude from below — to sit still on their sweet asses for 2-3 hours and enjoy good artistry. The only problem are certain plot holes which leave coincidences unexplained. For example, from the start K is investigating the farmer replicant whose home supplies the clues for Rachael, while K already has memories implanted in him that relate to those very clues. But even here the plot holes seem more part of the overarching Blade Runner mystique. The best character is the hologram Joi, and she serves an oblique existential function: if software can fall in love and fear death, then the objection to replicants having these soul-like traits becomes even more strained. Her merging with the woman for K’s sexual pleasure is an incredible piece of choreography, as is virtually every other scene in this masterpiece.

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2. mother! 5 stars. The reason people hate it isn’t because it’s a bad film, but because it was deceitfully marketed. Like last year’s The Witch, the trailer implied a more mainstream thriller. If you don’t like indie horror films that offend on the deepest levels, then avoid mother! at all costs. It’s about a man and woman in a countryside home, where the woman suffers intrusions from guests who gratify her husband’s ego. The intrusions get increasingly outrageous, until hell breaks loose — quite literally — and one critic has made an analogy with Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, which suffocates the audience in torture to capture the immensity of Jesus’ sacrifice. mother! does a similar sort of thing to convey the “passion” of womankind, and the things they tolerate for the sake of men’s vanity. The indoor house becomes a battlefield of crazed strangers who commit unspeakable acts, and in the end seize the woman’s newborn infant, rip it apart into dozens of pieces, and eat it as if it were a sacrificial lamb. This is Aronofsky at his most audacious, but also at his best, and it helps that Jennifer Lawrence’s performance is so visceral and sympathetic.

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3. Logan. 5 stars. Like The Dark Knight this is a rare superhero film that’s excellent, which is a way of saying that it’s not really a superhero film. Logan is more like a post-apocalyptic western, inspired by the X-Men series rather than a part of it. The year is 2029, and Logan is trying to live a normal life in Mexico as a limo driver while taking care of Charles Xavier. Then a young girl shows up brandishing adamantium claws, evidently created to be a soldier like he was. She’s being hunted and Logan naturally wants no part of her until his heart wins out. (Heavy shades of Leon the Professional here.) The two of them proceed to slice and dice the baddies on a level of ultra-violence which has never been seen before in a superhero film. Logan is a masterpiece and the perfect farewell to this iconic X-Men character.

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4. Detroit. 4 ½ stars. When Hollywood goes after racism and injustice, the end product is usually ruined by overblown sanctimony and high-horse preaching and mawkish conclusions. Kathryn Bigelow is a gifted director who eschews that nonsense, and — as in her Middle-East masterpieces The Hurt Locker ans Zero Dark Thirty — delivers a drama so unpleasantly real it needs no leftist screeds. The film is about the Detroit riots that took place in 1967, and focuses on an awful night during which innocent African Americans were terrorized in a hotel. The cops rounded them up and lined them against the wall, yelling at them, humiliating them, pretending to shoot some of them, really shooting others; all because someone in the hotel fired a toy gun out a window. The actor in the above photo does a particularly good job of portraying a security guard caught between his ethnicity and his job, as he tries mediating between the police and the suspects, and, predictably, earning hate from both sides for his efforts. True to life, the film ends on the court trial in which the racist cops were acquitted. I always look forward to Bigelow’s films, and her documentary-style realism is searing as ever.

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5. Call Me By Your Name. 4 ½ stars. I wanted to rank this higher, to spite the idiots who are unable to handle eroticism between a 17-year-old and a 24-year-old. Some have actually accused this film of promoting pedophilia, which is not only nonsense but grossly irresponsible. You don’t have to be a troll like Milo Yiannopoulos to accept the huge difference between ephebophilia (sex with teens, which may be illegal, though not necessarily immoral, even when it violates age of consent laws) and pedophilia (sex with prepubescent children, which is plainly wrong). 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). Sexual relationships that are outside societal comfort zones aren’t necessarily abusive — especially in our overprotective zones these days which condescend to 15-17 year olds as if they’re 10-12. Critics have praised Call Me By Your Name for every good reason. As a sexual coming of age story, it’s one of the most moving I’ve seen of its kind.

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6. The Last Jedi. 4 ½ stars. I had high hopes for this installment given the director Rian Johnson’s work on other projects like Breaking Bad, and his talents pay off, though not quite to the insane degree implied by the critics. This isn’t the best Star Wars film since Empire (that honor goes to Rogue One) but admittedly a close second. Where The Force Awakens plagiarized the hell out of the past, The Last Jedi breaks new ground in impressive ways and delivers some of the most dramatic scenes of the franchise. The only real offenses are the porgs and Leia using the Force to fly. (The latter is almost as bad as the Doctor Who scene in Forest of the Dead, where the Doctor uses his sonic screwdriver to fly down the shaft of a planetoid.) The best performance is Mark Hamill’s, who in the classic trilogy was a poor actor who played a whiny bitch. This chapter finally justifies Luke’s existence. He’s that good, and even outdoes Han Solo in the previous film. See my rankings of all the Star Wars films; I place The Last Jedi at #3, after Empire (#1) and Rogue One (#2).

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7. Get Out. 4 stars. As a rule I avoid comedy-based horror films, and I was even more wary of Get Out when I heard comparisons to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Horror isn’t the place to preach about racism any more than it is to crack jokes. I was surprised on both counts. Not only does the humor work, the portrayal of racial tensions feeds directly into the plot — and that plot is a whopper — without sermonizing. A black college student visits the parents of his white girlfriend, who are liberal racists, the well-meaning kind who only think they’re colorblind. (Practically the first line out of the father’s mouth is a patronizing assurance that he “would have voted for Obama a third time”.) It turns out this family loves black people in a seriously wrong way: they have been kidnapping and lobotomizing African Americans out of “reverence” for them — turning them into household slaves, and even sex slaves. Get Out is a brutal satire on liberals who fetishize that which they admire, and is the film this year I was most pleasantly surprised by.

(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.)

Call Me By Your Name

Some people are upset about Call Me By Your Name. It has a critical approval rating of 97% on Rotten Tomatoes, but the fact that it portrays an erotic relationship between a 17-year-old teen and a 24-year-old man has ignited the inevitable controversy. Some — many actually — have accused the film of promoting pedophilia. I’m not kidding.

It would be laughable if not so sad. You don’t have to be a troll like Milo Yiannopoulos to know there is a huge difference between ephebophilia (sex with teens, which may be illegal, though not necessarily immoral, even when it violates age of consent laws) and pedophilia (sex with prepubescent children, which is plainly wrong). 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 nothing predatory on the part of Oliver, the 24-year old). Sexual relationships that are outside societal comfort zones aren’t necessarily abusive — especially in our overprotective zones these days which condescend to 15-17 year olds as if they’re 10-12.

As a sexual coming of age story, Call Me By Your Name is one of the most moving I’ve seen of its kind. It’s probably my second favorite after Blue is the Warmest Color, which told of a high school girl and a college woman falling in lust and love. Both films capture what it’s like to be a teenager living in many worlds at once. Like Adele in Blue, Elio interacts with his friends on one level, his parents on another, while something more primal is happening to him on another front. Before meeting Emma, Adele lost her virginity to a classmate; before becoming entangled with Oliver, Elio loses his virginity to a local girl. Those disappointing initiations are soon forgotten when the teens find a better match in someone older and more intellectually rewarding. Both films end on heart-ache (Emma finds another woman; Oliver gets married), and the romance is handled so well that the ache lasts long after you’ve left the theater.

The critical acclaim for Call Me By Your Name is well earned. It’s one of the best films of 2017. Don’t let any moral tight-asses tell you otherwise.

Rating: 4 ½ stars.

Darren Aronofsky Ranked

Here’s a new installment in the favorite director’s blogathon: Darren Aronofsky. I finally saw mother!, which I consider his best, though I understand why it’s so polarizing.

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1. mother! 2017. 5 stars. The reason people hate it isn’t because it’s a bad film, but because it was deceitfully marketed. Like last year’s The Witch, the trailer implied a more mainstream thriller. If you don’t like indie horror films that offend on the deepest levels, then avoid mother! at all costs. It’s about a man and woman in a countryside home, where the woman suffers intrusions from guests who gratify her husband’s ego. The intrusions get increasingly outrageous, until hell breaks loose (quite literally), and one critic has made an analogy with Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, which drowns the audience in torture to capture the immensity of Jesus’ sacrifice. mother! does a similar sort of thing to convey the “passion” of Mother Nature, who does nothing but love and give until people provoke her wrath by messing everything up. By the end, the indoor house has become a battlefield of crazed strangers who commit unspeakable acts, and in the end seize mother’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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2. Requiem for a Dream. 2000. 5 stars. Considered by most to be Aronofsky’s best, and for obvious reasons. The performances are staggering. I’ve worshiped Ellen Burstyn ever since The Exorcist, but she completely outdoes herself here, playing an unhappy widow (Sara) who gets swallowed by the forces of drug addiction. Sara sits alone in her apartment and does little more than fantasize about being a guest on talk-show TV. Obsessed with her figure, she become addicted to weight-loss amphetamines, and descends into a spiral of psychosis. Meanwhile her son (Harry) and his girlfriend (Marion) become heroin addicts as they chase the unrealistic dreams of youth. All are crushed in the end, with Sara becoming a near vegetable from electroshock therapy, Harry getting his needle-infected arm is amputated; and Marion becoming a sex slave to make ends meet. The film itself is a bad drug trip, and one I find myself revisiting almost against my will.

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3. Noah. 2014. 4 ½ stars. Widely dismissed as Aronofsky’s most commercial effort, I find it a fascinating work for the way it marries gnostic myths with the biblical accounts. It’s the story of the flood in a Lord of the Rings style, and it works since 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. But it’s also a very serious film that doesn’t soft-peddle God’s act of genocide, and it has the balls to portray Noah as a merciless figure when he seeks to carry out the Creator’s will (as he sees it) by intending to kill his daughter’s babies. Noah is far better than cinephiles would have you believe, and it has plenty to say along with other great religious films.

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4. The Fountain. 2006. 4 ½ stars. This is one of those box-office bombs that later acquired a cult following — like Blade Runner and Event Horizon. It meditates on love and death, and speaks to mortality better than most films that dare try. The narrative follows three stories set in different timelines: in 1500, a conquistador (Tomas) during the Inquisition searches for the Tree of Life in the Mayan jungle for his queen (Isabel); in 2000, a neuroscientist (Tom Creo) studies brain tumors and tries to save his dying wife (Izzi); and in 2500, an astronaut (Tommy) drifts through space to a dying star. Hugh Jackman plays all three “Tom” roles, and Rachel Weisz takes on the role of Queen Isabel and Izzy. Through these threads, what emerges is that acceptance is the only way to defeat death, and fighting to keep that which you love does more harm than good.

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5. The Wrestler. 2008. 4 stars. The mundane style of this film is unique in the otherwise surreal Aronofsky canon, and some consider it his best effort after Requiem for a Dream. I don’t think it’s that good, but I will say that Mickey Rourke’s performance is extraordinary. He plays a professional wrestler deteriorating in health (thanks to body-building drugs), losing his fan base, and who must work in a supermarket to supplement his income. On top of this he is hated by his daughter who he can’t ever make time for, and Rachel Evans’ performance is as good as Rourke’s. The film treats the subject of wrestling and all its absurd fake elements in the honest way that makes you actually appreciate the sport and the toll taken on professional wrestlers. If I find it slightly overrated, I can’t deny I end up caring deeply for Rourke’s character.

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6. Black Swan. 2010. 3 ½ stars. I adored Black Swan when it first came out but it hasn’t aged well on me. Like The Wrestler it takes a subject I’m uninterested in (ballet) and half-succeeds in drawing me into its subculture, showing an individual who is willing to die for sport or athletic art. But where The Wrestler was grounded in gritty realism, Black Swan revels in hallucinations and Jungian archetypes, and sometimes too much for its own good. On repeat viewings these elements seem less profound. Natalie Portman’s performance is impressive, however: Nina’s metamorphosis into the White Swan’s evil twin is realized as her nightmare world gradually tugs her down, and she discovers the impulses of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” mirrored in her own life. It’s a forceful look at a damaged woman, but not one of my Aronofsky favorites.

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7. Pi. 1998. 3 stars. First efforts are often amateurish, and Pi is no exception. It’s the film that Aronofsky needed to build experience on for his later gems. The editing is rough, and the performances are entirely forgettable. It succeeds more by its concepts though not entirely. If math is the language of the universe, Pi suggests, then nature can be expressed in numbers and mathematical patterns, which could be used to predict almost anything (such as the stock market). Ideas like that were too grand for Aronofsky’s limited skills at this point in his career. His reach exceeded his grasp.

Ten Great Science Fiction Films

With the release of Blade Runner 2049, it’s time for a sci-fic pick list. Here are my ten favorites. There are no Star Wars or James Cameron films here, just to get that out of the way.

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1. Sunshine. Danny Boyle, 2007. When I saw Sunshine I bought another ticket and saw it again right away, which is something I’ve never done with any other film. The visuals and punishing sound blew me right back in my seat. And the scoring is genius, with earworms as compulsive as the themes of True Romance. It’s set in the year 2057 when the sun is dying, and a space crew embarks on a mission to drop a nuclear bomb into the sun’s core, which will hopefully reignite it. Right from the start the mission is one calamity after another, and the crew members have to sacrifice themselves, even to the point of contemplating murdering the one of them “least fit” in order to save oxygen. One crew member is roasted by the sun’s rays when he goes EVA to repair ship damages. They respond to a distress call from another ship, which leads to more disaster, and to being stalked by a disfigured religious fanatic who believes God wants humanity to die. There are homages to Alien and outer space claustrophobia, but for my money, Sunshine is even better than Alien, and I adore that masterpiece to begin with (which is my #2 pick, below). Captain Kaneda’s death scene captures the visuals, scoring and dramatic intensity of the film, and a good illustration why it’s my favorite sci-fic film.

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2. Alien. Ridley Scott, 1979. Even after decades and so many viewings I’m still terrorized by Alien. It’s a horror film with science-fiction dressing, and a ’70s product in every way, nothing like the quickfire plotting of the inferior sequels (making some allowances for the underrated Alien 3). Cameron’s sequel was an ’80s film in every way, an action blockbuster that made the mistake of altering the most terrifying aspect of the alien: its ability to cocoon a victim and cause it to morph into an egg/facehugger. In Aliens the eggs come from a queen, but Scott had envisioned a horrifying process by which any alien “laid eggs” by transforming captives. Cameron’s film also involved military personnel going after the alien threat, and while it’s not pleasant that they all die, that’s their job. In Alien we feel the raw terror of six civilians stranded alone in space, hunted and devoured one by one. It’s a film crafted with the care and discipline that’s rare these days, and it delivers genuine terror. Kane’s chestbursting remains the most pulverizing scene in the history of sci-fic cinema.

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3. Blade Runner 2049. Denis Villeneuve, 2017. I was worried this would be another Mad Max: Fury Road, but not only does Blade Runner 2049 live up to its predecessor, it supersedes it. It’s a stunning visual aesthetic. It has the ambitious concepts of the original, and it takes 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 only criticism you can make are the plot holes which leave glaring coincidences unexplained. For example, from the start K is investigating the farmer replicant whose home supplies the clues for Rachael, while K already has memories implanted in him that relate to those very clues. But even here the plot holes seem more part of the overarching Blade Runner mystique. The best character is the hologram Joi, and she serves an oblique existential function: if software can fall in love and fear death, then the objection to replicants having these soul-like traits becomes even more strained. Her merging with the woman for K’s sexual pleasure is an incredible piece of choreography — as is virtually every other scene in this masterpiece.

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4. 2001: A Space Odyssey. Stanley Kubrick, 1968. Objectively I would call this the best sci-fic film of all time. I doubt there will ever be another as culturally significant. It’s a visual piece; in its two hours and 19 minutes, there are less than 40 minutes of dialogue. Kubrick said he wanted to reach a wide spectrum of people and make them think about humanity’s destiny, its role in the cosmos and its relationship to higher forms of life. I continue to marvel at the interplay between the start and finish. The Monolith appears among the primitive apes radiating its terrifying noise; they surround it, worship it, and learn to kill with intelligent purpose. At the end Bowman is transfigured into the Starchild, suggesting another evolutionary step. In between we are subjected to a visionary epic plumbing the vastness of space through some of the most ecstatic imagery ever put on celluloid. There are shots of pure genius — like the falling bone from the primitive chimpanzee age “becoming” the space shuttle in the 21st century — the sort of inspirations that come once a decade in film making. I can think of one film only — Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life — that has come close to doing what Kubrick did here, in showing humanity humbled by celestial mysteries.

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5. Gattaca. Andrew Niccol, 1997. This film flew under the radar when it was released and it deserves more recognition. It’s not set in space at all, for space is the wishful fantasy of its lead character. He is barred from pursuing that dream on account of bad genes. In the world of 2022 (scary to think that’s only five years away now), it’s not white heterosexual men who are the superior elite, but rather the bioformed. Men and women of all ethnicities are born in test tubes to be engineered for ideal health, high IQs and a long life-spans. People who are born naturally are called “In-Valids” and consigned to a life of menial labor. Vince is one such In-Valid who refuses to accept his lot on life, and manages to work out a deal with a crippled elite. He uses Eugene’s genetic samples to get past Gattaca’s daily security checks, and undergoes training for a mission in space. Gattaca explores privilege by genetic purity in the context of Vince’s personal family baggage, and it’s a very moving drama.

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6. Snowpiercer. Bong Joon-ho, 2013. The film is many things: post-apocalyptic sci-fic, a social class war, a claustrophobic horror piece, and bat-shit insanity that would make David Lynch envious. (To get an idea as to how insane, just watch this scene.) It’s set in 2031, long after an attempt to counteract global warming backfired and brought down an ice age. The only survivors boarded a train called the Rattling Ark, and after 17 years it keeps people alive in an extremely perverse state of affairs. The train is powered by a perpetual motion engine that travels a circumnavigational track (around the globe). The wealthy elite live in the front cars and the “low-lives” live in the back cars, in hideous conditions, under watch by guards, and given only protein bars to eat. Each carriage forward presents a deadly challenge for the protagonist who aims to get to the front and put things to right. Snowpiercer is a sci-fi thriller with plenty of rapid-fire action, but also intelligent artistry and off-the-scales craziness.

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7. 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. I would call this the most terrifying sci-fic film I’ve seen (even more than Alien), and a bold depiction of inter-dimensional evil. I watch it almost every year.

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8. Blade Runner. Ridley Scott, 1982. It’s hard for me to rank Blade Runner, because the question is which version. The theatrical cut was cobbled together by studio executives who wanted a happy ending to please moviegoers; it also contained voiceovers from Deckard to explain his backstory, which in my view condescends to the audience. In the director’s cut, Deckard’s voiceovers disappear (a plus), as does the happy ending (a plus), and restores the intended ambiguous ending about Deckard and Rachael’s fates (a big plus). But now there are scenes which call into question whether Deckard is human; he may actually be a replicant. I continue to have mixed feelings about this. Deckard’s humanity was never in question in Philip Dick’s novel, and the only reason Scott ran with the idea is because of a fluke — one of his film crew suggested the idea off-the-cuff. The Final Cut is the one that most closely matches Scott’s original vision, and also happens to align with the tone and style of the sequel Blade Runner 2049; it includes some more violent scenes that were left out. That’s the best version, but weighing all them together, I put Blade Runner at #8. It’s a great film in any case.

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9. Europa Report. Sebastián Cordero, 2013. This came out the same year Gravity did. It was a good year for outer-space dramas, but Europa Report went unheard of, while Gravity got all the praise. It should have been the other way around. It takes a quasi-documentary approach, but don’t fear the “found footage” format. The film is neither stingy nor confusing in its visuals, and it exudes the wonder and terror as a piece like this should. A mission to Europa inevitably falls in Kubrick’s shadow, but Cordero’s approach is his own, more gritty and less visionary than 2001: A Space Odyssey. Even though all six astronauts end up dying, it’s uplifting by what they witness, recorded for posterity. Their mission was to look for organisms, and the luminous octopus-creature revealed in the last frame (see above image) will forever change the context of how scientists view life in the galaxy. This film really made me want to walk on the ice moon. It’s that powerful in transporting you.

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10. The Matrix. The Wachowski brothers, 1999. Few people know that The Matrix didn’t start with Keanu Reeves. It started with Tom Baker in Doctor Who. That story is The Deadly Assassin, which first aired in 1976, and the Matrix is even called that in the story, functioning exactly like the model we know — an electronic neural network that turns thought patterns into virtual reality. The Doctor subjects himself to the Matrix and enters a horrifying virtual reality to learn the identity of a political assassin. The Wachowski brothers took the idea and made a blockbuster franchise from it, but if you ignore the trashy sequels, the first Matrix still holds up well. The idea that we’re nothing more than batteries powering machines who rule over us (see above image), and that our lives are just dreams, is something I’ve found eerily plausible.